Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Commedia Meditations: Swept Away By Sin

Leaving behind the quiet fields and woods of Limbo, Dante and Virgil descend into the second circle of hell.

There they encounter Minos, the mythical king of Crete who in the Aeneid is the judge of the underworld, and here serves as confessor and sentencer. An endless stream of souls approach him, confess what wrongs they have been damned for, and are then dispatched to the appropriate circle by Minos, who wraps them in the coils of his tail and hurls them downards towards their fates.

Minos challenges them, but Virgil cites the Authority under which they travel, and silences him. He and Dante then come upon the lustful, who are blown here and there on a swirling wind, carried about by the force of nature -- as they were in life.

The hellish hurricane, which never rests,
drives on the spirits with its violence:
wheeling and pounding, it harasses them.

When they come up against the ruined slope,
then there are cries and wailing and lament,
and there they curse the force of the divine.

I learned that those who undergo this torment
are damned because they sinned within the flesh,
subjecting reason to the rule of lust.
(Inf. V, 31-39)

At Dante's request Virgil identifies a number of characters out of classical mythology and history who can be seen among the swirling winds, including Helen of Troy, Paris, Dido, Achilles and Cleopatra. Dante is moved to see so many famous people, and pities their sad fate. Wanting to learn more, he calls out to two of the spirits and asks them their story. What follows is one of the most famous conversations in the Commedia, and it is worth quoting at some length:

Even as doves when summoned by desire,
borne forward by their will, move through the air
with wings uplifted, still, to their sweet nest,

those spirits left the ranks where Dido suffers
approaching us through the malignant air;
so powerful had been my loving cry.

"O living being, gracious and benign,
who through the darkened air have come to visit
our souls that stained the world with blood, if He

who rules the universe were friend to us
then we should pray to Him to give you peace
for you have pitied our atrocious state.

Whatever pleases you to hear and speak
will please us, too, to hear and speak with you,
now while the wind is silent, in this place.

The land where I was born lies on that shore
to which the Po together with the waters
that follow it descends to final rest.

Love, that can quickly seize the gentle heart,
took hold of him because of the fair body
taken from me-how that was done still wounds me.

Love, that releases no beloved from loving,
took hold of me so strongly through his beauty
that, as you see, it has not left me yet.

Love led the two of us unto one death.
Caina waits for him who took our life."
These words were borne across from them to us.
(Inf. V, 82-108)

The spirits are Francesca and Paolo. Francesca da Rimini was the aunt of one of Dante's friends and patrons. She was married to one Gianciotto for political reasons, but after marrying fell in love with her husband's brother Paolo. They became lovers, but one day Gianciotto caught them lying together and ran them both through with a sword. (Thus his likely fate in Caina: the circle deep in hell reserved for the killers and betrayers of kin.)

Dante asks Francesca how their affair began, and she replies:

"One day, to pass the time away, we read
of Lancelot-how love had overcome him.
We were alone, and we suspected nothing.

And time and time again that reading led
our eyes to meet, and made our faces pale,
and yet one point alone defeated us.

When we had read how the desired smile
was kissed by one who was so true a lover,
this one, who never shall be parted from me,

while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth.
A Gallehault indeed, that book and he
who wrote it, too; that day we read no more."

And while one spirit said these words to me,
the other wept, so that-because of pity-
I fainted, as if I had met my death.

And then I fell as a dead body falls.
(Inf. V, 127-142)

Thus Dante is overcome by pity and swoons. This is by far the most sympathetic tale we hear in the course of the Inferno, for two reasons, I think:

First, Dante as the author has designed hell as a representation of the nature of sin. The first sins that we see (lust, gluttony, spendthrifts, avarice and wrath) are all sins of the passions, and lust is in a sense the least corrupt of these, in that it consists of the mis-use of a good (love) and acts (though mis-guidedly) out of desire to please another as well as ones-self. (The more complete corruptions of sexuality, where affection of any sort is no longer present, are found much deeper in hell.)

Second, Dante as a character within the narrative is not yet resolute in his rejection of sin. Lust is a sin to which Dante himself was at times prey, and here he sides overmuch with Paolo and Francesca.

Yet, Dante the author has a message for us about the sin of lust even in this most sympathetic of narratives. Think for a moment about what we've actually heard about here. Francesca was married (however little she may have desired it) to Gianciotto, yet she allowed herself to fall in love with, and then into sin with, Paolo, her husband's brother. Yet nowhere in her narrative do we hear her or Paolo described as having any part in this. Everything is the fault of the book, his looks, her looks: anything but them. They are unrepentant, because they don't believe they did anything. Everything was done to them. Even their punishment is the result, not of their unrepented-of actions, but rather of God's disfavor towards them. This abdication of will (and with it responsibility) mirrors the sin itself, and the symbolic representation of the sin: their endless swirling in the power the wind.

When Dante awakens from his faint, he finds himself in the third circle of hell, where a cold rain pours down endlessly on the souls of those damned for gluttony, who lie in mud. Among the shades stalks Cerberus, the three headed dog of classical mythology, whose un-ending hunger mirrors the disordered appetites of those he claws and bites in the mud of the third circle.

The poets stop and Dante converses with a Florentine of his acquintance called Ciacco (the nickname means: pig). After speaking briefly of the nature of the sins for which souls are condemned to the third circle, they speak at length about the future of Florence. This if the first of a number of interludes foreshadowing the misfortunes which Dante and his political faction would face in the years to come.

In Canto VII the Dante and Virgil move down into the fourth circle of hell, where the hoarders and the spendthrifts roll giant bolders in opposite directions, taunting each other with their respective sins and smashing their boulders against each other.

Here, more than elsewhere, I saw multitudes
to every side of me; their howls were loud
while, wheeling weights, they used their chests to push.

They struck against each other; at that point,
each turned around and, wheeling back those weights,
cried out: "Why do you hoard?" "Why do you squander?"

So did they move around the sorry circle
from left and right to the opposing point;
again, again they cried their chant of scorn;

and so, when each of them had changed positions,
he circled halfway back to his next joust.
And I, who felt my heart almost pierced through,

requested: "Master, show me now what shades
are these and tell me if they all were clerics-
those tonsured ones who circle on our left."

And he to me: "All these, to left and right
were so squint-eyed of mind in the first life-
no spending that they did was done with measure.

Their voices bark this out with clarity
when they have reached the two points of the circle
where their opposing guilts divide their ranks.

These to the left-their heads bereft of hair-
were clergymen, and popes and cardinals,
within whom avarice works its excess."
(Inf. VII, 25-48)

Dante thinks he surely will be able to recognize some famous people among the avaricious, but Virgil tells him that their vice has so dirtied them (in that they grasped and kept all things of earth, while ignoring those human things that went on around them) that they are no unrecognizable, lonely in their punishment as they were in their sin.

Moving on, the poets reach the fifth circle of hell, and the last containing the sins of the passions: the river Styx, in which the wrathful fight like frothing waves, and the hateful and sullen lay beneith the water, gurgling inarticulately the hate which they always harbored yet seldom expressed in life.

On the other side of this river rise the towers and walls of the dark city of Dis, a citadel which is the stronghold of the fallen angels, and contains the deeper reaches of hell within its walls.

Phlegyas (another character from classical mythology -- he was a half-human son of the war god Ares, who was so incensed when Apollo seduced his daughter that he destroyed the temple of Apollo at Delphi, for which Apollo killed him) comes out from Dis to ferry them accross.

While we rode over the dead channel
Before me rose a figure smeared with mud
Who asked, "Who are you come before your time?"

And I told him, "I come, but do not stay.
But who are you who are made so ugly?"
He answered, "You see that I am one who weeps."

And I told him, "In weeping and in mourning,
Accursed spirit, there may you remain,
For, filthy as you are, I recognize you."

Then he stretched both his hands out to the boat.
At that my ready master shoved him off,
Saying, "Get away, with the other dogs!"

My guide then put his arms around my neck,
Kissed me, and said, "Soul of indignation,
Blessed is the woman who gave you birth!

"In the world he was a man of arrogance;
Nothing good bedecks his memory:
For that, his shade down here is furious.

"How many up there now think themselves kings
Who here shall wallow in the mud like pigs,
Bequeathing only loathsome disrepute."
(Inf. VIII, 31-51)

In the circle of the wrathful, Dante now witnesses the most destructive of the sins of passion. In part in recognition of the graver nature of wrath as compared to lust and gluttony (those condemned for which Dante felt much pity for) and in part because Dante the character his now learning to understand sin and its destructive nature more clearly, he harbors none of the sympahy for the wrathful that he did in the circles above. Virgil recognizes this as progress in Dante's path towards understanding and rejecting sin, and commends him for it.

Thanks to:

The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter

The translation, original text, and notes provided by Allen Mandelbaum

And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Where we're going, and why

Melanie B asked in a comment how it was that I came to the decision to homeschool my own children when I had such an uninspiring homeschooling experience myself.

I do believe that the concept of homeschooling is sound. The fact that my own experience left something to be desired doesn't taint the whole venture, because I also know many people who had positive homeschooling experiences. (Of course, we all know that the plural of anecdote is not data...) Chief among these influences is Darwin, whose own homeschooling was quite successful. It's probable that I would have considered homeschooling if I had married someone who had never even heard of the concept, but Darwin had practical experience, and ideas of his own based on his family's methods.

We both think we're pretty smart, and we're determined to be the primary influences on our children in terms of religion, attitudes, and modes of thought. We also both remember our early regular school years as having a lot of wasted time, rules designed for crowd-control, and unedifying playground antics. School wasn't all drudgery, but sheesh! For all the time we spent waiting for the bus (or riding it -- ugh) or standing in the lunch line or in assemblies, we could have been running around outside or reading a book or doing something real. And that, I believe, is the essence of homeschooling -- learning through real interaction, real experiences, and with real disciplinary incentives to behave. ("Wait until your father comes home" carries a lot more weight than staying in at recess.)

Between us, we have plenty of theories about education for the upper grades, for which we were both homeschooled. We don't know so much about education for younger children, and wouldn't you know, that's where we have to start. Which is why two homeschool graduates have to seek so much advice on starting out...

Feast of St. Gabriel Possenti

Since we don't have Fidei Defensor around the blogspere anymore to cover these things for us, I guess it's up to me to get up the required post in honor of the feast day of St. Gabriel Possenti.

Gabriel was the eleventh of thirteen children, born in Assisi in 1838. During his youth, one of his formative influences was a Irishman who was a training instructor for the papal army. Major O'Reilly taught the young Gabriel how to shoot, and he became quite a marksman.
In 1860, as the wars that would eventually lead to a national Italian state were raging up and down Italy, a band of deserters from Garabaldi's army were ravaging the town of Isola where Gabriel was in seminary with the Passionists. Gabriel went out, unarmed, to confront them, and after wresting a pair of revolvers from two of the soldiers, ordered the band to leave town. St. Possenti demonstrated his marksmanship by shooting a lizard that was scurrying across the road. The soldiers hurriedly left town.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Europe's going down

Hey European kids! There's a brand-new superhero looking out for you: Captain Euro!

RESUME: Born ADAM ANDROS - the only child of a famous European Ambassador and a professor of palaeontology.

Travelling the world with his parents, Adam learned to cope with the adult social world from an early age. As a child, participation in an experimental language programme, enabled Adam to become a polyglot.

Adam was investigating a series of bizarre archaeological finds when an incredible event, involving DR DAVID VIDERIUS, prompted Adam to take on the identity of CAPTAIN EURO.

Captain Euro has taken a difficult vow: "To use, wherever possible, intellect, culture and logic - not violence - to take control of difficult criminal situations." Captain Euro is a diplomatic hero - the symbol of European unity and values.

SPECIALIST SKILLS: As well as being fluent in many languages, Captain Euro, as Adam Andros, was a first class student of Information Technology. Euro combines his acquired language and technology skills with his international 'savoir faire' and his natural investigative curiosity, to protect Europe and carry Europe's message of goodwill around the world.

PERSONAL: The other members of the Twelve Stars Euro Team marvel that Captain Euro finds time for an unusual relaxing hobby. He paints European landscapes. The fingers that tap scientific data into Captain Euro's palmtop computer are often stained with paint.

CONFIDENTIAL: Captain Euro is in peak physical condition, however, whilst riding an experimental motor vehicle he suffered physical damage to his left knee. It was replaced by a metal alloy joint.

Follow the link and check out Captain Euro's Aryan teammates (with the exception of our token black male). No word on whether Team Euro's mission includes reproducing to counteract Europe's population decline...

Sent to me by Jennifer, who's too sick to post it herself.

Commedia Meditations: The Lost

Through Me Pass into the Painful City,
Through Me Pass into Eternal Grief,
Through Me Pass among the Lost People.

Justice Moved My Master-Builder:
Heavenly Power First Fashioned Me
With Highest Wisdom and with Primal Love.

Before Me Nothing Was Created That
Was Not Eternal, and I Last Eternally.
All Hope Abandon, You Who Enter Here.

These words in dim color I beheld
Inscribed on the lintel of an archway.
"Master," I said, "this saying's hard for me."

And he — as someone who understands — told me:
"Here you must give up all irresolution;
All cowardice must here be put to death.

"We are come to the place I spoke to you about
Where you shall see the sorrow-laden people,
Those who have lost the Good of the intellect."
(Inf. III, 1-18)

Thus Dante and Virgil enter hell. In the third and fourth cantos, we see two very different examples of those who are lost without hope.

Having passed through hell's gate, Dante hears the first group of suffers he will encounter on his journey:

Strange utterances, horrible pronouncements,
accents of anger, words of suffering,
and voices shrill and faint, and beating hands-

all went to make a tumult that will whirl
forever through that turbid, timeless air,
like sand that eddies when a whirlwind swirls.

And I-my head oppressed by horror-said:
"Master, what is it that I hear? Who are
those people so defeated by their pain?"

And he to me: "This miserable way
is taken by the sorry souls of those
who lived without disgrace and without praise.

They now commingle with the coward angels,
the company of those who were not rebels
nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.

The heavens, that their beauty not be lessened,
have cast them out, nor will deep Hell receive them-
even the wicked cannot glory in them."
(Inf. III, 25-42)

Soon these lost souls, who possessed neither virtue, nor even much great vice come into view: Dante sees in the distance a banner, whirling and racing to and fro, round and round in a seemingly aimless fashion. And after that banner race an innumerable croud of people, being stung by insects and weeping loudly, yet never ceasing in their pursuit of the banner.

Dante recognizes several of the people in the crowd (we're not told precisely who they are) and realizes that this crowd consists of moral cowards: those who have been denied heaven because of their sins of omission. These are people (like the angels described in the quote above, who valued themselves above their loyalty to either God or satan) who in seeking to save themselves (and valued themselves above all other things, including their duties to God and fellow man) have lost themselves. Now, these souls who were blown about by the winds of expedience during life endlessly chase a meaningless standard through the vestibule of hell.

Moving on, Dante and Virgil meet the boatman Charon, who at first refuses them passage because Dante is a living man but then is silenced by Virgil, who invokes those who have commanded this journey.

Having thus crossed the river Acheron (there are several rivers in Dante's hell, all of them drawn from classical mythology) Dante and Virgil reach the first circle of hell, which is Limbo.

My gracious teacher said, "Do you not question
Who these spirits are whom you observe?
Before you go on, I would have you know

"They did not sin: yet even their just merits
Were not enough, for they lacked baptism,
The gateway of the faith that you profess.

"And, if they lived before the Christian era,
They did not worship God in the right way:
And I myself am one of those poor souls.

"For this failure and for no other fault
Here we are lost, and our sole punishment
Is without hope to live on in desire."

Deep sorrow crushed my heart when I heard him,
Because both men and women of great worth
I knew to be suspended here in limbo.
(Inf. IV, 31-45)

Virgil tells Dante about the harrowing of hell, in which (during the three days between crucifixion and resurrection) Christ descended into hell and led out from limbo all the faithful of the Old Testament who had been waiting for the opening of heaven's gates by Christ to be united with God.

Dante then meets many of the great men of antiquity, including the luminaries of poetry with whom Virgil is accustomed to sit: Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan. Having first been walking through a forest, they come in site of a great city:

We reached the base of an exalted castle,
encircled seven times by towering walls,
defended all around by a fair stream.

We forded this as if upon hard ground;
I entered seven portals with these sages;
we reached a meadow of green flowering plants.

The people here had eyes both grave and slow;
their features carried great authority;
they spoke infrequently, with gentle voices.

We drew aside to one part of the meadow,
an open place both high and filled with light,
and we could see all those who were assembled.
(Inf. IV, 106-117)

There are some things we should notice here, I think. As Catholics we're used to being defensive about the idea of limbo. It isn't nice to think about all these people being trapped forever at a distance from God, through no fault of their own.

However, read the above in contrast to the visits to the underworld in Aeneid Book VI and even more so Odyssey Book XI, where Odysseus lures the shades of the underworld by pouring the fresh blood of two slaughtered sheep into a trench dug in the ground (a treat that the shades can hardly resist) and Odysseus must ward away dead friends and relatives with his sword, until the ghost he has come to see approaches and is allowed to first lap the blood from the trench, tasting some semblance of the life which he has lost forever.

Compared to these dark images of the afterlife, the classical souls of Dante's limbo have retained a humanity and dignity which classical authors did not imagine in the underworld. From any classical pagan perspective, they are fortunate indeed. And indeed, the seven walled and seven gated city may be taken as a symbol of the seven liberal arts. Dante conceives of limbo as a symbol of all that ancient humanism had to offer: learning, fame, and conversation with great minds beneath the trees.

And yet, these souls now know that there is much more to the world than they imagined in their lives. And in that sense, even though they have achieved what, in life, would have seemed an unimaginable paradise (compared to their expectations for the afterlife) there is an underlying sadness to their world.

This brings us to the second thing I think is important to note about the passage describing limbo, and what makes it important in Dante's path towards conversion and virtue. Dante is a poet of the budding renaissance, and as such he has been deeply absorbed in all things classical. In this portrayal of limbo as beautiful yet at root empty, I think Dante seeks to show that for all the virtues and beauties of classical humanism, it is a lost, uprooted thing if not directed toward the divine. The inhabitants of limbo certainly did not show the moral cowardice of the lost souls in the vestibule of hell, but they are lost in the sense that for all the greatness of their thought and art, they do not understand the underlying purpose and order of the world.

As such, even though theologically limbo is the resting place of those who were virtuous in their lives but were unbaptised, in the moral message of the Commedia it stands as a reminder that art, philosophy and humanism must not be pursued to the exclusion of acknowledging and worshipping God.

Thanks to:

The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter

The translation, original text, and notes provided by Allen Mandelbaum

And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Discovery Channel on the 'Jesus Family Tomb': I Fisk It Here

Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Cor 15:12-20)
Last week's reading couldn't have been a better reference to the implications of an documentary from Discovery Channel and producer James "Titanic" Cameron which purports that the bodies of Jesus and his whole family have been found in a first century tomb unearthed in a Jerusalem suburb.

Jay Anderson of Pro Ecclesia asks where the Catholic blogsphere response to this is. Well, as we all know, I love the sound of my voice as much as the average bear, so I dug up the press release sent out by the Discovery Channel via the Christian News Wire (word is that the fee was roughly thirty pieces of silver) regarding the documentary, entitled "The Lost Tomb of Jesus", which will premiere on March 4th.

Those who passed Freshman English will recall that it's important to get all your main ideas into the first paragraph, since many venues will only run that much of the press release. The Discovery Channel proffers the following:
New scientific evidence, including DNA analysis conducted at one of the world's foremost molecular genetics laboratories, as well as studies by leading scholars, suggests a 2,000-year-old Jerusalem tomb could have once held the remains of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. The findings also suggest that Jesus and Mary Magdalene might have produced a son named Judah.
Okay, DNA evidence. DNA may only be a three letter word, but we all know it's pretty powerful stuff. (Just ask O. J. Simpson.) So it's pretty cool to have such a power-word only five words into your press release, especially when the first three words are "new scientific evidence". I mean, this is big league stuff, right?

Well, let's think a moment here. What does DNA evidence accomplish? It can be used to compare to tissue samples and see if they come from individuals who are related, and if so, how closely related they are. So to prove that the remains found in this tomb belong to "Jesus of Nazareth and his family" you'd need to... compare the sample from the tomb to all the other samples we have of Jesus' body. Right? Could someone bring one of those forward? Bueller? Anyone?

Right, so what we find out later in the article is that this exciting DNA evidence is used to establish how the remains found in different ossuaries are related to each other. Which is really cool and all. But it doesn't prove any of the stuff listed in the first paragraph. So the DNA thing... just sounds cool. Sorry. No factual content here.

On with the story:

On March 28, 1980, a construction crew developing an apartment complex in Talpiot, Jerusalem, uncovered a tomb, which archaeologists from the Israeli Antiquities Authority excavated shortly thereafter. Archaeologist Shimon Gibson surveyed the site and drew a layout plan. Scholar L.Y. Rahmani later published "A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries" that described 10 ossuaries, or limestone bone boxes, found in the tomb.

Scholars know that from 30 B.C. to 70 A.D., many people in Jerusalem would first wrap bodies in shrouds after death. The bodies were then placed in carved rock tombs, where they decomposed for a year before the bones were placed in an ossuary....

Five of the 10 discovered boxes in the Talpiot tomb were inscribed with names believed to be associated with key figures in the New Testament: Jesus, Mary, Matthew, Joseph and Mary Magdalene. A sixth inscription, written in Aramaic, translates to "Judah Son of Jesus."

Great stuff, eh? I love historical background, personally. I hope you do too, because I've just included three paragraphs of it. But don't worry, there's a joke coming:
Frank Moore Cross, a professor emeritus in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, told Discovery News, "The inscriptions are from the Herodian Period (which occurred from around 1 B.C. to 1 A.D.). The use of limestone ossuaries and the varied script styles are characteristic of that time."
Ummmm. Maybe this is just me being a marketing type, but you pay to send a press release out. You're supposed to put your best foot forward. Your marcom team should have some checks and balances to make sure nothing stupid goes out. So Discover Channel: how long is the "Herodian Period"? Do you mean first century BC to first century AD? Or did the period only last two years? (Hint, Jesus was probably born between 7BC and 3BC.) Call Prof. Cross back and ask him to repeat that one for you.
Jodi Magness, associate department chair of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Discovery News that, based on the New Testament writings, "Jesus likely lived during the first century A.D."
Dr. Magness, whoever you are, you have my personal permission to get hold of whoever at Discovery News interviewed you and smack him upside the head for making you sound stupid. "Jesus likely lived during the first century A.D." Yeah. For a followup, can we try "Queen Elizabeth ruled for much of the Elizabethan Period" and "During the Ming Dynasty, the Mings ruled China"? Sigh...
In addition to the "Judah son of Jesus" inscription, which is written in Aramaic on one of the ossuaries, another limestone burial box is labeled in Aramaic with "Jesus Son of Joseph." Another bears the Hebrew inscription "Maria," a Latin version of "Miriam," or, in English, "Mary." Yet another ossuary inscription, written in Hebrew, reads "Matia," the original Hebrew word for "Matthew." Only one of the inscriptions is written in Greek. It reads, "Mariamene e Mara," which can be translated as, "Mary known as the master."

Francois Bovon, professor of the history of religion at Harvard University, told Discovery News, "Mariamene, or Mariamne, probably was the actual name given to Mary Magdalene."

Bovon explained that he and a colleague discovered a fourteenth century copy in Greek of a fourth century text that contains the most complete version of the "Acts of Philip" ever found. Although not included in the Bible, the "Acts of Philip" mentions the apostles and Mariamne, sister of the apostle Philip.

"When Philip is weak, she is strong," Bovon said. "She likely was a great teacher who even inspired her own sect of followers, called Mariamnists, who existed from around the 2nd to the 3rd century."
I suppose it's possible that "Mary the Master" just means she was really bossy... But now, we've got the "Acts of Philip" that clear it all up for us. Only problem is... the Acts of Philip were (from all evidence available) written in the 3rd century at the earliest, and likely in the 4th or 5th. They're a legendary semi-gnostic text, and assuming that they somehow contain information more reliable than the canonical gospels isn't just theologically unorthodox, it's simply poor textual scholarship. Why assume that if events are covered in a document written 150-300 years later than the other documents available, that it somehow contains better information?

Now we finally get back to the 'DNA evidence':
Jacobovici, director, producer and writer of "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," and his team obtained two sets of samples from the ossuaries for DNA and chemical analysis. The first set consisted of bits of matter taken from the "Jesus Son of Joseph" and "Mariamene e Mara" ossuaries. The second set consisted of patina -- a chemical film encrustation on one of the limestone boxes.

The human remains were analyzed by Carney Matheson, a scientist at the Paleo-DNA Laboratory at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada. Mitochondrial DNA examination determined the individual in the Jesus ossuary and the person in the ossuary linked to Mary Magdalene were not related.

Since tombs normally contain either blood relations or spouses, Jacobovici and his team suggest it is possible Jesus and Mary Magdalene were a couple. "Judah," whom they indicate may have been their son, could have been the "lad" described in the Gospel of John as sleeping in Jesus' lap at the Last Supper.
So, did they actually do any testing to confirm this theory that the "Judah" remains are from the offspring of the "Jesus" and "Mariamene" remains?

I assume that this refers to John 13:21-30. Now, I'm not running into any translation that uses the word "lad", nor am I seeing it said that the person in question fell asleep. But it is the case that as Jesus talks about how he will be betrayed "the disciple whom he loved" laid his head down in his lap, and asks him who it is who will betray him. But has this personage been a mystery until the Discover Channel and James Cameron came along? No. This person is: John, who never refers to himself by name, but always refers to himself as "another apostle" or "the apostle whom Jesus loved" or some such.

And the DNA evidence proves... That two of the sets or remains aren't related. That's it. Okay. So they're not related. I won't argue with that one. But in what field other than speculative biblical scholarship would these other wild leaps be tolerated? None that I know of.

But wait. There's more. We haven't dealt with the "statistical evidence":
A possible argument against the Talpiot Tomb being the Jesus Family Tomb is that the collection of names on the ossuary inscriptions could be coincidental.

But Andrey Feuerverger, professor of statistics and mathematics at the University of Toronto, recently conducted a study addressing the probabilities that will soon be published in a leading statistical journal.

Feuerverger multiplied the instances that each name appeared during the tomb's time period with the instances of every other name. He initially found "Jesus Son of Joseph" appeared once out of 190 times, Mariamne appeared once out of 160 times and so on.

To be conservative, he next divided the resulting numbers by 25 percent, a statistical standard, and further divided the results by 1,000 to attempt to account for all tombs -- even those that have not been uncovered -- that could have existed in first century Jerusalem.

The study concludes that the odds are at least 600 to 1 in favor of the Talpiot Tomb being the Jesus Family Tomb. In other words, the conclusion works 599 times out of 600.
Well, internet searches can't turn up anything about this paper, and it's not listed on his website here. However, from the description given above, I have a question: Does his analysis of the likelihood of these names all ending up in a tomb assume that this "Mariamne" person is in fact a member of Jesus' family unit, that he had a son named Judah and a brother named Joseph, etc?

If so, what sort of cart before the horse exercise are we performing here? To my knowledge, the is no source out there that lists precisely this family configuration. And so, one would think that finding a "Jesus son of Joseph" in company with a "Judah son of Jesus" and a "Mariamne" would suggest that the person found is not the person described in the extant sources, not that he is. How does the likelihood of finding these names in combination "prove" this is Jesus' tomb, when there's no reason (other than the tomb) to believe that a combination of names such as this would indicate the Jesus of the Gospels anyway?

All of which leaves aside the question of: If Jesus and his family were so obviously buried all together in a well marked tomb outside of town (and unless somehow they all died at once it would have had to be a known family tomb that people were added to over time) how the heck do you have 1st century sources such as Paul (with whose first letter to the Corinthians I began) getting off claiming that Jesus clearly rose from the dead? One can't assume that those living in the 1st century were stupid or incurious -- and yet if they weren't absolute maroons, how could they become convinced (to the death in the case of nearly all the apostles) that Jesus had risen from the dead, when he was in fact buried with his whole family right outside of town?

All of which leaves us with the question: What kind of crack are they smoking at the Discover Channel these days? And why aren't they sharing?

Friday, February 23, 2007

In Which Darwin Describes His Homeschooling Years

It seems that the honorable MrsD has signed me up to provide my own retrospective of my homeschooling experience, so here it goes...

Initially, my mom started out homeschooling only my younger brother, the middle of the three children. He was very smart, but didn't fit in well with standard classroom technique in the 1st grade, and so after trying several different programs for him without our parish school and then the local public school, she started teaching him at home. This was in the mid eighties, and homeschooling was still relatively new. (I think mom was pretty much the first in her group of friends to start homeschooling, though others followed not long after.)

Her big concern was making sure that she covered everything, so there was a lot of use of "what your second grader needs to know" type books, and for each of us she used Calvert up through 8th grade, though with more and more substitutions as she became more comfortable with customizing the curriculum.

As time went by, the stress of having two kids in the parish school while one kid was homeschooled mounted, and my folks were getting increasingly unimpressed with the quality of the parochial education they were paying for. Classes tended to be pretty large (my 5th grade class had 43 kids in it) and progress was necessarily at the speed of the average to slow end of the spectrum. Meanwhile, I was becoming increasingly disrespectful of school authority, since I could easily pick things up in the first day or two of a unit, and then check out for the following several weeks while still getting top grades.

After a particularly tempestuous 5th grade year for me, my parents decided to pull both me and my sister (the youngest) out of school and homeschool the lot of us.

The transition took some work, and having the structure of using Calvert was probably very important for me the first couple years. I'd been used to having a (usually one-sided-ly) adversarial relationship with my teacher, and measuring success based on how I did versus my peers, neither one of which was helpful in a homeschooling situation.

I was a very independent type, and using the Calvert manuals and texts for most subjects (with Saxon for math) I was able to keep to myself and make my own schedule so long as I hit basic deadlines.

By the time we decided to keep homeschooling me through high school (that's a long story in itself -- but the short version is that the Catholic high schools in the area were all either academically pathetic or empty of any Catholic identity) I had got over my bad attitude and my parents felt confident in striking out on their own in curriculum development. (Besides, there really wasn't anything very good out there for high school in the way of set curriculums.)

What they came up with was:
Math: Algebra 1 - Calculus (Saxon)
Science: General, Physics, Chemistry, Biology
Language: Latin (Wheelock followed by Caesar and Virgil)
Humanities Program: A great books-type reading list plus a history text for each year, running from ancient to modern over four years.
(plus assorted religion, logic, art history etc. thrown as a side dish)

Academically it was very, very good, and since I generally had week-level goals, I got very used to scheduling out my own assignments in a way that was good practice for college work.

The main areas of frustration with my own homeschooling experience mainly had to do with (brace yourselves, folks) socialization. Perhaps partly because the homeschooling movement was still comparatively young, the only Catholic homeschool group we were able to find that had any other kids my age in it was 70+ miles away or Orange County. (Yes, that Orange County, but it's not like the show.) Since my mom didn't know how to drive until I taught her how right before leaving for college, we didn't tend to get out there much until I was old enough to drive. And even then, it was too far to carry on too much activity.

Not that things were totally isolated. I was in the Boy Scouts till I got my Eagle. But I did seriously miss the opportunity to belong to school clubs, drama productions, and generally see people I wasn't related to more than once a week.

Commedia Meditations: Lost in Sin & The Power of Intercession

As I mentioned in the first of the Lenten series on the Divine Comedy, the opening of the poem finds Dante on the morning of Good Friday, lost in a dark wood, gone far astray from the straight path which leads towards salvation.

I cannot clearly say how I had entered
the wood; I was so full of sleep just at
the point where I abandoned the true path.

But when I'd reached the bottom of a hill-
it rose along the boundary of the valley
that had harassed my heart with so much fear-

I looked on high and saw its shoulders clothed
already by the rays of that same planet*
which serves to lead men straight along all roads.
(Inf. I, 10-18)
*the sun

The sun is rising in the East, traditionally the direction of paradise, and Dante sets off towards it, struggling over the rugged terrain.

Before long, however, Dante finds his progress checked by a succession of three wild beasts: first a leapord, then a lion, and finally a she-wolf.

These three creatures represent the sins by which Dante has found himself led astray, and which now block his return to the straight road towards salvation. Different commentators give various opinions as to which sins the beasts correspond to. My personal opinion is that the leopard ("very quick and lithe, a leopard covered with a spotted hide") represents sins of desire/passion, perhaps specifically lust. The lion ("His head held high and ravenous with hunger") represents pride, while the she-wolf ("she seemed to carry every craving in her leanness") represents greed. Blocked from progress by his attachment to sin, Dante despairs.

The very sight of her so weighted me
with fearfulness that I abandoned hope
of ever climbing up that mountain slope.
(Inf. I, 52-54)

It is at this point that Dante meets the spirit who will be his guide through the first to stages of his journey, the Roman poet Virgil. Once he has recognized this newcomer, he asks him for help.

You see the beast that made me turn aside;
help me, o famous sage, to stand against her,
for she has made my blood and pulses shudder,"

"It is another path that you must take,"
he answered when he saw my tearfulness,
"if you would leave this savage wilderness;

the beast that is the cause of your outcry
allows no man to pass along her track,
but blocks him even to the point of death;
(Inf. I, 88-96)

Therefore, I think and judge it best for you
to follow me, and I shall guide you, taking
you from this place through an eternal place,

where you shall hear the howls of desperation
and see the ancient spirits in their pain,
as each of them laments his second death;

and you shall see those souls who are content
within the fire, for they hope to reach-
whenever that may be-the blessed people.
(Inf. I, 112-120)

Dante's path is blocked by his attachment to sin, and while that attachment persists, he can make no progress. Virgil will, thus, take him on a grand tour of the afterlife. Going through hell he will come to understand the true nature of sin, and to reject it. Then, travelling through purgatory he will and thence to heaven, he will come to understand virtue. They set out together on their journey.

As they walk, Dante begins again to fear, and asks Virgil how he, a living and obviously sinful man, can hope to go through the pits of hell and yet be allowed to leave again. Newly conscious of his sin, Dante fears that he will be trapped in hell forever.

Virgil reassures him by explaining how this journey is under the protection of heaven, and originated through the intercession of the Virgin Mary. The lady Beatrice (a woman to whom Dante had a deep and chaste devotion, who had died some years before) came to Virgil in limbo with the request:

'O spirit of the courteous Mantuan,
whose fame is still a presence in the world
and shall endure as long as the world lasts,

my friend, who has not been the friend of fortune,
is hindered in his path along that lonely
hillside; he has been turned aside by terror.

From all that I have heard of him in Heaven,
he is, I fear, already so astray
that I have come to help him much too late.
(Inf. II, 58-66)

Beatrice then went on to explain to Virgil how this request was due to the intercession of the Virgin Mary:

In Heaven there's a gentle lady-one
who weeps for the distress toward which I send you,
so that stern judgment up above is shattered.

And it was she who called upon Lucia,
requesting of her: "Now your faithful one
has need of you, and I commend him to you."

Lucia, enemy of every cruelty,
arose and made her way to where I was,
sitting beside the venerable Rachel.
(Inf. II, 94-102)

Thus, as Dante is about to set out on the path which will show him harrowing images of God's justice, we hear that this journey itself is the result of intercessory prayer (and specifically the gentle hand of the Virgin, who saw Dante in his extremety) which like a beacon on shore, is leading Dante across the troubled waters that, were he left unaided, would certainly have consumed him.

Dante is moved, and finds his courage once again. He announces himself ready to make the pilgrimage assigned to him.

"O she, compassionate, who has helped me!
And you who, courteous, obeyed so quickly
the true words that she had addressed to you!

You, with your words, have so disposed my heart
to longing for this journey-I return
to what I was at first prepared to do.

Now go; a single will fills both of us:
you are my guide, my governor, my master."
These were my words to him; when he advanced

I entered on the steep and savage path.
(Inf. II, 136-142)

Thanks to:

The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter

The translation, original text, and notes provided by Allen Mandelbaum

And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Where I'm coming from

Amidst all this talk of educational philosophy, I thought it might be germane to the issue to share some of my own homeschooling experience.

My parents began homeschooling when I was in fourth grade. They were increasingly wary of both the quality of the local public schools (this was rural Virginia, and at the time there wasn't a Catholic school until you reached Roanoke, an hour and a half off) and of the quality of the CCD classes in Bishop Sullivan's diocese in the mid-80s. At that time, the popular resurgence of homeschooling was in its infancy, and the vast store of resources currently available (including the wealth of advice on the internet) weren't so easy to find then. I recall that my mom had Mary Pride's Big Book of Homeschooling (or some such title) and that was about it.

We started off using the Seton Home Study program. Seton is dense and busy and is designed, I think, to simulate a strictly regulated private school with numerous defined study periods. This was not a good fit for my family. The initial excitement of opening the boxes and oohing over the neat stacks of books quickly gave way to a low-level despair. We kids chafed under the quantities of busy work (as did my parents, I think). We quickly fell behind the lesson plan, and stayed behind. We did lots of work without gaining all that much education.

Honestly, I don't think that harmed us. We lived in the country and could run around outdoors a good deal of the time. We had no TV. We read lots of books, enjoyed trips to the library, took piano lessons, and started going to daily Mass. My dad had been a forestry major, and he took the family on mountain hikes. Besides the underlying frustration of always being "behind in our schoolwork", life was fairly pleasant.

Eventually we moved to Cincinnati, dropped Seton, and began using whatever old Catholic school textbooks we stumbled across. Classwork became looser and looser until, by my senior year, I had no assignments, no oversight, and no instruction. I knew that my friends who went to school (which was most of them -- I was one of the oldest kids in the rapidly growing homeschooling group) thought that I was smarter than they were. We were actively involved with the large local Catholic homeschooling group. There was no question of us not being socialized (as if that had ever been an issue!). But I had no idea what I should be doing to prepare for college, if I was even going.

The one aspect of our homeschooling day that was very consistent was religious education -- one of my parents' primary reasons for homeschooling. My dad led us in a bible study each morning, and we often attended daily mass. We did lots of volunteer work because we were free during business hours. We had many excellent resources at our fingertips and were surrounded by knowledgeable Catholics who loved to discuss their faith. As I've said, religious education was one of the primary reasons for my parents' decision to homeschool, and on that front they were dedicated, consistent and informed. On that front, their homeschooling was a success.

