Saturday, May 26, 2018

Pound today

Ages ago, when I remarked to my high school English teacher that I was reading Ezra Pound, she pertinently responded: "Wasn't he, well, prejudiced?" Just so, yet Pound refuses to take his place peacefully in the dusty museum of early anglophone modernism. 

Like many others who caught the bug at one time, I continue to ponder him (sic). In different ways, we sense that he is relevant for the present. A recent essay collection, "Ezra Pound in the Present," explores these intimations. 

In summary, the editors single out three main areas of intersection: the excesses of finance capital and how, if at all, they are to be curbed; the renewed importance of China; and the continuing vitality of the American founders, especially Jefferson and Adams. 

The conventional view is that Lord Keynes decisively skewered the amateurish Social Credit theories of Major Douglas. True, but maybe something can be salvaged, since the current liberal remedy of regulation of financial institutions has proved all too easy for capture and dismantling. 

As a longtime admirer of the philosopher, Pound would surely appreciate the formation of Confucius Institutes in many countries. Pound was also interested in Japan; and one cannot afford to neglect that country either. 

Finally, the American foundation documents, leading to the Constitution, continue to be the subject of much study and debate.

Thursday, May 24, 2018


Admired as much for his incomparable literary style as for his challenging doctrines, Plato ranks as one of the best-known and carefully studied philosophers. He wrote in the middle of the fourth century BCE in ancient Athens. Though influenced primarily by Socrates, so that Socrates figures as the main character in many of Plato's earlier writings, he also attended to the lessons of Heraclitus, Parmenides, and the Pythagoreans. In his turn he was the teacher of Aristotle, whose doctrines however are very different.

Plato’s central doctrine is the Theory of Forms.  This concept posits a fundamental distinction between everyday reality vs. the ultimate reality which is normally imperceptible but accessible to the enlightened. In dialogues such as the Phaedo, Symposium, and Republic, the Forms figure as transcendent, perfect archetypes, of which objects in the perceived world are but imperfect copies. According to this view, there is a resplendent world of eternal and changeless forms, the realm of Being, over against which lies a grubby ensemble of Becoming - what Heidegger would later label the Dasein..  This inferior realm in which we are confined, nonetheless partakes, after a fashion, of the qualities of the Forms, and is their instantiation in the sensible world.

Why did Plato adopt this peculiar notion of two worlds? In fact he drew upon a substantial  background in the history of ideas, for Heraclitus and Parmenides, leading pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, broke with the reigning mythological tradition. In this way they initiated the metaphysical approach that strongly influenced Plato and has in some respects lasted until now.

Heraclitus’ thinking stressed the fact that all things are continuously changing, or becoming. Well-known is his signature image of the river, with its ever-changing waters. Plato received the ideas of this philosopher through Cratylus, who stressed even more than his predecessor the idea of change, holding that this vision of pervasive change leads to skepticism, since we can not define a thing that lacks a permanent nature. For his part, Parmenides embraced a contrary vision, advancing the idea of changeless Being, and holding that change is an illusion of the senses.

It seems then that these speculations about change and permanence, or becoming and Being, led Plato to formulate his theory of Forms.

In recent years Plato's ideas about love have attracted considerable interest.  He is mainly concerned with pederasty, or the love of an older man for a youth.  With some reservations he accepted, and even extolled this practice.  Yet in his late work The Laws he stigmatized it as unnatural.

Plato has also been influential as a political theorist, as seen in his accounts of the ideal society in The Republic and the Laws. Yet his ideas have not met with universal approval.

His views were trenchantly attacked in the magnum opus of Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). The subtitle of his first volume, "The Spell of Plato,” encapsulates Popper's view—namely, that most Plato interpreters through the ages have been seduced by Plato's intellectual brilliance and coruscating style. In so responding, Popper argues, they have treated Plato's political philosophy as a benign idyll, overlooking its dangerous tendencies toward totalitarianism,

Popper extols Plato's analysis of social change and discontent, naming him as a great sociologist, while rejecting his solutions. This rejection reflects Popper's reading of the emerging humanitarian ideals of Athenian democracy as the birth pangs of his coveted "open society."  Plato's distaste for democracy led him, Popper holds, "to defend lying, political miracles, tabooistic superstition, the suppression of truth, and ultimately, brutal violence."

Popper argues that Plato's political ideas are driven by a fear of the process of change that liberal democracies bring about. Moreover, as an aristocrat and a relative of one-time Athenian dictator Critias, Plato sympathized with the oligarchs of his own day, being contemptuous of the common man. Popper also infers that Plato was the victim of his own vanity, wishing to become the supreme Philosopher King of his vision.

Despite lively competition from the Aristotelians, Stoics, and adherents of other schools, Plato continued to be read throughout antiquity. In the third century CE, Plotinus recast Plato's system, establishing Neoplatonism, in which Middle Platonism was fused with mysticism. At the summit of existence stands the One or the Good, as the source of all things. It generates from itself, as if from the reflection of its own being, reason, the nous, or mind, harboring the infinite store of ideas.The world-soul, the copy of the nous, is generated by and contained in it, as the nous is in the One, and, by informing matter in itself nonexistent, constitutes bodies whose existence is contained in the world-soul.[ Nature therefore is a whole, endowed with life and soul. Soul, being chained to matter, longs to escape from the bondage of the body and return to its original source.

