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The idea of race is dangerous. It has become taboo to talk about people belonging to a particular race because it opens the door to racism, one of the greatest insults of the 21st century. But racism is not new. At various times in our past it was considered acceptable. Its genesis is buried deep in our psyche under the heading ‘survival’, and it figures beside other less noble human instincts, such as the instinct to kill when under threat — or even to strategically weaken those who pose a threat (imagined or not). The power struggles that underpin racism have always been with us, and need to be rationalised and understood if we ever wish to become totally civilised. But what does ‘totally civilised’ mean in the first place, and how does it connect to race?
We have, throughout human history, been preoccupied with the subject of race; we have politicised it, held it up as the cause of all our problems and perversely, the solution to them. In our more recent history, Adolf Hitler did this so successfully that he managed to convert a whole nation to the idea of racism as a solution, and in doing so gained the largest number of seats by a huge margin for his party in 1932.
The result was a plan of action that engaged almost all the world in an intense conflict and cost millions of lives before it was finally cast aside. When it was all over the very mention of racism was enough to set alarm bells ringing on every politician’s desk — for a while at least, until racism reared its political head again in the 21st century as a result of the refugee crisis, with the cause and effect of more warmongering elsewhere. Naturally it is easier to blame others for our misfortunes than it is to blame ourselves, but if the issue of race become so important in the first place it was because we habitually took to dividing the population of our world into groups based on visible criteria: black and white, brown and yellow.
Skin colour has always been the primary indicator of race, whether we call our common ancestor Lucy, Adam, Eve or King Kong.
And yet ironically skin colour is incidental, really, when seen in the context of our evolution as a species. Light-coloured skin only evolved out of a change of environment; as prehistoric people moved north they were exposed to less sun. As anthropologists have recently discovered, “people in the tropics have developed dark skin to block out the sun and protect their body's folate reserves. People far from the equator have developed fair skin to drink in the sun and produce adequate amounts of vitamin D during the long winter months” (pbs.org). Skin, like everything, adapts, and those that stayed in the southern hemisphere retained their dark coloured skin because it protected them from the damaging effects of the sun. In reality we probably all had the same colour skin in prehistoric times, once we shed our body hair and started to become ‘civilised’.
In the dictionary, race is defined as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior”, and more specifically, “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races”. People naturally buy into the idea of race because it reinforces a sense of identity, and identity matters to us because it tells us who we are and where we came from. But how does the idea of superiority fit in? To find out we need to go back to environment.
Biological evolution, as Charles Darwin pointed out, depends on environment. Humankind branched out from a common ancestry far back in the mists of time, and formed into distinct groups, which eventually coagulated into ‘races’. As Jared Diamond points out in his book, Guns, Germs and Steel
, which I recently reviewed HERE, these ethnic groups or races evolved at different speeds according to what they had available to them in terms of natural resources. More resources, particularly in the form of plant life, meant more crops, more farming and consequently more social complexity. Societies need food in order to develop. Food, made available to the wider community through adequate farming, gave people fuel to grow. Toolmakers, artists, and even politicians (in their early manifestations) arose as they were freed from the need to hunt and forage. The evolution of people into races was, in fact, dependant on luck. But inevitably, some of us were luckier than others. Those who did not have the same resources at hand took longer to evolve into complex societies through no fault of their own, were more easily conquered by their now greedy neighbours and in the long run became labelled as ‘inferior’.
Civilisation grew up in the shadow of these struggles, and was defined by them. If we look at what unites us rather than what divides us it is probably (and unfortunately) our ability to conquer our neighbours and plunder their homes with no questions asked.
Human history has been characterised by exploitation on a massive scale, right from the word go. Nice of us, really, but that’s human nature for you. How would the world have been if everyone had had the same opportunities, the same ability to grow, if Environment had levelled out the playing field in every corner of the globe right from the start? We may never have become totally civilised, but we might have let our neighbours keep their crops.
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The word prophecy goes back a long way. It has its roots in the astronomy and astrology of ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilisation. Almost as soon as we learned how to write, we learned how to prophesy. Later still, the ‘gift’ of prophecy was harnessed by religion. In the Christian context prophecy is defined as the "gift of interpreting the will of God", and features broadly in all major religions as a concept. Modern science, however, has rejected prophecy, or at least it appears to have rejected it. It dismisses astrology together with prophecy as unscientific and esoteric. The planetary movements are natural, it says, not supernatural; nothing is written in the stars.
And yet prophecy as a concept still rears its head in unexpected ways, even at the most fundamental level. Science cannot entirely dismiss the idea of prophecy any more than it can stifle religion or the supernatural - after all, we are still learning about the world and have not yet fully understood it. It could well be that prophecy will one day find its rightful place in our understanding, in the same way that other natural phenomena have become clear over time. But that is to suppose that prophecy is a natural phenomenon in the first place, rather than a construct of our imagination.
