Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages by Jacques Le Goff

One of my life long interests has been the Middle Ages.  I love the myth, legend, art, music and history of that time period.  I'm especially interested in how our civilization developed over the approximate thousand year time span that we now label the Medieval Age.

Jacques le Goff is a prominent French researcher in not only the history but the sociology of this time period.  He has written many books about Western Medieval culture.  This particular book deals with what the title says:  How was the concept of time, work and culture developed.

The book is divided into four sections:  Time and Labor; Labor and Value Systems; High Culture and Popular Culture; and Toward a Historical Anthropology.

In Time and Culture le Goff discusses the invention of our modern concept of time.  It never occurred to me that people counted time any differently.  He notes that at first, laborers worked according to the sun but only worked half days.  It was the laborers of the land that insisted on working longer hours so they could receive greater pay.  

Time was at first measured according to the Church.  Clerics regarded time according to Biblical texts and church tradition.  Therefore all time is God's time.  The day was divided up according to the different hours of the church as well as days, weeks and months in that every day had its own particular time in the Church Year where a particular mass was celebrated.  Different masses sung different psalms according to what time of the day or week or month of the year.  

The rise of merchants redefined time in many respects but I don't have time to go into it here.  But this leads us to the next point of this section:  work.  The church held some jobs in honor but some in contempt.  The laborer was at first held in contempt in the early middle ages although this changed by the time of the high middle ages.   The merchant class likewise changed attitudes towards honorable and dishonorable work.  At first it was considered sinful to be usurers which is why Jews held that occupation for hundreds of years.  This made Jews vulnerable to backlash and persecution when times became unstable and people's minds were easily directed to make scapegoats of the people to whom they owed money.  The Bible also speaks of being no man's debter hmmm...

At any rate this whole division goes into much greater detail than I'm able about the rise of labor and merchant classes, the development of time, its origins in the church and later within the merchant community.

The third section describes the development of universities and trades and professions.  Certain people were expected to go to universities, primarily clergy which is only natural considering that universities were developed within the church with the primary objective of training clergy.  This later expanded to include people who attended trade schools and artisans.  Those particular schools were eventually absorbed into the university system.

Still, these schools were primarily schools of theology and exegetical training.  Indeed, back then church, learning, and trade were not separated.  Secular university systems did not exist and every subject, math, science, language arts etc.. was viewed through the lens of Scripture which was considered the crowning science.

The final chapter tells us how  the Public Authorities outside the church gained influence in the Universities during the Renaissance.

The third section is very interesting to me as a musician because it traces the development of high and popular culture in folklore traditions and music. High culture has its roots in religious music and literature while popular culture are those tales and songs people told each other at home and around the fire.

The final chapter was thought provoking because it described the development of symbolic rituals.  Even how the hand shake and greeting with a kiss came about, what it meant and how each person performed them according to their station.  Medieval Christianity was rife with rites and symbols so naturally these became a part of the culture as a whole.  

A lord would take both hands of a vassal in his hands while the vassal always pressed his hands together as in prayer to the Lord.  Le Goff maintains that this, coming from inside church tradition was not a symbol of obeisance as a servant but of a son.  He asserts that the relationship between feudal lords and the people under their authority was not impersonal but seen by both parties as familial.  Just as Christians upon baptism became members of the Christian family, when serfs or villagers ritually show their deference to the knight who promises to protect them, they are publicly proclaiming fidelity to not just their master, but the head of their family. 

The knight, in turn, kneels before the Pope, acknowledging the head of his family is Christ.  When the King "knights" someone by ritually touching his shoulders with a sword he is making the same statement.

This book is far more involved than what I've written.  The most I can hope is to whet someone's appetite to read Le Goff's books for him or herself.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

It took me a while to read this book because I had to read it slowly and underline many things said just to make sure I understood what Nietzsche was saying.  I wrote one sentence summaries at the end of  each chapter.  I'm going to write out my thoughts as recorded in my book.  This is my understanding of what he was saying.  Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, just please explain your reasoning.

Zarathustra is a "super" man, also, called a superhero.  He came down out of the mountains to proclaim truth to men.  The following are the truths as I understood him.

God is dead we have killed him. (Parable of the Madman)

The Three Metamorphoses:  It sounds like Nietzsche was saying we need to get rid of the ten commandments of the Bible.  We should stop following them and revert to a child like innocence, knowing neither right nor wrong.  People follow virtue to have an easy conscience but that notion is now outmoded.

Only the suffering invented a God because they were dying and wanted to believe that there was more to existence than this life and world.  If you believe in God you despise your body.  Only the Self determines our thinking.

You cannot enforce your virtue on anyone else and the only Evil that exists is in a conflict of virtues.  Good is evil and evil is now good.

Morality is madness.  Only what the Self desires is right.

Might makes right.  (War and Warriors pg. 43)
Chapters 11 and 12 speak of "superfluous people" that are like "flies".    Only the Supermen deserve to live.

Chapters 16 and 17:  Individuals don't matter only ideals.  Don't be a part of a crowd.  Supermen are "gods" and "creators".  The crowd will try to impose absolute morals on the supermen but they create their own morals.

Chapter 21 is title "Voluntary death".  Again he reiterates that some people are superfluous and deserve to die.  He claims that Jesus died too soon and had he lived longer He would have recanted His assertions about Himself.  Chapter two states that sick people are selfish.  Zarathustra is the god they should look up to.

In Part 2 Nietzsche uses a lot of Biblical metaphors and applies them to his Superman. He states that God is conjecture and the will can decide there is no god and the will can procreate so it doesn't need a creator.

He speaks again of the rabble that poison everything and are stupid enough to believe in a spirit.  Zarathustra belongs to an elite few that is above the rabble.

Chapter 36 holds people of "diverse colors" in contempt.  Chapter 38 ends with the sentence, "For men are not (his emphasis) equal: so speaketh justice.  And what I will, they may not will."

There are eighty chapters but the above largely covers the main claims of the Zarathustra, the "Superman".

In short, Zarathustra replaces God.  But he offers no mercy or compassion.  He is superior, most others are inferior and don't deserve to live.  He refers to them as parasites that are selfish for wanting to live.  His will determines right and wrong.

Nietzsche uses a lot of Biblical terminology, even in the way Zarathustra expresses himself (in chapter 69, he says "My kingdom is no longer of this world").  He goes up on Mount Olive, he holds a Last Supper with a group of devotees- who although devoted, receive nothing but contempt from Zarathustra.  He is superior and they are inferior. 

Zarathustra is the Higher Man and he states in chapter 73: "man must become better and eviler so do I teach.  The evilest is necessary for the Superman's best."

It's interesting the people who were attracted to Nietzsche's philosophy.  Of course we can all point to Hitler and the Nazi's.  They're the most obvious example.  But Nietzsche's philosophy appealed to intellectuals long before Hitler and also to many people in America during the first half of this century.  We don't like to talk about it now, but America had its own eugenics program that it was developing.  It got hushed up and swept under the carpet after Nazi Germany was exposed.

And many people today embrace Nietzsche's philosophy.  Like the man who wrote the foot notes and introduction to my copy of the book.  He holds a PhD in philosophy.  He dismisses Hitler with a shrug and a "he just misunderstood what Nietzsche was trying to say."  Really?  What was Nietzsche saying?

Something slightly unrelated that I found interesting was the use of "supermen" and "superheros".  These are names we've given our modern mythical men (and a few women).  The difference is that the superheros we read about in comics and now in movies are on the side of good and fight evil.  Probably because this concept is palatable to our minds that are conscious of right and wrong whatever Nietzsche may say.  However, it still relies on men to save the world and not God.

The final thing that hit me about Zarathustra is that he is supposed to replace God and Jesus Christ as the savior of mankind.  But he offers nothing.  He is simply superior and that's the end to it.  Nietzsche doesn't even explain what makes Zarathustra superior.  Certainly not those virtues that humans rely on that make life meaningful like mercy and compassion, joy, selflessness and courage.  In fact these traits are universally held to make us superior.  Lacking those qualities makes Zarathustra less than a human.  It makes him inferior.  He is the ultimate selfish narcissist.

And of course, the biggest point is that Nietzsche proves nothing that he asserts.  All he says is true because...he says so.  Quite the fairy tale.

I don't find it surprising that Nietzsche died insane.  Judging from all the Biblical parallels he made he read the Bible, but without the illumination of God's Spirit he had "Eyes to see but could not perceive; ears to hear but could not understand." (Mark 4:12)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

At Ease: Stories I Tell to My Friends by Dwight D. Eisenhower

Pile of books to review

Having read and reviewed a book about one of the British towering figures of the first half of the twentieth century(see review on Churchill),  I then read a book about one of our own, written by himself.

I read Eisenhower's biography in a 1830's log cabin deep in the heart of Texas twenty minutes southwest of Austin. It was June and extremely hot so afternoons were spent inside the cabin.  While I didn't suffer cabin fever (ha,ha) I did enjoy reading about the life of a great man.

Log Cabin in Kyle, Texas

Eisenhower wrote this book a couple of years before he died and after he became president, although he doesn't mention his presidency.  The book can be broken up into a couple of sections.  His childhood in Kansas and Texas.  His time at West Point, time spent in WWI and a little bit of time during WWII.  He states that he didn't feel the need to devote much time to the second war since he had written a whole book focusing on his time as General then.

His childhood is what we have come to know the greatest generation for.  Eisenhower first describes his parents upbringing and how those values shaped his own life.  People were poor back then and life was tough.  Electricity and running water were for the rich, not the common man until the forties and even fifties.  The hard work incurred from running a household from scratch involved everyone pulling their weight.

Ike has nothing but good memories of these times, however, and the greatest respect for his mother and father.  This was a time when families stuck it out, divorce was unheard of, and children came before career or status.

From Kansas, Eisenhower went to West Point.  It was surprising to me to find that he was not the stellar pupil there.  In fact, it took him a long time to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.  The one thing that sustained him was coming from a family that didn't coddle him.  He could take the discipline and hardship that was imposed on him at the Academy.  Other students didn't fare so well.

He spent some time in Texas and in Panama where he read voraciously the books by Greek philosophers and trained a race horse.  He and another general developed a prototype of the tank but were scorned by the Army who saw no need for a tank in war- a short-sighted attitude if ever there was one.

Between wars he became president of Columbia University and helped develop it into a major college draw for brilliant young minds.

While not delving too heavily into WWII he does tell some amusing stories that happened overseas as well as his relationships with Generals Patton and MacArthur.  He gives an interesting perspective of Patton who apparently was quite flamboyant.  According to Ike, Patton love to push the envelop and say or do things grossly inappropriate just to get a rise out of other people, like foreign dignitaries.  This, of course, would cause considerable embarrassment to the Americans.  Ike would have to take Patton aside and reprimand him.  Patton would respond by throwing his arms around Ike and crying that he would never do it again.  Awkward.

Eisenhower also shares his philosophy about running a country successfully and protecting it against nations and people who are hostile to its freedoms.

The book is written in a friendly, chatty format, as though Ike is just sharing anecdotes to friends seated in his living room.  The stories run one into another and I doubt young readers today would get half way through it.  But it is invaluable to read the thoughts of one of the greatest men of the last one hundred years and the processes that made him great.  I fear the culture that produced men like Eisenhower has pretty much disappeared.


Monday, September 1, 2014

The Curmudeon's Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don'ts of Right Behavior, ToughThinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life by Charles Murray

I read an article in the Wall Street Journal by Charles Murray about his book, The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead.  It intrigued me so I put the book on my Amazon wish list.  My parents gave it to me for my birthday.

This is a book that should be taught in every college and probably twelfth grade in high school.  Murray offers realism to today's entitled, sheltered youth.

It's a short book, I read it in a couple of sittings, and it's funny.  Murray is very witty.

But most importantly he's honest.  Here's what he has to say to the up and coming professionals who hope to get a job and promoted:

Most companies are run by white, middle-aged men (and women) and they are curmudgeons.  That means they are old fashioned and have old-fashioned values.  

So when you use the "F-word" in an  job interview (or twice in one young man's case), you're not going to get the job.

If you have visible tattoos or pierced ears (if you're a man), you're probably not going to get the job.

If you dress like a tramp (man or woman), you're not going to get the job.

If you do get the job and act as if menial work is beneath you, you roll your eyes at the boss or display no social skills (for instance, continue talking to friends in the hallway, oblivious of people trying to get past you), or dress as if you're going fishing, or dancing on bar tables, it's unlikely you'll be first choice to get the promotion, if it's ever offered to you.

Murray makes a caveat and says that none of this applies if you want to work in the entertainment industry or I.T. (Why I.T.?  I don't know.)

Here's the kicker and it's very important:  Because our contemporary American culture has made it taboo to even hint that what someone else is doing might be wrong, your curmudgeonly boss is never going to call you out on the behavior he despises.  But you're not going to get the job.  Or promoted.  You just won't know why.

That's why Murray has written this book.  So you can know beforehand what the person who holds that job in his hands is thinking.  Forewarned is forearmed.

Being a curmudgeon myself, I didn't need the above advice, it was just fun to read.  But Murray, who is a journalist, also devotes several chapters to writing skills.  As a writer, this part was especially helpful.

He also tells young people not to move so fast into the professional world right after college but rather get out of the sheltered bubble their parents have created for them and see the world.  This could mean joining the military, where a respect for authority-always a valuable trait-is instilled, or the peace corps, or travel and live some where that you have to learn another language and culture.

Finally, Murray finishes the book with an excellent chapter about religion.  He tells young people that he understands that the professors in college they came to respect and love were atheists.  His were, too.  But he doubts that any of them actually studied religion in depth and before they make opinions about something they should make sure they know what they are talking about.

Interestingly, Murray admits his own agnosticism has become shakier since his wife became a Quaker.

If you're a young person ready to go out and get that job.  Read this book.  If your a Curmudgeon like  me, read it to laugh and feel affirmed in your curmudgeonliness. There's a red squiggle under that last word so I must have invented it.  But it fits so it stays.

Maybe I'll write a book called The Art of Being Curmudgeonly.  I'm certainly qualified.