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Realism – What is real, anyhow?

English: Cover of the October 1920 issue of Po...

Cover of the October 1920 issue of Popular Science magazine, painted by American illustrator Norman Rockwell. It depicts an inventor working on a perpetual motion machine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Realism is a term with several meanings. Here are three:

1- Creative work in arts and culture, known as “representations” that appear natural and accurate. The accuracy can be poetic or blunt, and may carry a political message.

Like most things, the definition of a realist artist is unclear. For instance, people still debate whether the American painter, Norman Rockwell, is a realist or not. Cristina Acosta says “To most non-artists, Norman Rockwell is perceived to be a Realist. He isn’t. And he is.”¹

2 – Realism is a philosophical view that external objects exist, even when not perceived by an observer. This is related to the question – “If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?”

On this point I remember talking with a professor about the possibility of the world being a “field of stimuli” external to the observer. I was still pretty young and it was an abstract idea which, at the time, was fascinating to consider. Basically it means that the world as we perceive it isn’t always as we perceive it. But something is still there: The potential to be seen, heard, felt, smelt and tasted.

Little did I know that philosophers and physicists had been thinking along the same lines for many years. Well, actually, I did know. I was beginning to find out. But my discoveries were not only conceptual but also experiential. And it wasn’t always fun and games, to put it mildly. Looking back I can see that I was entering into a pivotal period of personal growth. And this leads, in a sense, to the third definition.

3 – In theology, realism is the belief that universal essences are more real than any individual temporal manifestation. An early version of this view is outlined in Plato‘s theory of eternal, unchanging Forms. After that, Medieval theologians adapted Plato’s theory to fit with Christian belief (Plato living well before the earthly Jesus).

¹ http://wwwcristinaacosta.blogspot.com/2008/02/norman-rockwell-how-real-is-realism.html.

Related » Akhenaton, Idealism, Nominalism, Surrealism

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The Orthodox Church – another “true” Church?

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Orthodox Church (or Orthodox Churches)¹ is a body of self-governing churches recognizing the primacy of the Patriarch of Constantinople and abiding by the doctrine of seven Ecumenical Councils from Nicaea I (327 CE) to Nicaea II (787 CE). As such, the Orthodox Church recognizes the Nicene Creed.

As a whole the Orthodox Church includes the patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Jerusalem. It’s mostly found in Russia, the Ukraine, Serbia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Poland, Greece, Moldova, Czechoslovakia, Albania, Cyprus and throughout the Middle East.

The Orthodox Church emerged within the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire; it was united with the Latin Church until formally splitting away in the Great Schism of the 11th century. Like the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church sees itself as the authentic Church, disseminating valid teachings given by Jesus and his Apostles. The two Churches differ on some organizational and theological points, however, making this claim problematic.

Can both the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches be the only true Church? From the standpoint of traditional logic, either

  • both of these truth claims are are false; or
  • one is right and the other is false
English: The inside of an Orthodox church. Gre...

The inside of an Orthodox church. Greek Orthodox Church. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From a more contemporary approach to logic (that deals with probabilities and quantities)² one could argue that both truth claims are partially true.

Related » Greek Orthodox Church

¹ See Wikipedia for a list of titles https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_Orthodox_Church

² For a readable, not too intricate, account of how the study of logic has evolved over the centuries, see John Passmore’s A Hundred Years of Philosophy. Reading the relevant passages in this book helped me to better understand something that I have intuitively grasped for a long time. When hard-nosed people say, “it’s just logic” or “it’s a fact,” I usually have some kind of inner reservation. I tend to feel their claim is simplistic but sometimes don’t have the words, energy or time to try to articulate my position—especially if the other person has already made their mind up. No point in spending hours banging your head against a brick wall. Better to dismantle the wall, piece by piece.


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The Scholastics

St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), the eponym ...

St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), the eponym of Thomism. Picture by Fra Angelico (c. 1395-1455). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The “scholastics” is what we call the leading churchmen-scholars in the Middle Ages.  These religious thinkers used the logical methods of their time to debate complex, often abstract theological issues, many of which were premised on faith. This is also known as Scholasticism.

The scholastics never asked “how many angels can stand on the head of a pin.” But this question is often cited to satirize their approach, which to critics seems arbitrary and metaphysically excessive.

The influential scholastic St. Thomas Aquinas adapted arguments from (the Greek pre-Christian) Aristotle into a Christian network of beliefs. Interestingly, Aristotle’s voluminous works were translated from the Greek into Latin by Arab scholars.

Duns-Scotus

Duns-Scotus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After some kind of direct encounter with God near the end of his life, Aquinas apparently said that his many writings were like a “house of straw.” In other words, worthless compared to direct experience. Nevertheless, his arguments, many of which seem to be couched in ancient and medieval ways of understanding, are often cited to illustrate and (apparently) legitimize Catholic teachings.

Perhaps the abstract intellectualism and intense quibbling of the scholastics lost sight of basic Christian teaching of loving God and one another. And for one person to believe he or she can definitively speak about God, no matter how cleverly, seems quite arrogant from a contemporary standpoint.

Some of the more noteworthy scholastics are St. Anselm, William of Ockham, Henry of Ghent and Duns Scotus

Related » Idealism, Nominalism, Ontological Argument, Universalism

¹ Wikipedia lists several more whom I’ve encountered but not really had the time to study.


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Vergil

Ancient Roman bust (so-called "Bust of Ve...

Ancient Roman bust (so-called “Bust of Vergil”) from the Tomb of Vergil in Naples, Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Vergil (or Virgil, properly, Publius Vergilius Maro, 70-19 BCE) was a Roman poet who studied philosophy in Rome before gaining status as a court poet.

His unfinished Aeneid was commissioned by the emperor Augustus to honor Rome’s origins.

Vergil’s grave was treated as a sacred site for centuries. And from the Middle Ages to recent times his Latin works were standard fare for educational institutions throughout Europe.

The poet Dante called Vergil il nostro maggior poeta (“our greatest poet”).¹ In his Divine Comedy, Dante characterized Vergil as a guide, leading him through several layers of Hell and, then, up to Purgatory.

J. B. Trapp notes

In the third canto of Purgatorio, Dante’s great mentor reproaches him for his faint trust:

Non credi tu me teco e ch’io ti guidi?²

Profile of Dante Alighieri, one of the most re...

Profile of Dante Alighieri, one of the most renowned Italian poets, painted by his contemporary Giotto di Bondone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After seeing purgatory, Beatrice replaces Vergil as Dante’s guide. She then leads Dante through the gates at the entrance of Paradise. From Dante’s perspective, Vergil could not continue upward because of his unconverted pagan roots.

According to legend the apostle Paul wept over Vergil’s grave because the poet was so close to gaining the opportunity of becoming a Christian.

In pop culture, the names Vergil, Dante and Beatrice appear in video games, rock bands, novels—the list goes on.


¹M. C. Howatson, ed. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, Second Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 595.

² Google Translate: Dost thou not think me with thee, and that I guide thee? Source: J. B. Trapp, “The Grave of Vergil,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 47, (1984: 1-31), p. 1.

Related Posts » Aeneas, Blessed Isles, Furies, Sibyl


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Werewolf

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In ancient and medieval European folklore and myth, a werewolf is a kind of shapeshifter.

Basically, a person changes into a wolf-like creature, willfully or through a curse. Often transforming during the full moon, werewolves delight in human flesh, prowling about at night for their victims.

Similar ideas are are found on just about every continent. And when a wolf image is absent, some other menacing animal takes its place—for instance, the Chinese and Japanese tiger; the African leopard, lion and crocodile; the Greek and Turkish boar; the North American bear; and the South American jaguar.

In North America the Navaho are said to change into a wolf and practice witchcraft to the detriment of human beings.

The European persecution of so-called werewolves began in what is now Switzerland:

The werewolf is a widespread concept in European folklore, existing in many variants which are related by a common development of a Christian interpretation of underlying Indo-European mythology which developed during the medieval period. From the early modern period, werewolf beliefs also spread to the New World with colonialism. Belief in werewolf develops parallel to the belief in witches, in the course of the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. Like the witchcraft trials as a whole, the trial of supposed werewolves emerges in what is now Switzerland (especially the Valais and Vaud) in the early 15th century and spreads throughout Europe in the 16th, peaking in the 17th and subsiding by the 18th century. The persecution of werewolves and the associated folklore is an integral part of the “witch-hunt” phenomenon, albeit a marginal one, accusations of werewolfery being involved in only a small fraction of witchcraft trials.¹

A German woodcut of werewolf from 1722.

A German woodcut of werewolf from 1722. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The belief in werewolves was so rampant in the 15th and 16th centuries that approximately 30,000 people were executed in France for this mystical violation of mankind and nature.²

Like the vampire myth, some see the werewolf as an all-too-human metaphor for warped psychological development, bad moral judgment, lack of self-control and an overwhelming sex drive. Sexual predators are sometimes called werewolves. This should not be confused with the idea of the cougar, an older women looking for sex with a younger man. The word werewolf has a much darker tone, and hardly any good comes from it. Cougars, on the other hand, can be seen as pleasurable and respected.³

A contemporary “werewolf” in the symbolic sense could also be a criminal mastermind who shrewdly marries a naive person to advance their career and gain social legitimacy. This kind of werewolf has a dual nature. Part respected professional and part sleazeball manipulator.

An image of Katherine Isabelle having a prosth...

An image of Katherine Isabelle having a prosthetic applied to her face for the film Ginger Snaps (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We usually hear a lot about male werewolves, but female werewolves are also portrayed in fiction. A notable example is found in the Canadian film Ginger Snaps (2000).

Today, fictional werewolves often emerge through some kind of hereditary trait or infectious disease transmitted through the blood, a kind of fusion of modern science and ancient myth.

¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Werewolf

² Stuart Gordon,  The Encylopedia of Myths and Legends, London: Headline, 1993, p. 727.

³ See http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Cougar

Further Reading:

  • Maria Leach, ed., The Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, New York: Harper & Row, 1984, p. 1170.

Related Posts » Animus, Lycanthropy, Myth, Reincarnation, Vampires


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Boethius

A depiction of Boetius teaching his students (...

A depiction of Boetius teaching his students (1385). Boetius, a 6th century Christian philosopher, helped keep alive the classic tradition in post-Roman Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ancius Manlius Severinus Boethius (480-524) was an educated Roman Statesman, philosopher and man of letters.

He became court minister under the Gothic ruler, Theodoric. In 510 he was elevated to consul but later got caught up in politics when trying to block an informer’s letter to protect the Senate’s reputation. Sadly for Boethius, the letter got through and the Senate charged him with treason, condemning him to death.

While in prison awaiting certain death he wrote De Consolatione Philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy). In the Middle Ages the Consolation was translated into several languages, second in popularity only to the Bible.

In a nutshell, it goes like this: While contemplating his grave situation, ‘Philosophy’ comes to Boethius in the form of a beautiful woman, her garment slightly dusty. She drives away the Muses of Poetry who’d previously been dictating to Boethius.

Philosophy and Boethius engage in debate, much like a Platonic dialogue. She instructs him on how human beings should rightly relate to God. Fear of material loss and desire for material gain are both rejected in favor of hope for eternal salvation through an all-knowing, good God. Ephemeral worldly concerns are to be replaced by the desire to lead a virtuous life with God.

Lady Philosophy and Boethius from the Consolat...

Lady Philosophy and Boethius from the Consolation, (Ghent, 1485) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Much like St. Augustine’s theology, personal free will is emphasized but, at the same time, God is said to know how one will choose—both in the present and in the future.

Judging from the content and style of The Consolation of Philosophy, many believe that Boethius must have been an early Christian, although Jesus is not mentioned. Because the Consolation is a book on philosophy, some commentators say that Boethius prefers to use concepts germane to philosophy. At the same time, however, a good deal of the text employs lengthy quotations from Greek and Roman mythology to support and illustrate his philosophical ideas. Why then, would the apparently Christian Boethius exclude Christian stories?

Regardless of his religious path, the notion of abandoning worldly fear and desire in favor of aspiring to eternal bliss is also found in Hinduism and arguably in Buddhism.

Boethius never escaped imprisonment and was put to death after completing his book, which makes reading it all the more poignant.


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Fortuna

Archaeological Museum in Milan, (Italy). Roman...

Archaeological Museum in Milan, (Italy). Roman goddess Fortuna (good luck); fresco from a Roman ara. Picture by Giovanni Dall'Orto, July 25 2003. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fortuna is a Roman deity, equivalent to the Greek Tyche. The most notable difference between the Roman and Greek forms is that the Roman Fortuna is, at times, less universal than Tyche.

Like Tyche, Fortuna represents a general concept of chance and luck. Her temples were in specific cities like Rome, with an unrivaled site at Palestrina. But unlike Tyche (who had altars at Thebes and Athens), the Romans observed a “Fortune of the Day.”

The Romans also invoked Fortuna for victory in battle. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance Fortuna was very popular, often depicted with a wheel turning through cycles of good and bad luck, joy and sadness. She’s also depicted with a rudder, a globe or with wheels or wings.