Sunday, October 25, 2015

Should philosophical ideas be subject to empirical verification?

One question is whether empiricism itself can be empirically verified. Michael Lerner:

"Consider its [scientism’s] central belief: ‘That which is real is that which can be verified or falsified by empirical observation.’ The claim sounds tough minded and rational, but what scientific experiment could you perform to prove that it is either true or false?"

Another is whether, although empiricism is indeed a value, there may be other methods and approaches that are also valuable. Sir James Baillie:

"Empiricism is so true that the closer one keeps to it – without becoming an empiricist! – the better. Just as, on the contrary, Idealism is so questionable that the farther one keeps from it – without ceasing to be an idealist! – the truer will one's view of reality be."

Daniel C. Dennett:

"This spell must be broken, and broken now. Those who are religious and believe religion to be the best hope of humankind cannot reasonably expect those of us who are skeptical to refrain from expressing our doubts if they themselves are unwilling to put their convictions under the microscope. ... If the case for their path cannot be made this is something that they themselves should want to know. It is as simple as that. They claim the moral high ground; maybe they deserve it and maybe they don’t. Let’s find out."

In philosophy, it is important to define one's terms precisely, as advised by Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet:

"One of the essentials for any sound philosophy is to produce for every science an exact and precise language in which every symbol represents some well defined and circumscribed idea; and so by rigorous analysis to guarantee that every idea is well defined and circumscribed."

Defining terms enables them to be verified. However, if defined too rigorously, one loses the flavor, subtlety and ambiguity of ideas, as well as the different human perspectives that generate them.


Michael Lerner. The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. HarperSanFrancisco, 2006. p. 132.

Sir James Baillie, Reflections on Life and Religion, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1952. p 252-3

Daniel C. Dennett. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Penguin Group, 2006. p. 17.

Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet. Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. (1794) Translated by June Barraclough. Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, Inc. 1955. p 44.

Philosophy to bring joy

Epicurus said: "Philosophy is useless if it does not drive away the suffering of the mind."

What will end suffering and bring joy? Is it a final analysis, or is it the process of thinking itself?

First, we may need to begin with reverence, as Sir James Baillie wrote: "The final and supreme destiny of the scholar is to unite wisdom with kindness, knowledge with love, care for truth with love of man – and without reverence that is not possible." We may also need curiosity, as St. Augustine wrote: "We learn better in a free spirit of curiosity than under fear and compulsion." We may need to accept our humble limitations and contradictions, as Johannes Climacus wrote:

"That which makes understanding so difficult is precisely this: that he [the learner] becomes nothing and yet is not annihilated; that he owes him everything and yet becomes boldly confident; that he understands the truth, but the truth makes him free; that he grasps the quilt of untruth, and then again in bold confidence triumphs in the truth."

And we may need to resist assumptions, conclusions, labels, and roles that are given to us, as James Baldwin wrote:

The world's definitions are one thing and the life one actually lives is quite another. One cannot allow oneself, nor can one's family, friends, or lovers – to say nothing of one's children – to live according to the world's definitions: one must find a way, perpetually, to be stronger and better than that.


Epicurus, quoted by Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy, Vintage Books, 2000. p 55.

Sir James Baillie, Reflections on Life and Religion, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1952. Title page.

Augustine, Confessions, I:14

Johannes Climacus (Soren Kierkegaard), Philosophical Fragments, ed. and trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press, 1985. p 30-1.

James Baldwin, quoted by John Stoltenberg as an epigraph to Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice. New York: Meridian, 1989.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Truth is a bully

A character in a novel by Gregory David Roberts called truth a "bully". People feel they have to pursue and honor truth even when they don't like it or it doesn't seem to serve them.

"...take yesterday, for instance, when we were all talking about truth. Capital T Truth. Absolute truth. Ultimate truth. And is there any truth, is anything true? Everybody had something to say about it – Didier, Ulla, Maurizio, even Modena. Then you said, The truth is a bully we all pretend to like. I was knocked out by it. Did you read that in a book, or hear it in a play, or a movie?"

This truth, this bully, requires its own bully – the challenge of falsehood – to compel it to strengthen itself. John Stuart Mill wrote, "If opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil's advocate can conjure up."

But then, maybe the devil's advocate is also correct, as per Neils Bohr: "There are trivial truths and there are great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of the great truth is also true."

Some see a "hierarchy of truth," as explained by Kovach and Rosenstiel:

"It is interesting that oppressive societies tend to belittle literal definitions of truthfulness and accuracy, just as postmodernists do today, though for different reasons. In the Middle Ages, for instance, monks held that there was actually a hierarchy of truth. At the highest level were messages that told us about the fate of the universe, such as whether heaven existed. Next came moral truth, which taught us how to live. This was followed by allegorical truth, which taught the moral of stories. Finally, at the bottom, the least important, was the literal truth, which the theorists said was usually empty of meaning and irrelevant. As one fourteenth-century manual explained, using logic similar to what we might hear today from a postmodern scholar or a Hollywood producer, 'Whether it is truth of history or fiction doesn't matter, because the example is not supplied for its own sake but for its signification.'

"The goal of the medieval thinkers was not enlightenment so much as control. They didn't want literal facts to get in the way of political/religious orthodoxy. An accurate understanding of the day threatened that control – just as today it is a weapon against oppression and manipulation."

What reins in truth? It does require "a measure of some kind" or else it is not viewed as truth. Nicholas Fearn:

"The wider conclusions of Protagoras may be self-refuting, but he did hit upon an important insight. This is the thought that every truth requires a measure of some kind. Truths are not true of and in themselves, but are true within a system of thought, or according to certain rules that test their veracity. This would be the case even if there were only one objective measure of truth. It is unequivocally true that two plus two equals four, but only because four is always the result when we apply the rules of addition correctly. The value of a pair of shoes, on the other hand, may be different according to whether they are given to a beggar or a king, but in each case their value is a value to someone. In both cases, the measure of the truth is external to what it evaluates. How we are to evaluate the measure is another issue, and one that does not always have an easy answer. It will certainly not do to say that this measure is simply 'reality' or 'the way things are,' since how we divine the nature of things is precisely what is in question."


Gregory David Roberts. Shantaram. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2003. p. 60.

John Stuart Mill. Essay on Liberty, quoted in Rollo May, Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1972. p 109-110.

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001. p 38.

Nicholas Fearn. How to Think Like a Philosopher. New York: Grove Press, 2001. p 15.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The portrayal of the historical figure of Aga Mohamed in the novel 'Zohrab, the Hostage' (1832)

Aga Mohamed was a real person. He is portrayed, partly fictionalized, in Zohrab, the Hostage (1832) by James Justinian Morier, who served as British ambassador to Persia 1810-1816. In the article below, emphasis is placed on how this character is portrayed, without regard to possible "spoilers" of the three-volume novel.


Although the author acknowledges that all of Persia is full of stories – some within living memory – of "the famous Aga Mohamed Shah, famous for his cruelty, his wisdom, and his wars" and "the ominous aspect of his ferocious countenance," nevertheless he says that his story changes some historical facts. Amima was really Mohamed's mother, but in the novel, she is his niece. Mohamed really killed one brother and blinded another, but in the novel their fates are combined in a character called Hussein Kuli. The attack on Asterabad is fictitious, but inspired by "the enormities of his cruelty" during the siege of Kerman, the facts of which can be found in Sir John Malcolm's History of Persia, Vol. II. The novel contains anecdotes about a bloody handkerchief (Vol. II) and counting eyes with a whip handle (Vol. III), which he says "were related to me by creditable witnesses."

But it has not been my object to draw a miniature picture of his character; I have only attempted a sketch. He is my prototype, and I have placed him in my narrative, as a painter sometimes inserts a dragon or some such monster in the foreground of his landscape.
* * *
We are told, – Either follow tradition, or invent such fables are consistent with themselves:
"Aut famam sequere, aut sibi convenienta finge."

Volume I

The chief eunuch is called the Khajeh Bashi; he lives in the palace. He "served Aga Mohamed with great zeal, although he dreaded the violence of his character with a feeling amounting to something more than womanish fear." (p. 152) He is addressed with terms of respect, for example, "Almas Aga" (diamond lord), but he responds by acknowledging his humble status: "Almas is her slave, and only waits her commands to show her the excess of his devotedness," he says to Amima, addressing her in the third person. (p. 154) The king, Aga Mohammed Shah, calls him to appear whenever anything important happens. He is, for example, in charge of supervising the Shah's nephew Fatteh Ali's goodbye to his sister. (p. 54) He is also in charge of maintaining the Corook, which is a clear path in front of the Shah's women when they are allowed to take a journey. The public is notified in advance not to cross the Corook on pain of death. "...the whole being marshalled by the royal eunuchs, who with loud shrill voices, and angry words and gestures were casting about the eyes of watchfulness and suspicion, in order to discover any audacious trespasser who might have transgressed the awful Corook. The whole was closed by the person of the Khajeh Bashi or eunuch in chief and a numerous suite, who were ready at the smallest signal to scour the country, and inflict immediate death on any unfortunate offender." (p. 29)

"the reader will perhaps be curious to become more intimately acquainted with the person of the extraordinary being who will form one of the principal features of the following narrative.

Nature, in forming Aga Mohamed Shah, intended to have installed a mind of uncommon vigour into a body capable of seconding its energies, by making it full of activity and strength; but the whole scheme was frustrated by the cruelty of man. Whilst the sharpness of intellect was preserved, it became diseased with ill-humour and moroseness, for every time that his body became an object of contemplation, he entertained such disgust towards himself that he feeling finished by placing him at enmity with all mankind. What would otherwise have been tall and erect, was now bent with the curve of apparent age; – what would have been strength of muscle and breadth of shoulder, seemed blighted and shrivelled. His face, particularly in a country where beards are universally worn, appeared like a blotch of leprosy, for it was almost totally hairless, – it could only boast of a few straggling bristles, which here and there sprouted at irregular distances, like stunted trees upon a poor soil. The skin which covered it resembled wetted parchment, hanging in baggy furrows down the cheeks, under the chin, and about the neck. This spectral countenance, for so it might be called, was, however, lighted up by a pair of small grey eyes of more than human lustre, which, from under two ragged curtains of eyelids, flashed all their intelligence abroad, and as they expressed rage, jealousy, or cruelty, made those who were exposed to their fire feel as if they were under the fascination of some blood-seeking monster. But with all this there were moments when this face would smile, and would even relax into looks of pity and benevolence, but so treacherous were these symptoms esteemed, that at length they were only looked upon as signals of some extraordinary disaster, or as beacons to warn those in danger to be upon their guard. (pp. 10-12)

"It is impossible to describe the expression of the face upon which the eyes of all present were turned, for bereft as it was of its native manliness, all that could be read in it was distrust, envy, and hatred." (pp. 33-34)

On another occasion, his niece's servant reports that "the Shah looked in a vastly killing humour". (p. 148)

"At length he came, and though but slightly attended, still his presence produced a sensation of awe that nothing could suppress, which might be likened to the instinct of smaller animals, that feel the neighbourhood of some large and venomous snake, without actually seeing it." (pp. 174-175)

The Shah has a "hideous" humpback as an attendant and, in particular, as a barber, and "it was generally supposed that the Shah had selected him for his important office, in order to keep himself in good humour with his own deformities." (pp. 12-13) The arrangement "was the ichneumon waiting upon the crocodile," and the humpback was "hated as a spy, and dreaded as an informer." (p. 13) Similarly, the chief eunuch, the Khajeh Bashi, was "many shades uglier than his master" and that, the author commented, "perhaps might have been the reason of his preservation." (p. 153)

The Shah has a falling out with his nephew on a hunting trip, because they both shoot at the same animal, and the Shah's first gunshot does not kill it, but the nephew's second shot fells it. "As soon as the successful result of it was seen, the envy and rage of the Eunuch at once started into active passion." (pp. 43-44) Even hours after the incident, he seems "not unlike a venomous snake coiled up within itself, ready to dart upon its unconscious prey." (p. 47) Because of this incident, he essentially threatens his nephew with death – letting him know that he killed his father and will easily kill him, too – and sending him away into a kind of temporary exile.

Contemplating the prisoner Zohrab, the Shah is "like the bloodhound, which, though muzzled, still snarls and snaps at what he thinks ought to be his prey". (pp. 98-99)When Zohrab approaches the Shah, "he obeyed and stood nothing daunted, with head erect and a firm countenance, exhibiting in his person a specimen of manly beauty which strongly contrasted with the degraded form before whom he stood." (p. 111) Zohrab says he does not mind if the Shah insults him or destroys him, "but when thou abusest my father, he who is thy equal, and to whom thou partly owest thy elevation, he, whom compared to thee is as the finest gold to the vilest copper, then I will speak; then I will tell thee, base dog! that I throw back thy odious words to thy face, and that I spit upon thy odious presence. And now do thy worst." (p. 116)

The chief huntsman had the idea to make a pillar of skulls (kelleh minar) of animals he slaughtered and to place Zohrab's head at the top. When he presents this delightful idea to the Shah, the Shah unaccountably turns the idea of violence against the loyal huntsman. "'What head can be better than thine?' roared the tyrant, in savage merriment." He instructs the chief executioner, the Nasakchi Bashi, "who was always in attendance," to "go complete the minar" and behead the huntsman. (p. 123) The Shah's strange order is not immediately believed by those present. "His horrid face broke into a demoniacal expression of fury when he saw that there was hesitation in obeying his commands. The ragged skin which fell in furrows down his cheeks began to bloat; the eyes seemed to roll in blood, and the whole frame, from which in general all circulation seemed to fly, wore a purple hue..." He is about to behead the huntsman himself, when the executioner steps up quickly behind the doomed huntsman and does his duty "with one blow of his deadly black Khorassan blade." (p. 124) The sight of the "streams of gore flowing and spouting in all directions" caused the Shah immediately "to be soothed into quiet," and "his features resumed their wonted dull and leaden expression." (p. 125) He then turns against the executioner for having fulfilled his command: "'Dog and villain,' he exclaimed, 'why did you slay my chief huntsman? what demon impelled your officious hand in this deed? well is it for you that there is such a feeling as compassion, and that the Shah can spare as well as he can spill! Go, go! clear up your work, and finish it by wiping your own self from our presence.'" (p. 126)

After the death of the chief huntsman, the Shah is regretful, but falls short of contrition, blaming the events on the appearance of Zohrab and lamenting his own loss of face in the eyes of his subjects.

"And thus I lost that poor old Hussein! – where shall I get such another servant? Evil was the hour when the Mazanderani youth came across my path. We have committed a crime which but for him never would have been; we have lost a servant whom we shall never replace; and my subjects look upon Aga Mahomed as a monster of injustice!" (p. 184)

Zohrab's life will be spared, but he must marry Zulma, the chief executioner's daughter.

Volume II

The second volume focuses on the unrequited love of Zohrab and Amima and on Zohrab's dilemma in being forced to marry Zulma.

There is a comment about how eunuchs look older than they are:

"Upon the frame and countenance of an eunuch, an appearance of premature age settles the cast of his features even from youth, and the changes are not so strong as upon the man, whose beard, like the verdant foliage of nature, shews by the variety of its tints..." (p. 98)

The Shah is described:

He was seated on his throne surrounded by a throng of the most brilliantly arrayed courtiers and attendants. He himself was dressed so entirely with jewelry, that as the sun glanced upon him, the eye could scarcely meet the beautiful and magnificent refulgence. A crown, in the front of which shone conspicuous a diamond of immense size, was placed on his head, whilst a pair of armlets or bazûbends, those distinguishing badges of Persian royalty, also composed of stones of immense value, were distinguished on the upper limb of each arm; here glistened those two famous diamonds the koh nûr and the deriah nûr, the mountain, and the sea of light, which had been seized by Nadir Shah among the spoils of the Moguls at the siege of Delhi, and upon which the Persians now looked as talisans which gave their possessor a lawful claim upon the throne.

His sword was placed across his knees; nothing could exceed the richness of its belt and sheath; a resplendent dagger glittered in a girdle of incalculable value, whilst he was backed by a pillow, so inlaid with precious stones, that it looked like a work of mosaic. But with all this his appearance was scarcely human; a dressed skeleton would have filled his place as well; at best he became a living illustration of the vanity of life. The jewels in which his person was incased, were contrasted with the ghastliness of his features, whilst those same features seemed to destroy the value of the jewelry.

