Friday, December 23, 2005

Renaissance Conflict!

In Florence, during that time period which we call the "Renaissance", lived the famous speaker Savonarola (born 1452). He gained his fame as a Christian critic of the popular arts and entertainment, and began a movement to reform society. Savonarola wanted to reduce the problems of alcohol abuse, the sexual exploitation of women, and a general attitude of people wanting to simply be entertained, instead of being productive and constructive and seeking intellectual challenges.

But Savonarola's good intentions went bad. At some point, he slipped away from his original Christian viewpoint, and instead merely claimed to be a Christian, while in fact actually seeking to control the lives of those around them, by trying to make them conform to his arbitrary standards. Instead of inspiring people with a hopeful message, he began to simply place a series of legalistic demands upon them.

What did the good, enlightened Renaissance people of Florence do to Savonarola? They simultaneously burnt and hanged him!

So, nobody really ends up looking very good in the this situation: Savonarola abandoned his attempt to help people and sought instead merely to control them. In return, the so-called "Renaissance" people, known for their "intellectual curiousity", decided to burn him at the stake. So much for the Renaissance!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

An Emperor By Any Other Name

You've heard of "Charlemagne", and you've heard him mentioned as "Charles the Great" and even "Carolus Magnus" in Latin. These names are, obviously, all equivalent, but he would have answered to none of them. He was a Frank, and spoke Frankish until the day of his death. (His biographer and close friend, Einhard, says that Charlemagne investigated learning Latin, but decided not to do it.) He hired diplomats to speak in Latin for him.

His name, in the only language he ever knew, was simply "Karl". The Frankish language is a dialect of German, and a modern version of it is still spoken in the homeland of the Franks. This region, Frankenland (or "Franconia" in English), constitutes the northern half of the modern province of Bavaria. As his reputation grew, he became known as "Karl der Grosse" (properly "Karl der Große"), meaning "Karl the Great".

His people, the Franks, left their name on city of Frankfurt, which means literally "the ford of the Franks", because that is where the Franks crossed the river during the era which we call the "migration of peoples" (historians call this the "Völkerwanderung"). There are actually three towns named "Frankfurt", separated by several hundred miles. By these town names, one can re-trace the route of the Franks during the Völkerwanderung. Even Michigan has its Frankenmuth. The nation of France also bears the name of this Germanic tribe - a bit of irony!

Could it be that he became known as "Charlemagne" or "Charles the Great" because French-speaking and English-speaking historians didn't want to admit that the first and most powerful central European empire was formed and ruled by a German?

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


So why do they call him Constantine "the Great"? Well, he did manage to unify a Roman Empire that was threatening to politically disintegrate; he moved the capitol from Rome to Constantinople (a/k/a Byzantium); he triggered an artistic creative spree of buildings and sculptures and mosiacs; and, perhaps most significantly, he legalized Christianity - taking this belief system from an illegal activity punishable by death or imprisonment to an accepted, and even admired, status within the empire.

Interestingly, Constantine did not illegalize the other belief systems in the empire - those versions of polytheistic paganism which had been responsible for executing hundreds of thousands of Christians. Rather, he showed them a type of tolerance which they had never shown to the Christians. Constantine thereby demonstrated what the Romans could expect from their first Christian emperor. Given a chance to exact blood revenge from his former persecutors, he chose not to do so. It is this voluntary surrender of power, the decision not to oppress, which would characterize a new era. Perhaps this is what makes him great.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Julius Caesar - Hero or Jerk?

The guy who almost was the first Roman emperor was amazingly popular - yeah, that's right, Julius Caesar never actually was emperor, but he almost was, and he was really quite well-liked by the average Roman citizen, at least for most of his career. Toward the end of his life, his popularity went down a little, because some folks suspected that his loyalties might be split between Rome and Egypt - or, more accurately, between Rome and Cleopatra, who ruled Egypt. But, anyway, he was well-liked by most of the people most of the time.

He worked to keep his popular status by handing out citizenships to some of the residents of the territories which had been added to the empire - they didn't resent being conquered so much, if they could get some benefit out of it. And he made sure that the average Roman citizen had access to the minutes of the meetings of the Senate.

But this popular guy also had his dark side. In the course of conquering Gaul, he boasted that he killed a million people, and sold another million into slavery. Now, these numbers might not be exact - it could be a little more, or a little less. But the bottom line is this: to kill anywhere near that many people, we're not talking about soldiers falling in battle. We're talking about genocide. We're talking about killing children, women, cripples, and old folks. We're talking about burning entire villages to the ground.

So maybe Julius Caesar wasn't such a nice guy, after all.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Cuturally Schizophrenic

Between 50 A.D. and 800 A.D., the Christian faith spread through Europe. The continent had previously been dominated by various systems of polytheistic paganism. The new faith did not immediately erase all traces of the earlier belief system. On the contrary, we can see "split personality" in European culture.

Consider Beowulf: this story reflects much of the blood-thirstiness and lack of regard for human lift which was the culture of Norse mythology - yet, at the same time, traces of the Christian virtues of humility and helping other humans are found. So the characters evince simultaneously desires for blood-revenge and a selfless altruism: a truly mixed lot!

Likewise, the ideology of "courtly love" (which may be only a literary idea, and never carried out in real life) contains both traces of Christian pacifistic concepts, and traces of the pagan "warrior-cult" mentality.

The German folktale known as the "Nibelungenlied" was re-written in the 1200's to include references to Christian concepts of self-sacrifice to aid others, yet its main plot is one of pagan revenge and power-seeking.

