LRB notes

If I come across a passage in a London Review of Books article I want to keep, I turn down the corner and tear the edge of the page in line with the paragraphs in question. Saves finding a pen. Here’s a little backlog of three passages I wanted to save…

First, from Frank Kermode’s review of William Empson: Vol.II: Against the Christians by John Haffenden, in the London Review of Books, Vol. 28 No. 22, 16 November 2006.

Milton’s God is a wonderful book, almost the best display of Empson’s passionate and polemical mind. I have always admired this great swipe at Pascal and his Wager:

He argued, while more or less inventing the mathematics of Probability, that since the penalties for disbelief in Christianity are infinitely horrible and enduring, therefore, if there is any probability, however tiny (but finite) that the assertions of religion are true, a reasonable man will endure any degree of pain and shame on earth (since this is known beforehand to be finite) on the mere chance that the assertions are true. The answer is political, not mathematical; this argument makes Pascal the slave of any person, professing any doctrine, who has the impudence to tell him a sufficiently extravagant lie. A man ought therefore to reject such a calculation; and I feel there has been a strange and unpleasant moral collapse during my own lifetime, because so many of our present literary mentors not only accept it but talk as if that was a moral thing to do. Clearly, if you have reduced morality to keeping the taboos imposed by an infinite malignity, you can have no sense of personal honour or of the public good.

Whatever one thinks, whatever Pascal might have said about this, it is rather thrilling to have Christian doctrine lined up against ‘personal honour’ and ‘the public good’, and in such strong Johnsonian prose. But the voice is the true voice of Empson. He even calls Pascal ‘neo-Christian’, thus grouping him with his own craven and shameless contemporaries who don’t even pretend to believe in their religion; ‘they regard it as a general moral truth that one ought to tell lies in favour of the side which is sure to win.’

I just liked the reasoning behind why you shouldn’t believe in God “just in case”.

M.F. Burnyeat’s review of two books on Pythagoras in the LRB Vol. 29 No. 4, 22 February 2007. He quotes part of a list of rules for Pythagoreans:

Abstain from beans. Eat only the flesh of animals that may be sacrificed. Do not step over the beam of a balance. On rising, straighten the bedclothes and smooth out the place where you lay. Spit on your hair clippings and nail parings. Destroy the marks of a pot in the ashes. Do not piss towards the sun. Do not use a pine-torch to wipe a chair clean. Do not look in a mirror by lamplight. On a journey do not turn around at the border, for the Furies are following you. Do not make a detour on your way to the temple, for the god should not come second. Do not help a person to unload, only to load up. Do not dip your hand into holy water. Do not kill a louse in the temple. Do not stir the fire with a knife. One should not have children by a woman who wears gold jewellery. One should put on the right shoe first, but when washing do the left foot first. One should not pass by where an ass is lying.

The list could be continued, on and on. Item one, ‘Abstain from beans,’ is the best known, its rationale much disputed in antiquity; one suggestion was that it is through bean blossoms that souls return to earth for their reincarnation. Item two puts paid to the widespread idea that the Pythagoreans were always strict vegetarians. Collectively, these injunctions were known as a ‘kou’smata, ‘things heard’, implying that they were transmitted by word of mouth. A number of the prescriptions have parallels in ancient cult practice. But the important thing to my mind is the sheer quantity of the rules that constrain a Pythagorean life, and the minute scrupulosity they enforce.

It’s like the lyrics to an ancient list song.

From the same issue, and Tom Shippey’s review of Medieval Schools: From Roman Britain to Renaissance England by Nicholas Orme.

One of the constant themes in Orme’s account, though he doesn’t harp on it, is the long-lasting conviction that Latin could be learned only ‘under the rod’. In Aelfric Bata’s Colloquy 28 the wretched child being thrashed cries out that he’s dying, only to be told grimly by the thrasher: ‘Non es mortuus adhuc’ (‘You’re not dead yet’). Four hundred years later the bishop of Norwich forbade classes to be held in churches, because the screams of the children interrupted services.

Particularly for the final sentence. Imagine people lodging objections with council planners over the siting of a new school because the cries of punished children would be disturbing to local residents.