Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Michael Psellos and "Ho Ellênikos Logos"

"And if my ethos has fitted itself to differing occasions,
others may philosophize about that; it was spontaneous with me."

This ongoing series, "Forsaking Christ To Follow Plato", is dedicated to addressing the many questions surrounding the religious identity of the 11th century Byzantine philosopher, Imperial advisor, esotericist, antiquarian, and all-around world-class polymath Michael Psellos. (Links to the first four installments of this series can be found at the bottom of this post.) The view from thirty thousand feet can be summarized by the following bullet points:
  • 1. Psellos himself insisted repeatedly that he was a Christian.
  • 2. Many (probably most) modern-day Byzantists concur that Psellos was a Christian.
  • 3. A great many of Psellos' contemporaries, however, repeatedly questioned the sincerity and orthodoxy of Psellos' Christianity and even accused him of being a "Hellene", that is, a Pagan apostate.
  • 4. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Psellos' own writings provide ample justification for the suspicions voiced by his contemporaries.
  • 5. Despite any "scholarly consensus" that may or may not exist to the contrary, respected voices among modern-day Byzantinists have seriously questioned Psellos' Christianity, and some have gone so far as to declare unambiguously that he was not a Christian. Three Byzantinists who have raised the most serious doubts about Psellos' Christianity are Nigel Guy Wilson, Anthony Kaldellis, and Niketas Siniossoglou.
This new post focuses on one particular text by Psellos: the "Encomium" (ἐγκώμιον) he dedicated to his mother. Psellos' mother had been not merely pious and orthodox in her own religiosity, but had embraced an especially puritanical variety of Christianity. The work in question is ostensibly written in praise (as is proper for an "encomium") of this monkishly ascetic Christian women, but it is in fact largely taken up by Psellos defending his own interest in and dedication to "secular" learning in general and Pagan philosophy in particular, that is, his life-long devotion to Ho Ellênikos Logos, the Pagan Greek thought of antiquity.

Two English translations of Psellos' "Encomium" have recently been published, and this is especially noteworthy considering the paucity of English translations of Psellos' work. One translation is by Anthony Kaldellis (who has already figured prominently in previous posts in this series) as part of his book Mothers and Sons, Fathers and Daughters: The Byzantine Family of Michael Psellos, and the other is by Jeffrey Walker, Professor and Chair of the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas (link). This latter translation is used here since it is readily available in full online (see link below).

First I excerpt a large part of Walker's Introduction, and this is followed by Walker's English translation of the closing five sections (27-31) of Psellos' "Encomium". The notes [in square brackets] are taken from both Walker and Kaldellis, while the numbers (in parentheses) found in Walker's Introduction refer (usually) to sections of the Encomium itself. The interested reader is strongly encouraged to directly consult both Walker's and Kaldellis' editions.

Michael Psellos: the Encomium of His Mother, translation with introduction and notes by Jeffrey Walker, University of Texas (This is an online version of the translation published in Advances in the History of Rhetoric vol. 8 [2005], 239-313.)

From the Introduction by Jeffrey Walker:

The extraordinary eleventh-century scholar, teacher, rhetor, and courtier Michael Psellos is one of the most important intellectual figures in the 1,000-year history of Byzantium, but he is scarcely known to students and scholars of rhetoric today. The chief reason is that almost none of his many surviving works have been translated into English (or any other modern language). The only important work by Psellos available in English is the Chronographia — an acknowledged masterpiece of Byzantine historiography, and in itself a rhetorical and literary masterpiece as well — in which he portrays fourteen Byzantine emperors from Basil II to Michael VII Doukas (976-1078), a series of (after Basil) mostly inept fools who brought the empire to disaster, and most of whom he had personally known or served. In the course of that work he also sketches and implicitly justifies his own intellectual and pedagogical project, which was to reunite rhetoric and philosophy, and to revive the whole spectrum of secular (pagan Greek) learning, as a basis for wise political deliberation and the better guidance of the state. Famously, he claims to have singlehandedly revived the study of Plato and Aristotle — a statement that, while surely an exaggeration, probably also bears an element of truth . . . .

This speech is also important — in the second place — because in it Psellos makes a case for his own life and career as a “Byzantine sophist.” I have argued this point at length elsewhere,[6] and will not belabor it here, except to note that a key to understanding this speech is the concept of the “figured problem,” as discussed in “Hermogenes” On Invention (4.13), a text with which any well-educated Byzantine would have been familiar, and which Psellos himself summarized in a verse synopsis for the young Michael Doukas. The “figured problem,” in essence, is a discourse (or, for “Hermogenes,” a declamation exercise) in which the ostensible subject-matter of the speech serves as a foil for something else, primarily by way of irony (saying the opposite of what one means), indirection (making arguments that lead to different conclusions than the point supposedly being proved), or allusion (tacitly referring to things that cannot be openly mentioned, or that one lacks the freedom of speech to mention). All these methods of “figured” argument are at work in Psellos’ Encomium of His Mother. While praising her character and deeds — her striking personal beauty and her spiritual and intellectual excellence, her supervision of the education that enabled him to rise from obscurity to the imperial circle, and her “saintly” later life and swerve into monasticism — Psellos implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) defends his inability to approve the Christian asceticism that in his view destroyed her, and which he characterizes as “apostasy,” while also defending his unswerving devotion to secular learning (and the secular, civic life it informs) as a staying-true to his mother’s original gift to him, and even as a truer form of devotion to God. Most of the lengthy peroration is a “confession” of this continuing devotion, from which, as he says, “I will never be torn away” (27). As a defense of his life and career, Psellos’ Encomium of His Mother can be placed in a series of such defenses — or defenses of rhetoric — beginning at least with Isocrates’ Antidosis and continuing through such late-antique discourses as Aelius Aristides’ Defense of Rhetoric against Plato.

The speech is valuable in other ways as well. It provides some glimpses into what the experience of the late-classical paideia was like, at least for a precocious Byzantine schoolboy like the young Michael Psellos. It also provides some glimpses into Byzantine family life, and, perhaps most importantly, it gives us a rare portrait of the life of a highly intelligent, intellectually ambitious Byzantine woman from outside the imperial family, or for that matter below the upper ranks of the Constantinopolitan aristocracy. As Psellos tells us, his mother — her name was Theodota — came from a respectable but completely undistinguished family (2), while his father’s family “had once been raised to senatorial rank, but had not prospered after that” (4). In a letter Psellos says “I cannot put on airs, and must treat silversmiths as equals.”[8] Apparently the family had fallen from its former patrician rank to the social level of guild craftsmen, or what might be called the Constantinopolitan bourgeoisie. The story of Theodota, then, is at least in part the story of what happens to an intellectually gifted Byzantine woman in such circumstances: she is not permitted to go to school, but she educates herself; and the only kind of learning that a woman in her position may pursue without attracting blame is religious learning. This, abetted by an emotional crisis at the death of her daughter, leads her into an extreme asceticism — derived, most probably, from Symeon the New Theologian, who had at that time become the object of a cult[9] — and that asceticism, eventually, brings her to what looks like death by anorexia. (It is this Symeonesque asceticism in particular that Psellos wishes to portray as an “apostasy.”) Theodota may look to us like a “Shakespeare’s Sister” kind of figure, though she is hardly as passive a victim as that. Notably, Psellos says that she taught him the intellectual equality of women with men (25) . . . .

The secular paideia inherited from late antiquity, with its pagan roots and (mostly) pagan literary canon, was conventionally referred to in Byzantium as the “external learning” (ho thurathen logos, literally “the learning from outside the door”), or the “external wisdom,” which was conventionally placed in opposition to “our doctrine” or “the better philosophy,” meaning Christian doctrine. Since for centuries the secular paideia had remained essential to training functionaries for the imperial bureaucracy, it had survived in a more or less cooperative symbiosis with Christian thought, and this arrangement worked well as long as the “external wisdom” was clearly the subordinate member of the pair (and was indulged in only as much as was necessary, i.e. for useful technical skills). But the secular humanist revival over which Psellos was presiding increased the possibilities for tension. Psellos was compelled repeatedly to defend himself on charges of paganism, or of being more devoted to Plato than to Christ. His successor as “Consul of the Philosophers,” the less circumspect (and less rhetorically skilled) John Italos, would be tried and anathematized by Alexios I for the crime of submitting the Christian mysteries to Aristotelian analysis. This climate of increasing tension, then, is an essential part of the rhetorical situation in which Psellos composes the Encomium of His Mother, and defends his way of life and his devotion to philosophy and rhetoric . . . .

From Walker's Translation of Psellos' "Encomium":

So I am persuaded, O mother, that even in death you have taken careful thought for your son, and I have grasped this fact by many sure signs. But as for me, since I oppose your way of righteousness and resist its rule, I do not at all practice the philosophy dear to you. Rather, some destiny I do not know has seized me from the beginning and has fastened me to my books, and I will never be torn away from them.

For the art of discourse holds me in its spell, and I have been exceedingly in love with its management of cases and its flowering beauty, and like the bees I fly to the meadows of reasoned eloquence: and some of the flowers I cut, and from others I drink the nectar of a phrase, and in my beehive I make honey. The turning of the globe does not permit me to be still, but compels me to inquire what is its motion, whence it originates, what is its nature, what are its cycles, how is it ordered, how is it divided, how large are the segments of its lines, what are their angles, their joint ascensions, equivalencies and obliquities, what are their magnitudes and of what nature, how are their movements produced and how many of them there are, and whether all things are made from fire or have some other nature. I am moved as well by the science of bodies at rest, and I cannot fail to reflect upon the extension of magnitude, or to observe the exactness of the proof, how the starting axioms derive directly from the mind but the premises derive directly from the axioms without intermediate terms, how everything is established and how specified, what is the proportional, what is the incommensurate, what is the rational magnitude, what is the disproportional, what is the commensurate, what sorts of lengths and powers there are, and the rotation of the solid. Nor does the first and immaterial domain permit me to be idle. I have marveled at its relation to all things, and of all things to it, its finiteness and infinitude, and how from these two all other things derive, and how the idea, the soul, and nature are reducible to numbers, one according to innate conception, one according to what coincides with reason, and one according to what corresponds to the natural order. And whence comes natural reason and what is perfect in it, and what is the symmetrical, the ordered, the beautiful, the self-sufficient, the equal, the identical, the pure, the simple, the paradigm, the origin? What is the generation of living beings, what is the spiritual, what are the natural properties of numbers up to ten, how is a triad produced, what is the procession, and how does it extend through all of the divine becoming?

Music too attracts me with its ineffable charms, and in a certain way I have grown up with it and made it my own. I have no superficial understanding of this art: I have studied not only its types of diction, measures, and playing techniques, but I have inquired as well into its values, its effects, its occasions, and the essence of its rhythms, and which of them are correct and which are not, and what is the source of their beauty, and which is connate with the life of the soul.

I do not only inquire into the various types of knowledge, but ask as well whether some rushing streams may flow from them. And the transcendent wisdom — which governs the others, gives their basic principles, interprets their axioms, is purely immaterial, and is placed after physics — I do not merely investigate, but also honor and worship with awe, whether one wishes to call this art that oversees the logical process dialectic, or wisdom simply, since the more recent sages have reassigned the name of dialectic to a branch of logic.

I admire syllogistic demonstrations also, not only those that deduce a conclusion from what is inherent in the starting premises, but also those that produce inductive inferences. I study sophisms, just enough not to be taken in by them, and not to draw the conclusion that knowledge and wisdom are the same, or that wise men are knowledgeable by virtue of their knowledge while knowledgeable men are wise by virtue of their wisdom, or that man alone is an animal if man alone laughs and all that laugh are animals. These things attract me, and still more the comprehension of occult matters: what is providence and destiny and whether the hereafter already is extant, what is unmoved, what moves itself, and whether the soul receives into itself anything from its birth, or nothing at all.

I wonder also about the common living being, whether it retains the knowledges of the soul forever, and whether immortality is an essential property of the soul, or comes over it in some other way. Mostly I have philosophized that it is indeed immortal, from its similarity to the Deity, from its non-admission of contraries, from its return, and from its movement and illumination in dreams. And I ask as well whether a bond exists between the soul and the body (which the first has entered as a secondary form of life), what is its mixture with the irrational, what is its ultimate end in the resurrection, what is its judgment, what is its fate, whence does it come to be, what is it, what can it do, how many functions does it perform, what is its mixture with the mind, what is its return, and in sum (lest I enumerate each point about it), I have been entirely preoccupied by these questions.

But I do not limit my curiosity to that either. Rather, when I hear the astrologers speak as if doing violence to some of the stars and all but offering sacrifices to others, I wonder where this difference in treatment has arisen, or how one’s birth is governed and determined according to the stars’ configuration. I have rejected, then, these ideas as neither evident nor true, and I have profited enough from dabbling in this art to bring a case against it on the basis of my own knowledge. I have denied that anyone’s life is molded and remolded by the stars, and I have discredited the character-types and the fixed signs, and the entrances and lodgings of the heavenly bodies. I grant the power of truly predicting the future neither to constellations nor conjunctions of the stars, nor to the voices of birds, nor to their flights, cries, or movements, nor to meaningless echoes, nor to alien doctrines, nor to anything that Hellenic thought [Ho Ellênikos Logos, "that is, the pagan Greek thought of antiquity" (from Walker's note #261)] was led astray by. But if I should study the precision of the canons of the astronomical sphere, this rather is the love of beauty and the love of wisdom combined; and if I should inquire about the origins and fountainheads of things, this too is desirable to contemplative souls.

I know the sacred art and what it is, and I have crowned it in wool and sent it away. I have carefully studied the secret powers attributed to stones and herbs, and have utterly rejected their superstitious use. Amulets I detest, both diamond and coral, and I laugh at sacred stone objects dropped from heaven. I consider it monstrous to proclaim an alteration in the order of the universe, of all that has been beautifully arranged by the providence of God. I vehemently denounce propitiations, purifications, mystic symbols, naming-formulas, movements said to be god-inspired, the ethereal maintainer [Tôi aitheriôi sunochei,. See, for example, sunocheô, “travel together in a chariot,” and the charioteer in Plato’s myth of the soul in Phaedrus.], the empyrean, the leonine fountain [a reference to Aklepios, the "lion-holder"], the first father [the "first father" is found in the Chaldean Oracles], the second, the iunxes [another reference to the Chaldean Oracles], the guides of the universe [Tois kosmagois: a type of Chaldean divinity], Hecate [the central Deity of the Chaldean Oracles], the Hecatesians, the undergirding [Tôi hupezôkoti, “undergirding, belt, membrane” (according to Walker's note #269): the boundary separating the Celestial from the terrestrial in Chaldean theology], and things that are ridiculous even to name. But if I would inquire about eternity and time, nature, contemplation, and the One, and perception and memory and the mixing and blending of opposites, and whether the objects of thought are established in the mind or are external to it, it seems to me that I am necessarily engaged in a philosophical activity.

I should, then, devote myself to God alone, especially now that I have renounced the world, but my vocation, the soul’s uncontrollable love for all knowledge, and the constraint imposed upon me by my students have persuaded me to dwell upon these things as well. And you would know, O mother, just what I wish to say, as you are pure soul. But my speech is addressed to others: I speak not only to men, but also to God and the angels. I am acquainted with all Hellenic books, and (I might add) the barbarian ones as well, all those that Orpheus, Zoroaster, or Ammon the Egyptian wrote, and all that the Parmenideses and Empedocleses composed in verse — for I pass by the Platos and the Aristotles and all their contemporaries and successors who labored at philosophical discourses — and they have written on subjects both effable and ineffable, and I have read all of their theology and their treatises on nature, and have admired the depth of their thought, and wondered at the exceedingly careful development of their argumentation. But if I have observed anything contrary to our doctrine, even if explained with an exacting demonstration, and even if covered with every wisdom and grace, I have rejected it as utter nonsense and absurdity. I pay no mind to their better doctrines, but my soul’s ambition is moved at least to know what their doctrines were.

For there are indeed unfailing treasuries of wisdom with us, depths of doctrine and beauties of thought, should anyone want them, and a spontaneous blossoming of style without excessive artifice. And one might ask, what is divine revelation, and what is intelligible and what is conceivable? What is the stream that flows from the wellspring of the universe, and what is the true substance drawn from the One? What is the name of God and what is signified by it, and what is the whole and what a part, and which should be attributed to God, or neither? What things are intelligible and which are conceivable, and which are theological symbols, and what is each one? What is the wheel, what is electrum, what is pure gold, the vapor, the mounting of the cloud, the throne, the river? What is the flying scythe, the axe, the tree, the stump, the cedar, the oak? What are the angels’ names? What are the rituals for us? What is communion, anointment, the lamp, the stairway, the pillars, the uplifting love and essence of the good and beautiful from which all things arise and toward which they ascend? What is the perfumed bride, the door, the net, the heat, the sun, the vineyard, the vigil, and what is apostasy from these things?

And if someone dismisses these things as overly lofty and celestial and goes to our shoemakers or tentmakers, or the weavers of nets, and wishes to take careful note of everything they say, then he will know that other things strike the many like what is projected on the senses by the sun — but with these things the light is dim and obscure, like faint starlight, which only the mind can see and sensation cannot not bring near, for each of them brims with mystery and secret initiation [This is a reference to Socrates' "metaphor of the Sun" found in Book VI of Plato's Republic, 507b-509c. Also see Plotinus' Fourth Ennead, tractate three, paragraph eleven].

For not one of them is inaccessible to contemplation, not even the humblest thing, not the upper room furnished for a supper, not the jug of water, not the closing of doors and the apparition of the Word. Even the disciple Didymus is subject to contemplation, as he is doubtful, and so too are the pair that run together, and those that run ahead. Neither is the fish-hook without interpretation, nor the fish drawn up from the sea, nor the gold stater, nor the number of the fish. But neither are the names of the apostles without significance, nor the Forerunner’s girdle and garment of camel-hair — but, to sum it all up in brief, I would say that the whole evangelical discourse has been endowed with esoteric meaning that the many can scarcely perceive. With these things, then, I shall anoint my head and wash my soul, and I shall have no need of Hellenic purifications.

But since I have been allotted the sort of life that does not suffice for itself alone, but is placed at others’ disposal and permits them to draw for themselves from something like a winebowl overflowing with many streams,[286] for that reason I have also taken up secular learning,[Walker's note #287: "Sophias tês thurathen: literally 'wisdom from outside the door,' secular or pagan wisdom/philosophy."] not only the parts that are theoretical, but also those that descend to history and poetry. And in fact I speak to some of my students about poems, and about Homer and Menander and Archilochus, and Orpheus and Musaeus, and as many female poets as there were, Sibyls and Sappho the songstress, Theano, and the wise Egyptian woman. [Kaldellis states matter of factly that "the wise Egyptian woman" is none other than "the Alexandrian philosopher Hypatia", while Walker concedes only that it is "possibly Hypatia". ]

Many also press me earnestly about the words in these poets, asking what is akratisma, what is ariston, what is hesperisma, what is dorpis and hê en tois deipnois isaia, which ones composed in verse and which employed the style of prose, what is dancing according to Homer, and generally what is the heroic life according to that poet? And then again what is opsophagia,[296] what is poluteleia, what is the use of fruit from the upper branches of fruit-trees, what is the earliest event of the Trojan War, what are nectar, ambrosia, and propoma, what is the “underground geranium,” and what is genesis that takes place in the earth? I won’t mention how many topics they propose to me — who is Alexis, and Menander, and Krobylos the parasite, and Klesaphos, and whether there is anyone else said to be good at poetry.

Many compel me also to discuss the care of bodies, and they demand that I supply them with a treatment and a diagnosis. On account of these concerns I have given the whole art a philosophical examination, so that I need not approach each case individually. And not only with words but with their hands they bring me back to the Italian wisdom[301] — I do not mean the Pythagorean philosophy, but simply that public-spirited and materialistic art, that has something to say about private and public lawsuits, laborious procedural demonstrations, slavery and freedom, legal and illegal marriages and the gifts and benefits involved, the gradations of family-relations and contracts both military and civil, what a pledge is, what force a guarantee has in a legal proceeding, when a horse kicks or a cow butts or a dog bites what responsibility the master bears for the harm they have done, what the legally binding rule is, why an alias is invented, the distribution of an inheritance, the ancestor and the descendant, the legitimate child and the illegitimate, what statute applies in each case, what an assault is and how many parts it has, and how much time is set aside for the trying of each action. Then having brought me up against these matters, just as in philosophy, they exact accounts of what has been legislated.

Nor do they omit inquiring about the measurement of the world, how large the uninhabited parts are, and how large the inhabited fifth part is. So I must describe for them the geography of the whole earth, correct or fill in the deficiencies in their geographic table, and discuss whatever Apelles, Bion, and Eratosthenes accurately wrote about these matters in their treatises. I have not stopped interpreting the myths of the Hellenes allegorically for them, and in this way too they pull me about and tear me apart, being in love with my tongue and my soul, as if it possesses a knowledge more uncommonly rich than that of others.

O mother, this life of mine has been purified, and the other life waits in store, that life toward which I have long been hastening. Although I am still caught with many hooks, with the emperor holding me tight, contending with my superiors about me, and prevailing through his extraordinary dignity, his splendor, and his preeminence among and above all others, how many both now and earlier have partaken of the same learning, or attained communion with it! For if both the monastic habit and cloak seem incompatible in some way to both the emperor and those around him, this has not been only my innovation, and it seems most sweet somehow not only to those in public life, but also to most of those who live apart from it. And if my ethos has fitted itself to differing occasions, others may philosophize about that; it was spontaneous with me. Be gracious from on high to these wanderings of mine, and moreover divert and restore me to the ascent to God, and grant me a pure delight in the evangelical life, the life concealed in God. And then, when you have permitted me to drink from the stream of virtue as much of that river as is available to me and as much as I can hold, and after I have been transformed, accept me and fill me, with your freedom of speech before God and your prayers, from the first and divine fountain of thought.

Forsaking Christ to Follow Plato (Or, Was Michael Psellos a Christian?)
  • Part One: Mostly Basil Tatakis' Byzantine Philosophy, with a little help from Jaroslav Pelikan, Katerina Ierandiokonou, John Myendorff, and even C.M. Woodhouse
  • Part Two: N.G. Wilson's Scholars of Byzantium
  • Part Three: Anthony Kaldellis' The Argument of Psellos' Chronographia
  • Part Four: Michael Psellos and the Chaldean Oracles
  • Part Five: Michael Psellos and "Ho Ellênikos Logos" (this is the post you are reading right now)

Friday, December 23, 2011

If you masturbate, Satan will teach you Magic. Part Deux.

The twelfth century account of diabolical magic given by Guibert de Nogent is fascinating for several reasons, but what I want to emphasize is the non-harmful and even beneficial qualities of the magic taught by Satan, according to Guibert's account. But before giving my own analysis on this point, first let's look at the second primary example of Satanic magic given by Guibert, which comes just after the very interesting story that concerned us in the previous post on this subject:
I will give another instance which had a similar beginning, but a happier end. A certain clerk in the town of Beauvais lived by the art of copying, one whom I knew myself, since he did work at Fly and was engaged for this very book. Afterwards, when talking with another sorcerer at the castle of Breteuil, he was told something of this kind; "If it were made worth my while, I could teach you something by which you might get gifts of money every day without any help from man." He asks what he must do for it. The sorcerer says he must propitiate the citizen of the lower world, that is the Devil. "With what victim?" says he. "With a cock," says the other; "but the egg from which it was hatched must have been laid by the hen on Jupiter's day in the month of March. After roasting this, take it, just cooked, and with the spit still in it, and go to the nearest, fishpond But whatever you hear, see, or feel there, do not dare to call upon the Blessed Mary or any of the saints." "I will do so," says he. Then a wondrous thing! They come to the place at night bringing the victim suitable for such a god. As one called on the devil and his wicked pupil held the cock, the devil in a whirlwind suddenly stood by them and seized it. Then he who had been taken there, in his fright called upon the Lady Mary. When the Devil heard the name of that powerful Lady, he fled with his cock, being unable, however, to carry it off, and it was found by some fishermen next day on an island of the fishpond. O royal, sweet name, so dreaded in the wicked regions! Now the sorcerer was angry with the clerk for calling on so great a one in such a matter. But the other was driven by repentance to Lisiard, Archdeacon of Beauvais, my uncle, a man learned in every branch, wise, courtly and well­known. And having confessed what he had done, he humbled himself, as Lisiard ordered him, to penitence and prayer. Let these instances of what I heard in the monastery, suffice. Next after speaking of the manner of my election, in the beginning of another book I will tell of the place itself to which I was translated, in what manner it was founded and of what antiquity.

Two points must be emphasized about the first story:
1. The monk in the first story gains his introduction to diabolical (but not malefic) magic from "a Jew skilled in medicine", implying that Satan is associated not only with Judaism but also with healing.
2. The relatively benign (if deceptive) art of glamoury is the only magical ability provided by Guibert as an example of the "wicked arts" taught to the monk by Satan. The monk's illicit liaison with a nun, the covering-up of which serves as the backdrop for the story in which the monk makes his nun-lover appear to others as a large dog, however, could be interpreted as implying that Satan had also instructed the bad monk in love magic, another form of relatively benign (or even beneficial) magic. Despite their non-malefic nature, both glamoury and love-magic are historically very closely associated with Witchcraft, as is healing.

And two further points must be stressed about the second story:
3. In the second story, the magical ability promised (not directly by Satan, but by a sorcerer already in league with the Great Deceiver) in return for making an appropriate sacrifice to Satan is nothing more sinister than this: "I could teach you something by which you might get gifts of money every day without any help from man."
4. And what was the unthinkable sacrifice demanded by Satan in return for learning the secrets of "money magic"? A roasted chicken. Well, Satan was a little more specific: it had to be a rooster, and it had to come from an egg that had been laid on a Thursday during the month of March. But in addition to the offering of the chicken, the would-be sorcerer also had to swear not to pray to the Virgin Mary or any of the Saints.

So both stories follow a very similar pattern:
a. Some sacrifice to Satan is required in order to learn magic.
b. In both cases, the sacrifice required does no harm to any human being.
c. In addition to the sacrifice some renunciation of Christianity is also required.
d. The "wicked arts" learned through these arrangements turn out to be completely innocuous when compared to the conventional assumptions (both in later medieval and early modern thinking, and also today) about the activities of diabolical sorcerers and Witches in league with the Devil.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christopher Hitchens on Islam

Hitch was wrong about the invasion of Iraq and many other things. But he was also right about many things, like the fact that Henry Kissinger should be brought to trial for "for war crimes, for crimes against humanity, and for offenses against common or customary or international law, including conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap, and torture," and that Mother Teresa was a "fanatic, fraudulent fundamentalist".

Among the things that Christopher Hitchens was right about, one subject in particular stands out and demands our attention: Islam.

Of Sin, the Left & Islamic Fascism
The Nation
, October 8, 2001
"Not all readers liked my attack on the liberal/left tendency to 'rationalize' the aggression of September 11, or my use of the term 'fascism with an Islamic face,' and I'll select a representative example of the sort of 'thinking' that I continue to receive on my screen, even now."

The Hitchens-Pollitt Papers
The Nation
, December 16, 2002
"Now, Katha, you and I both attended many rallies in favor of the victory of the Vietcong. Were we duped? Were we led astray by sheep-faced 'pacifist' clerics or shifty-eyed Stalinists? No. (Or perhaps I should speak for myself here.) We knew what we were doing, and we wished mainly that Vietnam, which constituted no threat to anybody, had been reunified and independent by 1945. The objection to Washington's imperialist war was not that it would go badly, or turn into a 'quagmire.' For shame! The point was to take the side of the revolution."

Christopher Hitchens talks to Jon Stewart about Islam

The Daily Show, December 1, 2004
"According to Christopher Hitchens, too many moderate Muslims believe it's a war on Islam and not within Islam."

The War Within Islam: The growing danger of the Sunni-Shiite rivalry.
Slate, February 19, 2007
"I have met a few very hard-line right-wingers who say: So what? If one lot of Islamists wants to slaughter another, who cares? It's very important to repudiate this kind of 'thinking.' Religious warfare is the worst thing that can happen to any society, and it now has the potential to spread to societies that are not directly involved. For the most part, official U.S. policy in Iraq has been sound in this respect, always working for a compromise and recently losing American lives to rescue the moderate Shiite leadership from a murder plot hatched by a messianic Shiite militia. Even where this policy fell short—as in the appalling execution of Saddam Hussein—the American Embassy urged the Maliki government not to conduct the hanging on the day of the Eid ul-Adha holiday that would most humiliate the Sunnis. We cannot flirt, either morally or politically, with divide and rule."

Defending Islamofascism: It's a valid term. Here's why.
, October 22, 2007
"It was once very common, especially on the left, to prefix the word fascism with the word clerical. This was to recognize the undeniable fact that, from Spain to Croatia to Slovakia, there was a very direct link between fascism and the Roman Catholic Church. More recently, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, editor of the Encyclopaedia Hebraica, coined the term Judeo-Nazi to describe the Messianic settlers who moved onto the occupied West Bank after 1967. So, there need be no self-pity among Muslims about being 'singled out' on this point."

Assassins of the Mind
, February, 2009
"When Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on novelist Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses, it was the opening shot in a war on cultural freedom. Two decades later, the violence continues, and Muslim fundamentalists have gained a new advantage: media self-censorship."

Push to criminalise criticism of Islam
The Australian
, March 9, 2009
"And this whole picture would be much less muddied and confused if the state of Pakistan, say, did not make the absurd and many-times discredited assertion that religion can be the basis of a nationality. It is such crude amalgamations -- is a Saudi or Pakistani being profiled because of his religion or his ethnicity? -- that are responsible for any overlap between religion and race. And it might help if the Muslim hadith did not prescribe the death penalty for anyone trying to abandon Islam; one could then be surer who was a sincere believer and who was not, or (as with the veil or the chador in the case of female adherents) who was a volunteer and who was being coerced by her family."

“islam is the opposite of a multicultural society” atheismtv.com, October 2, 2011
"In reading the Koran I can't tell if it's the word of God or not, and I doubt that there is such a thing, but I can hope that this was a bad day for God."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

If you masturbate, Satan will teach you Magic.

The following is from the autobiography of Guibert de Nogent (d.1124) (link)
[translation by C.C. Swinton Bland, London: George Routledge: New York: E.P. Dutton, 1925]

(From Book 1, CHAPTER XXVI)
SINCE we have begun to speak of devils, we think it fitting to add certain facts, which are a warning to avoid their incantations and the counsels of those who have dealings with them. For they admit no one to learn their magic except those whom they rob of the honour of their Christianity by a horrible sacrilege. In a certain famous monastery a monk had been brought up from childhood and had attained to some knowledge of letters. Whilst living in a cell attached to the church under the rule of his Abbot, he fell ill of a disease, through which, to his sorrow, he had occasion for talking with a Jew skilled in medicine. Gathering boldness from their intimacy, they began to reveal their secrets to one another. And so the monk, being curious about wicked arts and aware that the Jew understood magic, pressed him hard. The Jew consented and promised to be his mediator with the Devil. Time and place for a meeting are fixed. At last he is brought by his intermediary into the presence of the Devil; he asks through the other to be admitted to a share in the teaching. That abominable ruler says it can by no means be done, unless he denies his Christianity and offers sacrifice to him. He asked what sacrifice. "That which is pleasing in a man." "What is that?" "You shall make a libation of your seed," said he; "When you have poured that out to me, you shall taste it first as behooves the one who offers the sacrifice.* Then you shall enjoy the reward of your sacrifice." Oh, crime! Oh, shameful act! And he of whom this was demanded was a priest! And this Thy ancient enemy did, O Lord, to cast the dishonour of sacrilege on Thy holy order and Thy Blessed Victi! Be not silent; restrain not Thy vengeance, Lord. What shall I say? How shall I say it? The unhappy man did what was required of him, he whom Thou hadst abandoned, Ah, would it had been in time! And so with that horrible libation he declares his renunciation of his faith. But let me give one instance of the magic which he learnt by this accursed bargain.

He was in the habit of having intercourse with a certain nun. Moreover he lived in a cell with one monk as his companion, who had outside duties to perform, whilst he remained at home with leisure for his wickedness. One day, therefore, they were sitting in the cell, when his companion returned from his business, and when they saw him afar off, there was no escape open to the woman, but her flight would bring her into the path of the returning monk. And so this new sorcerer, seeing his woman companion in a fright, said, "Go to meet the man as he comes, looking neither to the right nor to the left, and fear nothing." The woman trusted him and went. But he stood in the doorway and with an incantation which he had learnt, turned her into a monstrous dog. When she came near the returning monk, he said, "Ha! Whence comes this great dog?" But she in much fear passed him by and knew by these words under what shape she had escaped.

There is now a follow up post: If you masturbate, Satan will teach you Magic. Part Deux.

[*This essential detail ("you shall taste it first ...") is expurgated from the online edition at the Fordham U website linked to above. It can be found in other editions, including Paul J. Archambault's translation, A Monk's Confession.]


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy." Christopher Hitchens

"The fire you like so much in me
Is the mark of someone adamantly free."

Strange Loop, by Liz Phair

Postscript: Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011 by Chistopher Buckley, the New Yorker
In those days, Christopher was a roaring, if not raving, Balliol Bolshevik. Oh dear, the things he said about Reagan! The things—come to think of it—he said about my father. How did we become such friends?

David Frum on Christopher Hitchens: A man of moral clarity National Post
In recent years, as I’ve undergone a political rotation of my own, I’ve thought more and more about the example Christopher set. Interviewed in about 2003 by C-Span’s Brian Lamb, Christopher gave this answer to a question about his former belief in socialism: “I miss it the way an amputated man misses an arm.”

Christopher Hitchens, the enemy of the totalitarian by Jason Cowley, the New Statesman
The son of a Tory naval officer and a Jewish mother who committed suicide in a bizarre love pact, Hitchens was educated at the Leys School in Cambridge, and at Oxford, where he joined the far-left, anti-Stalinist sect, the International Socialists (forerunner of the Socialist Workers party), and agitated at demonstrations by day and romped and cavorted with the daughters, and sometimes sons, of the landed classes by night. He remained a member until the late 1970s and, long after that, continued to defend the Old Man, as he and comrades called Trotsky.

Christopher Hitchens Has Died, Doug Wilson Reflects Christianity Today
One time we shared a panel in Dallas, and I told the crowd there that if Christopher and I were not careful, we were in danger of becoming friends. During the time we spent together, he never said an unkind thing to me—except on stage, up in front of everybody. After doing this, he didn't wink at me, but he might as well have.


Friday, December 16, 2011

"In Christopher Hitchens we have lost a great untamed public intellectual."

“It is absurd to divide people into good and bad.
People are either charming or tedious.”

Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere's Fan

For some reason I developed a great deal of affection for Christopher Hitchens over the years. I loved his audacious frontal assault way of writing. I particularly loved his brutal deconstructions of Mother Teresa and Henry Kissinger. I loved his erudition and sense of humor and that beautiful voice of his.

I did not love his support for the invasion of Iraq. Nor did I love the narrow-mindedness of his atheism, which I think was his greatest failing as an intellectual.

But now he is gone, and we are all worse off for that, although we are all better off for his having been here in the first place.

Here is a collection of some of his greatest hits: The Immortal Rejoinders of Christopher Hitchens

The Daily Hitchens website has several items of interest including an interview with Hitch just two days before he died, and his last Vanity Fair piece.

His New York Times obituary: Polemicist Who Slashed All, Freely, With Wit

His Guardian obituary: Celebrated journalist, writer and unshakeable secularist has died from complications of oesophageal cancer

His Haaretz obituary (which contains the line that provides the title for this post): Christopher Hitchens, great Iconoclast and Moralist, is dead

And finally, here is the man in action, as he should be remembered: Christopher Hitchens and Tariq Ramadan Spar Over the Peacefulness of Islam

Monday, December 5, 2011

ElBaradei: Youth, liberals 'decimated' in Egypt vote

This Associated Press story is currently making the rounds (the version below was found at the Washington Post):
CAIRO — Egypt’s top reformist leader said Sunday the liberal youth behind the country’s uprising have been “decimated” in parliamentary elections dominated by Islamists and expressed concern about the rise of hard-line religious elements advocating extremist ideas such as banning women from driving.

Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Prize laureate and possible presidential candidate, said he hopes moderate Islamists will rein in the extremists and send a reassuring message to the world that Egypt will not go down an ultraconservative religious path.

“The youth feel let down. They don’t feel that any of the revolution’s goals have been achieved,” ElBaradei told The Associated Press in an interview on the same day electoral authorities announced that Islamist parties captured an overwhelming majority of votes in the first round of elections last week. “They got decimated,” he said, adding the youth failed to unify and form “one essential critical mass.”

The High Election Commission announced that the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party garnered 36.6 percent of the 9.7 million valid ballots cast last week for party lists. The Nour Party, representing the more hard-line Salafi Islamists, captured 24.4 percent.

The tallies offer only a partial indication of how the new parliament will look. There are still two more rounds of voting in 18 of the country’s 27 provinces over the coming month and runoff elections on Monday and Tuesday to determine almost all of the seats allocated for individuals in the first round. But the grip of the Islamists over the next parliament appears set, particularly considering their popularity in provinces voting in the next rounds.

ElBaradei said he thought the combined strength of the two top-placed Islamist blocs surprised everyone, probably even the winning parties themselves.

“The outcome so far is not the greatest one,” he said, summing up the mood of the country’s educated elite as well as average Egyptians as “angst.”

The new parliament will be tasked, in theory, with selecting a 100-member panel to draft the new constitution. If Islamist parties dominate, more liberal forces worry the constitution will be greatly influenced by the religious perspective.

In a move that angered the Islamist groups, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took control of the country after Mubarak’s fall in February, has suggested that it will choose 80 of those members.

ElBaradei said writing the constitution that respects human rights, dignity and freedom of expression should be based on a consensus among all the players, and not on a parliamentary majority.

“In my view, it is all in the hands of SCAF right now,” he said, hoping the ruling generals will help promote the consensus.

However, ElBaradei was highly critical of the military rulers, saying they have “royally mismanaged” the transition period.

He also raised concerns about statements by some Salafi elements questioning whether women should be banned from driving, as they are in Saudi Arabia, or branding the novels of Egypt’s Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, as “prostitution.”

“I worry of course that some of the extreme stuff coming out from some of the Salafis ... when you hear that literature of somebody like Mahfouz is equal to prostitution, if you hear that we are still debating whether women are going to drive their cars, if we are still discussing whether democracy is against Shariah,” or Islamic law, ElBaradei said.

“These are of course sending shockwaves, statements like that. I think the Brotherhood in particular, and some of the Salafis, should send quickly messages of assurance both inside the country and outside the country to make sure that society continues to be cohesive to make sure that investment will come in.”

He said the statements “will have tremendous economic and political implications.” Moderate Islamists need to “make clear that some of these voices ... are on the extreme fringes and they will not be the mainstream.”

The focus on safeguarding religious principles should be mindful of rampant poverty and illiteracy, not “about what people are going to dress, to drink,” he said.

Salafis are newcomers on Egypt’s political scene. They long shunned the concept of democracy, saying it allows man’s law to override God’s. But they formed parties and entered politics after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February, seeking to enshrine Islamic law in Egypt’s new constitution.

By contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest and best organized political group, was officially banned under Mubarak but established a nationwide network of activists. After Mubarak’s fall, the group’s Freedom and Justice Party campaigned fiercely, their organization and name-recognition giving them a big advantage over newly formed liberal parties.

ElBaradei said the Muslim Brotherhood’s strong showing was not unexpected, given that Egypt is emerging from decades of brutal dictatorship that smothered civil society. He said one in every three Egyptians is illiterate and nearly half subsist in deep poverty.

“It should not be a surprise people are voting with their gut. People lost their sense of identity with the state. They identify with religion,” ElBaradei said.

He said the Brotherhood has been working for many years providing basic needs for health care and other social services the government failed to deliver and they were well known throughout the country.

In contrast, the liberal youth groups behind the uprising failed to form a cohesive, unified front. He said they only formed political parties two months ago.

He predicted the Muslim Brotherhood will prefer to form an alliance with the liberals rather than the Salafis to get a majority in parliament. The liberal Egyptian Bloc — which came in third with 13.4 percent of the votes — could counterbalance hard-line elements.

Nevertheless, ElBaradei agreed the first elections since Mubarak’s fall were free and fair and said the massive turnout of about 60 percent lent it legitimacy.

However, he said it will not produce a parliament that represents Egyptian society. ElBaradei said he expects few women, youths or Coptic Christians, a minority that constitutes about 10 percent of Egypt’s 85 million citizens.

The rise of the Islamists has also caused concern in the U.S. and Israel, which has a long-standing peace treaty with Egypt it fears might be in jeopardy. But ElBaradei said he does not foresee any radical changes in Egypt’s foreign policy because the country still depends heavily on foreign assistance and cannot afford to isolate itself. Egypt is one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid.

He said Egyptians are looking more to Turkey as a model for a moderate Islamist state rather than Saudi Arabia and its strict imposition of Islamic law.

ElBaradei said Egypt has progressed since the revolution but the economy and law and order have deteriorated sharply.

“We are now a freer country,” he said. “People lost their sense of fear. ...We are empowered as a people.”

He said he is advising the liberal youth groups not to give up and to view this as a “long haul” process and to start preparing for the next elections, overcome their ideological differences and work together.

“We’ll have to keep fighting,” he said, adding that “the revolution is still a work in progress.”

He predicted protesters will return to Cairo’s Tahrir Square to keep pressing their demands.

“If you have the second wave of the revolution, it will be an angry one,” he said.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Blaxploitation Style Soviet Funk! (from 1975)

File this one under:
все, что вы знаете, это неправильно, товарищи.

In Soviet Russia, down gets you!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

This is what democracy looks like? Islamists headed for landslide victory in Egypt.

Egypt election results show Islamists are winning
"Leaked results showed that religious parties, including hardliners, have won a clear majority of the parliamentary seats contested. Their success comes at the expense of the liberal activist groups that led the uprising against the former president Hosni Mubarak earlier this year.

"The election commission said on Friday that 62 percent of eligible voters cast ballots for nearly a third of the seats in Egypt's parliament, in the highest turnout in modern history.

"Only a trickle of results had been announced by Friday. Voting in the complex election will not be completed until the end of January.

"But Egypt's Islamists appear increasingly confident that they are coming out on top, with some even outlining plans for a strict brand of religious law which could limit personal freedoms and put the nation on the road to becoming an Islamic state.

"The Muslim Brotherhood, regarded as pragmatists, appeared poised to take the largest share of votes, as much as 45 percent. The surprise winner in the election appeared to be the much more hardline Nour Party. Leaks showed it could win as much as a quarter of the house, putting it in a powerful position to influence the agenda for debate."

Agence France Presse:
Egypt Islamists sweep early election results
"Early results from Egypt's first post-revolution election showed Islamist parties sweeping to victory, including hardline Salafists, with secular parties trounced in many areas.

"Partial figures trickled in for the areas of the country that voted in record numbers on Monday and Tuesday, confirming earlier predictions that Islamist parties would win at least two thirds of the ballots cast.

"In northern Port Said, the moderate Islamist alliance led by the previously banned Muslim Brotherhood triumphed with 32.5 percent of votes for parties, while the hardline Al-Nur party gained 20.7 percent, the Al-Ahram daily said.

"The liberal Wafd party won 14 percent, while another Islamist party, Al-Wassat which advocates a strict interpretation of Islamic law, recorded 12.9 percent, according to the state-run newspaper."


In lead, Egypt Islamists tell rivals to accept vote
"Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood called on its rivals to accept the will of the people on Saturday after a first-round vote set its party on course to take the most seats in the country's first freely elected parliament in six decades.

"The assembly's popular mandate will give it clout to stand up to the generals who have ruled Egypt for nine turbulent months since Hosni Mubarak's removal and who are now scrambling to appoint a new interim government after the last one quit.

"Preliminary results showed the Brotherhood's liberal rivals could be pushed into third place behind ultra-conservative Salafi Islamists, mirroring the trend in other Arab countries where political systems have opened up after popular uprisings."


Egyptian Islamists put sharia law on agenda after election gains
"Egypt's Islamist party plans to push for a stricter religious code after claiming strong gains in the first round of parliamentary elections.

"Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Salafists appear to have taken a majority of seats in the first round of Egypt's first parliamentary vote since the ousting of Mubarak.

"Egypt's election commission announced few results, but said turnout was 62%, the highest in the country's modern history.

"Leaked preliminary counts indicated that the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm took the largest share of votes. Following closely behind was the ultra-conservative Islamist Nour party and a liberal coalition, according to unofficial counts."

Also of possible interest:

Thursday, December 1, 2011

“A Witch In Love” (aka “Yuhee, The Witch”, aka “Witch Amusement”)

The Korean TV romantic dramedy “Witch Amusement” ran for a grand total of 16 episodes from March to May in 2007. The story centered on a young single professional woman in modern day South Korea who was derisively referred to as “manyŏ” (“witch”) behind her back by the people who worked for her.

The name of the “witch” in question is Yoo Hee, and the Korean title of the show was “Manyŏ Yoo Hee“, literally, “Witch Yoo Hee”. In Korean this is a rather clever play on words that can also mean “Witch Amusement” or “Witch In Love”.

The reason for referring to Yoo Hee as a “witch” is that she is seen as unfeminine and “cold”. She does not wear make-up and she always dresses in black clothes, and also wears glasses. She is also portrayed as pathetically unsuccessful in her attempts to have relationships with men.

The character of Yoo Hee (played by Han Ga In) is very similar to the Witch character portrayed by Kim Novack in the 1958 “Bell Book and Candle“, and also to the journalist/activist/feminist character played by Katharine Hepburn in the 1942 “Woman of the Year“. For that matter, all three characters show striking parallels with the real life story of Queen Elizabeth I, but with one major difference, for Elizabeth never married, and reigned as one of the most powerful and successful heads of state the western world had seen since the fall of Rome.

In contrast to the “Virgin Queen”, however, the three fictional characters Yoo Hee, Gil Holroyd (Novack), and Tess Harding (Hepburn), all end up surrendering their “unfeminine” independence to comply with social conventions in exchange for that ultimate goal that is the true heart’s desire of all “real” women: the love of a good man. (Don’t worry, I’m not really giving very much away by telling you this….)

As was the case with both “Woman of the Year”, and “Bell Book and Candle”, the lead character in “Witch Yoo Hee” is portrayed as proudly independent and highly successful. Han Ga In’s character is even a martial arts master who can (and when she feels like it, does) kick any man’s ass.

But despite (or rather, because of) her professional success and all around self-sufficiency, Yoo Hee is miserable and lonely, for, as a woman without a man, she is in an unnatural state. In fact, her greatest shame is that she has never had a second date. She has even programmed a list of “dating tips” into her phone to refer to during her unsuccessful string of blind dates (some of these dates turn out to be guys who lost a bet!):

  • Try to act cute.
  • Have a good appetite.
  • Act interested in the other person.
  • Try to find things in common.

Now, as I said already, just knowing that Yoo Hee will fall in love doesn’t give very much away. It’s pretty obvious where things are headed already by the end of Episode 1, and Episode 2 quickly removes any lingering doubts. Or does it? Let’s just say there is a lot more to the story than what has been (somewhat misleadingly) revealed here.

If you want to know more about “Witch Amusement” just check out the truly amazing website “dramabeans“, where two Korean-American women bloggers (who go by “javabeans” and “girlfirday”, and who may or may not be sisters, and/or criminals-on-the-run-hiding-from-the-law, and/or the same person,) provide detailed (and wonderfully snarktastic) commentaries on “kdramas” and other facets of “K-Pop” culture generally.

The cool thing, imnsho, about reading about “Witch Amusement” at the website “dramabeans” is that you have this hackneyed western cultural meme of the frustrated/liberated woman/witch being played out in a highly industrialized and in its very own and very strange way highly westernized country (and in a culture with its very own and very much alive-and-kicking ancient indigenous tradition of magical practitioners, most of whom are women), and then this all gets translated and reinterpreted for a western, English speaking audience by young Native-born Americans who happen to be young, successful professional Korean women who are obsessive fans of Korean pop culture. It is a cultural and sociological house of mirrors!

Personally I am very curious about this Korean word translated into English as “Witch”. I poked around and found two other occurrences of the word manyŏ:

사자, 마녀, 옷장 이야기 /
Saja, manyŏ, otchang iyagi /
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (by C.S. Lewis)

포르토벨로의마녀 /
Pʻorŭtʻobello ŭi manyŏ /
The witch of Portobello /
A bruxa de Portobello (by Paul Coelho)

[NOTE: Regular readers of this blog might recognize this post from my "wordpress phase" a few months back.]

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Hindu Fundamentalism Does Not Exist

Some things do not exist. For example, there are no active volcanoes in Belgium. Just as there is no ocean front property in Wyoming. Also there is no liquid water on the surface of Pluto. Nor are there any living veterans of the American Revolutionary War.

Question: Does "Hindu Fundamentalism" exist?

The word "fundamentalism" itself comes from debates among Protestant Christians in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In those debates, far from being some kind of slur meant to conjure up visions of proto-fascist preachers whipping their flocks up into a xenophobic frenzy, it was a badge of honor proudly worn by self-defined "fundamentalists".

The idea that fundamentalism is a pathological condition to with all religions are equally prone and of which they are all equally guilty is a very recent development. But does this idea have any basis in reality?

In a very thoughtful article (first published back in June of 2010) over at the Patheos website, David Frawley poses the question: Is There Hindu Fundamentalism?

The short answer to that question, according to Frawley, is: "No." The long answer is: "Unequivocally, no."

Here is an excerpt:
No Hindus -- including so-called Hindu fundamentalists -- insist that there is only one true faith called Hinduism and that all other faiths are false. Hinduism contains too much plurality to allow for that. Its tendency is not to coalesce into a fanatic unit like the fundamentalists of other religions, but to disperse into various diverse sets and fail to arrive at any common action, historically even one of self-defense against foreign invaders.

Fundamentalist groups insist upon belief in the literal truth of one book as the Word of God, on which they base their behavior. Muslim fundamentalists insist that the Koran is the Word of God and that all necessary knowledge is contained in it. Christian fundamentalists say the same thing of the Bible. Again even orthodox or ordinary Muslims and Christians often believe this.

Hindus have many holy books like the Vedas, Agamas, Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, and so on, which contain a great variety of teaching and many different points of view, and no one of these books is required reading for all Hindus. Hindus generally respect the holy books of other religions as well. What single holy book do Hindu fundamentalists hold literally to be the word of God, upon which they base their behavior? Christian and Islamic fundamentalists flaunt their holy book and are ever quoting from it to justify their actions. What Hindu Bible are the Hindu fundamentalists all crying, quoting, and preaching from and finding justification in?

