Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Lessons from one's library (continuing the last)


From William Wallace, s.v. Descartes, EB XI (ex IX)

The famous 1910 Eleventh Britannica may be used exhaustively by Wikipedia, but not nearly so exhaustively as the 9th was used by the 11th. And the articles taken over from the 9th are typically more exhaustive than any 20th-century ones. In the quarto edition of the 11th, Descartes covers pp. 71-90, and, considering that each page equals at least four pages of a large octavo, that's enough for a small Penguin. William Wallace was the Oxford Hegelian of the 19th century, and his article on Descartes is exemplary, if not sprightly.
"The mind is not for the sake of knowledge, but knowledge for the sake of the mind". It caught my fancy. Ever since addressing Virginia Woolf's lapse of memory in Night and Day, I have been worrying, as if it were my cat's toy mouse, the position of 17th-century ideas relative to those subsequent to the Industrial Revolution. How ought I to take what they write? After all, the Freshman Philosophy course, with Plato, Locke, and Mill was not much.
Now, the author of the Hydriotaphia blog, who really knows Sir Thomas Browne, has read a great deal that I only know how to spell. For example, I knew "Museum Kircherianum" without having read any of Athanasius Kircher. So, when his blog gave me a page on Kircher, the least I could do, as with Paracelsus, was to bone up on them with all the efficiency that once I devoted to pending written examinations. It is rather remarkable that at 76 I still can do that. Even when the Gulf of Mexico delivers nasty weather day after day, I have (literally) a house full of books. But I found that my random philosophy holdings, including a fair amount of Voltaire, for example, and some selections of Pascal, included nothing of Descartes. That is why, until I can drop by Barnes & Noble and get their re-print (for reading whole books of philosophy on screen, at least till I get me an iPad, is unpleasant, and printing out the .pdf just aggravates the storage problem), I was glad that I have my real 21-volume 11th edition Britannica. Usually, faute de mieux, I can find some of most things in Huntington Cairns' The Limits of Art (also reprinted by BN, and a most desirable browsable tome), but Descartes is not a philosopher treasured for his prose. Thomas Browne is in it, the Urne Buriall, which I didn't remember having there, because I have the nice 1958 CUP tricentenary edition instead. Browne is there as poetry. Argue about that, as you like, there is nothing in Descartes (in my limited snippets) like What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women... It leaps off the middle of the page.
My Hydriotaphia friend sent me a paragraph about Browne by E. J. Merten, too:

The eclecticism so characteristic of Browne... Browne does not cry from the house tops, as did Francis Bacon, the liberating power of experience in opposition to the sterilizing influence of reason. Nor does he guarantee as did Descartes the intuitive truth of reason as opposed to the falsity of the senses. Unlike either, he follows both sense experience and a priori, reason in his quest for truth. He uses what comes to him from tradition and from contemporary Science, often perhaps without too precise a formulation.
Above and beyond either Merten on Browne or Wallace on Descartes, I suddenly thought and put forth here for others to consider that whatever the gulf between Kircher and Descartes, indeed in philosophy between all the Platonics and all the Aristotelians, what we have essentially in Browne is his happy union of the empirical (simply stated, interest in all sorts of things, but considered seriously, not as items in curio cabinet) and the literary. Browne does not care to specify what the sirens' song was like, or to prove what mode it was composed in—so as to supply from Plato the symbolism of that mode, for instance. Instead, it is truly as a poet that he amasses hypothetical questions to make us realize what the discovery of these urns made him think: "to subsist in bones, to be but Pyramidally extant, is a fallacy in duration."
Browne's is the true duration.

This has been written right off the top of my head, and I may need to fix something here and there.
I don't think Browne is just one of those happy Anglicans, either.