Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Confessions of Saint Augustine. The Influence of Self-Loathing.

Augustine of Hippo lived during a time of exceptional upheaval. It was the beginning of the Dark Ages, when the christianized Roman Empire was crumbling. His Confessions was written between 397 and 398 AD, 13 years prior to the sack of the capitol by the Visigoths. Perhaps this historical situation is responsible for the fervid tone of his philosophy, although truthfully, there are zealots in every age.

Among rational, educated people, it is easy to explain this early Christian philosopher as a relic of a darkly superstitious and insecure time. We can understand his cultural influences, and accept his limitations with the same charity that we understand Aristotle’s theory of Spontaneous Generation. But unlike Spontaneous Generation, Augustine’s ideas are taken seriously today. Many theologians see him as the seminal Christian Philosopher.  Many Catholic and non-Catholic lay people rapturize his quotes. The Dictionary of Scientific Biography includes him in what can be magnanimously described as an attempt to be open-minded. My copy of The Confessions gushes from its cover that this is “The greatest spiritual autobiography of all time.”

Unfortunately, Augustine comes with the emotional baggage of a damaged girlfriend who cuts. He is full of loathing and abuse towards himself. He calls himself “dust and ashes” (Augustine, p. 46). He says things like “I stank in [God’s] eyes” (Augustine, p. 65). With Flagellant masochism, Augustine describes his sin as if he is “bound about with painful chains of iron…scourged by burning rods of jealousy” (Augustine, p. 77). In response to the natural desires of adolescence, he says “clouds arose from the slimy desires of the flesh” (Augustine, p. 65).  The saint’s descriptions are so graphic, sensual and laced with bondage and discipline, that he makes a fetish of his self-hatred and writhes in an ecstasy of suffering and self-punishment for his humanness.

And what is his solution to the aforementioned sinfulness? More self-torture: God “scourged me with heavy punishments, but nothing in proportion to my faults” (Augustine, p. 80). God “stood me face to face with myself, so that I might see how foul I was, how deformed and defiled, how covered with stains and sores” (Augustine, p. 193). Apparently Augustine’s particular kink requires verbal abuse while he’s being whipped.

Even after a decade in God’s Pleasure Dungeon, and numerous renunciations that would make the most fanatic Ascetic weep, Augustine is still not good enough. He has tossed the woman (and child she bore him) out of his house and become celibate. He has given-up lucrative academic posts to pursue his warped truth. He lives with the scrubbed cleanliness of laundry beaten on rocks. But he needs a final push towards holiness. So what is his method? More self-torture:  “I upbraided myself much more bitterly than ever before. I twisted and turned in my chain” (Augustine, p. 199). God, ever the obliging dominatrix, “redoubled the scourges of fear and shame” (Augustine, p. 200). With this increased, punishing stimulation, Augustine is finally urged to let go in a climax of unity with the Divine.

I wish I could say that Augustine learned to love himself once he’d reached his goal. But this abused child of God was never good enough. He continues his celibacy and avoids physical pleasure. He even goes as far as avoiding pleasing fragrances and shutting-out pleasant melodies in church music (Augustine, p. 261). All senses are potential traps that can haul one back into sin. Concerning the sense of taste, he says “I…come to take food just as I take medicine” (Augustine, p. 258). For the rest of his life, Augustine is vigilant against the joys of the physical world.

It may interest free-thinking people to know what kinds of things are considered sins by this revered figure. In addition to the expected Seven Deadlies and violations of the Ten Commandments, Augustine includes Theater. Contact with The Stage, in Augustine’s colorfully graphic style, results in being “infected with loathsome sores” (Augustine, p. 78). Someone should have told him that the sores only occur if you have sex with the actors. As usual, knowledge is a bad thing, leading to the unfortunate consequences of thinking and questioning for one’s self (always a sin in the face of an authority that benefits from ignorance.) Knowledge leads away from God, “into the depths of apostasy and into the deceitful service of demons” (Augustine, p. 80). Free Will naturally follows: “the free will’s decision is the cause of our doing evil” (Augustine, p. 160). Anything to maintain a flock of sheep.

Paramount among sins is the sin of being human. “See how we wallow in flesh and blood” (Augustine, p. 195). It’s the tired, “spirit good; body bad” duality. Tired but ever profitable for religion. When it comes to creating converts, there is nothing quite as effective as telling people that what comes naturally to them, simply by being who they are is sinful; and that the only way to salvation is through the proffered organization.

Perhaps the most dangerous sin is that of heresy. Dangerous to the health of the heretic of course. In his discussion of the Manichean sect, Augustine states “They themselves are truly evil” (Augustine, p. 197). In another passage about them, he says that they “deserved to be spewed forth by a sickened stomach” (Augustine, p. 159). These are comments the saint makes about a sect that he was a part of for nine years. But he has no compassion for them. Dehumanizing the opposition is an excellent way to permit their persecution and destruction. If they’re characterized as vomit, or evil, killing them is okay. This is the foundation of what is called “The Augustinian Consensus,” a euphemism and philosophical justification for persecution. Augustine’s self-hatred regarding his own sin spilled-over onto humanity. It resulted in a millennium of violent persecutions against any individual or group perceived as unrepentant sinners.

This is the true danger of Augustine’s self-loathing. If it was just a case of this narrow, anti-motivational speaker influencing some horrible, small-minded people to hate their humanness as much as he hated his, I’d say that they were getting their just desserts. Unfortunately, these guilty-feeling busybodies never keep it to themselves. You’ll see them invade funerals for AIDS patients so that they can jeer at the bereaved family, or in the courtroom interfering with the private right of a couple to make end-of-life decisions, or in public schools trying to prevent condom distribution. And this is actually progress from the days when they would kill you for your transgressions (unless you’re an abortion provider, and then it’s game on…Dark Ages-style.) I’m not a psych clinician, but I can see the road that this self-hatred and self-denial leads down. And the dead end to that road is not a healthy place for either that individual or our society.

Augustine. The Confessions of St Augustine. Ryan, John K. (trans.) New York: Doubleday, 1960.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Bohemian Paris by Dan Franck. Cynthia Hope Liebow, translator.

Bohemian Paris is a lively portrait of the arts social scene between Montmartre and Montparnasse, from the late 1890’s to the 1930’s. Its chapters are predominately short biographical sketches of the personalities who lived in Paris. Their stories are laced with personal, sentimental and often lurid details of each subject’s life. Artists weave in and out of each other’s biographies, giving a sense of community and atmosphere to the book.

The writing is quite good. Dan Franck has an excellent translator in Cynthia Hope Liebow, who is able to maintain the author’s images with the smooth, informal style of an experienced storyteller. And a story it is, told in a narrative form by an author who has written some fiction. Those seeking hard, empirical historiography will be disappointed.

Sometimes factual reality suffers for the sake of story: “While Kiki and Man Ray were drifting off to sleep on the first page of their love story, a girl of about twenty was pushing open the door of her apartment on the rue Cardinet” (Franck, p. 332). This is a clumsy segue, not a chronological fact. The author also employs conflation as if it were a noble device, when describing a scene: We know that, when Picasso was told that his portrait of Gertrude Stein did not look like her, he responded “she will end up looking like it.” We know that Stein said of Madame Picasso “All she can talk about are three things: hats, perfume and furs.” We know that Braque was upset that his paintings were being blackened near Stein’s hearth. These are old chestnuts. But we can be relatively certain that they did not occur at the same party as expressed in the chapter “An Afternoon on the Rue de Fleurus.” Finally, there is a good deal of hyperbole: Derain “Knew everything there was to know about the literature of his time” (Franck, p. 66). “When [Picasso] was fourteen, his father deposited his own paints and brushes at his son’s feet, giving up an art in which the youngster had already surpassed him” (Picasso’s father was both a professional artist and art professor who did not give up his career at the age of 57)  (Franck, p. 16).

