Earthpages.org

The Real Alternative


Leave a comment

The Chinese New Year Festival and Calendar Epochs

“Year of the Horse” – Image via Tumblr

By Rabbi Allen S. Maller

This week the people of China, and Chinese people everywhere in the world, will celebrate the New Year. A New Year festival urges people to look forward beyond the present into both the future and back into the past.

Two modern cultures; the Chinese and the Jewish, both have a great veneration for their history which dates back into the far distant past. Although Chinese and Jewish cultures are very similar in many ways; they are very different in some ways.

Both use a lunar month, adjusted to keep it connected to the seasonal cycle (unlike the Muslim lunar calendar). But the Jewish calendar has always had one starting point; while Chinese calendars have had many.

Although China has a very long record of written history, no Chinese dynasty ever established a calendar epoch (a point in time that marks the beginning of a new era) that started with a special event, perhaps because each dynasty valued continuity more than innovation.

Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year (Photo credit: Andrea Bedini)

When we speak about the Mayan, Aztec, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish or Muslim calendar we usually mean both the yearly cycle of months, and a long term period of years measured from a epochal date.  Chinese imperial tradition was to use the emperor’s era name and year of reign.

One alternative to this approach would have been to use the reign of the semi-historical, mostly legendary Yellow Emperor in the third millennium BCE to number all the years, but this was never done.

Agricultural societies have an annual calendar that marks the seasons of the year so farmers can prepare in advance for planting and harvesting crops. With the development of governments, land ownership, taxes and laws, there also arose a need to date things over many decades.

The most common way was to use the number of the year in the king’s reign. Kings themselves began to erect monuments to their victories and these usually mentioned the year of the king’s reign.

These records were then compiled into chronicles which were simply lists of events that occurred during the reigns of the preceding kings. These royal chronicles, over centuries, could be grouped by dynasties, as was done in  Egypt and China. The origin of the first dynasty was usually attributed to descendants of Gods or semi- Divine heroes.

Most calendars epochs today begin with an event of major importance. There are two groups of such epochs: political historical events like the beginning of  a dynasty, a war victory, or the proclamation of a new empire. These epochal calendars rarely outlast the end of the dynasty that originated them.

woman : pray for the wind, wallpaper calendar ...

woman : pray for the wind, wallpaper calendar for november 2010 (Photo credit: nevil zaveri)

The other group of epochs, which can transcend  the political world that gave birth to them, are religious calendars that begin counting from the life of a great religious leader, or from the beginning of the world.

After the death of Alexander, his giant empire split into three kingdoms. The one with the most varied populations and calendars, was ruled by one of Alexander’s generals named  Seleucus. He decided to unify his kingdom by introducing a new calendar with a new epoch starting from the date Seleucus had conquered Babylonia (October 312 BCE.).

This calendar spread widely in the middle east and was in use for many centuries. The Jewish post Biblical history book, Maccabees 1 (c.120 BCE) used Seleucid era dates (1:10) and rabbis dated Jewish legal documents with Seleucid dates well into the 9th or 10th century CE.

Syrian Christians used it for religious purposes though the 19th century. The success of this calendar prompted the Greeks, and later the Jews and the Romans to also create a epoch calendar.

Major religions that last for more than a dozen centuries produce an epochal calendar that can outlast political states and empires. Thus, all the world’s major calendars today are based on a religious epoch. The oldest of the world’s religious epochal calendars is the Jewish calendar, which is now at 5774.

Christians know their calendar starts its epoch from the birth of Jesus. Muslims know the Muslim calendar begins its epoch with the flight of Muhammad from Makka to Medina. Buddhists know that their epochal calendar starts with the enlightenment of Siddhartha under a Bodhi tree.

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553): Adam and ...

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553): Adam and Eve. Beech wood, 1533. Bode-Museum, Berlin (Erworben 1830, Königliche Schlösser, Gemäldegalerie Kat. 567) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But most Jews would be hard pressed to explain what happened 5,774 years ago to begin the Jewish calendar.

