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The Glory and, sadly, the Gory of Rome

young woman taking pictures at the Pantheon, Rome

Rome is the vibrant capital of Italy, with a long and complicated history, dating back to the 8th century BCE.

The founding of Rome is understood in terms of two mythic tales. One about Romulus and Remus. The other about Aeneas. The Romulus and Remus myth seems to have mostly won out. Any popular videos I’ve seen about Rome tell about their being suckled by a she-wolf but ignore the tale of Aeneas. Such is life… and history.

I’m not a Roman historian so, rather than spend days rewriting something I’m only mildly interested in, I have highlighted some main points here. Readers wanting more could also check out the lively podcast at Spotify: The History of Rome (mobile).

The Capitoline she-wolf with the boys Romulus ...

The Capitoline she-wolf with the boys Romulus and Remus. Museo Nuovo in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Roman Religion before the time of Christ is quite engaging. It overlaps with Greek myth. The strong-armed Romans borrowed much from Greek culture, which they admired for its sublimity.

But Roman Religion also has its own quirks—including the belief in personal deities for almost every occasion, divination, and from a contemporary perspective, irrational superstitions.

I strongly recommend John Ferguson’s The Religions of the Roman Empire.¹  Also, Sir J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough² offers some intriguing theories about pagan priestly succession in ancient Rome.

According to Frazer, a potentially new priest challenges and ultimately slays an old priest. So being a priest is not exactly a cushy job in some corners of ancient Rome. This didn’t apply to all pagan priests. I’ve highlighted the story here.

Pre-Christian Rome fell in the 5th century to Germanic invaders. In the 6th century Rome became an important center for the Christian Church, with Vatican City on the West bank of the Tiber river.

When the Roman Empire was at its peak, the city of Rome symbolized worldly power and also of the cruel persecution of the early Christians. Ironically, the geographic focal point for the persecution of Christians eventually became the worldwide center for Christianity and later, with the East-West Schism and Protestantism, for Catholicism.

The “Hammer or Witches” was a disturbed and irrational ‘manual’ supported by leading theological universities. It told how to identify and torture witches. It was a bestseller, second only to the Bible for almost 200 years.

The historian Arnold Toynbee and others observe that soon after the Christian Romans gained power, they began persecuting individuals (heretics and witches) just as the pagan Romans had previously persecuted Christians.

Toynbee believes it is mostly power – and the greed and arrogance that goes with it – that is responsible for this barbarous behavior among human beings. Religious justifications are just window dressing. The real cause of persecution is human brutishness and misery.

How many people like this do we know today? Is it any wonder we usually don’t want to have anything to do with them!

In 1871 Rome became the capital of modern Italy.

¹ Chances are you don’t have to pay $40 for this book. It’s in most major libraries. And secondhand and remaindered booksellers tend to sell it for under $10. I once saw it in used paperback for a dollar.

²  This is a huge, multi-volume work but there are several abridged versions.

Related » Acts of the Apostles, Aeneas, Aeneid, Julius Caesar, Church FathersMythic Inflation, Romulus and Remus, Vestal Virgin


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Paul’s Letter to the Romans – Ancient innovation to overcome legalism

Rembrandt - St. Paul in Prison (Wikipedia)

Rembrandt – St. Paul in Prison (Wikipedia)

Paul’s Letter To The Romans is an important book of the Christian New Testament.

Most Catholic and Protestant scholars agree that it was written by the apostle Paul c. 56 CE., probably in the Greek city of Corinth.

Paul’s writings have a certain depth because he was not only traditionally ‘educated’ but also a former persecutor of Christians. His dramatic conversion while riding to Damascus gives him a unique credibility among contemporary believers.

In Letter To The Romans Paul writes to a specific community he is planning to visit. His message is clear. The Old Testament laws are holy but strict, legalistic adherence to them does not guarantee spiritual salvation.

Early Christians have metaphorically died to the old Jewish law and are reborn in the faith of Christ. With a pure heart set on Jesus, good thoughts and actions arise through God’s grace.

But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.¹

For Catholics, this means one is not saved through faith alone. Believers also must do the right thing before God.

Paul arrested - Wikipedia

Paul arrested – Wikipedia

The difference between Paul’s vision and the early, Old Testament approach is that good works are “alive” and adaptive in contrast to just doing what we’re told through a given set of rules and regulations.²

Put another way, Christians ideally live well from the inside, responding appropriately to a variety of complicated life situations. They do not simply obey from the outside, responding in a fixed way for every circumstance.

Paul’s letter also breaks new ground by saying that salvation through Christ is not just for a select few but for all—Gentiles, Jews and anyone who lives in Christ.

Salvation also includes women, who, in ancient times were not always too visible. About one-third of Romans’ greetings are to women. This may not be 50% but it is a significant step considering the ancient world mostly ignored women as equals.

¹ Romans 7:6

² (a) Historically, rabbis have debated the meaning of the Law coming up with different interpretations. I’m not sure if any interpretations have approximated Paul’s message. If any Jewish scholars know, please comment! I’d be interested to hear. (b) For some, it is ironic that the Catholic Church has adopted so many rules and regulations while, at the same time, upholding Paul’s position that the letter of the law “kills” while the spirit “lives” – 2 Corinthians 3:6.


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The Power of Pop – Still No. 1 after all these years

Just let me hear some of that rock and roll music
Any old way you choose it
It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it
Any old time you use it
It’s gotta be rock and roll music
If you want to dance with me

Rock and Roll Music, Chuck Berry


Rock and Roll is a form of popular music originally emblematic of the freedoms, joys, sorrows, romance and rebelliousness of youth. It emerged in the 1950s, blending country/western and the blues. The emphasis is on the “back beat” — the second and fourth beats (ta TA ta TA). This is the opposite of the military march, with accents on the first and third beats (TA ta TA ta).

Cultural studies professors and musicologists also say that a lot of rock and pop music runs roughly at the same tempo as – or as a multiple of – the human heart beat. This claim is a bit vague but rock certainly does connect on a visceral level.¹

Early rock’s brightest lights were people like Chuck Berry (1926-), Little Richard (1932- ), Bill Haley (1925-81), Buddy Holly (1936 -59) and “The King,” Elvis Presley (1935-77). These guys nearly killed the old crooners like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Sinatra was hip enough to joke about it when Elvis appeared on his TV show in 1960. And in 1977 Crosby embraced the, at the time, spiky David Bowie because he recognized his immense vocal talent. So the old crooners were down but certainly not out.

The 60s and 70s saw pop/rock expand into a different kind of beast. Recording technologies (like the multitrack tape studio), the rise of FM radio, and the changing values of the hippie era opened up new sounds, techniques and styles.

Dianna Ross and The Supremes helped to define the Motown sound (music from a record company based in “Motor City,” Detroit).

British groups like The Beatles and The Moody Blues brought in symphony orchestras and made rock accessible to kids from 2 to 102.

Meanwhile, Traffic and Americans like The Doors (with Jim Morrison), Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin challenged conventional parents around the world. Teens and young adults were openly getting drunk, doing drugs and practicing free love.

In this unhinged era of purple haze and paper suns, there were still lots of sharp business people ready to profit from millions of young consumers. Rock took on different styles and marketing categories. The two dimensions, music and money, thrived in a more finely tuned kind of reciprocity.

Suddenly we had Hard Rock, Heavy Metal, Progressive Rock, Funk, Raggae, Soul, Easy Rock, Disco, Glam Rock, Pop Rock, Bubble Gum Rock, Comedy Rock, Folk Rock, Christian Rock, to name a few.

Image by Mike Clark, taken at HMV records downtown Toronto Jan 22 2017 (store now in receivership).

Image by Mike Clark, taken at HMV Toronto Jan 22 2017 (now in receivership).

Some of the biggest 1970s stars were Paul McCartney and Wings, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, David BowieGenesis (with Peter Gabriel), Billy Joel, Pink Floyd, Yes, Led Zeppelin, ELP, Santana, Supertramp, The Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Heart, Fleetwood Mac, Steve Miller, King Crimson, The Alan Parsons Project, Rush, Bob Marley, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, The Who, The Guess Who, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Eagles, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, The Bee Gees, EWF and Stevie Wonder.²

Disco also hit the scene in the 70s. Donna Summer is arguably the grandma of EDM, along with her grandpa producer Giorgio Moroder. Moroder still makes commercially viable music today. And producer Nile Rodgers, another 70s survivor who helped David Bowie commercialize “China Girl” in the 80s, recently worked with the EDM star, Avicii.

The German band Kraftwerk also played a huge role in the development of electronic music, as did Alan Parsons in a more progressive style.

One of my favorite 70s songs is “I’m Not In Love” by 10CC (1975). The band used analog tape loops to achieve what we now take for granted with digital tech. The tune is so well done and ahead of its time, I still get goosebumps when I hear it.

The 70s were great to live through but things had to change. Toward the end of the decade pop music was overblown. Progressive rock collapsed in on itself with pretentious, uninspired, pale reflections of former glories.³

Enter Punk Rock, New Wave and Rap.

Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols are often cited as the inventors of Punk Rock. And minimalist bands like Devo, The B-52s, The Talking Heads and The Police (with Sting) were part of a “New Wave.” Most of the New Wave fizzled out fast but The Talking Heads made their mark into the early 90s. Their existentialist, deconstructionist songs have been studied by academics interested in postmodernismRappers Delight (1979) is usually credited as the first rap record to reach mainstream audiences, based on “Good Times” by Chic.

Groups like Soft Cell, Eurythmics and Art of Noise used sequencers and digital sampling with a new minimalist response to the excesses of the 70s. A key feature of 80s pop was the “orchestral hit” — a full orchestral sound burst from the touch of keyboard. Sampling was also essential to rap and hiphop.

Annie Lennox

Like most trends, pop’s minimalist response didn’t last. Instead, 80s pop-rock was mostly about slick studio production, made possible by digital instruments and recording gear. Duran Duran and Tears for Fears are good examples of the lush, 80s studio sound. Meanwhile, Depeche Mode worked digital sampling to create harder, “industrial” music.

In 1980 John Lennon and Yoko Ono released their successful album, Double Fantasy. Sadly, Lennon was murdered by a misguided fan that same year. In 1981 The Moody Blues reinvented themselves with a new keyboardist and a No. 1 album, Long Distance Voyager. And in 1983 Yes rose from the ashes with a totally new sound in “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”

Madonna was a sensation in the 80s, along with The Police (Sting), U2, Michael Jackson (the “King of Pop”), Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Winwood, Dire Straits, China Crisis, Queen, Boy George, Wham! and many others. The Cure was an influential art band, lingering somewhere between cult and superstar status.4

The New Age movement and ambient music was also on the rise. Ambient music is a diffuse style pioneered most notably by the producer Brian Eno in the late 70s (Eno also made rock albums). Eno’s seminal album is “Music For Airports” (1978), a soft and repetitive strain of voice and piano tape loops.

Eno’s analog artistry influenced more accessible, digital acts like Enya, various Windham Hill artists and producers like Daniel Lanois. Eno also collaborated with stars like David Bowie, The Talking Heads, U2 and Philip Glass.

The 90s saw more lush studio production with woman singers like Mariah Carey and Céline Dion. Others, like the late Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) and The Smashing Pumpkins kept it straight and simple. Alice In Chains took a dark turn with lyrics like, “you’d be well advised… not to plan my funeral ‘fore the body dies…”

Alice In Chains

Alice In Chains

Radiohead delivered a sound reminiscent of the 1970s band Jethro Tull. Garbage, Bjork, Alanis Morisette, The KLF and Seal all had their moments. No Doubt had a killer single, “Don’t Speak.” And TLC released a classic album, Crazy, Sexy, Cool.

Veteran rockers who kept up with the times (e.g. Elton John, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen) flourished in the 90s with top-selling albums. Others like Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan lost touch with the pulse of the people.

Rap, Hiphop, Dance, Grunge and Techno (now a branch of EDM) also took off in the 90s, although they all began in the 80s or before, depending on how you look at it. The (late) Guru‘s intelligent and pacifist Jazzmatazz vols. 1&2 were appreciated by listeners of all colors and creeds.

The new millennium saw more powerful woman acts like Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne. Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones, who’ve billed themselves as the “longest running rock act,” continued to fill stadiums.

More recently EDM (electronic and dance music) seemed to dominate for a while. The outstanding EDM artists are Avicii, Skrillex, Tiesto, Krewella, Calvin Harris, David Guetta, Zedd and several others.

Nile Rogers and Avicii

Nile Rodgers and Avicii

But pop music is still number one. Acts like Katy Perry, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, Drake and Kanye West tell us that we still want to hear people in the mix.5

¹ The normal human heartbeat range is 60 to 100 bpm. The default tempo for most digital audio workstations is 120 bpm. In a witty interview, classical pianist Glenn Gould says he dislikes rock because it’s always the same tempo within a given song (e.g. 4/4 time). But some Beatles’ time signatures change within a given song. And I suspect the same is true with Genesis and Yes.

² And many more; this list is somewhat arbitrary, mostly based on my upbringing and personal likes. See top 70s bands. Any account of the history of rock must be biased. “The History of Rock” thread at The Reaper Lounge is contentious at times.

³ It’s almost like there’s a universal curve in pop where things start off great, reach their peak, and then decline to mediocrity or worse. By way of contrast, classical composers tend to get better with age, probably because their music is not focused on youth but on maturity.

4 David Bowie’s touching swansong “Lazarus” seems heavily influenced by The Cure.

5 This is how many people feel but it’s not quite right. Everything has changed, once again. The laptop has replaced the guitar as the new indie folk instrument. Anyone with a PC and a bit of talent can post material on SoundCloud or YouTube. This tends to show how incredibly talented the leading producers are. There are amazingly skilled people behind the buttons, and gifted vocalists behind their effected vocals. Some might have to try doing EDM themselves to fully appreciate its human element.


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Rishis – Holy persons or good singers with too much time on their hands?

A Hermit (Rishi), India, 11th century AD, pink_sandstone - Chazen Museum of Art

A Hermit (Rishi), India, 11th century AD, pink sandstone – Chazen Museum of Art

In Hinduism rishis are primal seers or sages mentioned in the Vedas.

The rishis belonged to an elite class of male and female holy persons said to have received the Vedas through revelation. They “heard” and then passed on the sacred Vedas in the form of hymns.

Through song and oral repetition the Vedas were transmitted to disciples for centuries until the verses were eventually written down.

For this reason pinpointing the age of the Vedas is problematic because (most likely) no one really knows when the Vedic revelations were received and orally composed.

Also, from a contemporary skeptics eye, no one really knows if the rishis just had good imaginations, were repeating cultural biases, or whether their songs came from God (or partly from God).

This may seem politically incorrect or indelicate to say, but it’s so common for people to level this kind of critique against Jewish and Christian scripture, it only seems fair and right that all sacred scripture should be met with the same kind of critical scrutiny.


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Jane Roberts and Seth – A look into the future?

Image via YouTube

Image via YouTube

Jane Roberts (1929 – 1984) was a trance channeler who wrote the Seth Books well before the idea of channelling became commonplace in New Age circles. Roberts also wrote several works of fantasy and science fiction.

Roberts allegedly went into a trance and channeled a spirit entity called Seth while her husband Robert Butts transcribed the sessions. Unlike some channelers, Roberts sometimes wondered if she was simply letting her unconscious express itself. But she usually writes as if Seth were a real being.

Whatever the case may be, the Seth character advances an interesting world view. Seth’s cosmology (map of all that is) includes parallel universes connecting backwards and forwards through time.

According to Roberts/Seth, the past and future of all parallel universes – to include parallel selves – interact with the present, perceived as now.

Not unlike other mystical traditions, Roberts/Seth says part of the self is flesh-bound while other aspects exist beyond the physical.

Image via YouTube

Jane Roberts – The Interview – Image via YouTube

The Roberts/Seth view differs from the belief in reincarnation in that:

  • Reincarnation highlights the effects of past on present lives, overlooking a possible retro-influence of future lives
  • Roberts/Seth advances the idea of many selves, existing in parallel universes, subtly interacting among themselves
  • Like Shakti Gawain and others, Roberts/Seth underscores the importance of life here and now, while reincarnation tends to focus on liberation from Samsara (the wheel of rebirth)

Science fiction TV shows Sliders, Charlie Jade and Supergirl dramatize some of Roberts/Seth’s ideas about parallel universes, and many Star Trek episodes speak to a possible temporal continuum. Recent productions like Quantum Leap, 12 Monkeys and Travelers also focus on past/present/future interactions and multiple timelines. And then, of course, we have the British classic, Dr. Who.

Depth psychologists like C. G. Jung view time, if not parallel universes, within a holistic framework. And the idea of parallel universes has gained wider recognition through figures like Stephen Hawking and Michio Kaku.

The belief in an interactive past, present and future is not necessarily identical to the theological idea that God knows the past, present and future. Some theologians are uncomfortable with the idea, for instance, that the future could enter into or inform the present. They prefer to believe that the future just doesn’t exist and only God knows how it will unfold.

Image via Wikimedia

Image via Wikimedia

This traditional view has been challenged by the quantum world view of space-time as relative, multiple and interactive. Perhaps some are comforted by adhering to cherished religious and philosophical ideas. But clinging to the past rarely paves the way for future development.

As for Roberts, some might say that her well-documented difficult childhood and teen years¹ contributed to her creating a kind of escapist fantasy world. But if that argument were universally valid and true, people like Moses (sent down the Nile as a baby) and Jesus Christ (born in a manger to escape the murderous Herod) had nothing of value to say.

= ridiculous

The way I see it, difficult beginnings can compel some to grow into seeing new vistas that otherwise might have been dismissed. Of course, the insane can also emerge from difficult beginnings. But any truth claims should be judged on, to borrow from MLK, the quality of their content, not the ‘color’ of a person’s past.

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

Related » Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, John Locke, Soul


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Reversal – Beyond the clever machine

300-2In psychoanalytic theory, reversal is a Freudian defense mechanism.

A broader idea than turning against the self, reversal takes place when the ego converts an instinctual impulse into behavior appearing as its opposite. The miser becomes a philanthropist, the pervert a prude, the hater a lover.¹

Remember that Freud bases most everything on the instincts of life (eros) and death (thanatos). So reversal involves aspects and combinations of both waking and dreaming life:

The expression reversal into the opposite refers to the transformation of an idea, a representation, a logical figure, a dream image, a symptom, an affect, or the like into its opposite.²

Freud’s entire model is predicated on the belief that the psyche behaves like a clever machine or, in more contemporary terms, an adaptable computer program. For Freud, a variety of internal attempts are made to reduce anxiety and increase overall functioning. Sometimes the “program” works well. Other times it gets buggy (neurosis) or caught in a downward spiral where the machine crashes (psychosis), requiring a reboot.

Reversal is just another example of the clever machine trying to make things optimal, given its paradoxical life/death nature.

My main critique of this view is that all of the regulating is done within the machine. Even dreams that play with, combine or synthesize different moments in space-time are seen as originating from within the neurological system (mainly brain processes).

Compare this view to most religious and mystical traditions and it seems to fall short. A recent example, given the time of year, is how the three wise men in the New Testament are told in a dream to not return to King Herod³ after they find the Christ child. So the three wise men go home another way (Matt 2:12).

Granted, this is a religious story and we have no way of publicly demonstrating its truth. But it does suggest possibilities: Dreams could come from God or otherworldly agents beyond the clever machine. The brain could simply be reading a story, just like a media player plays a video or a radio plays a station. Not many would say a video player actually directs a movie or the radio writes the tune.4

Being a materialist atheist, Freud would not have seriously considered this perspective. And  I think that this, despite his obvious genius, was his greatest shortcoming.

¹ We see this with some religious people who talk about love but underneath harbor hateful, violent thoughts that sometimes erupt into deadly action.

² See http://www.encyclopedia.com/psychology/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/reversal-opposite

³ Beforehand, Herod lies to the wise men, saying he wants to honor instead of kill Jesus.

Freud’s student Carl Jung mentions the latter analogy, well before the idea of “channeling” becomes mainstream.


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David Ricardo – With Trump’s pending inauguration, suddenly the old giants become relevant again

David Ricardo

David Ricardo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

David Ricardo (1772-1823) was an English economist, influenced by Thomas Robert Malthus, and often credited along with Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill as a founder of the so-called classical school of economics.

Ricardo had learned the art of stockbroking while working with his successful father, Abraham. Eloping with a Quaker, however, his Jewish parents disowned him at age 21.

Undaunted by the loss of his parents, by his mid-twenties Ricardo had become a wealthy stockbroker. He became interested in economic theory after reader Adam Smith‘s The Wealth of Nations in 1799. Later, he joined the British Parliament from 1819-1823.

Ricardo’s main contribution to the history of ideas is found in Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817), where he develops innovative theoretical models to account for the distribution of wealth.

Ricardo advocated national specialization and open competition (free trade). He was against protectionism and believed that a nation should focus on what it does best, and forget the rest. Being merely competitive wasn’t good enough for Ricardo. Instead, having a “comparative advantage” is key.¹

His work on the labor theory of value had an effect on Karl Marx. Marx adapted some of Ricardo’s ideas to fit his

  • Teleological view of history (now recognized as flawed)
  • Critique of Capitalism
  • Advocacy of worldwide socialism
Profile of Adam Smith

Adam Smith (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ricardo’s labour theory of value suggests that food prices determine wages. Food prices, themselves, are determined by production costs, which in turn are determined by the amount of labor required for production. In short, his theory suggests that value is set by labor.

When Ricardo became an MP in 1819, he used his newfound status to foster the free-trade movement, in keeping with Adam Smith’s belief that national wealth is best generated with minimal government interference—that is, laissez-faire.

More recently the idea of free trade has been critiqued by those believing that some degree of government regulation is necessary for a nation’s economic prosperity, not to mention all the other human and environmental variables that go into nationhood and our emerging global reality.

¹ See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Ricardo