Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The Crushed Little Man

June 19, 2017

Take a look at this pillar.

This pillar with the little man crushed under it can be found in the Church of the Jacobins in Toulouse, France. I read about this oddity in this article from Atlasobscura.

The Church of the Jacobins is in the center of the city of Toulouse in southern France. It is a Gothic mass of brick and stone, decorated inside with elaborate trompe l’oeil and soaring pillars. Most famously, it houses the remains of St. Thomas Aquinas. A lot less famously, it has this strange little carving of a man trapped under one of the pillars.

The remains of Thomas Aquinas are entombed in a golden reliquary along the side wall of the nave. Just behind it to the left there is a double-column that sits on a square base. Look down towards the floor and you’ll see, sticking out, a peculiar pair of bony hands and chubby crossed feet, their meaning and origin unknown. Some of the church tour guides don’t even know the crushed little man is there.

The church dates to the early 13th century, founded by the French Dominican order of the Jacobins. It has weathered a complicated history, beginning with the Dominicans being outlawed in France during the Revolution. It then began a journey that included everything from a takeover by Napoleon (who used it as barracks and an armory for the military), a period as a school gymnasium, an exhibition hall, and, during World War I, a safe haven for art treasures from the Paris museums.

The later decades of the 20th century saw enormous efforts to bring back the majesty of the church. After periods of major restoration – including the reveal of medieval paintings that had been whitewashed by Napoleon – it has emerged as an important museum and cultural center for Toulouse. But the little carving remains a mystery, the only one of its kind in the church. Posted, you might say, without comment.

It’s a little hard to find the little man, but look behind the St. Thomas Aquinas golden altar. You’ll see his little squished hands and little squished feet at the bottom of the pillar to the left.

I wonder what the sculptor was thinking. Does the crushed little man have any relation to Thomas Aquinas? Aquinas was one of the Catholic Church’s most prominent theologians who did much to codify Catholic doctrine. His philosophical system, Thomism, is still used by the Catholic Church and even other Christian denominations to some extent. Maybe the little man represents Truth crushing ignorance, or the Devil being crushed by Christ.

Here is a painting of Thomas Aquinas overcoming Averroes, a Spanish Muslim philosopher who helped to reintroduce Aristotle to the West.

Presumably the painter considered Thomas Aquinas’s interpretation of Aristotle to be superior to Avarroes’s. Maybe the crushed little man represents the same idea in stone.

Or maybe it was just a joke. Maybe the artisan who was carving out the base of the pillar thought it would be funny to make it look like they stuck the pillar on top of a man. I wonder if anyone noticed or if the artist got into any trouble. I wonder what sort of person he was, or even what his name was. We will never know, but I think I’d like to meet him in whatever afterlife might exist and learn his story.

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The Election of 1860

June 17, 2017

The Election of 1860 was, without doubt, the most contentious election in American history, ending as it did with the secession of the South and the Civil War. For democracy to work, the loser of an election, along with his supporters have to be willing to concede to the winner. This can happen as long as the consequence of an election is not an existential threat to the lives and liberties of the losers. For the first, and so far only, time in the history of the United States a large portion of the electorate simply refused to accept the results of a democratic election, in part because they feared the results would be destructive to their way of life.

How did it come to this, that the South so feared the election of Abraham Lincoln that it was willing to secede from the Union and risk war? Slavery had been an increasingly divisive issue for decades, yet the nation had always managed to find some sort of compromise to pull back from the brink. There had been talk of secession since the beginning of the Union, but it was mostly talk. No one seemed willing to take the fateful step to dissolve the Union before 1860. After his election in 1856, President James Buchanan had even dared to hope that the contentious slavery debate would be settled by the of his term and peace and prosperity would be the rule. He could not have been more wrong. In fact, it was during President Buchanan’s administration that a series of events occurred that made Civil War if not inevitable, certainly increased sectional tensions to the breaking point.

Historians generally hold that the Civil War began when Confederate Army fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, yet in a way the Civil War had actually started almost a decade earlier in Kansas. As early as 1854 fighting had broken out between pro and anti-slavery settlers in the Kansas Territory. The Kansas-Nebraska Act had called for popular sovereignty to decide whether Kansas would be Slave or Free. Settlers from North and South poured into Kansas attempting to get a majority for their side. Election fraud was rampant and neither side was willing to concede to the other, resulting in two separate territorial legislatures. It wasn’t long before violence broke out, egged on by radicals back east only too willing to supply arms.

Then there was the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott vs. Sanford, announced just two days after President Buchanan’s inauguration. This decision which overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and denied the right of Congress to outlaw slavery in the territories delighted the South and infuriated the North. Because of this ruling, slavery could no longer be contained to southern territories but could spread north. Even worse, because the Court decided that Dred Scott was not free just because his master had taken him to a state where slavery was illegal, opened the door to the possibility that state laws forbidding slavery might be effectively overturned since freeing the slaves of a person who moved North could be construed as unlawfully depriving him of his property. Chief Justice Roger Taney and President Buchanan hoped that the Dred Scott decision would settle the issue of slavery once and for all, but the uncompromising nature of the decision only made things worse.

Finally, there was John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry on October 19, 1859. I don’t think the Northern abolitionists had any idea how afraid the slave owners of the South were of their own slaves. While Southern apologists depicted the Blacks as simple minded creatures, perfectly content with slavery in their propaganda, anyone who had much contact with the slaves must have known how much they resented their servitude. They had good reason to fear that the Black slaves would take a terrible revenge if they ever got the chance. When the abolitionists demanded that slavery be ended, the Southern Whites, only heard a call for their own destruction. When a terrorist from Kansas tried to incite a slave insurrection only to be hailed as a hero and a martyr by sympathetic Northerners, the Southerners must have seen their worst fears confirmed.

By the election of 1860, it must have seemed that the United States could no longer be half Free and half Slave. Either slavery would be abolished, along with a way of life that benefited the Southern elite, or slavery must spread to every part of the nation. Little wonder a Civil War resulted.

The Democratic convention was held in Charleston South Carolina in April. Since President Buchanan declined to run for reelection, the most obvious candidate was Stephen Douglas from Illinois. Douglas had served in the House of Representatives from 1843 to 1847 and then in the Senate from 1847 until his death from typhoid fever in 1861. Stephan Douglas is best known today for his famous debates with Abraham Lincoln during the Senatorial election of 1856. He was a great believer in democracy, believing that popular sovereignty should settle the slavery issue in the territories. Douglas tended to oppose the Dred Scott decision, but had to be careful lest he alienate the South.

This “pro-choice” did not please the Southern delegates at the convention who wanted a party platform that specifically protected slavery. This Douglas and the Northern delegates would not agree to and the convention broke up. This was not a good sign.

The Democrats met again the following month in Baltimore. Again the Northern and Southern delegates could not agree on a candidate or a platform, so they held separate conventions. The Northern delegates nominated Stephen Douglas, as expected, and selected Herschel V. Johnson, the governor of Georgia from 1853-1857. Their platform called for popular sovereignty in the territories.

The Southern delegates nominated Vice-President John C. Breckinridge for President and Joseph Lane, one of Oregon’s first two senators, for Vice-President. They supported a platform demanding federal protection of slavery in the territories.

Meanwhile, the Republicans held their convention in Chicago from May 16 to 18. Abraham Lincoln was not really one of the leaders of the Republican Party. The more prominent Republicans who were expected to get the nomination included Senator William Seward of New York. Governor Salmon P. Chase from Ohio, and Senator Simon Cameron from Pennsylvania. Lincoln’s political resume was thin compared to these leaders having only served in the House of Representatives from 1847-1849 and in the Illinois Legislature form 1834-1842. However, each of these leaders had made enemies and had alienated one faction or another of the party. Lincoln, in contrast was well liked and known to be a good debater. The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1856 had attracted national attention. Lincoln was also a shrewd politician and while he was against slavery, he was not as radical as some Republicans. Lincoln was nominated on the third ballot and Senator Hannibal Hamlin of Maine was selected as his running mate.

Then, because things were not confusing enough with three candidates, a group of former Whigs, along with a few Democrats and former Know-Nothings met in Baltimore on May 9 to organize the Constitutional Union Party. This party was for preserving the Union at any cost, and not much else. They were silent on the slavery question, perhaps hoping to make the controversy go away. The Constitutional Union Party nominated John Bell, who had served as Senator from Tennessee from 1847-1859. Bell had begun his political career as a Democratic supporter of Andrew Jackson, then he split with Jackson to become the leader of the Whig Party in Tennessee. By the 1850’s he had begun to create a third party composed of moderates from both the North and South in an effort to alleviate the increasing sectional tension. Bell’s relatively moderate views on slavery made him unpopular in the South, though he had some appeal in the border states. The Constitutional Union Party went on to nominate former Senator from Massachusetts, Edward Everett as Bell’s running mate.

 

Since the Democratic party was split and Lincoln wasn’t even on the ballot in the South, the the election of 1860, was essentially two separate contests, Lincoln vs Douglas in the North and Bell vs Breckinridge in the South. As one might imagine, this turned out to be an exciting and tumultuous election, with all the hoopla of American politics in the nineteenth century. Stephen Douglas broke with tradition and actually went out to campaign in person, in the South as well as the North. In the South, he pleaded for the Southerners to accept the results of the election, no matter who won. They didn’t listen. Southern newspapers continued to run editorials promising secession and war if the “Black Republican” Lincoln were elected.

The other candidates stayed at home and tried to look dignified and presidential but their supporters made up the difference in raucous energy. Bell’s supporters rang bells at rallies. Republicans were the most enthusiastic, holding parades featuring rails that the great rail splitter Abraham Lincoln had personally split.  If it weren’t for the great seriousness of it all, it would have been a lot of fun.

None of the four candidates got a majority of the popular vote, but Lincoln won a plurality with 1,865,908 votes or 39.8% of the total. Douglas came in second with 1,380,202 votes (29.5%). Breckinridge was third with 848,019 votes (18.1%C) and Bell came in last with 590,901 votes (12.6%). It is slightly ironic that if the Southern Democrats had supported Stephen Douglas, he might have won the election. By leaving the convention and nominating their own candidate, they virtually guaranteed a victory for Lincoln, the one candidate they could not accept.

The Electoral vote was more decisive, with Lincoln getting a comfortable majority. The vote was divided along sectional lines. Lincoln won the entire North and West except for New Jersey, getting a total of 180 electoral votes. New Jersey split its seven votes giving four to Lincoln and three to Douglas. Douglas was second in the popular vote, but last in the Electoral College winning only Missouri’s nine votes and three of New Jersey’s for a total of 12 electoral votes. Breckinridge won all the Southern states, except for Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, and got a total of 72 electoral votes. Bell won those three states with 39 electoral votes.

The Election of 1860

The Election of 1860

Stephen Douglas realized that a Lincoln victory would divide the country and immediately after the election he traveled south and gave speeches supporting the Union. It didn’t work and on December 20, 1860 South Carolina formally succeeded from the Union. Soon, the other Southern states followed and America’s bloodiest war began.

The Timely, Relevant Handmaid’s Tale

June 4, 2017

Hulu has begun airing a series based on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the critics are falling all over themselves in proclaiming how timely and relevant the program is in Trump’s America.

The Handmaid’s Tale, for those fortunate enough not to have encountered it, is a dystopian novel set in the “Republic of Gilead”, a future North American nation in which Christian fundamentalists have seized power. Naturally women are horribly oppressed in Gilead, since that is what Christian fundamentalists most like to do. Women are chattel who are forbidden to work outside the home or to have bank accounts. There is an epidemic of infertility caused by environmental pollution and those women who are still fertile are pressed into service as “handmaids” compelled to give birth to women incapable of having their own children. As you can see, The Handmaid’s Tale is timely and relevant, for women living in Iran, Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. Since Trump hardly ran on a platform of disenfranchising women, the novel is probably not particularly relevant to the experiences of American women, whatever Atwood and her fans might believe.

An everyday sight in Trump’s America

The purpose of dystopian literature, and science fiction in general, is not to predict the future but to highlight circumstances and emerging trends in the present. If it had been Margaret Atwood’s intention to highlight the oppression of women in the Middle East by portraying a similar situation in a more familiar context, much as George Orwell highlighted Stalinist tyranny by placing it in the more familiar context of England, than her effort would be laudable. That is not what she was trying to do. By her own account, she was trying to show what the “religious right” intended to do to women when they gained power. The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, at a time when the Moral Majority seemed to be on the ascendant, so it might have been timely and relevant then; except that not a single prominent figure on the “religious right” was proposing anything at all like the subjugation of women in the book. If treating women like chattel had been on the agenda of the Christian Coalition, I doubt very much if it would have had any influence on politics at all. And again, Trump is hardly a fundamentalist Christian, nor did he campaign on reducing women to brood stock as part of his program to Make America Great Again.

This is where The Handmaid’s Tale falls short as a dystopia. A dystopia works by pointing out the most extreme consequences of existing trends. The resulting vision need not be especially realistic. This is science fiction after all. However it ought to ring true. The setting of a dystopian work ought to at least seem possible, based on things already happening

As a man of the left, George Orwell knew from personal experience the totalitarian tendencies of most left wing movements. He knew what he was writing about when he wrote 1984. He was able to make the setting of his novel match the real life circumstances of totalitarian governments like the Soviet Union under Stalin and Nazi Germany. He believed, with good reason, that Britain was heading towards a totalitarian socialist state. We may not currently be living in Big Brother’s Oceania, but in an age of mass surveillance and bigger, unaccountable bureaucracies, we should certainly be aware of the possibilities.

Aldrous Huxley had considered very carefully the possible changes that advancing technology might bring to society. His Brave New World is a study of how advances in contraception, cloning (though the word hadn’t been coined at the time) might change family life. If we can design each person according to plan would we design different people for different jobs? What would the concept of equality mean if some people are designed before birth to be the leaders while others to be workers? Huxley also explored the implications of freedom of thought in a world in which thoughts are conditioned by persuasion techniques far more advanced than the crude advertising and propaganda of our time. You might not need the Thought Police if every thought in every head is put there by years of conditioning. It is possible that something like Brave New World might really be in our future, perhaps closer than we might imagine.

