Saturday, December 31, 2016

Coincidental Reading: the New Year

This morning a quotation from Metternich caught my eye:
I detest every New Year. I am so inclined to prefer what I know to what I must learn, that my preference extends even to the four numbers that I am accustomed to write.
(Letter to the Duchess of Lieven, quoted in Friedell's Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit.)

My father was subject to a mild melancholy on New Year's Eves at the thought of another year past. No doubt he dated a few checks with the wrong year, as I have done; but I don't think that the burden of learning a new number had anything to do with his mood.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Known by Their Tails

This past weekend, I had opened Liddell and Scott to see what the Greek word "ailouros" (αἴλουρος) might mean. I was satisfied to learn that it means "cat," and delighted to read the codicil "so called from the wavy motion of the tail". Curiously, neither of the versions of the lexicon available on-line at Tufts gives the etymology. Was it a rash conjecture since discarded, or did the those who put the lexicons on-line wish to save typing?

I had read in Thoreau that the name "squirrel" derives from "skia oura", "shadow tail", and here the versions at Tufts bear him out:
σκίουρος [ι^], , οὐρά) prop.
A.shadow-tail, i.e. squirrel, Opp.C.2.586; cf. Plin.HN8.138.
The on-line versions do not note what the paper version does, that the squirrel is also "kampsiouros" as having a bending tail, and "hippouros" as having a tail that reminded someone of a horse's. The latter distinction it shares with a fish and an insect.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

John Montague

 Neither of the newspapers we subscribe to, The New York Times and The Washington Post, has noticed the death of John Montague on December 9. I heard of it only via Books, Inq.

It had been a while since I looked into the volumes I have, Selected Poems (1982) and The Dead Kingdom (1984); a few poems are found in both. Some I remember from first reading thirty years ago still: "Clear the Way", "The Cage", "Killing the Pig", "Country Matters", "Life Class", the prose poems "The Huntsman's Apology" and "Coming Events". The last begins
In the Stadzmuseum at Bruges, there is a picture by Gerard David of a man being flayed.
That picture is "The Judgment of Cambyses", as we discovered when in Bruges some years ago.

The poem "A Private Reason" begins
As I walked out at Merval with my wife
Both of us sad, for a private reason,
We found the perfect silence for it,
A beech leaf severed, like the last
Living thing in the world, to crease
The terraced snow, as we
Walked out by Merval.
The Collected Poems of 1995 must comprehend Selected Poems and The Dead Kingdom. Wake Forest Press, which published them all, keeps in print several of his other volumes as well. And it offers as its poem of the week Montague's "At Last", which you can find in Collected Poems.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Newman on Notional Assents

This fall, I took up Newman's Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. I have now read to the end of it. It deserves a second reading, but when I will get back to it, I do not know.

To what extent one finds it in the end convincing depends in part on one's predispositions, something Newman acknowledges. I start from largely the same premises, and thought the book well argued. However, I believe that even one who in the end disagrees would find much of interest in Newman's exposition of degrees and processes of assent.

The book bears out Newman's reputation for lucid prose; the temptation is simply to quote at length. I shall limit myself, though, to some passages from Chapter 5, Section 1. This section, dealing with "Notional Assents", i.e. those not to a fact, ranges such assents from weakest to strongest as Profession, Credence, Opinion, Presumption, and Speculation. It is full of striking passages, as for example the following, from the beginning of the sub-section on Profession, and a paragraph or two in:
There are assents so feeble and superficial, as to be little more than assertions. I class them all together under the head of Profession. Such are the assents made upon habit and without reflection; as when a man calls himself a Tory or a Liberal, as having been brought up as such; or again, when he adopts as a matter of course the literary or other fashions of the day, admiring the poems, or the novels, or the music, or the personages, or the costume, or the wines, or the manners, which happen to be popular, or are patronized in the higher circles. Such again are the assents of men of wavering restless minds, who take up and then abandon beliefs so readily, so suddenly, as to make it appear that they had no view (as it is called) on the matter they professed, and did not know to what they assented or why.
... This practice of asserting simply on authority, with the pretence and without the reality of assent, is what is meant by formalism. To say "I do not understand a proposition, but I accept it on authority,” is not formalism, but faith; it is not a direct assent to the proposition, still it is an assent to the authority which enunciates it; but what I here speak of is professing to understand without understanding. It is thus that political and religious watchwords are created; first one man of name and then another adopts them, till their use becomes popular, and then every one professes them, because every one else does.
Thus, instances occur now and then, when, in consequence of the urgency of some fashionable superstition or popular delusion, some eminent scientific authority is provoked to come forward, and to set the world right by his "ipse dixit." He, indeed, himself knows very well what he is about; he has a right to speak, and his reasonings and conclusions are sufficient, not only for his own, but for general assent, and, it may be, are as simply true and impregnable, as they are authoritative; but an intelligent hold on the matter in dispute, such as he has himself, cannot be expected in the case of men in general. They, nevertheless, one and all, repeat and retail his arguments, as suddenly as if they had not to study them, as heartily as if they understood them, changing round and becoming as strong antagonists of the error which their master has exposed, as if they had never been its advocates. If their word is to be taken, it is not simply his authority that moves them, which would be sensible enough and suitable in them, both apprehension and assent being in that case grounded on the maxim "Cuique in arte suâ credendum," but so far forth as they disown this motive, and claim to judge in a scientific question of the worth of arguments which require some real knowledge, they are little better, not of course in a very serious matter, than pretenders and formalists.
I have occasionally been struck with what seems to me the cast of mind of some American politicians, church-going men whose temperament seems to owe more to the Old Testament than the New, to confidence, let us say, rather than repentance. Newman offers a hint in the section on Credence, though he is writing of England, and sounds not unlike Emerson in English Traits:
What Scripture especially illustrates from its first page to its last, is God’s Providence; and that is nearly the only doctrine held with a real assent by the mass of religious Englishmen. Hence the Bible is so great a solace and refuge to them in trouble. I repeat, I am not speaking of particular schools and parties in England, whether of the High Church or the Low, but of the mass of piously-minded and well-living people in all ranks of the community.
I will end by quoting a couple of paragraphs from the section on Presumption:
By Presumption I mean an assent to first principles; and by first principles I mean the propositions with which we start in reasoning on any given subject-matter. They are in consequence very numerous, and vary in great measure with the persons who reason, according to their judgment and power of assent, being received by some minds, not by others, and only a few of them received universally. They are all of them notions, not images, because they express what is abstract, not what is individual and from direct experience.
However, if I must speak my mind, I have another ground for reluctance to speak of our trusting memory or reasoning, except indeed by a figure of speech. It seems to me unphilosophical to speak of trusting ourselves. We are what we are, and we use, not trust our faculties. To debate about trusting in a case like this, is parallel to the confusion implied in wishing I had had a choice if I would be created or no, or speculating what I should be like, if I were born of other parents. “Proximus sum egomet mihi.” Our consciousness of self is prior to all questions of trust or assent. We act according to our nature, by means of ourselves, when we remember or reason. We are as little able to accept or reject our mental constitution, as our being. We have not the option; we can but misuse or mar its functions. We do not confront or bargain with ourselves; and therefore I cannot call the trustworthiness of the faculties of memory and reasoning one of our first principles.

Thursday, December 15, 2016


I hadn't thought about Thermopylae much lately, but around the beginning of October it came to mind. First, we made it to the National Geographic Museum to see "The Greeks: From Agamemnon to Alexander the Great" before it left for Chicago. About two thirds of the way through, one finds a room with the bust of a warrior from the acropolis of Sparta, traditionally identified as Leonidas, and next to it a set of arrowheads evidently from Xerxes's army: Scythian, Persian, and so on. The text on the walls mentions the battles of that war. And of course it mentions the Thermopylae and the three hundred Spartans.

Now, the three hundred Spartans were not a tenth of Greeks at Thermopylae. The National Geographic of course credited the four thousand from other Greek cities. The three hundred were not all even of those who stayed and fought to the death when the pass was turned. They were outnumbered among the latter by seven hundred Thespians and four hundred Thebans, or what was left of them after several days' fighting. Yet the Spartans are remembered, the Boeoteians not. The movies are "Go Tell the Spartans" and "300", not "Go Tell the Thespians" and "700.

To be sure, when the war was over,  Sparta could plausibly represent itself as the savior of Greece, leader at Plataea; and Thebes at least, which had Medized, and sent a contingent of dissidents largely to get them out of the city, probably preferred to drop the discussion.

Second, a friend emailed me concerning the expression "molon labe" (μολὼν λαβέ).  I'm not sure how this came up for him. I had first seen it last year on a sticker on pickup truck in Arizona. Not having toted along Liddell & Scott and Tutti Verbi Graeci, I couldn't translate it; still, the silhouette of an AR-15 below the words seemed to provide a context. Then while running in Rock Creek Park I encountered a man with the words tattooed on his bicep. He explained that it meant, more or less "come and get them", i.e. the arms. At that point I forgot about it.

My friend's email referred to Wikipedia's entry, which referred to a reply from Leonidas to Xerxes. Now, in Herodotus, there is no back and forth between the two, just fighting. Puzzling through Peter Green's The Persian Wars, and through the Wikipedia article, eventually I found the source of the reference in Plutarch:
τὰ ὅπλα,’ ἀντέγραψε, ‘μολὼν λαβέ.’
("'Come and get the arms,' he wrote in reply.") It is short and pithy in Plutarch's version. It is shorter and pithier still in the tattoo and sticker version; yet that seems to me to have the drawback of omitting the direct object, and leaving baffled those of us who are neither Second Amendment sticklers nor deep students of Plutarch. But I can see that even the abbreviated version requires a full bicep or an average bumper sticker.

My friend also thought that the expression might occur in Thucydides, in the defiance offered by some island to Athens. I can't say. However, a look at his account of the negotiations at Melos suggests to me that Thucydides is better at the prolix than the pithy.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Good News

The last time that I was at Kramerbooks, about the beginning of November, there was plywood up behind the register. One of the clerks said that there was construction going on that would allow for another register come the holidays. That sounded useful, I thought.

Today when I stopped by I found the front door displaced toward Dupont Circle. The store has taken over a space next to it, increasing its space by a quarter or a third. In my brief visit, I did not quite figure out where everything is. It appears that history and new non-fiction have moved into the new area, and that fiction, philosophy and religion are about where they were, with poetry moving around a corner. Yet it is still difficult to get around the essay shelves unless one is gaunt.

I am grateful to see an independent bookstore expanding.