Monthly Archives: December 2012

Bacon on habits

In his essay “Of Nature in Men,” Francis Bacon presents some unusual ideas about the formation and maintenance of habits.

Let not a man force a habit upon himself with a perpetual continuance, but with some intermission. For both the pause reinforceth the new onset; and if a man that is not perfect be ever in practice, he shall as well practise his errors as his abilities, and induce one habit of both; and there is no means to help this but by seasonable intermissions.

It’s hard to see how seasonable intermissions do anything to solve the problem. If practice strengthens both one’s errors and one’s abilities, it would seem that the cessation of practice would likewise weaken both equally. Intermissions would be helpful only if unpracticed errors faded away more rapidly than unpracticed abilities, which seems unlikely to be the case. After all, a habit is a habit, and its status as an “ability” or an “error” is a function of the value we impute to it, not of anything in the nature of the habit itself.

One possible way to make sense of Bacon’s statement is this: When we practice a particular skill, we learn ability by design but error by accident. Therefore, if a number of people practice the same skill independently, they would be expected to develop similar abilities but dissimilar errors — just as, in biology, conspecifics tend to be similar in their adaptive features but dissimilar in their deleterious mutations.

If a person returns to the practice of a particular skill after a sufficiently long intermission, such that he has to relearn everything more-or-less from scratch, it is almost as if a different person were learning the skill. He is dealt a new hand of good and bad habits relative to that skill. But the good habits will be mostly the same as the good habits he learnt before, while the bad habits (conceptualized as mutation-like copying errors) will be mostly new. Thus the good habits, which are being learnt for the second time, will come more naturally, being reinforced by traces of those long-dormant former habits, while the bad ones will not. If I were to pick up my old banjo again after these 20 years, according to this theory, I would quickly relearn a fluent forward-reverse roll but would be less likely to pick up my old “bad” habit of resting two fingers on the head when picking.*

That’s the best I can do with what Bacon has written, but I’m not at all sure that it would really work. Nor am I at all sure that it’s really what Bacon had in mind. It seems unlikely that he was recommending taking such a long break that you forget everything and have to start over from scratch.


Elsewhere in the same essay, Bacon writes:

But let not a man trust his victory over his nature too far; for nature will lay buried a great time, and yet revive upon the occasion or temptation. Like as it was with Aesop’s damosel, turned from a cat to a woman; who sate very demurely at the board’s end, till a mouse ran before her. Therefore let a man either avoid the occasion altogether; or put himself often to it, that he may be little moved with it.

Here Bacon’s counterintuitive advice is to actively seek out frequent temptation if one is not able to avoid temptation altogether — and who, in the real world, is ever able to do the latter? This strikes me as extraordinarily bad advice, though I seem to remember reading that Gandhi did something of the kind, regularly sleeping with beautiful women — “sleeping” in the literal, not the euphemistic, sense — in order to inure himself to their charms and strengthen his chastity. I can see the logic behind the method, but I suspect it would usually do more harm than good. Each individual temptation would become weaker and easier to withstand, it is true, but that benefit would seem to be offset by the increased number of temptations.

If you want to minimize your number of skiing accidents, what is the optimal frequency with which you should go skiing? Well, never, obviously — but assume that’s not an option. Assume the minimum is once a year. If you keep to that minimum, you’ll only have one opportunity a year to have an accident — but the odds of having an accident in any given year will be relatively high, since you won’t be a very good skier. If you go skiing every week, on the other hand, you’ll become a good skier with a much lower chance of having an accident during any given skiing trip — but you’ll also have 52 times as many ski trips as the once-a-year skier. There surely is some number of ski trips per year which is the optimum, but it’s impossible to know in advance what that optimum is, or whether you ought to ski more often or less often than you currently do.

Thus Bacon’s advice — Lead us into temptation so as to deliver us from evil — doesn’t seem very practical. In trying to follow it, most people would probably end up just using it as an excuse to expose themselves to greater-than-optimal temptation in the subconscious hope of slipping up and yielding.


*My old banjo teacher, Lee Ruff, considered this an error. Apparently not all pickers would agree. According to this site, “There has been a particular furor among banjoists over whether to plant the ring, the little or both of the fingers on the head to stabilize the hand as a picking platform.”