On other fronts, I'm not so sure. If someone had laid out Charlotte Mason's principles of education to my mother, I think she would have exclaimed, "That's what we're doing!" But that's not necessarily so. It seems that Charlotte Mason called for the active involvement of the educator, and as we grew older my mother became more and more removed from our course of studies, in the "just do your work and get out of my hair" style. Most of this was for reasons unrelated to education. She had some deep personal problems and became extremely depressed and unstable, causing immense family stress. But the events and the strain of that situation have certainly left me with a negative impression of our family's homeschooling, without which I might have been inclined to describe us as "charmingly unorganized" or "lite but harmless".

Perhaps I'm unfair in my assessment of our schooling -- after all, my siblings and I are all mature, intelligent adults (or are in the process of becoming so) who have gone on to acheive our fair measure of academic excellence in more traditional settings. But it seems to me that homeschooling should be about more than just turning out functional products. There has to be a base of stability and of trust -- the child has to be able to trust parents, trust his education, trust that he is being educated and that this education really is superior to the available options. Certainly, from this vantage point it seems that none of us were harmed (at least educationally, at any rate) by our homeschooling experience. But then, to not be harmed seems rather a low bar.

Next up: Darwin talks about his generally positive homeschooling experience!
(I have to say how humbling and yet refreshing it is to discover, through the process of editing jumbled thoughts into a concise statement, what is is that one really thinks.)

Should Republicans Lose to Win?

Jonah Goldberg had and interesting piece on National Review Online last week, where he toyed with the question of whether it might in some sense be better for the overall conservative goal of winning the War on Terror if a Democrat won in 2008. Now, before anyone goes for Jonah's jugular, let me emphasize "toyed with":
There is an idea out there. Perhaps not a fully formed one. Perhaps more like the whisper of one gusting like a sudden draft through the rafters of the conservative house, causing some to look toward the attic and ask fearfully, "What was that?"

This wisp of a notion is simply this: Maybe a Democrat should win in 2008.

Personally, I don’t believe in this poltergeist, at least not yet. But every now and then, I must confess, I do shiver from its touch.

The idea goes something like this: If you believe that the war on terror is real — really real — then you think it is inevitable that more and bloodier conflicts with radical Islam are on the way, regardless of who is in the White House. If the clash of civilizations is afoot, then the issues separating Democrats and Republicans are as pressing as whether the captain of the Titanic is going to have fish or chicken for dinner. There’s a showdown coming. Period. Full stop. My task isn’t to convince you that this view is correct (though I basically believe it is), but merely that it is honestly and firmly held by many on the right and by a comparative handful on the left.

And that’s the problem: Only a handful of people on the Left — and far too few liberals — see radical Islamists as a bigger threat than George W. Bush. Which is why if you really think that we are in an existential conflict with a deadly enemy, there’s a good case for the Democrats to take the reins. Not because Democrats are better, wiser or more responsible about foreign policy. That’s a case for Democrats to make about themselves and certainly not one many on the right believe. No, the argument, felt in places we don’t talk about at cocktail parties (vide A Few Good Men), is that the Democrats have been such irresponsible backseat drivers that they have to be forced to take the wheel to grasp how treacherous the road ahead is....
A couple things struck me about the strand of thought that Jonah is describing.

First, while I think that the (in-aptly named, I believe) War on Terror is serious business and a serious threat to civilization (the prospect of jihadists ending up armed with poison gas, bio-weapons or nukes is not the least bit funny) there's a certain alarmism that strikes me as stemming from lack of historical perspective.

The tides of Islam were a major military threat to Western Civilization for most of the 800+ years from the time when Charles Martel (or in the vulgar tongue: Charlie the Hammer) stopped the Umayyads from extending their Spanish holdings into France till Don John of Austria defeated the Turkish fleet at Lepanto in 1571, marking the beginning of the Ottoman Empire's gradual decline, which slowly turned the Islamic world's reputation in the West from that of a feared enemy to that of an exotic and charming backwater suitable for the collection of objects d'arte and for colonial administration.

That the West for the last four centuries vastly outpaced Dar al Islam in regards to political and technological development did not, however, de-claw the tiger. If anything, it made it resentful. Nor has the culture of the West become more amenable to the ideals of the Koran. Indeed, the modern West must look rather more an enemy than medieval Christendom did, if that is possible. I doubt that the mullas of the middle ages and renaissance saw and feared signs of creeping Westernism among their faithful. Thus, while the presence of infidel kingdoms was always offensive, the modern West must seem a greater threat.

All of which underlines that I do think that the 'War on Terror' is serious business. But I don't think it's new business. Nor do I see it as likely that it will be "won" in any permanent sense in the foreseeable future, short of actions too terrible to contemplate. The best I can envision is that Dar al Islam will achieve sufficient economic prosperity and theological stability that the forces within it which emphasize the "greater jihad" (the internal struggle for one's own perfection in holiness) over the "lesser jihad" (the spread of the faith by means of war) will be able to suppress the forces which prefer open war.

Which in turn brings me back to the question of whether uniting the country in its prosecution of the "War on Terror" should be such an overwhelming consideration in the coming election cycle that conservatives shouldn't mind seeing Hillary or Obama in the white house, if that means that most of the liberal half of the political spectrum will learn that fighting and winning the war is important.

I don't think this line of thinking works for two reasons:

First, I think that even more important than making sure that the West is not defeated ("winning" in the final sense doesn't look like an option to me in the near term) is making sure that the West is something worth saving. There are some very deep open questions right now in America as to what constitutes life, marriage, education, freedom, responsibility and how our religious and philosophical ideals should relate to our public lives. Certainly, the 'culture war' will not be lost in one fell swoop with the entrance of a liberal presidential administration -- but I don't think that losing a battle becomes a good thing simply because it isn't losing a war.

Secondly, I have serious doubts as to whether a liberal president (whom we shall assume for the sake of argument would soon realize that prosecuting the War on Terror was in fact highly important) would actually prove a focal point for uniting the American people in that fight. Rather, I think that we'd see much more vocal isolationism (both political: "it's a local Middle Eastern issue" and moral: "they only hate those godless liberals, it's not our problem") from the more extreme elements of the right, while the liberal base would remain split between those who don't mind a war so long as it is quick, easy and not led by Bush, and those who are against it no matter what.

The only thing that would bring about an FDR-era-like unity would be an attack so severe that 80% of the country would temporarily unite in seeking redress. (And even during WWII, there was more domestic political wrangling than the popular imagination seems to think.) And that temporary unity (as was seen after 9/11) could be achieved under either party -- a Democrat is not required.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

She knows what I want

CMinor took the bait and has produced a very nutritious post entitled My Life as a Homeschooler, Part I. My master plan of appearing intelligent through appropriating the ideas of great minds is progressing nicely, thank you.
Yeah, I guess I know what you mean about homeschooling philosophies--it's been an interesting evolutionary process. Fifteen years ago when I was still thinking about homeschooling, my mentors were mostly the wild and wooly unschoolers that still predominated in the movement and with few exceptions even the canned curricula strove to avoid the too school-y model. Lately on the few occasions I hang out with local homeschoolers (I'm not trying to be antisocial, but we've really got too much else going on) it seems everybody's on workbook packages and video courses. There's something about the idea of sitting your kid in front of the tube all day--even for educational lectures--that just grates on me. Even if you're schooling primarily for religious reasons, it seems to me there are better alternatives to "school at home" with an electronic tutor, yet!
This touches tangentially on something I've been chewing on for a while. I'm not delighted with the huge packaged curriculum programs I've run across, and specifically, I'm not delighted with what I've seen of their implementation in a homeschool environment. It seems (the BIG DISCLAIMER here to let everyone know that I'm not passing judgment, just articulating an observation) that these big programs make it a bit too easy to make the education process very hands-off for mom. But how can that be? you ask. Mom's at home all day. The kids are right there in the kitchen, doing their workbooks and their chapter fives and their coloring pages. And yet... opening the workbook to the assigned page, reading off the instructions, and then saying, "Okay, let's get this done by 11:00" while turning back to the phone call in progress -- heck, Junior might as well be at school. And (BIG DISCLAIMER again) I wonder if these programs fall into the "almost real school" category. The books are almost like textbooks at a real school! But without the "content"! St. Aloysius uses this math book! Our Lady of the Uber-Elite Academy uses this book, and they cost $12,000 a year!

This is vicarious education. This is "I would really rather send my kids to Catholic schools but I can't afford it/they might be corrupted". Undoubtedly Catholic schools are expensive. Undoubtedly there are bad apples even in the most orthodox settings who may teach your child uncouth habits, though a strong parental influence can lessen or overcome many of these types of ills. But homeschooling should be so much more than education on the cheap. And generations of Catholic mothers have impressed their values on their offspring despite oppressive educational conditions. Even the best Catholic schools won't be successful in imparting a religious spark if those lessons and values aren't lived and reinforced actively at home.

Lenten Meditations on the Divine Comedy

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

MIDWAY upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
(Inf. I, 1-3)

As a Lenten feature here on Darwin Catholic, we're going to be writing a series of posts on Dante's Divine Comedy.

The Divine Comedy is one of the great artistic inheritances of Catholicism, and yet although many people have heard of it, I don't know if its power as a spiritual work is nearly as frequently known. The famous part of the Commedia is of course the Inferno, Dante's account of a tour through hell guided by the Roman poet Virgil. It's the first of the three parts of the three parts, so many classes simply don't get any farther. It also features grim descriptions of eternal punishment in places, and so it fits well with the "fire and brimstone" image of religious belief. Perhaps the most standard understanding of Dante is: He was a medieval Italian who wrote a set of poems about the afterlife. He put his enemies under horrible tortures in hell, and later he showed his friends in purgatory and heaven.

However, this misses the spiritual importance of what Dante was trying to achieve with his greatest work. This first piece will, thus, be a brief introduction to the Commedia and an explanation of why I think it's so eminently suitable for a set of Lenten meditations.

The Commedia was written during the years from 1308 through Dante's death in 1321, during which time Dante was living in exile from his native Florence, having ended up on the wrong side of a political feud. However, the poem itself is set in 1300, a Jubilee year proclaimed by Pope Boniface VIII, when Dante was 35-years-old and at the height of his career as a city political figure in Florence. The poem begins on the morning of Good Friday and the three poems trace through the Triduum of that Jubilee year.

The poem is, at root, about conversion, and the path to personal salvation and union with God. In the poem's opening, Dante realizes (as one waking from a sleep) that he long ago left the straight path towards heaven, and finds himself lost in a dark wood and beset by beasts that represent the vices of lust, pride and greed.

He is rescued by Virgil, the Roman poet and Dante's artistic and intellectual patron, and is taken on a tour of the afterlife in order to help him return to the path towards salvation. Journeying through hell and later purgatory, Dante meets a number of historical people, who illustrate the various states of sin and repentance.

An important thing to remember, however, is that Dante's placing of certain well known (at the time) people in hell was not simply a spiritual grudge match. Dante used the examples of famous people to illustrate the acts for which they were known, as if a modern American author placed Nixon in hell for lying or Hugh Hefner among the 'panderers and seducers'. Some of Dante's most sympathetic character portraits are found in the Inferno, as Dante comes to understand the nature of sin and why even some of his friends are among the damned.

Having reached the deepest pits of hell, Dante then climbs the mountain of purgatory, in which souls expiate the sins in which they died before entering into eternal bliss, and finally ascends into the spheres of heaven, where the Commedia ends with a vision of God: "the Love that moves the sun and the other stars."

I'll be doing roughly two posts a week in the Dante series throughout Lent, with each post covering a thematic section of the Commedia, working from the beginning of the Inferno through Purgatorio and Paradiso.

My goal here is both to underline the spiritual beauty of Dante's work, and also to provide an introduction for those who haven't read Dante, or have only read a few bits and felt it wasn't for them. Steeped as it is in medieval Italian culture and events, the Divine Comedy is not the sort of work best appreciated by picking it up and reading it without introduction or notes. The poem itself is indeed supremely beautiful, but I certainly felt like I didn't appreciate it until I'd had the chance to take classes in it, and read it with a good set of commentaries.

Feedback is, of course, welcome.

Thanks to:
The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter

The translation, original text, and notes provided by Allen Mandelbaum

And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Alright, a homeschooling question

Who is Charlotte Mason?

Yes, yes, I've heard of wikipedia. The internets are my friend. But the local library, to which I turned to find some resources on or by Miss Mason, has nothing. So I'm doing what real people do: I'm asking friends to give me the low-down and tell me whether home-education Mason-style is something worth researching.

I've been doing some educational reading lately. Darwin and I were both homeschooled, and as such, have felt no need to find some kind of philosophy to bolster our own decision to homeschool. I know that homeschooling works, and that most fools can do it with a moderate degree of success, and I don't need to justify it to my mother-in-law. We have plenty of ideas about what constitutes a good education and what one ought to know in order to consider oneself "educated".

Now I hear a friend talk about the Montessori method and I realize that I have no idea what Montessori education is. Various bloggers throw out references to the educational philosophies of Charlotte Mason, and I don't know what they're talking about. I've read Dorothy Sayers's essay on the Trivium and I like it, but I haven't done much serious thinking about how to implement her ideas.

Part of this lack of research, perhaps, is that my children are still very young -- too young, really for formal school work. I want to be doing something, but I'm finding that at this age formal schoolwork is a frustrating proposition for both mother and child. My oldest is about to turn five, and I'm only just now seeing a real readiness in her to sit and do schooolwork -- a quality that was lacking during our year-long haul through a kindergarten math workbook and the 100 Easy Lessons. I've been working with my 3 1/2-year-old on the 100 Easy Lessons, but I've realized that I want her to read early because reading is important to me. On the one hand she is learning the sounds of her letters; on the other, she doesn't seem quite ready to put the sounds together into words.

I don't want this to turn into a long rambling post, but as Noogs approaches kindergarten age, I want to have the resources to give her what I consider a good education. I've dabbled a bit in educational philosophy; now it's time to get serious about using the resources that are out there.

Natural Child Spacing

...That's when the space between you and your spouse is taken up by three girls and a cat.

Matthew Lickona's ever-hilarious commenters have created a motivational poster to illustrate his aphorism on the topic.

Monday, February 19, 2007

100 Book Meme

A List of Books: Look at the list of books below. Bold the ones you’ve read, italicize the ones you want to read, cross out the ones you won’t touch with a 10 foot pole, underline the ones on your book shelf, and asterisk* the ones you’ve never heard of.

***Those that are partially bolded were partially read. :)

1. The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown)
2. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
3. To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
4. Gone With The Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
5. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Tolkien)
6. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (Tolkien)
7. The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers (Tolkien)

8. Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery)
9. Outlander (Diana Gabaldon)
10. A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry) *
11. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire(Rowling)
12. Angels and Demons (Dan Brown)
13. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Rowling)
14. A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving)

15. Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden)
16. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Rowling)
17. Fall on Your Knees (Ann-Marie MacDonald) *
18. The Stand (Stephen King)
19. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban(Rowling)
20. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)
21. The Hobbit (Tolkien)
22. The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
23. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
24. The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold)
25. Life of Pi (Yann Martel)
26. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams) -- but I've heard all of it.
27. Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
28. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis)
29. East of Eden (John Steinbeck)
30. Tuesdays with Morrie (Mitch Albom)
31. Dune (Frank Herbert)
32. The Notebook (Nicholas Sparks)
33. Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand)
34. 1984 (Orwell)
35. The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley)
36. The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett)*
37. The Power of One (Bryce Courtenay)*
38. I Know This Much is True (Wally Lamb)*
39. The Red Tent (Anita Diamant)
40. The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)*
41. The Clan of the Cave Bear (Jean M. Auel)
42. The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)*
43. Confessions of a Shopaholic (Sophie Kinsella)*
44. The Five People You Meet In Heaven (Mitch Albom)
45. Bible
46. Anna Karenina (Tolstoy)

47. The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas)
48. Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt)
49. The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)
50. She’s Come Undone (Wally Lamb)*
51. The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)*
52. A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens)
53. Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card)
54. Great Expectations (Dickens)
55. The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)

56. The Stone Angel (Margaret Laurence) *
57. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Rowling)
58. The Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough)
59. The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
60. The Time Traveller’s Wife (Audrew Niffenegger)*
61. Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
62. The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand)
63. War and Peace (Tolstoy)
64. Interview With The Vampire (Anne Rice)
65. Fifth Business (Robertson Davis)
66. One Hundred Years Of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
67. The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants (Ann Brashares)
68. Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)
69. Les Miserables (Hugo)
70. The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
71. Bridget Jones’ Diary (Fielding)
72. Love in the Time of Cholera (Marquez)
73. Shogun (James Clavell)
74. The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje)
75. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
76. The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay)*
77. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)
78. The World According To Garp (John Irving)
79. The Diviners (Margaret Laurence)*
80. Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)
81. Not Wanted On The Voyage (Timothy Findley)*
82. Of Mice And Men (Steinbeck)
83. Rebecca (Daphne DuMaurier)
84. Wizard’s First Rule (Terry Goodkind)*
85. Emma (Jane Austen)
86. Watership Down (Richard Adams)
87. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)

88. The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)*
89. Blindness (Jose Saramago)*
90. Kane and Abel (Jeffrey Archer)*
91. In The Skin Of A Lion (Ondaatje)*
92. Lord of the Flies (Golding)
93. The Good Earth (Pearl S. Buck)
94. The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd)*
95. The Bourne Identity (Robert Ludlum)
96. The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton)
97. White Oleander (Janet Fitch)
98. A Woman of Substance (Barbara Taylor Bradford)*
99. The Celestine Prophecy (James Redfield)
100. Ulysses (James Joyce)

h/t Entropy

Myth and Reality in Al-Andalus

Razib has an interesting post over at Gene Expression (classic) about the legend of reality of tolerance vs. intolerance in medieval Spain:
A few months ago a friend made an offhand comment about how they were on the side of the "Andalusian model." His assumption was that Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain, was far superior in its method of dealing with religious pluralism than Christian Spain. I've read a fair amount of popular & scholarly work on this period and region, and the reality is more complex than the hype. The friend holds a Ph.D. in a social science from Harvard and has a position as an assistant professor at a moderately elite university. He isn't an uintelligent individual. I tried to communicate to him a few general points:

1) Religious pluralism was a reality in both Christian and Muslim Spain

2) Subordination at the expense of the religion promoted by the the elite was the norm throughout this period

3) Persecution of Jews occurred both in Muslim & Christian Spain

4) One can see a general trend where the dominant religion, whether it be Christianity or Islam, tends to become less tolerant when its numbers are great enough to dispense with accommodation with the majority (or what has become a minority)
There follows some more good analysis about the dynamics at play during various periods in the history of medieval Spain, and their effect on the degree of 'tolerance' that was exhibited. His closing is also important to note:
Which brings me to my final point: attitudes and sentiments about Muslim Spain are not about history or an analysis of the data, they are about the beliefs we hold about the modern world in regards to the values we deem to be precious. That is, my friend, scholar though he is, was not really interested in the nature of life in medieval Spain, he was making a comment about his adherence to the principle of religious toleration and the separation of church & state. Muslim Spain is simply a notional marker, a signal, the historical details are pretty much irrelevant, it is the legend that matters. I bring my friend's educational qualifications up because this is a person who is intellectual in orientation, but in hindsight I realize that bringing up the minutiae of historical detail is pointless, and fundamentally a distraction for him. The history is grist for the mill of ideology, not a thing in and of itself.
This dynamic is seen over and over again in how different cultures treat the history of other cultures which they identify with in some specific way. One of the examples that stands out to me, with a classics background, is the idea of the Athenians, and it's evolution through the last few hundred years in the imaginations of English and American authors.

Being one of the first democracies in the history of the world, Athens has always had a special place in the imaginations of Western countries that treasure democratic ideals. And yet, the Athens of British and American imagination often looses much the of the alien, pre-Christian and imperialistic tendencies that the real city state in fact possessed. This is not to say that there is nothing worthy of emulating to be found in ancient Athens, but rather that it's important to distinguish the place itself (in both its glory and imperfections) from the lessons that we have drawn from it.

Doing and Doing Without

Borrowed from Rich Leonardi:

Things that I haven't done that I hope to do:

(1) Design and have built our own house, on a decent sized piece of land, with no HOA in sight.
(2) Read the Iliad in Greek (though this becomes diminishingly likely as each year results in more forgotten Greek vocabulary and grammar).
(3) Have a book published. (Or course, this requires actively getting back to writing...)
(4) Finish reading A Dance to the Music of Time. (After five years, I've read 9.5 out of the 12 novels.)
(5) Go on vacation with just my wife.

Things that I haven't done that I can do without:

(1) Own a big screen TV.
(2) Read something by Ayn Rand.
(3) Upgrade to Windows Vista.
(4) Keep a dog.
(5) Have a playstation, xbox, etc. under my roof.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Dawkins and the Evil Gene

I suppose I shouldn't use Dawkins' writing as a jumping off point for so many posts. It has a certain shooting-fish-in-a-barrel quality. But while I generally consider it bad form to use the antics of a Michael Savage or Al Franken type as fodder for commentary (on the theory that if one goes into the loony bin for material, one always finds it) Dawkins is considered a terribly clever person my a large number of people. So for the time being I shall continue to indulge myself.

In this case, the fodder consists of an article I noted some time back, but didn't have the chance to blog about at the time. When Saddam Hussein was executed, a number of people had their say as to why it should not have happened. Dawkins, however, had an unusual reaction, he felt that one of the main reasons why Hussein should have been spared was in order to provide a research subject into why some people are evil:
Most people can't even come close to understanding how any man could be so cruel as Hitler or Saddam Hussein, or how such transparently evil monsters could secure sufficient support to take over an entire country.... We don't have a clear answer to these questions. We need to do the research.... It is in the nature of research on ruthless national dictators that the sample size is small. Wasn't the judicial destruction of one of the very few research subjects we had – and a prime specimen at that – an act of vandalism?
To a lot of people, this probably sounds foolish right on the face of it. Why were Hitler and Hussein evil? Because they chose to be. Everyone makes choices in life, many choose well, some choose very, very badly.

However, there's another whole school of thought which much more closely follows Dawkins' line of thinking here, though perhaps not often with the scientistic trappings he introduces. It's common to hear Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc. referred to as "madmen" and for people to wonder aloud if there is some deep-seated, even genetic, defect in certain nationalities which makes them subject to a willingness to follow a dictator into terrible deeds.

This is too brief a post to launch into the whole question of whether there can be said to be a single "human nature" which all people have in common. However, there is certainly a respectable intellectual tradition which maintains that there is, and that thus someone who does terrible deeds not because he possesses some nature wholly different from us "ordinary people" but because he makes difference choices than we do.

Dawkins seems implicitly to hold to a deterministic view of human nature and morality. And yet, in this view, is there really very much to learn from history? Perhaps if one could perform enough 'research' to map out based on each person's genetic inputs and experiences and thus extrapolate what that person is likely to do in society, one could then deal with each person accordingly. But there is no lesson of personal responsibility, no "Having seen that others followed charismatic leaders into terrible deeds, I must be aware of what lurks below the rhetoric and national feeling of our choices."

This world view, I think, does not make intuitive sense to many people. Most of us feel instinctively that others humans throughout history are the same sort of creatures, in essentials, as we are. And that what separates us from history's heroes and monsters is not nature, but action. And if this is so, the great criminals of history do not need to be studied, but rather judged.