Notes Ignota: Part the Fifth

Notes on Ignota
A collection of notes and queries on ‘Too Like the Lightning’ compiled by CAMESTROS FELAPTON, at the Request of Certain Parties.

Page numbers and text are from the 2016 Tor US hardback edition. Errors and typos are mine, except where indicated. The notes are not authorised by the author or editorialised by the editor. I’m speculating people! Latin translations are my best guess from Google translate and I don’t really know much Latin – corrections welcome.

Page 43 Chapter the Fourth: A thing Long Thought Extinct
•    ‘The simile of the three insects’ – is, as Mycroft explains, a metaphor by Sir Francis Bacon, the Elizabethan polymath. It appears in his book ‘The New Organon’ and refers to the ant, the spider and the bee. The original ‘Organon’ was the book by Aristotle dealing with logic and syllogisms. Bacon’s book was an attempt to look at ‘modern’ scientific reasoning including induction. This what Bacon said:

Those who have handled sciences have been either men of experiment or men of dogmas. The men of experiment are like the ant, they only collect and use; the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance. But the bee takes a middle course: it gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own. Not unlike this is the true business of philosophy; for it neither relies solely or chiefly on the powers of the mind, nor does it take the matter which it gathers from natural history and mechanical experiments and lay it up in the memory whole, as it finds it, but lays it up in the understanding altered and digested. Therefore from a closer and purer league between these two faculties, the experimental and the rational (such as has never yet been made), much may be hoped.

•    Mycroft changes Bacon’s version a tad by changing the experimenter into the Encyclopedist, which is interesting given the Diderot references but the basic criticism is the same. Collecting either raw data or facts doesn’t get you anywhere by itself. Likewise ‘dogma’ i.e. theory gets you nowhere by itself. You need to be the bee, collecting AND synthesising i.e. theory and experiment together, one informing the other. Good point Francis.
•    ‘Thomas Carlyle’ – ha, spotted this coming 🙂 This though is a fictional future person of history but neatly, a ‘great man’ who reshaped history. Future-Carlyle has his own ant, spider, bee simile – people need to be in groups that have qualities of both nations and corporations aka ‘hives’. Palmer does well to make it sound utopian rather than sinister.
•    ‘Petrarch’ – 14th-century humanist Italian writer 1304-1374 He helped re-popularise the works of Roman writers such as Cicero, Virgil and Seneca
•    ’Seneca’ – A Roman stoic philosopher and playwright. One of Seneca’s plays was ‘The Trojan Women’ which features Queen Hecuba after the fall of Troy.
Page 44
•    ‘I caught up with tomorrow’ – Mycroft crosses the international date line when flying from Chile to Indonesia. The events in the chapter are therefore on March 24 rather than March 23.
•    ‘lotus blossoms’ – blossoms again, this time the lotus. An important symbolic flower in both Hinduism and Buddhism, nature, divinity, beauty and the soul.
•    ‘As March becomes ever the lamb’ – an English saying about the month of March ‘In like a lion and out like a lamb’ referring to the switch in weather in temperate Northern Hemisphere England. Mycroft is well aware that the saying has little application in southern hemisphere Chile or equatorial Indonesia, but is using it to point at the (Japanese) spring fashions.
•    ‘hoari’ – a Japanese kimono-like jacket. ’cheogori’ a style of Korean clothing. ‘sherwani’ – an Indian style frock coat i.e. fashion from three different Asia cultures.
•    ‘floral patterns bloomed’ – see!
•    ‘as the eastern cherries bloom’ – bloom, flower, blooms, blossom etc
Page 45-47
Page 48
•    ‘branch of plum blossom’ – I’ll just note these now without comment
•    ‘Danae Marie-Anne de la Tremoille Mitsubishi’ – In Greek myth, Danae was the mother of Perseus. She was made pregnant by Zeus who appeared in the form of a rain of gold. Yes, stop sniggering ‘a golden shower’. One of Zeus’s weirder inceptions.
•    ‘a woman’s antique kimono, birds and blossoms in golds, peaches and blues’ – clothing from Japan’s Edo period.
•    ‘the face on Earth most likely to launch a thousand ships’ – a common reference to Helen of Troy.
Page 49 -51
Page 52
•    ‘Gyges Device’ – As Mycroft goes on to explain, the ring of Gyges is a fable/thought experiment from Plato’s Republic. A man finds a magic ring in a tomb that grants him the power of invisibility. Thus invisible, how will he behave knowing that he can get away with all sorts of crimes? It is also discussed by Cicero in ‘De Officiis’. While Plato had issues with poetry, he remains one of the most imaginative, entertaining and readable philosophers, in part by his use of dialogues to present contrasting views (although Socrates always wins the argument) but also because of his colourful use of myth. The Republic is Plato’s extensive work on the nature of the ideal state – of particular relevance to Mycroft’s society and also the inspiration for Aldus Huxley’s dystopia Brave New World. Karl Popper regarded Plato’s political thinking as the root element in authoritarian politics opposed to an open society i.e. as photo-fascism/totalitarianism. In a follow-up to The Republic, the dialogue called ’Timaeus’ introduces Plato’s most lasting contribution to fantasy fiction and pseudo-history: Atlantis. I’ve got a real love/hate thing for Plato – he was brilliantly wrong about everything.
Page 53
•    ‘La Patriarch’ – Mycroft condescendingly explains that this is a reference to Voltaire. As we’ll keep meeting Voltaire it is worth spending a bit more time on him. Although quintessentially a man of a later era, these days we would describe his breadth of interest as a ‘Renaissance Man’. He is most famed for his writing but he was also a populariser of science and a keen experimenter who worked with Émilie du Châtelet, who herself would help shape European notions of science. Again, while a giant of French culture, he was also something of an Anglophile who helped popularise Shakespeare in France and who saw Issac Newton’s work as a pinnacle of rational inquiry. His political and religious views are less easily categorised: he was dissatisfied with the absolute monarchy of France but sceptical and wary of democracy. He favoured religious liberty but also pushed anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic views, arguably as part of a general critique of religious belief and those who hold religious beliefs. Also, while we are on the topic of Voltaire it is notable that Rousseau hasn’t turned up yet .
•    ‘We now doubt Aristotle, understand Shakespeare only with footnotes’ – Mycroft’s rhetoric suggests an increase in the fame and reputation of Voltaire in his society, as exemplified by Danae.
Page 55

Page 56 Chapter the Fifth: Aristotle’s House
•    ‘I could have been a slave’ Mycroft keeps pointing at his servility and desire to be in the position of either a servant or a slave.
•    ‘In Aristotle’s house when he reared Alexander’ – among many other things, Plato’s former student Aristotle was the tutor of Alexander the great when Alexander was a prince of Macedonia (343 BCE). Alexander headed Macedonia’s own royal place of learning. However, despite Mycroft’s comment, he didn’t rear Alexander (who would have been a teenager when they met) and probably didn’t teach him in Aristotle’s house. Mycroft would know this and hence I think that is just part of his wider fantasy. Mycroft admires polymaths and you don’t get much more polymathic than Aristotle, whose work was taken as a broad map of all human knowledge by later medieval thinkers. Mycroft (as we see through the book) also has a thing for powerful leaders and ‘great men’ of which Alexander was the classical template which future tyrants would like to compare themselves to.
•    ‘I could have midwifed at the birth of Caesar’ – The term ‘caesarean section’ for the type of surgical birth is connected to Julius Caesar via various sources. However, as the Roman practice was only done in the event of the mother dying before the child was born and as Julius Caesar’s mother survived his birth, he could not have literally been born by caesarian section. Again, Mycroft would be aware of the discussion around the method of birth and the etymology of ‘Caesar’.
•    ’Santa Maria’ – one of Columbus’s ships.
•    ‘If we count apprenticeships as unfreedom’ – indentured labour has been compared to slavery but there are many differences. Mycroft rightly describes it as ‘unfreedom’ which is a sensible distinction.
•    ‘forged Newton’s Principia’ – Issac Newton’s seminal work on physics. ‘Forged’ here is referring to typesetting using metal type rather than creating a forgery.
•    ‘might call it Great’ – Mycroft romanticises slavery again or at least servitude. Note that he then reveals that he was busy scrubbing perfume off Thisbe’s floor i.e. he was thinking on how a slave might be part of great events while doing housework and/or hiding evidence.
Page 57-59
Page 60
•    ‘Cartesian’ – in context here ‘cartesian’ may refer to Descartes’s conception of mind-body duality. Again, it may refer to lots of things in one go.
Page 61
•    ‘the name Nurturist has faded by your age’ – In context, the name seems to be a particular viewpoint Mycroft’s society. In our time it would refer to somebody who sides on the ’nurture’ side of ‘nature versus nurture’ in how people are shaped.
Page 62-65
Page 66
•    ‘Emma Platz’ – if this is a real person then I don’t know the reference. ‘Platz’ in German is a square or open area.
Page 67
•    ‘Could you resist, day in, day out, if you could resurrect a friend?’ – this harks back to the Ring of Gyges fable i.e. even if we are good people can we behave ethically when we are given powers that allow us to take actions others can’t?
Page 68
•    ‘Aristotle – the Philosopher – reminds us’ – Mycroft elevates Aristotle and also points out the ‘nature’ side of being a human.
•    lotus blossom tower – check
•    ‘peacock’s plumes or beaver dams’ – peacock plumes are aesthetically wonderful and are part of a peacock’s mating rituals and hence an outcome of natural selection. Beaver dams are also a consequence of natural selection but note that they are a thing a beaver makes and hence are also artificial. Is a beaver dam natural or artificial or is it both? If a beaver dam is both natural and artificial then what about the things we humans make as part of our nature? Discuss. Essays to me by next Friday.
•    ‘stereocox’, ‘waldfogels vein’ – future diseases I assume.
Page 70-71 [end of chapter 5]

End of the first day.



  1. Andrew M

    I wonder if ‘experiment’ might have meant something a bit different from Bacon than what it does for us. As late as the mid 18th century David Hume was using ‘experimental’ to mean ’empirical, based on experience’: he wanted to put the science of human nature on an ‘experimental’ basis, but recognised we could not do experiments, in the scientific sense, on our own minds, but could only observe how they work in the course of life.

    I believe the original form of the Caesarean story refers not to Julius Caesar, the dictator, himself, but to the founder of his family: he was called Caesar because he was ex utero caesus (cut from the womb). (This seems not actually to be true: ‘Caesar’ comes from a root meaning ‘hairy’ rather than anything to do with cutting).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David Goldfarb

    “Most likely to launch a thousand ships” specifically references a famous quote from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus: “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, and burned the topless towers of Ilium?”


  3. Mark

    An English saying about the month of March ‘In like a lion and out like a lamb’ – I have to say I’ve never heard this one!

    For Chapter 4 see previous rants 🙂
    Chapter 5 was actually really interesting – we meet Eureka, get confused about set-sets, get some interesting interactions in the bash, more of Bridger – I desperately wish Palmer’d kept more focus in the story.
    I assumed that Emma Platz was a character from an obscure children’s book I just hadn’t heard of, but google gives me no useful clues. Platz=square=Masons? It doesn’t come up again so it doesn’t seem to mean anything, but everything in this book means something….


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