Mar 15 2017

7 Days Till St. Patrick’s Day – Part 6 of 7

From Edmund Burke (1729-1797):

The worst of these politics of revolution is this: they temper and harden the breast, in order to prepare it for the desperate strokes which are sometimes used in extreme occasions. But as these occasions may never arrive, the mind receives a gratuitous taint; and the moral sentiments suffer not a little, when no political purpose is served by the depravation. This sort of people are so taken up with their theories about the rights of man, that they have totally forgot his nature.

Reflections on the Revolution in France (1791)

And since ’tis the Ides of March, let us render under Caesar (100BC-44BC):

Men are generally ready to believe what they want to believe.

Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Gallic Wars) III, xviii

See also “Seven Days Till St. Patrick’s Day – Part 5 of 7” and

Seven Days Till St. Patrick’s Day – Part 7 of 7.”

Mar 5 2017

You Don’t Have to be a Mathematician (to be British)

But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded. –Edmund Burke

Lewis Carroll, a.k.a. Charles Dodgson, (1832-1898) is perhaps England’s best known mathematician. But many British writers were not so inclined. Consider a passage about C. S. Lewis (1899-1963) in Philip and Carol Zaleski’s The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings (2015):

The Latin and Greek portions of Responsions presented no problem, but Lewis failed the section on mathematics. He had a terrible head for numbers and was unable to handle even the simplest arithmetical problems—counting change was a daily ordeal—much less algebra, a prominent part of the exam. Algebra is defined by the OED as “a calculus of symbols,” and Lewis’s failure to master it is worth bearing in mind, in light of his later controversial forays into the application of logic to metaphysics and theology. Nonetheless, he was accepted into University College and returned to Oxford on April 26, 1917, enrolling as an undergraduate on April 29.[1]

Compare philosopher and Prime Minister Arthur Balfour (1848-1930):

I wish I were a mathematician. There is in the history of the mathematical sciences, as in their substance, something that strangely stirs the imagination even of the most ignorant. Its younger sister, Logic, is as abstract, and its claims are yet wider. But it has never shaken itself free from a certain pretentious futility: it always seems to be telling us, in language quite unnecessarily technical, what we understood much better before it was explained. It never helps to discover, though it may guarantee discovery; it never persuades, though it may show that persuasion has been legitimate; it never aids the work of thought, it only acts as its auditor and accountant-general. I am not referring, of course, to what I see described in recent works as “modern scientific logic.” Of this I do not presume to speak. Still less am I refer ring to so-called Inductive Logic. Of this it is scarce worth while to speak.1 I refer to their more famous predecessor, the formal logic of the schools [i.e. of John Stuart Mill].[2]

Compare Balfour’s colleague Winston Churchill (1874-1965):

All my life from time to time I have had to get up disagreeable subjects at short notice, but I consider my triumph, moral and technical, was in learning Mathematics in six months. At the first of these three ordeals I got no more than 500 marks out of 2,500 for Mathematics. At the second I got nearly 2,000. I owe this achievement not only to my own back-to-the-wall resolution for which no credit is too great but to the very kindly interest taken in my case by a much respected Harrow master, Mr. C. H. P. Mayo. He convinced me that Mathematics was not a hopeless bog of nonsense, and that there were meanings and rhythms behind the comical hieroglyphics j and that I was not incapable of catching glimpses of some of these. Of course what I call Mathematics is only what the Civil Service Commissioners expected you to know to pass a very rudimentary examination.

I had a feeling once about Mathematics, that I saw it all Depth beyond depth was revealed to me the Byss and the Abyss. I saw, as one might see the transit of Venus or even the Lord Mayor’s Show, a quantity passing through infinity and changing its sign from plus to minus. I saw exactly how it happened and why the tergiversation was inevitable: and how the one step involved all the others. It was like politics. But it was after dinner and. I let it go![3]

Finally, there’s G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936):

A great deal is said in these days about the value or valuelessness of logic. In the main, indeed, logic is not a productive tool so much as a weapon of defence. A man building up an intellectual system has to build like Nehemiah, with the sword in one hand and the trowel in the other. The imagination, the constructive quality, is the trowel, and argument is the sword. A wide experience of actual intellectual affairs will lead most people to the conclusion that logic is mainly valuable as a weapon wherewith to exterminate logicians. [4]


[1] Zaleski and Zaleski. The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings 75.

[2] Balfour, Theism and Humanism: Being the Gifford Lectures 176.

[3] Churchill, My Early Life: a Roving Commission. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1930. Ch. III.

[4] Chesterton, Twelve Types. 1906. “Thomas Carlyle” p. 125.

Sep 6 2016

Advice for Voters: Politics in Fugue Form



In a democracy, the prisoners pick their wardens. While we are told this is an important election for Americans, the old standbys of political philosophy appear to not be as effective as once before. For example, Texas, recently voted for a multiple-alleged criminal to oversee and uphold the laws of the state.

Perhaps we should turn away (at least temporarily) from the usual suspects, away from Philadelphia 1787, away from the idolatry of forefathers and their slave exemptions. But then who will counsel meager citizen me? Who can help me choose the best politician—the best person to make me do what I don’t want to do?

I will try to find my answer by listening to a fugue, that is, “the orderly and varied reiteration of the same ‘subject’.”[1] I will harken to points and counterpoints.


Caesar: “All folks strive toward freedom while despising all forms of slavery.”[2]

Machiavelli: “Citizens of a republic want only not to be oppressed … only its nobles want to oppress others.”[3]

Vico: “If people were left to pursue their private interests, they would live in solitude like wild beasts….  We defend our natural liberty most fiercely to preserve the goods most essential to our survival. By contrast, we submit to the chains of civil servitude to obtain external goods which are not necessary to life. [4]


Burke: “Liberty, when men [and women] act in bodies, is power…. In all bodies, those who will lead must also, in a considerable degree, follow… In this political traffic, the leaders will be obliged to bow to the ignorance of their followers, and the followers to become subservient to the worst designs of their leaders.”[5]

Anscombe: “What is institutional must exclude all that is personal, casual or sporadic.[6] This is why ‘possibility is the deconstruction of contentment.’[7] So to attain your goal, you’ve got to give up what you’ve already got.”


Rawls: “To be at liberty and free from oppression is, in some sense, to be disinterested, and therefore detached, as it is written: ‘one feature of justice as fairness is to think of the parties in the initial situation as rational and mutually disinterested’.”[8]

Searle: “Roughly speaking, power is the ability to make people do something whether they want to do it or not.”[9]

Wilkerson: “The friend showed him what to do, and Pershing worked beside him. He looked up and saw the foreman watching him. Pershing pretended not to see him, worked even harder. The foreman left, and, when he came back, Pershing was still at work. At the end of the day, the foreman hired him. Pershing finished out the summer stacking staves, not minding the hard work and not finding it demeaning. ‘Sometimes,’ he said, ‘You have to stoop to conquer’.” [10]



[1] Lewis, C. S. “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages.” Chapter 3 from The Discarded Image: Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge UP. 1966. Originally delivered in 1956 as a pair of lectures to an audience of scientists in Cambridge. Reprinted in Chaucer and His Contemporaries: Essays on Medieval Literature and Thought. Edited and Introduced by Helaine Newstead. NY: Fawcet. 1968. 46–66 at 61. Compare Lewis later: “The motions of the universe are to be conceived not as those of a machine or even an army, but rather as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one,” (64). And compare C. S. Peirce:

Every thought, however artificial and complex, is, so far as it is immediately present, a mere sensation without parts, and therefore, in itself, without similarity to any other, but incomparable with any other and absolutely sui generis [its own kind]. Whatever is wholly incomparable with anything else is wholly inexplicable, because explanation consists in bringing things under general laws or under natural classes. (“Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy. No. 2. 1868. 140–57.)

And compare Paul Valéry:

Do not search for ‘truth’*—But seek to develop those forces which make and unmake truths. Seek to think of a greater number of simultaneous things,—to think longer and more rigorously of the same one—to catch yourself in the very act—to suspend your hesitations,—to give new momentum to what is clogged up. Suggest co-ordinations to yourself. Try out your ideas as functions and means…. [Editor’s note:] *Cf. the later comment of 1940, ‘I am searching for the truth of thought and not for truth by thought.’ Cahiers = Notebooks. Vol. I. Translated by Paul Gifford et al. Edited by Brian Stimpson. Based on the French Cahiers edited by Judith Robinson-Valéry. (1912, I 12, IV, 783.) [pp. 264-65] and (C, XXIV, 168) [p. 617])

[2] Caesar, Gallic War, III, x.

[3] Machiavelli, Il Principe, IX.

[4] Vico, The Third New Science, “Idea of the Work” [¶ 2] 2 and I, § 2, xciv, [¶ 290], p. 109.

[5] Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France.

[6] Anscombe, G. E. M. “On the Source of the Authority of the State.” From Ratio 20 (1), 1978. Anscombe Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics. Oxford: Blackwell. 1981. p. 131.

[7] Anscombe, “You Can have Sex without Children: Christianity and the New Offer.” From Renewal of Religious Structures: Proceedings of the Canadian Centenary Theological Congress. Toronto. 1968. Anscombe Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics p. 82.

[8] Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. (Revised Edition.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1999. § 3, p. 12.

[9] Searle, John. Freedom and Neurobiology. NY: Columbia UP. 2007. p.104.

[10] Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns. NY: Random House/Vintage Books. 2010. p. 117.