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The veil of poetry

September 2, 2014

Too many months ago I posted here translations of two of Goethe’s early ballads; I meant to put up more such translations as they were completed, but never got around to it. In any case, here are two mid-career poems–I’m no Goethe scholar, but I believe both to have been written around the age of fifty. Like the previous pair, these are both allegories for artistic creation. But the tone has changed; those poems portrayed twilit encounters with daemonic powers, these poems imagine mystical powers of overwhelming clarity. And the erotic metaphors are now less familial and more religious in tint; the point is not that poetry might create something valuable, but that attraction to it might, through the purification (not destruction) of desire, bring about moral conversion. Suspicious as I am of poetry-as-substitute-for-faith, I prefer the ballads: that is, I suppose, I prefer magic to pantheism. Still, they’re impressive poems, in both imagery and language. I have doubtless failed entirely to do them justice; the translation is slavishly literal.

In the fourteen-stanza first poem, “Dedication,” the narrator climbs a mountain and, when the fog clears, has a vision of the spirit of Truth. There are echoes of the Dante-Beatrice dynamic; first the spirit must rebuke him for his unwillingness to help his fellow man, then it offers him, as a way to do so, the veil of Poetry. This veil offers his a reproducible medium between the impenetrable fog and the blinding sunlight. The metaphor is similar, in fact, to that Hopkins used in his (later) poem “The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe”; I suspect Hopkins had read it. Though Hopkins’ metaphor seems to me better–it’s unclear to me what, for Goethe, makes poetry able to achieve this mediation. Note that this poem served as a dedication for Goethe’s collected works, and, presumably, should be interpreted as a declaration and justification of his own (divine?) inspiration to write poetry.

In the nine-stanza second poem, “The God and the Bajadere,” the Indian god Mahadeva (Shiva) descends to earth to test humanity and spends the night with a temple prostitute with a heart of gold. In the morning she finds him dead, and, in spite of the priests’ commands, she immolates herself on his pyre, and is carried up to heaven. This poem has an interesting rhythmic effect, which I have doubtless failed to capture; the first eight lines of each stanza are in trochaic tetrameter, the last three switch to anapests, imitating, doubtless, the shifting patterns of the girl’s dancing.


The morning came; its steps scared off
The quiet sleep which mildly embraced me,
And I, awakened, from my still hut
Went up the mountain with fresh soul;
I was pleased with every step
By the new blooms which hung full of drops;
The young day rose with delight,
And all was refreshed to refresh me.

And as I climbed, from the meadow’s river
A fog drew forth in soft streaks,
It moved and shifted to wrap around me,
And grew winged around my head aloft.
The finest views I should no more enjoy,
A cloudy flood covered the province from me.
Soon I saw myself as if by clouds enclosed
And locked up with myself in twilight.

Suddenly the sun shone to pierce through,
In the fog a clearness let itself see.
Here it sank, let itself swing down,
Here its rising shared itself round forest and height,
How I hoped to bring to her the first greeting!
After the fog I hoped for it twice as keenly.
The lifting strife was not yet completed,
A splendor surrounded me, and I stood bedazzled.

Soon there made me open my eyes
An inner urge of the again-bold heart,
I could only venture it with a quick blink,
For all shined too burning and too glowing.
There hung, borne within the clouds,
A godly lady before my eyes,
No finer sight saw I in my life,
She looked at me and stayed lingering hanging.

“Do you know me?” she spoke, with a mouth
From which all love and true tones flowed,
“Do you recognize me, I who in many wounds
Of your life poured the purest balm?
You know me well, to whom, in eternal bonds,
Your striving heart joined fast and faster.
Did I see you not with hot heart’s weeping
As a boy eagerly yearning after me?”

“Yes!” I cried out, as overjoyed I sank
Down to the earth, “Long have I felt you:
You gave me peace, when through young limbs
Passion restlessly ransacked;
You have as with heavenly plumage
Cooled my forehead on the hottest day;
You gave me the best gift on earth,
And every joy will I have only through you!

“I do not name you. Yet I hear you by many
Very often named, and each title you HIS,
Every eye thinks to aim on you,
Almost every eye your shaft brings to pain.
Ah, when I’ve erred, I’ve had many playmates,
Now that I know you, I am quite alone.
I must enjoy my luck but with myself,
Your fetching light cover and lock away.”

She smiled, she spoke: “You see, how clever,
How necessary it was, to reveal to you little!
Hardly are you safe from the coarsest deception,
Hardly are you lord of the first childrens’ wills,
That you believe yourself already over-man enough,
That you fail to fulfill the duty of man!
How much do you differ from the others?
Know yourself, live with the world in peace!”

“Pardon me,” I called out, “I meant it well.
Should I have opened my eyes in vain?
A fresh will lives in my blood,
I know exactly the worth of your gift.
If you wake in me for others the noblest good,
I can and will no more bury the talent!
Why do I search the way so full of yearning,
If I shall not show it to my brothers?”

And as I spoke, the high essence looked at me
With a blink of sympathetic forebearance;
I could read myself in her eyes,
What I missed and what I did right.
She smiled, that I was already convalescent,
At which my spirit climbed to new joys;
I could now with inner trust
Approach her and show myself to her.

Then the stretched out her hand in the streaks
Of light clouds and the fragrance around;
As she held it, it let itself be taken,
It let itself be drawn, it was no more fog.
My eyes could again wander in the valley,
To heaven I glanced, it was clear and lofty.
Only I saw her keep the purest veil,
It flowed around her and swelled thousandfold.

“I know you, I know your weakness,
I know what good in you lives and glimmers!”
So she said, so I hear her always speak,
“Receive here, what I long ago determined!
With it the happy one can on nothing break,
Who takes this gift with still soul.
From morning-fragrance woven and sun’s clearness,
The veil of poetry from the hand of truth.

“An when it becomes for you and your friends sultry
At noon, throw it into the air!
Straightaway murmurs round nightwinds’ cool,
Breathes around you flowers’ spice-odor and fragrance.
It quiets the woe of fearful earth-feelings,
Till cloudbeds stroll the vault,
Every life’s swell is becalmed,
The day becomes lovely, and the night becomes bright.”

So come then, friend, if on your way
The burden of living presses heavy and heavier,
When our road a fresh feminine blessing
With flowers adorns, with golden fruit tastes,
We go united against the next day!
So we live, so we walk happy.
And then also, if grandchildren mourn us,
To their desire still to take our love.


The God and the Bajadere

Mahadeva, the lord of the earth,
Comes down for the sixth time,
So he can turn into our likeness,
Feel with joy and pain.
He condescends here to dwell,
Lets it all happen to himself.
If he should curse or spare,
He must see men humanly.
And when he’d as a wanderer examined the city,
The great deplored, the small regarded,
He left them at nightfall to go ahead.

As he now goes about,
Where the last houses are,
He sees with painted cheeks
A lonely pretty child.
“Greetings, virgin!” “My pleasure!
Wait, I’ll come right out -“
“And who are you?” “A bajadere,
And this is the house of love.”
She stirs herself, to strike the cymbals to the dance;
She knows herself so lovely to carry in circles,
She bends and curves and hands him the bouquet.

Coaxingly she pulls him to the threshold,
Lively into the house.
“Handsome stranger, lampbright
Should straightaway the cot be.
Be you tired, I will refresh you,
Ease your feets’ hurt.
What you will, that you will have,
Rest, joy, or jest.”
She soothes busily pretend sorrow.
The divine one smiles; he sees with joy
Through deep ruin a human heart.

And he asks for slave-service;
Always brighter she becomes,
And the maiden’s early arts
Become more and more nature.
And so justified on the blood
Soon, soon, the fruit itself;
Obedience in disposition
Becomes not far from love.
But to prove her sharper and sharper,
Chooses the knower of heights and depths
Desire and horror and grim pain.

And he kisses the gaudy cheeks,
And she feels the lovers’ pain,
And the maiden stands ensnared,
And she weeps for the first time,
Sinks down to her feet,
No more won to wantonness,
Ah! and the supple members,
They deny all service.
And so to the camp’s pleasing celebration
Prepares the dark homely veil,
The nocturnal hour, the fine dream-web.

Late to sleep under jests,
Early wake after short rest,
She finds on her heart
Dead the much-beloved guest.
Screaming she falls down on him;
But she does not wake him,
And they bring the stiff member
Quick to the fiery pit.
She hears the priests, the death-song,
She races and runs parting the crowd:
“Who are you? what pushes you toward the grave?”

By the bier she falls down,
Her cry rings through the air:
“My spouse I will again see!
And I seek him in the tomb.
Should it fall apart to ash by me,
This member of god’s splendor?
Mine! he was it, mine before all!
Ah, only one sweet night!”
The priests sing it: “We bear the old,
After long tiring and late cooling,
We bear the young, even before they’ve thought it.

“Hear the priests’ teaching:
This was not your spouse.
You live as a dancing-girl,
And so have no duty.
Only the shadow follows the body
Into the still realm of death;
Only the spouse follows the spouse:
This is duty and glory together.
Resound, trumpet, to the holy charge!
O take, our Gods! the virtue of days.
O take the youth in flames to you!”

So the choir thus, without mercy,
Multiplies her heart’s distress;
And with outstretched arms
She springs into the tomb.
But the god-youth lifts up
Out from the flame aloft,
And in his arms floats
The beloved with him.
The Godhood rejoices in the repentant sinner;
Immortals lift up lost children
With fiery arms up to the sky.

Not without meaning

August 25, 2014

[For context, read this post.]

It should not be a surprise, given the name of this blog, that Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is one of my favorite books. I have never understood why most people find it a difficult read. Perhaps they just approach it in the wrong spirit. The book does not ask us to read it in a mood of profound seriousness; it asks us to approach it with laughter in our souls.

Not that it is not a serious work. It is about, not only the New England sperm-whale fishery, but also death, love, and the soul; law, politics, and religion; science, art, and God; and (more difficult still) it’s about this being-about-ness, about the act of meaning, about how we move from one thought to another. But–and this is part of Melville’s genius–he addresses these most serious and sublime of subjects with his tongue firmly in his cheek. He spellbinds us, only to dismiss the enchantment with an absurd hyperbole or a coarse joke. He offers deep insights, but all the while whispers: all this is vanity; laugh, and go learn what no book can say.

In lieu of a plot summary–the plot of the book is well-known, and simple enough–I would point to two small aspects of the book, each of which could be taken as emblematic of the whole. For this, too, is part of Melville’s genius: he makes it seem as if, despite the apparently arbitrary compositional choices–why, for example, have three chapters on determining the size of the whale?–some deep order underlies it all, such that the entire book could be reconstructed from a single trope, or a single scene. Such metonymic reconstruction would, of course, be impossible–but it feels as if it would not be; because it feels as if what wisdom the book has to offer can be contained in a single word as easily as in a hundred thirty-five chapters. Contained, that is, not at all.


The reader will notice, the very first chapter, a desire to find meaning in all things. And so we find catalogs such as the following:

Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. (Ch. 1: Loomings)

This is the first appearance of what could be the motto of the book: “Surely all this is not without meaning.” “Yes,” the reader may be tempted to respond, “but what is the meaning?” That would be to miss the point. We are not meant to take this catalog so seriously. It is enough, for Melville’s purposes, for us to recognize that a meaning could be seen in this combination. We are to enter into the state of mind in which such lists seem full of meaning; so full that the meaning need not even–cannot even–be said out loud.

And we are also to look at that state of mind from the outside; to laugh at it; to recognize that, seen from outside, it is insane. And so Ahab, the mad captain, often has the same response as the narrator Ishmael:

Though in the course of his continual voyagings Ahab must often before have noticed a similar sight, yet, to any monomaniac man, the veriest trifles capriciously carry meanings. (Ch. 52: The Albatross)

The whole world, then, is full of meaning–for he who has the eye to see it. But is it something we should wish to see? Moby-Dick does not answer this question–it answers no question. It only helps us to see the question more clearly. To see the meaningfulness in some of the meanings it offers, and to see that in some of the meanings madness lies.


And so over the course of the book, despite many false starts, enduring metaphors are built up. Most principally, the whale: the whale is the soul, and America, and the world, and God. So that when we come across a short story about measuring the dimensions of the whale, it is not just an amusing short story (though it is that), or a lyrical ekphrasis (though it is that too); it is a commentary on, among other things, divine transcendence, organized religion, European tourism, and the tentative nature of the artistic endeavor. Here Melville need not insist on the fullness of meaning, for we have already learned to see it ourselves: here he simply presents us the world in the skeleton of a whale, and allows us to see the meaning for ourselves. Because the story comes from my favorite chapter in the book, I will end this post by quoting it in full:

And as for my exact knowledge of the bones of the leviathan in their gigantic, full grown development, for that rare knowledge I am indebted to my late royal friend Tranquo, king of Tranque, one of the Arsacides. For being at Tranque, years ago, when attached to the trading-ship Dey of Algiers, I was invited to spend part of the Arsacidean holidays with the lord of Tranque, at his retired palm villa at Pupella; a sea-side glen not very far distant from what our sailors called Bamboo-Town, his capital.

Among many other fine qualities, my royal friend Tranquo, being gifted with a devout love for all matters of barbaric vertu, had brought together in Pupella whatever rare things the more ingenious of his people could invent; chiefly carved woods of wonderful devices, chiselled shells, inlaid spears, costly paddles, aromatic canoes; and all these distributed among whatever natural wonders, the wonder-freighted, tribute-rendering waves had cast upon his shores.

Chief among these latter was a great Sperm Whale, which, after an unusually long raging gale, had been found dead and stranded, with his head against a cocoa-nut tree, whose plumage-like, tufted droopings seemed his verdant jet. When the vast body had at last been stripped of its fathom-deep enfoldings, and the bones become dust dry in the sun, then the skeleton was carefully transported up the Pupella glen, where a grand temple of lordly palms now sheltered it.

The ribs were hung with trophies; the vertebrae were carved with Arsacidean annals, in strange hieroglyphics; in the skull, the priests kept up an unextinguished aromatic flame, so that the mystic head again sent forth its vapoury spout; while, suspended from a bough, the terrific lower jaw vibrated over all the devotees, like the hair-hung sword that so affrighted Damocles.

It was a wondrous sight. The wood was green as mosses of the Icy Glen; the trees stood high and haughty, feeling their living sap; the industrious earth beneath was as a weaver’s loom, with a gorgeous carpet on it, whereof the ground-vine tendrils formed the warp and woof, and the living flowers the figures. All the trees, with all their laden branches; all the shrubs, and ferns, and grasses; the message-carrying air; all these unceasingly were active. Through the lacings of the leaves, the great sun seemed a flying shuttle weaving the unwearied verdure. Oh, busy weaver! unseen weaver!—pause!—one word!—whither flows the fabric? what palace may it deck? wherefore all these ceaseless toilings? Speak, weaver!—stay thy hand!—but one single word with thee! Nay—the shuttle flies—the figures float from forth the loom; the freshet-rushing carpet for ever slides away. The weaver-god, he weaves; and by that weaving is he deafened, that he hears no mortal voice; and by that humming, we, too, who look on the loom are deafened; and only when we escape it shall we hear the thousand voices that speak through it. For even so it is in all material factories. The spoken words that are inaudible among the flying spindles; those same words are plainly heard without the walls, bursting from the opened casements. Thereby have villainies been detected. Ah, mortal! then, be heedful; for so, in all this din of the great world’s loom, thy subtlest thinkings may be overheard afar.

Now, amid the green, life-restless loom of that Arsacidean wood, the great, white, worshipped skeleton lay lounging—a gigantic idler! Yet, as the ever-woven verdant warp and woof intermixed and hummed around him, the mighty idler seemed the cunning weaver; himself all woven over with the vines; every month assuming greener, fresher verdure; but himself a skeleton. Life folded Death; Death trellised Life; the grim god wived with youthful Life, and begat him curly-headed glories.

Now, when with royal Tranquo I visited this wondrous whale, and saw the skull an altar, and the artificial smoke ascending from where the real jet had issued, I marvelled that the king should regard a chapel as an object of vertu. He laughed. But more I marvelled that the priests should swear that smoky jet of his was genuine. To and fro I paced before this skeleton—brushed the vines aside—broke through the ribs—and with a ball of Arsacidean twine, wandered, eddied long amid its many winding, shaded colonnades and arbours. But soon my line was out; and following it back, I emerged from the opening where I entered. I saw no living thing within; naught was there but bones.

Cutting me a green measuring-rod, I once more dived within the skeleton. From their arrow-slit in the skull, the priests perceived me taking the altitude of the final rib, “How now!” they shouted; “Dar’st thou measure this our god! That’s for us.” “Aye, priests—well, how long do ye make him, then?” But hereupon a fierce contest rose among them, concerning feet and inches; they cracked each other’s sconces with their yard-sticks—the great skull echoed—and seizing that lucky chance, I quickly concluded my own admeasurements.

These admeasurements I now propose to set before you. But first, be it recorded, that, in this matter, I am not free to utter any fancied measurement I please. Because there are skeleton authorities you can refer to, to test my accuracy. There is a Leviathanic Museum, they tell me, in Hull, England, one of the whaling ports of that country, where they have some fine specimens of fin-backs and other whales. Likewise, I have heard that in the museum of Manchester, in New Hampshire, they have what the proprietors call “the only perfect specimen of a Greenland or River Whale in the United States.” Moreover, at a place in Yorkshire, England, Burton Constable by name, a certain Sir Clifford Constable has in his possession the skeleton of a Sperm Whale, but of moderate size, by no means of the full-grown magnitude of my friend King Tranquo’s.

In both cases, the stranded whales to which these two skeletons belonged, were originally claimed by their proprietors upon similar grounds. King Tranquo seizing his because he wanted it; and Sir Clifford, because he was lord of the seignories of those parts. Sir Clifford’s whale has been articulated throughout; so that, like a great chest of drawers, you can open and shut him, in all his bony cavities—spread out his ribs like a gigantic fan—and swing all day upon his lower jaw. Locks are to be put upon some of his trap-doors and shutters; and a footman will show round future visitors with a bunch of keys at his side. Sir Clifford thinks of charging twopence for a peep at the whispering gallery in the spinal column; threepence to hear the echo in the hollow of his cerebellum; and sixpence for the unrivalled view from his forehead.

The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics. But as I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing—at least, what untattooed parts might remain—I did not trouble myself with the odd inches; nor, indeed, should inches at all enter into a congenial admeasurement of the whale.

(Ch. 102: The Bower in the Arsacides)

The wager and the machine

August 20, 2014

[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:

Practical premise:

  1. When truth is not available, one should seek happiness.
  2. The return in happiness on various actions can be compared.
  3. So one should do what has the greatest expected return.

Theoretical premise:

  1. 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;
  2. 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
  3. And such that u, v, and w are finite, z is positively infinite, and x and y are either finite or or negatively infinite.
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. Our actions can have infinite consequences.
  2. Catholicism is the only plausible account of an adequate response to these consequences.
  3. 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.

The road where speech goes straight

August 15, 2014

[For context, read this post.]

The Eumenides (“The Kindly Ones”) is the final entry in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the only extant ancient Greek dramatic trilogy. (The final tragedy, anyway: the three tragedies would normally be associated with a more light-hearted “satyr play.” Only fragments of the Oresteia‘s satyr play Proteus have survived.) And it’s a play about endings, but also about beginnings. The end of the blood-feud, the beginning of the rule of law. The end of unconscious violence, the beginning of conscious self-control. It tells the story of how the name of Kindly Ones was bestowed upon the Furies, the chthonic goddesses of vengeance, in compensation for the pardoning of Orestes, whom they would otherwise have hounded to his death.

For, as seen in the preceding Libation Bearers, Orestes had murdered his mother Clytaemnestra and her lover Aegisthus to avenge his father Agamemnon on the orders of the sun-god Apollo.

For, as seen in the preceding Agamemnon, Clytaemnestra had murdered her husband Agamemnon on his return from the Trojan War to avenge her daughter Iphigenia; and was aided by Aegisthus, who sought to avenge his brothers. Agamemnon’s concubine, the Apollo-beloved-and-cursed Cassandra, they murdered also.

For, as described at various points throughout the trilogy, Agamemnon had sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to calm the winds preventing the Greek armies from sailing to Troy; and his father Atreus had killed Aegisthus’ brothers and served them to their father Thyestes in a pie. Now Atreus and Thyestes were brothers, the children of Pelops; and Pelops was the son of Tantalus, who killed him and served him to the gods, who then resurrected him. So the matricidal Orestes comes from a long line of fillicides and fratricides.

It’s not difficult to see why the house of Atreus was considered cursed. It’s hard to make much sense of such a sequence of events, such a senseless repetition of violence, apart from some such concept. It’s quite tempting, in fact, to give the story a psychoanalytic reading, making it about the repeated expression of unconscious desires, and the need to confront and sublimate them, to bring them into Apollo’s light; or to give it a political reading, making it about the chaos of barbarism, and the need to channel it along the lines of civilization. And neither would be all wrong.

But what I find fascinating about the trilogy is how the sublimation, civilization, whatever, happens. The dawn of reason, in the Oresteia, is itself unreasonable. The undoing of the curse begins when Apollo, god of reason, demands Orestes avenge his father–a matricide to break the series of fillicides. But he does so not with reasons, but with threats; and he may well himself be moved less by Agamemnon’s death than by that of Cassandra, itself only a side-effect of the feud. Then, when the Furies hound Orestes and he seeks the gods’ protection, Apollo may cleanse Orestes of his ritual guilt, but it is Athena, not Apollo, who provides the final resolution and reconciliation, who makes enough enough.

She does so, moreover, in a way that does not rely on Apollo’s “arguments” at all. Nor does she provide many arguments herself–at least not ones we can take seriously. Rather, she delegates the decision to a jury of Athenians; she provides, not a reasoned decision, but a decision procedure. Never mind that the jury splits 6-6 and the decision devolves to Athena again. What matters is the form: the institution of the rule by law, of the impartial jury; and the endorsement of this rule by the chthonic chaos that it supercedes. The gods play-act at putting Orestes on trial so that we can imitate them in total seriousness. The Furies, persuaded less by anything promised them than by Athena’s invocation of the power of persuasion, accept a new order in which persuasion, not brute force, rules the land:

ATHENA: Are they taking thought to discover that road
where speech goes straight?
In the fearsome look of the faces of these
I see great good for our citizens.
While with goodwill you hold in high honor
these Kindly Spirits, their will shall be good, as you steer
your city, your land
on an upright course clear through to the end.

The entire trilogy feels like a dream. Its characters sleep-walk through their lives, tossed this way and that by the warring of the gods against themselves. Only pitifully inadequate reasons are given for any action, but despite this everything feels full of sense, feels, in fact, inevitable. Then, in the Eumenides, the gods step center stage, and bring the real conflict–not between persons, but between the forces that control persons–into the open. The conflict is not resolved–it cannot be resolved–but it dissolves itself, and we awaken.

I have felt this dream-like quality every time I read the Oresteia, and every time I read the Eumenides in particular. It is, to my mind, the best reason to do so. The play shows us what it would be like not to be reasonable, not to live in a world where speech goes straight, and reminds us that the route from such a world to a world like our own might not itself be one we would call reasonable. Waking up does not much resemble shouting “Eureka!” upon suddenly realizing that we were asleep.

Remember to pay the debt

August 11, 2014

[For context, read this post.]

Don’t ask me why one should read Plato. That would be to say why one should study philosophy, and Plato’s Apology, his account of Socrates’ trial, did that already. Read that instead.

I will say a few things, however, about why one should read Plato’s Phaedo, which is, as it were, the sequel to the Apology, giving an account of Socrates’ conversation with his friends before his execution concerning why his execution will not bother him. For the Phaedo is–as one of my professors pointed out–a somewhat strange choice of Platonic dialogue, if you’re only going to read one. She meant strange for me in particular, but it’s also, I think, strange in general. Strange for me, because, if I’m interested in beauty and eternity, why not read one of the dialogues that actually brings those two concepts together–say, the Symposium, or the Phaedrus? Strange in general, because, well, it makes so much less sense than Platonic dialogues usually do. Socrates, usually a fount of reasonableness, instead spends the dialogue spouting forth cryptic statements and arguments that do not prove what they claim to prove. What’s going on here?

My choice of the Phaedo was, to be sure, determined in large part by happenstance–for example, I’d read neither the Symposium nor the Phaedrus before putting my preliminary list together, and so never even considered selecting them. But I also think that, in an important sense, the Phaedo fits for me just because it is so very strange. Because I am not, in fact, all that interested in beauty. It’s rather the connection between art and truth that I think significant (a connection to which beauty is, of course, relevant). Plato normally says very little about art, but his dialogues are marvelous instances of it, and perhaps no dialogue more so than the Phaedo. Its suggestive strangenesses are a part of its artistry, as is its self-consciousness about the connection between suggestive strangeness and artistry. That is: the strangest parts of the dialogue seem to be somehow about art, and I do not think this is a coincidence.


Without developing a full reading of the dialogue, then, I’ll list here what strike me as some of its strangest aspects. This will also serve as a summary of the dialogue’s content, though, as you’ll see, it barely mentions what most think the dialogue’s most important part.


(1) Near the beginning of the dialogue, Socrates, who in other dialogues almost always speaks disparagingly of poets and poetry, reveals that, in the time since his trial, he has been composing hymns to Apollo and putting Aesop’s fables in verse. Why? Because, Socrates says,

The same dream came to me sometimes in one form, and sometimes in another, but always saying the same or nearly the same words: ‘Cultivate and make music,’ said the dream. And hitherto I had imagined that this was only intended to exhort and encourage me in the study of philosophy, which has been the pursuit of my life, and is the noblest and best of music. The dream was bidding me do what I was already doing, in the same way that the competitor in a race is bidden by the spectators to run when he is already running. But I was not certain of this, for the dream might have meant music in the popular sense of the word, and being under sentence of death, and the festival giving me a respite, I thought that it would be safer for me to satisfy the scruple, and, in obedience to the dream, to compose a few verses before I departed.

Huh? This kind of bet-hedging argument might appeal to someone more practically-minded, but Socrates is decidedly not that; he often argues that you should do what is right, and do nothing until you know what is right–no guessing allowed. Has he really had a change of heart? Is this “Socratic irony”? Or….?

(2) The majority of the dialogue Socrates spends attempting to prove the immortality of the soul. But his arguments are quite poor; indeed, they seem to have less to do with immortality, and more with eternity:

(i) From cycles: “the living come from the dead, just as the dead come from the living.” But that the living come from the dead, does not mean that the now-living are the same as the previously-living that have died! That life goes on does not mean that my life goes on.

(ii) From recollecting: We have a concept of “the equal” that is not reducible to individual equal things, so we must have had it before we began to see things as equal, i.e., before birth; and now, when we think we come up with the concept, we are in fact remembering it. But to have a priori knowledge is not the same as to have always been alive! Being alive before one’s birth would not even help: we would still require an explanation for how the immortal soul came to learn the eternal truth of the Equal in the first place.

(iii) From affinity: the body decays, and the soul does not, because “the soul is in the very likeness of the divine, and immortal, and intellectual, and uniform, and indissoluble, and unchangeable.” But this is just begging the question! Why think that, because the objects of knowledge are eternal, therefore the individual knower is eternal also?

One might almost think that Socrates has been proving, not that individual souls, our souls, are immortal, but that something like an eternal Soul-principle, an eternal divine Knower, exists; and that our knowledge “imitates” his, imperfectly–meaning that, however eternal the divine Knower is–perhaps as eternal as the form of Table–my soul is just as immortal as this table….

(3) Socrates seems to be aware that his arguments are not entirely convincing; or, at the least, that they cannot sustain conviction on their own; they will require repetition:

[Socrates: ...] Like children, you are haunted with a fear that when the soul leaves the body, the wind may really blow her away and scatter her; especially if a man should happen to die in a great storm and not when the sky is calm.

Cebes answered with a smile: Then, Socrates, you must argue us out of our fears—and yet, strictly speaking, they are not our fears, but there is a child within us to whom death is a sort of hobgoblin; him too we must persuade not to be afraid when he is alone in the dark.

Socrates said: Let the voice of the charmer be applied daily until you have charmed away the fear.

Why would it require repetition? It sounds almost like a noble lie; but not quite, for it’s not false that the Soul exists–it’s just that the child will fail to understand what this means, and perhaps cannot fully understand it; the child will insist on it being about me, and my soul, not Soul proper. I do not think it a coincidence that the child of selfishness is spoken of in terms of hobgoblins and charms; for art and magic, too, have something to do with the self, with the individual will.

(4) After the initial arguments, Simmias and Cebes raise a number of further objections, and Socrates says, in response, that the worst thing to be is a misologist:

When a simple man who has no skill in dialectics believes an argument to be true which he afterwards imagines to be false, whether really false or not, and then another and another, he has no longer any faith left, and great disputers, as you know, come to think at last that they have grown to be the wisest of mankind; for they alone perceive the utter unsoundness and instability of all arguments.

Is this an admission that his previous arguments were false? Or at least imperfect? Certainly Simmias and Cebes’ objections–that the soul might be just a harmony, and that the soul might last for a long time, but still finally cease to exist–reveal a more sophisticated understanding of the problem than his initial arguments allow for. His responses are philosophically complex; indeed the philosophical heart of the dialogue, including Socrates’ philosophical autobiography. But I will not summarize them here. For the purposes of this post, I would say, they have little relevance: they only reinforce the sense that when Socrates says “soul,” he does not mean my soul.

(5) Like several Platonic dialogues, this one ends with a mythological account of the afterlife; this time, however, the myth is not quite the last thing we hear, and Socrates afterwards explains the purpose of the myth; and the talk of a “venture” recalls the issues with bet-hedging I discussed earlier:

Wherefore, Simmias, seeing all these things, what ought not we to do that we may obtain virtue and wisdom in this life? Fair is the prize, and the hope great!

A man of sense ought not to say, nor will I be very confident, that the description which I have given of the soul and her mansions is exactly true. But I do say that, inasmuch as the soul is shown to be immortal, he may venture to think, not improperly or unworthily, that something of the kind is true. The venture is a glorious one, and he ought to comfort himself with words like these, which is the reason why I lengthen out the tale.

(6) Socrates’ last words appear, on their surface, to concern something utterly trivial, and in this very triviality seem to insist on an allegorical over-reading:

Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?

Asclepius was the Greek god of medicine. Socrates owes him a debt: why? Because he has been healed of the sickness of physical life, which for the philosopher is a kind of death? Or might there be some other reading? The language of “debt” reminds me, again, of the language of “safety” and “venturing.” I wonder if there is not some sense here of the importance of paying debts within this life and this world, despite all Socrates has to say about its irrelevance compared to the eternal world of Forms.

Reading? No such thing!

August 4, 2014

[For context, read this post.]Ludwig Wittgenstein (photo by Ben Richards)

[Alternate title: “Why read Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations?”[1]. A philosophical dialogue[2] hand-written between 12 and 2 A.M. GMT, July 13th, at London Heathrow Airport, waiting to catch an early-morning flight[3], and transcribed with minimal corrections this very morning. The speed of composition[4] may or may not be due to sleep deprivation. Read at your own risk.]

–My God, Alice, what are you doing?

–Reading Ludwig Wittgenstein. See: Philosophical Investigations.

–What is that, a book? Don’t tell me you buy into all this reading nonsense.

–Nonsense how, Bob?

–Well everyone nowadays knows there’s no such thing.

–I don’t get it. No such thing? What is this I’m holding then?

–It’s a “book,” sure, whatever that means, but this thing you say you’re doing with it, “reading”: no such thing! I mean, back in the day, maybe, but they didn’t know we’re descended from apes.

–I admit I don’t quite see what you mean. Look, here, I’ll reading something out for you…

–Ha! You’ll make up some nonsense, you mean, and say it was the book told it to you. As if the book were whispering silently in your ear.

–Well, it does feel like that sometimes…

–That’s schizophrenia right there. You should go to a doctor, not a library. The voices aren’t real just because you hear them.

–But it’s not just random. There’s rules, ways to tell what it says where.

–I’ve heard this line before. But you just make it say what you want. Look, here, this funny picture:


Sometimes you say it “bow,” sometimes “bow.” How can the same picture say two different things? Admit it: you’re making it up as you go along.

–No, see, there’s ways to tell which it is… but I can’t… look, just let me teach you how to read, and then you’ll be convinced it’s possible! It will open up a whole new world for you.

–Why would I want to stop seeing the world as it really is? What has “reading” ever done for anyone? I can tell you what it’s done to them. I’ve met readers before. You spend all your time looking at little black squiggles when you should be living life. Then you go forth obsessed with getting everyone else to read as well–to listen to silent whispers from pieces of processed wood. It’s a cancer on society!

–Well… no, it doesn’t make me not see the world, it makes me see more of it. I admit it’s sometimes distracting, and when I do see something written, I can’t help but read it; and yes, people write too much; but, it’s part of the world we live in! And an important part! Now reading, that would be like… like not believing in God!

–On no, it’s not at all like. Look, reading and writing, these are just things people do. Human beings. Like monkeys, except monkeys only talk to each other, and don’t pretend that funny ink blots talk to anyone. How would that even work? It’s not as if books have faces! Admit it: it’s all a big game of pretend. You made up some rules and mostly follow them, but in the end you say whatever you want, then pretend the book said it instead.

–That’s not completely false, but… look, the rules all fit together. We couldn’t just make up a new game tomorrow, even if we wanted to. There’s lots of different ways of writing, but they all have certain things in common; we can talk about how to move from one to another. So what do you mean by real? This sounds real enough to me.

–That’s not real, that’s just good teamwork. What you’re saying is, you’ve found a way to have shared hallucinations. But they’re still hallucinations. Things can’t talk! Not silently anyway.

–No, of course not, and there’s not actually a voice in my head when I read. It’s a metaphor. When I talk to you, do you hear a voice inside your head?

–No, I hear your voice, from over there.

–Right. The same with the book. I see it’s voice, here on the page.

–I can’t see any voice there.

–That’s because you haven’t learned how.

–Learning isn’t about seeing, it’s about doing. Someone taught me once how to count with tally marks. That’s useful. It lets me do things. But why do I want to see new things? Even if that were possible! Maybe reading is useful, though I don’t see how; but don’t pretend you’re reading something. You’re just reading.

–With the help of the book!

–If marked-up paper helps you read, fine, but I don’t see why you need it. I usually count things in my head.


–When you want to know what’s in someone else’s head, how do you do it?

–Well there’s a brain in his head, everyone knows that.

–Oh, so when you count things in your head, you just count your brain over and over?

–What? No?

–Or maybe count things in your brain: how many neural nets do you have, and so on?

–No, I mean I count things with my head, or at least not with anything else; I don’t know, it’s just an expression.


–What’s your point?

–When you count things with your head, it would be nice if I could count them with your head too, instead of mine (which would be a waste of energy); but I’m not quite sure how to do so; but if you could count it with paper, instead of with your head, then I could count it with that paper too. That’s reading. Or we can count it with your voice, and that’s talking.

–Let’s say you’re right. Still, what’s the point?

–Simple: it makes my world bigger, becuase it makes your world mine. Or the world of whoever wrote the book I read.

–But what if no one wrote it? What, do you just assume? Look at these scuff marks on the floor. Someone made them here accidentally. They look like they might be those things you call “letters.” But who wrote them? Whose world do they give you?

–Well, sure, like looks a bit like “AT”. But it isn’t, and so, sure, I could read it, but I don’t , or, at least, don’t pay attention to it.

–But how do you know? Maybe someone put them there on purpose. Or maybe your book was an accident. Or a lie!

–Yes, it’s possible, but how often do books happen by accident? If someone’s lying, on the other hand, I might be tricked for a while, but they’ll be found out eventually.

–Who says?

–Well, if they’re lying, it must be for a reason. Either they’ll decide it was a bad reason, and ‘fess up; or they’ll achieve their goal, and we’ll see what their motives were, and realize they were lying. This won’t catch every lie, but it’ll catch all the lies that matter.

–What if they lie for no real reason?

–Why would they do that?

–Well, right. But they might do it just for fun, just because they want to have no reason; they want to be free.

–So we’re back to the book happening by accident.

–Well… I suppose so.

–Such a book could not be very long.

–Probably not, but how long is long, anyway?

–Fair point. The problem isn’t with reaching any particular length, I suppose: it’s that the accident couldn’t go on. Nothing would count. The writer would have to write as if each word had nothing to do with what came before, or was to come after, since even internal consistency isn’t actually internal: the words would be borrowed from outside. So the result wouldn’t be deceptive, it would be nonsense. Dust in the wind.

–All very interesting, but accidents do happen. So say one does. Lo and behold, a book formed out of the dust.

–But why call it an accident, if it doesn’t look like one?

–If it’s not an accident, who did it?

–The dust.

–But the dust isn’t alive!

–If it were able to make a book, why wouldn’t we call it alive?

–But it’s not as if the dust knows how to talk!

–Not a problem. Clearly, after writing the book, it died.

–But this is absurd!

–You posed the hypothetical, I’m just filling in the blanks. If it helps, imagine that it took a few billion years for the dust to write the book, and that it did some other stuff in the meantime (accidentally, of course) and it should sound less odd.

–Huh? You’d almost convinced me there were reading, and now you say there’s not even living, it’s all just one big accident!

–No, you said that. I said the dust lived, and read. Because on the hypothetical, that’s all just true.

–What do you mean by true? I can see, I guess, how calling it that is useful…

–It’s useful because it’s true. Or close to it, perhaps. We use words to affect the world, or to affect other words, and their use is how they get their meaning. We also say how we use them, and if what they mean and what we say match up, they’re true, or at least truthful. True if the use holds up. But I’m getting ahead of myself; I hadn’t meant to spin a grand theory of meaning.

–Let’s go back to the hypothetical them. Of what use in the hypothetical is a word like “alive”?

–Well, I suppose I should say that, if I ever encountered dust that wrote, I should treat it as alive, not as an accident. Alive is what I am, you are, the dog is, the scuff marks are not.

–So whether you’re speaking truly or not depends on whether this is how the hypothetical plays out? So how can we know?

–Well, sure, we can only check if it actually comes to pass.

–Who’s this we?

–Everyone, I suppose: you, me, everyone who reads (or talks), past, present, future.

–And hypothetical? Shouldn’t they get a say?

–Hypothetically, I suppose… but not actually. Actually, you and I are having ours now, the past has already had its, the future will have its soon enough. So nothing is quite true, yet, since we’re not done using the words, yet. They can be at least truthful if they at least fit with what I use them for; but I can’t know just yet if they’ll stand the test of time.

–This all sounds very vague and mystical. But I don’t think it’s even coherent. I can count with your voice because I can make you show me how you did it. But the dust is completely different. Once the dust is, as you called it, “dead,” it can’t tell me how to read its book. And the same with all the other books. It’s absurd to say that the dust is still counting with the book, so I can still borrow its counting, if there’s no longer any dust there to count with it.

–Why does it have to still be counting? The point is that it counted. Sure, there’s a difference between a live speaker and a dead one. But sometimes living speakers refuse to answer the questions we put to them, especially if we put too many. So I still have to make it count myself. Even if it’s your voice, I can’t make you do it for me. I can make you do the easy work, marking a tally for each crumb you see, but I still have to mean these tallies together with these crumbs: I have to use them, and say how I use them, and hope they work. I can do this as long as the tally marks last; or, if I’m worried about it, I can let them echo into my head, or into a book of my own. But they’d still be yours, even if they were the last thing you made your own.

–Sounds like more mysticism. So am I dead whenever I don’t count? Then I’ve only rarely been alive!

–You’ve never counted with a book, but you’ve counted with your head, and my voice! You’ve just refused to admit it. Admit it: you don’t like reading because it reminds you of yourself.

–I don’t like reading because it destroys people’s lives. They’re perfectly good people, have a job, their health, they eat, drink, are merry; then they learn to read, and next thing you know they’re depressed, emaciated, frail and sickly, and spend all day in the library conversing with voices in their head, with their head, whatever.

–But why is that worse?

–It’s a kind of death! And they rarely even make books that will bring in money. As you would say, no one will even use their voice after they die, so they won’t live on.

–Oh no, me reading the dust’s book is not the dust living on. The dust is dead. It’s words live on, but it’s no longer using them. Using words: that’s life! What we’re doing right now. Much better than eating or drinking. Though of course without those things we’d die.

–But we talk about things! That’s what we carea about, not words!

–Certainly; by using words you don’t think I meant making noises and funny pictures and strange sensations, do you? Without things to use words on there’s no such thing as using them; and no use, no life.

–But if my words last after my death…

–And the things I used them on last too, remember…

–Then in what sense am I dead?

–Well, I can put my words to no real uses. The words are still there, and the things I did with them, but the doing is over and done with. Though there can be echoes. Other people can use my words. But they’re not me.

–Why not?

–Well… hm… because, I suppose, it’s impossible for me to use my words in union with everyone else. In harmony, maybe, but not in union. There’s always dissonance. Though I suppose there’s also always dissonance in how I use my words myself… I might be more than one speaker myself… but “I” names one bundle of speakers, “we” another. All the parts of “I” agree they’re part of “I,” however little else they agree on. But no one knows quite who’s included in “we.”

–Uh… huh. That’s very cryptic. But it sounds as if you’re saying that I, we, whatever, are a divided substance, not different objects.


–That’s crazy! Whatever I am, I have to be this body here, not that one there, or the space between. And I have to be alive the way a dog is alive, not the way a piece of a paper is: because a piece of paper isn’t!

–But the link between our words and our deeds is immaterial. Sure, the things and words linked will tend to cluster around your body, or mine, or wherever, but we’re like adjacent mountains: distinct, but how to tell where one ends and one begins?

–So we’re just peaks on the surface of world-world-using Us, a conglomeration of word-deed associations. Facets of the world soul?


–I don’t think I buy it. But as long as the reading can be at the service of eating and drinking…

–Servant sounds wrong. Language is a grand, royal enterprise, it uses food and drink to give itself a subject matter, not for food or drink’s own sake. But food and drink are elevated by it, and we too; and though we will never see it, from the view of eternity, we will always have been but the words that language speaks…!

[ be continued...]

* * *

[1]: The question is not explicitly addressed within the dialogue. But, in essence, you should read Wittgenstein because these are the kinds of thoughts, and the forms of thinking, that Wittgenstein makes possible. Without abandoning true rigor, he reveals the failures of methodological rigidity, and lays bare the dialogical, grammatical underpinnings of our world.

[2]: I am not Alice, nor am I Bob, nor am I Wittgenstein, nor are any of these persons any other but themselves. If the dialogue goes a bit off the rails near the end, I attribute that to the dialogue becoming less a dialogue, and more a pair of overlapping monologues: Bob is something of an atheist, Alice a pantheist, and at a certain point, they begin speaking past each other, agreeing with only the most incoherent parts of one another’s thought. Wittgenstein, I think it safe to say, was neither; he opposed reductionism and mysticism both. He does consider the “us” to be of vital importance, but unfortunately has little to say about what constitutes it.

[2]: For the previous week I had been in Oxford for a John Henry Newman seminar. Hence much of this dlalogue is Newmanian as well as Wittgensteinian; but the two have much in common. On the whole, I would call it Wittgensteinian, especially since I did not get around to talking about Christianity at all.

[4]: Approx. 2600 words over approx. 2 hours is approx. 20 words per minute, which is approx. the average speed at which the average person can write longhand when copying from a text in front of them. In other words, I was not thinking so much as writing out loud. I would not call this inspiration, but rather a failure to self-edit.

Congressional intentions

July 28, 2014

I don’t usually say much here about politics. But because I’ve already written about the philosophical implications of the Hobby Lobby case, I figure I should also address the most recent ACA ruling. For the typical conservative response to the latter may, at first glance, seem to contradict its response to the former. After all, “Hobby Lobby can have religious freedom” and “Congress cannot have intentions” at first sight translates into “Corporations are persons, governments are not”–a position, alas, no more coherent than its contrary. If collective action is possible, shouldn’t it be possible in all cases?

I don’t think the conservative position necessarily entails a contradiction, but it does, again, seem to me that conservatives aren’t doing a very good job defending themselves against the charge. Consider some of the reasons conservatives give for the impossibility of Congressional intentions:

More generally, what Arrow showed is that group choice (aggregation) is not like individual choice.

Suppose that a person is rational and that we observe their choices. After some time we will come to understand their choices in terms of their underlying preferences (assume stability–this is a thought experiment).  We will be able to say, “Ah, I see what this person wants. I understand now why they are choosing in the way that they do.  If I were them, I would choose in the same way.”

Arrow showed that when a group chooses, there are no underlying preferences to uncover–not even in theory. In one sense, the theorem is trivial. We know or should always have known that a group doesn’t have preferences anymore than a group smiles. What Arrow showed, however, is that without invoking special cases we can’t even rationalize group choices as if leviathan had preferences. Put differently, the only leviathan that rationalizes group choice has the preferences of a madman.

A nice result, in theory–indeed the mathematics behind it is well worth looking into. But when it comes to practical application, it has two gaping holes, neither of which should come as a surprise:

  1. Individuals persons are not entirely rational, and not only are their preferences unstable, but they are only sometimes even coherent. Having “the preferences of a madman” is not particular to groups.
  2. Corporate action is a kind of group action, and it can be rationalized just as easily as individual action. Groups need not always have “the preferences of a madman.”

So if Congressional intentions are impossible, it cannot be a result of the nature of group choice: reasonable Republics are not less possible than reasonable philosophers. Rather, it must have something to do with how Congress, in particular, makes decisions. To make explicit the allusion to Plato, it will have something to do with how democracy really means the rule of that thousand-headed Hydra, the passions.

How does Congress make its decisions?

Consider a king–he need not even be mad; perhaps he seeks a kind of democracy–who gives the following order: “Go to the place where three roads meet. For each person that passes by, record a dash if they’re on road one; a dot if on road two; and a blank if on road three. Using Morse code, translate the result of this into English, and treat it as the law of the land.” This process, miraculously, produces a legible document; produces, in fact, the ACA. In the course of enacting the new law, however, an ambiguity arises regarding whether subsidies are available for insurance purchased on federal exchanges, or whether they are limited to insurance purchased on state exchanges.

Is speculating as to how the king would have rewritten the law, had he known of the ambiguity, the best way to resolve it? Surely not. Does the king lack the ability to have reasons, or to intend things? Again, surely not.

Democratically enacted laws–however much it might pain patriotic Americans–are analogous to the result of such a process. We can, of course, inquire into the causes of certain lines of the ACA having the shape they do–for example, asking why the authors drafted the law the way they did, or why certain representatives voted the way they did– but this is akin to asking why the relevant persons were travelling the relevant roads at the relevant times, or to asking why each head of the random-like Hydra was inclined in the direction it was inclined. It would have nothing to do with the king’s reasons for giving the order he did, and it would tell us nothing about how the result of the Hydra’s writhing ought to be interpreted.

Interpretation is, however, necessary, for practical reasons: the ambiguities must be resolved. The best way to do so would be to ask the king how he wants it resolved–and this is entirely different from speculating as to how he would have answered such a question. The king may, however, refuse to clarify the law, yet without repealing it; and this would throw us back to the problem, only tangentially related to the problem of group intentions, of how to interpret a piece of writing which has been, not murdered, but orphaned.


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