Friday, June 29, 2012

Two More Views of Islam: Thomas Carlyle and Sir Richard F. Burton

 [  The following was originally posted on MySpace on  March 10, 2007. ]

Several weeks ago, reference was made here to the view of Islam presented in Henry Preserved Smith's fascinating little book The Bible and Islam. Smith, a Presbyterian theologian, wrote more than a century ago, an epoch far removed from the current controversy in the Middle East. For two more views of Islam, I have read again portions of the works of Thomas Carlyle and Sir Richard F. Burton. Carlyle's essay on Mahomet (his transliteration of the name) appeared in his book On Heroes and Hero Worship, published in 1841. Carlyle, in his inimitable style, presents an overview of the life of Mahomet, telling of his belated calling as a prophet when he was 40 years of age, his announcement of his new revelation when he was 50, of his gaining of only fourteen adherents in the three years then following, and of his flight for his life, which was threatened by outraged idolators, when he was 53, in 623 A.D. Carlyle believes that the astounding success which followed this nadir in the fortunes of Mahomet was due more to the decadence of the Christian church in the Middle East than to Mahomet's militancy. Carlyle believes that the initial impetus for Mahomet's creed came from his reaffirmation of a monotheism. In Carlyle's words,

"  Mahomet's Creed we called a kind of Christianity; and really, if we look at the wild rapt earnestness with which it was believed and laid to heart, I should say a better kind than that of those miserable Syrian Sects, with their vain janglings about ---- Homoiousion - and – Homoousion – , the head full of worthless noise, the heart empty and dead! The truth of it is embedded in portentous error and falsehood; but the truth of it makes it be believed, not the falsehood: it succeeded by its truth. A bastard kind of Christianity, but a living kind; with a heart-life in it; not dead, chopping barren logic merely! Out of all that rubbish of Arab idolatries, argumentative theologies, traditions, subtleties, rumors and hypotheses of Greeks and Jews, with their idle wire-drawings, this wild man of the Desert, with his wild sincere heart, earnest as death and life, with his great flashing natural eyesight, had seen into the kernel of the matter. Idolatry is nothing: these Wooden Idols of yours, "ye rub them with oil and wax, and the flies stick on them,"--these are wood, I tell you! They can do nothing for you; they are an impotent blasphemous presence; a horror and abomination, if ye knew them. God alone is; God alone has power; He made us, He can kill us and keep us alive: "--Allah akbar--, God is great." Understand that His will is the best for you; that howsoever sore to flesh and blood, you will find it the wisest, best: you are bound to take it so; in this world and in the next, you have no other thing that you can do.  "
Samuel Clemens found much material for humor in the dispute between the Homoousians and Homoiousians, between those who asserted that Christ was of identical substance with the Father in contrast to those who maintained that Christ was only created from a similar substance. It is a fact, though, that, although the Christian church had won most of the Middle East by the time that Mohamet was born in 570 A.D., it was beset with disputes from the beginning. Even the pastoral epistles in the New Testament confirm this. (Perhaps it can be argued in favor of the authenticity of the New Testament record that no other holy book is so revelatory of the faults and failings of the first followers of a faith. Such candor is unparalleled.)
Sir Richard F. Burton is best known as the translator of the Arabian Nights and for his account of his pilgrimage to Mecca, at risk of his life and disguised as a Moslem. While Burton published an account of his pilgrimage during his life, his essay "El Islam, or the Rank of Muhammadanism among the Religions of the World," written in 1853, was published only in 1898, posthumously, as one of the essays in the book The Jew, the Gypsy and El Islam. Surprisingly, and with no reference to Carlyle, Burton also affirms that Islam won its initial success because it arose against a Middle Eastern church that had become decadent, mired down in disputation, distracted into fruitless anchoritism. He begins almost sarcastically to relate that,
