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.