When reading European literature, it is necessary to unravel the tangled strands of paganism and Christianity which mingled to yield characters who act in seemingly inconsistent ways: these individuals seem, at one moment, to be vicious polytheists - at the next moment, they appear to have the Christian ideal of respect for human life.

The Punic Wars

Rome experienced three wars with Carthage between 264 B.C. and 146 B.C.; they are called the "Punic" Wars because the early founders of Carthage were from Phoenicia. These wars would essentially determine whether Rome or Carthage would be the dominate geo-political power in the Mediterranean area.

In the first Punic War, Rome, led in part by a military hero named Regulus, won Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica.

In the second Punic war, Hamilcar, a Carthiginian leader, consolidated Spain under Carthage's rule. His son, Hannibal, attacked a Roman outpost in Spain, and then marched with elephants over both the Pyrenees and the Alps, and came close to the city of Rome itself. In panic, the citizens of Rome conducted human sacrifices to convince their idols to defend them. Hannibal did not take the city, due in part to a tactically disastrous hesitation on his part, and in part to the fact that the supply lines which were to bring him more troops and equipment were cut by the Romans. The Roman officer Scipio Africanus the Elder captured Spain, and then began to invade northern Africa. Hannibal abandoned his campaign in Italy and went south to defend the Carthage itself. By the end of this war, Carthage was stripped of its various territories, and reduced to a small area around the city of Carthage itself. It was forced to pay tribute to Rome.

The Roman politician Cato the Elder incited Scipio Africanus the Younger to attack Carthage in the third Punic War. Carthage was completely destroyed by the dominating Roman military.

These wars left Rome as the clear master of the Mediterranean region; world history would be very different had Carthage won these wars: your computer would have a font called "Times New Carthaginian", and you would use "Carthaginian numerals".

Monday, December 05, 2005

Is Marcus Aurelius Important?

Marcus Aurelius wrote a book which remains a best-seller over a thousand years later; in 2003 and 2004, several thousand copies were sold. So is this guy important?

Well, that depends. In the context of Roman history, he is remembered as one of the "good" emperors; he held the empire together when various social and political forces - not to mentioned the enemy's armies - were trying to pull it apart. He did not engage in the extreme vices of the "bad" emperors: he did not enjoy human torture as a form of entertainment, organize sadistic orgies, etc. But his career is also located in the era of the final and gradual decline of empire. Rome was past its prime, and Aurelius was simply doing the best job he could to manage the empire. His son would prove to be hopelessly wicked and corrupt, causing further imperial decline. In the big picture of 500 years of imperial history, Aurelius was probably no more, and no less, important that dozens of other emperors whose names we find only in small print in seldom-read books. Historically, we might be tempted to say that he is not that important.

Philosophically, on the other hand, his little book seems to have interested thousands of readers over the years - readers who may have little or no interest in the history of the Roman Empire. Philosophically, Aurelius has sparked thoughts in countless minds, and may be responsible for the fact that Stoicism is still viewed as an important philsophical system.

So is Marcus Aurelius important? Well, the answer may be that he is historically unimportant, but philsophically important.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Everybody's a Hypocrite!

History is filled with all sorts of sages who give us moral advice and ethical guidance. But it seems that each of these sages has his own dirty laundry: Marcus Aurelius gave us an impassionate personal Stoicism, yet allowed the blood-thirsty polytheists in his empire to execute Christians by the thousands; Cicero discovered the principle of Natural Law, upon which most later legal systems are founded, yet was a mercenary lawyer who did whatever dirty work was needed to win his latest political encounter; Octavian-Augustus, the first Roman emperor, prevented the empire from social disintegration by strengthening the fellowship of the basic family unit (mom, dad, kids), yet he may have had a fling or two with a woman who was not his wife. And so it goes: great moral advice given by individuals who do, in some situations, the very opposite. They're all hypocrites! Shall we then simply ignore them and their advice?

All humans are, however, hypocrites. This is, in fact, part of the human situation: we are by nature imperfect. And it is this nature which makes us seek, and give, ethical guidance. So we can't really blame our philosophers for being hypocrites; in fact, they have to be - if they weren't, they wouldn't be human, and they wouldn't be able to help us with our dilemmas.

We must separate the advice from the advice-giver; Cicero's Natural Law, Octavian's civil doctrine of marriage, and Aurelius's Stoicism can help us - but we must, in the same breath, condemn their actions even as we embrace their words. And if we condemn their actions embrace their words, what then shall we do with the men themselves? Neither condemn nor praise them, but simply view them as our fellow humans, flawed, yet having those flashes of creative human insight which are, along with our flaws, a necessary and unalterable aspect of being humna.

Thursday, November 17, 2005


As you already know, "Gothic" architecture nothing (or very little) to do with the Goths, a Germanic tribe which roamed around Europe. But, although the Goths didn't invent this architectural style, they had a sophisticated culture of their own.

Historians sometimes picture the Goths as "savage", uncultured, crude, and blood-thirsty. This is far from true.

By 100 A.D., at the latest, the Goths were literate (i.e., they could read and write). Some historians believe that they were literate even eariler.

The earliest Gothic writings are preserved in "runes". Runes, which are now sometimes used in silly fortune-telling games, are simply the letters of an early Germanic alphabet, which was used to write Gothic and Scandinavian languages.

By around 350 A.D., the Gothic leader Wulfila (also spelled "Ulfilas" and several other ways) revised the Gothic spelling and grammar, and created a more modern alphabet for the language. By 400 A.D., there was quite a literary culture among the Goths. One surviving work is a commentary on Greek texts.

So the Goths weren't uncultured. Nor were they savage: when they became Christianized around 300 A.D., they stopped human and animal sacrifice.

So why do we have this image of Goths as "rude and crude"? Perhaps because the earliest historians to write about them were Romans, and these Romans, upset about the decline of their own empire, needed to find somebody who looked even worse, so as to make the Romans look good by comparison. Later historians, then, simply relied on the earlier historians, and painted a rather grim picture of the Goths.

Gothic, as a living and spoken language, survived in isolated, obscure pockets until around 1400 A.D., mainly in small villages around the Crimean Sea.

The U of M, here in Ann Arbor, has two noted Gothic specialists, who are famous around the world for their expertise in this language. They have published several books on Gothic grammar.

Is this a future career for you? Would you like to be a specialist in the Gothic language?

So What is a Palimpsest?

In the early Middle Ages, parchment (a type of thin leather from goat or sheep skin) was a common writing surface. It was relatively expensive, but very durable. We're talking about writing books and essays, not letters to Grandma.

If you wanted to write something, but had neither parchment nor money for parchment, you might take a rough stone and rub it over the surface of an already-written parchment to erase what was already written there, and then you could write. Centuries later, scientists discovered that you could, using ultra-violet light in some cases, infra-red in others, still read what had been erased. In still other cases, chemical reactions or sub-atomic particles could bring the erased writing back to life.

In this way, books and essays which have been lost for centuries can be recovered ... a sort of scientific detective work in the service of history and literature.

A "palimpsest" is a piece of parchment which has been erased and re-written. The task is to figure out what was erased.

Major universities have several palimsest readers, people who do this kind of scientific investigation.

Would you like to be a palimpsest reader?

What do Professors at Duke University say about Humanities?

A tenured full professor at Duke says that he enjoyed "the Humanities course, which was my favorite in high school, and indeed may be the most eye-opening class I have ever had."

This scholar graduated from Huron in 1979, and went on to study at Kalamazoo College, Notre Dame University, and the German Universität in Hannover. He has published books and articles on Des Cartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, and Malebranche.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Merely an "Excerpt"?

This Humanities course is a "survey course" as schools call them. We cover roughly 4,000 years of history between August and May. We touch upon many of the most important people, books, and events. But we cannot do it in depth: we can merely give you a brief glimpse. When you get to the university, you can choose to take in-depth classes in these various subjects, where you will cover much less material, but cover it much more thoroughly.

In such a survey course, one necessary compromise is to read excerpts from famous texts. There isn't time to read everything every written by Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Thucydides, Shakespeare, and all the other pivotal thinkers. So we read only brief selections from their writings. And this is where you have to do some critical thinking about "spin".

For example, depending on which pages you read, you can make Thucydides seem either like a spokesman for noble morality of the ancient Greeks, or a social critic denouncing their mercenary blood-thirstiness.

Depending on which chapters of the "Republic" you read, Plato can seem either like a proto-Marxist social engineer, or a other-worldly observer of philosophical abstractions.

So, while you think about what you're reading, remember to also think about what you're NOT reading.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Mystery of Saladin

In the long history of attacks on Europe, starting in the 700's when Charles Martell ("Karl the Hammer") defended the European heartland at the battle of Tours (732/733 A.D.) and repelled the invaders, and lasting at least until 1683, when Vienna was attacked, but not conquered, the figure of Saladin stands out as one of the most vicious military leaders to attempt to destroy Europe.

After military confrontations, the standard practice of his troops was to torture and kill the military prisoners as well as any civilians from the opposing side. Women and children were no exception, and Saladin's soldiers used rape to terrorize local populations.

On July 3, 1187, when Saladin's army attacked a group of Europeans at Hattin, he gave an order which has been preserved for us in writing: all the Europeans were beheaded; no prisoners were taken.

The mystery of Saladin is why, a few months later, in October of 1187, when he captured the city of Jerusalem, he did not execute the Europeans there. In his long and bloody career, this was the one time that he choose not to kill the prisoners he had taken. Why?

His magnanimity was actually pragmatism. He had intially planned to put to death all the Christians in the city. However, when the Christian commander inside Jerusalem, Balian of Ibelin, threatened in turn to destroy the city before Saladin could get inside, Saladin relented - although once inside the city he did enslave those Christians who could not afford to buy their way out of town.

So Saladin made a double profit: ransom from those who could pay, and income made from selling the rest as slaves.

Balain of Ibelin, by the way, was not a European. He was a native Middle Easterner, but one who had escaped the forced conversion to Islam being spread by armies like Saladin's.

Saladin, it seems, was content to put aside his genocidal passions, if he could gain financially from it.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Bach's Newest CD!

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685, which makes him a little old to be releasing new CD's, but somehow, he's managing.

A researcher was looking through some old papers, and found a two-page, hand-written aria for soprano and harpsichord, the first Bach vocal work discovered in seventy years. The text is a twelve-stanza poem, beginning "Alles mit Gott und nichts ohne ihn" (Everything with God, and nothing without Him). A reviewer has called the music "a reflective, meditative, soothing piece, as Bach's church music so often is."

The CD should be available at your local store soon.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Humanistic Reflections

In our Humanities course, we surf speedily along over centuries of thought - philosophy, religion, literature, art, history, music. What impact does a "humanistic" education have on the individual?

I'll note in passing that "humanistic" is a word with varying definitions; take a look at a dictionary.

