Reaching for the stars

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Take a look at the William Carlos Williams when young. Intensity and Idealism come to my mind. And so his famous "The Red Wheelbarrow." IAt first, the poem seems fixed in empirical reality; the image the poem presents is precise and clear. It is much like Haiku. And there is no commentary.  But the opening line requires us to wonder what it is that depends upon the red wheelbarrow and the chickens and the rain in just this particular arrangement. The poem thus requires us to go in thought beyond the material realm to another realm of being.

I have read that the poem was written as the auther, a pediatrician, was attending a young girl sick sick in her bed with fever. He was looking out her window as he waited to see if the fever would break and this is what he saw.


American Song: The Heavenly Courier

This is a powerful example of Protestant music making, although the guitar arrangement may be a bit modernized by Joel Cohen's superb early musicians performing American Christmas music. The PDF has the lyrics and notes.

The basic idea is that "she" (the soul of Man, seen as a vain woman) tries to avoid "Him" (Jesus, seen as an insistent lover) but in the end realizes her place in the universe and marries with God. At the end, there is a wedding feast.

The Sick Man and the Fireman, a Fable by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1901


            There was once a sick man in a burning house, to whom
there entered a fireman.
            "Do not save me," said the sick man. "Save those who are strong."
            "Will you kindly tell me why?" inquired the fireman, for
he was a civil fellow.
            "Nothing could possibly be fairer," said the sick man.
"The strong should be preferred in all cases, because they are of more
service in the world."
            The fireman pondered a while, for he was a man of some
philosophy. "Granted," said he at last, as a part of the roof fell in,
"but for the sake of conversation, what would you lay down as the
proper service of the strong?"
            "Nothing can possibly be easier," returned the sick man,
"the proper service of the strong is to help the weak."
            Again the fireman reflected, for there was nothing hasty
about this excellent creature. "I could forgive you being sick," he
said at last, as a portion of the wall fell out, "but I cannot bear
your being such a fool." And with that he heaved up his fireman's axe,
for he was eminently just, and clove the sick man to the bed.

Franklin the natural man

Here is a French view of Ben Franklin. Apparently, when he was about
to meet the French King, he planned to wear court clothing. But his
wig would not fit, so he went bare-headed. The French took this as a
statement of his rejection of courtly artificiality.

He played it up and wore a beaver cap. The wild American has always been a sterotype on the European continent. The idea of the Noble Savage was all the rage. Like Robert Burns
the Plowboy Poet in Scotland and Walt Whitman in America later on, he was the
simple, natural, un-affected American.  In Europe, Ben Franklin was respected as a sage.

By Charity or by Right?

A complex society like ours will always have people who need help meeting life's necessities.  Widows and Orphans, for example.  The handicapped, like people with ADHD.  In one model, Winthrop's model, a decent society (in his case, a Christian society) will take care of the needy as a matter of charity, which means love (L, caritas) and arises in us through the example of Christ. In such a society, those who prosper will thank God for their prosperity and be sure to share with the less fortunate.  The State's role is to take up the slack and provide bare necessities if all else fails.  From the point of view of the recipient, hardly yet a "client," this system has several drawbacks.  For one, the charity may be bountiful or not, but it is not guaranteed.  For another, some of the givers might lord it over the receivers. A person facing hard luck might be made to feel like a moocher or beggar.

The modern, secular state solves the problem by declaring that certain needs provide citizens with natural rights to have them met.  Basic needs like food, housing, education, health, one knows where the list ends....are to be met by the government as a matter of right.  That means that the government will use its coercive powers to get the necessary funds from those able to pay taxes to redistribute to the needy.  From the point of view of the recipient, this system has some advantages.  It is guaranteed.  Your life does not depend on the whims of others.  And since it never was a gift, there is no need for gratitude.  You need tip your hat to no one.

But is the modern system an improvement?  Or does it erode the virtues necessary for a republic or democracy to endure?  Take the case of gratitude.   Where once the receiver of largess owed and felt a debt of gratitude (else why does gratitude exist?) he or she now feels no gratitude, since whatever is received is received by right.  (Never mind asking whence this right.)  I am entitled to my salary because I earn it and have an agreement with my employer about what I will provide and what I will receive.  Since I try to do a good job, I feel am entitled to the money.  It becomes my property and I enjoy full property rights in it. I feel virtuous about my salary.  It is mine. If, however, I slacked off a lot and short-changed the job, I would not be able to feel the same way.

When one thinks about how some snobs looked upon and treated the poor and the working poor, one must conclude that the modern approach is a great improvement.  It attempts to confer dignity and to introduce order and coherence. As Isaiah Berlin had it, the Constitution lists only negative freedoms (what the government may NOT do to you) but we can conceive positive freedoms (the right to do or have something). European socialist societies moved to meed more and more of these positive freedoms by government action, but now that the money is drying up, and we see a slow down and reversa in Europe. Here, the argument runs, we are moving ever closer to the failed models of Eurpope, the PIGS nations (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain--all in deep, deep financial trouble).

The down side of the modern as opposed to the tradition way is that it gnaws into private charity. (President Obama would like to delete the tax deductions for charitable giving in the Federal Tax Code, thus effectively reducing what is done privately and increasing what is done by government officials when it comes to good works.) It is a truism that no free society can endure where the people are not virtuous.  Any republic assumes the virtue of its citizens. Policy which reduces this public virtue is suicidal. 

But it is not clear if current policy does reduce virtue.  I am still puzzling.  But I do remember that Plato pointed out that in a democracy (not a republic) "teachers fear their pupils."  Seems to have come true.  And not that long ago even a good New York liberal like Daniel Patrick Moynihan knew that (to paraphrase from memory) "welfare destroys the recipients." (But he always voted to increase it.)

It's a hard one.

The American Sense of Puritan: Concluding Images

The Pilgrims in the Capitol


The images in the U.S. Capitol are as follows:

In the Rotunda:
A relief of the Landing of the Puritans.
A painting of the Embarkation of the Pilgrims at Delft Haven, Holland, July 22nd, 1620.
A scene of the Landing of Pilgrims at Plymouth, Mass., 1620; within the Rotunda frieze.

In the President's Room of the Senate Wing:
A symbolic painting of William Brewster, signifying Religion.

In Statuary Hall
A Statue of Roger Williams

In the Hall of Columns
A Statue of John Winthrop

The Pilgrims in the Rotunda

The Landing of the Pilgrims, 1620 was contributed by Enrico Causici in 1825, and is one of four reliefs which stand over the four Rotunda doors. The others are: Conflict of Daniel Boone with the Indians, Preservation of Captain Smith by Pocahantas, and William Penn's Treaty with the Indians. As Vivien Fryd points out, all are representations of early contact points with Native Americans, and all indicate "the inevitable subjugation or assimilation of the Indian race" (Fryd, 40). All completed within the mid to late 1820s, they anticipated and then condoned an ideology that would see its political manifestation most clearly in the 1830 act of Indian Removal.

The Landing of the Pilgrims employs the religious signification of the Pilgrims, even as it portrays an apparent inevitability of European- based domination. The Indian is massive; a purely physical creature. All he has to offer is raw nature, in the corn he holds out and the rock he sits upon. The look on his face is a pitiful grimace, a seemingly dull recognition that the person before him is to be looked up to and entreated-- for what, is not clear. The Pilgrim 'Father' is defined as such by the presence of wife and child, and the former's upturned eyes suggest that the undeniable confidence and power is founded in an assurance of heavenly purpose. It suggests that the woman's open hand which greets God, is part of what draws down Providential power; transfers it through her other arm and hand down into her son, whose own left arm begins an arc that seems to blend into the father and emerge at his other side in his own upheld hand. The hand of the Pilgrim Father is in this way both greeting and warning in the same action.

The Embarkation of the Pilgrims at Delft Haven, Holland, July 22nd, 1620 was painted by Robert W. Weir in 1843. It stands as one of eight paintings in the Rotunda, which together form a narrative of early American history. Four of the paintings were completed by John Trumbull in the late 1810s and early 20s, and portray different important moments of the Revolutionary era: the signing of the Declaration, the surrender of Burgoyne and of Cornwallis, and the resignation of Washington. The others take as their themes Pocahontas, De Soto, and Columbus, and were added between 1840 and 1855.

How we see the pilgrims and puritans and links to factual information. Excellent resource by Scott Atkin,

Following Directions

Last summer we went to Maine to attend L.L. Bean's one day course for beginners in clay pigeon shooting with shotguns.  I bagged a few.  Shot is much more forgiving than a bullet would be--you only need to get within a few feet.  We were told and shown how to hold the rifle.  You do not want the butt away from your body--you want to absorb all the kick safely.  But in the excitement, I forgot.  Greenhorn that I was, I held the gun away from myself , which meant that the rifle butt now became a battering ram aimed at my upper arm.  See the result of NOT FOLLOWING DIRECTIONS. The photo shows the contusion after a day or two; it began as a small bruise the size of a quarter. Ah, the beauty of nature.

What to eat with Fado

A good Portuguese always drinks red wine (vinho tinto) and eats sardines
with white potatoes, and a sauce of olive oil with garlic,parsley and hot
pepper while listening to fado. Where are the sardines? You will find them
abundantly in the land of the three-F's: Fado, Fatima and Futebol. For a
while Salazar kept the people quiet with those elements.

My colleague Nuno Vieira sent me this lovely paragraph.