Monthly Archives: September 2011

Personal: Echoes of Solitude

I have, as of late, avoided posts of a personal nature. In part, I think that’s because I’ve tended to have a less public venue for my personal outpourings and in part it’s just damn embarrassing. Both for me and for my readers because honestly, who wants to read someone’s innermost struggles online? I know I do, but then I’m all about figuring out how people work.

At any rate, as I sit here looking about this apartment on a Wednesday night I’m struck by the need to be doing something. I don’t mean walking about by myself in Zionsville in the dark taking night photos. I don’t mean sitting reading a book. I’ve found as time goes on that I need people. People are really important to me and yet in some bizarre way I have the damnedest time relating to them. I am, if we must be utterly honest, terrified of people. Well, amend that slightly. I’m terrified of people that I don’t have some sort of handle on. People at work are a snap because I have an “in” with them. I can talk about work! What could be more natural than that? Unfortunately, that seems to be just about ALL I can talk about at work.

For example, one of my coworkers is leaving our company soon and it was announced today. I sent him a short missive that said, in a nutshell, how much I appreciated the work he had done and that one of the things that I really admired about him was the fact that he managed to really get things done but also forged personal bonds with people. He’s just an amazingly nice guy and people can sense that and appreciate it. Meanwhile, I’m off in the corner just sort of working away and I suspect that people think of me as “Rob, that guy that does the work” but it ends at that. My coworker is real. He’s human. People like him and relate to him. I feel most days like I’m just a drone. I come in, I’m good at what I do and then after the work day ends I vanish (unless there’s an emergency support call). For the most part people don’t know how to really relate to me. It’s clearly not their fault, but I can’t help but feel that there’s some part of me that’s missing. That they try to connect and all there is in response is empty air.

Anyway, my personality dysfunctions aside, I was reflecting tonight on my situation and realized that my feelings of isolation, as they always are, are self-induced or at the least a function of my anthropophobic tendencies. It is not that life does not throw ample opportunity at me for social interaction but much more that I simply fail to grasp it. For example, let’s just look at the calendar for the next several days. Tomorrow the Center for Inquiry has an event going on that sounds pretty interesting: “The Dark side of the Sacred.” If that doesn’t scream, “Rob Slaven come see this!!” I don’t know what the hell does. Friday through Sunday morning I have my girls over so that’s certainly accounted for. Sunday afternoon I have an Ultimate Frisby (whatever the hell THAT means) invite that I should not ignore. Monday I have photography class where I will sit quietly in the corner and fearfully not really participate. (Yes, I realize that anyone reading this from my workplace will be totally agog at the idea of me sitting quietly anywhere.) Tuesday I can go to a classic movies discussion. (assuming I can find and see the subject movie by that time). Wednesday I can…. Well. Hrm. Not much going on Wednesday. Perhaps I’ll relax that day… anyway, point is that there’s SO much crap going on. There is absolutely NO excuse to be sitting here on my own. The whole world teems with ideas and activity for those willing to partake of them…

It really is funny, in an odd sort of way, that someone who seeks so vehemently the company and friendship of others is so incapable (scratch that, not incapable, but inherently unskilled in) of taking advantage of all that the vast society around him has to offer. In times of more assiduous reflection, it seems clear that society would welcome my contributions if only I were more readily capable of producing them and making them clear to those around me. Sadly, this tiny and ill-heard forum is insufficient to bridge that gap. One voice crying out in the forest is far from sufficient. The voice will have to take to its legs and go forth unto the people. And once there, proclaim itself to be appreciated…


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Book Notes: St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics

Below, find my observations as I read Norton’s selection of St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics.  The topics discussed are entirely outside the realm of my current expertise and so I reserve the right to falter, fail and downright err in my attempts to assimilate and summarize the text.  You’ll also no doubt note that my writing style is faulty and at times illegible due to the complete lack of familiarity with the topic.  Parties wishing to correct my interpretation, grammar or content are welcome to do so.  Parties wishing to argue about the nuances of Thomist theology should find a more worthy opponent with whom to test their expertise.

St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics
Norton Critical Editions

Life of St. Thomas – Timeline
1225 – Born near Naples
1244 – Joins to Dominican order but is imprisoned for a year by his family as they are disappointed in his choice.  They preferred he become a Benedictine.
1259 – 1264 – Writes ‘Summa Contra Gentiles‘; an aid to help missionaries in their work to convert Muslims and Jews in Spain and North Africa.
1265 – Writes ‘On Kingship‘ for the youthful new king of Cyprus
1266 – 1272 – Writes ‘Summa Theologiae‘, an introduction to the Dominican theology for novice members
1274  – Died after striking his head on an overhanging tree branch
1323 – Canonized

Saint Thomas’ primary contribution to history was to integrate the newly discovered and seemingly contradictory teachings of Aristotle into the theological teachings of his day.  Because Aristotle’s teachings ran contrary to long-standing church teachings they were banned in 1215.  The ban was re-affirmed in 1231 but a few short years later the logic of Aristotle’s arguments was irresistible and by 1255 he had become required reading.

Thomas’ use of the scholastic approach allowed complex philosophical problems to be broken down via rational debate.  Where previously issues of governance and morals were resolved by attempts to extract answers directly from interpretation of Biblical texts, with Thomas we see the evolution of the use of natural law or reason as an extension of Biblical teachings.  The belief that man’s natural reason is all part of God’s plan for the world is key to Thomas’ work.  “Grace does not destroy nature, but completes it.” he writes.  The grace of God and the knowledge of Jesus’ sacrifice does not contradict our observations of the world around us but instead caps it nicely by wrapping up the lose ends that human reason is too feeble to resolve.  Man can know some part of God’s divine plan by use of his intellect but can never know God completely.  Where knowledge ends faith must begin.  For Thomas, reason was simply another path to God, not one of self-deception as St. Augustine argued.

Summa Contra Gentiles
In Summa Contra Gentiles Thomas argues about the fundamental properties of God and the universe.  God, he argues, cannot be entirely understood by application of human reason.  Using the human senses to know God is like knowing an object merely by the shape of it’s shadow.  One can demonstrate logically that God exists, that God is one and eternal but the deeper mysteries of God, such as the fact that he is simultaneously 1 and yet also 3, are impenetrable to logic.  Though it is possible to know something of God by argument alone, few men do so.  Most are distracted by earthly concerns, not mentally capable of the pursuit or merely too lazy.  But the knowledge is there for anyone who seeks it; reasoning and logic, derived as they are from God himself, will never contradict faith and truth.  It cannot be emphasized enough, however, that no matter how diligently we may seek or reason, the final step to knowing God must be an act of faith.  Reason alone will not give us all the answers.

Thomas goes on to compare humans’ relationship with the divine to an oyster’s relationship to a plant.  The oyster represents the very lowest of the animal forms and as such is only slightly separated from a plant.  In the same way, humans, supreme among the animals, are only slightly separated from the angels above them in the great ‘Chain of Being.’  Man, as ruler of the animals has only his soul to separate him from his baser counterparts.  While all animals outstrip man in some manner (some are faster, stronger, better hunters) man dominates them all in that he has a soul and can partake of the ultimate happiness, the contemplation of God.  While communion with God is the greatest joy possible to mankind this is never without an accompaniment of sorrow or distraction.  No man is without suffering until he reaches his ultimate reward.  The soul needs the human flesh to help it derive knowledge from the substance of the world around it but this flesh comes with a price, constant suffering while man lives on Earth.  Only the divine light of God can teach the soul directly without the need for a human form.

All the acts of man, no matter how base-seeming, come about as the fulfillment of natural appetite.  Since nature tends always towards the good and optimal all acts are good though that good may be of a strictly local nature.  If a man should kill another man, it would be for the benefit of himself.  Whether this should benefit society in general is another argument altogether but in the context of murderer alone the act is a good one.  Similarly, all intellectual acts bring us closer to God.  No matter what we seek the only truth in the universe is God himself and when we approach truth by any path we approach God.  If we should derive pleasure from any act we commit it should be noted that this is merely a byproduct and not the goal to be achieved.  Pleasure is never an end in and of itself but instead merely a sensation that signals that we have completed some more important goal.

