Archive for History

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The Axial Age

In his 1949 book Vom Ursprung und Ziel des Geschichte (translated in 1953 as The Origin and Goal of History), Karl Jaspers proposed that the millennium before the time of Christ (or more specifically 800-200 BCE) could be considered an Achsenzeit or “Axial Age.” During this period, in five isolated regions of the world (China, India, Persia, Israel/Palestine, and Greece), human society and thought changed radically and irreversibly. A world that had until then been understood in terms of legends (mythos) was now examined in the light of reason (logos). During this time, “hitherto unconsciously accepted ideas, customs and conditions were subjected to examination, questioned and liquidated.” A multiplicity of gods and demons ceded their power to one universal god or life force. Sages, prophets and philosophers proposed rules for how we should behave. Though the axial age passed long ago, we still return to these teachings for moral guidance.

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The Rise of Ravenna

The Disintegration of the Roman Empire

Constantine the Great (reign 306-337) re-unified the Roman Empire and promoted Christianity as the imperial religion. For several decades after Constantine, the Empire remained stable. However, after the death of Theodosius I (reigned 379-395), the Empire fractured into Eastern and Western regions, each ruled by one of his sons.

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Intimations of Mortality

We have been here before. The coronavirus pandemic has many precedents. Over the centuries various plagues have swept over our world. Many millions of people have died before their time. From 1347 to 1351 the Black Death killed about 30 million people in Medieval Europe: over a third of the population. From 1918 to 1920 the Great Influenza killed about 50 million people: about 2.5% of the world’s population. Each of these pandemics was as deadly as World War I (about 20 million) or World War II (about 70 million). Pandemics are more worrisome than wars: we cannot sue for peace with a virus. Most of us survived even the worst of past infections. Our systems of immunity will likely once again become victorious in this present pandemic. But just like after a war, we shall be severely chastened. How close we will have come to death will change the way we think. Everything will be seen through the mirror of our own mortality and the transience of our species. The nearness of an ending will distort our thinking. We shall have strange dreams and frightening visions.

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Antisemitism

Hatred is directed anger. Though we can claim metaphorically to hate unconscious objects or abstractions, hatred is typically directed at another person or persons. Hatred is evoked by suffering that we perceive they caused. Since it leads to actions against these persons, hatred can also be described as “ill will.”

Emotions can overwhelm reason. Passion is not logical. We often hate without any justification. Hatred must then be maintained by fictions that describe the evil nature of those we hate.

Antisemitism is the most enduring and most unjustified of human hatreds. The ill will suffered by the Jewish people has lasted for thousands of years, and has led to countless crimes, the most terrible of which was the Holocaust wherein 6 million Jews were put to death by the Nazi Government of Germany (Bauer, 2001; Marrus, 1987). ;

Antisemitism has been inspired by many fictions. This posting considers the unfortunate power of some of the stories that paved the way to the Holocaust.

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Station Island

Station Island is an island in Lough Derg in County Donegal in the northwest part of the Republic of Ireland, very near the border with Northern Ireland. Lough Derg is a small shallow lake set amid low hills. Drainage from the surrounding bogs often gives its waters a russet hue, accounting for its name, “Red Lake” in Irish. Legend attributes the color to the blood of a monster serpent killed by St Patrick. Station Island has long been a place of Catholic Pilgrimage. This post presents some history of the pilgrims and of those who have written about them. Particular attention is paid to Seamus Heaney’s sequence of poems entitled Station Island (1984). The posting is long – like the pilgrimage.

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“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).

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Modern Wheels

The wheel has been around since about 4000 BCE (Bulliet, 2016). The first wheels used for transportation may have derived from potters’ wheels used for moulding cups and bowls. Some early wheels were made of stone, but these were soon replaced by wood which was lighter and faster. Around 3000 BCE spokes were invented, and for several thousand years fast-moving chariots with spoked wheels often decided ancient battles.  

By the middle of the nineteenth century wooden wheels for carts and carriages had become fully developed (see figure). The rim was made by bending ash to form curved felloes. These were attached to the hub by strong oak spokes, and held in place by a steel tire. 

In the last two hundred years the wheel has changed dramatically. Some changes have made the wheels more efficient (working well) and some made them more attractive (looking lovely). The forces driving the changes are thus similar to those that occur during evolution with its survival of the fittest and its sexual selection. However, wheel innovation is controlled by human design rather than random mutation, and the changes have occurred much more rapidly. And, as in evolution, some innovations do not survive: hubcaps and whitewall tires have become extinct.

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Music of the Viola

The viola is much under-rated. The instrument is difficult to play and its sound box is not optimal for its range of notes. Violists are the butt of numerous jokes maligning their tuning and their timing. Nevertheless, in the hands of a master, the viola has a wonderfully rich sound, melancholy in its low register and silvery in the high. Of all the strings it is perhaps most similar to the normal human voice.

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Stones of the Picts

With my surname it is inevitable that I should become interested in the Picts, a people who lived in Scotland during the first millennium of the Common Era. They left behind many sculptured stones, which now stand in fields and churchyards in the Northeast part of Scotland. Together with the Scots, the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons, they became the people of Scotland.

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Mitchell and Riopelle

From February 18 to May 6, 2018, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is presenting an exhibition of the paintings of Joan Mitchell and Jean-Paul Riopelle entitled Mitchell/Riopelle: Nothing in Moderation. This is the first time that many of these paintings have been seen together. The paintings are stunning, the relations between them fascinating.

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