Friday, June 22, 2018

"The Man Who Loved Islands," by D.H. Lawrence

Has Cathcart become withdrawn?!?
It is the summer of 1927.  You are relaxing on your English "holiday," what we Americans refer to as "vacation," and upon opening the fresh issue of the venerable London Mercury magazine, shown at right, immediately dive into D.H. Lawrence's new short story, "The Man Who Loved Islands."

Lawrence biographer John Worthen has written that the story can be read as a "critique of the idea of the isolated individual."

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

"Philosophy and Knowledge," by Bertrand Russell

Lord Russell
At our May 28th meeting we considered the above-named excerpt from Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy, first published in 1912.  Russell here offers us an extended discourse based on the central motif of Shakespeare's Othello*, i.e., Othello's false belief that Desdemona loves Cassio.

Russell has given us an excellent example to test his theories on knowledge.  It would be hard enough to state definitively one's own feelings of love, let alone those of another.  Russell writes:

We may say that a truth is self-evident, in the first and most absolute sense, when we have acquaintance with the fact which corresponds to the truth. When Othello believes that Desdemona loves Cassio, the corresponding fact, if his belief were true, would be "Desdemona's love for Cassio." 

This would be a fact with which no one could have acquaintance except Desdemona; hence in the sense of self-evidence that we are considering, the truth that Desdemona loves Cassio (if it were a truth) could only be self-evident to Desdemona. 

How very different is Russell's conception of self-evident truth from that of our Thomas Jefferson (all men being created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness ...)

Russell goes on "...no fact about any particular existing thing can be self-evident to more than one person.  On the other hand, facts about universals do not have this privacy. Many minds may be acquainted with the same universals; hence a relation between universals may be known by acquaintance to many different people."  

He had previously stated that what he terms "knowledge by acquaintance" can only exist when there really is "such a fact."  Russell would deem the Declaration's assertion of these self-evident truths to fall short of the standard he sets.

Whether Russell would consider the Jeffersonian truths "universal" was beyond the scope of our discussion, as his definition of universal truths is put forth in an earlier chapter of The Problems of Philosophy. 

Russell's book stands as a rigorous exploration of categories of knowledge.  He uses the English language with great precision to delineate these categories. Therein lies the ultimate value of the piece.

The group is to be congratulated for tackling works by three major philosophers (Mill, Santayana, and Russell) in three consecutive months.

*Incidentally, when Huntington Public Library's Carolyn Hasler and I started the book group in January 2005, The Tragedy of Othello was the group's inaugural selection!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Bumper Sticker Santayana-isms

George Santayana (1863-1952)
At last month's session, on April 16th, we took up George Santayana's essay "Masks," from his 1922 book Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies. Santayana was a Harvard-based academic philosopher for over 20 years before he resigned his post to become a full-time writer. His literary output was vast, and included philosophical tracts such as The Life of Reason and Realms of Being, poems, essays, a three-volume autobiography, Persons and Places, and a thinly veiled autobiographical novel, The Last Puritan, which became a best seller upon its publication in 1935.

It was remarked at the meeting that Santayana's greatest gift was creating pithy sentences you could put on a bumper sticker.

The famous saying "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," for example, is from Santayana.

"Masks," is a profound exposition on the postures and costumes and yes, masks, we all adopt to get through the hurly-burly of our daily lives.  Santayana employs an over-arching metaphor of the world as a stage (a nod, of course, to the Bard). He talks of tragic masks, comic masks, Carnival(!), and offers as his denouement to the piece a section titled "The Mask of the Philosopher." In this last section he writes, "Among tragic masks may be counted all systems of philosophy and religion."

In looking back over "Masks," permit me to offer my candidate for line best suited for a bumper sticker (and perhaps you have one as well):
"We should see more and believe less."

Friday, April 13, 2018

8 Personal Qualities for Troubled Political Times According to Mill

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
On March 26th, our group’s subject was John Stuart Mill’s “The Criterion of a Good Form of Government,” a chapter from his book Representative Government. Mill considers how political philosophers describe the elements of a good government. He sees these elements becoming boiled down to “a partition of the exigencies of society between the two heads of Order and Progress.”

He goes on to delineate the following qualities of individuals that contribute to Order:
  • Industry
  • Integrity
  • Justice
  • Prudence
 Additional qualities that lead to Progress are
  • Mental Activity
  • Enterprise
  • Courage


Mill concludes the Order and Progress debate, in reality, hinges on a false distinction between the two societal goals, and it's “unscientific and incorrect.”

He nevertheless does offer a plan for good government, one that's based on human excellence as an amalgam of the human qualities just mentioned. He expresses another idea that's key to his argument when he says, “If there is anything certain in human progress, it is that valuable acquisitions are only to be retained by a continuation of the same energies which gained them. Things left to themselves inevitably decay.”

Mill goes on to invoke an eighth attribute: Originality, or Invention.  In other words, we must (a) be constantly vigilant in order to preserve democracy, and (b) discover fresh means to protect it from decay.

Do you find this Millian formulation relevant to today's politics?

Monday, March 12, 2018

An Interpretation of Hawthorne's "Ethan Brand"


A reader who has even a passing familiarity with the 19th-century American author Nathaniel Hawthorne understands he struggled with the theological concerns of his New England forebears. The title character of Hawthorne’s story “Ethan Brand” began his philosphical musings during long hours spent by his kiln on the slope of Mount Graylock. Ethan Brand represents a type of individual who wrestles with concepts like Unpardonable Sin. He says upon his return to the mountain after a 20-year quest for the Unpardonable Sin, that it was “the sin of an intellect that triumphed over the sense of brotherhood with man, and reverence for God, and sacrificed everything to its own mighty claims!”
The character of old Humphrey fascinates me the most. He, like both Ethan and the Jew of Nuremberg who sells dioramic views to the local populace, is a wanderer.  Hawthorne tells us Humphrey’s wandering has a specific purpose: to inquire of people as to the whereabouts of his daughter, whom Hawthorne calls “the Esther of our tale.” When Humphrey sees Brand, he upbraids him for heisting his daughter away and pushing her into a life as a circus performer. She was, Hawthorne writes, “the very girl whom with such cold and remorseless purpose, Brand had had made the subject of a psychological experiment, and wasted, absorbed, and perhaps annihilated her soul, in the process.”
Later, Brand sits by the kiln by himself, and reviews his spiritual metamorphosis.  He thinks about how the “Idea that possessed his life had operated as a means of education,” but concludes, “So much for the intellect! But where was the heart? That indeed, had withered – had contracted – had hardened – had perished!” It turned him into an unfeeling observer, “looking on mankind as the subject of his experiment, and at length, converting man and woman to be his puppets, and pulling the wires that moved them to such degrees of crime as were demanded for his study.” Hawthorne again means to tell us his sin-obsessed character viewed others, on whom he sought to impose his beliefs, as unwitting experimental fodder.
The Wandering Jew of Nuremberg also knew Brand’s reputation, and earlier in the story says “I find it to be a heavy matter in my show box – this  Unpardonable Sin. By my faith, Captain, it has wearied my shoulders, this long day, to carry it over the mountain.”
Do we ever discover what the Unpardonable Sin was? Based on our examination of Hawthorne’s astonishing allegory, I can only conclude: IF Hawthorne believes in Unpardonable Sin at all, it would be the sin of imposing a heavy-handed belief system on other people whom you intimidate intellectually. That would be enough to make anyone want to join the circus.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Concept Map for Hawthorne's "Ethan Brand"

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
At Monday night's meeting, on "Ethan Brand," by Nathaniel Hawthorne, we'll inquire as to what Brand is really searching for in his quest for the "Unpardonable Sin."

An important key to the story is Brand's relationship to the various people in his sleepy village in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. See the "concept map" below. It will serve as a step-off point when we get together for our discussion of Hawthorne's brilliant allegorical piece.


How do the characters interrelate?

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Glossary of Terms in Keats from Greek Mythology

John Keats (1795-1821) wrote these great odes in his early twenties.
The three Keats poems we take up on January 22nd contain many allusions to Greek myths.  In order to understand them on the highest level, it pays to understand the mythological backstory.  What follows is a handy glossary to the terms you will encounter in these poems.

"Ode to a Nightingale"


Dryad: wood-nymph

Hippocrene: fountain on Mt. Hellicon sacred to the Muses, the nine goddesses of arts and sciences.
Bacchus: Roman name for Dionysus, Greek god of wine

"Ode on a Grecian Urn"


Tempe: A valley in Thessaly, northeastern region on the Greek peninsula

Arcady: Mountainous interior region of the Peloponnesus
Attica: Most southerly part of the Greek mainland

"Ode on Melancholy"


Lethe: River in the Underworld

Proserpine: Goddess of the Underworld
Psyche: Beautiful daughter of an unidentified king.  Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, was annoyed that people had ceased to worship at her shine because of Psyche's transcendent beauty. Aphrodite designed to make her son Cupid have Psyche fall in love with a man without wealth or reputation. Cupid and Psyche end up romantically involved in the end.

Additional note: "Ode to a Nightingale"

also alludes to the biblical story of Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite woman who returned to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law Naomi after the death of Naomi's husband and her two sons, one of whom, Mahlon, was Ruth's husband. Though homesick, Ruth loves her mother-in-law. She finds a new husband, Boaz.