Wheel of Fortuna

September 11, 2008

In college, I read Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy to gain some general intellectual background to Chaucer and medieval literature.  I liked it quite a lot then, and lately, it seems to be cropping up here and there (including as the philosophical inspiration to the protaganist of that entertaining and vastly overrated work, The Confederacy of Dunces) so once again I am reading the last work of that unfortunate man.  It’s as good as I remember it!

I really like the way the piece gets right to the heart of the matter.  He’s sitting in prison, unjustly accused, wailing “Woe is me!” when a colossal figure of Ms. Philosophia comes for a visit.  She wastes no time in pointing out to him that if he were really a philosophical chap, he would realize that if he is the victim of evil men, it’s only because he permits himself to be!

Mr. B is generally regarded as one of the most influential writers of the Middle Ages.  That is, he was the “last of the Romans, and the first of the Scholastics,” living in the late 5th Century A.D. under the Ostrogoth successors to the Latin Roman Emperors.  His works were among the most quoted, copied, and taught in the medieval period. He was from an illustrious family, had a brilliant career, a highborn wife, two successful sons, but he ended up being tortured to death in prison by a Barbarian king whom he had pissed off for some reason.  As the late, great Kurt Vonnegut would have put it, “So it goes…

And that, to be perfectly serious, is part of the message of the The Consolation.  The Wheel of Fortune, so beloved by TV viewers, got its send off into the Middle Ages with Boethius’ work.  I am up, up UP! shouts the king on top…while on the other side the deposed ruler laments, I am down Down, DOWN!  ‘Round and round, and nobody knows where it will stop – it never stops.

As an interpreter and popularizer of Platonic thinking, Boethius, a Christian, elaborated the explanation of how evil can exist in a world ruled by an all powerful God that was begun by Augustine.  This is called theodicy, not to be confused with idiocy. Of course, it turns out that evil doesn’t really exist.

Mr. B. had another argument that I thought was in The Consolation, but which I read in his book on music, it turns out.  All of you high-brow critics will love it:

Boethius points out that there are three types of people who concern themselves with music: theorists, composers, and performers. Of these, the performers are excluded from true musical understanding, … “They … act as slaves, without reasoning or thinking”. The composers, or poets, “compose more with their natural instinct than through the exercise of thought or reason”, but the theorist, on the other hand, “is entirely devoted to reason and thought…”

Boethius draws the conclusion that the theorist is the highest of the three, alone worthy of the name “musician…”

from Boethius’ Three Musicisans

Those who can do, those who cannot become critics…


Running Dog Lackeys of the Counter Factualist Scourge

March 10, 2005

When I was young, arrogant, foolish, and studying philosophy at a pompous university, I coined the term, “running dog lackeys of the empiricist scourge” to express my derision for the narrow minded approach to analysis that gripped the Anglo-American philosophical scene. It seems I may have to update my epithet to the title of this post.  Why, you ask? This morning, I heard an interview on NPR with Dr. Townes, the Nobel-Prize winning physicist known for his work on LASER and MASER technology. He has also written a ‘famous’ essay (I ain’t hoid of it!) on why science and religion must converge. One of the arrows in his quiver is the obvious fact that scientists have revelations.

Science makes no claim as to how its ideas orginate. They can pop into peoples’ minds when they’re on the toilet, making love, picking their noses, or deeply engaged in experimental work. Difference is, when a prophet has a revelation, he starts a cult and maybe tries to conquer the world, order his followers to commit mass suicide, or maybe, we hope, something more benign. A scientist will publish his results, and if nobody can replicate them, his great revelation finds itself in the dustbin along with other wonderful and not so wonderful ideas. It’s an important point, and one which I am sure Dr. Townes understands fully.

More to my point was the part of the interview in which Townes ‘clarified’ the notion of intelligent design for his interviewer who defined it as the idea that the universe is so complicated that somebody had to design it. No, it’s not just that: It’s that if things had been “just a little bit different,” we wouldn’t be here to mumble on about it. Well, big deal! That’s the counter-factualist scourge in all its glory!

If things had been different…If I had wings, I could fly…if Mommy hadn’t met Daddy, I wouldn’t be here. Well, if things had been different, perhaps something else would be here wondering what would have been if things had been different. Or, if things had been diffferent, maybe nothing would be different now, except that some things had been different. It’s just as probable as what Townes is saying. Perhaps if some important things had not been the case, other things would have been the case, and it would have all evened out. How can we know? How can we even speculate about it without getting into sci-fi, fairy tale nonsense? It all seems so necessary and determined after the fact, as I have outlined in my earlier post on free will where I put forth Lichanos’ Iron Law of Historical Causation: Everything happened as it did because that’s what happened. I don’t like to quote Wittgenstein, but as he said in the Tractatus, “The universe is everything that is the case.” Doesn’t say squat about what is not the case. Or what would be the case if other things had not been the case. There is only what is now, which is the result of what was, in other words, karma.

We are so self-centered, we insist on seeing the universe as a machine or a process that has been bent, all along, on producing us. This severely distorts our thinking.