A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Of the Sublime

For the edification of my readers (if indeed there are any), below is the latest epistle from Squire Darlington.

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March 27, 1755

I was much taken with yours of March 26th, wherein you kindly communicated to your Readers the Thoughts of Mr. FRAZER and Herr WITTGENSTEIN on the primitive Rites of the Savages. It soon struck me that when Wittgenstein speaks of “the Croud of Thoughts which get stuck in the Door,” what he really speaks of is what LONGINUS call’d the Sublime. (By his name, I presume that Frazer is a Scotchman, so it surpizes me little that he shou’d demonstrate his ignorance of this Subject, the heavy Souls of that People being ill-equipp’d for such an elevated Subject.)

LONGINUS describ’d the Sublime as a certain elevation or loftiness of Thought or Language. We can extend this, for the Sublime can also make itself felt in the plastick Arts of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, as also Musick, and most importantly, in that Work of GOD the Supream Artist, which is Nature.

Mr. ADDISON in his Spectator No. 279 [January 19, 1712 — Ed.], speaking of Epick Poetry, tells us that it is not sufficient for “an Epick Poem to be fill’d with such Thoughts as are natural, unless it abound also with such as are sublime.” Though the Natural may charm us, the Sublime astonishes us, with conceptions almost too great to be contain’d within the narrow Compass of the Mind of Man.

Mr. Addison further informs us that of all our English Poets, it is MILTON who hath best mined this Vein of Invention, and I must agree, for there is much in the Paradise Lost which astonishes, as for example when the flight of Satan is described in the following Lines:

… At last his Sail-broad Vannes
He spreads for flight, and in the surging smoak
Uplifted spurns the ground, thence many a League
As in a cloudy Chair ascending rides
Audacious, but that seat soon failing, meets
A vast vacuitie: all unawares
Fluttring his pennons vain plumb down he drops
Ten thousand fadom deep, and to this hour
Down had been falling, had not by ill chance
The strong rebuff of som tumultuous cloud
Instinct with Fire and Nitre hurried him
As many miles aloft.
[Paradise Lost, II. 927-938 — Ed.]

There are many such Passages in Milton. What astonishes us in this, besides the Strength of the Forces buffeting Satan, is the very Vastness of the Spaces depicted, indeed so vast are they that in the attempt to traverse them, the Mind spends itself in vain.

Besides Vastness, we may also be astonish’d by Disorder, especially the disorder of Nature, where it signifieth an Order, but one of a higher kind, which only the Mind of the DEITY can fully comprehend. In the Face of it, mere mortal Man becomes lost in the attempt to understand. Consider my Lord SHAFTESBURY’s Description of the Arctick zones: “How deep the Horrors of the Night, and how uncomfortable even the Light of Day! The freezing Winds employ their fiercest Breath, yet are not spent with blowing. The Sea, which elsewhere is scarce confin’d within its Limits, lies here immur’d in Walls of Chrystal” (Characteristicks, Vol. II, p. 383). We see here the horrid disorder of a Nature manifestly unfit for the abodes of Man, and served to us in Numbers which themselves exemplify the very Sublime they describe.

The Picture my Lord draws for us is reminiscent of that drawn by the ingenious Mr. PHILIPS in his Epistle to Lord DORSET from Copenhagen, where he writes of how the Lands in those Parts

By snow disguis’d, in bright confusion ly,
And with one dazzling waste fatigue the eye
* * *
The starving wolves along the main sea prowl,
And to the moon in icy valleys howl.
* * *
There solid billows of enormous size,
Alps of green ice, in wild disorder rise.
[Ambrose Philips, Pastorals, Epistles, Odes, and Other Original Poems (1748), pp. 64-65 — Ed.]

Here we find that the two Ideas of Nature’s disorder and vastness combine to cause astonishment in the Reader. It is a short Step from Astonishment to Fear. As my particular friend in Ireland, Mr. BURKE, hath told me, the Sublime takes most firm root in that which terrifies us. Thus, says he, nothing so much stirs us to intimations of the Sublime as Scenes of Darkness and Mystery.

Yet, methinks there is at bottom a strange Paradox here, for Mr. DENNIS, in his Grounds of Criticism in Poetry [London, 1704 — Ed.], gives us to know that the Sublime is “an invincible force which commits a pleasing Rape upon the very Soul of the Reader” (p. 79). Although I must apologize to Readers of the Fair Sex for such an indelicate Metaphor, nevertheless, the Paradox it presents is this: If the Sublime astonishes and terrifies us, wherefore are we also delighted by it?

This Paradox Mr. Burke promises me to resolve in a Book he intends to publish shortly on the Topick of the Beautiful and the Sublime, which I eagerly anticipate.

I remain, Sir,
Your humble Servant, etc.

Jos. Darlington, Esq.
Darlington Close,
Horton-cum-Studley, Oxfordshire.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Wittgenstein' s Remarks on Frazer's "Golden Bough"

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Frazer’s “Golden Bough”. A. C. Miles (trans.) (Retford, Nottinghamshire: Brynmill Press, 1979).

Sir James George Frazer published his masterwork The Golden Bough in 1890. It was a work of comparative anthropology, the aim of which was to explain primitive myth, magic, and ritual. I admit that, having read Frazer, I found myself less than enlightened. Apparently I was not alone.

During the month of June 1931 the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was also reading Frazer and was also not feeling enlightened. He decided to jot down some notes, about ten manuscript pages’ worth. These notes didn’t see the light of day until almost thirty years after his death, when they were published by one of his literary executors, Rush Rhees. In my opinion, these intellectual scraps are a greater testament to Wittgenstein’s genius than almost any of his more canonical writings. He finds much in Frazer’s work that is mistaken, and some things he finds plain absurd, but he takes these lemons and manages to make lemonade from them.

Generally, Wittgenstein’s main complaint about Frazer’s explanations of “primitive” myth and ritual is that Frazer seems to characterize such phenomena as so many examples of mistaken belief, of bad science. In other words, primitive peoples are picturesque, but essentially stupid. Wittgenstein disagrees with this view, and the general tendency of his remarks is to close the gap between ourselves and the so-called “primitives”. He uses a two-pronged strategy to bring the two sides of the gap closer together, by showing 1. that the “primitives” aren’t that primitive, and 2. that we moderns are more primitive than we would like to believe.

1. The Primitive is Modern

Wittgenstein opens this line of argument by noting how implausible it is to believe that primitives do all the things they do out of sheer mistakenness, out of stupidity. How could an entire people be stupid and still manage to survive? “The same savage who, apparently in order to kill his enemy, sticks his knife through a picture of him, really does build his hut of wood and cuts his arrow with skill and not in effigy” (p. 4). And if, as Frazer claims, a rain dance seems effective because sooner or later it will rain, then “it is queer that people do not notice sooner that it does rain sooner or later anyway” (p. 2).

2. The Modern is Primitive

“Burning in effigy. Kissing the picture of a loved one. This is obviously not based on a belief that it will have a definite effect on the object which the picture represents. It aims at some satisfaction and it achieves it. Or rather, it does not aim at anything; we act in this way and then feel satisfied” (p. 4). When we moderns kiss a picture of a loved one, which is relevantly analogous to the primitive practices which fascinated Frazer, do we do it because we believe this will have some effect on the loved-one? I should think not. It is not an attempt to manipulate causal processes. Rather, it is an expression of a desire; it is a gesture. Here I believe Wittgenstein had in mind the eighteenth century German writer G. C. Lichtenberg (1742-1799), who wrote about how “when at skittles you try to assist the ball by moving your head, shoulders, arms and legs after it has left your hands: it is more a desire to influence than actual influence” (Aphorisms, Notebook J, #119).

Here is another of Wittgenstein’s examples (p. 10): “I wish to say: nothing shows our kinship to those savages better than the fact that Frazer has at hand a word as familiar as ‘ghost’ or ‘shade’ to describe the way these people look at things.” In other words, when describing “magical” practices, we find ourselves resorting to words of our own language which themselves are magical. The fact that our language has such words standing ready for duty ought to make us wonder whether we are all that far removed from the “savage”. And when we take the trouble to examine our language, we will find many other examples. Why, for example, do we continue to speak of the sun’s “rising” and “setting”, when strictly speaking the sun does not move at all? As Wittgenstein puts it, “a whole mythology is deposited in our language” (ibid.).

Explanation vs. Interpretation

According to Wittgenstein, Frazer’s whole intellectual endeavour is misguided. When faced with practices that are prima facie bewildering and astonishing, Frazer looks to find an explanation for them. He begins from a premise that seems respectable enough in itself, which is the assumption that the primitives themselves are aiming at some purpose. To put it in the jargon of the modern philosophers of mind, the actions of the natives are intentional.

If they have a purpose, then in that barest of senses the actions are rational. The reason that they seem incomprehensible to us, then, is that the primitives have mistaken beliefs about causality: they mistakenly believe that dancing around in a certain way will cause rain to fall. If they only had better knowledge of how things work, they would not need to resort to strange ritual and magical practices. Thus, according to Frazer, primitives are simply very bad scientists.

