Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The sieve of Balthasar Bekker

Jutta pointed us to this 18th century satiric image aimed at the work of Balthasar Bekker, a Dutch Calvinist who wrote Betoverde Weereld (The World Bewitched):

In the image, Bekker is holding a sieve that seems to "transform" evil demons, as they fall through it, into modern ailments, including  
"Raserey, Melancholie, Monsucht, Unsinnigkeit, Wahnwitz, Paroxismus, Enthus, Mitzkranckheit, Fallende Sucht." (Translations welcome!)
Bekker's work was published in 1691, and led him to be deposed from his ministry and tried for blasphemy and for spreading atheistic ideas. His major offense appears to have been to question the existence of the devil, and of demons in general. His notoriety was fairly long lasting, as the above image, taken from a work satirizing Bekker's view, was published in 1731.

Bekker was a student of the work of Descartes. Here's a bit more about him:
Amsterdam Reformed minister Balthasar Bekker (1634-98), ... unleashed enormous controversy with the 1691-93 publication of his De betoverde weereld (Die bezauberte Welt / The World Bewitched).  Across the four volumes of this work Bekker argued that "the apparitions of Evil Spirits are contrary to true Reason, and that the Holy Scripture affords no proofs of it."
Bekker seems to have thought all such belief in evil spirits was essentially pagan in origin, and wished to rid Christianity of it. Interestingly, Isaac Newton wrote extensively of his similar doubts about the existence of evil spirits (but not, it seems of good ones or angels), but held back publication probably because doubting the devil was, at least for some, tantamount to opening a slippery slope -- where would the doubt end?

But as this article (cited in the preceding post) argues, Newton should not be lumped in with "modern" rationalism, or some sort of proto-Enlightenment, scientific thinking. Newton was basing his doubts about the demons upon his very careful reading of the Bible and other ancient sources. Here's the conclusion of its author, Stephen David Snobelen:

In this study, I have shown that there was more than one way for an early modern believer to orient biblical demonology. In Newton’s case, it meant the denial of the existence of evil spirits. A corollary to this was a shift from an ontology of Satan to a psychology of temptation, a reorientation from the external to the internal. But instead of looking for possible affinities with his view in sceptical thought or suggesting a source in some putatively rational or ‘modernist’ strain of natural philosophy, I have argued that Newton’s demonology formed an integral part of his grand religious project and that the most relevant analogies lie in theology—ancient and heterodox.
In short:
Newton articulated his own position in biblical terminology and above all, as with so many other aspects of his theological and natural philosophical thought, his views on the devil were reinforced by an engagement with older traditions. The apparent ‘modernity’ of his stance turns out to be a mirage.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The devil you know

There were two general areas or positions on the existence of diabolical evil current in Milton's day: On the one hand, there were those, like Isaac Newton, who, while firm believers in the primal truths of Scripture, found little support for the actual existence of demons and devils; on the other hand, there were those who clearly felt that skeptical disinclination to believe in evil powers was nothing less than a clear manifestation of the workings of those very powers.

Men like Joseph Glanvill, for example:

In his 1668 work A Blow at Modern Sadducism, Joseph Glanvill, Fellow of the Royal Society and ardent apologist for belief in witches, demons and ghosts, contended that the denial of the demonic was tantamount to atheism. Those who rejected the literal existence of evil spirits, Glanvill asserted, did so because they did not dare take the next putatively logical step and openly declare that there is no God:
...if any thing were to be much admired in an Age of Wonders, not only of Nature (which is a constant Prodigy) but of Men and Manners, it would be to me a matter of Astonishment, that Men, otherwise witty and ingenious, are fallen into the conceit that there’s no such thing as a Witch or Apparition, but that these are the creatures of Melancholly and superstition, foster’d by ignorance and design.
But this was not all. Glanvill went on to propose a sinister source for this wicked disbelief, suggesting that the very devil, “whose influences they will not allow in Actions ascribed to such Causes, hath a greater hand and interest in their Proposition than they are aware of.”
Here's the turning of the tables:
For since the influence of the Prince of Darkness “is never more dangerous than when his agency is least suspected,” in order to accomplish “the dark and hidden designs he manageth against our Happiness, and our Souls, he cannot expect to advantage himself more, than by insinuating a belief, That there is no such thing as himself, but that fear and fancy make Devils now, as they did Gods of old.” (Italics are Glanvill's.)
The rest of this interesting piece by Stephen David Snobelen, which is actually about Isaac Newton's concept of evil, (and is entitled Lust, Pride, and Ambition: Isaac Newton and the Devil) can be downloaded here as a .pdf file which requires Adobe Reader).

