[For context, read this post.]
T.S. Eliot was not the most prolific of twentieth century English-language poets, but despite this he was one of its most important. Eliot said it was, in fact, because of his sparse oevre that he became a major poet. He was right in thinking that writing only a few poems can make each poem you write all the more important–at least, if the poems can bear the weight. The Four Quartets, the last poem, or rather poetic cycle, Eliot wrote, have an enormous amount of weight lying upon them.
They must bear even more weight, I think, because of the nature of the man who wrote them: Eliot by this point was, as he put it, “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.” These positions were not too much more popular then than they are now. So the Four Quartets had at the same time to put a capstone on his poetic career, to justify his eccentric personal choices; and–most important of all–to be worthwhile poetry.
The Four Quartets, though they do not attack the reader the way his earlier poetry did, are nevertheless not easy reading; I did not learn to appreciate them until I lived with them for several years. But I now think that they rise to the poetic challenge admirably. They are an immensely personal poem–we never lose sight of who the speaker is, or why he feels the need to speak–without becoming “confessional” in the pejorative sense. They manage, instead, to feel confessional in the deepest sense, to tell “how it is with me” not emotionally but ethically. And they manage to be about poetry, and about the end of a poetic career, without feeling insular or self-involved; poetry, here, means absolute speech, and speech means meaningful action, and to write a poem means to deliberate over what to do when what you do matters absolutely.
Not, of course, that the Four Quartets answer this question directly. Insofar as they do answer it, they answer it four different times, in four different ways, as if to say that no answer to the question can stand alone. This makes them among the most complex lyric poems ever to be written. They are, perhaps, the longest major poetic cycle to have been written without the aid of an overarching structure provided by plot or subject matter.
How, then, do they fit together? In fact, in something of an accident.
A poem by the name of Burnt Norton made its appearance at the conclusion of T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems 1909-1935. It had an air of finality to it. Its five-part structure, the fourth a short lyric, bore a skeletal resemblance to his 1921 The Waste Land, but the flesh had changed entirely. Not social satire, but mystical philosophy. Not the jarring fragmentation of voices speaking over one another, but the ponderous circling of a single voice around a single thought from many different angles. Not “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” but “Words, after speech, reach / Into the silence.” The Waste Land had made the writing of any further poetry appear impossible, an attempt to bring order to an irredeemably disordered language; Burnt Norton made any such writing appear unnecessary, a violation of the silence that was the most perfect poetry of all.
Then in 1940 Eliot published another poem, “East Coker.” It echoed the structure of Burnt Norton (now “Burnt Norton,” first in a projected four-part series) exactly: part one, philosophical statement and poetic dramatization; part two, lyric statement and explication; part three, journey along the via negativa; part four, lyric challenge; part five, poetic statement and mystical conclusion. The theme was only imperceptibly different; “Burnt Norton” asked how “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past,” while “East Coker” mused on “In my beginning is my end” and “In my end is my beginning.”
1941 saw the third poem in the projected four-part series, “The Dry Salvages.” It repeated the pattern once more, and, by centering its imagery on water, caused “East Coker” and “Burnt Norton” to adopt earth and air, respectively, as their elemental signs. Its other major contribution was to make the religious themes explicit; beginning “I do not know much about gods,” it nevertheless goes on to discuss the Annunciation, Krishna, the “Queen of Heaven,” and how “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.”
In 1942 Eliot concluded with “Little Gidding.” The themes of the previous three poems–time, finalization, incarnation–are endlessly recapitulated; but a new strand enters with “the nearest, in place and time, / Now and in England.” History takes on a newfound importance. (It would not do to forget that the poem was written in time of war, or that the American Eliot had adopted British citizenship; several sections of “Little Gidding” reference the bombing of London.) What he says, the speaker realizes, cannot matter absolutely; he cannot speak absolutely, but must speak now, even if what he says can apply absolutely to all other nows. This lack of a final end offers itself as nevertheless a kind of conclusion:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
This fifth and final section of “Little Gidding” is often accused of being overly facile, of imposing its conclusion rather than arriving at it naturally. I cant agree. The key word is “shall”: not a statement, or even a prediction, but a promise. “Little Gidding” arrives, I think, at the realization that the purpose of a word is to carry out an intention; and so at the realization that he could have written more poetry, if he had needed to do so; and, at the same time, to the realization that he did not, and would not. (Save for the occasional occasional piece.)
[For context, read this post.]
The phrase “work ethic,” and the idea that Catholicism and Protestantism are somehow linked to dissimilar economic cultures, have become commonplace. But if these were all that Max Weber’s Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) contained, it would not be worth reading; it might be a “classic of sociology” in the sense of an exemplary early application of the “science,” but it would nevertheless be long since superceded.
