January 6, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

The translation of Plutarch's Parallel Lives contains some extremely long and complicated sentences. It comes as no surprise that the Dryden translations of Plutarch suffer from a lack of punctuation since the original Greek did not contain any punctuation either. In fact, scholars today cannot completely agree upon when to use a comma versus parentheses. Sometimes punctuation is a matter of personal taste and sometimes it is clear cut. Michael Palmer, a scholar on ancient Greek texts, discusses the importance of understanding punctuation. He writes,

“For a competent reader of Ancient Greek to fail to question the punctuation in our printed editions of the Ancient Greek texts is an abdication of a significant part of our responsibility. If we don’t struggle with the punctuation, we are simply handing that responsibility off to the editors of those texts. While that is a reasonable thing for students early in the study of the language to do, it is not a reasonable thing for accomplished readers to do. Question the punctuation. Struggle with it. Ask how the text would change if we punctuated it differently. What options are reasonable? Which ones are not? This is a part of what it means to read seriously.”


Thinking about his quest to wrestle with punctuation, I began to wonder about the use and invention of parentheses. Parenthesis (a single bracket) comes from the Greek roots par-, -en and thesis. Literally, it means “to put beside”. Parentheses behave like commas, but are somehow more of a deviation than a parenthetical phrase set aside by commas. Even Strunk and White list this as a difficult rule. Rule number three from the Elements of Style says, “Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas”. And then, they go on to explain that, “This rule is difficult to apply; it is frequently hard to decide whether a single word, such as however, or a brief phrase is or is not parenthetic. If the interruption to the flow of the sentence is but slight, the commas may be safely omitted. But whether the interruption is slight or considerable, never omit one comma and leave the other”. One assumes that the same would be true for parentheses. One main difference may be that parentheses only work in pairs, whereas commas can stand alone. Strunk and White never directly address when to use commas versus when to use parentheses, though they do explain how to incorporate punctuation within the parenthetical phrase itself (see Chapter Three). (Of course, contemporary social media texts now enable one to use a single parenthesis in place of an emoticon. Emoticons and languages like computer codes offer an entirely new style of communication that requires discussion some other time.)

In this article, Neil Gaiman admits that parenthetical phrases allow a bit of the author to come forward. Shakespeare used asides to give the audience privileged knowledge, whereas someone like C.S. Lewis uses them to inform the reader of a personal opinion. It remains unclear as to how much weight should be placed on the text in parentheses, however. For example, the same article then goes on to claim that the parenthetical phrases carry less meaning than the rest of the text. It says, “In her book Quoting Speech in Early English (2011), Colette Moore notes that parentheses, like other marks of punctuation, originally had both 'elocutionary and grammatical functions. . . . . [W]e see that whether through vocal or syntactic means, the parentheses are taken as a means to downplay the significance of the material enclosed within.'” This brings back the point to Plutarch's use of parenthetical phrases. The original Greek form did not allow for parentheses, but I wonder if parenthetic phrases existed in the original, without visible indicators.

The following example (from Plutarch's "Camillus") is just one of many that has sparked my interest in the use of punctuation in ancient texts. After the Gauls invaded Rome and burned much of it, Plutarch notes that the vestal virgins fled the city. Yet, in this passage, he divulges a lot more information than the fact that they fled. Instead, he offers cultural and historical insights into the meaning of fire. While interesting and informative, it seems out of place in the midst of the siege of Rome. It seems to me that, besides the first sentence, the rest of this paragraph is actually a parenthetic phrase.

“But the consecrated fire the vestal virgins took, and fled with it, as likewise their other sacred things. Some write that they have nothing in their charge but the ever-living fire which Numa had ordained to be worshipped as the principle of all things; for fire is the most active thing in nature, and all production is either motion, or attended with motion; all the other parts of matter, so long as they are without warmth, lie sluggish and dead, and require the accession of a sort of soul or vitality in the principle of heat; and upon that accession, in whatever way, immediately receive a capacity either of acting or being acted upon. And thus Numa, a man curious in such things, and whose wisdom made it thought that he conversed with the Muses, consecrated fire, and ordained it to be kept ever burning, as an image of that eternal power which orders and actuates all things.”

Little is known about the first use of parentheses. Erasmus was the first to label the marks, which he called lunula because they appeared like half-moons. Since then, they continued in use, though sparingly, until present day. Currently, dashes, commas or parentheses can be used with almost equal function. Now we even use footnotes and endnotes. Clearly there is a need for this tool, but what is the best, most direct, clearest form of communicating information that pertains, but only slightly, to the main text? As a reader, how do we receive parenthetic information? What are your thoughts on punctuation?

