Archive for the 'Book Note' Category

Boswell and Johnson in Scotland

August 3, 2020

A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland
Samuel Johnson
(Penguin Classics, 1984) [1775]
120 p.

The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides
James Boswell
(MacMillan, 1936) [1785]
425 p.

I had desired to visit the Hebrides, or Western Islands of Scotland, so long, that I scarcely remember how the wish was originally excited; and was in the Autumn of the year 1773 induced to undertake the journey, by finding in Mr. Boswell a companion, whose acuteness would help my inquiry, and whose gaiety of conversation and civility of manners are sufficient to counteract the inconveniences of travel, in countries less hospitable than we have passed.

So began the famous journey that would carry the two companions first to Edinburgh, then north to Inverness, across the north, and to a sojourn of several months in the Hebrides. After returning home Johnson penned his fine book containing observations on the lands they had passed through, and Boswell, choosing the better part, penned his fine book containing observations on Johnson.

We may forget that the Scottish Highlands, at that time, were far removed, not just geographically, but culturally, from the London that Johnson knew. He may have professed that the country was one which could no longer satisfy those “whose curiosity pants for savage virtues and barbarous grandeur”, but by and large it was wild country, in which civilization, as Johnson recognized it, had a slender foothold, here and there, in the homes of Scottish Lairds. He had desired to visit, but was not strongly tempted to remain:

“Nobody born in any other parts of the world will choose this country for his residence.”

Nonetheless, his book is full of pithy observations on the beauty and merits of Scotland. The book might be profitably scoured by the Scottish tourism board in search of good pamphlet copy, as Johnson expounds on, for instance, the forests of Scotland:

A tree might be a show in Scotland as a horse in Venice.

or, on the charm of the landscapes:

An eye accustomed to flowery pastures and waving harvests is astonished and repelled by this wide extent of hopeless sterility.  The appearance is that of matter incapable of form or usefulness, dismissed by nature from her care and disinherited of her favours, left in its original elemental state, or quickened only with one sullen power of useless vegetation.

or, on the attractions of Scottish religion:

The malignant influence of Calvinism has blasted ceremony and decency together; and if the remembrance of papal superstition is obliterated, the monuments of papal piety are likewise effaced.

or, on the local produce grown by Scottish farmers:

Of vegetable fragrance or beauty they are not yet studious.  Few vows are made to Flora in the Hebrides.

or, on the Gaelic tongue:

It is the rude speech of a barbarous people, who had few thoughts to express, and were content, as they conceived grossly, to be grossly understood.

Johnson’s book, in fact, reads something like an anthropological study, albeit an unusually eloquent one, as he takes an interest in the beauty of Scottish women (“The ladies have as much beauty here as in other places”), marriage practices (“The question is, How many cows a young lady will bring her husband.”), and the veracity, or not, of second sight.

Interspersed with these observations are bits of advice for other travellers, including some that might surprise:

No man should travel unprovided with instruments for taking heights and distances.

Perhaps the most interesting stage of the journey for me was their visit, brief as it was, to Iona, which endeared itself to me when I visited many years ago. Johnson stated, far better than I could, why he honoured the place:

Whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings.  Far from me and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue.  That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona!

The Scottish sojourn came to an end eventually, and Boswell reports Johnson’s reaction when, for the first time in a long time, they saw again one of the signs of civilization: wagon tracks.

As we walked up from the shore, Dr Johnson’s heart was cheered by the sight of a road marked with cart-wheels, as on the main land; a thing which we had not seen for a long time. It gave us a pleasure similar to that which a traveller feels, when, whilst wandering on what he fears is a desert island, he perceives the print of human feet.

And so it was that Johnson returned, a little like an exile coming home, to the bosom of London and the English way of life.

These books are intermittently informative, but consistently rewarding, and the latter principally on account of Johnson. As in his Life Boswell captured many aphorisms and judgments, “of rich and choice expression”, uttered by his companion in the course of their travels, and preserved them for our benefit. I’ll conclude this post by sharing a few samples from the crop.

[On forgetfulness]
I mentioned to him, that a worthy gentleman of my acquaintance actually forgot his own name. JOHNSON. ‘Sir. that was a morbid oblivion.’

[On Homer]
JOHNSON. ‘…There are in Homer such characters of heroes, and combinations of qualities of heroes, that the united powers of mankind ever since have not produced any but what are to be found there.’

[On politeness]
He insisted that politeness was of great consequence in society. ‘It is,’ said he, ‘fictitious benevolence. It supplies the place of it amongst those who see each other only in publick, or but little. Depend upon it, the want of it never fails to produce something disagreeable to one or other. I have always applied to good breeding, what Addison in his Cato says of honour:

Honour’s a sacred tie; the law of Kings;  The noble mind’s distinguishing perfection,  That aids and strengthens Virtue where it meets her.  And imitates her actions where she is not.

[On authority]
Dr Johnson observed, that there had been great disputes about the spelling of Shakspear’s name; at last it was thought it would be settled by looking at the original copy of his will; but, upon examining it, he was found to have written it himself no less than three different ways.

[On human nature]
Lady M’Leod asked, if no man was naturally good. JOHNSON. ‘No, madam, no more than a wolf.’ BOSWELL. ‘Nor no woman, sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘No, sir.’ Lady M’Leod started at this, saying, in a low voice, ‘This is worse than Swift.’

[On wickedness]
Wickedness is always easier than virtue; for it takes the short cut to every thing.

[On Leibniz]
No, sir, Leibnitz was as paltry a fellow as I know.

[On observing the Sabbath]
He said, ‘I do not like to read any thing on a Sunday, but what is theological.’

[On being the subject of controversy]
Dr Johnson said, ‘Nay, sir, do not complain. It is advantageous to an authour, that his book should be attacked as well as praised. Fame is a shuttlecock. If it be struck only at one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground. To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends.’

[On shame]
Where there is yet shame, there may in time be virtue.

[On historical understanding]
The distance of a calamity from the present time seems to preclude the mind from contact or sympathy.

[On the value of money]
There are some advantages which money cannot buy, and which therefore no wise man will by the love of money be tempted to forego.

[On power and wealth]
Power and wealth supply the place of each other.  Power confers the ability of gratifying our desire without the consent of others.  Wealth enables us to obtain the consent of others to our gratification.  Power, simply considered, whatever it confers on one, must take from another.  Wealth enables its owner to give to others, by taking only from himself.  Power pleases the violent and proud: wealth delights the placid and the timorous.  Youth therefore flies at power, and age grovels after riches.

[On traditions, written and not]
Written learning is a fixed luminary, which, after the cloud that had hidden it has past away, is again bright in its proper station.  Tradition is but a meteor, which, if once it falls, cannot be rekindled.

[On books and language]
There may possibly be books without a polished language, but there can be no polished language without books.

[On wonder]
None but philosophers, nor they always, are struck with wonder, otherwise than by novelty.