"  When the master-minds had vanished from the scene, their successors in the East introduced other and less defensible changes. Christianity in the East was surrounded by the impurest of influences. Its latitude of belief and absence of ceremonial allowed it to be worked upon by the theurgic incarnations of the Buddhists, the demiurgic theories of the Eastern and Western Gnostics, the Triad of the Brahmans, the Dualism of the Persians, the Pharisaic doctrine of the first Son of the Supreme—Osiris in a new shape—together with the metaphysics of the Ebionites, the Speculatists, and other sects of Grecian or rather of Egyptian origin. From the Straits of Hercules to the coast of Coromandel, it was split up into a legion of heresies and schisms. Syria and Arabia seem to have been the grand central focus. The Church was distracted by the frowardness of her children, and the Religion of Love was dishonoured by malice and hate, persecution and bloodshed.
"  Still the reformed religion throve—and what tenets do not?—under the influence of a moderate persecution. When, however, under the rule of Constantine, the sun of prosperity poured its splendours full upon the favoured faith, an ascetic enthusiasm, gloomy ideas of seclusion, celibacy, and self-immolation, and a censure on wealth and industry pronounced by religious hallucination, in fact the poisonous portions of the Essene School, spread subtilely through the whole body of Christianity. Everywhere in the East these practices require to be suppressed, not to be encouraged. Where the face of Nature is gay and riant, to impressionize mankind gloom and horror in the World of Spirit are contrasted with the glory and the brilliancy of the scenes of sense. This is the stronghold of the Demonolatry and Witchcraft of the Fetissist, the abominable paganisms of the Hindu, the superstitious follies of the Guebre, and the terrible Sabaism of the ancient Mexican. All are perfectly suitable to the genius of the people, to the climate, and to the scenery around them.
"  Thus in Syria and Egypt Christianity became degraded. It sank into a species of idolatry. The acme of absurdity was attained by the Stylites, who conceived that mankind had no nobler end than to live and die upon the capital of a column. Thus nations were weakened. Self-mortification and religious penances soon degenerate a race, especially in hot climates, where a moderate indulgence in the comforts, the luxuries, and the pleasures of life strengthens the body and with it the mind of man. The founders of Christianity had neglected to insist upon daily prayer at stated times, and ceremonial cleanliness, which is next to godliness. They forgot those dietetic directions and prescriptions so necessary in the East, and allowed the use of inebrients, together with impure and unwholesome meats as pork and rabbit's flesh. Man's physique suffered from their improvidence. Thus, whilst Christianity increased in numbers and powers, some once populous and flourishing countries—Egypt for instance—declined, and fell to the lowest depths of degradation. It is the race of man that exalts the faith in proportion to man's moral and material excellence. The faith fails, on the other hand, to raise a degraded race. . . . "About the sixth century of its era the Christian world called loudly for reform. When things were at their worst, Muhammad first appeared upon the stage of life. It is here proposed to touch briefly upon the points wherein due measure of justice has not yet been dealt by philosophic and learned Europe to the merits and value of El Islam. The Western nations were so long taught to look upon the forcible propagandism of Muhammad as a creed personally hostile to them, they were so deeply offended by the intolerant Deism and Monotheism of the scheme, and finally so rancoured by their fierce wars and deadly collisions with the Muslim, that certain false views have long been, and still continue to be, part or rather essence of the subject.  "
Neither Carlyle nor Burton predicts a great future for Islam.  Both believe that it triumphed initially due to the weaknesses of the Christian church.  They note that the adherents to Islam comprised one-fifth of the world's population when they wrote, a fraction which has remained the same until today.  Carlyle's unique style, which makes his work demanding reading, probably accounts for his relative unpopularity today.  Still, On Heroes and Hero Worship is worth reading, at least in part.  All three of the essays in ethnography presented in Burton's The Jew, the Gypsy and El Islam are worthy of being read today and read again.  Links to the full text of both works may be found at the Online Books page (


Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Spectre Is Haunting Librarians