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Winter Solstice

December 23, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

We have just passed the 2016 Winter Solstice. The longest night and coldest temperatures often derive strong images of sadness or death. These are the days of greatest darkness, and yet, for all the dark, we also find hope for the coming of the light. Small cycles often represent much larger cycles, more difficult to coherently map out.

The larger picture includes, among other things, the summer solstice. These two, winter and summer, create a yin/yang balance of light and dark. In most literatures and philosophies, the one is framed by the other. About ten years ago, I found myself in Ecuador, participating in the dances of Inti Raymi. June in Ecuador is part of winter, which brings heavy rains and shorter days. Before the dance, I learned about the concept “tinkuy”, which signifies the coming together of two things. It grants one the ability to hold two opposing things in simultaneous balance. Even the name, Inti Raymi, celebrates the sun during a time of little sun. Summer and winter solstices represent something like a duality, or a yin/yang relationship. They are not oppositional in the sense of opposites, but really, more like a cycle. Dancing with a circular step down dirt streets, singing songs and wearing the colorful dress of Inti Raymi reminds us that it is about being present. This dance represents the continuum of life, in which the darkness is just as necessary as the light.

Many cultures focus on the changing of the light. For these reasons too, solstices often find themselves in literature. I love this stanza from Timothy Steele's “Toward the Winter Solstice”. It develops the ideas of so many civilizations and groups simultaneously, almost as if a performance of tinkuy.


Some wonder if the star of Bethlehem
Occurred when Jupiter and Saturn crossed;
It’s comforting to look up from this roof
And feel that, while all changes, nothing’s lost,
To recollect that in antiquity
The winter solstice fell in Capricorn
And that, in the Orion Nebula,
From swirling gas, new stars are being born. - Timothy Steele, “Toward the Winter Solstice”

Enjoy your holiday and all the hope that it implies.

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July Quarterly Discussion Review

July 29, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart.”
Blaise Pascal, Pensee #282

As usual, the participants in Harrison Middleton University's July Quarterly Discussion were well-prepared and excellently informed. For this discussion, we focused on a selection of Blaise Pascal's Pensées. The topics ranged from construction of self to understanding infinity and contemplation of divinity. Pascal begins the Pensées by attempting to understand differences between mathematical minds and intuitive minds. In his many Pensées, Pascal, a mathematician himself, struggles to define, understand and translate virtue, happiness and a good life. He sees both mathematical minds and intellectual minds as equally important, yet both have blinders in certain areas of life. Therefore, he attempts to identify these barriers and then call attention to them. Additionally, he makes an incredible argument for a belief in God and religion. He argues for a very specific belief, but with such diversity as to address all types of readers.

His arguments are balanced, poignant and elegant, almost as if he is completing a mathematical proof. His arguments seem to rest on the idea of infinity and how it expands man's understanding of the self beyond the limit of the self. He writes, “Let us therefore not look for certainty and stability. Our reason is always deceived by fickle shadows; nothing can fix the finite between the two Infinites, which both enclose and fly from it” (#72). He continues, “If man made himself the first object of study, he would see how incapable he is of going further. How can a part know the whole?” One participant mentioned that there is a sort of continuum between the knower and the thing to be known. Without this connection, humans would lack all responsibility.

In Pensée #194, Pascal addresses his concern for those who lack a desire for such discussion or contemplation. He finds the questions of religion to be among the most important questions for humanity. He writes, “The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us, and which touches us so profoundly, that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing what it is. All our actions and thoughts must take such different courses, according as there are or are not eternal joys to hope for, that it is impossible to take one step with sense and judgement, unless we regulate our course by our view of this point which ought to be our ultimate end.” Pascal claims that this “carelessness in a matter which concerns themselves, their eternity, their all, moves me more to anger than pity”. The group noted his frustration here, not with those who do not believe in God, but with those who do not even care enough to contemplate His existence. Pascal's emotional argument stems from his belief that what we believe filters into our relationships and progresses into our communities. He views questions of morality and virtue as among the most important for our own health and self-care.