By analogy to the Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist calendars one might expect that the Jewish calendar starts with the birth of Abraham or Sarah (the first Jews), or from the Exodus from Egypt (the trans-formative experience of the Jewish people), or from the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai (the enlightenment of the Jewish people).

But the second century Rabbis who made up the calendar Jews currently use, chose to begin with Adam and Eve i.e. the beginning of written world history.

The word Adam in Hebrew means mankind/Homo Sapiens– the species. The exit of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden symbolizes the transition of humanity from a largely nomadic/neolithic stone age society of hunter-gatherers to a more advanced metal working bronze age society of farmers and village dwellers.

By starting the Jewish calendar with a historical transition that would have a universal impact on all of human society, the second century rabbis followed the lead of the Torah which begins not with Judaism but with urban civilization and recorded history.

All historical dates from the first urban societies that are derived from written records fit into the Jewish calendar. The earliest writing comes from the Mesopotamian city of Uruk (Genesis 10:10) and dates to about 5,500 years ago i.e. the third century of the Jewish calendar. The first dynasty in Egypt arose in the 7th century of the Jewish calendar and king Sargon of Akkad (2371-2316 BCE) lived in the 14th century. The first historical dynasty in China, the Shang dynasty, dates back to the 22nd century, about the time that Abraham lived.

Only in the generations after Abraham does Biblical history begin to focus on the religious development of one specific people.

The Jewish calendar is not only the oldest of the world’s calendars, it is the only one that begins with the beginning of recorded human history. Everything prior to the Jewish calendar is prehistory or natural history. History with written records begins with age of Adam and Eve.

Rabbi Maller’s web site is: rabbimaller.com


Leave a comment

Debunking the Myth of Nostradamus

Portrait de Nostradamus , Musée Calvet, Avignon

Portrait de Nostradamus , Musée Calvet, Avignon (Photo credit: jacqueline.poggi)

By Morten St. George

I read the works of many of the ancient Greek philosophers in my youth. Those men were intellectually brilliant, even by today’s standards, and I always assumed that they knew that their myths about Zeus and all the other gods were merely fairy tales. Now, I’m not so sure about that. When facing the unknown, the human mind seems to want to accept fiction as reality. Thus, the ancient Greeks may have believed their myths were reflecting events that really occurred.

Mythology did not come to an end in ancient times. As we shall see shortly, it resurfaced in full blossom during the Renaissance in regards to Michel Nostradamus, history’s most famous seer. Today, you can find that mythology all over the Internet, everywhere purporting to be the true history of Nostradamus and his prophecies. I recently googled Nostradamus Predictions 2012 and got nearly one million results. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Nostradamus was just as much of a moneymaking scam as he is today.

Scam artists, then, as now, typically resort to any type of unethical means to make money. Around the turn of the seventeenth century, they did all the following: wrote a fictional biography of Nostradamus, altered or created town and university records to support the fictional biography, republished Nostradamus’ almanacs adding freshly written predictions, wrote unprophetic books and falsely attributed them to Nostradamus, wrote letters and a last will and testament and falsely attributed them to Nostradamus, and published his prophecies backdating those publications to dates within or close to Nostradamus’ time. Beyond the facts to be found on Nostradamus’ original tombstone in Salon and a sprinkling of other information, almost nothing about Nostradamus can be taken for certain. What we think we know about Nostradamus and his prophecies is overwhelmingly mythology.

All of the encyclopedias will tell you that Nostradamus began to publish his prophecies in 1555, often citing the Bonhomme edition that displays this date, but apparently no one ever bothered taking a close look at that edition. In 1594, a charlatan by the name of Chavigny (perhaps also the originator of the fictional biography) altered some of the prophecies to suit his needs. The Bonhomme edition copies those alterations. How could it have been printed in 1555? Meanwhile, Benoist Rigaud, alleged printer of the complete 1568 edition, did indeed print a couple of editions of the prophecies, both dated 1596.

