Scholars and Soldiers

May 26, 2008

The Nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.
-Thucydides

I came across this quotation recently and, since this is Memorial Day in the United States, decided to do a post on it.

The idea that scholars and warriors should be one and the same has a long history, obviously. I associate it most with Plato’s Republic – he has the Guardians, the philosopher-kings who rule the city, chosen from among the best of the Auxiliaries, the military caste. But it shows up a bunch of different places. I recently watched a mini-series version of Pride and Prejudice, which I have never read, and I found it interesting how much emphasis was placed on “the officers” as respected and desired men. Ancient Greece and 18th/19th-century Britain are two rather different places, but this same idea seems present in both of them. And a number of other historical places – I’m only citing the two most disparate examples I can think of.

But today, the military seems to be viewed as a less noble profession. All the sons of the intelligentsia going to be doctors, lawyers, businessmen, professors, priests, etc. None of us are going to be officers. Many politicians were in the military (John McCain, for example), but in forty years, will that still be the case? I tend to think not.

I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing. Thucydides says it means all the professors and such are going to be cowards.

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Of Syndromes and Quirks

May 20, 2008

First of all – I have a brother who has Asperger syndrome, which is basically very high functioning autism.

Comparing his behavior to mine, though, I notice – in pretty much everything, what he does is just an exaggeration of what I do. There isn’t really any fundamental difference between us that marks him as having some sort of disorder and me as not.

Now, a while ago on the Wesnoth forums (January 2007?), there was a discussion of “aspies”. Basically, many people with Aspergers reject the idea that they have some sort of disease or problem that needs to be fixed. They say they’re just wired differently, or something like that… It’s an interesting movement, I think. I agree with it partially – we certainly shouldn’t say people with Aspergers or autism of any sort are at all subhuman. But I am wary of saying there is no correct or incorrect when it comes to how your brain is wired, because that seems way too relativistic for me.

Here’s what I would be comfortable saying – people with autism are are flawed in a different way than “normals”; aspies tend to not be comfortable enough with emotions, and that isn’t natural for humans, but aspies do have some advantage from their way of looking at the world, and we shouldn’t try to take that away from them.

Anyway, on that discussion on the Wesnoth forums, there were a bunch of links to quizzes meant to identify if you were an aspie or not. I took several of them, and tended to score in the “almost an aspie” category – a few points more, and I would be. Now, this just confirmed what I’d seen comparing myself to my brother – there isn’t some magical dividing line between having Aspergers and not. It really is a continuum, and you get people all along it.

This is, I suspect, true for a number of mental conditions. Obviously you either have Downs syndrome or you don’t – either you have an extra chromosome or not, there’s no in between – but with autism, ADD, OCD, etc, it seems almost foolish to try to say that these people have it and these others do not. At what point does a quirk become a syndrome or disorder? At what point does mere melancholy become depression?

I’m really not sure – if I was, this post would be structured differently. But I am suspicious of the practice naming these things and calling them disorders. I mean, I occasionally act Aspergian, and have been called “OCD” in the way it used colloquially – to just mean anything done that orders things unnecessarily. I have been depressed in the non-medical sense. And it seems off to me to say that if I just carried those behaviors out to a greater extent – if I did what I normally do, differing only in degree, not kind – I would be mentally disordered.

I’d welcome any argument against this. Perhaps it’s just naivety on my part.


Writing about Heaven

May 13, 2008

I had my last final today, in Literary Traditions II (where we read Dante’s Commedia, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and an assortment of lyric poetry). Which means school is finished, at least until late August. I’m still in my dorm; I’ll probably go home Thursday or Friday.

Anyway, the essay I wrote for my Lit Trad final was about how Heaven is portrayed in the works mentioned above, and how it is contrasted with Earth. I actually rather liked my argument, so I’ll outline it here in brief.

Essentially, I would like to say, it is impossible to portray Heaven in a large literary work (such as the Commedia or Paradise Lost) in anything like a completely accurate way – and that to try to do so is base foolishness.

Now, because Heaven is so far beyond our understanding, it can only be described by comparing it to this world, contrasting it to this world, and saying that it is beyond our understanding – Heaven is like {X} ({X} being some pleasurable action, say, sex, or eating chocolate, or… you get the idea), Heaven is more pleasurable than {X}, Heaven is pleasurable in a way that transcends {X}. These are same three ways in which we can describe God, by the way, according to my 12th grade World Religions teacher who happened to be a Hungarian Cistercian monk.

In a large literary work, however, these ways are not really enough. You can’t set an entire book in Heaven if you can’t even describe Heaven adequately.

Dante recognizes this, I think; in his Paradiso, he essentially says, “this is not what Heaven is really like”. All of the events of the Paradiso are a grand pageant put on for Dante by the souls in Heaven to try to convey some idea of what it is like, but Dante does not pretend that what he describes is what is actually in Heaven (unlike in the Inferno and Purgatorio, in which the conceit is that Dante was really there and really saw what Hell and Purgatory are really like).

Milton follows Dante in some things, such as the battle between the angels and the rebels, which Raphael says he can describe only through metaphor. In others, however, he tries to actually portray Heaven; most egregiously, he writes grandiloquent speeches that God the Father supposedly actually gives. These are in my opinion among the worst parts of the poem. They make God into a merely human character. You simply cannot do this and expect Heaven to remain even kind of plausible – it turns Heaven into merely a human kingdom ruled by a benevolent dictator, and when you’ve done that, Heaven has little to no appeal.

There’s a great quote from W. H. Auden (from Secondary Worlds: The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, if you’re interested – a good read) that says, essentially – if anything, it is this, not Milton’s portrayal of Satan, that makes him “of the devil’s party without knowing it”, as William Blake said. There seems to me to be some truth in this. In any case, it certainly made it so Milton failed to “justify God’s ways to man”, as he set out to do.

That’s just one of the many reasons I much prefer Dante to Milton.


Organic Growth

May 8, 2008

We’re currently having an interesting discussion on the Wesnoth forums. The basic question is – what makes for good fantasy?

Fantasy is, in my opinion, about taking what has come before and transforming it – not trying to make something completely and altogether new. I think it’s much more interesting to put a new twist on an old idea than to try to create something “new”. The former is what fantasy is all about. Hell, that’s what Tolkien originally did when he created elves as we know them today – he was drawing heavily from Celtic and Norse mythology. So I would much rather try to use elves in a way that is inspired by, but not limited by or merely imitative of, Tolkien’s elves than make up some random s*** in an attempt to be unique.

This is a good summary of what is happening in Orbivm. We have elves, dwarves, and orcs who are influenced by Tolkien’s vision of those races, but are also influenced by other mythology, other writers, and just our own ideas. Our elves are immortal and more skilled than men at pretty much everything, but also extremely dark, fatalistic, and, when it comes to non-elves, willing to do pretty much anything to defeat them… Our dwarves are really kind of like the Fair Folk in Chronicles of Prydain, but at the same time like Tolkien’s dwarves… Our orcs are supposed to be seen as not at all evil, but just a lower order of being than the other races – more brutish, less intelligent, less able to control their instincts. But still, no more corrupted than the other races – in Christian terms, they’re all fallen, and they fell roughly the same distance.

This is what I like to see in fantasy – people taking what’s come before and building on it. But it seems some people (specifically, in that thread, sam_was_here, but I suspect he’s not alone in this) would prefer to see completely new races invented out of whole-cloth – for example, “hyper-intelligent apes” was put forward as a serious suggestion. Sam_was_here said that

[…] elves already have their traits set in stone after so many appearances in all forms of media so any major departures would result in players come on line yelling: waz uup wit teh elvis?
This could be easily circumvented with a race that fills the same role but allows much more creative control […]

I find it fascinating how two people can hold such radically different views on what makes good fantasy literature…


The Passage of Time (May)

May 3, 2008

It’s odd. The semester is almost over – my finals end May 13th. Yet in some ways, it feels like the semester has just begun. I know it hasn’t, and when I think about the beginning of the semester and compare it to now, it does feel like quite a while ago, but it also feels like there ought to be at least another month or two of school.

Perhaps this is because I’m used to the high school calendar, which, compared to the college calendar, actually is about a month longer. But somehow I think it’s something else. My theory is that it has to do with a kind of “social calendar”, and mine has been thrown off.

Basically, while I’m still hanging out with the people I hung out with at the beginning of the semester (which would be basically the Play Super Smash Bros Brawl crowd), I’ve started hanging out with another group of people over the last month or so, and it seems strange that the semester is ending only a month after I start associating with them. It still has the feel of the beginning of the semester because I’m still meeting new people every week.

I don’t know whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. I don’t dislike most of the new people I meet – but in general, I just don’t like knowing so many people. I talked about this last month too, I know – and it’s gotten worse, not better, since I did so.

But, of course, summer is going to start soon, and then I won’t have this problem at all. After May 15th or so I’ll probably be a bit more isolated than even I would prefer. But, that means I will get to accomplish a lot more than I have over the last month (it’s hard not to accomplish more than essentially nothing).

This isolation, of course, will be forced. So it doesn’t remind me so much of Crelanu as of Thursagan – the dwarven sage who is driven out of his clan following a struggle with Lord Durstorn. It wasn’t exactly involuntary, though – as seen in “Searching for the Runecrafter”, he wasn’t eager to return.

So, anyway, this month I’ve chosen as my character Thursagan from the campaign The Sceptre of Fire. Incidentally, that campaign has recently (well, “recently”) been mainlined, which I’m fairly happy about, since I wrote it. I now have two campaigns in the official Wesnoth distribution and three campaigns released on the campaign server (plus one, Saving Elensefar, which has unfortunately bitrotted and is no longer playable and another that Brutorix has taken over for me).
Thursagan, from the Sceptre of Fire


Meshuga

May 1, 2008

Language is a strange thing.

The title of the post is actually a Yiddish word meaning crazy, nonsensical. Until a few months ago, however, I didn’t realize it wasn’t a normal English word. I had grown up listening to my mother (who was raised Jewish) use it, and I’d been using it mentally, but I almost never said it out loud. Then, I happened to use it once when not at home, someone said, “um, what did you just say?”, and I realized that not only was I not really sure what the exact definition of meshuga was, I wasn’t even sure how to spell it. Later I tried to look it up online, and found out it could be spelled at least four different ways – meshuga, meshugge, meshugah, and meshuggah. I think m-e-s-h-u-g-a is probably the most common one, so I’m using it.

Anyway, now I know that that word isn’t exactly standard English. I think it’s amazing, though, that I was able to live for seventeen years before figuring that out. It makes me kind of wonder what exactly we mean by “standard English”. If I recall correctly, linguists say that each person speaks his own language, and we only understand each other because our languages mostly overlap. But meshuga means something for me, while it might not for you; other words might have the same basic meaning for both of us, but have slightly different connotations.

So the idea that there is some sort of standard English vocabulary any deviation from which is a misuse of the language is starting to seem kind of foolish to me. What I don’t know is whether this is true of grammar as well. I tend to think that having a consistent grammar is a good thing – we might not be saying the exact same thing when we say the same combination of words, but having a standard grammar means that, given we know what our words mean, we can decipher the meaning of a sentence.

But what, then – does “English” just denote the grammar of the language, not the actual words used?


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