Monthly Archives: May 2018
Hypatia of Alexandria was one of the last pagan philosophers of antiquity. Daughter of the mathematician Theon, she was active in Alexandria, Egypt, in the late 4th and early 5th Centuries AD Her father, though not a major mathematician in his own right, edited and corrected the mathematical works of Euclid, and his edition was so accurate that it supplanted all other editions for centuries. His daughter was talented in mathematics as well, and also was renowned as an astronomer. Her main claim to fame, though was as a teacher of Neoplatonism.
A fair amount of background is necessary. Alexandria, Egypt–founded, shockingly, by Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BC–had become one of the Mediterranean world’s great metropolises, second in size only to Rome itself, and second to none in its cultural influence. Alexander, conqueror though he was, was also an idealist. He had a dream of spreading Greek culture worldwide, taking the best of the cultures it encountered and blending it with Greek learning and culture. Though he died young and his empire dissolved into several states led by his generals, Alexander’s dream lived on. The various successor states to Alexander’s empire indeed spread Greek–that is, Hellenistic–culture throughout the ancient world.
“Lost” or “forbidden” scriptures are a big thing these days, and have been for some time. They have certainly played their role in pop culture, in works ranging from The Da Vinci Code and its sequels to horror/suspense movies like Stigmata, to name just a couple. The Gospel of Judas caused a worldwide sensation when it was translated and published in 2005. Walk into any large bookstore and you’ll see Elaine Pagels’s classic, The Gnostic Gospels (which arguably started the craze), various publications of the Nag Hammadi scriptures, both individually and as a group, collections such as The Gnostic Bible, and so on. Of all the various “lost”, “forbidden”, and “Gnostic” scriptures, probably the most famous is The Gospel of Thomas.
The Gospel of Thomas, though short, is a mysterious and intriguing document. Unlike the canonical gospels of the New Testament, and even some of the other heterodox gospels, The Gospel of Thomas has no narrative. Instead, it consists of one hundred fourteen logia–sayings–of Christ, addressed mainly to the disciples. Like the Gospels of Mark and John, Thomas lacks birth stories of Jesus. Unlike all four canonical gospels, Thomas also lacks any account of the crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, as well as the apocalyptic themes associated with Jesus in the canonical gospels. About half the logia are parallel to or at least similar to sayings of Jesus in the canonical gospels. The rest are of unclear origin.
I bind unto myself today
The strong name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
I bind this day to me for ever,
By power of faith, Christ’s Incarnation;
His baptism in the Jordan River;
His death on cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb;
His riding up the heavenly way;
His coming at the day of doom;
I bind unto myself today.
I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of the Cherubim;
The sweet ‘Well done’ in judgment hour;
The service of the Seraphim,
Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word,
The Patriarchs’ prayers, the Prophets’ scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord,
And purity of virgin souls.
I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the starlit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea,
Around the old eternal rocks.
I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, his shield to ward,
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.
Against the demon snares of sin,
The vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within,
The hostile men that mar my course;
Or few or many, far or nigh,
In every place and in all hours
Against their fierce hostility,
I bind to me these holy powers.
Against all Satan’s spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft,
Against the death-wound and the burning
The choking wave and the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till thy returning.
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
I bind unto myself the name,
The strong name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
salvation is of Christ the Lord.
Translation: Cecil Frances Alexander; courtesy of here.
An outstanding memory is often associated with weak judgment. … If, thanks to memory, other people’s discoveries and opinions had been kept ever before me, I would readily have reached a settled mind and judgment by following other men’s footsteps, failing as most people do to exercise my own powers.
—Montaigne, Essays, as translated by M. A. Screech, pp. 32-33.
With the possible exception of Bodhidharma himself, the greatest of all Zen masters is usually considered to have been 趙州從諗, or, as it is pronounced in Modern Mandarin, Zhàozhōu Cōngshěn. In Japan, he is known as Jōshū Jūshin. Most commonly, he is known merely as Zhaozhou or Joshu (henceforth I drop the diacritics). The tendency in writing about the Chinese Zen masters these days is to use the original Chinese forms of their names. Since Zen came to the English-speaking world mostly via Japan, older books typically use the Japanese forms of the name. Thus, for example the noted Zen scholar and popularizer D. T. Suzuki, in his seminal works on Zen, always refers to the worthy we are considering here as “Joshu”. For the rest of this post, I’ll follow his lead. Yes, it’s less accurate; but then again, the Chinese of the Tang dynasty, during which Joshu lived, was pronounced significantly differently from modern Mandarin; and Joshu probably didn’t pronounce his own name as “Zhaozhou”. Certainly, with Western religious figures, it doesn’t bother us that we don’t use the original forms of names–that we call the carpenter of Nazareth “Jesus” instead of Yēšūă‘ and his disciple “Peter” instead of Kêphā. I certainly first encountered and developed an admiration for Joshu under his Japanese name; so Joshu it will be for the rest of this post.
Simone Weil was a French philosopher and writer of the mid-20th Century. A child prodigy, she learned classical Greek by the age of twelve, and Sanskrit later on. She obtained a certificate in general philosophy and logic from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, and worked intermittently as a teacher. From early in her life, she was drawn to left-wing politics (she even had an argument with Leon Trotsky to his face when he visited her parents in 1933, when she was twenty-four years old). She wrote political pamphlets and was involved in activism and strikes on behalf of workers’ rights. In her personal life, she was extremely–some might say quixotically–dedicated to solidarity with the oppressed. Even as a child, during World War I, she refused to use sugar in her food because it was not available to the troops at the front. Later, she worked briefly in a Renault auto factory to experience what the workers experienced, donating her salary to various causes. Though originally a pacifist, she tried to participate in the Spanish Civil War. Being naturally clumsy and having very poor vision, though, she displayed no military competency at all, and no commander would actually assign her to an combat position. Her brief stint in Spain ended ignominiously when she accidentally scalded herself after tripping over a pot of boiling liquid, and was burned so severely that she had to return to her parents’ home for recuperation. Ironically, this was a blessing in disguise for Weil–not long after she left Spain, her unit was attacked and suffered massive casualties. Every single woman in the unit died.
During World War II, she fled with her family to New York. She wished to be active for the French cause, though, so she left America for England in 1943. There she hoped to be able to train so that she could return to France as an allied agent. She had contracted tuberculosis by this time, though. In line with her idiosyncratic notions of solidarity, she not only refused special treatment, but she refused to eat more food than was available to her compatriots in the war zone. Thus, while she didn’t cease eating altogether, her food intake was not nearly adequate for her fragile condition. Despite the best attempts of her frustrated doctors, she died that year at the age of 34.
Relatively unknown outside of left-wing political circles during her life, her writings have been posthumously collected and printed in the years since then. Gradually, Weil has come to be considered a significant thinker, and there is increasing study of her thought. Recently a biographical documentary about her has been made. Given all this new prominence, it is interesting that much of the renewed interest in Simone Weil is not an interest in her politics–the thing for which she was most known during her life–but her religious views. It is for these, in fact, that I am including her on my personal altar.