When we consider the bewildering maze of illusion and delusion in Books I and II of Paradise Lost, it's well to bear it mind that Milton was writing for a public that wrestled with these matters not just in theological circles, but even at the august Royal Society.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Cassini on Christmas

Another of Milton's semi-contemporaries was Giovanni Domenico Cassini:

Cassini was an astronomer at the Panzano Observatory, from 1648 to 1669. He was a professor of astronomy at the University of Bologna and became, in 1671, director of the Paris Observatory. He thoroughly adopted his new country, to the extent that he became interchangeably known as Jean-Dominique Cassini — although that is also the name of his great-grandson.
Cassini was the first to observe four of Saturn's moons, which he called Sidera Lodoicea, including Iapetus, whose anomalous variations in brightness he correctly ascribed as being due to the presence of dark matter on one hemisphere (now called Cassini regio in his honour). In addition he discovered the Cassini Division in the rings of Saturn (1675). He shares with Robert Hooke credit for the discovery of theGreat Red Spot on Jupiter (ca. 1665). Around 1690, Cassini was the first to observe differential rotation within Jupiter's atmosphere.
In 1672 he sent his colleague Jean Richer to CayenneFrench Guiana, while he himself stayed in Paris. The two made simultaneous observations of Mars and, by computing the parallax, determined its distance, thus measuring for the first time the true dimensions of the solar system.
Cassini was the first to make successful measurements of longitude by the method suggested by Galileo, using eclipses of the satellites of Jupiter as a clock.

The astronomer's intellectual trajectory suggests the uncertain boundaries between astronomy and astrology, science and magic, belief and skepticism at the heart of the 17th century:
Attracted to the heavens in his youth, his first interest was in astrology. While young he read widely on the subject of astrology, and soon was very knowledgeable about it; this extensive knowledge of astrology led to his first appointment as an astronomer. Later in life he focused almost exclusively on astronomy and all but denounced astrology as he became increasingly involved in the Scientific Revolution.
Images from the Cassini-Huygens Titan probe offer new glimpses of Saturn, just in time for Christmas:

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bees of the Barberini

As was suggested the other day, the allusion to bees at the end of Book I of Paradise Lost could be a dig at a powerful Roman family.

Figures of bees can be found throughout St. Peter's in Rome, because they were the emblem of the Barberini family, a powerful clan originally from Florence that became a dynasty in Rome in the 17th century.

Urban VIII (1623-1644) was born Maffeo Barberini, and extremely powerful, expanding the territories of the Papacy through battle. He also was the friend and later stern chastiser of Galileo, as well as a patron of Bernini. It was Urban who consecrated the new St. Peter's Basilica in 1626, and Bernini went on to create the famous piazza and colonnade of St. Peter's.

In this image by Bernini, Urban could almost be wearing a beehive:

Bernini also produced this image of the rape of Proserpina in 1621-22, which Milton could have seen during his trip to Italy. The event memorialized in Bernini's art is beautifully alluded to in Book 9 of P.L., at the moment of Eve's fall:

In likening the devils in their conclave within Pandaemonium to bees, Milton was effortlessly evoking large features of Roman Catholicism, the papacy, top-down religious control of the intellect (science), and the concomitant absence (as he saw it) of individual liberties of thought and speech.

