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A Plot!

Reading: David Hume, History of England, from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688, vol. 6, Chapter LXVII, 332 et seq.

The usual Over My Shoulder rules apply:

  1. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, which should be more a matter of context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than they are a matter of discussing the material.

  2. Quoting a passage absolutely does not entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Anyway, here’s the quote. This is from Vol. 6, Chapter LXVII, of Hume’s History of England, from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688, concerning Titus Oates’s spectacular allegations of a secret Catholic government-in-hiding and a Popish Plot against the liberty of Protestant England and the life of King Charles II.

1678. The Popish plot.

The English nation, ever since the fatal league with France, had entertained violent jealousies against the court; and the subsequent measures, adopted by the king, had tended more to encrease than cure the general prejudices. Some mysterious design [333] was still suspected in every enterprize and profession: Arbitrary power and popery were apprehended as the scope of all projects: Each breath or rumour made the people start with anxiety: Their enemies, they thought, were in their very bosom, and had gotten possession of their sovereign’s confidence. While in this timorous, jealous disposition, the cry of a plot all on a sudden struck their ears: They were wakened from their slumber; and like men affrightened and in the dark, took every figure for a spectre. The terror of each man became the source of terror to another. And an universal panic being diffused, reason and argument and common sense and common humanity lost all influence over them. From this disposition of men’s minds we are to account for the progress of the Popish Plot, and the credit given to it; an event, which would otherwise appear prodigious and altogether inexplicable.

. . . Notwithstanding these objections, great attention was paid to Oates’s evidence, and the plot became very soon the subject of conversation, and even the object of terror to the people. The violent animosity, which had been excited against the catholics in general, made the public swallow the grossest absurdities when they accompanied an accusation of those religionists: And the more diabolical any contrivance appeared, the better it suited the tremendous idea entertained of a Jesuit. Danby likewise, who stood in opposition to the French and catholic interest at court, was willing to encourage every story, which might serve to discredit that party. By his suggestion, when a warrant was signed for arresting Coleman, there was inserted a clause for seizing his papers; a circumstance attended with the most important consequences. . . .

. . . When the contents of these letters were publicly known, they diffused the panic, with which the nation began already to be seized on account of the popish plot. Men reasoned more from their fears and their passions than from the evidence before them. It is certain, that the restless and enterprizing spirit of the catholic church, particularly of the Jesuits, merits attention, and is, in some degree, dangerous to every other communion. Such zeal of proselytism actuates that sect, that its missionaries have penetrated into every nation of the globe; and, in one sense, there is a popish plot perpetually carrying on against all states, protestant, pagan, and mahometan. It is likewise very probable, that the conversion of the duke, and the favour of the king had inspired the catholic priests with new hopes of recovering in these islands their lost dominion, and gave fresh vigour to that intemperate zeal, by which they are commonly actuated. Their first aim was to obtain a toleration; and such was the evidence, they believed, of their theological tenets, that, could they but procure entire liberty, they must infallibly in time open the eyes of the people. After they had converted considerable numbers, they might be enabled, they hoped, to reinstate themselves in full authority, and entirely to suppress that heresy, with which the kingdom had so long been infected. Though these dangers to the protestant religion were distant, it was justly the object of great concern to find, that the heir of the crown was so blinded with bigotry, and so deeply engaged in foreign interests; and that the king himself had been prevailed on, from low interests, to hearken to his dangerous insinuations. Very bad consequences might ensue from such perverse habits and attachments; nor could the nation and parliament guard against them with too anxious a precaution. But that the Roman pontiff could hope to assume the sovereignty of these kingdoms; a project, which, even during the darkness of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, would have appeared chimerical: That he should delegate this authority to the Jesuits; that order in the Romish church, which was the most hated: That a massacre could be attempted of the protestants, who surpassed the catholics a hundred fold, and were invested with the whole authority of the state: That the king himself was to be assassinated, and even the duke, the only support [341] of their party: These were such absurdities as no human testimony was sufficient to prove; much less the evidence of one man, who was noted for infamy, and who could not keep himself, every moment, from falling into the grossest inconsistencies. Did such intelligence deserve even so much attention as to be refuted, it would appear, that Coleman’s letters were sufficient alone to destroy all its credit. For how could so long a train of correspondence be carried on, by a man so much trusted by the party; and yet no traces of insurrections, if really intended, of fires, massacres, assassinations, invasions, be ever discovered in any single passage of these letters? But all such reflections, and many more, equally obvious, were vainly employed against that general prepossession, with which the nation was seized. Oates’s plot and Coleman’s were universally confounded together: And the evidence of the latter being unquestionable, the belief of the former, aided by the passions of hatred and of terror, took possession of the whole people. . . .

