News

I will be back home in December it looks like. This is a very good thing. All my coursework should be complete by then, and all that will remain are exams – language and comprehensives, and, of course, the dissertation.

Things are good, but busy. The courses I have this semester are going to be amazing. And while I don’t cry at funerals, I’m going to miss my choir director, Marilyn, and Glen Thurow, who has been a great professor, and an even better friend.

EDIT (8.27, 7:13): I just realized something major that is going to delay this homecoming until April, unless I can arrange something fast.

Note on "Perpetual Peace"

What makes Kant’s short essay remarkable is the light it sheds on Rousseau’s “general will.”

For Kant, reason is the general will – hence, Rousseau’s talk of a legislator begins to make more sense. There can be one person who understands what is best for the many; the trick is to bring the many to that state of Enlightenment, where they can be truly free, and avoid demagoguery.

To this end, classical and Machiavellian notions of how statecraft should proceed are rejected. The classical is rejected as it does not sufficiently take in to account how self-centered man is, and posits happiness as something to do with contemplation of ends. The problem with having “ends” in this life, for Kant, is that such sorts of goals must of necessity be material. Freedom lies in the purely formal principle, which is not unlike the categorical – you want to act in such a way that one’s action can be reproduced publicly.

The Machiavellian notions are rejected based on an appeal to “publicity” (nations should have open-ended dealings and declarations of policy so that the world, the cosmopolis, can judge), and an appeal to “trade” as something that can soften the harsher in man.

The criticism I placed against Kantian thought in the last post is that it does not take politics seriously – for Kant, politics is about persuasion, which I agree with, but a persuasion that is so complete it can only happen on a personal level. He wants sentiments to change, and when he talks about incentives and how they will affect a people’s reasoning, I wonder if he realizes that sentiments are harder to change than reasons.

Where “reason” as the general will gets a peculiar strength is in its treatment of Revelation. A footnote in the appendices implies that if one believes in a particular religion, one really believes in a universal religion. Your God, after all, has to be able to account for all the false gods around; they must have been part of His providential plan. Reason as the general will can actually, then, gain strength via belief. Kant uses the issue of Providence very skillfully – he does not argue for progress as much as use progress as a lead-in to what is objective. What is objective is not love or virtue, but literal respect for another’s right. That respect for right, when fully realized, unites the Kantian concept of politics with morality completely.

And if you buy into this stuff, I think what you can see is Kant saying to me that I’m a pessimist, and that I discount the possibility of a truly moral politics for no “reason,” and thus discount the possibility of a truly workable democracy.

Does Power Corrupt?

“That kings should be philosophers, or philosophers kings is neither to be expected nor to be desired, for the possession of power inevitably corrupts reason’s free judgement.”

– Kant, Perpetual Peace

Kant is an amazing thinker, but this quote is nowhere near subtle enough to get at the truth. The truth is that someone must always wield power in this world, and to say “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely” is just name-calling.

The consequences of distrusting the very holding of power have been fatal for us. We, as Americans, can barely say as a whole “terrorism is bad,” because that means fighting and other mean things. We incessantly ridicule the people we elect for office merely because they ran for office. Anarchism is an ideal for both those on the Left and the Right, and morals are perceived as a relic of an age where power was necessary.

So the question is this: What is it about power that looks corrupt, or is corrupt, that causes even the wisest of us to indulge in such idiotic aspersions?

One answer is that moral purity is possible in private roles: my Mother can do no wrong as my Mother, for she is accountable only to my sense of expectation, or a few others at most. This isn’t possible in public roles, because the sense of expectation is not the same for all individuals. Everyone feels differently about the same action, and you can do the right thing as a public figure, and someone else can concede its the right thing, but feel queasy.

Which brings us to the big issue: political power depends on persuasion. But in the private, the possibility of persuasion is far greater, especially in the case of the family, where one can be trained to have a certain sense of value. In the public, that complete control over one’s sense of ideals is impossible, and so we give great credit to someone like Pericles who can persuade large numbers of people all at once. The only thing is, that the persuasion is never complete. Pericles doesn’t live in my house, helping me clean the place and explaining to me all the time why Athens warring with Sparta is a good thing.

And so Kant is suffering here from a private/public conflation – the family is not the political order. These differences, which start out as quantitative, “few” versus “many,” are actually qualitative. You need a different standard with which to judge the political. You can say it is an inherently corrupt enterprise, but to say it can and should be transcended is mere gibberish, and to say that wisdom can’t rule well in some way is to deny what wisdom is.

On Frost’s "Mowing:" Death, Love and Dante

Mowing
Robert Frost

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I know not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something perhaps, about the lack of sound–
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was not dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

Commentary:

The comment on this poem over at SparkNotes is actually quite good. The argument there goes as follows: this poem is about poetry and what it should say, and how we should listen. You can see this from the central lines “It was not dream of the gift of idle hours / Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf,” which are chastening us for even thinking of being “idle” or attempting to imagine fanciful things. Further, the poem asks us to contrast an inaudible whisper, the product of labor, with speech. Which has the greater claim to truth? Which does poetry reflect better – the whisper, or articulate speech?

I think the SparkNotes writer is really good, but too clever by half. Every poem can be said to be a comment on poetry. Let’s go back to the text, and see what the more immediate themes that affect us are.

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I know not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something perhaps, about the lack of sound–
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.

“Beside the wood” is critical. Dante is lost in a dark wood before he emerges and sees a hill he cannot pass. When he sees the hill, of course, there is light. Our narrator, on the other hand, is bombarded with light, having moved nowhere. What is notable about the light is not how it makes things visible, but beats down on the narrator and his scythe. Maybe the scythe is muttering its frustration with being out this hot day.

There is also only one sound, that of the scythe mowing. There is no wind or breeze. The only “wind” comes from the motion of the scythe, and is man-made. Compare with Inferno, where wind – the passions that sway us to evil and ignorance – is divine punishment.

Now we can move to the overarching theme, of “whispers” versus “speech.” Dante’s quest is a quest for knowledge. Hence you can compare Dante and the Odysseus of the Inferno, and derive ideas that stand for the rest of the epic. Knowledge implies that “light” doesn’t oppress, but enlighten. Its coming about requires an escape from winds. And, of course, knowledge has a lot to do with articulate speech.

Here, our stationary laborer creates winds, and only mentions light as a physical impediment to his work. Our narrator is emphatically not interested in knowledge, and his work is literally that of the Grim Reaper’s. His work echoes his death, maybe even testifies to it. The eternality of knowledge is contrasted with laying the swales in rows. Labor comes from the fact we must die, strangely enough. Usually we would say it comes from the fact we want to live better.

And now I think you can see something even stranger. This narrator may not be Dante, but he is no idiot, despite what seems like willful ignorance.

It was not dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.

Our narrator does not need knowledge, which does emerge from idleness (*whistling*), and does look for easy solutions to material problems. The SparkNotes misses the importance of “gold.” Gold is not fantasy money. It has been valuable in all times and all places. Poetry is not created to make gold. But 99% of knowledge came about from some attempt in the spirit of alchemy.

The “truth” is much harsher. It is connected to “love” which is connected to death. The scythe tells all. And in that labor, that labor of death, flowers are beheaded, and snakes run away. The SparkNotes writer makes the absurd suggestion that Frost means by “snake” what orchis in Greek means. There’s no doubt there’s sexuality here, but it’s not that crude. Flowers represent sensuality, and the snake represents the moment when the sensual became corrupt, aspiring to be higher than God. Again, there are overtones of the Divine Comedy here – Dante travels, meeting Beatrice at the end of his journeys. Was the whole enterprise flawed, because it did not adequately separate sensuality and beatitude, as Frost’s narrator does?

Frost’s laborer is a Protestant born and bred. He does not care for the “idle” pornographic musings of bad poetry commentators.

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

Frost’s narrator does not need knowledge because he has the “truth,” which is predicated on the “fact” of the whisper. It does not matter that it was inarticulate and makes no sense. It’s connected to labor, and there is a happiness there, presumably for the laborer.

I think there’s a really dark joke at play here. The “fact” is “the sweetest dream labor knows.” Does the laborer have the “sweetest dream?” The scythe whispers, and what’s weird is that it doesn’t make hay, but leaves the hay to make. Creation is outside of the laborer’s purview.

Which brings us back to the title. The title is “Mowing.” Our SparkNotes author wants us to take this as a sexual comment. That’s utter gibberish. The question is “What do our labors create,” and the half-answer is “they really don’t create anything, they destroy more than anything else, and maybe they even destroy us.” But there’s another answer, too, which is that in labor there is certainty, and thus the big issues are not far from the surface. It’s very easy to forget in Dante that we’re going to die, despite the fact we are encountering dead people all the time. We have lost focus on ourselves, while mocking or admiring others in a fantasy world.

The fact of mowing does point to knowing, as the whisper does imply the existence of speech. But the fact itself is not a trivial fact, even as it is very problematic.

Learning (a poem)

for Nancy – happy 21st birthday

in pennsauken
firemen always comfort
a suited gentleman
blankly staring

once there were
no stares.

king george’s men
marched in red
ordered, purposed
to the battle
bleeding.

the heart moves
as it will.
this
all gentlemen know.