January 28, 2007

Alexander Pope and the frogs

You've heard this one before, right? Toss a frog into a pot of boiling water and it'll jump right out. But start the pot off at room temperature and the frog will sit there until it stews in its own juices. Well, like too many too-good-to-be-true metaphorical illustrations of moral turpitude, this one turns out to be too good to be true.

For despite their teeny-tiny amphibian brains, frogs aren't that stupid after all.

The "critical thermal maxima" of many species of frogs have been determined by several investigators. In this procedure, the water in which a frog is submerged is heated gradually at about 2 degrees Fahrenheit per minute. As the temperature of the water is gradually increased, the frog will eventually become more and more active in attempts to escape the heated water. If the container size and opening allow the frog to jump out, it will do so.

And while we're at it, let's give Alexander Pope the credit he deserves in the human insight department. Our unfortunate frog is often boiled in place of—or in addition to—a teeny-tiny excerpt from Pope's Essay on Man, with these four lines alone being quoted:

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

Yes, like the frog, the point being made here is certainly not without merit (not without "truthiness," I should say). "There but for the grace of God go I," we say in our eagerness to show sympathy for the Devil. Except that's only half of the argument Pope is trying to make.

Let's read what comes next in the same stanza, starting with a big "but":

But where th'extreme of Vice was ne'er agreed:
Ask where's the north?—at York 'tis on the Tweed;
In Scotland at the Orcades; and there
At Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where.
No creature owns it in the first degree,
But thinks his neighbour farther gone than he;

An equal human tendency is to see our own virtues in the context of another's vices. That royal "we" notwithstanding, it's always those other guys doing the pitying and the embracing, don't you know. Rather than waxing judgmental, Pope makes a commonsensical observation about the relative nature of vice.

Virtuous and vicious ev'ry man must be,
Few in th'extreme, but all in the degree:
The rogue and fool by fits is fair and wise,
And ev'n the best by fits what they despise.

The solution Pope suggests is Madisonian in its logic. Arguing in Federalist No. 10 that the "latent causes of [competing political] faction[s] are thus sown in the nature of man," Madison's solution was to create a political system in which factions are not eliminated but checked according to their own self-serving propensities.

Agreed Pope almost a century earlier:

Each individual seeks a sev'ral goal;
But Heav'n's great view is one, that that the Whole.
That counterworks each folly and caprice;
That disappoints th'effect of every vice;

And skipping ahead to the end of stanza V, Pope concludes that there is indeed virtue to be found in vice, in that it directs attention to our own particular failings:

Shame to the virgin, to the matron pride,
Fear to the statesman, rashness to the chief,
To kings presumption, and to crowds belief:
That, virtue's ends from vanity can raise,
Which seeks no int'rest, no reward but praise;

Pope is likely echoing John Milton in the fourth verse. Wrote Milton of the Fall in Paradise Lost:

O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness!

Theologically and philosophically, though, this is tricky stuff. It's not hard to tweak it into an "ends justify the means" mentality. So while giving the poor frog and its metaphorical progeny their due (and wishing them a long and un-poached retirement), I think an equally useful pair of Pope couplets can be found at the end of stanza IV:

If white and black blend, soften, and unite
A thousand ways, is there no black or white?
Ask your own heart, and nothing is so plain:
'Tis to mistake them costs the time and pain.

Nothing wrong with mixing shades of gray as long as we don't forget that there is still a big difference between right and wrong.