Friday, April 13, 2018

Quote: Gene Healy on the Imperiling Presidency

from The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power by Gene Healy. p. 265

Over the course of the 20th century, Americans have transformed the presidency from a modest chief magistrate into a national father protector invested with the responsibility for fixing every major problem in American life. We've matched that responsibility for fixing every major problem with powers that are unlikely to meet those demands, but are virtually certain to threaten the American constitutional order.
How do we choose the person who will wield these powers? By accident more than design, we've come to select the president via a competition that favors boundless ambition and power lust. The winner of that competition lives in a social environment that would corrupt a saint. And he walks the halls accompanied by the military aide who carries the nuclear launch codes. 
Published by and available for free as a PDF from The Cato Institute.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

My UnTwitter

How I use Twitter:
  1. "This looks interesting. It reminds me of something..."
  2. Spend time looking for the quote, image, etc.
  3. If necessary, translate.
  4. Stop to be with my family.
  5. Write a short reflection.
  6. Stop to be with my family. 
  7. Hem-and-haw about how much detail to include
  8. Edit and post to blog.
  9. Post to Twitter with no reference to original Tweet.
  10. Declare success
Therefore. . . something reminded me of this line from Velleius Paterculus about the Roman Tribune Marcus Livius Drusus, born c. 131 BC. Speaking to an architect who promised him a very private abode on the Palatine, Drusus replied:

"si quid in te artis est, ita compone domum meam, ut, quidquid agam, ab omnibus perspici possit". [The Latin Library]
"If there is anything of skill/craft/art in you, construct my house so that whatever I do is able to be observed/examined by all."
According to Velleius, it was outside that house that he was assassinated, after which promptly started the Social War between Rome and several allied Italian cities over the issue of Roman citizenship that Livius had tried to address, without success.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Mow Vergil, Mow Problems

Forged by Vulcan himself, the Aeneas 500
cuts through grass, weeds, Greeks,
Rutulians, and more!
My wife and I often spend the duration of our daughter's naps at some quiet work or gently scurrying about the house trying to rescue it from the pitiless clutches of entropy. This past Sunday afternoon, though, we decided to take it easy. We reclined and took up some light reading: Bob Murphy's Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and New Deal for my wife and for me Ritchie's Fabulae Faciles, of which I had yet to read the sections on the Argonauts and Odysseus.

We were listening to Mozart's string quartets, starting with my favorite, the B-flat of the Haydn set (KV.458.) The temperature was the ideal, just cool enough to justify a thin blanket, and the mood most relaxed.

So while the weary Odysseus was dozing his crew opened the bag of winds that blew them, nearly home, away again, I too dozing was suddenly and violently awakened by the plosive, clangorous din of someone's lawnmower. Ritchie quotes not Homer but Vergil's account in Aeneid I of Aeolus unleashing the winds upon Aeneas and his fleet fleeing Troy:

     . . . velut agmine facto
qua data porta ruunt, et terras turbine perflant.

So too might you describe the violent, teeming onrush of sound from these modern mechanical banes to peace and quiet. A thousand curses upon these machines and endless tempests on their drivers! May ever twigs be beneath their feet and weeds at their heels!

Even if I were not offended by their emissions—noxious to both nose and ears—I would disapprove of what seems a grossly disproportionate use of force. Who needs a large gas-powered machine to cut grass? It's grass, for crying out loud. If you have issues with the flora, go pick on some your own size.

For my part, I'm quite content merely to trim the grass without the casualty of the neighborhood's serenity and so I'm also pleased with my manual push-mower. It's quiet, so I can hear my wife and daughter, who are able to play in the yard while I mow, there also being neither fumes nor risk of high-velocity projectiles. More of a tool than machine, it requires only lubrication and is easily sharpened when run in reverse. It simply requires prudent use and a little muscle, though less than you might expect.

Like tools of yesteryear, I find it encourages discipline. The mower is not effective—indeed it is useless—if the grass is very tall, so I have a great incentive to be consistent and not cut corners. I cannot let the yard go for weeks and then sweep in and chop it all down in a great fury of fumes and blades. Too as the often firm and stiff clothes of yesteryear encouraged an upright posture, so I find the mower cuts best, and I am most comfortable, when standing upright and pushing with the strength of my arms, which are also exercised to greater strength.

In contrast consider the effects of mowers that propel themselves. Their operators lay slumped over them, seeming almost to be dragged along. Worse are the unfortunate drivers of large riding mowers, who perched atop their colorful rides seem endlessly to orbit their trees and flower beds like the motorized ornaments of Christmas displays.

I wish I found the situation so humorous last weekend, but in the moment the noise seemed a violation. Something beautiful was lost—or at least prematurely ended—not out of necessity but because quiet, and therefore that which comes only in quiet, are no longer valued.