Wittgenstein sees this attempt to explain what the primitives are doing as mistaken from the very beginning. Their actions are not attempts to manipulate causal processes, and so neither are they based on mistaken beliefs. Rather, we should see their actions as a kind of language, but a language of gestures rather than of words. Ritual is not about doing something; it is about saying something.

I think Wittgenstein would also want to add that this gesture-language is one that is particularly adapted to its subject matter. There are some things which are too grand, too sublime, or just simply too much to be adequately expressed in words, “the crush of thoughts that do not get out because they all try to push forward and are wedged in the door” (p. 3).

Where primitives burn a human being in effigy, Frazer wants to see something sinister in it. He sees it as the survival of some earlier ritual where a real person was burned, in order to placate the gods. Wittgenstein on the other hand sees it for what it is: burning in effigy. We are tempted to see something terrible in it, because the gesture expresses some idea that is terrible, perhaps something about death. And the gesture is lent a certain terribleness by its surroundings: the darkness of night, the occasion of a funeral, whatever.

Often what such a ritual says is “this is what took place here; laugh if you can” (p. 3).

* * *

The edition of this book I have cited is, to the best of my knowledge, out of print. However, the full text can be found in a collection of Wittgenstein’s writings called Philosophical Occasions: 1912-1951 (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1993).

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Joseph Tainter, "The Collapse of Complex Societies"

I recently decided to re-read my all-time favourite books to see which ones have stood the test of time. I know that some of them have, since I've been re-reading them periodically for years. In any case, I've decided to post reviews of the best of them on The Spectacled Avenger, starting with this one.

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Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

This book has had a disproportionate effect on my thinking on just about everything, from politics to economics to history to art and architecture. A warning, though: it can make for inexpressibly discouraging reading. A few years ago I lent my copy to my friend Julian. I never got it back. After seeing it sitting outside in his backyard, its spine cracked open, its pages dog-eared and rain-soaked, my wife kindly purchased another copy for me.

In this masterpiece, Tainter, an anthropologist by profession (though his book is published in a series entitled New Studies in Archaeology), decides to embark on an ambitious intellectual mission, which is to formulate a general theory that will help to explain the collapse of complex societies. In this process, he develops what can only be described as a natural history (or perhaps the better term is natural pathology) of civilizations, one which seems depressingly inexorable.

Definition of “Complex Society”

Before doing so, Tainter must spend a few chapters rolling up his sleeves and getting down to theoretical brass tacks. First, he must decide what he means by “complexity”. He admits that there is much controversy here, and so any definition must be approximate only — as anyone familiar with the archaeological controversy surrounding the term “civilization” will know. For him, complex societies are “large, heterogeneous, internally differentiated, class-structured, controlled societies in which the resources that sustain life are not equally available to all” (p. 38). To this, he would also add a tendency towards administrative centralization. Furthermore, says Tainter, such societies are, in the context of the vast sweep of human history, an anomaly rather than the norm.

What is just as interesting, he characterizes the development of complexity as an exercise in progressive problem-solving: when a society is faced with a problem or threat, its tendency is to solve it by investing in complexity. For example, when the population of Rome grew, and the water of the Tiber river was becoming too polluted for human use, massive aqueducts were built to pipe water to the city across vast distances, a project which itself required a new bureaucracy to administer. Similarly, the Roman territorial expansion was made possible by — and at the same time necessitated — military conquest. An expanding population required an expanding resource base. When a new people was conquered, the Romans appropriated their accumulated surpluses, but once these had been spent, the new territories still had to be administered, necessitating an expanding bureaucracy and large standing armies, requiring a further expansion of the resource base, requiring new conquest and appropriation, and so on. What may begin as the solution to a problem, brings with it new problems that require solving.

Definition of “Collapse”

With the concept of a complex society in hand, we must move on to a working definition of what we mean by the “collapse” of such a society. For Tainter, put in its simplest terms, collapse represents a relatively rapid transition from a higher to a lower level of complexity. If the transition is long and drawn out, then it is not so much a collapse as a decline. Collapse proper occurs in the space of a few decades or less.

Tainter then goes on to canvas the various theories that have been offered to explain the collapses of various societies, varying from the plausible (resource depletion) to the plain woolly (mystical factors such as cultural debasement or loss of virtue). Marshalling a large array of historical examples of collapse, he points out the inadequacy of these rival theories to provide a general explanation of the phenomenon.

Tainter’s Thesis

Eventually, in chapter four, Tainter lays out his theory of collapse, which is based on the concept of diminishing marginal returns. Basically, collapse is the eventual result of diminishing marginal returns on investment in complexity. Each increase in societal complexity requires a greater investment of energy and resources, while the returns on such investment diminish. After some point, as more and more resources are eaten up simply in maintaining the current level of complexity, society has fewer resources left to deal with any new problems that inevitably arise. Collapse swiftly follows.

Tainter applies his theory to various historical examples of collapse and finds, predictably, that the theory has explanatory power. We can see this if we return to our Roman example. As Rome expands, her new territories lie ever further out from the administrative centre. This leads to what economists call increased transaction costs: communications from centre to periphery become lengthy and prone to inaccuracy, affecting administrative efficiency; whatever wealth new provinces produce must be carted across increasing distances, so that transportation costs eat into the spoils that would otherwise accrue to the imperial centre; an expanded imperial frontier means a greater land distance that must be protected, in addition to new cities that must be garrisoned. All of this requires ever greater taxation, to the point that it is no longer worthwhile to bother farming the land in many provinces. With abandonment of lands, the tax base shrinks at the same time that the need for revenue increases. Collapses ensues. Whereas early in her history the relatively backward (and less complex) city of Rome managed to conquer such heavyweights as Carthage and Macedonia, by the end, a large and unwieldy (and very complex) Roman Empire became incapable of adequately defending itself against the most motley and disorganized of barbarians. And this, despite the fact that its soldiers were better equipped, and its officers better trained, than they had ever been.

Does this sound uncomfortably familiar? The US was once able to defeat both Germany’s Third Reich and the Japanese Empire on two different fronts at the same time. She now seems incapable of prevailing over ragtag tribalists in the mountains of Afghanistan, despite spending as much on her military as the rest of the world’s nations combined spend on theirs. Indeed, the concluding chapter of Tainter’s book consists of projections for the future, which are not encouraging, to say the least.

Tainter’s Legacy

Although the book is twenty years old now, it maintains its relevance. For one thing, it has spawned a minor genre, the most prominent recent additions to which include Jarred Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Richard Wright’s A Short History of Progress, and Thomas Homer-Dixon’s The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization.

Recently, the magazine New Scientist (April 2, 2008) published a retrospective look at Tainter’s thesis (see http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19826501.500-why-the-demise-of-civilisation-may-be-inevitable.html?full=true). After interviewing researchers in various disciplines, the consensus was that Tainter’s thesis still holds water, and if anything, is even more relevant now. Homer-Dixon, in a Globe and Mail op-ed piece entitled “Prepare Today for Tomorrow’s Breakdown” (May 14, 2006), praises Tainter’s theory despite a couple of gaps in it (which I believe Homer-Dixon could have filled in rather self-evidently if he had taken the time).

Tainter has done some interesting recent work on climate change as a contributing factor in the Roman collapse. Basically, the Roman expansion is correlated with a period of warmer temperatures called the “Roman Warm Period”. This enabled the Romans to expand into northern Europe, bringing with them Mediterranean agriculture. Huge, sprawling plantations of olives and grapes, essentially Roman agribusiness, worked by armies of slaves, replaced smaller-scale but more diversified native agriculture. Such diversification meant that if one crop failed, farmers had others to resort to for survival. Roman monoculture was not so resilient: when the Roman Warm Period ended, and cooler temperatures became the norm, disaster struck in many areas of the Western Roman Empire. You can read all about it in a paper he co-authored with Carole L. Crumley: “Climate, Complexity, and Problem Solving in the Roman Empire,” in Robert Costanza et al. (eds.), Sustainability or Collapse? An Integrated History and Future of People on Earth (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Meaning of Battlestar Galactica

In some ways I was a rather strange child, certainly strange for a boy. For example, I absolutely hated comic books, and I still do. I was always slightly embarrassed for their creators. They had pretensions to grandeur, to the sublime, to the epic, while in reality, their work never seemed to rise above the puerile. I have had many grownup friends who are still comic book aficionados, and they invariably try to convince me that comics are different now. For one thing, they are no longer called “comic books”. They are now called “graphic novels” (sure, and Tony Soprano is in the waste disposal business). For another, the characters are more complex, more morally ambivalent now. Fine, but if that’s the case, why do they still feel the need to parade around in absurd costumes? Only little boys and fetishists can be impressed by capes, masks and tall boots. Then they try tell me how much deeper the stories are now, how they have so much more to say about the human condition, or about human nature. And still, I have yet to see a comic book story that hasn’t already been told — and told better — by Homer or Sophocles. In a sense, comics do tell us something about human nature, namely how far it has degenerated, how its leaden wings can no longer be uplifted by culture.

