An Act declaring England to be a Commonwealth

Chris, in the comments below, points me towards the text of a splendid act of Parliament, which was passed in 1649, and which would give us a much more sensible constitutional framework than the rubbish nonsense we have at present:

Be it declared and enacted by this present Parliament and by the Authoritie of the same That the People of England and of all the Dominions and Territoryes thereunto belonging are and shall be and are hereby constituted, made, established, and confirmed to be a Commonwealth and free State And shall from henceforth be Governed as a Commonwealth and Free State by the supreame Authoritie of this Nation, the Representatives of the People in Parliam[ent] and by such as they shall appoint and constitute as Officers and Ministers under them for the good of the People and that without any King or House of Lords.

We’ve done it before, we can do it again.

Hobbes on the Web

In the 24 September 2001 edition of the New Statesman, John Gray wrote that “The Enlightenment thinking that found expression int he era of globalisation will not be much use in its dangerous aftermath. Even Hobbes cannot tell us how to deal with fundamentalist warriors who choose certain death in order to humble their enemies” (p.27).

Now this always struck me as a weird verdict, as of all the classic works of political philosophy, Leviathan seems to be obviously the one most concerned with the dangers to peace and security posed by religious fanatics, both to themselves and to other people. Throughout the book, therefore, Hobbes develops various strategies both for undermining the characteristic arguments that religious extremists make (e.g., the chapter on martyrs) and for making them appear ridiculous (e.g., the opinion that those who claim they have their own conversations with God are possessed of a “vile and unmanly disposition”). (Leviathan is also, of course, the funniest classic of political philosophy, by quite a long way, and we make a mistake when, as with the game theorists’ interpretations of Hobbes, we choose to ignore the rhetoric and the wit of the text in order to make our way through to what we might think is the meat of the analytical arguments.)

Someone else clearly shares a version of my opinion, anyway, as one of the few good political theory websites out there is American Leviathan, whose highlight is the gallery of soundclips from Hobbes experts around the world (including John Gray!, also Noel Malcolm, Quentin Skinner, Michael Hardt, Richard Tuck, etc.).

(Thanks to JMcD for drawing this to my attention.)

News for Parrots

It’s a longer extract than usual from a Classic Text, but here’s the bit about the parrot from John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

8. Same man. An animal is a living organized body; andconsequently the same animal, as we have observed, is the same continued life communicated to different particles of matter, as they happen successively to be united to that organized living body. And whatever is talked of other definitions, ingenious observation puts it past doubt, that the idea in our minds, of which the sound man in our mouths is the sign, is nothing else but of an animal of such a certain form. Since I think I may be confident, that, whoever should see a creature of his own shape or make, though it had no more reason all its life than a cat or a parrot, would call him still a man; or whoever should hear a cat or a parrot discourse, reason, and philosophize, would call or think it nothing but a cat or a parrot; and say, the one was a dull irrational man, and the other a very intelligent rational parrot. A relation we have in an author of great note, is sufficient to countenance the supposition of a rational parrot.His words are: “I had a mind to know, from Prince Maurice’s own mouth, the account of a common, but much credited story, that I had heard so often from many others, of an old parrot he had in Brazil, during his government there, that spoke, and asked, and answered common questions, like a reasonable creature: so that those of his train there generally concluded it to be witchery or possession; and one of his chaplains, who lived long afterwards in Holland, would never from that time endure a parrot, but said they all had a devil in them. I had heard many particulars of this story, and as severed by people hard to be discredited, which made me ask Prince Maurice what there was of it. He said, with his usual plainness and dryness in talk, there was something true, but a great deal false of what had been reported. I desired to know of him what there was of the first. He told me short and coldly, that he had heard of such an old parrot when he had been at Brazil; and though he believed nothing of it, and it was a good way off, yet he had so much curiosity as to send for it: that it was a very great and a very old one; and when it came first into the room where the prince was, with a great many Dutchmen about him, it said presently, What a company of white men are here! They asked it, what it thought that man was, pointing to the prince. It answered, Some General or other. When they brought it close to him, he asked it, D’ou venez-vous? It answered, De Marinnan. The Prince, A qui estes-vous? The Parrot, A un Portugais. The Prince, Que fais-tu la? Parrot, Je garde les poulles. The Prince laughed, and said, Vous gardez les poulles? The Parrot answered, Oui, moi; et je scai bien faire; and made the chuck four or five times that people use to make to chickens when they call them. I set down the words of this worthy dialogue in French, just as Prince Maurice said them to me. I asked him in what language the parrot spoke, and he said in Brazilian. I asked whether he understood Brazilian; he said No, but he had taken care to have two interpreters by him, the one a Dutchman that spoke Brazilian, and the other a Brazilian that spoke Dutch; that he asked them separately and privately, and both of them agreed in telling him just the same thing that the parrot had said. I could not but tell this odd story, because it is so much out of the way, and from the first hand, and what may pass for a good one; for I dare say this Prince at least believed himself in all he told me, having ever passed for a very honest and pious man: I leave it to naturalists to reason, and to other men to believe, as they please upon it; however, it is not, perhaps, amiss to relieve or enliven a busy scene sometimes with such digressions, whether to the purpose or no.”

I have taken care that the reader should have the story at large in the author’s own words, because he seems to me not to have thought it incredible; for it cannot be imagined that so able a man as he, who had sufficiency enough to warrant all the testimonies he gives of himself, should take so much pains, in a place where it had nothing to do, to pin so close, not only on a man whom he mentions as his friend, but on a Prince in whom he acknowledges very great honesty and piety, a story which, if he himself thought incredible, he could not but also think ridiculous. The Prince, it is plain, who vouches this story, and our author, who relates it from him, both of them call this talker a parrot: and I ask any one else who thinks such a story fit to be told, whether, if this parrot, and all of its kind, had always talked, as we have a prince’s word for it this one did,- whether, I say, they would not have passed for a race of rational animals; but yet, whether, for all that, they would have been allowed to be men, and not parrots? For I presume it is not the idea of a thinking or rational being alone that makes the idea of a man in most people’s sense: but of a body, so and so shaped, joined to it: and if that be the idea of a man, the same successive body not shifted all at once, must, as well as the same immaterial spirit, go to the making of the same man.

And with all that in mind, here’s the News for Parrots

Our Regicide Past

I was very pleased to see, over at Labour MP Tom Watson’s blog, the death warrant for Charles I, which he has posted in order to publicise the parliamentary contribution to Archives Awareness Month, which, apparently, is this month, so there’s not too much of it left.

I’ve said it before, and, no doubt, I’ll say it again: People in this country aren’t nearly as aware of our regicide past as we ought to be, except for the loons over at the Society of King Charles the Martyr (patron, Lord St John of Fawsley, no surprise there). Long before the Jacobins executed Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, or the Bolsheviks gunned down the Tsar and his family, the political authorities in London in January 1649 organised the trial and execution of the man of blood, Charles Stuart. It was a great moment in these islands’ story.

Things didn’t work out terribly well for the regicides in the long run, but it’s certainly high time we had another go at republican self-government. Who knows? It might be more durable this time around.

There’s some thoughtful revisionism by my friend Ted Vallance, now at Liverpool University, over here, which was written to mark last year’s wretched jubilee. He seems to think that if we are going to get rid of Brenda, lopping off her head probably isn’t the best way forward, and not just because killing people is wrong.

UPDATE [22.9.03]: Roll on the Jamaican Republic!

Apologies for the relative silence

One of the excellent things about working on seventeenth-century authors, is that they said such excellent things. Here, for example, is Pascal, who knew a thing or two about absolute, terrifying silences:

He alone [ = God] is our true good. From the time we have forsaken him, it is a curious thing that nothing in nature has been capable of taking his place: stars, sky, earth, elements, plants, cabbages, leeks, animals, insects, calves, snakes, fever, plague, war famine, vice, adultery, incest. From the time he lost his true good, man can see it everywhere, even in his own destruction, though it is so contrary to God, reason, and nature, all at once.


Occasionalism Now!

Being the kind of person who, rather than using my own mind, prefers to follow authority, I thought it was time to revisit the great seventeenth-century philosopher and Oratorian Nicolas Malebranche’s list of eleven reasons why we prefer to follow authority, rather than to use our own minds:

First, the natural laziness of men, who do not want to take the trouble to meditate.Second, the lack of a capacity for meditating, into which we have fallen for lack of application to it during youth, when the fibres of the brain were capable of all kinds of inflections.

Third, our lack of love for abstract truths, which are the foundation of everything we can know in this lower world.

Fourth, the satisfaction one receives from the knowledge of probabilities, which are very agreeable and very moving, because they are founded upon sensible notions.

Fifth, the stupid vanity that makes us hope to be esteemed as scholars, for we call scholars those who have read the most.

Sixth, because we imagine without reason that the ancients were more enlightened than we can be, and that there is nothing to do at which they have not already succeeded.

Seventh, becuase a false respect mixed with a stupid curiosity makes us admire those things farthest removed from us, the oldest things, those from the farthest or most unknown countries, and even the most obscure books.

Eighth, when we esteem a new opinion, or a contemporary author, it seems their glory effaces our own because we are too near to it; but we have no comparable fear of the honour rendered to the ancients.

Ninth, truth and novelty cannot be found together in things of the faith. Because men do not wish to make the distinction between truths that depend upon reason and those that depend upon tradition, they do not consider that one should learn them in completely different ways. They confused novelty with error and antiquity with truth.

Ten, we are in an age when the knowledge of ancient opinions is still in vogue, and hardly anyone who uses his mind can be placed above evil customs by the strength of his reason.

Eleven, because men act only for interest, and this is what causes even those who have disabused themselves and recognise the vanity of such studies nevertheless to continue applying themselves to them; because honours, dignities, and even benefices are attached to them, and those who excel in such studies always have more of these than those who are unaware of them.

Lightly adapted and abridged from Nicolas Malebranche, The Search after Truth, translated by Thomas M. Lennon and Paul J. Olscamp, Ohio State University Press, 1980, pp.138-9.


Job 41: 1-34 (KJV):

1 Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?
2 Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?
3 Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee?
4 Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever?
5 Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens?
6 Shall the companions make a banquet of him? shall they part him among the merchants?
7 Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish spears?
8 Lay thine hand upon him, remember the battle, do no more.
9 Behold, the hope of him is in vain: shall not one be cast down even at the sight of him?
10 None is so fierce that dare stir him up: who then is able to stand before me? 11 Who hath prevented me, that I should repay him? whatsoever is under the whole heaven is mine.
12 I will not conceal his parts, nor his power, nor his comely proportion.
13 Who can discover the face of his garment? or who can come to him with his double bridle?
14 Who can open the doors of his face? his teeth are terrible round about.
15 His scales are his pride, shut up together as with a close seal.
16 One is so near to another, that no air can come between them.
17 They are joined one to another, they stick together, that they cannot be sundered.
18 By his neesings a light doth shine, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning.
19 Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out.
20 Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a seething pot or caldron.
21 His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth.
22 In his neck remaineth strength, and sorrow is turned into joy before him.
23 The flakes of his flesh are joined together: they are firm in themselves; they cannot be moved.
24 His heart is as firm as a stone; yea, as hard as a piece of the nether millstone.
25 When he raiseth up himself, the mighty are afraid: by reason of breakings they purify themselves.
26 The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold: the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon.
27 He esteemeth iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood.
28 The arrow cannot make him flee: slingstones are turned with him into stubble.
29 Darts are counted as stubble: he laugheth at the shaking of a spear.
30 Sharp stones are under him: he spreadeth sharp pointed things upon the mire.
31 He maketh the deep to boil like a pot: he maketh the sea like a pot of ointment.
32 He maketh a path to shine after him; one would think the deep to be hoary.
33 Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear.
34 He beholdeth all high things: he is a king over all the children of pride.

“Neesings” is a very good word indeed, and not one I think I have encountered before. The OED rises to the occasion, defining it as “Sneezing; a sneeze” and giving us these useful attestations:

1382 WYCLIF Job xli. 9 His nesing [is] shynyng of fyr, and his eyen as eyelidis of morutid. 1432-50 tr. Higden (Rolls) V. 389 A mervellous pestilence folowede.., pereschynge moche peple in yoskenge or nesynge. 1530 PALSGR. 247/2 Nesyng with the nose, esternuement. 1543 TRAHERON Vigo’s Chirurg. IV. 148 Nysynge also, provoked by arte, is convenient in thys case. 1578 LYTE Dodoens 194 The same roote… put into the nose causeth Sternutation or niesing. 1609 B. JONSON Sil. Wom. IV. i, The spitting, the coughing, the laughter, the neesing. 1663 J. SPENCER Prodigies (1665) 61 That..usage of praying for a Person upon neezing. 1676 Gentleman’s Jockey 286 There be two other excellent helps for sick Horses, as Frictions and Neesings.

This is very helpful.

Chris adds [6.2.2002]: I was discussing “neesings” earlier today with a colleague, who told me that the shift from “neesing” to “sneezing” is probably a phonesthemic change — I think that’s the right word — in which a word which makes a great deal of sense on its own (through its connection to “nez”, “nose”, etc.) gets an “s” stuck on the front of it, which brings it into the family of “sn-” words with general family resemblances, including “sniffle”, “snuffle”, “sniff”, “snort”, and so on.