Something About Those Ancient Greeks

The society in which we live, a liberal democracy, is the result not of events that happened all over the world – rather, it is the result of events that happened in just one country, ancient Greece. We are who we are not because of what happened in ancient China, Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt or India (essential as the histories of these places are to our knowledge of the world).

Despite the passage of millennia, we still live in the world invented by the ancient Greeks. And because of the influence and spread of western technology, the entire globe has now been impacted by these Greeks of long ago. There is a reason why we want all people to be free; why we think more democracy is a good thing; why we worry about the environment; why we have immense faith in our ability to come up with solutions no matter how great the problem; why we believe education to be crucial to building a good life; why we seek self-respect. And this reason is simply stated: we have inherited – not created – a particular habit of mind, a way of looking at the world.

We live within a set of values that constantly encourage us to depend on reason, to seek out moderation and distrust excess, to live a disciplined life, to demand responsibility in politics, to strive for clarity of thought and ideas, to respect everyone and everything, including nature and the environment, and most of all to cherish and promote freedom. This is our inheritance from the ancient Greeks. We need to study them in order to learn and relearn about our intellectual, esthetic and moral inheritance – so that we might meaningfully add to them so that they may continue in the vast project of building the goodness of our society. This is why we need to study the Greeks, because through them we come to study ourselves.

And what about the Romans? They were the people that allowed Greek learning to be made available to the world. The ancient Romans adopted the Greek habit of mind and through their empire, which stretched from the borders of Scotland to the borders of Iran, they passed on this inheritance to all the people that lived within these borders. Thus, in studying the Romans, we come to understand how very difficult it has been for ideas, which we may take for granted, to come down to us. Whereas the ancient Greeks created the world we live in, the ancient Romans facilitated it by giving universality to the Greek habit of mind. Thus, to study both these civilizations is to begin to fully understand our own.

Earliest History of Greece

Prehistoric human settlement in the Greek peninsula stretches back to the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. By the time of the Bronze Age, different types of pottery helps us to demarcate the various phases of material culture. For the sake of convenience, historians have used these various types of pottery to work out a chronology of Greek prehistory. And because Greece is not only the peninsular mainland, but also the various islands in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, the pottery is sorted out by different regions.

Thus, the Bronze Age in the mainland is classified as Helladic (from 1550 B.C. to 1000 B.C.). On the island of Crete, the Bronze Age is labeled Minoan (from 3000 B.C. to about 1450 B.C.). And on the various islands of the Aegean, the Bronze Age is referred to as Cycladic, where it begins around 3000 B.C. and lasts until about 2000 B.C., at which time the culture of the Cyclades is absorbed into the greater Minoan civilization.

The Minoans

The earliest expression of Bronze Age civilization in Europe is found on the island of Crete, where a brilliant culture flourished from about 2700 B.C. to around 1450 B.C. It was brought to light in 1900 by the English archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated a large complex at Knossos, which he called a “palace.” But the “palace” he found was different from what we might imagine. It was a warren of maze-like adjoining rooms, where people lived and worked, and where oil, wine and grain were stored in massive clay jars, some as high as six feet. It was because of the labyrinthine nature of the palace’s layout that Evans called the civilization that he discovered, “Minoan,” after the Greek myth of King Minos of Crete, who had built a labyrinth to hide the Minotaur, the half-man, half-bull offspring of his wife, Pasiphae, who had fallen in love, and coupled, with a white bull.

The many wall-paintings from the palace give indication that the cult of the bull was prevalent among the ancient Cretans – the best example being the ritual or sport of “bull-leaping,” in which young men and women grasped the horns of a charging bull and leaped over its back to land behind the animal. It is difficult to say whether this was done as sport, or perhaps even as a religious dance. We cannot know since we have no contemporary written explanation for it.

Evans also found thousands of clay tablets with writing on them. The writing was in two versions of the same script. The first version he labeled Linear A, and the second he called Linear B. The only problem was that he could read neither. It would not be until 1952 when Michael Ventris finally deciphered Linear B and found the many texts in this script to be the earliest form of the Greek language. When the rules of decipherment were applied to Linear A, however, it was found to be a curious language that was not Greek, nor was it a language that could be placed in any known family group. Perhaps as further work is done on Linear A, it might disclose more of its secrets. But for now, the Minoan world is mysterious to us, because all we have are its material remains.

However, the more intriguing question that arises from the evidence we have is – how did the earliest form of the Greek language get mixed with a non-Greek language in the palace at Knossos? This question points us northwards to the mainland of Greece, and to a city known as Mycenae.

The Mycenaean Age

The speakers of the earliest form of Greek were the Mycenaeans, who were given their name from the city they inhabited, namely, Mycenae, where the German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, in 1876, found a well-developed civilization, with a ruling warrior aristocracy who lived in fortified towns built on hilltops. Aside from Mycenae, the towns of Athens (a relatively unimportant place at this early time), Pylos, Tiryns, Iolkos and Orchomenus were also part of Mycenaean culture, which established itself around 1900 B.C. and endured until 1200 B.C.

Schliemann’s excavations revealed a circle of shaft-graves, in which the dead were buried standing up, and in which were found large quantities of weapons as well as gold objects, from funerary masks to goblets and jewelry. He also found evidence for the domesticated horse and the chariot – and, most important of all, there were found clay tablets with Linear B written on them, which would be deciphered as the earliest form of the Greek language. All these discoveries led to an important question – where did the Greeks come from because their language ultimately is not native to the land they came to inhabit.

If we examine the archaeological record of the time just before the Mycenaean age, we find massive destruction that lasted about a hundred years from 2200 B.C. to about 2100 B.C. And the material remains of the people that established themselves after the destruction were markedly different from those that lived in these same areas before. It is to this deep destruction that we can link the “coming of the Greeks,” a phrase much used by the historians of this era.

So, where did the Greeks come from?

The clues before us are two-fold: material and intellectual culture. The excavations at Mycenae yield several essential clues: chariot parts, horse tack, skeletal remains of horses, weapons and pottery; plus, there is also the fact that these people were speakers of early Greek, as demonstrated by the Linear B texts.

These clues points to one conclusion. The Mycenaeans came as invaders, likely from the north, and they destroyed what they found and took control and began to build their own fortified towns. And we know that they are invaders because of their language, which is a member of the Indo-European group of languages – and this tells us that these early Greeks came from elsewhere, since the origin of the Indo-European languages is in a place quite a bit distant from Greece. In the latter years of the third millennium, there were Indo-European invasions throughout Eurasia.

The origin of the Indo-Europeans is likely in the Pontic-Caspian steppe, what historians call the “Kurgan culture.” “Kurgan” refers to the grave mounds under which these early Indo-Europeans buried their dead. From this point of origin, the Indo-Europeans overran large parts of Europe and some parts of Asia. The languages they spoke were closely related and to this day comprise the largest family group in the world.

Thus, the indo-European languages consist of the ancient languages (and their descendents) of northern India (Vedic and Sanskrit) and Persia (Avestan and modern Persian), the Slavic languages, the Baltic languages (Lithuanian and Latvian), the Celtic and the Italic (Latin and its descendents, such as, French and Italian), the Germanic languages (such as, German and English), and of course Greek.

This affinity between languages extends further into intellectual culture, since there is a pronounced similarity, for example, between the myths of the various Indo-European peoples. The branch of Indo-Europeans that veered into Greece called themselves Achaeans, who spoke a very early form of Greek.

The Achaeans subdued the various non-Indo-European peoples that were living in Greece and set up suzerainty over them. The outcome of this process was what we call the Mycenaean civilization, which Schliemann excavated, as noted earlier. The Mycenaeans were known for their warrior culture, in which the chariot and the horse were much valued. By 1600 B.C. they had established a thriving culture, attested by the rich finds in the shaft-graves of Mycenae.

Around 1450 B.C. these Mycenaeans struck southward and conquered Crete and destroyed the Minoan civilization. But they were not above learning civilized ways from the people they had conquered – for it was soon after they had conquered Crete that the Mycenaeans adopted the art of writing invented by the Minoans, but they had adapt it to their own language, since the alphabet was not really useful for an Indo-European language which had many consonantal clusters, whereas the alphabet of the Minoans (Linear A) was syllablic (each letter represented a consonant and a vowel together).

It is for this reason that Sir Arthur Evans found texts written in both Linear A and Linear B at Knossos, since the Mycenaeans assumed control of this palace structure after their take-over of Crete; and in time they came to use the Linear alphabet.

The Bronze Age Collapse

The rule of the Mycenaeans in Greece and in Crete was fated. It was destroyed during a catastrophic period in Eurasian history known as “the Bronze Age Collapse,” during which a total of forty-seven important cities were attacked, their inhabitants either killed or enslaved, and the places burned to the ground. The swath of burned down cities is large and covers Syria, the Levant, Anatolia, Cyprus, Crete and Greece. From 1200 B.C. to about 1150 B.C., there were destructive raids by newer groups of Indo-European peoples, who had developed an innovative method of warfare, which gave them a greater advantage over the armies that these doomed cities could muster.

We have to keep in mind that the first Indo-European invasions, which saw the establishment of the Mycenaeans in Greece and Crete, were the result of the chariot and the composite bow.

The invasions which put an end to the Bronze Age were also successful because of a new type of warfare – the use of infantry armed with a long lance and a broad sword. The metal for these weapons was iron. Bronze weapons were no match for these iron lances and swords, and the chariots became useless, too, since the foot-soldiers could easily disable a charioteer with their long lances by spearing the warriors that rode inside. The Bronze Age was violently brought to an end by iron weapons.

Thus, the Iron Age begins with an enormous catastrophe – a total collapse of civilization. Once the large cities and palaces were destroyed, they were replaced by small communities of a few individuals; and these were often located not in the plains, but high in the uplands.

The Iron Age is also known as the Ancient Dark Age, because civilization, or city life, disappeared. The group of Indo-Europeans, who invaded Greece in the twelfth century B.C. and put an end to the Mycenaeans, are known as the Dorians; their name likely derives from the early Greek word, doru, which was the long wooden lance that they carried. It is from the various dialects of these new invaders that the Greek language developed.

The Ancient Dark Age

The invading people destroyed civilization and did not value living in palaces or large cities. Instead, they chose to live in smaller communities that had fewer luxuries and fineries which we usually associate with civilization. There is also evidence of depopulation since the settlements that replace the burned cities and palaces tend to be small and few. Pottery is no longer finely and elaborately decorated but has simple geometric patterns. The Dark Age lasted from 1200 B.C. to 800 B.C. and can be summarized as a period of petty tribalism.

However, we know a lot about this period because of two significant literary works that describe the people involved in these invasions. They are the two poems by the legendary poet Homer, namely, The Iliad and The Odyssey. In fact, the story of the siege of Troy may be a memory of the Bronze Collapse.

It is with Homer that we enter into recorded Greek history, known as the Archaic period.

The Archaic Period

From 800 B.C. to 480 B.C., Greece underwent revolutionary changes and began to emerge from its tribal era. This period saw the growth of cities once more, which was fueled by an increase in population and the expansion of commercial trade. The idea of people being ruled by kings vanished and was replaced by a new form of government, the city-state, in which people sought not to be warrior-heroes, but good citizens. As a result, there was a focus on refining city life, which led to great achievements in architecture, sculpture, art, commercial relations and trade, politics, and intellectual and cultural life.

Because of a greater population, colonies were established outside of Greece: in Sicily, southern Italy, eastern parts of Spain, along the southern coastline of France, at Cyrenaica in North Africa, in the Hellespont, and along the Black Sea. All this was possible because of the growth of technological knowledge, especially in the areas of shipbuilding and seafaring, as well as developments of a new form of government, the polis, or the city-state, which came about as a result of synoecism, or the gathering of various villages into single political entities or units.

It was because of advances in the archaic period that Greek city-states prepared themselves for the maturity and perfection that they would achieve in the fifth century B.C. And the most important of these cities was Athens, whose citizens radically and permanently changed the world around them – so much so that the ideas implemented by these men and the structures established by them are the very ones in which we still live. Civilization would never really look back, because of what was achieved in Athens in the fifth century B.C.

C.B. Forde lives, thinks, dreams in a rural setting.


The featured image shows, “Dance in ancient Greece,” by Johan Raphael Smith ca. 19th century.

Populism Versus Trumpism – The Way Forward

One of the greatest ironies, or perhaps tragedies, of history is that whenever a people seek freedom, they end up forging their own chains. For populists, one such chain is Trumpism. Not the man, of course, who has been made into a caricatured strongman syllogism by the media – but the catch-all phrase itself, which is used to demonize, belittle and humiliate all those whom the elite do not like, those who are the wrong kind of people, decried as being unfit for “modern society.” Labels, as we all know, are very helpful when it comes to categorizing people, especially the “undesirable,” who must either be retrofitted or silenced, lest they besmirch the pristine majesty of “progress.” And this process of refurbishing humanity is then presented as the highest form of morality. You see, the elite must always be better than us.

I had hurriedly spoken of all this in my previous article, which the Postil was so very kind to actually publish, and I must also here thank the many, many kind souls that responded to what I wrote, both positive and a few negative as well. I had expected simply to be ignored! And many wanted me to expand further on my brief remarks about heroism, remarks that I had made within the context of populism. What follows, then, is about heroism of the people – and here I must acknowledge Beethoven who set the precedence, when he wrote the Eroica, his Third Symphony.

But first there is need for clarity. What does “Trumpism” actually mean? First, it is nothing more than a convenient way to express condemnation or hatred for anything to do with Trump – because he is the Boogeyman of anyone deemed “cultured,” “learned,” “sophisticated,” “refined,” and all those moral things that the elite seek to be but are not. Second, and more importantly, Trumpism is the grand fable of evil itself, hence the four years of endless hysteria (an apt term for a hyper-feminized world). Thus, Trumpism means racism, provincialism, idiocy, vulgarity, and so forth – but it has also wrongly come to mean populism and nationalism.

Of course, “Trumpism” is a term not defined by Trump himself; rather, it is a term created to define him. It is the Wunderwaffe in the hands of those who hate him. Nothing will ever change this narrative. That is his legacy. And in it has been swept up into populism, so that Trumpism is also defined as “populism.”

Thus, the immediate challenge is to untangle populism from Trumpism, because the one has nothing to do with the other. Certainly, Trump has mentioned, “the movement,” “our movement,” or even “the movement we’ve built.” But he has never really defined what he means by “the movement.” Perhaps, he has his own version of “Trumpism,” one no doubt tied up with wanting to see America “great again,” but only under his leadership. Fair enough. But such a “movement” is not populist, because Trump is not a populist, even though he often uses populist rhetoric (for political gain). He is a neoliberal who wishes to do what all neoliberals do – manage from the top down.

