Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Staffordshire Hoard: Gold Strip with Old Testament Verse

The Staffordshire website offers a hoard of images, including the two fine ones below showing the entire gold strip with its semiliterate inscription taken from Numbers 10:35, "surge d[omi]ne [et] disepentur inimici tui et fugent qui oderunt te a facie tua," which translates as "Rise up, O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face."

In a previous entry, I noted that the Old Testament offers two parallels:
Numbers 10:35 "surge Domine et dissipentur inimici tui et fugiant qui oderunt te a facie tua"

Psalm 67:2 "Exsurgat Deus et dissipentur inimici eius et fugiant qui oderunt eum a facie eius"
Comparison with the inscription, however, clearly shows that Numbers 10:35 is the source:
"surge d[omi]ne [et] disepentur inimici tui et fugent qui oderunt te a facie tua"
Note the use of "tui" and "tua" in both the inscription and in Numbers 10:35, whereas Psalm 67:2 has "eius" (and note as well the use of "Domine" versus "Deus").

Brandon Hawk has some interesting things to say about this inscription -- though he gets one thing wrong. He approvingly cites the usually impeccable Michael Drout, who says that the inscription is "probably taken directly from Psalm 67:2, where it is also used." Drout, however, offers no reasons or evidence in his blog entry, so I don't know why he thinks this unless he took the inscription's "dNE" as "Deus" rather than as an abbreviation for "Domine," but the use of "tui/tua" argues against Psalm 67:2. At any rate, here are Hawk's interesting remarks:
A search of the Fontes Anglo-Saxonici database reveals that only one text (or set of texts, as will be revealed) known in Anglo-Saxon England also quotes this passage from Numbers 10:35/Psalm 67:2: Felix's Vita S. Guthlaci. This Vita was written in c.730-49, and, according to E. Gordon Whatley, the text was present in Anglo-Saxon England in at least eight extant manuscripts, one of these (a fragment) from the late eighth or early ninth century (Biggs et al.). The corresponding use does appear in the Old English prose Life (which corresponds closely to Felix's Latin version), but not in Vercelli Homily XXIII or Guthlac A or B.

What is interesting about the passage in which this verse is used is that it is not merely a quotation; instead, Guthlac himself uses the Psalm to ward off evil spirits. According to the Old English prose version (Goodwin), Guthlac "þone sealm sang: Exurgat deus et dissipentur, et reliqua. Sona swa he þæt fyrmeste fers sang þæs sealmes, þa gewiton hi swa swa smic fram his ansyne" ("sang the psalm: Exurgat Deus et dissipentur, et reliqua. As soon as he had sung the first verse of the psalm, they departed like smoke from his presence") (Goodwin, 44, trans. 45). What we find, then, is an act of warding off evil, a use of the psalm to achieve victory over one's enemies. In this case, demons are the main enemies, but it is curious to think about the use of such a verse in the Old Testament as referring to humans all too hostile to the psalmist. Likewise, the use of the newly discovered gold strip with the biblical inscription also hearkens to a warrior's need to keep himself safe from his all-too-real opponents. More could be said, and perhaps in the future I will have more to add, but it may be enough to leave this examination without any more conclusion than to say that this verse evokes a supplication for bodily and spiritual aid from a warrior in need of the grace of God.
For his information about Felix's Vita S. Guthlaci, Hawk cites Whatley and seems to be using "Guthlacus," in Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture Volume 1: Abbo of Fleury, Abbo of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and Acta Sanctorum, which is edited by Frederick M. Biggs, Thomas D. Hill, Paul E. Szarmach, and E. Gordon Whatley (Kalamazoo, 2001), for he offers a note to that effect and references pages 244-247. For "the Old English prose version" of Saint Guthlac's life, Hawk cites the Cotton version presented in The Anglo-Saxon Version of the Life of St. Guthlac, hermit of Crowland, which is edited by Charles Wycliffe Goodwin (London: John Russell Smith, 1848).

Anyway, Hawk's musings on the Psalm 67:2 with respect to the inscription raise the possibility that the gold strip was intended as a sort of 'charm bracelet' used for warding off spiritual evil. Relevant in this context might be the words of Saint Paul in Ephesians 6:12, and let's cite the Latin from the Vulgate since the Anglo-Saxons were using Latin:
quia non est nobis conluctatio adversus carnem et sanguinem sed adversus principes et potestates adversus mundi rectores tenebrarum harum contra spiritalia nequitiae in caelestibus
The New International Version gives this modern translation:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Of course, the 'charm bracelet' might be just as useful against physical evils as well. Incidentally, Richard Marsden, on page 73 of The Text of the Old Testament in Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge University Press, 1995), presents Saint Guthlac as citing Numbers 10:35 (rather than Psalm 67:2) in a somewhat loose 'quote':
et fugient a facie tua qui te oderunt
Compare with Numbers 10:35 in the Vulgate:
et fugiant qui oderunt te a facie tua
Somewhat loose, as noted, but given the use of "tua" instead of "eius," this clearly comes from Numbers 10:35, not Psalm 67:2. In the passage noted by Hawk, however, Saint Guthlac is obviously using Pslam 67:2, for it states "Exurgat deus" rather than "surge Domine." Did Saint Guthlac splice the opening words of Psalm 67:2 to the following words of Numbers 10:35? I don't have the sources before me for checking, so I'll leave this to my readers . . . if there be any.

Incidentally, the evidence from Saint Guthlac's use of Latin for both Numbers 10:35 and Psalm 67:2 demonstrates that the Staffordshire gold strip with its Latin inscription could very well have come from an Anglo-Saxon context rather than being war booty taken from Christian Celts, a possibility that has also been suggested, but further analysis by experts will be necessary on this point.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

No regrets at all . . .

"The Referendum"
Tim Kreider
(Image from New York Times)

I do have stories of my own to tell, but I've been very busy reading books as a member of a committee organized by the Daesan Foundation with the aim of awarding a literary prize for 'best translated book' or some such unofficial title. I don't know why I was included on this committee since the other four individuals are actually highly qualified.

Anyway, I'll perhaps have some time during the upcoming holiday for Korea's harvest festival to relate an anecdote from last weekend. Maybe. For the nonce, however, I'll just keep commenting on other people's writings.

Such as Tim Kreider's very funny article, "The Referendum," in the weekend's edition of the International Herald Tribune -- though I'm again linking to the online New York Times.

Kreider is a confirmed bachelor, or at least remains unmarried and lacks any unhealthy desire for children. Or so he implies:
Most of my married friends now have children, the rewards of which appear to be exclusively intangible and, like the mysteries of some gnostic sect, incommunicable to outsiders. In fact it seems from the outside as if these people have joined a dubious cult: they claim to be much happier and more fulfilled than ever before, even though they live in conditions of appalling filth and degradation, deprived of the most basic freedoms and dignity, and owe unquestioning obedience to a capricious and demented master.

I have never even idly thought for a single passing second that it might make my life nicer to have a small, rude, incontinent person follow me around screaming and making me buy them stuff for the rest of my life. [Note to friends with children: I am referring to other people’s children, not to yours.] But there are also moments when some part of me wonders whether I am not only missing the biological boat but something I cannot even begin to imagine -- an entire dimension of human experience undetectable to my senses, like a flatlander scoffing at the theoretical concept of sky.

But I can only imagine the paralytic terror that must seize my friends with families as they lie awake calculating mortgage payments and college funds and realize that they are locked into their present lives for farther into the future than the mind's eye can see. Judging from the unanimity with which parents preface any gripe about children with the disclaimer, "Although I would never wish I hadn't had them and I can't imagine life without them," I can't help but wonder whether they don't have to repress precisely these thoughts on a daily basis.
These three paragraphs had Sun-Ae and me laughing out loud. Or to be more chronological about it, I was sitting on the sofa drinking an ice-cold beer and otherwise silently reading in my quietly meditative manner when I abruptly laughed out loud -- and thus was forced to share Kreider's humor with my wife when she demanded to know what I had found so funny. Such is married life. A man can't just laugh out loud and be unobtrusively happy without having to explain himself to his wife. I can't really complain, though. Sun Ae's currently reading Don Quixote, and I keep demanding the same from her when she suddenly laughs at some passage.

And I never regret having children, not even when they make their unending, unreasonable demands like En-Uk did last night in forcing me to stay with him until he fell asleep because the other kids at school had told scary stories that he couldn't forget even though I needed to get some sleep because the clock was warning me that the hour was getting late and reminding me that I had to get up early and blog before heading off on my commute to the university at 5:30 in the morning.

No regrets at all.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Staffordshire Hoard: Dr. Roger Bland Offers Corrections

Dr. Roger Bland

Yesterday, I criticized use of the expression "Dark Ages" on the Staffordshire Hoard website, which displays in bold letters the following words on its homepage:
"It will redefine the Dark Ages."
Based on the Yahoo article by Raphael G. Satter, "Largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure found in UK," I cited the original quote as the following, more modest statement:
"It will make us rethink the Dark Ages."
Here is the fuller passage from Satter's article:
"This is just a fantastic find completely out of the blue," Roger Bland, who managed the cache's excavation, told The Associated Press. "It will make us rethink the Dark Ages."
Based on this report, I inferred that Dr. Bland had directed the excavation and had used the term "Dark Ages." Neither of those points appears to be correct, as Dr. Bland himself explains to me in a comment that he posted to yesterday's blog entry:
I did not utter the comment that the Staffordshire Hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver would redefine the Dark Ages: that is taken from the press release issued by Staffordshire County Council, which is reproduced on [the Staffordshire Hoard site]. I would not make such a general statement and cannot claim to be an expert on the Dark Ages -- my role is to have oversight of the adminsitration of the find under the Treasure Act.
To be precise about this, I didn't attribute to Dr. Bland the quote on the Staffordshire website, that the discovery "will redefine the Dark Ages." I characterized that as a misquote of what I'd read in the Yahoo article, which purportedly quoted Dr. Bland as stating that the discovery "will make us rethink the Dark Ages." Dr. Bland hasn't specifically denied uttering that statement, but since he emphasizes that he "would not make such a general statement" as the one on the Staffordshire homepage, then I presume that the Yahoo article also misquotes him.

As for my statement that Dr. Bland "directed" the excavation, he explains:
I did not direct the excavation of the hoard: that was carried out by Birmingham archaeology under the direction of Staffordshire County Council, with funding from English Heritage.
I stand corrected. I misunderstood the Yahoo report's statement that Dr. Bland had "managed the cache's excavation." Apparently, the already excavated cache was sent to the British Museum and was there "managed" by Dr. Bland . . . unless this inference is also incorrect.

At any rate, Dr. Bland offers the following summary of the Staffordshire Hoard's significance from Mrs. Leslie Webster, formerly Keeper at the British Museum and leading expert on artefacts of the period in question:
This hoard is going to alter our perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England in the seventh and early eighth century as radically, if not more so, as the 1939 Sutton Hoo discoveries did; it will make historians and literary scholars review what their sources tell us, and archaeologists and art-historians rethink the chronology of metalwork and mss; and it will make us all think again about rising (and failing) kingdoms and the expression of regional identities in this period, the complicated transition from paganism to Christianity, the conduct of battle and the nature of fine metalwork production -- to name only a few of the many huge issues it raises. Absolutely the metalwork equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells.
This is nicely expressed, though it doesn't easily reduce to a sound bite of the sort posted on the Staffordshire Hoard's homepage.

I've learned two lessons from this experience. First, don't trust quotes in the media -- not even if the Associated Press backs it up. Second, my blog occasionally gets read by some of the people mentioned in my posts, which means . . . not very much, probably, except that I need to keep that in mind when composing a blog entry.

Anyway, thanks to Dr. Roger Bland for corrections and clarifications.


Sunday, September 27, 2009

Staffordshire Hoard: "It will redefine the Dark Ages"?

Scholars Already Tying Themselves in Knots?

The Anglo-Saxon treasure that I mentioned two days ago has its own website: The Staffordshire Hoard. Prominently displayed in large font on its homepage is a 'quote' on the significance of the hoard:
"It will redefine the Dark Ages."
I put 'quote' is scare quotes because the original seems to have been less triumphalist. In the Yahoo article by Raphael G. Satter, "Largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure found in UK," which I linked to on Friday, the original quote was given as:
"It will make us rethink the Dark Ages."
The was uttered by Roger Bland, who directed the excavation, and the sentiment was already poorly expressed, for historians these days generally do not refer to this Medieval period as the "Dark Ages," given the negative implications of the expression, which even Wikipedia notes. As Head of the Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure at the British Museum, Dr. Bland must surely know about this. I suppose that he allowed his enthusiasm to overwhelm his vocabulary.

Oddly enough, the experts at The Staffordshire Hoard site seem utterly unaware that the expression is largely held is disrepute, and they even attempt to ramp up the significance of this already significant discovery by misquoting Dr. Bland in altering "rethink" to "redefine."

They might end up tying themselves in knots in trying to defend their use of this expression in future conferences on the significance of the hoard.


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Gerry and the Pacemakers: "Ferry Cross the Mersey"

Ferry Cross the Mersey

Yesterday's news of the treasure hoard found in the former Kingdom of Mercia was the madeleine that triggered a childhood memory of hearing the song "Ferry Cross the Mersey," by the British group Gerry and the Pacemakers.

Why that memory? The "Mersey" of the title refers to the River Mersey that one had to cross to enter the old Kingdom of Mercia . . . though that's not what the song was really about. As a young kid, I didn't know anything about any of that, of course, nor even what the song was actually about, and I imagined some river called "Mercy" and a man being ferried across to the place that he loved. I would sometimes think about that song in my childish way while crossing the old Norfork Lake ferry in the Ozarks at night in those troubled times and imagine a happier place on the other side of some river of mercy.

I must have heard that song on its US release in 1965, for it was very popular. In fact, the band was initially more popular than The Beatles, for its first three singles each reached number one of the charts. Unlike The Beatles, however, Gerry and the Pacemakers seem not to have changed with the times despite also being managed by Brian Epstein, and the group faded from the scene, but the song remains:
"Ferry Cross the Mersey"

Life goes on day after day
Hearts torn in every way

So ferry cross the Mersey
'cause this land's the place I love
And here I'll stay

People they rush everywhere
Each with their own secret care

So ferry cross the Mersey
And always take me there
The place I love

People around every corner
They seem to smile and say
We don't care what your name is boy
We'll never turn you away

So I'll continue to say
Here I always will stay

So ferry cross the Mersey
'cause this land's the place I love
And here I'll stay
And here I'll stay
Here I'll stay
Apparently, he did stay, for the writer and vocalist Gerry Marsden can still be found living in the area today. For more on the group, and also a story of the song's origins, read "The Merseyside Movie," by Bill Harry, who tells us that in the making of an album (to go with a movie!), Marsden was provided the album's title and told to write a song:
Gerry was told that the title song was to be called 'Ferry Cross The Mersey.' Initially he experienced difficulty writing it and would go down to the docks with his fiancée Pauline Behan to stare at the boats. Inspiration took several months -- and then came suddenly!

He'd picked Pauline up one evening to take her out to dinner in Southport when he heard the opening notes of the song in his head as he was driving. He stopped the car and got out to make a phone call to his mother to put the tape recorder to the phone and then he hummed the tune down it. He rushed back to the car, told Pauline the dinner was cancelled, drove back home, rushed into the parlour of his house and completed the title number in three minutes.
And the fruit of that inspiration can still be tasted today . . . and enjoyed as well, if you like the old Mersey Beat.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Anglo-Saxon Hoard Found in Former Kingdom of Mercia

Anglo-Saxon Treasure
(Image from

Exciting news this morning awaited those of us interested in such Anglo-Saxon literature as Beowulf, for we read of an archaeological find with enormous implications for Anglo-Saxon studies. I read of it in Yahoo's article by Raphael G. Satter: "Largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure found in UK."

Roger Bland, the expert who directed the hoard's excavation, calls it a "fantastic find." The treasure was unearthed in the former Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Mercia and is dated to 675-725 AD, which puts it close in time to the composition of that epic poem Beowulf.

Relevant to this literary 'connection' would be the small strip of gold shown above, for it is inscribed with a martial quotation from a Latin version of the Old Testament:
"Rise up, O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face."
Satter doesn't identify the precise source, nor does he provide the Latin, so I shall. It's Numbers 10:35 and says in Latin:
"surge Domine et dissipentur inimici tui et fugiant qui oderunt te a facie tua"
If you compare this verse to the image, you will be able to make out some of the Latin words, albeit differing slightly in spelling, e.g., "dissipentur" is given as "disepentu(r)" and "fugiant" as "fugent."

That will give linguists something to puzzle over, but I'm more interested in possible implications of this warlike verse choice for my theory that in the poem Beowulf, the character "Beowulf is being presented as a pagan antetype of Christ in an epic Anglo-Saxon praeparatio evangelium" that models pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon culture as being under the old covenant described in the Old Testament.

I argue this latter point at length in my article "Praeparatio Evangelium: Beowulf as Antetype of Christ," published back in 2004 by The Medieval and Early Modern English Studies Association of Korea (Volume 12, Issue 2).

The literature scholar Brother Anthony has kindly placed my article online for those intrepid enough to venture in such realms.

UPDATE: Current Archaeology 236 (cf. Wikipedia) provides the entire Latin inscription, "surge d[omi]ne [et] disepentur inimici tui et fugent qui oderunt te a facie tua," and references both Numbers 10:35 (i.e., "surge Domine et dissipentur inimici tui et fugiant qui oderunt te a facie tua") and Psalm 67:2 (i.e., "Exsurgat Deus et dissipentur inimici eius et fugiant qui oderunt eum a facie eius"), but the inscription is obviously much closer to the Numbers citation.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

John Milton and Isaac Newton as 'Charismatic' Prophets

Obvious to anyone who has ever read Paradise Lost is the fact that John Milton considered himself something of a 'prophet' -- or at least a divinely inspired writer -- although he doesn't look especially 'charismatic' in this well-known image:

Rather more wild and woolly looking is the following image of Isaac Newton by Godfrey Kneller, painted in 1689 when Newton was 46 -- some 15 years after Milton's death in 1674 at age 65:

I've not kept up with the scholarship on Newton since I moved away from the history of science, but a lot has apparently been done on his more 'occult' interests. I don't recall him being described as a 'prophet' when I was at Berkeley in the early 1980s, but in a lecture given in 2008 on "Physics and History: Fractured in Modernity," John Heilbron had an interesting response to a question posed at about 54 minutes and 30 seconds into the video by a scientist who found incomprehensible that Newton would pour so much credulous energy into religious studies and who asked why Newton had done this sort of unbelievable work, to which John replied:
Well, I think Newton thought himself a prophet, and he took all knowledge as his sphere and was trying to recover what the ancients knew, and he felt that certain ancient texts required his particular study, mainly -- or among others -- the prophecies of Daniel, and he spent a lot of time trying to identify events subsequent to the prophecy that did occur with their prophetic description. That was part of his self-image. And to employ an analogy, from science you have the quantum Newton. You cannot have Newton the world-system builder, the mathematician -- the towering mathematician -- without Newton the prophet because they come together. They are responding to the same set of problems of the time in which he lived. And so for me, it's a puzzle indeed to think that a man had the energy to devote himself with such ferocity to so wide a range of subjects, but I'm not surprised at all that a mind as capacious as his would have wished, at that time, to undertake such studies. I decline the terms of the question insofar as it implies that we could have had Newton of the Principia without Newton of the Prophecies of Daniel or the Ancient Kingdoms Amended.
I found intriguing John's response that Newton thought himself a prophet, and I wondered if anyone had compared him to Milton, so I inquired on the Milton List:
I was struck by . . . [John Heilbron's] remark in response to a question from a scientist about Newton's 'other' interests . . . . [Heilbron] stated that Newton considered himself a "prophet." What struck me was the fact that Milton thought the same of himself. I wonder if anyone has written a comparison of Milton and Newton, for the former not only seems to have considered himself a prophet but busied himself in all areas of knowledge. Something about the 17th century seems to have driven individuals -- or Milton and Newton, anyway -- to attempt a regrounding of all knowledge. I suppose that it's part of that great historical process set in motion by the collapse of the Medieval worldview.
Professor Todd Butler, of Washington State University, directed me to a recent conference -- Newton: Milton, Two Cultures? (July 22, 2009 – July 24, 2009) -- that included a paper by Professor Stephen M. Fallon on "Milton and Newton: Harmonies and Dissonances." According to the "Abstract":
Coming to Isaac Newton from the perspective of immersion in Milton studies is a heady experience. One learns quickly that Newton, like Milton, is vast and complex. This paper's modest goal is to open some fruitful areas for conversation between Newton scholars and Milton scholars. Both Milton and Newton, as has been pointed out for some time, are quasi-Arians. Both downplay the importance of the atonement in Christian theology. Both think of themselves, though in significantly different ways, as prophets. Both are interested in origins and both write histories, though their relations to fathers and to the political symbolism of fathers are sharply opposed. Perhaps most surprising and interesting to scholars of Milton and of Newton will be the resonances between the two figures' understanding of body and space. Newton's ambivalent relation to the mathematical abstraction of space and bodies, as expressed in his interest in alchemy, recalls in surprising ways Milton's idiosyncratic views on matter and spirit.
This sounds fascinating, as do several other papers at the conference. It also, by the way, hints at why we should reject the so-called Whig histories of scientific progress -- insofar as they force us to divide into rigid categories of "truths" and "errors" the ideas that we find in the past. As John pointed out, we cannot have "Newton of the Principia without Newton of the Prophecies of Daniel or the Ancient Kingdoms Amended." That's partly what makes history fascinating.

And since both Milton and Newton considered themselves 'prophets', I think that applying Max Weber's analysis of charisma to these two towering figures might lead to some interesting insights since both were responding to the collapse of the Medieval worldview and were attempting to reconstruct a system of knowledge grounded in truth and therefore needed something to guarantee that truth. For them, that something would be God.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

John L. Heilbron: "Bancroft Centennial Symposium: Big Science and Big Bridges"

Here's a shorter lecture by John on the humble origins of big science: "Bancroft Centennial Symposium: Big Science and Big Bridges." As usual, he manages to make physics, its context, and its history intelligible, interesting, and humorous.

