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The Alice Books

The two books that are perhaps the most famous children’s books of the Victorian Era were written by an unlikely author.  Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (pronounced DOD-son–the “g” is silent) was an Oxford don–a professor of mathematics, specifically–a skilled amateur photographer, and a deacon in the Church of England.  Despite the expectations of his father, Dodgson did not emulate him by going on to the priesthood.  Rather, taking advantage of an exemption made for him by the dean of the college, Dodgson remained at Christ Church College, Oxford, for the rest of his life, lecturing in mathematics and occasionally preaching sermons as a deacon.

Dodgson never married nor had children of his own.  However, throughout his life he had many child-friends, mostly young girls.  One in particular, Alice Pleasance Liddell, made him famous.  Alice was the daughter of Henry George Liddell, dean of Christ Church, and a formidable classical scholar (he was co-author of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, still in use after 175 years).  Dodgson became friends with Alice and her two sisters closest in age to her, Lorina and Edith.  They would often go on excursions, during which the girls would plead with Dodgson to tell them stories.  He was always happy to comply.  On one such excursion in 1862–memorialized by Dodgson as the “golden afternoon“–Dodgson, accompanied by his friend the Reverend Robinson Duckworth, took the three girls on a boat ride down the Isis River.

As usual, Dodgson, at the girls’ request, told one of his stories.  This time, at the end of the day, Alice implored Dodgson to write it down.  Eventually he did so and presented the result, Alice’s Adventures Underground, to Alice Liddell.  Later, at the suggestion of his friend George MacDonald, he expanded and reworked the book for publication.  The result, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865 under the pen name Lewis Carroll (by which Dodgson is usually known), was a sensation, and has never been out of print since.  In 1871 Dodgson published the equally well-known sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.  In 1876 he published the long comic poem The Hunting of the Snark, which, in modern parlance, takes place in the same universe as the Alice books; and in 1895 he published the two-part children’s novel Sylvie and Bruno.  Sylvie and Bruno is largely forgotten, considered by most to be Dodgson’s weakest work.  The Alice books, along with The Hunting of the Snark, are his masterpieces.

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The Disenchantment of the World, Part 4: The Enlightenment


On this rather elliptical path towards looking at religion as role-playing, we’ve looked at the religious milieu of the ancient Greco-Roman world, the origins of monotheism, and why it replaced paganism.  Many aspects of pagan belief remained, of course, under a (sometimes extremely thin) Christian veneer, and sometimes more or less openly as various types of folk practice and superstition.  Still, Christianity was on the whole dominant for nearly a millennium and a half after it conquered pagan Rome.  What struck a blow from which Christianity has never completely recovered, and which began the disenchantment of the world in earnest, was the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment is the period beginning at about the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th Century in which a new focus on reason and secularism began to be manifested in Western and Central European society, and to a lesser extent in Eastern Europe.  It’s always hard to give a concise definition of a complex phenomenon such as the Enlightenment, but the following points can serve as a beginning.  The Enlightenment was characterized by

  1. An emphasis on human reason, as opposed to Divine revelation.
  2. A focus on science and the scientific method.
  3. A call for political and social equality:  that is, democracy over monarchy, the intrinsic equality of all classes and nationalities, and even the beginnings of equality between the genders.
  4. A call for political and religious liberty:  Established religions were to be opposed, freedom of religion and association were promoted, and people were to be free to change their governments if need be.
  5. A desire to put human reason and science to work in improving human society, especially by rationalistic and technocratic means.
  6. An emphasis on the individual over the collective.
  7. A suspicion of organized religion and a tendency towards Deism and anti-clericalism.
  8. Optimism and (to some extent) utopianism as to the prospects of improving society; and a tendency to view the past as primitive, superstitious, and obscurantist, and the future as the realm of glorious possibility.

I think those points are a fair outline of the Enlightenment worldview.  It’s very clear from points 1 ,2, 5, and 8 why the Enlightenment resulted in so much disenchanting of the world; but before I go on with that, I think we need to look at the context of the Enlightenment, lest we misunderstand what followed.

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Hypatia of Alexandria

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.

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Simone Weil

This entry in my series “Your Own Personal Altar” is about Simone Weil.

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.

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Omar Khayyám


Appropriately, I begin this series with the patron of this blog, ‏‏غیاث الدین ابوالفتح عمر بن ابراهیم خیام نیشابورﻯ, in proper Persian transcription, Ghiyāth ad-Din Abu’l-Fatḥ ‘Umar ibn Ibrāhīm al-Khayyām Nīshāpūrī.  In the West, though, he’s most commonly known as Omar Khayyám (in the Victorian era, when Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation of Omar’s poetry became wildly popular, the custom for indicating long vowels in Persian transcription was to use the acute accent; nowadays, the macron is preferred; hence, “Khayyám” vs “Khayyām”).