But many of Weber’s arguments are, I believe, worth more than what scientifically-minded sociologists are able to cash them out for. Most importantly, he argues that, while analysis of objective data is not to be dismissed, it is on its own incomplete; we cannot understand a historical process objectively, but require imaginative investment. And this because–contra Marx–economic motivations do not determine all historical development; rather, culture and ethics, while shaped by economic structures, play an equally large role shaping the economy in return.
Hence the Protestant Ethic does not focus on what one might think; Weber does marshal a decent amount of evidence for the claim that Protestantism correlates with capitalism (though even today the point has not been conclusively determined), but the bulk of his argument attempts to explain how this happened. He attributes it to a shift Calvinism brings about in the ethical perception of monetary acquisition; this shift accidentally creates a capitalist economy that gradually replaces the Protestantism from which it emerged. The crucial datum, for Weber, is not the amount of money made through rationalized industry, but the shift from fourteenth century Catholic Dante’s comparison of usury to sodomy (both being forms of unnatural reproduction), to eighteenth century Protestant Benjamin Franklin’s claim that making money from other money was a moral imperative:
Remember, that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides. [...] Remember, that money is the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on. Five shillings turned is six, turned again is seven and threepence, and so on, till it becomes a hundred pounds. The more there is of it, the more it produces every turning, so that the profits rise quicker and quicker. He that kills a breeding sow, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation. He that murders a crown, destroys all that it might have produced, even scores of pounds.
Weber’s argument for why Calvinism brings about such a shift is complex, but it’s fair to say, I think, that he sees Calvinism as distinctive primarily in its rationalism: its rejection of any explanation that does not conduce to optimization. Here are two key instances of the argument:
(1) Other-worldly asceticism, as found in monasteries, was condemned for its uselessness. Not, as we might think, because it’s useless practically speaking; Calvinism does not assume the value of practicality, it argues for it. Rather, because it does not in fact maximize production of its stated goal. Monasteries do not produce spiritual perfection; rather, they function as symbols of spiritual perfection, as “signs of contradiction,” and they perform this function whether or not the monastics perfect themselves. This symbolic structure–symbolic because of its lack of optimization–Calvinists equated with hypocrisy. Hence Calvinism encouraged this-worldly asceticism: sacrificing, not by withdrawing from the world, but by working without rest in the world, doing the Lord’s work. And this very encouragement resulted in the elevation of practical efficacy as a sign of spiritual value.
(2) Calvin espoused a theory of strict predestination, in which human freedom played no part in determining who was saved and who was damned. He did so, Weber says, because it is the only possible rational, mysticism-free theodicy. (Note: I’m not sure I buy this argument.) And what are the psychological effects of such a belief? One might think, at first, that this would result in moral indifference: if my fate is already sealed, why try to change it? But in fact, Calvinists (though not Calvin) concluded that, while perhaps one can do nothing about it, it must be possible to know whether one is saved or damned, since, after all, there is already a fact of the matter. And because we cannot be true to ourselves without knowing who we are, it becomes imperative to know. And since there’s already a fact of the matter, it can’t change–if you’re damned now, you’re damned no matter what you do–it becomes imperative to avoid at all costs the production of proof against one’s salvation, and to seek at all costs the production of proof for it.
So (1) success in this world is the best proof of success in the next work; and (2) proof of success in the next world is ethically imperative, since the fact of the matter is already determined–we are the only ones ignorant about it. Combined, these give the result that success in this world is ethically imperative, and must be rationally maximized.
And because our time in this world is limited (and no one had yet imagined that the limit could be raised), success in this world could only be maximized by maximizing the rate of production: the amount of money earned in a fixed amount of time.
A few weeks ago I posted translations of two poems from Goethe’s middle years. To round out the view of the German poet, I’m posting one final translation, of a poem from Goethe’s later years–he was about seventy when he wrote this poem–a period in which he grew rather philosophical. Or, at least, his poetry grew more explicitly so. I haven’t read his collected works, but it seems as if, more and more, his poems did not even make allegorical use of character, plot, setting, instead becoming pure poetico-philosophical reflection. This can easily go wrong, but “Urworte. Orphisch” is a good example of it going right; perhaps, partially, because the use of Greek philosophical terms makes the poem’s language its explicit protagonist. These are primal words, creating a living world; the sequence DAIMON-TUCHE-EROS-ANAGKE-ELPIS becomes a dramatic arc in outline, each moment expanded in its own stanza into a philosophical tableau.
