Saturday, 30 March 2013

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

I was wondering what could be the connection between Sinclair Lewis and Edith Wharton the dedicatee of Babbitt published 1922 and a little search brought out the genesis of this strange alliance. It came about because the Pulitzer Prize was awarded to her Age of Innocence through the intervention of the Columbia Uni. President and the advisory board striking down of the original choice Main Street made by the reading judges. To show that he had no hard feelings and to secure an ally and a potential booster he wrote to her asking if he could dedicate his next book Babbitt to her. She assented graciously:

When I discovered that I was being rewarded—by one of our leading Universities—for uplifting American morals, I confess I did despair. 
Subsequently, when I found the prize shd (sic) really have been yours, but was withdrawn because your book (I quote from memory) had “offended a number of prominent persons in the Middle West,” disgust was added to despair.

It seems that the President did not consider Lewis to have met the amended award criterion for the prize:
(Pulitzer had originally stipulated that the award be bestowed on the novel that best represented the “whole atmosphere of American life,” but Butler had changed the wording to “wholesome.”) 

When Babbitt was again judged by the readers as worthy of the prize only to be bumped by the President and his board in favour of Will Cather’s One of Ours one can imagine the chagrin. Finally he was awarded the prize for Arrowsmith and had the crowning triumph of refusing it. Read the whole saga at:

I also came across Gore Vidal’s review of a life of Lewis:

This is a languid goreing. I’m so bored. Still; press on is the mood.

He has this to say:
 In the Twenties, only Dreiser was plainly Lewis’s superior but Dreiser’s reputation was always in or under some shadow and even now his greatness is not properly grasped by the few who care about such things.

Considering that Dreiser wrote vilely and that everyone knows this, such a judgment bends the ironyometer needle.

But to get to Babbitt. I liked it. Not everybody got that it referenced the ‘whole’ rather than the ‘wholesome’ and may have taken it to be the story of the temptations of a good ole boy that strayed out of the paths of righteousness. For the broad mass of readership at the time the recognition of satiric intent might have required unhealthy levels of introversion. Being a 'Good Mixer’ requires elimination of the solitary musing that encourages such morbidity. Good Mixers recognise each other and immediately create a fellowship of molecular strength. There is a considerable overlap with Regular Guys, the sort you might vote for as a Republican which Babbitt is. One thinks of Dubya out on his ranch keeping down the briars, back slapping and towel snapping. I may be going out on a limb here because I have never been to America but it seems to me from the media that they are still about and come in two grades, short necked and long necked. To be perfectly honest this type is everywhere and Babbitt’s class-dinner has the ring of utter truth and the vision that overwhelms as you are emailed for the nth. time about such events. Hara-kiri with a rusty penknife seems more attractive, but then I’m a crank. To offset Georgie Babbitt, Lewis gives him a friend like that. On a train they fall into the company of Regular Guys:

The small room, with its walls of ocher-colored steel, was filled mostly with the sort of men he classified as the Best Fellows You'll Ever Meet—Real Good Mixers. There were four of them on the long seat; a fat man with a shrewd fat face, a knife-edged man in a green velour hat, a very young young man with an imitation amber cigarette-holder, and Babbitt. Facing them, on two movable leather chairs, were Paul and a lanky, old-fashioned man, very cunning, with wrinkles bracketing his mouth. They all read newspapers or trade journals, boot-and-shoe journals, crockery journals, and waited for the joys of conversation.

Paul the friend absorbed in his reading does not join in:
Only Paul, sitting by himself, reading at a serial story in a newspaper, failed to join them and all but Babbitt regarded him as a snob, an eccentric, a person of no spirit.

The writing is close, detail laden, of its time, but universal in the recounting of the ways of social coercion and conformity. Babbitt is a cheerful crook and when he goes a little of the rails and begins to question the animus against organised labour he comes to the attention of the Good Citizens League. Fighting the G.C.L. may ruin him but how it all works out in the end is credible and you will end up liking him. You should, he may have put you through College.

It’s a good novel, essential Americana in my view.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Peace comes dropping slow

The trouble with philosophy is that it’s too easy. A good student can mug up a period or personality in Philosophy in a few hours and know enough to pass an exam. With more extensive study a good degree may be got without any real deep understanding of the issues. After all exams are graded on the basis of information and if a student gets that right he has to get the marks. So it has come to pass that academic Philosophy has been polluted by good students. There is no sure way to tell whether this learned person understands whereof he speaks. I take Wittgenstein as an example of a poor student who entered deeply into the oddities of knowledge and was able to circumnavigate the ‘known’ globe of justified true belief and the islands of orthodoxy.

At a certain point this savant, the idiot good student, will wake up and discover that there is no empirical justification for many of the positions of the great ones and from the dream of enlightenment he will wake up screaming - where’s the beef, even, where’s the sandwich. Calming him with a cup of cocoa a mentor will utter: What has happened here is that you were never puzzled, you were never visited by a genuine aporia even one that seemed foolish and contrary. You thought that all this poring over the legends of the great ones would lead to a question that was finally settled. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, there is no peace. Each new resolution dies and suffers the judgement of the Japanese joiner on the stainless steel square - it does not give me peace.

It may not be too late for the troubled one to go into neuroscience. There it will make no difference whether he thinks that the brain secretes consciousness and memory magically creates its own subject. Just keep sacrificing those chickens chum.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

Addendum 25/3/13:
I’m worried about evening full of the linnet’s wings. Can one linnet with one pair of wings fill an evening? Inishfree is a small island I’ve seen it, no more than a large rock with a lot of scrub on it, and possibly not much room for more than one linnet’s territory. This is like Wordsworth’s ten thousand saw I at a glance . You can’t see ten thousand at a glance, perhaps 200 at most. This should be looked into.

Maybe linnet’s is a misprint that has become canonical. Should it be linnets’?

Friday, 22 March 2013

My Beloved Compares Herself to a Pint of Stout by Paul Durcan

You will be told that an Irish homosexual is a man who prefers women to beer. There is a man who has squared that circle and presents it with a little dribble scrollwork of a shamrock on the top.

Paul Durcan:

My Beloved Compares Herself to a Pint of Stout.

When in the heat of the first night of summer
I observe with a whistle of envy
That Jackson has driven out the road for a pint of stout,
She puts her arm around my waist and scolds me:
Am I not your pint of stout? Drink me.
There is nothing except, of course, self-pity
To stop you having your pint of stout.

Putting self-pity on a leash in the back of the car,
I drive out the road, do a U-turn,
Drive in the hall door, up the spiral staircase,
Into her bedroom. I park at the food of her bed,
Nonchalantly step out leaving the car unlocked,
Stroll over to the chest of drawers, lean on it,
Circumspectly inspect the backs of my hands,
Modestly request from her a pint of stout.
She turns her back, undresses, pours herself into bed,
Adjusts the pillows, slaps her hand on the coverlet:
Here I am - at the very least
Look at my new cotton nightdress before you shred it
And do not complain that I have not got a head on me.

I look around to see her foaming out of the bedclothes
Not laughing but gazing at me out of four-legged eyes.
She says: Close your eyes, put your hands around me.
I am the blackest, coldest pint you will ever drink
So sip me slowly, let me linger on your lips,
Ooze through your teeth, dawdle down your throat,
Before swooping down your guts.

When you drink me I will deposit my scum
On your rim and when you get to the bottom of me,
No matter how hard you try to drink my dregs -
And being a man, you will, no harm in that -
I will keep bubbling up back at you.
For there is no escaping my aftermath.

Tonight being the first night of summer -
You may drink as many pints of me as you like.
There are barrels of me in the tap room.
In thin daylight at nightfall,
You will fall asleep drunk on love.
When you wake early in the early morning,
All chaste, astringent, aflame with affirmation,
Straining at the bit to get to First Mass
And Holy Communion and work - the good life.

((From Life is a Dream: 40 years of reading poems 1967 - 2007/ originally published in A Snail in my Prime (1993) ))

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Theo Dorgan waits for King Herod

Theo Dorgan is a man of many parts some of which do not fit together too well. He is of course a poet of the modern sort whose work has that feel and self conscious weight of translations from a minor slavic language delivered with an intense wonder at the power of his own lyrical imagination. He takes his role as an unacknowledged legislator seriously and is apt to pop up anywhere promoting the vision of a re-imagined Ireland very similar to that which any member of the liberal intelligentsia anywhere subscribes to. Call it the spiritual analogue of the standard High Street.

On Irish Radio’s drive time programme he has an occasional 5 minute slot so while you curse the traffic you can be beguiled and bemused. The St.Patrick’s day proposal which I mentioned in my last post was his latest offering and it falls into the category of the inflatable dartboard and waterproof towel, flame resistant incense sticks and so on. Prior to last Christmas he found himself waiting for King Herod. It’s not bad:
waiting for Herod
but then I consider that this is Theo who regularly promotes a vision of Ireland with abortion plumbed in as a state sponsored facility and it seems to me that he is working for Herod just as much as the bankers. Indeed the Herodic rationalisation he proffers of things being better for the other children if the first born is terminated has a familiar ring.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Plan to move St.Patrick's Day. American and Australian papers please copy.

There used to be the ethnic slur which only Irish people used against each other - ‘that’s very Irish’ meaning that it was perfectly ridiculous but true in an interesting way. Theo Dorgan’s (poet, broadcaster) proposal to move St. Patrick’s day to the Summer time when the weather might be better enters into that category.
proposal broadcast
It occupies a niche in an alternative universe previously mapped by Myles’s De Selby and confers the unforeseen benefit of multiplying the feast into a permanent celebration of being Irish on different continents at different times. In this it could share the well observed practice of the Orthodox in their Christmas and Easter celebrations. One year I managed to get two Christmases at both Bethlehem and the Russians on Mount Olivet. Devotees of St.Patrick could do the American on the usual day and the Irish in July. The supply of shamrock might be expected to be more plentiful during the summer though I must declare that I’ve never seen it growing in the ground and those that attend the parades have lapels that foam with common clover.

Theo would like to see the national celebration decoupled from St.Patrick and Christianity to become a more inclusive celebration of being Irish. No more shall the hymn be sung ‘Faith of our fathers living still in spite of dungeon, fire and sword’. A new master narrative to trump, as he would say, the facts of history because Theo does not accept them. You see he had a sort of deconversion experience on the way to school when he was 14 years old but yet he’s glad that Mammy never found out before she died. Now that’s Irish. Daddy came to know by accident but a kind priest convinced him that it was just youthful rebellion.
mockers, gibers, and agnostics
Here Theo is wearing his everyday inclusive cap. He doesn’t want Katie Taylor who won a gold medal in the Olympics mocked for thanking God for her victory. In the enlightened Ireland that he envisages there should be room for dissent even for those that cling to what he invariably calls the Christian story. One can see here the notion that it was not a matter of pusillanimity on his part to keep his loss of faith from his parents but more like the way parents might support the Santa story. The old ones are like that. Sure you’d have to love them.


Gurus in India often ask of their sishas: What do you want? To rest at your lotus feet is a correct answer but that becomes qualified when a real dilemma that contains an easy evasion of what you know to be right presents itself. Simply and solely using will power to set goals does not seem to work though it may be useful allied with the sense to know that it is partial and fundamentally corrupted by illusion and the pride of self identification as ‘I’m the kind of person who sets themselves goals and achieves them’. It’s Platonically accurate to say that ‘Everything I know is wrong’ but still I want to keep on knowing and doing. ‘Don’t just stand there, make a cup of tea’.

The tendency to fall into routines is useful I find. From one point of view habit is a corruption of the will but it is also a way of displacing the continuous inconscient internal monologue which is only the normal habit which keeps the neurotic treadmill turning. As a Catholic child I was taught the Sacred Heart aspiration, ‘Sacred Heart of Jesus I place all my trust in thee’ later I learned of mantras and the Prayer of the Heart.

Peppy formula: Replace aspirations with an aspiration.


William Butler Yeats
Between extremities
Man runs his course;
A brand, or flaming breath.
Comes to destroy
All those antinomies
Of day and night;
The body calls it death,
The heart remorse.
But if these be right
What is joy?

A tree there is that from its topmost bough
Is half all glittering flame and half all green
Abounding foliage moistened with the dew;
And half is half and yet is all the scene;
And half and half consume what they renew,
And he that Attis' image hangs between
That staring fury and the blind lush leaf
May know not what he knows, but knows not grief

Get all the gold and silver that you can,
Satisfy ambition, animate
The trivial days and ram them with the sun,
And yet upon these maxims meditate:
All women dote upon an idle man
Although their children need a rich estate;
No man has ever lived that had enough
Of children's gratitude or woman's love.
No longer in Lethean foliage caught
Begin the preparation for your death
And from the fortieth winter by that thought
Test every work of intellect or faith,
And everything that your own hands have wrought
And call those works extravagance of breath
That are not suited for such men as come
proud, open-eyed and laughing to the tomb.

My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.

Although the summer Sunlight gild
Cloudy leafage of the sky,
Or wintry moonlight sink the field
In storm-scattered intricacy,
I cannot look thereon,
Responsibility so weighs me down.
Things said or done long years ago,
Or things I did not do or say
But thought that I might say or do,
Weigh me down, and not a day
But something is recalled,
My conscience or my vanity appalled.

A rivery field spread out below,
An odour of the new-mown hay
In his nostrils, the great lord of Chou
Cried, casting off the mountain snow,
"Let all things pass away.'

Wheels by milk-white asses drawn
Where Babylon or Nineveh
Rose; some conqueror drew rein
And cried to battle-weary men,
‘Let all things pass away.’

From man's blood-sodden heart are sprung
Those branches of the night and day
Where the gaudy moon is hung.
What's the meaning of all song?
‘Let all things pass away.’

The Soul. Seek out reality, leave things that seem.

The Heart. What, be a singer born and lack a theme?

The Soul. Isaiah's coal, what more can man desire?

The Heart. Struck dumb in the simplicity of fire!

The Soul. Look on that fire, salvation walks within.

The Heart. What theme had Homer but original sin?

Must we part, Von Hugel, though much alike, for we
Accept the miracles of the saints and honour sanctity?
The body of Saint Teresa lies undecayed in tomb,
Bathed in miraculous oil, sweet odours from it come,
Healing from its lettered slab. Those self-same hands perchance
Eternalised the body of a modern saint that once
Had scooped out pharaoh's mummy. I -- though heart might find relief
Did I become a Christian man and choose for my belief
What seems most welcome in the tomb -- play a pre-destined part.
Homer is my example and his unchristened heart.
The lion and the honeycomb, what has Scripture said?
So get you gone, Von Hugel, though with blessings on your head.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Elmer Gantry and the uvular 'r'.

‘Ginty him, ginty him Haaza (Hayes), you cowardly rat’.That was heard by me at a hurling match, for how else shall our young braves learn valour, and it must have been Waterford playing because when he said ‘rat’ he said it with a uvular ‘r’, the French ‘r’, said down in the throat. That vestige has hung around since the Norman invasion in the late 12th. century and only in that area. So when the ball was on the ground in contention I had to ginty him and the next thing I knew was I was holding half a hurley and a ragged v was peeled off my knuckle probably caused by the other half bouncing back.

Down in the surgery with Doctor Fitzgerald - I’ll put a few stitches in that, you’ll be all right, I’ll be quick, and he took out what looked like a needle you might use for closing a jute bag. To help him get it through the thick skin he grasped the end in a stainless steel pliers. A neat little thing. Then he broke the needle.
- Who did you go to, asked my father.
- Dr. Fitzgerald.
- Frosty Fitz, he took 14 years to get his degree, I knew him at College.

I spent a few days in bed after that, in the infirmary of the school getting hot tea and toast and dinner on a tray. That was all right and someone gave me Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis to read. I enjoyed it, a good marriage of the writer’s broad style and the material. Some years ago I read it again and it was still good and the picture they made with Burt Lancaster as Gantry was Hollywood at petitionary prayer. Have a look at this:
Gantry Vs. Evolution
Could this be made today or would Meyer be too nervous?

So lately I was reading Dodsworth from 1929 just before he got the Nobel Prize in 1930 which must have been a retro award as Babbitt and Main Street was mentioned in the citation. It couldn’t have been for Dodsworth which is poor, repetitive and essentially high functioning rummy ranting. He sholda’ used Stooge Dross Reducer
an essential step in babbitting which the book Babbitt used. That’s working well but as I’m still reading it I’ll say no more till I’ve finished. In a curious way I’m coming to like Babbitt, he’s a poor lost soul, some great iron mountain caused a major deviation in his moral compass. Sort of.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

John Campbell, Derek Parfit, Papa Ramdas, John Locke, Shankaracarya and lastly, the Scholiast of the Void (nihilist).

Have I forgotten anyone? I’d like to thank the committee for the use of the hall.

In his excellent lectures on the Philosophy of Mind, Professor John Joseph Campbell reviews the Trekky T.E.s of Derek Parfit in relation to the problem of personal identity. (no.27 &28)
Berkeley Lectures on Mind
Campbell asks whether the $20 that he lent before fission set in is owed by Lefty or Righty. A serious question for any true Scotsman.

He also follows Professor John Perry like a metaphysical ant after the trail of sugar which in a disinterested way he wants to alert a messy shopper to. ‘Wow’, it’s me, I’m that messy shopper and I have to deal with the burst bag in the bottom of my trolley’. Disinterest moves to interest in a way that seems right and proper.

In this and other ways and all accompanied by steam punk epidiascope notes and only those; there are no distracting shots of a live Campbell fiddling with a mike and writing on the board only the off-stage queries and comments of students who fear the gins of treacherous T.E.s; he lays out the now well-known Parfitean position. He has a pleasant broad Scots accent which brings to the word ‘murder’ its proper fatality, ‘20 trenched gashes to his head, the least a death to nature’.

My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness... [However] When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.

So Parfit claims but has he in fact moved to a cosmic sized glass house? Papa Ramdas always, after certain realisations, referred to himself in the 3rd. person as if to say ‘ this is one stream of consciousness to which I have a certain privileged access but that’s all it is, I am not identified with it’. Those positions sound similar but the metaphysical foundations of them differ in important ways which I shall try to sketch.

I would say that the T.E.s proposed by D.P. evince a dualist conception of the person, a body/brain dualism if you like in which the brain takes the position of the soul/mind/spirit in more traditional forms of dualism. His view of consciousness is akin to the Buddhist doctrine of momentariness or annica and the Humean bundles. Shankara in his masterwork commentary on the Vedanta Sutras/Brahma Sutras demonstrates the incoherence of this theory in a definitive fashion.

The vertiginous construction of the Buddhist ‘skandhas’ and the way they set in motion apparent identity he undercuts with a simple question. How does this combination of the skandhas, if we admit it, first get established?

Because they (skandhas) are merely the cause of the origination (of one another). A combination may be possible if any cause for the combination can be ascertained, but as a fact, it cannot be ascertained. For although nescience etc. (the skandhas) be the causes of one another, the earlier ones will merely give rise to the later ones. That may well be so, but nothing can possibly become the source of a combination.

Shankara then examines the idea that the combinations are self supporting:
Or if you think that the combinations themselves recur constantly like a current in this beginningless world, and nescience etc. are sustained by them, even then, when one combination emerges out of another, it will be either regularly similar or irregularly similar or dissimilar. If regularlity be admitted, then a human body can have no possibility of being transformed into divine, animal, or hellish bodies. And if irregularity be admitted, then a human body may at time turn momentarily into an elephant, and then be transformed again into a godly or human form. But either point of view goes against your own position. Moreover, your theory is that there is no permanent experiencer for whose experience the combination (i.e. body) should come into being. That means that an experience occurs merely for the sake of experience, and there need be none to else to desire it.

This morphing and shape shifting that Shankara considers to be a possibility with annica/momentariness smuggles in the concept of substance as the persistent reality ‘underneath’ the changing manifestations. In its way substance reflects a continuous unchanging identity or being as such.

In relation to personal identity Shankara regards memory as an indication of the falsity of annica:
Moreover, when the nihilist asserts all things to be momentary, he will have to assert the perceiver also to be momentary. But this is an absurdity because of the fact of remembrance. Remembrance means recalling to mind something after its perception, and that can happen only when the agent of perception and memory is the same; for one person is not seen to remember something perceived by another. How can there be awareness of the form, “I who saw earlier see now”, arise unless the earlier and later perceiver be the same?
(from B.S.B. II.ii.25 )

The whole section is worth reading if you can get a hold of it. ((Brahma-Sutra-Bhasya pub. by Advaita Asrama trans. Swami Gambhirananda)) Note that he does not claim that memory establishes personal identity only that it reflects it. Professor Campbell examines that error associated with John Locke in his lectures.

How does Shankara deal with the maintenance of identity of the adventurer through the series of transmigrations? This is crucial for the doctrine of karma and reincarnation and it brings in the revealing notion of the linga sarira or subtle body. How this is reconciled with the monist impersonal atmanic identity must be the subject of a future post.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

But is it a novel? (pub.1956) It stretches the fabric a bit thin scarcely covering the bones of a slight frame. Surface anatomy is too evident and two of its chief characters are despatched by shunting them behind the Iron Curtain when they have exhausted their tricks. The personal voice of the narrator protagonist is self-conscious and transparently that of the author in mild disguise. Is it a travel book that is trying to be a novel or a novel that too peripatetic for its own good? Banal as it may seem and a failure to keep up with the post-modern narrative, a slow-reader so to speak, when I’m not involved in the fate of the characters I nod.

The elements are there for travel whimsy and the solid description of the cultural treasures of Trebizond and its surrounding area, the sort of thing that Robert Byron did for Afghanistan in The Road to Oxiania. Abroad is odd but when the travellers are full blooded eccentrics at home the ludic element is cancelled because the Turks don’t realise just how odd these tourists are. For them all English are mad. It was when Laurie comes back to England and begins to train the ape that she has bought in Turkey in the ways of God and man, attendance at Anglo-Catholic service, driving a car and weeding the garden, that the true nature of our narrator is clear.

Laurie’s companions on the Turkey book writing jaunt are Aunt Dot, Aunt Dot’s Camel known as ‘the camel’, and an Anglo-Catholic priest Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg surely a name to curse with in a Muslim country. I wonder if travellers in India are still asked: ‘what is your mission in India’? Their mission in Turkey was Mission to the poor benighted ‘eathen’ Muslim as Kipling put it as well as the collaboration in a travel book between Laurie and her aunt with Aunt Dot doing the words and Laurie the illustrations. Of the group she is the one who is troubled in her faith and taken to adultery. “Feel the guilt and do it anyway” might be her motto. Father Chantry-Pigg tackles her on this in a passage which is good of itself, in itself, but is in the wrong book which would have the review title Travels in Greeneland:

“It’s your business to know. There is no question. You must decide at once. Do you mean to drag on for years more in deliberate sin, refusing grace, denying the Holy Spirit? And when it ends, what then? It will end; such things always end. What then? Shall you come back, when it is taken out of your hands and it will cost you nothing? When you will have nothing to offer to God but a burnt out fire and a fag end? Oh, he’ll take it, he’ll take anything we offer. It is you who will be impoverished for ever by so poor a gift. Offer now what will cost you a great deal, and you’ll be enriched beyond anything you can imagine. How do you know how much of life you still have? It may be many years, it may be a few weeks. You may leave this world without grace, go on into the next stage in the chains you won’t break now. Do you ever think of that, or have you put yourself beyond caring?

Anglicans sorry Anglo-Catholics don’t do angst. There is no ‘but not yet’ aspect to her wish to be reconciled with the Church, Laurie seems to have broken with a tradition and not a faith. This maundering on the edge of belief with its Arnoldian overtones jars with the general lightness of the book. It seems lost in the exoticism which could have been examined in detail in a proper travel book but used as a 'wash’ blurs the real spiritual struggle. When Laurie comes back to England the crisper edge of her writing emerges. I am sure that a book with the rich tapestry of the Home Counties might be better. The World my Wilderness published in 1950 sounds like it might be better. We know that she can write.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Natural Law Critique

Looking at a lot of the reaction to David Bentley Hart’s note on Natural Law I find that James Chastek on his estimable blog
natural law critique
makes many important points. Natural Law theory as a basis for the arriving at moral judgments will perhaps issue in several differing judgments. 'Prelest’ as Hart might put it will ensure this. No single view is sure to issue from the use of unaided natural reason even with the soundest of foundations. You may bring natural law to the ‘public square’ but you can’t make it speak with a single voice.

A commenter gives a very pertinent quotation from St. Thomas Aquinas:
“Although the eternal law is unknown to us according as it is in the Divine Mind: nevertheless, it becomes known to us somewhat, either by natural reason which is derived therefrom as its proper image; or by some sort of additional revelation.”

Here in an ironic form, that ‘somewhat’ is the reflection of the Doctors of the Church, the opposite numbers of those Saints and Sages of the Dharmasastras and scripture itself.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Natural born adepts

For this further reason, one should not on the strength of mere logic challenge something that has to be known from the Vedas. For reasoning, that has no Vedic foundation and springs from the mere imagination of persons, lacks conclusiveness. For man’s conjecture has no limits. Thus it is seen that an argument discovered by adepts with great effort is falsified by other adepts; and an argument hit upon by the latter is proved to be hollow by still others. So nobody can rely on any argument as conclusive, for human intellect differs. If, however, the reasoning of somebody having wide fame, say for instance, Kapila or someone else, be relied on under the belief that this must be conclusive, even so it surely remains inconclusive, inasmuch as people, whose greatness is well recognised and who are the initiators of scriptures (or schools of thought) - for instance, Kapila, Kanada, and others - are seen to have divergent views.
(B.S.B. II.i.11)

It is to be noted that the Vedantin states the important ground rule for this challenge to reasoning; it only applies to those items of knowledge that can only be known from the Vedas. His imaginary interlocutor, with the generic title of the opponent demurs but does not take this stricture into account. He says that the excellence of reasoning is its self correction or constant overcoming of the mistakes of the past. In any case reasoning must be resorted to in the study of the proper import of disputed meanings in the Vedas themselves.

The Vedantin admits that these points are valid to a certain degree.

To this (we Vedantins say): “Even so there is no getting away from the defect.” Although reasoning may be noticed to have finality in some contexts, still in the present context it cannot possibly get any immunity from the charge of being inconclusive; for this extremely sublime subject matter, concerned with the reality of the cause of the Universe and leading to the goal of liberation, cannot even be guessed without the help of the Vedas. An we said that It cannot be known either through perception, being devoid of form etc., or through inference etc., being devoid of the grounds of inference etc.

.....That content of knowledge is said to be the most real since it ever remains the same; and in the world, the knowledge of that kind is said to be right knowledge, as for instance, the knowledge about fire that it is hot. This being the case, people should have no divergence when they have true knowledge, whereas the difference among people who knowledge is based on reasoning is well known from their mutual opposition. For it is a patent fact of experience, that when a logician asserts, “This indeed is the true knowledge”, it is upset by somebody else. And what is established by the latter is disproved by still another. How can any knowledge, arising from reasoning, be correct, when its content has no fixity of form?
........It is also not possible to assemble all the logicians of past, present, and future at the same place and time, whereby to arrive at a single idea, having the same form and content, so as to be the right knowledge. But since the Vedas are eternal and a source of knowledge, they can reasonably reveal as their subject-matter something which is (well established and) unchanging; and the knowledge arising from the Upanisads is alone the true knowledge.

Forgive the long citation but sometimes it seems better to take the risk of being boring to give a proper representation of a view. Shankara wrote in the 9th. C. and his aim was to preserve the final authority of the Vedas in matters that were beyond perception. This also included the code of everyday behaviour which was known as the dharmasastras and was based on the Vedas. Lacking the benefit of evolutionary psychology these codes of conduct were able to stagger along from milennia to millenia. Without the Vedas (cognate with vid/vision), there is left the power of reasoning which in dilemmas could lead to rationalising whatever it is you desire. The ingenuity of Western Philosophers and Bio-Ethicists employed on the subject of abortion is not found in the dharmasastras. It has always been regarded as a grave sin and those who represent that attitude as the sole property of Catholics, Orthodox and ‘fundies’ are simply wrong. It is obvious that an individual guided by their own natural light will not automatically see this. There is so to speak a natural law, a dharma, but it is not something that can be reliably discovered by anybody in good faith applying their native reason. Only those who are enlightened and at one with changeless truth can discern dharmic action in any circumstance.

Interestingly this rejection of the discernment of natural law through the unaided use of reason has been stated with emphasis by the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart in his typically trenchant manner.
is-ought and nature's laws
What appears to be the convergence between natural law and a particular perspective on ethics is no more than the overshadowing of the fact of Christianity. Nature and reason without the illumination of the Christ event would point in no obvious direction. Some Thomists affect to find this baffling.

Professor Hart also seems to be sceptical about the Five Ways of Thomas Aquinas as being strict proofs of the existence of God. It is said that a salient difference between Catholic and Orthodox Christianity is that the Orthodox missed the Enlightenment class. One does get the impression that Catholic thinkers require proofs and reasons to keep the holy rollers and snake handlers at a distance.

A counter might be that it is only men of good will who are connatural with the good that are capable of discerning the natural law. That brings in an extra-rational element, connaturality and the variability of persons and cultures. It is natural wisdom cf:connaturality and wisdom
but it is doubtful whether it will give a universal clear and authoritative guide for action.