Thursday, September 30, 2010

Most important things aren't exciting

From Jacques Barzun's Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning
All new machinery is exciting when new; it soon loses its charm, for the mechanical does not stimulate thought, and as a wise man said: "Most important things aren't exciting. Most exciting things aren't important. Not every problem has a good solution."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

This is education.

From Does the Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind? by Jaron Lanier.
How can you be ambidextrous in the matter of technology and education? Education - in the broadest sense - does what genes can't do. It forever filters and bequeaths memories, ideas, identities, cultures and technologies. Humans compute and transfer nongenetic information between generations, creating a longitudinal intelligence that is unlike anything else on Earth. The data links that hold the structure together in time swell rhythmically to the frequency of human regeneration. This is education.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The passion for freedom breeds the rage for order

From Jacques Barzun's An Essay on French Verse - For Readers of English Poetry:
The passion for freedom breeds the rage for order.

I have always been struck by the affiliation of these two seemingly contradictory goals. With order we achieve some degree of efficiency, freeing us to pursue that which truly engages us. Yet that very order is a small constraint on freedom and, if permitted, becomes the dictator. As long as order is the servant for freedom, all is well; but they remain odd colleagues.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The friends who frequent it

Keeping Mr. Emerson's House by Paige Willaims in the September 15, 2010 New York Times. A couple of Ralph Waldo Emerson quotes. Referring to his home, his goal was to
crowd so many books and papers and, if possible, wise friends, into it that it shall have as much wit as it can carry.

The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A set of impossible demands

From A Jacques Barzun Reader by Michael Murray, the essay Toward a Fateful Serenity:
In any age, life confronts all but the most obtuse with a set of impossible demands: it is an action to be performed without rehearsal or respite; it is a confused spectacle to be sorted out and charted; it is a mystery, not indeed to be solved, but to be restated according to some vision, however imperfect. These demands bear down with redoubled force in times of decay and deconstruction, because guiding customs and conventions are in disarray. At first, this loosening of rules looks like liberation, but it is illusory. A permissive society acts liberal or malignant erratically; seeing which, generous youth turns cynic or rebel on principle.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The thick darkness of futurity

From Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds:

. . . we proceed to the follies into which men have been led by their eager desire to pierce the thick darkness of futurity.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Thus were the trials of my young life made coherent

From A Jacques Barzun Reader by Michael Murray, the essay Toward a Fateful Serenity:
With beach life and surrender to a great lassitude, calm slowly returned, helped out by reading adventure stories. But it was not Gulliver or Robinson Crusoe alone who restored the will to life; it was also Hamlet. I had taken him off the shelf in Paris, not in secret but unnoticed, and I brought him away with me. The opening scene promised a good ghost story.

As I read on, I discovered that the rotten state of Denmark was the state that had overtaken my world: hatred, suspicion (spies were seen everywhere), murderous fury, unending qui vive. It contradicted all the assurances of the catechism. But what could be reinvigorating about Hamlet? Well, to begin with, his skill in warding off menaces from all sides; he was the equal of Crusoe in survival. And especially comforting was his ability to overcome his doubts in the terrible murkiness of his situation. His death at the end was a fluke, not a failure; Fortinbras said what a good king he would have made "had he been put on."

Thus were the trials of my young life made coherent in a view of Hamlet I have never found reason to alter . . .

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Libri aut liberi

From Contexts of Optimal Growth in Childhood by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Persons who identify themselves with culture rather than with nature often prefer to leave their memes to posterity, instead of their genes. The Romans expressed this choice with the saying, libri aut liberi - books or sons - assuming that the energy that goes into creating cultural products must come at the expense of biological reproduction.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

This rule should be observed

Cicero, De Re Publica -
In a republic, this rule should be observed: that the majority should not have the predominant power.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Two petals from that wild-rose tree

Memory <
by Thomas Bailey Aldrich

My mind lets go a thousand things,
Like dates of wars and deaths of kings,
And yet recalls the very hour -
'Twas noon by yonder village tower,
And on the last blue noon in May -
The wind came briskly up this way,
Crisping the brook beside the road;
Then, pausing here, set down its load
Of pine-scents, and shook listlessly
Two petals from that wild-rose tree.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Something ancient is calling

From Monday-Night Hunters in Carl Sagan's Billions & Billions
There are sports stars who make 50 times the annual salary of the President; some who are themselves, after retirement, elected to high office. They are national heroes. Why, exactly? There is something here transcending the diversity of political, social, and economic systems. Something ancient is calling.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Thames, unmindful of the foolish crowds upon its banks, flowed on quietly as of yore.

From Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds:
An instance of the faith in predictions occurred in London in the year 1524. The city swarmed at that time with fortune-tellers and astrologers, who were consulted daily by people of every class in society on the streets of futurity. As early as the month of June 1523, several of them concurred in prediction that, on the 1st day of February 1524, the waters of the Thames would swell to such a height as to overflow the whole city of London, and wash away ten thousand houses. The prophecy met implicit belief. It was reiterated with the utmost confidence month after month, until so much alarm was excited that many families packed up their goods, and removed into Kent and Essex. As the time drew nigh, the number of these emigrants increased. In January, droves of workmen might be seen, followed by their wives and children, trudging on foot to the villages within fifteen or twenty miles, to await the catastrophe. People of a higher class were also to be seen in wagons and other vehicles bound on a similar errand. By the middle of January, at least twenty thousand persons had quitted the doomed city, leaving nothing but the bare walls of the homes to be swept away by the impending floods. Many of the richer sorts took up their abode on the heights of Highgate, Hamstead, and Balckheath; and some erected tents as far away as Waltham Abbey on the north. Bolton, the prior of St Bartholomew's was so alarmed, that he erected, at a very great expense, a sort of fortress at Harrow-on-the-Hill, which he stocked with provisions for two months. On the 24th of January, a week before the awful day which was to see the destruction of London, he removed thither, with the brethren and officers of the priory and his entire household. A number of boats were conveyed in wagons to his fortress, furnished abundantly with expert rowers, in case the flood, reaching so high as Harrow, should force them to go further north for a resting place. Many wealthy citizens prayed to share his retreat; but the prior, with a prudent forethought, admitted only his personal friends, and those who brought stores of eatables for the blockade.

At last the morn, big with the fate of London, appeared in the east. The wondering crowds were astir at an early hour to watch the rising waters. The inundation, it was predicted, would be gradual, not sudden; so that they expected to have plenty of time to escape as soon as the saw the bosom of the Thames heave beyond the usual mark. But the majority were too much alarmed to trust to this, and thought themselves safer ten or twenty miles off. The Thames, unmindful of the foolish crowds upon its banks, flowed on quietly as of yore. The tide ebbed at its usual hour, flowed to its usual height, and then ebbed again, just as if twenty astrologers had not pledged their words to the contrary. Blank were their faces as evening approached and as blank grew the faces of the citizens think that they had made such fools of themselves. At last night set in, and the obstinate river would not loft its waters to sweep away even one house out of then thousand. Still, however, the people were afraid to go to sleep. Many hundreds remained up till dawn of the next day, lest the deluge should come upon them like a thief in the night.

On the morrow, it was seriously discussed whether it would not be advisable to duck the false prophets in the river. Luckily for them, they thought of an expedient which allayed the popular fury. They asserted that, by an error (a very slight one) of a little figure, they had fixed the date of this awful inundation a whole century too early. The stars were right after all, and they erring mortals, were wrong. The present generation of people was safe, and London would be washed away, not in 1524, but in 1624. At this announcement, Bolton, the prior dismantled his fortress, and the weary emigrants came back.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

For logic is about truth.

Being Logical by D.Q. McInerny:
Being logical presupposes our having a sensitivity to language and a knack for its effective use, for logic and language are inseparable. It also presupposes our having a healthy respect for the firm factualness of the world in which we live, for logic is about reality. Finally, being logical presupposes a lively awareness of how the facts that are our ideas relate to the facts that are the objects in the world, for logic is about truth.

The wish without the act

From Jacques Barzon's From Dawn to Decadence:
A failure of will, which is to say the wish without the act, is characteristic of institutions in decadence.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Good at Repelling Invaders

Megan McArdle, Where Fenty Went Wrong:
Dysfunctional institutions have what you might think of as a powerful immune system--indeed, you could argue that they're so dysfunctional precisely because they're so good at repelling invaders.

