“Death is Nothing to Us”

Death is inevitable. What it entails is largely unknown. Some believe that it permanently ends an individual’s existence; others that it simply provides a transition to another form of life. Most people fear it, but some consider it with equanimity. Among the latter are the followers of Epicurus, who claimed

Death is nothing to us. For what has been dissolved has no sense-experience, and what has no sense-experience is nothing to us.
(Epicurus, reported by Diogenes Laertius, translated by Inwood and Gerson, 1997, p 32; another translation is by Yonge, 1983, p. 474).

Epicurus proposed
that human beings are made of complex compounds of atoms. At death these
compounds dissolve, releasing the atoms to form other things. The body decays
and the soul evaporates. Once we are dead, we are no more. We cannot feel what
it is like to be dead. And the dead certainly cannot experience pain. Death should
therefore not be feared.

Epicureanism was
popular during the Roman period. A common Latin epitaph summarized the life of
the Epicurean as a brief interlude between the nothingness preceding birth and
the nothingness following death:

          Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo
          (I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care).



Gustav Doré’s illustration (1857) of Dante’s Sixth Circle.

As Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Epicureanism faded into obscurity. Dante placed the Epicureans in the Sixth Circle of his Inferno (1320, Canto X). Those who did not believe in the afterlife were forced to spend eternity in graves that were completely closed just as in life their tenants’ obstinacy kept them from the truth. The graves were filled with fired graves just as in life the Epicureans were consumed by their heresy.

As the Western world
moved away from the dogmatism of the Middle Ages, the idea that man was not immortal
was once again considered. Those who now reject any belief in an afterlife sometimes
adopt the bravado of the Epicurean epitaph. But more often than not they care
deeply about death as the defining event in a life. It is not nothing.

Atoms and the Void

The philosophy of
Epicurus derives from the atomism of Democritus (460-370 BCE). Democritus was
born and lived in Abdera, a city in Northern Greece, at about the same time as
Socrates was active in Athens. Democritus maintained that everything was made
of tiny indestructible atoms (Berryman, 2016). He claimed to have learned this
from Leucippus, about whom little is known, and who may be more mythical than
real.

Democritus was called the “laughing philosopher” to distinguish him from Heraclitus (535-475 BCE), the “crying philosopher,” who believed that nothing was indestructible and that everything is forever changing. The cheerful and the tearful.

Jusepe de Ribera’s imagined portraits of Heraclitus (1615) and of Democritus (1630), both now in the Prado Museum

Of the many
writings of Democritus, we now have only fragments, the most famous of which
is    

By convention sweet is sweet, bitter is bitter, hot is hot, cold is cold, color is color; but in truth there are only atoms and the void (translation by Will Durant, 1939, p 393).

The concepts of
the atom and the void were derived from a combination of observation and logic.
Everyone perceives that the world contains objects and that these objects move:
matter and motion. Objects can be broken down into smaller pieces, and these
pieces can themselves be broken down into even tinier particles. But this
breaking down can only proceed so far, or all objects would by now have been
broken down to nothing. There must therefore be some indivisible particle
beyond which matter cannot be further broken. These atoms (from the Greek atomos,
uncuttable) are so tiny that they are cannot be seen by the eye: invisible and indivisible.
The void is necessary to explain how things move. How could something change
its location unless there were empty space for it to move into?

Atoms are infinite
in number but of a finite number of types. Moving atoms collide with one
another and join to form compounds. These compounds interact with each other to
create all that exists in the world. Combining atoms is like forming words with
the letters of the alphabet. From a few letters come a myriad words.

Though atoms are
eternal, the compounds that they form are transient. Rock erodes to sand, which
under pressure becomes stone again. Water evaporates and then condenses. Living
things develop, become mature and then die. At death, the components of the
body break apart, releasing its atoms for making other compounds.

          Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
          Might stop a hole to keep the wind away (
Hamlet, V:1)

The soul is
composed of atoms just like everything else. The atoms of the soul are extremely
fine, perhaps similar to the atoms of fire. They permeate the body, giving it a
conscious spirit. When the body dies, the atoms of the soul dissolve back into
the void like all the other atoms of the body. The soul does not persist beyond
death. There is no afterlife. We are transient like everything else, mortal
like all other living things.

Democritus’ absolute materialism differed from the philosophy of Plato, who proposed the primacy of ideas. Indeed, Plato was so upset with his rival’s teachings that he reportedly urged that all the books of Democritus should be burned (Diogenes Laertius, p 393). So much for freedom of thought in a republic governed by philosophers.   

The Garden of Epicurus

The ideas of
Democritus were extended by Epicurus (341-270 BCE), who was born on the Greek
island of Samos off the west coast of Turkey. In 306 BCE Epicurus established a
school of philosophy in Athens that met in a garden below the Acropolis (Jones,
1989; Konstan, 2018; O’Keefe, 2010; Wilson, 2015).

Epicurus (a digital reconstruction by Bernard Frischer that combines a head from Naples with a body from Florence)

He wrote extensively though none of his books survived the anti-heretical campaigns of the Christian Church. Most of what we know about Epicurus is preserved in the biography written by Diogenes Laertius (3rd Century CE), which includes some of the letters written by the philosopher to his colleagues, and a listing of his Principle Doctrines (Kyriai Doxai). The philosophy of Epicurus was popular in the Roman Empire, and several statues of Epicurus have survived in Roman copies (see right).

Among the lost books
of Epicurus was the Kanon (Rule, Criterion) which discussed how true knowledge
could be obtained. Epicurus proposed that sensation is the most dependable
criterion of truth – the world is what we perceive. Ideas derive from rather
than precede the analysis of sensory information. This seems to have differed
from the ideas of Democritus, who believed that our perceptions were as much
convention as reality.

In the lost Peri
Physis
(On Nature) Epicurus presented and extended the atomism of
Democritus. He acknowledged that there are only atoms and the void. The body
and the soul are made of atoms that fall apart when the corporeal body dies and
the conscious soul ceases. We do not live forever.

Epicurus appears to have deviated from the fixed determinism of Democritus byproposing the idea of the clinamen (swerve). Atoms falling through the void would never collide to form compounds unless some atoms at some time swerved from their predetermined path. Democritus also suggested that this unpredictable random movement was the basis of our free will, when we act according to what is desired of the future rather than what has been ordained by the past. In recent years similar ideas based on the uncertain behavior of atoms in the brain have been used to explain free will. Unfortunately, these ideas have little explanatory value. My actions are no more free when determined by random events in the present than when determined by the fixed events of the past.

Free will was
important to Epicurus because he wished us to choose the good life. This depended
on maximizing our happiness. Although maligned by Christian polemicists as a decadent
libertine, Epicurus actually practiced an ascetic hedonism. He valued most the
simple sensory pleasures of his garden and the friendship of his colleagues. He
eschewed any participation in politics as causing too much anxiety. His goal
was ataraxia (tranquility, peace of mind, from a- not and tarasso,
disturb). 

Although he was
described as an atheist, Epicurus thought that the gods were real because our
ideas of them were just too clear to be ignored. However, he argued that the
gods were not in any way concerned with human affairs. Like true Epicurean, the
gods enjoy themselves and refuse to be bothered by human politics.

Epicurus proposed
that we should not be frightened of death. Since our consciousness ceases when
we die, death is not painful. Since the gods are not concerned with human
beings, they have not provided an afterlife of punishment for all that we have
done wrong. If we attain a life of ataraxia, it matters not how long we
live (Lesses, 2002; Mitsis, 2002). Death is the natural and inevitable end to
life. The following is from the Letter to Monoeceus:

Get used to
believing that death is nothing to us. For all good and bad consists in
sense-experience, and death is the privation of sense-experience. Hence, a
correct knowledge of the fact that death is nothing to us makes the mortality
of life a matter for contentment, not by adding a limitless time to life but by
removing the longing for immortality. For there is nothing fearful in life for
one who has grasped that there is nothing fearful in the absence of life. Thus,
he is a fool who says that he fears death not because it will be painful when
present but because it is painful when it is still to come. For that which
while present causes no distress causes unnecessary pain when merely
anticipated. So death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us;
since when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then
we do not exist. (Inwood & Gerson, 1997, p 29)

Epicurus practiced
what he preached. He died from an attack of kidney stones. Despite severe and
prolonged pain, he maintained his ataraxia. His cheerfulness of mind and
his memory of philosophy counterbalanced his afflictions.

De Rerum Natura

In about 50 BCE
Titus Lucretius Carus published a long Latin poem about the Nature of Things.
The poem probably derives from the Peri Physis of Epicurus. Little is
known about the poet. In his Chronicon (circa 380 CE), written some 400
years later, Saint Jerome included an entry for the year 94 BCE:

Titus Lucretius,
poet, is born. After a love-philtre had turned him mad, and he had written, in
the intervals of his insanity, several books which Cicero revised, he killed
himself by his own hand in the forty-fourth year of his age. (translation by
Santayana, 1910, p 19)

Saint Jerome was a
devout Christian, completely opposed to the beliefs of Epicurus, who claimed
that the gods had nothing to do with human life, and who denied the immortality
of the soul. Most critics feel that Jerome was simply trying to belittle the
poet and to cast his work as nonsense: be not seduced by Epicureanism, since madness
and suicide follow from such heresies (e.g., Sedley, 2018, and Smith, 1992 in
his introduction to the Loeb edition of De Rerum Natura). However, the
biography may contain some threads of truth:   

The love-philtre in this report sounds apocryphal; and the story of the madness and suicide attributes too edifying an end to an atheist and Epicurean not to be suspected. If anything lends colour to the story it is a certain consonance which we may feel between its tragic incidents and the genius of the poet as revealed in his work, where we find a strange scorn of love, a strange vehemence, and a high melancholy. It is by no means incredible that the author of such a poem should have been at some time the slave of a pathological passion, that his vehemence and inspiration should have passed into mania, and that he should have taken his own life. (Santayana, 1910, pp 19-20).

De Rerum
Natura
is like no other
poem: a scientific treatise expressed in verse. The poetry is characterized by
brilliant language and intense imagery. Most impressive is the ongoing energy
of the argument as Lucretius moves from atoms to death, from the soul to the
cosmos, from the weather to the plague.

The poem begins
with a beautiful invocation of Venus as the mother of Aeneas, founder of Rome,
as the patron of all the creative forces in the world, and as the
personification of Epicurean pleasure:

     Life-stirring Venus, Mother of Aeneas and of Rome,
     Pleasure of men and gods, you make all things beneath the dome
     Of sliding constellations teem, you throng the fruited earth
     And the ship-freighted sea — for every species comes to birth
     Conceived through you, and rises forth and gazes on the light.
     The winds flee from you, Goddess, your arrival puts to flight
     The clouds of heaven. For you, the crafty earth contrives sweet flowers,
     For you, the oceans laugh, the skies grow peaceful after showers,
     Awash with light. (I: 1-10 Stalling translation)

On the right is the first page of a 1483 manuscript copy of the poem made for Pope Sixtus IV by Girolamo di Matteo de Tauris. The Latin text begins

Aeneadum genetrix, hominum divomque voluptas,
Alma Venus, caeli subter labentia signa
Quae mare navigerum, quae terras frugiferentis

The beginning of
the poem immediately questions the Epicurean view that the gods are not
involved with the human world. Why should Lucretius invoke Venus as a partner
in his poetry? The gods are a problem for Epicureanism: if they are real, they
must be made of atoms and, if so, they cannot be immortal; yet, if they are
mortal, they are not gods. Lucretius probably considered the gods more as
metaphors than as real beings. Later in the poem (II: 646-660) he remarks that it
is customary to call the sea Neptune, the corn Ceres and the wine Bacchus
without actually meaning that these things are divine.

Lucretius quickly indicates that superstitious belief in the gods can lead to terrible wrongs by recounting the story of Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, who was sacrificed at Aulis to propitiate the anger of the goddess Artemis, and obtain fair winds to send the Greek ships to Troy. The illustration at the left shows a fresco in the House of Tragic Poet in Pompeii from about the same time as Lucretius. Iphigenia is carried by Achilles and Ulysses to be sacrificed by Calchas the priest, while her father on the left refuses to observe her death. Above, the goddess Artemis arranges for a stag to be substituted for Iphigenia, who will be spirited away. However, this will be done without any of the Greeks realizing that Iphigenia was not actually sacrificed. Human sacrifice is also part of the Hebrew Bible, which recounts the attempted sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 and the actual sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11. As Lucretius clearly states, Iphigenia was

          An innocent girl betrayed to a sort of incest
          To be struck down by the piety of her father
          Who hoped in that way to get a good start for his fleet.
          That is the sort of horror religion produces.
          (I: 98-101, Sisson translation).

De Rerum
Natura
recounts the
principles of atomism espoused by Epicurus. Lucretius describes the clinamen
or swerve, and notes its importance for free will. We are not completely
determined by our past:

Again, if all motion is always one long chain, and new motion arises out of the old in order in-variable, and if the first-beginnings do not make by swerving a beginning of motion such as to break the decrees of fate, that cause may not follow cause from infinity, whence comes this free will in living creatures all over the earth, whence I say is this will wrested from the fates by which we proceed whither pleasure leads each, swerving also our motions not at fixed times and fixed places, but just where our mind has taken us? (II: 252-260, Rouse translation).

Lucretius considers death in many ways. The following passage provides the principal Epicurean argument:

           So death is nothing, and matters nothing to us
           Once it is clear that the mind is mortal stuff.
           …
           So when we are dead and when our body and soul
           Which together make us one, have come apart,
           Nothing can happen to us, we shall not be there,
           Nothing whatever will have the power to move us,
           Not even if earth and sea got mixed into one.
           (III: 830-1, 838-842, Sisson translation)

Lucretius also
adds the analogy of the mirror to the Epicurean comparison of the time before
birth to the time after death. If we are not concerned with what occurred
before we are born, why should we be afraid of its mirror-image: the time after
we have died and once again do not exist:

           Now look back: all the time that ever existed
           Before we were born, was nothing at all to us.
           It is a mirror which nature holds up for us
          To show us what it will be like after our death.
          Is it very horrible? Is there anything sad in it?
          Is it any different from sleep? It is more untroubled.
          (III: 972-977, Sisson translation)

The poem goes on
to consider many natural phenomena. Some of the explanations that Lucretius
offers are good, and some are similar to those proposed in modern science.
However, most of the explanations are wrong. Science and poetry are not well
suited: poetry attempts to say things that will last forever, whereas science is
always changing.

At the end of the
VI Book of De Rerum Natura Lucretius vividly describes the great Plague
of Athens that began in 430 BCE during the Peloponnesian War. There is great
debate about the nature of the plague, which was perhaps caused by an
Ebola-like hemorrhagic fever. 

     The symptom first to strike was fiery fever in the head,
     And both eyes, burning hectic bright, were all shot through with red.
     The throat as well would sweat with blood, all black within. And stung
     With sores, the pathway of the voice would clog and choke. The tongue,
     Interpreter of the mind, oozed pus, and, made limp with the smart,
     Was too heavy to move, and rough. Thence the disease would start,
     Passing the gullet, to fill the chest, and flood the heavy heart
     Of the afflicted, and then, indeed, all of the gates of Life
     Began to give. From the open mouth, there would exhale a rife
     Stink, like the stench of rank unburied corpses left to rot.
     And then all of the powers of the mind and body, brought
     To the very brink of doom, began to flicker. Mental strain
     Ever danced attendance on intolerable pain;
     Pleas mingled with moans. Ceaseless retching, lasting day
     And night, was ever causing seizure and cramp, and wasting away
     The strength of men already racked with suffering and worn out.
     (VI: 1145-1161
, Stallings translation)

Death was everywhere. Below is a detail of an engraving (from the Wellcome Library) from a 1654 painting by Michael Sweerts, once thought to represent the plague of Athens:

The Plague of Athens

The prevalence of
death tore at the moral fabric of the city:

     The present grief was overwhelming. No one any more
     Observed the rites of burial they had observed before,
     For the whole populace was thrown in disarray and cowed.
     Each mourner buried his dead just as the time and means allowed.
     Squalid Poverty and Sudden Disaster would conspire
     To drive men on to desperate deeds — so they’d place on a pyre
     Constructed by another their own loved-ones, and set fire

     To it with wails and lamentation. And often they would shed
     Much blood in the struggle rather than desert their dead.
     (VI: 1278-1286, Stallings translation)

De Rerum
Natura
ends here. Most
critics feel that Lucretius died before he could finish his poem, and that he
probably intended to explain how philosophy could help one face the horrors of
such a plague with equanimity. But he did not. And one wonders if he could not.

Stoicism

At the time of
Epicurus, Athens was home to several other schools of philosophy. The most
important of these were the Skeptics who refused to believe in anything, and
the Stoics who differed from the Epicureans mainly in their promotions of
virtue rather than pleasure as the goal of human life (Baltzly, 2019; Long, 1986).
The Stoics proposed that the universe proceeded according to its own Logos, and
that human benefit was not necessarily part of this determined path. One had to
accept one’s fate and do the best that one could. The Stoical idea of the Logos
goes back to Heraclitus. Indeed, Stoics and Epicureans can trace their
emotional origins to tearful Heraclitus and cheerful Democritus.  

Marcus Aurelius

The Stoics also differed from the Epicureans in their approach to death. While the Epicureans tried to ignore death, the Stoics paid it constant attention. Death brings one’s life to an end, and therefore settles the sum of one’s virtues and achievements. Life should therefore be lived as if death were imminent. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the 175 CE statue of whom is illustrated on the left, voiced these Stoical precepts in his Meditations:

Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man, to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice; and to give thy self relief from all other thoughts. And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to thee.

Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good

(Marcus Aurelius, 180 CE, II: 5 and III: 17, translation by Long)

Stoicism became
more popular with the Romans than Epicureanism. And Stoicism fitted more easily
to the doctrines of Christianity, which accepted and transformed the Stoic idea
of Logos, making Christ its personification.  

Epicurus and Modernity

The works of Democritus
and Epicurus did not survive beyond Roman times. However, a manuscript of De
Rerum Natura
by Lucretius was diligently copied and re-copied by Christian monks,
and finally discovered in a German monastery in 1417 by Poggio Bracciolini (Greenblatt, 2011). The
first printed publication of De Rerum Natura was in 1473.

The rediscovered book
brought the atomism of Democritus and Epicurus to the attention of the
philosophers and scientists of Europe. Pierre Gassendi (1592-1665) in France
and Robert Boyle (1627-1691) in England were attracted to the explanatory power
of atoms and developed a “corpuscular philosophy” (Wilson, 2008). They tried
but failed to reconcile this atomism with Christian beliefs in the immortal
soul and a beneficent God.

As science progressed, corpuscular philosophy developed into modern chemistry. Atoms of different types combine to form molecules of various chemical compounds. The pressure of a gas depends on the force exerted by the continual movement of its molecules. This is illustrated on the right, in which five of the molecules are colored red to make their motion easier to follow. The molecules move like the motes of dust in the sunlight that were described in De Rerum Natura (Book II:62-79). Science now knows that atoms are not indivisible, but modern science owes much to Lucretius. 

As the Enlightenment
progressed, some thinkers decided to reject God and immortality and to accept
Epicurus’ views of death. Of these perhaps the most famous is David Hume
(1711-1776) who, when dying of cancer, was interviewed by James Boswell
(1740-1795). Boswell was disconcerted by Hume’s refusal to believe in the
afterlife, and by his cheerfulness in the face of death (Miller, 1995):

I asked him if the thought of annihilation never gave him any uneasiness. He said not the least; no more than the thought that he had not been, as Lucretius observes. (Boswell, 1776).   

Fear of Death

Despite the
cheerfulness with which Epicurus and Hume faced death, Epicurean logic fails to
convince most human beings not to fear death. Since death before maturity
prevents us from reproducing, evolution must clearly have given preference to
those whose fear of death made them avoid potentially fatal situations.

Epicurus promoted
pleasure as the goal of life, but had difficulty handling its relation to time.
Common sense definitely presumes that pleasure is greater when it lasts longer.
A death that shortens a potentially pleasurable life should therefore be
feared. Epicurus proposed that ataraxia is the same regardless of the
duration, but his argument is unconvincing:

Epicurus holds that pleasure is the supreme good, and yet claims that there is no greater pleasure to be had in an infinite period than in a brief and limited one. Now one who regards good as entirely a matter of virtue is entitled to say that one has a completely happy life when completely virtuous. Here it is denied that time adds anything to the supreme good. But if one believes that the happy life is constituted by pleasure, then one cannot consistently maintain that pleasure does not increase with duration, or else the same will apply to pain. Or are we to say that the longer one is in pain the more miserable one is, but deny that duration has any bearing on the desirability of pleasure. (Cicero, 45 BCE, II: 88)

Nagel (1990) makes
a similar point:

Observed from without, human beings obviously have a natural lifespan and cannot live much longer than a hundred years. A man’s sense of his own experience, on the other hand, does not embody this idea of a natural limit. His existence defines for him an essentially open-ended possible future, containing the usual mixture of goods and evils that he has found so tolerable in the past. Having been gratuitously introduced to the world by a collection of natural, historical, and social accidents, he finds himself the subject of a life, with an indeterminate and not essentially limited future. Viewed in this way, death, no matter how inevitable, is an abrupt cancellation of indefinitely extensive possible goods. Normality seems to have nothing to do with it, for the fact that we will all inevitably die in a few score years cannot by itself imply that it would not be good to live longer.

Most people feel
that death comes before their lives have been properly completed. Some things
have not yet been experienced, others have not yet been atoned for; their
achievement is not enough, their legacy not sufficient. As Cicero (44 BCE)
remarked “No one is so old that he does not expect to live a year longer.”

The Makropulos Case

How much longer should
one then wish to live? Forever may be as frightening as tomorrow. This idea was
considered in an important paper by Bernard Williams (1973) that took as its
point of origin a play by Karel Capek that premiered in Prague in 1922 – The
Makropulos Case.
Leos Janacek’s operatic version of the play was produced
in Brno in 1925.

In the play Emilia
Marty, a beautiful and successful opera singer, turns out to be Elina
Makropulos, a young Greek woman who was given an elixir of longevity by her
physician-father in 1601. Having lived over 300 years without aging she has
returned to Prague to find the elixir’s formula so that she can further prolong
her youth. The following photograph from the San Francisco Opera (2016) shows
Nadja Michael in the role of Emilia in the first act of the opera (which takes
place in a law office):

In the end Emilia
decides that she does not want to live longer. She explains to the others:

               Oh, life should not last so long!
               If you only realized how easy life is for you!
               You are so close to everything!
               For you, everything makes sense!
               For you, everything has value!
               – for the trivial chance reason
               that you are going to die soon.
               … It’s all in vain
               whether you sing or keep silent –
               no pleasure in being good
               no pleasure in being bad.
               No pleasure on earth,
               No pleasure in heaven.
               And one comes to learn
               that the soul has died inside one.
               (Janacek version)

Williams (1973) agrees
with Emilia. After a while immortality will become tedious. Human desires are
designed for shorter periods. Evolution has made us long to live longer. Yet
the usual span of human life gives us about the right amount of time to
experience what we can, and to accomplish what we should.

Aubade

Another aspect of
death not considered in Epicurean philosophy is that it is the end of the
“person.” Each individual spends a lifetime developing a collection of
experiences and achievements, out of which are derived a set of values and an
accumulated knowledge. Warren (2004, chapter 4) considers these as the personal
“narrative.” At death the story ends. The person vanishes. Some traces will be
preserved in the memories of others but these are but faint copies of the
original.

This is the reason
why Lucretius’ analogy of the mirror does not work. We are not concerned with
the time before we were born because we did not exist then. However, this is
not the mirror image of the time after our death when we again do not exist.
Because in the meantime we have existed. Time only goes one way.

Personal annihilation is perhaps the most frightening part of death. On December 23, 1977, Philip Larkin published a poem about death in the Times Literary Supplement. (The full text is available at this link). In a letter to a friend he called it “a real infusion of Christmas cheer” (Larkin, Burnett, 2012, p 495). Fletcher (2007) provides some discussion of the poem and its relation to one of John Betjeman’s. An aubade is typically the dawn song of a lover as he leaves his mistress. Larkin’s poem is a death song about leaving his life. He is intensely afraid:

          The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
          —The good not done, the love not given, time
          Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
          An only life can take so long to climb
          Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
          But at the total emptiness for ever,
          The sure extinction that we travel to
          And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
          Not to be anywhere,
          And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

He laments the
inability of religious faith or philosophical reason to provide any comfort:

                                 Religion used to try,
          That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
          Created to pretend we never die,
          And specious stuff that says
No rational being 
          Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
          That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
          No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
          Nothing to love or link with,
          The anaesthetic from which none come round.

Larkin provides us with no resolution of this fear. In the final lines of the poem he watches as the dawn breaks and people get ready for work. Phones will ring and letters will be delivered. Communication is perhaps our only comfort. The following is Larkin’s recitation of the poem.

Endings

So we come to the
end of this essay on endings. Though death is not desired, it is inevitable.
Epicurus was right about there being nothing after death, but death itself is
not nothing. It marks the transition of a life from the individual
consciousness to the memory of others. Henry James noted in 1916 when his final
stroke began, “So here it is, the distinguished thing” (Edel, 1968, Callahan, 2005).

References

Baltzly, D. (2019). Stoicism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Berryman, S. (2016). Democritus. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Boswell, J. (1776, reprinted 1970). An account of my last interview with David Hume. In Weis C. M. and Pottle F. A. (Eds) Boswell in Extremes. 1776-1778. New York: McGraw Hill. (pp 11-15). Also available at PhilosophyTalk website.

Callahan,
D. (2005). Death: ‘The Distinguished Thing,’ Hastings Center Report, 35, S5-S8.

Čapek,
K., (translated and introduced by Majer, P., & Porter, C., 1999). Four
plays
. London: Methuen Drama.

Cicero, M. T. (45 BCE, translated by Woolf, R., and edited by Annas, J., 2001). On Moral Ends. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Available at Archive.org

Cicero, M. T. (44 BCE, translated by A. P. Peabody, 1884). Cicero de Senectute (on old age). Little Brown, Boston. Available at Archive.org

Diogenes Laertius (3rd Century CE, translated by Yonge, C. D., 1853). The lives and opinions of eminent philosophers. London: Henry G. Bohn.  Available at Archive.org

Durant, W. (1939). The story of civilization: Part II: The life of Greece. New York: Simon and Schuster. Available at Archive.org

Edel, L. (1968). The deathbed notes of Henry James. The Atlantic Monthly, (June 1968)

Fletcher, C. (2007). John Betjeman’s Before the Anaesthetic, orA Real Fright’: A Source for Philip
Larkin’s ‘Aubade’. Notes and Queries, 54, 179-181

Greenblatt, S. (2011). The swerve: How the
world became modern
. New York: W.W. Norton.

Inwood, B., & Gerson, L. P. (1997). Hellenistic
philosophy: Introductory readings
. 2nd Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Jones, H. (1989). The Epicurean tradition.
London: Routledge.

Konstan, D. (2018). Epicurus. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Larkin, P. (edited by A. Burnett, 2012). The
complete poems of Philip Larkin
. London: Faber and Faber.

Lesses, G. (2002).
Happiness, completeness, and indifference to death in Epicurean ethical theory.
Apeiron, 35 (4), 57–68.

Long, A. A. (1986). Hellenistic philosophy: Stoics,
Epicureans, Sceptics
. 2nd Edition
Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lucretius, C. T. (~50BCE, translated by W. H.
D. Rouse, 1924, with introduction and revisions by M. F. Smith, 1992). De
rerum natura
. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press (Loeb Classical
Library). (Latin with English prose translation)

Lucretius, C. T. (translated by C. H. Sisson,
1976). De rerum natura: The poem on nature; a translation. Manchester:
Carcanet New Press. (Blank verse translation)

Lucretius, C. T. (translated by A.E. Stallings, 2007). The nature of things. London: Penguin Classics. (Translation in rhyming couplets)

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (180 CE, translated by G. Long, 1862). Meditations. New York: F. M. Lupton. Available at Archive.org.

Miller, S. (1995). The death of Hume. Wilson Quarterly, 19 (3). 30-39

Mitsis, P. (2002).
Happiness and death in Epicurean ethics. Apeiron, 35 (4), 41–55.

Nagel. T. (1970). Death. Nous, 4,
73-80. Reprinted in Nagel, T. (1979). Mortal Questions (pp 1-10)
Cambridge UK; Cambridge University Press.

O’Keefe, T. (2010). Epicureanism.
Durham, UK: Acumen.

Santayana, G. (1910). Three philosophical poets: Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Sedley, D. (2018). Lucretius. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Warren, J. (2004). Facing death:
Epicurus and his critics
. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Williams, B. (1973). The
Makropoulos case: Reflections on the tedium of immortality. Reprinted in his Problems
of the Self.
(pp 82-100).  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wilson, C. (2015). Epicureanism: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Wilson, C. (2008). Epicureanism at the
origins of modernity.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.




Metaphor and Meaning

At the close of the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Horatio notices the arrival of the dawn

But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.
(Hamlet, I-1: 165-6)

No one is on the hill. Horatio is speaking metaphorically, describing the dawn as though it were a person. His words relax the tension of what has just happened. He and his colleagues have just seen the spirit of Hamlet’s father wandering in the real world where it should not be. Terror is in the air. At this moment, however, Horatio does not see a real person on the hill – this is how the dawn seems in his imagination. He takes comfort in metaphor.

Figures of Speech

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (1989), a figure of speech is

any of the various ‘forms’ of expression, deviating from the normal arrangement or use of words, which are adopted in order to give beauty, variety, or force to a composition

And a metaphor is

a figure of speech in which a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable.

The word derives from the Greek words meta (after, beyond) and phorein (carry, bear)

A clearer sense of metaphor is that of Richards (1936, p 93)

In the simplest formulation, when we use a metaphor we have two thoughts of different things active together and supported by a single word, or phrase, whose meaning is the resultant of their interaction.

Richards identified the two thoughts as the “tenor” the “vehicle.” These he does not define, but the tenor is basically the original idea, and the vehicle is the new idea that brings to light or accentuates some aspects of the original. Thus when Romeo says that Juliet is the sun, Juliet is the tenor and the sun the vehicle. In cognitive linguistics, the tenor is generally termed the “target” and the vehicle is the “source” (Kövecses, 2002, p 4).

Black (1993) proposed that the interaction described by Richards is the projection of some characteristics of the vehicle upon the tenor. The mystery of metaphor concerns which characteristics get projected and which do not.

We often differentiate metaphor from simile. A simile makes a direct comparison between tenor and vehicle, using terms such as “like” or “as.” A simile could be considered as a tentative metaphor, or a metaphor as an elliptical simile. Metaphor is far more powerful. Romeo could have said that Juliet was like the sun, but that would not have expressed his passion. Poets often use both metaphor and simile together. Enobarbus describes Cleopatra’s arrival:

The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burned on the water
(Anthony and Cleopatra, II-2: 202-3)

The “burnish’d throne” is a simile, but its burning is a metaphor.

Types of Tropes

The word “trope” (Greek tropos turn) is used to describe figures of speech based on comparisons or associations. As well as metaphor and simile, we have:

allegory – a metaphor wherein the comparison is extended into a story. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress considers the life of a Christian in terms of the journey of one particular man from sin to salvation

analogy – an extended simile used to explain one process or event in terms of another that is more clearly understood.

conceit – a metaphor (or simile) wherein the comparison is highly unusual and intricately detailed.

metonymy – the use of one entity to identify another (meta beyond + onymia name). This occurs in various ways (Kövecses, 2002, pp 143-162): a part can represent the whole (“head” instead of person or animal) or vice versa (“law” instead of a policeman); a container can indicate its contents (“bottle” instead of alcohol); a piece of clothing can stand for the person who wears it (“suits” for lawyers or businessmen); an instrument can mean what it does (“pen” instead of writing); and a place can represent the people who work there (the “White House” instead the President of the United States). Metonymy can highlight a particular aspect of what is being described: to call businessmen “suits” suggests that they all dress in the same way and lack individuality. Metaphors differ from metonymy by bringing completely novel ideas into play: to call businessmen “predators” suggests that they are out for blood. Kövecses describes this difference by proposing that metonymy stays within a single cognitive domain whereas metaphor crosses into another domain. He also suggests that a simple difference between metonymy and metaphor is that only the latter can be meaningfully recast as a simile. One would not say that businessmen are “like suits,” but it is easy to claim that they are “like predators.”

symbol (Greek syn together + ballo throw)– a simple metaphorical expression typically used as a stand-in for an abstract idea (“cross” for the Christian religion, “rose” for love). Symbols can enhance the emotional impact of a statement by making the idea concrete.

synecdoche (Greek syn together + ekdoche interpret) has been variably defined over the years. It is usually considered as a subclass of metonymy wherein the whole is signified by the part.

Poetry and Language

Poetry is the natural home of metaphor. Poets portray the world in ways that help us to see what we have not noticed before, and to understand what we previously could not. They teach us how best to express ideas, and provide emotional depth for our experiences. At least this is what Shelley (1821) proposed:

They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

This is hyperbole. However, much of our normal language evolves from metaphor. The use of “leg” in relation to a table was once metaphorical, but is now just one of the many accepted meanings of the word “leg.” Etymology records the passage from figurative to literal. Present meaning is sometimes equivalent to the metaphorical origin (“metaphor”- carried over), sometimes related (“malaria” – bad air) and sometimes almost completely unrelated (“muscle” – little mouse).

Normal human language is replete with metaphorical systems (Reddy, 1993; Gibbs, 1994; Lakoff and Johnson, 2003; Kövecses, 2002). Life is a journey; argument is war; ideas are food; relations are a game. The following illustrates one such metaphorical system – theories (and arguments) are buildings:

Is that the foundation for your theory? The theory needs more support. The argument is shaky. We need some more facts or the argument will fall apart. We need to construct a strong argument for that. I haven’t figured out yet what the form of the argument will be. Here are some more facts to shore up the theory. We need to buttress the theory with solid arguments. The theory will stand or fall on the strength of that argument. The argument collapsed. They exploded his latest theory. We will show that theory to be without foundation. So far we have put together only the framework of the theory. (Lakoff and Johnson, 2003, p 46)

Although prose and poetry both make extensive use of metaphor, poetry remains apart from normal language in its intensity and novelty (Donoghue, 2014). When Shakespeare’s Cleopatra puts the asp to her breast, she says

                         Come, thou mortal wretch,
With thy sharp teeth this knot intrinsicate
Of life at once untie.
(Anthony
and Cleopatra, V-2: 330-302)

The central metaphor is that life is a knot that death can untie. However, this poetry is more than metaphor. Shakespeare invented the word “intrinsicate” probably as a combination of “intricate” and “intrinsic.” Perhaps “transient” can also be heard within the word. And the metaphor of “knot” brings “not” immediately to mind – life is defined by its negation.

Metaphor and Truth

Metaphor has an ambivalent relationship with truth (Searle, 1993). A metaphorical statement is not literally true. Juliet is not the sun. Yet literal falseness is not a defining aspect of a metaphor. The statement ‘Juliet is not the sun.’ is literally true but can still be metaphorical – perhaps she shines more subtly than the brazen sun. Even when one makes a comparison in the form of a simile, truth is still not certain. We do not know what determines that something can be “seen as” something else (Zwicky, 2003).

Most discussions of metaphor, however, contend that a metaphor can express truth –“ring true” – despite being literally false (Binkley, 1974). The meaning of a statement depends on much more that its literal translation. The intent of the speaker, the context of the statement and the sensitivity of the hearer all contribute to meaning (Speaks, 2014). And whether or not that meaning is true depends on the shared knowledge of speaker and hearer. So Davidson (1978) insists that the speaker of metaphor means what he or she says. In respect to meaning and truth metaphor is then no different from other modes of expression.

Words Proper

The subtle relationship of metaphor to truth, however, made some of the early modern philosophers skeptical about anything that could not just be said in plain English.

Thomas Hobbes (1651) said that man excelled all other animals in his ability to determine the consequences of things and to express these consequences in words. However, he found that this privilege was allayed by a tendency to absurdity, a characteristic shared by no other living creature. Among the causes of absurdity are

the use of Metaphors, Tropes, and other Rhetoricall figures, in stead of words proper. For though it be lawfull to say, (for example) in common speech, the way goeth, or leadeth hither, or thither, The Proverb sayes this or that (whereas wayes cannot go, nor Proverbs speak); yet in reckoning, and seeking of truth, such speeches are not to be admitted. (Chapter V).

Yet this comes from the author who used the metaphor of Leviathan to describe the state, wherein the residents transfer all power to a sovereign in return for the maintenance of civil order. The frontispiece of his book – an engraving by Abraham Bosse shows the sovereign, composed of all his people, wielding the sword of civil power and the crozier of religious belief. The Latin inscription quotes from the Book of Job (41:24): Non Est potestas Super Terram quae Comparetur ei (There is no power on earth which can be compared to him).

In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), John Locke proposed that figurative speech and allusion are wholly to be avoided in any attempt to describe the truth:

Since Wit and Fancy finds easier entertainment in the World, than dry Truth, and real Knowledg, figurative Speeches, and allusion in Language, will hardly be admitted, as an Imperfection or Abuse of it. I confess in Discourses, where we seek rather Pleasure and Delight than Information and Improvement, such Ornaments as are borrowed from them, can scarce pass for Faults. But yet, if we would speak of Things as they are, we must allow, that all the Art of Rhetorick, besides Order and Clearness, all the artificial and figurative Application of Words Eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong Ideas, move the Passions, and thereby mislead the Judgment, and so indeed are perfect cheat: And therefore however laudable or allowable Oratory may render them in Harangues and popular Addresses, they are certainly, in all Discourses that pretend to inform or instruct, wholly to be avoided ; and where Truth and Knowledg are concerned, cannot but be thought a great Fault, either of the Language or Person that makes use of them. (III: X: 34)

However, this aversion to figurative language did not stop the author from describing the mind of man using multiple metaphors:

Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it, with an almost endless variety. (II: 1: 2)

Metaphors in Science

Scientists are much less skeptical of using figurative language than these early modern philosophers. Metaphor is the way to see what is invisible.  Analogy is the way to explain how things work.

Many different metaphors have been used to illustrate the structure of the atom. These are illustrated in the following figure, which shows the structure of the carbon atom containing 6 protons, 6 neutrons and 6 electrons. Dalton’s initial idea was that atoms were like billiard balls. Thomson discovered electrons and proposed that these particles were stuck in the atom like negative plums in a positive pudding. Rutherford determined that most of the atom was space and concluded that the electrons moved in orbits around a central nucleus just like planets move around the sun. Bohr proposed that electrons could only orbit at specific distances from the nucleus. Movement from one orbit to another was associated with release or absorption of energy. Rutherford later proposed that the nucleus contained both neutrons and protons. Heisenberg demonstrated that an electron had no specific location but rather existed as a cloud of possible locations. Schrödinger found that these clouds were defined by wave functions. These equations gave probability-shapes that are called “orbitals.”

Other metaphors can help explain the workings of the different organelles in a cell. The following views the neuron in terms of a manufacturing company.

Metaphor in Religion

Religious scripture is permeated with metaphor (Soskice, 1985). How else can one describe what is beyond human understanding. The most famous metaphor for God in the Judeo-Christian tradition is that of the Good Shepherd (Psalm 23, John 10: 1-21). This is illustrated in the 5th-century CE mosaics in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna.

This metaphor tells us that a force in the universe takes care of us like a shepherd takes care of his sheep – leading us to food and shelter, protecting us from danger, finding us when we have gone astray, if necessary dying that we might live. Thus might we gain some insight into something far beyond our understanding.

Though metaphor is acknowledged as a means for conveying religious truths, there is no accepted limit about how far one might go in terms of metaphorical interpretation. In the Christian religion, for example, should a believer consider the resurrection of Christ to be literally or metaphorically true? Most believers follow the Nicene Creed and insist that the resurrection actually happened. But could the story be metaphorical rather than historical? Richard Holloway (2001) discusses the resurrection in terms of our ability to make changes for the better rather than in terms of its historical truth. He uses the story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott as an example of a “resurrection moment:”

Resurrection is the refusal to be imprisoned any longer by history and its long hatreds; it is the determination to take the first step out of the tomb. It may be a personal circumstance that immobilises us, or a social evil that confronts us: whatever it is, we simply refuse any longer to accept it, because the logic of resurrection calls us to action. It follows, therefore, that if we say we believe in the resurrection it only has meaning if we are people who believe in the possibility of transformed lives, transformed attitudes and transformed societies. The action is the proof of the belief. So I end with what may appear to be a paradox: I can say I believe in that resurrection then, the Jesus resurrection, because I see resurrections now, see stones rolled away and new possibilities rising from old attitudes. If a belief is an action indicator rather than a purely mental event, belief in resurrection means that I must commit myself to the possibility of transformation. That means continuing to struggle with the intractability of my own nature; more importantly, it means joining with others in action to bring new life to human communities that are still held in the grip of death. (p 141).

Another tenet of the Christian belief is the idea of the Second Coming – when Christ will return to the earth to judge what we have done and to reign in a new and perfect world. Christ in his majesty is depicted in Hans Memling’s Christ with Singing Angels from 1480 CE.

Should a Christian believe in this Second Coming as something that will actually occur? Or is it a metaphor for life leading ultimately toward peace and prosperity? Provided that we follow the injunctions of the religion to love our neighbor.

Envoi

In the closing scene of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Horatio bids farewell to the dying Hamlet.

Now cracks a noble heart.—Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!
(Hamlet, V-5: 359-60)

Angels are a metaphor for the forces that might take care of us in our suffering, accompany us through whatever happens at the moment of death, and celebrate us when we have done well. There are no angels. Yet if there were, they would be with Hamlet. Horatio finds comfort in metaphor.

References

Black, M. (1993). More about metaphor. In Ortony, A. (Ed). Metaphor and thought. (pp 19-41). Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Binkley, T. (1974). On the truth and probity of metaphor Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 33, 171-180.

Davidson, D. (1978). What metaphors mean. Critical Inquiry, 5, 31-47.

Donoghue, D. (2014). Metaphor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gibbs, R. W. (1994). The poetics of mind: Figurative thought, language, and understanding. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hobbes, T. (1651/1929). Leviathan, or the matter, form, and power of a commonwealth ecclesiastical and civil. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Holloway, R. (2001). Doubts and loves: What is left of Christianity?. Edinburgh: Canongate.

Kövecses, Z. (2002). Metaphor: A practical introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Locke, J. (1690) An essay concerning human understanding. Volume I (Books 1 and 2) available at archive.org. Book 3 available at archive.org

Reddy, M.J. (1993). The conduit metaphor: a case of frame conflict in our language about language. In Ortony, A. (Ed.) Metaphor and thought. (pp. 164-201). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Richards, I. A. (1936). The philosophy of rhetoric. New York: Oxford University Press.

Searle, J. R. (1993). Metaphor. In Ortony, A. (Ed.) Metaphor and thought. (pp. 83-111). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Shelley, P. B. (1821/1915). A defense of poetry. In Salt, H. S. (Ed) Selected prose works of Shelley. (pp 75-118). London: Watts.

Soskice, J. M. (1985). Metaphor and religious language. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Speaks, J. (2014). Theories of meaning. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Zwicky, J. (2003). Wisdom & metaphor. Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press.

 




Vanity of Vanity

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
(Ecclesiastes 2:1-2)

Thus begins Ecclesiastes, the most unusual book in the Judeo-Christian Bible. Unlike the rest of the Bible, this book claims that the nature of the world is neither revealed to us nor accessible to reason. The universe and its Creator pay us no particular regard. Man is not special. Heretical though these thoughts might be, Ecclesiastes contains some of the world’s most widely quoted verses of scripture. The words of the Preacher resonate through the seasons of our lives. This post comments on several selections from the book.

Qohelet

The author of the book is called Qohelet (קהלת in Hebrew). This word derives from a root meaning to “assemble” or “bring people together.” The name suggests a sage who teaches a group of disciples. The translators have taken it to mean someone who preaches in a church (Latin, ecclesia). Yet Qohelet was clearly neither priest nor preacher. He was a rich man, a master of estates and an owner of palaces. The title Ecclesiastes is inappropriate. As pointed out by Lessing (1998),

thus do the living springs of knowledge, of wisdom, become captured by institutions, and by churches of various kinds.

According to the first line of the book, its author was Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba. However, although Qohelet may have been a descendant of David, linguistic evidence (reviewed in Bundvad, 2015, pp 5-9) indicates that he wrote in the 3rd century BCE during the Hellenistic period (323-63 BCE), some seven hundred years after Solomon. Other scholars have suggested that the author may have written several centuries earlier during the Persian period (539-323 BCE), but this would still be long after Solomon (10th Century BCE).

The first line of the book may have been added by a later editor who wished this scripture to partake of Solomon’s fame. More likely, it is original, indicating that Ecclesiastes is a fictional testament: an imagined description of what Solomon might have thought (see discussion in Batholomew, 2009, pp 43-54). However, the book is ambiguous in terms of its narration. As the book progresses Qohelet becomes clearly distinguished from Solomon. And even Qohelet vacillates between two minds: that of a Jewish believer and that of a Greek philosopher (Bartholomew, 2009, p. 78).

 

 

Ben Shahn (1971) imagines Qohelet as a simple teacher. Though once rich and powerful, his thoughts have led him to withdraw from high society. Although dismayed that he has not been able to understand its meaning, he still enjoys the life he has been granted.

 

 

 

Vanity

Qohelet’s summary of his philosophy is that “All is vanity.” Shahn (1971) presents the beginning of the second verse in calligraphy:

 

The full verse and its transliteration follows. Note that the Hebrew goes from right to left whereas the transliteration goes from left to right (As Qohelet later says, “The wind goeth toward the south and turneth about unto the north”):

הבל הבלים אמר קהלת הבל הבלים הכל הבל׃

havel havalim amar kohelet, havel havalim hakkol havel.

The sound of the Hebrew follows (just in case you wish to denounce the world’s latest frivolity out loud):

The key Hebrew word is havel (הבל). This

indicates the flimsy vapor that is exhaled in breathing, invisible except on a cold winter day and in any case immediately dissipating in the air (Alter, 2010, p 340)

The word can be directly translated as “vapor” or “breath.” Alter translates havel havelim as “mere breath.” It denotes something without material substance or temporal persistence. Many translators have characterized it in abstract terms: meaningless, transient, empty, useless, absurd, futile, enigmatic, illusory.

The word havel has the same letters as the name of Abel, the second son of Adam, slain by his brother Cain. Qohelet was likely aware of this association (Bundvad, 2015, pp 79-80). Abel was the first man to die. His life was fleeting and uncertain, his death unjust, his person only faintly remembered.

The King James Version of the Bible (1611) translates havel as “vanity.” This word comes from the Latin vanus meaning empty. The translators used “vanity” to denote a lack of meaning, value or purpose. The secondary, now more common, meaning for the word – self-admiration, excessive pride (the opposite of humility) – may have come about as a particular example of worthless activity.

At the time of the King James Version, the term vanitas was also used to denote a type of painting became popular in Flanders and the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries. The example below is by Pieter Claesz (1628). These paintings arrange objects to show the transience of life, the limits of understanding and the inevitability of death. Despite their meaning, the paintings are imbued with sensual beauty:

The appeal of the vanitas painting tradition lies in its successful capture of the subtle balance between transient and joyful modes of living, so vociferously endorsed by Qoheleth. (Christianson, 2007, p 122).

Benefit

After introducing himself and summarizing his message, Qohelet poses the main question of the book:

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? (Ecclesiastes, 1:3)

The word translated as “profit” is yitron (יתרון). This word is only found in the Bible in Ecclesiastes. Perhaps “benefit” might be a better translation (Bartholomew, 2009, pp 107-108). The “labour” involves both physical and mental work. The idea is how best we should lead our lives.

The answer begins with the glorious poem

One generation passeth away,
and another generation cometh:
but the earth abideth for ever.

The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down,
and hasteth to his place where he arose.

The wind goeth toward the south,
and turneth about unto the north;
it whirleth about continually,
and the wind returneth again
according to his circuits.

All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full;
unto the place from whence the rivers come,
thither they return again.

All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it:
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be;
and that which is done is that which shall be done:
and there is no new thing under the sun.

(Ecclesiastes 1: 3-9).

The poetry is beautiful but there is no profit in it. Human beings come and go. The human mind cannot gain sufficient knowledge of the world to understand its workings or to change it in any significant way. The world is as frustrating as it is beautiful. The more one knows, the more one is convinced of one’s transience:

For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. (Ecclesiastes 1: 18)

Qohelet realizes that life can nevertheless be enjoyable.

There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God. (Ecclesiastes 2: 24)

This is the old man’s version of the Andrew Marvel’s “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” The sentiment is perhaps as old as poetry. The Roman poet Catullus in the 1st Century BCE also wrote how the sun arises after it goes down but man does not:

soles occidere et redire possunt;
nobis, cum semel occidit brevis lux
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum

Walter Raleigh in his History of the World (1614) translated this as

The Sunne may set and rise
But we contrariwise
Sleepe after our short light
One everlasting night.

Raleigh does not translate the continuation of the poem wherein Catullus goes on to request a compensatory thousand kisses from his lover Lesbia.

Time

Qohelet has been considering the passage of time. The word used for time in Ecclesiastes – eth (עת) – generally refers to a moment of time. The other Hebrew word for time is olam (עולם) which takes all of time into account and is usually translated as “for ever” (as in Ecclesiastes 1:4). In the first chapter Qohelet contrasted world time with human time.

In Chapter 3, he considers a different aspect of time. God has ensured that events occur at their appropriate time. Eternity has been arranged in its proper sequence.

To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up
that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones,
and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace,
and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

 

 

 

Ben Shahn (1971) portrays the essence of these lines with a wheat field at harvest time:

 

 

 

These verses can be interpreted in two main ways. The first proposes that time has been pre-ordained to work out the purposes of God, that we cannot change these things, and that we should be resigned to what happens. Everything is for the best. The other interpretation uses these words to justify one’s actions. Martin Luther quoted these verses when the time had come to speak out against the Catholic Church (Christianson, 2007, p 166). Thus are human actions divinely justified. Luther believed in predestination. He spoke out not by choice but because he had no choice: he could not do otherwise.

These verses were set to music by the folksinger Pete Seeger in the late 1950s. His lyrics directly quote the King James Version using the first verse with the addition of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” as the refrain. After “a time of peace” Seeger added “I swear it’s not too late.” The song became an anthem of the peace movement. The following is an excerpt:

Qohelet recognizes the beauty of God’s time. Yet he is frustrated that he can never understand it:

I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him.
That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past.
(Ecclesiastes 3: 14-15)

This idea of time as divinely ordered but incomprehensible to the human mind pervades T. S. Eliots’ Burnt Norton (1935) which begins:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

Qohelet goes on to state that since we cannot understand we are no different from other animals. We live, we die.

For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.
All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.
(Ecclesiastes 3:19-20)

These statements go against all previous Jewish teachings. Qohelet’s book

amounts to a denial of divine revelation, and of the belief that man was created as an almost divine being, to care for and exercise dominion over the other creatures and all the works of God’s hands. … In the final analysis man is like the animals rather than superior to them (Scott, 1965, p. 205)

Johannes Brahms was devastated when his friend Clara Schumann suffered a stroke in 1895 and was close to death. During this time, he composed his Four Serious Songs Opus 121. The first song is uses Luther’s translation of Ecclesiastes 3: 19-22. The following is the beginning (up to wird wieder zu Staub “turn to dust again”) as sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:

Denn es gehet dem Menschen wie dem Vieh; wie dies stirbt, so stirbt er auch; und haben alle einerlei Odem;und der Mensch hat nichts mehr denn das Vieh: denn es ist alles eitel.
Es fährt alles an einen Ort; es ist alles von Staub gemacht, und wird wieder zu Staub.

This first song is desolate – we die like beasts, our life is empty, we are made of dust. The later songs in the series progress from deep sadness to quiet resignation. The final song sets verses from the New Testament, among them

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (I Corinthians 13:12)

Brahms called his songs “serious” (ernst) rather than “sacred.” This is a fitting description of the book Ecclesiastes.

Justice

After considering the inevitability of death, Qohelet turns to evaluate the course of human life. He finds that success does not necessarily reward those who most deserve it:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
(Ecclesiastes 9:11)

A brief adaptation of this verse was included in the posthumously published Last Poems of D. H. Lawrence (1932). The poem Race and Battle is notable for its image of the “streaked pansy of the heart” which recalls the title of his earlier book Pansies, itself a pun on Pascal’s Pensées. Lawrence attempts to explain how to accept that life may be unfair and preserve a personal sense of justice.

The race is not to the swift
but to those that can sit still
and let the waves go over them.

The battle is not to the strong
but to the frail, who know best
how to efface themselves
to save the streaked pansy of the heart from
being trampled to mud.

Lawrence’s poem adds to Qohelet’s resignation some of the later teachings of Jesus – Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth… Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God (Matthew 5: 5,8).

Instruction

Qohelet’s search for wisdom has led him to dismay. Death is inevitable and unpredictable. Life is without justice. Nevertheless, Qohelet urges us to enjoy our life:

Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works.
Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment.
Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.
(Ecclesiastes 9:7-10)

White clothes are worn for festive occasions. Their whiteness contrasts with the black of mourning. Anointing one’s hair with oil is another sign of gladness. Yet the most important of Qohelet’s injunctions is to work at whatever needs to be done.

Qohelet’s advice is related to the philosophies of Epicurus (341-270 BCE) in its enjoyment of life and of the stoic Zeno (334-262 BCE) in its promotion of right action. If, as most scholars now believe, Qohelet wrote in the 3rd Century BCE, he could have been influenced by such Greek philosophies. He certainly based his search for truth on reason rather than on revelation. Yet his philosophy is his own. It is religious rather than materialist.

Scott (1965, p 206) summarizes Qohelet’s reasoning:

Thus the good of life is in the living of it. The profit of work is in the doing of it, not in any profit or residue which a man can exhibit as his achievement or pass on to his descendants. The fruit of wisdom is not the accumulation of all knowledge and the understanding of all mysteries. It lies rather in recognizing the limitations of human knowledge and power. Man is not the measure of all things. He is the master neither of life nor of death. He can find serenity only in coming to terms with the unalterable conditions of his existence, and in enjoying its real but limited satisfactions.

 

 

Ben Shahn presents the thoughts of Qohelet as balanced between his inability to understand and his realization that life can nevertheless be enjoyed:

 

 

 

Qohelet has much in common with the existentialism of the 20th Century. Albert Camus remarks in Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942):

Je ne sais pas si ce monde a un sens qui le dépasse. Mais je sais que je ne connais pas ce sens et qu’il m’est impossible pour le moment de le connaître. [I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I cannot grasp that meaning and that it is impossible now for me to grasp it.]

Camus is much more tentative than Qohelet in his conclusion that we should nevertheless enjoy our life. He retells the myth of Sisyphus who was condemned by the Gods because he had tried to cheat death. He was made to roll an immense boulder up to the summit of a mountain, but every time he reached the top, the rock would roll back down and Sisyphus would have to begin his task again.

La lutte elle-même vers les sommets suffit à remplir un cœur d’homme; il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux. [The very struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. ]

Bread upon the Waters

Qohelet presents us with multiple proverbial injunctions about how one should live one’s life. Perhaps the most quoted of these is:

Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth.
(Ecclesiastes 11: 1-2)

The verses have been interpreted in many ways. Merchants have considered them in terms of overseas trade. Christians have proposed that it means to spread the teachings of Christ throughout the world. This idea derives from Christ’s statement that he was the “bread of life” (John 6:35). Qohelet had neither of these ideas in mind. He was encouraging us to be generous, to provide for our fellows. He was suggesting that such human charity could compensate for life’s injustice.

In his own old age, the wise Richard Wilbur (2010) wrote a poem about these verses

We must cast our bread
Upon the waters,
as the
Ancient preacher said,

Trusting that it may
Amply be restored to us
After many a day.

That old metaphor,
Drawn from rice farming on the
River’s flooded shore,

Helps us to believe
That it’s no great sin to give,
Hoping to receive.

Therefore I shall throw
Broken bread, this sullen day,
Out across the snow,

Betting crust and crumb
That birds will gather, and that
One more spring will come.

 

Light and Dark

Qohelet reminds us that life brings both enjoyment and dismay. The verses are illustrated by Ben Shahn on the left.

Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun:
But if a man live many years, and rejoice in them all; yet let him remember the days of darkness; for they shall be many.
(Ecclesiastes 11: 7-8)

 

 

Remember Now

The last chapter of Ecclesiastes contains its most famous poetry. Qohelet, who has become old and wise, advises his youthful followers. He tells them to rejoice in their youth for life is beautiful. Yet they must always bear in mind that they must grow old and die:

Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth,
while the evil days come not,
nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say,
I have no pleasure in them;

While the sun, or the light, or the moon,
or the stars, be not darkened,
nor the clouds return after the rain:

In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble,
and the strong men shall bow themselves,
and the grinders cease because they are few,
and those that look out of the windows be darkened,

And the doors shall be shut in the streets,
when the sound of the grinding is low,
and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird,
and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;

Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high,
and fears shall be in the way,
and the almond tree shall flourish,
and the grasshopper shall be a burden,
and desire shall fail:
because man goeth to his long home,
and the mourners go about the streets:

Or ever the silver cord be loosed,
or the golden bowl be broken,
or the pitcher be broken at the fountain,
or the wheel broken at the cistern.

Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was:
and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.

(Ecclesiastes 12: 1-8)

Qohelet refers to God as the Creator (borador, בוראיך). This is the only time he uses this term; elsewhere he uses Elohim (אלהים). Qohelet is here invoking Genesis: we must view the end of an individual life in relation to the beginning of all life. Some commentators (Rashi; Scott, 1965, p. 255) have remarked on the relations of this word to bor (בור) which occurs in the 7th verse.  This means “pit,” in the sense of either a “grave” or a “cistern.” This verbal association also brings the end of life back to its source.

The poem is as enigmatic as it is beautiful. The initial verse of the poem clearly states that it is concerned with human mortality. Yet how the images relate to old age and death is as uncertain as the breath that ceases. And the poem ends on the words that began the book – all is vanity, merest breath.

A literal interpretation is that the poem describes a village or estate in mourning for a once-great person lately fallen on hard times. Perhaps Qohelet is foreseeing his own death. The windows of the house are darkened, the mill is quiet as the workers remember their late master, the mourners go about the streets, and finally dust is scattered over the body as it is buried.

A long tradition has provided allegorical interpretations of the images, relating them to the physical and mental decline that attends old age. The underlying idea is that the aging body is like a house in decay. For example, the commentary of the 11th-century Jewish rabbi Rashi suggests

the keepers of the house: These are the ribs and the flanks, which protect                                    the entire body cavity
the mighty men: These are the legs, upon which the body supports itself
and the grinders cease: These are the teeth
since they have become few: In old age, most of his teeth fall out
and those who look out of the windows: These are the eyes.
And the doors shall be shut: These are his orifices.
when the sound of the mill is low: the sound of the mill grinding the food in                                   his intestines, and that is the stomach

The problem with such specific allegories is that different commentators provide different meanings. Do the doors that shut denote the eyelids or the lips?

Other interpretations are more abstract. Does the pitcher broken at the fountain represent the bladder or the loss of the life force? Is the silver cord the spinal column or the genealogical tree that ends at the death of a person with no heirs?

Some Hebrew interpretations consider these verses as representing the desolation of Israel following the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. The image of the golden bowl might then represent the broken lamp that no longer lit the sanctuary.

Some Christian interpretations see the imagery as a vision of the end times that will precede the final judgment. This fits with the epilogue that follows the poem.

No single interpretation conveys the sense of the poem. All meanings overlap. The poem is better listened to than imagined. The following is by the YouTube reader who goes by the name of Tom O’Bedlam

Judgment

The book concludes with an epilogue that many take to be the words of a later editor. However, it rings true to Qohelet:

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.
(Ecclesiastes 12: 13-14)

Why else should one remember one’s Creator? Why else should one bear in mind one’s ultimate old age and death? The sentiment is similar to Marcus Aurelius (167 CE):

Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good.
(Meditations IV:17)

Qohelet is also proposing that to be good is to be truly human – “the whole duty of man.” Any judgment of us as human beings must rest on whether we have done good or ill. Qohelet’s instruction derives from man as much as from God.

The following presents the Hebrew (in Ben Shahn’s calligraphy) together with its transliteration and an audio version of Ecclesiastes 12:13

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.

sovf dabar hakkol nishma eth ha’elohim yera eth mitzvotav shemovr ki zeh kol ha’adam.

References

Alter, R. (2010). The wisdom books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes : a translation with commentary. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Bartholomew, C. G. (2009). Ecclesiastes. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Bundvad, M. (2015). Time in the book of Ecclesiastes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Christianson, E. S. (2007). Ecclesiastes through the centuries. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Lawrence, D. H. (Edited by Aldington, R., & Orioli, G., 1932). Last poems. Florence: Orioli.

Lessing, D. (1998). Introduction. In Ecclesiastes or, the preacher: Authorised King James version. Edinburgh: Canongate.

Scott, R. B. Y. (1965). Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. (Anchor Bible Volume 18). Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Shahn, B. (1971). Ecclesiastes: Or, the preacher. New York: Grossman.

Wilbur, R. (2010). Anterooms: New poems and translations. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

 




The Mysteries

For over a millennium the Mysteries were celebrated at Eleusis, about 18 km northwest of Athens. The main buildings in the temple precinct were built in the 5th Century BCE, but earlier buildings were present in the 6th Century, and evidence of cult-activity at the site goes back to the Mycenaean period before 1100 BCE (Mylonas, 1961, Chapter II). The Mysteries continued through the Hellenistic and Roman ages until their demise in the 4th Century CE when Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire.

What happened during the Mysteries is unknown. Those who were initiated into the Mysteries were instructed not to reveal their secrets. All we know is that they provided their initiates with a vision of the divine and a way to cope with death.

 Myth

The Mysteries at Eleusis were based upon Demeter and Persephone (also known as Kore, the maiden). The earliest recorded version of their story is in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter from the 7th Century BCE (Lawton, 1898, pp. 154-179). Persephone was the daughter of Demeter (the Goddess of the Harvest) and Zeus. She was carried off by Hades to rule with him as Queen of the Underworld. While in the realm of the dead, Persephone sometimes assumed the name of Thea, and the Underworld later became known by the name of its king. Bernini’s 1622 sculpture of the Rape of Persephone is the most famous representation of the myth.

On the left is shown a 5th-Century BCE votive tablet found in Southern Italy. The King and Queen of the Underworld sit together: Persephone holds a hen and a spray of wheat stems, and Hades displays a libation dish and a fully leaved tree-branch. Despite the fact that they rule over the dead, they are concerned with life.

Back on Earth, Demeter was grief-stricken. She wandered far and wide in search of her daughter. Ultimately she arrived at Eleusis and accepted the hospitality of its king, Celeus, and his family.

Demeter was the God of fruitfulness, and in her grief the Earth had become infertile:

                                      The Earth did not send up any seed.
Demeter, she with the beautiful garlands in her hair, kept the seeds covered underground.
Many a curved plough was dragged along the fields by many an ox—all in vain.
Many a bright grain of wheat fell into the earth—all for naught.
(Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Nagy 1914 translation, ll 306-309)

Zeus decided that this barrenness should not persist. After much negotiation with Demeter and with Hades, he arranged that Persephone could return periodically to her mother:

Zeus assented that her daughter, every time the season came round,
would spend a third portion of the year in the realms of dark mist underneath,
and the other two thirds in the company of her mother and the other immortals. (ll 464-465)

Thus the land returned to cyclic fruitfulness. The thankful Demeter taught Triptolemus, Celeus’ son, all the secrets of agriculture. One interpretation of the Eleusinian relief at the National Archeological Museum in Athens shows Demeter (on the left) presenting wheat stems (no longer visible) to the young Triptolemus. Persephone lays her hand upon his head in blessing.

In celebration of the return of Persephone, Demeter also proposed that the Mysteries be conducted annually at Eleusis. These rites occurred each autumn just before the wheat was planted. The climate of Greece is such that nothing grows in the summer, ploughing and seeding occur in the fall, and the grain is harvested in spring (Cartwright, 2016).

Initiation

After a large procession from Athens to Eleusis, a group of several hundred people were initiated each year into the Mysteries. Much more is known about the procession than the actual rites which occurred within the sanctuary, though these are far more important. The rites at Eleusis lasted for two days. What happened during this time is not known since the initiates (mystai or telestai) were sworn to secrecy. We can only speculate based on scattered references and representations from the time. The following narrative combines elements from Mylonas (1961, pp 224-285) Kerenyi (1967, pp 67-102), Clinton (1992, 1993) and Bremmer (2014). A reconstruction of the temple buildings is illustrated below:

The first day was spent in fasting and purification. Outside of the main gate was a well which provided water for cleansing the body. The illustration on the Roman Lovatelli Urn (from 1st Century BCE) shows an attendant holding a winnowing fan (lyknon) over the head of a veiled initiate. A winnowing fan is used to separate the chaff from the wheat. It therefore symbolizes both harvesting and purification. In this particular representation, the initiate is Heracles (as seen from the lion skin of the Nemean Lion on which he sits).

At the end of the day the initiates were given a special non-alcoholic drink called kykeon. This was likely made from grain, honey, and herbs. Wasson et al. (1978) have suggested that it may have contained hallucinogens (also called “entheogens” – drugs that promote the experience of the divine), although it is doubtful that the dose could have been adjusted properly for such a large number of people.

As the night came on, the initiates were ushered by Iacchus into the Sanctuary through the main gate (Propylaia) and then through the narrower lesser gate. In the area now called the Ploutonion they could look into cave in the hillside. Clinton suggests that here they might have seen a representation of Demeter in her grief, seated upon the agelastos petra (mirthless rock).

Then the initiates spent the night in inner regions of the sanctuary. There was likely music and prayers. Perhaps the initiates wandered around, trying to help Demeter find Persephone. There was much confusion due to the darkness, the veils, the fasting, and the kykeon.

Later that night the initiates entered the central Telesterion. Again this was likely dark.  After a while a large gong was sounded and the central platform Anaktorion became suddenly lit up with blazing torches. The initiates then saw Persephone brought back from the Underworld by the herald Euboulos to be re-united with Demeter.

Following this, and perhaps only to those in their second year of initiation, various sacred objects were revealed by the special attendant known as the hierophant (from hieros, sacred and phainein, show). Most experts think that these may have been representations of the wheat and the harvest. Others (e.g. Kerenyi) have suggested that Persephone was shown giving birth to a son.

The dawn brought the second day, which was enjoyed in feasting and music.

Ninnion Tablet

The only definite contemporary representation of the Eleusinian Mysteries is the Ninnion Tablet found at the Eleusis, dated to the 4th Century BCE and now in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens (Mylonas, 1961, pp 213-221; Clinton, 1992, pp 73-75). The tablet has been interpreted in several ways. The writing suggests that the initiate’s name was Niinnion, but most now accept that that the double-i is a mistake.

The lower and upper sections of the tablet can be interpreted as showing two stages of the Mysteries. In the lower half Iacchus, holding torches, ushers the female initiate (one assumes this is Ninnion) and her bearded male companion toward the Goddess Demeter on the right. Ninnion is bearing a vessel on her head, the contents of which will likely be used as a libation to sanctify the Telesterion. Her right hand is raised in greeting and in wonder. Demeter is seated beside an open seat for her lost daughter.

The upper half of the tablet shows the second stage of the rites. The bearded man, a young boy and Ninnion are now approaching another vison. On the right Persephone holding two torches becomes reunited with her mother. Demeter’s pale complexion in the lower representation has become suffused in the upper with the red of happiness.

Most consider the Mysteries to involve two stages: myesis and epopteia. These may related to the two different visions seen during the rites at Eleusis. Others have interpreted the stages differently. Myesis was one of the words used to denote the mysteries. It may have derived from a simpler word meaning “to close.” This itself may have alluded to the secrecy of the proceedings, the closed eyes of the initiates before the revelations or the mental closure that happened after the revelations. In the last sense, it was similar to another word for the mysteries – teletai, which came from the root telos (goal) and meant something accomplished or finished. The second stage was epopteia, which meant “revelation” or “vision,” deriving from ops, eye. Though many agree that there were two stages to the Mysteries, exactly how they occurred remains unknown. Some have suggested that the myesis may have involved “lesser mysteries” that occurred in Athens prior to the initiates going to Eleusis for the “greater mysteries.” The two stages may also have required attendance at the Eleusinian Mysteries on two successive years.

Regina Vasorum

The story of Demeter and Kore was intertwined with several other Greek myths. The Hermitage museum has a beautifully crafted hydria (water carrier) adorned around its shoulder with relief representations of the various divinities associated with Eleusis. This Regina Vasorum (Queen of the Vases) was found in Southern Italy and dates to the 4th Century BCE. The following illustration shows the hydria and that section of the decoration representing the reunited Demeter and Kore.

The following diagram identifies the various divinities. Both Heracles and Dionysus, though heroes of their own myths, also participated in the Mysteries and became initiates. Athena is present since the Mysteries were conducted under the auspices of the city of Athens. Triptolemus is there to represent Eleusis, and perhaps also to be a symbol of normal human beings. Demeter and Kore are portrayed twice – apart and then reunited.

Other Mysteries

The Eleusinian Mysteries were but one of many different mystery-cults in the Ancient World (Burkert, 1987; Bowden, 2010; Bremmer, 2014). Each of the cults provided initiation ceremonies. Each was based on its own set of myths.

The cult of Dionysus/Bacchus centered on the life and actions of the God of Wine. Celebrations of this cult – bacchanalia – involved intoxication with wine and frenzied dancing. Most of the celebrants were female; in their ecstasy these were called maenads. The Orphic rites derived from the story of Orpheus who tried to reclaim his wife from Hades. The myths and cults of Orpheus and Dionysus were closely related. Some stories tell of the death of Orpheus from being torn apart by maenads celebrating the rites of Dionysus.

The cult of Isis came from Egypt but was widely celebrated in the Roman Empire. Isis was a Goddess of fertility similar in nature to Demeter. Her life was a search for the dismembered body of her brother/husband Osiris. The rites of Magna Mater (“great mother”, also called Cybele) originated in Anatolia (where the Romans believed they might have originated – as the descendants of Aeneas). Priestesses in her cult, called Sibyls, provided advice and prophecy in early Rome. In later Roman times, the Persian God Mithra was widely celebrated in secret temples.

The foundational myths of the different mysteries have many similarities. Many involve a journey to Hades and/or the return of someone from the Underworld. Dionysus journeyed to Hades to rescue his mother Semele, who had died when her lover Zeus revealed himself in all his glory. Orpheus sought to rescue his wife from the Underworld.  Osiris was finally brought back to life and became the god of regeneration on the earth and the judge of all who enter the Underworld. The world has known many cults that revolve around the death and resurrection of a God (Frazer, 1923)

Some of the mysteries (particularly those related to Dionysus, and Orpheus) may have provided the initiates with small gold tablets (Bowden 2010, Chapter 7). These were buried along with the deceased in various areas of Greece. The tablets were inscribed with what are apparently instructions about what to do when the initiate dies. The most important instruction was to drink the water from the Pool of Memory (Mnemosyne) rather than from the River of Forgetting (Lethe). Several tablets indicate that Mnemosyne is to the right near a white cypress tree. Once refreshed, the newly dead could “go on the great Sacred Way along which the other famed mystai and bakkhoi make their way” (Bowden, 2010, p 149). The following is a 4th-Century BCE tablet (approximately 2 by 4 inches) from Thessaly (now in the J. P. Getty Museum in California)

The cryptic inscription requests a drink from the Spring of Memory and identifies the bearer according to some prescribed format likely learned from the Mysteries:

I am parched with thirst and am dying; but grant me to drink
from the ever-flowing spring. On the right is a white cypress.
‘Who are you? Where are you from?’ I am a son of Earth and starry sky.
But my race is heavenly.

The Mysteries were thus one way that the Ancients came to grips with the idea of death. Burkert describes the mysteries as “a form of personal religion, depending on a private decision, and aiming at some form of salvation through closeness to the divine.” (1987, p 12). He quotes Cicero who said that those who underwent the initiations at Eleusis learned “how to live in joy, and how to die with better hopes.”(Laws, II, 36).

Literary Allusions to the Mysteries

Two striking allusions to the Mysteries occur in the ancient literature. The first from Plato’s Phaedrus highlights the revelations that came from participating in the Mysteries. For Plato supreme understanding came from recognizing the eternal forms upon which transient individual things were based. In Phaedrus Socrates likens the mind of man to a charioteer which has to control two winged horses, one striving toward the good and one falling away toward evil.  If the mind can control the horses and get the chariot to rise up it might reach the outside of heaven and behold

justice, and temperance, and knowledge absolute, not in the form of generation or of relation, which men call existence, but knowledge absolute in existence absolute (Jowett translation, Section 247)

Before it assumed mortal form the soul understood truth and beauty for which it now has only a faint memory. Sometimes through love or through philosophy this knowledge can be regained. Socrates likens the understanding of the absolute to what happens when one is initiated into the Mysteries:

For there is no light of justice or temperance or any of the higher ideas which are precious to souls in the earthly copies of them: they are seen through a glass dimly; and there are few who, going to the images, behold in them the realities, and these only with difficulty. There was a time when with the rest of the happy band they saw beauty shining in brightness,—we philosophers following in the train of Zeus, others in company with other gods; and then we beheld the beatific vision and were initiated into a mystery which may be truly called most blessed, celebrated by us in our state of innocence, before we had any experience of evils to come, when we were admitted to the sight of apparitions innocent and simple and calm and happy, which we beheld shining in pure light, pure ourselves and not yet enshrined in that living tomb which we carry about, now that we are imprisoned in the body, like an oyster in his shell. (Section 250).*

The second allusion to the Mysteries is by Plutarch, who in his essay On the Soul likens the experience of the soul at death to what happens during the initiation into the Mysteries:

Thus we say that the soul that has passed thither is dead, having regard to its complete change and conversion. In this world it is without knowledge, except when it is already at the point of death; but when that time comes, it has an experience like that of men who are undergoing initiation into great mysteries; and so the verbs teleutan (die) and teleisthai (be initiated), and the actions they denote, have a similarity. In the beginning there is straying and wandering, the weariness of running this way and that, and nervous journeys through darkness that reach no goal, and then immediately before the consummation every possible terror, shivering and trembling and sweating and amazement. But after this a marvellous light meets the wanderer, and open country and meadow lands welcome him; and in that place there are voices and dancing and the solemn majesty of sacred music and holy visions. And amidst these, he walks at large in new freedom, now perfect and fully initiated, celebrating the sacred rites, a garland upon his head, and converses with pure and holy men; he surveys the uninitiated, unpurified mob here on earth, the mob of living men who, herded together in mirk and deep mire, trample one another down and in their fear of death cling to their ills, since they disbelieve in the blessings of the other world. For the soul’s entanglement with the body and confinement in it are against nature, as you may discern from this. (Plutarch from the fragment On the Soul, Sandbach translation, 1969, pp 317-319).

These two mentions of the Mysteries in the ancient literature bring out the two main aspects of the rites: the attainment of understanding through a vision of the divine, and the provision of some way of coping with death.

Relations to Christianity

In the 4th Century CE during the reign of the Emperor Constantine, Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, taking over from the various mystery cults. How much Christianity assimilated from these earlier belief systems is difficult to assess.

Christianity differed significantly from the Mysteries. A primary difference was the lack of secrecy. Christianity was based on set doctrines that were promulgated by the faithful and delineated in scriptural texts. The teachings of the Mysteries were far less dogmatic and heresy was unknown. In addition, Christianity was communal. Believers did not just attend the mysteries once or twice in their lives – they worshipped together weekly and acted on their beliefs daily. A third main difference was the lack of any clear moral teaching in the Mysteries.

The early Church Fathers such as Clement of Alexander (2nd Century CE, icon on the right) both decried the Mysteries as superstition and promoted Christian beliefs as the greatest of the mysteries:

O truly sacred mysteries! O stainless light! My way is lighted with torches, and I survey the heavens and God; I become holy while I am initiated. The Lord is the hierophant, and seals while illuminating him who is initiated, and presents to the Father him who believes, to be kept safe for ever. Such are the reveries of my mysteries. (Protrepticus Chapter 12).

Clement proposed that Christianity was the “mystery of the Word (logos),” the divine truth that was manifest in the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. Clement was using logos in its meaning as “truth.” However, Christianity also differed from the Mysteries in virtue of the other meaning of logos as “word.” Christianity followed scripture; the Mysteries were based on secrets.

The sacraments of Christianity (Baptism, Eucharist, etc.) are often referred to as the Mysteries of Faith. These transcendent rites cannot be understood by reason. The Catholic existentialist philosopher Maritain (1962, First Lecture) differentiated two modes of human thinking. One uses reason to solve problems. The other uses intuition to understand mysteries. Knowledge involves both.

The main story underlying the Christian mysteries is that of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The climax of the story comes with Christ’s statement on the cross as he nears death: tetelestai – “It is finished” (John 19:30). The word is similar to those used in the Mysteries.

The Mysteries dealt with coming face to face with divinity and coping with death.  Christianity was more certain of its ability to provide salvation:

Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (I Corinthians 15 51-55)

What happens to consciousness after death is the great mystery of human life. In the Ancient World this question was addressed by the various Mysteries. As Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, the story of Christ provided the most widely believed answer. “I have met the gods and am prepared for death” changed to “I believe in Christ and have been granted salvation.”

Tetelestai

Human experience is not random. Because of memory we recognize when events repeat and discover the laws whereby they recur. Most importantly we find a self or soul at the point where events become experience.

Every morning when we awaken we quickly reassemble this soul and the world in which it lives. Surely we tell ourselves that death will be no different. Just as the world proceeds from winter into spring, the soul will return to life.

We tell stories of what will happen then, when the body dies and the soul survives. The stories are intricate and beautiful. They provide us with hope for ourselves and comfort for those we leave behind.

Yet we all die. Though the stories and the stones of Eleusis survive, the initiates all vanished long ago. There is no golden ticket to heaven. We are born. We tell stories. Some are true and some fanciful. In the end it is finished, and we are buried in the earth beneath the starry sky.

Note

* The words “through a glass dimly” immediately recall “through a glass darkly” in I Corinthians 13:11 (“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”) The idea is similar to that expressed in Phaedrus, and Paul was undoubtedly aware of Plato’s work. However, it is not a direct quotation – though the translations are similar, the original Greek words are different.

References

Bowden, H. (2010). Mystery cults of the ancient world. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bremmer, J. N. (2014). Initiation into the mysteries of the ancient world. Berlin: De Gruyter. Available at learningsources.altervista.org

Burkert, W. (1987). Ancient mystery cults. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Cartwright, M. (2016). Food and agriculture in Ancient Greece. Ancient History Encyclopedia

Clement of Alexandria (2nd Century CE, translated by W. Watson, 1885). Protrepticus Exhortation to the Heathens.  Available at New Advent

Clinton, K. (1992). Myth and cult: The iconography of the Eleusinian mysteries. Stockholm: Svenska Institutet i Athen.

Clinton, K. (1993). The sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis. In Marinatos, N., & Hägg, R. Greek sanctuaries: New approaches. (pp. 88-98). London: Routledge.

Frazer, J. G. (1923). The Golden Bough: A study in magic and religion. Abridged ed. London: Macmillan. Available at Arkive.org

Kerényi, K. (translated Ralph Manheim, 1967). Eleusis: Archetypal image of mother and daughter. New York: Bollingen Foundation (Pantheon Books).

Lawton, W. C. (1898). The successors of Homer. New York: Macmillan. Available at Arkive.org

Maritain, J. (1939, reprinted 1962). A preface to metaphysics: Seven lectures on being. New York: New American Library.

Mylonas, G. E. (1961). Eleusis and the Eleusinian mysteries. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. Available at Arkive.org

Plato (4th Century BCE, translated B. Jowett, 1892). The dialogues of Plato translated into English with analyses and introductions. Volume I. 3rd Edition. London: MacMillan. Available at Arkive.org

Plutarch (1st Century CE, translated by F. H. Sandbach, 1969). Moralia. Volume XV Fragments. London: Heinemann. Available at Arkive.org

Wasson, R. G., Hofmann, A., & Ruck, C. A. P. (1978). The road to Eleusis: Unveiling the secret of the mysteries. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.




Last Night in Sweden

At a Florida rally on February 18, 2017, Donald Trump spoke about threats of terror:

We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden. They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible. You look at what’s happening in Brussels. You look at what’s happening all over the world. Take a look at Nice. Take a look at Paris. We’ve allowed thousands and thousands of people into our country and there was no way to vet those people. There was no documentation. There was no nothing. So we’re going to keep our country safe. (NY Times)

Trump’s words suggested that something terrible had happened the night before in Sweden. Something like the terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris. Something caused by undocumented refugees. But there had been no terrorist activity in Sweden the night before (Independent). The only recent Swedish terror attack had been over a month ago: Neo-Nazi members of the Nordic Resistance Movement attacked an immigrant asylum in Gothenburg and injured one person.

Trump later said that he was referring to a report on an increase in crime in Sweden since the Syrian refugees had been accepted into the country (Independent). Swedish sources, however, however, have denied any significant recent change in crime rates.

The world is changing rapidly. It is becoming harder to know what is true and what is false. What do we know of the world? What should we believe?

Truth, Knowledge and Belief

Some comments on the philosophy of knowledge might help us determine where we stand in this new world. Epistemology considers what a subject, denoted by S, knows in terms of propositions, denoted by p, e.g. “Snow is white.” The most commonly accepted understanding is that knowledge is “justified true belief:”

S knows p if S believes p on the basis of evidence supporting p, and if p is true.

The truth condition is necessary because we may have false beliefs. This occurs when we conclude on the basis of some evidence that something is true when it is actually false. We may believe that a terror attack occurred in Sweden on January 17, 2017, because the President of the United States said so (or seemed to say so), but this is a false belief.

What is ultimately important then is not what we believe but whether what we believe is actually true. Truth is even more difficult to understand than knowledge. Most commonly we consider something as true if it corresponds to something (a “fact”) in or about the real (or “actual”) world. This approach works fairly well for propositions about the physical world, e.g. “Snow is white.” However, it does not work as well for propositions requiring judgment rather than perception, e.g. “Killing is wrong.” In this case, there may be different kinds of truth. The truth of a proposition depends on its context. “Killing is wrong” may be false in the context of self-defense.

Yet everything is true or not depending on the context. Even “Snow is white” is false in the context of colored illumination. So we have to come together and decide what we mean by things, and what we consider their appropriate contexts. Philosophy considers this state of affairs in terms of pluralist theories of truth.

These ideas become very complex when we consider predictions about what will happen. We have created laws and theories about what will happen on the basis of what has occurred before. These laws and theories are true inasmuch as the predictions they entail have not proved false when we have tested them. Laws about the physical world are more easily considered true or false than laws about human behavior. It is easier to know that the sun will rise tomorrow than that refugees will initiate terror attacks.

Most importantly, we usually have to accept the evidence of other people when we decide about what we know. We cannot personally experience everything, nor can we personally test all possible theories about the world. We depend on others to support what we believe. People in Sweden quickly pointed out that there was no terrorist attack in their country on February 18, 2017.

In evaluating the evidence of others, we have to consider several factors. Most crucial is whether those providing the evidence are trustworthy, and whether they have previously been correct in their assessment of the world. A second factor is that our beliefs must be coherent. We cannot believe that there was a terrorist attack in Sweden on February 17, 2017, and at the same time believe that no one in Sweden noticed this. Finally, we often agree with what most people believe to be true. It is difficult to insist that something happened when most people say it did not. Conforming to majority opinion is clearly not as good as finding out for ourselves, but in most cases we have neither the time nor the ability to do so.  

The Clear and Present Danger 

Given our understanding of knowledge and truth, we must realize that the present state of truth is precarious.

First is the problem of majority opinion. The vicious circle whereby innuendo becomes fact is terrifying. When Trump proposes his belief about something, many people may accept this, both because they trust their President and because it is coherent with their world-view. Then the opinion of the these many people can be used to justify the belief. David Bromwich describes this phenomenon in the London Review of Books:

Trump’s most disturbing habit is also his most ridiculous trait: he credits and is apt to repeat his professed beliefs when – and in exact proportion as – he sees other people credit them. We normally think of beliefs as something you cannot choose (unlike opinions or estimations), but Trump does choose and he correlates the numbers of his followers with truth in the physical world. So when, in an interview on 25 January, the ABC reporter David Muir inquired into his unsubstantiated belief that between three and five million people voted illegally, accounting for Hillary Clinton’s popular majority, Trump replied: ‘You know what’s important? Millions of people agree with me when I say that.’ The when-I-say-that is essential to Trump’s belief and essential to the relationship to his beliefs enjoyed by millions. His belief, triggered by impulsive attraction to something dressed as a fact, is fortified against refutation by the echo of the belief from his followers.

Second is the problem of reliable sources. The world has long depended on the Free Press to describe what is happening in the world. Sometimes reporting has been biased, but for the most part the professional media have tried their best to be objective. The internet has made available multiple other sources of information, some extremely biased and some completely fallacious. Capitalism has contributed to the problem. Monetized websites pay by the number of times they are accessed. Outrage is far more effective than truth in attracting “hits.”

Fake news has become recognized as a powerful force in molding public opinion. Yet Trump and his colleagues have now begun to call all sources that treat them critically as fake news.  Thus they attenuate any criticism of either themselves or the fraudulent news-sources that support them. As Charles Sykes in the New York Times, one of the media sources that Trump considers “dishonest,” remarks

In a stunning demonstration of the power and resiliency of our new post-factual political culture, Mr. Trump and his allies in the right media have already turned the term “fake news” against its critics, essentially draining it of any meaning.

In this world of alternative facts and fake news, we are approaching the “doublethink” of George Orwell’s 1984 (Part 2, Chapter 9):

To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies.

Even the description is impossible to pin down. We cannot even define doublethink without getting lost in contradictions.

Where to now?

How can we now “know” what is going on? On what do we base our beliefs? Somehow we must find a way of assessing the truthfulness of sources. Fact checkers are essential. Probably the most important is the non-partisan FactCheck.Org. The Washington Post runs a good fact-checking blog. Another source is Snopes.com, which was originally set up to evaluate urban myths but now also deals with fake news. We must support the Free Press – this may be our last bastion of reality. The internet has wreaked havoc with the financing of the press. Most people take their news from the internet for free. This may be dangerous. We must subscribe to proper journalism.

The photograph in the header showing the Stockholm City Hall is from Wikipedia.




In the Name of God

In recent years we have seen an escalation in violence inspired directly or indirectly by religion. Perhaps humanity is just by nature violent and religion is just an excuse. The terrible regimes of Hitler, Stalin and Mao show clearly how evil and violence can exist in the absence of God. Furthermore, most instances of religious violence are perversions of the religion’s true goals. As much as religion may lead to violence, so may violence call upon religion for justification. Nevertheless, the recent examples of religiously driven violence are very disheartening.

Religion can embody many of the ideals of humanity. Sometimes, it is as if we take all that we consider good and make this into God. If we so do, we must be careful not to let this process lead to evil rather than to good. We must limit the way in which we use our God. Even if we do not believe in God, we must still be careful about how we put our ideals into practice.

Ten Commandments

The Decalogue (Exodus 20: 1-17) provides the fundamentals for Judaeo-Christian morality. There are several ways to number these Ten Commandments (summary in Wikipedia). I shall follow the most common of the numbering traditions – that used by most Jewish authorities and by most Protestant churches.

The first four commandments deal with our relationship to God. The first is to have no other gods. This is easy to understand. The second is not to worship graven images. This has been interpreted in many ways. Though some say that it prohibits any representational art, it most likely means that such material objects should not be worshiped as divine. The fourth is to reserve one day of the week for God. This commandment to celebrate the Sabbath is only controversial in terms of which day is to be so honored and what types of work are not allowed on that day.

For this posting, I am particularly concerned with the third commandment not to take the name of God in vain. This commandment is not easy to understand. The following is the commandment (first half of Exodus 20:7) in the original Hebrew (from right to left), in transliterated Hebrew, in a word-by-word translation, in the King James Version (from left to right), and in spoken Hebrew:

cmd 3 tp

The Tetragrammaton

The name of God is given by four consonants, typically transliterated as YHWH (Gianotti, 1985; Meyers, 2005, pp 57-59; Durousseau, 2014). This Tetragrammaton (“four letters”) likely comes from the Hebrew verb “to be” in the third person. The first-person version of the verb is the name used by God in the episode of the burning bush – I Am That I Am (Exodus 3:14).

tetra b

. Tetragrammaton, Douglas Larsen, 2007 .

The third commandment, which specifically concerns the Tetragrammaton, has been interpreted in many different ways. Since its meaning is not clear, many pious Jews never use the name of God in any secular context, and do not speak the actual name aloud during religious worship. Various substitutes are used, most commonly Adonai (my Lord) or Elohim (God). The King James Version uses Lord in small capitals to express the Tetragrammaton. Other translations have used Jehovah, adding to the Tetragrammaton’s four consonants the vowels from the word Adonai. This has no real justification. The actual sound of the name was probably more like Yahweh.

Interpretations of the Third Commandment.

moses b

 

Ancient Hebrew is not easy to translate. Michelangelo’s 1515 statue of Moses in Rome’s San Pietro in Vincoli Church shows Moses with horns. This unusual depiction derived from the Vulgate’s translation of Exodus 34:29 describing Moses after he came down from Mount Sinai. The Vulgate translated the Hebrew word karan as cornuta or “horned.” It is better translated as “shining,” – “because light radiates and protrudes like a type of horn.”(Rashi’s commentary).

I have little knowledge of the Hebrew language. The following discussion of the interpretation of the third commandment therefore refers to others who know much more. The meaning of the commandment depends mainly on the verb nasa which is given in the second person (imperative) and on the word shua or shav used adverbially at the end of the commandment.

The verb nasa has been translated as “lift,” “raise,” “carry,’ “take,” and “bear.” Raising the name of the Lord suggests the idea of swearing by his holy name: one usually takes an oath by raising one’s hand (Benno, 1992, p 557). A common interpretation has therefore been that the third commandment prohibits the taking of an oath in God’s name and then not doing what one has sworn to do (Meyers, 2005). The keeping of contracts is a necessary part of social life (Teehan, 2010; Hazony, 2010). We need to trust that someone will do what he or she has promised. Winwood Reade (1872) described the importance of the oath to early societies:

But the chief benefit which religion conferred upon mankind, whether in ancient or in modern times, was undoubtedly the oath. The priests taught that if a promise was made in the name of the gods, and that promise was broken, the gods would kill those who took their name in vain. Such is the true meaning of the Third Commandment. Before that time treaties of peace and contracts of every kind in which mutual confidence was required could only be effected by the interchange of hostages. But now by means of this purely theological device a verbal form became itself a sacred pledge: men could at all times confide in one another; and foreign tribes met freely together beneath the shelter of this useful superstition which yet survives in our courts of law. In those days, however, the oath required no law of perjury to sustain its terrors: as Xenophon wrote, “He who breaks an oath defies the gods”; and it was believed that the gods never failed sooner or later to take their revenge. (Reade, 1872, p 153).

However, this interpretation makes the third commandment similar to the seventh: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbour” (Exodus, 20: 16). One might differentiate the two by saying that the third concerns promises to do something in the future and the seventh testimony about something in the past or present, but both ideas require swearing.

If the verb nasa is interpreted as “carry,” one can interpret the third commandment as forbidding hypocrisy. One must not present oneself as a follower of JHWH without living by his teachings. Matthew Henry said that the commandment prohibited “making a profession of God’s name, but not living up to that profession” (Henry, 1710, p 644).

If nasa is interpreted simply as “take,” the meaning of the commandment is determined by the adverbial shav, which describes the way in which the name is not to be taken. This word shav is uncommon and difficult to interpret. It is usually translated as “emptiness” or “vanity.” The third commandment is therefore commonly interpreted as prohibiting the profane or trivial use of God’s name. The name of God should not be associated with angry expostulations – cursing in the everyday sense of the word. The sacred name should not be thus blasphemed.

Shav can also mean “illusion,” “deception” or “falseness.” Thus the commandment can forbid the invocation of God’s name in magical conjuration (Buber, 1976, p 194; Alter, 2004 p 430) – cursing in the voodoo sense of the word. Sometimes, shav can mean a false thing such as an idol. Thus Staples (1939) suggested that the third commandment prohibited giving the name of JHWH to other gods – assimilating other false beliefs into the true faith. This interpretation, however, makes the third commandment merely a corollary of the first two.

Some commentators have interpreted shav as related to shoah, which means “devastation,”storm,” “disaster” or “destruction.” Childs (1974, p 411) also considers that the word may also include the idea of “malice” or “evil.” This is the meaning that I think the commandment intends: not to do evil in the name of God. This more general formulation would subsume those specific meanings already considered.

Evil in the Name of God

This interpretation fits with the suggestion that the third commandment should be more widely and importantly interpreted than is commonly done (e.g. Meyers, 2005). This would befit its being listed as third among the ten. Gerhard von Rad has proposed

The purpose of this command is to say “no” thoroughly and completely to that desire that lies so deep in the heart of man, the desire to infringe the freedom of God (Von Rad, 2012, pp 24-25).

This idea is not easy to understand. God’s purpose is good. We should take care lest we subvert this purpose and do evil in His name.

This is perhaps the true meaning of the commandment. Religion tends so easily to the position that believers are right and infidels are wrong. Ultimately, this leads to idea that the infidels should be destroyed. Much of the Hebrew Bible describes how the Israelites waged war on those who did not believe in their God. The times have not changed. In the past fifty years, factions within all major religions have committed atrocities in the name of their God (Juergensmeyer, 2003).

John Teehan (2010) has reviewed the evolution of religious violence. He points to the division between those who believe and those who do not, the lack of critical thinking that often goes with faith, and the idea of some cosmic battle between good and evil:

The initial move is to discriminate between an in-group and an out-group, with a set of practices and/or beliefs that function as signals of commitment to the in-group. Next, there is a differential in moral evaluation of the two sides of the divide: The in-group is owed a higher level of moral consideration and accorded a greater level of moral protection than those outside the group or those who defect from the group. Thus far, this structure is not unique to religious violence, it simply flows from the basic evolutionary strategies for allowing systems of reciprocity to develop and group cohesion to form. Religion comes into play with the integration of one or more minimally counterintuitive concepts (e.g., gods) into the moral matrix. God comes to represent the moral bonds that hold a community together and functions as both legislator and enforcer of the group’s moral code. This gives that moral code a heightened sense of significance and obligation. Commitment to that god can then function socially and psychologically as a signal of commitment to the group. Also, by clothing the social code of the group in divine authority it can relieve the individual of responsibility for the consequences of his or her decisions (“If god commands, I must obey”).
Consequent to this is that the out-group, by virtue of being the out-group, is not aligned with that god, or is not in proper relationship to that god. This further distinguishes the moral status of the two groups and leads to an escalation of the stakes at play. This becomes even more dramatic in universalist systems. In this case the out-group is not simply “other” but, in being aligned against God, is in league with evil itself. Inter-group conflict is no longer simply a competition between two groups seeking to promote their own interests, it is now a cosmic struggle with no middle ground available, and nothing short of victory acceptable. (Teehan, 2010, p 174).

Importance of the Third Commandment

I am not interpreting the Decalogue as the word of God. Or at least not in the sense that a God dictated it to Moses. Whatever one’s beliefs, the Ten Commandments are an impressive summary of the principles of human morality. They concisely delineate the behaviors that we have learned to forbid for the benefit of human society.

And I am not interpreting the God of the first three commandments as necessarily existing. Or as being a person rather than a universal force like in the Eastern religions. God could easily be considered as the abstract representation of human purpose and morality: what we have set as our goal and how we wish to get there. Human beings think in this way. To do away with such religion is to remove a powerful force for good.

The problem with the idea of believing either in a real God or in an abstract principle that we call God is that it makes us think that we know the truth. We then consider those who think of God differently and those who refuse to accept the idea of God as misguided. Perhaps even evil. Since violence is part of our nature, this may sometimes lead us to do terrible things – and to do these in the name of God.

I think that those who put together the Ten Commandments had some inkling of these problems. One should not use the name of God to justify actions such as murder that are forbidden by the later commandments. Those who counsel murder in the name of God are false prophets. I am suggesting that the third commandment urges us not to use God’s name to justify evil.

 

References

Alter, R. (2004). The five books of Moses: A translation with commentary. New York: Norton.

Buber, M. (1946). Moses. Oxford: East and West Library. The chapter “The Words on the Tablets” on pp 119-140 is reprinted in Herberg. W. (Ed.) (1974). The writings of Martin Buber.  New York: New American Library.

Childs, B. S. (1974). The book of Exodus: A critical, theological commentary. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Durousseau, C. H. (2014). Yah: A name of God. Jewish Bible Quarterly, 42, 21-26.

Gianotti, C. R. (1985). The meaning of the divine name YHWH. Bibilioteca Sacra, 142, 38-51.

Hazony, D. (2010). The Ten Commandments: how our most ancient moral text can renew modern life. New York: Scribner.

Henry, M. (1710) Commentary on the Whole Bible. Volume I. Genesis to Deuteronomy. Available at Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Jacob, B. (1940, translated by W. Jacob and Y. Elman, 1992). The second book of the Bible: Exodus. Hoboken, N.J: Ktav.

Juergensmeyer, M. (2003). Terror in the mind of God: The global rise of religious violence. 3rd Ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Meyers, C. L. (2005). Exodus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Reade W. (1872). The martyrdom of man.

Staples, W. E. (1939). The Third Commandment. Journal of Biblical Literature, 58, 325-329.

Von Rad, G. (1940, translated by Neill, S., 2012). Moses. Cambridge, UK: James Clark.

 




Baskets of Glass

Dale Chihuly, the American sculptor in glass, has long been interested in the native arts of the Pacific Northwest. Early in his career he became fascinated by their basketry (Lobb & Wolfe, 1990; Porter, 1990). Native Americans were adept at making basketware in all shapes and sizes for cooking, carrying, storing, clothing, drinking, protecting and preserving. Each basket has a form that derives from its function, and an ornamentation that transcends its ordinary usage. In his book on Indian Basketry, James (1901, pp 121-2) quotes from William Holmes:

[W]hile their shape still accords with their functional office, they exhibit attributes of form generally recognized as pleasing to the mind, which are expressed by the terms grace, elegance, symmetry, and the like. Such attributes are not separable from functional attributes, but originate and exist conjointly with them.

The following illustration from James’ book (p. 119) shows a collection of Native American baskets:james baskets001 xb

Chihuly was born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1941. After studying sculpture and glassblowing, he returning to Washington State to set up the Pilchuk Glass School in 1971. Chihuly knew the collection of baskets in the Washington State History Museum in his home town of Tacoma. He soon decided to make baskets of glass:

I looked at baskets and thought I would try to make them in glass. I wanted mine to be misshapen and wrinkled like some of the older baskets I had seen in storage there. (Chihuly, 2011, p 44).

I was struck by the grace of their slumped, sagging forms. I wanted to capture this grace in glass. The breakthrough for me was recognizing that heat was the tool to be used with gravity to make these forms (from Chihuly webpage)

With these glass baskets Chihuly began looking at the forms of things. At about the same time, he was creating glass cylinders with superimposed patterns based on Navaho blankets. He was trying to understand the forms and patterns of particular objects by representing them in another medium. The baskets of glass themselves later evolved into sea-forms. Other forms followed: macchia (spots), Persians, ikebana, floats, fiori, rotoli (coils), chandeliers. His work has been shown all over the world, in parks, museums, shopping-centers and casinos (Chihuly & Kuspit, 1998, 2014, Chihuly et al, 2016).

The exhibition of Chihuly work currently at the Royal Ontario Museum concludes with a final display based on the Northwest Room at Chihuly’s Boathouse Studio in Seattle. On one wall are photogravure portraits of Native Americans by Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952).On another wall are examples from Chihuly’s collection of blankets woven with Native American patterns from Pendleton Mills in Portland, Oregon (founded in 1863). The focus of the room is a display of Chihuly’s baskets of glass together with historical Native American baskets that he has collected:

chihuly full b

 

The two glass basket in the following illustration show the way in which Chihuly traced patterns by melting shards of colored glass onto the basic forms. They are similar to the Navaho cylinders, but the solid cylinders have evolved into hollow baskets.

chihuly 1 b

 

There are clear contrasts between the woven baskets and their glass representations. Flexibility becomes rigidity. The baskets absorb the light and enjoy their shadows. The glass forms interact more dramatically with the light, reflecting it from their surface and letting it into their inner structure:

chihuly 2 b

 

An impressive pairing displays the brilliance of the glass against the gravity of the woven basket. The princess and her grandmother:

chihuly 3 b

 

Characteristic of Chihuly’s baskets are that they can contain other versions of themselves. Children embraced by their mother. This illustration shows only one:

chihuly 4 b
The more recent series of Fire Orange Baskets (2016) shows baskets within baskets. The furnace has stripped the baskets of earthly material and leaving only their translucent forms. The reflections change continually like flames in fire:

chihuly 5 b

Those images that yet
Fresh images beget.

W. B.  Yeats Byzantium, 1930

Yeats was fascinated by how art persists beyond the life of the artist. Art has access to some world of eternal forms that is beyond the transience of human life. His two Byzantine poems (Jeffares, 1946) consider how art persists in the images or forms that it creates.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

W. B. Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium, 1926

Plato thought of art in almost the opposite way (Pappas, 2015). He considered individual objects as transient instantiations of some ideal form. He worried that artistic representations of an object were deceptive since they were twice-removed from the ideal.

Perhaps Chihuly’s baskets, like Yeats’ poems, are creative attempts to represent the forms directly. The medium of glass accentuates the idea of seeing through the object to its true form. But Chihuly’s translucent baskets may not last as long as Yeats hammered gold. Man-made versions of the ideal can be as transient and fragile as glass.

 

References

Chihuly, D., McDonnell, M., & Adams, H. (2016). Chihuly on fire. Seattle, WA: Chihuly Workshop.

Chihuly, D., & Hushka, R. (2011). Dale Chihuly: A celebration. New York: Abrams.

Chihuly, D., & Kuspit, D. B. (1998). Chihuly. Volume 1. 1968-1996. New York: Abrams.

Chihuly, D., & Kuspit, D. B. (2014). Chihuly. Volume  2. 1997-2014. New York: Abrams.

James, G. W. (1901/1972). Indian basketry. New York: Dover Publications.

Jeffares, A. N. (1946). The Byzantine poems of W. B. Yeats. Review of English Studies, 22, 44-52.

Lobb, A., & Wolfe, A. (1990). Indian baskets of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Portland, OR: Graphic Arts Center.

Pappas, N. (2015). Plato’s aesthetics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Porter, F. W. (1990). The art of Native American basketry: A living legacy. New York: Greenwood Press.

 




Hamlet’s Will

This posting considers Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The play has become as fascinating and as meaningful as any scripture (Bloom, 2003, p. 3). The character of its hero admits to numerous interpretations, both on the stage and in the critical literature.

Hamlet was the first clear representation of how human beings choose to act according to their own lights. We are not completely determined. Most of our actions follow willy-nilly from our past. Sometimes, however, we act as conscious agents: we consider the consequences of our actions, and choose the right act rather than the reflex.

I have discussed the concepts of freedom and determination in an earlier posting. These ideas are now considered in relation to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This is the longest of my posts so far. My apologies. Forgive me my obsessions.

Interpreting Hamlet

Everyone wants to play Hamlet. Each actor plays him differently; no one fully understands him. Anyone who feels that he has him down pat does well to remember Hamlets upbraiding of Guildenstern, who thinks he knows the prince, but acknowledges that he cannot play the recorder:

Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass: and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.

Despite this warning,

They all want to play Hamlet.
They have not exactly seen their fathers killed
Nor their mothers in a frame-up to kill,
Nor an Ophelia lying with dust gagging the heart,
Not exactly the spinning circles of singing golden spiders,
Not exactly this have they got at nor the meaning of flowers—O flowers, flowers slung by a dancing girl—in the saddest play the inkfish, Shakespeare, ever wrote;
Yet they all want to play Hamlet because it is sad like all actors are sad and to stand by an open grave with a joker’s skull in the hand and then to say over slow and over slow wise, keen, beautiful words asking the heart that’s breaking, breaking,
This is something that calls and calls to their blood.
They are acting when they talk about it and they know it is acting to be particular about it and yet: They all want to play Hamlet.

Carl Sandburg (1922)

John Gielgud

John Gielgud

Sources

The legend of Hamlet originated in early Scandinavian history (Gollancz, 1926; Jenkins, 1982). The Prose Edda of Iceland briefly mentioned Hamlet in a description of what must have been a huge whirlpool, where nine maidens “in ages past ground Hamlet’s meal” (Gollancz, 1926, p. 1). This reference was interpreted by de Santillana and von Dechend in their 1969 book Hamlet’s Mill as a mythological description of the precession of the equinoxes – the universe rotating round the axis of the whirlpool. This is of little relevance to Shakespeare other than in the idea of divine providence that runs through the play: “The mills of the Gods grind slowly, but exceedingly fine” is not far from

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends
Rough hew them how we will.

Saxo_Grammaticus X B

 

The actual story of Prince Hamlet was first recounted in Latin in Saxo Grammaticus in the Historia Danica (written around 1200 CE). A major part of this story concerns how Hamlet (Amlethus) feigned imbecility so that his uncle, who had murdered Hamlet’s father and married his mother, would not believe that he posed any threat of revenge. Saxo’s story was retold in French by François de Belleforest in his Histoires Tragiques (1570). Shakespeare was likely familiar with this book. Many details of Shakespeare’s play – the murder of Hamlet’s father, the incestuous marriage, Hamlet’s antic disposition, the altered message that leads to the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – came from the early sources. The ghost, the players, Ophelia, and the gravedigger were new.

In Shakespeare’s adaptation, not everything makes sense. In the original story, it was common knowledge that Hamlet’s father had been murdered and his throne usurped. Hamlet’s feigned madness served a purpose. In Shakespeare’s play, no one knows that Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father until the Ghost returns and informs his son. As Greenblatt (2004, pp 305-307) points out Hamlet’s antic disposition not only does not provide any protection, but actually calls attention to him.

Shakespeare’s son, born in 1585, was named Hamnet, likely after Hamnet Sadler, one of Shakespeare’s friends in Stratford. However, the name may have caused Shakespeare to read Belleforest. Hamnet Shakespeare died in 1596, while his father was absent in London (Greenblatt, 2004a). Shakespeare’s father John died in September 1601. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus commented on how William Shakespeare likely played the Ghost when Hamlet was first produced in early 1601 (see also Greenblatt, 2004a). In this role he was speaking as though he were his own dead or dying father to his own lost son:

Is it possible that player Shakespeare, a ghost by absence, and in the vesture of buried Denmark, a ghost by death, speaking his own words to his own son’s name (had Hamnet Shakespeare lived he would have been Prince Hamlet’s twin) is it possible, I want to know, or probable that he did not draw or foresee the logical conclusion of those premises: you are the dispossessed son: I am the murdered father: your mother is the guilty queen, Ann Shakespeare, born Hathaway? (Joyce, 1922, Episode 9, Scylla and Charybdis, pp. 186-7)

The ghost is one of the great scenes in the history of the theater. The ghost’s most memorable speech is his description of purgatory.

I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.

hamlet ghost patrick stewart tennant production XB Patrick Stewart

As Greenblatt (2004b) has pointed out, Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, was a likely a covert Catholic, and William was certainly aware of Catholic beliefs, if not himself a practising Catholic. Neither ghosts nor purgatory were acceptable beliefs in the Church of England. Nevertheless, old ideas persist, no matter what the law tells people to believe.

Texts

Shakespeare’s play was likely first performed in early 1601 (Jenkins, 1982; Thompson & Taylor, 2006a). However, another play about Hamlet had been produced on the London stages between 1594 and 1596 and perhaps even earlier. This is often referred to as the Ur-Hamlet. All that we know is that the play contained a ghost that urged Hamlet to revenge. The rest is speculation. Some have attributed this play to Thomas Kyd, who wrote another revenge play called The Spanish Tragedy, and who died in 1594. Others have wondered whether it was actually an early version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, one that he later revised (e.g., Bloom, 1998).

Three early versions of Hamlet were published: by itself in Quarto 1 (1603) and Quarto 2 (1604), and as part of the collected works in Folio 1 (1623) . Quarto 2 and Folio 1 are very similar and the Hamlet text we know today is based on either or both of these versions (Rosenbaum, 2002). Quarto 1 is very different from the other versions: it is much shorter, the scenes occur in a different order, and the poetry is banal. The Quarto 1 version of the most famous speech in the history of the theater:

To be, or not to be – ay, there’s the point.
To die, to sleep – is that all? Ay, all:
No, to sleep, to dream, – ay, marry, there it goes,
For in that dream of death, when we’re awaked
And borne before an everlasting judge,
From whence no passenger ever returned –
The undiscovered country, at whose sight
The happy smile, and the accursed damned.

holds no candle to the one we know:

To be, or not to be – that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them; to die: to sleep –
No more, and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished – to die: to sleep –;
To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause

Exactly what this “bad quarto” represents is unknown. It may be the early play (the Ur-Hamlet) by Kyd and/or Shakespeare, a shortened acting version of the play for performance on tour or in small venues, or someone’s reminiscence of a performance published to make quick profit from a popular play. A short German version of Hamlet called Der Bestrafte Brudermord (“Fraticide Punished”) appears to have been performed in Germany in the 17th Century. This is more similar  to Quarto 1 than to the other English versions of Hamlet, but it may have been more closely related to the Ur-Hamlet. It has no soliloquies.

In recent years, several productions of the Quarto 1 Hamlet have been presented (Thompson & Taylor, 2006b). This version of the play is remarkable for its narrative drive. Some aspects of Quarto 1 have also been incorporated into other productions of Hamlet. Most particularly the “To be or not to be” scene is placed before rather than after the arrival of the players and Hamlet’s decision to present The Murder of Gonzago before the king. Gibson (1978, pp. 140-148) provides forceful arguments for this shift of scene. The thoughts in this soliloquy seem incongruous if Hamlet has already decided on a course of action. Gregory Doran’s memorable 1996 Hamlet with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart followed the sequence of Quarto 1.

Pennington (1996) thinks differently, and prefers the usual Quarto 2 sequence. Mott (1904) found that locating this speech after the decision to have the players perform for the king fits with Hamlet’s recurring pattern of resolution followed by inertia (or if you will, of first and second thoughts). Lyndsey Turner’s Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch originally moved the soliloquy to the very beginning of the play (as prologue to the action rather than a part of it), but an outcry during previews caused her to move it back.

The Quarto 1 version does not support the idea of Hamlet as someone who vacillates – deciding what to do and then wondering whether this might not be worth it. His actions in Quarto 1 show a clear trajectory toward a purposeful end.

Plays within plays

Hamlet is intensely concerned with the workings of the theater. The first time we see him in Act I, Scene II, Hamlet is concerned by the need to be true to his feelings rather than to play a role. The speech turns on the very idea of what seems and what is true, what is enacted and what is real

These indeed ‘seem,’
For they are actions that a man might play,
But I have that within which passeth show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

penningtonXB

Michael Pennington

 

The play Hamlet comes to a head in Act III, Scene II with a performance before the court of The Murder of Gonzago. This play, which tells a story similar to what actually happened in Denmark, is used successfully to “catch the conscience of the king.”

 

However, this is not the only piece of theater within the play. When the players first arrive in Denmark, the lead player performs a speech from another play – probably a version of Dido and Aeneas. Christopher Marlowe had written such a play ten years before. However, the speech of the lead player uses words by Shakespeare rather than by Marlowe.

The player’s speech multiplies the levels of imagined reality. The audience watches an actor playing Hamlet as he listens to another actor playing an actor playing Aeneas as he recounts the events of the fall of Troy. The player’s speech presents the gist of Shakespeare’s play – Pyrrhus, the son of the slain Achilles, is taking revenge on the family of Paris, his father’s killer. The moment he is about to slay Priam, father of Paris, he pauses

                             For lo, his sword,
Which was declining on the milky head
Of reverend Priam, seemed i’ th’air to stick.
So, as a painted tyrant, Pyrrhus stood
And, like a neutral to his will and matter,
Did nothing.

So later will Hamlet pause and forego to kill Claudius.

Priam’s wife, Hecuba, rushes to her husband and her grief brings a tear to the eye of the first player. This leads Hamlet to consider why he is unable to feel even as much as an actor playing a part.

What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears. Yet I,
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing. No, not for a king
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damned defeat was made.

Triggered by what he has heard and seen, Hamlet decides on a course of action. He will prove the truth of the murder recounted by the Ghost by watching Claudius’ response to the same murder played out on the stage. Theater will be truth’s touchstone.

The meaning of theater within Hamlet can also be consider in another way. Throughout the play, Hamlet decides what he should do by trying out a role within his mind. Acting can be either theatrical or behavioral (or both). Hamlet will allow himself to be moved just like the lead player. Imaginative role-playing is often how we make conscious decisions. We try out the consequences in our mind; then, if the envisioned future fits, we go there. Colin McGinn (2006) finds this an example of the “dramaturgical nature of the self:”

He exemplifies the transition from formless consciousness to personal determinacy, or the closest he can get to that. It is not that Hamlet’s character unfolds during the course of the play, with his “real self” finally revealed by the end; it is rather that he finally succeeds in forging a self from the dramatic materials at his disposal – he finds a part he can play. (p. 48)

The idea of theater pervades the ending of Shakespeare’s play. The dying Hamlet requests Horatio

If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.

Then after Hamlet’s death, as Horatio begins to tell Fortinbras what has happened, it is as if the first presentation of the play Hamlet were beginning:

           give order that these bodies
High on a stage be placed to the view,
And let me speak to th’yet unknowing world
How these things came about

But let this same be presently performed,
Even while men’s minds are wild; lest more mischance
On plots and errors, happen.

It is impossible not to understand the theatrical connotations of “stage” and “performed.” As Critchley and Webster (2013, p. 226) point out, “Hamlet ends with the promise to perform the tragedy of Hamlet.” Olivier’s 1948 movie began with a brief scene showing Hamlet’s body being borne to a platform high upon the battlements of Elsinore.

Thinking Makes It So

The Renaissance brought back much of the classical literature, and with it a philosophy of life based on humanism rather than theism. Man once again became the measure of all things. This principle originally derived from the Greek Sophist philosopher Protagoras (490-420 BCE). The controversy that it had engendered between relativism and absolutism had during the Middle Ages been clearly resolved in terms of the latter. God determined what was right and man obeyed. Until the Renaissance.

montaigne XB

 

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) perhaps epitomizes the spirit of the Renaissance (Foglia, 2014). He read widely in the classics but he did not let his erudition stifle the freedom of his thought. His Essays are characterized by a profound humanism and a humble skepticism. He took as his motto the question “Que scay-je?” (What do I know?), and had it engraved on a medal with a weighing-balance. We must always carefully judge what we do and do not know. Montaigne’s essays were translated into English by John Florio and published in 1603.

Shakespeare certainly read Montaigne, probably in the Florio translation, and quoted him extensively in his 1610 play The Tempest. He may also have read some of Florio’s translations prior to their publication, and there are several instances in the 1601 Hamlet that recall the ideas and sometimes the wording of Montaigne (Hooker, 1902). One is Hamlet’s comment to Rosencrantz

                     for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so

which resonates with

If that which we call evill and torment, be neither torment nor evill, but that our fancie only gives it that qualitie, it is in us to change it. (Florio translation, Volume 2, Book I: Chapter XL That the taste of Goods or Evils doth greatly depend on the opinion we have of them.)

Even more striking are some of the parallels between “To be or not to be” and

Death may peradventure be a thing indifferent, happily a thing desirable. Yet is it to bee beleeved, that if it be a transmigration from one place to another, there is some amendement in going to live with so many worthy famous persons, that are deceased ; and be exempted from having any more to doe with wicked and corrupted Judges. If it be a consummation of ones being, it is also an amendement and entrance into a long and quiet night. Wee finde nothing so sweete in life, as a quiet rest and gentle sleepe, and without dreames. (Florio translation, Volume 5, Book III: Chapter XII Of Physiognomy)

In his lecture of Hamlet, Rossiter (1961, p. 186), suggested that Hamlet is “the first modern man.” What or who is modern clearly varies with what is being considered past and present. However, Rossiter is correct to consider Hamlet as modern rather than as medieval. Hamlet makes his own judgments about what he should do and calls into question all that he has been taught or told. Shakespeare allows the audience to follow his thinking through the soliloquies and asides that occur throughout the play. More so than ever before, we become privy to the thoughts of a person as he works through his motivations, doubts and fears. Hamlet follows the advice of Montaigne

It is no part of a well-grounded judgement simply to judge ourselves by our exterior actions: A man must thorowly sound himselfe, and dive into his heart, and there see by what wards or springs the motions stirre. (II: I Of the Inconstancie of our Actions)

In the soliloquies we can watch as Hamlet proceeds from despair to resolution. He is working things out for himself; he is not following the rules. Hamlet thinks and acts more like a human being than a hero.

Dalkey (1981) presents a tongue-in-cheek analysis of the “To be or not to be” speech using the principles of modern decision-analysis. Hamlet weighs the costs and benefits and comes up with the best course of action. The decision is to be. But then Hamlet also analyses how he came to this decision and wonders whether too much thinking actually has a negative effect on action.

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

Hamlet is also aware of other difficulties. Even though we might decide how to act, we may not always maintain our resolution to act, and, even if we do, we cannot fully control the outcome of our actions. During The Murder of Gonzago, the player King responds to his wife’s insistence that she will not remarry when he dies

I do believe you think what now you speak;
But what we do determine, oft we break.
Purpose is but the slave to memory,
Of violent birth but poor validity,
Which now, the fruit unripe, sticks on the tree
But fall unshaken when they mellow be.

Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown.
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own

Bloom (1998, p 424) wonders whether this speech may have represented the lines that Hamlet asked to be inserted in the original play. The speech is likely intended for his mother, who may have become unwittingly entrammeled in Claudius’ evil.

Being

branagh XB

Kenneth Branagh

 

“To be or not to be” is the most famous speech in all literature. Hamlet is considering the essential problem of being human – how to act in a life often characterized by suffering and always leading to death. His words portray “the exaltation of mind … as this grandest of consciousnesses overhears its own cognitive music” (Bloom, 2003, p 36).

Yet the speech has been interpreted in many different ways (summarised by Petronella, 1974, and Jenkins, 1982, pp 484-493). A common interpretation is that Hamlet is deciding whether or not to commit suicide (e.g., Bradley, 1905; Knight, 1935, p 127):

He is meditating on suicide; and he finds that what stands in the way of it, and counterbalances its infinite attraction, is not any thought of a sacred unaccomplished duty, but the doubt, quite irrelevant to that issue, whether it is not ignoble in the mind to end its misery, and, still more, whether death would end it. (Bradley, 1905, p 132).

However, the actual words seem far more generalized. As Pennington (1996, p. 81) points out

There is no personal pronoun at all in its thirty-five lines, so it is in a sense drained of Hamlet himself: although the cap fits, it also stands free of him as pure human analysis.

The speech can therefore be considered as a meditation on the human condition:

The question, then (crudely paraphrased as ‘Is life worth living?’) is essentially whether, in the light of what being comprises (in the condition of human life as the speaker sees it and represents it in what follows) it is preferable to have it or not. (Jenkins, 1982, p 487).

A third approach to Hamlet’s speech relates it to Hamlet’s decision to revenge his father’s death. What is to be or not to be is the act of killing Claudius. Hamlet’s decision revolves upon whether this is right or not, given that one may in the afterlife be damned by sin:

Thus the complete development of the soliloquy shows that the full implication of “To be, or not to be” is not a simple choice between passive endurance and vitally destructive activity, as at first appears, a choice that Hamlet, who has no fear of death itself, could make unhesitatingly; but that the choice is rather between a distasteful passive endurance and a destructive activity that may also bring the stain of deadly sin. (Richards, 1933, p. 757).

This interpretation may fit with the mention of “conscience” and “resolution” at the end of the speech. However, it does not really ring true with Hamlet’s view of the afterlife, which he simply describes as “undiscover’d.”

                     Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

Hamlet does not fear eternal damnation, he is just uncertain about whether the afterlife might indeed be worse than the present life. He is skeptical about what he has been taught. In those days, being from Wittenberg was probably akin to being from Missouri in our day.

A final interpretation turns on the fact that Hamlet’s speech is not a soliloquy. Hamlet is being overheard by Claudius and Polonius. If Hamlet is also aware of this, as well he might be, then the speech may be part of his efforts to convince Claudius that he is not a threat. Hamlet may be feigning both melancholy thoughts of suicide and a total lack of resolution.

Hamlet pretends to speak to himself but actually intends the speech itself or an account of it to reach the ears of Claudius in order to mislead his enemy about his state of mind. (Hirsh, 2010, p 34)

However, if Hamlet were indeed feigning, he would likely have been far more illogical in his thinking. His words convey more poetic insight than antic disposition.

So I think that Hamlet in this speech is indeed considering the human condition. The habit of his  mind is to interprets the events of the moment according to eternal principles. The student from Wittenberg is an inveterate philosopher. Hamlet’s meditation on the skull of Yorick shows a similar way of thinking..

kozintsev grave X B

Innokenti Smoktunovsky in Kozintsev’s Movie

Revenge Delayed

One common view of Hamlet is that he cannot move from thought to action. He is unable to take revenge on Claudius because he worries too much about his motives and the consequences. This was the interpretation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in a lecture given in 1819:

In Hamlet he [Shakespeare] seems to have wished to exemplify the moral necessity of a due balance between our attention to the objects of our senses, and our meditation on the workings of our minds,—an equilibrium between the real and the imaginary worlds. In Hamlet this balance is disturbed: his thoughts, and the images of his fancy, are far more vivid than his actual perceptions, and his very perceptions, instantly passing through the medium of his contemplations, acquire, as they pass, a form and a colour not naturally their own. Hence we see a great, an almost enormous, intellectual activity, and a proportionate aversion to real action, consequent upon it, with all its symptoms and accompanying qualities. This character Shakespeare places in circumstances, under which it is obliged to act on the spur of the moment:—Hamlet is brave and careless of death; but he vacillates from sensibility, and procrastinates from thought, and loses the power of action in the energy of resolve. (Coleridge, 1907, pp 136-137)

A variant of this interpretation is that Hamlet is too sensitive and inward to cope with the rough needs of the external world. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe gives this idea to his character Wilhelm Meister, who focuses on Hamlet’s words at the end of Act I and senses that the prince cannot cope with the demands made by his ghostly father:

The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!

In these words, I imagine, will be found the key to Hamlet’s whole procedure. To me it is clear that Shakespeare meant, in the present case, to represent the effects of a great action laid upon a soul unfit for the performance of it. In this view the whole piece seems to me to be composed. There is an oak-tree planted in a costly jar, which should have borne only pleasant flowers in its bosom; the roots expand, the jar is shivered.

A lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear and must not cast away. All duties are holy for him; the present is too hard. Impossibilities have been required of him, not in themselves impossibilities, but such for him. He winds, and turns, and torments himself; he advances and recoils; is ever put in mind, ever puts himself in mind; at last does all but lose his purpose from his thoughts; yet still without recovering his peace of mind. (Goethe, 1796, Book IV Chapter 13, pp 304-5)

Yet de Grazia (2007) points out that Hamlet’s procrastination only became a major part of the critical literature after the late 18th Century. Before then no one had mentioned the delay let alone made it the touchstone of the play. There is a clear trajectory linking the death of Hamlet’s father, the apparition of the Ghost, the decision of Hamlet to test the Ghost’s claim by putting on a play that represents the murder, and Hamlet’s conclusion that Claudius is indeed guilty. Hamlet is not lacking in will: he simply subjects it to careful scrutiny.

A brief pause occurs during the “To be or not to be” soliloquy and, as previously mentioned, even that might be solved by placing it in the order of the First Quarto: before rather than after the players arrive. Or by considering it as a moment of philosophical reflection prior to an already determined action.

HamletDavidTennant10 X

David Tennant and Patrick Stewart

 

 

 

The major source of the supposed delay occurs when Hamlet comes upon the solitary Claudius at prayer – “Now might I do it pat …” Yet Hamlet worries that he might send the repentant Claudius to Heaven, and does it not:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, a-swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes. (Act III: Scene 3)

This speech was often considered shocking. Many of the audience could not accept that Hamlet really meant to send Claudius to eternal damnation. De Grazia (2007, p 159) quotes Samuel Johnson who considered the speech “too horrible to be read or to be uttered.” Human justice could take away the mortal life, but should not damn the soul to everlasting perdition.

Hamlet’s desire in the prayer scene to damn a soul to eternal pain is the most extreme form of evil imaginable in a society that gave even its most heinous felons the opportunity to repent before execution. (De Grazia, 2007, p. 188)

De Grazia reviews the various ways we have tried to reconcile our romantic concept of Hamlet as a sweet and thoughtful prince with this terrible speech. A simple way is to state that Hamlet does not really mean what he is saying. Finding himself unable to kill Claudius, he comes up with a plausible excuse for delaying his revenge. Another view might be that the speech is a way for Hamlet’s consciousness to prevent the deep hatred in his unconsciousness from taking control of his actions. He subdues the unconscious with a rationalization that revenge will be better at another time. In either of these interpretations, Hamlet is deceiving himself.

Hamlet certainly practises deception. He puts “an antic disposition on” to convince Claudius that he is too foolish to be considered dangerous. Yet Hamlet does not deceive himself. In his soliloquies he seeks to understand what he should do. He looks for reasons, not for rationalizations.

So I think we should take Hamlet’s speech about damning Claudius at face-value. Hamlet is not kind; he cruelly rejects Ophelia; he rashly kills Polonius; he has no sympathy for his mother; he callously sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths. There is a harshness rather than a gentleness at his core. De Grazia even wonders whether there is something demonic about Hamlet in the latter parts of the play. Perhaps Shakespeare is demonstrating that even the most self-reflective of heroes is not immune to cruelty. Hamlet cannot stop the general corruption in Denmark without becoming infected by its evil.

Hamlet does ultimately take his revenge. Claudius has no time for repentance. And Hamlet dies, victim of the evil that he has fought against.

Tragedy

A pervasive idea is that tragedy results from the downfall and death of a great man that is mainly due to a moral defect in his character – the “tragic flaw.” This concept derived from Aristotle’s proposal that the key to tragedy was hamartia. However, the Greek word means “missing the mark” – an error or failing that may or may not be related to the tragic hero (Golden, 1978). In the Greek New Testament hamartia was translated as “sin,” in the sense of general failure rather specific wrongdoing.

olivier XB

Laurence Olivier

The concept of the tragic flaw may not be helpful in understanding Hamlet. To consider the hero’s flaw as the mainspring of the tragedy “leads to a narrowing of scope and significance which is stultifying and crippling” (Hyde, 1963). Perhaps the most outrageous example of stupid simplification is the voice-over at the beginning of Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” This was completely out of keeping not only with Shakespeare’s play but also with Olivier’s portrayal, which showed Hamlet as decisive and active.

Although Bradley (1905) supported the idea of the tragic flaw as the key to tragedy, he also perceived other contributing factors. In particular “men may start a course of events but can neither calculate nor control it” (p. 9). We may be unable to predict what happens when we decide to act. This sounds very similar to the true meaning of hamartia: we may miss the mark.

Kitto (1960) proposed that Hamlet shows many similarities to the classic Greek tragedies. Like them, Shakespeare’s play has characteristics of a religious drama. The corruption of Claudius infects everyone. Gertrude is seduced; Polonius becomes Claudius’ spy; Ophelia is convinced to act as bait for so that Hamlet may be spied upon; Laertes is co-opted to the murder of Hamlet. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” and needs to be cleansed away:

[T]here is an overruling Providence which, though it will not intervene to save Hamlet, does intervene to defeat Claudius, and does guide events to a consummation in which evil frustrates itself, even though it destroys innocents by the way. (Kitto, 1960, p 321).

Hamlet considers the actions of Providence at the beginning of the play’s final scene. As well as telling Horatio of the “divinity that shapes our ends,” Hamlet decides to engage in the proposed duel with Laertes despite his forebodings:

We defy augury: there is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all, since no man of aught he leaves knows what is’t to leave betimes. Let be.

These comments can be understood in two ways. Hamlet may be recognizing that he cannot fully control what happens, and that he must believe that what will happen will be good. Or perhaps Hamlet is losing his nerve, giving up control and letting events unfold without him.

By the end of the play those attainted with corruption have died, and a new government is in place in Denmark. Unfortunately, Providence has not really provided for those who were most innocent, such as Ophelia, or those who began in innocence, such as Hamlet. Providence may work for the general good but it is not specially concerned with individuals. Sparrows die.

Shakespeare differs from the Greeks in questioning that all is necessarily for the good. At the end of the play, Denmark has been freed from Claudius, but we are far from sure that country under Fortinbras will be a better place.

Nevertheless, Hamlet demonstrates the need to rid society of corruption, regardless of the personal cost. This need is general to all human societies. We should not stand by and let evil spread:

Hamlet is a tocsin that awakens the conscience. (Kozintsev, 1966, p 174)

The real tragedy of Hamlet is that Denmark did not make him king. Denmark settled for Claudius, and wound up with Fortinbras. Shakespeare explains this clearly in the final speech of the play:

                         Let four captains
Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have prov’d most royal

Envoi

Boris Pasternak

Boris Pasternak

 

Hamlet has become a part of our life. In a sense we all play this role. We may not face the same problems that Hamlet encountered. Yet we each have our own decisions to make, and their outcomes will prove some mixture of what we will to occur and what happens nevertheless. Boris Pasternak’s character Doctor Zhivago wrote a poem about playing Hamlet. Here again are many levels: Pasternak conceives of Zhivago who writes a poem about an actor playing Hamlet. This poem was recited at Pasternak’s funeral despite government efforts to prevent any eulogies (Ivinskaya, 1978, p 331). The superb translation is by Ann Pasternak Slater, the novelist’s niece.

The murmurs ebb; onto the stage I enter.
I am trying, standing in the door,
To discover in the distant echoes
What the coming years may hold in store.

The nocturnal darkness with a thousand
Binoculars is focused onto me.
Take away this cup, O Abba, Father,
Everything is possible to thee.

I am fond of this thy stubborn project,
And to play my part I am content.
But another drama is in progress,
And, this once, O let me be exempt.

But the plan of action is determined,
And the end irrevocably sealed.
I am alone; all round me drowns in falsehood:
Life is not a walk across a field.

Russia in the time of Stalin was strikingly similar to Denmark in the time of Claudius. Violence pervaded all society; everyone was under surveillance. Pasternak translated Hamlet into Russian in 1939, at a time of the Great Terror when he was unable to write poetry. His translation was used for the 1964 Kozintsev movie of the play. Pasternak’s view was that Hamlet took on the “role of judge in his own time and servant of the future” (Pasternak, 1959, p 131). This was Hamlet’s legacy.

References

Bradley, A. C. (1905/1961). Shakespearean tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. London: Macmillan. Available at arkiv.org

Bloom, H. (1998). Shakespeare: The invention of the human. New York: Riverhead Books.

Bloom, H. (2003). Hamlet: Poem unlimited. New York: Riverhead Books.

Coleridge, S. T. (1907). Coleridge’s essays & lectures on Shakespeare: & some other old poets & dramatists. London: J.M. Dent. Available

Critchley, S., & Webster, J. (2013). Stay, illusion! The Hamlet doctrine. New York: Pantheon Books (Random House).

Dalkey, N. C. (1981). A case study of a decision analysis: Hamlet’s soliloquy. Interfaces, 11(5), 45-49.

Dorani, G. (1996/2010) Hamlet. Royal Shakespeare Company. Warner Home Video.

Foglia, M. (2014) Michel de Montaigne, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Gibson, W. (1978). Shakespeare’s game. New York: Atheneum.

von Goethe, J. W. (1796, translated by T. Carlyle, 1824, reprinted 1901). Wilhelm Meister’s apprenticeship. Boston: F.A. Niccolls & Co.

Golden, L. (1978). Hamartia, ate, and Oedipus. Classical World, 72, 3–12.

Gollancz, I. (1926). The sources of Hamlet with an essay on the legend. London: Oxford University Press.

De Grazia. M. (2007). Hamlet without Hamlet. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Greenblatt, S. (2004a). The death of Hamnet and the making of Hamlet. N.Y. Review of Books, (21 October 2004) 51.16.

Greenblatt, S. (2004b). Will in the world: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare. New York: Norton.

Hirsh, J. (2010). The “To be, or not to be” speech: evidence, conventional wisdom, and the editing of “Hamlet.” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, 23, 34-62.

Hooker, E. R. (1902). The relation of Shakespeare to Montaigne. Publications of the Modern Language Association (PMLA), 17, 312-366.

Hyde, I. (1963). The tragic flaw: is it a tragic error? Modern Language Review, 58, 321-325.

Ivinskaya, O. (translated by M. Hayward, 1978). A captive of time: my years with Pasternak London: Collins & Harvill.

Jenkins, H. (Ed.) (1982/2003). Shakespeare, W. Hamlet. London: Arden Shakespeare.

Joyce, J. (1922/1946). Ulysses. New York: Random House.

Kitto, H. D. F. (1960). Form and meaning in drama: A study of six Greek plays and of Hamlet. London: Methuen.

Kozintsev, G. M. (1964/2006). Hamlet. Facets Video.

Kozintsev, G. M. (translated by J. Vining, 1966).Shakespeare; time and conscience. New York: Hill and Wang.

McGinn, C. (2006). Shakespeare’s philosophy: Discovering the meaning behind the plays. New York: HarperCollins.

de Montaigne, M. (1580-83, translated by J. Florio, 1603/1891). Essayes. Volumes 1-6 London: Gibbings. Available at Internet Archive: Vol 2, Vol 3 and Vol 6 are quoted.

Olivier, L. (1948/2006). Hamlet. Criterion Collection.  (Text used in the movie is documented in Olivier, L., Furse, R., & Shakespeare, W. (1948). Hamlet. London: B. Pollock.)

Pasternak, B. L. (1959). I remember: Sketch for an autobiography. New York: Pantheon (includes an essay on Translating Shakespeare).

Pennington, M. (1996). Hamlet: a user’s guide. London: Nick Hern Books.

Petronella, V. F. (1974). Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy: Once more unto the breach. Studies in Philology, 71, 72-88.

Richards, I. T. (1933). The meaning of Hamlet’s Soliloquy Publications of the Modern Language Association (PMLA), 48, 741-766.

Rosenbaum, R. (2002). Shakespeare in rewrite. New Yorker. (13 May, 2002) 68-77.

Rossiter, A. P. (Ed. G. Storey, 1962). Angel with horns and other Shakespeare lectures. London: Longmans.

de Santillana, G., & von Dechend, H. (1969). Hamlet’s mill; an essay on myth and the frame of time. Boston: Gambit.

Thompson, A., & Taylor, N. (Eds.) (2006a). Shakespeare, W. Hamlet. London: Arden Shakespeare.

Thompson, A., & Taylor, N. (Eds.) (2006b). Shakespeare, W. Hamlet: The texts of 1603 and 1623. London: Arden Shakespeare.

Wilson, J. D. (1935). What happens in Hamlet. Cambridge, U. K.: University Press.

 

 




Human Brain

Over the past two months I presented a course on the Human Brain to students in the LIFE (‘Learning is Forever’) Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto. The course was designed for the senior layperson. It introduced the basic anatomy and physiology of the nervous system, and described the various disorders that can affect the elderly human brain.

Human Brain Header

The course was given at a second-year university level. Some of the material may have been more than the students needed to know, but most were able to follow the main points of the talks, and some were fascinated by the details.

The presentations were supplemented with extensive teaching materials – slides, notes, movies, etc. Many of the illustrations were adapted or created specifically for the course. I am now making these generally available through the page entitled Human Brain on my website.

 

 




Progress

Loss of Paradise

The ancients did not believe in progress (Bury, 1932; Pollard, 1968; Meek Lange, 2011). They had two main ideas of how the world changes over time. One was that an initial state of peace and plenty – the Garden of Eden of Genesis, the Golden Age of Hesiod, or the Arcadia of Virgil – had degenerated over time to our present world of strife and suffering.

The decline from our golden beginnings to the present age of iron might have been simply caused by the passage of time, but more often than not it was attributed to human foolishness. The Jews told the story of original sin and the Greeks recounted the myth of Pandora’s box.

Lucas Cranach (1530) portrayed the Golden Age as a time when we could dance without fear of the lion and eat of the tree of knowledge without concern for the consequences. The word “paradise” means an area enclosed by a wall. Suffering and death remained outside the wall.

cranach golden age xb

Our forefathers’ second concept was that nothing ever really changes. The world may go through cycles of improvement and deterioration, but in the end everything stays about the same. The world is not perfect and never will be. The Jewish preacher Ecclesiastes (3rd Century BCE, 1:9, KJV) claimed that all is vanity:

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (180 CE, Meditations X:I, Staniforth translation) proposed that the soul

… can encompass the whole universe at will, both its own structure and the void surrounding it, and can reach out into eternity, embracing and comprehending the great cyclic renewals of creation, and thereby perceiving that future generations will have nothing new to witness, even as our forefathers beheld nothing more than we of today.

These two ideas of history were often combined. Our original paradise cannot be regained. The beings that began in Eden now find themselves condemned forever to brief lives characterized more by suffering than by happiness, and leading inexorably to death.

Eastern religions adopted a similar view. They conceived of human life as a continual reincarnation into a world of suffering. The only escape was from the ongoing cycle of death and rebirth (samsara) was to remove oneself from the changing world (maya) by abdicating all desire and dedicating oneself to wisdom and charity.

City of God

Into the gloom that pervaded much of our ancient wisdom came the idea of salvation. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ would allow the believer to escape to Heaven at the end of life. Failure to believe, however, would lead to Hell. In the 5th Century CE, Saint Augustine proposed that human beings can choose either to belong to the City of God or to remain in the Earthly City, the one founded by Cain (City of God, XV:1). People of the City of God progress “from earthly to heavenly things, and from the invisible to the invisible” (X:14).

bernini augustine xb

The illustration at the right shows a terra cotta maquette from the Hermitage, a model for Bernini’s 1650 statue of Augustine in St Peter’s Cathedral. Bernini’s sculpture was meant to seen from many different perspectives. So perhaps we are not amiss in interpreting Augustine’s work in ways not intended by the saint.

The idea of Christian salvation, like the benefits of many other religions, is basically mean-spirited and divisive. An elect will go to heaven; all others will not. Membership in the elite is not awarded on the basis of achievement but gifted by the grace of God. Indeed, Augustine believed that since God is omniscient, membership in the elect is pre-ordained.

Great Chain of Being

Augustine’s thinking was embedded in the notion of a Great Chain of Being (Lovejoy, 1936) that he derived from Greek philosophers, most notably from the Neoplatonist Plotinus. God created the world. Within this world everything was arranged hierarchically from inanimate matter at the bottom through plants, animals, man, and angels, to God at the top. This concept was extensively worked out in medieval Scholasticism, but persisted long after, as evidenced by Alexander Pope’s lines in his Essay on Man (1734, Epistle I:VIII):

Vast chain of being, which from God began,
Natures ethereal, human, angel, man,
Beast, bird, fish, insect! what no eye can see,
No glass can reach! from infinite to thee,
From thee to nothing!

The hierarchy also characterized human society with the anointed King placed at the top, the lords and clergy below and the peasants at the very bottom. Society was not supposed to change: one knew one’s place, and did not move between the levels.

Enlightenment

All this began to change with the emergence in the Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries of a new way of thinking that questioned the authority of the past. The very idea that we may not have understood the world correctly in the past implied that we might understand it better in the future.

This way of thinking led to the Enlightenment of the 18th Century. The new sciences had shown that we could understand more and more about the workings of the world, derive laws to predict what might happen, and harness energy to change the world which controlled us. Lives were becoming better.

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The Enlightenment gave birth to our modern idea of progress. In 1750 Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Baron de l’Aulne (1727-1781) published an essay entitled A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind. He agreed with the ancients that

All things perish, and all things spring up again; and in these successive acts of generation through which plants and animals reproduce themselves time does no more than restore continually the counterpart of what it has caused to disappear.

This sounds much like Marcus Aurelius. However, Turgot also noted that human beings were different from the rest of the world, since they can accumulate and communicate knowledge:

The succession of mankind, on the other hand, affords from age to age an ever-changing spectacle. Reason, the passions, and liberty ceaselessly give rise to new events …. The arbitrary signs of speech and writing, by providing men with the means of securing the possession of their ideas and communicating them to others, have made of all the individual stores of knowledge a common treasure-house which one generation transmits to another, an inheritance which is always being enlarged by the discoveries of each age.

This allows the idea of progress, whereby

… the whole human race, through alternate periods of rest and unrest, of weal and woe, goes on advancing, although at a slow pace, towards greater perfection (all quotations from Turgot, 1750, p. 41).

Turgot became most famous for his work on economics, his Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth being one of the foundational works of economic liberalism. Nevertheless, it is to him in particular and to the Enlightenment in general that we must trace the origin of our idea of progress (Younkins, 2006; Meek Lange, 2011). The statue of Turgot by Pierre Travaux (1853) illustrated above was appropriately photographed in the bright sunlight. Turgot was one of the giants of the Enlightenment.

Science advanced rapidly the 18th and 19th Centuries and by the beginning of the 20th Century it appeared that everything was within our reach. The study of thermodynamics had led to steam engines and automobiles, the study of electricity had given us artificial lighting and telephones, and the study of medicine had resulted in anesthetics and vaccines.

Society had become more humane. To some extent a belief in progress replaced our earlier belief in salvation.

Humanism is not science, but religion – the post-Christian faith that humans can make a world better than any in which they have so far lived … Christians understood history as a story of sin and redemption. Humanism is the transformation of this Christian doctrine of salvation into a project of universal human emancipation. The idea of progress is a secular version of the Christin belief in providence. (Gray, 2003. xiii)

No one was more enthusiastic in their belief in Progress than the people of the United States. They considered it their manifest destiny to replace the simple life of the Native Americans with the railways and industry of European civilization. The 1853 painting of Progress by Asher Brown Durand of the Hudson Valley School portrayed the changing American landscape. On the left are the Native Americans and on the right the New Americans. The unspoiled wilderness gives way to the glorious future. Both are suffused in sunshine: nostalgia for paradise is balanced by hope of heaven.

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March of Progress

The Theory of Evolution inverted the Great Chain of Being. God did not create the world and all that is within it. Rather, the world evolved from inanimate to animate and from simple to complex. Man descended from earlier humanoid species, that themselves had descended from monkeys. The universe developed from bottom up rather than from top down.

Religion generally rejected this world view. However some religious philosophers tried to combine evolution with divine purpose. Man was perhaps evolving toward a perfect being, an Omega Point where everything would be understood, time would cease, and God and man become one. (Teilhard de Chardin, 1959).

The evolution of man was often portrayed as a March of Progress. The most famous of these illustrations was by Rudolph Zaillinger for the Time-Life book on Early Man (Howell, 1965):

march of progress xb

The idea of the March of Progress was conceived in much the same way as the Great Chain of Being, although the sequence was temporal rather than heirarchic. Yet it remained a chain, and we often engage in a futile search for missing links.

Zaillinger’s picture suggests a linear sequence, with each humanoid species evolving into the next. This is completely wrong. Evolution has multiple branches, with most of the branches ending with extinction. Evolutionary progress is better illustrated by a bush than by a ladder (Gould, 1989). Furthermore, the evolution of man appears to have depended much more on chance contingencies than on an inevitable path. This does not make progress directionless, but does underline its precariousness.

Brave New World

As the Enlightenment progressed, the Common Man began refused to stay subservient. The Divine Right of Kings no longer held; revolutions occurred; democracy began to flourish. In the 20th Century governments began to grant Universal Suffrage.

However, we may have become too confident. Butterfield (1931) pointed out the human tendency to conceive of past history as necessarily progressing to the perfection of the present. Our present happiness simply confirms that our past policies were correct. The Great War shook this simple faith. Where could one place such terrible carnage in any concept of progress?

The tendency to see the present as the best of all possible worlds persists. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama announced the End of History (1989). Fascism had been defeated; communism had failed; democracy had triumphed:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

All that was then needed was to export democracy to the rest of the world. Today we live with the violent results of this idea. The world and human society are far more complex than they appear. Progress may be both desirable and possible, but it will require more foresight than we have shown so far.

Angelus Novus

Not everyone subscribed to the idea that progress is beneficial. The first half of the 20th Century undermined everyone’s faith. The rise of fascism in Europe, the war that it unleashed, the horror of the Holocaust, and the use of nuclear weapons were strong lines of evidence that history was descending into evil rather than progressing toward good.

klee new angel xb

Walter Benjamin gave terrifying poetic voice to this possibility by evoking a 1920 painting of Paul Klee:

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (Benjamin 1941, 257–8)

Benjamin’s warnings were disregarded in the years of peace and prosperity that followed World War II. In recent years, however, the idea that progress can be evil has been reconsidered:

To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals. This is the hope of nearly everybody nowadays, but it is groundless. For though human knowledge will very likely continue to grow and with it human power, the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive. (Gray, 2003, p. 4)

If anything about the present century is certain, it is that the power conferred on ‘humanity’ by new technologies will be used to commit atrocious crimes against it. (Gray, 2003, p. 14)

It is not hard to find historical examples of progress leading to problems (Wright, 2006). For example, the invention of flint arrows facilitated hunting but may have also led to the extinction of the very game that early man was pursuing. In addition, arrows provided yet another way for human beings to murder each other. Wright considers this early weaponry an example of a “progress trap” something that initially improves our lives but ultimately makes them worse.

Many of the problems brought on by progress are linked to human failings, particularly to selfishness. Wright considers the discovery of agriculture in this light:

The invention of agriculture is itself a runaway train, leading to vastly expanded populations but seldom solving the food problem because of two inevitable (or nearly inevitable) consequences. The first is biological: the population grows until it hits the bounds of the food supply. The second is social: all civilizations become hierarchical; the upward concentration of wealth ensure that there will never be enough to go around. (Wright, 2006, p. 108).

Modern democracies base their economies on capitalism. As well as being inherently unfair, capitalism cannot survive without continually increasing consumption. This has led to our current ills of pollution and climate-change:

Capitalism lures us on like the mechanical hare before the greyhounds, insisting that the economy is infinite and sharing therefore irrelevant. Just enough greyhounds catch a real hare now and then to keep the others running till they drop. In the past it was only the poor who lost this game; now it is the planet. (Wright, 2006, p. 124).

Nevertheless

Though we must properly consider the problems that we face, we must not lose sight of the fact that we are getting better even if the pace is slow and variable. Despite the tremendous loss of life in the two world wars of the 20th Century, we are less murderous now than in the past (Pinker, 2011, 2015). Though governments are far from perfect, the people of the present world have more rights now than in the days of kings. And even if science can lead to such terrible things as nuclear war, it has also provided us with the benefits of modern agriculture, transportation, communication and medicine.

We are right to be careful. Yet we should not do away with progress and retreat to the past. The paradise that we think we remember is not real. The future dystopias we imagine are warnings not necessary predictions.

Temple of Longing

To balance Benjamin’s vision of the angel we might conclude with another of Paul Klee’s paintings, Mural from the Temple of Longing (1922). The colors of the painting come from the desert. The surface is weathered as if by wind and sand. The shapes likely represent a mountain village in North Africa. Klee had been irrevocably changed by a brief sojourn in Tunis in the summer of 1914, and themes from that visit recur in many of his paintings. The blues of the picture suggest twilight, and the circular and semicircular shapes in the upper part of the picture may hint at a moon both full and waxing.

klee longing xb

The various vertical constructions terminate in arrows which move away from us, upward and deeper into the space of the picture. Arrows occur many times in Klee’s paintings and mean many things: the passage of time, the movement of things, and the force of desire. Here they may represent thoughts or questions:

The father of the arrow is the thought: how do I expand my reach? Over this river? This lake? That mountain? (Klee, 1925, p. 54)

A faith in progress is necessary. We should not simply accept our present state. We should long for a better world. However, we should always question how we should change the present to the future. And we should proceed with caution.

References

Benjamin, W., (1940, translated by H. Zohn, 1969). Theses on the philosophy of history. In

Illuminations. (pp. 253–264). New York: Schocken.

Bury, J. B. (1932). The idea of progress: An inquiry into its origin and growth. New York: Macmillan. Available at Internet Archive

Butterfield, H. (1931). The Whig interpretation of history. London: G. Bell and Sons.

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