Contra Novo Arius

Some years ago, when I lived in Florida, I knew a gentleman who had a heretical view of the nature of God that he viewed as springing from a supposed Gospel of the stars which came from a particular interpretation of a story that came from the order of the zodiac signs.  According to this particular view of the nature of God, both Jesus Christ and Satan were created beings on the same level, and Jesus Christ was promoted to the godhead and Satan rebelled, both of them having been the Gemini twins.  About eight and a half years ago, around the time I began this blog, there was a controversy over the beliefs about the nature of God from a pastor who became part of a breakaway organization who had quoted at length from a poem that implied an Arian view of Jesus Christ viewing Him as a maker who was Himself made.  The minister, already in sufficient trouble for other reasons, sought to deny any implications that he was arguing for an Arian nature of Jesus Christ.  Nevertheless, it has come to my attention in recent weeks and months that an Arian belief in the nature of Jesus Christ has once again become popular, which has required a great deal of discussion about the matter than I ever remember hearing.

It is not as if the Arian heresy is a new one.  In fact, it is a very old heresy, one that goes back to the early period of Hellenistic Christianity, at the point when Hellenistic Christianity was just going mainstream and was about to become the state religion of what is now viewed as Christendom.  During the time between the fourth century and at least the sixth century, there were widespread groups of people, especially among the Germanic successor states of the Western Roman Empire, who held to a view that Jesus Christ was a created being that was subordinate to an eternal Father God.  Such a belief was certainly easier to understand than the Trinitarian beliefs that were being expounded by the Hellenistic Church at the time, although the fact that a belief is easy to understand does not make it right.  There is an influential point of view that states that a heresy is merely a truth that is taken too far, and that is certainly the case when it comes to Arianism.  Jesus Christ is subordinate to the Father–He said so Himself [1] in passages like John 10:29-30:  “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand.  I and My Father are one.””  Let us note, though, that even when Jesus Christ is proclaiming the superiority of God the Father above all (even above Himself), He simultaneously affirms the oneness of Himself and the Father.  We find the same dual affirmation of the superiority of God the Father and the superiority of Jesus Christ to the created angels in places like Hebrews 1:1-4:  “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets,  has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.”

When we look at the balance between the subordination of authority between Jesus Christ and the Father–something that is far more evident during the time when Jesus Christ was on earth and God the Father remained in heaven than in those times where they are frequently commingled in terms of the description of their actions either before or after that time–and the statements about the unity of God and the Father, the understanding that if someone has seen Christ they have also seen the Father, and the fervent desire of Jesus Christ (and God the Father) that we should be one as they are one, it is clear that heresies involving the nature of God and Jesus Christ can take one of two forms.  Some heresies seek to elide or deny the subordination of Jesus Christ to God the Father, since Arianism amounts to an extreme view of subordination that takes the Bible’s position too far.  Other heresies seek to deny the oneness of both Jesus Christ and God the Father being uncreated and eternal beings.  Consistently, though, the Bible shows Jesus Christ and God the Father as both being the same sort of being (what we may call God beings in distinction to angels or human beings or lesser beings below us in the order of creation), but with a clear hierarchy between them in the matter that Jesus Christ subordinated His will to that of the Father and that He was fully committed to working out that will, even in cases where it required Him to sacrifice His own interests and His own preferences.  It was not possible, after all, for that cup to pass to another because Jesus Christ alone could pay the price of sin for us all and open up the way to eternal life for sinning, mortal man.  No created being could pay the price of sin for all of humanity and thus reconcile God and man.

While we must oppose the denial of the everlasting existence of our Lord and Savior before the heavens and angels were created, based on the way it does violence to what the Bible says about Jesus Christ (notably, though far from only, in passages like John 1:1-3), it is easy enough to understand why this heresy exists.  If someone is seeking to make plain the subordination of Jesus Christ to God the Father, it is easy to go too far in trying to distinguish between the two and claim that certain divine names can only belong to one of them and not the other, and thus make the claim that Jesus Christ is on a separate order of creation because He is clearly viewed as subordinate to His father.  Yet even in this life we have some understanding of the problem of subordination and the way that a defense of a godly and biblical view of the chain of being need not posit that what is subordinate is on a separate order of creation.  As human beings the Bible clearly has placed husbands in the role of Jesus Christ and wives in the role of the Church, where Jesus Christ’s superiority in authority clearly gives husbands a headship in the family.  And the Bible is consistent in placing children as subordinate to their parents and in requiring those children to honor their parents, regardless of what kind of parents they may be, while also enjoining parents not to provoke their children to wrath.