Perhaps I need my own alta moenia.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Things I Don't Get: Beethoven in Smurfs for the ColecoVision

Vienna, 1802. Ludwig van Beethoven takes a stroll through in country outside the city. The birds are singing as a soft, wispy cloud momentarily blots out the sun. Beethoven stops to run his hands over the heather and as filaments of light shine through the slender cloud and warm his fingers, the heart of the composer awakens full of joy in this realm of nature. His journal entry for the day reads, "Today a tune came to me straight from nature. I have begun to work it into a theme for a pastoral symphony, but in truth I just hope it makes it into Smurfs for Colecovision."

Not enough? Then mix in the Shaker theme from Copland's Appalachian Spring and loop both themes ad infinitum without development in front of trees that look like I could have drawn then in Microsoft Paint and voila! nature itself. Now throw in a little blue mushroom-dwelling socialist wearing a white Phrygian cap and dodging birds and bats and well smurfy smurf smurf you have something totally absurd.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Dvorak, Go Where I Send Thee?

The incorporation of folk forms of expression into works of higher art is an old tradition in Western music, and we find some of that tradition's most famous examples in the music of Antonin Dvorak written after his 1893 visit to America. As usual, the symphonic work is more famous than the chamber, and so String Quartet #12 is overshadowed by its big big brother, Dvorak's 9th Symphony.

Pinning down the exact influences of the folk melodies has been challenging and it seems to me not much definitive has been written on this topic, which has much revolved around the famous theme from the Largo. One influence, however, seems clear to me from the first movement. What do you think?

Dvorak's 9th Symphony: I. Adagio

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Thoughts on Homeschooling, Part I

Parents usually surprise me by approving of my wife's and my intent to educate our children ourselves. Older folks and people without kids are especially full of praise, as are fogies of all ages. All three groups have a sense that something is amiss these days, and that' it's best to handle some things yourself.

Parents, however, who are following or who recently have followed modern social and educational dogmas, however, extend a particular, rather predictable compliment, namely that my wife and I are intelligent. The thinking goes, I suppose, that since we are smart, the kids will become smart. I really do appreciate the confidence, but to reduce the choice of rejecting schools to a matter of smarts, needed by parents and desired for children, misses the point. Such a reduction is a wide misstep, sometimes deliberate, in understanding not only what motivates people to homeschool, but also in understanding oneself and one's own family.

More particularly, most everyone has by the time of parenthood come to his conclusion about his intelligence. Particularly, most everyone thinks that he is smart. I have known only two people ever in my life who claimed to be stupid. (One was right.) What people imply by praising homeschooling parents as intelligent, I suppose, is this: since intelligence is the only or at least the chief prerequisite for homeschooling and since they too are smart, they too could home-school, if they so chose. If they are among the few who don't believe themselves so smart, this simplification of the requirements exonerates them from trying and, conveniently, permits them to think that their dim wits are the only things stopping them.

In either case, by predicating homeschooling on one single virtue about which they have a foregone conclusion, people don't consider the actual requirements. My thesis is that if they considered homeschooling seriously, i.e. considered the actual requirements, they would benefit from the introspection even if they decided not to homeschool. I offer two examples of matters which homeschooling families must address which are often not considered by other families and which, left unconsidered, can hurt the family.

First, regardless of their opinions of themselves, most people are not quite so smart, at least insofar as smart implies being both broadly informed and keen-minded. We simply become trained at one or a few tasks that we repeat thousands, perhaps tens-of-thousands, of times. Eventually we confuse this habit and local expertise for universal intelligence, that is, until a few variables in our work are changed and we are thrown for a loop. Too I observe with regret that many people sharply lean, in both interest and expertise, toward either the sciences or the humanities. What is so wrong with this is not the direction of their focus but the conceit that accompanies it.

People in the sciences do not want to admit that they can scarcely string together a few competent sentences and would be hard pressed to explain basic grammar. (I pass over the implications of this on the clarity of their thought.) They think they are brilliant logicians, but they are often just prosaic literal-minded dullards, unmoved by subtlety, beauty, and anything which may not be computed but must be considered with taste or wisdom.

The humanities experts—I was going to write humanists but that's hardly appropriate these days—don't want to admit that they cannot perform long division or calculate percentages and that they have not the faintest understanding of or interest in the laws of nature, unless perhaps you post a short YouTube video explaining how to "hack your tofu with science," or "science the shit out of" your vinyl records.

The sad truth is that parents, perhaps just some but probably many, are hypocrites for forcing their children to slave over work that they themselves don't value and that they don't consider valuable in general. Kids eventually discern this, of course, whether by seeing their parents' ignorance of the knowledge itself or even their parents' abject denigration of the subject, ("You'll never really use this." "Just memorize it for the test.") Who wouldn't, then, resent the work and lose faith in academic institutions? Worse, though, is that when the kids catch on to the ruse the only recourse parents have (apart from learning, of course) is to tell the children to do as they are told. At that point learning devolves from an exploration of the principles to which we all, teacher and pupil and parent and child alike, are subject, into an authoritarian, utilitarian, regimen. "Get your work done. Get good grades." It is unsurprising then how often the few hours families spend together are spent in quarrels over homework no one really cares about.