Those who lack at least some experience with philosophy, humanism, or any human expression of wrestling with questions of meaning are prone to be guided by three things:
(1) avoiding clear negative consequences - legal, physical, or economic pain
(2) moving in sync with popular opinions
(3) seeking "what feels good"

Those three principles are likely to leave the individual stuck in an intellectual nightmare, whether she or he realizes it or not. The first and third principles will lead the agent to act in opposition to the principles of those she or he admires: one's hero or role-model accepts pain, and is willing to live without "what feels good", in order to achieve higher goals. The second principle leads to self-contradictio as opinion changes. All three lack any intellectual justification.

On the other hand, a person with some intellectual foundation in philosophy or "the humanities" will be guided, at least in part, by reflections upon transcendent standards:
* truth
* beauty
* justice
and will work out a course of action which is guided by a logical, rational consideration of what is entailed by those standard, and what is likely to bring one closer to them, to realize them.

So taking this Humanities Class might just be good for you, after all!

Grendel's Mom: Messiah vs. Monster?

One of the most striking features of the narrative (you'll figure out which book I'm discussing here, so I won't tell you) is that it is the mother who attempts to avenge Grendel - not Grendel's friend, brother, or father. Why the mother?

One answer might lie in the bizarre mix of paganism and early Christianity which characterizes this book; this uncomfortable blend is also found in the Nibelungenlied (a famous Germanic folktale), and in the ideas surrounding the earliest formulations of chivalry and courtly love.

Did the author intend to see in Grendel and his mother an inverse image of Christianity? Is Grendel an anti-Jesus figure? If so, then his mother would be an anti-Mary, hence her otherwise unexpected prominence in the narrative.

Can we find other hints that Grendel might be mirror image of Christ? Grendel crawls into his grave to die, instead of emerging from it to live. Grendel brings fear and death, instead of "peace be with you" and life.

Perhaps the author was aware of his clashing mix of violent paganism and altruistic Christianity, and so wove into his story an opposite analogue to a Christ-figure. Is there then also a Christ-figure in the story? You decide.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

European Judaism

European Judaism, which by the 10th century was already quite distinct from the forms of Judaism practiced in Palestine and Ethiopia, was monolithic until the 1600's. At that point in the time, the "Hasidic" (also spelled "Chasidic") movement began.

Rebbe (i.e., "Rabbi") Yisrael, called "the Baal Shem Tov" (menaing "Master of the Good Name") was the founder of the Chassidic movement.

Hassidism was distinguished from the Orthodox Judaism by its mystical and emotional emphasis. Hassidism has a number of sub-varieties within itself: Breslov, Lubavitch, and Satmar.

Rebbe ("Rabbi") Nachman of Breslov was the great-grandson "the Baal Shem Tov". Rebbe Nachman was born in 1772 (1 Nisan 5532) in the Ukrainian town of Medzeboz. He grew to be an outstanding tzaddik (saint), Torah sage, teacher and Chassidic master. During his lifetime he attracted a devoted following of "chassidim" (Hassidic followers) who looked to him as their prime source of spiritual guidance in their quest for God, as "the Rebbe." From the autumn of 1802 until the spring of 1810 Rebbe Nachman lived in Breslov, Ukraine. He then moved to Uman where he passed away from tuberculosis six months later, at the age of thirty-eight. He is buried there till today.

Thus, by the mid-1800's, a variety of forms of Judaism were practiced in Europe. Geographically, the Hasidic forms were found more in the East, the orthodox more in the west. The Orthodox Jews in the England, Spain, France, and the Benelux countries (Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands) tended to see the Hasids as too emotional, too mystical, irrational, and a little simple-minded. The Hasids in Eastern Europe tended to the view their fellow Jews in Western Europe as too cold and formal, and not perceptive regarding spiritual matters.

As we have seen varieties of Christianity influence history and be influenced by history, so also with the varieties of Judaism. The East / West divisions can be seen as reflecting the areas of Europe which were more receptive to Cartesian rationalism, Hume’s Empiricism, and the Enlightenment, all of which flourished in Western Europe. In Eastern Europe, Hume, Descartes, and the Enlightenment didn't make much of an impact (in Poland, the Ukraine, etc.).

Much of what we now consider typical, or stereotypical, Judaism is actually European, or eastern European, culture. When one examines the native Judaisms of places like Ethiopia, or the Judaisms of those Jews who, for two thousand years, never left Palestine, they seem almost "un-Jewish" by the standards of American or European culture, because they do not carry the cultural influences of Europe; yet they are every bit as much "Jewish" as the Jews of Germany, Poland, and Russia.

Jewish texts in western thought:

Although it is known that there has been far too much persecution of the Jews in European history, the remarkable fact is that for about 1500 years, Jews and Christians co-existed in Europe rather peacefully, these regrettable times of persecution being exceptions, rather than the rule.

One factor which made this co-existence possible was a substantial amount of overlap between Jewish and Christian belief systems. (Hence the modern phrase, "Judeo-Christian".) The following excerpt from the Talmud gives us a sample of Jewish thought, which was incorporated into Christianity:

"He (Rabbi Elazar HaKappar) used to say, The born will die, the dead will come to life, and the living will be judged - so that they know, make known, and become aware that He is G-d, He is the Fashioner, He is the Creator, He is the One who understands, He is the Judge, He is the Witness, He is the Litigant, and He will eventually judge. Blessed be He, for there is not before Him wrongdoing, forgetfulness, favoritism, or the acceptance of bribes - for all is His. And know that everything is according to a reckoning. And do not let your evil inclination assure you that the grave is a refuge for you - for against your will were you created, against your will were you born, against your will do you live, against your will do you die, and against your will you will stand in judgment before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He."

Note that Jewish texts often contain the word "God" written as "G-d". This is a literary mechanism designed to show respect.

Jewish thought:

From the examples of Spinoza and Husserl (to name but two of many), we see that Jewish thinkers were involved in the central questions of the development of European thought. They brought with them their intellectual heritage.

Although the central text of Judaism is the Tanakh, which is binding upon all Jews, another text, called the Talmud, is also very influential, although it is not technically binding.

The Talmud consists of two parts, first the "mishnah", which is a series of regulations, and second the "gemorah", which is a commentary on the mishnah. The gemorah ranges from technical questions about how to apply the laws of the mishnah in various cases, to more philosophical questions about issues raised, but not directly addressed by, the mishnah. Because the Talmud, as stated above, is not binding, it has exercised its influence upon the intellectual tradition by means of its method of discussion, rather than via its direct content, i.e., the most influential aspect of the Talmud is not what it directly states, but rather the manner of debate and commentary and analysis which is used in it.

Major Jewish intellectuals carried this manner into other fields, such as philosophy, mathematics, and philology (i.e., the careful grammatical analysis of ancient languages), and thereby made major contributions to European thought.

The influence of the Tanakh is the opposite: it is its direct content, its assertions, which are both binding and shaping upon Jewish thought. It has little of the Talmudic manner of discourse in it. The Tanakh also shaped culture by exemplifying the rules of Hebrew poetry.

One of the more popular sections of the Talmud is called "Avot" ("the fathers"), and it is a charming, folksy collection of ethical proverbs. Although it is a great deal of fun to read, study, and discuss, it is actually a-typical, different from the bulk of the Talmud, in that it does not engage in detailed technical and philosophical discussion. But it is probably the most-quoted section of the Talmud. Here are some examples:

Mishna 26: "Rabbi Yossi bar (son of) Yehuda of K'far HaBavli said, 'one who learns from the young, to what is he compared? To one who eats unripe grapes and drinks wine from the press. And one who learns from the old, to what is he compared? To one who eats ripened grapes and drinks aged wine.'"

Mishna 27: "Rabbi Meir (mai-eer) said, 'do not look at the flask but what is in it. There are new flasks filled with old wine and old flasks which do not even contain new wine.'"

Do you have a pocket full of art?

The coinage of the United States is an example of the lasting influence of Greco-Roman classicism. Examine current coins: the Lincoln penny, the Jefferson nickel, the Roosevelt dime, the Washington quarter, the Kennedy half-dollar, and the new one-dollar coin. The influence of late Roman portraiture and Greek architecture is evident. The influence of classical symbolism is evident: what, exactly, is on the back of a dime?

The classical influence in U.S. numismatics has, if anything, only gotten stronger in recent years. While the 19th century and early 20th century displayed some non-classical themes (the Indian penny and the Buffalo nickel), current designs are almost exclusively classical in style.

Look at the architectural designs on the back of a penny and a nickel. Can you identify them by style?

The question is open ... to you.

Numismatic iconography

We've discussed the influences on numismatic iconography. Look at the back of a penny and a nickel. Which type of architecture do you see? What are the symbols on the back of a dime, and in which style are they engraved? What about the back of the quarter and half-dollar? What is the “fasces” symbol?

The front side of the penny, nickel, dime, quarter, half-dollar all have portraits. Which style of portrait is this?

Within the last decade, we have two new coins featuring women: Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea have been pictured on one-dollar coins. You might think that this represents progress for women, but women have been pictured on coins often in the past.

During the first one hundred years of our country's history, only women were pictured on coins: no men at all! The first coin to picture a male was a penny around the time of the Civil War. The first coin to picture a president was not until 1909!

So women were actually more favored than men on coins in the past.

The habit of placing presidents on coins comes from the Romans.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

King Arthur

In drawing the sometimes not-so-obvious lines between history, legend, myth, and outright fiction, King Arthur can be a useful example.

Yes, there really was a King Arthur. One of the earliest historians to mention him was Nennius, a Welshman who wrote around 796 A.D., by which time Arthur was already over three hundred years into the past. Nennius tells us that Arthur united the Britains, who missed the unifying if imposed influence of the Romans, against the Saxon invaders. Nennius contrasts Arthur's Christian manners with the savage attacks of the pagan Saxons.

The Romans left in the early 400's, and Arthur seems to have assumed political leadership around 452. There were several decades in which there was no unifying political influence in Britain, each town caring for itself only. Arthur was needed, because a unified defense had to be presented to the various Germanic tribes which kept invading: the Saxons, the Vandals, and Schwaben. Although Arthur worked with heroism, the Saxons ultimately took over the island.

Concerning the legends and tales about knights in shining armor, we can probably conjecture that Arthur didn't wear metal armor, might not have had a horse, or even the formal title of "king", and whatever castles he may have inhabited probably resembled simple, small, crude stone houses. He's not the Arthur of the fairy tales, but he played a more than imporant role in British history.

The Black Death

Imagine what it must be like when huge numbers of people die from a disease: "crazed dogs running wild on deserted streets, nighttime fires winking from the crowded fields and vineyards around the city; dusty, sun-drenched roads filled with sweaty, fearful refugees; sick stragglers wandering off to nearby woods and huts to die."

The plague which swept through Europe in the 1300's was a cultural turning point in many ways. After such devastation, society had to re-build itself, and in so doing, re-designed itself. Approximately 33% of Europe died; that would be 25 million people. In some towns, everyone died; other towns had fewer casualties. Early in the century, earthquakes, floods, tidal waves, heavy rains, and high winds had hit Europe, leaving crops stunted and waterlogged, and bringing thousands to edge of starvation; combined with poor sanitation - waste and filth were everywhere - which made a good home for the rats which carried the sickness, Europe was a ripe target for a plague. It moved quickly across the continent.

The civil response was helpful, but limited. In England, steady leadership sustained order, self-control, and lawfulness. In Florence and Venice, public health systems were established to oversee sanitation and the burial of the dead. But the human and spiritual response was amazing: in the worst years of the mortality, Europeans witnessed horrors comparable to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but even when death was everywhere and only a fool would dare to hope, the thin fabric of civilization held - sometimes by the skin of its teeth, but it held. Enough notaries, municipal and church authorities, physicians, and merchants stepped forward to keep governments and courts and churches running. Human power alone can't generate that kind of resiliency: even in the most extreme and horrific of circumstances, people do actually carry on, powered by the external forces of altruism and faith.

Political and economic conditions changed after the plague: there were fewer people, more jobs, and a higher standard of living.

Think Before You Speak - Or Write!

One benefit you can gain from the careful study of texts is the habit of considering carefully the words you will use before you speak or write. You must allow your passion to cool, and allow your reason to work, if you want to make sense. In a moment of passion, we may say or write something which seems obviously correct to ourselves, but which later will be seen as foolish. A recent letter, published in a newspaper, had several paragraphs of heated political opinion, in the midst of which was buried the sentence: "It doesn't matter what you believe in, it matters how you express yourself."

Even a nano-second's worth of reflection reveals the idiocy of that statement, and it undermined any other good argumentation which the writer may have put forth. Whatever your opinions, you have an obligation to state them rationally - if you state them irrationally, you will lose the right to be among educated people.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Confusing Words

Some words seem to mean almost the same thing: Nazi, fascist, totalitarian, nationalist. How can we sort these out?

Naziism is nationalism plus socialism; therefore, it is a mixture of a moral valuation and an economic system. Nationalism is a moral value system, in which the existence, growth, and power of the nation-state is seen as the supreme and ultimate goal; nothing is more important - not family, not religion. Socialism is an economic system, and there are many varieties of socialism, but most of them include ideas like redistribution of income, state ownership of the means of production, regulated markets (i.e., no free market or "laissez-faire" economy), increased taxes, and so forth. To be sure, some versions of socialism do not include all those features, but most do.

Totalitarianism means simply total control by the government of all aspects of civil and private life.

Fascism is a combination of nationalism and totalitarianism.

This is, at least, a starting point for trying to understand the subtle differences between these various terms. Much more can be said.

Monday, May 23, 2005


Nietzsche's ideas are many and complex. I'm only going to talk about a few of them today; there is much more to him.

Nietzsch loved his sister, but he hated most of her views and opinions, and he hated the man she married, because he had those same views. Nietzsche did not like the fact that his sister was anti-Semitic, that she was a racist and a nationalist and a vegetarian, and that she wanted to revive ancient Norse paganism. Nietzsche, contrary to what is often said about him, opposed anti-Semitism, and did not like the fact that there was a growing anti-Jewish movement during his time (the late 1800's). He felt that racism was a shelter for mediocre people, who could get by if they happened to be of the majority power-holding race; he felt that mediocre people should be exposed and made to be servants of the better people, regardless of their race. Nationalism was an exercise of being part of a mindless "herd", and Nietzsche felt it was bad because it encouraged one to mindlessly follow the nation, and it (like racism) created a shelter for mediocrity. Oddly, vegetarianism was popular among both the leaders of the anti-Semtic movements and the early founders of the Nazi party.

Nietzsche, of course, is known for his atheism and his hatred toward Christians and the Christian faith. He despised the fact that the Christian faith encouraged people to "molly-coddle the weaklings", i.e., care for the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the oppressed. Nietzsche felt that not only should the strong survive (as in social Darwinism), but that the strong had the right, even the duty, to exploit the weak, and that the proper role of the weak was to serve those who were by nature simply better.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Two Teams Butt Heads

In European thought, at the end of the 19th century, we find two groups of thinkers who oppose each other systematically across a number of topics.

On one team, we find a series of "determinists"; deterministic thinkers propose, for our purposes, the notion that what you are, and what you do, was previously decided, not by you. Determinism, then, denies that human beings make any significant choices. Marx represents economic, political, and historical determinism: he says that the future has already been decided, and it is inevitable that a certain series of economic and political events will occur, and that the world will arrive at a specific economic and political condition. Darwin represents biological determinism; the human race, and each particular human being, is as it is because of genetic and environmental factors. Freud represents psychological determinism: the choices I seem to make are actually determined by events earlier in my life - my parents and early childhood experience will dictate whether I choose Coke or Pepsi, Democrats or Republicans, Protestantism or Roman Catholocism. By denying that human beings make significant choice, determinists deny any "meaning" to human life, at least as most people would understand "meaning" - thus, they are ultimately nihilists. This team of determinists is also a team of materialists: by this we mean that they deny the existence of anything besides physical objects. So they would say that there are no such things as ideas, memories, spirits, minds, souls, emotions, etc. Marx's materialism causes him to conclude, for example, that we should get rid of marriages and families, and that men should be allowed to view all women as their sexual property; since Marx's economic theories revolve around the ideas that all men should hold all objects as common property (and that therefore there is then no property), so his materialism, which views human beings simply as physical objects, causes him to say that all men should hold all women as common sexual objects (and that therefore there is then no such thing as marriage or family): this amounts to the assertion that, according to Marx's ideas, women are property. Also on this team would be Friedrich Nietzsche, whose message to the human race is that it is merely an instrument of higher forces and drives in the universe: human beings should not credit themselves with meaning, value, or dignity.