For those of us who actually are populists, the real “movement” has nothing whatsoever to do with Trumpism, and is, in fact, a very old one. This means that emotional attachment aside, populism must break clean from Trumpism, no matter how alluring the siren-song of the “Office of the Former President” and Trumpian “think tanks.” Why? Very simply because populism fails whenever it is tried up with the fortunes or ambitions of one man. Populism must remain with the people – it must remain organic, from the ground up.

So, let us get rid of the notion that somehow Trump invented populism and that populism “belongs” to him, as his “movement.” Populists supported him because he said he would further their cause. That never happened, of course. To highlight the necessary distinction between Trumpism and populism, let me quote extensively from an article by William A. Peffer, the Kansas Populist (People’s Party) Senator. The article dates from 1898.

First, Peffer speaks of why populism is necessary:

“The suspension of specie payments forced the government to adopt a new monetary policy, and the ignorance and prejudices of lawmakers afforded bankers a tempting opportunity, of which they promptly availed themselves, to use the public credit for purposes of speculation. Our currency was converted into coin interest-paying bonds, the word ” coin” was construed to mean gold, and the minting of silver dollars was discontinued. The general level of prices fell to the cost line or below it, and the people were paying seven to ten per cent, annual interest on an enormous private debt. Personal property in towns and cities was rapidly passing beyond the view of the tax gatherer. Agriculture was prostrate. Farmers were at the mercy of speculators; the earth had come under the dominion of land lords; forests and mines were owned by syndicates; railway companies were in combination; wealth and social influence had usurped power, and the seat of government was transferred to Wail Street.”

Sound familiar? The syndicates of our age are the tech giants, the crony capitalists, the supranational agencies. Peffer continues…

“These abuses were fruits of our legislation. Congress had forgotten the people and turned their business over to the money changers. Both of the great political parties then active were wedded to these vicious policies which were despoiling the farmers and impoverishing the working classes generally… a new party was needed… And hence it was that the People’s party was born. It came into being that government by the people might not perish from the earth. It planted itself on the broad ground of equality of human rights. It believed the earth is the people’s heritage and that wealth belongs to him who creates it; that the work of distributing the products and profits of labor ought to be performed by public agencies; that money should be provided by the government and distributed through government instrumentalities so that borrowers might secure its use at an annual charge not exceeding two per cent., which is equal to two-thirds of the net average savings of the whole people.”

Peffer then describes where populism belongs on the political spectrum…

“[The People’s Party’s]… principles were essentially different from those of the other great parties on every fundamental proposition. Republicans and Democrats were given to old ideas in politics and law. Formed for altogether different purposes, they did not take kindly to any of the proposed reforms that would change established policies… in case of resistance [their]… right may be enforced by the use of military power, if need be.”

And, then, Peffer gives the definition of what populism is all about…

“Populists… believe that every child has exactly equal rights with those persons who were here when he came; that he is entitled to a place to live, and that, equally with his fellow-men, he is entitled to the use of natural resources of subsistence, including a parcel of vacant land where he may earn a livelihood. Populists believe that the interests of all the people are superior to the interests of a few of them or of one, and that no man or company of men should ever be permitted to monopolize land or franchises to the exclusion of the common rights of all the people or to the detriment of society. They believe that what a man honestly earns is his, and that the workman and his employer ought to have fair play and an equal showing in all disputes about wages. They believe that railways and canals, like the lakes and navigable rivers, ought to belong to the people. They believe that money, like the highway, is made to serve a public use; that dollars, like ships, are instruments of commerce, and that citizens ought not to be subjected to inconvenience or loss from a scarcity of money any more than they should be hindered in their work or their business by reason of a shortage in the supply of wagons, cars or boats. They believe that the people themselves, acting for themselves through their own agencies, should supply all the money required for the prompt and easy transaction of business; that in addition to silver and gold coin, government paper, and only that, ought to be issued and used, that it should be full legal tender and that there should be no discrimination in favor of or against anything which is allowed to circulate as money… It will be seen that every proposition in this code is intended to be in the interest of the great body of the people and in opposition to class distinctions.”

Lastly, Peffer looks beyond 1898:

“Conditions will not improve under the present regime. Times will get no better. Stringency and panic will be here on time again and again as of old, for neither Republicans nor Democrats offer a preventive. They do not seem to know what ails the country and the world. High tariff is but heavy taxation, and free silver alone will not give work to the idle nor bread to the poor. The case needs heroic treatment, just such as the People’s party proposed.”

All we have to do is replace “free silver with “universal income,” and the populist message is no different.

This little exercise is simply meant to show that Trump does not own populism – and when he wore its mantle, he did not value it, and let it drag in the swamp of political corruption. Perhaps he could never distinguish populism from “popularism.”

But, along with Trumpism, there is another chain that binds populism- that of the left-right paradigm which is hawked by the hucksters of the elite to forever sow dissension among the people. It is liberal against conservative, communist against capitalist, left against the right… and so goes the cant. But notice that in the “grand struggle” between Antifa and the Patriots – Jeff Bezos keeps making more and more money. We hate – they profit.

Another populist, Huey Long, had this to say about all this in the 1930s: “God told you what the trouble was. The philosophers told you what the trouble was; and when you have a country where one man owns more than 100,000 people, or a million people, and when you have a country where there are four men, as in America, that have got more control over things than all the 120 million people together, you know what the trouble is.”

Thus, the great “themes” of populism have remained unchanged over the past 120-plus years since Peffer put pen to paper. What he spoke of is what we still speak of, namely:

  • Nations are people; nations are not political systems
  • The people are holders of true power
  • The socio-economic clamp of the elite over the people must be loosened
  • The people must stop tolerating their slavery

A word here also needs to be said about “nationalism,” a term that is also much-maligned, as it is wrongly associated with ”Nazism” (but that is a discussion for another time). Nationalism means tending the welfare of the nation. Why is that wrong? And a nation is the collective of the people who consent to tend the territory they inhabit. That link with Nazism was fabricated by academics after Word War Two. So, should we let academics define and control how we are to live?

But when the elite deploy phrases like “Trumpism,” “nationalism,” “populism” they are effectively stripping people not only from the human community but from the territory of the nation itself. This disenfranchisement means that the academically imagined place that is “America” (the land of endless progress) has no room for anyone classified as a follower of Trumpism, because such a person has no legitimacy in public space. But this argument is also the Achilles’ heel of the elite (some may call it their arrogance) – for whenever people are denied legitimacy that is precisely the strength of populism, which solely exists to right this wrong. Nations need righteous anger – and lots of it.

Now, here is where heroism comes in. How is populism to be divested from Trumpism? The latter has no future because it is tied up with one individual; the former has a strong future because it is the very life of the people. Some might, at this point, object that I am making assumptions about a monolithic entity that I call “the people.” So, let me clarify.

The world as we now know it is vertical – there are those at the top, and those that live “below the salt,” as it were. It is no longer about management of the political arena, with two teams that call themselves the “left” and the “right,” and may the best man win. Rather, as Peffer observed long ago, “people are superior to the interests of a few.” This is why I say that the distinction between the left and the right is no longer valid, let alone relevant – for the elite (those at the top) treat both the left and the right the same way, even though it may not seem like it. Thus, for example, the massive destitution that now lies before us, because of the Covid lockdowns, which the elite very effectively manage (“for our own good”), makes no distinction between the left and the right. Joblessness and despair are not party players. Left or right, we are all poorer and the more hemmed in by relentless social engineering, that is, “the Great Reset.” Left or right, our humanity is dissipating because we now prefer to deny each other’s humanity – and we call that “morality.”

And once again a few things to consider:

  • Do not think voting will make you free. It cannot. It only empowers those perpetually entrenched in the system.
  • Do not tie your hopes and expectations to the political fortunes of one man, or even one party.
  • Do not believe anyone who tells you that change can happen from the top down. That is always a lie.
  • Do not trust the government. It has no interest in you. (Now with technology and voting machines, it does not even need your vote).

Society is all about consent. When a citizenry finally learns to withhold it from the elite – and also abandons all their institutions created to enslave us – only then will the people break free. But withholding consent requires high heroism, because often it means fighting all alone, without recognition, without praise.

If you are ready to fight many Goliaths, with whatever you have right now, no matter how meager your strength or ability, without reward, you are a populist. You are the real hero. Do not let the media label you. Be fearless, for the future will never belong to Goliath.

C.B. Forde lives in a rural area, where he still practices what he preaches.

The featured image shows, “The Village Dabce,” by Pieter Breughal the Elder.

January 6th: Requiem, Heroism And Renewal

To those engaged in the decades-old fight against globalism, what occurred in Washington, DC, on January 6th 2021, comes as no surprise. Defeat and tragedy are expectations when the individual must, with unending heroism, contend with institutional power – which in its vastness is both disconcerting and frightening.

But then, no one ever said that heroism was easy. Being heroic means being very lonely, for just when you think you are surrounded by supporters, you find that you’re all alone and must fight alone. Being heroic means never quitting, that you reach deep down inside yourself to tap into strength with which to overcome insurmountable odds, because there is no one to help you. Being heroic means starting all over again when everything falls apart because there are no other options. All this is clearly summed up by Winston Churchill’s observation: “Success is a series of failures.”

What happened on January 6th was certainly heroic – the people asserting their will on those that seek to rule over us. However, as often happens, the people were also betrayed by those who acted as their leaders. When push came to shove, said leaders were well-ensconced in their various safe-places.

But first the defeat and the tragedy. I know several people who went to Washington. Their expectation was that the man whom they had implicitly trusted was gathering them in the capital because he had a trump card up his sleeve, which he would at last reveal – and that he would at long last bring down the hammer to finally right some of the wrongs. In other words, people who came in their hundreds of thousands to Washington – came seeking justice. It was not a show of force, but a show of unity against the tightening vise-grips of tyranny.

Instead, what awaited the people was grim tragedy. Sure, there were fiery speeches, with the right phrases shouted to elicit cheers. Demands were made from those present (“You’ll never take back our country with weakness – you have to be strong!”). Of course, no one explained to the crowd why it had been gathered, let alone what was expected from it, and what being “strong” meant.

But a lot of steam was let-off. And that was it. And that was the only point of the entire exercise. There was no card up any sleeve. Heck, there wasn’t even a sleeve. Once the speechifying was done, the leaders expected everyone to just go home. The cast of thousands was no longer needed; it had served its purpose of being useful props in the grand theater of bravura and aggrandization. The same people I know, who attended, afterwards told me – they felt used.

It was more of the usual. Politicians who talk the talk, but are MIA when it comes to doing something. It’s one thing to speechify. It’s quite another to make what you said in the speech reality. There is an old Latin saying, acta non verba (deeds not words). But then who knows Latin any more… Better to spout than to believe.

Every crowd gathers for a reason – and when that reason is missing, there is confusion, followed by frustration and then anger. That is what happened on January 6th, for there was no real purpose to the huge gathering. It was all just to “demonstrate” some vague show of “strength” to an elusive foe. At best, it was a “feel-good” moment. At worst, it was a grand betrayal of the people.

But the dynamics of what occurred next is very telling. We have all seen the videos of people storming the Capitol and being met with police who did not hesitate to use pepper spray, flashbangs, clubs, and a bullet in one instance. Of course, throughout the summer when BLM and Antifa rioted and burned down cities and businesses, the police shot no one – because the rioters were the right type of human beings. In fact, the police was nowhere to be see and so cities burned and some 30 to 40 people died.

January 6th had to be different, because the wrong crowd had gathered. The police were prepared and ready to use all force necessary – and so four people were killed. In the rapidly shifting dynamic of the headless crowd, the vacuum of being leaderless is quickly filled by haphazard action. The violence only happened because those that had organized the rally had no interest in actually leading it – and so people did what seemed sensible – and this led to the tragedy.

When people got inside the House, they milled about in front of the Chamber, inside which police and security personnel stood behind barricaded doors, guns drawn and aimed at the crowd (who were unarmed).

Suddenly, a solitary shot was heard. A woman, with a Trump flag draped around her, crumbled to the floor. She had been shot in the neck. Here is a video, which is vey graphic (discretion is advised). She likely died on the spot, murdered by a security man inside the chamber who can be seen quickly lunging forward and firing. Why did he feel it necessary to use lethal force? Was he commanded to do so? Why did he chose this woman to fire at? She was targeted, because he only fired the one shot and then vanished. Who knows if the truth will ever emerge? Regardless, the video evidence of the crime is very clear.

The victim’s name was Ashli Babbit, a married, 14-year US Air Force veteran, who had completed four tours of duty. The poignancy is replete – here was a woman who fought for her country and who was then murdered in the halls of her Congress. There were no regrets, however – because she was the wrong type of human. And, of course, the police shot nobody, and no guns were drawn, when the right type of humans stormed the Capitol. “Justice” is always swift when meted out to the wrong kinds of humans.

It is alleged that the other three were killed as a result of police action. But that remains to be seen. A policeman also died; it is still unclear as to how.

If anything good can come out of all this misery, it’s this – there can be no alliance between the system of politics that currently exists in all Western democracies and populism. Why? Because the ideology that fuels the system is progressivism (which is always wrongly labeled as something other than what it really is – why that is an interesting question). And progressivism is innately anti-human, for it must continually overcome those that are deemed regressive. People always get in the way of progress, and so they must be steamrolled.

This is why there are now growing calls to “cleanse” America of “Trump supporters,” who have long been labeled as regressive. This is not rhetoric. This is the very root of progressivism. Those that stand in the way of progress, must be overcome or destroyed. In this ideology, humans come in two types – those that are either for or against progress. That is the logic behind violence against Trump supporters – first dehumanize, then destroy. This is now understood as “protecting democracy.”

Society is a great big petri dish in which all kinds of social engineering must forever be implemented in order to demonstrate that progress is indeed being made. This is why the propaganda for “progress” is so relentless.

It’s a simple dynamic really – but a dynamic that is also very poorly understood, and therefore very difficult to fight, let alone defeat. In fact, most people believe in progress and cannot imagine life without it. Things always must get better, and we must use politics to that end. This is also the tragic mistake made by most populists. They do not understand that progressivism is the true enemy of populism – not “Marxism,” “communism,” or “socialism” (whatever these terms still mean). It comes as no surprise, therefore, that populists are forever fighting chimeras.

So, what is the way forward now? It is pointless describing what is wrong, while never saying what to actually do about it. Most people are lost in the playhouse of such description – it keeps everyone busy, while the world is controlled by others. Has that not been the grand theme since 2016 – endless griping about how corrupt everything is, “the swamp,” with no one stepping up to the plate and actually doing something about it? The fact is you cannot use the system to destroy the system. The sooner populists realize that – the further ahead they will be.

To make sure that the deaths of the four MAGA-martyrs are not in vain, this is what populists must do, or start to do. This isn’t easy. Nothing is ever easy – the problem is so vast that populist victories must be small, and they must be incremental.

Here is what I suggest…

Stop complaining. Yes, we all know how bad things are. No one needs more descriptions of how things are falling apart. Of course, it is always easier to criticize than to build. But make an effort to offer hope and encouragement. Don’t traffic in despair. There is a great hunger for vision. True leadership is not about uttering the right slogans and talking point. True leadership is about teaching how to build. In fact, despair is the real “swamp” that is drowning populism.

Stop feeding the beast. Politics is irreparably broken and endlessly corrupt. It cannot be fixed by electing “better” candidates. Instead, learn to create micro-communities. Find ways to grow your own food, create your own electricity, set up your own schools. Learn to control your own lives, rather than relying on the government. Government-control is always tyranny. Build shadow economies so you can stop feeding the system with your taxes, your effort, your ideas and your labor.

Stop being compliant. The system does not work for your benefit. It exists to dominate you. Find ways, no matter how small, to resist. Learn to mark your independence by becoming truly ungovernable. The easiest way is to stop funding political parties with your money. And for Heaven’s sake – do not vote for any of their candidates. Why support the elite who have no interest in you? Unite against their governments, their systems. If you must be political then pool your talents and start a populist party and try to win local elections with your candidates. This is the long-march. Do not look for instant solutions – because there are none.

Stop supporting crony capitalism. Learn to be entrepreneurial. Understand the function and purpose of big money, and find ways and means to subvert it. The easiest way, for example, is to stop supporting mega-corporations – they are all tyrannical. This may sound like complete heresy, but cancel all your social media accounts. Stop shopping at big-box stores. You’ll be the happier for doing so. Do not let large companies define the meaning of your life.

On a positive note, get in the habit of looking for beauty, say, in music, in painting, in gardening, in woodworking. Add to the beauty of the world – no matter how small. Do not let mega-corporations hijack your time.

If, as many are predicting, January 6th is the start of a revolution – make sure it’s the right one. Do not get sucked into the rhetoric of others, who will use you for their ends.

Also, make sure you understand that true revolutions are not political; they are moral and spiritual. Good politics can only be the result of good morals. Looking for good politics first is a fool’s errand. There must be something unchanging and constant to guide human destiny. That is true populism, which clearly understands that human worth can never be defined by political agency.

It’s a tough slog ahead. We will need a lot of populism to get through it. Do not lose your way. Do not lose hope. Build your own populism. That is true liberty. That is true heroism.

C.B. Forde, a former academic, lives in a rural location, where he practices what he preaches.

The image shows, “Der Sämann” (“The Sower”) by Albin Egger-Lienz, painted in 1903.

Bertrand Russell: Preliminary Remarks

Bertrand Arthur William Russell was born on May 18, 1872 into a privileged family. His grandfather was Lord John Russell, who was the liberal Prime Minister of Great Britain and the first Earl Russell. Young Bertrand’s early life was traumatic. His mother died when he was two years old and he lost his father before the age of four.

He was then sent to live with his grandparents, Lord and Lady John Russell, but by the time he was six years old, his grandfather also died. Thereafter, his grandmother, who was a strict authoritarian and a very religious woman, raised him.

These early years were filled with prohibitions and rules, and his earliest desires were to free himself from such constraints. His lifelong denial of religion no doubt stems from this early experience. His initial education was at home, which was customary for children of his social class, and later he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he achieved first-class honors in mathematics and philosophy.

He graduated in 1894, and briefly took the position of attaché at the British Embassy in Paris. But he was soon back in England and became a fellow of Trinity College in 1895, just after his first marriage to Alys Pearsall Smith. A year later, in 1896, he published his first book, entitled German Social Democracy, which he wrote after a visit to Berlin.

Russell was interested in all aspects of the human condition, as is apparent from his wide-ranging contributions, and when the First World War broke out, he found himself voicing increasingly controversial political views. He became an active pacifist, which resulted in his dismissal from Trinity College in 1916, and two years later, his views led him even to prison. But he put his imprisonment to good use and wrote the Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, which was published in 1919.

Since he had no longer had a teaching job, he began to make his living by giving lectures and by writing. His controversial views soon made him famous. In 1919, he visited the newly formed Soviet Union, where he met many of the famous personalities of the Russian Revolution, which he initially supported.

But the visit soured his view of the Socialist movement in Russia and he wrote a scathing attack that very year, entitled Theory and Practice of Bolshevism. By 1921, he had married his second wife, Dora Black, and began to be interested in education. With Dora he created and ran a progressive school and wrote On Education (1926) and a few later, Education and the Social Order (1932).

In 1931, he became the 3rd Earl of Russell, and five years later got a divorce and married his third wife, Patricia Spence in 1936. By this time, he was extremely interested in morality and wrote about the subject in his controversial book Marriage and Morals (1932).

He had moved to New York to teach at City College, but he was dismissed from this position because of his views on sexuality (he advocated a version of free love, where sex was not bound up with questions of morality). When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, Russell began to question his own pacifism and by 1939 had firmly rejected it, and campaigned hard for the overthrow of Nazism right to the end of the Second World War.

By 1944, he was back in England from the United States, and his teaching position at Trinity College was restored to him, and was granted the Order of Merit. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950. During this time, he wrote several important books, such as, An Enquiry into Meaning and Truth (1940), Human Knowledge: Its Scopes and Limits (1948).

His best-known work from this time is History of Western Philosophy (1945). As well, he continued writing controversial pieces on social, moral and religious issues. Most of these were collected and published in 1957 as Why I Am Not A Christian.

From 1949 onwards, he was actively involved in advocating nuclear disarmament. In 1961, along with his fourth and final wife, Edith Finch, he was again put into prison for inciting civil disobedience to oppose nuclear warfare. He spent his final years in North Wales, actively writing to the very last. He died on February 2, 1970.

His range of interests took in the various spheres of human endeavor and thought, for not only was he engaged with mathematics, philosophy, science, logic and the theory of meaning, but he was deeply interested in political activism, feminism, education, nuclear disarmament, and he was a ceaseless opponent of communism. His ideas have greatly influenced the world we live in.

So pervasive is his influence that contemporary culture has seamlessly subsumed the ideas he introduced so that we no longer recognize his impact.

For example, his ideas have forever changed, on a fundamental level, the way philosophy is done, the way logic is dealt with, the way mathematics and science are understood, the view we hold of morality, marriage, the nuclear family, and even the various attempts to stop the spread of nuclear arms – all these concepts owe their beginnings to Russell.

At the very heart of Russell’s thought lies the concept, first elucidated in The Principles of Mathematics, that analysis can lead to truth. By analysis he means the breaking up of a complex expression or thought in order to get at its simpler components, which in turn will reveal the meaning or truth.

Thus, the method involves moving from the larger to the more specific, from the macro to the micro. Russell arrived at this process by suggesting that mathematics and natural languages derived from logic. He extended his approach and stated that the structure of logic could be a useful tool in helping us understand the human experience, which in turn would lead to the working out of disputes.

Thus, in A History of Western Philosophy he shows how the structure of logic is consistent with the way the world works, namely that reality itself is paralleled in logic.

Therefore, this blending of logic and the need to arrive at the truth of reality highlights the second important concern for Russell, namely, metaphysics. In fact, both logic and metaphysics unite and give philosophy its unique approach to uncover truth, which for Russell leads to the understanding of the universe and us. It is this concept that he explores fully in Our Knowledge of the External World.

Although logic is essential to Russell’s philosophy, it is not synonymous with it. Rather, philosophy is to be seen as a larger construct, which certainly begins with logic, but ends with mysticism. It is certainly true that Russell denied the authority of organized religion all his life and preferred to live a life outside prescribed dogmas.

Nevertheless, he recognized the essential mystery that surrounds life, both in its particular representation in the life of humankind and in the larger sphere, namely, in the life of the universe. It is precisely this mysticism that disallowed him an ultimate denial of God existence, and therefore Russell never called himself an atheist; rather he labeled himself an avowed agnostic, or someone who does not know, and cannot know, whether God exists or not.

Thus, in philosophy he found a quest far greater than that embodied by religion or science, and he described this process in Mysticism and Logic.

 

The photo shows, “New York Movie,” By Edward Hopper, painted in 1939.

Thomas More In His Utopia

Thomas More’s Utopia is a work that is a complex critique of sixteenth-century northern European society. This critique is accomplished by way of postulating various ideal conditions that exist on an imaginary island called Utopia, and then these conditions are contrasted with the conditions prevalent in the Europe of More’s day.

One of these ideal concepts that Utopia gives us is the description of how perfection has been achieved, namely, through the eradication of pride – the root of all evil in humankind.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Renaissance was coming into its own in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and England (although it was waning in Italy), by way of humanist thinkers.

These northern humanists are sometimes called, “Christian humanists” in that they believed that it was a human being’s privilege to seek happiness in this life, and that this true happiness was based on reason; however this happiness was only truly attained by divine grace.

The northern Renaissance particularly focused on a program of practical reform in a wide range of areas, including religion, education, and government. But there was an inherent tension in this position, since often these humanist reformers were also members of the political establishment – in brief, most were courtiers.

The key ideology of the Renaissance was a conscious turning away from scholasticism and the espousal of particular models. But this turn to the Classics was not a rejection of Christianity; rather it was an attempt to find material with which to reinterpret the essential message of Christianity – the destruction of pride that leads to estrangement of man from God and man from man.

In fact, for the Christian humanists, pride was the root of all evil; it was the grand paradigm wherein the Fall of Man and his salvation could be explained.

Thus rhetoric (the study of communication and persuasion) was associated with eloquence – and to a humanist, eloquence presupposed a nobility in the communication of one’s ideas as well as wisdom, as eloquence was the outward sign of inner wisdom. Beauty was derived from the Classics and wisdom acquired from Christianity.

Therefore, for the humanists, reason was innate in man’s soul, and through reason man could free himself from the grosser bonds of pride and become a creature not far below God himself.

Of course, the program of reform was greatly enhanced by the availability of the printing press. Thus, Desiderius Erasmus wrote continually for the printing press, and the humanists were generally able to promulgate their ideas (and propaganda) more widely than had been previously possible. They also utilized Latin, which served as an international language of Europe. It is within this context of Renaissance humanism that More’s Utopia needs to be read.

The important theme within this context is the use of pride both as an example of what is to be avoided in order to arrive at the perfected state, and as a tool to critique the idea of society itself, which is built upon the largely evil manifestations of pride. More attempts to put his humanist vision within the parameters of practical application, by way of social critique.

In Utopia three characters converse: Thomas More appears as a fictionalized version of himself; Raphael Hythlodaeus is the fictional traveler to exotic worlds; and Peter Giles, More’s young friend from Antwerp, throws in an occasional word or two. The premise of the work seeks to dispense with the entire order based on private property, which is an extension of greed and rooted in civic pride.

More also takes the liberty to suppose a commonwealth based on the pessimism that there is a real need for secular government, which keeps fallen mankind from hurtling into the vortex of perpetual violence.

Of course, the prime source of violence among mankind is pride: sinful human beings have an insatiable desire for things, and this desire translates into pride when those that have more look down upon those who have less, social pride.

Thus we have in Utopia a play on how life might develop in a state that tries to balance human depravity of pride and a communal system that aims to check the destructive individualism of corrupt human nature.

Raphael entertains us by bringing our experience in the ordinary world up against an ideal that we cannot really reach, but one that has about it a certain plausibility. Utopia is a mirror held up to nature, and we see ourselves reflected in it.

The key question that Utopia asks concerns the relationship between our possessions and our souls. Are the conspicuous illusions of wealth (pride) a type of injustice? They are, according to Utopia: “In fact, when I consider any social system that prevails in the modern world, I can’t, so help me God, see it as anything but a conspiracy of the rich to advance their own interests under the pretext of organizing society.”

If pride is measured by a sterile metal like gold, are the people who wear chains of gold not prisoners of their pride? And is it possible, in a zero sum world, where one person’s gain is another person’s loss, that the people who sport such finery are not in fact beggaring others? Thus the root of man’s injustice to man is pride, a conspiracy of those who seek to further their own egos.

If we measure worth by possession, are we not driven by a peculiar and implacable logic to put people to death for theft? More’s work raises this very fundamental question in regard to pride: what is it about possession that distorts vision and makes one person feel better than another?

The six-hour working day in Utopia also represents a perpetual check on an acquisitive society to turn human beings into beasts of burden to be worked as if they had no claim over themselves. For life is an end in and of itself, and not merely an instrument to be used for someone else’s gain.

Without pride, the force of such an imperative to use other people’s lives for personal gain is completely blunted. Thus for More, the root of human depravity is pride, and by eliminating private property, the root of civic and social pride is vanquished.

However, it is important to keep in mind that Utopia, from the beginning is an artificial construct. Some 1760 years earlier, Utopus had dug a channel to separate Utopia from the corrupting lands nearby. As the wise lawgiver, he imposed laws on people who could not or would not create those laws themselves.

But Utopia is afloat in world that is not Utopia: the fear of contamination is very much prevalent. Thus even if civic and social pride within is eliminated, it can still come from without.

This is why the Utopians give great weight to military matters, for a virtuous nation unarmed is quickly swallowed by the voraciousness of the outsider. Thus, there are massive walls around their towns on their island.

Since pride of possession has been vanquished, no locks bar Utopian doors, which open at a touch. The only reason Utopians can imagine the need for privacy is if they had pride: to guard what other do not have. Therefore, conformity is the rule of every house: “When you’ve seen one of them, you’ve seen them all.”

Raphael believes societies other than Utopia are merely conspiracies of the rich. These societies are realms of greed and pride. And pride causes men to measure their welfare not by their well-being, but by having things that other lack, which is irrational and unchristian. Only in Utopia has pride and all its attendant vices been eviscerated from society.

It is because of this evisceration that Utopian polity rests upon common ownership. Through this idea, More could have it both ways: he could explore the implications of a communal way of living without necessarily proposing it, however much he may have felt emotionally or intellectually inclined towards it.

Raphael’s summation of the general advantage of the Utopian way of life betrays the reason for its attractiveness: although no man owns anything, all are rich – “for what can be richer than to live with a happy and tranquil mind, free from anxiety?”

In effect, the Utopians’ repudiation of private property is a remedy that frees them from pride and allows them to live a life that is at once religious and secular, private and public.

Consequently, their world consists of: equality of all things among citizens; love of peace and quiet; and contempt for gold and silver. In short, they have imported the ideals of the monastic life into political and social affairs.

A large part of Book 2, then, describes the happy place freed from the vices of the real world. But here we see that pride is also used to critique the Europe of More’s day. As happy as Utopia is, it is also “No place,” a land that will never be.

At one level, particularly with respect to geography, England and Utopia share a shadowy identity. Utopia is an island separated from the continent by a channel (Amaurotum), its capital city, together with the tidal river Anydrus, and the magnificently arched stone bridge across it, resemble London and the Thames, and the houses reflect those in England.

Thus it is not long before the Utopian illusion dissolves into the reality of England and Europe – places where pride certainly holds sway, and governs all aspects of civil, private, political, and social life.

The importance of pride comes through strongly in Raphael’s description of the Utopians distrust of treaties. In fact, the Utopians never make treaties with any nation, because “in those parts of the world treaties and alliances between kings are not observed with much good faith.”

He then draws a satiric contrast with Europe, meaning the exact opposite of what he says: “In Europe, however, and especially in those parts where the faith and religion of Christ prevails, the majesty of treaties is everywhere holy and inviolable, partly through the justice and goodness of kings, partly through the reverence and fear of the Sovereign Pontiffs.”

Of course, the reality in Europe is otherwise: pride makes all treaties cheap. Thus Utopia gradually describes the polity that an optimistic humanist might envision for England in the context of the contemporary historical Renaissance, through the eradication of pride.

However, the perfected state of Utopia is not without its contradictions, and these contradictions arise from the paradox that lies at the very heart of the book: that rational action can give rise to unreasonable consequences; the Utopians most determined efforts to fulfill the most laudable of intentions often meet with failure.

The most striking example of this is the war they fight on behalf of the Nephelogetes against the Alaopolitans – the Utopians are being good neighbors. Thus the Utopians went to the assistance of the Nephelogetes, who claimed that they had suffered injustice at the hands of the Alaopolitans under the pretext of law.

The outcome was catastrophic: “…whether right or wrong, it was avenged by a fierce war. Into this war the neighboring nations brought their energies and resources to assist the power and to intensify the rancor of both sides.

Most flourishing nations were either shaken to their foundations or grievously afflicted. The troubles upon troubles that arose were ended only by the enslavement and surrender of the Alaopolitans. Since the Utopians were not fighting in their own interest, they yielded them into the power of the Nephelogetes, a people who, when the Alaopolitans were prosperous, were not in the least comparable to them.”

Thus, what people experience is often very different from anything they intend, desire, seek, or foresee. Does the eradication of pride really lead to freedom from all evil?

How is Utopian society kept from reverting to pride? Again, we see many paradoxes. For example, the suffocating constraints on individual liberty required to effectuate the Utopians’ attempt to secure more liberty and leisure for all, or the moral injustice of the rational justice by which they regulate numbers in their families and colonies.

The cost of eradicating pride is the deprivation of some portion of an individual’s will, however rationally or virtually that person might act. Utopia thus contains an inbuilt ambiguity; it represents to a large extent what More wished for, even while he saw that if it could be, which it never could, the human condition would remain essentially unchanged in its character and function.

This point brings us to examine religious pride in Utopia. The essential feature of Utopian religion is that it is not definitive, and it resides in the responsive condition of mind rather than an elaborate and arbitrary dogma.

Its main precepts were instituted by Utopus, who allowed for a range of beliefs and provided for the possibility of wise doubting: “On religion he did not venture rashly to dogmatize. He was uncertain whether God did not desire a varied and manifold worship and therefore did not inspire different people with different views.”

The Utopians must, however, accept two fundamental tenets: that the world is governed by providence, not chance, and that the soul is immortal and will receive rewards and punishments after this life. To believe otherwise is to fall from the dignity of human life.

In practice, they let their faith instruct their reason, so that they are capable of modifying the rational rigor of their epicurean philosophy to allow for the justified existence of their ascetic religious order as well as those who wish to enjoy honest pleasures in marriage.

Thus, for the Utopians, religion is not a source of pride: they cannot say that their belief is better, truer, more righteous than any other belief – a position impossible in the Europe of the day, where to doubt the basic tenets of Christian amounted to heresy.

This point is highlighted if we consider that the Utopians profess a willingness to contemplate the possibility that all their assumptions about God and religion may be false: “If he [a Utopian] errs in these matters or if there is anything better and more approved by God than that commonwealth or that religion, he prays that He will, of His goodness, bring him to the knowledge of it, for he is ready to follow in whatever path He may lead him. But if this form of a commonwealth be the best and his religion the truest, he prays that then He may give him steadfastness and bring all other mortals to the same way of living and the same opinion of God – unless there be something in this variety of religions which delights His inscrutable will.”

Thus we see that the Utopians’ prayers manifest immediate faith and hope, while acknowledging doubt about the verity of faith itself. It is this doubt, therefore, that eradicates pride, since one faith system is no truer than another.

Of course, just a year after Utopia was written, Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of Wittenberg Church and began the Reformation, which would see Europe being plunged into blood, and would cause the death of Thomas More himself. European reality and Utopian idealism stand at opposite ends of what could be and what really is.

 

The photo shows, “The Family of Sir Thomas More,” by Rowland Lockey, painted 1592.

A Return To Humanistic Thinking

True thinking is practical wisdom. To have the ability to judge or decide is not a skill – it is process of reflection, which in its root sense means, “to turn back” one’s thoughts and consider closely. To think critically is to turn back and rediscover the habit of looking for meaning, value and for truth.

Since humans are social creatures, we already possess the ability to think this way. But given the way the educational system functions, ideals are never emphasized.

Perhaps it might be better to refer to critical thinking as “humanistic thinking,” since it is chiefly concerned with the moral improvement of the individual and then, by extension, of society.

How can we rediscover the habit of critical thinking? We can do, by focusing on those aspects of our cognition that skill denies, such as, doubt, questions, ideals, symbolic thinking, the imagination, harmony, and moral judgment.

When we look for meaning and value, we begin with doubt, with hesitation, with being unsure, because we have to decide between two or even more possibilities. Doubt gives us pause, which we often need in order to think things though.

There are two important characteristics of doubt: skepticism, which is a state of disbelief but also an invitation to view an idea or proposition carefully; and wonder, for we ask, how can this be?

Doubt is the very beginning of reflection, of turning thoughts over in our minds, because doubt allows the mind to open up to possibilities unknown.

Doubt breaks down the barriers of assumptions and launches us into the process of building anew. We must be courageous doubters in order to search for value and meaning.

Once doubt pervades the mind, we begin to ask questions. Most people fear questions because nothing uncovers ignorance (a state of mindlessness) faster than a question.

When we ask questions, we are not looking for answers but seeking, inquiring after, the truth (which is faithfulness to reality, both material and ideal). Answers are about with demonstrating skill. But we ask questions to discover the truth.

As a result, there is a strong link between questions and freedom, because only people who are truly free can ask questions; those enslaved in any sense cannot ask questions, because questions have the potential of destabilizing the status quo.

Thus, questions are a threat to those in power. And as for enslavement, it comes in many forms – the most pervasive in our culture is the avoidance of complexity. We want everything to be to be simple.

And here is a strange conundrum: we live in a world that is highly complex and the technology we use daily is highly complex – and yet we put this complexity to simpler and simpler uses, such as language pared down to is bare minimum, as in a text-message. We all have skill with technology – but we are thinking less and less with language.

Here’s an important question to ask – does a good worker need to doubt and ask questions? Or does a good worker simply need to consistently demonstrate skill and expertise? If we cannot formulate questions, are we truly free?

If we accept that questions are an inquiry into truth, then we are led into asking a rather famous question – what is truth? In effect, truth is an ideal. It is not a material thing, but it is something that humanity greatly values. An ideal is an idea that possesses value and meaning.

There is no human culture which does not value truth. Of course, there have been many attacks on the notion of truth – that it is a cultural construct, or that it is closely connected to individuality (hence the term, “truth is relative”).

In other words, since we all have different ideas of what truth is, there is no universal definition of truth; and so every culture in the world creates its own truth; my truth cannot be your truth – and some people even more radically suggest that there is no truth; or put more bluntly, truth is only a matter of personal opinion.

So, if truth does not exist, why bother looking for it? Ultimately, these are dead-end arguments since they do nothing to advance thinking, nor do they help us understand why the search for truth is essential to critical thinking.

Briefly, to say that there is no such thing as truth, or that truth is relative, is a contradiction since we are being told that both these statements are the truth – and should be universally believed, which makes no sense at all.

How can anyone suggest that there is no truth and then expect us to take this statement as the truth?

We have only to look at the world around us – and we find that humanity continues to conduct itself with the idea of truth – people in all cultures want to be right and not wrong, they want to be good and not bad.

Truth should not be confused with belief (which can be personal) – we may believe one thing at one time in our lives and then come to believe something completely different later on in our lives. For example, Nazi Germany believed in murdering Jews. Modern Germany does not believe this.

Beliefs change – truth does not, because it is an ideal. So, in our example, the truth is: murder is wrong. We may misunderstand an ideal or misinterpret it, but truth does not change.

This unchanging quality makes it an ideal. Ideals help us to choose and decide how we want to live our lives. Ideals are intangible structures, blueprints, with which we derive meaning and value.

Why do we feel good when we do good things? And why are we riddled with guilt when we do bad things? Why do we want to love and be loved? Why are we sympathetic? These are all questions of ideals, of truth, of value, of meaning.

Through ideals, we become educated in our goodness. And the truth is – we want to be good. Think of it – all those things that we cherish (love, kindness, hope, goodness, decency, etc.) are ideals.

When we say ideals are examples, we have begun to think symbolically. What does this mean? Simply that we get into the habit of looking for ideals by way of symbols, that is, examples.

Light is a symbol for truth and goodness; its opposite, darkness, is a symbol for falsehood and evil. Symbols give us something concrete, something material, which we can use to start thinking of an ideal (value and meaning), which cannot take on physical form.

The world over, water is symbol of life – and is it any wonder, therefore, that scientists looking for life on Mars are looking for water? The search for life in outer space is both symbolic and ideal.

We know there is life on the planet earth; and since there are planets in our solar system and in space, we have made terrestrial life into an ideal, assuming that life requires certain properties in order to exist – and it is this ideal that scientists search for.

But to think symbolically also means that we have to be imaginative. Imagination is the ability to see relationships between things and between ideas. To use the imagination is to see the underlying truth of things.

Thus, for example, to want freedom is an imaginative act, because it is insight into what we really value and what gives us meaning. Freedom is a particular kind of relationship between the individual and society.

To want freedom means that we see the essential purpose of life – to have freedom to live as we see fit – and it also means that we see the truth of what it means to be alive.

Symbolic thinking is the process of uniting ourselves with ideals. Freedom is an ideal – and we individually unite ourselves to this ideal way of living: we want to be free.

Closely allied to symbolic thinking is the concept of harmony, which is the ability to see relationships even in things and ideas that may seem at first to be diametrically opposed to one another.

In other words, it is the ability to see how things and ideas fit together. All too often thinking involves an agonistic attitude – ideas need to be “argued (demonstrated)” or even “attacked,” and “defended.”

To look for harmony is a crucial aspect of critical thinking, since a habit of seeking convergence and relationships advances thought, which means that relationships engender newer ideas.

These various aspects of critical thinking are dependent upon the reason behind why we need to think in the first place.

Critical thinking is about forming moral judgments that provide us with value and meaning, both of which suggest that we want to understand how we ought to live and what we ought to do.

Critical thinking is about educating our moral character, though which we can discover how we ought to live in order to be good in a good society and what we must do to be good in a good society.

Thinking, therefore, is never done in a vacuum. Thinking is always about context – and humanity’s context is the world. And what is the world? It is the construct in which we live our lives – and as such, it is ideas placed upon the physicality of the planet earth to make our lives happy and fulfilling and to allow each of us to understand what gives us meaning and value.

Let us now start the process of rediscovery and come to understand what we ought to do to become humanistic thinkers so that we may know how we ought to live in the good society.

 

The photo shows, “The Teachers,” by Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky, painted in 1901.

Higher Education?

Over the years, higher education has become thoroughly vocationalized, and people now come to university and college expecting to be trained for the job market.

This means that society sees the academy as nothing more than a training facility where specific and transferable skills are acquired by individuals which can then be translated into careers and jobs in the marketplace. Inherently there is nothing wrong about such a view of education; jobs and careers are fundamental to a happy life.

But there is an essential problem here, because a primary component is being consistently ignored, which we can get to by asking a simple question. What guarantees a career or a job or a paycheck in the first place? It is not proficiency in skill – rather, it is the context in which this skill is to be practiced.

And this context, of course, is society. It is only within the context of a good society that jobs, careers – in short, the good life – can be guaranteed.

But if education is nothing other than training efficient workers who only know how to apply their skills in job situations – who will manage the needs of society so that it continues to be good, continues to be that context in which jobs and careers, and the good life, are to be guaranteed?

If no one is educated in taking care of the good society, will society continue to be good? There is a strong and direct co-relationship between prosperity and the good society.

In our own political and cultural context, the good society is the liberal democracy, which depends upon the idea that all of us must work together to maintain the goodness of our society.

In order to do so, we must be educated in the wisdom of the liberal democratic tradition. But if we only worry about training for jobs, who will have the knowledge to ensure that our society remains both liberal and democratic – that it retains its goodness? And what are the characteristics of such a society?

They are ideals that we all aspire to and expect our society to provide – namely, freedom, personal worth, individual rights, and a government entirely answerable to the people.

Notice none of these expectations depend upon skill, upon being a good worker. And none of these expectations have come about as a result of industry’s efforts. Industry can function in any type of society. It has loyalty only to profit.

These expectations are, of course, ideals – and ideals require two things: education – and humane thinking.

 

The photo shows, “Girls Singing On A Park Bench,” by Minna Heeren, painted in 1873.

Elizabeth Anscombe: Giant Of Conservative Thought

Nearly sixty years ago, an essay appeared which was to have far-reaching influence in the area of ethics. It was published in the January 1958 issue of Philosophy, and entitled, “Modern Moral Philosophy.” The author was Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe.

This essay obliterated the secular basis for morality. In other words, only God could be the rationale for morals. Without God, there could never be any sort of morality. To demand so is simply confused thinking.

The same thing had been expounded by Nietzsche and Dostoevsky earlier, but their analysis had not been thorough, nor did it go after the philosophical traditions that facilitated a God-dependent, yet Godless morality.

Nietzsche lost his way in trying to understand what comes after God, while Dostoevsky could not, in fiction, do a thorough enough critique of atheism.

The brilliance of Anscombe is that she destroyed the very possibility of a secular rationale for morality, which leaves only two choices. Either morality is to be abandoned altogether, or it must return to its historical ground, namely, God, by way of Aristotelean virtue-ethics.

Thus, why be good? Because God demands it of us, because it is good for us as human beings to be good.

What does all this mean? Before trying to understand Anscombe’s argument, let us take a brief biographical turn, which will assist in the explanation, in that, there is a close link between action and ideas.

Anscombe was born in 1919, in Limerick, Ireland, the child of English parents. Her father was an army officer stationed there. She studied at Oxford and Cambridge. At Oxford, she met Peter Geach, also a philosopher, and the two were married in 1941 and would go on to have three sons and four daughters.

A year earlier, in 1940, she formerly converted to Roman Catholicism, and her faith guided her philosophy deeply. She remains one of the most important Christian philosophers of the modern era.

In 1942, she graduated and continued her studies at Cambridge, where she became a student of Ludwig Wiittgenstein. This would lead to a lifelong friendship between the two, until Wittgenstein’s death in 1951. She became one of his executors, and also one of the leading scholars of his thought, famously translating his Tractus.

Many anecdotes are related of her rambunctious nature, such as, when told that women should not wear pants, she promptly took them off.

In 1951, she campaigned for Oxford University not to grant an honorary doctorate to President Harry Truman, because of his decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a decision she said was deeply immoral. She failed in this attempt.

Three years earlier, in 1948, while still a tutor, Anscombe rather infamously met the celebrated C.S. Lewis in a debate at the Socratic Club at Oxford.

Anscombe questioned Lewis’s assumptions, since he tried to use philosophical concepts without properly explaining, or perhaps understanding, them. This led him to fallacies and mistakes.

Lewis made the claim that since naturalism asserts all thinking to be the result of irrational causes, naturalism itself is therefore irrational because it too is the result of thinking. There is confusion here between ground and cause.

Anscombe corrected him. Although she too disagreed with naturalism, she did not find Lewis’s refutation convincing.

Irrational causes may very well be founded on both rational and non-rational explanations, and thus to say that a ground (naturalism) is determined by just one type of cause (the irrational one) is simply false.

Rather, it is fairer to say that for naturalism all thinking is the result of irrational causes, but those causes cannot be just irrational alone (which is the mistake naturalism makes), since action is the result of so many things, including rationality and non-rationality.

This turn to psychology is crucial to Anscombe’s thought, for she is considered to be the founder of the philosophy of action, which is the attempt at understanding the psychology of human motivation by differentiating intention from intentionality.

Intention is linked to desire (wanting to do something), while intentionality is that large web of reasons which both make us do things and also explain why we do (or need to do) something.

As well, intention has two results – the desired one, and its unintended consequences.

For example, a man wants to cut the grass with his gas lawnmower because he wants a neat lawn. But his mowing (intention) has the unintended consequence of noise. The man does not mow in order to make a lot of noise, but his desire to mow his lawn creates the noise.

But she is far better known for her clarifications in the area of morality. In her 1958 essay mentioned above, she effectively dismantled the two pillars of ethical thinking, namely, utilitarianism and Kantian deontology.

Utilitarianism may be summarized as doing that which brings the greatest good to the greatest number of people. This means that doing a bad thing for the sake of good results is morally acceptable.

For example, a sniper who must shoot a terrorist who is about to blow up a building with lots of people inside it.

The sniper is doing, in a different way, the exact same thing that the terrorist is about to do – kill. However, the sniper is perceived to be doing a lesser sort of evil, which will have good results – the saving of many lives.

Such rationale, Anscombe calls, “consequentialism,” whereby the consequences of human actions are the most important.

Instead, Anscombe offers a clearer approach – morality is not about doing good according to the prevalent standards of human beings. Rather, morality is listening to, being guided by, the goodness that has been cultivated inside you.

This nurturing of goodness is done by practising virtues, which can only happen by obeying the laws of God, as warranted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Modern-day morality fails because it says goodness is to be found only in actions, and not in people. This is the basis of the plague of “virtue-signaling” that pervades our culture today, or even gun-control. Both of these concepts are founded in the belief that by denying people the ability (guns) to do bad things, then bad things will not happen.

Thus, morality, for consequentialists, turns into controlling people’s actions and behavior by legislation, or otherwise (propaganda).

Anscombe also dismantles notions, such as, the social contract (that morality is what society agrees to, or demands), the common good (what’s good for the goose is good for the gander), and even Kantian deontology (that we ought to do the right thing, which is simply a reworked version of the Golden Rule). But these are all consequentialist explanations, because they maintain humans do not, cannot, possess goodness, only their actions are good or bad.

Therefore human action must be controlled, since humans are morally empty and therefore prone to do anything, if given the means. Deny the means and you deny evil.

This sort of explanation is rooted in the “law conception of morality,” as Anscombe points out, and this has empowered the state with legislative authority. In other words, the state has become God.

But since belief in the Christian God disappeared in the West from the 17th century onwards, trying to derive some sort of “morality” from a “source” (the state) which replaces God makes no sense, since what you end up with is judicial nitpicking that seeks to curtail behavior.

In this way, the state becomes an unregulated power, which facilitates all kinds of immorality because it is a corrupted version of “God.”

In other words, morality can only come from God, and is the direct result of obeying His laws – and yet people do not want to believe in any of this, but they still want to be moral.

This is the contradiction, the great confusion of our age – you cannot be moral by observing the secular laws of the state, because they are designed to regulate, not to inculcate individual goodness. Therefore, human laws are always unequal – fair for some, unfair for others.

Thus, Christian morality has nothing to do with what makes us happy, or even trying to do those things that have good results.

On the contrary, Judeo-Christian morality is only concerned with obeying God’s laws – no matter what the consequences, no matter how unpopular such obedience might be, or even how illegal.

These laws sustain a deep relationship of the individual with the transcendent (the Divine). Morality and goodness are the consequences of such a relationship.

Those that seek to follow a morality without God possess a “corrupt mind,” says Anscombe, which means that such individuals easily do immoral things, thinking that they are doing the right thing.

Thus, abortion, doctor-assisted suicide, embryo-destructive research, and even gayness and gender-confusion are all products of “corrupt minds,” for all of these actions are immoral, but are explained as good by the state.

In other words, it is the corrupt mind which feels the need to virtue-signal, while believing in nothing.

It is the corrupt mind that demands conformity of any kind, while advocating a belief in atheism.

It is a corrupt mind that demands justice while believing in no divine laws.

It is a corrupt mind that demands goodness while possessing no goodness of its own, or explaining what goodness is.

Indeed, well into her 80s, Anscombe was a tireless campaigner against abortion and led protests at abortion clinics, and even getting arrested. She ardently wrote against the misuse of sexuality in all its present-day perversions.

In response to the vast confusions that possesses society today, Anscombe suggests that society itself needs to be honest and abandon all concern with trying to be moral without God.

Instead, it should try to map out the psychology of why people want to do good things (philosophy of action), which is a very, very difficult task. Secularism is not up to the challenge.

But Anscombe is not only a critic; she is also a true philosopher – she shows a way forward. She suggests that one way to start recovering morality in the modern, immoral world is to return to Aristotle’s concept of virtue, which means learning how to be courageous, noble, temperate, and just.

By practising to bring these four virtues into our lives, we will begin to understand the need for morality, since none of these four virtues have anything to do with the laws of the secular state.

In this way, people might acquire the habit being truly virtuous, and this can then lead them to a desire for the good (God), and after that a desire for morality, which is the obeying God’s commands.

Or, like Anscombe herself did, people can start believing in God again, and learn about Him, and then learn to love Him by obeying His laws.

We only corrupt ourselves if we try to be moral without personal virtue, or try to live without God.

Moral philosophy can no longer exist without first dealing with Anscombe’s challenge. To try do so is simply blindness and confusion.

But there is also hope, of course, because her ideas are leading people to virtue – on some campuses, there are “Anscombe Societies.”

Elizabeth Anscombe’s thought is best ummarized in the words of G.K. Chesterton, for “…it is entirely the praise of Life, the praise of Being, the praise of God as the Creator of the World.”

The photo shows a portrait of the philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe.

Review: Zealot. The Life And Times Of Jesus Of Nazareth

[Editor’s Note: This review was written when Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus pf Nazareth, first came out in 2013. Given the book’s curious popularity, we thought it best to republish this review, in order to highlight Aslan’s “scholarship”].

 

 

Reza Aslan’s biography of Jesus is an anachronistic book – it is more about our own era, and the author’s journey within, than it is about the time and place in which Jesus lived. As such, it is a compendium of sweeping statements and unsubstantiated generalities, backed up by lapses in logic and utter fallacy.

On the scholarly level, the entire book is a mishmash of hoary theories, long disproven and rightly forsaken.

Aslan’s supposed explosive and startling revelations are absurdities, like someone passionately trying to prove that the earth is flat. Consequently, he has nothing to offer that might change or advance our knowledge of Jesus in history. But that has never stopped anyone from hoodwinking the naive.

Aslan wants to give us Jesus the man, without any reference to Jesus the Christ. This approach is nothing new – Euhemerus and Leon of Pella, in the fourth century BC, established the fundamental parameters of such analysis: scratch a god and you find a man.

But is Aslan a worthy scratcher? Apparently not, since his book is filled with substantial errors and contradictions, held up by vapid assertions and simplistic assumptions.

Clumsy narratives are far easier to put together – intricacy is harder to deal with.

Terms such as, “Judaism,” “Christianity,” “paganism,” “empire,” “zealots,” “oppression,” “revolution” keep popping up, without any clear understanding of what these terms actually mean in the Roman world of the first century AD.

Antiquity was as knotty and intricate as our own world. Aslan’s book shows no awareness of this whatsoever. He seems to be intent on writing a script for a B-grade movie.

Clumsy narratives are far easier to put together – intricacy is harder to deal with. Aslan ignores the true, historical Roman world and fashions his own imagined one, which is fatuous and (most surprisingly!) conforms perfectly to the points he wants to make about his “Jesus.”

The errors begin rather immediately with the very sub-title of the book, “The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”

 

ERROR: JESUS OF NAZARETH

Aslan says that he knows ancient Greek – and yet he makes a sophomoric blunder in translation, which leads him to state falsely that Jesus was born in Nazareth and not Bethlehem, and that is why he was known as “the Nazarean…” “throughout his life.” (Correction: he was known as the Galilean).

Aslan bases his assertion on the Gospel (John 19:19-20), where we read that at the top of Jesus’ cross, the Romans placed a wooden sign (the titulus), which displayed a message written in the three languages common in first century Palestine, namely, Hebrew, Greek and Latin.

The Gospel (originally written in Greek) provides the text of the titulus as well. It begins with the phrase, Iesous ho Nazoraios.

As someone who supposedly knows Greek, Aslan should not be making any mistakes with a rather easy phrase, which he says means, “Jesus of Nazareth.” This is grammatically impossible.

The correct translation is, “Jesus, the Nazarene.”

In order to get “Jesus of Nazareth,” the original Greek has to be Iesous ho apo Nazoret. But that is not what John 18:18-20 says.

In a strategy that will be used throughout the book, Aslan then proceeds to fashion “proof” for his mistranslation.

What does “Nazarene” really mean? It is a reference to the famous passage in Isaiah 11:1 (“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots”).

Where is that Occam’s razor?

As Robert M. Kerr very lucidly demonstrated, the term for “branch” in Hebrew is ne ṣer. The term “Nazarene” comes from this Hebrew word.

Thus, the phrase on the titulus literally meant, “Jesus of the branch.” Indeed, “branch” had a deep messianic meaning for first century Jews.

The readers of the original knew what they were reading – Jesus, the branch of Jesse, i.e., the Messiah – this man Jesus, is Jesus the Christ.

Also, the epitaph of the book is taken from Matthew 10:34: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.”

Doubtless, Aslan wants to suggest that this verse summarizes his Jesus, the illiterate, peasant revolutionary.

Of course, this sword-saying is indicating a truth far more profound – that the teaching of Jesus will cut-off people from the world, even from families.

So, indeed, it is a revolution – but of the spirit, not of the world – Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world” (John 18:36).

 

CONTRADICTION: RELIABILITY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT

At the very start of his book, Aslan declares the Gospels to be historically useless: “Simply put, the gospels tell us about Jesus the Christ, not Jesus the man” (xxvi). Fair enough. This is nothing new, and dates all the way back to Bruno Bauer, the professor of Karl Marx.

But why then is Aslan’s narrative of Jesus’ life drawn entirely from the Gospels? Why does he look for “proof” for each one of his claims in the Gospels?

Either the Gospels are historically useful sources for the life of Jesus the man, or they are not. They cannot be both useful and useless/

Of course, the Gospels are only useful to Aslan when they back up his claims. Other than that, they are useless to him.

Logic, evidently, is not a strong point/

 

ERROR: BANDITS AND ZEALOTS

Aslan tries to prove that Jesus was a zealot (a very old claim, in fact, first raised two-hundred years ago by Hermann S. Reimarus in his essay, “The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples”).

How does Aslan substantiate this contention? He turns to the Gospels (again).

Jesus was crucified between two robbers. The Greek word used for “robbers” is lestai (singular, lestes). Aslan “translates” lestai as, “revolutionary,” and argues that because Jesus is between two lestai, he must be a lestes also. The ultimate guilt by association! But is Aslan correct?

The word occurs frequently in ancient Greek literature, from Thucydides (Book I.5) down to the New Testament (where it occurs some fifteen times). It stems from the noun, leia, which means “plunder.” Thus, from the fifth century BC to the first century AD, lestes has always meant, “robber,” “bandit,” “plunderer,” “brigand,” “pirate.”

Where is Aslan getting “revolutionary?”

