Sunday, September 30, 2012

Caesar's Greatest Ambition, Gospel according to John, Ignatius Donnelly

( Originally written and posted on MySpace on February 18, 2009 )

Caesar's Greatest Ambition

Plutarch's life of Julius Caesar concludes with a vivid account of his assassination.   Most memorable, though, in Plutarch's account is this outline of what was probably Caesar's greatest ambition:

" Caesar was born to do great things, and had a passion after honor, and the many noble exploits he had done did not now serve as an inducement to him to sit still and reap the fruit of his past labors, but were incentives and encouragments to go on, and raised in him ideas of still greater actions, and a desire of new glory, as if the present were all spent.  It was in fact a sort of emulous struggle with himself, as it had been with another, how he might outdo his past actions by his future.  In pursuit of these thoughts, he resolved to make war upon the Parthians, and when he had subdued them, to pass through Hyrcania; thence to march along by the Caspian Sea to Mount Caucasus, and so on about Pontus, till he came into Scythia; then to overrun all the countries bordering upon Germany, and Germany itself; and so to return through Gaul into Italy, after completing the whole circle of his intended empire, and bounding it on every side by the ocean. "

Undoubtedly, Caesar had no realistic concept of the population of the Scythians and Teutons.   His expedition would have most probably become bogged down and sunk into disaster long before he reached the Schwarzwald.  One thinks of Napoleon's debacle in Russia or the similar defeat suffered by his emulator Hitler.  (Even when a child I wondered what people could mean when they said that Hitler wanted to conquer the world.  On the globe, Germany looked much too small to do any such thing.)

Demographics is destiny.  Edward Gibbon in the concluding chapter to his history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire states that the Romans quite obviously underestimated the numbers of the barbarians.  Gibbon finds " the principal and immediate cause of the fall of the Western empire of Rome " to be the admittance into the empire, south of the Danube, of over a million Goths, on the condition that they would swear an oath of loyalty to the emperor.   Only a generation later, of course, the Goths rose up and sacked the city of Rome itself.  That was the beginning of the end.

One of [ my ] motives in reading through all of Gibbon's lengthy work, which took several decades, was having heard again and again that the cause of the fall of the Empire was taxation.  This was a favorite claim made by Ronald Reagan.   After reading all of Gibbon, I found little or nothing about taxation, but much about the demographic factor.  The barbarians simply began to outnumber the Romans and had no desire to assimilate and become Romans.  That reminds me of the fact that President Reagan, in 1986, approved an amnesty for three million illegal aliens then in the U.S.A.   That was the beginning of the end of any effective conservative or Republican resistance to mass immigration, whether legal or illegal.  It will prove also to have been the end of the historic nation of America.  Most conservatives do not know what it is that they should conserve.  For lack of that knowledge, they will lose it all.

( Originally written and posted on MySpace on February 8, 2009 )

Some Thoughts Occasioned by the Gospel According to John

For the past several years, I have read through the New Testament once during the year, either in the King James Version or the New Revised Standard Version.    Last night I finished reading again the Gospel According to John.  This has always been the most moving of the gospels for me.  It is a gateway to the rest of the New Testament, especially to the books of Jude and Revelation, and also has its own interesting characteristics.

It begins with an abstraction, unlike the other gospels:  " In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. "   According to the gloss in the Scofield edition -- an edition which, by the way, I do not recommend for a number of reasons -- "the Word" is Logos in Greek and means either "a thought or concept" or "the expression or utterance of that thought."

John may begin with an abstraction, but it has many vividly concrete images.  One thinks particularly of the details of the interrogation and crucifixion of Christ, and also of Doubting Thomas wanting to verify to himself what he sees by inspecting the wounds of Christ.  Dramatically and vividly at the center of this gospel stands Christ's diametrical opposition to the Pharisees, the defining moment expressed in John 8:44.   The Pharisees and the Sadducees we still have with us.

John ends with a concrete image, but one that we cannot visualize:  " And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.  Amen. "   The gloss in the Scofield edition tells us that here "the world" means the earth, not the cosmos.   Even the earth alone covered over with books telling of all that Christ did is something that we cannot visualize.

Those books taken together would comprise an unparalleled library.  At this point. one recalls a story by Jorge Luis Borges:  "The Library of Babel."   In the posters one finds in libraries, Borges is often quoted as having written that "I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library."  (At this point, I think of the personnel in libraries and Jean Paul Sartre's famous observation "Hell is other people.")  Still trying to visualize that world of books, one is reminded of the akashic records, the records to which Rudolf Steiner turned when he made the great leap from Nietzsche to Theosophy and wrote the work known in English as Cosmic Memory.