The period following Nostradamus’ death was a time of considerable religious strife in France. Recall the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. Superstition was widespread, and if those prophecies were available, both sides would surely have used them for propaganda purposes. But there seems to be no record of any such thing. Many experts have investigated the early history of the prophecies and they have nothing to report. From a reliable source you cannot find a citation of a single verse of any one of the 942 prophecies or even a comment about one of the prophecies. There were references to Nostradamus and his almanacs but not to the prophecies. During Nostradamus’ lifetime and for twenty years thereafter, the famous prophecies were unknown in France.

A breakthrough on the publication mystery began with close scrutiny of some of the earliest genuine publications, namely, the editions of Roger, Rossett, and Menier, all of which were printed in Paris toward the end of the 1580s. These editions contain massive textual alterations, the suppression and replacement of entire stanzas, all in sequences that turn out to tie in integrally with a book called the Sefer Yetzirah. The Sefer Yetzirah, for its part, was the earliest known text of a medieval religion called the Kabbalah.

Français : Michel de Nostredame dit Nostradamu...

Français : Michel de Nostredame dit Nostradamus 1503-1566 à Salon-de-Provence. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Kabbalists prospered in the country of Provence, Nostradamus’ homeland, during the age of the troubadours. There was also a large community of Kabbalists in Spain. Toward the end of the fifteenth century, things went badly for the Kabbalists. The Kabbalists of Spain were expelled from that country in 1492, just short of enough time to migrate to the New World. In Provence, now part of France, the Kabbalists were likewise given the option of converting to Catholicism or leaving the country. Unlike their counterparts in Spain, the Kabbalists of Provence had a special reason for remaining in that country. They openly converted to Catholicism but then took the Kabbalah underground. Catholics by day, by night they continued their ancient traditions.

Everything I say about the Kabbalah here is of course pure supposition granted that there is no historical record that an underground religion existed in France during the sixteenth century. But this was the environment in which Michel de Nostredame grew up. It seems Michel was recognized as the most intelligent of the group and hence he was the one appointed to dedicate his life to the study of the ancient texts of the Kabbalah.

One of Nostradamus’ brothers was a grain dealer (the traditional business of the Nostredame family) who made regular trips to Egypt. Others in the community may have also been merchants, likewise pitching in to help support Nostradamus. There is evidence that on one of his trips to Egypt, Nostradamus’ brother brought back with him an enthusiastic youth by the name of Isaac Luria, who aspired to study the Kabbalah under Nostradamus. Luria came from a wealthy family and may have provided additional financial support for Nostradamus.

This brings us to the greatest of all the Nostradamus myths, which is the myth that Nostradamus wrote a book of astrological predictions. Not quite. Nostradamus’ book is a religious text, only published under the disguise of astrology for self-protection. I’ll clarify that: the famous book of prophecies simultaneously incorporates and masks the translation of an ancient text that, like the Quran for Muslims, was the central text of a religion. That ancient text, entailing the foundations of the religion, was sometimes referred to as the Book of Light and sometimes as the Revelations of Elijah. There are indications that the word ‘Kabbalah,’ ‘the receiving,’ now the name of the entire religion, was in earlier times the foremost name of the book that Nostradamus’ book conceals.

Article Source: http://www.articlesbase.com/kabbalah-articles/debunking-the-myth-of-nostradamus-5207156.html

About the Author

Morten St. George is the author of the Nostradamus-related book Incantation of the Law Against Inept Critics and the creator a website about Nostradamus et la Kabbale. His website includes the Nostradamus textual variants of the Paris editions and other technical support for the themes of this article.


Leave a comment

It’s Martin Luther King Day in the USA

About 4 mintues of Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963, set to original music. When reading about Dr. King, I couldn’t believe what an incredible man of faith he was. And so kind. When whites hated him and threatened his life, he called them his “sick white brothers.” How generous is that? I’d probably have another name for them!

Martin-Luther-King-JrAnyhow, instead of me talking about him, I think his own words should speak today.

