paleo Ideofact

Saturday, January 11, 2003
Contrast and perspective
I offer two quotes, side by side, from two people who arguably are among the most influential thinkers of the latter part of the twentieth century. There is an unfairness in the comparison -- one is from an interview, in which one of the thinkers is talking about herself, the other is from a work of fiction. I think though, given the balance of their work, that the quotes are fairly representative of the outlooks of the two writers. The first is from Susan Sontag, as reported recently by Andrew Sullivan. Asked what she disliked about the United States, Sontag replied:
That all that primordial fantasy was subjected to consumerism, the ideology of "living to buy." That is the current ideology. It dumbs down the people, makes their main values be those of buying and enjoying themselves.
And here is a quote from George Steiner, a literary critic:
About which, I mean American, you and I really know very little. To me it sounds like the society that says to every man and woman: “Be what you want to be. Be yourself. The world was not made only for geniuses and neurotics, for the obsessed and the inspired. It was made for you and you and you. If you choose to try and be an artist or a thinker or a pure scholar, that’s fine. We will neither inhibit you nor put you on a pedestal. If you prefer to be a couch-potato, an auto-mechanic, a break-dancer, a mile-runner, a broker, if you prefer to be a truck-driver or even a drifter, that’s fine too. Perhaps even better. Because it so happens that ideological passion and ascetic illumination, that dogma and sacrifice, have not brought only light and aid to this approximate world of ours. They have sown interminable hatred and self-destruction.” And when America says, “Just be yourself,” it is not saying, “Do not better yourself.” It is saying: “Go after that Nobel Prize if that’s what fires your soul. Or that heated swimming pool.” Not because America believes that heated swimming-pools are the Parthenon or even a necessity. But because they do seem to bring pleasure, and not very much harm. “Move up the ladder, if you can,” says America, “because the desire to live decently, to give your family a comfortable home, to send your children to schools better than those you attended yourself, to earn the regard of your neighbors, is not some capitalist vice, but a universal desire. Do you know, Professore, America is just about the first nation and society in human history to encourage common, fallible, frightened humanity to feel at home in its skin.
I think the Steiner quote illuminates what Sontag is getting at when she suggests that enjoying oneself as a main value is equivalent of dumbing down the people. Again, "it so happens that ideological passion and ascetic illumination, that dogma and sacrifice, have not brought only light and aid to this approximate world of ours. They have sown interminable hatred and self-destruction." I wonder if Sontag would agree with this assessment. (Incidentally, this is the third time I've quoted this bit of Steiner. I should really write something about some of his nonfiction, including Antigones and the work that fired up quite a few of my small circle back in the day, Real Presences.

Friday, January 10, 2003
Well, I'm about 60 pages into Michael White's book, The Pope and the Heretic. There's a great deal to criticize -- the grade school account of the Middle Ages, the tendency to indentify as similar seemingly incongruous historical figures (Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon), but what struck me most is a footnote on page 49. He notes that in the pre-Modern world, figures could develop their thinking along two lines: that of natural science (drawing on Aristotle) and that of the occult (drawing on "Hermes Trismegistus and the ancient magi of the pre-Christian world" -- never mind that, since 1610, the idea that Hermes Trismegistus was an ancient magi of the pre-Christian world has been thoroughly debunked). In the footnote, he writes
Some readers may wonder why three parallel paths of human intellectual development -- natural philosophy, the occult tradition, and Christianity -- are not listed here. The last has been ignored for one important reason. Christian doctrine does not evolve; it is based upon cast-in-stone tenets and therefore cannot develop or offer anything radical or original. Of course, both the occult avenue and the Christian heritage share the encumbrance of being faith-based thought systems, but what differentiates them markedly is that Christian theology violently rejects change or innovation, whereas the occult tradition thrived upon these things. If nothing else, this willingness to embrace intuition and inventiveness could unite the natural philosopher (or protoscientist) with the mystic or occultist, so that each eventually found that they were almost totally incompatible with theology, yet shared some fundamental concerns.
So Christian doctrine does not evolve. The set-in-stone theology was understood in precisely the same way by Eusebius, Augustine, Aquinas, St. Francis, Tyndale and More, Calvin and Luther, Erasmus and Savanarola. Further, it cannot put forward radical ideas, like the notion that the laity can run their own churches, and, if need be, their own governments.

So far, White's book is telling me far more about its author's prejudices than about Bruno, which is a pity.

Winds of Change back
Joe Katzman's excellent Winds of Change blog is returning at a new address, which I've updated to the left. He also says that the MuslimPundit, another long missed Ideofact favorite, will be joining him.

I also notice that Joe is already having Blogger problems. One of the first posts I read on Camassia noted her problems. I haven't said much about blogger myself of late, but I may have more to say on this topic soon.

Thursday, January 09, 2003
Mysterious comission
Tonight I bought Michael White's book on Giordano Bruno, The Pope and the Heretic, which focuses a good deal of its attention on the Catholic Church's reaction to Bruno's [Hermetic] ideas and his trial for heresy -- for which he was ultimately condemned and burnt at the stake. I haven't started it yet, but I'm less eager to after flipping through it at random. On page 186, White writes,
...the Catholic Encyclopedia entry "Giordano Bruno" online at mysteriously makes no mention of Bruno's execution at all and goes shamelessly to great lengths to diminish both the merits of Bruno's character and the value of his work. It refers to Bruno's opinions as "errors."
Now, I don't regard the Catholic Encyclopedia as the be-all and end-all of scholarship (although I often find it useful), and it wouldn't surprise me that it might downplay Bruno's importance. But on checking its entry on Bruno, I found these words:
Bruno was arrested, and in his trial before the Venetian inquisitors first took refuge in the principle of "two-fold truth", saying that the errors imputed to him were held by him "as a philosopher, and not as an honest Christian"; later, however, he solemnly abjured all his errors and doubts in the matter of Catholic doctrine and practice (Berti, Docum., XII, 22 and XIII, 45). At this point the Roman Inquisition intervened and requested his extradition. After some hesitation the Venetian authorities agreed, and in February, 1593, Bruno was sent to Rome, and for six years was kept in the prison of the Inquisition. Historians have striven in vain to discover the explanation of this long delay on the part of the Roman authorities. In the spring of 1599, the trial was begun before a commission of the Roman Inquisition, and, after the accused had been granted several terms of respite in which to retract his errors, he was finally condemned (January, 1600), handed over to the secular power (8 February), and burned at the stake in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome (17 February).
I think that qualifies as a mention, and I think this section gives an indication that that the Catholic Encyclopedia's editors don't dismiss Bruno out of hand:
Bruno was not condemned for his defence of the Copernican system of astronomy, nor for his doctrine of the plurality of inhabited worlds, but for his theological errors, among which were the following: that Christ was not God but merely an unusually skilful magician, that the Holy Ghost is the soul of the world, that the Devil will be saved, etc.
The piece concludes:
No doubt, the attempt to establish a scientific continuity among all the phenomena of nature is an important manifestation of the modern spirit, and interesting, especially on account of its appearance at the moment when the medieval point of view was being abandoned. And one can readily understand how Bruno's effort to establish a unitary concept of nature commanded the admiration of such men as Spinoza, Jacobi, and Hegel. On the other hand, the exaggerations, the limitations, and the positive errors of his scientific system; his intolerance of even those who were working for the reforms to which he was devoted; the false analogies, fantastic allegories, and sophistical reasonings into which his emotional fervour often betrayed him have justified, in the eyes of many, Bayle's characterization of him as "the knight-errant of philosophy." His attitude of mind towards religious truth was that of a rationalist. Personally, he failed to feel any of the vital significance of Christianity as a religious system. It was not a Roman Inquisitor, but a Protestant divine, who said of him that he was "a man of great capacity, with infinite knowledge, but not a trace of religion."
Now, that doesn't seem to dismiss his ideas, but rather, to put them into context. Bruno, after all, did fall for the later debunked antiquity of the Corpus Hermeticum, and while his ideas certainly had a great deal of influence, his method at arriving at them (as often through Hermetic analogy and correspondences as through direct observation of phenomena, hypothesis, etc.) did not. And Bruno's method, in his works, was not exactly inseparable from his conclusions. In other words, he was no Francis Bacon, and when Bruno was right, it was often for the wrong reasons.

Of course, it's entirely possible that the Catholic Encyclopedia entry was updated since White published his book, although the cached version on Google seems identical to the one currently online. In any case, I fault the Catholic Enclyclopedia far more for its entry on Johannes Pfefferkorn, about whom I most recently wrote here. For an example of glossing over ugly Church history, consider this reference to the Epistolae obscurorum virorum which defended, through satire, Johannes Reuchlin -- the lawyer, linguist and Cabalist who defended Hebrew books against the efforts of Pfefferkorn and his patron, Ortwin Gratius (described, oddly enough, as a "humanist") to burn them:
He was attacked bitterly by the younger intellectual element, especially their leader, Hermann von dem Busche, on account of his taking the part of the Cologne University theologians and the Dominicans on the occasion of the Reuchlin controversy, as well as on account of his Latin translations of various writings of the Jewish convert, Pfefferkorn. Gratius had at that time just finished a literary tournament with von dem Busche, and had been made the laughing-stock of the literary world by the venomous "Epistolae obscurorum virorum", his adversaries succeeding in vilifying him from both the moral and scientific standpoints, denouncing him as a drunkard and guilty of other vices, and as an incompetent Latin and Greek scholar.
No mention of the fact that the Epistolae were part of a campaign to prevent the Church from burning Jewish books in the hopes that, without their books, the Jews would convert to Christianity, and that Gratius was on the other side of the dispute. The more venom, in other words, the better...

Myself included
I rather enjoyed this piece in Slate by Paul Boutin on the new Apple laptop:
Easily the largest laptop ever, its 1-gigahertz processor beats beneath a casing made of what Jobs calls "aircraft-grade aluminum." Its metal sides bristle with beefed-up data ports, and it comes standard with a DVD burner and a new super-WiFi system, aptly named Airport Extreme, fast enough at 54 megabits per second to carry a hundred video streams. Status-conscious laptop toters know you can never be too rich or too thin, though, so the $3,299 behemoth closes its lid to a mere inch in height—deliberately slimmer than its predecessors. Capping the theme, the PowerBook's keyboard is under-lit like a mall cruiser with a soft, fiber-optic glow that emanates automatically whenever the room lights dim. All that's missing is a subwoofer and tinted windows.
Boutin notes that Apple is bucking an industry trend with the new PowerBook.
Most computer users will find a 17-inch screen and gigabit data jacks about as useful as 4-wheel drive and roll bars. Yet, judging by the number of attendees jotting down "$3,299," Jobs and company have hit the same consumer brain button that keeps the H2 on backorder. While everyone else was out cost-cutting, Apple built a lust object. Among the rows of jaded industry journalists at Jobs' feet, two things were obvious: Nobody, but nobody, really needs this computer. And everybody wants one.
I have a relatively new iBook (and I do most of my home computer stuff -- professional and otherwise -- on my iMac) so I have no excuse, but what can I say -- I can't help wanting one.

Monday, January 06, 2003
Magic & science
Reader Todd Melnick writes, in response (I think) to this post (and the link may not work, because my archives appear to be fried again):
It has been argued that Newton's alchemical studies were a factor in his discovery of the law of gravity. There's a whole debate within the history of science about the extent to which alchemy and hermeticism contributed to the development of modern science. Here are a few bits from the concise version of Richard Westfall's biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge UP, Canto Edition):

[summarizing a letter to Boyle]
"At one point, Newton started to speculate on the possible causes of the repulsion between bodies. He crossed the paragraph out, presumably because chapter 1 expounded phenomena only and he intended to reserve such discussion for another place. The third possible explanation he offered before he canceled the passage had a familiar look. 'Or it may be in the nature of bodies not only to have a hard and impenetrable nucleus but also a certain surrounding sphere of most fluid and tenuous matter which admits other bodies into it with difficulty.' That is, the alchemical hermaphrodite, sulpher surrounded by its mercury, offered a model to explain the universal property that all bodies possess to act upon one another at a distance." (p. 146)


"In the letter to Boyle, Newton had argued that mechanical principles are inadequate to explain all phenomena. Now he had demonstrated to his own satisfaction that the aether, the deus ex machina that made mechanical philosophies run, does not exist. Driven, as it seems to me, primarily by the phenomena that he observed in alchemical experimentation and encouraged by concepts that he encountered in alchemical study, Newton appeared to be poised in 1679 on the brink of a further break with the mechanical philosophy, which would have major impact on his future career." (p. 148)


"As it appears to me, Newton's philosophy of nature underwent a profound conversion in 1679-80 under the combined influence of alchemy and the cosmic problem of orbital mechanics, two unlikely partners which made common cause on the issue of action at a distance. Insofar as he continued to speak of particles of matter in motion, Newton remained a mechanical philosopher in some sense. Henceforth, the ultimate agent of nature would be for him a force acting between particles rather than a moving particle itself--what has been called a dynamic mechanical philosophy in contrast to a kinetic." (p. 154)

"The Principia redirected Newton's intellectual life, which theology and alchemy had dominated for more than a decade. It interrupted his theological studies, which he did not resume seriously for another twenty years. It did not terminate his career as an alchemist, but it diverted the thrust of alchemical concepts from the private world of arcane imagery into an unexpected and concrete realm of thought where the rigor of mathematical precision could help them reshape natural philosophy." (p. 163)
I don't have a whole lot to add to that. In the Renaissance you start out with guys like Ficino and Pico Della Mirandolla -- the latter wrote the Oration on the Dignity of Man, which more or less kicked off the Renaissance. At the end, you have Descartes and Bacon and Newton, and the beginnings of the scientific method. In some ways this is astonishing -- here, for example, is a thumbnail description of what Pico believed, from The Occult Philosophy of the Elizabethan Age by Frances Yates:
Pico envisages a mystical ascent through the spheres of the universe to a mystical Nothing beyond them. In the forty-eighth Cabalist Conclusion he sets out the order of the Sephiroth of Cabala in their relation to the spheres of the cosmos. The names of the ten Sephiroth are listed, from 'Kether' to 'Malkuth,' and opposite them are listed the ten spheres of the universe, from primum mobile through the seven planets, to the elements. This cosmic-theosophic system is the ladder through which mystical meditation leads the adept into profound intuitions of the nature of God and the universe. THe magical element in it derives from the power of the divine names; with them are associated names of angels. ...
It doesn't quite sound like the laws of motion. But there is a sort of direct line between Pico's conjuring and Newton's mechanics, running through Reuchlin and Agrippa and John Dee. But that's a post for another time.