Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Saturday, September 25, 2010

How Art May Save Us From Ourselves

Who was that stand-up comic who finished his set saying "Less killing! More art! Less killing! More art!" ? I wish I could remember your name, Dude, I'd give you props. That was a nice finish. I thought of that finish as I saw some old-master paintings on EWTV. (Yeah, that's right, I watch Eternal Word TV sometimes, you got a problem with that? No? Good!) I generally find EWTV pretty dismal and depressing. But the art -- that epitomizes what I came there for. And I wondered, Does it epitomize Catholicism for a lot of Catholics? And I thought, Would it help ease tensions between Muslims and Christians if they knew more about each others' art? And I thought, How could it help but ease tensions? Art is the expression of the deepest within us, it goes way past little things like fear and hatred and distinctions of religion. Here is a Western European painting from around 1300:



Here's a tile from Iran from around the same time:



So what were they fighting about? (OMG they still are aren't they? Maniacs! Murderers!) The amazing part is that even back then not all of them were fighting. You had to be a rebel to be a Western European back than and not display enmity to Islam, but it could be done.

(The Europeans were penning those big wild African elephants behind chain-link gates, chain-link as high as a wild African elephant. And as if that weren't bad enough, they were painting chevrons onto the elephants foreheads! Red-white-and-blue chevrons! But then a young slender earnest beautiful woman among them, who looked like Liv Tyler or Jessica Biel, as slender and earnest as that, struggled past their objections with the help of a young earnest Western man, risking trampling they threw the tall gates back open! And then it thundered and rained as they hugged like Edward Norton and Liv Tyler in The Incredible Hulk. Yes, as earnestly in love and as beautifully soaked with rain as that.)



It's very hard to kill someone with a painting. Paintings are very unwieldy weapons. That's just one of the nice things about them.



Hate tends to generalize: "They all blablabla..." "All of them! All of them want to yibbity yibbity yibbity..." Art draws you back into the present. You look, you really look. At the specific.



And just possibly when you look up from the pretty picture, or you're released from the spell of the organ music and incense or the chanting, you'll also really see that person, the one you're convinced is gonna GIT ya! here, now, as he or she is, and leave some of that frightened "All of them...!" ranting behind. Charging out on your stallion to slay Saracens is one thing; killing Salim, who has a shy and deep affection for the neighbors' daughter and wants to learn to paint, he's not very good yet but he's taking lessons and trying very hard, is quite another. We kill randomly, forgetting that everyone dies very specifically. We love specifically. We spare people and other creatures specifically. None of this is new, I know, I know...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

My Indoctrinations in Myth

I suppose the first myths to which I was exposed must have been the Christianones my family heard and read about every week at Sunday school and church services, and occasionally on a Wednesday as well, and sometimes on still other days of the week, for example during Holy Week, from Palm Sunday to Easter, the myths of God and Jesus and Satan, of angels and Adam and Eve and Noah and Abraham and Isaac and Moses. I believed what I heard in church for a while, and as far as I can tell, my mother and father still do. Our church's version of things was correct, of course, and so I started to notice early that there were other Christians who were getting a lot of things wrong. For example, they referred to the fruit which Eve ate in the Garden of Eden at Satan's urging, the one that got her and Adam banished from Paradise, as an apple. Clearly, though, the Bible did not specify what type of fruit it was. In our church we knew nobody knew what kind of fruit it was. We speculated that it might have been a pomegranate.

More serious than this, but symptomatic of the same sort of error, the same inattention to the Bible, which was not unambiguous about these and many other matters, was that fact that many Christians served in the military. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Jesus clearly taught that Christians were supposed to be pacifists. The men in our church were conscientious objectors. One of my uncles, one of my Dad's brothers, had broken with the family and with the church and joined the Navy. We were all quite shocked by this. We still loved him, of course, but what he had done was very strange. We seldom saw him any more; we were in the Midwest and after his Navy hitch he had settled in California.

