Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Heritage of Torment

It's difficult to believe this blog has been around for so long a period, but six years ago I wrote a post regarding the decision made by the people of Catalonia in Parliament to ban the practice of bullfighting.  Proponents of the practice evidently reacted by petitioning the courts of Spain for relief, and now something called the Constitutional Court of Spain has determined that the ban is illegal.  From what I read, the basis for its ruling is that bullfighting is a part of Spanish heritage, and therefore can only be banned by Spain's central government, not a regional government.

It apparently took the court six years to decide that bullfighting is a part of Spain's common cultural heritage.  Regardless, it seems that under Spanish law, the central government alone has jurisdiction over this heritage, and so the regional government exceeded its authority by implementing the ban.

I can't help but wonder what this common cultural heritage may be and how and why the central government of Spain may alter it, if indeed it can.  "Heritage" by definition involves the history of a nation, and presumably no government of any kind can modify the past.  It could certainly modify how the past is perceived or understood, but banning bullfighting not only does nothing at all that impacts bullfights held before the ban; it likewise doesn't require that bullfighting which has taken place be thought of at all let alone in any particular way.

Presumably, the court hasn't ruled that only Spain's central government has the authority to do what can't be done, however.  It must be inferred that the court has, instead, determined that only the central government may ban something which has happened in the past from taking place now or in the future, provided it is a part of Spain's common cultural heritage.

Spain being no better generally than most other nations, its common cultural heritage may be said to include some less than admirable things, e.g. fascism, civil war, slavery, the Spanish Inquisition (which nobody expects) and, some would even say, genocide in the Americas.  Is it therefore the case that only its central government may prohibit such things?  Probably not.

So, it must be the case that only certain historical practices which took place in the Spanish nation constitute a part of its common cultural heritage, and so are inviolate unless and until its central government decides otherwise.  Bullfighting is one of them, it seems.

I think it's entirely fair to say that bullfighting consists of the highly stylized (even ritualized) process by which a bull is slowly tortured and killed by men on horseback and on foot through the use of sharpened metal weapons.  To some of us, it has special significance due to the fact that those torturing the bull, and particularly one of them, place themselves at some risk of being killed or seriously wounded by the animal being tortured.  The experience of observing the spectacle is said to be enhanced if the torture is engaged in a particular way, e.g. by controlling the animal's movements by the use of some cloth in a certain fashion, or striking the animal in a particular pose.

Assuming this is part of Spain's common cultural heritage (and setting aside the fact that if it is, it's not something some of us would take pride in), there remains the question why a particular part of Spain may not decide to prohibit bullfighting.  This question seem especially appropriate given the fact the court decided that Catalonia may "regulate the development of bullfighting" and "establish requirements for the special care and attention of fighting bulls."

What exactly are the powers to regulate the development of bullfighting and establish requirements for the special care and attention of fighting bulls?  If they're extensive enough, Catalonia can likely ban bullfighting for all practical purposes.  It could, for example, adopt a law that bulls may be fought, but only without the use of weapons of any kind.  Matadors may punch the bull, or attempt to wrestle it, but can't stick it with a sword.  Perhaps picadors would have to ride their horses sitting on them backwards, or could not ride horses, but instead could only ride other men.  Possibly, a very large tax on bullfighting may be imposed (not as satisfying an option, but far less silly).

Catalonia may explore these option and others, I would think.  Also, if the animus against this practice is particularly strong in any case, they could simply ignore it, and the practice die out for lack of interest and money.

The problem, of course, is that in the interim animals will continue to be tormented and killed as part of a grisly display for the delight of those humans who find such things enjoyable, and those who adopted the ban or supported it will be outraged.  It may be possible to continue to impose the ban regardless of the court's ruling, and force those who want to kill bulls or see them killed to have recourse to whatever remedies the law provides.  And this may be effective itself.

