Thursday, April 30, 2009

Mystery still unsolved

So in idle moments I've been trying to figure out why caterpillars, butterflies, and snails appear on the covers of Psalms. You would think that, having written on the topic of invertebrates, I'd know, but so far I am turning up only negatives. Here are some of them.
a) It's not typological. The caterpillar's transformation to butterfly simply wasn't deployed as an image of transformation or metamorphosis as far as I can tell.
b) It's not part of a traditional iconography of David or of the Psalms.
c) There are very few references to any of these creatures in the Psalms.  OK, there are some, and the melting snail of Psalm 58 is particularly interesting. But overall, the Psalms have fewer insect images than other parts of the Bible.
c) These creatures have uniformly negative connotations.  If they represent anything, it would be the wrath of God, sin, or the fallen world. But they're not unique to the Psalms. 

Very puzzling. I'll keep thinking.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Thinking about Goliath

I was struck by a post by Sarah Werner on her blog, Wynken de Worde, on an embroidered binding of a 1639 Psalter. Here's the image she uses from the Folger Library (I hope fair use covers this potential copyright issue):

The binding, which is carefully, if not beautifully, embroidered, shows two images of David, one with a sling and other (on the front) holding the severed head of Goliath. I wondered at the implications of this binding. Of course, the battle with Goliath was certainly one of the famous episodes of the psalmist's life, but since the psalms were frequently deployed in the early modern period as poems about the struggle of the righteous against powerful enemies, this episode has a particularly polemical charge.  William Gouge uses the Goliath story to argue that David is a type of Christ, who "in like manner did Combat with, and overcame that great Goliah the Devil" (190), and he notes the Goliath story in the margins when he talks about David's "putting forth himself to the uttermost for Gods Church" (188). Given the direction that religious conflict was taking in England in the 1640s, it's also hard not to imagine that this image looks forward to the beheading of Charles I in 1649.  In the decade immediately following this event, references to Goliath were extremely common. Usually the story was employed to justify some kind of resistance to the demands of those imagined as more powerful. 

As I look more closely at the binding (the Folger has a great site for high quality images), I notice the odd selection of creatures floating around David: a caterpillar, a butterfly, a worm, a fly, a bird, and a snail. The rendering of the embroidery reminds me of a child's work, too.  Are these creatures are being employed typologically - as images of transformation or the movement of the soul, say? And what does that have to do with the death of Goliath?  Or is it a reference to the taunting in 1Samuel17, where David promises to "give the carcasses of the host of the Philistines this day unto the fowls of the heaven, and to the beasts of the earth" (Geneva Bible)? The animals in the binding, at least, are creatures of corruption, as earthly as one can get. I don't think they're just decorative.  Time for bed. There's lots more that could be done.

Gouge, William. A learned and very useful commentary on the whole epistle to the Hebrews. London, 1655. 

Friday, April 17, 2009

Failing to ignore Aristotle

I had hoped not to have to spend much time with philosophy, but this sentence from Arbuthnot reminded me that I need to brush up on Aristotelian causation:
"it is no Heresie to believe, that Providence suffers ordinary matters to run in the channel of second causes."
Easy for Arbuthnot to say, but this is precisely the issue that concerns people in the century before.  A casual EEBO search for "second causes" turns up 796 works... and a quick survey of the results suggests that many are relevant.  I don't know why I haven't come across more references to Aristotelian causation in the period. Well, I guess I do know. It's because the language turns up mainly in religious works -- which is why my student handout on it is in my Milton folder :)  More on this later (lots of work needed first).
Actually, Aristotle's first two causes, final and efficient, are both familiar to us. Modern science admits only of the efficient cause (#2)- the means and manner in which something comes into being, but in the human world we care mainly about final causes (#1)- the purpose for which something comes into being.  The other two causes are somewhat more obscure (they don't seem like causes to me). Chance, of course, is in the modern world a second or "efficient" cause.  Understanding this requires one to realize as Arbuthnot puts it, "that Chance ... is nothing but want of Art" and that therefore the mathematics of probability is kind of a second-best approximation.

Oh, one piece of news. My article on Daniel has actually passed its peer review at Appositions. One thing that can be said for baby journals is that they're fast.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The fungibility of hazard: reading forward

As a useful endpoint, I read John Arbuthnot's 1692 book Of the laws of chance. This was the first English publication on probability theory. It is mostly a translation of Huygens (1657), but of course Arbuthnot's introduction is his own.  I think some of the examples are his as well. There are two things that struck me about this piece. The first is the extent to which Arbuthnot claims that mathematical probability applies to the world at large. "All the Politicks in the World," he says  "are nothing else but a kind of Analysis of the Quantity of Probability in casual Events."  The second is the degree to which he employs economics to convey his ideas.  His most basic principle is that ""Ones Hazard or Expectation to gain any thing is worth so much, as, if he had it, he could purchase the like Hazard or Expectation again in a just and equal Game" (B2). This sounds confusing, but he gives an example to make it clear.  If someone has hidden seven shillings in one hand and three in the other and says "choose one hand and I'll give you the contents" Arbuthnot argues that this is equivalent to being given five shillings. This means that chance itself has a value predicated on exchange.  He's not really thinking of commodification as much as fungibility. This is the real epistemological revolution behind the idea of probability.  It's what I need to look for in earlier accounts.

Arbuthnot, John. Of the laws of chance, or, A method of calculation of the hazards of game plainly demonstrated and applied to games at present most in use : which may be easily extended to the most intricate cases of chance imaginable. London 1692.