Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury's famous dystopia ranks with 1984 and Brave New World as a crystalizing moment in Western Civilization's literary protest against Stalinism, Maoist totalitarianism, Naziism, and other related mid-twentieth-century forms of repressive governmental structures. Bradbury recalls his youthful literary personality, and the internal revulsion to intellectual oppression. Writing in 1966, he recalled writing the book almost twenty years earlier, and his learning, a few years earlier still, about Nazi who burned books:
It followed then when Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history they are one and the same flesh. Mind or body, put to the oven, is a sinful practice.
Bradbury started writing Fahrenheit 451 in 1947; at that stage of development, it was a short story called "Bright Phoenix" and it would be reworked into a somewhat longer novella called "The Fireman" and finally into the novel we know today. As Bradbury was writing in 1947, Hitler was gone, but other socialist parties were still burning books, shocking him, and filling him with horror:
Of course. There was Hitler torching books in Germany in 1934; rumors of Stalin and his match people and tinderboxes.
So it was not Hitler alone, but Stalin explicitly, and perhaps Mao and others implicitly - although Mao would not fully emerge until 1949, after the basic setting of Fahrenheit 451 had taken shape. Bradbury correctly comprehended the nature of these regimes, and did so very early, long before the standard images and cliches about the Cold War would be ossified.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Pagans and Christians Agree?

It is difficult to imagine many areas of agreement between the Pagans of ancient Rome and the early Christians, especially because those pagans were busy killing Christians in large numbers. Contrasts were numerous: pagans were polytheists, Christians are monotheists; pagans saw little or no connection between ethics and religion, Christians saw morality as a way of showing gratitude for unearned blessings; pagans saw human life as expendable, Christians perceived that each human life is valuable and has an innate dignity. The early Christian leader Augustine wrote around 400 A.D., sharply critiquing the Stoic philosophy which the pagan aristocracy embraced. Yet, despite the fact that Roman pagans beat, tortured, and executed Christians by the tens of thousands, there was one area of agreement.

A philosophical principle which has captivated most, if not all, human civilizations is the concept of Natural Law. This idea is appealing because of its intuitive correspondence to our usual perception of the way things are, and because it is flexible enough to adapt to almost any worldview or value system. One of the earliest expressions of Natural Law theory was given, a few decades after 100 B.C., by Cicero.

Natural Law, in its simplest form, simply indicates that somethings are good, and others are evil. It is a way of moving past opinions, beliefs, and perceptions. Rather than ask, "what do you believe is good?" Natural Law asks, "what is good?" For example, we can get move beyond a statement like "most people believe that it is good for the rich to share their wealth with the poor," to a more real statement like "it is good for the rich to share their wealth with the poor." Natural Law explores the structure of the universe.

Formulated by the pagan Cicero, it also appealed to the early Christians. The famous New Testament author Paul, writing to a group of Christians in Rome, stated that when those people,

who have no knowledge of the Law, act in accordance with it by the light of nature, they show that they have a law in themselves, for they demonstrate the effect of a law operating in their own hearts. Their own consciences endorse the existence of such a law, for there is something which condemns or commends their actions.
Paul is here saying that even if one has not had formal instruction in law, i.e., reading it from a text, there is nonetheless an internal, a priori, awareness of law

Thursday, January 05, 2012

The First University

Schools have been around for a long time. Archeologists have found schools dating from 2000 B.C. in the city of Ur, Abraham's hometown.

But a university is something different and more than a school. The world's first university began around the year 1088 A.D., in the city of Bologna, Italy. How and why did it start? The answer will take us a few centuries earlier, into the institutions of Medieval education.

Prior to the appearance of universities, the Middle Ages had three main educational institutions. The first of these was the cathedral school. Even the smallest villages had churches, but only larger towns and cities had cathedrals, which were organizational centers for church activity. One major function of the church in society at that time was record-keeping. Every birth, marriage, and death was carefully recorded; these were of personal interest to families, but also important legal records: they helped to determine who inherited which property. To keep these records, the institutional church across Europe needed a cadre of able scribes, people who could read and write well. Literacy rates back then weren't as high as they would be in some later centuries, so build this group of record-keepers, cathedral schools arose as a way of teaching reading and writing. Over a few centuries, this gradually contributing to an increase in literacy.

The second educational institution which existed prior to the universities was the monastery. Around Europe, monasteries formed the literary and intellectual backbone of the continent. They preserved the literary, historical, and philosophical wisdom of ancient Greece and Rome. They sharpened the academic discipline of learning the grammar of various languages: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. A monk working in one of these monasteries would become familiar with a long list of major texts: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Cicero, Virgil, Homer, Marcus Aurelius, and many others. It is important to note that the one missing piece in the early Middle Ages was a portion of Aristotle's works. Monasteries at that time had most, but not all, of Aristotle's books. When Europe received the missing pieces of Aristotle in the High Middle Ages, it further energized intellectual life in the monasteries and later in the universities. The monasteries were also the source of commentaries: the monks had become experts in the texts of Greece and Rome - they had, after all, copied them by hand, and learned Greek and Latin grammar to a refined degree - and began to write commentaries and interpretations of them. They also began to pose sharp questions about philosophical issues. The monks learned to read, understand, and analyze various languages and grammars. This ability to do 'close reading' will be the intellectual spark which lights the fire of the universities.

Finally, law schools arose as the third major educational institution prior to the university. With the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476 A.D., there began an erosion of systematized legal thought. The first few centuries of the Early Middle Ages were dominated by local feudal lords, who often acted as judges in various matters, but without the benefit of a law code or standardized legal processes. As the Middle Ages progressed, Charlemagne formed a large empire, which in turn required a formalized legal system. Charlemagne was, of course, known as 'Karl der Grosse' or 'Karl the Great' in his own era; the name 'Charlemagne' was applied to him only by certain historians who wrote in Latin, not in Frankish, the Germanic dialect which he spoke. The rise of laws schools - part of the Carolingian Renaissance - began with the study of the laws of Rome's republic and empire. Since Karl was forming a similar empire of his own, he reasonably thought that he could model his laws of those of Rome; when Karl was crowned in 800 A.D., there hadn't been a major empire since Rome fell. The law schools fostered, first, the careful reading of Roman legal texts, second, the careful analysis, evaluation, and discussion of them, and third, the debate about which changes were necessary to update Roman law for an empire operating four centuries later.

These three educational institutions - the cathedral school, the monastery, and the law school - created a vibrant intellectual atmosphere in the Middle Ages, and set the stage for the birth of the university. In fact, the university could be interpreted as the merger of these three institutions.

Bologna, Italy, was the first city to create a university. The exact date is unclear, but we know that Bologna's university existed by 1088 A.D. at the latest. The name 'university' comes from the Latin phrase studium generale - general studies. (General studies included the study of everything, i.e., universal studies.) The structure of Bologna's university was loose, compared to modern standards. There was a 'school of the arts' into which most students first entered. The prerequisite was that one could prove mastery of the Latin language - 'mastery' construed as a reasonably large vocabulary and a basic knowledge of general. Once admitted, a student worked at the first level: the 'trivium' - studying grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Upon demonstrating mastery - the word 'mastery' is used often here, and led to the modern "Master's Degree" and complemented the use of the Latin magister for those who taught in the university - a student advanced to the second level, called 'quadrivium' and consisting of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Seeing music nestled among mathematics and observational physics (which is astronomy) gives us a clue about why Medieval music is often called "objective" in contrast to "subjective" form into which music decayed in the Renaissance era: for the Medievals, music was treated mathematically - the study of intervals and rhythms. Upon completed this second level, students could proceed, if they wished, into professional schools: law and medicine. There was no fixed timetable for progression through this system; a student attended lectures and studied until he felt ready to take an exam. If the student did well in the exam, he moved on to the next level; if he didn't, he stayed at the lower level a while longer and took the exam again.