Tag Archives: Rome

“Between Dr. Watson and Lawrence of Arabia” by Umberto Eco

While they sit quietly in their apartment, Holmes suddenly says, “You are right, Watson, it does seem a very preposterous way of settling a dispute.”

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 203)

The quote is from another brilliant essay written by Umberto Eco and included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. Eco is citing Sherlock Holmes, who deduced that Watson was thinking about how war is a foolish way to deal with a problem. And I agree.

Eco goes on to explain that the biggest problem with the way most countries wage war is that they rely on brute force, as opposed to studying and learning the culture of the opposing country and then addressing the conflict on a socio-anthropological level.

And don’t tell me that when a country is at war, there’s no time to listen to social anthropologists. Rome clashed with the Germanic tribes, but she needed Tacitus to help her understand them. When it comes to clashes between cultures, the conflict can be tackled not only by manufacturing cannons but also by financing scientific research, and this is something that the country that managed to get its hands on the best brains in physics—while Hitler was trying to send them to concentration camps—ought to know perfectly well.

(ibid: p. 206)

But there’s the rub. Too many Americans have a distrust of the intelligentsia, calling them “elitists” with venomous disdain.

The war in Iraq seems to be a conflict begun without consulting the universities, due to the American right’s ancestral mistrust of “eggheads” or, as Spiro Agnew called them, “effete snobs.”

(ibid: p. 208)

It’s been more than 15 years since Eco wrote this, and it feels like the issue that he described has only become more stark. I can only hope that these are the last death throes of a dying paradigm that is about to shift. It’s high time we began valuing intelligence instead of blindly worshipping might and power.

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“Chronicles of the Late Empire” by Umberto Eco

This short essay is included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. It’s an amazing book, and I have been slowly working my way through it, reading the occasional essay between my other literary indulgences.

In this piece, Eco looks at how Silvio Berlusconi, the former Prime Minister of Italy (who Eco jokingly calls the Great Communicator), created his own media scandal around his wife’s affair with another man. Essentially, Berlusconi disregarded the boundary that separates one’s personal life from the affairs of state, something that was en vogue in ancient Rome at the height of Roman decadence. He contrasts this to how Bill Clinton sought to keep his personal affairs separate from his affairs of state.

But the issue is of historiographic importance. Usually, politicians do their best to keep their domestic problems separate from matters of state. Clinton got caught with his underpants in his hands, but he glossed over the matter and even got his wife to rally around and say on television that it was an insignificant affair. Mussolini was what he was, but he worked out his problems with his wife within the four walls of his home, he didn’t discuss them before the crowds in Piazza Venezia. When he sent off a whole lot of men to die in Russia, it was in pursuit of his own dreams of glory, not to please his mistress Clara Petacci.

Where in history do we find such a fusion of political power and personal affairs? In the Roman Empire, where the emperor was the absolute master of the state. No longer controlled by the senate, he needed only the support of his praetorians, and so he could kick his mother, make his horse a senator, and force all those courtiers who didn’t appreciate his poetry to slit their wrists…

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 196 – 7)

We are still living in a time when we assume that a leader’s personal life should be made public to validate whether that person is moral enough to serve the state. While I agree that crimes should not be ignored because a person is in a position of political power, that person’s spiritual beliefs, family life, sexuality, and so forth, should be their own business and not part of the media spectacle that we call politics these days.

Eco’s wit and brilliance is unique. While I’m sad that he is no longer with us, I’m glad he left such a volume of work for us to think over.

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“Julius Caesar” by William Shakespeare: The Meaning of the Will

As I finished reading this text, I could not help but wonder why it was titled The Tragedy of Julius Caesar and not The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus, since Caesar plays only a minor role in the play compared to Brutus, and Brutus is actually the tragic character. He participates in the killing of Caesar for noble and idealistic reasons, not out of self-motivation. He sincerely believes he is doing what is best for Rome and its citizens, by deposing one who he deems a tyrant. This ultimately leads to his downfall and death. But even in the end, he is praised and honored as a hero.

This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

(Act V: scene v)

OK, having shared my opinion regarding the title of this play, I want to focus on a specific passage that stood out for me while reading the play this time. It is somewhat long, but I included it here so you can see what I am talking about.

In the following excerpt, I noticed that the word “will” is repeated an unusually large number of times.

ANTONY
. . .
But here’s a parchment with the seal of Caesar;
I found it in his closet, ’tis his will:
Let but the commons hear this testament–
Which, pardon me, I do not mean to read–
And they would go and kiss dead Caesar’s wounds
And dip their napkins in his sacred blood,
Yea, beg a hair of him for memory,
    And, dying, mention it within their wills,
    Bequeathing it as a rich legacy
    Unto their issue.

Fourth Citizen
    We’ll hear the will: read it, Mark Antony.

All
    The will, the will! we will hear Caesar’s will.

ANTONY
    Have patience, gentle friends, I must not read it;
    It is not meet you know how Caesar loved you.
    You are not wood, you are not stones, but men;
    And, being men, bearing the will of Caesar,
    It will inflame you, it will make you mad:
    ‘Tis good you know not that you are his heirs;
    For, if you should, O, what would come of it!

Fourth Citizen
    Read the will; we’ll hear it, Antony;
    You shall read us the will, Caesar’s will.

ANTONY
    Will you be patient? will you stay awhile?
    I have o’ershot myself to tell you of it:
    I fear I wrong the honourable men
    Whose daggers have stabb’d Caesar; I do fear it.

Fourth Citizen
    They were traitors: honourable men!

All
    The will! the testament!

Second Citizen
    They were villains, murderers: the will! read the will.

ANTONY
    You will compel me, then, to read the will?
    Then make a ring about the corpse of Caesar,
    And let me show you him that made the will.
    Shall I descend? and will you give me leave?

(Act III: scene ii)

Shakespeare was a good enough wordsmith that he would not have overused a word unless he was trying to convey something. Obviously, he was emphasizing the importance of Caesar’s last will and testament, in which he bequeaths money to the citizens of Rome. But I feel there is more.

The importance of the will was one of the basic tenets in classical Stoicism, which was the dominant philosophy in Roman culture. A firm will was required to ensure that individuals did not succumb to emotions and lived a proper life, using logic and reason as the guiding principles in an individual’s actions.

The Stoics taught that emotions resulted in errors of judgment which were destructive, due to the active relationship between cosmic determinism and human freedom, and the belief that it is virtuous to maintain a will (called prohairesis) that is in accord with nature. Because of this, the Stoics presented their philosophy as a religion (lex divina), and they thought that the best indication of an individual’s philosophy was not what a person said but how a person behaved.

(Source: Wikipedia)

So the question one should consider is whether Shakespeare agreed with the Stoics, or felt that emotion was at least as important, if not more so. Certainly Brutus, who embodies Stoicism in this play, makes poor choices and ultimately pays the price in the end for being ruled solely by his will. But the mob that responds through pure emotion is also not presented in a favorable light. They passionately cry for Caesar’s will, for me a symbol that they are seeking a will (willpower) which they themselves are lacking. Ultimately, I think Shakespeare was promoting an idea of balance, that a fully realized human needs a balance of emotion and logic, that one without the other results in an imbalance that leads to poor decisions.

Finally, I see a third layer of meaning concerning the will in this section. I think Shakespeare was adding a little comedic self-promotion. His first name is William, and of course, Will is short for William. I can only imagine that he must have gotten a kick out of hearing his name being chanted: “Read the will; we’ll hear it, Antony; / You shall read us the will.” In other words, “Read us the words of William Shakespeare! We want to hear them! Read us his words!”

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“Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahansa Yogananda

I’ve had this book on my shelf for so long that I don’t even remember where I got it from. But as part of my goal to clear some of my unread books and continue reading more spiritual texts, I figured I would give this one a read.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. There were great insights, it read well, and the language was nicely crafted. In fact, it seemed just a little too polished for someone who was not a native English speaker, but hey, every writer needs a good editor.

