Archive for February, 2012

Mr. Mom’s Kitchen-Cam

February 29, 2012

Nobody ever said this was going to be easy:

Novak: Belief and Unbelief

February 28, 2012

Belief and Unbelief
A Philosophy of Self-Knowledge
Michael Novak
(Mentor-Omega, 1965)
189 p.

Novak, addressing the problem of belief in God in the modern world, recommends as the surest and most authentic approach the way of self-knowledge. Reflecting on the experience of the conscious self, and particularly on “first awareness”, insight, reflective judgement, and the desire to understand, he finds that these faculties point to the existence of a God who remains, however, ultimately unknowable. His philosophical approach, which he calls “intelligent subjectivity”, starts from his own experience as a subject and reaches toward God as subject.

He is quite forthright in his insistence that, at bottom, the interior experience of the authentic believer and the authentic unbeliever are quite similar. God is hidden from both. At times he seems too eager to affirm the aridity and darkness of the true believer’s spiritual life, as if trying to prove his credentials as an anguished modern. He appears determined to strip away every inadequate conception of God (that is, every concept of God) and every hint of conventional piety.

The argument pursued in the book is specifically philosophical, proceeding from general considerations without reference to religious doctrine (though he does, toward the end, relate his own conclusions to the Catholic tradition of thought on the subject). The philosophical content is quite rich — Novak states that the basic philosophic duty is not “Construct a consistent system”, but rather “Know thyself”, and his discussion is correspondingly concrete and personal. His conception of reason is larger than calculative reason, close in spirit to the classical tradition and, more overtly, to modern existentialism.

His decision to proceed philosophically from self-knowledge has its strengths and weaknesses. His guiding principle is fidelity to conscience and self. He rightly recognizes that our experience of ourselves as beings, knowers, thinkers, and willers is prior to any particular knowledge, thought, desire, or act. As Augustine says, one can be very certain about one’s own subjective experience, more certain in many cases than one can be about external facts. It follows that any alleged fact that challenges the veracity or intelligibility of one’s subjective experience challenges, in a peculiar way, the very ground on which it rests. “There is no other knowledge prior to self-awareness by which self-awareness can be criticized.” This does not mean, of course, that self-deception is impossible, but that certain profound aspects of experience are invulnerable to radical doubt.

On the other hand, from a religious point of view his method has defects. Highly personal in its content, there is difficulty relating his project to human community, to history, to theological dogma, or to anything that has its origin outside the self. In particular, it is not clear how the Church, the person of Christ, etc. enter his considerations. The book was published in 1965, which was the silly season for Catholic theology, and though in the intervening years Novak has been a fairly prominent and fairly sensible Catholic intellectual in the United States, in this book he seems too willing to cut himself loose from history and revelation.

Me + kids

February 27, 2012

Today I begin an extended period of paternity leave. I’ll be spending each and every day in the company of our two little angels. Although I have little experience looking after both of them on my own, I think I have a pretty good idea of what to expect:

This is going to be great!

Herodotus: The Histories

February 24, 2012

The Histories
(Pantheon, 2007) [c.380 BC]
Edited by Robert B. Strassler
Translated from the Greek by Andrea L. Purvis
1024 p.

I am not going to try to say very much about Herodotus’ history of the Greco-Persian wars; it is too great a work to benefit from anything that I may say about it. I took it up in an attempt to plug one of the many large gaps in my education, and I am very glad that I did.

My main interest at the beginning was in the confrontation between the Persian empire and the Greek city states, most notably at the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae, but of course I got more than I bargained for. Not only did my understanding of the military history improve — I learned, for instance, about the battles of Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale, which were decisive for the Greek victory — but Herodotus fills out the background by exploring the roots of the conflict, tracing the rise of the Persian empire and its wars of conquest against other nations before culminating in the unsuccessful attack upon Greece.

When Herodotus was writing there was no established genre of historical writing to provide delimiting conventions as to what he could legitimately include, so he roams all over the map, generically as well as geographically: mixed in with (what we call) history we also find (what we call) anthropology, mythology, and geography. His long discussion of the geography and social customs of Egypt is especially interesting. He sprinkles the story with amusing (and sometimes ghastly) tales about the vanity and folly of kings, and reports, with a certain bemusement, the peculiar customs of the those living in the far-flung corners of the world. It’s a very rich text, full of fascinating characters and entertaining tales.

