Author Archives: Kevin A. Straight

First (Poison) Fruits of NaNoWriMo

We’re roughly at the halfway point for the NaNoWriMo writing challenge.  I’m a bit behind on word count (only about 11,000 out of 50,000 words), though not critically so.  I’m not too worried because I will go through at least one bipolar cycle between now and the end and on the up cycle I can average 5,000+ words per day.

In my last post I mentioned that, instead of writing a novel, I wanted to write some essays on moral philosophy.  I have a couple of first drafts done, but I don’t want to post them until I’ve rewritten them a couple times.  Have no fear, though, they’re coming.  In the meantime, I do have something that is ready:  The following will be packaged as bonus features for a webcomic that I am creating.  Please imagine that it is contained in multiple tabs on a sidebar under a menu button called “About”.  Have the visual?  Good.

Oh, if you want to see a preview of Poison Fruit, the webcomic, you can click here for the first half-dozen pages.  Keep in mind, though, that this is still early days and I may decide to change things before I go live.


A Little Background

Poison Fruit was meant to be a movie.  Ever since, several years ago now, I first read Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, I have wanted to create an adaptation that would make it accessible to 21st century audiences, while still maintaining the atmosphere and pathos of the original.  If possible, I also wanted it to be set in space. Those were the two things I knew for sure, all of the other details fluctuated as I kept the project on the back burners of my mind.  I considered different media: live action, stop motion, marionettes. Different formats: a feature, an OVA, a streaming television show. Different scopes: would it be just Duchess, or would I bring in material from other Jacobean plays?  I also thought about the world itself. For a year or more I was decided to make all the characters extraterrestrials.  If there were any humans at all, they would be in strictly supporting roles. But as I explored the concept, I realized that if I wanted to make them relatable, I would need to make them fairly human.  And, as much as I love Star Trek, we don’t need any more green-painted women or otherwise human characters with bumpy foreheads.  If I was going to have aliens, I wanted to make them alien, but Poison Fruit is a human story.

Around the time I had a pretty good conception of the project, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to make it work on video.  To tell the story wanted, I would need, at the minimum, a full season TV show. My production company is, for the most part, a one-man-band operation.  Animated productions typically employee dozens, if not hundreds, of specialists. Even if I could somehow raise the money to hire them all, and find a place for all of them to work, I have neither the experience not the administrative support structure to show-run that size production, which meant I would have to give up a lot of control to someone else.

I was a bit stuck until the webcomic idea occurred to me.  I like to joke that a comic is just an animated movie with an extremely low frame rate.  In a comic, as compared to a movie, I can dispense with all of the animation between keyframes, all of the audio and accompanying lip-sync, and most of the editing.  By going with more of a manga aesthetic I could use simpler backgrounds. By doing it mostly in grayscale I could eliminate most of the color design work and all of the color grading, while significantly simplifying my texture and lighting work.  And besides, the manga is almost always better than the movie, so why not just make the manga?

So there you have Poison Fruit, a movie adaptation of a play expressed as a web comic.  

The Lure of Italy

The period that we think of as the Renaissance was fleeting–sightly less than 200 years, depending on which start and end dates you choose.  Many historians consider it to have begun in the second half of the 1300’s, when Italian literature and art began breaking away from the medieval conventions which had circumscribed them for centuries.  It was winding down by the mid 1500’s, under the influences of the Spanish occupation and the counter-reformation, events which quashed the violence and vice, and the chaos and corruption of Italy at the expense of her creative and economic energy.  Hardly any Englishmen had anything to do with the renaissance, and few of the famous Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights were even alive when it happened. [There is a line in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics that seems apropos, though I am likely quoting it incorrectly: “The renaissance was just a bunch of Italians poncing around that the English didn’t hear about until 100 years later.”]  And yet, Renaissance Italy exercised an incredibly pervasive influence on early modern English popular culture. We know that translations of Italian books, especially the trashy ones like Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, from which Webster adapted Duchess, were Elizabethan best sellers.  In Shakespeare’s comedies references to Italy and her cities can usually be interpreted as “a generically exotic foreign locale”, and he travels there frequently.  While some of his greatest tragedies are set elsewhere, even he can see that Italy is the natural background for Othello’s crimes of passion and betrayal, and Romeo and Juliet’s feuding noble families and semi-accidental double suicide.   By the reign of James I Italy was the preferred setting for the most horrific tragedies: Gothic murder-fests like Webster’s Duchess of Malfi and White Devil, or sordid tales of incest, mental illness, and more murder, like Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.  These plays must have sold seats, because they kept writing them.   

What exactly was the English’s fascination with Renaissance Italy?  Vernon Lee, in her essay “The Italy of the Elizabethan Dramatists” in her book Euphorion offers some insight:

The crimes of Italy fascinated Englishmen of genius with a fascination even more potent than that which they exercised over the vulgar imagination of mere foppish and swashbuckler lovers of the scandalous and the sensational: they fascinated with the attraction of tragic grandeur, of psychological strangeness, of moral monstrosity, a generation in whom the passionate imagination of the playwright was curiously blent with the metaphysical analysis of the philosopher and the ethical judgement of the Puritan. To these men, ardent and serious even in their profligacy; imaginative and passionate even in their Puritanism, all sucking avidly at this newly found Italian civilization the wickedness of Italy was more than morbidly attractive or morbidly appalling: it was imaginatively and psychologically fascinating.   

Since it is now in the public domain, I have gone ahead and placed a copy of the essay here.  The full book is available from Project Gutenberg.  The author’s thesis is that since both the immorality and grandeur of Renaissance Italy so far surpassed anything to be found in England, the stories of them provided fuel to launch English literature to height never before (and perhaps never since?) attained.  

And so, we have two Italies.  One is the real Italy of the mid 1300’s through mid 1500’s.  We can never know exactly what it was like, since we weren’t there, but history and archaeology can give us a general idea.  The other is the Italy of the early modern English popular imagination, with it’s every crime and aberration sensationalized and blown out of proportion, loaded with casual anachronisms and, for all relevant purposes, eternal.  These two Italies have some character names and geography in common, but they are not in the same world.

And to these two I add a third.  Just as those old Elizabethan and Jacobean writers took their inspiration from the real Italy to create a world for their imagination, I have used the Jacobean Italy to create an Italy in the outer solar system, which I call Poison Fruit.

There, now that I have the really meta part out if the way, I can go into specifics.  That is, I’ll be as specific as I think I can be without dropping spoilers.

 

The World of Poison Fruit

 

History

No one knows who invented space travel.  It must be ancient, though, because spaceships are mentioned in Homer and the Bible.  They were cruder things than modern ships, though; just look at all the trouble that Ulysses and Jonah had.  

Throughout history, great empires have risen, conquering large segments of the solar system.  At its apex the Roman Empire ruled everything from orbit of Mars to the moons of Saturn. Not only did they enlarge existing orbital habitats and build new ones, but it is sometimes even claimed that they had the technology to land on planets and take off again.  No one entirely believes that last part, though, since it is well-known that entering such a large gravity well is simply a flashy way to commit suicide.

Alas, the Empire succumbed to internal stresses and waves of barbarian invaders from the outer system. A dark age began in which most people focused on subsistence, and it was too dangerous and expensive to stray too far from home.  Rome itself, one of the oldest and largest habitats and the seat of the Church, lost much of its population and much of its influence, except within its own immediate vicinity in the asteroid belt. At one point the French even forced the papacy to relocate to Avignon!  Other Italian habitats, or individual cities within habitats, did better, especially those like Venice and Genoa who managed to maintain their fleets and keep up a steady, albeit local, trade.

In recent generations, though, Italy has grown wealthy again.  Her popes, bankers, mercenaries, and merchant princes bring the treasure of all of Christendom to her coffers.  Her artists and engineers are the envy of the system. Granted, there are still threats to this prosperity. The recent conquest of the habitat of Naples by France has shown that the European powers have grown strong enough to be a threat.  Piracy is rife everywhere. The Turks, though humbled by their defeat a few years ago at Lepanto, are still a powerful force. And, worst of all, Italy herself is plagued by constant small wars between individual cities and factions. Lucky is the habitat that doesn’t have at least one war going on between its cities at any given time.  Lucky is the ruler of a city who can keep the local nobles from slaughtering each other in vendettas. Overall, though, things are going well and Italy is once again, for the first time in centuries, the center of the Christian universe.

 

Families and Factions

House Aragon is one of the most powerful royal families in Europe.  Not only do they control a newly unified Spain with recently established colonies in recently explored parts of the system, but the have extensive holdings in the rest of Europe, as well as a marriage connection with the current Holy Roman Emperor.  The head the family is King Ferdinand the Catholic of Spain, but he isn’t in this story. The Aragons in this story are his second cousins, former members of the royal family of Naples, before its conquest by France. Now they are mere vassals of the French viceroy.  Granted, they still control the Duchies of Calabria and Amalfi, as well as a cardinalship in Rome, but these honors hardly compare with the rule of an entire country. They seek to mend their fortunes, remembering better days and more prosperous relatives.

House Orsini is an ancient patrician house of Rome, able to trace their roots to the founding of the city.  At least, that’s what they say. What is known for sure is that since the dark ages Orsini have been involved in Roman politics.  The other thing they are known for is their recurring feuds with House Colonna, another ancient Roman family. What some people have not realized, at least until it was too late, is that the  Orsini and the Colloni are quite capable of joining forces against any third-party that tries to muscle into their turf. Between the two of them they control the majority of the eternal city’s military assets, as well as numerous men in key positions of authority, both secular and religious.  

The senior Orsini are adept at walking the line between suave, cultured nobles and gangster bosses.  Not that they see any conflict between the two. Their current “Prince” is Paolo Orsini, Duke of Bracciano, near Rome.  Besides their seat at Bracciano, a junior branch of the family holds the County of Pitigliano, also near Rome.

House Medici is by far the wealthiest family in Italy, as well as the absolute rulers of the Tuscany Habitat and its capital city, Florence.  The current head of the family is Grand Duke Cosimo di Medici. He was a highly successful condottiere, or mercenary general until the main branch of the family died out and he inherited the throne.  

Rumors of crimes of brutality and lust attach to the Medicis as they have done to no house since the fall of the Borgias, over a generation ago.  Most of these stories seem to have been spread by jealous rivals. On the other hand, it is well-known that Cosimo does what he wants, without reference to the laws of God or man.

 

Technology

Habitats

While smaller habitats exist, built on different patterns, the majority of people in the solar system live in what, in another universe, are called Stanford Toruses.  They are gigantic (tens of thousands of square miles of surface area) doughnut shaped objects that spin to produce artificial gravity. A system of mirrors transmits light more or less evenly onto the surface, while most harmful radiation is absorbed by the outer rim.  The terrain inside every habitat varies, with each having its own combination of coasts, mountains, rivers and other landforms.

No one knows who originally built the habitats.  While the commoners believe it was the Romans, it seems more likely that they just repaired and expanded what was already there.  Whoever the builders were, they believed in massive redundancy, generous factors of safety, and minimizing the number of moving parts—which is probably why so many habitats are still livable.

Space Travel

The microgravity hub area of each major habitat contains vast manufacturing and storage spaces, most of which are only partially explored.  There are probably large areas where no man has entered since ancient times. No one alive knows what most of the equipment does or how to use it.  However, there are certain common items that any spacefarer knows how to recognize and put to use, like life support and thruster modules. The ancients left generous stockpiles of the most common sizes, which can easily be bolted onto contemporary hulls (built of wood, wrought iron, canvas and other mundane materials) to create functional space ships.

One process that has not been lost is the art of making very thin, strong solar sails….though the actual machines and the technique of using them is a closely guarded guild secret.   All ships that sail out of sight of a habitat carry solar sails in addition to thrusters because thrusters are not only expensive, but they sometimes fail and, when they do, no one knows how to repair them.  Also, thrusters burn phlogiston (a.k.a. hydrogen) which, while it is cheap and available at the space port of any habitat, takes up space that could otherwise be used for cargo. For these reasons long-distance freighters and cruisers rely on solar sails for their primary means of propulsion.

Gunpowder

Guns and gunpowder have been around for two and a half centuries, and cannon have long since replaced catapults and ballistas as artillery, both within habitats and in space.  Black powder weapons work in a vacuum as long as a high oxidizer powder is used. “Space powder” is less powerful than that used in atmosphere, but the lack of air resistance makes up for the reduced muzzle velocities at all but the shortest ranges.  

Matchlock arquebuses, though they can be a bit aggravating, are common infantry weapons.  Wheellock weapons are also available and are more reliable and don’t require walking around with a burning match.  However they are also several times as expensive, and never issued to common soldiers. There are also still plenty of bows and crossbows around.  They take more practice to master than guns but they tend to be more accurate and reliable. Also, sailors and marines dislike matchlocks for the simple reason that they live next to large tanks of highly flammable phlogiston.  

 

Further Reading  

Poison Fruit is its own world, with its own history.  For those who would like to know more about the worlds that inspire it, though, the works below are good starting points.  Many of these are available for free download at Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org).

Plays About Italy

The major plot arcs in Poison Fruit are adapted from these plays so, while I recommend them highly, you might want to wait until the manga is done before reading them, to avoid spoilers:

Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi.

Webster, John. The White Devil.

These three tragedies have a similar atmosphere to the Webster plays and are set in what I think of as the same world.  They were inspirational for Poison Fruit but did not directly affect the plot:

Ford, John.  ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (a.k.a. Giuliano and Annabella).

Shakespeare, William. Othello.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

For those who still haven’t had enough, here is a further sampling of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays set in Italy:

Jonson, Ben. Volpone or The Fox.

Marston, John. Antonio and Mellida (Parts I and II).

Marston, John. The Malcontent.

Massinger, Phillip. The Great Duke of Florence.

Massinger, Phillip.  The Maid of Honor.

Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice.

Shakespeare, William. The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

 

Historical Italy

Source Documents

The Palace of Pleasure was one of the most popular sources of story ideas for the playwrights.  It is an anthology of early modern English translations of Italian and French stories, referred to as “novells” (though, by 21st century  standards, most of them are closer to short story length). The plot of Webster’s Duchess of Malfi is taken directly from Volume 3, Novell 23.  While it is purportedly a true story, it’s unlikely that the original author did any fact checking.

Painter, William. (1566). The Palace of Pleasure (3 Volumes).

Stendahl’s book is a translation of an eyewitness account of the events that inspired The White Devil.  Webster himself probably got the story from another (now lost) novell.  

Stendahl. (1837). Vittoria Accoramboni.  

In addition, anyone who really wants to get a feel for the era would do well to read anything by Boccaccio, Dante, and Machiavelli.  Dante and Boccacio wrote at the beginning of, or just before the renaissance and their books remained best sellers right up to the end. Machiavelli wrote at the end of the period.  His books are the quintessential summation of Renaissance thought, right at the turning point into what we think of as the “modern” age. The three most important works are:

Boccaccio, Giovanni. (c. 1350).  The Decameron.

Alighieri, Dante.  (1320). The Divine Comedy.

Machiavelli, Niccolò.  (1532). The Prince.

General Background

There are far too many books on Renaissance Italy and early modern drama for me to try listing them all.  A few that I’ve found particularly useful are:

Durant, Will. (1953). The Renaissance.  Simon and Schuster.

Hill, Wayne F. & Örrchen, Cynthia J. (1991). Shakespeare’s Insults: Educating Your Witt. Mainsail Press.

“The Italy of the Elizabethan Dramatists”. In Lee, Vernon. (1882).  Euphorion (Volume I).

Norway, Arthur H. (1901). Naples, Past and Present.

Staley, Edgcumbe. (1900). The Tragedies of the Medici.

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NaNoWriMo: Point of Departure

I haven’t been posting on this blog for a few weeks because:  1) Having broken the story about NHK World’s probable infiltration by space aliens I didn’t want to confuse my message and 2) I’ve been a bit busy with Inktober.  Now, however, Inktober is done, it seems that the government has suppressed my NHK story (else it would have more hits by now) and NaNoWriMo is once again upon us.  Just as I do Inktober my own way, I  have my own take on NaNoWriMo.  Most people try to write the first draft of a single 50,000 word novel.  That’s fine, but the last thing I need right now is another first draft in my editing queue.  So what I did last year—and will again this year—is to just write 50,000 words on any combination of legitimate projects.  Last year it took me three and a half weeks to get there; maybe I’ll go faster this year.

Now some of that will be for books I’m working on currently.  But one of them is the third draft of a novel, and I’ve never figured out a good word-count conversion for rewrites, and the other is a textbook that requires creating numerous figures and examples as I go, so that word-count builds pretty slowly.

So that’s where the blog comes in:  I’m planning to do about 20,000 of those words by posting essays here, mostly based on a series of dialogues on moral philosophy that I wrote last year for NaNoWriMo which ended up being far too strange to ever be allowed to see the light of day.

So, fair warning.  Follow my blog this month if you like that sort of thing.    I dare say I’ll be bringing in some of the Great Books stuff as well, which I know has been popular here in the past.

 

NHK’s Miki Yamamoto is an Extraterrestrial

People all over the work tune into NHK World’s Newsline every weekday to listen to the too-cute-to-be-human Miki Yamamoto read the news for “Japan and Around the World.”  But have we ever thought about just what “too cute to be human” means?

nhk-newsline_miki-yamamoto_1920x1080

Too Cute to be Human

That’s right.  She isn’t human.  She is an alien visitor, most likely sent to gather data on Earth’s culture—especially the highest expression of that culture: Japanese public TV—from the inside.

If you don’t believe me, just look at the animation below.  Even with their advanced makeup techniques, including cheek padding, the visitors can’t change the overall proportions of their skulls.

mikimorph

Artist’s Conception of Miki Yamamoto Without her Human Disguise

Ms. Yamamoto most likely relies on a high quality latex mask, human-hair wig, and special contacts applied to the lower portion of her giant black alien eyes.  Given the different size of the visitors’ eyes, she is forced to peer out though what, to her, must seem like pin-holes.  Her occasional difficulties reading the teleprompter lend credence to this interpretation.

Note also Ms. Yamamoto’s apparent lack of aging.   According to data from various internet sources, she should now be in her mid to late 40’s.  Yet she looks exactly the same as she did eleven years ago (minus the pigtails). That is to say she looks about 20 years old.  This discrepancy can easily be explained by the fact that latex masks of the quality Miki Yamamoto requires are hard to come by, so she has been using the same one for some time.

t_yamamoto

Yamamoto Doesn’t Seem to Have Aged Since Starting he TV Career

It is hard to imagine that Ms. Yamamoto’s makeup artist is not in on the secret, since at close range a professional would immediately notice her disguise.  This person is clearly either an alien themselves, or a human agent of aliens. If the former, it would explain some of the questionable lipstick and makeup choices seen on NHK announcers in recent years, since aliens perceive a different color spectrum than we do.  In fact, we should probably consider the possibility that NHK is now completely riddled with alien infiltrators.

I know that these revelations may be shocking for some.  I was shocked myself when I first realized the truth (although my fifth, sixth, and seventh beers helped with the shock).  I knew, though, that I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t let all of you know.

Sci-fi Survey Preliminary Results

I have preliminary results from the science fiction readership survey. Cheers to everyone who participated!

You should be able to see Google Form’s summary by going to https://goo.gl/forms/kvzVgZ75h7ZIiUv03

For my fellow quant nerds, I started a repository with the raw data and my preliminary statistical analysis https://github.com/longhunt/sci_fi_survey

Over the next couple weeks I will be figuring out what it all means and writing a report, which I will also post. I did notice a couple of things right away, though:

1) More than half the respondents self identify as librarians. Apparently, librarians like to take surveys about libraries…

2) Series related factors are the most important to the majority of readers. People want to continue reading series they have started or start new series with lots of books available at the library.

3) The respondents cluster rather neatly into two groups, which we can call “Heavy Readers” and “Moderate Readers”. The heavy readers seem to skew female and be more educated–though probably not as much as it seems from the raw data, since we have so many librarians responding (librarians also skew female, and most of them have masters degrees). This seems to agree with the academic literature, such as this article which I found after the survey had already started.

More to come. Thanks again!

New Book out this Month

When it comes to being a King, James VI of Scotland literally wrote the book!

I didn’t just write the interpretive front matter and footnotes for this edition, I ended up directing the trailer too. I hope you’ll check it out.

The paperback is already available through Amazon. An ebook should be along by the end of the summer.

How do you choose which books to read?

Hello all, I’ve been volunteering at my local library, trying to help them improve their sci-fi collection (their acquisitions have been pretty random in recent years). As one aspect of the project we came up with a short survey, which I hope you will take, about what factors are important when people check out speculative fiction books.

The survey can be found here: https://goo.gl/forms/dFl7IiSmWgyLstQL2

It only takes about 5 minutes and all questions are optional. The survey will stay open until at least the end of May 2018.

ps. Please note that this is a non-profit project in cooperation with a public library.   I’ll release the results in a few weeks and post a link here.

 

What is an Outside Scholar

NOTE: The following is 1st draft of a chapter which I wrote for a book I am currently working on.  I decided to cut the chapter as being outside the scope of the book but it seemed a shame to waste it, so I decided to post it here, particularly since parts of it relate so various of my Great Books posts.


So far in this book I have used the term outside scholar fairly casually to refer to Victor Sharrow and those like him. Before proceeding, I think it is time to expand on what I mean when I use this label. First, though, I think it is appropriate that we review a bit of history about scholarship in general.

A scholar is a person who creates knowledge by a process called research and transmits it to others, usually through writing. In contemporary usage the term often connotes a profession. In the truest and most historic sense, however, scholarship is a vocation; scholars are driven by intellectual curiosity, love of knowledge, and a desire to create a permanent legacy for other scholars who will come later. A person with the true scholarly vocation will usually find a way to pursue their interests regardless of what formal profession they follow to make a living. In fact, the idea of a professional scholar who is paid for their studies is largely an invention of the modern age.

