On growing old

De Senectute“We truly can’t praise the love and pursuit of wisdom enough,” wrote Marcus Tullius Cicero in one of his last works, How to Grow Old (De Senectute; aka On Aging or On Old Age), “since it allows a person to enjoy every stage of life free from worry.”

“Ancient wisdom for the second half of life,” is how Philip Freeman subtitles his translation of Cicero’s little book in his 2016 Princeton University edition. Cicero wrote his essay (not really a book as we think of them today) in 44 BCE, when he was already 62 years old. I’ve been reading Cicero again of late, searching for his wisdom as I, too age, and deal with the physical and medical complaints of aging. Freeman is a good translator, too; able to turn Cicero’s words into a readable, modern text.

I admit I guffawed a bit thinking of how Cicero’s praise for the lifelong pursuit of knowledge and wisdom compared with the current state of deliberate ignorance, conspiracies, QAnon piffle, the plethora of fake news among the rightwing, and the glut of pseudoscience in our modern world. From wingnut anti-GMO cultists to anti-maskers, homeopaths to anti-vaxxers, flat earthers to birthers, the ignorati in the White House to the banal plodders on Collingwood Council, we live in an age where knowledge is suspect, experts vilified,  truth denied, and wisdom is as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth.

There are, will always be, those who aggressively avoid learning and reading, comfortable in their self-perpetuating stupidity. For whom the concept of “lifelong learning” ended in childhood. It’s just unfortunate for the rest of us that some of them are in government.

But Cicero wasn’t writing about politics, although he had a lot to say about politics in many other works. Reading his thoughts about governance, ethics, duty, and responsibility is always inspiring. To those who actually read, that is; admittedly a shrinking class in the Age of Ignorance (how many of our local councillors actually know who Ccicero was, let alone have read him?). But in De Senectute he was writing about how to grow old gracefully, calmly and stoically, without despair, yet still active and engaged. He didn’t want the latter part of life to be seen as merely an end, but rather as a continued opportunity to live, learn, and grow.
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I’m Struggling With Julian Jaynes

Julian JaynesI first came across Julian Jaynes and his controversial (or at least provocative) book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, back in the late 1970s. I bought a copy, and read part of it, but my life was in a bit of turmoil back then, and I didn’t get too far along in it. Over the years, the book left my shelves, possibly given away or traded in. It wasn’t until two years ago that I came across a used copy (the 1990 revised edition with Jaynes’ extensive afterword) at a stand in Kensington Market. I decided I should make another attempt, and bought it.

For the past several months, I’ve been slowly reading the book (one of many I read simultaneously, as is my wont), taking time to consider his ideas, statements, and hypotheses as seriously and completely as my limited, non-academic background in these areas allows. It hasn’t been easy. Of course, I’ve been somewhat distracted by other books and personal issues, but still…

Jaynes’ hypothesis is that consciousness is a later development in human history, one that occurred almost simultaneously with the development of civilization, and that it arose in humans through both language and the physiological separation of, and communication between, the two halves of our brains (the bicameral brain). The latter was heard as ghostly voices or the voices of the gods.

This is from the Julian Jaynes Society website:

Jaynes asserts that consciousness did not arise far back in human evolution but is a learned process based on metaphorical language. Prior to the development of consciousness, Jaynes argues humans operated under a previous mentality he called the bicameral (‘two-chambered’) mind. In the place of an internal dialogue, bicameral people experienced auditory hallucinations directing their actions, similar to the command hallucinations experienced by many people who hear voices today. These hallucinations were interpreted as the voices of chiefs, rulers, or the gods.

The site further adds, “Dating the development of consciousness (as Jaynes carefully defines it) to around the end of the second millennium B.C. [sic] in Greece and Mesopotamia. The transition occurred at different times in other parts of the world.” Wikipedia adds,

…his theory has four separate hypotheses: consciousness is based on and accessed by language; the non-conscious bicameral mind is based on verbal hallucinations; the breakdown of bicameral mind precedes consciousness, but the dating is variable; the ‘double brain’ of bicamerality is not today’s functional lateralization of the cerebral hemispheres. He also expanded on the impact of consciousness on imagination and memory, notions of The Self, emotions, anxiety, guilt, and sexuality.

Interesting hypothesis, even if it somewhat baffles me. However, I am fascinated by the nature and origins of consciousness, how we define it, where it comes from, where it is located within us, and its future. I am reading other related books in my efforts to understand it (including some works on the simulation theory, superintelligence, and the consciousness of octopodes).

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Remembrance Day thoughts

Poppy salesAn article on the Global News site titled “Fewer Canadians plan to wear poppies this Remembrance Day, poll finds” made me think again about what Remembrance Day is for. The article opens:

Fewer people plan to participate in Remembrance Day ceremonies or wear poppies this year, according to a poll from Historica Canada that also suggests knowledge of Canadian military history is dwindling.

To be fair, I’d suggest knowledge of pretty much everything factual is dwindling. One only need look at social media posts from anti-vaxxers, or anti-maskers to see how much knowledge of science and medicine has been lost in recent years. And, like most followers of pseudoscience and conspiracies, such stupidity is a self-inflicted wound. 

And, too, it is difficult to fault people for not attending group ceremonies during a pandemic when health officials are warning against large gatherings. Non-participation on Remembrance Day in 2020 might have a lot to do with that. This year, like many others in our community, we observed our two minutes of silence at home.

I’ve found it’s a bit difficult to even find poppies this year: I have only seen them for sale in the post office, locally. Of course, this year I have not looked for them in as many places as in previous years, so I might not have visited a location where they were available.

Still, excuses aside, I wonder what other reasons people would have for not participating. Are people just getting jaded? Or simply don’t care about showing respect? Are we losing our collective memories as we lose our veterans?

I recall writing an editorial for the newspaper some decades back, asking where all the municipal employees were, who got a holiday on Remembrance Day but didn’t show up at the cenotaph for the ceremonies. And standing there during the silence, I could always see trucks and cars racing by on First Street, and pedestrians and cyclists going about their business, ignorant of the significance of the events taking place a hundred or so meters away.

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Bring Back the Salons

Salon culture
Today if someone mentions a “salon” you probably think about a haircut or manicure. But in the 18th century, prior to the French Revolution, salons were the focus of civil debate, intellectual curiosity, and culture. They were  centres of discussion on everything from manners to literature to philosophy to science. And they were run by women. Salons were the bright stars of the Enlightenment; cauldrons of intellectual, cultural, and social development.

More than ever, we need a salon culture today. Social media is driving us to ignorance, stupidity, rigidly polarized views, and a culture of confrontation and abuse.

Guests to salons were invited to attend by the salonnières who ran them, and meetings were held in the host’s home, often in her bedroom. Should a guest engage too loudly, exhibit bad manners while there, express themselves too foolishly or show ignorance of the topics under discussion, they were not invited back. And in a highly social society like 18th-century France, to be exiled from participation was a humiliating loss of face. To be well-regarded, one needed to be an active and engaging participant in the salon culture: you gained more points for being amusing, witty, well-read, well-spoken, and polite.

Participants weren’t selected simply for their charm or wit: hosts wanted challenge, lively discussion, and even controversy. They chose people who could offer contrast; those who could speak to opposing views and raise difficult questions for proponents to wrestle with. Salons were even places for musicians, composers, painters, and poets to show off their work and have them critiqued by the guests.

Salons were egalitarian: men and women both participated and engaged in the discussions, breaking away from the male-dominated society of the time, and providing both an informal education for women and an opportunity for them to develop their own views. Women could engage in political discussion in salons while they were barred from them outside. But they also allowed the aristocracy and the bourgeoise to mix and mingle; to engage in ways they could not do outside the salon, breaking down the social barriers.

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Lessons from History

It is common practice to look back and conflate the events of the past with those of the present, seeking parallels, resonance, and answers from previous events that help explain today’s. We learn from others, from their experiences, and we like to find commonalities in our shared experiences, even from our or other’s historic past. We see ourselves reflected in our past and we sometimes mistake that reflection for the reality.

