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.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

I'm Just A Regular Guy Like You --

-- I love puppies and kittens (SQUEEEEE!!!!) and Amurrka and shrimp scampi and shortbread and a good workout and a comfortable pair of socks, and I hate Republicans and Fedex DumbPost.

I know that there's nothing not regular about hating Fedex DumbPost because I got

-- 6710 hits when I googled fedex dumbpost, with dumbpost spelled exactly like that, 1 word, not the watered-down inauthentic fedex dumb post (414,000 hits, more than the 395,000 hits for fedex smartpost);

-- 156,000 hits for fedex compost;

-- 5530 hits for fedext stupidpost;

-- 924 hits for fedex retardedpost;

-- 6 hits for fedex dumb and dumberpost;

-- 4 hits for fedex dumbasapost,

and even

-- 2 hits for fedex autisticpost. (I can write that because I'm autistic. I personally won't be offended if you write it too, cause sticks & stones etc, but just be warned, other people definitely will be offended. Parents of autistic children, mostly, and there's probably no reason to go out of your way to bother them. I don't care if you offend someone at Fedex, as you may already have gathered from the general tone of this post. They started it with their so-called DumbPost.)

The first spelling for which I found no pre-existing examples was Fedex DumberthanabagofhammersPost. So I guess that one's mine, with a tip of the hat to the Coen brothers.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The 2014 Mid-Terms And The Can't-Do Attitude Of Some Leftists

First of all, let's try to shake off this reluctance to call ourselves Leftists if we're left of center. Let's get a grip and speak plainly: yes, there are some Communists in the Democratic Party. And there are some Nazis in the Republican Party. And that's one of the long list of reasons why the Democratic Party is much better than the GOP.

It irks me so to hear people say that they "usually" vote Democratic, but they hate doing it, because Democrats and Republicans "are all pretty much the same," all "bought and paid for by corporations," and "things will never really change" because "those in power" don't want them to.

Things change all the time, so there's one of those premises I don't buy. You can read about some dramatic changes about to occur as a result of the mid-terms in this brief, accurate and depressing portrait of Jim Inhofe, who will probably be the next chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The stupidity of the readers' comments on the article are even more depressing, matching the stupidity of the US public's behavior this past Tuesday. There may be changes in Social Security and Disability checks received by the elderly and disabled. There will be changes in policy on women's rights, minority rights, affirmative action, voting rights, LGBT rights -- if you feel that Americans have entirely too many rights and that poor people have it too good and that it's time for billionaires to finally catch a break, the election returns should gladden your heart.

No, I don't buy the premise that Democrats and Republicans are the same. It astounds me that anybody could think they are.

Corporations aren't all the same either. Yes, they contribute heavily to the campaigns of both Democrats and Republicans, but they don't all contribute the same to both sides of the aisle. It'd be pretty stupid for oil companies to give as much to the party trying to take away their tax exemptions -- that'd be the Democratic Party, including that notorious wimpy centrist corporate stooge Barack Hussein Obama -- as they give to the party stamping at the bit to open up Keystone XL and remove restrictions on fracking -- yes, Sparky, that'd be the Republicans.

Also, one of the two big parties is trying to reverse the cynically-named Citizens United and VASTLY REDUCE the amount of money given to political campaigns, and no, Sparky, it ain't the GOP.

I don't buy that "those in power" all want the same things. I put the phrase in quotes because power constantly shifts, there isn't one clearly-defined Them running everything, that's a paranoid fantasy. In reality, individual human beings wield power, people who by no means always agree about everything, even when they're in one and the same of the 2 major parties. party. To those who feel powerless -- if you occasionally try to DO something to change the things which dissatisfy you, your chances of actually having more power yourself are better than if you just sit there and bitch and vote 3rd-party and stupidly, smugly believe yourselves to be morally superior to all of us who are actually trying to do something.

I'm talking to you, Greens. Yes, I blame you for Inhofe, and yes, I still blame you for W beating Gore, and no, I don't want to try to explain to you how the one individual most responsible for bringing global warming to the attention of the general public is different from the Republican POTUS whose administration shored up the near-unanimous Republican position that global warming isn't happening, if you really are too stupid to see the difference.

Oh well. About all we can do now is hold on for 2 years, dig in and try to keep the GOP from killing us all, and hope that the stupidest among us re-learn what they learned between 2010 and 2012 and then forgot again.

Yeah, I'm a little bit steamed. Just a tad.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Suetonius And "Chrestus" And Jesus

As the ever-diligent Tim O'Neill helpfully pointed out, I erred in my post referring to Michael Paulkovich's 126 when I said that someone named Chrestus appears in Tacitus. O'Neill is correct: Chrestus appears in Suetonius, not in Tacitus. The beginning of chapter 25, part 4, of Suetonius' account of the Emperor Claudius begins:

Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantis Roma expulit.

(Because the Jews, led by Chrestus, were constantly making disturbances, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.)

Some mythicists point to this Chrestus and say that it shows that Jesus (Christ, Christus) never existed: it wasn't Christus, it was Chrestus, and he was never in Jerusalem, he was in Rome. Sez so right there in Suetonius. That's what some mythicists argue.

I just want to point out that I find it ironic that these particular individuals, who find reasons to doubt so many references to Jesus' existence in so many different texts, and to assume so many wholesale rewrites of the New Testament when we have so many NT manuscripts and there so little reason to doubt things, because we can see fairly clearly what changes were made and when by looking at all of these thousand of Biblical manuscripts, including some manuscripts as old as the 2nd century, perhaps as early in the 2nd century that they were made when Suetonius was still alive -- Ah say Ah say Ah say these non-historians, these non-experts calling themselves experts in the early history of Christianity have no problem whatsoever believing in the existence of a leader of the Jews in Rome in Claudius' reign called Chrestus, not Christus, rather then think that this may be a misspelling of Christus, in manuscripts of Suetonius of which the oldest are 9th century. And they are more ready to believe that the rather ambiguously-worded sentence clearly shows that this Chrestus was alive in Rome in Claudius' reign, rather than think that Suetonius does not mean to refer to a living leader present at the time, or, more likely in my opinion, that Suetonius simply didn't know much about the Christians, had heard some vague accounts of them linking them to someone named Chrestus, and made a mistake when he wrote about them. Or someone told Suetonius about Christus and he misheard it as Chrestus. Or Suetonius wrote "Christus," and some time between when he wrote in the 2nd century and when the oldest-known copies of his work were made in the 9th century, someone copied one letter wrong.

And these mythicists accuse others of bending the truth to suit their pre-conceived notions and grasping at straws.

SOME mythicists have done this with Suetonius' mention of "Chrestus." Not all of them -- or all of us if everyone not convinced that Jesus existed is a mythicist. I'm pretty sure Wells never has.

As I often point out, I am not a pro at this. I'm pointing it out once again in connection with some of the wackier mythicists because I want to make the point, again, that one by no means needs to be a pro or an expert in order to see that they are neither. (Wells is a pro. Probably the only living mythicist pro. Surely if there were another I would've come across him or her by now.)

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Recipe For Pig's Feet With Tomato-y Sauce

This is not pickled pig's feet, so those who hate pickled pig's feet, stop screaming in horror and running away waving your arms in abject hysterical horror. This is not the same stuff. Come back. Calm down. This is different.

This is also not MADE with pickled pig's feet. We're starting with RAW pig's feet. They're in the butcher's section, not in a jar. It's also important to note that you want to use pig's feet which have been split in half lengthwise. If you don't have a substantial cleaver and some experience wielding it, you're going to want to let somehow else split them for you. Chances are you'll find them for sale already split in half. If not, the butcher will probably be glad to do it for you.

You will need:

A large crock pot, or stovetop pot with a good-fitting lid and a stove

6 pig's foot halves (3 whole feet cut into halves)

1 big tomato or 3 smallish ones or the equivalent in differently-sized tomatoes, chopped into dice-sized cubes

Shallots amounting to 1/3 cup when finely chopped, finely chopped

Large stalk of celery, finely chopped

Large stalk of bok choy, finely chopped

Salt, pepper, garlic powder, cilantro, ginger, allspice, paprika, cumin and basil to taste

TOP SECRET I-NEVER-WOULDA-THOUGHT-OF-THAT BUT BELIEVE-ME-IT-WORKS-SOMEHOW MYSTERY INGREDIENT AND FLAVOR-ENHANCER: 2 tablespoons of ordinary cheap BBQ sauce out of a plastic bottle from Kroger's. No, I'm not kidding. I know, the stuff is gross when used as directed, and much worse still if you actually taste some straight from the plastic bottle, but in small doses as a top-secret mystery ingredient and flavor enhancer, somehow, it's awesome. I can't explain it.

Thoroughly wash the pig's feet, and thoroughly wash the vegetables and tomatoes before chopping them up.

Put all of the ingredients into the pot, add just enough water that everything's underwater (level the ingredients out before adding the water or you'll need too much water to cover them), cover the pot and bring it to a boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for 3 hours, and yahtzee.

So simple, and so good. (Don't take the lid off during those 3 hours. Don't let one bit of that flavor go steaming away, lost.) Now, I'm afraid that some of you aren't going to want to eat the gelatinous stuff that's going to be falling off of the bones: skin and cartilage and stuff. You really should try it, and try to get past whatever texture issues you may have, because it's truly nummers and you don't know what you're missing despite Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern trying so hard to tell you for all of these years. But if Bourdain and Zimmern and I still can't talk you into eating all that wonderful stuff, then at least try the sauce, because OMG.

You can depart from this recipe, try different amounts and different ingredients. The above recipe uses the ingredients I happened to use today. The crucial thing is the long slow cook time. There are a lot of recipes which are basically similar to the above except without the tomatoes, using something like vinegar or lemons instead. I think leaving the tomatoes out is completely insane, but a lot of people don't use tomatoes, maybe even most people, so what do I know. What's going on here is that the water and the fat from the pig's feet are going to combine with whatever combination of veggies and fruit and spices and other stuff you use, and form a sauce. A heavenly, silky sauce in the case of this recipe. I stand by my tomato-y approach, but google pig's feet recipes and you will find many recipes basically like mine except with different ingredients. So by all means, follow the recipe which sounds good to you. And experiment with your own variations if you want to. And bon appetit.