Useful work versus useless toil

First page of Morris’s Note (1898) on the founding of the Kelmscott Press

From William Morris’s Useful Work versus Useless Toil, first given as a lecture in 1884:

The above title may strike some of my readers as strange. It is assumed by most people nowadays that all work is useful, and by most well-to-do people that all work is desirable. Most people, well-to-do or not, believe that, even when a man is doing work which appears to be useless, he is earning his livelihood by it—he is “employed,” as the phrase goes; and most of those who are well-to-do cheer on the happy worker with congratulations and praises, if he is only “industrious” enough and deprives himself of all pleasure and holidays in the sacred cause of labour. In short, it has become an article of the creed of modern morality that all labour is good in itself—a convenient belief to those who live on the labour of others. But as to those on whom they live, I recommend them not to take it on trust, but to look into the matter a little deeper.

Let us grant, first, that the race of man must either labour or perish. Nature does not give us our livelihood gratis; we must win it by toil of some sort of degree. Let us see, then, if she does not give us some compensation for this compulsion to labour, since certainly in other matters she takes care to make the acts necessary to the continuance of life in the individual and the race not only endurable, but even pleasurable.

You may be sure that she does so, that it is of the nature of man, when he is not diseased, to take pleasure in his work under certain conditions. And, yet, we must say in the teeth of the hypocritical praise of all labour, whatsoever it may be, of which I have made mention, that there is some labour which is so far from being a blessing that it is a curse; that it would be better for the community and for the worker if the latter were to fold his hands and refuse to work, and either die or let us pack him off to the workhouse or prison—which you will.

Here, you see, are two kinds of work—one good, the other bad; one not far removed from a blessing, a lightening of life; the other a mere curse, a burden to life.

What is the difference between them, then? This: one has hope in it, the other has not. It is manly to do the one kind of work, and manly also to refuse to do the other.

What is the nature of the hope which, when it is present in work, makes it worth doing?

It is threefold, I think—hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure in the work itself; and hope of these also in some abundance and of good quality; rest enough and good enough to be worth having; product worth having by one who is neither a fool nor an ascetic; pleasure enough for all for us to be conscious of it while we are at work; not a mere habit, the loss of which we shall feel as a fidgety man feels the loss of the bit of string he fidgets with.

I have put the hope of rest first because it is the simplest and most natural part of our hope. Whatever pleasure there is in some work, there is certainly some pain in all work, the beast-like pain of stirring up our slumbering energies to action, the beast-like dread of change when things are pretty well with us; and the compensation for this animal pain is animal rest. We must feel while we are working that the time will come when we shall not have to work. Also the rest, when it comes, must be long enough to allow us to enjoy it; it must be longer than is merely necessary for us to recover the strength we have expended in working, and it must be animal rest also in this, that it must not be disturbed by anxiety, else we shall not be able to enjoy it. If we have this amount and kind of rest we shall, so far, be no worse off than the beasts.

As to the hope of product, I have said that Nature compels us to work for that. It remains for us to look to it that we do really produce something, and not nothing, or at least nothing that we want or are allowed to use. If we look to this and use our wills we shall, so far, be better than machines.

The hope of pleasure in the work itself: how strange that hope must seem to some of my readers—to most of them! Yet I think that to all living things there is a pleasure in the exercise of their energies, and that even beasts rejoice in being lithe and swift and strong. But a man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body. Memory and imagination help him as he works. Not only his own thoughts, but the thoughts of the men of past ages guide his hands; and, as a part of the human race, he creates. If we work thus we shall be men, and our days will be happy and eventful.

Thus worthy work carries with it the hope of pleasure in rest, the hope of pleasure in our using what it makes, and the hope of pleasure in our daily creative skill.

All other work but this is worthless; it is slaves’ work—mere toiling to live, that we may live to toil.

Morris seems to have been particularly fond of the idea of “pleasure in the work itself”: he uses the phrase again some years later in his review of Bellamy’s Looking Backward. We are familiar with the pleasure he took in his textiles and illustration, but I like to think especially of the pleasure he took in printing books.

Colophon of the Kelmscott Press

The acid of proof, the fire of criticism

The opening two paragraphs of Octavio Paz’s “Knowledge, Drugs, Inspiration,” in Alternating Currents, translated by Helen Lane:

There is more than one similarity between modern poetry and science. Both are experiments, in the sense of “testing in a laboratory”: an attempt is made to produce a certain phenomenon through the separation or combination of certain elements which the experimenter has either subjected to the pressure of some outward force or left to develop according to the laws of their own nature. This operation takes place in a closed space, in the most complete isolation possible. The poet deals with words as the scientist deals with cells, atoms, and other material particles: he extracts them from their natural medium, everyday language, isolates them in a sort of vacuum chamber, combines them or separates them; he observes and uses the properties of language as the scientific researcher observes and uses the properties of matter. The analogy might be carried further, but it is pointless to do so because the similarity lies not so much in the outward resemblances between verbal manipulations and laboratory testing as in the attitude toward the object.

