Friday, February 22, 2013

R and R

   Renaissance or renascence is about re-birth, being born again.
   Reformation is about re-form, regenerating something (a political, social, or religious institution) by removing faults and errors; it implies re-shaping, but basically it aims at restoring the thing to its original form.
   Both terms are applied to movements in the culture of European Society in the 15th and 16th centuries.
   It could be said that both the Renaissance with its re-birthing and the Reformation with its re-generating produced ‘born-again Christians’.

   The movement known by the French word Renaissance should be given the Italian name Rinascimento, since it began in Italy (with Dante), was felt in Germany and France, and eventually reached England. This renascence marked the transition from the medieval to the modern world.
   If it was the period of the emancipation of reason it was also the age of the florescence of the arts (meaning everything that can go into an arts degree, though social sciences had not been discovered or invented at that time).
   It saw the beginnings of modern science and the application of genuine scientific methods to the study of nature (as defined by the name of the current scientific journal entitled Nature).
   But already in the thirteenth century, Germany (specifically Swabia) and England had given birth to great doctors of science (or philosophy, as in PhD).
   Albert of Cologne, Saint Albertus Magnus (1193-1280), was a member of the Dominican order of Preachers (O.P.); his conections were with monasteries in Padua and Cologne, and the University of Paris. He was known as Doctor Universalis on account of his universal knowledge in the sciences of botany, zoology, alchemy-chemistry, astrology-astronomy, metaphysics (rather than physics), and theology (which is the queen of the sciences, of course). He promoted Aristotle and Avicenna [Ibn Sina] in scholasticism.
   Roger Bacon (1214-1294) was an Englishman and a Franciscan monk. He was accorded the title Doctor Mirabilis (Wondrous). He actually performed experiments (not mere alchemical games).
   Such seekers of knowledge did not do much experimental science in laboratories, but they wrote a lot of scientific reports. And, as Christopher Beckwith has now demonstrated, they used what he has dubbed as “the recursive argument method”. This was the “disputed questions” structure (also used by Saint Thomas Aquinas), as opposed to the older simple structure of “sentences” or “questions”.
   The recursive method is a rigorous approach to formal analysis, which examines a problem systematically, logically, and in detail. Basically, (1) (question) a main argument is presented; (2) (first recursion) it is argued about by subarguments (often numbered), pro or contra, including the author’s view; (3) (second recursion) a third section of subarguments, arguing all the items in the first recursive set in sequential order (hence the numbering); an optional “author’s view argument” may be included.
   This method does not guarantee attainment of objective absolute truth!  
   Looking at the subjects investigated (Beckwith, 101-118), we see Avicenna on the question of the soul (“psychology”), whether the soul is one or many. 
   Two English students at the University of Paris (perhaps they stayed in the college for Englishmen, the first college founded in Western Europe) employed the new method: Robert of Curzon on usury (economics, another suspect science), whether in certain cases it is admissible (he died on a crusade in 1218); Alexander of Hales, who settled in Paris, had a collection of “disputed questions”, such as whether God is omnipresent, and whether God’s foreknowledge imposes predestination on things.
   Albertus Magnus wrote a commentary on Aristotle’s book On animals, asking, for example, whether every animal breathes air.
   Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, asks whether it is permitted to kill oneself.
   Beckwith (159-165) attempts to show that the recursive scientific method is still in use, in the Humanities dissertation (having the structure of a single recursive argument), and particularly in laboratory reports in experimental psychology. An example is : Why does language interfere with vision-based tasks? (This relates to using a telephone while driving a car, I suppose.) The first subarguments are the hypotheses; then the author’s view arguments are the exposition of the experiments; the second subarguments are the results of testing the hypotheses; finally the author’s view (conclusion).
   He concludes (164) that the method went out with the Enlightenment, when (as I see it) the baby was thrown out with the bathwater (all the absorbing questions that the “warriors of the cloisters” loved, such as the number of angels dancing on the point of a pin, and arguments for the existence of God). Moreover, historians and philosophers of science can not agree on anything, including the meaning of science itself, so there is no clear model for writing scientific books in most fields (160). I often hear it said that scientists are much too busy to be thinking about philosophy of science and the history of scientific method.

Christopher I. Beckwith, Warriors of the Cloisters: The Central Asian Origins of Science in the Medieval World (Princeton UP 2012)
“Beckwith traces how the recursive argument method was first developed by Buddhist scholars and was spread by them throughout ancient Central Asia. He shows how the method was adopted by Islamic Central Asian natural philosophers--most importantly by Avicenna, one of the most brilliant of all medieval thinkers--and transmitted to the West when Avicenna's works were translated into Latin in Spain in the twelfth century by the Jewish philosopher Ibn Da'ud and others. During the same period the institution of the college was also borrowed from the Islamic world. The college was where most of the disputations were held, and became the most important component of medieval Europe's newly formed universities. As Beckwith demonstrates, the Islamic college also originated in Buddhist Central Asia.”

   The Renaissance encompassed the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo in astronomy, and the foundation of anatomy by Vessalius.
   Exploration was in vogue; in 1492 Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to America, although this was some 3000 years later than the Bronze Age seafarers who made the same crossing and taught the Mesoamericans to do all the things that were done in the Mediterranean world (notably writing and building pyramids); my evidence for this is an inscribed copper cup from that era, found in Jamaica, bearing a line of West Semitic script.
   In the wake of the travels of Marco Polo, paper, printing, and noodles were brought from East Asia, though papyrus was an equivalent  writing material used in the ancient Egyptian empire; stamp-printing on a clay disc was practised at Phaistos on Crete in the Bronze Age; spaghetti has not survived, naturally, in the archaeological record of the Etruscans.
   The Renaissance was focused on reviving art and literature, as result of renewed acquaintance with the masterpieces of classical antiquity, Hellenic as well as Latinic. Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio were the leaders in the awakening to new perceptions of beauty and bliss.
   The Papacy fostered the Renaissance, let it not be forgotten. Pope Nicolas V (1447-1455) was the very model of a Renaissance man, living a life of sincerity and simplicity (books were his only luxury); he had assisted Lorenzo de Medici in setting up his library, and he was the founder of the Vatican Library in Rome, bless him; that is where I obtained most of my Syriac manuscripts on mysticism, which have been objects of my academic attention since 1966, though they were added to the collection in the time of the librarian Joseph Assemani (1687-1768).
   Pope Julius II (1503-1513) aspired to be the leader of the intellectual and artistic movement, and in this regard he requested Michelangelo to represent him as Moses in the great statue with horns.
   But patronizing the arts and erecting cathedral churches, such as Saint Peter’s in Rome, required monetary resources.  Here my definition of religion, as a system for extracting money from people, definitely comes into play. Scientists and religionists have that in common: their chief concern in life is finding funding for their projects, to fulfil their mission statements. (The Finnish composer Sibelius made a similar complaint about musicians, as constantly talking about finance and funding, whereas businessmen loved conversing about music and art.)
   The solution to the impecuniosity of the Roman Catholic Church came through divine revelation, presumably, since its pontifical bishop, as the vicar of Christ, had an infallible line of communication with God, whose sovereign will and instructions were mediated to the subjects of the Kingdom of God by the priests. On the other hand, it might simply be that the doctrine evolved out of the sacrament of penance, with a little help from the aforementioned English theologian Alexander of Hales, followed by Thomas Aquinas: the system of Indulgences, as pardons for sins. The ecclesiastical discussions about this phenomenon (a technical term for “thing” in religiology, be it understood) bring in Purgatory (the halfway house to Paradise, as Dante demonstrated), and the store of merit accumulated by Christ and the saints (an idea long established in Mahayana Buddhism), but do not mention the simple point that indulgences can be bought with money. As with the tax-collectors of the Roman Empire (the so-called publicans in the Gospels) large profits could be made from managing these certificates of pardon. Indeed, this was a factor in the rise of capitalism (Lindsay, I, 83-84).

In a religious reformation the pattern is that a prophet arises, and he (Joe Smith) or she (Ellen White) speaks for God; that is what the Greek word “prophet” means, “speaking for”, a spokesperson (speaking in the name of Yahweh, like Moses, for example). There may be some pre-dicting (saying beforehand) or fore-telling in the message, but prophecy is not primarily about predicting but about pronouncing judgement. I am privileged to be privy to an ancient oracle from an unnamed prophet of Israel; it is written on a shard known as the Qeiyafa ostracon, which was found in the ruins of a fortress overlooking the Elah Valley, where David confronted and slew the Philistine Goliath. The prophet pronounces divine judgement on the giant Goliath for uttering a curse against David the servant of God, and I assume that David has already done the heroic deed; then God promises to reward his servant and his people for his virtuous actions. So there is past, present, and future tense in the prophecy.
   The prophet is a reformer, not an innovater. This divine mouthpiece might inject some newfangled beliefs and practices into the reformed system, but the call is for a return to the original form (and spirit) of the religion. The prophet and the believers sing from the same hymnbook: Give me that old time religion. Certainly, Christian churches chant and sing and recite the Psalms of David.
   In the European Christian Reformation they did continue to sing the old hymns and say the old prayers. The words of the mass, translated from Latin into English, passed into the Anglican service of Holy Communion, and then into little prayerbook of the heretical people called Methodists. Incidentally, the hymns of Charles Wesley are sung by all denominations. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
  I said as much last Sunday (17/2/2013) to an old lady on Broadway. After the Wesleyan church service, while everyone else was feasting on “finger food”, I strolled down to see what was happening at the Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, alias Saint Patrick’s church. I discovered that they are under the same ban as the Anglicans of All Saints’ and the Wesleyans of Saint Paul’s; their building has been declared earthquake-prone, and therefore:  enter at your own risk and don’t sue us if the walls come tumbling down on you. Mary is a member of that church (she is a pensioner but still working as a librarian) and we had an “ecumenical” conversation. She used that word because we had both been singing in an ecumenical congregation in that church for a television program entitled “Praise be” (which also included the community choir with Massey professors Tim Brown and Graeme Fraser in its midst; wonders never cease under the sun).
   Mary and I shared other experiences: we have both visited Assisi, but my tourist guide would not take us to see the original little chapel of Saint Francis of Assisi (now housed against his wishes inside a large church); but we were taken through Vanity Fair up the hill to the church with the paintings (which suffered devastation in an earthquake after my visit, as the York minster had been struck by fire from heaven after I had been there; I will not continue the catalogue of disasters that have followed in my wake; but as happened in Brunswick in Melbourne, there were four Methodist churches when I joined that parish, reduced to one when I left; same story in Palmerston North, where the remaining one of four has been condemned and is due for demolition).
   The point about Francis of Assisi is that he was a prophet and a reformer, harking back to the simple piety and poverty of the first Apostles. But the Pope clamped down on his reformation by isolating the Franciscan friars as an “order” with a legitimate place inside the established church.
   Then there was Erasmus of Rotterdam (1467-1536), a humanist who wanted internal reform, without schism. He was a loner, and his approach was through satirising the institutions and practices of the Church. As he saw it, the Christian Church had become Jewish. This sounds offensive, but it is true: the Roman Catholic Church was a priesthood (and yet the only priests in the New Testament were non-Christians); its priests were divinelyempowered to mediate redemption by blood sacrifice. But the dispersed children of Israel had stopped doing that when their Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70 of the current era. Judaism was now the spiritual religion that Christianity was designed to be. So the Jews are, in that respect, I respectfully submit, better than the Christians, but they can not be called Christians, because they do not accept that the Messiah, the Christ, has come yet (although ... recently an old Rabbi was considered to be the Moshiakh by his long-haired and bearded followers, and when he died they were going about preaching his gospel, and here we go again).
   But in Germany the real prophet-reformer stood up, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther (1483-1546). He became a celebrity, and was hailed throughout the land (Heil Luther!); his appearance at the Assembly at Worms has the makings of an opera (he was a lute player). Standing before the new young Spanish emperor, Charles V,who understood only Spanish and French,  Martin made his defence, first in Latin, ending with Dixi (I have said [what I have to say]), then in German, the language he bequeathed to his people, closing with the words Hie bin ich (Here I am, but always translated as Here I stand). It was deemed by some who were there to be a re-run of the trial of his Lord before the priests Annas and Caiaphas, and Herod.The result was a whole lot of “reasons” to have more wars, peasants revolting, and more of the usual same, for hundreds of years.

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