Archive | December, 2007

The Pear Tree Code

The following letter appeared in the December 29th Opelika-Auburn News:

To the Editor:

I’m sorry to see Mary Belk’s column repeating the long-refuted myth that the song “Twelve Days of Christmas” originated as a coded way of imparting Catholic doctrine in Protestant England when Catholics were persecuted.

Mona Lisa XII A quick internet search will bring up multiple websites debunking this spurious legend; just Google “Twelve Days of Christmas” together with “Catholic.”

In any case, the story doesn’t make sense even on its own terms, because the supposed secret meanings of the verses don’t contain any specifically Catholic content!

They’re generically Christian. Don’t both Catholics and Protestants accept the six days of creation, the ten commandments, etc.?

So why would Catholics need to hide in coded verse a set of meanings that were as acceptable to Protestants as to Catholics?

Roderick T. Long
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Auburn University

See also here and here.

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Alexandria – Birthplace of the Wheel!

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Just got back from Baltimore: great Molinari Society session, great visit to the National Aquarium, great seafood (don’t worry, not at the Aquarium).

The Rise and Fall of AlexandriaOn my return I find in my email inbox an ad for this book on the history of Alexandria.

Now while I haven’t read the book, I confess to being rather put off by the following blurb:

It was here mankind first discovered that the earth was not flat, originated atomic theory, invented geometry, systematized grammar, translated the Old Testament into Greek, built the steam engine, and passed their discoveries on to future generations via the written word.

Say what? Before Alexandria was even founded, Aristotle was teaching a round-earth cosmology, and Leucippus and Democritus were teaching an atomist physics. And Plato’s Academy, with its inscription over the door “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here,” must have been awfully empty as students and teachers milled about on its front steps, waiting for Alexander of Macedon to be born so he could found Alexandria so there could be a place where somebody could “invent geometry.” (So much for Thales and the Pythagoreans.)

And this is considering only the Greeks. Chinese geometry, Indian atomism, and Indian round-earth cosmology also predate Alexandria – as does Indian “systematized grammar.”

As for the quotation’s final conjunct, I’m not sure whether the author of this blurb literally meant that the Alexandrians were the first to pass any discoveries on to future generations via the written word, or just these particular discoveries, but if it’s the former (which is what the grammar implies), that’s even sillier than the rest of it.

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Goblins at the Printing Press

One downside of the lower cost of publishing that computer technology has made possible is the proliferation of sloppy publishing houses. Now don’t get me wrong – the benefits definitely outweigh the costs. But the costs are real, and I’m entitled to gripe about them. Kessinger Reprints comes to mind – their productions range from the good (Isabel Paterson’s Never Ask the End, a perfectly fine facsimile edition) to the bad (Jules Verne’s Children of Captain Grant, filled with scanning errors) to the ugly (Lysander Spooner’s Vices Are Not Crimes, which includes the footnote markers but omits all the actual footnotes, in addition to mangling the subtitle).

Princess Irene But what I’m griping about today is the Quiet Vision Press edition of George MacDonald’s fantasy classic The Princess and the Goblin.

The text itself is pretty much okay – just a few typos (mostly capitalisation and hyphenation errors). But

First, on the back of the book it says:

The Princess Irene has been kidnapped by Goblins. And it is up to an unlikely hero, Curdie the Miner Boy, to save the day.

Um, no.

It’s admittedly true that throughout the book the reader is continually led to expect that Irene will be kidnapped by the goblins and that Curdie will have to rescue her. But it never happens; MacDonald is too clever a writer to be that predictable. Instead it’s Curdie who gets kidnapped, and it’s Irene who has to rescue him. So, strike one.

Next, the back of the book continues:

An amazing tale from one of the founders of modern fantasy, George MacDonald. Including illustrations from a late 1900th century edition.

Wow, that’s really old. Or else from far in the future – one or the other. Strike two.

Finally, on the first page of the book there’s a place for the owner to write his or her name, and here, in fancy Gothic font, we see printed:

This Books Belongs To ____________________

Strike three!

And then, to add insult to injury (or perhaps injury to insult – or at least threat to incompetence), the copyright page sternly informs us that “No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted,” blah blah blah, “without permission of the publisher.” This in a book where both text and pictures date from the 19th (or 1900th?) century and so are in the public domain! I wonder if there are any legal penalties for claiming copyright protection when you don’t actually have it?

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Penguins in the Basement

My dissertation advisor Terry Irwin used to say that Cambridge changes are so named because that’s the only way things ever change at Cambridge. Evidently so, since two blackboards have just surfaced in a Cambridge basement with century-old, never-erased chalk sketches of penguins by polar explorers Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton. (Story here; conical hat tip to LRC.) They’d better get those things under glass pretty quickly, I reckon.

You can see a close-up of the drawings here. Evidently Scott was a bit better at drawing than Shackleton was.

I venture to say that that’s perhaps the only respect in which Scott was better than Shackleton. Check out these excellent, and reasonably accurate, docudramas of the marvelous Shackleton, who heroically brought his crew through against impossible odds without losing a single man, and the odious Scott, whose arrogance and incompetence led himself and his men to a needless death.

I hope the upcoming Mountains of Madness movie captures something of the feel of these two great films (only with more shoggoths, of course).

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The Spooner the Better

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Reminder: the Molinari Society will be holding its fourth annual Symposium this week in Baltimore, in conjunction with the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association (Dec. 27-30). Here’s the schedule, with links to the papers (which, as you’ll see, are both Spooner-intensive):

Lysander Spooner GVIII-4. Saturday, 29 December 2007, 11:15 a.m.-1:15 p.m.
Molinari Society symposium: “Anarchy: It’s Not Just a Good Idea, It’s the Law”
Falkland (Fourth Floor), Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, 700 Aliceanna Street

Session 1, 11:15-12:15:
chair: Jennifer McKitrick (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
speaker: Charles Johnson (Molinari Institute)
title: A Place for Positive Law: A Contribution to Anarchist Legal Theory
commentator: John Hasnas (Georgetown University)

Session 2, 12:15-1:15:
chair: Carrie-Ann Biondi (Marymount Manhattan College)
speaker: Roderick T. Long (Auburn University)
title: Inside and Outside Spooner’s Natural Law Jurisprudence
commentator: Geoffrey Allan Plauché (Louisiana State University)

Also check out the schedules (happily not conflicting) of the AAPSS and ARS

So if you plan to be in the Baltimore area, come on by! (Last year they switched us to a different room at the last minute, so if you come to the appointed location and don’t see us, look around for a sign – we’ll be sure to have one up if it’s needed.)

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Three Anarchistic Tales

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

For he, like a man or a star, lives in a universe
shut in by walls of the things he knows.
– RWL

A late Christmas gift for you: three hauntingly beautiful and politically subversive early 20th-century tales – all searing indictments of the brutality of the state – have been posted in the Molinari Online Library: Voltairine de Cleyre’s fiction-disguised-as-memoir “The Chain Gang” (1907), Gertrude Nafe’s mordant fable “The Law and the Man Who Laughed” (1913), and Rose Wilder Lane’s journalism-disguised-as-fiction “A Bit of Gray in a Blue Sky” (1919). (This is, to the best of my knowledge, the first time that the Nafe and Lane pieces have been available online.)

chain gang De Cleyre and Lane were of course leading writers of the libertarian anarchist tradition (representing that tradition’s “socialist” and “capitalist” strands respectively, if it matters). I haven’t been able to learn much about Gertrude Nafe, except that she was an associate of Emma Goldman’s, that she was active in John Reed’s Communist Labor Party, that her short stories were well-regarded by the mainstream, and that she was dismissed from her post as a Denver schoolteacher for refusing to take an oath to “promote by precept and example obedience to laws and constituted authorities.” Specifically, I don’t know whether she was an anarchist; but “The Law and the Man Who Laughed” is certainly anarchist in spirit.

Despite its obvious antiracist intent, “The Chain Gang” is marred by some unconscious racism (beneath all her beautiful metaphors, de Cleyre is in effect characterising blacks – or black convicts, anyway – as congenitally ignorant but naturally musical, comparing them to idiots savants), but its haunting beauty survives this flaw.

“A Bit of Gray in a Blue Sky” isn’t explicitly an antiwar story, but it’s hard not to read it as one, or to see an analogy between the fate of Lane’s carrier pigeon and the fate of human beings dragged from their ordinary lives into the jaws of a war machine they know and care nothing about. (Incidentally, see the true story behind Lane’s account. Sadly, by the time “A Bit of Gray” was published, the pigeon had already died of its wounds.)

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