Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Progressive Family

More on progressivism in the news today, this time from Phillip Longman at Big Questions Online. His article, Demography and Economic Destiny, discusses the indebted welfare states and falling birthrates of the West. My thoughts on this article will be brief. Like last week's article on progressivism my point is not to moralize but to tease out the premises and logical consequences of the attempts to define progressivism and the arguments used in favor of it.

First consider the title, Demography and Economic Destiny: it's a rather cold title considering what the article is about: taking care of both children and the elderly. Second, the article is fourteen paragraphs long and one word is absent until the final. That word is family. Considering the subject matter, its absence is a little odd, don't you think?

Also revealing is the context it comes up it, "Government programs designed to smooth the tensions between work and family." So working and family are inherently in tension and the government tries to fix this "natural" tension. That sounds odd, since for most of human history the family was considered a very efficient economic unit. People once got married in part to pool their resources, yet yesterday in the WSJ I read that allegedly young people were putting of marriage until they were better off financially. I have yet to make sense of this development though there are undoubtedly other factors involved.

The author goes on to write:
And in countries both rich and poor, we see a rise in religious fundamentalism and patriarchy, which are the old-fashioned (and proven) means of keeping birthrates above replacement rates.
It certainly seems that the author equates family with "fundamentalism and patriarchy." (I wonder how many husbands in the West today would consider themselves "patriarchs.") We ought to note that if he doesn't equate these things then he considers a "traditional" family completely off the radar as a solution to taking care of people, since he has posed that problem and won't have mentioned "traditional family" at all. ("Traditional" is another word noticeably absent.) In that case the alternatives are the state or "fundamentalism and patriarchy," the former of which he concedes has failed and the latter of which certainly seems unfavored by him. So it is impossible for a non religiously-fundamentalist or patriarchal family to exist? What about without the "help" of the state?

The author truly seems to lament the days in which the welfare state was thought to have been discovered as a perfect means of taking care of people:
As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Samuelson once proclaimed, in defense of America’s Social Security system, “a growing nation is the greatest Ponzi scheme ever contrived. And that is a fact, not a paradox.” But Samuelson was writing in 1967, when it looked as if the Baby Boom would go on forever.
Obviously in this context then, the welfare state was seen as the substitute for the family for taking care of the elderly. No more did a couple potentially* have to save and take care of their parents (up to four for the couple.) They didn't have to sacrifice a room that could have been a den or even stayed in the neighborhood where their parents lived to take care of them, potentially passing up job offers in other states. As long as we had enough "young workers" a new "generation of retirees" could partake in Social Security et al and the "young workers" could be "liberated" from the demands of. . . family.

I haven't read E. F. Schumacher's "Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered" but after reading this article I very much sympathize with the title.

* I say potentially because, obviously, many could and did plan for their retirement. Once all you had to do was put some money aside from your paycheck each week. Remember when you didn't have to speculate to avoid losing your money? I don't. (See here: If you don't watch the video, read the summary and anecdote below it.)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Autumnal Reflections, II

Bach and Vivaldi: Baroque Voices on Death and Bounty

[Updated: See below.]

I. Bach

Yesterday Mr. Northcutt thoughtfully reflected on the aesthetic and theological profundity of the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. The corpus of Bach's cantatas (and chorales) astounds in its size as a whole as well as in the size and complexity of each work. Still it has been estimated that only about 200 of a potential 500 cantatas were preserved. Each has its own character and each of the sacred cantatas reflects the context of its place in the Christian liturgical year. We have mentioned here already Sir John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, his journey through Bach's Europe to play the cantatas on their appropriate day.

The cantata for this past Sunday, the 17th Sunday after Trinity, Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost, BWV 114, has to me an appropriate autumnal quality and such is what brought it into this series of reflections.

Summary of Movements:
  1. Chorale Fantasia: Ach, Lieben Christen, Seid Getrost
  2. Aria: (Tenor) Wo Wird In Diesem Jammertale
  3. Recitative: (Bass) O Sünder, Trage Mit Geduld
  4. Chorale: (Soprano) Kein Frucht Das Weizenkörnlein
  5. Aria: (Alto) Du Machst, O Tod
  6. Recitative: (Tenor) Indes Bedenke Deine Seele
  7. Chorale Finale: Wir Wachen Oder Schlafen Ein

1. The opening choral fantasia expresses an admission of sin and a welcoming of punishment, senses expressed with great potency in three themes: 1) the rather despondent opening theme on the oboes and 1st violin,  2) the contrasting figure in the lower strings urging us to "keep heart," and 3) the trilled, trembling dotted quaver figure. The contrasting and appearances of these themes, in different voices, modulated, in imitation, make a richness of both musical texture and theological expression: it is not the sorrowful but the joyful theme which accompanies the final phrase, "Niemand darf sich ausschließen/Let no one be excepted" [from punishment] and with which the chorale ends.

2. The following recitative for tenor is intensely personal. Following the journey of the wandering flute theme would make for a wonderful meditation and I recoil from dissecting it. We might simply say this recitative in D minor is in two parts: a peregrinate and somber opening on "Wo wird in diesem Jammertale Vor meinen Geist die Zuflucht sein?/Where will within this vale of sorrow my spirit find its refuge now" and an almost-sprightly passage, vivace in 12/8, on "Allein zu Jesu Vaterhänden/Alone in Jesus' hands paternal."

4. The striking and transporting effect of this soprano choral is ingenious in its simplicity: the gently lilting, almost declamation of the text over the "scattering" continuo figures.

Kein Frucht das Weizenkörnlein bringt,
Es fall denn in die Erden;
So muss auch unser irdscher Leib
Zu Staub und Aschen werden,
Eh er kömmt zu der Herrlichkeit,
Die du, Herr Christ, uns hast bereit'
Durch deinen Gang zum Vater.
No fruit the grain of wheat will bear
Unless to earth it falleth;
So must as well our earthly flesh
Be changed to dust and ashes,
Before it gain that majesty
Which thou, Lord Christ, for us hast made
Through thy path to the Father.

5. Here is one of Bach's most beautiful and tender melodies and in perfect character in the voices of the oboe and alto. Sublimely intertwined as none other would be for some time, they travel together. We are protected and in death not destroyed but transformed (Verklärt) and pure (rein.)

Wir wachen oder schlafen ein,
So sind wir doch des Herren;
Auf Christum wir getaufet sein,
Der kann dem Satan wehren.
Durch Adam auf uns kömmt der Tod,
Christus hilft uns aus aller Not.
Drum loben wir den Herren.
In waking or in slumbering
We are, indeed, God's children;
In Christ baptism we receive,
And he can ward off Satan.
Through Adam to us cometh death,
But Christ frees us from all our need.
For this we praise the Master.

What strength, invention, vision, and beauty Bach poured into all of his creations. Here is an autumn-tide reflection on death and new life, on man's state and redemption. It is a meditation from a man who knew much death throughout his life, losing both his parents within a year when he was ten, his wife Maria Barbara, and seven young children. Here is a world tinged with sadness at its fallen state, but vivified and made significant through a most profound and glorifying faith.

II. Vivaldi

Where Bach's cantata relentlessly looked beyond this world Vivaldi's concerto is of a decidedly earthly nature. It is a jocular celebration of not just the autumn harvest bounty but of all the uniqueness of the season. One risks making Vivaldi and this work seem frivolous by placing it in direct comparison with the Bach cantata above, but the works are of a different nature and character. Bach was writing a musical expression of not autumnal ideas specifically but theological ideas with similar notions of seasonal motion and generation and corruption. Vivaldi was writing a programmatic concerto about the character and joys of Autumn and as such is a wonderful and contrasting companion to the Bach cantata. (Coincidentally, both pieces date from around 1724.)  A poem accompanies the concerto, perhaps also by the composer.

Op. 8, Concerto No. 3, 'Le quattro stagioni: L'autunno'

The first movement is notated, ballo, e canto de vilanelli, that is, with dancing and singing and in a rustic style, and del felice raccolto il bel piacere, i.e. the joy of a good harvest. We hear the rippling dance rhythms, piano and forte, the descending scalar figures of falling down tired, twirling triplets mixed with the dance rhythm, and racing scales. The festivities conclude with a contented sleep: piano and larghetto, cautious little figures in the first violin over repeated quavers in the others. It's like tiptoeing through a room of passed out revelers: don't wake anyone.

The slow movement is ubirachi dormienti, in a drunk sleep. Nature calls us to cease and invites rest. The atmosphere remains as the end of the fast movement, though we transition to the relative, D minor. Here the mood is dominated by the figure of a dotted half note and an either ascending or descending crotchet triplet. The bass chords are arpeggiated throughout the movement and with the timbre of the harpsichord the effect is that of a chill setting in, an icy stillness settling over a landscape.

