10/9/13

Poor Lao Tzu: He Gets Blamed for So Much


Not a Lao Tzu quotePoor Lao Tzu. He gets saddled with the most atrocious of the New Age codswallop. As if it wasn’t enough to be for founder of one of the most obscure  philosophies (not a religion, since it has no deity), he gets to be the poster boy for all sorts of twaddle from people who clearly have never read his actual writing.

This time it’s a mushy feel-good quote on Facebook (mercifully without kittens or angels) that reads,

If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.

Well, it’s not by Lao Tzu. Or more properly, Laozi. That’s not his name, by the way: it’s an honorific, a title that roughly translates to “Old Master.” His real name was likely Li Er, Wikipedia tells us. But his name doesn’t matter: it’s the single book he left us that is relevant.

That book – the Tao Teh Ching – consists of 81 short “chapters” – although they’d be better described as poems. Or pithy epithets. It can be ready cover to cover in an hour.

For all its brevity, the Tao Teh Ching is a weighty work. It’s the underpinning of an entire school of  Chinese metaphysics and philosophy: Taoism, that dates back to the Axial Age, circa 500 BCE. That makes Lao Tzu contemporary with Confucius and in the same rough time frame as Siddhartha Gautama.

Lap Tzu was clearly a deep thinker, which makes it all the more ironic that he gets accused of spouting all sorts of saccharine New Age piffle.

One of the stories of how the book came about goes like this: Lao Tzu was the Keeper of the Royal Archives. Late in his life, he wearied of the intrigues, the corruption and the crassness of life at court. He decided to go live the remainder of his life as a hermit in the mountains. At the city gate, the sentry asked him to write down his wisdom. The result was the Tao Teh Ching.

Like with many religious, political or philosophical figures, take any story or claims with a grain of salt. Stories get embellished by both supporters and enemies over the centuries.*

Others say the work is really a collection of sayings by many people, collated into a single work. Since the earliest copy of the text is at least 100 years younger than Lao Tzu, and there are no verifiable records that identify him as the sole author, this theory strikes me as having some merit.

After all, every single religious work I can think of has been edited, added to, cut away from and interpreted by hundreds of human hands in the interim since it was first penned. Why not this one?

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10/2/13

I Didn’t Know That…


History of EnglandOne of the great delights of learning is to be able to read or hear something new, something unknown, something that challenges the mind or your previously formed ideas and opinions. Something that fascinates and delights you. That “ah ha!” moment.

Last week I stumbled across a website called History of England and I felt like that when I started to read through it. Better yet, I spent an hour downloading the 104 free podcasts of his history (plus the eight or so supplementary ones) to listen to while I walk my dogs.*

The site is a blog created by David Crowther, who also reads the pieces for the podcasts. Crowther modestly calls himself a “part time history enthusiast,” but his writing is as good as many of the histories I’ve read.**

I discovered the site when I was searching for some data on the Middle Ages for my post on the Unknown Monk meme last week. I started reading, then reading some more, and suddenly it was several hours later.

Crowther’s succinct profile is:

Interests: Well, History, obviously. But also a dedicated allottment owner, though at the most important times it’s difficult to get down there enough. Then very keen on walking, whether with the dog or something more major. Play tennis, bit of golf; armchair Rugby & cricket fan. Supported the Leicester Tigers since . . . a long time ago.

With some breaks for personal time, Crowther produces a weekly podcast – an amazing amount of work and dedication I admire and respect. I know how tough it can be to do this sort of work with any regularity. But this stuff requires a lot of background work: reading, culling images, cross-checking.

Plus he fills his blog with maps, text and images to supplement the podcasts. It’s a wonderful place to simply explore. England’s history is so rich it never fails to captivate me. Somewhere in that timeline, my ancestors lived and breathed, fought, worked the land… where, or course, I don’t know, but probably in the north near my father’s home of Oldham.

I started listening to Crowther’s podcasts on Monday and I’ve finished a mere eight of them – each is about 30 minutes. I’ve just finished the second on Alfred the Great and am in the late 9th century. Really intriguing guy – and learned, not just one of the era’s typical warrior-kings. Literate – in fact he not only taught himself Latin (and translated Latin into the vernacular), but wrote some of the earliest written works in the vernacular.

So far the stories been full of surprising information about the early English – and the successive invasions of the Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Vikings and Danes after the Romans pulled out of Britain in 410 CE. Ripping stuff, and told with a light hand and a dry sense of humour. He reads very well, with a good speaking voice, measured and easy to follow.

It’s an era I know damned little about – actually no one does, really, because until Alfred there was little written, or at least little that has survived. It’s not called The Dark Ages for nothing. But it turns out to be a rich, fascinating time for all that. Kings with odd names, warriors, battles, politics, internecine squabbles, church and state, family feuds… the stuff of good history.

One of those “ah ha!” moments was his talk about Offa, King of Mercia in the 8th century CE. I’d heard the name, but wasn’t really aware of his place or importance. Now I know enough to want to delve deeper. I expect a trip to Chapters or Amazon in the near future will include a search for books on this period.

I’m hooked. And I have 100 more to go!

By the time I get to the end, I expect he will have added many more, so I can look forward to many enjoyable hours. His 104th podcast – the latest as of this writing – only brings us to the mid-14th century. He hasn’t even reached my personal favourite – the late Tudors and early Stuarts. I can hardly wait for him to delve into Henry VIII, Elizabeth and Shakespeare. That should be getting close to lecture 200, I suspect.

~~~~~ 

* My usual listening fare has been audio courses from The Great Courses, which I still enjoy listening to. Their individual lectures are 45-60 minutes each, which means I sometimes can’t finish one when walking the dogs. Sometimes I listen to music copied from old 78 recordings instead.

**  And perhaps better than many – with history as a major interest of mine, I’ve read thousands of books over the last few decades and not all of them are as spellbinding as Crowther’s modest work.

07/16/13

Losing the world, and some sleep, but enjoying it


 

Civ VBrave New World – not the novel of a dystopian future by Aldous Huxley – is the name of the latest add-on for Civilization V, following after Gods & Kings, released in 2012. BNW was released last Tuesday, and I was at the local EB Games store to get one on launch day. Over the weekend, I took a look at it, playing for several hours in learning mode.

Civilization, if you don’t already know, is a turn-based 4X (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) computer game/simulation created by Sid Meier, originally in 1991. It has gone through numerous releases (Civ II in 1996, Civ III in 2001, Civ IV in 2005 and the latest, Civ V in 2010). V is built on a hexagonal grid like the old paper wargames, where earlier versions used a square grid. The map can be randomly generated each game from a template (many islands, large continents, one land mas, dessert, jungle,etc.) so every game is different.

It’s always been one of my top five or so favourite computer games, and I’ve played it (and many other Sid Meier games) since the first release.

The basic goal of the game is to build a civilization from the Stone Age to the space age, along the way discovering technologies, building cities, exploring the world, fighting barbarians and then other players (limited to computer opponents until Civ IV, now with online opponents). Your workers need to cultivate the land, too: mine it, build quarries and plantations, chop forests, bridge rivers and link cities with roads and, later, railroads. Growing cities grows your territory, expanding your borders outward, providing more land to till and mine. Continue reading

05/1/13

Waterloo, 200 years later


The BattleThis June we will be a short two years from the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo*. It is expected to be a large event, especially since the 100th anniversary was not celebrated because it fell in the middle of WWI. That gives us enough time to reconsider the battle and to read the histories and reports about it. Wouldn’t it be grand to stand on the field that day, 200 years later?

I have been reading about Napoleon’s campaigns and the events of his reign for many decades, since the early 1970s when I first read David Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon (a book still on my shelves). Dozens of books have been written on the battle, and continue to be written.

I played through many, many wargames of his battles and campaigns, but always for wargamers, Waterloo was a popular and often-played battle. I still have copies of the SPI “Napoleon’s Last Battles” quad game, but, sadly, no one with whom to play it.

As Wellington called it, it was a “near run thing.” The chances for either side to win were close, and if you play the entire three-day campaign in a wargame, starting with the battles at Quatre Bras and Ligny, you have many strategic opportunities to see how history might have changed, had another path been taken, or a different result developed in these earlier clashes.

Looking back, the battle has become the stuff of legend, with not a small amount of mythology mixed into the tale. It was a relatively literate era, and afterwards many accounts of the battle were written, first-hand and the analysts who followed later. Historians have argued over many points in the day, what effect they had, what mistakes were made, what happened and what might have happened.

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04/28/13

Rasputin: Two Perspectives


Grigory RasputinPerhaps no character stands out in pre-Revolution Russia as much as that of Grigory Rasputin. He was influential, enigmatic, charismatic, secretive, held no office, yet had enormous influence on the events and people of the era. How could a barely literate peasant affect the destiny of an empire?

In many ways, Rasputin was the icon of the changing times, in others he represents the end of the old era, the last gasp of the autocratic, superstitious Russia. Mythologies grew up about and around him during his life, and even more so in death. No matter how you view him, he remains a subject of popular interest and his death continues to generate conspiracy theories, almost a century later.

The period from 1881* to 1921 is one of (for me) the most fascinating periods in Russian history.** While the rest of Europe was hell-bent on progress, development and industrialization (as well as colonialism), Russia was a bulwark of almost medieval attitudes and economics against the tide of progress. The fall of the Romanovs and the rise of the Soviets is intriguing.

The same period that saw some of the most brilliant Russian writers and composers also saw brutal anti-semitism, pogroms, and a recalcitrant autocracy digging in to preserve its perceived rights to absolute power.

From a global perspective, given the situation, the Russian Revolution was inevitable, although the resulting Soviet state was not. What it began as, and what it became, are two very different things. But that’s material for another post.

Nicholas Romanov, the last Tsar is one of those great, tragic characters of history; weak and unsuited for the mantle of power in turbulent times that changed the face of the nation and the West. His wife, Alexandra, while stronger, shares much of the blame for his fall from power, in part for her religious interference in secular political issues. And that’s where Rasputin comes into the story.

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04/19/13

The Missing Lines


Mesopotamian tabletThe National Museum of Iraq – known originally as the Baghdad Archaeological Museum - once housed some of the oldest works of literature in the world. Treasures from the origins of civilization, from the cities of Sumeria, Babylon, Assyria were on display*.

In 2003, when the Americans invaded**, a battle was fought between US and Iraqi forces at the museum. The Iraqi troops fled, and looters came in. According to Wikipedia:

According to museum officials the looters concentrated on the heart of the exhibition: “the Warka Vase, a Sumerian alabaster piece more than 5,000 years old; a bronze Uruk statue from the Akkadian period, also 5,000 years old, which weighs 660 pounds; and the headless statue of Entemena. The Harp of Ur was torn apart by looters who removed its gold inlay.”[4] Among the stolen artifacts is the Bassetki Statue made out of bronze, a life-size statue of a young man, originally found in the village Basitke in the northern part of Iraq, an Acadian piece that goes back to 2300 B.C. and the stone statue of King Schalmanezer, from the eighth century B.C.
In addition, the museum’s aboveground storage rooms were looted; the exterior steel doors showed no signs of forced entry. Approximately 3,100 excavation site pieces (jars, vessels, pottery shards, etc.) were stolen, of which over 3,000 have been recovered. The thefts did not appear to be discriminating; for example, an entire shelf of fakes was stolen, while an adjacent shelf of much greater value was undisturbed.
The third occurrence of theft was in the underground storage rooms, where evidence pointed to an inside job. The thieves attempted to steal the most easily transportable objects, which had been intentionally stored in the most remote location possible. Of the four rooms, the only portion disturbed was a single corner in the furthest room, where cabinets contained 100 small boxes containing cylinder seals, beads, and jewelry. Evidence indicated that the thieves possessed keys to the cabinets but dropped them in the dark. Instead, they stole 10,000 small objects that were lying in plastic boxes on the floor. Of them, nearly 2,500 have been recovered.
One of the most valuable artifacts looted was a headless stone statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash. The Entemena statue, “estimated to be 4,400 years old, is the first significant artifact returned from the United States and by far the most important piece found outside Iraq. American officials declined to discuss how they recovered the statue.” The statue of the king, located in the center of the museum’s second-floor Sumerian Hall, weighs hundreds of pounds, making it the heaviest piece stolen from the museum – the looters “probably rolled or slid it down marble stairs to remove it, smashing the steps and damaging other artifacts.” It was recovered in the United States with the help of Hicham Aboutaam, an art dealer in New York.

The looting was severe enough to spawn several books and magazine articles (also here and here). The museum is still rebuilding and not open to the public, a decade later.

One of the side effects of the war was to end international archeological research into the region. And while we wait to see if the country ever settles so it becomes safe enough to resume such activities, looters continue to steal everything they can, including from archeological sites.

The Museum reported that many of its cuneiform tablets were looted, although some were later recovered. Those tablets contain some of the oldest writing in the world, among them the epic of Gilgamesh (the tablet shown in the image above, is the 11th tablet in the epic, from the library of Ashurbanipal (Assyrian King 669-631 BCE), now in the British Museum).

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