[On civility in argument]
Treating your adversary with respect, is giving him an advantage to which he is not entitled. The greatest part of men cannot judge of reasoning, and are impressed by character; so that, if you allow your adversary a respectable character, they will think, that though you differ from him, you may be in the wrong. Sir, treating your adversary with respect, is striking soft in a battle.

Very Short Napoleon

July 16, 2020

A Very Short Introduction
David A. Bell
(Oxford, 2015)
160 p.

The Napoleonic Wars
A Very Short Introduction
Mike Rapport
(Oxford, 2013)
144 p.

I’ve been aware for some time that my knowledge of European history, which is fair to middling through the medieval and early modern periods, and passable to half-decent in the past two centuries, scrapes to a low ebb in the eighteenth century. What better way to set about plugging this gap than by learning about the man who bestrode the age like a short colossus? So, at least, was my reasoning, and so I’d been on the hunt, in a general way, for a good biography of Napoleon.

The trouble is that though biographies of Napoleon are plentiful, they are also bountiful: readers can choose from volumes of 600 pages, 800 pages, 1000 pages, and 2000 pages. I needed something briefer. Then, gently and sweetly, these two books came into view, and I seized on them.


David A. Bell gives a very nice potted history of Napoleon’s life and legacy. Beginning from his childhood in Corsica, he relates his startling rise to prominence in the years immediately following the French Revolution.

Napoleon’s early genius was in military affairs: he had apparently boundless energy, fierce determination to win, and a rare talent for crafting and executing complex and effective military tactics. At age twenty-six this ability had already made him a French general; by age twenty-nine he was one of the most powerful men in Europe. “That little bugger scares me,” was the assessment of one of his commanders. He fought in Austria, Italy, and then, casting about, in Egypt, which he intended to turn into a French colony.

Things became more complicated as his star rose. He was an adept at cultivating a public image, and the people of France fell in love with him, but the presiding powers, both in France and in neighbouring nations, were harder to convince. And Napoleon himself began to change as his power waxed: “I am the French Revolution” was his claim on the way up, but, as is well known, in time he came to embrace the trappings of power, assumed at least some of the signs and privileges of the aristocracy, and declared himself Emperor. Many have seen this as a betrayal of the principles he originally espoused, understandably, though Bell cautions that at least some of the showmanship may have been a calculated effort to cultivate better relationships with the monarchs who surrounded France.

So long as Napoleon kept moving, expanding, and fighting, he seemed unstoppable, but it was less clear what he could or would do if peace should come. He made plans to invade England, but a few tussles and it was clear that he could not compete with the British navy. (Hurrah for Jack Aubrey!) Eventually, and famously, he amassed an army of 650000 men and plunged eastward toward Moscow in the summer of 1812. But it was a long march, and time passed, and winter came early, and his army was destroyed as they tried to get home; I was shocked to learn that only 85000 men returned from this campaign.

His downfall, which came in the years shortly after this disaster, would have been nearly as swift as his rise but for a surprising coda. On April 20, 1814 he bid farewell to his remaining army and was taken to the isle of Elba. It is unclear to me if he was a prisoner at this point, or merely in exile. In any case, a year later he did the unexpected: left Elba and landed unannounced in France. The people rallied to him, the army rallied to him, and he entered Paris in triumph once again. It didn’t last long — just one hundred days — but it showed the tenacious hold he still had on the hearts of his countrymen. Imprisoned on St Helena, he lived the last years of his life quietly and died in 1821, aged 51.


His was obviously an exceptionally interesting, and even dazzling, life. He marked French politics and culture in ways that endure. A couple of specific points stood out to me.

Bell stresses that Napoleon pushed European warfare toward a model of “total war”; no longer would armies fight it out neatly on a battlefield, but whole nations mobilized to fight one another. In this way he was able to amass huge armies, the likes of which had never been seen before. The size of his army helped him to win battles, but also affected his tactics in a regrettable way, for in later years he was willing to sacrifice many lives in mass charges at the enemy, an approach to warfare that would return, on a massive scale, in the First World War.

Second, I was forcefully struck by the authoritarian streak in his consolidation of political power. He folded up almost all of the free press in France, replacing them with papers dedicated to praising him. He commissioned artists to create works praising him. He created a sophisticated network of domestic surveillance, and established an agency that read people’s mail. He knocked foreign dignitaries off their chairs and put his family members in their places. All in all, he cut an unbecoming figure of boastful self-aggrandizement and obvious nepotism. The contemporary politician whom I was most reminded of was Trump, and that was something I did not expect. In fact, in these respects Trump is not nearly so bad.

While acknowledging his authoritarian tendencies, it would be unjust to the man to equate him with the murderous dictators of the twentieth century. He built no gulags and had no systematic policies to execute his opponents. Yet it is certainly true that a great many people — a great many — died as a result of his ambitions. These military affairs are well covered by Mike Rapport in his little volume on the Napoleonic Wars. Rapport sets the stage for these conflicts, describing the powder-keg that existed in the international tensions between France, Britain, Prussia, and Russia (principally) before Napoleon came to power, and relating how he ignited it. He doesn’t go into much detail about the tactical course of individual conflicts, but he does do a very nice job of describing what it was like to be a soldier or sailor or civilian impacted by these wars, how nations recruited soldiers (and the lengths to which people would go to avoid conscription), and, finally, how the Napoleonic wars changed European, and world, politics. I found the book a helpful adjunct to the potted biography.

Kyd: The Spanish Tragedy

July 3, 2020

The Spanish Tragedy
Thomas Kyd
(Methuen, 2009) [c.1585]
187 p.

Where words prevail not, violence prevails.
(II, i)

The Spanish Tragedy was an Elizabethan hit, earning the admiration of contemporary playwrights and audiences, and establishing, in hindsight, a new dramatic genre for the Elizabethan stage: the revenge tale.


The action takes place mostly in the Spanish court in the aftermath of a battle between Spain and Portugal in which Spain was victorious and the Portuguese prince, Balthazar, was taken captive.

The seeds of the bloody spectacle that will eventually engulf the court were sown in that battle. It’s a bit complicated, but it goes like this:

Immediately before his capture, Prince Balthazar had killed a Spanish nobleman named Don Andrea, on whom a young Spanish noblewoman, Bel-imperia, had doted. She consequently conceived in her heart a hatred for Balthazar. Yet, as part of the peace plan between Spain and Portugal, she is offered to Balthazar in marriage. Her wits distracted, she begins to take a shine to the brave, young Spaniard, Horatio, who had captured Prince Balthazar in battle. But when Balthazar learns of this attachment, he brutally murders Horatio.

Thus far we have two dead men, both admired by Bel-imperia, who herself remains intended in marriage to the killer.

It is when Horatio’s father, Hieronimo, learns of his son’s murder, and of who committed it, that the revenge plot really kicks into gear. He and Bel-imperia form a compact to revenge themselves on Balthazar and everyone connected to him. Hieronimo adopts an affable demeanour in the court, but plots mercilessly, and eventually, in the play’s blood-soaked climax, exacts his revenge. Bodies litter the stage.


It’s an entertaining story. The tragedy that eventually swallows whole all the principal characters emerges naturally from the dramatic tensions of the tale — unlike, for instance, the tragic downfall of Tamburlaine, which had an arbitrary quality about it. Here the basic ingredients — a lover’s passion, a father’s grief — are elemental and powerful, and they propel the drama forward.

The verse in The Spanish Tragedy is not always top-tier. Kyd makes frequent use of parallel constructions in his lines, and though this sometimes works, more often I found it had a leaden quality. Consider this passage, in which Bel-imperia confesses her burgeoning love to Horatio; she interrupts an exchange in which the ‘love as war’ motif had been bandied about, and she says:

BEL-IMPERIA. Let dangers go; thy war shall be with me,
But such a war as breaks no bond of peace.
Speak thou fair words, I’ll cross them with fair words;
Send thou sweet looks, I’ll meet them with sweet looks;
Write loving lines, I’ll answer loving lines;
Give me a kiss, I’ll countercheck thy kiss:
Be this our warring peace, or peaceful war.

Perhaps that could have a winsome simplicity about it, if delivered by the right actress, and the final line does tie it up rather nicely with a bow, but I felt like I could guess the lines before having read them.

A worse example is this one, an exchange between the ghost of Don Andrea (killed in battle by Balthazar, recall, just before the play begins, and himself seeking revenge) and a personification of Revenge. They’ve just seen Andrea’s friend Horatio killed by Balthazar:

ANDREA. Brought’st thou me hither to increase my pain?
I look’d that Balthazar should have been slain;
But ’tis my friend Horatio that is slain,
And they abuse fair Bel-imperia,
On whom I doted more then all the world,
Because she lov’d me more then all the world.

REVENGE. Thou talk’st of harvest, when the corn is green;
The end is crown of every work well done;
The sickle comes not till the corn be ripe.
Be still, and, ere I lead thee from this place,
I’ll show thee Balthazar in heavy case.

Andrea’s lines are about as bad as any I’ve yet encountered in my tour of Elizabethan drama. Thud. Admittedly, Revenge’s lines make a decent recovery.

On the other hand, there are some really fine sections in the play as well. In this passage Hieronimo, father to the murdered Horatio, is asked by a minor character where to find Lorenzo, who had assisted Balthazar in Horatio’s murder, and Hieronimo, in a distracted state, talking more to himself than the questioner, answers:

But, if you be importunate to know
The way to him and where to find him out,
Then list to me, and I’ll resolve your doubt:
There is a path upon your left hand side
That leadeth from a guilty conscience
Unto a forest of distrust and fear,—
A darksome place and dangerous to pass,—
There shall you meet with melancholy thoughts
Whose baleful humours if you but behold,
It will conduct you to despair and death:
Whose rocky cliffs when you have once beheld,
Within a hugy dale of lasting night,
That, kindled with worlds of iniquities,
Doth cast up filthy and detested fumes,—
Not far from thence where murderers have built
A habitation for their cursed souls,
There, in a brazen caldron fix’d by Jove
In his fell wrath upon a sulfur flame,
Yourselves shall find Lorenzo bathing him
In boiling lead and blood of innocents.
(III, xi)

I could see that working very well as a set piece. The same could be said of a later speech of Hieronimo, delivered when he witnesses a play in which a grieving father avenges his son’s death. It provokes from Hieronimo a passionate outburst of self-accusation for the patience with which he himself proceeds in his bloody plotting:

HIERONIMO. See, see, oh, see thy shame, Hieronimo!
See here a loving father to his son:
Behold the sorrows and the sad laments
That he deliv’reth for his son’s decease.
If love’s effect so strives in lesser things,
If love enforce such moods in meaner wits,
If love express such power in poor estates,
Hieronimo, as when a raging sea,
Toss’d with the wind and tide, o’er-turneth then
The upper-billows course of waves to keep,
Whilst lesser waters labour in the deep,
Then sham’st thou not, Hieronimo, to neglect
The swift revenge of thy Horatio?
(III, xiii)


The play has a few interesting elements that were, possibly, borrowed by Shakespeare when he wrote Hamlet. One is the use of a vengeful ghost on stage; in this case Don Andrea’s, and in that King Hamlet’s. Both want to see their killers punished. Kyd’s ghost has none of the Catholic elements that Shakespeare’s does; he simply wanders the stage (perhaps always present?) and comments on the action at the end of each Act, functioning something like a Chorus in Greco-Roman drama.

Another, very striking similarity to Hamlet is the use of a play-within-the-play. In this case Hieronimo stages a play for the king and court that becomes the means by which he avenges himself on Balthazar. I would be curious to see how well this would work on stage, because, although the idea is a good one, it felt abrupt to me on paper.

But I’ll probably never have a chance to see it staged. Revivals have been very occasional, and the play is more often read than seen, and to say it is “often read” would be an exaggeration.

This relatively low profile has limited its influence. T.S. Eliot made a reference to it in The Waste Land, a modest efflorescence of glory. Insofar as it fathered imitators, it could be said to stand behind a long string of revenge tales, from The Count of Monte Cristo to, well, almost all of Tarantino’s films, but then it itself owes a debt to Seneca in that respect. To cite Eliot again, there is behind any individual talent a tradition, and Kyd was no exception.

Mansoulié: All of Physics

June 25, 2020

All of Physics (Almost) in 15 Equations
Bruno Mansoulié
(World Scientific, 2017)
138 p.

The usual rule in popular science writing is “No Equations!” Sometimes additional exclamation marks are added. But Bruno Mansoulié has taken the opposite tack and structured his little book around a curated set of basic equations that summarize many of the principal ideas of physics. He presents each equation and then, in the space of 5 or 8 pages, describes what it means, explains how it came about or what deep ideas it is connected to, or tells us a story about how the equation has affected his own life.

A good exercise, before opening the book, is to try to guess which 15 equations he chose, or to write down which 15 you would choose were you the author. Some of his are natural choices: Newton’s second law, the law of universal gravitation, the mass-energy equivalence, the Schrodinger equation, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and Maxwell’s equations. They are either pillars of the discipline or famous in their own right for the insights they encapsulate.

But the non-obvious choices are also interesting. We get one equation for thermodynamics (the ideal gas law) and one for fluid mechanics (Navier-Stokes equation [ugh!]). He opens the book with the laws of reflection and refraction, the former allowing him to reflect on the relationship between heuristics (like the law of reflection) and thorough understanding of the underlying physics (which in this case requires an advanced course in electromagnetism), and the latter providing a springboard to introduce the principle of least action, one of the deepest ideas in all of physics. He also spends time on the Einstein field equations of General Relativity (blessed be they), Feynman diagrams (which are pictorial representations of equations), and, at the end, the “Theory of Everything equation” that is, as yet, undiscovered, and may not exist.

