Thursday, October 29, 2009

"It is as" what?

Rather than blogg myself into virtual tar - and virtual feathers - I shall refrain from responding to the quarrelsome, interesting and even hilarious comments for last week - apparently I really did cause some division, hee hee - since there are other things to say, though most of them must be deferred for the present.

To vary my complex (x+iy) metaphor - if you are an engineer, read this (x+jy) - Oh, am I alluding to something you don't know? Sorry, sometimes I naturally quote a fitting math epigram the way Chesterton would quote a fitting Latin epigram. Of course I was trying to be funny, since the number (x+iy) is called a "complex" number, made of both real and imaginary parts, though of course "i" (or "j") is just as real to us as "5"! (That"!" makes it even funnier, but let us defer that too, hee hee!) Yes, mathematicians dignify "i" (or "j") with the glorious term "imaginary" - one imagines GKC illustrating an addition problem (or one in phasor analysis or wave mechanics) with horns and forked tails etc... Oh my, hee hee! If you have ever read the wonderful "Calvin and Hobbes" comic strip, you may recall one where Hobbes mentions some other forms of imaginary numbers like "eleventeen" and "thirty-twelve" Ah! What joy. Ahem. Of course numbers are real, including those called "imaginary" by mathematicians; they do wonderful things like make your electric light work, and your radio - and if you treat them poorly, you will find that you have overdrawn your bank account.

Ahem! but as I started to say, to vary my complex metaphor, let us turn to the other wing of the University and see what curiousities we can find lurking in the halls of language. Of course, since I am an engineer I am not expected to know very much Latin or Greek, but from my youth I had read the mystic Ambrosian "TE DEVM LAVDAMVS" scribed far about the main altar at our church, and seen the strange letters "A" and "W" on the altar itself. And I kept the visitors into the Control Room where we did work for A Certain Cable Television Company by putting Latin epigrams like Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? onto the big screens where the tool called WATCHER kept us informed about system status... But you are not interested in what I know or don't know, but in what Chesterton knew, which we begin to gain hints of by reading his books.

And just for fun, since one may say that I am biassed, or (worsely argued) that I didn't know GKC personally, I shall give you a nice little quote from someone else who DID know him personally, and who also read his books:
Chesterton by his intellectual inheritance from the high Unitarian English culture was highly sympathetic with the general classical culture of Europe. He could illustrate it and pass it on (often unconsciously), as could not a writer or a man who knew not the soul of that culture. He could not have conceived a world which should be of our civilisation in a fashion and yet not based on Latin and Greek.
I remember, some years before he was received into the Church and before he ever visited America, his asking me, as one with a wide experience of the United States, whether it were true that the Latin and Greek classics were there of no effect. I told him this was increasingly so, save in a very few academic coteries and, of course, in the ubiquitous and very numerous Catholic clergy, and those influenced by them.
[Belloc, On the Place of Gilbert Chesterton in English Letters 23-4]
Curious - but let us proceed. Besides, we shall come back to Belloc in order for me to explain my complex (hee hee) title for today.

Anyhow, in my explorations of GKC I have seen one or two Spanish words, a handful of German words, and a handful of Italian words, and a handful of Greek words, including some wonderful comments on learning Greek - see his Autobiography (CW16:60) for the startling revelation that the ancients did not write their Greek with accent marks! Of course as we know, they also wrote their Greek and Latin without spaces, which is hardly a simplification...

(See here for more on this item.) Ahem. But by far the two other languages we see in his writing are French and Latin. I've often wondered whether he used more Latin than French, but do not have the time to give all the details today. I can note a couple of lengthy bits, just to see how well you do without a dictionary:
The one case for Revolution is that it is the only quite clean and complete road to anything - even to restoration. Revolution alone can be not merely a revolt of the living, but also a resurrection of the dead. A friend of mine (one, in fact, who writes prominently on this paper) was once walking down the street in a town of Western France, situated in that area that used to be called La Vendée; which in that great creative crisis about 1790 formed a separate and mystical soul of its own, and made a revolution against a revolution. As my friend went down this street he whistled an old French air which he had found, like Mr. Gandish, "in his researches into 'istry," and which had somehow taken his fancy; the song to which those last sincere loyalists went into battle. I think the words ran:-
Monsieur de Charette
Dit au gens d'ici
Le roi va remettre
Le fleur de lys
My friend was (and is) a Radical, but he was (and is) an Englishman, and it never occurred to him that there could be any harm in singing archaic lyrics out of remote centuries; that one had to be a Catholic to enjoy the "Dies Irae", or a Protestant to remember "Lillibullero." Yet he was stopped and gravely warned that things so politically provocative might get him at least into temporary trouble.
[GKC "The Red Reactionary" in A Miscelleny of Men 182-3]
Amazing! Now, I wonder what he said, and what it means. Here is a nice little project for someone to post about! Gee, maybe it is time for us to start homework assignments?

Here is another bit, again something curious which needs commentary:
We have ample evidence that the old leaders of feudal war could speak on occasion with a certain natural symbolism and eloquence that they had not gained from boots. When Cyrano de Bergerac, in Rostand's play, throws doubts on the reality of Christian's dulness and lack of culture, the latter replies:
'Bah! on trouve des mots quand on monte à l'assaut;
Oui, j'ai un certain esprit facile et militaire
and these two lines sum up a truth about the old oligarchy. They could not write three legible letters, but they could sometimes speak literature.
[GKC "A Defence of Slang" in The Defendant 107]
Now, let us go further into the past and hear GKC in the tongue of ancient Roma. There are several possible selections I could make where GKC quotes Aquinas or Virgil or others. He knows Juvenal's "Satires" well enough to apply his great dictum "quis custodiet ipsos custodes?, ("Who will watch the WATCHERs themselves?" - a line well known to the WATCHERs of Cable Television) into the excellent "Quis docebit ipsum doctorem?" (Who will teach the teacher himself?) which he wrote in "The Mad Official" in his A Miscellany of Men. Yes, that line would play well into last week's topic, but we must proceed.

That wonderful book of essays contains another glorious bit, which I will give you in a larger excerpt since it is pure delight - and of course because it deals with those great Chesterton topics, CHEESE and BEER:
I entered an inn which stood openly in the market-place yet was almost as private as a private house. Those who talk of "public-houses" as if they were all one problem would have been both puzzled and pleased with such a place. In the front window a stout old lady in black with an elaborate cap sat doing a large piece of needlework. She had a kind of comfortable Puritanism about her; and might have been (perhaps she was) the original Mrs. Grundy. A little more withdrawn into the parlour sat a tall, strong, and serious girl, with a face of beautiful honesty and a pair of scissors stuck in her belt, doing a small piece of needlework. Two feet behind them sat a hulking labourer with a humorous face like wood painted scarlet, with a huge mug of mild beer which he had not touched, and probably would not touch for hours. On the hearthrug there was an equally motionless cat; and on the table a copy of Household Words.
I was conscious of some atmosphere, still and yet bracing, that I had met somewhere in literature. There was poetry in it as well as piety; and yet it was not poetry after my particular taste. It was somehow at once solid and airy. Then I remembered that it was the atmosphere in some of Wordsworth's rural poems; which are full of genuine freshness and wonder, and yet are in some incurable way commonplace. This was curious; for Wordsworth's men were of the rocks and fells, and not of the fenlands or. flats. But perhaps it is the clearness of still water and the mirrored skies of meres and pools that produces this crystalline virtue. Perhaps that is why Wordsworth is called a Lake Poet instead of a mountain poet. Perhaps it is the water that does it. Certainly the whole of that town was like a cup of water given at morning.
After a few sentences exchanged at long intervals in the manner of rustic courtesy, I inquired casually what was the name of the town. The old lady answered that its name was Stilton, and composedly continued her needlework. But I had paused with my mug in air, and was gazing at her with a suddenly arrested concern.
"I suppose," I said, "that it has nothing to do with the cheese of that name."
"Oh, yes," she answered, with a staggering indifference, "they used to make it here."
I put down my mug with a gravity far greater than her own. "But this place is a Shrine!" I said. "Pilgrims should be pouring into it from wherever the English legend has endured alive. There ought to be a colossal statue in the market-place of the man who invented Stilton cheese. There ought to be another colossal statue of the first cow who provided the foundations of it. There should be a burnished tablet let into the ground on the spot where some courageous man first ate Stilton, cheese, and survived. On the top of a neighbouring hill (if there are any neighbouring hills) there should be a huge model of a Stilton cheese, made of some rich green marble and engraven with some haughty motto: I suggest something like 'Ver non semper viret; sed Stiltonia semper virescit.'"
The old lady said, "Yes, sir," and continued her domestic occupations.
[GKC "The Poet and the Cheese" in A Miscellany of Men 12-14]

Ah, class - let us recite this excellent epigram together!

Ver non semper viret sed Stiltonia semper virescit.

(Roughly, "Spring is not always green, but Stilton always turns green.")

Excellent! And now, before I leave for lunch, let us return to Belloc.

Now parallelism is a gift or method of vast effect in the conveyance of truth.
Parallelism consists in the illustration of some unperceived truth by its exact consonance with the reflection of a truth already known and perceived.
A truth may be missed by too constant a use, so that familiarity has dulled it; or by mere lack of acquaintance with it (the opposite danger); or by the repeated statement of it in false and imperfect forms. When the truth has been missed, it is recalled and fixed in the mind of the hearer by an unexpected and vivid use of parallelism.
Whenever Chesterton begins a sentence with, "It is as though," (in exploding a false bit of reasoning,) you may expect a stroke of parallelism as vivid as a lightning flash. Thus if some ass propounds that a difference of application destroys the validity of a doctrine, or that particulars are the enemies of universals, Chesterton will answer: "It is as though you were to say I cannot be an Englishman because I am a Londoner," or "It is as though you were to say that I cannot be an Englishman because I travel," or "As though you were to say Brown and Smith cannot both be Englishmen because one of them talks West Country and the other North Country."
[Belloc 37-8]

What is truly funny about this - and somehow chiming in with my previous posting about mathematics is this: The phrase "It is as though" only appears three times (more or less) in all of GKC's books I have presently available!!!

