Monday, April 30, 2012

Honest as the day is long


So I'm reading Thoureau's journals (July 24, 1852) and I come across the above phrase.  It's too hackneyed a phrase for Thoureau to borrow so I'm guessing that he invented it right here in this paragraph, looking for and finding the perfect expression to describe an honest day's labor.

So I checked on Google and it seems that yes, this is the first time the phrase was used.

But there's more to it.  Thoureau meets his friend Hayden in the morning - 'walking beside his team, which was slowly drawing a heavy hewn stone swung under the axle.'(the axle of a cart I would think). He continues - 'honest, peaceful industry,......A reproach to all sluggards and idlers.'  Then comes a description like something out of an old masters painting - 'pausing abreast the shoulders of his oxen and half turning round, with a flourish of his merciless whip... And I thought, such is the labor which the American Congress exists to protect, - honest, manly toil.   His brow has commenced to sweat.  Honest as the day is long... Toil that makes his bread taste sweet and keeps society sweet.'


Later that day he sees something that changes his idyllic thoughts.  He sees where the stone was destined.  It's lying beside a whimsical structure intended to adorn a neighbor's yard.  Thoureau sarcastically calls him 'Lord Timothy Dexter' after a well-known American eccentric, and in his eyes the dignity has departed from Hayden's labor because it was subservient to some rich man's foolish enterprise.

Does Thoureau understand that money has to circulate, that the rich man's foolish enterprise is the poor man's daily bread?  The poor man is not working to satisfy the rich man's whim.  He's working for the money.  It's an impartial bridge between the two of them.  The rich man is paying for the work, irrespective of whatever use the poor man puts to the money once it has been earned and received, and the poor man is putting in an honest day's labor.  The poor man is not demeaned by the end result of his labor, nor the rich man by satisfying his  personal whim.  Is there something demeaning in the stonecutter carving the lintel over the rich man's entryway or the master woodworker building him an intricate staircase?

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Origin of the words 'daughter' and 'wife'


The word 'wife' in Anglo-Saxon was originally wif-man, which meant the weaver.  The husband was known as weapon-man, the protector of the family.  Since the wife's job of weaving and making clothes was probably limited to working exclusively for her own family and not making clothes for others, the meaning of the term 'wife' became restricted over time to that which was truly exclusive to the family - the conjugal relationship of husband and wife; and other terms came into use to define the work of weaving and garment-making.  In other words, when an Anglo-Saxon man spoke of 'my weaver', he was understood to refer to his lover, his companion, the mother of his children, as well as his clothes maker; but certainly not to a weaver by trade.


The Anglo-Saxon term 'dohter' signified milkmaid - the name being derived, as with wifman, from the duty assigned to female offspring within the primitive household; and since she was unlikely to have been employed in milking the cows of other households, the term 'dohter' likewise gained with time the exclusive filial meaning of daughter as in 'father and daughter'.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Shakespeare and Dandelions

From Shakespeare's play Cymbeline:
               "Fear no more the heat o' th' sun,
          Nor the furious winter's rages,
               Thou thy worldly task hast done,
          Home art gone and ta'en thy wages,
               Golden lads and girls all must,
          As chimney sweepers, come to dust." 
      The last two lines are an enigma, although to the Elizabethans they must have made sense to have been included in the play.  In fact they belong to the Warwickshire vernacular of the time; (Stratford-On-Avon of course is in Warwickshire.)
      Golden lads was the local name for dandelions, and chimneysweepers was the term for the dandelion when it is ready to spread its seeds to the wind like dust and when it looks like the brush that chimneysweeps used in times past.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Einstein's take on God

The following quotations are from a letter Einstein wrote to philosopher Eric Gutkind.  The letter was sold by Bloomsbury auctions on May 15th, 2008.   The letter expresses Einstein's view of religion and the Jewish People.


"The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses: the Bible a connection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish."

"For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions."

Of the "Chosen People" he says:

"The Jewish People to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people.  As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by lack of power, otherwise I cannot see anything "chosen" about them."

Einstein's God

"I do not believe in the God of theology who rewards good and punishes evil.  My God created laws that take care of that.  His universe is not ruled by wishful thinking, but by immutable laws."

"...there is some kind of intelligence working its way through nature.  But it is certainly not a conventional Christian or Judaic religious view."

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The immortal plagiarism


After the battle of Long Island, Nathan Hale was captured by the British forces in Queens, New York.  He was tried for espionage and condemned to death.  He was hung on the gallows near the corner of 66th street and Third avenue on September 22nd, 1776.  Before he died he spoke the immortal words - "I only regret that I have but one life to give my country".
Let us go back a few years to April 14th, 1713.  It's the premiere of Joseph Addison's play Cato.  The play is set on a field of battle where the army of the Roman Republic is fighting against the imperial forces of Julius Caesar.  George Washington saw the play many times and even had it performed for his troops at Valley Forge.
In the play Cato learns that his son Marcius has been killed.  He looks down on his son's body and says:
       "How beautiful is death ; when earned by virtue.
        Who would not be that youth?  What pity is it
        That we can die but once to serve our country!"

These are the words 'quoted' by Nathan Hale.  In the play Cato speaks the line not about his own impending death but about the death of his son.  Nathan Hale however was speaking about his own death.  So there it is.  He did not invent the words.  He was quoting a line from a play written by a British playwright.


What an insight we now have into Nathan Hale's state of mind at that critical moment, and what an insight into that special moment in America's history!  Here's the scene: British officers are standing around Hale.  They are surely quite sophisticated.  They have seen the play or at least are familiar with the quoted words.  They had felt ennobled when they first heard them and had imagined themselves on the side of Cato and the republic, fighting for their freedom against the tyrant Caesar.  Now here comes this young upstart from an upstart revolution, and he throws their noble words back in their faces.  He's the one claiming to be fighting for liberty and they, by inference, are the tyrants.  What a slap in the face for the deluded British officers, and a sweet moment of triumph for the young patriot; perhaps even a moment of vanity.


Other quotations from the play:
      "A day, an hour, of virtuous liberty,
       Is worth a whole eternity in bondage."
     "liberty or death".

Monday, April 16, 2012

Shakespeare's wisdom is not.


Mark Antony in his funeral oration over the body of Julius Caesar speaks the following lines:

"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
 I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him;
 The evil that men do lives after them,
 The good is oft interred with their bones."

Wait. That can't be right.  When people die, we forget the bad things they did and remember only the good.  Isn't that the exact opposite of what Mark Antony said.


De mortuis nihil nisi bonum. "Speak no ill of the dead."

Francis Bacon, writing his "Essays" at around the time the play Julius caesar was written, in his essay on "Death" likewise says the opposite of what Mark Antony said.  He writes "Death hath this also, that it openeth the gate to good fame, and extinguisheth envy: Extinctus amabitur idem."  The Latin quotation, written by Horace, translates into - the same man who was envied in his life will be loved after his death.

In his notebook, Promus 1594-96, Bacon writes: "When he is dead he will be loved."


So where's the so-called wisdom of Shakespeare when we know from experience that when people die we remember only the good things about them?

The answer is this - Shakespeare is a playwright and, as such, he writes fiction.  The words he puts into the mouths of his characters should be understood in the context of what the particular character in the play is trying to achieve, which in Antony's case is to manipulate the mob into ignoring all the negative things that have just been spoken by Brutus about Caesar, and to bring the mob back around to focus on all the good that Caesar had done, with the intention of turning them against the slayers of Caesar.   Shakespeare's fiction should not be construed as Shakespeare's personal opinion or wisdom.

The Promus again - "Poets invent much."