A spectre is haunting librarians, especially reference librarians: the spectre of disintermediation.  This refers to the process, usually resulting from computerization,  by which the jobs of various "middlemen" are rendered obsolete.  In addition to librarians, the following are among those now so menaced:  travel agents, real estate agents, bank tellers, store check out clerks, newspaper journalists.  Updating the metaphor to be in accord with the Atomic Age, one might compare disintermediation to one big nasty asteroid hurtling towards an entire planet of vocational dinosaurs.   The rise of phenomena such as that online academic Wal-Mart, the University of Phoenix, threatens to add some college instructors to the ranks of those to be "disintermediated."
"Ask Jeeves" was the first web site on the Internet directly aimed at replacing reference librarians, especially those who work in public libraries.  It probably was not an accident that this archetype of servility served as the avatar for a web site designed to "disintermediate" the reference librarian.   In his short story "Brooksmith," the sole story in which Henry James commemorates a member of the servant class, Brooksmith the butler functions first of all as a librarian in the vast library of his master, Mr. Offord.    James observes of Brooksmith that "A certain feeling for letters must have rubbed off on him from the mere handling of his master's books, which he was always carrying to and fro and putting back in their places."
Many library users evidence astonishment when they discover that "a certain feeling for letters" may have rubbed off on that Jeeves of the library, the reference librarian.  Is it the location of the reference librarian, sitting as a kind of receptionist in front of the reference collection, that leads so many library users to conclude that he must not have any real knowledge of the contents of the volumes shelved behind him?   I recall the telephone call in which a locally prominent clergyman told me that "I am looking for a kind of book with which you would not be familiar.  It is a lexicon."   Though I felt like telling the man that I had indeed run across a lexicon in my studies, I said nothing other than to determine what kind of lexicon he needed.
The foremost organization of librarians, the American Library Association, continues to produce a magazine which in one issue celebrates some library director, in another showcases new library buildings, in yet another has a feature article deploring low salaries for librarians, and in yet another presents an editorial urging the need to "recruit" more people to become students of library science.    Not only is much of this not relevant to what rank and file librarians must face, it is positively detrimental to their interests.  How well does this "compute"?   Salaries are too low, so the solution is to add to the glut of graduates coming out of the library schools.    Perhaps people who support this nonsense deserve the fate that awaits them. 
[ This was originally written and posted in Nov. 2006, but nothing has happened since to justify changing it. ]

Saturday, June 23, 2012

More from Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution

Following are some more excerpts from Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France and some comments inspired by them:

" To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind. "

In the U.S.A., the subdivisions, the little platoons, seem to be withering into oblivion, washed away by the great flow of people hither and yon, all of them swept into a great vagrant search for career advancement or just some paltry job.  One result of this uprootedness has been the great decline in "civic culture" or "social culture" which has been documented in Robert Putnam's recent book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

" The share of infamy, that is likely to fall to the lot of each individual in public acts, is small indeed; the operation of opinion being in the inverse ratio to the number of those who abuse power. Their own approbation of their own acts has to them the appearance of a public judgment in their favour. A perfect democracy is therefore the most shameless thing in the world. As it is the most shameless, it is also the most fearless. . . . for as all punishments are for example towards the conservation of the people at large, the people at large can never become the subject of punishment by any human hand. . . . It is therefore of infinite importance that they should not be suffered to imagine that their will, any more than that of kings, is the standard of right and wrong. "

That microscopically small share of the infamy which is borne by an individual who is but one in a mass of millions of malefactors is a key factor in what Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil."  All sense of responsibility is lost.  Burke here argues that the standard of right and wrong should be neither the will of kings nor the will of the people.  What can that standard be in a secular state such as the U.S.A.?  Burke affirms a standard which is beyond repeal by a majority or overthrow by a despot.  What can that standard be?  Can we know it?

" We know, and it is our pride to know, that man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason, but our instincts; and that it cannot prevail long. But if, in the moment of riot, and in a drunken delirium from the hot spirit drawn out of the alembic of hell, which in France is now so furiously boiling, we should uncover our nakedness, by throwing off that Christian religion which has hitherto been our boast and comfort, and one great source of civilization amongst us, and amongst many other nations, we are apprehensive (being well aware that the mind will not endure a void) that some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition might take place of it. "

When I first read Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West almost fifty years ago, it seemed to me incredible that he predicted that the Russian people would overcome Marxism and return to Christianity.  At least the first part of this prediction has come to pass.  The atheism of Marxism was always one of its least attractive features to the masses of the Russian people.  Although secularism is still strong in Russia, it may be significant that Vladimir Putin has a spiritual advisor whom he takes seriously.  Religion expressed as a resurgent Islam was another of the major forces behind the fall of the Soviet Union.

" Of this I am certain, that in a democracy, the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority, whenever strong divisions prevail in that kind of polity, as they often must; and that oppression of the minority will extend to far greater numbers, and will be carried on with much greater fury, than can almost ever be apprehended from the dominion of a single sceptre. In such a popular persecution, individual sufferers are in a much more deplorable condition than in any other. Under a cruel prince they have the balmy compassion of mankind to assuage the smart of their wounds; they have the plaudits of the people to animate their generous constancy under their sufferings: but those who are subjected to wrong under multitudes, are deprived of all external consolation. They seem deserted by mankind; overpowered by a conspiracy of their whole species. "

Again, Burke raises the issue of the injustice of a majority persecuting a minority.  Is the will of the people, democratically expressed, sufficient to justify any action?  This issue is becoming salient in more places than one might imagine.  Even supposedly conservative people are sometimes ready to defend a proposed policy by appealing to the will of the majority.  Many times I have been told that prayers should be said in the public schools and that such prayers should be representative of "the majority religion" in the area.  Aside from the injustice which might be involved in such a policy, it is one which would be certain to lead to civil conflict in many areas.

[ Written on March 2, 2007]


Saturday, June 16, 2012

Centennial of the Harvard Classics

The Spring 2006 issue of Papers in Language & Literature has an essay by William T. Going, professor of English at Southern Illinois University, on the impending centennial of the Harvard Classics, a 51-volume collection, intended to include the best that has been thought and written in all cultures and ages, which was published in 1909 under the editorship of Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard University.  Dr. Going's essay is an appreciative one, opening with an account of how he discovered the set of books among his father's books.  As far as he can remember, his father never read the books, but Dr. Goings did, gradually, over a period of two decades.
The Harvard Classics are rather wide-ranging in scope, not as Eurocentric as one might suppose them to be.  The two volumes dedicated to sacred writings include, in addition to the Judaeo-Christian scriptures, the writings of Confucius, Buddhist writings, and extensive selections from the Koran.  The Arabian Nights are given an entire volume. Other fiction, however, is limited to two volumes, one a novel by Manzoni and the other the first part of Don Quixote.  Along with the many volumes of poetry and drama, there are several volumes of travel accounts and scientific papers.  Darwin, surprisingly, is given two volumes, one for The Origin of Species and the other for The Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle.  Receiving volumes of their own are Robert Burns and Richard Henry Dana, writers who are now almost forgotten.  The following authors each merit a volume: Emerson, Milton, Cellini, Homer, Virgil, and Plutarch.  The social sciences are represented by Rousseau, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke.

The Harvard Classics does not include either Freud or Marx.  For those great representatives of social pseudo-science, one must turn to the Great Books of the Western World, which appeared a half-century later, under the editorship of Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago.  The 51st volume of the Harvard Classics is given over to lectures by various academicians of the time.  The counterpart in the Great Books collection is the prefatory volumes introducing "The Great Ideas."
I discovered the Harvard Classics at the public library some 50 years ago and have read portions of them over the years.  As of yet, I have not read any of the lectures in the 51st volume nor, for that matter, any of "The Great Ideas" so carefully assembled by Mortimer Adler.  Has anyone out there done so?
By happenstance, I picked up my copy of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France and began reading it again after having first read it some 15 years ago and vowing never to return to it.  Generally, I agree with the assessment of the late Samuel T. Francis, foremost of the paleoconservatives, that Burke is irrelevant to the U.S.A.  Although I appreciated the work of Russell Kirk, I had always thought that he wasted his talents in attempting to resuscitate Burke as a guide for American conservatism.  However, in my second reading of Burke, I came across the following passage, possibly the most famous with the exception of the one in which he ponders on the power of good men doing nothing (or something to that effect):   
" But one of the first and most leading principles on which the commonwealth and the laws are consecrated, is lest the temporary possessors and life-renters in it, unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if they were the entire masters; that they should not think it among their rights to cut off the entail, or commit waste on the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society; hazarding to leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of an habitation—and teaching these successors as little to respect their contrivances, as they had themselves respected the institutions of their forefathers. By this unprincipled facility of changing the state as often, and as much, and in as many ways, as there are floating fancies or fashions, the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than the flies of a summer. " 

The rhetoric of the passage is thorny, allowing no easy passage to an understanding of it.  The sense of it, or part of the sense of it, is something like the following:  The commonwealth to be enduring must be grounded in something that will hold in terror and awe those who temporarily hold power over it. Elected officeholders, who are not so bound, will yield to the temptation to destroy, pillage, loot all that is within their grasp and leave nothing to their posterity.  They will in effect repudiate all notion of having any posterity.  They will reduce humans to the level of one brood of brutes following upon another, unmindful of all values.
Burke is arguing for an established church, a monarchy, an aristocracy.  Any other contrivance of government, he believes, will yield up a ruling class which will care nothing for those who come after them. (As Libertarians love to ask:  "What has posterity ever done for us?") Monarchs and aristocrats, unlike elected officials, have a proprietary interest in the kingdoms and lands which they own. From an American, republican standpoint, of course, Burke is arguing for the impossible.  The U.S.A. today is ruled only by a wealthy class, the class Burke disdained in favor of the aristocrats, a class which through its acceptance of globalization and mass immigration shows a willingness to let the very sovereignty of the U.S.A. itself dissolve (but only if enough power of state remains to enforce a contract and to secure their property).
Those who want to look at the Harvard Classics (or even read some of them) may do so easily by going to  There Mr. Bartleby (or whoever lurks behind that nom de Internet) has assembled all 51 of the volumes.   Most of the titles in both the Harvard Classics and the Great Books are also available at the Online Books page hosted by the University of Pennsylvania's library.   (Simply "google" Online Books.)

[ Originally written on Feb 18, 2007 ]          

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Norman Mailer on God

Norman Mailer is not an author whose work I would recommend as worth reading again.  (Perhaps an essay in his early collection of essays Advertisements for Myself, is worthy, but I do not have a copy at hand.

Dollar Tree is a chain store where all items are a dollar, including books!  I was delighted to find there a week ago a copy of On God: An Uncommon Conversation, by Norman Mailer with Michael Lennon  (New York, Random house, 2007).  

Norman Mailer gives no evidence in his dialogues with Michal Lennon that he has heard of process theology, much less Charles Hartshorne.  Lennon does mention process theology in passing.  However, Mailer's concept of God resembles that of Hartshorne and other exponents of process theology.

Basically, Norman Mailer argues for the existence of a God who is limited, finite in His or Her power, a God who is embattled by the Devil, who is a kind of counter-god.  God calls for us to take his side in the struggle for Creation or at least that portion of Creation which he brought into being.

Norman Mailer concludes that Jesus was a messenger of God, not himself God.  This is not a surprising concept for Mailer to arrive at given his Jewish background.  Also, the concept of Jesus as merely a divine messenger is in accord with the view of Jesus presented in the Koran.  On pages 174-5, Mailer offers the following regarding Jesus that is of particular interest:

" In The Gospel According to the Son, I concluded that two things happened because of the crucifixion.  God lost to the Devil and, worse, he had expected to win.  He thought Jesus was going to change mankind profoundly and immediately.  He did not foresee the end.  God, having so much to oversee all at once, is not necessarily focused on what each one of His Particular Creations is capable of.  While I'm willing to assume that Jesus was his bold stroke, I would add that in chess when a really bold move is made and the player is not sure how it is going to turn out, you record it with an exclamation point plus a question mark.  Then, like many another bold move, it did not turn out as expected.  The Devil won -- Jesus was tortured.  At this point, God in His brilliance came up with an answer to the Devil.  He gave us to believe that His son actually died for our sins.  What a human chord was struck!  But to suggest that this was all planned in advance -- crucifixion and resurrection -- dubious.  God may well have been responding to a crushing defeat with claims of half a victory.  That makes more sense to me:  God was rewriting the depths of what had happened after the events ensured -- which is exactly what humans do all the time.  We call it history.  It is one of our fundamental activities.  I suppose I even offer the assumption that not only is God like us in many ways but, indeed, He or She also has an ego to protect, that is, a necessary reservoir of confidence sufficient to keep striving. "

Mailer does not cite John 8:44, but it would seem to be pivotal point in the struggle between God's messenger and the Devil.  Mailer argues (on page 181 and elsewhere) that the concept of a limited God can actually save faith for many people because it answers the problem of evil.  

There is nothing original in Norman Mailer on God, but what Mailer says is thought-provoking, even if it has been better expressed in Hartshorne's work.  

Friday, June 8, 2012

Charles Hartshorne on Immortality

Charles Hartshorne was a professor of philosophy who died a few years ago at an age of more than one hundred years and who, in his long life,  produced much scholarship, establishing himself as the leading exponent of process theology.   This is the theory that God is a limited and emergent being.   Recently, I read Hartshorne's  Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (1984), a book intended for laymen and one which I highly recommend.

Hartshorne traces the origin of the concept of an omnipotent God to the infusion of Greek philosophy into early Christianity.  He finds little evidence for it in the Bible.  It is the concept of an all-powerful God, he notes,  that accounts for the problem of evil:   Why is there so much suffering in the world if it was indeed created by an omnipotent and benevolent deity?
One brief paragraph is especially worthy of quotation because it epitomizes Hartshorne's process theology:   " For God, too, reality develops, and for God, as for us, the end is not yet.   Indeed, though there may be an end to our cosmos, as well as our species, there can be no end of the divine-creaturely process, out of which even laws are born "  (p. 94).
A similar mistake involves the concept of immortality, the assumption of an eternal period of life following our deaths.   What Hartshorne finds to be eternal is the reality of our past.   My past life will always exist in much the way that the Civil War or Julius Caesar can always be said to have existed.   Hartshorne explains this concept as follows:   " Whitehead has put the matter in terms of his doctrine of 'the objective immortality of the past.'   Once an event has occurred it is a permanent item in reality.  The 'accomplished facts' that constitute the past cannot be de-accomplished or nullified.   If they could, historical truth would be impossible or meaningless " (p. 34).
In other words, Hartshorne explains that  " If we are truly mortal animals, then our lives are finite in time as well as in space.  What is indeed immortal (the reality of the past) is precisely this finite series of experiences and deeds.   Death subtracts not an iota of the lives we have already enjoyed before the moment of death " (p. 36).
In answer to the objection that this concept of immortality is not satisfying, Hartshorne quotes Sigmund Freud's observation that " The world is not a kindergarten " (p. 37).   As Hartshorne elsewhere explains, an all-powerful God who determined  all the minutiae of all that has happened and can happen would be a God who would not allow us any existence as conscious beings on our own.
Some of Hartshorne's common sense would be good mental medicine for Christian fundamentalists.   Innumerable times I have heard them say that all that happens in this world is an expression of the will of God.   Then,  a few minutes later, they proceed to affirm their belief that Jesus Christ, who is God, will return at the end of time to judge this world and all that has happened in it.   In other words, they would have God return to judge his own deeds.


Sunday, June 3, 2012

Zarathustra versus the Newspapers

Forty-six years ago I took a graduate course in existentialism taught by a man who had originally come from the subcontinent of India, specifically the westernized enclave of Goa, and who was a devout Catholic.  He praised the Christian existentialist Gabriel Marcel and execrated Jean Paul Sartre, even attacking him on an ad hominem basis by referring to his "immoral" way of life.  Surprisingly, he spoke well of the atheist Nietzsche,  saying that he was "very deep, very profound."
One of Nietzsche's detractors, Max Nordau, in his book Degeneration (1895) argues that Nietzsche calls his own works profound by referring in them to that which is deep (tief) and to the abyss (Abgrund) which he has overcome.  This language is certainly apparent in Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883), which I read again six year ago,  this time in both the English translation by Thomas Common and in the original German.  During my second reading, I marked innumerable passages of interest.  After all of that effort, though, I certainly am not ready to explain the profundity of Nietzsche, much less to deny it.
Everyone recognizes that the character Zarathustra in Nietzsche's work is not to be identified with the historical Zarathustra (or Zoroaster) who lived in Persia around 600 B.C.  This becomes obvious in chapter 21, "Voluntary Death," wherein Zarathustra speaks of "the Hebrew Jesus,"  who was "too early" "seized with the longing for death."  This anachronism alone would prove that Nietzsche's Zarathustra has little or nothing in common with the historical Zarathustra.
Another anachronism, one more evident, appears in chapters 11, "The New Idol," and 51, "On Passing-By," wherein the "newspapers" are the object of attack.  (The word Zeitung appears in the original.)  In "The New Idol," Zarathustra condemns "the superfluous ones" who "vomit their bile and call it a newspaper."  In "On Passing-By," Zarathustra, on the long journey back to his cave in the mountains, encounters "a great city" from whence a "fool" rushes forth to greet him, a fool who "apes" his language and manner.  The fool asks Zarathustra, "Seest thou not the souls hanging like limp dirty rags? -- And they make newspapers out of these rags."
Walter Kauffmann, a prominent interpreter of Nietzsche's works, believes that the "fool" in "On Passing-By" is Eugen Duehring, a popular philosopher whom Nietzsche thoroughly despised. (Duehring's ethic was based on the theory of Jean Jacques Rousseau, whom Nietzsche also despised, that morality first arose from human sympathy.  Ironically, Duehring was seen by Karl Marx, the antipodes to Nietzsche,  as a great threat to his leadership of the socialist movement.)
Leaving aside any interpretation of chapter 51, one is left with a peculiar vision of opposing worlds.   One world, the world of Zarathustra, the world of the mountains wherein Zarathustra lives in a cave with only the company of his animals, the eagle and the serpent being the most favored among them, is here opposed to the world of  "the great city" wherein is to be found the latest developments of technology.  Here Nietzsche seems to revert to imagery popular in all accounts of prophets, the prophet inveighing from his place of refuge in some desert place against the iniquity of the great cities.
In Biblical accounts of the prophets, however, the prophet lives in the mountain wilderness, but he lives in a world in which the city is an ancient city.  In Zarathustra, the prophet is almost a lunatic figure who has seceded altogether from modern civilization, who lives literally in a cave, not in a cabin by the pond as did Thoreau.  The juxtaposition seems crazily anachronistic.
Leo Strauss, in his famous essay "Persecution and the Art of Writing," suggests that the attentive reader should be alerted when an author commits a glaring "error," an error which must certainly be known to the author himself.   It may be a signal to the discerning reader that the author seeks to communicate some message that he feels he cannot express directly.  Can that be the case in Zarathustra?  Nietzsche did not seem to be inhibited even by the statutes against blasphemy which were still enforced in the Germany of his time.  Has this glaring anachronism in Zarathustra any meaning or is it simply a failure of authorial control? 



Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Shock of Recognition: Reading Another Translation of the New Testament