The final movement is in the old style of the caccia, the hunt. Even in Vivaldi's time the caccia was an old Italian form (though French in origin) which commonly included rustic themes of fishing and fires, and particularly, of course, hunt. The form may be in canon, but here we have two characters introduced by the tutti one after the other. The first figure is a smooth and striding choriambic figure, i.e. its metrical quantity is long-short-short-long, following by a descending semiquaver figure in the lower voices. The second figure is a scampering little thing of semiquavers. The soloist then takes up the second theme for a few bars followed by the tutti with the first theme for a few more. Now the chase ensues, the beast flees to a flurry of triplets, dogs chase to a rush of thirty-second-notes, and with rising and falling figures they chase here and there. With a dazzling array of virtuosity we experience the frenzy of the hunt before it suddenly ends, the pursued overcome, as the first theme trots to a halt.

Whereas Bach's cantata was sobered by, even preoccupied with, the notion of death, Vivaldi's L'autunno' brims with the joys of a happy and healthy life. In Part I we read Horace stress balance and these two views of the Autumn and all of its associations neatly contrapose and make for a healthy disposition.

Update: This interview (in two parts: Part I | Part II) with Trevor Stephenson is a great introduction to the stylistic differences between German and Italian Baroque composers like Bach and Vivaldi. It nicely elucidates some of the reasons for the contrast we discussed here.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Modest Proposal: Bach of a Sunday

"Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful."
--- The Republic of Plato, tr. by Benjamin Jowett

Of all the extraordinary human achievements in the arts, few can compete, in grandeur of conception and perfection of form, with the collected cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. In the past, it was customary to overlook the cantatas in favor of the Passions and Oratorios, to relegate Bach's work-a-day cantatas to second place. Needless to say, I think that's a forced dichotomy: the cantatas ought to be studied for their own sake, not as also-rans but as integral part of Bach's musical cosmos.

When I lived in New York, I was fortunate enough to hear several cantatas in their proper liturgical context and as prescribed by the Lutheran church year. This fine opportunity was the work of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (ELCA). (Holy Trinity's Bach Vespers were, incidentally, my conversion, or the beginning of my conversion, to authentic performance.)

As a believing and practicing catholic Christian, I never cease to wonder at the profundity of Bach's Incarnational art: any Christian could profitably meditate on both the libretto and the musical setting. And to do so would be as fine a Christian education as any man could procure today. (I leave to one side the question of how a non-believer could relate to the music, a vexing inquiry that cannot easily be answered either with pious platitudes or secular-aesthetic ratiocination.) In concert with the day's lectionary appointments, Bach's cantatas are a potent reflection on and elaboration of the Christian life. And as such, they might be commended to ordinary believers and clergy alike.

To that end and to show the way, I have vowed to listen, every Sunday and festal day, to one of the appointed cantatas.

It's a project that will take several years to complete. I may not have the opportunity or time to reflect on the experience here, every Sunday, but I will do so as often as I can. And with an eye to elucidating the theological significance of the work in question. Unhappily, I can't boast the theoretical knowledge of my co-blogger.

Today's cantata, appointed for the 17th Sunday after Trinity (lectionary readings are here), is BWV 114 Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost (Ah, fellow Christians, be consoled). The English translation can be found here. I will be using Alfred Dürr's Cantatas of J.S. Bach as the source for my English translations and textual commentary.

And for the all-important recordings, I will be listening to Ton Koopman's Amsterdam Baroque Choir and Baroque Orchestra. Koopman is a fine and faithful interpreter of Bach's music: I am particularly impressed by the clarity and strength of tone he gets from his instrumentalists. An early (and not entirely unjustified) complaint about authentic practice performers was the weak sound: Koopman's ensemble is entirely innocent of such shortcomings, however. And his own personal enthusiasm for Bach's music is infectious.

The Great Pablo Casals

Cellist Pau Casals i Defilló, known as Pablo Casals, on Bach, simplicity, and beauty. In both videos Casals, 1876-1973, comes off good-natured, good-humored, and most humble about his craft and the world.

Autumnal Reflections, I

Horace, Schubert, Baldung: Memento mori

The sentiment of memento mori or, remember you will die, has probably its strongest association with the Epicurean notion of ataraxia, or imperturbability. It's most beautiful expression is certainly in the third poem of Horace's second book of odes:

Aequam memento rebus in arduis
seruare mentem, non secus in bonis
  ab insolenti temperatam
    laetitia, moriture Delli,
seu maestus omni tempore uixeris,
seu te in remoto gramine per dies
  festos reclinatum bearis
    interiore nota Falerni.

Horace in particular seems to suffer terribly in translation, thus I refrain from doing so and kindly refer you to the "crib" translation in Michael Gilleland's thorough discussion here. The Roman concept was characterized by a forbearance of suffering and an admonition against hubris. Such a concept beautifully compliments and reinforces the sentiments of carpe diem and nunc est bibendum, now is [the time] for drinking, both of which also received potent expression in Horace (1.1 and 1.37, respectively.) Don't torment yourself trying to discover the future, don't trust it. Yet there are things worth celebrating. Now this is no specific philosophy, but a practical and general one of aphorisms meant to inform decisions and temper life's pangs, little and great alike. This temperate state is reflected in the structure of the opening stanzas: the separation of memento and moriture places the latter in the center of the ideas, intensifying the preceding admonition and casting a shadow over the second stanza. Horace's beautiful imagery is all tempered by the fact that we enjoy such things only at the permission of the Fates, and that ultimately it is the heir who enjoy the riches. No matter what station you enjoyed in life, everyone is equal victim to Orcus. So when the poplar and the pine make some shade for you, sit with your choice wine and enjoy it.

What culminates in a manly composure and a temperate serenity in the Roman world, though, gets quite different treatment in later eras. Two of them seem to be particularly close kin. In the hands of Hans Baldung the concept takes on a morbid character. A student of the great Albrecht Dürer, Baldung, writing during the German Renaissance captured and emphasized the sense of loss of spirit, of decay, of being doggedly pursed and drained of the life energy. Look at the horror of his, Death and the Maiden (c.1518-20.) (right) Notice the disturbing quasi-musculature of death and also his embrace, caressing a particularly tender area with his left hand and supporting her head and tresses with his right. Their faces make a horrid scene: an embrace subverted. She's pale, "white as leprosy" to borrow from Coleridge, and most curious of all, more saddened and aghast than afraid.

Left, in The Knight, the Young Girl, and Death (1505) Baldung emphasizes the pursuit. Here the arresting palette generates the shock more than any actual sense of motion. The foreground grass receives more detail than the horse, whose tail is in just one bold stroke, but draws your attention. The eye moves from the man to the woman, to the tail, to the leftmost center: the frightful contrast of the skull chomping at her hem. Here death, falling apart and leaking entrails, struggles for the woman. The flashy prince, with the help of his steed, looks as if he might succeed. . . today.

Romantic composer Franz Schubert would pick up these two themes in nearly identical terms about three hundred years later. In Death and the Maiden, Schubert sets Matthias Claudius' poem to  music which seizes us with us somberness and apparent simplicity. The theme of death, slow and soft and without large intervals, is all the more disturbing for its relaxed nature, a nature it shares with the Baldung's death-lover above. "Softly shall you sleep in my arms" he ends.

Der Tod und das Mädchen, D.531

In Die Erlkönig Schubert takes up the pursuit theme which was present but less physical in the second Baldung we looked at above. This is a triumph of characterization both for Goethe and Schubert. The "elven" king is ever calm, his attention roused from its dryadic slumber by the presence of the child. Schubert makes the flight from death, the incessant clack of horse-hooves, the focus of the piece. Our horror intensifies as the elf king appeals directly to the child, "softly promising to him" and again at the child's increasingly terrified cries.  The final cadence ends the piece with a startling sense of finality.

Die Erlkönig, D.328

Every era, every people, every person even has his own response to the urgency created by mortality. The indomitable character praised in the Roman view was most appropriate for such a sober and practical people, and Horace's cautions are not surprising for a people who, at the time, endured much political uncertainty. Baldung's audience too knew strife through plague, war, and schism. The Romantic reaction is somewhat curious and inverse: a reminder despite success. Though not over war or strife, man had conquered nature with industrialization, but not death, as the supernatural nature of Schubert's songs remind us.

Horace's odes emphasized order with each thought, each word in exquisite balance. Baldung emphasized certain a morbid curiosity at the contrasts of generation and corruption. Schubert's musical expression gave new strength to the frightful sensuous and the shock of immediacy. They all emphasized the poignancy one's ultimate end bestows on every moment.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Around the Web

For Saturday, August 28 through Friday, September 24.

1-2) Roger Scruton:
3)  The Progressive Theory of History by Murray N. Rothbard [Mises Daily]

4) Albert Jay Nock and the Libertarian Tradition [Mises Daily]

5) Roger Kimball on “Wrecking the Cathedrals” [Right Network]

6-7) On A new edition of H.L. Mencken’s Prejudices:
8) On J. R. R. Tolkien, Map-making, and 'Subcreation' [The One Ring]

9) Richard Brookhiser on James Madison: Father of American Politics and media-savvy activist [WSJ]

10) Randy E. Barnett and William J. Howell on the case for a "Repeal Amendment" [WSJ]

11) David Gordon reviews "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do" by Michael J. Sandel [Mises Daily]

12) Diverging Tastes of Pre-Raphaelites
13) Bach, Bedrock and Catalyst: João Carlos Martins and the Orchestra Filarmônica Bachiana at Avery Fisher Hall [WSJ]

14) A first-time-ever exhibition at London's Victoria & Albert Museum is displaying four of Raphael's Sistine Chapel tapestries. [WSJ]

15) Electronic distribution from The Metropolitan Opera [WSJ]

16) An exhibit titled "The Art of Ancient Greek Theater," is on view now at the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles [WSJ]

17) Restoring DaVinci: Leonardo in a new light [Art Newspaper]

18-19) Tons of fun: The Met's new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen [NY Post]

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Defining Progressivism

I tend not to talk practical politics here and more importantly I tend not to talk about polemical political articles. In this case, though, indulge me because I would like to wrangle over a definition. In Dissent Magazine, Conor Williams defends Progressivism.

Let me say it does not instill confidence when someone starts defining something by what it is not. Also, let us bear in mind two points from our discussion of argumentation a few weeks ago. 1) "a definition is a thesis." [Post. An. I.ii. 72a] 2) one may attempt to fashion a definition for rhetorical purposes, excluding all of the negative aspects of a word from your particular use of it and ascribing them to an opposing idea, instead of attempting to discover the essence of your subject.

Mr. Williams seems already to be off to a shaky start on point #1 with his non-definition.

I'll simply address some of his addressings of concerns in turn.

Much of modern progressivism is founded upon American pragmatism, a homegrown school of political thought.
Hmmm. Interestingly, the definition of pragmatism has interesting implications here. Since it means, in brief, that if an idea is practical, i.e. if it works, then it is moral to that extent. Ironically, built into that definition is a lot of wiggle room. What constitutes "working?" Williams adds, "a homegrown school of political thought." What do its origins matter? Does he mean to suggest that pragmatic ends are subordinate to some other considerations? It feels like he's saying that pragmatism is American and that somehow it can't be at odds with anything else which is American. That's quite cleverly written, I must say, since he does not say as a proposition, what he thinks someone who is not progressive would like to hear, "pragmatism is subject to finite values like liberty, freedom of speech, et cetera." Yet those who disagree are meant to read that into the statement. Very clever!

Mr. Williams in the same paragraph:

Rights are not “natural,” but they are still meaningful and extremely important. The pragmatists recognized that rights mean different things in different historical contexts. The meanings of “freedom of speech,” “citizenship,” the “right to vote,” and “property” have changed over time in the United States because of important shifts in public understanding.
This is a very interesting way to continue the line of thought. Again, he seems to be saying something so obvious as to be incontrovertible: the values come from the people. In fact he is capitalizing on his definition of pragmatism; this is logically honest but less so given his presentation. We asked above, "Does he mean to suggest that pragmatic ends are subordinate to some other considerations?" Now we have our answer: No. Political values are the arbiter of the good, and if they change, they change. Then he says, "Much of modern progressivism is founded upon American pragmatism, a homegrown school of political thought." He leaves himself more wiggle room with "much." Clearly some of progressivism is founded upon something else. This is a very handy definition of pragmatism: whatever you want plus the authority to do it "if it works."

We ought to note the obvious distinction between "Rights are not 'natural,'" vs. "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Yet by Mr. Williams' definition, clearly the former has precedent.

Mr. Williams goes on to say:

Thus, for most progressives, rights represent a wager we have made as a political community, a wager with our fellow citizens as to the sort of life we aim to live.
Notice the lack of distinction between society and politics. I postulated a few weeks ago that somehow some people seem to relate to one another without relationship to public law. As a result, manners, which are impossible to legislate, fell by the wayside because they weren't proscribed. Mr. Williams prompts me to a similar diagnosis. According to this proposition, there is no appeal to anything other than popular considerations.

Williams continues, consistently not appealing to natural rights:
In the United States, the right to vote has expanded over time to include American citizens of all races and of both sexes, because Americans came to believe that this was a better way to live as a political community.
 Progressives only argue that calling rights “natural” artificially fixes their meaning, often in troubling ways. After all, the “natural” right to property once meant a right to own other humans, and the “natural” right to vote originally was limited to white male citizens with a sufficient amount of property. Sanctifying rights as “natural” makes them convenient tools for justifying outrageous injustices.
This is the crux of the matter, the heart of "progressivism." His point is that pinning something down, defining it finitely, means you cannot change it, and you need to change things, according to pragmatism, when people think things need to be changed. This lack of acknowledgment of a finite end is what has caused and will continue to cause non-progressives to label progressives as nihilists. As defined, progressivism is nothing more than a broad appeal to "the good" without appeal to anything more definite.

Williams continues:

Progressive philosopher John Dewey asked Americans to consider the meaning of individual freedom through the following thought experiment: imagine an individual without property, education, or employment. Is this individual free to amass property? Would it matter if she was?
This hypothetical is significant because in Williams' argument it appears to flow from his discussion of pragmatism, but in fact it stems from a different definition of "freedom." We are meant to understand that the political status quo is a failure because the constitution wants to guarantee liberty and this woman cannot "amass property." The actual point is that our the founding principles of the United States rest on a different definition of freedom: the pursuit of happiness unencumbered by the government, not happiness as guaranteed by the government. This is a very clever slight by the author.

Williams continues:
PROGRESSIVES’ WILLINGNESS to challenge the hegemony of “neoliberal” interpretations of property rights law often prompts the most vituperative reactions from conservatives. They charge that reconsidering the meaning of various sections of the American Constitution represents a grave threat to its original intent. Against this accusation, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. maintained that the law was meaningful as a source for ongoing interpretation, not as a set of fixed principles. While the Constitution does not permit infinite interpretation, he argued that “in a civilized state it is not the will of the sovereign that makes lawyers’ law, even when that is its source, but what a body of subjects, namely the judges, by whom it is enforced, say is his will.” If progressives revisit the meaning of American ideals, principles, or rights in response to structural changes, they are only continuing in a long-running project of American self-critique and matching legal and political revision.
This is just another example of pragmatism: the people want to change the law and they change the law. Look at that last sentence: he's appealing to the tradition of "revisiting" American ideals for the right to revisit them. Again, this is consistent with his position, but notice the frightful trend in this article: there is no delimiting principle.

Williams puts forth a common objection to progressivism but does not seem to understand the nature of the objection:

. . . conservatives frequently claim that acceptance (and qualified endorsement) of changes in political meanings reflects the utopian optimism at the heart of the progressive intellectual tradition. If past meanings of individual liberty are constantly superseded by new and improved versions, doesn’t this imply eventual arrival at political perfection?
The second sentence is simply baffling. It would prompt one to say, "Of course not, not if they are being constantly superseded." Aside from also implying that all change is good change, i.e. progress, it implies an expects an undefined and unknown final end, which will come about by constant change. So apparently we won't know it when we see it, but when we see it we'll love it. In case we doubted the contradiction, Mr. Williams continues:
To be a progressive is to admit that dogmatic certainty has no place in a complex world with many moving parts, and that the best we can offer each other is a commitment to engage, experiment, and reevaluate our choices.
Wouldn't claiming to have found "political perfection" be very. . . dogmatic? So apparently we won't know perfection when we see it and we won't love it.

That would not seem to be the best argument for progressivism.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Farewell to Summer

Am Abend schweigt die Klage
des Kuckucks im Wald.
Tiefer neigt sich das Korn,
der rote Mohn.

Schwarzes Gewitter droht
über dem Hügel.
Das alte Lied der Grille
erstirbt im Feld.

Nimmer regt sich das Laub
der Kastanie.
Auf der Wendeltreppe
rauscht dein Kleid.

Stille leuchtet die Kerze
im dunklen Zimmer;
eine silberne Hand
löschte sie aus;

windstille, sternlose Nacht.

---Georg Trakl


The Serendipitous Life of the Mind

Philosophy, music, poetry, and myth are recurring preoccupations in this corner of the web. And I see it as part of our vocation to convey some of our own enthusiasm for these endeavors. To that end, we aim at lucidity and sincerity. But much of human cultivation consists in canonization: the compilation and passing on of lists. "To whom shall we go?" is a perennial human question. Whether our goal is wisdom, or beauty, or delight, we largely depend on the guidance and suggestion of our predecessors. That is the chief value of literary, musicological, or philosophical criticism: it aims at the renewal and perpetuation of a canon of artists and thinkers.