Because of this elevation of story above history, one begins to question some of the book’s claims. I found myself hitting the internet to investigate some of the more dramatic assertions. I was pleased to find that there were no deliberate falsifications. The reader will be amazed at the number of sordid details Franck was able to catalog.

There are undoubtedly times when the serious art lover or historian will be frustrated by the quantity of gossip and the obsession with subjects’ eccentricities. Additionally, there are segments that are tasteless. The author feels it necessary to mention more than once that Kiki of Montparnasse did not wear undergarments. The suicide of Jules Pascin is gratuitously described. Serious study is not a phrase that accurately describes this book.

One consistent problem with Bohemian Paris is that there is so little about the art itself. In a social history of art, one would expect to read more about how the artists influenced each other, what they discussed in terms of theory or technique, etc. Certainly there is some of this, but the author is more concerned with what drugs or lovers these people shared than what influences they shared. More time is spent describing how individuals dressed, rather than how they thought about their work.

To his credit, Franck covers some lesser-known figures of early 20th Century Paris. Some are artists whose biographies are hard to find. More importantly, Franck includes the women of Paris. So few women were accepted in the artistic domain, that it is refreshing to discover their lives and ambitions. Unfortunately, (except for Gertrude Stein) the women are only important in terms of the men with whom they’re sleeping. Even Marie Laurencin, an artist in her own right who sold more paintings than many of the men, is discussed mainly as an appendage of Guillaume Apollinaire.

There is some value, beyond entertainment value, in the dishy social approach Franck chooses. This book is helpful to someone who already knows a good deal about Modern Art history, because it provides so much more information about personal lives and relationships than a traditional text. As a record of friendships, rivalries and social interactions, Bohemian Paris can help connect some dots in terms of social and environmental influence. One can even benefit from the sordid details: Knowing the eccentricities, problems, addictions and obstacles faced by the artist, does lend perspective to his or her work. There is little value in other books’ attempts to depict the artists of this (or any) period as flawless paragons of their profession. Few histories of this culture contain so many personal and environmental details recorded in one place. I would suggest that those new to Art History read a text first; then use this book to make connections and flesh-out the environment in which the creativity of Modern Art occurred. My personal recommendation on the subject of Modern Art is The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes, but that is a subject for a future review.

Franck, Dan & Liebow, Cynthia Hope (translator). Bohemian Paris. New York: Grove Press, 2001.

For review of a book that contains a comprehensive discussion of this time and place in art, see:

For review of a general history on France during this time period, see:

For a discussion of cubism, see:

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Non-Overlapping Magisteria and the Quandary of Public vs Private Thoughts.

Non-Overlapping Magisteria (or NOMA) is a concept propounded by Professor Stephen Jay Gould who was best known as an evolutionary biologist and science historian. In his Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms, Gould claimed that “the net of science covers the empirical realm: what the universe is made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria [or teaching authorities] do not overlap” (Gould, p. 274). Professor Gould expresses this idea as a hopeful “resolution of the supposed ‘conflict’ or ‘warfare’ between science and religion” (Gould, p. 274).

Unfortunately Gould ignores that religion, from its very beginnings, was an explanation by superstitious people of “what the universe is made of and why does it work this way.” Our Judeo-Christian belief systems, for example, posit the existence of a monotheistic god, that this god created the Universe, that he created all organic life including humankind and that he infused Homo Sapiens with souls. While rational people may accept that science has pushed religion back from the empirical realm, this does not mean that religion has surrendered the field. The above beliefs are still advanced by Judeo-Christian believers. One may also take exception to the notion that religion addresses moral meaning and value, given the current and historical behavior of dominant religions worldwide, but I wish to maintain the focus of this response on the alleged separation of the realms themselves. Religion has always crossed the boundary between its purported domain and that of science. And if religion continues to invade the scientific realm with irrational positions on the physical world, science will continue to refute religious propositions.

There are people who are rational in most of their lives. They use empirical evidence when purchasing a car, or deciding what to wear when the weather changes. But many of those otherwise empirically-based individuals create within themselves Non-Overlapping Magisteria. Using the mental tools of denial, rationalization and compartmentalization, people are capable of holding any number of conflicting ideas. Many maintain illogical religious beliefs because these beliefs are comforting. As a nurse, I have met many a dying patient. Some of them believed in God and Heaven. There is not a hospital situation in which I would attempt to disillusion any of them of a belief in an afterlife. That would simply be cruel. Additionally, their belief is privately held and affects me not at all. I am a firm advocate of the view that people have a right to their private thoughts, regardless of whether those thoughts are superstitions or rational ideas.

People also have a right to express their ideas or beliefs publicly. But once those thoughts enter the public sphere, they are open to public comment. At that point, the author of the stated idea doesn’t get to say “these are my personal beliefs/ideas; you have no right to challenge them.” One has the right to express their personal views publicly, and the public has a right to agree or disagree. Stephen Jay Gould had personal motives as a self-described “agnostic” (Gould, p. 270), and as a scientist. He wanted peace between the two systems he held dear. Like many religious/spiritual people in denial, he overlooked that his NOMA theory was flawed, which allowed his spiritual/religious fantasy bubble to remain unpopped. He died on May 20, 2002. Had I been his nurse, I would have encouraged the comfort he obtained from his beliefs. It is in this more public forum that I examine NOMA and find it wanting.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms. New York: Harmony Books, 1998.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman.

A Distant Mirror is Barbara Tuchman’s detailed study of the Fourteenth Century. It ostensibly follows the life of one Enguerrand de Coucy VII, one of the less detestable nobles of the French court, who was frequently employed by the crown on both martial and diplomatic missions. But his life is merely an anchor for the book, which might otherwise drift among the many topics of the time. In truth, the Fourteenth Century itself, more specifically Fourteenth Century France, is the real focus. This period was one of exceptional upheaval, where cultural illusions were being destroyed.

The Hundred Years War had just begun, bringing with it unrelenting suffering and ruin. Over the period of its prosecution, this conflict ended the idea of Europe as a unified culture; a concept initiated during the period of Europe-wide resistance to Islamic incursions of earlier centuries. In its place was left the first stirrings of national identity.

The Schism in the Church, presenting one pope in Avignon and one pope in Rome, revealed to the public that this institution was little more than a context where the seemingly un-Christian motives of power and greed smothered the humble message of Jesus. The existence of two contradictory authorities in a once unified Church, alongside the apparent disagreement between words and deeds, allowed room for questioning of clerical authority and the insinuation of new ideas (most notably those of John Wyclif).

Equally important during this time was the unmasking of Chivalry, once thought of as a code of honor. Knights and nobles, who were supposed to uphold the values of humility and protection of the weak, were openly contradicting those precepts through their behavior. By taxing the poor to flaunt personal luxury, by carrying on various wars where vainglory and pillage appeared the goals and by assembling companies of brigands who robbed the countryside, the aristocracy was revealing to everyone that Chivalric words were simply a cover for selfish pursuits.

The last of the four factors in this disillusioning band of War, Schism and Chivalry was Plague. Periodic recurrences of the Black Death during this century exacerbated fear and chaos, causing the further breakdown of society. People of the time saw, and were encouraged to see, the Plague as retribution from an angry god for sinful living.

Peasants, artisans and merchants, disgusted by the greed of the religious and temporal authorities to whom they had once uncritically submitted, initiated several violent rebellions. Though the outcome was always defeat, periodic revolts were a fixture in the 14th Century landscape.

A Distant Mirror is not an easy read. The difficulty is as much a problem of the often depressing topic as it is a problem of the author’s writing style. Tuchman has a passion (some might say obsession) for detail. Whether sorting the various parties and motivations in a political situation, or describing the extravagances of a wedding, Tuchman maintains an academic’s dedication to presenting as much of the chronicle as possible. Every jewel-encrusted comb is given a verbal endoscopy. While this unrelentingly thorough approach helps to preserve a history, it does not make for light reading. But it does make for rewarding reading. One will arrive, in the end, immensely well-informed about many of the personalities, cultures and issues, in 14th Century Europe.

