Tactical Thomism

photo 1 (8)Pretty frequently, especially during the summer, volunteer groups come spend a day working for the nonprofit that is my day job. They take the ferry over from Battery Park to Governors Island and for a couple of hours they get to do some of the hands-on aquaculture work that the kids do year-round– the students at the school the nonprofit supports, I mean, who spend their afternoons learning how to drive (and build) boats and raise oysters and SCUBA dive in the Harbor.  For a couple of hours, these adult volunteers get a taste of that life, and one of my favorite things is watching them as they do.

They tend to be earnest knowledge workers of various kinds– fledgling lawyers, software developers, that sort of thing. They always have water bottles and they’re always in that strange mood that white collar people are in when they see their colleagues in shorts and t-shirts.

Today the group was from a data analysis company called enigma.io.  Its mission is to make public data accessible.  I think this is probably a very worthy mission.  Today, they learned to haul heavy stacks of trays full of half-grown oysters out of  the East River; to tell the difference between several month old baby oysters and yearlings who had detached from their parent clusters; to clean the fouled trays and re-stack the oysters properly; to tie two half-hitches in the bridles that truss up the stacks of trays that hold the oysters, and to lower the trays back down again into the water, where they’ll spend another year– or however long they need– feeding on algae and growing big enough to get deposited on the reefs that the students will monitor and tend.

The hatchery manager, showing one of the data analysts how to snug up the half-hitches tightly, says: “do you have good finger strength?”

“Well,” she says., “..I type a lot.”

A friend and I used to bat around the idea of creating a curriculum of what we called Tactical Thomism, modeled on Tactical Urbanism.  It’d be a set of experiences that demonstrate the reality of good philosophy.  I don’t really know enough yet to call myself a thomist, but I will anyway.  And it seems to me that this oyster-farming workshop could well be a part of such a curriculum.  It at least teaches, on a primal level, the reality that we are physical creatures who live in a physical world; it teaches the pleasure of movement and of learning physical skill; it teaches that when you do some of the tending and keeping that Adam was made to do, you feel… human, you feel human.

I came home today on the F train covered in Harbor mud, because I’d spent a little bit of the day working alongside them.  It’s been a while since I’d done that: ridden the train smelling faintly of the Harbor.   It’s not an objectionable smell– not after the Clean Water Act of 1972 and years of remediation.  But it is not a smell you get if you analyze data all day.  And I’m happy for myself, and happy for the data analysts.  This is a good world.

Honey through the Comb Sifting

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If I were a musician, here’s what I’d do: I’d take the music of Borodin and set the Song of Songs to it.  Because that’s basically what Robert Wright and George Forrest did with Kismet.  Yes, I know that a) it’s schlocky 20th C. Broadway, and b) it only even ATTEMPTS to be “middle eastern” via a vaguely Arabian Nights/pop-Islamic set of cultural references.

But still.  I’m pretty sure that if you want to get at least a hint, as much as you can, as a modern person, of what the culture and images and emotion and juice were that Solomon was working with in the Song, you could do worse than to listen to “And This is My Beloved” and “Night of My Nights.”

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At the very least the former might help the poor long-suffering youth pastors among us have some answers when the fourteen-year-old boys start giggling about “Your teeth are like a flock of newly shorn ewes…Your temples are like a slice of pomegranate… Your belly is like a heap of wheat.”

Imagine the father of the Shulamite (if he were around, which he apparently is not) prompting her, as the Poet prompts Marsinah:

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“You’d said his eyes were…”
“…sometimes bright.”
“But only sometimes?”
“Often dark.”
“Well, that is plain.”
“Plain words can’t tell the thrill…”
“Then tell it how you will.”

She:

His arms are rods of gold30
set with topaz.
His body is like polished ivory
decorated with lapis lazuli.
His legs are pillars of marble
set on bases of pure gold.
His appearance is like Lebanon,
choice as its cedars.
His mouth is sweetness itself;
he is altogether lovely.

This is my beloved, this is my friend,

daughters of Jerusalem.

Dawn’s promising skies30-d
Petals on a pool drifting
Imagine these in one pair of eyes
And this is my beloved.

Strange spice from the south
Honey through the comb sifting
Imagine these in one eager mouth
And this is my beloved.

