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Posts Tagged ‘religion

“Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance”*…

After Aristotle, Hellenic philosophy was dominated by two rival schools of thought, the Stoic (founded by Zeno) and the Epicurean (founded by Epicurus). Over the centuries since, “stoic” has come to mean “self-disciplined indifference to pleasure or (especially) pain as a matter of principle or self-discipline,” while “epicurean” has now conjures “fond of or adapted to luxury or indulgence in sensual pleasures; having luxurious tastes or habits, esp. in eating and drinking.” But as Emily Austin argues in Living for Pleasure, an Epicurean Guide to Life, that’s a bum rap. Stoicism is having a moment. In a review of her new book, Julian Baggini argues that we should consider Epicureanism as well…

No one today would dream of practising the physics, medicine or biology of the ancient Greeks. But their thoughts on how to live remain perennially inspiring. Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics have all had their 21st-century evangelists. Now it is Epicurus’s turn, and his advocate is American philosopher Emily A. Austin.

Living for Pleasure is likely to evoke feelings of deja vu. One reason why “ancient wisdom” is so enduring is that most thinkers came to very similar conclusions on certain key points. Do not be seduced by the shallow temptations of wealth or glory. Pursue what is of real value to you, not what society tells you is most important. Be the sovereign of your desires, not a slave to them. Do not be scared of death, since only the superstitious fear divine punishment.

The more general such claims are, the easier it is to agree. But when we delve into what makes the various philosophers different, what sounds like universal good sense can suddenly seem a bit wacky.

Epicurus’s distinctive feature is his insistence that pleasure is the source of all happiness and is the only truly good thing. Hence the modern use of “epicurean” to mean gourmand. But Epicurus was no debauched hedonist. He thought the greatest pleasure was ataraxia: a state of tranquility in which we are free from anxiety. This raises the suspicion of false advertising – freedom from anxiety may be nice, but few would say it is positively pleasurable.

Still, in a world where even the possibility of missing out inspires fear, freedom from anxiety sounds pretty attractive. How can we get it? Mainly by satisfying the right desires and ignoring the rest. Epicurus thought that desires could be natural or unnatural, and necessary or unnecessary. Our natural and necessary desires are few: healthy food, shelter, clothes, company. As long as we live in a stable, supportive community, they are easy to achieve…

There’s much more in this timely guide to the Greek philosopher – and rival to the Stoics – who saw freedom from anxiety as the ultimate goal: “Living for Pleasure by Emily A Austin – an Epicurean guide to happiness,” from @JulianBaggini in @guardian.

See also: “How to be an Epicurean.”

* Epicurus

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As we contemplate contentment, we might send revelatory birthday greetings to Emanuel Swedenborg; he was born on this date in 1688 (O.S.). At age 53, after a successful career as an inventor and scientist, Sedenborg began to experience dreams and visions, a “spiritual awakening,” in which he received a revelation that Jesus Christ had appointed him to write The Heavenly Doctrine to reform Christianity. According to The Heavenly Doctrine, the Lord had opened Swedenborg’s spiritual eyes so that from then on, he could freely visit heaven and hell to converse with angels, demons and other spirits, and that the Last Judgment had already occurred in 1757 (not by Christ in person but by a revelation from him through the inner, spiritual sense of the Word through Swedenborg), the year before the 1758 publication of De Nova Hierosolyma et ejus doctrina coelesti (Concerning the New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine).  The New Church, also known as Swedenborgianism, is a new religious movement originally founded in 1787 and comprising several historically related Christian denominations that revere Swedenborg’s writings as revelation.

Swedenborg argued against Luther’s concept of salvation through faith-alone (sola-fide in Latin), since he considered both faith and charity necessary for salvation. His thinking influenced a variety of important cultural figures, both writers and artists, including Robert Frost, Johnny Appleseed, William Blake, Jorge Luis Borges, Daniel Burnham, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Flaxman, George Inness, Henry James Sr., Carl Jung, Immanuel Kant, Honoré de Balzac, Helen Keller, Czesław Miłosz, Joseph Smith, August Strindberg, D. T. Suzuki, and W. B. Yeats.

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January 29, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Mankind is poised midway between the gods and the beasts”*…

Julius Caesar, who was deified by the Roman Senate this week in 42 BCE

At least, most of mankind. Anna Della Subin on men turned divine…

In the beginning, it was the serpent who first proposed that mankind might become divine. Ye shall be as gods, he advised, as the fruit waited…

The idea that a man might turn divine, even without intending or willing it, was to ancient Greece a natural and perfectly rational occurrence. Traffic flowed between earth and the dwelling place of the gods in the sky. In his Theogony, the poet Hesiod sang of the births of gods in a genealogy often crossed with that of humans. He told of mortals who became daemons, or deific spirits; of the half-gods, born of mixed parentage; of the man-gods, or heroes, venerated for their deeds. The theorist Euhemerus claimed he found, on a desert island, a golden pillar inscribed with the birth and death dates of the immortal Olympians. According to his hypothesis, all gods were originally men who had once lived on earth, yet their roots did not impinge upon their cosmic authority, nor make them any less divine. The ranks of the gods swelled with warriors and thinkers, from the Spartan general Lysander to the materialist philosopher Epicurus, deified after his death. In his Parallel Lives, the biographer Plutarch recorded that someone among the older, established gods was evidently displeased by the newcomer, Demetrius. A whirlwind tore apart Demetrius’s robe, severe frost disrupted his procession, and tendrils of hemlock, unusual in the region, sprouted up around the man’s altars, menacingly encircling them.

In ancient Rome, the borders between heaven and earth fell under Senate control, as deification by official decree became a way to legitimize political power. Building upon Greek traditions of apotheosis, the Romans added a new preoccupation with protocol, the rites and rituals that could effect a divine status change. For his conquests, Julius Caesar was divinized, while still alive, by a series of Senate measures that bestowed upon him rights as a living god, including a state temple and license to wear Jupiter’s purple cloak. Yet if it seemed like a gift of absolute power, it was also a way of checking it, as Caesar knew. One could constrain a powerful man by turning him into a god: in divinizing Julius, the Senate also laid down what the virtues and characteristics of a god should be…

The century that reset time began with a man perhaps inadvertently turned divine. It is hard to see him, for the earliest gospels were composed decades after his death at Golgotha, and the light only reaches so far into the dark tombs of the past. The scholars who search for the man-in-history find him embedded in the politics of his day: a Jewish dissident preacher who posed a radical challenge to the gods and governors of Rome. They find him by the banks of the Jordan with John the Baptist. He practices the rite of baptism as liberation, from sin and from the bondage of the empire that occupied Jerusalem…

In the decades after the crucifixion, just as the gospels were being composed and circulated, the apotheosis of Roman emperors had become so routine that Vespasian, as he lay on his deathbed in 79 CE, could quip, ‘Oh dear, I think I’m becoming a god.’…

In 325 CE, the emperor Constantine gathered together two thousand bishops at the Council of Nicaea to officially define the nature of Jesus’s divinity for the first time. Against those who maintained he had been created by God as a son, perfect but still to some extent human, the bishops pronounced Jesus as Word Incarnate on earth, equal to and made of the same substance as God the Father, whatever it may be. Other notions of Jesus’s essence were branded as heresies and suppressed, and gospels deemed unorthodox were destroyed. Through the mandates of the Nicene Creed, the idea of divinity itself became severed from its old proximities to ordinary mortal life. In the work of theologians such as Augustine, who shaped Christian orthodoxy for centuries to come, the chasm between humankind and divinity grew ever more impassable.

Though mystics might strive for union with the godhead, veiled in metaphors, the idea that a man could transform into an actual deity became absurd. God is absolutely different from us, the theologians maintained; the line between Creator and His creation clearly drawn.

Eminently worth reading in full: “First Rites,” a fascinating excerpt from Accidental Gods, by @annadella in @GrantaMag.

* Plotinus

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As we delve into the divine, we might recall that it was on this date in 1953 that Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot premiered in Paris. The English-language version premiered in London in 1955. In a poll conducted by the British Royal National Theatre in 1998/99, it was voted the “most significant English-language play of the 20th century.”

Waiting for Godot, Theatre de Babylone–the first performance (source)

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January 5, 2023 at 1:00 am

“The Quaker loves an ample brim, / A hat that bows to no salaam; / And dear the beaver is to him / As if it never made a dam”*…

Leila Philip on the evolutionary puzzles and unfathomable intelligence of earth’s rodent-engineers…

I think there is an element of the sacred in the beaver, if only in its deep weirdness. One million years ago, beavers the size of bears roamed North America. They pose an evolutionary puzzle, like the platypus, or birds, which share some DNA with dinosaurs. When they dive, they seem more like marine mammals than terrestrial species, more seal than rodent. Their dexterous forepaws look startlingly human with their five nimble fingers and naked palms. They groom their lustrous fur with catlike fastidiousness. Their mammalian beauty ends abruptly in the gooselike hind feet, each as wide as the beaver’s head. The feet are followed by a reptilian tail, which, it has been observed, looks like the result of some terrible accident, run over by a tractor tire, the treads leaving a pattern of indentations that resemble scales.

Part bear, part bird, part monkey, part lizard, humanoid hands, an aquatic tail. Is it any surprise that beavers have fired the human imagination in every continent that they are found?…

Part Bear, Part Bird, Part Monkey, Part Lizard: On the Deep Weirdness of Beavers,” from @theleilaphilip in @lithub.

Thomas Hood

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As we get busy, we might recall that it was on this date in 1928 that former concert violinist and proprietor of the One-In-Hand Tie Company of Clinton, Iowa, Joseph W. Less, introduced the modern clip-on tie.

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December 13, 2022 at 1:00 am

“To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wildflower”*…

Where, exactly is Heaven? Stephen Reid Case explains how a very concrete, physical answer to that question became much less concrete…

The Christian concept of heaven, so familiar today from popular depictions of clouds and haloed angels, was an invention – one that came about as early Christians interpreted their religious writings in the context of the Greek culture in which their movement grew up. Christian writers combined Plato’s ideas about the soul’s ascent to the sky at death with Aristotle’s understanding of the structure of the universe, a combination that allowed them to apply a cosmological framework to terms like ‘heaven of heavens’, as well as the ascents, described in the New Testament, of both Jesus and Paul. By the Middle Ages, anyone who uttered the words ‘Our Father, who art in heaven …’ had a clear spatial understanding of where heaven was: God dwelt in the third heaven, above the heaven of the air and the heaven of the stars. This third heaven, the empyrean, became an article of Christian faith – until the new cosmology of Copernicus and Galileo placed the Sun rather than Earth in the centre of the universe. This transformation from an Earth-centred to a Sun-centred universe did not simply displace Earth; it destroyed heaven as a place within the cosmos.

If I asked my astronomy students where heaven was located, I would no doubt receive a classroom full of bewildered stares, despite the fact that I teach at a Christian university – where the majority of students believe in both heaven and the afterlife. When pressed, they might offer thoughts about heaven being a different plane of reality or perhaps another dimension. They believe, but they don’t conceptualise heaven as a location; it is not a part of their spatial understanding of the universe. For most of the history of Christianity, though, the opposite was true…

For hundreds of years, Christians knew exactly where heaven was: above us and above the stars. Then came the new cosmologists: “Where God dwelt.”

* William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence” l. 1 (ca. 1803)

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As we muse on metaphor and morphology, we might recall that it was on this date in 1972 that the Apollo 17 mission launched; on their way to the moon, about 18,000 miles from the Earth, astronauts Harrison Schmitt and Ron Evans took the photo now known as “The Blue Marble”– one of the most reproduced images in history.

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December 7, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Those who believe that politics and religion do not mix, understand neither”*…

Authoritarian leaders who play the religious card are not mere hypocrites, Suzanne Schneider suggests; there’s something far more troubling going on…

Viktor Orbán reportedly does not attend church. Benjamin Netanyahu eats at non-kosher restaurants. New York libertine Donald Trump lacks all manner of evident religious virtue.

Yet it is a fact that today’s crop of aspiring authoritarians invoke religious themes and symbols, despite not being strict adherents to their respective traditions. Of course, there is nothing new about the opportunistic use of religion by politicians. The scholars Garret Martin and Carolyn Gallaher have remarked that ‘Orbán’s use of religion is no different from Ronald Reagan’s embrace of Christian evangelicals in the late 1970s.’ According to these explanations, such figures cynically appeal to religion, despite not being true believers. Given this purported sincerity deficit, a conversation in this register toggles between accusations of hypocrisy and instrumentalism. How can such obviously corrupted figures claim to speak on behalf of a Christian or Jewish nation? And how can voters who claim to be animated by religious values be so blind?

Tempting as it is, the hypocrisy diagnosis does not quite map onto the emerging social landscape. There is instead a deeper and more interesting shift occurring in the world toward a new post-liberal or illiberal order of religion and politics. Understanding the nature of this transformation enables critics to break out of the cycle of allegations of hypocrisy or inconsistency, and to grasp an emergent worldview that is both coherent and deeply troubling…

Read on for her (troubling) explication: “An unholy alliance,” from @suzy_schneider in @aeonmag.

For the Washington Post‘s examination of the global tilt toward authoritarian nationalism: “Leaders of democracies increasingly echo Putin in authoritarian tilt” (gift article, so no paywall).

Apposite: “When the Hindu Right Came for Bollywood” (“The industry used to honor India’s secular ideals—but, since the rise of Narendra Modi, it’s been flooded with stock Hindu heroes and Muslim villains…”)

* Albert Einstein (also attributed to Gandhi)

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As we take the measure of the metamorphosis, we might recall that it was on this date in 1789 that John Jay was sworn in as the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. A founding father (co-author of The Federalist Papers with Hamilton and Madison, and President of the second Continental Congress), he had previously served as the young nation’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs (in which position he helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris), as the first Secretary of State, then as Governor of New York.

Jay was an ally of Hamilton, a proponent of a strong national government. While Governor of New York, he presided over a state constitutional convention in which religious tolerance was enshrined… within limits: he succeeded in adding special provisions for Catholics to the constitution’s article on the naturalization of foreigners. Under Jay’s amendment, aliens were required to take an oath of allegiance to the state that included renunciation of all allegiance and subjection to “all and every foreign king, prince potentate and state, in all matters ecclesiastical as well as civil.” Scholars suggest that the persecution of Jay’s Huguenot ancestors by the Catholic Church and his adherence to traditional Whig views identifying Protestantism with liberty and Catholicism with oppression, foreign influence, and sedition motivated his actions.

John Jay, by Gilbert Stuart, 1794

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October 19, 2022 at 1:00 am

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