Its purpose is something else

From Jacques Barzun, What Is a School?:
Everybody, I hope, would agree that a school is a place where teaching and learning go on, steadily and systematically. That is its function. Its purpose is something else: to remove ignorance. A school can do several other good things at the same time, but it has one purpose only: to remove ignorance. This distinction is important because these definitions serve as a standard by which to judge what is done and what is proposed in the name of schooling. A half-century's agitation for reform has thrown into currency so many notions and slogans and started so many trial programs that in the best minds and most earnest hearts, confusion reigns. If it is to be dispelled, much demands our attention.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

That's a reader for you

Graying Duo Keep Passenger in Check by Kevin Cullen
When the captain announced preparations for landing, the man jumped up shouting, the flight attendant held up the handcuffs, and Hayden and the Marine came bounding down the aisle. Hayden said he and the retired Marine, whose name he never got, received an ovation from fellow passengers, and "some free air miles."

Hayden's wife of 42 years, Katie, who was also on the flight, was less impressed. Even as her husband struggled with the agitated passenger, she barely looked up from "The Richest Man in Babylon," the book she was reading.

"The woman sitting in front of us was very upset and asked me how I could just sit there reading,"Katie Hayden said. "Bob's been shot at. He's been stabbed. He's taken knives away. He knows how to handle those situations. I figured he would go up there and step on somebody's neck, and that would be the end of it. I knew how that situation would end. I didn't know how the book would end."

Epistemological Modesty

Two articles in conjunction with some interesting thoughts and observations on pluralism as part of the process of discovery. Peter Berger, Protestantism and the Quest for Certainty and Jonathan Rauch, In Defense of Prejudice: Why Incendiary Speech Must Be Protected. These two articles seem to be coming from such different vantage points, one a disquisition on religion, the other on political science and sociology and yet they have a common theme: the fact that uncertainty is a necessary consequence of pluralism but also the strength derived from uncertainty. Both articles warrant reading.

Excerpt from Berger's article:
In the course of my career as a sociologist of religion I made one big mistake and had one big insight (arguably not such a bad record). The big mistake, which I shared with almost everyone who worked in this area in the 1950s and '60s, was to believe that modernity necessarily leads to a decline in religion. The big insight was that pluralism undermines the taken-for-grantedness of beliefs and values. It took me some time to relate the insight to the mistake. And it has only been very recently that I understood the implications for the position of Protestantism in the contemporary world.

Modernity, as has become increasingly clear, is not necessarily linked to secularization. It is so in a few areas of the world, notably in Western Europe, and in some internationally visible groups, notably the humanistically educated intelligentsia. Most of the world today is as religious as it ever was and, in a good many locales, more religious than ever. The reasons for the above-mentioned exceptions are intriguing, but cannot concern us here.

Pluralism, for our purposes, can simply be defined as the coexistence and social interaction of people with very different beliefs, values and lifestyles. This state of affairs is indeed generally associated with modernity, but it does not necessarily lead to secularization, as is most clearly shown by America, a "lead society" (to use Talcott Parsons's term) both for modernity and for pluralism. Rather, the effects of pluralism are more subtle, but nonetheless of great importance: pluralism influences not so much what people believe as how they believe.

Throughout most of history human beings have lived in situations in which there was general consensus on the nature of reality and on the norms by which one should lead one's life. This consensus was almost everywhere grounded in religion and it was taken for granted. The pluralistic situation necessarily changes this, for reasons that are not at all mysterious. They have to do with the basic fact that we are social beings and that our view of reality is shaped by socialization, first in childhood and later in the relationships of adult life. Where socialization processes are uniform, this view of reality is held with a high degree of taken-for-granted certainty. Pluralism ensures that socialization processes are not uniform and, consequently, that the view of reality is much less firmly held.

Put differently, certainty is now much harder to come by. People may still hold the same beliefs and values that were held by their predecessors in more uniform situations, but they will hold them in a different manner: what before was given through the accident of birth now becomes a matter of choice. Pluralism brings on an era of many choices and, by the same token, an era of uncertainty.

Historically, of course, Protestantism was itself an important factor in bringing about this situation, and not only in America. It was the Protestant Reformation that undermined once and for all the unity of Western Christendom. Its principle of individual conscience carried within it from the beginning the potential for an ever-expanding variety of Christian groupings. This development was not at all intended by the Reformers, but history is always the arena of unintended consequences.

As to America, the combination of its immigrant population and its regime of religious liberty necessarily made it into the most pluralistic society in the modern world. Eventually every religious tradition, however reluctantly, was profoundly affected by the simple fact that it no longer controlled a captive population of adherents, that the latter now had the choice of staying on or going somewhere else. Protestantism, especially American Protestantism, had to come to terms with this situation first. It is still faced with its very great challenge.

There are individuals who thrive on a situation in which nothing can be taken for granted, in which they are faced with a multitude of choices. Perhaps they could be called the virtuosi of pluralism. But for most people the situation makes for a great deal of unease. This response may derive from profound aspects of human nature. There is what John Dewey has called "the quest for certainty" - certainty at least when it comes to the most important questions of life. The clash between the built-in uncertainty of the pluralistic situation and the urge for at least a measure of certainty helps explain a rather curious phenomenon in contemporary culture - the alternation of relativism and absolutist claims to truth.

To say that nothing can be taken for granted any longer means that all claims to truth are relativized. In the extreme case this leads to a kind of nihilism which asserts that not only can one not be certain of anything but that the very idea of truth is illusory. A number of so-called postmodernist theories have legitimated this idea, but it can also be found among people who have never heard of currently fashionable French philosophers. In this view, everyone has the right to his own opinion and the only remaining virtue is an all-embracing tolerance. At first such relativism is experienced as a great liberation, especially for individuals coming out of some narrow provincial milieu.

After a while, though, the liberation itself is experienced as a burden, precisely because of the aforementioned yearning for certainty. At that point the allegedly liberated individuals become susceptible to any offer of renewed certainty. This susceptibility leads to a potential for conversion to any doctrine that comes along with an absolute claim to truth. The convert now embraces a pose of unshakable certainty. Not to put too fine a point to it, he becomes a fanatic.

This movement has often been observed among converts to this or that "fundamentalist" sect, whose doctrine may be religious but could just as well be secular. The recipe on offer by all such groups is always the same: Come and join us, and we will give you the certainty for which you yearn. Then the nihilist becomes a fanatic. However, the tightly knit community into which the convert has been initiated may once more be felt to be constraining, as much or more so than the old provincial or traditional milieu. Then a new alleged liberation may occur, and so one moves back again into the relativizing dynamic of the pluralistic situation.

The dialectic between relativism and the competing claims to absolute truth is ongoing. In every nihilist there is a fanatic screaming to get out, and conversely every fanatic is a potential nihilist. Most people, of course, are neither fanatics nor nihilists; for them, the dialectic plays itself out in less extreme forms. But they too are caught in the dilemma of reconciling their nostalgia for certainty with a social reality in which such certainty is very hard to come by.

And an exceprt from Jonathan Rauch's article:
The war on prejudice is now, in all likelihood, the most uncontroversial social movement in America. Opposition to "hate speech," formerly identified with the liberal left, has become a bipartisan piety. In the past year, groups and factions that agree on nothing else have agreed that the public expression of any and all prejudices must be forbidden. On the left, protesters and editorialists have insisted that Francis L. Lawrence resign as president of Rutgers University for describing blacks as "a disadvantaged population that doesn't have that genetic, hereditary background to have a higher average." On the other side of the ideological divide, Ralph Reed, the executive director of the Christian Coalition, responded to criticism of the religious right by calling a press conference to denounce a supposed outbreak of "namecalling, scapegoating, and religious bigotry." Craig Rogers, an evangelical Christian student at California State University, recently filed a $2.5 million sexual-harassment suit against a lesbian professor of psychology, claiming that anti-male bias in one of her lectures violated campus rules and left him feeling "raped and trapped."

In universities and on Capitol Hill, in workplaces and newsrooms, authorities are declaring that there is no place for racism, sexism, homophobia, Christian-bashing, and other forms of prejudice in public debate or even in private thought. "Only when racism and other forms of prejudice are expunged," say the crusaders for sweetness and light, "can minorities be safe and society be fair." So sweet, this dream of a world without prejudice. But the very last thing society should do is seek to utterly eradicate racism and other forms of prejudice.

I supposeI should say, in the customary I-hope-I-don't-sound-too-defensive tone, that I am not a racist and that this is not an article favoring racism or any other particular prejudice. It is an article favoring intellectual pluralism, which permits the expression of various forms of bigotry and always will. Although we like to hope that a time will come when no one will believe that people come in types and that each type belongs with its own kind, I doubt such a day will ever arrive. By all indications, Homo sapiens is a tribal species for whom "us versus them" comes naturally and must be continually pushed back. Where there is genuine freedom of expression, there will be racist expression. There will also be people who believe that homosexuals are sick or threaten children or--especially among teenagers--are rightful targets of manly savagery. Homosexuality will always be incomprehensible to most people, and what is incomprehensible is feared. As for anti-Semitism, it appears to be a hardier virus than influenza. If you want pluralism, then you get racism and sexism and homophobia, and communism and fascism and xenophobia and tribalism, and that is just for a start. If you want to believe in intellectual freedom and the progress of knowledge and the advancement of science and all those other good things, then you must swallow hard and accept this: for as thickheaded and wayward an animal as us, the realistic question is how to make the best of prejudice, not how to eradicate it.

Indeed, "eradicating prejudice" is so vague a proposition as to be meaningless. Distinguishing prejudice reliably and nonpolitically from non-prejudice, or even defining it crisply, is quite hopeless. We all feel we know prejudice when we see it. But do we? At the University of Michigan, a student said in a classroom discussion that he considered homosexuality a disease treatable with therapy. He was summoned to a formal disciplinary hearing for violating the school's policy against speech that "victimizes" people based on "sexual orientation." Now, the evidence is abundant that this particular hypothesis is wrong, and any American homosexual can attest to the harm that the student's hypothesis has inflicted on many real people. But was it a statement of prejudice or of misguided belief? Hate speech or hypothesis? Many Americans who do not regard themselves as bigots or haters believe that homosexuality is a treatable disease. They may be wrong, but are they all bigots? I am unwilling to say so, and if you are willing, beware. The line between a prejudiced belief and a merely controversial one is elusive, and the harder you look the more elusive it becomes. "God hates homosexuals" is a statement of fact, not of bias, to those who believe it; "American criminals are disproportionately black" is a statement of bias, not of fact, to those who disbelieve it.

Who is right? You may decide, and so may others, and there is no need to agree. That is the great innovation of intellectual pluralism (which is to say, of post-Enlightenment science, broadly defined). We cannot know in advance or for sure which belief is prejudice and which is truth, but to advance knowledge we don't need to know. The genius of intellectual pluralism lies not in doing away with prejudices and dogmas but in channeling them--making them socially productive by pitting prejudice against prejudice and dogma against dogma, exposing all to withering public criticism. What survives at the end of the day is our base of knowledge.

What they told us in high school about this process is very largely a lie. The Enlightenment tradition taught us that science is orderly, antiseptic, rational, the province of detached experimenters and high-minded logicians. In the popular view, science stands for reason against prejudice, open-mindedness against dogma, calm consideration against passionate attachment--all personified by pop-science icons like the magisterially deductive Sherlock Holmes, the coolly analytic Mr. Spock, the genially authoritative Mr. Science (from our junior-high science films). Yet one of science's dirty secrets is that although science as a whole is as unbiased as anything human can be, scientists are just as biased as anyone else, sometimes more so. "One of the strengths of science," writes the philosopher of science David L. Hull, "is that it does not require that scientists be unbiased, only that different scientists have different biases." Another dirty secret is that, no less than the rest of us, scientists can be dogmatic and pigheaded. "Although this pigheadedness often damages the careers of individual scientists," says Hull, "it is beneficial for the manifest goal of science," which relies on people to invest years in their ideas and defend them passionately. And the dirtiest secret of all, if you believe in the antiseptic popular view of science, is that this most ostensibly rational of enterprises depends on the most irrational of motives--ambition, narcissism, animus, even revenge. "Scientists acknowledge that among their motivations are natural curiosity, the love of truth, and the desire to help humanity, but other inducements exist as well, and one of them is to 'get that son of a bitch,'" says Hull. "Time and again, scientists whom I interviewed described the powerful spur that 'showing that son of a bitch' supplied to their own research."