The edition of The Histories which I read deserves special praise. It is called The Landmark Herodotus, and was edited by Robert B. Strassler. The title works as a pun, for it is both a landmark edition, in the sense of being a big and very beautiful book, but it is also an edition that provides the reader with landmarks: Herodotus’ text is supplemented by over 100 full-page maps marked with the places named in the text. There are a lot of such names on every page of The Histories, and being able to glance quickly at a map immeasurably improved my comprehension of the narrative. Strassler has also provided brief marginal notes for each paragraph, including the date, location, and a brief summary of the action of that section. This is incredibly helpful because Herodotus jumps around frequently, in both time and space. There are also a couple of dozen appendices elaborating on various questions that might arise for the reader (“Hoplite Warfare in Herodotus” and “Classical Greek Religious Festivals” are two examples). Add to this an excellent introduction, an elaborate outline, a superb index, and a well-laid out, eye-pleasing page design, and this edition looks indispensable. Personally I cannot imagine wanting another.

More neutrino news

February 23, 2012

We’ve been following ongoing developments in the allegedly-faster-than-light neutrinos story from CERN. Vince very kindly left a comment pointing out that there is fresh news today:

ScienceInsider […] said “sources familiar with the experiment” are now blaming the original result on a fibre optic cable connecting a GPS receiver to an electronic card in a computer. The GPS is one of the devices used in the measurement of the neutrino’s travel time. The cable connection appeared to have been loose, and tightening it shortened data travel times by 60 nanoseconds.

“Since this time is subtracted from the overall time of flight, it appears to explain the early arrival of the neutrinos,” the article said. “New data, however, will be needed to confirm this hypothesis.”

The original timing was off expectations by about 60 ns, so this might well resolve the issue. However, a CERN press release from earlier today reveals that the situation may be slightly more complicated:

The OPERA collaboration has informed its funding agencies and host laboratories that it has identified two possible effects that could have an influence on its neutrino timing measurement. These both require further tests with a short pulsed beam. If confirmed, one would increase the size of the measured effect, the other would diminish it. The first possible effect concerns an oscillator used to provide the time stamps for GPS synchronizations. It could have led to an overestimate of the neutrino’s time of flight. The second concerns the optical fibre connector that brings the external GPS signal to the OPERA master clock, which may not have been functioning correctly when the measurements were taken. If this is the case, it could have led to an underestimate of the time of flight of the neutrinos. The potential extent of these two effects is being studied by the OPERA collaboration. New measurements with short pulsed beams are scheduled for May.

So there are really two potential issues contributing to the timing problems, only one of which pushes the result in the right direction. Obviously we’ll have to wait until the experiments are done to know how it turns out. In the meantime we can sit around wondering why science journalists are only reporting on one of the two sources of error.

Barron: Catholicism

February 23, 2012

A Journey to the Heart of the Faith

Fr. Robert Barron
(Image, 2011)
291 p.

Fr. Robert Barron is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago who is fairly well-known on account of several interesting projects with which he is involved. He has a popular YouTube channel to which he posts short videos addressing topics of contemporary interest (from Bob Dylan to Christopher Hitchens). These videos show Fr. Barron to be a man of many gifts: he is intelligent, engaging, temperate, and winsome. He is able to present ideas in an accessible manner without being condescending. I would be willing to bet that he is a terrific preacher.

More recently, Fr. Barron has completed a major media project: Catholicism is a ten-part documentary about the faith. I have not seen it, but I hear that it is excellent. He travelled around the world, filming on location at important Catholic sites like Rome, Jerusalem (where, by a happy coincidence, my wife and I encountered him), Lourdes, Calcutta, and so forth. And while it would not be quite true to say that the book under discussion here is a “companion volume” to the film — it includes no references, so far as I recall, to marketing material for the film, and is sold separately — I expect it is fair to say that the two are cousins. Fr. Barron remarks that he wrote the book while planning the documentary, and I would not be at all surprised if there were a certain kinship of structure and content between them. Having finished the book, I’d like to see the films.

What Fr. Barron gives us in this book is an overview of the shape of Catholic theology and devotional life. Very briefly: he begins where all of Christian faith begins, with revelation; he presents Jesus, principally through the brief but potent text of the Sermon on the Mount; he explores the mystery of God, with a brief excursus on the problem of evil; then he turns to the Blessed Virgin, the Apostles, the Church itself, and the Sacraments. And then, because the purpose of the Church is to make saints, he gives us portraits of four saintly women: Katharine Drexel, Therese de Lisieux, Edith Stein, and Mother Teresa. The final chapters of the book are about Catholic prayer and devotions, and the Last Things. It is a well-structured plan that covers most of the main topics one would expect from a book of this sort.

Sprinkled throughout the book are photographs of Catholic churches and sacred art from around the world. These images are rarely referenced in the text, and are intended, I believe, to serve as a kind of parallel “text”, turning the reader’s mind, again and again, to the beauty of the faith. This is an approach I applaud, but regrettably the somewhat grainy, greyscale reproductions rarely do justice to their objects. I expect that this aspect of Catholicism — the sheer joyous heavenly beauty of it — comes through better on film.

As a basic introduction to and overview of Catholicism, I cannot think, off the top of my head, of a book I would prefer to this one. It compares well with Ronald Knox’s The Belief of Catholics and Josef Pieper’s What Catholics Believe. For the serious inquirer I would obviously recommend the Catechism, but a book like this could be a gateway to greater things. The book would obviously be of interest to Catholics wanting to broaden or refresh their understanding of the faith, but the book is not polemical and could likely be read for pleasure and profit by non-Catholic Christians or by non-believers who want to know more about the true religion.


[Et in terra pax]
The Incarnation tells central truths concerning both God and us. If God became human without ceasing to be God and without compromising the integrity of the creature that he became, God must not be a competitor with his creation. In many of the ancient myths and legends, divine figures such as Zeus or Dionysus enter into human affairs only through aggression, destroying or wounding that which they invade. And in many of the philosophies of modernity God is construed as a threat to human well-being. In their own ways, Marx, Freud, Feuerbach, and Sartre all maintain that God must be eliminated if humans are to be fully themselves. But there is none of this in the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. The Word does indeed become human, but nothing of the human is destroyed in the process; God does indeed enter into his creation, but the world is thereby enhanced and elevated. The God capable of incarnation is not a competitive supreme being but rather, in the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the sheer act of being itself, that which grounds and sustains all of creation, the way a singer sustains a song.

[God and creatures]
Creatures do not so much have a relationship to God; they are a relationship to God. Nothing in a creature exists independently of, or prior to, God’s creative act, and hence no creature stands, as it were, over and against God, simply in a relationship to God. Instead every aspect of a creature’s being is already constituted by God’s creative will. This is why Meister Eckhart, the great medieval mystic, could say that the best metaphor for the spiritual life is not so much the climbing of a holy mountain in order to get to a distant God, but rather the “sinking into” God.

Ash Wednesday, 2012

February 22, 2012

Allegri’s Miserere, sung by The Sixteen.

Winchester: The Meaning of Everything

February 21, 2012

The Meaning of Everything
The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary
Simon Winchester
(Oxford, 2003)
288 p.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “fan” in this way:

A fanatic; in mod.E. (orig. U.S.): a keen and regular spectator of a (professional) sport, orig. of baseball; a regular supporter of a (professional) sports team; hence, a keen follower of a specified hobby or amusement, and gen. an enthusiast for a particular person or thing.

As such — and especially in that last sense — it is fair to say that I am a “fan” of the Oxford English Dictionary. I consult it regularly, and often find myself lost in its fascinating etymologies. Most of all, I just like the idea of the Oxford English Dictionary: a book that has all the answers. In those pages, every word in the language has been described, and its history given, and there is something wonderful about that.

Of course, the OED itself has a history, and that is the subject of this book by Simon Winchester. He tells the story of how it came to be started, and how, despite the almost overwhelming magnitude of the task, it was slowly and steadily conquered by the dedication of thousands of volunteers and a small group of talented editors.

The idea of the OED was born in the British Philological Society in 1857. That Society resolved to publish a comprehensive dictionary of the language, a task that had, at that time, not been attempted for any living language. It was to be called A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. The idea, taking one side in a long-standing lexicographic dispute, was that the dictionary should be descriptive of the ways in which English words are actually used, rather than prescriptive of how they should be used, and the various usages were to be illustrated by quotations from works of English literature. The members of the Philological Society assumed it would take a few years to complete. Nobody, in those early days, had any idea how immense the job would turn out to be.

The gathering of quotations was immediately recognized as too difficult for any small group to complete, so it was decided to solicit the help of the reading public. People were encouraged to read books — especially old books, in order to cast a net into the waters of obsolete words and usages — and, when an interesting word was encountered, to write it down, with the sentence in which it appeared, and send it to the editors. Thousands answered the summons, and the words began to pile up. Unfortunately, the first few editors of the dictionary failed to get the project off the ground, and several decades passed without anything being published.

It was not until 1879, when James Murray was named editor, that the project really took off. Murray, a draper’s son without a university degree, was a brilliant philologist, and he had the organizational talent that the dictionary needed. Under his editorship, which lasted until his death in 1915, the dictionary went from being the disorganized dream of a group of word-enthusiasts to being praised as one of the greatest monuments of the English language, and one of the great lexicographic achievements of history. And so it remains today. The success of the dictionary is principally due to James Murray’s dedication and talent.

The dictionary — the first edition of the dictionary — was not completed until 1928, nearly 70 years after its inception. The last word to be completed was wyzen. (The volume containing words beginning with X, Y, and Z had been completed some years earlier. W words, on the other hand, none of which have Greek or Latin roots, were among the most difficult to complete.) In the end, the dictionary contained over 410000 words, illustrated by over 1.8 million quotations.

The word with the longest entry in the dictionary is, to my surprise, set, with over 400 distinguished usages.

Winchester’s book has given me a new appreciation for those who laboured to produce this great dictionary, and therefore, in a real way, it has increased my admiration for the dictionary itself.


[A Johnsonian anecdote]

Boswell: What would you say, Sir, if you were told that in a hundred years’ time a bigger and better dictionary than yours would be compiled by a Whig?

Johnson: Hmmm.

Boswell: A Dissenter?

Johnson: Hmph!

Boswell: A Scotsman?

Johnson: Sir —

Boswell: And that the University of Oxford would publish it?

Johnson: Sir, in order to be facetious it is not necessary to be indecent.

Drogin: Anathema!

February 20, 2012

Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses
Mark Drogin
(Allanheld & Schram, 1983)
157 p.

This book is a minor classic of medieval historiography, beloved (by those lucky enough to find a copy) for the genial manner in which it illuminates an interesting but little remarked aspect of medieval culture: the care and protection of books. We all know that books were handmade in the medieval period, and that they were both rare and valuable, but few of us, I would wager, know much about the scribes who copied books, nor about the measures they took to protect the work of their hands from damage. If you’ve ever wondered about such things, Drogin’s book is for you.

Book production in this period involved far more than just writing or copying the text. It was a laborious process from start to finish, from the preparation of the parchment from animal skins, to the writing, the illumination, and the binding. Happily for us, the making of books was considered a form of manual labour and was integrated, from an early date, into monastic life; books were therefore produced slowly, but steadily, throughout the medieval period, and of course we owe our current possession of many ancient writings to their labours.

When I have imagined a medieval scriptorium, I have tended to imagine a large room, well-lit, with monks seated at flat tables, much like a modern study hall, but according to Drogin this was not typical. Instead, copyists often sat on chairs in the monastery’s cloister, where they would have good light, and they leaned over tilted writing desks. If their testimony is anything to go on, this was a rather uncomfortable arrangement. One scribe, named Florencio, who copied a manuscript in about 945, added these remarks at the bottom of his last page:

He who knows not how to write thinks that writing is no labour, but be certain, and I assure you that it is true, it is a painful task. It extinguishes the light from the eyes, it bends the back, it crushes the viscera and the ribs, it brings forth pain to the kidneys, and weariness to the whole body. Therefore, O reader, turn ye the leaves with care, keep your fingers far from the text, for as a hail-storm devastates the fields, so does the careless reader destroy the script and the book. Know ye how sweet to the sailor is arrival at port? Even so for the copyist in tracing the last line.

His remarks were not atypical. A scribal tradition developed whereby a scribe, having completed his work, was able to append some personal thoughts to the text in a section that came to be called the explicit. In the beginning, the explicit simply recorded the work’s title (yes, at the end, oddly enough), the name of the place at which it had been copied, and the name of the scribe, but in time it became a kind of scribal graffiti zone wherein the scribe, having so long cloaked himself in the words of another, could finally step forward with a word or two of his own: perhaps a complaint, or a prayer, or even a joke.

It is hard today to assess, and maybe even harder to imagine, how valuable books were in medieval society. Part of the difficulty is due, naturally, to regional and temporal variations, but moreso to the bald scarcity of books at that time. We know nothing of such scarcity, especially when it comes to books. Last week I was at a second-hand book sale where tens of thousands of volumes were offered at a pittance. It is startling to learn that when St. Augustine of Canterbury came to England in 597 he brought with him just nine books, or that the library of Cambridge University had, in 1424, just 122 books. Records exist to indicate that, in some times and places, a single book could cost roughly the monthly income of a court official. We know that a Bible could be traded for a house, or for an entire farm. The borrowing of books was couched in a legal framework comparable to that governing property purchases today.

All of which is very interesting, I am sure. But the real draw of Drogin’s book is his account of the measures medieval men took to protect their precious books. When the law was unreliable, or just too complicated, they tried a variety of other tactics. At the benign end of the spectrum we find polite requests, or simple pleas, to the reader not to damage the book through carelessness.

Quisquis quem tetigerit
Sit illi lota manus.
Please wash your hands
Before touching this book
— Cat. Monte Cassino, II.299

Jeremiads have come down to us decrying the insolence of readers who insist on eating or drinking while reading, or readers who sneeze on their books, or who fall asleep with their faces in the pages, or who commit any number of other offenses against a book’s physical integrity and durability.

As the value of the books increased, so did the stakes. At its most extreme — hence the title of Drogin’s book — scribes tried to protect their books by calling down curses on anyone who would damage or steal them. This was rarely, so far as I can tell, done with legitimate ecclesiastical authority — and so was not a genuine anathema — but it still makes for eye-popping, and sometimes amusing, reading.

Who folds a leafe downe
ye divel toaste browne,
Who makes marke or blotte
ye divel roaste hot,
Who stealeth thisse boke
ye divel shall cooke.

Anathema! is filled with dozens of examples of the type, but I shall not spoil a future reader’s pleasure by recounting too many of them here. The bookmark appended to this post, which I made for the bad boys at Korrektiv, is perhaps my favourite example of a really hyperbolic curse. Do not mess with anyone who puts a bookmark like that into a book loaned to you.

Or maybe you don’t care. The truth is that book curses have lost most of their potency in these latter days. Books are less valuable than they used to be, of course, but book curses declined even before book prices did. Curses, of whatever stripe, just have not been very effective in the modern era. As if to prove the point, Drogin had a friend send him an envelope through the mail embalzoned with the following:

If anyone shall bend this, let him lie
under perpetual malediction.
Fiat fiat fiat.

I’ll not spoil things by revealing exactly what happened to this envelope en route, but I will say that no good evidence for the spiritual sensitivity of modern man was revealed.

(If anyone would like to conduct another experiment of this type with me, just say so. We can exchange addresses on a side channel.)



At last!

February 20, 2012

This week is “Reading Week” at the local universities. Fittingly, I received notice today from Amazon UK that an order of books was finally being “dispatched” to me. Check out the interval during which I have been waiting for them:

That has got to be some kind of record. I am actually a little sorry that the order has finally been filled. I had begun to enjoy the regular notifications of its further delay. But I must say that I am also looking forward to receiving the books, which join a number of other volumes from the same beautiful edition in our home library.

Speaking of Reading Week, I’ve got a few Book Notes lying around here, and this week seems as good an occasion as any to clear them out. Now let me see . . .