Friday, June 27, 2008


It was the age of the Marlborough and Cyrano de Bergerac, of Pascal and Moliére, of William of Orange, of John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift, of Hobbes, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley and Spinoza. And, of course, it was the age of Marlborough, Louis XIV of France and Peter the Great of Russia.

Yet among all of these magnificent characters there is also one who stands out like a Siegfried or D’Artagnan on steroids, the almost incomparable King Charles XII of Sweden, although he is virtually unheard of on this side of the ocean.

Who? Some Swedish friends once asked me in the ‘80s whether I knew who King Charles XII was, hoping to make fun of Americans (they actually said this was their goal). I was happy to be able to say without the aid of the yet to be invented Google, that I did, and felt like I was holding up the American end. Timing is everything. I had read Will Durant's The Age of Louis XIV as well as my favorite biography (and Pulitzer Prize winner), Peter the Great not too many years earlier and was fascinated by XII. Voltaire’s biography, L'histoire de Charles XII, from which those great writers drew would have to wait two decades.

For some reason I said then that every American should know about him as he represented an early wild cowboy spirit. Probably I was just being nice. There are enough swashbuckling heroes on this side of the ocean. But XII was actually special. Despite his bad end, a couple of decades after his death a young Benjamin Franklin wrote that XII was “the wonder of his age”.

XII’s dad, Charles XI, was quite the monarch himself. He revived the moribund royal power over the nobles, had a pretty good war record and brought about a bit of a golden age in Sweden, despite being a tyrant. When he died in 1697, XII was only 15 years old, but he lived his princedom well, preparing in every manner to be a powerful. A wise member of the clergy suggested that maybe 15 was a little young to be king. XII sentenced him to death, but, in the end he saw reason and gave him life in prison (remember, they were still burning people at the stake in those days). I have always hoped that in later years he pardoned the man, although that may be no more than wishful thinking on my part.

The holy man was certainly right in XII’s case. He was ignorant and arrogant, even taking his crown from the hands of the clergyman who was going to coronate him and put it on his own head, preceding Napoleon by a hundred years or so. Yet, when XII came to power, Sweden itself was a real aggressive player, as hard as that is to believe today of our neutral friend, and had enough land in northern Europe to pen Russia in like a slumbering giant. It’s leaders needed to be tough.

Perhaps XII started off on the wrong foot with one man in particular.  XI had charged an ambitious officer with treason for protesting his having redistributing noble lands back to the monarchy. The officer, Johann van Patkul, escaped to the lower continent. When XI died, Patkul sought a pardon from the new young king and was soundly rejected.

Long before XII could celebrate his second anniversary as King, van Patkul had convinced Peter the Great of Russia to combine with Saxony and Denmark to eat up Sweden as if at a smorgasbord.

Of course, it took a bit for countries to marshal their troops and get across borders in those days. Eventually, word of the alliance reached Swedish ears. His advisors counseled trying to divide their opponents diplomatically. Only 18, the young king resolutely (bravely/stupidly?) stated “Gentlemen, I have resolved never to engage in an unjust War, but never to finish one that is founded upon Justice and Right, but by the Destruction of my Enemies.” End of meeting but also the end of the arrogant, unjust and hard to love young man and birth of a sensational and popular leader.

XII became a Spartan warrior. No women (leading to the usual suspicion of homosexuality), no alcohol or soft living for him. He eschewed fine dress, preferring to dress like his soldiers, whom he allowed great freedom of expression with him. He addressed them directly and suffered their deprivations with them. On one occasion a soldier brought him a piece of moldy bread in way of complaint. XII ate the entire piece and said “It is not good, but it may be eaten." Leaders like that become beloved by their troops..

Once, on telling a cook that he would promote him, the cook joked back, “I’ll have that in writing, Sire.” He was often kind to his opponents after he had defeated them. Yet, he was undoubtedly the bravest of all of his men and the most physically impressive. Constantly putting himself in danger’s way, he once quipped, after losing two horses in quick successive, and gaining a third – “I see that the enemy wants me to practice riding.”

He could fight like the berserkers of old, and pick an object off the ground at full gallop like a Sioux Indian. Voltaire tells us that XII hunted bear with only forked sticks and nets, although, Herodotus like, he adds words that would lead you to believe he may have doubted that. But on a better documented occasion, thrown from a horse and surrounded by Russian and allied troops, he killed a dozen men before his men could surround him.

In Spring 1700, he marched off to war against Denmark, which was actually on Sweden’s border. Heading across the dangerous channel between the two countries against advice (I don’t know why – I crossed it twice in 1987 and didn’t even get sick) and headed for the Danish capital, Copenhagen. The brave king of Denmark, Frederik IV, XII’s cousin, pretty much immediately gave up, paid for his peace and promised never to make war on his ferocious cousin.

His next test was against Peter the Great himself. Peter, although Czar, was serving in the army as a mere officer. If you think XII had become king too young, Peter became co-king with his older but sickly brother when he was ten, although his powerful half-sister, Sophia (think Ursula, the witch from The Little Mermaid), was regent and really ruled until she lost power and then Peter’s mother took that role until Peter came of age. Like XII, he threw himself into training, wanting to westernize his country, but focused on shipbuilding, even going to the Netherlands to learn the trade himself as a mere workman.

Before he knew it, XII had snuck up behind him in present day Estonia. Although heavily outnumbering his adversary 4 or 5 times (perhaps 10 to 1), Peter thought twice and high tailed it back to Moscow. It may have been embarrassing knowing that XII had a medal created showing him running away, however, it was good thinking. The Swedes were a powerful force, dominated the Baltic Sea with their navy and had a well trained army. The 8,000 Swedes swept the field of the largely untrained 40,000 to 80,000 man Russian force at Narva. Reportedly, the Swedes lost between 500 and 1000 men, the Russians 17,000.

His successes had given backbone to his officers who now advised him to finish off Moscow and end the fight once and for all. But Charles resisted heading off into his huge neighbor in winter. He turned instead towards Poland and took the capital without a fight in 1702. He simply banged on the gates demanding that they open it and when the keeper complied, he smacked him on the head with his riding crop and entered. A couple of years later, King Augustus II of Poland, another cousin of his, stepped down and Charles’ puppet took his crown.

Bad news for van Patkul, who was hiding out in Poland. He was eventually given up, tortured, quartered and decapitated. It was now between Peter and XII; two brilliant and powerful young leaders opposing one another directly. Peter almost succeeded in bringing Great Britain in on Russia's side, but they were more afraid of Russia and did not want to add to help add to their territory or strength.

While in Poland, XII had a fall from his horse and broke his leg. While he recovered for the most part, it caused him to limp for the rest of his life. It did not stop him from leading his troops in battle or even swimming across rivers.

While Charles was busy with Poland, Peter was busy rebuilding his army and war machinery. He began building his namesake city Petersburg. He made his way back to Narva, where XII had whipped his troops, and revenged himself on the few Swedes left there. The huge Peter personally killed some of his own men in a rage in order to end the massacre of Swedish troops. When he addressed the vanquished, he pointed out that the blood on his sword was not Swedish, but that of Russians that he had cut down for their sake.

In 1708 (just for context, Benjamin Franklin is 2 years old and Isaac Newton would live another quarter century) Charles crossed into Russia with troops now swollen to well over 40,000 including a formidable cavalry. Peter again wisely fled after ordering a scorched earth policy. Less wisely, he left his troops in the care of his Cossack leader, Ivan Mazepa, who perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, offered XII his help.

The vast distances of Russia began to have their effect, not to mention the scorched earth. Food was scarce and the tide began to turn. Charles’ reinforcements were nearly destroyed by Russian troops. Peter’s right hand man, Prince Aleksandr Menshikov, was able to surprise Mazepa who fled with only 1300 men to Charles, and Menshikov burned his city to the ground.

The winter heading into ’09 was especially fierce, and this was still what is known as the little ice age (which would last over another century). The Swedes suffered horribly but Charles, like all fearless, adrenaline driven heroes pushed on, his forces cut nearly in half. Still, even when outnumbered by huge factors, his troops whipped the Russians whenever he led them.

In Spring ’09 Charles and Peter’s troops finally met. Charles went out to have his own look see and got shot in the foot for his troubles. He performed surgery on himself but finally passed out.

He delegated his forces to his underling and had to be carried to the field of battle in a litter for emotional support. The Swedes, again outnumbered almost four to one began to sweep the field, but this time, Peter, still just an officer in rank, was ready. His greatly superior artillery cut the Swedes to pieces. Although the Russians lost more men than the Swedes, they captured almost all of the rest, who, except for the officers, were treated as slaves to work on projects for the Czar.

This time it was XII, accompanied by Mazepa, who fled all the way to Turkey. The Battle of Poltava turned the tide for good and made Peter truly deserving of his "Great," at least in the minds of Europe. Augustus II of Poland regained his throne. The Danes ripped up their treaty and invaded Sweden, although unsuccessfully. Prussia joined in and even Louis XIV offered an alliance with Peter, who rejected it.

Fortunately for XII, the Turks hated the Russians and allowed him to keep his own court there. Many thought he converted to Islam because of his attendance at public services and his abstention from alcohol. He refused Peter’s demand to surrender Mazepa to him, meaning certain death, but Mazepa dropped dead in 1710 anyway. Finally, Charles, who was offered escort to Sweden by the French, convinced Sultan Ahmed III to make preemptive war and invade Russia with 200,000 men under his vizier.

In the Summer of 1711 Peter was caught by surprise with less than 20,000 men. He expected to die, quickly provided for the election of a new Czar in Moscow, but finally was able to wiggle out of his predicament by asking for terms, giving a large bribe and making many promises, including giving safe passage for XII to return home. XII had no such thoughts and racing to the battle, he actually swam the river alone rather than go out of his way to cross a bridge and crossed the Russian camp alone. He was furious to learn of the truce as he probably rightfully believed he could have destroyed the Russian army and reversed Poltova. He was able to convince the Sultan to dismiss the vizier, but Peter merely bought his peace with the new one too.

The Sultan grew tired of XII and ordered him to leave Turkey. Being XII he refused to leave and was finally forced to leave in 1713 (I told you things moved slow then) with 12,000 Turkish troops. Still being XII, it took them 8 hours to capture XII and just 40 men. Every bit the action hero, he personally killed a number of them, before tripping on his own spurs and being taken down by a large group of them. It took a dozen to pin him down and pack him off. He was sent to the border with Greece, but was inexplicably allowed to remain almost two more years while the Turkey and Russia jockeyed for position. The incident is worthy of a long piece itself. Maybe someday.

Finally, this magnificent martial man gave up and started for home in 1714. He traveled almost alone in secret so as not to endanger his remaining troops, making such phenomenal time and showing such great endurance that his feat reverberated through Europe when it was learned.

He would get a chance to fight more. His absence from Sweden had led to its demise. He found himself trapped on the Baltic coast across the sea from Sweden at war with the German principalities, Russia, Denmark, England and Russia. For nearly a year he was forced to defend a fort with about 35,000 men. He courted death repeatedly leading his men on charges outside the gates.

In the end, it was artillery again which he could not master. They smashed the town to pieces. Somehow he was able to escape to Sweden for the last time at the end of 1715. Although welcomed back there, he wanted to fight and taxed his people relentlessly while he built his army up again. Finally, having lost almost everything on the lower continent, he invaded Norway in 1717.

Laying siege to a Norwegian fort, he again exposed himself for an interminable amount of time, at one point telling some workers “Don’t be frightened.” One subordinate said to another not to say anything to him or he would stay exposed longer. His seeming invincibility ran out.

He raised his head at the wrong time and took a bullet in his temple. It has long been argued which side the bullet came from. A recent review of the evidence has led some historians to conclude that it was in fact from the Norwegian side and not a friendly fire incident or even assassination by XII’s own troops. He had been at war for eighteen years but had lived more in his 36 years than almost anyone else could have in 136.

With XII dead, Sweden slowly bought peace with its enemies. It took another four years though and multiple Russian invasions before it finally surrendered to Peter, who had but four years to live himself.

The Great Northern War was forced upon XII. He was away from home for 15 years and never even re-entered his capital once he left it. From 18 on he was at war. He faced a man as great as himself, if not as competent militarily. But Peter had the land, manpower and asset advantage and used them fully. XII was Robert E. Lee, Hannibal and Custer to Peter’s Grant, Scipio and Sitting Bull.

I could argue that Franklin and Voltaire were the two greatest thinkers who lived totally in the 18th century. We have heard from Franklin already. Voltaire began his book on XII with a list of marvelous events that you read or hear and should not believe, but then tells you that you should believe the marvelous stories he will tell you about XII. “[F]or where is the sovereign who can say, I have greater courage, more virtues, more resolution, more strength of body, greater skill in war, or better troops than Charles the twelfth” and “[O]n the twenty-seventh of June, 1682, was born King Charles XII. The most extraordinary man, perhaps, that ever appeared in the world.”

I have of course simplified greatly the Great Northern War. Charles fought in over a hundred battles, maybe many more, and almost never lost although he was almost always outnumbered and on enemy territory. He often led from the front and took more risks than anyone. His death at 36 was not his luck running out. It should have run out 10 years earlier. Had the initial sweep caused Peter to flee again at Poltova, or had Peter not the great advantage in men and machine, XII may have conquered Russia just as their ancestors had founded it and would have become a Second Charlemagne or Charles Martel.

Men like XII are few, awe inspiring, dangerous and, frankly, frightening. He had perhaps too much courage. It would be easy to say his country suffered for it, but had he not fought so ferociously Sweden might have been dismembered long before by its enemies. As to who was greater, XII or Peter, I will offer only this suggestion. XII was more magnificent, but Peter was greater, as his achievements were many and lasting, and not just military.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Goodbye George

George Carlin was one of those entertainers I thought would be around forever. He has always been around since I knew what a comedian was. When I first heard Class Clown, and he talked about drinking milk and having it come up your nose, I laughed so hard I thought I’d break a rib.

