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Romeo and Juliet – Not my fav but respected

Photo - Wikipedia

Photo – Wikipedia

Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy by William Shakespeare (1595-6). It portrays the brief lives of two “star crossed lovers” who come from feuding families, the Capulets and the Montagues.

In Shakespeare’s time it was one of his most popular plays, as it remains today.

Myself, I never really liked Romeo and Juliet too much. It seems small and dark. Romantic love is fine. But when it gets all messed up and doesn’t work out right, it doesn’t really capture my imagination.

I find it sort of silly and dramatically frustrating that someone would commit suicide because he thought his true love was dead. And guess what? She wasn’t even dead after all. So what happens? She wakes up and kills herself.

Maybe I just like happy endings. I realize life doesn’t always turn out that way but still, Romeo and Juliet for me is a bit of downer.

Like many of his plays, Shakespeare didn’t come up with the idea out of the blue. There were precedents, some very clear.

Romeo and Juliet borrows from a tradition of tragic love stories dating back to antiquity. One of these is Pyramus and Thisbe, from Ovid‘s Metamorphoses, which contains parallels to Shakespeare’s story: the lovers’ parents despise each other, and Pyramus falsely believes his lover Thisbe is dead. The Ephesiaca of Xenophon of Ephesus, written in the 3rd century, also contains several similarities to the play, including the separation of the lovers, and a potion that induces a deathlike sleep.

One of the earliest references to the names Montague and Capulet is from Dante‘s Divine Comedy, who mentions the Montecchi (Montagues) and the Cappelletti (Capulets) in canto six of Purgatorio:

Come and see, you who are negligent,
Montagues and Capulets, Monaldi and Filippeschi
One lot already grieving, the other in fear

Image - Wikipedia

Romeo and Juliet (detail) by Frank Dicksee – Wikipedia

In 1938 the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev wrote a ballet after the story. And Berlioz (1839) and Tchaikovsky (1869) also wrote classical pieces on the theme.

There have been several screen adaptations. One of my favorites is Franco Zeffirelli‘s 1968 Romeo and Juliet. I remember marveling at Olivia Hussey as a kid when I saw the film in junior high. For me, she was the epitome of womanly beauty back then.

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

In India, the Mahabharata epic tells of a family feud that leads to total war between the Pandavas and the Karavas. This war is also central to The Bhagavad Gita, which is a part of the Mahabharata (some believe a later addition because it differs stylistically). I don’t think the Capulets and Montagues were related but the Pandavas and Karavas were. Of course, Shakespeare most likely did not have access to Hindu myth (in this case, the Puranas) because it hadn’t been translated into European languages yet. But for thinkers like Adolf Bastien, Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung (who believe that certain psychological “patterns” or “structures” arise independently around the world) this wouldn’t have been a huge problem.

Related » Projection, Radha


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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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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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Revelation and revealed knowledge – Can we separate the wheat from the chaff?

Divine Revelation (album)

Divine Revelation (album) via Wikipedia

That was a revelation!

When we hear someone say this in daily life, we usually take it to mean that they are inspired, see an issue in a new light or learn something that deepens their understanding.

Revelation has become a secular term but the idea of ‘revealed knowledge’ is found in most spiritual traditions. In the religious sense, revelation has several different meanings.

One meaning points to knowledge disclosed or uncovered about God’s plan of Salvation or the Divine essence. This knowledge could influence the interpretation of observed events. And general revelation is differentiated from special revelation.

  • General revelation means that God’s existence and attributes can be partly understood through observation of God’s creation
  • Specific revelation points to the belief that individuals receive divine communications

In Catholicism revelation is a truth communicated to a person by God. Revealed knowledge initially bypasses but does not contradict the intellect and differs from inspiration. But after a revelation, a person may think about and be inspired by their otherworldly experience.

From a comparative study of mysticism it seems that revealed knowledge is usually misunderstood by mystics, themselves—at least, at the outset. Over time the true meaning may become more clear.

Mystics make mistakes because they tend to interpret revelation according to their limited, human perspectives. Again, revelations from God should eventually make more sense. But those not from God would eventually prove to be a sham, provided the persons assessing a revelation are mentally healthy.

This idea is linked to the notion of true and false prophets, as found in the New Testament:

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them

That’s a lovely story and great for laying guilt trips on people if we don’t like what they’re doing or simply because we don’t like them in the first place! But in reality, it’s a bit problematic for us mere mortals.

Why?

Photo - Tim Evanson via Flickr

Photo – Tim Evanson via Flickr

Well, because some genuine prophets could appear ‘false’ if not enough time had passed to test a true revelation.² By the same token, some false prophets could be seen as ‘true’ by fanatics claiming that more time is needed to verify a false revelation.

One thing seems clear: This is not an easy area and many mistakes could be made by overly zealous, wish fulfilling individuals and groups. For those preferring to think for themselves, it’s sometimes hard to determine who’s misguided and who’s in tune with God.

¹ Matthew 15-20, New International Version, emphasis added.

² An example Christians often give here is http://biblehub.com/john/2-19.htm.


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Reductio ad absurdum – An old school way of saying “take the flipside” or “take it to the limit”

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

Reductio ad absurdum [Latin: “reduce to the absurd”] is a method of argumentation said to

  • prove a statement to be true by demonstrating the contradiction, absurdity and therefore impossibility that would result if it were untrue

or

  • prove a statement to be false by taking its assertions and implications to their logical endpoint

Example for the first type of reductio ad absurdum

English: Queen Christina of Sweden (left) and ...

Queen Christina of Sweden (left) and René Descartes (right). Detail from René Descartes i samtal med Sveriges drottning, Kristina. Pierre Louis Dumesnil. Museo nacional de Versailles. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Consider the French philosopher René Descartes famous line, I think, therefore I am.

And its falsification: I think, therefore I am not.

Here one can ask: If a person thinks that she or he does not exist, who is doing the thinking?

By falsifying the original statement, the ensuing absurdity apparently proves the original statement to be true.

The depth psychologist Carl Jung uses a form of reductio ad absurdum to try to refute the Buddhist notion of no-self; that is, the Buddhist idea that individuality is an illusion. Jung asks: Who experiences the bliss of Nirvana if no self is present to experience it?

This might seem clever and amusing but Buddhists could reply that the center of consciousness merely shifts from illusory individualism to actual totality.¹

Example for the second type of reductio ad absurdum

Crime Time

Crime Time (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Consider the argument, sometimes heard today, that it’s okay to do crime because everyone is a sinner and the whole world is corrupt.

If one takes that to its logical conclusion we get:

It’s not okay to do crime because if the whole world didn’t resist sin, corruption and crime we’d have violent, lawless chaos.

¹ This stance is not accepted by those who believe that individual souls have a relationship with the godhead.

Related » Anatman, Theism


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Reason, Revelation, Inspiration and Illumination – A Matter of Character or Degree?

In both philosophy and theology a distinction is often made between

  • knowledge obtained through reason

and

  • knowledge obtained through revelation

Many learned and pious discussions follow from this way of looking at things. But I believe the distinction, itself, should be examined. It is conceivable that ideas and their arrangement in a coherent argument could be revealed or, at least, partially revealed to a person from God.

Traditional Catholic theologians usually call this inspiration as a result of illumination, suggesting that the process somehow differs from receiving divine revelations.

But where do we draw the line?

In dream psychology, Carl Jung talks about big dreams and little dreams. Big dreams, according to Jung’s theory, involve the collective unconscious. Little dreams involve the personal unconscious. But the scope of dreams rarely, if ever, involve just me or everyone.

Dreams usually involve some mixture of the personal and the collective unconscious. So the dream type rests upon a continuum. Some dreams do seem bigger than others. But it’s still you dreaming them. Likewise, some dreams seem more personal than others. But they’re still coming from a mysterious source.

Could we not make a similar case with the distinction between revelation vs. inspiration and illumination? Instead of this or that, it seems more prudent to speak of a continuum.¹


¹ One of the great weakness of some aspects of Catholic theology, as I see it, is that its truth claims must fit – or appear to fit – with everything that came before. This makes some aspects of Catholic teaching a bit too close to politics and power, which is probably one of the main reasons why the Church is desparate for new priests and also, turning away many good, conscientious lay persons.

Related » St. Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Revealed Knowledge


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Radha – From milkmaid to goddess

Radha Krishna by Balaji Photography via Flickr Radha Krishna by Balaji Photography via Flickr

In Hinduism Radha (Sanskrit = fortunate or successful) is an incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi. She appears on Earth as the female ghopi (cowherdess and milkmaid) who leaves her husband to become the playmate of the Hindu god Krishna.

Her loving and playful relationship with Krishna has become an integral part of the Indian popular imagination, comparable to Romeo and Juliet had Shakespeare not written a tragedy.

Radha is also interpreted on a higher, mystical level, symbolizing the soul‘s loving surrender to God. Contemporary Vaishnava religion in W. Bengal regards Radha as the ultimate female principle, the Goddess or Shakti.

While writing this I couldn’t help but note a loose parallel to Mary, the mother of Jesus. According to the Bible story, Mary was a humble teenager soon to be married to a carpenter (Joseph). Like Radha, she got a divine call. But she didn’t leave her husband nor humanity immediately to dance in the ethereal realms with God. Instead, she stayed on Earth and lived a real, difficult life, to the extent of watching her human/divine son die at the hands of some of the Jews and occupying Romans. Only after that terrible ordeal do both ascend to be with God.

An image like Radha dancing with Krishna in astral realms might be appealing to some wanting to sugarcoat or, perhaps, escape the world as quickly and easily as possible. But for those who believe that salvation comes from going through not only the joys but also the grind of life, the Christian story, as lamentable as it can be, may seem a bit more real.