Tuchman, Barbara W. A Distant Mirror. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1978.

For a review on a history of the Bubonic Plague in the 14th Century, see:

For a review on the life of 14th Century mercenary knight John Hawkwood, see:

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich.

E.H.  Gombrich intended for The Story of Art to be a “first orientation” for newcomers to the subject. (Gombrich, p.7). No doubt, it is just that. But for those seeking a refresher on the chronological history of art, and those wishing to fill-in some gaps in their education, it is also quite valuable. I used it in preparation for my first trip to the Louvre and found that this intelligent observer had taught me much, even though I’d been an art enthusiast for decades. The book is written with teens in mind. But the author states “I never believed that books for young people should differ from books for adults.” (Gombrich, p.7).

Gombrich does not talk down to his reader. Neither does he encourage arrogance and pretension. He even goes so far as to explain how a new student of art might avoid the pitfalls of early learning and hubris that prevent one from enjoying art:

“People who have acquired some knowledge of art history…sometimes…when they see a work of art they do not stay to look at it, but rather search their memory for the appropriate label. They may have heard that Rembrandt was famous for his chiaroscuro…so they nod wisely when they see a Rembrandt, mumble ‘wonderful chiaroscuro’, and wander on to the next picture. [This is] half-knowledge and snobbery…we are all apt to succumb to such temptations, and a book like this could increase them. I should like to help open eyes, no loosen tongues…to look at a picture with fresh eyes and to venture on a voyage of discovery into it is a…more rewarding task.” (Gombrich, p. 37).

This teacher’s slant on the development of art over the centuries is not exceptionally original, but it is important. “Each generation is at some point in revolt against the standards of its fathers.” (Gombrich, p. 8). While explaining this motivation for change, Gombrich is emphatic in pointing-out that development does not mean improvement; just change. No one period is superior to another based upon it coming later.

Additionally, the author effectively tackles the issue of beauty in art. He asserts that a “bias for the pretty and engaging subject is apt to become a stumbling-block if it leads us to reject works which represent a less appealing subject.” (Gombrich, p. 15). As an example, he presents Durer’s portrait of his mother and states “His truthful study of careworn old age may give us a shock which makes us turn away from it – and yet, if we fight against our first repugnance we may be richly rewarded, for Durer’s drawing in its tremendous sincerity is a great work.” (Gombrich, p. 17).

Occasionally, Gombrich can overstate his cause. In his enthusiasm for Rembrandt, the professor claimed that the artist “must have been able to look straight into the human heart.” (Gombrich, p. 423). But if too much passion for one’s subject is a sin, most of us are willing to be forgiving.

Some of the flaws in The Story of Art are unavoidable. One cannot fully present the history of art in one volume of less than 650 pages of body. But to introduce this subject in a longer format would be overwhelming. So, Gombrich sets intelligent boundaries and does not indulge in presenting his favorite artists if they do not represent an important change.

In the event that I have just frightened those seeking an introductory book, with the mention of 650 pages, be aware that about half of this offering is taken-up with paintings, photos and drawings. The professor has made sure to provide ample illustration of the periods he discusses. Each topic within the book is accompanied by at least one example.

While Gombrich does his best to avoid technical language, his writing remains elegant and insightful. During instruction about Dutch still-life painting, he explains “just as there is great music without words, so there is great painting without important subject matter. It was this invention towards which the seventeenth-century artists had been groping when they discovered the sheer beauty of the visible world.” (Gombrich, p. 430). These abilities, fluid expression and command of the subject, make The Story of Art a pleasure to read and a superb guide.

Gombrich, E.H. The Story of Art. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995.

For a review of another art history option, see:

Monday, September 16, 2013

France in Modern Times by Gordon Wright.

Gordon Wright’s cogently written France in Modern Times is a historical survey text from 1750 to the present. The author’s approach to teaching France’s modern history is admirably dispassionate. Wright presents a time or topic as simply as possible, then proceeds to offer the reader a number of conflicting interpretations from modern historians. This way, a reader may see the subject from more than one perspective. The professor will then present his own humble, one might even say timid, opinion on which current he supports.  Wright is rarely forceful or too insistent in the process. Because so many books have been written on each period discussed by Wright, and because there are such a variety of opinions on each period, the Professor ends each major section with a full chapter of related books with descriptions of their content. This open-minded, open-ended structure is one of the chief strengths of the book, along with the author’s broad and deep grasp of modern France.

There are two puzzling areas where Wright was unable to maintain the veneer of dispassion. First is his approach to increasing secularism in society, and second his views on what has been called the Revolution of 1848. Regarding his perspective on secularization and anti-clericalism, Wright begins in the Enlightenment. This normally fair-minded author uses the phrase “lunatic fringe” to describe Baron d’Holbach’s atheist views; hardly a politic choice of words (Wright, p. 26). He ignores that d’Holbach facilitated what is arguably the most important salon of the period. Wright’s opinion is not countered by the usual presentation of an opposing analysis. (For a differing view on the importance of atheism during this period, read Philipp Blom’s A Wicked Company. The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment.) Wright continues with his Philosophe-bashing, by talking about the internalized “persecution mania” of these intellectuals, without discussing that they did suffer actual persecution in the form of censorship and jail (Wright, p. 29).

The professor’s prejudice against secularism continues with his characterization of the 1791 Church Settlement reforms, (a set of laws passed by the National Assembly to strip the Catholic Church of its special privileges) as “ill-conceived” and “the worst example” of reform measures because “it brought down the Pope’s anathema upon the revolutionary leaders and turned most of the clergy into stubborn opponents of the new system” (Wright, p. 48). Again, there is no contrary opinion from this proponent of presenting both sides. A countervailing evaluation how the separation of church and state might be a form of progress, and that a self-interested Church would naturally oppose such action, would have been apt here.

As France continues to remove the Church from public institutions, Wright continues to complain. The Professor appears bewildered by the 1870s attempts to further limit clerical influence on education and government. Regarding the country’s political leadership, he asks “why did it overact in the religious sphere? What produced its excessive, almost neurotic emphasis on the clerical problem” (Wright, p. 242)? For a second time, Wright employs the unfortunate phrase “lunatic fringe.” This time he is describing “Freethinkers associations” whose views were anything but lunatic or fringe, given that their ideas were the politically successful opinions of the majority (Wright, p. 243). It’s as if the professor did not himself live in a society that valued separate spheres for religion and public institutions.

Regarding the second puzzling area in Wright’s narrative, his perspective on the Revolution of 1848, the professor begins his analysis by calling it “a result far out of proportion to the cause” (Wright, p. 128). He explains this statement by claiming that “Frenchmen were not being oppressed or tyrannized (Wright, p. 128).” But the rest of the chapter about 1848 offers evidence to refute his initial statement. Wright discusses the “long-endured misery” of the working class and censorship in the form of opposition leadership “denied the right to hold public political meetings” (Wright, p. 130). In spite of this curious self-contradiction, the author writes a superb encapsulation of 1848 according to Marxist historians. While he did not share their political goals, Gordon Wright was open-minded enough to admit that “some aspects of Karl Marx’s original analysis and of the modernized Marxist version are undoubtedly sound” (Wright, p. 135).

This openness to differing ideas, and an ability to effectively present them, is more typical of Wright than are his views on the secularization of French society. Throughout his career, Wright rarely permitted his examination to fossilize. He was continually incorporating new perspectives. As historiography diversified to include People’s History, and Women’s History, so did France in Modern Times with each new edition. Since Wright himself was always learning and evolving, those who read this history will obtain a generally wide and balanced view.

Wright, Gordon. France in Modern Times. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1981.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine.

When The Age of Reason was published in 1794, its author was subjected to a great deal of public censure. The work, though occasionally flawed in its reasoning, was uncompromising in its dedication to using reason as a tool. In a style typical of his pamphleteering, Thomas Paine mercilessly, humorously and clearly scrutinized revealed religion and the Bible. The work was begun earlier in 1794, when Paine was being held as a prisoner by the revolutionary government of Robespierre, and his survival was uncertain.