In contrast, Margaret Atwood knew nothing about the goals and aspirations of conservative Christians when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale and there is no sign that she has bothered to learn anything about them in all the years since. Her vision is one that simply does not match the reality. No prominent Christian leader of any sect or denomination has come out in favor of disenfranchising women. Christianity is not the religion that teaches that a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s. Historically, women have generally had a higher status in the Christian West than in any other civilization. It is true that women have often been discriminated against and patronized in the West, but women have rarely been treated as chattel or worse to the extent they have in East Asia, or the Indian subcontinent, and especially the Islamic world. It is in the Christian West that the idea that women ought to be treated as actual human beings, and even protected arose. Only in the West could anything like feminism come to be.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a fantasy. I think it is poorly written, but that is just my opinion. Perhaps others may think it a classic. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion about the literary quality of the work, but please don’t insult my intelligence by saying it is in any way timely or relevant to contemporary America.

One Horn

May 31, 2017

I have been studying German lately, mostly by using Duolingo, and I have noticed an interesting difference between English and German. This article I read about Ira Einhorn, the founder of Earth Day who murdered and composted his girlfriend brought the difference to mind.

Ira Einhorn was on stage hosting the first Earth Day event at the Fairmount Park in Philadelphia on April 22, 1970. Seven years later, police raided his closet and found the “composted” body of his ex-girlfriend inside a trunk.

A self-proclaimed environmental activist, Einhorn made a name for himself among ecological groups during the 1960s and ’70s by taking on the role of a tie-dye-wearing ecological guru and Philadelphia’s head hippie. With his long beard and gap-toothed smile, Einhorn — who nicknamed himself “Unicorn” because his German-Jewish last name translates to “one horn”  —advocated flower power, peace and free love to his fellow students at the University of Pennsylvania. He also claimed to have helped found Earth Day.

Einhorn is actually the German word for unicorn. What I have noticed is that English tends to create new words for new or abstract concepts by taking words from other languages, particularly Latin and Greek and often combining them in new ways not found in the original languages. German tends to create new words from other German words and seems to be less eager to take words from other languages.

In English we watch television (Greek tele “far” + Latin visionem, participle of videre “to see”). Germans watch the Fernseher (literally “far-seer” in German). We may study science (Latin scientia “knowledge) in school while Germans study Wissenschaft (“knowledge” in German). If you study chemistry you may be familiar with the elements, like hydrogen (Greek Hydr “water” + gen “produces or born from” thus “made from water”) or oxygen (Greek oxys “acid”+ gen so “made from acid). In German they are Wasserstoff (waterstuff) and Sauerstoff (sourstuff). Carbon comes from Latin carbonem “coal” Germans call it Kohlenstoff, “coalstuff”.

Electricity (Latin electrum and Greek elektron both meaning amber) is one of humanity’s greatest inventions. The Germans do have the word Elektrizität but they also call it Strom “stream, current”. We may be afraid of exposure to radiation(Latin radiationem “shining” from radius “beam of light). A German would prefer not to be exposed to Strahlung “beaming”.

You don’t have to study science to notice the difference. English speakers may vote (Latin votus “to vow”) in an election (Latin ex “out of” + legere “to choose”) for Congress (Latin congressus from com “with” + gradus “to walk” thus walking or meeting together) or Parliament (French from parler “to speak”). Germans may abstimmen (choose or coordinate) in a Wahl (choice) for the Bundestag (Bundes “Federal” Tag literally “day” from Latin diet “daily” the name of various representative assemblies in the Holy Roman Empire and elsewhere). This body may pass legislation (Latin legis latio “proposing a law”). In German it is Gesetzgebung (Gesetz “law” + gebung “-tion” so “lawization”. In English, we may participate (Latin participare “to share”) in and organization (Latin organizationem from organum “organ”). In German they teilnehmen (take part) in a Unternehmen (undertaking). I could go on and on but you get the idea.

I don’t want to exaggerate the contrast between the two languages. German does have plenty of words derived from Latin, mostly taken, like English through French, and English, of course, does make new words out of older English words, just like German. We can say we take part in an “undertaking” too. In fact, English seems to have a double vocabulary, one made up of simpler words derived from Anglo-Saxon and another composed of fancier words from French and Latin. Which approach is better, the German or the English is a matter of taste, I think. English perhaps has more words and is more eager to appropriate words from other languages, but all those Latin words may make English a more abstract language in some respects, one more easy to obfuscate in. German seems somehow homier, yet as anyone who tried to read Hegel or some of the other German philosophers can attest, German can also be an obfuscating language with dense verbiage.

So, why is English half a romance language, while German remains, well, Germanic? Part of the reason must be that there was nothing like the Norman Conquest in German history. Germany was not conquered by a nation that spoke a Romance Language as England was conquered by the French speaking Normans and so there was not the huge influx of Latin derived words into German as there was with English.

Yet, I also think that there is another reason why English has generally been careless about adopting words. from other languages. For some reason, English speakers seem to lack the concern about language purity found in the speakers of many other languages. The French have the Academie Francaise, an official institution that tries to safeguard the purity of the French language by setting standards for usage and inventing proper French words to replace any foreign words that have managed to slip in. Almost every major language has a similar official organization to set standards, with one exception, English. There has never been any sort of official or semi-official body in the English speaking world with any authority to set official standards for usage, or even for spelling, nor has there been any serious movement to purify the English language by purging it of “foreign” words. Other languages have had spelling reforms sponsored by various governments. German spelling was reformed in 1901 and again in 1996. The People’s Republic of China simplified the characters used in written Chinese, and there was even a proposal, shortly after the Communists came to power to abandon the characters altogether in favor of romanization. Ataurk ordered the Turks to abandon their traditional use of the Arabic script to write Turkish in favor of the Latin alphabet. Nothing like that is likely to occur in English, even though English orthography is a mess and badly needs to be simplified.

It seems that there is simply about the Anglophone mind and culture that tends to resist regimentation and regularization imposed from above, even when such such regularization might make things easier. English speakers have generally been the most reluctant to adopt the metric system, and the United States still uses the traditional system of measurements. We seem to prefer things haphazardly and chaotically rather than rational and regular, and we don’t mind speaking a language where every rule has an exception and in which if we don’t have a word for something, we have no trouble stealing words from other languages. If the new words aren’t proper English words, we don’t care.

Maybe if English were more regular, it would be an easier language for foreigners to learn. Since English is rapidly becoming the Common Tongue of the whole world, maybe we owe it to the poor souls who have to learn the language to make it easier for them. On the other hand, the fact that English has at least one word from almost every other language may make it at least a little familiar to others. English is certainly a more interesting and dynamic language because of its propensity to borrow shamelessly from other languages and maybe that is part of the reason English is the primary international  language.

 

Memorial Day

May 29, 2017

Today is Memorial Day, the day we honor those who have fallen fighting for their country and for freedom.

Graves_at_Arlington_on_Memorial_Day

Memorial Day first started to be observed after the Civil War. That war was the bloodiest in American history and the casualties of that war were unprecedented. The number of killed and wounded in the three previous declared wars, the War of Independence, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War, were insignificant compared to the slaughter house that the Civil War became. After the war people in both the North and South began to commemorate the soldiers who died for their country. The date of this commemoration varied throughout the country until it settled on May 30.

In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill. This law moved the dates of four holidays, including Memorial Day, to the nearest Monday in order to create three-day weekends. This, I think, was unfortunate. I believe that converting the day on which we honor our fallen heroes into a long weekend tends to diminish the significance of this day. It becomes no more that day to take off work and for businesses to have sales. There should be more to Memorial Day.

 

It’s Greek to Me

April 20, 2017

My favorite YouTube channel is, without question, the Langfocus  channel, created by Paul Jorgenson, a Canadian who teaches English in Japan. Paul is fascinated by language and he shares his knowledge and fascination in his videos. Paul makes videos about particular languages, language families and general concepts about language. Whatever the specific topic he covers, Paul’s videos are always interesting and informative.

Not too long ago, Paul made a video on the Greek language.

I have studied Koine or New Testament Greek a little bit and it is amazing to me just how little the language has actually changed over the centuries. I can tell there are some differences in grammar and vocabulary. Some of the verb inflections have changed a little and Modern Greek seems to have lost the dative case. I also notice that the middle and passive voices have combined into a mediopassive voice. The Greek word for speak has changed from λαλεω (laleo) to μιλεω (mileo) and dog from κυων (cuon) to σκυλος (skylos). I think that a speaker of Modern Greek could read the New Testament in its original Koine Greek without too much trouble and could even read Plato and Homer with varying degrees of difficulty. I suppose that the sounds or phonology of spoken Greek have changed quite a bit more than written Greek so a modern Greek transported back to Periclean Athens might have quite a bit of difficulty making himself understood in conversation, but perhaps not much more than speakers of related languages might have. Despite the changes, Modern Greek is recognizably the same language as the Greek spoken two thousand or more years ago.

Now look at this sample of English from about one thousand years ago.

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.
These are the first lines of Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon epic poem that was probably the first work of literature written in Old English. Here is a translation.
LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,
till before him the folk, both far and near,
who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,
gave him gifts: a good king he!
It doesn’t seem to be the same language at all. If you look closely, some of the words are recognizable, “god cyning”= good king, but the grammar is very different and there are even some strange letters not used in Modern English. The text looks more like a dialect of German than the English we are familiar with. This is not too surprising. German and English originated on the same branch of West Germanic in the Germanic language family. There would probably be a closer resemblance between Modern English and German if it weren’t for the infusion of so many words from French and Latin after the Norman conquest. As it is, English is less of a strictly Germanic language, at least in vocabulary, and more of a hybrid between Germanic and the Romance languages. (Paul has a couple of videos on this)
Besides the unfamiliar words, you might notice that Modern English has lost the inflections that Old English had. This may also be due to the Norman conquest, or perhaps the earlier Danish or Viking invasions. Britain seems to have been something of a magnet for settlers during the tenth and eleventh centuries and since the Danes, Normans, etc had to communicate with the Anglo-Saxons who already lived there, they used a simplified form of Old English that developed into the language we speak today.
Here are the first lines of Chaucer’s Canturbury tales, written in Middle English around 1300.
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
And the translation:
When April’s gentle rains have pierced the drought
Of March right to the root, and bathed each sprout
Through every vein with liquid of such power
It brings forth the engendering of the flower;
When Zephyrus too with his sweet breath has blown
 Through every field and forest, urging on
The tender shoots, and there’s a youthful sun,
His second half course through the Ram now run,
And little birds are making melody And sleep all night, eyes open as can be
So Nature pricks them in each little heart), On pilgrimage then folks desire to start.
The palmers long to travel foreign strands
To distant shrines renowned in sundry lands;
And specially, from every shire’s end
This is recognizably English even if the spelling looks strange. There are some unfamiliar words and some differences in grammar. Chaucer can be read by an English speaker, but it is not easy. Shakespeare and the King James Bible are the most familiar examples of Early Modern English. They are essentially the same language spoken today, but even after a mere four hundred years they already seem quaint and old-fashioned, requiring a glossary to fully understand the text.
How is it that a language like Greek has changed slowly enough over the centuries that the Greeks can read the classics of Ancient Greek literature without too much difficulty while anything written in English more than about five hundred years ago is incomprehensible to the modern reader? Has Greek been unusually conservative or has English changed faster than most languages. Maybe it is both. Latin has changed quite a bit in the transition to the Romance Languages, particularly in the loss of the noun case system, loss of the neuter gender and changes in verb tenses. The vocabulary of the Romance Languages is still largely based on Latin and I think that a modern speaker of Italian or Spanish could still get the basic meaning of a Latin text.
Part of the reason might be because Greek has a much longer written history than English. Writing does tend to make a language more conservative, at least in its written form, particularly when the older version of the language is seen as somehow more pure while innovations are viewed as corruptions. This has long been the case in Greek where until recently it was common for Greek writers to use a formal and archaic version of Greek that resembled Ancient Greek more than the Greek actually spoken. (This is actually a common phenomenon found on many languages with a long literary history.) It seems the greatest changes in English came in the centuries after the Norman Conquest when French was the official language at court and English was mostly a language of illiterate peasants. Another possible reason for the continuity of Greek as opposed to the development of the Romance Languages from Latin might be that the Greek speaking Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire survived as a nation until 1453 while the Latin speaking Western Roman Empire broke up causing regional dialects to become separate languages.
Whatever the reasons, the relatively rapid development of English from its Germanic, Anglo-Saxon origins to the useful language we speak today with its large vocabulary and relatively simple grammar has helped to make English the lingua franca of the modern world. I’m sure I’d rather speak Modern English than Anglo-Saxon, but I wish there had been a greater continuity over the centuries.
  • The Anglish Moot-They want to restore English to its native roots. The result of writing English without any Latin, Greek, or other words is truly weird and helps to demonstrate just how much English has borrowed from other languages.
  • Day of the Dead Languages (feedproxy.google.com)

Easter

April 16, 2017

We left the story of Jesus of Nazareth last Friday. He had been executed in the most painful and degrading way possible. His closest followers were disperse and in hiding. It must have seemed that Jesus and his movement had ended in utter failure. But then, something remarkable happened. This something is commemorated by the Easter holiday. Although Christmas is the more popular Christian holiday, Easter is actually the most important holiday in the liturgical year as the celebration of Christ’s resurrection is theologically more important than his Nativity. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The Gospel of Mark has the most concise account on what happened that first Easter.

1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

9 When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene,out of whom he had driven seven demons.10 She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping.11 When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.

12 Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country.13 These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either.

14 Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.

15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.17 And these sign swill accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons;they will speak in new tongues;18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

19 After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God.20 Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it. (Mark 16:1-20)

Mark 16:9-20 seems to be a later addition. At any rate, the earliest manuscripts do not have those verses. Whether the original ending has been lost or Mark intended to end his account so abruptly is unknown.

Matthew has more details.

1After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

The Guards’ Report

11 While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

The Great Commission

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:1-20)

Luke and John have more to say of Jesus after His resurrection but I won’t quote them here.

The date of Easter has been a matter of some controversy in past centuries. The date of Easter is related to the date of Passover. The calculations on which the date of Easter is determined is based on a lunisolar cycle like the date of Passover but the cycle is not the Hebrew calendar. Generally Easter falls about a week after Passover but it occurs about a month later in three years of the nineteen year cycle. Various groups of Christians have had different methods of calculating Easter over the years and these differences have led to bitter disputes. There is still a different date for Easter among the Eastern churches since they use the Julian calendar for the liturgical year while Catholics and Protestants use the Gregorian calendar.

Among Catholics and some Protestants, Easter is generally celebrated by an Easter vigil beginning the previous evening. At dawn, a mass or service begins, etc.

And, of course, many people celebrate Easter by finding Easter eggs and eating candy delivered by the Easter Bunny.

 

Good Friday

April 14, 2017

Today is Good Friday, the day of Jesus’s crucifixion. It may seem strange to call it “Good” Friday since being crucified wouldn’t normally be considered as part of a good day but the word good is used in an obsolete sense meaning holy. Good Friday is generally celebrated with fasts and vigils. In the Roman Catholic church no mass is held on this day.

Once again, I will be using the Gospel of Mark to tell the story.

Mark 15

Jesus Before Pilate

1Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, made their plans. So they bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.

2 “Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate.

“You have said so,” Jesus replied.

3 The chief priests accused him of many things. 4 So again Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.”

5 But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.

6 Now it was the custom at the festival to release a prisoner whom the people requested. 7 A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. 8 The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.

9 “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate, 10 knowing it was out of self-interest that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.

12 “What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them.

13Crucify him!” they shouted.

14 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”

15 Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. (Mark 15:1-15)

It would seem that this meeting of the Sanhedrin at night and before Passover was highly irregular and some have questioned the historicity of the Gospel accounts on that basis. I think that if the elders and priests of the Sanhedrin believe Jesus to be on the point of declaring himself the Messiah and leading a rebellion, they might not have been too concerned with fine points of legality in the face of a national emergency. Little is known of Pontius Pilate but in the historical accounts of Josephus and others, he does not seem to be the sort of man who had any scruples about putting a trouble maker to death even if he wasn’t certain of the man’s guilt. It is possible that he was impressed by Jesus’s force of personality. On the other hand, Josephus makes it clear that Pilate was a tactless man who did not like the Jews much. He was eventually recalled because his actions seemed likely to cause rebellions. Perhaps Pilate resented having the High Priest and others, who he might have considered semi-barbarians, insist on his crucifying a man. He might have refused just to be obstinate.

16 The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. 17 They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. 18 And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” 19 Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. 20And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

The Crucifixion of Jesus

21 A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. 22 They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). 23 Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. 24And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.

25 It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. 26 The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS.

27 They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left. [28][a]29 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 come down from the cross and save yourself!” 31 In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! 32 Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.(Mark 15:16-32)

Luke has one of the thieves taking Jesus’s side.

39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.[d]

43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)

Crucifixion is probably the most painful method method of execution ever devised. The victim is slowly asphyxiated as he hangs on the cross. It was not uncommon for a man to linger for days writhing in pain the whole time. In addition to the pain, crucifixion was meant to be a humiliating, shameful punishment. Only the lowest of the low were crucified, which might have been a stumbling block to early Christian proselytizing.

33 At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).[b]

35 When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”

36 Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.

37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died,[c] he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

40 Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph,[d] and Salome. 41 In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.

Those words were the first verse of Psalm 22. Matthew’s account parallels Mark’s but Luke and John report different last words.

46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”[e] When he had said this, he breathed his last.  (Luke 23:46)

28 Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.(John 19:28-30)

John adds another detail.

31 Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. 32 The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. 33 But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. 35 The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. 36 These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,”[c]37 and, as another scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced.” (John 19:31-37)

Strange as it may seem, the breaking of their legs was an act of mercy since they would die sooner. It was surprising that Jesus had died after only being about six hours on the cross.

42 It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. 44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. 45 When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. 46 So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid. (Mark 15:42-47)

To anyone on the scene, this must have seemed the end of the matter. Jesus of Nazareth was dead and his followers scattered. It would seem that, at best, he would only be a minor footnote in history.

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Palm Sunday

April 9, 2017

 

Today is Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter. Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem and the beginning of the climax of his earthly ministry.

 

Jesus Comes to Jerusalem as King

1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

5 “Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”[a]

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna[b] to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”[c]

“Hosanna[d] in the highest heaven!”

10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matt 21:1-11)

As Ann Coulter pointed out in her book Demonic, many of these same people were calling for Jesus to be crucified less than a week later, such is the fickleness of mobs.

 

Palm Sunday is often celebrated by palm leaves to worshippers in churches. If palm leaves are not available locally, than other tree branches may be substituted. In many churches the priest or other clergy blesses the palms and they are saved to be burned at Ash Wednesday the following year.

 

The actual date of Palm Sunday, like Easter varies from year to year because the date is based on a lunisolar cycle like the Hebrew calendar. The date differs between Western and Eastern Christianity because most Eastern churches still use the Julian calendar for their liturgical year, even though the Gregorian calendar is universally used for civil purposes.

 

Palm Sunday begins Holy Week, or the last week of Lent.

 

Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey

Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

 

 

Who’s the Boss

March 5, 2017

While President Trump is working to make America great again, he is naturally encountering resistance. This is to be expected, of course; no president is universally popular and Trump is more controversial than most. What might not be expected is the opposition Trump will be receiving inside the federal government from the people who are supposed to be working for him and for us. This article from the Washington Post tells of the resistance from within that Trump may be facing.

The signs of popular dissent from President Trump’s opening volley of actions have been plain to see on the nation’s streets, at airports in the aftermath of his refu­gee and visa ban, and in the blizzard of outrage on social media. But there’s another level of resistance to the new president that is less visible and potentially more troublesome to the administration: a growing wave of opposition from the federal workers charged with implementing any new president’s agenda.

Less than two weeks into Trump’s administration, federal workers are in regular consultation with recently departed Obama-era political appointees about what they can do to push back against the new president’s initiatives. Some federal employees have set up social media accounts to anonymously leak word of changes that Trump appointees are trying to make.

And a few government workers are pushing back more openly, incurring the wrath of a White House that, as press secretary Sean Spicer said this week about dissenters at the State Department, sends a clear message that they “should either get with the program, or they can go.”

At a church in Columbia Heights last weekend, dozens of federal workers attended a support group for civil servants seeking a forum to discuss their opposition to the Trump administration. And 180 federal employees have signed up for a workshop next weekend, where experts will offer advice on workers’ rights and how they can express civil disobedience.

At the Justice Department, an employee in the division that administers grants to nonprofits fighting domestic violence and researching sex crimes said the office has been planning to slow its work and to file complaints with the inspector general’s office if asked to shift grants away from their mission.

“You’re going to see the bureaucrats using time to their advantage,” said the employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. Through leaks to news organizations and internal complaints, he said, “people here will resist and push back against orders they find unconscionable.”

I think these federal workers have forgotten who is the boss in this country. We do not some in some medieval despotism in which an superior caste of mandarins make all the decisions for the good of those deplorable serfs who are too ignorant to decide for themselves how to live their lives. The United States of America is a democratic republic in which the people rule and where government exists to protect our inalienable rights. These civil servants do not, or ought not, to make the policies and laws in this country. The people make the laws through our elected representatives. The job of the civil servants is to carry out those decisions made by our elected representatives. A federal worker has the same right to his opinion as any other American citizen, on his own time. If he believes a given policy is wrong, he can complain about it, or even resign if he believes that implementing a policy is against his conscience. He cannot work to undermine the agenda or policies of the elected and appointed officials who are his superiors anymore than a worker in the private sector can work to undermine the company he works for. Federal workers who are actively working to resist President Trump need to be fired. If the law prevents them from being fired, than the law must be changed.

Sometimes I think it would be better if we went back to the Spoils System. Our modern, professional, supposedly non-partisan civil service dates back to the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 which mandated that positions in the federal government should be given on the basis of merit as determined by civil service exams. Before that act the offices of the federal government were filled by a system of patronage called the Spoils System. Every federal employee was a political appointee, even local postmasters. With every change in administration after every election, there would be a wholesale turnover in the entire government as supporters of the previous administration were discharged while their jobs were given to the supporters of the incoming president. This meant that the first months of any new president would be filled with finding jobs for everyone who contributed time and money to his campaign. Since the victor gets the spoils of war, this system was called the Spoils System.

The Spoils System was not a particularly good way to run a government since most of the office holders were selected on the basis of political loyalty rather than on any ability to perform the functions of the job and the men selected were obviously more interested using their offices to gain political power and enrich themselves than in serving the public. The Pendleton Act was meant to remedy these obvious evils by putting into place a federal workers who had the specific skills and experience needed for the offices they held and who would dispassionately serve the public rather than political hacks beholden to the politicians who appointed them.

I am not certain that the Pendleton Act has been entirely successful, or perhaps it has been too successful in some ways. It seems to be that our modern, professional civil service has become an entrenched castes of elites with agendas of their own and who believe themselves to be a ruling caste who can lord over their inferiors. Even worse, they seem to be loyal to a particular political party, the Democrats, to the point of being willing to sabotage the elected officials of the opposing party. Thus, we have the worst of both evils, an arrogant ruling class of political hacks. At least with the Spoils System there was some rotation of people, and since they were political appointees they had to be at least somewhat responsive to the will of the elected officials who got them their jobs and who themselves knew they had to face the voters at the next election.

Something to think about, anyway. Our present system is not working too well. Maybe it’s time for a change.


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