Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Eleusinian Mysteries & The Evolution of Species (Six Degrees of Charles Darwin, Part Two)

"We grow out of this world ...
if evolution means anything it means that."

Alan Watts
Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was a genuine Renaissance man, as evidenced by the fact that he was not only a practitioner, but a great master, of the now almost forgotten art of didactic poetry, in which scientific and philosophical ideas are put to verse. It is difficult to imagine a more perfect example of an artform that so seamlessly bridges the chasm that, to the modern mind, so forbiddingly divides what C.P. Snow famously called "the two cultures."

In addition to being an influential and admired poet, Erasmus Darwin had a very successful career as a medical doctor (he was once invited to be King George III's private physician, but he declined), and he was also an accomplished inventor, whose designs ranged from windmills to rocket engines.

Darwin titled his last major poetic work The Temple of Nature, or, The Origin of Society. This was published posthumously in 1804, five years before the birth of his famous grandson, Charles Darwin. A section of that poem was quoted at the end of the previous post in this series (link). A comparison of this passage with the three paragraphs from Descent of Man quoted at the beginning of that earlier post shows that Charles Darwin's notion of "sympathy", or compassion, toward all sentient beings, was not at all some newfangled idea that Darwin had either dreamed up all on his own, or possibly borrowed from Buddhism.

Which raises the question, then, of where Erasmus Darwin's conception of "sympathy" had come from?

The author's brief preface to The Temple of Nature ends with these words:

"In the Eleusinian mysteries, the philosophy of the works of Nature, with the origin and progress of society, are believed to have been taught by allegoric scenery, explained by the Hierophants to the initiated, which gave rise to the machinery of the following poem."
Far from being any sort of "one off", this allusion to the ancient religious mysteries of Demeter and Persephone is also reflected in the Latin epigraph that appears on the title page of Temple of Nature:
Unde hominum pecudumque genus, vitæque volantum,
Et quæ marmoreo fert monstra sub æquore pontus?

Igneus est illis vigor, & cælestis origo.
[Vergil, Aeneid, VI. 728]
Here is an English translation of these lines:
From it come the species of man and beast, and winged lives,
and the monsters the sea contains beneath its marbled waves.
The power of those seeds is fiery, and their origin divine.
This is taken from the famous sixth book of Vergil's Aeneid, in which we are told of Aeneas' journey to Underworld. And this is the very episode of the Aeneid that has been suspected by some of being "no other than a figurative description of an initiation, and particularly a very exact picture of the spectacles in the Eleusinian mysteries, where everything was done in show and machinery." That is a quote from Bishop Warburton's Divine Legation of Moses, which I have written about previously in this blog: Luck on Warburton on Vergil on Eleusis (AND Luck on Gibbon on Warburton on Vergil on Eleusis).

Something of the impact that Warburton's thesis (that Book VI of the Aeneid is a "figurative description" of the Eleusinian Mysteries) has had is indicated by the opening paragraph of the entry for "Aeneid" in the Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, by Albert G. Mackey and H. L. Haywood, published in 1909:
AENEID: Bishop Warburton (Divine Legation of Moses Demonstrated) has contended, and his opinion has been sustained by the great majority of subsequent commentators, that Vergil, in the Sixth Book of his immortal epic, has, under the figure of the descent of Aeneas into the infernal regions, described the ceremony of initiation into the Ancient Mysteries.
Even more important, at least to the present discussion, than the high regard still given to the Divine Legation by Freemasons 130 years after the death of it's author, is the fact that we happen to know that Erasmus Darwin was himself not only familiar with Warburton's writings, but that he found the argument in the Divine Legation worthy of close study and praise. In an October, 1789 letter to Josiah Wedgwood (whose daughter, Susannah, married Erasmus' son Robert in 1796, making both Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood Charles' grandfathers) Erasmus wrote:
Dear Sir,
I received your excellent critique upon my explanation of the Portland vase, and shall correct it according to all your remarks. If you read Warburton's whole account of the ancient mysteries in the Divine Legation -- and not the part only, which belongs to Virgil's 6th book -- I think you will see a greater probability in his conclusion, that these fables were from great antiquity represented scenically or emblematically in those mysteries.

Pray send me D'Hancarville. I will also peruse Spence's polymetis, and Bryant's mythology (the Bacon's works I saw were at Sir B. Boothby's in quarto), and try to add more learned quotations. Indeed the explanations of those figures were I think what I had chiefly from you. I take no merit about it, I only wish to make the figures more interesting by connecting them as it were in one history.
All here beg to be remember'd to all at Etruria.
Adieu from dear Sir
your affectionate friend
E Darwin
I have disobey'd you, and shewn your Vase to 2 or 3, but they were philosophers, not cogniscenti. How can I possess a jewel, and not communicate the pleasure to a few Derby Philosphes?

[Collected Letters of Erasmus Darwin, Desmond King-Hele, editor, pp. 347-348. Original: Cambridge University Library, DAR 227.1:117]
[The Portland vase, mentioned in the letter above, is no ordinary piece of pottery. It has its own wikipedia entry and at least one youtube video. It made an appearance in Arthur C. Clarke's 1951 science fiction short story All The Time In The World. The vase has also been at the center of scholarly controversy concerning it's date, and is the subject of the 2005 book The Portland Vase: The Extraordinary Odyssey of a Mysterious Roman Treasure.]
The three Latin lines that Erasmus Darwin chose to set the stage for Temple of Nature were from the speech delivered by Anchises to his son in answer to Aeneas' query about the "mad longing for life" of those who have already lived and already died and who are now anxiously awaiting their next incarnation. Below is a more substantial excerpt from this speech, using H.R. Fairclough's 1916 prose translation (found here):

"First, know that heaven and earth and the watery plains the moon’s bright sphere and Titan’s star [the sun], a spirit within sustains [spiritus intus alit]; in all the limbs mind moves the mass and mingles with the mighty frame. Thence springs the races of man and beast, the life of winged creatures, and the monsters that ocean bears beneath his marble surface. Fiery is the vigour and divine the source of those seeds of life, so far as harmful bodies clog them not, or earthly limbs and frames born but to die. Hence their fears and desires, their griefs and joys; nor do they discern the heavenly light, penned as they are in the gloom of their dark dungeon. Still more! When life’s last ray has fled, the wretches are not entirely freed from all evil and all the plagues of the body; and it needs must be that many a taint, long ingrained, should in wondrous wise become deeply rooted in their being. Therefore are they schooled with punishments, and pay penance for bygone sins. Some are hung stretched out to the empty winds; from others the stain of guilt is washed away under swirling floods or burned out by fire till length of days, when time’s cycle is complete, has removed the inbred taint and leaves unsoiled the ethereal sense and pure flame of spirit: each of us undergoes his own purgatory [quisque suos patimur manis]. Then we are sent to spacious Elysium, a few of us to possess the blissful fields. All these that you see, when they have rolled time’s wheel through a thousand years, the god summons in vast throng to Lethe’s river, so that, their memories effaced, they may once more revisit the vault above and conceive the desire of return to the body."
Here is a quick and dirty paraphrase:
A single vital force pervades the Cosmos and is the source of all motion, life and thought. Individual living things carry within them this same force, in whom it is like a fiery divine seed. These seeds survive intact after the death of the body, but they retain the imprint of wrongful deeds performed during the previous life, and so they must undergo purification. A few, like Anchises, who are most virtuous are able to enter Elysium, while the vast majority, after one thousand years of purification, are brought to the river Lethe where they drink and, therefore, forget all that has happened before, and then they are once again reincarnated in new bodies on earth.
[my own paraphrase]
The important thing here is that Erasmus Darwin has chosen his three line epigraph to deftly indicate the broad sweep of classical Pagan theology, inclusive of pantheism, polytheism, panpsychism, metempsychosis, and, most importantly of all, the interconnectedness of all things in the Cosmos by way of sympatheia. Not only did this world-view grounded solidly in ancient Pagan thought directly influence Charles Darwin's own views on sympathy, but they also clearly form the foundation for the theory of evolution itself.

For a little more on how all the various aspects of Pagan theology named above are interconnected see my previous post on Children of the Gods: Stoic Theology from a Modern Pagan Perspective, as well as other links below.


[The image priestesss.jpg at the top of the post is from an entry titled "Seer" at the blog here, where it is credited to "Suzanna / Comtesse de Wurzeltod".]

Monday, November 22, 2010

When did the Buddha stop beating his wife? (More on "Buddhist Warfare")

I have already posted some of my own thoughts on the book Buddhist Warfare, co-edited by Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer (see links at the bottom).

My take is that whatever value there might be in the previously published academic papers slapped together to make up this "book" is more than offset by the crudely propagandistic packaging and promotion that transforms the end product into nothing more or less than an anti-Buddhist polemic that will be most at home in the libraries of good Christian militants preparing for their next mission trip to Asia.

Anyone who thinks I am exaggerating the agenda-driven nature of Buddhist Warfare should read co-editor Michael Jerryson's unhinged rant at the website, with the very subtle title Monks With Guns. Therein one can behold for oneself Jerryson's affected outrage at the sight of Buddhists defending themselves against terrorism, and his delusional accusation that the Dalai Lama has devoted his life to misrepresenting Buddhism (and the even more delusional claim that he, Michael Jerryson, is just the guy to expose the "Buddhist propaganda" of His Holiness).

And if Jerryson's diatribe doesn't convince you, the publisher's website makes it clear that the intention of book is to insist on a hamfisted moral equivalence between Buddhism and the religions that gave the world Inquisitions and Jihads: "Buddhist Warfare demonstrates that the discourse on religion and violence, usually applied to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, can no longer exclude Buddhist traditions."

I am coming back to all this now, briefly, because there has been a new flurry of interest in Buddhist Warfare. In particular I want to draw attention to some reviews that have appeared quite recently.

But before getting to those reviews I want to first once again emphasize the importance of Matthew Kosuta's 1997 paper on The Military in the Pali Canon. Kosuta's paper is well known to anyone with the slightest interest in the historical relationship between warfare the Buddhist religion (although it is not mentioned once in Buddhist Warfare). Kosuta traces this relationship back to the earliest documented history of Buddhism, by way of the sacred writings that are traditionally believed to contain the verbatim teachings of the Buddha himself.

Kosuta finds that no matter how far back one goes in the Buddhist canon, one never finds a purely pacifist teaching. Instead one finds "an apparent contradiction": "[A]fter the introduction of Buddhism into the now Theravada countries, Sri Lanka and Buddhist Southeast Asia (excepting Vietnam), a strong military tradition has continued in these countries, remaining side by side with the Buddhist pacifist ideal. The coexistence of a pacifist ethic and a military tradition creates an apparent contradiction."

At the beginning of his article, Kosuta states that "My working hypotheses were as follows: strong ties even inseparable ones can exist between a pacifist religion and the military; the canon must in some way, support military action; and a pacifist religion has no real means of affecting the military."

At the conclusion, Kosuta writes "This study has shown that the Pali Canon indeed forms an explicit opinion on the military. The Canon recognizes that, in a mundane perspective, the military is ever present, of high prestige, and even necessary in some circumstances for the protection of Buddhism."

Even a little knowledge of Asian history, in fact, tells us precisely the same thing that Kosuta's thorough research in the Pali Canon confirms: the Buddhist religion, even, so far as we are able to ascertain, going back to the Buddha himself, has never called for the abolition of the military, nor questioned the necessity "in some circumstances" of waging war. King Asoka did not disband his armies when he embraced Buddhism. Nor did the Mongols, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Koreans, the Vietnamese, etc. Therefore, there is no justification, whatsoever, for the simplistic view that Buddhism demands (or has ever demanded) adherence to the modern, western notions associated with the word "pacifism."

But now, on to the reviews.
  • Over at, Buddhist blogger Barbara O'Brien has written two posts critical of Buddhist Warfare:
    Thoughts on Religious Violence (October 23)
    What Do You Mean By Buddhism? (November 1)

    In the first post, O'Brien correctly points out that the main thesis of the book is "something of a straw man" since "Buddhism has never claimed to be absolutely nonviolent." O'Brien also very sensibly points out that "I agree that Buddhism has been romanticized in western popular culture of late, but from what I see, practicing western Buddhists are as much annoyed as gratified by this. And the antidote to over-romanticizing is not over-demonizing." In the second post, O'Brien goes after what she sees as Jerryson's misrepresentations and misunderstandings of Buddhism itself, beyond just the issues related to violence.

  • At the PreciousMetal blog there is Nate DeMontigny's review, posted on Nov. 21. Nate says, among other things, "I did feel like this book was more of an attack on Buddhism than it was an exposè on violence in the Buddhist realm." And also: "Not that I am a believer in any sort of violence or war for that matter but I tell you what, if someone came into my house and attacked my family or myself I would kick the snot out of the person (or try my best). Here’s the shocker though folks, I am a Buddhist . . . . Even the Dalai Lama says ”If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun.” (quote from May 15, 2001 issue of The Seattle Times)

  • At Kyle Lovett's TheReformedBuddhist blog there is a post from October 26 titled "Religion, Violence, and Historical Fallacies." This is a follow-up to an earlier review that had already appeared on that blog (on Oct. 16): "Crooked Deduction by Academic Ambiguity." Both of these posts are worth reading closely. One point that Lovett makes is the following: "One key problem with Mr. Jerryson’s thesis is a belief that people in the West view Buddhism as a non-violent and pacifistic religion, yet shows little in the way of evidence to support writings, media or popular culture references where this pacifistic ideal is propagated."

  • It should come as no surprise that Jerryson's efforts at anti-Buddhist propaganda are greatly appreciated in some corners. Writing for the Christian Century, where he is executive editor, David Heim (whose theological influences include "Baptist piety" and "Lutheran theology"), has penned a mini-review under the title If you meet the Buddha, in which he shares how terribly "shocking" it was for him to read about what Jerryson luridly calls Buddhism's "dark side."

  • David Heim's very brief Christian Century review, linked to above, in turn links to a much more in depth, or at least much longer, review by Katherine Wharton at The Times Literary Supplement (Sept. 29): "The dark side of what is often thought to be the most peaceful of religions." Katherine Wharton, it turns out, is a missionary for the Church of England who specializes in the conversion of Buddhists and Hindus to Christianity. This, I think, places things in their proper perspective, especially the way in which Dr. Wharton approvingly proclaims: "Of all the major faith traditions, Buddhism is often seen as the most peaceful, but Buddhist Warfare exposes its darker side."

  • Writing for the Tricycle magazine blog, Sam Mowe provides a useful, if brief, Buddhist response to Wharton's apologetics: Emptiness: Violent or Compassionate?

  • Finally there is a very disappointing review in the most recent (Fall 2010) issue of Buddhadharma by David Gray. Gray mostly offers empty, "me, too", praise coupled with book-report style chapter summaries (in his defense, this is a pretty standard boilerplate for academic reviews). In the full article (but not in the online excerpt), Gray does manage to challenge some of the more extravagant excesses in Brian Victoria's predictably sanctimonious contribution to the anthology.

Other relevant posts from this blog:

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Six Degrees of Charles Darwin

"... extended to all sentient beings."
[Also see the followup post and links therein: The Eleusinian Mysteries & The Evolution of Species.]

In an article in the current (November 2010) issue of the Shambhala Sun magazine ("Survival of the Kindest"), neuroscientist Paul Ekman draws our attention to the fascinating chapter on "Moral Sense" in Charles Darwin's Descent of Man, first published in 1871. (The full title of that chapter is a little ungainly: "Comparison of the Mental Powers of Man and the Lower Animals, Continued".)

Here is the key paragraph cited by Ekman, along with the two paragraphs that immediately follow it:
a. As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races. If, indeed, such men are separated from him by great differences in appearance or habits, experience unfortunately shews us how long it is, before we look at them as our fellow-creatures. Sympathy beyond the confines of man, that is, humanity to the lower animals, seems to be one of the latest moral acquisitions. It is apparently unfelt by savages, except towards their pets. How little the old Romans knew of it is shewn by their abhorrent gladiatorial exhibitions. The very idea of humanity, as far as I could observe, was new to most of the Gauchos of the Pampas. This virtue, one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they are extended to all sentient beings. As soon as this virtue is honoured and practised by some few men, it spreads through instruction and example to the young, and eventually becomes incorporated in public opinion.

b. The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognise that we ought to control our thoughts, and "not even in inmost thought to think again the sins that made the past so pleasant to us." [this is from Tennyson's Idylls of the King] Whatever makes any bad action familiar to the mind, renders its performance by so much the easier. As Marcus Aurelius long ago said, "Such as are thy habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of thy mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts." [this quote is from Meditations, Bk. V, Sect. 16]

c. Our great philosopher, Herbert Spencer, has recently explained his views on the moral sense. He says, "I believe that the experiences of utility organised and consolidated through all past generations of the human race, have been producing corresponding modifications, which, by continued transmission and accumulation, have become in us certain faculties of moral intuition- certain emotions responding to right and wrong conduct, which have no apparent basis in the individual experiences of utility."[this quote is from a letter from Darwin to John Stuart Mill]
Unfortunately, having drawn our attention here, Ekman proceeds to make rather a mess of trying to comprehend how Charles Darwin arrived at this view of things. Ekman is far too eager to see parallels with Buddhist teaching. While these parallels are certainly and plainly there, Ekman completely overlooks far more important and immediate influences that are at work.

In fact, whatever value there is in noting the real similarities between Buddhism and Darwin's views is ruined if this is done, as Ekman does, while simultaneously promoting the incorrect and baseless notion that what Darwin is saying about the virtue of broadening our "sympathies ... until they are extended to all sentient beings," was intellectually and spiritually isolated and anomalous, indeed foreign to western culture and the western mind.

Darwin himself explicitly cites, by name, two influences in the passage quoted above, both of which are very much part of the broad sweep of western intellectual history: Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD). Ekman completely ignores both of these, either because he read no further, or, worse, because they are inconvenient to the point he wants to make. But there is an even more intimate influence, within Charles Darwin's own family: in his expansive views on "sympathy" there are clear echoes of sentiments articulated by his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. Another important influence is well known to those familiar with Charles Darwin's autobiography, in which he stated that upon reading David Hume's Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (at the age of 29 in the year 1838, 21 years before he would finally publish On the Origin of Species, and fully 33 years before Descent of Man), "I had at last got a theory by which to work." Hume was such a central figure in discourse on "sympathy" during the Enlightenment that Michael L. Frazer devotes two full chapters to the Scottish philosopher in his The Enlightenment of Sympathy.

Moreover, Darwin's ideas on "sympathy" were solidly and broadly grounded in over a century of Enlightenment thought on the subject of "Justice and the Moral Sentiments", a phrase from the subtitle of Frazer's book (just mentioned above). Finally, it is essential to realize the central role of classical studies in the educational system of that time. For example, the prestigious Shrewsbury "grammar" school attended by the young Darwin and his older brother (Erasmus, named for their illustrious grandfather) was legally prohibited from spending its income on anything other than the teaching of classical languages!

Although other influences could certainly be found in the three paragraphs from Descent of Man quoted above, I think that the six just named are the most important ones:
  1. Erasmus Darwin
  2. The Enlightenment
  3. Marcus Aurelius
  4. Herbert Spencer
  5. David Hume
  6. Classical Education
These six influences overlap and are entangled with each other to a very great extent. In what follows, I will focus on the first three, discussing them in the order given above, while subsuming consideration of the other factors into the investigation Erasmus Darwin, the Enlightenment, and Marcus Aurelius and their influence on Charles Darwin.

"His brother emmets, and his sister worms."
Erasmus Darwin died in 1802, seven years before the birth of his famous grandson, Charles, so there can be no question of a direct personal influence. But he had been a celebrated intellectual of his day who created a broad and lasting impact, not the least of which was felt among those who carried on the Darwin name. Something of this impact is communicated in the title of the recent biography by British physicist Desmond King-Hele: Erasmus Darwin: A Life of Unequaled Achievement.

In addition to the above mentioned biography of Erasmus Darwin, Desmond King-Hele is also the editor of the newly re-issued biography that Charles Darwin himself wrote about his grandfather (The Life of Erasmus Darwin). The following is an excerpt from King-Hele's own Introduction to that book:
Dr. Erasmus Darwin has grown in stature during the twentieth century and is now seen as having achieved far more in a wider variety of fields than anyone since. He was a famous physician in the English Midlands for thirty years, and after his massive treatise on animal life, Zoonomia, was published in 1794, he was recognized as the leading medical author of the decade. And this happened when he was already securely in place as the leading English poet of the 1790's, or perhaps, as Coleridge said in 1797, 'the first literary character of Europe'. Erasmus Darwin's fame as a poet did not outlast the century; but he greatly influenced Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley. Earlier in his life Erasmus Darwin had been a keen and capable mechanical inventor: he devised the method of steering used in modern cars, for example. He was socially skilfull, too, and created several Societies, including the Lunar Society of Birmingham. His greatest talent, however, was an amazing insight in many branches of physical and biological science. For example, he was the first to explain how clouds form [by adiabatic cooling] and ... he adopted what we now call biological evolution as a theory of life, in 1770. Many years later he risked publishing his evolutionary views, only to be rebuffed. Most people did not wish to see God deprived of his role in creating species; and everyone condemned the demeaning idea that human had animals as distant ancestors and were no more than humaninals . . . .

Erasmus and Charles each published a scheme of evolution, 65 years apart: it was an unbreakable bond between them . . . . Erasmus got nowhere with his presentation of evolution: he was a century ahead of his time, as we now smugly say. It was Charles, proceeding cautiously over many years, who persuaded his contemporaries to take seriously the idea of evolution by natural selection, a world-view that has been amply vindicated in recent years.

For Charles, his strong bond with Erasmus was full of problems. If Charles praised Erasmus' evolutionary writings, people would say that Erasmus had all the ideas first, and Charles merely filled in the detail. Indeed Bishop Wilberforce, in his famous review of the Origin of Species, accused Charles of reviving the speculation of his 'ingenious grandsire'. So, when Charles started the book [The Life of Erasmus Darwin], he felt that Erasmus would have to be 'put down' rather than praised, and he took the line that Erasmus was not very important as a free-standing person. The book was written as an item of family history, not because Erasmus's life story needed to be told.

But to Charles's great credit, he gradually changed his mind: 'the more I read of Dr. D. the higher he rises in my estimation', he wrote. This is reflected on pages 59-60, where Charles says Erasmus had 'vividness of imagination', great originality of thought', ' the true spirit of a philosopher' and 'uncommon powers of observation', all applied in a 'surprising' diversity of subjects.
[pp. ix-xi]
Later on in the Introduction, King-Hele describes Erasmus Darwin's "views on evolution" in greater detail:
Erasmus eventually published his mature views on evolution, as we now call it, in 1794, tucked away near the end (pages 482-537) in Volume I of his Zoonomia. Here, and more explicitly in his last poem The Temple of Nature [which was not published until after his death], he confidently expresses his view that life has developed over 'millions of ages' from microscopic specks arising spontaneously in primeval seas, through fishes and amphibians to land animals and 'humankind' . . . .

In Zoonomia he notes how changes in the forms of animals during their lives (tadpole to frog, etc.) show that change is rife in nature. He discusses the effects of artificial selection in modifying species, noting that monstrosities (mutations) are often inherited. He proposes a theory of heredity in terms of 'fibrils or molecules' from male or female, which combine to produce the new embryon.
[p. xiv]
According to King-Hele, Robert Darwin, Erasmus' son and Charles' father, "adopted his father's idea of evolution and seems to have done so quite enthusiastically." However, when Robert was 32, his father's ideas about evolution attracted the attention of George Canning, an ambitious reactionary politician who would later be Prime Minister.

The Darwins, you see, were supporters of the Whig party, the liberal opponents of the conservative Tories. These political camps were in many ways similar to the American Democrats and Republicans, although that analogy is far from perfect. Nevertheless, the Tory rhetoric of the late 1790's cannot help but sound remarkably familiar to 21st century American ears: "by a policy of collective abuse and ridicule the Whigs were associated in the public mind with a want of patriotism and a superabundance of extravagant notions." [The Rise of George Canning, by Dorothy Marshall, p. 185] The Whigs were also accused of moral relativism and of being, in a general way, insufficiently Christian. George Canning's Tory magazine, The Anti-Jacobin, snarkily declared in their defining Prospectus: "It is not our creed that ATHEISM is as good a faith as CHRISTIANITY, provided it to be professed with equal sincerity." [quoted in Marshall, p. 178] Worst of all, and in another parallel with modern American political discourse, the Whigs were accused of being treacherously sympathetic to the godless ideals of Revolutionary France.

To make a long story short, Erasmus Darwin's blasphemous views on the literal kinship of all living things became collateral damage in the wider culture wars raging in Britain as the 18th century drew to a close. The crucial event was the publication of "The Loves of the Triangles", a parody of Darwin's didactic poem on the subject of botany "The Loves of the Plants". According to King-Hele, the purpose in the publication of the parody was nothing less than "to destroy Erasmus' reputation," and the result was that he was "pushed off his pedestal; his stature as the leading poet gradually crumbled, and his evolutionary theory was little heeded."

One might be tempted to wonder whether or not King-Hele has over-emphasized the importance of his own chosen subject in general and his influence on Charles Darwin in particular. On the latter more specific question we can look to the 1993 W.W. Norton edition of Charles Darwin's own autobiography, in which Nora Barlow, the editor, felt justified in including a separate lengthy appendix "On Charles Darwin and his Grandfather Dr. Erasmus Darwin".

In his autobiography, Charles Darwin insisted that despite the fact that both his grandfather and father were ardent supporters of the idea of the evolution of species, he nevertheless arrived at his own conclusions on the subject as a result of his own scientific investigations, even going so far as to claim that when he first read his grandfather's writings on evolution as a youth, this did not produce "any effect on me." But in the same breath he also allows that: "Nevertheless, it is probable that the hearing rather early in life such views maintained and praised may have favoured my upholding them under a different form in my Origin of Species. At this time [that is, when he wrote Origins] I admired greatly the Zoonomia." [p. 49]

I'll end, for now (we'll get to the Enlightenment, Marcus Aurelius, etc, later -- and there is also more to come on Erasmus Darwin), with two excerpts that I believe are the key to unraveling the full range of influences behind the passage from Descent of Man under consideration. The first is from Erasmus Darwin's didactic poem The Temple of Nature, or The Origin of Society. The second is from the speech of Pythagoras in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Indeed, it is to this speech by "the Sage" that Erasmus Darwin alludes.
"So erst the Sage with scientific truth
In Grecian temples taught the attentive youth;
With ceaseless change how restless atoms pass
From life to life, a transmigrating mass;
How the same organs, which to day compose
The poisonous henbane, or the fragrant rose,
May with to morrow's sun new forms compile,
Frown in the Hero, in the Beauty smile.
Whence drew the enlighten'd Sage the moral plan,
That man should ever be the friend of man;
Should eye with tenderness all living forms,
His brother-emmets, and his sister-worms."

[Temple of Nature, or, The Origin of Society, Canto IV, lines 417 - 428]

"But lest I gallop far beyond my reach
and, so, forget what I had meant to teach,
know this: the heavens and all things beneath
the heavens change their forms -- the earth and all
that is upon the earth; and since we are
parts of the world, we, too, are changeable.
For we're not only bodies but winged souls;
and we can dwell in bodies of wild beasts
and hide within the shapes of cows and sheep.
And so, let us respect -- leave whole, intact --
all bodies where our parents' souls or those
of brothers or of others dear to us
may well have found a home; let us not stuff
our bellies banqueting, as Thyestes.
Whoever cuts a calf's throat with a knife
and listens, without pity, to its cries;
whoever kills a kid that, like a child,
wails loud; whoever feeds upon a bird
that he himself has fed -- profanely sheds
the blood of humans: such a man abets
a habit that is evil -- little less
than murder."

[Metamorphoses, Book XV [450-475], translation by Allen Mandelbaum]

Metempsychosis, by the artist Masako Yui, from the Goldsmiths (London) MFA blog.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Harry Potter: A Childhood Immunization Against Philistinism?

"Dont let the Muggles get you down."

Among the many life lessons of the Harry Potter books are these:
  1. Those who live outside the magical world are to be pitied.
  2. Those who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the reality of magic are motivated by fear.
  3. The ability to work with magic is a gift to be cherished and cultivated, even though it might inspire fear and denial from non-magical people.
Obviously, Potter-mania flies in the face of the world-view of those who wish to stigmatize "magical thinking". And it's a good thing, too, since so many people today (it seems like an ever increasing number) boorishly insist on associating anything that remotely resembles belief in magic with mental illness or congenital stupidity.

Children who are raised on JK Rowling's writings, however, are forewarned and forearmed. The world is, indeed, full of "Muggles", who are either completely unaware that magic exists at all, or recoil in horror from it.

Rowling also, especially through the deeply humane and magnificently human example of the Weasley family, and Arthur Weasley in particular (as well as through the negative example of the ugly anti-Muggle bigotry of the followers of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named), teaches us to be kind to and tolerant of Muggles, at least up to a point. All (indeed, most) Muggles are not like the Dursleys, and many Witches and Wizards, even non-Death-Eaters like Dolores Umbridge and a number of other apparatchiks at the Ministry of Magic, are nevertheless thoroughly contemptible human beings.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Atheist, Humanist, Buddhist, and Leftist Voices Against The Islamic Threat To Freedom

This is an extremely varied group of individuals. Their criticisms of Islam are also quite varied, and to some extent they hardly belong all lumped together in this way, except for one thing. And that one thing is what they are not. They are not right-wing xenophobic Christians, like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich.

In addition to those named below, also see the 12 signatories of the 2006 statement for "The Universality of Freedom of Expression" (there is some overlap).

Sam Harris (American, atheist, long-time student of Buddhist philosophy and meditation)
Bill Maher (American, political satirist, social critic, self-declared apatheist)
Richard Dawkins (British, atheist, scientist, writer)
Lama Ole Nydahl (Danish, Lama in the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism)
Pat Condell (British, comedian, troublemaker, atheist)
Femke Halsema (Dutch, LeftGreen party leader)
Villy Søvndal (Danish Socialist Peoples Party leader)
Bahram Soroush (Iranian, Worker-Communist Party of Iran)

From an Interview with Maryam Namazie:
"No one deserves to die because of their views or the views that they have expressed. Actually that shows the essence of the political Islamic movement. It is a violent movement; it is an atrocious movement, and it needs to be stopped. They will start with van Gogh and Ayaan and then try to impose their dark scenario and rule in the West over the rest of the population . . . .

"It is difficult to say it in one sentence. In essence, it's from the standpoint of the human being, from a humanistic perspective, against religion as an ideology, against political Islam as a political movement, in defence of women's rights, in defence of children's rights, in defence of political freedoms and the right to freely and safely criticise any religion."
Maryam Namazie (Iranian, atheist, One Law For All Campaign, UK)
Alice Schwarzer (German feminist pioneer)
Taslima Nasreen (Bangladesh, atheist, humanist, feminist, writer)
Philippe Val (French, former editor and director of leftist magazine Charlie Hebdo)
Caroline Fourest (French, feminist, anti-racist and secularist activist, Le Monde Columnist)

From Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan
Hassan al-Banna is a figure revered by Islamists the world over. In the early years of the twentieth century, this Egyptian preacher developed a program for reasserting social and political control that has served as amodel for all those engaged in the fight to extend the reign of a form of political Ialsm that is both archaic and reactionary. He oversaw the birth of a diabolical machine -- the Islamic Brotherhood -- that to this day grinds out its fundamentalist message, spreading it to the four corners of the world. Even Al-Qaeda is no competitor in terms of the scope of this negative force. Al-Qaeda militants were often fascinated by al-Banna before they crossed the line into bin Laden-type terrorism. Given the nature of al-Banna's influence, which remains a constant threat, citizens of Muslim origin are often uneasy when they see Tariq Ramadan continue his grandfather's work in the very heart of the West [Tariq Ramadan is the grandsom of Hassan al-Banna, and both of his parents were ardent supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood].

In a collection of interviews with Alain Gresh, editor in chief of Le Monde diplomatique, Tariq Ramadan made no secret of the fact that he had taken Hassan al-Banna as a model: "I have studied Hassan al-Banna's ideas with great care and there is nothing in this heritage that I reject. His relation to God, his spirituality, his mysticism, his personality, as well as his critical reflections on law, politics, society and pluralism, testify for me to his qualities of heart and mind." And he added: "His commitment also is a continuing reason for my respect and admiration." This admission is in itself terrifying. Every word was chosen to to play down the fanaticism and totalitarianism advocated by al-Banna, a man for whom "the Islamic banner must wave supreme over the human race." His name still fills any Muslim who is modern and liberal—or simply healthy-minded—with rage over the crimes that have been committed in the name of Islam. Yet his grandson finds nothing wrong in all this. On the contrary, in a book written for a popular audience, he fully accepted his role as one whose mission it was to continue in the footsteps of his grandfather, whom he presented as a model of “spirituality” and of “critical appreciation of society.” By extolling his grandfather’s “critical reflections on pluralism,” essentially he was praising the virtues of al-Banna’s totalitarian outlook.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Law of Thelema according to Dunlap

The Red State Update $120 political ad for the Aleister Crowley in 2012 write-in campaign is possibly the most WTF viral video since the Christian Side-Hug. (Here's a link to the official campaign website, where you can even get AC 2012 yard signs!)

The boys not only pronounce Crowley's name correctly, but they manage to work in references to Ozzy Osbourne, Jimmy Page, and Jay Z.

And Dunlap's explanation of the Law of Thelema is priceless. Here's a direct link to that part, but really you should watch the whole video.

Also, Jackie's closing rendition of "Old Rugged Cross" (direct link) is, well, fucking beautiful.

[The direct links are a little hinky because of the commercial at the beginning of the video. You have to wait for the very brief (I think it's only 10 seconds) commercial to finish, then refresh your browser and it will go directly to the correct portion of the video.]

"More Pagan & Mad" (Or, How to kiss like a Witch)

Mild to moderate spoilage to follow. You have been warned.

I haven't seen it yet, but there is a scene in the new Harry Potter flic in which Hermione and Harry kiss. I won't say more about the circumstances (well, other than that you can be sure that Ron does not appreciate this one bit.)

Anyway, after the first take on this scene Director David Yates was dissatisfied. He felt that the kiss was too tame, and so he told Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe they needed to be "more Pagan and mad."

The result, according to Radcliffe, was that in the next take, Emma Watson kissed him "like an animal ... She really went for it, I have to say. It caught me slightly off guard, but yeah, I'm not complaining."

For her part Watson explained that "I guess I just realized that I would have fewer takes to do if I just got on with it and just gave David what he wanted, which was a passionate kiss. Which was something that would really rock Ron's boat."

The way this story is being covered it's starting to look like Rita Skeeter is now writing for the Muggle press!


Friday, November 12, 2010

Airlocking Caprica. Finally. (Or, "All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.")

Never yield to remorse, but at once tell yourself: remorse would simply mean adding to the first act of stupidity a second.
[Friedrich Nietzsche, The Wanderer and his Shadow]

Battlestar Galactica will never die. But, as is inevitably the case with all Eternal Returnage, it will sometimes disappoint.

Caprica started off magnificently. The movie thrilled me beyond my wildest expectations, which, in all honesty, were not that wild. I dared not hope for too much.

In fact, and I hate to admit this, after the (DANGER SPOILER ALERT) return of Starbuck in the Season 3 finale, I thought that BSG Seasons 4 & 4.5 were unfocused and sometimes even incoherent, and, alas, not all that compelling. So much so that when Caprica (the movie) came out on DVD in April, 2009, I didn't bother watching it until August.

But then, like Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, I suddenly found myself knocked clean off my horse, lying on the ground, the taste of dust in my mouth, blinded by the light. The scales having been removed from mine eyes, I proceeded forthwith to re-watch nearly the entire series (I skipped some of Season 1 & 2, but I did once again worship at the shrine of the glorious Miniseries That Restarted It All). And this time the final season was revealed unto me as a Triumph of the Reimagination. Hallelujah. Thank the Gods.

And then I watched The Plan. And, lo: I did see appear before me a great Vision, and yea verily it was given me to understand that that which had been thought to be the future was the past, and that which had appeared to be the last was, in truth, Before The Beginning. So say we all. Or, well, something like that.

By late January I had finally worked my way through the whole story. It all made sense now. I was ready.

After the first episode I was seriously in denial. My wife pretty much hated it. "No," I insisted, "it was pretty good. It'll get better." Ha. Was the first hour of the miniseries "pretty good". Did it leave me hoping it would improve? No. At 3 minutes and 12 seconds into the miniseries, Number Six leans over the desk of a nameless Colonial officer and asks him, "Are you alive?" Three hours later you're not wondering if it will get better, you're begging for more. Please please please.

The really telling failure of Caprica was it's inability to create any compelling characters. Zoe and Lacy and Sister Clarice and Sam Adama are kind of interesting, but if you put them them all together they don't amount to one Romo Lampkin, or even a Tory Foster.

Appropriately so, BSG was a veritable pantheon of truly godlike Characters. Most TV shows don't have even one character that can match Starbuck, or Colonel Tigh, or Gaius Baltar. In fact, how many characters of the stature of Admiral Adama, or Galen Tyrol, or Number Eight, or Number Six do you ever encounter on the boob tube?

Even the minor characters shone incredibly brightly in the BSG constellation. The glorious bastard lawyer, Romo Lampkin, has already been mentioned, as well as the truly, madly, deeply evil Tory Foster. But there's also the charmingly urbane sociopath Number One, the angel-voiced Gaeta, the mysterious Ellen Tigh, and the beautifully cunning D'anna Biers. Hell it didn't even matter that two of the central characters (President Roslin and Apollo) were consistently as annoying as a two-headed Wesley Crusher.

Oh well.

It will probably take a while, but hopefully someone will come back to this again and do it right. The groundwork has been laid. This really could happen, especially considering the checkered prehistory that BSG already had going into the “reimagined” series.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Geert Wilders and Islam: Beyond Left & Right

These are not our only choices. Thank the Gods.
If it were to stand all on its own, the idea of a "liberal critique of Islam", as described in a previous post in this blog, would have two major deficiencies.

First of all, defending basic civil liberties against the encroachments of Islam need not, indeed it must not, fall prey to knee-jerk left-right dichotomizing. There is no special role for either liberals or conservatives, however those terms are construed, when it comes to defending the rights of all. However, in the current political climate in the US and Europe (oh, alright, and Canada, and Australia and New Zealand ...), those who are politically inclined to the left are often made to feel as if it is somehow impossible to be progressive and to oppose the regressive ideology of Islam.

Therefore it is justifiable to argue for a "liberal" critique of Islam in order to, if you will, create an intellectual space (or, to be more accurate, to shine light into an already existing space that has not so much been kept in the dark as it has been roped off with "Off Limits" signs posted around it) in which a progressive discourse of resistance to Islamization can develop and thrive.

But there is a second reason why (on its own) a simple call for a new "liberal critique of Islam" is off the mark. And that is because a genuine classical liberal critique of Islam is already being articulated, and that by no one other than the man who is arguably the world's most famous opponent of Islam: Geert Wilders.

There is no question that Wilders is often allied with people and groups "of the right". He and his PVV party hold many positions that are clearly right-leaning. But, and this is not news to most people any longer, there are significant variations in what ends up being lumped together under these labels "right", "left", "liberal" and "conservative".

PVV leader Geert Wilders & LeftGreen leader Femke Halsema
First and foremost, Wilders is a classical liberal. He espouses humanist values, and is reportedly an atheist (although he scrupulously avoids anything remotely anti-Christian or "anti-clerical" in his rhetoric). He makes support for women's equality and gay rights central to his critique of Islam. And he aggressively supports the infrastructure of the Dutch welfare state.

In fact, Wilders proudly takes credit for successfully (1) blocking cuts to unemployment benefits, and (2) preventing any weakening of Dutch government regulations of hiring and firing. Both of these were accomplished in direct opposition to the wishes of Wilder's right-wing partners in the new Dutch government.

But Wilders is also "tough on crime" in a way that is highly reminiscent of American Republican party rhetoric, including support for longer maximum prison sentences and mandatory minimum sentences. He also sounds far more "Republican" than "Libertarian" (in the sense that these terms are now used in American political discourse) when it comes to "soft" or "recreational" drugs. He is very strongly pro-Israel and an enthusiastic Zionist. He has been feted by Glenn Beck. And he has received sympathetic coverage in the conservative National Review magazine during the course of his trial, while the "mainstream" American media mostly ignores him, or grudgingly acknowledges his existence while labeling him a Islamophobic far-right extremist.

Wilders' relationship with the American right is very far from being all sweetness and light, however. After fawning over him on his show (in Feb. '09), Glenn Beck later turned on Wilders (in March '10) and even called him a fascist! But Beck did not execute this bat-turn all by himself. Nearly simultaneously he was joined by other leading lights of the FAUX News punditocracy in a Geert Wilders Smearfest. Such sudden and drastic changes of tune at NewsCorp do not simply happen on their own, as is well known, and speculation is that not only was this ordered from on high, but, more specifically, that Uncle Rupert was doing this as a favor to his Saudi buddies.

In addition to FOX falling out of love with him, Wilders also called off a major US appearance in March at a premier for a new documentary film (about Wilders), when he discovered the homophobic tendencies of the documentary's backers (and he made it clear that was why he was dissociating himself from the project).

And, just to make Wilders relationship with The Right even less predictable, he has consistently distanced himself from those elements of the political right that he finds incompatible with his own humanist values and classical liberal views. The British National Party and the Front National (of Jean-Marie Le Pen) are both frequently cited by Wilders as examples of genuinely racist movements with which he will have nothing whatsoever to do. (And these just happen to be the "far-right" groups and movements that leftists are eager to equate to any and all criticism of Islam.)

A newish group, the English Defense League, have been trying to associate themselves with Geert Wilders at least since March of this year, when Wilders delivered his much anticipated speech to the House of Lords. At that time, the EDL turned out in force to offer their unsolicited "support" to Wilders, but really they were hoping to polish their hooliganish public image. By loudly solidarizing with Wilders the EDL obviously sought to give the impression that their endorsement of him was reciprocated. Which it was not.

Then recently when the English Defense League announced another demonstrations, this time in Amsterdam, to once again declare their unsolicited and unwelcome "support" for Geert Wilders, Wilders told de Telegraaf: "I have no involvement with this demo, I've never been in touch with the EDL." Concerning the EDL demonstration, he was also quoted by the website as saying: "This demonstration means nothing to me. It is nothing to do with me, nor is the EDL. I only know the group from the newspapers and I have never had any contact with them."

Although Wilders, so far as I know, has stopped short of making any specific criticism of the EDL, it is not hard to see why he has no interest in their company. It's not just that they are, and transparently so, just another xenophobic street-gang made up of disaffected youths infected with hatred of foreigners and anyone else whose looks they don't like. And it's also not just that there are persistent accusations that they are nothing but a front group for the BNP, or possibly for some faction of the BNP. Its also that with their Crusader's Cross logo, accompanied by their "In this sign we conquer" motto, the EDL makes plain their proto-fascist vision of England as a "Christian nation." (Not to mention the fact that the group is run by a bunch of thuggish knuckleheads who all apparently hate each other.)

Here is an excerpt from Wilders' recent interview in Der Spiegel, in which he explains his views on "far right-wing parties" and "extremists":
"[T]he main thing for me is that I want to have absolutely nothing to do with far right-wing parties like the German Republikaner, Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National in France and the British National Party.
"We want to have nothing to do with these far right-wing parties. Indeed, following our success in the European Union elections, we have joined no faction in the European Parliament. Ask our political opponents in the Netherlands: They may not share our opinions, but they do not all maintain that Wilders and his people are extremists. Anyone who labels 2 million Dutch as extremists does not insult me, but rather the voters."
I just want to reiterate that the idea of a "liberal" or "progressive" or "leftist" critique of Islam is still very important. It is necessary for people of different political views to be able to agree on basic issues such as freedom of speech, women's rights, and religious freedom, all of which are threatened by the spread and increasing influence of Islam. Resistance to Islamization should not be part of a package deal in which one is automatically enlisted on Pat Buchanan's side in the Culture Wars.

"I have never had any contact with them [the EDL]" Geert Wilders

Geert Wilders News Roundup

The first law of holes (stop digging).
On October 26, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial calling for all charges against Geert Wilders to be dropped: The Lost Cause Against Wilders. Quote from the editorial: "It's time to drop the charges against Mr. Wilders before it further undermines the credibility of the Dutch legal system and the country's tradition of free political discourse."

With friends like these . . . .
On October 30, the English Defense League organized a demonstration in Amsterdam "in support of Geert Wilders." Wilders told de Telegraaf: "I have no involvement with this demo, I've never been in touch with the EDL." Concerning the EDL demonstration, he was also quoted by the website as saying: "This demonstration means nothing to me. It is nothing to do with me, nor is the EDL. I only know the group from the newspapers and I have never had any contact with them."

"They may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one."
Dutch rapper Mosheb came out with a song in 2007 called "Who is next?", in which he brags that all those who criticize Islam will be killed. The song names Pim Fotuyn (murdered in 2002)  and Theo van Gogh (murdered in 2004), and then asks, "Who is next?" Mosheb doesn't want to leave too much to the imagination, though: "Listen Geert, this is no joke, last night I dreamed that I had cut off your head." On November 9, the appeals court in the Hague acquitted Mosheb of any wrongdoing "because it did not consider the text of his song constituted an offence," according to

"We have no problems with other skin colors, nor with Muslims -- our problem is with Islam."
Also on November 9, Der Spiegel published an English language translation of an interview with Wilders. Read the damn thing, already. It's quite fucking awesome.

Also on November 9, announced that a new poll by the gay Dutch newspaper Gay Krant had found that among its readership Geert Wilders' PVV is now the most popular political party.

But what does he really think?
Yesterday, November 10, godless comedian Pat Condell released upon an unsuspecting world yet another spoken word broadside, this time on the subject of "Free Speech in Europe". It is primarily devoted to the trials of Geert Wilders and Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff . Here's a taste: "Whatever happens at these two trials, this is just the beginning. The genie is out of the bottle, and no multicultural diversity fascist is going to put it back. Already, thousands are speaking out and making their voices heard in opposition to the relentless Islamization of our society. And soon, it's going to be millions. People who've had enough of political correctness, of being told what they're allowed to think and say, of being told to respect a religion that respects absolutely nobody. And they're finding out as they do speak out that they are not alone, and that they are not in fact fascists, hate-mongers, or racists at all, despite what they're told."

One more time with feeling.
Then today, November 11, it was suddenly announced that the new judges for Geert Wilders' new trial had been selected. As usual, the best place to get the low-down on this is at the Klein Verzet blog.