The full text of his speech can be found here: http://news.bbc.co.uk…

The full audio is here:
https://archive.org/details/MLKDream

And the Wikipedia entry is here: http://en.wikipedia.org…

The following is from the last speech he made before he was assassinated:

And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats… or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. [applause] And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! [applause] And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

A truly amazing man.

—MC


3 Comments

Confucianism – A General Summary of the Religion

Birthday anniversary of Confucius celebrated around China, Sept. 28, 2013. CultureInCart.com via Tumblr

By William Bailey

Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC) is a well-known philosopher who is known for his work in governmental and personal morality, sincerity, justice, and the correctness of social relationships. He is known as a Chinese thinker and philosopher during the Spring and Autumn Periods, which corresponds to the first half of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (771 to 476 BC).

Confucianism is an ancient Chinese religion with approximately 6 million followers worldwide, and named after the well-known philosopher, Confucius. The religion involves the worshiping of the spirits of the forefathers, the great God of Heaven, and the consecrating angles. In addition to the religious values and traditions that were inherited from their forefathers, Confucius added moral values and his own philosophy. The sum of these ideals equaled sound behavior, which is one of the main attributes of Confucianism.

Confucianism is centralized around the core concept of humanism. Humanism is a philosophy or practice that is based on human values and concerns. It’s believed that humans are able to improve themselves through teachings and self-creation. Confucianism focuses on the refinement of one’s ethics and personal virtue, specifically ren, yi, and li. Li deals with one’s overall demeanor within a community. Ren is caring for the welfare of others within one’s society, and Yi is the adherence to one’s moral principles that benefit the community from within. A true Confucianist must be willing to give their life while upholding their virtues and moral ethics. Confucianism doesn’t involve the belief of a God or the supernatural world, therefore is a non-theistic religion.

Confucianism originated in mainland China and spread throughout other territories including Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Taiwan. Themes of Confucian thought are elements such as modesty, reverence, righteousness, loyalty, honesty, shame, bravery, cleanliness, gentleness, frugalness, and kindheartedness.

Relationships are a key concept in the religion of Confucianism. There are numerous stages of relationships in one’s life. As a junior, one has relationships with parents and elders. Juniors owe reverence to their seniors. As a senior, one has relationships with juniors. Seniors are required to have loyalty and care for the welfare of juniors. This loyalty and feelings of benevolence are present, even in today’s East Asian’s society. This harmonic social class order is only possible when each individual of the society are both aware and plays a part in his or her social role.

A key concept within the Confucianist society is ‘The Great Learning’ teachings. The following six principles and key aspects are essential concepts of the religion:

  • Tao – Is a metaphysical concept meaning the underlying natural order of the universe, and the state of refining your moral self and achieving balance.
  • The path will be reveled to one, after the proper rest, reflection, and calmness is achieved.
  • Focusing properly will allow one to set priorities that are essential to one’s goal, thereby allowing achievement of the goal attainable.
  • Education is both comprehensive and imperative to one’s future.
  • Confucianist must utilize the trickle-down theory in reference to one’s personal relationships, organization, and product. When one’s personal or home life is in order the positive results will reflect in their professional activities.
  • Confucianism believes in the concept of effort over knowledge. Political influence, financial compensation, or social status has no bearing on one’s capability of learning.

Beginning in the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), Confucianism regulated gender roles as the cornerstone of its religion, thus shaping social life and societal stability in East Asia. Confucius regulated the following female and male roles in society:

  • Women remained dependent to their father prior to marrying.
  • Women became dependent on their husband after marriage.
  • Women became dependent on their child if in fact their husband passed away.
  • In ancient times, successful men had many side relationships (concubines) with women who they were not married to.
  • Men had the option to remarry, whereas women were supposed to retain their vow of chastity when their husbands were lost.