Indeed, the question of subordinationism makes its most practical place in the various household codes in the Bible, of which there are several, perhaps most notably (though not only) in Ephesians.  In all cases where we find a clear example of subordination, whether we are looking at the duties of slaves to honor and obey masters in the Lord, for children to honor and obey their parents in the Lord, and for husbands to show self-sacrificial love and care for wives who are commanded to honor them in turn, we are dealing with a clear case of subordination in beings that are of the same nature.  For indeed men and women are of the same nature, parents and children are of the same nature, masters and servants are of the same nature, rulers and subjects are of the same nature, and so on and so forth.  We are all created in the image and likeness of God, and there is no human created with saddles on his (or her) back and no human being created with boots and spurs to ride him as we would ride a horse.  Yet our equality as human beings in terms of God’s judgment does not mean that there is a lack of authority or hierarchy within humanity.  Rather, we find hierarchy and authority at every turn, with a clear biblical position that authority figures are to be honored and respected and that authority is meant to serve the well-being of those who are under authority.  The fact that it is neither easy to honor authority nor to be honorable in authority over others does not make the biblical doctrine of subordination as it relates to human beings any less true or vital.  As it is in heaven, so it is on earth.  For there to be order, there must be some sort of structure and some sort of authority that governs and restrains and allows human beings to be united together, and that requires some sort of subordination of our own personal wishes and preferences to some sort of greater purpose and higher authority than ourselves alone, even if it does not make those who are subject to more layers of authority any different in terms of our being or nature than those who rule over us.

In many ways, when taken to its logical conclusion, the Arian heresy has disastrous ramifications when we look at subordination as it relates to human beings.  If Jesus Christ is to be viewed as a lesser being by virtue of accepting and being subordinate to the authority of the Father, then all of those who are under the authority of others are of a separate order of creation than those who rule over them.  Husbands are an order of creation higher than wives.  Parents are an order of creation higher than their children.  Masters and bosses are of a higher order than slaves and servants and employees.  Ministers are of a higher order of creation than lay members.  Rulers are of a higher order of being than ordinary citizens, and any sorts of claims of equality between these various classes of people are a threat not only to the status but to the very identity of these respective authorities.  With such a view, Paul’s statement in Galatians 3 that there is no Jew nor Gentile, no male nor female, and no slave nor free is in the eyes of God is completely incomprehensible and meaningless.  Nor is it possible for the Golden Rule to operate between those who are on a different order of creation, for to the extent that we view ourselves as a higher order of being than someone else, we cannot view their preferences and their well-being as higher than our own, and we cannot love others as we love ourselves, for we do not see others as the same sort of being that we see ourselves as.  In such a world, justice and equity are impossible, for to hold that other human beings are not merely subordinate to us by convention or by circumstance but are a different order of being altogether means that every act by which we assert some intrinsic superiority and not merely conventional authority is to do violence to those who are our equals by nature even if they are subordinate to us in terms of authority.

It is of the utmost importance that we be able to distinguish equality of nature from equality of authority.  God is not a God of chaos and confusion, and there is clearly order and structure in God’s workings with humanity.  That has been true from the beginning and it remains true now, and it will always remain true, even in the world to come when we put on immortality and enjoy the gift of eternal life.  There will never come a time when we will not be subject to the authority of God and Jesus Christ, and probably of a great many other beings who will be placed in superior positions of authority over us, regardless of what cities or cultures or planets we may eventually rule.  Yet this acceptance of authority does not mean that we accept an inferiority of nature.  For Revelation 3:9 clearly states that those who are resurrected saints will be worshiped by human beings in the world to come, something which no angel can claim, but only God, which means by inference that resurrected saints will partake in the nature of God.  And the various submission and subordination that is required in this life and in our current existence is only tolerable to the extent that it does not imply an inequality of nature.  For if to accept someone’s authority meant to accept our inferiority to them, no authority could be honorably accepted by anyone with a fierce view of dignity, and no family, no congregation, no company, and no society could long endure.  Rather than being an esoteric and obscure heresy, the Arian heresy and its equation of subordination to a higher authority with inequality of nature strikes at the survival of any institution in a world where inequalities of authority must always be finessed and balanced by a recognition of the implications of the equality of our nature by which we may find ourselves at times in authority over others and at other times subject to the authority of others based on chance and circumstance, and not any inherent inequality in our talents and gifts and abilities, which is to say any institutions in any and all times and places wherever human beings have ever or may ever exist.  The heretical implications of Arianism must therefore be strongly opposed by any and all who would defend any equality within either the Family of God or mankind, or else we must submit to the bellum omnium contra omnes that results from the connection between equality of authority and equality of dignity and nature.  For let it be plainly said that whatever my respect for those who are in authority, I will never tolerate any claim to inferiority of nature to any man or woman, no matter how noble or excellent their state or office.  And I suspect I am far from alone in that.

[1] It should be noted that the subject of subordinationism is something that I have spent a great deal of time writing about as it appears in the writings of various Hellenistic Christians from Origen to C.S. Lewis.  A list of posts dealing with this matter appears below for those who are interested in reading about this matter further.