In virtue and philosophical thought it has the power to elevate itself above the reason into a state of ecstasy, where it can behold, or ascend to, that one primary Being whom reason cannot know. To attain this union with the Good, or God, is the true function of human beings.  Plotinus' disciple, Porphyry, followed by Iamblichus, developed the system in conscious opposition to Christianity.

The Platonic Academy revived during this period.  Its most renowned head was Proclus (died 485), a celebrated commentator on Plato's writings. The Academy persisted until Byzantine emperor Justinian closed it in 529.

In nineteenth-century Britain the translations of Benjamin Jowett sought to exploit Plato in the service of Victorian ideals. More recent interest in Plato among professional philosophers has been selective, emphasizing his contributions to logic and mathematics.

A recent, quirky response Is Rebecca Goldstein’s book, Plato at the Googleplex.  In addition to a straightforward account of the philosopher’s thought, the writer offers sections where Plato visits the Google office, helps an advice columnist counsel people on problems with their love life, debates a cable-news character, shares the stage with a tiger-mother character and a psychoanalyst to discuss child upbringing, and debates free will with a neuroscientist.

Sunday, May 20, 2018


As presented by the Reverend Curry at the royal wedding,  the eulogy of "love" was rousing, but simplistic. In his book on the theme, John Allen Lee recognized six major types of love. The Greek New Testament was careful to make the distinction between agape and eros. The Latin Vulgate introduced a third term: caritas. So matters are not as straightforward as they may at first appear.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018


Political polarization takes several forms these days. After I made some remarks urging a nuanced position regarding I/P issues, a German friend opined that I must be a Zionist. I am not, but what if I were? I am aware of excesses committed by the Israeli authorities. Yet I cannot support the Palestinians.

As one journalist admitted, many Palestinians not only claim the West Bank and East Jerusalem as occupied land but also Tel Aviv. Expelling the Jews from Eretz Israel is not going to happen, but advocating this form of ethnic cleansing is heinous. 

I have another reason for distrusting the Palestinians. They persecute and even kill gay men. This unacceptable behavior recalls the Nazi persecution of the Pink Triangles. I would have thought my German acquaintance would show more sensitivity, given his country's history.

Sunday, May 13, 2018


Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra (1547-1616) was born in Alcalá de Henares. His father Rodrigo de Cervantes was a physician of modest means. Cervantes seems to have studied with the Jesuits in Córdoba or Seville and perhaps in Salamanca as well. It is fairly certain that he was a pupil of López de Hoyos in Madrid. 

In 1569 he went to Italy as part of Cardinal Acquaviva's retinue. After enlisting as a soldier in 1570 he fought in the battle of Lepanto aboard the galley Marquesa. For the rest of his life he would boast of the wounds that he received in his hands and on his forehead. Subsequently, he fought in the Corfú, Navarino, and Tunis campaigns. 

On his way back to Spain in 1575, the galley El Sol was attacked by Turkish ships and Cervantes was taken to Algeria as a captive, where he may have been sexually abused. During his five years of captivity he wrote the Epístola a Mateo Vázquez. Juan Gil obtained Cervantes's freedom in 1580 in exchange for 500 ducats. 

Once back in Spain, he became a commissioner collecting funds for the supposedly Invincible Armada. He had one daughter, Isabel, from his liaison with Ana de Villafranca. He married Catalina de Salazar y Palacios in 1584. He was twice imprisoned for embezzlement and for failing to pay his debts. He was sent to jail in 1603 when the corpse of Gaspar de Ezpaleta was found on his doorstep, but was released for lack of evidence. From 1613 onwards one of his books was to appear every year until the last one, Persiles, with its dedication in which he takes leave of his readers signed three days before his death, on April 23, 1616. 

Cervantes wrote poems, but they are little read nowadays.  Analysis has also diminished the reputation of his plays, but two of them, Los tratos de Argel and La Numancia, made a significant impact and were not surpassed until Lope de Vega appeared. Cervantes's overall production included 16 dramatic works, among which were eight full-length plays He also wrote eight short farces (entremeses).  Cervantes's farces, whose dates and order of composition are not known, seem not to have been performed in their time. Cervantes endowed them with novelistic elements such as simplified plot, the type of description normally associated with the novel, and character development.

Listed chronologically, Cervantes’ novels are La Galatea (1585); El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha I (1605); Novelas ejemplares (1613); Segunda parte del ingenioso caballero don Quijote de la Mancha (1615), and Los trabajos de Persiles y Segismunda, historia septentrional (1617). Los trabajos attests not only to the survival of Greek novelistic themes but also of the survival of forms and concepts of the Spanish novel current during the Renaissance. 

In 1605 Miguel de Cervantes published the first part of his novel El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha. An unprecedented success, six editions appeared in the first year and it was translated into English in 1612 and into French in 1614. Given to reading books of chivalry, the protagonist, influenced by the exploits of his heroes, loses his mind and decides to become a knight, go out in search of adventure and impose justice according to the code of the knights errant. Cervantes's work, a keen critique of the literature of his time, presented the clash between reality and the ideals which Don Quijote sought to revive, and at the same time originated the theme of the clairvoyance of insanity. 