But still how dreaded a king was he to his subjects! They could not attach ridicule to any thing belonging to one who had gained power and a throne by superiority of intellect, and which he had exercised in elevating their country to great eminence among the nations of Asia. There was something so uncommon in the circumstance of a being, so degraded in his person, raising himself to kingly power, that that circumstance alone gave a character of the marvellous to his appearance, and surrounded him by feelings of awe and mystery, highly conducive to the establishment of his power. (pp. 103-104)

Amima, while receiving advice from a dervish behind a curtain, faints, and in the commotion that includes the arrival of the Khajeh Bashi (chief eunuch), the curtain is pulled back and the dervish accidentally sees her face. More women and eunuchs come to solve the problem, and the dervish turns and leaves. (p. 130)

The first mention of the race of of eunuch – somewhat surprising, as the palace eunuchs were racially segregated in Persia – occurs in this sentence: "he perceived a well-veiled and richly dressed woman alighting from a finely caparisoned mule, held by a young black eunuch." (p. 136)

Zohrab had a little adventure in which he manages to enter the area of the palace that contained the women's apartments by dressing as a woman escorted by a servant, Ali. Zohrab was forced to stop and leave Ali when "they came to the wicket where a guard of eunuchs was stationed" and then he tried to find his way out of the palace, fearing "instant death" if he attracted the attention of more eunuchs. (p. 152) Two eunuchs were suspicious and were about "to lay violent hands upon him" when Amima's servant Mariam silences them, pretending to recognize the unknown figure as a woman, and invites Zohrab in. (p. 153) His arrival startles Amima, but, after she recovers from her faint, she begins to warm to him. Just then, they hear that the Shah, accompanied by "impatient eunuchs," wished to pass through the room to go to he turret (he is actually seeking the dervish, whom he distrusts), and they fear for their lives. Zohrab had nowhere to hide in the room, and he could not put his costume back on because harem women were not allowed to veil themselves in front of the Shah. They quickly knot scarves together and lower Zohrab off the turret to a nearby roof. The Khajeh Bashi finally bursts in, "foaming with rage at the impediments placed in the way of the performance of the Shah's commands," and Mariam responds to him: "And who are you, you old carcass without a soul! you old scabbard without a sword!" He argues back that he must do the Shah's bidding, because "by a nod of his head he may take off mine," and Mariam retorts, "We'll all teach the Shah to nod...and there let us trust may your hated noddle be nodded off." (pp. 163-164) The Khajeh Bashi sees the knotted scarves on the turret and he says, "In any other harem, a katl-i-âm, a universal massacre, would ensue." Mariam says that the women may tie their scarves any way that they like, and that if the eunuch speaks any more, they will hang him with the rope. (p. 165) They untie the scarves, and the Shah enters and is none the wiser.

Zohrab meanwhile has an interview with Zulma, who professes to be mad with love for him, but he rebuffs her and tells her he never consented to the marriage and will never marry her.

Through an act of trickery, Zohrab's father, Zaul Khan, rescues him from captivity and brings him home. The Shah is furious. "He was accustomed to look upon himself as the most quick-sighted and penetrating of human beings; what then was his mortification to find himself thus completely outwitted, and by one whom he so entirely despised! The feeling was maddening to the highest degree – he could scarcely contain his wrath from falling upon the whole city at once, so enraged was he at the situation of a dupe in which he thought he was placed." (p. 261) He orders the chief executioner and the head guard to be whipped for their negliglence, and they are bastinadoed into unconsciousness. (pp. 262-263)

The Shah then calls a witness to the activities of the "dervish" and of Zulma. The witness is identified as a Kechekchi (also spelled Keshekchi, meaning unknown) and a servant of the Shah. He says he saw the pair but admits that he was too "afraid" to do anything. At this time, the Humpback reveals that he found Amima's armband under Zohrab's pillow; it had once belonged to Amima's father, but the Shah had given it to Amima, and she had given it to Zohrab as a token of her affection.

His first impulse was to order instant execution upon her who had excited his wrath; but so malignant were his present feelings that he seemed to have pleasure in dwelling upon them, in order hat he might devise a more sweet and perfect revenge. The pause, the awful pause, which ensued during these his cogitations was felt by those present as if they stood on the verge of eternity – as if they were awaiting the signature of their death-warrant, so sure were they that none but the most dire results could accrue from the delay.
* * *
At length rousing himself from his apparent stupor, like the deadly boa rising from torpor and preparing for a fresh victim, he wreaked the first effects of his rage upon the poor keshekchi. "Strike his neck," he roared out to the full extent of his terrible voice, as he looked upon the offender. "Go, and let others know what it is to be negligent of the Shah's affairs."

Upon this a ferash ghazeb, a most ferocious monster, stepped up, and with one blow of his sword, severed the wretched man's head from his body. (pp. 267-8)

The "odious king" proceeds with more executions of the innocent along with the guilty, and his subjects respected his authority. "'Tis true they would call him a shaitan, a devil, a blood-drinker, a despot, but then at the same time they would add the epithet ajaîb, wonderful, which in most of their minds would also imply "admirable." (p. 269)

The Humpback reveals to the Shah that a man was seen climbing down from the turret, exiting the harem. The Shah calls for the Khajeh Bashi, addressing him as "Pander." The Khajeh Bashi is terrified by the allegation. (p. 274) The Shah is angry because he had previously felt toward Amima "a devoted tenderness, a sense of gratitude towards her for allowing him to feel that at least there was one creature in the world who cared for him," but now he sees that as "a mere illusion". (p. 276) He fantasizes throwing Amima off the turret with his own hands. The Khajeh Bashi goes to Amima's quarters late at night to fetch her and bring her before the Shah. She finds this highly irregular, and tells him, "the first words I utter will be complaint of thee. Will the Shah consent to see his niece exposed to the gaze of man without her veil?" (p. 281) In response, "the hideous creature indulged in a malignant exulting chuckle". (p. 282) Instead of bringing her to the Shah, however, he brings her to a horseman, and she is left exposed in the wilderness to die. She is rescued by a man who says that his brother was castrated by Adil Shah, a rival of his father's, and that he would have met the same fate soon after had Adil Shah not died. (p. 312)

Volume III

Volume III opens with the Shah's rage:

"The violence of feeling which had urged the Shah to the destruction of his niece, was succeeded by acts of unprecedented barbarity, as if he were anxious to stifle the feelings of remorse which the one had raised in his heart, by others still more atrocious. In losing Amima he had lost the only tie in which the affections of his heart were engaged; having once surmounted this, he overthrew every barrier, and like a wild beast breaking from his confinement, spread terror and alarm wherever his steps carried him. The first ravings of his fury turned towards the Khajeh Bashi."

The people gather quickly when they hear the Shah is about to sit on the throne, "for in the presence oft he tyrant, who could say that his turn for destruction might not be the next upon the book of fate?" In this case, the Shah speaks pointedly to the prime vizir Mirza Hajji Ibrahim to demonstrate to everyone that "he had arisen blameless, and that the confidence reposed in him had not in the slightest degree diminished." (p. 23) The Shah then gives military orders about clothing, provisions, and weapons. "His sagacity awed almost as much as his cruelty. Every one felt that, under the scrutiny of such an eye and such a mind, to do one's duty was inevitable, and therefore none flinched, but went heartily to work in its accomplishment." (p. 24)

Shir Khan Beg was summoned, and "the eyes of all were turned towards him, as one destined to receive a further infliction of punishment. ...he could scarcely stand, so truly was he terrified (in common let it be said with all the Persians of his day) by merely knowing himself to be near the presence of the Shah. He made his proper bow, and left his shoes at the door." (p. 40) Later, however, Shir Khan Beg is honored with rich dress, including a ceremonial diamond-hilted dagger whose honor he has always dreamed of. The Shah is thus able to assign him to a dangerous expedition. (pp. 98-102)

Zohrab has an opportunity to kill the Shah. Ali points his musket at him, but Zohrab orders him down.

"The moment of vengeance elapsed, and once of serious meditation succeeded. Zohrab was lost in a thousand reflections upon the sigh of hte being whose life he had just spared. His own persecutor, the murderer of his Amima, the invader of his country, the announced murderer of himself, his father, mother, and family; the proclaimed shedder of the blood of thousands of innocent people. All this had gone by, and he had refrained from taking vengeance into his own hand. The Mussulman youth felt that such destinies were to be wielded by the hand of an all wise Providence, and not placed at the disposal of a weak and erring mortal such as himself." (pp. 132-133)

Zulma tells the Shah that, one day, Ali arrived from Asterabad to deliver a letter to the humpback. Ali repeatedly refused to tell Zulma what the letter contained, but finally, Zulma seized it from him, discovered its "treachery," and reported it to the Shah. The Shah asked the executioners to ready the rope on a lightning-struck pine tree, as Ali waited, pinned by guards, and he also sent for the humpback.

