Mentalités: Old and New

September 9, 2011

A relief in the apse of Narbonne Cathedral showing the mouth of Hell filled with damned souls.  To the right, a donkey pulls a cart with more unfortunates destined for the same.  The Virgin surmounts it all.

A storefront on a small street in Narbonne.  Not quite sure what the missing link between shopping and Darwin is, but clearly our view of mankind and its needs and ends has changed a bit.


Ontological Fallacy

June 28, 2011

I am reading this little book that gives a history of the arguments for the existence of God that have been advanced by theologians and philosophers in Europe.  Naturally, Anselm’s proof, known as the Ontological Proof, is given pride of place.  Wikipedia summarizes it thus:

1) Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive to be contained in the idea of something is true of that thing.
2) I clearly and distinctly perceive that necessary existence is contained in the idea of God.
3) Therefore, God exists.

Never seemed convincing to me, and a surprising number of churchmen, including Thomas Aquinas, were not swayed by it.  On the other hand, the great atheist, Bertrand Russell,  during his early Hegelian phase, said: “Great God in Boots! — the ontological argument is sound!”   “God in boots?”  Doesn’t say much for Hegelianism.  The ‘proof’ lingers on, and I hear it thrown about by theistic journalists now and then.

I deal with it this way:  I can get no clear and distinct idea of what God is supposed to be.  It is a fuzzy, flexible, and profoundly unnecessary concept.  (That is, it explains nothing.) Q.E.D. God’s existence is not proven.

I cannot prove that God does not exist, but why trouble oneself with that?  I cannot prove the tooth fairy doesn’t exist.  A concept that makes no sense and cannot be proven is best discarded.


Douthat in Hell

April 25, 2011

Oh Ross, you devil, you!

In today’s New York Times, Ross Douthat makes ‘a case for Hell.’  This is what we are offered as the intellectual ballast of the ‘conservative’ political movement today:  a shallow exercise in theology.

One sentence in his screed stood out for me, emphasis added:

As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death … salvation or damnation.”

Using GoogleBooks, I read through the introduction that Douthat cites:  some pages were left out.  Maybe they were the ones where Esolen makes this rather astounding argument about a poem that is often considered a literary summa of the medieval world-view, but I doubt it.  More likely, Douthat is not interested in what the terms Christian, Humanist, and Medieval actually mean, at least in literary terms.

The list of attributes he gives above are not normally associated with humanism, even in the simple version I recall from grade school textbooks, i.e:  man the measure of all things;  skepticism; finding truth with reason; lack of dogma; joy in daily experience, etc.  They are  associated with the medieval, Christian-allegorical way of seeing the world.  But for Ross, that is the only way, I suppose.

Douthat is the clever catechist:  He concludes by asking

Is Gandhi in hell? It’s a question that should puncture religious chauvinism and unsettle fundamentalists of every stripe. But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?

If he had read The Inferno, he would know that Gandhi is certainly in hell, down on the First Circle, with all the righteous gentiles and unbaptized infants who died too soon.  They just sigh a lot – no torture – lamenting their missed chance at salvation.  All those intelligent B.C.E. philosphers are there too!  As for Tony Soprano, if there is no hell, there is no heaven.  I doubt any theologian really thinks what Douthat claims they think.

  

It would seem that the entire intellectual concept is rife with contradictions…


Then End is nigh, again.

April 10, 2011

Folks, the Apocalypse is due on May 21, 2011.  That’s the word from this inspired electrical engineer.  Read more, if you dare, right here.  The late, great scholar, Norman Cohn, had a lot of interesting things to say about the historical precedents to this.


The Devils – When Church and State are one

December 12, 2010

The Devils is a Ken Russell film from 1971 that I saw a few years after that.  Since I wasn’t eighteen, I don’t know how I was admitted to the theater at the Los Angeles County Art Museum, and I certainly don’t know why they were showing it!  The film was incredibly controversial, heavily cut by censors, and still is not available in an official DVD version, which accounts for the poor image quality of the commercial release I have.  It is a loose adaptation of a book by Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudon, that tells the story of demonic possession of a nunnery in 17th century France.

Louis XIII is king, Cardinal Richelieu is master.  Loudon is a ‘free town’, allowed to maintain its independence and the fortifications that guarantee it.  Within their circuit, despite the carnage of the religious wars, Catholics and Protestants have managed to live and work together in peace.  Richelieu will have none of that:  he wishes to concentrate all power in the king; to destroy the independence of towns; and to drive the Protestants from the land so that Church and State may be one in a new France.

Father Urbain Grandier is a charismatic churchman in Loudon who has his own interpretation of Catholic celibacy and the like.  Women of all sorts adore him, and vie to have time with him in church to ‘confess’ their sins.  Some get to be more intimate, including the daughter of an influential figure who becomes pregnant by him and is then set loose.  His arrogance and strong ideas make lots of enemies, and when he defies the Cardinal’s emissary who wishes to demolish Loudon’s walls, he’s made an enemy who will not give up until he’s dead.  The fevered and twisted imaginations of some sex-starved nuns provide a good pretext for trumped-up charges of sorcery, a convenient way to remove Grandier from his position of power.  Church and State – no separation…

The film is lurid, bizarre, sometimes funny, and horrifying in its focus on the brutality of Church ‘justice’.  The orgy scene with nuns gone wild, ‘raping’ Christ, and the visions of Sister Jeanne drove the censors wild.  Anyone who has delved into Gothic literature, or the art and mysticism of the Counter-Reformation will recognize it as a dramatic, but not all that distorted presentation of historical truths.  (Click to enlarge the images.)

The film opens with a bit of royal theatrical diversion.  The Cardinal offers his ring and support for a new France, and “may the Protestants be driven from the land!”

Oliver Reed is great as Grandier.  Vanessa Redgrave, as Sister Jeanne, the hunchback prioress of the convent presides over a bevy of girls who are dying to get a glimpse of the man as he leads a procession through the town.  Remember, most nuns were forced to be such by families that didn’t have means or marriages for them. (See Jacques Rivette’s wonderful adaption of Diderot’s novel, La religieuse [The Nun], for example).   These are all daughters of well-to-do families, essentially imprisoned for life.  The expressionistic set design is fabulous.

Jeanne is obsessed by this handsome man of God whom she glimpses through the grate that gives the women their only view of the world outside.

She has ‘visions’ of him, and of a not all that pure nature.

In her dreams, she is Mary Magdalen, come to wash Christ’s feet, and dry them with her hair.  She is beautiful, not a cripple.

Mystical states come to an end – reality does not disappear.

Grandier is just a man, one who loves his neighbor, and his neighbor’s daughter…and many’s the neighbor’s wife who would love to love him…

An eerie black and white sequence depicts Sister Jeanne’s erotic dream of embracing Christ as he comes down off his cross.  She eagerly licks the blood from his wounds, only to awake to reality and find that she has clutched her rosary so hard that her hands are bloodied.  Religious fervor can go too far.

Grandier confronts the Cardinal’s emissary when he starts to demolish the walls.  He has a paper proving that the king granted the city the right to maintain them.  Richelieu tries to get the king to renege on his word, but no dice.  “Leave Loudon alone,” he is told.  The king is impatient.  He’s having fun taking aim

at Hugenots forced to run the gauntlet dressed as black birds.  Ahh…but if Grandier could be disposed of, there would be no opposition and the Cardinal would have a free hand to work on the king.  A plot is hatched.

An interview with Jeanne gets the inquisition going.  A lunatic devil-chaser with John Lennon glasses stages an exorcism while the town’s élite watches from behind a grill.  Yes, such things did go on.  And much has been made of the tinted Lennon glasses:  was Russell taking a swipe at pop culture icons of the day?  I don’t know.

The chasing out of the devils continues in a full-fledged orgy within the local church, the most controversial scene in the film.  Devils?  Within and without.

Grandier is tortured, but will not confess to witchcraft.  He understands the situation perfectly.

Forced to crawl through the streets to his funeral pyre, he is tormented to the end, but refuses to give in.  His enemies, and just about everyone else, turn out to see him burn.  The father of his former lover holds up his son and shouts, “Lucky bastard!  Not every boy gets to watch daddy burn!

With his death, the Cardinal has his way.  The walls come down.  The woman he secretly married wends her way out of the place of desolation while Sister Jeanne and her girls are shut away forever in their convent, despite promises to the contrary.  Sister Jeanne is given a present of Grandier’s charred thigh bone – you can guess what she does with it.


Fully Slaved

November 11, 2010

Reading Marcus Rediker’s book, The Slave Ship: A Human History, I learned of the Liverpool Seamen’s Revolt of 1775.  The slave ship owners decided to seriously cut the wages of the crews, and the sailors responded with a labor rebellion.  They cut down the rigging from the ships, looted the homes of the rich slavers, commandeered canon and bombarded the Exchange, headquarters of the city elite.  It was noted that the rebels, violent and destructive as they were, treated most people decently, reserving their rage for the directors of the slave trade.  They were finally put down by the military after a few days. They were protesting against their awful treatment by the controllers of the slave trade, not the trade itself.

The term “fully slaved,” refers to a slave ship (slaver) that has its full complement of human cargo and is ready to sail for the Americas.  The process of acquiring slaves took months, and the toll on the captives waiting below deck, as well as the sailing crew subject to sickness, was terrible.  Rediker’s book details all aspects of life aboard a slaver and the economic and political web that surrounded them.  It makes for horrifying reading – the first time I delved into this subject in detail.  It also adds a lot to my reading of Melville’s Benito Cereno and Eugene Sue’s Atar Gull (see here). The book is quite repetitive, and not too well-organized, but the depth of scholarship is amazing.

In the course of his narrative, Rediker touches at length on John Newton, the author of  the hymn “Amazing Grace.”  He points out that Newton did not speak out against slavery until nearly thirty years had passed after he left the trade.  Moreover, his famous conversion to evangelical religion took place while he worked the trade, and did not prevent him from continuing profitably in it, believing he was following God’s path.

Better late than never.

The images below are of an old movie theatre in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, that startled me the first time I drove by it years ago.


War, Noir, Atheism

October 2, 2010

On the beach

In earlier posts, I have commented on the connection of film noir and the experiences of millions of men during WWII.  I thought of this yet again after reading this human interest story in the NYTimes about two men who both landed at Normandy on D-Day and happened to be next to each other in a hospital ward in NYC awaiting open heart surgery.  Naturally, they formed a bond quickly.

Before the surgery, the doctor told one of them not to be afraid.  The patient, who is 90, scoffed.  He said, ‘There’s nothing you can do that I can’t get through — I’ve been through Normandy.”  There’s a man who has built his life on bedrock.  Later on, he remarked, “After getting out of World War II, I’m not afraid of nothing and I’m not impressed by nothing.

The two men profiled worked in retail and construction.  Another war story I have read comes from Victor Brombert, who taught 19th century French literature at Princeton for many years.  (He is a noted expert on Flaubert and Stendhal).  He came from a family of secular, unreligious,  prosperous, bourgeois, French Jews who had the sense to leave before Hitler could rout them out and gas them.  After attending school in the USA, Brombert enlisted in the army and found himself on the beach at Normandy on D-Day.

The saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes.  I’ve never heard much evidence for this – to me it sounds like wishful thinking on the part of advocates of religion.  I have read stories similar to Brombert’s.

He relates that he was scared beyond belief, scared senseless.  He was trying his best to make his body as small as possible, clawing the ground so hard that his fingernails were in agony as he forced sand under them.  He was deafened and stupefied with terror at the sound and concussions of the shellfire around him.  At that moment, he came as close to prayer as he ever came in his life.  He promised himself that if he survived, he would never complain about anything again.

Not exactly a prayer to God, but not a bad way of life, either.


We are in the 21st century, no?

September 19, 2010

I saw this bumper sticker ahead of me on a van this morning.  I’m no expert on Marxist sociology, but I believe the idea is that ideology is determined by material circumstances, i.e., the means of production determine the dominant ideas of an era.  Okay, so how come this fellow, and he’s in good company, is espousing ideas that are right out of Saint Augustine’s City of God?  Clearly, this driver is a citizen of that heavenly city, not the city of the world.

Or, are we to assume that all the significant elements of society are not much changed today from what they were in the early 5th century A.D?  How else to account for the incredible staying power of these ideas?


Augustine: Lost in the clouds

August 23, 2010

 

After devoting hundreds of pages to a sharply worded, often funny, and always derisive deconstruction of the folly of Roman paganism, St. Augustine finally turns his attention to more positive topics, e.g., the superiority of Platonism as the one pagan philosophy that is closest to the true religion of Christianity.  What strikes me most is the way in which thinkers of his day, and ours, are bewitched by their own polished use of language.  So many chasms of unexplained propositions are glided over so lightly.

From Book VIII, Chapter 6 of The City of God:

As for the teaching which is comprised in [what] Platonists call logic, or rational philosophy, heaven forbid that I should think to compare them with those who have placed the criterion of truth in the bodily senses and have decided that all that belongs to the realm of learning is to be measured by such unreliable and misleading standards.

In other words, abstract thought gives knowledge; observation yields error.  Here we have the Christian imprimatur placed on a Greek concept that will inhibit the growth of science for another thousand years.  As I remarked on my post about Playfair, the great innovator in representing quantitative data with graphs, this prejudice against the evidence of the eyes lingered on into the scientific age.

Here I always wonder what bodily senses they use to see what beauty which they say is found only in the wise. With what physical eyes have they beheld the beauty and grace of wisdom?

A marvelous example of rhetorical skill tripping up the search for truth.  He fixes on a metaphor, takes it as concrete, and then teases out the contradictions that ensue, using it as evidence for his spiritualist point of view.

They saw also that in every mutable being, the form which determines its being, its mode of being and its nature, can only come from him who truly is, because he exists immutably.

This lapidary phrase is almost like a chant, a mantra.  Often, in this chapter, Augustine uses rhythm and apparently simple logic to build to towards a triumphant declaration of the obvious truth of his religion.  He continues with this evocation of the entire panorama of existence:

Nice glasses!

It follows that the whole material universe, its shapes, qualities, its ordered motions, its elements disposed throughout its whole extent, stretching from heaven to earth, together with all the bodies contained within them; and all life, whether that which merely nourishes and maintains existence, as in the trees, or that which has sensibility as well, as in the animals; or that which has all this, and intelligence besides, as in human beings; or that life which needs no support in the way of nourishment, but maintains existence, and has feeling and intelligence, as in the case of angels – all these alike could come into being only through  him who simply is.

Yes, I love it, I do

For a wonderful introduction to The City of God, see this text.


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