25 April 2011

Why is Congress Stalled?

Augustine of Hippo, in the Confessions, Book VIII, Section 9:
Why does this strange phenomenon occur? What causes it? The mind gives an order to the body and is at once obeyed, but when it gives an order to itself, it is resisted. The mind commands the hand to move and is so readily obeyed that the order can scarcely be distinguished from its execution. Yet the mind is mind and the hand is part of the body. But when the mind commands the mind to make an act of will, these two are one and the same and yet the order is not obeyed. Why does this happen? What is the cause of it? The mind orders itself to make an act of will, and it would not give this order unless it willed to do so; yet it does not carry out its own command. But it does not fully will to do this thing and therefore its orders are not fully given. It gives the order only in so far as it wills, and in so far as it does not will the order is not carried out. For the will commands that an act of will should be made, and it gives this command to itself, not to some other will. The reason, then, why the command is not obeyed is that it is not given with the full will. For if the will were full, it would not command itself to be full, since it would be so already. It is therefore no strange phenomenon partly to will to do something and partly to will not to do it. It is a disease of the mind, which does not wholly rise to the heights where it is lifted by the truth, because it is weighed down by habit. So there are two wills in us, because neither by itself is the whole will, and each possesses what the other lacks.
So perhaps we could argue that the Congress is of two wills - not Democratic and Republican, but rather one will oriented toward principle and the other oriented toward expediency.

17 April 2011

Advice from one of the Seven Sages

It may well be that, as many are fond of saying, this is the greatest country ever. Let us suppose it to be so, even though it is hard to ignore many cogent counter-arguments. But in our supposed superiority, why do we not heed the advice of Chilon? The Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, in his Pensieri, left incomplete at his death in 1837, explains (as translated by J. G. Nichols):
Chilon, who is numbered among the Seven Sages of Greece, advised that the man who is physically strong should be gentle in his behavior, with the purpose, he said, of inspiring in others reverence rather than fear. Affability, a pleasant manner, and even humility are never superfluous in those who, in beauty or intellect or in anything else much desired by the world, are manifestly superior to the majority. This is because the fault for which they have to beg pardon is so grievous, and the enemy they have to placate is so cruel and exacting. The former is superiority, and the latter is envy. The ancients believed this. When they found themselves honoured and in prosperity, they thought it necessary to placate the very gods, expiating with humiliation, with offerings, and with voluntary penances the scarcely expiable sin of happiness and excellence.

12 April 2011

Manichees on the TV

So I'm thinking that when Saint Augustine was writing this about the founder of the Manichean heresy, he wasn't trying to foreshadow the Beck. Indeed, given the prominent mention of the motions of earth, sun, and moon, perhaps he was anticipating O'Reilly?
[Manes] wrote at great length on scientific subjects, only to be proved wrong by genuine scientists, thereby making perfectly clear the true nature of his insight into more abstruse matters. Because he did not want them to think lightly of him, he tried to convince his followers that the Holy Spirit, who comforts and enriches your faithful servants, was present in him personally and with full powers. Therefore, when he was shown to be wrong in what he said about the sky and the stars and the movements of the sun and the moon, it was obvious that he was guilty of sacrilegious presumption, because, although these matters are no part of religious doctrine, he was not only ignorant of the subjects which he taught, but also taught what was false, yet was demented and conceited enough to claim that his utterances were those of a divine person.

[This is from the Confessions, Book V, Section 5, as translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin. Love that name.]

06 April 2011

Ahhh - Polish coffee!

When I visited Poland, I didn't know if the quality of the coffee was intrinsic, or due to the fact that I was enjoying it in sidewalk cafes in the old market square in Krakow. Even so, there's no way it was as good as it apparently was at the turn of the 19th century. Here is Adam Mickiewicz describing it in his landmark poem Pan Tadeusz, as translated by Kenneth Mackenzie:
There is no coffee like the Polish kind;
In all well-ordered households you will find
A special coffee maker – ‘tis her charge
To purchase from the river-trader’s barge
Or from the city store the finest beans,
And to prepare it she has secret means,
As black as coal, as amber clearly glowing,
As mocha fragrant, thick as honey flowing.

05 April 2011

Beck Before Beck?

The Wisdom of Amene-em-opet was first found by Wallis Budge in 1888. It appears to have been written in the Egypt of the New Kingdom, during the reigns of the Ramesses, sometime between 1279 and 1069 BCE. It is particularly well-known because so many passages parallel verses in the Proverbs of Solomon. What seems to have been missed, though, is a brilliant description of The Beck, three millennia before his time:
Pass by the speeches of the always aggravated man
faster than wind over wave –
He is one who destroys, builds only with his tongue,
so that he speaks of things in empty words.
He answers, aching to do battle,
and his purpose is to injure;
He fosters strife among all people,
loading his speech with lies.
He knits a slippery meaning out of intertwisted words,
fighting and quarreling he comes and goes,
Then dines at home
while his retorts are festering outside.
One day his wrongs will rise to censure him,
woe to his children then!
If only Khnum would take him back into his hands –
to the potter’s wheel with the hot-mouthed man! –
That he might knead some sense into his senseless skull.
For he is like the jackal’s offspring in the cattle-pen:
It turns its eye against its own companions,
it makes the herdsmen gibber,
It runs before the wind like stormy weather,
it dims the brightness of the sun,
It flicks its tail like the young crocodile,
it leaps upon its prey –
Its lips are sweetened, its tongue darts out,
and a fire burns in its belly.
Make no attempt to humor such a one –
let the respect that once you offered be no more.