8 October 2015

Kings and Thieves

St. Augustine, The City of God (Book IV, chapter iv), tr. Marcus Dods, Vol. I (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1913), pp. 139-140:
Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, "What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor."*
* Nonius Marcell. borrows this anecdote from Cicero, De Repub. iii.

6 October 2015

A Charlatan

Roger Scruton on Michel Foucault's Les mots et les choses, from Gentle Regrets (London: Continuum, 2005), p. 35:
It is an artful book, composed with a satanic mendacity, selectively appropriating facts in order to show that culture and knowledge are nothing but the 'discourses' of power. The book is not a work of philosophy but an exercise in rhetoric. Its goal is subversion, not truth, and it is careful to argue — by the old nominalist sleight of hand that was surely invented by the Father of Lies — that 'truth' requires inverted commas, that it changes from epoch to epoch, and is tied to the form of consciousness, the episteme, imposed by the class that profits from its propagation. The revolutionary spirit, which searches the world for things to hate, has found in Foucault a new literary formula. Look everywhere for power, he tells his readers, and you will find it. Where there is power there is oppression. And where there is oppression there is the right to destroy. In the street below my window [during the Paris riots of 1968] was the translation of that message into deeds. 
Ibid., p. 36:
Foucault is dead from AIDS, contracted during well-funded tours as an intellectual celebrity. However his books are on university reading lists all over Europe and America. His vision of European culture as the institutionalized form of oppressive power is taught everywhere as gospel, to students who have neither the culture nor the religion to resist it. Only in France is he widely regarded as a charlatan.

1 October 2015

Where Is the Poetry?

R. S. Thomas, "A Frame for Poetry," Selected Prose, ed. Sandra Anstey (Bridgend: Seren, 1995), p. 72:
We are told with increasing vehemence that this is a scientific age, and that science is transforming the world, but is it not also a mechanized and impersonal age, an analytic and clinical one; an age in which under the hard glass of affluence there can be detected the murmuring of the starved heart and the uneasy spirit? “The voice of Rachel crying for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.” The old themes of poetry are outmoded, we are told. Nothing is in itself un-poetical and true poets can as well make poetry about tractors and conveyor belts as about skylarks and nightingales. In theory, yes, but in practice where is the poetry?

29 September 2015


Theodore Low De Vinne, The Practice of Typography: A Treatise on Title-Pages (New York: The Century, 1902), pp. 7-8:
[T]here were good reasons why a printed book should not be impersonal. Careful printers who tried to correct a faulty manuscript copy might be confounded with careless printers who gave little heed to editing or proof-reading. There were also piratical printers who stole the editorial work of more painstaking rivals, and sold faulty reprints as the work of their honest rivals, but always at lower price. After some unpleasant experiences consequent on unwary purchases from unknown printers, the critical reader began to discover the relative merit of books. Before he bought a new book he looked for the imprint of a reputable printer as some guaranty of its accuracy. A book without attest was like a bit of silverware without the official stamp; it might be good, it might be bad, but the latter conclusion was oftener reached. When the fifteenth century closed, the printers of good standing in all countries put their names at the end of their books.
A colophon in the shape of a Venetian wine-cup, from an edition of
Petrarch by Bartholomew Valdezocchio, made at Padua in 1472. 

24 September 2015

The Improvement of the Mind

Isaac Watts, The Improvement of the Mind (London: James Brackstone, 1741), p. 13:
A well-furnish'd Library and a capacious Memory, are indeed of singular Use toward the Improvement of the Mind; but if all your Learning be nothing else but a mere Amassment of what others have written, without a due Penetration into their Meaning, and without a judicious Choice and Determination of your own Sentiments, I do not see what Title your Head has to true Learning, above your Shelves.
Hat tip: Anecdotal Evidence

22 September 2015

Travel for Travel's Sake

Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (London: Chatto and Windus, 1919), p. 57:
For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints. Alas, as we get up in life, and are more preoccupied with our affairs, even a holiday is a thing that must be worked for. To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale out of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future?

17 September 2015

My Time Is My Own

The demon Screwtape offers his nephew the demon Wormwood advice on tempting a human into sin, C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter XXI, (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1946):
Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied. The more claims on life, therefore, that your patient can be induced to make, the more often he will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered. Now you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal unexpectedly taken from him. It is the unexpected visitor (when he looked forward to a quiet evening), or the friend’s talkative wife (turning up when he looked forward to a tête-à-tête with the friend), that throw him out of gear. Now he is not yet so uncharitable or slothful that these small demands on his courtesy are in themselves too much for it. They anger him because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption, “My time is my own”. Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion which he allows to religious duties. But what he must never be permitted to doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some mysterious sense, his own personal birthright.

You have here a delicate task. The assumption which you want him to go on making is so absurd that, if once it is questioned, even we cannot find a shred of argument in its defence. The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon as his chattels.

Luca Signorelli, Four Demons Inspecting a Book (c. 1500)

Laudator Temporis Acti has posted another favourite passage of mine from this book on The Historical Point of View.

15 September 2015

Plain Simple English Words

R. S. Thomas, "Words and the Poet," quoted in Christopher Morgan R. S. Thomas: Identity, Environment, Deity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), p. 94:
At times there comes the desire to write with great precision and clarity, words so simple and moving that they bring tears to the eyes, or, if you like, as Wordsworth said, are 'too deep for tears' ... This is where the one syllable, the four letter words come into their own. They can have a particular force. One remembers lines such as that by Wilfred Owen in 'Futility': 'Was it for this the clay grew tall?' Plain simple English words, yet so often they are the best. It is a case of 'central peace subsisting at the heart of endless agitation'. Art is not simple, and yet about so much of the best, whether in painting, poetry or music, there is a kind of miraculous simplicity.

10 September 2015

One Fine Way to Keep Sane

Charles Rowley, Fifty Years of Work Without Wages (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1911), pp. 34-35:
Now Manchester is exceptionally fortunate for those who are blessed with these desires [to go on long walks] and who will seize their opportunity. In a few hours we can be in the heart of the loveliest parts of Derbyshire. For inexpensive week-ends, for good walkers, the finest of Welsh or Lake Country scenery can be at our feet in a little more time. During Saturday afternoon, Sunday, and Monday, losing only one day from work hours, and with a pound in your pocket, you can enjoy, if you have the capacity, the finest things our islands afford. Indeed, some of our most enchanting experiences have been gained for a much smaller sum. You form a good plan — that is essential if you are to get to the heart of the best in nature — you take your Sunday midday meal in your satchel, and you trudge along to your heart's delight, wet or fine. That is one fine way to keep sane, to build up character, to enjoy keenly the best about us. Our current temptations to money-spending do not result in half the joy and satisfaction of these simpler, truer methods.

A hard-working labourer was asked by the clergyman of his parish why he got so drunk every week-end when he drew his wages. Said he, "It's the shortest way out of Manchester." We found ways not so short but much more effectual.
According to the Bank of England inflation calculator, a "pound in your pocket" in 1911 would be the equivalent of about £105 today.

8 September 2015

Everything You Have Learned Remains Yours

Leslie Meisels, Suddenly the Shadow Fell (Toronto: Azrieli Foundation, 2015), p. 59:
The psychological effects of my experiences [during the Holocaust] taught me certain things that formed a philosophy that I have lived ever since. Life in the concentration camp [Bergen-Belsen], especially watching the leadership in our barracks and acquiring the simple knowledge of how to measure and cut bread rations precisely, taught me a great deal. I saw how people who were well educated and broad-minded stood out from the crowd, how they were able to adapt to their situation more easily than others. People looked up to them and they became leaders. I came to the conclusion that no matter what circumstance life puts a person in, even if everything you have is taken away, as long as you live, no one can take away your knowledge. Everything you have learned remains yours and can help you. For me, this produced a thirst for knowledge and a will to learn, which has never changed.