Saturday, December 23, 2006

George P. Marsh, The Earth As Modified By Human Action (1864)

The apophthegm, "the world is governed too much," though unhappily too truly spoken of many countries--and perhaps, in some aspects, true of all--has done much mischief whenever it has been too unconditionally accepted as a political axiom. The popular apprehension of being over-governed, and, I am afraid, more emphatically the fear of being over-taxed, has had much to do with the general abandonment of certain governmental duties by the ruling powers of most modern states.

It is theoretically the duty of government to provide all those public facilities of intercommunication and commerce, which are essential to the prosperity of civilized commonwealths, but which individual means are inadequate to furnish, and for the due administration of which individual guarantees are insufficient. Hence public roads, canals, railroads, postal communications, the circulating medium of exchange whether metallic or representative, armies, navies, being all matters in which the nation at large has a vastly deeper interest than any private association can have, ought legitimately to be constructed and provided only by that which is the visible personification and embodiment of the nation, namely, its legislative head.

No doubt the organization and management of those insitutions by government are liable, as are all things human, to great abuses. The multiplication of public placeholders, which they imply, is a serious evil. But the corruption thus engendered, foul as it is, does not strike so deep as the rottenness of private corporations; and official rank, position, and duty have, in practice, proved better securities for fidelity and pecuniary integrity in the conduct of the interests in question, than the suretyships of private corporate agents, whose bondsmen so often fail or abscond before their principal is detected....

The example of the American States shows that private corporations--whose rule of action is the interest of the association, not the conscience of the individual--though composed of ultra-democratic elements, may become most dangerous enemies to rational liberty, to the moral interests of the commonwealth, to the purity of legislation and of judicial action, and to the sacredness of private rights.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Peig Sayers, An Old Woman’s Reflections (1936)

I am now at tight grips with the years and many a thing I saw. Everything I was interested in I didn’t let it astray. Someone else will have pastime out of my work when I’m gone on the way of truth. A person here and a person there will say, maybe, “Who was that old Peig Sayers,” but poor Peig will be the length of their shout from them. This green bench where she used to do the studying will be a domicile for the birds of the wilderness, and the little house where she used to eat and drink, it’s unlikely there’ll be a trace of it there.

These thoughts appearing in my heart today are lonely. They are not pleasant for me but I can’t help them. Here they are towards me in their thousands; they are like soldiers. As I scatter them, they come together again. It’s no good for me to be at them. They have beaten me. My blessing and the blessing of God on Youth; and my advice to everyone is to borrow from this life, because a spool is no faster turning than it.

Georg Simmel, "The Metropolis and Mental Life" (1903)

[O]ne must meet the difficulty of asserting his own personality within the dimensions of metropolitan life. Where the quantitative increase in importance and the expense of energy reach their limits, one seizes upon qualitative differentiation in order somehow to attract the attention of the social circle by playing upon its sensitivity for differences. Finally, man is tempted to adopt the most tendentious peculiarities, that is, the specifically metropolitan extravagances of mannerism, caprice, and preciousness. Now, the meaning of these extravagances does not at all lie in the contents of such behavior, but rather in its form of "being different," of standing out in a striking manner and thereby attracting attention. For many character types, ultimately the only means of saving for themselves some modicum of self-esteem and the sense of filling a position is indirect, through the awareness of others.

In the same sense a seemingly insignificant factor is operating, the cumulative effects of which are, however, still noticeable. I refer to the brevity and scarcity of the inter-human contacts granted to the metropolitan man, as compared with social intercourse in the small town. The temptation to appear "to the point," to appear concentrated and strikingly characteristic, lies much closer to the individual in brief metropolitan contacts than in an atmosphere in which frequent and prolonged association assures the personality of an unambiguous image of himself in the eyes of the other.

Elsie C. Parsons, Fear and Conventionality (1914)

Steadfast in their functions, the gods are credited too with steadfast views or convictions. They are invariably conservatives. They may be given the privilege of an occasional change of heart or of temper, but their mind they may not change. Hence comformity with their unyielding opinions is judged pleasing to them and they are expected to feel aggrieved or dishonored by non-conformity. Their habits being fixed, they are very susceptible to insult and have a very nice sense of the honor due them.

Many other human traits besides the desire to be imitated or agreed with or considered are ascribed, we know, to the gods. The more they resemble their worshippers, the more sympathetic and accessible they appear. Hence even nature or animal gods are likely to become anthropomorphized, and gods of all kinds tend to be assimilated in one way or another with their priests. But because of this very humanizing of the gods, there is always a certain amount of danger in dealing with them. They may be superhumanly conservative, but their temper is human enough to be uncertain.

