Samuel Butler – “Hudibras” (the end)

This post is written in haste, as I wanted to complete Hudibras before I’d leave for holidays. Hudibras is a master of philosophy and theology, and we get a long list of jokes on his useless knowledge and ability to argue. But then comes the main point of Butler’s satire – Hudibras is a Presbyterian, “true blue” and is a fine representative of this sect whose members like to beat others into submission through their military force, their religion consists mostly of disliking all other religions and are so perverse that they’d rather “keep the holiday/the wrong than others the right way” (some extreme Puritans fasted on Christmas). As you can see, Butler doesn’t like Presbyterians at all. And now, time to bed, as I have to catch an early plane. Adieu!

Samuel Butler – “Hudibras” (ctd.)

But Hudibras, contrary to what people might say, is not a fool, the proof of which is that he can speak Latin and Greek and even some Hebrew. The thing is, he does not want to use his wisdom too often not to wear it out, just like some people save their best clothes for Sundays. But he is never afraid to show off his linguistic knowledge. He is also an able logician and rhetorician, because he never speaks but by using some metaphors and colourful language.His English is “cut on Greek and Latin”, like some articles of dress which were in fashion at the time and had coarser, cheaper cloth on the outside, but were slashed to show off the more expensive satin lining. So is Sir Hudibras’ speech a mixture of three languages, and like many Dissenters, he also loves to use some English neologisms. These new words are so hard Demosthenes could have used them instead of the pebbles he allegedly put in in his mouth to cure his stammer. And he is also an able mathematician because he can always tell whether a grocer tries to cheat him on bread or butter or when the clock is going to strike.

Samuel Butler -“Hudibras” (fragments)

This is a satirical poem against Puritans, published after the Restoration to much official acclaim (Charles II loved it). Of course nowadays we want our satirists to speak truth to the power and punch up, but it’s not so easy in the 17th century. Hudibras is a Puritan justice of peace who goes off on a mission (“a-coloneling”) a little bit like a knight errant. This happens during the Civil War, when men fight over Dame Religion like drunks over a prostitute, although they really don’t know why.  People are whipped into frenzy by preachers banging their pulpits, “drum ecclesiastic”. The authorities still quarrel whether Hudibras was wiser or braver, but it’s difficult to decide, because his brain is only slightly bigger than his rage, which makes some people call him a fool. Montaigne’s cat (Montaigne famously wondered in his Essays whether he was playing with his cat, or his cat with him) might consider him a fool too. All that is written in a vigorous, rather irregular tetrameter, which came to be known as hudibrastic verse.

Isaac Newton – “A Letter… Containing His New Theory about Light and Colours” (fragments)

This one’s gonna be really short, but I could not get any more physics into my head yesterday. Newton concludes that colour is not some kind of intrinsic quality of substances but is caused by light reflection. Red objects reflect more red light than other in the spectrum, blue objects reflect more blue etc. He proved it by putting unadulterated light of one colour on some objects and he found that red objects remain red, regardless of the light thrown at them, they only appear redder in red light. This brings him to the conclusion that light in fact may be a kind of substance as well, and colours are a kind of embodiment of this substance. But as always in science, one answer produces even more questions. What exactly is light? How does it produce the effect of colour in our minds? Newton refuses to answer these questions, writing “I shall not mingle conjectures with certainties.”

Isaac Newton – “A Letter… Containing His New Theory about Light and Colours” (fragments)

Isaac Newton explains point by point the conclusions his experiments brought him to. The colour of light is its innate feature, correlated with its refrangibility and there was nothing he could do during his experiments to change the colour of a ray of pure light. Of course there are also light rays which are combined of many different colours and so they may seem to be green, while in fact they are a mixture of blue and yellow. But white light is the combination of all of these, Whenever one colour in the spectrum predominates, it’s going to tinge the resulting colour, that’s why for instance the candle burns yellow and stars have different colours. Finally he writes something about the colours of the rainbow, which I am very sorry I could not understand. I told you I was a physics blockhead.

Isaac Newton – “A Letter… Containing His New Theory about Light and Colours” (fragments)

I am not so sure about this one.  I understand that the editors of the NAEL wanted to give the readers some background in the nascent Enlightenment science and make us acquainted with Newton’s “crisp and vigorous English” (even though he wrote most of his text in Latin, the then common language of international science), but I still think it’s ovestretching the definition of literature. The fragments from Newton’s letter to the Royal Society describes his famous experiments with the prism, about which there are umpteenth excellent videos on the web (Khan Academy and others) so I am not quite sure if it makes sense for me to summarize it, especially since Newton’s crisp English is not clear enough for me, a physics blockhead. But I’ll try.

Newton buys a prism, whose ability to produce rainbows was known earlier, but he tries to get past the entertainment value and figure out how it works. He wonders why the bars of colour are oblong, if basing on what was believed then about the nature of light, they should be round, and why the produced rectangle is five times as long as it is broad. He tries to put the prism in different positions, or varying the size of the holes through which the ray of light is let in, or putting the prism behind the hole instead in front of it, but the results are always the same. He then tries two prisms, thinking that if the first one has some irregularities in it, the second one should amplify it. But all the second prism does is to make the ray of light circular again. He then takes two boards with small holes in them and puts two prisms in front of these holes at a distance of about 12 feet. When he turns the first prism around so that only a part of the spectrum reaches the second hole and what comes out from the other hole is a uniform ray of light in the colour near the end of the spectrum caught by the first prism. I am not sure if I describe it well – I could not myself quite get it until I saw this image I’m posting below. Anyway, this leads Newton to the conclusion that the ray of white light consists of all colours, just “differently refrangible”.

Newton's "crucial experiment"
Image credit: Helen Klus/CC-NC-SA.



John Locke – “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (the end)

Locke apologizes for his text, which some readers may find too long or too short. If it’s too short, he says, I hope it inspires the reader to do some thinking on their own. If it’s too long, it’s because it was composed in fits and starts, so whenever he put pen to paper, he had some new observations to write down, and what he initially thought could be fit on one sheet of paper grew into this long text. He says also modestly that he does not intend to compete with some giants of thought – he name-checks Newton and Boyle, among others – but just to clear the field for them so that science can develop unimpeded by obscure and and out-of-date language. In the last fragment, added to the fourth edition, he explains why he chose to use the word “determined” or “determinate” ideas instead of “clear and distinct”. First of all, everybody uses “clear and distinct” while not knowing really what they mean. Locke chooses to use the word “determinate”/”determined” (he seems to use them interchangeably) to illustrate better what he means: the simple ideas perceived by human minds and connected with the words corresponding to them. As for complex ideas, he defines them as a collection of simple ideas combined together. He is really keen on the thought that language of academic discourse should be clear and I guess he would not take kindly to much of the jargon which plagues postmodern critical theory and philosophy.