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Julius Caesar

Bust of Julius Caesar from the British Museum

Bust of Julius Caesar from the British Museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gaius Julius Caesar (c. 100 – 44 BCE)

In the Punic tongue the word caesar means “elephant.” Caesaries also means “thick head of hair.” The surname Caesar was given to the Julian family of patricians¹ at Rome, because one family member once owned an elephant or had a healthy scalp.

After Julius had become the Dictator of Rome, his surname became an honorary title for the next 11 emperors during the age of the Roman Emperors, each emperor being hailed as a new “Caesar.” So we often hear about the “12 Caesars,” which includes Julius.

Julius was an innovative and tough political and military genius who single-handedly broke down the old Roman republic.

When sailing to finish his education at Rhodes, he was held captive by pirates. Paying more than demanded for his release he quickly returned with a ship of his own and crucified the pirates he had recently paid.

The Roman writer Pliny says that he conquered 800 cities, 300 nations and three-million people, which at that time in history was a considerable percentage of the Earth’s population.

Caesar traveled to current day England, where he wrote on the practices of the Druids. A learned scholar and historian, he used his influence to reshape the calendar into one with 365 days and leap years, making the year 365.25 days long. This Julian calendar was largely replaced by the Gregorian calendar, but it’s still used in some countries today.

Commentarii de Bello Gallico, an account writt...

Commentarii de Bello Gallico, an account written by Julius Caesar about his nine years of war in Gaul. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Politically he would be closer to a Democrat (or Liberal) than a Republican (or Conservative). He favored the populares (nobles who worked through and acted for the benefit of the people) over the optimates (nobles who opposed the populares, claiming to represent everyone and not just the poor).

His end came about on the Ides of March (15 March, 44 BCE), the result of a conspiracy hatched by his closest advisers, all of whom stabbed him to death. The killers were lead by Brutus and Cassius. Apparently Caesar resisted the attackers after the first stab wound, but upon seeing his friend Brutus among the group, accepted his grisly fate.

The night before his death Caesar’s wife had vivid and terrible dreams, which perhaps Caesar should have taken into consideration. He was also warned of the plot by Artemidorus in a letter sent to the senate house, which he failed to read.

Italiano: La Morte di Cesare di Vincenzo Camuc...

Italiano: La Morte di Cesare di Vincenzo Camuccini è un quadro che si trova a Roma nella Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By the time of his death Caesar had stopped listening to the nobles altogether, a move which they clearly didn’t like. He had virtually ended the old Republic and his overweening confidence, which had taken him so far, ultimately led to his downfall.

His life has been depicted in several films and William Shakespeare wrote the tragic play, Julius Caesar, which looks at the conspiracy leading to his death, especially from the perspective of Brutus. Shakespeare’s Brutus, in fact, gets about four times as many lines as Caesar.

¹ The patricians were a privileged class of Romans who, among other things, dominated politics and the priesthood.

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18th-century engraving reproducing a bas-relie...

18th-century engraving reproducing a bas-relief found at Autun, France, depicting “two druids” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Druids were Celtic pagan priests. Although much pseudo-history and quasi sacred lore can be found, in actual fact we don’t know too much about them because they were sworn to secrecy and not permitted to express their beliefs in writing. We do, however, have written accounts from indirect sources.

When in Gaul, the Roman leader Julius Caesar noted that the Druids worshipped gods, passed on their traditions to the young, practiced human sacrifice in oak groves and forbade certain people from attending sacrificial ceremonies. Because attendance at sacrificial ceremonies cemented one’s in-group status, those forbidden to attend were marginalized.

Caesar also says the Druids met annually at a location taken to be the center of Gaul. Like contemporary priests, they didn’t fight in wars nor pay taxes. The Roman writer Pliny (the Elder, 23-79 CE) wrote that, in addition to their priestly role, the Druids were seers, diviners and healers.

The ancient Roman senator and historian Tacitus (56–117 CE) mentions Druidic presence in Britain. The Druids served as officials at their allegedly bloody and frightening human sacrifices, the victims usually being criminals. Sometimes, however, innocent people were sacrificed in times of national calamity.

English: An 18th century engraving of a Celtic...

English: An 18th century engraving of a Celtic wicker man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Caesar says that giant casings of intertwined branches held victims as they were burnt alive by the Druids. Humans and animals, alike, were used as burnt offerings for the gods. However, it’s been suggested that the Romans cited the Druidic practice of human sacrifice to undermine the Druid’s political power. The Romans, themselves, executed human beings for the apparent good of the State (in the form of scourging to the death or crucifixion) but human sacrifice to the gods was no longer practiced in the classical world.

Despite New Age philosophies based on the alleged teachings of the Druids, there is scant hard evidence that they possessed any detailed body of esoteric knowledge or, as S. G. F. Brandon puts it, “any subtle and sophisticated philosophy.” Brandon, in fact, suggests that the Druids were not unlike any other “barbarian priesthood.”¹  And there’s no visible evidence to link the Druids with Stonehenge, as suggested by the English writer John Aubrey in 1649 and by numerous TV specials and contemporary enthusiasts.

Through the fantasy literature of writers like J. J. R. Tolkien and Terry Brooks, the idea of the Druid-Sorcerer is firmly established as a kind of archetypal image depicting the powerful, brooding, wise and yet somewhat ambivalent magician. Not surprisingly,  Druids feature prominently in off- and online gaming.

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¹ S. G. F. Brandon ed., “Celtic (Pagan) Religion” in A Dictionary of Comparative Religion: New York: Scribner, 1970, p. 180-184. By way of contrast, Neo-Druidism is a movement that, among other things, venerates nature.

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Lady Diana

Lady Diana

Lady Diana (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the Princess of Wales, Lady Diana Spencer (1961-1997) arguably became an enduring type of mythological figure. While critical media hype discredited her public persona as a mere chimera, another perspective sees her as an inspirational role model for human kindness, honesty and noble humility.

Diana took an active interest in AIDS victims and worked with the International Red Cross. Early in the Royal marriage, Lady Diana quickly overshadowed Prince Charles in the public eye. Charles’ princely decorum was eclipsed by her straight from the heart charm.

Apart from all the media attention surrounding Diana’s untimely death by car accident, one scholar claims she is a mere “footnote” in human history.

Sir Elton John was a close friend of Lady Diana. He and Bernie Taupin recast their song Candle in the Wind (formerly written for Marilyn Monroe on the 1973 lp Goodbye Yellow Brick Road) with new lyrics appropriate for Lady Diana’s televised funeral. The reimagined single is the best selling single record of all time. Sir Elton John has vowed never to play the song in public again, unless requested by Diana’s children.

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René Descartes

Descartes Coffee, Chicago: Larry Miller

Descartes Coffee, Chicago: Larry Miller via Flickr

René Descartes (1596-1650) was a French lawyer, philosopher and mathematician often hailed as the father of modern philosophy.

While serving in the Bavarian army he devised an ambitious scheme for unifying truth with a rational model based on mathematics, physics, morality and medicine.

As a philosopher, Descartes questioned so many issues that he’s known for his ‘method of doubt,’ outlined in Discours de la Méthode (1637), the Meditationes de prima Philosophia (1641) and the Principia Philosophiae (1644).

Descartes made a fundamental distinction between mind and matter, the latter to include the body. The philosopher Gilbert Ryle said, somewhat pejoratively, that for Descartes the mind is like a “ghost in the machine,” the machine representing the body.

Descartes is probably best known for arguing that the very act of thinking proves one’s existence: cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am). His next question, not unlike that of solipsism, was: “how do I know that the outside world truly exists?”

He was not the first to look at things this way. Thomas Leahey notes that

St. Augustine [354–430 CE] had said, “If I am deceived, I exist,” and Parmenides [515-445 BCE] had said, “For it is the same thing to think and to be.”¹

Descartes’ answer to the problem of truth seeming to be only inside oneself (that is, truth as entirely subjective) involved God. For Descartes, God exists by necessity. God must exist in order to be perfect. A perfect God also by necessity is Good. And a God that is Good would not deceive his creatures into believing in an outside world if no such thing existed.

Often lampooned by contemporary professors for saying the pineal gland mediates among body, mind and soul, we’d do well to remember that,  given the medical knowledge of his day, this was an innovative and arguably rational attempt on the part of Descartes to explain the relation between body and spirit.

In mathematics Descartes developed algebra and contributed to major innovations in geometry.

¹Leahey, Thomas H. A History of Psychology, Prentice Hall, 1980, p. 92.

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Eratosthenes' measurement of the Earth's circu...

Eratosthenes’ measurement of the Earth’s circumference Ελληνικά: Η μέτρηση της περιφέρειας της γης από τον Ερατοσθένη (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eratosthenes (276-194 BCE) was an Ancient Greek who apparently was the first to calculate the circumference of the Earth with remarkable accuracy using math that involved measuring the angles of shadows.

He also invented the idea of longitude and latitude, the leap day, and may have calculated the distance from the earth to the sun.

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Erasmus Desiderius

Desiderius Erasmus (1466/69–1536) in a 1523 po...

Desiderius Erasmus (1466/69–1536) in a 1523 portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Erasmus Desiderius (originally Gerrit Gerritszoon 1467-1536) was a Dutch scholar, man of letters and statesman born in Rotterdam. His humorous and insightful writings about religion during the Renaissance, especially the practices of the clergy, won him renown and gained controversy among the intellectual and religious elites of his day.

A former Augustinian monk (1487) and priest (1492), his most famous work, In Praise of Folly, (1509) apparently was written in only a week as an idle pastime while visiting, and for the benefit of, Sir Thomas More. But its numerous scholarly references suggest that it was re-worked prior to publication.

Holding many views that would not seem out of place for a contemporary thinker, Erasmus has the extra benefit of not being swayed by contemporary scientific materialism. Insanity, for instance, is said to be of two types:

One kind is sent from hell by the vengeful furies whenever they let loose their snakes and assail the hearts of men with lust for war, insatiable thirst for gold, the disgrace of forbidden love…or some other sort of evil…The other is quit different, desirable above everything, and is known to come to me. It occurs whenever some happy mental aberration frees the soul from its anxious cares and at the same time restores it by the addition of manifold delights.”¹

Probably due to his keen intelligence, he was never persecuted for his views. He seems to have mastered the art of getting the knives of notables to butter his bread instead of stabbing him in the back.

Erasmus was a humanist who believed that the ethical principles of religion were more important than its rules, regulations, doctrines and ceremonies. He took great pains to illustrate that the clergy was rife with hypocrisy and corruption. Colloquia familiaria (1519) was a parody of abuses and degeneracy among the clergy.

After some time Erasmus denounced the Reformation figure Martin Luther, whom he had formerly praised. Luther’s dogmatic theology was too rigid for Erasmus’ free-style thinking. Among his other works, Erasmus was the first to translate the Greek New Testament.

¹ Erasmus of Rotterdam, Praise of Folly and Letter to Martin Dorp, 1515, trans. Betty Radice, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973, p. 121.

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Epicurus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Epicurus (c.341-270 BCE) was a Greek materialist philosopher, born on the island of Samos who founded a school at Mitylene in 310 BCE. In 305 BCE he opened a school of philosophy in Athens, leading an exemplary life of simplicity and temperance.

From a few extant letters and fragments, we learn that Epicurus believed that happiness was the highest good and that life ended at the point of death. This was not the path of wanton hedonism, as some medieval Christian opponents suspected, but rather deliverance from pain and worry.

The Christian disdain for Epicurus, aside from his disbelief in the afterlife, was exacerbated by some of his followers who advocated sensual pleasure-seeking as the highest goal in life. While Epicurus did see pleasure and pain as standards against which to measure a successful or unsuccessful life, he also advocated restraint. And his understanding of pleasure was more akin to the notion of tranquility than a succession of ephemeral thrills.

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