Tartarean depths, Paracelsus, and gum disease

A few notes on Tartarus, which came up yesterday:

There's only one mention of the name Tartarus in the Bible - it comes in the Second Epistle of Peter:

4  For1063 if1487 God2316 spared5339 not3756 the angels32 that sinned,264 but235 cast them down to hell,5020 and delivered3860 them into chains4577 of darkness,2217 to be reserved5083 unto1519 judgment;2920

Note that the KJV says "hell," but the Greek uses a verb based on Tartaros:

4 εἰ γὰρ ὁ θεὸς ἀγγέλων ἁμαρτησάντων οὐκ ἐφείσατο, ἀλλὰ σειραῖς ζόφου ταρταρώσας παρέδωκεν εἰς κρίσιν τηρουμένους,  2 Peter 2:4

From Τάρταρος Tartaros̄ (the deepest abyss of Hades); to incarcerate in eternal torment: - cast down to hell.

Tartarus makes its first appearance in Hesiod's Theogony (700 BC) and probably influenced Milton's rendering of space and description:

In Greek mythology, Tartarus is both a deity and a place in the underworld even lower than Hades. In ancient Orphic sources and in the mystery schools Tartarus is also the unbounded first-existing entity from which the Light and the cosmos are born.
In Hesiod's Theogony, c. 700 BC, the deity Tartarus was the third force to manifest in the yawning void of Chaos.
As for the place, the Greek poet Hesiod asserts that a bronze anvil falling from heaven would fall 9 days before it reached the Earth. The anvil would take nine more days to fall from Earth to Tartarus. In The Iliad (c. 700), Zeus asserts that Tartarus is "as far beneath Hades as heaven is high above the earth." As a place so far from the sun and so deep in the earth, Tartarus is hemmed in by three layers of night. It is a dank and wretched pit engulfed in murky gloom. It is one of the primordial objects that sprung from Chaos (along with Gaia (Earth) and Eros (Sex)).
Quite a bit more can be found in the Wikipedia article.
In Prof. Rogers' lectures we hear about Theophrastus Phillippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim, usually known as Paracelsus, the Swiss man of medicine, alchemy, astrology and the occult.
Rogers alludes to Paracelsus' theories of digestion, and his thinking about tartar. And it seems we owe to the Renaissance magus the name "tartar," which he described as an acid deposit that "burns like hell, and Tartarus is hell."  More on this, if you're really really interested, here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Milton is 401 and seven days

We belatedly acknowledge a milestone in Milton's career: He was 401 last Wednesday, Dec. 9.

There's a timeline of Milton and his legacy here, and some great illustrations of Paradise Lost here (thanks Shaw).

Here's a talk by Prof. Reynolds Price about Milton, followed by a reading from the poet's work that was held at Duke to celebrate his 400th birthday, last December:

DURHAM, NC -- Duke’s Blue Devil identity took on new meaning the afternoon of Dec. 9 as President Richard Brodhead assumed the role of Satan at a reading of John Milton’s epic poem, “Paradise Lost.”
Brodhead was joined by English professor Sarah Beckwith as Beelzebub and Gregson Davis, dean of humanities and professor of classical studies, as the narrator. The event, held in the Rare Book Room of Perkins Library, marked the 400th anniversary of Milton’s birth.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The seven layers of hell?

Shaw sends a link to a glimpse of an old Hebraic tradition about hell. We'll find, by the way, that Milton was very conscious of the numerological significance of the number seven:
 In many religions, the souls of the dead have been conceived of, after leaving the body, as proceeding to an underworld located below or inside the earth. In the Judaism and Christianity of classical antiquity and the medieval period, this underworld was thought to be a hellish place, called Gehinom in Hebrew and Infernus in Latin, where sinners were punished just as the righteous were rewarded in heaven. Since the universe was pictured as symmetrical, hell was heaven’s physical as well as religious opposite — and just as the heavens were pictured not as a single celestial realm but as a layering of realm upon realm, so hell was considered to have an equal number of layers descending into the bowels of the earth.

In ancient rabbinic Judaism, which could cite in its support the biblical phrase ha-shamayim u/shmey ha-shamayim, “the heaven and the heavens of the heaven,” these layers were thought to be seven — a number whose sacred status goes back to the Bible, too. (Think of the seven days of creation, the seventh or Sabbath day, the seven branches of the menorah, etc.) Most likely, this sacredness was linked from the outset to the concept of a sevenfold heaven, which in turn derived from the seven brightest and most independent heavenly bodies: the sun, moon and five visible planets — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Each of the heavens associated with one of these bodies had its own name in rabbinic literature, as did each of the seven hells. The latter were, using synonyms for the underworld taken from the Bible: She’ol, Avadon, Gehinom, Duma, Tsalmavet, Eretz-Taḥtit and Eretz-Neshi’h.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Adventrous voyagers

Brecht's Life of Galileo at the Asolo is rich in the ingredients that made the rift in the Renaissance between Aristotelian knowledge and the new insights of natural philosophy so deep and fraught with implication. We are definitely seeing a Galileo shaped by the Brechtian imagination -- more emphasis is placed on his attention to the practical arts than upon the influence of Plato -- many of Galileo's key works take the form of dialog, for example.

It's a fine play, resonant with Galilean wit and acerbity, and receives a thoughtful, elegant staging at the Asolo.

You might wish to review the play. Thanks to Shaw and AGE, we know where to find it.

For the relation to Milton, who alludes to the "Tuscan artist" three times in his epic, there's much to say. In the Italian, Milton may have recognized a brother in anti-authoritarian arms.

Brecht felt the words of Galileo to his young student were of the essence of his scientific spirit:
"...the old age is past, and this is a new age. During the last hundred years it has been as though men were expecting something. The cities are narrow and so are men’s minds. Superstition and plague. But now we say: because it is so, it will riot remain so. For everything moves, my boy.

I like to think that it began with ships. Ever since men could remember they crept only along the coasts; then suddenly they left the coasts and sped straight out across the seas.

On our old continent a rumour started: there are new continents! And since our ships have been sailing to them the word has gone round all the laughing continents that the vast, dreaded ocean is just a little pond. And great desire has arisen to fathom the causes of all things: why a stone falls when you drop it, and how it rises when you throw it in the air. Every day something new is discovered. Even centenarians let the youngsters shout the latest novelty into their ears."
And in that light, consider Milton's embarkation, in the first invocation of Paradise Lost:

I thence

Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' Aonian Mount, while it pursues [ 15 ]
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.

Monday, December 07, 2009

"the Exodus is alive and happening right in front of us"

From Selma to Montgomery

On March 21, 1965, civil rights leaders began marching from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery. Accompanying Martin Luther King Jr. on his left are Ralph Bunche, undersecretary of the United Nations, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel was the subject of a recent American Public Media show that looks at the man, his work, and his mission in light of the Judaic prophetic tradition. It's a great interview with Arnold Eisen (Chancellor of Jewish Theological Seminary) that includes snippets from some of Heschel's talks.

Is it a stretch to see relevance to Milton here? His work is suffused with the impetus of the Judaic activist tradition, even as he uses every tool of classical Greek and Roman art, science, rhetoric and philosophy in the making of his epic. Above all, he would seem to share with Heschel a commitment to struggle in a world in which faith in a creator at every turn is at odds with profound indifference. Below are a few moments from the show, the whole of which is worth a listen.(transcript) (podcast)
Mr. Eisen: You read Heschel and the story comes to life. For Heschel the story of the Exodus is alive and happening right in front of us...

