Sunday, December 30, 2012

Quotations from this year

These quotes come from my reading this year. Obviously, they all interested or meant something to me, or I would not have bothered to copy them down?

The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure: more perfect than Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs, and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.

This comment was made in a report by a British judge and renowned Persian, Latin and Greek expert then serving in India by the name of William Jones in 1786, back when America was still just a confederation of very independent states and Napoleon was a teenager. It is often hard to say when a particular field began, but this sentence was pretty clearly the very beginning of studies in what was later called the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language, a hypothetical mother tongue for almost all of the European languages, Persian, Sanskrit and their many derivatives, plus many other ancient dead ones.  Not a single example of this conjectured proto-language exists, and there was probably not ever a letter or pictogram of it in written form. But, by comparing ancient words that have been discovered with each other and making predictions as to what might other words should also have existed if there was a common stem -- and then actually finding them, made the existence of some form of PIE a virtual certainty, though it not only no longer existed, as Jones thought, but probably hadn't for thousands of years. But, who were these people who spoke it, where did they come from and why did it spread so? Those are much tougher questions and probably unanswerable. Neverthelss, I read about developments from time to time. I took the quote from David W. Anthony's The Horse The Wheel and Language. He thinks he knows the answer (Southern Russian steppes) and gives a more answer than you probably want (more than I wanted anyway). I loved the book but I would only recommend it to someone who was already so interested, that they already knew about it. It is very scholarly, but also contains much unavoidable speculation.
For what can man conceive with regard to God unless He has rendered Himself visible? Much rather is He hidden. The mind fails in thinking of God for He is incomprehensible. The eye does not see Him because He is invisible. The ear hears Him not, nor ever has heard unless He spoke with a human voice. The hand does not touch Him because He is incorporeal, the tongue cannot declare Him for He is ineffable. No place can hold Him since He is not to be circumscribed. Time cannot measure Him because He is immeasurable. God transcends all things and exceeds all intellect and mind. There are those who think that only by negatives are we able to define God. If one reflects upon light or anything else known to us, one plainly observes that God is not light but above light, He is not essence but above essence, He is not spirit but above spirit, He is above anything that can be conceived. The true knowledge of God is that which teaches not what He is but that which He is not. No one knows God unless one knows the way in which God has made Himself manifest.

Compare these words by the 16th century heretic Michael Servetus, whose beliefs would not seem heretical at all to us, but who was eventually burned at the stake for them, with those of the legendary Lao Tze, usually thought to have lived (if he lived) circa 6th-4th century B.C. :
Look, and it can't be seen.
Listen, and it can't be heard.
Reach, and it can't be grasped.

Above, it isn't bright.
Below, it isn't dark.
Seamless, unnamable,
it returns to the realm of nothing.
Form that includes all forms,
image without an image,
subtle, beyond all conception.

Approach it and there is no beginning;
follow it and there is no end.
You can't know it, but you can be it,
at ease in your own life.
Just realize where you come from:
this is the essence of wisdom.

The Servetus quote was found in Ronald H. Bainton's Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus. The quote on the Tao is from a 1995 translation by Stephen Mitchell. You have to wonder if there was not some transmission of these ideas over the centuries from China to Europe, or if the concept of the Tao, in one form or the other, was repeatedly conceived, as pyramids, agriculture, pottery forms and other universal ideas seem to be.

We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.

From  The Law by the 19th century French political economist, assemblyman and writer, Frédéric Bastiat, who was a libertarian in all but name and perhaps justifiably deemed by some the father of what is called the Austrian School of Economics.  There may be some historical truth to that, but his beliefs would be shared by almost no one today, even most libertarians, who are used to and comfortable with income taxation and larger, more powerful federal governments than those in the 19th century thought possible. Whether they are stable or not remains to be seen, but right now, it looks like they are only stable compared to totalitarian forms of government.
IT sometimes happens in a people among whom various opinions prevail that the balance of parties is lost and one of them obtains an irresistible preponderance, overpowers all obstacles, annihilates its opponents, and appropriates all the resources of society to its own use. The vanquished despair of success, hide their heads, and are silent. The nation seems to be governed by a single principle, universal stillness prevails, and the prevailing party assumes the credit of having restored peace and unanimity to the country. But under this apparent unanimity still exist profound differences of opinion, and real opposition.

From de Tocqueville's Democracy in America written in the 1830sWe still see this anytime one or the other party prevails - the certainty of the winners that it is all over for the losers. Only occasionally is it momentarily true - but then the vanquished become something else in name. 
Since Nature (here meaning total reality and its processes) has not read very carefully the American Declaration of Independence or the French Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man, we are all born unfree and unequal: subject to our physical and psychological heredity, and to the customs and traditions of our group; diversely endowed in health and strength, in mental capacity and qualities of character. Nature loves difference as the necessary material of selection and evolution; identical twins differ in a hundred ways, and no two peas are alike.