Don Quijote has been termed the first novel, which does not seem quite right as their were novels in Greco-Roman antiquity.  Yet Cervantes created a new, more capacious model of the novel, synthesizing earlier precedents such as the tales of chivalry and accommodating voices of various social classes in a polymorphous whole.

In 1614 Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda (possibly a pen name) published a spurious Segundo tomo del Ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha in Tarragona while Cervantes was working on his own part two, which appeared in 1615. Part one interpolates peripheral episodes into the main plot. This structural aspect was criticized in Cervantes's time and continues to be so in the present. This criticism influenced Cervantes in composing the second part, where these stories no longer appear. In his full maturity, Cervantes demonstrated a mastery of theatrical illusion which, absent from part one, achieves its proper narrative function in part two. 

Some years ago in my blog (Dyneslines, 2005) I posited some views of my own regarding the innovative character of Cervantes’ masterwork. I asked whether there might a deep affinity between Cervantes and Einstein. We may start with this proposal: in the social world Cervantes anticipated some aspects of the principles of modern physics in the natural world. Arguably the central theme of Don Quijote is the problem of illusion and reality. When the Knight sees two clouds of dust in the distance he assumes that they are two fighting armies advancing on one another for a great battle. Approaching more closely, he finds to his discomfort that they are really just two herds of sheep. Not so, says the Don. If Sancho will follow them, he will find that the armies had been merely temporarily enchanted, and will resume their former shape.

Unlike some of his Spanish contemporaries Cervantes did not flatly pronounce "la vida es sueño," life is a dream. Rather, we must accept a constant oscillation between reality and illusion, or perhaps better, between two (or more) illusions. The role of the observer, sometimes confident sometimes bewildered, is paramount. As the twentieth-century dramatist Luigi Pirandello noted, “Così è, se vi pare,” that’s the way it is, if you think so." Many have found this situation disconcerting. Yet it seems inseparable from the full embrace of the modern experience.

Perhaps the ultimate basis of the posited Cervantes-Einstein affinity is this. In megahistorical terms Don Quijote is about the clashing of two tectonic plates. These plates reflect the shift from the medieval worldview to that of modern times. However, since the medieval tales of chivalry that so influenced Cervantes’ hero had so little connection with reality, there is a second clash: between fantasy and lived experience.

Lost to most modern readers is the intertextual aspect: the interplay with the various older romances of chivalry still widely current in the early seventeenth century over against which Cervantes places his narrative. These books are of course the “cocaine” of the hidalgo’s addiction. They are generally considered pernicious—but not all: note the drastic "literary Inquisition" scene of Chapter Six in Part One where the Don’s friends decide which works to commend to the flames.  Some survived.

I am not the first to detect a similarity with certain currents of the modern scientific world view. In an influential 1948 essay on the perspectivism of Don Quijote the brilliant Austrian-American philologist Leo Spitzer detected a kind of indeterminacy in Cervantes. Spitzer starts with a basic, seemingly trivial issue: the instability of personal names in the novel. For example, sources suggest that the name of the hero may have been Quijada, Quesada, or Quijana. (And even today some write Quixote instead of Quijote.) The philologist goes on to discuss puns, hybrid word formations, different levels of speech (including argot and dialect), and the refraction of events and actions through inconclusive dialogue.

Sometimes the indeterminacy is due to nothing more than the difficulty of coordinating such a long, unwieldy story. In Part One Sancho’s donkey is stolen, and then it reappears without explanation, than disappears again, before finally reappearing once more. Apparently, Cervantes noted a discrepancy and tried to fix it, but the printer got the instructions backwards and turned the donkey into a kind of Schrödinger’s cat. However, the matter is deeper than that, as one sees when the Don concedes that what he takes to be Mambrino’s helmet may be just a barber’s basin after all-—or something else entirely (I, 25).

A fundamental uncertainty concerns the function of the author. On the one hand, the writer Miguel de Cervantes is a kind of divine figure, visibly manipulating his characters and events. On the other, he claims that for the most part he is merely transcribing and augmenting an earlier Arabic text by the mysterious Cide Hemete Benengeli. With such machinery on display, the novel Don Quijote may be classified as a reflexive work—a literary creation that comments on its own existence. As such it conforms to the principle of "foregrounding the devices" identified by the Russian Formalist literary critics. This principle ricochets through modern creativity of all sorts. An example is the presentation of "raw" concrete in Le Corbusier’s late works, a procedure that calls upon the visitor to reflect on the process of construction.

Towards the end of Part Two, the faithful sidekick observes "I am Don Quijote’s squire who is to be found also in the story and who is called Sancho Panza—-unless they have changed me in the cradle—-I mean to say at the printer’s." Here is Spitzer’s comment: "In such passages, Cervantes willingly destroys the artistic illusion: he, the puppeteer, lets us see the strings of his puppet show: 'see, reader, this is not life, but a stage, a book: art; recognize the life-giving power of the artist as a thing, distinct from life!'”  In addition, Spitzer wrote of "the general spirit of relativism which has been recognized by most critics as characteristic of the novel." While relativism and relativity (in Einstein’s sense) are not the same thing, we must reckon with such general similarities—where perception plays a large part-—in assessing relevant connections. 


Michel de Montaigne (1533-1582) easily ranks as one of the most important figures in the late French Renaissance, both for his literary innovations as well as for his contributions to philosophy.  To his great credit as a writer, he developed a new form of literary expression, the essay.  This form offers a brief and admittedly incomplete treatment of a topic germane to human life - a treatment blending philosophical insights with historical anecdotes and autobiographical details, all unapologetically presented from the author’s own personal perspective. 

Montaigne was born in southwestern France at the family chateau near Bordeaux.  The family was wealthy, for his great-grandfather, Ramon Felipe Eyquem, had made a fortune as a herring merchant; he had bought the estate in 1477, thus becoming the Lord of Montaigne.

Montaigne’s education began in early childhood in keeping with a pedagogical plan his father had devised to ensure that Latin would be his first language. His father hired only servants who could speak Latin, and they were also given strict orders always to speak to the boy in Latin. 

After university training, he began a career in the local legal system. In 1557 he was appointed counselor of the Parliament in Bordeaux (a high court). Montaigne served several terms as the mayor of Bordeaux.  He also achieved national renown: from 1561 to 1563 he was  a courtier at the court of Charles IX.  While serving at the Bordeaux Parlement. he became very close friends with the humanist poet Etienne La Boétie, whose death in 1563 deeply affected Montaigne.

All his literary and philosophical work is contained in his Essais, which he began to write in 1572 and first published in 1580 in the form of two books.  In their final form the Essays comprise three books, with a total of 107 chapters of varying length. Over the next twelve years leading up to his death, he recently added to the text of the  first two books and completed a third, bringing the work to a length of about one thousand pages.  While Montaigne made numerous additions to the books over the years. These additions add to the unsystematic character of the books, which Montaigne himself conceded incorporated many contradictions. 

The unsystematic nature of the Essays meant that Montaigne received relatively little attention from Anglo-American philosophers in the twentieth century.  Nonetheless, in recent years he has been embraced by many as an important figure in the history of philosophy not only for his skepticism, but also for his treatment of topics such as the self, moral relativism, politics, and the nature of philosophy.

All in all, the most salient aspect of Montaigne’s thought is skepticism. So far, so good - or so it seems.  Just what exactly his skepticism amounts to is a matter that has engendered considerable scholarly debate. 

In  his “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” Montaigne expresses great admiration for the Pyrrhonists and their ability to maintain the freedom of their power of judgment by avoiding commitment to any particular theoretical position. Elsewhere, as in the very first essay of his book, ”By diverse means we arrive at the same end,” Montaigne marshals skeptical arguments to facilitate the suspension of judgment concerning practical matters, such as whether the best way to obtain mercy is by submission or defiance. 

At one point in  the ”Apology for Raymond Sebond,” for instance, he seems to suggest that his allegiance to the Catholic Church is due to the fact that he was raised Catholic in a country where this religion was dominant.  This position has led some scholars, such as Richard Popkin, to interpret him as a skeptical fideist who is arguing that because we have no reasons to abandon our customary beliefs and practices, we should remain loyal to them.  Indeed, Catholics would employ this argument in the Counter-Reformation movement during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 

While many scholars, then, justifiably speak of Montaigne as a modern skeptic in one sense or another, others emphasize aspects of his thought that separate him from the skeptical tradition.  Such scholars point out that many interpretations of Montaigne as a fundamentally skeptical philosopher tend to focus on “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” Montaigne’s most skeptical essay.  When we take a broader view of the Essays as a whole, we find that Montaigne’s employment of skeptical tropes is more limited, so that for him it does not extend to his abandoning his beliefs. 

Montaigne's stated design in writing, publishing and revising the Essays over the period from approximately 1570 to 1592 was to record "some traits of my character and of my humors." The Essays were first published in 1580 and cover a wide range of topics.

All of Montaigne’s philosophical reflections are found in his Essays.  To readers today, the term “essay” denotes a particular literary genre.  But when Montaigne gives the title Essays to his book he does not intend to designate the literary genre of the work so much as to refer to the spirit in which it is written and the nature of the project out of which it emerges.  The term stems from the French verb “essayer,” which  Montaigne employs in a variety of senses throughout his Essays, where it conveys such meanings as “to attempt,” “to test,” “to exercise,” and “to experiment.”  Each of these expressions captures an aspect of Montaigne’s endeavor in the Essays.  To translate the title of his book as “Attempts” would reflect the modesty of Montaigne’s essays, while to translate it as “Tests” would affirm the fact that he takes himself to be testing his judgment.  “Exercises” would communicate the sense in which essaying is a way of working on oneself, while “Experiments” would convey the exploratory spirit of the book.

Clearly, as presented, The Essays amounts to an unsystematic work.  The text addresses a wide range of topics, including  knowledge, education, love, the body, death, politics, the nature and power of custom, and the colonization of the New World.  There rarely seems to be any explicit connection between one chapter and the next.  Moreover, chapter titles are often only tangentially related to their contents.  The lack of logical progression from one chapter to the next creates a sense of disorder that is compounded by Montaigne’s style, which can be characterized as deliberately nonchalant.  Most essays include a number of digressions.  In some instances the digressions seem to reflect Montaigne’s stream-of-consciousness style,  while in others they stem from his habit of inserting additions into essays years after they were first written.  Finally, the nature of Montaigne’s undertaking itself contributes to the disorderly style of his book.  

The great goal of his effort, he tells us at the outset, is to paint a portrait of himself in words. For Montaigne, this task is complicated by his conception of the nature of the self.  In “Of repentance,” for example, he announces that while others try to form man, he simply tells of a particular man, one who is constantly changing.

Yet this is not all there is to it.  Biancamaria Fontana, while acknowledging that the Essais record Montaigne's personal experiences, nonetheless asserts that they also offer the first major critique of France's ancien régime, anticipating in this way the main themes of such Enlightenment theorists as Voltaire and Diderot. Challenging the view that Montaigne was politically aloof or evasive, or that he was a conservative and supporter of absolute monarchy, Fontana has isolated several central issues inherent in Montaigne's work--the reform of legal institutions, the prospects of religious toleration, the role of public opinion, and the legitimacy of political regimes

With all this complexity, why should one read The Essays?  In fact their charm is undeniable.  Montaigne wrote in a carefully crafted mode designed to intrigue the reader, sometimes appearing to move in a stream-of-thought way from topic to topic and at other times employing a structured exposition that gives more emphasis to the didactic nature of his work.

It is a curious fact that Montaigne anticipated the contemporary vogue of the blog.  With their highly personal character, blogs deal, often unpredictably, with a variety of topics presented in the form of essays of various lengths.

It is sometimes asserted that Montaigne invented the genre of autobiography.  This is untrue as there were a number of exemplars from classical antiquity, culminating in Augustines’s Confessions.  In Montaigne’s own time there were autobiographies by the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini and the polymath Girolamo Cardano.  Yet Montaigne’s book stands out for his linking of his self-analysis with larger concerns.  In fact, the insight into human nature provided by his essays, illuminated by countless examples from his reading, is closely linked with his introspection.

Though the implications of his essays were profound and far-reaching, he modestly did not intend, nor expect his work to garner much attention outside of his inner circle, prefacing his essays with, "I am myself the matter of this book; you would be unreasonable to suspend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.”

Montaigne wrote during a period pervaded by Catholic and Protestant ideological tension. In the course of the sixteenth century, Protestant authors attempted to mitigate the severity of Church doctrine by applying their own reasoning and scholarship. In this context, skepticism appealed to some Catholic advocates as a device for blunting reason and scholarship, fostering an acceptance of Church doctrine through faith alone. 

His curiosity was boundless, sometime leading to unexpected results.  Cautiously he explored the dangerous issue of same-sex passions among men, though his personal affinities were more homosocial than homosexual - that is, devoid of physical consummation.  This concern inspired his composition "On Friendship" in the Essais. There he asserts that friendship is more passionate than the "impetuous and fickle" love for women and superior to marriage, which one can enter at will but not leave. He concedes that physical intimacy between males "is justly abhorred by our moral notions," while the "disparity of age and difference of station" which the Greeks demanded "would not correspond sufficiently to the perfect union that we are seeking here." Montaigne rejects pederasty because of the age asymmetry between the partners, "simply founded on external beauty, the false image of corporeal generation," while approving fully of intense friendship between men of the same age, "friendship that possesses the soul and rules it with absolute sovereignty.”

He criticized European colonization of the Americas because of the suffering it brought upon the indigenous peoples.

It is generally accepted that Montaigne's essays had a significant influence on the plays of William Shakespeare, given their similarities in language, themes, and structures.  And Shakespeare’s England was also riven by violent religious controversy

Montaigne's essays made them arguably the most prominent work in French philosophy before Descartes, who is decidedly less popular.

During the twentieth century Montaigne attracted little attention from anglophone philosophers, in part because he showed little interest in the details of logic that was, arguably, their central preoccupation.  With the revival of interest in ethics, though, he became topical in certain quarters.  There was also interest in Montaigne’s engagement with ancient philosophy, including Socrates, Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Skepticism.

It has long been clear to readers that, as result of his prolonged dialogue with himself, Montaigne offered perspectives on how to live.  Over the centuries readers have come to him in search of companionship, wisdom, and entertainment.  These concerns they have framed in terms of a search for themselves, the same quest that Montaigne pursued so avidly.

Recently, in her bestselling book, How to Live, or a life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer (2010), Sarah Bakewell offers a sustained response to these questions. According to the book's webpage, How to Live addresses the following matters: "How to get along with people, how to deal with violence, how to adjust to losing someone you love—such questions arise in most people’s lives. They are all versions of a bigger question: How do you live?” 

Bakewell also posits that the empathy Montaigne has elicited "derives partly from the free-style form of the prose as it follows the 'thousand paths' of one man's 'random' reasoning, and partly from the author's confessed inadequacy."  But the path is not entirely rosy. She maintains that only being allowed to speak Latin in his early years “benefited him in exactly the areas where it also damaged him,” making him an independent thinker, but also imposing detachment.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018


When I was a teenager the library of my parents contained a volume with the title of The Works of Rabelais.  Not knowing any better, I thought that the name was pronounced “Rebellious.”

Was this ascription in any way accurate?  Not really, for despite his subversive aspects, Rabelais was a solid professional, very well connected in his time.  Over the centuries his works, despite their linguistic difficulties, have long attracted attentive readers.

François Rabelais (ca. 1494-1553) played many roles. He was a major French Renaissance writer,  together with at times a lawyer, monk, doctor, humanist, and oenophile. Both bawdy and learned, his work was highly original in both subject matter and quality. While his narratives are sometimes shocking, the inventive use of language displays an almost modern sensibility, as does his storytelling ability with its use of monologue and dialogue.

It is probable that François Rabelais was born in 1494, near Chinon, now in the department of Indre-et-Loire, where his father worked as a lawyer and his mother was a homemaker. Apparently, he too studied law, but left the field to join the Franciscan order, taking vows by or before 1521. He soon left the order to study at the University of Poitiers and University of Montpellier. In due course he joined the Benedictines, probably studying medicine with them. In 1532, he moved to Lyon, a major intellectual center of his day in France, where he served as a physician at the hospital. He not only practiced medicine, but edited Latin works for the printer Sebastian Gryphius. He employed his spare time to write and publish humorous pamphlets critical of established authority and stressing his own perception of individual liberty. While they were satirical his innovative writings revealed his role as an astute observer of the social and political events unfolding during the first half of the sixteenth century.

After the publication of his major literary works, Rabelais traveled to Rome with the ecclesiastic Jean du Bellay,.  He lived for a short time in Turin with du Bellay's brother, Guillaume, during which time king Francis I was his patron. Rabelais probably spent some time in hiding, threatened with the accusation of heresy. Only the protection of du Bellay saved Rabelais after the Sorbonne condemned his works.

Later Rabelais taught medicine at Montpellier in 1537 and 1538, and, in 1547, became curate of Saint-Christophe-du-Jambet and of Meudon, from which he resigned before his death in Paris in 1553.

There are different accounts of Rabelais' death and of his last words. According to some, he wrote a famous one-sentence will: "I have nothing, I owe a great deal, and the rest I leave to the poor," and his last words were "I am off in search of a great perhaps.”

In 1532, using the pseudonym Alcofribas Nasier (an anagram of François Rabelais), he published his first book, Pantagruel, a work that turned out to be the start of his Gargantua series. In his book, Rabelais sings the praises of the wines from his hometown of Chinon through vivid descriptions of the "eat, drink, and be merry" lifestyle of the main character, the giant Pantagruel, and his friends. Despite the great popularity of his book, both it and his prequel book on the life of Pantagruel's father Gargantua were condemned by the authorities of the Sorbonne for their unorthodox ideas, and for its derision of certain religious practices. Rabelais's third book, published under his own name, was also banned.

His books tell the story of two giants—a father, Gargantua, and his son, Pantagruel—and their adventures.  While the first two books focus on the lives of the two giants, much of the rest of the series relates the adventures of Pantagruel's friends—such as Panurge, a roguish erudite maverick, and Brother Jean, a bold, voracious and boozing ex-monk—and others on a collective naval journey in search of the Divine Bottle.

In 1532 when Pantagruel first appeared, relations between Catholics and Lutherans in France were relatively peaceful, with some (including Rabelais) drawing from both traditions.  Thirty years later, when the Quart Livre, or fourth book, appeared, the conflict had become lethal.  Thus Rabelais’ literary accomplishment spans the period when the fissure between Catholics and Protestants became a permanent feature of Western civilization.  

Rabelais’ extravagant, “over the top” literary style accommodated both high and low elements - embracing learning in many languages as well as coarse bawdiness.   The plot lurches from one episode to another in a randomness that seems to mirror life itself.

Even though most chapters of the volumes are humorous, rambunctious, and sometimes absurd, some relatively serious passages have become famous for descriptions of humanistic ideals of the time. In fact, the letter of Gargantua to Pantagruel and the chapters on Gargantua's boyhood present a detailed program of education.

A celebrated narrative is that of the utopian Abbey of Thélème, built by Gargantua.  Because of its importance. this fictional institution, which ranks as the first utopia in French literature, deserves extended analysis.  After successfully completing the war against Picrochole, Gargantua decided to build an abbey.  The rules of this institution were quite different from those governing European monasteries of the time, emphasizing as they did obedience to fixed hierarchical structure. The motto of the new abbey was «Fais ce que voudras» (*Do what thou wilt.”). The word «Thélème» derives from the Greek θέλημα (« thélêma »),  which in the New Testament characterizes the divine will, something that naturally manifests itself in human beings without the need for direct divine intervention. 

In its architectural form the Abbey of Thélème evokes a Renaissance chateau, such as Chambord, and not a medieval monastery. Unusually, however, the plan of Rabelais’ abbey was hexagonal.  It also had six floors, each devoted to books in a particular language: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, Italian, and Spanish

Rabelais describes a collective mode of life based on general will.  The Abbey's inmates, both women and men, observe lives of gentle decency governed by their apprehension of the divine will.  “All their life was spent not in laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their own free will and pleasure. They rose out of their beds when they thought good; they did eat, drink, labour, sleep, when they had a mind to it and were disposed for it. None did awake them, none did offer to constrain them to eat, drink, nor to do any other thing; for so had Gargantua established it.” Indeed life was joyful, filled with drinking, reading, singing, and playing musical instruments. 

As a humanist of his time, Rabelais postulates that a society without constraint or conflict was possible if only one could liberate the goodness inherent in human nature. To achieve this result he emphases the importance of education.