"There sat the king, coiled up as it were in the folds of his power, like the dragon of the wilderness spreading terror around; above him reared the towering stem of the pine, scathed and blackened, overtopping all the trees of the forest, stretching out its burnt and withered ranches in stiff and rigid outlines, and presenting no bad emblem of the withered person of the Shah himself." (pp. 158-159)

As soon as the humpback is brought to him and the Shah reads the letter, the humpback is hoisted up on the rope and swings from the pine tree. The Shah then asks for Ali. (pp. 164-165)

"After the defeat of the royal army at the attack of the Tehran gate, the Shah had solemnly sworn on the Koran and by his own head, that he would deliver up the city for three successive days to the pillage of his troops; and that he would not be satisfied unless at the end of that time twenty mauns of human eyes were placed before him. Humanity shudders at this recital, but true it is that in Persia, now as in ancient times, the extraction of eyes was always a punishment resorted to when death was not inflicted. Noses and ears were also frequently commanded to be brought before the conqueror, upon sacking a city; eyes almost always." (p. 198)

The Shah hates Zaul, "and he determined never to sheathe his sword until dead or alive he had both father and son in his possession." In the Shah's tent, surrounded by his supporters, "his face beaming with ferocious malignity, he pronounced the awful sentence of the katl-i-aum, or general massacre, and to give it an appearance of lawful and religious severity, he caused a firman for that purpose to be issued, sanctioned by a fetvah of the Mushtehed of Persia." (p. 199-200) It was the Siege of Kerman, and there was "heard the uplifted voices of a whole city in malediction of the tyrant." (p. 200)

From his horse, the Shah yelled, "A hundred tomauns for the head of Zaul, and five hundred for Zohrab alive." Everyone takes up the call for arms. (p. 202)

Zohrab sees his father slain, and then he cuts a pursuer in half (p. 204) and manages to rescue his father's body before being beaten and brought to the Shah. The Shah tells him it is his last day. Zohrab asks to be killed immediately so that he can "die without being grateful to thee for any thing." Then he asks the Shah if he may be the "atoning sacrifice" for the innocent people so that the bloodshed will stop. "If thou hast a heart, let my words reach it; and if thou hast a soul, let the fear of a future life and future retribution overtake it." The Shah calls him a "dog" and orders him to stop preaching. Zohrab retorts that he is the "father of dogs". (p. 213) To increase his suffering, the Shah orders: “Let his confinement be so strict, that the Shah will be jealous if even a ray of light visits him.” (p. 214)

Eyes of victims are brought to the Shah. Sadek assures the Shah that it is the requested number. The "unfeeling" Shah warns him that, if there are not enough, Sadek's own eyes will be taken to meet the request. The executioner shows him the tray of eyes and begins to count them, then the Grand Vizir Hajji Ibrahim bursts out with a plea for mercy for the innocent victims. "The perverseness of the Shah's mind, acting upon his hot and ardent nature, was like a parasitical plant, which is seen to entwine itself, cover over, and take possession of a large tree in the forests of tropical climates..." He then dismisses his executioner from his responsibilities. (pp. 216-218)

When the Shah's nephew Fatteh Ali appears, older than everyone remembers him, they long for his kingship. (pp. 234-235) The Shah cannot abide hearing complimentary words about his nephew because he feels that he is being negatively compared to his nephew. (p. 238) When the Shah tells his nephew that he killed his sister Amima, his nephew curses him, and the Shah orders him killed. (pp. 248-249) Fatteh Ali is taken to prison, lamenting Amima’s death. Sadek longs to tell him the truth but can’t. (pp. 253-254)

The Shah tells Sadek that "my liver is turned into blood," but Sadek prostates himself and begs: "Your slave is too great a lover of his Shah to commit such an act. Let the Shah kill him, but let him stay his hand from th blood of the innocent youth." The Shah calls Sadek a "base reptile" and dismisses him, but privately, the Shah worries that he is losing favor among his own servants. (pp. 259)

The Shah orders Zohrab to be paraded backwards on a donkey, spit on, then impaled. (p. 265)

Then he tells Zulma: Her father, the chief executioner, must kill Sadek before dawn. He doesn’t tell her why. Meanwhile, Sadek finds his name on a kill list, and Sadek and Hussein conspire to stab the Shah in his sleep. The Shah awakens enough to run around the room first before he’s stabbed in the heart and falls, still declaring he is the Shah. “And thus fell the scourge of Persia’s fair kingdom, and of her soft and thoughtless sons.” (p. 280)

Sadek removes the Shah's head and also takes the kill list. He then breaks the news to the confined prince Fatteh Ali that his uncle, the Shah, is dead, and that his sister, Amima, lives. Sadek puts the severed head in the Grand Vizir's room as a prank. (p. 285)

When Zulma hears the news of the Shah's death, she wants to tell the imprisoned Zohrab. Fatteh Ali gives him the news about the Shah and Amima. Fatteh Ali is bedecked with the koh noor and deriah noor jewels on his arms. (p. 320)

Zohrab marries Amima. Zulma settles for a quarrelsome marriage with Shir Khan Beg. Sadek chooses voluntary exile.


James Morier. Zohrab, the Hostage. London: Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street, 1832.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Reflecting gender in a family tree

Gender is an important part of life stories. An individual’s gender history can impact their relationships with their parents and siblings. It can also affect the person (or people) they marry and whether and how they come to be parents. This information is not always private; it can become part of family history.

As the amount of online genealogical data grows and as technology improves for creating family trees, new and more flexible ways of representing gender may arise.

Deciding what story to tell

Some genealogists maintain a “purist” position that a family tree should properly dedicate itself to outlining biological relationships. Within this approach, each individual on the tree will have one mother and one father – the people who contributed their DNA to form that person.

This approach poses problems for many people’s family stories. First of all, it does not reflect the reality and significance of adoption. One solution is to draw both family trees for the adoptee: the birth family and the adoptive family. If space permits, both trees can be drawn on the same page using different colors or backgrounds. This is often presented as a “roots and branches” visual design for young adopted children who are drawing their own family tree. With the child in the heart of the tree trunk, the birth family members are the “roots” of the tree and the adoptive family members are the “branches.”

A different problem (or, perhaps, opportunity) exists for people who claim more than one gender role over their lifetimes, and especially for those who have children, whether biologically or through adoption. How does one decide whether the indicate the person’s role as “daughter” or “son,” “wife” or “husband,” and especially as “mother” or “father,” where the person may have filled multiple roles at different times?

A blanket rule always to label a person’s sex in some particular way – whether based upon their birth sex, their surgically reassigned sex, the gender in which they spent the majority of their life, the gender on their marriage certificate(s), the way in which they contributed DNA to one or more children, or the “Mama” or “Papa” name by which their children called them – is a kind of stereotype and assumption that is no more proper or accurate within a family tree than it is in any other sphere of life. What is most relevant for one person may not be as important for another. The information in all of these spheres together may not present the individual consistently as one sex or the other, and even if it does, the person may have a different story to tell.

If the person is alive, they can, of course, be asked for their preference about the name and gender they want to use in the family tree. The document may be shared within the family or eventually stored as a publicly accessible record, so it is important to honor the lives of the people mentioned within it, which most likely means representing their gender as they would choose to represent it themselves.

Go back enough generations, on the other hand, and all of the ancestors are deceased. These people cannot be asked for their opinion, so the researcher must make a determination about how to present them.

One person whose life story poses such a question about gender representation is Deborah Samson, an American female who disguised herself as a man named Robert Shurtliff to fight in the Revolutionary War, and later returned to live as a woman, marrying a man and bearing children. (Her story is told in the recent novel Revolutionary by Alex Myers.) When faced with a real-life character like this, one must determine how to present their story. Other genealogists might find a relationship to a castrated man who may have held third-gender social status (whether he appreciated it or not) in places like China, India, Turkey or Italy. Again, there is a challenge in deciding how to present the family story.

Online tools

Once the researcher is ready to make a declaration about an individual’s gender, whether it is provisional or final, the next steps will be limited by what the medium allows. Most people today who draw up their family trees will do so on a computer. Each program has a different way of capturing and displaying gender.


One of the largest genealogy sites on the Internet today is Ancestry ( Users can make multiple family trees and optionally make the information available to share with other users. Their trees may be for their own families or for unrelated people in whom they have a research interest. Within the family tree, each individual has a profile that can contain multiple photographs or portraits and other media files. People without photographs are represented as white silhouettes. There are three gender options, which control the default silhouette: “male,” side-facing with short hair on a light blue background; “female,” side-facing with slightly longer, wavy hair on a light pink background; and “unknown,” facing straight ahead, bald in appearance, on a light gray background. The system asks for “Last name” before the gender is assigned. After it is assigned, the same field is called “Surname” for males and people of unknown gender, and “Maiden name” for females.

While Ancestry requires that one of these three gender options be selected for each person in a family tree, it does not restrict marriage or parent-child relationships based on the gender of the individuals involved. Users can also make a “custom” event on the individual’s timeline and label it however they please. This has the potential to be used for gender transition markers, as one example.

Find a Grave

Another large website is Find a Grave ( which allows users to create “memorial pages” devoted to individual graves, organized by cemetery. Find a Grave is technologically much simpler than, but it has become a large resource because of the sheer amount of information that volunteer users have placed on the site for over 120 million graves as of 2015.

On a memorial page, the deceased individual may be assigned a first, middle, and last name, along with a nickname (which will appear in quotation marks) and a maiden name (which will display in italics), plus a prefix (Mrs., Sir, etc.) and a suffix (Jr., Sr., etc.). The nickname and maiden name fields may be co-opted for a person who had multiple names in multiple gender roles, if those names are relevant to that person’s life story, of course. Multiple images can be uploaded. These are usually photographs of the gravestone but can be photographs of the individual during life.

A optional section called “Family links” connects the memorial pages of immediate family members. The options are “Father,” “Mother,” and “Spouse” (along with “Year Married”). Multiple spouses can be added. It is only in the designation of “Father” and “Mother” that binary gender is relevant on Find a Grave. There is no pink and blue color-coding as on Ancestry, and Find a Grave can display a biographical text paragraph on the front of the memorial page without making the user “drill down” into sub-pages for that information.

What will users imagine next?

Some users’ ideas may be more creative – or simply more accurate – than existing software will allow them to input into the system. Genealogical work is highly collaborative, so it is likely that new conventions will emerge and that new technologies will be introduced to accommodate them.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Perhaps 'God's Not Dead' (2014 film) but these arguments for him don't have legs

“God’s Not Dead” (2014) is a horrifically bad film, certainly from a philosophical perspective and also from an entertainment perspective.

It misrepresents what everyone, theist and atheist, over the age of 18 actually believes. The hero of this film, which is set on a college campus, is an undergraduate Christian who is convinced of the vague proposition that there must be meaning to life and that the universe must have a creator, but who – certainly at first, and regrettably still at the end – cannot articulate anything beyond this (although his public speaking presentation skills do improve a bit). The young pastor doesn't say anything much of use to a young woman who has just been beaten by her father and thrown out of her house, other than that he's glad she's a brave Christian, and when someone lies dying by the side of the road, the pastor encourages him to accept Jesus before he meets God instead of attempting to stop him from bleeding out. The "other side" fares no better in its representation. The atheist professor refers to religion as a "mind virus," but he is not merely an adversary – he is clearly of Satan. He does not have a kind, humble, or humorous word for anyone. He persistently humiliates his girlfriend in front of his colleagues. With a sociopathic stare, he says that he is the “god” of his classroom and threatens to sabotage a teenager's academic career because the teenager persists in asserting theistic beliefs. Unaccountably, he allows the student to give lectures on theism during his philosophy class that is supposed to be about atheism. At first timid, the student gradually becomes bolder at asserting his beliefs in this venue, until at last he yells at the professor, “Why do you hate God?” and the professor screams back in front of the large audience, “Yes, I hate God! All I have for him is hate.” The kid whispers: “How can you hate someone if they don’t exist?” Touché.

This extreme character dysfunction is heightened by the context of the deep, unredeemed suffering of many characters. The plight of the girlfriend of the satanic atheist professor is presented from her perspective, as she quietly puts up with a terrible amount of verbal abuse before finally quietly leaving him. Another woman is diagnosed with cancer and submits to a body scanner that she is told will rip any bits of metal out of her body; her supposed boyfriend leaves her without a single sympathetic word when she gives him the news. A Muslim girl begins listening to Billy Graham sermons in secret, and when her father catches her, he hits her so hard in the face that she flies off the bed, and when she asserts that Jesus is her savior, he hits her again, carries her downstairs, places his hand around her neck, then slams the door on her forever. An undergraduate receives paranoid phone calls from his father instructing him to publicly adopt the atheist stance so that he can fit in and succeed.

The end of the film presents the call to action to send a text message containing the film's name and message, "God's Not Dead," to everyone one knows, during a rock concert song that contains the interminable visual of millennial concertgoers repeatedly twiddling their phones as a reminder that one is not supposed to be watching the film anymore. The message manages to be both underwhelming (being not dead is the best God can do?) and unsupported (if he's not dead, why doesn't he appear in the movie?).

The film is short on actual philosophical arguments. The undergraduate would-be lecturer begins by saying that God's creation of the world – at least according to the minimalist description of it that is presented in the Bible, "Let there be light" – is compatible with the Big Bang theory.

This is followed by a torturously bad approach to the question of whether the universe was created. The only reasonable sentence in the discussion is: “Both the theist and the atheist are burdened with answering the same question of how did things start?” The undergraduate acknowledges that positing God as the creator of the universe simply raises the question "Who created God?" He answers that God is "uncreated," yet he does not accept the competing atheist account that the universe is uncreated. He concludes: “To the extent that you don’t allow for God, you’d be pretty hard pressed to find any credible alternative explanation for how things came to be.” The sociopathic atheist professor, rather than pointing out that the mere positing of an act of divine creation does not in itself explain how anything came to be, simply sneers: “Well, I imagine you’re pretty pleased with yourself.”

The student later addresses – I hesitate to say "engages" – a single sentence by physicist Stephen Hawking in The Grand Design: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.” He lacks the wit to immediately respond with the obvious rejoinder, "Well, how did gravity get created?" Instead, he must go home to think about it, where he prepares for the next class with an argument by Christian mathematician John Lennox who says that the assertion that the universe “needs” to create itself is a circular argument that fails to explain “how and why it was created” such that it exists to "need" to do anything. This makes sense – but, again, positing God does not fix the problem, but merely pushes all the same problems onto God.

Next, the student embraces the idea of evolution and creation simultaneously, without flagging the tension between the two ideas. He says that God was needed to set life in motion before any living things could begin to evolve. He then implies that the Bible is a better authority on evolution than the 19th-century scientist Charles Darwin, since Darwin once got something wrong. Darwin stated that "Nature does not jump," meaning that evolution was gradual, when, in fact, when seen from the perspective of eons, evolution does move faster at some points than at other points. So, since Darwin was wrong on that point, one should therefore place faith in the Bible's creation story – because, I suppose, the Bible never gets anything factually wrong – while somehow modifying the Biblical narrative to allow for evolution as a subset of the creation story, a process that is "divinely controlled from start to finish” rather than a “blind unguided process".

Next, the student raises the problem of evil. He asserts that God gives people free will, which enables evil, but that this is only a temporary problem, since God's agenda is for people to eventually go to heaven “with their free will intact”. Someday, he says, God will destroy evil altogether. This account makes no sense whatsoever. First of all, evil is not defined here; depending on the definition of evil, perhaps God could have created a world where evil was impossible – either logically impossible, because there are no laws that can be broken, or physically impossible, because evil acts cannot actually be performed. But secondly, even taking the more usual assumptions that it's valuable for humans to have free will even though the exercise of free will can lead to the violation of moral rules and the initiation of human suffering, it is not obvious why God needed to create a cosmological system wherein either the possession of free will or the existence of evil is needed for people to go to heaven. It isn't clear what people would do with their free will in heaven, especially after that fine day when God abolishes evil, which indirectly abolishes free will. Then people will no longer have free will either in heaven or on earth, which invalidates the whole point of the exercise (as described by the student lecturer), which was to allow people to commit evil on earth so that they could have free will in heaven. Thirdly, when the atheist professor raises the standard objection to the problem of evil – that no possible theological contortion can be a morally adequate justification for allowing suffering, an objection that many religious people also recognize as fatal to the enterprise of theodicy – he then abandons his own victory by immediately changing the subject.

The last subject, at the professor's initiative, is “moral absolutes.” He allows the student lecturer to neatly dispose of this by pointing out that the professor probably has an opinion against academic cheating, which therefore is a "moral absolute". (The concept of a "moral absolute" is never defined. Depending on what one means by "absolute" – regarding the origin of a normative belief or rule, the extent of its intended application to others, and what makes a belief or rule specifically a moral one – the professor's assumed stance against cheating may or may not be a moral absolutist stance.) The student then appeals to a paraphrase of Dostoevsky: “If God does not exist, then everything is permissible.” In addition to the lack of a moral "standard," he also claims that there would be "no real reason" to be moral (which seems to appeal to human motivation or logic, which is a different matter), and that furthermore, everything would be “meaningless” and humans would be reduced to the moral equivalent of “goldfish”.

His conclusion is that atheists such as his professor want to “take away the choice” of people to believe. Perhaps a few do, just as countless theistic individuals and religious institutions have historically coerced their followers and even exacted the death penalty for noncompliance, but this is surely an ad hominem argument that has nothing to do with whether the audience has been presented with sound philosophical arguments for or against God's existence. For the record, the audience received no such thing.

Update I

In 2017, when a man destroyed a monument of the Ten Commandments that the State of Arkansas had recently erected outside their Capitol, God's Not Dead producers Troy Duhon and Robert Katz pledged $25,000 to the governor’s office to replace it. A separate fundraising initiative by State Sen. Jason Rapert seeks $100,000 to be used for related considerations like security for the new monument and possible additional monuments in other places.

Update II

A sequel to this movie starring Melissa Joan Hart, the former star of "Clarissa Explains It All," was released in 2016.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A compressed 500-word summary of 'Discourse on the Method' by Rene Descartes (1637)

     Reason distinguishes men from animals. Members of the same species share certain essential qualities, so every man has "common sense." (When opinions differ, it's due to a difference in available evidence.)
     Collaborative efforts to find truth are rarely as successful as the efforts of one man. Laws invented democratically aren't as good as laws developed by a single legislator, and laws laid down by God are "incomparably superior."
     Descartes decided to build the first indisputable philosophical foundation. It will consist entirely of his own ideas, rather than a mere reformation of ideas previously given to him. Not everyone should use this philosophical method because they may have difficulty judging what is true or abandon their beliefs without rebuilding them.
     His philosophical method, based on mathematical proofs, has four parts: Delay judgment until certain; Divide the problem into parts; Start simple and become more complex; Enumerate and review fully to prevent omissions. He will question everything he thinks he knows, and consider false anything that is "merely plausible," to distinguish "sand" from "rock" and secure the foundation. While rebuilding his beliefs, he needed a "provisional code of morality," which also has four parts: Obey the country's customs; Act decisively without second-guessing; Change oneself rather than dwelling on what cannot be changed in the world; Choose the best profession.
     The entire world may be nothing more than a dream, but Descartes knows he exists because he is the one thinking. I think, therefore I am is the first principle of his new foundation. Because he can imagine himself without a body, his thinking soul is distinct from his body. We can know things without using the five senses--in fact, ideas which we "conceive clearly and distinctly" through reason are always true, given by God. All concepts are in some way founded in truth, or God wouldn't have given them to us. Belief in God reassures that all perceptions aren't merely a dream.
     The idea of God entails his existence just as the idea of a triangle entails that its angles equal 180 degrees.
     Less perfect beings depend on God and cannot exist without him. The less perfect can't generate the idea of the more perfect. Because Descartes can think of something more perfect than himself (i.e., God), he concludes God exists and put the idea in his head.
     God can't have imperfections like "doubt, inconstancy, sorrow" or dependency. God isn't a body-mind composite because otherwise his parts would depend on each other.
     Even handicapped humans talk or gesture to communicate thoughts, while animals don't. Animals are therefore essentially different from humans, lacking capacity for rational thought. Cardiac circulation of heat and "animal spirits" makes it possible for bodies to move without conscious intent. Humans bodies could have existed like animals, but God endowed us with souls.
     The soul is not apparently vulnerable to any particular thing, so it's immortal. Lack of belief in immortality is the thing most likely to make one stray from virtue.

Rene Descartes. Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking Truth in the Field of Science. (1637) Published in Discourse on Method and Meditations. Translated by Laurence J. Lafleur. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1960.

This summary was written in 2005, along with a series of other 500-word summaries of philosophy books, as an exercise in brevity.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

A compressed 500-word summary of ‘Meditations’ by Rene Descartes (1641)


     Most people need to be restrained from immorality by fear of God and the afterlife. Atheists may be convinced of religion and virtue if rational philosophy answers questions of God and the soul. Descartes takes up Pope Leo X's challenge to Christian philosophers to convince skeptics that the soul survives the body.

First Meditation

     An "evil spirit" might be deceiving us to think the world exists. Could everything be a dream?
     Realize, however, that even in dreams, reason remains intact.

Second Meditation

     In essence, Descartes is not physical, but a thinking thing. If he stopped thinking, he would cease to exist.
     Sensory perception and contemplation of other objects (in his example, a malleable piece of warm wax) help him comprehend how his mind works.

Third Meditation

     Does God exist and does he deceive?
     A cause is greater than its effect, so only God could have caused Descartes to have the idea of an infinite being. His idea of God is prior to his idea of himself, "very clear and very distinct and contain[ing] more objective reality than does any other."
     His mind wouldn't exist unless God first created it (his parents made only his body) and kept creating it anew at every moment. Anything that created him must have at least the idea of God's perfections, starting an infinite regress of more perfect beings. No regress is possible for his continual re-creation in the present moment.
     One of God's perfections is that his perfections are unified, and the idea of this unification entails knowledge of all his perfections. He is not a deceiver.

Fourth Meditation

     God is no deceiver, having no imperfection of "weakness or malice."
     God gave Descartes the ability to judge truth and falsehood. He can't know all God's purposes for him (e.g. whether it's better for him to be able to make mistakes), but God always wills the best.
     Everything God has is greater than what he has (except free will, which has no degrees). Descartes is grateful that God created him with a few perfections. God chose not to give him the ability to know everything he needs, nor even to know when he doesn't know.

Fifth Meditation

     God's existence is part of his essence. A nonexistent God would be like a triangle without 180 degrees.
"Everything which I conceive clearly and distinctly is necessarily true," he wrote, because God doesn't deceive.

Sixth Meditation

     Physical things probably exist because the senses deliver truth more often than falsehood.
     It is unknown why certain physical sensations correlate with psychological states (e.g. pain leads to unhappiness, hunger to a desire to eat). Unexplained sensory experiences like objects appearing smaller at a distance or phantom limb could cause Descartes to doubt his senses. Knowledge of an undeceiving God is needed for reassurance. God gives us faculties to be able to correct our false beliefs.

Rene Descartes. The Meditations Concerning First Philosophy. (1641) Published in Discourse on Method and Meditations. Translated by Laurence J. Lafleur. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1960.

This summary was written in 2005, along with a series of other 500-word summaries of philosophy books, as an exercise in brevity.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A compressed 500-word summary of ‘Reason in History’ by G. W. F. Hegel (1837)

     History is driven by the quest for self-knowledge from primitive darkness. Rational Spirit is the “substance” of world history. There is a rational cause for all events.
     Spirit strives to penetrate the barrier of nature, physicality, and instinct. Spirit and Matter have distinct essences, the former freedom (as it is self-contained) and the latter gravity (as it seeks outside itself). However, God is not separate from the world, and human nature is universally defined as the intersection of spirit and nature.
     God is the Idea of Freedom and he wills what is like himself. Freedom is the ultimate aim of world history and is "God's purpose with the world.” Although Christianity gave rise to this “highest concept” (Chinese and Indian ethical systems have no concept of freedom), history had to play out before slavery was abolished. Nature is cyclical but humans progress.
     Society, law, morality, and the state are essences to be discovered and are necessary for freedom. The state is the divine Idea on earth, the "medium of historical change” and the subject of history. The ideal of freedom must be developed from the violent state of nature; therefore, the state creates freedom, rather than limiting it.
     All thought, including religion and morality, begins with feeling, the "lowest form" and "worst mode" possessed even by animals. Reducing everything to feeling prevents discussion about what’s right or true. Philosophy is higher, freer, and wiser than Art and Religion because it appeals to reason.
     Knowledge of God is "of supreme value." Everyone is obligated to know the revealed Christian God. The state must be based on God, because freedom depends on the realization of existence in divine Being and because temporal, secular, private interest can only be justified by the universal in God.
     Moral duties are based on social, legal, and familial relationships. Part of who we are is conditioned by our ancestors. We find happiness by choosing to fulfill our culturally determined relationships and duties. Following the law—which is the people’s will, reason, and freedom--makes one free.
     The state enables knowledge, art, and religion. It shapes great individuality; men have value, self-consciousness and morality only within it.
     “World-historical” great men, the “heroes,” "stand outside of morality." They are restless, unhappy nonconformists inspired by mysterious sources. Their personal passion helps them achieve universal goals.
     Freedom isn’t about personal whim but about understanding the people’s evolving, maturing general will. Each people has its own spirit or essence, and adopts a constitution according to its level of development. The highest point of a people's development is its understanding of its state.
     Morality suppresses individual will and creates common will. Morality means (privately) wanting to do what one is supposed to do (publicly). The example of individual virtue in primitive, savage states should not cast doubt on whether the progress of history improves morality. An immoral person may advance history and a moral person may stall it. "World history [is]...the development of...the consciousness of freedom."

G. W. F. Hegel. Reason in History: A General Introduction to the Philosophy of History. Translated by Robert S. Hartman. Indianapolis: Library of Liberal Arts, Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1953. Lectures on the Philosophy of History originally published 1837.

This summary was written in 2005, along with a series of other 500-word summaries of philosophy books, as an exercise in brevity.

Friday, April 10, 2015

A compressed 500-word summary of 'The Meaning of Truth' by William James (1909)

     "True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify," James summed up his empiricist theory of pragmatism. "False ideas are those that we cannot."
     There is no epistemological chasm between reality and knowledge. The space is filled with ideas and sensations. The universe is made of relationships as much defined by experience, and therefore subject to debate, as their constituent parts.
     Adding context to experiences--for example, realizing the identity of someone seen--gives knowledge. Knowledge is having an idea that resembles and impacts reality. Solipsistically copying the universe in our minds, such as knowing the number of hairs on a head, achieves no purpose. "All that the pragmatic method implies, then, is that truths should have practical consequences." Scientific laws are a "human device" and "true so far as they are useful." James wrote, "'The true' is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as the right is only the expedient in the way of our behaving."
     "Truth" means connection or relation to "terminal experiences," the "linchpins of all reality." The linchpins themselves are not "true." We think we have knowledge when our propositions are consistent (often achieved by leaving out contradictory or unknown facts). Pragmatism, a method of thinking and behaving, is not necessarily a call to action because ideas can be said to "work" with other ideas.
     Broadly applied, pragmatism can be called humanism, which holds that an experience is "true" if it minimizes contradiction and yields satisfactory results with related experiences. You know a building's location if you can lead someone there. Truth is the event of verification; a belief isn't true until proven. Therefore, "experience and reality come to the same thing." The knower and the known are both parts of experience; "experience as a whole is self-containing and leans on nothing."
     In contrast to pragmatism, "absolutism" or "transcendentalism" maintains that certain propositions are true regardless of any useful consequences to believing them. However, James notes, the only "cash-value" of a transcendent reality is whether there are practical results to knowing it. "The transcendentalist believes his ideas to be self-transcendent only because he finds that in fact they do bear fruits. Why need he quarrel with an account of knowledge that insists on naming this effect?" Pragmatism fleshes out a definition of truth that absolutism phrases only in the abstract. "We offer them the full quart-pot, and they cry for the empty quart capacity." The view that "concrete workings" are irrelevant to truth is "the renunciation of all articulate theory."
     Pragmatism is inaccurately accused of holding that anything is true if one thinks it true at the present moment. Rather, pragmatism emphasizes the context in which idea and object relate. Another objection is that the pragmatist thesis is not itself meant to be pragmatically understood. James responds that it is indeed; an idea is true if it is satisfactory, and the pragmatic thesis is "ultra-satisfactory" to pragmatists.

William James. The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to "Pragmatism." New York: Greenwood Press, 1968. (Originally 1909.)

This summary was written in 2005, along with a series of other 500-word summaries of philosophy books, as an exercise in brevity.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

A compressed 500-word summary of 'Evangelium Vitae' by Pope John Paul II (1995)

     Impermissible "crimes against life" include abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, capital punishment, genocide, and suicide. Artificial reproduction, prenatal medical testing, and organ donation are acceptable in some circumstances.
     The full meaning of life is found in eternal Christian life, but life on earth is also sacred. Christ is in everyone, so to attack life is to attack God. Even a murderer has dignity. God, although he punishes, has mercy.
     Killing should not be justified in the name of "individual freedom." Abortion degrades the medical profession and doctors should conscientiously object.
     Young people must be taught the meaning of sexuality, love, procreation, marriage, and chastity to form a pro-life conscience. It is disturbing when the conscience against abortion is missing.
     The materialistic worldview separates the "unitive" and "procreative" meanings of sexual intercourse. A couple should not wish to unite without procreating, nor to procreate without uniting. The married couple are "co-workers with God" as God's image appears in their child.
     New reproductive technology is troublesome because embryos conceived in a laboratory have a high fatality risk, and extra embryos are treated as material and discarded. Prenatal diagnostic tests are acceptable if aimed at the treatment of the baby, but unacceptable if aimed to selectively abort the fetus. Organ donation is "praiseworthy" but should not hasten the death of the donor.
     Although the culture considers suffering itself to be evil, suffering is really a mystery with meaning and value. The blood of Christ represents life and hope. The meaning of life can be learned through dying for one's brothers and sisters.
     Humans were given "dominion" over the world, but this should not be misconstrued as the right to use and misuse natural resources. We have moral responsibilities to the natural world. Man's "lordship" over himself and the world should reflect God's lordship.
     Popular consensus or "relativism" doesn't make a crime acceptable. The Biblical prophets "condemn offences against life" and "awaken hope for a new principle of life."
     Violence should not be used to protect public safety "if bloodless means are sufficient." A pro-life politician may support legislation aimed at limiting the harm of abortion.
     Deliberately killing an innocent person, from embryo to old age, can never be permitted, even as means to an end. No one can ask or consent to be killed or to kill someone in their care. A threat to a mother's health does not justify abortion. Choosing to die in childbirth is "heroic."
     Euthanasia is based on the idea of the elder as a burden. While there is no obligation to share Jesus's passion by refusing painkillers at the end of life, patients should not be drugged unconscious without good reason, so they may fulfill their "moral and family duties." True compassion means sharing someone's pain.
     "Suicide is always as morally objectionable as murder." (3.66)
     Democracy becomes empty if its moral foundation of respect for life is even questioned. Rejection of human life is rejection of Christ.
     Women who've had an abortion may repent and take the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Pope John Paul II. Evangelium Vitae [The Gospel of Life]. Papal Encyclical, Rome, March 25, 1995. Official Vatican English translation.

This summary was written in 2005, along with a series of other 500-word summaries of philosophy books, as an exercise in brevity.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A compressed 500-word summary of 'Perpetual Peace' by Immanuel Kant (1795)

Section 1

1. A truce ends a particular conflict for a short time, whereas a long-term treaty removes the grounds for future conflicts and thus produces lasting peace. Supposed treaties that are mere truces are beneath the dignity of kings.
2. States aren't property and can't be bought or sold. A state is more like a person than a thing, "a trunk with its own roots." If it could be bought, it would have no authority over people.
3. Standing armies (armies amassed in peacetime) encourage war and should be abolished. Mercenaries (soldiers for hire) are engaged in immoral work; soldiers should volunteer without pay in the event of foreign aggression.
4. A national credit system that borrows from other states, with a greater likelihood of bankrupting them than repaying them, encourages war and must be forbidden. States should ally themselves against any state that uses such a credit system (e.g. England).
5. No state has the right or authority to interfere with any other state's constitution or government.
6. War is, by definition, the violent striving of two states to reach agreement on a matter about which there has been no lawful ruling. During war, states should forbid the employment of tactics such as spying and assassinations, because "some confidence in the character of the enemy must remain even in the midst of war" if peace is to become possible. War of total extermination must be forbidden.

Section 2

Threat of war, if not open hostility, is the natural state of human society. Only in a civil state can neighbors agree to treat each other peacefully.

Three Definitive Articles for Perpetual Peace

1. "The Civil Constitution of Every State Should Be Republican"

All men are free, equal, and dependent on common legislation. A republican constitution requires the citizens' consent to fight in a war and pay for a war. "Republican" means that the executive branch is separated from the legislative; the constitution is more likely to be republican if the number of rulers is small, ideally monarchical. In a democracy, violent revolution is inevitable because everyone wants to be king.

2. "The Law of Nations Shall be Founded on a Federation of Free States"

Without losing their distinct identities, states should be bound by a joint constitution similar to their own.

Even warring nations pay lip service to the idea of law, because each human retains the hope of lawful behavior. A league of nations would require states to resolve disputes before a tribunal.

A treaty of peace ends one war; a league of peace ends all war. The idea that there ought to be no war can only make sense if there is a league of nations to generate and enforce the idea.

3. "The Law of World Citizenship Shall Be Limited to Conditions of Universal Hospitality"

Everyone must have the right to temporarily visit any place on earth. Hostility to visitors is contrary to natural law. Universal hospitality is the only way to peace.

Immanuel Kant. Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch. (1795)

This summary was written in 2005, along with a series of other 500-word summaries of philosophy books, as an exercise in brevity.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A compressed 500-word summary of 'The Case for Christianity' by C. S. Lewis (1942)

Part 1: "Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe"

     Everyone is aware of basic moral standards, knowing security and happiness depend on fair play, yet we fail to comply perfectly. An objective observer would never guess a Moral Law existed.
     The Moral Law encourages individuals to choose between impulses, but is neither impulse nor instinct. Though we teach it to children, we can't alter its content. Its universality is indicated by our quarrels over questions of fairness.
     Virtues are universal despite different cultural expression. When a moral standard appears to change significantly over time (e.g. executing witches), it is usually because factual knowledge has changed (e.g. witches donÍt exist).
     The "religious" view holds that humans were created by an intelligent being that prefers our good behavior, while the contrasting "materialist" view holds that the world was created through a series of impossibly slim chances.
     Christianity speaks only to people who already recognize the Moral Law and think they need forgiveness for failing to live up to it.

Part 2: "What Christians Believe"

     If the mind was produced by evolution, it is untrustworthy. "Unless I believe in God," Lewis wrote, "I can't believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God."
     Injustice does not disprove God's existence because the concept of injustice derives either from God's Moral Law or from personal preference.
     Abrahamic religions believe God made the universe and takes moral positions. Christians may think other religions are partly correct, whereas atheists must believe they're all wrong.
     Jesus talked as if he were God: forgiving sins, judging the world, always existing. He couldn't have spoken pantheistically (believing God animates the world and is beyond good and evil) because he was Jewish. He either told the truth about his divinity, or was crazy or evil; calling him merely a great teacher is not an option.
     The belief in a dualistic battle between good and evil is incoherent because no one is evil for evil's sake and because a third party would have to judge which side is "good." Christianity instead maintains there is "a civil war, a rebellion." The Devil gave Adam and Eve the desire to usurp God.
     It is more important to accept what Christ did--dying to cleanse us and conquer death--than to understand theories about it. Punishing the innocent Christ would have been unfair; rather, he paid our debt of repentance. He was the only one who could repent perfectly because was both God and man.
     We are given a choice to join God willingly before he invades the world. "Christians are Christ's body"; to have "Christ-life" means to be animated by Christ and to be helped by him to do good works. Accepting God is the only path to true happiness.

C. S. Lewis. The Case for Christianity. 1942) New York: MacMillan Co., 1960.

This summary was written in 2005, along with a series of other 500-word summaries of philosophy books, as an exercise in brevity.

Monday, April 6, 2015

A compressed 500-word summary of 'The Reasonableness of Christianity' by John Locke (1695)

     Because of Adam's disobedience and the punishment of mortality, humanity needs redemption. Jesus, the "Second Adam," restores men to eternal life.
     Was it fair to punish all humans for Adam's sin? It is not exactly a punishment, because immortality was never an entitlement to begin with. The Law of Works (also called the Law of Reason or Nature) is the only rational way to live. It applies to Gentiles as well as Jews because it can be discovered by reason and natural conscience. If people could obey it perfectly, they would be immortal, but they cannot. God cannot soften the law, because it would be against his nature and a slippery slope towards immorality.
     Faith makes up for shortcomings of works. Under the Law of Faith, a Christian is only required to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. (The Epistles include additional doctrines but they are not central to the faith.)
     The Messiah is the Deliverer and a metaphorical King. Jesus himself did not claim publicly to be the Messiah to avoid attracting negative attention from Jews who might have killed him. Until the Last Supper, Jesus did not make the claim to his own Apostles. Instead, Jesus performed miracles so people would realize he was the Messiah.
     Jesus chose Apostles who would trust him rather than question him and who would preach the uncomplicated doctrine that he was the Messiah. He chose, as Locke put it, "a company of Poor, Ignorant, Illiterate Men--but meer Children."
     Acknowledging a popular claim that the identification of Jesus as the Messiah is merely a "historical faith," not a "saving faith," Locke insists the Bible says it is sufficient and says he is not aware of any other doctrine that would be a "saving faith."
     God wants people to come heaven so they can praise him. He accepts people as long as they profess allegiance to Jesus the Messiah-King and make a sincere effort to follow to the Law of Works (otherwise, the Law of Faith would be an excuse for anarchy). Jesus required good works in the Sermon on the Mount and demanded repentance for sins. God would not demand more than is possible for people who lived before Jesus existed.
     People have always wanted to know their moral duty. Philosophers laid codes, but none had authority, and if people cherrypicked their moral beliefs from different philosophers, they would be accountable to no one. No one before Jesus managed to present the Natural Law in its entirety. "He was sent by God: His Miracles shew it; And the Authority of God in his Precepts cannot be questioned," Locke wrote. Another reason no other culture managed to develop virtue was that none had laid a firm belief in eternal life. It's not enough to say virtue is its own reward; the only way to encourage people to be virtuous is to impress upon them a belief in Heaven and Hell.

John Locke. The Reasonableness of Christianity, as Delivered in the Scriptures. (1695) Ed. John C. Higgins-Biddle. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

This summary was written in 2005, along with a series of other 500-word summaries of philosophy books, as an exercise in brevity.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A compressed 500-word summary of 'The Prince' by Niccolo Machiavelli (1516)

     The Prince discusses principalities (ruled by a single man), not republics (democracies), and provides policy recommendation. It is addressed to Lorenzo de Medici, a duke from a ruling family, and closes by advising him to organize Italian troops against hostile barbarians.
     Hereditary rulers benefit from stability and can more easily retain control of their state and enjoy public favor.
     Colonies are "economical, reliable, and do not give excessive grounds for resistance." Subjects of monarchies are used to obedience, but subjects of republics will never forget their former liberty and will try to oust their occupier. Territories submit more easily when they share the same language and customs as their ruling state and are geographically close to it. The colonizing king must eliminate previous rulers and shouldn't impose new taxes or laws on the territory if he wishes to have their favor. It is best if the ruler goes to live in the new territory, where he can supervise more effectively and win his subjects' love and fear. No one will criticize the ruler's attempt to win new territory unless the necessary military capacity is lacking.
     The private citizen can rise to power in four ways: by fortune, virtue, nefarious action, or popular support. Of those who ruled by virtue or skill, the best were "Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, Theseus, and others like them."
     If a ruler subdues his subjects with violence, the violence should decrease, not increase, over time. Public opinion responds well to harm done quickly and good done slowly.
     A ruler should aim to set policies that need never be changed. His foundation is his subjects and he should seek their favor rather than that of the power-seeking elite. He should take care that citizens do not avoid business or property improvements for fear of taxes.
     Ecclesiastical states should not be debated because they were built up by God.
     A ruler should give all his attention to matters of war. Mercenary soldiers are to be avoided, as their commanders seek their own power and the soldiers will desert. Auxiliary armies are a burden. A ruler should know when to fight lawlessly like an animal.
     A ruler should have a reputation as a great man. Some vices are essential to a ruler's "welfare and peace of mind." For example, it is better for a ruler to be thought miserly than generous, and it is not bad to be perceived as cruel if the perception results in keeping the public in order.
     Rulers should be suspicious of their subjects and of other rulers.
     It is always better to be an ally or an enemy than to be neutral. The neutral party faces the wrath of both winner and loser.
     Every decision requires risk assessment.
     A ruler cannot rely on the advice of others; he must be wise enough to know when to take advice.

Niccolo Machiavelli. The Prince. (1516) Translated by David Wootton. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Co., Inc. 1994.

This summary was written in 2005, along with a series of other 500-word summaries of philosophy books, as an exercise in brevity.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

A compressed 500-word summary of 'The subjection of women' by John Stuart Mill (1869)

     While Christian Europe has abolished the enslavement of men, women are still enslaved. Although the enslavement of women is "a milder form of dependence," they may properly be called bondservants. Wives cannot own property and cannot act without their husband's permission. Slaves can be freed for "ill usage" but there is no such provision for English wives "without adultery superadded." They accompany their husbands all the time and have no lives of their own. The "rule of force" has been abandoned in theory, yet is still practiced on women.
     Women are sometimes compensated for their loss of freedom by gaining excessive power in political or family matters. However, the gain of improper rights does not solve the problem of their having been stripped of their proper rights.
     When this issue is debated, it is more rooted in feeling than in reason. People on both sides will come up with new arguments if their side is attacked.
     Most men know nothing significant about the thoughts and feelings of their own female family members. If they know anything about their own wives, they extrapolate it to all women.
     Men claim that women won't marry unless they are compelled. What they really fear is marriage on equal conditions. In primitive societies, "to be an equal is to be an enemy." Men worship themselves because they're in power. Men are not satisfied with their wives' outward obedience, but want them to be wholly devoted in heart and mind.
     Many women don't report "ill usage by their husbands" because they're afraid the abuse will worsen. Moral systems instruct women to live for others and share their husbands' tastes, insisting it's in their nature, and warning them they'll be unattractive if they don't.
     To the contrary, however, the subjection of women is not natural. It is a matter of custom. It has existed in every society since the beginning of civilization. Because no one has ever tried a female-dominated society, no one can say it wouldn't work.
     If women are contriving, it is because inequality pushes them to stand up for themselves in this fashion. Men should try being more unselfish, as they wish women to be.
     Women and "negro slaves" commit crimes less frequently, not because they're morally better, but because servitude strips them of moral autonomy.
     The Bible should not be used as a tool against social progressivism.
     Christianity defends human equality in theory, but unfortunately will never do so in practice.
     Modern society brings increasingly domestic roles for men. As such, they need female companions who are their intellectual equals.
     If women don't create or invent, it's because they haven't had the same scholarly preparation that men have had. Women need to believe they can be involved in the intellectual world. It is neither useful nor just to employ a less competent person just because he is male. All humans must love their occupation to find happiness. Women should not be condemned to boredom.

John Stuart Mill. The Subjection of Women. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2001. Originally London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1869.

This summary was written in 2005, along with a series of other 500-word summaries of philosophy books, as an exercise in brevity.