Tag Archives: Fluff

Summer Fridays With Pascal (Birthday Edition): The Wager

On the occasion of Pascal’s birthday, what more appropriate way to celebrate Pascalthan to read his famous wager? Many people know vaguely that there is something called “Pascal’s Wager” as well as its general thrust. But here is some of the text in which Pascal elaborates it, collected in Pensées. 

The problem confronted by Pascal is that of doubt–doubt about the existence of God. Pascal’s Wager has been criticized extensively by later philosophers (no surprise) but it is a true classic. Note the distinctively Jansenist separation of faith and reason. From Fragment 233:

Let us now speak according to natural lights.

If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is. This being so, who will dare to undertake the decision of the question? Not we, who have no affinity to Him.

Who then will blame Christians for not being able to give a reason for their belief, since they profess a religion for which they can give no reason? They declare, in expounding it to the world, that it is a foolishness, stultitiam; and then you complain that they do not prove it! If they proved it, they would not keep their word; it is in lacking proofs, that they are not lacking in sense. “Yes, but although this excuses those who offer it as such, and takes away from them the blame of putting it forward without reason, it does not excuse those who receive it.” Let us examine this point and say, “God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separates us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

Do not then reprove for error those who have made a choice for you know nothing about it. “No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all.”

Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least? You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

“That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much.” Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, were there an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three out at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. It is all divided; wherever the infinite is and there is not an infinity of chances of loss against that of gain, there is no time to hesitate, you must give all. And thus, when one is forced to play, he must renounce reason to preserve his life, rather than risk it for infinite gain, as likely to happen as the loss of nothingness….

Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognize that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.

Summer Fridays with Pascal: On Intention

Today’s post on Pascal reproduces a fragment from his “Letters to a Provincial”

The Jesuit Scholar Antonio Escobar y Mendoza

The Jesuit Scholar Antonio Escobar y Mendoza

(sometimes called “Provincial Letters”), a wonderful work of political and religious polemic in the defense of Jansenism and against a particular kind of casuistry in Jesuit thinking (the letters’ more immediate aim was to defend Antoine Arnauld, Pascal’s fellow Jansenist, who was threatened with censure by the theological faculty at the Sorbonne for certain writings). The complete letters may be found here.

Many of the letters are in the form of a dialogue between Pascal and a “monk,” a Jesuit priest whose verbal artifice and rhetorical obfuscation is made the object of ridicule. In the 6th and 7th letters, Pascal takes aim at what is sometimes called the “doctrine of double effect”–the general idea that one may be morally permitted to perform a wicked or evil action if one does not have a culpable state of mind in performing that action. The doctrine is, of course, the root of many of our contemporary ideas of mens rea in criminal law (particularly the sort of mens rea governing inchoate crimes like conspiracy and complicity). It should come as little surprise that the Jansenist position on original sin would stand in some tension with the doctrine of double effect. Here is a portion of the dialogue in the 7th Letter (the monk begins the exchange):

“Know then, that this marvellous principle is our grand method of directing the intention- the importance of which, in our moral system, is such that I might almost venture to compare it with the doctrine of probability. You have had some glimpses of it in passing, from certain maxims which I mentioned to you. For example, when I was showing you how servants might execute certain troublesome jobs with a safe conscience, did you not remark that it was simply by diverting their intention from the evil to which they were accessary to the profit which they might reap from the transaction? Now that is what we call directing the intention. You saw, too, that, were it not for a similar divergence of the mind, those who give money for benefices might be downright simoniacs. But I will now show you this grand method in all its glory, as it applies to the subject of homicide- a crime which it justifies in a thousand instances; in order that, from this startling result, you may form an idea of all that it is calculated to effect.”

“I foresee already,” said I, “that, according to this mode, everything will be permitted; it will stick at nothing.”

“You always fly from the one extreme to the other,” replied the monk: “prithee avoid that habit. For, just to show you that we are far from permitting everything, let me tell you that we never suffer such a thing as a formal intention to sin, with the sole design of sinning; and if any person whatever should persist in having no other end but evil in the evil that he does, we break with him at once: such conduct is diabolical. This holds true, without exception of age, sex, or rank. But when the person is not of such a wretched disposition as this, we try to put in practice our method of directing the intention, which simply consists in his proposing to himself, as the end of his actions, some allowable object. Not that we do not endeavour, as far as we can, to dissuade men from doing things forbidden; but when we cannot prevent the action, we at least purify the motive, and thus correct the viciousness of the means by the goodness of the end. Such is the way in which our fathers have contrived to permit those acts of violence to which men usually resort in vindication of their honour. They have no more to do than to turn off their intention from the desire of vengeance, which is criminal, and direct it to a desire to defend their honour, which, according to us, is quite warrantable. And in this way our doctors discharge all their duty towards God and towards man. By permitting the action, they gratify the world; and by purifying the intention, they give satisfaction to the Gospel. This is a secret, sir, which was entirely unknown to the ancients; the world is indebted for the discovery entirely to our doctors. You understand it now, I hope?”

“Perfectly well,” was my reply. “To men you grant the outward material effect of the action; and to God you give the inward and spiritual movement of the intention; and by this equitable partition, you form an alliance between the laws of God and the laws of men. But, my dear sir, to be frank with you, I can hardly trust your premisses, and I suspect that your authors will tell another tale.”

“You do me injustice, rejoined the monk; “I advance nothing but what I am ready to prove, and that by such a rich array of passages that altogether their number, their authority, and their reasonings, will fill you with admiration. To show you, for example, the alliance which our fathers have formed between the maxims of the Gospel and those of the world, by thus regulating the intention, let me refer you to Reginald: ‘Private persons are forbidden to avenge themselves; for St. Paul says to the Romans (12), “Recompense to no man evil for evil”; and Ecclesiasticus says (28), “He that taketh vengeance shall draw on himself the vengeance of God, and his sins will not be forgotten.” Besides all that is said in the Gospel about forgiving offences, as in chapters 6 and 18 of St. Matthew.'”

“Well, father, if after that he says anything contrary to the Scripture, it will not be from lack of scriptural knowledge, at any rate. Pray, how does he conclude?”

“You shall hear,” he said. “From all this it appears that a military man may demand satisfaction on the spot from the person who has injured him- not, indeed, with the intention of rendering evil for evil, but with that of preserving his honour- ‘non ut malum pro malo reddat, sed ut conservet honorem.’ See you how carefully they guard against the intention of rendering evil for evil, because the Scripture condemns it? This is what they will tolerate on no account. Thus Lessius observes, that ‘if a man has received a blow on the face, he must on no account have an intention to avenge himself; but he may lawfully have an intention to avert infamy, and may, with that view, repel the insult immediately, even at the point of the sword- etiam cum gladio!’ So far are we from permitting any one to cherish the design of taking vengeance on his enemies that our fathers will not allow any even to wish their death- by a movement of hatred. ‘If your enemy is disposed to injure you,’ says Escobar, ‘you have no right to wish his death, by a movement of hatred; though you may, with a view to save yourself from harm.’ So legitimate, indeed, is this wish, with such an intention, that our great Hurtado de Mendoza says that ‘we may pray God to visit with speedy death those who are bent on persecuting us, if there is no other way of escaping from it.'”

“May it please your reverence,” said I, “the Church has forgotten to insert a petition to that effect among her prayers.”

“They have not put in everything into the prayers that one may lawfully ask of God,” answered the monk. “Besides, in the present case, the thing was impossible, for this same opinion is of more recent standing than the Breviary. You are not a good chronologist, friend. But, not to wander from the point, let me request your attention to the following passage, cited by Diana from Gaspar Hurtado, one of Escobar’s four-and-twenty fathers: ‘An incumbent may, without any mortal sin, desire the decease of a life-renter on his benefice, and a son that of his father, and rejoice when it happens; provided always it is for the sake of the profit that is to accrue from the event, and not from personal aversion.'”

“Good!” cried I. “That is certainly a very happy hit; and I can easily see that the doctrine admits of a wide application. But yet there are certain cases, the solution of which, though of great importance for gentlemen, might present still greater difficulties.”

“Propose them, if you please, that we may see,” said the monk.

“Show me, with all your directing of the intention,” returned I, “that it is allowable to fight a duel.”

“Our great Hurtado de Mendoza,” said the father, “will satisfy you on that point in a twinkling. ‘If a gentleman,’ says he, in a passage cited by Diana, ‘who is challenged to fight a duel, is well known to have no religion, and if the vices to which he is openly and unscrupulously addicted are such as would lead people to conclude, in the event of his refusing to fight, that he is actuated, not by the fear of God, but by cowardice, and induce them to say of him that he was a hen, and not a man, gallina, et non vir; in that case he may, to save his honour, appear at the appointed spot- not, indeed, with the express intention of fighting a duel, but merely with that of defending himself, should the person who challenged him come there unjustly to attack him. His action in this case, viewed by itself, will be perfectly indifferent; for what moral evil is there in one stepping into a field, taking a stroll in expectation of meeting a person, and defending one’s self in the event of being attacked? And thus the gentleman is guilty of no sin whatever; for in fact it cannot be called accepting a challenge at all, his intention being directed to other circumstances, and the acceptance of a challenge consisting in an express intention to fight, which we are supposing the gentleman never had.'”

“You have not kept your word with me, sir,” said I. “This is not, properly speaking, to permit duelling; on the contrary, the casuist is so persuaded that this practice is forbidden that, in licensing the action in question, he carefully avoids calling it a duel.”

“Ah!” cried the monk, “you begin to get knowing on my hand, I am glad to see. I might reply that the author I have quoted grants all that duellists are disposed to ask. But since you must have a categorical answer, I shall allow our Father Layman to give it for me. He permits duelling in so many words, provided that, in accepting the challenge, the person directs his intention solely to the preservation of his honour or his property: ‘If a soldier or a courtier is in such a predicament that he must lose either his honour or his fortune unless he accepts a challenge, I see nothing to hinder him from doing so in self-defence.’ The same thing is said by Peter Hurtado, as quoted by our famous Escobar; his words are: ‘One may fight a duel even to defend one’s property, should that be necessary; because every man has a right to defend his property, though at the expense of his enemy’s life!'”

I was struck, on hearing these passages, with the reflection that, while the piety of the king appears in his exerting all his power to prohibit and abolish the practice of duelling in the State, the piety of the Jesuits is shown in their employing all their ingenuity to tolerate and sanction it in the Church. But the good father was in such an excellent key for talking that it would have been cruel to have interrupted him; so he went on with his discourse.

Summer Fridays With Pascal: On Legitimacy

This is the second in our estival feature here at CLR Forum. For its origin and inspiration, see this post.

One of the pervading themes of Pascal’s Pensées is the conflict between reason

Pascal (Reasoning or Imagining?)

Pascal (Reasoning or Imagining?)

and emotion, sentiment, and the imagination. Consistent with the Calvinist orientation of Jansenism (and in contradistinction to older views of the consilience of reason and faith), Pascal sees them as quite distinct. And he believes that, man being fallen, emotion and the imagination are the primary movers in achieving whatever satisfactions and happinesses man can reach in this world.

But Pascal goes further, observing that not only individual satisfaction, but also worldly reputation, is obtained not through reason but through the exercise and effect of the imaginative faculties. And the fruits of imagination in this respect very much affect and pertain to law and the perception of its authority—that is, its legitimacy.

As we are in the month of June, the yearly apotheosis of public fascination with the judiciary, here is an extended passage that treats in part of judicial legitimacy:

Would you not say that this magistrate, whose venerable age commands the respect of a whole people, is governed by pure and lofty reason, and that he judges causes according to their true nature without considering those mere trifles that affect the imagination of the weak? See him go to sermon, full of devout zeal, strengthening his reason with the ardour of his love. He is ready to listen with exemplary respect. Let the preacher appear, and let nature have given him a hoarse voice or a comical cast of countenance, or let his barber have given him a bad shave, or let by chance his dress be more dirtied than usual, then however great the truths he announces, I wager our senator loses his gravity.

If the greatest philosopher in the world find himself on a plank wider than actually necessary, but hanging over a precipice, his imagination will prevail, though his reason convince him of his safety….

Love or hate alters the aspect of justice. How much greater confidence has an advocate, retained with a large fee, in the justice of his cause! How much better does his bold manner make his case appear to the judges, deceived as they are by appearances! How ludicrous is reason, blown with a breath in every direction!….

Our magistrates have known well this mystery. Their red robes, the ermine in which they wrap themselves like furry cats, the courts in which they administer justice, the fleurs-de-lis, and all such august apparel were necessary; if the physicians had not their cassocks and their mules, if the doctors had not their square caps and their robes four times too wide, they would never have duped the world, which cannot resist so original an appearance. If magistrates had true justice, and if physicians had the true art of healing, they would have no occasion for square caps; the majesty of these sciences would of itself be venerable enough. But having only imaginary knowledge, they must employ those silly tools that strike the imagination with which they have to deal; and thereby in fact they inspire respect….

Pensées, #82.

Moreland on Jansenist Catholicism…and Summer Fridays With Pascal

My friend Michael Moreland has a very interesting post, Irish Catholicism and the Long Tail of Jansenism, whose core speculation is that those European quarters most influenced by Jansenism are also among those most likely to see a decline in Catholic influence. A bit from Mike’s post:

Indeed, while the Church’s influence across Europe has fallen, the collapse in those parts of Europe (or places missionized by Europeans) arguably influenced by Jansenism has been ferocious: the Low Countries (we think of Jansenism as primarily a French movement, but Cornelius Jansen himself was Dutch and Bishop of Ypres), France, Quebec, and Ireland. The place of the Church in the culture of those parts of European Catholicism less tinged by Jansenism has fared a bit better: Poland, Austria, Bavaria, Italy, and, most especially, Spain and Portugal and their former colonies in Latin America and the Philippines….

If there is something to this, though, we shouldn’t be surprised. Jansenism—with its hyper-Augustinianism, insistence on human depravity, confused doctrine of freedom and grace, other-worldliness, and moral rigorism—was theologically pernicious (condemned in Cum occasione by Pope Innocent X in 1653 and in Unigenitus dei filius by Pope Clement VI in 1713). A Catholic culture shaped by it distorts our understanding of the human person and society, and bad theological doctrines about God, human nature, and sin can wreak havoc even if the institutional forms of the Church endure for a time. Jansenism produced a towering genius in Blaise Pascal and a minor genius in Antoine Arnauld, but it was an unfortunate development in early modern Catholicism.

The post is typically erudite and penetrating. Yet it evoked more than a bit of sorrow and regret in this devotee of Pascal, a major figure in the development and defense of the religious society of Port-Royal (as Mike observes), morally a Puritan movement within the Church. For the definitive account of the destruction of the society, one must read Sainte-Beueve. As T.S. Eliot once said of him: “Pascal was not a theologian, and on dogmatic theology had recourse to his spiritual advisers. Nor was he indeed a systematic philosopher. He was a man with an immense genius for science, and at the same time a natural psychologist and moralist.”

And so I have resolved to institute a little summer series–Summer Fridays With Pascal. Enjoy over a good glass of Bordeaux.

Here is something from Pensées–appropriately enough, on “Thought”:

All the dignity of man consists in thought. Thought is therefore by its nature a wonderful and incomparable thing. It must have strange defects to be contemptible. Yet it has such, so that nothing is more ridiculous. How great it is in its nature! How vile it is in its defects!

Gigantor Takes Over Blogging at CLR Forum

GIGANTOROur good friend John McGinnis is always warning us that technology is marching relentlessly through the legal profession. So we’ve decided to be ahead of the curve. Starting today, posting at CLR Forum will be done by robot, specifically, by the robot from the old TV series, “Gigantor.” That’s a picture of him above. He hasn’t been busy since his show got canceled a few decades ago and is eager to get back to work. A pretty nice fellow, for a space-age robot, though it turns out he has rather strong feelings about religious establishments. His random-post generator program will free up our resources for other important projects, like writing mystery novels, to which Marc and I plan to apply ourselves. Let us know what you think.

The Proctor: A Legal Note from David Copperfield

The more substantial novels of Charles Dickens represent a regrettably sizable hole in my reading, one which with time I hope to plug up. I’ve started with David Copperfield and am enjoying it greatly. The writing, as much or more than the story itself, is truly magnificent.

Unlike with some of Dickens’s other work in which it is generally portrayed unflatteringly, the law and legal practice is not an absolutely central theme in David Copperfield, though it does show up from time to time. The ingratiatingly servile Uriah Heep has already been described poring over some legal treatises, and this detail is sure to resurface by and by. But the law does make something of an appearance when David, now a young man of 17 and at the urging of his aunt, selects the profession of “proctor.”

I had not before known what a proctor was. Apparently the proctor was a special kind of solicitor who dealt with both ecclesiastical and admiralty matters, an unusual combination! The position of proctor was merged with solicitor in the late 19th century. Here is a charming bit from Chapter XXIII about proctors and their practice (as relayed only slightly in jest by David’s prepossessing friend, Steerforth):

“What is a proctor, Steerforth?” said I.

“Why, he is a sort of monkish attorney,” replied Steerforth. “He is, to some faded courts held in Doctors’ Commons–a lazy old nook near St. Paul’s Churchyard–what solicitors are to the courts of law and equity. He is a functionary whose existence, in the natural course of things, would have terminated about two hundred years ago. I can tell you best what he is, by telling you what Doctors’ Commons is. It’s a little out-of-the-way place, where they administer what is called ecclesiastical law, and play all kinds of tricks with obsolete old monsters of acts of Parliament, which three-fourths of the world know nothing about, and the other fourth supposes to have been dug up, in a fossil state, in the days of the Edwards. It’s a place that has an ancient monopoly in suits about people’s wills and people’s marriages, and disputes among ships and boats.”

“Nonsense, Steerforth!” I exclaimed. “You don’t mean to say that there is any affinity between nautical matters and ecclesiastical matters?”

“I don’t, indeed, my dear boy,” he returned; “but I mean to say that they are managed and decided by the same set of people, down in that same Doctors’ Commons. You shall go there one day, and find them blundering through half the nautical terms in Young’s Dictionary, apropos of the ‘Nancy’ having run down the ‘Sarah Jane,’ or Mr. Peggotty and the Yarmouth boatmen having put off in a gale of wind with an anchor and cable to the ‘Nelson’ Indiaman in distress; and you shall go there another day, and find them deep in evidence, pro and con, respecting a clergyman who has misbehaved himself; and you shall find the judge in the nautical case, the advocate in the clergyman’s case, or contrariwise. They are like actors: now a man’s a judge, and now he is not a judge; now he’s one thing, now he’s another; now he’s something else, change and change about; but it’s always a very pleasant profitable little affair of private theatricals, presented to an uncommonly select audience.”

If you really want to know what Judge ___ is like, read his opinions

Forgive me for a post not particularly law-and-religion related, but certainly law-related.

I’ve been enjoying Professor Ronald Collins’s series on Judge Richard Posner over at the Concurring Opinions blog. The Collins biography is extremely substantive and scholarly; it’s not really the subject of this post at all. I’m more interested here in “Posner on Posner,” which is basically a collection of interviews, reflections, bon mots, aphorisms, scattered wisdom about cats, opinionation about the virtues and vices of spicy food (or was it jurisprudence?), and so on. The latest installment is a smorgasbord of law professor queries about various scraps of miscellany, answered by Judge Posner in his genially efficient fashion. It’s a fun little window on Richard Posner the man. It reminds me of the way that James Fitzjames Stephen used to produce regular victuals for the insatiably voracious Victorian English intelligentsia.

The Posner on Posner format, though, is such that I’m afraid folks might perhaps be misled to believe that when Judge Posner makes statements like, “I think the role of legal doctrine in judicial decisions is considerably overrated,” that means that legal doctrine is likely actually to play very little role in his judicial decision making. Law professors so like to ask questions about things like pragmatism, and the influence of law and economics and sundry other ideological precommitments on judging, how judging will change “in the future,” and whether Posner reads any Lon Fuller (or enjoys the filmography of Lon Chaney). And, of course, Judge Posner is rather able at providing law professors with what they so much want to hear–interesting, provocative, sometimes perhaps a little shocking (not too much!), always eminently Posnerian responses to these sorts of questions. Indeed, he’s made something of an extrajudicial second career in writing great numbers of books whose theme is a tell-it-like-it-is forthrightness that shows the emperor in his resplendent nudity (and the repeated announcement of that theme, just in case you missed the last 19 times it was pressed, as something altogether novel coming from a judge). Professor Collins’s series is certainly of a piece with this spectacularly prodigious extrajudicial output.

Still, if you really want to know what Posner the judge is like–and here one could substitute really anybody when writing as a judge–you might do better simply to read his opinions. Failing that, or for the sake of saving a little time, may I humbly submit that you read my piece with Kevin Walsh about the several ways in which Posner the judge is often altogether different from Posner the public intellectual who explains what it is like to be a judge. It’s only after pursuing this sort of course that the differences between a judge and an explanation (even from the most able of judges) of ‘what-it-is-like-to-be-a judge’ (with apologies to Thomas Nagel) come into view–differences that for various reasons may run deep in Judge Posner’s particular case.

Stendhalian Interlude

I’m listening to Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma in the car, a wonderful

Farnese Tower, Castell'Arquato, Parma

Farnese Tower, Castell’Arquato, Parma

work of novelistic “realism” set in the early 19th century world of Italian city-state court life. Stendhal’s portrait of these small time courts is none too flattering, but neither is its chief alternative: “From the whole business one can derive this moral, that the man who mingles with a court compromises his happiness, if he is happy, and, in any event, makes his future depend on the intrigues of a chambermaid. On the other hand in America, in the Republic, one has to spend the whole weary day paying serious court to the shopkeepers in the street, and must become as stupid as they are; and there, one has no Opera.”

The hero of the story, Fabrizio del Dongo, is a figure of perfect aristocratic early Romantic integrity–the sort of man who brashly leaves his suffocating palace life in Como to join the army of Napoleon, only to reach him right as the Battle of Waterloo is concluding. For Fabrizio, the only thing that matters is to get confirmation that he has actually participated in a battle–any battle–something about which he is never quite certain.

Since prisons and prison life (and even prison escape!) have been a subject of discussion here at the Center for Law and Religion Forum this past week, and since a large portion of the key section of The Charterhouse of Parma occurs in a prison (the Farnese Tower in Parma, at right), I thought the following was interesting. The prison warden, a General Fabio Conti, is a detestable person and fairly universally hated, including by many of the guards (to say nothing of the prisoners). At one point, it appears that he may have died by poisoning. But he revives. Yet rather than feeling crushed by the news, the prisoners sing his praises. Stendhal writes:

Fabio Conti was a jailer who was always uneasy, always unhappy, always seeing in his dreams one of his prisoners escaping: he was loathed by everyone in the citadel; but misfortune inspiring the same resolutions in all men, the poor prisoners, even those who were chained in dungeons three feet high, three feet wide and eight feet long, in which they could neither stand nor sit, all the prisoners, even these, I say, had the idea of ordering a  Te Deum to be sung at their own expense, when they knew that their governor was out of danger. Two or three of these wretches composed sonnets in honor of Fabio Conti. Oh, the effect of misery upon men! May he who would blame them be led by his destiny to spend a year in a cell three feet high, with eight ounces of bread a day and fasting on Fridays!

Finally, a Use for Reprints

reprintsA little end-of-summer humor for our academic readers.

The Death of the Divine Augustus

blessedToday is the 2000th anniversary of the death of Caesar Augustus. For anyone who has ever seen it, the Divine Augustus will always be associated with Brian Blessed’s portrayal of him (left) in the BBC adaptation of the wonderful Robert Graves novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God. And so, to commemorate the day, here’s a snippet of dialogue, on a law and religion theme, which captures the charming, cynical urbanity of the series. For those of us nerds of a certain sort, it’s a real guilty pleasure. I’m sure the whole thing is available on Netflix. Watch it — or, better yet, read the books!

[Herod and Augustus are watching a gladiatorial contest.]
Augustus: Herod, what about a little bet? I’ll take the fat one for twenty gold pieces.
Herod: Caesar, it would be against my religion to bet on the life of a man.
Augustus: Oh, really? I would have thought it against your religion to bet on anything.
Herod: Caesar, it’s true: Jews love gambling. But we fear our god more.
Augustus: Which one?
Herod: We have only one, Caesar.
Augustus: I’ve never understood that, it’s quite insufficient. Why don’t you take some of our gods? You know, plenty of people do.
Herod: Believe me, Caesar, the one we have is hard enough to live with.