From Will and Ariel Durant's The Lessons of History. The idea of some natural equality in results, as opposed to equal rights and opportunity, is one of the major difference between the left, libertarians and the right. Though no one would mistake George W. Bush for a socialist, the idea that you can mandate a level of success is the reason that No Child Left Behind was doomed to failure. Equality of consequences cannot be legislated with good result, hard as they may try and with the best intentions. It will, in fact, lead to a bad end.  Durant was one of the great historians and I do not think anyone could do better than his and Ariel's 11 volume The Story of Civilization as a general summary. It seems to me unfair, if not ridiculous, that some describe him as a socialist, which he tinkered with in his youth, hardly uncommon, and then left behind as he matured and educated himself. This later work from which I quote, Lessons, is virtually an ode to capitalism. In fact, that seems to be the lesson. I have mentioned before that he was Ariel's school teacher. He fell in love with her when he was 26 and she was 13 and they married two years later back when it was not frowned up. Today he would possibly be called a pederast and jailed, but they had a run of some 68 years before they died weeks apart.
Yet the odd thing is that in spite, or perhaps by virtue, of his absurdities man moves steadily upwards ; the more we learn of his past history the more groundless does the old theory of his degeneracy prove to be. From false premises he often arrives at sound conclusions: from a chimerical theory he deduces a salutary practice. This discourse will have served a useful purpose if it illustrates a few of the ways in which folly mysteriously deviates into wisdom and good comes out of evil. It is a mere sketch of a vast subject.

From J. G. Frazer's Psyche's Task. So many writers in so many places and generation seem to disagree with this premise. I notice that many of my favorite political or scientific authors seem to agree with him.
Bathtubs are a menace to ex-Presidents for as you may recall a bathtub rose up and fractured my vertebrae when I was in Venezuela on your world famine mission in 1946. My warmest sympathy and best wishes for your speedy recovery.

Ex-president Hoover to ex-president Truman in 1964 after Truman fell in his bathroom, fracturing ribs. There is no point here. It just tickled me.
(spelling as is)
I fear you have been imprudent. You have no doubt a right to enjoy your own oppinion but I Query whether your Duty calls you to divulge your Sentiments curcomstanced as you are. While the spirit of the People runs so high, you cannot imagine what trouble these Storys have given me. I cannot bear to think that my cousins amiable disposition and great abillities should be effaced by arbitrary principles. I had rather think that he understands Divinity better than Politicks. The management of our publick affairs is in very good hands, and all that is requi'd of you is your Prayers and exhortations for a general reformation. It is not my province to enter into politicks, but sure I am that it is not your Duty to do or say any thing that shall tend to distroy your usefulness. You will not only hurt your self but you will injure your fahter in his business, for it will be said and I know it has been said "If the son is a Tory the father is so to be sure." You will grieve your mother beyond discripition, and if I know you I think you would not willingly wound such tender parents.

This was Bostonian Mary Smith Cranch writing to her cousin, Isaac Smith Jr., in 1774. We still have letters from them mostly due to their relation to Abigail Smith Adams, wife of John Adams.  As she understood, her cousin was, in fact, a loyalist (who eventually went to England), but I include these excerpts from her and his following letter because of the sentiments he expressed in response for her request to be orthodox.  Regardless of his politics, I can't help but agree with the following sentiment made in reply, in general:
"Orthodoxy in politics is," I am sensible, "full as necessary a qualification for the ministry" at this day as ever was orthodoxy in divinity." If I am reputed an heretic in either, I cannot help it. It is my misfortune; it may be my fault. I hate enthusiasm and bigotry, in whatever form they appear, but am willing to submit to censure. The greatest friends of their country and of mankind, that ever lived, have frequently met with the same hard fate. I am not indifferent to the good opinion of those around me, but I cannot, in complaisance to others, even to those for whose understanding I have a much higher veneration, than for my own--I cannot give up the independance of my own mind.

"You fear, I have been imprudent." I do not mean entirely to deny the charge. It is very possible, this may have been the case with me, in particular instances. But not so much so, perhaps, as you inagine. Into what times are we fallen, when the least degree of moderation, the least inclination to peace and order , the remotest apprehension for the public welfare and security is accounted a crime? Or what sort of cause is that, which dreads the smallest inquisition?
And, speaking of Mr. John Adams . . .

These Bickerings of opposite Parties, and their mutual Reproaches, their Declamations, their Sing Song, their Triumphs and Defyances, their Dismals, and Prophecies, are all Delusion.
We seldom hear any solid Reasoning. I wish always to discuss the Question, without all Painting, Pathos, Rhetoric, or Flourish of every Kind.

Imagine his frustration. Same as ours today, of course.
Learning how to behave is more the source than the result of insight, reason, and understanding. Man is not born wise, rational and good, but has to be taught to become so. It is not our intellect that created our morals; rather, human interactions governed by our morals make possible the growth of reason and those capabilities associated with it. Man became intelligent because there was tradition – that which lies between instinct and reason – for him to learn. This tradition, in turn, originated not from a capacity rationally to interpret observed facts but from habits of responding. It told man primarily what he ought or ought not to do under certain conditions rather than what he must expect to happen.

From Friedrich Hayek's The Fatal Conceit. Few read anything by him today other than The Road to Serfdom (and not too many that), but he wrote a number of great books, the one quoted from and The Constitution of Liberty being, in my mind, two of the best.  Tradition we know can be destructive as well as creative and positive and Hayek did not assert anything different. But, he did maintain that only those countries with certain traditions (such as that allowed competition and markets) thrived and the others failed. The title to his book concerns the conceit that with reason, we can create a utopian or better society than we have, wisely fix prices and so on. That conceit we see every day in our politicians and many revered thinkers. We should read very cynically, even those we cherish, and I do not agree with all of Hayek's points and observations. Some have proven simply untrue. But, I have found that he and his friend, Karl Popper, both Austrian ex-pats, better express my own views on most political and economic matters than any other writers/thinkers in the 20th century and I believe I have learned more from them on certain topics than anyone else.
When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand, we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as Sibylline books. It falls into that long dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong—these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.

Churchill did not stand alone in his approach to Nazism, but close to it, and he was, willingly, the focal point in opposition to his own party's handling of the situation. This is why the country turned to him when there were no other rational choices and appeasement proved a failure. He could often be much more optimistic about mankind and just as eloquently. But, the world was headed for a black time and it must have been hard to have been optimistic at all, as he later was in asserting that the New World would rise up and rescue the Old. The above quote is from a 1936 speech in The House of Commons I came across in William Manchester's The Last Lion.
I have often been amused at the vain efforts made to define the rights and responsibilities of immortal beings as men and women. No one has yet found out just where the line of separation between them should be drawn, and for this simple reason, that no one knows just how far below man woman Is, whether she be a head shorter in her moral responsibilities, or head and shoulders, or the full length of his noble stature, below him, i.e. under his feet. Confusion, uncertainty and great inconsistencies, must exist on this point, so long as woman is regarded in the least degree inferior to man; but place where her Maker placed her, on the same high level of human rights with man, side by side with him, and difficulties vanish, the mountains of perplexity flow down at the presence of the grand equalizing principle. Measure her rights and duties by the unerring standard of moral being, not by the false weights and measures of a mere circumstance of her human existence, and then the truth will be self-evident, that whatever it is morally right for a woman to do. I recognize no rights but human rights—I know nothing of men’s rights and women’s rights; for in Christ Jesus, there is neither male nor female.

Letter to Catharine Beecher from Angelina Grimké. That Beecher was the less famous sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe of Uncle Tom's Cabin fame and, obviously, a member of the famous 19th century Beecher family. She was best known as an innovative educator (big on kindergarten, it seems, which doesn't seem so innovative to us).  Angelina Grimké and her sister, Sarah, also came from a very accomplished, if less well known family. They were abolitionists and feminists, and they have not been heard enough from in our history books. Passionate and almost fearless. On the other hand, hard for me to understand the use of "immortal" instead of "mortal." I have read the whole letter and had she used it once, I would have been fairly sure me meant immoral beings. But, she uses it twice. She was very religious and was probably, my guess, using it in the sense of immortal soul.  I have not yet studied her thoroughly (someday, I hope) and perhaps the phrase was frequently used by her and had some special meaning. Anyway, that is just a trivial matter and it was her sense of equal rights that I find interesting, however taken for granted it might seem now. For even in abolitionist circles, women were quite often thought of as second class citizens.  Not content with just slaves being free, she and some others dared believe that women should be liberated too and were willing to pay a price for it.
So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or to make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

Benjamin Franklin. I came across the quote in J. W. Allen's A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century, a book I am exceedingly fond of but wouldn't think of giving or recommending to anyone I know. The following is also from Mr. Allen, but in his own words. I think I quoted the same words recently, but it obviously resonates with me and can't be said enough. People often cannot be content when someone disagrees with them just to have stated their own opinion, but are often sure that there must also be either lack of reason or some evil motive behind the difference:
It has to be remembered, also, that there of course existed, on all sides, the constant tendency of the human mind to resent disagreement and to regard those who differ from ourselves as foolish or perverse or wicked. . . Men have to learn not to resent contradiction; and when the proposition in question is one that seems of the utmost import, the lesson is hard to learn. That which has convinced me, ought, it seems, to convince all others, or, alternatively, it ought not to have convinced me. The alternative may seem intolerable.
If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.

That was Justice Robert Jackson from U.S. v. Barnette, a case involving a forced recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. I have a little personal experience with being coerced to say the Pledge. Barnette was decided long before my birth during WWII.  But, I was subject to a subtler coercive method -- intense glaring. In high school, I was drowsy most of the time I wasn't with friends or playing a sport from lack of sleep. In home room, the first thing I would do would be lay down on the radiator and withdraw into an almost sleep mode.  When they recited the Pledge of Allegiance to begin the day, I refused to stand or recite, but not just because I was too tired. I also deeply resented being asked to make a public statement of patriotism (and more so, one that affected a belief in a deity). If there is anything I cannot abide and see as useless, however much it works others, it is public expressions of belief or loyalty. It seemed to me like something they would do in Russia or China, but should not in America.  Anyway, I do recall the teacher in the next room, glaring right through the windows at where I was sitting or laying day after day. I was reminded of him once when I was watching the one episode of The Sopranos I ever saw, where Tony Soprano's head nearly spins off in anger at a young man who was wearing a hat inside a restaurant. Since an adult I do stand during the Pledge or The Star Spangled Banner for the same reason that Tucker Carlson stopped wearing a bow tie. Some battles just are not worth fighting, even if, in a perfect world, we should (he was challenged to a fight in an airport with his kids at his side over the tie - that was enough). But, I do not recite.
Philosophical in the highest degree is the question I propose to discuss, namely whether the Inspired Reason is supreme ruler over the passions; and to the philosophy of it I would seriously entreat your earnest attention.

I bring this quote up only because it is the opening to the Fourth Book of Maccabees, which, ironically, has nothing to do with the Maccabees at all, but is rather a work about stoicism.  I came across it recently in Bertrand Russell's The History of Western Philosophy, which is second in its field only to Durant's effort (The Story of Philosophy). The book is not in most Bibles, but some groups do include it. Russell quoted it in a chapter about the Jews. He explored there the transmission of ethics from the Jews (or others) to Christ and the Gospels themselves. One passage he recites is from a book by a priest named John Hyrcanus, which is not not canonical, but written about a century before Christ was born, known as The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs:
Love ye one another from the heart; and if a man sin against thee, speak peaceably to him, and in thy soul hold not guile; and if he repent and confess, forgive him. But if he deny it, do not get into a passion with him, lest catching the poison from thee he takes to swearing, and so then doubly. . . . And if he be shameless and persist in wrong-doing, even so forgive him from the heart, and leave to God the avenging.

If that doesn't remind you of love thy neighbor and turn the other cheek, I don't know what could.  How long the idea was floating around before Jesus, we don't know, but obviously more than a century. Nor do we know whether he was was familiar with it. But we do know that some early Christians used the The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs themselves and that some recognized that the stoics had described much the same morality before Christ existed. There is truly nothing new under the sun.
When any one asks me how I can best describe my experiences of nearly forty years at sea I merely say uneventful. Of course, there have been Winter gales and storms and fog and the like, but in all my experience I have never been in an accident of any sort worth speaking about. I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea, a brig, the crew of which was taken off in a small boat in charge of my third officer. I never saw a wreck and have never been wrecked, nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.

The words of Captain E. J. Smith, a few years before he captained a ship you may have heard of -- the RMS Titanic. An excerpted version of this was quoted in Nicholas Taleb's Black Swans to the point of whatever happened in the past doesn't tell you what is going to happen in the future. Taleb either did not do enough research or cheated a bit in not mentioning that The Titanic was not his first accident (and thus not a Black Swan). Smith was also in one in The Titanic's sister ship The Olympic the year before the big one.

Good place to end - with a disaster. Happy New Year.


  1. Interesting from beginning to end. A miracle of the New Year perhaps?

  2. Sigh. Even when he's nice . . . but I'll take it before he changes his mind.

  3. When are you going to learn to read Sanskrit?

  4. I don't think I'm ever going there. Just started Latin yesterday and I figure 3 years on that before Beowulf. I should be around 60 by the time I finish that. That's the plan today. We'll see tomorrow.


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .