Saturday, February 28, 2015

Peace and Reason

Whatever man can make of his destiny, he can't control his legacy. Whatever our endeavors or efforts, we never know what good or bad will follow or be remembered.

I used to think felicior Augusto, melior Traiano was a rather good way to remain in the memory, until I read in amusing contrast the words of the late Paul Eddington, famous for his portrayal of the earnest and ineffectual minister of Yes, Minister, that he'd prefer, he did very little harm. At the passing of Leonard Nimoy, though, it seems hard to top being unanimously and unequivocally associated with peace and reason.

Things I Don't Get #7: Ghostwriting

Amid the confusion of life, harmony refreshes. Second to the joy of agreeing on pizza toppings is the occasion when common sense and philosophy conjoin under the twin suns of logic and propriety. This coalition shines in the simple observation that a thing is and is only what it is, and that calling it something else does not make it so. This happy premise doesn't imply that the process of definition is easy or infallible, or that all things admit singular definition, but that the process of definition is largely objective and its concepts exclusive.

That is, if a writer is a person who writes and you don't write, then you can't be called a writer. The process of ghostwriting and the inherent contradiction between the nominal author's lack of writing and the definition of a writer is the object of my scorn.

Now I understand the economics of the situation. Some people can write but don't have ideas, and some people have ideas but can't write. It seems a happy marriage, but how on earth do you have the gall to put your name on something you didn't write? Worse, what temerity such an individual has either to consider himself an author, i.e. an auctor, a creator, or to expect to be treated like one. There is also a question of sympathy implicit in ghostwriting, namely that the inability of someone to find expression for his ideas is more important, for he gets the title credit, than the inability of someone with the facility to express ideas to find any. I don't see any reason to prefer the former plight to the latter.

Speaking of whom, how can the actual author, that is, the person who did the writing–is it ever a good sign when you need to insist upon adhering to reality?–stand to have his work treated in this manner. Putting your name on someone else's book is not copying by oversight, mind you, the anxiety of every neurotically footnoting student, nor is it accidental imitation, the crippling fear of many writers, and not even is it writing in full knowledge that he will be overshadowed, but writing with the intent of someone else claiming your work as his own. The appropriation by the so-called author is not mere kidnapping, but raising the child as your own, that is, plagiarism, however socially acceptable the form.

Of course the process of ghostwriting entertains a spectrum of possibilities. At one end a would-be author with more money than talent pays someone else to make him look good. A rank process and detestable individual. On the other end, though, I imagine a collaboration something akin to a director and screenwriter, or better, the screenwriter and author of the story. The story guy has the ideas, the "basic narrative, idea, theme or outline indicating character development and action," as the WGA handily writes, and the screenwriter pulls it all together. Nothing objectionable here.

Now to their credit and proper crediting, some book authors defer to this distinction by that indefatigable preposition with, which lets us know that they had a little help. You usually need an electron microscope to read the other guy's name, but it's there and we appreciate the acknowledgement. The work is a collaboration.

Yet ghostwriting in the form of speech-writing has a long history. Such does not seem to redeem the practice, though. For example, though professional speech-writing is thousands of years old, I can never get past the fact that a man is reading someone else's arrangement of his own ideas. Who can readily accept the ideas of a man who didn't comprehend the process, be it art or science, at least of their articulation. This might seem at first look to be unfair, for a poor writer might have a good idea and bad ideas have had lucid and artful expression by good writers, and indeed in truth I don't readily trust the articulate infecund either. Yet to me the processes of writing and thinking seem so much the same that I can't trust in the presence of the latter if I don't see at least an attempt at the former.

Lack and excess of both matter and style are equally unfavorable, and a mean out to be sought suitable to the speaker and occasion. Last, the writing ought to be a frank collaboration or one's own work, however humble.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Top Ten: What Teachers Should Learn in Grad School

The most open of secrets among good and honest teachers is the fact, painfully clear, that a Master's Degree in Education is worthless, at least toward the end of education. It does, however, have several purposes.

The first is to exclude from the profession, to the greatest extent possible, anyone who does not participate in the offering of oblations to the academic immortals, that is, the tenured teacher-teaching scholars of universities. Obeisance to the lords of the ivory towers is the prerequisite for the knighthood of certified pedagogy. Second, the degree in education is purposed to delude any who have not yet learned to distrust professional academic credentialers that such a degree is a stamp of certification which signifies the teacher as qualified. Similarly, the degree confirms bragging rights upon people and institutions who employ only credentialed faculty.