Multilingualism was the norm – unilingualism was very rare.

The Jewish historian Josephus (37–100 AD), first calls lestai two specific violent Jewish groups – the zealots and the sicarii, who were assassins (The Jewish Wars 2.254).

Josephus does not say that lestes means “revolutionary,” or even “zealot.” He is merely saying that these people are “bandits,” or criminals.

But for Aslan this is serious evidence, and he concludes that lestai must mean “revolutionary” because the two groups Josephus mentions did not agree with Roman rule.

Aslan seems not to know that lestes translates also the Latin term latro (“robber,” “brigand,”“bandit”). In most parts of the eastern Roman world, Greek was the common language (a legacy of Hellenism).

Thus lestes was chosen as the Greek equivalent of latro because it was deemed accurate by the people who needed to use these terms.

Both Greek and Latin have perfectly good words for “a revolutionary” (seditiosus in Latin whence comes the English, “sedition;” and stasiastes in Greek).

Why would Josephus and the Gospel-writers not use either of these two words if their intent were to speak about “revolutionaries?” Why say “robber” and really mean “revolutionary?” Again, logic intrudes.

Actually, Aslan is getting all this from S.G.F. Brandon’s two books, The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church (1951), and Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Primitive Factor in Primitive Christianity (1967).

Back in 1984, E. Bammel and C.F.D. Moule destroyed this Jesus-as-a-zealot argument, once and for all. It seems Aslan has yet to hear about it.

anyone can be an expert in the age of Google

Simply put, “zealot” in the first century did not mean a revolutionary, or a resistance fighter against the Romans (this is Aslan’s fantasy).

Why? Because during the time of Jesus, there were no “zealots” in Palestine fighting the Romans – all that came many decades after Jesus! Perhaps math is not a strong point with Aslan, either.

Further, “zealot” derives from the Greek zilotes which means an “emulator” (as in Isocrates and Aeschines), or an “ardent admirer”, and therefore a “follower.”

The first one to say that “zealots” were political in any way is Josephus, and we have to be careful with him as a historical source for Jesus, because he is not a contemporary (he was born at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and he died in 100 AD).

Other historical sources do not link “zealots” with politics at all, let alone struggles against Rome – but Aslan knows nothing about this.

During the time of Jesus, “zealot” meant a Canaanite (“Simon the Canaanite” in Luke 6:15 becomes “Simon the zealot” in Acts 1:13). In fact, “zealot” also meant a Canaanite convert to Judaism (such conversions were frequent).

Thus, when Aslan calls Jesus a “zealot” – does he really know what he is doing with this convoluted Greek term? It is obvious that he does not.

Simply put, by asserting that Jesus was a zealot, Aslan is stating that Jesus was a Canaanite convert to Judaism!

Thus, Aslan’s entire thesis is simply an utter absurdity, built entirely on his own ignorance.

 

ERROR: THE FOURTH PHILOSOPHY

Aslan gets further confused when he maintains that brigands, zealots and the sicarii were all followers of the Fourth Philosophy, and he represents them as one unified group whose aim was the ousting of the Romans from Judea.

The sicarii (“dagger-men”) were terrorists who randomly stabbed people they deemed to be the enemy. As to who “the enemy” was for these terrorists? Anyone they labeled as such.

There may be a very tenuous link between the sicarii and the Fourth Philosophy – but there is no discernible connection with zealots.

Josephus is the first to coin the phrase “the Fourth Philosophy” by which he mean a form of Judaism that was different from the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes.

Again, Josephus is not a contemporary of Jesus, and he is writing about political situations that simply did not exist in Jesus’ day.

Of course, Aslan is blissfully unaware of any of this. For him, “Judaism” is some over-arching “religion” that he has constructed to suit his agenda.

In fact, there were many Judaisms – Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Herodians, Boethusians, Levites, Scribes, Elders, Disciples of John, Samaritans, and (if Josephus is right), the Fourth Philosophy.

Each of these Judaisms was distinct from the other, so we do not really know which type of Judaism Jesus himself followed.

There is no evidence in the book that might suggest Aslan really knows anything about Judaism, and what he does say about it is thoroughly misinformed, misconstrued, distorted, and ridiculous (for example, he actually believes that the Jews carried out crucifixions).

Thus, the Fourth Philosophy just was not around when Jesus lived and preached in Palestine. Aslan is taking a political situation long after the time of Jesus, retro-projecting it back to Jesus’ day – and then concluding that Jesus himself was part of this future political situation – therefore he was a revolutionary.

This is not history – it is mere overzealous fantasy.

 

CONTRADICTION: THE OPPRESSION OF ROME

Another anachronism that Aslan constructs is “the Roman Empire,” which he describes as an organized system of oppression of vast proportions.

This is not surprising given the broad influence of post-colonial discourse in present-day academia (thanks to the silliness engendered by Edward Said).

destroys his own arguments

But does such an analysis have any merit when dealing with antiquity? No, it does not, because the Roman world was far different than that imagined by Aslan.

Needless to say, ancient Rome is another subject that Aslan knows nothing about – but anyone can be an expert in the age of Google.

In complete contradiction to what Aslan declares, the historical record itself cannot sustain Rome as thoroughly oppressive – and this record unravels whatever Aslan has to say about Rome and its supposed “oppression.”

For example, he calls Palestine “occupied territory” (10), under “the boot of imperial” Rome (16).

Then he is forced to admit that Rome was very tolerant: “As generally tolerant as the Romans may have been when it came to foreign cults, they were even more lenient toward the Jews…”(14).

So, was Rome oppressive or tolerant? It cannot be both. Logic once more raises its head.

Aslan likely knows that evidence is stacked against him if he says that Rome was utterly despotic and unjust (although that is how he describes it in his book).

The reality of the Roman world dismantles his reasoning.

If what he says is true, how can he explain the fetiales, the guild of priests who oversaw treaties and foreign relations, and who were often critical of what Rome might want to do, and the caduceatores, the peacemakers, who actively worked to avoid war?

And how can he explain the fact that Roman law forbade the state to wage war (only the collegium fetiales could undertake that duty, after the Roman Senate made a case for a war)?

Further, how can he explain the Pax Romana, when peace endured throughout the Roman Empire for over two-hundred years (an event unprecedented in human history)? Jesus’ entire life was spent in this Pax Romana.

a tedious mishmash of hoary theories, long forsaken

The fact is most nations fought Rome because they wanted to get into the empire – because they wanted to be Romans.

Why would other nations fight to be Roman, if the Romans were brutal and oppressive? Aslan, as usual, has no clue about any of this.

If the Roman Empire were oppressive, would it have lasted until 1452 (when Byzantium fell to the Turks) – that is more than over two thousand years? No empire has endured so long.

Then, the subsequent Ottoman Empire saw itself as a continuation of the Roman Empire in the east, for the Turks came to possess the idea of Rome, that is, Romanitas, or Romanity, Roman-ness – and they called their realm “Rûm,” or Rome. Again, why, if Rome was so horrible and so hated?

Some philosophers, like Rémi Brague, convincingly argue that the Roman Empire still exists and we are very much part of it. The essential character of our civilization is ultimately an extension of the Roman world.

In fact, where would the United States be without a blueprint of the Roman Republic?

All this would be impossible if Rome were inherently oppressive and everyone wanted to be rid it.

Suffice to say that Aslan’s understanding of Romanity is nonexistent, which is curious since the man Jesus, whose life story he wants to tell, was very much a product of Romanitas.

Rome was in Palestine because of treaty obligations that stemmed back to 161 BC. Aslan distorts this when he delves into the paradigm of conquest and hegemony, which serves no purpose other than to highlight his romantic construct of revolutionaries fighting for freedom. (He likely has present-day Palestine in mind).

The fact is the majority of Jews preferred the peace and stability guaranteed by Roman rule over their own indigenous priestly theocracy. Most Jews greatly benefited from being Roman citizens and never supported any sort of insurrection.

Further, the ideals of pacifism were the majority view among the Jews living in the Roman world.

The violent factions came much later, after the time of Jesus, like the sicarii. These factions were in the minority.

However, their selfish actions brought the most harm to the entire Jewish nation. That is why Josephus hated them, because this violent minority destroyed the peace and stability enjoyed by the vast majority.

Aslan knows nothing about the reality of the Roman world in the East. He has created a cartoon version that might serve as entertainment, but which has nothing to do with historical truth.

 

ERROR: THE TRIBUTE EPISODE

Much is made of the famous episode of the tribute owed to Caesar and to God (Matthew 22:15-22: “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s”).

Aslan declares this to be a summary of the zealot’s creed (78). This idea comes from S. G.F. Brandon once again.

To back up this absurd claim, Aslan tries to do some fancy footwork with Greek. He states that “render” is a mistranslation of the original Greek term, apodidomi. (We are already familiar with his “knowledge” of Greek, but he needs to demonstrate it once again).

All he can do is garb his ignorance in folds of plausibility.

He argues, very confusingly, that the real meaning can only be accessed if this term is broken down into its two component parts.

Then, the two parts have to be translated separately.

Next, the two separate translations should be smashed together to yield the most accurate meaning for apodidomi. Right…

Thus, for him, apodidomi actually means, “to give back again” (77). Where is that Occam’s razor?

Aslan has no idea that there is an actual difference between morphophonemics and semantics.

So, by his logic, in order to understand what the word “obvious” really means, we have to split it up into its two parts, which ultimately come from Latin.

First, there is ob, which in Latin can mean “on,” or “against;” and then we have viam, which, again in Latin means, “the way,” “the road.”

Having done such needless gymnastics, we can now declare that the word, “obvious” really means, “to be on your way,” or “to go against the road, or against traffic.” Of course!

In brief, apididomi means exactly how it has been translated by real scholars of Greek, “to render,” or “to pay back an obligation, or a debt.”

Thus, Jesus is teaching about fulfilling one’s obligations – both mundane and spiritual. There is nothing here about fighting Romans, as Aslan wants to argue.

 

CONTRADICTION: ILLITERACY OF JESUS

Aslan claims that 97 percent of the Jewish peasantry was illiterate (34). He does not divulge the actual Roman records that provided him this figure, since Roman statistics on literacy in their empire have yet to be unearthed by archaeologists.

Nor do we know if they even did such surveys. Why would they? But that cannot stop Aslan’s “scholarly” insights.

He gets this figure from the convoluted reasoning offered by Catherine Hezser, although Aslan does not mention her in his Bibliography (as with so many of his mentors).

Aslan needs this fake illiteracy rate to further his contention that since Jesus was a peasant, he was therefore illiterate. He just assumes that Jesus did not belong to the educated 3 percent. Again, logic is an issue.

a compendium of sweeping statements and unsubstantiated generalities

Whatever the literacy levels were of the Jewish peasantry, the fact remains that there is enough evidence to indicate the importance of writing in ancient Judea, as epigraphic finds (papyrus hoards and the library at Qumran) clearly demonstrate.

All this material suggests widespread literacy in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. If literacy were so low, why did Paul write letters, and why were the Gospels even written, if 97 percent of the population would never be able to read them?

Three of the gospels (excluding Luke) were written for Jewish readers.

And, there are over 5,000 manuscripts of the New Testament in Greek, some 10,000 in Latin, and thousands in other languages that were part of the Roman world (like, Armenian, Coptic and Ethiopic).

In fact, manuscripts of the New Testament are the most numerous for any text from the ancient world.

Who were all these manuscripts for, if almost everyone was illiterate?

Literary culture in the first century was rich and diverse (there were even Jewish novels in this era) – and it is a culture that is entirely unknown to Aslan.

Interestingly, just a few pages later, Aslan contradicts his own thesis. He states: “By connecting his miracles with Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus is stating…”(111).

Is not this process of “connecting” a literary text with one’s own ideas known as “literary allusion?”

How could an illiterate peasant be involved in genuine literary activity without having read the book of Isaiah?

Complicating matters is the fact that the Scriptures referred to in the New Testament are the Septuagint (LXX) which is in Greek and not in Hebrew. Thus, Jesus would also have to understand Greek, along with Hebrew.

Of course, Jesus could have memorized these passages. But that would suggest intensive schooling, since someone would have had to read Isaiah aloud and enough times for pupils to memorize verses deemed important.

However, Aslan has already told us that his Jesus was unschooled (35).

But now suddenly we have an educated Jesus, intellectually challenging his compatriots, and using bookish arguments. An uneducated, illiterate Jesus makes no sense, even in the make-belief world of Aslan.

As an aside, if Jesus were illiterate, how does he know about the intricacies of Hebrew writing (Matthew 5:18) – the yod w’kotz shel yod (the jots and tittles)?

Which is it, then? Was Jesus literate, or not? He cannot be both. Aslan actually says he’s illiterate but has him behave like a highly educated man. The evidence once again runs counter to the thesis.

 

ERROR: HEBREW OR ARAMAIC

Aslan makes the sweeping claim that Aramaic was “the primary language of the Jewish peasantry: the language of Jesus” (35).

It is not clear if Aslan actually knows any Hebrew or Aramaic, or any other Semitic languages (we have already learned that his Greek is non-existent). Nevertheless, his assertion is completely false.

Aslan’s greatest strength is inventing conspiracy theories

Linguistic reality in first century Palestine was complex, where the majority of people spoke three or four languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin).

Each language had a function which was intimately connected to particular social and economic strata. It all depended on who one was speaking with, since different aspects of daily life required one or more of these four languages.

Multilingualism was the norm – unilingualism was very rare, even non-existent, because people needed more than one language to function in the Greco-Roman world.

This is a concept unilingual North Americans have great difficulty understanding.

In Galilee, the true homeland of Jesus, Hebrew was the spoken language, and it remained so well into the fourth century AD. Thus, Jesus grew up speaking Hebrew – not Aramaic, as Aslan wrongly contends.

Epitaphs, mosaics, and synagogue inscriptions firmly point to trilingualism, with Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek thoroughly intertwined.

For the Jews, Hebrew was, and is, the lashon-haq-kadosh, the sacred language used by God.

Aramaic, also a Semitic tongue, is closely related to Hebrew. It exists in two dialects – western ones used in Palestine, and eastern ones used in Syria, i.e., Syriac, or Talmudic Aramaic.

Many Jews (certainly not all) preferred to use Aramaic in daily life because they deemed Hebrew too holy for mundane purposes. This explains why the Targumim are in Aramaic.