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

But only by virtue of its results

From A Jacques Barzun Reader by Michael Murray, an essay, The Centrality of Reading

Several comments worth calling out.
What is the present situation of literacy? It is a state that does little credit to our efforts. The universal light which, according to the hopes of one hundred years ago when most of the great Education Acts were passed, was supposed to bathe the world in knowledge and reason is not as dazzling as our generous ancestors expected. Its great source was to be literacy, and literacy is not in the ascendant.


. . . Simple blindness to the truth that reading and its necessary twin, writing, constitute not merely an ability but a power. I mean by the distinction that reading is not just a device by which we are reached and reach others for practical ends. It is also and far more importantly a mode of incarnating and shaping thought.


Here we touch the political and social causes of the whole sad odyssey that has brought America to the condition of being a land of semi-literates. Make no mistake about it: the causes are not ignorance, poverty, or barbarous instincts; they are "advanced thinking," love of liberty, and the impulse to discover and innovate. It is from the action of the literate, the cultivated, the philosophical, the artistic that the common faith in the power of reading as central to Western civilization has been destroyed. The target of the separate attacks and collective animus has been the very notion of power, discipline, constraint.

For it is true that none of these resemble the rival goals which sophisticated thought preferred - the free play of fancy, creativeness, and immediate enjoyment; self-expression, novelty, and untrammeled choice. The intellectual elite had learned the value of these meritorious pleasures in the writings of the best philosophers, artists, and political thinkers, and with impatient contempt of school dullness and rote learning resolved to emancipate the child and "give" him these joys.

The folly consisted, not in wanting the lofty results, but in thinking they were an alternative set that could be reached directly. I have elsewhere defined this fallacy as "preposterism" - seeking to obtain straight off what can only be the fruit of some effort, putting an end before the beginning. It should have been obvious that self-expression is real only after the means to it have been acquired. Likewise, for the other pleasant exertions, there are conditions sine qua non. And these justly praised parts and privileges of a free spirit are in fact used in meeting these conditions, in learning itself: the child is self-expressive when he painstakiingly forms the letters a, b, c, - though he is not quite ready to "create" a "poem." Nor can creativeness be the object of his learning, since it is by definition unlearnable.


These constrasts do not mean that tradition is right and innovation wrong; that artists ought not to try making all things new; that scientists may not experiment ad lib; that imagination should not have free play; that equality is not the noblest of political ideas; that children should not be treated with courtesy and affection. The point of the contrast is that what we have from our expensive schooling is not what we thought we were getting.


Nothing is right by virtue of its origins, but only by virtue of its results.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

His only home

From The Jacques Barzun Reader by Michael Murray:
. . . the situation of modern civilized man, whose increasing knowledge makes him more and more self-critical, anxious, beset by doubts, and hence more and more an alien in the natural world that is his only home.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Define: Armigerous

From Unnatural Causes by P.D. James.
My family is not armigerous as it happens, so the writer is being a little pretentious but as he shares that failing with my Income Tax inspector and half the tradesmen in Soho, we can hardly consider it a clue.

From Wikipedia:

In heraldry, an armiger is a person entitled to use a coat of arms. Such a person is said to be armigerous.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

I keep six honest serving-men

From Ruyard Kipling's Elephant Child:
"I Keep Six Honest Serving Men ..."

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

I let them rest from nine till five,
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men.
But different folk have different views;
I know a person small -
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!

She sends'em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes -
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A hypothetical bookshelf manifesto

From Open Letters Monthly magazine, In Defense of the Memory Theater by Nathaniel Schneider.

