Sunday, May 31, 2009

First they came for the abortion providers.....

George Tiller was a brave man who was gunned down by a coward who believed he was doing "God's will", never mind the fact that Tiller was murdered while ushering at his Church. George Tiller was murdered because of his courageous commitment to continue to provide abortion services despite the pressure, up to and including acts of terrorism and murder, that all those involved in any aspect of reproductive health care must still confront in the United States of America in the twenty-first freaking century.

Scumbag Randall Terry, head of Operation Rescue, says he is more concerned about President Obama's reaction to the murder than he is about the murder itself.

George Tiller's murder goes way beyond just the issue of abortion rights. For decades the issues of reproductive rights and gay rights have been the front lines of the battle to protect everyone's rights in the US. As Upton Sinclair prophesied: "When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the Flag and carrying a Bible."

And the timing is obviously no accident. America now has our first African American president, and we are about to have our first Latina Supreme Court Justice. This is driving some people over the edge. But it isn't the lone assassins that are the problem: it's the vast support network that they have, the people, like Randal Terry, who honestly and seriously believe that anyone who actively supports abortion rights deserves to be murdered.

Extremely good (vegetarian) chilli

Saute two small shallots (or one small onion or a small bunch of scallions) in 1 tbsp olive oil
Then add about 6 oz portobello caps
Once the portobello caps are getting done, add 2 15oz cans pinto beans
At the same time (more or less) also add 8oz diced tempeh (I used Lightlife Three Grain)
And also add four medium sized tomatoes diced up
Seasoning: 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp cumin, 1+ tsp Valle Del Sol Chili Powder (Whole Foods)

The Religion of Socrates

1. The Pagan Socrates
Seeing then that the soul is immortal, and has been born many times, and has beheld all things in this world and the world beyond, there is nothing it has not learnt; so it is not surprising that it can be reminded of virtue and other things which it knew before. For since the whole of nature is akin, and the soul has learned all things, there is nothing to prevent someone, upon being reminded of one single thing--which men call learning--from rediscovering all the rest, if he is courageous and faints not in the search.
[Socrates in Plato's Meno 81c-d]

It is not by teaching but by nature that humanity possesses its knowledge of the Divine, as can be shown by the common yearning for the Divine that exists in everyone everywhere -- individuals, communities, nations. Without having it taught us, all of us have come to believe in some sort of Divinity, even though it is difficult for all to know what Divinity truly is and far from easy for those who do know to explain it to the rest.
[Julian Against the Galileans]
Socrates was a Pagan, and on this point there can be no reasonable doubt. Nevertheless one often encounters attempts to portray him as a monotheist or even a proto-Christian, as well as portrayals of Socrates as some kind of secular-humanist or even an atheist. Very often this is nothing more than a transparent exercise in wish-fulfilment by those who wish to think of Socrates as one of their own, and there is actually some merit to that.

For it is to Socrates' credit that so many people seek to associate themselves with him, and at the very least such people show that they have some understanding of the importance of the great philosopher. In fact, both Christians and secularists/atheists often go further and demonstrate an appreciation for parts (different parts, usually) of Socrates' actual philosophy. Christians respond very naturally to Socrates' intense focus on the grave issue of the proper care of the soul. Meanwhile secularists and/or atheists enthusiastically approve of Socrates' unshakable commitment to free and unfettered intellectual inquiry.

Far more troubling than the false claims of filiation coming from some quarters, though, is the fact that a great many modern day Pagans choose to think of Socrates as irrelevant to them, or even worse, to view him with hostility. In doing so, these Pagans usually repeat uncritically things vaguely half-remembered from a college "Philosophy 101" class, or some book or magazine article, or some drivel on wikipedia, to the effect that Socrates was a monotheist and/or atheist, which, in turn, merely repeats the slanders of those whose accusations led to Socrates' execution. Such mentally lazy Pagans have passively absorbed the message: Socrates was definitely not a Pagan, and whatever it was that Socrates believed or didn't believe, it was (or so these poor souls have been led to think -- inevitably without being able to clearly explain why they think it) very much at odds with the beliefs of most of the other people (ie, Pagans) who were around at the time, and also very different from the world-view of modern day Pagans.

Before going further it must be emphasized that Socrates is one of the most well documented individuals known to us from all of antiquity. Dozens of historically attested persons were among his family, students, friends, associates and enemies. Among his admirers were three of Athens' most famous writers: Euripides, Plato, and Xenophon. Another of Athens' most famous writers was numbered among Socrates' most outspoken (and, in the end, deadly) enemies, Aristophanes. A small library could be filled with materials relating to just one Athenian especially closely associated with Socrates' - the one who was easily the most famous person associated with him at the time, but about whom many people today know absolutely nothing: the infamous rogue Alcibiades, who left no writings of his own, but who nevertheless cuts quite the swath across the history of classical Greece (for, among many other things, serving as a general on both sides of the Peloponnesian War).

The entry for Socrates in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy begins with the philosophical equivalent of "it was a dark and stormy night": "The philosopher Socrates remains, as he was in his lifetime, an enigma ...." Despite this obfuscating, potboiler beginning, the article then goes on to provide an incredibly detailed account of Socrates' life, including personal details such as the names of his parents, and even the name of the man (Chaeredemus) his mother (Phaenarete) married after the death of his father (Sophroniscus), as well as the name of his half-brother (Patrocles) from that second marriage. We also learn the dates of young Socrates military training, and the dates of his later service in three different military campaigns.

Nor would it be credible to claim that Socrates' ideas (and especially those about religion) are somehow a veiled mystery, whereas, for examples, the occupations of his father and mother (stoneworker and midwife, respectively), and the names of his wife (Xanthippe), his children (Lamprocles, Sophroniscus and Menexenus) and even of his music teacher (Connus) are not.

In addition to the extensive writings about Socrates' ideas found in Plato and Xenophon, we also have philosophical works from at least six other of his students which, while fragmentary, nevertheless offer a wealth of information. As it turns out, written accounts of Socrates' teachings, authored by those who knew and studied with him, were extremely popular in the early fourth century BC, and this subgenre of philosophical literature is now known as the Sokratikoi logoi, a term that has only (relatively) recently become common in contemporary discussions of ancient philosophy, but which actually first appeared in the works of Aristotle. Therefore, Socrates' thought is no more "enigmatic" than that of any other philosopher of sufficient depth and subtlety.

2. "Socrates manages"
On the urge to find daylight between Socrates and "traditional" Paganism (and between Socrates and Plato)

All of the evidence that we have clearly demonstrates that Socrates was a Pagan. But, please, don't take my word for it. Here's just one example from Mark McPherran's The Religion of Socrates (scroll down for many more quotes along these same lines from McPherran and also Gregory Vlastos):
[T]he Apology--in concert with the Euthyphro and other early Platonic works--portrays a Socrates who was not only a rational philosopher of the first rank, but a profoundly religious figure as well, a Socrates who believed in gods vastly superior to ourselves in power and wisdom and shared many other traditional religious commitments of this sort with his fellow citizens.
McPherran is actually a hostile witness to the case of Socrates' Pagan-ness. But since no consistent case (based on evidence, that is) can be made for "The Religion of Socrates" being anything other than Paganism, McPherran is forced into inconsistency. After having said that Socrates believed in the Gods and "shared many other traditional religious commitments" common to the Hellenes at the time, he almost immediately feels the need to insist that, nevertheless, Socrates promoted "a unique, philosophical religion founded on a rationalist psychology and theology that devalued the old, publicly observable, external standard of piety ...." It is McPherran (not Socrates) who wants to "devalue" traditional Paganism, but he wants to use Socrates to validate his own devaluation. As far as Socrates goes, far from "devaluing the old publicly observable" aspects of Paganism, he contributed significantly to the preservation of traditional Paganism, just one example of which is the fact that the Platonic Academy in Athens had the honor of being the last place in the Hellenic world where "publicly observable" Pagan rituals were performed, over a century after any such open, public worship of the Gods had been made, in theory at least, a capital offense.

There is simply not a single sentence anywhere in Plato (early, middle or late), Xenophon, or any other writing from those who knew Socrates, friend or foe, to support McPherran's idea that Socrates "devalued" the more public, indeed the more "social", aspects of ancient, traditional Paganism. Plato, for example, uses the Athenian religious calendar to associate each of his dialogues with a traditional festival or other holiday associated with a Deity. And these are far from mere literary "window dressing" chosen and put to use without regard for their spiritual significance, as anyone who has ever pondered the timing of the Lysis on a day sacred to Hermes, or the Meno at a time of year associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries, can clearly see.

Part of McPherran's problem is that he still labors in the semi-darkness created by the long shadow cast by his mentor, Gregory Vlastos, arguably the most prominent Socrates scholar of the 20th century. Vlastos was a Christian who, in addition to his extremely influential scholarly works relating to Socrates and Plato, also produced books with titles such as Towards the Christian Revolution (as co-editor and contributor) and Christian Faith and Democracy (as author).

Vlastos did not try to make Socrates out as a Christian. He was somewhat more subtle than that. In his Socratic Piety (Chapter 6 in Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher), Vlastos zeroes in on what he refers to as the "embarrassing" "fact" of "Socrates' acceptance of the supernatural". While melodramatically announcing that he "shall waste no time arguing against" those who have sought to deny or explain away Socrates' supernaturalism, Vlastos himself crosses the line between explanation and "explaining way" when he offers his own view "that, far ahead of his time as Socrates is in so many ways, in this part of his thought he is a man of his times" [p.158].

McPherran inherits from Vlastos the need to find daylight between Socrates and "traditional" Paganism, even though he goes further than his mentor in acknowledging Socrates' Pagan-ness. What becomes clear when we look closely at what both McPherran and Vlastos have to say is that they both use Socrates to validate their own assessments of ancient Paganism, and, in particular, to promote their own personal visions of how religion and reason can be (and should be) reconciled. The problem is that in their eagerness to make use of Socrates to validate their own points of view, they blatantly pick and choose from among Socrates' ideas, ignoring the fact that "the religion of Socrates", that is, traditional Hellenic Paganism, already presents this reconciliation as an accomplished fact.

McPherran also inherits from his mentor the urge to pit Socrates against Plato, or, in his own words, the "Apollonian modesty" of Socrates against the "Platonic hubris" of his most famous (to us) student. McPherran is so desperate to build a wall between teacher and student that he declares, "The death of Socrates marked the death of Socratic religion.":
The death of Socrates marked the the death of Socratic religion. What little career it had as an independent phenomenon shows up only in the relatively conventional pieties of Xenophon and the slightly more thought-out theism found in some of Socrates' followers, notably Antisthenes and Aristippus. The real measure of its importance is found instead in its varied contributions to the thought of Socrates' most talented pupil, Plato. There, preserved in his middle and late dialogues, many of the basic tenets of Socratic religion survived intact--e.g. the complete justice and goodness of the gods--while other elements were either rejected or transformed as Plato proceeded to elaborate his profoundly influential, mystical theology.
[p. 291]
The above remarks come into sharper focus when we look at what McPherron had said immediately before. After a long, detailed, and quite persuasive argument for accepting as accurate Xenophon's ascription, in his Memorabilia, of a "teleological theology" to Socrates, McPherran caps it off with a peroration that appears to convey something of his own personal philosophy:
Socrates' endorsement of the Memorabilia's teleological argument places him at the leading edge of fifth century theological reform. Raised in a culture of passionate gods--gods hungry for honor, full of strife, morally distant, and confusedly and intermittently involved with the daily life of nature and humanity--Socrates manages to travel a very great conceptual distance indeed. For beginning there he appears to have arrived at an idea that was to dominate [sic] Western thought for many centuries to come: the existence of an immanent--albeit still anthropopsychic--cosmic intelligence and loving Maker.
[pp. 290-1]

3. More on McPherran and Vlastos on the Religion of Socrates

Although they are at pains to deride traditional Paganism, and to make use of Socrates himself in that project, nevertheless McPherran and Vlastos are also eager to portray Socrates as a profoundly religious man. The deep bias that both scholars have against traditional Paganism blinds them to the glaring inconsistencies that result from their Christianizing paradigm that attempts to posit a Socrates preparing the way for the Gospels. Below are a selection of quotes that highlight the fact that both McPherran and Vlastos are forced again and again to acknowledge that the religion of Socrates is Paganism.
Socrates ... believed in gods ... and shared many other traditional religious commitments of this sort with his fellow citizens.
[McPherran, The Religion of Socrates p. 2]

Socrates, for all his rationalism, appears to give clear and uncritical credence to the alleged god-given messages found in dreams, divination, and other such traditionally accepted incursions by divinity. For example, we have seen him claim that his philosophical mission to the Athenians 'has been commanded of me ... by the god through oracels and through dreams and by every other means in which a divinity has ever commanded anyone to do anything.' [Apology 33c4-7] In Xenophon we even find Socrates sending his students to oracles and seers for advice.
[p. 176]

Socrates does not endorse a form of the intellectualist rejection of divination's efficacy ... he ... accept[s] the tradtional notion that the gods really do provide humankind with signs...
[p. 177]

He [Socrates] will insist upon elenctic testing for all beliefs for which that is appropriate and feasibly, but he will also acknowledge that some beliefs are legitimately derived from extrarational sources (which then count as practical 'reasons').
[p. 179]

[S]ince according to Socrates the soul [psuche] is the seat of all the virtues, and the virtues are forms of knowledge [Protagoras 314a-b], it is thus the part of us that engages in discursive reasoning. It is, in short, our mind, our nous. Throughout the early Socratic dialogues this view is linked to the idea that the psuche is not identical with the body but rules over it from 'within' .... [W]hile some have argued that Socrates conceives of the soul as a nonseparable aspect of a person's living body, rather than a distinct element 'housed' in a body .... [s]uch a view is ... incompatible with Socrates' conviction that it is genuinely possible that death results in a separation of the soul from its body followed by a migration to another 'place', a migration that leaves no part of the soul behind [Apology 40c=41d].
[pp. 248-50]

Burnet seems right to me when he says that the originality of Socrates' contribution lay in his combining the Ionian view of it [psuche] with the Orphic-Pythagorean doctrine of the purification of the psuche.
[p. 251]

Socrates' commitment to reasoned argument as the final arbiter of claims to truth in the moral doman is evident throughout Plato's Socratic dialogues.... And yet he is also committed to obeying commands reaching him through supernatural channels.... Between these two commitments--on the one hand, to follow argument wherever it may lead; on the other, to obey divine commands conveyed to him through supernatural channels--he sses no conflict. He assumes they are in perfect harmony.
[Vlastos, Socratic Piety, in Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher p. 157]

If we are to use Plato's and Xenophon's testimony about Socrates at all we must take it as a brute fact ... [that] [h]e subscribes unquestioningly to the age-old view that side by side with the physical world accessible to our senses, there exists another, populated by mysterious beings, personal like ourselves, but, unlike ourselves, having the power to invade at will the causal order to which our own actions are confined, effecting in it changes of incalculable extent to cause us great benefit, or, were they to choose otherwise, total devastation and ruin.
[p. 158]

Some scholars have expressed bafflement, or worse, incredulity, that from the the Pythia's 'No' in answer to the question 'Is there anyone wiser than Socrates"' he should have derived the command to philosophize on the streets of Athens.... But in point of fact that oracle was by no means the only sign Socrates had received ... there had been more divinations (some of them no doubt from his own daimonion) and more than one prophetic dream.
[pp. 171-2]

Were it not for that divine command that first reached Socrates through his report Chaerephon brought back from Delphi there is no reason to believe that he would have ever become a street-philosopher.
[p. 177]
Vlastos and McPherran invariably employ circular logic to explain away the glaring inconsistency in there claim that Socrates somehow had "his own" religion. Socrates was a moral philosopher, and yet traditional Paganism is assumed, by both scholars, to be inherently bereft of moral teachings. Therefore no matter how obviously Pagan Socrates was, he wasn't "really" a Pagan at all, for to admit that would be to admit that traditional Paganism was not in need of being extirpated after all.

Related posts:

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Liberte, Egalite, Apoplexie

I admit it. I got a little bent out of shape when I read what Gus DiZerega had to say about Atheists, Christians, and Pagans. Here's why:

(1) In any context I would consider it a grotesque distortion of the last 1700 years of human history to proclaim that Christianity should be credited for the promotion of the ideal of human equality.*

(2) This distortion is especially egregious when it comes from a Pagan, that is, a follower of a religious tradition that every major sect of Christianity has done everything in its power to wipe off the face of the earth. While it would be very difficult to find any religion anywhere that Christianity has not sought to "extirpate", as the Christians themselves have historically put it, Pagans can claim pride of place as the first religious tradition to be so honored.

(3) But to say this and then add to it an indictment of Paganism itself (coming from a Pagan!) for our supposed failures and deficiencies with respect to human equality, well, that, as the saying goes, takes the freaking cake. As a matter of fact, our modern conceptions of democracy, freedom of speech, justice, equality, and compassion, as well as our notions of the republican form of government and "the rule of law" in a constitutional system, all derive from Pagan Greco-Roman antecedents.

The reason I am bringing this up now is because of a wonderful post over at Impotent Rage on the proposal by some Christian fundamentalists to make 2010 the "Year of the Bible". In that post is an extended quote from Michael Lind's April 14th piece titled America is not a Christian Nation, in which Lind puts the lie to the claim that the ideas behind phrases such as "we hold these truths to be self evident" and "all men are created equal" are somehow inspired by or based on Christian theology.

As Lind rightly points out, and as Guz diZerega as a scholar of politics and history should certainly be aware, "the actual intellectual roots of the Declaration of Independence" are to be found "in Greek philosophy and Roman law", not in the Old and New Testaments.

Some closing thoughts from old Tom Paine:
Some Christians pretend that Christianity was not established by the sword; but of what period of time do they speak? It was impossible that twelve men could begin with the sword: they had not the power; but no sooner were the professors of Christianity sufficiently powerful to employ the sword than they did so, and the stake and faggot too; and Mahomet could not do it sooner. By the same spirit that Peter cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant (if the story be true) he would cut off his head, and the head of his master, had he been able....

Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity. Too absurd for belief, too impossible to convince, and too inconsistent for practice, it renders the heart torpid, or produces only atheists and fanatics. As an engine of power, it serves the purpose of despotism; and as a means of wealth, the avarice of priests; but so far as respects the good of man in general, it leads to nothing here or hereafter.
The Age of Reason,
Thomas Paine, 1796
[* This is not to deny the contributions to social justice made by individual Christians, but diZerega specifically said that Christianity itself as a religious tradition is to be singled out (from among all the religions of the world) and credited with the "ideal of human equality". In any event my negative assessment of Christianity's net "contributions" to humanity is no more extreme than that of Thomas Paine or Bertrand Russell.]

George Gemistos Plethon: Sources

I will add more to this eventually, and clean it up some, but for now here is a rough and ready list of English language sources of information about George Gemistos Plethon (and to those who don't know who Plethon was, or what he has to do with anything, please see this previous post):

John Monfasani: "Platonic Paganism in the 15th Century"

Colin Wells: "Sailing from Byzantium"

Christopher Woodhouse: "George Gemistos Plethon: The Last of the Hellenes"

Basil Tatakis: "Byzantine Philosophy"

Katerina Ierodiakonou (ed): "Byzantine Philosophy and Its Ancient Source"

Joscelyn Godwin: "Pagan Dream of the Renaissance"

Edgar Wind "Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance"

Steven Runciman: "Mistra, Byzantine Capital of the Peloponnese"


ALEXANDER ALEXAKIS : Was There Life beyond the Life Beyond?
Byzantine Ideas on Reincarnation and Final Restoration :

Darien C. DeBolt: George Gemistos Plethon on God: Heterodoxy in Defense of Orthodoxy:

Demetrios Constantelos: A Conflict between Ancient Greek Philosophy and Christian Orthodoxy in the Late Greek Middle Ages:

Monday, May 25, 2009

split pea, lentil, and unsplit pea soup

Combine 1/2 cup split peas + 1/2 cup lentils + 3 cups water
bring this to a boil and then let it simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes (until the split peas are "done")

then add the following:
one 15 oz can of peas
one bunch of celery cut up
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp nutmeg (or to taste)
1/2 tsp salt (or to taste)

then continue to cook for at least another 15-20 minutes. You might want to leave it uncovered for part of this time if you want the soup a little thicker.

I guess you could add the spices earlier, especially the bay leaf. You could also add a tbsp of olive oil.

This recipe is so easy it hardly counts as "cooking"! It's great with rice.

Hypatia and the spiritual two party system

In his biography of Augustine of Hippo, Peter Brown, the man who is largely responsible for the term "late antiquity" in its current usage, describes the climate of religious violence in North Africa during the first decade of the fifth century AD like this:
For over a decade, the Bishops in Africa had provoked the destruction of the old ways. Public Paganism had been suppressed: the great temples were closed; the statues broken up, often by Christian mobs; the proud inscriptions ... used to pave public highways.
[p. 185]
Classicist Michael Gaddis describes the following incident during this same period:
In the early fifth century, the Egyptian monk Shenoute issued an open letter containing a thundering denunciation of a local pagan magnate. Shenoute and his followers had taken the law into their own hands, ransacked the pagan's house, and smashed his idols. In response to the magnate's accusation of lesteria--banditry, crime, illegal violence--against him, Shenoute proclaimed that "there is no crime for those who have Christ."
Gaddis uses this catchy phrase of Shenoute's for the title of his 2005 study of religious violence in the Christian Roman Empire: There is no crime for those who have Christ. Appropriately, the story of Shenoute appears on page one of that book.

The religious violence that Gaddis and Brown describe, however, did not suddenly appear out of nowhere in the year 400 AD. Although it is a bit of an oversimplification, the year 381 provides a non-arbitrary starting point for this reign of religious violence. It was in that year that the Emperor Theodosius finally made an open declaration of an ideologically monolithic one-religion state, in which only Nicene Christianity would be allowed in the Roman Empire. In fact, however, legal proscriptions against Paganism go all the way back to 312, when Constantine first decided to favor the new religion of Christianity and discourage the ancient Pagan traditions. But somewhere along the line between 312 and 381 the Roman state went from discouraging Paganism to punishing it with prison, torture and execution.

The situation of Paganism during the 380's is indicated in Libanius' oration For the Temples, in which we learn that after the death of the last Pagan Emperor, Julian, in 362, sacrifices at Pagan temples were, in theory, still allowed "for some time", but then were mostly prohibited, with only the offering of incense being permitted. But the real problem, according to Libanius were mobs of "black garbed people" who "run to the temples, bringing with them wood, and stones, and iron ...." According to Libanius those who commit these acts of violence against Pagan sacred sites gather afterward "and they require of each other an account of what they have done; and he is ashamed who cannot tell of some great injury which he has been guilty of."
They, therefore, spread themselves over the country like torrents, wasting the countries together with the temples: for wherever they demolish the temple of a country, at the same time the country itself is blinded, declines, and dies.... Nor are they satisfied with this, for they also seize the lands of some, saying it is sacred: and many are deprived of their paternal inheritance upon a false pretence. Thus these men riot upon other people's misfortunes, who say they worship God with fasting. And if they who are abused come to the pastor in the city, (for so they call a man who is not one of the meekest,) complaining of the injustice that has been done them, this pastor commends these, but rejects the others, as if they ought to think themselves happy that they have suffered no more.
Libanius wrote this in 386, and while it was an appeal for all of the remaining Pagan sacred sites in the Empire that had not already been destroyed by Christian mobs, it was in particular a plea for the Serapaeum in Alexandria. Five years later, in 391, Christian mobs attacked the ancient temple of Serapis, although first they had to fight their way through Pagans who had gathered to defend their old Gods. In the end the Pagans were no match for the crowd of "monks" and lay Christians and the 600+ year old temple was demolished and a "church" built on on the site, and the other remaining Pagan temples in Alexandria were also destroyed. Unfortunately there is very little comfort in that profound insight of J. William Fulbright, reflecting on the debacle of Vietnam, that while "power tends to confuse itself with virtue", they often have very little in common.

So the year 415 was preceded by decade after decade of religious violence, setting the stage for the infamous, gruesome murder of the Pagan philosopher Hypatia in Alexandria. In his A Chronicle of the Last Pagans historian Pierre Chuvin makes a point of saying that Hypatia "was not killed for reason of militant Paganism" [p. 90]. But what Chuvin overlooks is that by 415 any Paganism was seen as "militant" Paganism: the mere existence of a Pagan was all the provocation Christians needed. So it wasn't Hypatia's "militancy" that got her killed - it was the militancy of those who killed her.

Here is how Chuvin describes the death of Paganism's most famous martyr:
Hypatia was returning from a trip when fanatics dragged her from her carriage into one of the town's main churches, which was the see of the patriarch. This church, though it had been dedicated to Saint Michael, was still known by the name of pagan sanctuary whose walls it reused: the Caesareum (center of the former imperial cult in Alexandria). There Hypatia was stripped, stabbed with shards of pots and crocks, then hacked to pieces. The remains of her body were paraded around the streets of the town and finally burned.
[p. 88]
Even though Chuvin insists that Hypatia's Paganism was not "militant", still there is no doubt that she was a Pagan. In fact, while it is certainly a nontrivial undertaking to determine precisely what the religious beliefs were of a person who died 16 centuries ago, there is really no question that Hypatia was, indeed, a Pagan. So I was a little surprised to read the following synopsis (here at the imdb site) of the forthcoming film Agora (in which Hypatia is played by Rachel Weisz):
A historical drama set in Roman Egypt, concerning a slave who turns to the rising tide of Christianity in the hopes of pursuing freedom while also falling in love with his master, the famous female philosophy professor and atheist Hypatia of Alexandria.
It's a little thing - a boneheaded screw up in a one sentence summary of some film in Spanish that most people will never see. But it shows the pervasive influence of the spiritual two-party system, which reduces all matters of religion to monotheism versus atheism.

Fortunately it looks like the movie might actually be something that both Pagans and classical history buffs will be able to enjoy. At least that is the optimistic impression given by this post over at The Wild Hunt blog on the subject of Post-Cannes Reaction to Agora.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Brad Warner versus the Dalai Lama?

"An underlying ground to the universe"
Brad Warner recently posted a buttload of new videos on youtube. In one of them he says he believes in God. More specifically he says this:
I don't think Buddhism is atheism. And if people ask me the question, 'do you believe in God?' I'm always, like, 'Yes, I believe in God.' There are other Buddhists, or other people who will tell you that Buddhism is atheistic, and sometimes when I hear their explanations for why it's atheistic, I can go, 'OK, if you define God as that, then Buddhism doesn't have that kind of a God.' It doesn't have a creation myth, or a creator God, or a God you can thank for getting a touchdown in football, or this kind of thing. That isn't really part of Buddhism. But there is this sense that there's an underlying ground to the universe, and that ... that we all partake in it and we're all manifestations of that and that this underlying ground is not just dead matter, it's something alive. So in that sense I think it is not atheism. My teacher would always say, 'God is the Universe, and the Universe is God.'
[the youtube clip is here]
But noted Buddhist scholar Paul Williams claims that Buddhism is atheistic. Williams is a widely respected scholar whose area of expertise is Mahayana Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism in particular. When his Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations was first published in 1989 it was praised with words such as "this will without doubt become a standard textbook on the Mahayana" [from a reviewer in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society quoted at]. At the time Williams wrote that book he was himself a practicing Buddhist, in addition to being a professor of Buddhist Studies.

So one should take Williams seriously when he states that the Dalai Lama in particular and all Buddhists in general are atheists, a claim that he first made while he was attempting to explain, after 20 years as a Buddhist (and 10 years after writing Mahayana Buddhism), his reasons for converting to Roman Catholicism in 1999. In his The Unexpected Way: On Converting from Buddhism to Catholicism, Williams quotes something that the Dalai Lama said, something that Williams sees as symptomatic of Buddhism's supposed deficiencies (all ellisions are Williams'):
Many religions begin with the idea of a God ... Although this is an easy answer, it is not logically proveable. Therefore Buddha avoided it and tried to present a doctrine that in every way could be established through reason .... By avoiding the use of the God-theory, Buddha also avoided the many problematic side-effects that come with it .... [R]eligions based on the 'God-theory' usually do not permit rejection of the 'Words of God', even should they contradict all reason. This can very easily stunt the growth of philosophical enquiry .... Buddha tried to present a path based purely on reason, and a path expressed solely in terms of human problems and human goals.
[p. 70]
Williams says that the above "sums up a great deal of ... why I came to question the Buddhist approach" although, as Williams himself notes, this is from is an English translation of a talk given by His Holiness in colloquial Tibetan to a group of Tibetan refugees living in a camp in India. That is to say, it is certainly not meant as a carefully worded theological discourse. In a footnote, Williams expands a bit on how he sees things (the emphasis in bold is mine):
I have just seen in a bookshop a new book by Deepak Chopra. Chopra is a medical doctor who has gained a great reputation as a New Age self-help advisor. His books sell widely. This new work is on the stages of coming to experience God. I am not quite sure how being a medical doctor qualifies as an expert in this, or whether Chopra himself claims to have experienced God. But the book is endorsed by many authorities, with pride of place given to the Dalai Lama and the Buddhist R.A.F. Thurman, who both seem to think that this book will be of great benefit to others. But what puzzles me is that as a Buddhist the Dalai Lama does not believe in God. What is he thinking, then, when he endorses a book on coming to experience God? Surely the answer is that whatever Chopra means by "God" is perfectly compatible with the atheism of the Dalai Lama. I suspect that Chopra (in common with many in the Indian traditions) in fact means by 'God' the 'True Self', the final, ultimate, innermost nature of conscious beings, or something like that. The issue of a True Self is of course also problematic for Buddhists, but as far as the Dalai Lama is concerned that is a matter of ontological dispute at a level far too rarified for ordinary people. If we take the 'True Self' as the subtlest level of the mind, what the Dalai Lama would accept and call the 'Clear Light', the fundamental level of consciousness, then it may be permissable for ecumenical reasons to call that the 'True Self'. I strongly suspect that Chopra's book is actually about one's own experiences, experiencing levels of one's own mind, oneself, or (if you like) one's Self. Like the Dalai Lama, Chopra's concern is with happiness, bringing about happy feelings. Metaphysical subtleties--differences--can come later.

What has all this to do with God? The only God here is one's Self--oneself. Thus the 'God-theory' becomes a matter of the practicalities of description: which description is best suited to bring about the agreed goal of happiness.

[footnote 16 on page 225]
Newsflash: Buddhists do not believe in the Christian God!
The Dalai Lama does not call himself an atheist, a fact that Professor Williams is well aware of. And as Brad Warner made very clear, different people have different associations with the words "atheist" and "God". If one is clear about which definitions one is using, and how one is using them, then there's no need for confusion.

But when it comes to making blanket statements it is completely wrong, and in Paul Williams' case just downright intellectually dishonest, to proclaim that Buddhists are atheists. Here is how one practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism (Dr. Alan Wallace who has produced over a dozen important English translations of Tibetan Buddhist texts, while also publishing both scholarly and popular works of his own on Buddhism) responds to the question of whether or not Buddhists are atheists:
In the framing itself, the question is already skewed. It’s not so obvious to a person who’s totally immersed in Western civilization and has almost no understanding of anything outside of Western civilization. Frankly, so much of this antireligious rhetoric from the likes of Richard Dawkins is just wildly unconsciously and uncritically ethnocentric. Do Buddhists themselves ask, ‘are we atheists?’ Well, I’ve never seen that question posed. In Buddhism that would be regarded as such a dumb and uninformed question that is not even worthy of a response.
[The quote is taken from here, the mp3 file of the entire interview with Dr. Wallace is here.]
The above Alan Wallace interview actually happens to be the very first hit that one gets with a google search on the phrase "the dalai lama is an atheist" (without the quotes). If you do a search on the phrase "the dalai lama does not believe in god" (this time with the quotes), the footnote from Paul Williams' book is the very first hit. Both Williams and Wallace are highly qualified and accomplished scholars of Buddhism, and both of them also have extensive experience as practitioners of Buddhism, although Williams, as previously mentioned, abandoned that practice in favor of Roman Catholicism.

Paul Williams never said "the Dalai Lama is an atheist" while he was still a Buddhist. He only started saying that once he found himself needing to justify his rejection of Buddhism and his embrace of Roman Catholicism. It is very significant, in my opinion, that Paul Williams begins Chapter One of his book on why he converted to Catholicism with the sentence "Buddhists do not believe in the existence of God":
Buddhists do not believe in the existence of God. There need be no debating about this. In practising Buddhism one never finds talk of God, there is no role for God, and it is not difficult to find in Buddhist texts attacks on the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, all-good Creator of the universe.

But there are those who say that Buddhism does not deny the existence of God. It is not atheist. It is, rather, agnostic [all emphases are in the original]. Buddhism does not pronounce on whether God exists or not. Buddhists do not claim to know God. God is irrelevant to the Buddhist project of (broadly speaking) final freedom from all types of suffering through the attainment of nirvana, liberation of enlightenment. Enlightenmnent is attained through oneself following a set path of morality, meditation and wisdom. It does not require any help from divine intervention or any reference to God.

To portray Buddhism as agnostic in this way seems to me a modern strategy. In ancient times Buddhists were quite clear that they denied the existence of a personal creator God as taught in the rival theistic systems. Buddhism does indeed hold to the existence of divine beings, rather like the gods of Greek and Roman mythology. But none of these is the one supreme creator God of the great theistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Buddhists 'gods' (deva) tend to be happier and more powerful than we are. They live longer than we do. But they are part of the cycle of death and rebirth. In infinite past rebirths we ourselves have been born as gods many times.

Any God as He is understood in a religion like Christianity could not be irrelevant to the path of final spiritual fulfilment. No God as understood by Christians could be irrelevant to final fulfilment. If Buddhism does not teach this God, it either does not teach the path to final fulfilment or it considers that it is not necessary to the path to teach such a God. But a God that is not necessary to final spiritual fulfilment is not God as taught by Christianity. Thus if Buddhism does not teach that sort of God, it must hold that such a God does not exist. Therefore if Buddhism claims to teach such a path, and yet God is not part of it, then the God referred to by Christians is indeed being denied. From a Christian point of view Buddhism is clearly a form of atheism.
[pp. 25-26]
Williams' logic is as airtight as it is devoid of sense: on what grounds would anyone ever suspect that Buddhists (qua Buddhists) would believe in the Christian God? This is like asking people in Zimbabwe if they are Yankee fans. Williams is aggressively projecting the "Christianity or nothing" view of religion (which I have discussed elsewhere in this blog): you either accept the "the one supreme creator God of the great theistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam" or you are an atheist. Take your pick!

Goddesses, Gods and Buddhism
In his The Arya Dharma of Sakya Muni, Gautama Buddha, or, The Ethics of Self Discipline Anagarika Dharmapala wrote:
The charge of atheism is brought against the religion of the Lord Buddha. Buddha came to teach a path without the help of gods or devils. But the people who had their gods got angry because the Lord did not want their help. It is like the man who believed that light can only be got through the burning of oil and wick. He would not accept any other light except the oil light, and when the electrician came and said that he could give a brilliant light without having recourse to either oil or wick, the oil lamp man said, that can't be, let me have the electric light with the oil and the wick put in, and I shall be satisfied. The muddle-headed who have no idea of the science of evolution or the science of electricity would not believe that a brilliant light could be got without the aid of oil and wick. Buddhism is a religion that teaches new things which the old god believers had no conception of.

The Lord taught that man can get his salvation without the help of angry, blood thirsty deities. The religion that the Lord gave to the civilized Aryans of ancient India was psychological. No god is needed to get rid of anger, jealousy, ill-will, pride, ignorance.

It is a religion of internal development, and the angry gods can't help another to get rid of anger while they themselves were still dominated by jealousy and anger. Just as light is obtained by means of the electric dynamo without the help of oil, wick and match, so man by following the path of the Lord Buddha, which is the path of scientific wisdom, can attain the highest peace, bliss and freedom by individual effort and personal purity of heart.

The Buddhist can admit into the circle of gods Allah, Jehovah, God, Gott, or any other god who may come into existence in the twentieth century. No Buddhist can hate gods. They have to practise the mettabhavana, and give their love to all the gods. devils, and demons and all living beings. He admits all gods and he gives his love to all.

But gods who murder, and get angry, set fire to cities, kill innocent men, women and children, send tornadoes, typhoons, cyclones, earthquakes, thunderstorms, plagues, pestilences, and create the blind, deaf, dumb, the epileptic, the feeble-minded, and the crippled, the Buddhist rejects.

Some gods get angry daily, some gods want wine, bread and meat for their foods. Some gods without the blood of cows are not happy. Some gods get the worship of muddle-headed by giving them the liberty to kill animals and eat their flesh. They are satisfied with a little music and a few candles and a few psalms. Each man according to his intelligence makes his own god. The Buddhist loves them all. and they are given the merits of the good deeds that he does. No god need be angry with a Buddhist.

[taken from here]
Certainly not all Buddhists would agree with everything that Anagarika Dharmapala says above. But neither can any one make generalizations about all Buddhists that flatly contradict what he says, for he clearly does represent a non-negligible point of view among Buddhists. For those unfamiliar with him he was a major figure in Theravada Buddhism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an invited speaker to the 1893 World Parliament of Religions (when he still less than 30 years old), a founder of the Maha Bodhi Society (which oversees the Maha Bodhi Temple, at the site of the Buddha's Great Awakening, in Bodhgaya, India), among other accomplishments.

There are three things that must be emphasized about what Anagarika Dharmapala says above. (1) First of all he unequivocally rejects the "charge of atheism" against Buddhism (in fact, he went so far as to explicitly state, at the 1893 World Parliament of Religion, that Buddhism has "a supreme god" who "looks upon all beings with equanimity"). (2) Second of all he portrays a very subtle relationship between Buddhism and Gods, a relationship in which Buddhists can accept gods, and "no god need be angry with Buddhism". (3) Lastly he insists that "gods who murder, and get angry, set fire to cities ... the Buddhist rejects."

By historical standards Anagarika Dharmapala was a relatively "modern" figure in the 2500 year history of Buddhism, so perhaps he is pursuing what Paul Williams refers to above as a "modern strategy" in order to avoid "the charge of atheism". Fortunately, dispelling such doubts is quite easy: all one has to do is take a look at the famous Rock Edicts of Asoka, which date from around 250 years after the Buddha's death. King Asoka was the one who built the original Maha Bodhi Temple, by the way.

King Asoka is one of the more dominating figures in all of Indian history (and also Buddhist history). Mahatma Gandhi frequently referred to Asoka, a Buddhist, as representative of the ideal that all modern day Indian political leaders should aspire to. Asoka was not born a Buddhist, but converted sometime after becoming King. While using his significant power to promote Buddhism, he also promulgated a policy that went far beyond merely "tolerating" religious diversity: "He seems to have genuinely hoped to be able to encourage everyone to practice his or her own religion with the same conviction that he practiced his." That quote is taken from Ven. S. Dhammika's introduction to his translation of Asoka's edicts, available online here. It is especially noteworthy that in the edicts Asoka is always referred to as "Devanampiya", which means "beloved of the Gods." Here are some relevant excerpts from the edicts:
In the past there were no Dhamma Mahamatras but such officers were appointed by me thirteen years after my coronation. Now they work among all religions for the establishment of Dhamma, for the promotion of Dhamma, and for the welfare and happiness of all who are devoted to Dhamma. They work among the Greeks, the Kambojas, the Gandharas, the Rastrikas, the Pitinikas and other peoples on the western borders. They work among soldiers, chiefs, Brahmans, householders, the poor, the aged and those devoted to Dhamma -- for their welfare and happiness -- so that they may be free from harassment. They (Dhamma Mahamatras) work for the proper treatment of prisoners, towards their unfettering, and if the Mahamatras think, "This one has a family to support," "That one has been bewitched," "This one is old," then they work for the release of such prisoners. They work here, in outlying towns, in the women's quarters belonging to my brothers and sisters, and among my other relatives. They are occupied everywhere. These Dhamma Mahamatras are occupied in my domain among people devoted to Dhamma to determine who is devoted to Dhamma, who is established in Dhamma, and who is generous.

Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart. But people have various desires and various passions, and they may practice all of what they should or only a part of it. But one who receives great gifts yet is lacking in self-control, purity of heart, gratitude and firm devotion, such a person is mean.

Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, honors both ascetics and the householders of all religions, and he honors them with gifts and honors of various kinds. But Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does not value gifts and honors as much as he values this -- that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one's own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause. And if there is cause for criticism, it should be done in a mild way. But it is better to honor other religions for this reason. By so doing, one's own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one's own religion and the religions of others. Whoever praises his own religion, due to excessive devotion, and condemns others with the thought "Let me glorify my own religion," only harms his own religion. Therefore contact (between religions) is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions.

Those who are content with their own religion should be told this: Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does not value gifts and honors as much as he values that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. And to this end many are working -- Dhamma Mahamatras, Mahamatras in charge of the women's quarters, officers in charge of outlying areas, and other such officers. And the fruit of this is that one's own religion grows and the Dhamma is illuminated also.

Beloved-of-the-Gods speaks thus: Twelve years after my coronation I started to have Dhamma edicts written for the welfare and happiness of the people, and so that not transgressing them they might grow in the Dhamma. Thinking: "How can the welfare and happiness of the people be secured?" I give attention to my relatives, to those dwelling near and those dwelling far, so I can lead them to happiness and then I act accordingly. I do the same for all groups. I have honored all religions with various honors. But I consider it best to meet with people personally.

Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus: My Dhamma Mahamatras too are occupied with various good works among the ascetics and householders of all religions. I have ordered that they should be occupied with the affairs of the Sangha. I have also ordered that they should be occupied with the affairs of the Brahmans and the Ajivikas. I have ordered that they be occupied with the Niganthas. In fact, I have ordered that different Mahamatras be occupied with the particular affairs of all different religions. And my Dhamma Mahamatras likewise are occupied with these and other religions.
In addition to "male" Gods, Buddhists have also, throughout the history of Buddhism, revered a variety of Goddesses, including Prthivi, the ancient Earth Goddess whom the Buddha prayed to just prior to his Enlightenment. Miranda Shaw has written a wonderful, whopping (600 page!) book on Buddhist Goddesses of India, a book also discussed briefly by me in a previous post.
Shaw devotes the longest chapter of her book to the Goddess Tara, where she explains that
Tara finds mention in almost any work on Buddhist history or culture in South Asia and the Himalayas, for her presence in the religious landscape is impossible to ignore. Her worship crosses lay and monastic lines and spans devotional, ritual, and Tantric practices. One would be hard pressed to find any need--whether physical welfare, healing, or spiritual salvation--for which Tara is not supplicated.
The cult of Tara is no "modern" rhetorical "strategy" adopted only to confute Christian critics of Buddhism. According to Shaw, Tara's "introduction" to Tibet came in the seventh century, historically coinciding
with the ascent of several Hindu goddesses to the rank of supreme deity. Each goddess became for her ahderents a cosmic figure of universal import, the supreme savior and source of refuge. The Mahadevi, or "supreme Goddess," is all-encompassing in nature, infinite in consciousness and being, worthy of supreme reverence as the source of existence and bestower o liberation. This vision of the female godhood was gatherin force in India at that time, with an outpouring of devotional theologies to Mahadevis such as Lalita of Srividya Tantra, Mahalakshmi of the Pancaratra tradition, and Durga of the Devi Mahatmya.
[p. 313]
Tara might not be the Christian "God", but one wonders how anyone could describe devotees of such a Goddess as "atheists":
Her persona is redolent with the richness of the earth as she sits on a lotus throne in a lush, harmonious landscape, the very image of the benevolent face of mother nature. Tara encompasses the starry heavens, the teeming oceans, the flowering planet. As the Star Lady, she shines in the firmament as a guiding light. As Savioress, she guides her devotees across the perilous sea of life. As the lotus-bearing goddess, she tend the universe as if it were her garden, nurturing beings from the budding of aspiration to full bloom of enlightenment.

The lavish, indeed nonpareil reverence accorded to Tara arguably finds its roots in the emotional appeal of her kinship with nature, luminous feminine beauty, and gentle, reassuring persona. This homage in turn gave rise to a complex theological edifice, as she came to be exalted as the Buddha mother par excellence, the emanational source of all Buddhas, an embodiment of the very principle of Buddhahood, and a transcendent figure whose being encompasses all things, all living beings, and infinite space.

"It's something alive"
I want to return to Brad Warner now. He said: "there is this sense that there's an underlying ground to the universe, and that ... that we all partake in it and we're all manifestations of that and that this underlying ground is not just dead matter, it's something alive." Buddhists certainly do not necessarily believe in the Christian God (although Buddhists are free to do so if they wish), but Buddhism does have it's own conceptions of the divine, and Warner has done a nice job explaining that conception in a very few, plainly spoken, words.

Although he doesn't use the words, my opinion is that the "ground" that Warner refers to is what Mahayana Buddhists call "Buddha Nature" or in Sanskrit Tathagatagarbha. One of the most important figures in the history of Buddhist philosophy in China was Tao-Sheng (360-434), who is closely associated with the concept of Universal Buddha Nature. In his commentary on the Lotus Sutra, Tao-Sheng wrote that
the ultimate fruit is subtly manifested, as it is ever present
[p. 275 of Young Ho-Kim's translation and commentary]
and also
[L]iving beings are all endowed with the faculty of great enlightenment; are all without exception potential bodhisattvas.... living beings inherently possess an endowment for enlightenment, and it cannot be concealed....
[p. 290]
In fact, Tao-Sheng was briefly expelled from the order of Buddhist monks and left the capital, Chien-k'ang, labeled as a heretic, for his views on Universal Buddha Nature. At that time the "official" position for Chinese Buddhists was that there exists a class of beings, called icchantikas, that do not possess Buddha Nature. This was still a very early time in Chinese Buddhism when key scriptures were still being translated into Chinese. One of these scriptures, the Nirvana Sutra, had only been partially and, in Tao-Sheng's view, incorrectly translated - and this partial translation was the basis for the "official" position concerning icchantikas. But almost as soon as Tao-Sheng left the capital, a new, complete translation was finished, and this unambiguously validated Tao-Sheng's view. One excellent English source for information on Tao-Sheng's life and work is Kenneth Ch'en's Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey especially pp. 112-120.

Tao-Sheng's "ultimate fruit" that is "subtly manifested" and "ever present" is Brad Warner's "underlying ground". It is Buddha Nature. Warner insists that this underlying ground of the universe is "not dead matter", and that, instead, "it's something alive". And this is also precisely the same point that was made by Alan Watts when he said:
We grow out of this world ... if evolution means anything it means that. But you see we curiously twist it: we say, well, first of all in the beginning there was nothing but gas and rock and then intelligence happened to arise in it, you know, like a sort of fungus or slime on the top of the whole thing. But we are thinking in a way, you see, that disconnects the intelligence from the rocks. Where there are rocks, watch out. Watch out! Because the rocks are eventually to come alive.
[taken from the youtuble clip here]
The literal meaning of the Sanksrit Tathagatagarbha is "womb of the Buddha", where Tathagata is one of the traditional epithets of the Buddha and garbha is the Sanskrit word for "womb". Interestingly, one of the traditional epithets of the Goddess Tara is "Mother of the Buddhas." In her Red Tara Commentary Chagdud Khadro says that Tara is "the ground of all phenomena" [p.11] and she also says
no one, not a terrorist or a child, or ourselves in our darkest moments of confusion, or the gods and demons of unseen realms, or a dull old family dog--not the tiniest one celled animal or the grandest creature in the universe--is ever apart from an innate potential for buddhahood
[p. 15]
And a little later on she says that one particular form of the Goddess Tara is "Red Tara" who is the "Goddess Who Brings Forth One's Own Natural Awareness."

In addition to lacking a Christian conception of "God", Buddhism also lacks a Pope or even a Council of Bishops. Therefore any given Buddhist, from the Dalai Lama to Brad Warner to someone only recently introduced to Zen, or Vajrayana, or Pure Land, or Theravada (etc), may or may not agree with Tao-Sheng's ideas on Buddha Nature, or with some particular idea about Tara, etc. But a great many Buddhists do agree with, and attempt to put into practice, these ideas, or ideas very much like them. And those who are of a sufficiently non-sectarian view might not object if I now quote from the Bhagavad Gita, which I think nicely describes a rather different view of the divine from Paul Williams' "God of the great theistic religions":
I am the origin of the entire universe and also its dissolution. There exists nothing whatever higher than I am, O Dhananjaya. All is strung on me as row of gems on a thread.

I am the savour of waters, O son of Kunti, the radiance of the sun and moon; I am the syllable Om in all the Vedas, the sound in ether, the manliness in man.

I am the sweet fragrance in earth and the brightness in fire. In all beings I am life, and I am the austerity of ascetics.

Know me, O son of Pritha, to be the Eternal Seed of all things that exist. I am the Intelligence of the intelligent, and the Daring of the brave.

I am Strength in the strong, freed from all longing and attachment. I am, O Lord of the Bharatas, the Desire in all beings that is not contrary to Dharma.

[7.6-11, Swami Nikhilananda's translation]
Where Williams posits a unified conception of the divine held in common among Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I would posit an alternative view of the divine found in the religions of India, Tibet, and China (in fact among most or even all of the cultures of South, Central and East Asia). This view is not limited to a Spinozean pantheism, although it does sometimes resemble that to some extent. This dharmic (as opposed to "theistic") view of the divine is also not hobbled by the false dichotomy between immanence and transcendence (on which much more could and should be said - but for now I will just refer the interested reader to the Isha Upanishad). The dharmic view is also a "non-dualistic" view that sees both the divine and the physical universe as inherently good, or as Swami Vivekananda put it, "the whole world is full of God, not sin."

After all, if Buddhists do have a conception of the divine shared by other religions, one would be most likely to find that common view in religions such as Hinduism and Taoism (as opposed to the "Abrahamic" faiths). This dharmic view is of a divine that is both immanent and transcendant; both masculine and feminine (and beyond both); present in everything and also the source of everything. And despite Paul Williams' insistence, this is a view also shared by many individual Christians as well.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Contra Atheos, Part Deux

[This is the second of two parts. Here is the first part.]

A Gentlemen's Agreement
In the last few years of his life, Marcus Tullius Cicero single-handedly produced a small library of works on philosophy including two major works on ethics, one on epistemology, two on religion, and some others, at least of few of which are no longer extant. These works were intended to popularize Greek philosophy for Romans, in their own Latin language. While some of these works are lost, many of them survive complete or nearly so, which is sadly not the case with the overwhelming majority of all philosophical works produced throughout ancient history. As important as Cicero's works were at the time, they became even more valuable during the Middle Ages, when knowledge of Greek all but vanished from western Europe, but Latin continued to be the language of culture, literature, science, and philosophical discourse right up to the early modern period (Isaac Newton's revolutionary scientific insights were communicated to the world in Latin, for example).

As mentioned, two of the surviving philosophical works of Cicero's were on the subject of religion. In writing on religion Cicero was quite typical of ancient philosophers. In fact, the deep interest that philosophers in general took in that subject is directly reflected in Cicero's writings, which are in dialogue format in which members of different schools of philosophy present their views. Although himself a member (and even a spokesperson in some sense) of the Academic school, Cicero shows great sympathy for the Stoic position, and this is especially the case when it comes to religion.

One of the key things that most philosophers from most of the schools agreed on was the existence of many Gods, or, more precisely, many Goddesses and Gods. This is not really surprising since Greek and Roman philosophers were not practitioners of some separate religion of their own, but rather were co-religionists with their fellow Pagans, and as such they believed in and worshipped the same Goddesses and Gods as everyone else. It should (almost) go without saying that as philosophers they of course examined religious ideas much more carefully than the average Pagan did, but as Cicero's writings demonstrate clearly, the religiosity of Greek and Roman Pagan philosophers was of a piece with that of the societies in which they lived.

P.A. Meijer has written a book on Stoic Theology (also see the BMCR review here) which shows conclusively and exhaustively that the Stoics (going back to their founder, Zeno, in the early 3rd century BC) believed in the same "traditional" Goddesses and Gods as their fellow Pagans, and that they wrote extensively on the "nature" of the divine. Unfortunately, as in the case of most Stoic writings, these earliest theological investigations survive only as scattered fragments, and the great importance of Meijer's book lies in his meticulous collection and systematic presentation, combined with thoughtful commentary, of the surviving evidence. There is no doubt what this evidence shows: that the Stoics, from Zeno forward, were adherents of the same religious traditions as other Pagan Greeks and Romans, and, in particular, they believed in a (great) multiplicity of deities.

What is true of the Stoics concerning religion is just as true of the other major schools: the Platonists (including the Academics), the Aristotelians, and the Epicureans. They were all agreed on the existence of many Goddesses and Gods, and the words of Epicurus speak for them all: "There are Gods, the knowledge of them is self-evident."

Greek and Roman philosophers (that is to say, the progenitors of modern western intellectual culture, the very people who gave us not just the word "reason" itself, but our very conception of it) were widely agreed, then, that the belief in many Goddesses and Gods is the natural and proper state of affairs for humanity.

What then are we to make of those who insist that we must choose between one God or no God? If Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, Cicero, Posidonius (whose calculations of the circumference of the earth, made prior to 50 BC, formed part of the scientific rationale for Columbus' voyage in 1492), Epictetus, etc, were right, then such a choice is wholly unnatural. But if they are right and it is indeed unnatural, well, how do the Christians and Atheists get away with it?

Until quite recently the answer was all too simple. Rome became a monotheistic theocracy in 381 AD, and over 14 centuries later European nations were still putting people to death for crimes such as heresy, apostasy, and blasphemy. It should be pointed out that prior to the coming to power of the Christians, dozens of different religions were practiced in the Roman world and religious tolerance was the rule, although the rule was not without exceptions, a situation that changed utterly with the process of Christianization. Indeed, it is far from clear when (or even if) it actually became legal to worship more than one God (let alone Goddesses!). Greek law to this day still forbids the conversion of Orthodox Christians to any other religion. In the United States, the religious traditions of Native Americans were not recognized as being protected under the first amendment until the 1970's.

During World War II, Winston Churchill frequently portrayed Britain as the defender of Christendom, and declared in June, 1940, "The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization." This in spite the fact that Germany was just as Christian a nation as Britain. Four years later when FDR made his radio address on D-Day, he led the nation in prayer to "Almighty God".

I think the examples of Churchill and Roosevelt are quite helpful in understanding our present day spiritual "two party system" of Christians and Atheists in the west. By the 1940's people were no longer being put to death (or even put in jail) for religious crimes in the US and Britain, but one and a half millennia of theocracy had left a deep impression on the western psyche, even in those societies that (now) prided themselves on their "freedom of religion". A look at the history of freedom of religion over the last 500 years in the west is especially revealing. For one thing we find that for most of that time the concept of religious freedom was very tightly limited to the "freedom" to choose from among different forms of Christianity.

From the 4th century onward, Christians had drummed an "us versus everyone" mentality into peoples heads and hearts. The pervasiveness of the "Christianity or nothing" paradigm is illustrated nicely by one of the greatest Renaissance scholars of the 20th century, P.O. Kristeller, who shares his opinions about Paganism and Christianity in the Italian Renaissance here:
Many historians of the last century tended to associate the Italian Renaissance and Italian humanism with a kind of irrelegion and to interpret the Protestant and Catholic Reformations as expressions of a religious revival which challenged and finally defeated the un-Christian cultures of the preceding period. The moral ideas and literary allegories in the writings of the humanists were taken to be expressions, real or potential, overt or concealed, of a new paganism incompatible with Christianity. The neat separation of between reason and faith advocated by the Aristotelian philosophers was considered as a hypocritical device to cover up a new atheism, whereas the emphasis on a natural religion common to all men, found in the work of the Platontists and Stoics, was characterized as pantheism. This picture of the supposed paganism of the Renaissance which was drawn by historians with much horror or enthusiasm, depending on the strength of their religious or irreligious convictions, can hardly be dismissed as the result of later legends and preconceptions. In part it may be traced to charges made against humanists and philosophers by hostile or narrow-minded contemporaries, which should not be accepted at their face value.

Most recent historians have taken quite a different view of the matter. There was, to be sure, a good deal of talk about the pagan gods and heroes in the literature of the Renaissance, and it was justified by the familiar device of allegory and strengthened by the belief in astrology, but there were few, if any, thinkers who seriously thought of reviving pagan cults. The word pantheism had not yet been invented, and although the word atheism was generously used during polemics during the later sixteenth century, there were probably few real atheists and barely a few pantheists during the Renaissance. The best or worst we may say is that there were some thinkers who might be considered, or actually were considered, as forerunners of eighteenth-century free thought. There was then, of course, as there was before and afterwards, a certain amount of religious indifference and of merely nominal adherence to the doctrine of the Church. There were many cases of conduct in private and public life that were not in accordance with the moral commands of Christianity, and there were plenty of abuses in ecclesiastic practice itself, but I am not inclined to consider this as distinctive of the Renaissance period.

[from: Renaissance Thought and its Sources by P.O. Kristeller, p.67]
Notice how Kristeller moves effortlessly and seamlessly between Atheism, Paganism, and generic "irreligion", and he even throws in pantheism for good measure. It's a lot like hearing Dick Cheney trying to explain, to this day, the "connection" between Iraq and 9/11: the message is clear enough, but there's really no there there. All Kristeller wants to do is to convince us that there was no such thing as Paganism during the Renaissance, merely degrees of religiosity, with the only religion being Christianity. What I quote is about one half page of a 16 page chapter titled Paganism and Christianity. Kristeller not once mentions the relevant fact that people were being put to their deaths at this time convicted of the crime of "reviving pagan cults", and that the people he is talking about, writers and philosophers, lived very public lives and committed their ideas to writing in public. Therefore to claim surprise that none of these writers ever published a condemnation of Christianity and a justification of Paganism is simply an act of breathtaking intellectual dishonesty.

At one point Kristeller openly lies, and this is precisely when he proclaims that "there were few, if any, thinkers who seriously thought of reviving pagan cults." As everyone even remotely familiar with the subject knows, the epicenter of Renaissance philosophy was the Platonic Academy in Florence, which was modeled directly on the last publicly functioning Pagan religious institution in Greco-Roman world, the Platonic Academy in Athens. It is not possible that Kristeller was unaware of the openly Pagan nature of the Athenian Academy, for this was the very reason that it was (infamously) ordered closed by the emperor Justinian in 529. Kristeller was also fully aware of the fact that the head of the Florentine Academy was Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) and that Ficino publicly acknowledged a Pagan, Byzantine scholar George Gemistos Plethon (c.1355-1452), as the inspiration and catalyst for the decision to found the Academy in Florence.

Indeed, Plethon is one of the unassailable examples that we have of a genuine bona-fide fifteenth century Pagan, and one who was explicitly devoted to "reviving Pagan cults". Many modern scholars, including supposedly Pagan scholars such Ronald Hutton and Chas Clifton, have tried to claim, lamely, that Plethon was not "really" a Pagan, but merely an eccentric Christian with an obsessive interest in antiquarianism. But noted Renaissance scholar John Monfasani, who was one of Kristeller's students, has this to say in his essay on "Platonic Paganism in the 15th century" (Monfasani consistently misspells Plethon's name as "Pletho", but that is another matter....):
There is no new Christian Pletho yet to be discovered. The Pletho we have is the Pletho that was. And that Pletho was not an orthodox, or for that matter, an unorthodox Christian; nor was he an overly enthusiastic antiquarian. Rather he was an unequivocal neo-pagan.

... Pletho claimed that he was restoring the authentic pagan religious creed and ritual (the "theologia prisca", Ficino would say) taught by true philosophers and lawgivers from Zoroaster through Plato and the Platonists. I see no reason not to believe that Pletho meant what he said; that he believed not only in the one supreme god, but also in the supercelestial gods, the subcelestial gods, and the demons, which fill his chain of being between the supreme god and man, and which he talked about time and time again. I take him at his word that he wished his prayers and hymns to these gods to be sung in accordance with the calendar he had devised; that he affirmed the eternity of the world, the unchallenged determinism of divine fate, and the transmigration of souls from body to body; and that he rejected as ridiculous the Christian notions of intercessory prayer, resurrection and paradise.
[from: Reconsidering the Renaissance, pp. 51-52]
In other words, Plethon believed in Pagan Gods, prayed to those Gods, celebrated those Gods according to a Pagan calendar of holy days, believed in a Pagan cosmology, etc. Hey - it sounds like maybe he really was a Pagan after all! And not really all that hard to find, providing one is actually looking.

Many scholars have lately tried to change their tune, somewhat, from Kristeller's crude fabrication that it is impossible to find any real Pagans during the Renaissance, to the claim that, well, OK, there might have been one or two Pagans - but nobody paid any attention to them. The fearless leader of this effort should probably be considered James Hankins, who devotes some effort in his two volume Plato in the Italian Renaissance to arguing that Plethon's Paganism, in particular, had no effect on anyone, anywhere, really.

But before proceeding to shed some light on the reception of Plethon by the possible Pagans of the Italian Renaissance, let me return to Marsilio Ficino for a moment. Ficino is the grand prize of the dueling perspectives on whether or not the Renaissance was a Pagan phenomenon. Ficino, as Cosimo de' Medici's hand picked head of the Platonic Academy in Florence, is, arguably, to Renaissance philosophy what Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo, combined, are to Renaissance art. At any rate, he is a much contended over feather for either the cap of the Pagans or the Christians. The fact is that Ficino publicly identified as a Christian, and was even a priest. But does anyone believe that every (or, for that matter any) government official in the People's Republic of China is a sincere true-believing Marxist? Common sense tells us that mere professions of faith are rendered worthless when adduced in an atmosphere of repression, to state the painfully obvious.

We do know that Marsilio Ficino was a deeply religious man, and that his religiosity was much more heavily influenced by Pythagoras, Plato and Hermes Trismegistus than it was by Jesus, Peter and Paul. We also have a biography of Ficino written just seven years after his death, in which we are told quite clearly that he was a "Paganus" at least until the age of 42. In fact, his biographer, Giovanni Corsi, informs us that Ficino originally planned his monumental work Platonic Theology to be "almost a model of the pagan religion". But then, Corsi assures us, nothing less than a "divine miracle" occurred, the result of which was that "whilst he was still in his forty-second year from being a pagan he became a soldier of Christ."

If we take Corsi at his word then we see a clearly Pagan Ficino, carrying on the theological mission of Plethon, only to suddenly, miraculously, see the error of his ways, and then return to the flock with the rest of the sheep. But even if we completely discount the authenticity of Corsi's claim, we nevertheless still have the claim itself. One assumes that Corsi's intended audience would at least accept this claim as within the realm of the conceivable, which would mean that the idea of Pagans walking the streets of Florence, with Marsilio Ficino among them, was conceivable for those living at the time, even if that lies beyond the comprehension of many (but certainly not all) so-called experts in the Renaissance today!

On the other hand if we take an open minded, yet skeptical, view, we might conclude that the most likely part of Corsi's story to be untrue would be the 180 degree theological bat-turn of a man who had devoted his life up to that time to the revival of Pagan religion and philosophy. There are as many reasons for feigning such a "conversion" as there are for someone suspected of being a capitalist roader (or whatever they call them these days) in the Peoples' Republic of China to suddenly proclaim a newfound and deeply heartfelt love and admiration for Marx and Mao.

But now I wish to return to Plethon and his supposed lack of influence as a Pagan. I will call as my first and only witness a person who goes (well, nearly) unmentioned in Hankin's 847 page study, the current go-to scholarly source for those who are eager to poo-poo any notions of Renaissance Paganism (as Ronald Hutton wishes to do in his Witches, Druids and King Arther, see especially chapter 4, The New Old Paganism and chapter 5 Paganism in the Missing Centuries). The person in question is Sigismondo Malatesta (1498-1553), who, among many other noteworthy achievements, was the first person ever personally, by name, officially and preemptively condemned to Hell by express order of the Catholic Church (usually such decisions are considered to be left up to the discretion of God and/or Jesus, and that not until the Day of Judgment). If for no other reason than that, he can hardly be thought of as an unknown figure to students of Italian Renaissance history.

Malatesta was an aristocrat whose ancestral family seat was the city of Rimini. In addition to being notorious for the great enmity which the Church, and the Pope personally, felt toward him, Malatesta is also known as something of a military adventurer, which was not an unusual past-time for a 16th century aristocrat. During one expedition he managed to, temporarily, rout the Turkish forces on the Greek Peloponnesian peninsula. He took the opportunity to disinter the remains of his hero, George Gemistos Plethon, and transport those remains from Mistra back to his native Rimini.

Malatesta re-interred Plethon's remains in a "Church" that he had had built, which the Catholic Encyclopedia refers to as the "wonderful temple of San Francesco at Rimini, the most pagan of all professedly Christian churches...." The Tempio Maletestiano, as it is often referred to, is "virtually emptied of Christian symbols" according to Joscelyn Godwin, who describes the Temple in some detail in his The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance. The Temple contains not only the remains of the notorious Pagan Plethon, but also shrines, altars, statues and chapels honoring the Goddess Diana, the Sybills, the Muses, the God Saturnus, the astrological Planets and Signs of the Zodiac, and so forth. Much of the Temple's design is based on a work of the Pagan philosopher Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs, which, in turn, is based on a scene in Homer's Odyssey when Odysseus first lands back home in his native Ithaca, and visits a sacred Cave.

I have only just scratched the surface here, but hey, this is just a blog post, right, so what do you expect? What I hope I have made clear is that (1) one can, if one wishes, find plenty of evidence of Pagans and Paganism in the Renaissance, and (2) therefore those who insist otherwise, and/or who sheepishly admit that there might have been some Pagans but that these had no "influence", are driven by something other than the facts. What drives them, in my opinion, is their adherence to the false dichotomy of "Christianity or nothing."

You see, those who deny or minimize Paganism in the Renaissance wish to give the impression that by the 15th and 16th centuries it was impossible for anyone born and raised in Christendom to believe in the Old Gods of Pagan antiquity. But the posthumously discovered secret writings of Gemistos Plethon, on the basis of which Monfasani declared him an "unequivocal" Pagan, begin with the "unequivocal" declaration: "The Gods really do exist."

OUR present situation, early in the 21st century, is the natural result of the centuries of monolithic thought control on all matters of religion and philosophy that characterized the vast bulk of western history from the fourth century AD until all too recently. In the process Christians sought to, and succeeded in defining religion in terms of their one, and only one, "God". Whether a person is "religious" or not, in the west, is generally thought of in terms of one's thoughts on this "God" of the Christians.

Fortunately, Christians no longer have the power to blatantly and openly impose their religion directly on others, as they did for one and half millennia. But those who, during that time, remained spiritually chained crouching in the dark have lost much of the use of their limbs and their eyes, so to speak, and, as is intended by such torture, most of them have had their spirits broken: they no longer even remember what it means to move freely, or to see the light. The result is as horrific as it is predictable. Is there anything more tragic than a slave who does not wish for freedom, a prisoner who's only desire is to continue to live in his or her familiar cage? Human beings are by nature adaptable and malleable, and so while belief in many Gods was "self-evident" to Epicurus, and most others, 2300 years ago, today things are far less clear, at least to most of those in the west.

The New Atheists show their true colors by their eager perpetuation of the spiritual two-party system. Christians and the New Atheists have reached a gentleman's agreement concerning the terms of the debate on religion, terms that can be summed up in a simple question, a question that brings to mind the Inquisitor's sneer: do you believe in "God", or not?

The most corrosive (and least gentlemanly) aspect of these terms is that the coercive nature of the historical process of Christianization, combined with the repressive nature of Christendom from the fourth century AD until well into the early modern period, is to be considered as normative for all religions, indeed, for Religion itself.

When Christianity is accused of systemic intolerance it may be impolite or politically incorrect to say so, but it is historically accurate. That does not mean that every, or even most, individual Christians are intolerant. Consider for example the issue of torture and other acts of abuse at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, etc. To say that the US Military has a systemic problem with torture does not mean that most, let alone all, members of the US military are wannabe torturers. In fact, a "systemic" problem means precisely a problem with the institution itself and with the leadership, as opposed to a problem with individuals.

As is to be expected, many Christians disagree (often vehemently) with the statement that their religion has a systemic problem with intolerance, and it is even common to hear the counter-charge that such statements themselves smack of intolerance and religious bigotry. On the other hand, Christians are often far more comfortable with the blanket accusation that all religions are intolerant! This accusation suits both the Christians and the Atheists rather well. For the Christians it allows them to hide behind the "everyone else does it" argument, while also simultaneously promoting the "Christianity or nothing" paradigm. The Atheists love the "all religions are created equally intolerant" routine because it allows them, without presenting any proof, to paint all religions with the same brush of intolerance as Christianity.

The great irony is that today the New Atheists will defend Christianity against those who believe, as Voltaire did, that the systemic intolerance of Christianity is not a general feature of all religions. If one attempts to defend Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, classical Paganism, etc, by arguing that these religious traditions are tolerant as a general rule (as for example the historian Ramsay MacMullen has argued with respect to Roman Paganism), one will confront Atheists rabidly insisting that such a distinction is unfair to the Christians, and that the only fair-minded position is to treat all religions equally - as equally evil, violent, and intolerant, that is!

[The pie chart is from Quick: what early 80's video game does it remind you of?]