Aslan says that he knows ancient Greek – and yet he makes a sophomoric blunder in translation

Jesus’ use of the three languages current in first century Palestine is clearly evident in the Gospels. Sometimes, he speaks Hebrew and Aramaic (Matthew 27:46); sometimes he speaks only Aramaic (Mark 5:41); and sometime he uses pure Greek (Matthew 16:18).

This complex multilingual reality is also reflected much later in the various documents of Simeon bar Kochba.

And this is why the titulus above Jesus’ head on the cross is in Hebrew, Greek and Latin.

(By the way, why bother with such a placard, if 97 percent of the population is illiterate?).

Aslan’s declaration that Hebrew was “barely” understood by Jews (34) is therefore meaningless. This view was current until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948, which thereafter firmly established Palestine as a multilingual place.

It is strange indeed that Aslan is using a pre-1948 explanation, which has been long demolished. No doubt, Aslan prefers ignorance over fact.

 

FREUDIAN-SLIP

There are quite a few Freudian-slips throughout the book. One example may suffice.

Aslan states: “By the time Jesus set up his ministry…”(95).

Why is a revolutionary setting up a ministry? One would think that he would be busy putting together a deadly arsenal (with the requisite ballistae, a scorpio or two, and various small arms), getting recruits (certainly way more than just twelve), and that he would be hunting around for an out-of-the-way field to establish his boot camp (as Simeon bar Kochba indeed did do some six decades after Jesus).

It would be tedious to go through all such Freudian-slips. They are Freudian because despite Aslan’s best efforts, the truth does manage to slip out – in his own arguments.

 

FURTHER ERRORS

Mary (page 37): In Mark 6:3, Jesus is called the “son of Mary.” Aslan sees this as a record of Jesus’ illegitimacy. This reference, of course, is not about legitimacy – it is about an emergent veneration of Mary (Mariology), which had already begun in the first century.

Despite not knowing any Semitic languages, Aslan proceeds to “translate” the reference to Jesus in Mark 6:3 into Aramaic as, “Jesus bar Mary!” (If he wants the Aramaic version, the proper translation is, “Yehoshua or Yehsua bar Miriam”). Aslan is likely using C. P. Thiede here, though Thiede is not mentioned in the Bibliography.

Crucifixion (page 155): Aslan says that crucifixion was reserved “for the most extreme political crimes: treason, rebellion, sedition, banditry.”

Aslan knows nothing about Judaism

Once again, the unsubstantiated sweeping statement. Aslan needs to closely read the lex Puteoli. Crucifixion was simply a method of execution for crimes that required capital punishment.

It had nothing to do with politics, as Aslan imagines. There are very many instances of non-political criminals being crucified (Roman or not). For example, Verres crucified Roman citizens without any qualms (famously, Gavius); and Galba crucified a murderer who had poisoned his ward.

As well, if Romans citizens wanted to punish, or get rid of, slaves, they could have them crucified (it was cheap). Women also were crucified. Tiberius had the priests of Isis crucified. Cicero frequently mentions crucifixion of Roman citizens. Of course, Aslan is simply ill informed about the Roman world.

Paul (page 183-196): No, Paul did not invent Jesus the Christ. Jesus himself proclaimed his divinity by elaborating the Jewish idea of agency, in that God acts through one person (angel, patriarch, prophet, finally the Messiah). Aslan again displays his ignorance.

Paul was not ostracized and despised by the Jerusalem Christians. Aslan is simply repeating F.C. Bauer’s very old thesis, long discredited. Paul became part of Christianity – he did not create it – and Paul saw Christianity as Judaism fulfilled, and he understood the church as the New Israel.

Throughout the book, there are many, many other such errors, sweeping-statements, contradictions, and outright falsehoods. Detailing these any further would be pointless.

Aslan’s greatest strength is inventing conspiracy theories (which seem always to sell well).

Lastly, a word on Aslan’s style, since he teaches creative writing. Throughout the book there is a tension between two stylistic registers – fiction and nonfiction. It seems Aslan really wants to write a novel.

The book begins with an appeal to immediacy, with a sudden and jarring use of the second-person personal pronoun (“you”).

We are then offered some contrived “sights and smells of ancient Jerusalem,” and we even get to witness an assassination.

Such techniques may work in a cheesy novel, but they have no place in a book claiming to be factual history.

There is also a tendency to over-write, and thereby throw up the fog of purple prose.

Logic…is not a strong point with Aslan.

For example: “Zeal, the spirit that had fueled the revolutionary fervor of the bandits, prophets, and messiahs, was now coursing through the population like a virus working its way through the body”(53).

And, “…the Roman swarm swept through the upper and lower city, littering the ground with corpses, sloshing through streams of blood…”(67).

Then, there are the frequent and needless clichés: the “boot of an imperial power”(16); “large swaths of the countryside”(17); “handful of sects”(37); “rampaged through the countryside, burning with zeal”(44); “Jesus’s neighbors were a different story”(94). And so on.

Lastly, the pluperfect tense is much too liberally used throughout the book.

Hardly a page can be turned without encountering, “would have,” “might have,” “could have.”

No doubt this is a nervous tick that points to Aslan’s tenuous knowledge. All he can do is garb his ignorance in folds of plausibility.

It is customary to look for some merit in a book, and it is this: it is work of psychotherapy.

In the Author’s Note, Aslan describes his encounter with Jesus the Christ, and then his loss of faith (because he could not overcome doubt). Such struggles happen to many, and such people move on.

But Aslan needs to hang on to Jesus in some way. Thus, he creates a Jesus of his own making; a Jesus that he can be happy with.

One can only hope that having worked it all out in the pages of his book, Aslan now feels much better.

As for Jesus, he belongs to history and to faith, and Aslan knows nothing about him.

 

[The photo shows, “The Mocking of Christ” by Carl Heinrich Bloch, painted in 1880]

Review: Battling The Gods. Atheism in the Ancient World

It is the nature of an hypothesis, when once a man has conceived it, that it assimilates everything to itself, as proper nourishment; and, from the first moment of your begetting it, it generally grows the stronger by everything you see, hear, read, or understand (Chapter 1.XLIV). Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.

 

Atheism strives to be the next “religion” of the West, as promulgated by its evangelists, who declare God to be a delusion and propound faith in science, which alone embodies everything that people will ever need for life and happiness. Religion, they say, is superstition, which humanity has simply outgrown.

It was Wittgenstein who made a crucial observation in his Tractatus: ““…even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.”

Science fails whenever humanity needs more than bread to live, which is why people have always held the belief that they are greater than their body, for they have a soul.

Certainly, some have denied this expression and concluded that beyond the physical there is only the unknown.

It was the Greek philosophical tradition which first produced such incredulity and which the Polish scholar, Marek Winiarczyk, spent a lifetime researching, as he built on the foundations laid by both Adolf von Harnack and Anders Bjorn Drachmann.

This philosophical denial is not equivalent to contemporary atheism, however, since known ancient doubters could not abandon transcendence (as expressed in the question of the One and the many). For them, transcendence meant the totality of being outside the self, namely, other people, other creatures, and the entire cosmos (which included the gods).

all strawmen require monolithic simplicity

Thus, ancient doubters could only question, or deny, the totality outside the self – but this is not atheism.

What lay beyond the material realm was never denied. “Nothing escapes the divine,” said the philosopher Epicharmus of Syracuse, and Heraclitus observed, “Human nature has no knowledge; divine nature does.”

The tradition of doubting totality beyond the self begins with the Pre-Socratic philosophers. But while they questioned the traditional (Homeric) structures of belief (the gods), they could not deny transcendence, from which all things were created, including the gods.

In effect, they were speculative thinkers, who sought to get beyond the shortcomings of their polytheism in order to understand the One (the transcendent precondition of the material world).

Indeed, the various gods were an embarrassment to the Greco-Roman philosophers, who had achieved great sophistication of thought, but lived in a culture that worshipped deities that could be no more than wilful human beings.

why does an atheist demand Christian ethics?

These philosophers termed this transcendence the apeiron, or the Undefined, the Unbounded, which guaranteed the existence of all creatures (the many in the material realm).

By way of the Socratic tradition, such understanding veered into the clarity of Judeo-Christian philosophy, whereby the apeiron is God, who is beyond all creation, as necessity, while also being universally present – the first and final cause (as Thomas Aquinas states).

Thus, the Greco-Roman doubters were not atheists in any modern sense of the term (not even the ancient Skeptics), for their doubt was a step towards knowing a greater reality beyond the gods.

In the words of Sextus Empiricus, “the Skeptic does not frame his life as a man according to the doctrine which he professes as a philosopher.” Life cannot be lived by denying the apeiron.

Modern-day atheism, in fact, is deeply grounded in Christianity, for it cannot think beyond the structures that Christianity has established – it can only work to deny them, and thereby establish scientism. Thus, present-day atheism is simply a Christian heresy.

To be specific, atheism has a very clear lineage – Cartesian separatism, Enlightenment libertinism, Hegelian development, Darwinist determinism, Nietzschean will to power, Marxian materialism and idealism, existentialism, fatalism, and the Heideggerian impasse.

This convoluted process may easily be simplified as, nihilism.

Dawkins and his ill-tutored ilk aside, proper atheism is the erasure of the question of God – it is not simply the denial of God for lack of proof (as commonly misunderstood). This means that God is impossible within space and time, because there cannot be a precondition to physical things – the many do not need the One.

In Greco-Roman philosophy, however, the question of the One (God) is never erased – it cannot be erased, because being is impossible without preconditions. Thus, again, there was no atheism in the ancient world.

Tim Whitmarsh argues otherwise in his book, Battling the Gods. Atheism in the Ancient World, by claiming that present-day atheism is the same as “ancient atheism.”

It has to be said at the outset that most chapters of this book read like extended lectures notes, likely thrown in to give girth to an otherwise rather lean output. For example, why is a lengthy geography lesson on the Greek peninsula included, followed by the tedium of a crash course in the entire breadth of the history of ancient Greece? Indeed, what do the Minoans and the Macedonians have to do with atheism?

moral excellence through wisdom

The book seems like some twenty-page academic journal article puffed up into a full-blown book.

Whitmarsh is a professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, who self-identifies as “fiercely secular,” and as a “New Atheist: “Is there any synagogue, mosque or church where the ideas of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris are expounded seriously and constructively?”

(Whitmarsh fails to mention why such explanations would be serious and constructive, or even necessary, since none of his three “saints” can hold a candle to Maimonides, Avicenna, let alone the sublime Thomas Aquinas).

The context in which Whitmarsh writes his book is postmodernism, which is the precondition to universities nowadays.

Among many other things, postmodernism (properly, poststructuralism) denies expertise, while privileging opinions, since truth and values do not exist. Consequently, history can only be spin, a rhetorical exercise, to display style, preference, choice, or a political posture. Herein lies Whitmarsh’s strength.

To be fair, Whitmarsh does admit early on that notions of atheism are markedly absent in antiquity, and only in some instances of Greek thought does doubt about the gods arise.

But Whitmarsh wants to service several agendas with his book. one being that atheism is “a human rights issue: it is about recognizing atheists as real people, deserving of respect, tolerance, and the opportunity to live their lives unmolested.”

Who knew that atheists were not considered “real” human beings?

More importantly, how is it that a devout atheist is advocating for human rights? This might have led to some interesting insights, but Whitmarsh has none to offer. Nor can he explain where these rights will come from, and who will guarantee them worldwide, so that they may be freely dispensed in aid of beleaguered atheists.

(What manner of hubris is it that allows authors to imagine that their words will actually save people, or feed people, or even stop some imagined oppression dead in its tracks now that their book has seen print? Vade retro me, Satana).

Both “respect” and “tolerance” are part of Christian morality; they are hardly vanguards of atheistic expedience. Why does a fervent atheist demand Christian ethics? Whitmarsh seems unaware of the contradiction he is invoking.

Another agenda is the lament for the vanishing interest in things classical. Whitmarsh is likely just flummoxed because he cannot justify the subject that he teaches, which has zero utility in the kind of atheistic society he wants to create.

The best he can come up with is the vague notion that by studying the Classics, people will know where ideas like atheism come from (which certainly serves as a handy justification for his own book).

rhetorical “victory” over Christianity

But why is knowing the origin of atheism, or any idea, important to anyone trying to earn an honest living in this harried world? The book offers no clues.

Whitmarsh might have wanted to look deeply into why he teaches what he does in a post-Christian context. Why does an atheist decry the absence of value, in a world made empty of meaning by atheistic postmodernism? He seems not to know that as an atheist he can only advocate skill and never wisdom (which is morality, which is guaranteed by God), techne over Sophia.

Atheism cannot offer values, because the minute you start demanding values (rights), you are demanding God (foe whom courts and politicians are a very poor substitute).

Values lead us into moral natural law, and that brings us back to a Creator who actually loves us enough to ingrain in us a code of decency, and we therefore treat others decently as well.

Education used to be about guiding people towards moral excellence through wisdom, the consequence of which was the good society, as first pinpointed by the Greeks and later embodied in Christianity (hence the creation of schools by the Church). In such a Christian system, the study of the Classics imparted the ethical eloquence of civilization.

Thus, Whitmarsh simply leans upon the “simulacra of morality” (in the words of Alasdair MacIntyre) to demand nothing.

It was Nietzsche who pertinently observed that nihilism is marked by the inability to answer the question, “Why?”

Skills education is ultimately about creating complaint workers for vanishing industries, a process in which the Humanities (especially arcane subjects like Greek and Latin) can play no role whatsoever.

After much grumbling, Whitmarsh finally launches into his real (and rather divergent) agendas:

  • That twenty-first century atheism is Greco-Roman in origin;
  • That “monotheism” is genetically violent;
  • That “polytheism” was tolerant and peaceful;
  • That Christianity, as monotheism, is violent, as well as fraudulent and power-hungry, and it destroyed the tolerant, pacific world of antiquity.

Tackling all this requires Whitmarsh to be an anthropologist, sociologist, classicist, historian, philosopher, theologian, and literary critic. Needless to say, therefore, errors and confusion abound, as Whitmarsh argues with a sledgehammer, to misuse a Nietzschean trope.

Immediately, terminology poses a stout challenge. “Atheism,” “polytheism,” “monotheism,” “violence,” “tolerance,” “religion” are hardly monolithic, self-evident categories that are readily transposed from the Oxford English Dictionary all the way back to the Greco-Roman world.

In fact, these terms are entirely meaningless, and scholars avoid them, and Whitmarsh’s uncritical use of them sabotages his arguments.

For example, “polytheism” does not mean worshipping lots of gods, as Whitmarsh assumes.

Rather, ancient belief systems blended pantheism, pandeism, henotheism, panentheism, along with magic, shamanism, ancestor-worship, natural science, music, dance (such as, the maze-dance, or the cult-dance), and psychology, as evidenced by the Greek mystery cults and Mithraism.

In fact, ancient belief was always a mixture of expectation, desire, hope, and the urge for well-being.

As for the term, “atheism” itself – since Whitmarsh does not define it, he therefore confuses it with Greco-Roman skepticism, pessimism, pragmatism, cynicism, atomism, syncretism and gnoseology – all of which, in turn, encompass much variety.

Thus, Whitmarsh’s reductive methodology is blind to complexity. Indeed, complexity would destroy the various strawmen that he needs in order to further his agendas – all strawmen, it would appear, require the simplicity of monoliths.

In fact, since polytheism was so multifaceted, the very idea of atheism is irrelevant in the ancient world.

Because Whitmarsh fails to define what he means by “ancient atheism,” he assumes that there is an unchanging “essence” to “atheism” which persists through time and space (a very theist notion in itself).

He tries to overcomes this deficiency with awkward sweeping summaries: “[Thucydides’] History can reasonably be claimed to be the earliest surviving atheistic narrative of human history;” and, “as a rule, Greek religion had very little to say about morality and the nature of the world.”

This all just Pelion piled on Ossa.

More to the point, Greek philosophy perfectly understood the paradox of unbelief as belief – which means that the material world was deemed unimportant and therefore subject to unbelief, while belief in the immaterial was unquestioned.

In fact, unbelief led to belief in the immaterial – this is why Plato says that the material world is not real. “Knowledge is the joining of the act of knowing and the soul,” explains the sophist Lycophron.

Although Greek philosophy could do without the gods, it could not do without the apeiron, which Plato would name, the Great Architect (the Demiurge), and Aristotle would call Pure Form, or the Unmoved Mover – and which Christianity came to call, God.

Even, Carneades (whom Whitmarsh uses as his ancient atheist poster-child), when he says that the Demiurge is unknowable, is not being an “atheist,” but is simply expressing the limit of human reason – his real doubt is in the ability of both sense and reason to comprehend and explain the immaterial. This is hardly atheism – and Carneades’ subtlety entirely escapes Whitmarsh. The limitation of the mind does not lead to the impossibility of God.

Thus it is not surprising to find more pointless generalities: “The search was on [in ancient Athens] for nonsupernatural causes for pretty much everything.” (Further instances would be tedious to quote).

Actually, much of what we know of the workings of reason in the Greek world contradicts Whitmarsh’s statement, because the Greeks were very careful to distinguish between all learning (causes), or polymathie, and intelligence, or noos, and the role of both in reason.

Again the words of Heraclitus will serve to correct Whitmarsh: “Wisdom is one thing, but to understand the purpose which guides all, through all things.”

The material world cannot exist without purpose (transcendence) – i.e., God.

Further, in an attempt to summarize Democritus, Whitmarsh concludes, “the fact that our world is as is is the result not of an integrated design in the universe but of luck.”

(Such awkward syntax is a “nervous tick” throughout the book, evident whenever Whitmarsh veers into unfamiliar territory. The many hats he has forced himself to wear tend not to fit too well).

Unwieldy sentences aside, Whitmarsh thoroughly misunderstands Democritus. Atoms had size, shape and position (in other words, purpose – precisely an “integrated design”), and because of this purpose, atoms were enabled, predetermined, to construct material things (very much like Legos, which are “designed” for shape, for things).

This is why Democritus advocated the importance of physis (the soul), which gives the body its purpose. He never denied its existence.

the Bible is part of ancient Greek literature

Thus, atoms were part of the apeiron’s (God’s) ability to create. As for luck, Democritus corrects Whitmarsh in this way – “Fools are shaped by the gifts of luck.”

It is curious indeed that Whitmarsh resorts to half-truths and outright half-baked claims to convince his hapless readers – while consistently failing to address the far more important paradox in Greek philosophy – why unbelief could never become a rigorous and codified system of thought, and why therefore only brief instances of individualized unbelief survive – and these cannot be cobbled into some sort of grand narrative of “ancient atheism.”

In fact, all Greco-Roman thinkers fall into the “believers” category. Hence the inherent, likely unwitting, contradiction in the very title of the book. If one is “battling the gods,” then the gods exist, and “ancient atheism” therefore does not.

This might well have been a focused, and much shorter, compendium of expressions of doubt in Greco-Roman thought (although Whitmarsh is unable to add anything of value to Winiarczyk’s excellent work).

However, “ancient atheism” is simply a means to a greater agenda – the final debunking of Christianity, which Whitmarsh energetically pursues by way of the now familiar modus operandi – questionable scholarship.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with a vigorous and intelligent critique of Christianity, but Whitmarsh can muster neither.

Instead, borrowing the logic of the middling conspiracy theorist, he sets out to “reveal” what has been hidden and suppressed by conniving Christians for two millennia (surely, the time has at last come to put such “revelations” out to pasture, since they are now meaningless).

Next, Christianity is declared to be inherently violent because it is monotheistic, and then charged with bringing untold suffering into a happy, tolerant, polytheistic Mediterranean world.

polytheism had nothing to offer

Here, Whitmarsh adheres to the simulacra of scholarship by uncritically accepting Jan Assmann’s peculiar notion that monotheism is inherently violent.

This is, of course, all warmed-over Freud, who first set up the misleading dichotomy of a violent monotheism (Judeo-Christianity) opposing a tolerant polytheism..

Both Freud and Assmann needed this hypothetical dualism to make sense of Nazi atrocities within the context of German culture, and both cared little for historical fact, which is why Assmann could conclude that the Holocaust was ultimately a creation of the Jews themselves, since they brought monotheism into the world (a claim that he now disavows).

Like Freud, Assmann is a good “novelist.” Whitmarsh, on the other hand, in not. He simply accepts all of Assmann’s ruminations about matters psychological – as Gospel truth.

The result is a caricature of not only the Greeks and the Romans, but of Christians and Christianity, whereby polytheism is held up to be tolerant and peaceful, while Christianity (because it is monotheistic) is declared to be intolerant and violent.

Whitmarsh’s opining is easily dismantled by the idea of love in Christian philosophy and theology – where love is a universal and universalizing principle that embraces not only friend but also foe; that responds to hatred with compassion; that seeks humility and the ceaseless surrender of the self for the benefit of others. Love is the highest, and the only, form of morality that the world needs.

(Whitmarsh might have done well to put aside his ideological blinkers and contemplatively read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in its entirety, not just the more famous Chapter 13. Curiously enough, Whitmarsh avoids the New Testament and the entire Christian tradition. Both would make for a very poor strawman).

Logic firmly declares that there can only be one truth – not several. And the truth is very simple – Greco-Roman polytheism was unable to counter Christianity’s deeper philosophy and more cogent theology. In other words, polytheism had nothing to offer to counter Christian love.

the ethical eloquence of civilization

As for the matter of Christian exclusivism, Whitmarsh does not to want to understand another simple concept – Christianity offered the Greco-Roman world what it lacked – a better, greater morality.

Syncretism is never a strength, but a weakness – because it means that there is no developed method of discernment that can separate right from wrong. Christianity provided a mature ability to discern what is good and what is bad, what it real and what is not, what is true and what is false – all through the lens of love.

Next, Whitmarsh sets out to “prove” both his caricatures (violent Christianity vs. peaceful polytheism) as true. Facts easily derail him, however.

Violence was deeply embedded in the pagan world, as expressed in the rituals of animal – and human – sacrifice. Thus, the gladiatorial shows were more than entertainment – they were the munera (our word, “money” comes from this term); that is, blood offerings to the spirits of ancestors.

Child sacrifice also was endemic throughout the ancient Mediterranean, with the tophets in North Africa and the Levant (as shown by the work of Robert M. Kerr, and others), while child exposure was the norm (the victims were often female infants).

War itself could only be undertaken if religiously sanctioned. Thus politics and religion were never separate, as evidenced by the Sacred Wars of the Greeks.

Further, the fetial priests of the Romans gave religious affirmation to violence on the battlefield, through divine law (the fas), as blood-offering to the spirit (genius) of the nation.

All violence in ancient pagan societies, therefore, required religious permission in order to negate ritual pollution. Christianity alone put an end to the necessity and logic of blood sacrifices.

Whitmarsh further claims that the ancient Greeks had neither the concept of, nor a word for, “sin,” since they had no divine laws to transgress, unlike the Christians.

Love is the highest form of morality

It is obvious that Whitmarsh conveniently chooses to ignore the concept of the nomos (tradition) among the Greeks, and the ius naturale (innate, natural law which all people obey) of the Romans.

To bolster his claim, he declares that, as a result, Christians had to “invent” a word for “sin” when they “translated” their Bible. This “invented” Greek word, he says, is aliterios.

This is wilful deception at best.

In fact, aliterios is never used in the New Testament. It is only found four times in the Book of the Maccabees (2 Mc. 12:23, 13:4, 14:42, and 3 Mc. 3:16). It is an obscure word in an Apocryphal work (in the Protestant tradition), which hardly makes it crucial to the entire Christian theology of sin.

Further, aliterios does not mean “sin,” but a “miserable person,” a “wretch” in the context of Maccabees.

And aliterios is not a “translation” from anywhere but is found in the Septuagint, which was originally written in Greek by native speakers.

Thus, aliterios was not “invented” by Christians, since the authors of the Septuagint were Hellenized Jews, living in Alexandria, in the third century BC, and therefore writing in their own language (Greek).

Further, aliterios is hardly unique to the Book of the Maccabees; it is found elsewhere in non-biblical sources. Whitmarsh can easily look it up in his Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon.

What Whitmarsh does not tell his readers is that the normal Greek word for “sin” throughout the Bible is hamartia, and the Greeks (like all humanity) knew what sin was – the transgression of divine law – otherwise, why would Oedipus stab out his eyes in ritualized penance?

There are eight other words for sin in ancient Greek, which are also found in the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, the Bible is very much part of ancient Greek literature, a fact Whitmarsh chooses to ignore, or does not care to know, because it is inconvenient to his agenda.

As well, Whitmarsh frequently asserts that Christians “translated” their Bible. By repeating this prevarication, he only displays his own nescience.

all Pelion piled on Ossa

How could the Bible be “translated” into Greek when it was entirely written in that language, by native speakers?

There are many other such deceptions, and it would be over-kill to catalogue them all.

Whitmarsh next reaches into some obscure corners, namely, the Circumcellion rebellion in North Africa, in the fourth century AD, to keep his violent-Christianity narrative chugging along.

His overwrought “proof,” however, only demonstrates an inability to differentiate hostility as a literary trope from actual bloodshed (he points to sermons and hymns as evidence of Christian violence).

Further, he downplays the political and social causes of this rebellion which had little to do with religion and everything to do with economics. The result is a confusion of the history of ideas (hymns and sermons) as the history of facts (economics).

In fact, we know very little about the Circumcellions. Therefore, disparate data is often thrown together to form some sort of coherent narrative, which suits Whitmarsh’s purpose well.

The fourth century was a complex period in North Africa, with Berbers, Romans and Vandals vying with each other. As well, each of these groups practiced a different form of Christianity. Thus, there were always “Christianities,” rather than “Christianity” (as is the case today). But such complexity simply gets in the way of Whitmarsh’s reductive strategy. Monoliths are easier to rail at.

Next, Whitmarsh sets out to demonstrate that Christians lied their way into becoming the “winners” of history and therefore the suppressors of truth – because one writer (Candida Moss) says so. He does not tell us why he believes Moss’s argument to be true, since it has been effectively dismantled.

He persists with the logic of the conspiracy theorist by holding firm to the vapid notion that “winners write history.”

Therefore, Whitmarsh can only repeat Moss’s casuistic conclusion that the persecution and martyrdom of Christians in the Roman world is a myth, purposefully contrived to win sympathy and facilitate the takeover of the Roman Empire. Neither Whitmarsh nor Moss provide actual documentary evidence for this early Christian contrivance.

Nor can they answer the question as to how sympathy possibly leads to political and territorial acquisition (no doubt, many a would-be politician would pay good cash-money for such knowledge).

a caricature of Christians and Christianity

Again, the history of facts undermines Moss and thereby Whitmarsh. Persecution of Christians was frequent and grim at the local, communal level – and it was sporadic and far bloodier at the imperial level.

The Romans had no police force and thus neighborhoods ruled themselves; and it is within such small, self-regulated communities that many of the martyrdoms occurred.

On the imperial level, being a Christian was a capital offence, as Pliny and the Emperor Trajan very clearly state, because Christians refused to honor, through sacrifice, the pax deorum, the “peace of the gods,” which involved offering incense to the spirit (genius) of the Roman Empire, in the person of the emperor.

This offering defined “Roman-ness” because it was said to protect against the forces of chaos that might beset the entire state. These sacrifices were meant to ensure social, cultural and political stability.

The refusal of Christians to participate in this religious practice made them atheists in the eyes of the Romans and therefore dangerous and subject to the death penalty – because their refusal to participate in sacrifices would mean upsetting the cosmic balance of human duty to the gods – and in turn the gods would refuse their duty of keeping chaos at bay.

This might have indicated to Whitmarsh that “atheists” were hardly tolerated by his caricatured polytheists. Enforcement of the law by imperial decree against Christians was haphazard, but when enacted, resulted in systematic persecution and executions.

Thus, Whitmarsh’s entire book becomes a parody of scholarship, since his interest is not historical fact, but some version of rhetorical “victory” over Christianity.

First, he casts Christianity in the role of the wretched Other, then he proceeds to vilify, deride and misrepresent it by all means possible in order to “prove” the superiority of his own faith, atheism, as romanticized and idolized in his caricature of Greco-Roman paganism.

In the process, the “fiercely secular” Whitmarsh readily dispenses with truth (as a postmodernist, he does not need it) – and his various claims therefore are nothing more than spin in order to win a contest between his cause (atheism) and its opponent (Christianity).

Johann Fichte and Ludwig Feuerbach  elaborated an important psychological trait of the modern world – autotheism. Thus atheism is ultimately autotheism, the endless veneration of the self as god. This is the greatest attraction of Whitmarsh’s religion, and his book, therefore, is nothing but a selfie.

Tim Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods. Atheism in the Ancient World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015, 290 pp., $27.95 hc.

[The photo is of “The Last Day of Pompeii,” by Karl Briullov, painted: 1880-1833]