Fable of the Beavers

There just had to be something on beavers in Mandeville. I knew it. And as one of those academics who goes around telling as many people as will listen that the key to understanding the history of political philosophy is to understand the ways in which it used to be a discourse about anger-management, but then became a series of arguments about pride, I’m very pleased to see that this latter is the context in which Mandeville introduces this particular mammal du jour:

And as in these, Pride is overlook’d, because industriously conceal’d, so in others again it is denied that they have any, when they shew (or at least seem to shew) it in the most Publick manner. The wealthy Parson being, as well as the rest of his Profession, debarr�d from the Gaiety of Laymen, makes it his Business to look out for an admirable Black and the finest Cloth that Money can purchase, and distinguishes himself by the fulness of his noble and spotless Garment; his Wigs are as fashionable as that Form he is forced to comply with will admit of; but as he is only stinted in their Shape, so he takes care that for goodness of Hair, and Colour, few Noblemen shall be able to match ’em; his Body is ever clean, as well as his Clothes, his sleek Face is kept constantly shav’d, and his handsome Nails are diligently pared; his smooth white Hand and a Brilliant of the first Water, mutually becoming, honour each other with double Graces; what Linen he discovers is transparently curious, and he scorns ever to be seen abroad with a worse Beaver than what a rich Banker would be proud of on his Wedding-Day; to all these Niceties in Dress he adds a Majestick Gate, and expresses a commanding Loftiness in his Carriage; yet common Civility, notwithstanding the evidence of so many concurring Symptoms, won�t allow us to suspect any of his Actions to be the Result of Pride; considering the Dignity of his Office, it is only Decency in him what would be Vanity in others; and in good Manners to his Calling we ought to believe, that the worthy Gentleman, without any regard to his reverend Person, puts himself to all this Trouble and Expence merely out of a Respect which is due to the Divine Order he belongs to, and a Religious Zeal to preserve his Holy Function from the Contempt of Scoffers. With all my Heart; nothing of all this shall be call�d Pride, let me only be allow�d to say, that to our Human Capacities it looks very like it…

This would be a nice segue to Adam Smith, had he talked about beavers in the passage on licentious systems in the Theory of Moral Sentiments — but he didn’t, and beavers only make an appearance in The Wealth of Nations as an illustration of the labour theory of value, and as one in a long list of commodities.

Nietzsche Beaver Blogging

“These last weeks at Turin, where I shall stay till June 5th, have turned out better than any I have known for years, above all more philosophic. Almost every day for one or two hours I have packed such a pitch of energy as to be able to view my whole conception from top to bottom; so that the immense multiplicity of problems lies spread out beneath me, as though in relief and clear in its outlines. This requires a maximum of strength, for which I had almost given up hope, It all hangs together; years ago it was already on the right course, one builds one’s philosophy like a beaver, one is forced to and does not know it. But one has to see all this, as I have now seen it, in order to believe it.”

That’s from a letter to Brandes, 4 May 1888, quoted over here.

Burns Beaver Blogging

And now for a bit of wholesome Scottish verse:

When first my brave Johnie lad came to this town,
He had a blue bonnet that wanted the crown;
But now he has gotten a hat and a feather,
Hey, brave Johnie lad, cock up your beaver!

Cock up your beaver, and cock it fu’ sprush,
We’ll over the border, and gie them a brush;
There’s somebody there we’ll teach better behaviour,
Hey, brave Johnie lad, cock up your beaver!

Over here.

Aristotle Beaver Blogging

From ths History of Animals, 8:6:

Some wild quadrupeds feed in lakes and rivers; the seal is the only one that gets its living on the sea. To the former class of animals belong the so-called castor, the satyrium, the otter, and the so-called latax, or beaver. The beaver is flatter than the otter and has strong teeth; it often at night-time emerges from the water and goes nibbling at the bark of the aspens that fringe the riversides. The otter will bite a man, and it is said that whenever it bites it will never let go until it hears a bone crack. The hair of the beaver is rough, intermediate in appearance between the hair of the seal and the hair of the deer.

Not bad at all.

Pliny Beaver Blogging

Yup, it was Pliny the Elder alright, Natural History 8, 47. Here’s the Latin:

Easdem partes sibi ipsi Pontici amputant fibri periculo urgente, ob hoc se peti gnari; castoreum id vocant medici. alias animal horrendi morsus arbores iuxta flumina ut ferro caedit, hominis parte conprehensa non ante quam fracta concrepuerint ossa morsus resolvit. cauda piscium his, cetera species lutrae. utrumque aquaticum, utrique mollior pluma pilus.

And here’s the splendid English translation of 1601 by Philemon Holland:

The Bievers in Pontus gueld themselves, when they see how neere they are driven, and bee in danger of the hunters: as knowing full well, that chased they bee for their genetoires: and these their stones, Physicians call Castoreum. And otherwise, this is a daungerous and terrible beast with his teeth. For verily, hee will bite downe the trees growing by the river sides, as if they were cut with an axe. Looke where he catcheth hold of a man once, he never leaveth nor letteth loose untill hee have knapped the bones in sunder, and heard it cracke againe. Tailed hee is like a fish, otherwise he resembleth the otter. Both those beasts live in the water altogether, and carrie an haire softer than any plume or downe of feathers.

That’s probably enough Beaver-Blogging for one morning. I’ll get back to Kitten-Blogging soon.

Gerald of Wales on the Beaver

There’s quite a bit more interest in beavers among the readers of the Virtual Stoa than I think I had anticipated. So, to attempt to sate your demand for round-the-clock beaver-blogging, here’s chapter 19 of Gerald of Wales’s 12th century classic, The History and Topography of Ireland (which featured in the Virtual Stoa eighteen months ago). Don’t be misled, by the way, by his remark about how “Ireland has badgers but not beavers” into wondering why the beaver features in a book about Ireland. It’s not that kind of book. It’s not the bit about the testicles, that I clearly misremembered in comments below. Perhaps that’s Pliny, or some Roman writer.

The beaver and its nature

Beavers use a similar contrivance of nature [to that of badgers, discussed earlier – Ed.]. When they are building their homes in the rivers, they use slaves of their own kind as carts, and so by this wonderful means of transport pull and drag lengths of wood from the forests to the waters. In both kinds of animal (badger and beaver) the slaves are distinguished by a certain inferiority of shape and a worn bare patch upon their backs.

Ireland has badgers but not beavers. In Wales beavers are to be found only in the Teifi river near Cardigan. They are, in the same way, scarce in Scotland.

One should remark that beavers have wide tails, spread out like the palm of the human hand, and not long. They use them as oars in swimming. And while the whole of the rest of their body is very furry, they are entirely free from fur on this part, and are quire bare and slippery like a seal. Consequently in Germany and the northern regions, where beavers are plentiful, great and holy men eat the tails of beavers during fasting times – as being fish, since, as they say, they partake of the nature of fish both in taste and colour.

But about these and their nature, how and with what skill they build their settlements in the middle of rivers, and how, when pressed by an enemy, by the loss of a part they save the whole – a contrivance most commendable in an animal – will be more fully explained when we come to deal with the geography and description of Wales and Scotland, and the origin and nature of the people of each. We shall find another opportunity of doing this, and to another purpose, with God’s help and if life be spared…

[Gerald of Wales snippet from the Penguin ed., translated by John O’Meara, pp.48-9.]

Books Books Books

Kieran Healy started a discussion of Library Thing over at Crooked Timber yesterday, which I’ve found to be a tremendous facility. And, quite by chance, Kieran’s post was well timed, appearing just when I’d pretty much finished the basic catalogue of 1,930 items, with ten years worth of boring Fabian Society pamphlets being the last big thing to do. (Three of them, excitingly, by Paul “The Thinker” Richards! And two of them by Pollard!)

I’ve wanted to produce a catalogue of my books for a while now, because I’m that kind of person; and this website got going at exactly the right time for me, just after I’d moved all my books from one office to another at the end of the summer vacation, bringing a lot of them home to sit on some new bookshelves (the shelves that Andromache’s sitting on here), and they still need a great deal of sorting out in both places. I’m also going to have quite a bit less money for buying books in the months to come, for various reasons, than I’ve had over the last few years, and so this is a good time to think more about what I already own, and to read some of the titles which, inexplicably, I’ve never got around to reading up till now…

I’ve stuck the LibraryThing blogwidget (that’s a good word) down on the sidebar (scroll down), because that’s quite fun.

And now — how best to catalogue the journals…?