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Peter Blumsom

Joined: 09 Mar 2007
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Location: Wembley, London, UK

PostPosted: Sat Oct 13, 2018 10:17 pm    Post subject: Joseph Milne Lecture Reply with quote

I put this speech given by Joseph Milne for the Forum's perusal. In one way it is economics but clearly its essence transcends economics and a philosophical forum is its natural place of study.

Ownership in Early Christianity and the Natural Law Tradition

Henry George Foundation Open Day Lecture 2018
Dr Joseph Milne

Charles Avila’s book Ownership: Early Christian Teaching shows us that the Church Fathers addressed the question of land ownership and its exploitation very strongly. For example he quotes from Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, in the fourth century who wrote:
“The elements have been granted to all for their use. Rich and poor alike enjoy the splendid ornaments of the universe. . . The house of God is common to all.” (p. 72)

Or in another passage he says

“Thus God has created everything in such a way that all things be possessed in common. Nature therefore is the mother of common right, usurpation of private right.” (p. 74)

Ambrose’s assertion that the earth and all the elements belong to all in common is to be found in the other Church Fathers. It was an essential part of early Christian thought. From the Christian perspective all nature belongs to the Creator who has given it, simply as a gift, to all the creatures to share in common. Just as God has created each being, so likewise he has created their dwelling place where all may flourish. With the human race this is even more so, since through intelligent cooperation the community may enhance the gifts of nature in mutual benefit, so there is no need for want or poverty.

According to Ambrose, the cause of poverty is avarice. Very simply, it is the desire to possess for oneself what by nature is to be shared amongst all. Here he accuses the wealthy landlords as avaricious who exploit their tenant farmers who barely survive while they themselves live in luxurious palaces, gathering riches for their own sake.Their defence, according to Avila, is the Roman law of property. But to Ambrose gathering wealth as an end in itself is to live for the wrong reason, out of accord with nature, and to inflict harm on others. Like the other Church Fathers, he pleads with the landed rich to give their excess to the poor. This would be no more than to return what they have stolen from them. On being elected Bishop of Milan by popular demand, Ambrose gave most of his property to the poor.

Needless to say, beyond a few rich Christians who heeded these pleas from the Fathers, the exploitation of the land remained. And since the wealth of the Roman Empire derived primarily from agriculture, the direct abuse of land monopoly was a plainly evident wrong. Now it is worth asking why this teaching of the early Church went largely unheeded. Christianity, we should remember, had become the official religion of Rome, and these teachings widely known, especially the idea of the community holding all in common and giving to the poor.

We are faced with the same question today. Why, after such great popularity, have the insights of Henry George into the proper use of land also gone unheeded? After all, as Charles Avila points out, George was only saying in economic terms what the early church was saying in ethical terms. The Fathers called upon the justice of divine providence, George upon empirical economic justice. Both arrive at the same evident truth: that if the gifts of nature are misappropriated, then exploitation will arise between citizens, poverty will increase while wealth increases and, if this is not remedied, a society will eventually fall – as did the Roman Empire.

Now Avila wonders why the slaves or tenants did not rise up against the powerful landowners. It seems there were small rebellions, but these were easily put down with force. If we look around the world today, it is clear that the oppressed have no chance of remedying their condition themselves. It is precisely because they are at a disadvantage that they are oppressed. But if we turn to what we may call the modern free democracies, it is equally clear that the disadvantaged or exploited are the least likely to rise up and bring about justice. A more likely result of any rebellion is that the oppressed become the oppressors – just as those fleeing to America from the Irish potato famine have done. Avarice and injustice seem to take root even from the best intentions.

Why is it, then, that the more educated and influential cannot bring about a remedy to this most basic injustice of misappropriating the earth? Even those politicians who understand the land question cannot bring about any change. All they can do is try to mitigate the consequences of injustice.

Here is where I believe the Church Fathers and the classical philosophers had an insight which our own age lacks. They understood the human situation at a far deeper level than either the poor or the rich and powerful of their day. They could see that both the rich and the poor did not understand either human nature or the laws of nature – what we may call the ‘social laws’ of nature. From the Christian perspective, the question is: why does avarice arise? Indeed, why does ‘possessiveness’ arise? Why do human beings desire to take things as their own property, even though it obviously harms others? Is humanity selfish and brutal by nature as Thomas Hobbes proposed in his Leviathan? Or, further, is there no such thing as ‘justice’ in the order of nature, but merely brute force, survival of the fittest, and the ‘war of all against all’?

The early Christians, like the classical philosophers before them, asked these questions, and they rejected the idea that human nature is essentially selfish. Christianity sees human nature as fallen from its original natural state. It has always been concerned with restoring human nature to its natural condition – its condition before the Fall. This meant that the political or social teaching of the early Church, and in the Middle Ages, recognised that there cannot be a truly just society in the fallen human condition. What is required is a transformation of the soul, so that the providential order of nature can again be perceived. The earliest Christian communities did attempt to live in common and share all property. And in the Middle Ages this was the basis of monastic life – to live without any possessions. Yet even the monasteries tended to accumulate wealth and every now and then needed great reform, as with the birth of the Cistercians, Franciscans and Dominicans. But it is recognised that the majority cannot live this way. I will come back to how this wasanswered in a moment.

The philosophers had a different explanation. They saw the problem lay in errors of judgement, of mistaking for true what was not true. This is how Plato and Aristotle see the human situation. According to them we do not know how to judge correctly between the true and the false, or between the just and the unjust. They understand that the faculties of the mind are naturally directed towards truth, just as the eye is directed towards light, or the ear towards sound, but that this capacity needs to be developed through careful education. This meant strengthening the rational faculties, but also the body, and the cultivation of the virtues – primarily justice, courage, prudence, and temperance. For Plato and Aristotle, the understanding of the truth of things is directly connected with understanding justice. For them the true and the good cannot be separated.

Book I of Plato’s Republic is all about misconceptions of justice. These take several forms. First, that justice is only an external convention in a society. Second, that justice is the rule of the strong over the weak. Third, that it is doing good to your friends and harm to your enemies. Fourth, that it is giving to each what they are owed. Each of these positions are shown by Socrates to be flawed in one way or another. They belong to the realm of uninformed opinion. The remaining books of the dialogue seek to overcome these false conceptions of justice and to find its true nature.

This is not the time to go into that in detail. But one thing ought to be noted. Plato’s dialogue arrives at an understanding that, through erroneous thinking, Nature and Law have become separated. The Greek words are physis and nomos. For Plato the law of anything is its nature, or its nature is its law. This law belonging to each thing is also its natural connection with all other things. The whole cosmos is a harmony between all its parts, and this harmony is the coincidence of physis and nomos, Nature and Law. The Greek word kosmos means ‘order’. Everything has a part to play within the great whole, and through that part each fulfils its own being. It becomes harmonious with itself and with the whole cosmos. This harmonious order of things is true justice. Justice is not imposed upon things from outside but belongs to their essence and their proper mode of being. It means each thing acts according to its own true nature when it acts according to the order of the whole. It also means that each human being who lives justly has a harmonious order in their own being or soul, so that thought, action and virtue all work together. Most important of all, living justly becomes the primary aim of human life, both within and without. Next after that is the health of the body, and lastly the right use of wealth.

For Plato and for Aristotle, a life devoted to gathering money or wealth is quite simply an ignoble life. This is especially clear in Aristotle. In his Politics he argues that nature is ordered in such a way that the needs of all creatures are met. The land naturally supplies enough for a human community, and there is a natural limit in what it provides. Seeking in excess of this natural limit is harmful. This means that trading solely for monetary profit is not only an ignoble way of life, it also goes beyond the natural limits of nature’s provisions. To seek to acquire unlimited wealth distorts the harmony of nature. It is unjust. The fact that it has no natural limit indicates it is unjust. But also, for Aristotle, trading merely for the sake of money, corrodes the civil order of the community. Markets in this sense are a threat to the social stability of the polis. They corrupt natural human relationships. For Aristotle economics is the study of a society becoming self-sufficient in necessities, within the limits of nature. It is more a study of ‘good management’ rather than of ‘commerce’. The aim is health and peace rather than wealth.

These two perspectives – the Christian and the philosophic – are quite different to each other, yet together they embody the highest aims of a just society in Western civilisation, which has absorbed aspects of each. One seeks a way of life based on goodness and mercy, on the love of God and neighbour. The parable of the Good Samaritan still strikes a note. The other seeks a way of life through reason and discriminating between reality and appearance. It seeks an understanding of the unity of physis and nomos, Nature and Law, or the real and the good. Both also see the quest for the just life as an ongoing journey. For the Christian tradition it lies in overcoming the avaricious desires that come with the Fall, while for the philosophic tradition it is a way of bringing human nature and society into harmony with the cosmic order.

In either case, these are responses to the injustices that afflict human society. They both aim at a condition of justice that seems beyond the capacity of the majority of people. The Church Fathers and the philosophers were perfectly aware of this. Those who are wealthy through the labour of others are not that keen on having a just society. They even console themselves with the idea that justice is an impossible dream, so why not carry on as usual. Those who speak on behalf of the poor are too often driven by envy of the rich, and so they achieve nothing either. Complacency and anger are two wrong responses to the question of justice.

Given the fact that few are likely to become saints or philosophers, is there a kind of justice that can be established which removes the worst ills that arise from the misappropriation of the land, and which opens a way towards the possibility of a truly just society? Well, obviously at least to us, Henry George opens the door to such a possibility, by removing the means of misappropriating the land and stealing the value created by the community and the wages of those who produce wealth. Thereare elements of the noble Christian ethic in George’s work as well as elements from the philosophic tradition, especially that of the Natural Law and the understanding of justice as a universal principle. There is a tendency nowadays to reduce the scope of George’s insights merely to his fiscal proposals, and to seeking ways of implementing a land tax, forgetting that it is the love of justice that informs all his economic analysis.

We must face the simple fact that we are as far from achieving this today as George was a hundred years ago – or the Church Fathers were in persuading the people that the land belongs to all in common sixteen hundred years ago, or Plato 2,500 years ago. For as far back as we can go in recorded history it has always been proclaimed by the poets, the prophets and the philosophers that the earth belongs to all in common.

We have an added difficulty in our time, the implications of which were only hinted at in George’s time: the separation of the economic realm from the social realm. This is something Karl Polanyi has observed very clearly in his The Great Transformation. With the growth of a market economy, aimed at exchange for profit, the creation of wealth has gradually divorced itself from the social realm, and come to exist independently of society. Not only is land monopoly stealing the natural community revenue and the wages of labour, the economy as a whole is becoming parasitic upon society, making human life serve the economy, rather than the economy serve human life. This separation, now so plainly evident, especially in the great cities where land monopoly is rife, is precisely what Aristotle warned against, and what the Church Fathers struggled against.

This separation of the economic from the social is reinforced by the modern reduction of economic analysis to mathematical models. This tendency to reduce economics to mathematical calculation is already present in the early economic thinking of the seventeenth century. And this in turn came from a previous shift in the conception of the ‘laws of nature’. The new conception of the laws of nature was based upon a purely mechanistic observation of the laws of motion, to which all phenomena could be reduced. This new view was hailed as superseding the religious and philosophical approaches to nature. These, it was argued, belonged to a more primitive stage of society, preparing the way for the empirical method of mechanical science. This idea is expressed in Turgot, for example, one of the pioneers of economics in the eighteenth century. The Physiocrats were not immune to the mechanistic thinking of their age.

The expression ‘laws of nature’ was directly opposed to the tradition of ‘natural law’ which extended back to Plato, the Stoics and early Christians such as St Augustine, and was greatly refined through the Middle Ages, producing in the twelfth century the Decretum Gratiani, and culminating in the thirteenth century in Aquinas’s great treatise on law in the Summa Theologica. Natural law refers to what we spoke of earlier, the harmonious order of the cosmos in which everything plays its part for the sake of the whole. It is the cosmic justice which brings community into being. It is essentially ‘cooperative’ as opposed to ‘competitive’, communitarian as opposed to individualistic. Natural law expresses the common good. According to natural law the land belongs to all in common, or simply to the Creator. The new mechanical conception of the ‘laws of nature’ cannot account for just possession or ownership. There is no ethical dimension to the mechanistic conception of nature. These questions now get transferred to positive or conventional law, which is no longer rooted in the natural law or universal justice, but rather in the will of the legislator.

It is therefore no surprise that the expansion of positive law since the seventeenth century has been primarily in property law. Legally speaking, ‘ownership’ becomes the new way of conceiving human nature and society. Locke’s famous theory that the ownership of land springs from extending self-ownership through labour to land is the obvious development of this new kind of ‘law of nature’ absorbed into positive law. The ‘self-owning person’ has no precedent in history. It is rooted in a new conception of human nature and our relation to the world and society. Out of it springs a new branch of law called ‘human rights’, which are claims made upon the state, more or less replacing earlier ‘natural rights’, which are natural liberties, as formulated in the American constitution, which in turn replaced the natural law tradition extending back into the Middle Ages. This is a mode of law for the self-owning person, whose claims stand in opposition to the state. The modern state has arisen through the loss of the communal understanding of society, in which each citizen serves the whole. Once society is conceived in terms proprietorial individuals, each seeking their own ends, then ‘the state’ in some form or other has to be imposed to regulate the conflicting desires and actions of individuals. And this includes the market.

These are problems that George does not tackle. In his time for most ordinary people the vision of freedom was still framed within the context of the common good and natural justice, and had not yet declined into the notion private freedom and individual rights. It was only ‘intellectuals’ who propagated these ideas, while the majority of people still lived in the shadow of Christian morality. His eye is on the just society and on how to remedy the injustices that have arisen with the market society based on land monopoly. It may well be that, with the full implementation of the land tax world-wide that the separation of the economic realm from the social realm would be removed. It may well be that then the pursuit of wealth for its own sake would be replaced by higher cultural aims, including due care for the environment. All that may well be so. But the implementation of the land tax will not come about without first overcoming the mechanistic interpretation of economics, which reinforces its separation from the social realm, and which suits land monopoly by abstracting the earth into capital or mere resources. Nor can the ‘social’ good be restored without a return to understanding the communal nature of the human person. This communal nature is something that the Church Fathers could call upon. And it was something that was gradually developed throughout the Middle Ages through the formulations of civil and canon law, including English common law.

There is a growing body of scholarly study of the communal nature of society, and it is from this perspective that the limited nature of the sphere of economic theory is clearly brought to light. It seems to me that the study of economics in relation to other disciplines would be of enormous value. For example, the very good work being done in environmental studies and ecology remains limited because it lacks a real social dimension, and generally its economic proposals are devoid of good knowledge of economic laws. Yet environmental destruction and economic injustice have a common cause. They occur through a misconception of the nature of society rooted in a proprietorial conception of our relation to the land or nature. From the perspective of the Church Fathers and the Greek philosophers, these aremanifestations of the separation of physis from nomos, of Nature from Law. Where George and the Church Fathers meet is in their common call for justice in conformity with the laws of nature, and in their recognition of the essential goodness of human nature.

Further reading
Charles Avila, Ownership: Early Christina Teaching
St. Ambrose: Selected Works and Letters (Volume 10 of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers)
Thomas Aquinas, Commentary of Aristotle’s Politics
Thomas Aquinas, Treatise on Law
Aristotle, Politics
Saint Augustine, The City of God
Brendan Francis Brown, The Natural Law Reader
Peter Brown, Through the Eye of the Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD.
Christopher Franks, He Became Poor: The Poverty of Christ and Aquinas’s
Economic Teaching

John Wu, Fountain of Justice: A Study of the Natural Law
Henry George, Progress and Poverty
Michael Oakeshott, Lectures in the History of Political Thought
Plato, Laws
Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation
Medieval Political Philosophy: A Sourcebook, edited by Joshua Parens and Joseph Macfarland
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Peter Blumsom

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 26, 2018 8:19 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Among others this paragraph speaks to me.

It is therefore no surprise that the expansion of positive law since the seventeenth century has been primarily in property law. Legally speaking, ‘ownership’ becomes the new way of conceiving human nature and society. Locke’s famous theory that the ownership of land springs from extending self-ownership through labour to land is the obvious development of this new kind of ‘law of nature’ absorbed into positive law. The ‘self-owning person’ has no precedent in history. It is rooted in a new conception of human nature and our relation to the world and society. Out of it springs a new branch of law called ‘human rights’, which are claims made upon the state, more or less replacing earlier ‘natural rights’, which are natural liberties, as formulated in the American constitution, which in turn replaced the natural law tradition extending back into the Middle Ages. This is a mode of law for the self-owning person, whose claims stand in opposition to the state. The modern state has arisen through the loss of the communal understanding of society, in which each citizen serves the whole. Once society is conceived in terms proprietorial individuals, each seeking their own ends, then ‘the state’ in some form or other has to be imposed to regulate the conflicting desires and actions of individuals. And this includes the market.

Of course 'self-owning person' has a rather ironic ring to it. It means, I think, owned by the self of an individual. Well that's one in the eye for God and by extension Christianity. It is also in contradiction of nature itself except when we look closer we see that nature does not claim ownership of anything. As far as one can gather, it simply 'is'. No, for myself the irony springs from that old Greek trick of relocating the emphasis of the words. That a person owns him/herself reminds me of the Shakespeare sonnet - "They that have the power to hurt and do none." This is a phrase that David Tang might consider. It penetrates to the root of compassion. It is only such who are 'The Lords and masters of their faces'. If you've ever held a young babe or owned, say, a dog you will surely understand this.

Shakespeare has quite an investment in this subject of Joseph's, especially in what is going on in this paragraph. The first twenty odd sonnets are quite different to the rest to such an extent that 'experts' have found it difficult to blend them into the homoerotic trope that is used to day to mask the profundity of his Sonnets in general. Of course they try but its clear that Shakespeare's mind is on other things.
Enough of that - rather listen to this.

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself they beauty's legacy?
Nature's bequest gives nothing, but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free:

If we took the third line seriously the idea of the "self owning person" that Joseph talks about in the above paragraph ceases to exist. What ever the human soul needs is 'lent' to him - he/she does not own it. It is a land-claim to imagine ownership, and I mean 'land' in the widest possible sense.

Shakespeare in this poem uses three descriptions of the human soul in its travail. It is an 'unthrifty loveliness'; that is, it is beauteous but claims its beauty by hugging its external image to itself. Ah, all mine - I cannot let you go! (It'd make a good song lyric). Then the second description becomes more chiding. "beauteous niggard" - an abuser by self claim of this freely lent nature and finally the peremptory "profitless usurer" a contradiction in terms in that looking for gain it loses the good that it already has, that nature frankly (freely and generously) provides.

All this springing from the illusory concept of 'self-ownership', Shakespeare then turns to elucidate on the matter of 'self':

For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive;

There are two selves, one is 'sweet', as Arden says, 'the most intimate part of yourself'. This self would not wish to own anything - more to gaze on in wonder. But there has to be a 'practical self' who does not gaze but "traffics" not with nature but with himself, who more easily can be duped into wanting to grab what 'sweet self' knows is already freely lent'. This practical self is the problem, not only for the individual but also for society and cosmos. For the human being is quite important and what drives humanity has implications for what lies beyond humanity, as we are finding to our cost today.

Some set up. eh?

This is a poetical view of what has happened with man's relation to the cosmos. In my humble opinion the Greeks have given us a master science to tackle problems such as this. I personally do not believe that religion is suited to the task nor even the enlightened economics of Henry George. It is the science that takes the mind back to clear sightedness, and it is this clarity rather than solution seeking which is the key. Harmonics is a complimentary science, on its own it can do very little, but when allied to other disciplines brings them to a unity where they can all transact with each other. It speaks a common language to all.

Strangely enough I find what Joseph has written here, not only in its own right hits the nail on the head (metaphorically) but also opens the door for harmonics to enter. (It would never knock.)

I am going to try to put into practice what I preach here and see if I can make harmonics relevant to the discussion. It might be a faltering attempt and will need the help of others as I have this view of myself, which won't go away, as a bear of little brain.
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Joseph Milne

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PostPosted: Wed Oct 31, 2018 8:59 am    Post subject: Reply with quote


I like your reference to Shakespeare's first few sonnets. But I am now curious about how the question of self-ownership relates to harmonics. You must elaborate, please.
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Peter Blumsom

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 04, 2018 9:12 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Yes, Joseph, I hope I can satisfy you on this, but I fear many questions will be begged and it may take more than one attempt.

First I'd like to say a few things about harmonics by way of an introduction. We might remember that though once acknowledged as on ‘official science’ or in Greek terminology, episteme, it is now most the neglected of subjects - even though there are many who might be excited if they knew more about it. ‘Officially’ it has been replaced by the science of acoustics which, though full of bewildering algebraic formulae and complicated engineering terminology, manages to preside over some of the most badly constructed buildings from the point of view of sound quality of any age. (Eat your heart out amphitheatre at Epidaurus!)

One reason for its neglect is that harmonics never puts itself forward, it has to be invited. But any subject into which it is invited will, I say, find itself changed in a positive way by this philosophical interloper. Joseph, we could say that you have, as it were, invited harmonics into Economics and the result may be unforeseen and perhaps chaotic. But, never fear, having invited it in you won’t have to hang out the garlic or hammer together wooden crosses, for it is, in reality, quite benign.

Sonnet 8

Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?
Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy.
Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly,
Or else receiv’st with pleasure thine annoy?
If the true concord of well-tuned sounds,
By unions married, do offend thine ear,
They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds
In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.
Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering,
Resembling sire and child and happy mother,
Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing;
  Whose speechless song, being many, seeming one,
  Sings this to thee: “Thou single wilt prove none.”

Shakespeare’s Eighth Sonnet ties together all the themes of these opening sonnets into a harmonic bundle. It may be coincidental but there are also the eight sirens of Plato’s Myth of Er who sing out from their allotted places upon the circular rims of the Spindle of Necessity “a concord of a single harmony”. Shakespeare’s matching phrase in this sonnet is a “true concord of well-tuned sounds, by unions married”.

But unexpectedly this wonderful sound is found to offend the ear. Is it, the poet asks, that this beautiful harmony reminds us of our own singleness? For this is the singleness of separation, that is, separation from our own nature, just as self ownership is a kind of separation from the nature all around us, and which we are part of.

This singleness of a being is not a healthy state according to these early sonnets. Such ‘privatisation of the self' does not sit easy with its natural demeanour and leads from mere separation to isolation. This must have a deleterious effect on its (our) negotiations with nature which suffer a subtle reversal. Nature must now be assumed to be 'part of us'. The rather egotistical young man whom the poet is addressing is told that such a singleness of separation doesn’t allow him to hear the true union in the harmonic parts “Who all in one, one pleasing note doth sing.” The sonnet ends with a rather chilling warning about what this harmonic unity is singing to him, and what he is finding so difficult to hear:
“Thou single wilt prove none.”. This singleness is less than one, in fact it will prove to be nothing. As Sonnet 3 echoes: “Die single and thy image dies with thee”.

So this singleness speaks (or sings) not of a person’s natural self, their ‘sweet self’ as Shakespeare describes it in Sonnets 1 and 4, but of the other self mentioned in Sonnet 1, the one that is cruel to the sweet self, in fact, is its foe. And being the foe of the natural self it must be unnatural and foe to all other natural things. It is the self-love of Sonnet 3 who stops posterity (posterity as lineage, genos, that which links us to our true nature) and as such is, I say, the ‘self owning person’ in that paragraph of yours, conceived by Locke to control all the nature he can ‘legally’ get his hands on. This can only lead both society and individual to a state of true isolation.

I admit to only give hints here of a science of harmonics, but you didn’t ask me to lay down its foundations. I believe it would be inappropriate to do so on this thread . But I am trying to show how this science can play a subtle role without altering the outer structure of a subject. Without overpowering them, many of the traditional themes of harmonics are on display in these early sonnets, skilfully sown by Shakespeare into familiar outer garments, garments that transact at an everyday level while at the same time subtly disclosing a universal or cosmic theme. We are being fed harmonics intravenously.

If anything is still unclear please ask. I’ll do my best to answer.



Let me continue for a bit on the same theme.

If the harmony of the soul is the ‘sweet self’ this singleness seems to me undoubtedly the individual who has become separated from such a harmony. Throughout these early sonnets there is this interplay between ‘selves’. It takes the form of the poet challenging an eligible young man to leave his selfish state and ‘create another’, fall in line with his true nature and stop being ‘cruel’ to his, what we might call, his natural self.

Forming the backcloth to this struggle is nature ‘herself’ – in all her feminine Pythagorean guises, carried through to Plato’s Timaeus, the ‘Bible of harmonics’ and thereby on to Shakespeare, to us. It is a nature that continually refreshes herself through her seasons and cycles – the very cycles that fascinate Plato so much at Republic 546, concerning the fall from one political system to another:

“Not only to plants in the ground, but also among animals upon the ground, cometh fertility and infertility of soul and bodies as often as their revolutions make the circumferences of the respective cycles/circles, faring a short way in those whose life is short, and the reverse in the reverse…”

Socrates goes on to talk of how what we are calling the unnatural self comes about:

“Now as touching your kind, clever though the leaders of the city be whom you saw educated, none the more will they, by calculation together with perception, attain to true fecundity and barrenness, but it will escape them, and they will one day beget children when they ought not.”

This ‘Pythagorean ode’ has always been of great interest to me. Its relevance to this theme of mine lies in the description of those men who were meant to be guardians of the state but grow up in ignorance of the natural cycles and their essential link to a of divine geometry and proportionality underpinning the whole cosmos - that is , they can no longer 'calculate' [see Laws 645a]; instead they elect to follow their ‘unnatural selves’ even though they still purport to fulfil the role of guardians and should be ‘the lords and masters of their faces’ (Sonnet 94).

This however is far from the truth for they show the same lack of knowledge as the young man of the sonnets. Like him they ‘set too little store by music’. He, remember, would not listen to the harmony and was actually is annoyed by it and is, as Socrates’ Musai sing, “growing up without us.”

The aspirations of Elizabethan England are not those of Socrates’ Athens. But in essence the message is the same. Socrates holds the ‘sweet self’ in just as high esteem as did Shakespeare. As the brief light of the Renaissance gave way to the more prosaic 'Enlightenment' Shakespeare’s worse fears were realised and it seems that Locke’s concept of the self owning person finally donned the crown, as it were, or was it just a tin hat?
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Joseph Milne

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 11, 2018 12:08 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote


Forgive my slowness in responding. This is mostly due to a perplexity your exegesis of Shakespeare’s sonnet has given me.

The first perplexity is how exchanging one set of metaphors for another advances us towards Shakespeare’s meaning. He takes up the metaphor of the harmony of strings in concord together. In so doing he does what poets do – he finds a correspondence between visible things and the inner life. As I say, this is the manner in which poetry speaks, as distinct from philosophy. I would say further, that it is a universal vocabulary and intuitively understood. It brings about an existential understanding, a sharing in the poetic vision.

If this is translated into a kind of mathematical metaphysics, we have to consider if this is furthering our reception of the poem, or in some sense replacing it with a meaning that removes its immediate act of communicating with us. Do we end up with some universal idea which replaces the telling of the poem?

We may also ask if Shakespeare ‘thought’ in this way, as though he brought a meaning from numerical proportion and transferred it into a sonnet, in an outer garment which can be removed to uncover the meaning. Was his source a philosophical or metaphysical law? If that were so, then art becomes merely a vehicle for philosophical doctrines. Here we have to be very cautious. For this is precisely what happened to the Bible in the high middle ages, when the mode of apprehension that saw in manifest things the invisible made visible was lost. As you know, this is what Heidegger chose to call ontotheology, the reduction of divine things to ontology or metaphysics.

There is a further dimension to the sonnet that also gets lost in this way of interpretation – the manner in which it addresses the ‘thou’ of the addressee:

Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?

Always in Shakespeare’s sonnets someone is being addressed, even if that someone is present only in the poet’s mind’s eye. Poetry arises between the speaker and the one spoken to, and this is because there is that which calls to be said and heard. The ‘thou’ in that first line is being addressed in friendship, and not, I would say, as an ‘egotistical’ young man. This kind of accusation is a modern invention, derived more from the anthropology of Hobbes of Locke, or even Freudianism, than from early anthropology which had not divided selfhood into two persons.

Shakespeare is interested in the comportment of his characters towards existence, to the world about them. Their life is the way they act in the world. On its own, that first line could be addressed to the melancholic lover, who in the absence of the beloved sees no harmony or beauty anywhere, and so apprehends the world sadly. Of course, this is not the case in this sonnet. The strange line is:

Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly,

What is this alternative that is loved without gladness? Or why receive in pleasure that which annoys? These are strange contradictions in apprehension, in perception or reception. They are not unfamiliar to us as part of the human condition. Must we take these to be flaws or faults? I think not. Or rather I do not believe the poet is addressing them as faults. They are simply the human condition which, in the providential order of things, is accounted for since the human race must, by being human, reflect upon its apprehension of existence. This for Plato and for Aristotle is the ‘political’, the life in community, which is neither the life of the beasts nor of the gods, but in a realm between.

It is here where the question of ‘ownership’ directly emerges. The ‘proprietorial self’, which looks upon the world as that which can be owned, gives rise to the notion of ‘self-ownership’ as a philosophical justification of the way the world is seen. If I may put is so, it is the way the world is seen that gives the gift of self-knowledge. It is the ‘whole’ that gives us to ourselves individually, not the other way round as Descartes would have it. As the Athenian Stranger says in the Laws, ‘the universe did not come into existence for your sake, but you for the sake of the universe’. This is an existential statement, showing how we belong first to all that is for the sake of all that is. Out of that position we have access to the gift of self-knowledge, or more ‘Greekly’, to virtue, to ordering our soul. In other words, our cosmology situates us.

It is therefore no accident that in our times when the cosmos is seen as inert and without meaning it can be reduced to human property, or put at human disposal, or in the prevailing economic language, taken to be mere ‘resources’.

The ‘modern self’ including all talk of ‘ego’, has arisen from the modern ‘world picture’ as Heidegger puts it, from the prevailing cosmology. Economics has become our relation with nature, as transactional, legal, proprietorial, mechanistic, efficient as so forth – everything Plato and Aristotle says we must be on guard against. The ‘market’ holds sway, above society, above the arts, philosophy or religion, above the individual. Might this not be an example of what this line may mean?

Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly

Do we not love that which we do not receive gladly, yet will not let go? And where might we look for remedy? According to the sonnet we must learn to hear differently what we hear, receive through our senses differently, attend to the harmony of nature more carefully, and observing that which we took to be single was not. Poetically, this means seeing what is already manifest and visible, what is showing itself forth, since for poetic vision ‘presence’ and ‘meaning’ arrive unbidden and are the same. In poetic vision, the world is let to be. In philosophical vision it is put into questioning. And so a caution must be exercised, it seems to me, in interpreting poetry as though it had a philosophical meaning under or behind the text.

So much for my perplexity. I wonder if we might strike off on another note with your thoughts on this passage from my talk:

“Plato’s dialogue arrives at an understanding that, through erroneous thinking, Nature and Law have become separated. The Greek words are physis and nomos.”

It is of course the Sophists who he accuses of making this separation. It strikes me that precisely this separation always remains a peril in human understanding, a threat in any conception of human society, and that when separated ‘both’ become misconceived.

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