But it wasn't only people outside of our denomination who didn't seem to always be paying attention. I remember once there was a business meeting of the church, all and sundry welcome to attend, where the issue of buying a new organ was debated. The earnest little pain in the ass that I was, I stood up in this meeting and angrily lectured everybody for even considering such a thing, because in the Bible Jesus clearly said to give everything to the poor and follow him, and last I checked there were still poor people in the world. Quite an angry ten-year-old, I was that afternoon. Nobody contradicted me at the business meeting. But they still bought that new organ.

As a child the only mythologies to which I was exposed in-depth were Christianty and the American mythology which featured tales such as overcoming the dangers of Indiansand the treacherous English,of George Washingtonchopping down that cherry tree, for some reason, and then refusing to lie about it, and then, for some reason, throwing a dollar across the Potomac River. When I was eight or ten my family went to Washington, DC and environs for vacation, and we saw the spot where George, as a teenager or very young man, had allegedly thrown that dollar. The river looked very wide at that spot to me. Too wide by far, in my young judgement, for anybody to have thrown a coin across it. I think it was there and then, on the bank of the Potomac, that I began to wonder if I had been lied to about certain events in our nation's history.

I wasn't reading ancient Latin and Greek as a first grader like Steven Runciamn.However, about the time I started kindergarten or a little before, I was a faithful watcher of a TV show about Hercules. I remember very little about the show: Hercules was a big muscleman who vanquished all and sundry, and if I remember correctly, part of the theme song went something like this: "Hercules!/DadadaDaaa-da-da-da, Hercules!/With the strength of ten/Ordinary men/Hercules!" For many years after that, as I began hear and there to learn little snippets of Graeco-Roman pagan mythology, Hercules remained the character on the TV show who ten times as strong as normal, and I was quite surprised to learn of his connections with Zeus/Jupiter and the Oracle of Delphi and that whole bunch.

My interest in Classical literature didn't become very pronounced until after I was full-grown. In my early adolescence, after I had stopped believing in Christianity, the closest thing I had to a religion was rock 'n roll, as expounded bu such rock 'n roll theologians as Dave Marsh, Greil Marcusand Robert Christgau.It was very important to refer to it as "rock 'n roll" and not "rock," which might refer to this or that wimpy heresy. In retrospect it all seems very silly and embarrassing. Especially Marsh. Bruce Springsteen definitely replaced Jesus in my mind for a while. Not only did I buy Springsteen's records and go to his concerts, I also bought Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story,the biography written by Dave Marsh, and read it very carefully several times. Yes. When I was starting to read Pynchonand Gaddis,I was also reading Marsh.

The interest in Marsh gradually passed, and, to a lesser degree, the interest in Springsteen, as punk rock and new wave became more interesting. My interest in Bob Dylan, with quasi-religious beliefs in the revelatory qualities of his work, was more tenacious. There was a biography of Bobas there had been a biography of Bruce.

The aforementioned growing interest in Classical mythology is not of a part with these other interests of mine, in that I do not believe in the Olympians. Never have I thought that Hermes or Athena was going to solve some problem for me.

I cannot claim that my political interests have remained equally free of such superstition. For some reason, before he took office as POTUS I thought Barack Obamawas a reforming firebrand who was going to be as forceful in his us of the Presidential office as Theodore Rooseveltor his cousin Franklin Delano,and not the cautious centrist he clearly is. (Not that I'm one of the those leftists who regrets voting for Obama, who wishes he had instead wasted his vote on someone like Nader and helped the Republicans stay in power. What are those guys thinking? Anyhoo --)

Come to think of it, my image of the Roosevelts may also be significantly colored by the same Messianic longing.

The literal belief in salvation through Jesus Christ vanished from my mind long before I was full-grown, but it seems that mental habits associated with that belief, learned along with that belief, have persisted, and continued to cloud my perception of reality. What were Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie really talking about in that NYC hospital room, shortly before Woody died and Bob got his first record contract? Was it all business and image? Was "Dylan" Woody's idea? Was that Newsweek cover story about Bruce in the fall of '75 right all along? Was FDR's wheelchair a prop? Did Teddy intentionally throw the Presidency to Wilson? Did Hercules have pec implants? Did Hermes take the subway like that woman who cheated in the Boston Marathon? Am I nothing but one continual lifelong chump?