Although the book is pitched at a general readership, and is gentle in a soft-vowel, French-professor way, there are nooks and crannies the full charm of which can, I am convinced, be appreciated only by a fellow physicist. A chapter on Maxwell’s equations contains a sweetly affectionate tribute to Jackson’s famous textbook on the subject, which many graduate students (yours truly included) have wrestled with, and the chapter on the Dirac equation (“the most beautiful, the purest of all”) won my heart as it swooned over the equation’s very typography:

the harmonious roundness of the \gamma, the gentleness of the \partial, the sharpness of the first i, the delicateness of the \mu indices set like appoggiaturas, and the deep mystery of the \psi.

It’s that kind of book: appreciative, open to wonder, musing, personal, occasionally philosophical, and sometimes digressive, and it’s a pleasant read too.

Feser: Five Proofs of the Existence of God

June 16, 2020

Five Proofs of the Existence of God
Edward Feser
(Ignatius, 2017)
330 p.

Arguments for the existence of God are of perennial interest, and over the centuries many different lines of reasoning have been proposed. You have your cosmological argument, your ontological argument, your argument from design, your argument from moral objectivity, your argument from Bach – a personal favourite of mine — and many others. As a group, they proceed from a variety of different premises, and, naturally, particular arguments are convincing only to those who accept the relevant premises.

Some of the arguments are probabilistic and lead to the conclusion that God’s existence is likely; arguments proceeding from observations of particular features of the world, such as the argument from design, are of this kind. But there is a class of arguments which are deductive in form and proceed from premises which are difficult to deny; these arguments claim to be demonstrations of God’s existence —  “proofs”, to use Feser’s word. In this book, Feser puts forward five arguments of this type and defends them against critique.


Before proceeding to outline the arguments in question, it might be worthwhile to clear the ground of a few possible misgivings. There are some who see arguments for God’s existence as quixotic, and this can be for different reasons. If God – an all-powerful, all-good, eternal being who created the universe – exists, wouldn’t it be obvious? Or, from a different point of view, doesn’t belief in God’s existence properly belong to faith, and so isn’t it pointless, or even an impiety, to try to prove it by reasoning? Or, from yet another line of approach, aren’t philosophical arguments like this futile? Haven’t people been arguing these questions for centuries with no clear winner?

To the first point, the Christian tradition denies that God’s existence is obvious, in the sense of self-evident. St Paul does say that His existence can be known from the things that have been made, but doesn’t spell out how, and the Catholic Church actually holds as a dogma that God’s existence can be soundly demonstrated, but doesn’t specify what the sound argument is. In consequence, the Church denies that belief in the existence of God is something necessarily held on faith;  rather, she contends that we can know God exists, and that this knowledge is part of the “preamble to faith” (even if, in practice, many people believe in God intuitively or on the authority of the Church). And as to the futility objection – well, the same could be said for many, or most, philosophical arguments. Either you have the taste for this sort of thing or you don’t.


The five arguments Feser presents are not original with him, but are drawn from the long tradition of philosophical reflection on this topic. He calls them the Aristotelian proof, the Neo-Platonic proof (from Plotinus), the Augustinian proof, the Thomistic proof, and the Rationalist proof (from Leibniz). It should be obvious, therefore, that these are not just the “five ways” of St Thomas Aquinas.

He devotes a chapter to each argument, and each chapter has a consistent structure. He begins with a discursive argument introducing the main premises, clarifying the relevant concepts, and giving the form of the argument which establishes the existence of some entity or reality X. He then considers what the nature of X is and why it is reasonable to describe this as “God”. In the next stage, he formalizes the argument into a set of specific logical steps (between 27 and 50, depending on the case) linking the premises to the conclusion (“So, God exists”), making the shape of the argument as clear as possible. Finally, he entertains and answers a variety of objections that have been raised against the argument over the centuries.

To attempt to describe the arguments in detail here would reproduce the book, so I’m not going to do that. But I will sketch the basic idea of each argument, and then focus on a few particular points that interested me.


The Aristotelian argument begins from the premise that change occurs, and argues that this cannot be intelligible unless there exists, here and now, an unchanging changer (or, in the slightly more technical Aristotelian language, an “unactualized actualizer”) to ground it all. The argument goes like this: a given object (say, my drink) can change in various ways: it can become warmer or cooler, spill on the table, be poured into another cup, be chemically transformed by interacting with other objects, and so on. It could not change in these ways unless the change was caused, and the cause must be something outside it. Now, this thing causing the change must itself be either changeable or unchangeable. If the former, then the argument repeats; if the latter, then we have arrived at some entity which is unchangeable but causes the changes in other things. It is crucial to the argument that this causal series is not a temporal one (not an “efficient cause” in the Aristotelian sense) but what Feser calls a “hierarchical” series, one existing here and now and operative simultaneously. For example, my drink is cooling down, and this is because of heat exchange, here and now, with the surrounding air. This heat exchange is just energy transfer between the molecules of my drink and the molecules of air, and this energy transfer occurs because, here and now, there is an electromagnetic force which exists and acts between the molecules when they become sufficiently close to one another. And this electromagnetic force is, here and now, a result of the electroweak quantum field filling space, and this quantum field fills space, here and now, because… well, we don’t know, but we do know that the quantum field itself is contingent, exists in space and time, which are themselves contingent realities, and that they must be grounded in some deeper reality. Down, down we go, and the argument contends that we cannot go on to infinity, but must ultimately arrive at some level of reality which can “cash out” this hierarchy of simultaneous causes or conditions for the cooling of my drink. This is the unchanging changer (or unactualized actualizer).

Why identify this “thing” (if it is a thing) with God?  There follows a set of arguments to unfold the nature of this unactualized actualizer, and these arguments are neat (in the sense of tidy and tight) and also neat (in the sense of interesting). Feser argues that this “thing” must be outside space and time, immaterial, unchangeable, good (in the sense of ontologically good – fully itself, all it can be – rather than morally good), omnipotent (because it has power to cause all changes or actualize all possible realities), intelligent (in the sense of containing in abstract form the patterns of all it actualizes), and one. The validity of these subsidiary arguments are to be evaluated separately from the argument for the mere existence of the unactualized actualizer, but enough has been said to justify the identification of this reality with what we normally call God.

Feser considers numerous objections to the argument, from Hume, Kant, Russell, quantum mechanics, and others, and defends his formulation of the argument against them.


The Neo-Platonic argument begins from the premise that things of our experience are composed of parts, and argues to the existence of a reality which is itself non-composite or, to use the philosophical word, simple. Plotinus called it “the One”. In a way similar to the previous argument, the claim is that whenever we have a composite entity we have a hierarchical series of simultaneous causes responsible for combining those parts here and now, and that this hierarchical series cannot go on to infinity but must terminate in something which (by the nature of the argument) is not itself composite.

