[This is the last Digression before my annual Summer break. I thank you, loyal reader, for your continued interest. I hope to be back later around the end of August, or early September.--ES]
My dad's least breath was a loud snore. I was holding his hand, while stealing a glance at my sister and his face. Before I could grasp it, his hand stopped resisting my grip. Then, we were three bodies on a bed.
Yesterday, I wrote that my post was "prompted by a chance encounter with Rachel Carson's (1962) Silent Spring, which was sold as a cheap paperback, 'modern classic' in a general bookstore." That was factually correct. But it felt untrue; I had omitted that I had seen her book mentioned in Cixin Liu's The Three Body Problem (see here) a science fiction novel I read earlier in the Summer.
In Letter 36, Seneca says that fortune has no right over our conduct [in mores fortuna ius non habet]. The underlying point is that we should so cultivate our dispositions that we can react to bad fortune with equanimity, and that when we have the good fortune of riches we can let our good characters shine.
Seneca, anticipating my objection, recognizes that fortune shapes our conduct. Our starting points matter, "if you had been born in Parthia [si in Parthia natus esset], you would have begun, when a child, to bend the bow, etc."
In the 1961 version of "Two Dogmas," Quine inserts the claim that "asking which points in Ohio are starting points" is meaningless.* In context, Quine omits to mention he was born in Ohio.** The point is, perhaps, irrelevant in the debate with Carnap over the status of postulates, but once made aware of it, it changes the meaning of the text (if you are a semantic holist). It's an oblique, even existential joke.
Seneca urges to meditate, so we learn to scorn death (Quid ergo huic meditandum est?...mortem contemnere). Seneca is easily misunderstood here, but his point is familiar enough: we should overcome the fear of death. What's less familiar is that Seneca grounds this advice on the claim that nobody doubts that death has some element which inspires terror in everybody [quae quin habeat aliquid in se terribile... nemo dubitat]. (In fact, this has the character of a political postulate.)
Seneca's postulate consists of a claim about what nobody doubts about the opinions of anybody else. (Does the absence of such doubt count as knowledge?) I feel a recalcitrance toward Seneca--with what authority is he speaking on behalf of us? But a few lines down, he goes on to qualify the claim; infants, kids+ and the mad are untouched by the property of death that gives rise to terror in everybody else. Strikingly, he urges reason to emulate their folly (stultitia).++ It's too easily overlooked that he also implies that what nobody doubts about others' views is itself constituted by patterns of omitting those whose voices don't count.
Seneca's version of eternal return, that everything which seems to die merely mutates (omnia quae videntur perire mutari), leaves me indifferent today.
Before my dad died, he smoked a last cigarette. In German he quoted Mey. I marveled at his performance. Mey's tune had been the theme song of a Dutch late-night radio program which has been going strong for more than forty years.
As I grasped the significance of that snore, I intuited that we must have often listened to the same radio program lying in bed, without realizing it, before sleep.