Psychiatrist and Author Carl Jung said, “When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate.” This seems to imply that our imagination, or unconscious mind, is connected to prophetic thinking at a deep level: prophecy as a sort of instinctive function of the mind. So who is right about the nature of prophecy - or is everyone right?
Prophecy, as we have seen, has been part of religious thinking ever since monotheism (the belief in one God) came into being. The Bible is full of prophecy, and particularly the Book of Revelation, which although it now forms part of the biblical canon, was essentially a piece of prophetic prose written by a Greek named John of Patmos, whose prophecies proved so shocking to him that he isolated himself in a cave to write them even before the start of the Christian era.
The Book of Revelation contains prophecies that principally relate to the coming of the end of the world. Whether you put store in that or not (and many do), the so-called revelations of John’s writing arose from his own mind. Whether we consider that they were divinely inspired or not, is almost secondary. The fact is that they came into his head, and he committed them to paper. How we interpret them is up to us, but there is little comfort to be had in Revelation prophecy, and even the Church has hesitated over whether it should form part of the Christian canon or not. Perhaps the Church knows more than it likes to admit?
The Catholic Encyclopaedia defines the Christian concept of prophecy as "the foreknowledge of future events, though it may sometimes apply to past events of which there is no memory, and to present hidden things which cannot be known by the natural light of reason”. This is significant, as again it points to the unconscious mind, and brings us back to Carl Jung and psychology. Does the unconscious mind act as a repository for prophecy; do we also, know more than we like to admit, and is this fundamental awareness of hidden knowledge within ourselves one of the reasons why the prophecies of others strike such a chord of truth?
One man made famous by his prophecies is Nostradamus, a 16th century French apothecary from Provence.
Nostradamus has been credited with prophesying almost every major historical event, including World War I and II. Was he simply relying on the old adage that History tends to repeat itself? Did he really see the joys of what we all had coming or
are we, the public, simply reading what we like into an obscure text? Are we making it real ourselves?
The Magician's Companion by Bill Whitcomb sheds a little light on this idea: “One point to remember is that the probability of an event changes as soon as a prophecy (or divination) exists. The accuracy or outcome of any prophecy is altered by the desires and attachments of the seer and those who hear the prophecy.” Enter the self-fulfilling prophecy: the concept that a prophecy becomes real once it has been read. This all sounds very Quantum to me. Science has recently maintained, through Quantum theory, that reality depends on the observer; in other words reality depends on who is looking at any given moment. The implication is that matter assumes the form the observer gives it, as with the writings of Nostradamus.
Perhaps in the end Science does point to the reality of prophecy at the Quantum level; after all, if matter reveals itself to us as we observe it, do we make it real by observing it? Quantum physics is particle physics, and matter originated in the universe. Prophecy may not be entirely astrological, and perhaps it’s not divine at all, but if it does have a place in particle physics, it could still be the stuff of stars.
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The biblical story of the three gifts at Christmas begins with the Magi. The word Magi is the plural of magus, and a magus in antiquity would have been roughly the equivalent of what we call a wizard. They were known as wise men in much the same way that witches were called wise women in Britain up until the seventeenth century. In effect, this would have meant that they were probably skilled alchemists and astronomers, since much of the magic tradition can be traced back to these two disciplines. Alchemy is the forebear of modern chemistry, and astronomy gave us not only geometry, but mathematics and science in general. Thus the wise men of the Bible were really ancient scientists. So, where did they come from, why did they appear in the Gospel of Matthew, and what was the point of their gifts?
Not everyone accepts the historical veracity of the Bible, but the fact is, that if the Magi did travel to Bethlehem at the time of the recorded birth of Christ, it would have almost certainly been based on a prophecy they would probably have made themselves. Was it a prophecy about the birth of an influential leader, or did it even herald the birth of a new religion — one that would come to dominate almost half the world? Whatever you believe, the realisation of their prophecy can hardly be doubted. Images spring to mind of the wise men bent over a chart of the stars, like Nostradamus, and the idea that they followed the star to Bethlehem may well suggest as much. But ancient history is fraught with inconsistencies; some traditions say there were four Magi, others that there were even as many as twelve. The number three was probably arrived at because it matched the gifts they brought. Gold, frankincense and myrrh: three gifts for one prophecy.
The remains of the Magi are said to have been discovered in Persia, removed to Constantinople then transported to Milan in the 5th century AD. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa then took them to Cologne in Germany, the seat of the Holy Roman Empire in the 12th century, and to this day they lie behind the altar of Cologne Cathedral.
Whether there are three sets of bones, two or twenty is not clear, but Bethlehem, which is close to Jerusalem, would have once formed part of the greater Persian Empire, and relations between the Persians and the Jews were reported as being friendly. It would not have been unusual for Persian scholars to take an interest in events unfolding on the fringes of their old territories, and the time recorded as the birth of Christ was a turbulent one, with Roman rule casting a deep shadow on Judea. It could well have been that the Magi were part of a group of scholars inspired to make the journey to Bethlehem on the basis of what they suspected to be imminent: a turning point.
The Persians were Zoroastrians, and although much of their original culture has been buried since the rise of Islam, there would have been skilled astronomers and alchemists among them. If such a group of scholars did make the journey to Bethlehem on the basis of a prophecy, why did they bring with them such particular and valuable items as gold, frankincense and myrrh?
Again, the Bible gives us little to go on, but a little alchemical research provides the clues. Gold was a symbol of kingship and wealth. Power, in effect. As for Frankincense, the way it was harvested paints a prophecy in itself: make incisions in the bark of the tree until the resin bleeds out from it, and burn the resin as a sacrificial offering on the altars of your gods. Myrrh adds fuel to the fire of conjecture; it was used as an embalming fluid for mummification, and is associated with both death and resurrection.
The Magi chose their gifts wisely. Either the Persians suspected that the time had come for would-be Christians to find a champion against the hell of Roman rule, or they had a true mystical insight that a new religion was on the verge of being born – one that would bring the Roman Empire to its knees in ways that even the Judeans themselves had not imagined.
Wishing all my Readers
A Very Merry Christmas!
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In England, Ireland, Scotland and America we celebrate Halloween on October 31st with little understanding of the origins of the festival. Halloween is part of our culture, so we celebrate it as a matter of course, and like many other traditions we are attached to, Halloween is pre-Christian. The old Celtic festival of Samhain is its predecessor, and if we were to celebrate it as it was originally conceived, Halloween would probably be very far from the ghoulish parade we have come to expect. In fact, according to the original beliefs of the British Isles in pre-Christian times — and even before Britain fell under Roman control in the first century AD, Halloween was more like a celebration of reincarnation. The originators of the festival of Halloween were the druids of Britain and Ireland, whose beliefs were close in some ways to those of religions such as Hinduism. Convinced that the human soul was immortal and would be born again in physical form, the druids and the Celtic tribes they led were unafraid of death; to them death marked the start of another journey, it did not mean The End.
With so many centuries of Christian thinking behind us, it may come as something of a surprise to hear that reincarnation lay at the core of Britain’s oldest religion. But Samhain changed after the disappearance of the ancient Celts, leaving us with a festival that is dark and frightening rather than one that is actually rather comforting. Reincarnation, then as now, still has at its core a form of moral accountability. Mistakes made in one life must be repaired in the next, but at least there is a next. It could be that the idea of ‘trick or treat’ on Halloween comes from this principle of cause and effect. A trick follows a bad deed; a treat rewards a good one. In Ireland the trick or treat habit is particularly strong, and Ireland has deep Celtic roots. Another Celtic relic of Halloween is the wizard and the witch. Both these figures recall the druid and druidess of Ancient Britain, and they have lingered particularly strongly in the British psyche.
Witches, the staple of Halloween, have been demonised over the centuries, taking the form of old and evil hags instead of the wise women they might have been in the days of the Celts. They persisted even into the seventeenth century in England. They were known as cunning folk, or healers. The evil reputation they have acquired since is more the result of the associations imputed to them by the Church than anything, and it would have been very rare for a witch or wizard to engage in dark magic. I don’t deny that it is probably more fun to dress up as a hag at Halloween than as the good witch of the west (depending on how much make-up you need to apply) but how did the old Celtic Halloween festival differ from its present day counterpart? Can we revive it as it was, or has too much dark water flowed under the bridge for that?
The festival of the last night of October was certainly perceived in the ancient customs of Britain and Ireland as a moment of entry or departure into the Otherworld to which we travelled after death but the druids, who were the spiritual leaders of Britain at the time, would not have seen this as a bad thing, because the ancestors were always close in any case; those who had gone were never really gone. They may have slipped behind the veil of the Otherworld, but that did not mean there was no way back. On the dark night before the first of November, fires were lit in Ancient Britain. We have displaced this tradition to bonfire night, but the sparks that lit the sky from the fires of the Celts were made for other reasons. They were beacons of hope, signals to the Otherworld. Distributed in torches throughout the settlements they would have lit a way between two worlds, this one and the next. As the door to the Otherworld opened on November’s eve, the flame marked the route, and the remembrance was complete.
It was only later, as Christianity gained ground, that the old pagan festivals were altered by Christian ideas and given new form. Christian saints, not druids, took over as the guardians of the Otherworld, and All Saint’s Day was celebrated on November 1st. Even the vampire of Halloween, perhaps the most terrifying of all, has a history of magic more powerful than its bite. Viewed as shamans in Romania, the vampire's association with blood postdates Christianity. The original vampire myth reveals the vampire as a living person, whose quest for reincarnation has led him astray. Bram Stoker, with his novel Dracula even had him landing on the shores of Eastern England. Clearly, the Halloween line up is not quite what it seems. So whatever spirit lights your flame this November, be it saint or myth, fiction or druid, perhaps a new act of remembrance is called for — as the creepy figures that lurk in the shadows on October 31st are probably just our ancestors.
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The history of the idea of time is the history of progress. The clock changed the world as the wheel changed the world, except that with a clock you can’t travel backwards; time goes one way only, onwards to the future. The direction of time is intuitively obvious to us and we define ourselves according to it. We are on time, early or late. We say that time drags or flies, but we know it stops for no one. We fight the ageing process but admit we’re not eternal. As we grew more industrious, we built the concept of time into the fabric of urban living: our factories, our machines and our working day have been governed by timekeeping. Too late to go back now — progress, like the concept of time drives us one-way only: forward. But it wasn’t always like that. Before the clock was invented in the seventeenth century, sundials were used to tell the time: simple but ingenious timepieces that cast their shadows on the dial to give the hour. Minutes, in those days, did not matter much. Time was approximate, and surprisingly unimportant. A rural lifestyle did not require precision. In fact, until the 1830’s people barely used clocks at all. They were reserved for certain uses, and the most vital of these, at least as far as a maritime nation like Britain was concerned, was navigation.
Britain did not become a maritime power just because it was an island. Its navy grew up on the back of the discovery of a method for the calculation of longitude at sea. Early scientists such as Isaac Newton recognised the need for a sufficiently precise way of calculating longitude, and saw that it was linked to two vital calculations: position and time. Space-time, you might say, but time was not yet understood in such terms. Still, Newton knew that an accurate understanding of the movement of the planets would be required before longitude could become accurate enough to steer by. He came close to resolving it, as close as his work on gravity would take him, but not quite close enough. An error of even a few seconds meant many nautical miles of deviation: an endless voyage or a shipwreck.
In the eighteenth century a carpenter called John Harrison made the first sea watch that was sufficiently accurate to allow the calculation of longitude. King George tested the watch himself and declared it to be accurate to within one third of one second per day.
As the United Kingdom grew into an advanced maritime nation, British mariners used GMT, a reference point from the observatory at Greenwich, to calculate their longitude from the Greenwich meridian. But ship time was still solar time, measured against the motion of the moon, a fast moving planet and one that was easy to track. The concept of time appeared to have been brought under control, but all the same, we could never outrun it. When Britain became an industrial nation it fell under the yoke of time. As factories set their clocks to the rhythm of production, the ticking of timepieces signalled the end of an era. Nothing would ever be the same again. Without really noticing the transition, we became enslaved to time, and the only way to free ourselves was to defy it. In the twentieth century a German physicist turned the concept of time on its head. Where Newton had grappled with time and place, Einstein brought us space-time. The idea of turning back the clock was close to becoming a reality.
But did turning back the clock mean undoing what time had done, and was that even possible? Classical scientific thinking gave us an analogy of time in the breaking of an egg. The act of egg breaking shows the linearity of time; once the egg is broken, the event cannot be reversed. Time, like an arrow in the air, goes one way only. Or does it?
Quantum science now informs us that there is no true arrow of time, merely an intermingling of events, which could go either way. Coffee, once heated, could become hotter or colder depending on whether you put it in the fridge or in a sauna after heating. An egg is broken only if we crack it. This is called entanglement, or cause and effect. Time, apparently then, is not so cut and dried as we once thought. It is entangled with space at cosmic and even microcosmic levels.
It was Einstein’s Theory of Relativity that changed our perception of time from linear towards entangled. Relativity demonstrated that both time and space are curved. And the reason they are curved is because of the force of gravity.
But how does this really impact on our common perception of time? As yet, the idea of being able to change the course of time is strange to us; time travel is still the stuff of fiction. Perhaps as our understanding of space-time evolves, we too will evolve in ways we cannot yet imagine. As scientist William Bencze, says, "Understanding the details of this science data is a bit like an archaeological dig. A scientist starts with a bulldozer, follows with a shovel, and then finally uses dental picks and toothbrushes to clear the dust away from the treasure. We are passing out the toothbrushes now."
Whatever that treasure of data reveals, the history of time is bound to change the future. Time stops for no-one, after all.
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The motivation for almost all warfare throughout history has mainly been either economic gain or territorial gain. There have been wars fought over religion, but even these have been fuelled by gain of some kind. The Second World War felt exceptional because there was clearly a greater evil to be fought, and conflict seemed morally justifiable, despite the huge numbers of innocent people lost. But even if, during the course of human history, there have been what we call ‘legitimate’ wars, these have served only to fuel a need for conflict that seems to be inherent in us. We glorify war, film it and write about it. Our greatest heroes act their parts against the backdrop of war; the theatre of war provides us with the pretext we need to live out the struggle between good and evil, which is inherent in our nature. History — both ancient and modern, shows us that we cannot eliminate war; the best we can hope to do is to control it. In order to do this, we have built democracy and elected governments, we have established the rule of law and tried to find the right men for the job. How successful have such measures really been?
As the Church lost its influence after the Enlightenment, it was the state that legitimised war. The state is a relatively modern concept. There had been earlier states elsewhere in the world, such as Ancient Egypt and China, and the city-states of Ancient Greece wielded great influence. Rome was a superbly successful city-state, allowing the idea of one city to grow into an empire, but modern nation-states only rose up in Europe from around the fifteenth century onwards. After the decline of the Roman Empire, feudalism and the Church were the social structures that demanded the fealty of the people. Later they became superseded by monarchies, where kings and queens ruled by divine right, gradually becoming as powerful as the Church, and in some cases even shouldering it aside. But whether imperial, monarchic or republic, over the next three centuries virtually every region of the world became parcelled up into states in one form or another. The consequence of this pattern of change was that the idea of war became embedded in the idea of statehood, and one of the first people to make the connection between the needs of the state and the need for war was a man whose name has become associated with evil to such an extent that when we describe someone as being Machiavellian, we all know exactly what we mean.
Machiavelli, who is often called the founder of modern politics, is widely considered to be a paradigm of wickedness because of a book he penned in 1513, entitled, The Prince. The book can arguably be called a treatise on realpolitik, or politics with pragmatism. Machiavelli did not coin the term, realpolitik, but he certainly believed in it. He lived during the time of the Italian Renaissance, when the Italian city-states had, despite their power of innovation and creativity, sunk to a level of violence and warmongering that was really quite astonishing. When a cardinal sanctioned murder in a cathedral in Florence for political motives during the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478, it seemed like the final straw on an already high mound of dung-infested power politics. But that did not stop Niccolò Machiavelli. “In seizing a state," he wrote, “the usurper ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke, so as not to have to repeat them daily” — that certainly is pragmatic thinking. Perhaps Machiavelli was simply trying to defend the superior and beautiful city-state of Florence (and who can blame him for that), but his ideas sanctioned warmongering in the interests of securing control over another state, and people followed his lead.
In the nineteenth century Sociologist Max Weber defined a state as a system with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a specific area, and this concept became enshrined in public law through the policing of the state. In feudal times, the lord had the right to use force to secure his interests in the area he controlled, now that right had effectively been passed on to the nation. This did not give a state the right to use force against its neighbours, however, but it did not take politicians long to realise that the motive of self-defence provided the state, in the end, with all the justification it needed to use all the force it wanted, thereby putting Machiavelli’s most famous maxim to the test: the end justifies the means. If the end, or aim of war is self-defence, then it is seen as right. After all, what nation-state could base its policies on the Christian doctrine of turning the other cheek? The survival of the state would simply not permit it.
There were other holes too in Weber’s thinking. The security of a state depends also on its military power, and on the extent to which this military power can be checked. Modern nations have invested huge sums of money in weaponry and the military, but in doing so they have juggled with a double-edged sword. At no time was this more evident than during the Cold War. In arming ourselves for peace, we armed ourselves for war. All of which means that selecting the right person for the management of the state has never been so important. Equally important are the systems permitting us to make that choice, such as democracy. But even if we are so fortunate as to have those systems in place, we still need information.
In the modern era it is, arguably, only information that can save us from the dangers of war. We may never be able to eliminate war altogether, but with the breadth of information we now have at our fingertips, our best hope lies in understanding it.
Next Week: A Short History of Ideas looks at something more cheerful:)...
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A novel about the life of Leonardo da Vinci
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As Christianity spread its influence over Rome’s old empire, with its promise of immortality for those who repented of their sins, the concept of evil and what it represented became a subject of vital importance. In my last post on Sin, Saint Jerome is noted as having coined the phrase, “women are the root of all evil”; it naturally followed then that the current thinking would place sex at the epicentre of evil. It was the sin of lust that had taken hold of Adam, and lust is still regarded as something inherently dangerous, somehow different to the act of procreation. What made it so evil?
Saint Augustine, an early Christian Theologian who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries, attempted to shed light on the evils of sex. He explained that because the sexual impulse arises independently in the body and cannot be controlled by the mind, it must be evil. The whole concept of virtue was, at the time, connected to the idea that instinct was dangerous, and should be repressed. Virtue required self-control, and lack of self control was the sin of Adam: the evil that caused the Fall of Man in the Genesis of the Old Testament. In our present way of thinking, such statements appear extreme; these days instinct is more often seen as a positive force. But at the time, our view of instinct was deeply coloured by the writings of the Old Testament, for “as a result of this sin, man, that might have been spiritual in body, became carnal in mind” (Russell, A History of Western Philosophy).
Because of these ideas a vow of celibacy was imposed on the Christian (Catholic) clergy, and often on others who held high functions. Unnatural though it was, it was an attempt to modify human nature. Whether it worked or not, depended much on the will power of the individual, and would probably have been more the outcome of character than anything else. But still, such efforts did not address the general evil that made its way into people’s lives: the evil of misfortune.
When the Great Plague struck Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century, the Old Testament’s threat of damnation seemed fulfilled. Questions were raised which were hard to answer: if God was all-powerful, why did he not prevent suffering? Renaissance Humanists such as Erasmus took the bull by the horns and produced a Greek New Testament in Latin in 1522 to counter the Vulgate Bible of Saint Jerome, which had been based on the Hebrew texts. With this revival of Greek thinking, the words of the Greek Stoic Epicurus were brought to the fore again:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? 
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?
God seemed to “delight in the torments of poor wretches”, remarked Erasmus, speaking of the ravages of the plague. As a prominent writer of his time, Erasmus was an important voice during the Christian Reformation. He accepted the idea that people were prone to sin, but believed that grace could save them. Grace was also an impulse, but a positive one. The Ancient Greeks called grace charis
. It comes from the word to rejoice, to be grateful. In the Hebrew it is chen, a word which implies moral kindness. In the Catholic tradition grace can only be attained as a result of baptism. But even if Renaissance humanists had put Greek philosophy back on the reading list, the world had changed since the days of the Ancient Greeks. The progress of the Renaissance meant bigger cities, and bigger cities meant more crime; grace, whatever it meant, was in short supply. 
If, in the words of Epicurus, God was neither willing nor able to prevent evil, how could the suffering caused by evil be accepted? 
Was it a test, as in the Book of Job, where God heaped misery after misery on poor Job to gauge the depth of his faith. Natural disasters such as the plague could perhaps be seen as such, but what about the misery heaped on humankind by himself; what about the ultimate evil, the evil of war?
Contradictory though it seems, the Church had provided its answer through the influential work of Saint Augustine, who said that war was not a sin, provided it was carried out in self-defence. Suffering could be inflicted on an enemy as long as the cause was just. War was therefore legitimised. As to what constituted a just cause, the Christian crusades easily provided a precedent. But the justification of war would underpin politics even as the Church lost its influence after the time of the crusades. There would even be men who would positively advocate war during the Renaissance: men such as Niccolò Machiavelli, for example. How much influence would he have on the problem of evil, and where would his ideas take us?
Next Week: A Short History of Ideas looks at War...
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Sin, as a concept, stands in opposition to virtue. Aristotle examined both these concepts in his writing on Ethics. But he drew the line between deliberate acts of vice and ‘passionate’ ones, saying that there was a difference between a sin committed with intent, and a sin committed out of weakness. It is a pragmatic way of thinking about sin, and it would be taken up by modern psychologists centuries later. But in the meantime, Europe had given itself over to other ideas, which were mostly religious in nature.
Sin was not a new concept at the dawn of Christianity, but Christianity gave it fresh impetus by linking it to the idea of divine judgement. Those who resisted sin were brought closer to God, and saved from the threat of damnation. Those that did not would be cast down to hell. But it soon became evident that none were excluded from the evils of temptation, not even the Christian clergy, and while Christian doctrine tried to dissuade its followers from a life of sin, the fact remains that the conditions for virtue during the Dark Ages were not making things any easier. The only law was a feudal one; gone were the great social systems of the Greeks and the Romans. Europe fell into a feudal pattern of rich versus poor, nobleman versus serf. Fairness and justice for all had fallen foul to the acquisition of power and favours.
Christian theologians, meanwhile, continued to write widely on the subject of sin, but the first to do so was Saint Paul, who lived around the time the Gospels later gave for the birth of Jesus.
Christian morality begins with Saint Paul. And although there is controversy about how many of his beliefs and teachings were inspired by the Greeks, the message he delivered became the mainstay of early Christian thinking. It is, at root, the message of love that Christianity first set out to diffuse. Sin is anger and hatred. Virtue’s goal is peace and forgiveness. These are fine ideas, and they are as vital now as they ever were. But they are equally as hard to achieve. Humankind has a way of twisting things; perhaps, as sins go, our ability to turn things to a profit is the worst sin of all. As the Church gained in power and influence, it would be tested against its early message of peace, love and piety. Whether it would stand up to the test or not, has been the subject of more than one historical novel — but in any event, during the course of the next few hundred years the true Christian message ultimately failed to deliver its promised peace. Instead, Christian thinking took a new turn; one could almost say it travelled full circle back to its point of departure: the Genesis.
In the Old Testament, the first sinner was female. It was Eve, not Adam, who plucked the apple, and led mankind to a state of sinfulness. As a result Adam and Eve were thrown out of their heavenly paradise and made to face an earthly reality of suffering and pain. And later, when the Church came to realise that the battle against sin was hard to win, it established a new order to counter it. The name of this order was the Inquisition, and the outcome of its work was anything but peaceful and nothing if not painful.
Heresy, or dissidence against the Church, became the ultimate sin. And the weight of a great deal of this heresy fell once again on Eve.
Witch-hunting is recorded as having begun officially in the 1200s, when Pope Gregory IX encouraged the pursuit of witches by Inquisitors. Thousands of women were eventually condemned, right up until the seventeenth century. But women had been demonised much earlier, by priests such as Saint Jerome who lived and preached in the fifth century, when the period historicists called The Dark Ages was in full swing.
Saint Jerome was not just any priest; he translated the Bible from the Hebrew into the Latin Vulgate, a version still used today. All previous translations had been from the Greek, and Jerome’s knowledge of Hebrew has since been called into question. Nevertheless, the translation was accepted, and Jerome, who was known for his teachings on Christian morality, took his place as a major player in the story of Christianity.
His view of sinfulness, however, was a complex one. There was little of forgiveness in it, and much of anger. “What will ye do, ye sinners, and whither will ye flee on that day of judgement…?” And again, “Ye sinners shall be cursed forever, and ye shall have no peace.” Jerome hints of scandalous behaviour in his youth, and his dislike of women comes through in his writings, where he refers to woman as “the root of all evil”. In fact, a great deal of Jerome’s sermonising was devoted to the subject of women; he warned women of the importance of virginity, and encouraged them to pursue a monastic life, determined, perhaps, to remove the source of the temptation that devoured him.
Women were really only released from their bondage to sin around the time of the Enlightenment. Science would shed new light on the miraculous workings of the female reproductive system; woman would become not so much the root of all evil as the purveyor of miracles. Besides, with the advent of the Industrial Age and the dawn of urban living, sin would acquire a whole new criminal dimension that would make heresy the least of everybody’s problems. Old questions would rise up to the surface in another form. Had Aristotle missed the point? Were people inherently evil, right from the start? And if they were, how could they be saved at all?
Next Week: A Short History of Ideas examines Evil...
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As the Greek world died away the Roman Empire became the principal power in Europe and the Mediterranean basin.  With its blend of military might and relative barbarity, it broke the spirit of creativity the Hellenic world had generated. It made people fear the future but it stifled the impetus to rethink it. Rome had to be embraced; there was simply no alternative. Or was there?
In the third and fourth centuries AD a new religion called Christianity began to gain serious ground over fading Roman ideals. As the systems of the Roman Empire gave way to corruption and the generals began to call the shots, people looked elsewhere for deliverance. The Christian Creed provided it in the concept of a heavenly paradise where all earthly accounts would be settled by a God that was not a Caesar.
The Kingdom of Heaven, as a concept, was the perfect antidote to the misery of the times. The virtuous would find eternal peace, and those less deserving would be excluded. It became the tool of a new moral creed, which would eclipse the laws of Rome and all its deities. But Christians did not invent the concept of an afterlife; it was as old as the hills.  Human history was, and is, full of stories about life after death; mythologies the world over have grown up around the subject simply because it is so important to us.
As a species, human beings are blessed — or cursed, with the ability to be aware of things that are not a direct response to a stimulus. We do not need to be hungry to think about where our next meal is coming from; we have the brainpower to plan for it, thanks to millennia of evolution. But while forethought has its benefits, it has also made a rod for our backs as a species by forcing us to deal with the finality of death. And as the end result of love, life and labour it is not a warming prospect. All of which begs the awkward philosophical question: Why bother with anything in the first place?​
​When life is good, perhaps such questions can be brushed aside. But when it isn’t, they come back to us with all the force of a thunderclap. Answers have always been suggested, because there have always been people thoughtful enough, or unsatisfied enough, to look for them. As a consequence, ancient mythology — the vehicle for relating these answers, has made stories of them. Whether the stories themselves are true is beside the point; they exist to serve a need and as a framework for understanding the world and our place in it. And stories of the afterlife have been the stuff of mythology in almost every human culture.
The ancient Greeks had Hades, the god of the underworld who guarded the souls of the dead, and forbade them to return. The Romans called him Pluto and the ancient Egyptians called him Osiris. What about the underworld as a final destination? In antiquity we were expected to descend to the underworld after life; it was only later that the Christian creed suggested we ascend to it.
The earliest representations of the Christian God place him in the cosmos. It is hard not to connect this with the old Roman tradition of naming the gods after the Greek names for the planets: watery Neptune, metallic Mercury, bright Jupiter and brooding Pluto.
It would have come naturally to early Christian scholars to house God in the sky, and for Him to receive there after death. As for the old idea of the underworld, it began to acquire hellish associations even before the rise of Christianity. It was a dark and inhospitable place, for the most part. But despite being the kind of destination people preferred to avoid, Hades was not a place of torment. The god of the Greek underworld did not torture or punish those who entered his realm. He was passive and stern, but he was not evil. And there was always spark of hope for the brave.
Inside the realm of Hades was Elysium, the place reserved for heroes and gods. Later, Elysium would be superseded by the Christian heaven and placed securely under the control of one God only. Eternal paradise became the choice destination of God’s chosen people, as long as they adhered to His moral laws. And it worked, for centuries. But what about non-believers — were they destined to suffer a life of torment simply because they had not embraced the new faith? These questions would preoccupy Christian scholars for centuries. With the rise of Christianity philosophy became rooted in religious thinking. The focus shifted from the pursuit of virtue, which the Greeks had favoured, to the eradication of sin — partly because there was so much of it. But sin is a malleable concept. How much weight could it carry, and how far could the idea be taken before people turned against it?
Find out more next week...
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In his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell writes, “Until the Punic Wars, the Romans had been a bucolic people, with the virtues and vices of farmers: austere, industrious, brutal, obstinate and stupid.” It was only when they came into contact with the Greeks that they grew more civilised. But they would never be as cultivated as the Greeks; they would never produce great works of art or radically new ideas; in the end people can only change so much, and what the Romans left us was very much a reflection of what they were right from the start. They gave us roads, military strategy and a system of law and order born from empire building. What we sometimes forget, however, is that they also gave us the Roman Catholic Church, a church that would come to dominate all of Europe, until the Reformation of the 16th century eventually brought more change, allowing Protestantism and finally Secularism to flourish.
While Greek Stoicism, a philosophy based on virtue and self-knowledge, was on the rise, a man called Epicurus began to set out a more pragmatic approach to virtue. He lived in the third century BC, and he was among the last of the Greek philosophers to make his mark on Western civilisation. He is credited as having first raised the problem of evil, which argued against the existence of God. Because of this he is retrospectively called an atheist.
Epicurus also believed that pleasure was the only true happiness, and that we should turn our backs on the constraints of virtue. Do not covet what you cannot have, in other words, which is one way of avoiding disappointment. But what is interesting about Epicurus is the gulf he reveals between Greek and Roman thinking. With Epicurus we were still in the pre-Christian age. The gods had no real power; they existed as observers. They were not angry, and they did not condemn. How different to Roman thinking, which was superstitious in the extreme. The gods of pre-Christian Rome were the gods of Greece, but they had become vengeful, watchful and demanding. No Roman general would go to battle before the gods had been placated with an offering; no right-thinking Roman citizen would anger the gods by neglecting a ritual, and by the end of the Roman era, Rome had become stultified by its own fears, which were multi-faceted. There was fear of the gods, fear of failure and defeat, fear of other people and ultimately fear of what Rome had become: a cauldron of self interest and corruption.
Against this backdrop of fear, Constantine became the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. The rest of the Roman world would follow his lead, including the barbarians who would eventually plunder Rome in 410 AD. Gladiator arenas, which had witnessed the massacre of Christians and slaves, became used as places of Christian worship. It was, when you think about it, an incredible transformation, and it would affect philosophy in profound ways, essentially by moving it away from what had once been important to the Greeks: science, and moving it towards what now became important to everyone: virtue.
It was the Christ of the Christian Gospels that came to incarnate the Stoic principle of logos, which focussed on the importance of virtue for the individual. But Christianity would bring other things too, the Kingdom of Heaven for instance. The notion of life after death had been around for a long time, but Christianity brought a new dimension to the concept of eternity. In Greek philosophy eternity had been thought of as a dimension that existed beyond the physical body. Plato used the word Aeon to describe what he and others saw as a higher world of consciousness, a transcendent state of awareness to which we had to aspire if we were ever to attain ultimate wisdom. Other philosophies share this concept of a transcendent state but it was monotheism – the worship of one god only – that connected the idea of eternity with salvation or damnation more specifically. As a concept it was effective, but worrying, because it introduced the notion of divine punishment and the need for redemption, both of which had a major impact on societies all over the world through the idea of martyrdom.
The decline of the Roman Empire brought a new Age. The light the Greeks had nurtured gradually went out, and Europe was plunged into a darkness from which it only emerged some five hundred years later. This period is now known as The Dark Ages. But the legacy of the Greeks would not be lost in darkness forever. One day, the light of innovation would burn again. What would it show us next?
What happened to philosophy after the decline of the Ancient Greek world? Find out more in my new series starting next week:
A Short History of Ideas
Read more about the Greeks and Western Christendom in
The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer
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by Lucille Turner
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A novel about the life of Leonardo da Vinci
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