Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Duty - Kant

I'll just say up front that I didn't particularly care for 'Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals'.  Kant writes in a very technical manner, and that's ok.  You have to pay attention and it helped me to take notes so that I could refer back to his definitions.  You have to take it slow and be brave.
What turned me off was the enormous wrong turn that Kant takes almost right out of the gate.
For in order that an action should be morally good, it is not enough that it conform to the moral law, but it must also be done for the sake of the law, otherwise that conformity is only very contingent and uncertain; since a principle which is not moral, although it may now and then produce actions conformable to the law, will also often produce actions which contradict it.
Got that?  We can't trust moral principles unless they're codified in the law.  Something in the act of writing down and creating the law makes it certain.  He doubles down on this later.
Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good, without qualification, except a good will.
Ok.  I can quibble with this, but I'm certainly not opposed to a good will.
A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition; that is, it is good in itself, and considered by itself to be esteemed much higher than all that can be brought about by it in favor of any inclination, nay even of the sum total of all inclinations.
So if you set out to do good, you're doing good, regardless of performance or effects?  This is the opposite of the saying that 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions', right?  I don't think I'm reading that wrong.  A bit later on he discusses those 'who without any other motive of vanity or self-interest, they find a pleasure in spreading joy around them and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work'.  We may praise and encourage these people but not esteem them.
For the maxim lacks moral import, namely, that such actions be done from duty, not from inclination.
If they had to help others by law, it would be moral.  But doing so for the pleasure that it brings, while praiseworthy, is not moral.
That seems utterly wrong to me.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Stoic for a Week

I came across this in my twitter feed:

Which is a pretty great response.  The article itself is interesting.
The British are famous for their stoicism, but this week a team of philosophers and psychotherapists are testing whether living by the true principles of the ancient Greek philosophy can really help us improve our lives.
Today marks the first day of Stoic Week, where participants are asked to live by the principles of the two millennia old philosophy so academics can explore the potential benefits. 
They're focusing largely on the idea of control, with daily stops to monitor whether or not they are stressed by things out of their control.  They're also keeping a diary of 'passions' to see if they can control them as well.  I'm curious about the results but not so curious that I'll try and do it myself.  But I'm glad to see people get in touch with a hardcore 'substance' philosophy such as stoicism.

(Btw, if you want to follow me on Twitter, my handle is '@pdefor'.  I don't tweet very often and when I do it's usually sports or politics.  Or I'm retweeting something clever.  Maybe I should tweet link to this blog some though...  Hmmm.)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Baudelaire - Poetry

(This series is a read through of a book of poetry that has attempted to gather the 100 best poems of all time.  For the full series, click the 'poetry' link at the bottom.)

Next up is a poem by Charles Baudelaire titled 'Invitation to the Voyage'.  I don't know the poet and I don't think I've heard of this poem previously.

How sweet, my own,
Could we live alone
Over beyond the sea!
To love and to die
In the land that's akin to thee!
Where the suns which rise
In the watery skies
Weave soft spells over my sight,
As thy false eyes do
When they flicker through
Their tears with a dim, strange light.

There all is beauty and symmetry,
Pleasure and calm and luxury.

Years that have gone
Have polished and shone
The things that would fill our room;
The flowers are most rare
Which scent the air
In the richly ceiling'd gloom,
And the mirrors profound,
And the walls around
With Orient splendor hung,
To the soul would speak
Of things she doth seek
In her gentle native tongue.

There all is beauty and symmetry,
Pleasure and calm and luxury.

The canals are deep
Where the strange ships sleep
Far from the lands of their birth;
To quench the fire
Of they least desire
They have come from the ends of the earth.
The sunsets drown
Peaceful town
And meadow, and stagnant stream
In bistre and gold
And the world enfold
In a warm and luminous dream.

There all is beauty and symmetry,
Pleasure and calm and luxury.

The words are gorgeous though I don't know that I understand the poem.  On its face, it is simply, as the title says, an invitation to a voyage.  The destination is exotic and beautiful.  Or rather beautiful and symmetric, with pleasures both calm and luxurious.  The word symmetric gives me pause, though the rest sounds very nice.  But that may just be my own hang ups about finding beauty and luxury in more natural places.
Is the poem about a specific place?  Or just some general exotic location?  I'd like to know more about the deep canals and the ships that bring goods to satisfy every desire.  And I'd like to see the golden sunsets that enfold such a beautiful place.
I like it.

Readings for December

Just one and it's a goodie.

Mill: On Liberty link

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Discourse on Inequality - Rousseau

Rousseau wrote 'A Discourse Upon the Origin of Inequality' in response to the Academy of Dijon who had asked for essays on the question of 'what is the origin of inequality and is it authorized by natural law?'.  Rousseau quite sensibly split the question into of inequality into two different forms, that of physical inequality and that of moral or political inequality.
Rousseau starts with his idea of pre-society man.  He envisions a happy savage, roaming about the forests, satisfied with the world he finds himself in.  This man goes his own way, occasionally happening upon a savage woman and making new savages.  Our man lives at the range of the moment, without any future cares.  Rousseau goes so far as to say that 'the man who meditates is a depraved animal'.
Frankly, his thoughts on primitive man are so wrong that it's hard to take him seriously.  We have every reason to believe that man has been a 'social animal' for all of his history.  That men and women have always lived in clans and tribes, whenever possible.  The lone hermit is an extreme outlier in human history.
Which isn't to say that he doesn't have some interesting thoughts.  Here he speaks of 'pity':
It is therefore certain that pity is a natural sentiment, which, by moderating in every individual the activity of self-love, contributes to the mutual preservation of the whole species. It is this pity which hurries us without reflection to the assistance of those we see in distress; it is this pity which, in a state of nature, stands for laws, for manners, for viture, with this advantage, that no one is tempted to disobey her sweet and gentle voice: . . . 
The urge to help those in distress does run deep.  Rousseau sees it in conflict with self love and suggests that pity wins out.  This idea of helping others then, becomes the basis for custom and law.  Rousseau goes on to say that pity keeps a strong man from stealing from children or the old.  He will work to provide for himself first before depriving them of their hard fought gains.
Rousseau sets this in opposition with Hobbes idea that all men are at conflict with each other.  Of the two, I think that Hobbes gets the better of the argument but Rousseau does make me pause.  There are some pretty powerful customs protecting children and the elderly though.  It takes some very powerful motivation like starvation before someone will take from them. 
I wonder what Rousseau would think, if he had a few more centuries of accumulated knowledge behind him?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Julia Ward Howe - Poetry

Next up is Julia Ward Howe's 'Battle Hymn of the Republic'.  This poem/song was adopted by the Union in the US Civil war and is regarded as part of the canon of patriotic songs here.

1. Mine eyes have seen the glory
of the coming of the Lord;
he is trampling out the vintage
where the grapes of wrath are stored;
he hath loosed the fateful lightning
of his terrible swift sword;
his truth is marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

2. I have seen him in the watchfires
of a hundred circling camps,
they have builded him an altar
in the evening dews and damps;
I can read his righteous sentence
by the dim and flaring lamps;
his day is marching on.

3. He has sounded forth the trumpet
that shall never call retreat;
he is sifting out the hearts of men
before his judgment seat;
O be swift, my soul, to answer him;
be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

4. In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea,
with a glory in his bosom
that transfigures you and me;
as he died to make men holy,
let us die to make men free,
while God is marching on.

5. He is coming like the glory
of the morning on the wave,
he is wisdom to the mighty,
he is honor to the brave;
so the world shall be his footstool,
and the soul of wrong his slave.
Our God is marching on.

The first verse is very familiar.  I think we sang it in school at some point.  (Do they still do that?  Will have to ask.)  The first three stanzas are quite the mixture of God and war.  The Union army was saying that they had God on their side and his terrible righteousness was about to be set loose.  It's almost jarring to read this today.  Can you imagine any such song being used for our current wars?  Of course not!  We're completely shamed by the word 'crusade'.
After the first stanza, it's all new to me.  The change from the third to the fourth stanza is almost like stepping off of a top step that isn't there.  We go from the very martial God, who is issuing military commands to 'the beauty of the lilies' without much warning.  I very much like the 'as he died to make men holy/let us die to make men free', as it recognizes that slavery was very much at the heart of the war.
I'll be honest, this poem doesn't do much for me.  It may be because I'm far from the horrors of war and maybe I'm too soft, but it's too brash for my taste.  Give me the clever turn of phrase and the beautiful wording please.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

History of English Language

I don't remember if I've ever shared this here, but even if you've seen it before, take ten minutes (or twelve) and enjoy.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms

(Ok, this is very late.  Sorry about that.  The past two months have been so hectic that I've had trouble keeping on schedule.)

The fourth and final part of 'Gulliver's Travels' recounts his visit to the land of the Houyhnhnms, which from now on I will refer to as 'H.'.  This time he isn't shipwrecked but cast off the ship by some pirates.  He washes up on an unknown land and encounters some savage primate beasts.  He is rescued by some horses and we soon learn what the deal is with this voyage.
The land of the H. is one where the relationship between man and horse has been reversed.  The horses are sentient and in command.  The men are savage in the truest sense, in a way that we would regard as sub-human.  They are called Yahoos.
Gulliver is adopted by one of the H. and after some time he learns their language.  Swift tells us that the H. are noble and just.  In fact, they're so noble and just that Gulliver soon becomes ashamed that he is merely a man from a human civilization.  He's also horrified by the comparison to himself and the Yahoos. 
In time, Gulliver sadly tells the H. just how badly the horses back in Europe are treated.  When he tells them of the process of gelding them, it's enough to make you wince and fear for Gulliver's safety.  He is soon spirited out of the country though by his master/owner.  He returns to England and finds the presence of other people bothersome.  Instead, he prefers the company of his own horses.

This section is weaker than the first three.  The H. are put on a high pedestal that frankly sounds undeserved.  In fact, this section makes reflection on the previous voyages a little sad, especially that of Brobdingnag.  They too were nearly too good to be true.  Did they deserve that, or was that also a simple authorial trick?
Swift's contemporaries thought that the last section of Gulliver was proof that he was slipping mentally.  I don't care for that kind of explanation, because it allows the reader to simply dismiss arguments instead of meeting them head on.  But I think it's obvious that the fourth voyage isn't up to the standard of the first three. 
There are some interesting arguments to be made regarding the treatment of animals.  I don't know how much Swift had to do with popularizing such arguments but it wouldn't surprise me to find out that it was quite a bit.  We treat horses much differently than we do men, because, well, there are big differences.  We recognize men as sentient in a way that horses clearly aren't.  If we reverse those roles, then of course the men (Yahoos) would be treated differently.  And quite rightly.  

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Biography of Kant

Immanuel Kant was born in 1724 in Konigsberg, Prussia (now Kalningrad Russia).  He never traveled far from Konigsberg in his whole life.  In contrast to many of the Great Books authors, he had a very humble beginning.  His father was a harness-maker. 
By the age of 16, he had already shown quite a bit of skill as a student.  He went to the University of Konigsberg, where he spent most of his life.  There he was introduced to the works of Leibniz and Newton and the philosophies of the day. 
In 1754, Kant won the Berlin Academy Prize for figuring out that friction causes a slow down in the Earth's rotational speed.  This was mostly overlooked until the next century when Kelvin and others brought it to prominence.  Kant also fathered the belief that the solar system was born from a cloud of dust and gas. 
Kant is best known though, for his contributions to philosophy.  Kantianism has had a major effect on modern philosophical works.  (I'm not sure that I understand it, so I won't attempt to summarize.  You can read about it here.) 
His philosophical work was done late in his life.  He spent what is called 'the silent decade'.  In this time he didn't respond to questions about his earlier work.  Then he published 'The Critique of Pure Reason', of which we will read portions of in years Four, Five and Six. 
He died in 1802.  His last words were "It is good". 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Walt Whitman - Poetry

Walt Whitman is one of the biggest names in American poetry and I know next to nothing of his work.  This snippet is from 'Song of Myself', though I don't know if it's the first part or something in the middle.  I've heard of 'Leaves of Grass'.  Maybe this is from there.

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bear the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglypic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves,
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
it may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers' laps,
And here you are the mothers' laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
And ceas'd the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this.   The opening of the poem asks about the various ways to describe grass and lists some of them.  Then it says that it 'seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves' and the poem hits its stride. 
The grass then, is a connection to those buried under it.  We can't help thinking of them.  The young and old, women and children.  Whitman asks what has become of them.  They continue in some way, in the grass that is growing above them.  'The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,/And if ever there was it led forward life'.  It's all part of a cycle.
I recognize the very last line, 'And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier', because it is used in the movie 'Dead Again'.  We really don't know what lies beyond our lives.  We have beliefs, some of them quite strong but we don't know.  I don't know that the grass is much of an answer.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Author Timeline

Break on through, to the 18th century.

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

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Bronte - Poetry

The next poem in the book is from Emily Bronte.  I know her from 'Wuthering Heights', a book that I've picked up a few times and never gotten more than a couple of pages in.  This poem is called 'Often Rebuked, Yet Always back Returning'.

Often rebuked, yet always back returning
To those first feelings that were born with me,
And leaving busy chase of wealth and learning
For idle dreams of things which cannot be:

Today I will seek not the shadowy region;
Its unsustaining vastness waxes drear,
And visions rising, legion after legion,
Bring the unreal world too strangely near.

I'll walk but not in old heroic traces,
And not in paths of high morality,
And not among the half distinguished faces,
The clouded forms of long-past history.

I'll walk where my own nature would be leading-
It vexes me to choose another guide-
Where the gray flocks in ferny glens are feeding,
Where the wild wind blows on the mountainside.

What have those lonely mountains worth revealing?
More glory and more grief than I can tell:
The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling
Can center both the words of Heaven and Hell.

I'm not sure how well I understand this.  Let me see if I can write my way through it.  The title and first line says that though she is rebuked, she'll keep returning to the 'feelings that were born with me'.  Is she then saying that she is turning away from the 'busy chase of wealth and learning'?  I think so.  Instead she chooses 'idle dreams of things which cannot be'.
But the second stanza says that she 'will not seek the shadowy region' because it will 'Bring the unreal world too strangely near'.  The shadowy region doesn't seem to be that of wealth and learning.  Or if it is, I'm not catching the allusion.
I get the part about walking where her nature leads her.  That's especially important remembering that this was written in the early 19th century.  (And I'm just noticing sadly that our poor poet only lived thirty years.  Sad, and the world is poorer because of it.)  She chooses the mountain side, that reveals glory and grief.  That glory and grief are both like heaven and hell.
I'm not sure I understand it, but I like it.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Readings for November

Two things for November:

Rousseau: A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality link
Kant: Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals link

Those are some pretty meaty titles, don't you think?  A couple of months back I joked that the Kant piece looks like it was titled in such a way as to scare people away from it.  Remember though, the people that set up this list thought that the average person could understand all of it.   So take your time, make some diagrams (I have) and read it.  Think how good you'll feel after you're done.