Friday, September 17, 2010

This comment was removed in accordance with HuffPost's moderation guidelines, Part 2

Here it is, the entire comment, cut and pasted:

“Hard to make my case when the moderation removes my responses.”

I wonder if they'll post a link to this. This is getting to be pretty funny, to me at least. I hope someone else is enjoying it.

PS: And now (an hour or so later) the response to which I was referring is back on HuffPost. If anybody from said moderation is reading this: on the slim chance you guys ever get your shit together, please let me know just what exactly those guidelines are. That'd be great.

PPS: It continues. This morning (Saturday morning, September 18) Coats -- we're discussing, or rather, Coats is discussing, and I was trying to discuss, this silly piece by John R Coats on HuffPo. I think I'm done trying now -- continued the exchange: "You want me to defend what somebody else said/wrote?" to which I retorted, “You wrote: 'Beneath the glare of uber-left-brain logic, the stories and myths that had carried the larger truths about being human in an overwhelming, frightening, awe-filled universe were declared to be nonsense' Whether or not you defend it is your business, but if you keep removing my responses, at some point I'm just going to take my toys and go home.” My retort was promptly removed.

The Rapture and Revisionism

"So, what's real about the Rapture?" asks John R Coats in a Huffington Post blog. "Its roots are in the nineteenth-century rebellion against Modernity with its scientific rationalism. Beneath the glare of uber-left-brain logic, the stories and myths that had carried the larger truths about being human in an overwhelming, frightening, awe-filled universe were declared to be nonsense -- which is nonsense"

"Larger truths" ? Huh.

"and begged an equal and opposite reaction, which came in the declaration that the Bible was literally true -- every word."

To hear people like Coats tell it, things like Biblical literalism, and the conflict between religion and science, are mere recent misunderstandings.

I just don't buy it. In this particular case of the story of the Rapture as it is popularly known today, the details have been changed around a little, but it's not as if the various mentions in the Bible of the rise of the righteous into heaven are less far-fetched than the Left Behind thrillers.

It seems quite clear to me that Coats and his fellow "modern theologians" -- I put it in quotation marks because it seems as oxymoronic to me as "jumbo shrimp" or "living dead" -- are trying to convince themselves and their readers that early and medieval Christians were just like themselves, and that all these fanatics and fundamentalists running around causing so much trouble today are a recent aberration having little to do with the main history and substance of Christianity, which mostly consists of people who loved and appreciated things like science and would laugh and shake their heads at anyone who would take Bible passages as literal truth. If you ask them to back up this last part they point to Augustine of Hippo, who wrote a long, long thesis on the non-literal nature of the stories in Genesis. Typically, in the course of these arguments they do not mention that Augustine wrote no such thing regarding the other several dozen books of the Bible, and they do not mention things like the many people killed by the Inquisition, or the many Catholics killed for being Catholic by Protestants, or people killed for being witches by both Catholics and Protestants, or the huge massacres of Jews, Muslims and furrin-looking eastern Christians during the Crusades, or the often quite systematic destructions of civilizations in the Americas and Africa and Asia, destroyed because they were not sufficiently Christian, or any other of the long list of well-known horrors which fill the history of Christianity -- or if any such horrors are mentioned they are downplayed, and it is insisted that they, too, were aberrations.

Let's get back to those "larger truths" supposedly contained in those Bible stories, which were supposedly understood all along to be myths -- what are they? I hear so much about them yet I actually find them nowhere, like a disheartened medieval explorer searching all of Asia for Prester John.

Coats is attempting to make a huge mountain of reasonable, even wise, "modern" Christianity out of the molehill of his perception that a few Bible passages were modified -- slightly -- to come up with the story of the Rapture. The Left Behind authors aren't the only Christians telling tall tales these days.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Who Believed the Earth Was Flat and When Did They Believe It?

Responding to Matt J Rossano's latest silliness on Huffington Post, reader Keith Roragen notes that Isidore of Seville (born ca. 560, died 636) described the Earth as a disc, and adds: "Isadore's flat Earth model persisted, at least, into the late 15th century." I have no idea where he's getting the part about Isidore's description of the Earth persisting into the 15th century. At least. I'm quite skeptical about that.