Ban Zhao (45 – 116CE) was born in Fufenganlin (in current day it’s called Shanxi Province). Ban Zhao followed in her father’s (Ban Biao) footsteps and became a famous historian. She has the honor of being the first known female Chinese historian. In the Han dynasty period, Ban Zhao wrote the important Confucian text titled ‘Lessons for Women’, or ‘Nujie’. These lessons were written by a woman and for women. The book listed the following proper roles for women:

  • All women should be hard working, follow instruction, and remain silent.
  • Ban Zhao enforced the yin-yang theory of how opposites are interdependent. She utilized this theory by showing how men and women are equally dependent upon one another however, she points out the fact that the yang-male is dominant.
  • In contrast to typical Confucianism practices, Ban Zhao maps out a solid educational plan for all females of all ages.
English: Commentaries of the Analects of Confu...

Commentaries of the Analects of Confucius, composed by He Yan in Cao Wei and published in Ming Dynasty (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The question of the Confucianism religion being secular or non-secular dates back to the 16th Century. When Europeans (Christian Jesuits) arrived in China, they researched Confucianism and came to the conclusion that it was a non-religious based ethical system, however compatible with Christianity. The debate of Confucianism being a religion continues today. That said, two aspects of the religion have been agreed upon. Confucianism is both humanistic, and a non-theistic religion.

Confucianism deals with the here and now. The cornerstone and root of its religion is moral values. The moral values include, reciprocating harmony, the act of turning the other cheek when receiving an unwelcome statement or hypocrisy.

Analects of Confucius are records of acts, words, and discussions of Confucius and his disciples. The Analects are considered the core belief system of Confucianism. These records were written around 500 BC with the vast majority written approximately 40 years after his death. Confucius began writing the Analects in the Spring and Autumn Period. It is believed that Confucius’s disciples and ‘second generation’ disciples wrote the vast majority of the Analects, and completed the records during the Warring States Period, with the content being Confucius’s theories, ideas, and thoughts.

‘I transmit but do not create, I place my trust in the teachings of antiquity.’

Written by – Confucius, Analects VII

Article Source: http://www.articlesbase.com/religion-articles/confucianism-a-general-summary-of-the-religion-5738387.html

About the Author

William Bailey has written and published numerous books, E-books, papers, articles, research papers, reviews, and other publications in various genres including politics, children’s literature, fiction, non-fiction, science fiction, self-help, How-To, article reporting, and other categories of genres and sub-genres.

William Bailey’s writing website is as follows:

http://baileypublishing.webs.com

Reverend Doctor William Bailey: received his ordination confirmation in the year 2011, thereby making him, Rev. William Bailey. He then competed his Dissertation of Divinity in 2012 making him Rev. Dr. William Bailey. Aricles relating to religions or a spiritual nature published on this website are from research materials acquired while completing his Doctorate of Divinity. He has founded a Spiritual Network online at the following address:

http://holytrinityministries.webs.com/

Rev. Dr. William Bailey has an additional email for religious correspondents:

reverendwilliambailey@religious.com

As always his general email address is: billbailey15@hotmail.com


3 Comments

The Origins And Influence Of The Celtic Cross

Photo: John Trainor

Photo: John Trainor via Flickr

By: Rob Mabry

The Celtic cross is a cross whose four “arms” are intersected by a central, circular ring – a function of both structural form and symbolism. While the roots of the Celtic Cross are likely in Paganism with the ring symbolizing the sun and “renewal,” it has become a potent symbol of Christianity and Irish heritage. The roots of the Celtic Cross can be traced back to Prehistoric Europe where the “sun cross” – a circle with an “x” or cross shape scratched inside began to appear on cave drawings and burial sites. The image persisted through the Bronze and Iron ages evolving into the Celtic Cross. It’s likely that the “cross” symbolized North, South, East and West.

Irish folklore tells the story of how Saint Patrick combined the Christian Cross with the “sun” to emphasize the importance of the cross to the Pagan followers, giving birth to the Celtic Cross. Though there is likely little truth to the tale. Around the 7th Century, Irish monks in the Celtic regions of Ireland and Great Britian began to erect upright or “high” crosses, many incorporating the Celtic Cross’ characteristic ringed structure. Many of these crosses survive today in Cornwall, Wales and on the island of Iona along with many others in Ireland.