Machiavelli did it in both The Prince and The Discourses, didactically using examples from classical Greek and Roman texts to explore the events, politics, and governance in his contemporary Italian states, and drawing conclusions on his modern events from parallels in the past. That was one of his great achievements: to explore how people behave similarly in similar situations across the ages, and thus extrapolate how we will behave under similar conditions in the future. This is why his books remain relevant today. In The Discourses, he warned in what could be seen as prescient to the current US administration:

Whoever desires to found a state and give it laws, must start with assuming that all men are bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature, whenever they may find occasion for it.
Discourses on Livy Book I, Ch. 3

It’s a losing battle to argue that the US administration isn’t filled with evil, vicious, self-serving people, because all the evidence points otherwise. But I digress.

Legend, mythology, poetry, and literature in every culture has always provided examples from which to learn. From the earliest stories of Gilgamesh and the Bible to modern novels, we learn that human behaviour has not changed in any dramatic manner, and we can always discover our modern selves in reading about our past. And we may find new ways of seeing events and issues from another perspective. An article in The Atlantic noted,

…beyond providing an introduction to troubling issues, historical fiction can offer the chance, if taught conscientiously, to engage students with multiple perspectives, which are essential to understanding history; to help students comprehend historical patterns and political analogies; and to introduce students to historiography—how history is written and studied…
Humanizing history not only means it’s easier for students to connect the historical dots, research shows that it also encourages empathy. Being told a story via historical fiction helps students identify with the characters’ points of view, and that ability to recognize different outlooks… is an essential historical skill…

If anything, history and literature have show us that humans today remain as greedy, parsimonious, warlike, loving, compassionate, lustful, treacherous, loyal, curious, wise, affectionate, and pigheaded as we were at the dawn of recorded history. This also is why classical philosophy and — some non-supernatural parts of — religion still have relevance today, too: human behaviour has not changed in the millennia since we started writing about it.

Machiavelli wrote,

To exercise the intellect the prince should read histories, and study there the actions of illustrious men, to see how they have conducted themselves in war, and discover the causes of their victories and defeat, so as to avoid the latter and imitate the former.
The Prince, Ch. 14

Of course, all such comparisons are at least partially epigonic, because despite parallels, changes in cultures and technologies over time have created situations and events that cannot be duplicated nor simply overlaid on the past by mere ideological association. Looking back can offer many lessons, but one must be wary of aligning the past too closely with the present, and confusing allegory and metaphor with current reality. It’s far too easy to make false equivalences or grand generalizations from a cursory knowledge of the past.

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Juet’s Journal in Word format

For those readers interested in the voyages of the late-16th-early-17th century adventurer, Henry Hudson, or in the European explorations of North America, I have recently scanned and edited a copy of Juet’s Journal into Word format and placed it online here. Here is my website on Henry Hudson, too. I haven’t done much with it of late, but that may be slowly changing as I find I have more time these days, during my recovery.

The journal documents how Hudson and his crew ‘discovered’ parts of North America and sailed up the river that now bears his name. For Americans, especially those in New York state, this is important history.

I have long wanted to turn the journals of Hudson’s voyages — replicated in Samuel Purchas’ classic 17th-century work, Purchas His Pilgrimes (aka Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrimes, Contayning a History of the World, in Sea Voyages, & Lande Travels, by Englishmen and others — the 1625 publication was actually the fourth edition of his work that first came out in 1613 as Purchas His Pilgrimage) — into readable, copyable, modern text.  However, because the original text is not suitable for scanning into OCR form, I tried to manually input it by reading the original and retyping it in Word.

My initial efforts to retype the text from the vintage typography into modern form were slow and frustrating. It’s difficult to read, even with a magnifying glass poring over  the facsimile editions I have. The printer used the “long f” for an “s”, “v” for “u” and “i” for “j” — all of which need to be substituted. Plus he and the authors of the journals used forms of spelling, punctuation, and capitalization far from today’s standards. As much as I wanted to “correct” these for modern usage, I had to try to retain them for authenticity.

Although I put the project aside for the last decade to pursue other interests and ventures, while I was recently perusing my bookshelves for an unrelated title, I came across a reprint of Juet’s Journal of the third (1609) voyage. My interest was again piqued. I have spent several days scanning, editing, formatting this into a text format that can be used easily. This reprint came from the New Jersey Historical Society, published in 1959. As far as I can tell, it was the first and only reprint of Juet’s journal in modern type.

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