Skip to content

Forgive me, God, this sin of speech

February 23, 2015

(— vergebe mir Gott
diese Sprachsünde!…)
–Friedrich Nietzsche, Dionysos-Dithyramben, “Unter Töchtern der Wüste”


Cliche the first: “Never talk about politics or religion.”

Cliche the second: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

Being cliches, of course, both are entirely true, and both are entirely misleading.



The first: Don’t talk about politics and religion, we assume, because they’re controversial. They’ll start arguments. Because talking about sports won’t? Or about the latest gossip?

The second: Talk about ideas, we assume, because they’re what matter. They’re not frivolous. Unlike the present state of the world we live in? Or who’s a good person, and who isn’t?



The second:

Because talking about people, unless you’re contemplating an interaction with one of them, is nothing more than gossip, a way to reassure yourself that your network of various acquaintances really does hang together, really does coalesce into a social sphere; and most of the time, people are neither good nor bad enough to demand an ethical response.

Because talking about events, unless you’re contemplating a response to one of them, is just news, a way of marking the flow of time and your place in it, your place on the outlined path of life, or on this or that side of history; and most of the time, the events we hear about don’t actually call for us to do anything except not pretend like they didn’t happen.

And because talking about ideas, unless you’re contemplating changing your mind on one of them, is nothing more than self-congratulation, a way of reminding yourself that your opinions are (in your opinion) correct; but there no time like the present to stop thinking that what is not, is, and that what is, is not; and to start thinking that what is, is, and what is not, is not.

The first:

Because not everyone realizes that it’s pointless to talk about politics and religion if you’re not trying to change your mind.

And because, even if you do realize, it’s still the case that trying to change your mind is difficult, and it’s not polite to force other people to do difficult things for which they haven’t volunteered.


This applies, of course, not only to politics and religion, but to all ideas that matter.

It doesn’t apply to talk about science in the sense of natural history, which, as the name suggests, is really a form of news. They discovered a new kind of dinosaur! They put a man on the moon! How exciting to live in such times! Nor does it apply to talk about artistic preferences, which is just a form of gossip, talking about people synecdochally, by talking about the things the people have made. This kind of talk isn’t idea-talk at all.

But it does apply to talk about science in the sense of natural philosophy, and to talk about artistic judgments, in the Kantian sense.Neither of these kinds of idea-talk are controversial in the slightest. It just doesn’t make sense to engage in controversy about quantum mechanics, or algebraic topology, or the effect achieved by a particular poetic meter. I can teach you something about (say) QM, or I can learn from you, or we can be confused about it together, but as soon as we start arguing about who’s right (rather than trying to see who’s right), we’re no longer talking about QM at all, we’re just expressing (say) our wish that the many-worlds interpretation of QM be false because it being true would be bad for our preferred side in the wars of ir/religion. Such conversations, despite surface appearances, have nothing to do with the ideas supposedly in question. We might say the same, for that matter, of actual political and religious ideas, unlike political and religious cheerleading.

No, these ideas aren’t controversial; rather, they’re a bit dull, for those who don’t find them fascinating, and are difficult, even for those who love them. To the student, when there is a student, the remarks of the teacher in conversations about natural philosophy verge on gobbledygook, and in conversations about artistic judgments verge on the utterly vapid. When there’s not a student–that is, when there’s not a teacher, when neither conversant knows what ought to be said next–it doesn’t feel like meeting someone at a party and trading the names of bands you like; it feels like being called on in class and not knowing what to say, and like listening to someone else when they’re called on and they don’t know what to say. Awkward, unsatisfying, aimless.

And when the student finally learns the lesson, and both parties in the conversation know what to say when? At this point nothing remains to be said. They’re left to contemplate in silence.

A strange way, this, to spend your leisure hours. But if it isn’t what you want to do, just gossip and read the news. Don’t talk about “politics and religion.”

King all dressed in red

February 17, 2015

After re-watching The Wire last year, I recently begun watching David Simon’s next serial effort, Treme, (yes, I’m several years late).

I’ll admit, I expected it to be something like The Wire: New Orleans. But it’s–well, perhaps not more than that, or less, but certainly other. I’d recommend Treme (or at least the first season, which is all I’ve seen) to anyone fascinated by The Wire‘s bleak portrait of the modern city… but, perhaps even more so, to anyone interested in New Orleans jazz, or in the meaning of artistic performance and improvisation more generally.


Is it surprising for the creator of the supposedly hyper-realistic The Wire to make a show about such recondite subject matter? Nevertheless, Treme does seem to me a true sequel to The Wire, and watching it has brought out for me just how inadequate the term “realistic” is as a description of what The Wire accomplishes.

We could put it this way. The Wire offers a comprehensive vision of what it is to live in Baltimore, that is, to be a human being in the modern city: cops and drug dealers (season 1), and longshoremen (2), and politicians (3), and public schools (4), and newspapers (5), are all enslaved to Moloch, god of misaligned incentives. Either they act as the systems of the world bid them act, and live successful, meaningless lives; or they try to buck the system and do meaningful work, and are destroyed. Treme takes that vision for granted, and asks a further question. For those living in a heavily musical neighborhood in post-Katrina New Orleans, a neighborhood full of professional jazz players and street performers and high-end chefs: what does all this artistic activity signify, in the face of the utter devastation New Orleans suffered when the levees broke? That is: what has “pure” art, art without any practical object, to do with the world of Moloch? Is the escape it offers true or false?

Given all the heady interpretations attached to improvisational jazz by those who would see in it the proper artistic response to late-modern atomization and loss of traditional meaning, it makes perfect sense that Simon would take New Orleans as the setting for a show answering such a question. “New Orleans,” in the world of this show, is the name given to the belief that art can save. Not just a name, of course–an atmosphere. Several minutes of every episode are devoted to watching the characters play music. These aren’t just music videos; the point seems to be for us to recognize the presence (or absence) of what Auden (in “Sext”) calls “that eye-on-the-object look,” the look of total absorption in an action, the look that shows the artists are “forgetting themselves in a function.”

The irony, of course, is that, as one watches, one inevitably wonders: are the actors really playing the music here, or are they only pretending to play music? And so, by a strange transference, one wonders about the characters: is this life they live, this life of absorption in music, only a pretense? And so “New Orleans” becomes a name also for pretense; for the kind of decadent Catholicism the city is so well known for, a Catholicism of surface aesthetics only, with no content underneath. This life of pretense is the perpetual fear of every religion of art–until it is finally embraced. Treme so far at least has not quite embraced it, nor condemned it utterly; it seems more interested in examining its every facet, and searching for what in it might be worth saving.


While I do think this way of describing the series is accurate, it necessarily leaves out much, including the specific racial and economic tensions that complicate New Orleans life. This is all, of course, fascinating, just like The Wire‘s attention to detail. But, though there’s always more to be said, as an introduction to Treme this will have to do.

Since I have it stuck in my head at the moment, (and indeed it was the proximate cause for writing this post), I’ll end with a performance of “Iko Iko” from the 1950s. “Iko Iko” is one of the pieces of “classic New Orleans music” that shows up throughout the show. It’s not, though it might at first sound like it, a nonsense song; it’s about one of the more obscure New Orleans Mardi Gras traditions, the “Mardi Gras Indians.”

Happy Fat Tuesday.

Who would dare interrupt

February 9, 2015

There’s a curious moment in Book VI of Augustine’s Confessions where he describes a visit he made to Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, to ask for his advice. Ambrose had no door blocking the entrance to his study, and Augustine simply walked in, only to find Ambrose reading:

Now, as he read, his eyes glanced over the pages and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent. Often when we came to his room–for no one was forbidden to enter, nor was it his custom that the arrival of visitors should be announced to him–we would see him thus reading to himself. After we had sat for a long time in silence–for who would dare interrupt one so intent?–we would then depart, realizing that he was unwilling to be distracted in the little time he could gain for the recruiting of his mind, free from the clamor of other men’s business.

A lovely description of perhaps the first recorded act of silent reading. But what does it mean? Despite Augustine’s obvious desire to portray Ambrose in as positive a light as possible, the behavior he describes doesn’t seem particularly charitable. So why mention it at all?

Well, maybe Augustine felt obliged to defend Ambrose against a criticism that had already been leveled against him. Or maybe silent reading really was a novelty whose historical importance Augustine realized. But if we go looking for a less deflationary explanation, it’s easy enough to find; just compare Augustine’s description, in Book IV, of the reason why grief fades with the passage of time:

This is the way of things. This is the lot thou hast given them, because they are part of things which do not all exist at the same time, but by passing away and succeeding each other they all make up the universe, of which they are all parts. For example, our speech is accomplished by sounds which signify meanings, but a meaning is not complete unless one word passes away, when it has sounded its part, so that the next may follow after it. Let my soul praise thee, in all these things, O God, the Creator of all; but let not my soul be stuck to these things by the glue of love, through the senses of the body. For they go where they were meant to go, that they may exist no longer.

And he goes on to wonder, not only why he failed to understand this at the time, but why he still fails to understand it:

Why then, my perverse soul, do you go on following your flesh? Instead, let it be converted so as to follow you. Whatever you feel through it is but partial. You do not know the whole, of which sensations are but parts; and yet the parts delight you. But if my physical senses had been able to comprehend the whole–and had not as a part of their punishment received only a portion of the whole as their own province–you would then desire that whatever exists in the present time should also pass away so that the whole might please you more. For what we speak, you also hear through physical sensation, and yet you would not wish that the syllables should remain. Instead, you wish them to fly past so that others may follow them, and the whole be heard. Thus it is always that when any single thing is composed of many parts which do not coexist simultaneously, the whole gives more delight than the parts could ever do perceived separately. But far better than all this is He who made it all. He is our God and he does not pass away, for there is nothing to take his place.

So the world is like a sentence (spoken, presumably, by God); and to hold on too tightly to any one object within it, would be like interrupting the speaker mid-sentence because you wished he had not moved on from a word you liked. Or, what is the same thing, would be like paying no attention to the rest of the sentence because the sound of a word sent you into a reverie.

Perhaps no one can listen with complete attention to the entirety of God’s world. But when reading the Scriptures, at least, Ambrose knows how to pass silently, without rhetorical distraction, from the syllables to the sense, in a way that makes it unthinkable to interrupt him. No wonder Augustine admired him most of all his teachers.

The organ draft

February 2, 2015

[Or, the perpetual war on death]

Imagine, (as a student of mine led me to do during our discussion of Aristotle), a society in which all citizens–perhaps on the eighteenth birthday–are required to register for compulsory organ and tissue donation. Kidneys, livers, and lungs; blood and bone marrow; anything that you can donate to another person while still alive, the government can compel you to donate. Not everyone will end up donating–the world doesn’t need millions of unused kidneys sitting in organ banks–but if you get selected (at random), then the government sends you a letter saying that you’ve been called upon to give John Smith [or whoever] your kidney [liver, etc]; and then, either you show up at the hospital (and either donate or demonstrate your inability to do so), or you’re punished (somehow or another).

Let’s not worry about whether our society could be made to accept such a system. It may seem unlikely–most of my students, for example, recoiled in horror from the prospect–but then, lots of things make people recoil, then end up happening. Organ markets, for example, strike people as dehumanizing–bodies made into commodities–but they’re nevertheless emerging around the world. So let’s worry instead about whether such a society, however it came about, would be desirable.


How would a society with such a system understand itself?

My student compared this system to a tax, but it’s really more comparable to jury duty, or, even better, to a military draft. The burden is not distributed evenly, nor quite randomly (e.g. people with certain blood types will be more likely to end up actually having to donate); and the burden is quite high, costing a great deal of physical distress and, in some cases, death (organ donation may be safe, but it will probably never be as safe as not donating at all). It seems likely, then, that the society would think about the system, not the way we think of taxes: as a rule we follow because there are consequences to not doing so; but the way we thought of the draft, back when we had it: as a call it was honorable to answer.

An organ-drafting society would probably not look kindly on one like our own, in which organs are only donated voluntarily, and (so) in which people tend to receive organs only if someone loves them enough to volunteer. Being willing to donate organs only to loved ones, but not for the common good, would seem like being willing to die for one’s family, but not for one’s country. It would seem barbaric, akin to a society without the rule of law, in which you were protected from wrongs only to the extent that you were friends with someone powerful enough to protect you. And organ markets would seem akin to a society ruled by those able to hire the largest army.


We no longer have a military draft in this country, and most arguments leveled against the draft could also be leveled against organ conscription. But these arguments aren’t so powerful as to make military conscription untenable–we had it for a long time, and most European countries still have it–and neither, I suspect, would they be enough to make an organ-drafting society immediately fall to pieces.

The most obvious objection to either kind of draft is to equate it with slavery: what right does the state have to tell me what I must do? In its simplest form, however, this objection is too strong. It would render unethical any form of taxation whatsoever, at which point the modern state as we know it becomes impossible. If we’re not willing to go this far, we might try to make a distinction between my property and my body, and say that the state has a right to the one, but not to the other, presumably because your body is the seat of your personhood. But if the state were to take away all your transferable property, you would be unable to go on living. And, conversely, you can go on living while donating part of your body: that’s what makes this thought experiment possible. So the distinction doesn’t seem perfectly clear.


This is highly speculative, but I think the real force of this objection is that an organ draft doesn’t seem compatible with our own society’s sense of the boundaries of the person, which is to say, the boundaries surrounding the “pursuit of happiness” (that formulation, when understood in Aristotelian fashion, being more clear than Locke’s “property”). Slavery is objectionable because it makes the slave’s life not his own, and (so) makes it impossible for his life to be a good one. A society with an organ draft would have to see a person’s organs as in some sense not (only) his own, which disturbs us.

Would this really be so invasive as to put obstacles in the way of living a good life? The boundaries we put around our selves are flexible. There is a growing sense in our society, for example, that there is no acceptable level of externally imposed risk: that any risk whatsoever should be seen as a violation of one’s person, of one’s personal pursuit of happiness, for which one is entitled to seek reparations. The abolition of the military draft seems to me a related development: the draft implied, in a way that became intolerable, that a risk to one’s society could always be validly transformed into a risk to oneself. Is this world of atomized individualism really better than one in which the body of the people was a little less metaphorical? I’m not sure it is. After all, the state must itself be a good one in order for true happiness to be possible.

Whatever answer we want to give here, it seems clear that the issue is not so clear that another society could not arrive at a different one.


Other objections to either kind of draft invoke possible difficulties the draft would face, problems which supposedly make it impossible to enact fairly. For example, people worry that others will game the system: You have to grant exemptions to e.g. sick people, whom it would be useless to draft anyway; but then won’t people pretend to be sick? And you “have to” grant exemptions to conscientious objectors; but then won’t people adopt “conscientious” objections for pragmatic reasons? With an organ draft, there would also be problems on the receiving end: Are there limits on how many organs people can receive? If not, won’t some people stop taking their health seriously, knowing they can always get another liver if their own fails? If so, won’t that be unfair to people who through sheer bad luck end up needing multiple donations?

But none of these need to be given a definitive answer, but only a “good enough” solution. Yes, draft-dodging and other forms of system-gaming will happen here and there, but if the society as a whole views the draft as a good thing, there will be social pressure against dodging, and the system will basically work, despite failing occasionally. These edge cases only become real problems when (as in the Vietnam War in this country) the very purpose of the draft was called into question. In the case of the organ draft, why would it be? Surely saving people’s lives through organ donation is a more noble cause than going to war….


Perhaps the best objection to an organ draft would focus on this difference between its purpose and the purpose of a military draft: a military draft, while perhaps causing discomfort if it’s enforced in peacetime, will only entail any real risk, or any serious imposition on one’s body, in time of war, which is–or ought to be–the exception. In a society that does not go to war habitually, the military conscript knows that he is risking his life because his country needs him now, and he will understand his behavior in wartime as oriented towards making that behavior no longer necessary, at which point he will resume the business of trying to live a good life. (As Aristotle says, “We make war that we may live in peace.”) The organ conscript cannot see it this way: his donating a kidney today does nothing to reduce the need for his neighbor to donate a kidney tomorrow. Not only does it not make his life happier, but it also does not contribute to making his society more conducive to happiness. This lack of an end goal may make the imposition somehow less tolerable. Compare the military draft’s unpopularity during the Vietnam War, and how it stemmed, in part, from the sense that the war was not going anywhere, and was not going away.

And yet–

First, though we now believe that war is, or ought to be, the exception, this was not always so. The paradigmatic happy life noawadays may not involve warfare (and this is part of what we mean when we say warfare ought to be the exception), but in a traditional warrior culture (the Greece of Homer, not of Aristotle), it did. So there is nothing inherent in how the organ draft imposes on one’s body that makes it incompatible with a happy life; and, thus, nothing that makes it inherently objectionable for it to be normal, rather than exceptional.

Second, though the organ draft in general appears endless–a perpetual war on death–in the specific case the end is very clear: you’re helping whomever you’ve been drafted to help. When the process is over, someone who was sick is now well. This makes the organ draft even more like the traditional warrior culture. In such a culture, war (like the Vietnam war) does not go away, but (unlike the Vietnam war) each individual battle has very clear stakes: if you’re defending your home and lose, your home gets destroyed; if you’re going on a raid and win, you bring home your enemy’s possessions; and these clear stakes make the perpetuity of war less of an issue.

This might save the organ draft as well–so long as the conscripts can be brought to feel they’ve accomplished something when they sacrifice their bodies to benefit a random John Smith. Can this be done? I think people have more doubts on this matter than they should; emotions are easy to manipulate. Should it be done? That’s a more difficult question.

Sad to remember, sick with years

January 26, 2015

[Vaguely listening for a half-remembered theme.]

Three brief anecdotes.

1. In the early 1760s, the Scottish poet James Macpherson published a number of “Fragments of ancient poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic or Erse language,” which he eventually collected in the 1765 The Works of Ossian, named after the epic cycle’s putative author. “Ossian”‘s poetry was immensely successful, greatly influencing numerous Romantic poets like Walter Scott, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Johann Gottfriend Herder, as well as numerous painters and composers. Many others, including Samuel Johnson, disputed the works’ authenticity, and the consensus nowadays seems to be that The Works of Ossian were really the works of Macpherson, although based loosely–“inspired,” perhaps–on various Scottish Gaelic ballads. Ossian doesn’t attract much interest nowadays, except as a curiosity.

2. In 1958, the Italian musicologist Remo Giazotto published an “Adagio in G Minor for Strings and Organ, on Two Thematic Ideas and on a Figured Bass by Tomaso Albinoni,” a lesser-known Baroque composer. The piece has been wildly popular ever since its publication, showing up on the soundtracks of numerous films, and in compilations with titles like “50 greatest pieces of classical music”. Though originally credited as “composed by Albinoni, arranged by Giazotto,” the piece was not, Giazotto eventually admitted, written by Albinoni at all; rather, Giazotto reconstructed the piece based on a few bars of a melody and basso continuo found in a manuscript fragment. Doubts lingered as to whether even this story was true, until (after Giazotto’s death) an independent transcription of the lines from Albinoni was discovered, apparently confirming Giazotto’s account.

3. In 2014, a friend of mine entered an “atelier,” i.e. an art school seeking to revive the nineteenth century Academic tradition (think the illusionistic naturalism of William-Adolphe Bouguereau). His training includes meticulously copying other drawings and paintings and working from a live model. Excellence in painting in such places is associated with such things as “the highest standards of draftsmanship,” “discipline gleaned from careful study,” and “practical application,” and opposed to things such as being enslaved to “intuition” and lacking “direction, clarity, and purpose.” Needless to say, traditional ateliers are highly eccentric by the lights of the contemporary art world, their numbers seem, if anything, to be growing. Many of these people do manage to sell paintings; some of them, apparently, even make a living doing so.


A fourth anecdote.

4. Stanley Cavell once (in “Music Discomposed”) asked the question “Why can’t one still write like Mozart?”, and suggested this answer:

No one does now write that way. But perhaps somebody does, living at the edge of an obscure wood, by candlelight, with a  wig on. What would our response to him be? We wouldn’t take him seriously as an artist? Nobody could mean such music now, be sincere in making it? And yet I’ve been insisting that we can no longer be sure that any artist is sincere–we haven’t convention or technique or appeal to go on any longer: anyone could fake it.

Modernism, for Cavell, means no longer being sure what criteria we have for knowing what is “authentic” art and what isn’t. In other words, modernism means no longer being sure what, if anything, art, and our calling it “art,” is good for. If we knew what it was for, we would be able to tell (even if the telling took some time) when it succeeded, and when it didn’t.


The existence of people like Macpherson, Giazotto, my friend the painter, is a symptom of artistic modernity. In other words, none is imaginable in an artistic world that is pre-modern in Cavell’s sense. Each in his own way instantiates Cavell’s would-be-Mozart, and each in his own way demonstrates that we can and do take such people seriously as artists–whatever that means. They tell us nothing, however, about whether we should. Should we?

Well, surely the answer will have more to do with the particulars of the case than with the birds-eye-view observation that he’s trying to resurrect an “antiquated” form. Does it matter how, exactly, the desire for past greatness finds expression? Perhaps–there are differences between deceiving your audience, misleading your audience, and creating your own counter-audience. Does it matter whether its poetry, music, or painting? Perhaps–to take someone seriously as a poet, a composer, and a painter, needn’t be the same thing. Does it matter that one is made by a friend, one a piece I like, and one I’ve never read? Perhaps–apart from half-remembered doctrines of artistic “impersonality,” why think that it’s desirable, or even possible, to make artistic judgments abstracted away from the particulars of your own life?


A fifth.

5. W.B. Yeats, in his youth, wrote a poem called “The Wanderings of Oisin” (Oisin being Ossian before his name was Anglicized). It’s full of the pagan spirit of the (eighteen) nineties, the sense that, whatever beauty was once in the world, it has faded like a dream, and all art can do is recall its memory with intricate spells and decadent harmonies:

Sad to remember, sick with years,
The swift innumerable spears,
The horsemen with their floating hair,
And bowls of barley, honey, and wine,
Those merry couples dancing in tune,
And the white body that lay by mine;
But the tale, though words be lighter than air.
Must live to be old like the wandering moon.

Oisin speaks these lines, and in his mouth they mean that the memory of happy youth finds its consolation in the recounting of that youth. The spears, the horsemen, the bowls, the couples, the body: these things are rediscovered as the tale is retold.

Yeats, too, however, speaks these lines, and in his mouth they have a very different meaning. He finds it sad to remember, not the spears and horsemen themselves–Yeats, born in 1865, never knew a world with traditional mounted warfare–but the “spears,” the “horsemen,” the “body”: the fact that poetry could once, without self-deception, speak of such things. Once we knew what art was for: glorying in the swift innumerable spears; now, sick with the weight of innumerable years, and with the failure of art to fulfill any of the messianic prophecies it made for itself, we have no use for it but to remind ourselves that art was once possible. Thus Yeats.


Today, it is far from obvious that there is anything–even itself–that art is good for.

The virtuous mean and the error rate

January 19, 2015

Virtue, then, is a habit involving deliberate choice, consisting in a mean relative to us and determined by reason as the practically wise person would determine it. It is a mean between two vices, one of excess, the other of deficiency. (1106b-7a)

The humanities class which I’m TAing for is currently reading the Nicomachean Ethics, and we’re about to get to Aristotle’s “doctrine of the mean.” The doctrine of the mean baffled me when I read the Ethics as an undergraduate, and I’ve only recently, I think, begun to understand it; my interpretation, however, is highly speculative, so I’m a bit hesitant to share it with my students; but it’s interesting enough, I think, to be worth posting here.


To begin with a question: how many ways are there to lack a virtue?

We might think that there are two: being excessive, and being deficient. And we might think that this is because, in any given situation, there is an excessive response, a deficient response, and a correct response. On this supposition, it is impossible to act both cowardly and foolhardily because it’s impossible to run away from a battle and charge out in front of the phalanx at the same time. Well, that certainly is impossible, but not every situation has an excessive and a deficient response available.When courage requires one to lay down one’s life, what would it mean to respond excessively? And if not every situation offers a spectrum of possible responses, on which the proper one is in some sense in the middle, what sense does it make to talk of a mean? This was the confusion over which I stumbled in undergraduate.

The solution to this difficulty is to recognize that it is not the response to any given situation which ought to be a mean, but the actor’s virtue, that is, his habit. The virtuous habit does not seek the mean; rather, it should itself be a mean between two possible extreme habits. The virtue of courage governs, among other things, when to take risky actions, and it should be a mean between taking them too often and taking them not often enough.


This means that we can view a “habit involving deliberate choice” as something like an subconscious test of whether or not to Φ. This test returning false positives, i.e. inclining me to Φ when I ought not to Φ, is what Aristotle means when he refers to a habit being excessive. The rest returning false negatives, i.e. inclining me not to Φ when I ought to Φ, is what he means by a habit being deficient. The worst risk-related habit would be one that told me to take the risk either every time, or never; these would be like, respectively, a test for cancer that always said you had it, and a test for cancer that always said you were healthy. If you trusted either, it would have pretty bad consequences.

But almost all tests return both false positives and false negatives! And, when we consult our own experiences, isn’t the same true of habits? The world isn’t divided into people whose habits are always excessive and people whose habits are always deficient. Often I’ll find myself worrying that, in one situation, I had spoken too quickly, while at the same time wondering if, in another, I hadn’t been too slow. We are all cowardly and foolhardy, stingy and spendthrift.

Aristotle can easily acknowledge this; any particular vice can be characterized by both excess and deficiency, and we simply call it by that which characterizes it more strongly. After all, while most tests return both false negatives and false positives, most also lean one way or the other. For example, an easily administered test for cancer will have a lot of false positives and few false negatives, and we’ll use it to decide who should get more extensive screening. So a vicious excess is a habit that errs on the side of Φing (even if sometimes it errs by not Φing), while a vicious deficiency is one that errs on the side of not Φing (even if sometimes it errs by Φing). Someone who often fails to take a risk when he should, and who rarely takes a risk when he shouldn’t, we call cowardly, even though sometimes his behavior is foolhardy; and vice versa.


When we look at habits in terms of tests, we realize that they can do more than err on one side or another: they can fail to tend towards proper action at all.

Consider, along the lines discussed earlier, Alice who always Φs, and Bob who never Φs; and a new figure, Carol, who Φs as if by chance: one ought to Φ half the time, and she Φs half the time, but half of those times she should not do so, and half the time when she doesn’t Φ, she should. Half her positives are false, as well as half her negatives. Alice, Bob, and Carol are all vicious in different ways, but they all have something in common: their habits are totally worthless; they’re not just extraordinarily excessive, or extraordinarily deficient, or both, but it’s as if they don’t understand Φing at all.

This is not, however, to say that none of them have any thoughts about Φing. Alice seems to like it rather a lot, and Bob to rather dislike it; and Carol seems to think it has something to do with flipping a coin. It is to say, simply, that their thoughts have no correlation with ethical reality, as we understand it. None of them knows the first thing about when to Φ. Anyone teaching them virtue would have to start from scratch. Their are not simply vicious; their ethical habits are alien to our form of life.

So, to return to the original question, habits can fail to be virtuous, not only through excess and deficiency, but through being more or less aimless. A perfectly aimed habit would have an error rate of zero; a completely aimless habit would be the habit of a madman.

Lo the fair dead

January 12, 2015

Next week will see a return, finally, to our regularly scheduled programming.


I’ve recently picked up Ezra Pound’s Personae and begun reading through it. I’ve come across a number of worthy lyrics, but so far it’s the early poem “Threnos” that’s stuck with me. It’s something about the irregular rhythm of the repeated phrases, and the persistent negations, and the echoes of Dante’s hell of the lovers…. I take it to be something like a minimalist modernist revision of the Arthurian poems the Victorian period.

The subject matter, for those wondering, is the tragedy of Tristan and Iseult; “Tintagoel” is a variant spelling of Tintagel, the castle from which, “some say,” Iseult’s husband Mark ruled as king.

No more for us the little sighing.
No more the winds at twilight trouble us.

Lo the fair dead!

No more do I burn.

No more for us the fluttering of wings
That whirred in the air above us.

Lo the fair dead!

No more desire flayeth me,
No more for us the trembling
At the meeting of hands.

Lo the fair dead!

No more for us the wine of the lips,
No more for us the knowledge.
Lo the fair dead!

No more the torrent,
No more for us the meeting-place
(Lo the fair dead!)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 265 other followers