Monday, December 26, 2011

The Last Virtue

an inquiry into anecdotal evidence

It is an annual goal of mine to attempt, throughout a year, to observe one particular idea in detail throughout the many circumstances a year will provide. This past year of 2011 I observed the ways in which people compliment each other and I must say the inquiry has proved rather revealing. This year I noted that people tend to praise others as "smart." Now I suppose I ought to make an anthropological caveat and explore the possibility that in my presence people might praise others as "smart" because they figure, incorrectly, that I am reasonably smart and thus would value intelligence in others. If this possibility has ever been true the fact would puzzle me. Why would one person possessing one virtue not recognize or value excellence in the others?

This question is, in fact, the essence of my inquiry. More specifically, where is this bias in favor of intelligence and what do people mean by "smart?" Let us attempt to answer the second question first and in doing so turn our attention to Aristotle.

We can observe that Aristotle makes a number of distinctions amongst the Intellectual Virtues, what we gloss over as "intelligence." In brief, Aristotle mentions 1) techne, what we might very loosely consider a particular skill, 2) scientific knowledge about universal principles derived from logical argument, 3) practical judgment, that is, the ability to judge the good for man in a particular situation, 4) knowledge of first principles, and lastly 5) wisdom, a combination of knowledge of first principles and reason.

As useful as these distinctions are, and their usefulness and the keenness of the mind who made them are revealed even upon the most cursory consideration, they do not seem at all akin to what people mean when they say "smart." Craftsmen are seldom referred to as smart and I have never observed "smart" to refer to anything so specific as formal training in logic. In fact in my observation I seldom nonticed "smart" used with any connection to particular knowledge at all. Of Aristotle's subsets of "intellectual virtue," nous, or the ability to observe first principles, seems to be closest to what people mean when they call someone "smart." Yet people tend to be unable to point to first principles that a "smart" person does know. How do you know he is smart then? They usually form this judgment based on a perceived readiness or cleverness in conversation or simply general competence, but not from serious consideration about the nature and degree of the person's intelligence.

This fact brings me to my conclusion about the significance of this last virtue, "smart." It is tempting to suggest that "smartness" survived as a virtue because as a society we value intelligence most and there may be some truth to this but I think "smart" survived simply because it was the easiest to corrupt and indeed it has been corrupted into a meaningless catch-all compliment. Most significantly, though, is that unlike all of Aristotle's virtues, it is not connected to action. It requires no learning, experience, or contemplation, unlike Aristotle's Intellectual Virtues. "Smartness" requires nothing of its possessor therefore it is a "virtue" anyone can have. You need to do practically nothing to get it and there is nothing you can do to lose it. It is an invented virtue to compensate for the loss of classical education (that is, Aristotle's Intellectual Virtues) and the social abandonment of Aristotle's Moral Virtues. Speaking of them, where did they go? When was the last time you heard someone (other than a warrior) described as courageous? Or anyone described as temperate or moderate, or liberal, or good-tempered? Instead people are glossed over with meaningless adjectives.

These vagaries are both, I would wager, accidental and convenient. They allow us to praise and condemn at whim without reason and consideration and worse they give us the illusion of being discriminating. They allow us to create a safe-zone around ourselves and others which cannot be breached. If you're "smart" you're smart and nothing can change that. You might be deficient in every other virtue, but you're still "smart."

Well, "smart" is not a virtue. There are in fact many others, though, all of which are worth perceiving, valuing, and cultivating. Perceiving is of course the first step but the second is perhaps even mor difficult: judging yourself and others based on these virtues. This is not something we like to do and it can be taken too far, but it is a necessary step toward a meaningful life in which people are better, are more, than "nice" and "smart."

10 Things to Remember Before You Tweet

Having just "unfollowed" someone on Twitter for the first time I thought I would share a few thoughts on what drove me to unfollow a blogger whose writing I often read and liked but whose Tweets had me regularly thinking what an unpleasant presence he had become in my feed. (The horror, I know.) So without further delay:

10. Don't act surprised or exasperated.
  • Superficial surprise is annoying. It is impossible to convey genuine surprise without context, context which cannot be provided in the space of a tweet. Likewise, avoid the "If. . . I'm going to. . .!!!!!" formula. 
9. Don't repeat yourself.
  • Unless it is the schtick of your feed, once is enough. If you're just being yourself on Twitter and you are always yammering on about something, you're annoying.
8. Watch your language.
  • Salty talk is seldom appropriate and even less often necessary. It is also hard to utilize in print and without context. 
7. Just eat.
  • I don't care what it is or where or with whom you are eating. It is not going to inspire me to get same and it's not going to help me prepare it either. Just eat.
6. People who. . .
  • Reasoning from the specific to the general is a long road fraught with problems. It is very unlikely that "All of the people who. . ." do anything, all do anything else. I know this is an exaggeration, but it makes you look shallow. Life is filled with little frustrations. 
5. Watch your feuding.
  • There have been some great public feuds: Cicero vs. Antony, Hanslick vs. Pohl, et cetera. Reflect wisely on yourself, your opponent, the topic, the occasion, and the venue before getting uppity.
4. Stupid!
  • This is the lowest form of insult and says a great deal, all bad, about your character. 
3. Stand there don't just do something.
  • Everything you do does not add up to something significant because they all happened to you. (See Aristotle's Poetics if you think that's harsh.)
2. Not really. Go do something.
  • The only thing worse than excessively writing about what you are doing is writing about not doing anything. If you are tired, sleep. If you are awake, do something. 
1. It is not so clever. Ever.
  • The Muses one day came to Ovid and made him an offer. They would make three of his verses of his own choosing immortal if he would let them choose three to cut. Thrilled, the poet left to reflect on his work. A short while later he came back with his choicest lines. The Muses too had their selected three to cut, the same three, in fact, that Ovid had selected as his best.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Handel: But who may abide the day of His coming?

Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven greatly admired George Frederick Handel. That ought to be enough to convince the rest of us, no? It does not seem so. Praise of Handel usually takes the form of "appreciation" of "effects" and "craft" and "harmoniousness" rather than awe at inspiration. Indeed in our recent installment of our "Sacred Music" series we praised Handel for a most appropriate setting of a text in his Messiah. I myself commented on its "appropriateness" and not his genius. Well, here is something inspired.

In Part I of Messiah Handel sets the following text:
But who may abide the day of His coming? and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner's fire.
To gain some appreciation for the task we may ask ourselves how we would set it? What tempo, meter, key, voices, and instruments do you use? What is the essence of the piece and what should it convey? What impression should it leave us with? Handel, appropriately, takes his cue from the source, the quotation's origin in the Book of Malachi.

Handel imitates the mood of the prophet with a setting for solo virtuoso. The detached longing of the opening andante yields to a sudden prestissimo as the speaker is seized in prophetic ecstasy, crashing and thrashing in a series of virtuosic leaps and runs. As is often the case with Handel this piece is moving in its simplicity and directness. Regardless of how often the piece was edited or transposed it demonstrates the composer's consideration of relationship between the form of the piece and the nature of the text and, in this case, a perfect marriage.

Kozena's performance, both musical and pantomimed, here is certainly channeling the prophetic and ecstatic current of the work. So does the direction with its extreme close up, a  direct and simple trick perfect for this piece.

Lastly, the opening images are provoking. This clip is from William Klein's filmed adaptation which features various videos contrasting and complementing the music. What is Klein suggesting here? Are the men in the opening charlatans? Does their presence suggest Malachi was also? Are the people fainting fools? Are we fools for being moved by Handel, or is it the artistic act that elevates, or creates, the true transcendent experience? Very provoking.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Gifts for the Cultured Thinker

A gift is a beautiful thing. Whether of congratulation, commemoration, celebration, or thanks, a gift reflects a bond between people. The gift represents shared values, shared duties, and a shared life. Above all it reflects gratitude for the relationship for all it has been, as it has been, and as it endures. A great gift shares in both the uniqueness of the occasion and the uniqueness of both individuals. Thus to give a gift is to presume much and to give a good one requires a great deal of understanding and consideration. That I cannot help you with. Your gift must center around one or more ideas and I cannot give you those ideas. What I can and will do, however, is offer some advice on what types of items which, for refined folks like the authors and readers of this blog, might be vehicles of your ideas and appropriate tokens of your affection. So without further preface, consider these thoughts when shopping for your dear friend or loved one.

Gifts for the Cultured Thinker


Before buying any books first you must realize that any intellectual already has a substantial library. Your gift will take a place among many beloved books. It will be nearly impossible to select an appropriate book if you do not have any access to the library or do not correspond about your literary acquisitions. Supposing you know what he has, consider the following:

  • Complete an incomplete set or series.
  • Replace a worn edition with a new one.
  • Buy his favorite book in a beautiful edition from The Folio Society or The Easton Press.
  • He will have a particular interest. If he doesn't have one of the definitive books in the discipline, get it for him. Otherwise buy a new book in the field. If you don't have knowledge of the field then seek the help of an expert like a professor. If you're in a pinch open to the bibliography in one of them and select something from there.
  • In general, sourcebooks (compilations of primary sources), atlases, books of quotations, and books of pictures germaine to the topic are quite complementary. People often lack these books because they are busy reading up on the "hard" scholarship.
  • If possible, avoid paperbacks.
  • If the book has ever been reissued read the reviews to see if there is a preferred edition. Sometimes an edition merely contains fixes, sometimes a particular version might contain valuable notes, other times someone might have badly revised the work. Check reviews.
  • An unabridged dictionary in any language he speaks. 
  • Buy a pair or trio of books on the same topic (not necessarily a set.)
  • Beware reading aids. Lights, magnifiers, weights, stands, et cetera may or may not fill a need. Only purchase if you have observed a need for them. 
  • Book tassels and ribbons pair well with books, as do bookmarks. Consider a bookmark or ribbon related to the book and perhaps installing the ribbon yourself.
  • Make a custom bookmark.
  • Electronic devices may or may not be of use. They  work well for reading fiction but exercise caution if he uses books for scholarship since it is much easier to flip through a paper book.
  • If they are of fastidious disposition, they may delight in book plates or a custom embosser.
  • Fake books come in a variety of styles.
  • Bookends, preferably which relate to the books and/or match the decor.
Lastly, write a thoughtful note, in pen, in script, with the date and occasion, in the front cover (not on the jacket.)


Bear in mind that not everyone buys movies to own. Even people who love movies don't necessarily want to own them.

  • Recorded live performances, especially of concerts and operas. Do not worry about getting someone another version of the same opera. A connoisseur will appreciate the variety.
  • There are many unusual documentaries on specific topics. They may not be identified as "documentaries" or listed as "documentary" in the title, though, so begin your search at YouTube since people almost always tag documentaries as such. Search for whatever your topic is plus "documentary" or "lecture." There are plenty of unusual sets, series, and esoteric one-offs.
  • Classes from The Great Courses are excellent. (Best to get them on sale earlier in the year!)
  • As with book, buy a few with some common thread (not necessarily a set) and give them together. (But wrap each one separately and tie them together.)
  • As with books, consider filling a gap in a collection.
  • Often people buy movies which are re-released in better editions. Consider replacing an old version with a superior one.
  • Often people buy TV shows as they come out and then when the show is released in toto after the final season, that set comes with a gift. A gift the person who bought the show year-by-year won't have. See if you can find the gift separately (used.)
  • Search for a book of interviews with their favorite director or a biography/autobiography about their favorite actor.
  • Picture books about particular franchies, series, eras, et cetera. 


  • As with the above, do not be afraid to get another version of a particular work.
  • As with the above, look for new releases by a favorite conductor, performer, or ensemble.
  • As with books, consider pairing several together around a particular theme.
  • Operas and musicals work well because they are heftier than singles but not as costly as big sets.
  • Sets are a great idea. The Brilliant Classics sets are an excellent value, if of uneven quality.
  • Even if someone has many works by the artist or composer "complete editions" are still valuable since they will contain odd works that do not fit into other categories and which are for that reason seldom released. 
  • Works transposed for different instrument, from Wendy Carlos' synthesizing to the Swingle Singers' Bach to Albrecht Mayer on the oboe.
  • Get a copy of the score or libretto to go along with the CD.

  • Busts are always a good idea but they can be too big. Six to eight inches is ideal unless they have a great deal of space or want their space to feel like a museum. 
  • Instead of posters try a laminated print or a reproduction.
  • Wall-hangings are an excellent alternative to framed art.
  • Sculptures are risky unless you know the not only the item and the meaning behind it for the person but also the size, style, and potential place for it. 

Paraphernalia of Eccentric Living

  • Book stands, book ends, clocks, hourglasses, pendulums, letter openers, et cetera make good pairings. For example, an hourglass and a book on pre-Socratic philosophy, a book on physics and a pendulum. 
In General

  • In all instances do not be afraid to pair a modest giftcard along with something you picked out. 
  • Tickets to concerts or lecture series are always welcome, but beware scheduling. Some people are very busy, forgetful, careless, et cetera.
  • Beware kitsch. Mozartkugeln are cute. A life-size cardboard cut-out is not. 
  • Be aware of space limitations.
  • Some people have a propensity to break things.
  • Err on the side of beauty over utility.
  • Err on the side of old over new.
  • Err on the side of small over big.
  • Try to work in an element of contrast and humor.
I'll leave you with a few philosophical thoughts on friendship from Aristotle to guide you:
  • Don't overreach. Giving a good gift requires friendship and friendship requires time and familiarity. 
  • love = feeling. friendship = state of character. Mutual love requires choice and springs from a state of character.
  • Friendship is only possible between good men.
  • Good will is not friendship. Good will is to wish well but not to do. 
  • The nature of friendship is to felt toward a few. The nature of love is to be felt toward one.