Second, then, many parents really can't imagine being home with their kids all day anyway. Instead of learning together, parents grow frustrated and impatient with the tortuous course of learning they have long forgotten. The result is that they can't wait to be away from their kids and go back to their own business. You can see in their eyes that they just don't know what to do with their kids when they are together without some task to perform. They need jobs like homework and after-school activities because there is no purpose to modern life besides the work and consumptive entertainment that crowd out the leisure that, by building bonds, allows natural affection to flourish. Families need uninterrupted, purposeless, inefficient, time together. In contrast, imagine this common scenario:

A mother spends, let's be generous in our estimations, six months with her children from when they are born. They are then cared for by daycare workers or extended family for perhaps 10 hours a day, at least 250 days (i.e. weekdays) out of the year, for another 4.5 years. Then during the next 13 years, the kids spend at least 7 hours-per-day in school for 180 days of the year, out of which year their parents spend 50 weeks working 9am-5pm.

Now throw into into such a mix the fact that both parents are tired from working, the family's finances are overextended, the schedule is overbooked, and they have no one to turn to for wise advice, it's no wonder that the few hours families spend together are fraught with stress. This, I think, is the reason that digital devices have become such popular babysitters: parents welcome them.

I formerly thought that the saddest sight likely in a restaurant was that of a restaurant diner fiddling on her cell phone while her mortified date looked desperately around the room for a comforting nod of sympathy. How lonely such pained souls look, not only invited and ignored, but put on public display in their ongoing rejection. How much worse is the plight of the child, though, brought along and then given the device by which he is meant to occupy himself as he sits nibbling on his French fries and dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. Such neglect—public and unabashed—of kids, with their little faces aglow in the blue light of a cell phone while their parents chat away, saddens me.

Parents of such unfortunate kids are suffering too, though not how they think. Part of me sympathizes with them, since their modern bourgeois lifestyle is so complex and contradictory in its requirements as to seem designed to immiserate. Still, flypaper attracts flies, fools gold attracts fools, and such people chasing middle class pipe dreams are typically so deluded that they think their terrible situation is not only acceptable, but good. (Or that it could be improved by means of money.) What is worse to me, though, is how this quagmire seems easily capable of swallowing generations of the family, depriving who knows how many of a true liberal education characterized by a peaceful love of learning, rich, broad, and deep, and full of curiosities and of interest unique to the family.

That seems to me a beautiful thing, though I'm not saying at all that homeschooling is best for everyone. I am saying feigning or assuming that sending their children to school is a conscious, informed choice, that they understand and value the work to which they sentence their children, and that they have close bonds in their family, masks their lack of a guiding vision of life.

To Be Continued in Part II

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Quote: On The Teaching of Benjamin Jowett

from, The Life and Letters of Benjamin Jowett: Master of Balliol College, Oxford. by Evelyn Abbott and Lewis Campbell. 1897. Vol I. p. 199-201.

He managed always to direct the study of language so as to promote literary culture. The pieces set by him for composition were choice specimens of classical English, which prompted higher efforts, and led to a closer intimacy with great writers. . .
His criticism in those days stimulated without discouraging. In setting before the mind a lofty idea he implied a belief in powers hereafter to be developed and the belief seemed to create the thing believed in. But the intellectual stimulus was not all. He seemed to divine one's spiritual needs, and by mere contact and the brightness of his presence, to supply them. If he was ready to repress conceit, he was no less ready to bestow encouragement on the diffident, and sympathy upon the depressed; not without timely warning, when he saw the danger or temptation was at hand. His intimate knowledge of his former pupils' lives was applied to heal the errors of their successors, and his own experience of early struggles also had its effect. He ignored trifles, but never let pass any critical point.
. . . If there was less of exact scholarship imparted by him. . . the whole subject was surrounded with an air of literary grace and charm which had a more educative effect.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Quote: Sallust on Self-Indulgence

Sallust. Bellum Catilinae. 13. (Trans. J. C. Rolfe. 1921)

. . .the passion which arose for lewdness, gluttony, and the other attendants of luxury was equally strong; men played the woman (muliebria pati), women offered their chastity for sale; to gratify their palates they scoured land and sea; they slept before they needed sleep; they did not await the coming of hunger or thirst, of cold or of weariness, but all these things their self-indulgence anticipated. Such were the vices that incited the young men to crime, as soon as they had run through their property. Their minds, habituated to evil practices, could not easily refrain from self-indulgence, and so they abandoned themselves the more recklessly to every means of gain as well as of extravagance.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Quote: Heidegger on The Poet and the Fugitive Gods

Martin Heidegger. Poetry, Language, Thought. "What Are Poets For?" Translated by Albert Hofstadter

Poets are the mortals who, singing earnestly of the wine-god, sense the trace of the fugitive gods, stay on the gods' tracks, and so trace for their kindred mortals the way toward the turning. the ether, however, in which alone the gods are gods, is their godhead. The element of this ether, that within which even the godhead itself is still present, is the holy. The element of the ether for the coming of the fugitive gods, the holy, is the track of the fugitive gods. But who has the power to sense, to trace such a track?  Traces are often inconspicuous, and are always the legacy of a directive that is barely divined. To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods. That is why the poet in the time of the world's night utters the holy.