On the opposite team, we find people like Dickens, whose novel, "A Tale of Two Cities", revolves around a series of individual human beings who make important and meaningful choices, and those choices have significant impact on other human beings and on the world. Dickens is telling us that human beings are not determined like chemistry and physics, but rather have a freedom to decide; he is telling us that our choices have consequences, which can be good or bad. Ibsen shows us a family which is falling apart, in which the wife and the husband fail to show each other the support and warmth which is a real marriage; Ibsen is showing us why we should reject Marx's idea that women are property: Ibsen says that a loving and mutually affirming marriage is possible only when the wife and husband understand that they can make a meaninful choice to be faithful and supportive to each other. Kierkegaard, as the founder of existentialism, directs his attention to the individual: meaningful choices, he says, are made by the individual, not by groups or categories of people; thus I must make my decisions as a single human being, not as a member of my nation or profession or ethnic group or political group. Dostoyevsky shows us that, when faced with painful circumstances (whether the pain be political, emotional, or physical), the human being can triumph by making an "inner revolution", not an outer revolution; Dostoyevsky is saw help for each human not in a political movement, but in an internal change.

J.S. Mill, Liberalism, and Nationalism

The first wave of nationalism to sweep across Europe, prior to 1815, was a unifying reaction to Napoleon's invasions, conquests, and attempted conquests.

The second wave was the liberalist wave, a type of nationalism encouraged by the liberals as a reaction against the established and re-established legitimate powers institutionalized by the Congress of Vienna. The Liberals saw nationalism as the freedom of an ethnic group to express its identity, in defiance of any monarchy or other established authority. A nationalist state's legitimacy arises from the ethnic identity of the people, replacing the older legitimacy which arose from the hereditary claims of a dynasty. John Stuart Mill and his Liberals saw nationalism as the vehicle by which the masses could express themselves. For this same reason, Metternich opposed it.

The third wave of nationalism was more authoritarian; after 1848, this type of nationalism gave authority to governments to take steps in order to avoid another series of attempted revolutions.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Reacting to the Industrial Revolution

Yes, the Industrial Revolution was a big deal in history. Not merely because steam, coal, and iron changed the way, and the quantity, in which goods were manufactured, but also because it changed the way in which people lived. The focus for the ordinary person changed from rural to urban, from self-sustaining semi-independence to economically integrated inter-dependence, from the gentle rythms of sunrise/sunset and the four seasons of the year to the demanding harshness of the factory's whistle which marked the exact beginning and end of one's exhausting shift.

These large and dramatic changes in ordinary life for millions of people triggered various reactions. Much of the intellectual, artistic, and political life of the 19th century can be seen as various reactions to the Industrial Revolution.

The Romantic poets reacted by escaping: writing verses about knights riding across countrysides with blue skies and green grass, while living in a grey and smoke-filled urban landscape.

John Stuart Mill, and the modern political liberalism associated with his name, called for reform programs in order to make the lives of the working millions more humane.

Marx and the various socialist and communist movements of the era called for revolution, not reform; only a complete overthrow of the economic structure would satisfy them.

William Blake, in a category of his own, wrote verse, not in order to escape the misery, but to record it accurately, unflinchingly capturing the images and misery.

Kropotkin and Bakunin, reacting less to the Industrial Revolution and more to the political harshness of their own government, called for anarchy, setting off a wave of terrorism which included bombs (which exploded unexpectedly in ordinary peaceful cities, killing people who were going about their daily lives) and assassinations at the end of 19th century and into the first few years of the 20th century.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Who Really Won the Cold War?

The "Cold War" is generally considered to be that era from 1945 until 1990, when there were extreme tensions between the USA and the USSR. It was called "cold" because there was never a direct military confrontation: the US Army never fought the Soviet army directly. There were "proxy wars" between nations which were associated with the US and the USSR; in this way, they fought indirectly.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1989/1990 lead to increased freedom for millions of people in several different nations, but who gets the credit for "winning" the war?

Historians do not agree; a number of different individuals are named as those who "won" the Cold War: President Ronald Reagan; Polish leader Lech Walesa; and Pope John Paul II. Other historians say that not one individual, but movements of people, were the "winners": in East Germany, there were student movements in Leipzig and Dresden which undermined the authority of the communist dictatorship. In Romania, groups met on a regular basis in churches, in direct defiance of communist directives. These groups can be seen as the ones who made the decisive difference.

So it is not clear who "won" the Cold War for the free countries. But, in any case, it remains an interesting phenomenon, because both the USA and the USSR engaged in huge weapon building programs, but these weapons were never used. The fact that hundreds and thousands of very powerful atomic weapons were built but never used demonstrates the power of the concept of "deterrence": by building powerful weapons, one can ensure peace and justice, because no nation would risk the horrifying destruction which would be the result of such an armed confrontation.

In our era, after the Cold War, we live with terrorism; terrorism is conducted by small, quasi-political organizations, not by legitimate nation-states. The tactic of deterrence does not work as well against terrorist organizations as it does against sovereign states.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Locke's Legal Impact

John Locke made contributions to both pure philosophy and to political philosophy.

Locke's purely philosophy ideas dealt with empiricism, distinguishing between an object's primary and secondary qualities, a rejection of innate ideas, and his famous "tabula rasa" metaphor: humans are born like "blank pieces of paper", so that the source of all our knowledge is, and must be experience.

Politically, Locke is known for locating the source of sovereign authority in the people; the legitimacy of a government comes from the consent of the governed. He also stressed property rights, and one's duties to society.

There is a connection between Locke's purely philosophical thoughts and his political doctrines: given that human beings are born as "blank slates", then Locke would never allow the defendant in a criminal trial to excuse himself from responsibility for his crimes because "he was born that way". Locke would argue that one could not claim an in-born factor which would cause one to become a thief, murderer, arsonist, or rapist. There would be no genetic determiner of behavior, as a consequence of the denial of innate knowledge.

Locke would be likely to allow a the attorney defending the accused to claim that "environmental factors added up to make him that way": negative factors in an individual's experiences could, perhaps, drive that individual to develop "mal-adaptive coping mechanisms". These, developed subconsciously or semi-consciously or unconsciously, would be neither fully responsible moral choices nor innate/genetic determinations of behavior.

So Locke's abstract philosophical psychology could have a very practical impact in the courtroom.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

What is the Purpose?

Why does society exist? Why do people form towns, cities, states, and countries? Well, different thinkers give different, but similar, answers.

John Locke says, "the great and chief end, therefore, of men uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property." In that sentence, Locke not only says something about the purpose of governments, but also hints about a social contract.

Hobbes, in reviewing different forms of government, speaks of "their aptitude to produce the peace and security of the people; for which end they were instituted."

What subtle differences, or similarities, do you see between Hobbes and Locke? What was happening during Locke's life? What happen during the lifetime of Hobbes? Certain major events in English and European history may have shaped the slight differences in their views.


The cause of much misery throughout history has been the idea that human beings, either individually or as the collective human race, are perfectible. Everyone dreams of a perfect society, and can describe what it might be like, but some people believe that it is possible in this world. Others recognize that humans, although they may be very good, are never quite perfect, and that there will be no perfect society, and no perfect human beings, in this life. As for the next life ... well, we'll leave that discussion for another time!

But, to get specific (which is, after all, what it takes to get a good grade on your essay test!), we see Metternich saying that the twenty-five years of bloodshed and chaos (ten years of French Revolution and fifteen years of Napoleonic rule) which dominated European history was caused largely by "presumption; the natural effect of the rapid progression of the human mind towards the perfecting of so many things." What he's saying is this: our minds constantly turn toward the idea of perfection - we image the perfect weather, the perfect music, the perfect school, the perfect car, the perfect vacation, etc. But we are carried away by passion, which makes us forget that the world, and the human beings in it, are good, but not quite perfect, and that they are essentially imperfect, i.e. by nature imperfect, and thus cannot be ultimately perfected. We can always make the world a better place, but we can never make it a perfect place. So Metternich concludes, "one must not dream of reformation while agitated by passion; wisdom directs that at such moments we should limit ourselves to maintaining."

Edmund Burke had a similar view: given the reality of the world's imperfection, the practical way of organizing human society will be found "in compromises sometimes between good and evil." Human societies face different problems, and we cannot fix each one perfectly: "it is better that the whole should be imperfectly and anomalously answered," i.e., on average we can do a good job taking care of the problems which face society, but not a perfect job.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Hobbes, Kant, and Wittgenstein

In our Humanities course, we read Hobbes. We don't read or discuss Kant or Wittgenstein, but they are two important philosophers who lived later than Hobbes, and whom we would discuss if we had more time!

Anyway, Hobbes has one idea which makes him similar to these other two: Hobbes says that we must "captivate our understanding to the words; and not to labor in sifting out a philosophical truth by logic, of such mysteries as are not comprehensible, nor fall under any rule of natural science." What does he mean?

He means that we can't rationally or logically discuss some parts of human life and some aspects of this universe. Human reason, Hobbes believes, is extremely powerful, but there are a few things that it can't do. And so we are left with some mysteries in life which we contemplate, but about which we cannot reason. Luckily, we can at least reason about why can't reason about them!

What Does It Mean To Be Human?

We human beings are diverse: different languages, religions, and races. Yet we all share some of the same features which make us human. All of those features together are what we call "human nature". Humans are different from animals in several ways: for one, we can deny our desires. If an animal is hungry, it eats, and cannot stop itself; if an animal desires sexual activity, it performs that action, and cannot do otherwise. But a hungry human can decide to wait, and eat later; or even go on a "hunger strike". This is what makes us human: the ability to say "no" to our drives, instincts, and desires. What if, in the middle of a delicate brain operation, the surgeon suddenly became hungry, and walked out of the hospital to get a hamburger?

Monday, April 04, 2005

The Death of Pope John Paul II

The recent death of the Pope reminds us that, from a historical perspective, the organization of the Roman Catholic church is important in understanding history. One cannot properly understand historical phases and events, like the beginning and rise of the university and concepts of Scholastic philosophy, or understand historical persons, like Rene Descartes or Emperor Joseph II or Empress Maria-Theresa or Metternich or Edmund Burke, without understanding this institution.

This is true, no matter what your own personal belief system is.

There are several different belief systems which are crucial for understanding world history:

* Ancient Pagan Polytheism - Human Sacrifice
* Judaism
* Christianity

Under the heading of "Christianity", several sub-categories merit study:

* Early Christianity (Syrian, Persian, Ethiopic)
* Roman Catholicism
* Lutheranism
* Post-Luther Protestantism

These are the major religious influences which have shaped the world in which we live, both in the present, and over the past 4,000 years. Can you define and describe the terms on the lists above?