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, Valerius 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 shows 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.