The "Tidal Wave" Of Islamophobia That Wasn't

In 2009, hate crimes against Muslims accounted for 1.6% of all hate crimes: 128 out of 7,789 "offenses" in the FBI hate crime database (link to 2009 stats). According to newly released data this ticked up to 2.4% (168 out of 7,699) in 2010 (link to 2010 stats).

In other words, there was a very small increase (both in absolute numbers and in relation to hate crimes as a whole) in anti-Islamic hate crimes in 2010. Meanwhile, religiously motivated crimes against Muslims in America continued to pale in comparison to attacks against African Americans (34% of all hate crimes), gay people (19%), and Jews (12%).

Flying bravely in the face of reality, Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center claims (link) that these same data actually show that there was "a dramatic spike in anti-Muslim hate violence":
Anti-Muslim hate crimes soared by an astounding 50% last year, skyrocketing over 2009 levels in a year marked by the vicious rhetoric of Islam-bashing politicians and activists, especially over the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" in New York City.
This is like saying that in the runup to the New Hampshire Republican primary Michelle ("Cazy Eyes") Bachmann (at 2.3% in the polls) is doing "dramatically" better than Rick ("the frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex") Santorum, who languishes at a mere 1.8% (stats from RealClearPolitics here). But most people readily understand that what these numbers really mean is that both Santorum and Bachmann are completely irrelevant and safely ignored.

I don't think religiously motivated crimes should ever be ignored, no matter how few in number they (thankfully!) are. All hate crimes should be condemned, and those who commit them should be treated as the worst kind of criminals. But the simple fact is that the 2010 Ground Zero Mosque brouhaha did not "unleash a tidal wave of Islamophobia", and those who hoped that this would be the case are now exposed as either cravenly cynical propagandists or delusional blowhards.

Related posts from this blog:

[Pie charts were made using the ahndy tool found here: http://nlvm.usu.edu/en/nav/frames_asid_183_g_1_t_1.html (The National Library of Virtual Manipulatives).]

Monday, November 28, 2011

Confessions of a Christian Missionary: "The old religion used to hold their life together. Now there is a void."

"What kind of a Christianity emerges
after this kind of a religious change?"

The following long excerpt from a book by an experienced Christian missionary who is also a respected scholar of "missiology", strikes me as essential reading for anyone who wishes to have any hope of understanding the current state of affairs vis-a-vis African Traditional Religion and Christianity in Africa today. It is from Alan Tippett's Introduction to Missiology, pp. 168-174.

I hope that in the not too distant future I will be able to write a more detailed analysis of this remarkable passage from Tippett. In the meantime I offer this very bare bones list to draw the reader's attention to some of the highlights:
  • 1. Tippett's repeated admissions concerning the role of coercion in suppressing non-Christian religions.
  • 2. Tippett's elaborations on the varieties of "oppressive procedure[s] for procuring conversion", including "military action", the taking of hostages, "social pressures", "economic sanctions", "legislation", and so forth.
  • 3. Tippett's admission that such coercive means do not result in genuine conversion of the heart, and the concomitant admission that in such cases "the old religion" remains not only as a "submerged" or "latent" religion, but that "It will be this latent religion that speaks to their deepest feelings."
  • 4. Tippett readily admits that there is a direct parallel between the coercive means employed in the Christianization that took place in the Americas, Asia, and Africa during the 16th-20th centuries and the means employed during the Christianization of Europe.
  • 5. Tippett cannot resist repeating the stereotypical, and thoroughly racist, trope that the ancient religious traditions of non-Europeans are distinguished from Christianity by a prevalence of "[s]uch things as cannibalism, widow strangling, infanticide, patricide, feuding, raiding and sorcery (to name only a few of the customs in mind) ..."
  • 6. Tippett admits that all religions are not equally guilty of the use of coercion to gain converts. He does this in a roundabout way with his assertion that Islam has "possibly the worst record of this kind."
  • 7. Tippett's discussion of "witchcraft" is especially worth careful consideration. In particular, he states, accurately, that the treatment all forms of indigenous (non-Christian) magical practices, including especially healing and other beneficial practices, as intrinsically evil is an "imposition" utterly "foreign" to indigenous African views of magic. His presentation is deeply marred, however, by his own ignorance of the fact that the English word "Witch" is itself quite flexible in its range of meanings and has not, as Tippett implicitly assumes, historically been reserved only for harmful magic.
  • 8. Finally, there is Tippett's admission that he intends what he is saying here as a justification for the sending forth of Protestant missions aimed at Catholic populations, because "any evangelical mission to these persons was without a doubt a mission to animists."
And now without further ado, here is Alan Tippett in his own words, submitted for your approval (the interested reader is also strongly encouraged to study Tippett's 1975 paper on "Christopaganism or Indigenous Christianity"):
[p. 168] We like to think that when people change from animism to Christianity it has been a voluntary and an acceptable decision, but we know that it has not always been so. My history book tells me that Olaf Tryggveson and his fleet put in at the island of Rolandsa and found that the pagan earl had only one fighting ship. Olaf told him of the benefits of becoming Christian. Before the might of the visitor's fleet and the option of baptism [p. 169] or execution, the pagan earl could hardly be called a voluntary convert, especially as the earl's son was taken away as a hostage against the stability of the baptism of the island of Rolandsa. The question of immediate concern to us here is: what kind of Christianity emerges after this kind of religious change?

The religion with possibly the worst record of this kind is Islam, which overran northern Africa na wiped out what remained of early Christianity there. The symbol of the sword was written into their war cry. Many of their methods were most infuriating to the Christians, especially when they kidnapped Christian children and raised them as fanatical Moslem warriors to be turned against their own Christian flesh and blood.

But military action is not the only form of pressure that has been applied for the purposes of securing religious change. Social pressures inside the country and economic sanctions have been used both to prevent secession from the one religion to another and to achieve conversion. This has been so within Christianity in the history of the sects. The geographer, P.W. English, has written a fine volume, which would qualify as history or anthropology as well as geography, City and Village in Iran (1966). In one place he demonstrates how social pressures and economic sanctions were deliberately used by the Moslems to achieve the conversion of the seventh century Zoroastrians (1966:23-24).

Another oppressive procedure for securing conversion is legislation. There was a period of English history, for example, when the fortunes of the country were fluctuating between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, when the changing monarchs and their administrations had a strong disposition to one or the other form of Christianity; when the general public was virtually pushed one way or the other by the legislation. The result was there never was a period of English history more riddled with intrigue. Always the submerged religion refused to die and plotted against the ruling faith. The internal and international politics of the country were mere reflections of the religious forces at work, one trying to rule by legislation and the other trying to resist the legislation by intrigue. For English in the period of the Tudors, the Commonwealth and Stuarts we see the central place of religion in the society; but as there were two religions, one in control and the other submerged, there was no peace.

Now what, we may ask, has this to do with the conversion from animism to Christianity, which is really the subject of this chapter? The story of Christian mission over the last century and this, whether we like it or not, has gone "hand in glove" with the march of colonialism, both the imperial and commercial forms. Frequently we must admit it was deliberately planned this way, the representatives of Government, Commerce and Church, operating together; for example, the Niger Experiment (Walker 1930 [The Romance of the Black River: The Story of the C.M.S. Nigeria Mission]:18). Once a colony was established, the impact of each of those forces was increased many fold. Each of them in its own way bore down on the animistic faith of the inhabitants. The actual acceptance of [ p. 170] the new faith--Christianity--was a voluntary matter, and economic pressures were little used in recent times to effect conversions. But a change from animism is a negative as well as a positive thing, an act of rejection or deprivation as well as the acceptance of a new way, and these do not necessarily have to take place at the same point of time, as we have seen in the case of the demoralization of Hawaii. Such things as cannibalism, widow strangling, infanticide, patricide, feuding, raiding and sorcery (to name only a few of the customs in mind) have all religious significance. To administrator, trader and missionary alike, these were undesirable and disruptive to his program. Each of these foreigners depended on the maintainence of what he called "law and order." What he meant was a kind of law and order which he called civilized. Acutally all these customs operated under law and order, but few of the foreigners saw this. A state of law and ordered was achieved by legislation, and legislation was more concrete, it was written down, and we can now look back at it and study it historically.

Even in the most enlightened colonial administrations, where the claim of freedom of religion has been made, legislation has been disruptive to the aboriginal animism. Thus when cannibalism had to go, the acquisitions of religion's power for facing danger, producing fertility and curing sickness were seriously interfered with; when the widow strangling had to go, the beliefs and provisions for life beyond the grave were all disturbed; when patricide had to go, the continued physical presence of the senile elder interfered with the social rights and controls of the active elder in public life; when feuding had to go, a mechanism of leadership selection was lost to the tribe; and when headhunting had to go, much of the philosophy of mana had to go with it; and when sorcery had to go, society was left with scores of moral and religious problems for which the people had no means of solving. When the system of taboo was legislated against, hygeign declined and body waste was left lying about in the villages. All these religious disturbances have been documented without going outside Melanesia.

I know nothing so disruptive to animist religion and the social life, of which it is the integrator, equal to colonial legislation. The missionaries at least put something in the place of the religion they took away, even if it was so often, alas, a foreign substitute. But legislation was an end in itself. It was a negative approach to life. It needed a gospel to give a positive dimension.

Quite apart from the negative aspect of colonial legislation against animist institutions, it is appalling for the abysmal ignorance it displays of what it legislates against. Nothing shows this up better than the laws of the African colonies against witchcraft. One would surely assume that such a legislator would at least need to know the difference between a witch, a witch doctor, and a witch finder, seeing the legislation will need to deal with them all; and their measure of social guilt or misfortune is certainly [p. 171] not equal. These countries have now their independence and I do not know whether the national legislators have modified these laws or not, but writing in 1958, Parrinder in his book on Witchcraft [full title: Witchcraft: European and African] discussed the Laws and Ordinances of Nigeria, Tanganyika, Uganda and Kenya in an illuminating passage (1958: 126-127). A law stating that "any person who represents himself to be a witch ...." is a foreign and not an African notion. Normally the witch does not profess to be such except under accusation and pressure from the witch finders. No one is a witch by choice. The social penalties are too great. A law which punishes the individual who seeks to preserve society from witchcraft, mistaking him for a sorcerer, is surely to punish the innocent with the guilty. A law covering everything by means of a blanket phrase "occult power and knowledge" is inadequate for definition and dangerous in its scope, open for abuse. The same may be said of a Kenya Ordinance (1928) which covered any person claiming "to exercise supernatural power." A pentecostal type of priest or prophet in any harmless movement or a Christian church could be charged under such a law.

Witchcraft is only one of the many religious problems which have been brought under colonial legislation without a clear understanding of their nature and function; but it is a good example of foreign imposition. It also shows how legislation against witchcraft, without any clear understanding of what the institution is and how it operates, can undermine the religious configuration which is the integrator of the society, in spite of the Colony's boast of freedom of religion.

If the place became a Colony by military conquest, and this was followed immediately by foreign land settlement, the establishment of schools and medical services, the establishment of plantations and the codification of laws (quite apart from the presence or otherwise of a Christian mission), the chances of the survival of the original animism would be remote. Several things could happen. There might be a general demoralization and the people might even die out altogether. The people might modify their animism and settle down to an unhealthy coexistence with the foreigners. Or the people might elect to accept Christianity in a nominal fashion and try to fall into step with the foreigners--and this might be for any of a number of motives. They might consider it politic or prestigious to accept the religion of the foreigner because he is the conqueror, or because he is wealthy or because he has so many amazing things. These are nominal Christians at best. I am not speaking here of genuine conversion movements, with which I will deal under then next heading, and which are classed by themselves because they have an inner dynamic, a self-image and a healthy creativity in spite of the colonial situation.

The nominal Christians and also the modified animist coexisters whose religious change is due in some way to imposed foreign controls, commerce, instructions and legislation, because their manifest religion is [p. 172] formal and "a thing of convenience," will frequently have also a latent religion. It will be this latent religion that speaks to their deepest feelings. In this, one will discover significant elements of the old animism, or at least what the believer things his or her old animism was (because this can recur in a later generation which is not clear about the old religious beliefs and rites). It may be an individual retires surreptitiously to the forest and explores the past. It may be a whole village breaks away openly under some native prophet wh oclaims to have a revelation from the past and to have recovered what the people have lost by accepting the foreign religion.

The old religion used to hold their life together. Now there is a void and the foriegner rules the land. If the current religion is nominal, formal, not dynamic, you can be quite sure that some animism is latent. The term I use is for this is submersion. It does not require much to fan this coal into fire. Normally submerged animism is not organized. It is scattered about in hidden places; but if there are enough of these coals smoldering away, it only takes a single prophet to arise and the organization can emerge with startling rapidity. This kind of outburst has been a feature of the post-war situation in many parts of the world. It would be appropriate at this point, if I had the space, to discuss a nativistic movment out of a second or third generation Christian community, but I refer the reader to Solomon Islands Christianity [a book-length study of published in 1967 by Alan Tippett], where this is dealt with at length. It must suffice here to modify my model to illustrate submersoin, as seen in Figure 14.

[p. 173] There are degrees of submersion of animism in nominal Christianity. It may be very deep, or it may be very shallow--just beneath the Christian veneer. Evangelicals are disposed to speak of this as syncretism or as Christopaganism. Syncretism may be quite manifest, of course, but on investigation one is shocked by the amount of submerged animism which is found.

It is submerged because it is driven underground by military conquest, land alienation, economic pressures and legislation; all of which frequently suggest to the indigene that the foreigners lack sympathy. It is possible for years to become centuries, and for that submerged animism to go on building itself stronger and stronger into the subculture of the nominal Christianity.

For years I used to wonder if an evangelical mission could be regarded as justifiable in a community where the people were already Christian--as in a Spanish colonial location which was strongly Catholic. It was not until I eventually did some research in Mexico and found so much manifest animism that I could hardly recognize the Church as Christian at all. I saw devotees (whose devotion I do not doubt) crossing a cement plaza on their knees to a shrine more Aztec than Christian, while others put paper or cloth under their bloodstained knees to get it charged with power for magical healing purposes; vendors selling magical herbs whose efficacy came from the blessings of the saints rather than any medical property, and this on the steps of the church; worshippers carrying shrines of straw and corn in some way after the manner of an old fertility cult; and a stream of persons one by one kissing away the toe of a stone statue to obtain thereby blessing on their lives and household; and all this done in the name of Christianity.

This I saw in Mexico, and I knew that any evangelical mission to these persons was without a doubt a mission to animists. I saw much the same thing in a rural city in Guatemala. I was speaking about these things to a gathering of Mayan pastors in Guatemala and described a Mexican situation without naming the place. My Mayan friends said they recognized the place from my description, but I had never been the place they thought it was, so I am led to think it is typical.

Such is the nominality of the Christianity that has come in the train of the Spanish military conquest: a Christianity which merely drove the animism underground. I saw a group of Mayan converts in a Guatemalan village. They registered their public confessions by surrendering their wooden crosses to the evangelist. In conversation afterwards I discovered that they were Mayan, not Christian crosses. From the way they viewed and used those symbols I knew they were fetishes--nothing else, however much they appeared to be Catholic and Christian. Other fetishes included a root which seemed to have a face and an ancient pre-Catholic Mayan figurine. Supposedly this was a Catholic Christian; it reality it was submerged animism.

[p. 174] Take, for example, that amazing autobiographical story of Juan the Chamula (1962) which the translator anthropologist, himself a Mexican, insists is the story of a typical person. Here then is a typical Mexican Indian Catholic, emotional and crude in many ways, yet deeply religious, always attending to his "Christian" duties. I read through this book and marked the religious features. The veneer of Christianity of the Catholic type featured the Virgin and the continual patronage of the saints, the use of the symbol of the cross (as much Mayan as Christian), adoration of and making vows at the cross, and the trinitarian formula. These are the features of Catholicism open for animisation. In reality the saints are Mayan deities with Christian names. Many features are quite syncretistic--the ritual and beliefs of the Cult of Saint John, the role of the Savior, the festival performances and processions, a large corpus of mythology, ideas about disease and healing--and although the Christian strands of thought can be detected here and there, they are dominantly animistic. On the other hand, many features of the religious life of this man are completely animist: the attitude to the spirits of the dead, the worship of the sun, the communion with the ancestors, the burial ritual and its religious presuppositions, the association of spirit animals with the sickness and health of human beings, the magic of curing the spillling of libations of liquor, the function of charms, sacred objects and taboos and the means of diagnosis or divination.
A man is sick because his spirit animal in the forest is sick. A curer is brought, and candles, resin, liquor, a rooster and flowers for the curing rite. The curer pours an oblation on the ground and drinks the rest of the liquor. The flowers are put on the altar. After the oblation the curer prays to the Christian God and the Son, the Earth and the Heaven, offers the gifts brought by the sick man, with incense, and prays to the spirit of the Moon and Earth Mother, and while praying wrings the neck of the rooster. At the moment of this sacrifice the sick man suddenly feels free (cf. 88-91).
The old animism has gone, along with its organized priesthood and its pre-Christian structure. Once the Spanish swept over the land it could never be the same again. The Spanish brought their Christian organization with them and the people nominally accepted the new religion. But at heart they were still animist, and, inasmuch as I have myself observed and read, they still are: a case of submersion.

Related posts from this blog: