March 14, 2020

1. The Black Swan

The CoronaVirus seems like a classic example of a Black Swan — an event that’s hard to predict, an event that takes us by surprise. So I wanted to know what Nassim Taleb was saying about the virus; Taleb is the author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007). In this book, Taleb says, “I see the risks of a very strange acute virus spreading throughout the planet.”

Taleb says that on a small island, there’s a relatively large number of species. But in a big environment, a few species dominate. “Larger environments [allow] the biggest to get even bigger.” As a result of globalization, the world has become one large environment for germs. Hence, “we will have a germ population dominated by a few [members], and the successful killer will spread vastly more effectively.”

The same logic applies to the literary world: “Cultural life will be dominated by fewer persons: we have fewer books per reader in English than in Italian.... Companies will be more uneven in size. And fads will be more acute. So will runs on the banks.” In sum, globalization creates a large environment, it “takes us into Extremistan,” that is, a world of highs and lows, a world of wild swings, a world of Black Swans.

One of Taleb’s maxims is, “The only effective judge of things is time — by things we mean ideas, people, intellectual productions, car models, scientific theories, books, etc.” Time shows that something isn’t a fad, and isn’t easily swept away by a Black Swan.

Taleb talks about Lindy’s Law, which is named after a defunct NewYork deli called Lindy’s. Broadway actors would socialize at Lindy’s, and speculate about how long a show would last. They decided that a long-running show usually had a long future; if a show had already lasted 100 nights, it usually lasted another 100 nights, but if a show had only lasted 2 nights, it usually lasted only 2 nights more.

If we apply Lindy’s Law to literature, we can say that if Homer has lasted 3,000 years, he’ll probably last another 3,000 years. Taleb says that he only reads “Lindy books,” that is, old books, books that have stood the test of time. Taleb says, “the Lindy effect is one of the most useful, robust, and universal heuristics I know.”

Taleb quotes Nietzsche: “Madness is rare in individuals, but in groups, parties, nations, it is the rule.” A classic book about economic bubbles is Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841), by Charles Mackay. Taleb is known for an investing strategy that doesn’t get fooled by bubbles, a strategy that makes money when bubbles burst.

Taleb also mentions a passage in Lucretius: “The human race doesn’t know how to limit possessions, and doesn’t know how far true pleasure can increase” (hominum genus... non cognovit quae sit habendi finis et omnino quoad crescat vera voluptas). As I wrote in a recent issue, “Greed has no limit.” Greed is one cause of economic bubbles, investing fads.

Taleb isn’t the only person who anticipated an epidemic like the CoronaVirus. Five years ago, Bill Gates gave a 5-minute interview, and a 10-minute talk, about the risk of an epidemic (a couple weeks ago, Gates published an article about the CoronaVirus). Gates says that about 10,000 people died of Ebola, and about 30 million died of the 1918 flu epidemic. About 5,000 people have died so far from the CoronaVirus, including 3,000 in China, and 1,000 in Italy. It seems unlikely that deaths from the CoronaVirus will top 15,000; China and South Korea seem to have contained the virus. In an average year, about 500,000 people die of the flu virus worldwide.

2. The Dirtbag Left

I came across a NewYorkTimes article about the “Dirtbag Left,” the pro-Bernie Left, the angry Left. Dirtbags oppose liberals and mainstream Democrats, just as TeaParty Republicans opposed moderate Republicans. Dirtbags are angry, as Trump supporters are often angry.

Dirtbags want to express their anger, they have little interest in actually governing. “There is little vision laid out for what they want, beyond a Sanders presidency. There is a vision for what they want destroyed and how good it will feel to do that.” Moderate Democrats are now exulting at the rise of Joe Biden, but Dirtbags aren’t exulting, they threaten to stay home on election day, and they predict that Biden will lose every state.

The article I read deals with a Dirtbag group called Chapo Trap House, which makes podcasts and does live shows. Chapo’s members began as Twitter stars, then joined together to form a kind of “Twitter AllStar Team.” “They chose the name ‘Chapo Trap House’ a joking reference to the Mexican drug lord [El Chapo] and a slang term for a drug house.”1

Sanders himself came onto Chapo’s podcast, as Trump went on Alex Jones’ radio show. Sanders said on the podcast,

These people on top are so powerful that the only way we bring them down, the only way we make the kinds of transformation this country absolutely requires is when millions of people are prepared to stand up and fight back.

Chapo emphasizes class war, rather than issues of race and gender.

I’m envious of Chapo’s 38,000 Patreon supporters, which is 37,999 more than I have. Chapo has managed to parlay class anger into a lucrative business, they’ve managed to profit handsomely from diatribes against the profit motive. One wonders if Marx and Engels were as successful at selling their wares.

The NewYorkTimes reporter attended a Chapo show, and

When Hillary Clinton’s name came up, the reaction was nearly indistinguishable from a Trump rally. “Lock her up,” the co-host Matt Christman said to the crowd. The crowd began to chant: Lock her up. Lock her up.

Left and Right have some sympathy for each other. One conservative writer said there was “a lot of interesting convergence.” Both Sanders and Trump are tapping into the anger of the “have-nots,” anger that is fed (at least in part) by the shortage of good jobs in the post-industrial economy. Another NewYorkTimes article describes the rise of “deaths of despair” among working-class Americans.

3. The Law That Ate the Constitution

I read a piece in the Claremont Review of Books called “The Law That Ate the Constitution.” The piece is by Helen Andrews. The piece reviews a hot new book by the journalist/author Christopher Caldwell; Caldwell’s book is called The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties.

Caldwell argues that the United States now has two constitutions. The first is the one on the books. The second arose in the 1960s and replaced the old liberties with new, incompatible ones based on group identities. “Much of what we have called ‘polarization’ or ‘incivility’ in recent years is something more grave,” he writes. “[I]t is the disagreement over which of the two constitutions shall prevail.” More bracing still, he puts the blame for this crisis on the most sacred totem in American politics: our civil rights legislation.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (and its sequel, passed in 1968) has spawned a discrimination industry that involves “surveillance by volunteers, litigation by lawyers, and enforcement by bureaucrats.” Claims of discrimination often compete with FirstAmendment freedoms; claims of discrimination are “eating” the Constitution.

The original justification of the Civil Rights Acts was segregation. “The Civil Rights Act passed under President Lyndon Johnson was meant to address an emergency situation that most Americans, even most white Americans, recognized as a national disgrace.” In 1964, some people warned that “civil rights” could mushroom into an industry. One defender of the Civil Rights Act, Hubert Humphrey,

promised to eat the paper on which the bill was printed if it were found to require anything as ambitious as racial preferences in hiring. He also promised that it would create only “about 400 permanent new Federal jobs.” Within ten years the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division alone had more than twice that number.

Segregation may have ended, but the civil rights industry goes marching on.

Political correctness is an offshoot of the Civil Rights Acts. “Political correctness,” Caldwell writes, is “the cultural effect of the basic enforcement powers of civil rights law.” People must be careful what they say, because their words can become the basis of a discrimination lawsuit.

In a 1987 suit brought by a female English professor, claiming Boston University had wrongly denied her tenure because of her sex, her case partly rested on a speech given years earlier by the university president in which he made standard socially conservative points about working women and child-rearing. The district court ruled that B.U. had indeed acted out of sexism and ordered the school to give the woman tenure, plus $215,000.

Fear of discrimination-litigation has a chilling effect on many activities, even on art exhibitions. “The University of Missouri-Kansas City took down student art supporting the Hong Kong protests after pro-Beijing Chinese students complained it was discriminatory hate speech.” The new Constitution, the post-1964 Constitution, is eating away at the freedoms established by the original Constitution. “Once you make the elimination of bias your highest goal, there is no violation of liberty you cannot justify.”

The only way back to the original Constitution, Caldwell argues, is repealing the Civil Rights Acts, but that seems very unlikely. It’s more likely that the problem will get worse. Liberals are proposing new constitutional amendments — equality amendments, anti-racism amendments, etc. Even if such amendments don’t become law, there could be “a Supreme Court decision enacting the same protections, extrapolating them from existing laws.”

In an earlier issue, I discussed the legal system, and said that “The Americans With Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, ‘spread a feast for plaintiffs’ lawyers.’”

4. Perry Miller on the Puritans

A. Rhetoric

Puritan writers urged ministers to stir the emotions of the congregation, not to speak in general terms, but to address the sinner in a specific way: “O all you drunkards and adulterers, this is your portion.” The minister should shoot his arrows “home into the hearts and consciences of men, and make them at a stand.”2 The minister should “possess men with a sense of wrath to come, and misery.”

Don’t use abstractions that will put the congregation to sleep, don’t use Greek or Latin expressions. “The words of Scripture are to be as sharp goads to dull spirits and as nails to fasten them to God.” Grab their attention, make your meaning plain. “Let the fire burn clear; let there not be more smoke than fire.” If you read someone else’s sermon from the pulpit, or even your own sermon, your emotions won’t be aroused, and you won’t rouse the emotions of your listeners. So don’t read your sermon, deliver it from memory.

Puritans took jabs at renowned Anglican ministers like John Donne and Lancelot Andrewes. Such eloquence was too artful, it was the “carnal eloquence” of a “blubber-lipped ministry.” Such eloquence “could never become a means of grace to common men.”3 Real eloquence was simple and un-artful. “The art of oratory is to conceal the art,” not to call attention to it. Ars est celare artem (Real art conceals art).

While Puritans were wary of eloquent Anglicans, they were also wary of radical Protestants and “hot-gospelling enthusiasts.”4 Against these radicals, Puritans defended the trivium — logic, grammar, and rhetoric — and defended decorum. Puritans pointed out that God’s own book, the Bible, exemplifies a “true raisedness of expression, a majestic state, and artificial and genuine insinuation, with most pathetic captivatings of the mind.” A minister should follow the example of the Bible, and use “rhetorical sweets” to rouse his listeners, to engage their “will and affections.”

Eloquence can move and inspire: “Such force hath the tongue, and such is the power of eloquence and reason, that most men are forced, even to yield in that which most stands against their will.” Rhetoric is “the divine instrument of civilization, the means of order and the social bond,” it allows us to “profit from the experience of the race, maintain the continuity of tradition and of knowledge, transcend the limitations of our finite selves.”5 Without a knowledge of rhetoric, how can we make sense of Biblical phrases like “I am the true vine,” or “Behold the lamb of God”?

Without a knowledge of rhetoric, Christianity might seem too difficult. “Sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor.” “Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” If you interpret such passages literally, Christianity might seem very difficult, but if rhetoric teaches you that such passages are metaphors, Christianity doesn’t seem so difficult.6

Puritans had a “profound respect” for both logic and rhetoric; logic could lead us to truth, rhetoric was the means of regeneration. Logic and rhetoric, together with grammar, made up the trivium, which was the focus of medieval education and Puritan education. Grammar dealt with words, logic with meaning, rhetoric with beauty. All three arts of the trivium served the ultimate goal — interpreting the Bible, and teaching it to the public.

The chief authority in the field of rhetoric — as in the fields of logic, psychology, etc. — was Aristotle. Petrus Ramus revolutionized rhetoric, as he revolutionized logic, and the Puritans followed him in both fields. Ramus delegated rhetoric to his alter ego, Omer Talon. Talon’s Rhetorica and Ramus’ Dialecticae were often bound together in one volume. Ramus’ preface to the Rhetorica was the “manifesto” of Ramist rhetoric, as his preface to the Dialecticae was the manifesto of Ramist logic.

Like logic, rhetoric had become increasingly complicated during the Middle Ages, and had acquired an abundance of technical terms.

By the sixteenth century the rhetoric of the schools had become so intricate an affair that it could not only inspire the satire of Love’s Labour’s Lost, but also convince many scholars that reform was imperative. Ramus rallied this discontent to his side when he arraigned the teaching precisely for its useless and luxuriant elaboration. The two arts were so connected that he could not carry out his renovation of logic without also taking the occasion to simplify and clarify rhetoric, and to redeem it for “use.”

Traditionally rhetoric was divided into five parts: invention, disposition, memory, elocution, and pronunciation. Ramus lopped off invention, disposition, and memory, so rhetoric consisted only of elocution and pronunciation. According to Ramus, invention and disposition were handled by logic. As for memory, it would come automatically once the material was methodically arranged.

The best way to learn rhetoric, according to Ramus, was not by learning abstract definitions, but by studying the orations of Cicero, Demosthenes, etc. Take them apart by analysis, build them up by genesis. Talon’s textbook illustrated every rhetorical technique with a quotation from a famous orator.

Ramists had a certain disdain for rhetoric. “In the Ramist theory, the content was all-important, the style was an afterthought, a minor consideration.” Rhetorical devices were “mechanical additions, affixed here and there like spangles or gems.”7 When we read the Bible, we need to strip away the rhetorical finery to reach the meaning. “There is but one sense belongs to one Scripture... there is but one literal meaning.” To find the meaning of the Bible, Ramists argued, we need to translate rhetoric into logic and grammar.

Those who followed Aristotle instead of Ramus took a different view, they didn’t separate content from style. Miller speaks of, “an ability to fuse content and style, subject-matter and expression, as did John Donne or Lancelot Andrewes.”

Ramists spoke of the unity of knowledge, but in practice they made a sharp division between logic and rhetoric, “a departmentalizing of the sciences.” Ramism was “mechanical and divisive. It made the arts not members of an organism but a puzzle of many pieces fitted ingeniously together.”8 Ramists “were taking the first steps... toward an eventual anarchy, where every science becomes an end in itself, detached from final references.” Thus, Ramism is part of “the emergence of a modern era,” part of “the whole intellectual drift of modern Europe.”

The Puritans were able to put together a comprehensive philosophy, a philosophy that gave them the confidence to face the future, and build a new world. But their philosophy may have over-rated reason, and under-rated the unconscious, so it couldn’t satisfy the whole person. This may explain why they couldn’t fuse style and content, and why their culture moved toward what Miller calls the anarchy of specialization. In our time, will we be able to put together a philosophy as comprehensive as the Puritan philosophy, with a more balanced view of human nature, and thus avoid specialization?

B. The Plain Style

Petrus Ramus divided everything into two, he had a penchant for dichotomies. Ramus and his friend Talon divided elocution into tropes and figures (figures were sometimes called “schemes”). A trope was a metaphor, simile, or parable, such as Jesus often uses in the New Testament (for example, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God”). A figure of speech was an artful arrangement of words, or repetition of words.

Miller says that Anglican sermons, such as the sermons of John Donne, “depended more for their effects upon figures than upon tropes; they were built upon the schemata of balance, antithesis, parallelism, and assonance in the sentence more than upon similes and metaphors in the words.”9 Conversely, Puritans preferred tropes to figures, perhaps because they were addressing a humbler audience. Puritans addressed the general public, and they wanted to be understood by the lowly, whereas Anglicans often addressed the academy or the court. Puritans disapproved of sermons “after the mode of the university... which was to stuff and fill their sermons with as much quotation and citing of authors as might possibly be.”10

Wikipedia distinguishes between tropes and figures, but it uses the term “schemes” instead of “figures.” Wikipedia says that schemes “vary the ordinary sequence or pattern of words.” An example would be “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” where “and” is repeated. Wikipedia says, “A type of trope is metaphor, describing one thing as something that it clearly is not, in order to lead the mind to compare them, as in ‘All the world’s a stage.’”

As an example of a figure/scheme, Miller cites one of Donne’s sermons: “Let the head be gold, and the arms silver, and the belly brass.” Miller speaks of, “Donne’s balance of head, arms, and belly, with gold, silver, and brass.”11 Donne uses repetition when he says, “All is but an image, all is but a dream of an image.... There must be bodies, men, and able bodies, able men.” An example of Donne’s use of parallelism: “A new earth, where all their waters are milk, and all their milk, honey; where all their grass is corn, and all their corn manna... where all their minutes are ages, and all their ages, eternity.”

The artful language of the Anglican preacher is a kind of prose poem, designed to stimulate an educated audience that might be bored by plain preaching. “John Donne declared that it was good art both ‘to deliver deep points in a holy plainness, and plain points in a holy delightfulness,’ because without the first the unlearned part of our auditory will not understand us, but without the second, ‘another part understands us before we begin, and so they are weary.’”12

The Anglican sermon is spiced with figures/schemes, with what Puritans chastised as “carnal eloquence.” Puritans admired plain speech, plain meat and potatoes, without spice. They wanted solid piety, solid learning, solid means-of-conversion. They wanted sermons that glorified God, and inspired the listener to mend his ways. They didn’t want sermons that glorified the preacher, that made the listener admire the preacher’s eloquence. They didn’t want sermons that were preoccupied with style, and forgot sense/meaning.

Puritans preferred humble metaphors to fancy figures. Thomas Hooker compares the resurrected body to an onion: “Take a great onion, and hang it up in the house, and it will grow bigger and bigger.”13 Likewise, the resurrected body is “no new body, but the same substance enlarged and increased.”

Another Puritan minister, John Cotton, used a humble metaphor to show how the saint and the hypocrite, though they might seem to resemble each other, eventually show their true colors, and go their separate ways: “When two men walk together, a dog follows them, you know not whose it is, but let them part, then the dog will follow his master.”14 So while the Anglican preacher speaks of gold and silver (“Let the head be gold, and the arms silver”), the Puritan preachers speak of dogs and onions.

Hooker used the metaphor of a fair: “Look as it is with a child that travels to a fair with his father... his eye is always upon his father: [his father] bids him do not gaze about and lose me, the child is careful to keep his father within sight and view, and then if he be weak and weary, his father can take him by the hand, and lead him, or take him into his arms and carry him.”15 Likewise, we should always keep our eye on God, and if we lose sight of God, it’s due to our own carelessness. A minister who was addressing a courtly or academic audience probably wouldn’t use the metaphor of a fair.

Puritan sermons were divided into doctrine, reasons, and uses, with reasons and uses in a numbered list; Puritan sermons had “the precision and restraint of a highly methodical form, a rigid dialectical structure.”16 Puritan preachers tried to convince their hearers with reasons, with logical arguments, they weren’t appealing only to emotion, and they weren’t creating a prose poem.

A Puritan minister’s first task was to translate a Biblical verse into a clear doctrine, to translate parables and poems into plain propositions. This was called the “opening” of a text.17 There were “metaphor dictionaries” that ministers could use to look up a Biblical metaphor, and translate it into “straight-forward prose.”18 A minister shouldn’t use any rhetoric when stating his doctrine, and little rhetoric in giving his reasons. But he could call upon metaphor and gesture when he was discussing uses/applications, when he was trying to be “the means of calling men to right conduct, of arousing them to a sense of sin and an abhorrence of evil.”19 Having worked on the listener’s mind, he would work on his emotions, too.

Puritans aimed to be plain-spoken, not artful, they aimed at clarity, not subtlety. Increase Mather said he was “very careful to be understood, and concealed every other art, that he might pursue and practice that one art of being intelligible.”20 “Let men if they please,” Mather said, “look on me as one that is of a low style, which indeed is what I affect.”21 Mather would have agreed with Orwell that good prose is as clear as a window-pane. Anglicans liked artful, figurative prose, just as they liked stained glass. Puritans smashed stained-glass windows, and despised ornate prose; such things keep out the Light — the Light of God, the Light of Truth.

Simplicity and clarity were the goals not only of Puritan preachers, but also of Puritan historians and poets. Puritan historians aimed “to chronicle the providence of God in the settlement of New England,” not to entertain the reader with verbal fireworks.22 Daniel Gookin, who wrote about NewEngland Indians, said that his writing was “not clothed in elegancy of words... but rather I have endeavored all plainness that I can, that the most vulgar capacity might understand, and be thereby excited to praise and glorify God.”23 Even private letters aimed to be plain and pious. Margaret Winthrop, wife of John Winthrop, praised one of his letters for being as good as a sermon.

The best poet in 17th-century New England, according to Miller, was Edward Taylor of Westfield, Massachusetts. Taylor’s writings were unpublished and unknown for more than 200 years. Taylor was a minister and a doctor, as well as a writer.

Miller says that the only other gifted poet from 17th-century New England was Anne Bradstreet. Bradstreet wrote, “I have not studied in this you read to show my skill, but to declare the truth — not to set forth myself, but the glory of God.”24 So the poet had the same goal as the preacher and the historian: to glorify God and edify the listener. Puritan literature wasn’t belles-lettres. “Poetry existed primarily for its utility,” Miller writes, “it was fore-doomed to didacticism.”25

Puritan style reflected Puritan beliefs. “The manner incarnated the thought,” Miller writes, “it reflected the spirit of the thinkers; the technique as well as the content of the writings exhibited the combination of deep religious passion and severe intellectual discipline which is the supreme characteristic of Puritanism.”26

5. “The Jewel in the Crown”

The Jewel in the Crown” (1984) is a 14-hour BBC series about the last years of British rule in India, and the transition to independence. It’s based on Paul Scott’s tetralogy, The Raj Quartet. It takes a negative view of the British role in India, and the Iago of the tale is a British official, Ronald Merrick. It isn’t chock full of romances, as “Downton Abbey” is, it’s a blend of history and romance. It’s more morbid than “Downton Abbey,” as in the scene where a young mother puts her own infant in a circle of fire. It has some beautiful scenes of lakes, hills, and the snow-capped Himalayas in the distance.

The DVD version has introductions by Alistair Cooke, and offers the option of subtitles. Cooke isn’t as critical of the British role in India as the TV series is. Cooke recommends a writer named James Cameron, who traveled the world as a journalist, then wrote books about several different countries, one of which was India.

© L. James Hammond 2020
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1. Wikipedia back
2. p. 301 back
3. p. 302. The sermons of Donne and other Anglicans were called “metaphysical,” just as Donne’s poetry was called “Metaphysical Poetry.” I noted earlier that “Puritans abandoned metaphysics altogether.”

Lancelot Andrewes played a leading role in making the King James Version of the Bible. Kurt Vonnegut called Andrewes the greatest writer in the English language, citing his translation of Psalm 23:

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.... Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” back

4. Miller says that radical Protestants were satirized by Samuel Butler in his poem Hudibras. Butler spoke of those who

Decide all Controversies by
Infallible Artillery;
And prove their Doctrine Orthodox
By Apostolic Blows and Knocks;
Call Fire and Sword and Desolation,
A godly-thorough-Reformation,
Which always must be carried on,
And still be doing, never done.

I’m reminded of China’s Cultural Revolution, when roving bands engaged in violence and vandalism, claiming to be “making revolution.” back

5. p. 309 back
6. p. 343 back
7. p. 326. Miller quotes Edward Taylor, a poet who lived in Westfield, Massachusetts:

The orator from Rhetoric gardens picks
His spangled flowers of sweet-breathed eloquence
Wherewith his oratory brisk he tricks.... back

8. p. 329 back
9. Ch. 12, p. 355 back
10. p. 331. The academy’s taste mattered because this was “an age when the intellectual life centered upon universities.”(p. 354) back
11. p. 358 back
12. p. 359 back
13. p. 357. “In a Puritan assembly the educated would not grow weary when plain points were not made delightful; educated Puritans did not find life that dull, and they were awakened not by elocution but by solidity and rationality.”(p. 359) back
14. p. 357 back
15. p. 357 back
16. p. 334. “The Puritan form of the sermon,” Miller writes, “[was] altogether congenial to Ramist ways of thinking.”(p. 339) “It was, obviously, impossible to be a Ramist and still preach like John Donne; to English Puritans it seemed impossible, once they had become Ramists, to preach otherwise than in doctrines, reasons, and uses.”(p. 345)

Puritan preachers didn’t just express what was in their heart. It was said that John Eliot “liked no preaching, but what had been well studied for.... Cotton Mather said proudly of [his grandfather] John Cotton, his ‘composures all smelt of the lamp,’ and so also, by deliberate intention, did those of every New England preacher in the seventeenth century.”(p. 352) back

17. p. 344 back
18. p. 343 back
19. p. 347 back
20. p. 358 back
21. p. 350 back
22. p. 360 back
23. p. 360 back
24. pp. 361, 362 back
25. p. 360 back
26. p. 362 back