The Block Island Times
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Mad monks and William of Ockham

By J. V. Houlihan, Jr. | Jun 22, 2013

A couple of weeks ago marked the first solo sail of the season up Narragansett Bay to a favorite anchorage, where I merge into what is referred to as “Mad Monk Mode.” The boat will swing aimlessly on a mooring, and I will read a favorite book — the new book by Nat Philbrick about the Battle of Bunker Hill was the book of choice for this spring sailing trip. Scribbling notes for some of my own works-in-progress is also part of this isolated and monastic drill; however, reading Nat’s new book was a priority on this trip.

My uncle Frank Kelley was, according to my mom, “kind of deep” when asked about his studies as a Dominican priest. In those days, I’d serve mass for him at Providence College, and then we’d go play eight ball after mass in our basement. Father/Uncle Frank was a handsome, hyper, Lucky Strike-smoking product of a large South Providence family from Irish Catholic descent. He was my favorite uncle. He spoke impeccable Latin, and would drop a quote on me say, by Horace, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” Translated, “It is a sweet thing to lay down one’s life for one’s country.”

Some shorthand is needed here: Frank Kelley attended LaSalle Academy, studied with and was ordained by the Dominican Order, taught at PC, then took off on a turbo prop airplane from Hillsgrove Airport to Oxford University and worked on a doctorate in medieval theology. He left the order while at Oxford and met his future wife and then had two daughters, Dominica and Cassie. My uncle’s studies at Oxford are what led him to learn of William of Ockham, a Franciscan philosopher and theologian born in London around 1287. This guy’s view of theology caused the Pope to believe that Ockham was a proponent of heretical doctrine ― not a safe position to take in the 13th and 14th centuries; you know, the whole excommunication thing could present problems, and for Ockham it did just that. They weren’t burning witches yet, but close enough. Ockham was an excitable boy with a sharp, inquisitive intellect, and these qualities got him into some serious trouble. I mean, the guy was questioning the current belief-in-God paradigm ― very heady stuff. Frank got involved with the Franciscan Institute at St. Bonaventure so that he could understand what Ockham was really saying. He loved his work. “I’d do it for nothing, if I had another source of income,” he said.

In Medieval times, language evolved from the oral tradition. From that tradition sprang concepts, and narrative ― sometimes bold concepts that challenged the status quo. A manuscript culture evolved to write down what was being said; Monks did the writing of the manuscripts. From there print evolved, and of course now we have the digital age. Sometimes while they were scribbling William of Ockham’s manuscripts, the Monks made some mistakes and things got lost in context or translation. My Uncle Frank’s job was to correct those mistakes, and with a cadre of scholars at St. Bonaventure in Olean, New York, they did just that. It was a lot of work. Details, details, details.

Ockham’s razor was a philosophic position that said, “Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate.” Which means, “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” Put more succinctly, “If you have two likely solutions to a problem, choose the simplest.” Sounds pretty simple; however, guys like Einstein, and Steven Hawking didn’t think so. Read some of my uncle’s translations and see how long it takes you to get twisted into a philosophical granny knot; this is not an easy beach read.

Frank Kelley’s team of scholars had very strong credentials to take on the task of transcribing these manuscripts from the 13th century into Latin. They worked well as a team to get the translation correct. Those involved felt strongly regarding Ockham’s philosophical importance to Western civilization. The basic skillset for translating the ancient manuscripts requires deciphering ancient writings. It is called paleography. All of the team had to be fluent in Latin, French and German. These scholars worked in isolation in their offices (not stone huts like some old school monks did.) They had to parlay in order to get the punctuation and nuances of Ockham’s words written down perfectly. Uncle Frank told me, “It’s written in concrete, we did such a thorough job; it’ll be there for keeps.” He was a confident guy.

I always wondered where my desire to write came from. Perhaps it’s an Irish thing, you know, the Celtic, Bardic Heartbeat thing. Or maybe, like my uncle, simply being in a monastic mindset, scrambling and editing words and reading good books is what I simply love to do. He told me once that, “If you find something that you love to do, then consider yourself very lucky, because lots of people don’t like their jobs.”

Perhaps after all the years of research about Ockham’s Razor, it could probably be boiled down to a more succinct phrase, like “Keep it simple.” As I left the anchorage to sail back to Newport after some “Mad Monk Mode” up in the bay, the words of my Uncle Frank, who was “kind of deep,” made perfect sense to me. If we have a choice to do what we love to do, then, according to Ockham’s Razor, we should choose the simplest solution. ‘Nuff said.

Now the reader can ponder that one in the privacy of his own chambers.

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