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Two hymns

I often post about songs that can be mixed together or sung simultaneously, but usually I just link to each song and let the reader imagine the combination for himself. Here’s one where I actually went to the trouble of combining them myself and making an audio file (which I’ve uploaded to YouTube as a video, since WordPress doesn’t allow me to upload MP3s).

The songs are two Christian hymns, “All Creatures of Our God and King” (Lasst Uns Erfreuen) and “He Is Risen” (Unser Herrscher by Joachim Neander, sung in some churches as “Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty”). I did this arrangement back in the nineties.


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The difficulty of becoming familiar with classical music

I mentioned in this post that I’ve never really been able to “get” classical music — that even my enjoyment of Bach is superficial and basically non-aesthetic in nature.

That’s not entirely true.


Some time ago I thought I could feel a nervous breakdown coming on, the same way you can sense strep throat or a migraine looming in the distance hours or even days before the symptoms begin. Not that I would really know, never having experienced a nervous breakdown, but there’s an instinct for these things; it’s like the way people instinctively know that beer tastes like horse urine even if they’ve never tried the latter beverage. I could feel my spirit shifting around uncomfortably, straining a bit at the walls of its tabernacle, and an inarticulate inner voice whispered something that felt an awful lot like “Set thine house in order, for thou shalt die and not live.”

And then a new presence appeared — a piece of music demanding to be played in my head: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Something resisted it at first, but finally I opened to it, let those Ezekiel-wheels spin into my mind, let that good angel take possession and drive the devil out. It’s a remarkable piece of music — never pausing for breath, never missing a step, and yet somehow it feels entirely unpremeditated: you can tell that Bach sat down at his harpsichord one day and just played it, never knowing any more than what the very next note should be. “Take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost.” The music is about taking one step into the dark, and then another, and then another, and — unaccountably — never making a single mistake, never a single sin against perfect beauty.

When the chorale had finished, I knew I would be just fine. Saved — pardon the unpardonable pun — from a fugue by a cantata.


So I guess I understand the “Bach, therefore God” argument a little better than I let on. Of course all that “really” happened was that I felt a little strange, recalled a piece of music I had heard, and felt normal again — but the fact remains that I can’t even begin to describe what the experience was like, subjectively, without casting it in supernatural terms and drawing heavily on the Bible. I experienced it as possession: a bad spirit had taken up residence, and a good spirit drove it out. “Om isn’t just a sound,” someone says somewhere, “it’s a person” — and I could have said the same thing of the Bach piece. And really, is it any less nonsensical for an angel to appear in the form of a piece of music than in the form of a carbon-based organism?

But was it really an angel? And does the whole experience somehow prove that there is a God? No, and no. I’ve no warrant to jump to such conclusions. But I can understand why someone might.


So why, when I was making my confession of musical philistinism, did I forget all about this experience? I’m not sure. I knew that the piece in question was by Bach, but somehow I didn’t make the connection.

“Bach” for me means The Art of Fugue and, really, nothing else. I can name a few other compositions — the Goldberg Variations, the Brandenburg Concertos — but they’re just names. (I think this can be attributed to my having come to classical music by way of geekdom, having first met Bach in company with Gödel and Escher.) Beethoven is the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies (though I can never remember which is which)  and “Für Elise.” I doubt if I could identify a single piece by Mozart. I’ve listened to Don Giovanni many times but would be hard pressed to hum a few bars from it; I find it totally unmemorable. The only other composers with whom I can pretend even the shallowest familiarity are Chopin (Hofstadter’s influence again) and Shostakovich (because some Myers-Briggs book said his music should appeal to the INTP personality type). Chopin — whom I know, for some reason, by his mazurkas rather than his études — is pleasant enough, but I can’t tell one piece from another. I did a pretty good job of convincing myself for a while that I could dig Shostakovich, but it didn’t stick; I remember none of his music. Aside from a few other isolated pieces — “Clair de Lune,” Pachelbel’s Canon in D, Handel’s Messiah, Dvořák’s seventh Humoresque, the usual Tchaikovsky stuff everyone knows, one other piece which I can’t name but know is by Haydn — that’s the extent of my musical knowledge. My “several unsuccessful attempts to cultivate a taste for classical music” have consisted mainly of listening to Art of Fugue, Don Giovanni, and Beethoven’s symphonies over and over and hoping something would click.


But why should it be so? I grew up in a house where classical music was played just as often as pop, so why am I now thoroughly familiar with Simon & Garfunkel and the Moody Blues but almost completely ignorant of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart? Maybe just because that’s what I liked, but I don’t think that’s the whole answer. My parents and siblings also played a lot of pop music that I didn’t really like, but I have no trouble remembering what it was. With most of the classical stuff, my memory is a complete blank. I know Vivaldi was played a lot; I can even remember what the record covers looked like — but Vivaldi is just a name. I have zero recollection of his actual music. Really nothing whatsoever.

I think a big part of the problem is probably the lack of lyrics — or of lyrics which I can understand, anyway. (Pieces with English lyrics, like the Messiah, are much more memorable.) Remembering a song is easier than remembering an instrumental piece for the same reason that learning how to spell a new English word is easier than learning how to write a new Chinese character: it’s made up of familiar components which have names.

The absence of lyrics also means that there’s no way to “look up” a piece of music you’ve heard and find out what it is. If I hear an unfamiliar song which I like on the radio, it’s easy to find out what it’s called and who it’s by. When it comes to instrumental music, it’s not so easy. For example, the garbage trucks in Taiwan play music to alert people that they are coming, sometimes “Für Elise,” and sometimes Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska’s “A Maiden’s Prayer.” Despite having heard that latter piece hundreds and hundreds of times during my eight years in this country, I never knew what it was until a few minutes ago, when I had the bright idea of googling “Taiwan garbage truck music.” There’s no way to look up a melody and get its name, so except in special cases like this one Google is useless.

Even instrumental music from a movie soundtrack isn’t so convenient to look up. I thought one of the pieces in the film Hilary and Jackie was remarkable, so I looked up the soundtrack — and got a list of twenty opaque names like “Prelude from Suite No. 1 in G Major,” any one of which could be the one I was after. I had no choice but to track down each piece on the list, listen to it, and see if it was the one. I got discouraged halfway through this exercise (this was before everything was on YouTube) and never did find it.


Those godawful names for the pieces are a problem in their own right. While several classical pieces do have proper names, it seems the vast majority have only these ugly, soulless, totally forgettable genre-number-key labels. Trying to remember which pieces you like is like trying to remember the Dewey Decimal numbers of your favorite books. “I just love 873.01 V 819-2! What a masterpiece! Even better than 872.01 V 819 in my opinion.” (Virgil’s Georgics and Eclogues, respectively; the only library books that happened to be on my desk.)

Why did so many musicians put up with those horrible names? They’re as bad as Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, a name which most everyone has the good sense to reject in favor of Whistler’s Mother. (There’s also an Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 2, a portrait of Carlyle in the same style. Whistler’s Mother is so iconic that No. 2 now looks like an L.H.O.O.Q.-style parody.) At least with Whistler’s title I know it refers to one of his gray and black paintings. If I had perfect pitch, I suppose “G Major” would be just as informative as “Grey and Black” — but I don’t have perfect pitch.

But informativeness aside, how did composers stomach those names aesthetically? Bach didn’t name his sons Boy 1, Boy 2, Boy 3, and Boy 4 — that would have been barbaric — so why was he so willing to inflict similar barbarisms on most of his compositions?


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Comparison, not perfection, is primary

In an earlier post, I discuss Montaigne’s idea that morality is essentially comparative in nature. There is no perfect, only better. Our moral law demands that we be better than we are — not because as it happens we fail to meet the standard, but because “better than we are” is the standard. If we were ever to reach the state which we now imagine to be perfection (though we can hardly pretend that we even imagine it clearly or distinctly; it’s an inherently unclear concept), we would invent new, higher standards for ourselves and set to work pursuing those.


But doesn’t “higher” mean “closer to the top” — to perfection? Can one moral law be considered “higher” than another in the absence of any transcendent standard of perfection by which to judge them?

Yes, it can — in much the same way that one integer can be judged higher than another without any clear concept of numerical infinity (to which neither integer can really be considered “closer” anyway). Things are judged “higher” in altitude not because they are closer to some hypothetical heaven of heavens, but because they are farther from the ground — so many meters above sea level. Things are judged “older” because they began farther from the present, not closer to the beginning of time. The same goes for morality and everything else. No standard of perfection is really necessary; once you have the concepts of zero and one, everything else falls into place.

(This is Locke’s theory of degrees of perfection, which contradicts Aquinas’s. Locke was right, and Aquinas was wrong. See my discussion of Aquinas’s “fourth way” here.)


For all scalar attributes — those which admit of degrees — comparison is primary. The idea of good is derived from the idea of better, not vice versa.

When I was a teenager I used to tinker with artificial languages of my own construction — a “secret vice” which I picked up from Tolkien and which was reinforced by my involvement with the Esperanto movement. I remember one such language in which all adjectives were derived from verbs, and most of those verbs were transitive. Thus, there was no word for “tall,” only for “be-taller-than.” The nearest equivalent in this language to the sentence John is tall would be literally translated as “John is noticeably taller than the average man” (not as wordy as it sounds, because this language had monosyllabic prefixes meaning “to a noticeable degree” and “the average”). That language had the right idea, and it’s a pity that Aquinas never spoke it.


Also relevant is Spinoza’s definition of joy as “a man’s passage from a lesser to a greater perfection” — not the static eudaimonia of Aristotle, but a dynamic betterdaimonia. (I don’t have the Greek to coin a less barbarous term, and anyway no one would have understood it if I had.)


The Mormons define heaven as “eternal progression” — a paradox, because if you continue progressing forever, it means you can never reach your goal. “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” It sounds like a definition of futility, not happiness. But maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it. Maybe goal is a completely wrongheaded idea when applied to life itself. What life needs in order to be meaningful is not so much a goal as a direction — and you can have a direction to run in without needing to have a finish line.

That’s not really satisfying, though. The paradox still rankles. A quest with no possible end still seems futile and meaningless by definition. But a quest with as end is equally problematic: once you reach the finish line — then what?


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Morphological scofflaws

One of the basic rules of English word construction is that a compound word takes its basic meaning and grammatical character from its final component. A housecat is a kind of cat, but a cathouse is a kind of house. Milk chocolate is a kind of chocolate, but chocolate milk is a kind of milk. (The latter two examples are considered compound words even though they are written with a space between the components.)

However, there seems to be a small but significant set of words which are exceptions to this rule. For example, killjoy ought by all rights to be a kind of joy. It ought to mean something like “the joy of the kill” — the feeling that makes you want to high-five your buddies after blowing the brains out of an eland. Iris Murdoch somewhere coins the word snowjoy (with reference to the emotions of dogs in winter), and it is instantly understandable. Hemingway would have been equally understandable if he had written of the killjoy of a toreador — but instead killjoy breaks the rules and means “one who kills joy.” Likewise, you ought to be able to say “He scoffed at the king and was jailed for violation of the scofflaw” — but in fact scofflaw follows the same pattern as killjoy and means “one who scoffs at the law.”

The other exceptions I’ve been able to think of all follow the same pattern: the structure is verb+noun, and the meaning is “one that [verbs] [noun].” Here’s my list so far:

  • be-all and end-all
  • breakwater
  • catchall
  • catchpenny
  • cure-all
  • cutpurse
  • cutthroat
  • dreadnought
  • killjoy
  • know-it-all
  • know-nothing
  • makeweight
  • makework
  • pickpocket
  • scarecrow
  • scofflaw
  • spoilsport

If you know any others, add a comment.

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Montaigne on virtue

I want to comment on a couple of quotes from Montaigne, both from his essay “On Vanity” (Essays III:9, M. A. Screech translation). Here’s the first one.

Human wisdom has never managed to live up to the duties which it has prescribed for itself; and if it had done so, it would have prescribed itself more, further beyond them still, towards which is could continue to strive and aspire, so hostile is our condition to immobility. Man commands himself to be necessarily at fault.

I thought this was a thought-provoking take on the idea of the inevitability of human sinfulness.

The usual idea is that the moral law is what it is, and that human behavior is defined as sinful because it falls short of that law. The moral law is absolutely moral — that is, moral in and of itself, without reference or comparison to anything else — because God wills that morality be thus defined. Actual human behavior is only relatively immoral — that is, it can be judged moral only with reference to absolute standard of the moral law, of which it falls woefully short.

In Montaigne’s intriguing reversal, it is actual human behavior which serves as the absolute point of reference. Human behavior is absolutely immoral — immoral in and of itself, without reference to a moral law or any other external standard — because man wills that immorality be thus defined. (“Man commands himself to be necessarily at fault.”) Human behavior is of course a moving point of reference, continually in flux, but it is no less absolute for that. (Absolute does not mean eternal and unchanging; it means non-relative, i.e., not defined in relation to or comparison with something else.) Actual human behavior, whatever it may happen to be, is to be considered immoral by definition — and morality is defined as whatever exceeds that.

Man’s quest to be moral could be compared to an athlete’s quest to break the world record. There’s no absolute standard, no such thing as “perfect” — only an absolute conviction that the current record, whatever it may happen to be, is inadequate and must be surpassed. And when it is surpassed and a new record set, that, too will be inadequate and in need of surpassing — by definition. The dog can never catch the car.

As dark and nihilistic a view of morality as that may seem to be, I think it captures something true about human psychology. Man loves progress and hates perfection. When there are no more worlds to conquer — that is, when his every goal has been reached and his every dream realized — he weeps. He literally cannot be satisfied with himself, because satisfaction is as such unsatisfactory to him. Satisfaction is bestial, ox-like, subhuman — not because as it happens things are not satisfactory and thus we ought not to be satisfied, but because satisfaction — with any conceivable state of affairs — is intrinsically base, attainable only by condescending to the subhuman level of the Nietzschean “Last Man.”

Better Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Mill presumably thought it went without saying that being Socrates satisfied would be the best state of affairs — but he may have unwittingly been laying out the only two choices there are.


Later in the same essay, Montaigne writes:

Anyone who, in an ailing time like ours, boasts that he can bring a naïve and pure virtue to the world’s service either has no idea what virtue is, since our opinions are corrupted along with our morals — indeed, just listen to them describing it; listen to most of them vaunting of their deeds and formulating their rules: instead of describing virtue they are describing pure injustice and vice, and they present it, thus falsified, in the education of princes — or else, if he does have some notion of it, he boasts wrongfully and, say what he will, does hundreds of things for which his conscience condemns him. . . . In such straits the most honourable mark of goodness consists in freely acknowledging your defects and those of others, while using your powers to resist and retard the slide towards evil, having to be dragged down that slope, while hoping for improvement and desiring improvement.

This reminds me of the advice Bruce Charlton is always giving about living in the modern world. (I can’t seem to find a specific post to link to, so you’ll have to be content with a passim.) We can’t fix the world, can’t drain the moral swamp we find ourselves in. You can’t even hope to stay personally clean in this dirty water we’ve been given to swim in. You can only do two things. First, keep your standards even as you are forced to break them. Sin if you must, but never cease to call it sin. Resist the pressure to call evil good and good evil. No matter how goddamn long you’ve been down, you can’t ever let it look like up to you. And second, drag your feet as much as possible. If you can’t resist actively, resist passively. If you can’t do that, do nothing. If you must serve evil, serve it incompetently. Do not go gentle into that good night.

(Dr. Charlton draws heavily on Pascal, who in turn drew heavily on Montaigne, so the similarity may be more than a coincidence. I don’t particularly remember anything on this theme in the Pensées, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.)

Combining this with the first quote, though, leads one to wonder whether Montaigne’s times — or our own — were really all that uniquely bad. (“Clear your mind of cant,” says Dr. Johnson. “You may say, ‘These are bad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times.’ You don’t mind the times.”) If Montaigne had lived in ancient Rome, or Dr. Charlton in Byzantium, would they really have written any differently about the world and how to live in it? Perhaps there is at least some truth to the idea that these times are “ailing times” by definition — that the moral swamp can’t be drained because the current moral atmosphere is always, by definition, a swamp — that man commands the world, no less than himself, to be necessarily at fault.

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This Just Doesn’t Seem To Be My Day / Mother’s Little Helper

Two more songs that can be sung together:

“This Just Doesn’t Seem To Be My Day” by the Monkees

and “Mother’s Little Helper” by the Rolling Stones.

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