Isidore (AD 560 – 636) wasn't the only medieval Christian who wrote on the subject of the shape of the Earth. Boethius (c. 480 – 524) (possibly not actually a Christian) described it as a sphere. So did the venerable Bede (c.672 – 735) in a treatise on time which circulated widely among the Western monasteries.

And it's not universally agreed that Isidore was talking about a disc and not a sphere. It's also controversial whether Augustine was referring to a sphere or to a disc in his writings.

Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) says that everyone agreed that the Earth was a sphere, but that it was not entirely clear whether it was a perfect sphere, or something more like the shape of a pine cone.

A few of the pre-Christian Graeco-Romans argued that the Earth was flat, perhaps most prominent among them Lucretius (early 1st century BC), beloved among atheists for remarks like "Fear is the mother of all the gods." Christian writers who argued that the Earth is flat include Lactantius (245–325), St. Athanasius (c.293–373), Diodorus of Tarsus (d. 394), Severian, Bishop of Gabala (d. 408), St.John Chrysostom (344–408) and Cosmas Indicopleustes (6th century). So perhaps the general statement could be made that Christianity set science back several centuries on this topic.

The Christian Basil of Caesarea (AD 329–379) was of the opinion that the question of the shape of the Earth was not theologically important.

It must be added, of course, that with all of the writers mentioned above we are talking about educated people, leading intellectual lights of their times, and that when it comes to the masses, especially the overwhelmingly illiterate masses in the medieval Christian West, it is very hard to tell what they believed.

Wot Thuh Eff?!

Why was this comment removed? The only explanation I can conceive is that some moderator has taken a special personal dislike to me, and removes some of my comments as soon as he or she sees that I am their author, without bothering to read them very carefully first. Yeah, I think I'll just post all of my comments here first from now on, then cut-and-paste into the HuffPo readers' comments.

I'm responding to This Huffington Post article about language "mistakes" :

“This obsession with spelling rules is only a couple hundred years old.

"Thiss ubseshun wth speling rools iz onnleeuh uh kuppel hunndrid yeers oldd.

"'Or how about a word that really gets under your skin when mangled or mixed-up?'

"Wot gits unnder mah skinn izz thuh unnderlai-ing uhssumpchun thut langwuj rools r evur more thn sumwuns arrbatrairee pursunul uhpinnion.”

I Should Just Post Here First --

-- then copy-and-paste in the HuffPo readers' comments section and see if it gets through.

I'm having to partially reconstruct this comment, which was removed by Huffington Post's moderation. I can click on "My Activity" at HuffPo and see the beginning of longer posts, but not the whole thing. If there's a way to retrieve entire longer comments removed by the moderation, I haven't found it yet.

I'm replying to How the Myth of the Flat-Earth Dogma Started the Religion-Science War by Matt J Rossano:

“Rossano is right that it is a myth that many people thought that the Earth was flat by Columbus' time. The Church did not propagate a flat-Earth model in the middle ages -- apart from a few isolated individuals here and there, and mostly very early on in the history of Christianity. But to jump from that observation to the thesis that the historical error of an official flat-Earth Christian dogma created a conflict between science and religion, which had previously been in harmony, is staggeringly absurd."

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

This One Is Up On HuffPo, But I'm Posting It Here In Case It Disappears Later

Reader MrBwood wrote -- once more, in response to John Shook:

"How does this guy type this without laughing?"

And I responded:

"I see two possibilities:

"1) He's a believer

"2) He is laughing -- all the way to the bank, figuring that a book about a "debate between atheists and the faithful" will sell well."

If this disappears later, it would tend to support my thesis that seeing through authors' cynical motivations vis-a-vis their readers gets comments deleted.

I'm Posting This One Here Whether HuffPo Posts It or Not

Again, responding to Dr John Shook's recent contribution to Huffington Post:

"'Mystery now seems like a theologian's safest refuge'

"Or maybe the only safe one. And maybe not just now, and not just recently.

"The author distills arguments for God into 5 categories: theology from scripture, from the world, from beyond the world, in the know, and into the myst[ic], and then comments:

"'Strident atheism is mostly uninterested and unprepared for this broad theological landscape.'

"I don't think you have to be strident or unsophisticated or shallow to regard this 'broad landscape' as five different kinds of rather obvious nonsense. I myself am fascinated by the history and development of religions, but I don't think everyone has to be fascinated by such things, any more than I would accuse someone of being deficient in his or her intellectual citizenship if he or she did not have a deep knowledge of recent theoretical math. You don't need detailed, specialized knowledge to perceive that religion is outmoded superstition, or that math continues to advance the human condition.

"And there's no need to debate with religious people as if they were making sense, as the author seems to insist that there is. In fact, there are good reasons not to become entangled in such debates, not to pretend that such debates take place on an even playing field. Nietzsche knew that over 130 years ago. See Morgenröte,aphorism 95."

By the way, this is the 100th Wrong Monkey blog post. Thank you, thank you. Yes, thank you all very much. You're too kind. Please, take your seats. Thank you, thank you. This is embarrassing. I promised myself I wouldn't cry.

PS: HuffPo posted this one. Go figure. Maybe the other moderator went to lunch. (Maybe this comment will disappear from HuffPo when he or she gets back from lunch. Comments often do disappear after having been up for a while.) Maybe the problem with the previous comment was that it was all too perceptive about publishing and marketing, and this one lacks any such direct critique of Dr Shook's way of making a living.

Maybe it is vain to seek any sort of sense or pattern in Huffington Post's moderation of their readers' comments.

Greek -- Eek!

For a while now I've felt a need to learn Greek. Ancient Attic Greek, mostly, but Homeric Greek, too, and other ancient varieties. I've been reading things written in Latin, and Latin seems to pull one strongly in the direction of Greek. The culture and mythology of ancient Rome borrowed very heavily from those of Greece. Classical scholars go into raptures about how beautiful Greek is. One of them, I wish I could track the quote down, once said that Latin should be taught to all children, and Greek saved as a special treat for the brightest ones.

So these and related inducements to learn Greek have been building up for a while. But recently the urge has become a significant step stronger, because I read Sein Und Zeitby Martin Heidegger, and although I am quite bewildered by the book, I am also quite fascinated, and Heidegger says that there are things to be learned from the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers on the question of being, a question, Heidegger says, which has been neglected since the pre-Socratics. Hermann Diehls collected a volume of the primary materials by and about the pre-Socratics.Some wrote little or not at all themselves, and most of what they did write has been lost, but still, the fragments of their writings and the oldest descriptions of their writings fill up Diehls' fairly large book, a recent edition of which, I gather, is still regarded by some as the definitive one.

So I've been looking at Diehls' book, and it is so tantalizing, because, you know, I can't read Greek. I'm not even sure what one particular lower-case letter is. I think it's theta, and that German-speaking Classical scholars write lower-case theta differently than English-speaking Classical scholars, but I'm not completely sure about that yet, although it has been preoccupying me for a couple of days.

I've been learning languages on my own for the past couple of decades -- Spanish, Italian, Latin, now dipping my toe into Greek -- after having learned German and French in college. Spanish, Italian and French are all related to Latin, and German is related to English, so that helps with learning. Greek belongs neither to the Romance not the Germanic sub-family of the Indo-European languages, although it is Indo-European, and hence not so completely foreign to one such as me as Finnish or Japanese would be. Still, I'm almost 50 years old, which is an unusual age to be learning a new language, and the thought of it makes me tired. Also, if I continue learning autodidactically, I continue to have the problems of autodidactic learning. I don't really know how fluent I am in Latin. No one is giving me grades, there are no other students around me with whom I can compare myself, I have no one to speak or hear the language with. Learning a new language is very, very difficult for almost all people, most certainly including me. There are a few linguistic geniuses who can pick up a new langugage as quickly as Mozart learned to play an instrument. Not me. But alongside the difficulty there is a delicious fascination in linguistic study for me, and this fascination and pleasure grows ever stronger.

I don't know if I'll ever get very far with Greek. I do know I'll be spending some time on it in the immediate future. And there are classes available for such things, if I ever decide to supplement my self-teaching method. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Heraclitus, Aristotle... Hesiod, Homer... And of course, the farther back one goes in Greek history, the larger do loom Egypt and Mesopotamia, and the lost languages of the Hittites, for example, and let's not forget the lost Etruscan language, someone has to decipher that, too, it's not going to decipher itself is it? And so forth, endlessly. Eek, he cried weakly, but with a smile on his tired old face.

I Can't Believe They Removed This Comment, But Then Again, Obviously, I Can -- I Anticipated It This Time

I've cut-and-pasted this comment ahead of time, just to be sure, in case it's removed by the Huffington Post moderation: In response to this article by John Shook:

"Dr Shook, do people write books about the dumbest, loudest, shrillest scientists, or the laziest athletes? No, not very many, anyway, and that's a good thing. Your article doesn't particularly tempt me to buy your book. I can hear the loud shrill people just fine without your help, because they're loud, and shrill. I'd like to hear more about the brightest people. But that's just me.

"In your article you seem to be matching the best theology has to offer against the worst atheism has to offer... Yeah, okay, I guess that's a pretty fair fight. And I suppose that positing a great and evenly-matched intellectual debate may be better, from the marketing perspective of a publisher, than rolling up one's sleeves and taking a position oneself."

Huh! How about that, it was, in fact, removed by the moderation. I don't think they're being very moderate. (And that's not just me.) I don't know whether I want to keep on fooling with them if they're going to be this way. Maybe I should just post everything here to begin with, eliminate the middleman.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

This comment was removed in accordance with HuffPost's moderation guidelines

In what follows I'm quoting from and commenting on this article by Ian Gurvitz, about the pastor who's announced that his church will burn Korans. I'm reconstructing it here because the Huffington Post moderation won't let you read it there. Actually, the post which didn't make it past the moderation was toned down a bit compared to the following.

"The world is stuck in this cesspool of stupidity when it comes to religion"

We agree on that. Where we part company is your insistence that we can keep religion and still rid ourselves somehow of the stupidity. To me, one is part and parcel of the other. Getting the stupid out of religion is like getting the piss out of a swimming pool or the porn out of the Internet.

"Religion, in its purest form, is a system of rites, rituals, and practices that can lead one to a deeper experience of life."

I consider that to be a particularly persistent albeit unfounded rumor. We atheists aren't rendered shallow by our atheism, and you others aren't rendered deep by your oog-booga. I just ain't buyin it, Dudemeister.

"It is there to encourage our better natures, not foment our baser instincts."

It is a residue of our more primitive nature, of our stone age selves. Religion boils down to fear of ghosts and spirits and other nonexistent things. Fear of our own dreams.

"And while it may be too much to expect the entire world to crawl out of the intellectual dark ages in its understanding of religion, how about decent, intelligent people of all religious or intellectual persuasions, including those in the media, making a commitment, as a means of worldwide counter protest, to come together on this sad anniversary and simply ignore this asshole?"

And you think you're somehow leading the way in this enlightened effort to ignore him by publishing an article with his name in the title? Comically spectacular fail.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Martin Heidegger's Sein und Zeit

I was arguing with someone in the HuffPo readers' comments about Sam Harris,who seems to be the English-speaking world's third-most prominent spokesman for atheism currently, behind Richard Dawkinsand Christopher Hitchens.Dawkins is someone I can proudly call a spokesman of a movement to which I belong, even if I don't choose to call that movement "New Atheism." (PS, 23. September 2015: I really should have read some of Dawkins' writing on religion before I wrote that. I had read some of his work on biology and mistakenly assumed that his work on religion must be just as good. Dawkins really should stick to biology; on the subject on religion he's a dingbat just like Hitch and Harris and all the other New Atheists.) (I just call it atheism. No biggie, but the "New" part seems somewhat silly to me.) (PS, 23. September 2015: I now call THEM New Atheists, and am attempting to show that they by no means represent all atheists.) I have referred to Hitchins as a dingbat, and a drunken dingbat, and similar things, but Lordy -- so to speak -- he's so much more impressive than this guy Harris. Harris is on a kick now about something he calls the moral landscape. Which is just utilitarianism. Which was new in the mid-19th century when John Stuart Millwas presenting it for the first time. New, but unimpressive. Easily batted aside several decades later by Nietzsche'sanalysis of morality, or more accurately, of moralities. Nietzsche pointed out that morality is always a subjective thing, and that was pretty much that for utilitarianism. Or so a sensible person could've been forgiven for supposing. But Lordy -- so to speak -- look at Harris go!

I was arguing with someone about Harris. A couple of others were, too, but, it seemed, fewer than with Harris' previous HuffPo article. Perhaps they found it futile quicker than I. Perhaps they are wiser than I. I really should stop this squabbling on the Internet -- I just get all dirty, and the pigs have all of the fun. I and a couple of others were pleading: read Nietzsche. Read Schopenhauer. Read Sartre.This ground has been covered, and much better than Harris is doing it. At one point, as I gradually gave up on the squabble, someone called Schopenhauer an obscurantist. Schopenhauer?! If anyone at all in the Western canon tells it like it smells, it is Arthur Schopenhauer. He is a model of clarity and frankness. I was about to respond in this vein when it occurred to me that it would be far more enjoyable to read some Schopenhauer than to argue with this person about him. So I did. I have the five-volume Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft edition,st w 661 through 665. A German friend of mine, like me not an academic, but like me someone who reads widely and with great involvement things which are probably mostly read by academics, became very upset when he heard that I had this edition. In his opinion it is a very bad edition. I don't know what he's talking about, but I mention his opinion because I respect it.

Someone else who was arguing in my anti-Harris vein pleaded with HuffPo's readers to read Heidegger. It had been a long time since I'd attempted to read Heidegger, but I decided to finally buy my own copy of Sein Und Zeit.Sein und Zeit is considered to be Martin Heidegger's masterpiece, his Hauptwerk, his chef d'ouvre. A recent poll of philosophers as to the most significant works of philosophy published in the twentieth century placed Sein und Zeit second, sandwiched between works of Ludwig Wittgensteinat first and third. I had tried years ago to read this and several others of Heidegger's works, but quickly gave up, utterly bewildered.

This time, to my surprise, I was only a little bewildered, and seemed to understand some of what Heidegger was saying. It probably helps that my Greek is now weak, as opposed to non-existent back then. Also, in the meantime I had read some Adorno,putting the German-reading part of my brain through some serious calisthenics.

I am enjoying reading Heidegger. This is something I really thought I might never say. And I really very rarely say "never" when it comes to my ability to read anything. Anything.

I wrote down the name of every author mentioned by Heidegger in Sein und Zeit. There are several dozen of them. He included the first initals of some authors who in the meantime -- Sein und Zeit was first published in 1927 -- have become famous enough that they are usually referred to just by their last names, as are Aristotle and Heidegger. For instance, Heidegger made repeated reference to W. Dilthey and K. Jaspers, who these days are usually referred to as Diltheyand Jaspers.On the other hand, Heidegger referred to a scholastic, Suarez, and his work, the disputationes metaphysicae, and I had to look this Suarez up in order to learn that Francisco Suárez was meant, who lived from 1548 to 1617, and that during Suárez' time scholasticism experienced a resurgence. Yikes! I had had no idea.

Most often named are Platoand Aristotle.Named, and quoted in Greek, quotations which Heidegger does not always translate. Heidegger says the question of the nature of being has essentially been dropped since classical Greece. That the concept of being is at once the most universal and the most mysterious. That's within the first couple of pages. I can't tell you much more right now. My mind is reeling, but in a rather pleasant way.

Heidegger was involved with the Nazis. But it seems pretty clear that he saw his relationship to the Nazis as similar to a lion tamer's to his lions, that he did not believe in them or their ideals, but was trying to manipulate them, as opposed to simply emigrating or surrendering his academic post to a party member.

Pretty clear. Not absolutely crystal-clear. After World War II Hannah Arendtspoke up for him, but Karl Jaspers spoke against him. Paul Celanmet with him. I don't have a last word here.

Newton, Leibniz, Wolff, Mathematics, Leibniz' Reputation and Epistemology

I often think about epistemological subjects: What do we know? What can we know? Why do we think we know what we think we know? In particular, I wonder why some people seem so sure that they know the thoughts, feelings and motivations of others, without believing in telepathy, the notion of which I also reject, pending much stronger evidence than anything I've seen so far. I think about this when I hear about jury verdicts being overturned by things like DNA evidence. I think about it when I hear scientists talking about Newtonhaving invented calculus, and rarely mentioning Leibniz,who claimed that he had invented calculus independently of Newton. During his lifetime and since, this claim of Leibniz' has often been called a lie.

In this earlier Wrong Monkey post, as I waited for this volume of letters between Leibniz and Wolffto arrive from Amazon, I speculated on Christian von Wolff'spossible role in the decline of Latin as an academic vernacular. When the book arrived and I read its introduction by C.I. Gerhardt, it became plain that Gerhardt blamed Wolff for damaging Leibniz' reputation. Indeed, it seems Gerhardt may have gathered these particular letters and published this book for no other reason than to expose Wolff's bad behavior and rehabilitate Leibniz' reputation -- his unjustly tarnished reputation, in Gerhardt's opinion. It is Gerhardt's thesis that Wolff, early in his academic career, was weak in mathematics, too weak to justify the academic positions in mathematics and philosophy which he occupied, and that he basically used Leibniz during this period as an unpaid math tutor, and that after Leibniz' death he claimed many of Leibniz' mathematical achievements as his own and downplayed the help he had received from Leibniz. Gerhardt maintains that this misrepresentation of the facts not only helped Wolff acquire and hold academic posts for which he was gravely underqualified, but that it also gave ammunition to those who maintained that Newton alone had invented calculus and that Leibniz had been lying when he claimed otherwise. Gerhardt maintains that the letters between Wolff and Leibniz which he presents on this volume clearly demonstrate all of this.

Do they? I don't know, in large part because my knowledge of math is not extensive enough to allow me to follow all of the math contained in the letters written in Latin bewteen Wolff and Leibniz and collected in Gerhardt's book. My knowledge of math would've been nowhere near cutting-edge 300 years ago when those letters were new, much less is it cutting-edge now, when all these world-class mathematicians and physicists seem quite dismissive of any notion that anyone but Newton had any part in inventing calculus. Then again, those physicists and mathematicians have almost all been American or British. I haven't heard any present-day German experts weigh in on the Newton-Leibniz controversy. And Gerhardt, who published his volume in 1860 with a thesis of Leibniz having been wronged, by Wolff and also by those who praised Newton at his expense, was German. National sentiments were and are widespread, pervasive and often subtle, much more widespread than the obvious hatreds of extremists fringes. And Newton seems to me to have been the sort apt to fight a bitter feud with or without significant cause, like the one he fought against Leibniz until Leibniz died in 1716, and Leibniz seems like the sort who would not feud without cause, who would be reluctant to fight even with cause, and who would cheerfully admit it when and if some laurels had been bestowed upon him which he had not earned.

But how on Earth do I think I know so much about Newton's and Leibniz' personalities and motivations and about their respective characters? Could it not well be that I am predisposed to like Leibniz and dislike Newton because of some other things each of them wrote which have nothing to do with calculus, so that in this quarrel I am judging Newton too harshly and Leibniz too well? Could it not well be that I too am much too hasty to think that I know this or that? that for instance I am completely unjustified in claiming that national sentiment may have tipped the scales in favor of Newton in the judgment of all those expert mathematicians and physicists?

It could be. Of course I still think I'm right and that I am unusually free of prejudice and unusually attuned to the prejudices of others. But I know I haven't proven anything of the sort. I don't think this essay will change many minds about Newton or Leibniz, or Wolff, or Gerhardt, or math in general. But perhaps it will persuade some readers to ponder more often the nature of things like knowledge and certainty. I think that would be a good thing, although I don't think I can prove that either.