Saturday, May 24, 2014

Foie Gras Writ Large

A story this morning in the Wall Street Journal tells of a seeming squabble in Japan. There the head of the Bank of Japan (BoJ) is pressuring the Prime Minister to implement spending programs. The BoJ has already printed plenty of money, but that action does not seem sufficient to cause big-time economic growth in a country that has suffered from deflationary tendencies.

Reading this quite early in the morning—thus still half-submerged in my subconscious—my mind spontaneously produced memories of childhood. The memories were of a woman stuffing geese with kernels of maize. She stuffed about five geese every morning. She’d sit on a stool, a deep bucket of corn next to her, and holding the poor bird’s beaks apart, she would push the corn down into its throat. I was dumfounded for a moment—until the relevance came with a rush.

Geese were then—and still are—force-fed to cause them to develop overlarge livers which, after their slaughter, are turned into pâté de foie gras. I discovered today that France is the largest producer (18,450 tons in 2005)—and Hungary is second (1,920 tons). As today so yesterday. Even as a child I found this practice odd. The geese hadn’t seemed to like the massive meals they found themselves forced to ingest.

Lest it be thought that this practice —and the enjoyment of foie gras—was exclusively a product of Christendom, I reproduce here the illustration that Wikipedia uses from an ancient Egyptian bas relief (link). The image is quite realistic—for a piece of art that somewhat suppresses what really took place. As I remember it, the woman who did the stuffing used one hand to force the beaks apart while using her other hand’s index and middle fingers to reach deep into the poor bird’s gullet.

With this I now come to the association that brought this image out of the past. It might sound naïve to sophisticates in economics, but I firmly hold that a mature economy need only grow at a rate that matches the population’s growth. That rate in the United States was 1.6 percent a year in 1960 and  0.7 percent in 2010. Why then do we seem unhappy unless Gross Domestic Product grows at around 4.5 percent? Is it because the quality of life, economically speaking, must always be increasing? Increasing until peanut butter and jelly are replaced by foie gras for breakfast? Force-feeding, technically known as gavage-feeding (from the French word derived from “stuffing”) is what a consumption-culture is really all about. Our improvement of the Egyptian technique, which dates from 2500 BC, is that we manage the force-feeding by mere advertising. Not only is such a technique, applied across such vast ranges of ordinary life, unsustainable in the long run, in the short it also, incidentally, leads to a explosion of obesity that, oddly, is resistant to amelioration by mere persuasion. Have we reached the stage of unsustainablity already? Maybe. Our papers are also filled with dread news that retail giants are staggered by dropping demand. The consumer seems suddenly resistant to the call that it is stuffing time. What will happen to the Gras National Product?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Can Serious Thought be Taught?

The cover story of the Christian Science Monitor Weekly for May 19 is titled, on the cover, as “Can parenting be taught?” This being the Christian Science Monitor, however, the full title, found within, is “Can parenting really be taught?”  And that’s a whole lot better. The article deals with what appears to be an avalanche of initiatives to solve the problems of poverty and unemployment by targeting low-income parents with scientific approaches to that oddity called “parenting.” That word, I’m told, dates from 1959 but had an earlier form, called “parentcraft” coined in 1930, the year the Great Depression began...

My initial reaction to that headline was “Can parenting be bought?” Teaching requires institutions, and institutions must be paid—by somebody; and that can be arranged. The answer thus is Yes. And therefore another question, suggested by Brigitte, is “Can parenting be sold?”  The answer is Yes again.

It is a feature of our times, especially in the still exceptionalist United States, that anything can be taught, no matter how unlikely, if only the right programs are in place. It’s not exactly noticeable unless your hearing is sharp, but it is everywhere. The most recent international version of it was to send about a dozen American operatives to Nigeria to solve the kidnapping of girls—and the vast hoopla that surrounded that action on CNN. We’re forever dispatching advisers to foreign lands to teach them anything and everything, not least democracy—on the basis of our odd scientific understanding that if you can identify a series of behaviors and train other people to engage in them, vast cultural mountains can be moved and vast abysses may be filled by the deployment of a few experts.

Can serious thought be taught? To our ruling classes? The answer here is No.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Humor me!

