Every virtue and but one small defect

by John Holbo on October 6, 2004

While everyone else was watching the debate, I was rewriting my lecture on Descartes’ “Second Meditation”. Since you can’t understand it without knowing a bit about Descartes’ physics, I always say a bit about that. My favorite discussion of the subject appears not in any secondary source, however, but in John Barth’s novel, The Sot-Weed Factor:

“Tell me, Eben: how is’t, d’you think, that the planets are moved in their courses?”

“Why, said Ebenezer, “’tis that the cosmos is filled with little particles moving in vortices, each of which centers on a star; and ‘tis the subtle push and pull of these particles in our solar vortex that slides the planets along their orbs – is’t not?”

“So saith Descartes,” Burlingame smiled. “And d’you haply recall what is the nature of light?”

“If I have’t right,” replied Ebenezer, “’tis an aspect of the vortices – of the press of inward and outward forces in ‘em. The celestial fire is sent through space from the vortices by this pressure, which imparts a transitional motion to little light globules – ”

“Which Renatus kindly hatched for that occasion,” Burlingame interrupted. “And what’s more he allows his globules both a rectilinear and a rotatary motion. If only the first occurs when the globules smite our retinae, we see white light; if both, we see color. And if this were not magical enough – mirabile dictu! – when the rotatory motion surpasseth the rectilinear, we see blue; when the reverse, we see red; and when the twain are equal, we see yellow. What fantastical drivel!”

“You mean ‘tis not the truth? I must say, Henry, it sounds reasonable to me. In sooth, there is a seed of poetry in it; it hath an elegance.”

“Aye, it hath every virtue and but one small defect, which is, that the universe doth not operate in that wise.”

I haven’t seen a transcript. So far the spin is confusing. I am seeing red and blue. Edwards won. Cheney won. Rotary surpasseth rectilinear and vice versa. I do hope Edwards got in a little something in the ‘unfortunately, the universe doesn’t work that way’ vein, domestic and foreign policy-wise.

Exercises left to the interested reader: 1) Translate the debate into proper 17th Century English. 2) Compose a rigorously Cartesian calculation of the ‘who won the debate’ wrap-up, with pundits as planets and blogs as little globules. 3) Rewrite The Sot-Weed Factor as a Robert Ludlum Novel.



lurker 10.06.04 at 2:30 pm

What part of Meditations II really requires Descartes’s physics to make sense?
(Love the selection from Barth, though!)


Carlos 10.06.04 at 2:48 pm

I feel a spell of Sot-Weed blogging coming. Neal Stephenson on Quaaludes.


jholbo 10.06.04 at 2:55 pm

I think you can’t really understand why Descartes even thinks he can claim at the end that the wax is known by pure understanding unless you realize that he thinks there is really only one physical object – an infinitely divisible, semi-fluid Euclidean solid: to wit, the physical world. Like a big blob of variably dense, malleable wax, really. Some bad arguments he makes make more sense – I mean, it’s easier to see how he made his mistakes – if you interpret him as getting ahead of himself and already making substantive physical assumptions that we would never think to make today. Because they’re fantastical drivel.


nnyhav 10.06.04 at 3:26 pm

And I had foregone commenting elsewhere on “From Barthelme to Barth and back …” — why is this not amongst your exercises?


jholbo 10.06.04 at 3:35 pm

nnyhav, I didn’t think of that. I did two posts in two days on two blogs about two writers named Barth and it didn’t cross my mind. How very odd.


Adam Kotsko 10.06.04 at 7:16 pm

I’m disappointed that you didn’t complete the circle with at least a token reference to Roland Barthes.

My dissertation is going to be entitled, “Barth, Barth, and Barthes: The Dialectical Circumference of God.”

(I stole that last bit from a CT commenter and have used it so often since then that I think it’s officially mine under common law.)


Ray Davis 10.07.04 at 12:03 am

Barthelme should work well as a postscript or rebuttal.

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