Many years ago, I was a vegetarian, and I was so for about 13 years. When I started eating meat again (my body needed it when training for my first marathon), I grappled with the ethical questions of eating meat, even though I made sure to only get ethically raised meats. Then one day, I had a realization that plants and rocks, being comprised of energy, must also possess consciousness, just like animals, but a type of consciousness that we cannot perceive as humans. To survive, we must get energy from other things, living and non-living (in the case of minerals). A passage in this book affirmed this belief that I have.

The telltale charts of my crescograph are evidence for the most skeptical that plants have a sensitive nervous system and a varied emotional life. Love, hate, joy, fear, pleasure, pain, excitability, stupor, and countless other appropriate responses to stimuli are as universal in plants as in animals.

(p. 78)

During times of deep meditation, I have been fortunate enough to experience momentary shifts in consciousness, slipping briefly into states of heightened awareness. These moments are virtually impossible to convey using the limited tool of language, but Yogananda does an excellent job describing that ineffable experience.

All objects within my panoramic gaze trembled and vibrated like quick motion pictures. My body, Master’s, the pillared courtyard, the furniture and floor, the trees and sunshine, occasionally became violently agitated, until all melted into a luminescent sea; even as sugar crystals, thrown into a glass of water, dissolve after being shaken. The unifying light alternated with materializations of form, the metamorphoses revealing the law of cause and effect in creation.

(p. 167)

While I love to read, and I believe there is value in reading spiritual and mystical texts, it is important to not only read, but to practice too. Book knowledge will only take a person so far on the spiritual path.

The great guru taught his disciples to avoid theoretical discussion of the scriptures. “He only is wise who devotes himself to realizing, not reading only, the ancient revelations,” he said. “Solve all your problems through meditation. Exchange unprofitable speculations for actual God-communion.”

(p. 377)

The last passage from this book that I want to share concerns what is important for the sustainability and longevity of a society. We are at a point in human history where wealth, military power, and materialism are the measures of a society’s worth and strength. I do not agree with this paradigm. I believe it is art, the humanities, and how we care for each other that are the true measures of a society’s strength and endurance.

The Biblical story of Abraham’s plea to the Lord that the city of Sodom be spared if ten righteous men could be found therein, and the Divine reply: “I will not destroy it for ten’s sake,” gains new meaning in the light of India’s escape from oblivion. Gone are the empires of mighty nations, skilled in the arts of war, that once were India’s contemporaries: ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, Rome.

The Lord’s answer clearly shows that a land lives, not in its material achievements, but in its masterpieces of man.

(p. 340)

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“Zealot” by Reza Aslan

Zealot

This book is an attempt to construct an historical account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Throughout the book, Aslan emphasizes the distinction between Jesus of Nazareth, the historical Jesus who was a rebellious Jewish preacher during the time of Roman occupation, and Jesus Christ, who was essentially a construct of the founders of the Christian faith.

Early in the book, Aslan clarifies the purpose of Roman crucifixion. This was not a punishment for common criminals, but something reserved for those who rebelled against Roman authority. In fact, the thieves who were crucified alongside Jesus were labeled “lestai,” which was the Latin word for bandit.

“Bandit” was the generic term for any rebel or insurrectionist who rose up against Rome or its Jewish collaborators. To some, the word “bandit” was synonymous with “thief” or “Rabble-rouser.” But these were no common criminals. The bandits represented the first stirrings of what would become a nationalist resistance movement against the Roman occupation. This may have been a peasant revolt; the bandit gangs hailed from impoverished villages like Emmaus, Beth-horon, and Bethlehem. But it was something else, too. The bandits claimed to be agents of God’s retribution. They cloaked their leaders in the emblems of biblical kings and heroes and presented their actions as a prelude for the restoration of God’s kingdom on earth. The bandits tapped into the widespread apocalyptic expectation that had gripped the Jews of Palestine in the wake of the Roman invasion. One of the most fearsome of all the bandits, the charismatic bandit chief Hezekiah, openly declared himself to be the messiah, the promised one who would restore the Jews to glory.

