Lovejoy Reading Notes

Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: Macroinformation.org &
Knatz.com / Teaching / Scholarship / Bibliography /

Reading Notes:

Arthur O. Lovejoy

Mission: to gather a few Lovejoy quotes and to comment on those quotes

Two books by Arthur O. Lovejoy have had an important place on my shelves since my undergraduate days: Essays in the History of Ideas and The Great Chain of Being. I’ll select some quotes from there here and offer comments.

Both books would be on the short list of books I’d like to translate from academic English into plain English, if I had another life time to do it. (See the following note.)

Lovejoy writes the scholarly version of Standard Written English: that is, he assumes that the reader can follow quotes in Latin, French, or German without translation. Here I’ll tend to repeat only the English. (My Latin has seldom been good, my French has deteriorated over time, and my German was nonexistent until my mid-twenties.)

I plan to display passages from Lovejoy, whether it’s his prose or his quoting someone, in this green; my comments will continue in standard, default, black.


from Essays in the History of Ideas, “Nature” as Esthetic Norm

  • For nature has been the chief and the most pregnant word in the terminology of all the normative provinces of thought in the West; and the multiplicity of its meanings has made it easy, and common, to slip more or less insensibly from one connotation to another, and thus in the end to pass from one ethical or aesthetic standard to its very antithesis, while nominally professing the same principles.

  • Now that point is great, and fabulously expressed, and I’m looking forward to adding an appreciative word or two; but first there’s a general point that my late-date re-attention to Lovejoy is making me itch to express:

    Again I remind all: clarifying and tracing the history of an idea important-to-dominant in one’s culture is not necessarily endorsing the idea. Showing where we are and how we got there is not the same as saying we’re in the best of all possible places.

    Passim, Essays in the History of Ideas recapitulates a world view descended from the title idea of The Great Chain of Being. Wikipedia offers a quick sense of the subject, so I’ll only utter a few essentials: The medieval view of existence was that it was a hierarchy. At it top was the God of Western monotheism. But other ideas also work their way into any fabric. Lovejoy pays attention to the concept that “nature abhors a vacuum.” Believers in the Great Chain of Being also tended to believe that saw about nature disallowing gaps. Even philosophies that turned on the God of the hierarchy, deism, for example, continued to believe in hierarchy, and continued to believe that there were no gaps. The medieval view didn’t trust human nature (any more than do I). The deists DID trust human nature and came to believe that natural reason was all we need.

    Apropos, check out THIS passage:

    from Essays in the History of Ideas, Parallel of Deism and Classicism

  • The presumption of the universal accessibility and verifiability of all that it is really needful for men to know implied that all subtle, elaborate, intricate reasonings about abstruse questions beyond the grasp of the majority are certainly unimportant, and probably untrue. Thus any view difficult to understand, or requiring a long and complex exercise of the intellect for its verification, could be legitimately dismissed without examination, at least if it concerned any issue in which man’s moral or religious interests were involved. A “system” was a legitimate object of suspicion simply because it was a system.

  • Further:

    from Essays in the History of Ideas, Parallel of Deism and Classicism

  • Quoting Bolingbroke:

    An “internal proof of the divine original of the law of nature is the plainness and simplicity which renders it intelligible in all times and places, and proportions it to the meanest understanding. It has been made intricate by casuistry, that of lawyers and divines. … [But] these principles want neither paraphrase nor commentary to be sufficiently understood.”

  • Dig it? I promise to expand on my objections: for now just note: that view is not AT ALL endorsed by contemporary science. By the early Twentieth Century Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead … were insisting on gaps and discontinuities in existence. The medievals insisted on a Plan; the moderns emphasize Chance.

    It’s hard enough to imagine Abelard or Occam emerging a rough millennium ago; Darwin, Godel … are inconceivable.

    I’ll also expand on a statement which for this moment I’ll just flat out assert: The contemporaries of Darwin, Godel, pk … live far more in the world of ideas of the Great Chain, cousins to Aquinas, Wilberforce, than in the world of Darwin, Godel … Moses Harmon.

    (And what do you make of the religiosity of pk? who takes the void personally! and refuses knee-jerk denials of design?) (Are his ideas simply beneath contempt? or might he see something you’d be better off also seeing?)


    On The Great Chain of Being

    any part of this module may need reworking, deletion, expansion … what follows was written before the current version of the above.

    My first comments here apply to both Lovejoy books and to a great many others besides, but most pointedly to The Great Chain of Being: I recently wrote my son that undigested ideas may change the world more often than digested ideas. Lovejoy’s titles influenced me strongly long before I’d read more than a paragraph or two of them. “The Great Chain of Being” suited the Christian monotheism I’d been assigned as a child and the idea of ideas having a history was stimulating, especially once it occurred to one that that history might be traceable. (And where histories may be traceable, mistakes can be made. And where mistakes can be made, mistakes can sometimes be corrected.)

    I should now confess that my current reading is very very different from my first half-century’s glances at those pages. Somehow even a famous college doesn’t erase overnight the public school impression that whatever the author is citing the author agrees with. Sure I knew better; but not altogether better. Specifically, I assure you: in 1956 or 1957 it did not occur to me that a modern writing about the medieval conception of the Great Chain of Being was mapping how our background retards us in addressing some understandings.

    One thing I want to work in is a parallel between the hubris-saturated idea that humans are competent to discuss reason with the well-known “Polish” joke:

    Who won the Polish beauty contest?
    No one.

    Please appreciate that I launched the above in July 2006. Sorry I never got further with it. It was October of that year that I was arrested, the following February all my online domains were censored. Though the fed spit me back out in 2007, it spit me broke and censored, warned against resurrecting anything. My computers, my data, weren’t returned to me till a half year later, the warning repeated, the synergy, gestalt, coordination, the networking of my integrated system broken. But of course I’ve been doing exactly that ever since, resurrecting: but doing it broke (as I go blind and deaf!)
    Still my joy is unparalleled: God gives me privileged peeks at the sufferings of the damned in hell: and I smile. The US writhes with Hitler’s Reich, with Koba’s Soviet, with the Roman Empire of Jerusalem.
    @ K 2006 07 18

    Reading Notes

    About pk

    Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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