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/03/21/a-defense-of-origens-orthodox-subordinationism/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/04/30/what-makes-c-s-lewis-view-of-subordinationism-orthodox/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/04/26/comparative-evaluations-of-essentially-different-excellencies-subordinationism-in-c-s-lewis-discarded-image/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/04/13/c-s-lewis-an-acceptable-place-for-orthodox-subordinationism/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/04/05/some-preliminary-notes-for-a-defense-of-origen-on-the-biblical-doctrine-of-subordinationism/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/05/04/on-obedience-and-subordination-in-thomas-a-kempis-imitatio-christi/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/04/22/the-subordination-of-jesus-christ-to-god-the-father-in-c-s-lewis-the-four-loves/

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Book Review: Skin In The Game

Skin In The Game:  Hidden Asymmetries In Daily Life, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I read this book (and this author in general) because this book had been recommended to me on Goodreads.  This sort of book recommendation tells me something about someone, namely that they appreciate very close arguments that depend on rigorous reasoning and that they are not offended by the author’s swaggering attitude and casual crudity.  The book was an enjoyable read, written with flair and an obvious sense of confidence by someone who has a valuable and often neglected point to convey as part of a series of books that have dealt with interrelated concerns about the problems of contemporary life.  The author appears like someone it would be fun to have a dinner conversation with at some cheap but tasty restaurant or cantina, but I’d steer clear of buying a used car from him because of the attention he pays to suckers.  I could see how this author could rub many people the wrong way, quite often deliberately, but as a reader I’m the sort of person who does not mind prickly truth tellers who have genuine insight to present, in whatever rough a manner, and if you are like this then this is a book you will appreciate as well.

This book is made up of what the author considers eight smaller books that total up to around 250 pages (including a technical appendix) at nineteen chapters or so.  The author begins with an introduction that looks at some less obvious aspects of having skin in the game before giving a prologue that looks at Libya (part one) as well as a tour of symmetry regarding ethics, modernism, and having soul in the game, as well as a tour of the author’s own Incerto, of which this is the fifth volume (and the second I have read).  The first book containing one chapter, looks at the question of agency and the need for parties in a transaction to have equality in uncertainty.  After that comes a book/chapter on the victories of stubborn minorities.  What follows are two chapters that examine the aspect of being wolves among dogs by looking at slavery (including employment) as well as having the skin of others in one’s own game, including disincentivizing terrorism.  Four chapters follow on the necessity of risk taking to being alive, including comments on Jesus, Donald Trump, and Pascal’s wager, intellectual idiots, inequality, and Lindy tests.  The next six chapters look deeper into the subject of agency by looking at surgeons who go against type, the preference of others, the importance of deeds before words, the issue of true facts and fake news, virtue signalling, and peacemaking.  Three chapters examine the aspects of skin in the game when it comes to religion and belief, looking at the difference in behavior between athiests and believers (not much) and the requirement of sacrifice in genuine religion before the author concludes with a discussion of risk and rationality in two chapters.

There are quite a lot of useful insights that one can gain from this book.  For one, the author notes that it is clueless intervening outsiders that often enable dysfunctional situations like the Israeli-Palestinian problem to go on.  If it were not for these outside actors, it is quite likely that some kind of modus vivendi would be reached before too long, as it has been in the case of most other frozen conflicts around the world where a situation has not been completely resolved but where no one is going to fight over it continually (see, for example, North and South Korea, Cyprus and Northern Cyprus, Somalia and Somaliland, China and Taiwan, and so on).  The author also notes that many rich people signal that they are suckers by the way that they behave, seeking expensive food items over cheap but good eats (like basic pizzas and Mediterranean food and the like).  The author comments about the problems of virtue signalling even in the ancient world (it appears in the Bible) as well as some wise wisdom from Fat Tony.  By and large this is a book that goes down easy because its technical calculations and close reasoning come with a heavy dose of good sense and witty humor.

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Book Review: What We Believe But Cannot Prove

What We Believe But Cannot Prove:  Today’s Leading Thinkers On Science In The Age Of Certainty, edited by John Brockman

Quite bluntly, this book is a load of rubbish.  There is a sense of irony that few of the supposedly “great thinkers” of this book seem to get, and that is that a lot less is certain that the writers included here tend to think.  Most of the writers (although mercifully not all) are atheists of a particularly unfortuante kind, the kind that are unaware of their own dependence on assumptions and presumptions about that which is true.  A great many of the authors, even worse, have a degree of contempt for biblical morality and the God of heaven and earth that is unacceptable and certainly unbecoming of anyone who wishes to be viewed as a great thinker.  Invocations to supposed sky gods and nasty comments about religion being the source of evil and other falsity fills this book.  The certainty that many of these readers seem to possess is the certainty of people who are blindly sailing towards icebergs in the North Atlantic or poking at sleeping bears or partying on a meteor that is headed into a planet, blithely unaware of their folly and doom.

That is not to say that there is nothing in this book worth reading.  If you want to read a lot of snarky and condescending comments from idiots who consider themselves to be brights, and who look down on those of decent behavior and godly lives, this book is for you, and may warm your own dark and prejudiced heart.  When the authors move beyond their mistaken presuppositions about that which has been proven and move into the realm of that which they consider unproven, there is more to appreciate, at least a little, even if the authors show themselves most interested in a very small set of problems.  While one or two may ponder about the afterlife and desire their own forms of immortality despite the absence of belief in a future judgment and in eternal life in some form or fashion, most of the people here spend their time writing about problems of consciousness or quantum mechanics or the mind-body-brain problems.  The best of the lot ponder the lack of interest that psychology has in questions of faith and religion, pointing out that what billions of people on earth consider important is worth researching on those grounds alone, while most of the rest seem to lack curiosity in anything outside of their own minds, in which they have a great degree of confidence in.

The editors and publishers of this book should be ashamed of themselves.  This book purports to be the sort of book that is inspired by the post-cocktail wonderings of a group of naval gazing pseudointellectuals who view their own intellects positively and seem to think that they are writing mainly for other people like themselves and not those who do not believe in the same things.  This is clearly written for an in-group audience of people who fancy themselves to be leading lights engaged in normal research that will solve what are viewed to be important problems that would make the universe entirely mechanistic or deterministic and deal with the last few doubts in their own capacity to understand the universe and to control it and harness it for their own benefit.  Yet the authors make all kinds of assumptions about that which is supposedly already proven and have all the certainty of scientists in the age when Newtonian mechanics was viewed to be triumphant with nothing left but a few problems to uncover and some greater understanding of various issues in string theory or quantum mechanics and human consciousness before we take our place as one of a numerous of sentient species in the galaxy seeking an age of peace and harmony under the rule of enlightened philosopher kings.

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Book Review: The Bed Of Procrustes

The Bed Of Procrustes:  Philosophical And Practical Aphorisms, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I made the mistake of reading this book before having read any of the other books by the author, and in retrospect that was not a wise idea.  It is easy for comments taken out of context to be interpreted in all sorts of ways that are uncharitable to the author–I speak from experience here–and this book consists generally of comments taken from the author’s writing and thinking as a whole (which extends to several books that I am in the process of reading) but not placed in the context that the author’s other books provides.  To be sure, this book is designed to be provocative and to show a certain devil may care tendency on the part of the author, who relishes in the crudity of code mixing in order to demonstrate to the reader that he is not one of those effete intellectuals who cannot get down and dirty with reality.  And that is certainly true of what I have read from the author in general, but without knowing what the author is intending, or having a context to recognize the source of the author’s seeming hostility to intellectuals (and certainly to being called one), this book can needlessly offend because of its casual hatred towards nerds and intellectuals and its general bullying and lowbrow tone, when it was a book clearly meant to amuse those who are aware of the author’s larger and more nuanced approach.

The book is itself a suitably short book, since no book on aphorisms should be a lengthy one, as that would defeat the whole point of providing short and pithy statements of proverbial wisdom.  Coming in at just over 100 pages, this book will not tax anyone’s ability to read, and the statements almost serve as prompts for entertaining blog posts and op/eds.  The various aphorisms are divided into different categories, much of which depends, again, on the reader’s familiarity with the author’s thought in general, including an introductory discussion of Procrustes, preludes, counter narratives, ontological matters, the sacred and the profane, chance, success, happiness, and stoicism, charming and less charming sucker problems, Theseus, the republic of letters, the universal (general) and the particular, being fooled by randomness, aesthetics, ethics, robustness and fragility, the ludic fallacy and domain dependence, epistemology and subtractive knowledge, prediction, being and staying a philosopher, economic life, the sage, the weak, and the magnificent, the implicit and the explicit, varieties of love and nonlove, and the end, followed by an amusing postface and acknowledgements.

Again, there are some amusing aphorisms here and the author clearly has drawn these statements as bon mots from his other books, many of which I will hopefully be reading soon.  The author is particularly insistent about some points, like the general folly of those whose success depends on rentier behavior, who make things needlessly complex or who misrepresent in order to attempt to discredit–which accounts for the author’s dislike of consultants, economists (except perhaps Hayek and Bastiat and others like them), and journalists.  The author is also intent on telling over and over again that those who are contemporary employees are in fact slaves by the lights of ancient social theory, which is something that the author appears to like to hammer over and over again, perhaps in the hope of encouraging disloyal behavior and shaking up a corrupt business establishment that the author clearly views as contemptible.  As someone who has no fondness for bloated business or government bureaucracies, I found a lot of this particular book appealing once I realized that I wasn’t the sort of person that the author was trying to club like a baby seal.  Of course, realizing that took reading another book by the author (review forthcoming) that provided enough context for me to appreciate this book as a breath of fresh air in a stuffy academic world of polite lies and obfuscation rather than a work of uncharitable bullying.

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Enemies Among Us, Or How I Learned About The Other Side Of Identity Politics

In the aftermath of massive acts of violence there are a variety of responses that people and institutions can take.  Given my own feelings of deep ambivalence, I often find that few people have voices that are similar to my own, and that my response to the cowardice of so many leaders of Western nations whose behavior towards the Muslims among us is so craven that it makes me cringe in horror tends to mask more complex feelings about the nature of reporting and the unpleasant matter that how others view us is greatly important if only because it helps determine how they will treat us, regardless of whether we consider there to be any validity in the identities that others foist upon us against our will.  As someone who has spent a lifetime wrestling with the complexities of violence and hostility within my own life and within my world, I tend to find that the responses I have to these matters are not simple, but if they are complex they are not for that reason any less worth sharing than more straightforward opinions are, not least because the relevance of these reactions goes far beyond any particular event that may prompt it.  Let us therefore untangle some layers, in this case prompted by the continued attention that has been paid to an act of violence at a New Zealand mosque.

