A Silver Song for Maxwell in Gold

It was a silver morning and everyone at the market looked wistful in the wind that blew black smoke from the barbeque kiosks at angles contrast to the ever less obscured verticality of trees. I spoke to my friend visiting the Magritte retrospective at the MOMA; he said he goes every day because it is the last time he will ever see all those paintings together. I feel that by going he is not alone and even if he does not agree with the canvases, he has come to understand through the solitude of seniority the companionship of colour and these stories of a life in so many frames.
It reminds me of what Lewis Campbell of J.C. Maxwell in his celebrated biography, how Maxwell struggled "towards the infinite through the finite." It reminds me of what some linguists say about language, that it is all very fine to pick up a language by ear, but by not studying the grammar systematically first, one takes all the longer to master it, just like the decade needed to learn one's mother tongue. Except life is not a system - and one can learn from Maxwell how to reconcile the systematic, empirical side with that which is that much greater.
As a child, and this part of the narrative is much the same for any original thinker, he would ask "what's the go o' that? What does it do?" But of course he had the infinite in him, if we count that at eight he could recite the psalms and Lewis' consideration that, "His geometrical imagination predisposed him to accept the docrine of 'natural realism' while his mystical tendency was soothed by the distinction between Knowledge and Belief." His speculative thought was less influenced by mathematics as it was by the Abstract Logic of the ancient Greeks.
My favourite example is of his disagreement over Aristotle's golden mean with his Cambridge professor who thought of virtue as "the mean between two vices" and a "pocket rule to find virtue, which it is not meant to be". Rather, it is an "apothegm or maxim, or dark saying" for virtue at its maxim declines by excess or defect of some variable quantity at the disposal of the will. I will not exhaust all he writes on this subject, but will end with his illustration that while knowledge may lead to pleasure, in excess it can lead to evil.
As true of many Victorians, and true scholars, much of his study was self imposed. He believed the will governs understanding by giving or withholding attention. As an educated Victorian, he had knowledge of the classics, and was able to draw interesting comparisons between Philip James Bailey's Faustus poem to Greek metaphysics. He would often review books in his letters. I think sometimes that this is what I do here, if in an extremely inferior way; this blog is my silver substitute for the epistolary, though it is true and strange that I do not know my readers, and very few of my readers know who I am.

In one of his letters he writes, "When I fall in with a pen that can spell; my present instrument partakes of the nature of skates and I can hardly steer after it". He had a wonderful sense of humour. In one letter he considers he is cramming into words unuttered thoughts which appear like men "newly waked from sleep" who care not if the clothes fit, having not had prior opportunity to try them on.
In such a way, he was also part linguist - wholly philosopher (like Socrates, with whom Campbell associated Maxwell in their college days, in the Phaedrus).  He wrote that beauty is in the mind of the reader, and not in the text. The true person was to be one of character, not led by the nose by circumstance or context. Yet few had such character, "That few will grind up these subjects without the help of rules, the awe of authority, and a continued abstinence from unripe realities, etc". That is a sentence that deserves a moment of silence for proper consideration.
To not get burdened with all the chatter that is the narrative of so many lives, he would use diagrams to replace analysis (which is like Socrates in Plato's Theaetetus using symbols for thought. He once wrote to Campbell: "I  hope you get on with Plato, and that your pupils are all Theaetetuses, and that wisdom soaks like oil into their  inwards.") Wisdom indeed, as opposed to sloppy knowledge. "When man hunts his mind for knowledge, he may grab hold of the wrong thing" for there are "pieces of ignorance flying about there like birds." Lewis writes that when he was most plunged into the minutiae of investigation, of phenomena or abstract ideas, he was eager to rebound towards the contemplation of the whole of things, and that which gives unity to the whole.
If someone doesn't want to question something, he thought, that person considers that something holy ground (which recalls Bacon's idols). He considered it each man's task to enlarge his familiar interest and even consider esoteric themes. ...Like I imagine my friend looking at Magritte knows, Maxwell considered that in order to advance, the soul must converse with things external to itself.

He gives the best advice for a recent college graduate, though he wrote this for any context: "Let a man ... feel that he has something to do, which he has authority, power, and will to do and is doing; but let him not cherish a consciousness of these things as if he had them at his command, but receive them thankfully and use them strenuously, and exchange them freely for other objects. He then has a happiness which may be increased in degree but cannot be altered in kind." He thought one ought not hide anything so that one may be criticised and learn. I agree, but find quite a number of people cannot see past one's written legacy of early days, influenced as it may be with the modern disease called "I".
Maxwell was aware of the fallibility of human assessment, as already observed. He would not have been a false friend. He writes of "victims" who "measure reasons by their number and not by their weight." He also tolerates all opinions though "gets on better with people of more decision and less refinement, because they keep me in better order." His rule was to "avoid the company of young men whom I do not respect, unless I have control over them." Speaking of youth from the vantage point of the professor, he wrote, "Do not bestow more labour on erroneous papers than is useful to the youth who wrote it." Maxwell even knows how to advise teachers and professors.
For he knows knowledge may be a vice. He writes of cruelly anatomical analysis giving names for distinctness and separating a faculty by saying it is not intellectual and then blindfolding everyone by reasoning. The philosopher then goes up a tree, finds a mare's nest, laughs at the eggs, which turns out to be pure intellectual abstraction in spite of every definition.

His attraction to the "material sciences" was that they afforded something distinct for the mind to get hold of regarding epistemological knowledge. He writes that the history of science shows that when the accuracy of numerical measurement is improved, new regions will be subjugated. His understanding of determinism was informed by "Lucretius' atoms" and in one of his last essays, he wrote: "If those cultivators of physical science from whom the intelligent public deduce this conception of the physicist, and whose style is recognised as marking with a scientific stamp the doctrines they promulgate, are led in pursuit of the arcane of science to the study of singularities and instabilities rather than the continuities and stabilities of things, the promotion of natural knowledge may tend to remove that prejudice in favour of determinism which seems to arise from assuming that the physical science of the future is a mere magnified image of that of the past."
If you liked that paragraph, you will love what he wrote about how even the most orthodox systems of metaphysics may be transformed into a dark science by its phraseology being popularised while its principles are lost sight of, one phase of which includes money making lies to entertain.
This marks the end of my brief introduction to Maxwell; please know that I was merely transcribing my notes, there may be some typos and inaccuracies regarding quotation marks. I have wanted to write this post because I feel Maxwell a friend, one who has led me out of the haphazardness of context to help me grind up subjects: free me from the birds in the mind to contemplate the wholeness of things.
I have written many times about the inscription to one of his books that prompted me to try to learn ancient Greek, λαμπάδια ἔχοντες διαδώσουσιν ἀλλήλοις ἁμιλλώμενοι τοῖς ἵπποις. Indeed, I feel that he has passed on this torch, if in my inferior heart and mind, to try to learn that which is of value in this life. "Redeem his character through his deeds," he wrote of a lesser human being - but his deeds, including visiting the sick while he was overburdened with work, or writing long letters to his wife while he was presiding over the tripos, explaining to her Evangelical passages, needn't redeem his character, which shines like a torch through his humour, letters, poems. On silver days, I think of golden people I have had the great honour of knowing.

No comments:

Post a Comment