Tuesday, April 26, 2011

John Locke II

Unlike us, Locke didn't think much of babies' mental abilities, which he compared to vegetables.

Another philosopher who is quoted a lot in the notes, and who seems to be a much clearer writer and better thinker than Locke, is Hume. Though the standard narrative at St John's, as far as I could make out, was that the extremely clever but in some sense facile Hume threatened to lead philosophy down a dangerous, materialistic path but was overcome by Kant, who restored the emphasis in the discipline to metaphysics where it belonged, and beautifully so, Hume at least offered evidence that a high order of philosophical thought could find expression in a mind formed within the confines of the English language, about which many people through the centuries have expressed varying degrees of doubt, including myself. Boy was he cocky though. I seem to have neglected to mark any specific examples of what I am talking about however, so I will have to hunt them up.

"The variety of smells, which are as many almost, if not more, than species of bodies in the world, do most of them want names." Surely now there are people who do this professionally.

Somewhere around page 167 I decided that the notes explaining Locke's ideas were harder to understand than his own sentences, that they were impeding my reading, and that I would stop. Then on page 185 (during the section on "Faculty on Perception") I wrote that I was having to read every sentence 4-5 times, while at that point having 813 pages to go.

"And how covetous the mind is to be furnished with all such ideas as have no pain accompanying them, may be a little guessed by what is observable in children new-born; who always turn their eyes to that part from whence the light comes, lay them how you please." A pleasant observation about babies in the midst of all this straight theoretical philosophy, though this instinct is probably not the most perfect illustration of his idea upon which he could have fallen.

Moving onto the "Faculty of Retention" chapter, a good illustration of my own mind, and my attitude towards it: "Thus the ideas, as well as children, of our youth, often die before us: and our minds represent to us those tombs to which we are approaching; where, though the brass and marble remain, yet the inscriptions are effaced by time, and the imagery moulders away."

On having a faulty memory: "This, if it be to a great degree, is stupidity; and he who, through this default in his memory, has not the ideas that are really preserved there, ready at hand when need and occasion calls for them, were almost as good be without them quite, since they serve him to little purpose." Real intellectuals are a pitiless crowd. "The dull man, who loses the opportunity, whilst he is seeking in his mind for those ideas that should serve his turn, is not much more happy in his knowledge than one who is perfectly ignorant." True.

A Great name comes up that I have not had occasion previously to reference on the site: "It is reported of that prodigy of parts, Monsieur Pascal, that till the decay of his health had impaired his memory, he forgot nothing of what he had done, read, or thought, in any part of his rational age." There is a footnote, however, which says that "This about Pascal must be taken with allowance. That he never forgot anything 'which he tried to retain' is what Madame Perier records of him."

There is a long section about the existence of space and body, which in brief asserts that man's capacity to conceive the extension and multiplication of distance, mass, space and so on is crucial to his ability to think, that can be skimmed, I believe.

Another Great man turns up at the beginning of Chapter XIV ("Idea of Duration and Its Simple Modes"), St Augustine, in reference to the time he was asked what Time was, which strikes me as a fitting question for a Great man, and a poor one for anyone who is not Great. The giant of Western thought replied "Si non rogas intelligo" which looks roughly to me to translate as "If you don't ask, I understand", but is explained by Locke as "The more I set myself to think of it, the less I understand it". Locke is willing to attempt some definitions, albeit of a more prosaic and technical nature than the Saint would likely have found it worthwhile to do. Locke did not however anticipate science's ever increasing ability (instant replay!) to measure and control very precise amounts of time--the comparison of two periods of equal duration, for example, he thinks ultimately impossible, because no two parts of it can be certainly known to be equal. This does not strike me as a concern that would afflict most scientists or philosophers today.

Going to leave this one off a little short.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Prague Pictures 4

A slightly truncated set this time. We are also afield again, this time mostly in Cracow, Poland. Do not fear, however: we will return to Prague again in future editions.

View of Major Boulevard From Hotel Window, Cracow. There are ridiculously few pictures from this trip. If I remember correctly, Cracow is the only major city in Poland that was not completely leveled in World War II. These buildings look to me to date from the 1900-1920 period. There are a lot of similar edifices in Prague and other cities of the Austro-Hungarian empire--of which, again unlike all of the rest of present day Poland, Cracow was a part up to 1918--from that time, provided they escaped bombing.

2. Hotel Room, Approximately $6-$8 a Night. Does one really need anything more? I know the Economy does, but I am not asking about it right now.

3. Main Square and Cloth Hall, I Think. The Cloth Hall is one of the major landmarks in this city. Cracow is hyped a lot in the tourist books and consequently some people assume it must be both overcrowded with tourists and have something essentially wrong with it, but I don't think a ton of people actually go there, or Poland generally. Unlike Prague, it is quite a bit out of the way from Germany or anywhere with similarly established popularity. The crowds don't look too overwhelming in these pictures compared with pretty much anywhere in Western Europe.

4. Bread Cart. There was also a corn on the cob cart, though unfortunately we did not get a picture of that. Poland probably has the gloomiest ambience of any place I have ever been, though I felt strangely comfortable and calm there. It was often like being in one of those black and white movies from the 50s and early 60s of a Europe that is largely lost now--slow moving, minimal action, elegant--lots of high-ceilinged, enormous, near-empty cafes, train stations and the like. Of course I have remarked often of the beauty of the young women in Poland, who were largely unconscious of the true enormity of it and how much power it would have stood them in other circumstances. In their mannerisms and moods and apparent thought processes they were very like ordinary (ugly) people, which phenomenom one almost never sees among women of comparable attractiveness in Western countries, and as such is mesmerizing to look upon.

5. Pigly Wigly Market. I have never even seen one of these stores in the United States. We do not have them in the northeast, though their fame has reached us, and evidently Poland as well.

6. Back in the Bohemian Countryside. A weekend trip. This landscape is emblematic to me of youth and time, as in the possession of vast amounts of it. Other landscapes, often of comparable beauty, are emblematic to me of other not unhappy aspects of existence, lest anyone thinks I have allowed my engagement with life to cease all together. But these scenes will always call up certain feelings and remembrances that nothing else can generate.

7. Standard Bohemian Church, Apparently Recently Restored. To complete the set.

I have more general topics to rail against, but I haven't got a lot of time presently and I have decided to let them pass. If they are still on my mind in two weeks, maybe I will take them up then.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

John Locke--Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) Part 1

Having become somewhat more aware in recent years of what studying an academic discipline such as philosophy both really entails and signifies to people who have hard-earned degrees in a subject, I am careful now never to declare myself as having studied anything at a quasi-serious level. This is the type of thing that we used to read quite a bit at my old school, however, so while I do not often plow through 17th century philosophical tomes anymore, I was able to settle in comfortably right away and was transported back to those days, which, seemingly having suppressed all of the unpleasant memories, which latter experiences at the time I am quite certain ran quite neck and neck at the least with the more fortifying ones, was productive of what I took to be an unusually fruitful reading. Something of the form and spirit of the Great Books--among which Locke is always accounted a member with a minimum of controversy--must have managed, after all, to insinuate itself in me, for I felt as though an aspect of my brain and indeed entire existence that had long been closed off was (at least) temporarily opened.

While we did read John Locke at school, I have no recollection of the specific titles. If we did read any of this--and I have no memory of it--it would merely have been excerpts, as my edition of the book is two volumes and 996 pages, though without the extensive footnotes it would probably be slimmed down to 600-700 or so. There was also a 140 page prolegomena (introduction) which I skipped. In spite of my overall enjoyment at engaging with the Enlightenment again, my armchair St. Johnsian impression of the philosophy in it was that it was not especially persuasive or airtight by the standards of the greatest practitioners of the field that I am aware of anyway--i.e. the Greeks and the Germans--whom I would be quickly exposed as having no understanding of if put to the test but whose presentation and arguments I know at least try to account for every contigency or objection to them that might arise that even a dull reader could conceive of, which Locke seemed to me to fail to do. Given the general extensiveness and thoroughness of the book in general, and contemplating the task of attempting to arrange a work of the intellect on such a scale and with the necessity of such thoroughness and precision of thought myself, this led me to the conclusion that writing a successful work of philosophy might be the most difficult of all mental/literary tasks to achieve, though at the time I was forgetting about epic poems, which may actually be harder.

Locke was renowned in England for his extreme seriousness. There was one story in particular that I remember, I believe it was in one of the books from the Samuel Johnson-o-sphere, in which Locke was invited somewhere for dinner and could not be brought to sit and fritter away an evening of his life at the card-table, and went home the instant the conversation dropped beneath a level that was acceptable to him. Unlike places such as Germany and Russia where almost all writers and intellectuals maintain this level of seriousness at all times and on all subjects by our standards, this attitude was pretty rare in Restoration England. The poets and dramatists of Locke'e age, and the novelists of the next, Pope not least among them, give the impression that a substantial portion of the life of the elite centered around the card-table, and indeed depict these sessions so vividly that one wonders whether the video game will perhaps find its poet in the coming years. As well the Cavalier poet and anthology favorite Sir John Suckling was long attributed as the inventor of the game of cribbage, though, as is their wont, in recent years the scholars of card games have dug deeper into this legend and found it not to hold water.

On page 10 of 996, our author states: "...when I put pen to paper, I thought all I should have to say on this matter would have been contained in one sheet of paper..." That was a serious underestimation of the vastness of his subject, I'd say.

A note on page 31 (still in the Introduction) on the sentence "Our business here is not to know all things, but those which concern our conduct" suggests that it could serve as the motto of English philosophy generally. I should add that the notes appear to date from 1894, so they are not exactly current either, though I am certainly willing to give them a fair hearing.

Classical philosophers in general have little use for children, considering them incapable of reason among other deficiencies. Perhaps we would not be unwise to remember this sometimes in our assessments of their development, especially at early ages (The first section of the book is spent establishing Locke's contention that there are no such things as innate universal principles in the mind, of which the crudity of children's natural understanding and consequent behavior, in Locke's view, is a prime illustration).

After using the examples of rampaging armies and cannibals in Peru who reputedly ate the children they begot on their female captives (and indeed kept them for that purpose) to demonstrate the absence of innate moral principles, caps the argument with "The saints who are canonized among the Turks, lead lives which one cannot with modesty relate."

Locke's Victorian editor--Alexander Campbell Fraser--did not wholly like this idea of principles, moral ones especially, not being innate and offered the suggestion that while perhaps these do not involve "actual realisation in the consciousness of each individual from birth," they might be "potentially innate, and only evoked in the consciousness of the few who are highly educated, morally and intellectually." He then further goes on to declaim that "to awaken a response in individuals to the principles on which human life reposes is the aim of the higher education", and that "from Socrates onwards this has been recognized by teachers of religion and philosophy." I would have to say that the peculiar biases of his generation and culture are negatively affecting his reading here, as doubtless mine do my reading, and almost everyone else theirs too. Indeed almost half of almost every page is given over to notes either contradicting or refuting Locke's arguments, and the case would probably be the same if I were to annotate my own edition, which after a time led me to wonder why exactly it was (is?) considered so great. Is it asking the right questions? Are there specific points that are so well expressed and so well important that they compensate for the many seemingly weaker parts of the work?

In addendum to the previous note, Locke's definitions and the other grounds/postulates of his arguments are also far from impregnable. Among other issues he seems to accept a God very like the Christian God as an absolute fact, "He Is," though he puts forth the argument that as most people have but "odd, low and pitiful" ideas about God's actual nature, this is an indication that even this knowledge is not innate though "wise men of all nations have come to it". I would venture to say that modern philosophy, perhaps even modern life, has made the Christian God appear no more natural or logical than any other deity, and all real believers of specific faiths to be peculiar above anything else.

"Nor is it a small power it gives one man over another, to have the authority to be the dictator of principles, and teacher of unquestionable truths; and to make a man swallow that for an innate principle which may serve to his purpose who teacheth them." One of my own obsessions.

"And how great a mass of knowledge soever he imagines to be lodged there, he will, upon taking a strict view, see that he has not any idea in his mind but what one of these two (ed--the objects of his senses or the operations of his mind) have imprinted;--though perhaps, with infinite variety compounded and enlarged by the understanding, as we shall se hereafter." Didn't Shakespeare already break all this down, and more pithily?

"But he that would not deceive himself, ought to build his hypothesis on matter of fact, and make it out by sensible experience, and not presume on matter of fact, because of his hypothesis, that is, because he supposes it to be so; which way of proving amounts to this, that I must necessarily think all last night, because another supposes I always think, though I myself cannot perceive that I always do so." I included this somewhat inscrutable quote because it seems to me that I do this myself all the time, and that it is a major factor in my being essentially philosophically weak, which among other tragedies, hinders one from having any hope of ever being a true St Johnny, which having had few other potential associations which ever struck me as particularly desirable, would have meant something to me. It seems to me there must be some consolation in talking of intricate matters one has some degree of mastery over with a mind of nearly equal status and development, though I suppose everything always seems magical to those outside the pale. This is merely routine thought and human intercourse for the people I am aspiring to be, and signifies nothing exciting to them.

Liebniz, who apparently addressed many of the same ideas Locke is concerned with in this book, is much excerpted in the notes where the comparison of his perception with Locke's suggests itself. Gottfried seems to be the better thinker of the two by no insignificant margin. He is certainly the clearer thinker at least.

Monday, April 11, 2011

More (Hopefully) Brief Observations on the Current Scene/////

There is some problem with this website where my paragraph divisions are not always being saved or honored or what have you and I cannot figure out why. So in case it doesn't work the slanting lines represent where paragraph breaks are supposed to be./////

I spent a not insignificant part of my day today trying to remember the word "corroborate". This sort of thing happens all the time now. This incident ended happily in that the word came to me about 30 minutes after I gave up trying to think of it, but increasingly that which I am looking for, often so far even having a sense of its syllabic and musical relation to the other words I intend to use it with, does not come. I seem to be reverting, as most people seem to as they age, to only really possessing the vocabulary I had when I was 14, which is about the time I set out consciously to improve it. Evidently you can improve it somewhat during your late teens and twenties for the sake of establishing your place in life, but then around 35, being, like physical attractiveness, presumably no longer needed, it begins to atrophy./////

Before I go on I thought I should address an objection which sometimes is brought up when taxation of the wealthy is under discussion, that being the global society argument, wherein I am (hypothetically) asked if I would be willing to see my own standard of living suffer to redistribute wealth to the masses of the third world, and, if not, how that is any different from the situation the Forbes 400 is in in relation to me. I of course have not yet assimilated fully to the globalist outlook that the people out on the frontiers of current thought and perception move in so easily, so this is to me like the argument that even though I live in a region of the world where the number of children under 18 is declining considerably (N.H-Maine-Vermont-Massachusetts-Upstate N.Y.; if you throw in Quebec and the Canadian Maritimes which adjoin these states the decline is even more dramatic, and over an enormous expanse of territory) I should have myself refrained from having more than one preferably, and more than two absolutely, because in Yemen and Niger the birth rate is still around 8 children per woman and the resources are not present there to support them all. Regarding the original question however, while I would not be willing to adjust my standard of living to slums of Rio levels, I would certainly be able to live, and it could be argued that I have lived, easily enough at a considerably lower level of material consumption, as could many Americans. A great deal of our overconsumption and constant need to be generating money is built into the system and is largely unavoidable compared to many countries that get by on more modest GDPs. I have written many times on this site that I was quite happy when I lived in Prague with its per capita income of $6,000 a year, and I certainly did not have or spend much more than that. Of course the price scale for things like housing and food was commensurate with the local incomes, and the offerings in the market meager compared with advance economies, but I at least found these limitations not unbearable. Other goods and services such as heating, public transportation, health care, and education were heavily subsidized by the government, doubtless at far cheaper rates than is or could be done here, and apart from the upper ends of our population providing as good or better quality as similar efforts achieve in the United States./////

Indeed, the major obstacle that the United States faces in convincing its people to give up anything for any kind of common good is the absolute horror people have of losing whatever precious amount of social status they can lay claim to having, because they cannot count on the general tenor of life at any level of the pyramid beneath their own (which is frequently unsatisfactory enough) to be bearable. In Prague and similar expat locales and in certain other places of refuge, such as graduate school, reduced circumstances are more bearable to intelligent people mainly because there is still a critical mass of people there of comparable intelligence at a similar level of income and consequently interesting and accessible social and cultural opportunities. This has never been the case in mainstream American life however and only seems to be getting worse./////

The two rackets--the Scylla and Charybdis, if you will--that are currently getting the most blame for the current demolition of the former American middle class, are the costs of Health Care and education, which of course in almost every other advanced country are heavily subsidized, if not administered, by the government. Having worked in the health care industry and long followed the world of academia with longing eyes from afar, I can tell you that the executives and administrators and other top professionals in both hold a similar view where the public is concerned. Both regard having a plan in place to pay for their services should be after food and maybe clothing (your house is seen as something you could transfer into cash to give to them) the number one financial priority any person has. Health care executives affect astonishment that more people haven't stashed away a couple hundred grand at least to deal with unforeseen medical expenses in old age. Personally, I would prefer that both of these enterprises be considered as public goods with broadly agreed upon standards governing accessibility and restrictions to accessibility, because I think these would be indicators of a more coherent and politically healthier society, which is the main problem of course underlying almost every issue in American life today. Of course there would be some limitations compared to what is available now, though if you are below the 80th or so percentile of wealth, do not have extraordinary health issues, and are not a hypochondriac, I do not see that such limitations would be likely to affect the typical consumer much. I actually have thought for a long time that we would eventually move back more in that directions, but now I am not so sure. I do not see how either can survive in its current form either however./////

Other problems that are underscored, which I don't have time to expand on this week: the disparity of pay, as well as opportunity for any advancement or even wage increases, between the ever-shrinking numbers of decent to high-paying jobs and the mass of dead end jobs, and how this distorts both civil society and the economy, and is almost certainly unsustainable; entrepreneurship as an increasingly unrealistic solution given the numbers of underemployed and deeply indebted people and the size of the market in which entrepreneurs have to compete; the problem of what to do with all the unemployable liberal arts graduates who imagine themselves (incorrectly) to belong to some kind of intellectual/professional class, a topic especially dear to me. I know there is a movement to try to direct these mush headed people (at least the male contigent of them) into more masculine pursuits, which are also seen as needed and in short supply in our civic and economic life--the military, plumbing, carpentry, oil-drilling, engineering maybe if they have legitimate academic aptitude--where they can be productive, useful, strong members of society and leaders in their homes and communities, instead of the effeminate, cowardly, useless parasites we are all so familiar with in our own time./////

Our standard, and overly literary, narrative of childhood, largely English in origin though with a dose of good old irreverent common sense Americanism (think Tom Sawyer or Penrod) mixed in, wherein childhood is a largely whimsical time to wander freely about the streets or fields or riding the trains taking in life, finding wonder in some of it, perhaps picking up some useful skills and knowledge by the by, in the worst case scenario honing one's sensitivity in preparation for an adult life as an author, is, it is implied in so many words, outdated, and is getting us clobbered in this new age by the likes of the tiger mother and the ferociously developed quantitatitive abilities of the technology overclass and their offspring. I'll have to expand on this another time too.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Brief Comments on Politics

I only ever write about politics as a penance for not having a greater mastery over them, either in actual influence or merely ideologically.

This rush, in my state as in many others, as well as at the federal level, to smash public unions, reduce pensions and other benefits of public workers, cut funding for schools and health care, among various other of the usual bugbears of the right wing, all accompanied of course by much talk about adult responsibility and seriousness, the inability of leftists to grasp basic economics, the non-productiveness and unconscionable selfishness and parasitism of public employees, the thankless toil and groaning agony of the ever-dwindling number of net tax contributers and the increasing difficulty of retaining these vital people in the municipality/state/nation, it probably goes without saying, has a stink about it to me that is beyond rotten. There is nothing objectionable in pointing out that governments at all levels are in a financial crisis and that certain levels of spending at current rates are unsustainable. This does not account for or excuse the way the right wing is attempting to address these issues. The tone of discourse as well as the character of the moves taken is absolutely ideological. Everyone knows that destroying public unions, and taking the hammer to Medicare and Social Security and school funding have been long-held goals of the right wing, and their politicians and more zealous supporters anyway are in their glory at having an opportunity to do this. If these cuts absolutely must be made, as the self-proclaimed responsible heads insist, it should be undertaken in a considerably more sober attitude. Taxes should be raised if for nothing else as a token--by the nominal political leadership of the people--of societal solidarity and respect to those who will be badly hurt by these cuts, and to help mitigate the effects of them as much as possible.

I do believe that if deficits are the problem that they are said to be, that tax increases on the upper brackets should have been one of the first options rather than the last. However poor my grasp of economics and deficient my sense of justice are compared to Republicans if the numbers published regarding the wealth possessed by the top people are true 1) they can absorb a substantial tax hit and not suffer in the least, let alone unduly, compared to the needs of the greater society which, as great as individually many of them doubtless are, still affords them a considerable amount of support in ensuring their lives go off without too many unpleasant hitches and 2) there is something badly wrong with the system that requires correction. Superrich people really do not like it when you say, in the political arena, that their massive wealth has any whiff of having been gained unfairly. So I will merely say that whatever system we are currently operating under by which people who already possess enormous wealth are positioned to fairly easily acquire ever more jaw dropping sums while large swathes of the population sink ever deeper into debt just to maintain the bare trappings of a civilized modern life, and even larger swathes have largely abandoned any pretense to those trappings altogether, is so badly skewed in favor of the wealthy as to be in my opinion a structural problem of society, in much the same way that in the past other gross inequities and abuses of privileged status by one class or group over another came to be viewed as structural problems of the society and addressed politically as such.

As to the argument that there are not enough billionaires to tax to pay for all of the entitlements the masses crave, there are at least enough to pay for a few of the more worthy ones. If it is true, as it is frequently reported, that the 400 richest Americans have as much combined wealth as the bottom 100 million--some accounts say the bottom 150 million--then there are definitely enough to keep Social Security (average recipient around 14K a year) funded, especially with the contributions of present workers contuining to stream in, for a few more years, if that were a national priority.

I want to put something up before a week goes by, so I am going to save my thoughts on health care and education spending and the general need of the whole structure of the economy to adjust to a level that would make our society reasonably functioning again for another posting.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Religio Medici--P a r t II

Browne's reading of Scripture is quite modern, reminiscent in a way of the "close reading" school of criticism which flourished in the middle of the last century and still holds influence in certain corners of academia today--it seems to me that in both my high school and college (1984-94 or thereabouts) this was still the predominant way of reading and understanding literature. His separation of the making of Man, for example, from that entailed in the rest of Creation as these are presented in the Bible, I thought was undertaken in this spirit. The section in which he determined that men can have no idea of who is going to be saved was another. If there is anything I can identify in his writing that stands out, it is that his understanding of the concepts underlying whatever unities one finds in the Bible is very good, and also rather unique even now in its points of emphasis, and in the kinds of things he notices. I will attempt to illustrate this further in what follows.

For one example there is this sentence: "Some Divines count Adam thirty years old at his Creation, because they suppose him created in the perfect age and stature of man." Now, at first this may appear an innocuous thought that everyone has had fleetingly at some time or another, though the way it is phrased is not only more elegant than usual thought attains but gives a probable reason why these Divines would think this at all plausible, and even a hint of a suggestion that their argument might not be entirely implausible. He then goes on to describe a conception of existence in which Man's chronological time on earth is fairly insignificant, which of course is in keeping with the ultimate concept of the Scriptures while leaving room to take notice of and muse upon such incongruent though possibly interesting details as the stories may suggest.

This physician also notes, quite matter-of-factly, his consciousness untroubled by exposure to our modern abortion debates, that "we are all out of the computation of our age, and every man is some months elder than he bethinks him; for we live, move, have a being, and are subject to the actions of the elements, and the malice of diseases, in that other World...the Womb of our Mother...In that obscure World...our time is short, computed by the Moon, yet longer than the days of many creatures that behold the Sun..." This is the sort of description that, from the conscientious male point of view anyway, seems very beautifully and truthfully stated; forgetting that this perception of and attitude towards the matter is not afforded to all who consider it.

"Not that I am ashamed of the Anatomy of my parts, or can accuse...my own vitious life for contracting any shameful disease upon me, whereby I might not call my self as wholesome a morsel for the worms as any." Regarding his material fitness to depart this life. Mainly another example of one of his architecturally elegant and ingeniously conceived and expressed sentences.

This is my own copy of the book. You may have noticed I have largely gotten out of the pattern of photographing all of my books as I report on them. I will make an exception from time to time however if I think there is something visually worth sharing. The imprint states that this is from the Temple Classics series, London 1896. I got it at the main used bookshop in Brattleboro for $4.

There is a meditation whether any good can come out of living past "that age wherein He thought fittest to dye", which is traditionally considered to be thirty-three. He posits the argument that "age doth not rectify, but incurvate our natures, turning bad dispositions into worser habits, and...brings on incurable vices; for every day as we grow weaker in age, we grow stronger in sin..." He also does not consider that those die young (about thirty) die immaturely. "...when all things are completed in it (the soul, one's life), its age is accomplished." I am open to this general idea on the grounds that very few people develop in a way that is at all interesting after age 33. About the best to be hoped for is that the direction your youthful exuberance and abilities once propelled you in allows you to retain something of presence and agency and interest in your own life longer than it does with most people.

He is skeptical of the relevance of prophecy: "In those days there shall come Wars and rumours of Wars, to me seems no prophecy, but a constant truth, in all times verified since it was pronounced." This guy's sentences, even the simple ones, really do achieve an unusually satisfying sense of balance and proportion. They are not dense, either, like Russian sentences, and do not concentrate the mind upon a specific salient truth, but open up pleasing vistas and possibilities for it to move about in.

Some (juvenile?) humo(u)r? On Adam's fertility: "...the magick of that sperm that hath dilated into so many millions." On the possibility of the earth and every physical body within it's turning to glass at the Last Judgement: "Philosophers that opinioned the worlds destruction by fire, did never dream of annihilation, which is beyond the power of sublunary causes...and therefore some of our Chymicks facetiously affirm, that at the last fire all shall be christallized and reverberated into glass..." How about on the fate of the pagan philosophers and other Worthies of antiquity in Hell: "How strange to them will sound the History of Adam, when they shall suffer for him they never heard of! when they who derive their genealogy from Gods, shall know they are the unhappy issue of sinful man!"

Now I am come to the actual 2nd part of the book, which examines various aspects of the Christian life in earthly practice.

Charity, for example, is only good if it comes from the desire to do the will of God. Pity, or the sympathy of considering that one might someday find himself in a similar situation, do not cut it in Browne's understanding of Christian theology.

Here's some social life for you.

"I envy no man that knows more than my self, but pity them that know less." He could afford this magnanimity. I strike out on both counts. Still, he expresses in numerous places thoughts that we would take as evidence of vanity or otherwise being pleased with himself. "There is, I think, no man that apprehends his own miseries less than my self...I could lose an arm without a tear, and with few groans, methinks, be quartered into pieces..." There is with us a terror of physical pain that makes us regard those who can endure even a mild amount it, or survive a debilitating injury, even if accompanied by lots of tears and whimpering, with awe. The psychology of the 1640s, as well as the overall toughness of the population with regard to pain, was of a considerably different quality from the way we understand it.

Was any railing against pride ever effective?

I liked the paragraph where he declares himself thankful to God to have escaped the sin of conceit, even though he be "in a condition that can hardly avoid it". What condition is this? "For my own part, besides the Jargon and Patois of several provinces, I understand no less than six Languages...I have not onely seen several Countries, beheld the nature of their Climes, the Chorography (ed.--essentially geography, mapping) of their Provinces, Topography of their Cities, but understood their several Laws, Customs, and Policies...I know the names, and somewhat more, of all the constellations in my Horizon...I know most of the plants of my Countrey, and those about me..." In fairness, he claims that these various knowledges have not elevated him in wisdom beyond any number of simple working men he has encountered, so that it is impossible for him to take too much pride in them. The mindset is simply so foreign to anything we encounter today, that we could never take any widely-educated and accomplished professional's assertion that they were in truth little more knowledgeable in important matters than the next guy as being in the least sincere.

Browne is down on marriage and procreation: "...it is the foolishest act a wise man commits in all his life..." He appears to have gotten married later in his own life however (the extant portrait of his wife bears some resemblance to Katie the available atheist in the picture above), though I do not know whether he had any children or not. "...I borrow occasion of Charity from mine own necessities, and supply the wants of others, when I am in most need my self..." It is hard for me not to see a guy who is somewhat in love with himself.

"Statists that labour to contrive a Common-wealth without poverty, take away the object of charity, not understanding only the Common-wealth of a Christian, but forgetting the prophecie of CHRIST." I'll leave this one to the theologians. We hear a variation on this theme espoused frequently in our political life as well, though there seems to be considerable confusion in our day on how this Christian charity is to be implemented with any substantial effects, spiritual or material, on the receiving parties.

Happiness, according to Browne, belongs exclusively to the realm of God. The life of men on earth apart from God has nothing to do with it.

I have no idea what is going on with my paragraph breaks here. This is getting really tiresome. Hopefully this will work.