To what extent do we pay attention to violence?  Not all violent acts are created equal.  When radical Islamists in the Middle East commit outrages against Coptic Christians in Egypt or Yazdis in Iraq, or when we hear of outrages done in Nigeria against Christians there, do we see the same amount of attention being given that hear about acts of violence committed in Western societies against Muslims?  Do we see Muslims willing to wear the garb of Yazdis or Copts or Nigerian Christians as a way of expressing their solidarity with the victims of violence committed by their co-religionists?  Is violence only important to comment upon to the extent that it allows us an opportunity to further some kind of political agenda, or is it something that we lament because it shows a lack of humanity regardless of who is committing the violence and who is suffering from it?  There is a cliche in broadcasting that if it bleeds it leads, but that is not necessarily the case; there is clearly some violence that is more highly focused on than others.  There are some people whose feelings and wishes are more highly gratified than others are, and this injustice is easy to notice when we are on the receiving end of it.  Privilege is invisible to those who have it, but galling and bitter to those who are denied what they view quite reasonably as equity.

As someone who has traveled fairly extensively around the world, I am often bemused by the way that I am seen by the people I encounter.  To those who have an ax to grind against the United States or who want to express their distaste for those candidates whom we elect, it is not deemed to be rude by these people (my own feelings are apparently not considered at all in this arithmetic) to accost and harass a foreigner about their own local political systems.  I politely explain to these people that Americans elect leaders based on their own interests and do not take the interests of the rest of the world into account in their decisions.  This may be a bit harsh to say, especially for those people in other countries who want their own well-being and interests to be considered by the American voter, but it is true.  An American traveling abroad often wants to be seen as an individual, but we cannot help being judged for the identities we have.  As a white American male, my travels to Ghana, for example, were quite different than those who have some sort of ancestral tie to the slave trade and who are trying to find out about a long-unknown part of their own heritage.  However much I would be considered to be a heretic or cultist by Christians in my own society, when I have visited the Middle East I have been viewed as a Christian in those countries.

There are consequences to this.  Some of them are good.  I have been more safe in my travels as an American than I would be traveling as an Israeli abroad, for example.  Being a Christian is viewed more favorably than being a Jew in many cases, even if my own personal religious practices concerning Sabbath and Holy Day observance and clean and unclean meats would indicate a high degree of closeness to Messianic Judaism of certain varieties, and has prompted comments of puzzlement on the part of some Jews I have known who have been puzzled to find me more observant than themselves.  And on it goes.  Yet if Islamists in Syria or Iraq or Nigeria or governments like China or Iran would view me in the same way that they would view others they see as Christians, that matters a great deal.  (It would matter equally much if they saw me as Jewish and responded accordingly.)  It is not only our own chosen identities that matter in our lives but the identities others view us as having.  As an American citizen I have certain rights and freedoms that others do not have, but it also means that people will respond to me in large part based on what they think about where I come from.  The same is true of my obviously Euro-American ethnicity (and I will not be judged from those parts of my ethnicity that are not visible on a surface level), as well as my religious identity, or my political identity as someone who both is deeply concerned with matters of justice but who is generally and correctly seen as being considerably right of center overall.  Some of this is for the best, and some of it is not.

Given all of this, let us now return to the point at hand.  Those who committed violence against Muslims in New Zealand believed that those Muslims were enemies among them.  To be sure, there are some Muslims whose proclivities towards violence makes them enemies, because they would wish to commit violence against me or people like me, should they happen to come across us at an inopportune moment.  Yet to those who want to dwell at peace with others as much as it is within our power and to the extent that it can be done while preserving our dignity and integrity, those who would inflame hostility with others are enemies among us.  Those who would behave rudely to me because of my political positions, or religious beliefs, or ethnic identity would also be enemies among us.  I would hope that no one would see my generally peaceable if curious and sometimes eccentric ways as marking me as an enemy of themselves, but I am not sanguine on that point.  In such times as we are in, we must realize that our enemies are not only those whom we may hate to death but also those who would hate us to death.  Because how other people treat us depends on how others see us, we cannot afford to be ignorant of the way that others identify us, irrespective of our own peaceable intents or the way that we identify ourselves.  Obviously, the implications of that are quite massive indeed.  Identity politics flow both ways, after all, no matter how vociferous we are about defining ourselves as we would wish.

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Book Review: The Wars Of The Roses

The Wars Of The Roses:  The Fall Of The Plantagenets And The Rise Of The Tudors, by Dan Jones

As someone who has a great degree of interest in the Plantagenet dynasty and its various problems as well as the crisis of legitimacy within the realm of England that led to the rise of the parvenu Tudors, this book was not necessarily new information but it was a well-written book that one can read as comfortably as possible given the material in it.  The author appears to be more interested in the human interest of people struggling with legitimacy in a world where rulers have very little security and a difficult time passing on their power or holding on to it unless they are able to meet the demands of the office, including military skill.  That said, while the author talks a lot about rebellions and battles, he does not go into them in depth and he is no military historian as far as that goes.  He is a social historian, one could say, and this book definitely looks at the broader context of society in the midst of the Wars of the Roses and how it was that military and politics and family identity all combined to lead to the near destruction of any Plantagenet blood in England.

The book, over 300 pages in length, begins at the end of the story as an old woman from the Plantagenet family awaits her judicial murder at the hand of Henry VIII for the crime of having royal blood that threatened the Tudor claims.  After that the author goes back to the beginning of the problems of England with four chapters about the early period of King Henry VI’s reign, from Henry V’s marriage treaty that made him the heir to the Kingdom of France, his death and the birth of the king, and then the clandestine marriage of the dowager queen to the obscure Welshman Owen Tudor.  The second part of the book contains five chapter that explore the nature of late medieval kingship in England, including the regency of the Lord of Suffolk, Henry VI’s French marriage, the problem of popular discontent with military losses, the rivalry with the Duke of York, and the first of Henry VI’s bouts with insanity.  The third part of the book looks at the instability of the Kingdom of England between 1455 and 1471 with the early fights establishing the Duke of York as a protector, his death, and the period between 1460 and 1471 where the Duke of Warwick first helped Edward IV to the throne and then tried to help Henry VI regain the throne before Edward and his supports regained authority.  The fourth part of the book then looks at the rise of the tutors in six chapters that include Henry VII’s time in exile, the murder of the princes in the tower by Richard III and his subsequent problems with legitimacy and the north-south divide in England, and the Tudor monarchy and its efforts to stamp out various pretenders and threats to their rule.

For many readers (certainly for me) this story is by no means a new one.  The author, though, tells the story well and demonstrates a firm awareness of texts that many readers may not be aware of but probably should to better understand this period, including the letters of the Pastons, that deeply fascinating English family, as well as the laws and proclamations of the period that show the ebb and flow of English politics during this era.  While I would have appreciated more discussion of the battles, the author does a good job in showing when and where various people sought to resort to arms because of their failures as a politician (see, for example, the career of Richard of York), and the influence of both domestic politics as well as geopolitics on the events of the Wars of the Roses and the way that France, as well as Brittany and Burgundy, served as places of refuge for those who were on the outs with the ascendant party in England, increasing the instability by always having a ready rival able to pounce on weakness.  The result is a compelling book about the crisis of legitimacy within the English monarchy during the transition between the Plantagenet and Tudor dynasties, and what that means for ordinary people caught up in the drama of elite strife.

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Book Review: How To Be A Tudor

How To Be A Tudor:  A Dawn-To-Dusk Guide To Tudor Life, by Ruth Goodman

As someone who has lived in the Tudor lifestyle, by choice, along with her family for decades, the author has a high degree of credibility when it talks to Tudor life, especially when compared to contemporary reader.  There is often a sense of nostalgia when it comes to the ways of the past and the author does a good job here of discussing how that nostalgia does not quite match up with the difficulties of life in the past.  To be sure, most people imagine themselves as elites in the past, as few people ever wanted to be peasants in previous ages, but may have imagined that being part of the nobility or gentry would be somewhat more enjoyable because of the higher standard of living.  But even here the author spends a good deal of effort in this interesting book in pointing out a variety of aspects of daily life for the Tudors, some of which matter a lot to people in the present age.  Having read this book, I can see what led the author to write some of her other works, given the extensive amount of reading she did on the period and on the different directions that reading took her.

The author begins this roughly 300 page book with a short introduction and then she begins her book by exploring the sleep and early morning life of the Tudor period, comparing different sorts of sleeping arrangements as they are recorded in wills and other documents (1).  After that the author explores the dilemma of whether one should wash or not based on the then-current theory of humours (2) as well as the difficult task of dressing appropriately for the day based on class considerations (3).  The author talks about the eating of breakfast in terms of its timing and contents (4) as well as the thorny matter of education and how it was done, both in terms of professional education, tutoring, and apprenticeship as well as the sort of education that took place for very young children around the house so that they would not be entirely useless and in danger (5).  The author talks about dinner (lunch) and its contents and timing (6), and spends a chapter each examining the spheres of men’s work (7) and women’s work (8).  The author then spends some time writing about play (9) before closing the book with chapters on supper (10) and sleeping, including the subject of sex (11).

In the main, it can be said that the author accomplishes what she sets out to do.  She manages to provide a thoughtful discussion of the habits of the English as well as those of the rest of the British Isles where it can be known.  She manages to avoid writing about London despite the dominance of the historiography of the period, sometimes by comparing words in northern English and Scottish and showing their similar origin and sometimes by finding sources that deal with city life in Chester and other places outside of London.  The author has, from what can be determined, contemporary views regarding sexuality and gender views but is careful to note that which could be understood from the period, all of which should combine with the author’s discussion of the limits of the diet of the times to make us all appreciative that we live in our own time rather than the past, regardless of whether the reason is by virtue of the superior education and living standards for the common man (and woman), the quantity and quality of food, or the more relaxed attitudes towards dress and personal behavior.  This book is both a good look at the time of the Tudors for ordinary people and a reminder that we are better off dealing with the problems of the present than wishing we lived in the past.

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Book Review: How To Behave Badly In Elizabethan England

How To Behave Badly In Elizabethan England:  A Guide For Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, And Braggarts, by Ruth Goodman

It is a common saw that you cannot please everyone all of the time, but this book does a good job in showing that one cannot offend everyone all of the time either, at least in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.  To be sure, the author details many ways that one could behave badly, but things that would offend some people (then as now) do not offend others.  Differences in generations, the existence of a teen culture of footloose and overly aggressive young men surplus to requirements, and sharp cultural divides between Puritans and more cultured elites, between those who preferred Dutch straightforwardness or French or Italian ways or more traditional English ways meant that literally anything one did (or did not do) could be offensive to some, but would likely not be offensive to all.  I scarcely think that anyone would want to offend everyone, but all the same it is worthwhile to know how impossible a task this is even if one tries.  More to the point, this book is a reminder that divides and cultural and generational gaps are nothing new but have existed at least since the sixteenth century in anglophone culture.

After a short introduction, the author moves on to six chapters that define various areas in which one could cause offense based on the historiography of the period between 1550 and 1650, which conveniently includes both the Elizabethan period and the period up to the first part of the English Civil War.  The author begins by talking about offensive speech, some of which was intended to make it hard for an enemy to engage in business and to undermine the trust that people held in a particular person (1), and some of which could end in affairs of honor or civil or criminal penalties.  After this the author spends some time talking about insolent, rude, and threatening gestures, some of which resemble the ways in which contemporaries engage in such shows of disdain and contempt (2).  The author then talks about mockery, and the ways that one could cut others or show disrespect by failing to observe societal norms, some of which were quite common among various religious sects like the Quakers (3).  A substantial amount of time in spent in discussing outright violence, which the author rather helpfully notes is violence outside of the normal domestic violence and violence against servants and children that was considered normal for the period and thus not worthy of comment by contemporaries (4).  The author then looks at disgusting habits, some of which remain disgusting (5) and the similarities between the Elizabethan and our own conceptions of the need to hide or disguise the body and its fluids (6).  The author concludes with a discussion on the ways that being a complete scoundrel was impossible.

In reading a book like this one, an obvious question that comes to mind is why this book was created if the author did not believe that it was impossible then (or now) to offend everyone but very difficult to avoid offending anyone.  For one, the author has spent many decades as a Tudor reenactor and this has given her a great deal of insight into the ways and mores of the time, as well as a general familiarity with texts from the period that help someone reenact their life in the contemporary period.  For another, the author has chosen in this period a time of dynamic change where England was being influenced by diverse European cultures as well as facing various internal difficulties, including a civil war that pitted two very different cultural mindsets against each other, which means that whatever one did would likely be some kind of partisan decision.  Drink too much and you could be labeled a drunkard, do not drink at all and you were called a meacock or a Puritan.  If your manners were too brusque you could be viewed as a Dutchman or a Quaker, and if they were too refined and elegant you could be viewed as an effeminate Frenchman or Italian.  So long as one stuck to a consistent standard, one would likely offend someone and find support from others.  And so it is today.

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The Troll In Me And The Troll In You

One of the more humorous aspects of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen is his expression that he had a bit of the troll in him.  Although the word troll has a greatly different semantic domain when one is dealing with a Norwegian playwright whose works occasionally (as in Peer Gynt) made use of folk stories about trolls and a twenty-first century person for whom trolls are unfriendly people that one meets online, there are a great deal of insights that we can gain from pondering the importance of trolls across space and time and understanding why it is that we often feel the need to include trolls as an aspect of categorization, and why it is also important for us to recognize that we all may have just a little (or more than a little) bit of troll inside of ourselves, not least because other people are often able to recognize these aspects of ourselves.

Let us begin with the importance of trolls to an understanding of Northern European folk superstition and myth.  Not only from writers like Ibsen, whose plays appealed to a high literary register and remain important in understanding the drama of the second half of the 19th century, but also from more popular writers like Tolkien, trolls become a very obvious aspect of the mental world of European peoples.  Trolls, as seen in the Hobbit for example, are not very bright humanoid beings who are strong and often very large but who can be easily outwitted and fooled.  One finds the same sort of semantic domain when one looks at Ibsen’s portrayal of trolls in his own drama.  The troll as a mindless and dangerous brute, but one whose mindlessness allows those who are more clever, is one that has endured in Western writing and it suggests a fundamental ambivalence with mere physical strength in the absence of mental strength.  To be sure, a being that was both immensely strong and also immensely clever would be far more dangerous of a threat for smaller human beings, and so giving strong beings a major lack when it came to intelligence is seen as evening the score.

What does this have to do with the way that we view trolls on the internet, the place where we are most likely to meet them now that bridge trolls are no longer spoken of with the same degree of frequency as in past centuries?  The similarities are pretty easy to recognize.  Trolls are viewed as denizens of the internet who respond to other people with mindless hostility, who are thought to be immune to rational communication.  In many ways, though, this is a copout.  We know ourselves to be human beings, and if we know ourselves to be less than fully rational, there are very few of us who will consider our reasoning processes to be entirely lacking, and few of us that will not take some pride in our own reasoning, however faulty it may be in a particular case.  We therefore ought to recognize that if our statements inflame other people to the point of being unreasonable to us (as happens from time to time for the best of us), then perhaps there are reasons for it.  Since we excuse ourselves for our own hostile responses to others, justifying it in some fashion, our lack of acceptance of the justifications of others suggests that either we need to be harder on ourselves when we show trollish tendencies, more empathetic to others when they show themselves to be occasionally brutish, or some combination of the two.  The lack of symmetry between our desires to justify ourselves and our use of troll as pejorative expression to condemn others requires some sort of response on our part.

We might also want to ponder for ourselves why indeed trolls are so common in our world [1].  For one, there is the real possibility that we are much less likely to recognize and react to the humanity of those we are dealing with online in the face of anonymity and the absence of personal interaction, though this has certainly not stopped bullies and thugs in generations past who found other reasons to justify their violence towards others.  For another, there is a human tendency that is especially active in our own times to attempt to delegitimize discussion that is hostile to us, regardless of what we think and believe and how we behave, and this process tends to remove principled disagreement and disapproval into the realm of unthinking fear or mindless hostility so that we are not forced to reflect upon the real origins of the disapproval and its implications for us.  After all, trolls were once a rare creature, only found in distant valleys or bridges far removed from mankind, but trolls for us are something that we encounter when we look in the mirror or wherever we happen to go online.  Whatever has multiplied the perception of trolls, we can assume that it represents something wrong inside of us to make the trollish tendency that more obvious or to make us think of other human beings whose reasoning is likely as sound or unsound as our own as mindless brutes because we simply cannot accept that people with reasoning capacity could come to such varied and opposite reasoning as we find in our contemporary world.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/12/27/book-review-no-trolls-allowed-guidebook/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/12/27/listen-without-trolling-a-reflection-on-george-michael/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2011/11/22/dont-feed-the-trolls/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2010/12/04/out-of-the-abundance-of-the-heart-blogging-trolling-and-matthew-1233-37/

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Book Review: Peer Gynt

Peer Gynt, by Henrik Ibsen

I liked this play a lot, and that mildly surprised me, especially given how different this play is from the general body of work of his that I am familiar with.  I must say that my reading of Ibsen’s plays has usually involved his famous “social” plays of the later period and not his early poetic dramas.  For better or worse, though, I preferred this play to almost everything else of the writer’s that I have read so far, as Ibsen did something in this large play that was highly remarkable and probably pretty offensive to the people of his time.  Of course, seeing that the lead character of this play could be seen by uncharitable readers as being somewhat Nathanish, there are likely a lot of people in the present-day who will find themselves or people they know to be skewered by this 150 year old Norwegian poetic drama that is based in part on various Norwegian folk tales.  And if that is not a high achievement for a play, that it takes such commonplace materials and comes up with a pointed masterpiece that includes some nonsense elements, it is hard to say what would merit the place of a classic drama for its time and genre.

As far as a book goes, the version I read was a large print book of more than 300 pages that contained the five act drama translated quite entertainingly as well as numerous drawings to illustrate the action.  The play itself has a sprawling scope, beginning when Peer Gynt is a deceptive raconteur as a young man and continuing on until the moment of his death and his realization that he is a damned soul who has wasted his life and not fulfilled his God-given purpose.  In between there are a lot of comic hijinks, including the way that he shamelessly tries to deceive his mother or that he paints himself as a victim of life’s circumstances or seems to become infatuated with dozens of women, one of whom happens to be the daughter of the troll king, something that nearly leads him to an early death.  He shows himself to be a romanticist in the worst kind of way, led by his impulses, full of the skill of justifying himself and avoiding personal responsibility for the course of his life, and witty in an empty and ridiculous way that humors those around him but that does not help him to do anything.  The play deliberately slows to a crawl as it approaches the ending to give Peer Gynt a few last chances to come to terms with the emptiness of his life, but it does not happen.

Although the play is not an allegory, there are clearly some targets that the author was aiming at that are quite entertaining.  Peer Gynt’s desire to be a kaiser and his populist zeal for Norway (even when he spends much of his life abroad) carries with it some of the foreshadowing of Norway’s own struggles in World War II.  The gulf between the romantic ardor and braggadocio of Peer Gynt and his lack of achievement of solidity in his life is somewhat painful to read and reflect upon, and demonstrates Ibsen’s radical commitment to honesty and integrity and the way that he saw the society of his time as being shallow and easily turned aside from facing the bitter truths of our existence and the need to back up our emotional and intellectual commitments with concrete action.  Not everyone is going to appreciate this play–it still has a lot to say about the intellectual state of the west and about a certain type of person who believes themselves to be a romantic hero but end up being a pitiable sort of person whose life is short of achievement because of a lack of willingness to work at anything.

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