... had [Martin Luther] King …not been murdered that day in Memphis, he would have been at Abraham Joshua Heschel's Passover Seder. The two became very, very close. They became allies not just in the civil rights struggle, but in opposition to the war in Vietnam. And this was a precious alleviation of the loneliness that both of them must have felt, that they had each other in the world. And it was all the more precious because they came from different faiths. As it were, it was a validation of God's concern for all the world, of God's speaking through people of various religious traditions and not just one....
He wrote, "I suggest that the most significant basis for meeting men of different religious traditions is the level of fear and trembling, of humility, of contrition, where our individual moments of faith are mere waves in the endless ocean of mankind's reaching out for God, where all formulations and articulations appear as understatements, where our souls are swept away by the awareness of the urgency of answering God's commandment, while stripped of pretension and conceit we sense the tragic insufficiency of human faith."
Within the poetry of his language and thought, Abraham Joshua Heschel often used the word "embarrassment." "The cure of the soul," he wrote, for example, "begins with a sense of embarrassment, embarrassment at our pettiness, prejudices, envy, and conceit; embarrassment at the profanation of life. A world that is full of grandeur has been converted into a carnival."
There's this absolute insistence that what we are talking about here is in ineffable, will always defy words, and yet an insistence, as you said he said to you, words matter. Susannah Heschel has talked about how her father would say that, you know, she said, "He used to remind me that the Holocaust did not begin with the building of crematoria, with tanks and guns. It began with uttering evil words, with defamation, with language and propaganda. 'Words create worlds,' he used to tell me when I was a child."
Mr. Eisen: When he said words create worlds, he was paraphrasing one of the most important daily prayers that Jews say: "Blessed is God who spoke and the world came into being." And Heschel was a master of words. He was a master of words not just in English but in German, Yiddish, Hebrew. I don't know enough to judge the Polish. But Heschel knew that what we say matters. That's one of the things he taught. He's a man who wants to summon something in us beyond our rational, logical faculties. He wants to summon our care.
Rabbi Heschel: I would say to young people a number of things, and I have only one minute. I would say, let them remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can do — every one — our share to redeem the world despite of all absurdities and all the frustration and all disappointments. And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to live life as it if were a work of art. You're not a machine. When you are young, start working on this great work of art called your own existence.

 For Charles Laubheim.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

An ancient civilization of powerful women?

With these in troop
Came Astoreth, whom the Phoenicians call'd
Astarte, Queen of Heav'n, with crescent Horns;
To whose bright Image nightly by the Moon [ 440 ]
Sidonian Virgins paid thir Vows and Songs,
In Sion also not unsung, 

Apropos of the female goddesses cited in Milton's catalog of pagan gods in Book I which we talked about yesterday, Mussy sends a couple of links and a fascinating story in the Times about a little-known early European civilization.

Some background on The Venus of Willendorf

According to Wikipedia:
The Venus of Willendorf, also known as the Woman of Willendorf, is 11.5 cm high statuette of a female figure estimated to have been made between 24,000 B.C.– 22,000 B.C.. It was discovered in 1908 by archaeologist Josef Szombathy at apaleolithic site near Willendorf, a village in Lower Austria near the city of Krems.[1] It is carved from an oolitic limestone that is not local to the area, and tinted with red ochre.

Meanwhile, the startling findings of archaeologists in the Varna area of the Danube valley, stemming from before 5000 B.C., are reported in the Times:

The striking designs of their pottery speak of the refinement of the culture’s visual language. Until recent discoveries, the most intriguing artifacts were the ubiquitous terracotta “goddess” figurines, originally interpreted as evidence of the spiritual and political power of women in society. ...
An arresting set of 21 small female figurines, seated in a circle, was found at a pre-Cucuteni village site in northeastern Romania. “It is not difficult to imagine,” said Douglass W. Bailey of San Francisco State University, the Old Europe people “arranging sets of seated figurines into one or several groups of miniature activities, perhaps with the smaller figurines at the feet or even on the laps of the larger, seated ones.”