On Kingship
On Kingship illuminates Thomas’ views on the best manner of government.  This text was started for the King of Cyprus in 1265 but Thomas did not, in fact, ever finish this work as the young King was killed not long after it was started.  Another writer completed the text afterwards.  Thomas argues emphatically that the best form of government is a Monarchy.  A single ruler, he says, is not burdened with differing viewpoints.  A benevolent monarch can move quickly to serve the needs of his people without the need to consult anyone else.  While private concerns of the citizens work to divide the community the king’s role is to guide the people to focus on the public goals that bind them together.  It is this act of uniting his people in peace that is the ruler’s first and most important responsibility.  Because this is the first goal, it can obviously be done most efficiently by only one man.  No appearance of dissent is possible if all the decisions stem from a single individual.  Nature also demonstrates to the superiority of a single leader.  Thomas points out that the body is ruled by a single organ, the brain.  The universe is ruled by a single God and even bees are guided by a single ‘king’ bee as he refers to it.  Lastly, a government ruled by many, no matter how seemingly benevolent, is more likely to devolve into tyranny.  If a group rules then it becomes increasingly likely that at least one of them is corrupt and thirsts for more power and may overthrow the others. 

While a king is the best form of government a tyrant is the worst.  As the king works for the benefit of the ruled the tyrant works only for the benefit of himself.  A tyrannical monarch is worse than any form of government in which many rule since he works in the interest of only himself while a oligarchy at least works for the benefit of a select handful of people.  A tyrant also drives the virtuous from his kingdom.  Any who excel in a society ruled by tyranny represent a threat to the status quo and are quickly forced to either leave or act against the king.  Men will still labor to support a just king but a tyrant brings out the best in no one around him. 

A relatively benign tyrant can be better than a particularly oppressive oligarchy, Thomas concludes.  A tyrant only steals for his own benefit but an oligarchy may go so far as to spur a war or in the best case steal for the needs of many more individuals.  Once established, a tyrant should not be removed except by the united rebellion of those he rules.  It is thought by many that simply assassinating the despot will resolve the government’s problems but often is it found that another even worse tyrant simply replaces the first.  Since this new ruler is keenly aware of the delicate position he holds his reign will be even more oppressive.  If the ruled cannot unite strongly enough to depose their ruler then their only valid course is to appeal to God himself.  It is better to suffer an unjust ruler than to act unjustly in deposing him as God sometimes uses such rulers to punish the sinful.

A king who wishes to be just should model his rule after that of God over the universe.  Rulers should consider their subjects like parts of their own body and treat them with the same respect.  The ultimate goal of the government is to support the people in their own goals: to live virtuous lives and enjoy the divine knowledge of God.  The government should recognize the supremacy of the church in all matters since it is the Church which is the best guide of virtue and Godliness.

Summa Theologiae Part 1
In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas takes on some of the stickier theological questions of his day.  The format for these answers takes the form of a debate in which the question is posed, objections are raised and then Thomas puts forth his proof.  I will boil down these proofs to their key points below.

Does God Exist?
Objections: God cannot exist because a true God would not allow evil to exist in the world.  Besides, everything that takes place in nature can as easily be explained without God.
God’s existence can be proven in 5 days:
  • Objects on the Earth and outside it move from the stars to the wind.  In order for these things to move there must be someone to move them.  This is most assuredly the work of God.
  • The universe operates on the principle of cause and effect.  Everything we see around us has some cause but there is no effect without a cause.  This first cause which is required for anything to exist is God.
  • Objects in the world either exist or they do not.  Objects come into being because of other preexisting objects therefore there must be some initial object to have created all others.  Again, this first object is God.
  • To all properties in the universe there is a greatest superlative example.  God exist to represent the greatest possible example of ‘goodness’ and benevolence in the universe.
  • Nature operates in the optimal way possible for the survival of animals and plants.  Just as for the arrow in flight there must be an archer to guide it, so also in order for nature to behave in a rational manner there must be some God to dictate this behavior.
Responds to Objections: God is so utterly powerful that he allows evil to exist so that he may turn it to good.  Further, all the acts of God seem rational and explained by other means exactly because God dictates that they behave in a reasonable fashion.

Can we know God in this lifetime by use of reason alone and is it better to know God by reason or by Grace?
Man can learn to know God by the use of his reason but the results will be hollow when compared with that gained by God’s grace.  The pursuit of God by logic is prone to error since man’s reason is subject to the frailty of his senses while God’s grace instructs the soul directly.

Does God love all things?
God does love all things and everything is good in God’s eyes.  God’s very love for things makes them good while man’s love is contingent on the belief that they are good.

Is the soul a material object?  Is the human soul corruptible?
The soul is incorporeal and as such is not corruptible

Should woman have been made in the Original Creation?
Objections: A woman is basically just a defective man so she shouldn’t have been made in the first place.  This is obvious because she is subject to the rule of the man and this is an indication that she has sinned and is being punished for it.
Woman was made as a “helpmate” to man.  Not for helping in the fields but as an aid to procreation.  Animals in nature reproduce in the same way and while the woman is concentrating on bringing new life into the world the man can be focused on the first goal of mankind: communion with God. 

Responses to Objections: Woman is somewhat defective in her nature but that’s what God made her to be.  Her duty is to create children and this was as God intended therefore it is good.  Also, woman is subject to the rule of man but that’s only because man is more endowed with intelligence than woman so it’s for her own good that this is so.

If the ‘Fall’ had never happened, would we still need Kings to lord over us?  Would we still have sex?
Man is a social animal so regardless of the circumstances he will require the company of others.  Whenever men congregate there will be some who are more intelligent or stronger than others so even if man had never fallen from grace, we would still need leaders to direct the actions of the community.  As to sex, male and female were made before the fall so sexual intercourse would still exist.  It would be different however in that it would not be tainted by lust.  This is not to say that it would be less pleasant however.  A moderate man who eats only what he needs enjoys his meal no less than a glutton. 

Are there different orders within the hierarchy of angels?
Yes, angels are broken into orders by their function and into three levels: highest, middle, and lowest.

Summa Theologiae Part 2a
In part 2 of the Summa St Thomas pursues a few more questions but for brevity I will reduce the findings to a more comopact form and dispense with the Question and Answer format.

The only happiness that can be found in this life is merely transitory.  Man is never truly happy as long as there is more to do and more to find out about and in this life we cannot possibly hope to exclude all suffering and evil.  It is only by achieving his primary goal, to know God, that man can achieve happiness.  God in his wisdom and mercy gives us tools added to our natural intellect to help us attain this final happiness, they are the theological virtues: faith, hope and charity.  It is by exercising these virtues that man can eventually become truly happy.
Just as you would not blame the hand alone for a murder it carried out, so too can one man alone not be blamed for his sins.  The body of mankind as a whole is tainted and this is the nature of original sin.

Law is the rule or measure of action or restraint in a man and the first law of all is that of human reason.  A law is said to be good if it is oriented towards the common good.  To be effective a law requires consensus among the ruled and must be widely known.  Effective law also requires that the ruler has the power of compulsion in cases where the law is disobeyed.  Unjust law is contrary to divine goodness and should be considered no law at all.  There are four types of law:

Eternal law is the law by which God governs the universe, the divine wisdom by which all things are ultimately ruled.  Eternal law is a constituent in all other laws.
Natural Law represents the manner in which man behaves according to the Eternal Law.  These laws are the same for all men but are unknown or unfollowed by some.  They are also prone to exceptions since they can be changed or exceptions made depending on the situation or the will of God.  Natural Laws fall into three basic categories: those laws which preserve life (prohibitions on murder, suicide), that knowledge shared in common with the animals (sex, education of children), knowledge of how we can become closer to God.

Divine Law is the word of God given to us in the form of Scripture.  Divine law serves four purposes.  First, to aid man to reach beyond the Natural law towards his own salvation.  Secondly, to correct human laws where they may err.  Third, to judge those things which cannot be judged by man’s sense of the world around him.  Lastly, to tie up any loose ends that are unenforceable in the course of a normal human lifetime (such as punishing suicides who would otherwise be beyond the reach of civil authority).

Finally, Human law is constructed by man and derived from Natural Laws as an aid to the young and the weak who might not otherwise observe those laws.  The purpose of human laws is not to suppress all human vice, this would be impossible to enforce.  Rather, those infractions which would diminish the social order are focused on.  Even those who are outside the enforceable realm of human law are subject to it as God will sit in judgment of even Kings who violate it.  Over time, Human Law evolves and exceptions are made but changes should only happen with the support of the ruled and in cases when the risk of changing a long-held belief is small compared to the benefit derived from the change.  In many cases, local custom has the force of law even when it is not formally codified.  The best way to administer Human Law is through a single ruler and a council of elders much like Moses and the council of 72 elders.  Human Laws fall into two basic categories.  Firstly, those laws which are common to all nations and from which there is no dispensation.  These laws are derived directly from the Natural Laws.  

Secondly, laws which are derived less directly from the Natural Laws merely for the convenience of the of the community.

Most importantly, it should be noted that no system of laws, no matter how constructed or how closely adhered to can make a man truly good.  Only the Grace of God can bring man to the level of true goodness.

Summa Theologiae Part 2b
Those who never believed in the salvation offered by Jesus Christ (primarily the Jews and the Muslims) should should not be physically compelled to believe since this would not actually do any good anyway.  Heretics, apostates, and any others who stand in the way of the faith can be removed by any means necessary as these threaten the viability of the faith.  The faithful should also not associate with unbelievers, especially those weak in faith.  Others may associate with them only if there is hope of conversion and the rituals of unbelievers are not to be tolerated unless that tolerance directly serves to advance the cause of conversion.  Further, the children of unbelievers are not to be baptized against the will of the parents until such time as they reach the age of reason.  In extreme cases, heretics may be killed but only after being given the chance to renounce their heretical views.

War is not in and of itself a sin.  If waged for a just cause and in a just manner war is an acceptable means of advancing the cause of the faith or removing an tyrannical ruler.  In all cases of violence, however, the benefit must be weighed against the costs of the disruption to the common peace.  Similarly, it is just to murder a criminal if that murder benefits the public good but this must be undertaken by the ruler of a community and not by its private citizens.  Killing in self defense is not considered murder as long as it is proportionate to the risk of doing nothing.  In such cases, the intent of the killer is paramount.  If the intent was to murder then so should the action be adjudged.  In the same way accidental killing is not considered murder except in the case where gross negligence caused the death.  In that case, regardless of intent, the ruling shall be that of murder.  Finally, in the case of the death of an infant before it’s birth, it shall be considered murder if the pregnancy is more than 40 days old (in the case of a male) or 80 days old (in the case of a female).

Suicide is a mortal sin for three reasons.  Firstly, the act of suicide is contrary to the natural law of self preservation.  Secondly, the destruction of a member of a community is harmful to that community so the act is also one against the common good.  Lastly, suicide is an infringement on the sole jurisdiction of life and death that belongs to God.

It is within man’s natural rights to own objects as his own private property.  In this way he is best able to care for those objects as he has a sense of ownership and pride.  However, with that ownership comes the responsibility to share that objects in a time of need.  A man may rightly steal if he is in dire need so the right of ownership is secondary to that of necessity.  A man may also sell his objects for a profit without fear of committing a sin but it is a sin against nature to charge interest on the use of money itself since nothing is bought or sold in the transaction.
It is natural that inferiors obey their superiors in life but a slave may never be commanded in contradiction to orders given by a greater superior (ie, God).  A superior can also not command outside the realm of his dominion.  Specifically, a master may command the body but the mind is beyond his reach.  It should also be noted that faith in Christ does not release us from our duty to secular authority.

In no case is lying acceptable even in cases where a another sin may be averted by use of a falsehood.  Instead, it is recommend that one simply avoid giving a direct response.
The act of drinking is not a mortal sin unless the intention is to actually become drunk.  Drinking to drunkenness deprives man of his natural reason which directs him to act virtuously.
Virginity, although contrary to the natural law of procreation, is not a sin if it is done so as to free one for more time to contemplate the divine.  The opposite extreme, that of promiscuity, however, is a mortal sin as it works against the proper rearing of children.  The mere act of kissing and embracing is merely a venial sin but those of masturbation, bestiality, sodomy and ‘sex using the wrong organs’ is against nature and constitute mortal sins.

Summa Theologiae Part 3
Christ is the head of all mankind though in differing degrees:
1.  Christ is head of those united to him in heaven
2.  Christ is head of those united to him in love (those not currently in a state of mortal sin)
3.  Christ is head of those united to him in faith
4.  Christ is head of those who have not yet united with him but who are predestined to before their deaths.
5.  Christ is head of those who will never be united with him and who will separate from him utterly upon their deaths.

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Books: How to Work a Room

Extracted from a 2007 post that had some other garbage in it that had nothing to do with the book.

I started reading a book in the vicinity of this day. It’s completely out of character as it’s called, “How to work a Room.” Yeah, yeah. Get back on your chair. After 50 pages I’d gleaned a couple of useful facts. By 100 pages I was just about ready to tear the book in half just to guarantee that one copy of this bullshit out of the millions available would not poison another impressionable mind. Anyway, let’s start with the good and useful things I was told. Yes, I know, they’re obvious but I’m not sure anyone had told me these things specifically:

* If you go to a party and you’re uncomfortable, then other people are too. When I mentioned this to my wife she reminded me of the July 4th party I ‘ruined’ about 13 months ago. It went something like this. We went to some distant friend’s house where we were in company of several other people who were good friends with the hostess. They all sat about drinking heavily, talking about nothing and I sat quietly and waited for the party to end. This, apparently, was enough to ruin the party and it certainly ruined my attitude for the rest of the day. The lesson learned here is a simple one I think. If you’re not enjoying yourself then just leave so you don’t screw it up for everyone else. Fair enough.

* 93% of people in the world consider themselves shy. I think most of the time that I consider myself shy but really I’m not. If you wander into a topic that I know something about, I will talk incessantly and I’m always blabbering on about my innermost thoughts on here so I’m certainly not shy about talking when I have something to say. The important bit here though is that the hard part for most people is approaching others. So, if you approach them then you’ve done 90% of the work and you can go about the conversation. Amusingly, evidence for this was right at hand. I often talk to people at random in stores or whatever and people almost always react positively to what I have to say so people want to talk to you. People are, in general, ready to have a conversation. The key is getting over that initial hurdle and breaking down the initial barrier between people. Now that, I think I can try to do more effectively. At this point, I can’t imagine people will think me any MORE of an ass no matter what I say so I have that going for me. The down side here is that I typically just DON’T have anything to say on most of the common topics of conversation. You want to talk about the science or mathematics or literature or computing or religion then I’m your man. Let’s set a date. You want to talk about what diet Cher’s on or what happened on American Idol last night…. um, no, not so much.

* People can sense what your real intentions are so you can’t schmooze just to get something. Now this, I thought, was a damn interesting little tidbit and hopefully true. The author tells bits about how she’s gotten all sorts of random perquisites from her smoozing. Tickets to shows, free crap, discounts, etc because of some incident she had in an elevator. That’s all well and good and a nice thing to look forward to I suppose but really just random gravy. What I guess pisses me off most is that there are people out there who have to be told, “just don’t do this to take advantage of people” while I sit here on my own with absolutely nothing going on. It’s damn frustrating to try to put yourself out there for people and get blank stares in return. I take cookies across the street to the old couple at Christmas but I’m not even sure they eat them. I’d be happy to help the neighbors get their yard in order so maybe they could sell their house but they won’t even acknowledge my greetings. We’re just such isolationists in this country. Either that or I’m just too damn scary. Whatever the case it’s annoying. It’s not that I WANT to get a call at 4 a.m. from some friend who has a major problem but it would at least be nice if that were a possibility.

So the first 50 pages went about like that. I was relatively upbeat on the whole process but it was clear that the book was geared for sales types which I most definitely am NOT a sales type. Then we start getting into the ‘how’ phase. How to make contacts and break the ice and get the free flow of information going. Sounds good doesn’t it?

* The book recommends practicing a self-introduction. OK. Here’s the best one I could think of:

**** Hi! I’m Rob! Now, I’m only here as part of a court-order. ‘Socialization re-adjustment phase’ of my parole they call it. Anyway, when we gone done talking there are some forms the judge would like you to fill out if you could…. Ma’am? Where are you…

* Practice your smalltalk. Look through the news and find 2 or 3 interesting stories and read them so you’ll be prepared. Read People magazine so you can be aware of all the latest goings on.

It was at this point, that I measured the book to see if it could fit down the toilet. So basically, the key to successful smalltalk is to go read something you wouldn’t ordinarily so that perhaps you’ll have something to say that people might find interesting. Well I’m sorry but that’s just a bunch of horse shit. If the idea of socializing with other people requires me to read fvcking People magazine then I’ll just sit quietly and leave when I think it’s no longer rude to do so. What the hell kind of lasting relationship is based on that sort of? Am I going to have to read People magazine every week/month/whatever for the rest of my life to sustain such a relationship? I’m looking for people to be friends with, to have interesting conversations with. Not sell them stool softener and rubber cane tips.

The first person to express a desire for this book gets it. Assuming, of course, that they can catch it as I hurl it at them.


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* Books: Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts

Writing evolved about 4000 B.C. due to the need to store accounting information. Farmer A had to know how many things Farmer B had given him so he wrote some symbols that looked like cows and some lines representing numbers and from there writing evolved into what we have today. Even thousands of years later, most of the texts found boil down to basic accounting.

As writing systems evolved, they became less pictographic and more symbolic. Rather than draw a picture of a cow a farmer might draw a rebus that represents the sounds in the verbal word for cow. Then even the rebus symbols became abstracted until a proper alphabet was developed.

Ferdinand de Saussure – “Thought is one side of the sheet and sound the reverse side. Just as it is impossible to take a pair of scissors and cut out one side of the paper without at the same time cutting the other, so it is impossible to isolate sound from thought or thought from sound.”

Egyptian Hieroglyphics
Deciphered in 1823 by Jean-Francois Champollion. For centuries even the Greeks had been mistranslating Egyptian Hieroglyphics (Greek for “Sacred Writings”) assuming they were pictographs as did more modern translators. Champollion finally cracked the real meaning using the Rosetta stone, a 3/4 ton slab of rock found in 1799 by Napolean’s army. The stone which describes an agreement between priests and Ptolemy V Epiphanes, a thirteen-yeary-old newly-crowned Pharaoh in which they’ll offer their support for the new ruler for certain unspecified privileges. Good to know some things never change. The stone was written in Greek, Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Demotic (the language of common Egyptians.) As it turns out, Hieroglyphics are both pictographic and phonetic (each symbol can represent an idea or perhaps a sound.)

Linear B
The first examples of Linear B were discovered in Crete in 1900 by Arthur Evans. It was written around 1450 B.C. in clay tablets and comprised mostly of inventory lists. Evans kept the finds to himself for the most part in hopes that he could decipher them. It was not until after his death that they were published and translated by Michael Ventris. Evans believed the tablets to encode a lost Minoan language but as it turns out they represented ancient Greek.

Mayan Glyphs
Only four books (bark paper with jaguar skin covers) survived the Spanish conquistadors who burned Mayan artifacts as works of Satan. The longest is the Dresden Codex which folds out to 12 feet in length. Until the 1970s, Mayan Glyphs weren’t even considered writing. When they eventually were decoded they bespoke of a warlike people who were overly obsessed with hallucinogenic enemas and astronomy. Their calendar was complex sporting 18 named months of 20 days plus a single month of only 5 days. The workings of their calendar are well understood and allow the exact dating of several Mayan artifacts. The Mayan calendar begins on August 13th 3114 B.C. and ends on December 23rd 2012 leading some to believe this date represents the end of the world. The script would have been indecipherable except that in 1547 Fray Diego de Landa wrote down a partial rendering of their alphabet with pronunciations. That in combination with existing Mayan spoken languages has allowed interpretation of existing manuscripts.

Meroitic Script
The Meroitic civilization thrived along the Nile where Sudan is today. In 712 B.C. they conquered Egypt to become the 25th Dynasty. The Egyptians later repelled the invaders and subsequent Pharaohs carefully removed evidence of the outside rulers. By the first century A.D. the Meroitic civilization had evaporated leaving behind its undecipherable writings. Only 26 written words have been translated despite the discovery of some loosely translated documents written both in Egyptian and Meroitic.

The Etruscan Alphabet
Located in what is now Tuscany, the Etruscans are credited with bringing the Greek alphabet to the attention of Rome. The spoken Etruscan language is extinct and apparently bore no resemblance to any modern tongue. The Etruscans were highly literate and borrowed their alphabet from 8th century B.C. Greece. About 13,000 examples of Etruscan are known with 4,000 of those being graffiti or fragments of inscriptions. Of those, only about 250 words have been deciphered, mostly numbers and terms used later by Latin authors.

Most abundant among the artifacts are about 3,000 bronze mirrors bearing engraved pictures and brief Etruscan inscriptions. The Zagreb Mummy was wrapped in an older Etruscan linen religious text of about 1,200 words. The Tabula Cartonensis was found in 1992 and bears 200 Etruscan words. The artifact appears to be a contract for the sale or lease of land.

Linear A

Linear A was used in Crete between 1750 and 1450 B.C. and was believed for some years to be the ancestor of Linear B. As it turns out, it was used before Linear B and in many of the same areas but is not related. Only about 1,500 examples exist totaling about 7,500 characters. Linear A has been found throughout Greece and as far away as Israel. Emmett Bennett Jr. worked out the numerical system of Linear A in 1950 but the bulk of the written language is still undeciphered.

The Proto-Elamite Script
Used between 3050 and 2900 B.C. in what is now Western Iran, Proto-Elamite is the oldest known undeciphered writing system. Despite the fact that 1,500 examples have been found containing over 100,000 characters, only the numeric system has been translated. The primary difficulty in decoding the writings stems from the relative lack of variety. The vast majority of items are simple accounting records. Like other languages, the numbering system has been worked out along with a few simple words and it seems that counting was done in base 10 when counting people or workers but base 6 was used for counting grain products.

Rongo-Rongo is the only written language of Polynesia and was used solely by the inhabitants of the isolated Easter Island. Rongo-Rongo is written in reverse-boustrophedon, meaning the writing proceeds from left to write on the object, and then the object is turned 180 degrees and writing proceeds again from left to right on the opposite end. Writing continues until the two lines of text converge in the middle of the piece. Only 25 wood carvings survive from the island carrying a total of 14,000-17,000 characters.

The island was discovered in 1722 and later claimed by the Spanish in 1770. At that time, the local chiefs were asked to sign a treaty with the Spanish and they did so using pictograms but did NOT use the Rongo-Rongo language. When Captain Cook arrived in 1774 he reported no signs of a written language whatsoever; for this reason and others some speculate that the language developed only after contact with the west. In 1864 when Peru raided the island for slaves the written language seemed to be dying. By the time missionaries arrived in 1869, their attempts to save the language by asking the islanders to read the markings aloud were unsuccessful. Subsequent attempts similarly failed but it is believed by some that the language may not be in fact a complete writing system but instead a system of mnemonics to aid local leaders in remembering oral histories and genealogies.

The Zapotec & Isthmian Scripts
Zapotec is the oldest known script of the new world, used from 600 B.C. to 800 A.D. About 1200 inscribed objects survive but only 570 are indisputably writing. No apparent relationship with Mayan scripts from the same area but it is clear that the Zapotec originated the calendar system used by the Mayans though the Mayans improved upon it significantly.

Isthmian script is scarcer with only about 600 total characters discovered so far. The artifacts themselves are unusual:

* In 1902 a jade statuette was discovered in a field in Olmec. It depicts a man dressed as a duck and includes about 70 written characters. Included is a date of 162 A.D.
* In 1986 a 4-ton basalt stone was found a La Mojarra. The stone was 8×5 ft and contained a stunning carving of a prince and 400-500 written characters. This item was dated 143 and 156 A.D. Several decipherments of this item have been published but all are highly suspect.

The Indus Script
At it’s height between 2500 and 1900 B.C. the Indus Valley Civilization covered much of Pakistan and N.W. India. It had maritime trading as far away as the Persian Gulf and Mesopotamia and was larger than either it’s Egyptian or Mesopotamian rivals. Over 1500 sites have been found, 5 of them major cities. Yet when Alexander the Great traveled in the area in 326 B.C. all he found were abandoned villages.

3,700 inscribed items have been found with 60% being seal stones containing very brief inscriptions. The longest inscription found is 26 characters with most less than 4. Since so little is known about the people or culture of the area at the time, all that can be said with certainty is that the reading order is right to left and the language seems to be made up of 400-450 distinct signs.

The Phaistos Disc
The enigmatic Phaistos Disc is unique. No other written example of this language exists and therefore it’s thought by many to be a fake. Discovered in Crete in 1908 in the Palace Ruins at Phaistos, this 6.5 inch diameter disc dates from 1850 to 1600 B.C. It contains 242 characters demarcated into 61 groups. The text is written along the outside edge and spirals inward and rather than being marked in the clay with a stylus the signs are actually stamped into the clay making it the first ‘printed’ document. The disc includes several scribal ‘corrections’ which many believe lends credence to its authenticity. Its uniqueness seems to lend credence to the theory that it is not of Cretan origin but has also acted to bring out all manner of crackpots who believe it to be an extraterrestrial artifact of some sort.

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Islam: The Straight Path – John L. Esposito [1998] – Chapter 3: Religious Life – Belief and Practice (Pt 3)

Below you will find my notes and random observations from the book indicated by the title of this post. It is hoped that it will be effortless to differentiate between those locations in which I provide information from the book proper and those in which I offer personal observation, illumination or pose further lines of inquiry. Whenever any doubt is evident it should be assumed that anything even remotely factual should be attributed to the author of the book and anything that would be construed as otherwise can be attributed to me personally.

Chapter Links: [Ch 1 Ch 2 | Ch 3 Pt 1 Ch 3 Pt 2 Ch 3 Pt 3]

Muslim Family Law

Before the introduction of Islam, Arabic family customs regarded women largely as property. One male head ruled over one or more wives with any married sons and their families. Divorce was as simple as stating the desire to be divorced and the woman had no rights or say in the matter.

Islamic law has as its cornerstone a respect for the role of marriage and family and a deep seated concern for the welfare of the wife. Marriages, often arranged by the families far in advance, were considered contracts not only between two individuals but agreements between the families themselves. Quranic law also gave women the right to arrange their own marriage contracts and to keep her dower for herself rather than giving it up to her husband. Most importantly women gained the right to inherit property, an innovation that only firmly established itself in the west in the early 20th century. Men were admonished to take up to four wives but only if they could demonstrate that they could care for them all equitably and provide them separate housing in accordance with the family’s means. This typically meant a room of their own or more rarely an entire house.

However even with Quranic admonitions, women were still not considered equals. Early Muslim society still suffered from centuries of traditional behaviors which took some time for the populous to unlearn. Further, since the roles of man and woman were very strictly defined with the man taking care of outside affairs while the woman focused on the home, some inequities still exist such as the fact that the eyewitness accounts of two women count only as much as one male account of identical quality.

Divorce also became more difficult under Islam and according to the Quran, divorce is the most reprehensible act that is not strictly forbidden. Traditionally, the man could divorce the woman with just a word while the woman must go to court and prove her grounds to be granted her request. Traditional Muslim divorce took three very similar forms, each actionable by the husband:

  1. A single pronouncement of the phrase, “I divorce you” was sufficient to divorce a wife though there was a requisite three month waiting period before the act was final. The delay was intended to assure that the wife wasn’t with child before the dissolution.
  2. Similarly, three pronouncements of the phrase in three consecutive months would actuate a legal separation. Once the final month had passed the act was final and the couple could not remarry unless the wife married someone else first and consummated that relationship.
  3. Lastly, and most problematically, the husband can merely declare three times in immediate succession and the divorce is final and immediate. This is seen as antithetical to the Quran which admonishes husbands to wait three months for the reasons stated in method one above.

The other Muslim tradition most familiar to Westerners is the hijub, or chader, the wearing of burqa and veils to hide all but the eyes and hands of women. While not strictly prescribed by Islam, this tradition acquired from conquered Persian and Byzantine lands does fulfill the Quranic requirement to “speak from behind a screen and be modest.” Unfortunately, this tradition combined with the purdah, or seclusion of women, has had a vast and deleterious impact on women themselves. This separation from the outside world has in some cases left them ignorant even of their duties to God.

Popular Religion

Islam has in its history also enjoyed a wide variety of variation in practice. As we’ve seen in earlier sections, Muslim adherence ranges extremely literal to much more relaxed. At the end of Chapter 3 our author introduces us to the Sufi. The Sufi are Muslim mystics much like traditional western monks. They lived isolated ascetic lifestyles in an attempt to connect directly with God. By blocking out all worldly distractions they hope to be directly and personally inspired. In 1058, Abu Hamid al-Ghazuli was born and he was to become to great unifier of the Sufi religion with mainstream Islam. Al-Ghazuli was a successful lecturer until one day he was mysteriously struck mute. In personal anguish at his loss, he retreated into the wilderness and there became a Sufi and thereafter their greatest spokesperson (at least in writing.)

After al-Ghazuli, Sufi practices started to see widespread acceptance. In pursuit of a connection with God, the Sufi practiced four basic methods of self-purification:

  1. Self-denial – poverty, fasting, silence. It was believed that only by stripping away earthly desires and distractions could one come to truly know God.
  2. Repetition of a Mantra – often the Sufi would repeat the names of God hundreds of thousands of times in a sitting
  3. Song and Dance – it was believed that through music one could become intoxicated by the presence of God. The most famous of the Sufi dances is that of the Whirling Dervishes which reenacts the motion of the celestial bodies around the sun(? Would they have had a Heliocentric view of the universe at this time? We’re talking about 1100 AD.)
  4. Veneration of Muhammad and the Sufi saints – it was believed that the saints provided a link between God and mankind

Unfortunately for the Sufi, their methods of worship gradually came to be their undoing. Much of their practices came to be considered heretical and by the 17th century they had become a repressed minority.

Similarly, the Shii also venerate special humans as god-like in the person of the Imams. While the Sunni reject any such notion vehemently, the Shii recognize 14 pure or perfect ones: The prophet and his immediate family along with the 9 Imams. The Imams have their birthdays and death anniversaries celebrated yearly by the Shii faithful.

Another central figure of Shii faith is Prince Husayn who was martyred in the year 680. The town of Kafa called to the Prince to save them from a tyrant. The Prince left Mecca with a procession of only 77 followers but upon his arrival he is greeted by an army of Syrians in the tens of thousands. His small band is quickly overwhelmed but not before the Prince’s brother Hasan killed 3,000 Syrian soldiers single-handedly. As the Prince is making one final charge to the attack he is suddenly called back to his camp where his women await him. While on his way he is attacked by a group of cowardly archers who riddle him with hundreds of arrows. Husayn along with his mother Fatima are held up as elite examples of proper Muslim behavior.

Textual Note: Items in this post are noted in the order they appear in the book. Oddly, this is resulted in a somewhat fragmented presentation of the material. At a later date this will be revised into one longer volume with arranges the information presented in a more topically logical manner.

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Islam: The Straight Path – John L. Esposito [1998] – Chapter 3: Religious Life – Belief and Practice (Pt 2)

Below you will find my notes and random observations from the book indicated by the title of this post. It is hoped that it will be effortless to differentiate between those locations in which I provide information from the book proper and those in which I offer personal observation, illumination or pose further lines of inquiry. Whenever any doubt is evident it should be assumed that anything even remotely factual should be attributed to the author of the book and anything that would be construed as otherwise can be attributed to me personally.

Chapter Links: [Ch 1 Ch 2 | Ch 3 Pt 1 Ch 3 Pt 2 Ch 3 Pt 3]

During Muslim history there existed many regional schools of law but by the 19th century these had been reduced to four to represent the Sunni faith: the Hanafi, the Hanbali, the Maliki and the Shafi. These four schools have as their jurisdiction large geographic areas. Due to previously mentioned doctrinal differences, the Shii have pursued their own schools of law, the Jafari being foremost among them. Both schools of thought accept the Quran and the Sunna of the prophet but the Shii reject the establishment of law by consensus and by analogy. Instead the balance of the law is derived from the sunna and judgment of the infallible Imam, or failing that, the decision of his religious representatives.

To enforce the laws set forth by the schools, a system of courts was established. Muslim courts differ from western ones in a few key ways:

  • Judges act only to interpret the law, not set precedent for future cases
  • Two male witnesses are required for any crime. If this is not available then the crime must be sworn to “in front of God”(?) Note: The text is not terribly clear on this point and I’m further unsure how much this applies to modern courts versus traditional ones.
  • No circumstantial evidence is allowed
  • No witness cross examination is allowed
  • Decisions are final with no appeal, though all decisions are reviewed by the Caliph. Note: Again, I’m not sure how much this applies to the modern day, though these courts only deal with matters of religious law rather than smaller civil matters which we’ll get into a bit further along.

The courts enforced the laws with the help of the muhtasib, a religious police force which still exists in some countries (Saudia Arabia, Kuwait and presumably others) and has recently seen a resurgence in others (Pakistan and Iran).

In addition to the Muslim courts, the Grievance Courts were set up to deal with matters of a more civil nature. The only real restriction on the laws for the Grievance Courts is that they must not directly conflict with Sharia. Generally, these courts deal with such matters as taxation, criminal law and business regulation.

The underlying premise of the law in general is that God is the leader and sole legislator of all human action. Islamic law is intended to be absolutely egalitarian without regard to race, creed or social stature. The actions which the law governs fall into two basic categories:

  • Duties to God – prayer, almsgiving, fasting, etc
  • Duties to Others – penal, commercial and family law

The Duties to God are represented by what is referred to as the Five Pillars of Islam:

  1. Profession of faith – simply speaking, one must acknowledge that there is one God and that Muhammad is his prophet. The only unforgiveable sin is that of associating God with some other entity (such as Jesus) as this is viewed as polytheistic.
  2. Prayer – Five times a day (dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, dusk and evening), the muezzin, or call to prayer sounds from a mosque and Muslims must face Mecca and pray. Each time of day has a set ritual that includes 2-4 positions and specific prayers which must be recited. On Fridays, all gather for prayers in a central Mosque. Men are required to attend but women are optional. If women do attend they stand at the back (often behind a curtain) to preserve their modesty during the proceedings. Friday is not traditionally a day of rest but in some countries has begun to replace the Christian Sunday tradition.
  3. Almsgiving – Every Muslim is required to give 2.5% of his accumulated wealth to the poor each year. Note that this differs from income but is instead a percentage of whatever you have on hand. It’s unclear to me if the assessment of wealth includes only ready cash or also personal property. Traditionally this was collected in an official manner but lately it has been left to the individual to manage on their own though Pakistan, the Sudan and Libya have recently formalized this in the form of a tax.
  4. Fast of Ramadan – In the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset if their health permits. Neither food, nor drink nor sexual activity is permitted. The intent is to spend time during the month reflecting not only on the mercy of God but to contemplate the plight of those who are poor and hungry. At dusk a light meal is prepared (referred to as breakfast) and in the evening families visit and congregate for what is no doubt a larger than usual dinner. The mood seems exceptionally festive with special foods served only at Ramadan and prayers at Mosque. The month ends with a feast that is somewhat reminiscent of western Christmas.
  5. Pilgrimage: The Hajj – After the month of Ramadan the month of Dhu al-Hijja signals the start of pilgrimage season. Once in their lifetimes Muslims must travel to Mecca to see the Kaba. The Kaba is a square house built around a sacred black stone. The Kaba is said to have been built by Ibrahim (Abraham) and Ismail around the stone given to them by the angel Gabriel representing God’s covenant with the Muslim people. The traditions of the Hajj are many:
    1. circle the Kaba seven times (It’s not clear to me what this is symbolic of, if anything)
    2. running between Safa and Marwa, two neighboring mounts, seven times symbolizing Hagar’s frantic search for water for her son Ismail. Most fascinatingly, if you do a quick image search for Safa and Marwa, you will find that an enclosed walkway has been built between them so pilgrims can walk without fear of the weather.
    3. “stoning the devil” with the devil represented by three stone pillars
    4. a visit to the plain of Arafat in which pilgrims stand from noon to dusk seeking forgiveness not only for themselves but for all Muslims
    5. visiting the “Mount of Mercy” where the prophet made his last speech
    6. the month of pilgrimage ends with a Feast of Sacrifice in which hundreds of animals are sacrificed and their meat given up to the poor
    7. Lastly, the pilgrimage is a source of great pride among Muslims and some go so far as to prefix their names with ‘Hajji’ upon their return
  6. The Struggle (jihad) – Unofficially, the sixth pillar of Islam is the jihad, or the struggle to realize God’s will on Earth. Most typically this takes the form of extending the Muslim community by education and preaching and leading by example by living a virtuous life. In the case of extremist groups, this has been taken to the extent of actual warfare against non-believers but that is not officially sanctioned by the Muslim community at large.

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Islam: The Straight Path – John L. Esposito [1998] – Chapter 3: Religious Life – Belief and Practice (Pt 1)

Below you will find my notes and random observations from the book indicated by the title of this post. It is hoped that it will be effortless to differentiate between those locations in which I provide information from the book proper and those in which I offer personal observation, illumination or pose further lines of inquiry. Whenever any doubt is evident it should be assumed that anything even remotely factual should be attributed to the author of the book and anything that would be construed as otherwise can be attributed to me personally.

Chapter Links: [Ch 1 Ch 2 | Ch 3 Pt 1 Ch 3 Pt 2 Ch 3 Pt 3]

The Muslim faith distinguishes itself from the Christian one very simply. Christians, Esposito says, are focused on “belief.” The main point of salvation is one of belief in Jesus Christ and acceptance of his gift of salvation. Muslims, contrarily, focus on actions. One cannot simply believe in the oneness of God but must also act according to God’s laws. Belief without action is meaningless to the Muslim. Personally, I would argue with the lackadaisical portrayal of Christians though I do see a difference in main focus between the two faiths.

One of the early formative questions of the Muslim faith is that of sinners. Is a sinner or even one who does not sin explicitly but simply does no good works truly a Muslim? Opinions on this differ, as we saw for the Kharijites earlier they would say that a sinner is not a Muslim while the Murjiites would claim, as many Christians do, that no one on Earth is fit to judge and that only God will be ultimate decider of such matters. Muslims also struggle with the question of free will as Christians have historically. If there is no free will, then how can man’s actions possibly be judged? If there is free will then how can God still be omnipotent? It’s unclear that any consistent answer for this paradox is ever arrived at.

The author goes on to describe a third set of Islamic beliefs in addition to the Murjiites and Kharijites. Contrarily to both these sects, the Mutazila strived for compromise. To them the Quran is metaphorical rather than literal. They used imported Greek philosophy and science to argue that the Quran was illustrative in scope but not to be taken verbatim. Contrarily, the Asharite argued against the rationalization of the Quran with the idea that some things are simply beyond human reason and understanding. Even this brief snapshot will help, I hope, to illustrate the diversity of the Muslim belief system. It is unclear (at least to current reading) how prevalent any of these sects are in the modern day.

After this brief overview of the players, Esposito goes on to talk a bit about the history of the Islamic law. Early on, of course, while the Prophet Muhammad was still around, he could (and often was) just asked his opinion. Unfortunately, this convenient state of affairs couldn’t exist indefinitely. After the death of the prophet the Umayyad Caliphate set up qadi or regional judges to determine such items of the law. This proved unsatisfactory, however, as it was argued that too much human opinion and regional difference was being inserted into what should have been very straightforward and uniform God-given law. Under the Abbasid Caliphate a further attempt was made to iron things out and gain some consistency. Now rather than leaving the determination of law to individual judges, Schools of Law were formed and tasked with determining exactly what the law should be. Somewhat predictably though, since the schools too were regional in nature, they also fell to petty squabbling and disagreement.

This continued until the appearance of Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shaffi (d. 819) the father of Islamic jurisprudence. Al-Shaffi wrote that there were four sources for Islamic law:
1. The Quran itself – The Quran does have some legalistic content but of course doesn’t cover every conceivable situation. Where it does speak to an issue, however, it is given absolute preeminence.
2. The Sunna (example of Muhammad) – at varying times ‘The Sunna’ was extended to mean the accepted behaviors of any group of Muslims but with al-Shaffi it was determined that only the acts and example of the Prophet himself constituted this second source of law. The argument for the position of the Prophet as the prime example flows from the very natural supposition that he was guided closely by God in his actions. Unfortunately, after the prophet’s death the corpus of literature which claimed to represent the Sunna blossomed into hundreds of thousands of documents which comprised a monumental task to actually validate. Esposito goes to great lengths to defend the Sunna as it’s currently accepted against Western critics who claim that it is almost entirely apocryphal.
3. Local consensus – Where the Sunna and the Quran are silent, local precedent and tradition must be heard. These tend to create regional differences and common examples given are centered around policies for divorce and dowry establishment.
4. Analytical Reasoning – Lastly, law can be established by logical deduction from stated laws that are deemed analogous to the situation being looked at. The example given was the establishment of a minimum dowry. The Quran doesn’t have anything to say about how much of a dowry should be given but the problem was solved logically in this way: when a woman is married, they argued, the loss to her is that of her virginity. To put a price on this, we make a correlation between the woman’s virginity and the amount goods that must be stolen in order to warrant the amputation of the thief’s limb. So the minimum dowry amount is the same as the amount of money one would have to steal in order to justify hacking off one’s arm. Let’s hope that the wedding night is slightly more pleasurable than an amputation.
With the help of al-Shaffi’s writings, Islamic law was completed by the 10th century and (based on current reading anyway) seems to have remained relatively fixed since that time.

Continued in Part 2…


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Islam: The Straight Path – John L. Esposito [1998] – Chapter 2

Below you will find my notes and random observations from the book indicated by the title of this post. It is hoped that it will be effortless to differentiate between those locations in which I provide information from the book proper and those in which I offer personal observation, illumination or pose further lines of inquiry. Whenever any doubt is evident it should be assumed that anything even remotely factual should be attributed to the author of the book and anything that would be construed as otherwise can be attributed to me personally.

Note: In Chapter 2 our author goes about the daunting task of summing up 1000 years of Muslim history in a couple dozen pages. While I began with the goal of summing up his summary, it became quickly clear that further condensing of already condensed (and dense) material would likely be utterly impossible. Instead I will merely jot down a few conceptual notes.

Chapter Links: [Ch 1 Ch 2 | Ch 3 Pt 1 Ch 3 Pt 2 Ch 3 Pt 3]

Like its Christian neighbors, Islam is a religion that seeks actively to promote itself. Unlike Christianity, Islam prides itself on spreading its message with a tolerant rather than a destructive hand. The Quranic mandate is to transform the world, not destroy it. In the early Muslim conquests, the cities in conquered territories were given three choices:

  1. Convert to Islam
  2. Accept Muslim rule but pay a special tax to the ruling establishment
  3. Fight it out and get decimated

In this way Christianity in conquered territories was disestablished officially but not specifically persecuted.

This tolerance left the Muslim world with four distinct social classes:

  1. Arab Muslims – natively born Arabs of the Muslim faith
  2. Non-Arab converts – those who converted to Islam after conquest of some sort. Quranically speaking, these converts were in fact equal to those who came to the faith by birth, but practices varied. Some divisions of Islam required these converts to pay the special taxes levied on non-Muslims. This proved to be one of the many sources of conflict within the religion.
  3. Non-Muslim “People of the Book” – Christians, Jews, and their religious counterparts
  4. Slaves – Generally, no Christian or Jew was allowed to be enslaved.

I’ve mentioned that the Muslims of the time were factional and the chapter goes on at some length on a few of the major players in Islamic politics. The Kharijites were strict Quranic literalists. They viewed any act of sin as a traitorous act against Islam. By this definition, every previous leader of Islam was viewed as a traitor on the grounds that they had not properly followed the rules of succession of leadership put forth in the Quran. The Shii, as have been previously described, believed in familial succession to leadership which is their primary point of difference with the Sunni. The Shii are lead by an Imam, a divinely inspired, sinless and infallible embodiment of Allah on Earth. They await the “Hidden Imam” or Mahdi as their savior. In addition, the Shii are also split off into the Ismailis whose primary distinguishing characteristic seems to be that they believe as the Shii do, but they believe themselves to be somehow special and elite from other Muslims. One cannot imagine why this would cause them to come into conflict with their brethren. Most uniquely, we have the Druze, a separatist faction that forbids intermarriage or conversion. Because of this their practices remained localized and untainted by any outside influences. They also differ in that they believe in a form of reincarnation. So with this diverse cast of characters, it is unsurprising that the next millennium of Islamic history was as unsettled as it turned out to be.

Muslim history is tangled and far beyond your blog-writer’s abilities, but I will attempt to summarize in brief. After the death of the prophet , the “Rightly Guided Caliphs” established themselves (632). Caliphs were established by vote among tribal elders. This met perfectly with Sunni expectations, but the Shii factions were unsatisfied that the original bloodline of the prophet was not honored. As a result of this and other internal disagreements, the reigns of the Caliphs tended to be brief and ended at unexpected times in unpleasant ways. In 661, the Umayyad Empire was formed at the end of an unusually bloody period. The ruled until 750 as a military aristocracy and were eventually replaced by the Abbasid Caliphate.

The Abbasid are sometimes referred to as the true Flowering of Islam. Under Abbasid rule and patronage, Islam truly came into its own and for once owed much of its success to conquest by trade and cultural domination rather than the sword. It is at this time that we find the formation of the Ulama, or religious professional elite who lead the final formalization of Muslim practice and the translation of the great works of the time into Arabic. It is particularly interesting that centuries later when Europe sought to regain its own lost cultural heritage, it was Arabic source material they found rather than their own relics. Unfortunately, due to the sheer scope of geography being ruled, the Abbasid Caliphate began to undergo significant political decline by 950.

Our author also goes on at length about the Muslim response to the Crusades, specifically in Jerusalem. The Arabs originally took the city in 638 and in so doing left the Christian and Jewish populaces largely unmolested. However, when Constantinople fell to the Arabs in 1071, it became widely feared that the event was only the vanguard of a larger effort that might end in the conquest of the entire Western World by the Arabs. So in response, a Crusade was undertaken in 1095 to retake Jerusalem. When the Crusaders arrived in 1099, they murdered every Muslim in evidence despite promises to the contrary and Muslim buildings were desecrated and converted to serve Christian purposes. In contrast, when Arab forces once again retook Jerusalem in 1187, typical Muslim mercy is displayed and Christian buildings and families are again left untouched. At the close of the Crusades, our author points out, the wars that were intended to unite the Christian faith under a common flag was now more fractured than ever by infighting and theological disagreements. When the Crusades officially ended in 1453 with the final fall of Constantinople, the Muslims, not the Christians, were the ones who stood united.

The rule of the Abbasid Caliphate ended officially with the sack of Baghdad by the Monguls in 1258. The remnants of the once great empire lingered in Egypt and Syria until 1517. By the 16th century, the Muslim world was split into three great Sultanates:

  1. The Ottoman Turkish Empire centered in Istanbul covered much of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and Eastern Europe. This Sultanate remained in one form or another until it was finally dissolved in the fallout from World War I.
  2. The Persian Safavid Empire existed until 1736 in what is now Iran. It distinguished itself as having established Shii as its state religion
  3. The Mughal Empire had its seat of power in Delhi, India and covered Pakistan, parts of India and Bangladesh. It was finally ousted officially from power by the British in 1857 when India was declared a British Commonwealth though the real transfer of power in the region had started long before.

Thus ends Chapter 2. It should be further noted that it is likely that I’ve just plain gotten something totally wrong in the summation above. Readers who note such inaccuracies should point them out so I can correct them or at the least feel bad about them and then quickly forget.


Filed under religion

Back to Class

On Monday (two short days) I’m going to do something that I haven’t done in 17 years. (When I put it that way, and when I realize that’s almost half my life, I’m suddenly sad.) OK, so what’s the thing, you might ask? Well, to put it unexcitingly and finally just spill it, I’m going to go to a place of learning and take a class in something that’s not related to my work. In fact, it’s a class on a topic totally unrelated to my vocation. It’s a class just because I want to learn something that will probably never actually be profitable to me economically in any way. That’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is the way in which people have reacted so far when I tell them this.

Universally, the first thing people say when I tell them I’m headed back to class is to express their envy that I actually have time to do this at all. Since I started getting this feedback, the realization has crept into my conscious just how much time I do have to myself to do… whatever… and to utilize this time at least a bit more productively. Even before people expressed this envy I had a lot of productivity guilt. I’d regularly look back on a day and say, “I had 6 hours of time that I wasn’t engaged in work or sleeping. What did I get out of it exactly?” I have a lot of difficulty “relaxing” or whatever it is the average person likes to do with their free time. Now that other people have expressed to me the perceived value of my underutilized hours, I find myself guarding it much more jealously and in many ways I put it to better use. My previous retrospective guilt over the waste of this precious commodity has become proactive and now I feel much more satisfied with the use of it. The unintended impacts of people’s random comments is endlessly fascinating.

Now all this does bring up a couple of related concepts. Firstly, I’ve written several times that the average person actually has much more free time than they want to admit and that they choose intentionally to put themselves in situations in which they lose this commodity. For example, if you have a yard that rivals the size of some golf courses, you shouldn’t be surprised if you have to spend a lot of time mowing it. Those with twelve kids need not be shocked that they spend much of their time shuttling people to ballet class. I can’t help but point out, however, that the majority of topics which consume our free time are mentally passive ones. In today’s media-saturated world, that’s no excuse. You can easily find a podcast about medieval French ballet to listen to on the mower. Those twelve kids might enjoy learning Russian with you in the car on the way to their activity. It can be done, and, I would argue, it should be done. It sets a good example for those around you and, I’d further insist, an intellectually growing parent is a good parent. I see far too often parents who forget to take care of themselves both physically and intellectually in the name of raising their children. This does them a great disservice and denies their children a fulfilled and happy and growing parent in their lives. That, however, is a topic better left explored in another post.

The second subtopic is to wonder exactly what actually constitutes a “productive” activity. Is productivity anything that’s not just sitting and watching television? If I come home, cook dinner, exercise, finish the book I was reading, write a review of it, edit a batch of pictures, upload them and put together a narrative blog post for them all before 11pm, is that *REALLY* productive or is it just busy? What’s the standard here? Does a productive activity have to be financially profitable or does fiscally neutral suffice? Does it have to be intellectually broadening and if so, what exactly does that even mean? I could probably learn something from watching a reality show in MTV. Does THAT count as productive if I now know more about waterproof mascara than I did before? Clearly this is all a personal judgment but it’s still one that I struggle with. Somewhat scarily, my opinion on this topic does seem to change from one day to the next. I sincerely wonder how I will look back on myself a decade from now and judge my use of time.

At any rate, photography class starts Monday. I will not fail to document the process. It will be interesting to see if this is the first of many or simply the first.


Filed under personal

Online Identity Crisis

In the past month I’ve taken advantage of Facebook’s generosity three times. The first time I created a page for The Tattered Thread, my blog of almost a decade. The second time I created a page for At the Bijou, my short-lived desire to see and write about every new movie in the theatres. The third time I created Rob Slaven Photography, a pseudonym for my tendency to take photographs of everything in the universe… at least that small subset of things in the universe that I can set a camera lens to.

In the end and with the help of an absurd book written by a comedian, I’ve come to realize that all of this is simply a search for validation: an attempt to find some group of people who will say by way of word or deed, “you’re doin’ good, Mr. Slaven!” Part of me realizes quite plainly that I don’t care what I do. If the masses want me to write, I shall write. If they want me to go take pictures, I shall do that. The validation I seek is not internal so much as it is external. Perhaps in no small way this goes back to my mother who failed to appreciate me no matter WHAT I did. So now I flail somewhat hopelessly in an attempt to fill that blank and yawning void with the approval of others. Apparently the nascent approval of the maternal is more important than we care to admit.

Somewhat recently though, Laura brought up with me a good point. She said simply that what I really needed was internal approval. I needed to be proud of myself and that would trump any vacuous leftovers I might have from my own upbringing. Nobody could fill the void I felt except me, she said simply. And I will not deny that she is right. But the problem is that I am such a relentless taskmaster. To feel even an iota of self-validation I need to create something momentous. I hold myself to an epic standard rather than a modern one. Every non-productive moment that creeps by is a pain, a sin, a terrible affront to the legacy of humankind that brought me to where I am now.

So where does this leave me? I am not, honestly, all that sure. Clearly, there are some fads which need to be allowed to die. I have puttered about with The Tattered Thread for 10 years but the hallmark of that small and unheard-of publication is that you never quite know what you are going to get on any given day. It is as fluid and as unpredictable I am. One day you might be reading about copper-age warfare and the next you might be assailed by a prolix description of the latest vampire movie. While I can’t claim to have, in fact, any following at all, I do have several years of history to live up to. And while the majority of people who wander on to my blog couldn’t give two rats shits about what I’ve done over the past decade I can say with sincerity that I *DO* care. Deeply. Passionately. This is my history. More history, frankly, than I can personally remember. The devoted reader of this open missive to the universe will probably know more about ME than *I* actually know about ME. Having been in your position as reader, however, I don’t honestly expect you to take that much interest. It’s too much. One cannot live one’s own life and consume that of another. It cannot be done. I get that. I’m flattered that whoever you are, dear reader, you have taken even this much time.

As for the photography, as I look back on my history, I realize that I’ve been at that for a solid three years. I look back at those first pictures and I can’t help but feel a pain in my gut. I look back at those pictures from a week ago and I still can’t help but feel a pain in my gut. Some days I look at my output and think, “Damn. I fucking suck at this” and other times I look at my pics and think, “Damn. I fucking rock.” Perhaps this is the nature of any endeavor. I can say without a doubt that I’ve gotten better over the years. Compared to my early attempts at photography, I’m a photographic genius. Trial and error have left their mark, though I’m sure many would rightly argue that the mark hasn’t been deep enough.

The point is though that I have no standard. By the standard of history, I would vanish utterly. I would have tried my utmost in writing, in photography and if I died today there would be none to remember me at all. None. Silence. Yet part of me thinks that if I don’t accomplish more then I will be a failure. I hold myself to some idiotic standard that if I don’t paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel then I should not have even bothered to have lived at all. In my own mind, no matter what reasonable thing I do, I am too small to have mattered. In the end, I am still a small child who looks expectantly up to his mother but is still too small and too inconsequential and too much of a bother to have mattered.

So after all this I can only say that I think the correct thing is to continue on in the two paths I have chosen even if nobody ever bothers to notice. When I am at my best, I can write, and write well. I’ve been told at work that I need to “tone it down,” that my writing is too elevated to actually be understood widely. I’ll choose to take that as a compliment. On the note of photography, I receive precious little feedback. This is either because my output is so terrible as to not justify a response or that people have come to expect excellence and therefore they say nothing. To feed my own ego, I will assume the latter. If the former is the case then more practice is the only relevant remedy. Either way, I will continue to assiduously and continuously photograph everything that comes into my view.

Returning back to practicalities, those of you are interested in my verbal outputs, should pay your homage to The Tattered Thread page on Facebook. There I will continue to push my observations in whatever form they present themselves. Those who wish for more visual media have Rob Slaven Photography to sate their needs. I will not be offended in the least by any who choose to pursue one in deference to the other. Each of us has a muse who speaks to us with most primal force and I will not think less of anyone who listens most keenly to one but neglects the other. As I sit here pondering the darkness of the night on September the 5th, like countless men before me, I can’t help but wonder about the meaning of it all. What will history, a thousand years from now, think of any of us? Are we vapid, squalid mewling infants in the view of history? It’s idiotically broad and rhetorical thoughts like this that make me realize that I have been out of society far too long. Thank the powers that be, whether they be, God or the random machinations of the universe that I start a new class on the 12th. It has been far too long that I have been out of the normal circulation of society.


Filed under personal