The word was disparate, uttered without conscious thought, simply because it fit the context of our morning’s discussion—triggered by a New York Times story this morning titled “Statistics 10, Poets 0.” I ventured the dismissal, having glanced at the headline, saying: “Statistics takes things apart, poetry puts things together.” But then, recognizing that statistics actually does put things together, by counting disparate but also quite distinct but similar things, I was off on that. Then Brigitte said to me: “Hand me that dictionary. Humor me!”

Our exchange and the request for a dictionary—which is on the floor of the bedroom by the window, underneath a tiny bookshelf, overshadowed by a vast and glorious orchid which takes all the light from the huge window—is a pretty routine sort of thing during our coffee-drinking moments in the morning.

Brigitte was looking up a word, but I didn’t know which until she confided that it was disparate. “I’m looking for additional meanings,” she said. “Words—I can’t help myself. Absolutely everything. Words. Words.”

That makes two of us. In the silence of looking for disparate, her last words, Humor me!, were revolving in my mind—and a wonder arose how that word, which originally described the body fluids the ancients thought were at the root of every state of mind—yes, blood, phlegm, choler, and black bile—could have produced this phrase…

Well, Online Etymology Dictionary on my screen, the tracing becomes easy. Yes, the humors determine the state of the mind. But the meaning is relaxed, not absolutely deterministic. We have a certain freedom to pick the humors we need to deploy in any one situation. Therefore, eventually, the notion of deploying more of one humor, rather than the other, came into usage. And the meaning of “indulge me,” arose, although quite late, in the 1520s. The humor used for that purpose is probably “blood,” which is ardent and sympathetic.

Now as for that article, it is about numbers and metrics—and how these are displacing feelings, I suppose they mean. Not the experience but the duration of sexual encounters is measured—measured in some fantastic way by using apps and cell phones and no doubt secret feeds from the NSA. And mapped—so that we can look down on regions where sexual encounters are of the shortest duration. But I’m not going there.  But here’s a brief quote to get the flavor across:

That God-shaped hole in the universe? It’s been filled with social science. Whereas once we quoted politicians or preachers, now we quote Gallup or Pew.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Basileia tōn Rhōmaiōn

Sooner or later in a series on the Middle Ages, the prospect of looking a little more closely at the Byzantine Empire approaches, causing a certain dread. That time, alas, has now come. The fact of such a realm goes back to Emperor Diocletian who, in 295, split the Roman Empire into a Pars Occidentalis and a Pars Orientalis, and the Byzantine was the latter—but, while indeed its capital became the ancient Byzantium, rapidly renamed Constantinople, during that empire’s life it was never referred to as the “Byzantine.” The first such label came in the sixteenth century; and the general usage, “Byzantine Empire” dates to yesterday, you might say, the nineteenth century. The people of the actual empire called it “Empire of the Romans” but they spoke Greek. For them it was Basileia tōn Rhōmaiōn. Such is the nature of human usage—making me wonder what the Far Future will call the United States ...

The dating of the Byzantine is usually from 330 when Constantine completed his transfer of the Roman empire’s capital to Byzantium. I prefer 324, when he began this work—because it gives us a clean 1130 years for the realm’s duration. It ended in 1453 with the Ottoman capture of Constantinople. The realm was ruled by 16 dynasties. There were 92 dynastic rulers and 10 emperors who did not manage to form dynasties. Each ruler served an average of 11 years. How to give this vast stretch of time some shape in a short post?

My approach here will be concentrate on broad patterns and leave historical patterns unexplored: too many dynasties, too many rulers. And the usual method, thus singling out the most famous figures, obscures the general pattern—namely the manner in which the longer-lasting part of the Roman empire, the oriental part, was gradually dismembered over time. Do not, therefore, expect history here. Let’s call it a natural process of cultural transformation.

Let me begin with a tabulation which shows how little of that Rhōmaiōn was actually present in that Basileia.  The first three dynasties, to be sure, retained their Roman character — minimally because business was transacted in Latin. But we must note that the only genuine Westerner among the early dynasties was Theodosius; he was born in Spain. Constantine was born in Serbia and Valentinian in Croatia. The birthplaces of all dynastic founders, including the first three, are shown in the following table and indicate that the Roman character of that realm faded rather rapidly.