In our western tradition this conception of scholarship has its roots, like much else in our society, in the Golden Age of classical Greece when literate men began to research science, philosophy, and history and record their conclusions on scrolls which they allowed other scholars to borrow and copy, birthing the concept of scholarly publication. Typical of these men were the historians Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon. The first of these was a merchant, while the other two were career military men but all three were fascinated by recent history and the causes and effects of war. After collecting and comparing oral histories and visiting the some of the locations where important events had occurred, they wrote books which not only chronicle history, but also analyzed it. There works are still read and studied today1.

Thucydides, at least, was fully cognizant of his drive to leave a permanent intellectual legacy, writing,

“It will be enough for me…if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.”

Thucydides knew Herodotus personally and was influenced by his book. Xenophon would have been acquainted with the work of both and seems to have written the Hellenica as a direct sequel to Thucydides’ work. Nevertheless, it never occurred to these men, or their contemporary colleagues whose work is now lost, to think of themselves as a community or school of historic scholars. They merely shared a common interest. It was the philosophers of Greece who originated the idea of an academy. The original academy was a grove of trees outside Athens where teachers met with their students. The academy became an actual institution when Plato joined with other local philosophers to create a school, holding classes in his home or the nearby gymnasium. Aristotle, the son of the Macedonian Royal Physician, studied there for several years before returning to Macedon to found his own academy, the Lyceum. Philosophers in Greece had always supplemented their incomes by teaching the sons of the local aristocracy. Formal academies were a way of persuading the students to come to them, rather than wandering the country in search of students. Academies in the pattern of Plato’s came and went in the Hellenic until the very end of the ancient period. From the first century of onward the Christianity began to dominate the intellectual life of the West, gradually replacing the more secular philosophy of classical antiquity. By the time the Western Roman empire collapsed, most learning was concentrated in the Church. Literacy rates dropped throughout Europe and the secular members of the upper classes found they were too busy fighting for survival to devote time to scholarship. The Eastern empire survived and was spared the worst effects of the Dark Ages, but the Byzantine mind was increasingly inclined towards mysticism and away from rational scholarship. In 529 the emperor Justinian ordered the closure of the last incarnation of the Athenian Academy, an event which some historians consider to be the official end of the ancient era and the beginning of the medieval period.

For nearly 1000 years, the church, particularly the monasteries, had a virtual monopoly on scholarship. Nearly everyone who learned to read and write was taught by clerics and most of what books still survived were the property of the church. The first universities were an outgrowth of earlier monastic schools and existed mainly to train priests and church officials2. Even those rare lay scholars who did not accept ordination pursued their studies with and within the church organization, or not at all.

All of this began to change around the end of the 15th century. The invention of the printing press and availability of paper drastically lowered the cost of books. Rising economic prosperity allowed more lay people in the upper class and the emerging bourgeoisie the luxury of an extended education. Since the 13th century, classical works which had long been lost in Europe but had survived in the Islamic world had begun to make their way back into the libraries of the West. Now they could be purchased and read by the laity. A new kind of intellectual, began to emerge throughout Europe to help build the modern age .

These renaissance men had more in common with the scholars of classical Athens than with monks of the Middle Ages. Typical of them was Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli was a Florentine politician. After finding himself on the wrong side of a coup, he found himself unemployed and was forced to retire to the countryside. His best known work, The Prince was an unsuccessful attempt to showcase his knowledge of political science and recent history in the hopes that a powerful noble would notice and offer him a position. Permanently shut out of politics, he consoled himself by reading the classics and writing a scholarly commentary on the works of Livy. Machiavelli might be the first successful outside scholar of the modern age. In fact, at least some historians feel that the publication of his works mark the start of the modern age3. Machiavelli was a layman and out of favor with the establishment. His major works were not published until after his death and were officially banned by the Church. Even today The Prince, while widely read, remains controversial. Despite this, Machiavelli’s eventual influence on western thought is incontestable .

Perhaps the greatest of all the Enlightenment outsiders, though, was Spinoza. Born in 1632 to a family of Portuguese Jews who had fled to Amsterdam to escape the Inquisition, he showed a scholarly turn and was initially expected to become a rabbi. His curiosity soon drove him beyond the Torah, Talmud, and orthodox judaica into the Cabala and other esoteric studies. Then, after taking Latin lessons from a gentile freethinker, he proceeded to devour every philosophical text he could find, from Aristotle to Descartes. By then the young philosopher was beginning to harbor theories that made the elders of the synagogue extremely nervous .

Intellectual life among the Dutch Jews of the 17th century was closely circumscribed. Holland was one of the only places in Europe that was not closed to them in that period, and they remained only at the sufferance of their Protestant Christian hosts. Driven by the dual imperatives to maintain their cultural unity and to avoid giving offense to the Christians, they focused their studies on the Torah and avoided dangerous speculation. Young Spinoza, who had now begun saying things like “Angels are probably only hallucinations” and “The Bible uses figurative language and isn’t meant to be taken literally,” was not just a destabilizing influence, but was all too likely to bring down the wrath of the Christian majority on the Jewish community .

At the age of 24 Spinoza given a choice: he could either accept an annuity of 1,000 florins in return for keeping his unorthodox theories to himself, or he could be excommunicated from the Jewish faith. He chose excommunication. Europe had recently concluded a series of brutal wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants which raged intermittently for 126 years. Religious affiliation was still the single most important factor in the personal identity of most people and to not belong to an organized religion was unthinkable. Yet Spinoza never converted to another faith. Changing his first name from Baruch to Benedict, he moved into an attic apartment and spent the rest of his life writing books on philosophy while he supported himself by grinding lenses. Later, when his reputation began to grow, he turned down financial support from Lois XIV of France and even a prestigious university professorship on the grounds that accepting money from the government would irrevocably compromise his freedom to philosophize.

Of his five works (one unfinished) only two could be safely published during his life: a commentary on the philosophy of Decarte and the Theologico-Political Treatise, which was immediately placed on the index of banned books and had to be sold with a false cover and only the author’s initials on the title page. Among the inflammatory ideas contained in the book is the idea that the Bible is written in figurative language. The key to understanding it is to study the historical, biographical, and cultural context in which the authors lived,

The universal rule, then, in interpreting Scripture is to accept nothing as an authoritative Scriptural statement which we do not perceive very clearly when we examine it in the light of its history.

… such a history should relate the environment of all the prophetic books extant; that is, the life, the conduct, and the studies of the author of each book, who he was, what was the occasion, and the epoch of his writing, whom did he write for, and in what language. Further, it should inquire into the fate of each book: how it was first received, into whose hands it fell, how many different versions there were of it, by whose advice was it received into the Bible, and, lastly, how all the books now universally accepted as sacred, were united into a single whole.

All such information should, as I have said, be contained in the ‘history’ of Scripture. For, in order to know what statements are set forth as laws, and what as moral precepts, it is important to be acquainted with the life, the conduct, and the pursuits of their author: moreover, it becomes easier to explain a man’s writings in proportion as we have more intimate knowledge of his genius and temperament.

Further, that we may not confound precepts which are eternal with those which served only a temporary purpose, or were only meant for a few, we should know what was the occasion, the time, the age, in which each book was written, and to what nation it was addressed. Lastly, we should have knowledge on the other points I have mentioned, in order to be sure, in addition to the authenticity of the work, that it has not been tampered with by sacrilegious hands, or whether errors can have crept in, and, if so, whether they have been corrected by men sufficiently skilled and worthy of credence. All these things should be known, that we may not be led away by blind impulse to accept whatever is thrust on our notice, instead of only that which is sure and indisputable.

Today, this viewpoint is at the core of all but the most fundamentalist bible Judeo-Christian bible study, but it was revolutionary in 1670. In fact, the Theologico-Political Treatise is barely studied or quoted today, except by historians, because most of its arguments are now taken for granted in mainstream western thought.

Spinoza’s greatest work is his Ethics which solidified his reputation, along with Descartes and Leibniz, as one of the three greatest rationalist philosophers. It would be hard to exaggerate the extent of Spinoza’s influence on the next 500 years of modern philosophy. His impact on Judaism, once his people were ready to reclaim him, was equally pervasive. He has been called “The “first modern secular Jew” and credited with originating many of the core ideas of Reform Judaism .

Even as Machiavelli, Spinoza, and numerous other freethinkers were revolutionizing Western thought from outside any organized intellectual establishment, new forces were making themselves felt throughout Western Civilization4. Universities, which had first appeared in the medieval period, multiplied through the modern period, first in Europe and then in the New World5. Meanwhile scholars and learned professionals, seeing the value of communication and collaboration, began to organize themselves into societies. Typical of these was the Royal Society, founded in 1660, of which Henry Oldenburg, one of Spinoza’s best friends, was the first secretary. The, often overlapping, influence of the universities and societies on the growth of knowledge was overwhelmingly positive. However, as time went on a divide began to appear between the “elite” scholars who attended and taught at universities and/or belonged to scholarly societies and the “amateur” scholars who did not. A new Academy was forming which had the power to give or withhold approval and legitimacy to scholarly efforts.

The implicit narrative began to be that outside scholars were undisciplined and underprivileged. By the end of the Enlightenment, efforts were made to bring the most brilliant of them into the fold, which many accepted joyfully. Spinoza was exceptional in turning down a university position when it was offered. More typical was Samuel Johnson, that brilliant titan of English letters, who was given an honorary doctorate and referred to as “Dr Johnson” by academics forever more. Benjamin Franklin, a self-educated man who spent his early career as the archetypal outside scholar, happily accepted his own honorary doctorate and membership in the Royal Society in later life, glorying in his hard-won academic legitimacy.

As time went on, it became harder even for exceptional outsiders to gain admission to the ivory tower of academia. The Academy had emerged as a new international priesthood, with a hold over scholarship almost as strong as the church had enjoyed in the previous age. Only those who had served their novitiate and displayed appropriately orthodox dogmas could be ordained.

Rise of the Modern University

While universities first appeared in the middle ages and can, in at least in theory, be placed into the tradition of higher education which began with the Athenian academy, most of the traits which we associate with the modern university first appeared in the 19th century. It was in this period when two major schools of thought emerged which still shape thinking about the role of the university. One of these viewpoints was articulated by Cardinal John Henry Newman, in a series of lectures given in Dublin in the 1850s. Newman’s view was shaped by his own experiences at Oxford which, like the other “ancient universities” of the British Islands was then in the process of transitioning from training aristocrats to providing a liberal education for the new class of skilled bourgeoisie. He argued that the primary role of a university was to provide a generalized education. Research was a less important mission than teaching. Indeed, research could be more efficiently conducted outside the university,

The view taken of a University in these Discourses is the following:—That it is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is, on the one hand, intellectual, not moral; and, on the other, that it is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement. If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students; if religious training, I do not see how it can be the seat of literature and science. … …there are other institutions far more suited to act as instruments of stimulating philosophical inquiry, and extending the boundaries of our knowledge, than a University. Such, for instance, are the literary and scientific “Academies,”… … To discover and to teach are distinct functions; they are also distinct gifts, and are not commonly found united in the same person. He, too, who spends his day in dispensing his existing knowledge to all comers is unlikely to have either leisure or energy to acquire new .

The Newman model of the university’s mission was highly influential in the United Kingdom and, to a lesser extent, on liberal arts colleges in America .

Meanwhile, in Germany, another model was emerging based on the University of Berlin, founded by Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1810. In the Humboldt type university teaching and research were inseparable. The university was a sort of knowledge factory. Students learned by being involved, albeit at a very low level, in the critical investigation of truth. The overall prestige of a university was based on the quality of research it generated. The Humboldt model became wildly popular on the continent because Humboldt type research systems were seen as a major factor in Germany’s economic growth. When the US began building its state university system with the passage of the Morrill Acts in 1862 and 1890, the Humboldt model was taken as a template for the ideal public university .

Until World War II most new universities in Europe and the Americas were based on the Humboldt paradigm. After the war, however, pressures to provide mass education to all citizens, combined with population pressures from the baby boom and the passage of the GI Bill in the US, which allowed returning soldiers to finance higher education, created demand for a third type of university. Neither Newman nor Humboldt type schools were physically capable of absorbing the influx of new students, which pushed student-to-faculty ratios to an historic high. nor were the new–primarily first generation–students particularly interested either in gaining a generalized liberal education or engaging in research. They came to school to learn technical skills and gain specialized diplomas which would increase their incomes. In response to this demand, the second half of the twentieth century saw a wave of new polytechnic schools, vocational schools that reinvented themselves as “technical universities”, and, finally, for profit “universities”. At these new schools basic research, if conducted at all, was a distinctly secondary pursuit. The need for faculty in these institutions paved the way a type of second-class academic whose primary job was lecturing to students who would never themselves become scholars .

Older universities, forced to compete with the new technical schools for funding, faculty, and students, began to adopt some of their traits. Student-to-faculty ratios rose, universities began doing more applied research, and an increasing number of specialized professional degree programs appeared in catalogs. Many older universities added professional schools, which allowed them to attract talented students who might otherwise go to a technical university while charging them tuition at a much higher rate than that for “research” graduate degrees. In 1908 Harvard began offering a new graduate degree, the Master of Business Administration (MBA), which was essentially a vocati9onal diploma for corporate executives. Other major research universities rapidly followed. Today the MBA is the most awarded graduate degree world-wide. Some MBA students are involved with research and a few go on to PhD programs, but the degree is not seen as preparation for a research career. In most business schools that offer PhD programs, MBA and PhD candidates are admitted based on different criteria and are almost completely segregated from each other throughout their studies. An MBA, even if they are a talented researcher, has almost no chance of landing a tenure-track academic job after graduation. There are around 800,000 of them graduating every year and every one of them, if they choose to do research, is, by definition, an outside scholar6.

The result of these four decades of competitive convergence, the typical state university of today has a case of institutional schizophrenia. One side of the split personality is a Humboltian research university in which research teams, led by tenured professors assisted by a chosen few students, spend their time competing for grant money and cranking out papers. The other side is a career school in which lecturers and graduate teaching assistants cater to legions of undergraduates’ and professional students’ need to diplomas which will allow them to take their places among the ranks of the bourgeoisies.

The same period over which the university attained its final form has seen the stratification of the scholarly community into four rigid castes, with relatively little mobility between them. The two upper castes make up the Academy, while the two lower castes are outsiders. At the top are the professional researchers. Most often they are tenured professors at a research university, or hold an analogous position at a public or private research facility. This caste not only has little trouble getting their research published and accepted, but because they control the peer review process, conference agendas, and PhD committees, are able to give or withhold the stamp of legitimacy to scholars of the lower castes. Below them are the lecturers, scholars who have either failed to reach the upper class, or whose main interest is education. Their main function is undergraduate and professional education but if they can somehow find the time and money for research they can often get it published. Below them are the professionals who hold specialized doctoral or masters degrees in law, business, medicine, engineering, education or other fields. They they generally are generally able to publish applied research in their own field, generally under the auspices of a professional association, but are discouraged from pure or theoretical research. At the lowest level are the autodidacts. These scholars, no matter what their level of interest, ability, and knowledge, have not managed to obtain the graduate degree which is the minimum requirement for scholarly legitimacy. In general, they have no access to journals, conferences, or “respectable” academic presses and are totally ignored by the academy. The avenues open to them to communicate their work–“popular” nonfiction, Internet blogs and predatory, for-profit journals, have little reach even among their own caste.

One of the most universal traits of all four castes in specialization. Despite a certain amount of lip service to multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary scholarship, 21st century scholars tend to confine their work to incredibly narrow disciplines. The typical modern scholar is thus defined by their place in a rigid system which labels and circumscribes them according to type of (or lack of) institution, rank, and specialty. There is no place in such a system for a Benjamin Franklin, a Francis Bacon, or even an Aristotle or Spinoza.

Historian John Lukacs explains this phenomenon as part of a process of bureaucratization which has continued in all aspects of Western Civilization throughout the modern age, reaching new heights in the twentieth century, “In this increasingly bureaucratized world, little more than the possession of various diplomas mattered. Since admission to certain schools–rather than the consequently almost automatic acquisition of degrees–depended on increasingly competitive examinations, the word ’meritocracy’ was coined…In reality the term ’meritocracy’ was misleading. As in so many other spheres of life the rules that governed the practices and functions of schools and universities were bureaucratic rather than meritocratic.” Securing admission to a program and earning a degree is only the first step for someone seeking an academic career. In the US it takes around ten years for the average PhD student to earn their degree, counting from the receipt of their bachelor’s . Once they take the examinations and submit to copious paperwork to gain admission to a program, they are presented with a list of required courses, further exams, and residency requirements to gain the degree. The only requirement that is designed purely to test the student’s skill as a writer and researcher is the dissertation. Even in this area following the correct format and submitting the appropriate paperwork often becomes nearly as important as the actual scholarship. In many fields, particularly the physical sciences, the PhD program is not even seen as adequate preparation for independent research and students are expected to spend further years in one or more “post-doc” research appointments to gain further experience.

Newly made PhDs as next subjected to yet another “meritocratic” sorting process. The lucky and well-connected are placed in “tenure track” positions as assistant professors. The second tier secure positions as lecturers–second class faculty who have no prospect of tenure and are expected to teach heavy course loads to free up the professors for research. The rest, an increasing percentage of the total, eke out a living as part time adjunct instructors, often commuting to three or more schools in a week in order to earn a living income. These “gypsies”, as they are referred to by their more fortunate colleagues, live in hope that a full time position will materialize, but the odds are stacked against them. It is hardly surprising that so many PhD students either fail to complete their degree or, having obtained it, give up and leave academia forever. Some of them have no choice: a gap in employment of more than a few months, or two much time spent as an adjunct, is often seen as a black mark in an academic’s career, permanently excluding them from consideration for full time positions7.

As for those lucky few, the small percentage of scholars who make it onto the tenure track, they are privileged to spend the next six or seven years working sixty hour weeks while they accumulate the requisite ticket punches for promotion. If all goes well they gain tenure around year seven, finally making it into full membership in the academy. If something goes wrong, or the university simply decides that it doesn’t need any more associate professors at the moment, they are thanked and excused and leave to start over from the beginning .

An associate professor working towards tenure has no incentive to take risks. A large volume of acceptable publications is always less risky than a few brilliant ones. Research that is two controversial, or steps on the toes of a member of the tenure committee, can easily wreck their career. Some of them tell themselves that they will play it safe until they get tenure, then work on the projects that they really want to do. A few follow through on this, but it is hard to radically change the direction of one’s research after seven years of escalating commitment. Many of them, after spending two decades of their research career playing it safe, have no idea how to take risks even if they wanted to.

Everything in the career path of an academic selects for risk avoiding individuals who know how to play the system. Successful professors have all the same character traits of a career bureaucrat. Worse, by the time they achieve tenure they have been thoroughly socialized to look down on any scholar who has not managed to survive the same process. At the same time, they have spent years acquiring narrowly specialized knowledge, working mostly with people in the same discipline, and being warned by their mentors not to have opinions or do work outside their field8

American research universities are incredibly good at their main function, which is rigorous, deep research in narrowly defined areas. They focus on training the kind of scholars that they need for this mission. Unfortunately, these specialized professors are much less effective at some of the other functions which have traditionally been associated with scholars. Teaching, particularly at the undergraduate level, is generally fobbed off on lecturers and graduate students. Practical applications, particularly those involving interdisciplinary knowledge, tend to be the province or corporate R&D organizations, where researchers are expected to pursue projects that will make a profit for the company and which only share their findings with competitors when it is in their interest. The task of advising policymakers is carried out by staff intellectuals at government agencies–which are, more or less by definition–even more bureaucratic and conservative than the universities.

But what of those scholars who follow the more traditional model, more like the great thinkers of the ancient world and the enlightenment? What about those who left the academy after earning a graduate degree–PhD, masters or professional, but still have an interest in doing real scholarly research and creating knowledge or affecting public policy? What about autodidacts who never had a formal education at all but, after a lifetime of reading are now ready to write serious nonfiction works? Is it even possible for these outside scholars to make a contribution in the modern era?

So far in this book, I have deliberately avoided writing any autobiographical details because I felt it would distract from the purpose of the work. Now, however, in the interests of full disclosure, I must mention that I too am one of these outsiders, and the answers to these questions affect me personally. I attended professional school at a major research university, earning an MBA. While there I did original research and completed a thesis which was later published as my first book. Several professors strongly urged my to continue on and finish a PhD. Upon examining what would actually be required, and the personal and family sacrifices that I would need to make, I decided that it wasn’t worth it. I am still doing primary research in my specialty, but I am finding every aspect of it more difficult now that I am now affiliated with an institution: it is much harder to obtain grant funding, I have trouble getting the journals and database access I need, and I no longer have a departmental fund to pay my way to conferences. When I go to publish in journals I find that the burden of proving my credibility is on me; without the name of an institution under my byline, the assumption is that I don’t have the qualifications to publish. I am far from the only one in this situation, though. Later, I will talk about some of the changes which are making life easier for us.


  1. Read together Books V-XII of Herodotus’ Histories, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, and Xenophon’s Hellenica form a continuous trilogy of the history of Greece and her neighbors from just before the Greco-Persian wars up to the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, a period of approximately 136 years.
  2. Note the modern similarity between academic regalia and monastic habits.
  3. Alan Bloom argues that Machiavelli was the philosopher who began the Enlightenment. According to Bloom, it was Machiavelli who first suggested that the philosophers of western civilization, who had formerly been dependent on the patronage of the aristocracy, should “change camps” and espouse democracy, reason, and the theory of rights–some of the most characteristic concepts of the modern age–as these would create a society that offered them greater protection and scope for their talents.
  4. My discussion has necessarily been limited in scope to the history of Western Civilization. Other societies have their own scholarly traditions and institutions, some of which predate Western civilization itself. Likewise, they have had their own outside scholars who toiled outside the scholarly establishment and gained legitimacy and influence only late in life or even centuries after their deaths. Confucius is but one example. As the modern age continued, however, the ruling and intellectual classes of the East were increasingly educated by the Academy of the West. By the 20th century the Academy was completely international, and organized on the Western Model. See Eberhard.
  5. Even the destruction and upheavals of the Wars of Religion did little to slow the spread of universities. In fact, some of the most famous universities were founded as gambits in the struggle between Protestants and Catholics. For example, Trinity College in Dublin was established on the orders of Elizabeth I to educate the sons of her protestant subjects in Ireland without subjecting them to the corruptive influences of Catholicism.
  6. During orientation on my first day of business school I raised my hand and asked an associate dean about research opportunities for MBA students. He laughed and said “If you want to do research, what are you doing in the MBA program? You should have applied as a PhD.”
  7. For purposes of discussion I have focused on the career path of scholars at a research university. Many PhDs also work for government agencies or for-profit research organizations which have their own bureaucratic hurdles.
  8. At American universities and schools in other countries that are based on the American model, the basic unit of organization is the department, which consists of all of the university’s specialists in a particular discipline. At English universities, on the other hand, the basic unit is the college, which will typically include one professor from each discipline. English professors, and European academics in general, also tend to be more involved with teaching and administration than their American colleagues. See Eagleton for a delightful overview of some of the differences.

Bibliography

Anderson, Robert. “The ‘Idea of a University’ today.” History and
Politics (2010). http://www.historyandpolicy.org/hp/research/papers/policy-paper-98.html.

Bloom, Allan David. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Copulsky, Jerome E. “The Last Prophet: Spinoza and the Political Theology of Moses Hess.” University of Chicago Divinity School, 2008. https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/imce/pdfs/webforum/032008/copulsky_last_prophet.pdf.

Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers. Kindle Ed. Aristeus, 2014.

Eagleton, Terry. Across the pond: an Englishman’s view of America. 2013

Eberhard, Wolfram. A History of China. 3rd ed. [org. pub. 1969]. Project Gutenberg, 2006. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/17695.

Herodotus. The Persian War. Translated by William Shepherd. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Hoffer, Thomas B., and Vincent Welch. Time to degree of U.S. Research doctorate Recipients. National Science Foundation Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences, March 2006. http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf06312/.

Lukacs, John. At the end of an Age. New Haven: Yale University
Press, 2002.

Machiavelli, Niccoló. The Prince. Translated by George Bull. LondoEagleton, Terry. Across the pond: an Englishman’s view of America.
2013n; New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Newman, John Henry. The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated In Nine Discourses Delivered to the Catholics of Dublin. Project Gutenberg, 2008. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/24526

Newman, John Henry. The University: Its Rise and Progress. Edited by Kevin A. Straight. Montrose, CA: Creative Minority Productions, 2015.

O’Brien, Keith. “The Ronin Insitute for wayward academics: a bold new idea to solve the PhD crises.” Boston Globe  (May 27, 2012). https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2012/05/26/new-idea-for-unemployed-academics/UUZOGe1KNWvUXDl7Yae1IL/story.html.

Spinoza, Benedictus de. The ethics of Spinoza: the road to inner freedom. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1976.

Spinoza, Benedictus de. Theologico-Political Treatise. Translated by R.H.M. Elwes. Project Gutenberg, 1997. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/990.

Spinoza, Benedictus de, and Joseph Ratner. “The Life of Spinoza.” in The philosophy of Spinoza, [org. pub. 1926]. Project Gutenberg, 2010. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/31205.

Thucydides. Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1954.

Xenophon. Hellenica. Translated by Henry Graham Dakyns. Champaign, Ill.: Project Gutenberg, 2008. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1174

 

Plotinus’ Impact on Civilization

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I’m nearly done reading the works of Plotinus—a simple statement, to sum up nine months of work. Plotinus’ Enneads have been, for me, the hardest material to read in my program of reading the Great Books. They are even slightly worse than Spinoza’s Ethics, which is an accomplishment indeed.

To be fair, the last thing that Plotinus thought he was writing was a basic introduction to his philosophical system. All of his written works were intended as discussion notes for seminar like classes with his advanced students. His student Porphyry did the best he could to edit them into a cohesive book, considering this was never the intended purpose. It is a shame that most of Porphyry’s own writings have been lost. For all we know, he wrote his own introductory book on Plotinian Philosophy, or at least essays that would have made his teacher’s writings more accessible. As it is, though, Plotinus is hard going.

So why take the time to read the Enneads? Well, there’s always Mortimer Adler‘s argument that reading the very hardest of the great books is the most effective way to improve your reading and, ultimately, your writing. This, or course, is my main reason for doing the Great Books project at all. But in the case of the Enneads we should also consider the incredible breath and magnitude of the work’s influence on at least two major world civilizations: our own Western Civilization and Islam.

One of the key culture complexes in Western Civ. is Christianity, and Christianity contained a major neo-Platonist strain from the very beginning, starting with the works of Paul and John. Plotinus, the greatest of the neo-Platonists, was unashamedly pagan yet, even during his own lifetime (circa 203-270 CE) many of his ideas were adopted by Christian writers. After his death his works continued to be taught in Rome and elsewhere, where they were studied by the newly converted Augustine, who saw them as the key to understanding Christianity. From Augustine to Abelard, Plotinian neo-Platonism was the dominant factor in medieval Christian theology and philosophy. After Abelard the influence other major wellspring of Western Philosophy, Aristotle, waxed while that of Platonism, including Plotinus, waned. Now, however, particularly since Jung’s writing, the balance seems to be tipping back towards Platonic idealism. Even a brief survey of the various “new thought” movements, such as Science of Mind shows them to be laden with various platonic ideas. The same is true of archetypal psychology, where frequently quote Plotinus and acknowledge their debts to him.

Meanwhile, a couple centuries after Plotinus a new religion, Islam, emerged and quickly expended into an international civilization. In the early days Mohamed and his immediate successors were more concerned with morality than with philosophy or theology. As Islam matured intellectually, however, in the seventh or eighth century, its thinkers began to get serious about theology, and especially metaphysics and eschatology. Like Augustine before them they found most of what they needed in Plotinus, adopting the idea of the Logos or World Soul as the primary force of creation and the theory that human souls, as emanations of the world soul, could be perfected through virtue to become one with God. The golden age of Islamic philosophy lasted from about 700 CE to about 1000 CE. During this time, most of the greatest philosophers in Islam such as Ibin Sina (Avicenna), al Kindi, and al Biruni, studied and were heavily influenced by Plotinus’ Enneads. Meanwhile new sects of Islam, particularly the Sufi, fastened on the mystical aspect pf Plotinus’ teaching and embedded it in their own practices.

It is impossible to overstate the contributions of Plotinus to these two religions and the civilizations to which they belong, and that alone means that it is worth it to study the Enneads…even if they take nine months to read.

Further Reading
Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ. Simon and Schuster. 1944.
Durant, Will. The Age of Faith. Simon and Schuster. 1950.
Henry, Paul. “The Place of Plotinus in the History of Thought” in The Enneads. Penguin. 1991.
Holmes, Earnest, The Science of Mind. Putnam.  1997.

Welcome to the Planet Vulcan

Copyright CBS/Paramount All Rights Reserved

Copyright CBS/Paramount All Rights Reserved

One of the core elements of the Star Trek story (whether you are a TOS grognard, an original timeline die-hard, or a JJ-verse aficionado) is the partnership between the planets Earth and Vulcan. Vulcan is a harsh desert planet whose people have an ancient culture based on the pursuit of logic. Earth is a young and adventurous blue planet whose people provide the intuition and sense of adventure that the Vulcans lack.

The other day I was thinking about this, however, and I realized that we probably aren’t the humans in that story. We could have been once, probably even as late as the 1960’s when Star Trek first hit the air. But at this point we’ve pretty well squandered our chance to play the humans, so we had better start studying for the part of Vulcan.

Think about it:

  1. Vulcan is a desert planet with harsh weather: While scientists argue about the exact concentration of CO2 that represents the “point of no return” for a runaway greenhouse effect, many of them believe that we have now past it. The world is already hotter than when we were born and it is going to get worse for the rest of our lives, at least. And not only is the mean temperature going up, but the temperature range is getting wilder, producing higher wind speeds and overall rougher weather. We will be lucky if the whole world doesn’t become as hard to survive on as The Forge, on Vulcan.
  2. Vulcan is a planet with limited biodiversity: I think this is only implied in canon, but it is stated explicitly in several of the Star Trek novels. With two thirds of the animal population expected to be dead by 2020 and the current wave of extinctions, we are well on our way.
  3. Vulcans have a history of horrible violence: I’m not even going to bother to cite any articles for this one. Let’s just hope that someone like Surak teaches us to see reason and control our emotions before we wipe ourselves out.
  4. Vulcans are an old culture: Let’s face it, with all these problems at home we aren’t going to be able to get serious about deep space exploration for a few centuries (at least). So by the time we get out there we may well seem like a pretty old culture to anyone we meet.
  5. Vulcans are stronger than most races and have special adaptations to survive on their planet: Once our planet gets harsh enough we will probably need to let go of our qualms about human genetic engineering just to produce humans who can survive here. And if we are tinkering with the genome anyway, we might as well add some cool pointy ears. But even if that doesn’t happen there is likely to be plenty of natural selection as the climate kills off all but the strongest of us.
Copyright CBS/Paramount All Rights Reserved

Copyright CBS/Paramount All Rights Reserved

So, have I convince you that we are living on Vulcan, or at least that we will be in a few generations? Now we just need to hope, most earnestly, that someone comes up with a rational philosophy that will actually keep us alive as a species. But if we get through that, we are likely to have become so specialized and culturally ossified* that to advance further we will need a young energetic culture to pull us along. So we’d better start looking for some humans.

*See Toynbee. A Study of History (Abridged) III.IX. (1946). for the theory of why this will happen.

Plato’s Phaedrus

Plato Phaedrus cover image

The Phaedrus has long been one of Plato’s most popular dialogs–perhaps because, like the closely associated Symposium, it ostensibly deals with the topic of Love. The dialog opens when Phaedrus, who has obtained a copy of a new speech and has been studying it, encounters Socrates outside the walls of Athens and reads the speech to him. The speech, purportedly written by the rhetorician Lysias, is intended to convince a hypothetical boy that he is better off sexually gratifying a man who is not in love with him than one who is. It is not a particularly well written speech; after Socrates points out some of its defects Phaedrus challenges him to do better. Naturally, Socrates’ speech on the same subject is considerably superior in both structure and logic. Beginning with an elaborate psychological definition of love as a form of madness, Socrates points out all the ways the boy might suffer from an affair with a mad man.

Almost as soon as he finishes the second speech, Socrates’ daemon prompts him to make a third speech (often referred to as the palinode), arguing the opposite position. This speech contains a lengthy Platonic myth about the soul, touching on such concepts as the theory of forms, the tripartite soul, and reincarnation. Basically, before being incarnated as humans, some souls have had the opportunity to witness true divine beauty. As men, these souls see a reflection of this beauty in the forms of pretty boys and attempt to experience it more closely. Those with less developed souls, once they achieve sexual gratification, will go no further. The true philosophers, however, will gratify themselves instead by educating the boy and forming a deep relationship that may even last beyond the current lifetime. To Plato this represented the ultimate and ideal scenario for erotic love.

The three speeches are about love, but they are really just examples of rhetoric. Socrates is now able to make the point that rhetoric is only valuable if the speaker truly understands both the topic and the audience and that speeches designed merely to entertain or to convince without reference to the truth are to be despised. We are reminded at this point of the passages in Gorgias that characterize all rhetoric as a form of “pandering” and contract it with true education. In fact, Plato is on his way towards the true thesis of the dialog which is that dialectic–the so called “Socratic Method” is superior to other forms of education, including lectures and books. I find I must agree. While I tend to use all three (dialectic, lecture, and written materials) in my own teaching, I can say from experience that the majority of students learn the most through dialectic.

While the speeches on love, especially the first two, are only introduced as examples, their content provokes thought on gender and sexuality in Classical Greece, particularly among the hopelite and aristocrat classes to which Socrates and his friends belonged. In these two upper classes at least three sexually active genders were implicitly acknowledged: men, boys, and women. By far the most common romantic or erotic love situation was between men and boys (typically teenagers who had not yet begun shaving). Women were objectified and mainly considered useful to making babies. They were normally restricted to the women’s section of the house and took no part in the intellectual life of the society. Of the three genders, only men were allowed to take an active sexual role, and only men were expected to enjoy sex much. Boys could benefit from a relationship with an older lover, however, through mentorship and access to the older man’s political connections. While they accepted homoeroticism, Greek society was actually much more gender-restrictive than ours, since there was no freedom for someone to move beyond their gender. The few Greek women we know who of who were educated and enjoyed a public life, such as Pericles’ companion Aspasia of Miletus, were clearly exceptional in every way and often endured high levels of scathing criticism. Likewise, a post-pubescent man who continued to behave effeminately or have sexual relationships with other grown men was greatly looked down on. Nor could teenage boy take on an active sexual role or easily avoid the attentions of grown men. And then there were female slaves, who were called “girls” regardless of age and expected to be sexually available at all times. Fourth century Greece was not a place where you could choose your gender.

It’s true that certain scholars, such as Donald Kagan, have pointed out that we may not have a complete picture of gender roles in Greek society. For one thing, gender traits and sexual mores might have been radically different among the priests and priestesses of the various gods. In face, “priestess” may have essentially been a different gender than “woman” for upper class Greeks–we don’t know enough to say. There are also, as I have mentioned in the past, a number of female mythical and historical figures who seem to have been very powerful, including at least one queen who led triremes into battle as late as the Persian wars. But all of these would have represented rare exceptions in what was, overall, a fairly gender-repressive environment.

Finally, I should mention that the Phaedrus itself is seen by some scholars as a commentary on Greek sexuality and gender repression. There are several double entendres in the dialog between Socrates and Phaedrus which can be taken either as Socratic irony, active flirtation, or both. It is generally considered that Phaedrus, at the time the dialog was set, would have been too old to be a socially acceptable sexual partner for Socrates, but that doesn’t mean that the sexual tension wasn’t there. In an often-cited article, Zelia Gregoriou argues that Phaedrus contains textual and extra-textual elements which take it to a “liminal space” which is effectively “beyond gender”. Objectively, this is probably a bit much to expect from the rather conservative Plato. Subjectively, the dialog may very well have this effect on modern readers.