Cavendish on Bruno on Ptolemy

An interesting sidelight to the previous post regarding cosmology. If one is wondering whether the ideas of continental thinkers such as Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno enjoyed currency in England of Milton's day, from Bruno's bio in Wikipedia we learn:
During the later 16th century, and throughout the 17th century, Bruno's ideas were held up for ridicule, debate, or inspiration. Margaret Cavendish, for example, wrote an entire series of poems against "atoms" and "infinite worlds" in Poems and Fancies in 1664. Bruno's true, if partial, rehabilitation would have to wait for the implications of Newtonian cosmology.
Unfortunately the Wikipedia entry on this remarkable woman fails to follow up on her interest in Bruno, but as a nearly direct contemporary of Milton, Margaret Cavendish is an indicator of the intellectual climate of the day:
Cavendish has been championed and criticized as a unique and groundbreaking woman writer.Samuel Pepys called her "mad, conceited and ridiculous." She rejected the Aristotelianism andmechanical philosophy of the seventeenth century. She criticized and engaged with the members of the Royal Society of London and the philosophers Thomas HobbesRené Descartes, and Robert Boyle. She championed the idea of animal advocacy and was a strong opponent of animal testing.[1] Cavendish was the only seventeenth century woman to publish numerous books on natural philosophy.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

"By center, or eccentric, hard to tell"

The dimensions of Milton's cosmology are virtually impossible to gauge -- any pictorial representation is bound to be misleading.

We really have no idea of the relative sizes of hell, chaos, and heaven. We can say that the created world - all that is "nature," including the galaxies, is tiny in the vast interminable spaces between heaven and hell. Satan sees the universe at the end of Book 2, hanging like a small jewel from heaven:
And fast by hanging in a golden Chain
This pendant world, in bigness as a Starr
Of smallest Magnitude close by the Moon.
I.e., the created universe is to Heaven as the smallest star is to the Moon.

The "distance" between heaven and hell is mostly chaos, which by definition is pretty indefinite.

Also, above the universe, heaven looms so large that it's impossible to tell its shape, as there is no point from which an eye could see enough of it to judge whether it's square, round, etc.:
Farr off th' Empyreal Heav'n, extended wide
In circuit, undetermind square or round,
Thus the rendering of these elements as in the diagram below is misleading by suggesting knowledge where none exists:

Also, as this commentator notes, it's impossible to determine what lies in the center of the finite Universe - the earth? the sun? Milton appears to leave this rather basic fact open to dispute, along with so much else:
The outer spherical shell of the universe ("whole turning", i.e., the world including the earth) is created by God out of a region of chaos (or abyss "bottomless") using a pair of golden compasses--the shell of the universe is suspended from heaven by a golden chain. A flight of retractable stairs goes down to it from heaven. Hell was a separate enclosure within chaos. According to traditional medieval ideas of cosmology (to which Milton partly subscribed), in the space between the center of the universe (which may either be the earth or the sun--Milton does not assume a geocentric universe) and the outer shell of the universe are ten concentric transparent and immaterial spheres: comprising the moon, 5 planets, sun [or earth], fixed stars, crystalline sphere, and the primum mobile or rhomb (which moved all the spheres within)...
The idea of the infinite universe as having its center everywhere and nowhere apparently has a long pedigree:

Alain de Lille, a 12th century theologian, borrowing from the Corpus Hermeticum of the 3rd Century:

"God is an intelligible sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere."

While Giordano Bruno wrote:

"We can assert with certainty that the universe is all centre, or that the centre of the universe is everywhere and its circumference is nowhere." 

(Bruno is also credited with being the first to think "the universe as a continuum where the stars we see at night are of identical nature as the sun." Wikipedia)

Pascal used the following words:

"God is a circle; His centre is everywhere, His circumference is nowhere."

Incidentally, Nicholas of Cusa worked within a similar awareness of complications deriving from careful consideration of infiinitude.

"The famous saying that God is "a sphere of which the centre is everywhere and the circumference nowhere" is, in fact, first found in a pseudo-Hermetic treatise of the twelth century, and was transferred by Cusanus to the universe, as a reflection of God, in a manner which is Hermetic in spirit..This concept was basic for Bruno, for whom the innumerable worlds are all divine centres of the unbounded universe." - Francis A. Yates, Bruno.

Cusa also anticipated Copernicus in asserting that the Earth revolved around the Sun, breaking with the Ptolemaic model:

Bartolomeu Velho's image of the Ptolemaic Universe