Can you call a comedian a genius? Maybe a comic genius is appropriate. I think Carlin was one. He was fearless and often hysterically, gut wrenchingly funny. Was he also indecent, as the government claimed. Well, yeah, by most of our standards, but that was his point. Paraphrasing him, these are just words and we give them what meaning we will and make some “bad” and some “good” even though there is nothing wrong with them in themselves.

His genius lay in his word play, his prodigious memory and his ability to see inside our frigid culture bound souls and point out the absurdities. I make no bones about it, some of his material was too much more me and I had to turn the channel. Too many secretions and bad smells. But, admittedly, people like me were his target, those of us hung up about bodily functions. Although I laughed ‘til I cried during the bean scene in Blazing Saddles because of its irreverence, normally bathroom humor just didn’t do it for me and my own normally offensive language is free of rectal references (basically, I’m a “fuck” guy). Despite this, I would still put Carlin up near the very top of stand up comedians. He was original, he was insightful and he was just funny.

Not only was he near the top, but he was up there for about 40 years. Though that is clearly not near the record (how long did Bob Hope and George Burns do it?), most comedians, once successful, left it for the higher paying movies and tv work. Carlin did a little of that – one tv show I remember of which I cannot remember the name (was he a cab driver?) and little bits like in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Oh, and there was his miniature train conductor on a kids show about trains – Shining Time Station.

I just saw this on the web, originally uploaded (from where?) by someone named Kevin Armstrong:

"I want to live my next life backwards:
You start out dead and get that out of the way.
Then you wake up in a nursing home feeling better every day.
Then you get kicked out for being too healthy. Enjoy your retirement and collect your pension.
Then when you start work, you get a gold watch on your first day.
You work 40 years until you're too young to work.
You get ready for High School: drink alcohol, party, and you're generally promiscuous.
Then you go to primary school, you become a kid, you play, and you have no responsibilities.
Then you become a baby, and then ...
You spend your last 9 months floating peacefully in luxury, in Spa-like conditions - central heating, room service on tap, and then...You finish off as an orgasm.
I rest my case."

Carlin was so original, and his own style so distinctive, that I have often seen iconoclastic humor posted on the web falsely attributed to him and I can only hope that the material the above is his.

My favorite Carlin bit has to do with children (taken from fuck_the_children). Living in New York, where children are raised with the presumption that they are royalty, the following bit just hit the spot. I not only laughed the whole way through, but was mentally saying “yes, yes, yes” the whole time. Comedy may be funny for many reasons, but one reason is when someone says something true that no one wants to say outloud. Not too many comedians would have the courage to go here. Penis and girlfriend jokes are just much safer. Since it's stand up, there is more than one version, but here's one (to which I replaced a few lines the site took out):

“Something else I'm getting tired of in this country is all this stupid talk I have to listen to about children. That's all you hear about anymore, children: "Help the children, save the children, protect the children." You know what I say? Fuck the children! They're getting entirely too much attention. And I know what some of you are thinking: " Jesus, he's not going to attack children, is he?" Yes he is! He's going to attack children. And remember, this is Mr. Conductor talking; I know what I'm talking about. And I also know that all you boring single dads and working moms, who think you're such fucking heros, aren't gonna like this, but somebody's gotta tell you for your own good: your children are overrated and overvalued, and you've turned them into little cult objects. You have a child fetish, and it's not healthy. And don't give me all that weak shit, "Well, I love my children." Fuck you! Everybody loves their children; it doesn't make you special. : : : John Wayne Gacy loved his children. Yes, he did. That's not what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about is this constant, mindless yammering in the media, this neurotic fixation that suggests that somehow everything--everything--has to revolve around the lives of children. It's completely out of balance. Listen, there are a couple of things about kids you have to remember. First of all, they're not all cute. In fact, if you look at 'em real close, most of them are rather unpleasant looking. And a lot of them don't smell too good either. The little ones in particular seem to have a kind of urine and sour-milk combination that I don't care for at all. Stay with me on this folks, the sooner you face it the better off your going to be. Second, premise: not all chidren are smart and clever. Got that? Kids are like any other group of people: a few winners, a whole lot of losers! This country is filled with loser kids who simply...aren't...going anywhere! And there's nothing you can do about it, folks. Nothing! You can't save them all. You can't do it. You gotta let 'em go; you gotta cut 'em loose; you gotta stop over-protecting them, because your making 'em too soft. Today's kids are way too soft. : : : For one thing, there's too much emphasis on safety and safety equipment: childproof medicine bottles, fireproof pajamas, child restraints, car seats. And helmets! Bicycle, baseball, skateboard, scooter helmets. Kids have to wear helmets now for everything but jerking off. Grown-ups have taken all the fun out of being a kid, just to save a few thousand lives. It's pathetic. It's pathetic. What's happened is, these baby boomers, these soft, fruity babyboomers, have raised an entire generation of soft, fruity kids who aren't even allowed hazardous toys, for Chrissakes! What ever happened to natural selection? Survival of the fittest? The kid who swallows too many marbles doesn't grow up to have kids of his own. Simple stuff. Nature knows best! Another bunch of ignorant bullshit about your children: school uniforms. Bad theory! The idea that if kids wear uniforms to school, it helps keep order. Hey! Don't these schools do enough damage makin' all these children think alike? Now they're gonna get 'em to look alike, too? And it's not even a new idea; I first saw it in old newsreels from the 1930s, but it was hard to understand, because the narration was in German! But the uniforms looked beautiful. And the children did everything they were told and never questioned authority. Gee, I wonder why someone would want to put our children in uniforms. Can't imagine. And one more item about children: this superstitous nonsense of blaming tobacco companies for kids who smoke. Listem! Kids don't smoke because a camel in sunglasses tells them to. They smoke for the same reasons adults do, because it's an enjoyable activity that relieves anxiety and depression. And you'd be anxious and depressed too if you had to put up with these pathetic, insecure, yuppie parents who enroll you in college before you've figured out which side of the play pen smells the worst and then fill you with Ritalin to get you in a mood they approve of, and drag you all overtown in search of empty, meaningless structure: Little League, Cub Scouts, swimming, soccer, karate, piano, bagpipes, watercolors, witchcraft, glassblowing, and dildo practice. It's absurd. : : : They even have "play dates", for Christ sake! Playing is now done by appointment! But it's true. A lot of these striving anal parents are burning their kids out on structure. I think what every child needs and ought to have every day is two hours of daydreaming. Plain old daydreaming. Turn off the internet, the CD-ROMS, and the computer games and let them stare at a tree for a couple of hours. Every now and then they actually come up with one of their own ideas. You want to know how to help your kids? Leave them the fuck alone.”

Carlin had a great comic voice, and maybe this is funnier with his gruff sarcastic tones. So better still, here's a link with him doing it himself. I just listened twice and it doesn't get old fast:

Goodbye, George. You will not get the send off that Tim Russert did, but he, and no shot at him, was safe, maybe Mr. Safe. Carlin became famous by getting arrested for telling the truth in a way that made most people laugh, but made others uncomfortable. Dangerous. When Russert's kid did his eulogy he pictured his dad up in heaven interviewing Hamilton and Burr. I picture Giordano Bruno, Bob Hope, Mark Twain even Jesus and Buddha and all the other iconoclasts sitting around cracking up listening to Carlin doing his seven dirty words routine. "This guy gets it".

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Hammer of Witches

Welcome to Metaphysical Booknotes, the show that Raises Dead Issues With Dead People.

It wouldn’t be unfair to say that this show has catered to dead white men for the most part. So, to make up for the overemphasis just a little, today we celebrate women in history with great affection in one of their greatest role’s – the everlovin’ witch.

Today’s interview is ironically with a dead white man by the name of Jacob Sprenger, one of the two authors of the Malleus Maleficarum. Latin for The Hammer of Witches. The MM was written by them slightly before before Columbus sailed the ocean blue by Sprenger and his partner, Heinrich Kramer. These two Dominican inquisitors couldn’t even get along with each other, but they sure did know how to identify, prosecute and execute witches, which is the subject of their book and our interview today.

Originally condemned by the church for going against the dogma of Catholic demonology, Kramer eventually became a successful lecturer and inquisitor. Unfortunately, the older Sprenger dropped dead a few years later, but, thankfully, is here in our studio right now. Mr.Sprenger has agreed to speak on this long dead subject only through direct quotation from the MM:

INTERVIEWER: I have always wondered why there were so many more witches than warlocks. Is that a fair characterization?

JS: "[A] greater number of witches is found in the fragile feminine sex than among men; it is indeed a fact that it were idle to contradict, since it is accredited by actual experience, apart from the verbal testimony of credibly witnesses."

INTERVIEWER: So, is it that just that women are plain evil?

JS: "When they are governed by a good spirit, they are most excellent in virtue; but when they are governed by an evil spirit, they indulge the worst possible vices."

INTERVIEWER: Just how bad can an evil woman get?

JS: "There is no head above the head of a serpent: and there is no wrath above the wrath of a woman. . . . . . All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman."

INTERVIEWER: I suppose that just the possibility that your wife is a witch would be grounds for divorce:

JS: "What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours! Therefore if it be a sin to divorce her when she ought to be kept, it is indeed a necessary torture; for either we commit adultery by divorcing her, or we must endure daily strife."

INTERVIEWER: Strange. I would think it would be a bad idea to keep a witch for a wife.

JS: "No might of the flames or the swollen winds, no deadly weapon, is so much to be feared as the lust and hatred of a woman who has been divorced from the marriage bed."

INTERVIEWER: I have a difficult time swallowing this whole premise. Why would women be worse than men?

JS: "The many lusts of men lead them into one sin, but the lust of women leads them into all sins; for the root of all woman's vices is avarice. And Seneca says in his Tragedies: A woman either loves or hates; there is no third grade. And the tears of woman are a deception, for they may spring from true grief, or they may be a snare. When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil."

INTERVIEWER: So, lust is the problem. I see. Is that it?

JS: "[Women] are more credulous; and since the chief aim of the devil is to corrupt faith, therefore he rather attacks them. . . . The second reason is, that women are naturally more impressionable, and more ready to receive the influence of a disembodied spirit; and that when they use this quality well they are very good, but when they use it ill they are very evil."

INTERVIEWER: I take it you aren’t married.

JS: "I had rather dwell with a lion and a dragon than to keep house with a wicked woman."

INTERVIEWER: I still don’t know. Why can't women just understand the pitfalls of witchery and avoid it?

JS: "Women are intellectually like children."

INTERVIEWER: So, you think it is a matter of intelligence?

JS: "But the natural reason is that she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations."

INTERVIEWER: You act as if women are monsters. Yet, very often they seem much more empathetic than men.

JS: "When a woman weeps she weaves snares. "

INTERVIEWER: I suppose, from your religious background, you would believe that faith would be a safe haven for women.

JS: "[A] wicked woman is by her nature quicker to waver in her faith, and consequently quicker to abjure the faith, which is the root of witchcraft."

INTERVIEWER: Interesting. Now, how would you say it was best to go about protecting yourself from these witches?

JS: "[T]he exorcisms of the Church are . . . entirely efficacious remedies for preserving oneself from the injuries of witches."

INTERVIEWER: I hear that blessed salt works wonders with witches?

JS: "Now it happened in the city of Spires, in the same year that this book was begun, that a certain devout woman held conversation with a suspected witch, and, after the manner of women, they used abusive words to each other. But in the night she wished to put her little suckling child in its cradle, and remembered her encounter that day with the suspected witch. So, fearing some danger to the child, she placed consecrated herbs under it, sprinkled it with Holy Water, put a little Blessed Salt to its lips, signed it with the Sign of the Cross, and diligently secured the cradle. About the middle of the night she heard the child crying, and, as women do, wished to embrace the child, and life the cradle on to her bed. She lifted the candle, indeed, but could not embrace the child, because he was not there. The poor woman, in terror, and bitterly weeping for the loss of her child, lit a light, and found the child in a corner under a chair, crying but unhurt."

INTERVIEWER: So . . . then you do recommend the salt?

JS: "In Ratisbon a man was being tempted by the devil in the form of a woman to copulate, and became greatly disturbed when the devil would not desist. But it came into the poor man's mind that he ought to defend himself by taking Blessed Salt, as he had heard in a sermon. So, he took some Blessed Salt on entering the bath-room; and the woman looked fiercely at him, and, cursing whatever devil had taught him to do this, suddenly disappeared. For the devil can, with God's permission, present himself either in the form of a witch, or by possessing the body of an actual witch."

INTERVIEWER: I’ll take that as a yes. What do you recommend doing with a witch when you catch one?

JS: "First, that her house should be searched as thoroughly as possible, in all holes and corners and chests, top and bottom; and if she is a noted witch, then without doubt, unless she has previously hidden them, there will be found various instruments of witchcraft. . . .

A second precaution is to be observed, not only at this point but during the whole process, by the Judge and all his assessors; namely, that they must not allow themselves to be touched physically by the witch, especially in any contract of their bare arms or hands.

The third precaution to be observed . . . is that the hair should be shaved from every part of her body. The reason for this is the same as that for stripping her of her clothes . . . for in order to preserve their power of silence they are in the habit of hiding some superstitious object in their clothes or in their hair, or even in the most secret parts of the their bodies which must not be named."

INTERVIEWER: Sounds reasonably modern. Let’s move on, though. So, if you take these precautions, the average witch can be made to confess?

JS: "[T]he devil might, without the use of such charms, so harden the heart of a witch that she is unable to confess her crimes; just as it is often found in the case of other criminals, no matter how great the tortures to which they are exposed, or how much they are convicted by the evidence of the facts and of witnesses."

INTERVIEWER: But how do they remain silent under torture?

JS: "This can be made clear from the example of a certain witch in the town of Hagenau . . . . She used to obtain this gift of silence in the following manner: she killed a newly-born first-born male child who had not been baptized, and having roasted it in an oven together with other matters which it is not expedient to mention, ground it to powder and ashes; and if any witch or criminal carried about him some of this substance he would in no way be able to confess his crimes."

INTERVIEWER: Let me try and sum up. It seems clear to me that the devil, the ultimate source of all this evil, is brought about by lustful women and that without them, we would not have evil. Or, have I overstated it?

JS: "[I]f it be asked whether the devil cannot inflict injury upon men and beasts without the means of a woman being seen in a vision or by her touch, we answer that he can, when God permits it. But the permission of God is more readily granted in the case of a creature that was dedicated to God, but by denying the faith has consented to other horrible crimes; and therefore the devil more often uses such means to harm creatures. Further, we may say that, although the devil can work without a witch, he yet very much prefers to work with one, for the many reasons which we showed earlier in this work."

INTERVIEWER: We are almost out of time, but, first, I’d like to give you a gift for coming in and talking with us – a red hot iron. I think you know what to do with this, don’t you?

JS: "Formal rules for initiating a process of justice were set down: how it should be conducted and the method of pronouncing sentence; when to use the trial by red-hot iron and other methods of torture for extracting confessions."

INTERVIEWER: Thanks. I hope the women in our audience appreciated a day dedicated especially to them. Come back next time when we interview Torqemada with tortures you can do in your own home.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Political update for June, 2008

Religion and the presidency

The most telling statement on presidential politics in the last few years was written in a book on religion (or, more accurately, against religion):

“Of course, religious moderation consists in not being too sure about what happens after death. This is a reasonable attitude, given the paucity of evidence on the subject. But religious moderation still represents a failure to criticize the unreasonable (and dangerous) certainty of others. As a consequence of our silence on these matters, we live in a country in which a person cannot get elected president if he openly doubts the existence of heaven and hell. This is truly remarkable, given that there is no other body of ‘knowledge’ that we require our political leaders to master. Even a hairstylist must pass a licensing exam before plying his
trade in the United States, and yet those given the power to make war and national policy – those whose decisions will inevitably affect human life for generations – are not expected to know anything in particular before setting to work. They do not have to be political scientists, economists, or even lawyers; they need not have studied international relations, military history, resource management, civil engineering, or any other field of knowledge that might be brought to bear in the governance of a modern superpower; they need only be expert fund-raisers, comport themselves well on television, and be indulgent of certain myths. In our next presidential election, an actor who reads his Bible would almost certainly defeat a rocket scientist who does not. Could there be any clearer indication that we are allowing unreason and otherworldliness to govern our affairs.” Sam Harris – The End of Faith, p 39, paperback edition.

Any doubt as to his accuracy is blown away by the importance religion has played so far in this election. The charismatic Barack Obama has faced his toughest roadblocks from his religious choices, not his political ones (although we probably have not heard the last about William Ayres).

I’ve made it clear hear that I prefer John McCain as president, mostly because he seems the most centrist of the candidates, and that is my particular raison d’étre. But, honestly, if either Obama or McCain wins, I will not be crying in my electoral soup.

Although I try very hard not to let the political smear attacks affect me, I have to admit that I was a little shaken in my beliefs that it was all nonsense, when I saw the videotape of Father Pfleger mocking Hillary Clinton in Obama’s church.

First, just to get it out of the way – what is the matter with that guy? Was he raised in a black family or neighborhood so that his mannerisms and vocalizations have become an homage to black preachers? He reminded me of young white kids who emulate black culture and call themselves wiggers. He and they are free to do what they like, and he might even have a lot of good things to say when he is not being political, but it just seems so contrived and silly. Not to advocate even more sensitivity in our wacky culture, but if blackface is considered offensive, why isn’t mimicking the voice and mannerisms of black preachers?

But, sitting here in my chair, listening to Father Pfleger mock Clinton, and carry on to the cheers of the congregation, I did start to think – wait a minute, so it is not just Jeremiah Wright being “bombastic”. This seems to be the tenure of the church. They congregation is cheering. Now, I actually have all the respect in the world for blacks feeling that they have gotten the short end of the stick, more so than other minorities in America, and I would understand the pride they would feel if a black man was elected president.

Although I will not cast my vote on race, I admit I would feel good if Obama won to the extent that it would say something about the growth of America racially. Somewhat defensively, I add my recognition that some people would not be able to read that sentence without forgetting the first part of it, but, that’s what happens when you write about politics.

Still, I would not want to have Obama win if I have the feeling that those he would choose to be around him, even if out of patience and sympathy, would have the bitterness and lack of reason demonstrated by Wright and Pfleger. In no way do I believe that Obama, who has denounced (and rejected) those statements, actually endorses either man’s comments. Nor does it necessarily raise questions as to his judgment. But, it does raise questions about his patience and closeness with some people who may be well outside of the mainstream of American thought. Having said of myself on many occasions, that I have an amazing capacity for people who do me no good whatsoever, I know from what I speak. Some of us have difficulty ridding ourselves of pests, and, it is especially problematic with presidents.

And, of course, I realize that this is what partisans on McCain’s side want me to think, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be true.

I understand why Obama had to distance himself politically from his church and also understand why he did it in a very political way (acting as if it were non-political). But, it just shows how presidential politics twists people. Who leaves a church by press conference? Why didn’t he just stop going to that church and start going to another one without comment? Isn’t that what most people, almost everyone, would do?

Obama is in a religious pickle which will be preyed upon by Republican partisans. He cannot trash the so-called “black church” or even people like Wright or Pfleger (who apologized, but clearly was not truthful in saying he meant no offense) with abandon because he cannot risk losing the support of much of the base that won the Democratic nomination for him. To the contrary, he hopes, by greatly increasing their participation in voting in the general election, to build upon it.

On the other hand, he cannot just allow white voters, not including those suffering from “white guilt” or young men and women instilled with the ideology of change for change sake, to loathe him either for not rejecting these men in some respects. Politically, he has handled it well, perhaps better than anyone else can. As a matter of character, though, he has failed, and it must gall him. He has had to choose politics over his friends, and that can never be an act without consequences.

I do not mean to suggest that Obama is alone with his religious problems. Our national obsession with the religion of our leaders has caused a similar problem with John McCain, which however, he wisely handled before the campaigns really heated up.

Like both Obama and Clinton, McCain has come out against gay marriage while supporting civil unions. Civil unions are meant to be legal equivalents to marriage. The objection to them seems to be religious and cultural ones. My personal belief, without any fact to support me other than my own impression of the candidates, is that they are all lying to us, and possibly, just possibly, to themselves about their true position. I just don’t believe that any of them really cares if two men or two women call their relationship a marriage. It goes against the general tenor of their beliefs. However, they all have probably heard from advisors that backing the very unpopular gay marriage would be a big mistake polically. McCain has the worst problem as his many in his own party doubt him on social values.

McCain was a life long Episcopalian. However, that church has begun to support the idea of gay marriage. Quietly, at some unknown point, McCain switched his church to that of the anti-gay marriage, Baptist church. Smoothly, quietly and under the radar. Now, of course, I cannot say for a certainty that there were not other factors. But one need not be more than the tiniest bit cynical to believe that his switch before a run for president to a church popular in the south that is known to be more anti-gay marriage (like the majority of Americans) was politically motivated, no matter what he tells himself or us.

A campaign based even in part on religion will bring out the worst in Americans. Because Obama is bi-racial (which I have come to belief is a political, not scientific term) race will also play a big roll in the campaign. I spent most of my life on relatively liberal Long Island. Yet, I know people there who have already openly determined not to vote for Obama just because he is black, or, heavens to Betsy, because it might make black people think “who they are” (sorry, but that is the expression I’ve heard – it seems to mean “think they are something special”).

I don’t want to say that I’ve heard many people say things like that as it has only been a few. But since I don’t talk to all that many people about politics, you can probably extrapolate it out to our voting population. It will add up to a lot of people.

I also know people who admit they will not vote for him because he has an Arabic name. Now, I listened to Jeremiah Wright speak and he said a lot of wacky things, but one thing he said that made sense I (and that was about it) was – “Arabic is a language, not a religion”. There are, as we know, some people who have no trouble juggling the ideas both that Obama is a Muslim (gasp) or a terrorist sympathizer, and, at the same time, a racist and intolerant Christian. We can safely assume that those people were not going to vote for Obama anyway unless he was running against Osama bin Laden.

Racism and religious mumbo jumbo on both sides of our political spectrum will not only rear its head, but like a hydra monster, grow two back for every one cut off. From watching the primaries, we know that many Obama’s supporters will challenge any criticism of him as racist, will use his ethnicity for their purposes, but cry “code words” or “hate speech” if McCain supporters mention it, and will insist that racism was the main reason if they lose (it might be one reason). We also know that McCain’s supporters will play up Obama’s Arabic name and his relationship with Wright and Pfleger, prey upon white people’s fears of a black president and suggest, or actually say, that he will have too much sympathy for America’s enemies, if not be an outright Manchurian candidate.

They both know better, say they want something different. Sadly, they have already started unfairly attacking each other and it will just get worse. Whoever wins (and I still believe it will be McCain) will end up tarnished by a large percentage of the population when he is sworn in. But, isn’t that the way if usually goes?


There is rarely such hoopla about nothing than who will be the vice presidential nominees. If the popularity or good reputation of presidential candidates were important, then Mike Dukakis, who picked Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate, would have beaten George H. W. Bush, who chose Dan Quayle, a young running mate who was quickly turned into an iconic laughing stock by the media.

The media loves the guessing games. It takes months of air time where every barely employed pundit on the Beltway takes a few guesses. Some of their premises amuse. Often they try and pick someone who they think will help them win some small state even though they have learned time and time again that it doesn’t work. Sometimes they try and pick someone who brings something to the ticket that the candidate doesn’t have, like foreign policy experience or economic experience. Not only do voters generally not care, but everyone knows the president has many foreign policy and economic advisors and doesn’t need a vice president expert in either field. All that is important is that the VP candidate not be offensive to anyone who doesn’t already hate everyone not from their party, and be loyal. So, who cares? Only the media.

Resurrecting a past prediction, Mike Huckabee might be a good choice for McCain given his better conservative credentials. I use to think Duncan Hunter would be too, but his campaigning for president showed him too dour. There is the problem of evangelicals staying home on election day. However, for the sake of the independents both sides are fighting for, the Republicans don’t need two old white guys in the election of “change”. Still, McCain’s best choice would be Michael Steele of Maryland, the chairman of the RNC and a past candidate for Senator (he lost, but beat expectations). This intelligent and genial man also happens to be black, which would be a terrific antidote to those who want a minority to have a shot at a major post. Please don’t tell me that any candidate is above that.

Democrats have a tougher problem. Initially, I thought that Bill Richardson, accomplished and personable, would make a good VP selection. He thought so too, no doubt. However, he has now alienated the Clinton wing of the party and would present a ticket with two minorities. Probably not a good idea.

Who else? Sam Nunn’s name is being batted around. Has anyone asked him? A former senator from Georgia with loads of foreign affairs experience and respect from both sides of the aisle, he might be considered just too conservative by many Democrats (plus, he is almost as old as McCain). For me, his non-partisan ideology makes him desirable, but many people don’t look at it like that.

For similar reasons, Jim Webb of Virginia would probably make an excellent choice. Military man, former Reagan appointee, Southerner and reputation for toughness. He might do the trick.


Get ready for fights at gas stations, gas lines at places selling discount (I’ve already waited ten minutes a month ago at a large supermarket chain gas station) and price gouging, always discovered too late, but inevitable.

What’s the answer? Everything. More drilling (hopefully with environmental care, but that is the risk we take for having a petroleum based society; we can always stop; no one wants to), conservation (isn’t that what you do personally?); a stronger dollar – the weakness in the dollar helps our exports but hurts with imports; investment in alternative energy - even enemies of nuclear energy now concede it may be the answer for the foreseeable future unless you are willing to pay $6 a gallon; reasonable supervision of energy companies forming cartels, or cornering the market, without insane overregulation of investors trying to make money by being smarter than other people.

Many chickens are coming home to roost, but not the chickens Jeremiah Wright was talking about. It is the belief in American “exceptionalism” in areas where we are just not exceptional, a feeling of entitlement on the part of many citizens to a level of luxury that is not reasonable or sustainable over the long turn, and refusal to sacrifice, address our culture of leisure, and lack of serious educational ambition by American parents, that will undo us. Gas prices are a symptom. In order to pull itself out of this funk, America either needs a true cultural change and probably much upheaval.


Well, I almost give up. I used to watch CNN years ago, but it just got so boring. Then I watched Fox until I just couldn’t take the partisanship anymore. Switching to MSNBC, I was delighted that they actually seemed to balance the ideology. However, since the rise of uber-liberals, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, it is getting more like talk radio all the time (her real job). Add Chris Matthews, another interesting guy, but who is so anti-Clinton, he can’t see his own bias. Moreover, his beating up of his guests with glee isn’t interesting or fun. It’s painful to watch. And then he replays it over and over.

All of them are talented (Olbermann and Maddow, for instance, can riff on Bush pretty much forever) but just so partisan that I have the same lack of patience for them that I do with Rush Limbaugh. Fun for a little while and then . . . oh, come on.

This mixture of ideologies has created a lot of tension on screen. Chris Matthews had a meltdown with Joe Scarborough’s co-host, Mika Brzezinski, one morning (she annoys me sometimes too, but she was right -- it did seem he was endorsing Obama). Keith Olbermann supposedly refuses to do the lead-in to Dan Abrams’ show and Scarborough clearly despises Rachel Maddow, once doing a psycho-bolt off another show during a break after feuding with her. That sounds like it might be fun, but I find it embarrassing and awkward as they don't let you know how the conflict was resolved, if at all. I've even emailed MSNBC about it. No answer, obviously.

Moreover, the obvious desire to show respect for minorities has led to a bizarre situation where some hosts treat every idea by a black person, even patently ridiculous ones, seriously. The idea that minorities can't say something idiotic is its own type of racism.

However, MSNBC still my favorite station. Ironically, the conservative ideologues on the station are so pleasant, and have so modified their rancor at most liberal ideas that they are interesting and charming. And there are still moderates on the station who make it bearable.

Still, there are good reasons to watch – Morning Joe Scarborough, who has morphed into a fun loving talk show host that createst the best three great hours on television every morning (although he is absent too often); Pat Buchanan - I know some Jews and liberals will never forgive him, but he is like your grandpa now, and still the sharpest debater and most knowledgeable guy on almost every show he is on; columnist Eugene Robinson is a frequent guest and usually a steady, reasonable voice; Chuck Todd -- the rising star; Tucker Carlson, now a guest (I still can’t believe they took a show away from the best prime time host on cable news, but he was too nice and reasonable); and the charmingly snarky Willie Geist, formerly the comic relief on Tucker and now Morning Joe, where they are expanding his role. I leave out some of the others (I imagine I've been disrespectul to Tim Russert, Andrea Mitchell, Mike Barnicle and others who neither inspire me to watch, nor upset me when I do -- sorry).

Post publication note - Editing this post this next morning, I must add one note. Gen. Wesley Clark's attack on John McCain as being untested for the military aspects of the presidency is just so ridiculous on so many levels, you just have to shake your head and wonder. Two, questions that he was, of course, not asked on the friendly shows he was on -- 1) Who is more prepared to be president from a military/foreign affairs point of view - John McCain or Barack Obama. 2) Which president have we had who had more military and/or foreign affairs experience since Eisenhower. Answer to 1 - Please. You can argue that Obama should still be president despite his lack of experience, which pails compared to McCain, but . . . . 2. Maybe George Bush I, and arguably Nixon, but that's it.

Monday, June 02, 2008

The Bare Necessities of Tao

Recently, a friend of mine commented that she has been reading the Tao Te Ching a/k/a Daodejing or Laozi (there are many different styles of transliteration from the Chinese – we’ll just call it Tao here for both the book and the philosophy).

I had read the book myself and some commentaries on it long ago, and had actually been re-reading it recently in the form of one of those tiny books you can get at a cash register. Hiking has been a recent pastime of mine and reading the Tao on the top of a mountaintop looking over a valley is pretty peaceful, even if it seems a little forced. Anyway, we exchanged some emails about it (how un-Taolike) and it inspired this post.

We are told the Tao was written somewhere between 600-300 B.C. by a Chinese archivist or historian, Lao Tzu (Lao Tze, Laozi, whatever). According to some legends, he was either a contemporary of or slightly proceeded in time the other most revered Chinese philosopher, Kong Fu Tzu (Kongfuzi), a/k/a Confucius, so named for the West by a 16th-17th century Italian missionary to China whose name I just plain forget, if I ever knew it. That's what Wikipedia and Google are for. I'm headed elsewhere with this.

The actual existence of Lao Tzu must be placed in a category with that of the Buddha, Homer and many other early religious or “historical” figures. Historians seem to be more accepting of Confucius’ existence than Lao Tzu, but there is reason to doubt he was real too.

I’ve written earlier about questions of Jesus’ existence and concluded that there is sufficient evidence existing relatively soon after his life to support a conclusion that he was a real person, but centuries went by from when we are told Lao Tzu and Confucius existed (Buddha and Homer too) until there was anything in writing about them, making any similar conclusion pretty much impossible.

A possible reason for doubting Lao Tzu’s existence is that his name means “old master,” which sounds somewhat legendary in nature. However, some scholars argue that the "The old master" was an honorary title or name and can’t be evidence against his having existed. That’s reasonable. Consider that the Indian leader, Gandhi, is still often referred to as Mahatma (“Great Soul”) instead of his real first name -- Mohandas.

As far as we know, Lao Tzu was first mentioned in writing in the Historical Records by Sima Qian. Sima's work is equivalent to Herodotus’ Histories in the western world, although many centuries latter. Regrettably, my copy of Sima’s work (I may be an idiot, but I have a pretty good library) is very truncated, and I was disappointed to having had to learn about his version of Lao Tzu from secondary sources. Safe to say, though, that Sima’s combining of several versions of Lao Tzu’s life has the air of legend about it and is not great evidence of his actual existence either.

Naturally, if one is interested in the philosophy (the religion came much later, is substantially different, and I'm not talking about it here), it matters not a bit whether Lao Tzu existed at all or was a name given to a body of scholars or a series of them over time. After all, as an example, would Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness be any more or less readable if, in four centuries, his existence is called into question?

As for the philosophical doctrines of the Tao, they are quite simple. The fact that they are so uncomplicated is sort of the point. If you make it complicated, you have strayed from the Way, which is about less, not more.

You can pretty much absorb the drift of the Tao from watching the 70s tv show, Kung Fu (“What is cowardice but the body's wisdom of its weakness? What is bravery but the body's wisdom of its strength. The coward and the hero march together within every man. So to call one man 'coward' and another 'brave' merely serves to indicate the possibilities of their achieving the opposite." - Master Po) or even Bruce Lee movies (“The style of fighting without fighting” says Bruce, replying to a bully who asked what his style was in Enter the Dragon).

Here are the main principles of the Tao, which are demonstrated below in a very untao-like bullet fashion.

-The Tao is a way of life and may also be a spirit force
-Nothingness or non-action is good
-Quietness is good
-Nature is good
-Emptiness is good
-Lack of desire is good
-Moderation is good
-Humility is good
-Simplicity is good
-The opposites of all the above are not good

Here’s one example of the way the old master phrased his philosophy in his book:

Fame or integrity: which is more important?
Money or happiness: which is more valuable?
Success of failure: which is more destructive?

If you look to others for fulfillment,
you will never truly be fulfilled.
If your happiness depends on money,
you will never be happy with yourself.

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.

Once you read a few of these, you could start producing them yourself. And quite possibly, that is what happened, a number of philosophers producing them over the years until they were collected and canonized, not unlike what probably happened with the Bible (both) and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

There is really nothing in the Tao that is unique, of course. It sounds like many other philosophies, including Buddhism, which may have been highly influenced by Lao Tzu’s philosophy when it came to China (remember, Buddhism, founded in India, is rather rare there, but quite popular in other Asian countries like China and the surrounding countries).

I can’t help but notice that many writers and philosophers who have attracted my admiration during my near half century sound to some degree like Lao-Tzu adherents. We’ll finish up with some of them:

Diogenes: Hard to say what this Golden Age Greek’s philosophy was exactly because he left no body of work. We only know of him from other writers. According to all reports, Diogenes eschewed material goods and lived as close as possible to a natural state, even admiring dogs for their simple and unpretentious lives to the point of relieving himself and doing other things in public that I’m even too embarrassed to mention in print.

It is believed by some that his admiration for the lifestyle of dogs was the source of his nickname, dog or dog face. This was actually a metaphor in ancient Greece for shamelessness, which might fairly describe the philosophy. But it also may stem from something more mundane -- the name of his mentor’s academy. In any event, from this name, and Diogenes’ doubting philosophy, we get the modern word cynic. In fact, his philosophy and that of his mentor, Antisthenes, supposedly a companion of Socrates, is called cynicism, the root of which is the Greek word for dog (not to mention our "canine").

One story about Diogenes has him replying to the definition Plato put forth that man could be defines as a featherless biped. Diogenes brought a plucked chicken to Plato’s Academy and said - here is your man. Apparently, Plato added “with broad flat nails” to the definition, but I think he missed the point. Diogenes was also known for carrying a lantern about with him and to reply to inquirers who asked what he was doing that he was looking for an honest man.

Another anecdote has him visited by Alexander the Great, by some accounts the only man in Greece more famous at the time than the strange philosopher. The mighty Alexander asked Diogenes what he could do for him. He replied that Alexander could “stand out of his light.” Alexander must not have been offended as he reputedly said that he were he to be anyone but himself, he would want to be Diogenes. Not a bad complimement from a guy who conquered much of the known world.

Unlike Alexander, I wouldn’t want to be Diogenes. For one thing, I don’t like doing anything private in public. I could be wrong though. He was supposedly a lecturer and author, without any other duties, even after being captured by pirates and sold into slavery. That doesn’t sound like a bad life, particularly if you don’t have to make your bed (he slept, it is said, in a tub and threw away his begging bowl after seeing a peasant drink from his hands).

Epicurus: Another Greek philosopher who came slightly after Diogenes in time, and who is often misunderstood because he is called a hedonist, commonly thought of as someone who is obsessed with physical pleasure. That would be an exaggeration of Epicurus. He believed in training oneself to avoid pain, desire and fear and to seek mild or moderate pleasure – not excessive pleasure as with the modern meaning of hedonist. I believe Lao Tzu would have approved of his philosophy had he known him. It is actually possible that the Tao te Ching was not written until around Epicurus’ time, but cross pollination of ideas between China and Greece was not likely at that time.

A number of Tao-like sayings are attributed to Epicurus, two of which it will suffice to give you here:

Death is nothing to us; for that which has been dissolved into its elements experiences no sensations, and that which has no sensation is nothing to us;

A free life cannot acquire many possessions, because this is not easy to do without servility to mobs or monarchs.

Thoreau: We have to skip a bunch of centuries to get to this nineteenth century New England intellectual. In a way, he reminds us of modern day Diogenes without the indecent behavior but still challenging our need for modern technology. His brief sojourn on the shore of Walden Pond was made timeless by him in a little book that begins with the economics of his own vegetable garden. It is worth grinding through it to get to the brilliant aphorisms studding his work like diamonds in the ground.

Unfortunately, for us, he died young and left us not much more prose than Walden, his private journal and some essays and speeches like Civil Disobedience, which has inspired many later heroes like Martin Luther King and Gandhi. As with Lao Tzu, Thoreau either had a profound impression on my life, or, his writing seemed to validate my already existing personal philosophies. I can no longer remember for sure which came first.

I intend to write more about Thoreau someday, so will only give only two bites from his work here, the second of which should be quite familiar to you:

In the streets and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it,-- dining with the Governor or a member of Congress!! But alone in the distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout-lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even in a bleak and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself . . . .

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.

Although researchers say that there is no indication that Thoreau ever read the Tao, similarities have been noted on both sides of the ocean. Lin Yutang, a writer who translated Chinese classics into English wrote that Thoreau was the most Chinese of American writers and that he could have translated Thoreau into Chinese and easily passed him off as a native philosopher.

Rudyard Kipling: I mostly refer here just to his poem, If, not his other writings, although many of them still meet the test of time. If has been quoted in this blog before. I am so in love with it though, as an unachievable but but splendid model of behavior, that I don’t mind giving it here again, just as I have also recently sent it to my own daughter:


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream--and not make dreams your master,
If you can think--and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings--nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And--which is more--you'll be a Man, my son!

I have no doubt that had Lao Tzu read these words, he would have taught it to his disciples. In fact, I just took a quick spin on the internet to seek out the text the easy way, and see that I am far from the first to notice the connection between the Englishman’s poem and the Asian philosophy. I was going to end the post with Kipling’s words, because it is not within my abilities to improve upon it with any length of prosaic commentary, but I thought of one more example, a little more modern.

At some point these days all great persons and ideas end up being expressed in a Disney song. Ironically, the lyrics to this song (which I slightly truncated), The Bare Necessities, was sung by the jovial Phil Harris in the animated version of another Kipling work – Jungle Book, one of my favorite novels.

You’ve probably heard Baloo the Bear sing about his philosophy of life at some point in your life (download it if you haven’t), but you probably haven't thought about it in terms of the Tao, as I ask you to do now:

Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the bare necessities
Old Mother Nature's recipes
That brings the bare necessities of life

Wherever I wander, wherever I roam
I couldn't be fonder of my big home
The bees are buzzin' in the tree
To make some honey just for me
When you look under the rocks and plants
And take a glance at the fancy ants
Then maybe try a few

The bare necessities of life will come to you
They'll come to you!

Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the bare necessities
That's why a bear can rest at ease
With just the bare necessities of life

. . .

So just try and relax, yeah cool it
Fall apart in my backyard
'Cause let me tell you something little britches
If you act like that bee acts, uh uh
You're working too hard

And don't spend your time lookin' around
For something you want that can't be found
When you find out you can live without it
And go along not thinkin' about it
I'll tell you something true

The bare necessities of life will come to you

Finding the Tao interesting or inspiring doesn't mean I hold myself up to any high standard of behavior. I might want a simpler life than many other people, but, I sure like modern plumbing and refrigeration, and wouldn't want to do without them. Then again, I know that Thoreau could not live up to his philosophy all the time and in all ways and I am fairly positive none of the others I talked about earlier did so either. If it were easy, everyone would do it. For all we know, Lao Tzu had the first ancient erotica collection and Diogenes tripped little old ladies who were standing in his light.

The Tao, in fact, is not congruent with earning a living in the modern age, and, thus, at best, virtually all but the very rarest of the rare, will have to moderate their seeking of the Way in order to get a 401K and health benefits. It is good to remember that the Way is best likened to a road, not a destination, and we may enter and exit it as life permits.

On thing I did learn about the Tao -- if you are trying too hard to understand it, you aren't doing it. Who really wants to be enlightened anyway?

About Me

My photo
I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .