Archive for History

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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.

 

 

Christmas

“On Earth Peace, Good Will toward Men” – the announcement of the angels to the shepherds – is the main message of Christmas.1 Its meaning persists even without the attendant theology.

Winter is a time for rest. Midwinter celebrations such as Christmas are marked by both conviviality and quietness. In the cold it is better to gather together than to fight each other. And nothing takes the mind away from the present more than starry night over snowy ground.

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Shostakovich: Music and Meaning

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was the greatest of the Soviet composers. Unlike Prokofiev, who spent many years abroad, Shostakovich lived all of his adult life in the Soviet Union (1922-1991). His relations with the state were difficult. Artists do not work easily in a dictatorship.

Shostakovich talked very little about his music. His work evokes powerful emotions, but what Shostakovich means often remains unclear. Although much of his music appeared to glorify Soviet Communism, recent writers such as Volkov (1979) and MacDonald (1990) have suggested that many of his works carried subversive meanings. His life, like his music, has had many interpretations.

This posting considers some of the issues of interpretation. In a society wherein one is afraid to say what one thinks or feels, history becomes uncertain. And music is often ambiguous.

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Remembrance

The onset of World War I brought into question the very idea of European civilization. Mankind’s ongoing progress to a better world appeared no longer pre-ordained. Promises of future peace and plenty were forever broken. Henry James wrote in a letter to Howard Sturgis on August 5, the day after Britain declared war of Germany.

The plunge of civilization into the abyss of blood and darkness by the wanton fiat of those two infamous autocrats is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we had supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for my words. (James, 1920, p 398)

(The “autocrats” were Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Franz Josef I of Austria.) The complex sentence is typical of James, the master of convoluted qualification. Rudyard Kipling later said the same in fewer words in his Common Form for the Epitaphs of the War:

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

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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.

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Euthanasia

We cannot choose the moment of our birth. And death usually comes in its own time, not ours. Sometimes, however, we can decide to end our life. The reasons for suicide are various. Most common is the desire to end intractable suffering. Faced with the prospect of a prolonged period of pain and suffering at the end of life, most rational people would prefer euthanasia – a “good death.” This term first came into English in Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning (Book II, X.7). Bacon was encouraging physicians to assuage the pains and agonies of death: to practice what we now call palliative care.

Over the course of time “euthanasia” became differentiated from palliative care, and now generally means the inducement of death so as to prevent intolerable pain and suffering in patients with incurable disease (Young, 2012; Sumner 2011). Euthanasia may be voluntary or involuntary, based on whether the patient provides consent or not. Involuntary euthanasia, where the patient does not provide consent although capable of so doing, is sometimes distinguished from non-voluntary euthanasia (“mercy killing”), where the patient is unable to either object or consent. Some would consider both involuntary and non-voluntary euthanasia as equivalent to murder and limit the term euthanasia to cases wherein consent is explicit. Euthanasia may be active or passive, based on whether death is induced by the administration of a lethal medication or by the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment, nutrition or hydration. Active euthanasia may be initiated by the patient, in which case it is essentially suicide, or by someone else (a physician or a nurse acting under the direction of a physician), in which case it can be described as assisted suicide or assisted dying. Sometimes voluntary euthanasia, where the lethal medication is administered to the patient, is distinguished from assisted suicide, where the patient takes the drug, but this distinction appears unnecessary. When the word is unmodified, euthanasia generally means physician-assisted suicide performed at the request of the patient.

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Kitsch

The term “kitsch” came into being in Germany toward the end of the nineteenth century (Dorfles, 1969; Calinescu, 1987; Riout, 2004). The etiology of the word is unknown. One possible source is the verb kitschen meaning “to collect rubbish” (Rugg, 2002); another is verkitschen, “to make cheaply” (Dutton, 1998). Words used to describe kitsch – “tacky,” “tawdry,” “garish,” “chintzy,” “schmaltzy” and “cheesy” – suggest cheapness, ostentation, triteness and sentimentality. Garden gnomes are a classic example.

garden gnomes

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Person and Memory

Although psychology has become an established science, it still has deep connections to philosophy. This is particularly true when we consider the concept of person that is at the foundation of all psychology. A person exists (and persists) through the processes of consciousness and memory. The following photograph (by Marie-Lan Nguyen) shows a Roman statue of Clio, the muse of history, from the Museo Pio Clementino of the Vatican. Clio records what is happening and recalls what has happened. History ensures that the past persists. The past helps us to understand the present.

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Clio, Museo Pio Clementino

The statue derives from the 2nd century CE. Its head and body were originally from different statues. Our knowledge of the person comes from both psychology and philosophy. This posting looks at memory and person from these two viewpoints. The photograph has been modified to provide more space on the statue’s right. There is much we do not know.

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Language and Meaning

Language and meaning

I have just returned from a brief trip to Korea. I had learned the Hangul alphabet, but my vocabulary was limited to some rudimentary phrases. I could read but I could not understand. This led to some thoughts about language and meaning. My posting will take a roundabout course, beginning with a Korean scholar from the Silla dynasty. Be patient: I shall try to find some meaning before the day is done.

Choe Chi Won (857-925?)

At the age of 12, Choe Chi Won (Hangul 최치원; Chinese 崔致遠; literary name 孤雲, Go-un, “Lonely Cloud”) was sent from Korea to study in Xian (Chang’an), the capital of the Tang dynasty in China. There he learnt the practices of Confucianism and the arts of poetry and calligraphy. He passed the Imperial Examination at the young age of 22 years, and rose quickly through the ranks of the Chinese Civil Service.

However, the Tang dynasty (618-907) was slowly coming to its end. In 874, Huang Chao had initiated a rebellion against the Emperor. By 880 he had taken control of the capital and assumed the throne, calling himself the “Emperor of Qi.” Choe served as the secretary to the Tang general Gao Pien in his campaign against Huang Chao. By 884, the rebellion was finally defeated and the Tang emperor Xizong reinstated in Xian.

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Giving Offence

tout est pardonne xbCharlie Hebdo

A great outpouring of sympathy and solidarity followed the assassination of the editorial staff at Charlie Hebdo. A million people gathered in Paris in silent protest. The motto Je suis Charlie was promoted across the world. The magazine refused to restrain its irreverence. The cover of its first issue after the attack showed the Prophet forgiving the blasphemy against him (Tout est pardonné) and supporting Je suis Charlie.

Nevertheless, most Western newspapers did not reprint either this cover or the earlier cartoons that had precipitated the assassinations. Their rationale was that these would unnecessarily offend those who believe that any depiction of the Prophet is sacrilegious. For example, despite the opposition of some of its own journalists, the Toronto Star decided not to publish the cartoons:

We could run the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. There is a strong news rationale for doing so. But there are important reasons of principle not to do it. Just as we would not publish racist or pornographic images, we will exercise our judgment not to print the cartoons.
We will not print them because we have too much respect for fellow Canadians of Muslim background. We will not send a message that their way of being Canadian is less acceptable or less valuable than that of any other citizen. (Cruikshank, 2015).

The opposing viewpoint is that the act of terrorism itself justifies the further publication of the offending material. Otherwise we would be submitting to censorship by intimidation rather than by principle:

If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more. (Douthat, 2015)

As the weeks passed, there has also been some acknowledgment of the offence (e.g. Tariq Ali, 2015). Not that this could in any way justify the violence. Just that in a civil society one should respect the beliefs of others. Not to do so, particularly when the others are in a minority, is to demean them. It is far better to mock those in power than those without.

Furthermore, the vaunted freedom to satirize the beliefs and actions of Muslims is clearly out of balance with the strict limitations placed on any criticism of Jewish beliefs or history. It is far easier to defame that Prophet than to deny the Holocaust.

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