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 Universit├Ąt in Hannover. He has published books and articles on Des Cartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, and Malebranche.