Category Archives: Maugham

Somerset Maugham

Politics

Index to this series

This is mostly about avoiding things. An early theme of Plato’s Republic is avoiding the deprivations of solitary life through politics. Some of us would rather just avoid politics. Such persons include Henry David Thoreau, Gilbert Ryle, and the inventor of the h-index (he is a physicist called Jorge E. Hirsch, but I know nothing else about him). I mentioned these persons in my last Plato post, “Badiou, Bloom, Ryle, Shorey.” I have some more to say about them here. In “Civil Disobedience” (1848) for example, Thoreau writes, “it is, after all, with men and not with parchment that I quarrel”; but measures like the h-index are used to hide the human factor in the equations used to judge us.

Regarding Thoreau, I shall be looking in addition at Thoreau’s essays “Walking” and “Slavery in Massachusetts.” Other sources for this post will include

  • R. G. Collingwood, Speculum Mentis and An Autobiography;
  • 101 Zen Stories;
  • Somerset Maugham, The Gentleman in the Parlour;
  • Robert Wright, “Ending war via algorithm”;
  • Danielle Carr, “The Politics of Viruses”;
  • Patricia Fara, “It leads to everything.”


All photos are from Profesörler Sitesi, Altınova, Balıkesir, Turkey
September 21–3, 2021

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On Plato’s Republic, 4

Index to this series

Our fourth scheduled reading in the Republic is Book III, Stephanus pages 386–417. Socrates continues to direct the construction of the fantastic city. Plato’s brothers, faithful as dogs, agree to two infamous proposals:

  1. The deportation from the city of any poet “who is able by wisdom to become every sort of thing and to imitate all things” (δυνάμενον ὑπὸ σοφίας παντοδαπὸν γίγνεσθαι καὶ μιμεῖσθαι πάντα χρήματα, 398a).

  2. The teaching of the Noble Lie, that the citizens were formed under ground and distinguished, according to class, with admixture of

    • gold for the rulers,
    • silver for the auxiliaries,
    • iron and bronze for the “farmers and other craftsmen” (414b–5c).

Later in this post, I shall try to analyze the reading into sections; but a serial summary of these seems tedious, and I shall focus on a few remarkable points, such as the ones above.


Two dogs with my copy of
Allan Bloom (translator), The Republic of Plato, 2016 edition,
on the beach at
Profesörler Sitesi, Altınova, Balıkesir, Turkey
September 8, 2021

I shall be quoting

  • Homer, whom Socrates loves to hate;
  • Adam Kirsch, from the 2016 introduction to Allan Bloom’s Republic translation, on the danger of summarizing Plato;
  • Pascal on the will of God as the rule for justice;
  • Bruno Bettelheim on fairy tales such as the Three Little Pigs, and perhaps our City in Speech, as opposed to fables;
  • Somerset Maugham on the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper;
  • Plato, in the Symposium, on the identity of comedy and tragedy, and Socrates as a seductive flute-player;
  • Anne Applebaum on “The New Puritans”: the same as the old ones, called Glaucon, Adeimantus, and Socrates?

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Chaucer, CT, Franklin’s Tale

Index to this series

Remarkable teachings from the Franklin, who says he never learned rhetoric, nor read Cicero:

Pacience is an heigh vertu certeyn;
For it venquisseth, as thise clerkes seyn,
Thinges that rigour sholde never atteyne.

Patience is a high virtue certain;
For it vanquisheth, as these clerks say,
Things that rigor should never attain.

There are things that you cannot win by force. Love is one, and that is the Franklin’s theme.

You can’t hurry love
No you just have to wait

Respect is another thing that you cannot win by force. I took up that theme in considering Collingwood on “Civilization as Education” (September, 2018). Confusion here may explain the problem of bad leadership that Socrates takes up in the Republic – which I have now taken up in a new series.


Rembrandt van Rijn
Lucretia, 1664
Andrew W. Mellon Collection
National Gallery of Art, Washington

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Return to Narnia

1

My subject is the Chronicles of Narnia of C. S. Lewis (1898–1963). I consider this heptad of books (published 1950–6) as constituting (1) literature (2) for children (3) that I continue to enjoy in my sixth decade, having started in my first.

  1. By literature, I mean a work of art whose medium is prose. Prose may also be a work of craft, intended to fulfil some purpose. This purpose could be to serve a market for fantasy or children’s books. Art as such has no purpose that can be specified in advance.

  2. Writing for children may take certain liberties that annoy adults.

  3. As with any post in this blog, I write out of my own personal interest. As a child, I read other fantasies, such as those of Lloyd Alexander, John Christopher, Ursula LeGuin, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Only the works of C. S. Lewis have stayed with me. This essay may be considered as an exploration of why, or least an example of how.

The seven books of the Chronicles of Narnia, Collier edition

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Donne’s Undertaking

I was recently called on to recommend a poem. I chose “The Undertaking” of John Donne. I want to say here why.

  • The poem (quoted below) has a sound that impressed me when first I read it, more than thirty years ago.

  • The poem alludes to ideals:

    • of recognizing what is good for its own sake;

    • of climbing a rung or two on Diotima’s ladder or stairway of love, recounted by Socrates in Plato’s Symposium (211c):

      And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love (τὰ ἐρωτικά), is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these as steps (οἳ ἐπαναβαθμοί) only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms (τὰ καλὰ σώματα), and from fair forms to fair practices (τὰ καλὰ ἐπιτηδεύματα), and from fair practices to fair notions (τὰ καλὰ μαθήματα), until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is (ὃ ἔστι καλόν).

  • The sound of Donne’s poem may seduce one into thinking the ideals worthy.

Analytic Geometry and Donne's complete poetry

Two books that were my mother’s

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On the Odyssey, Book II

Having been put to bed by Eurycleia at the end of Book I of the Odyssey, Telemachus gets up in the morning and has the people summoned to council, at the beginning of Book II.

Three books with beads

There is no mention of a breakfast. Perhaps none is eaten. On the other hand, Telemachus probably relieves his bladder at least, and there is no mention of that either.

Telemachus straps on a ξίφος, but arrives at the assembly with a χάλκεον ἔγχος in hand. Wilson calls it a sword in either case; for Fitzgerald and Lattimore, the first weapon is a sword, but the second a spear and a bronze spear, respectively. Cunliffe’s lexicon supports the men; however, for Liddell and Scott, an ἔγχος can also be a sword, at least in Sophocles. For Beekes, ξίφος is Pre-Greek, and ἔγχος may be so. Continue reading

Math, Maugham, and Man

A human being was once a man. A female of the species was a wife; a male, a were. The word “were” was used in werewolf, but also were-eld, which became our “world.” Our word "woman" comes from wife-man.

That is roughly the history, which I shall review later in a bit more detail. It would be a fallacy to think the history told us how we must use the words “woman” and “man” today. The history does suggest what may happen again: in a world dominated by men, a word like “person,” intended for any human being, may come to have its own meaning dominated by men. Yet again, this is no reason not to try to make our language better.

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NL XLII: The First Barbarism: The Saracens

Index to this series

Executive summary: The barbarians who overran the Western Roman Empire were not barbarists in Collingwood’s technical sense. However, “in the seventh century a movement inspired by hostility towards everything Roman … and everything Christian, flared up on the south-eastern frontier of the Roman world” (42. 22). This movement was therefore barbarist. Failing to conquer Europe, either from the east at Constantinople, or from the west at Tours, the movement settled down and ceased being barbarist—by the account in Chapter XLII, “The First Barbarism: The Saracens,” and later, in Collingwood’s New Leviathan. I check this account against more recent sources; it is barbarist to think that the “movement” in question, or indeed any movement, must always be barbarist; I look at the “civilization” of the British Empire as portrayed in a story of Maugham, and I compare a character of the story to Collingwood.


Collingwood’s historical account of barbarisms is a minefield, if one wishes not to sound like a barbarist oneself. The four examples will be

  1. the Saracens,
  2. the “Albigensian Heresy” (or the Bogomils),
  3. the Turks, and
  4. the Germans.

The very formula “the X”—definite article followed by national or quasi-national adjective—this has a barbaric use in branding a people with indelible features. A retort then is “not all X,” as in “not all men.” Collingwood issues such a proviso himself:

45. 68. Please observe, Reader, that I am not talking about all Germans. I do not say that all Germans are liars. I know of some who are not; those heroes, for example, who continue in spite of everything the Nazis can do to run their secret wireless station and keep on printing Das Wahre Deutschland.

Das wahre Deutschland, from a Swiss antiquarian bookshop, Antiquariat Peter Petrej

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Writing and Inversion

Executive summary: The “voice” of a transitive verb may be active or passive. A piece of writing may be vigorous or torpid. There is not an exact correspondence between passive verbs and torpid writing. However, a passive verb is used to effect inversion of subject and object. One may also invert subject and auxiliary verb, subject and predicate, or two clauses, always adding new words. Each inversion may lead to torpid writing. This is what Strunk warned about in The Elements of Style, by issuing the command, “Use the active voice.” The command must be followed with discretion. Williams makes the same case, more elaborately, in Style: Towards Clarity and Grace. There is no foolproof executive summary of how to write well.


When E. B. White revised William Strunk’s original Elements of Style, he did not retain Strunk’s “Introductory,” whose first paragraph said of the book,

The experience of its writer has been that once past the essentials, students profit most by individual instruction based on the problems of their own work, and that each instructor has his own body of theory, which he may prefer to that offered by any textbook.

Perhaps many students today cannot receive individual instruction. They are just given textbooks that try to spell out everything. Continue reading

Effectiveness

Preface

First posted May 17, 2018, this essay concerns Eugene Wigner’s 1960 article “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” I wrote a lot, which I now propose to summarize by section. (The meditations also continue in the next article.)

  • Some things are miraculous. Among Wigner’s examples are

    • that mathematics is possible at all, and

    • that “regularities” in the physical world can be discovered, as by Galileo and Newton.

    For Wigner, we should be grateful for the undeserved gift of a mathematial formulation of the laws of physics. This makes no sense theologically—and here I agree with the character Larry Darrell in Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge. Wigner’s idea that our mathematical reasoning power has been brought to perfection makes no sense to me either.

  • Everything is miraculous. Here I agree with Collingwood in Religion and Philosophy. A miracle cannot be the breaking of a natural law, since such a thing cannot be broken. A great artist like Beethoven follows no rules in the first place, or makes them up as he goes along; and he is like God in this way.

  • Natural law. That it cannot be broken is part of the very concept of natural law. Quantum phenomena and the theory of relativity have not in fact been brought under a single law; for Wigner, it may not be possible.

  • Mystery. Not only can we not define miracles, but (as we should have observed in the first place) we cannot even say when they happen. If like Wigner we call something miraculous, this means it cleanses our own doors of perception, in the sense of William Blake.

  • Definitions. In his treatment of miracle in Religion and Philosophy, Collingwood shows the futility of trying to define a term when you are not sure how to use it. He makes this futility explicit in The Principles of Art. If we are going to think about the use of mathematics in natural science, this means we ought to be mathematician, natural scientist, and philosopher; and not just “natural scientist,” but physicist and biologist, since if mathematics is effective in physics, it would seem to be ineffective in biology.

  • Being a philosopher. We are all philosophers, in the sense that Maugham describes in the story “Appearance and Reality,” if only we think. All thought is for the sake of action. This does not mean that thought occurs separately from an action and is to be judged by the action. We may value “pure” thought, such as doing mathematics or making music or living the contemplative life of a monk. This however moves me to a give a thought to the disaster of contemporary politics.

  • Philosophizing about science. For present purposes, compart­ment­al­ization of knowledge is a problem. So is the dominance of analytic philosophy, for suggesting (as one cited person seems to think) that big problems can be broken into little ones and solved independently. In mathematics, students should learn their right to question somebody else’s solutions to problems. In philosophy, the problems themselves will be our own. Philosophy as such cannot decide what the problems of physics or biology are, though it may help to understand the “absolute presuppositions” that underlie the problems. Philosophers quâ metaphysicians cannot determine once for all what the general structure of the universe is. This does not mean they should do “experimental philosophy,” taking opinion polls about supposedly philosophical questions. What matters is not what people say, but what they mean and are trying to mean. As Collingwood observes, metaphysics is an historical science.

For more on the last points, see a more recent article, “Re-enactment.” (This Preface added June 3, 2018.)

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