This is not just an argument about patching together material bits to make a composite object, but is a philosophical argument that applies to metaphysical parts as well, such as (to invoke Aristotelian concepts) form and matter, if they exist.

In classical theism, simplicity is the hallmark divine characteristic. God has no parts because, if He did, the particular way in which they were disposed would require an explanation outside God, and God would depend for His existence on something prior to Himself (in which case that thing would be God). But something which is absolutely simple is one, immutable (because there is nothing about it that can change), eternal (because there is no cause prior to itself that can bring it into or out of existence), uncaused but itself acting causally on all things, and purely actual.


The Augustinian proof is quite different. It concerns the nature of abstract entities like numbers, propositions, and universals. From the premise that at least one abstract object exists, the argument proceeds to the conclusion that an intellect exists, and that the features of this intellect justify calling it the divine intellect. Feser begins by laying out a battery of arguments (10 of them) to support the premise that at least some abstract objects exist, and then argues that this implies the existence of a mind in which these objects exist. But this mind must not be contingent on any material reality (since the abstract objects are themselves independent of material reality). Since at least some abstract entities seem to have necessary truth (like mathematical propositions), they must exist in a mind that is not contingent but exists necessarily. And so, step by step, the argument proceeds to the conclusion that the intellect in which these abstract objects exist is omniscient (containing all possible true propositions), eternal, etc., and that therefore it can be reasonably identified with the divine intellect.


The Thomistic proof proceeds from the distinction between essence — what a thing is — and existence — that a thing is — and argues to the existence of an entity in which essence and existence are not distinct. The essence of this entity is to exist, or, rather, the essence of this entity is existence itself. As such, this entity exists necessarily and all other things exist by participation in it.

Essence and existence must be distinct in most things because we can know their essences without knowing whether they exist (ie. a unicorn), because they are contingent (which would not be possible if an essence automatically implied existence), and because (which requires separate argumentation) there can be only one thing in which essence and existence are not distinct, and yet we observe many things.

A thing can begin to exist only by the action of another, for a thing which does not yet exist cannot act on itself or anything else. But whatever causes a thing to exist must either have its existence from itself or from another. All contingent things have their existence from another, and those others must in turn derive their existence from others, and so on. This is another “hierarchical causal series”, happening here and now, not spread out temporally. But then nothing can exist unless this series of causes terminates in something which has its existence from itself, something that exists necessarily, the nature of which is simply to be. But this is a thing in which essence and existence are identified. Therefore the existence of any individual contingent being requires the existence of something that exists necessarily.

Like the other arguments in this book, this is a fully metaphysical argument. That essence and existence are one in God is the classic Christian position, derived from Scripture (“I AM WHO AM”) and fully flowering in the thought of Aquinas. He proceeded to argue that God, so conceived, must be one, the cause of the existence of all things at each moment, itself uncaused, and purely actual or fully realized.


The Rationalist proof, which is the one of most recent origin, is based on the principle of sufficient reason. It begins from the premise that everything has an explanation and argues to the existence of a necessary being. This is an interesting one because it requires fewer metaphysical commitments than some of the other arguments, and relies on an uncontroversial principle that underlies all rational inquiry whatever. (Of course, the principle becomes controversial if it seems to imply God’s existence!)

The form of this argument will be familiar to any parent whose children are fond of asking “Why?” to whatever reasons are given them. The PSR (as it is called for short) states that “there is an explanation for the existence of anything that does exist and for its having the attributes it has”. It does not require that we know the explanation, or that the explanation be a deterministic one (ie. quantum mechanical causes do not undermine it). Feser does a good job explaining the incoherent mess one gets into if the truth of the PSR is denied.

The existence of contingent things must have an explanation, given PSR. If this explanation is in terms of another contingently existing thing, then it too must have an explanation, and so on. But this series of contingent things itself requires an explanation, and this passing of the explanatory buck can only terminate in a non-contingent thing – that is, a necessary thing, the existence of which, by its nature, requires no explanation. Absent this necessary being, we can never provide a complete explanation for anything.

The argument then proceeds along lines growing increasingly familiar to conclude that this necessary being must be one, the cause of all things, purely actual, immaterial, etc., and so reasonably identified with God.


Again, I have done no more than sketch the arguments here. Feser unfolds them in considerable detail, and devotes many pages to answering objections. I hope that I have summarized them with adequate faithfulness, although it has now been several months since I finished the book.

I find these arguments very interesting. It is a well-known phenomenon that physicists make poor metaphysicists, and I fear I am no exception to that pattern. I feel shaky when handling philosophical concepts like possibility, necessity, potentiality, causation, and so forth. Are these concepts reliable? Do they refer to real things? Do I understand these things clearly enough to reason with them? Personally I don’t feel particularly confident when on this ground. I am wary of any argument which seems to require that I phrase things in a particular way, or use particular concepts rather than others, for fear that the argument is only working by a linguistic formula. But I recognize this wariness as potentially unjust, for does the framing of arguments in particular ways reflect anything other than its making use of the appropriate terms?


The worry that some of the metaphysical concepts used in the arguments might be merely conceptual, not corresponding to anything real, is, in its worst and most destructive form, the worm of nominalism eating the metaphysical apple. Feser recognizes that the nominalist habits common to much modern thought act as an acid on the structure of these (and other) philosophical arguments, so he devotes several pages to counterarguments against nominalism, and these arguments I found quite interesting.

One counterargument is that a nominalist cannot state his position without having recourse to universals. A nominalist may say that things do not share a common nature (because he believes there are no such things as natures) but are grouped together for convenience because they resemble one another in some way. But, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, this “resemblance” is itself a universal. And if the claim is that this resemblance, too, is merely a convention or name, then the question arises why particular “resemblances” are grouped together conceptually, since this can only be on the basis of some higher resemblance, and on and on. The nominalist is stuck in a vicious regress.

Another argument is that nominalism’s attempt to evade essences or natures in favour of mere names or words is a non-starter, since words are themselves universals. A nominalist says there is no such thing as blueness, but only things we call “blue” because they have a colour in common. But you say “blue” and I say “blue”; are we saying the same word or not? If we are, then we’re using a universal, and the nominalist has failed. As Feser sums up, “it is notoriously very difficult to defend nominalism in a way that doesn’t surreptitiously bring in through the back door a commitment to universals or other abstract objects, in which case the view is self-undermining.”


Having presented his five arguments and defended each of them, Feser still has several meaty chapters in reserve. He has already treated not only the existence but also the nature of the entity or reality of the thing each argument arrived at, and we have seen that these things shared certain properties in common. In this later chapter Feser draws these lines of argument together to argue that these five arguments do not exist in isolation from one another, but are drawn together by many connections and all converge on a single reality: God. He then systematically treats each of the principal divine attributes — unity, simplicity, immutability, immateriality, eternity, necessity, omnipotence, omniscience, perfect goodness, will, love, and incomprehensibility – and examines how each is supported by the arguments he has presented.

