Saturday, April 27, 2019

The Purple Rose of Cairo: 20s and 30s mythology

My father was two years older than Woody Allen. Both were members of what has been called the silent generation. That can be deceptive.

When Studs Terkel's oral history of the Great Depression was published in 1970, my father read it and reread it. He discussed it with all his friends and with his children. One of the themes of that book was that the younger generation, characterized in the book as "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," didn't understand the Depression and, because they didn't understand it, they didn't understand politics. This was a lesson my father felt his children needed to learn and the adults of his time needed to relearn.

Like Terkel, my father was a "liberal". I put that in scare quotes because it wasn't entirely clear what the word meant. When convenient, he was a socialist. When socialism was too scary, he was a "liberal". And a big part of the justification for this "liberalism" was the Depression.

Here's the thing, though, in his later years I asked my father what it was like to grow up during the Depression and he said he didn't really know. He suggested I ask his older sister. I did, she said she didn't really know either. She had memories of the war but what she really remembered best was the post war.

And here is where doing the chronology becomes important. My father was six years old the year the Second World War started. Woody Allen was four! Real awareness of the larger world starts with adolescence—about 13 for girls and about three years after that for boys. For my father and Woody Allen, lived history begins in the 1950s. The Depression they knew was not the experience but the mythology that was passed on to them much as the 1950s and 1960s I knew growing up was also mythology (my lived history began in 1976). And that is why Studs Terkel's oral history appealed so much to my father—an oral history is mythology. Likewise, Frederick Lewis Allen's "history" of the 1920s, Only Yesterday, was the source of the mythology of that era. Like Terkel's book, Allen's book was written to justify FDR.

A lot of what Woody Allen does is driven by nostalgia, not for the 1920s and 1930s but for the mythology of that era. The ostensibly 1920s and 1930s music he plays is rooted in the post-war trad jazz revival. Likewise, the movies he makes of the 1920s and 1930s, is rooted in later re-tellings of that era. (In the famous Why-is-life-worth-living soliloquy in Manhattan, two items are from this era: Groucho Marx and Louis Armstrong's recording of "Potato Head Blues". Four are from Woody's teens and early twenties period in the 1950s, Swedish Movies, Willie Mays, Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. What remains is just pretentious, the cultural equivalent of conspicuous consumption: crabs at Sam Wo's, the Jupiter Symphony, Sentimental Education and Cézanne.)

How many of films of the 1920s and 1930s are there? Going on memory, there is The Purple Rose of Cairo, Radio Days, Bullets Over Broadway, Sweet and Lowdown, Midnight in Paris (sort of), and Magic in the Moonlight. That's a few.

To give him credit, they are all movies about the mythology and don't pretend to give you an accurate historical record of the era.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Woody Allen and the Frank Sinatra philosophy

You could sum the Sinatra philosophy up in three precepts:
  1. Respect your emotions: your heart wants what it wants.
  2. The most important factor for human happiness is being in a sexual relationship.
  3. Whether to have or not to have sex should depend only on two things:
    • the presence or absence of rationally defensible moral reasons to do or not do it.
    • Consent on the part of both partners
A lot of people my age, including me in my twenties, adopted that as a life philosophy. Some people, perhaps a lot of people, born since 1980 aren't so positive about it. It's day may be over. Woody Allen's day certainly seems to be over. He's not physically dead yet but ...

And so I've been revisiting his movies. For better or worse, Woody and I have been through it together. (I'll probably have more to say about that in the near future.) Last night I watched Whatever Works which isn't his all-time worst but it's not very good.

Here are a series of quotes for you consideration

This is Frank Sinatra being asked about what he believes:
Basically, I'm for anything that gets you through the night - be it prayer, tranquilizers or a bottle of Jack Daniels.

And here is a hit song from 1970, written by Kris Kristofferson inspired by that Sinatra quote:

This is from Roger Ebert's positive review of Whatever Works:
“Whatever Works” charts a journey for Allen, one from the words of Groucho to the wisdom of Pascal, who informs us, as Allen once reminded us, that the heart has its reasons.
Ebert forgets to give us the context for that quote. Here is Woody justifying his sexual relationship with a woman 40 years his junior to Time Magazine:
Well, who knows? It's perfectly healthy. But I don't think equal is necessarily a desideratum. Sometimes equality in a relationship is great, sometimes inequality makes it work. But it's an equal-opportunity relationship. I mean, I'm not equal to her in certain ways. 
The heart wants what it wants. There's no logic to those things. You meet someone and you fall in love and that's that.
This is one of the summing up lines from the movie Whatever Works:
That's why I can't say enough times, whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works.

Those all express attitudes that go with the Sinatra philosophy.

What to conclude? I don't fully know. I was struck, though, by this bit from an article about Whatever Works:
Despite apparently obvious resonance with his own personal life – he has been married to Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his long-time girlfriend Mia Farrow, since 1997, when she was 27 and he was 61 – Allen insists that the movie is in no way autobiographical.
Indeed, he originally wrote the screenplay in the mid-Seventies, with Zero Mostel, the corpulent star of The Producers, in mind for the lead. When Mostel died in 1977, Allen put the script away in a drawer, where it remained until someone suggested that David would be good for the part.
‘All I had to do was change the topical references,’ he says. ‘But the script was the same – many, many years before I met my wife.’ 
Chronology is being used as a defense here: he wrote this years before. Taken from another perspective, though, that's a problem: through his adult life "whatever works" for Woody and many of his male characters has meant having sex with a young, impressionable and vulnerable woman. 

Thursday, April 18, 2019

12 Thomas on the vices

The Horses Inside Us

In his book, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt asks a provoking question:  Why it sometimes the case that pre-modern psychological advice is better than its modern alternative? He was spurred to ask this because a modern therapy technique called cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT that is based on antique philosophy, mostly but not exclusively Stoicism of the Imperial period, has proven to be much more effective than anything Freud, Adler, Jung, Watson or Frankl have been able to suggest.

Haidt’s answer is, the antique world had better metaphors for how the mind works. He tells a story about a time when, as a child, he was on a horseback tour of the Grand Canyon. At one point on a trail along the face of a cliff such that going off the trail meant death, there was a curve. Haidt on the outside of the trail with another rider beside him. Not wanting to turn his horse for fear of running into another horse, he panicked and froze. For a moment he expected to die. His horse was going to keep going in a straight line and they would both plunge off the cliff. It was like one of those nightmares where you try to run or scream but can’t.

As it happened, the horse simply turned when it reached the curve.

Antique writers, most notably Plato, used horses and the training of horses as a metaphor for how the mind works. On this sort of metaphor there are things that simply act in relatively complex ways because that is their nature. By way of contrast, imagine that, like Hobbes, you believed that the mind operated on mechanical principles. If young Haidt had been riding a bicycle and frozen, he would have died. Again, Freud imagined the mind works on hydraulic principles. He worried that if we keep repressing desires the internal pressures will build up and something will explode. That is still a very popular way of imagining the way the mind works. Unfortunately, behaving as if we need to relieve internal mental pressures tends to have disastrous effects. Likewise, mental models based on computer technology are inadequate. Computers can do some tasks, such as playing chess, better than any human being. But ask a computer to manœuver a robot over rough ground such as a trail on the Grand Canyon and they are pathetic. A colt that trips over its own feet will, by the time it is 6 months old, be able to travel over a rough trail better than any robot made.

When a thinker such as Thomas thinks of the inclinations of things, such as rocks falling or horses running, he has a far more complex series of operations in mind that we do. We are inclined to say that he is “wrong” about these things but that isn’t fair. Some explanations are perfectly adequate for a given set of purposes. It is perfectly adequate to think of this table as solid even though some might insist that we actually “know’ that is is a quivering mass of molecules. But such knowledge is not only useless to a cabinet maker, it would actually be a hindrance to her. Likewise, Haidt is suggesting that when it comes to being happy, the metaphors the antique world used to understand the mind are more useful.

So where, for Thomas, are the horses inside us? He does not think like Plato who, in the Phaedrus, used a metaphor of the soul as a chariot equipped with a charioteer and good and bad horse. He posits no internal theatre available through introspection such as we find in Plato and Freud. Our self awareness is strictly empirical. We figure out what the mind does by observing outward behaviour.
My suggestion regarding Thomas is, although he doesn’t use this language, we might say there are potentially many horses inside us.

If we turn to the Summa, prima secundae Question 50, Article 3 “Whether there can be any habits in the powers of the sensitive parts?” Horses enter into the matter in Objection 2, which reads,
Further, the sensitive parts are common to us and the brutes. But there are not any habits in brutes: for in them there is no will, which is put in the definition of habit, as we have said above (I-II:49:3). Therefore there are no habits in the sensitive powers.

If we try to think of this in terms of the context of the time, one of the reasons this question is going to be relevant is that brutes such as horses can and do perform quite complex series of actions but seem, nevertheless, to be very different from us, a difference of kind and not degree.
In the respondio, Thomas makes a distinction between the ways sensitive powers may act: they can do so according to natural instinct or they can do so according to reason. The reply to objection three that follows consists of three parts:
  1. First, the horse’s sensitive powers act according to instinct and not reason. That said, the horse has certain natural dispositions. Jonathan Haidt’s horse had a natural disposition not to die so it turned even though its rider failed to direct it. Now let’s stop a second and underline that: there are complex operations, operations that involve what seem very close to judgments, that will continue to happen even if reason (meaning the rider) does not intervene. 

  2. Second, despite this distinction, a human being can train a horse to acquire the ability to do additional, not natural, complex behaviours that we might reasonably compare with what we call habitus in human beings. Consider an example that was not available to Thomas: dressage. In dressage, horses perform complex footsteps that most of us couldn’t do without tripping, and that is with only two feet while the horse does it with four. The rider doesn’t micromanage the horse through these steps. She simply directs the horse when to start and stop. The horse makes all the necessary adjustments to deal with all the unevenness of the terrain it needs to cover.  

  3. The third part of the argument I will simply read: “But the habit is incomplete, as to the use of the will, for they have not that power of using or of refraining, which seems to belong to the notion of habit: and therefore, properly speaking, there can be no habits in them.” No horse decides to learn or even to do dressage. Those choices are made for them. But the text here begins by saying, “the habit is incomplete” and that is different from saying, it’s completely unlike a habitus. There is a similarity here that needed to be accounted for. We should also note that Thomas began this reply by saying the horse’s, "sensitive powers act according to instinct and not reason,” while he ends it by saying, “the habit is incomplete, as to the use of the will.” Are we making a distinction according to reason or according to the will? Both these issues will need to be explored a bit. 

“Habitius” and “habit” don’t the same thing. Exercise is a habit. The ability to read Latin or to play the piano would be habitus. Now consider what happens when someone like me who does not have either habitus does. When I try to puzzle out a Latin text, I go through it in a plodding way. Likewise, at the piano I do what musicians call “note-bashing”. That is to say I can read a musical score and hit the notes so as to puzzle out a melody. My wife can play he same passage immediately up to a rate of about seven notes a second getting all the stressed and unstressed notes right.

Now, why doe she have this habitus and I do not? Well, because she decided it was important and worked at acquiring it is part of the answer. Reason and will entered into it. Reason told her that being good at music was a habitus worth developing. A persistence and consistence in practicing got her that habitus. Now, while most of us would agree that musical ability is a good thing, nobody would say it is required of anyone the way the college will certainly insist that I improve my Latin considerably before they give me a degree.

We would say, however, that there are moral habitus that everyone simply by virtue of being a human being should try to develop. If we consider my vice, scandal, Thomas defines it as, "“something less rightly said or done that occasions spiritual downfall.” The implication that I should develop the habitus of doing things more rightly is clear.

That’s interesting for it would seem that avoiding this vice would require not just having a particular habitus but rather a whole range of them. The problem is not, as Plato would have it, that we have contending horses. It seems that there are two stages here. First, our habitus represent a number of different horses that we can train well or not-so-well. And second, that there are habitus that are perfectly acceptable at some times but might be ill chosen at others. Is that right? Well, I hope to figure that out by exam time. And what exactly is the relationship between reason and will? If I have this right, both are always involved in a moral act but there are different ways for either to fail.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

11 Thomas on the vices

This week we read Question 15. The vices opposed to knowledge and understanding, from the second part of the second part. It's pretty short so I'll just go through it.

First article

He starts with three very good questions:
  1. Blindness of mind is an excuse.
  2. Blindness of mind is (can be?) a punishment and punishment is not the same as guilt.
  3. We are ultimately responsible for our sins and blindness of mind is not voluntary.
The sed contra is Gregory to the effect that blindness of mind arises from lust.

Knowledge is conceived on analogy with sight. (Deeply empirical). Three types:

The light of natural reason. We can’t lose it but it can be prevented from functioning by “lower powers” not functioning. These seem to be confined to what we would call mental illness.
Then there is what we might call "second nature”, a kind of light added by habit. To lose this is punishment.

My thoughts: It would seem then, that the development of vices is punishment for our sins.

The third principle of intellectual sight is an "intelligible principle through which we perceive things” that we might or might not “attend”. The big challenge for me here is not reading this as Kantian epistemology. For it would ridiculously easy as consequence of doing that is to go ahead and make the pragmatic move and see these things as something we invent and then apply. If we willfully turn away from this principle it is a sin.

[It’s odd that Thomas does not regard his response as dealing adequately with the objections for it is.

Second article

Is dullness of sense different from blindness of mind. [We might understand this on analogy with physical blindness which tends not to be blackness but a sense of sight so impaired that it can be of no or almost no use. And we might, therefore, wonder if there is a distinction in degree rather than of kind here.]

Three questions [it seems important that the objections are very clearly questions here. that is why he can say his respondio that all the objections have been dealt with.]:

  1. This is related to the question I ask above. Dullness is opposed to understanding so why aren’t they the same thing?
  2. The second also related. “Dullness of sense in respect to understanding” seems to be the same thing as a defect which sounds like blindness.
  3. If they differ at all, it is in that blindness can be voluntary whereas dullness of senses is a defect and that would make it not a sin.

Again, the response is very empirical with knowledge being associated with sight. This time, however, as degree is admitted, the argument by analogy depends very much on the answer being psychologically familiar to us. If we didn’t recognize some similar phenomenon to dullness in our experience we would not accept this argument. If I’m blind and someone tells me that there is a famous painting on the wall I pretty much have to take his word for it. If my senses are dull, I know there is a painting there but its greatness might allude me.

This is important for the third paragraph of the respondio begins, “Accordingly dulness of sense in connection with understanding denotes a certain weakness of the mind as to the consideration of spiritual goods.” Strictly speaking, that is a non sequitur. Yes, we can draw an analogy but that doesn’t imply that phenomenon actually exists.

This dullness towards spiritual goods is a sin insofar as it is voluntary. That is to say, insofar as I neglect spiritual goods because I am too focused on carnal goods.

[There is a distinction we find in the patristic writings that I don’t see in Thomas. The patristics will say that the gluttony is limited because no matter how much I like crème brûlée with an espresso and an ice cold grappa my desire for these will eventually get dulled. Lust for money, however, does not have this effect. It is limited. (Aside: sex is interesting in this regard as one can be both a glutton about sex and lustful for it.) The dullness that arises from being sated is very different from what Thomas discusses here but I wonder if it played a part in Gregory’s declaration used in the sed contra.)

[Analogy, perceiving a thing’s essence through a property thereof is analogous to seeing an object clearly at a distance. That makes sense on a certain level. I can tell that car a block away is a vintage Buick Skylark but I can’t tell for certain whether it is a 69 or a 72 at this distance, something I could easily have done in my 20s. But eyesight fails in this regard because it fails to determine certain details whereas understanding perceives essences and here things are reversed. At a distance, I can grasp that it is a Skylark, or to put it in essence language, its Skylarkness, what I am missing is the fine details that would allow me to classify it as a particular model year.]

Third article

Objection one is fascinating. Thomas quotes Augustine from the latter’s Retractationes, correcting his earlier claim that “God Who didst wish none but the clean to know the truth,” by saying, “many, even those who are unclean, know many truths.” Thomas replies to the objection by saying that “the cunclean can know some truths, but their uncleaness is a clog to their knowledge.” It’s worth noting two things: 1) that the comment in the Retractationes is really significant. It puts the later Augustine on the opposite side of a question from what he is usually associated. 2) Thomas gives a reply that doesn’t actually disagree with Augustine. He explains away rather than explaining. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this sort of mild esoteric writing but it is worth noting.

The respondio represents the same sort of challenge as the third type of understanding in article 1. That is to say, there is a danger of projecting modern concepts back into Thomas. The response begins: 
The perfect intellectual operation in man consists in an abstraction from sensible phantasms, wherefore the more a man's intellect is freed from those phantasms, the more thoroughly will it be able to consider things intelligible, and to set in order all things sensible. Thus Anaxagoras stated that the intellect requires to be "detached" in order to command, and that the agent must have power over matter, in order to be able to move it.
At first glance that looks a lot like enlightenment rationalism. How similar is it? I don’t know the answer to that question. I do know that if one were a late 19th or early 20th century Thomist looking to confront rationalists or, for that matter, someone alive right now looking to answer Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, the temptation to enlist Thomas as an even-more-perfect rationalist would be very strong. I suspect, though, that it would be better to try and figure out the context Thomas made the arguments.

In that regard, Anaxagoras is a fascinating authority for Thomas to be citing here.

A big question is what is the difference between an abstraction and a spiritual good? Geometry is chock a block with abstractions but is it the way to virtue? we’d have to concede that mastering Euclid’s elements requires self discipline and that is a virtue, it would not be of much moral use for most people.

My thoughts

The first thing that strikes me is the potential for applying Thomas to modern philosophy. I have in mind something distinct from the Thomists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who treated him as a stick with which to beat modernism. Rather, I wonder about ideas that are congenial to certain current views. I would focus instead on the third principle to the respondio of article 1, which he describes as “an intelligible principle, through which a man understands other things; to which principle a man may attend or not attend.” Now, I know that Thomas would not support post-Kantian ethics and it would be deeply wrong to claim him as an authority. That said, I think there is an opening here for Post-Kantian epistemology, and I have Charles Saunders Pierce in mind here, would argue that something this third principle is all there is. Recent neuroscience suggesting that the brain predicts patterns and corrects according to feedback backs this up.

A big question here will be, “How closely wedded is what Thomas has to say about moral truth to what he has to say about epistemology in general?"

Now, if I might go all theological on you for a moment, there is a big challenge for me here in that John Paul II specifically criticizes pragmatism twice in Veritatus Splendour. He does so on two grounds: 1) That it judges the morality of human acts "without any reference to the man's true ultimate end,” and 2) When he lumps it as a danger to be avoided along with relativism and positivism.

I’m not convinced that the distinction Thomas between lust and gluttony holds up for reasons I won’t go into here. In general, I think gluttony is a minor vice and that over-emphasis on it draws our attention away from the deeper problems and even encourages Jansensim. But I think that lust as Thomas discusses it is a source of vice has considerable promise. I read a few years ago of a study that had been done concerning volunteerism. As you may already know, beginning with my generation, interest in volunteerism has steadily declined, to the point that the only way to get significant numbers of teenagers to volunteer now is to make it an academic requirement. The study had focused on volunteer programs that paired teenagers with seniors so that the young volunteers could help with various tasks that were difficult for seniors to so and to provide companionship. The researchers picked this type of volunteer program to study because those who participated reported the greatest reward. Many said their lives turned around for the better and credited much of their life success to the time they’d spent helping these seniors. There was obviously potential evidence to encourage volunteerism here.

The study when published, though, was decidedly muted. Its main conclusion was that the teens had benefited and benefited into their adult lives because they received advice from these seniors that they would not have been able to accept from their parents, teachers or peers. When I read into the study it rapidly became clear why the conclusions were so muted. The seniors, mostly women, had bluntly told the young volunteers that they should smile more, put more effort into personal grooming, lose weight and generally focus on pleasing other people. Now that advice is politically incorrect. In many cases it is bloody offensive. The boor who tells the woman he is trying to pick up that she should smile more is being vile. And yet, it is actually good advice. There is a wealth of good advice that people spitefully ignore even though they would be better off if they took it. A good friend of mine died a few years ago from complications arising from anorexia. At some level, I think she knew the friends and health professionals telling her that she had a problem were right and yet she was unable to accept it. And she not only killed herself, she also impoverished her life and the lives of people who loved her.

Now, a first reaction might be that what I am describing is the opposite of lust, but I don’t think so. It’s a lust for a certain kind of validation that drives it and I think it explains much of the malaise of modern life.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

10 Thomas on the Vices

All sorts of things jumped out at me this time.

Most prominently, Q. 117, Art. 5, Whether liberality is a part of justice?

The problem here is that liberality is an act of generosity, Thomas would say beneficence. The moral issue here concerns the giver alone. When I owe a moral debt, be it money or something else, then there is a moral aspect to my owing it but also a moral aspect in the receiver’s right to get repaid. The moral test of liberality is the way it is dispensed. To do so out of a sense of duty would be morally admirable but it would not be liberality.

It’s the sed contra that seems most interesting to me. Thomas quotes Ambrose, “Justice has to do with the fellowship of mankind. For the notion of fellowship is divided into two parts, justice and beneficence, also called liberality or kind-heartedness.” Therefore liberality pertains to justice.

I’d parse it as follows:

F if J and B.
Therefore, if F then J and B.

That is to say, there is no case where F is true unless both J and B are true.

That’s Ambrose’s argument. What does Thomas add?

He first of all acknowledges that there is something to the objections: liberality is nota species of justice. But it two points where it agrees with justice. 1) It is directed towards others and 2) it is concerned with external things. And he concludes, “… liberality is reckoned by some to be a part of justice, being annexed thereto as to a principal virtue.”

Unfortunately, I am not qualified to comment on the quality of the translation here. If we take the English at face value, however, that is a pretty soft endorsement. It is “reckoned by some”. The thrust seems to be that this is a legitimate but not necessary association.

In passing, I’d note there is a Stoic connection here. The Ambrose quote comes from De Officiis Ministrorum which was modeled on Cicero’s De Officiis a text with strong Stoic foundations. Cicero and Seneca were both held in very high regard from Late Antiquity through to the Renaissance. In any case, Thomas seems to have held Cicero and Seneca in high regard.

The Stoic connections is worth noting for the Stoic concern with justice grows out of self-concern. A very short version would run like this: I am a moral being, it behooves moral beings to have certain attitudes and behaviours and some of these would promote concern and care for the community and justice towards individuals. That view fits with Christian morality and is thus admissible. That acknowledged, there is a tension between it and the far harder example set by Jesus who gave up his life. Thus Thomas leaves open a door to consider the case of the “perfect”.

If I might hammer on the Stoic theme: this seems to me to indicate why we cannot equate the perfect to the notion of the Stoic sage. Both the perfect and the serve as moral exemplars that we should all admire even if it seems unlikely that we shall ever successfully emulate them. The Stoic sage, however, is just the most highly developed case of the sort of judgement and virtue that we are all called to have, Liberality, as described by Thomas, is a virtue fitting for all but there is a higher calling for those who aspire to be perfect. In the Reply to objection 2 of article 1, he writes as follows: "It does not belong to a liberal man so to give away his riches that nothing is left for his own support, nor the wherewithal to perform those acts of virtue whereby happiness is acquired.” He then quotes Aristotle ins support of this, “the liberal man does not neglect his own, wishing thus to be of help to certain people.” Now, that’s fine for Aristotle but there is an obvious Christian counterpoint in Matthew 19: 21, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.” A Stoic position could, with some effort, be harmonized with this for the Stoic is supposed to be willing to sacrifice even money necessary for subsistence for the sake of maintaining virtue. An Aristotelian could not.

In order to remain loyal to Aristotle, Thomas opens up a second way. Again quoting De Officiis Ministrorum, Thomas writes, “'Our Lord does not wish a man to pour out his riches all at once, but to dispense them: unless he do as Eliseus did, who slew his oxen and fed the poor, that he might not be bound by any household cares.’ For this belongs to the state of perfection …” It seems that in his comment on the Ambrose quote, Thomas means to indicate that what Eliseus did belongs to the state of perfection whereas the first part of the Ambrose quote describes what we might describe as good enough.