The First Philosophers

This anthology, edited by the Greek scholar Robin Waterfield, consists of a series of extracts, with commentary, from the work of a number of Greek thinkers who lived in the couple of centuries before the first megastar of western philosophy, Socrates – hence the name by which they are known to us: Presocratics. Well, “a series of extracts” is pushing it, since not many of them wrote anything down, so the way we know what they thought is largely through secondhand (and no doubt distorted) accounts, whether by disciples, critics (including Plato, Socrates’ chief scribe and the second megastar of western philosophy, who pitted some of them in dialogue against his hero), or historians writing many centuries later.  What survives is a series of fragments, like the cracked mosaics of some ancient palace floor.

That’s enough, though, to throw light on their strange and distant world. And yet in some ways not so distant: for these men (all men) were the first to think like we do. Anyone who has read their precursors, the great Greek epic poets Homer and Hesiod, knows that the gods pulled all the strings: whatever a phenomenon might appear to be, it ultimately had a supernatural cause.  We don’t know what it was that triggered the shift away from mythological thinking to the search for explanations in nature; but somehow, with the Presocratics, it happened, and it’s been with us ever since.

Some of the wackier beliefs of Pythagoras’ followers sound like those of a new age cult (the moon “is inhabited, just like our earth, but by creatures and plants which are taller and more beautiful; for creatures there are fifteen times as strong as those here, and never excrete anything, and their day is fifteen times longer than ours”), but they also laid the basis for much of modern mathematics, including mathematical relationships in music. And while some Presocratic scientific speculations sound quaintly cute to modern ears (“the sun is larger than the Peloponnese”, exclaims Anaxagoras), others were spot on (“the moon does not have its own light, but gains it from the sun” – Anaxagoras again), while still others are almost eerie in their prescience (Anaxagoras hypothesized a “big bang” origin for the universe – though set in motion by Mind – while Democritus posited atoms in motion and the combination of elements, and even asserted that the Gods – like us – were the products of atomic combination). There’s a mystical streak too – most of these thinkers believed that everything is one, and that nothing can come into being from non-being – but without that precluding a fair dose of common sense: Heraclitus held that “what awaits men after death cannot be anticipated or imagined”.

The Sophists, by contrast – or at least their flashier representatives – come across as superficial, boorish trivializers, interested only in egotistical point-scoring and well deserving of the opprobrium in which history has held them; though again, since we lack original sources, it’s hard to know how much of this impression is based on malevolent caricature.

For the most part, though, these distant philosophers seem just like us, fumbling with all their native curiosity and ingenuity towards the most coherent explanations of the universe they can find; but they were there first, and we owe them.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh

This is pretty much the oldest book in the world, which makes the idea of a review seem somewhat superfluous; still. Somebody gave it to me; I sighed at the prospect of wading through it. But it is short – less than 60 pages – so I read it, on an aeroplane, 45 centuries removed in time and technology. Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, “was the man to whom all things were known; this was the king who knew all the countries of the world”, it begins; and so it carries on, rough-hewn blocks of prose locked together like the massive carved stones of ancient temple walls.

“When the gods created Gilgamesh they gave him a perfect body” and massive courage; larger than life, he builds on an epic scale, but runs out of control too, terrorizing the burghers of Uruk and raping their daughters. So the gods make him a companion, a wild man named Enkidu, who is seduced out of the hills by a temple prostitute set in his path by Gilgamesh. The heart of the story is the tale of the blood brother bond between the two: they journey to the Cedar Forest and dispatch in epic fight the ogre who guards it; they build a raft and sail back down the Euphrates with his head; they slay the mighty Bull of Heaven sent against Gilgamesh by the goddess Ishtar in revenge for his rejection of her advances. But then Enkidu, invincible in battle, takes ill, and after twelve days dies in his bed.

The remainder of the book recounts Gilgamesh’s inconsolable grief at the death of his friend, and his ravaging struggle against his own inevitable mortality. No more spoilers from me; but for all its age – in fact, in part because of its age – this is a book that has to be read. Nowhere, in all the millennia from Sumer to Silicon Valley, can there have been a starker or more abrupt statement of man’s chest-beating pride and the final, all-humbling recognition that there is one enemy he cannot defeat:

The king has laid himself down and will not rise again,
The Lord of Kullah will not rise again;
He overcame evil, he will not come again;
Though he was strong of arm he will not rise again.

He had wisdom and a comely face, he will not come again;
He is gone into the mountain, he will not come again;
On the bed of fate he lies, he will not rise again;
From the couch of many colours he will not come again.

But for all the book’s macho doings and glorification of the achievements of men, the final word should rest with a woman: Siduri, a wine-maker Gilgamesh runs into during his desperate wanderings after Enkidu’s death. “When the gods created man”, she says, “they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.” So much has changed in forty-five centuries, but not that; and has anyone since put it better?

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inventing God

Kyria said: Daddy, where did the world come from?

To let her make up her own mind, I told her the two main western accounts: created in a week (say Christians and Muslims) and evolution.

Hmm, she said, I’m not sure about the one where God made it.

Why not? I asked.

Thing is, she said, if God made the world like that, then who made God? Well, you could say that somebody, or something, made God – but then who made that somebody or something?

Seven years old. No doubting Santa Claus, mind…


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Byzantium: The Decline and Fall

The last in the series is an ever-more dizzying whirligig of passing characters and incidents, few of them with enough purchase for this to be more than a shallow parade. Maybe that is the nature of the subject matter, given the sources – but who were these people?

Among the positives, what does stand out is that the Roman Empire, for some time before the end came, was at last truncated to a few scraps of land around Constantine’s city and in the south of Greece, and to almost complete powerlessness; that the population of the great city was reduced to a few tens of thousands, with much of the land within its walls given over to agriculture; and that in its final decades its emperors were obliged to go on tours of Europe begging for military and financial support (rarely forthcoming), one even going as far as England, where he spent a month with Henry IV at Eltham in what is now the Borough of Greenwich.

But when the end came, it came heroically; and the knowledge disseminated by the refugees, having been kept in-house for a thousand years since the end of the classical age, now kick-started the modern world. Byzantium seems so far away, yet it is the chief conduit through which we know about what went before as well as having been an astonishing civilization in its own right (if also barbarous in its ruthlessness). This version of it, while often seeming superficial, at least sets the record straight on how important it was, while much of the time spinning a good yarn.

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Byzantium: The Apogee

Second volume: more of the same, equally entertaining and well-written, with the same caveats. Most monstrous character: Basil the Macedonian, who maneuvered himself from stable boy to imperial confidant to Michael III, murdered the emperor’s uncle (who had effectively been running the state), persuaded Michael to proclaim him co-emperor, then disabled the locks on his co-emperor’s sleeping quarters and had him murdered in his sleep. Most hideous atrocity: Basil II, after capturing in battle a Bulgarian army of 15,000, divided them into hundreds, and for each hundred had both eyes gouged out of 99 men but only one eye out of the hundredth, so that he could still lead his blind century back to the Bulgarian king. You could barely make this stuff up. Funniest insult (a high Byzantine official on the inhabitants of Rome): “vile slaves, fishermen, confectioners, poulterers, bastards, plebeians and underlings.” And so it goes on. All of the might and splendor described here took place in the interval, in English history, between Egbert of Wessex and the Norman conquest. That’s quite a perspective.

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Byzantium: The Early Centuries

John Julius Norwich, author of this history of the Eastern Roman Empire from the founding of Constantinople in 330 until the coronation in 800 in Rome by the Pope of Charlemagne as rival Emperor of the West, is a jolly entertaining English upper class sort of storyteller. He has all the credentials: son of Duff and Diana Cooper, he went to Eton, then joined the diplomatic corps before retiring at 35 to write history books; he is the father of Artemis Cooper, herself married to the historian Anthony Beevor and currently biographer of the dashing English upper class travel writer and proto-Bond Patrick Leigh Fermor. And it must be said, his stories are pithy and colourful, designed to extract the last ounce of entertainment value from that previous aristocracy, the Roman-cum-Byzantine. He plucks a juicy summary from the sources, eliminates any tedious ingredients, enlivens it with crisp judgments, peppers it with anecdotal footnotes, and moves on. No sins of commission to complain about; though as he admits, he finds people more interesting than trends. The common people carry on, popping up occasionally to rise in support of or against this or that emperor, regent, patriarch, powerbroker. Yah boo hiss hooray they go, and the pantomime continues, within the hippodrome and without, but mostly beyond the heavily guarded end of the passage that connects to the imperial quarters.

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happy days are here again…

Tuesday night I drove from Sharjah University City to Latifa Hospital in Dubai and back again. One way it takes about 20 minutes when the roads are clear. This time, including a 20-minute stop at the hospital, it was a two-and-a-half-hour round trip.

On the way over, on Emirates Road, traffic ground pretty much to a standstill: six lanes moving at a walking place for a distance somewhere between 500 metres and a kilometre. Up ahead, I could see a blue flashing light: accident on our carriageway, I thought. Not so: when I got there, the accident was on the other side, Sharjah-bound, and the whole jam on our side was down to pure rubbernecking. After all these years, I oughtn’t to be, but I was still flabbergasted…

On the way back, I took the outer Dubai bypass to avoid the toils of Emirates road Sharjah-bound. Probably a mistake: the turn from the Hatta arterial road out of Dubai onto the Sharjah-bound lanes of the outer bypass consisted of a single lane, so traffic trying to get onto this was backed up a couple of kilometers down the road. This didn’t use to be a problem during the bust, but now it is; conspiracy theories I have heard sprang to mind, about how Dubai limits ease of transport access to Sharjah so that rents, rather than equalizing at lower Sharjah levels, stay high in Dubai…

But that line of thought was dealt a blow by the next, truly epic jam: down the hill to the University City exit off the outer bypass, a crawling backup several kilometers deep, as six lanes narrow to three, and then to two for the turnoff. The last couple of kilometers took half an hour. And this junction is on Sharjah turf.

did anybody mention public transport? or even that an oil-producing economy based on growing private car use will ultimately cannibalize its own export revenue stream?

Finally, with that turn accomplished, on the Maleha road back into Sharjah, another five-minute snarl at walking pace: again, this turned out to be pure rubberneck. Even on the last leg, some people would rather stare at someone else’s misfortune than race to their own homes; but maybe their families are far away, and there is nothing at home to compete for excitement with a car crash on the road….

Plus ca change…

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Istanbul: The Imperial City

This book about Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul, by the American teacher John Freely, is a curious read. It purports to be a chronological history of the city, yet is in fact mostly a string of anecdotes about the doings of its sometime rulers interspersed with the odd undigested gobbet of political history. It has none of the contextual depth or atmospherics required to really understand the place, in the way, for example, that you can almost walk the streets of Victorian London in Desmond and Moore’s incredible biography of Darwin.  So the first 300-odd pages skate unsatisfyingly over the surface of their subject – and then the final 60-odd, footnotes to the main text, consist of detailed architectural descriptions (with sketches) of the remaining monuments of the Byzantine and Ottoman eras which would no doubt be illuminating if you were examining those places with the book in your hand, but are really just annoying when you have to flick back and forth.

Perhaps I’ll pack it next time I go – it might change my mind.

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The Turks in World History

This book by Carter Vaughn Findley of Ohio State University (whose Wikipedia page is in Turkish), traces  the movement of the Turkic and Turkish peoples through history from the earliest records of steppe nomads on the margins of ancient empires (the Scythians for the Romans, the Xiongnu for the Chinese) to the contemporary Turkish republic which inhabits Anatolia and Thrace, and Turkic post-Soviet central Asia and Xinjiang. He sees all of these folk as a loose cultural and linguistic unit, but with the important caveat that it is impossible to fix this to any one particular “ethnic” group, certainly at least in terms of genetics. The appealing metaphor he uses at the beginning is that of a caravan rolling gradually across Asia from Mongolia to Istanbul, picking up and dropping people and baggage as it goes, so that by the time it reaches its destination it is both the same vehicle that started out and yet a different phenomenon altogether.

The other metaphor that threads its way through the book is that of the weaving of a Turkish carpet, so that all the shifting developments that have occurred in the Turkic/Turkish space – most significantly the conversion to Islam, and the encounter with modernity (whether in its European or Soviet forms) which characterized the 19th and 20th century Turkish/Turkic experience – are seen as strands woven into the fabric of its history by those who have created them. One dynamic that stands out is the author’s contention that historically it has been possible, even (in conditions of diffuse power) inevitable for states to be formed on the steppes, but that they have not been able to last unless they took over an Empire (the Mongols became the Yuan Dynasty, the Ottoman conquest of Byzantium) and then became sedentary themselves; otherwise the centrifugal forces were bound to overwhelm the centripetal ones. Another is the change that came with gunpowder and industry: now the steppes themselves can be pinned down by the great empires.

There is plenty of dense academic analysis here, but it is Findley’s propensity for weaving metaphor in and out of the text that lifts the book into a higher class, where the provision of detailed information merges with the sympathetic human search for meaning in history and the quest to create a liberating space where once nomadic peoples can live in an age where there are no more open spaces to roam.

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tiles and tombs

The Turks may have destroyed Byzantium, but to replace the mosaics they brought ceramics.  This is the Topkapi, palace of the Ottoman sultans. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves…

26.10.12 Istanbul-19 Topkapi Divan 26.10.12 Istanbul-20 Topkapi ceiling 26.10.12 Istanbul-23 Topkapi ceiling26.10.12 Istanbul-29 Topkapi harem 26.10.12 Istanbul-33 Topkapi harem 26.10.12 Istanbul-35 Topkapi harem26.10.12 Istanbul-40 Topkapi harem Sinan room 26.10.12 Istanbul-43 Topkapi harem

Those were for the living, but they did it for the dead too, building spectacular tombs for the Sultans and their families in the grounds of Aya Sofia:

27.10.12 Istanbul-12 sultan tombs 27.10.12 Istanbul-15 sultan tombs 27.10.12 Istanbul-16 sultan tombs 27.10.12 Istanbul-17 sultan tombs 27.10.12 Istanbul-18 sultan tombs

These tiny caskets are a poignant reminder of how infant mortality affected even the rich and powerful in those days:

27.10.12 Istanbul-19 sultan tombs

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