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The Renaissance – Some were punished, others outsmarted authoritarian powers

Renaissance fair near Pittsburgh

Renaissance fair near Pittsburgh (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A term that literally means “rebirth,” the Renaissance brought on a flowering of the arts, architecture, music, literature, philosophy, religion, science and scholarship.

Prefigured in the 12th century, what some call the High Middle Ages, most agree that the Renaissance began in Florence, Italy and spread through Europe from the 14th to 17th centuries. Several factors were involved in its genesis. One of the more prominent was a weakening of the Christian Church’s cultural and economic grip over the lives of men and women.¹

Geographers, astronomers, and map makers during the Renaissance and Baroque periods were very interested in observing and mapping the heavenly bodies and theorizing about their relationship to the Earth – Norman B. Leventhal Map Center via Flickr

Instead of Europeans following the dictates of authoritarian personalities and their organizational structures, beauty and truth were sought after in fresh new ways.

The clergy had lost its stranglehold on learning and aptitude in languages like Latin, Hebrew and Greek, making any person with means and ability free to study and ask new questions about society, history and Biblical scripture.

Some were severely punished for their new found freedoms. Authoritarians in power rarely enjoy challenges to their rigid mindsets and regimes. Other freethinkers distanced themselves or entirely renounced authoritarian beliefs and structures so as to minimize repercussions. And yet other shrewd figures like Erasmus Desiderius knew how to find balance and equilibrium among competing political forces.

It’s not for us to say whose approach was right or wrong. Each had their own way, just as today some are called to blend in while others stand out.

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria d...

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria dell’ Accademia, Venice (1485-90) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


¹ This entry doesn’t really touch on sex-role stereotypes during the Renaissance. If you are in the know, feel free to add to it.

Related  » Fortuna, Medieval, Scholarship


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Comte Henri de Saint-Simon – His concern for the poor shines above everything else

Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon

Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) or, more commonly, Saint-Simon is one of those figures who comes up regularly in sociology courses, especially so-called “classical” or “classical theory” courses.¹

Until writing this entry, I knew little about him. But I felt he was important because so many books and professors (the better ones, anyhow) mention him in passing.

Looking over Wikipedia this morning to update my 2009 entry, Saint-Simon turns out to be quite interesting.

Born in Paris as a French Aristocrat, he spent some time in America, fighting under George Washington in the siege of Yorktown. Back in Europe, he took up the cause of the poor, which lead his being called the founder of French socialism.

He supported the French Revolution but was put in jail during the Reign of Terror because of unwarranted suspicions that he was a counter-revolutionary. Luckily for him, he was released from prison in 1794 before literally losing his head. By this time French currency was devalued, which left him rich. But he was cheated out of his fortune by his business partner.

After an unhappy marriage that ended in a year, he wrote and tried to recover his lost fortune without success. He then spent time in a sanatorium. Ten years later, discouraged by his lack of influence on the world, he attempted suicide. According to the story, shooting himself six times in the head didn’t kill him, although he did become blind in one eye.

Nederlands: Portret van Claude Henri de Rouvro...

Portrait of Claude Henri de Rouvroy from the first quarter of the 19th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Relatives helped him out but Saint-Simon lived his final years in abject poverty. Perhaps this had something to do with his earlier concern for the poor.²

Saint-Simon reacted against the brutality of the French Revolution and envisioned a society where science and technology would guide the workings of religion and politics. He disliked government intervention in the economy, making his approach differ from how we usually understand “socialism.”

Concerning religion, he believed in a divine power but wanted to strip away the dogmas and routines of both Protestant and Catholic Christianity to get to the core of Jesus’ message as he saw it. For him, theory wasn’t done for mere pleasure or, as a twisted professor I had allegedly once said, for a “paycheck.” For Saint-Simon, theory and practice should go hand in hand to alleviate suffering and elevate all peoples to the highest possible good.

Saint-Simon’s writings remain influential in sociology. He had particular impact on the political views of Auguste Comte (17981857), especially with regard to the concept of progress. Comte in turn influenced Emile Durkheim, now hailed as one of the founding fathers of sociology.

Tumba de Saint Simon by Cosmovisión / Juan Luis Sotillo

Tumba de Saint Simon by Cosmovisión / Juan Luis Sotillo

¹ Sociologists tend to join the dots for us, telling us what is important according to how they see things today. The word “classical” should be taken critically too. It’s full of connotations about legitimacy and importance.

² If the soul is beyond space and time, as some mystics tell us, quite possibly Saint-Simon’s future state influenced his younger concerns. You won’t find this idea among the rank and file of psychologists and psychiatrists in the 21st century, but I think it’s quite possible and hopefully an idea that future theorists will pursue.


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Suttee – A violent and cruel remnant of Hinduism that continues today (without any attempt to legitimize it spiritually)

Sati handprint on the entrance to Junagarh Fort. Sati was the practice where a woman burned herself on the her husband’s funeral pyre or when her husband died in battle defending the fort.

Suttee or Sati (Skt. “good woman”) has two meanings, both related to wife-burning.

In the ancient and medieval Hindu tradition, suttee occurs when a husband dies, is cremated and his wife enters the flames to be consumed along with him.

Although usually seen as horrendous by non-Hindu standards, the practice was formerly legitimized with an alleged spiritual significance.

The wife entering into the flames was once seen by Hindus as an act of sacred devotion to the husband—a devotion that continued into the afterlife. At least, this was the official take on things. It’s hard to know if women were simply forced or if they voluntarily entered the fire.

17th century Muslim rulers showed some opposition to suttee¹ and British colonialists outlawed it in 1829 while occupying India.

"Ceremony of Burning a Hindu Widow with t...

“Ceremony of Burning a Hindu Widow with the Body of her Late Husband”, from Pictorial History of China and India, 1851. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Suttee also refers to the contemporary and illegal practice of wife-burning in apparently accidental kitchen fires.

As mentioned in the Indian media and elsewhere,² unscrupulous husbands murder their wives by faking kitchen fires. That is, some Indian men apparently marry and murder women merely to obtain dowries.

This may sound incredible but one must remember the considerable geographic size and massive population of India, along with developmental issues which can make the enforcement of social justice difficult.

1 The complexity of the situation is outlined here:   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sati_(practice)#Attitudes_of_Muslim_rulers

² See http://www.kashgar.com.au/articles/life-in-india-the-practice-of-sati-or-widow-burning and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bride_burning

Related » Yoga


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Erich Fromm and the “Mass Man”

Gedenktafel für Erich Fromm aus der Reihe Mit ...

Plaque for Erich Fromm from the series with Freud in Berlin. Bayerischer Platz 1, Berlin-Schöneberg. Enthüllt am 1. Juli 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Erich Fromm (1900-1980) was a German-born American psychologist and social thinker who is often linked to the Frankfurt school of critical theory.

Fromm’s work combined different ideas from the works of Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and J.-P. Sartre.

Like Carl Jung, he was acutely aware of the danger of bureaucracies controlled by the wrong people. He leveled a critique against the so-called mass man who, like a robot, compliantly follows orders to maintain financial security at the expense of human decency.

For Fromm, individuals “escape from freedom” through at least three often related routes:

  • Authoritarianism – losing the self by over-identifying with a powerful leader
  • Automaton Conformity – blindly following the will of a powerful leader
  • Destructiveness –  hurting self or others in an attempt to blot out a painful reality

In “The Sane Society” (1955), Fromm says modern individuals are alienated from their authentic self by seeking ephemeral thrills through mass culture and consumerism. According to Fromm, what makes us truly human is our ability to love. If we sacrifice this to the gods of commerce or political ambition, we’ve sacrificed our greatest gift of all.

Fromm’s works include The Fear of Freedom (1941), The Art of Loving (1956) and The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973).

Related » HAL 9000, Borg, Projection


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Gregory the Great – Doctor of the Church, Saint and Pope

English: Gregory I became pope in 590 and effe...

Gregory I became pope in 590 and effected great changes in the Roman Catholic church. He used the office to govern and provide pastoral care to a large area during a time of little civil administration. He also reformed church liturgy, introducing Gregorian chant. Gregory’s writings about saints, including Saint Benedict, helped the growth of Benedictine monasteries in the Middle Ages. (Photo credit and text for this image: Wikipedia)

St. Gregory (540 – 604 CE) was a learned politician who became a monk, then Pope. He came from a wealthy patrician family, well connected to the Church in Rome. His father was a senator and Gregory became the Prefect of Rome at the young age of 30.

He reluctantly became Pope from 590 to 604, writing letters after his election indicating that he really didn’t want to do it, but would assume office out of divine duty.

An interesting anecdote tells us that Gregory so believed in the afterlife that he punished a dying man and even abused his dead body.

It seems to some that Gregory was not always forgiving, or pleasant for that matter, even in his monastic years. For example, a monk lying on his death bed confessed to stealing three gold pieces. Gregory forced the monk to die friendless and alone, then threw his body and coins on a manure heap to rot with a curse, “Take your money with you to perdition”. Gregory believed that punishment of sins can begin, even on one’s deathbed.[26] However, at the monk’s death Gregory offered 30 Masses in his remembrance to assist his soul before the final judgment

Today, most would see behaviour like this as indicative of a disturbed psyche, and definitely illegal.

Also interesting is that, although Gregory was learned, he came to dislike erudition in favor of what many would see as fanatical superstition.

Opinions of the writings of Gregory vary. “His character strikes us as an ambiguous and enigmatic one,” Cantor observed. “On the one hand he was an able and determined administrator, a skilled and clever diplomat, a leader of the greatest sophistication and vision; but on the other hand, he appears in his writings as a superstitious and credulous monk, hostile to learning, crudely limited as a theologian, and excessively devoted to saints, miracles, and relics“.²

Vintage colour engraving from 1864 showing Gregory and the English slaves at Rome. Pope Gregory I (c. 540 – 12 March 604), better known in English as Gregory the Great, was pope from 3 September 590 until his death. Gregory is well known for his writings, which were more prolific than those of any of his predecessors as pope.

According to the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, Gregory was “the last good Pope.” And many see him as a bridge between the ancient and medieval worlds.³

I originally mentioned Gregory in this blog mostly because he’s the one whom the term “Gregorian Chant” is named after. But like many legends, Catholic or otherwise, attributing Gregorian Chants to Pope Gregory is probably not historically accurate.

Most scholars believe that the so-called Gregorian Chant came into existence during the 9th and 10th centuries due to a blend of social, political and musical forces that mostly did not exist when Gregory was alive.4

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Gregory_I

² Ibid.

³ Ibid.

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregorian_chant

 


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The Old Testament – Timeless wisdom or old, outdated operating system?

11th century Hebrew Bible with targum, perhaps...

11th century Hebrew Bible with targum, perhaps from Tunisia, found in Iraq: part of the Schøyen Collection. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The Old Testament is a Christian name for the books of the Hebrew Bible. This is a problematic term because Jewish people could easily find it disrespectful of their holy scripture.

The designation comes from a Christian perspective with the unabashed implication that the New Testament fulfils the Old Testament, rendering the latter imperfect and somewhat lacking. This way of viewing the so-called Old Testament is found within Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Fundamentalist forms of Christianity.

In Christianity, the relationship between the Old and New Testaments seems confusing. I had one professor who argued that Christianity’s biggest mistake was to try to incorporate the Old Testament into the new religion. They should have just started afresh, he felt. I think this perspective lacks appreciation of the Jesus story. The “new” religion gains a certain depth and continuity by including the Old Testament. However, problems do arise, which theologians and preachers try to resolve in various ways.

The most notable difference between the Old and New Testaments is God’s apparent encouragement of violence and animal sacrifice in the OT but not in the NT. Sometimes, that is. The OT God doesn’t approve of all sacrifices, as we see with Cain and Abel. And sometimes he punishes doers of violence, if that particular violence is not in keeping with his Holy Agenda.¹

Also, the NT says we should live by the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law.² Living by the letter of the law “kills” it. The OT, by way of contrast, lays out strict and fairly detailed laws as to how the righteous should behave. This difference in rules and regulations also applies to what and when we eat. Somehow the Catholic Church forgot this, and started making new rules of regulations about eating. But many modern Catholics see this as unimportant.

As for adultery and sexual lust, Jesus of the NT raises the bar here. You can’t even think about it without being sinner; whereas in the OT actually doing it is the sin.²

A representation of Saint John the Evangelist in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue on July 31, 2010 in New York City.

Some Christians make no apology for calling the Old Testament the Old Testament. For them, it’s just another instance of unwarranted political correctness to pretend that all religions are of equal value. The New Testament, again for them, is better. So why, they argue, water things down by pretending otherwise? But again, their Holy Bibles contain the Old Testament. So there’s a lot of room for debate here.

¹ Both the OT and NT, however, are sexist and often simplistic—especially in the NT with regard to nutritional needs.

² These are just some of the differences that came to mind while revising this entry; this is not an exhaustive list. The NT also emphasizes forgiveness while the OT prescribes the famous, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” kind of reactive punishment for wrongdoings. Follow this link for more perspectives.

Related » Adam, Bible, Book of Isaiah, Book of Job, Burning Bush, Daniel, Dead Sea Scrolls, Divination, Elohim, Eve, God, the Father, Heaven, Jesus Christ, John the Baptist, Jonah, Just War, Kabbala, Koran, Lilith, Lot, Lot’s Wife, Miracles, Moses, Pollution, Torah, Yahweh


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George Orwell – Activist, author, visionary

Category:George Orwell Category:Nineteen Eight...

George Orwell, 1984. This self-made image is based on a picture that appears in an old acreditation for the BNUJ. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

George Orwell (Originally Eric Arthur Blair, 1903-50) was a British novelist, journalist and poet was born in Bengal, India. A champion of democratic socialism, he fought and was wounded in the Spanish Civil War.

Orwell’s best known works satirize the Russian revolution, Animal Farm (1945) and critique Stalinism, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

Orwell lived a fascinating life, plumbing the depths of his own psyche and health, at times existing on the margins of society in dire poverty. Not exactly a champion of Western Capitalism nor the elitism associated with powerful public figures, he nevertheless performed BBC radio broadcasts during WW-II for the Allied war effort and wrote favorably of Winston Churchill while the United Kingdom mourned his passing.

In contemporary parlance, the term “Orwellian” describes a society marked by an authoritarian lack of personal privacy and individual rights and freedoms—the core elements that arguably make life worth living. With the rise of information technologies, coupled with the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, not a few folks today are concerned that we could enter into such a nightmarish scenario. And on a more personal level, all it takes is one unhappy, socially awkward person with the right hacking software and connections, and you could be stalked in a most odious fashion.

All this, Orwell foresaw. And that makes him a kind of visionary.

Related » Borg, David Bowie, Science Fiction

3 for the week: Inspirational quotes to get you through the week – 9th May 2016

George Orwell’s son Richard unveils plaque in Canonbury Square (this time with the correct dates)