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Typing in the Morning

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So, yesterday, I actually wasn’t using a random title for a post.  I was thinking about writing about personification, which was a staple technique in writing in the late antiquity and the Middle Ages, but that sort of disappeared over time.

Personification was the use of dialogue for things like philosophical treatises, in which various qualities–Fortune, say, or Philosophy “herself”–would be presented as a character and speak to the author.

This is the way Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy is written. It procedes as a dialogue between Boethius himself and Philosophy, who is a woman, and the whole thing is interspersed with poetry, sort of like the way, in a musical, the cast will suddenly break out into song.

There are some things I value greatly about the Middle Ages, and some things I think have been badly misrepresented and dismissed without a hearing, but this is not one of them.

I find this technique distracting and annoying, and I’m not sure why it was ever popular.  In Medieval morality plays, the personification of virtues and vices as designed primarily to make a theological message more palatable (and easier to understand) for a largely illiterate audience.

I can’t imagine that illiterate people would have listened to a dramatizaion of The Consolation of Philosophy, or any of the other half dozen or so serious investigations of the nature of life and fortune that take this form in this extended period.

If anything, I find the form making it more difficult to understand what is being said and more difficult still to retain it, so that confident pronouncements on things I don’t agree with at all–say, that if you have good fortune but later that fortune changes to bad, then there was no point in actively pursuing the good fortune to begin with–sort of zipping by before I’ve realized what they meant.

I’ve never really understood the idea that everything is useless and futile unless it lasts forever.   I am, I think, definitely with the better-to-have-loved-and-lost people. 

I was trying to explain this to my younger son the other day.   I went to New York to be a writer, and it worked out.  But even if it hadn’t, I had a good time there, I learned a lot I didn’t know before, I met Bill and got married and had children.   The ride would have been worth it even if the goal hadn’t worked out.

Still, that idea–that what does not last, what fails in any way, is utterly worthless–pervades the thinking in classical Athens, and in Rome, and in the Middle Ages. 

Part of it may be simply the change in sensibility.  As late as the American Revolution, people still thought of death as something that could come at any time.  In the eras before that, all kinds of changes in fortune–loss of property as well as loss of life, loss of freedom due to being conquered by an enemy neighbor–seemed to happen more frequently and with less warning than they do now.

Aristotle said that we should “count no man happy until he is dead,” and I always thought that would make a good quote for the section heading of a Gregor.

I also think it’s a crock.

But as for Sam Harris and his book about morality–well, it’s published by Free Press, and I’ve got people at Free Press, so we’ll know in a few days.

In anticipation, I’m not worried that it will be utilitarianism.  In fact, I largely expect it to be.

But the problem with utilitarianism for me is in its assumptions.  “The greatest good for the greatest number.”  Well, okay.  Define “good,” and then tell me why it’s good. 

Or, for that matter, why I should care.

I have to commend Harris on having figured out that the assertion of relativism won’t get him where he wants to go, and on having made the attempt.

But I do worry that this book is going to be much like Paul Kurtz’s Forbidden Fruit,  so that Harris starts out with a laundry list of things he already finds to be morally right and then tries to plaster proofs all over them–rather the way Medieval theologians began with the assumption that God exists and then threw the kitchen sink at the problem in order to “prove” what they already thought they knew.

I think it would be interesting if, sometime, somebody would approach this project–finding a secular foundation for morality–the right way around. 

I mean if they’d just start with the raw evidence and not with a set of rules they already want to see installed as “moral.” 

For a moment, at the beginning of the Kurtz book, I had hopes that he was going to do it.  But, in no time at all, the search for “common human decencies” that every society everywhere had acknowledged broke down in the face of those very same near-universal moral precepts–the adamant rejection of homosexuality and what we the rights of women; the near-universal rejection of abortion; the absolutely universal assumption of a double standard of sexual behavior between men and women.

In the examination of that kind of thing, I actually got more out of Steven Pinker’s Blank Slate than I have ever yet out of any modern philosopher.

But, like I said, let’s see.  There’s no point beating up on Harris before I’ve read the book, and I don’t really trust that reviewer to tell me what’s in it. 

That said, I have a pile of mystery novels (Christie and Grimes) and an almost bigger pile of Poirot, Marple and Perry Mason DVDs for the week-end.

I’m going to do that first.

Written by janeh

October 22nd, 2010 at 5:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Typing in the Morning'

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  1. I always thought that ‘count no man happy until he is dead’ thing meant that ‘Who knows what terrible thing might happen to you in the future? Once you’re dead, none of the ones you have missed can possibly be lying in wait for you.’

    Maybe I just have a pessimistic nature.

    I do try to follow all that good advice about living in the day etc (and incidentally not worrying about the innumerable and mutually contradictory things that MIGHT happen tomorrow), and when I can do it, I like it. I think I’m getting better at it.

    I don’t think only things that last forever are of value, but I used to hate the ‘Don’t worry, it’ll all be the same in a hundred years’ kind of advice. Now I find it a bit consoling.

    I’ve just finished ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, and I adapted to the style quite quickly, and enjoyed it. I don’t know why it took me so long to read that. I read the original – most of the people in the group for which I read it chose a modern English translation. Yes, there are such things.

    Now I’m trying to finish a biography of Niebuhr. Maybe I’ll try Boethius next, but I have such a pile of books to read, including fiction, that there aren’t enough hours in the day to get to all of them.


    22 Oct 10 at 6:56 am

  2. I think Jane left out something where she said “the rights of women”. The sentence does not read well.

    But when did men acquire rights? Did the peasants in ancient Egypt or Assyria have rights?


    22 Oct 10 at 3:29 pm

  3. Oh, dear–my day to be Pessimist in Residence again.

    First, I don’t think “Philosophy” CAN define the good–or the moral. We can do “shovel” or “blue” by consensus, with a little argument at the fringes, or “Hydrogen” arbitrarily but scientifically. But a consensus “good” would not be binding, an arbitrary “good” is an abdication of reason, and saying “that is moral which does thus and so” just kicks the problem along.

    As for the change in sensibility–well, mostly I agree, as long as we keep in mind that it’s a temporary condition. We can educate ourselves out of crop-failure famines and mitigate hurricanes and earthquakes, but most of the damage we do ourselves. It comes from how we think, and we mostly haven’t and maybe can’t change that. Given we haven’t, then having the coin turn up heads five times running doesn’t mean you’ve fixed the coin.

    Wait long enough, and our rural places will be plagued by bandits, and our cities burned. The conquerors will stride through our communities, killing or enslaving the men, raping or wiving the women, and bashing babies’ heads against a wall if their cries grow annoying.

    Keeping aware of the prospect helps keep it off a little. Saying “things are different now” helps bring it closer. Always remember the words of that veteran seaman, Captain Edward John Smith: “I will say that I cannot imagine any condition which could cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”

    Five years later, he would take the TITANIC on its maiden voyage.


    22 Oct 10 at 5:29 pm

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