( Originally written and posted on MySpace on January 4, 2009 )

Vindication for Ignatius Donnelly ?

Ignatius Donnelly, to the extent that he is remembered at all, is frequently dismissed as a "crank" because of his authorship of Atlantis:  The Antediluvian World  (1882),  although his Caesar's Column:  A Story of the Twentieth Century (1891) has won some recognition among literary historians as an early example of the dystopian novel.   Another of Donnelly's works may, however, be well worth reading again; i.e.,  Ragnarok:  The Age of Fire and Gravel (1883).  According to Ragnarok, the earth was struck by a comet at some 10,000 years B.C. , the time when the lost continent of Atlantis, according to Plato's account in his Critias, sank under the Atlantic Ocean.    This impact of the earth by a comet also brought about a minor ice age, according to Donnelly, causing the loss of advanced civilization.  Memories of the great cataclysm linger in the guise of various myths.

All of this has been dismissed as unsubstantiated  speculation, total nonsense, but it may prove to be not as nonsensical as commonly supposed if verification is found for an hypothesis offered by University of Oregon anthropologist Douglas Kennett and others in a January 2009 issue of Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Kennett and others investigating the phenomenon of heavy deposits on earth of "nanodiamonds," microscopic particles present in comets, hypothesize that the earth was struck by a comet, or suffered the impact of a comet exploding near the earth, approximately 13,000 years ago.  This would account for the 1,300 year-long ice age which followed, a sudden climate shift which was the cause of the extinction of the mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers as well as the decline of the Clovis culture.

Anyone reading this who is an Ohioan will likely be familiar with the Serpent Mound site.  A giant earthworks produced by the Mound Builders, the site seems to represent a sinuous snake with jaws open in an attempt to devour an egg.  A reading of Ragnarok would suggest that this earthworks reflects a distant memory of the cometary impact in which the comet represents the snake and the egg about to be devoured is the earth.  The tradition of a spherical earth might have been handed down as oral tradition to the Mound Builders.  The earthen "egg" itself is round, not oblong.


Sunday, September 23, 2012

Alexander the Great Meets the Gymnosophists

  ( Originally written and posted on MySpace on February 13, 2009 )
Reading ancient history may often seem to be drudgery, but there are two historians who lighten the burden: Gibbon and Plutarch. Gibbon’s long history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire is enlivened with his wit, while Plutarch has his own special method in approaching his subject. He writes the lives of the noble Greeks and Romans, not their histories. In his words, following the translation of Dryden, he affirms:

    It being my purpose to write the lives of Alexander the king, and
    of Caesar, by whom Pompey was destroyed, the multitude of their
    great actions affords so large a field that I were to blame if I
    should not by way of apology forewarn my reader that I have chosen
    rather to epitomize the most celebrated parts of their story, than
    to insist at large on every particular circumstance of it. It
    must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories,
    but lives. And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish
    us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men;
    sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest,
    informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the
    most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest
    battles whatsoever. Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact
    in the lines and features of the face in which the character is
    seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to
    give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of
    the souls of men, and while I endeavor by these to portray their
    lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles
    to be treated of by others.

One of the intriguing episodes which Plutarch relates regarding Alexander the Great is the conqueror’s encounter with the philosophers of India. (It is also Plutarch who tells the delightful tale of the encounter between Diogenes and Alexander, which is much more widely known.)  The Indian philosophers, called gymnosophists, seemed to be as much Sophists as fakirs.  E. Cobham Brewer, in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, defines them as "A sect of Indian philosophers who went about with naked feet and almost without clothing.  They lived in woods, subsisted on roots, and never married.  They believed in the transmigration of souls.  Strabo divides them into Brahmins and Samans. (Greek, gumnos, naked; sophistes, sages.)"   The philosophers successfully answer a series of questions which Alexander puts to them as follows:

    In this voyage, he took ten of the Indian philosophers prisoners,
    who had been most active in persuading Sabbas to revolt, and had
    caused the Macedonians a great deal of trouble. These men, called
    Gymnosophists, were reputed to be extremely ready and succinct in
    their answers, which he made trial of, by putting difficult
    questions to them, letting them know that those whose answers were
    not pertinent, should be put to death, of which he made the eldest
    of them judge. The first being asked which he thought most
    numerous, the dead or the living, answered, "The living, because
    those who are dead are not at all." Of the second, he desired to
    know whether the earth or the sea produced the largest beast; who
    told him, "The earth, for the sea is but a part of it." His
    question to the third was, Which is the cunningest of beasts?
    "That," said he, "which men have not yet found out." He bade the
    fourth tell him what argument he used to Sabbas to persuade him to
    revolt. "No other," said he, "than that he should either live or
    die nobly." Of the fifth he asked, Which was eldest, night or
    day? The philosopher replied, "Day was eldest, by one day at
    least." But perceiving Alexander not well satisfied with that
    account, he added, that he ought not to wonder if strange
    questions had as strange answers made to them. Then he went on and
    inquired of the next, what a man should do to be exceedingly
    beloved. "He must be very powerful," said he, "without making
    himself too much feared." The answer of the seventh to his
    question, how a man might become a god, was, "By doing that which
    was impossible for men to do." The eighth told him, "Life is
    stronger than death, because it supports so many miseries." And
    the last being asked, how long he thought it decent for a man to
    live, said, "Till death appeared more desirable than life." Then
    Alexander turned to him whom he had made judge, and commanded him
    to give sentence. "All that I can determine," said he, "is, that
    they have every one answered worse than another." "Nay," said the
    king, "then you shall die first, for giving such a sentence."
    "Not so, O king," replied the gymnosophist, "unless you said
    falsely that he should die first who made the worst answer." In
    conclusion he gave them presents and dismissed them.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Chamberlain, Trinity, Book of Acts

 ( Originally written and posted on MySpace on March 14, 2009 )
Chamberlain on the pre-Christian Trinity

C. I. Scofield has a lengthy gloss on I Thessalonians in which he discusses man as a trinity of body, soul, and spirit.  The distinction between the latter two seems less than natural to those who have been influenced by the modern world outlook which is based on Cartesian dualism.   Houston Stewart Chamberlain points out in his Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, first published in English in 1911, that the trinity is pervasive in Indo-European thought,  that it precedes Christendom.  The following is a relevant passage from Chamberlain's Foundations:

    " As an excellent example of mythology which grows from external experience I should like to mention especially the conception of the Trinity. Thanks to the influence of Hellenic sentiment, the Christian Church (in spite of the violent opposition of the Jewish Christians), had, in the moulding of its dogma, steered successfully past that most dangerous cliff, Semitic monotheism, and has preserved in her otherwise perilously Judaised conception of the Godhead the sacred " Three in Number " of the Aryans. It is well known that we continually come across the number Three among the Indo-Europeans : it is, as Goethe says,
    die ewig unveraltete, Dreinamig—Dreigestaltete.

   "  We find it in the three groups of the Indian gods, at a later time (several centuries before Christ) developed into the detailed and expressly stated doctrine of the Trinity, the Trimurti : " He, who is Vishnu, is also Civa, and he, who is Civa, is also Brahma : one being but three Gods." And the conception can be traced from the distant east to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, where Patricius found the clover leaf as the symbol of the Trinity among the Druids. The number Three was bound at an early time to impress itself upon races that were inclined to poetry and metaphysics, for it and it alone is not a chance number (like five or ten which are derived from the fingers) nor a pedantically calculated number (like seven, which is derived from the so-called seven wandering stars), it expresses a fundamental phenomenon, so that the conception of a Trinity might rather be called an experience than a symbol. The authors of the Upanishads had already recognised that all human knowledge rests on three fundamental forms —time, space, causality—and that not a triplicity but (to quote from Kant) a " unity of apperception " results therefrom ; space and time also are inseparable unities, but possess three dimensions. In short, the threefoldness as unity surrounds us on all sides as an original phenomenon of experience and is reflected in all individual cases. Thus, for example, the most modern science has proved that without exception every element can take three—but only three—forms : the solid, the fluid, the gaseous ; and this only further shows, what the people long ago knew, that our planet consists of earth, water and air. As Homer says

    Everything was divided into three."

Chamberlain himself was quite an unusual thinker.   Born in England, he moved to Germany, married the daughter of the composer Richard Wagner, and became a successful author writing in German.  His Foundations was first published in German in 1898 as Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts.  (He reminds one of Joseph Conrad, born in Poland,  who moved to England and became a famous novelist writing in English.)  Chamberlain's Foundations is actually a cultural history of the entire Western world,  the nineteenth century which he looked upon being for him the contemporary world.  In this magisterial work, Chamberlain shows how Western civilization came into existence.   

( Originally written and posted on MySpace on February 28, 2009 )

Memorable Scenes from the Book of Acts

The book of the Acts of the Apostles is a book of many memorable spectacles.  First and foremost, of course, is that great scene in the second chapter wherein the Holy Ghost descends upon the Apostles.   Reading this again, one can begin to understand why today's Pentecostalists base their church upon it.  Next there is the martyrdom of Stephen and the conversion of Paul into Saul.  Some spectacles seem to be almost out of a motion picture:  liberation from prison by an earthquake, shipwreck upon the island of Miletus.  More meaningful in Acts are the great confrontations.   These  include Paul's meeting with the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers at the Areopagus in Athens.  Even more vivid, however, is the meeting with an outraged merchant of Ephesus, Demetrius, who crafts and sells silver images of the goddess Artemis (or Diana).   This scene is reminiscent of Christ's encounter with the money-changers in the Temple.  Demetrius and his fellows obviously believed that Christianity would be bad for their business.

The original idol of Diana of the Ephesians was believed to have fallen from the sky, a typically pagan form of revelation.   Even simple meteors, much less artifacts falling from the sky, could change the course of history.  Thus, Plutarch in his life of Lucullus tells how just before his forces were ready to go into battle, "on a sudden the sky opened, and a large luminous body fell down in the midst between the armies, in shape like a hogshead, but in colour like melted silver, insomuch that both armies in alarm withdrew."  Most significant of all, however, was the famous Black Stone, a meteorite fixed in the wall of the Kaaba at Mecca.   The Kaaba, according to E. Cobham Brewer in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, is a cubical stone house "said to have been built by Abraham on the spot where Adam first worshipped after his expulsion from Paradise.  In the north-east corner is a stone seven inches long, said to be a ruby sent down from heaven.  It is now black, from being kissed so often by sinful man."  

Friday, September 21, 2012

Uncut Spinoza

( Originally written and posted on MySpace on March 24, 2009 )

Last week I went to a book sale held at the local public library.   Set off to the side were "collectibles," more expensive items.  Among these were 15 of the 30 volumes comprising the Universal Classics Library, published by M. W. Dunne in 1901.   These are sumptuously bound works, printed on watermarked paper, which were printed in different editions,  at least one of which, the "de luxe," was numbered.   The 15 volumes were part of the de luxe edition. 

Most people have encountered one or more of these volumes in their public library.  Quite obviously, the sets were sold to the affluent when they were first published.  I noted that every single one of the 15 volumes had uncut pages.  Not a single volume had been read.   Obviously, the volumes had  originally been bought for purposes of display.   More than a century had passed without their having come into the hands of a reader.

The topics of the volumes also seemed to be selected to appeal to the newly rich.  Two volumes are the letters of Lord Chesterfield, two the diaries of John Evelyn, and no less than eight volumes the memoirs of various French courtiers of the 18th century.  Only the philosophers included seemed to be unusual:  Descartes, Spinoza, Schopenhauer.

I bought the single volume of Spinoza.  It was the most modestly priced volume at only $6, the one that I felt that I could afford.   The most expensive were those which had more appeal to the newly wealthy who are sine nobilitate.  Although I have read this volume of Spinoza before when I encountered it in a library collection, I have decided to read it again. 

These uncut volumes reminded me of the richly bound leather volumes I have seen in some local antique shops, which one may buy by the foot.  The volumes I have seen were all in Danish and on sale in Arkansas!   Obviously, they were being sold solely as items of decor.  One must wonder who would buy such volumes by the foot to decorate their living rooms.  Would they anticipate having visitors so uninterested in books as to be unlikely even to gaze upon the titles?

Cognitive Dissonance at "The Nation"

( Originally written and posted on MySpace on May 31, 2009 )
The Nation is a weekly review which is firmly planted on the left.  [ I } read it only because [ I get ] a special academic discount.  Obviously, someone must subsidize it.  Why people who are affluent enough to have money to give away, choose to give it to The Nation  is a minor mystery.  There are obviously "values voters" on the left as well as on the right.

Once in a long while, writers at this weekly show some signs of ideological stress.  Such appears between the lines of a lengthy essay review in the June 8, 2009, issue, the "Spring Books Issue."  Chosen as the cover story, where it is entitled "William Deresiewicz on Literary Darwinism," it is a review of several new books about the new school of Darwinian literary criticism.  Among titles reviewed are Jonathan Gottschall's The Rape of Troy:  Evolution, Violence, and the World of Homer and his more theoretical Literature, Science, and a New Humanities.

This obviously presents a dilemma to the reviewer.  He settles for arguing that Darwinian literary criticism is not really relevant to literature.  Writing in The Nation he cannot damn Darwinism, a deed which might lead some people to place him in the company of people on the Christian Right.  On the other hand, he realizes that findings of Darwinian literary critics as well as the findings of evolutionary psychology in general are not supportive of the left's concept of humanity.  This is because the left wants everything human to be an outcome of culture, not nature.  Leftists can create a new culture, a new society, to remove all and any flaws of humanity.  They do not want to contend with anything based in heredity.

Deresiewicz does have one very sound observation to offer:

    " The humanities, meanwhile, are undergoing their own struggle for survival within the academic ecosystem.  Budgets are shrinking, students are disappearing, faculty positions are being lost, institutional prestige has all but evaporated.  As the Darwinians are quick to point out, a lot of this suffering is self-inflicted.  In literary studies in particular, the last several decades have witnessed the baleful reign of ' Theory, ' a mash-up of Derridean deconstruction, Foucauldian social theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis and other assorted abstrusiosities, the overall tendency of which has been to cut the field off from society at large and from the main currents of academic thought, not to mention the common reader and common sense. . . ."

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Kalki Avatar, according to the Dabistan

  [ Originally written and posted on MySpace on  April 14, 2009 ]

Somewhere I recall reading about a bumpersticker -- it must have been in fine print, given the length of the message! -- that ran something like this:  " The good news is Christ is returning.  The bad news is this time he's hopping mad! "   This message came to mind when I read the following description in the Dabistan of the Kalki avatar:

    "  The tenth Avatar is to occur at the expiration of the
    Kali-jug, for the purpose of destroying the Mlechas, or
    enemies of the Hindoos. The Kalki Avatar is . . . .
    to be of the Brahman caste. He will destroy
    the corruptions of the world, and all the Mlechas, that is,
    Muhammedans, Christians, Jews, and such like, are to be
    entirely extirpated . after which the Satyog, or golden age, 

    is to return. "

According to the Hindu belief, the golden age preceded the existence of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.   This reminds me of the parochial high school students who were sent to the library to research the Middle Ages.   Sometimes they had to find out about clothing in the Middle Ages.   Sometimes it was eating utensils, or even jewelry, always during the Middle Ages.  That was the golden age before the modern age of evils such as science, contraception, and Lutherans.

The enumeration of the ten avatars, which ends with the advent of Kalki, last and greatest of the avatars,  is followed by an explanation of why avatars exist.   The rationale for avatars seems to be the same as that for angels in the Abrahamic faiths, the need for intermediaries between a transcendent deity and his creatures.
    "  They moreover maintain that the contingently-existing
    inhabitants and beings of earth are unable to penetrate into
    the presence of the necessarily-existing sovereign, and that
    the essence of the Creator is too exalted for any created
    beings to attain to an acquaintance with it, notwithstand-
    ing the high knowledge and piety with which they may
    be adorned.   It therefore seemed necessary to the Almighty
    God to descend from the majesty of abstractedness and
    absolute existence, and exhibit himself in the various
    species of angels, animals, man, and such like, so as to
    enable them to attain to some knowledge of himself.
    They therefore assert, that for the purpose of satisfying
    the wishes of his faithful servants, and tranquillizing their
    minds, he has vouchsafed to manifest himself m this abode,
    which manifestation they call an Avatar and hold this to
    be no degradation to his essence. . . . "


Friday, September 7, 2012

More Snippets from Hebraic Literature

[ Originally written and posted on MySpace on  August 9, 2009 ]

Hebraic Literature is one of the volumes in the "Universal Classics Library," published in 1901 by W. M. Dunne in various editions.  Single volumes from the set of 30 are frequently held by public libraries. [ I ] recently bought [a] copy at a local library book sale.  Although the book was published in 1901, its pages were still uncut, as was the case with other volumes of this set which were for sale.   

The volume Hebraic Literature was edited and annotated by Maurice H. Harris, a Reform rabbi, and includes selections from the Talmud, Midrashim, and Kabbala. Here and there, Hebraic Literature has passages that are remarkable and puzzling.

Consider the following from page 191:

"  Most donkey-drivers are wicked, but most sailors are pious. The best physicians are destined for hell, the most upright butcher is a partner of Amalek. Bastards are mostly cunning, and servants mostly handsome. Those who are well-descended are bashful, and children mostly resemble their mother's brother. Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai bids us "kill the best of Gentiles" (modern editions qualify this by adding, in time of war), "and smash the head of the best of serpents." "The best among women," he says, "is a witch." Blessed is he who does the will of God!
Sophrim, chap. 15, hal. 10.  "

One can understand calling butchers the partners of Amalek, but what can be the meaning of asserting that the best physicians are destined for hell or that the best among women is a witch?  Many of the foremost rabbis, most famously Maimonides, distinguished themselves as physicians.  This passage reminds one of some of the sayings attributed to the Cynics, such as Diogenes.

The following, even more paradoxical, is taken from page 181:

"  Rabbi Shemuel says advantage may be taken of the mistakes of a Gentile. He once bought a gold plate as a copper one of a Gentile for four zouzim, and then cheated him out of one zouz into the bargain. Rav Cahana purchased a hundred and twenty vessels of wine from a Gentile for a hundred zouzim, and swindled him in the payment out of one of the hundred, and that while the Gentile assured him that he confidently trusted to his honesty. Rava once went shares with a Gentile and bought a tree, which was cut up into logs. This done, he bade his servant go to pick him out the largest logs, but to be sure to take no more than the proper number, because the Gentile knew how many there were. As Rav Ashi was walking abroad one day he saw some grapes growing in a roadside vineyard, and sent his servant to see whom they belonged to. "If they belong to a Gentile," he said, "bring some here to me; but if they belong to an Israelite, do not meddle with them." The owner, who happened to be in the vineyard, overheard the Rabbi's order and called out, "What! is it lawful to rob a Gentile?" "Oh, no," said the Rabbi evasively; "a Gentile might sell, but an Israelite would not."
Bava Kama, fol. 113, col. 2.  "

The following is Rabbi Harris's annotation:  " This is given simply as a sample of the teaching of the Talmud on the subject both by precept and example. There is no intention to cast a slight on general Jewish integrity, or suggest distrust in regard to their ethical creed.  "

One can see how training in argumentation re the Talmud would be a good exercise preliminary to the study of the jurisprudence of the gentiles.


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Hebraic Literature, more observations

[ Originally written and posted on MySpace on July 19, 2009 ]

Hebraic Literature is one of the volumes in the "Universal Classics Library," published in 1901 by M. W. Dunne in various editions.  Single volumes from the set of 30 are frequently held by public libraries.  The volume Hebraic Literature was edited and annotated by Maurice H. Harris, a Reform rabbi, and includes selections from the Talmud, Midrashim, and Kabbala.

Many passages here and there provoke thought.  For example, on page 57, we are told of the four types of persons who, according to the Talmud, are " intolerable ."  One of these is " a poor man who is proud. "  This seems to be directly contradictory to the teaching of Christ.

On page 138, we are told of the 45 righteous men whose existence keeps the earth in existence.  Thirty of them live outside Israel and 15 within its boundaries.  (Has this legend of the righteous or just men any connection to the League of the Just who commissioned Karl Marx to write the Communist Manifesto?)

On page 141, we are told that " If a man remain unmarried after the age of twenty, his life is a constant transgression.  The Holy One -- blessed be He! -- waits until that period to see if one enters the matrimonial estate, and curses his bones if he remain single. "  

Obviously, Christ was not a dutiful Jew according to this standard.  Some speculate that he was a member of the sect of the Essenes, a party of Jews who were celibate and who lived in a monastic community.    The Talmud, of course, teaches Judaism as interpreted by the Pharisees, who were all that remained of Jewry after the Dispersion of 70 A.D.

On page 196 we are told that " In the future God will assign to each righteous man three hundred and ten worlds as an inheritance; for it is said (Prov. viii, 21), ' That I may cause those that love me to inherit substance, and I will fill their treasures. '   By Gematria equals three hundred and ten. "

It makes little sense to interpret these 310 worlds as other planets.  It is more likely that each person is a world unto himself.  Since there are now in the world approximately 310 gentiles for every Jew, perhaps this prefigures a New Jerusalem in which there are 310 gentiles to serve every Jew.   (Something like this vision, without the numbers, the " gematria, " appears in the book of Isaiah.)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Hebraic Literature, another volume in the "Universal Classics Library"

[ Originally written and posted on MySpace on July 12, 2009 ]
Hebraic Literature is one of the more intriguing volumes in the "Universal Classics Library," a rather helter-skelter set of 30 volumes published by W. M. Dunne at New York in 1901, which are to be found on the shelves of innumerable public libraries.  It includes selections from the Talmud, Midrashim, and Kabbala, introduced and annotated by a Reform rabbi, Maurice H. Harris.  What is remarkable about this work is its candor.  Any such work edited for popular consumption today would be much more shaped and selected, if not outrightly bowdlerized, to promote the end of good intergroup relations.

Consider the frankness of the following, selected from page 31:

" If the ox of an Israelite bruise the ox of a Gentle, the Israelite is exempt from paying damages ; but should the ox of a Gentile bruise the ox of an Israelite, the Gentile is bound to recompense him in full. Bava Kama, fol. 38, col. i.

" When an Israelite and a Gentile have a lawsuit before thee, if thou canst, acquit the former according to the laws of Israel, and tell the latter such is our law ; if thou canst get him off in accordance with Gentile law, do so, and say to the plaintiff such is your law ; but if he cannot be acquitted according to either law, then bring forward adroit pretexts and secure his acquittal. These are the words of the Rabbi Ishmael. Rabbi Akiva says, (( No false pretext should be brought forward, because, if found out, the name of God would be blasphemed ; but if there be no fear of that, then it may be adduced." Ibid., fol. 113, col. I. "

Read the last sentence very carefully.  Does it not say that false pretexts in legal pleadings are acceptable if there is no danger of their discovery?

Again, on page 31, we are advised:  "  If one find lost property in a locality where the majority are Israelites, he is bound to proclaim it ; but he is not bound to do so if the majority be Gentiles. Bava Metzia, fol. 24, col. i.  "

Read the last sentence very carefully.  Does it not say that false pretexts in legal pleadings are acceptable if there is no danger of their discovery?

At the foot of page 31, we read:  " If a Gentile smite an Israelite, he is guilty of death ; as it is written (Exod. ii. 12). " And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw there was no man, he slew the Egyptian. Sanhedrin, fol. 58, col. 2.  

On page 11, we are told that: " Adam was created one without Eve. Why? That the Sadducees might not assert the plurality of powers in heaven. Ibid., fol. 37, col. i."

What is truly illuminating here is Rabbi Harris's commentary:

" As the Sadducees did not believe in a plurality of powers in heaven, but only the Christians, in the regard of the Jews, did so (by their profession of the doctrine of the Trinity), it is obvious that here, as well as often elsewhere, the latter and not the former are intended. "

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Three on Socrates

[ Originally written and posted on MySpace on  Dec. 2, 2007 ]

"Phaedo": Socrates on Death 

In the Platonic dialogue "Phaedo," we are given a final account of the wisdom of Socrates, who is in prison awaiting death by ingesting the poison hemlock, and who tells his disciples that, for the philosopher, death is a true liberation.   The following is only a small portion of his argument (excerpted from Jowett's translation), one in which he tells why life in which the soul is united with the body is a kind of imprisonment:

"And when real philosophers consider all these things, will they not be led to make a reflection which they will express in words something like the following?   'Have we not found,' they will say, 'a path of thought which seems to bring us and our argument to the conclusion, that while we are in the body, and while the soul is infected with the evils of the body, our desire will not be satisfied? and our desire is of the truth.  For the body is a source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food; and is liable also to diseases which overtake and impede us in the search after true being:  it fills us full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies of all kinds, and endless foolery, and in fact, as men say, takes away from us the power of thinking at all.  Whence come wars, and fightings, and factions? whence but from the body and the lusts of the body?  wars are occasioned by the love of money, and money has to be acquired for the sake and in the service of the body; and by reason of all these impediments we have no time to give to philosophy; and, last and worst of all, even if we are at leisure and betake ourselves to some speculation, the body is always breaking in upon us, causing turmoil and confusion in our enquiries, and so amazing us that we are prevented from seeing the truth.  It has been proved to us by experience that if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body--the soul in herself must behold things in themselves:  and then we shall attain the wisdom which we desire, and of which we say that we are lovers, not while we live, but after death; for if while in company with the body, the soul cannot have pure knowledge, one of two things follows--either knowledge is not to be attained at all, or, if at all, after death.  For then, and not till then, the soul will be parted from the body and exist in herself alone.  In this present life, I reckon that we make the nearest approach to knowledge when we have the least possible intercourse or communion with the body, and are not surfeited with the bodily nature, but keep ourselves pure until the hour when God himself is pleased to release us.  And thus having got rid of the foolishness of the body we shall be pure and hold converse with the pure, and know of ourselves the clear light everywhere, which is no other than the light of truth.'  For the impure are not permitted to approach the pure.  These are the sort of words, Simmias, which the true lovers of knowledge cannot help saying to one another, and thinking.  You would agree; would you not?"

Further on in this dialogue, Socrates says that souls which have been contaminated with worldliness are doomed to wander the earth, especially areas such as tombs and cemeteries, being unable to break free from the earthly world which they love.  They become the beings known to us as ghosts.  Those who are great of soul, however, are immediately released.  Those who are partly contaminated are doomed to appear again on earth in another body, perhaps an animal body.  The teachings of Socrates belong to the Indo-European tradition, not the Semitic tradition.  The religions that began among the Semites (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) all teach that the soul survives only because it is resurrected by God.   According to the Semitic, monotheistic faiths, eternal life or eternal damnation is a gift of God.   Contrary to this, the Indo-European faith of our ancestors teaches that our souls are free and independent on their own, free to sink into carnality and reincarnation into grossly animal bodies or free to rise above the earthly realm, to break free from all wordly contamination.   Obviously, the Indo-European view damns this world, while the Semitic view, especially in Judaism, does not totally condemn this world,  seeing the world as being evil only because of man's sin.

Jumping back into the center of Socrates's discourse, it provides interesting evidence that the ancient Athenians were very much part of a monetary economy.   Philosophy is closed to those who need money.  Moreover, money is the cause of war.   Here, Socrates seems to be very modern, even more modern than Jesus.  Although Jesus does look upon the coin of the realm and consign it to Caesar, and although he does condemn those who are rich, he does not attribute the origin of war to the lust for money.

It is obvious that "philosophy," according to Socrates, means simply the love of wisdom.  Philosophers in the world of Socrates had little to do with today's professors of philosophy, though the Sophists who taught for money might be said to have come close to the contemporary academic role.

Early in the "Phaedo" Socrates says that he gave up his interest in learning the nature of the world, in what would today be known as natural science.  At the end of the "Phaedo", however, he presents a description of the nether regions of the earth or the world which seems to be a renewal of his interest in the natural world.   Since these nether regions are the destination of the liberated souls, his description is, of course, an essential part of his account of what happens to the soul after death.   Nonetheless, what he offers here also seems to be a kind of meta-geography.   His account is not simply allegorical. 

[ Originally written and posted on MySpace on Nov. 17, 2007 ]

James Thomson on Socrates and Jesus

James Thomson (1834-1882) is now all but forgotten, remembered, if at all, only for his long poem "The City of Dreadful Night."  His book Essays and Phantasies (1881) has been placed on the Internet Archive, making available some of his delightful satiric essays, almost all of which make more interesting reading than his poems.  Among these essays is "A Word for Xantippe," a defence of the second wife of Socrates, who is usually represented by the historians as a shrew.  Thomson, however, quotes (from the Phaedo and other Socratic dialogues of Plato) open admissions from Socrates which prove that he could only be considered to be a neglectful husband and an indifferent father.  Particularly telling is Thomson's quotation from the episode in the Phaedo, the dialogue in which Socrates reflects on his imminent death via hemlock, wherein Socrates asks that his wife and child be removed from his presence because their grief is unseemly.  Thomson compares this to Jesus's dismissal of his mother and brothers, his open preference for the company of his disciples to that of his grieving family.   Among Thomson's observations are the following:

"We reverence Socrates and we adore Jesus. In our age and country, however, Xantippe would be obliged to go to the workhouse, and the parish authorities would prosecute her husband for not supporting her and his family ; as for Jesus, he would be  brought before the magistrates as a vagrant, and assuredly on examination be forwarded to a lunatic asylum. Those heathen Greeks put Socrates to death soon after he was seventy : those unbelieving Jews, sharper than the Greeks, got Jesus crucified when he was only thirty-three: we Christian English are too enlightened and tolerant to make such men glorious martyrs ; a parish prosecution and a doctor's certificate would extinguish them much more effectually; and no heroic fortitude, no sublime enthusiasm, could elevate the victims and cover the prosecutors with infamy.

"We have perhaps one living writer with genius and learning and wisdom and fairness enough to picture truly the conjugal life of Saint Socrates and shrew Xantippe :  need I say that .this writer is George Eliot ? One would give something for the picture. "

[ Originally written and posted on MySpace on Oct. 12, 2007 ]

Socrates and Civil Disobedience


Recently, I read again  Plato's dialogue "Crito," in which Crito visits the imprisoned Socrates, who there awaits his imminent execution.  Crito tells Socrates that his friends can enable him to escape to Thessaly by bribing his jailers, that he must not accept the unjust sentence of being condemned to death.

The reply of Socrates to Crito is noteworthy because he insists that he must obey the law, that it would be wrong to "go forth returning evil for evil, and injury for injury," which he would be doing if he escaped.  There seems to be a foreshadowing of the ethical principle of "The Sermon on the Mount" in these words.  At the end of the dialogue, Socrates also speaks as a monotheist, pleading with Crito to "let me follow the intimations of the will of God."

Socrates argues that he owes obedience to the law under which he was born and has lived all of his life, even when it results in a manifest injustice to him.

This little dialogue, if assigned as reading for students, would introduce an element of balance into the discussion of civil disobedience in the typical American college or university classroom.  Again and again, I have taught freshman English composition using a "reader" which included Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience" and Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," but never "Crito."   The students were left to assume that the case for civil disobedience is unanswerable.

Of course, Thoreau and King practiced civil disobedience in support of causes that the liberals on campus find to be good.   Often I have wondered what those same people would think about the civil disobedience of Vivien Kellems.  Kellems was an employer in New England who refused to withhold income tax from her employees' pay envelopes.  She insisted that she should not be compelled to act as a tax collector for the Internal Revenue Service.

Thoreau, King, and Kellems all went to jail.  [ I ] believe that all three of them should have obeyed the law, all the while seeking a lawful way to campaign for a revision of the laws to which they objected.   The words of Socrates, as related in "Crito," are worth reading again.