Early Celtic Crosses often bore zoomorphic, or animal imagery, carved in the stone due to the influence of the animal style common in the Iron age. Not surprising given that warrior-herdsmen were so dependent on wildlife for food and clothing. This influence died off after the Iron Age as art in Ireland and Britian moved into the “Insular Period.” Artists during the Insular Art period produced many Celtic Crosses throughout Ireland, Wales and Scotland in the Hiberno-Saxon style. The “Insular Art” movement takes its name from the Latin word “Insula” which means “island.” This applied to the Isles of Britian and Ireland, and spoke to the shared nature of the artwork between the two regions that were vastly different than what was being produced throughout the rest of Europe. The Celtic crosses of this time were ornate and often bore spiraling geometric patterns that likely symbolized man’s “twisting” journey through life.

Around the 15th century, interest in the Celtic Cross and its influence as an art form waned. In the mid-19th century, a Celtic Revivial began that resulted in increased display and use of Celtic crosses in Ireland. The Celtic cross became fashionable as a cemetary marker in Victorian Dublin around the 1860s. This revival continued to spread across the whole of Irland and beyond and the symbol began to take on importance as a symbol of Irish heritage in addition to its religious conotation.

Today, the Celtic cross is commonly used as a gravemarker, though this is a departure from both medieval and Celtic revival periods when the symbol was used mainly as a monument and had little association with grave markings. The imagery of the Celtic cross has expanded its influence even in modern times, often spotted in jewelry as an expression of Irish pride and Christianity. The symbol is also seen in everything from T-shirts to tattoos. The Northern Ireland national football team use the Celtic Cross imagery in their logo and branding. The symbol has had some unfortunate attention as well and was recently banned from display in Germany when a prohibited neo-Nazi party co-opted the image as a symbol of their movement.

Famous Celtic Crosses that can still be seen today are at the Cross of Kells, County Meath, Ireland; Ardboe Auld Cross, Ardboe, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland; the crosses at Monasterboice, County Louth, Ireland; and the Cross of the Scriptures, Clonmacnoise, Ireland.

Article Source: http://www.articlesbase.com/religion-articles/the-origins-and-influence-of-the-celtic-cross-1252057.html

About the Author

Rob Mabry is a former Army journalist, screenwriter and technologist. He is owner of Balance Bikes 4 Kids, specializing in bikes and scooters to help your child learn to ride.


1 Comment

History: The Power of the Idea and the Idea of Power

Knowledge is Power by Tobias Higbie

Knowledge is Power by Tobias Higbie via Flickr

By Jeanne Belisle Lombardo © Copyright 2012 Center for Future Consciousness

Early on in Preface to History, Carl G. Gustavson refers to the philosopher George Santayana’s famous lines on the relevance of history.  He does so with good cause for his own underlying approach to history builds on Santayana’s message.  This becomes clearer if we extend the philosopher’s quote: “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness…when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual.  Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it…this is the condition of children and barbarians…”  When Gustavson says, “Our ideas seem to be drawn to the more primitive level by a mental force of gravity unless the person consciously assists the more complex and true explanations to gain the supremacy” (15), he extends Santayana’s warning. While Santayana exhorts us to leave childishness behind by first remembering history, Gustavson tells us that we must look at it with the eyes of an adult, that is, in a critical and more complex way.  We must leave behind the “childish and primitive mind.”  We must grow up.

To grow up in this sense involves first the ability to build with the obvious facts of history a frame of reference, and to apply to this picture principles such as causation, comparison and motivation.  It further requires the development of a historical perspective.  A key element in this endeavor is the increasing capacity to conceptualize duration in history. From duration, one builds to recognizing continuity – the flow and growth – of the narrative of history. When a person has developed this capacity, what Gustavson calls historical mindedness, she will exhibit the following characteristics, all aspects of a mature and critical thinker: a natural curiosity as to what underlies any historical event; looking to the past when seeking answers to present problems; recognizing forces dynamic in society; stressing the continuity of society; recognizing that society is, at the same time, undergoing change; approaching the subject with humility; and knowing that each situation and event is unique (7). It is only when historical-mindedness is developed that a person can hope to achieve the twofold purpose of history – to discover the origins of our society and culture, and to apply what we have learned to solving present problems.

