Friday, October 15, 2010

Shrewd Marketing

In the late 300’s and early 400’s A.D., Augustine was writing to persuade the Roman public that Christianity should be permitted as part of Roman society. Recently legalized in 313 A.D., the new religion was a minority within the empire, and faced discrimination and persecution. Around 410 A.D., when the city of Rome was attacked and heavily damaged by the Goths, many Romans believed that their city had been sacked because the old Roman gods were angry that a few Christians had been allowed to live there. Augustine’s message to the public was twofold: first, that Christianity was not responsible for the Gothic attack on Rome, and secondly, that Christianity was a reasonable system of beliefs. To support the latter claim, Augustine made use of the philosophers and writers who were respected by the educated class in Rome. He pointed out some similarities between Plato’s thought and the ideas in the New Testament.

Augustine was also able to find connections between Cicero, stoicism and Christianity. Cicero was a lawyer and politician in the tumultuous first century B.C. He was able to distinguish himself through eloquent writing and boldly argued and articulated speeches. Augustine wrote in the Confessions, “Following the usual curriculum I had already come across a book by a certain Cicero, whose language (but not his heart) almost everyone admires.” Finding connections between Cicero’s ideas and Christianity was critical in appealing to the Roman scholars because Cicero had their respect. The book of Cicero he found is called Hortentius, which is unfortunately lost to the modern world except for various quotations Augustine used in his writings. “The book changed my feelings. It altered my prayers, Lord, to be toward you yourself. It gave me different values and priorities. Suddenly every vain hope became empty to me, and I longed for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardour in my heart.” Augustine has a very emotional reaction to this book. It changed his perspectives completely. It gave Augustine a love of wisdom. Cicero wrote about ideas that expressed the Greek philosophy of stoicism. Stoics believe in Natural Law, universality of mankind, and a strict adherence a virtuous lifestyle. It’s not hard to see how Augustine could reconcile Stoicism and Christianity. Stoicism had gained quite a following in the Roman Empire, and linking together Christianity and stoicism appealed to a wider group of people.

Augustine had to use these sources – Plato, Stoicism, and Cicero – selectively, because, while he could point to some similarities and thereby persuade the Romans to allow Christianity, he also knew that there some points of difference: Plato’s view of women, for example, did not give them the level of dignity which they attained in the New Testament; Stoicism, despite its moral outlook, was a belief system which was comfortable with suicide and with the mass executions of Christians which the Romans had carried out prior to 313 A.D.; and Cicero, while in some ways an inspirational philosopher, was also a sleazy lawyer connected with various shady dealings, and who also glorified the political and social structure of the old Roman Republic to an extent which was neither plausible to the critical thinker nor acceptable to anyone who wished to avoid deifying the state. Augustine knew that neo-Platonism, Stoicism, and Cicero had failed to offer meaningful correctives to the problems of Roman society, but he still found it useful to refer to them in his explanations of Christianity, because such references were crucial to capturing the interest and favor of the Roman readership.

Nazi Euthanasia

In October of 1939 amid the turmoil of the outbreak of war Hitler ordered widespread “mercy killing” of the sick and disabled.

Code named “Aktion T4,” the Nazi euthanasia program to eliminate “life unworthy of life” at first focused on newborns and very young children. Midwives and doctors were required to register children up to age three who showed symptoms of mental retardation, physical deformity, or other symptoms included on a questionnaire from the Reich Health Ministry.

A decision on whether to allow the child to live was then made by three medical experts solely on the basis of the questionnaire, without any examination and without reading any medical records.

Each expert placed a + mark in red pencil or - mark in blue pencil under the term “treatment” on a special form. A red plus mark meant a decision to kill the child. A blue minus sign meant a decision against killing. Three plus symbols resulted in a euthanasia warrant being issued and the transfer of the child to a ‘Children’s Specialty Department’ for death by injection or gradual starvation.

The decision had to be unanimous. In cases where the decision was not unanimous the child was kept under observation and another attempt would be made to get a unanimous decision.

The Nazi euthanasia program quickly expanded to include older disabled children and adults. Hitler's decree of October, 1939, typed on his personal stationary, enlarged “the authority of certain physicians to be designated by name in such manner that persons who, according to human judgment, are incurable can, upon a most careful diagnosis of their condition of sickness, be accorded a mercy death.”

Questionnaires were then distributed to mental institutions, hospitals and other institutions caring for the chronically ill.

Patients had to be reported if they suffered from schizophrenia, epilepsy, senile disorders, therapy resistant paralysis and syphilitic diseases, retardation, encephalitis, Huntington’s chorea and other neurological conditions, also those who had been continuously in institutions for at least five years, or were criminally insane, or did not posses German citizenship or were not of German or related blood, including Jews, Negroes, and Gypsies.

A total of six killing centers were established including the well known psychiatric clinic at Hadamar. The euthanasia program was eventually headed by an SS man whose last name was Wirth, a notorious brute with the nickname ‘the savage.’

At Brandenburg, a former prison was converted into a killing center where the first Nazi experimental gassings took place. The gas chambers were disguised as shower rooms, but were actually hermetically sealed chambers connected by pipes to cylinders of carbon monoxide. Patients were generally drugged before being led naked into the gas chamber. Each killing center included a crematorium where the bodies were taken for disposal. Families were then falsely told the cause of death was medical such as heart failure or pneumonia.

But the huge increase in the death rate for the disabled combined with the very obvious plumes of odorous smoke over the killing centers aroused suspicion and fear. At Hadamar, for example, local children even taunted arriving busloads of patients by saying “here comes some more to be gassed.’

On August 3, 1941, a Bishop, Clemens von Galen, delivered a sermon in Münster Cathedral attacking the Nazi euthanasia program calling it “plain murder.” The sermon sent a shockwave through the Nazi leadership by publicly condemning the program and urged German Christians to “withdraw ourselves and our faithful from their (Nazi) influence so that we may not be contaminated by their thinking and their ungodly behavior.”

As a result, on August 23, Hitler suspended Aktion T4, which had accounted for nearly a hundred thousand deaths by this time.

The Nazis retaliated against the Bishop by killing three parish priests who had distributed his sermon, but left the Bishop unharmed to avoid making him into a martyr.

However, the Nazi euthanasia program quietly continued, but without the widespread gassings. Drugs and starvation were used instead and doctors were encouraged to decide in favor of death whenever euthanasia was being considered.

The use of gas chambers at the euthanasia killing centers ultimately served as training centers for the SS. They used the technical knowledge and experience gained during the euthanasia program to construct huge killing centers at Auschwitz, Treblinka and other concentration camps in an attempt to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe. SS personnel from the euthanasia killing centers, notably Wirth, Franz Reichleitner and Franz Stangl later commanded extermination camps.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Plato's Appeal

Plato's philosophy contains a number of features which made it attractive to early Christians; many, but not all, of them were neo-Platonists to various degrees. Certainly, Plato's concept of an immortal soul played well to them.

Dualism also appealed to the Christians. There are several different dualisms, or different axes of dualism, in Plato's thought: mind/body, material/idea, physical/metaphysical, and in the neo-Platonic schools, good/evil, man/god. Augustine played off of these concepts through the semi-metaphorical talk of two cities.

Plato also had another theory that Augustine argued in his famous work, The City of God. Here he argued that the two worlds exist concurrently. The city of earth is corrupt, full of self-love and sinners. But the city of God, which exists on earth, is a city of good, god-fearing people who love humanity. The link between Plato and Augustine is unmistakable. “Yet there are no more than two kinds of human society, which we may justly call two cities, according to the language of our Scriptures. The one consists of those who wish to live after the flesh, the other of those who wish to live after the spirit; and when they several achieve what they wish they live in peace, each after their kind,” writes Augustine, espousing a Christian dualistic theory of humanity, which was very similar to Plato’s view. Augustine was the one who made the connection clear to the Platonists. “As a Christian theologian, he puts to grateful use the Platonic concepts of ‘spiritual substance,” of evil as the privation of the good, of intuition as the basic mode of knowledge and the duality of body-soul,” writes Albert Outler. Because Augustine is able to make such a close tie between Platonic philosophy and Christianity, he made Christianity more appealing, especially to the Platonist.

Coming to America

The earliest German immigration to American came in the form of individual Germans among the Dutch who, in 1620, settled New Amsterdam - which later became New York. They were predominately from peasant backgrounds or were people who had worked in cottage industries. Some were also soldiers of the Dutch West Indies Company, carrying on an already long tradition of German mercenary soldiers. Later, in the seventeenth century, William Penn made a tour of German in 1677 to recruit immigrants for his colony of Pennsylvania. Religious toleration in Pennsylvania was a special attraction to those Germans whose religion differed from that of their respective established churches in their regions of Germany. Pennsylvania thus attracted the first sizable German communities in America, largely from the Rhineland region.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Small-Town Boy in the Big City

Augustine's amazing intelligence and education allowed him to produce books which are still standards in philosophy and logic. Although he wrote them over a thousand years ago, some of his personal experiences seem very modern. Going off to the university is still a major turning-point in a person's life.