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I’ll just also point out, for those of you who insist on skipping straight to Christ and the Church when you read Song of Songs, that in fact in the Stranger in Paradise scene, Marsinah does mistake the Caliph for a gardener.

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Ripped from the Headlines

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In the twelfth century, the Church was represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the theologians who investigated religious doctrine, and the jurists who established ecclesiastical law.

This is their story.

[Click Here]

Just listened to a Peter Adamson podcast.  And despite its title, I still didn’t get it until I heard the intro.

For the full (and excellent) ep, go here to listen to History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps Episode #219, titled Law and Order: Gratian and Peter Lombard.

And huge apologies to Richard Brooks for effacing him in the pic above. It’s just that Peter Lombard had his exact same posture in the engraving I found.

“A redemption which was like the mother of my other redemptions and they became to it as daughters:” A Nagrela Miscellaney

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Samuel ha-Nagid (“the Prince”), born Samuel ibn Nagrela (993-1056,) was a poet, philologist, legal scholar, philosopher, military leader and statesman in Andalusia during the time of Moorish rule– the so-called “Golden Age” of Jewish culture in Spain; Sepharad, which later generations of Jews looked back on as a cultural homeland, a foothold that they’d been given even in the diaspora.  (The name is taken from a brief mention in the first chapter of Obadiah: And the captivity of this host of the children of Israel, that are among the Canaanites, even unto Zarephath, and the captivity of Jerusalem, that is in Sepharad [Sfard], shall possess the cities of the South.) 

After the end of this era, there is a sense of being doubly exiled: from Jerusalem after 70 a.d. and from this cultural and political space of beauty and safety, symbolized by Alhambra.

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Mountain of Sand

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Do you remember the mountain pass of sand which I crossed alone while fleeing from you and afraid?

Even today I am in transit over you,—but behind me are tens of thousands who obey me like their father

And wait for my utterances as for the rain and attend to my wisdom as to prophecy. Because of this bless them for me my God,—may they follow after me willingly today.

Answer Me

Build me up like a tower on the heights of your sanctuary,
And set me like a seal upon your heart.
Make me drunk with the blood of the foe on the day of war
And satisfy me with his flesh on the night of redemption.
Place the cup of salvation upon my right hand
That my tongue may give voice in joy to a song of love.
For nearly a thousand years I have declared my sorrow
With many tears and with fasting,—will You not answer me?

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Take this Book

samuel_ha-nagidJoseph, take this book that I have selected for you from the choice works in the language of the Arabs.

I have copied it,—while the killing spear was sharpened by our hands and the sword drawn.

And death decrees one army to be exchanged for another, even (life’s) time (for its demise).

But I cease not from teaching you though death’s mouth is opened all about me,

In order that wisdom may come upon you,—for it is dearer to me than discovering my foes defeated.

Take it and reflect upon it and quit the crowds who deride language and speech.

Know that the man of understanding is like a tree of sweet fruit whose leaves are healing remedies,

While the fool is like the tree of the forest whose limbs and branches will be consumed by fire in the end.

Cold Days Have Come

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The month of ‘Av has ended even ‘Elul and their heat is gone;
Also Tishri is gathered in and like them has passed.
Cold days have come and the new wine
Is red and its voice is still in the vat.
Therefore my friend, go among our companions
So that each may do as he intends.

Some said: Look at the clouds giving rain
And hear the thunder of the heavens on high,
And see the frost and the bonfire’s flame;
One descends while the other lifts and rises.
Come, drink from the cup and drink again
From the pitcher, night and day.

Translated by Leon J. Weinberger
from Leon J. Weinberger, trans.,
Jewish Prince in Moslem Spain: Selected Poems of Samuel ibn Nagrela.
(Tuscaloosa and London: The University of Alabama Press, 1997).
Copyright © 1973 by The University of Alabama Press.

For more, see here, here, and here.

For the idea of the double diaspora, or double exile, see here.

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Meme credit: David A. Wacks

El que me esparsio me recogeria.

He who scattered me will gather me in.

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My beef with esotericism: a poem.

…the second half of a poem, anyway.

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We don’t know all: we know that we aren’t wise
Texts have, thank God, a golden wealth of deeps
But this much we do know: the great surprise
has come, the news has spread, the sower reaps:

The double-spoken words of the first book
Became our common sense, and noised about.
Truth into which the angels longed to look
Became the jubilant credal rooftop shout.

We know what’s in your mind: that this was bait
To help us live beneath an empty sky
A thing to make us yearn and love and hate
And just another shabby noble lie:

There was no resurrection from the dead
There were no graveclothes folded in the tomb
There was no flesh, but metaphor instead:
You see, “Truth” became “Man” in the “Virgin’s” “Womb.”

But that will never be: there’s no divide
between initiates and fools: enlightened ones
with scare quotes as the weapons of their pride,
and a mob deceived that God had made them sons.

Oh– more will be revealed, there’s more to learn
More to decipher, and delight, and guess
But where we all began we won’t return,
Repudiating what we all confess.

Nothing’s hidden that won’t be revealed
No inner ring without an outward call
Jerusalem, Rome, Athens: all are healed;
Nehemiah’s built the city’s wall.
The City that our poleis had concealed
We’ll rule by gift-right, or not rule at all.

So, once again admit that you don’t know.
Stop trying to buy the gift you can’t afford,
And meet at last the Way you ought to go.
Let Lady Wisdom lead you to her Lord.

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Paging Gerald O’Hara

I somehow managed to be listening to a podcast called The Soul of Enterprise, a VoiceAmerica production squarely in the George Gilder camp: Oh you silly person, thinking that the physical stuff around us matters in economic questions is just terribly naive and also Marxist; to be a real modern person you must understand that stuff– “atoms”– is nothing, nothing to be thankful for, nothing to profit from: the real wealth in the world is either a) the human spirit/human creativity/insight/intelligence or b) (which amounts to the same thing) “information,” which is the same thing as what exists in a computer, and is (apparently) made out of bits, here conceived as something like spiritual particles of information/creativity etc.

It’s a terribly hyperventelating worldview, fairly Platonist, kind of interesting. Those Christians who buy into it (they tend to be West Coasters) regularly imply, if they do not argue outright, that capitalism (in this sense) is more spiritual (and therefore good, naturally… because “spiritual”=nonphysical=good) than Marxism, which is “materialist.” Basically they’re AnCap gnostics– think Docetists who subscribe to Wired and read a lot of William Gibson.

You know the drill. Anyway, the specific ep was called How Much does the Economy Weigh, and it was dedicated to “explore[ing] the following insight from Thomas Sowell: ‘After all, the caveman had the same natural resources at their disposal as we have today, and the difference between their standard of living and ours is a difference between the knowledge they could bring to bear on those resources and the knowledge used today.’ We will also discuss the five stages in human economic history, from hunter and gatherers to the Industrial Revolution, and now a knowledge economy; the differences between data, information and knowledge; the physical fallacy and why we continue to cling to this outdated mode of thinking about our economy; and how hard it is to make a toaster from scratch. A framework for leveraging your organization’s intellectual capital will be presented.”

Look, it’s not that none of this has any merit, or that it’s stupid, and obviously the Christians who are into this are not ACTUALLY heretics. And sometimes one needs some of these ideas, in order to counterbalance one’s usual diet of Porchery.  But halfway through the podcast, Ron Baker said this to Ed Kless, and the level of irony was so high that I actually had to break my blogging slackerhood to write about it.

Baker:

WhatsApp has just been sold for 17 billion dollars. WhatsApp was four guys and a contract programmer in Georgia. The country, not the state [snickering.]…That tells you the world has definitely changed, from an atom to a bit-type economy, to an economy in mind.

One of my favorite examples, Ed, is if you just look at Gone With the Wind, right? Here’s a movie, it’s whatever, it’s on tape, it was produced in 1939. Would you rather have the rights to, or own, that movie, or would you rather have… I dunno, think of the most expensive car from 1939? I’d rather have the Gone With the Wind! But even that’s just an idea, that’s just service, it’s not physical, and yet it contains much more wealth.

Oh dear.  Mr. O’Hara, you had something to add?

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Bad Children of Kant

Damon Linker has just come out with another installation in his mysterious interstitial self-positioning in the national conversation: is he a Platonist who doesn’t believe his own noble lie but wants to, and also can’t really keep his mouth shut about the fact that he doesn’t believe it, which makes it a really ineffective noble lie?  Is he a basic Isaiah Berlin liberal? A Straussian quadruple agent?  A Jesuit?  WHAT?

Key quote (or at least my favorite):

What talk of selfishness and self-absorption really points to is the poverty of our moral concepts. As good children of Immanuel Kant, we find it difficult to think about morality and ethics in broader terms than a binary contrast between the selfless devotion to universal principle (good) and the selfish satisfaction of subjective desires (bad). No wonder that many of the people who think of themselves as selflessly devoting their lives to raising children look out at a sea of childless couples and singles in contemporary America and conclude that they’re paragons of selfishness.

Ethical reasoning in the ancient world (at least among philosophers) was much richer. Aristotle encapsulated the classical view in the famous opening line of the Nicomachean Ethics, which boldly asserted that every art, inquiry, action, and pursuit “aims at some good.” The implication is quite stunning to a mind reared on Kantian categories, maintaining that a person who engages in great acts of evil, no less than someone who does great moral deeds, is pursuing some notion of the good. (It also implies, pace Kant, that the “selfish” concern with one’s own good is inexorably wrapped up with everything human beings do.)

This is exactly right: Christianity has no problem saying that Christ went to the Cross “for the sake of the joy set before him,” but Kant would consider the promise of that Joy (i.e. being united with us) as cheating.

I managed to not be the girl who bombed a facebook comments thread with a C.S. Lewis quote but this is my blog so now I get to indulge:

If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness.  But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love.  You see what has happened?  A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance.  The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point.  I do not thik this is the Christian virtue of Love.  The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself.  We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.  If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.  Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.  We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.

Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory

One theme in the comment thread was people saying that having kids is/is not actually more pleasurable/hedonistic in various more or less complicated ways than not having kids but having a lot of brunch instead.  And there was a guy called Will Wilkinson who talked about the non-obvious kind of pleasure that comes from caring for kids:

My experience as a very new parent is that now I act far more often by fairly pure other-regarding motivation. A lot of what I do for my son I don’t exactly *want* to do, but I do it anyway, and not grudgingly or unhappily, but often without pleasure. I feed him, change his diaper, etc. because he’s mine, and so my responsibility, and *he* needs it. It’s duty.

But he’s not talking Kantian duty, where the more you don’t enjoy it the better you are.  He talks about

my sense that raising a decent human being is intrinsically valuable, and that it will be satisfying in a not obviously hedonic way to be proud of having done so.

I’ve been squabbling with a bunch of Desirists lately– these are utilitarians who think that they’ve solved the is-ought thing although they haven’t– and Will’s comment gets right to what’s wrong with attempts to account for how we actually experience the good which discount the possibility of a real human teleology, a real objective good.

Will’s pleasure in caring for his kid isn’t a pleasure in unselfishness qua unselfishness (which in Kantian terms wouldn’t make any sense,) and it’s not even an anticipation of being proud of having raised a good person, although that’s as far as he seems comfortable taking his own observations.

Rather, it’s a pleasure in love: he’s taking the complicated kind of pleasure we’re supposed to take in loving and caring for the people we’re supposed to love. It’s complicated because it doesn’t always feel like pleasure: it can be boring and annoying and sometimes gross, and it doesn’t just cater to your existing self but shapes you into a new self. So maybe we should just call it joy. Like pleasure, but it can kick your ass.

I get to call the following fact providence, rather than coincidence: my little cousin Alexander, last night, found himself a loose copy of The Weight of Glory that was hanging around the living room.  He’s a kid who likes “reading,” although he’s still working on spoken language– he’s actually trilingual, speaking Russian, English, and Alex, which is a language that sounds like it has indo-European roots but I can’t say much more about it.  Anyway, he found the book, which is a second spare copy for the household, and parked himself on the sofa to read.  Then he decided that he’d rather be on the camel saddle that my mom’s parents brought back from when they lived in India, so he read there for a while.

And then he decided that mom– my mom, not his– should read it aloud to him, actually, so he came over to where we were eating dal and rice and climbed up on her lap and indicated his instructions.  She read the table of contents to him, as he pointed: “The Weight of Glory,” she said.  “Transposition…Membership.”  “Membership,” repeated Alex after her, thoughtfully.

That book is going home with him today, after he and his older brother and his parents visit the High Line and Eataly.