Pascal's Pensées are often boiled down to his infamous 'wager' from Pensée #233. Some believe that his wager offers a cheap and weak argument of God's existence, of the very thing which he emphatically claims is society's most precious gift. Another participant noted, however, that in his defense of his wager, he nearly aligns with 2 Corinthians 4:18 which reads, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” Pascal claims that this question is not one for Reason because God is beyond all knowing. There simply is no proof outside of the heart. But if one does not believe, then one risks infinity, the all, everything eternal. Therefore, it is better to fix oneself upon the idea of the infinite, upon what is unseen. The things unseen allow for a larger, more holistic (and perhaps, for Pascal, a more Real) perspective, much like the Corinthians passage.

Finally, the group discussed whether or not Pascal utilized inductive or deductive styles of reason. As in mathematics, the question's frame is of vital importance. But he also has a specific agenda, and so the exercise of tracing his argument from end to beginning is particularly instructive. The group began looking into this question, wrestling with the stylistic traits, but left it unfinished. Hopefully, we have left it for another discussion and another day. I want to extend a wonderful, appreciative thanks to those who participated.

Check our Facebook page or website for updates on October's Quarterly Discussion. We will study some past presidential speeches for a very timely Social Science discussion.

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Pascal in Discussion

May 20, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

I am excited about our newest addition to the Quarterly Discussion. In July, we will be discussing a selection of Pascal's Pensées. In addition to discussion, the journey to understanding often involves clear articulation of a thought through writing. So, I propose that we all attempt a few pensées of our own, a few thought poems or prose poems. It is immensely instructive for a couple of reasons. First, this offers insight into the process of someone like Blaise Pascal, a mathematician and scientist, attempting to understand the intangible things of life through words. Second, it is instructive for the development of thought itself. Not everyone enjoys writing, and some are better at speaking than writing, but I find that the experiment of writing about one thought and carrying it to some sort of final conclusion, is always useful. Third, creative experiments develop an extra resource in our own minds. We draw upon this resource much more often than we realize. This experiment is not a requirement of the discussion, but is simply designed to add something to your own experience. If anyone would like to join me in writing a few pensées,then I will post a handful of them on our blog after July's discussion. I invite you to send me your thought projects anytime within the next two months. I will compile them and post a handful on our blog after our July Quarterly Discussion.

If you are interested in the July Quarterly Discussion, we have room in either: Thursday, July, 14, 2016 at 4 pm PDT; or Saturday, July 16, 2016 at 9 am PDT. For more details, email Alissa at Feel free to send your pensées to me as well. I look forward to hearing from you.


Below are some sample pensées. These pensées were written by Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor:

1] On Language – A disappearing language is no less spectacular than an exploding planet, a supernova or volcano. Repercussions ripple out among estranged beings. Maybe the language lingers. If oral, it lingers in some codex hidden deep within a body of peoples. Perhaps in the sense of cadence and rhythm. Perhaps in the deeply buried idea of taboo. Or as a subject-verb structured world. If written, then form and shape, or purpose, allows for a different kind of eloquence. Do we know what shadows shape our world, what hieroglyph, what rune, what character? We cleave to what was cleaved.

As a body of peoples, we see the world in a way that is inherently informed by language. Yet, putting thought into words makes fools of us all, attempting the impossible. We absolutely underestimate the force and power present within a single mind. Both mouth and pen struggle to represent a single thought in words suitable, appropriate and transmittable. Ad infinitum.

We have heard that languages die. But what sort of death would this be? What sort of burial? Would there be a recorded last speaker who suddenly, and at no one's suspense or expectation, simply disappears? Into the... ether? How does something exist, and then not? Language even lacks an acceptable word for the ether of the infinite.


2] On Beauty - We find meaning only after we lose something dear. Just like life, to take what we give and rename it at the end. Meaning arrives simultaneous to the moment's conclusion. Singular moments, singular meanings, yet each linked to the next. Something greater than ourselves grants memory and then takes it back again. It is beautiful to recognize the moment. Just like beauty, to sneak in along the fringe.

We do not know for what we search and sometimes we do not know why we search. The closest I can say is that we attend our daily duties with a sense of upkeep. And in the day to day grows a self. Swells the soil from deep within over the smallest germ – the cost of which is both time and mortality.


3] On Thought – Computers offer proof of the development of human thought, but they do not develop human thought. Those tools were built before human hands – or at least in tandem – and remain far from the narrow reach of our human hands. Perhaps emotion informs these hidden tools of human thought. A map of emotions would be similar to crows in flight: erratic, cacophonous, yet graceful enough to land among some treasures.


4] On Space – It has been said that a house reflects the tenant. I am tenant of no house except the mountains, seas and deserts and they absolutely reflect who I am. This is the space that guides, limits and extends my imagination. 


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