Augustine’s education also gave him a more cosmopolitan viewpoint. At fifteen, he was sent to Carthage, a big city with theaters, universities, intellectuals, and, in his opinion, great temptations. He wrote, in Confessions, his dynamic autobiography, “I came to Carthage and all around me hissed a cauldron of illicit loves.” Augustine even got caught up in a more worldly and sinful lifestyle. He was in close contact with a lot of different groups of people and many different religious groups. This experience would prove invaluable in appealing to different groups and understanding their viewpoints.

Technically, Carthage had schools, not universities, because the first universities wouldn't appear for another five hundred years. But Augustine's experience was one which reflects the universal human nature.

Arabic Philosophy

When we study Scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages, and learn that they laid the rational foundations for modern physics and chemistry, we learn about intellectual giants like Abelard and Ockham, and how they pushed the limits of logic to include innovative forms of argumentation.

Philosophers like Abelard and Aquinas did not work in isolation. They were in dialogue with Arabic philosophers. Despite political and religious tensions between the Europeans and empires of the Near East, the philosophers corresponded. Neither side had any difficulty in simultaneously calling the other "godless heretical infidels" and yet respecting the intellectual and academic accomplishments of the other.

The beginnings of Arabic philosophy came with the translation of large numbers of philosophical works into Arabic from Greek. The works were primarily those of Aristotle, Plato, and the later Neo-Platonists. Curiously, many of these works were translated by Christian Arabs, at the end of era of Arabic Christianity and the beginning of the era of the hegemony of Islam in Arabic culture. We need to remember that, prior to the Islamic invasions, Christianity was the most popular religion in the Arabic regions, as well as in non-Arab territories like Persia. Arab philosophers were confronted with the divergent lines of thought represented by Aristotle and the Neo-Platonists. Presented with these two different perspectives, the early Arabic philosophers had to choose one, or the other, or try to harmonize both.

One of the earliest Arabic philosophers was Al-Kindi (who died around the year 870 A.D.). Al-Kindi, like the Islamic philosophers who followed him, sought to harmonize a rational philosophical system with the teachings Islam. His teachers, and the authors of many of the books he studied, were Christians. He wanted the tradition of philosophy to continue under Islamic rule.

He was followed by Al-Farabi, who based his thought primarily on Plato's Laws and Republic. Al-Farabi, who was either a Turk or a Persian, and therefore not an Arab, represents a quite developed system of philosophical terminology; he died around 950 A.D. His teachers were Christians, and therefore he was exposed to Greek philosophy, which was less tolerated in purely Islamic circles. He carefully distinguished between philosophy and theology, and placed philosophy in the service of theology. He introduced formalized logic into the Arabic world, and began producing arguments for the existence of God, which were strikingly similar to Thomistic arguments for the same. Like Aquinas (who was familiar with Al-Farabi's works) and his followers, so Al-Farabi and his followers were often mis-understood in their arguments for the existence of God. Neither the Islamic nor the Thomist philosophers were trying to prove the existence of God, even though they wrote "proofs". Much rather, because both were surrounded by a community of their respective faiths, each group took the existence of God as something which did not need to be proved. Why, then, write such proofs? The "proof for the existence of God" was a literary form for philosophical discourse; by writing such a proof, a philosopher could exhibit his skill, demonstrate the particular kind or argumentation which he thought to be most powerful, and en passant make certain assertions about other issues in philosophy. Thus, many Aristotelian arguments for God (Islamic or Thomist) were written as a way to make assertions about physics and metaphysics. Scholars debate whether he grew up in Turkey or in Persia, but in either case, Al-Farabi's native land still offered him more intellectual freedom at the time, because it was on the fringe of the Islamic region, and not yet as thoroughly dominated by Muslim control.

The high points of Arabic thought began with Avicenna (Abu Ali ibn-Sina), who based himself upon Aristotle, but strove to either further refine or change Aristotle's system in order to harmonize it with some of the teachings of Islam. It is an interpretive question whether Avicenna's work is a natural development of Aristotle's system, and thus represents an internal and organic application of the system to itself, or whether Avicenna subjected the Aristotelian system to the external pressures of Islamic orthodoxy and so introduced additions to the system which were not inherent to the organic whole of the system itself. In either case, Avicenna replaced Aristotle's two-fold basis (matter and form) for metaphysics with a three-fold basis (matter, form, and being). According to Avicenna, God (qua necessary Being) provides the underlying support for the ongoing process of these three constituents; hence, the existence of the world depends on God. Avicenna was deeply influential in the work of Aquinas; Avicenna's impact is evident in the Thomistic doctrine of God as the underlying support for the existence of the world. Avicenna also indicated that the fundamental metaphysical distinction between necessity and contingency was parallel to, and based upon, the distinction between existence and essence. Avicenna's distinction of existence and essence again shows both how he studied Aristotle and how he modified Aristotle's system - cf. Aristotle's distinction between accident and essence. Avicenna has had an influence on the development of modern formal logic, which works with such modalities. Quite notable is his assertion that the mind necessarily apprehends the idea of being, although it is normally acquired through experience; but even without experience, he says, the mind would have this idea: here he is quite ahead of his time, anticipating themes which would occupy modern philosophers. Avicenna distinguished between two kinds of necessity: contingent beings were not necessary of themselves, but necessary as the result of a determining cause; truly necessary beings were necessary of themselves. Avicenna lived from 980 until 1037.

This most productive period of Islamic thought continued with Averroes (ibn-Rushd), who lived from 1126 until 1198. Averroes represented an attempt to return to a purer form of Aristotelianism, in contrast to the modified Aristotelianism of Avicenna. Averroes also marked the beginning of the decline of Arabic philosophy, as Muslim control of cultural life became complete.

The Islamic philosophers of the Middle Ages bore a strong resemblance to their Christian European counterparts, which whom they exchanged information. The era of Arab philosophy came to an end as Islam made further inroads and eventually eliminated the tradition of philosophical reflection.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

An Educated Spokesman

Augustine had a classical education that made him an acceptable ambassador of Christianity to the intellectual classes. His parents had to sacrifice to get their son, who was obviously gifted, into schools that studied in a classical manner. His education was very traditional, and tedious in the area of liberal arts. His education emphasized Latin and the philosophies of the classical Latin scholars. He read the writings of Virgil many times and cried when he read about Dido’s fate as she lamented for Aeneas. He read Cicero, not only for his impressive ideas, but to better grasp the Latin language and his use of rhetoric. Peter Brown, an author of a biography on Augustine, said, “The great advantage of the education Augustine received was that, within its narrow limits, it was perfectionist. The aim was to measure up to the timeless perfection of an ancient classic.” Augustine was taught to believe that the classical scholars never made mistakes. Every word had significance. He applied this careful reading and studying to Christianity as well. His education would have also involved the study of rhetoric. He was very good at not only speaking, but at convincing others that his viewpoint was right. It taught him to dynamically express himself, which was a great gift, and helped him to appeal to many kinds of people. Augustine, although proficient in Latin, struggled when it came to the Greek language. Eventually, he started to read Greek philosophers’ works, but mostly in a Latin translation. However, his knowledge of both Latin and Greek classical ideas was useful in his writings, teaching, and dialogues with people in Rome. Thus, Augustine was able to present Christianity in a way that appealed to the classical scholars of his day.

When is a Public School Not a Public School?

For most of our history, American children have been educated in three ways: private schools, home schooling, or public schools. Recently, a fourth option has become available: charter schools.

Over the last decade or two, charter schools have grown in popularity, but they remain controversial. They funded by taxpayer dollars, but managed by private entities. Ironically, they have been criticized both for being "private schools in disguise" and "public schools in disguise."

Being fueled by government money, they have been required by courts to refrain from any religious instruction or organized religious activity. Regular supervision by litigation-minded public interest groups has enforced those court orders - with one exception.

While keeping charter schools scrupulously free of Judeo-Christian spirituality, this scrutiny has overlooked a growing number of charter schools which are allegedly centered around Middle Eastern culture, but which are in fact functioning as vehicles of Islamic instruction.

Muslim leader Fethullah Güllen has organized a network of approximately 100 charter schools, instructing almost 35,000 students, with an emphasis on Turkish culture. It is notoriously difficult to determine where culture ends and religion begins.

Some critics have noted that the Turkish charter schools have imported not only their teachers, but in some cases also other employees. It will take some work to show that this is educationally or economically necessary.

Most questions center around Friday prayer services offered in the Islamic charter schools. Just as in a public school, students are allowed to gather for prayer during non-instructional time. But if the services are led and organized by school employees, that would seem to be a violation of standard policy.