Wednesday, December 31, 2014

More On Mythicism And My "Open Letter"

I'm a mythicist: I'm not at all sure whether or not Jesus ever existed.

It has occurred to me that maybe I should've said that at the very beginning of the one post on this blog which has garnered more attention, positive and negative and not a lot in between, than any other: An Open Letter To Michael Paulkovich And Free Inquiry. Maybe I'll edit that post and say it at the beginning, why not. Because many if not most of the people who've responded to that post, in comments on this blog and elsewhere, seem to assume that I take the more popular historicist position: that there certainly was a man named Jesus who came from Nazareth and was crucified by Pilate and inspired the stories in the Gospels.

Why would they assume this? Because I didn't mention my position on Jesus' historicity -- unsure: and anything less than sure he existed is classified as mythicist -- until the very end of the post. And, okay, people don't read everything all the way to the end. An author who puts great care into every word he writes would like to believe that readers hang on every one of those words, but obviously, it ain't always so. That's life in the big city.

Another reason that readers would begin to read that post of mine, which is harshly, sarcastically, angrily, entirely unfairly hostile to a recent publication of the mythicist Michael Paulkovich, and immediately assume they were reading the work of an historicist, is that there is a prominent and active group of mythicists, most of whom do not criticize one another's work. At all. I was by no means the only one who published a strongly negative review of Paulkovich's article, but I may well have been the one and only mythicist who did so. One of the reasons I feel no solidarity with this group is this remarkable lack of criticism of each other.

Another reason is that a lot of their work very badly needs criticism. Paulkovich's article is a particularly extreme example of poorly-done mythicist work. So poor that it angered me, and continues to anger me, that Free Inquiry published it, and that they haven't yet apologized for having published it.

Just today I saw that one of the better-known mythicists -- I don't feel like naming him or linking his blog. -- linked An Open Letter To Michael Paulkovich And Free Inquiry in a blog post of his giving a comprehensive list of mythicists. My name does not appear in that blog post, just the cryptic note at the end of an entry on Paulkovich: "see also Open Letter," with a link.

I don't know whether that mythicist knows that I'm a mythicist. He mentions me from time to time in a manner suggesting either that he does not know it, or that despite knowing it, he feels that I am the enemy because I've been critical of mythicists. Jesus Lord from Above -- as a boss of mine once startlingly shouted, during one of the very few times that very mild-mannered fellow lost his patience -- how is any field of inquiry supposed to progress if the work done in that field is never criticized?! What on Earth is free about that sort of inquiry?!

There's an entirely unrelated post on my blog from some time ago entitled "An Open Letter To Amanda Guterman," in which I plead against further PC restrictions on speech, which has been getting a lot of pageviews lately, and I'm pretty sure that's because people have been searching for "open letter" and found it when they were looking for the Paulkovich letter instead. I feel that the open letter is only my 2nd-best post about Paulkovich's article, after the much more in-depth 126 Writers Who, According To Michael Paulkovich, Should Have Mentioned Jesus If Jesus Existed, but that, too, is life in the big city.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Willingness To Consider That You May Be Wrong --

-- what could be more essential for a philosopher, if a philosopher truly is a lover of wisdom? If you never admit that you may be wrong, you'll never know more than you do now, you'll just know less and less as you forget stuff.

And yet this willingness seems so often to be lacking among those who consider themselves to be philosophers. Look at them debating: Philosopher1 asserts: A. Philosopher2 says: no, you're wrong, B. Philosopher1 retorts: B!? You're obviously unfamiliar with Philosopher3's work on this topic, you dolt! Educate yourself before you dare to darken my door! Philosopher3 pops up and says: You're both idiots! C!

And this unfortunate behavior occurs not only when questions of a deep and universal nature are being discussed, questions which an objective onlooking Philosopher4, if such could be found, might well consider to be unanswered or possibly even unanswerable. Philosophers can be found behaving this way concerning questions of a much more mundane nature such as "Was Philosopher5 an atheist?"

You might be thinking to yourself: "How could you fuck up a question as mundane as that? All you have to do is examine the statements of Philosopher5, and conclude from them that Philosopher5 was either a believer, or an atheist, or an agnostic, or that he (Let's face it: to the greater glory of neither philosophy nor the male gender, most philosophers have been and continue to be male.) changed his position on this matter from time to time, or that the evidence is insufficient to answer the question."

That's a perfectly sensible thing to think, but if you're thinking that, you may be far too sensible to be a philosopher, or at least, to be a run-of-the-mill philosopher. For, unfortunate and illogical as it seems, Philosophers1, 2, 3 & 4 may actually leave the late and highly-esteemed Philosopher5 out of the discussion entirely, and instead quote Philosophers6, 7, 8 & 9 on the matter as if they know things about Philosopher5 which Philosopher5 himself did not.

Looking at them bickering, you might get the impression that neither Philosopher1 nor 2, 3 or 4 actually cares about Philosopher5 as much as winning a game whose rules are petty, shameful and never openly acknowledged and whose stakes have to do much less with wisdom than with tenure and who gets which office or the front-cover headline in JournalX. And sadly, your impression might be entirely correct. (You might think that I'm exaggerating things -- but only if you've never had very much contact with philosophers.)

Not that so much as a Bachelor's degree is required in order to engage in this sort of a travesty of non-debate. All that is essential is an unwillingness to admit the possibility of error, instead of, when you say A and someone responds: B, asking that person for his or her evidence for B, and actually being glad if in the course of the discussion you learn something. If you're that kind of person, and you're also a philosopher, it may just be that you have a big leg up on other philosophers, and it may even be that you're the kind of philosopher who, long after you're dead, other philosophers may pretend to be arguing about, when they're actually bickering over disgusting things which have nothing to do with you, and dragging your good name down to their revolting level.

And Now For No Reason A Video Of A Kitten And A Mirror

No need to turn off your audio, this one lacks the cheesy soundtrack you so often get with cute baby animal videos.

Monday, December 29, 2014

People's Stupidity Makes Me Strong

I'm copying "Your hatred makes me strong!" which Conan O'Brian used to exclaim during his monologues when a joke got a negative reaction.

Well, stupidity makes me angry, and anger seems to make me blog, so hello again. I just heard on TV, on the soundtrack of a commercial for an upcoming program about Hitler's army in Russia:

"Whoever heard of an army being stopped by WEATHER?!"

Seriously? And this wasn't even one of the so-called "History Channels," where such a doofus clueless remark would be about par for the course, it was the Smmithsonian Channel, which usually does somewhat better.

Whoever heard of an army being stopped by weather? Oh, only anybody who knew anything at all about armies, or anything at all about Russia. Napoleon, anyone? Hannibal in the Alps ring a bell?

SHEESH! How does anything ever get done?

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Problems With Mythicism

Seriousness -- it's what's for dinner.

First of all, calling it mythicism is a problem, because it's not applied only to those who argue that Jesus' existence is a myth, but also to EVERYone else who has ANY doubts at ALL about Jesus' existence. Those who take the position that it's certain that Jesus existed are called historicists, and that's perfectly appropriate. it describes the group well, they argue that Jesus is an historical figure, that he really lived. An appropriate use of the term "mythicist" would apply it only to those few zanies, like David Fitzgerlad and Michael Paulkovich, who insist that Jesus never existed except as a mythical being.

All the rest of us, who aren't completely sure one way or the other, are called mythicists. I'd rather not call myself a mythicist, because I'm not saying that it's certain that Jesus is mythical, and even more so because most of the most prominent mythicists, that is to say: most of the most prominent people known for writing about Jesus who aren't sure that there was an actual Jesus from Nazareth upon whom the stories of the gospels are based -- most of those people are pretty silly. R Joseph Hoffmann isn't silly at all, except for his poetry, which is just teeth-grindingly awful, as visitors to his blog know. But other than the ill-advised flights into verse, Hoffmann is a formidable scholar with a keen mind. And he's also a mythicist: he's not completely sure that Jesus existed. But, a small slip in his seriousness, he insists that he is not a mythicist, just as he insists that he is not an atheist although he he doesn't believe that God exists.

I think I understand Dr Hoffmann's reasons for these evasions: he doesn't want to be associated with mythicists like Carrier and Price, and he doesn't want to be associated with atheists like Dawkins and Harris.

I don't want to be associated with any of those bozos either. But the fact is that I am an atheist and a mythicist according to the definitions given above, which is how the terms are used, and terms are defined by usage just like they always have been. I'm an atheist and a mythicist and so is Dr Hoffmann.

And there may well be other mythicists among the ranks of academic Biblical scholars and Christian theologians who've hidden it better than Dr Hoffmann. But that's purely speculation on my part. The only mythicist I know who is tenured in one of the "relevant fields," who wears the label proudly, is Richard Price. Price thinks maybe Jesus existed, and maybe not, just like the great majority of us mythicists do, until we come up with a less unfortunate label for those of us who aren't sure.

Unlike Hoffmann and like most mythicists who write about Jesus, Price, despite his tenure, is a dingbat. G A Wells has tenure, but in German literature, not in one of the "relevant fields." He's written quite seriously in the mythicist vein, but seems to have retired from writing. Richard Carrier has a PhD in ancient history from Columbia, but hasn't been hired by a university since receiving his doctorate in 2008. Surely, with a PhD from Columbia, he could get some academic post somewhere if he wanted to. Nevertheless, he's a dingbat. Like Price, a dingbat with some competence in ancient languages.

Then there's Thomas L Thompson, professor emeritus of the University of Copenhagen, on public record as not convinced that Jesus existed and therefore a mythicist, emphasizing mythical elements of the story of Jesus much more strongly than your average tenured Biblical scholar, but apparently almost fully unaware of most of the mythicists, because he apparently reads nothing but primary texts and peer-reviewed work, aaaaannnd --

-- most of the mythicists are rank amateurs, and I mean that both in the technical sense of their having no academic credentials, and also in the more personally insulting sense of their not knowing what the Hell they're talking about.

And then there's me. Well, I'm a rather unusual case, but we knew that.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, seriousness is on the menu here, and being serious when examining an historical question which can be answered "yes," "no" or "I don't know," such as: "Did people reach the Americas by crossing the Pacific Ocean tens of thousands of years before the land crossings from Siberia to Alaska?" or "Did the Phoenicians develop the first alphabet?" or "Did Jesus exist?" means evaluating all attempts to answer that question fairly, and not attacking an attempt because someone answers the question differently you do, or supporting anyone and everyone who answers the question the same way you do.

And this is one area where the prominent mythicists flunk right straight out. Let's examine the cases of Bart Ehrman and Michael Paulkovich. Up until a couple of years ago Ehrman was very popular among the mythicists, and why wouldn't he be, he writes brilliantly, concisely and authoritatively about early Christianity in a way which has overturned many traditional assumptions about the subject. But he has held on firmly to that one assumption, the assumption that a real, non-supernatural person, Jesus of Nazareth, was the inspiration and basis for the stories of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Then, apparently, all at once he became aware that there was this group of mostly non-academics, the mythicists, who had been writing for some time expressing doubts about Jesus' existence, and even in a few extreme cases insisting that Jesus had been purely mythical right from the start, and very often citing him, Ehrman, to make their cases. Ehrman was horrified, and hastily, and, I suspect, in a rather agitated state, he dashed off the book Did Jesus Exist?, which, as I've said before on this blog, would've been much more accurately entitled with the last 3 words in the book: Jesus Certainly Existed -- and which in any case had much more to do with today's mythicists, than with Jesus.

I, of course, was not mentioned in Ehrman's book, because I'm nobody. But even I felt a little bit personally hurt by it. But I said that Ehrman seemed to have been upset when he wrote it, and that it wasn't his finest work, and that he was human, and I was just about done. (And since the book was published I've become more familiar with the work of some of the zanier mythicists addressed in it, and although I still do not share Ehrman's certainty about Jesus' existence, the book seems a little less unfair to me now.)

Other mythicists' reactions were -- well: apeshit. Ehrman became topic #1 and Public Enemy #1 in mythicist circles. Any and every ridiculously tiny suspected error in his book was treated as if it were the Nagasaki bombing. Carrier and Anchyra S went on and on about a representation of a bird in the Vatican and how Ehrman's account of Acharya S' description of it exposed him to be a fraud, somehow. I never was able to follow those accusation, although I must admit I tended to fall asleep in the middle of trying to read them. Price and Carrier and Acharya S responded to Did Jesus Exist with, besides numerous blog posts, an entire book of their own:

(Acharya S' chapter is devoted to that bird in the Vatican. Wow.)

Just as Ehrman had written Did Jesus Exist? in response to learning how many mythicists are writing these days, so too in the midst of the shitstorm which Did Jesus Exist? caused, he created a blog which primarily dealt, for the first several months, with the negative responses of those mythicists to that one book of his.

So, that's the case of Ehrman and the mythicists. Now let's look at Michael Paulkovich and his fellow mythicists. Paulkovich is one of those rare cases among those who've (self-?)published a book, who still would be called a mythicist if the world were different like I and R Joseph Hoffmann wish it were, and the term "mythicist" were applied only to those who insist that Jesus was never man, but a myth from the start. And as regular readers of my blog know, one of the things he uses to support this position is a stupifyingly unserious list of 126 names of people Paulkovich says were historians (maybe 10 of them could be called historians), whose work he claims to have studied (47 of them have no surviving written work for anyone to study), who should have mentioned Jesus if Jesus had existed (in their works on medicine or architecture, or their re-telling of Greek myths, or their love-poetry).

And this was published in Free Inquiry, which is as close to the flagship publication of New Atheism as anything there is.

Price edited a book attacking a pre-eminent Biblical scholar for being a little rough on him and other mythicists, Carrier contributed to it. Paulkovich published an article in Free Inquiry which, if he had submitted it as a term in a Biblical Studies 101 course Price was teaching, it would have been Price's duty to give it a failing grade, and what has Price said about it being published so prestigeously? Nothing. Carrier has said nothing. There has been no great uproar from the mythicists about Free Inquiry's obvious lack of standards or concern for the accuracy of the writing they publish.

This is an example of what makes mythicists a joke: a leading Biblical scholar gets a little rough with them and they go berserk; a leading New Atheist publication publishes nonsense which would make Giorgio Tsoukalos blush, and there's barely a shrug from them. No seriousness in sight here: Ehrman disagrees with them on that one yes/no question, and they are outraged and write about little else for months, calling him liar and a charlatan, and then for good measure publish a book bashing him a little more; and an actual charlatan, Michael Paulkovich, publishes nonsense with which they should be ashamed lest anyone think they supported it, and that's fine, because he says Jesus never existed. Get that one answer right, nevermind how you get there, and, it seems, you're cool with Price, Carrier & co.

But to me that's like the atheists who assume you're bright if you're an atheist and stupid if you believe in God. I agree with them that God doesn't exist, but I don't see atheism as much of an intellectual accomplishment. There are so many ways you can get there besides being smart: your parents, or a charismatic friend, may be atheistic; maybe your parents are believers and you're angry at them; or you're angry at an abusive priest or nun, or at a government allied with religion, etc. Conversely, to me belief in God makes no sense, but I don't know of any intelligent person who doesn't have at least one topic upon which they cease to be rational.

So: Ehrman is still cool with me, although I disagree with him on that one question, and I dislike that one book he wrote. Hoffmann is still cool with me despite the poetry and the denial that certain words mean what they mean.

But Price and Carrier and anyone else who can accept Paulkovich (not that he's the only mythicist who's that silly) as one of their own just because they and he (and I) happen to agree on that one question (although we don't actually even all agree on that. Paulkovich is sure Jesus never existed), and who can just shrug away the fact that he publishes stupifying nonsense in supposed support of his answer to that one question -- no, sorry, I can't be on their team.

I have standards. For all I know, Price, on the other hand, might've given that term paper an A.

Friday, December 26, 2014

A Disturbing New Discovery About The Story Of Jason & The Argonauts

I'll cover this more or less chronologically, filling in the background info about Jason & the Argonauts for the lay members of my audience, which means that the disturbing new discovery will come last.

Jason is a figure of Greek mythology from the Heroic Age. Stories began to be told about him probably before 800 BC -- told, not written, because by 800 BC written Greek had not yet become very widespread or sophisticated -- and possibly before 1200 BC or even earlier, we don't know, this is semi-prehistoric Greece we're talking about.

In the 5th century BC Jason appears as the husband of the title figure of Euripides' Medea in a marriage which ends rather badly:

In the 3rd century BC comes the first known written version of the full story of Jason & the Argonauts, written by Apollonius of Rhodes. When Jason is a small boy, his parents, a king and queen at war to save their kingdom, send him away, because the war is going very badly and they want to save his life. When he's a young man Jason comes back to claim the kingdom which is rightfully his, and though he is dressed like a beggar and an eccentric one at that, a goddess warns the usurper to get rid of him, so the usurper sez, Hey, I hear that golden fleece in a faraway land is pretty cool. I wonder if an adventurous young hero could go and steal it? And the fleece has great powers and bla bla bla, but all of that is pretty much just an excuse for the journey of the Argo, Jason's ship, and he even eventually actually does steal the golden fleece, with the help of the aforementioned Medea, daughter of the man Jason steals the fleece from. Yeah, Jason and Medea's relationship was kinda messed up right from the start: first thing he did when he met her was turn her against her father, with whom she hadn't been having problems til then.

Jason's ship is called Argo, which, as Alan Arkin memorably explained in the movie Argo,

means "Arr, go fuck yourself!" But it's also named Argo after the guy who built it, Argus. There's also a monster in Greek mythology with many eyes who's called Argus -- he's sometimes called "the thousand-eyed Argus" -- and Odysseus' faithful dog was also named Argus, but this guy who built the ship was a different Argus. And he was also an Argonaut, because Jason and all the other guys who set sail on the Argo were the Argonauts, and they were all heroes, and the most famous hero among them was Hercules, and no, this Hercules wasn't one of several different Herculeses, he was the one and only Hercules, great big and full of muscles, the accomplisher of mighty Labours. And the story of the Argonauts sailing on their way toward the golden fleece is the really interesting part of the story because the Argonauts met and fought all sorts of cool monsters and gods and were like, totally heroic.

In the first century AD, Valerous Flaccus wrote a Latin version of the story of Jason & the Argonauts, based on Apollonoius' version to be sure, but more than just a translation. Flaccus gave his own flavor to the story.

There have been quite a few movie versions of Jason & the Argonauts. Like I said, it's a really cool story, with bitchin battles against huge cool monsters and statues a hundred feet tall that walk around and crush people and whatnot.

You may remember the Saturday-morning cartoon series from the 1960's, Hercules. I remember it well : "Hercules!/ Da-dada-daaa-da, da, da/ Hercules!/ With the strength of TENNNNN/ Or-dinary MENNNNN/ Hercules!" and so forth. Well, in one episode of that series Jason appeared, and he was voiced by none other than William Shatner.

And several overrated mediocre 20-century novels were written about Jason & the Argonauts, overrated because their authors had passed themselves off as experts in Classical literature.

And finally we come to this disturbing new discovery about the story. Brace yourselves. If you've got to go to the bathroom, trust me, go first, before you read any further. Remove all small children from hearing distance of your anguished wails. Ladies, clutch them pearls: the renowned expert in ancient history and literature Michael Paulkovich has studied Valerius Falccus' version of the tale, written some time AFTER AD 70 and perhaps as late as AD 90 or even later -- Paulkovich has carefully studied this work, and determined that no-where in it is there one single reference to Jesus of Nazareth!

Well. I don't think I have to tell you that the field of New Testament studies is reeling, that Christianity itself has been badly shaken, and that mythicism has a new hero -- our own shining Argofuckyourselfnaut, as it were -- of whom we call all be very proud.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

It's Even Worse Than I Thought

Since I've criticized Free Inquiry so emphatically for publishing Michael Paulkovich's article "The Fable of the Christ," complete with his notorious list of 126 "historians" who according to him should've been expected to have left behind some written accounts of Jesus if Jesus had existed -- Most of the 126 weren't historians. Over 1/3 left no writing which has survived to our time. And 4 actually did mention Jesus and/or Christians. -- I thought it would only be fair to check and see if Free Inquiry had issued a retraction and/or apology for having published such extraordinarily fact-free prose posing as non-fiction on an historical topic.

It seems they haven't. On the contrary, they've moved Paulkovich's article to the non-subscription section of their website for the "edification" of a broader public.

But wait, there's more: I had simply assumed that this one article was a case of Free Inquiry having let one slip through the cracks. A case of them having been bamboozled by a bozo. Even the best of us is sometimes fooled by a fool. But the blurb at the bottom of Paulkovich's article describes him as "a frequent contributor to Free Inquiry."

Which means either that they don't check the blurbs any more carefully for falsehoods than the articles, or that he actually is a frequent contributor.

Which would make not just Paulkovich, but also Free Inquiry officially hopeless, a clown car of a train wreck of a travesty of a fucking brain-dead joke.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Things I Wish I Knew

For a while -- in retrospect it seems like it was a couple of years or more -- I wished I knew what Charlemagne's native language was. It's possible to read a lot of history about Charlemagne and his realm and his times without coming across any references to language at all. Because most of the people who're curious about Charlemagne aren't curious about languages. The actual historians who write accounts about those things have to have some familiarity with languages, plural, and mostly with Latin, because that was the predominant written language of Charlemagne's empire. During this time, the mid 80's, when I wanted to know, but didn't yet know, what Charlemagne's native language was, I didn't even know about Latin's predominance among the written languages of Western Europe during Charlemagne's reign (King of the Franks from 768 until his death in 814, Holy Roman Emperor from 800 on).

Anyway, eventually I stumbled over some reference to Charlemagne's native language. It was German. The Franks were a Germanic tribe. In fact, the beginnings of written German coincide with Charlemagne's reign, because the establishment of written German was one of the very many substantial things which happened because he ordered that it be so. After having stumbled over a reference to Charlemagne's native language somewhere in some book of history "aimed at a wider audience," as they say, I learned more about Charlemagne's relationship to the development of the German language in the course of getting a Bachelor's degree with a major in German.

If people were sensible like me, things like Charlemagne's native language would be common knowledge, and people professing to be interested in the Middle Ages would learn Latin instead of aping Renaissance English, and people full of the sort of facts I crave would be best-selling authors, as they should be, and Dan Brown and George W Bush would be janitors at best.

But instead it's this world, and people don't know what Charlemagne's native language is, why? Because they don't care. Perhaps in France many people go beyond not caring and actively don't want to know, because they prefer to think of Charlemagne as a Frenchman and the founder of France. It's easy to think that. For a long time "Frank" was synonymous, more or less, with "Frenchman," and I suppose that to many people it still more or less is. The Franks referred to very frequently in accounts of the Crusades did in fact come from France, and when they didn't speak Latin, they spoke French. And in English we know Charlemagne by his French name. People don't care about his native language. Very few of us care. In case you're one of those few and don't know yet: Charlemagne -- Carolus Magnus in most of the writing about him at the time, because most of that writing was in Latin, Karl der Grosse to Germans today, Charles the Great or Charlemagne to us -- couldn't read or write, although he made great efforts to learn late in life. Besides his native German, or Frankish, if you will, he could also speak Latin and Greek, and perhaps French and Arabic as well. His empire was large enough that he had much to do with native speakers of all of those languages.

As with the native language of Charlemagne 30 years ago, so today I'm interested in the language of the Lombards and Lombardy, and like 30 years ago, I'm not sure where to get the answers to my questions. Pretty much nobody knows, because pretty much nobody cares. I know that the Lombards were a Germanic tribe like the Franks and the Goths and the Vandals and others. I know that they had a kingdom in northern Italy from the late 6th century until Charlemagne absorbed that kingdom in the late 8th century. I know that the Germanic Lombard language was never recorded in any written documents except for occasional Lombard words in Latin texts, and those occasional Lombard words are all that scholars have had kin their attempts to learn that language. I know that at some point the Lombard language died out and was replaced, in the region of northern Italy still known today as Lombardy, by an Italian dialect.

I do not know how much, if at all, the Lombard Italian dialect has been influenced by the Germanic Lombard language.

I do not know how much of the population of Lombardy was ever the Germanic-speaking people. I do not know whether this Germanic-speaking people ever constituted a majority of the population of the area. In England, the Norman Conquest of 1066 was carried out by French-speaking people. For several centuries after the Norman Conquest, although almost all the writing made public in England was in Latin or French, the French-speaking ruling class was a minority among an English- (or Anglo-Saxon-) speaking majority. Eventually the ruling class adopted the English language. I have no idea what percentage this French-speaking minority was of all the people living in England. Was the Lombard kingdom similarly a Germanic-speaking people ruling an Italian-speaking minority? I don't know.

Some linguists of Italian and historians of the Dark Ages know such things, and soon, I will too. And nobody cares. And people don't know what they're missing, and life is funny that way.

I certainly hope that it goes without saying that if anybody reading this knows all this stuff I hope you'll tell me or at least refer me to some helpful books, and that if you do we'll be best buds forever, because that would mean that I'll know even sooner than I'd hoped I would.

Friday, December 19, 2014

THE WRONG MONKEY Is Now Certified 100% Barnacle-Free!

You know the feeling: you've come home from a long day of curating Belle Époque Austro-Hungarian watches at the local Museum of European Machinery. All you want to do is relax in front of the fireplace with your faithful Irish Setter at your side, contentedly wagging his tail, share a few bottles of Romanee-Conti Grand Cru with some good friends and discuss your favorite philosophical-historical blogs -- and one of the blogs is completely encrusted with barnacles! Chances are, by the time you get them all scraped off, your monkey will be too tired to discuss anything. (Am I right, ladies?) As Ödön von Horváth said,

"Der Himmel ist zart, die Erde blaß. Die Welt ist ein Aquarell mit dem Titel April."

And that's why, starting today, THE WRONG MONKEY is completely barnacle-free. Here at THE WRONG MONKEY we know how conscientiously you work for the timepiece-viewing public. Being able to relax in the certainty that from now on, at least one of your favorite philosophical-historical blogs will be barnacle-free all the time is our heartfelt thank-you to you.

Monday, December 8, 2014

How Should I Begin To Study Philosophy?

I'm so glad you asked!

If you want to do this right, you should become proficient in Greek, Latin, German and French at the least, because translations of philosophy into English generally suck. If you want to learn still more languages, it would do you no harm and a world of good. Italian, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Hebrew are all of great relevance to the study of Western philosophy, and heylookit that we haven't begun to address Eastern philosophy yet. Not that there is one homogenous Eastern philosophy corresponding to Western philosophy. Mandarin is relevant to Confucianism and Tao, and Sanskrit and Japanese to Hindu-Buddhism.

I don't really know squat about Eastern philosophy. Back in the West, once you've mastered Greek, Latin, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Hebrew, you may begin to keenly feel the lack of Portugese, Catalan, Provencal, Danish, Polish, Coptic and/or Armenian, to name just a very few. And the fact that I've so far mentioned Arabic, Hebrew, Coptic and Armenian only as they related to Western philosophy may have already led you to suspect it, but let me come right out and say it: I know significantly less than squat about Muslim/Arab/Middle Eastern philosophy. Although I may have a vastly greater idea of how much I don't know about it, how much is there unknown by me, than does the average Westerner.

But screw average! Philosophy doesn't have much to do with being average. Not Western philosophy, anyway. So screw the average person giving you advice about studying philosophy and telling you to start with Plato. That advice has cost the world an immeasurable amount of wisdom, because most of us hate Plato. (By "us" I mean "people," whether philosophers or not.) Start with almost anybody except Plato: the Pre-Socratics, or Aristotle, or Zeno, or Diogenes, or Epicurus. Or Machiavelli (Yeah! He'd be a GOOD one to start with!), or Hume, or Nietzsche. Just not Plato. Or Plotinus. Or Hegel.

If you're even the least bit inclined to start with Aquinas, or Augustine, or Barth, leave me alone and go and ask a theologian for advice, and if you want to call what you're studying philosophy, or even the greatest of Western philosophy, that's your own business, and many other theologians will agree with you. Mazel tov.

Okay. Now that we've gotten rid of THOSE jerks -- you're going to have to read Plato at some point if you're to become a great Western philosopher. There's no getting around it because all of the other great Western philosophers from his time to ours also had to deal with him, and if you don't read him you often won't know what they're talking about. Now, if you're unable to summon any enthusiasm for Epicurus or Machiavelli or Nietzsche, you should probably just face the fact that you're not going to become a philosopher. But don't be mad at me, because I saved you from having to study Plato -- and, you're fluent in 15 or more languages, and believe me, that's going to come in handy no matter where life takes you.

And I haven't said a word yet about the cultures of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere! Ah, many more languages here to be studied. Probably most of my readers are from the United States, and may not realize the extent to which the languages of the Aztecs and the Incas and the Mayans continue to flourish in Latin America, with several million native speakers each. The most widespread indigenous language in the US, Navajo, is spoken by fewer than 200,000 people. So you can study the more widespread languages because they're more widespread, or the less widespread languages because they need more support -- or both? Who's stopping you?

Not me! But what I actually know about has more to do with the European and Middle Eastern languages, and besides the ones I've mentioned above, you could learn Icelandic and Norwegian and Swedish, and Basque, and Finnish and Estonian and Hungarian, and Czech and Slovak and Slovenian and Serbian and Croatian and Bulgarian, and Gaelic and Welsh and Breton, and Albanian, and Lithuanian and Latvian, and Turkish, and Ukrainian and Belorussian and Macedonian, and Rumanian and Moldavian, and Kurdish, and Maltese. And Georgian! And I've left out a lot, not intentionally, but because the region between Greenland and the Caucasus is an incredibly rich linguistic quilt. And because translations really do suck, or at least especially most translations of philosophy into English. Being multilingual really will open up new worlds for you in a way which monolingual people simply can't imagine. Which means that monolingual native speakers of English are ironically at a disadvantage because of the power of our language, the same way that monolingual native speakers of French were at a disadvantage as late as a century ago when French held an international dominance similar to that held by English today, the same way that monolingual native speakers of Greek were at a disadvantage 2000 years ago in the Graeco-Roman world because everyone adored Greek culture and Greek was the dominant international language and the monolingual Greek-speakers despised Latin without even knowing anything about it, much as many Americans despise Spanish without having a clue about what they're missing, even with the Nobel Prize committee trying mightily to give them a clue by giving Lit prize after Lit prize to authors in Iberia and to the south of us.

Most (not all!) of the ancient Greek philosophers had little knowledge of languages other than Greek. This show us that progress has occurred in philosophy as in other things. Some people might tell you that I'm yankin' ya here, that the title of this post has promised you something I have failed to deliver. But those people are wrong. And the best advice they'll give you is something like urging you to read Will Durant. And that's not very good at all. If you want to have a chance at learning philosophy deeply, and even a chance at becoming a significant philosopher yourself, I'm the kind of guy you need to listen to. Listen up very carefully, kids, here comes the punchline, and it's a good one:

Look at ALL of the great modern Western philosophers: Machiavelli, Descartes, Bacon, Hobbes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Voltaire, Hume, Kant, Goethe, Schopenhauer, Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Shaw, Heidegger, Santayana, Russell, Sartre -- there is very, very little that all of them agree about. About the main tenets of their various philosophies they are often in the bitterest disagreement: you've got devout Christians alongside atheists, some far Left politically, some far Right, and some with a hearty contempt for both Left and Right. What do they all have in common?

They were all multilingual, that's what. Boom.

Friday, December 5, 2014

What Is Science, What Is Philosophy?

To all of you who are so obsessed with precisely determining what is and what isn't science, be aware that science is defined quite differently in different languages, and that the Latin word for "science," "scientia," was in use over 2000 years ago, long before Francis Bacon and Galileo were born, long before there was an English language. In German, the word for "Science," "Wissenscaft," is applied much more broadly than in English. Not only is history a Wissenschaft to ze Chermans -- they even have things like "Literaturwissenschaft," "the scientific study of literature," which sounds very silly even to me, and will presumably make your head explode if you're one of those English-speakers currently very much at pains to label as incorrect all definitions of "science" but the most narrow.

Is philosophy scientific, is science philosophical? Again, it's partly a matter of semantics. The term "φιλοσοφία (philosophia)" is even older than "scientia," and the ancient Greeks who were called philosophers in their day, from Thales to Pythagoras to Plato to Plotinus, we still call philosophers today -- which leads me to suspect that the present-day English-speakers squabbling about the definition of "science," and defining it very narrowly, don't know very much about those ancient Greeks, or they'd be disturbed that one of them who's always been referred to as a philosopher, Thales, acted very much like someone they'd call a scientist, using mathematical principles to determine things such as the height of Egyptian pyramids, the distance of ships seen from the shore, and the size and shape of the Earth. Then there's Pythagoras, whom these strict categorizers today call a mathematician, but in his time was known as a philosopher along with Thales and Plato. The present-day categorizers call Plato a philosopher, but how many have heard that Plato is believed to have put a sign at the entrance to his Academy which asked all those unfamiliar with geometry to go away? But wait, there's still more bad news for those would have clear and clean distinctions between one academic discipline (Did you notice where the term "academic" comes from?) and the next: Although Plato called geometry "γεωμετρία, geometria," it's not at all clear that he or his contemporaries restricted the use of the term anywhere nearly as English-speakers do today. If you break the word into its parts you see "geo" and "meter," "Earth" and "measurer." To the ancient Greeks this could have meant all sorts of things including the study of history and literature and art botany and all other things in categories as diverse as the Earth. Could have, and in the practical everyday use of the word, probably did.

And, finally, to really make the New Atheists swallow their gum: in Medieval universities, theology was often referred to as the "Queen of the sciences."

Except of course that New Atheists are not swallowing their gum: since I'm rambling on about stuff that happened a long time ago when everybody was ignorant, they're impatiently asking, as they impatiently ask whenever I point out that one of their own has said something wildly inaccurate on an historical subject, "So what?"

So Thales and Pythagoras and Euclid and Bacon and Galileo and Einstein and Heisenberg and many others (Many, many others. It's a long time from Euclid to Francis Bacon, and 1 person who knew that science didn't stop in the meantime, and wasn't waiting to be invented, by Francis or by Galileo, depending on which New Atheist yahoo you talk to, was Francis Bacon. I know this because I've read some Bacon and noticed all of the earlier scientists he mentions and praises. He knew he was building on their work, as opposed to having sprung fully-formed from the brow of Zeus.) did what they did while entirely un-plagued by this English-language mania, particularly virulent right now, to section science off from mathematics and and philosophy and history and linguistics and music and art all the other things which have gotten us out of the trees eating grubs and berries and trying in vain to fight off panthers with sticks and made life somewhat more bearable. Yes, science when extraordinarily narrowly defined has helped with that, too. Yes indeed it has, it's helped greatly. But Einstein didn't cordon himself off from the rest of the world. He played the violin, he loved the visual arts and philosophy. Galileo wrote a treatise on Dante. You think that's odd? His contemporaries would have found it odd if an Italian as learned as he had not done so. (Milton published some scientific works.) You want to talk about this supposed division between science and art -- can you say "Leonardo da Vinci"?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The New Atheists Are A Herd Of Turnips!

Yesterday I became embroiled in an online discussion about the New Atheists. I asserted that they constantly show a near-total lack of knowledge of topics which they nevertheless constantly discuss: historical topics having to do with religion. A rather bright person challenged this assertion of mine, and I quickly backed down and said that I should have said that New Atheists do this, not "constantly," but "occasionally."

Upon reflection, I think I was much too quick to back down from my claim that New Atheists "constantly" display an appalling lack of knowledge on historical topics which they nevertheless constantly discuss. Let me review some evidence (And before I do let me state to whom I'm referring when I say "New Atheists." I mean Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, other authors who treat religion similarly, and their fans):

In addition to his bronze age goat herders meme (By the way, Dick, it's "goatherds," not "goat herders." "Goatherds," just like "shepherds"), Dawkins recently tweeted that Trinity College in Cambridge had produced more Nobel Prize winners than "the entire Muslim world." He did not respond to the tidal wave of responses to his tweet which pointed out cultural bias in the awarding of Nobels and in others things. It was rather shocking that such an elephant in the room needed to be pointed out to someone like Dawkins, yet, here we are. We now know Richard a little better.

The subtitle of one of Hitchens' most popular book refers to how religion allegedly "ruins everything." Clutch your pearls, ladies, I'm about to make a very indelicate comparison: Hitchens' entirely indiscriminate and therefore entire senseless use of the term "everything" reminds me of its misuse by the Nazis: you may have seen photographs of Nazis carrying or hanging signs reading "Die Juden sind an allem schuld," which translates to "Everything is the Jews' fault."

There's the fearmongering Islamophobia which was spread by Hitchens and continues to be spread by Harris, Dawkins, PZ Myers and other New Atheists, which routinely refers to Islam as if it were a unified political and cultural unit. It's true that Islam strives to a unit, but Muslims have waged war against other Muslims without cease since not long after Muhammad's death. Islam has not formed anything remotely resembling one united political entity since the 7th century.

There's Harris' characterization of Islam, while being interviewed by Chris O'Donnell on MSNBC, as currently "going through its medieval stage," a conceit which, besides being as quaintly 19th-century as Harris' borrowing of Mills' utilitarianism, again refers to all of Islam, all 1 billion Muslims, as one entity at one stage of development, and implies that the crude aggression of ISIS is inherently characteristic of Islam, when it's as clear as can be that the vast majority of Muslims oppose such aggression, not to mention that almost all of the people currently fighting ISIS are themselves Muslims. Clearly, some things can never be clear enough to be clear to some people.

There's Victor Stenger's 2-word response to being informed that there were some drastic historical inaccuracies in one of his anti-religious tirades -- the same 2-word response often heard from fans of Dawkins when it's pointed out that the oldest parts of the Bible were written in the Iron Age, mostly or entirely by city dwellers, and that those of the Israelites who were rustic raised more sheep than goats: "So what?"

There's Free Inquiry, New Atheism' flagship publication, publishing Michael Paulkovich's utterly ahistorical assertion about 126 ancient authors who should've mentioned Jesus if he'd existed, but didn't. And not having issued a retraction.

A small portion of the above might be dismissed as something which occurs only occasionally, but all together, it shows a clear tendency, an inherent trait: New Atheists don't know Jack Q Shit about history, and they're determined to remain ignorant about it. They claim to be ushering in a new age of enlightenment, to be mounting a strong challenge to religion. They're doing neither. They're not the people to be representing atheists. They're not the intellectual descendants of Epicurus, Hume, Marx, Twain, Nietzsche and Russell. They are turnips, and intelligent atheists ought to join with others in mocking and deriding them.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

"God Is Dead!" (Nietzsche, Die froehliche Wissenschaft, #125)

The most famous quote by Nietzsche is probably either "God is dead" or "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger," the latter of which Nietzsche himself demonstrated to be untrue early in 1889, when something which didn't kill him left him completely insane and helpless for the remaining 11 years of his life. A third passage, from Also sprach Zarathustra, may have briefly challenged those two for prominence in the mid-1970's, at least within the movie business, because it gave the film The Wind and the Lion its name.

The phrase "God is dead" occurs several times in Nietzsche's works. It occurs most famously in aphorism #125 of Die froehliche Wissenschaft, "la gaya scienze." The Gay Science. Le Gai Savoir. Весёлая наука. Iloinen tiede. Den glada vetenskapen.

Aphorism #125 is much longer than those 3 famous words, and it's very interesting. Nietzsche was right: he was a poet, a great one. I'm going to show the entire aphorism below, then my translation of it, and then add a few remarks.

<<< Der tolle Mensch. – Habt ihr nicht von jenem tollen Menschen gehört, der am hellen Vormittage eine Laterne anzündete, auf den Markt lief und unaufhörlich schrie: "ich suche Gott! Ich suche Gott!" – Da dort gerade Viele von Denen zusammen standen, welche nicht an Gott glaubten, so erregte er ein grosses Gelächter. Ist er denn verloren gegangen? sagte der Eine. Hat er sich verlaufen wie ein Kind? sagte der Andere. Oder hält er sich versteckt? Fürchtet er sich vor uns? Ist er zu Schiff gegangen? ausgewandert? – so schrieen und lachten sie durcheinander. Der tolle Mensch sprang mitten unter sie und durchbohrte sie mit seinen Blicken. "Wohin ist Gott? rief er, ich will es euch sagen! Wir haben ihn getödtet, – ihr und ich! Wir Alle sind seine Mörder! Aber wie haben wir diess gemacht? Wie vermochten wir das Meer auszutrinken? Wer gab uns den Schwamm, um den ganzen Horizont wegzuwischen? Was thaten wir, als wir diese Erde von ihrer Sonne losketteten? Wohin bewegt sie sich nun? Wohin bewegen wir uns? Fort von allen Sonnen? Stürzen wir nicht fortwährend? Und rückwärts, seitwärts, vorwärts, nach allen Seiten? Giebt es noch ein Oben und ein Unten? Irren wir nicht wie durch ein unendliches Nichts? Haucht uns nicht der leere Raum an? Ist es nicht kälter geworden? Kommt nicht immerfort die Nacht und mehr Nacht? Müssen nicht Laternen am Vormittage angezündet werden? Hören wir noch Nichts von dem Lärm der Todtengräber, welche Gott begraben? Riechen wir noch Nichts von der göttlichen Verwesung? – auch Götter verwesen! Gott ist todt! Gott bleibt todt! Und wir haben ihn getödtet! Wie trösten wir uns, die Mörder aller Mörder? Das Heiligste und Mächtigste, was die Welt bisher besass, es ist unter unseren Messern verblutet, – wer wischt diess Blut von uns ab? Mit welchem Wasser könnten wir uns reinigen? Welche Sühnfeiern, welche heiligen Spiele werden wir erfinden müssen? Ist nicht die Grösse dieser That zu gross für uns? Müssen wir nicht selber zu Göttern werden, um nur ihrer würdig zu erscheinen? Es gab nie eine grössere That, – und wer nur immer nach uns geboren wird, gehört um dieser That willen in eine höhere Geschichte, als alle Geschichte bisher war!" – Hier schwieg der tolle Mensch und sah wieder seine Zuhörer an: auch sie schwiegen und blickten befremdet auf ihn. Endlich warf er seine Laterne auf den Boden, dass sie in Stücke sprang und erlosch. "Ich komme zu früh, sagte er dann, ich bin noch nicht an der Zeit. Diess ungeheure Ereigniss ist noch unterwegs und wandert, – es ist noch nicht bis zu den Ohren der Menschen gedrungen. Blitz und Donner brauchen Zeit, das Licht der Gestirne braucht Zeit, Thaten brauchen Zeit, auch nachdem sie gethan sind, um gesehen und gehört zu werden. Diese That ist ihnen immer noch ferner, als die fernsten Gestirne, – und doch haben sie dieselbe gethan!" – Man erzählt noch, dass der tolle Mensch des selbigen Tages in verschiedene Kirchen eingedrungen sei und darin sein Requiem aeternam deo angestimmt habe. Hinausgeführt und zur Rede gesetzt, habe er immer nur diess entgegnet: "Was sind denn diese Kirchen noch, wenn sie nicht die Grüfte und Grabmäler Gottes sind?" –- >>>

<<< The crazy person. -- Haven't you heard of that crazy person who lit a lantern one bright morning, ran to the city square and screamed unceasingly: "I'm looking for God! I'm looking for God!" -- It happened that at the moment many people were standing together there who didn't believe in God, and so he provoked a great wave of laughter. Is he lost? said one. Did he run away, like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Is he on a ship? Has he emigrated? -- so they shouted and laughed all at the same time. The crazy person sprang into their midst and drilled right through them with his gaze. "Where did God go? he shouted. "I'll tell you! We've killed him! -- you and I! We all are his murderers! But how did we do this? How did we manage to drink the ocean dry? Who gave us the sponge that could wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this Earth from its Sun? Where is it going now? Where are we going? Away from all suns? Aren't we continually plunging, backwards, sideways, forward, in every direction? Is there still an up and a down? Aren't we lurching through an endless nothingness? Isn't the empty space blowing on us? Hasn't it became colder? Isn't night and always more night coming? Shouldn't lanterns be lit in the mornings? Do we still hear nothing of the noise made by those who are burying God? Do we still smell nothing of the godly decay -- gods rot too! God is dead! God is going to stay dead! And we've killed him! How can we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? The most holy and the mightiest that the world ever possessed has bled to death under our knives, -- who's going to wipe this blood off of us? With what water can we clean ourselves? What sun dances, what holy games will we have to invent? Isn't the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shouldn't we have become gods just to be worthy of it? There was never a greater deed, -- and whoever's born after us belongs to a higher history than all history ever was, because of this deed!" Here the crazy person fell silent and looked at his listeners again: they were silent as well as looked at him in puzzlement. Finally he threw his lantern to the ground, where it was smashed to pieces and went out. "I came too early," he said, "it's not time yet. This monstrous event is still underway, it's wandering -- it hasn't yet reached people's ears. Lightning and thunder need time, the light of the stars needs time, deeds need time, after they're done, to be seen and heard. This deed is still farther away from them than the farthest stars -- and yet, they've done it!" -- It's said that on the same day the crazy person forced his way into various churches and recited his requiem for eternal God there. Led back outside and forced to account for himself, he always said only this: "What are these churches anymore, except the mausoleums and gravestones of God?" -- >>>

Yeah! Told you it was more than just those 3 little words!

So what does it mean, Perfessor?

Well Sonny, as time goes by I'm less inclined to argue with people that Nietzsche meant this and not that, especially the really dramatic passages like this one which don't necessarily need any more commentary than Here, read this! It's poetry, I tells ya! But since you asked: There's nothing whatsoever unusual about the others in the passages, who at first laugh at the crazy person, and by the end seem as if they may have been struck speechless. The thing to do when you see a crazy person, of course, is to try to help him, not point and laugh. But today's rank-and-file atheists demonstrate every day that you don't need to believe in God in order to be as crude and thoughtless as anyone else. Whatever ever else the crazy person's tirade is, it's unusual. I myself have never heard anything else remotely like it. To me it's seems that if you've come to the realization that there is no God -- the crazy person is just as much an atheist as the others in the passage. No, actually, he's much more of an atheist, because he's really thought about it -- and it doesn't scare the living crap out of you, at least now and then, then you haven't thought about it very deeply, about the consequences of making this abrupt change from the way people have thought -- the way people have lived -- for tens of thousands of years. There's more to religion, much, much more, than just Yes I believe in God or No I don't.

Is the crazy person Nietzsche? I think so. He's Zarathustra in a somewhat less bouyant mood, the Antichrist on a rampage, having forgotten momentarily that his true readers haven't been born yet. The crazy person and Zarathustra and the Antichrist and Nietzsche are all the same brilliant too-lonely man. That's my best guess.

Oh, just one more thing I meant to point out: the crazy person lighting a lantern on a sunny morning to look for God is an obvious reference to Diogenes of Sinope, one of the founders of the Cynical school of philosophy in ancient Greece, who carried a lit lantern around in broad daylight saying he was looking for an honest man.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Existentialism and University Philosophy

"the major existential philosophers wrote with a passion and urgency rather uncommon in our own time"

It's uncommon among philosophers of our time, and it was uncommon among philosophers of their own time. And it's certainly missing from this long, tedious description of existentialism. Obviously, different people take different things from existentialist philosophers. I take from existentialism that there's no reason to be as boring as Steven Crowell, who wrote this very nearly pointless description of it.

I really don't know why there should be this incompatibility between universities and philosophy. Plato founded what was more or less the first university, the Academy, and Aristotle made the second one out of the Lyceum. Both institutions thrived for centuries. But a little while before before the man generally counted as the the first existentialist philosopher, Kierkegaard, published his dissertation, Schopenhauer was insisting that real philosophy only existed outside of universities, that universities killed it and that what they called philosophy was no more than a grubby, prosaic jostling for jobs as philosophy professors, which laid much more emphasis on reading and discrediting one's competitors' writings, than on studying the canon of Western philosophy.

After receiving his Doctorate, Schopenhauer made a less than half-hearted attempt to teach philosophy at the University of Berlin, and then spent the rest of his life concentrating on being an author. As for the aforementioned "major existential philosophers," Kierkegaard got his Doctorate and then made no such attempt; and if he had continued in academia it would have been as a theologian and not as a philosopher. Dostoyevsky was a novelist. Nietzsche was awarded an extraordinary Doctorate at the age of 24, and then spent several years teaching at the University of Basel -- but he was teaching Philologie -- Classics, that is. Ancient Greek literature in his case -- and not philosophy. And Sartre and Camus made their livings writing rather than teaching. Heidegger was a professor, but he rejected the label of existentialist. I don't think we need to accept that rejection, but we should note that among the major existentialists, he's the only philosophy professor.

Steven Crowell, who wrote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on existentialism linked near the beginning of this post, has taught philosophy at the university level for over 30 years and currently chairs the Philosophy department at Rice University. Walter Kaufmann, whom Crowell cites in his article as if he were an authority on existentialism (and indeed he is thought of as such by some, although not by me), taught philosophy at Princeton for over half his life, from 1947 until 1980. Besides what they did and do for a living, what's the difference between Crowell and Kaufmann on the one hand and Kierkegaard, Dostoyesvsky, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre and Camus on the other? For one, the major existentialists were all brilliant writers. Crowell isn't. Kaufmann wasn't. Crowell and Kaufmann are prosaic. Nietzsche cannot have been thinking of people like these two when he said that one must have chaos inside oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star, although academics in other fields seem to fit the bill much better. Einstein and Heidegger come immediately to mind. (Even outside of the philosophy departments, Einstein didn't have a conventional academic career, going from clerk to honorary PhD to professor.) It's difficult, to say the least, to think of Crowell and Kaufmann embodying Nietzsche's dictum about man being a rope stretched across an abyss.

The major existentialists had huge fires in them which burned whole forests of convention to crisps. Crowell and Kaufmann and most philosophy professors are convention itself. Does it matter whether they're consciously conventional and determined to undermine the chaos of the geniuses whose texts they have their students read, or whether they're simply much too dull to understand what I or Camus is talking about? Either way the result is diametrically opposed to the major existentialists.

Heidegger is an exception, a philosophy professor and at the same time a real no foolin' existentialist philosopher. Heidegger is exceptional in several ways, and mysterious and spooky, and that's about all I have to say about him for now.

William H Gass was a professor of philosophy for a very long time, although he's rarely described as a philosopher, although why not, actually? But in his classes given under the auspices of a philosophy department his students read mostly fiction and poetry. Gass has written mostly fiction and literary criticism (although it's unlike any other literary criticism), and then there's his book On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry, a book I was thinking is in a category all by itself, but then I thought of the 3-volume work on spheres by the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk -- who is the chancellor of a university of art & design. The one of them explores human life via a color, the other via a shape. And neither of them fit into any conventional career categories. Just like the major existentialists.

Just like any major artist. A true artist or philosopher or physicist cannot be fit into any categories which exist when they're working, because their work is original. No one else has imagined something like their work, and so no one has yet made a category for it.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Oooohhh. Owww. Arrrghhh.

That's me groaning in pain. I'm a 53-year-old man and I've owned my first smartphone for about 48 hours now, a Motorola Droid mini, and I don't know how to work the damn thing. (I'm not exactly sure what PowerPoint is.) I've spent hours on the phone with tech support, I've looked through online support pages. This thing is really cool, but, for instance, I'm not writing this post on my new phone, I'm writing it on my PC as usual, because I don't know how to do it on my phone yet. (Maybe it can't be done on my phone. I don't know.) I have written a couple of things on my phone, like the names of some contacts I put on speed-dial -- you can't imagine how long and painful the process of sort of learning how to do that was -- and I wrote the wrong monkey in the Google search window and saw my blog on my phone, just don't know how to post on my blog from my phone yet. And even if I did, it's going to take a while to get used to using those teeny-tiny keypads. I think I've got them set as big as I can. They're set on "huge." If I can find a way to make them bigger than "huge," that would be great. Cause if you ask me, "huge" is still pretty frickin tiny, and I still hit wrong letters a lot. Machete don't text!

I didn't get into computers at all until 1997. I had had opportunities to familiarize myself with IT before that -- a professor comes to mind who, during my most recent failed attempt at grad school, in 1991-92, frequently urged us grad students to avail ourselves of a certain room full of computers. I think it may have been called a computer lab, I don't remember for sure. I have no idea what I missed by never visiting the place. At that time I was still going out of my way to avoid all computers, and I was proud of it. I'm not proud of it now.

My brother went the other way: got awards for programs he wrote in high school, which he graduated from in 1981, as valedictorian. Got 2 degrees from MIT in the 80's, the first one a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering with an emphasis on computer applications. He's literally a rocket scientist.

I took a much more Luddite approach until I first saw the Internet in 1997. Most of my interaction with computers since then has involved -- see, I don't even know now the correct terminology for it. There's online and the WWW and the Internet and email and I don't know what the exact definitions of all of them are and how much overlap there is, but most of my interaction with computers has involved all that stuff. I started this blog in 2009 because 2009 was when someone who had asked me why I eschewed a blog explained to me what a blog was and that Blogspot was one of the user-freindly ways of publishing one.

And now, late in 2014, I cross the smartphone Rubicon. Or drown trying to cross. I'm in pain.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Does Democratic Rule Equal Social Justice?

The question cannot be meaningfully answered as posed in the title of this piece, because "democratic" and "justice" are both subjective terms.

The influence of the laissez-faire economics of Adam Smith is still very strong in the US, with its notion that everything will be wonderful and all will live in abundance if only businesses are left alone to do as they see fit. "Laissez-faire" translates pretty much to "leave it alone," and "it" is business. Smith argues that if businessmen were just left alone to do what they do, an "invisible hand" will guide them to act to the benefit of mankind. Making their businesses more economically successful and creating a more just world with less squalor and poverty will be one and the same.

Amazingly, nearly two and a half centuries after Smith began to spread his ideas of the all-beneficent, all-curing invisible hand, people still behave as if it actually made sense, despite massive evidence to the contrary having accumulated in the meantime. In this as in so many things, it's impossible to know how many people really think it makes sense and how many say they do because they see a chance for personal gain. Ronald Reagan's plan of "trickle-down economics" is very Smithian: cut taxes, and cut social programs paid for by those taxes, and poor people will not suffer, because the resulting growth of the economy will benefit them more than the social programs did. In 1980, running against Reagan for President, George Bush Sr referred to the trickle-down idea as "voodoo economics;" later in 1980 he became Reagan's running mate and got on board with the Gipper's economic plan. People naturally assumed that Bush's criticism of trickle-down economics had been sincere, and that his apparent change of heart was a matter of political calculation, but in politics as in economics, who knows who's being sincere when, and for what what reason? Maybe Bush was in favor on trickle-down all along, and only criticized it in order to attack Reagan and try to win the nomination. Who knows.

For advocates of laissez-faire, trickle-down, liberatarian economics, taxes and government regulations concerning business are tyranny, they are un-democratic. For others -- let's call ourselves what we are: socialists. Let's stop being afraid of that word -- unrestricted businesses can be a prime source of tyranny, driving down wages, forming monopolies, fixing prices, profiteering from pollution and wars and other man-made catastrophes.

I'm a socialist, but I'm not asserting that every corporation is unmitigated evil. Mitt Romney was wrong, of course, when he said that corporations are people, but if what he meant to say was that individual people make up, control and operate businesses, and that these individual people can choose different ways of going about their business, and that therefore every business should be regarded as an individual case, just as every individual human being should be, then of course he was right. Still, by and large, over the course of the 2 and a half centuries since Smith, corporations have provided an immense amount of evidence that they should be watched carefully by governments, and regulated when necessary, because if Smith's invisible hand really does exist, if it's unregulated, much of the time it's giving most of us the finger, not looking out for us.

I say that many of us are socialists and should stop running from the term. That's because minimum wages, universal health insurance, regulations against pollution and against monopolies, universal education, universal nutrition and so forth are all socialistic. Like most of the rest of the countries on Earth since the US was founded, the US follows a combination of laissez-faire and socialistic policies, and there's a constant debate and power struggle between the 2 tendencies, which we also call conservative and liberal. Same thing. As long as you keep in mind that in most countries, "liberal" doesn't mean what it means in the US, it means "libertarian." One of many good reasons to call ourselves what we are, socialists, is to help Americans and non-Americans each understand what the other group is talking about.

To return to the title of this post: does democratic rule equal social justice? We will make more sense in our political debates, we will have a greater chance of getting along with each other, if we realize that we don't all define terms like "democratic" and "justice" in anywhere near the same way. And the example of how businesses are treated is just one way in which those terms are defined differently by different people. They're also applied in very different ways to issues of gender, ethnicity, freedom of speech, education, etc, etc. Some would say that I'm a moral relativist and that I'm attempting to thrown open a door to social, political, economic and other kinds of chaos. I would reply that, yes indeed, I am a moral relativist, and that all I'm trying to do is draw attention to the vast levels of chaos which already exist, chaos to which most people's eyes are stubbornly shut. Which is not surprising, it's a scary sight. Still I draw attention to it in the hope that seeing the chaos somewhat more clearly will be a beginning of a chance of reacting to it somewhat more effectively.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Karl Popper? No Thank You

"Der Überlieferung zufolge soll Platon am Eingang zu seiner Akademie die Inschrift angebracht haben, es möge sich fernhalten von diesem Ort, wer nicht Geometer sei" ("It is said that Plato had an inscription made at the entrance to his academy which asked everyone who wasn't a geometer to stay away.") -- That's the first sentence of Peter Sloterdijk's preface to the 1st volume of his work Sphären (Spheres). Sloterdijk not only approves of this elitist motto, he says that the 3 volumes of Sphären to follow are best understood as an even more radical demand for such knowledge. Sloterdijk also mentions the etymologie of "geometer" and "geometry," always a good thing to keep in mind with words which have been in use continually for thousands of years. By γεωμετρία, geometry, the ancient Greeks meant "measurement of the world." Yes, Euclid certainly practiced something which we today readily understand as the branch of mathematics we call geometry, but it's good to keep in mind the origins of words like "geometry," and "tragedy" -- and "philosophy" -- and remind ourselves that they can mean very different things in different eras.

Sloterdijk is full of this sort of helpful insights into the philosophy, the philosophies, of different eras and cultures, brimming with aids to grasping more of the immense complexity of bookish human thought.

All that by way of contrast, refreshing contrast, to Karl Popper. Someone finally persuaded me to read Popper, I've read vol 1 of his offene Gesellschaft und ihre Feinde, and that's that. No thank you. Not for me. Popper is full of platitudes. It seems he can't let a page go by without earnestly reminding the reader that he stands for freedom. Well, goody. He reminds me of the fictional Jerry Seinfeld's characterization of his pal Elaine Benes as a "hater of evil," a line which is so funny because, who's not? Just as we all hate evil, so are we all for freedom. The difficult part, the part where we encounter the complexity which seems to escape Popper, is when we attempt to define things like evil and freedom. Evil to whom? Freedom for whom? Gather 3 people together and you can likely find some small or great disagreement about the concrete application of these generalized good things.

That's right: I'm inclined to think that you'll get more subtle and profound messages about this sweet mystery we call life by watching "Seinfeld" than by reading Popper. I'm afraid Popper just might make things more mysterious -- and not in a good way. Near the beginning of his preface to the 1992 50th anniversary edition of the offene Gesellschaft, Popper remarks, "Seine Tendenz war: gegen Nazismus und Kommunismus; gegen Hitler und Stalin." ("It [the book] was directed against Nazism and Communism, against Hitler and Stalin.") However: "Ich verabscheute die Namen beider so sehr, daß ich sie in meinem Buch nicht erwähnen wollte." ("I hated the names of both of them [Hitler and Stalin] so much that I didn't want to name them in my book.") It might also be that, living in England in 1942, he didn't have the balls to call Stalin as bad as Hitler while Soviets were in the midst of dying by the tens of millions as England's ally.

It seems that Popper meant a lot of things in the book which he didn't say in the book. The 2003 edition is over 500 pages long, and well less than half of that is the main text of the book, the rest being numerous prefaces and afterwords and footnotes in which he explains and explains what he meant and corrects various people who misunderstood what he said. That 50th anniversary edition preface describes Hitler and Stalin as the signers of the 1939 non-aggression pact. Did Popper mean that Stalin signed that pact with Germany only after he had tried to sign similar pacts with his soon-to-be allies and been turned down, but not say it? To be fair to Popper, I think it's possible in this case that he didn't mention something because he didn't know it.

Regardless of whom this volume was really directed against, it's subtitle is Der Zauber Platons (The Magic of Plato). "Magic" is meant here in a bad way. It's magic by which Plato mesmerized people and got him to follow him as the originator and head of the war against the open society...

Popper is so bad, so inept, empty and yet simultaneously so full -- yes, of crap! Just as many changes have occurred in a term originating in ancient Greek between their γεωμετρία and our geometry, so too have societies evolved and changed tremendously. There was no open society in Athens 2400 years ago of the kind Popper envisions. Plato didn't want to plunge the world into a totalitarian Hell, as Hitler most certainly tried his very best to do. Plato was merely a conservative: he lacked the imagination to radically criticize the existing totalitarian society. Before Plato, as Popper correctly observed, Heraclitus envisaged a much more open society than the one Plato championed. Heraclitus' egalitarian vision doesn't make Plato a monster, it makes him an ordinary creature of his time and place regarding certain existing political realities, as, to judge from some of those introductions and afterwords and footnotes, countless people unsuccessfully attempted to point out to Popper.

It takes a lot to get me to defend Plato. Popper pulls it off with ease.

And ironically, reading Popper, who constantly reminds us of how he's fighting for everyone's freedom, makes me feel anything but free. Sloterdijk is rarely, if ever, called an apostle of freedom or some such, and he's often (usually ridiculously) called something like the opposite, but reading him makes me feel free. My mind soars, as the saying goes, when I read Sloterdijk. When I read Popper I feel chained to the plodding footsteps of his pedestrian mind. If ever elitism is called for, I think, it's when one is choosing an author to read. I'm done with Popper. So done. For the moment I'm returning to the 2 volumes of Sloterdijk's Sphären. Sloterdijk calls Nietzsche "the master of dangerous thinking," and Sloterdijk is sometimes described in similar terms.

Maybe Nietzsche and Sloterdijk -- and for that matter, Plato -- are dangerous to many or even to most readers. I thrive on the first 2, and I dislike Plato but there's no danger of my ever being bored by him as badly as I am with Popper. And with Plato there are flashes of brilliance not even I can deny. How does anyone know what a perfect circle is? No drawing or ball made by humans is perfectly round, neither is any planet or moon in the sky. And yet we all know exactly what a perfect circle is. Plato has an explanation for that. I don't buy Plato's explanation, but there's no denying that on this point Plato leads me by 1 explanation to none. That kind of blows my mind. Popper's not on the same level.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Extent Of The Work Of Ancient Latin And Greek Historians Which We Possess

I don't know why people so often insist that they know a certain subject when they clearly don't. For example, I don't know why people go around saying things like "we possess the works of more than 50 historians who were in Jerusalem during Jesus' lifetime," or "there are 126 ancient authors who should've mentioned Jesus if he existed, but, mysteriously, they don't," and furthermore, I don't know why so many other people take them seriously. But people do go around saying such things, and other people take them seriously, and that gives me something to do. (Not to mention making it unsurprising that someone like Bart Ehrman would compare them to tinfoil-hat-wearing people talking about UFO's.)

Clearly, some people greatly overestimate the extent of the ancient Greek and Latin literature which has come down to us. I certainly did. When I decided to read some Greek tragedies, because so many people seemed to be saying that they were a major building-block of Western Civilization, I was amazed to discover that only 33 of them have survived down to our time: 7 by Aeschylus, 7 by Sophocles and 19 by Euripides.

All together, those 33 plays form a reading assignment about the same length as the Bible. And just as in the case of the Bible, if you read the Greek tragedies you'll understand a lot more of the jokes which authors have made in the past 2400 years.

There were many more tragedies written, many more than 33. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides each wrote many more than 33, and there were many other authors of tragedies working in Athens contemporary with them. However, it was not until the 380's BC, by which time Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides had all been dead for a while, that the Athenians began to get into the habit of performing any one of these tragedies more than once, even though for quite some time just one play could be enough to make its author rich and famous for life. This is one example of how differently ancient Greeks thought about permanence than we do. It makes us wince quite painfully to think of all of those lost plays. Back when they were written, their authors, performers and audiences had much more of a "That was great! Now what's next?" attitude.

Back to the historians: amazingly, someone said: "We possess the works of more than 50 historians who were in Jerusalem during Jesus' lifetime." and even more amazingly, some otherwise-sensible people believed him or her.

That figure is off by more than 50. Unless Paul of Tarsus was in Jerusalem during Jesus' lifetime -- and I don't see why he couldn't have been -- we possess the works of exactly zero writers of any kind, historians, theologians, lyric poets, epic poets, physicians, architects, military strategians or what have you, who were in Jerusalem during Jesus' lifetime. If Jesus existed and Paul was in Jerusalem during his lifetime, then we possess the work of 1 such writer.

If we define "ancient" as the time between the earliest writing in Latin or Greek until AD 400, when the Christians were starting to take over and things were beginning to get Medieval, then I don't know whether we possess the works of 50 ancient Greek and Latin historians, period. Unless I'm missing someone, I believe there are surviving historical works by 7 major ancient historians writing in Latin: Caesar, Sallust, Livy, Tacitus, Suetonius, the author of the Augustan Histories and Ammianus. Some would object to my calling the author of the Augustan Histories a major historian. Some would object to calling him an historian at all and point out that he seems to be posing as 6 authors and so forth, and say that he was actually writing a satire of historical writing, which unfortunately has often been mistaken for history, leading to widespread confusion and annoying generations of actual historians going back to Gibbon and earlier. I say let him be considered major until proven minor or a satirist, stipulating that for our purposes "major" does not always equal "skilled" or "accurate."

We have the works of some other ancient Latin historians, but these are mostly people who condensed parts of Livy's work: Florus, the anonymous author of the periochae, Julius Obsequens, etc. We currently possess about 1/4 of Livy's work; if we find the rest, the interest in Florus and the periochae and Julius Obsequens will presumably drop drastically. In earlier eras Livy was considered to be Rome's greatest historian. Nowadays the overwhelming favorite is Tacitus. Writers' reputations rise and fall and rise again. Others made similar Reader's Digest Condensed Versions of Tacitus and other major historians. They are called minor historians. Curtius Rufus translated some Greek material -- now mostly gone -- on the life of Alexander the Great. Some of the work of Cato the Elder survives, but not his history of Rome which was so much admired by other Roman writers. Counting major and minor writers, in Latin and Greek, I don't know of 50 ancient historians. I'd have to branch out into other languages and/or the Middle Ages to reach a total of 50.

Of course, historians glean all sorts of information from other types of writing than the historiographical. Considering the contributions of Cicero, Pliny the Younger, Symmachus, various Emperors and others, the other genre of most use to historians may be letter-writing. I grimaced as I wrote that because I can't stand Cicero. I consider it to be a crying shame that barely 100 pages of Sallust's writing has survived, while we have thousands of pages' worth of that thoroughly ordinary guy, Cicero. I'm sure several readers grimaced as they read the preceding 2 sentences, but I'm not going to sit here and lie to you about my opinion of Cicero. Today Cicero is probably still considered by most to be one of the very finest writers of Latin. In the Renaissance Cicero was beyond a doubt far and away the single most highly-admired Latin author. For many people writing in Latin in the Renaissance, good Latin writing equaled imitating Cicero. Like I mentioned above, writers' reputations rise and fall. Cicero's reputation as a genius of a author has fallen noticeably since the Renaissance, and I consider that to be progress and hope it continues, so there.

If anyone thinks I'm completely wrong and that people are right who are claiming that we have the works of 50 historians who were in Jerusalem between ca 6 BC and ca AD 40, or that there really are 126 or more ancient authors from whom the absence of any mention of Jesus is downright suspicious, they are of course more than welcome to comment. I could use a good laugh.