Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Xerxes and Artabanos on Life and Death

As [Xerxes] looked out over the whole Hellespont, whose water was completely hidden by all his ships, and at all the shores of the plains of Abydos, now so full of people, Xerxes congratulated himself for being so blessed. But then he suddenly burst into tears and wept.

Now his uncle Artabanos . . . noticed that Xerxes was weeping and said to him, "Sire, what a great divergence there is between your behavior now and that of just a moment ago: then you deemed yourself a blessed man, but now you are weeping!"

And Xerxes replied, "That is because I was suddenly overcome by pity as I considered the brevity of human life, since not one of all these people here will be alive one hundred years from now."

Artabanos responded, "But even more pitiable than that are the experiences we suffer as we pass through life. For even in such a short span of life, no human being is born so fortunate--neither these men nor any others--that the wish to be dead rather than alive will not occur to him, and not just once, but often. For the misfortunes that befall us and the illnesses that harass us make even a short life seem long. And so because life is a hardship, death proves to be a human being's most welcome escape, and the god, who gives us merely a taste of sweetness in life, is revealed to be a jealous deity."

Herodotus, 7.46

Monday, November 28, 2011

"The Art of Science"

I love this very Polanyian painting from Cardiff University (click photo for link).

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Quotable: Owen Barfield

Owen Barfield on the "prison cells" in which the humanities and science are trapped, "non-objectifying" subjectivity and subjectless objectivity.
Perhaps each needs the clasp and support of the other in his half--blinded staggering towards the light. Perhaps there is not one prison cell, but two: the ‘non-objectifying’ subjectivity, in which the humanities are immured, and the adjoining cell of subjectless objectivity, where science is locked and bolted; and maybe the first step toward escape for the two prisoners of language is to establish communications with one another.
Owen Barfield, The Rediscovery of Meaning

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Barbarians of the Toe-lee-doe: A Lost Chapter of Herodotus

The Barbarians of the Toe-lee-doe: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus

     During my travels through the northernmost regions of the world, I came to a large coastal city, which in the barbarian language is called Toe-lee-doe. Some of the barbarians claim that the name is after a city across the cosmic ocean in the land of Spane. Others say it was called this because it was easy to pronounce. I disagree with these explanations since it seems to be a compound word meaning something like “a female deer that provides shelter to one’s feet.” I have a theory about what they mean by this but consider it to be irreligious to discuss it further.

     A curious custom these barbarians have is that they do not raise their own children, choosing rather to appoint certain “instructors” in their customs to carry out the task. This is especially strange because from what I could gather the customs that these instructors actually teach their children seem to have nothing to do with the customs of the barbarians outside of the place of instruction (which they refer to as a skule). To give an example, let me first explain the barbarians’ custom of dressing. Unlike the rest of the world, the barbarians wear rather tight fitting and restrictive clothing. Instead of cloaks they wear very short tunics, which only cover a span from the neck to just below the belly button. Yet, their genitals are not uncovered because on the bottom most barbarians will wear long tubes of cloth, which connect seamlessly with a sort of girdle up to their waist. The bottom of the tubes go all the way to the ground, and even in some cases drag on the ground! These tubes can be made of various materials, but are usually held up by some sort of leather strap. Some call these tubes and girdle “pants”—which I take to be some sort of a joke since “to pant” is to breathe heavily (perhaps a statement about how tight they are customarily worn). As far as I can tell the best name for the article is “trowzers”. Now it is customary in public to wear the tunic loosely falling over the trowzers. Yet, in the skule the instructors are extremely insistent that the only proper way of wearing the trowzers is pulled up over the tightly fitting tunic in a ridiculous way. It seems to me that there are only two possible explanations for this practice (the barbarians do not seem to be able to explain it). First, it may be that the instructors actually think it proper to humiliate the children. (Although, this should probably be discarded since the instructors themselves also practice this custom.) Second, it seems more likely that there is a formal religious principle, which necessitates this practice. The barbarians did confirm my suspicions on this point, but I will say no more about this for piety.

     Religiously, it seems that the barbarians honor no gods, save one they refer to as “Jee-zus” (it is unclear what the Hellenes call him). They honor Jee-zus by gathering for singing one time each week. They seem to also contribute small folded paper scraps to his temple, which symbolize their piety. On the whole, however, these practices seem to have been established long ago and have lost their original meaning or fervor. The barbarians say that an epiphany of Jee-zus has not happened for thousands of years, though they expect one soon. But that is all that needs to be said about the barbarians’ religion because it seems to have little to do with their customs and practices. On the other hand, their customs are largely driven by the acquisition of their currency. . .

(the remainder of the text is lost except for one other fragment)
"it is curious that these people seem to love eating what they call 'dogs,' which they claim are ground up beef encased in sheep intestines (though I rather doubt this claim since the meat tasted unlike any meat I've ever eaten.) A man named Tony Paco makes them in exorbitant quantities."

Sunday, November 13, 2011

"This is one of the Hebrew babies"

Dr. John Hartog III has a theory about (perhaps it isn't his own? I don't know) the command to dump the boys into the Nile in Exodus 1 that the command was not to drown them in the Nile, but to expose them. In other words, the children were presented to Hapi in baskets, left exposed to the god to see what he would do with them. He said that the Hebrews willingness to do this perhaps was indicative about the extent to which they were inculcated with the gods and customs of the Egyptians. Thus, when Jochebed placed him in a basket and in some reeds near Pharaoh's daughter's bathing place, this was a very intentional act. In other words, Moses was like all other Hebrew boys placed in a basket and in the Nile (Pharaoh's daughter says, "This is one of the Hebrew babies"), but in this case the basket was placed in just the right spot to make it appear that Hapi himself was delivering this child to Pharaoh's daughter. In light of this, I found this section of Herodotus interesting. It certainly helps to explain the Israelite willingness to go along with this command. Herodotus, II.90
"If anyone, Egyptian or foreigner, is snatched away by a crocodile or has clearly drowned due to the force of the river itself, it is absolutely necessary that the inhabitants of whatever city to which the body floats have it embalmed, laid out, and buried in a sacred tomb in the best manner possible. No one, not even friends or relatives, are permitted to touch the corpse except for the priests of the Nile themselves; their hands alone come in contact with the body during its burial, on the grounds that its status is above and beyond that of a human."
cf. Acts 7:18-21 for support:
Until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph. He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive. At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God’s sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house, and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. Acts 7:18–21 ESV

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Jacobs on "The Evangelical Rejection of Reason"

Alan Jacobs comments (below) on this article from New York Times: The Evangelical Rejection of Reason. First and excerpt from the article:
The rejection of science seems to be part of a politically monolithic red-state fundamentalism, textbook evidence of an unyielding ignorance on the part of the religious. As one fundamentalist slogan puts it, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” But evangelical Christianity need not be defined by the simplistic theology, cultural isolationism and stubborn anti-intellectualism that most of the Republican candidates have embraced. Like other evangelicals, we accept the centrality of faith in Jesus Christ and look to the Bible as our sacred book, though we find it hard to recognize our religious tradition in the mainstream evangelical conversation. Evangelicalism at its best seeks a biblically grounded expression of Christianity that is intellectually engaged, humble and forward-looking. In contrast, fundamentalism is literalistic, overconfident and reactionary.
Jacobs says,
There’s some truth to this, of course, but — forgive the griping — it’s deeply annoying to me. First, it doesn’t say anything that Mark Noll didn’t say in 1994; and second, the only reason it’s in the NYT is that it flatters the prejudices of the readership. A more nuanced view of evangelicals, like the one Alan Wolfe wrote for the Atlantic some years ago, would never run in the NYT.
The problem here actually has little or nothing to do with evangelicalism per se: it’s the long-standing know-nothingism of American populism, which comes in varying religious and not-so-religious flavors, has connived at the evisceration of American public education, and makes millions of Americans unable and unwilling to understand evidential arguments. Blaming the evangelicals is cheap and easy, especially for evangelicals. The real issue is far larger and deeper, and its consequences can be seen even in New York City itself — and there are versions of it overseas as well, though not always populist ones. The very same intellectual flabbiness that makes some people trust Answers in Genesis makes others believe that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays.
I do recommend reading the Atlantic article.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

In Defense of Criticism

I'm a subscriber to too many email lists and blog updates. For this reason, I often archive emails where the titles do not seem to be interesting. However, one caught my eye today: Finding Calcutta: Find yourself in doing, not criticizing. I really don't mean to criticize this particular article, especially any article that has to do with Mother Teresa. But I must say, there is a defense for criticism. In fact, I think criticism plays a crucial role. Criticism helps us not just to do things, but to do the right things in an effective way and with good motivations. Criticism, rightly applied, maintains humility and promotes reliance on God. Criticism reveals the sorts of blindness the noetic affect of sin causes. Certainly, criticism can be smug and self-satisified; what's more, it can be an idolatrous substitute for obedience. But I wonder if well directed and intended criticism does not sometimes need to be defended.