Sense + Sensibility

THE PHILOSOPHY OF JANE AUSTEN’S NOVELS

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They Just Don’t Get It

By chris | Published: 22 November

 

In an interview with the Guardian at the end of a visit to Kabul for the presidential inauguration of Hamid Karzai, the foreign secretary said: “If international forces leave, you can choose a time – five minutes, 24 hours or seven days – but the insurgent forces will overrun those forces that are prepared to put up resistance and we would be back to square one.”

That David Miliband should think that this is an argument for redoubling efforts in Afghanistan says everything about just how hopelessly irrational the policy is and why it is doomed to go the same way as every other Afghan imperial folly. One of the few hopeful signs is that he is repeating the US Afghan Ambassador Eikenberry’s point that the Karzai government wasn’t the reliable partner assumed by McChrystal’s counter-insurgency strategy, and therefore that the US president shouldn’t increase his commitment by fulfilling McChrystal’s request for more troops.

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Posted in topical | Tagged Afganistan, David Miliband, ethics, foreign policy, Hamid Karzai, peace, rationalism, war | Leave a comment

The Dalai Lama on Obama

By chris | Published: 22 November

There has been much hand-wringing about Obama’s lack of results in China. As Stephen Walt explained, this was the fruits of years of folly. Yet despite delivering on the one issue that really really mattered (and the one could be realistically advanced)–a shared approach to sustaining the global environment–the New York Times, while demonstrating it fully understands the problems, still feels the need to finish its Saturday editorial bewailing his sotto voce approach to human rights and insisting that ‘the American president must always be willing to stand up to Beijing in defense of core American interests and values’.

Contrast this with the Dalai Lama’s comments today: “Obama is not soft on China; just has a different style,” and reminding everyone that “I am not disappointed that Obama has not met me yet.”

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Posted in topical|Tagged Buddhism,Dalai Lama,diplomacy,ethics,global warming,patience,philosophy,politics,rationalism|Leave a comment

Blogging Notes

By chris | Published: 22 November

1. 

The tone and content of my previous Fisking Sullivan post might lead people to believe that the whole was an attack on Sullivan.

[Fisk] might well be hated by the war-mongering, empire-addicted elements of the right because his skilful and widely recognised reporting of the ‘reality’ that they despise so much.

But yesterday Sullivan in a post entitled The Wages of Endless War quoted this from Andrew Sprung:

An Oxfam poll of 704 randomly selected Afghans reveals untold suffering– 1 in 5 say they’ve been tortured, three quarters have been forced to leave their homes at some point in the endless civil war, 43% have had property destroyed. The survey also has what would seem to be some moderately encouraging findings regarding the counterinsurgency: 70% see unemployment and poverty as a key driver of civil war; 48% blame the government’s weakness and corruption; 36% point to the Taliban; 25% to interference by neighboring countries; just 18% to the presence of international forces; another 18% to d al Qaeda– and another 17% to the lack of support from the international community. After 30 years of civil war, only 3% named the current conflict as the most harmful period (though the report cautions that areas where the current fighting is worst are underrepresented).

The point is not to go after the unhinged ones but to try and identify the habits that are giving rise to the unhingedness. It is relatively easy (and futile) to mock and knock down the arguments of pathological war mongers. While they may represent a kind of thinking in concentrated form, it couldn’t be so effective in setting the agenda if it didn’t gain traction in centrists.

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Posted in topical | Tagged blogging, culture wars, ethics, Obama, Palin, philosophy | Leave a comment

Fisking Sullivan

By chris | Published: 21 November

 

I have been watching the Palin obsession on Andrew Sullivan’s blog with a kind of fascinated horror. The blog was suspended to digest the almost content-free Palin book, but from the resumption notice it is clear that others have been raising their concerns.

No doubt It is part of the theatre, one of the many reasons, without wishing to be cynical, that I think Sullivan is such a successful blogger. However, as Ezra Klein cleverly points out, Palin is getting her revenge on her media critics. They exposed her lack of substance in the campaign and she is replying in kind, revealing their own vacuousness, while making her and her publishers a great deal of money.

Sullivan spends much of his remaining blog bandwidth reminding us of how demented movement conservatism has become–and well he might know. Before I come to that, I must through a sickening article in the New Yorker by Jane Mayer on The Predator War in Afghanistan.  I won’t try to rerun the extraordinarily disturbing thesis of the article about how we have readily accepted that a governments can operate a relatively cheap and risk-free, rolling, assassination campaign, collateral damage and all. Lots of collateral damage, as this incident–just one–from the recent campaign to kill the Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, illustrates.

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Posted in topical | Tagged Afghanistan, blogging, ethics, peace, philosophy, Robert Fisk, war | 1 Comment

I am baaack!

By chris | Published: 20 November

Sorry for the interruption–normal-ish service will be resumed. I will be flying south from Brighton for the winter to spend some time with my father in Spain and need to attend to some projects. The departure date is set for Thursday 26th. Until then I hope to post lighter pieces that I can combine with the remaining preparations.

Posted in announcements | Tagged blogging | Leave a comment

What Price Philosophy?

By chris | Published: 14 November

A further issue that came out of the Calvin and Servetus thread was what value should we put on the public understanding of Right Religion and Philosophy in any of its various manifestations. Can we put a price on it or should we try?

For the sake of this discussion I am assuming that various long-standing philosophical and religious traditions have a kernel of wisdom that is being carried by practitioners who have put them into practice and realised them. I strongly suspect that this kind of knowledge was far more widely spread through the public sphere before the revolutionary ideas of the sixteen and seventeenth centuries concerning the state and the cosmos made their way into various influential speculations on ethics in the eighteenth century (when we all became Enlightened). Allied to this we have the revolutionary changes in society and art that accompanied the industrial revolution (the rise of the novel and all that).

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Posted in topical | Tagged Calvin, climate change, Enlightenment, ethics, philosophy, public understanding, rationalism, religion, secularism | Leave a comment

Moral Relativism

By chris | Published: 13 November

In one of the comments to my post on Calvin and Servetus the spectre of moral relativism was raised. Maybe some people might get offended at this, but I was pleased. I not pleased because I had merely provoked a reaction but because I was pushing a pretty contrarian position so that I could see what gives (The give away was ‘That is the best defence I can mount.’)

I remain open in my conclusion about the extent to which Calvin should be condemned for his part in Sevetus’s execution, quite open to the possibility that it was an inexcusable lapse. As I have made quite clear I hope, I am against capital punishment, and against sanctioning people for expressing their opinions, unless those opinions are expressed with malevolent intention and lead to great harm. After all, Calvin himself was really expressing his opinion to the Genevan authorities when he called for Servetus’s execution, the execution being carried out by others. One way you could understand the structure of my defence of Calvin was that he sincerely believed that in speaking his opinion on Servetus he was trying to prevent what he believed to be Servetus’s higher crime of seeking to corrupt souls and destroying the Church for his own glorification.

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Posted in topical | Tagged Calvin, ethics, moral relativism, philosophy, rationalism, religious pluralism, tolerance | 1 Comment

Our Great Passion for War

By chris | Published: 12 November

 

The confluence of the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the taking down of the Berlin Wall, Obama’s ongoing deliberations on whether or not to escalate in Afghanistan and Remembrance Day, with the passing of the last of the Great War veterans, has made for an unusually rich reflection on the value and/or futility or war.

The  responses to the 11th November commemoration were telling with realists like Stephen Walt opining ‘as Juan Cole notes on his own blog today, the best way to honor our veterans is to make sure they aren’t asked to fight and die to no good purpose‘ and Bryan Appleyard representing the sentimentalists, weeping ‘continuously and uncontrollably’.

Of course some people think war is a thoroughly good thing, a necessary thing even, the most recent neoconservative missive on the subject prompting a tart response from Yglesias:

The world would be a better place if people looking for cheap thrills would stick to the black metal scene or maybe take up extreme sports rather than foreign policy punditry. But the point is that it’s extremely dangerous to take advice from people with this mindset—they’re not even trying to enhance the country’s security, they’re trying to embroil the country in wars.

It is easy to sneer at the neocons but I really don’t think they would be nearly as influential if they wasn’t a large receptive audience for their views. People may not articulate them so crudely; they may not realise it; but we do have a remarkable appetite for war, as the following well-known table of military expenditure charts makes clear.

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Posted in topical | Tagged Afghanistan, foreign policy realism, Karl Eikenberry, military spending, rationalism, Robert Fisk, Scott Ritter, sentimentalism, war | 2 Comments

Realistic Optimists and That David Brooks Column

By chris | Published: 10 November

Tyler Cowen has a great TEDxMidAtlantic talk on the seductive power of stories to distort our view of the world. We compulsive structure our understanding with narratives–there is no point in fighting this–but we can take a light, sceptical approach to these narratives, continually probing them for weaknesses. (Does anyone else see common thread with the self-knowledge of the ancients around which Jane Austen’s writings are structured.) It is great philosophy capturing the economist’s wisdom with none of the dreary pitfalls–a light, open and intelligent sceptical approach to avoiding surprises: i.e., David Hume on a good day.

Yglesias has a bit of a theme running on how people with an optimistic outlook tend to do better because they are primed to exploit opportunities that come their way. Picking up on a Cowen link to a study showing that depressed people tend to see reality more accurately Matt reiterated this point, but it turns out that the situation is more complicated than this as optimists have a better objective grip on reality than pessimists in other respects.

All of which reinforces my anti-realistic, sceptical and optimistic prejudices. Trying to bottle reality is a mugs game–the trick is live in a reality that maximises strategic well-being. That starts from the one thing we all know, that we all don’t want to be unhappy, and we want to make use of our special endowment–our intelligence–to fulfil those needs.

From this it follows that avoiding surprises will be a useful, and so Cowen’s undogmatic scepticism is a powerful aid. Being a sceptical optimist is doubly useful: optimists occupy a happier reality and they are primed to make good use of the opportunities that come their way.

All of which is by way of preparation for David Brooks column today where he discusses the Fort Hood massacre, spending much of the column expressing his understanding of why so much of the reaction was extremely restrained in their handling of the Islamic dimension of the story, the media placing great emphasis on the fact that Hasan was sick member of the armed services put under great strain rather than an evil Islamic terrorist.

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Posted in topical | Tagged David Brooks, ethics, Islam, Jane Austen, Matthew Yglesias, peace, philosophy, radicalism, terrorism, Tyler Cowen | Leave a comment

Calvin and Servetus

By chris | Published: 9 November

Paul helm has been running a old and erudite series on Calvin at The Guardian. This week he looks at Calvin’s part in the Geneva authorities’ execution of Michael Servetus, concluding with an ambivalent defence that doesn’t seem quite right to me.

The plain fact is that the civil authorities in Geneva, with the support of Calvin, (though there looks to have been some friction between the two), held that it was part of their duty to uphold the Moral Law. It was clear to them that his trial showed that Servetus was guilty of breaking that law. Calvin is hardly vindicated by his plea (which fell on deaf ears) that the offender ought not to burn but to be executed. Servetus’ death is the chillingly consistent outcome of the doctrine of religious intolerance coupled with a readiness to impose capital punishment.

Judged by later standards of greater toleration the Servetus affair is monstrous. From our standpoint condemning Calvin is an easy shot. It might be said that the puzzle was not that the authorities acted consistently, but that they held, with Calvin’s complete support, the views they did in the first place. But in this also they were children of their time. Yet to understand Calvin in the setting of his times is not to excuse him, any more than it is to excuse Jefferson or Rousseau. He is convicted when measured against his own standards. He who held that the natural knowledge of God makes us all inexcusable was surely inexcusable himself in upholding the capital punishment of Servetus in the face of the revealed knowledge of God in Jesus Christ.

The rest of this post contains the comment I left at the Guardian, where I try to probe Paul’s argument.

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Posted in topical | Tagged Calvin, Calvinism, capital punishment, Christianity, cultural relativism, ethics, irrationalism, pacifism, philosophy, rationalism, sentimentalism, theology | 5 Comments

The Horror

By chris | Published: 8 November

The opening of the New York Times editorial on Saturday made little sense.

It is always a shock — and a cause for deep sadness — when a gunman fires malevolently at crowds of innocent people. We have seen it far too often: at Columbine High School in Colorado a decade ago; on the campus of Virginia Tech two years ago; at a center for immigrants in upstate New York in April; and in downtown Orlando, Fla., where a gunman shot and killed one person and wounded five others on Friday.

Still, this week’s rampage at the sprawling Fort Hood Army base in central Texas seems especially shocking.

As many of the commenters pointed out (such as this one), it is not especially surprising that with the number of people being sent back into the war zone that one of them should flip. Given that the purpose of the army is to massacre people, it can hardly be surprising that it should end in a massacre.

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Posted in topical | Tagged Afganistan, ethics, massacre, New York Times, peace, philosophy, war | Leave a comment

Blog News

By chris | Published: 8 November

 

Mansfield Park Essay Completed

The Mansfield Park essay is now completed and I have placed a full table of contents at the head of each post. Originally I had intended to just expand on an earlier sketch of  my views on the novel, and the Introduction and Method sections were written in this frame of mind. So the format allows a large topic to be attacked on a tentative plan with a beginning, middle and end, but it is still blogging as once those earlier sections were done they were done, regardless of the progression in thinking and overall plan.

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Posted in announcements | Tagged blogging, ethics, Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, philosophy | Leave a comment

Diminutive Greatness and Fanny Price

By chris | Published: 7 November

This post is the final part of an essay on Mansfield Park, being posted in instalments.

Mansfield Park

Preface

  1. Introduction
  2. Method
  3. Critiques
    1. The Moral Law Within
    2. Fanny and Edmund
    3. The Crawfords
    4. Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram
    5. Mrs Norris
    6. The Quiet Thing
  4. Enlightenment
    1. Kantian Deontology
    2. King Lear
    3. Romanticism
    4. The Satirical Inheritance
  5. Conclusion

Epilogue: Diminutive Greatness & Fanny Price

Epilogue: Diminutive Greatness & Fanny Price

We have re-read them all four times; or rather, to speak more accurately, they have been read aloud to us, one after the other; and when it is considered what a severe test that is, how the reading aloud permits no skipping, no evasion of weariness, but brings both merits and defects into stronger relief by forcing the mind to dwell on them, there is surely something significant of genuine excellence when both reader and listener finish their fourth reading with increase of admiration.

[…]

Such art as hers can never grow old, never be superseded. But, after all, miniatures are not frescoes, and her works are miniatures. Her place is among the Immortals; but the pedestal is erected in a quiet niche of the great temple.

G. H. Lewes, The Novels of Jane AustenBlackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (July 1859)

It is difficult to know whether Lewes was being ironic, playful or perfectly serious. Perhaps he was taking care not to undermine his partner, George Eliot (to my view, a perfectly understandable and respectable motivation for tempering his final assessment). Whatever the case, there is a marked contradiction between the actions and that final assessment. It is as if we are to think that the great atomic physicists should decrease in stature as they penetrated more deeply into smaller scales. But this makes no sense as Scott warns us with his ‘Big bow wow’ comment.

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Posted in Mansfield Park | Tagged Enlightenment, ethics, irrationalism, Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, philosophy, rationalism, Romanticism, sentimentalism | Leave a comment

Mansfield Park: Conclusion

By chris | Published: 7 November

This post is part of an essay on Mansfield Park, being posted in instalments.

Mansfield Park

Preface

  1. Introduction
  2. Method
  3. Critiques
    1. The Moral Law Within
    2. Fanny and Edmund
    3. The Crawfords
    4. Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram
    5. Mrs Norris
    6. The Quiet Thing
  4. Enlightenment
    1. Kantian Deontology
    2. King Lear
    3. Romanticism
    4. The Satirical Inheritance
  5. Conclusion

Epilogue: Diminutive Greatness & Fanny Price

5. Conclusion

Though etymologically “morality” means something like social custom, as we use it it means the desire to govern oneself, expressed as social behavior.  People who attempt this fail, and learn in the course of failing that to act well, even to know what it is to act well, is a great struggle and a mystery.  Rather than trying to reform others, moral people seem to me especially eager to offer pardon in the hope of receiving pardon, to forgo judgment in the hope of escaping judgment.

So perhaps what I have called priggishness is useful in the absence of true morality, which requires years of development, perhaps thousands of years, and cannot be summoned as needed. Its inwardness and quietism make its presence difficult to sense, let alone quantify, and they make its expression often idiosyncratic and hard to control. But priggishness makes its presence felt. And it is highly predictable because it is nothing else than a consuming loyalty to ideals and beliefs which are in general so widely shared that the spectacle of zealous adherence to them is reassuring. The prig’s formidable leverage comes from the fact that his or her ideas, notions or habits are always fine variations on the commonplace. A prig with original ideas is a contradiction in terms, because he or she is a creature of consensus who can usually appeal to one’s better nature, if only to embarrass dissent. A prig in good form can make one ashamed to hold a conviction so lightly, and, at the same time, ashamed to hold it at all.

Marilynne Robinson, Puritans and Prigs

(i)

It has almost become a truism that ‘When a Man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything’ (G. K. Chesterton). Yet there is an ethical corollary, namely, that the removal of divine judgement doesn’t lead to a gentle, non-judgemental place, but it’s opposite.  The contemporary political and philosophical discourse is habitually harsh and judgemental, even when centrists are making their case, yet divines can lead rational debates on ethical matters without ducking the issues, and the contrast to the usual belligerence is remarkable.  What is going on?

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Kant on Newton and Rousseau

By chris | Published: 6 November

[In preparation for the conclusion of the Mansfield Park essay, I am posing this short note on a famous Kant's note where he explains Newton's and Rousseau's impact on his ethical thought. Here I reproduce J. B. Schneewind's translation and notes.]

[W]e can see one of the most frequently quoted of Kant’s notes as showing a problem of which he was plainly aware.

Newton first of all saw order and regularity unified with great simplicity where before him disorder and badly sorted multiplicity were to be met and since the comets run in geometric paths.

Rousseau first of all discovered beneath the multiplicity of forms assumed by humans their deeply buried nature and the hidden law by which providence through his observations will be justified. Previously the reproach of Alphonsus and Manes was valid. After Newton and Rousseau God is justified and now Pope’s theorem is true.

[Footnote] Alphonsus was a king of Castile who was an astronomer and who claimed that he could have given God some good advice about making the heavens more orderly. Leibniz among many others mentions his criticism of God in order to dismiss it in Theodicy [...]. Manes is the founder of the dualistic Manichaean religion. [... Schneewind explains in 22.iii that] Pope’s theorem as Kant read it is that whatever is, is good; it comes from his Essay on Man.

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Posted in philosophy | Tagged ethics, Kant, Newton, philosophy, Rousseau | Leave a comment

The Rise of the Novel

By chris | Published: 5 November

[While writing the conclusion for the Mansfield Park essay (which I am about to post) I realised that it relies on an assumption that may not be widely shared--that the rise of the realistic novel in the 18th centurywas a significant factor in the development of modern thought--so I will discuss it here first.]

The novel’s serious concern with the daily lives of ordinary people seems to depend upon two important general conditions; the society must value every individual highly enough to consider him the proper subject of serious literature; and there must be enough variety of belief and action among ordinary people for a detailed account of them to be of interest to other ordinary people, the readers of novels. It is also probable that neither of these conditions for the existence of the novel obtained very widely until fairly recently, because they both depend on the rise of a society characterised by that vast complex of interdependent factors denounced by the term ‘individualism’.

Even the word is recent, dating only from the middle of the nineteenth century. In all ages, no doubt, and in all societies, some people have been ‘individualists’ in the sense that they were egocentric, unique or conspicuously independent of current opinions and habits; but the concept of individualism involves much more than this. It posits a whole society mainly governed by the idea of an individual’s intrinsic independence both from other individuals and from the multifarious allegiance to past modes of thought and action denoted by the word ‘tradition’–a force that is always social, not individual. The existence of such a society, in turn, obviously depends on a special type of economic and political organisation and on an appropriate ideology; more specifically, on an economic and political organisation which allows its members a very wide range of choices in their actions, and on an ideology primarily based not on the tradition of the past, but on the autonomy of the individual, irrespective of his particular social status or personal capacity. It is generally agreed that modern society is uniquely individualist in these respects, and that of the many historical causes for its emergence two are of supreme importance–the rise of modern industrial capitalism and the spread of Protestantism, especially in its Calvinist and Puritan forms.

Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, p. 60

We think of ourselves as living in an Enlightened age, tending to see pre-scientific people as underdeveloped and superstitious. Perhaps before Levi Strauss drew attention to the practice, ’savage’ was routinely used to refer to non-industrial foreign cultures. Even our own pre-scientific forbears tend to be thought of in this way (Brad De Long, for example, uses ‘medieval’ in this way: see here and here). Of course there is a certain ambivalence as as the romantic idea of the  ‘noble savage’, promoted by Rousseau, also has strong currency.

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Posted in literary history | Tagged Defoe, Enlightenment, ethics, Ian Watt, Jane Austen, journalism, literary history, philosophy, printing, rationalism, religion, Romanticism, Rousseau | Leave a comment

Scott on Emma

By chris | Published: 4 November

 

This post is part of my series of posts looking at the impact of the novel on Enlightenment ethics. It follows the previous post giving Johnson’s view of the realistic novel set out in The Rambler No 4.

The publisher of Emma, John Murray, asked Walter Scott to review the novel, which appeared anonymously in the Quarterly Review in March 1816. The article is regarded as a milestone in literary criticism, setting out Scott’s assessment of the modern realistic novel. Unlike Johnson, the ethics aren’t the subject of Scott’s article he still ends up discussing the novel in quite similar terms, even more so at the end of the article:

[Jane Austen's fictional world] affords to those who frequent it a pleasure nearly allied with the experience of their own social habits; and what is of some importance, the youthful wanderer may return from his promenade to the ordinary business of life, without any chance of having his head turned by the recollection of the scene through which he has been wandering.

The following is just the first part of Scott’s article, leaving off when he starts to review novels, (omitting Mansfield Park, to Jane Austen’s understandable chagrin).

The bold type is my own emphasis.

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Posted in literary history | Tagged Enlightenment, ethics, Jane Austen, novel, philosophy, rationalism, Romanticism, sentimentalism, Walter Scott | Leave a comment

Johnson on the Realistic Novel

By chris | Published: 4 November

As part of my enquiries in into the impact of the modern realistic novel on Enlightenment (in preparation for the conclusion of the Mansfield Park essay) I am reproducing the text of Samuel Johnson’s Rambler No. 4 (31st March 1750, taken from here). It is widely assumed to be a response to the publication of Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) and Smollett’s Roderick Random. There was a real concern, reflected here, in the Eighteenth century for the impact that the new mass-produced, realistic art form would have on the personal ethics of its readers, especially those lacking in an education that might have assisted them in critically assessing what they were reading. A concern that may seem quaint to the modern liberal reader, if not perhaps contemptuous.

To help scan the article, I have highlighted some key phrases in bold.

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Posted in literary history | Tagged ethics, Jane Austen, modern realistic novel, moraliser, moralist, philosophy, Romanticism, Samuel Johnson | Leave a comment

Wallace and Gromit

By chris | Published: 4 November

Bringing up Google’s home page I was greeted by Wallace and Gromit. I have a slightly elevated interest in these Aardman creations, being like the studio, a Bristolian, and my father working in broadcasting and knowing the founders from long before they hit the big time.

The Aardman website is, as you would expect, outstanding. (Quiz: Which was the first character to make Aardman famous [in the UK]? What was the title of this short animation fil that won them their first Oscar and for which UK advertising campaign was it adapted? Put your answers in the comments, the first correct answer gets a special award. [No peeking at the Aardman website.])

[Please excuse the indulgence. I am working on a couple of posts on the rise of the modern novel in preparation for the conclusion of the Mansfield Park essay.]

Posted in topical | Tagged Wallace and Gromit | Leave a comment

The Values of Science

By chris | Published: 3 November

Aidan has responded to my Nihilism post with another thoughtful comment, which I recommend everyone read. Obviously I read a fair amount, and some pretty good stuff, but this is right up there. If the true quality of a blog were reflected in the quality of the responses I am being truly flattered. (And, of course, nobody need apologise for writing such comments–please everyone, be as eloquent and expansive as you want.)

I entirely agree with Aidan’s point about the LHC being buttons and relatively harmless next to the other scandals. I was of course using it to point out our crisis in values.

I will pick up on a couple of strands of Aidan’s comment and work in some comments on other developments.

So far, so good; except that the Standard Model is every bit as badly placed relative to the truth as neo-Darwinian Theory. Indeed, just as random mutation and natural selection have been repeatedly and convincingly shown to be insufficient for the generation and organisation of life, so, at least in the eyes of those who have eyes to see, the Standard Model has long since been taken apart and revealed as not just an incomplete theory but a complete pile of rubbish. Assertions and speculations based on the Model continue to issue forth unabated, however, with all the institutional majesty and intellectual authority of Science behind them. Witness the struggles of the plasma cosmologists [www.plasmacosmology.net] and the ‘Electric Sky’ people [www.thunderbolts.info] – scientists themselves, some of them Nobel prize-winning – to get their simple, truthful observations and testable predictions out into the journals in the face of ridicule, suppression and outright oppression. Unfortunately for them, the idea of a Big Bang appeals to many creationists since it dovetails nicely with their theology, so there is no equivalent of an ID crowd to amplify this argument in the public domain.

Jeremy Dunning-Davies’ describes some of the political problems that lead to scientific research being directed by political factors in an article at the thunderbolts site: Science in Turmoil – Are we Funding Fraud? You can then check out Michael Behe documenting the latest episode in probably the most incendiary such controversy: his critique of the ’standard’ narrative of the evolution of the cell. This is incendiary because Behe is considered a heretic, raising questions about matters considered articles of faith and seen as foundational to the scientific enterprise.

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Posted in topical | Tagged Al Gore, climate science, ethics, General Relativity, global warming, philosophy, QED, Quantum Gravitation, Standard Theory, Theory of Everything | Leave a comment

Nihilism

By chris | Published: 2 November

Aidan has written a splendid and thoughtful comment on the Blog News post that is really a whole article in itself. I recommend everyone read it. I am particularly grateful for it because while there is much in it I agree with it also essays a very interesting criticism, that goes to the heart of what I think Jane Austen was trying to say, which I talked about in my post on Twain on Austen where I discuss Austen’s Romantic critics.

First I will quote the section of Aidan’s comment that presents his critique.

Far from moving into harmonious order, however, our civilisation is travelling away from it in the opposite direction with ever-greater intensity, appearing hell-bent on becoming exactly that relativistic chaos in which it increasingly believes. Personally, I do not see how this movement can be successfully reversed, halted or even prevented from accelerating further, although as individuals and groups we remain free to go the other way at any time. The less we come into conflict with the culture, the more unobstructed our path will be in that better direction. I do not think it is a counsel of despair to say that there is no point looking for hope where there can be none, e.g., political or economic reform; instead, we must look for hope where it is to be found, namely in the teachings of the world’s wisest sages.

All I would add is that everything in the world is found inside Plato’s cave. The sun in the sky outside the cave is not the same as the flickering firelight that makes the shadows dance so fascinatingly upon the cave walls. Everyone is watching those shadows. The real issue is actually not ethics but liberation. Ethics will not get us out of the cave, no matter how well we behave.

That last sentence sums it up so well, ‘Ethics will not get us out of the cave, no matter how well we behave’, and I bet it speaks for most people that read the blog. Before addressing it I would like to amplify a bit on that parts of Aidan’s comment that we agree on with reference to other developments. Then I will address the whole.

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Posted in topical | Tagged economic growth, ethics, Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, materialism, philosophy, physicalism, Romanticism | 1 Comment

The Satirical Inheritance

By chris | Published: 30 October

This post is part of an essay on Mansfield Park, being posted in instalments.

Mansfield Park

Preface

  1. Introduction
  2. Method
  3. Critiques
    1. The Moral Law Within
    2. Fanny and Edmund
    3. The Crawfords
    4. Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram
    5. Mrs Norris
    6. The Quiet Thing
  4. Enlightenment
    1. Kantian Deontology
    2. King Lear
    3. Romanticism
    4. The Satirical Inheritance
  5. Conclusion

Epilogue: Diminutive Greatness & Fanny Price

4.4. The Satirical Inheritance

Ian Watt has shown how Burney and then Austen unified the realism of assessment, Fielding’s comic irony, with Richardson’s psychological realism of presentation and improved on Defoe’s analysis to expose ‘The economic basis of society’.  But, asSoutham has noted, Jane Austen ‘can get the loftiest of Professors to unbend, abandon, for a time, his academic ways and speak from the heart’ and Mansfield Park makes a very self-conscious reference to Laurence Sterne’s A sentimental Journey.

“You have, undoubtedly; and there are situations in which very high spirits would denote insensibility. Your prospects, however, are too fair to justify want of spirits.  You have a very smiling scene before you.”

“Do you mean literally or figuratively?  Literally, I conclude.  Yes, certainly, the sun shines, and the park looks very cheerful.  But unluckily that iron gate, that ha-ha, give me a feeling of restraint and hardship. ‘I cannot get out,’ as the starling said.”  As she spoke, and it was with expression, she walked to the gate: he followed her.  “Mr. Rushworth is so long fetching this key!”

— Mansfield Park (I.X)

In my return back through the passage, I heard the same words repeated twice over; and, looking up, I saw it was a starling hung in a little cage. – “I can’t get out, – I can’t get out,” said the starling.

I stood looking at the bird: and to every person who came through the passage it ran fluttering to the side towards which they approach’d it, with the same lamentation of its captivity.  “I can’t get out,” said the starling. – God help thee! said I, but I’ll let thee out, cost what it will; so I turned about the cage to get to the door: it was twisted and double twisted so fast with wire, there was no getting it open without pulling the cage to pieces. – I took both hands to it.

The bird flew to the place where I was attempting his deliverance, and thrusting his head through the trellis pressed his breast against it as if impatient. – I fear, poor creature! said I, I cannot set thee at liberty. – “No,” said the starling, –  “I can’t get out – I can’t get out,” said the starling.

I vow I never had my affections more tenderly awakened; nor do I remember an incident in my life, where the dissipated spirits, to which my reason had been a bubble, were so suddenly call’d home.  Mechanical as the notes were, yet so true in tune to nature were they chanted, that in one moment they overthrew all my systematic reasonings upon the Bastile; and I heavily walked upstairs, unsaying every word I had said in going down them.

— 

Laurence Sterne, A sentimental Journey, ‘The Passport—The Hotel at Paris.’

There is much happening here—all the others are in motion, with Mary, unable to sit still, taking Edmund over the serpentine path, Julia is imprisoned by her politeness, wretched under it, Maria feels constrained by the locked gates of conventionality with Henry offering her a way out (that a locked garden represents virginity in Medieval iconography is probably significant), while Mr Rushworth is ‘posting away as if upon life and death’ (I.X) to retrieve the key.  Only Fanny is stationary, trying to come to terms with her unrequited love of Edmund and jealousy of Mary.

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Posted in Mansfield Park | Tagged Enlightenment, ethics, Jane Austen, Jonathan Swift, Lawrence Sterne, literary criticism, modernity, philosophy, rationalism, Romanticism, satire | Leave a comment

Romanticism

By chris | Published: 30 October

This post is part of an essay on Mansfield Park, being posted in instalments.

Mansfield Park

Preface

  1. Introduction
  2. Method
  3. Critiques
    1. The Moral Law Within
    2. Fanny and Edmund
    3. The Crawfords
    4. Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram
    5. Mrs Norris
    6. The Quiet Thing
  4. Enlightenment
    1. Kantian Deontology
    2. King Lear
    3. Romanticism
    4. The Satirical Inheritance
  5. Conclusion

Epilogue: Diminutive Greatness & Fanny Price

4.3. Romanticism

Miss Austen seems to be saturated with the Platonic idea that the giving and receiving of knowledge, the active formation of another’s character, or the more passive growth under another’s guidance, is the truest and strongest foundation of love.

[…]

There are only two marriages in all the six novels that really end badly; and only one of these conies into the action of the story,—Rushworth’s marriage with Maria in Mansfield Park. Thus the great coil Miss Austen makes to bring the right people together is really much ado about nothing. A story is told of a London curate, who, seeing many couples before him, told them to ‘sort themselves,’ and proceeded to marry them. Two pairs found themselves mis-sorted. The curate, not knowing much of canon law, thought the case difficult, and tried to arrange matters as they stood; and the two couples were with little difficulty, and no ill consequences, persuaded to ‘bide as they were.’ In Mansfield Park, Miss Austen tells us that this might easily have been managed. Yet she of course devotes all the machinery of the novel to bring together the true hero and heroine.

Richard Simpson

Simpson, a noted Shakespearean scholar, is not impressed with Austen’s romantic scepticism, treating as ‘predestination of love, that preordained fitness’ as ‘mere moonshine’ and goes on to make the usual biographical speculations. The thought that to a realistic novelist ‘predestination of love, that preordained fitness’ might actually be ‘mere moonshine’ doesn’t seem to have occurred to him.  Simpson is objecting to the plot’s delicate balance in which when we and Fanny leave Henry at Portsmouth, Henry has a choice of returning and attending to his estate in Everingham or stopping off in London to further ‘trifle’ with Maria. As the narrator suggests, if he doesn’t tangle with Maria then Mary succeeds with Edmund, clearing the way for Henry to close the deal with Fanny.

With this counterfactual speculation Austen gets to a twofer, getting to work through to its conclusion what happens when ‘the freaks of a cold-blooded vanity’ (III.XVII) are indulged for too long, but also to offer up the possibility of redemption and reformation should Henry make a different choice.

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King Lear

By chris | Published: 30 October

This post is part of an essay on Mansfield Park, being posted in instalments.

Mansfield Park

Preface

  1. Introduction
  2. Method
  3. Critiques
    1. The Moral Law Within
    2. Fanny and Edmund
    3. The Crawfords
    4. Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram
    5. Mrs Norris
    6. The Quiet Thing
  4. Enlightenment
    1. Kantian Deontology
    2. King Lear
    3. Romanticism
    4. The Satirical Inheritance
  5. Conclusion

Epilogue: Diminutive Greatness & Fanny Price

4.2. King Lear

Seneca also wrote nine tragedies on Greek mythological subjects, more designed to be recited or read than acted. They are somewhat melodramatic and violent and had an influence on Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy in England out of all proportion to their merits.

Robin Wood, Senecca

We have already noted the parallels between Mansfield Park and King Lear.  Although King Lear is regarded by many as Shakespeare’s finest play, the tragic ending departs from tradition, Cordelia’s fate being as controversial in the 18th century as Maria’s fate in the 20th century, Tate’s 1681 adaptation with the marriage of Cordelia and Edmund gaining favour.  In Johnson’s preface to King Lear he admitted to being unsettled by Shakespeare’s violation of poetical justice, giving a guarded approval to Tate’s adaptation, concluding with a reflection on the central point of the play.

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Posted in Mansfield Park | Tagged Christianity, Enlightenment, ethics, Jane Austen, King Lear, Mansfield Park, philosophy, rationalism, Romanticism, sentimentalism, Shakespeare | Leave a comment

Ritter on Obama

By chris | Published: 30 October

 

In the earlier article on Afghanistan I quoted Ritter’s ‘fierce’ analysis of the situation facing President Obama. It is also remarkable for a fierce judgement of Obama (quoted below) should he ignore his Vice President and escalate the US commitment by agreeing to McChrytal’s request for 40,000 extra soldiers. Such clarity in ethical matters is unusual, Ritter applying his formidable analytical skills to elaborate a clear ethical conclusion. The high rhetorical tempo I think is entirely consonant with the goal of trying to stop a costly and tragic mistake. That Obama has delayed this decision to allow it to get properly deliberated is I think a sign of strength and confidence.

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