The argumentation in this section is sometimes quite subtle. Feser follows Aquinas in thinking that talk about God must for the most part proceed analogically – that is, words applied to God cannot be understood in exactly the same sense in which we apply them to contingent realities, nor are the meanings unrelated in the two cases, but there is an analogy between them. Feser devotes quite a lot of effort to carefully articulating what this means, distinguishing types of analogy, etc. As a result of reading this section I came tantalizingly close to finally achieving my long-time ambition to understand the “analogy of being”, but I ultimately failed.

The relationship between God and the world is the next major topic of discussion, and here Feser provides helpful overviews of divine conservation (that is, that God conserves the world in being here and now) and the relationship between miracles and laws of nature.

In the book’s final chapter he steps back to consider a huge variety of objections that are commonly raised against the kinds of arguments the book defends.  These range from the manifestly incompetent (“If everything has a cause, what caused God?”) to the thoughtful (“Don’t the arguments based on the impossibility of infinite regress merely establish a necessary condition for the existence of a contingent world rather than establishing the existence of a necessary being?”). There is a valuable section critiquing scientism (the doctrine that science alone can provide genuine knowledge) and a good discussion of the problem of divine hiddenness. Indeed, this chapter, which accounts for about 1/5 of the length of the book, is a treasure trove of arguments and counterarguments relevant to natural theology.


At the end of this long overview, it is worth summing up some of the general features of the arguments presented. They are all metaphysical arguments. Nothing has been said here about science, or about any particular finding of the sciences. Nothing in these “first cause” arguments says anything about whether the universe is small or large, finite or eternal. It is hard to see how any future scientific discovery could have any bearing on them. Nothing depends on probability, an expanding universe, or the complexity of biological structures. Each argument starts from a single thing that exists here and now: I outlined the Aristotelian argument using my drink as an example, and that same drink could have served equally well for the others (except perhaps the Augustinian, though two drinks would have served there). The arguments are based on very basic ideas: change occurs, things are composed of parts, abstract objects are real, things exist contingently, and there are explanations for things. If the arguments are sound, they establish the existence of God with certainty. They are quite delightful and intriguing arguments.


I have been looking for years for a book that would clearly and carefully state classic arguments for theism, and especially for a book that would treat the divine attributes philosophically. I’ve read a few, but this has been the best. It would make a fine textbook for use in seminaries or university courses on philosophical theology. The attention Feser devotes to rebuttals of common misunderstandings and objections is a valuable service (though I can imagine a typical reader will have to hunt patiently for the answer to his objection amid the wealth of material). The writing is clear and concise, and I can see myself returning readily to this volume when I want to revisit the arguments or clarify my thoughts. There is much more here than I was able to absorb on one reading.

The existence of God is more than a matter of merely academic interest. I am myself a Catholic, so I affirm the existence of God. I pray, try to act in ways consonant with my dignity as a child of God, and hope to one day see God face to face. I do not spend a great deal of time, as part of my daily routine, thinking about absolute simplicity, hierarchies of causes, perfect ontological goodness, and so forth. Yet it would be false to conclude that these philosophical arguments are somehow irrelevant to my religious life and devotion. The God whom they reveal to the mind is, to say the least, mysterious, behind and before, replete and bountiful, overflowing with power, closer to me than I am to myself, hidden but present within every aspect of my experience, the great fountainhead of being, in whom I live and move along with everything else. There is substance here for fruitful prayer and reflection.

Briefly noted: Children’s books

June 11, 2020

The Blue Fairy Book
Andrew Lang (Ed.)
(Dover, 1965) [1889]
416 p.

This was the first of twelve collections of fairy tales prepared by Andrew Lang, each named (arbitrarily) after a different colour. It is good, and also a little surprising, to learn that it was through these editions that many well-known stories were first introduced to the English-speaking public. In this volume, for instance, we find “Little Red Hiding Hood”, “Cinderella”, “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp”, “Rumpelstiltskin”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “Puss in Boots”, “Blue Beard”, and “Hansel and Gretel”, along with about 30 other lesser-known tales. Lang and his collaborators collected the stories from a variety of sources, including Grimm, Perrault, and the Arabian Nights. We even get an abridged version of Gulliver’s voyage to Lilliput.

Today we are familiar with many of these stories through children’s books and films, in which they have typically been adapted for children by removing the most gruesome and frightening parts (i.e. “Disney-fied”). Lang is something like the grandfather of this tradition: he too sanitized and simplified the stories specifically to make them suitable for children. (Even so, I would be wary of reading some of these tales to my own children, at least until they are older.) If you want the full, unvarnished versions, you should go to Grimm, etc.

I quite enjoyed myself as I read, not only on account of the historical importance of this volume, which has been credited with opening English-language children’s literature of the 20th century to folklore and fairy tales, but also for the intrinsic interest of the stories and the generally easy, elegant writing. Will I read the next volume in the series (The Red Fairy Book)? I might.


The Silver Sword
Ian Serraillier
(Puffin, 1970) [1956]
149 p.

An engrossing tale about four children who travel from Warsaw to Switzerland in search of their parents during the waning days of World War II. Along the way they meet with both cruelty and kindness, often from unexpected sources, and they must be resourceful and courageous as they struggle onward against the odds. There are a few beneficial coincidences to help them along, but by and large the story does not shy away from the very real hardships they and everyone else were suffering. In the early scenes in the bombed-out streets of Warsaw I could not help thinking that perhaps one of the men they saw in the streets was the future Pope St John Paul II. Serraillier tells the story in an unsensational tone, such that even major plot developments caught me flat-footed more than once. Suitable for older children, aged 10 and up or so.


Sarah, Plain and Tall
Patricia MacLachlan
(Scholastic, 1996) [1985]
64 p.

A slim volume that might be (and, I confess, has been) used as a bookmark in a larger volume, this Newbery Medal-winner nonetheless tells a quite rich and moving story about a courageous woman who moves to the American west during the pioneer days, a “mail-order bride” for a widower, told from the point of view of one of the children of the family she is joining. The situation is a delicate one, especially for treatment in a children’s book, but Patricia MacLachlan handles it beautifully; the feelings of all of the family members are conveyed with a light touch but also with clarity. We get a sense of what Sarah is giving up, but also of what she stands to gain, and of what this family, bereft of its mother for some years, is missing. A lovely book that can be read in an hour or so.

Harts: The Mystery of Castle MacGorilla

June 1, 2020

The Mystery of Castle MacGorilla
David Bentley Hart and
Patrick Robert Hart

Illustrated by Jerome Atherholt
(Angelico, 2019)
180 p.

The flyleaf teaser begins in this way:

It is known, of course, that soft toys — teddy bears, cotton-stuffed rabbits, velveteen squids, and the like — are all but incapable of deceit, greed, or criminality. And yet, when the treasure of the ancient MacGorilla clan is stolen from their castle in the Scottish Highlands, it seems that one or more of the soft toys gathered there must surely be the culprit, or culprits.

That “or culprits” is a nice touch, and gives a flavour of the pleasures to be had in this delightful book. We are off to Scotland, to the castle of Laird MacGorilla, a stuffed gorilla of great wealth and generosity of spirit and something less than great wit, where a number of guests are assembled, including Theodore Bear — Teddy Bear, to his friends — a soft toy bear with a knack for solving mysteries.

The story, as it unfolds, has the shape of a classic whodunit, where the “it” is brazen theft rather than lethal violence (although MacGorilla does get knocked on his soft head with a lily). There are mysteries, diversions, suspicions, bananas, secrets, discoveries, revelations — and, in the end, justice  (albeit tampered by Murphy).

David Bentley Hart, whom I count among my favourite contemporary writers, and whose previous collection of fiction I have praised in this space, but whose recent books have had the faint scent of quixotism about them, here returns, gently and winsomely, to fine fettle. He has co-written the book with his son, Patrick, who was 11 years old at the time of writing, and I’d love to hear more about how the collaboration worked. It must have been great fun.

The elder Hart has a reputation as a purveyor of elegant erudition, but that strain of jollity is mostly muted here. The book is written for intelligent children to enjoy, and skirts both condescension and ostentation. Some of the dialogue I found lacked a certain sparkle, being too liberally salted with ellipses and inert verbalisms of the “um, oh” sort, and some of the smaller scale sallies of wit had for me a strained quality, but on the whole I found it a good story enlivened by ready wit and smelling sweetly of banana tarts. I look forward to reading it to my children sometime soon.

Ovid: Love Poems

May 25, 2020

Ars Amatoria
Translated from the Latin by Len Krisak
(U Penn Press, 2014) [16 BC, 2 AD]
232 p.

Remedia Amoris
Translated from the Latin by A.D. Melville
(Oxford, 1990)  [c.5 AD]
25 p.

It was Ovid’s love poetry, especially his metrical seduction manual, the Ars Amatoria, that got him cast into the outer darkness. Facetiousness in matters of love and sex, it seems, would get you nowhere in Augustus’ Rome, at least in the long run.

His love poetry was of three varieties: the Amores, first published in 16 BC, was a collection of short love poems; the infamous Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love) was a set of long poems instructing readers in the art and craft of winning a lover; and the Remedia Amoris (The Cures for Love) were the back slap and hot toddy administered to those coping with the aftermath of a failed affair of the heart. Taken together, they form a neat package tied up with a bow. Taken individually, they are rather less winsome. But let’s take a look.


Roman-ReadingThe essential political background to understanding Ovid’s love poetry is that he was writing shortly after the promulgation of Augustus’ marriage laws, which were intended to improve the morals and social stability of Rome’s upper classes. Augustus had made adultery a civic offence, and required all eligible persons to be married. This is essential to understanding Ovid because it is conspicuously absent from Ovid’s vision: instead, his poetic world is one animated by adultery, secret meetings, winks, nudges, and a general deceitful disregard of marriage vows.

His Amores touch on a number of traditional subjects: the locked-out lover, laments for departed lovers, comparisons of love and war, and avowels that love can attain immortality through poetry. But there are novel ideas introduced too. One poem denies that the poet was unfaithful with a servant girl; another admits the same. One comforts a girl whose hair has fallen out after using a toxic dye; another — which has been given a superbly bracing translation by Len Krisak in this volume — condemns a girl who procured an abortion. I particularly liked a poem in which the poet enumerates all the many varieties of feminine beauty:

She’s dowdy — I dream what would suit her better.
She’s dressed to kill — her dower’s on display.
I fall for blondes, I fall for girls who’re auburn,
A dusky beauty charms in the same way.
If dark hair dangles down a snowy shoulder,
Her sable locks were Leda’s crowning glory;
Or if they’re gold, Aurora charms with saffron;
My love adapts to every ancient story.
Youth tempts me. So do riper years. Youth’s prettier,
Yet older women’s ways have me in thrall;
Yes, every worthwhile girl in Rome’s great city,
My love’s a candidate to win them all.
(II, 4)

Ovid is writing in elegiac couplets: paired lines in which the first has six beats and the second five. This stutter-step scheme grants the poems a slightly humorous cast, giving the shortened line, when needed, the punch of a natural punch-line. Ovid himself has some fun with this idea in the first lines of the first poem in the Amores, which go like this:

Prepared for war, I set the weapon of my pen
To paper, matching meter, arms, and men
In six feet equal to the task. Then Cupid snatched
A foot away, laughing at lines mismatched.
(I, 1)

There’s a playful allusion here to Virgil’s Aenied (which had been published just three years earlier): Ovid actually begins with the same word as Virgil (“Arma”) before pivoting to highlight the difference between epic poetry and Ovid’s preferred elegy. Len Krisak does a wonderful job, here and throughout, of maintaining this metrical limp in his translation.

Tips for aspiring adulterers can occasionally be gleaned from the Amores, as when he describes how to communicate with the object of his affection without drawing the attention of unwanted (ie. husbandly) eyes:

I’ll send a wordless message with my eyebrows;
You’ll read my fingers’ words, words traced in wine.
When you recall our games of love together,
Your finger on rosy cheeks must trace a line.
If in your silent thoughts you wish to chide me,
Let your hand hold the lobe of your soft ear;
When, darling, what I do or say gives pleasure,
Keep turning to and fro the ring you wear.
(I, 4)

But this didactic element becomes the central theme in the Ars Amatoria, which was published in about 2 AD. Of its three books, the first two instruct men on how best to seduce women, and the third instructs women on the complimentary art.

Quite a number of topics are covered: where to find a lover, how to recruit her maid as an ally, and advice on personal grooming:

Plain cleanliness works best, and drill-field tans don’t hurt.
Your well-cut toga should be free of dirt.
Keep shoe straps lose and buckles bright — no rust.
(But don’t forget that good fit’s still a must.)
Be sure a barber, not a butcher, cuts your hair
And trims your beard with care. Please try to wear
Nails short and clean. Be sure no ugly hair growth shows,
Sprouting from the hollows of your nose.
Don’t let your breath go sour, and you should take note:
Armpits must never smell like billy goat.
But any more than that, let wanton girls employ —
Or any man who would prefer a boy.
(I, 513-524)

But the poems don’t show us only the sunny-side of adultery. Ovid also highlights the benefits of targeting a woman “on the rebound” (“So try her when she’s rival-wounded; watch her sob, / Then see she gets revenge. Make it your job.”) and the advantages to be gained from making false promises (“Make promises! They do no harm, so who can chide us? / In promises, each man can be a Midas.”) He holds, in a way that makes him particularly relevant to us after the sexual revolution, that sex is a sport, and as such is best divorced from moral evaluation:

Don’t steal from friends, but keep your word. Show piety,
Avoid all fraud, and keep your hands blood-free.
But if you’re smart, cheat only girls and have your fun.
Allow yourself this fraud, but just this one.
Yes, cheat the cheaters; most of them are far from good.
Catch them in their own traps — it’s right you should!
(I, 641-6)

It is, then, no great surprise to find that, after counselling deception and amoral pursuit of pleasure as proper to a man’s conduct in love, we should find him justifying rape:

Some women take delight in brute assaults; they act
As if it’s quite a coup to be attacked.
And longed-for women who escape and call you cad?
Their faces fake their joy; they’re really sad.
(I, 675-8)

Of course, it is we, the readers, who are really sad here. Maybe, perhaps, there was a time and place when this — not just this apologia for rape, but this whole conception of love and sex as a flamboyant circus, an anything-goes, winner-takes-all demolition derby — was amusing, but living where and when we do, I believe we’ve had quite enough of it. I know I have. Ovid has been accused, over the years, of being superficial and essentially cheap; I resisted that conclusion when I read Metamorphoses, but here it seems perfectly apt.


ovid-love2The third part of his love poetry, the Remedia Amoris, addresses the sobering fallout: what to do when jilted in love, abandoned, or ignored. His advice is mostly what you’d get from a newspaper columnist: go to the country, stay active, go fishing, travel. Don’t read her letters, or visit places you went with her. Avoid alcohol. Don’t bother with witchcraft; it’s probably not going to help. It might help, he says, to think of her as critically as you can:

‘Those legs of hers’, I used to say, ‘how ugly.’
And yet in fact, to tell the truth, they weren’t.
‘Those arms of hers’, I’d say, ‘by no means pretty.’
And yet in fact, to tell the truth, they were.
‘How short she is!’ — she wasn’t. ‘How demanding!’
For those demands I chiefly hated her.

In the end, his best advice might be this Aristotelian counsel: if you need to get over her, do your best to act as if you’re over her:

Love comes by habit, habit too unlearns it;
If one can feign one’s cured, one will be cured.


It has been a good experience to revisit these poems, which I first read some years ago, having now a much better appreciation of the poetic tradition within which Ovid was working and a greater familiarity with his own poetry. I cannot say with hand on heart that I particularly liked these poems; they have their droll merits, of course, and love, being part of the human comedy, makes room for capering whimsy, but these poems have a cruel edge that renders them unwelcome to me. If anything I’ve read by Ovid justifies his sometime reputation as a charlatan or mincing devil, these will do. I don’t like to think of Ovid in exile, but I’d have been content to have these poems suffer that fate in his place.

Williams: Augustus

May 15, 2020

John Williams
(NYRB Classics, 2014) [1971]
336 p.

I’ve whiled away the past year of my Roman reading project in the company of poets of the Augustan age: Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Tibullus, and Propertius. In this poetry the figure of Augustus is frequently present, but usually on the periphery. We hear him praised, and certain of his acts and policies impinge upon the poetry in various ways, but we do not get a strong sense of the man himself. But we do know that his reputation, in the eyes of the Roman historians, is primarily a good one: he brought stability to Rome, and moderation, even though he altered its Republican government for keeps. If he did not burn as brightly as Julius Caesar, he burned more steadily, and certainly he compared favourably with the string of cruel and even lunatic emperors who followed in his immediate wake. But he was the emperor, and so even to those who admired him he was a somewhat distant figure, not susceptible of nuanced appraisal.

In this novel John Williams takes Augustus as his subject, and attempts to imagine the man as a man, using the resources of the modern novel to humanize a figurehead. His main interests are in the man’s character and his relationships with family and close friends.

The novel is epistolary, consisting of a collection of letters exchanged between his family members, friends, and courtiers. The letters move back and forth in time, and do not always pertain directly to Augustus, but he is there in the background, and gradually, here and there, as in a pointillistic painting, a picture of his life emerges.

Many of the characters writing these letters are well-known historical figures: Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Horace, Ovid, his daughter Julia, his friend and advisor Maecenas. Others, like a tutor hired in his household, are either imagined or known only glancingly in the history books. Williams uses the epistolary structure of the novel well to give us a variety of perspectives on Augustus, and also to highlight tensions between the characters (as when he alternates letters from Cleopatra to Marc Antony with her letters to her government ministers, the former full of flattery and misdirection and the latter of hard-headed realism on the same topics).

He is also able to bring to life some of the quieter moments that we know happened, but which are normally passed over in historical accounts. What was it like, for instance, when young Octavius received news that his adoptive uncle, Julius Caesar, had been killed? Williams paints the scene for us through the eyes of a friend. What was it like for Augustus to sit with Marc Antony and Lepidus while negotiating which notable Romans would be executed? Williams brings us into the room. What would it have been like to attend one of the literary evenings at which Augustus hosted poetry readings by Virgil and Horace? Williams brings one to life.

We also learn about Octavius’ childhood, and for me the most touching letter in the book was one in which his childhood playmate and nurse, a slightly older girl, recounts how she encountered him again, by chance, in the streets of Rome when they were both elderly. It’s like that scene in the life of Joseph when he is reunited with his brothers — when people who grew up together but whose lives took very different paths meet again under drastically changed conditions, and all that accumulation of experience drops away, revealing the tenacity of the intimate human bond — and just as affecting.

The effect of the collection of letters is prismatic: the life of Augustus comes to the reader refracted through the eyes of many others. But in the last fifty pages of the book this changes: Williams gives us a long letter from Augustus himself, a reflective letter written in old age, in which he reviews and ponders the events of his life. Episodes that we saw before through the eyes of another we see again through his eyes, alongside ruminations on the advantages and disadvantages of power and influence. It is a fine way to sum up and round out the book.

This novel won the National Book Award in the year of its publication. It is well-written, thoughtfully constructed, and presents well-known historical events in an interesting way. The writing is not dazzling, but it is sound and sturdy. Augustus is not a great book, but it is a good one.

Wodehouse: Full Moon

May 2, 2020

Full Moon
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2006) [1947]
272 p.

It was fitting that Wodehouse placed at least one of his Blandings novels under the patronage of Diana, for lunacy is Blandings Castle’s speciality.

And the presiding moon is appropriate in another way too, for moonlit nights are the special province of romance, and two are blooming at Blandings. The parents of the dim-witted beauty Veronica are hoping to marry her off to a wealthy American visitor, Tipton Plimsoll, and the mother of Prudence Garland is trying to thwart her daughter’s plans to marry Freddie’s old pal, Bill Lister (aka “Blister”).

What transpires is a diverting series of episodes in which suitors appear in disguise or are accosted by conscientious pig-men, diamond necklaces are misappropriated, and a diet of barley-water proves the only respite from visions of men resembling kindly gorillas. The Empress of Blandings, of course, content in her rotund excellence, makes a crucial intervention to bring about the happiness of all concerned.

Wodehouse is in fine mettle. The book is up to his usual high standards of craftsmanship, and offers pleasure on every page.