Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Sunday, July 21, 2013

A LITERARY LESSON FOR A LAZY SUNDAY AFTERNOON


Most of you know the familiar line, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."  The line has been used by Edmund Burke, Abraham Lincoln, Johnny Mercer, and Bob Dylan, among others.  Some of you, I am sure, know as well that the line comes from Alexander Pope's book-length poem, An Essay on Criticism.  But I wonder how many of you know what it actually means.

Here is the stanza from Pope's poem in which the line appears:

Such shameless Bards we have; and yet 'tis true,
There are as mad, abandon'd Criticks too.
The Bookful Blockhead, ignorantly read,
With Loads of Learned Lumber in his Head,
With his own Tongue still edifies his Ears,
And always List'ning to Himself appears.
All Books he reads, and all he reads assails,
From Dryden's Fables down to Durfey's Tales.
With him, most Authors steal their Works, or buy;
Garth did not write his own Dispensary.
Name a new Play, and he's the Poet's Friend,
Nay show'd his Faults--but when wou'd Poets mend?
No Place so Sacred from such Fops is barr'd,
Nor is Paul's Church more safe than Paul's Church-yard:
Nay, fly to Altars; there they'll talk you dead;
For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.
Distrustful Sense with modest Caution speaks;
It still looks home, and short Excursions makes;
But ratling Nonsense in full Vollies breaks;
And never shock'd, and never turn'd aside,
Bursts out, resistless, with a thundering Tyde!

Ah, where is Alexander Pope when we need him!

The line is usually taken to mean, "Fools will do something that wise people refrain from doing," and no doubt that was in Pope's sense when he wrote the line.  But he had something a good deal more specific in mind.  To understand the line aright, you need several bits of knowledge that may have slipped your notice.

First of all, "Paul's Church" refers to the great Cathedral of St. Paul in London -- not the new cathedral, rebuilt on Christopher Wren's design after the Great London Fire of 1666, but the original St. Paul's.  Second, a churchyard is a cemetery attached to a church, so Paul's Church-yard was the cemetery of the old Cathedral of St. Paul.  Third, St. Paul's Church-yard, in the time before the Fire, was where London's booksellers gathered to display their wares.  Finally, and this is the key to the entire line, there was an old folk superstition that angels shunned cemeteries, because of the unresurrected souls buried there.

And there you have it.  Fools -- the critics -- rush in to attack the new books being hawked by the booksellers in a graveyard that angels would shun.  Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

How do I know this?  It all goes back to the Fall of 1962.  I was newly married to Cynthia Griffin.  We were living in Chicago, where I was an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and General Education at the University of Chicago.  Cynthia is now a distinguished and accomplished literary scholar and critic, retired from a Chair she held for many years at M. I. T., but she was then a doctoral student in English at Harvard, madly cramming for her doctoral orals.  Although Cynthia's field was the eighteenth century English novel, in those days the orals covered everything, from Beowulf to T. S. Eliot.  At one moment in her frantic study, she turned to Pope, and as her husband, I was the beneficiary of a good deal of pillow talk that taught me everything I know about literary criticism.

Well, now you know, if anyone should ever ask, what the meaning is of the well-known line, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."

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