May 04, 2012


Roger Ebert, the film critic, expresses what it means beautifully here

That is what death means. We exist in the minds of other people, in thousands of memory clusters, and one by one those clusters fade and disappear. Some years from now, at a funeral with a slide show, only one person will be able to say who we were. Then no one will know.  
I think he is right. I thought of my father when I read that, a far greater man than I will ever be, and thought of the way that even that memory fades with age. Death comes twice, once through absense and secondly through forgetfulness. The greatest commitment in the war poetry is
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them
Save of course we now do not. Not because we are wrong or evil in some way but because we never knew what we had to remember. To some extent that is what history is- its a device for remembering those who are gone, who are lost, who will never return. But it is an endeavour that will always fail. Its the same with growing in some ways- as we grow, we kill the previous parts of ourselves- the games we would play as children, the love that we left behind, the world we had lost. Reading Barnes's Sense of an Ending, I got taken more and more with the title- is there anything to human life which is not a sense of ending?

May 02, 2012

A favourite quotation

I was chatting to a friend this weekend about the origins of human rights- and dragged up this quotation from Sir Edward Coke, its one of my favourite quotations- and I thought it worth posting up.

We are but of yesterday (and therefore had need of the wisdom of those that were before us) and had been ignorant (if we had not received light and knowledge from our forefathers) and our daies upon the earth are but as a shadow in respect of the old ancient dayes and times past, wherein the laws have been by the wisdom of the most excellent men in many succession of ages, by long and continuall experience (the triall of light and truth), fined and refined, which no one man (being of so short a time) albeit he had in his head the wisdom of all the men in the world, in any one age could have effected or attained unto. And therefore it is optima regula, qua nulla est verior aut firmior in jure, Neminem oportet esse sapientiorem legibus: no man ought to take it upon himself to be wiser than the laws.
Coke said this in Calvin's case- a case about whether a Scot could claim rights under English law. The quotation though really isn't about the case itself- as much as it is about the principle of what is a law. It sits with some of the things that we have seen recently in Oakeshott- though I suspect Oakeshott did not derive his thinking from Coke's. Coke believed law was formed by tradition however there is a tension in his thought: notice his principles of fining and refining and the contrast between that and the resolution against change. Coke is in favour both of change and against it: the quotation incorporates a contradiction. 

The contradiction, I think, is not as important as one might think. Coke stated this during a case- it was a legal opinion rather than a philosophical argument. Coke was not writing a course in formal logic- rather he was writing a sentiment. His phrase was an argument within a political and legal realm: to make that argument the emotion is key, and Coke gets that emotion in his writing. It may not be great philosophy but the reason the phrase is requoted is that its both good politics and good law.