Reading another translation of an old classic often leads one to new recognitions of meaning in that work, if not something as momentous as that "shock of recogition" to which Edmund Wilson referred in the title of his famous anthology.  After almost six decades of reading the New Testament in the King James Version (KJV), I have begun recently to read the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), itself rather different from the Revised Standard Version (RSV).  In the midst of the gospel of John, I was struck by the appearance of an unfamiliar word in the following passages:
" And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. "  John 14:16.
" When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. "  John 15:26
" Nevertheless, I tell you the truth:  it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. "  John 16:7
What is noteworthy is the use of the word Advocate to translate the word transliterated from the Greek as Parakletos or Paraclete.   The KJV uses the word Comforter.  Martin Luther in his German translation follows this, using the term Troester.  The RSV uses Counselor, somewhat similar to Advocate.  What a great difference there is between a Comforter and an Advocate!   Elsewhere in the New Testament, advocates (i.e., lawyers) are condemned.  C. I. Scofield in his gloss on the term Parakletos explains that " Christ is the believer's Paraclete with the Father when he sins; the Holy Spirit the believer's indwelling Paraclete to help his ignorance and infirmity and to make intercession. "
Reading these passages without trinitarian preconceptions, reading them as accounts of three separate entities, leads one to a radically different perspective.  Here Christ is promising a revealer of the truth who will follow him, yet another prophet.  These are the passages in the New Testament which, according to Henry Preserved Smith in his fascinating little book The Bible and Islam (1897), are cited by the Moslems as evidence that Christ foretold the advent of the prophet Muhammad.  The relevant passage in the Koran, quoting the translation by Marmaduke Pickthall, is as follows:
" And when Jesus Son of Mary said:  O Children of Israel!  Lo!  I am the messenger of Allah unto you, confirming that which was (revealed) before me in the Torah and bringing good tidings of a messenger who cometh after me, whose name is the Praised One. "  Surah 61:6
It may be protested that anyone reading the passages in the gospel of John would know that the Paracelete is the Holy Ghost.  The trinity, however, is not as obvious in the New Testament as one might suppose.  Consider another change in translation.  The following passage in the first epistle of John in the KJV affirms the trinity:   " For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. "  This passage, 1 John 5:7, is given a completely different, non-trinitarian translation in the NRSV:  " There are three that testify:  the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree. "  The trinitarian phrase in the KJV is a late interpolation, as late as the Fifth Century A.D.   
Believers in Islam are, then, speaking in good faith when they make the claim that the New Testament foretells the advent of Muhammad.  Christians should at least give them credit for making an honest error in their reading because the doctrine of the trinity was not as evident in the original manuscripts as is commonly supposed. A more tolerant understanding of Islam is particularly important at this historic moment when so many fundamentalist Christians are being led to believe that we in the West should undertake another crusade against the whole of Islam,  a crusade which would not benefit either the USA or the world of Islam, but only Zionist Israel.  We should be grateful to Jimmy Carter for having the courage to speak up on this issue.  President Carter may be able to undo a little of the damage that has been done by the so-called Christian Zionists.   Readers of the Bible also should be aware that a primary source of Christian Zionism has been  the tendentious interpretation of a dual covenant theology which C. I. Scofield, for some reason,  conveyed via the commentaries in his famous reference Bible.  

Felfel the Waiter

THE LOCAL NEWSPAPER reprinted an article by Jeffrey Fleishman which originally appeared in the "Los Angeles Times" regarding Mohamed Sadek, also known as Felfel, who has worked as a waiter at Cairo's "Cafe Riche" since 1943. He began his career there as a 13-year-old newly arrived in Cairo from the Sudan. The quite interesting account details how the "Cafe Riche" was a meeting place for prominent figures in Egyptian history, including Nasser and Mubarak. But, among these interesting facts, one little item about Felfel himself caught my attention: "The downtown Cairo designed to resemble Europe slipped into disrepair and the poor built brick shacks on the desert outskirts. Felfel raised his children, four daughters and two sons. One year replacing the next."

How on earth could a simple waiter scrape together the money to have and raise six children? It seems fantastic now. But, then, I can recall back in the late 1950s when a young man could graduate from high school and , having no other training, go into a factory and earn enough money to have a family, buy a house, all the while that his wife stayed at home. Such an accomplishment is impossible now even for the typical college graduate. It makes one wonder how we measure standards of living. Even more questionable becomes the placid assumption that today's living standards are across the board higher than were those of fifty years ago. Now, even in Egypt, such a life as that led by Felfel is impossible. We read that the unrest against Mubarak was triggered by unemployed young college graduates. People run faster and faster, but do not even stay in the same place.