Thursday, March 28, 2013

Book Review: "The Works of John Flavel: Volume 4" by John Flavel

John Flavel is one of those Christian writers I wish more people would read- not least because he is a Puritan writer with a sense of humor. (Can that point really be over-stressed?) Thanks to the hard work of the good folks at the Banner of Truth Trust, some of his books are available in cheap editions, but the true gem in the Flavel ring is as yet only available in any kind of readable edition in The Works of John Flavel: Volume 5. This of course is Husbandry Spiritualized, in which Flavel walks through various aspects of agriculture and uses farming as a springboard to devotional meditation.

So if you've never read any Flavel, I recommend starting with one of the Banner of Truth stand-alone editions, or with Volume 5. If you've been exposed to Flavel and want more, then and only then should you pick up the volume currently under consideration: The Works of John Flavel: Volume 4.

This volume contains the following works:

  • England's Duty Under the Present Gospel Liberty (1689) [Referred to as "England's Duty"]: This is a series of eleven sermons on Revelation 3:20. At least, that's what it claims to be- in fact it's a series of reflections -worthwhile enough in themselves- only loosely tied back into the Biblical text at hand. So if you're looking to really know Revelation 3:20 by reading 300 pages on it, this is not for you. But if you go into this looking for good Puritan reflection on conversion and the Christian life, this selection is excellent. 
  • An Appendix to England's Duty: This is an additional sermon on Romans 1:18, and holy cow, if you want to be convicted of your sin in the face of God's mercy, this is the sermon for you. And if you don't want to be so convicted, then this is really the sermon for you. Flavel walks through what it means to be shown God's mercy, then asks how we can claim to be God's people when we receive his mercy and not only are not really grateful for it, but go ahead and sin anyway. Which of course we all do. Flavel then calls us to praise God for His mercy and live a life reflecting our gratitude in obedience.
  • Mount Pisgah: A Sermon Preached at the Public Thanksgiving, February 14, 1688-9, For England's Deliverance from Popery, Etc [Including an Epistle Dedicatory: This sermon reflects on, well, what it says it does- England's deliverance from Rome. Specifically, it uses Moses' desire to go into the promised land (and not being allowed to do so) as a God's mercy and how we should be greatful for it. 
  • Divine Conduct, or The Mystery of Providence: A Treatise Upon Psalm 57:2: Available in a stand-alone edition from Banner of Truth, this is probably the reason most people would pick up this particular volume of Flavel's works. And with good cause- in this treatise Flavel explores God's providence from several different perspectives, as well as examining what our response to God's providence should be. 
  • A Narrative of Some Late and Wonderful Sea Deliverances: This is the weakest link in the collection- it's just a reprinting of how a few individuals were saved at sea. Perhaps this meant more to Flavel's congregation in the small seaside town where he pastored, but much of it was lost on a land-lubber like myself. 
  • Antipharmacum Saluberrimum: A serious and Seasonable Caveat to All the Saints in this hour of Temptation: In addition to having the most awesome title of any book ever (in case you're wondering, it means something to the effect of "Health against the Poison" or "Healthiness against Sorcery"), this book is a wonderful reminder of the dangers of idolatry and backsliding to which all Christians are prone. Flavel provides a number of warning signs, as well as advice as to how this "poison" may be resisted.
  • Tidings from ROME: or, ENGLAND'S Alarm: I assume (though we're not told) that this work was written either under the rule of Charles II or James II, when it looked like England was going to slip back to Roman Catholicism. This short work is a series of reflections and instructions on the responsibilities of Christians in such circumstances. How do we as Christians react when it seems that the dominant political culture is against us? Clearly, Flavel's advice has much to say to the modern world... Interestingly, Flavel comes out strongly against any kind of coercion by the state against religious minorities- even if it is the Puritan majority coercing a Catholic (or Quaker, or Baptist, or whatever) minority, since 1) it is simply contrary to the Gospel; and 2) it's a bad precedent to set. 
Overall, an excellent volume and worth reading if you're a Puritan devotee. If you're not a Puritan devotee, then I would recommending picking up something else of Flavel's instead- this is not the place to start. 

A few gems from the book:

When Christ comes into the soul of a sinner, he brings a pardon with him, a full, free, and a final pardon of all the sins that ever that soul committed. This is a feast of itself, good cheer indeed.... [The] thing that makes this mercy delicious and ravishingly sweet to the soul, are the properties of it, which are four: 1) God writes upon thy pardon FREE: it is a mercy which costs thee nothing; 2) God writes upon thy pardon FULL: as well as free, the pardon extends to all the sins that ever thou committedst. The sins of thy nature and practice; the sins of thy youth and age; great sins and lesser sins are all comprehended within thy pardon. Thou art acquitted not from one, but from all! 3) God writes upon thy pardon FINAL: without revocation, the pardoned soul and its pardoned sins can never more meet unto condemnation; 4) God writes upon thy pardon SURE: it is a standing mercy never to be recalled, vacated, or annulled. Now the labouring conscience that rolled and tossed upon the waves of a thousand fears may drop anchor, and ride the quiet in the pacific sea of a pardoned state... This is heavenly manna, the sweetness of it swallows up all expressions, all conceptions; no words, no thoughts can comprehend the riches of this mercy. (214-216)

The gospel hath two great designs and intentions. One is to open the heart of God to men, and to shew them the everlasting counsels of grace and peace which were hid in God from ages and generations past: that all men may now see what God hath been designing and contriving for their happiness in Christ before the world was... The next intention and aim of the gospel is, to set open the hearts of man to receive Jesus Christ, without which all the glorious discoveries of the eternal counsels and gracious contrivances of God for and about us, would signify nothing to our real advantage. (194)

We are fallen into the dregs of time; sensuality runs every-where into atheism... The largesses of Providence have so blinded, and perfectly stupified the minds of some, that they neither own [i.e. "believe"] a Providence, nor a God... (337)

As God hath stretched out the expansum, or firmament of heaven, over the natural world, so hath he stretched out his word over the rational world; and as in that he hath placed the stars and luminaries to enlighten the earth, and to be for signs and seasons... so hath he placed a constellation of scriptures in this also, by which they that are skilful [sic] in the word of righteousness may discern very much the designs and issues of these rolling and amazing providence that are over our heads. (515)

Oh if Jesus be in the midst of you, no matter how many enemies combine against you: if he speak peace to you, no matter who prepares war against you: it is worth the venturing far to meet with Jesus Christ and enjoy fellowship with him..." 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Book Review: "Platonism" by Paul Elmer More

Paul Elmer More is an obscure early 20th century writer who, among other things, has written a trilogy of books on Plato and his followers. A few years ago, I read More's Hellenistic Philosophies (the third book in the trilogy) in preparation for a class I was teaching on Alexander the Great. Frankly, it was excellent. Clear, concise, comprehensive, and a good deal cheaper than the standard work on the subject by Long- even if only because it is only available as a cheap reprint. As a result, I've picked up the first two books in More's trilogy on Plato, Platonism and The Religion of Plato (to be read/reviewed later). So far, the first and the last have been excellent, and I suspect The Religion of Plato will measure up as well.

In Platonism, More sets out to discuss the basics of Plato's writings, while touching briefly on some of the major difficulties of their interpretation. The chapter divisions themselves are worthy of note, and provide the basic issues More engages:

  1. The Three Socratic Theses
  2. The Socratic Quest
  3. The Platonic Quest
  4. The Socratic Paradox: the Dualism of Plato
  5. Psychology
  6. The Doctrine of Ideas
  7. Science and Cosmogony
  8. Metaphysics
  9. Conclusion
(In an appendix, More gives a short summary of each dialogue, and outlines a proposed reading plan. This outline is pretty useful, so I've pasted it below.)

In the course of these chapters, More provides an extended discussion of several major and minor dialogues, including: Protagoras, Gorgias, The Republic, The Laws, The Statesman (Politicus), Thaetetus, Crito, Timaeus, Parmenides, Cratylus, and The Sophist. He also compares and contrasts Plato to both other philosophers (Mill, Rousseau, Kant, and Edwards all make appearances) and to later "Platonists" (Plotinus was the one I'd heard of, along with a bunch of 19th century names I didn't know). 

More begins his discussion by outlining the "three Socratic theses," namely:
  • Intellectual skepticism: this does not mean "absolute suspension of judgment." Such absolutes are impossible- reason must have some role in life, and connections have to exist between us and the world (4-5). Otherwise, we are animals and doing nothing more than appealing to the "brute nature" in all of us (4-6). "Skepticism" in this sense is examining experience all the way to its conclusion. That is, Plato is challenging both reason and the senses through the function of the will. This is the groundwork of philosophy and morality alike, since it involves looking through the senses and trying to find the world behind all of physical reality. This, in turn, is directly tied to the second theses:
  • Spiritual affirmation and assurance: Doubt of our own reason and senses leads to the conclusion that there is a higher and more certain spiritual reality underlying existence. Socrates' trial is proof of this, as More notes:

    "Socrates was not contradicting himself [when he] avowed that his only wisdom was to know his own ignorance, yet declared himself ready to face death with this downright affirmation: 'to do wrong and to disobey our superior, whether human or divine, this I do know to be an evil and shameful thing.' He had an invincible assurance of this spiritual fact for the very reason that his scepticism went deep enough to include those current judgments and those immediate values of sensation which to the Pyrrho [i.e. the "pure" skeptic] were the only certain guides through the perplexities of life." (7)

    Skepticism and spiritual affirmation are the negative and positive aspects of the "same intuitive truth." (8)
  • The identity of virtue and knowledge: this is the (in?)famous conclusion of Socrates that knowledge=virtue. Consequently, people only sin through ignorance. (We must, More argues, leave some room here for paradox, and remember that Socrates stands on the line between mysticism and rationalism, and so ends up being neither a mystic nor a rationalist- which in turns leaves a big mess for his students to sort out.) The problem in Socrates' day is that people had bought into the Sophists' arguments that "man is the measure of all things," which means that ethics was being both shaped by opinion rather than reality and simultaneously cut off from any kind of teleology. Socrates sought to restore true virtue by tying it directly to the true reality that lies in back of all fleeting human opinion, and in doing so provided transcendent goals for ethics. 
The rest of the book is a topical walk with More through the dialogues of Plato exploring these three theses. And contrasting Plato's conclusions and claims with those of other great philosophers. I confess I'm not enough of a Plato scholar to judge how accurate More's interpretation of Plato is. I am, however, enough of a reader to judge More's prose to be excellent and his arguments coherent. The last chapter includes a discussion of whether Plato's ideas have done more good or evil in the world that is especially interesting. 

Overall, this is an excellent book that really should be brought back into print at some point. I intend to crib much from it the next time I teach on Plato.

More's "Suggested order of reading"

According to that bastion of postmodern wisdom, the list of works assumed to be authentically Plato's has changed since More's day, nonetheless I suspect this is a useful order to follow through the dialogues. 

Below is the Amazon link to a good reprint; Platonism is also available as a free Google ebook, for those with the techno-wherewithall to access it.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Book Review: "The Life and Times of Cotton Mather" by Kenneth Silverman

Cotton Mather's life will shame you for a number of reasons.

Kenneth Silverman's biography is out of print, which is both fortunate and unfortunate at the same time. It is fortunate because Silverman writes his bio with all the best psychoanalytical tools at his disposal- which are exactly the kind of tools that rust and crumble as quickly as the next fad comes along. Given that this book was first published in 1984, you can probably well imagine how odd some of the analyses of Mather's psychology sound to someone living in the midst of today's fads. It is as if I were to write about how similar the New England Associations of Ministers are to Facebook. There might be truth to it, and it might even help people understand something true about New England Associations of Ministers, but 30 years from now when Facebook has gone the way of Myspace, that comparison will be jarring to those who remember Facebook and pointless to those who do not.

