‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Cicero "De Officiis" (44 BC)


‘On Duties’ (officium means ‘duty, service, office’, ‘an obligatory service, visit, or gesture’) is one of the last things Cicero wrote. It takes the form of a letter to his son, outlining the proper way to live, how to discharge one's ethical duties and responsibilities. It's in three parts. The first details what Cicero understands by honestum, which word means honesty as well as honour, and more broadly means what we might call ‘moral goodness’. The second covers utile, a word Walter Miller translates as ‘expediency’, although that seems a little loaded to me (expediency is surely more self-serving and morally compromised than, say, ‘utility’, ‘usefulness’, ‘practicability’).

The third part looks at what happens when moral goodness comes into conflict with expediency, its argument being: actually, honestum and utile can't really come into conflict, they can only appear to do so. In fact the most expedient thing to do in any given situation is always the morally good thing to do.

And what is the morally good thing to do? It is, says Cicero, to follow Nature. He repeatedly stresses this point, actually, and I'll come back to it. To be more specific: it is to act in the proper and fitting way with regard to yourself and your fellow men and women. You're entitled to your private property (Cicero is clear on that) but you also have a duty to help your fellow citizens, for example by assisting them when they are materially disadvantaged, or by contributing to the defence of the realm, or the maintenance of the rule of law. When it comes to the best way to act in yourself, you should at all times be guided by certain virtues. And here's where things get interesting, actually, because the one thing I thought I knew about the De Officiis before I read it turns out not to be quite right. I thought it was a book in which Cicero insisted upon those four virtues later medieval thinkers dubbed Cardinal: wisdom (sapientia), justice (iustitia), courage (fortitudo) and temperance (moderatio). And he kind of does. But then again, he kind of doesn't. It's complicated, in quite an interesting way.

So in 1:15 he specifically says that what is morally good derives from four sources: wisdom (which Cicero here calls ‘the perceptive and expert attention to the truth’: ‘in perspicientia veri sollertiaque versatur’); ‘the conservation of ordered society’, which is a way of saying justice I suppose; ‘greatness and strength’ which is at least a part of courage; and modesty and self-control (‘modestia et temperantia’).

Ah, but later in the De Officiis he proposes a slightly different set of four cardinal virtues: cognitionis, communitatis, magnanimitas and moderationis [1:152], where terms 1, 2 and 4 map fairly well on their respective terms in the classic ethical quadrivium, but where strength, or courage, has been replaced by magnanimity. Not the same thing at all! And then later on again [2:18] he says that ‘in general virtue can indeed be said to consist of three things’ (‘etenim virtus omnis tribus in rebus fere vertitur’): perspicacity (the ability to act ‘in perspiciendo’), the ability to restrain the passions, or feelings (‘quos Graeci πάθη nominant’, ‘what the Greeks call pathē’) and the ability to ‘treat with consideration and wisdom those with whom we are associated’, ‘quibuscum congregemur, uti moderate et scienter’. That's kind of wisdom, temperance and justice I suppose, although not precisely so.

And reading through the whole thing, I began to wonder if it isn't haunted by four entirely other virtues: irony, decorum, individuality and verecundia—this last a Latin word without an exact English equivalent (it's sometimes rendered as ‘modesty’, but that doesn't quite capture it. I wrote quite a long post about this very term over on my Coleridge blog, if you're interested). To take these, quickly, in reverse order: verecundia is praised at 1:127, where it is said to take its cue from Natura, or Nature. Individuality comes up several times (1:112, 1:121 and elsewhere) since one of Cicero's central arguments is that different people have different strengths, and proper honestum involves being true to those specificities. Decorum [eg at 1:17, 1:93] means something a little more refined and Henry-James-like than temperance:—really, it is tact. Blatant breaches of propriety are obvious, Cicero says, and so hardly worth noticing in a work such as this (aimed, we presume, at the more discerning reader who already knows better). His example of such blatant impropriety, hilariously enough, is singing in the street.
But flagrant breaches of good breeding, like singing in the streets or any other gross misconduct, are easily apparent and do not call especially for admonition and instruction. Nonetheless we must even more carefully avoid those seemingly trivial faults which pass unnoticed by the many. However slightly out of tune a harp or flute may be, the fault is still detected by a connoisseur; so we must be on the watch lest haply something in our life be out of tune—nay, rather, far greater is the need for painstaking, inasmuch as harmony of actions is far better and far more important than harmony of sounds.

Sed ea, quae multum ab humanitate discrepant, ut si qui in foro cantet, aut si qua est alia magna perversitas, facile apparet nec magnopere admonitionem et praecepta desiderat; quae autem parva videntur esse delicta neque a multis intellegi possunt, ab iis est diligentius declinandum. Ut in fidibus aut tibiis, quamvis paulum discrepent, tamen id a sciente animadverti solet, sic videndum est in vita ne forte quid diserepet, vel multo etiam magis, quo maior et melior actionum quam sonorum concentus est. [1:145]
Which brings me to: irony—not quite the right word, I concede: but Cicero does several times stress the need to be eloquent as well as receptive in our conversation with others. Conversation is an art, he says [1:134] and one we must cultivate if we wish to live a virtuous life. Indeed, he goes into quite a lot of detail as to what are proper topics for conversation (home, politics and the professions, apparently), how to make it orderly and seasonable, and always to keep our interlocutors in mind. His model he says several times are the dialogues of the Socratic school, and of Socrates he says: ‘Socrates was fascinating and witty, a genial conversationalist; he was what the Greeks call εἴρων’ [1:108] an ironist, somebody who says less than they mean, or whose meaning is at odds with their words. From the context this looks like it means: he did not dominate the conversation, even though he could have done (being, naturally, the cleverest person present) but pretended ignorance, or otherwise left gaps for other people to fill. And that's clearly polite social practice. But I wonder if being an εἴρων, an ironist, might not have a more central role in Cicero's ethical schema than people have hitherto noticed.