(pp. 18 – 19)

Aslan asserts that the reason that much of what is written in the Bible is historically inaccurate is because people in that time did not differentiate myth from reality the way we do now. Myth expressed spiritual truths and therefore did not need to adhere to historical accuracy.

The readers of Luke’s gospel, like most people in the ancient world, did not make a sharp distinction between myth and reality; the two were intimately tied together in their spiritual experience. That is to say, they were less interested in what actually happened than in what it meant. It would have been perfectly normal—indeed, expected—for a writer in the ancient world to tell tales of gods and heroes whose fundamental facts would have been recognized as false but whose underlying message would be seen as true.

(p. 31)

From a historical perspective, what made Jesus so much of a threat to Rome and the Jewish priests at the time was his alignment with the zealot movement. This movement sought to overthrow the current socio-political system that ruled over Palestine during that period, thereby ushering in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus’s view of the sole sovereignty of God was not all that different from the view of the prophets, bandits, zealots, and messiahs who came before and after him, as evidenced by his answer to the question about paying tribute to Caesar. Actually, his view of God’s reign was not so different from that of his master, John the Baptist, from whom he picked up the phrase “Kingdom of God.” What made Jesus’s interpretation of the Kingdom of God different from John’s, however, was his agreement with the zealots that God’s reign required not just an internal transformation toward justice and righteousness, but a complete reversal of the present political, religious, and economic system.

(pp. 118 – 119)

Aslan spends a lot of time looking at why the writers of the Gospels attempted to present Rome as not responsible for the death of Jesus, laying the blame more on the Jews. Historically, Pilate was a harsh ruler who would never have argued for the life of a peasant Jew. He would have just given the execution order and moved on without a second thought. But the writers of the gospels needed to appeal to Rome in order for their religion to gain acceptance. So instead, they pinned the blame on the Jews.

Thus, a story concocted by Mark strictly for evangelical purposes to shift the blame for Jesus’s death away from Rome is stretched with the passage of time to the point of absurdity, becoming in the process the basis for two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism.

It is, of course, not inconceivable that Jesus would have received a brief audience with the Roman governor, but, again, only if the magnitude of his crime warranted special attention. Jesus was no simple troublemaker, after all. His provocative entry into Jerusalem trailed by a multitude of devotees declaring him king, his act of public disturbance at the Temple, the size of the force that marched into Gethsemane to arrest him—all of these indicate that the authorities viewed Jesus of Nazareth as a serious threat to the stability and order of Judea. Such a “criminal” would very likely have been deemed worthy of Pilate’s attention. But any trial Jesus received would have been brief and perfunctory, its sole purpose to officially record the charges for which he was being executed.

(pp. 192 – 193)

I want to conclude by saying this is a very easy book to read. Although it is history, it reads like a story. It is not just a dry presentation of facts, which makes it an enjoyable read. If you’re at all interested in learning more about the history of that period, then pick up a copy of this book.

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“Coriolanus” by William Shakespeare: How Politicians Manipulate Public Opinion

Coriolanus

Today is Election Day, so I figured it would be appropriate to write about something political. I had seen this play performed this past summer and really enjoyed it. I found its themes of political opposition and the manipulation of public opinion to be relevant to modern American politics.

Before I get into the politics of this play, I figured I’d touch on a couple things that I feel are important. Firstly, while this is a tragedy, only one person dies: Coriolanus. I sort of expect a stage full of carnage in a good Shakespearean tragedy, but that’s not the case here. As far as his tragic flaw, his main flaw is his pride, a somewhat hackneyed flaw in my opinion, but it fits. He is also a poor communicator, which is a problem for anyone playing the political game. Finally, I have to mention his relationship to his mother. Freud would have a field day with this. He addresses his mother with reverence while calling his wife “woman.” Pleasing his mom seems to be Coriolanus’ chief motivator throughout the entire play. One could certainly write an entire post on this mother/son relationship, but I will leave that to someone else.

OK, now on to the politics.

I constantly marvel at people’s ability to forget the past and change their views based upon the latest media hype. I confess that I thought this was a modern issue and the result of diminished attention span; but it seems that this was the case in Shakespeare’s day also. As the scheming tribunes Brutus and Sicinius consider Coriolanus’ recent popularity and the likelihood of his election as consul, Sicinius points out how easy it is to sway public opinion.

Sicinius:

Doubt not
The commoners, for whom we stand, but they
Upon their ancient malice will forget
With the least cause these his new honours, which
That he will give them make I as little question
As he is proud to do’t.

(Act II, scene i)

The two then discuss how to manipulate the public’s opinion of Coriolanus by implying that he does not care about them, that he is full of pride and a tyrant, and that he will ultimately take away their freedoms. This is exactly the type of partisan hyperbole used by each political party to rally voters.

Brutus:

So it must fall out
To him or our authorities. For an end,
We must suggest the people in what hatred
He still hath held them; that to’s power he would
Have made them mules, silenced their pleaders and
Dispropertied their freedoms, holding them,
In human action and capacity,
Of no more soul nor fitness for the world
Than camels in the war, who have their provand
Only for bearing burdens, and sore blows
For sinking under them.

Sicinius:

This, as you say, suggested
At some time when his soaring insolence
Shall touch the people–which time shall not want,
If he be put upon ‘t; and that’s as easy
As to set dogs on sheep–will be his fire
To kindle their dry stubble; and their blaze
Shall darken him for ever.

(Act II, scene i)

When Coriolanus must face the populace and the accusations of the tribunes, his mother offers him some advice.

Volumina:

I prithee now, sweet son, as thou hast said
My praises made thee first a soldier, so,
To have my praise for this, perform a part
Thou hast not done before.

(Act III, scene ii)

Shakespeare draws a comparison between acting and politics. In both, one is on a stage, performing a part for the public. In fact, there is even a term for this, “Political Theater,” which is defined as actions by politicians intended to make a point rather than accomplish something meaningful.

In modern American politics, pitting the rich against the poor is common political practice. On one side, the rich are told they should have disdain for the poor, who are depicted as lazy and seeking only to live off the wealth which they worked hard for. Conversely, the poor are told that the rich are nothing but a bunch of greedy money-grabbers seeking to exploit them. It appears that this type of divide was also exploited by politicians in Shakespeare’s time to manipulate the public.

Sicinius:

Bid them all home; he’s gone, and we’ll no further.
The nobility are vex’d, whom we see have sided
In his behalf.

Brutus:

Now we have shown our power,
Let us seem humbler after it is done
Than when it was a-doing.

Sicinius:

Bid them home:
Say their great enemy is gone, and they
Stand in their ancient strength.

(Act IV, scene ii)

As is often the case, political games and craft have a tendency to backfire.

Menenius:

‘Tis true:
If he were putting to my house the brand
That should consume it, I have not the face
To say ‘Beseech you, cease.’ You have made fair hands,
You and your crafts! you have crafted fair!

Cominius:

You have brought
A trembling upon Rome, such as was never
So incapable of help.

Both Tribunes:

Say not we brought it.

(Act IV, scene vi)

As I read this, I could not help but think about the mess in the Middle East. For years the US has been involved in that conflict, offering support to whichever faction seems to be more aligned to our political stance. The results of this policy has been disastrous, to say the least. Yet, our political leaders continue to make the same mistakes and play the same political games.

As members of a democracy, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves on the issues that affect our society and the world around us, and to make decisions based upon our views. It is important that we do not fall victim to the manipulation of political factions who seek only to wrest control of power from the other side. Regardless of which political side you lean towards, you should avoid buying in to the propaganda that is shoveled our way by political action groups on either side.

Thanks for taking the time to read my post, and if you are an American citizen, go out and vote today.

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