Sunday, February 26, 2012

Gospel Of Mark

It never ceases to amaze me how the character of Jesus was such a revolutionary figure and so very different from how many perceive him. If we just focus on what is being said in the Mark and elswhere about money, wealth and the striving for such, there are some very interesting ideas to ponder. Jesus’s philosophy on all things financial was simple and extreme.

Mark 10:21  Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.

10:22 And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions.

10:23 And Jesus looked round about, and saith unto his disciples, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!

10:24 And the disciples were astonished at his words. But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!

10:25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. “

There is no subtlety here. Jesus is saying that if you are rich you are not going to heaven, unless of course, you give away all your money to the poor. It is not enough to just be charitable; you must give away every penny. Jesus was no capitalist. His philosophy is not friendly to the modern day concept of the free market.

Jesus was anti wealth, it is very clear in the text. If we think about this in terms of the modern world one must conclude that this belief system would not be receptive to the thinking behind conservative economics. Some would retort that Jesus would not support more liberal economic policies either. I would however be willing bet that he would champion a lot of economic initiatives espoused by progressives and liberals. Would anyone wonder if he would support providing home heating aid for the poor, or would he support more tax breaks for the wealthy?

I have heard an argument, in regard to this philosophy, contending that the message here is that people should do what they can to help others, and that giving a reasonable amount to charity is sufficient. It seems to me however, that such a moderate course is not compatible with what is being expounded in the above.

Though I am a progressive, I personally believe and agree with the more balanced approach. I do think that regulated capitalism is beneficial for most people in the long run. I also believe that striving for prosperity, in moderation, can be good thing, especially if its goal is to help ones family or society.  I think that the belief system concerning wealth, laid out in Mark and the other Gospels, while a noble sentiments, is almost impossible for most to live by, and it would be undesirable if everyone tried.

I also believe that the Jesus portrayed in the Bible is a fictional character. If I were inclined to imagine that he really was the Son of God, I suppose I would start giving away every penny that I had.


Monday, February 20, 2012

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared M. Diamond

Jared M. Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, is one of those books that sets out to prove a theory. It is also one of those books that span over four hundred pages proving a theory that could be encapsulated in less then one hundred pages. This is not a criticism; I am very glad that it did take Diamond this many words to reach his conclusions, as the journey was just as fun as arriving at the final destination.

Diamond’s hypothesis is in three parts. First, is the somewhat obvious contention that certain societies, especially, those originating in Eurasia, easily conquered and dominated other societies, particularly those in the Americas, Africa, Australia and Polynesia, due to the former having more advanced technology, as well as resistance to lethal diseases then did the latter.

The second part of the theory is that these Eurasian societies gained these advantages as a result of more organized and efficient farming and herding methods. These advanced agronomic systems led to greater population growth, advanced technology and greater societal organization. Furthermore, these cultures developed a system where humans basically lived side by side with domestic animals. This human-animal proximity resulted in the formation of deadly diseases, and eventual immunity to those diseases.  It also turned the peoples of these societies into biological weapons. When Europeans and Asians encountered people who had little or no exposure to domestic animals, waves of epidemic and death resulted.

Finally, Diamond attributes these advantages in agricultural systems and Animal husbandry    almost entirely to differences in geography, climate, and biological diversity in various parts of the world. Eurasia harbored a mix of wild plants and animals that was much more conducive to the development of agriculture and animal domestication, then did the other landmasses. In addition, the climate and geography of Eurasia helped the development and spread of cultivated plants and domestic animals, more so then did the climate and geography of the other continents.

As I stated above, Diamond could have written a much more concise book. Instead, he chose to write a highly detailed and intellectually rich chronicle of early agriculture, pre-historic mass human migrations, linguistics and a whole lot more. If one approaches this work eager to learn about the world and how our planet and peoples reached their present state, one will find Diamond’s book a delight.

I must admit, fairly early in Guns, Germs and Steel, when Diamond began to explain in great detail, specifically how peas and other crops were developed, I had, for a moment or two, the temptation to begin skipping sections. This book really goes into detail on some very arcane subjects. Did I really want to spend time reading multifarious facts about how horticultural processes developed? I stuck with it. I read every word. Before long I was hooked! I not only discovered how the modern pea was developed, but how shellfish hooks were invented and how Llamas were domesticated, plus how lots of other stuff came to be. In the process I did not just absorb some obscure facts. I learned a little bit more about how people think and how humans accomplish things. I also learned much about the origins of the peoples of the Philippines, China, South Africa, and many other places. I absorbed lots of other things too. Perhaps most importantly, I see a little bit clearer, and am thinking about, how this all connects with the totality of the human story.

This is what reading should be about. I believe that delving into such details along the way, maybe details that one originally never intended to dig into, is one of the paths that needs to be trod in order to think and to reason more deeply and coherently. I think that if we restrict ourselves too tightly to what we think that we are just very interested in, we risk missing out on entire worlds. The experience of reading this book really brings this concept to light.

Getting to the main point is not the only thing that reading, discussing and thinking, should be about. Experiencing the entire process, with all its diverging details, connections and paths, is a necessary and joyful way of getting a better view of the big picture. It is all part of reaching a better understanding of people, as well as fascinating web that we call existence. It is also fun! For those with an insatiable curiosity about such things, Guns, Germs and Steel is a great choice.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

William Shakespeare - Measure For Measure

This is at least the second time that I have read Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. For this go around, I will try to get at the big theme.

For those not familiar with the plot, the action takes place in Vienna. The Duke, who apparently has let the city fall into debauchery and disorder, announces plans to leave town for a time and put his lieutenant, the seemingly virtuous Angelo, in charge. Initially the Duke expects Angelo to get things straightened out. Angelo takes over and quickly tunes oppressive, arresting and sentencing to death anyone accused of adultery, prostitution, etc. One of the victim’s is Claudio, who is arrested and sentenced to die for adultery.

When Claudio’s sister, the extremely virtuous, but charismatic and attractive Isabella, begs Angelo for her brother’s life, Angelo, proves himself the ultimate hypocrite by agreeing to spare Claudio on the condition that Isabella sleep with him. Isabella, who will clearly never agree to the proposition, sadly resigns herself to the fact that her brother will die.

Meanwhile, the Duke, who is secretly still in the city disguised as a friar, hears of Claudio and Isabella’s troubles, and executes an elaborate plan to fool Angelo into sleeping with another women disguised as Isabella, spare Claudio’s life, re –establish his governance of the city, as well as act as a matchmaker for most of the major characters. His plan works out, he arranges for several (very ill conceived) marriages, including his own to Isabella.

 However serious the major points of the plot are, the play is written in a lighthearted tone, as it is often very funny. A highlight of the dialog comes when Claudio suggests that Isabella accede to Angelo’s demands in order to save his life. Isabella’s ensuring explosion is brilliantly written and hilarious.

To me, The Vienna of Measure for Measure is a little microcosm of the Universe as a whole. I believe this to be true of several of the Bard’s works. Though common themes and philosophy run through all of these plays, sometimes Shakespeare’s “Theory of Everything” varies a little bit among these works. For instance, I see King Lear as taking place in a Universe of pure chaos, where malevolence and insanity are natural laws and where there is little or no justice for the good. Measure for Measure presents a world that is at times less nasty, but no less chaotic.

At first glance the play can be interpreted as championing a Christian worldview. After all, the fanatically pious Isabella in the end, retains her saintliness, sees her brother saved and her reputation elevated. If the Duke is a symbol of a Deity, Isabella has been justly rewarded for her Christian virtues.

There seems to be more to it, however, The Duke does seem to represent, God, or at least a symbol of how the Universe is works. This conclusion seems inevitable since he is in able control of everything behind the scenes, from the beginning of the play, to the end. When the Duke chooses to, He controls Vienna with almost no trouble or impediments. At the conclusion, he doles out justice and forgiveness.

But he is a mischievous, imperfect, a little corrupt and sometimes not very enthusiastic about life. Lest one think that the control mentioned above is constant, it is clear from even his own statements, that this period of manipulations has followed a long stretch of time when he was very much asleep at the wheel.  He exerts control in a lazy fashion, when and how he chooses to.

Though the Duke is not an oppressor, Lucio, one of many scandalous citizens of Vienna, points out his weaknesses as a ruler, “A very superficial, ignorant, unweighing fellow”, and later accuses him of lechery. He is a ruler that at times, metes out the mildest punishments for severe crimes, yet during other periods, allows oppressive, sadistic and hypocritical tyrants to hold sway and cause misery for others.

Furthermore, while attempting to convince Claudio that he should accept death, the Duke provides a memorable, nihilistic speech on the inevitable unhappiness and meaninglessness of life.

Yet, this ruler does bring rewards to the ultimate Christian, Isabella. However he also rewards, or at least pardons with no consequences others, including the monstrous Angelo and the slothful, drunken and indifferent Barnardine. One can argue that the Christian God forgives, but these characters do not ask for forgiveness. The Dukes decisions in the end in no way seem to mete out Justice and there is no sense that any of the nefarious persons have learned anything. While pious virtue is not punished, Shakespeare seems ultimately ambivalent towards Isabella’s nearly psychotic religiosity.

Measure for Measure presents us with a world and its controller that, if not as cruel as King Lear, is often random and full of meaningless sufferings. There is more corruption here then there is justice. Sometimes however, if one is lucky, things can turn out OK, at least for a while.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Plato's Symposium

Since I reread this recently, and Valentine’s Day is approaching, I thought that this would be the perfect subject for this week. Plato’s Symposium is the great philosopher’s exploration of romantic and erotic love.

The setting is a drinking party attended by many of the prominent men of Athens, including Socrates. At the gathering, each man makes a speech in honor of the God of Love. The individual discourses seem to present different, and sometimes varied views on the subject.

Each speech can be analyzed as its own mini dissertation on the nature of these varieties of love. Perhaps all of the addresses combined can be viewed as kind of grand unified theory on the issue. Though some of the presentations seem to be in parts contradictory, I get some sense that Plato is implying that these incongruities might be illusionary, as they are just different ways at looking at the same problem.

I will focus on Socrates’s declamation here. Curiously, Socrates does not elucidate his own original opinions. Instead he uses his opportunity to expound on the teachings of a wise-women that he knew called Diotima. Diotima’s philosophy on Eros expands on what I would call the “Socratic World View” developed in many of Plato’s works. This is the belief system that most abstract concepts are actually things called “Forms”. Forms exist on some higher plane of reality. Every object that exists in the everyday world that exhibits some aspect of a Form, is somehow tied into the perfect Form, that once again, exists in a different continuum.

For instance, “Good” is a Form. If a person can be said to be a “good” human being, then it stands to reason that the person has some “good” in them. That person is only manifesting, or channeling, a piece of an image of the perfect Form of “Good” that exists on the higher plain of existence. Of course I am over-simplifying, one needs to study many of the dialogs to obtain a true understanding.

Beauty is also a Form. Diotima views the manifestation of love in its initial stages as a person striving for perpetual beauty. The only way that the beauty found in life can be sustained forever is through the act of reproduction. Thus is the sexual act and ensuing pregnancy borne out of erotic love. Love is just an attempt at capturing the Form of beauty for all of time, through a lover’s children and subsequent decedents.

Diotima further contends that romantic love between a man and a woman is not the ideal way to achieve this perpetual beauty. Instead, the better path starts with attempting to obtain a clear view of Beauty in its pure and perfect Form. Once someone does this, the person can achieve a kind of elevated existence and achieve greatness through noble and beneficial acts. These acts and great achievements will live on in the memories of future generations and be the ultimate route to the immortality of beauty, and hence the ultimate achievement of love. Again, I over-simplify.

It is interesting that Plato ascribes this theory to Diotima. A cursory Google search indicates that there is uncertainty and disagreement in regards to the question of weather she was a real person or just a fiction created by Plato. Over the years I have read just about all the important works by Plato, and I believe that Diotima is the only instance where a women was portrayed as an credible and intelligent person, much less a sagacious philosopher.

In regards to women in general, Plato exhibits seems to exhibit major inconsistencies. In many of the Dialogs, he describes females in a very misogynistic fashion. He often portrays women as inferior, and at times he even criticizes men for having what he perceives to be feminine traits.

In the Republic and a few other works however, Plato does an about face, and proposes what for the time was a revolutionary philosophy. Here, he admits that in most important abilities, the sexes are equal. He goes on to advocate that women be given the same opportunities as their male counterparts. It seems likely to me that Plato’s opinion changed over time (it seems as if that these opinions swayed back and forth, as some of the derogatory writings were preceded by the Republic) Perhaps part of these changes in opinion can be ascribed his association with the real Diotima or with similar women who helped inspire her character.

Not only does Plato portray Diotima as an intelligent, accomplished and wise philosopher, but he also uses her opinions to add a significant extension to his ubiquitous theory of Forms. Diotima’s beliefs also represent a key component in Plato’s philosophic thinking on the subject of love. This thinking has been enormously influential to Western Culture and has resounded down the centuries. Thus, on the subject of love and its metaphysical implications, the character of Diotima, whether a fiction or based on real women, has contributed to Western thinking in an essential way.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Bible and the Koran

I have read and reread at least twice, all the books of the Bible. I have read the Koran twice and will likely go back to it at some time in the future. Since I will be sharing some of my opinions on these texts, in future blogs, I think that this would be a good time to present some of my general thoughts concerning these books.

It goes without saying that almost everything in the Bible and the Koran is of enormous significance. Much of it is brilliant literature. Many of the ideas invented and presented on its pages have played a vital part in the development of human ideas and philosophy. These works are a cornerstone in the great palace of human thinking. Both books are filled with wonderful, as well as terrible ideas. Any person, who wants to understand the world, would do well to read and to attempt to understand what is contained here.

However, as a source of truth about the physical world, I barley believe a single word contained in these works. While Moses, Jesus, Mohamed, etc. were likely real persons; their depictions in these books were fictional. These were interesting, compelling and magnificent characters; but they are essentially products of someone’s imagination.

I am essentially an atheist. Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion has a fun little scale where a person can compare their beliefs on the existence of Deities. The scale runs from 1 to 7, with a sore of 1 representing the view that one is 100% certain that God exists and a score of 7 being 100% certain that she does not.  I come out as a 5 or 6 on the scale of 7. Dawkins would classify me as leaning towards being a de facto atheist.

If there is a God, there is not doubt that he, she or it, is not the very small and petty Divinity described in most of the world’s holy books. The more one learns about the natural world, Biology, Physics, Astronomy, Cosmology, etc., the more trivial and less important the God that man created in these fictional works appears to be. In the unlikely event that a supreme being exists, it is a God of Math and Physics. He is a creator of Black Holes, Quantum Physics and the double helix. She is not likely to be helping people to walk on water or build wooden arks and she is certainly not getting angry if people do not believe in her or draw pictures of her “prophet”.

I also find it difficult to use these writings as any kind of a moral compass. There are superbly great ideas contained here, but there are just as many terrible ones. It has become almost a cliché to say now, but it is true, that Yahweh of the Old Testament was more often then not, a petty, vain, frivolous, yet often very entertaining monster. The Koran espouses some very good things, such as toleration for Christians and Jews, almost as often as it advocates horrendous things, such as intolerance for many other belief systems or the enslavement of women. The God of the New Testament is certainly more beneficent that either Yahweh or Allah, but he is has similar moral issues such as threatening punishment for dissenting opinions as well as the tendency to support slavery.
I also find it impossible to view the Bible (or the Koran if we look at the Islamic text as a “Sequel” of sorts) as a coherent work. The God of the Old Testament is obviously not the same character as described in the Gospels. The God of Saint Paul, for that matter is very different from Jesus or his father as depicted in the Gospels. The philosophy of Ecclesiastes seems to be incompatible with just about everything else found in either the Old or New Testament. Allah of the Koran is different still.

Analyzing these Holy Books as literature, philosophy, and diverse works of cultural importance, and not as absolute truth, or as a single philosophy, is the only rational and coherent way to explore them. Examining these enormously significant works as such is vitally important, if one is to gain a minimum level of understanding of the world.