29 January 2007

Monday Quote Frenzy - From the Diary of Samuel Pepys

Three hundred and forty years later, we still have few that mind anything abstruse and curious.
Up and to the office, and at noon to the Coffeehouse, where I sat with Sir G. Ascue1 and Sir William Petty, who in discourse is, methinks, one of the most rational men that ever I heard speak with a tongue, having all his notions the most distinct and clear, and, among other things (saying, that in all his life these three books were the most esteemed and generally cried up for wit in the world “Religio Medici,” “Osborne’s Advice to a Son,” and “Hudibras”), did say that in these — in the two first principally — the wit lies, and confirming some pretty sayings, which are generally like paradoxes, by some argument smartly and pleasantly urged, which takes with people who do not trouble themselves to examine the force of an argument, which pleases them in the delivery, upon a subject which they like; whereas, as by many particular instances of mine, and others, out of Osborne, he did really find fault and weaken the strength of many of Osborne’s arguments, so as that in downright disputation they would not bear weight; at least, so far, but that they might be weakened, and better found in their rooms to confirm what is there said. He shewed finely whence it happens that good writers are not admired by the present age; because there are but few in any age that do mind anything that is abstruse and curious; and so longer before any body do put the true praise, and set it on foot in the world, the generality of mankind pleasing themselves in the easy delights of the world, as eating, drinking, dancing, hunting, fencing, which we see the meanest men do the best, those that profess it. A gentleman never dances so well as the dancing master, and an ordinary fiddler makes better musique for a shilling than a gentleman will do after spending forty, and so in all the delights of the world almost.

– from Pepys’ diary entry for January 27, 1663/64

The Diary is serialized at http://www.pepysdiary.com.

22 January 2007

Monday Quote Frenzy – Keynes on Ideas

While these concluding remarks from John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) are directed at economics, they can be applied to theoretical systems of all sorts. Indeed, I first encountered them in the context of educational theory.
[T]he ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.

15 January 2007

Hard Advice

Francine Prose, in How to Read Like a Writer, quotes Isaac Babel on the painful responsibilities of writing:
I go over each sentence, time and again. I start by cutting all the words it can do without. You have to keep your eye on the job because words are very sly, the rubbishy ones go into hiding and you have to dig them out – repetitions, synonyms, things that simply don’t mean anything. … I go over every image, metaphor, comparison, to see if they are fresh and accurate. If you can’t find the right adjective for a noun, leave it alone. Let the noun stand by itself. A comparison must be as accurate as a slide rule, and as natural as the smell of fennel. … I take out all the participles and adverbs I can. … Adverbs are lighter. They can even lend you wings in a way. But too many of them make the language spineless. … A noun needs only one adjective, the choicest. Only a genius can afford two adjectives to one noun. … Line is as important in prose as in an engraving. It has to be clear and hard. … But the most important thing of all … is not to kill the story by working on it. Or else all your labor has been in vain. It’s like walking a tight-rope. Well, there it is. … We ought all to take an oath not to mess up our job.

02 January 2007

Monday Quote Frenzy - On Evidence from Torture

Antiphon of Rhamnus was a professional speech writer in the 5th century BCE. His biography is sufficiently unclear that we don’t even know if he is the same person as Antiphon the Sophist, who wrote an early version of the natural rights theory and got into an argument with Socrates. Much of his business was writing arguments for people in court cases, and some of these have been saved as the Orations. They are available online in both English and Greek on the Perseus classics collection.

The fifth oration was written for a guy named Euxitheus, who was accused of killing a guy named Herodes. As part of the argument, he addressed a custom of ancient criminal investigations: torturing slaves and noncitizens to get testimony.
[29] After I had departed for Aenus and the boat on which Herodes and I had been drinking had reached Mytilene, the prosecution first of all went on board and conducted a search. On finding the bloodstains, they claimed that this was where Herodes had met his end. But the suggestion proved an unfortunate one, as the blood turned out to be that of the animals sacrificed. So they abandoned that line, and instead seized the two men and examined them under torture.

[30] The first, who was tortured there and then, said nothing to damage me. The second was tortured several days later, after being in the prosecution's company throughout the interval. It was he who was induced by them to incriminate me falsely. I will produce witnesses to confirm these facts.

[31] You have listened to evidence for the length of the delay before the man's examination under torture; now notice the actual character of that examination. The slave was doubtless promised his freedom: it was certainly to the prosecution alone that he could look for release from his sufferings. Probably both of these considerations induced him to make the false charges against me which he did; he hoped to gain his freedom, and his one immediate wish was to end the torture.

[32] I need not remind you, I think, that witnesses under torture are biased in favor of those who do most of the torturing; they will say anything likely to gratify them. It is their one chance of salvation, especially when the victims of their lies happen not to be present. Had I myself proceeded to give orders that the slave should be racked for not telling the truth, that step in itself would doubtless have been enough to make him stop incriminating me falsely. As it was, the examination was conducted by men who also knew what their own interests required.

[33] Now as long as he believed that he had something to gain by falsely incriminating me, he firmly adhered to that course; but on finding that he was doomed, he at once reverted to the truth and admitted that it was our friends here who had induced him to lie about me. However, neither his persevering attempts at falsehood nor his subsequent confession of the truth helped him.

[34] They took him, took the man upon whose disclosures they are resting their case against me, and put him to death,1 a thing which no one else would have dreamed of doing. As a rule, informers are rewarded with money, if they are free, and with their liberty, if they are slaves. The prosecution paid for their information with death, and that in spite of a protest from my friends that they should postpone the execution until my return.

Friedrich Solmsen, in his 1975 book Intellectual Experiments of the Greek Enlightenment, says that this is the earliest argument against the use of torture to get evidence. You would think we’d learn by now.