The point of all this, I think, is that Cicero's ethics is not the schematic application of four (or three, or whatever) principles to everyday living. It is a matter of what the experts nowadays call ‘situational ethics’ (Rebecca Langlands's ‘Roman Exempla and Situation Ethics: Valerius Maximus and Cicero de Officiis’ [The Journal of Roman Studies, 101 (2011) 100-122] is good on this, although the article's focus is more on Valerius Maximus). It means that the experience of reading De Officiis is less about a kind of larger consistency than you might think. It's a bit repetitious; its examples don't necessarily illustrate its theses with perfect appositeness; in places it seems to contradict itself.

It's this, I think, that has led to the assumption among scholars that the three books of De Officiis ‘were dashed off at a remarkably quick rate’ [Andrew R. Dyck, A Commentary on Cicero, De Officiis (University of Michigan Press, 1996), 39], or even that the work is characterised by ‘a certain carelessness in structure and argument ... [and] a tendency to repetition’ [M. T. Griffin and E. M. Atkins, Cicero On Duties (Cambridge University Press, 1991) xix]. That may be true, but then again, it might be that Cicero specifically doesn't want a bugbear consistency of architectonic design to overwhelm his thesis. He is preaching to those, such as his son, who basically know how to act properly already. He is not establishing ethics by first principles; he is embroidering a set of already-accepted facets of interpersonal interactive praxis. I mean, we all already know not to do anything so vulgar as to sing in the street, surely. Don't we?


If what I've said makes it looks like De Officiis is in some sense a shonky or underbaked work, then its reception, especially viewed long-term, suggests anything but. Very few books in the entire history of western civilisation have had anything like the impact and influence this one has had. ‘The evidence to this effect,’ says Marcia Colish, ‘from the manuscript tradition, from the direct and indirect testimonia, and from the flood of both handwritten texts and printed editions in the fifteenth century is, in a word, overwhelming’ Over 600 manuscripts of the De Officiis survive, more than any other prose work. ‘Vernacular translations, no less than Latin texts, abounded in the Middle Ages, including Italian, German, and Icelandic versions and thirty-eight in Old French alone ... no less than thirty-four printed editions were published in the fifteenth century ... During the Middle Ages, it was the most authoritative, most frequently cited, and most commonly imitated treatise on classical ethics, considered both in itself and in conjunction with Christian ethics. Cicero's influence outstripped that of all other classical authors.’ [Marcia L. Colish, ‘Cicero's De Officiis and Machiavelli's Prince’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, 9:4 (1978), 81-82]

This influence, though, has not lasted.
That Cicero's stature among political thinkers has diminished in contemporary times is hardly news, but it is still astonishing to consider how far De Officiis in particular has fallen in the standard curriculum for students of politics in the West. Without going into the details of the story, one notes that Cicero's last philosophical project soon established itself as a standard pedagogical tool in late antiquity, that it became a common book in the medieval schools, that it was a key text in the curriculum of the Renaissance humanists, and that it held a preeminent position in both the grammar schools and the universities of the Enlightenment. Ambrose imitated the book, even borrowing its title; Thomas Aquinas cites it frequently in treating moral and political matters in the Summa Theologiae; Erasmus and Melanchthon each published editions of the text; Montesquieu was inspired by it and Kant against it. Indeed, if one compares lists of books commonly read by students of politics today with such lists from the past, the most striking difference would have to be the virtual omission of De Officiis from contemporary lists. [Douglas Kries, ‘On the Intention of Cicero's De Officiis’, The Review of Politics, 65:4 (2003), 375]
I'm trying to think of another book whose influence has fallen off a cliff in quite the way this one's has. I'm really not sure I can.

I wonder if one reason for that is that the whole climate of ethical thought has shifted. Kant wanted to ground ethics in a comprehensive, internally coherent and viable logic. As Charles Taylor argues in his A Secular Age (2007) one consequence of the shift from a fundamentally religious-animist world to our present-day secular-materialist one is the rise of what Taylor calls the ‘Modern Moral Order’, which reconfigures morality in terms of following certain codes or norms within a ‘disciplinary society’ that rewards orderly practices throughout the entire population. Cicero's, by contrast, is an elitist ethical doctrine. At one point he discusses which professions and modes of life are compatible with honestum.
Now in regard to trades and other means of livelihood, which ones are to be considered becoming to a gentleman and which ones are vulgar: first, those means of livelihood are rejected as undesirable which incur people's ill-will, as those of tax-gatherers and usurers. Unbecoming to a gentleman, too, and vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery. Vulgar we must consider those also who buy from wholesale merchants to retail immediately; for they would get no profits without a great deal of downright lying; and verily, there is no action that is meaner than misrepresentation. And all mechanics are engaged in vulgar trades; for no workshop can have anything liberal about it. Least respectable of all are those trades which cater for sensual pleasures:
“Fishmongers, butchers, cooks, and poulterers,
And fishermen”
as Terence says. [Cicero, De Officiis, 1:150]
He goes on to list, as examples of professions fitting for a moral person: medicine, architecture and teaching. But what's fascinating about this, I think, is that he is of course not suggesting that society as a whole could get along without cooks and fishermen, workmen and merchants, because (of course) it couldn't. He is tacitly saying: good morals are not for all. Honestum is for the elite, for people like Cicero and his son and not, if we're honest, for commoners like thee or me. That was how ethics, in the broadest sense, operated in Roman society, and also in medieval and Renaissance society. Ethics are universally assumed to be more inclusive now. And rightly so.


One thing that reading De Officiis made me wonder is: how far does this pre-‘Modern Moral Order’ book of ethics develops a farmer's rather than a hunter's ethics? I wouldn't want this to become my King Charles' Head where matters of physics, philosophy or morals are concerned, but it is surely a meaningful distinction. So: a hunter's ethics cannot put too high a priority on empathy—identify too closely with your prey and your ability to kill will become impaired, and you'll starve. But the farmer needs to husband his or her empathy: to understand what their crops and livestock need in order to flourish. The hunter needs to track and then overmaster; the farmer needs to slot themselves into the rhythms of the seasons, to attend to the order of nature. The hunter cuts across the natural cycle, sometimes literally so, to wrench life out of nature; the farmer aligns him/herself with the natural cycle to coax nature into doing its thing more fruitfully.

At any rate, I wonder if this may be a way of reading the De Officiis (particularly its Book 1), and its repeated emphasis on Natura.
Further, as to the duty which has its source in propriety, the first road on which it conducts us leads to harmony with Nature and the faithful observance of her laws. If we follow Nature as our guide, we shall never go astray ... for the very essence of propriety is found in the division of virtue which is now under discussion [temperance]. For it is only when they agree with Nature's laws that we should give our approval to the movements not only of the body, but still more of the spirit.

Officium autem, quod ab eo ducitur, hanc primum habet viam, quae deducit ad convenientiam conservationemque naturae; quam si sequemur ducem, numquam aberrabimus sequemurque ... sed maxima vis decori in hac inest parte, de qua disputamus; neque enim solum corporis, qui ad naturam apti sunt, sed multo etiam magis animi motus probandi, qui item ad naturam accommodati sunt. [1:100]
This might present a more problematic theory of ethics if it aimed at absolute coherence (after all, what if ‘following your nature’ means being true to your essential Hannibal-Lecterishness?), but it presents, I think, less of a difficulty if we take Nature as the framing context for an agricultural being-in-the-world. When Cicero urges on us the need to treat others with respect and generosity, he uses this analogy:
If as Hesiod bids, one is to repay with interest, if possible, what one has borrowed in time of need, what, pray, ought we to do when challenged by an unsought kindness? Shall we not imitate the fruitful fields, which return more than they receive? For if we do not hesitate to confer favours upon those who we hope will be of help to us, how ought we to deal with those who have already helped us? [1:43]
These agri fertiles, these fertile fields, imply ... what, ethically speaking? Moral organicism? Slowness? A seasonal component? Cicero closes book two with this anecdote about the Elder Cato.
To this class of comparisons belongs that famous saying of old Cato's: when he was asked what was the most profitable feature of an estate, he replied: “Raising cattle successfully.” What next to that? “Raising cattle with fair success.” And next? “Raising cattle with but slight success.” And fourth? “Raising crops.” And when his questioner said, “How about money-lending?” Cato replied: “How about murder?”

Ex quo genere comparationis illud est Catonis senis: a quo cum quaereretur, quid maxime in re familiari expediret, respondit: “Bene pascere”; quid secundum: “Satis bene pascere”; quid tertium: “Male pascere”; quid quartum: “Arare”; et cum ille, qui quaesierat, dixisset: “Quid faenerari?”, tum Cato: “Quid hominem,” inquit, “occidere?” [2:89]
For Cicero, the gentleman is really the gentleman farmer; and he remains the gentleman farmer even when he goes to war (at one point we're told, if you have to destroy and plunder a city, then at least do it carefully: ‘as to destroying and plundering cities, let me say that great care should be taken that nothing be done in reckless cruelty or wantonness’ [1:82]).

Things are different now. The cash-nexus has become the idiom of the ‘Modern Moral Order’ because it reduces everything to an interchangeability; because it makes moral transgression itself fungible—if we have been morally outraged nowadays we expect financial compensation, the precisely amount to be calculated according to the gravity and extent of the outrage. Cicero would not have been impressed. De Officiis is a book that is simply out of time where such an arrangement holds.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Fantasy and the Inexistent

I have thoughts. I think. But perhaps not very coherent ones. I don't know: let's see where this goes.

So, I read Tom Graham's review of the new edition of Graham Priest's Towards Non-Being (OUP 2018) in this week's TLS. Priest's book is an attempt to think with some philosophical rigour about non-existent things. Here's how Graham summarises the context, which is to say, the larger post-Quinean professional-philosophers' debate.
That some things—unicorns, the largest number, Sherlock Holmes—do not exist seems so obvious, and is so frequently taken for granted in our everyday discourse, that denying it would be ridiculous in any ordinary context. And so it may come as some surprise that since the beginning of the twentieth century this view has been among the least popular and most berated in anglophone philosophy. Many even claim that the position, so widely held by non-philosophers, is unintelligible, and the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle even went so far as to say that if it were not a dead view in philosophy, nothing was. To revive the view that some things don’t exist (known these days as “noneism”) and situate it as a plausible contender in current debates on existence is the aim of Graham Priest’s formidable 2005 book Towards Non-Being, which has now appeared in a significantly expanded second edition.

A fundamental motivation for the dominant view is that to lack existence, it seems, is to be nothing at all. Things, by contrast, are not ‘nothing’—they are things! If so, then ‘being a thing’ and ‘existing’ go hand in hand, and there cannot be ‘things’ that do not exist. Adherents of this view thus read the noneist's claim ‘some things don't exist’ as entailing the self-refuting ‘some things are not things’ and therefore to be self-contradictory. The dominant ‘Quinean’ approach to existence (named after the influential American philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine) holds this position. For Quineans, all things exist—that's what it means to be a thing. But that does not mean that, for example, Sherlock Holmes exists. Rather they believe that since Sherlock isn't any kind of thing at all, the phrase ‘all things’ in ‘all things exist’ does not cover him. There is simply no ‘him’ for it to cover.

Matters are complicated for Quineans, however, by at least two aspects of our everyday discourse. Firstly, consider that many things appear to be true of supposed non-existents. It is apparently true, for example, that Sherlock Holmes is a popular fictional detective. And yet how can this be true of Sherlock, if there is in reality no Sherlock for it to be true of? Secondly, Many philosophers (beginning with Plato) have supposed that we can—among other things—think, talk, dream, argue and make television series about supposed non-existents (philosophers use the word ‘intentionality’ for this mysterious quality of ‘aboutness’). They have argued that for this reason non-existents must exist in some sense—otherwise how could we do all these different things to them? Quineans maintain that any features of our discourse that appear to commit us to the existence of non-existent things can be reconstructed in such a way as to make that commitment disappear. [Tom Graham, ‘Elementary’, TLS (23 Feb 2018), 7]
I have not read Priest's book (though I may), but from Graham's review it seems his ‘solution’ to the Quinean problem is to posit inexistent things as sort-of existing in the distinct possible worlds that actualise them: a development, it seems, of ‘possible world semantics’. In some possible worlds Sherlock exists and in others he doesn't. Graham is quite impressed.
The theory does allow us to explain why it seems truer to say that Sherlock is a detective than to say that he is a fishmonger, for example. According to noneism this is because, in those possible worlds that realize the way that Conan Doyle's stories represent the world as being, Sherlock is a detective (and not a fishmonger). Furthermore, though non-existents cannot have any properties in this world that entail existence, Priest's noneism does allow that they can have certain ‘non-existence entailing’ properties here, among which are intentional one like ‘being thought about’. According to the theory, what we are doing when we think about Sherlock, for instance, is thinking about an object that exists in other possible worlds.
Well alrighty. This seems cogent, although a trifle angelic-pinhead-disco-y. But it prompts a couple of reactions in me, and I'll notate them here.

The main thing is my peculiar perspective on this matter: my commitment to Fantasy and SF, as a writer, critic and fan (which last status of course preceded the other two). I balk, I suppose, at the emphasis on possible worlds. Fantasy is necessarily predicated upon one or other impossibilities, after all. That's almost a thumbnail definition of the mode. It's possible a man might have set up a detective agency in late Victorian London. Its not possible that Gandalf could actually have fought an actual Balrog, because neither the magic he used nor the beast with which he grappled are possible things. But, it seems to me, this latter inexistent event is exactly as ‘real’ in any meaningful sense of the word in this context as that former one.

Two other thoughts. One is that I tend to think the philosophers get this whole question arse-backwards. So far as I can follow the debate, both Quineans and ‘Noneists’ consider the real world to be full of real things, and the inexistent world to be a kind of annex, or ratio-inferior, of that plenitude, for which little epicycle-like appendices to the larger theory of existent things are needful in order to make the whole consistent schema of nested Quinean spheres spin smoothly.

I honestly doubt if this is the state of affairs, at least where living-breathing humans are concerned. Reality is what it is, no question; but Fantasy is unconstrained by what-it-isness and expands in myriad more startling and satisfying and alarming directions. The point is: people care more, and quite a lot of people care very much more, about Fantasy than Reality. I don't mean in the schizophrenic sense of losing touch with reality. Almost everybody is adept at not doing that. But I do insist upon the point nonetheless. People care more about the fictional (inexistent) neighbours they watch on Eastenders and Coronation Street than they do about their actual neighbours, who actually live next door to them. People care more about Hogwarts than real schools. People care more about Wakanda than actual African nations. More tourists will discover a desire to visit New-Zealand-as-Middle-Earth than will want to go merely to New Zealand.

I say so not in any spirit of contempt at the bovine disengagement from reality of people in general. This seems to me simply an observation about human life, mine as much as anybody's. In fact I think it reflects the simple fact that Reality is something we must navigate and survive, where Story is something we have invented precisely such that we can care about it. And this has real-world consequences, all the time, some small, some large. People invest in ideologies and theologies, for example, that override their basic instincts towards logic, empathy, and even self-preservation. Al Capone wept as he watched Caruso sing Canio in Pagliacci, but stood stony-faced as his henchmen murdered actual, living, breathing people in front of him, on his orders. I've written elsewhere, and still think it's largely true, that Star Wars killed the space race: Apollo 11 was exciting, but the later Apollo missions were dull and functional and real; and when, in 1977, this exciting, thrilling irreal version of space travel came along, people switched allegiance. Simple as that. It is so much easier and so much more emotionally gratifying to care about Luke Skywalker than it is to care about Eugene A. Cernan and Ronald E. Evans. And we want to care. We want to care very much.

That leads to my second thought, which is where I go off the rails a little, I suspect. It's a hypothesis: that the inexistent (and therefore, for example, Fantasy) operates in an Aristotelian, or Thomas-Aquinas-esque, manner, where the existent (the real world or real things) operates in a Newtonian-Einsteinian manner. That, in fact, this distinction might be a way of approaching the logic of the irreal itself, and of fleshing out a theory of the discursive parameters of Fantasy as a mode. It's also an index of caring I think. It shapes the ways in which we articulate our passion for these inexistencies, the things we care about and the sorts of engagement we indulge in.

To be clear, and although people thought they were for a long time, real things are not Aristotelian mash-ups of substance and accidents. All those alchemists were barking up the wrong tree: lead does not share the same substance as gold, such that, if we could just find a way of tweaking its accidental greyness and leadenness, we could all be rich. That's simply not how the universe works. But it is how inexistent objects and entities work. That, at any rate, is my hypothesis.

A couple of in-the-news-at-the-moment examples of what I mean. James Bond is inexistent, a glamorous super-spy who has exciting adventures all around the world. He is, we could say, substantially a British spy, and not (to use Graham's example) substantially a Portuguese fishmonger. But he is only accidentally white. We could cast Idris Elba as Bond, and millions would flock to the cinema to see him, and take him as James Bond. Of course I'm not picking an ideologically neutral example, and there are people who insist that Bond is indeed substantially white. They're wrong, and basically racist, but the point is, even such people would recognise that the entity James Bond has accidents as well as substance: brown eyes or blue, a chunky frame or a more slender one and so on. They're just arguing over where the line is drawn. Or another example: Doctor Who is substantially a benign alien with the power to travel in time, and only accidentally old or young, male or female. When bigots complain ‘you can't cast a black actor to play Hermione Granger’ they're insisting that the character's skin-colour is part of her substance. They're not denying the accidents of the character, or they'd say ‘you can't cast an actor to play Hermione Granger’. When bigots complain ‘you can't cast a woman a Doctor Who’ they are both revealing their ideological bias, and their tacit commitment to a model of Aristotelian irrealism in which many aspects of Doctor Who can change but some others cannot without the entity in question stopping being Doctor Who.

So what I wonder is: to what extent might a poetics of fantasy as such be construed from this Aristotleian understanding of the nature of fantasy worlds, characters, tropes and styles? Banished from the real world by, well, reality itself, might substance-accident not have a place in the irreal? (Might, indeed, the appeal of that patently flawed and inadequate physics—and it persuaded lots of very clever people for thousands of years—be explicable because it so perfectly describes those inexistent entities of Story, Fantasy and Religion about whom we all care so much more than we do about rocks and stones and trees?) What might such a poetics look like, I wonder? I'll have a think about it.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Cicero, "De Natura Deorum" (45 BC)

So: I've been reading some Cicero. Mr Chickpea himself.

The main reason for this is a desire to improve my (believe me, deeply shoddy and underpowered) Latin. Last year I happened upon a gorgeous eighteenth-century Ciceronis Opera in a second hand bookshop, and, having bought it, I now propose reading it. Which is to say, I propose reading some of it, and to lean on translations as I navigate the Latin, in the hope that the latter will slowly pick up speed.

It's odd how poor my knowledge of Cicero is, actually. It probably has to do with the sense of him as an anti-democrat, an aristocratic thinker and apologist for social and political authoritarianism. Has to do, that is, with my disinclination to sink into that swamp. I'll say that my desire to fill the Cicero-shaped hole in my knowledge is not, I repeat, not a symptom of me swinging political rightward as I get older. At least, I don't think so. But my hitherto partial Ciceronian knowledge is a handicap in lots of ways. For one thing, to quote Michael Grant, ‘the influence of Cicero upon the history of European literature and ideas greatly exceeds that of any other prose writer in any language’ [Grant (ed) Cicero, Selected Works (Penguin 1971), 24]. For another, and just in terms of the language, he remade Latin, such that Roman and especially post-Roman neo-Latin became Ciceronian Latin, or else was fought over on specifically anti-Ciceronian lines. Who better to immerse myself in, if I want my Latin to improve?

At any rate, and I know full-well for nobody's benefit but my own, I'm going to post a few bloggy reactions to the Cicero I've been reading, just to try and get them straight in my head. And I'm going to begin with one of his most famous works, On The Nature of the Gods. Voltaire thought this book, together with the Tusculan Disputations, ‘les deux plus beaux ouvrages qu’ait jamais écrits la sagesse qui n’est qu’humaine’, the two most beautiful books ever produced by the wisdom of humanity [‘Cicéron’, Dictionnaire philosophique (1764); Œuvres complètes (Garnier) 18:181]. Which is pretty high praise, really.

* * *

Let's start with the title: ‘on the nature of the gods’. It suggests, of course: one nature, but many gods. Isn't that a bit odd, though?

The book is in three parts, and dramatizes the conversation of four friends: Cicero himself (though he doesn't contribute to the actual debate), an Epicurean called Gaius Velleius, a Stoic called Quintus Lucilius Balbus and an ‘Academic’ philosopher (as we might say today, a skeptic or antidogmatic thinker) called Gaius Cotta. In a nutshell the Epicurean thinks everything is made of atoms, the Stoic thinks we should respect tradition and always do the right thing, and the Academician wants to question everything.

The subject is: do the gods exist, and if they do, what is their nature and relationship to mortal affairs? All speakers answer the first question in the affirmative, but all disagree with respect to the other two. In Book 1 Velleius elaborates his own Epicurean theology, and then Cotta offers some criticisms. In Book 2, Balbus explains and defends Stoic theology, and in Book 3 Cotta offers a critique of Balbus's arguments. Each of them has a different take on the ‘nature’ of the gods.

Velleius explains (1:50) that the Epicureans believe gods are made of atoms, like mortal beings, only a different sort of atom, more ethereal, a kind that bypasses our ordinary senses, but still leave an impression on the more delicate organs of apprehension of our souls. So we see visions of gods, although we don't see actual gods with our eyes. And because the Epicureans believe in an infinity of atoms, that means they are logically compelled to believe in an infinite number and variety of gods. The Stoics believe in an affinity between human and cosmic reason, and that the universe is providentially governed by the divine. They also believe it's ridiculous to imagine gods as having human form, and Balbus makes the case that the divine form is spherical [2:45], since the sphere is the most perfect shape. Cotta doesn't think reason is all that, and pooh-poohs the Globular God hypothesis.

All these multiple natures mean the title should really be De Naturis Deorum, ‘on the natures of the gods’ (indeed, I wonder that no Christian theologian has ever written about their single God and His multiple natures under the title De Naturis Dei). I find myself quite struck by this, if I'm honest. It seems to me that there's something logically ‘clean’ (as it were) in believing in no gods, and similarly in believing in one God, but that once you believe in more than one then it's hard for me to see why you'd stop at any particular number? Why a trinity of Gods, or a triform God augmented by many lesser semi-divine angels, saints and so on? Why not an infinity of gods? (Do even Hindus go so far?)

At any rate, the many natures of the gods result in many arguments in this book, and one of the striking things about it all is how little steer Cicero gives us as to which of these arguments are strong and which weak. We might think that, since Cicero identifies specifically identifies himself here as an Academic, and since Cotta is the book's vocal Academician, that the structure of the whole is designed to lead to a Academic conclusion: the Epicurean speaks, and the Academic refutes him (Book 1); the Stoic speaks at greater length (Book 2), and the Academic refutes him at greater length (Book 3).

But this isn't what actually happens. Discussion ends not because any firm conclusion has been reached, but rather because night has fallen and it's time for the participants to go home. Cicero, who has contributed nothing at all to the discussion himself (and whom, except at one solitary point in 2:140, isn't so much as mentioned by the other three) finally speaks up: ‘and when these things had been said we all went out separate ways, the upshot being that Velleius found more truth in the argument of Cotta, whereas to me those of Balbus seemed to be more probable’ (‘ac cum essent dicta, ita discessimus, ut Velleio Cottae disputatio verior, mihi Balbi ad veritatis similitudinem videretur esse propensior’ [3:95]). It's quite a famous crux in studies of the book, actually. Here, all the way back in 1913, is Arthur Stanley Pease, puzzled:
But why does Cicero, who in the first part of Book 1 declares himself an Academic, and who, at his entrance into Cotta's house is recognized by his friends as the fellow-schoolman and natural supporter of Cotta, now cast his vote, not with Cotta and Academicism, but with the Stoic speaker and those views which Cotta has been refuting? [Pease, ‘The Conclusion of Cicero's De Natura Deorum, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 44 (1913), 25]
Pease puzzled hot. Or maybe Pease puzzled cold. Indeed, it's bothered people for thousands of years. Saint Augustine, in the De Civitate Dei [5:9], quotes this very passage to argue that Cicero was a secret atheist, but too scared openly to admit it, who is here trying to cover his arse by distancing himself from Academic skepticism with a pretend-support of the traditional state-friendly theism of the Stoics. Another explanation, popular with Enlightenment classical scholars, was that Cicero is here merely telling the truth: that Cotta does indeed have the better argument, and that as an Academician Cicero recognizes a duty to the truth as such over party affiliation.

We could expand this a little and suggest that it's in the nature of the skeptic that s/he critiques rather than advances, is antithetical rather than, er, thetical; and, assuming he doesn't want to deny the existence of the gods, Cicero's only two options at the end are the Epicurean infinity of beings constructed of super-subtle atoms and the more conventional and traditional theology of the Stoics. I find myself wondering whether there's a more subtle repudiation in this final touch: as if Cicero is saying ‘we can weigh and judge rational arguments, but true knowledge of the gods is not a matter of ratiocination but of the soul and the heart’. This, though, is not the general tenor of the De Natura Deorum.

Cicero's discussion of the gods has, really, nothing to say about the personal, spiritual or mystical aspects of the topic. It is, we could say, not in the least a Protestant book: on the sense that Cicero is not interested in the individual's personal relationship to the divine. The focus of all three of his speakers, whatever their differences otherwise, are on religion as a social and cultural iteration, and therefore on things like ritual, auspices and prophesy that will surely seem marginal to modern-day people of faith.

Several speakers repeat the argument for the existence of the gods known as the ‘ex consensu gentium’. This is the argument that says, in essence: ‘a good reason to believe in gods is that pretty much everyone believes in gods’. Now, this (obviously) doesn't present itself as a logically watertight proposition. It's conceivable that most or all people might sincerely believe something untrue. But although you might expect me, as an atheist, to dismiss ‘ex consensu gentium’ as absurd in fact I have quite a lot of respect for it. I am conscious, as an infidel, that my position is eccentric in the strict sense. Most people (and from what I can see ‘most’ means an overwhelming majority of the global population) have one or other form of religious or spiritual faith. Of course it's possible they're all wrong, but possible isn't necessarily the same as likely. It's also fundamentally quite insulting to vast numbers of actual, thinking, feeling non-idiot human beings. I mean, a person can disbelieve in God without expressing haughty contempt for the majority of the other people with whom they happen to share the planet. It's just not a trick many of the New Atheists have managed.

At any rate, much more space is given over, in De Natura Deorum, to how the gods are than to whether there are gods. Velleius says ‘So: when all people naturally agree on something, that belief must necessarily be true; which means we have to accept that the gods exist’ (‘de quo autem omnium natura consentit, id verum esse necesse est; esse igitur deos confitendum est’ [1:44]). For Balbus the existence of the gods is so obvious that it ‘scarcely needs even to be argued’ (‘ne egere quidem videtur’ [2:4]). Doubting the existence of the gods is as stupid as doubting the existence of the sun and the moon.
If no such cognitus [‘knowledge, recognition, understanding’] were implanted in our minds [or ‘our souls’], it would not have lasted as long in human history as it has done, or grown stronger over time as it has; nor could it be passed-on to subsequent generations and ages of men.

Quod nisi cognitum conprehensumque animis haberemus, non tam stabilis opinio permaneret nec confirmaretur diuturnitate temporis nec una cum saeclis aetatibusque hominum inveterare potuisset. [2:5]
I've come across modern, evo-psych versions of this argument: that religion must serve some valuable evolutionary purpose, or it would not have proved so widespread or enduring a phenomenon (although this argument, of course, speaks only to the naturally selective benefits, not the spiritual truth, of such beliefs: if believing a lie had widespread evolutionary benefits, then we'd expect to see such belief bed-in irrespective of its mendacity).

Cotta, the skeptic, expresses a modicum of skepticism where this argument is concerned: ‘the question we are discussing,’ he says ‘is not whether people believe in gods, but whether gods actually exist’, (‘sed non id quaeritur, sintne aliqui qui deos esse putent: di utrum sint necne sint quaeritur’ [3:17]), and he tries to score a debating point off the fact that Stoics traditionally had a low opinion of the intelligence of ordinary people: do you, he asks Balbus, really want to rest your argument of the gods' existence on the opinion of people you consider idiots? (‘opiniones stultorum’ [3:11]). But he's not really arguing that case, for he also says intellego deos esse; quos equidem credo esse, ‘I do indeed realize that the gods exist, and I believe in their existence’. And he insists ‘for me it would be sufficient simply to say that this [belief in the gods] is the tradition handed to us by our ancestors’ (‘mihi enim unum sat erat, ita nobis maioris nostros tradidisse’ [3:9]). So he joins the other two in accepting ‘ex consensu gentium’.

I don't mean to bog down on all this this, but something interesting going on here I think. There are lots of different arguments, or at least assertions, about the gods in the De Natura Deorum: that they are made of a special kind of atoms; that an infinitude of them exist; that they regulate the heavens and the weather; they have the same shape as humans; that they aren't made of atoms and don't look like human beings (that they look, indeed, like spheres); that their existence is proved by divination and prophesy, that their existence is proved by the regularity of the seasons and the astronomical bodies; that human reason is part of the world-intelligence or cosmic order (a certain ‘principatus’ or unifying principle, ‘autem id dico quod Graeci ἡγεμονικὸν vocant’, that thing the Greeks call hegemony). Some of these arguments contradict one another, and in those cases presumably we, as readers, are being invited to assess which is stronger and which weaker. Take one example: Balbus thinks the stars are gods:
What especially denotes that the stars are conscious and intelligent is their consistent regularity and the absence of random or fortuitous variation, for no such rational, ordered movement can be conducted without planning. Now this systematic regularity of the stars through all eternity is no mere natural process, for it is wholly rational, nor is it the operation of chance, which loves change and abhors consistency. So it follows that their movement is self-induced, brought about by their own consciousness and divinity. [P G Walsh's translation, this]

Sensum autem astrorum atque intellegentiam maxume declarat ordo eorum atque constantia (nihil est enim quod ratione et numero moveri possit sine consilio), in quo nihil est temerarium nihil varium nihil fortuitum. ordo autem siderum et in omni aeternitate constantia neque naturam significat (est enim plena rationis) neque fortunam, quae amica varietati constantiam respuit. sequitur ergo ut ipsa sua sponte suo sensu ac divinitate moveantur. [2:43]
It's hard to wrap one's head around this argument; not because it's complex, but because it's daft. It's as if Balbus were saying ‘this swinging pendulum, or these crashing waves, must be conscious because they are regular—unlike this unpredictable human being, Steve, who acts in variously chaotic ways and is therefore non-sentient’. Which is among the stupider arguments ever advanced by philosophy. Of course, it may be that this reaction is part of the larger heuristic offered by the book; that the argument here is so daft it throws us back on the original argument. After all, what does Balbus mean here by intelligentia? What about ‘planning’ (‘consilium’)—does that mean guidance, a consultor or adviser, maybe even a consul? Or does it just mean a plan, a structure or order, such as a physicist might attribute to gravity and the Big Bang? If the latter then maybe what's being suggested is not so outlandish. Indeed, there have been many physicists for whom the real mystery of the universe is that there is anything called chaos in it, at all.

Cotta starts, but does not follow through, on this sort of reaction in his refutation of this Balbean argument.
It was the uniform and eternal movement [of the stars] that captivated you, and I declare justly so, for their regularity is remarkable and beyond belief. And yet, Balbus, we are not to ascribe all that proceeds on a fixed and ordered course to be the work of God rather than nature. Can you imagine anything more regular than the repeated ebb and flow of the Euripus at Chalcis? Or that in the Sicilian strait? [Walsh's translation again]

Quarum te cursus aequabiles aeternique delectabant, nec mehercule iniuria, sunt enim admirabili incredibilique constantia. sed non omnia Balbe quae cursus certos et constantis habent ea deo potius tribuenda sunt quam naturae. quid Chalcidico Euripo in motu identidem reciprocando putas fieri posse constantius, quid freto Siciliensi? [3.24]
But although Cotta (or Cicero) has here anticipated my first reaction to Balbus's argument, he has done so in a way that raises more questions than it answers. The most obvious one, I suppose, is the hard distinction implied between ‘deus’ and ‘natura’. We need not go the full-on Spinoza and insist on the effective interchangeability of those two terms (‘Deus sive Natura’) to find ourselves wondering how Cotta can pretend to any theology that separates them out so sharply—especially in a book whose title involves connecting precisely these terms. ‘Quid aestus,’ Cotta goes on, ‘maritimi vel Hispanienses vel Brittannici eorumque certis temporibus vel accessus vel recessus sine deo fieri nonne possunt?’ (‘So can the sea-tides of Spain and Britain, with their regular flow, not operate without the power of a god?’), to which we might reply: but if natura, seas, stars and all, is one of the ways deus manifests ...? Or, or, if natura isn't that then what, you gods-believing man, do you take it to be at all?

Earlier I quote Pease, puzzled (in a pot, a hundred years old) as to why Cicero ends by siding not with his own Academicians but rather with the Stoics. Pease's own conclusion, in the article quoted, was that the De Natura Deorum is not really interested in making a case for or against any school's actual religious belief, but instead uses its account of different philosophic views on the subject of the gods in order to illustrate the Academic procedure, namely examining both sides of each question without dogma or preconception.

Academic philosophy was never the belief that all arguments are equally valid. Any such philosophical protocol must believe that some arguments are better than others. And perhaps it's in this light that we should read Cicero's endorsement: not that the Stoic arguments about the nature of the gods are, as it were, true; only that they are better than the Epicurean arguments. In the unwritten, unimaginable De Natura Deorum Volume 2 maybe Cotta could elaborate a positive argument for the nature of the divine, and Cicero could embrace him and endorse his every word.

* * *

If, unlike Cicero, I find myself more persuaded by (or, not: not persuaded, but perhaps engaged and fascinated by) the Epicurean sections, that says more about my current preoccupations at the moment. I've been thinking, for a couple of reasons, about Fantasy, and about the way what Fantasy has been feeds into what Fantasy is nowadays. And that means I've been thinking a little about the overlap between those stories humanity tells itself about gods on the one hand, and those stories humanity tells itself about myth, magic, imaginary realms, elves, dwarfs et tout ça on the other.

And now I'm wondering if the infinitude of Epicurean gods might be read as the infinity of possible imaginary, or more strictly imaginable, entities? It would be opening a door to reading De Natura Deorum as a treatise about Fantasy rather than about deity, about the relative potency and imaginative purchase of some as opposed to other Fantasy creations. Because, to return to the title, there's a core emphasis here on plurality—of gods, of arguments, of possibilities—that reverts upon the imagination much more compellingly than upon the reality. The world in which we live is, after all; it remains the same, to adapt Phil Dick, regardless of what our mind thinks about it. There's a monistic stubbornness to the laws of gravity, thermodynamics and entropy. Fantasy exists to create imaginary spaces in which we humans, trapped like bugs in the amber of actuality, can at least imagine a more bearable alternative, can at least mentally transcend where we are. Which leaves me wondering if there's a nod towards what we might, anachronistically, call dialogism in Cicero's pattern here. Diversity of testimony, such as is offered by Velleius, Balbus and Cotta, to be properly dialogic, needs to include not only different perspectives but perspectives of both, as it were, right and wrong. ‘Natura’ as physics is neither right nor wrong, it just is. But ‘natura’ as divine essence can be more or less sublime, more or less ridiculous, more or less right and wrong; and this is a book that dramatises that rather counter-intuitive, aesthetic truth. It is the nature of Fantasy.