With that said, it is also unfortunate that this book is out of print, since Silverman is an excellent writer and (the aforementioned weaknesses aside) gives us a picture of Mather that is fascinating and compelling for a number of reasons.

First is the one Silverman saves for last (literally- it shows up on page 426 of 428): Cotton Mather was the first truly North American writer. That is, he was
the first person to write at length about the New World having never seen the Old. Much of his career illustrates, for the first time, the costs and gains to America's intellectual and artistic life of its divorce from Europe. These costs and gains have been one and the same-- a lack of standards or a freedom to create (depending on how it is viewed) which has often inspired works tainted by provincial crabbedness, eccentricity, and overreaching, but also often distinguished by their close kin, pungency, innovation, and grandeur. (426)
Mather wrote not as a transplanted European, but as someone in a new land and a new setting. In this sense, he should be read as a forerunner of all the American writers who would follow. Not that he was necessarily a great writer, just that he was really the first.

More than that, however, Mather is fascinating in that he embodies the world that was changing from one dominated by the Christian narrative to one dominated by the Enlightenment one. What's more, he represented both of those narratives in the same person. Unlike his immediate Christian followers, Mather did not see a problem with the new ideas as articulated by the likes of Newton, Boyle, and the continental enlightenment thinkers. (Of course, it helped that the Enlightenment itself was still in the hands of fairly devout Christians who had not seen the logical conclusions of their new ideas.)

This, I suspect, is what most readers will find most compelling in the book. After two hundred years of rhetoric, we tend to think of Mather as a bigoted, woman-hating witch-hunter who liked nothing more than to torture young women in the name of his angry God. It is surprising to learn that

  1. Mather took a much more moderate stance on the Witch Trials than is commonly believed. While he didn't go as far as his father and actively oppose them, he did call for caution and hesitation rather than quick and summary judgment. 
  2. Mather interpreted demonic possession not through the filter of superstition or fuzzy mysticism, but rather according to the best scientific thought of his day- thought that perhaps most closely parallels modern quantum relativity (according to Silverman, I have little knowledge of such things). That is, Mather believed that all of existence was united in some physical-but-flexible way on the subatomic level. And, well, I'm not sure that I understand it, so take this for what it's worth, but it seems that Mather believed that demonic intelligences could move along this plastic substance uniting observable matter and, under the right conditions and circumstances, affect it--including by taking control of individual's bodies.
    Whether I've managed to explain Mather correctly or not, what matters is that he wasn't making this up himself- he was extrapolating from Newton, Boyle, and the greatest minds of his day. 

The most famous example of this side of Mather's personality is his bold stand on inoculation. Basically the old-timey version of vaccination, the earliest forms of inoculation were dangerous if not done well (which they often weren't), and could still spread the disease even at the hands of an experienced surgeon. Yet Mather was convinced that inoculating the population was truly the best way to prevent future diseases. The rest of Boston was not. Despite Mather's strong arguments in favor of inoculation, the idea of intentionally giving someone a disease quite understandably did not sit will with the denizens of the town. Mather was publicly mocked, insulted as he walked down the street, and even had a grenade (which failed to ignite) thrown through his window with "inoculate this!" written on it.

Again, a generation later and the Enlightenment would be engaged in open warfare with religion. Yet Mather firmly believed that God created the world and Isaac Newton explained how it worked, with no inconsistency at all. In fact, the first systematic work of science in America was published by Mather under the title The Christian Philosopher, in which Newton is resoundingly praised and his system held up as the most Christian way of viewing the world. This from the man who gave us the much more well-known Wonders of the Invisible World (later reprinted as On Witchcraft).

Finally, the most important aspect of Mather's life is of course that he was a devout Christian and faithful pastor at a time when both of those things were increasingly relics of the past. He had been born when the Puritan preacher was the pillar of the community, if not its de facto leader. Through the course of his life, he not only saw the collapse of this social status, he saw increasing scorn for both religion in general and him personally. When this is considered alongside the facts that he outlived two of his three wives and thirteen of his fifteen children (not to mention the crippling debt he shouldered in order to help out a friend), the fact that he got so much done in the name of Christ should be a remarkable rebuke to all of us.

Just a small sampling of the things Mather did with his time (not counting being fluent in Greek and Latin by the age of six, Hebrew by twelve, and attending Harvard at thirteen):

  • Teaching himself Spanish in a few weeks, and then doing the first North American Spanish translation of the Bible.
  • Publishing 450 books- with somewhere between 150 and 200 left unpublished on his death. These books include the famous Magnalia Christi Americana (the first comprehensive history of the American colonies), the aforementioned books on science and witchcraft, and a number of other sermons and texts that provide a wealth of information about the time period. 
  • Getting elected as a Fellow of the British Royal Society AND receiving an honorary Doctorate (I think from the University of Edinburgh, but don't hold me to that).
  • Pastoring (and quite well, by most accounts) the largest church in America. 
  • Helping to found Yale University.
Again, I am convicted of how poorly I use my own time. I mean, 450 books! I've read this biography twice now, and both times have been deeply convicted of how lazy and unmotivated I am, despite having spectacular technology in my hands (even this very moment) that should enable me to do more than anyone in the past, and yet somehow ends up being more of a hindrance than anything...

But I digress. All in all, this is a remarkable biography of a remarkable individual, and really is worth picking up should you come across an affordable used copy. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

I recant!

Ten years ago today, I was snowed in a hotel in Casper, Wyoming. I had been on my way back to college from spring break when the annual University of Wyoming Spring Break Blizzard hit, leaving me stranded. I had decided to spend my evening catching up on homework for an independent study I was doing with the UW Classics professor (note the singular- at the time there was only one) on Tacitus' Annals.

For those who don't know, "Annals" are sort-of history that gives a year-by-year record of what happened in the past. (So not quite the same thing as a "history", which isn't as tied to the calendar year and can be more wide-ranging.) I had just started Book XI (AD 47-48) with the TV on in the background when at 7:45 pm March 19, 2003 my regular broadcast was interrupted by a Fox News Special Report announcing that we were invading Iraq. I know this, because on page 231 of my copy of the Annals I left a note: "Reading here when Iraqi war started, 7:45 pm March 19, 2003, Super 8, Casper WY (snowed in)." Over the course of the evening, I read the first few books of the Annals while watching the invasion unfold via inbedded reporting on TV.

This in itself would not be worthy of record, if not for the content of Book XI (and the following books) of the Annals. As I was watching America getting involved in the Middle East, I was reading about Rome doing exactly the same thing nearly 2000 years earlier. The events are complicated (when are events in the Middle East not complicated?), and you can find a decent summary of the war here. The short version is that the Romans got involved, won (eventually) the military conflict, and then didn't really know what to do with their victory. They then proceeded to lose many of their gains to guerrilla warfare, and managed to fight their way back to a sort-of victory, which they then used to restore the status quo.

Through all of this, it seems that the Romans didn't really want to be overly involved in the region (especially given that there were perfectly good, long-standing governments already in place), but they felt some level of obligation to do so. Besides, their honor and international reputation were at stake, and if they left then certainly dictators hostile to Rome would come to power and Rome would lose its economic and political influence in the region. Something which, to be fair, happened on a regular enough basis that the Romans may have been justified in their concerns.

What complicated the situation was that the war in the Middle East was in progress at virtually the same time that Roman virtue and order was collapsing at home. For example, the Roman general Corbulo, easily the most competent military mind of the day, had been sent to sort out affairs, only to find on his return that he had done his job so well the Emperor (Nero) was jealous of his reputation and had ordered him murdered. Even in victory, Roman decay meant that nothing of note was accomplished and the situation in the Middle East remained unchanged. (The general who took Corbulo's place learned the lesson and used his army to make himself Emperor, rather than undergo the same fate.)

All of this to say that in the years since, my views on the Iraq war have changed. Not so much because of Tacitus (I've never gone back and re-read the Annals, though I plan to do so someday), but because my way of thinking has changed -or "evolved", as our beloved President would say- to match something akin to Tacitus' gloomy musings on the state of Imperial Rome.
As it was, the morality of their fathers, which had by degrees been forgotten, was utterly subverted by the introduction of a lax tone. (XIV.20)
But I run the risk of turning this into a musing on the state of America, rather than keeping focused on America's involvement in Iraq.

We were told -and at the time I agreed- that the Iraq war was just because if we are to truly defeat terrorism, we need to turn our enemies into our friends. And the way to do that is to spread freedom, democracy, and economic liberty the world over. The fact that our hand has been "forced" (by September 11 and Saddam Hussein, though not at the same time) is perhaps unfortunate, but opportunity knocked and someone had to answer. We had an obligation to remove Hussein from power, establish a democratic state, and begin the spread of freedom in the Middle East. The recent "Arab Spring" would seem to have cemented this doctrine* as correct and wise in the long-term.

While I have not gone completely the other direction -I won't say that the Iraq war is unjust- I will say that I have come to hold such arguments as at best naive, and at worst sinister. A close reading of de Tocqueville my senior year of undergrad, and even closer readings of Burke, Rousseau, and a host of other authors in grad school, has left me convinced that the sort of nation and culture that we ourselves enjoy and which we with good-natured hope may wish to see others enjoy as well cannot be imposed as an act of power from the outside in or the top down, but rather has to grow over the years (even centuries) from inside out and the bottom up. Americans enjoy freedoms and rights that did not spring from nothing, but rather take time to develop and grow. To insist that others instantly jump to where we are at is as unrealistic as it would be to ask Americans to adopt a culture that is radically different in the same way- even at gunpoint I suspect we will not be living by the ancient Spartan military educational system any time soon!**

So, where am I today? Well, again, I won't go as far as to say that the war was actively wrong. There may have been good policy reasons to have done what we did. Nor will I say that those involved at the top were ill-intentioned in their goals or attitudes. I will, however, say that I was wrong and that I should have paid more attention to the book I was reading than to the news I was watching. A more nuanced and balanced view should prevail, not the noisy shouting of either side. Which is of course generally a good rule anyway.

I'll let Tacitus have the last word, since he's wiser than I am:
"Possibly there is in all things a kind of cycle, and there may be moral revolutions just as there are changes of seasons... May we still keep up with our ancestors a rivalry in all that is honorable!" (III.55)

*I hesitate to label it the "Bush Doctrine", since Clinton and the former Bush pursued similar goals, albeit on smaller scales.

**Please note that my criticisms are focused on American arrogance and attitudes in making policy, not on the people of Iraq or the American military apparatus. I lack the knowledge and skills necessary to make those sorts of criticisms (if such criticisms even need be made).

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Book Review: "Praise of Folly" by Desiderius Erasmus

It's always dangerous to review a work of satire- too much analysis can kill the humor, and there's nothing funny about a dead clown.

So rather than trying to approach this book as humor, I think it is useful to understand this short work by Erasmus from the perspective of joy. The Praise of Folly simply drips with delight in creation. We see that even in the title, this is a work of 'praise.' Erasmus gives us a light-hearted spoof of those who have no sense of humor and continually take themselves, their professions, and the world entirely too seriously. We all know someone like that- and if you don't, the odds are that es homo.

Erasmus really spares no one- scientists, artists, businessmen, soldiers, merchants, etc all feel the weight of his pen. Anyone and everyone who has ever said "but what I do is of the utmost importance, and never to be treated lightly" gets a jab in the ribs from the narrator, the goddess Folly. Consider her words to one group near and dear to my own heart, the college professors:
Thanks to my [Folly's] efforts, they [the professors] consider themselves the happiest of men, particularly when they can terrify their flock of trembling schoolboys with glowering expressions and thunderous voices... Meanwhile all this beastliness seems to them the height of elegance, the stuffy classroom smells of wildflowers, and their own miserable drudgery seems a royal kingdom, such as they wouldn't exchange for the supreme sway of Phalaris or Dionysus. But what raises them to the heights of ecstasy is if they discover some new point of interpretation. What they teach their students is utter gibberish, but they think their own critical discernment is far beyond that of the greatest grammarians... And, though I don't know by what flim-flam they do it, they are able to persuade the mothers and fathers of their pupils that they themselves are just as great as they make out. Another special delight they take is to dig out of some moldy old manuscript some exotic fact, like the name of Anchises' mother, or some completely obsolete word such as 'cuhyrde,' 'eperotesis,' or 'cuttlebung;' sometimes one of them comes up with a fragment of old rock carved with a few broken letters. And then, oh Lord, what elation, what cries of triumph, what tributes of praise, as if Africa had been conquered or Babylon put to sack. (51-52)
 Anyone who has ever suffered through an academic conference should instantly see the truth of this statement. Not that academia doesn't have its place (Erasmus himself would be the first to admit that it does), but to fail to see how quickly it can get silly is to simply prove Folly's point.

But Folly's main targets are the philosophers and theologians (remember, at this point there was basically no difference between the two). The problem with such people, Folly tells us, is that first, because they are exploring worthwhile questions, they begin to take themselves too seriously; then they get caught up in the fine points and details of those questions; and finally they end up taking the fine points and details as seriously as they took the original worthwhile questions they were working on. This process has cost them the joy that should go along with -or, heck, even result from- serious philosophical and theological inquiry. By subjecting them to the mockery of Folly, Erasmus is less-than-gently trying to remind them that wonder and delight have their proper place in the world of philosophy and theology.

And, well, take up and read for yourself- it's very much worth your time.

I should point out that I've been reading from the Norton Critical Edition of Erasmus' works, and there are a number of other pieces included that are also worthwhile. I have yet to have a bad experience with a Norton Critical Edition, and the selections included in this volume did not disappoint. Other readings included a selection of his letters (apparently the kind of writing he was most comfortable with), a selection of his dialogues, his treatise on pacifism (akin to Praise of Folly, but from the perspective of "Peace"), and his two versions of a Forward to the Latin New Testament. Of these, the Forward and the Dialogues "Julius Excluded from Heaven", "The Religious Feast", and "The Abbot and the Learned Lady" are especially good.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Review of "On Taste" and "On the Sublime and the Beautiful" by Edmund Burke

Burke's two essays (intended to be read together, with "On Taste" working as an introduction to On the Sublime and the Beautiful") are just kind of "meh." That is, they're only so-so as a work of philosophy, but! If I remember my German Idealism class correctly, this collection by Burke has been influential out of proportion to its actual philosophical value. It made its way across to Germany, where it was read and had a major influence upon Kant, and so affected the rest of the German Idealists as well. Hegel, Nietzsche, and the others all to some extent absorb and repeat Burke's ideas. From the Idealists, these ideas in turn influenced the American Transcendentalists. At the end of the day, despite being inferior to the more famous Reflections on the Revolution in France, On the Sublime and the Beautiful may very well have more indirect influence around the world.

First, in "On Taste" Burke argues that there is a human characteristic which is affected by art. For lack of a better term, he labels this characteristic "taste." Taste involves three human traits, the sense, the imagination, and judgment. The senses are the means by which we directly encounter art-- we see it, hear it, touch it, etc. (Well, not really "etc"- there are only two more.) Once art has passed through our senses, it encounters our imagination. This may be, according to Burke, our most important faculty. It is the place where we filter and assemble these data provided by our senses into ideas. When we combine these ideas with passion or action and impose them back on the world, we are exercising the faculty of judgment. These last two are shaped by culture, tradition, and reason, and can be exercised well or badly, depending on how our characters have been shaped. People with poor taste will exercise their imagination and judgment poorly, embrace the ugly, and ultimately make the world a worse place (an idea Burke would later take up in his Reflections). People with refined taste will exercise their imagination and judgment well, embrace the beautiful, and advance civilization.

This leads into the main event, A Philosophical Inquiry into the origin of our ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful with several other additions. (Why so long a title? This book was published in the days before dust jackets, which meant that you had to cram all the info you could onto the cover.) In this work, Burke holds that the two inspirations for art that work on our tastes (see above) are the "sublime" and the "beautiful."
The "sublime" is that which inspires fear, dread, pain, awe, and other such emotions. It is the thing that we think might be hiding in a dark corner, or the sense of smallness we get when we walk into a cathedral, or the thought of the pain that comes from being injured. Burke didn't use the example, but this is the kind of effect that a good horror movie should have on us. We should feel small, limited, and occasionally even frightened.

On the other hand, "beauty" is that which inspires in us love and devotion. Not the destructive, Romeo and Juliet kind of love, but the love of a husband for his wife, a farmer for his fields, or a citizen for his city, and so on. Beauty is that which generates the small love and devotion that drive day-to-day life and make possible human relationships on a small scale. This leads Burke to some conclusions that maybe haven't stood the test of time quite as well- including the ideas that gradual transitions are always more beautiful than sharp changes; soft colors are more beautiful than harsh ones, and so forth. In other words, he uses the things he loved as illustrations. Which isn't necessarily wrong per se, it just means that some of the particulars of his philosophy may not have aged as well as his general claims.

Yet, despite these perhaps less-than useful details, I think Burke may be onto something worthy of more attention (which presumably he gets from the aforementioned German philosophers, many of whom I have not read). It is important to note that Burke does not assume that the sublime and the beautiful are different things. In fact, they may very well be the two necessary components of great art. The greatest creative works are those which both fill us with a sense of awe and wonder in something bigger than ourselves and inspire us to a love for and delight in the mundane. (Thus, Lord of the Rings may very well be the embodiment of the Burkean aesthetic.) I don't have the aesthetic wherewithal to worth through all of the implications of this idea, but I certainly think it's an interesting one to kick around...

Over all, this work is... adequate. There certainly are interesting ideas to be found, but the final result is something a bit underwhelming. So if you're looking for a place to begin with Burke, I wouldn't recommend this text-- fortunately, the Reflections (linked above) is much better and much more worthy of your time and attention.

Flavel on Pardon

"When Christ comes into the soul of a sinner, he brings a pardon with him, a full, free, and a final pardon of all the sins that ever that soul committed. This is a feast of itself, good cheer indeed.... [The] thing that makes this mercy delicious and ravishingly sweet to the soul, are the properties of it, which are four:
  1. God writes upon thy pardon FREE: it is a mercy which costs thee nothing.
  2. God writes upon thy pardon FULL: as well as free, the pardon extends to all the sins that ever thou committedst. The sins of thy nature and practice; the sins of thy youth and age; great sins and lesser sins are all comprehended within thy pardon. Thou art acquitted not from one, but from all!
  3. God writes upon thy pardon FINAL: without revocation, the pardoned soul and its pardoned sins can never more meet unto condemnation.
  4. God writes upon thy pardon SURE: It is a standing mercy never to be recalled, vacated, or annulled. 
Now the labouring conscience that rolled and tossed upon the waves of a thousand fears may drop anchor, and ride the quiet in the pacific sea of a pardoned state... This is heavenly manna, the sweetness of it swallows up all expressions, all conceptions; no words, no thoughts can comprehend the riches of this mercy."

-Works of Flavel, Vol. 4, 214-216