Make Bold to Fashion It

O false and treacherous Probability,
Enemy of truth, and friend to wickednesse;
With whose bleare eyes opinion learnes to see
Truths feeble party here, and barrennesse.
When thou hast thus misled Humanity,
And lost obedience in the pride of wit,
With reason dar’st thou judge the Deity,
And in thy flesh make bold to fashion it.
Vaine thoght, the word of Power a riddle is,
And till the vayles be rent, the flesh newborne,
Reveales no wonders of that inward blisse,
Which but where faith is, every where findes scorne;
Who therfore censures God with fleshly spirit,
As well in time may wrap up infinite .
Fulke Greville, Caelica, Sonnet CIV.


I dwell in Possibility —
A fairer House than Prose —
More numerous of Windows —
Superior— for Doors —

Of Chambers as the Cedars —
Impregnable of Eye —
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky —

Of Visitors — the fairest —
For Occupation — This —
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise —

Emily Dickinson, “I dwell in possibility”.

A Principle of Unity and a Principle of Continuity

‘That which determines a man, that which makes him one man, one and not another, the man he is and not the man he is not, is a principle of unity and a principle of continuity. A principle of unity firstly in space, thanks to the body, and next in action and intention. When we walk, one foot does not go forward and the other backward, nor, when we look, if we are normal, does one eye look towards the north and the other towards the south. In each moment of our life we entertain some purpose, and to this purpose the synergy of our actions is directed. Notwithstanding the next moment we may change our purpose. And in a certain sense a man is so much the more a man the more unitary his action. Some there are who throughout their whole life follow but one single purpose, be it what it may.

Also a principle of continuity in time. Without entering upon a discussion—an unprofitable discussion—as to whether I am or am not he who I was twenty years ago, it appears to me to be indisputable that he who I am to-day derives, by a continuous series of states of consciousness, from him who was in my body twenty years ago. Memory is the basis of individual personality, just as tradition is the basis of the collective personality of a people. We live in memory and by memory, and our spiritual life is at bottom simply the effort of our memory to persist, to transform itself into hope, the effort of our past to transform itself into our future.

All this, I know well, is sheer platitude; but in going about in the world one meets men who seem to have no feeling of their own personality. One of my best friends with whom I have walked and talked every day for many years, whenever I spoke to him of this sense of one’s own personality, used to say: “But I have no sense of myself; I don’t know what that is.”‘

Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life, translated by J. E. Crawford Flitch.


‘In a way that is sometimes reminiscent of Gide, Montherlant has tried to frustrate all efforts to make a stereotype of his personality or his work. ‘What is important,’ he writes in the Carnets (1957), ‘is not to be different from other people, but to be different from oneself.’ He insists, in theory and practice alike, that diversity and wholeness are inseparable, that genuine unity must absorb contradictions, not evade them. This is a theme running right through his work from his first novel, Le Songe (1922), to his most recent writings. On the purely individual level this ideal of totalisme must give full play to the conflicting elements in any single personality. Montherlant speaks, in Les Olympiques (1924), of our constant duty ‘to model our being until it fills completely the space defined by its own potentialities; until we become exactly and perfectly what we are’. The fulfilment of this duty, as Montherlant conceives it, involves three stages. First, in intellectual terms, we recognize within ourselves the presence of many different, often mutually antagonistic, tendencies. Next, exercising the will, we refuse to sacrifice any single one of these tendencies. Finally, in terms of our daily practice, we resolve the conflict to the extent of alternating between tendencies and living a dialectic which accepts their differences while striving to conserve their unity. Such a Goethean ideal of behaviour (Montherlant calls it ‘syncrétisme et alternance’) requires a complex attitude of will, passion, detachment and lucidity — qualities possessed by Montherlant to a marked degree and which give to his work as a whole its very distinctive moral climate.

On a more general level, Montherlant accepts the wider consequences of his own doctrine. He may even appear to confuse totalisme with complete abnegation of judgement and responsibility when he says that ‘everyone is always right’. Without an awareness of the twin concepts of syncrétisme and alternance such a statement is likely to be misunderstood.’

John Cruickshank, ‘Montherlant: Disorder and Unity’, The London Magazine, April 1961.


‘Our notion of nature may be confused, and in need of clarification. But it does express the fact that existence is not only ever-renewed; that it has, at the same time, continuity and density; it is not only recreated but given. I am not only what I do, and my world is not simply what I will. I am something given to myself and the world existed before me. Such being my condition, my liberty itself is qualified by a number of factors some arising out of myself, the limitations of my individual being; others inherent in the world, the necessities that restrict and the values that direct my liberty. Indeed, my freedom lies in a field of well-nigh universal gravitation. To forget this is only to subtilize the facts into a kind of shadow, an idea without consistency, a dream-limit; something shapeless but felt as absolute. This can excite the individual to alternate somersaults of revolt and exaltation, by the sheer intensity of which he is captivated, while remaining indifferent to their contradictions (this is the universe of Malraux or of de Montherlant). There is a still graver consequence. A freedom that gushes forth as sheer reality, that is so closely involved with the crude assertion of existence that it is presented as a necessity Sartre calls it a condemnation is a blind force of nature, a naked power. Who will distinguish it from instinctive preference and from the will to power? How can it be mine, if I cannot refuse it? Where will this freedom take on a human countenance, if the face of man is formed only by his own decisions? Who will keep it within human bounds, if the only frontiers between the human and inhuman are those that it decrees? Or who will restrain this freedom from desiring, in some supreme exaltation, to experience its own dissolution? From this position we are in peril of drifting not only towards  the illusions of formalized liberty, but into the frenzies of ‘living intensely’ (Whoever feels himself ‘condemned’ to freedom, to an absurd and illimitable liberty, may find no distraction from his fate except in condemning others to it, like Caligula, by sheer terrorism.’

Emmanuel Mounier, Personalism, translated by Philip Mairet.

Truth is Fairest Naked

‘Obscurity and vagueness of expression is always and everywhere a very bad sign: for in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred it derives from vagueness of thought, which in turn comes from an original incongruity and inconsistency in the thought itself, and thus from its falsity. If a true thought arises in a head it will immediately strive after clarity and will soon achieve it: what is clearly thought, however, easily finds the expression appropriate to it. The thoughts a man is capable of always express themselves in clear, comprehensible, and unambiguous words. Those who put together difficult, obscure, involved ambiguous discourses do not really know what they want to say: they have no more than a vague consciousness of it which is only struggling towards a thought: often, however, they also want to conceal from themselves and others that they actually have nothing to say. Truth is fairest naked, and the simpler its expression the profounder its influence.’

Arthur Schopenhauer, ‘On Books and Writing’, from Parerga und Paralipomena, in Essays and Aphorisms, translated and edited by R. J. Hollingdale.


‘The very first lesson that we have a right to demand that logic shall teach us is, how to make our ideas clear; and a most important one it is, depreciated only by minds who stand in need of it. To know what we think, to be masters of our own meaning, will make a solid foundation for great and weighty thought. It is most easily learned by those whose ideas are meagre and restricted; and far happier than they such as wallow helplessly in a rich mud of conceptions. A nation, it is true, may, in the course of generations, overcome the disadvantage of an excessive wealth of language and its natural concomitant, a vast, unfathomable deep of ideas. We may see it in history, slowly perfecting its literary forms, sloughing at length its metaphysics, and, by virtue of the untirable patience which is often a compensation, attaining great excellence in every branch of mental acquirement. The page of history is not yet unrolled that is to tell us whether such a people will or will not in the long run prevail over one whose ideas (like the words of their language) are few, but which possesses a wonderful mastery over those which it has. For an individual, however, there can be no question that a few clear ideas are worth more than many confused ones. A young man would hardly be persuaded to sacrifice the greater part of his thoughts to save the rest; and the muddled head is the least apt to see the necessity of such a sacrifice. Him we can usually only commiserate, as a person with a congenital defect. Time will help him, but intellectual maturity with regard to clearness is apt to come rather late. This seems an unfortunate arrangement of Nature, inasmuch as clearness is of less use to a man settled in life, whose errors have in great measure had their effect, than it would be to one whose path lay before him. It is terrible to see how a single unclear idea, a single formula without meaning, lurking in a young man’s head, will sometimes act like an obstruction of inert matter in an artery, hindering the nutrition of the brain, and condemning its victim to pine away in the fullness of his intellectual vigor and in the midst of intellectual plenty. Many a man has cherished for years as his hobby some vague shadow of an idea, too meaningless to be positively false; he has, nevertheless, passionately loved it, has made it his companion by day and by night, and has given to it his strength and his life, leaving all other occupations for its sake, and in short has lived with it and for it, until it has become, as it were, flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone; and then he has waked up some bright morning to find it gone, clean vanished away like the beautiful Melusina of the fable, and the essence of his life gone with it. I have myself known such a man; and who can tell how many histories of circlesquarers, metaphysicians, astrologers, and what not, may not be told in the old German story?’

Charles S. Peirce, How to Make Our Ideas Clear.


‘The signposts raised up on the road don’t show their direction in a sweet and florid style: they flaunt the style of their utility. Clear, direct, insistent, and authoritarian, they don’t say: “if I am mistaken”, they don’t doubt themselves, they do not excuse themselves from roughly throwing the direction arrows and the mile markers into the eyes of the people who pass. But does the traveler complain about it?  As long as he has the heart of a philosopher, he gives thank to the author of profitable brutalities which he does not even feel tyrannized by.

It is his choice to slow down or step on the gas, to follow to change his direction. The milestone says what it is in clear terms, and what is necessary to take into account. The more that precise facts limit thought and, because of that narrow limit, the more that fantasies of the heart, wishes of the imagination, the needs, the amenities and personal interests will obtain safety and will be able to give themselves a career. An uncertain direction, a fact, whether vague or false, while appearing to flatter the arbitrariness of the walker, will restrict the freedom of his movements, of his rest, they will diminish his real powers, for the risks attached to the consequences of an indifferent or capricious itinerary will be increased by the insufficiency of his knowledge.

It is a great error to think that contingencies, as they say, accommodate themselves more easily to a lax and vacillating principle: to the contrary, all indecision of principles complicates the study of the facts, as well as their treatment; uncertainty thus is inserted at the sole point from where a little light could come to them, to the complexities of the earth shadows in the sky will be added.

Truth, a harsh but clear sun, is content to establish from above what is necessary to know and think before acting. It shows the good, it marks out the bad; it distinguishes the proportions following which the one and the other confront each other and mix in the infinite variety of our human events. Once so enlightened, man is far from having resolved the problems of practical life, but he has something to resolve them and if, as happens to him too frequently, he can choose only between evils, he will better discern which will be the least, his effort can be applied to avoiding the worst; that makes perhaps the greatest point of the government of oneself and others.’

Charles Maurras, Mes Idées Politiques, translated by Cologero Salvo.


Hat tip for Peirce and Maurras: Cologero Salvo.

How Knoweth He By the Virtue of His Understanding the Inward and Secret Motions?

‘Presumption is our natural and original infirmity. Of all creatures man is the most miserable and frail, and therewithall the proudest and disdainfullest. Who perceiveth and seeth himself placed here, amidst their filth and mire of the world, fast tied and nailed to the worst, most senseless, and drooping part of the world, in the vilest corner of the house, and farthest from the heavens coape, with those creatures, that are the worst of the three conditions,  and yet dareth imaginarily place himself above the circle of the moon, and reduce heaven under his feet. It is through vanity of the same imagination, the he dare equal himself to God, that he ascribeth divine conditions unto himself, that he selecteth and separateth himself from out of the rank of other creatures; to which his fellow-brethren and compeers, he cuts out and shareth their parts, and alloteth them what portions of means or forces he thinks good. How knoweth he by the virtue of his understanding the inward and secret motions of beasts? By what comparison from them to us doth he conclude the brutishness ascribed unto them? When I am playing with my cat, who knows whether she have more sport in dallying with me, than I have in gaming with her? We entertain one another with mutual apish tricks, if I have my hour to begin or to refuse, so hath she hers. Plato in setting forth the golden age under Saturn, amongst other chief advantages that man had then, reporteth the communication he had with beasts, of whom enquiring and and taking instruction, he knew the true qualities, ad differences of every one of them: by, and from whom he got an absolute understanding and perfect wisdom, whereby he led a happier life than we can do. Can we have a better proof to judge of man’s impudency, touching beasts? … It is a matter of divination to guess in whom the fault is, that we understand not another. For we understand them no more than they us. By the same reason, may they as well esteem us beasts, as we them.’

Montaigne, Apology for Raymond Sebond, translated by John Florio, (1603).


‘There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [wasps] with the express intention of their [larva] feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other, I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all [original italics] satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.’

Charles Darwin, letter to Asa Gray, May 22, 1860.


‘BUT now thou askest me and sayest, “How shall I think on Himself, and what is He?” and to this I cannot answer thee but thus: “I wot not.”

For thou hast brought me with thy question into that same darkness, and into that same cloud of unknowing, that I would thou wert in thyself. For of all other creatures and their works, yea, and of the works of God’s self, may a man through grace have fullhead of knowing, and well he can think of them: but of God Himself can no man think. And therefore I would leave all that thing that I can think, and choose to my love that thing that I cannot think. For why; He may well be loved, but not thought. By love may He be gotten and holden; but by thought never. And therefore, although it be good sometime to think of the kindness and the worthiness of God in special, and although it be a light and a part of contemplation: nevertheless yet in this work it shall be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And thou shalt step above it stalwartly, but Mistily, with a devout and a pleasing stirring of love, and try for to pierce that darkness above thee. And smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love; and go not thence for thing that befalleth.’

The Cloud of Unknowing, edited by Evelyn Underhill.


‘I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions and modifications… So if the extrapolation from our own case is involved in the idea of what it is like to be a bat, the extrapolation must be incompletable.’

Thomas Nagel, ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?, The Philosophical Review, 83. (1974).

Practical Expression in Action

‘And what, then, is belief? It is the demi-cadence which closes a musical phrase in the symphony of our intellectual life. We have seen that it has just three properties: First, it is something that we are aware of; second, it appeases the irritation of doubt; and, third, it involves the establishment in our nature of a rule of action, or, say for short, a habit. As it appeases the irritation of doubt, which is the motive for thinking, thought relaxes, and comes to rest for a moment when belief is reached. But, since belief is a rule for action, the application of which involves further doubt and further thought, at the same time that it is a stopping-place, it is also a new starting-place for thought. That is why I have permitted myself to call it thought at rest, although thought is essentially an action. The final upshot of thinking is the exercise of volition, and of this thought no longer forms a part; but belief is only a stadium of mental action, an effect upon our nature due to thought, which will influence future thinking.

The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit; and different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise. If beliefs do not differ in this respect, if they appease the same doubt by producing the same rule of action, then no mere differences in the manner of consciousness of them can make them different beliefs, any more than playing a tune in different keys is playing different tunes. Imaginary distinctions are often drawn between beliefs which differ only in their mode of expression; — the wrangling which ensues is real enough, however. To believe that any objects are arranged among themselves as in Fig. 1, and to believe that they are arranged in Fig. 2, are one and the same belief; yet it is conceivable that a man should assert one proposition and deny the other. Such false distinctions do as much harm as the confusion of beliefs really different, and are among the pitfalls of which we ought constantly to beware, especially when we are upon metaphysical ground. One singular deception of this sort, which often occurs, is to mistake the sensation produced by our own unclearness of thought for a character of the object we are thinking. Instead of perceiving that the obscurity is purely subjective, we fancy that we contemplate a quality of the object which is essentially mysterious; and if our conception be afterward presented to us in a clear form we do not recognize it as the same, owing to the absence of the feeling of unintelligibility. So long as this deception lasts, it obviously puts an impassable barrier in the way of perspicuous thinking; so that it equally interests the opponents of rational thought to perpetuate it, and its adherents to guard against it.’

Charles S. Peirce, How to Make Our Ideas Clear.

‘After the pope John Paul II was shot in 1981, he was rushed to the emergency room of the Gemelli clinic, more precisely the Agostino Gemelli University Polyclinic, where he met a collection of some of the most skilled doctors —modern doctors— Italy could produce, in contrast with the neighboring public hospital with lower quality care. The Gemelli clinic became a designated destination for him and his successors upon hyperventilation, accelerating heartbeat, appearance of sweat in his forehead or similar potential harbingers of risk to his health and the Catholic church. At no point during the emergency period did the drivers of the ambulance consider taking John Paul The Second to a chapel for a prayer, or some equivalent form of intercession with the Lord, to give the sacred first right of refusal for the treatment. And not one of his successors seemed to have considered giving precedence to dealing with the Lord with the hope of some miraculous intervention in place of the trappings of modern medicine. […]

One of the most potent ideas economists have left us is the notion of revelation of preferences. You will not have an idea about what people really think, what predicts people’s actions, merely by asking them. Words don’t count, only deeds do. Words are cheap unless people take actions for them. What matters, in the end, is what they pay for goods, not what they say they “think” about them. People cannot predict their own actions. The same applies to belief. Or what we call belief. And in this case what is called “religious” belief. It doesn’t appear to matter during emergencies. Try to imagine a powerful head of an “atheist” sect, equivalent to the pope in rank, suffering the same health exigency. He would have arrived at Gemelli (not some second rate hospital in Latium) at the same time as John Paul. He would have had the same cloud of “atheist” well-wishers come to give him something called “hope” (or “wish”) in their atheistic language, with some self-consistent narrative about what they would like or “wish” to happen to their prominent man. The atheists would have been less colorfully dressed; the vocabulary would have been a bit less ornamental as well, but actions that require immediacy during crises and emergencies would have been nearly identical.

There was a period, the Albigensian crusade, during which Catholics were engaged in the mass killing of heretics. The killed indiscriminately, heretics and nonheretics, as a time saver and complexity reduction approach. The motto was that it did not matter, since “The Lord would be able to tell them apart”. These times are long gone. Most Christians, when it comes to central medical, ethical, and decision-making situations (like myself, an Orthodox Christian) do not act differently from atheists. Those who do (such as the Christian scientists sects) are few. Most Christians have accepted the modern trappings of democracy, oligocracy, dictatorship of sort, all these heathen political regimes, in place of theocracies, confining the “belief” to matters that would make their decisions for central matters indistinguishable from those of an atheist. So we define atheism in deeds, or secularism, in how much one’s actions differ from those of an atheistic person, not his beliefs and other decorative and symbolic matters, which we insist do not count. And further, we should not worry about people’s religions but their tolerance: it is not my business (nor that of any government, any ruler, any authority) what people “believe”, what matters is what they do to others.’

Nicholas Nassim Taleb,

‘Most religion in England now, says Newman, is mere notional assent, and involves little beyond correct behaviour, pious sentiments, and a decent reverence for ‘sacred scenes’. It is one thing, then, to accept a notion, and quite another to realize a fact; one thing to acquiesce to in an abstract truth, and quite another to give it ‘practical expression’ in action. A ‘real’ assent is one which is ‘felt in the heart, and felt along the blood’, one which affects the imagination, and impels the will toward relevant action. Notional demonstrations cannot produce these results, and real assents therefor – religious beliefs above all – cannot be their outcome. Religious assent has always been enjoined upon us by revelation or by authority: ‘it never has been a deduction from what we know; it has never been an assertion of what we are to believe.’ It cannot be emphatically stated, however, that Newman builds revealed religion upon the foundation of natural religion; the primary assumptions of religion are supplied by the Conscience. […]

A real assent to the truths of natural religion then, will lead to a real assent to those of revealed religion, and our sense of probability, our ‘illative’ sense (which judges degrees of truth), will further lead us to acknowledge the Church to which, under His divine guidance, God has committed the task of preserving and interpreting the revelation. To reach this ultimate certainty, and the ‘triumphant repose’ which it brings, we have but to begin obeying conscience; if we persevere – one step at a time – the kindly light will lead us on.’

Basil Wiley, Nineteenth-Century Studies: Coleridge to Matthew Arnold, ‘Newman and the Oxford Movement.’