A physicist loose among the liberal arts

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Denethor’s Ring

I touched on the unexpected ability of US and Soviet authorities to avoid destroying the planet in my first post on Denethor. I’m no expert on international relations and military strategy, so it’s gratifying to see that someone who is an expert has done the research and backs up my suspicion that it was, first, the intended consequence of the policies and plans of the leadership and, second, something that J.R.R. Tolkien would not have had any reason to expect.

Bruno Tertrais (who just published a book entitled The Backlash of History or maybe “the revenge”; either way, yikes!) writes in the Washington Quarterly that, “Most strategists of the 1960s would be stunned to hear that as of 2017, there still has yet to be another nuclear use in anger,” and goes on to explain why that wasn’t just coincidence.  It was a consequence of the procedures put in place to control nuclear weapons, and the extreme seriousness with which the leaders of the nuclear-armed countries took their jobs.

So, as Stephen Winter and I ended up agreeing, Denethor was right all along.

The Elevation of Master Samwise

Tom Hillman looks into Sam Gamgee’s evolution from servant to “Master Samwise” Go read it; as usual from Tom it’s as good as blogging gets. There’s an angle to it that I’d like to add, though.

Corey Olsen pointed out, years ago when he was podcasting his classes at Washington U, that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a complex textual history into The Lord of the Rings. It sticks out most dramatically in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields: the action stops to talk about the grave of Snowmane, Théoden’s horse, in terms that couldn’t have been written by Frodo a few years after the event. Obviously the text has picked up some additions as it was copied and distributed around Middle Earth during the Fourth Age. Here’s another one:

Thus Aragorn for the first time in the full light of day beheld Éowyn, Lady of Rohan, and thought her fair, fair and cold, like a morning of pale spring that is not yet come to womanhood. And she now was suddenly aware of him: tall heir of kings, wise with many winters, greycloaked, hiding a power that yet she felt.

LotR III,vi

What on earth is that all about? The last few pages have been Gandalf vs. Théoden, but the point of view swings suddenly to Aragorn and the narrator gets all tongue-tied and metaphor-mixed. Stammering “fair” twice in a row is unlike the narrator’s usual voice, and mornings don’t come into womanhood if Frodo of the Impeccable Grammar has anything to say about it. I interpret this passage with the perspective one gets from working as a courtier in Washington DC. This is another interpolation by a Fourth-Age scribe. The scribe was employed at the court of the Prince of Ithilien. His patron was a descendant of Faramir and Éowyn, and he felt sure that it would rebound to his favor if he made the biggest possible production out of the first meeting between the great Elessar and his patron’s ancestor.

Is this a valid reading? Sycophancy is the handmaiden of politics, wherever one looks. I assume that politics among the Men of Gondor and among hobbits is similar to politics in our world. In Gondor this is certainly the case (cf. Letter #136). The presence in the Shire of lawyers indistinguishable from our own (The Hobbit, at the auction, and LotR I,ii) implies their politics must not be too different. So on we go.

The descendants of Sam and Rosie Gardner were sure to face challenges to their legitimacy. The founders of their house were not of aristocratic stock, and an eminent literatus has proven beyond controversion that the family was not accepted

Map of Gardner

Mayor Sam Gardner’s family

unconditionally into the highest strata of hobbit society. The tale of the War of the Ring would have been an essential tool in consolidating the social position of the Gardners and the Fairbairns. Therefore, the hobbit scribes who wrote the Red Book of Westmarch took every opportunity they could find to connect Sam and Elanor with the royal family of Gondor and Arnor, as Tom documented, all through the Appendices. But how far back can the pretense to nobility be pushed?

As long as Frodo and Sam were embedded in a social structure, Sam would have to stay in a servile role. By the end of Book 2, though, Frodo and Sam are on their own. This is the perfect place to turn the story of Sam the sidekick into the origin myth of Mayor Samwise, founder of the House of Gardner. Their roles aren’t dictated by people around them any more. Sam can evolve. The first formal social structure Frodo and Sam encounter after that is Faramir’s company, and as Tom notes that’s where “Master Samwise” makes its entrance into the text, never completely to depart. The book shows Sam being treated with respect by the future Prince of Ithilien, lieutenant of the King Elessar, from the start.

Shortly after that, Frodo of the once-impeccable Bagginses, confirms the elevation.

‘Why, Sam,’ he said, ‘to hear you somehow makes me as merry as if the story was already written. But you’ve left out one of the chief characters: Samwise the stouthearted. “I want to hear more about Sam, dad. Why didn’t they put in more of his talk, dad? That’s what I like, it makes me laugh. And Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he, dad?”’
‘Now, Mr. Frodo,’ said Sam, ‘you shouldn’t make fun. I was serious.’
‘So was I,’ said Frodo, ‘and so I am.’

LotR IV, viii

Modern people tend to view this kind of political manipulation with distaste. But older generations didn’t think there was anything froward about it. Frodo told Sam to do it explicitly:

You will be the Mayor, of course, as long as you want to be, and the most famous gardener in history; and you will read things out of the Red Book, and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone, so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more.

LotR, VI, ix

Or did he? All we have to do is decide what to do with the text that is given us.

Mythmoot Lúthien Seminar

Since Beren and Lúthien was just published, we paid a lot of attention to it at Mythmoot IV. In this paper session, it got crowded in the dell under Weathertop. Along with Aragorn and the hobbits, Kate Neville, Tom Hillman, Trevor Brierly and about 20 others were eavesdropping. This took the form of three talks about Beren, Lúthien, and the song of Tinúviel. All three talks referenced the Mythgard Academy class on Return of the Shadow, appropriately enough.

Kate Neville: How much does a linden-leaf weigh, anyway?

Kate handed out four different versions of the song Aragorn sings, written over 30 years. What is a ballad, anyway? We don’t know what JRRT’s definition was, but the etymology is “something to dance to”. Repetitions of words match repeated steps in a dance. The ballad is separate from the “Tale of Tinúviel”. The ballad has seasons in it; where the story takes place over a few days. Kate thinks putting the dancing Luthien into a song is the origin of her power as a singer.  “Whenever I see the leaf in ‘Leaf by Niggle’, I think of a linden.”

Hemlock umbels, high enough to dance under

Umbelliferous Hemlock

Since we’re discussing Lúthien’s weight, let’s discuss her height, too. My farm got a lot of rain this month. Most of the hemlock-umbels are four feet off the ground, as usual. A few, though, are almost seven feet high. A daughter of Thingol could easily have danced under the tallest ones. We know Tinúviel had extraordinary grace, because the tall hemlocks are all on a riverbank where the land is on a one-to-one slope. Only an elf could dance there without falling in the water.

Tom Hillman: “She died.”

Tom started with a contentious assertion: that Aragorn’s coda to the song was the biggest disappointment in Peter Jackson’s movie. That’s a tough competition, but he made a good case. Aragorn’s step away from his historical role means that he has to reduce Arwen’s eventual choice to a purely personal level. This is one of the moments where the depth of Middle-Earth comes out, in the book. The movies were completely de-mythologized, so that had to be deleted. There’s no hope in the movie version. No Silmarils, no victory over Morgoth. How could there be? In the movies, the indicator of enormous evil power is that you’re really big and can hit a lot of people with one swing of a mace.

One metaphor I loved: In the Mythgard class, Corey Olsen made a big deal out of identifying exactly where JRRT brought the two worlds of the Silmarillion and The Hobbit into conjunction. Tom points out that this is a necessary consequence once the world was made round. Parallel lines never intersect in a flat geometry, like the world before Ar-Pharazôn’s little folly. But parallel lines always eventually cross on a globe. In the Third Age, the Hobbit and The Silmarillion couldn’t be kept apart.

Trevor Brierly: how Lúthien became a “maiden, elven-wise”

Lúthien doesn’t do anything in the earliest poem, but the “Tale of Tinúviel” makes her into an agent. The part where Beren is stalking her stops being creepy, because she knows he’s watching and encourages it (without telling him, of course). In The Fellowship of the Ring version, she actively embraces Beren. As Kate interjected, “Beren keeps trying to get away, and she keeps showing up wherever he is.”

We had a great discussion afterwards, which only happens when everybody is keyed onto the same topic. That doesn’t always happen when three distantly-related papers get put into a session.

One item that came up, relevant to my chairmanship of the Committee for the Defense of Celeborn: The reason Celeborn always just says “yes, dear” is buried deep in the First Age. “At times Melian and Galadriel would speak together” and Galadriel learned a lot. Celeborn was watching, too. He saw how Thingol never listened to his wife, and what happened to him. Celeborn let his wife do the talking, and he lasted through two more Ages of the world. Smart guy.

Verlyn Flieger – Wonder is a three-body effect

In which your humble Idiosopher follows the Straight Road, or as some might say, goes off on a tangent

Edited to add:  A video recording of the lecture is now online.

Verlyn Flieger gave the Saturday plenary lecture at Mythmoot IV. She took the theme of the conference “Invoking Wonder” literally, with spectacular results. This has taken me a long time to get written, so there are some good reviews out there already. Kelly has a comprehensive recap, which is a good place to start. Sørina has a précis. Lee zooms in on one feature of the lecture — how to teach wonder. I’m going to zoom in on another.

As Prof. Flieger describes it, “wonder” is a three-body situation. Otherness is one essential component; a thing that’s outside the viewer’s experience is where it starts. An observer, someone looking at it, is the party of the second part. “Hey, look!” is their reaction. (Or “Ele!” if you’re an elf seeing the stars for the first time.). Which brings us to the third part – the observer needs someone to say that to. You can’t keep wonder to yourself. The term Prof. Flieger uses is “rebound”, like a combination shot in billiards. Back in Cuivienen, JRRT writes the awakening of the elves so the elves see the stars, and the wonder of the stars bounces off the elves and comes to us. Then she quoted Owen Barfield, who once said that there is no such thing as an unseen rainbow. The metaphor is so exact that I’m sure Prof. Flieger intended us to think of the way a rainbow is generated, as light from the sun bounces inside raindrops and back to our eye. She then followed with a list of examples where JRRT does the same thing. The Arkenstone, the Window on the West, the Glittering Caves…. Curious — more than half of the examples involved refraction. I’m sure it’s purely a coincidence that her first book was entitled Splintered Light.

Prof. Flieger polled the audience to see how many of us were fans of E.R. Eddison. (Five.) She used him as a not-so-good example of invoking wonder through extravagance, not recovery. Her passage from Eddison overwhelmed the reader with almost Rableaisian lists that include both familiar and exotic delicacies. I’m one of the fans, so I felt like leaping to his defense. Eddison could use the rebound effect himself when it was important.

Let me interject a personal confession here: I don’t grok heroes. High romance needs heroes to make things come out at the end, but it’s hard to make a character unique and flawless at the same time in a way to which I react well. One reason I love Tolkien is that he managed to write Aragorn exactly the right way to do that. (Peter Jackson couldn’t.) The only comparable achievement I know of is what John Steinbeck did with Lancelot, whom I’d never cared for until then.

E.R. Eddison uses the rebound technique in The Worm Ouroboros to get around the fact that Lord Juss is such a good guy that, to me, he’s a blank spot on the page.
Here’s Lord Brandoch Daha:

His gait was delicate, as of some lithe beast of prey newly wakened out of slumber, and he greeted with lazy grace the many friends who hailed his entrance. Very tall was that lord, and slender of build, like a girl. … His buskins were laced with gold, and from his belt hung a sword, narrow of blade and keen, the hilt rough with beryls and black diamonds. Strangely light and delicate was his frame and seeming, yet with a sense of slumbering power beneath, as the delicate peak of a snow mountain seen afar in the low red rays of morning. His face was beautiful to look upon, and softly coloured like a girl’s face, and his expression one of gentle melancholy, mixed with some disdain; but fiery glints awoke at intervals in his eyes, and the lines of swift determination hovered round the mouth below his curled moustachios.

We know him. The too-pretty, too-well-dressed façade that conceals a deadly fighter is a perennial figure of romance, like Aramis in The Three Musketeers or Simon Templar or Sir Didymus. I can root for this guy. Lessingham assumes he must be Lord Juss, but no. There’s another remarkable figure there, for whom the earthling makes the same mistake,

… apparelled in black silk that shimmers with gold as he moveth, and crowned with black eagle’s feathers among his horns and yellow hair. His face is wild and keen like a sea-eagle’s, and from his bristling brows the eyes dart glances sharp as a glancing spear. A faint flame, pallid like the fire of a Will-o’-the-Wisp, breathes ever and anon from his distended nostrils. This is Lord Spitfire, impetuous in war.

We know him, too. Heroes who are like birds of prey form a long line: Hawkeye, Hawkmoon, Hawkwind, Hauksberg… and that’s just the “H”s.  Then we meet Lord Goldry Bluszco:

[Y]on lord that bulks mighty as Hercules yet steppeth lightly as a heifer. The thews and sinews of his great limbs ripple as he moves beneath a skin whiter than ivory …. Slung from his shoulders clanks a two-handed sword, the pommel a huge star-ruby carven in the image of a heart, for the heart is his sign and symbol. This is that sword forged by the elves, wherewith he slew the sea-monster, as thou mayest see in the painting on the wall. Noble is he of countenance, most like to his brother Juss, but darker brown of hair and ruddier of hue and bigger of cheekbone. Look well on him, for never shall thine eyes behold a greater champion than the Lord Goldry Bluszco, captain of the hosts of Demonland.

Of course the big kid whom none of the other kids can tackle might be the oldest trope in epic literature. He’s such a compelling figure in stories that he can serve equally well as the villain if (e.g.) we only have the Hebrew version of a tale.

Here’s where Eddison sets up the five-way combination shot: Spitfire is first to say Lord Juss is the best general. Goldry Bluszco wouldn’t want to fight Juss hand to hand. And when Brandoch Daha and Juss are traipsing up mountains in search of hippogriff eggs, there’s no question who the tougher soldier is. So even though Eddison doesn’t have Tolkien’s chops as a writer, Lord Juss is wonderful because all these familiar heroes are vouching for him.

That was a long digression, but it shows the power of this formal construction of wonder. As always, Prof. Flieger set up an excellent punchline to her lecture, with Gimli’s description of the Glittering Caves to Legolas. We’d never seen Gimli show a lyrical side before, but here he goes to extremes and even uses a sea metaphor to impress the Elf. This isn’t just us seeing a wonderful site through his eyes: the complete ricochet is Gimli->Legolas->caves->reader->Gimli. JRRT wants us to see Gimli, not the caves, when we read this passage.  Altogether, a wonderful lecture and a way to perceive the issue I would never have thought of myself.

The Hippogriff:  Lord Juss’s Emblem

Sørina Higgins: Real Modernisms

Edited to add: A video of this lecture is now online.

Sørina Higgins gave the Sunday plenary talk at Mythmoot IV.  She thinks we need a new story for imagining literary communities and literary modernism. She uses the Great Dance at the end of Perelandra as her starting point.

He thought he saw the Great Dance. It seemed to be woven out of the intertwining undulation of many cords or bands of light, leaping over and under one another and embraced in arabesques and flower-like subtleties. Each as he looked at it became the master-figure or focus of whole spectacle, by means of which his eye disentangled all else and brought it into unity — only to be itself entangled when he looked to what he had taken for mere marginal decorations and found that there also the same hegemony was claimed, and the claim made good, yet the former pattern was not thereby dispossessed but finding in its new subordination a significance greater than that which it had abdicated.

C. S. Lewis, Perelandra, p. 218
Cover of Perelandra, 1979 MacMillan edition

I’m writing this on the porch, on a sunny day in June. The book cover matches the lawn beautifully.

Professor Higgins’s revision to the story of the Inklings is radical: there was no group called “the Inklings”, in the sense that there was a group called “The Beatles”. The name is better thought of as a constantly-changing configuration of influences among people who flowed in and out of each others’ notice, and whose significance in each others’ works ebbed and flowed over time.

If you try to use rigid identifications to describe something as chaotic as twentieth-century communities, you’re bound to miss things.  In the case of the Inklings, what you miss is their engagement with Modernism. If you think of four Dead White European Males turning their backs on the industrial world you don’t see: women, Americans, pulp magazines, romance novels (in the XXth Century meaning), or their keen perception of advances in science.  Others have noticed this before, of course. Critics have designated a raft of /[a-z]*-modernist/ schools. That regular expression could be low, high, pulp, pop, inter, outer, or whatever else. Any time you have an explosion of hyphenations in scholarship, it’s a sign that we’re ready for some kind of theoretical unification. (They give Nobel prizes for that in physics. It’s what quarks do.)

Prof. Higgins proposes that we should use network theory to create “meta-fictional narratives”, and basically told the audience to get to work. (This was the second action item from a plenary talk last weekend.)  OK, let’s.

It’s easy to see how the network nodes are defined; there’s almost certainly going to be one for each person. The value of the writer’s nodes will be time-dependent, describing their works in progress. We’ll need some specific non-null value for anyone who’s not writing something, but interacts with writers in other ways. (I’m thinking of Joy Davidman, and that may be the most discreet sentence I’ve ever written.)

The links in the network will be the hard part. Interactions between writers don’t fit onto a numerical scale. (And that may be the worst understatement I’ve ever written.) I have no idea what kind of quantitative analysis is possible when a link value is chosen from a set like {influenced, discussed with, expanded upon, refuted, deliberately ignored, stole from, converted, ran off with the wife of, …}.

Link values will also be time-dependent, so the whole network will be time-dependent. I foresee lots of cool animated graphics at future conferences, if Professor Higgins has the kind of influence on Modernist Studies that I suspect she will.

National Defense

A South African cyber-security researcher whose nym is “the grugq” recently posted a review of what we know about recent attempts to interfere with elections through the insecurity of our computer and social-media networks.

The thing that jumped out at me was his diagnosis of why the attempts in France failed.  OK, #1 has to be that whatever cyber-criminals were trying to rig the election look like Boy Scouts next to former-president Sarkozy.  But right behind that is the fact that the social-media troll army that did so much damage in the US ran into a brick wall:  Trolls speak bad French, so the French didn’t listen to them.

We should promote a similar idea here.  If the audience for our political discourse insisted on good English, complete with literary allusions (Sarkozy called François Fillon a “Thénardier” in the interview linked above), then external attempts to subvert elections would be doomed to failure, and our national security would be enhanced.

Disclaimer #1:  I recognize that this proposal would have probably elected Jesse Jackson back in the 1980s.

Disclaimer #2: Observing the size of Pentagon research grants, compared to the size of research grants in the humanities, could not possibly be related to my motivation for writing this post.

Michael Drout: The Decline and Hoped Rebirth of Germanic Philology

Michael Drout gave a fascinating keynote address at Mythmoot IV. Honestly, the last thing I expected to hear was a call to action.

Edited to add:  A video recording of the talk is now online.

We 120 were a big audience, by Germanic-philology standards, but it was not always so. In 1848, Jakob Grimm was Guest of Honor at the Frankfurter Nationalversammlung where they wrote the Constitution. “Who is a German?” was the defining question for 150 years of European history. Philology was a tool in this nationalistic task, and Jakob Grimm was the master philologist.

Grimm’s work wasn’t confined to an ivory tower.  His methods made it possible to read long-dead languages, and thereby investigate cultural history in words. Success in application makes something important. Because it had real-world effects, philology dominated scholarship before WWII the way physics did afterwards. But philology was basically wiped out, between 1945 and 1951, an effort that was enthusiastically supported by literary scholars who wanted to erase their Nazi-sympathizing pasts. It doesn’t exist any more as a requirement for an English degree.

Apart from institutional antipathy, another problem that bedevils philology is the absence of good textbooks. You can’t learn it without a good teacher. It’s taught by the apprentice method, which is unsurpassable for quality of education, but, being highly susceptible to Baumol’s disease, isn’t a good way to rebuild an entire field of study. Professor Drout stated ex cathedra that current philologists are fewer and less capable than their predecessors. He bolstered the assertion with examples of archaeological discoveries that were more-or-less predicted by philological analyses of ancient texts, and said that such skill has vanished, now. (I’ll take his word for it; but some day I’d like to see all the predictions that didn’t come true.) “How do we know that?” asked Timdalf, which was a very good question. Drout’s answer is that he sees signs of it all through the old literature — many parts of reviews and commentary aren’t explained because everybody knew them. There are traces all through the journals of vanished networks of communication and understanding. We have no referents for them.

Professor Drout next developed his story with a diatribe against Literary Theory. He’s not so well educated as his predecessors because he had to learn Theory to get a job. Even from my brief incursion into the field, I know what he’s talking about.  “The theorists tried to destroy philology, which cursed them as it died.”

The general decay of literary studies is a consequence of losing the academic rigor that philology brought. Literary Theory doesn’t have much of it. Here is Professor Drout’s call to arms: let us, Signum University faculty, students, and scholars in its orbit, restore philology to its proper place.  The old philologists didn’t completely understand this a hundred years ago, but now we know philology is grounded in neuroscience. Philology is a way for literary studies to catch up with the rest of the academy in rigor. Without a philological foundation, no theoretical treatment should be taken too seriously. In conclusion, he suggested that we, the Tolkien fans who have become philology fans, are like gardeners who are watering the seeds, against the day when philology sprouts again.

The conclusion was inspiring. The last thing we expected from a plenary talk was to be charged with a mission. (It wouldn’t be the last of the weekend!). Not all the eyes in the audience were dry when Professor Drout finished.

I was left with two questions to ponder.

  1. Professor Drout is one of the best at speaking Anglo-Saxon that I’ve ever heard. He’s so good at it that he can sell recordings. Seth Lerer is the other; both are philologists, not just literary critics. It seems likely that studying philology is necessary to pronounce an ancient language well. Is it sufficient? Or are other skills needed, too?
  2. The knowledge that philologists used to have isn’t well-represented by a chain of facts. It’s a network. This seems like the sort of thing Google Scholar was invented for. Might it be possible to program a neural net with the corpus of the technical literature, which can then serve as an assistant to someone who wants to reproduce and extend the old discipline?


Bullet Lists from Mythmoot

Mythmoot IV is over and done, and it was a blast. I heard a lot of good scholarship, met a lot of interesting people, bought some books, and was stalked by Tevildo, Prince of Cats. (Starsha tried to get photographic proof, but taking a picture of a black cat in the middle of the night is among the most difficult tasks in the visual arts.)

Things I have never done before:
  • Pronounced “oidhche” (even if I didn’t do it right)
  • Drawn up a tax code for Gondor
  • Danced the Virginia Reel with a priest
  • Sørina Higgins is so good at asking questions of panelists that I frequently find myself noting her questions rather than the answers.
  • Verlyn Flieger is not only extraordinary at delivering the punch line to a lecture; she can even improvise them.
  • Michael Drout can read an audience as well as the best stand-up comics.

I’ll have more detailed notes on some highlights coming up, though not a full “proceedings” like I did last year.

Latin Verse for hoi Polloi

Tom Hillman seems to have invented a way to be a visiting professor at an online university. Since the beginning of the Boëthius class, Corey Olsen has held forth on numerous occasions about the impossibility of translating poetry into another language. Tom has taken up the cudgel, and is inserting real Latin into the lectures. Cool! This time it needed a visual aid.  I listen to Academy lectures in my car, so I fired this one up in a browser when I got home to figure out where the colors were. Voilà:

This was a very clear explanation of what was going on, understandable even by your Idiosopher, who learned Latin and Greek from dinosaur names. [1] In response to Jennifer’s question, you can find Boethius’s original Latin at the Perseus Project.

Since I don’t have any contributions to make to the study of classical poetry, I’ll take this opportunity to tell a story of the time I used Latin in public.  I had gone to the doctor about a rash beside my right eye.  The doctor said, “I think it’s periorbital dermatitis, but I’d better ask my partner.”  The partner came in, swear-to-god wearing one of those mirrors on a headband that you see in old movies, inspected me, and declared, “Yes, it’s periorbital dermatitis.”  Well, by that point I’d had a minute to work it out so I asked them, “Did you just say I have ‘skin-around-the-eye disease’?”  They both stood there looking sheepish.  I decided to call that a standing ovation.

[1] “Latin and Greek” is one language to scientists.  We assume the words with an “h” after a consonant like “autochthonous” or “phthalate” are Greek, and all the rest aren’t.

Boëthius goes to Science Class

In his Mythgard Academy class, Corey Olsen pointed out that The Consolation of Philosophy contains a reference to how small the Earth is compared to the cosmos. This comes from Ptolemy in the 2nd Century CE, and is qualitatively correct.[1] By that point in the text, I had noticed that Boëthius argues frequently from scientific evidence, and I’d been highlighting the various claims he makes. Suppose he were being graded by a modern science teacher – here’s how he might come out.


Sound fills the ears of many at the same time without being broken into parts.” This sentence was the thing that set me to high-lighting. I had no idea that they knew that much wave theory in Late Antiquity. Nowadays, we call this Huygens’ Principle. Huygens gets the credit, not Boëthius, because his formulation allows it to be used for experiments and theoretical advancements. 10/10.


Then, for the same reasons, this also is necessary—that independence, power, renown, reverence, and sweetness of delight, are different only in name, but in substance differ no wise one from the other.” (Bk. 3, P10.)  “Either there is no single end to which all things are relative, or else the end to which all things universally hasten must be the highest good of all”. (Bk. 3, P11)

These two are pretty much the same claim, that all good things are unified. Boëthius wants to define a highest good, so he needs good things to be a well-ordered set, or different people might have different ideas about what constitutes the “highest”. This proposition is essential to his entire argument, and it’s a theorem of mathematics: you can’t have a well-ordered set made of multiplets of numbers. Whether this is logically equivalent to monotheism, I leave to theologians, who by both nature and training are more subtle than Idiosophers. 10/10.


nothing can be better in nature than the source from which it has come;” (Bk. 3, P 10.)
Incorrect. The whole purpose of human labor is to add value to raw materials. The Winged Victory of Samothrace is much “better in nature” than a block of marble in a quarry. 0/10.

How poor and cramped a thing, then, is riches, which more than one cannot possess as an unbroken whole, which falls not to any one man’s lot without the impoverishment of everyone else!
Boëthius does not know about economies of scale. Division of labor and cooperation via markets have brought prosperity to our world that would be unimaginable in his. While it is true that the principle is frequently abused and greedy rich men enjoy impoverishing those around them, nevertheless the foundation of the global capitalist economy encourages entrepreneurs to find ways to produce goods en masse, which thereafter make entrepreneurs fabulously wealthy while improving the lot of their customers. Boëthius sees only the down side and misses the positive. 5/10.


[If satisfying bodily desires] can make happiness, there is no reason why the beasts also should not be happy, since all their efforts are eagerly set upon satisfying the bodily wants.
Your Idiosopher infers that Boëthius did not have pet dogs. I have fed Labrador Retrievers — if there is any creature on Earth that has ever attained a more perfect happiness than those dogs at dinner time, I have not seen it. 3/10; maybe he had a cat.

“[W]ould not that body of Alcibiades, so gloriously fair in outward seeming, appear altogether loathsome when all its inward parts lay open to the view?” (Bk. 3, P8)
Never having met Alcibiades, your Idiosopher can not talk about the condition of his specific innards. But inward parts in general can be fascinating. The human brain is a supercomputer that runs on 50 W of power and fits in a hat.[2] Kidneys are marvelously effective filtration systems for their size. And if you gave me a handful of jelly and told me to build two cameras out of it, I feel sure that the result would be much less effective than eyes. This is an attitude that derives from disgust, not science. 0/10.

Nature is content with few things, and with a very little of these. If thou art minded to force superfluities upon her when she is satisfied, that which thou addest will prove either unpleasant or harmful.” (Bk. 2, P 5.)
Anyone who has ever kept a vegetable garden knows this is not the case. Nature is all about superfluity. Bacteria, plants, fungi, and animals all reproduce to the maximum extent that resources will allow, because that’s the best way to guarantee survival when they are surrounded by predators. The story of nature is the contest for resources among a multitude of over-procreative species. Vegetable gardens produce food because gardeners intervene in the process, warding off predations so the surplus production of the plants is not consumed by competitors, but rather by the gardeners themselves. As James Lawson describes it in his First Steps to Botany (1826): “No species, perhaps, either of plant or animal is made for itself alone ; and hence, as vegetables produce a superabundance of seeds for the nourishment of certain races of animals….0/10.

Looking to living creatures, which have some faults of choice, I find none that, without external compulsion, forego the will to live, and of their own accord hasten to destruction. For every creature diligently pursues the end of self-preservation.” (Bk.3, P11)
There are many creatures that devote themselves to a higher end than their self-preservation. Bees will unthinkingly sting anyone who threatens their hive, though they die in the process. Ants will drown so their hill-mates can cross a stream. Human soldiers give their lives for their countries. 0/10.

“‘Now, dost thou know,’ said she, ‘that all which is abides and subsists so long as it continues one, but so soon as it ceases to be one it perishes and falls to pieces?” (Bk.3, P11)
“Now, that which seeks to subsist and continue desires to be one; for if its oneness be gone, its very existence cannot continue.” (ibid.)
This is incorrect. Bacteria, amoebae, and many other micro-organisms die unless they split themselves into parts. Mitosis in the higher animals works the same way. I wonder how Boëthius would have reacted, had he known that for most living creatures, remaining unified means extinction. It seems to tie into the monotheistic foundation of his philosophy, but in a contrary sense. 0/10.


Our good Anicius Manlius recapitulates the phylogeny of science fairly well. The older the science, the better he understands it. He’s an “A” student in math and physics, but the newer sciences contradict his evidence at every turn.

[1] Richard Fitzgerald, in the physics department at UT-Austin, has translated the Almagest of Ptolemy, not only into English, but into modern mathematical notation as well. I love the Internet.

[2] Your move, Apple!

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