Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Wisdom of the Ancients

I recently finished reading the Penguin Classics edition of The Later Roman Empire, which covers the third quarter of the 4th century as written by Ammianus Marcellinus, who was alive during the period of time he describes.

While Ammianus focuses mostly on the military and political affairs of the time, he digresses on matters such as the origin of pearls, eclipses and comets, most of which have been omitted from the Penguin Classics translation, there is one passage included that caught my attention.

The central character of Ammianus' history is the last pagan emperor, known as Julian the Apostate. Ammianus describes how one night Julian "thought he saw a blazing light like a falling star, which clove its way through part of the air and vanished."

But the unintentionally funny part is when Ammianus goes on to write "In fact this fiery object was what the Greeks call a shooting star, which never falls or touches the earth. Anyone who thinks that bodies can fall from the sky must be set down as an ignoramus or a fool."

In fairness to Ammianus, he does offer some rather interesting and perceptive insights, such as when he notes that "according to the unanimous opinion of scholars, the circumference of the whole earth, which seems to us so immense, is no more than a tiny point in comparison with the vastness of the universe." Not long ago, my son brought home from school a work sheet about Christopher Columbus that repeated the canard that in the time of Columbus people still believed that the world was flat. Educated people have known for millennia that the Earth is round and this passage from a 4th century Roman historian is testament to this fact.

In another passage, Ammianus offers a nugget of wisdom that is very close to a line from the Buddhist Dhammapadda which tells us that "the greatest of victories is the victory over oneself." Ammianus writes "the truest glory is won when a man in power totally subdues his cruel and savage and angry impulses and erects in the citadel of his soul a splendid memorial of his victory over himself."

But my favorite passage from the book is from a section where Ammianus discusses the numbers of people wrongly imprisoned and executed during the reign of Valens on false or trumped up charges that reminded me of the climate of terror described in Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago.

"How much might have been put right in those dark days if Valens had been taught by wisdom the lesson of the philosophers that sovereign power is nothing if it does not care for the welfare of others, and that it is the task of a good ruler to keep his power in check, to resist the passions of unbridled desire and implacable rage, and to realize that, as the dictator Caesar use to say, the recollections of past cruelty is a wretched provision for old age. If a ruler is going to pass judgment on the life and existence of a man, who is part of the world and makes up the number of living beings, he ought to reflect long and earnestly, and not be carried away by passion to commit an act that cannot be undone."

For anyone interested in the history of the Roman Empire, I highly recommend reading The Later Roman Empire by Ammianus Marcellinus, who lived during a critical time when the frontiers of the Empire were coming under increasing pressure from barbarian tribes in Europe and from the Sassanid Persians in the Middle East.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Why Pray?

"If people pray for rain and it rains, how is that? I would say: Nothing in particular. Just as when people do not pray for rain, it also rains. When people try to save the sun or moon from being swallowed up [in eclipse], or when they pray for rain in a drought, or when they decide an important affair only after divination - this is not because they think in this way they will get what they seek, but only to add a touch of ritual to it. Hence the gentleman takes it as a matter of ritual, whereas the common man thinks it is supernatural. He who takes it as a matter of ritual will suffer no harm; he who thinks it is supernatural will suffer harm...."

from the Confucian philosopher Hsün Tzu.

Vjack at Atheist Revolution has a post up titled Japan Doesn't Need Your Prayers, wherein he writes "If you are praying for the Japanese people, please recognize that you are doing this only to comfort or distract yourself. It is for you, not for them. It does not do them any good."

I agree with Vjack that if a person prays to God to help the people of Japan with the expectation that God's divine power will prevent any of the nuclear reactors from having a meltdown or causing trapped survivors to be magically kept alive until they can be rescued, then that person is deluded and is not helping in any way. A post I wrote earlier this evening, May God Protect Those Who Haven't Already Been Hurt Or Killed, was inspired by a comment I saw from someone on a Facebook post who falls into this category.

That being said, I don't think prayer and doing meaningful things to help are mutually exclusive. I'm sure there are plenty of believers in a personal god, whether Christian, Jew or Muslim, who will engage in prayer and then write out a check to a disaster relief organization or, if they are able to, volunteer in some meaningful way such as picking up or delivering supplies to be sent to the disaster zone to aid the relief effort.