Terry Eagleton, Holy Terror (2005)

Human law has both a kindly and an intimidatory face. This is not a contradiction it can escape, since it must resort to force to protect the powerless who take shelter beneath it. Even so, it is a contradiction which threatens to strip the law of the credibility and free assent it needs in order to be effective, since our minds are not easily adapted to a power which is at once daunting and benign. If the law has an angelic presence, it also has a Satanic one. This would then seem true of God as well, whom we are expected both to love and fear. Yet the parallel is deceptive, for what is most fearful about God is his love. God is a shattering, traumatic, sweetly intolerable force who breaks and remakes human subjects by offering them something of his own frighteningly unconditional friendship. Fearing God does not mean being scared witless by his implacable wrath but respecting his law, which is the law of justice and compassion.

Rainer Maria Rilke, “Worpswede” (1902)

With human beings, we are in the habit of learning much from their hands and everything from their faces, on which, as on a dial, the hours are visible that cradle and carry their souls. But landscape is without hands and has no face - or rather it is all face and has a terrible and dispiriting effect on man….

For let it be confessed: landscape is foreign to us, and we are fearfully alone amongst trees that blossom and by streams that flow. Alone with a corpse one is not nearly so defenceless as when alone with trees. For however mysterious death may be, life that is not our life is far more mysterious, life that is not concerned with us, and which, without seeing us, celebrates its festivals, as it were, at which we look on with a certain embarrassment, like chance guests who speak another language.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Henry Corbin, "Cyclical Time in Mazdaism and Ismailism" (1951)

Our author makes it clear that there can be beings who, although they have in appearance come into this world, since they are there, have in fact never come into it. Inversely - and here the analysis becomes most striking - there are men whom we can visually discern to have left this world. They are dead, they are no longer there. We say: "They have departed." No, actually they have never left this world and will never leave it. For to leave this world it does not suffice to die. One can die and remain in it forever. One must be living to leave it. Or rather, to be living is just this.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Caroline Walker Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity (2001)

We must rear a new generation of students who will gaze in wonder at texts and artifacts, quick to puzzle over a translation, slow to project or to appropriate, quick to assume there is a significance, slow to generalize about it. Not only as scholars, then, but also as teachers, we must astonish and be astonished. For the flat, generalizing, presentist view of the past encapsulates it and makes it boring, whereas amazement yearns toward an understanding, a significance, that is always just a little beyond both our theories and our fears.

Every view of things that is not wonderful is false.

Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power (1997)

The insistence that a subject is passionately attached to his or her own subordination has been invoked cynically by those who seek to debunk the claims of the subordinated. If a subject can be shown to pursue or sustain his or her subordinated status, the reasoning goes, then perhaps final responsibility for that subordination resides with the subject. Over and against this view, I would maintain that the attachment to subjection is produced through the workings of power, and that part of the operation of power is made clear in this psychic effect, one of the most insidious of its productions.

Titus Burckhardt, "Contra Teilhard de Chardin" (1969)

The average modern man "believes" above all in science - the science that has produced modern surgery and modern industry - and this is almost his basic "religion." If he considers himself a Christian at the same time, the two "beliefs" stand in opposition to each other in his soul, and engender a latent crisis that calls for a solution. This solution is what Teilhard de Chardin seems to bring. He "ties the two loose ends together"; but he does so, not by making, as he should, a distinction between different planes of reality - that of empirical knowledge which is exact in its way but necessarily fragmentary and provisional, and that of faith which is bound up with timeless certainties - but by mixing them inextricably together: he endows empirical science with an absolute certainty that it does not and cannot have, and he projects the idea of indefinite progress into God Himself.

Friday, May 13, 2005

William of Ockham, In Libros Sententiarum (circa 1317)

As for the claim that there are two kinds of science, one of which proceeds from principles that are known per se by the light of a higher science, I reply that even though this is true of a subordinate science, still, no given individual ever has evident knowledge of the relevant conclusions unless he knows them either through experience or through premises that he has evident cognition of. Hence, it is absurd to claim that I have scientific knowledge with respect to this or that conclusion by reason of the fact that you know principles which I accept on faith because you tell them to me. And, in the same way, it is silly to claim that I have scientific knowledge of the conclusions of theology by reason of the fact that God knows principles which I accept on faith because he reveals them.

Georges Bernanos, The European Spirit and the World of Machines (1946)

There is no instinct in man which cannot be turned against man and be made to destroy him. The instinct for justice, on the other hand, is perhaps the most destructive of all. Passing from reason to instinct, man in his concept of justice acquires a prodigious capacity for destruction. The instinct for justice isn't really justice any more than the sexual instinct is really love; it isn't even the desire for justice, but rather a savage lust, one of the most powerful forms that man's hatred of himself takes. The instinct for justice, when equipped with all the resources of technology, is capable of laying waste to the earth itself.

Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (1946)

Deprived of its rational foundation, the democratic principle becomes exclusively dependent upon the so-called interests of the people, and these are functions of blind or all too conscious economic forces. They do not offer any guarantee against tyranny. In the period of the free market system, for instance, institutions based on the idea of human rights were accepted by many people as a good instrument for controlling the government and maintaining peace. But if the situation changes, if powerful economic groups find it useful to set up a dictatorship and abolish majority rule, no objection founded on reason can be opposed to their action. If they have a real chance of success, they would simply be foolish not to take it. The only consideration that could prevent them from doing so would be the possibility that their own interests would be endangered, and not concern over violation of a truth, of reason. Once the philosophical foundation of democracy has collapsed, the statement that dictatorship is bad is rationally valid only for those who are not its beneficiaries, and there is no theoretical obstacle to the transformation of this statement into its opposite.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Laurence Sterne, Philanthropy Recommended (circa 1768)

Look into the world - how often do you behold a sordid wretch, whose straight heart is open to no man's affliction, taking shelter behind an appearance of piety, and putting on the garb of religion, which none but the merciful and compassionate have a title to wear. Take notice with what sanctity he goes to the end of his days, in the same selfish track in which he at first set out - turning neither to the right hand nor to the left - but plods on - pores all his life long upon the ground, as if afraid to look up, lest peradventure he should see aught which might turn him one moment out of that straight line where interest is carrying him....

Lord Dunsany, The Food of Death (1917)

Death was sick. But they brought him bread that the modern bakers make, whitened with alum, and the tinned meats of Chicago, with a pinch of our modern substitute for salt. They carried him into the dining-room of a great hotel (in that close atmosphere Death breathed more freely), and there they gave him their cheap Indian tea. They brought him a bottle of wine that they called champagne. Death drank it up. They bought a newspaper and looked up the patent medicines; they gave him the foods that it recommended for invalids, and a little medicine as prescribed in the paper. They gave him some milk and borax, such as children drink in England.

Death arose ravening, strong, and strode again through the cities.

W.H. Hudson, Far Away and Long Ago (1918)

Nature could charm, she could enchant me, and her wordless messages to my soul were to me sweeter than honey and the honeycomb, but she could not take the sting and victory from death, and I had perforce to go elsewhere for consolation. Yet even so, in my worst days, my darkest years, when occupied with the laborious business of working out my own salvation with fear and trembling, with that spectre of death always following me, even so I could not rid my mind of its old passion and delight. The rising and setting sun, the sight of a lucid blue sky after cloud and rain, the long unheard familiar call-note of some newly-returned migrant, the first sight of some flower in spring, would bring back the old emotion and would be like a sudden ray of sunlight in a dark place -- a momentary intense joy, to be succeeded by ineffable pain. Then there were times when these two opposite feelings mingled and would be together in my mind for hours at a time, and this occurred oftenest during the autumnal migration, when the great wave of bird-life set northwards, and all through March and April the birds were visible in flock succeeding flock from dawn to dark, until the summer visitants were all gone, to be succeeded in May by the birds from the far south, flying from the Antarctic winter.

This annual spectacle had always been a moving one, but the feeling it now produced -- this mingled feeling -- was most powerful on still moonlight nights, when I would sit or lie on my bed gazing out on the prospect, earth and sky, in its changed mysterious aspect. And, lying there, I would listen by the hour to the three-syllable call-note of the upland or solitary plover, as the birds went past, each bird alone far up in the dim sky, winging his way to the north. It was a strange vigil I kept, stirred by strange thoughts and feelings, in that moonlit earth that was strange too, albeit familiar, for never before had the sense of the supernatural in Nature been stronger.

John Cowper Powys, The War and Culture (1914)

There is industrial immorality, and there is military immorality, just as there is industrial heroism and military heroism. Human nature remains human nature - that strange agglomeration of devotion and depravity, of animal lusts and saintly ascetism - and it seems as though it were destined to retain this paradoxical character to the end of its history. But meanwhile the conditions under which the inevitable "struggle for existence" rages are bound materially to change. Perfect human felicity is doubtless a pathetic illusion, but there is no reason why certain obvious abuses, certain obvious results of insane mismanagement, should not be removed. This is not idealism. It is common sense. War under modern conditions is such an abuse, such a piece of pure insanity; and to put an end to war were not to outrage the laws of nature by a stroke of monstrous ideality, it were simply to give a new direction to these laws by the use of common intelligence.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Edmund Gosse, Father and Son (1907)

Let me speak plainly. After my long experience, after my patience and forbearance, I have surely the right to protest against the untruth (would that I could apply to it any other word!) that evangelical religion, or any religion in a violent form, is a wholesome or valuable or desirable adjunct to human life. It divides heart from heart. It sets up a vain, chimerical ideal, in the barren pursuit of which all the tender, indulgent affections, all the genial play of life, all the exquisite pleasures and soft resignations of the body, all that enlarges and calms the soul are exchanged for what is harsh and void and negative. It encourages a stern and ignorant spirit of condemnation; it throws altogether out of gear the healthy movement of the conscience; it invents virtues which are sterile and cruel; it invents sins which are no sins at all, but which darken the heaven of innocent joy with futile clouds of remorse. There is something horrible, if we will bring ourselves to face it, in the fanaticism that can do nothing with this pathetic and fugitive existence of ours but treat it as if it were the uncomfortable ante-chamber to a palace which no one has explored and of the plan of which we know absolutely nothing.