General consternation.

. . . This clamour was quickly propagated, and met with universal belief. The panic spread itself on every side with infinite rapidity; and all men, astonished with fear, and animated with rage, saw in Godfrey’s fate all the horrible designs ascribed to the Catholics; and no farther doubt remained of Oates’s veracity. The voice of the nation united against that hated sect; and notwithstanding that the bloody conspiracy was supposed to be now detected, men could scarcely be persuaded, that their lives were yet in safety. Each hour teemed with new rumours and surmizes. Invasions from abroad, insurrections [342] at home, even private murthers and poisonings were apprehended. To deny the reality of the plot was to be an accomplice: To hesitate was criminal: Royalist, Republican; Churchman, Sectary; Courtier, Patriot; all parties concurred in the illusion. The city prepared for its defence, as if the enemy were at its gates: The chains and posts were put up: And it was a noted saying at that time of Sir Thomas Player, the chamberlain, that, were it not for these precautions, all the citizens might rise next morning with their throats cut. . . . In this disposition of the nation, reason could no more be heard than a whisper in the midst of the most violent hurricane. . . .

Popish plot.

It must be owned, that this extreme violence, in prosecution of so absurd an imposture, disgraces the noble cause of liberty, in which the parliament was engaged. We may even conclude from such impatience of contradiction, that the prosecutors themselves retained a secret suspicion, that the general belief was but ill grounded. The politicians among them were afraid to let in light, lest it might put an end to so useful a delusion: The weaker and less dishonest party took care, by turning their eyes aside, not to see a [362] truth, so opposite to those furious passions, by which they were actuated, and in which they were determined obstinately to persevere. . . .

— David Hume (1778), History of England, from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688
Vol. 6, Chapter LXVII, 332 et seq.

U.S. Out of Seattle

Shared Article from CHS Capitol Hill Seattle

‘Welcome to Free Capitol Hill’ — Capitol Hill Autonomous Z…

With reporting by Jake Goldstein-Street and Alex Garland The first night in the so-called Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone that has formed in the wake of …

View all posts by jseattle → @ capitolhillseattle.com

Shared Article from Reason.com

Seattle Protesters Establish 'Autonomous Zone' Outside Evacuated…

Is the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone a brave experiment in self-government or just flash-in-the-pan activism?

C.J. Ciaramella @ reason.com

Disarm, Defund, Disband

Abolish the police.

Shared Article from Star Tribune

Most of Minneapolis City Council pledges to 'begin the process o…

"Decades of police reform efforts have proved that the Minneapolis police department cannot be reformed, and will never be accountable for its actions…

Liz Navratil @ startribune.com

The Self-Reproducing City and the New Division of Town and Country

Reading: William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, Chapter VI, The Ecological Impact of Medical Science and Organization Since 1700

The usual Over My Shoulder rules apply:

  1. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, which should be more a matter of context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than they are a matter of discussing the material.

  2. Quoting a passage absolutely does not entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Anyway, here’s the quote. This is from Chapter VI, The Ecological Impact of Medical Science and Organization Since 1700, in William H. McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples (1976/1998). Like a lot of the work it’s a resolutely Malthusian exploration, and I think is both very usefully insightful and also of course a lot of wild oversimplification. But I marked it off as interesting because of the reflection on a changing relationship between town and country — not the fact of a division, which is as old as cities, but a shift in the terms of that division, and one possible sort of impact not only on the relationship between the two but on the endogenous development of cities themselves.

Chapter VI.

. . . Obviously, there was always a considerable lag between decision to introduce improved water and sewage systems and the completion of necessary engineering work. But by the end of the nineteenth century all major cities of the western world had done something to come up to the new level of sanitation and water management that had been pioneered in Great Britain, 1848-54. Urban life became far safer from disease than ever before as a result. Not merely cholera and typhoid but a host of less serious water-borne infections were reduced sharply. One of the major causes of infant mortality thereby trailed off towards statistical insignificance.

In Asia, Africa, and Latin America, cities seldom were capable of making sanitary water and sewage systems available to all the population; yet even there, as the risks of contaminated water became more widely known, simple precautions, like boiling drinking water, and periodical testing of water supplies for bacteriological contamination, introduced a quite effective guard against wholesale exposure to water-borne infections. Administrative systems were not always capable of sustaining an effective bacteriological watch, of course; and enforcement was even more difficult in many situations. But means and knowledge needed to escape large-scale outbreaks of lethal disease became almost universal. Indeed, when local epidemics of cholera or some other killing disease occurred, it soon became common for richer countries to finance international mobilization of medical experts to help local authorities in bringing the outbreak under control. Hence even in cities where a water-sewage circulatory system had never been installed, some of the benefits of public sanitation were swiftly brought to bear.

By 1900, therefore, for the first time since cities had come into existence almost five thousand years previously, the world’s urban populations became capable of maintaining themselves and even increasing in numbers without depending on in-migration from the countryside.[66] This was a fundamental change in age-old demographic relationships. Until the nineteenth century, cities had everywhere been population [pg]280[/pg] sumps, incapable of maintaining themselves without constant replenishment from a healthier countryside. It has been calculated, for example, that during the eighteenth century, when London’s Bills of Mortality permit reasonably accurate accountancy, deaths exceeded births by an average of 6,000 per annum. In the course of the century, London therefore required no less than 600,000 in-migrants for its mere maintenance. An even larger number of in-migrants was needed to permit the population increase that was a conspicuous feature of the city’s eighteenth-century history.[67]

Implications of this change are profound. As cities became capable of sustaining growing populations, older patterns of migration from rural to urban modes of life met new obstacles. Rural in-migrants had to compete with a more abundant, more thoroughly acculturated population of city-born individuals, capable of performing functions formerly relegated to newcomers from the countryside. Social mobility thereby became more difficult than in times when systematic urban die-off opened niches in the cities of the world for upwardly mobile individuals coming in from rural backgrounds. To be sure, in regions where industrial and commercial development proceeded rapidly, this new relation between country and city was masked by the fact that so many new occupations opened in urban contexts that there was room for city-born and rural in-migrants alike. In regions where industrialization has lagged, on the other hand, the problem of social mobility has already assumed visible form. In Latin America and Africa, for example, vast fringes of semi-rural slums commonly surround well-established cities. These are squatting grounds for migrants from the countryside who are seeking to become urban, yet cannot find suitable employment and so must eke out a marginal existence amid the most squalid poverty. Such settlements give visible form to the collision between traditional patterns of migration from the countryside and an urban population that no longer, as aforetime, withers away so as to accommodate the newcomers crowding at the gate.

— William H. McNeill (1976)
Plagues and Peoples, 279-280.

  1. [66]In Cairo, Egypt, for example, the birth rate was 44.1 per thousand, the death rate only 36.9 per thousand in 1913, the year before a modern sewage system was inaugurated in part of the city. Cf. Robert Tignor, Public Health Administration in Egypt under British Rule, 1882-1914 (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Yale University, 1960), pp. 115-21.
  2. [67]C. Fraser Brockington, World Health, 2nd ed. (Boston, 1968), p. 99.

The soil you can’t stand on, the wave you can’t swim through; the hot and cold in one body, the war of each against all! (Ovid, Metamorphoses I, Invocation and First Narrative Stanza)

Let’s wrap up Ovid’s first narrative stanza on primordial Chaos. After the epic invocation, the call back to the very beginning of the world and the naming of Chaos as the first face of the universe (1, 2), and the mythological allusions to the elemental forces and the elder gods that hadn’t yet taken form, that could not take form except in a world brought out of the primal chaotic mass. The stanza concludes by adding the element of conflict and instability to primordial Chaos. Hesiod’s Χάος is empty and void, a dark and yawning pit; it plays a role after the Titanomachy because it establishes that the younger gods consign the conquered elder gods to a place so deep and far away that it beyond Χάος, effectively the bottom of the Bottomless Pit beneath the inhabited universe. Ovid’s Chaos is full of mass, of weight, of heaps of the seeds of things not well joined. They’re ill-joined due to discord, and at the close of the stanza Ovid explicitly introduces the idea not only due to confusion or mess, but because without the separation of elements, every part of everything is locked in conflict and violence, an unceasing all-pervading cosmic war of each against all. Here’s Book I, lines 16-20 in the original Latin:[66]

Mundi origo.

. . . Sic erat instabilis tellus, innabilis unda,
lucis egens aer; nulli sua forma manebat,
obstabatque aliis aliud, quia corpore in uno
frigida pugnabant calidis, umentia siccis,
mollia cum duris, sine pondere habentia pondus.

Here is a word-for-word breakdown of the Latin grammar and vocabulary:

adv.v. 3d. sg., impf. act. ind.adj., fem. nom. sg.n., fem. nom. sg.adj., fem. nom. sg.n., fem. nom. sg.
[thus, so][was][unstable][soil][unswimmable][wave, water]
n., fem. gen. sg.pres. act. part., masc. nom. sg.n., masc. nom. sg.adj./pron., neut. dat. sg.adj. poss. 3d, fem. nom. sg.n., fem. nom. sg.v. 3d. sg., impf. act. ind.
[of light][lacking][the air];[to nought][its own][form][remained, kept]
18obstabatquealiis , wanting, impoverishedaliud,quiacorporeinuno
v. 3d sg., impf. act. ind. + conj.adj./pron., neut. dat. pl.adj./pron., neut. nom. sg.conj.n., neut. abl. sg.prep.adj./num., neut. abl. sg.
[held back] + [and](with) [other things][other thing][because][body][in][one]
adj., neut. nom. pl.v. 3d. pl., impf. act. ind.n., neut. abl. pl.pres. act. part., neut. nom. pl.n. neut. abl. pl.
[cold things][were fighting](with) [hot things][wet things](with) [dry things]
adj., neut. nom. pl.prep.adj., neut. abl. pl.adv.n., neut. abl. sg.pres. act. part., neut. nom. pl.n., neut. acc. sg.
[soft things][with][hard things][without][weight][things having][weight]

Most of the grammar here is pretty straightforward. The passage is describing a background condition rather than narrating sequential events, so the verbs are all in the imperfect past, or present active participles describing the scene. Word order is mostly familiar, once you allow for the use of elliptical constructions when the poet sets up parallelism within a list of elements. Depending on whether you take the adjectives in the first two lines as attributive adjectives or predicate adjectives, erat could be read either as a copula (So the ground was unstable, the water unswimmable…) or as an impersonal existential (So there was unstable ground, unswimmable water…). Pairs of alius… alius… forms (here: aliis… aliud…) are using a pronomial adjective that literally means the other… the other…; in Latin, they have the meaning of exhausting a set or contrasting a pair, like The one… the other…, or Some… others…., Some things… everything else… Nulli is in the dative because things can remain to their owners, e.g., After tea-time, one scone remained to me. sine-pondere is not used as a prepositional phrase here, but as a noun phrase, meaning those things without weight. In the vocabulary, innabilis is an unusual word, constructed to rhyme with instabilis, but with the relatively transparent meaning of where one can’t swim (NO, NARE). Obstat and pugnat (to stand against, to struggle, contend or fight) have both generalized meanings and also specific military meanings, indicating defense or obstructive force on the one hand, and offense or combative violence on the other.

Here’s my attempt at a prosy sort of a translation of the passage:

Mundi origo.

. . . Sic erat instabilis tellus, innabilis unda,
lucis egens aer; nulli sua forma manebat,
obstabatque aliis aliud, quia corpore in uno
frigida pugnabant calidis, umentia siccis,
mollia cum duris, sine pondere habentia pondus.

World’s Beginning

. . . So there was unstable[67] ground, unswimmable water,[68] air impoverished of light; its own form remained to nothing, and everything obstructed every other thing, because, within a single body, cold things were fighting (with) hot, wet things fought (with) dry, soft things with hard, those having weight with those without weight.

Let’s try a pass at a verse translation. Since these lines close out the stanza from the last sets (1, 2, 3) and continue the theme started there, I wanted to include the entirety of the stanza, and the opening epic invocation along with it. But stitching the two stanzas together raises another translational question. In line 1 and line 17, Ovid uses and then re-uses a critical word that appears throughout the Metamorphoses, forma. In the opening line, I translated the term as figures, but also took the poetic license of echoing it in the word Transformed! at the head of my first line. In line 17 so far, I’ve been inclined to translate it as form or shape. The word itself has a whole range of meanings: it can mean physical form, contour or shape; it can mean visible appearance or image; it can mean pattern, stamp or model; it can mean sort, essential form or nature. It is often used in connection with terms for the body and to mean bodily figure, and like the English shapely or figure it can also be used to refer to beauty (cf. formosus). Part of my reason for favoring figure in line 1 is that the gods, spirits and mortals described throughout most of the epic narrative have figures, and — not to put too fine of a point on it — a lot of the transformations are tied to violent, ugly or troubling stories about gods and men chasing after spirits or mortal women described in terms of their bodily beauty. The word might seem a bit more odd in this opening stanza, where the formae we are talking about belong to primal elements in the state of Chaos. On the other hand, these are also referred to as elements striving with each other within one body (corpore in uno), so maybe by a metaphorical stretch the translator can keep to the same word here in each case, rather than splitting the decision between the two lines. In any case, here goes:


In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
corpora; di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas)
adspirate meis primaque ab origine mundi
ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen.

Mundi origo.

Ante mare et terras et quod tegit omnia caelum
unus erat toto naturae vultus in orbe,
quem dixere Chaos: rudis indigestaque moles
nec quicquam nisi pondus iners congestaque eodem
non bene iunctarum discordia semina rerum.
nullus adhuc mundo praebebat lumina Titan,
nec nova crescendo reparabat cornua Phoebe,
nec circumfuso pendebat in aere tellus
ponderibus librata suis, nec bracchia longo
margine terrarum porrexerat Amphitrite;
utque aer, tellus illic et pontus et aether.
Sic erat instabilis tellus, innabilis unda,
lucis egens aer; nulli sua forma manebat,
obstabatque aliis aliud, quia corpore in uno
frigida pugnabant calidis, umentia siccis,
mollia cum duris, sine pondere habentia pondus.

Invocation: Into Something New and Strange

Transformed! A mind takes me — to tell of figures changed into new
bodies. Gods, — as You transformed Yourselves, others too, — so breathe
upon the things I have begun: from the world’s first beginning,
without pause through to my own day, lead out an unbroken song.

1. World’s Beginning

Before sea, and dry lands, and the cover of sky,
Nature had but one face in all the circle of the world—
Which folks have named Chaos: a shapeless heaped mess,
Not a thing but dumb weight, and all together in piles,
The seeds of things ill-joined due to discord.
No Titan yet bearing light to the world,
No Phoebe revealing new-grown crescent horns,
No earth surrounded, suspended in air,
Balanced on its own weight, no Amphitrite to spread
Her fore-arms along dry lands’ long shores;
And air there where the ground was — air, sea and aether.
So there was unstandable ground, unswimmable water,
Lightless air, and nothing keeping its proper figure;
Each standing against all, because within one body
The cold was at war with the hot, the wet with the dry,
The soft with the hard, the lightness of things with the weight they carry.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve got in my notebook. What do you think? How would you handle these lines?

All the original translations that I post to this blog are freely available in the public domain.

  1. [66]I got the text from P. Ovidius Naso, Metamorphoses at the Perseus Digital Library; they transcribed the text from Hugo Magnus’s edition of 1892 (Gotha: Friedr. Andr. Perthes).
  2. [67]instabilis: Unsteady, inconstant, not firm; lit. from IN- + STO, not where one can stand fast
  3. [68]Lit. from IN- + NO, not where one can swim, not where one can float.
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