This story happens to be the tale of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab and its development of the cyclotron, which started in 1931 with Ernest Orlando Lawrence and the so-called 'Rad-Lab' ten years before government began funding scientific work on a large scale, so Lawrence had to collect 'junk' and turn to philanthropists and private investors to support the increasingly expensive experiments conducted with his found art of smashing atoms -- more of a perfomance art, actually, of which he was the due champ and received a Nobel Prize in 1939. I refer, of course, to his use of gigantic magnets thrown away by Federal Telegraph Company and scavanged by Lawrence to assist in accelerating atoms to the speeds requisite for the dirty job of obliterating fellow atoms . . . or at least smashing them to smithereens.

This lecture and the stuff dealt with bring back memories of my history-of-science years even though my forte was history of biology -- not that my own forte was especially fortified or particularly formidable -- but I was constantly hearing John and the others talk about the history of that lab. I suppose that I'm being somewhat self-indulgent these past few days, strolling down memory lane. Still, if you're interested in this sort of thing, i.e., physics and its history, give the video a look-see. It's only about 25 entertaining minutes, time well spent if you like likable lectures on technical stuff.

John, by the way, also has some intriguing things to say, in his conclusion, about big science's bureaucratic tendency to limit scientific discovery, given the risk-averse character of government-funded research.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Crocodiles in Texas?

Yoshihiko and Atsuko Mukoyama
(Image from Baylor Magazine)

My copy of Baylor Magazine arrived yesterday featuring a story by Lane Murphy about Yoshihiko Mukoyama, professor of English in Japan and expert on Robert Browning who studied for his doctorate at Baylor and remained there until shortly after my arrival as a freshman in 1975, though I didn't know of him at that time.

Mukoyama chose Baylor because of the stories of Texas told by his Uncle Kisaku Kitsuta:
The young Mukoyama was fascinated by Kitsuta's tales from Texas, in which he described hunting and fishing in wide open spaces.

"As a foreign national he was not permitted to carry a gun, so he hired someone to carry it," says Mukoyama. "Dr. Kitsuta said he especially enjoyed hunting crocodiles."
Eh? Crocodiles in Texas? I wasn't aware of any crocodiles in Texas. Mukoyama found none either:
"When I came to Waco, I wanted to see the crocodiles, but I could find none in the Brazos River," he says.
So . . . was his Uncle Kisaku speaking of alligators rather than crocodiles? -- not that any alligators are to be found in the Brazos, either.

Can crocodiles actually be found in Texas?

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Monday, September 21, 2009

John L. Heilbron on Contingency in Science and Religion

John L. Heilbron
(Image from You Tube)

Back in 2005, John Heilbron sent me a copy of his article on Jean-André Deluc (1727-1817), "Jean-André Deluc: Citoyen de Genève and Philosopher to the Queen of England," Arch. Sci. Soc. Phys. Hist. Nat. Gen. 58, 75–92 (2005). Here's how John introduces the hero:
The paper begins (§1) with Deluc's liberal politics and exact science in Geneva, proceeds to his move to England (§2), outlines his application of geology to Genesis (§3), and ends with his attempt to unify his Calvinist religion, descriptive science, and increasingly reactionary politics into a program for the salvation of Europe (§4).
John has long maintained an active interest in the relations between science and religion, and given the ironic turn of his mind, he has noted the way in which science's historical development has been both resisted and assisted by religion -- despite the wholesale hostility claimed between science and religion by such earlier historians of science as John William Draper (A History of the Conflict between Religion and Science) and Andrew Dickson White (A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom).

After reading John's paper, I sent back to him my impression of the ironic lesson to be learned from Deluc's role as learned scientist and as Protestant advocate:
Would . . . [the case of Deluc] support the old warfare school in the history of science, or weigh against it? Deluc would seem an exemplar of one who saw no conflict between correct science and true religion, yet he was fighting those who used science against religion, and his own contribution of precision in measurement seems to have led, eventually, to the rejection of a young age for the continents . . . and thus of the earth.
John thought that this was "Exactly right." I added:
I remember once that you asked me what was wrong with too much of an emphasis upon the errors of a man like Decartes, which I was somewhat guilty of at the time that we were discussing the Cartesian system -- more broadly, why we should avoid Whig interpretations on the history of science. I replied: "Because we don't know where we're going." You seemed satisfied with my reply (one of the few occasions).
Again, John expressed perfect agreement:
Exactly right again. My current circumstances (living in a village of 175 people and a pub in remote Oxfordshire) though not as exotic as yours are still not what I would have expected when we had our conversation about Descartes.
There is a contingency to life that can serve to inspire both hopeful enthusiasm and dreadful anxiety -- if one is susceptible to intense emotions -- but applied to the study of history, whether of liberal politics in England after the 17th century or of science in the West since the scientific revolution, that same contingency ought to render us humbler in judging the 'mistakes' made by our predecessors in what might be called "intellectual history" and more open to the unexpected in looking at the vexed issue of science and religion in historical development.

By the way, I've located a couple more presentations by John -- both on history and science, and both providing a big picture -- in two Hitchcock Lectures at UC Berkeley: "Physics and History: Forged in the Baroque" and "Physics and History: Fractured in Modernity."

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

John Heilbron: "nimis cupiditas cognoscendi"?

Linus Pauling

In looking yesterday for the video interview of John Heilbron by Harry Kreisler, I came across another interesting video featuring John, this time of a lecture, "Remarks on the Writing of Biography," given in 1995 at a conference dedicated to Linus Pauling. In that talk, John remarks (somewhat with tongue in cheek):
Biographers may be particularly prone to what Saint Paul called nimis cupiditas cognoscendi -- that is, too great a desire to know.
My Latin isn't very good, but the English translation that John provided didn't immediately strike a chord of memory despite some overtones in Paul's warning words about interesting oneself in human knowledge:
Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. (Colossians 2:8, King James Version)
A Google search for "nimis cupiditas cognoscendi" turned up only John's talk. Perhaps I'm exhibiting this condemned intellectual sin, but I'd like to know where this expression came from. I've managed to find the English expression "too great a desire to know" in Kempis's Imitation of Christ:
Rest from too great a desire to know, because therein is found great discord and delusion. Learned men are very eager to appear, and to be called learned. There is much which it profits the soul little or nothing to know. And foolish indeed is he who gives his attention to other things than those which make for his salvation. (Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, translated by EM Blaiklock, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1979) page 24)
Another translation offers this:
Shun too great a desire for knowledge, for in it there is much fretting and delusion. Intellectuals like to appear learned and to be called wise. Yet there are many things the knowledge of which does little or no good to the soul, and he who concerns himself about other things than those which lead to salvation is very unwise. (Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, translated by Aloysius Croft and Harold Bolton (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1940))
This passage appears in Kempis's second chapter, which opens by quoting Aristotle's famous words from the initial line to his Metaphysics: "Every man naturally desires knowledge." Kempis then goes on to cite Augustine's warning about knowledge, which places Kempis's own warning squarely within the lengthy Christian tradition that put restrictions on curiosity. Indeed, a search for "curiosity" in Kempis's Imitation reveals many warnings against it. However, I lack a Latin copy of Kempis and therefore cannot check the original behind "too great a desire to know."

But maybe this is barking up the wrong tree anyway. Perhaps John meant not "nimis cupiditas cognoscendi" but "nimis cupidus cognoscendi"? I don't think that Saint Paul said that, either, but the second-century writer Apuleius did, in Book Two of his wonderful novel The Golden Ass, which tells how Lucius follows his overeager curiosity into a world of trouble wrought by his transformation into a donkey as punishment for his inquisitive ways, characterized by Lucius as "nimis cupidus cognoscendi quae rara miraque sunt," i.e., "too great a desire to know what is rare and miraculous." Apuleius doesn't have quite the cachet that Saint Paul has, but Augustine did stoop to cite him on the dangers of curiosity, so I think that we can allow him entrance here in John's lecture as the probable source behind what was quoted as "nimis cupiditas cognoscendi."

Future biographers writing on The Life of John Heilbron will undoubtedly thank me for clearing this up . . . especially if I can get John himself to supply a comment to this blog entry.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

John Heilbron on Dirac: "interest only in the numbers"

Paul Dirac
(Image from Wikipedia)

On the 14th of this month, I posted an entry that focused on three curious intellects, including the mind of Paul Dirac, and I quoted a review by Louisa Gilder, "Quantum Leap," of Graham Farmelo's recent biography, The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom.

In my heart of hearts, I still have a soft spot for the history of science, and vividly recall reading John Heilbron's biography of Max Planck, which I read and discussed with John himself since he was one of my professors at Berkeley, so I sent John a note about the Dirac book:
You might be already aware of this review and the book, too, but just in case you've not seen either, I've pasted the review and a link below.

I'm reminded of your book on Max Planck, which likewise brings a rigorous man of science alive. Dirac seems a whole lot odder -- some suggestion that he might have been autistic, it seems.
John replied:
Thank you very much for the reference, which my wife also fished out of the torrent of information that passes me by every day.

I once lectured to an audience that included Dirac. I showed a few tables that illustrated something or another, easily the dullest part of the talk. He showed interest only in the numbers.
When I first met John, I thought that he himself was interested mostly in the numbers. He had been working on a doctorate in physics when he switched over to history of science under the influence of Thomas Kuhn (who included an acknowledgement to John in his famous book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). But John turned out to be much more than a numbers man, as his book on Planck shows.

In fact, John is the man who informed me of how I could switch my dissertation topic from history of science to early Christianity while still, technically, remaining a doctoral student in his program . . . though that may have simply been his most opportune moment for getting rid of me since I was clearly not best suited for history of science. At any rate, I've forever been profoundly grateful to the man.

For an interesting interview with John, see the You Tube video on "Science and History," from the series Conversations with History, hosted by Harry Kreisler, in UC Berkeley's Institute of International Studies.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Avoiding Swine Flu: Rule Nr. 1

Never Do This!

From an old friend comes this caution on cultural practices that need to be abandoned in today's contagious times.

Although unspecified, I take it that this photo was intended to illustrate the basis for recent concern in France about "la bise," the French term for their cultural tradition of greeting with a kiss, which The Telegraph tells us "is facing a ban due to fears that kissing is the best way to catch swine flu." Some schools in France have already taken this precaution:
Schools in the town of Guilvinec, in Brittany, western France, were the first to introduce a bise ban for teachers and students.

"I asked the children not to kiss anymore," said Helene Tanguy, the mayor. (Henry Samuel, "France facing 'la bise' ban over swine flu fears," The Telegraph, September 8, 2009)
I think that this ban is a sensible precaution. Sadly, some cultural practices have to be relinquished, and "la bise" is one of these, especially since it has been adopted outside France -- I first heard of "French kissing" while growing up in the Ozarks in the 1960s and 70s and vividly recall encountering it in California in the 1980s!

I urge everyone, therefore, to please warn children not to kiss pigs lest they contribute to the spread of swine flu.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Korean Multiculturalism: "Tuts My Barreh"

"Tuts My Barreh"
It's radical!
(Image from You Tube)

I have never been one to shy away from controversy over what I consider the dangers of radical multiculturalism and have therefore long cautioned Koreans not to make the same mistake that Europeans have made in rushing headlong toward some putative multicultural utopia only to find themselves in a dystopian reality, but I will always be the first to admit that I have been wrong . . . and I have indeed been wrong.

From my polymathic friend Malcolm Pollack comes this rich linguistic evidence that even radical multiculturalism can work as an unknown young Korean man sings with gay abandon what seems to be a complex multilingual mix titled "Tuts My Barreh." The video can be viewed on You Tube, which also includes the lyrics as subtitles, and I've gone to the trouble to type them up for my readers' pleasure:
Tuts My Barreh

I know that you bean waiting for me, I'm weighing too
Inma inaiinasin I be a lump on you
I know you cop dat fever for me hundrentu
Bo I know dat fir sem my temperentthru

If there's a camel up a hill
Then it's Gong Li with me when I do I do
If there's a camel up a hill
Then its asbestos flaygon you too you too
Coz if you run your mother break a bottle sicker run day boo
I will hunt chu down
Coz baby I'm up in my beegees like a windy interview
But dis is prry vee bit two in eye

Tuts my barreh
Pull me on the flow
Wrestle me around
Play it wit some more
Tuts my barreh
Throw me on the bay
I juss wanna mek yu fill like yu never dee
Tuts my barreh
Rape me in my thighs
Uh around your way
Just a little taze
Tuts my barreh
Know you love my cock
Come on a give me water dessert

Bo you can poo me on yolakka branoo eye-tee
I'll honk you berra tara den my favorite cheese
I want you to caress me like a tropical priest
A flororo with you in the caribbean se

If there's a camel up a hill
Then it's Gong Li with me when I do I do
If there's a camel up a hill
Then its asbestos flaygon you too you too
Coz if you run your mother break a bottle sicker run day boo
I will hunt chu damn
Coz baby I'm up in my beegees like a windy interview
But dis is prry v bit two in eye

Tuts my barreh
Pull me on the flow
Wrestle me around
Play it wit some more
Tuts my barreh
Throw me on duh bay
I juss wanna mek yu fill like yu never dee
Tuts my barreh
Rape me in my thighs
Uh around your way
Just a little taze
Tuts my barreh
Know you love my cock
Come on a give me water dessert

Don't you like a teddybear
You won, wanna go Norway?
In the labor luxury
Boys just turn to me
You wanna run for nothing bo
I will give you plankton

Tuts my barREH!
Pull me on the flow
Lesson me around
Play it wit some more
Tuts my barreh
Throw me on the bay
I juss wanna mek yu fill like yu never dee
Tuts my barreh
Rape me in my thighs
Araranyo way
Just a little Tay
Tuts my barreh
Know you love my cock
Come on a give me water dessert

And toss meh

oyEe oyEe oyEe oyEe oyEe a a a a a
ohyEe ohyEe ohyEe ohyEe ohyEe ohyEe
a A a A a
hoOOOooOOoo hoo hoo babeh
oooooOOOOOooOOo oo oo tuts my
aaaaAAaaaAaa aah aahh uhaughh

Come on and give me water dessERt!

hooooooohohoOho ohooho ahuh
Now I may be no credentialed judge of musical ability, but I'll go out on a limb and say that this music video reveals a young man with enough raw musical talent to rival the vocal skills of Paul Potts or Susan Boyle.

I anticipate this video soon to go viral.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Charles Murray on Christianity's Role in Forming the Modern West

Charles Murray
Human Accomplishment
(Image from

I'm late coming to this book by Charles Murray, who is better known for more controversial views on intelligence, but it offers a thought-provoking thesis about the role of Christianity in forming the modern West:
This brings us to [the] role of Christianity in modern Europe. Mine is far from an original conclusion, but in recent decades it has not been fashionable, so I should state the argument explicitly: The Greeks laid the foundation, but it was the transmutation of that foundation by Christianity that gave modern Europe its impetus and differentiated European accomplishment from that of all other cultures around the world.

Christianity did not bestow that impetus immediately. It took more that a thousand years. Through its early centuries, Christianity as practiced was not individualistic. On the contrary, early Christianity was absorbed in the collective Christian community to which individuals routinely subordinated their own interests. It was Christian theology itself that was potentially revolutionary, teaching that all human beings are invited into a personal relationship with God, and that all individuals are equal in God's sight regardless of their earthly station. Furthermore, eternal salvation is not reserved for those who renounce the world but is available to all who believe and act accordingly. It was a theology that empowered the individual acting as an individual as no other philosophy or religion had ever done before.

The potentially revolutionary message was realized more completely in one part of Christendom, the Catholic West, than in the Orthodox East. The crucial difference was that Roman Catholicism developed a philosophical and artistic humanism typified, and to a great degree engendered, by Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274). Aquinas made the case, eventually adopted by the Church, that human intelligence is a gift from God, and that to apply human intelligence to understanding the world is not an affront to God but is pleasing to him. Aquinas taught that human autonomy is also a gift from God, and that the only way in which humans can realize the relationship with God that God intends is by exercising that autonomy. Aquinas taught that faith and reason are not in opposition, but complementary.

In sum, Aquinas grafted a humanistic strain onto Christianity that joined an inspirational message of God's love and his promise of immortality with an injunction to serve God by using all of one's human capacities of intellect and will -- and to have a good time doing it. (Charles Murray, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, HarperCollins, 2003, pages 402-3)
In other words, minus Christianity, there might have been no 'modern' world of science and technology, nor of other great accomplishments, a thesis that indeed "has not been fashionable" lately, as Murray notes, and is thus almost as controversial as his views on intelligence.

One might point out that by Murray's own words, "a humanistic strain" external to Christianity was just as necessary in the formation of our modern world, but I take it that without the "inspirational message of God's love and his promise of immortality" provided by Christianity, then the "injunction to serve God by using all of one's human capacities of intellect and will" might not have been as readily obeyed.

This deserves further analysis, but I'm currently under the weather and thus lack the energy to follow through.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Samuel Helfont: "Politics, Terrorism, and the Sunni Divide"

'Qibla' Quibble?
What Direction Sunni Islam?
(Image from Wikipedia)

Samuel Helfont, doctoral student in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, has written an article for the Foreign Policy Research Institute's E-Notes, "Politics, Terrorism, and the Sunni Divide," that is required reading for anyone interested in contemporary Islamism. Helfont opens the article with perfect clarity:
Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood are two distinct forms of Sunni Islamism. They have separate histories and separate worldviews. In reality they are not even the same type of movement. Their origins were largely unrelated. Their historic missions have been completely different, as are their current goals and means of achieving those goals. Unfortunately, these differences too often are overshadowed by a false Sunni-Shia dichotomy that tends to lump all Sunni Islamists together. But learning the differences between Sunni Islamists is critical to understanding politics and terrorism in the Arab Middle East. One could even argue that the most important division shaping Arab politics is not between Sunnis and Shias but between the Wahhabis and the Brotherhood. Before delving into current issues, however, it is first necessary to define differences between Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood.
One might suspect that Helfont is somewhat exaggerating the significance of the internal Sunni divide over the more traditional Sunni-Shia divide, but he manages to clarify for me a distinction internal to Sunnism that I had sensed but lacked the expertise to articulate. As "an Iraq war veteran and . . . intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve," Helfont perhaps had a practical bent along with the experience that led him to notice the difference and investigate it.

Basically, he argues that Wahhabism is a reactionary, puritanical Islamist movement that seeks to reform Islam in light of strictly defined Islamic categories and thus rejects any ideas contaminated by non-Islamic sources of inspiration, whereas the Muslim Brotherhood is a radical, politicized Islamist movement that seeks to reconceptualize Islam in light of contemporary ideologies, both Islamic and non-Islamic. This does not mean that the Muslim Brotherhood is liberal by Western standards -- the Brotherhood accepts suicide bombing, for example -- but it does mean that it is more willing to compromise with democratic processes than is Wahhabism. This does not make the Muslim Brotherhood friendly to the West, of course, as we see in Helfont's analysis of the difference between the Brotherhood and Wahhabism:
Because of this friction between pre-modern and modern norms, the Muslim Brotherhood has reinterpreted the meaning of jihad, infusing it with modern concepts. It generally understands jihad as resistance to expansionist warfare and imperialism. It does not consider domestic political violence to be jihad and it condemns attacks on other Muslims. The only time the Brotherhood considers jihad to be legitimate is when it takes place on Muslim land that it deems occupied by a non-Muslim force. Today, this would include Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir and other similar locales. Once jihad is declared, however, the Brotherhood uses whatever means it has at its disposal. This includes suicide bombings, targeting civilians, and the use of women and children . . . . Wahhabists generally see the Brotherhood's reinterpretation of jihad as an abomination. Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab's interpretation of jihad makes no apology for aggression. In fact offensive jihad was essential for the spread of Wahhabism in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The famous union between abd al-Wahhab and Muhammad ibn Saud was based on the idea that Saud would have much to gain from religiously-sanctioned expansive warfare.
Neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor Wahhabism are compatible with Western Civilization's basic values, but their hostility will be differently expressed and acted upon and will therefore need to be differently responded to, and Helfont offers some policy recommendations. To deal with the Wahhabists, Westerners would need to gain expertise in Islamic laws and values, especially in the Wahhabist tradition. To deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, one could take advantage of contradictions in its unstable mix of modern and premodern ideas.

All this is quite interesting to consider.

One problem with Helfont's analysis, however, is that it does not very well account for the rise of Al Qaeda, which combines aspects of both types of Islamism -- as Helfont notes -- for given the stark distinction drawn between the two, one wouldn't expect to find such a combination.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Three Curious Intellects: Kennan, Dirac, Drabble

Rarely do I read three excellent newspaper articles in a row, but I did so this weekend in the International Herald Tribune -- though I cite from the New York Times.

'Classified' (not!) photograph of poker-faced "X" -- author of the "X Article":

(Image from New York Times)

The first article comes from the pen of Mark Atwood Lawrence, "Friends, Not Allies," about George Kennan and Paul H. Nitze in Nicholas Thompson's study, The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War. Lawrence channels Thompson to note:
Kennan rose to prominence in 1946, when the Truman administration urgently wanted to understand the reasons for Soviet hostility to the West. The senior United States diplomat at the embassy in Moscow, Kennan offered eloquent and forcefully argued answers. Soviet belligerence sprang from a mix of Marxist ideology and old-fashioned power-­mongering, he said. He then proposed that Washington adopt a policy not of directly confronting Moscow but of frustrating it by opposing Communists wherever they threatened to expand their influence beyond their borders. Over the long term, Kennan predicted, constant frustration would cause the Soviet system to mellow and then collapse.
Kennan had an enormous influence on America's foreign policy of "containment," a strategy that he proposed in his famous cable written from Moscow in 1946, to which he signed "X" rather than his name.

Next, a childhood photograph of an 'angelic' Paul Dirac (replete with wings!) in 1907:

(Image from New York Times)

This second article, Louisa Gilder's review -- "Quantum Leap" -- of Graham Farmelo's The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom, quotes Freeman Dyson:
The great papers of the other quantum pioneers were more ragged, less perfectly formed than Dirac's . . . . [Dirac's discoveries] were like exquisitely carved marble statues falling out of the sky, one after another. He seemed to be able to conjure laws of nature from pure thought.
Dirac is perhaps most famous for the equation named for him, the Dirac equation, which brought together quantum mechanics and special relativity to describe the 'spin' of certain particles (e.g., the electron), and by implication demanded the existence of "antiparticles" . . . not that I understand much about this stuff.

Finally, in 'living color,' Margaret Drabble takes her stand:

(Image from New York Times)

This third article, Daphne Merkin's "Dame of the British Interior," based on an interview with Margaret Drabble, speaks about this literary 'prodigy' in the time soon after her marriage to Clive Swift:
The couple spent the first years of their marriage in Stratford-on-Avon as members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, where Drabble understudied actresses like Vanessa Redgrave and Judi Dench. When she became pregnant with their first child, however, (they had three children together), she gave up on her acting career and turned to writing. As Drabble tells it, the shift to writing sounds suspiciously easy -- she didn't know anyone in Stratford and she was alone most evenings while her husband was out socializing, so presto! she "sat down and wrote a book." It is, I suspect, a tribute to the dauntingly strong will that thrums beneath her overtly uncompetitive self-presentation. "I don't like to be beaten by things," Drabble admitted, almost uneasily. "It's another go, another day."
Drabble is famous for being the younger sister of A. S. Byatt and for coining the expression "acid-reflux anti-Americanism." Just kidding. She's famous for her many novels, as well as for her screenplays, plays, and short stories and her critical studies of other writers, along with various other nonfiction works. In short, prolific.

In each of these individuals, the actual process of analyzing, thinking, and creating was undoubtedly more arduous than described in the NYT articles . . . yet, I'm struck with how easily the three went about their work.

That sort of thing fascinates me, but make of it what you will . . . or willn't.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Rémi Brague's Longer Reply on "Cosmology as a Postulate"

Rémi Brague
(Image from Nexus Instituut)

Some readers might recall a previous post on a fascinating interview that the two medievalists Christophe Cervellon and Kristell Trego conducted with Rémi Brague as a sort of introduction to his book of essays, The Legend of the Middle Ages. In that post, I called into question the heading that I thought that an editor had provided. The heading, followed by the passage, came upon the heels of Brague's remark that for modern people, "Nothing in the physical world responds to man's ethical demands":
Cosmology as a Postulate
"To be sure, for premodern man, the presence of the world, which he felt as a kosmos, was not a model to be imitated in any literal sense. Pretending to believe this to be the case is unfair, as it might be amusing to explain by the use of Kant's concepts. The role of the cosmic order is analogous to that of the postulates of practical reason. Those postulates -- liberty, the existence of a just God, and the immortality of the soul -- are of no use as a basis for moral law, which is sufficient unto itself and draws its obligation from an intrinsic authority that it has no need to borrow from elsewhere. Such postulates serve to guarantee the possibility of the supreme Good -- that is, the agreement between what the Law demands and the order of the real world. One might say that the kosmos was less a model demanding conformity than an example that shows, from the simple fact that it exists, that ethical conduct is possible. The major difference between the premodern vision of the world and Kant's morality is that realization of the good is for Kant only postulated. It remains, so to speak, in the domain of faith and hope. For men of ancient and medieval times, on the other hand, the sovereignty of the good was already given in the cosmic harmony. One only need acknowledge it."
At the time that I blogged on this, I stated that a cursory reading of the passage seemed to allow for the heading supplied, namely, "Cosmology as a Postulate," but that a closer reading led me to think that Brague would reject the heading as utterly counter to his point. I commented as follows:
True . . . [Brague] says that "The role of the cosmic order [for premodern men] is analogous to that of the postulates of practical reason [for Kant]," but this is not the same as calling cosmology a "postulate." Kant's postulates of "liberty, the existence of a just God, and the immortality of the soul" all "serve to guarantee the possibility of the supreme Good -- that is, the agreement between what the Law demands and the order of the real world." The similarity is thus that "the kosmos was . . . an example that shows, from the simple fact that it exists, that ethical conduct is possible." But cosmology was not a postulate because "For men of ancient and medieval times, . . . the sovereignty of the good was already given in the cosmic harmony." Since it was already given, it had no need to be postulated.
Well, as things turn out, I was utterly wrong in my construal of Brague's words -- though I take comfort in the fact that I am accustomed by now to being wrong -- for I wrote to Brague last summer, inquiring as to his meaning, and he replied with a cordial email letting me know that he was currently on vacation in the hinterlands of France but that he would reply upon returning to Paris. Here is that more recent reply:
I am back in Paris, and not really twiddling my thumbs, for I'll have to resume teaching in three weeks. Nevertheless, I keep my promise: not being a gentleman, I must pretend to act as one. The title "Cosmology as a Postulate" is not to be laid at the door of some editor. I am responsible for it. What I meant is, more or less adequately, what follows: For ancient man, moral life did not require properly speaking the well-ordered character of the world, its deserving the name of a kosmos. There are ethical theories that draw the parallel between morality and cosmological phenomena, like Plato's Timaeus or the Stoics; but others do not even mention them, which does not prevent them from building a highly respectable moral teaching: the Atomists are a good example, although Aristotle deserves pride of place among those people. The orderliness and beauty of the physical universe was a not a reason for the Ancient man to do good and avoid evil; conversely, the hypothesis (a nightmare for the ancient world-view) of a total lack of order would not be an excuse for an unlawful behaviour. See Marcus Aurelius, quoted in Wisdom . . . , p. 76-77. In the same way, moral law, according to Kant, does not need a divine Legislator. What is needed is to postulate that morality and the happiness that morality makes us worthy of, but can't guarantee us, somehow meet. Nevertheless, the beautiful order of the world shows us that Being and Goodness coincide. Perhaps I should have compared the part played by the ancient kosmos with another Kantian doctrine, i.e. his christology. For Kant, Christ is not so much a model to be imitated (President Wilson's "What would Jesus do if he were at my place?"), but rather an example that shows us that absolute conformity to the Moral Law, i.e. holiness, is possible.
Appended to this passage was Brague's "hope that this will be helpful." Certainly, it helps me to understand his point -- namely, to understand that I had seriously misunderstood and that Brague's point was almost entirely the opposite from my understanding . . . a rather humbling experience, to be sure, but I often run up against my limitations. Fortunately, like a proper Clint Eastwood character, I do know my limitations. Or at least, I'm willing to recognize them for what they are: my limitations.

Anyway, if I do now understand Brague's point, it is this: the moral law would hold for the ancient philosophers even if the cosmos were to display no such order, much as the moral law would hold for Kant even if there had been no incarnation of the Son, but both the cosmos and the Son display an excellence that is not so much to be imitated as to serve as a demonstration that an exact conformity to God's law is possible. Allow me to apply this understanding to a passage from the Brague interview that I had previously quoted only in part:
In my Wisdom of the World, I began with four ideal-typical models: the "Timaeus" model (broadly speaking, the main current of ancient philosophy from Plato to Proclus, including the Stoics), Epicurus, "Abraham," and Gnosticism. Building on generally similar descriptions of the world, each of these proposes a different response to the question "What we are doing on this earth?" Are we imitating the beautiful order of the heavenly bodies; comfortably settling in on an island of humanity within an indifferent universe; drawing ourselves closer to the creator of a good world, but obeying his law or following his Son; or, finally, fleeing, not, as Mallarmé invites us, là-bas, but to on high, toward an alien God, escaping an imperfect or prison-like world? The ancient and medieval model, which held firm for a good millennium and a half, emerged out of a compromise between "Timaeus" and "Abraham." What interests me is not so much its description (even if I have had to pursue a description in some detail), but rather the problem posed by its disappearance with the modern age. It left us alone. Nothing in the physical world responds to man's ethical demands.
The medieval "worldview" -- a term designating a perspective broader than merely a 'view of the world' -- was an unstable compromise between Plato's description of a more-or-less perfectly ordered world and the Christian one of fallen-but-still-good world. That 'compromised' world served not as a model to be imitated but as an illustration that conformity with God's law was possible. With the modern age, this understanding of the cosmic order has collapsed, for the world does not seem to correspond, even as illustration, to our ethical needs.

I might need to obtain a copy of Brague's Wisdom of the World and read it carefully, comparing his views on the emergence of modernity with those of Hans Blumenberg in Legitimacy of the Modern Age.

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Bruce Hoffman on "Religious Terrorism"

Bruce Hoffman
(Image from Voice of America)

I'm now reading another of the very short introduction booklets that I bought last week, this one on Terrorism by Charles Townsend, and I've found it useful. He cites and summarizes Bruce Hoffman's views on religious terrorism from Inside Terrorism (London: Victor Gollancz, 1998), which is probably somewhat dated in our post-9/11 era. Anyway, here's Townsend's summary:
Hoffman . . . propose[s] the core characteristics of religious terrorism. First, it has a transcendental function rather than a political one: it is 'executed in direct response to some theological demand or imperative.' Second, unlike secular terrorists, religious terrorists often seek 'the elimination of broadly defined categories of enemies' and are undeterred by the politically counterproductive potential of indiscriminate killing. Finally, and crucially, they are not attempting to appeal to any other constituency than themselves. (Townsend, Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: OUP, 2002)
Interesting, but I disagree in part . . . and suspect that Hoffman might also now have altered some of this since 9/11.

The first characteristic still entirely holds, of course. Al Qaeda certainly believes itself to be acting upon a theological imperative, for it legitimizes its actions by appeal to the Qur'an and hadith (traditions about Muhammad), and it seeks to obtain supportive fatwas (religious legal rulings).

The second characteristic is largely still correct, but we should note that Al Qaeda desires not exclusively elimination, for it is willing to settle for conversion of infidels to Islam. Bin Laden's statement soon after 9/11 -- as some may remember -- was a call for Americans to convert to Islam.

The third characteristic is almost entirely incorrect, in my opinion. Al Qaeda appeals to a broader constituency than itself. It appeals to the Sunni Muslim world -- or tries to do so in an attempt to radicalize Sunnis worldwide and bring them into a jihad aimed at killing or converting infidels.

I could back these points up with facts gleaned from Al Qaeda's statements, but I figure that my observations are pretty obvious and uncontestable anyway, so I'll leave them as they are -- unsupported but widely recognized.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Sara Elizabeth Low of American Airlines Flight 11: Tracey Alderete Remembers

Sara Elizabeth Low
(Image from Boston Herald)

Eight years ago, American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City at 8:46 local time, killing hundreds in the tower and all 92 people aboard the plane, including flight attendant Sara Low, a 28-year-old woman from Batesville, Arkansas whom my brother Tim knew.

Every year since my brother told me that he knew Sara Low, I've posted a 9/11 memorial entry about her. Today, I want to draw readers' attention to a memory of Sara Low posted on my blog March 7th this year by Tracey Alderete, a woman who met Sara Low in San Francisco two days before 9/11:
I was with my best friend, who is an American Flight attendant and worked the flight to San Francisco two days before 9/11. I got to know Sara along with several other flight attendants from Boston on that flight. I must say it was my most favourite flight in memory (I fly a lot with my friend) as they all were so fun and just plain hospitable to me. I joked with Sara to stop bringing me food (all the crew were filling me up with drink and food) and asked her if she was trying to fatten me up like a Christmas goose! I rode with them all to the Hilton here in SF and later that night met for drinks at Red Room on Sutter. We ate at a little Thai restaurant around the corner. I took several photos of the group and one that haunts me still -- Sara looking so beautiful in SF. Sara wanted to go dancing and through much talk and some of the crew being tired, we didn't go but I wish we had now. The following day we all somehow ended up biking in Golden Gate Park, by chance running into each other at different locations. The day was so beautiful with perfect warmth and sunshine. We ate at Cha-cha's and then headed back to the hotel to get the crew van to SFO and back to Boston. Again the flight was super fun with the crew (in my opinion the best Hub of crew in American) laughing and having great conversations. When we landed at about 7 am in Boston, the weather was gorgeous as if San Francisco had come back with us. We were all on the train platform going back to the city. Sara was excited because she had just moved into a new place and her mom was coming up to help decorate it. Sara said she was going home to sleep as she was picking up a flight to LA the next morning for someone else. We all hugged and said we should all get together for drinks soon or on another flight which ever came first.

Sara was one of the most naturally beautiful women I had the greatest fortune to have met, though briefly, and she is permanently etched in my heart. She was a radiant person and we all have been robbed of a very unique, extremely kind young woman.

I lost several flight attendant friends that day and they each are so special in my heart. I wish I had met Sara earlier I know we would have been friends, you just got that feeling when talking to her. Luckily my best friend, who like Sara picked up a flight for someone else, . . . ended up getting grounded in Vermont.

We talk about Sara and the others when we fly together, they are always in our thoughts. Thank you for posting this page with regards to Sara!
As I told Ms. Alderete when she posted this, all thanks is due her for this heartfelt story about Sara Low the final two days before September 11th, 2001. I am merely the messenger.

For some, the vivid memory of that dreadful day is fading, and I suppose that it is with me as well, but take some time at least to think of Sara Low and the others who died eight years ago today.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Thomas Pink: A 'Humean' Defense of Libertarian Freedom

David Hume
Looking rather regal . . .
Portrait by Allan Ramsey (1766)
(Image from Wikipedia)

Toward the end of his short introduction to the issue of free will, Dr. Thomas Pink brings in the thought of David Hume in an argument that had already occurred to me as a potential defense of libertarian freedom. Many critics have singled out the putative 'mysteriousness' of "freedom," but "causation" is perhaps just as 'mysterious':
Hume thought causal power was just as hidden from us as the sceptic supposes libertarian freedom to be. He thought that our experience never actually represents causation to us. All we have direct experience or awareness of, Hume argued, is regularities in nature -- one kind of thing, such as a fire being lit, regularly being followed by another kind of thing, water above it boiling. We never have direct awareness of something else, causal force, as a further feature in the world connecting these. (Pink, Free Will: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, page 121)
By analogy, then, if we are going to accept causation, we should be willing to accept libertarian freedom, i.e., free will. About forty pages earlier, on page 82, Dr. Pink has already made a threefold distinction that is relevant here:
Causally Predetermined . . . so . . . Uncontrolled by us (Causation)

Causally Undetermined . . . and . . . Uncontrolled by us (Randomness)

Causally Undetermined . . . and . . . Controlled by us (Freedom)
By "Uncontrolled," Dr. Pink doesn't mean that we can't interact with causal or random events, but rather that they are not subject to our control in the way that our decisions are. The plausibility of this threefold distinction depends partly on what one thinks about "Randomness." I realize that many people believe that quantum mechanics supports the view that some events are purely random (much as macroscopic physics supports the view that most events are entirely causal), but quantum mechanics may be a limited understanding rather than capturing an ontological truth about nature. One might add that the 'random' events of quantum mechanics are not purely random anyway since they have a certain predictability and follow patterns that express lawlike behavior, which perhaps implies some large degree of causality operating at the subatomic level even if one takes the randomness seriously.

If quantum mechanics should turn out to be incomplete and subatomic particles discovered to be entirely causal in their interrelations, the threefold distinction collapses into a twofold distinction unsupported by science and thereby somewhat less plausible, though this twofold distinction would continue to receive the support of our firsthand experience and of a Humean emphasis upon the 'mysteriousness' of causality.

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