The conception of the abbey of de Thélème evokes a number of utopias popular at the time, such as the Heavenly Jerusalem of the Christian Apocalypse, the Dream of Polyphilus by Francesco Colonna (1499), and Thomas More’s Utopia. In fact Rabelais knew this last work, published in 1516 in Louvain. 

The French Renaissance was a time of linguistic ferment. Among the issues debated by scholars was the question of the origin of language. What was humanity's first language? Is language something that all humans are born with or something that they must learn (nature versus nurture)? Is there some organic connection between words and the objects they refer to, or are words purely arbitrary? Rabelais addresses these matters, among many others, in his books.

The early sixteenth century was also a time of innovations and change for the French language, especially in its written form. The first grammar appeared in 1530, followed nine years later by the first dictionary. Since spelling was far less codified than it is now, authors chose their own orthography. Rabelais himself developed his personal set of rather complex rules. He fostered etymological spelling, one that displays the origin of words by adding or modifying letter.  In this way he opposed those who favored a simplified spelling.

Rabelais' use of his native tongue was astoundingly original, lively, and creative, displaying a flexibility that was later to be discouraged by the French Academy.  He introduced into French dozens of Greek, Latin, and Italian loan-words,together with direct translations of Greek and Latin compounds and idioms. He also employed dialect forms, inventing new words and metaphors, some of which have become part of the standard language today. Rabelais arguably ranks as one of the authors who enriched the French language in the most significant way.  His works are also notorious for being filled with sexual double-entendre, dirty jokes, and bawdy songs that can still startle modern readers.s

The hybridity of Rabelais' style, mingling elevated and coarse elements, was a direct challenge to the reigning ideal of literary propriety promulgated by Roman literary theorists, who held that there were three distinct styles: high, middle and low. The high style was suited for the depiction of monarchs and aristocrates and their deeds of valor.  Middle styles were just that: renderings of the middle orders of society and their doings.  Finally, low styles were suitable for modest, even sordid scenes. For his part, Rabelais throws together the elevated and the sordid: one shades into the other.  It is natural to see in this hybridity a reflection of the turbulence of sixteenth-century Europe.  May not it also have relevance to our own era, when long-standing continuities seem to be giving way to a kind of omnipresent hurly burly?

Be that as it may, Rabelais has been much read and enjoyed over the centuries, but rarely emulated.  The French rightly regard him as a classic author, but the imposition of normative grammatical and lexical standards in the seventeenth century precluded any wide use of him as a model.  Only in the twentieth century did a major writer emerge, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, whose experiments in writing rise to the level of those found in the imposing work of Rabelais.

Perhaps certain aspects of the cinema, such as the noir films, indirectly reflect his influence in our own day.  More clearly, Rabelais inspired the remarkable theory of the carnivalesque advanced by the Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Shakespeare once more

Multifarious as his talent was, Shakespeare is not usually thought to have embraced or expounded any one philosophical system.  Appropriately enough, the literary and dramatic aspects of the bard have evoked a vast amount commentary which I will not attempt to summarize here  Still, there are significant concepts and hints of philosophical themes that reside in the copious work of the Bard . Hence, the emphasis here will be on Shakespeare as a thinker, an elusive but perhaps not intractable subject.

In fact two recent monographs have addressed these issues: Colin McGinn, Shakespeare’s Philosophy (2007), and A. D. Nuttall, Shakespeare the Thinker (also 2007).

Writing as a professional philosopher, McGinn focuses on six of Shakespeare's plays: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, and The Tempest. Among other themes, the writer.notes how he was influenced by the essays of Michel de Montaigne,.whose thinking was saturated with ideas from writers of antiquity, including philosophers. In addition to chapters on the major plays, McGinn also offers essays on Shakespeare and gender, as well as on aspects of psychology, ethics, and tragedy. Perhaps anachronistically, McGinn relates the ideas he detects in the plays to later philosophers such as David Hume, and to the modern commentaries of such critics as Harold Bloom.

In the first chapter McGinn offers a more general approach, maintaining that three basic  philosophical themes permeate Shakespeare's plays: (a) the tension between knowledge and skepticism; (b) the self; and (c) causality. Let us look at each of them in turn.  

Aristotle held that the  quest for knowledge is central to human existence.  According to McGill knowledge is a normative concept. In this sense, it is useful to distinguish it from information, which is not normative. Information can be true or false, good or bad, useful or useless. Knowledge is true, good and useful. Information is ubiquitous; knowledge is rare.

In all candor then we have imperfect access to what is true, good and useful. Our senses often mislead us, as do other people. This has been a perennial philosophical concern, present in the sayings of Socrates and the writings of Plato. Socrates, in particular, was skeptical about those who claimed to have certain knowledge.

The problem has seemed so acute to some that they have dismissed the quest for knowledge. The school of thought known as Pyrrhonism as for example, argues that it is irrational to believe in anything, given our knowledge-accessing problems.

As has been noted, Shakespeare was exposed to the writings of one arch-skeptic, Montaigne, who wrote scintillating  essays fusing personal anecdote with serious intellectual concerns. In a major essay "An Apology for Raymond Sebond,.”, Montaigne articulated the skeptical position. 

Moreover, Shakespeare was, McGinn asserts, confronted the problem of other minds. This concerns our difficulties in figuring out what others are thinking, plotting, hoping. and intending. The plays team with characters who misunderstand each other. Indeed, the comedies routinely involve misunderstandings of some sort.

We turn now to the second aspect addressed by McGinn, the self. In essence a play amounts to an assemblage of characters or selves engaging in activities and events. These occurences constitute the “plot,". The question is whether the self remains constant throughout the plot or whether it is changed by the plot.

McGinn maintains that Shakespeare doubts the notion that the self is a constant, definite, singular "thing" or "essence". Instead, McGinn suggests that for Shakespeare the self is both interactive and theatrical.  

It is interactive in that it never makes sense to treat the self in isolation. The self only emerges tin social interactions. For example, if we describe someone as being contentious, what we mean is that they behave in certain ways towards other people.

It is theatrical in that it is best understood in terms of the roles a person plays in life. This idea is manifest in the famous Seven Ages of Man speech in As You Like It. We treat life like a stage play in which we play different roles, each designed to make an impression on an audience of some kind. 

In McGinn’s view the final philosophical concern of Shakespeare is with causality. Causality - meaningful sequence - serves to structure the events and processes through which we live. The philosophical concern is with the search for some overarching causal principle that explains the structure and sequence of all events.

We can distinguish between two types of overarching causal principle. The first would be a teleological principle.which seeks to explain events in terms of the whims, desires, preferences, or intentions of some agent, usually God. This principle imbues events with great moral and ethical significance. For example, if a battle is won, it is because God favors us; if a person is injured, it is because God is angry.

The second type of principle would be naturalistic and amoral. It explains events in terms of mindless processes and mechanisms. What morality and purpose there is in the universe is projected onto it by us, it is not out there.  McGinn maintains that Shakespeare avoids commitment to teleological causation. In his comedies and tragedies he seems to reject the idea that there is rational purpose or order in the universe. As we encounter it, the universe is unruly, morally blind, and even sometimes unintelligible. McGinn thinks that this skepticism helps to give Shakespeare's plays their power, for: they challenge complacent views about causality.

The late A. S, Nuttall was professor of English at Oxford University.  In preparation for his book, the writer reread all of the plays, tracing the evolution of  Shakespeare’s ideas over time.  Still there is unity in variety, for Nuttall maintains that certain questions engross Shakespeare from his early plays to the late romances: the nature of motive, cause, personal identity and relation, the proper status of imagination, ethics and subjectivity, language and its capacity to occlude and to communicate. Yet Shakespeare’s thought, Nuttall asserts, is anything but static. The plays keep returning to, modifying, and complicating his creative preoccupations. 

Much recent historicist criticism has tended to “flatten” Shakespeare by confining him to the thought-clichés of his time, and this in its turn has led to an implicitly patronizing view of him as unthinkingly racist, sexist, and so on. Nuttall shows us that, on the contrary, Shakespeare proves again and again to be more intelligent and perceptive than his twenty-first-century readers. This book challenges us to reconsider the relation of great literature to its social and historical matrix,

As noted at the outset ,formal connections with specific philosophical schools are generally lacking, though Stoicism, mediated by Montaigne may be an exception.  

Shakespeare was writing for the theater during the reigns of two monarchs, Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. The plays he wrote during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, such as A Midsummer Night's Dream, are often seen to embody the generally happy, confident and optimistic mood of the Elizabethans.  On the whole he emphasizes the continuity of the British monarchy, as a force for stability, without leaving out some darker episodes.

Politically, was Shakespeare a conservative?  He certainly did not support any efforts to overturn the Elizaabethan and Jacobean orde in which he thrivedr.  Yet perhaps there is more of be said.  In his book The Elizabethan World Picture, E. M. W. Tillyard maintained that Shakespeare inherited a basic medieval idea of an ordered Chain of Being.  This concept involved a number of stabilizing elements, including Angels; the Stars and Fortunes; the Analogy between Macrocosm and Microcosm; the Four Elements; the Four Humous; Sympathies; Correspondences; and the Cosmic Dance—ideas and symbols that engaged the minds and imaginations not only of the Elizabethans but throughout the Renaissance. With this dominance, or so it seemed, it was best to accord with the cosmic principle, rather than to struggle against it.

Be that as it may, Shakespeare lived at time of religious transition, and some scholars have suggested that he may have been a Catholic or crypto-Catholic.  Yet the evidence that has been produced is thin, affording no definitive conclusion.
Recent decades have seen the rise of a comprehensive, though controversial trend informed by leftwing politics.  Cultural materialists claim to detect and analyze the processes by which dominant forces in society maintain control over canonical texts, kidnapping sos as to implant hegemonic  values on the cultural landscape.  In this vein Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, authors of Political Shakespeare, have identified four defining tasks of cultural materialism:  historical context; close textual analysis; political commitment; and theoretical method. Through its engagement with issues of gender, sexuality, race, and class, cultural materialism has had a significant impact on the field of literary studies, especially in UK.  

Yet  British critic, Graham Holderness, who sympathizes with the trend, concedes that cultural materialism is a "politicized form of historiography”.  Now its influence is receding. - and a good thing too.

The last word is reserved for the late Professor Nuttall;  “Of course [Shakespeare] is not a systematic philosopher; he Is a dramatist. But the very avoidance of system may be shrewd - even perhaps philosophically shrewd. He shares with the major philosophers the knack of asking fundamental  .  .  . questions.” (p. 378).