Since Part One was composed in prison, Paine did not have access to a Bible. As a result, it relies more upon philosophical thought and rhetoric than Part Two. Some of the opening ideas are expressed in truly memorable fashion.  For example, after repudiating connection with any church, the author states “my own mind is my own church.” (Paine, p. 6). It should be pointed-out that, while Paine claims in that passage to disbelieve the creeds of all churches, including the “Turkish church” (read Islam), he confines his criticism primarily to those institutions professing belief in the Old and New Testament, since these are the works with which he is familiar. Additionally, he does not see his own Deism as a creed.

Paine goes on to discuss the Bible as a work of mythology no different than that of any other religion, and reinforces this idea by showing how the authors of this book used common mythological devices. About Jesus’ divine parentage, he states “almost all the extraordinary men that lived under the heathen mythology were reputed to be the sons of some of their gods. It was not a new thing, at that time, to believe a man to have been celestially begotten.” (Paine, p. 9). Further on he claims “the Mythologists had gods for everything; the Christian Mythologists had saints for everything.” (Paine, p. 9). The implication is, if we call pagan stories “myth,” then why don’t we use the same term for Christian stories?

There are arguments presented where, even I as a supportive skeptic, can see a reasonable counter-argument. Paine wrote “the Christian system of faith…appears to me as a species of atheism…it professes to believe in a man rather than in God.” (Paine, p. 33). But if one believes Jesus was God incarnated there is no atheism, just a belief that God took a unique form. It is difficult to tell which of the pamphleteer’s ideas were original, and which borrowed. The originality is more in the boldness and satire with which Paine presents his ideas; and the fact that he was willing to place his name on the document in full knowledge that it would create for him an unpopular legacy.

Part Two, published in 1796, is where the author truly shines. The superiority of the second part is owed largely to the conditions of its writing. Paine was no longer suffering the deprivations of prison where he had “little expectation of surviving,” and he finally had a Bible in hand. (Paine, p. 73). The now freed citizen of the United States takes exception to the cruelty exhibited by people in the Bible who claimed to be following God’s commandment. In particular, he objects to the passages exhibiting genocide where the Israelites “put all nations to the sword; that they spared neither age nor infancy; that they utterly destroyed men, women and children; that they left not a soul to breathe.”  (Paine, p. 76). Paine did not think his creator would sanction such actions, and at least pretended to be outraged that anyone would ascribe such immoral behavior to his god.

Paine uses the words of the Bible itself to deny that the first five books were written by Moses. If Moses died in the second book, how does he then write the next three books? Also, an anonymous writer of Exodus states that no one knows where the sepulchre of Moses is “unto this day.” That phrase indicates a time after Moses died and in which one of the actual writers lived. (Paine, p. 83).

In regards to the New Testament, Paine exploits contradictions between the Gospels to discredit their veracity. Discussing Jesus’ genealogy from King David through his father Joseph, this careful reader points out that no two Gospels agree. Matthew counts 28 generations between David and Joseph, while Luke counts 43. In addition, between the two lists of Matthew and Luke, only the names of David and Joseph match. The two apostles cannot agree on whom Jesus’ ancestors were, and only one can be correct. (Paine, p. 143). Further evidence of inconsistency is shown in Matthew’s description of an earthquake and the rising of many dead saints, which coincide with Jesus’ crucifixion. Neither Mark, nor John, nor Luke mentions these occurrences. (Paine, pp. 147-8). One might assume that, if the ground were shaking and numerous zombie saints were wandering about Jerusalem, the other three writers would have considered it worth mentioning.

Paine catalogs a multitude of disagreements between the Testaments. But he leaves out a glaring discrepancy concerning the death of Judas. Matthew 27: 3-5 reports that Judas “hanged himself.” However in Acts 1: 16-19, Luke quotes Peter’s speech in which Judas died in a different manner.  Judas is walking in a field bought with his blood money and “falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out.” Despite the entertainment it may provide believers to choose a pet gruesome end for God’s betrayer, only one scenario can be correct. 

The importance of these discrepancies is not in the niggling details themselves, but in what they show about the New Testament. In the first place, any claim to biblical inerrancy or divine inspiration is disproven.  An all-knowing god would not inspire a book that contained falsehoods. In Paine’s words “the disagreement of the parts of a story proves the whole cannot be true…if Matthew speaks truth, Luke speaks falsehood…there is no authority for believing either. ” (Paine, p. 143). If a witness in court was proven to have lied or reported events inaccurately, it casts doubt upon that individual’s entire testimony.

The rest of the pamphlet is more an advertisement for Deism in contrast to Christianity. Paine discusses “the horrid assassinations of whole nations…with which the Bible is filled,” followed by “the bloody persecutions and tortures unto death, and religious wars that since that time have laid Europe in blood and ashes,” and concludes “whence rose they but from this impious thing called revealed religion?” (Paine, pp. 173-4). He goes on to advocate for his purportedly improved belief system.

Deism, the belief that the existence of nature proves the existence of God, is presented by the author as a religion of peace. This is stated in spite of the fact that Robespierre, who imprisoned Paine and instituted “The Terror” in France, made Deism the state religion, complete with ceremonies and holidays. It doesn’t really matter what the dominant religion of a culture professes. In a system without separation of church and state, the chosen religion will be used to reinforce the political authority regardless of that faith’s moral precepts.

But Paine did not believe that Deism had been “invented” by humankind. He thought this natural religion “must have been the first, and will probably be the last, that man believes.” (Paine, p. 179). In his mind, Deism was simply a rational conclusion that anyone would draw by observing “the Creation.” This of course presupposes that earlier Homo Sapiens were governed by rational thought. Employing hindsight, we of the 21st Century can see how a group of post-Scientific-Revolution thinkers used a form of corrupted empiricism to contrive a religion. But the Deists of the Enlightenment had been raised in a society where God was a given. It was too frightening a prospect to discard this long-held precept and contemplate the universe without a deity.

While Paine’s then-fashionable Enlightenment faith has mutated over time, his criticisms of organized religion remain as contemporary as they were when first written. As long as there is a Bible and a set of corresponding Judeo-Christian traditions that are practiced, the arguments propounded in The Age of Reason will continue to haunt those traditions. The inconsistencies, injustices and superstitions, recorded in the Bible and believed by a segment of the world population, allow the objections of Thomas Paine to remain living ideas.

Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason. Avenel: Gramercy Books, 1993.

For review of a biography on Thomas Paine, see:

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Crowded with Genius. The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind by James Buchan.

Crowded with Genius is James Buchan’s well-documented study of the Scottish Enlightenment. This book presents a sober account of the economic, political and cultural conditions in Edinburgh, that permitted an intellectual flowering between 1745 and 1789. It does an admirable job of balancing these environmental conditions with short biographies of the major players at this time. In addition, Buchan has an excellent grasp of the key components to philosophers’ thoughts, scientists’ discoveries, and writers’ styles of this period. His writing is lucid and his presentation of concepts is understandable.

There is a provincial bias of which one must be aware when reading Crowded with Genius. The opening sentence of the prologue states “For a period of nearly half a century, from about the time of the Highland rebellion of 1745 until the French Revolution of 1789, the small city of Edinburgh ruled the Western intellect.” (Buchan, p. 1). There are many cities that could claim they “ruled” during the Enlightenment: The intellectual centers of London and Paris, the publishing centers in Geneva and Leiden, the scientific and education centers of the German territories, could each claim to have influenced all of Europe.

While the opening sentence is a transparent over-sell of Edinburgh, there are ways by simply examining Buchan's text to determine which of the cities had the most influence. When looking at advertisements on television, one can determine the best automobile in a given class by seeing to whom the advertiser is comparing their product. If Ford is comparing itself to Honda, you’re probably better-off purchasing a Honda. So, when James Buchan discusses how Edinburg came to “rival Paris” (Buchan, p. 3), quotes Stevenson saying that Edinburg “is what Paris ought to be” (Buchan, p. 204), or finally admits “of course, Edinburg was not Paris” (Buchan, p. 242), you know what city Buchan himself thinks of as the center of the Enlightenment. Paris is a spectre that looms behind each of the author’s boasts.

And boast he does: “David Hume, Adam Smith, William Robertson Adam Ferguson and Hugh Blair were the first intellectual celebrities of the modern world” (Buchan, p. 2). London could make an argument for Newton. Paris could make an argument for Voltaire. Rotterdam could make an argument for Bayle. All of the aforementioned cities had a number of stunning intellects in residence. “Edinburg became the most celebrated centre for medical education in the world” (Buchan, p. 273). Bologna, Cologne, Leipzig and Lund are all older, highly prestigious, and could make such a claim. Leiden could make that claim and follow it with the information that they were the parent institution to the medical school in Edinburg. The question is not really who has the best intellectuals, the best medical schools or the best city. Concepts like “best” do little to illuminate history. Instead, this provincial bias undermines the reputation of the author for accuracy and distorts the history of Edinburg.

Some of the bias even extends to the individuals profiled in Crowded with Genius: “The picture of Adam Smith as the apostle of amoral modern capitalism has been under attack in Scotland for some years, and is indeed unhistorical” (Buchan, p. 120). But Buchan virulently criticizes a rival political philosopher, Karl Marx, who has been subjected to the same kinds of partisan analyses as Smith. He showers ad hominem attacks on Marx for everything from his “habitual Caliban sneer” (Buchan, p. 239) to his responsibility for “the Leftist nightmare of an atomized state and ‘alienated’ personality” (Buchan, p. 222). Objecting to Adam Smith’s detractors, while attacking Marx appears politically facile. Smith is just as responsible for, or innocent of, abuses committed in his name as Marx is for abuses committed in his name. This “Capitalist Good; Communist Bad” analysis belongs on a 20th Century pick-up truck bumper sticker, next to a Confederate flag decal; not in a book on the 18th Century Enlightenment. Such a prejudicial set of simplistic political ideas is beneath a writer who is capable of elucidating the intricacies of Hume’s skepticism.

In Chapter Nine, “The Art of Dancing,” Buchan returns to a truly nuanced study of history. He covers the changing social relations between men and women. Buchan includes a sensitive class aspect to his observations: working women “were not too ‘delicate’ to labor in the bleach-fields, collieries and cotton and flax mills” (Buchan, p. 245). This is where the author shines. Buchan does an excellent job of presenting Scottish culture and society, as well as the thoughts and lives of individual figures therein. When he is discussing how new ideas changed the culture, and how culture affected individuals, he is at his most insightful. This is not a flawless work. If one chooses to undertake this book, I recommend that the reader to be aware of Buchan’s incautious claims. If one is cognizant of the bias, one will benefit from his otherwise able representation.

Buchan, James. Crowded with Genius. The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2003.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Cathedral Paradox. A Review of Great Gothic Cathedrals of France by Stan Parry.

Cathedrals are marvelous, three-dimensional works of art that one can walk around inside. Certainly, for Christians, there is an additional layer of emotion concerning their feelings about biblical mythology and legends about the life of Jesus. But even for me, an Atheist of Jewish ancestry, the joy of aesthetic appreciation alone is incomparable. Additionally, I experience conflicting emotions: revelry in the beauty; alongside sorrow over the poverty, social inequality and predatory Church hierarchy, which produced such magnificent buildings.

Great Gothic Cathedrals of France is one architecture-lover’s research from his once-in-a-lifetime journey.  Each chapter represents, an individual cathedral visited by the author. There are 17 buildings covered in all. Most of each chapter is devoted to an exhaustive description of the external and internal features. The descriptions are accompanied by 173 color plates and photos.

Clearly, Stan Parry loves his cathedrals. He has an excellent grasp of the architecture. But the history in his book can most charitably be described as politic. The author understands that his audience is largely composed of tourists who are in France for a pleasant lark. Why disturb them with the darker facts about cathedrals? It might affect book sales. And especially if the audience is Christian, they may just be offended.

So Mr Parry sticks to the unexamined official history. He claims that these edifices were built “for immediate religious and community needs as well as for the glory of God and posterity” (Parry, p. 2). This is, at best, a half-truth. Cathedrals were also built to display the temporal power of the Church, thereby inducing awe and obedience among the peasant majority. It is unnecessary to have such a huge building in which to pray.  Jesus advocated humility in worship. These buildings are anything but humble. Parry does mention that these religious structures were paid for through the unethical practice of selling indulgences. But he does not go that step further to explain that the money from those indulgences came from taxing serfs and forcing them to pay rents on land that they could not leave.

Throughout French history, cathedrals served many unsavory political purposes.  In Toulouse, the Jewish community was forced to choose representatives who went to the cathedral for a weekly, public ear-boxing as punishment over the death of Jesus. (Virtual Jewish History Tour; citation below).  In Laon Cathedral, Nicole Aubrey was publicly exorcised of a demon by eating the host. (Ferber, pp. 30-33). The incident was used as a foil against Protestant Huguenots who, of course, deny the magical properties of the Eucharist. In Paris, the signal calling Catholics to begin the St. Bartholomew's Massacre was the tolling of the cathedral bells. (Richard, p. 1). These huge buildings were centers for propaganda as well as symbols of power.

Instead of critical thought, the reader is regaled with stories of miracles like that of The Virgin’s Tunic. After the 1194 fire in Chartres Cathedral, their relic, The Virgin’s Tunic, was discovered undamaged. (Parry, pp. 64-65). There is no skepticism concerning the veracity of this or other claims about relics and miracles.

As an examination of architecture, Great Gothic Cathedrals of France is a meticulous resource. For an understanding of the history of these religious institutions, I’m afraid the reader will have to turn elsewhere.


Ferber, Sarah. Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France. London: Routledge Publishers, 2004.

"France: Virtual Jewish History Tour." France: Virtual Jewish History Tour. The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 2013. Web. 22 July 2013.

Parry, Stan. Great Gothic Cathedrals of France. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2001.

Richard, Henry J. "Huguenots." Huguenots., 1997. Web. 22 July 2013.

For a book review on Paris architecture, see:

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Cubism. A Synthesis of Robert Hughes & E.H. Gombrich.

The first book on Art History that I ever read was Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New. In one’s life, there are books that will leave one speechless with the sense of discovery they offer. This book was one such touchstone in my life. It led to a deeper appreciation of art, so that I wanted to see more and read more. Art evolved into a passion, and it is a debt I owe largely to Robert Hughes. For those interested in learning the history of Modern Art, I can recommend no better resource than The Shock of the New.

Recently, I came to an uncomfortable perspective concerning Hughes’s views on Cubism. Uncomfortable because it is difficult to accept that one’s heroes are fallible. Here is an encapsulation from The Shock of the New, in Hughes’s own words:

“No painting of a conventional sort could deal with the new public experience of the late 19th Century, fast travel in a machine on wheels…the succession and superimposition of views, the unfolding of landscape in flickering surfaces…The cultural conditions of seeing were starting to change… seeing the ground from the [Eiffel] Tower…a new landscape began to seep into popular awareness. It was based on frontality and pattern rather than on perspective recession and depth…the speed at which culture reinvented itself through technology…the changes in capitalist man’s view of himself…how could you make paintings that might reflect the immense shifts in consciousness that this altering technological landscape implied? … The first artists to sketch an answer to this question were the Cubists.” (Hughes, pp. 12-16).

I fully accept this reasonable conclusion. There is no question that a radically changing culture will produce art that departs radically from its past. But my later readings of E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art produced a question in my mind. Why didn’t Hughes consult what the Cubists themselves said about their work? If one is an historian, doesn’t one have a responsibility to explore as much primary material on the subject as is available? Perhaps Hughes read the voluminous, first-hand accounts by Cubist artists and found the information irrelevant to his thesis.

But Gombrich read Picasso’s own accounts of his motivations for Cubism and reached a differing conclusion. Quoting Picasso, The Story of Art proceeds:

“If we think of an object, let us say a violin, it does not appear before the eye of our mind as we would see it with our bodily eyes. We can, and in fact do, think of its various aspects at the same time. Some of them stand out so clearly that we feel that we can touch and handle them; others are somehow blurred. And yet this strange medley of images represents more of the “real “ violin than any single snapshot or meticulous painting could ever contain.” (Gombrich, p. 574).

In Picasso’s opinion, he and Braque invented Cubism for internal reasons; because when one sees an object with one’s mind, the Cubist perspective represents what one sees. In Hughes’s opinion, Picasso and Braque invented Cubism because of external pressures and changes in their culture. Both views sound plausible and each represents part of the impetus for this movement.

Perhaps the differing perspectives on Cubism represent the approaches of differing disciplines. Robert Hughes, while a writer of histories, was primarily an art critic. E.H. Gombrich was an art historian. Therefore, Hughes was more likely to come-up with his own interpretations, whereas Gombrich was more likely to draw conclusions based upon the information of primary sources. So, in order to fully understand the origins of Cubism, one would need to consult both historians and critics for a full explanation. Perhaps there is an art historian or critic out there who combines the talents of both fields and can save us the trouble.

Gombrich, E.H. The Story of Art. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995.

Hughes, Robert. The Shock of the New. New York: Alfred A Knopf, Inc., 1980.

For a book review of The Story of Art, see:

Friday, July 19, 2013

From Representation to Abstraction in Art. An Interpretation Based on the Writings of E.H. Gombrich.

My intention is to lay-out a bare bones description of how abstract art developed from representational forms. This is a simplified discussion gleaned from a far more complete history presented in E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art. Throughout this essay, I will faithfully offer citation of Gombrich’s work, to which I am so indebted. Because it is simplified for clarification’s sake, this endeavor will necessarily lack the full complexity of the whole story. But this quick and dirty approach will show trends in such a way that the reader will be able to answer the question of how we got to abstraction.

By the late Nineteenth Century, markets which artists had traditionally relied upon were gone. Commissions from the Catholic Church had virtually disappeared. Aristocratic patrons were few. Photography had eliminated the artist’s role as illustrator of scenes which required travel to observe.  “The idea that the true purpose of art was to express personality could only gain ground when art had lost every other purpose” (Gombrich, p. 503).

This left artists free to experiment and express themselves in ways which the market had formerly constrained. The outgrowth was Modern Art, which primarily took three different directions, represented by three different painters: Cezanne’s experiments with color and form inspired Cubism. Gauguin’s work resulted in Primitivism. Van Gogh used art to express his feelings (Gombrich, p. 549). It is this last artist with whom we are most concerned in this article.

“Van Gogh liked to paint…motifs in which he could draw as well as paint with his brush, and lay on the colour thick just like a writer who underlines his words…It is clear that Van Gogh was not mainly concerned with correct representation. He used colors and forms to convey what he felt about the things he painted...He would exaggerate and even change the appearance of things if this suited his aim (Gombrich, pp. 547-8). This approach was an inspiration to later artists who also used art to express feeling, labeled Expressionists.
But within the school of Expressionism, there were those who wished to take visual art a step further. “If the doctrine was right that what mattered in art was not the imitation of nature but the expression of feelings through the choice of colours and lines, it was legitimate to ask whether art could not be made more pure by doing away with all subject-matter and relying exclusively on the effects of tones and shapes (Gombrich, p. 569). Like music, which inspires feeling without words, painters could rely on their media without pictures, without recognizable images. They could simply use paint to create “a pure visual music” (Gombrich, p. 569).

One of the pioneers of this view was Wassily Kandinsky who “stressed the psychological effects of pure color,” exhibited some “first attempts at color music” and “inaugurated what came to be known as ‘abstract art’” (Gombrich, p. 570). To Kandinsky and his ilk, using materials without subject to express what they felt was the main point of their work. For them, a more personal, inward expression had replaced externalizing a communication to the public.

I hope this essay has served its purpose in offering a simple explanation of how one trend in art progressed from representation to abstraction. The word “progressed” has some definitions which imply forward movement towards some destination; imply improvement. I do not wish to suggest that abstract art is an improvement over representation. Art is subjective, and one may find laudable qualities from any generation based on one’s own predilections. For many, the exquisite draftsmanship of earlier masters is what they enjoy. There is no one view of art that is superior to another. I use the word progression in its most elemental sense: to describe movement from point A to point B. For those seeking a less stark depiction, I suggest E.H. Gombrich’s masterful The Story of Art, which is the best general introduction to Art History that I have seen. My material is from chapters 25 through 27 of that work.

Gombrich, E.H. The Story of Art. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995.

For a book review of The Story of Art, see:

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Hubble. A Journey Through Space and Time by Edward Weiler. Published in Collaboration with NASA.

On the 20th Anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) launch, NASA personnel wrote Hubble. A Journey Through Space and Time. This oversized, Coffee Table Book contains over 150 color photos taken by the orbiting observatory, along with commentary and articles. The work begins with a brief introduction celebrating the telescope’s 20th Anniversary and presenting a retrospective of the project’s journey from inception to present. After a lesson on how HST works, comes the main event: chapters on different space phenomena encountered by the telescope, with photos and descriptions. Hubble ends with a unique section on the launch and maintenance of HST.

While Edward J. Weiler, former Chief Scientist of the HST project, gets the byline, the publisher makes it clear that this offering was a team effort of NASA employees. Some worked on the editing. Others contributed based on their specialty. This collaboration sets Hubble above similar photo logs of the observatory’s discoveries. Any publisher can present the photos. This folio gives the reader information from people who actually worked on project elements being described. The final chapter, on deploying and servicing the instrument, was predominantly written by astronauts who performed these functions. Also, because this publication’s discussions of the cosmos were written by NASA astronomers, it avoided inaccuracies that have plagued other volumes on HST.

There are some understandable blind spots in a book covering a venture, written by the very staff responsible for that venture, on its 20th Anniversary. Hubble is an advertisement for NASA. You will not find a perspective that is critical of the expense or decision-making of NASA. Neither will you find a reflection on whether space exploration has been worth the lives lost in the Challenger and Columbia missions. There is an assumption, shared by most of us, that the untapped information contained in the greatest unexplored frontier is too important. Despite the risks, mistakes and costs, we must explore space for the expansion of our understanding.

While Hubble’s scientific information is accurate and informative, let’s face it, you pick-up a compendium in this format to be awed by the photos. In this regard, the book does not disappoint. The multitude of high resolution color photos, most of them taking-up an entire page, some covering two pages, will leave you gaping in wonder over the beauty that is beyond our planet’s atmosphere. HST photos have become ubiquitous among our international communications. Anyone with an internet connection can call-up a multitude of images. But there is great personal joy and value in taking time away from the blinking, marketing screen, to sit in solitude with this meditation on the beauty and amazing nature that literally surrounds us.

Weiler, Edward J. Hubble. A Journey Through Space and Time. New York: Abrams Books, 2010.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Commentary: Marxist History vs Marxist Revolution.

While reading Gordon Wright’s France in Modern Times, I found his views largely balanced and rational. Wright, not a Marxist himself, recognized that some of his Marxist colleagues had valid points to make. In his chapter entitled “The Republican Experiment, 1848-1852,” the author acknowledged that “some of Karl Marx’s original analysis” of class conflict, and the later analysis of “the modernized Marxist version are undoubtedly sound” (Wright, p. 135). It was an important, open-minded assertion from a temperamentally conservative historian who viewed revolution with suspicion.

