Wednesday, May 30, 2012

If You Were a Big Springsteen Fan 37 Years Ago...

...and Born to Run came out when you were 14 living in a small town and dreaming about driving, and now you live in a big city and tonight you were out driving about an hour before twilight and it was just a little warm outside and you had the windows down and you turned on the radio and "Born to Run" was about halfway through on the oldies station -- it may have made you want to drive faster.

If you're anything like me, anyway.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Russell on the Origins of Philosophy

Bertrand Russell's Wisdom of the Westis a very, very cool book. In part because Russell is a very, very cool writer, and also because editor Paul Foulkes, designer Edward Wright and artist John Piper provide it with lots and lots of groovy pictures, one or more on every single page. As Peter Sloterdijkclearly knows, wide-ranging surveys of philosophical topics can be greatly jazzed-up with groovy illustrations.

So, I love Russell's book. I'm going to criticize it a little bit, but there's not a single book I've read which I wouldn't criticize in some way, which I could not imagine being even better. This one and some ones by Saul Bellow and William Gaddis and William Gass come close. You know what? Gass' On Being Blue,you can count that as being perfect in my book, as one I wouldn't change in any way.

So, there's one single book I've read which I consider perfect.

Okay, there's Gravity's Rainbow.And JR.Who am I, am I gonna improve one of those? No.

Okay, so there are lots of books I wouldn't know how to improve. Handke's Wiederholung.Bernhard's Ja.Voltaire's Candide.-- but wait, the latter, although so gloriously and specifically what it is and hugely popular for a reason, is entirely unfair to Leibniz.

I'm getting dizzy and this is going nowhere. Back to Russell.

p. 10: "Philosophy begins when someone asks a general question, and so does science. The first people to evince this kind of curiosity were the Greeks. Philosophy and science, as we know them, are Greek inventions."

Sorry Bertie, but I simply can't accept that sweeping statement. The earliest people who, to our knowledge, wrote down the names of philosophers and associated certain names with certain ideas and insights and experiments, were Greeks. But the earliest Greek philosophers of whom we know, we don't have any of their writings, in some cases we don't actually know whether they could write, we know of them, the pre-Socratics, only through the descriptions of later writers. All the earliest writings about their work fill one volumenot much bigger than Wisdom of the West -- with no space taken up by illustrations, admittedly, but on the other hand much space taken up by translation from Greek into German. We don't even know Socrates through anything he wrote, if he ever wrote anything. And back to the pre-Socratics, we don't know whether there were once written descriptions of still earlier philosophers, or actual writings by earlier philosophers, we don't know whether such writings still actually exist, waiting patiently for archaeologists or archivists to dig them up or find them in palimpsest, and we for damn sure don't that Greeks were the first to philosophize. This whole topic is defined by mountainous heaps of we don't know surrounding our little pebbles of knowledge, and yet you think you know for certain that science and philosophy were Greek inventions, that they sprang full-formed from Greece like Athena from the brow of Zeus? There was nothing like it previously, nothing, in Egypt or Mesopotamia or among the Hittites or Chinese or Indians or in the Western Hemisphere or Africa or among the caves of Bronze-Age Europe or anywhere out on the steppes or in the Himalayas? We know this? Bertie. It simply won't do, old bean. It's so unlike you to claim something like this with no reason. One of the reasons I like you so much is that you hardly ever do something like this. We don't know.

Friday, May 25, 2012

It's Not Just the Right

It's not just the religious right who are into revisionism. Some believers who are "moderate" or even progressive in their politics -- for example, some of the people who are associated with the Templeton Foundation and write about religion for the Huffington post -- are pushing some real whoppers about the history of Christianity. For example, they will say with a straight face that fundamentalism, Biblical literalism and the conflict between Christianity and free scientific inquiry are all aberrations from the main traditions of Christianity, and are all no more than a century or two old.

Like most believers, they seem to be ruled by the urge to make over the prominent figures in their religion in their own image. So, for example, an Episcopalian supporter of Elizabeth Warren might try to tell you, in effect, that the notion that there are significant differences between the worldviews of Jesus, Thomas Aquinas and a 21st-century Episcopalian supporter of Elizabeth Warren is, he he he, absurd! If you counter with some points about things like the destruction of pagan temples, the feudal system or the Inquisition, they won't listen to you very closely, and brush you off with some cow-flop about how you don't understand things like "nuance" or "context" or some other theological buzzwords which mean, basically, "La la la I can't hear you! La la la..."

I'm an Elizabeth Warren supporter too, but some of the things some of my political allies believe are scarily out of touch with a rudimentary knowledge of world history. Yes, these people are helping to fight the theocrats, and that's a very good thing, but still, shudder.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Don't Be a Sisyphus!

What Is the Chief Political Concern of the Bible?

"The following respondents are all heavyweights who live and work at the top of their fields in biblical studies, theology and Christian ethics."

LOL. Heavyweights in theology... (There are no heavyweights in theology. Only pinheads. And a lot of people have known it for a very long time.)

Nobody asked me, but I'll answer the question. The bible was compiled from texts written over a period of a thousand years or more, and naturally reflects a great variety of different concerns of authors writing in a great variety of political circumstances. Asking what is the chief concern of the whole thing represents a refusal to employ logic and break free from the superstitious conception that the entire bible is a unified message from an all-wise Supreme Being, to break free from the ridiculous idea that all the answers anyone will ever need are contained in those 1,000 pages or so, depending on the size of the page and the type. It's just a book. There are many good books, not one Good Book. The answer is: stop looking for the answer to Everything in there. (And if some of my fellow atheists would stop treating the Bible as if it were the vilest thing ever written and the root of all evil, that'd be equally nice, and for startlingly similar reasons.)

I sort of broke a rule of mine by responding to this question, by treating a theological question of this type as if it were worthy or response. (I partly made up for breaking my rule by using terms like "pinheads" and "ridiculous.") Any sensible person can reach the conclusions I reached above without my help, and anyone not able to reach such conclusions is either actually mentally retarded or is not looking for rational discourse, but actively avoiding it. And how many equally-ridiculous theological questions have been posed to the public in the few minutes it took me to answer this one? Answering their questions one by one is not a viable strategy, besides the fact that it's dreary hard work. Don't be a Sisyphus! Instead, you could read about Sisyphus in Ovid's Metamorphoses.Or in the Platonic dialogue Sisyphus.Except that that's actually a pseudo-Platonic dialogue. You could read about that.

I don't want to discourage you from reading the Bible, if you find it interesting. Well -- unless you're one of the people who's actually able to take a question like What is the the chief political concern of the Bible? seriously. In which case I think it's urgent that you put down the Bible, and the Bible commentaries and other theological works, and read about Sisyphus for a change. Or about Don Quijote.Or go to a death metal concert. Or just out to a bar. Anything.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Chess With Soul

An NBA basketball player, I believe it was Bobby Jones, who played for the Nuggets and the Sixers in the 70's and 80's, once said that pro basketball was like "chess with soul."

Well, eff that cracker! I'll tell you what's like chess with soul: good chess. I'll tell you something I hate: the end of an NBA basketball game with a close score, because of the many many fouls and timeouts causing it to draaaaaaaag. If it was up to me, when there was 5 minutes or less left on the clock there would be no more timeouts allowed and every foul would be a technical. Then we'd see some exciting down-to-the-wire fast-moving basketball action. Obviously, and unfortunately, it's not up to me at the moment, and so that leaves us with chess.

What? What's that? you ask. Fast-moving action, in chess?

That's right, Chester. Because most serious chess played today is blitz chess, with each side given a total of 3 to 10 minutes or so to make all their moves. You move, your clock stops winding down and your opponent's clock starts winding down, until he or she moves and his or her clock stops winding down and yours starts again. What's that? You say you need a time out to think things over? No! No! No timeouts! No breaks! No mercy! There might be 15 moves a side in the last 10 seconds, each side with 5 seconds and moving 3 times a second. That's not unheard of. That's way too fast for any commentator to tell you anything about what's going on while it's going on. The moves are recorded, you can study what happened afterward. While it's going on it's just a question of whether your brain can move fast enough to let your eyes see what's happening.

But hey. Blitz isn't even the fastest chess. There's lightning chess, with, say for instance, 1 minute per side. An average game might be about 40 moves per side long, that gives you an average of one and a half seconds to think about each move. If you get yourself into an effed-up position and you think about one move for, say, 5 seconds, that will seriously eat up your clock.

It's insane.

You can watch. You can watch right now. Go here and, if you don't want to play, if you just want to watch, enter "help observe" and dig it.

You're welcome for blowing your mind.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Self-Stimming vs "Acting Normal"

As long as I can remember, I've had a strong urge to do certain things when I'm tense. For example: rock back and forth, flap my hands, clutch my head with both hands, and make all sorts of vocal noises ranging from moaning to screeching. It relieves a lot of the tension. At some point before I was full-grown, I don't remember exactly when, I noticed that other people seemed to consider this behavior weird, and so I stopped doing it unless I was alone. I kept doing it, I just would always go off by myself first, away from everybody else, including my siblings and parents. On rare occasions the need to rock or screech or flap, or what have you, was so powerful that I would run off in the middle of a class or a date or away from a workplace. If I was asked later why I ran off, I would lie, saying it was a bathroom emergency or a sudden attack of nausea or something like that.

Then a few years ago I found out that I'm autistic, and that all of those behaviors are very typical for autistics who are wound up. Collectively they're referred to as self-stimmimg.

I don't try to hide the fact that I'm autistic -- actually, I'm diagnosed as an Asperger, but it seems to me, and apparently to a growing number of professionals in the field, that Asperger's and high-functioning autism are one and the same -- but I still generally don't do the self-stimming behaviors in front of other people. More than generally. The only exception I can think of at the moment, when I deliberately let someone see and hear the whole thing, without holding back, has been with a psychotherapist who specializes in treating autistic adults.

But I'm wondering whether I should bother to try to hide this anymore. I thought about it a lot yesterday. It was a long difficult day, and late in the day I was in a crowded public place and I felt an urgent need to rock or screech or something. Actually I couldn't stop myself from making a few unusual noises, and I clutched my head a little bit. But before I let loose completely with the self-stimmimg behavior, I got off by myself first, as usual.

If people see and hear me doing those things, they definitely will find it weird. There's no question about that. A couple of other questions occur to me, though: Does it matter if they find it weird? and: Do I already seem weird to them anyway, trying as hard as I can to "act normal"? Am I actually fooling anybody?

If a parent or caregiver of an autistic is reading this and has been wondering what to do about moaning, rocking, whooping, spinning, screeching, head-clutching, hand-rubbing and so forth, my advice is, one, let them do it, as long as it's not something that hurts them like banging their head against something hard, and two, try to find out what is stressing them, because they're doing all of those things because they're stressed. Oh, and three, don't worry if the behaviors don't stop altogether after you've addressed the sources of stress. A certain amount of it is normal even when everything is pretty much hunky-dory. Autistic, neurologically-typical or none of the above, nobody has a totally stress-free life.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Don't Play Their Game

A reader whose handle is Anri inspired this post. Commenting on this blog post by Deacon Duncan at Free Thought Blogs, Anri described the typical response of a Christian apologist who'd been driven into a logical corner thusly:

“You atheists are just being Rude! And Nasty! And Militant! And you’re going to hell and I’ll pray for you and god loves you and shut up, that’s why!”

Very nicely done, Anri! But the thing is, apart from the tone, from the point of view of content, that pretty well sums up all Christian theology. The blustering directness comes when Christian theologians feel their arguments being threatened, but that is the whole substance of their arguments. Or should I say the whole lack of substance. Except for that produced during those long periods when atheism was so effectively suppressed that the theologians could act as if it didn't exist. Then the theology was either simpler still, or, as the case might be, depending on geography, some other term for the Other was substituted for "atheists," such as "Saracens" or "natives."

Of course, no one is better at making verbal stone soup than a theologian, whose job it is to take nonsense and dress it up, and since they've been doing it for thousands of years it should come as no surprise that they've gotten pretty good at it, and every year Christian theologians get millions of words out of “You [...] are just being rude! And nasty! And militant! And you’re going to Hell and I’ll pray for you and God loves you and shut up, that’s why!” That doesn't mean that we have to follow them into every absurd corner of their work in order to refute them. Indeed, if we do follow them around every turn of their labyrinths, I fear we may actually be aiding them in their work, which is taking a worldview which is simple, simplistic, primitive and crude as can be, and dressing it up and convincing people that it is complex and deep and subtle. Answering their detailed absurdities in detail may be showing too much courtesy to them and not enough respect to ourselves and to anyone else possessed of common sense.

Mark Twain said, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so." Or rather, he put those words into the mouth of a schoolboy, underscoring the point that this matter is simple. There are legitimate academic disciplines which are truly complex and difficult, such as physics and biology and history. And then, paralleling and aping the actual disciplines, is the pseudo-discipline of theology, the study of That Which is Not, where the practitioners not only can make things up as they go, they must. Where logic and consequence are not just expendable, they must be constantly fought. For over a thousand years in the West this pseudo-discipline, this anti-discipline was able to force all others to acknowledge it as the supreme discipline. Still today it is able to pose as a discipline.

But we don't have to co-operate. We don't have to pretend anymore that theology is a real academic discipline, as substantial as physics, let alone more substantial. It's never been more substantial than "Shut up, that's why!" and "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!" and we don't have to pretend any more that it's ever been any deeper than that.

PS, January 21, 2013: Whose game is this, really?

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Spy in the House of Hate

Anaïs Nin referred to herself as a spy in the house of love:she was caught up in a sexual revolution, but far from being its advocate, she found it all a bit silly.

I'm interested in archaeology, and so I find myself getting caught up in arguments between Jews, Muslims and many others who take one side or the other and draw political conclusions from archaeological finds, supporting contemporary hatreds with their interpretations of artifacts thousands of years old. Which I find more than a little bit silly. I'd like to just study the artifacts and learn. I wonder how many of the people weighing in on Tel Dan or Qumran or Khirbet Qeiyafa would have one thing to say about them if they didn't have any opinions about Middle Eastern politics today.

Romans stole huge chunks of Greek mythology, but as far as I know Italians and Greeks are not fighting over that today, nor are hateful blockheads the world over, purporting to support one side or the other, hurling political invective at each other mixed with superficial knowledge of finds at Paestum or Troy. Would that be different if Graeco-Roman religion were as alive today the world over as the Abrahamic religions? More to the point, of course, would a nice bookish fellow such as myself be able to discuss Tel Dan or Khirbet Qeiyafa without being interrupted by haters if the Abrahamic religions were as dead as the cults of Olympus? I just want to understand what happened thousands of years ago when I examine such things, not contribute to madness which is seething today.

Anyway, the nuts are doing a fine job of ruining a discussion of Khirbet Qeiyafa for me today. They don't eff things up when the topic is Oxyrhynchus.On the other hand, out here so far from academia where I live, the topic very rarely is Oxyrhynchus. I generally just study the papyri on my own. I hope it doesn't stay that way.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Change is Bad

Here are the titles of a few philological journals, periodicals dedicated to the study of ancient Greek and Latin literature: Philologus, Rheinisches Museum, Rivista di Filologia, Nordisk Tidsskrift for Filologi, Neue Jahrbuecher fuer Philologie, Bibliotheca Critica Nova, Wochenschrift fuer klassiche Philologie, Hermes, Classical Philology, Academy, Acta literaria societatis Rheno-Trajectinae, Eos, Hermathena, ΑΘΗΝΑ, Athenaeum, Jenaische Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung, Philologischer Anzeiger, Jahrbuecher fuer classiche Philologie, Museum, Jenaer Literaturzeitung, Archaeologische Zeiting, Jahrbuch des Vereins von Alterthumsfreunden im Rheinlande, Journal des Savans, The Journal of Philology, Literarisches Centralblatt fuer Deutschland, Revista des Estudios Clasicos, Opuscula Philologica des katholischen Philologenvereins, Commentationes Vindebonenses, Verhandlungen der Versammlungen deutscher Philologen und Schulmaenner, Serta Harteliana, Melanges Boissier, Melanges Emile Chatelain, Wiener Studien, Litterarische Analekten, Zeitschrift fuer die Alterthumswissenschaft, Berichte ueber die Verhandlungen der koeniglich-saechsichen Gesellschaft der wissenschaft zu Leipzig, Philologische Rundschau, Eranos, and Listy filologicke a paedagogicke. Regardless of what language the title of the periodical is in, German, Latin, English, Greek or sumpin else, as late as the late 19th century it was not unusual for some or all of the articles they contained to be written in Latin. Search for these titles in an academic library or on Google Books -- entering "full preview" on Google Books will lead you to results which are mostly pre-copyright -- and you can see for yourself that this is so. Sometime between then and now it became somewhere between very unusual and unheard-of for their articles not be written in a vernacular.

Why? Darn good question, if you ask me. Let's look at a more recent copy of a philological periodical, published in 1989: Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, supplementary vol. no. 15: Studies in Latin literature and its tradition: In honour of C.O. Brink.Here we find 10 articles about ancient Latin, 8 written in English and one each in French and German. And looking at the footnotes to these articles, we also find references to further journal articles and books written in English, French, German, and Italian.

All of these articles are about works of Latin. They all quote these works extensively, usually without bothering to translate anything, assuming the reader is fluent in Latin. On the rare occasions when they do translate it's when they're speculating about various possible readings. ("Tradition" in the title of this volume refers to the process by which the text has come down to us from manuscript to manuscript, with the earliest manuscripts having long since gone AWOL. The constant concern of the authors is to trace this process as exactly as possible and to attempt to reconstruct the text as closely as possible to what the ancient author originally wrote.) So why don't they just write in Latin? (Maybe they're trying to make things harder and weed out the less-brillioant would-be Classical scholars by insisting that they all are fluent in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and preferably at least a couple more modern languages as well as the ancient ones. I would salute this deliberate weeding-out, but I don't think that's what we have here.)

What the euphemism happened here? Why doesn't anybody want to write volumes like this anymore, a commentary to Valerius Maximus, longer than the surviving work of Valerius, and it ain't short, all in Latin?Why is it so rare that a Classics professor could leave behind enough writing in Latin to fill a 500+-page volume like this one?120 years ago it wasn't odd for volumes of new writing in Latin to appear, and they weren't all written on the subject of philology, either, but also in history, geography, botany, chemistry, math and other useful topics, and not always in the form of collections of shorter works in journals. 50 years ago only the Catholic Church still produced whole volumes of new Latin. But Vatican II put the kibosh on that. Now it doesn't happen.

So you're sitting there reading this and you're saying, Hey, Steve, how about you stop bitching about this and write a book in Latin yourself? Fight the good fight and show us all the way, and stuff like that? Well, I'm working on it, okay? But I only starting studying Latin intensively after I turned 40, and unfortunately for all of us I'm not freakishly gifted linguistically like Steven Runciman. So it could take a while.

[PS, 16. July 2016: while researching this post, I discovered that the Rheinisches Museum, a philological journal, was still publishing original articles written in Latin in the late 20th century. One of several indications that Latin is, in fact, still not dead.]

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Why Am I Telling You All This?

"The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire." Like most cliches, this one is incorrect and catchy. "Holy" -- each and every Holy Roman Emperor for a period of nearly 700 years, from Charlemagne through Frederick III, was crowned by the Pope, and many of them afterwards. "Roman" -- see "Holy." "Empire" -- it was mostly German, true, but also contained many bits and pieces of other nationalities, different bits and pieces at different times.

Not all Holy Roman Emperors were German. By the way, when I refer to the Holy Roman Empire I mean the political entity which began in the year 800 with the coronation of Charlemagne. Those who insist the the Holy Roman Empire only began with the coronation of Otto I in 962 are stupid and wrong and should be mocked and shunned. Seriously, folks, it's the same empire from Charlemagne all the way to Francis II (1792-1806). The Guideschi dynasty were Italian, and consisted of Guy, Emperor from 891 to 894, and his son Lambert, co-Emperor from 892 to 894 and sole Emperor until 898. Then there was Louis III, the Blind, from Provence, Emperor from 901 to 905. You know what? Scratch that, they were all German. Even Guy, Lambert and Louis III, the Blind, were all descended from Charlemagne one way or another. Some people, Germans mostly, insist for some reason that Charles V was not a German, but screw that. Charles was a Habsburg, and a Hapbsburg before there were Spanish Habsburgs. The first Spanish Habsburg king was Charles' son, Philip II, the one they say never laughed except when he received news of the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre, the one with the Armada. (I wonder whether Spaniards also think of him as creepy.)

If you're going to dispute the German-ness of Charles V you must also dispute that of Frederick II, Emperor from 1220 to 1250. Charles's extraction was as German as Frederick's, and Charles spent much more time in Germany, warring with Lutherans, than did Frederick. Frederick was raised in Rome under the care and tutelage of Popes and future Popes. He spoke German better than Charles did, but no better than he spoke Italian, French, Latin, Greek and Arabic, yes, kiddies, Frederick was fluent in six languages. It's no surprise that his enemies called him the Antichrist.

Where was I? Who cares about all of this? When I tell you that there was 61-year gap between Emperors after Frederick's death in 1250, during which time there were seven Kings of Rome, including an Englishman, Richard of Cornwall, and at the same time a Spaniard, King Alfonso X of Castile, each of these two disputing the other's Roman kingship -- a King of Rome was elected by seven Electors, and then either eventually crowned Emperor by the Pope, or not -- yes, it's somewhat complicated if you're not used to it, I guess -- all seven of them lacking only the Papal coronation in order to become Emperor, why would you care? Or a 39-year gap between Emperor Berenger's death and the coronation of Emperor Otto I? Or a 44-year gap between the death of Charles IV in 1378 and the coronation of his son Sigismund in 1433? And if you were to ask me, hey Steve, how come such long gaps? I wouldn't really know for sure. Two possible contributing factors upon which I would speculate are the difficulty of Medieval travel, actually not inconsiderable and having to do with war and plague besides mere technological and logistical considerations, and, perhaps much more the crux of the biscuit, the reluctance of Popes to perform the crowning until sufficient favors were done by the elected King in return. But I don't really know. But I do know, and perhaps you didn't, that both Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France attempted to gain the Imperial crown in competition with the eventual Emperor Charles V. (You wanna talk about Charles V not being German?!)