Concerning this table, note first that under Leo I of the fourth, the Leonid, dynasty, Greek was adopted for all legislation and for doing business generally. Leo was also the first such emperor crowned by the Patriarch of Constantinople. Note that the geographical origins of dynastic founders are evenly divided between countries we would call Balkan—and Turkey. The only other Western line that ruled a part of the Byzantine much later was the Hainaut, Baldwin I being the first. The Hainauts came from Flanders, but this family only ruled the so-called Latin Empire, which was roughly one half of a split Byzantine realm. That split came after the Western conquest of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. The crusades had, by that time, also degenerated into wars with predominantly commercial aims—which, in the case of the Fourth, was to secure Constantinople for Venerian influence. The other half of the temporarily split realm was ruled by the Empire of Nicea under the Laskarid Dynasty. Michael Palaiologos, the last ruler of Nicea, and re-conqueror of Constantinople, was also the founder of the last dynasty to rule what little was left of the Byzantine—by then an empire only in name.

One could say, pushing a thousand years into a thimble, that a remnant of the Roman empire, its Pars Orientalis, rapidly turned Greek. It was ruled by Balkan and then by Turkish families until Turkey itself fell to the Persians, Arabs and then Arabs converted to Islam until only a few Greek territories were left to rule. Thereafter two Greek dynasties hung on to the bitter end until the Ottomans finished what the Persians had begun and the Seljuk Sultanate had continued. This much looking West. The Byzantine empire was also dismembered in part by Slavic and Bulgarian invasions from the North and its Mediterranean holdings, mostly islands, fell under Norman attack.  A part of the dismemberment may also be assigned to a general decentralization that pervaded the spirit of the Middle Ages; we call that feudalism, the independent rule of local lords. The bottom line here is that while the Western part of Rome fell to the barbarians, the eastern part was eventually overrun by a new civilization, the Islamic. The Ottoman would also keep expanding northward until it reached almost to the gates of Vienna.

The seven maps I show, from a Wikipedia animated map found here, shows the territorial disintegration of the Basileia tōn Rhōmaiōn, with occasional attempts at recovery—but the trend is clear enough. The first image, for 550, shows the Byzantine at its greatest extension, after Justinian’s reconquest of Italy, the north coast of Africa, a slice of Spain, and the Mediterranean islands. The last, for 1400, shows what’s left of the empire 53 years before the Ottoman’s finally captured Constantinople.

From a certain time-perspective, the usual human ways of seeing things blur away into naturalistic patterns which tend to mirror nature much more closely than genuinely human behavior, even when the naturalistic changes are largely human-made. But for those who think that dynasties and personalities make a real difference—and they certainly do at the human perspective and time-scale—I will close out this post with a rather lengthy timeline in which I show largely dynasties over time and only here and there mark the presence of non-dynastic rulers and events. The color-shading is intended to show a kind of fading as we progress in time—and as the Empire becomes ever less coherent and more and more localized.

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Nestorius and the Eastward Spread

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Nestorius and the Eastward Spread

Roughly coinciding with the partition of the Roman Empire in 293, a new dynasty began to rule Persia (beginning in 224). The Sassanids, named after an early family member called Sasan, ruled Persia until 642 when the Muslims defeated the Sassanids in the Battle of Nahavand; some five years later the last Sassanid emperor died in flight from Persia’s Muslim invaders; the Muslims completed their conquest of Persia in 651.

Lest the Sassanids produce a blank, it might be well to put them in context. The first Persian Empire was the Achaemenid (550-330 BC); they had a war with Greece and got beaten in the Battle of Marathon (490 BC). The next was the Parthian (247 BC - 224 AD), the longest-lived. The Sassanids came next (224-642).  Five other dynasties ruled after the Sassanids; the last of those, the Pahlavi, ended in 1979 with the expulsion of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, whom we know as the Shah of Iran.

While in full control of Persia, the Sassanids were not only expansionary—acquiring territory from the Byzantine Empire—they were also expansionary in a commercial sense. They developed trade relations with the Sui and then the Tang Dynasty and had significant influence and trade relations with India’s ruling dynasties as well, reaching well into South India. The map shows  the extent of the Sassanid rule at its greatest extent. The Striped areas represent regions the Byzantine empire lost to the Persians.

The Sassanid history is useful background for my subject today, namely the eastward spread of Christianity.  In this period already, Christianity reached all the way to China, deep into India, and regions in between, as shown in the following map. The version of Christianity that reached these lands, however, was loosely of the Nestorian variety—called that, in fact, until recent times when the term “Church of the East” has come to be applied, a part of Eastern Christianity, but, at this time not yet the Eastern Orthodox Church. That split did not take place until 1054. The Sassanids’ defeat by Muslims is also an early introduction to the event that would eventually formally end the Middle Ages, the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet in 1453.

What I’m after here is the grand pattern. It might be described as follows. Early Christianity was closely tied to major, meaning imperial, rulers. Of these we’ve already met the Byzantine emperors and  Charlemagne and his successors. Associated with the first is Orthodox Christianity, with the second Catholicism. But there was also a third empire which also functioned as a protector of religion. It was the Sassanid Dynasty. And it became the protector of  Nestorian Christianity.

In early Christianity, the most prominent centers were Rome, Alexandria in Egypt, and Antioch in Syria (but in a region that is now Turkey). With the rise of the Byzantine empire, Constantinople also became such a center, second only to Rome. Constantinople and Rome would later part in  what is known as the Great Schism (1054), Within the Byzantine Empire itself, tensions grew between Antioch and Constantinople. During the later Sassanid period, thus by 651, Antioch came firmly under the sway of the Persians. And it is in Antioch that two versions of Eastern Christianity flourished, Nestorianism and Monophysitism, the latter a theological view originating in Alexandria. And it is these two that spread Christianity into the East. The common saying, “Follow the money,” may here be applied to Christianity by saying: “Follow the ruler.” The Sassanids came to occupy both Antioch and Alexandria.

Nestorius (386-450) was a monk born in north-western Syria, now part of Turkey, in a town today called Kharamanmaraş. He was a pious sort and travelled to Antioch, some 157 miles away, to be educated in theology. He became a dedicated and ascetic monk there, famed for his preaching. On a trip to Antioch, the Byzantine Emperor, Theodosius II, met Nestorius and was evidently much impressed. Later he named Nestorius as the Patriarch of Constantinople. Nestorius travelled the 647 miles to the north to take his new office in 428.  In the map that I show, the southernmost circle was the location of Antioch, corresponding to today’s city of Hatay in Turkey.

The rise of the Nestorian heresy, and its presence in Christianity’s eastward spread, may best be summarized as follows:

·        Antioch adhered to a slightly different theological view on the nature of Christ than did Rome and Constantinople. Alexandria held yet another view.
·         In his somewhat zealous actions to rid the church of heresies, Nestorius came in conflict with Rome as well as Alexandria. The clergy of Constantinople, furthermore, viewed Nestorius as an unwelcome intruder who suddenly had the top religious office in that city.
·         In that conflict Theodosius ultimately sided with Cyril of Alexandria. He deposed Nestorius in 431, stripped him of all his titles, and sent him back to Antioch.
·         Eastern Christianity, in Antioch, being under Sassanid protection, became separated from Western Christianity (which then still included Constantinople). It embraced the Nestorian and the Monophysite theologies (of which more below). Eastern Christianity spread to the East following the inroads created by the Sassanid political and trade relations developed with China and with India. The secular world paved the way you might say.

The theological battles all revolved about the nature of Christ, arising from the seemingly dual natures present in Christ as God and man at one and the same time. The earliest of these was Arianism. In that heresy Christ was thought to be God, but subordinate to God the Father. To give a radically simple view of these controversies—and to show what the battles turned around—I present the following table. It highlights four views of Jesus held by four major schools. Those who held them all debated about Christ’s person, substance (or essence), and nature:

Two in a Single
Two in Unity

Dyophysitism (literally “Two Natures”) was the view of the Nestorians. Monophysitism (“One Nature”) was the Alexandrian position. Miaphysitism (“Single Nature”) is the Eastern Orthodox position; it is indistinguishable from the next, the Chalcedonian view, except perhaps by wording, in that it asserts, despite the “singleness” of that nature, that that nature is both human and divine. Chalcedonianism (named after the Council of Chalcedon, 451) is the position of Western Christianity in which Christ unity is asserted at the level of essence or substance; hence it is also referred to as the Hypostatic Union; Christ has two natures (“physes”), but they are in total unity; that unity, however, is beyond human understanding.

These battles over words or concepts, which have (to the theologically blind) absolutely no bearing on fundamental faith and practice, illustrate clearly that early theologians might well have been fighting turf battles in the name of theology. There was and is no way really to settle these disputes in any genuine sense.

Much as theology rotated madly over a single word (or even the use of a letter), so also the Nestorian controversy arose over one  such word used to describe Mary, the mother of Jesus. That word was Theotokos, meaning God-bearer. Nestorius, in line with his own studies, preferred Christotokos, Christ-bearer, to avoid the possible scandal of viewing a human being giving birth to God. It was a spark that lit a fire in the vast confusions between faith and power that, alas, forever mark our dwelling place in this dimension.

Much as Arius essentially “lent his name” to a heresy, so also Nestorius may not have personally signed up to Nestorianism or Dyophysitism. But what he thought is not unambiguously clear. After his return to Antioch, he was exiled to Egypt and died there in the desert, to his last days certain of having been misunderstood.

Why didn’t Christianity entirely convert the Eastern cultures as it did the Western? Was it that it taught two distinct if barely separable heresies? Such might be the view of an orthodox zealot. Christianity spread its seeds to the entire world, except the still undiscovered Americas, but the soil was quite radically different in Asia. The culture of the west, in those days, was not quite as suited to those lands as it was in Western Europe where a great civilization had recently died.
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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A What!?

Herewith a cultural note. I was looking for what looked like a rather nice product, a Staedtler 5-nib Calligraphy Set—intended as a gift. The Web told me that Walmart had it, and so to Walmart I went to get it. Amazon had it too, but Amazon imposes a wait.

I confess I kind of doubted that Walmart would really have it. The nearest such store to us is a sad ghost of Walmarts in more aggressively prosperous regions. But I went anyway. As I marched along I came across two rather young Walmart ladies, best to call them girls: they seemed barely in their twenties. Not trusting that the word “calligraphy” would have much traction here, I asked: “I’m looking for some fountain pens.”

Both ladies gave me strange, puzzled looks. “Fountain pen? What’s that?” I swear to you their puzzlement was genuine. I said: “It’s a pen that you write with.” Just at that point another Walmart lady came out of an aisle; she, however, was in her middle forties. The girls turned to her. “He is looking for a fountain pen,” one of them said to her. “What is that?” The older lady fortunately answered them in exactly the same words I had used: “It’s a pen that you write with.”

Long story shortened. I bought the calligraphy set from Amazon after all. Walmart failed me as did Office Depot. And so did a more local stationary store. But I truly do wonder what images flashed up in the minds of those two young girls when they heard the phrase “fountain pen.” Some kind of fountain? Which also acts as a play-pen?

How do you write “I am a has been” if you don’t have an iPhone or your thumbs are sore?

Sunday, May 4, 2014


This post is what might be called the low down on the Greek prefix, in Latin format, usually referred to as cata-. The background was playing a game of MY WORD with Brigitte. We have devised, ages ago, sheets on which you can play words with up to 11 letters in length. Brigitte chose the word catachresis to challenge me—in the process rather flattering me, and flattering because she assumed that I knew the word. Well, I hadn’t heard it before, at least not consciously. Consequently I failed to get it. This word subsequently got us to wondering what that prefix, cata-, actually means in its many uses. Herewith a small tabulation of some of them, the majority derived from the Greek—and the two at the bottom having another origin:

Well, the most common meaning of cata- is “down,” as in “down to” and “down from.” A downward movement can be interpreted as from a desirable “height” to something less exalted and “low”; therefore it can also mean “against” and “wrong.” Wrong is used in catachresis—where the second half of the word means “usage” in Greek; the dictionary definition is “use of the wrong word for the [given] context.”  Now if we go down all the way, one might say, one has gone down “completely,” which is another use of cata- in language. A catalogue is a complete list and catalysis is the complete dissolution of one chemical in the presence of another.

In my list catalepsy is a seizure; people who have one tend to fall down; the Greek uses the word lambanein for the second part, which means “to take down”: catalepsy is that which “takes you down.” Cataract originally meant, and still means, a waterfall; today is can also mean the “break down” of the lenses of our eyes. Etymologically speaking, a catastrophe is just a down-turn in events; the word has a much worse connotation because we’re so attached to the status quo.

Cathode was a word coined in the nineteenth century to indicate the path of an electric current; it was supposed to “go downward”; hode in Greek means “way.” The last two on my list are also curious. A cathedral is the “seat” of a bishop, and when the bishop assumes his office, he has to sit down. That notion gave its name to what we would call an elaborately built church. Category, finally, originally meant a contentions harangue in the public forum, the agora. Therefore it was “an attack (derived from the meaning of “against”) in the Agora. But by Aristotle’s time, already, it had taken on the milder meaning of a subdivision in a system of classification.

The Online Etymological Dictionary, my own sole source of linguistic knowledge, tells me that catacomb is not “down in the tomb.” In that usage cata- is thought to mean “among,” thus “among the tombs.” I assume that this Latin usage was an extension of the Greek meaning of “down.” And last, the cata- in catamaram carries not even a whiff of Greek. It comes from the Tamil word kattu, meaning “tied.” Maram means “wood” or “tree.” Those sleek metal or plastic catamarans do not deserve their name…

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Two Natures

In an op-ed in the New York Times this morning Alan Lightman speaks of Nature. The article is “Our Lonely Home in Nature,” and its thematic is that “nature doesn’t care one whit about us.” Lightman’s context is natural disasters of recent memory: mudslides, tornadoes, and the like. Lightman is a physicist who teaches humanities at MIT. He is also the author of The Accidental Universe. He belongs to a kind of coven of modern thinkers who are hard atheists because they can’t reconcile the observations of science with an interventionist God. By intervention here we can think about miracles, say. Our “Home in Nature” is a lonely place because, as Lightman says, “Nature, in fact, is mindless.” His atheism is coupled with an aesthetic view of the cosmos, something that recalls Carl Sagan, another member of that coven, and his exultations over galaxies.

Is Nature really mindless? Here we encounter that curious Now-You-See-It-Now-You-Don’t that always arises when materialistic scientists engage in philosophizing. The philosophizing itself is obviously the activity of a mind. Yet according to the materialistic doctrine, mind arises as a consequence of the “accidental collocation of atoms” (per Bertrand Russell). That’s when “Now-You-See-It” applies. But mind considered as a radical power outside the reach of matter, even when it manifests inside the cosmos, that sort of mind is denied; then we have the “Now-You-Don’t.”

The truth is that there are two Natures. There is as radical a divide between “living” and “non-living” as there is between “mindful” and “mindless.” Living Nature quite observably is a tour de force in an environment that itself “doesn’t care one whit”—and can’t: it’s mindless. When we speak of Mother Nature, we speak of life, not of rocks or galaxies. And when such life has achieved a certain status, it does care—and it cares a lot.

So long as we adhere to the belief that matter is all there is, we cannot explain life and, therefore, cannot explain mind. In that situation Lightman’s Lament is true. But it may be premature. Science has thus far only described the living, always sticking to life’s tooling, which is material, ignoring its essence, unable to explain it. Such explanations are beyond the methods of science, but our minds continue to demand some answers. These will come after we’ve passed on—and to all of us, no matter our beliefs. Then we’ll also know why life, in this inhospitable environment, must have its own material tooling.

Science has succeeded because, abandoning natural philosophy, it has limited its subject to the easy part—which is, itself, monstrously extensive. The hard part is still there, daily experienced, but science cannot handle it.

Now regarding humanism, it comes in a rather extensive color-scheme. I’ve outlined that on this blog here.