The flaw with Marxism is not in its interpretation of class strata, but in its application in the realm of power politics. A Marxist view on history has an ability to accurately portray the rise of a working class and a bourgeoisie, along with the relationship of these newer classes to ones ranked above them in society and politics.

The mistake that some Marxist historians make is to see in this version a logical progression towards a Marxist Communist State that would liberate workers. Marx fundamentally misunderstood human nature, and the nature of governments, which caused Europeans to arrive at the systems of inequality he saw in his lifetime.

Marx argued that the workers should revolt, forcefully take power, then establish a Dictatorship of the Proletariat. The Proletarian Dictatorship would then, over time, give away decision-making power and economic power to soviets and collectives. This would gradually disintegrate the central authority and result in equality among all the people within the system. It is a grand idea, both optimistic and fair, but it cannot work.

Human nature is the obstacle. People become political leaders because they want power and influence. This is particularly true in a dictatorship, but I don’t see any current working system where this principle does not apply. For whatever good or ill motives, politicians wish to shape the direction of their nations. Politicians recognize that they can more easily attain their goals atop a central system that does not disintegrate. Naturally, individuals who seek power would rise to the top of a dictatorship. Likewise the bureaucrats, who are necessary to keep a system maintained, would be unlikely to undermine it through tactics that would result in decay. Thence, there has never been a Communist dictatorship which determined that the time was ripe to give away power and disappear.

On the contrary, governments, over a period of time, tend to become more organized and controlling around resources and people within their realms of influence. Unchecked governments get larger, not smaller. They develop more laws and protocols as it becomes apparent to the individuals managing such governments, that these measures are necessary to make a nation function according to their plans. Instead of providing increased freedom and flexibility to their citizens, state systems usually ask more of their populations in terms of forbearance: Higher taxes are levied to pay for centralized programs (i.e. education, infrastructure, military defense). Additional laws are created to control restive populations yearning to “lose their chains.” Various agencies are created to manage crises and fill needs. This results in complex systems of greater centralized control.

So a Marxist historian may have a reasonable interpretation of power relationships. But it’s an irrational leap from that understanding to the idea that a Marxist political leader has an effective model for a future society. Additionally, the mechanism for attaining this future society is a violent revolution which would cause immense suffering and death among the workers. To propose that workers violently smash an existing system, and replace it with one whose most recent experiments have shown anything but successful decentralization, is neither responsible nor humane.

Wright, Gordon. France in Modern Times. New York: W.W. Norton Company, Inc., 1981.

For a book review of France in Modern Times, see:

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Great Sea by David Abulafia

David Abulafia’s The Great Sea is an ambitious undertaking.  There is so much information to marshal: So many cultures, so many years, and so many perspectives from which to witness the unfolding of the history. But Abulafia does a masterful job of telling a coherent story, while packing his book with an immense volume of information. Each time I sat down with this book, I had the enjoyable experience of absorbing new knowledge. Since most histories are from a period, event or national perspective, and since this region transcends those categories, the view of history from the Mediterranean is from an angle rarely encountered.

Undeniably, there will be flaws when attempting such a far-reaching project. There are early times within the Mediterranean which we know little about. The author makes the mistake of filling the information gap with myth and legend. We know little about the origin or character of the Etruscan Civilization, so Albulafia falls back on tall tales recorded by Herodotus to explain their origins, and a myth of Dionysos to exemplify their reputation as pirates (Abulafia, pp. 101-104). It would be easier if the author stated outright that there was no evidentiary foundation to these stories. Instead, he weaves together legend and fact. While discussing Hannibal’s father, Abulafia writes:  “That Hamilcar was determined to emancipate Carthage from Roman shackles is made plain in a famous but possibly legendary tale (Abulafia, p. 184).” If a tale is “possibly legendary,” it makes nothing “plain”. In places where historical fact is lacking, “I don’t know” is a fine statement. Fortunately, this confusion of myth and legend with reality is confined to the first couple of sections in the book where information is misty.

The inclusion of maps at the beginning of each chapter, to illustrate periods and peoples discussed, was an excellent idea. Unfortunately, the maps are little more than a repeated outline of the Mediterranean with a small number of dots representing cities. When the Greek, Roman or Ottoman empires are discussed, there is never an outline of their territory. Individual nations also lack depiction. The representation of cities on these maps is so scant that many of those covered in the associated chapter are not on the map. Abulafia talks about how Durazzo was “strategically valuable” to the Venetians (Abulafia, p. 448), but he doesn’t show it on a map so that the reader can see why. He discusses the importance to trade of “the great road that ran from Dyrrhachion through Thessalonika to Constantinople” (Abulafia, p. 269), but leaves it to the reader to connect the dots and imagine the borders between the different nations which employed the route. For those wishing to compensate for the poverty of these maps, I recommend the Oxford Atlas of World History reviewed on this blog.

Much of the sea’s history is a discourse on trade.  This is a peaceful refuge from the usual catalog of “great men” massacring populations. Trade provides evidence of cross-cultural communication and the author shows this through the variety of populations co-existing in trade towns. Readers with an economist’s view will enjoy the evolution of commercial ventures. Those interested in the chess game of competing trade empires will also find the work captivating. This is the area where Abulafia focuses most of his attention. The book occasionally gets bogged down here. The chronicler can become a bit obsessive while lengthily depicting who traded with whom and what goods they traded. At these times, The Great Sea contains all the charm and excitement of a ship’s manifest. But trade is the story of the Mediterranean, so occasionally the reader’s fascination may be a casualty. I only wish there were more information on the exchange of ideas, and less about figs and iron. It’s not that discussion of technology, science and shared learning are absent from the book, it’s just that they are more episodic than thematic.

Throughout The Great Sea, Abulafia does an excellent job of staying on point. Given the immense swath of history covered, it would be easy to have the conversation diverted onto large historical events unconnected to the Mediterranean. But the author remains focused. World War One was a huge international event. But discussion of this war is limited to how it impacted the region around the sea. Also, it would have been tempting for the author, a Jew who has an extensive knowledge of his people’s history, to spend a great deal of time on the Holocaust. But as a faithful chronicler, Abulafia covered this tragedy only to the extent that it affected his subject area. This ability to remain focused keeps the book from meandering and maintains the unifying purpose.

Though the story of this region is unavoidably fraught with conflict and greed, there is a great deal of positive exploration exhibited through the relationship between humans and their unique nautical environment. Cultures sprouted and grew like sea-dependent plants around the Mediterranean, growing and evolving with organic regularity, cross-pollinating with different peoples. The Great Sea is a well-researched record of human history around the Mediterranean, providing an exceptional knowledge base for those wishing to expand their understanding of our place on its shores.

Abulafia, David. The Great Sea. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2011.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Atlas of World History. Patrick O'Brien, editor.

An atlas of world history is an unnecessary expense. You can find just about any kind of map you want on the internet. That said, the Oxford University Press Atlas of World History is a lot of fun for those interested in history or geography. If you are a visual learner, and that encompasses most of us, this offering contains “450 full color maps” according to the back of the atlas. (I swear the Oxford University Press is not paying me for this article.) Since my monkey brain likes shiny things, I enjoy pouring over the maps as an accompaniment to whatever history text I happen to be reading.

While the main attraction is the maps themselves, the articles which accompany each map are instructive encapsulations of the historical periods or issues being illustrated. This is useful both to supplement what you are studying, and to provide a sometimes contrasting view with your reading. The perspectives presented in the articles and associated maps show some uncommon erudition. There are articles and maps pertaining to South America’s Moche Culture in 375 BC, Ancient Greece’s Level of Vegetation, 9th Century Frankish Economy and Transport Routes in Tokugawa Era Japan. Such topics are a bit obscure and a little more difficult to find on the internet.

The arrangement of the atlas is about as user-friendly as you can get. It’s entirely chronological and divided into easily recognizable sections (Ancient World, Medieval World, Early Modern World, etc.) If these categories are not helpful enough to search out a subject, the atlas is finely indexed with over 8000 entries. There is a slight bias towards European and North American topics. The editor did make an effort to represent the histories of Asia, Africa and North America, so this atlas does a better job than most Western publications. But if you were expecting a politically progressive history of the world, this is not the press to explore.

While the Atlas of World History is a luxury, it is not a very expensive one. Don’t go to the Oxford University Press site on the internet, they charge $49.95 for this book. Several other sites can get you new copies of the atlas for between $24.00 and $32.00. Obviously, used copies and previous editions are less money, and it is unlikely that the historical information on say Medieval Europe has changed in the last few years.

The Atlas of World History is an instructive resource for the Geography or History buff. I acquired mine by suggesting it to my wife on a birthday wish list. (Aren’t I a wild man?) It is enjoyable to have it by my side as a visual adjunct to my latest history book, but I also peruse it independent of other texts as a good read on its own.

O’Brien, Patrick, ed. Atlas of World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Compleat Naturalist. A Life of Linnaeus by Wilfrid Blunt.

The life of Carl Linnaeus is a story rich in potential for a writer. Here is a man who made a unique and important contribution to biology with his development of a binomial nomenclature for classifying plants and animals. He was both an explorer and a brilliant scientist. It should not be difficult for a moderately skilled biographer to craft an interesting, if not captivating, account of his life. Wilfrid Blunt reveals how it is possible to mishandle a promising topic.

The irony is that Blunt damages his project by working too hard to craft it. He employs a style of language that is archaic, highly embellished and pretentious. Blunt writes “To this humble sanctuary men of science came from all over Europe to pay homage to the greatest naturalist of his day”(Blunt, p. 219). It would be simpler to say “Colleagues traveled far to visit Linnaeus in his home.” Blunt’s writing is scattershot with French and Italian affectations that contribute nothing to the topic. He phrases awkwardly to show his learning. Instead of saying “Possibly Rudbeck’s wife tried to seduce Linnaeus,” Blunt writes “Possibly this hussy played Potiphar’s wife to him”(Blunt, p. 39). Blunt was seventy in 1971, when the book was published. The manner is archaic even for a man of his age, belonging more to the Victorian Era than the 20th Century, in which the author grew to maturity.

The comical prose of the author is almost matched by that of Linnaeus. While this scientist was a skilled compiler and cataloguer of plants, he was not a compelling writer. For example:

“The actual petals of a flower contribute nothing to generation, serving only as the bridal bed which the great Creator has so gloriously prepared, adorned with such precious bed-curtains, and perfumed with so many sweet scents in order that the bridegroom and bride may therein celebrate their nuptials with greater solemnity” (Blunt, p. 34).

Our botanist can be excused since this style was not uncommon for his time (not good writing, not scientific description, but not an uncommon style). Unfortunately, since Blunt writes so poorly himself, he does not recognize bad writing when he sees it in others. So he fills pages with indented paragraphs of Linnaeus’s miserable poetry. It gets worse when Linnaeus visits Lappland on his first field study. His diary sounds as pretentious and flowery as that of a drunk wine enthusiast on his first trip to Napa Valley. As if the prose of both Blunt and Linnaeus were not enough on their own to torture a reader, the author feeds a compulsion to decorate his book with the excruciating poetry of Emily Carrington and the abject, gilt flattery of 18th Century admirers.

Enough about the writing. What about the information? The book offers a straightforward chronology with little interpretation, which is fine. The basic information on the botanist’s life is covered. Although Blunt clearly likes his subject, he is not deceived concerning Linnaeus’s flaws. When the scientist shows his arrogance, fails to credit Georg Ehret for his contribution to the Genera Plantarum, or lies to his benefactors about the extent of his travels, Blunt does not hide from the responsibility of a thoughtful biographer to dispassionately reveal the truth.

Unfortunately, Blunt is not a scientist or even a strong critical thinker. His accounts of Linnaeus’s flaws are based on the observations of others, which he dutifully cites. The author was an art teacher, painter and curator of the Watts Gallery. With such credentials, there is a lot he misses. In the section of the book where Linnaeus first sees a Jew, Blunt neglects to discuss this zoologist’s subsequent classification of Jews as a separate “race.” While Race Classification represents the beginning of an ugly chapter in Western pseudoscience, it is not a surprise that Blunt would fail to note the significance. I’m not sure he was aware of Linnaeus’s role in this embarrassing history.

Since this biographer lacks a science background, he does not attempt to elucidate the specifics of binomial nomenclature. Neither does Blunt follow the evolution of Linnaeus’ method which led to this classification system or other observations. The most he does in the realm of science is to include, in his appendix, a discussion of Linnaeus’ system written by a colleague.

The Compleat Naturalist is more a romantic meditation on nature and the life of a man who immersed himself in its study, than it is a scientific book. I cannot help but think that a biography of Linnaeus, written by a science writer, would communicate an understanding of which this painter is incapable. So we have the topic of a scientist, written by a non-scientist. A creation based on writing, produced by a painter. For all I know, Blunt may be a fine artist with a brush, but he’s a finger-painter with words.

Blunt, Wilfrid. The Compleat Naturalist. A Life of Linnaeus. New York: The Viking Press, 1971.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins.

River Out of Eden is a series of meditations on Natural Selection by an author who has a fascinatingly original scientific mind. In a world that is filled with unreason and superstition, it is a pleasure to sit back and read the rational ideas of such an author on a subject that has been so thoroughly tested by the scientific community.

Unfortunately, Dawkins begins with a terribly written first chapter. “The Digital River” of the chapter title is a river of DNA code that we can follow to reveal descent. Fair enough, but the metaphor is flogged continuously, and additional metaphors are introduced haphazardly. For example, there is an unnecessary discussion of nerve cells, likened to a mixture of analog and digital technology, complete with a lengthy explanation of the differences between the two technologies. This digression could have been erased from the chapter without disturbing the main point. Science doesn’t need to read like bad Dada poetry. “The Digital River” could have been written far more economically by presenting the empirical evidence and moving on. Instead, it is the dead fish in the River Out of Eden.

Chapter two, “All Africa and Her Progenies,” represents a vast improvement. It starts with a refutation of cultural relativism and exhibits how irrational, untestable ideas do not belong on the same shelf with evidence-based ones. The author continues with an excellent discussion of Lynn Margulis’ research on mitochondria, and how this former bacterium can be used to trace descent matrilineally. Dawkins succeeds in presenting a theory of “African Eve” which is far more compelling than the myth of Eve in Eden.

“Do Good by Stealth” is the next offering. It answers (alright, beats to death) a creationist argument on the adaptation of an orchid which permits pollination by a male wasp. Dawkins is feisty and animated as he presents overwhelming physical evidence to refute the claim that this floral architecture had to be created perfectly the first time in order to succeed. By the end of this discussion, the only “Intelligent Design” left standing is the structure of the author’s refutation.

“God’s Utility and Function” is the continuation of a discussion established in Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. This essay elaborates on the human propensity to label activities as either good or evil and to look for purpose in life, often expressed through religion. Dawkins counters that the function of organisms is simply to put their genetic material into the next generation. He concludes:

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” (Dawkins, p. 133).

Here the hard realities of science trump any Pollyanna religious or purpose-driven notions.

But as usual, the reality is far more thrilling than any myth. Dawkins final chapter “The Replication Bomb,” shows how our DNA structure, coupled with Natural Selection, allows us an infinite range of variation. Since humans are now sending radio waves into the universe, “an expanding shell of information-rich radio waves is advancing outward from the planet at the speed of light” (Dawkins, pp. 144-5). These radio waves, because they are produced by an animal with an infinite range of variation, have an infinite range of expression. One closes the book with a sense of our possibilities that is more promising, and a greater testament to humanity, than any faith could offer, because it is based on observations of the decidedly real.

Dawkins, Richard. River Out of Eden. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

For a review of another book on human evolution, see:

For a review of  a book on the history of science vs religion, see: