What shall I do? Why shall I do it? These are questions which human beings have been asking for thousands of years, and many have believed that some choices are right and others wrong. In the early twentieth century, however, the biologist Jacques Loeb argued against right and wrong as motivators for our actions:
If our existence is based on the play of blind forces and only a matter of chance; if we ourselves are only chemical mechanisms, how can there be an ethics for us? The answer is that our instincts are the root of our ethics and that the instincts are just as hereditary as is the form of our body. We eat, drink and reproduce not because mankind has reached an agreement that this is desirable, but because, machine-like, we are compelled to do so. The mother loves and cares for her children not because metaphysics had the idea that this was desirable, but because the instinct of taking care of the young is inherited. We struggle for justice and truth since we are instinctively compelled to see our fellow beings happy.Jacques Loeb, quoted on page 11 of Life Itself, by Boyce Rensberger
Well, it has been a while, hasn’t it? Alas, I have moral and rational objections to excuse-making, and so can but apologize for my online indiligence. Having returned, I will tell you that I plan to be more returned, with this summer’s posting plans including, perhaps, some short fiction and excerpts from my 11th grade exam. Yes: 11th grad exam. Good gracious! I have only one more year of homeschool between me and college… oh dear, oh dear, oh dearie dear.
But no more dithering. Here is one of my Literature exam compositions, fruit of probably the most successful forty minutes in my exam, with its prompt:
- Write a note to a friend to encourage them to attempt the challenge of reading Les Miserables.
My dear friend,
Tacitus’ Annals make for a rather depressing read. They tell of wicked person after wicked person, of men and women consumed by lust for pleasure, power, and wealth, caring nothing for what is right. Private murders and murders through false legal cases abound. Those in authority are either corrupted in their own right or so weak, like the emperor Claudius, that they allow others to be the real rulers. Vice and greed seem to be the norm, from the imperial palace through Rome and out to the eastern provinces and subject states. I have recently read of very, very few upstanding figures in Tacitus, and they are far overshadowed by the bad ones. Oh, how fallen, how changed, the Rome of the Annals is from the Rome of Livy’s early History. Where is Horatius now? Where Mucius? Where Cloelia? Where Cincinnatus?
Livy’s history, indeed, has its dark spots as well as its light. His noble, brave, virtuous characters are needed because of base, cowardly, vice-filled actions. To Lucretia there is Sextus Tarquin; Brutus’ own children turn traitor; and I think there are few things more against the Roman honor and ideals than the young men going up into the capitol and leaving their aged and unnecessary fathers behind them to welcome the barbarians. But even in his darkest places, Livy gives us examples of virtue to love and rejoice over as well as examples of vice to abhor. Tacitus’ Rome, on the other hand, seems to be made up only of Tarquins and Tullias.
On Thursday morning, there was a great deal of smoke in the air—so much smoke that when the sun rose, we could look at it. Not just when the sun’s edge was a golden gem on the horizon, glittering through the trees: when it was half an hour up, we could still look at it, like a dull red light in the grey sky. It was small, strangely and almost frighteningly small, when it was revealed to be only the apparent size of the moon.
But it reminded me of the physiological impossibility Plato describes in the Allegory of the Cave. In this allegory, Plato tells of a people trapped inside a cave, able to see only shadows on the cave’s wall. One of these prisoners is freed, and forced to turn so that he can see the fire and puppets which were making the shadows. At first, though, he is dazzled by the fire, and does not believe that the puppets are half so real as the shadows he has known all his life. Yet despite his resistance, he is brought up out of the cave and into the daylight. Gradually, he is able to see the things of the upper world; shadows first, later things in moonlight, and at last the sunlit world. Then, says Plato,
Last of all, he would be able to look at the Sun and contemplate its nature, not as it appears when reflected in water or any alien medium, but as it is itself in its own domain.Plato, The Republic, Book VII, trans. Francis MacDonald Cornford
According to my mother, there are people who think that, because they have seen the Narnia movies, they do not need to read the books. They know what happened. After all, it’s not as if the White Witch wins in the book, or a major good character dies. Mrs. Beaver does come out better by a sewing machine in the book—but that sort of thing hardly seems important enough to change that once you have watched the movie, you don’t really need to read the book.
Viewing this as very untrue, my brother and I have the opposite problem. While recently watching the movie versions of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, we have never quite suspended our criticism: I think it is part of our Vanderpol Family Pride and the way that we consider ourselves as seeing books. Throughout both movies, we have been commenting to each other, our eyes often meeting as we both react to the same egregious incident—‘That’s not the way it really happened!’ ‘What are the Death Eaters doing? They can’t fly without broomsticks!’ ‘It wasn’t like that!’ ‘The Witch’s castle isn’t that close to the Beavers’ house!’ ‘Peter wouldn’t say that!’ ‘It wasn’t Cho—that was completely unnecessary!’ ‘That definitely—did—not—happen in the book!’ ‘They skipped good stuff there!’ ‘Not polar bears!’
Grandpa Gary recently found a newspaper article which he thought might interest me, an article about an essay contest sponsored by the Nevada County Bar Association. The annual contest is open to all Nevada County high school students. This year’s topic is the separation of powers as framework for freedom, with an emphasis on party affairs. They gave some questions to consider, and on Monday (that being the due date), I set to work on some brainstorming. The prompt page gave some questions to guide essay development, and I tried writing down a short answer to each. When I came back after doing math, there seemed to be most promise in the question about whether our political muddle would be assuaged by reallocating senators based on population.
Eliminating the electoral college or reallocating senators by population would decidedly not help. If we did this, the states wouldn’t all be as represented. The large states would be in control of all the government, leaving the small states with little say. Whatever parties were dominant in them would have the power—it wouldn’t really matter what parties were dominant in small states like Rhode Island.
“Come in,” said the Bishop.Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, pages 85 and 86
The door opened. A singular and violent group made its appearance on the threshold. Three men were holding a fourth man by the collar. The three men were gendarmes; the other was Jean Valjean.
“Ah! here you are!” he exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. “I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?”
Jean Valjean opened his eyes wide, and stared at the venerable Bishop with an expression which no human tongue can render any account of.
Jean Valjean stole the bishop’s silver while the bishop’s guest. In the morning, he is arrested and brought back to the bishop. And before Valjean is even accused of stealing the silverware, the bishop gives the thief silver candlesticks as well.
This of the bishop’s is assuredly a very unjust act.
True, the Lord says: “But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” (Matthew 5:39-41). But isn’t this a direction for behavior in the face of adversity—not of restitution?
“Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire,” the gold casket says. “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves,” says the silver casket. “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he has,” says the lead casket. (II.VII, 5,7,9) The portrait of Portia, a beautiful and wealthy young noblewoman, lies in one of these caskets; if a suitor picks that casket, he weds her, but if he choose another, he must forswear marriage forever. Besides finding Portia’s husband, the caskets illustrate different ways – gilded but false, or true as a plumbed line – of looking at love.
Not all great men are good men: and as portrayed by Shakespeare in the play which bears his name, Richard III illustrates this excellently. In his first speech, laying out the setting of the play, Richard declares his intention “to prove a villain” and calls himself “subtle, false, and treacherous” (I.I, 30; 37). But this is only for the audience: when he interacts with the other characters, Richard wears a mask of plainness, gentleness, and honest loyalty—as he says, “I … seem a saint when most I play the devil.” (I.II, 337). He can lie, deceive, and murder his way into near-absolute power without blinking an eye except to shed hypocritical tears. He is skillfull and poised, walking, when he needs to, a knife’s edge such as that he dares when he bids Anne tell him to kill himself. By his own and the world’s standards, he is very successful; enough, I think, that he can be termed a great, if not a verily great, man.
After following Henry V with some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, we read King Lear in my class through Roman Roads Media. I was assigned a “reading response” to each of these—I’ve posted the one about Henry V. The guideline about length is to make our responses 400-500 words long, and I had a hard time bringing my piece about the sonnets up to that. Once I’d found my subject(s) about King Lear, though, I had the opposite problem… I had to keep pruning comments and quotes I wanted to include, and if you subtract the words counted for line citations and count words typed like “[S]erve” as one word, this comes to exactly 500 words!
Besides the Fool, whose task is providing pithy commentary, there are three types of significant characters in King Lear: the all-out good, such as Cordelia, Kent, and Edgar; the all-out evil, such as Edmund, Goneril, and Regan; and those who intend good but do not properly use authority and/or discernment – Lear, Albany, and Gloucester.
You cannot get rid of Cordelia, Kent, or Edgar, no matter how hard you try. Disown them. Dismiss them. Put bounties on their heads. They’re coming back. These characters are the Christ-figures in the play, people who come back to those whom they love, even after being rejected, as God keeps coming back to us. “[S]erve where thou dost stand condemn’d,” Kent tells himself, mentioning “thy master, whom thou lov’st.” (I.IV, 5,6)