Sunday, September 29, 2013

Poe - Poetry

The latest poem is a familiar one, Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Raven'.  The small description before the poem says that it is 'macabre' ('disturbing and horrifying because of involvement with or depiction of death and injury').  'Macabre' is the perfect word for it.  The full length is too long for this post, but do read the full thing here.  Read it aloud if you can.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary;
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door:
"Tis some visitor;" I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door;
Only this, and nothing more."

Ah, distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor:
Eagerly I wished the morrow; vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow, sorrow for the lost Lenore,
For the rare and radiant maiden who the angels name Lenore,
Nameless here forevermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
"Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door,
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door.
This is it, and nothing more."

My God, that rhyme scheme is brilliant!  It's so utterly compelling, urging you forward every step even with the heavy feel of dread.  The word choice doesn't feel forced or unnatural.  It must be one of the finest poems in the English language.  Heck, it's so strong that it has an NFL team named after it!
Does the macabre feel to it add or subtract?  Most of the other top poems deal with things like love and beauty.  'The Raven' deals with loss and wild, uncontrolled nature.  This isn't something you'd learn to impress college girls at the bar, this is something that you'd bring out around the campfire to make people feel uneasy.  Not scared, mind you.  That isn't the aim.  Uneasy and uncertain.  Sad.
I've talked about how great poems have that one great line that becomes quoted and quoted until it's a part of the cultural fabric.  'Quoth the raven, "Nevermore"', certainly qualifies.  I've read some of Poe's short stories but this is the only poem of his that I know.  I wonder if the rest is as good?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Pascal's Wager

I wrote a bit on Pascal's famous wager here.  The gist of it is that the upside of beliving in God is so much better than the downside that it should be an easy choice to make.  The argument is brilliant.  Live a Christian life and you either go to heaven or find out that you were wrong and there is no afterlife.  Live a faithless life and either have no afterlife or go to hell.  Given those choices, who could do other than believe in God, right?
Well, not so fast.  There is one rather large flaw in Pascal's reasoning here.  Faith is not a volitional thing.  One can't simply flip a switch and believe anything.  Faith requires some deeper conviction.  On some deep level you must be convinced of the things that you truly believe in.
Pascal does answer this:
Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possesions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.
This isn't bad advice but it's not as certain as Pascal says it is.  Otherwise we would never see long time church goers lose faith and fall away.  We would never see frauds in the church because over time their frauds would be converted by the proximity and totality of their actions.  Even worse, according to Pascal's own life story, he went back and forth from faith to doubt until he got what he felt was an unanswerable sign from God.
I'm sure that many would be converted if they had a visit from the divine in a dream.  It's easy to have faith in angels when you actually meet them.  It's much harder to simply say that if you try to believe in them, eventually you will.
In my middle teens I first read Heinlein's 'Time Enough for Love'.  The story is an attempt to pry loose 'nuggets of wisdom' from a man who has lived for nearly 3000 years.  In one of the 'notebook' sections he writes this:
There is no conclusive evidence of life after death. But there is no evidence of any sort against it. Soon enough you will know. So why fret about it?
Pascal would have hated that thought.  Heinlein is saying that we really don't know one way or the other what happens after you die.  Elsewhere he makes the point that competing religions make promises of an afterlife but they differ on the route to get there.  If we don't have any concrete knowledge, how can we even begin to know which way to bet?  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof and Pascal is openly saying that the proof isn't the way, only faith is.
My logical mind agrees with the Heinlein approach but not completely.  We don't know, we can't know.  That doesn't mean that the question isn't important.  It certainly doesn't mean we shouldn't fret about it.
But it sure would be easier with a visit in a dream.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

De Nerval - Poetry

Another poem and poet that I've never heard of.  This one is by Gerard De Nerval and is entitled 'El Desdichado'.  I'm guessing that this is translated from Spanish.

I am the dark one, -the widower, -the unconsoled,
The prince of Aquitaine at his stricken tower:
My sole star is dead, - and my constellated lute
Bears the black sun of the Melancolia.

In the night of the tomb, you who consoled me,
Give me back Mount Posilipo and the Italian sea,
The flower which pleased so my desolate heart,
And the trellis where the grape vine unites with the rose.

Am I Amor or Phoebus? . . . Lusignan or Biron?
My forehead is still red from the kiss of the queen;
I have dreamed in the grotto where the mermaid swims . . .

And two times victorious I have crosst the Acheron:
Modulating turn by turn on the lyre of Orpheus
The sighs of the saint and the cries of the fay.

Well first off, I understand almost none of the allusions here which makes me feel like I'm missing out on whatever power the poem has.  Breaking from my tradition, I'm going over to Wikipedia to see if I can find an article to explain the poem.  There is a page for the author here.  Nothing in depth on this poem, though I'm very interested to know that his last published work has the same name as my daughter.
So how about the poetry itself?  The first line is striking.  I can almost hear it narrated while a camera pans slowly over a misty, smoky mountainside.  This is a lover's lament, perhaps a widowers poem.  Yes, there is a tangling of love and death.  The last stanza is somewhat understood if you know that Acheron was one of the rivers of Hades and that Orpheus went down there to find his beloved. 
The subject has been down there twice.  Lost two lovers?  Perhaps.  I don't really get it, but it's memorable. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Wager (Pensee 233) - Pascal

I'll start by recommending that you read the whole of 233.  You can find it here (scroll down).  It's not long and it works as a stand alone.  The rest is worth reading too.

Pascal begins with a discussion on things that we know about but don't understand.  For an example, he uses the concept of infinity.  We know that there is an infinite amount of numbers but we can't understand how infinity can be neither odd nor even.  He compares this to our understanding of God.  We know about God, but we can't really understand Him.  How do we know?
But by faith we know His existence; in glory we shall know His nature. Now I have already shown that we may well know the existence of a thing without knowing its nature.
If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is.
God is beyond understanding but those who have faith have knowledge of his existence.  If this is the case, then we shouldn't blame Christians for not being able to explain their beliefs.  They'll openly admit that there are things they can't explain. 
So let's get to the main question: "God is, or He is not."  According to Pascal, there is no way to find out by reason.  At some point, you'll have to simply take a leap of faith.  And that is where the wager comes in.  You must bet one side or the other. 
Pascal then uses game theory to work out the best choice. 
  • If you don't believe in God and are right, then nothing happens after you die.
  • If you believe in God and are wrong, then nothing happens after you die.
  • If you don't believe in God and are wrong, then you miss out on eternal life.
  • If you believe in God and are right, then you win eternal life.  
According to this accounting, there is no downside to belief. 
Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you talk on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognize that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.
This is one of the most powerful arguments for faith that I've ever read.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Trouble with Kant

We'll get to Kant in November, with 'Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals' (which sounds like a made up title to scare people away from reading), but I ran across a news report from Russia that is just too good to share.  Especially the last bit.
An argument in southern Russia over philosopher Immanuel Kant, the author of "Critique of Pure Reason," devolved into pure mayhem when one debater shot the other.
A police spokeswoman in Rostov-on Don, Viktoria Safarova, said two men in their 20s were discussing Kant as they stood in line to buy beer at a small store on Sunday. The discussion deteriorated into a fistfight and one participant pulled out a small nonlethal pistol and fired repeatedly.
The victim was hospitalized with injuries that were not life-threatening. Neither person was identified.
It was not clear which of Kant's ideas may have triggered the violence.
"It was not clear which of Kant's ideas may have triggered the violence."  I can only believe that the writer was giggling as that was typed.  More experienced readers of Kant are invited to speculate on which idea it was.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

John Greenleaf Whittier- Poetry

Next up in the poetry book is John Greenleaf Whittier, with a poem called 'Barbara Frietchie'.  I haven't heard of the poet or poem prior to this.  (Is there a reason that 19th century poets all have three names?)  The lead in to the poem says that this is based on an actual event during the American civil war.  The poem is long, but worth reading.

Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,
The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.
Round about them orchards sweep,
Apple and peach tree fruited deep,
Fair as the garden of the Lord
To the eyes of the famished rebel horde,
On that pleasant morn of the early fall
When Lee marched over the mountain-wall;
Over the mountains winding down,
Horse and foot, into Frederick town.
Forty flags with their silver stars,
Forty flags with their crimson bars,
Flapped in the morning wind: the sun
Of noon looked down, and saw not one.
Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;
Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;
In her attic window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet.
Up the street the Rebel tread,
Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.
Under his slouched hat left and right
He glanced; the old flag met his sight.
"Halt!"-the dust-brown ranks stood fast.
"Fire!"-out blazed the rifle-blast.
It shivered the window, pane and sash;
It rent the banner with seam and gash.
Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff
Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf.
She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.
"Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country's flag," she said.
A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;
The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman's deed and word;
"Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!" he said.
All day long through Frederick street
Sounded the tread of marching feet:
All day long that free flag tost
Over the heads of the Rebel host.
Ever its torn folds rose and fell
On the loyal winds that loved it well;
And through the hill-gaps sunset light
Shone over it with a warm good night.
Barbara Frietchie's work is o'er'
And the Rebel rides on his raids no more.
Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on Stonewall's bier.
Over Barbara Frietchie's grave,
Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!
Peace and order and beauty draw
Round they symbol of light and law;
And ever the stars above look down
On thy stars below in Frederick town!

I'd never read this before but I'm quite taken with it.  The poetry is simple but effective.  I think I've heard 'Shoot if you must, this old gray head' before.  It's a very striking line.
The poem was written in 1864, while the Civil war was still raging.  It's wildly patriotic, especially compared to more modern sentiment.  Note: I don't think that's a bad thing.  It's hard not to respect the courage needed to stand up to soldiers who could shoot you dead without any trouble.  Obviously the soldiers had that same respect.
I wish I'd run across this poem right around Memorial Day.  I'll have to remember to revisit it again next May.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Questions of the Afterlife (Pensee 194) - Pascal

Let them at least learn what is the religion they attack, before attacking it.  If this religion boasted of having a clear view of God, and of possessing it open and unveiled, it would be attacking it to say that we see nothing in the world which shows it with this clearness. 
This is how Pascal opens #194, the heart of his 'wager'.  He says that opponents of religion haven't taken the time to understand what they're attacking.  He continues:
...that God has set up in the Church visible signs to make Himself known to those who should seek Him sincerely, and that He has nevertheless so disguised them that He will only be perceived by those who seek Him with all their heart; what advantages can they obtain, when, in the negligence with which they make profession of being in search of the truth, they cry out that nothing reveals it to them; and since that darkness in which they are, and with which they upbraid the Church, establishes only one of the things which she affirms, without touching the other, and, very far from destroying, proves her doctrine?
Pascal says that only by giving your full heart to God, can you perceive Him.  You have to have faith before you will be rewarded.  On the other hand, if you come to God, filled with doubt and seeking to disprove Him, you'll never find anything.  And this isn't something trivial.
The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us, and which touches us so profoundly, that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing what it is.  
The big questions of the soul (and God and the afterlife), are of prime importance. 
Thus our first interest and our first duty is to enlighten ourselves on this subject, whereon depends all our conduct. Therefore among those who do not believe, I make a vast difference between those who strive with all their power to inform themselves, and those who live without troubling or thinking about it.
 And those who don't pay it much mind?
And if besides this he is easy and content, professes to be so, and indeed boasts of it; if it is this state itself which is the subject of his joy and vanity, I have no words to describe so silly a creature.
It's striking how angry Pascal is towards those who don't invest serious thought in finding out if they have a soul and if that soul will enjoy an afterlife.  He is not a tame philosopher.  He talks about the predicament we all find ourselves in as we try to figure out why we're here and what's going on.
As I know not whence I come, so I know not wither I go. I know only that, in leaving this world, I fall for ever either into annihilation or into the hands of an angry God, without knowing to which of these two states I shall be for ever assigned.
This is something of a teaser for his famous wager.  I'll come back to that.  Frankly, I felt personally chastised after reading this.  I haven't done enough thinking on this subject, or at least not enough in recent years.  But Pascal has my wheels turning a bit...

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Pensees - Pascal

I've been trying to figure out how to write about Pascal's 'Pensees' (or Thoughts).  Earlier in the year I took a quick peek and it looked like several one or two line affirmations, so I thought of them as being like proverbs.  Once I actually got to the book I found out that many of them were more in depth, some several pages in length.  (I'm not complaining about that.  The longer ones were the richest in quality.)  The best comparison for Pascal?  He was something of a proto-blogger.
Seriously.  It's easy to think of his various thoughts as stand alone blog posts.  Some are short and pithy, while others are more in depth.  There are extended themes and arguments.  He clearly thought very hard about certain subjects for long stretches of time.
I could comment on each one, but there are nearly 80 of them in the suggested list* for the Great Books.  That would mean more blog posts than I can reasonably promise.  I could try and condense them by subject, but even that will mean a dozen or so to tackle and that probably won't happen either.
I'm afraid the best I can do is to concentrate on some of the most meaningful ones.  That's unfortunate because there are plenty of nuggets of gold in the rest.  He really was a remarkable writer.

*Here is that suggested list: 72, 82-83, 100, 128, 131, 139, 142-143, 171, 194-195, 219, 229, 233-234, 242, 277, 282, 289, 298, 303, 320, 323, 325, 330-331, 374, 385, 392, 395-397, 409, 412-413, 416, 418, 425, 430, 434-435, 463, 491, 525-531, 538, 543, 547, 553, 556, 564, 571, 586, 598, 607-610, 613, 619-620, 631, 640, 644, 673, 675, 684, 692-693, 737, 760, 768, 792-793.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Longfellow - Poetry

The poetry book brings me next to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with a poem called 'Paul Revere's Ride'.  The entire poem (found here) is too long for me to type out.  Here is the first couple of stanzas:

Listen my children and you shal hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is no alive
Who remembers that famous day and year:

He said to his friend, "if the British march
By land or sea from the town tonight,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,-
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm."

This is very much a story poem, with very little poetic imagery.  It tells its story well and that is no small thing.  But it doesn't really sing like some of the poems we've come across.  It does have its famous phrase, 'One of by land and two if by sea'.  I'll give it that.  But it's not a favorite of mine.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Biography of Pascal

Blaise Pascal was born in June of 1623, in the Auvergne region of France.  His mother died when he was three.  His father was a judge and a tax collector.  When Pascal was five, the family moved to Paris.  His father decided to educate all of his children, especially Blaise, because he was a child prodigy.  He especially excelled at science and mathematics. 
Pascal was only 16 when he did his first serious work on mathematics, a proof on hexagons and circles.  There was suspicion that his father wrote the work but he everyone that his son Blaise was the author.  This put his name on the map.
When he was not quite 19, he invented a mechanical calculator to help his father with tax collection.  The calculator was expensive to produce and never became more than a novelty item.  Later he did some work on hydraulics and invented the syringe.  He also did some important work on the effects of elevation on barometers.
In 1646, Pascal was thrown in contact with some Jansenist believers.  Jansenists are members of a then small Catholic splinter group.  He spent most of a year contemplating and writing about theology but fell away.  In November of 1654, he had what he described as an intense religious experience.  He recorded it: "Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars..." and concluded by quoting Psalm 119:16: "I will not forget thy word. Amen."  He wrote this on a paper which was then sewn into his clothes.  He transferred it secretly from clothes to clothes and it was only found after his death.
In 1659 he became ill.  He kept doctors at bay saying that 'Sickness is the natural state of Christians'.  He succumbed in 1662.  His last words were 'May God never abandon me'. 
After his death, his 'Pensees', French for 'Thoughts', was published.  This is an incredible piece of work, one of the most extraordinary works of theology that I've come across.  It's here that he published Pascal's Wager, an argument that believing in God makes more sense than not believing. 
He was quite a man and it's a shame that he died so young.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Author Timeline

Still in the 17th century.  This is another one of those eras that were absolutely thick with important thought and change.

Homer 7th or 8th Cent(?)
Aeschylus 525-456
Sophocles 497-405
Herodotus 484-425
Plato 428-347
Aristotle 384-322
Lucretius 99-55(?)
Nicomachus 60-120(?)
Marcus Aurelius 121-180
Hobbes 1588-1679
Milton 1608-1674
Pascal 1623-1662
Swift 1667-1745
Rousseau 1712-1778
Kant 1724-1804
Mill 1806-1873

Monday, September 2, 2013

Elizabeth Barrett Browning - Poetry

I've known the title of this poem, 'How do I Love Thee' for years, but I don't know if I've ever read the poem itself.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my saints, -I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! -and if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

That first line is arresting and deservedly well known.  Browning puts out a challenge.  She loves the target of the poem, can she put that love into words?  Specifically, can she show the different ways that she loves?
I'm not so sure that she can.  Take the first on the list: I love thee to the depth and breadth and height/My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight/For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.  I'm not at all sure what that means.  Ok, the first line is the size of the soul (or perhaps the volume); the size it can reach when 'feeling out of sight for the ends of being and ideal grace'.  Why is the soul out of sight?  Does that help it somehow with the ends of being?  Does it help it achieve some kind of ideal grace?
The next few on the list seem fine to me but I'm again stumped by the 'passion put to use/In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith'.  Is that such a personal reference of Brownings that it isn't universally available to others?  Or is she saying that she hasn't had such passion since she believed things as a child?
I do like the last lines, about love after death.  I know there is some question in religious circles as to what the afterlife will actually be like.  I like the nod to that uncertainty and the hope that she will be able to continue that love.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

September Readings

Here we go with September

Pascal: Pensees (72, 82-83, 100, 128, 131, 139, 142-143, 171, 194-195, 219, 229, 233-234, 242, 277, 282, 289, 298, 303, 320, 323, 325, 330-331, 374, 385, 392, 395-397, 409, 412-413, 416, 418, 425, 430, 434-435, 463, 491, 525-531, 538, 543, 547, 553, 556, 564, 571, 586, 598, 607-610, 613, 619-620, 631, 640, 644, 673, 675, 684, 692-693, 737, 760, 768, 792-793)* link
Pascal: Treatise on the Arithmetical Triangle link

I've read the Pensees already and Pascal is a brilliant writer.