In general, my attitude has been much the same towards science fiction as towards comics. I could sometimes appreciate its attempts — however clumsy — to use the future to tell us something about our present. After all, when a technological society needs a mirror held up to it, Homer can sometimes seem an unsatisfactory hairdresser. Unfortunately, the characters in science fiction were usually so papery thin it even seemed silly to refer to them as such. Of late, there has been an exception that proves the rule. Two nights ago I watched the final episode of the television series Battlestar Galactica (I mean the new re-make, not the 1970s original).

I admit to being very impressed overall by BSG. Interestingly though, my satisfaction has almost nothing to do with technology. The creators have charmingly opted to make certain things low-tech: the Galactica has no networked computers. The telephones are all landlines and have a comforting little buzz when they ring, instead of the annoying chirp (or worse, the Kanye West ring tone) of a cell phone. They listen to music on what look like cassette tapes. The aging Battlestar creaks and groans, its lights flicker. Although there is just enough futuristic flash to impress us, it is not used as a crutch. Instead, BSG impresses us with its attempts to grapple with abiding philosophical problems. I would like to examine three of these.

1. Who Are We?

The human race has been almost entirely wiped out in a nuclear attack by the Cylons, a race of robots, built by humans, who have rebelled against their masters. This occurs some forty years after a previous war between the two races which ended in a truce; nothing had been heard from the Cylons since then, until their sudden sneak attack. The small fleet of human survivors must flee into the depths of space to escape them.

It is soon discovered that during their years of silence, the Cylons have evolved, or rather, they have evolved themselves. They have now taken on a form externally indistinguishable from humans. Furthermore, they have infiltrated the human fleet, making it difficult to visually distinguish human from Cylon. As the series continues, it becomes difficult to distinguish them in other ways as well: Cylons fall in love; they do things that are less than rational, indicating free will of some kind; they experience anger, indecision, remorse, jealousy.

And most importantly, Cylons look for meaning in their lives. At first, the most prominent thing that separated Cylon from human was that the former had “resurrection technology”, meaning that they did not die. But this caused them just as much anxiety about life’s meaning as the fact of death does for humans. And eventually, even this difference is erased, for when their resurrection technology is destroyed, Cylons too learn what it means to cease to exist, and to mourn the passing of the dead.

At first, humans could at least identify themselves through their difference from, and opposition to, the Other. But by the end of the series, one wonders if there is any meaningful difference at all between the two races. Two uncomfortable questions arise: Are Cylons really just humans after all? Or conversely, are humans really just fancy machines?

2. Is Survival Enough?

Immediately following the holocaust, the human survivors are in shock. Everything everyone once knew is gone, including friends, loved ones, homes, their entire way of life. There is anger too, but humanity is not in a position to launch a credible counter-attack against the enemy, so wreaking revenge is not an option. The only thing they have at the moment is that they are alive. Commander Adama wisely realizes that this will not be enough to keep them going in the long run. They must have something to survive for. So, in essence, what Adama offers them is a “meta-narrative”, an over-arching story or narrative that can lend a sense of purpose to people’s lives. As Plato would put it, Adama offers them a “noble lie”. He gives them a legend, supposedly drawn from sacred scriptures, about a lost thirteenth tribe of humans that settled a planet called “Earth”, a story which Adama himself does not really believe. If they can just find Earth, all will be well, he tells them. Now the people have something to work towards, the possibility of finding a new home, and this goal is given extra meaning by its association with the gods, with the sacred. Instead of aimless wandering, humanity has a mission. (I cannot help but wonder if the show’s writers are saying in some veiled way that religion itself is a noble lie?)

3. Are We Worthy of Survival?

In his work The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote something to the effect that ethics is not about achieving happiness; ethics is about becoming worthy of happiness. Battlestar Galactica has something similar to say about survival: It is not enough merely to survive, not even if we are lucky enough to have a meta-narrative that gives us something towards which to strive. We must also be worthy of surviving. To go on living without being able to look oneself in the mirror is a kind of torture. And if we are mean or vicious creatures, the universe as a whole would be better off without such meanness or viciousness existing in it.

Throughout the series, there are various grave temptations to do things that we all know are fundamentally wrong, at least in normal circumstances. There are incidents where the possibility of torturing a Cylon is very tantalizing, or where military goals can be achieved only by knowingly and consciously killing one’s own civilians. There is even a point where human victory can be secured by the complete annihilation of the enemy — in effect, genocide. The temptations to wrongdoing come from the high stakes involved: the very survival of humanity as a species. Thus, if we could torture a Cylon prisoner in order to extract information that might secure the fragile future survival of humanity, should we not do it? In ethics, this is traditionally known as the problem of “dirty hands”, the problem posed by doing evil that good may come of it. Before we decide, we must answer a further question that several of the characters in the show repeatedly had to ask themselves: “If I do this thing, if I torture this Cylon who in most relevant respects seems much like myself, our species will survive. But, can we still call the species that survives human?” If we define the term “human” not biologically, but rather by a certain set of shared values that civilized peoples claim to share, then the answer must be “No”. As my favourite philosopher, Lord Shaftesbury, put it, “the least step into villainy or baseness changes the character and value of a life” (it is no accident that Shaftesbury was a powerful influence on Kant). Defiling one’s deepest moral commitments is, or ought to be, too high a price to pay for survival.

These are observations that seem especially pertinent in an age when many things, many evil things — torture, “waterboarding”, “extraordinary rendition”, “shock and awe” bombing of cities, secret detention without due process of law, you name it — are done by supposedly civilized peoples in the name of security.

The Answers?

In conclusion, Battlestar Galactica’s achievement is to get us to wrestle with some profound philosophical themes which we, as humans, have a duty to ponder at least once in our lives. It dares us to ask three questions about ourselves: Who are we? Why are we here? Are we worthy of being here?

Of course, people who aren’t philosophers like to be served answers with their questions. But with questions like these, any answer will seem too unnourishing, too much like the proverbial parsley on the side of the plate. Nonetheless, here are the tentative answers I have settled on: To the first, I answer, “We are what we value.” To the second, “We are here to serve those values.” To the third, “Our worthiness depends on what we have done to make ourselves worthy.”

So say we all.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Slap in the Face to Corrective Justice

The Twelve Tables and the Law of Iniuria

The Twelve Tables comprised the earliest codification of Roman law. According to tradition, it was promulgated in 450 BC. The eighth Table set the penalty for iniuria or wrongful injury at a fixed sum of 25 asses. This remained the penalty for centuries, long after monetary inflation had rendered 25 asses a negligible sum. The Roman conception of injury was much broader than ours today. For the Romans, with their highly developed sense of personal honour, injury need not be physical, nor need it cause any tangible material loss. Besides libel or slander, injury could also include mere insult (though for the Romans, there was no such thing as “mere” insult).

Lucius Veratius and Corrective Justice

The Roman antiquarian writer Aulus Gellius, in his Attic Nights (20.1.13), tells an amusing story about a wealthy citizen around the first century BC named Lucius Veratius, who had an interesting way of protesting the absurdity of the traditional fixed sum for wrongful injury. According to the story, Veratius would stroll through the Forum accompanied by one of his slaves, who carried a pouch of money. He would slap free citizens in the face (egregious iniuria by Roman legal standards) and then instruct his slave to dole out to them the appropriate number of coins. This strange form of protest did eventually lead to an overhaul of the private law with regards to iniuria.

Modern legal writers and classicists, when they refer to the story of Veratius, give it out to be an illustration of the dangers of affixing a fixed monetary penalty to a violation of law. However, I think it should be given a much deeper reading.

It is not the amount of money that is the key to the story. The outrageousness of Veratius’ conduct lay not in the insignificance of the sums he was doling out. Rather, Veratius acted outrageously because in his actions he seemed to regard the sum as the market cost of a certain kind of behaviour rather than as a penalty or punishment for wrongdoing.

Legal scholars tend to classify private law as a form of corrective justice: Seius has done some wrong to Titius, causing the latter some loss, and in order for justice to be done, Seius must compensate Titius in an amount corresponding to that loss. So setting a fixed sum on a private law wrong does not capture this notion of the correctivity of corrective justice, for the obvious reason that if Seius has done 50 asses worth of damage to Titius, paying him 25 asses will not correct the injustice. This all sounds well and good. However, this scheme does not translate well when applied to the Roman legal context. And, as we shall see, it doesn’t really apply to ours either.

First, as already noted, iniuria needn’t cause tangible loss in order to be actionable. And even if it did cause loss, it might be to something, like reputation, that was not commensurable in monetary terms. And even then, the iniuria might be done to someone who had little or no reputation to lose; it was no less an injury for that.

Second, in other areas Roman law had no qualms about imposing penalties that can only be described as punitive rather than merely corrective. For example, the first section of the lex Aquilia (third century BC) provided an action for the wrongful slaying of someone’s slave or four-footed beast, and stipulated that liability was to be assessed at “as much money as the maximum the property was worth in the year (previous to the slaying).” Thus, if your slave was terminally ill, but had become that way within the year previous to my slaying him, I would have to pay you whatever the slave was worth before he became ill, not what he was worth when I actually slew him. What this means is that you would, in essence, profit from my wrongdoing. I slew a dying slave and now must pay you back the value of a healthy one. This seems more punitive than corrective. Furthermore, the lex Aquilia says that I must pay you double what the slave was worth if I have denied my liability and have then been found liable. Roman law is littered with such examples of punitive penalties for wrongdoing. Roman legislators and jurists did not subscribe unequivocally to the doctrine of corrective justice.

Third, Veratius’ behaviour, formally speaking, would be just as outrageous if the fine happened to have been set much higher. Imagine that it was set at 1000 or 10,000 asses, but imagine at the same time that Veratius happened also to be extraordinarily rich. The fine would still have been negligible to him. And he would still cavalierly go about acting as if 10,000 asses were the market price for slapping people in the face.

Of Speeders and Ford Pintos

There is in most jurisdictions a more or less fixed penalty for speeding, which typically depends on how fast you are driving. If we imagine Lucius Veratius’ reaction to being caught speeding, we can begin to understand what was so outrageous about his behaviour. Veratius goes speeding, is stopped by a policeman, happily accepts his speeding ticket, pays the policeman on the spot, and then merrily drives off at the same speed. The pertinent point here is not the nominal amount of the fine. It is Veratius’ attitude towards it.

Part of the purpose of a speeding fine is to discourage speeding. But there is more to it than that. The purpose is also to register society’s disapproval of such conduct, and to punish those that engage in it. Again, Veratius looks at the fine as the price he must pay to be allowed to drive as fast as he likes, much as $12 is the price I must pay in order to see a movie at the cinema. Veratius does not view his behaviour as a form of wrongdoing.

A few decades ago, the Ford Motor Company became aware of a design flaw in its Pinto cars that made them a potential deathtrap. A relatively inexpensive redesign would have made the car safer and saved lives. Instead, Ford decided that it was cheaper to leave the design as it was and to pay off any litigants who sued.

Like Veratius, Ford viewed legal liability as just another cost of doing business, rather than as a punishment for its wrongdoing. Ford made the same mistake as many legal scholars in assuming that the point of private law liability is merely to compensate victims for their loss; in short, they saw it in the terms of corrective justice. They calculated the potential injury they would cause through their conduct, and they decided it was worthwhile to continue with that conduct.

The courts saw it differently. In Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Company (1981), the California Court of Appeal upheld (corrective) damages of $2.5 million, and further punitive damages of $3.5 million. The latter were presumably to express the court’s — and society’s — disapproval of Ford’s wrongdoing.

Now, we may vehemently disagree with some of the extraordinary punitive damages that US courts have since been in the habit of awarding. And we may even disagree with the idea that such punitive damages ought to go to the injured party — after all, is it really the case that I have a right to profit from an injury done me? Perhaps such profits ought to be declared the spoils of the gods and then stuck in a temple or buried at sea. But I think we must agree that the concept of punitive damages is valid and of good pedigree.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sick and Frightened Stoics

The Sick Stoic

The Roman antiquarian writer Aulus Gellius, in his Attic Nights (12.5), tells the story of a journey taken by himself and his philosopher friend Taurus. The story is illuminating for what it can tell us about the Stoic attitude towards the emotions. In the popular imagination, Stoicism is a philosophy the central goal of which is the conquest of the passions by reason. The ideal Stoic sage is characterized by his supposed emotional passivity towards all experience. It is this characterization which has most often made people averse to Stoicism. The ideal seems too unattainable, and even if it were attainable, it seems too inhuman.

Taurus and Gellius came to the town of Lebadia, where word was brought to them of a friend of Taurus, who was a philosopher of the Stoic school. The friend was seriously ill, so Taurus and Gellius went to visit him. There, they witnessed “the stifled groans that burst from him, and the heavy sighs that escaped his panting breast, revealed his suffering, and no less his struggle to overcome it.” Upon leaving the scene, another acquaintance posed to Taurus — who, it must be noted, was not himself a Stoic — the following query, which I will quote at length:

“If the bitterness of pain is such that it struggles against the will and judgment, forcing a man to groan involuntarily and confess the evil of his violent disorder, why is it said among the Stoics that pain is a thing indifferent and not an evil? Furthermore, why can a Stoic be compelled to do anything, or how can pain compel him, when the Stoics say that pain exerts no compulsion, and that a wise man cannot be forced to anything?”

To put the question in context, what the interlocutor is asking is this: Given that the Stoics divide everything into the three classes of things that are either good, bad, or indifferent; and given that pain is supposed to be a thing indifferent; and further assuming that the sick philosopher is a good Stoic; then why is he groaning?

Taurus’ reply is centred on the Stoic idea that we are all born with a natural and instinctual self-concern, an instinct towards self-preservation and continued existence. It is important not to mistake this self-concern with selfishness or self-centredness. The self-concern involved is normal, healthy, and indeed necessary for survival. What Taurus in effect argues is that the sick philosopher’s groans are not elicited against his will. Nor are they signs of the weakness of his will. On the contrary, they are expressions of the strength of his will, of his struggle against bodily impulse caused by the pain. The case is not one of passively having groans forced from one. Rather, the groans are an epiphenomenon of the active struggle against pain impulses.

Though it sounds a bit arch, it seems to me that groaning in pain is acceptable Stoic behaviour on this account, but that whimpering in pain is perhaps not, the latter indicating passivity.

The Frightened Stoic

Elsewhere in the same work, Aulus Gellius tells us another story (19.1), which, again, takes place on a journey. He was with a party on board a ship, when they found themselves in a storm. Among the party was an eminent philosopher of the Stoic school. While there was much fright among the crew and passengers, Gellius expected to find his philosopher to be an oasis of calm amidst the tempest. Instead, he found the man “frightened and ghastly pale… in his loss of colour and distracted expression not differing much from the others.”

After a time, the storm cleared, and the danger had passed. A wealthy Greek smart aleck began to poke fun at the Stoic: “What does this mean, Sir philosopher, that when we were in danger you were afraid and turned pale, while I neither feared nor changed colour?” The philosopher answered the question with tongue firmly in cheek. He basically said that the smart aleck had been unafraid because the death of such a worthless coxcomb would be no great loss, whereas the loss of a wise man would be a loss indeed.

Gellius, however, was unsatisfied at this. When he had the philosopher alone, he posed the question again, in a more serious tone. The philosopher replied that, according to the Stoics, it was natural when in danger to briefly experience an involuntary impulse of fear. He then pulled the writings of the Stoic Epictetus from his bag and quoted from them. The passage he reads argues that the difference between the wise and unwise is that the unwise are overcome by the impulse of fear; their minds assent to a proposition as if it were true when it is in fact false, the proposition in question being that loss of life is an evil (when in fact it is indifferent). Fear happens. The difference is that the unwise are passive in the face of it.

On the other hand, the wise man, being wise, has correct beliefs about what is good, bad, and indifferent, and refuses rational assent to the false proposition that death is an evil, and gives assent to the true proposition that death is indifferent.

All of this is fine as far as it goes, but why is it that the wealthy smart aleck experienced no fear? Was he wise? This goes unanswered, but assuming that the man was not wise, I can try to offer a response that would be consistent with Stoic doctrine.

On the account offered, he simply did not experience that first natural impulse of fear. Because the impulse is natural, for the Stoics it is also healthy. Therefore, the man who fails to experience the impulse of fear where such an impulse would be appropriate must be somehow unnatural or unhealthy. As such, the man cannot be wise. Put this way, then, it follows that there must be more than one way of being an unwise person in this situation:

1. One can fail to experience the impulse of fear in the first place.

2. One can experience the impulse of fear, but fail to form any proposition with regard to it.

3. One can experience the impulse of fear, form a false proposition with regard to it, and assent to that proposition.

4. One can experience the impulse of fear, form a true proposition with regard to it, and fail to assent to it.

In the first case, the wise man is insensate, which is a form of stupidity. In the second case, the impulse of fear will operate unhindered, neither countervailed by true belief nor bolstered by false belief. Here, the man is unwise because he does not exercise reason of any kind. It is a form of intemperance. In the third case, the impulse will be allowed to hold sway by being bolstered by a false belief. Here, the man is unwise due to erring reason. I suspect that the fourth case collapses into the second, for although a proposition is formed, it has no causal effect on behaviour. I suppose we would say that this is a different way in which reason goes unexercised.

All of this illustrates that the Stoics were by no means completely opposed to emotion. Certain emotions were not only healthy, but necessary. The point, rather, is to exercise one’s reason in the face of the emotion, trying to form true beliefs about the causes and implications of the emotion. In this way, one can detach the emotion from the facts, ensuring that one is not passively swept along into error by it. On the other hand, the Stoics nowhere say that doing this is easy. It takes practise, moral exercise, and a good working knowledge of the things that matter and the things that do not.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Are We All Keynesians Now?

A few hundred billion dollars here, a trillion or two there… after a point, one stops being able to keep up with all the bailout plans and stimulus packages. It all adds up. It must, although I have yet to see the media report an accurate running total. The numbers being thrown around are so high that they cease to have any real meaning. And because they no longer mean anything, not only do the media not bother to tally it all up, but they also don’t bother to tell us all how it will all be paid for.

There are some good reasons to be sceptical about the bleating for ever more stimulus. For one thing, without a good idea of what is driving the current downturn, it will do little good to throw money at it willy-nilly in the vain hope that the problem will just go away. What is the money to be spent on? Where will it do most good? There are varying answers to these questions. But until we can answer them, we are just throwing good money after bad. Secondly, if history is any guide here, by the time the money finds its way to where it is supposed to be directed, the cycle may have already run its course and things may already have begun to turn around (and let’s face it, much of the money will never reach a desirable destination anyway; it will end up as pork instead). During the Great Depression, things had already hit bottom before Roosevelt even came to power. In reality, it wasn’t the New Deal or the war that got the world out of the Depression, it was abandoning the gold standard.

Taxation without Generational Representation

I’ve heard it said that all of this money being thrown about likely represents the single largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in history. Wealth is being transferred from future generations to the present one. Talk about taxation without representation! It would possibly be justifiable if it could be demonstrated that the present spending binge will create enough economic growth so that future generations would reap the rewards of current investment in the economy, but who really believes this is the case? Think about the very magnitude of the debt’s principal. Got some kind of a rough picture in your head? (Well done! You’re a better person than I am.) Now think about the magnitude of the interest payments on that debt. Is it really realistic to think that any future growth we can finance through such borrowing will be able to finance that interest, let alone even touch the principal?

As we are constantly being told, thanks to the global recession/depression/crisis/meltdown [insert your hyperbole of choice here], “we’re all Keynesians now.” What does it mean to be a “Keynesian”? I ask this because it is another thing the media seems reluctant to explain. In the briefest of terms, Keynesianism refers to what is often alternatively called “counter-cyclical fiscal policy”. The idea is that governments are supposed to save up revenue during good times, and spend that extra revenue during bad times to stimulate the economy. Keynesian policy is supposed to shorten the peaks of the business cycle, in order to lessen the depth of the troughs. Governments may even have to borrow extra money to spend during bad times if that is called for. This is what is happening now; the US government is borrowing the necessary money, because they didn’t have enough extra lying around. As a matter of fact, with a brief exception during the 1990s, they have been borrowing money for quite some time now, in both good times and bad.

Until recently, Keynesianism had fallen into disrepute, and for some very good reasons. Assuming that the theory works in principle, and leaving aside the reasons for scepticism enunciated above, it works out very differently in practice. In their interesting but dry little book Democracy in Deficit: The Political Legacy of Lord Keynes (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000; 1st edition 1977), the economists James M. Buchanan and Richard E. Wagner demonstrate the dangers of Keynesianism when applied by democratic governments. It becomes a tool of the election cycle. If a government’s priorities do not stretch further than the next election, then there will always be the temptation to satisfy current political needs by deficit borrowing, leaving the resulting long run problems to be dealt with by future governments.

Of course, notoriously, Keynes concerned himself little with problems of the long run. As he famously quipped: “In the long run we are all dead.” To which some years later the economist F. A. Hayek less famously replied: “We are of course… already reaping the harvest of the work of the man [i.e. Keynes] who set this fashion, since we are already in that long run in which he knew we would be dead” (Hayek, A Tiger by the Tail. London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1973, p. 109). Hayek had in mind his own time, the 1960s and 70s, an age of ballooning budget deficits, stagnant growth, and runaway inflation, the results of Keynesian policies applied without regard to the exigencies of the business cycle, by successive democratic governments with an eye to getting re-elected.

Chucking out the Rent-Seekers

Democratic governments must not only make the electorate happy – after all, this might not be such a bad thing, for at least then the money would be spent on the people. The real danger is that politicians need money to spend on the election cycle, and this they get in exchange for making promises to special interest groups. Such groups extract rents from governments in return for their financial support. By the term “rents” I mean things like subsidies, special rights or privileges, monopolies, trade concessions, etc. Rents, in this special sense, we may define as profits accruing to persons or organizations which are not otherwise available for purchase through the operation of a free and open market. Such rent-seeking behaviour is the hallmark of the various lobbyists, business associations, trade unions, and other assorted racketeers and social parasites that haunt the offices and corridors of political power. In this light, it will certainly be interesting to watch how much of the currently proposed stimulus spending is inevitably siphoned off in the form of rents.

Buchanan’s and Wagner’s proposed antidote to the temptations of Keynesianism for governments, was some form of balanced-budget constitutional amendment. After all, if the government’s hands are tied with regard to spending, then perhaps the rent-seekers will go elsewhere in search of profits. Such a measure would have to be adopted as part of the constitution, regular legislation being too easy for a government of the day to override or repeal.

As tempting as such a solution may sound, I must disagree with it. It is prudent to assume that there will inevitably be times when a government must be able to govern in the best interests of the people, and where this may require spending into a deficit. Recent budget woes in the state of California are a testament to this. I therefore propose a different solution.

Two Modest Proposals

Once upon a time, it used to be the case that if a parliamentary government introduced a bill which proposed to run a budget deficit, it was customary to include in such legislation a so-called sinking fund. This was a state fund into which surplus revenue would be paid, so that the projected debt could be retired in a reasonable space of time. Therefore, I propose:

1. Where a government proposes to run a budget deficit or enact extraordinary spending measures, such legislation must include provisions for a sinking fund to retire the resultant debt within a reasonable period of time.

In addition to a sinking fund, I would like to add a further measure. It has been well said — though I cannot for the life of me remember who said it — that the only way to accurately measure the public’s willingness to accept a proposed government spending measure would be to put the proposal into the taxpayer’s hands, along with an invoice for the cost to the taxpayer. Therefore, I propose:

2. That upon the introduction of budgets or extraordinary spending measures, the government provide to taxpayers an itemized invoice stating what the measures will cost to each taxpayer, along with a running total of whatever is already owed by them.

A balanced-budget constitutional amendment would tie a government’s hands too much. But what we can do is to introduce some fiscal prudence by forcing the government to provide in advance for the repayment of its debt financing, along with simple information for the taxpayer outlining what such repayment will cost them and their children. And ideally, if the spirit of the first proposal is adhered to, it should not cost their children anything. Therefore, while Proposal 1 provides for fiscal prudence, Proposal 2 ensures that there is taxation with representation, by an informed citizenry that is not spending money its children will have to pay back through indentured servitude.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Of the Existence of Self

Below is another letter from our esteemed eighteenth-century correspondent, Joseph Darlington, Esq. I am beginning, now, to get a handle on this gentleman’s particular character. He seems to take pride in fancying himself a man of free thought, always letting us know that he has read his Bayle and his Hume. However, when backed into a corner, he will unfailingly be found to be a fierce defender of the vox populi, and of sturdy common sense. I would find this sort of hypocrisy annoying in most people, but in Darlington I simply find it charming. But I shall let the reader judge for herself.

* * *

March 14, 1755

In yours of yesterday, you brought before the Publick some very interesting Ruminations upon personal Identity, the existence of an enduring Self, and the Nature of the human Understanding. I find myself, sir, in complete Agreement with your Sentiments, and I only wish to add an Observation or two of my own.

You rightly observ’d, sir, that if there be anything to the Mind above mere occurrent Thoughts, Beliefs, and Passions; I say, if the Mind be anything more than a bare Bundle of these, then it must consist of the History of the Agent in which these are embedded, acquired, and developed.

Monsieur DES CARTES, in his Meditations upon the First Philosophy, hath attended to this Question, but he comes to a very different, and I must say a very mysterious, Solution. When, saith he, a Man thinks, whatever may be the Doubts he harbours concerning the Veracity of what he thinks, there is at least one thing of which he cannot reasonably doubt, which is that there is an “I” that thinketh. In brief, cogito, ergo sum.

But in what does this cogito, this I think, consist? Where you and I, sir, would look for it in the very life History and particular Organism [Darlington here means “organization” – Ed.] of the Thinker’s Mind, Des Cartes makes of it an utter Mystery, an I-know-not-what.

Of Monsieur Des Cartes’ supposed Proof of an existent Self, my Lord SHAFTESBURY hath correctly observ’d that it begs the Question, for as this noble Author wittily has it, “the EGO or I, being establish’d in the first part of the Proposition, the Ergo, no doubt, must hold good in the latter”(Characteristicks, Vol. III, p. 193). It will not speak to the Point to assert: I think; therefore I think. A shifting of Emphasis does not a Conclusion make.

The noble Lord Shaftesbury elsewhere notes that when we are active, we cannot doubt that we exist. Our very actions give the Lie to whatever idle Doubts we may express. It is only in the uttermost reaches of speculative Philosophy, in the idle Musings of the Philosopher in his Closet, that Doubt may be given a Handle to lay hold of: “We do not,” says he, “scruple to act as resolutely upon the mere Supposition that we are, as if we had effectually prov’d it a thousand times”.

Mr. JOHNSON, in one of his Rambler Papers [No. 43 (14 August 1750) – Ed.], makes much the same Observation, for, says he, “Des Cartes has kindly shewn how a Man may prove to himself his own Existence, if once he can be prevail’d upon to question it.” The Genius of Des Cartes’ Meditation lies not in the Proof that we exist, but in the getting us to doubt of it in the first Place. Once this latter Obstacle is overcome, any “Solution” to the “Problem” must sound ingenious indeed! To follow such Speculations is insanire paret certa ratione modoque – Horat. Sat. II.iii.271 [“to go mad by fixed rule and method” – Ed.].

I am, sir,
Your Servant, etc.

Jos. Darlington, Esq.
Darlington Close,
Horton-cum-Studley, Oxfordshire

Friday, March 13, 2009

On a Certain Kind of Philosophical Error

In this posting I would like to offer two examples or thought experiments taken from recent works that both illustrate a certain kind of erroneous thinking to which contemporary philosophers seem too prone.

The first example comes from Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), p. 179. Joyce has us imagine that there are two pills:

1. A pill that will make you believe that Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo.

2. A pill that will make you believe that Napoleon won the battle of Waterloo.

Joyce claims that finding out that I had ingested pill 1 should make me doubt whether Napoleon really had been defeated at Waterloo. This is offered as an example where knowledge of a belief’s origin can supposedly undermine it. This last point is not one I would necessarily disagree with. Jon Elster, in his book Sour Grapes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 15 and 140, makes the very good point that the rationality of holding a belief depends at least in part on how it was acquired: The problem is, Joyce does not really think through all that this implies.

My finding out that I had ingested pill 1, in the absence of any other relevant information, would not disprove my belief: I still have at least a 50 % chance of being correct, and just as good reason to maintain my original belief as to jettison it. The belief induced by the pill may notwithstanding tally with the facts that obtain regardless of the existence of the pill.

Even more important for what I’m trying to get at is that, without knowing exactly how the pill operates, it’s difficult to understand how it could induce such a belief without many other beliefs being presupposed, especially beliefs surrounding the core concepts concerned, concepts such as “Napoleon”, “battle”, and “Waterloo”. I must know much about these before I can come to believe (in any full sense) in what either pill 1 or 2 induces. Put another way, it is difficult to see how pill 2 could induce the requisite belief in someone who lived before, say, 1780, or who lives in an isolated culture that knows nothing of early nineteenth century European history.

My second example comes from an otherwise very interesting book by Nomy Arpaly entitled Merit, Meaning, and Human Bondage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), p. 111 ff. An evil genius called Dr. Nefarious (I do love the name!) can control my actions by instilling in me desires and beliefs which cause me to do his bidding, without awareness on my part. Dr. Nefarious implants in me the desire to assassinate the Canadian Minister of Sports and Recreation (as well as, perhaps, the belief that this would be for some reason a good thing).

Now think about what would be involved here. The desire implanted must be irresistible (because we’re assuming it to be motivationally efficacious). What else about my motivational and cognitive set must be the case in order for this to happen? What other things must I be brought to believe, desire, and value? It seems to me that practically my whole mental history must change.

The mind is too holistic, too seamless for Dr. Nefarious’ plot to work without it entailing a far-reaching breakdown and alteration in my self-identity. Otherwise, if the desire is implanted, while all else about me remains unaltered, the desire will seem alien, out of place, and as such, uncompelling. Unless I already identified with the desire to kill the Minister, I posit that said desire would lack the requisite efficacy.

Of course, there are lesser schemes that Dr. Nefarious could pull off, like giving me the efficacious desire for cheesecake. But he could do so only by accepting most of my psychology just as he found it – I happen to like cheesecake, and a sudden craving for it would by no means seem alien. Dr. Nefarious’ possible schemes, then, are quite limited. To get me to do things far removed from my existing motivational dispositions would require something more akin to psychological replacement.

The moral of both these examples is that beliefs, desires, values, etc. should not be spoken of as if they were isolable entities which can be simply injected into someone’s existing psychology. A person’s psychology must be construed more holistically. We could imagine the unlikely case where two people have the same set of desires, beliefs, etc. but who acquired them through quite different life histories: their beliefs and desires would be integrated quite differently, based on their differing experiences. We could thus imagine that removing a certain belief from the first person would have different effects than if it were removed from the second.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Collatine Surrender

I was recently re-reading the first couple of books of Livy on early Roman history — although “history” is rather a misnomer here, as so much of that earliest history is more legend than fact. Nevertheless, I was struck by a certain event that passed during the reign of the elder king Tarquin, in which the city of Collatia surrenders to Rome. The relevant passage is to be found at I.38.2.

The Collatine surrender is very formal. In fact, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the stipulatio, which was a formal contract in Roman law. And in structure, it particularly resembles a very early kind of stipulatio, called the sponsio. The surrender occurs in the following question and answer form:

ROMANS: Are you the legates and spokesmen sent by the people of Collatia? (“Estisne…?”)
COLLATINES: We are. (“Sumus.”)
ROMANS: Is the People of Collatia its own master? (“Estne…?”)
COLLATINES: It is. (“Est.”)
ROMANS: Do you surrender yourselves and the People of Collatia? (“Deditisne…?)
COLLATINES: We do. (“Dedimus.”)
ROMANS: I accept the surrender. (“At ego recipio.”)

In general, the form is, again, question and answer, with the main verb of each answer corresponding to that of the question. In early Roman law, it was very important that the formula be uttered absolutely accurately. Any mistakes, or even any stumbling over the words would invalidate the contract. This is not only superstition; there was a logic to the formula as a whole. The formal structure of the Collatine surrender is as follows:

1. Establishing agency (“Are you the legates…?”).

2. Establishing the competence of the principal for whom the agents act/contract (“Is the People of Collatia its own master?”)

3. Extraction of the promise (“Do you surrender yourselves…?”)

4. Acceptance of promise

There are a couple of things to note about this as it relates to the English common law of contracts. First, in a typical common law contract, step 3 would take the form of an offer on the part of the Collatines, which offer would be followed by an acceptance (step 4).

Second, in the Collatine surrender there is not that element that common law contract theory calls consideration, or at least it is not explicitly stated. The Collatines promise something (indeed, everything), while the Romans offer nothing in return. We could, however, read such a consideration into the contract, e.g. the Romans offer cessation of hostilities. In any case, the doctrine of consideration is no longer as important in the common law as it once was.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Of Suicide, Redux

Below is another letter from Mr. Joseph Darlington, Esq. This time he seems to have a bit of a bee under his wig over my previous posting. (N.B. I have taken the trouble of providing translations to the Latin he tends to carelessly toss about -- the benefits of a classical education.)

* * *

March 11, 1755

I listen’d with Dismay, as you read it, to your latest Libel against the Dignity of Mankind (I refer to yours of March 10th). I have always worn the Badge of “Free-Thinker” with some Pride, but you, Sir, go too far. You use the atheistical Mr. SPINOSA’s philosophia spinosum [“Crabbed philosophy”. Darlington helps himself to a wretched pun, referring to Spinoza’s rather dry geometrical method of philosophizing -- Ed.] to play the advocatus diabolus [“devil’s advocate”] in pleading the Cause of the Angels, in Defense of the Dignity of Life and the Cowardice of Self-Murder. And then you go further in making the noble Adherents of the Stoick Sect to plead in favour of the Abomination of Suicide.

It is not so much, Sir, the Side you favour, for you seem to lack the Courage to favour either. Rather, how dare you, Sir, force me into the Circumstance of having to side with an errant Atheist of Spinosa’s Character, and against a Sect of which I have long profess’d myself an Admirer.

In his Essay of Suicide, Mr. HUME observes that if Self-Murder be a Crime against the Laws of Nature, it must be so for at least one of the following Reasons: either it is an Offense against the Deity; or it is a Crime against one’s Fellows and Society; or else it is a Crime against one’s self. Hume examines each in turn and finds Suicide to be no Crime. I am ashamed that I must disagree yet again with so ingenious an Author.

Upon the first Head, that Suicide is a Crime against the Deity, Hume says that it is no violation of His Providence, for otherwise the Deity in his Wisdom wou’d never have put the Power of disposing of his Life into the hands of Man. Nothing that happens in Nature can be contrary to that Nature, or to Providence. And, if it be solely in the Authority of GOD to dispose of a Man’s Life, then it were just as much a Crime for a Man to attempt to preserve that Life when it is in mortal Peril as it were to end it.

To which I answer, that the Deity hath in His Wisdom given Man many a Power, which He had no desire that Man shou’d exercise. I have the Power to murder another and perhaps, the Power to save him: Now who can doubt that I shou’d forebear exercising the first, but that I might have the positive Duty to exercise the second Power? GOD intended that we shou’d overcome the Temptation of doing certain things, through the exercise of Virtue.

Upon the second Head, that Suicide is a Crime against our Fellows or against Society. To this Mr. Hume wou’d have us believe that Suicide is merely the taking away of the Power to do Good to our Fellows; it is not to do them positive Ill.

This is, of course, patent Nonsense. If I have Dependents, I do them positive Ill by removing myself from the ability to support them. And to Society, I offer the Evil of vicious Example, in the form of Weakness and craven Cowardice, which Vices the Ignorant and Foolish Nature of fallen Man might be tempted to follow.

Upon the third Head, that Suicide is a Crime against one’s self, here the words of Hume himself are instructive, for “I believe,” he says, “that no Man ever threw away Life, while it was worth keeping.” Now, is this not too plainly absurd to require Refutation? How often do we do that which causes us to Repent of our Conduct? How often are we Enemies to ourselves? A melancholick Man may view his Life as a burthen, of which he would gladly be reliev’d, where some Company and some Activity might bring him 'round to a more proper View. As BURTON rightly admonishes us, in his Anatomie of Melancholie, “Be not solitary; be not idle.”

And, Sir, as for your using the Example of the noble CATO in defense of Suicide, what can such a singular Character tell us about the Duties of we lesser Mortals? Which of us has Cato’s Wisdom, his Virtue, or his Publick-spiritedness? Such a Man may properly be said to give the Law unto himself: secretosque pios, his dantem iura Catonem -- Verg. Aen. VIII.670 [“And far apart, the good, with Cato giving them laws.” Darlington has here made a rare error, and has mistaken the Elder for the Younger Cato -- Ed.]

Your servant, etc.

Jos. Darlington, Esq.
Darlington Close,
Horton-cum-Studley, Oxfordshire

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Of Suicide: Spinoza vs. the Stoics

For all their surface similarities, Spinoza and the Stoics come down on starkly opposed sides when it comes to at least one ethical issue, namely the rightness or wrongness of suicide. While the Stoics were not “for” suicide, in that they recognized that all things being equal it would be better not to be driven to it, nonetheless, they recognized some circumstances under which suicide is not only permissible, but honourable and praiseworthy. Such a view would be anathema to Spinoza.

What is herein said of the Stoic attitude towards suicide ought to be qualified by the observation that it is at least to some extent coloured by Stoicism’s situation in the context of historical events. Later Stoicism found its greatest flowering in Roman times, becoming its unofficial state philosophy until it was superseded by Christianity. Its stress on the doctrine that no man is unfree unless he chooses to be was a great consolation for many Roman elites after the fall of the Republic. They could maintain their sense of dignity even when left with no space for political action. The Roman Stoic model of this doctrine was the Younger Cato (“the Stoic”, 95-46 BC) who committed suicide after Caesar’s victory over the Republican cause at Thapsus. His death was gruesome. He chose to fall on his sword rather than beg his life from Caesar. However, he was discovered by his friends and bandaged. When he got the opportunity, he tore off his bandages and reopened his wounds with his bare hands. Cato’s suicide inspired many Stoic panegyrics. Valerius Maximus wrote: “Utica [where Cato died] is a monument to your illustrious end, Cato, where from your bravest of wounds more glory flowed than blood. Falling resolutely on your sword, you gave a great testimony to mankind how much more desirable to men of worth should be dignity without life than life without dignity” (Memorable Deeds and Sayings 3.2).

Normally for the Stoics suicide was a sign of weakness. Even so, Epictetus for example often reminded listeners that it was always an option, the thought here being that always having this way out would make life’s difficulties that much more bearable. His oft-repeated euphemism in the Discourses is that “the door lies open.” Though not to be encouraged, when done by the wise man under appropriate circumstances suicide could become the best thing to do. As Cicero has Cato remark in De Finibus 3.17:

"When a man’s circumstances contain a preponderance of things in accordance with nature, it is appropriate for him to remain alive; when he possesses or sees in prospect a majority of the contrary things, it is appropriate for him to depart from life …. For the Stoic view is that happiness, which means life in harmony with nature, is a matter of seizing the right moment. So that Wisdom her very self upon occasion bids the Wise Man to leave her."

Presumably the wise man has already achieved happiness, so that it is no failure for him to put an end to things. However, Cato says in the same passage that it is better for the foolish man to remain living; he will have something to learn from adversity. The wise man will end his life if circumstances make it no longer feasible for him to live up to his moral purpose with dignity. Thus, when Cato was besieged and his cause was lost, it was no longer possible for him to live with dignity as a free man, because he would have to beg his life from Caesar. This is given more force when we understand that at the time Caesar was not the hero he has become to later generations. Cato and his senatorial contemporaries were of the opinion (and rightly) that Caesar was a very morally disreputable character, not the kind of person before whom a wise man would relish abasing himself.

Given the gruesome manner of his death, and the determination it must have required, it is difficult to characterize Cato’s suicide as an example of passive weakness. His Roman admirers took it as an act of supreme strength and resolution. Seneca (who himself committed suicide in 66AD) puts these words in Cato’s mouth:

"'although,' said he, 'all the world has fallen under one man’s sway, although Caesar’s legions guard the land, his fleets the sea, and Caesar’s troops beset the city gates, yet Cato has a way of escape; with one single hand he will open a wide path to freedom. This sword, unstained and blameless even in civil war, shall at last do good and noble service: the freedom which it could not give to his country it shall give to Cato!'" (De Providentia 2.10)

It was an act of high moral purpose.

Now contrast this with Spinoza’s firm disapproval of suicide. He explicitly refers to the Stoic Seneca in this passage:

"Therefore nobody, unless he is overcome by external causes contrary to his own nature neglects to seek his own advantage, that is, to preserve his own being. Nobody, I repeat, refuses food or kills himself from the necessity of his own nature, but from the constraint of external causes. This can take place in many ways. A man kills himself when he is compelled by another who twists the hand in which he happens to hold a sword and makes him turn the blade against his heart; or when, in obedience to a tyrant’s command, he, like Seneca, is compelled to open his veins, that is, he chooses a lesser evil to avoid a greater. Or it may come about when unobservable external causes condition a man’s imagination and affect his body in such a way that the latter assumes a different nature contrary to the previously existing one …. But that a man … should endeavor to cease to exist or to be changed into another form, is as impossible as that something should come from nothing, as anyone can see with a little thought." (Ethics, Schol. Pr. 20, Pt. IV)

All suicides are cases of weakness of some kind. Either one’s conatus (i.e. that metaphysical striving for continued existence infused in all objects) is overcome from without, by so changing and deranging his mind that he is effectively no longer himself, or else his suicide is really a case of prudence or self-interest, the path of least resistance. In this latter instance, if he were truly active he would choose life, pushing back against the forces that would drive him under. The truly active person will choose to live in those circumstances where life’s adversities make life the more courageous choice.

For Spinoza, the idea of somebody actively choosing to end his life is monstrous, because it would require the sort of “spontaneous” or self-caused annihilation that conatus simply does not allow for. It would be a metaphysical absurdity. Insofar as suicide occurs, it must have a cause external to the person’s own conatus. There can, then, never be such a thing as a noble suicide; it is always the result of weakness. Cato presumably either should have found some other way to resist Caesar, or else he should have manfully resigned himself to his defeat and chosen what for him was the path of greater resistance: to beg Caesar for his life. To put it in Nietzschean terms, his response should have been amor fati (“love of fate”). If he were truly free and active he would have lived: “A free man thinks of death least of all things, and his wisdom is a meditation of life not of death” (Pr. 67, Pt. IV). Where the Stoics saw Cato’s suicide as a last act of defiance, Spinoza sees simply the final weak throes of a man’s utter defeat, like a drowning man’s last watery intake of breath.

Suicide is one example where, despite a number of striking similarities in philosophical outlook between Spinoza and the Stoics, stark differences emerge on the question of how to live a life, as well as what attitude to have towards it.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Of Miracles

An attentive reader may remember that in my first posting I mentioned that although I don’t believe in ghosts, I am still afraid of them. Thus, it should not be too surprising to find out that, despite being an inveterate rationalist, I do enjoy playing with my Ouija board. Usually, not much comes of this activity, witty and intelligent conversation being as rare among the living as it is among the dead.

There has of late, however, been a fascinating exception. I have been in contact with someone who subscribes his missives to me from The Beyond as “Joseph Darlington, Esq., of Darlington Close, Horton-cum-Studley, Oxfordshire.” As of yet, I know little about him except that he is descended of a family with a long pedigree stretching back to the Conquest. He is a country squire who has served his time at Oxford, without taking a degree, followed by a stint at one of the Inns of Court for his obligatory training in the laws. In other words, he has exactly as much education as is seemly for a man of his social rank and no more. Mr. Darlington has desired me to post one of his letters, for the edification of my readers. I will do so, but with the caveat that he expresses some attitudes which are no longer acceptable today (vide his remarks on “wild savages”). There are two things I should make clear about this unusual correspondence. First, as you may judge from the date, Mr. Darlington writes to me from the eighteenth century. Second, and unusually for a Ouija board contact, Mr. Darlington is not yet dead. Thus, I seem to have opened a portal to the past. In any case, without more ado, here is the Hon. Joseph Darlington, Esquire.

* * *

March 9, 1755

I have of late been reading Mr. HUME on Miracles. This ingenious Gentleman defines a Miracle thus: “A Miracle,” says he, “is a Transgression of a Law of Nature by a particular Volition of the Deity, or by the Interposition of some invisible Agent.” Now, as much as this Description rings true, I am afraid that I must quibble with this great Author on a small Point. When the wild Savage performs his Rain Dance, and Rain follows, assuming that there is anything to this beyond bare Coincidence, we must call this a Miracle. And yet, no ironclad Law of Nature hath been broken, for Rain is no violation of Nature’s Laws, even were it to occur in a Desart. What is unusual about such an Event’s occurring lies rather in the Notion that Nature should listen to the barbarous Importunings and wild Gesturings of a naked Savage.

Therefore, I should rather define a Miracle thus: A Miracle is a publick Gesture of some supernatural Being, communicated through Nature to Man, or in Response to the Importuning of Man, the exemplary Character of which often, but not necessarily, requires some Law of Nature to be violated.

Livy gives us the story of the Brothers ROMULUS and REMUS at the Foundation of Rome. After some fraternal Falling-out about the situation of the new Foundation, they decided to settle the matter by Augury. Romulus set himself upon the Palatine Mount, while Remus took to the Aventine. They there awaited the augural Omens. Remus was the first to receive a Sign, spotting six Vultures in his Vicinity. This was followed by Romulus, who, from his Vantage, saw twelve. A fresh Dispute erupted between them, which amounted to this: Remus claimed the Victory by having received his Omen first. However, Romulus claimed the Victory by virtue of having sighted more Birds than his Brother. Put case: which Brother has the better Suit? First, note that the Flight of Birds is no violation of any Law of Nature. Second, it should be noted that, were it not for long established augural Custom, we shou’d even be unclear as to whether Birds are to be taken as an adverse Sign or a Sign Affirmatory. It any case, the Lesson to be learned is that a supernatural Gesture, in the form of a Miracle, must always be of ambivalent Signification, as Monsieur BAYLE hath well observ’d in his Miscellaneous Reflexions Occasion’d by a Comet.

One more example Should make this Point clear. In his Aeneis, Vergil has VENUS transform the Trojans’ ships into Sea Nymphs, in order to inspire her son Aeneas. Thus, the Trojans take it as a Sign of divine Favour. However, the Rutulian TURNUS sees it differently (I use here Mr. DRYDEN’s excellent Translation, IX.155-159):

These Monsters for the Trojans Fate are meant,
And are by
Jove for black Presages sent.
He takes the Cowards last Relief away...

Such a divine Gesture can have Meaning for us only if we already seek such a Meaning, and whatever Meaning we seek, we are bound to find in the Gesture or Miracle. If Turnus and his Men had been very afeard and doubtful of Victory, they might have seen the Event as a Sign in Aeneas’ favour and fled. In short, a Storm is but a Storm, unless it take place on the Eve of a great Battle, in which Case it is a Miracle. And even here it always Presages the Victory of the Victor, and the Vanquishing of the Vanquished.

Later in the same Book, Vergil gives us the words of NISUS, which make an apt Ending to this my Essay: Nisus ait: dine hunc ardorem mentibus addunt, Euryale, an sua cuique deus fit dira cupido,

Then Nisus, thus: Or do the Gods inspire
This warmth,
Euryalus, or make we Gods of our Desire?

I am, Sir,
your most humble,
most obedient Servant,

Jos. Darlington, Esq.
Darlington Close
Horton-cum-Studley, Oxfordshire

* * *

In a sense, Nisus and Mr. Darlington are correct. For example, I don’t know if the latter’s messages truly come to me from the past, or whether they are simply a figment of my overheated imagination. But whichever be the case, I shall communicate any further messages from my new acquaintance to my readers.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Tiger by the Tail

I just finished reading an old pamphlet called A Tiger by the Tail: The Keynesian Legacy of Inflation (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1972), by Friedrich Hayek, an interesting little collection of Hayek's writings on Keynesian economic policy. Interesting -- though dry -- reading in these times of financial bailouts and stimulus packages. I admit that I love reading Hayek, and am more or less a follower. I am, however, not an uncritical follower. His arguments often have a disarming surface plausibility, until you really stop to consider their implications.

Hayek argued that Keynesian policy was to inflate money wages while reducing real wages, through increases in the money supply. In other words, government policy is to satisfy workers by giving them the illusion that their wages are increasing. At the same time, government spending policy creates "full" employment (by reducing real wages).

For their part, trade unions have a hand in this pernicious process, making wages downwardly rigid by locking in relative wage differentials in the name of "social justice".

Hayek's preference was to dismantle this whole system and let wages float up or down according to the prevailing demand for different skills, etc. This would mean no longer trying to preserve a relative wage differential between different occupations; some wages would rise while others fall.

Sounds reasonable, yes? No. At least not in a modern knowledge economy. Hayek always seems to have in mind unskilled labourers, who can move from occupation to occupation as demand requires. However, with highly skilled labour, there is a sunk cost effect: If I have spent many years and much money training for a particular occupation, I cannot so easily pick up, move on, and retrain at the drop of a hat. As importantly, I cannot be expected to do so cheerfully, and without a sense of grievance. Granted, this last is a political consideration rather than an economic one. But it is one based on human nature, and policy makers and economists ignore human nature at their peril.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

25 Things About Me

Not too long ago there was a viral chain letter-type thing floating around on Facebook asking the recipient to post twenty-five facts about themselves which their friends might not know about. I thought that the best way to break the ice in my new blog would be to make my list of twenty-five things the first post on this, my new blog. Here it is:

1. I consider myself to have invented the following (at least in my head): stuffed crust pizza, Barbie doll tattoos, Hallmark insult cards, and butter that stays as soft as margarine in winter.

2. I dislike our culture’s demand for open-mouthed smiling, especially in photographs (unless it’s absolutely and unmistakably spontaneous). I feel that there’s something vulgar about it, and I don’t like being pressured into it.

3. I’m suspicious of tofu and Buddhism.

4. I love the smell of gasoline.

5. When I was a kid, I thought I was fat.

6. When I was a little older, I thought I was too skinny.

7. Now I think my weight is alright, but I’m a little too lumpy.

8. When I was a kid, I thought that old films were in black and white because everything was in black and white in olden times. I also thought that people walked really fast back then too. I also thought that babies came from women who got wet while kissing (i.e. if a women was kissed near a swimming pool and she got splashed, she’d become pregnant).

9. I like moustaches – there’s something honest about them. But I’d never wear one myself.

10. I distrust microwave ovens. I have a theory that they bombard microbes with microwaves, randomly mutating their genes, breeding unknown species of super microbes by speeding up their evolution.

11. I never walk up disabled ramps or use elevators instead of escalators. Doing so is bad karma and will put me in danger of becoming disabled myself some day.

12. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m still scared of them.

13. I don’t believe in astrology, and yet I still feel that knowing someone’s sign is somehow informative.

14. I’m not nearly as cynical as most people who know me probably think I am.

15. A few times I have had occasion to wear women’s clothing – strictly for comedy-related purposes. However, I did not entirely dislike the experience of wearing a dress.

16. I dislike eating with my hands. I believe that the fork was a real technological advance, much superior to chopsticks.

17. I dislike coming into physical contact with greasy things; I especially hate it when my face feels greasy. However, I love eating ribs, which causes inner conflict.

18. I sometimes watch my wife sleep. She’s very cute when she sleeps.

19. If I could pick another time to be alive, I would like to experience living in London, around the year 1711.

20. I believe that civilization as we know it is doomed, for various reasons. But I’m past the point in my life where this fact bothers me very much.

21. I love the smell of the air in the early morning. It’s almost worth getting out of bed early for.

22. Some people have an inner child they need to let out. I have an inner fascist I need to keep in.

23. I am fascinated by objects from forgotten regimes (e.g. Nazi currency) or that are representative of attitudes that are no longer accepted (e.g. I own a copy of the book Little Black Sambo). I think we sometimes need to be reminded of these things.

24. One of the smartest people I’ve ever met was also one of the least educated. I have a PhD and yet I have little respect for formal education.

25. I secretly like George Michael’s music.