Lastly, and worst, it breaks the spirits of teachers. Whether or not it is designed to, partaking in such preposterous chicanery erodes the will and soul of whoever speak the lie as truth. As with one who parrots propaganda, the spirit of he who does not contest this meretricious process is rendered incapable of resisting further debasement. Hence from modern pedagogical, progressive orthodoxy have subsequently come deference to standardized tests and the companies which profit by their manipulation, sycophancy to politicians who promise facile funding, and at last the meddlesome shaping of curricula. 

Eroded by corruption, graduate programs in education are degree mills to which teachers turn to eek out a few more dollars from their employers, not to improve their teaching prowess. If professors desired, however, to prepare teachers for the classroom, they could offer the following courses. To be sure these are all skills which teachers learn, usually at great pains, in their first few years. There is also much of need and use for teachers which I omit here–certain basics of logic and philosophy–since it is included in a Liberal Arts education, one hopes.

10. History and Philosophy of Teaching the Discipline

This course would include a comparison of philosophies for the discipline which not only explain why it should be taught, but how that purpose can be explained to students so they are not following along like sheep. It should involve frank discussions about teacher bias and how the philosophy of the teacher/program/curriculum dictates what is and is not taught, and how. Too the history of teaching the material, as well as when, where, and why methodologies changed, would not only better situate teachers in the history of their profession, but allow them to see what trends succeeded and what forces have tended to and are now shaping pedagogical trends.

9. Adapting to Different Schedules

Every new teacher struggles with his schedule and the problem how of to break lessons and evaluations into coherent sections. There is a world of difference, for example, between teaching a 40-minute period every day, eighty-minutes every other day, and one or two periods per week. This class would cover adapting to various schedule types and explain how to utilize each schedule's merits and avoid its detriments.

8. Curricula Planning and Pacing

This is the problem of #9 writ large. Teachers should know before jumping into the classroom how the material is going to be spread throughout the curriculum from start to finish. This class can compare sequences of presentation, adjustments for difficulty, adjustments for numbers of class hours/school days, and variations for teaching semester or year-long classes.

7. Comparison of Evaluations

The art of the test is a subtle craft. Teachers would benefit from learning to choose the appropriate type of evaluation, e.g. short answer, essay, quizzes, term paper, multiple choice, and so on. Different disciplines require different types of evaluations at different intervals, and teachers need guidance as to how much of what, when, and what type and quantity is appropriate for different ages, curricula, difficulty, and schedules.

6. Making Tests

The art of the test is a subtle craft in execution too. What teacher hasn't slowly, and after many mistakes, complaints, confusion, and stress, figured out how to:
  1. Write unambiguous directions.
  2. Lay out tests so they are not confusing to administer, take, or grade.
  3. Determine the time frame in which the test can and ought to be completed.
  4. Determine how the pacing, volume, and variety of questions affect the difficulty of the test.
  5. Make various types of questions from scratch and utilize tools and resources to make them.
  6. Vary questions by difficulty, in various ways.
  7. Create a scale of difficulty appropriate to the class' range of student competence.
  8. Weigh sections of tests and types of evaluations within a class.
  9. Develop a consistent method of testing.
  10. Make variations of tests.
And don't forget learning to stagger giving tests so that they can be graded and reviewed in timely, useful manner.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Reflections on Polishing My Shoes

Simple manual labor is good for the soul and the mind. While intellectual work leaves the body wasted and the mind exhausted, physical work keeps the body occupied and leaves the mind to take flight without the prescriptions of study. It is curious how in times of physical exertion the mind spies the hidden symmetries of life. Take polishing your shoes, for example.

They are strange things, shoes, with their folds of tailored, tanned animal hide affixed a refined petroleum rubber, but how normal they seem to us. One the one hand, the shoe makes the man. The craftsmanship in the neat layers of leather and those precise dotted patterns of stitching make even the unkempt and ungainly look slick, or slicker. On the other hand we make the shoes, which bear our resemblance, carrying the nicks, scratches, and dents from our falls and foibles. They crease and wrinkle. While technically you can fix them, they're devilishly hard to mend and you can usually spot the scar of the repair. Even like us they over time grow a little too worn to fuss about holding their shape. You can always make them shine, though.

Polishing is an outright absurd practice, though, and among man's most futile activities–mowing the lawn, washing the car, reasoning with people–it certainly ranks respectably high. The wax will rub off at the first drops and dents, of course, but like all futile tasks there is honor in its near-ineffectuality. Who is not impressed at the constancy of a man whose shoes are always polished? His sheer unwillingness to be worn down dull commends him to us, even if he is otherwise deficient, and how much more brilliant is the gleam because of its short-lived luster.

If the shoe resembles man, then the polish parallels his manners. Each makes smooth the affairs of life, and as the wax allow the debris of life to roll off us so the emollients of courtesy and politeness polish our naturally chaffing ways. What petty insults and foolish, honest reactions skulk beneath a layer of glossy custom. How many grievances are averted by the seemingly extraneous thanks, praise, and inquiries of concern–to say nothing of silences–offered under the guise of manners. Too, polish hides the prickly parts of our demeanors and lets others gloss over deficiencies just as it fills in and hides, however briefly, leather's cracks and scratches. A man may be a boor, a churl, or a fool, but if he holds the door for you, or returns your phone call, how unkind will judgment of him be?

Finally, just as with our waxen counterparts, our manners erode over time. The more rubbish that rolls off, the more worn down our manners until we bristle and snap. We reapply the wax and we take our leisure time to regenerate our patience.

Yes, polish and manners may be lies, but they do good. While we may get fooled every so often by affectation and, worse, some may take appearances more seriously than true goodness, a polished world is still a more beautiful one, and to demand matters and people look as ugly as they often are seems a spiteful request.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Things I Don't Get #6: Offertory Shenanigans

So you're at church. Maybe you're visiting a parish or maybe you left the fancy labeled envelopes at home, but you'll be making your offering with cash. The offertory rolls around and as you reach into your wallet you realize you don't have the right change. The cognitive dissonance hits you at once: you have more money than you want to give to God. Embarrassed, you put in the whole amount and pray fervently for the redemption of your piteous, covetous soul.

Or, and perhaps this possibility was unknown to you, you can make change from the offerings in the collection basket. Oh you didn't know this option was on the table? Yeah you just stick your big unbroken bill out at the usher like you're paying for a hot dog, feign confusion that he doesn't have change, and then you can start rifling through the basket. Because nothing says transcendence like making sure you can buy stuff later.

Alright, fine: accidents happen. We forget. Humanum est errare. But how does sucking up your embarrassment and putting a check in the mail lose out to fishing the collection basket for change? I don't get it.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Movie Review: Jaws (Part III)

Directed by Steven Spielberg. 1975.

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV coming soon

18. Persuading the Mayor

One of the most important parts of filmmaking is not just shooting good scenes, but putting the right scene in the right place. As with music and painting, it is often the transitions between elements which prove the most difficult. We ought not take for granted how much effort goes into seemingly inessential scenes like this little nugget, in which Brody and Hooper try to persuade Mayor Vaughn to close the beaches, because it is scenes like this which make or break the pacing of a movie. A few features make it stand out.

First, there is good visual contrast from the preceding scene. The last was night and this is day, the previous was on the water and this is on land, and the earlier revolved around two people, while this around three. Second, the shark is present yet again, but yet again only in the background as a looming threat. In the last scene we worried that it would pop out behind Hooper as he investigated the hull of the wrecked boat and here its presence and destructive power are present here in both the scientific descriptions by which Brody and Hooper hope to convince the mayor to close the beaches and by the vandalized sign which plants in our minds the same scenario which will play out later. Third, the energy of the scene is high but comes only from the intensity of the characters, from their emotion, and from the tight, close-up camera and blocking.

Notice how the men enter the frame from the back, and how the two benches, which will continue to frame the shot, funnel them together, as if circumstances have forced these unlikely men to be partners. The tension prefigures the tension Brody and Hooper will have with Quint and makes us think for a moment that the mayor might be the third major character in the movie. It's a false alarm, though. The camera is also tight, showing us up close and personal their aggression and frustration. There is also a lot of visual energy simply from the movement of Brody and Hooper around the mayor. They pivot around the mayor, who is as physically immobile as he is intractable in argument, moving back and forth and around him and each other as they repeatedly attempt new tacks of persuasion. The close up camera makes all of this relatively slight motion much more intense.

Finally, the scene is also a tease. We think the mayor might be the third main character in the movie, but he's not, and we think that they might be able to persuade the mayor, and they can't. The last shot of their argument belies our suspicions as the mayor walks off leaving only Brody, Hooper, and, of course, the shark in the background. The low angle suggests both their failure and the looming threat of the shark in the deep.

Several touches set off the final shot. Brody is again in the extreme foreground and thus large and the mayor is low in his card in the mid-ground, blocking which reinforces who is in the right amidst the debate. On the other hand, as the mayor off in his car, we spy a one-way road sign and a tall, especially phallic lighthouse in the background, each respectively emphasizing his stubbornness and authority. This detail contrasts Brody, who stands front and tall but impotent, limply lilting and looking down.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Vitae Praecepta Beatae

In the last decades before the birth of Christ, as the Roman people learned to embrace the yoke of an ostensibly reluctant autocrat, the historian Titus Livy began the history of his people from their founding up to the final crisis of their ordered liberty. If St. Jerome is correct in setting Livy's birth in the year 59 BC, then it was a propitious date on which to inaugurate the birth of Rome's patriotic, moralist-historian, for such was the year of Caesar's consulship. A nominal consulship for a nominal republic, the year also marked the year when the First Triumvirate–the cadre of Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar–began blazingly to run roughshod over the remnant of the old order.

Yet this beginning of the republican end, with its wars foreign and domestic, its sullied politics–oh poor beshitted Bibulus!–and its civil strife were not foremost what fascinated Livy, though he knew these years, the most infamous in Roman history then and now, would attract readers, festinantes ad haec hova, more than timeworn tales about the past, hoary retellings of Horatius at the Bridge. The Old History, Livy confesses, is a happy diversion from debates about the contentious years through which his people had navigated.

It is more from that spirit less than that of history proper that I would consider the virtues which animated Livy's history. I do not wish to dwell on comparisons–instructive but dolorous and already complete–to nations long powerful making their own demise, nor will not conjecture whether, paraphrasing Charles Cochrane, mere republicanism can save a republic or mere religiosity religion. Whether traditional republican virtues could be broadly revitalized today and if they could, what effect they would have on the American polity, is beyond my scope here.

It is not now my goal to consider history, furnishing examples by which a republic may prosper or decline, yet, labente disciplina, I would look at those virtues which carried the Romans, and which they carried, so far. My approach will be to systematize and rationalize in the Aristotelian fashion of setting means between excess and deficiency, but recall that these virtues were for the Roman traditional, religious, and instinctive. My modest hope is that their presentation might prove salubrious to the individual, not condemnation but encouragement to their prudent consideration and application.

Virtues: Lack, Moderation, Excess

Religio is of course the concept with which to start and what today will either offend people or send them scurrying toward some other virtue they hope to practice without any obligation. The essence of religio is not the definition common today, a system of beliefs, but rather constraint of human endeavor in the face of divine force. Religio vetuit, religion forbids. In Gaul after his consulship Caesar, as he slaughtered the Gauls, wrote as praise that they were dedita religionibus, (De bello Gallico, 6.16.1) dedicated to religion, and thus undertook certain rituals for administering to the dead. Underneath the ritual, though, is the recognition of a divine realm with which one must be in accord. Roger Scruton writes, "[Man] confronts in [worldly things] not objects only, but the eyes of the gods, who remind him of his duties and offer comforting socially endorsed instructions."  [Scruton, 33] The religious impulse then requires first discrimination, namely between sacred and vulgar, between things of utility and the divine which is for its own sake. Second it requires tradition, accepted practices of propitiation, for those on the rock radices non habent, οὗτοι ῥίζαν οὐκ ἔχοθσιν (John, 8.13) they have no root, and cannot cultivate the seed.

When religio reaches extremes we are left either with superstition or materialism, both sharing the common failure to distinguish between the sacred and vulgar. In removing the agency of man, superstition removes his burden of responsibility to discern and act upon the good, enervating both intellectual and moral virtues. In contrast, materialism, in denying any realm which man does not dominate, elevates man to the role of measurer of all things. Nothing escapes his judgment, which is ultimate and which meddles in all affairs sacred and profane, public and private, and through past, present, and future. There exists a balance between the prudential governance of the material world, “a healthy secularism of the State, by virtue of which temporal realities are governed according to their own norms," as Benedict XVI called it, and the acknowledgment that, ipse fecit nos, et non ipsi nos, God mad us, not we ourselves (Psalm 99, 1-2), and therefore we do not dictate all. Laws which are beyond our right to change make claims on us.

The virtue of pietas, then, is the acknowledgement and fulfillment of such claims. Piety is the fulfillment not of contract, but duty, the making of vows, not promises, and the consecration of life not by technology or human will, but by sacrament, action given power by the word of God.

Lack of piety may stem of course from a lack of religiosity, an indifference to the mystery of the passing generations in which one partakes, but it may also stem from a conscious rejection of tradition. Such rejection begins when one finds tradition onerous instead of ennobling and the rejection takes flight when a tradition is first broken and no one sounds the alarm. It is not without reason that Aristotle wrote that a man's crime is worse if he is the first to commit it (1375a,) for once the chain is broken and the world does not promptly end, the chain is thought to have been perfunctory, stuffy, tradition.

Now it would be easy to propose piety and religious obligation as a panacea for modern woes. Recoiling from this extremity I would consider religiosity and piety as balances upon worldliness. Besides its obligations, religiosity is an inducement to eschew the world of utility, of gaining and spending, and to set something aside as not for meddling. Likewise piety encourages us to consider in our actions and reactions not what we are owed by law, but what we owe by nature.

Similarly, and in contrast to the exacting of one's will and the extraction of one's pound of flesh under pain of law, we find clementia, the willingness to forego what is owed.

In the modern world, or rather transition from the ancient to the modern, the Enlightenment, we find clemency at the heart of each mature Mozart opera: In Die Entführung Pasha Selim permits the escaping lovers to depart, the Countess pardons her cheating husband in Figaro, the men forgive their wayward fiancees in Così fan tutte, Die Zauberflöte's Sarastro tutors the inconstant acolytes, and Titus forgives the conspirators. Among the forgivers, there is no compensation for damages, no quid pro quo, just deference to the love which is greater than the penitent transgression. (We see now that virtue begets virtue, clemency implying penitence.) With the exception of Così, which ends philosophical in confusion, we can feel the great-souledness magnifying Selim and the sacred grandeur of forgiveness permeating Sarastro and Countess Almaviva. We feel them grow large in their glad pardoning–the hilaris clementia of Martial 12.5–and we feel the joy of magnanimity with them as Mozart's music brings to us the "consoling vision which religion grants to all its supplicants." [Scruton, 42]

The only exception is Don Giovanni, who thrice unrepentant and bending no knee is dragged to Hell.

Of clementia we can see its defect in both the polity and individual, in excessive grievance. When an individual is only sated when he gets what he feels owed, when he must have his pound of flesh regardless of details which out to modify his expectations–such as past kindness, good reputation, virtues which balance vices, intent, misjudgment, misfortune, and human weakness–he is a small man. This man prefers to sue than settle, and as his way is imitated, private reconciliation by equity is replaced by public adjudication.

The excess of clementia seems easy to imagine: the insolent or downright criminal run rampant over the good. This is surely a possibility, but I would suggest that an excess of desire to seem forgiving is the more observable and pernicious phenomenon, for transgressing a virtue weakens the individual, but its meretricious application weakens perception of the virtue itself. Such application is present, though I would not argue that it constitutes, the impulse behind plea-bargaining. From a desire to appear magnanimous, forgiving, and liberal, offering a plea-bargain confuses admittance with repentance and in doing so confuses a commuted sentence with forgiveness. Moreover, and even worse than the obvious inducing of the accused to expect lessened punishment, the attempted institutionalization of a virtue which can only be practiced by the offended party, not a judge, confuses law and equity. Worst of all, plea-bargaining debases the virtues–in this respect unwritten laws which are not exacted by force–by extending them unasked to those who broke written laws which are backed up by force, and he who would break a written law would certainly break an unwritten, and thus unenforced, one. [Aristotle, 1374] The bargaining process also admits great corruption against the accused. Dr. Dalrymple writes,

...plea-bargaining is intrinsically unjust because it may induce the innocent to plead guilty and the guilty to hold out for a lesser punishment than they deserve. It encourages prosecutors to intimidate defendants by multiplying and exaggerating charges on the great Hitlerian principle that if you sling enough mud, some of it sticks. It undermines the principle that the prosecutor’s purpose is not to secure a conviction at any price, but to secure justice. [Link]
A judge may adjudicate only according to objective legislation and policy of administration. Law is therefore a more harsh and less flexible standard than equity, which may moderate disputes with less severity.

After religio, it is likely gravitas which is the most neglected of Roman virtues. After all, who wants to be the stiff rather than the wit, the killjoy than the life of the party? Yet to the Roman mind, man and his life were predominately serious. The disposal of life, literally the putting down of it, that is, the doing of it, is not a trivial business. To carry oneself with gravitas is not to be a pompous, officiating Polonius, but to walk as if your existence has purpose and consequence. Gravitas does not imply seeking attention or conceit, adrogantia, but simply being counted in the reckoning.

That hard edge of gravitas is burnished by the good humor of comitas, which bids us be responsible and serious, but not stiff. While gravitas urges us to value our dignity, comitas urges courtesy, an ease which does not assert but attends. If gravitas cautions us not to be timid, comitas reminds us to note the humor of life. Still, as Cicero says, however useful it might be, leve enim est totum hoc risum movere. (De Oratore, 2.218) Humor is a relief, not a mainstay, and comitas should never degenerate into levitas, being lighthearted when we ought to be serious.

Pliny the Younger, writing to the orator Arrianus, (Epistulae 8.21.1), advices moderation:
Ut in vita sic in studiis pulcherrimum et humanissimum existimo severitatem comitatemque miscere, ne illa in tristitiam, haec in petulantiam excedat.
Mix, Pliny urges, the light and the severe, so that we do not gravitate toward the extremes of gloom or frivolity.

Again, the false appearance of a virtue is the most damaging. Livy again, writing about Appius Claudius–most famous for the construction of the Via Appia and Aqua Appia under the tenure of his censorship–points to a noteworthy contrast when he observes Appius' fraternizing and canvassing: profecto haud gratuitam in tanta superbia comitatem fore. (Ab urbe condita, 3.35.6) That is to say, the arrogant man may use graciousness to further his ends, therefore in him it is conspicuous.

We join the twin virtues of firmitas and constantia, the latter the origin of a most lovely name. It is easy to caricature constancy of character as obtuseness, but apart from Cicero's philosophizing connection of it to Stoic εὐπάθεια, the Old Roman was not a thinker, let alone one of subtlety. He did not value sophistical refutations and live at the cutting edge of philosophical trends. Caesar, less praising now, writes of the inconstancy of the Gauls, consiliis capiendis mobiles (De bello Gallico, 4.5.1), and how they take new plans easily and must retreat from their errors of their foolish fickleness. In amusing imitation of a self-made Roman, Petronius' Trimalchio, the freedman who made it big, wanted written on his tomb: nec umquam philosophum audivit. (Satyricon, 71) He never listened to a philosopher. Roman virtue was a process less of intellect than tradition, and the Roman did not consider a lot of subtle thinking in choosing the right path.

It is of course worth exploring the philosophical tack in Tusculan 4.12, in which Cicero, summarizing the Stoic position, observes that man naturally seeks what is good and thus what seems good, but in seeking his desire is twofold: either founded in prudence, called volition, or founded in violent desire, lust, which is found in fools (in omnibus stultis invenitur.) Therefore incitement of the former is joyful, whereas excitement of the latter is immoderate elation away from the control of reason. Thinking from the Stoic position, then, we can view inconstantia as an immoderate, immature response to the appearance of the good. It is appropriately associated with youth, who seeing the various goods cannot choose among them but move from one to the other.

One extreme of constantia is of course obtuseness, literally dullness to other observations. This stubbornness can manifest itself as A. pride, for example an intelligent man ignoring reasoning which contradict him, B. anti-intellectualism, an irrational distrust of thinking subtler or finer than our own, or C. traditionalism, distrust of the new. The other extreme is fickleness, in which we find A. an irrational distrust of our own judgment, B. the excessive worship of reason, which trusts what is argued more than what is demonstrated, and C. faddism, which prefers the new simply because it is new. The obtuse persist in error and the fickle wander from error to error.

Constantia then requires disciplina, the learning by which one chooses the good, for he cannot attain the good if he does not aim at it, and who can aim who does not see his target. Let us commend, though, the discussion of humanistic and Christian education to elsewhere, and discuss frugalitas, satisfaction in economy. Of frugalitas Marcus Aurelius spoke best, recalling what he learned from his adopted father: enjoy the luxuries which fortune may furnish, but do not miss them when absent. (Meditations 1.16) Live neither as a pauper nor helluo, poor man or squanderer.

All of these virtues require two more: severitas, the strictness to moderate oneself, and virtus, one's manly essence and full worth. Of all we have mentioned these virtues are perhaps naturally twin, for the exuberance and outward exertion of the virtus implies a need for severitas, a restraint. The virtus must be cultivated, surely with the good allowed to grow and the bad pruned, but even with the good pruned moderate, lest even one good grow at the expense of choking some other virtue.

The excess of these virtues are the most gross, and their defects the most pitiful. Untutored and unmoderated, severitas mistakes self-debasement for self-mastery. Severitas degenerates into excessive fault-finding and doubt. Excess severity is paralyzing, not ennobling as severitas should be. In detriment of severity we find excuse-making, as inimical toward manliness today as it was ever.

In immoderate virtus in excess becomes hubris, arrogance, and insolence run riot. Again we find Don Juan, in the words of David Cairns:
There is no protection against his fundamentally destructive energies... He is the logical consequence of the Enlightenment's cult of individualism and unrestrained liberty. 
In detriment the manly spirit is timid, weak, and enervated. It is cowed when it should be assertive, sluggish when it should soar, and reluctant when it should be ready. Reason fusts in him unused and he plods, but sleeping and feeding.

The modern idioms of looking at oneself in the mirror with pleasure and waking up in the morning with gusto might have pleased a Roman. Wake up neither with regret nor ready for mischief, the extremes of severity, but prepared for a prudent and disciplined day, and seek in the mirror neither the prideful nor pitiable, the extremes of virtus, but the cultivated self.

Auream quisquis mediocritatem
diligit, tutus caret obsoleti
sordibus tecti, caret invidenda
     sobrius aula.

Barrow, R. H. The Romans. Penguin Books. Middlesex. 1949.

Cairns, David. Mozart and His Operas. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 2006.

Cochrane, Charles Norris. Christianity and Classical Culture. Oxford University Press. 1968. (Reprint from Clarendon Press, 1940)

Duff, J. Wight & Duff, A. M. A Literary History of Rome. Barnes and Noble. New York. 1960.

Scruton, Roger. An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture. St. Augustine's Press. South Bend Indiana. 2000.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Movie Review: Torn Curtain

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. 1966.

One of life's great pleasures is discovering an art which moves you. What great pleasure there is in finding an artist whose view of the world is somehow your own. Perhaps his humor strikes your funny bone or he can conjure your demons before you. Maybe his style sweeps you off your feet. Picture after picture, you grow more enamored until you wonder whether you are in love with the art or merely your expectations. Perhaps, you fear, you have crossed the line from connoisseur, student, or enthusiast to outright fanatic. It is reassuring, then, to find yourself less than fond of a dear director's movie, as reassuring of your critical faculty as it is disappointing to your expectations of the director. Every enthusiast has this experience, in which I found myself while watching Hitchcock's Torn Curtain.

To call this Cold War thriller flawed would suggest that otherwise it is fundamentally sound, which it is not. Yes, the opening is quality Hitchcock. A ruminative, portentous opening shot opens up onto a research ship pulling into center frame. On the ship, bound for a scientific conference in Copenhagen, we find Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) and Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews), lovebirds and partners in science. Their introduction is classic Hitchcock, and finding them noodling under the covers in intimate, post-coital coziness not only contrasts the frigid outside but sets up the inevitable subversion: is Michael what he appears or does the mounting evidence of his prevarication and misdirection add up to betrayal and espionage against America?

Hitchcock handles this ambiguity well, misdirecting us and Sarah with secret telegrams, missed packages, furtive looks, and conspicuous lies. When Michael publicly defects, then, we are left to wonder only whether he is playing the double agent, really working to steal secrets for America, or the true fraud. Alas this delicious tension abates a mere forty-five minutes into the film when Michael meets another agent who reveals the ruse to us. The subsequent scene, a nail-biter in which Michael and another agent need to double-team an ex-Gestapo hired to tail him, is the last with any palpable tension. Shortly thereafter all the tension deflates when Michael breaks down and tells Sarah the truth that he is out to steal missile secrets from an East German Scientist.

This, aside from Torn Curtain's inability to maintain tension throughout, is the film's greatest flaw. How can we root for Michael when his cause is to steal Russian secrets because he and his American team couldn't figure out the equations themselves? What a tepid premise. Worse still is the much-awaited confrontation between Michael and his East-German counterpart, Dr. Lindt, from who he must extract the secret. Hitchcock teases us well and since we're not particularly rooting for the thieving Michael, we grow to like Lindt, who candidly bucks the party regulations and taunts the higher-ups. When Michael is unable casually to get the better of the doctor when Lindt is tipsy at dinner, we grow curious to see if and how Michael will pry his secrets.

Alas, this too does not pay off, for Michael outwits the doctor in the most preposterous way: by writing just enough of the incomplete and incorrect equations on the chalkboard so that Lindt, in frustration, corrects the mistakes and in doing so, reveals the answer. The brilliant astrophysicist, who last night was too clever to be tricked even when drunk, is duped the next day like Elmer Fudd. Compounding the ridiculousness of the scene are the hammy histrionics of the prolific Ludwig Donath, which at first amused but now aggravate the silliness of the absurd duel of witlessness.

Even the finale is marred by enervating flaws, for when Michael and Sarah make their escape, their means is not at all ripe for ramping up the tension. They flee the city with the help of an anti- communist ring, which operates a taxi that, hiding plain sight, makes its run out of the city just ahead of the official bus. Michael and Sarah, of course, run into trouble when the regular bus turns up just a moment behind theirs. This sounds at first blush to be full of potential tension: will they get away in time? Will the other bus turn up too soon? What we find though, seemingly what Hitchcock found, is that there are only so many ways to stop or speed up a bus driving through Germany, and they all more or less feel the same. Only so many checkpoints and little old ladies can hold up the bus before we tire. It's a relief of the wrong kind when they finally get off the stupid thing.

At this point–well I don't know what to make of the flamboyant Polish countess who promises to lead them out to their agent if they sponsor her visa. Her flashy, flowery outfit and exaggerated manners add some energy to the flagging movie, and we want to ask questions about welcoming oppressed foreigners, but we're too bored and there is nothing specific enough to get our attention.

Had the movie maintained its tension and our interest, though, the finale would be brilliant, for all the drama, all of the globe-trotting and political conniving, the double-crosses and intrigue, the super-weapons and fate of the free world, would come down to the hilarious, darkly comic moment of waiting in the post office. I would gladly have watched and praised that movie and endured further speculation about my fanboy status rather than have seen Paul Newman riding a bus and taking espionage cues from Bugs Bunny.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Thrill of Moderation

If there is any idea which does not excite, it is moderation.

Moderation lacks the pizzazz of excess, with all of its bells and fanfare, and even deficiency can arouse amusement by the shock of insufficiency. Even the ancient fonts of wisdom seem to avail us of little help, for how inspiring is the thought of the auream mediocritatem. Yes it says golden mean, but who can look at that phrase and not see mediocre! shining through Horace's Latin? It is perhaps the fate of this idea to find no easy selling point, no hook by which to snag potential moderates. Even those meticulous verses of Horace in which moderation comes to life in full grandeur and gravitas, even the meticulous logic of Aristotle which proves moderation wise, such persuasions do not excite one to moderation. We may undertake it out of emulation or prudence, but never out of enthusiasm. If one takes the leap of moderation, though, one finds its practice nothing short of thrilling. How is this possible?

First, moderation gets you thinking. It is not so hard to glob onto an extreme and pursue it toward appalling excess without thinking, but to be moderate one must examine both sides, as far to their extremes as possible. This process is not only stimulating but entertaining, and no small part of life's intellectual pleasure comes from the consideration of the absurd. More practically, in examining extremes we are arguing for and against the one which we prefers by inclination.

As such and second, moderation encourages self-examination by requiring us to consider alternatives to one's habitual or natural preferences. Thinking about oneself–not from a sense of narcissism but of humility–is typically an intense task, requiring repeated reflection and consideration.

Thinking of oneself then promotes, thirdly, thinking of others, a task which is likewise without end. How many and how happy are the moments of remembrance, calling to mind the wise and prudent with as much pleasure as the imbecilic. Of course this reflection takes the forms of empathy and criticism, which both lead back to considerations of ourselves.

Reflectivity aside, though, the pursuit of moderation makes each choice an exiting, vital one. Upon the precipice of each action moderation imbues us with purpose both moral and intellectual: Can I figure this problem out as a rational man? Can I negotiate these waters and find the just end?

Speaking of which, moderation makes us consider ends. When we considers the extremes of behavior we also consider their effects, likely preferring to avoid one. In a choice, for example, between upsetting two people, we may learn whom we fear to hurt, or perhaps which principle prevails in our heart. Absent considering alternatives, such knowledge remains obscure.

Of course all of these exciting effects are those of process, and as exciting as they are, I find the thrill of moderation chiefly to lie in its success. How often after I've chosen just the right word, just the right time to interject–or more often, to be silent)–or even the proper time to stop chowing down, do I feel that I've dodged a bullet. In contrast, failures of moderation in both excess and defect always find the same ends of shame and regret. Like walking out of a movie which is too short or slight, defect stirs feelings of disappointment, as one leaves an overlong film numbed insensate.

Finally, we see that apart from the salubrious effects of moderation we find that moderation seems to magnify the spirit. In examining a choice, viewing the alternatives, and then choosing what one deems prudent, we find the happy, just, and of course moderate joy in the exercise of our will. Not the will of whim, but of virtuously directed agency. Choices never seem so mine and I never seem so in control of myself and my life than when I act with moderation. In contrast, following instinct and habit, conniving or striving to get what I wanted before thinking about all sides, makes me feel small. I feel then feeble, as if I can only be happy when sated.

Contra expectations of stuffy, stodgy, mean-finding, moderation is nothing short of choice itself, for who can be said to choose who does not look to all ends, and whom do we say, of course, sees all ends?