However, "it is as if" appears over 250 times.

The funny thing here is that Belloc's argument is correct despite this minor variation in terms. Of course, this is why we computer people learn not to use the standard solutions for the quadratic equation, since under some conditions small errors can creep in - oh yes. It is as if we must be ever vigilant in both our words and our numbers - but then Chesterton told us, as he quoted John Curran's famous "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance" - this "is only what the theologians say of every other virtue, and is itself only a way of stating the truth of original sin." [GKC The Thing CW3:312] Yes! Let us be ever vigilant, both in our words and in our numbers, and so (as Milo did in The Phantom Tollbooth) defend the Kingdom of Wisdom against the Demons of Ignorance.

P.S. May I mention this? Please do NOT run those French quotes through a mechanical translator and post them. (I could have done that.) I gladly admit I do not know French, and wish I had time to learn it, and many other languages. However, if you desire to write a reply based on your authentic knowledge of the tongues and the issues being referenced, please do so, either as a comment or a link to a posting on your own blogg. There are plenty of such things to clarify, and we shall all benefit from hearing experts in these matters.


  1. I think there should be a compulsory breathalyser test before anyone can post anything on the ACS blog.


  2. The verse might be translated: "M. de Charette / Told the people here / The king will bring back / The fleur-de-lis." Francois de Chartette was an aristocrat who fought to defend the King and Queen when a revolutionary mob attacked their palace, and later led the counter-revolutionary soldiers of the Vendee when they rose in defense of their King and Church. The fleur-de-lis, of course, was the traditional symbol of the ancien regime.

  3. Chesterton quotes Juvenal again in Chapter III of Book I of THE NAPOLEON OF NOTTING HILL: Quis tulerit Gracchos de seditione querentes? [Who can stand to hear the Gracchi speak of sedition? -- roughly, Look at the pot calling the kettle black.] Although it appears to be used more or less at random in one of Auberon Quin's little nonsense stories, it may be worth noting that the Gracchi brothers were land reformers who might be seen as proto-Distributists.

  4. And there's a Virgilian allusion in the first chapter of THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY which seems to have escaped both Conlon and Gsrdner in their annotated editions of the novel. When Gabriel Syme says "We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird," he's referencing an incident in Book V of the Aeneid, recounting the funeral games held in honor of Aeneas' father.

  5. Although I know only very little French, it turns out that I was closer to understanding that passage than I am to following much of the rest of Dr. T's erudite post. But the post was a pleasure to read anyway. Doc, if you get any more enigmatic, you may be in line for a promotion to Doctor Sunday.

    (Checking the verbal breathalyser...OK, I'm just inside the red zone!)

  6. The phrase "as though" has always puzzled me a bit. "John acted AS IF he were drunk" = "John acted as he would act if he were drunk." That's clear enough. But "John acted AS THOUGH he were drunk" = "John acted as he would act even though he were drunk" ... which seems to suggest that John behaved in a SOBER manner.

    So by preferring "It is as if" (and by a huge margin), Chesterton was choosing what seems to me to be the clearer and more logical alternative.

    Can anyone elucidate "as though" for me?

  7. Nice post Dr. T. I wish you would be more interactive. I know you like to let us talk amongst ourselves, but it would be nice if we could actually talk to you...

    (btw I'm definately not passing that breathalizer. It's payday friday!)

  8. I've been thinking about the anonymous poster's question about "as though," and I finally looked the phrase up on the online OED, which says the following:

    "Here the opposition is ...between two facts, one expressed by the main clause, and the other implied; e.g. in quot. 1598, ‘I thank you as much as though I did’, = ‘I thank you as much as I would thank you if I did eat (though I do not)’."

    I suppose the equivalent translation of "John acted as though he were drunk" would be "John acted drunk (though he was not)" or "John acted drunk (though there was no other evidence that he was drunk)", or something like that.

    The first example the OED gives of this phrase is from all the way back in 1200. Though it's old, I agree that "as though" is less straightforward and logical than "as if."

  9. Brian: Thanks for the research, and the post. Your analysis makes sense. Like GKC, though, I'll stick with "as if."

    Dr. Thursday: I've been re-reading THE DUMB OX, and the phrase "They might as well say" caught my eye. It seems to serve much the same purpose as "It is as if." I wonder how often GKC used that variant (or "you might as well say" or "one might as well say" or "he might as well say" ... )


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