For a religious believer, the act of prayer can serve as a ritual that can help to focus the believer's mind on a matter of personal concern, such as helping those who have been affected by a terrible calamity, and empower that person to take action. If the act of prayer really does have such an effect on a religious believer, then I certainly won't begrudge the believer's decision to do so, even if I don't personally think it is necessary.

May God Protect Those Who Haven't Already Been Hurt or Killed

While reading a post on Facebook yesterday about the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, the following comments from someone named Eduardo caught my eye:

"May God protect all the people effected by this tragic event. In God we trust."

If Eduardo was expecting God to actually protect people from being injured or killed, I would have to say that Eduardo's trust is greatly misplaced.

Considering that the death toll alone is projected to top 10,000 people, what do people like Eduardo actually expect God to do now? It reminds me of a scene from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when the narcissistic and fraudulent wizard Gilderoy Lockhart declares that if only he had arrived sooner he could have helped a Hogwarts student who got petrified because he knew just the right counter curse.

Well, the Gilderoy Lockhart in the sky didn't protect the people of Japan from the tsunami. And all the work being done now to aid the people of Japan is being carried out by mere mortal human beings, the way it has always been done in the past.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Huckabee Hits The Trifecta

Lately, former Arkansas governor and aspiring Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee can't seem to stop shooting himself in the foot.

At a roundtable lunch with reporters last month, Huckabee criticized the Obama Administration's decision to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act ("DOMA"). In his remarks, the Huckster referred to ballot initiatives in numerous states that affirmed that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Fine, but as I pointed out in this post in response to an appeal I received from former Senator Rick Santorum:

"In 1996, I thought the idea of same-sex marriage was taking things too far, as much as I considered myself pro-gay rights at the time. But you know what, Ricky? People change their minds over time on some issues. Sometimes it takes decades. Other times it is just a matter of a few years. It's what Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion calls the changing moral zeitgeist. So, you can keep looking back on the passage of DOMA with fond nostalgia all you want, but it is not 1996 anymore."

While my comments were directed at DOMA itself, the same thing applies to the ballot initiatives referred to by Huckabee.

But where Huckabee really goes off the rails when he said "There is a quantified impact of broken families," Huckabee said. "[There is a] $300 billion dad deficit in America every year...that's the amount of money that we spend as taxpayers to pick up the pieces because dads are derelict in their duties."

As a happily married man myself, I am constantly baffled when same-sex marriage opponents claim that the health of my heterosexual marriage hangs in the balance. Really? How? I thought the "dad deficit" was a product of straight men impregnating women and not taking responsibility for the children they fathered. It never occurred to me that gays were to blame for this.

Then on a radio appearance last week, Huckabee fired another round at his foot when he claimed that President Barack Obama grew up in Kenya. When it was pointed out that Obama did not grow up in Kenya and only visited the country when in he was in his twenties, Huckabee tried to backtrack by claiming he meant Indonesia. But he only ended up demonstrating the degree to which he was willing to engage in dishonesty, because the references Huckabee made in the interview cited Kenyan history.

Being an ordained pastor, and therefore, presumably a fine, upstanding Christian, Huckabee could have taken the high road and said, "In my remarks about Barack Obama the other day, I failed to live up to the standards of truth and honesty that Christians aspire to. Instead, I subordinated my convictions to the need to make cheap political points, and for that I apologize and ask you all for your forgiveness." Atheist that I am, I would have been mightily impressed if Huckabee had said something like that. But alas, the former Arkansas governor blamed the "liberal media" and showed that he was nothing more than a Republican Party hack.

Reeling from his self inflicted wounds, Huckabee still managed to fire another round, when during an appearance on conservative film critic Michael Medved's radio show, he responded to Medved's potshot at actress (and Long Island girl!) Natalie Portman for her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards for winning the Best Actress award. You see, the pregnant but as of yet unmarried actress thanked her fiancé for "having given me my most important role of my life." Shame! Shame! An unmarried pregnant woman appearing in public acknowledging the fact that she is pregnant but unmarried, though engaged to be married.

To be fair to Huckabee, I think Michael Medved was the bigger douchebag in the exchange with his "[Millepied] didn't give her a wedding ring" line. But Huckabee was way off base in suggesting that Portman was glamorizing out of wedlock pregnancy. While Huckabee cited the problems of poor, mostly minority women who have children out of wedlock, which is a problem, I seriously doubt African-American and Latina teenage girls decide pregnancy is a good idea because they saw Natalie Portman's acceptance speech.