Thursday, February 18, 2010

Voltaire and the Earthquake

On All Saints' Day, November 1, 1755 a devastating earthquake hit Lisbon. It had a profound effect on philosophical leaders like Voltaire who wrote a lengthy poem about it.

In light of the recent disaster in Haiti, there may be some benefit to reflecting on the past. These websites have some stories to tell:

Thomas Vernon

Engines of our Ingenuity

Poetic Reactions

Political Mavens

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Cassandra Tropes and Truth

by Louise Bogan

To me, one silly task is like another.
I bare the shambling tricks of lust and pride.
This flesh will never give a child its mother,—
Song, like a wing, tears through my breast, my side,
And madness chooses out my voice again,
Again. I am the chosen no hand saves:
The shrieking heaven lifted over men,
Not the dumb earth, wherein they set their graves.

Cassandra and Truth in TV Tropes.

Friday, February 12, 2010

On Memorization

Cicero, Institutio Oratoria, Book II, VIII, 3.

For it is a better exercise for the memory to learn the words of others than it is to learn one's own, and those who have practised this far harder task will find no difficulty in committing to memory their own compositions with which they are already familiar.

Further, they will form an intimate acquaintance with the best writings, will carry their models with them and unconsciously reproduce the style of the speech which has been impressed upon the memory. They will have a plentiful and choice vocabulary and a command of artistic structure and a supply of figures which will not have to be hunted for, but will offer themselves spontaneously from the treasure-house, if I may so call it, in which they are stored.

In addition, they will be in the agreeable position of being able to quote the happy sayings of the various authors, a power which they will find most useful in the courts. For phrases which have not been coined merely to suit the circumstances of the lawsuit of the moment carry greater weight and often win greater praise than if they were our own.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good"

John Ruskin; The Stones of Venice (II, Chap 6)

. . . no good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art. This for two reasons, both based on everlasting laws. The first, that no great man ever stops working till he has reached his point of failure; that is to say, his mind is always far in advance of his powers of execution. . . . The second reason is, that imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Memoirs of Hadrian

Margaret Yourcenar, The Memoirs of Hadrian, p. 3.

My dear Marc,

Today I went to see my physician Hermogenes, who has just returned to the Villa from a rather long journey in Asia. No food could be taken before the examination, so we had made the appointment for the early morning hours. I took off my cloak and tunic and lay down on a couch.

I spare you details which would be as disagreeable to you as to me, the description of the body of a man who is growing old, and is about to die of a dropsical heart. Let us say that I coughed, inhaled, and held my breath according to Hermogenes' directions.

He was alarmed, in spite of himself, by the rapid progress of the disease, and was inclined to throw the blame on young Iollas, who has attended me during his absence.

It is difficult to remain an emperor in presence of a physician, and difficult even to keep one's essential quality as man. The professional eye saw in me only a mass of humors, a sory mixture of blood and lymph.

This morning it occurred to me for the first time that my body, my faithful companion and friend, truer and better known to me than my own soul, may be after all only a sly beast who will end by devouring his master. But enough. I like my body; it has served me well, and in every way, and I do not begrudge it the care it now needs.

I have no faith, however, as Hermogenes still claims to have, in the miraculous virtues of herbs, or the specific mixture of mineral salts which he went to the Orient to get. Subtle though he is, he has nevertheless offered me vague formulas of reassurance too trie to deceive anyone; he knows how I hate this kind of pretense, but a man does not practice medicine for more than thirty years without some falsehood. I forgive this good servitor his endeavor to hide my death from me.

Hermogenes is learned; he is even wise, and his integrity is well above that of the ordinary court physician. It will fall to my lot as a sick man to have the best of care. But no one can go beyond prescribed limits: my swollen limbs no longer sustain me through the long Roman ceremonies; I fight for breath; and I am now sixty.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Contra Vocational Education

A couple of thoughts against a mere vocational education:

"You are put to a stern choice. . . .You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men are not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them." -- John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice.

"I insist that the object of all true education is not to make men carpenters, it is to make carpenters men; there are two means of making the carpenter a man, each equally important: the first is to give the group and community in which he works, liberally trained teachers and leaders to teach him and his family what life means; the second is to give him sufficient intelligence and technical skill to make him an efficient workman . . ." W.E.B. DuBois, The Talented Tenth.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Benefit of Publishing One's Imperfections

Michel de Montaigne, On Friendship.

My defects are becoming natural and incorrigible, but as fine gentlemen serve the public as models to follow, I may serve a turn as a model to avoid . . .

The act of publishing and indicting my imperfections may teach someone how to fear them. (The talents which I most esteem in myself derive more honor from indicting me than praising me.) That is why I so often return to it and linger over it. Yet, when all has been said, you never talk about yourself without loss: condemn yourself and you are always believed -- praise yourself and you never are.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Leisure Preserving Tranquility

Seneca, On the Shortness of Life.

"Some take a break in the middle of the day and keep any less demanding task for the afternoon hours. Our ancestors also forbad any new motion to be introduced in the senate after the tenth hour. The army divides the watches, and those who are returning from an expedition are exempted from night duty. We must indulge the mind and from time to time allow it the leisure which is its food and strength. We must go for walks out of doors, so that the mind can be strengthened and invigorated by a clear sky and plenty of fresh air. At times it will acquire fresh energy from a journey by carriage and a change of scene, or from socializing and drinking freely.

"Occasionally, we should even come to the point of intoxication, sinking into drink but not being totally flooded by it; for it does wash away cares, and stirs the mind to its depths, and heals sorrow just as it heals certain diseases. Liber was not named because he loosens the tongue, but because he liberates the mind from its slavery to cares, emancipates it, invigorates it and emboldens it for all its undertakings. But there is a healthy moderation in wine, as in liberty. Solon and Arcesilas are thought to have liked their wine, and Cato has been accused of drunkenness; whoever accused him will more easily make the charge honorable than Cato disgraceful. But we must not do this often, in case the mind acquires a bad habit; yet at times it must be stimulated to rejoice without restraint and austere soberness must be banished for a while.

"For whether we agree with the Greek poet that 'Sometimes it is sweet to be mad,' or with Plato that ' A man sound in mind knocks in vain at the doors of poetry,' or with Aristotle that 'No great intellect has been without a touch of madness,' only a mind that is deeply stirred can utter something noble and beyond the power of others.

"When it has scorned everyday and commonplace thoughts and risen aloft on the wings of divine inspiration, only then does it sound a note nobler than mortal voice could utter. As long as it remains in its senses it cannot reach any lofty and difficult height: it must desert the usual track and race away, champing the bit and hurrying its driver in its course to a height it would have feared to scale by itself.

"So here you have, my dear Serenus, the means of preserving your tranquility, the means of restoring it, and the means of resisting the faults that creep up on you unawares. But be sure of this, that none of them is strong enough for those who want to preserve a fragile thing, unless the wavering mind is surrounded by attentive and unceasing care."

Thursday, February 4, 2010

On the Pleasure of Hating

William Hazlitt, On the Pleasure of Hating.

It is easy to raise an outcry against violent invectives, to talk loud against extravagance and enthusiasm, to pick a quarrel with every thing but the most calm, candid and qualified statement of facts: but there are enormities to which no words can do adequate justice.

Are we then, in order to form a complete idea of them, to omit every circumstance of aggravation, or to suppress every feeling of impatience that arises out of the details, lest we should be accused of giving way to the influence of prejudice and passion? That would be to falsify the impression altogether, to misconstrue reason, and fly in the face of nature.

Suppose for instance, that in the discussion of the Slave-Trade, a description to the life was given of the horrors or the Middle Passage (as it was termed), that you saw the manner in which thousands of wretches, year after year, were stowed together in the hold of a slave-ship, without air, without light, without food, without hope, so that what they suffered in reality was brought home to you in imagination, till you felt in sickness of heart as one of them, could it be said that this was a prejudging of the case, that your knowing the extent of the evil disqualified you from pronouncing sentence upon it, and that your disgust and abhorrence were the effects of a heated imagination? No. Those evils that inflame the imagination and make the heart sick, ought not to leave the head cool.

This is the very test and measure of the degree of the enormity, that it involuntarily staggers and appalls the mind. If it were a common iniquity, if it were slight and partial, or necessary, it would not have this effect; but it very properly carries away the feelings, and (if you will) overpowers the judgment, because it is a mass of evil so monstrous and unwarranted as not to be endured, even in thought.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Peace Through Suffering

John Ruskin, The Work of Iron in Nature, Art, and Policy.

Think over what I have said; and as you return to your quiet homes tonight, reflect that their peace was not won for you by your own hands, but by theirs who long ago jeoparded their lives for you, their children; and remember that neither this inherited peace, nor any other, can be kept, but through the same jeopardy.

No peace was ever won from Fate by subterfuge or agreement; no peace is ever in store for any of us, but that which we shall win by victory over shame or sin; -- victory over sin that oppresses, as well as over that which corrupts.*

For many a year to come, the sword of every righteous nation must be whetted to save or to subdue; nor will it be by patience of others' suffering, but by the offering of your own, that you will ever draw nearer to the time when the great change shall pass upon the iron of the earth; -- when men shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks; neither shall they learn war any more.

*Ed. Note: (Ephesians 2:14-16, "For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity." (See also, 1 Cor. 15:54-57; Cf. 2 Sam. 12:10 with Luke 2:35)

Monday, February 1, 2010

When Technology Blinds

Joseph Pieper, Learning How to See Again.

"We have lost, no doubt, the American Indian's keen sense of smell, but we also no longer need it since we have binoculars, compass, and radar. Let me repeat: in this obviously continuing process there exists a limit below which human nature itself is threatened, and the very integrity of human existence is directly endangered. Therefore, such ultimate danger can no longer be averted with technology alone.

"At stake here is this: How can man be saved from becoming a totally passive consumer of mass-produced goods and a subservient follower beholden to every slogan the managers may proclaim? The question really is: How can man preserve and safeguard the foundation of his spiritual dimension and an uncorrupted relationship to reality?

"The capacity to perceive the visible world 'with our own eyes' is indeed an essential constituent of human nature. We are talking here about man's essential inner richness -- or, should the threat prevail, man's most abject inner poverty. And why so? To see things is the first step toward that primordial and basic mental grasping of reality, which constitutes the essence of man as a spiritual being.

"I am well aware that there are realities we can come to know through 'hearing' alone. All the same, it remains a fact that only through seeing, indeed through seeing with out own eyes, is our inner autonomy established.

"Those no longer able to see reality with their own eyes are equally unable to hear correctly.

"It is specifically the man thus impoverished who inevitably falls prey to the demagogical spells of any powers that be. 'Inevitably,' because a person is utterly deprived even of the potential to keep a critical distance."