The Swerve

January 7, 2018

I thought that a revisit of my 2013 review of “The Swerve: How The World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard would be an interesting read for a rainy Sunday.

The Swerve” tells the story of the re-discovery in 1417 of a long poem in Latin by Lucretius called “On The Nature of Things” which, the author claims, led to a flowering of the humanist movement, to a modern scientific view of reality, and to the disintegration of (or at least a serious challenge to) the accepted world view of the Catholic Church.  Enormous claims, and the author does a fine job of defending them.

Lucretius’ poem is a discourse on the philosophy promulgated by Epicurus (341-270 BCE), that life should be led without any fear of death, that the pursuit of personal well-being should be the prime motivator of one’s existence, and that all life and all things are composed of “atoms” that collide and coalesce and then disaggregate once again upon death.

Epicurus

The Epicurean belief that there is no creation, the universe is eternal, that death is the final end, that there is no afterlife would prove to be a major challenge for the Church, a challenge they met with both cruelty and disdain.  It is from their deliberate twisting of these teachings that most people today consider Epicureanism to be a form of gluttony and greed and little more.

The first half of the book gives an excellent background to the Europe of the late medieval period, discusses the growth of humanism through the re-discovery of Latin and Greek texts, and follows the life of Poggio Bracciolini, a Papal secretary who found, copied and circulated a manuscript of Lucretius’ De rerum natura.

The second half describes the Epicureanism of Lucretius in some detail and it is worth noting the major points:

  • Everything is made of invisible particles that are eternal, infinite in number and are in motion in an infinite void
  • Nature ceaselessly experiments
  • The universe was not created for or about humans
  • Humans are not unique
  • The soul dies; there is no afterlife; there are no angels, demons or ghosts
  • All organized religions are superstitious delusions, and are invariably cruel
  • The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain
  • The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion
  • Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder

The book then travels forward through history to show the extent of the poem’s influence.   Early humanists, such as Giordana Bruno, were burnt at the stake for preaching its beliefs.  Thomas More wrote Utopia as a direct attack on Lucretian Epicureanism, while Lucretius was the direct inspiration of Botticelli’s Primavera.  Montaigne’s Essays are infused with epicureanism, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a materialist masterpiece, even mentioning “little atomi” in its description of Queen Mab. Gallileo was clearly influenced by the poem,and the Puritan Lucy Hutchinson wrote an early English translation.

Perhaps the most famous political influence was in the work of Thomas Jefferson, a self-confessed Epicurean, who added “…the pursuit of happiness” as one of the three inalienable rights of all people.

This was a fascinating read.

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Surviving the Reformation

October 31, 2017

Exactly 500 years ago today, a German priest named Martin Luther is said to have nailed a statement to a church door in Wittenberg. That seems doubtful. What he did do on this day was send his 95 Theses to his Bishop. They were a detailed list of complaints about the Catholic Church doctrine of his day, complaints that would have him excommunicated three years later.

Luther’s basic position was that salvation came solely from the grace of God — from simple faith and belief — and required no good deeds on the part of the believer. His other important statement was that the Bible needed to be read and understood by the common people in their own language rather than interpreted by the priests.

Over the next few hundred years, hundreds of millions (without exaggeration) of human beings were killed in an effort to prove one side of the argument was more right than the other. We see the same things still happening today in the doctrinal disputes between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. And that doesn’t even count the countless millions more killed in disputes between different religions.

Looking back over these terrible and terrifying centuries, I am ever more convinced that “religion” began as, and has always continued to be, an effort to control others and take power over them. It may be that some sects started with generous desires but always — always — they devolve into political struggles for power.

It is very hard to argue that “religion” is a worthy end in and of itself.


The Hypocrisy of Greed

November 29, 2015

The whole western world has gone nuts over ISIS or ISIL or the Islamic Caliphate. The pundits and the politicians and the military leaders say we have to stop them taking power or keeping power, have to stop them becoming a permanent presence in the middle East.  Why? Because, say the talkers, their way of life is unconscionable and needs to be eradicated from the earth.

Apparently, ISIS wants to be a sovereign state that runs itself along strict fundamentalist, not to say fascist, religious guidelines, that has a tiny elite with all the power, that wants to keep women down by imposing moral and sumptuary laws, that have religious police who are above and beyond the ordinary law, that imposes public executions and beatings, that believes all other religions are evil and need to be exterminated.

I can see exactly why people would be opposed to that — after all, we have an example of what it will be like if it succeeds: Saudi Arabia.  Read the last paragraph with wahabbist Saudi Arabia in your mind and tell me if I have gotten anything wrong?

So, we already have a fully-ISIS style government in place, And the odd thing is, the west (UK, France, US, Canada, etc) faun over the leaders of Saudi Arabia, sell them billions of dollars of advanced weaponry, conduct trillions in trade, kneel to their unelected (and unelectable) leaders.

What’s the real difference between ISIS and Saudi Arabia?  The latter has agreed to fund its personal profligacy using our money, while ISIS has not.  In other words, there is profit to be made in Saudi Arabia, but not in ISIS. It is the hypocrisy of greed.

Saudi


Taking One For The Team

May 6, 2011

According to Harold Camping, a radio-evangelist who has several millions of followers around the world — enough to send him more than $120 million — the world will come to an end at 6pm on 21st May this year, just a couple of weeks away.   The Reverend Camping knows this because he has mathematically proven the date from multiple verses in the Bible.

The Reverend Camping is so certain he is right — even though he was wrong when he made the same prediction in 1994 (“At that time there was a lot of the Bible I had not really researched very carefully,” he said last week. “But now…”) — that he has paid for 2,000 billboards across the States to display his warning of the coming apocalypse. Not only that, he has hired believers to man logoed camper vans in which they drive across all 50 States to push the message.

I am neither mathematician nor theologian enough to take on the Reverend Camping’s predictions. But I do recall that Jesus once said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdon of Heaven.  So, as a gesture of friendship — taking one for the team as it were — I am willing to accept all the Reverend’s followers’ money on or before 20th May.

It would be terrible, wouldn’t it, to be one of the Chosen and yet still get rejected at the Pearly Gates because you have too much money?  Wouldn’t that just be awful?  I’m willing to save all his followers from that terrible fate.

Send checks or bearer bonds to me c/o my email address and prepare to meet your maker comfortabley knowing that you do so naked of both wisdom and treasure.


Judgment Day — Bookings Being Taken

December 3, 2010

You will be relieved to know, I am sure, that while surfing the web today I discovered the date that Jesus is coming to judge us all.

Judgment Day is May 21, 2011.

Don’t go making vacation plans for after that date. Time will have come to an end and you will never get your deposit back.

How can I be so sure of the date? Easy — these folks on the Internet (so you know it must be true) told me. They are so certain about it they are renting billboards to let us all know.

Don’t say you weren’t warned!



The Discrimination of Hate

August 22, 2010

If the anti-Muslim hate march in New York today had instead been opposed to Israel or Jews in general, every politician in America would have condemned it.

But in America Muslims are today’s negroes, disallowed their own beliefs and forced to restrict their actions to those areas allowed by the bigots.  I fear that if the Gingrich-Palin-Mad Hatter’s Tea Party take over Congress, they will swiftly move to amend laws and perhaps even the Constitution to ensure that Muslims become second-class citizens.

This is the bigoted community guilt trip: a tiny band of fanatical Islamists atack America, and so all Muslims must suffer.  That way genocide leads.


Confirmation That The Vatican Is Run By Abusive Idiots

July 15, 2010

In an attempt to calm the maelstrom of criticism that has almost sunk the Catholic Church over the past decade due to its enabling of priests who sexually abuse both boys and girls, the Vatican has issued new rules for how such cases should be handled. The new rules themselves are a major disappointment — for example, bishops still do not have to report cases of known abuse to civil authorities — but that is the least of it.

For some bizarre reason, the Vatican thought to use the issuance of these new regulations to formally state that pedophilia and the ordination of women are crimes of equal value in their eyes. The new document says that a priest who tries to ordain a woman will be defrocked.

The Vatican has for hundreds of years been run, generally, by greedy power-hungry men, and the ex-Hitler Youth Benedict is clearly as bad as any before. The Catholic Church is in turn enabled in its abuse by nation states that allow the Church to run rough-shod over the hard-fought human rights — including gender equality and the duty of reporting known criminal behaviour — that govern all other aspects of our lives in civilized countries.

This disaster of leadership is so sad for all the ordinary Catholics, male and female, who go about their lives in faith and duty.