As he writes, as he tests his ideas and his words, the poet does not know precisely what is going to happen. His attitude toward the poem is empirical. Unlike the religion believer, he is not attempting to confirm a revealed truth; unlike the mystic, he is not endeavoring to become one with a transcendent reality; unlike the ideologue, he is not trying to demonstrate a theory. The poet does not postulate or affirm anything a priori; he knows that what counts is not ideas but results, not intentions but works. Isn’t this the same attitude as that of the scientist? Poetry and science do not imply a total rejection of prior conceptions and intuitions. But theories (“working hypotheses”) are not what justify experiments; rather, the converse is true. Sometimes the “testing” produces results that are different from or entirely contrary to our expectations. The poet and the scientist do not find this difficult to accept; both are resigned to the fact that reality often acts quite independently of our philosophy. Poets and scientists are not doctrinaires; they do not offer us a priori systems but proven facts, results rather than hypotheses, works rather than ideas. The truths they seek are different but they employ similar methods to ascertain them. The rigorous procedures they follow are accompanied by the strictest objectivity, that is to say, a respect for the autonomy of the phenomenon being investigated. A poem and a scientific truth are something more than a theory or a belief: they have withstood the acid of proof and the fire of criticism. Poems and scientific truths are something quite different from the ideas of poets and scientists. Artistic style and the philosophy of science are transient things; works of art and the real truths of science are not.

There’s a whole university curriculum embedded in these two paragraphs. One course it contains is a study of modern poetry. The accent falls indeed on modern: these are not axioms poets of earlier periods (or later, for that matter) would endorse—the anti-expressionism, the emphasis on “objectivity,” the talk of the “object,” the repudiation of religious and mystical fervor (cf. Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” T. E. Hulme’s rejection of romanticism as “spilt religion“), and of course the willingness to draw an analogy to science in the first place.

That comparison is a whole genre unto itself. Sometimes it takes the form of a concrete image; I think first of Eliot’s chemical imagery in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1921):

It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science. I shall, therefore, invite you to consider, as a suggestive analogy, the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide.


The analogy was that of the catalyst. When the two gases previously mentioned are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum. It may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.

In the “Defence of Poetry” (1840) Shelley mixes a proto-modernist discourse of impersonality with an older tradition of ecstatic inspiration—the poet as the vehicle of the muse, or of his own inner, inscrutable genius, in either case the body of a force he does not control—in the image of the fading coal:

Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought; it is that from which all spring, and that which adorns all; and that which, if blighted, denies the fruit and the seed, and withholds from the barren world the nourishment and the succession of the scions of the tree of life. It is the perfect and consummate surface and bloom of all things; it is as the odor and the color of the rose to the texture of the elements which compose it, as the form and splendor of unfaded beauty to the secrets of anatomy and corruption. What were virtue, love, patriotism, friendship—what were the scenery of this beautiful universe which we inhabit; what were our consolations on this side of the grave—and what were our aspirations beyond it, if poetry did not ascend to bring light and fire from those eternal regions where the owl-winged faculty of calculation dare not ever soar? Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. Could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the results; but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.

In a different direction, Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry (1949) can be read as one long meditation on the relation between poetry and science.

Then there is the talk of “ideas.” Even among (American) modern poets there are detractors. On one side Paz might find an ally in the William Carlos William line, those poets who demand “No ideas but in things.” And Eliot had written in memory of Henry James in 1918 in the The Little Review:

He was a critic who preyed not upon ideas, but upon living beings. […] It is in the chemistry of these subtle substances, these curious precipitates and explosive gases which are suddenly formed by the contact of mind with mind, that James is unequalled. […] James’s critical genius comes out most tellingly in his mastery over, his baffling escape from, Ideas; a mastery and escape which are perhaps the last test of a superior intelligence. He had a mind so fine no idea could violate it.

On the other side there is the Wallace Stevens line, those for whom “It must be abstract.” (Though at times Stevens is quite fond of things, as in “Man Carrying Thing,” where the poem “must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.” Elsewhere he puts the whole planet on a table.)

Another generative strain of thinking in the passage from Paz is the question of testing one’s words. Testing them against what, Paz doesn’t say—but this is a productive ambiguity. Eliot, again, gives one meaning, in an essay on George Herbert in the Spectator (1932), though it departs from Paz, and indeed from much of modernity, in its talk of feeling and sincerity, and its look back to a prior tradition of religious verse:

All poetry is difficult, almost impossible to write: and one the great permanent causes of error in writing poetry is the difficulty of distinguishing between what one really feels and what one would like to feel, and between the moments of genuine feeling and the moments of falsity. This is a danger in all poetry: but it is a particularly grave danger in the writing of devotional verse. Above that level of attainment of the spiritual life, below which there is no desire to write religious verse, it becomes extremely difficult not to confuse accomplishment with intention, a condition at which one merely aims with the condition in which one actually lives, what one would be with what one is: and verse which represents only good intentions is worthless—on that plane, indeed, a betrayal. The greater the elevation, the finer becomes the difference between sincerity and insincerity, between reality and the unattained aspiration.

The acid test of concepts

A striking passage from Frege’s unpublished essay “Boole’s logical calculus and the concept-script,” which he submitted in 1881 first to Zeitschrift für Mathematik und Physik, then the Mathematischen Annalen, and finally the Zeitschrift für Philosophie und philophische Kritik, but was rejected each time:

I now return once more to the examples mentioned earlier, so as to point out the sort of concept formation that is to be seen in those accounts. The fourth example gives us the concept of a multiple of 4 […]. The eighth example gives us the concept of the congruence of two numbers with respect to a modulus, the 13th that of the continuity of a function at a point etc. All these concepts have been developed in science and have proved their fruitfulness. For this reason what we may discover in them has a far higher claim on our attention than anything that our everyday trains of thought might offer. For fruitfulness is the acid test of concepts, and scientific workshops the true field of study for logic.

This is pp. 32-33 in the translation by Peter Long and Roger White, with the assistance of Raymond Hargreaves, in Posthumous Writings, edited by Hans Hermes et al (Blackwell, 1979).

This remains one of the lesser appreciated themes in Frege’s work. The standard fare in a philosophy major mentions sense and reference, concept and anti-psychologism, but I’d bet even very few working philosophers are familiar with these suggestive passages on fruitfulness. Of course, every time I read the word I can only think of Keats, on autumn: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…”

Some helpful discussions appear in:

  • Jamie Tappenden, “Fruitfulness as a Theme in the Philosophy of Mathematics,” The Journal of Philosophy (2012)
  • Jamie Tappenden, “The Mathematical and Logical Background to Analytic Philosophy,” The Oxford Handbook of the History of Analytic Philosophy
  • Jamie Tappenden, “Extending knowledge and ‘fruitful concepts’: Fregean themes in the philosophy of mathematics,” in Gottlob Frege: Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers, Vol. III, Frege’s philosophy of mathematics, edited by Michael Beany and Erich Reck

It’s rapture that counts

From Ashbery’s poem “So Many Lives,” in A Wave: Poems:

It’s rapture that counts, and what little
There is of it is seldom aboveboard

First encountered some years ago in Philip Lopate’s introduction to Rudy Burckhardt.

The lines remind me of these from Auden’s “Orpheus”:

What does the song hope for? And the moved hands
A little way from the birds, the shy, the delightful?
To be bewildered and happy,
Or most of all the knowledge of life?

But the beautiful are content with the sharp notes of the air;
The warmth is enough. O if winter really
Oppose, if the weak snowflake,
What will the wish, what will the dance do?

The rise and fall of therapeutic rationality

This ProPublica story—not just the spread of disinformation about these drugs, but specifically doctors’ complicity in generating runs and shortages, endangering patients who need them for chronic diseases such as lupus—reminds me of what the physician-historian Scott Podolsky calls a “pyrrhic victory” in the battle over “therapeutic rationality” in his wonderful book The Antibiotic Era: Reform, Resistance, and the Pursuit of a Rational Therapeutics—which anyone interested in the history or philosophy of medical evidence should go read immediately.

Podolsky shows that in the 1970s a powerful backlash from a coalition of doctors and pharmaceutical companies against the FDA’s new power to regulate drugs helped ensure we have no robust, centralized public oversight of prescription practices. (If you’re surprised to see doctors opposing what you think of as the public good, you’ll be even more surprised to read about their opposition to universal health insurance in Paul Starr’s The Social Transformation of American Medicine: The Rise of a Sovereign Profession and the Making of a Vast Industry.)

Here’s how Podolsky puts it:

The limits to government encroachment on the prescribing of antibiotics in the United States would be reached with Panalba and the fixed-dose combination antibiotics. While the FDA had been empowered to remove seemingly ‘irrational’ drugs from the marketplace, no one had been empowered to rein in the seemingly inappropriate prescribing of appropriate drugs. The 1970s would witness ongoing professional and government attention given to the increasingly quantified prevalence of ‘irrational’ antibiotic prescribing and its consequences, and such attention would in fact lead to attempts to restrain such prescribing through both educational and regulatory measures. The DESI process, though, had generated a vocal backlash against centralized attempts to further delimit individual antibiotic prescribing behavior in the United States, resulting in generally failed attempts to control prescribing at local, let alone regional or national, levels in the United States.

In the case of antibiotics, the result has been decades of promiscuous prescription, as overuse of antibacterials helped to breed a new generation of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs”—at the very same time that pharmaceutical companies, deciding that these drugs weren’t profitable, stopped trying to develop new ones. We thus have very few antibiotics to take the place of the ones that no longer work, even though isolated voices have been sounding the alarm all along—just as others have regarding pandemics. (Obama’s administration not only put in place a pandemic response team that Trump’s administration dismantled. It also developed a “National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistance Bacteria.”) This is maybe the least familiar massive negative market externality of our time. Another result of such promiscuous prescription is much better known: we call it the opioid crisis.

However you view the FDA today—emblem of consumer protection or bureaucratic mismanagement, regulatory capture or government barrier to innovation, success story or failure—there is no question that public oversight of drugs is important and that it is high time to rethink how we regulate prescriptions, too.

The extreme brevity of financial memory

From the second chapter of John Kenneth Galbraith’s A Short History of Financial Euphoria (1990):

Contributing to and supporting this euphoria are two further factors little noticed in our time or in past times. The first is the extreme brevity of the financial memory. In consequence, financial disaster is quickly forgotten. In further consequence, when the same or closely similar circumstances occur again, sometimes in only a few years, they are hailed by a new, often youthful, and always supremely self-confident generation as a brilliantly innovative discovery in the financial and larger economic world. There can be few fields of human endeavor in which history counts so little as in the world of finance. Past experience, to the extent that it is part of memory at all, is dismissed as the primitive refuge of those who do not have the insight to appreciate the incredible wonders of the present.

The second factor contributing to speculative euphoria and programmed collapse is the specious association of money and intelligence. Mention of this is not a formula for eliciting reputable applause, but, alas, it must be accepted, for acceptance is also highly useful, a major protection against personal or institutional disaster.

The basic situation is wonderfully clear. In all free-enterprise (once called capitalist) attitudes there is a strong tendency to believe that the more money, either as income or assets, of which an individual is possessed or with which he is associated, the deeper and more compelling his economic and social perception, the more astute and penetrating his mental processes. Money is the measure of capitalist achievement. The more money, the greater the achievement and the intelligence that supports it.

Further, in a world where for many the acquisition of money is difficult and the resulting sums palpably insufficient, the possession of it in large amount seems a miracle. Accordingly, possession must be associated with some special genius. This view is then reinforced by the air of self-confidence and self-approval that is commonly assumed by the affluent.

Facts which there can be no mistaking

How disorienting to read the opening of Henry George’s Progress and Poverty (1879), apparently the best selling book of late nineteenth-century America after the Bible, as if it weren’t written today:

The present century has been marked by a prodigious increase in wealth-producing power. The utilization of steam and electricity, the introduction of improved processes and labor-saving machinery, the greater subdivision and grander scale of production, the wonderful facilitation of exchanges, have multiplied enormously the effectiveness of labor.

At the beginning of this marvelous era it was natural to expect, and it was expected, that labor-saving inventions would lighten the toil and improve the condition of the laborer; that the enormous increase in the power of producing wealth would make real poverty a thing of the past. Could a man of the last century—a Franklin or a Priestley—have seen, in a vision of the future, the steamship taking the place of the sailing vessel, the railroad train of the wagon, the reaping machine of the scythe, the threshing machine of the flail; could he have heard the throb of the engines that in obedience to human will, and for the satisfaction of human desire, exert a power greater than that of all the men and all the beasts of burden of the earth combined; could he have seen the forest tree transformed into finished lumber—into doors, sashes, blinds, boxes or barrels, with hardly the touch of a human hand; the great workshops where boots and shoes are turned out by the case with less labor than the old-fashioned cobbler could have put on a sole; the factories where, under the eye of a girl, cotton becomes cloth faster than hundreds of stalwart weavers could have turned it out with their handlooms; could he have seen steam hammers shaping mammoth shafts and mighty anchors, and delicate machinery making tiny watches; the diamond drill cutting through the heart of the rocks, and coal oil sparing the whale; could he have realized the enormous saving of labor resulting from improved facilities of exchange and communication—sheep killed in Australia eaten fresh in England, and the order given by the London banker in the afternoon executed in San Francisco in the morning of the same day; could he have conceived of the hundred thousand improvements which these only suggest, what would he have inferred as to the social condition of mankind?

It would not have seemed like an inference; further than the vision went it would have seemed as though he saw; and his heart would have leaped and his nerves would have thrilled, as one who from a height beholds just ahead of the thirst-stricken caravan the living gleam of rustling woods and the glint of laughing waters. Plainly, in the sight of the imagination, he would have beheld these new forces elevating society from its very foundations, lifting the very poorest above the possibility of want, exempting the very lowest from anxiety for the material needs of life; he would have seen these slaves of the lamp of knowledge taking on themselves the traditional curse, these muscles of iron and sinews of steel making the poorest laborer’s life a holiday, in which every high quality and noble impulse could have scope to grow.

And out of these bounteous material conditions he would have seen arising, as necessary sequences, moral conditions realizing the golden age of which mankind have always dreamed. Youth no longer stunted and starved; age no longer harried by avarice; the child at play with the tiger; the man with the muck-rake drinking in the glory of the stars! Foul things fled, fierce things tame; discord turned to harmony! For how could there be greed where all had enough? How could the vice, the crime, the ignorance, the brutality, that spring from poverty and the fear of poverty, exist where poverty had vanished? Who should crouch where all were freemen; who oppress where all were peers?

More or less vague or clear, these have been the hopes, these the dreams born of the improvements which give this wonderful century its preëminence. They have sunk so deeply into the popular mind as radically to change the currents of thought, to recast creeds and displace the most fundamental conceptions. The haunting visions of higher possibilities have not merely gathered splendor and vividness, but their direction has changed—instead of seeing behind the faint tinges of an expiring sunset, all the glory of the daybreak has decked the skies before.

It is true that disappointment has followed disappointment, and that discovery upon discovery, and invention after invention, have neither lessened the toil of those who most need respite, nor brought plenty to the poor. But there have been so many things to which it seemed this failure could be laid, that up to our time the new faith has hardly weakened. We have better appreciated the difficulties to be overcome; but not the less trusted that the tendency of the times was to overcome them.

Now, however, we are coming into collision with facts which there can be no mistaking. From all parts of the civilized world come complaints of industrial depression; of labor condemned to involuntary idleness; of capital massed and wasting; of pecuniary distress among business men; of want and suffering and anxiety among the working classes. All the dull, deadening pain, all the keen, maddening anguish, that to great masses of men are involved in the words “hard times,” afflict the world to-day. This state of things, common to communities differing so widely in situation, in political institutions, in fiscal and financial systems, in density of population and in social organization, can hardly be accounted for by local causes. There is distress where large standing armies are maintained, but there is also distress where the standing armies are nominal; there is distress where protective tariffs stupidly and wastefully hamper trade, but there is also distress where trade is nearly free; there is distress where autocratic government yet prevails, but there is also distress where political power is wholly in the hands of the people; in countries where paper is money, and in countries where gold and silver are the only currency. Evidently, beneath all such things as these, we must infer a common cause.

That there is a common cause, and that it is either what we call material progress or something closely connected with material progress, becomes more than an inference when it is noted that the phenomena we class together and speak of as industrial depression are but intensifications of phenomena which always accompany material progress, and which show themselves more clearly and strongly as material progress goes on. Where the conditions to which material progress everywhere tends are most fully realized—that is to say, where population is densest, wealth greatest, and the machinery of production and exchange most highly developed—we find the deepest poverty, the sharpest struggle for existence, and the most of enforced idleness.

It is to the newer countries—that is, to the countries where material progress is yet in its earlier stages—that laborers emigrate in search of higher wages, and capital flows in search of higher interest. It is in the older countries—that is to say, the countries where material progress has reached later stages—that widespread destitution is found in the midst of the greatest abundance. Go into one of the new communities where Anglo-Saxon vigor is just beginning the race of progress; where the machinery of production and exchange is yet rude and inefficient; where the increment of wealth is not yet great enough to enable any class to live in ease and luxury; where the best house is but a cabin of logs or a cloth and paper shanty, and the richest man is forced to daily work—and though you will find an absence of wealth and all its concomitants, you will find no beggars. There is no luxury, but there is no destitution. No one makes an easy living, nor a very good living; but every one can make a living, and no one able and willing to work is oppressed by the fear of want.

But just as such a community realizes the conditions which all civilized communities are striving for, and advances in the scale of material progress—just as closer settlement and a more intimate connection with the rest of the world, and greater utilization of labor-saving machinery, make possible greater economies in production and exchange, and wealth in consequence increases, not merely in the aggregate, but in proportion to population—so does poverty take a darker aspect. Some get an infinitely better and easier living, but others find it hard to get a living at all. The “tramp” comes with the locomotive, and almshouses and prisons are as surely the marks of “material progress” as are costly dwellings, rich warehouses, and magnificent churches. Upon streets lighted with gas and patrolled by uniformed policemen, beggars wait for the passer-by, and in the shadow of college, and library, and museum, are gathering the more hideous Huns and fiercer Vandals of whom Macaulay prophesied.

This fact—the great fact that poverty and all its concomitants show themselves in communities just as they develop into the conditions toward which material progress tends—proves that the social difficulties existing wherever a certain stage of progress has been reached, do not arise from local circumstances, but are, in some way or another, engendered by progress itself.

And, unpleasant as it may be to admit it, it is at last becoming evident that the enormous increase in productive power which has marked the present century and is still going on with accelerating ratio, has no tendency to extirpate poverty or to lighten the burdens of those compelled to toil. It simply widens the gulf between Dives and Lazarus, and makes the struggle for existence more intense. The march of invention has clothed mankind with powers of which a century ago the boldest imagination could not have dreamed. But in factories where labor-saving machinery has reached its most wonderful development, little children are at work; wherever the new forces are anything like fully utilized, large classes are maintained by charity or live on the verge of recourse to it; amid the greatest accumulations of wealth, men die of starvation, and puny infants suckle dry breasts; while everywhere the greed of gain, the worship of wealth, shows the force of the fear of want. The promised land flies before us like the mirage. The fruits of the tree of knowledge turn as we grasp them to apples of Sodom that crumble at the touch.

It is true that wealth has been greatly increased, and that the average of comfort, leisure, and refinement has been raised; but these gains are not general. In them the lowest class do not share. I do not mean that the condition of the lowest class has nowhere nor in anything been improved; but that there is nowhere any improvement which can be credited to increased productive power. I mean that the tendency of what we call material progress is in nowise to improve the condition of the lowest class in the essentials of healthy, happy human life. Nay, more, that it is still further to depress the condition of the lowest class. The new forces, elevating in their nature though they be, do not act upon the social fabric from underneath, as was for a long time hoped and believed, but strike it at a point intermediate between top and bottom. It is as though an immense wedge were being forced, not underneath society, but through society. Those who are above the point of separation are elevated, but those who are below are crushed down.

This depressing effect is not generally realized, for it is not apparent where there has long existed a class just able to live. Where the lowest class barely lives, as has been the case for a long time in many parts of Europe, it is impossible for it to get any lower, for the next lowest step is out of existence, and no tendency to further depression can readily show itself. But in the progress of new settlements to the conditions of older communities it may clearly be seen that material progress does not merely fail to relieve poverty—it actually produces it. In the United States it is clear that squalor and misery, and the vices and crimes that spring from them, everywhere increase as the village grows to the city, and the march of development brings the advantages of the improved methods of production and exchange. It is in the older and richer sections of the Union that pauperism and distress among the working classes are becoming most painfully apparent. If there is less deep poverty in San Francisco than in New York, is it not because San Francisco is yet behind New York in all that both cities are striving for? When San Francisco reaches the point where New York now is, who can doubt that there will also be ragged and barefooted children on her streets?

This association of poverty with progress is the great enigma of our times. It is the central fact from which spring industrial, social, and political difficulties that perplex the world, and with which statesmanship and philanthropy and education grapple in vain. From it come the clouds that overhang the future of the most progressive and self-reliant nations. It is the riddle which the Sphinx of Fate puts to our civilization, and which not to answer is to be destroyed. So long as all the increased wealth which modern progress brings goes but to build up great fortunes, to increase luxury and make sharper the contrast between the House of Have and the House of Want, progress is not real and cannot be permanent. The reaction must come. The tower leans from its foundations, and every new story but hastens the final catastrophe. To educate men who must be condemned to poverty, is but to make them restive; to base on a state of most glaring social inequality political institutions under which men are theoretically equal, is to stand a pyramid on its apex.

Themes and variations

A running list of my favorite sets of variations—the obsessional artistic form par excellence—along with some performances that are important to me, in one way or another:

  • Brahms, Op. 24, Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel

by Roman Rabinovich:

by Shai Wosner:

Handel’s original theme and variations, from the first keyboard suite in B-flat major, HWV 434, by András Schiff:

  • Rameau, Gavotte et doubles, last movement of the Suite in A minor from the Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin

by David Bar-Illan:

by Trevor Pinnock:

  • Beethoven, 32 variations on an original theme

by Emil Gilels:

by Radu Lupu:

by Glenn Gould:

by Evgeny Kissin:

  • Beethoven, second movement of Op. 111, Piano Sonata No. 32

by Ivo Pogorelich:

  • Beethoven, first movement of Op. 26, Piano Sonata No. 12

by Artur Schnabel:

by Annie Fischer:

  • Fauré, Op. 79, Thème et Variations

by Giulio Biddau:

  • Marais, 32 variations on Les Folies d’Espagne, from Book II of the Pièces de viole

by Ensemble Spirale and Marianne Muller:

  • Chopin, Op. 2, Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni

by Emil Gilels at the Seattle Opera House:

  • Haydn, Variations for piano on “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser”

by Kristian Bezuidenhout:

  • Schubert, 13 Variations on a Theme by Hüttenbrenner, D. 576

by Sviatoslav Richter:

  • Mozart, first movement of Sonata No. 11, K. 331

by András Schiff:

by Ivo Pogorelich:

by Glenn Gould—a highly idiosyncratic recording, the ending all the more dazzling:

  • Franck, Variations symphoniques, FWV 46

by Jorge Bolet and the Royal Concertgebouw:

  • Schumann, Op. 13, Etudes symphoniques

by Ivo Pogorelich:

by Sviatoslav Richter:

  • Horowitz, Carmen Variations

by Arcadi Volodos:

  • William Byrd, Sellinger’s Round

by Glenn Gould:

Without her, nothing follows

A mid-15th century manuscript of Martianus Capella’s De nuptiis, Digital Vatican Library, MS Urb. lat. 329, with illumination by the painter Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora

It is a commonplace that medieval education amounted to the teaching of the seven liberal arts, what we call the trivium and quadrivium—grammar, logic (or as it was then called, dialectic), and rhetoric, on the one hand; arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, on the other. But where, exactly, did this classification get codified, and how was it transmitted down through the centuries?

I did not know the answer until I read Charles Homer Haskins’s The Rise of Universities a few weeks ago. Cicero speaks of liberal arts, and Quintilian follows him, but the seven disciplines as we know them did not gain currency until Martianus Capella’s early fifth-century allegory De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii (The Marriage of Philology and Mercury), sometimes also called De septem disciplinis and the Satyricon (not to be confused with Petronius’s). In Capella’s rendering, the seven arts, personified as women, are offered as wedding gifts by the gods at the marriage of Mercury and Philology; each offers a long speech describing her domain of study. (The term quadrivium itself appears to have been coined by Boethius, not Capella, and I’m still not certain about trivium.) The manuscript became a standard medieval textbook; it was copied and commented on straight up until the renaissance of the twelfth century, when the Latin-speaking medieval curriculum at last outgrew these rudiments thanks to an influx of translations of Greek texts—especially Aristotle’s—from Arab scholars in Spain. The images in this post are of a mid-15th century manuscript at the Vatican, with illumination and drawings by the painter Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora. (Some other representations of the seven liberal arts are here.)

And yet, in Capella’s hands, these rudiments are not so rudimentary nor as stale as we may imagine—at least, as I imagined. The portraits of the arts are vivid, modern, and cheeky. There is a strong undercurrent of irony in the understated manner of the best classical dialogues. The gods interrupt; the goddesses fire back. Dialectic snarks that she should be forgiven her neologisms since she is asked to speak in Latin rather than Greek. Bacchus, it is said, is “completely unacquainted” with her. The speeches are longer and richer—both stylistically and substantively—than the spare, plodding, sophistical medieval treatise I expected. The language, as far from the sermo humilis of the Christian church fathers as from the later casuistry of the high scholastics, relishes in ulteriority, taking obvious pleasure in finding the most resonant formulation and in saying many things at once. (My title is a case in point: without Dialectic, we read, “nothing follows”—a tiny phrase bursting its semantic seams, so dense is it with significance. I detect at least three different registers of allegorical reference: the concept of logical consequence, according to which one proposition follows from another; the epistemic primacy of logic as method, the tool of all other forms of inquiry; the historical or developmental primacy of logic, in the life of the student and the school—that which must be learned before the higher arts, and a rite of passage one must clear to prove one’s bona fides.) It is a token of our proximity to this past, rather than our distance from it, that I read and delight in it so easily, and find it more familiar than foreign.

Some of my favorite moments so far, from the speeches by Grammar and Dialectic, in the translation by William Harris Stahl and E. L. Burge (1977):


Fora’s 15th-century illustration of Grammar

Once again in this little book the Muse prepares her ornaments and wants to tell fabricated stories at first, remember that utility cannot clothe the naked truth; she regards it as a weakness of the poet to make straightforward and undisguised statements, and she brings a light touch to literary style and adds beauty to a page that is already heavily colored. (p. 64)


[…] an old woman indeed of great charm, who said that she had been born in Memphis when Osiris was still king; when she had been a long time in hiding, she was found and brought up by the Cyllenian [Mercury] himself. This woman claimed that in Attica, where she had lived and prospered for the greater part of her life, she moved about in Greek dress; but because of the Latin gods and the Capitol and the race of Mars and descendants of Venus, according to the custom of Romulus she entered the senate of the gods dressed in a Roman cloak. She carried in her hands a polished box, a fine piece of cabinetmaking, which shone on the outside with light from ivory, from which like a skilled physician the woman took our the emblems of wounds that need to be healed. Out of this book she took first a pruning knife with a shining point, with which she said she could prune the fault of pronunciation in children; then they could be restored to health with a certain black powder carried through reeds, a powder which was thought to be made of ash or the ink of cuttlefish. Then she took out a very sharp medicine which she had made of fennelflower and the clippings from a goat’s back, a medicine of purest red color, which she said should be applied to the throat when it was suffering from a bucolic ignorance and was blowing out the vile breaths of a corrupt pronunciation. She showed too a delicious savory, the work of many late nights and vigils, with which she said the harshness of the most unpleasant voice could be made melodious. She also cleaned the windpipes and the lungs by the application of a medicine in which were observed wax smeared on beechwood and a mixture of gallnuts and gum and rolls of the Nilotic plant [papyrus]. Although this poultice was effective in assisting memory and attention, yet by its nature it kept people awake. She also brought out a file fashioned with great skill, which was divided into eight golden parts joined in different ways, and which darted back and forth—with which by gentle rubbing she gradually cleaned dirty teeth and ailments of the tongue and the filth which had been picked up in the town of Soloe [i.e., solecisms]. (p. 64-66)

This phonetics primer, a sort of proto-IPA, comes to a surprising climax:

We utter A with the mouth open, with a single suitable breath.
We make B by the outburst of breath from closed lips.
C is made by the back teeth brought forward over the back of the tongue.
D is made by bringing the tongue against the top teeth.
E is made by a breath with the tongue a little depressed.
F is made by the teeth pressing on the lower lip.
G, by a breath against the palate.
H is made by an exhalation with the throat a little closed.
I is made by a breath with the teeth kept close together.
K is made with the palate against the top of the throat.
L is a soft sound make with the tongue and the palate.
M is a pressing together of the lips.
N is formed by the contact of the tongue on the teeth.
O is made by a breath with the mouth rounded.
P is a forceful exhalation from the lips.
Q is a contraction of the palate with the mouth half-closed.
R is a rough exhalation with the tongue curled against the roof of the mouth.
S is a hissing sound with the teeth in contact.
T is a blow of the tongue against the teeth.
U is made with the mouth almost closed and the lips forward a little.
X is the sibilant combination of C and S.
Y is a breath with the lips close together.
Z was abhorrent to Appius Claudius, because it resembles in its expression the teeth of a corpse. (p. 75)


While Grammar was saying this, and Jupiter and the Delian were urging her forward, Pallas spoke up: “While Literature here is hurrying on to discuss the connection of syllables, she has passed over the historical aspect.” At this objection by the maiden goddess, Grammar in great agitation answered: “I know I must pass over a great deal, so as not to incur the distaste of the blessed by getting entangled in details. So I shall perform my purpose, hastening along the shortest ways, to avoid getting lost, hidden in thick undergrowth or a dense mass of briars.” (p. 76)


When Grammar had said this as if she were merely introducing her subject, Minerva intervened, because of the boredom that had come upon Jove and the celestial senate, and said: “Unless I am mistaken, you are getting ready to go back to the elements and begin telling us about the eight fundamental parts of speech, adding also the causes of solecisms, the barbarisms, and other faults of speech which celebrated poets have discussed at length; you will also discuss tropes, metaplasms, schemata, figures, and all the faults which flow, as it were, from the fountain of embellishment, illustrating either the misconception of the writer who does not understand them or the labored ornamentation of the pedant. If you bring such matters from the elementary school before the celestial senate, you will nip in the bud the goodwill you have won by this display of knowledge. If you were to take up a discussion of rhythm and meter, as you would venture to do with young pupils, Music would surely tear you apart for usurping her office. The teaching you have given us will be well-proportioned and complete if you keep to your own particular subjects and do not cheapen them by commonplace and elementary instruction.” (p. 105)


Fora’s 15th-century illustration of Dialectic, with her hooks and serpent

Into the assembly of the gods came Dialectic, a woman whose weapons are complex and knotty utterances. Without her, nothing follows, and likewise, nothing stands in opposition. She brought with her the elements of speech; and she had ready the school maxim which reminds us that speech consists in words which are ambiguous, and judges nothing as having a standard meaning unless it be combined with other words. Yet, though Aristotle himself pronounce his twice-five categories, and grow pale as he tortures himself in thought; though the sophisms of the Stoics beset and tease the senses, as they wear on their foreheads the horns they never lost; though Chrysippus heap up and consume his own pile, and Carneades match his mental power through the use of hellebore, no honor so great as this has ever befallen any of these sons of men, nor is it chance that so great an honor has fallen to your lot: it is your right, Dialectic, to speak in the realms of the gods, and to act as teacher in the presence of Jove.

So at the Delian’s summons this woman entered, rather pale but very keen-sighted. Her eyes constantly darted about; her intricate coiffure seemed beautifully curled and bound together, and descending by successive stages [editor: “The Latin here, deducti per quosdam consequentes gradus, applies equally well to a logical argument “deduced through certain successive steps” as to Dialectic’s symbolic hairstyle], it so encompassed the shape of her whole head that you could not have detected anything lacking, nor grasped anything excessive [editor: Remigius remarks that this may refer to the requirements of a good definition […] More probably it simply refers to the rigor and completeness of logical argument]. She was wearing the dress and cloak of Athens, it is true, but what she carried in her hands was unexpected, and had been unknown in all the Greek schools. In her left hand she held a snake twined in immense coils; in her right hand a set of patterns [editor: formulae] carefully inscribed on wax tablets, which were adorned with the beauty of contrasting color, was held on the inside by a hidden hook; but since her left hand kept the crafty device of the snake hidden under her cloak, her right hand was offered to one and all. Then if anyone took one of those patterns, he was soon caught on the hook and dragged toward the poisonous coils of the hidden snake, which presently emerged and after first biting the man relentlessly with the venomous points of its sharp teeth then gripped him in its many coils and compelled him to the intended position. If no one wanted to take any of the patterns, Dialectic confronted them with some questions; or secretly stirred the snake to creep up on them until its tight embrace strangled those who were caught and compelled them to accept the will of their interrogator.

Dialectic herself was compact in body, dark in appearance […] and she kept saying things that the majority could not understand. For she claimed that the universal affirmative was diametrically opposed to the particular negative, but that it was possible for them both to be reversed by connecting ambiguous terms to univocal terms [editor: This sentence remains opaque. […]]; she claimed also that she alone discerned what was true from what was false, as if she spoke with assurance of divine inspiration. She said she had been brought up on an Egyptian crag [editor: The original text may, however, have had urbe [city] instead of rupe [crag].] and then had migrated to Attica to the school of Parmenides, and there, while the slanderous report was spread abroad that she was devoted to deceitful trickery, she had taken to herself the greatness of Socrates and Plato.

This was the woman, well-versed in every deceptive argument and glorifying in her many victories, whom the Cyllenian’s two-fold serpent, rising on his staff, tried to lick at, constantly darting its tongues, while the Tritonian’s [Athena’s] Gorgon hissed the the joy of recognition. Meanwhile Bromius [Bacchus], the wittiest of the gods, who was completely unacquainted with her, said […] (pp. 106-108)

[On the darting eyes, I think immediately of Ayn Rand in this interview with Mike Wallace.]

Pallas ordered Dialectic to hand over those items which she had brought to illustrate her sharpness and her deadly sure assertions, and told her to put on an appearance suitable for imparting her skill. Grammar was standing close by when the introduction was completed; but she was afraid to accept the coils and gaping mouth of the slippery serpent. Together with the enticing patterns and the rules fitted with the hook, they were entrusted to the great goddess who had tamed the locks of Medusa. (p. 109)


For assessing virtue as well as practicing it, Jupiter considered the levity of the Greek inferior to the vigor of Romulus, so he ordered her to unfold her field of knowledge in Latin eloquence. Dialectic did not think she could express herself adequately in Latin; but presently her confidence increased, the movements of her eyes were confined to a slight quivering, and, formidable as she had been even before she uttered a word, she began to speak as follows:

“Unless amid the glories of the Latin tongue the learning and labor of my beloved and famous Varro had come to my aid, I could have been found to be a Greek by the test of Latin speech, or else completely uncultivated or even quite barbarous. Indeed, after the golden flow of Plato and the brilliance of Aristotle it was Marcus Terentius’ labors which first enticed me into Latin speech and made it possible for me to express myself throughout the schools of Ausonia. I shall therefore strive to obey my instructions and, without abandoning the Greek order of discussion, I shall not hesitate to express my propositions in the tongue of Laurentum. First, I want you to realize that the toga-clad Romans have not been able to coin a name for me, and that I am called Dialectic just as in Athens: and whatever the other Arts propound is entirely under my authority. Not even Grammar herself, whom you have just heard and approved, nor the lady renowned for the richness of her eloquence [Rhetoric], nor the one who draws various diagrams on the ground with her rod [Geometry], can unfold her subject without using my reasoning. (p. 110)


You should put up with the strangeness of my language, since you have compelled a Greek to treat the subject in Latin. (p. 111)


While Dialectic was holding forth in this way and getting on to matters as complicated as they were obscure, Maia’s son [Mercury] grew impatient and nodded to Pallas, who cut in: “Madam, you speak with great skill; but now stop your exposition before you get entangled in the complexities of your subkect, and its knotty problems exhaust the goodwill of Hymen. You have said in summary all that is fitting from that which learned discussion ahs contributed for the development of the subject in a large volume. A modest spring from deep learning is sufficient; it brings to light things hidden from sight, and avoids tedious discussion, without passing over anything and leaving it unrecognized. The matters that remain are founded on great deceit, and false deception encompasses those who are caught by them, while you prepare sophisms fraught with guile, or seductively make sport with trickeries from which one cannot get free. And when you gradually build up a sorites, or fashion errors which truth condemns, then your sin, your wicked deed, resounds in the ears of the Thunderer, since the lofty denizens of heaven hate everything false in a woman of shame. If you ponder it, what is more cruel than making sport of people? You have had your say, and you will surely become a disreputable and itinerant charlatan if you go on to build up your snares. Away then with shifty profundity, and leave what time remains to your sisters.” (p. 153)