The primal words Goethe chooses tell a predictable story. You gain an identity; you wander around the world; you fall in love, arbitrarily; you orient your life around this love; you hope against hope that something good will come of it. I’ve never known quite what to make of this sort of idealization of romantic love. The best defense of Goethe’s version, perhaps, is that by raising it to such a level of abstraction–to a cosmic principle, even–the aura of meaningfulness that tends to envelop the individual love affair is stripped away. The beloved here merits only a single mention, at the end of the EROS stanza. The true beloved is ELPIS, who comes in at the end to reconcile two intertwined oppositions: DAIMON/EROS, that is, self-other, and TUCHE-ANAGKE, that is, luck-fate. (Intertwined because both self and other are both products of chance and, one chanced upon, impossible to alter.)
Or, at least, to promise reconciliation. But it seems to me too easy. With no risk (the gate is already unlocked) and no stake (no action is required), it should be no surprise that neither is there any real reward. I have a difficult time understanding the appeal of a poetic religion which demands no ethical change and whose promises are openly acknowledged to be empty. It looks more like escape.
Primal Words. Orphic
As on the day that lent you to the world
The sun stood to greet the planets,
You so soon and on and on advanced
Under the law with which you began.
So you must be, yourself you cannot escape,
Soon so said sibyls, so prophets.
And no time and no power dismembered
Molded form, which living developed.
The strict bound yet went round gracefully
A Changing, that changed with and around us;
Not alone you stay, you make yourself sociable,
And act well as an other acts;
In life it’s soon un-, soon re-payable,
It’s a bobble, and it’s all bobbled through.
Soon the years’ circle’s gone round,
The lamp awaits the flame, it ignites.
It doesn’t fail!–he plunges down from heaven,
Whither he swung himself from ancient wastes,
He floats up here on airy feathers
Round brow and breast the spring day long,
Seems now to flee, from the fleeing he returns,
Since he becomes a weal in woe, so sweet and scared.
Many a heart floats away at large,
But the noblest dedicates himself to the One.
Then is it again as the stars wished:
Condition and Law, and all Will
Is only a wish, because we simply should,
And before the Will caprice is silent still;
The beloved is chided away by the heart,
To the hard Must comply will and whim.
So we’re seemingly free then, after many years
Just close to it as we were in the beginning.
But such a bound’s, such a brazen wall’s
Highest guarded-against gate is unlocked,
Though it stand with old rocks’ time!
An essence stirs light and unrestrained:
From cloudcover, fog, rainshower
She raises us with her, inspired by her;
You know her well, she swarms through all zones;
A wing-beat–and behind us aeons.
[For context, read this post.]
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (which consists of notes from his lectures on moral psychology) does not set out to teach its audience to be good. No one, he says, will get anything out of his lectures who is not already good; all he can do is help those in his audience who are good understand what they’re being, so that they can be it better. But the Ethics are nevertheless continually cited for their moral advice. I do not think this is entirely inappropriate; though he’s surely right that ethics cannot be taught in a classroom, that does not mean that language is irrelevant to learning it. Exhortatory maxims can have play a useful role.
If we were to distill the Ethics down to such a maxim, or at least down to two, we might do worse than “seek the mean in all things,” and “love your self as your friend.”
The first maxim is fairly self-explanatory. Aristotle analyzes of virtue as the mean between extremes: for any action, sometimes it should be done, sometimes it should not be done. To be virtuous is to do it whenever it should be done, and not do it whenever it should not. Discussion of such matters takes up roughly half of the Ethics, Books II-VI.
The second maxim is more opaque, but also, I think, more interesting. It means to invoke the train of thought found in the other half, Books I and VII-X. If we think of the Ethics as proto-psychoanalysis, then Books II-VI are the catalog and case studies of the various neuroses and psychoses, while I&VII-X are the model of soul. It is in them that Aristotle develops his theory of the self, its desires, and their fulfillment.
The theory begins with the question: What is good for us? To be happy.
What is happiness? Not pleasure–that’s brutish. Not wealth–that’s a means to an end. Not honor–that’s just a way of reassuring ourselves of our own virtue. Not virtue–only a philosopher would call a virtuous man undergoing torture “happy.” More generally, each of these could be added to in a way that made the possessor better off, but happiness must be final and complete: one you are happy, nothing more should be desirable.
Well, what is good for anything? It is good to do well: playing the flute well makes one a good flautist. We should ask, then, what action makes one a good human. Humans are distinguished from other animals by their intellect, and so to act distinctively human is to use one’s intellect: to apply practical wisdom to one’s affairs, and to contemplate. (How are these to be balanced against each other? Aristotle does not say.)
How can we tell whether we are exercising practical wisdom? It’s difficult. We very easily deceive ourselves; we’re better at evaluating other people. But we also know that people tend to be friends with people they resemble, both because they seek each other out, and because they influence each other, each trying to help the other do better. The best way to ensure we do well, then, is to make friends who are wise. By observing them doing well, and by observing that we desire them to continue doing what they’re doing, we learn what it is to do well, and learn to desire it for ourselves. And so the good man is, in a sense, friends with himself:
For he is at unity in himself, and with every part of his soul he desires the same objects; and he wishes for himself both what is, and what he believes to be, good; and he does it (it being characteristic of the good man to work at what is good), and for the sake of himself, inasmuch as he does it for the sake of his Intellectual Principle which is generally thought to be a man’s Self. Again, he wishes himself And specially this Principle whereby he is an intelligent being, to live and be preserved in life, because existence is a good to him that is a good man.
In a deeper sense, however, a man’s self is not another friend, but rather a friend is another self. Man is friends with himself from the beginning, before he has other friends; he is the only person he cannot avoid spending time with. He must look outside of himself, to another self, a friend, only in order to learn how to be a good self-friend. We seek happiness for ourselves, but the best way to learn what happiness is, is to ask what we would want for our friends. We train our desire (orexis) through our friendship (philia).
Note that love in the sense of eros does not play an important role here, being just another instance of orexis (if for the sensation) or philia (if for the person). This is perhaps the greatest difference between Aristotle and Freud. I do not think it’s just a matter of vocabulary.
[For context, read this post.]
Apart from his mathematical work, Blaise Pascal is most well known for his infamous “wager,” an argument for belief in God which plays a central role in his Pensées (that is, “Thoughts”; his notes toward a defense of the Christian religion). Perhaps only Anselm’s ontological argument has a worse reputation. But–as with the ontological argument, for that matter–there’s actually a lot to be said in the wager’s favor; and the things to be said for it open out onto the system of the Pensées as a whole. So the simplest reason to read the Pensées is this: it will clarify how concepts like chance, certainty, infinity, and self-interest, play a role in our understanding of belief (or lack thereof) in God.
Pascal never puts it this way–though (or because) he was a mathematician, his prose style put elegance above clarity–but the wager boils down to a complex practical syllogism:
- When truth is not available, one should seek happiness.
- The return in happiness on various actions can be compared.
- So one should do what has the greatest expected return.
- Some course of action B presents itself, with probability of success R>0, such that the return on the action depends on some event G, with probability P>0;
- And such that it has the following expected returns: ex(not-B)=(1-P)*u+P*x, and ex(B)=(1-R)*((1-P)*v+P*y)+R*((1-P)*w+P*z); that is,
no attempt | B fails (1-R) | B succeeds (R) Not-G (1-P) u v w G (P) x y z
- And such that u, v, and w are finite, z is positively infinite, and x and y are either finite or or negatively infinite.
- So no matter the specific values of P, R, u, v, w, x, or y, the expected return on attempting B is (infinitely) greater than that on not attempting it.
Practical conclusion: One should (attempt to) B.
The argument certainly seems valid. Pascal, of course, takes G=”God exists” and B=”believe in God,” and declares it sound. Is it?
In isolation, this move invites many objections, which seem to me to be of three basic types:
- Why should G=”God exists”? And why the Catholic God? This is the most obvious point of attack. Other possibilities, after all, present themselves: the Muslim God; the Hindu God; Zeus; Odin; the Flying Spaghetti Monster; and no one said P need be large, so long as it’s greater than zero.
- Why should B=”believe in God”? The usual objection is to point out the strangeness of choosing to believe; we can’t belief because it will make us happy, we have to believe because we think it’s true! It’s less frequently noticed that, just as with (1), there are other possible B’s that gum up the works: for example, flip a coin, and if it lands heads, believe in God; or, wait till your deathbed, then believe in God; or, do nothing, and perhaps wind up believing in God anyway. It doesn’t matter that these have a lower chance of success than an immediate conversion; after all, no one said R need be large, so long as it’s greater than zero.
- Why suppose z can be infinite? Why allow infinite returns in the first place? Not only do we have a hard time imagining infinite returns (Heaven always sounds rather boring), but allowing it causes numerous problems. (1) and (2) are just warm-ups. Consider: what if we acknowledge the possibility (no matter how slim) both of “negative infinite returns, no matter what strategy one adopts” and “positive infinite returns, no matter what strategy one adopts” (e.g. predestination)? This situation would contradict the second theoretical premise: it would be impossible to compare expected returns with one another, for every course of action would include infinity minus infinity, which is not zero, but rather undefined.
In response to objection (1), I believe, Pascal would ask another question: Why suppose P can be greater than 0? It’s easy to take for granted that any logically possible event, no matter how implausible, has at least some positive probability; but are we really justified in doing so? We might (I would) instead require that, before we grant that there is a chance an event will happen, we demonstrate that it is not only possible, but probable, in the original sense of tending toward a proof; demonstrate that there be reasons for believing it to be the case. So for any G, we must ask: why think G? Pascal spends much of the Pensées arguing that “the Catholic God exists” is the only G for which we can offer plausible reasons.
In response to objection (2), a similar question arises: Why suppose R can be greater than 0? What reasons do we have for thinking that we are able to B? Pascal agrees that one cannot choose to believe. One can, however, choose to “immediately put oneself in a position which will bring one to believe in the Catholic God.” That this does not involve “dishonest” belief is is easier to accept if you think of “belief in God” as less like “belief that there’s a chair” and more like “belief in reading”. We cannot choose to believe, any more than we can choose to know how to read; but we can choose to seek a teacher, and, Pascal spends much time arguing, this is the only course of action which we have any reason to think will succeed.
Objection (3) does establish a paradox. However, it holds only if we allow for more than one G. It is not, then, a weakness of the argument, but a strength. If you really, truly find multiple incompatible religious systems plausible, then Pascal’s wager gives you reason to feel paralysis. If, on the other hand, you accept Pascal’s arguments for the only plausible G and B, then your only rational option is to try to B. This will make game-theoretic reasoning in the future somewhat useless: B will win out every time, in every situation. So perhaps exclude infinite returns when deciding among strategies all of which are compatible with trying to B. But none of this is reason to dismiss infinite returns a priori. And Pascal gives many reasons for believing infinite returns to be plausible.
So the application Pascal would make of the wager commits him to three further claims:
- Our actions can have infinite consequences.
- Catholicism is the only plausible account of an adequate response to these consequences.
- Immediately and wholeheartedly immersing oneself in Catholicism is the only plausible strategy for becoming Catholic.
The wager makes no sense if we do not take into account his arguments for them. He does not pull them from thin air. All three follow from the second pillar of the Pensées: the Machine.
By the Machine, Pascal means the World seen as a mechanism. It is to establishing this point of view that most of the Pensées devotes itself. It is, for this reason, less argument than rhetoric; or, perhaps, not rhetoric, but poetics.
(1) The mechanism is of infinite size; indeed, as Pascal writes in the most famous sentence in French literature, “The silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” It is as if, for Pascal, this aesthetic sublimity requires an ethical absolute to counter-balance it. Either our actions can have infinite consequences, or they do not matter in the least, overshadowed as they are by the vast cosmic void.
(2) The mechanism includes humanity. We are selfish animals, acting according to a shallow (that is, finite) conception of our self-interest. Catholicism–in any case, Christianity–is the only instance of a way of life spreading throughout the world that is not based on selfishness, but rather on charity. Pascal has much more to say about the virtues of Christianity, but this alone, he believes, is enough to single it out as potentially divine: it indicates that an outside force tampered with the mechanism.
(3) This outside force is able to affect us because, though we are part of the mechanism, we, alone in the universe, are capable of thought: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed.” He is not, however, a willing reed; he inclines where the wind blows him. Thought offers a fulcrum outside the universe, but does not offer an unmoved motive force. We cannot, in fact, supply that force; it must come from outside. We can only consider–from within the mechanism–how best to position ourselves for the outside blow. This involves not doing something, but being something: adopting the appropriate habit, making it part of the fabric of our lives. So the death-bed conversion strategy doesn’t work; in fact, no strategy will work. For it is not neutral to put belief off till tomorrow. Resolving to believe tomorrow is not resolving to believe August 21th, but rather resolving not to believe now. If we put belief off till tomorrow, we are putting on unbelief today.
Postscript: I suspect that one reasons Pascal left the Pensées the way he did–fragmentary and disheveled–was that, though he had the argument, the wager, down, he could not get the poetics, the machine, quite right. He could not find an order of words which would not just lay out the idea for the reader to take or leave, but would operate like an Audenesque poetic machine, forcing the reader to adopt the perspective of infinity. Of course, such a machine is impossible; grace cannot be externally compelled. But that does not stop perfectionists from making the attempt. This applies, I suppose, to Wittgenstein as well. People often say that the two have much in common.