One of the ancillary delights in the life of the mind is its bottomlessness: we'll never arrive at the end of these studies. Poetry, music, and philosophy must not only be studied, but lived. As a young man, I often expressed frustration at my inability to comprehend a great many things, but more mature now, I have realized that certain things simply have to be wrestled with for years. Beethoven's last string quartets, Heidegger's Being and Time, Eliot's 'Four Quartets', Bach's Art of Fugue, are not simply artistic or philosophical creations, to be dissected and discussed: they are worlds.

I realize I'm saying nothing new: for those who've discovered these joys, no words of mine would be sufficient to describe their import. But aside from these obvious and lifelong devotions to certain preeminent and canonical artists and thinkers, one of the chief joys is the discovery of the new: the addition (and in some cases, subtraction) of certain creators to the mind's pantheon. I've often experience intense delight at the discovery of a hitherto unknown artist: Bartok, Schoenberg, Heidegger, Jaspers, Husserl, Matisse, Cezanne, are just a few of the names that but recently meant very little to me. Serendipity has to account for much of that discovery: the casual encounter or conversation that sends one to the library.

In that vein, I'd like to commend a recent musical discovery: the symphonies of the 20th century English composer, Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986). (Devoted readers may recognize Rubbra's name as a source for Mr. Vertucci's recent essay on counterpoint: Rubbra's Counterpoint: A Survey is as fine an introduction as one could get to the subject.) Unfortunately, given the mandarin-ism of contemporary classical music and its obsession with novelty and political radicalism, his work is little known, and even less appreciated, such that none of his symphonies are available on YouTube. As my acquaintance with Rubbra has only begun, I will refrain from further comment, but I would encourage readers to seek out his work: I believe he can stand comparison with other great symphonists of the 20th century.

(Viola-players are fortunate in the English composers: it seems that the English must have a particular veneration for the instrument, not only in ensemble, but also as a solo instrument: one thinks of Walton's concerto, Elgar's viola arrangement of his own cello concerto, Britten's Romances and Elegies for Viola and Piano.)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Composition Lessons with J.S. Bach

Don Freund, composer and Professor of Composition at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, has a wonderful series of discussions of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier available on YouTube. It is a tremendous resource to have available for free and online. The lectures are highly elucidating and instructive. Whatever your level of musical knowledge I think you'll get much from these lessons.
Recording the videos in wide-screen, Professor Freund presents himself at the keyboard on the left with a color-coded version of the score on the right. Again, these are wonderful resources: kudos and thanks to Professor Freund and Indiana University for making this possible.

Also, they're fun to watch: I'm sure Professor Freund's courses are a pleasure.

Check out Professor Freund on the web at his:
N.B: Parts I & II discuss Fugue and III the Prelude

The Well-Tempered Clavier: Prelude & Fugue in B-flat Major

Part I | Part II | Part III

Sunday, September 19, 2010

APLV: One Year

This blog is a little older than one year, in fact. More precisely this is my one year blogging anniversary. My fine and excellent co-blogger Mr. Northcutt most kindly suggested I share my thoughts and I have been most gratified for having done so, particularly in this place and in his esteemed company. Many thanks also to our wonderful readers and of course to those of you who comment here, especially Tom! Thank you so much for taking the time to read our work, reflect, and share your thoughts.

I hope everyone likes what we've done with the place. We certainly address diverse topics: Mozart, the Battle of Marathon, John Constable, and Iron Man. Perhaps we are too general for many folks, those who admire specialization. Well, in the words of Robert A. Heinlein, "Specializing is for insects!" (Exclamation mine.) I say that in part jest, knowing well how much scientific, artistic, and philosophical fruit was born from years and years of intense and focused study. "Play the lyre, but not too well," that is, "enjoy you hobby, but not at the expense of your craft" seems a prudent caution, but who can put aside Bach for Homer, Aeschylus for Shakespeare, and so forth? Perhaps simple balance is required. Exasperated at the variety of projects I had going I said to Mr. Northcutt not long ago, "I have Homer, sheet music to The Magic Flute, and battle plans for the Civil War on my desk!" (You'll find out why eventually.) Balance. Of course I hope the themes which run through the various essays are consistently evident.

Yet that's more of a personal aside. Regarding APLV, my concern was a little different. I did want not to become the go-to guy for a particular idea. It seems to me most writers have a shtick of one sort or another. If you want an argument for x, you turn so-and-so. You have the political partisans, statists and anarchists, multi-culturalists and nationalists, modernists and traditionalists, and so on. We pass over all of the cranks and variously unhinged people swinging around the branches of the web. I do not suggest an individual refrain from having firm opinions, far from it. Yet here too some people are simply obtuse and some have the opinion of the last person they spoke to.  Being a reasonable person requires, as I see it, neither rigidity nor malleability, but something more difficult: rational inquiry. Only consistent study, meditation and reflection on the world can give you a sense of the nature of things. Only a curiosity about that nature will get you to study. Only a desire for "a good life" will make you curious. Maybe we could have named the blog, "Reasonable, detailed, and enthusiastic inquiries into important matters for the purpose of leading a good life." It's only marginally longer.

That all sounds self-evident to some extent. Knowledge and doing good, it all sounds pretty obvious. Yet every so often someone makes a crack about philosophy and I recall that not everyone is so disposed. Nonetheless it is from this perspective which we inquire, not, to paraphrase Allan Bloom, from a desire to parade our intimacy with high culture. As such, while your humble bloggers are passionate about their ideas, as much as this blog is a discussion of them in the particular it is an affirmation about a way of life, what one might call that of the gentleman scholar. We've emphasized the scholar aspect, I'd like to touch on the notion of the gentleman.

Conveying a gentlemanly tone was a tad more challenging. It involved in great part simply passing over the offensive and the foolish.  Please don't take this silence as consent. Every so often it requires passing over an interesting argument from an unpleasant person. I tend to note the page, return to it much later, and then discuss the issue in the abstract at some distance from the individual.

Not too long ago we discussed, in the context of legal systems, that a dialectical system of inquiry requires two people arguing opposing points and that a synthesis is the hoped-for result. Bearing that in mind, every so often you read an article or a comment thread and you want to shout at someone, "Can't you stop trying to prove your point and help me figure this out! I'm not trying to prove anything, I'm trying to discover something I don't yet know."

I do not think, though, we've done much shouting here. I've started a few essays and then discontinued them because I was getting too testy. Generally I never respond to anything immediately after I read it but rather I always try to wait some time and get some distance from it. Everything I think is of note gets bookmarked in a temporary folder. Every week I go through the folder and sift through the essays. It still surprises me at what seemed particularly egregious, fascinating, et cetera, at first glance last week.

Since I started writing here I'm sure I became more conscious as to what I would and would not say. Along with this consciousness came a realization that many people lack such a filter. I'm continually surprised, again, about the readiness with which people cut, quip, and quarrel. I think this careless contumeliousness invariably desensitizes one both to humorous drollery and honest criticism. It is curious how many modern educated people don't know when to remain silent. Some people seem, to paraphrase Bloom again, more concerned with speaking their mind than having their own mind. I do not know to what to attribute this lack of restraint in speaking, but it seems to me that an abiding but not relentless seriousness enhances the appeal of unbuttoning one's wit.  I hope we've not been too serious. Perhaps we seem a little more so because of the abyssal, abysmal, depths of frivolity to be found. Without bringing up a separate matter, humor and seriousness are complementary: one may seriously mock something or point out incongruities toward a serious purpose. Yet history affords us few of the likes of Aristophanes and Swift. Such work, I think, can be healthy for a society. I do not, though, think the incessant swiping and squawking one finds all-too-easily is pleasant or useful and I don't think it will be remembered.

Regarding popularity, I haven't assiduously kept track of the statistics. Nonetheless, the most popular essays have been:
Is there anything we wrote, did, or abstained from which you particularly liked? Is there anything we ought or ought not to do? Is there anything in particular you would like to see, either particular articles or "threads." Would you like more about the Classical world?  Less on Mozart? (Not likely to happen, but you can tell me.) Current (not necessarily popular) culture commentary? Do you like the "Around the Web" roundup? I've reduced it to bi-weekly: is it missed? More movie reviews? More music analysis? Let us know.

Once again, many thanks to my good friend and collaborator Mr. Northcutt, and to our readers and those who have commented. We have many essays, series, and projects planned so please stay with us.  If you haven't joined the conversation please take the liberty. Also, please feel free to take a look at the articles in the archives and the wonderful sites in the blogroll. In the mean while, though, take a look back at my first post. For better and worse it still seems relevant.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Response to "Economic Thought in Ancient Greece"

A Response to "Economic Thought in Ancient Greece" by Jesus Huerta de Soto.
Original article at the Mises Institute:

Precis of de Soto's article:

The intellectual odyssey that laid the foundations for Western civilization began in classical Greece. Unfortunately, Greek thinkers failed in their attempt to grasp the essential principles of the spontaneous market order.

This is a fine article and a very good look at the thought which separates 21st century economic thinking from that of the Classical world, the essence of which is the conception of spontaneous market order. Now I must as a Classicist admit I have more affection and respect for the parties in question, even when I [vociferously] disagree.

That said, there are a few points I would like to comment on. My intent is not to "correct" Mr. de Soto, but rather to expand upon various points of his since where Plato and Aristotle go awry, I believe they go awry in interesting and instructive ways. I have not been comprehensive here, but I hope I have provided some context and interesting questions.

N.B. This is a brief first and slightly off-the-cuff reaction to the article. I may add to or otherwise revise it in the near future, but I have posted it so soon toward the end of sharing it with more people by getting it out closer to the publication of the original article. Comments/corrections are still, of course, welcome.


Now it is not hard to criticize Socrates and indeed his final self-defense did not endear him to the assembly. Nonetheless, and it seems odd to have to say this, but Socrates deserves some commendation. No matter how sympathetic you are to the charges of "corrupting the youth," the philosophizing and questioning Socrates was advocating were not yet in the air, let alone in the lifeblood of Western Civilization. Socrates was, really for the first time, widely presenting and disseminating it. Today we can pick up philosophy books, take classes, and freely and openly question just about anything. Now I do not only mean that we are free from compulsion or free from repression in the sense that we might be forcefully restrained from questioning. More important is that we know to question in the first place, and I think Socrates deserves a little credit for that.

As Socrates says in his defense, [I paraphrase] You bring me here for corrupting the youth. But who is more criminal: me, or you who pretend to be serious and to care for things which you never cared about at all?

Not all of the Greeks were amused, and in fact this summary from Wikipedia, intentionally or not, captures the hilarity of Aristophanes Clouds (Νεφέλαι):

Faced with legal action for non-payment of debts, Strepsiades, an elderly Athenian, enrolls his son in The Thinkery (the "Phrontisterion") so that he might learn the rhetorical skills necessary to defeat their creditors in court. The son thereby learns cynical disrespect for social mores and contempt for authority and he subsequently beats his father up during a domestic argument, in return for which Strepsiades sets The Thinkery on fire.

Aristophanes' description of the "Thinkery" or "Thinking Shop" (Clouds, 94)

ψυχῶν σοφῶν τοῦτ᾽ ἐστὶ φροντιστήριον.
ἐνταῦθ᾽ ἐνοικοῦσ᾽ ἄνδρες, οἳ τὸν οὐρανὸν
λέγοντες ἀναπείθουσιν ὡς ἔστιν πνιγεύς,
κἄστιν περὶ ἡμᾶς οὗτος, ἡμεῖς δ᾽ ἄνθρακες.
οὗτοι διδάσκουσ᾽, ἀργύριον ἤν τις διδῷ,
λέγοντα νικᾶν καὶ δίκαια κἄδικα.

Translation (Hickey) via Perseus Project:

This is a thinking-shop of wise spirits.
There dwell men who in speaking of the heavens
persuade people that it is an oven,
and that it encompasses us, and that we are the embers.
These men teach, if one give them money,
to conquer in speaking, right or wrong.

Socrates (up), Students (down), amidst studies. [1]

Of course it's all slightly less "funny" and more darkly ironic when you recall they did in fact poison him. Indeed Socrates mentions the unflattering and  false (he says) portrayal in his defense. [2] What was that line about being "remembered as the fools who killed Socrates?" Indeed.


Now clearly there is a lot in The Republic that. . . well, anyone would disagree with. I should point out Anders Mikkelsen' piece also at the Mises Institute, "The Politics of Plunder in Plato's Republic" [3] which offers the novel and interesting argument that "Plato's Republic is an exposition of the logical consequences of basing civic and personal life on injustice. It condemns political life based on institutionalized injustice — specifically theft and plunder." Let us then confine ourselves here to a few points.

de Soto writes

What is even worse is that Socrates's statolatry was so obsessive that it led him to confuse the positive law derived from the city-state with natural law. He believed people should obey all the positive laws derived from the state, even if they are contra naturam, and thus he laid the philosophical foundations for the legal positivism on which every tyranny to emerge after him in history would rest.
First, I don't know if "confusion" is the proper word. I believe the section in question is from the Crito (The Crito is quite short and the whole dialogue addresses this question.) Second, this is an excellent point I wish de Soto had delved into. Socrates' point seems particularly puzzling since he starts the dialogue by rebuking his old friend Criton for caring what other people think and then goes on to say one should obey unjust laws. I don't think one could argue the dialogue is very paternalistic and statist in tone. Most people would in fact find it off-putting. Socrates, having been convicted, imagines what the state would ask him if he tried to run away: [Translations, W.H.D. Rouse]

Tell me Socrates, what have you in mind to do? In trying to do this, can't you see that you are trying to destroy us, the Laws, and the whole state, as far as yo can do to it? Or do you think it possible that a city can exist and not be overturned, where sentence given has no force but is made null by private persons and destroyed. [Crito, 50b.]
Shortly later, the voice of the laws says, "you must either persuade [your country] or do what she commands; you must bear in quiet anything she bids you to bear" [Crito, 51b] Wow! That's certainly unambiguous and at the moment I can't imagine a more statist line. It reminds me of a quote from Theodore Roosevelt, "No man is above the law and no man is below it; nor do we ask any man's permission when we ask him to obey it. Obedience to the law is demanded as a right; not asked as a favor." Sort of makes you want to aim to misbehave, doesn't it?

Yet it would be dishonest to end the discussion here, as the voice of the laws goes on to make the case that Socrates, before he committed this crime, was a free resident of the city. That is, he could have left. Instead, he stayed and chose to be subject to the laws. This is in fact the third of the laws' three arguments, that the criminal does wrong against the state in three ways, 1) because the state is his parents, 2) because the state is his nurturer, and 3) because he was there voluntarily. Speaking of remaining in the city voluntarily, Socrates could have proposed banishment as his punishment. How does this affect his relationship to the laws and state? The situation is now more complicated: if Socrates liked Sparta so much and was free to leave, why didn't he? I don't find de Soto's encapsulation of Socrates' choice very enlightening, and not just because it is unflattering to the philosopher. It would seem worthwhile, though, to take all of Socrates' claims at face value; I think doing so would provide more interesting venues of explanation even if one disagrees.

It seems a perverse situation, perhaps it is just to follow unjust laws but unjust to carry out unjust laws? Is is not just to carry out any law, then? Clearly Socrates thought his situation was just here, and he was also concerned with justice (see the opening two books of the Republic, Republic (588b-592b,  (608c-end.)) I am not presently at liberty to discuss the sections in question as well as the remainder of the Apology, but my point is that it is more profitable to approach the apparent problem with Socrates' ideas by reducing them to the principles which generated them and not simply saying, "he said x which was wrong, y which was bad, et cetera.) Lastly regarding Plato, there is one seemingly very liberal quote I cannot verify or place:
Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.
I'm not at all sure where this quote comes from, whether it is from the main canon of Plato or if it was found as a quotation in another author. It would seem to reflect the Hamiltonian notion that the need for government (for Hamilton a particular type of government [4]) was needed because of man's nature, or at least the "bad" inclinations of some." We might broadly say that "the only need for government is because of criminals." That sounds paradoxical since if there is no law there is no illegality, though we are presumably discussing natural law here. Similarly, Plato says education would reduce the need for laws. (Then again, he would only educate the guardians. Aristotle finds understandable fault with this in Politics 1264a.)

Anyway, perhaps this question was better posed by Aristotle,

"The law has the power to command obedience only by habit, so that a readiness to change laws quickly enfeebles them." So when does one change them then? "Do not change the laws lightly; what you gain may be outweighed by what you lose in obedience." [Politics, II.vii. 1269a]

Clearly to us there is some perhaps unpleasant deference to the state. Again, the state seems to exist for its own sake.Yet we must remember a principle which runs throughout all of Aristotle, that "the whole precedes the part." Thus the state which evolves from the community which evolves from the family is just as legitimate as the family and the pairing of man and woman, which is natural and just (according to Aristotle) because it is of necessity.

We might say that both Aristotle and Socrates seem to say order is more important than liberty, but to say so we would have to consider their definitions of liberty. No one is pro chaos, even if he is against a coercive monopoly of law. As de Soto's phrase spontaneous market order suggests, faith in markets is neither faith in chaos or disorder nor love of disorder, but rather faith in spontaneously arising order. As de Soto quite properly says, the grasping of the spontaneity is truly the issue in discussing "ancient economics."

Prejudices Against Usury

de Soto understandably finds fault with some of the philosopher's positions on usury and money-making. Like Tibor Machan in his article from a few weeks ago [5], I think also and generally finds the philosophers just do not enough value the necessity of making a living.

Aristotle says, "Men want to increase their money without limit because they are intent upon living only, not living well." [Politics, I.ix. 1258a] Yet we must recall the Aristotelian principle that "that which is done for its own sake," that which is an end itself is more valuable. One does not work because he loves working, though he may love what he does, but because it is necessary to support himself. Yet if he plays a musical instrument or studies or takes up a hobby, those things are ends in themselves, done for no other purpose. [Nichomachean Ethics, I.i. 1094a]

Wealth is thus of value, but one must not understand things only in terms of their monetary value. [Rhetoric, II.xiii. 1389b.] One could of course translate that into an axiom more obviously "economic" but Aristotle's point is rather obvious.

Wealth-getting is a natural part of managing a household. Yet some people "turn every quality or art into a means of getting wealth; this they conceive to be the end, and to the promotion of the end they think all things must contribute. [Politics I.ix. 1258a]

Aristotle's censure of usury seems to me to be sensible even if you do not share it. Money, to Aristotle, was simply a stand in for work. You converted your work into coin so you could more easily trade it. Without money you could only barter; if you needed eggs but only had wine to trade, and the man with the eggs didn't want your wine, then you couldn't get eggs. Usury, in contrast, generates more money without adding any new product. There is more coin but the coin is, in this thinking, detached; it does not represent anything. The Greek word for interest, τόκος (tokos) is the same as the word for offspring, meaning that the money is born from money. Yet the disconnection from something of apparent and obvious value makes earning money via usury seem like a cheat.

In Politics, I.ix. 1258b Aristotle says such "wealth-getting" concerns are not "unworthy of philosophy" but rather they are illiberal. For various discussions of Aristotle and "liberality" see Recommended Reading below.

Aristotle on Property

On the one hand Aristotle does say common property would destroy liberality, and (humorously) that, "man will not simply become everyone's friend if property is made common." Certain evils, Aristotle says too, arise from man's nature, like perjury and breaking contracts (See Shuchman in Recommended Reading below.) Aristotle says property should be private, "How immeasurably greater is the pleasure when a man feels a thing to be his own" [Politics, II.v. 1263a.] but that its use should be common. See Swanson in Recommended Reading.

Regarding land and property, I think it is difficult for us in the 21st century with all of our technology to appreciate what seemed plausible in the past. Aristotle and Plato both thought there was an ideal size for a city. Jefferson writing in 1816 describing his system of wards and republicanism wrote:
Were I to assign to [republicanism] a precise and definite idea, I would say, purely and imply, it means a government by its citizens in mass, acting directly and personally, according to rules established by the majority; and that every other government is more or less republican, in proportion as it has in its composition more  or less of this ingredient of the direct action of its citizens. Such a government is evidently restrained to very narrow limits of space and population. I doubt if it would be practicable beyond the extent of a New England township. The first shade from this pure element, which, like that of pure vital air, cannot sustain life of itself, would be where the powers of the government, being divided, should be exercised each by representatives chosen either pro hac vice, or for such short terms as should render secure the duty of expressing the will of their constituents. This I should consider as the nearest approach to a pure republic, which is practicable on a large scale of country or population. [6]

I hope I have pointed out some things of interest, built on some of de Soto's statements, and elucidated some of his quotations.

If I may make one point, though, it would be that the aims of Plato and Aristotle's states were not liberty. The greatest good for the state, for them, was predicated on the greatest good for man. The ideal state is what it is because of what the ideal man is. A liberal state does not pretend that it has a template for the ideal man or citizen, though clearly there is behavior incompatible with liberal-democratic-republican-capitalist society. As Plato says in Republic VIII 561-562, you will find many various "constitutions" to which you will be tempted in a democratic state. Risky indeed, but it beats "being ruled."

Similarly, though, we may ask: Is it legitimate to criticize these authors for making economic mistakes when they were not, properly speaking, considering economics? (i.e. The distinct discipline we know as Economics)

Notionally I appreciate this point but I wonder if the premise would permit fruitful inquiry: because Plato et al didn’t realize they weren’t writing about “economics” we can’t criticize them for being wrong about economics. It would seem not to if one considers economics an objective science. It would appear to be more productive  to take the statements of the philosophers in question in context because these “mistakes” of theirs were made for particular reasons, i.e. not having conceptions of “economics” and a spontaneous order, being consistent with principles stated elsewhere in their work, and working toward a different end. On the one hand we don’t want to pigeon-hole them into later conceptions, on the other we somehow must if we consider there to be a larger set of “true”/objective categories.

In addition to being more constructive and elucidating, perhaps such a discussion about “the why” of their “mistakes” would have tempered the tone of Prof. de Soto’s article and made certain people not bristle so much, particularly those inclined toward philosophizing. We must consider that Plato and Aristotle hold philosophizing itself in high esteem. For them, choosing to spend your free time reflecting on philosophy is a great good.

Overall, I think it is less useful to say, "Socrates, Plato, Aristotle et al" missed x, y, and z" or that "they were wrong about a, b, c et cetera" than to say, "Why wouldn't this have occurred to them?" and "Why did they think this was necessary?" For an important reason probably, and maybe a good one. How can we accomplish that goal by a different means?

[1] Plato attempts to reverse this caricature of Socrates (and philosophers) in Republic VII.529b-529c
[2] Plato. Apology of Socrates, 19c.
[3] Mikkelsen, Anders. The Politics of Plunder in Plato's Republic.
[4] Rosano, Michael J. Liberty, Nobility, Philanthropy, and Power in Alexander Hamilton's Conception of Human Nature. American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Jan., 2003), pp. 61-74
[5] Machan, Tibor R. A Problem with Aristotle's Ethical Essentialism.
[6] Letter to John Taylor. Monticello, May 28, 1816, M.E., XV, 19. in Koch, Adrienne. The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. Columbia University Press, New York. 1957. p. 164

Recommended Reading

Long, Roderick T. Aristotle's Conception of Freedom. The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Jun., 1996), pp. 775-802

McGrade, A. S. Aristotle's Place in the History of Natural Rights. The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Jun., 1996), pp. 803-829

Mayhew, Robert. Aristotle on Property. The Review of Metaphysics.

Shuchman, Philip. Aristotle's Conception of Contract.  Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Apr. - Jun., 1962), pp. 257-264

Swanson, Judith A. Aristotle on Liberality: Its Relation to Justice and Its Public and Private Practice. Polity, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 3-23

Younkins, Edward W. Aristotle, Human Flourishing, and the Limited State.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Trevor Stephenson Compares Tunings

Trevor Stephenson, musician, teacher, and keyboard/keyboard performance practice specialist, discusses tunings.

See also:
 Trevor Stephenson Compares Tunings

Book Stories

A few weeks ago I ordered a book online, not a very unusual happenstance. (The book was Whittaker's two-volume set on Bach's cantatas, if you're curious.) Now your humble blogger is in the habit of embossing his books with a little seal, "From the library of. . ." A particular impetus, I admit, and we will return to it later. Now for the first time, and let me say I've bought and embossed quite a few books, I found it had been embossed by its previous owner. In fact it had been embossed with a nearly identical seal. Of course the first thing I thought was, "Wow, this fellow must really have liked his books." I do not know what suggested my next course of action, though, which was to search for his name on the internet. Why did I think this fellow would show up in a query? Much to my surprise I did find him, and he was a well known teacher, musician, and great music lover from San Francisco. He had recently passed away and I had, as I discovered, bought some of his books from a local organization to which they had been donated. I had come to own this man's books on Bach. Permit me another short story.

Upon receiving another book, "Bach's Orchestra" by C. S. Terry, I found not an embossed seal but a book plate. Neatly glued inside the front cover it read, "Ex libris. . ." with the author's name beautifully calligraphed below. A picture of a globe and an 18th century ship added to the plate's distinguished mien. Then I realized the book plate bore the name of the fellow I had ordered the book from. How curious: would someone in the habit of signing and pasting plates into his books willingly part with one? Perhaps some misfortune or tribulation brought this book to me. I don't suppose I'll find out.

Now those are not the only books of mine with histories unknown to me: some were inscribed as gifts, others were simply quite well-read. They all have stories, though, and frankly even the books which I am the first owner of have stories. Many were gifts, some I had to get for school, many I found by chance rummaging through a book store, some were loaned out and came back a little too. . . well-read. I don't write in my books but I do make little custom indexes for myself, on index cards of all things, and leave them in the book. Quite a few of my books are littered with slips of paper I keep on certain pages I reference often: a favorite story from Herodotus, a particularly poignant ode of Horace, or a bite from Mencken. Which came from the Argossy Book Shop, which from Strand, which from Barnes and Noble. . . the collection is quite a motley assortment. I'm rather sure I remember where I got each one, for the time being. Even the ones, the many, I have ordered online have a special place. One might think them odd out, having arrived at my library seemingly ex nihilo, but the unboxing is a bit of a welcoming ceremony.

Perhaps I've gone too far, waxed animistic, anthropomorphized these bundles of paper. Probably. I'm not quite that attached to them and when I get a new one it's not quite the ritual you might think. (It does get embossed, of course.) My point is that the above stories demonstrate a few reasons why some of us find books pleasurable simply as books. Amidst all of the hubbub and despair over the death of books it does not seem anyone really pinned down why we like them, though despite its faults Nathan Schneider's essay "In Defense of the Memory Theater" [1] danced around the issues.

As I think my above anecdotes suggest, people like stories. We like things with history, hence perhaps the common fondness for antiques. This feature Schneider touched on, that we have our own histories and the books are part of them, reminding us of times, places, events, and people. We like them both as reminder and record, and along with that history we like a sense of continuity. Bacon wrote, "Books are ships which pass through the vast seas of time" and it seems to me we like knowing that a book has been some where, that we are with it now, and that it will go somewhere else in the future. That sense goes a surprisingly long way toward legitimizing reading and buying a book. We like to think the book is important enough to read and that others should too, and that it is important enough to buy: who wouldn't want to read this? Hence also the impossibility for many to throw away a book. Indulge me another story:

In high school our venerable institution was remodeling the library and had decided to throw away many books. The librarian, a most refined and scholarly fellow, refused the task. Of course some dip stepped in to do the dirty and out those books went, though many in the hands of myself and a few friends. One friend, a good one and an outstanding student, beat me to the library the day the music books went but kindly offered me a choosing from his pile. Such is how I got my copy of The Harvard Dictionary of Music, though it would be years until I made good use of it.

Schneider was apt to recall the great loss of the burning of the Royal Library at Alexandra [2], but I think of the loss of a different library. From the Virginia Gazette of February 1770:

We hear from Albermarle that about a fortnight ago the house of Thomas Jefferson, Esq., in that county, was burnt to the ground, together with all his furniture, books, papers, &c., by which the Gentleman sustains a very great loss. He was from home when the Accident occurred. [3]
Of course Jefferson also depended on his books for his legal career, but he expressed the more important loss shortly thereafter, i.e that one's personal writings and "The letters of a person, especially of one whose business has been chiefly transacted by letters, form the only fully and genuine article of his life." [4] As much as we regret the losses of great works, the lacunae in Aristotle and the missing works of Sophocles and Bach, we feel more acutely the loss of what we personally write and what we assemble from nothing and then curate.

Such brings us to the second feature of books and the one which I think is least likely to be brought up: that we like to own books. They are our property. Whether we bought them, making them things we exchanged our life, our finite time, for, or whether they are gifts, items people sacrificed their time to give us and items people thought enough about us and our character to select for us, the books represent extensions of our person. Our books are about what we think is important. They are the stories that touch us most, the ideas that inspire, what fascinates, confuses, and draws us.

We don't mind personalizing them in various ways, dog-earing the corners and adding notes. Even our reading habits mark the books in different ways. Some people bend the cover back, some break the spine, some wrinkle the corners, some scrupulously try to keep them in good condition. How many of our possessions do we actually put our name on? Yet we readily add our name to our books, even adding book plates, or embossing our names into them. How surprisingly strong is that feeling of constraint when reading a library book? Aristotle was quite right to say, "How immeasurably greater is the pleasure when a man feels a thing to be his own." [Politics, II.v. 1263a.] They reflect our character, our values, why shouldn't we want them? For the same reasons we take no small pleasure in being surrounded by our books for that reason.

We of course surround ourselves with books for their aesthetic pleasure too. Some people like the look of a series on the shelf, like the old Britannica "Great Books" series or the Easton Press editions. Others enjoy having each book be its own quirky self, differently printed and illustrated. I'm quite fond of the Folio Society's editions, with their beautifully illustrated covers, sometimes subtle (the figs on Graves' I, Claudius) and sometimes grand (their editions of Shelley and The Arabian Nights.) Some like the deckled edge, others the smooth cut. (Actually, does anyone actually like the deckled edge?) Some series are curiously irregular, take the Cambridge Greek and Latin series, the so-called "green and yellow" or "green and greens." The coloring is intended to be uniform but there are quite a few variations on green and yellow. They're also all different heights, thus the series looks odd on the shelf. At any rate the Loeb and Oxford editions make for a pleasing continuity on a shelf. Now who hasn't fought with oversize books and, far worse, books just slightly too large to fit on the shelf? We go through considerable effort sorting, arranging, and cleaning our books. (Some people with particularly good taste accent them with busts and other sundry items.)

It's no wonder people wax nostalgic, grow despondent, furious even, at the thought of books disappearing and being replaced by digital devices. Who would give up printed books, with all their shapes, textures, printings, bindings, translations, editions, even smells? (Pleasing, some smells, don't you think?) They're quite literally bound up with what's important to us, and I doubt they're going anywhere.

One of my motley shelves.
click to enlarge

[1] Schneider, Nathan. In Defense of the Memory Theater. Open Letters Monthly. July 2010.
[2] An appropriate loss to regret, the loss of 40,000 scrolls, though the library seems to have endured several losses until its final destruction. See and
[3]  Malone, Dumas. Jefferson the Virginian. Little, Brown and Company. Boston. 1948. p. 125-126 {For the excerpt from the Virgina Gazette see Purdie & Dixon:}
[4] The Account Book of Thomas Jefferson. 1770, c. June 1.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Mozartian Eucatastrophe

"I coined the word 'eucatastrophe': the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives – if the story has literary 'truth' on the second plane (....) – that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made."

---J.R.R. Tolkein 'Letter 89'*

 The final allegro assai may be as fizzing as the overture which inaugurated his folle journée, but the true climax is the andante that precedes it, as the Count twice begs forgiveness (the second phrase intensifying the first), the Countess grants it in six bars of noble magnanimity, completing the melody he began, and the whole company takes it up in words that are banal - "Ah tutti contenti saremo cosi" ("Then let us all be happy") - but in music that is on the heights.
Mozart's reconciliations are real. They invoke the good in human nature. His vision embraces the pain and cruelty as well as the compassion - the darkness and the light; but it is the light that prevails.
 --- David Cairns Mozart and His Operas, p. 131-132

*see further, On Fairy-Stories

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Karl Richter Plays Bach

Toccata e Fuga in D minor, BWV.565

 Toccata e Fuga in G minor, BWV.915

Movie Review: Firefly & Serenity

(Television Series: 14 Episodes) 2003.

Take my love, take my land, take me where I cannot stand
I don't care, I'm still free. You can't take the Sky from me.
I'm not sure who could have predicted the success of Firefly and the rabid fan base which grew around the show. Certainly not the television executives who in 2003 canceled it after only 14 episodes, episodes  which they had already decided to air out of order. More perplexing to me, though, is the appeal of the show to fans. Do not mistake me, this is a fine show, but its appeal is particular, I think. A brief comparison to the Star Trek franchise may elucidate. First, there is not really much science involved. There is a lot of technology, but it is in the background. There is no technobabble, there are no crystals to rotate and there is no polarity to reverse. There is not a lot of the science, ostensibly part of the appeal to fans of science fiction. Second, the galaxy of Firefly is not the galaxy of the Enterprise. In Star Trek, the Federation is a big happy family, and that's really not too much of an exaggeration. The explanation for how Earth joins the United Federation of Planets is that World War III breaks out, in the aftermath aliens visit Earth, and everyone is so bound together by the experience that they create a world government and cure disease and poverty. That's the actual explanation (and I haven't left any details out, either!) Sounds like another infamous popular delusion.

The run-down of the galaxy of Firefly:

Here's how it is: The Earth got used up. So we moved out and terraformed a whole new galaxy of Earths. Some, rich and flush with the new technologies, some not so much. The central planets, thems formed the Alliance, waged war to bring everyone under their rule. A few idiots tried to fight it: among them, myself.
There is its, in the words of Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds, captain of firefly-class transport ship Serenity. The Alliance is not a vast benevolent organization. They decided, apparently without universal consent, to bring other people under their rule, and those other people dissented. I like the way the writers worded that, "under their rule." One often hears the sentiment instead expressed as, "under their rules," as if to say, "we just wanted them to follow our rules." Isn't it really the same thing, particularly if those folk don't very much care for your rules?

It's hard to say very much about the galaxy of Firefly, there being only 14 episodes and all. The core worlds are clean and pretty and safe, but controlled. In one episode, Reynolds' first officer and partner from the war, Zoe, won't step foot on an Alliance world. They can keep their parks, museums, and iridescent pools, and along with all that their Feds and cameras and rules.  Speaking of rules, the rules aboard Serenity are pretty tough too, though, and the Captain makes them. There are no votes, but you're free to leave whenever you like.

I like the title of the show too, Firefly. Sure it's the type of ship, but Serenity is the theme of the show, a fact best illustrated in the episode Out of Gas. Serenity is damaged and adrift and Reynolds is alone on board. Injured, he recalls how the ship and crew came together. He could have bought a bigger, fancier, better ship, one the dealer said "would have been with him his whole life." Instead he opted for beaten up old Serenity. Why? Because it called to him, somehow. He felt at home in it. He was free to choose it and, while it was imperfect, would cause him a lot of headaches, and needed constant maintenance and care, he wanted it. He could have bought the fancier ship and been secure.

Likewise, he could have joined the Alliance. He could have been safe and secure and provided for on the central planets, but he wouldn't have been free. And that's what Serenity represents: freedom. He left the Alliance for the black, their word for space. They can take their land and security, he'll take freedom, and thus from the title song:
Take me out to the black, tell them I ain't comin' back.
Burn the land and boil the sea, you can't take the sky from me.
When Serenity breaks down in space, though, because one little part broke, and when the crew has to abandon the ship, and when Serenity gets boarded by salvagers who try to kill Mal and steal the ship, when the captain lies there bleeding, alone, and running out of air, he remembers how he got there, and we see the price of freedom, the great risk.

Indeed the outer planets are rough places. Deals go bad, violence ensues. Some people are nuts and some places have crazy rules. Some people end up not free anyway, enserfed to a local autocrat. It's no coincidence the show has a prevalent Wild West theme running throughout. What becomes clear throughout these 14 episodes, though, and what I presume would have been developed throughout multiple seasons, was what did create order. What did create order were the rules you agreed to, usually just the price and terms for a job: the law of voluntary trade. What counted most perhaps was reputation and in a pair of episodes we see a stark contrast. A sadistic torturing crime lord hires the crew of Serenity for a job. The crimelord, Niska, is very concerned about his reputation and wants to be known as a monster to be feared. In contrast, when pulling off the job, Mal realizes the job is to steal medical supplies from colonists out in the middle of nowhere. The higher up feds, when they learn of the heist, don't care. They don't care about local matters and aren't going to go chasing after "Band-Aids." After a change of hear Mal brings the supplies back and, meeting the local sheriff he has just hoodwinked, they have the following exchange.

You were truthful back in town. These are tough times. When a man can get a job, he might not look to close at what that job is. When a man learns all the details of a situation like ours, then he has a choice.

I don't believe he does.

In the end it was not the evil Niska who wanted to be thought of as evil bbut contracted out his crime or the evil Alliance who wanted to be thought of as good but chose to take the resources and not provide the promised protection, it was not them, their force, and their false pretenses of  creeds which determined the outcome of events, but of men like Mal who freely did what they thought was right. You can have all of the formal laws and promises you want, but its what you or an institution does and don't do that determines character. Mal doesn't "want to be thought" of: he doesn't stiff Niska and he was planning on leaving the medicine for the sheriff to find. He just wand to make things right and go on his merry way. He plays by his rules, sure, but here we see also a deference to natural laws.

Freedom is a messy business. Such a situation probably would never have happened on a core world, but neither would have taking a walk without being under surveillance and a lot of other things too.
But the alternative, in the words of Captain Mal Reynolds, is "government: a body of people. Usually, notably, ungoverned." The alternative to freedom is government, an institution which limits freedom to create freedom. Probably wouldn't make sense to people like Mal and Zoe, who said "I'm not so afraid of losing something that I'm not going to try and have it."

Directed and written by Joss Whedon. 2005.

[Spoilers within!]

What I left out of my discussion of Firefly was the story of the Tams, a brother, Simon, and his younger sister River. Their story was a subplot along the series but never came to the forefront and never got fully developed until Serenity. River, a teenage prodigy, was sent to an academy on one of the core worlds.  What happened to her there? Simon wasn't sure but he knew it wasn't good. A brilliant doctor, he nonetheless threw his fortune and career away to break River out. The two became fugitives relentlessly pursued by the Alliance, but sought and found refuge on Serenity.

Now Serenity has all of the sass and charm of Firefly, but since this is the conclusion of the story of the Alliance, the war against them, and the Tams, Serenity is less anarcho-captialistic Wild West and more anti-statist, anti-authoritarian slug-out. So yes, it's great too.

What Serenity has that Firefly lacked was a great villain. Here he is a ruthless Alliance Agent, but he's drawn not vaguely but in particularly statist mold. The Agent admits his methods are evil, freely calling himself a monster. He kills lesser Alliance officers and any known associates of Mel's crew. "If the enemy goes to ground leave no ground to go to" he says. Yet, crucially, he doesn't know his ultimate objective. He doesn't know what the Tams did. All he does is follow his orders, which are to retrieve the Tams at all cost. He's a monster but a bureaucratized one, granted authority from on high, from someone but who knows just who? He has absolute power with no accountability. Do you think anyone in the Alliance knows about these agents? Do you think anyone ever voted for them, "Hey lets create this class of trained assassins and let them do whatever they want! I second!. . .") Doubtful.

The Agent is a believer in his cause, and he does not worry about the means of achieving it. When going to confront the Agent, Shepherd Book tells Mel, "You have to believe in something" in order to beat this man. Indeed, Mel has to believe in freedom as much as the Agent believes in the Alliance.

At last though, we find out why the Alliance wants River Tam. You see, River has been acting odd, odd because at the alliance "academy" they did experiments on her to make her a telepath and assassin. (The biggest bit of science fiction in the series and movie.) While they damaged her brain, thus the odd behavior, they did make her partially telepathic. Yet they were foolish enough to let high ranking officials in the room with her, and River learned their secret.

The Alliance called for colonists to settle a distant planet, Miranda. Once terraformed and running, they engaged in a little social engineering, piping a gaseous drug into the air processors. The drug, "Pax" was designed to weed out aggression and make everyone peaceful. It worked, making everyone so peaceful and passive they just stopped trying, working, and breathing. They just stopped doing everything, and died. The drug had the opposite effect on some, though, who reacted with extreme aggression. They became known as Reavers, barbarous and vicious men who eventually took over a portion of space and began raiding other vessels. No one had known where the Reavers came from, just that they appeared and started pillaging. Now we learn they were created by the Alliance experiment.

After the conspiracy is unmasked, Mal shares his plan and a little more:

Now I'm asking more of you than I have before, maybe all. As sure as I know anything, I know this: they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten, they'll swing back to the belief that they can make people better. And I do not hold to that. So no more running. I aim to misbehave.
No social engineering, no tinkering, no tweaking.  

Serenity opens with a flashback. River remembers a day at school where she was taught how the alliance brought peace and order to the galaxy, but were resisted by the ungrateful and uncivilized folks on the outer planets. "Why were the independents even fighting us? Why wouldn't they want to be more civilized?" One student asks. Another says, "I hear they're cannibals." The teacher then asks, that with all the dangers of the galaxy, and "with so many social and medical advancements we can bring to the Independents, why would they fight so hard against us?" River, then still a child, albeit a prodigy, says,

We meddle. People don't like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think. Don't run, don't walk. We're in their homes and in their heads and we haven't the right. We're meddlesome. 

The teacher replies, "River, we're not telling people what to think, we're just trying to show them how." Sure, only "how" as long as the "what" ends up being the same. Anyway, that was before they cut up River's brain and programmed her to be a mind-reading assassin.

The climax is a great space battle in which Mal lures the Reavers and the Alliance into battle and he notes with great satisfaction, "The chickens come home to roost."

Some might find the anarchic theme of Firefly romantic, that it's a pipe dream of a world without government and force. I don't think it's so romantic, in fact the galaxy depicted is a mess, and as I said above, some people end up not free anyhow. Yet as imperiled as Mal and the crew of Serenity often are, they follow only the rules they will and they're all on Serenity by choice. That "love" is the key, Mal says, though we might express it more specific terms. It's what keeps the motley group together, what keeps the beat up ship in the air, and what makes Serenity a home, and the crew a family.

There's no place I can be, since I've found Serenity.
You can't take the Sky from me.

 Captain Mal Reynolds and crew,

P.S. The theme to Firefly, written by creator Joss Whedon, is a rare instance of a song perfectly embodying the show, and I think lends credence to my anarchic interpretation.