Omar is best known in the west as the author of the Rubáʿiyát.  This is the plural of rubáʿi, which simply means “quatrain” (a verse of four lines).  The rubáʿi was a very popular genre of verse in Persia, and hundreds of rubáʿiyát are attributed to Omar.  Beginning in 1859, the English poet Edward FitzGerald translated a number of the rubáʿiyát attributed to Omar, publishing them under the title The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (for keen-sighted readers, I’m not being inconsistent.  The apostrophe, representing the glottal stop, should properly be between the first “a” and the “i” in rubáʿiyát–thus, it’s pronounced “roo-BAH-ee-yaht”, not “roo-BYE-yaht”.  However, FitzGerald left it out, for whatever reason.  Thus, when I print the title as he gave it, I’m following suit; but when discussing the genre as such, I’m leaving the glottal stop in).  Over the remainder of his life, FitzGerald produced five editions of the Rubáiyát.  This book became immensely popular in the Victorian age, and while less well-known now, it is still moderately popular, and has never been out of print.

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Universalism: Is It Coherent?

Recently we looked at universalism in relationship to Scripture and Tradition, and we saw that neither of these sources of authority conclusively condemns the hope of  universal salvation.  In short, while we can’t argue that universalism is definitively true based on these sources, neither can we say it us ruled out, either.  Universalism is therefore a possible and non-heretical option.  Whether it is reasonable or likely is an issue for philosophical and theological discourse, which has been the overall approach of this series.

I have certainly posted plenty of things philosophical in this series on universalism, and I think I’ve dealt with all the most important issues.  I would like to look at one somewhat ancillary issue, though.  This is inspired by a recent blog discussion I had (which I also referenced in the last post).  At one point, an interlocutor going by the handle seven sleepers, in taking issue with my stated opinion on universalism, said, “Side note: If you ditch hell, you lose heaven. Pretty obvious that to lose one is to lose the other.”  My response there was, “No, it is not, in fact, obvious, nor is this assertion even logical. It is merely an assertion.”  In this post I’d like–very briefly!–to unpack my thoughts on this.

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Quote for the Week

Math background

Pure mathematics consists entirely of assertions to the effect that, if such and such a proposition is true of anything, then such and such another proposition is true of that thing. It is essential not to discuss whether the first proposition is really true, and not to mention what the anything is, of which it is supposed to be true. Both these points would belong to applied mathematics. We start, in pure mathematics, from certain rules of inference, by which we can infer that if one proposition is true, then so is some other proposition. These rules of inference constitute the major part of the principles of formal logic. We then take any hypothesis that seems amusing, and deduce its consequences. If our hypothesis is about anything, and not about some one or more particular things, then our deductions constitute mathematics. Thus mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true. People who have been puzzled by the beginnings of mathematics will, I hope, find comfort in this definition, and will probably agree that it is accurate.

–Bertrand Russell, Recent Work on the Principles of Mathematics, published in International Monthly, Vol. 4 (1901), courtesy of Wikiquote

So Why Did God Make the World, Anyway?

003_william_blake_theredlistTo which I can answer only, “Beats me.”  I do think that looking at the question in the title of this post is of relevance in our discussion of the Fall of Man, for reasons that we’ll soon see.  I want to do a bit more detailed followup to this, and to take an interlude before we go on to look at the fall and salvation of bodiless intelligences.

I’ll start by explicitly saying that when I say “the world” I mean the material cosmos.  I’ll also specify that the question of God’s motives is posed in the context of “little-o” orthodox Christianity.  In Gnosticism, after all, the question, “Why did God make the world” is meaningless, since in the Gnostic view He didn’t.  Rather, the material cosmos is a chop-job made by the ignorant and/or maleficent Demiurge.  In the system of Evagrius Ponticus, which we’ve also looked at, the question is meaningful, but it has a clear answer:  God made the world as a sort of rehabilitation clinic for the fallen spirits (angels, humans, and demons) through which they would eventually be re-integrated to the realm of God.

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Talking Body

Last time we looked at whether God could have created truly free beings that either could not or would not sin, and concluded that likely He could not do so.  In short, truly free beings must have the possibility of sinning, and given enough time, at least some are almost certain to do so.  A third question we posed and saved until later, to wit:

Given the assumption (which I accept) that God made the spiritual world and the incorporeal intelligences (what we call angels, etc.), why did He make embodied intelligences–i.e. us, as well as any other intelligent species that may exist here on Earth or elsewhere in the cosmos?

This question seems to be on a tangent from the questions about the ability of beings to sin, but there is a subtlety involved, which I’ll get to a few posts down the road.  In the meantime, I want to look at possible answers.  After all, the various Christian accounts of creation, orthodox, Gnostic, and other, all agree that God began creation by making the incorporeal–bodiless–intelligences that we call angels, demons and (perhaps) other types of spirits.  Embodied intelligences (such as ourselves), and for that mater, the material cosmos as a whole, were not created until after the spirit realm.  In most traditional religions, though, the spirit realm is thought of as being “higher”.  The question, then, is if this is so, why did God bother with the “lower” realm–our realm–and with us?  Weren’t we a bit of a come-down from the angels?

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Blinded by the Light

Last time, I said I wanted to look at the following three questions:

  1. Could God have made beings incapable of sin?
  2. If not 1, could He have made beings capable of sin but who would never sin in actuality?
  3. Given the assumption (which I accept) that God made the spiritual world and the incorporeal intelligences (what we call angels, etc.), why did He make embodied intelligences–i.e. us, as well as any other intelligent species that may exist here on Earth or elsewhere in the cosmos?

Here I want to look at 1 and 2.

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