It may be the court's ruling is motivated at least in part by the perception the ban is an effort at Catalan independence.  It may be, in other words, that the court's ruling is purely political, and that it's felt the ban must be found legally invalid in order to avoid seeming to admit such independence.  If that's the case, there may little effort to enforce the ruling for fear of provoking a reaction.

Regardless, though, I wonder whether the Spanish people are well served by a court ruling that bullfighting is part of their common cultural heritage.  A heritage of gaudy, gruesome torment of animals wouldn't seem something to be proud of.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Esoterica and its Adherents

"Esoterica" may refer to things known only to the initiated, a select few. It's specialized knowledge available solely to those who come to be aware of it through means unavailable to most, i.e. to ordinary folk.  That's what it refers to in this post, in any case.

Esoterica, for my purposes, includes special knowledge pertaining to things both profane and sacred.  It's been a part of Western culture since ancient times; at least such knowledge has been claimed to exist and be possessed by those fortunate few who obtain it.  I don't pretend to know much of anything of Eastern culture but suspect esoterica plays a part in it as well, we humans being what we are. 

We see it in ancient times in the Eleusinian mysteries and in the mystery religions and cults which flourished during the Roman Empire, where initiation into the mysteries was required to obtain knowledge and salvation.  It was necessary that initiates perform or participate in certain ceremonies or rituals.  It required in some cases a special kind of learning, astrological learning, for example.  Those called the Gnostics pretended to esoteric knowledge, and it was claimed that such as Hermes Trimegistus obtained and wrote of it.  It was connected, as may be guessed, with mysticism and magic.

It didn't by any means disappear after Christianity took hold of the Empire, Christianity having its share of esoterica.  But Christianity at most inhibited for a time esoterica which may be said to be unrelated to Christian doctrine.  From the 17th century on, it seems that esoterica and what may be called esoteric societies have cropped up seemingly as an alternative to Christianity.  Those societies still flourish today.

There are of course the Masons.  Then there are the Rociscrucians and lesser known societies such as the Ancient Order of Druids, formed in the 18th century.  The Knights of Columbus appears to be a kind of freemasonry for Catholics.  The Illuminati and the Bilderberg Club are favorites of conspiracy theorists of various kinds.

My favorites are the Ordo Templi Orientis and Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.  The latter was created in the 19th century, the former in the 20th century.  These two even more than others were devoted to the magic arts and ancient pagan gods and goddesses, or at least rituals they imagined were involved in pagan worship.  The Ordo Templi Orientis was founded by the very odd Aleister Crowley who, in certain photographs, bears a remarkable resemblance to Uncle Fester of the Adams Family, especially as he appears in the movies.  Crowley seems to have worshipped every god at one time or another, though he was partial to ancient Egyptian deities.  He claimed to have been contacted by an entity named Aiwass while in Egypt, and with his assistance wrote a book which became the foundation for his religion, called Thelema.  It's not surprising that L. Ron Hubbard was influenced by him.

The Order of the Golden Dawn included William Butler Yeats among its members, and seems to have been associated with Crowley as well.  It was also devoted to the magic arts (Crowley liked to use the spelling "magik").  Meetings of these societies involved dressing in what were thought to be  clothing worn by ancient Egyptian priests.  The Egyptian craze resulting from the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb may have influenced the societies and their members.

It seems that peculiar clothes play an essential part in meetings of these societies, even those more common societies with which we're familiar.  The Masons don aprons and other items they imagine were worn by medieval builders.  The Knights of Columbus wear special hats, sashes, capes and carry swords, at least when they've attained a special rank.

I wonder what it is that prompts adults to gather together and wear costumes which would otherwise be considered silly, and engage in arcane rituals.  I understand that such societies can be a place for what we like now to call "networking" and suppose that if this results in financial or professional success it could well be worth dressing like a fool for an hour or so, especially when everyone else is similarly attired.  Is it thought to be a way of carrying on a tradition?  An elaborate game of dress-up for adults?  Is it thought to impress others, or please the gods or God, or render the wearer more potent in magic or knowledge?  Do these societies instill a sense of brotherhood?  Do they please the animal in us, these rankings and this hierarchy?

One would think that acquiring esoteric knowledge or power need not be something requiring a gathering of a community appropriately dressed, although the recitation of certain words and the conduct of certain ceremonies would seem to have been required for magic of any kind for a very long time, and throughout our history.  Gatherings associated with esoterica would therefore seem to satisfy more of a social impulse than anything else.  Perhaps that's a sense of brotherhood or a sense of comfort in the knowledge that others are as we are and want what we want, and willing to do what's being done.

But esoterica and the quest for it seems to be, like so much else of what we do and think, the result of our persistent desire, even need, to control things beyond our control, e.g. such things as death, our fate, others, the world, the universe.  Associated with that desire or need is our fear of such things, especially death and the loss of self.  This seems to be one, at least, of the bases of our religious instinct.

The Stoic injunction to be undisturbed by things beyond our control strikes me as having a profound effects.  Not only does it quiet our fears and concerns and our foolish ambitions, thus making happiness a possibility, but it renders certain all-too-common irrational conduct unnecessary and unreasonable.  It isn't necessary to accept complicated rituals and rules or believe in magic or gods to attain happiness and tranquility.  Esoterica is irrelevant.  We need only exercise control of ourselves.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger(s)

I've been less adoring of Mark Twain than others for quite some time, and have written of him unkindly in a few posts here in this very blog.  It may be that my view of him and his work is an example of familiarity, of a sort at least, breeding contempt.  The comedic Twain, teller of tall tales, the Twain of Hal Holbrook, creator of stock characters and folksy dialects, which seems to be the more popular Twain, I find annoying.   But I acknowledge that it may be that Twain did what he had to in order to make a living and thrive in this world and this required pandering, or that the familiar Twain of which I speak is in the nature of a caricature.

One thing I find quite interesting about him, however, is that work called The Mysterious Stranger.  I call it that here, in any case.  There are said to be 3-4 versions of this work, and each has been given its own title.  There is apparently no finished version; finished by Twain in any event.  His executor/biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, himself a writer of fiction and other things, is said to have created a version with an ending by slapping together 3 different versions and doing some creative editing with their texts together with a publisher named Duneka.

This work or more properly these versions or drafts of a work were written during the latter part of Twain's life, and address the subject of religion.  They feature the Prince of Darkness himself, or some versions do, or it may be that this character is merely his nephew, also named Satan.  It also may be that the Satanic figure is intended to be a different figure entirely.  I read that one version features Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.  That obviously isn't the version I've read, and I'm not interested in reading anything about those two characters, though I am willing to imagine, fondly, what the Devil might do to them.

I don't wish to enter into the debate regarding which version is truer to Twain.  I assume I've read the Paine version.  It certainly has its problems.  It must be wondered whether we do any author a service by publishing unfinished work posthumously, especially where the author left different versions of the work lying about at the time of death.  This is an indication that the author was never satisfied with what was written, and in fact never thought it should be read.  In that case, we wrong him by doing so or at the least do something he/she didn't want us to do.

Nonetheless, assuming that some part of the versions written by Twain are present, I think it fair to say that the satire engaged in is not the broad, sometimes knee-slapping, overt satire Twain otherwise indulged in (for example in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court).  It is a grim, serious, and simply written tale, sometimes sinister, sometimes hectoring.  What is most interesting, I think, is the indifference of the Satan-figure to humans in general or particular humans, and especially as to what is called their "Moral Sense."  This he considers a peculiarity of humans and an unnecessary burden.

His indifference is striking.  Unfortunately it's rendered less striking by his propensity to lecture about the defects of human kind.  By all accounts Twain was prone to dwell on our many problems and deplorable nature and conduct, but I like to think that the lectures were inserted after his death.  They become repetitive and are boring, the point being already quite clear.  Also, he inserts himself into human events now and then.

The Satan-figure is quite willing to use his powers to benefit and do favors for some, and seems to have no real malice.  Our happiness or unhappiness isn't of much concern to him, it seems.  As might be expected, when he bestows benefits it's likely things don't turn out well for the person benefited, and as a result of the benefit.  He or she dies, or someone else does, or goes mad.  Episodes of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone come to mind, inevitably.

The overwhelming impression I receive from this work is that the concerns of humans, their deeds, problems, thoughts, and beliefs, even as to matters right or wrong, are small and insignificant and of no interest to Satan, or God, or the universe.  I think the Satan-figure could very well be a substitute for God, despite his name and the fact he refers to himself as an angel. 

Simply put, I think it's the intent or one of the intents of the work to point out that we flatter ourselves enormously by thinking we have any importance in the universe or the Divine Plan, if there is one.  The universe wasn't made for us, and isn't bound by our conceptions of right and wrong.  What happens merely happens, and there need be no reason to it; at least no reason humans would understand or appreciate.

The late Warren Zevon wrote a song called The Vast Indifference of Heaven.  Is this indifference what Twain was contemplating in his later years?  Did it comfort him, appall him, confirm him in his belief regarding our foolishness?  The vastness of the universe suggests that we're creatures of great pretensions, and our concerns with what is not in the power of our wills foolish indeed.  Perhaps Twain was something of a Stoic in that respect, at least.  But I have difficulty believing that he felt the universe to be divine in any sense, or that we shared in any divinity, which would seem to establish he wasn't a Stoic in the ancient sense.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Thoughts on "Muscular Christianity"

The Victorian Era is famous, or infamous, for a number of peculiarities.  What's been called--rather uneasily, I think--"Muscular Christianity" is one of them, or so I believe.

"Muscular Christianity" is the name of a movement of sorts which associates Christianity with physical exercise, physical health, team sports and such, not of humans generally but of men specifically.  It's a very if not exclusively manly Christianity.  Ostentatiously manly, in fact. 

It's said to have had its genesis, as it were, in British authors like Charles Kingsely and Thomas Hughes.  Hughes, it may be remembered, was the author of Tom Brown's Schooldays, a kind of celebration of the life experienced by boys in the English public schools of the time.  Hughes, his book and his hero were spoofed by George MacDonald Fraser in his wonderful series of books which were the supposed memoirs of Harry Flashman, a rogue and scoundrel who, in Hughes' book, also attended Rugby when Tom Brown was there until expelled for drunkenness.  Frasier's Flashman manages to be present at virtually all significant event of the era and though he's a coward and reprobate also thrives, and is in fact honored.

In the U.S., this form of pious muscularity has been associated with Teddy Roosevelt (called "The Great American Sissy" by Gore Vidal, by the way) and the YMCA.  It's adherents seem to maintain that this kind or brand of Christianity looks back to medieval chivalry in that it champions protection of the weak by the strong, and it's been claimed that it has a basis in Scripture.

This seems dubious.  From what I've read, the story of Jesus' anger at the money changers is considered scriptural authority or sanction for "Muscular Christianity."  It's beyond dispute that muscles were required to tip over the tables of the money changers (unless Jesus, being God after all, and so not required to make use of muscles, threw them about by other means).  However, Jesus presumably used his muscles for most everything he did as a man, and that's the case with normal men as well.  So the use of muscles in and of itself would not seem to be peculiarly Christian or Christ-like.

It would seem then that what is considered important by Muscular Christians is the manner in which Jesus used his muscles in this case; that is to say, violently.  But if violent conduct, even righteous violent conduct, is what's being touted there are difficulties with contending that this is what Christianity is or should be.  According to the Gospels, Jesus was a great fan of nonviolence, as in turning the other cheek for example.  Paul's references to athletic events are also referred to, but the ancient pagans often used such events as analogies even when philosophizing, e.g. Epictetus.

If ancient times or early Christianity are to be considered, it's much easier to find evidence of Muscular Pagans than Muscular Christians.  Most Christians refused to even serve in the Roman military, at least until Christians began to become prevalent in the imperial administration.  They condemned the Roman games.  The early Christians could hardly be said to have emphasized the perfection and beauty of the human body.  They were more likely to complain of it and damn it as sinful.  Ascetics were idolized by early Christians, not athletes.

Of course, in the 19th century it would have been difficult for most in England and America to think of physical exercise of any kind as being anything but a manly pursuit.  Women who engaged in it were likely considered odd, abnormal in a particularly disturbing way.  So to the extent physical activity of the kind involved in sports, hunting or war were deemed religious activities or thought to be activities which could be engaged in for religious reasons, it's unsurprising that it was taken for granted that the actors would be men.

But the idea of manly Christianity as a special, better kind of Christianity, or of Christianity as being a manly religion, seems rather odd these days; even risible, in fact.  For someone like me, alas, the old SNL skit about the good ship The Raging Queen and the manly ports at which it called comes to mind whenever the word "manly" is used.  The relationship between Muscular Christianity and idealization of  English public schools (and the YMCA at least as portrayed in a certain popular song) similarly encourages association with a particular kind of manliness, one which may be seen now and then when the female and the feminine are absent from the life being lived.  It was arguably very much on display in ancient Greece, where women simply had no place in social life.  But perhaps I'm too inclined to mockery.

Assuming I am too much so inclined, though, I still think the idea of a Muscular Jesus, exercising regularly, engaged in roughhousing and wrestling or whatever sports were popular at the time in Palestine, to be untenable.  Romans of the time, at least of a particular age, regularly patronized the public baths in which it was common for these activities to take place, but Christians weren't known to frequent the baths any more than they did the ludi.

Muscular Christianity, then, has nothing to do with early Christianity.  I think it likely it has much to do with Victorian values, instead, certain of which remain significant to some even in these times.  I suspect that there is behind it a belief that certain kinds of physical exertion serve to keep the mind occupied and so incapable of erring in other ways; the idle mind being the Devil's playground.  It may also be thought to channel physical exertions away from our base sexual urges and into something more desirable, something which requires discipline and conformity, like sports or, if appropriate, war. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Curious Belief that it's a Good Thing to Die: Some Examples

One day in 185 C.E., a large group of Christians appeared at the house of Arrius Antoninus, Roman proconsul in Asia Minor, and demanded that he order their execution.  It seems he obliged as to a few of them, but told the rest of them to go home, noting that if they wanted to die there were available to them plenty of cliffs from which they could hurl themselves and rope by which they could hang themselves, without his assistance.

We learn of this remarkable incident from Tertullian (Quintus Semptimius Florens Tertullianus), a great Latin Christian apologist of the time, who noted it in correspondence to another Roman official written in defense of Christianity and urging against persecution of Christians.  Tertullian was a lawyer and, sadly, it's not unusual for lawyers to use almost any argument in making a case.  Here, it seems he was arguing something to the effect that "we Christians want you to kill us, so threatening to kill us or otherwise harm us won't do you any good."

Had I been a Roman official of the time, I wouldn't have found this argument very persuasive, except in establishing that Christians were annoying lunatics (which is it seems is how Antoninus thought of them and how he treated them).  This presumably wasn't Tertullian's intent.  The fact that Tertullian cited this event in his petition to a Roman official, however, indicates at the least that it wasn't a story made up by the opponents of Christianity to ridicule it.  Tertullian seemingly takes pride in it.

I don't want to enter into the debate regarding the extent to which imperial Rome persecuted Christians, although the subject is fascinating.  What I've read on that topic leads me to believe that most historians think that reports of the deaths of Christians resulting from Roman persecution are greatly exaggerated, like that of the death of Mark Twain.  For those interested, I'd recommend The Myth of Persecution by Candida Moss.

Nonetheless, assuming Tertullian was noting an event that actually occurred, I find it interesting that it took place and find its use in an argument against persecution even more interesting.  Two questions arise:  (1) why did the Christians confront a Roman magistrate and demand that he have them killed? and (2) why did Tertullian believe their example noteworthy in arguing Christians posed no threat to imperial authority?

As it would seem clear that Roman provincial authorities didn't hesitate to execute those they considered dangerous (except Roman citizens who could appeal to the Emperor and would in that case be sent to Rome), it must be assumed that the Christians were quite aware Arrius Antoninus would execute them if he was so inclined.  So they must have known their execution was a real possibility if not a probability.  There's no real likelihood they expected he would not execute them.  They must have anticipated he would have them killed.

Their demand that he have them executed can only mean that they wanted to be executed.  They wanted to die at his hands.  They hoped he would have them killed.  According to Tertullian, Antoninus addressed them as "unhappy" or "miserable" men in dismissing them; he clearly thought them to be unfortunates, misguided or demented for desiring death, and wouldn't cooperate in their execution.  He must have annoyed them greatly when he chose to ignore their unusual demand and sent them away. 

The fact they sought out the proconsul and clamored for their deaths means they weren't content to await execution or patiently wait to be persecuted. It's not that they were willing to die for their faith if the Romans came and took them and demanded they give it up.  That didn't happen.  They were too impatient for that; they wanted to die so badly they tried to make the proconsul kill them.

It's difficult, then, to consider these particular Christians martyrs as that word is normally understood.   It's also difficult to think them noble for dying for their faith, or an idea, because they wouldn't abandon it or denounce it.  Someone who demands that they be killed isn't admirable to most people.  As Christianity became more widespread in the Empire and it became common for Christians to hold imperial positions, it seems the orthodox Church came to find such examples of zealotry embarrassing, and the insistence on death as indicative of heresy.

Unless these seekers of death are considered wholly demented, it must be assumed that they demanded to be killed because being killed, dying and perhaps just being dead in itself was good, proper, desirable in some sense, for them at least.  Perhaps they thought that they were literally better off dead.  Perhaps they thought they would be rewarded after death.  Perhaps they thought that by dying at the hands of Roman authorities they would become like Jesus.  Perhaps they thought God wanted them to die.

As for Tertullian, I think we can only assume he thought that referencing this incident would somehow act to convince a Roman official that Christians should not be persecuted.  Why he thought this is a mystery to me.  I think it's doubtful he thought this incident would persuade the official that Christians were noble or heroic and so should not be persecuted.  Although ancient pagans certainly recognized and honored heroic deaths, demanding death in this instance would likely be considered incomprehensible by them.  I also think it's doubtful he thought this example would convince the official that Christians were harmless, or good, peaceful, subjects of the Empire.  The official might fear he would be hounded by Christians demanding that he kill them, in fact, regardless of whether they were persecuted.  So, I think we must infer that Tertullian was telling the official that persecuting Christians would have no effect.  "We have no fear of death."

These considerations are useful in these far too interesting times, as we're confronted by others who seek death, apparently for similar (that is to say, only, religious) reasons.  Those who seek death now, however, don't merely seek to kill themselves or have others kill them--they want to kill others.  Indeed, it seems they consider killing others the primary reason for killing themselves.

So, the ancient Christian death seekers were clearly different from those Muslim death seekers who kill themselves now intending to kill others as well.  There's a difference between wanting to be killed and wanting to kill others while killing oneself.

But it would seem that in each case it's believed that dying is good, and that God wants us to die in a particular way or will reward us if we do so.  And these are dangerous thoughts indeed.  Once we think God wants us or others to die, or that it's good that we or others die, we not only accept but seek death; our death or the death of others, or both.  Worse, we think we should kill.  Death becomes a moral imperative.