Among the characteristics listed above, Gustavson focuses on the principles of change and continuity, causation, the uniqueness of historical events and the importance of recognizing forces dynamic in society.  Early on he lists six primary forces: economic, religious/spiritual, institutional/political, technological, ideological and the physical force as embodied in the military or police. In operation in all of these forces are two other driving forces – the idea and power.  In the following section, I will explore these last two forces more in depth and attempt to see how they are connected.

Ideas are subject to the historical principles of continuity and change, and causation.  Like everything else in history, ideas evolve and both shape and are shaped by other forces.  An example of each of the above is the way the earlier collectivism in Russia allowed the idea of socialism to thrive and be converted into a social movement, or how absolute power inherent in the divine right of kings was later transformed into the absolute power of the state.  Gustavson compares ideas to inventions in that ideas are a response to a particular set of social conditions and once germinated are open to modification and improvement (154). In the way an invention moves from the drawing board to its realization in the physical world, ideas move from the realm of speculation to the world of action.  They manifest themselves in “large scale action” such as social movements and institutions. They also frequently deviate from the search for truth to an instrument of power.

Among the large scale actions in which we see the power of ideas are those Gustavson highlights: The divine right of kings, democracy, socialism, progress, nationalism, liberalism and toleration. In our time we could add to these individualism, feminism, globalization, environmentalism, and the offshoots of individualism and democracy – human and animal rights, among others. In many of these arenas, the powerful idea became a tool that enabled certain groups to gain dominance. When the idea becomes rigid and crystallized, when it serves the purposes of a group as its primary function and substitutes loyalty to a cause for the search for truth, the idea crosses over into ideology and dogma.

Much could be said here of the ways ideas are transmitted and of the mechanism that transforms an idea into a tool of power or into an entire institution.  Gustavson uses the examples of the spread of nationalism and socialism to illustrate how this works (158, 159). I would like to focus, though, on what happens to ideas that become agents of power and the control of such ideas.  To do so, we first need to understand some of the operating factors at work in the force of power.

Gustavson defines four ways in which power is manifested:  Physical force, economic power, spiritual power, and technological power. Throughout the book, Gustavson illustrates these forms of power with a rich variety of examples from European history, and supplies us with a means to recognize them in periods and places not discussed in the book.  Gustavson’s example of the brute strength evident in the power of the feudal lord, is equally recognizable in what Winston Churchill called “the terrible 20th century”, the clanking of armor and hooves now replaced by the thunder of tanks and goose-stepping fascists. This same historical example supplies us with another look at how physical power is magnified by technological power. Reading a newspaper with even a cursory eye today must convey to the reader the role of economic power in a society as well and give pause to those who worry about the decline in the spiritual power of both our established religions (as with the scandals in the Roman Catholic Church) and our political ideals.  These four forms of power are everywhere evident and in constant interplay, with one at times dominating the scene to be replaced in the next instance by another.

Gustavson uses the example of European colonialism in Africa to illustrate the tremendous force of all four forms of power in combination.  It is difficult to look at any number of events in history and not find a similar combination at work.  The Spanish Conquest of Mexico with its superior physical force enabled by advanced technology (the horse and the gun,) the moral force of its religion, and the need on the part of the Crown to replenish its coffers, is but one example. It should be mentioned that forces can also work against the group; the Aztecs were disadvantaged by their belief that the god Quetzalcoatl, whose representations in art bore a striking resemblance to a mounted Spanish cavalier, would return at precisely the moment in history when Cortez arrived on the scene. Thus they were defeated not only by the power of the Spaniards’ spiritual idea of the supremacy of Catholicism, but also by their own belief in an idea whose time had passed.

While the physical form of power, brute strength, has been a continuing factor in the history of the world, Gustavson points out that there has been an evolution away from brute strength towards power wielded through political rights and associations. Gustavson sees the preservation of free associations as integral to the maintenance of a balance of power (195), the more so in light of the increasing power of the state and the changing nature of liberalism.  Building on Gustavson’s insight, I would add that the preservation of free associations also contributes to the free flow of ideas, a phenomenon very much in evidence in the history of the United States where associations in the form of private enterprise both fuel and feed off of the flow of ideas.  The capitalist system, relying as it does on competition, could not function without it.

In making his point about the importance of free associations, Gustavson commented about the changing nature of liberalism. Where a liberal once fought for freedom from governmental controls, Gustavson argues that the liberal now increasingly looks to the government to achieve necessary measures (193).  Gustavson’s example suggests that it is possible for the meaning of ideas to change.  Could there be any connection between the level of power an idea attains, (and hence its move towards institutionalization,) and its ultimate corruption?  In this case when liberalism moved away from the philosophical realm into the world of institutions, it changed, as did socialism and nationalism, both of which experienced a gross distortion into fascism.   In our current age, we might look at what is becoming of the idea of progress.  Progress has come under attack in the last half century and serves as a good example of the way an idea changes meaning in light of evolving social forces and developments in the body of knowledge.  An environmentalist today has a very different idea of progress from that held by an industrialist a century ago. Perhaps it is the nature of the powerful idea, like the powerful nation, to reach a zenith and then decline.  And if it is true that power corrupts, we should not be surprised then that that what gives ideas power also opens them up to corruptibility.

How are we to recognize a powerful idea? Gustavson makes the point that rigid control of an idea is an indication of its power. He further believes that “…the persistence of rigid controls…is an indication that …control of ideas is not wholly possible” (195). The Cold War struggle of ideas would bear this out.  Gulags could not stop the spread of the ideas of democracy, individualism and freedom nor could persecution and witch hunts during the McCarthy years deter intellectuals in Western Europe and the United States who were committed to Communism. In the fifty years since Gustavson wrote this book, the control of ideas may be even more difficult.   I say “may” because of the susceptibility of people to misinformation and the fact that while new technologies may come and go, I also tend to agree with Barnum when he said, “there’s a sucker born every minute.” Gustavson writes, “Because of the higher development of education …and the improved means of spreading ideas, the government must provide the masses with ideas or see the masses permeated by thoughts not to the liking of the authorities” (196). This still rings true today.  With the Internet, the masses may have improved access to information and a greater range of sources, but it is also the sheer amount of information, much of it trivial, which makes manipulation of the large common mass of people possible.  We live in the age of information and misinformation.  As every other age has witnessed, technology may make our activities faster, more convenient, and more accurate but it will still be at the service of, and a reflection of, the human will with its love of ideas and its drive towards power, and with all of its conflicting impulses towards good and evil.

With these varying impulses so evident today, I think the question is not how historical thinking can be used profitably in everyday life, but how one can go through life without reference to the events, decisions and personalities both great and flawed of our collective past.  How can a citizen vote without a sense of the history of democracy?  How can we get through the news day and still have hope without an understanding of the similar challenges that faced people in the past?  How barren to live in a world where the origins of our customs remain concealed in a distant mist. As I read Gustavson, I began to place my siblings and friends in various lights- my twin sister the nun as an extension of the long history of the Roman Catholic Church, my brother the policeman as one more in a long line of those who favor physical force as a means to societal control, my elder sister the Gay, conservative, CEO of a large Christian organization as a wonderful product of varying lines of development, myself too as just such a product of forces. A sense of history allows us to see ourselves and others in a truer light. It gives us insight as to why a person acted in a seemingly irrational way, or why events in our time seem to be careening out of control. Historical thinking gives us a context in which to live our lives, a context infinitely more varied and rich than the narrow field of the present. And in it, I believe, lies the only hope for our future.

Work Cited

Gustavson, Carl G. A Preface to History. New York: McGraw, 1955.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 7,451 other followers