Saturday, January 9, 2010

From My Reading

It was my intention over the break to turn the energies of my reading and writing to secular matters, having been so totally occupied at seminary with Biblical and Theological exercises. The reading, for what it was, proved pleasurable, but the writing bore nothing full-formed for all its travail. I present you, therefore, gentle reader, some quotations from my holiday studies, with occasional commentary.

"The serf belongs to the land and turns over to the owner of the land the fruits thereof. The free labourer, on the other hand, sells himself and, indeed, sells himself piecemeal. He sells at auction eight, ten, twelve, fifteen hours of his life, day after day, to the highest bidder, to the owner of the raw materials, instruments of labour and means of subsistence, that is, to the capitalist. The worker belongs neither to an owner nor to the land, but eight, ten, twelve, fifteen hours of his daily life belong to him who buys them. The worker leaves the capitalist to whom he hires himself whenever he likes, and the capitalist discharges him whenever he thinks fit, as soon as he no longer gets any profit out of him, or not the anticipated profit. But the worker, whose sole source of livelihood is the sale of his labour power, cannot leave the whole class of purchases, that is, the capitalist class, without renouncing his existence. He belongs not to this or that capitalist but to the capitalist class, and, moreover, it is his business to dispose of himself, that is, to find a purchaser within this capitalist class."
-Karl Marx, "Wage Labour and Capital"

Notice how Marx accurately describes the worker's refusing to participate in capitalist production as renouncing his existence--"Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it." (Mark 8:34-35)
Are the growth of productive capital and the rise of wages really so inseparably connected as the bourgeois economists maintain? We must not take their word for it. We must not even believe them when they say that the fatter capital is, the better will its slave be fed. The bourgeoisie is too enlightened, it calculates too well, to share the prejudices of the feudal lord who makes a display by the brilliance of his retinue. The the bourgeoisie's conditions of existence compel it to calculate.
I would express the whole industry [the historical criticism of Beowulf] in yet another allegory. A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distant forefathers had obtained their building material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal beneath the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: ‘This tower is most interesting.’ But they also said (after pushing it over): ‘What a muddle it is in.’ And even the man’s own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: ‘He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.’ But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.
-J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Monsters and the Critics"

What Tolkien says here is certainly applicable to all instances of historical criticism, that of scripture not least.
And you, do you seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them; for I am going to bring disaster upon all flesh, says the LORD; but I will give you your life as a prize of war in every place to which you may go.
-Jeremiah 45:5

It strikes me that this verse contains in many ways the heart of the gospel.
Being in company with a gentleman who thought fit to maintain Dr. Berkeley’s ingenious philosophy that nothing exists but as perceived by some mind; when the gentleman was going away, Johnson said to him, “Pray, Sir, don’t leave us; for we may perhaps forget to think of you, and then you will cease to exist.”
-From the Langton Johnsoniana in Boswell's Life of Johnson

A sentiment with which our next author would certainly agree.
“At that word we both thought of him.” Let us assume that each of us said the same words to himself—and how can it mean MORE than that?—But wouldn’t even those words be only a germ? They must surely belong to a language and to a context, in order really to be the expression of the thought of the man.

If God had looked into our minds he would not have been able to see there whom we were speaking of.
-Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations II.xi

Wittgenstein's plainness is as often an obstruction to his clarity as it is an aid. But it is the peppering of his philosophy with oracular utterances such as this that allows him to be read with pleasure.
'Tis not a freedom, that where all command;
Nor tyranny, where one does them withstand:
But who of both the bounders knows to lay,
Him as their father must the state obey.
-Andrew Marvell, "The First Anniversary of the Government under his Highness the Lord Protector"

The second couplet has not the ease of the first, and may be paraphrased thus: "But the state must obey as a father the man who knows to put limits on both the one and the many."
If America ever approached (for however brief a time) that lofty pinnacle of glory to which the proud imagination of its inhabitants is wont to point, it was at this solemn moment[the framing of the Constitution], when the national power abdicated, as it were, its authority. All ages have furnished the spectacle of a people struggling with energy to win its independence, and the efforts of the Americans in throwing off the English yoke have been considerably exaggerated. Separated from their enemies by three thousand miles of ocean, and backed by a powerful ally, the United States owed their victory much more to their geographical position than to the valor of their armies or the patriotism of their citizens. It would be ridiculous to compare the American war to the wars of the French Revolution, or the efforts of the Americans to those of the French when France, attacked by the whole of Europe, without money, without credit, without allies, threw forward a twentieth part of her population to meet her enemies and with one hand carried the torch of revolution beyond the frontiers, while she stifled with the other a flame that was devouring the country within. But it is new in the history of society to see a great people turn a calm and scrutinizing eye upon itself when apprised by the legislature that the wheels of its government are stopped, to see it carefully examine the extent of the evil, and patiently wait two whole years until a remedy is discovered, to which it voluntarily submitted without its costing a tear or a drop of blood from mankind.
-Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America I.I.VIII

A just appraisal. America has never seen a nobler generation than that which founded her. The outrage of lawless insurrection will always hang over them, but it is a testament to their character that a group of men which gained power so basely, and who therefore treated the guides of civil society with utmost contempt, should have governed on the highest principles of virtue.