Forum Posts

Charles
Feb 18, 2022
In Star Trek
I find myself really liking the episodes that touch on Ferengi religion. This particular episode happens to expose us to anxieties related to Ferengi eschatology. The bit about Celestial Auctioneers presiding over the bidding for new lives was particularly interesting to me. Who knew Ferengi believed in reincarnation? It called immediately to my mind the choice of lives at the end of Plato's Republic. "Hear the words of Lady Lachesis, daughter of Necessity. You souls condemned to impermanence, the cycle of birth followed by death is beginning again for you. No deity will be assigned to you: you will pick your own deities. The order of gaining tokens decides the order of choosing lives, which will be irrevocably yours. Goodness makes its own rules: each of you will be good to the extent that you value it. Responsibility lies with the chooser, not with God." [...] Next, the intermediary placed on the ground in front of them the sample lives, of which there were far more than there were souls in the crowd; every single kind of human and animal life was included among the samples. The difference, of course, is that Ferengi are expected to bid on their choice of life. One wonders what they are bidding with. Plenty of religions allow for the bringing of material goods into the afterlife, but it usually involves interring the dead with those goods, which doesn't sounds very Ferengi. Maybe capital accrued in life is converted into a spiritual equivalent upon death? This mixing of business and religion seems odd, maybe even scandalous, to our modern sensibilities, but there are plenty of suggestive historical examples in our planet's own history. Take the monks of Mount Athos, who turned their monasteries into corporations: During the 14th and 15th centuries, Athos began a partial transition from communism to capitalism. In nine monasteries, including all the most powerful, Docheiariou, Iviron, Hilandar, Lavra, Pantocrator, Philotheou, Stavronikita, Vatopedi, and Xeropotamou, the former coenobitic system of communal property gave way to the idiorrhythmic system of individual property rights, which ended any pretence of equality. In coenobitic monasteries, revenues from the monastic estates went into the common purse, but idiorrhythmic monasteries were financed as Joint Stock Companies, and revenues were distributed in proportion to the number of "Monk's shares" an individual held. Assets were auctioned annually among the elite capital-investing monks, who could bid for management of the metochias, and make a return on their invested capital. These monks also owned property in their own right (though they were supposed to leave it to the monastery on decease). Moreover, Athos was, and still is, a "no women allowed" zone, further solidifying the comparison to the Ferengi: A special condition of the Athos regime is a ban on the admission of women (the principle of avaton), which is extended even to animals. Basically, this prohibition is connected with the covenant of the Virgin and the maintenance of the exclusively monastic way of life of the peninsula, where all the monasteries are for men: “According to the covenant of the Mother of God, no woman other than Her can set foot on the land of Athos”. Officially, the tradition to prevent women from entering the territory of Mount Athos was established in 1045 by the decree of the Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomakh. The ban on women’s presence on Mount Athos has existed even after the fall of Constantinople. Turkish sultans affirmed the right of the Athonites to live in accordance with their ancient principles. In the modern era, the special status of Athos was secured by a decree of the Greek President of 1953. Thereunder, a woman who deliberately violated the ancient tradition and got into Athos can be imprisoned for a term of two to twelve months. I love the history of religion.
0
0
17
Charles
Jan 20, 2022
In Star Trek
I just listened to the Lower Decks episode on The Omega Glory. The discussion was stimulating, as always. What I find most fascinating is the strange conflation of racial categories and systems of political organization. Were I to trace the history of this style of racism, I'd be tempted to go straight to Tacitus. In using an alien group to critique his contemporaries (a very Trekian move), Tacitus gave birth to a very influential paradigm. Here's how Barzun puts it, in his book about race: Tacitus wrote as traveler, historian, and moralist, but especially as an embittered foe of the Imperial tyranny. Hence his eulogy of the Germanic race is systematic and politically pointed. According to him, the Germans are an indigenous race; they are virtuous, individualistic, freedom-loving, and jealous of their racial purity; physically they are tall and blond, brave and tough, they live frugally, and are adventurous rather than toilsom. "What is very remarkable in such prodigious numbers, a family likeness obtains throughout the nation." Some later Europeans drew on Tacitus when critiquing their own political institutions by locating contrary political inclinations in an outside group--the Germanic race: Tacitus and his tract had already been used in France to meet a similar situation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Leaning on the Germania for a description of the special gifts and institutions of the Frankish or Germanic race, the Count Henri de Boulainvilliers (1658-1722) evolved the still lively notion that all political freedom comes from the Germanic strain. Hence, he argued, Louis XIV's absolute monarchy, based on the Roman idea of the imperium, was a government fit only for slaves. Boulainvilliers wanted the nobles of his day to revolt against slavish institutions and restore the aristocratic freedom of the German forest. These images depict the Germans as proud upholders of freedom, but that wasn't the only way they were cast. At the onset of WWI, the Germans were routinely called Huns by their rivals, and their military triumphs likened to those of a Mongolian horde rolling across Europe. There's an historical irony here given the origin of the Hun moniker in a speech given by Kaiser Wilhelm where he bids his soldiers to be like ferocious Huns in guarding Europe and Russia from the "inroads of the Great Yellow Race". Fast forward a few years, and both Germans and Russians become purveyors of Eastern tyranny in Yellow Peril tinged propaganda. As an aside: There's a long history of linking Eastern peoples to imperialism from Herodotus onwards, but it need not be a racial thing. For example, Jiang Shigong, drawing on Montesquieu, affirms a connection between China and Empire, through material factors like geography. Montesquieu was [however] a social theorist, and thus ultimately had to respect social reality. He noted that the great empires of the East were connected with an expansive geography. Because of this, he especially emphasized the inherent connection between geography, nature, and politics. In this sense, the basis for the legitimacy of empires/autocracies was rooted in geography.
0
0
15
Charles
Jan 09, 2022
In Atoz
I just finished listening to the 'Foundation: Season One' Atoz episode. The brief remarks, towards the end of the episode, about the role of microfilm in the original novels, and their absence from the television series, made me recall the troubled history of the format. In a funny sort of way, some of the themes of Foundation are at work in the story of microfilm. Can the future be predicted? Must the old be destroyed for the new to take hold? Here are a few excerpts from a recent review of a book on the subject: After 20 years, the book remains universally known, sometimes admired but often despised, among librarians. The reason for their belligerence is that Baker publicly revealed a decades-long policy of destruction of primary materials from the 19th and 20th centuries, based on a pseudoscientific notion that books on wood-pulp paper are quickly turning to dust, coupled with a misguided futuristic desire to do away with outdated paper-based media. As a consequence, perfectly well preserved books with centuries of life still ahead of them were hastily replaced with an inferior medium which has, at the moment that I am writing this review, already mostly gone the way of the dodo. [...] The microfilm departments in libraries were named “Preservation Departments,” in the vein of “Ministry of Peace” and “Ministry of Love.” Of course, the public was mostly unaware that the primary task of a Preservation Department is to cut up books and trash them afterwards. Inside the library, there often arose tensions between the people working in conservation departments, whose job was to carefully restore old books, and those in “preservation” departments, whose job was to destroy them. Baker speaks with an employee in a book conservation department, who recalls that the microfilmers were often referred to unflatteringly as “thugs” – in return, the book restorers got themselves the nickname “pansies.” A certain disdain for books, as physical objects, made all this possible: He does, however, manage to find a quote by Patricia Battin, which could serve as the epitome of the High Modernist mindset in American libraries: “the value, in intellectual terms, of the proximity of the book to the user has never been satisfactorily established.” Questions we didn't even know we wanted answers to are now a lot more difficult to answers, if answerable at all. In the 1850s, the US imported rags for paper production from Egypt on several occasions, and several journalists at the time reported that the deliveries had consisted of mummy wrappings. At least one newspaper, the Syracuse Daily Standard, proclaimed to its readers that it was being printed on mummy paper. This could in principle be verified by molecular analysis, but unfortunately almost all the libraries which had carried print runs of the Daily Standard had thrown them away. It’s possible that this helped us avoid the mummies’ curse, though in my opinion, getting recycled a second time made them even angrier. Maybe having lost so much historical material was part of the curse.
1
1
18
Charles
Nov 28, 2021
In Elder Sign
I just finished listening to the discussion episode for 'The Repairer of Reputations'. (I'm a little late to the party). I loved the story, and loved your discussion of it. As you both point out, one of the most striking elements of the story is the 'Lethal Chamber'. I think the image might even be a sort of metonymy, providing an image of the whole in miniature. On its surface, the structure is beautiful, if austere. ("In the centre of the garden stood a small, white building, severely classical in architecture, and surrounded by thickets of flowers. Six Ionic columns supported the roof, and the single door was of bronze.") What it contains is altogether darker. Moreover, an entire city block was destroyed to make room for the structure--its undesired ethnic inhabitants expelled. ("The block which had formerly consisted of a lot of shabby old buildings, used as cafés and restaurants for foreigners, had been acquired by the Government in the winter of 1898. The French and Italian cafés and restaurants were torn down"). That the area is now enclosed by an iron railing is also pregnant with meaning. Compare this to the world depicted in the opening lines of the story--a world of beautiful streets and beautiful buildings where bigotry and intolerance were "laid in their graves". A beautiful vision at first glance, but one that clearly hints at manifold horrors.
1
2
34
Charles
Feb 20, 2020
In Gene Wolfe
I thought fans of Wolfe might appreciate this. These passages are taken from 'Appendix II - λυκάβαντος: when the wolf comes?' in Elisabeth Irwin's 'Solon and Early Greek Poetry: The Politics of Exhortation'. At Odyssey 14.158–64 and 19.303–7, the disguised Odysseus swears oaths, amounting to prophecy, to Eumaeus and to Penelope, respectively, that Odysseus’ return is imminent. [...] These passages are famous for the controversy surrounding the meaning of the critical phrase τοῦδ' αὐτοῦ λυκάβαντος: λυκάβας is a term otherwise unattested in Homer and one that does not resurface until some few centuries later, glossed by the less enigmatic term, 'year'. [...] None of the arguments proposed for the ‘true’ etymology are fully convincing: the origins of λυκάβας are alternatively proposed as pre-Greek—quite possibly related to the prehellenic name of the Attic mountain λυκαβηττός—or even Semitic. The first half of the word has been alternatively derived from 'light' or 'wolf', and the second from βαίνω ('to walk') so rendering the phrase 'when the wolf walks' or 'when the light goes'. [...] Here one might return to the phrase itself, and not its disputed etymology, but its possible folk etymologies. For the scholiasts the association of the word with year came from a connection with the wolf, λύκος, which they justified by the supposed amazing cooperative power of wolves who, each grasping in their jaws the tail of the wolf in front, were said to form a chain to cross rivers, a sequence that is said to evoke the motion of time as sequential units (ὥσπερ καἰ ἐπὶ τοῦ χρόνου, 'as also in the case of time'). The explanation is fanciful, but at least points to a tradition of associating the word more distinctly with 'wolf' rather than 'light'.
1
1
48
Charles
Feb 15, 2020
In Elder Sign
Allow me to briefly indulge my strong affection for Neoplatonism since the subject came up in the story and in the discussion. It should be noted that, until very recently, Neoplatonism was viewed with great suspicion, if it was viewed at all. There was something dangerous about it. In 1908, Cornford concluded his book 'From Religion to Philosophy' with a warning that Aristotle's contemplative life was one step removed from “the mystical trance" of Neoplatonic “ecstasy” in which “Thought denies itself; and Philosophy, sinking to the close of her splendid curving flight, folds her wings and drops into the darkness whence she arose—the gloomy Erebus of theurgy and magic.” This characterization was well within the mainstream of the period. For at least two centuries, there was great hostility towards perceived eclecticism and syncretism. The Platonists of Late Antiquity were thought to have fallen away from the purity of Plato. Neoplatonism integrated disparate strands of Hellenistic philosophy. It drew on alien texts like the Chaldean Oracles. Its adherents came to embrace theurgy, whereby ritual actions were undertaken to enter into divine activity--this was maligned as vulgar magic. That many of the later Platonists had Eastern backgrounds didn't help. After the closing of the Platonic Academy in Athens in 529, we are told the following philosophers were forced to leave the city: Damascius the Syrian, Simplicius the Cilician, Eulamius the Phrygian, Priscianus the Lydian, Hermias and Diogenes from Phoenicia, and Isidore of Ghaza. Here we might look at E. R. Dodds who really kicked off the reappraisal of Neoplatonism with his article The Parmenides of Plato and the Origin of the Neoplatonic 'One' in 1928. There wasn't much of a reaction at first, but by the 50's other scholars had taken note. By the late 60's, Neoplatonism had almost become a respectable area of study. I mention Dodds here for another reason too. He was very interested in the supernatural and the occult. His article 'Supernormal Phenomena in Classical Antiquity' is full of choice tidbits of some relevance like this passage on communication with the dead: The possibility of communication with the dead was seldom denied save by Epicureans and sceptics, but the prevalent pattern of belief did not encourage it. On the orthodox pagan view only the unquiet dead-those who had died untimely or by violence, or had failed of due burial-were earthbound and available. And since these were thought to be angry and dangerous spirits, their company was not as a rule desired; those who sought it were suspect of exploiting it for the unholy purpose of magical aggression. Or this footnote about ghosts: The tradition that earthbound spirits haunt their place of death or of burial is as old as Plato (Phaedo 81 c-d) and doubtless far older. It persisted throughout Antiquity and survived the advent of Christianity (cf., e.g., Origen, c. Cels. 7.5; Lactantius, div. inst. 2.2.6). The prototypical tale is that told by the younger Pliny (Epist. 7.27.4 ff.) of a haunted house at Athens and reproduced by Lucian (Philopseudes 3of.) with a different location and a few additional horrors. For other haunted houses see Plutarch apud schol. Eur. Alc. I I28 (the Brazen House at Sparta); Plutarch, Cimon I (house at Chaeronea, said still to produce 'alarming sights and sounds' in Plutarch's day); and Suetonius, Caligula 59.
4
5
85
Charles
More actions