I think these are pretty good criteria for what we seek from books - whether traditional or e-books.
One could phrase the basic demands of a hypothetical bookshelf manifesto like this: for-life, liberatedness, and the pursuit of eclecticism. They're all related. "For-life" means the right to keep one's books as long as one lives and, just as importantly, to pass them on to one's descendants. They must not be take-away-able by the fiat of a far-away corporation. They must be in a medium and format that will be readable in a hundred years and, if we know what's good for us, in five thousand. "Liberatedness" means that the texts are truly ours to do with as we please, short of harming others. We can lend them to enemies and friends. We can mark them up or damage them. We can move them around wherever we like, and wherever the technology allows, freely organizing and categorizing them to all the limits of our private compulsions. Finally, "the pursuit of eclecticism" means that there should be no limit on the breadth of our collections. Plainly, no censorship. These are all things that my shelf of paper and cardboard do quite well and that the most celebrated digital alternatives, so far, do not.

Friday, September 10, 2010

To advance upon them harmoniously

A Speech at Eton in Irish Essays by Matthew Arnold

A series on notable passages:
Nobody can say that the bathing at Eton is dirty and nasty. But at Eton, as at Nicopolis, the moral disposition in which the pupil arrives at school, the thoughts and habits which he brings with him from home and from the social order in which he moves, must necessarily affect his power of profiting by what his schoolmasters have to teach him. This necessity is common to all schooling.


As Goethe says of life: Strike into it anywhere, lay bold of it anywhere, it is always powerful and interesting,--so one may almost say of classical literature. Strike into it where you like, lay hold of it where you like, you can nearly always find a thread which will lead you, if you follow it, to large and instructive results.


The word I will take is the word eutrapelos, eutrapelia. Let us consider it first as it occurs in the famous Funeral Oration put by Thucydides into the mouth of Pericles. The word stands there for one of the chief of those qualities which have made Athens, says Pericles, "the school of Greece;" for a quality by which Athens is eminently representative of what is called Hellenism: the quality of flexibility. "A happy and gracious flexibility," Pericles calls this quality of the Athenians; and it is no doubt a charming gift. Lucidity of thought, clearness and propriety of language, freedom from prejudice and freedom from stiffness, openness of mind, amiability of manners,--all these seem to go along with a certain happy flexibility of nature, and to depend upon it.


Here, I say, is the true moral: that man has to make progress along diverse lines, in obedience to a diversity of aspirations and powers, the sum of which is truly his nature; and that he fails and falls short until he learns to advance upon them all, and to advance upon them harmoniously.

Hard work

Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

No real acquaintance

From Huxley's famous debate with the Bishop of Oxford regarding Charles Darwin's Origin of Species.
I had listened with great attention to the Lord Bishop's speech but had been unable to discover either a new fact or a new argument in it - except indeed the question raised as to my personal predilection in the matter of ancestry - That it would not have occurred to me to bring forward such a topic as that for discussion myself, but that I was quite ready to meet the Right Revd Prelate even on that ground - If then, said I, the question is put ... would I rather have a miserable ape ....

I asserted, and I repeat, that a man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for a grandfather. If there were an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling, it would rather be a man, a man of restless and versatile intellect, who, not content with an equivocal success in his own sphere of activity, plunges into scientific questions with which he had no real acquaintance, only to obscure them by an aimless rhetoric, and distract the attention of his hearers from the real point at issue by eloquent digressions and skilled appeals to religious prejudice.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding

Plato's dialogues (Phaedrus 14 274c-275b):
Socrates: [274c] I heard, then, that at Naucratis, in Egypt, was one of the ancient gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called the ibis, and the name of the god himself was Theuth. He it was who [274d] invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters.

Now the king of all Egypt at that time was the god Thamus, who lived in the great city of the upper region, which the Greeks call the Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god himself Ammon. To him came Theuth to show his inventions, saying that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians. But Thamus asked what use there was in each, and as Theuth enumerated their uses, expressed praise or blame, according as he approved [274e] or disapproved.

The story goes that Thamus said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, [274e] "This invention, O king," said Theuth, "will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered." But Thamus replied, "Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; [275a] and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess.

For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem [275b] to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

Phaedrus: Socrates, you easily make up stories of Egypt or any country you please.

Socrates They used to say, my friend, that the words of the oak in the holy place of Zeus at Dodona were the first prophetic utterances. The people of that time, not being so wise as you young folks, were content in their simplicity to hear an oak [275c] or a rock, provided only it spoke the truth; but to you, perhaps, it makes a difference who the speaker is and where he comes from, for you do not consider only whether his words are true or not.

Phaedrus: Your rebuke is just; and I think the Theban is right in what he says about letters.

Socrates: He who thinks, then, that he has left behind him any art in writing, and he who receives it in the belief that anything in writing will be clear and certain, would be an utterly simple person, and in truth ignorant of the prophecy of Ammon, if he thinks [275d] written words are of any use except to remind him who knows the matter about which they are written.

Phaedrus: Very true.

Socrates: Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when [275e] once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself.

Phaedrus: You are quite right about that, too.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

I see my life pass before my eyes

From Open Letters Monthly magazine, In Defense of the Memory Theater by Nathaniel Schneider.
As I look over my own shelf, I see my life pass before my eyes. The memories grafted onto each volume become stirred and awakened by a glance at the spine, which presents itself to be touched, opened, and explored. Without the bookshelf's landscape to turn to, that manifest remainder from a lifetime of reading, how would one think? What would one write?

Monday, September 6, 2010

The future belongs . . .

From Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:
The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope.

You're not thinking; you're just being logical

Physicist Neils Bohr:
You're not thinking; you're just being logical.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A sojourner, as all my fathers were

From Death of an Expert Witness by P.D. James. p. 309.

He climbed into the right-hand stall. On the cushion was a heavy black leather Book of Common Prayer which looked unused. The pages opened stiffly and the bold black and red lettering shone from the page.
For I am a stranger with thee: and a sojourner, as all my fathers were. O spare me a little, that I may recover my strength: before I go hence, and be no more seen.

Faithful old Mr. Brain

Old Mr. Brain from The Children's Book Number One 1907-1908.
Old Mr. Brain

Old Mr. Brain is fat and round
He is dressed in a coat of gray;
He sits alone in his office snug,
The whole of the live-long day.

Old Mr. Brain is a busy man,
He toils with all his might;
First to awake at peep of day,
And last to sleep at night.

Old Mr. Brain never leaves his place,
Way up in the top of the head;
Always at home from the time he's born,
Until the day he's dead.

Old Mr. Brain has messengers five,
Their names you now shall hear,
The come from the skin and the tongue and the nose,
They come from the eye and the ear.

Touch is the sense that lies in the skin,
How everything feels, he tells.
The tongue is for taste and the ear for sound,
And the nose is the home of smells.

The eye is the wonderful home of sight,
So that old Mr. Brain can see
To let in the light of the world without -
"The window of the soul" is he.

Hurrah! Hurrah! for the senses five.
Hurrah! and Hurrah! again.
May the life be long and the work well done,
Of faithful old Mr. Brain.

The same fragility as a life

Paul Valery:
A civilization has the same fragility as a life.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Such comfort

From Death of an Expert Witness by P.D. James. p. 237.
In any four-star hotel he might have enjoyed greater luxury, but hardly such comfort.

Tantamount to disenfranchising yourself

From Carl Sagan's Billions & Billions, p. 21:
If you know a thing only qualitatively, you know it no more than vaguely. If you know it quantitatively - grasping some numerical measure that distinguishes it from an infinite number of other possibilities - you are beginning to know it deeply. You comprehend some of its beauty and you gain access to its power and the understanding it provides. Being afraid of quantification is tantamount to disenfranchising yourself, giving up on one of the most potent prospects for understanding and changing the world.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Observations on literary durability

From Unnatural Causes by P.D. James.
But always, one returned to the novels with a sense of wonder. They stood like great rocks on the foreshore where so many literary reputations had crumbled like sandcastles in the changing tide of fashion.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

In earnest

Plutarch, from Which are the most crafty, Water or Land Animals?
It was the saying of Bion, that though the boys throw stones at frogs in sport, yet the frogs do not die in sport but in earnest.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Define: Puissance

Define: Puissance
From Death of an Expert Witness by P.D. James. p. 190.
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French pussance, puissance, from pussant able, powerful, from poer to be able, be powerful - more at power
Date: 15th century