Month: June 2014

The Paradoxicality of John Donne’s “Biathanatos” (Part 4)


Continued from Part 3. Or start at the beginning.

In Parts 2 and 3, I have argued that John Donne’s Biathanatos is a serious work. But if the author had faith in the cogency of his arguments, why did he decline to share them with the general public? Although Michael Rudick and Margaret Pabst Battin note that it “is common to assume that self-protection was the motive for Donne’s not publishing” (xv), they nevertheless assert that “[h]eterodoxy […] is not likely to be the reason Donne suppressed the book” (xviii). To phrase this another way, Biathanatos is not a heterodoxical work, but rather one that is prone to misinterpretation.

Indeed, such an assessment seems to be shared by the author himself. In a letter addressed to Sir Edward Herbert, Donne expresses his wish to have Biathanatos included within his friend’s library. However, he suggests that his book might be suspected of “new or dangerous doctrine” (Biathanatos 1982 3).[1] And in correspondence with Sir Robert Key, he writes:

I send you another book, to which there belongs this history. It was written by me many years since, and because it is upon a misinterpretable subject, I have always gone so near suppressing it as that it is only not burnt. No hand hath passed upon it to copy it, nor many eyes to read it; only to some particular friends in both universities then, when I writ it, I did communicate it, and I remember I had this answer: that certainly there was a false thread in it, but not easily found. (Biathanatos 1982 4)

Yet as Rudick and Battin note, Donne does not claim that Biathanatos in fact has a “false thread in it,” but only that certain early readers thought as much (xvi). Nonetheless, if he felt that his work was “upon a misinterpretable subject,” which has been borne out by subsequent centuries of critical misapprehension, this seems reason enough to keep it from the press. (more…)

The Paradoxicality of John Donne’s “Biathanatos” (Part 3)


Continued from Part 2. Or start at the beginning.

Rather than constituting a defence of suicide as such, John Donne’s Biathanatos advances the far more restricted claim that self-homicide is morally justified in at least some cases, such as those involving “heroism” or “self-sacrifice.” It is not surprising, then, that Donne pays particular attention to martyrdom. Although critics A. E. Malloch and Rosalie Colie would suggest otherwise, his treatment of this subject is serious on two fronts. First, his argumentation here is careful and persuasive. Second, martyrdom held a special significance for Donne, which would make it an unlikely topic for him to treat ironically. This is evident in Biathanatos itself, wherein he makes his reverence of the act explicit: “God forbid,” he writes, “any should be so malignant so to misinterpret me, as though I thought not ‘the blood of martyrs to be the seed of the church,’ or diminished the dignity thereof” (Biathanatos 1982 74).[1] However, a stronger reason rests in Donne’s familial ties to martyrdom, which include both a great-uncle and a great-great-uncle who died the martyr’s death.

The perspicuity and cogency with which Donne treats the subject of martyrdom is evident in the following example, wherein he discusses the third century martyr Necephorus of Antioch. By this point in the text, he has already admitted the possibility of “diseased” martyrdom, in which man’s natural desire to die gets perverted or corrupted.[2] The Necephorus case, however, is taken to exemplify a situation in which self-homicide is not only justifiable but also morally prescribed. Donne’s argument turns upon the premise (surely a reasonable one) that it is possible for the various imperatives of divine law to be in conflict with one another. In the present case, Necephorus found himself faced with two divergent moral imperatives: (1) the prohibition against self-homicide and (2) the imperative to testify to “God’s truth” (Donne, Biathanatos 1982 169). (more…)

The Paradoxicality of John Donne’s “Biathanatos” (Part 2)


Continued from Part 1.

A.E. Malloch and Rosalie Colie defend the view that John Donne’s Biathanatos is generically a paradox. But in order to understand this claim, we need to unpack the term’s rather thorny semantics. In its present-day usage, the word “paradox” tends to be equated with what Colie calls the “logical paradox”—i.e., an argument that employs valid reasoning yet entails a self-contradictory or logically impossible conclusion (OED). However, such a usage did not appear until the early 20th century.[1] Two more senses—both of which hold more relevance to our current project—are defined by Colie in the capacious Paradoxia Epidemica. One of these is embedded in the word’s etymology. Tracing “paradox” back through its various forms, we eventually arrive at the ancient Greek “παρὰ δόξαν,” which meant “contrary to expectation” (OED). And ccording to Colie, the word “paradox”—when taken in this etymologically-disclosed “simple sense”—describes a proposition that runs counter to the common opinion (9).[2]

Certainly, the central thesis of Biathanatos—i.e., “that Self-Homicide is not so naturally a Sin that it may never be otherwise” (Donne, Biathanatos 1982 1)—ran contrary to the ordinary beliefs of its age. Yet Malloch and Colie’s claim is not that the work is paradoxical in this simple sense. Rather, they argue that Donne’s defence of suicide conforms to a third sort of paradox, one that is characterized by its ironic and duplicitous qualities. Colie calls this variety “the rhetorical paradox” (7). And unlike the simple paradox, which could be pursued with the utmost seriousness, the “rhetorical paradox as a literary form had duplicity built into it” (Colie 5).[3] This duplicity took the shape of a dialectical exchange between author and reader. As Colie explains, the rhetorical paradox was intended not only to test “the limitations and rigidity of argumentation” (Colie 7) and to challenge any attempts at “absolute judgement” or “absolute convention” (10), but also to “[stimulate] further questions, speculation, qualification, even contradiction on the part of [the] wondering audience” (22). A rhetorical paradox, therefore, made for an interactive and underdetermined text. (more…)

The Paradoxicality of John Donne’s “Biathanatos” (Part 1)


Many scholars have considered John Donne’s Biathanatos to be an ironic or otherwise unserious work. According to one nuanced version of this view, which has been advanced by critics such as A. E. Malloch and Rosalie Colie, the work falls within the genre of the Renaissance paradox. If so, then Donne’s “defence of suicide” is a fundamentally duplicitous and dialectical text. Nevertheless, the categorization of the work as a paradox fails to take into account certain important features of the work. One of these features is related to the scope of Donne’s argument, insofar as Biathanatos is not a blanket defence of suicide, but rather a vindication of what we might call “self-sacrifice”—a category which encompasses some instances of martyrdom. Once we take the gravity of Donne’s subject matter into account, alongside the lucidity with which he pursues his arguments, the claim that Biathanatos is a Renaissance paradox begins to look more and more untenable.

We might therefore feel compelled to embrace the opposite position. The first known reader to view Biathanatos as a serious work was the author’s son—John Donne the younger—who was also the one to see his father’s manuscript into print.[1] In his dedicatory epistle to Philip Herbert, which appears in the printed editions of the work, Donne the younger writes that “although this book appear under the notion of a paradox, yet I desire your Lordship to look upon this doctrine as a firm and established truth” (Donne, Biathanatos 1982 5-6). More recently, Michael Rudick and Margaret Pabst Battin have argued that “Biathanatos is a straightforward work, straightforwardly intended” (xlii). This treatment of the text, which allows us to approach Biathanatos as a work of moral philosophy, is the most perspicuous to date. Yet there remain several gaps, such as Donne’s explicit use of the word “paradox” in the description of Biathanatos, as well as his occasional forays into satire and dark humour. Rudick and Battin also overlook a major point in favour of the “straightforward” thesis, which is that Donne’s vindication of self-sacrificial martyrdom has the corollary function of absolving some of his own martyred ancestors.

It is my wish to defend the “straightforward” thesis. In what follows, I will first outline the basic thrust of Colie and Malloch’s view, which I will supplement with the relevant counterarguments. Next, I will explain how martyrdom is treated in Biathanatos and why it held personal significance for Donne. This will provide an independent reason for thinking that the work was “straightforwardly intended.” Finally, I will discuss several gaps in Rudick and Battin’s account. My solution will be to argue that Donne was fearful lest his work be misperceived as heterodoxical. As a result, he attempted to mitigate its threatening aspects in a number of ways, one of which was to shield it under the label of the paradox. (more…)

On Pretentiousness


After reading Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, I was both shocked and disappointed to learn that many Goodreads users found the book to be utterly and unforgivably pretentious. What follows is a brief harangue directed against that dreaded p-word, with which I prefaced my own review of Auster’s mind-bending novel.

I can’t help but notice how often the word “pretentious” has been thrown around in the reviews for this book. What a bothersome word: pretentious. It’s a lot like the word “boring,” in that they both seem to fool the user into thinking that they mean something objective, when in fact they’re highly subjective. For nothing is inherently boring, just as nothing is inherently pretentious. On the contrary, these words say a lot more about the speaker than they do about the thing they’re supposedly describing.

What does it mean, then, when someone calls a book “pretentious”? Let’s dissect it. What they really seem to be saying is this: “I didn’t find meaning in this book, therefore anyone who claims to have found meaning is not telling the truth.” And this boils down to the following syllogism: “I am an intelligent reader; therefore, anyone who is also an intelligent reader will share my opinion of this book; therefore, anyone who doesn’t share my opinion isn’t an intelligent reader.” A valid inference, no doubt, but hardly sound. This is because the entire argument hinges upon one unavoidable fact: that by using the word “pretentious,” one is implicitly assuming that they themselves are intelligent. And as Socrates demonstrated time and time again, only dumb people think that they’re smart.

So hate on Paul Auster all you want. Say that you found his plots to be shallow. Say that you found his characters to be unsympathetic. Say whatever the **** you want. But don’t call his writing or his fans “pretentious.” Because that’s just being lazy. And beyond that, it only makes you sound pretentious.

The Problem with Poetry

The problem with poetry that it’s not
just anyone who can afford the time
to flit about in fancy and bumptious rhyme.
Not with all the pending projects and reports and contracts meetings and deals networking research with subsequent analyses marketing mergers layoffs (downsizings) powerpoint presentations objectives functions audits projections (not to mention daytime fantasies involving manager janet of the beautiful calves) brainstorming sessions spreadsheets miscellaneous operations and of course The Product (whether sold or bought).
And so it comes to pass that certain souls will forever remain poetically unthought.

Joseph Raz, Liberalism and the Nature of Human Rights


According to one line of thought, rights protect the well-being of the individual against the claims and demands of others. Joseph Raz challenges this view. On the contrary, he argues that individual and societal interests are not necessarily at odds with one another. What is more, he claims that a right may in fact be conducive to both. In what follows, I will outline the basics of Raz’s account of rights, including his notion of “the general good.”[1] Next, I will employ his view in the analysis of an actual case-study—R. v. Keegstra. In doing so, I will raise certain concerns with regards to the parsimoniousness of Raz’s moral claims. Specifically, I will (1) question the role that democratic liberalism plays within his theory and (2) explore the epistemic limitations that might arise in the calculation of individual interests.

Raz’s view hinges upon two fundamental features of rights. The first is that a right must be in the interest of the right-holder. Indeed, it seems counterintuitive to suppose the opposite. Consider the proposition that criminals have the right to be punished. Likely, it strikes you as somehow odd. According to Raz, this is “precisely because being punished is not commonly thought to be in the interest of the punished.” The second feature of rights, moreover, is that the value of a right need not be proportionate to its value to the right-holder. Imagine that A owns something that is of little value to her, yet which happens to be of great value to B. Clearly, A’s right to it is not undermined by the relative weakness of her interest. Nor does B’s greater interest manifest itself as a right. Therefore, rights cannot be exclusively the function of individual interests.

But taken together, these two features of rights seem to beget a dilemma. For how can a right be inextricably linked to an individual’s interest and yet receive its value from elsewhere? Some theorists have opted to embrace one horn or the other. Raz, by contrast, attempts to sail between them. His strategy is to argue that the value of many rights lies not in their worth to the individual, but rather in their worth to others. (more…)