Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Richard Weikart on the Revealing Inconsistencies of Scientific Materialism

By Mike Keas
April 19, 2016
Historian Richard Weikart's new book, The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life, is an important study of the erosion of the most basic values in the Judeo-Christian tradition of the West. Many things are striking about Weikart's powerful treatment of his subject, but I noted, in particular, his discussion of some statements from atheist biologist Richard Dawkins. These statements have a curious, persistent, and revealing inconsistency to them.
Here is Weikart, for example, on a 2007 interview with Dawkins:
[C]onsider how Richard Dawkins responded when Larry Taunton asked in an interview if his rejection of external moral standards meant that Islamic extremists might not be wrong. Dawkins replied, "What's to prevent us from saying Hitler wasn't right? I mean, that is a genuinely difficult question." Taunton admitted that he was stupefied by Dawkins's answer -- as he should have been. Anyone who thinks that making a moral judgment about Hitler is difficult has lost their moral compass completely and has no business pontificating about any moral issue (or proclaiming that he has discovered the "root of all evil" -- which is what he called religion, of course). (p. 80)
So Dawkins thinks we can't rationally criticize Hitler's actions. Compare that with his Afterword to a 2007 book, What Is Your Dangerous Idea? Dawkins wrote there: "Nobody wants to be caught agreeing with that monster, even in a single particular." The moral monster Dawkins referred to was Adolf Hitler. So which is it? On the one hand Dawkins (like all the rational and informed people I know) considers Hitler a moral monster. On the other hand, he proclaims that we can't rationally criticize Hitler's genocidal racism.
There's more. In a chapter titled "My Genes Made Me Do It," Weikart explores the attack on the belief in human free will from scientists such as Dawkins. Criminals are not responsible for their actions, Dawkins has argued. Why? Because they are like "defective machines" -- victims of defective genes and/or a defective environment. Weikart notes Dawkins's use of the term "defective." How could it be consistent for an atheist like Dawkins to use a word like that?
[It] implies that somewhere there is a standard by which to measure human behavior, such as murder or rape. However, Dawkins's worldview does not have any moral resources to establish any standard or provide any valuations, so I am mystified about why he would call such behavior "defective." Human behavior can only be defective if it is not fulfilling its purpose (for which it was created). Even though Dawkins strenuously and repeatedly denies that humans (or anything in the cosmos) have any purpose or meaning, he smuggles purpose back into his worldview to avoid the dehumanizing consequences of his philosophy. Fortunately, he rightly recognizes that murder and rape are contrary to the way things should be. However, his commitment to materialism drives him to deny that there is any "way things should be." (p. 95)
Weikart returns once more to Dawkins's inconsistent proclamations:
Where did Dawkins get the idea that cooperation, unselfishness, and generosity are morally superior to selfishness and cutthroat competition? Why does he favor the welfare state helping the poor and disadvantaged, rather than letting them starve? He admits that these moral precepts do not come from nature. Where then did he get these extra-natural (dare I say, supernatural?) moral standards that he encourages us to uphold and teach? They certainly did not arise from his own worldview, which denies the existence of any extra-natural morality. (p. 115)
Weikart catches many other scientists and materialist philosophers in similar instances of self-contradiction. These include a few who are no longer alive, but who have many intellectual descendants today: August Comte (p. 30-32), Charles Darwin (p. 54-55), and Bertrand Russell (p. 37-41). The living self-contradicting thinkers canvassed in Weikart's book include (besides Dawkins) Lawrence Krauss (p. 43-44), Jerry Coyne (p. 84-87), Stephen Pinker (p. 89-93), and E. O. Wilson (p. 112). Weikart is respectful of his intellectual opponents, while documenting their contradictions with precision and wit.
Someone might object to his analysis of the historical and contemporary inhumane implications of naturalistic evolutionary theory, asking, "So what? If unguided evolution really explains the origins of biological complexity, then you simply bite the bullet and accept all the unsavory implications." To this objection, there are two responses. The first is in Weikart's book: Note all the contradictory and self-defeating positions articulated by many of the most influential naturalistic thinkers. There is not one "bullet" to bite, but a staggering and stupefying diversity of them! Surely this tells us something significant about the soundness of evolution theory itself.
The second response, of course, is to keep up with the latest debates about evolution and intelligent design. If you missed it, go back and study Dawkins's recent indirect exchange with Stephen Meyer. See here and here for responses from Meyer and Paul Nelson respectively. Dawkins was coming to the defense of his fellow atheist Lawrence Krauss, who after facing Meyer in debate, needed a helping hand.
There is, alas, precious little scientific substance to Krauss's and Dawkins's opposition to intelligent design and or their arguments for unguided evolution. This takes us back to Weikart's book. Don't miss his well-argued critique of both Krauss and Dawkins. Dr. Weikart shows how some of the scientific debate over Darwinism and human nature can be traced back to faulty philosophical foundations, and why all this matters for the future of humanity.
I have read several other books by Weikart and found them all well documented and readable. The same is true of this new book. In fact it is even more readable because it is aimed at a more popular audience. As a historian and philosopher of science who regularly interacts with college students in my classrooms (including on the issues in Weikart's book), I can attest to the cogency of the argument in The Death of Humanity and its cultural urgency.
Image credit: www.CGPGrey.com [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

PAPA HEMINGWAY IN CUBA: FIRST HOLLYWOOD MOVIE SHOT IN CUBA SINCE 1959

Why a Stalinist regime rolled out the red carpet for a Hollywood production crew.



May 3, 2016



The mainstream media is absolutely agog over the movie-making “milestone” mentioned in this column's title. Here’s some of the reaction:
“That the movie was made at all during the economic embargo was a feat of diplomacy, financial and otherwise,” (Helen Verongos, the New York Times.)
"Production values and on-location filming enhance the period flavor of 'Papa: Hemingway in Cuba.' The scenes inside the Hemingways’ home were filmed at the real Finca La Vigia, which has been restored as a museum." (Joe Leydon, Variety.)
“Getting it (the movie) made against the backdrop of the U.S. embargo against Cuba required years of dedicated effort by director Bob Yari.” (Eliza Berman, Time.)
For the benefit of the agog, let’s flesh out this column’s title a bit and see if just maybe these ultra-educated critics can wrap their brains around the hows and whys of this earth-shaking “milestone.” To wit:
A KGB-founded and mentored totalitarian regime whose founder boasted, “propaganda is the vital heart of our struggle,” who the CIA pegs with “creating the most effective propaganda empire in the Western Hemisphere,” whose KGB- mentored  secret police meticulously vet every single visa applicant—especially academics, journalists and filmmakers –this very regime SOMEHOW permitted a Hollywood production crew on its sovereign soil!
Furthermore, the Stalinist regime’s military and secret police own the nation’s tourism facilities almost lock, stock and barrel. Ernest Hemingway’s haunts from El Floridita bar to the Ernest Hemingway Marina to his former home Finca Vigia itself rank among the Stalinist nation’s top tourist attractions.
…….And oh ….Almost forgot: Recently declassified Soviet documents also reveal how the subject of the film served as an eager (but bumbling) KGB agent.
Is this milestone beginning to make a little sense, movie critics? Any inkling about why Cuba’s Stalinist authoritiesmight have rolled out the red carpet for these movie producers? Here’s another hint: in 1960 the movie’s main character, this former KGB agent, also wrote:
“Castro’s revolution is very pure and beautiful. I'm encouraged by it. The Cuban people now have a decent chance for the first time.’
It’s all due to the Castro regime’s “mellowing” and “allowing more artistic freedom” owing exclusively to President Obama’s “engagement,” right? At least that’s the implication from most reviewers so far.
Never mind that –as we’ve often discussed hereabouts—Obama’s  loopholing of one of the most phenomenally successful foreign policy ventures in recent U.S. history (the Cuba “embargo”) has actually yielded the most relentlessly humiliating debacle in recent U.S. diplomatic history.
In fact, almost unanimously, the critics—while hailing the movie as a work of shrewd and enlightened diplomacy—also pan the movie as work of art. From the UK Guardian over to the Rolling Stone and the very New York Times most film critics slam the movie as a total mess. “Hollywood’s Havana Horror” is how the UK Guardian titles its review.
The story centers on a friendship between a Miami –based newspaper reporter who visits and “hangs” with his hero Hemingway during “Papa’s” last few years living in Cuba.
As it turned out, in the actual mechanics of operating as a KGB spy “Papa” proved a hideous flop. But hey!  It’s the thought that counts!  That Ernest Hemingway eagerly sought to serve the most murderous organization in modern history (Stalin and Beria’s Secret police during the waning hours of The Great Terror)—this remarkable volunteerism would certainly seem to merit recognition --especially from places like Hollywood and the New York Times.
Alas, not only does the movie omit any mention of Hemingway’s services for the KGB as agent Argo, but it also omits what could have provided the movie with some of its most dramatic scenes. I refer to Papa Hemingway as honored guest and charmed spectator during many of Che Guevara’s firing squad murder marathons, while gulping his especially- made-for-the-celebratory-occasion Daiquiris.
Hemingway knew full well what was going on behind the scenes of Castro and Che’s “pure and beautiful” revolution. Accounts of  "Papa” Hemingway’s eager presence at many of the Katyn-like massacres of untried Cubans comes courtesy of Hemingway's own friend, the late George Plimpton (not exactly an “embittered right-wing Cuban exile”)  who  worked as editor of the Paris Review, (not exactly a "Mc Carthyite  scandal sheet.")
In 1958 George Plimpton interviewed Hemingway in Cuba for one of the Paris Review’s most famous pieces. They became friends and the following year Hemingway again invited Plimpton down to his Finca Vigia just outside Havana. An editor at The Paris Review during the 1990’s, while relating how this high-brow publication passed on serializing the manuscript that became Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries, reveals “Papa’s” unwitting role in the rejection.
 “I took the paper-clipped excerpt upstairs to the Boss (Plimpton),” writes James Scott Linville, “and said I had something strange and good. As I started to tell him about it, his smile faded. I stopped my pitch and said, "Boss, what's the matter?"
"James, I'm sorry." Linville recalls Plimpton replying. A sad look came over him, and he said, "Years ago, after we'd done the interview, Papa invited me down again to Cuba. It was right after the revolution. “There's something you should see,” Hemingway told Plimpton while preparing a shaker of drinks for the outing.
“They got in the car with a few others and drove some way out of town.” Continues Linville (who is recalling Plimpton’s account.) “They got out, set up chairs and took out the drinks, as if they were going to watch the sunset. Soon, a truck arrived. This, explained George, was what they'd been waiting for. It came, as Hemingway knew (italics mine), the same time each day. It stopped and some men with guns got out of it. In the back were a couple of dozen others who were tied up. Prisoners.
“The men with guns hustled the others out of the back of the truck, and lined them up. Then they shot them. They put the bodies back into the truck.”
And so it started. Within a few years 16,000 men and boys (some of them U.S. citizens) would fill mass graves after scenes like the ones that so charmed Papa Hemingway with his thermos of specially-prepared Daiquiris. The figure for the Castroite murder tally is not difficult to find. Simply open "The Black Book of Communism," written by French scholars and published in English by Harvard University Press (neither exactly an outpost of “embittered right-wing Cuban exiles.”)
"The facts and figures are irrefutable. No one will any longer be able to claim ignorance or uncertainty about the criminal nature of Communism," wrote the New York Times (no less!) about "The Black Book of Communism."
Some Cuban women also figure into the Castroite murder tally. On Christmas Eve 1961, for instance, a young Cuban woman named Juana Diaz Figueroa spat in the face of the executioners who were binding and gagging her. They'd found her guilty of feeding and hiding "bandits" (Che Guevara’s term for Cuban rednecks who took up arms to fight his theft of their land to create Stalinist kolkhozes.) When the blast from that firing squad demolished her face and torso Juana was six months pregnant.
 Tags: CastroChe GuevaraCuba

Monday, May 02, 2016

Author Q&A: Skip Hollandsworth of ‘The Midnight Assassin’


Book Reviews: ‘The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer,’ by Skip Hollandsworth

April 8, 2016
Skip Hollandsworth has long entertained and enlightened — and perhaps appalled — readers of Texas Monthly with his compellingly lurid dispatches from the rich underworld of Lone Star crime. We fans of his have wondered when he would expand his range and deliver a book.
He has now done so, and it was worth waiting for.
The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer traces the bloody path of a murderer — or murderers — who stalked Austin more than 130 years ago. Hollandsworth spent more than decade pulling this tale together and shows himself to be a master storyteller working at the top of his form.
The first victims were black, and the savagery of their slayings alarmed many citizens. But then the killer turned to butchering white women, which is when widespread panic took hold.
“For almost exactly one year, the Austin killer crisscrossed the entire city, striking on moonlit nights, using axes, knives, and long steel rods to rip apart women from every race and class,” Hollandsworth writes. “On Christmas Eve of 1885 … he brought Austin to the brink of chaos when, in the space of an hour, he slaughtered two prominent women in separate neighborhoods, cutting up their bodies in their backyards before vanishing in the briefest imaginable time.”
The spate of murders became national, and sensational, news. A reporter with a gift for the sobriquet gave the killer his moniker: the Midnight Assassin, who “strides at will over Austin’s sacred soil.” The Austin Daily Statesman’s headline for the Christmas Eve murders was, “BLOOD! BLOOD! BLOOD!”
Police eventually arrested at least a dozen men, but the charges didn’t stick. Detectives and “alienists” — as specialists in criminal perversion and insanity were then known — could offer little more than abstract theories. “They are abnormal and unnatural, as compared with ordinary crimes among men,” said John Robertson, the mayor of Austin during the killing spree. “No one, not even the expert, skilled in the detection of crime, can find a plausible motive.”
Some of the putative experts suspected the Austin madman had jumped the Atlantic; they posited that London’s notorious Jack the Ripper learned his killing craft in Texas. This seemed far-fetched, if not delusional. “If he was obsessed with ripping apart women,” Hollandsworth says, “wouldn’t he have stopped somewhere in between Texas and England to do a few killings?”
Though a tale of serial murder, this also unfolds as a story of the city itself. Austin is steeped in lore, but — like some other Texas metropolises, especially one on the banks of the Trinity — often seems too busy creating itself to pay much attention to the past.
Today’s Austin, that traffic-clogged mecca for conniving politicians, striving techies and annoying hipsters, began its life as little more than a cow town on the Colorado. In those days, Hollandsworth writes, “There was practically no industry at all except for a sawmill. About the only businesses that prospered were the saloons, the gambling dens — the city directory listed twenty ‘professional gamblers’ — and the brothels.”
Soon, however, the railroad connected the town to the rest of the world, and the promoters, real estate speculators and boosters seized their moment. Drawing heavily on newspaper accounts of the day, Hollandsworth brings to life Austin’s Gilded Age formative years, when the splendid Driskill Hotel went up, and a new state Capitol was being built at the top of Congress Avenue. Needless to say, a roaming, unstoppable serial killer was bad for business.
Those readers whose tastes run to true crime know well that the genre peaked a couple of decades ago. Mystery fiction has stayed fairly strong, but mystery nonfiction has gasped for life. The cause of this near-death was believed to be an overdose of schlock.
But we now seem to be enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Serial was a 2014 podcast sensation, and the documentary Making a Murderer led last year to a national epidemic of Netflix bingeing. Perhaps the book industry will now jump on the trend. If so, maybe The Midnight Assassin will, by virtue of its deep research and readability, help lead the revival.
As with every such story, this book turns on a central question — who did it? — and its corollaries: Did the police catch him? Does Hollandsworth? Did anyone?
The answer to that will cost you a few hours of reading. It will be time well spent.
Doug J. Swanson is the author of “Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster Who Created Vegas Poker.” He is working on a history of the Texas Rangers.
Plan your life: Skip Hollandsworth will discuss The Midnight Assassin at 7:30 p.m. April 19 at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood St. as part of Arts & Letters Live. Tickets $35; discounts for DMA members and students. DMA.org/Tickets or 214-922-1818.
The Midnight Assassin
Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt
for America’s First Serial Killer
Skip Hollandsworth
(Henry Holt, $30)

‘Midnight Assassin’: A lively tale about 1880s Austin serial killings

By Charles Ealy - American-Statesman Staff
April 9, 2016


Skip Hollandsworth has a terrific new book about how Austin was home to America’s first serial killer, and it’s a must-read for fans of local history.
“The Midnight Assassin” looks at the brutal killings in Austin that began in December 1884 and lasted for a year, culminating in two slayings on Christmas Eve in 1885. That’s when the unknown assassin “slaughtered two prominent women in separate neighborhoods, cutting up their bodies in their backyards before vanishing in the briefest imaginable time.”
Up until then, only black servant women had been attacked, but Hollandsworth points out that it was “something else entirely when the victims were proper white ladies.” So reporters “let loose with lip-smackingly lurid prose. … They described the way the two women had been found in their backyards — ‘weltering in blood,’ ‘bleeding and mangled,’ and their limbs contorted ‘as if in a dance of death.’ ”
Their murders were assuredly the work by the same person who started the killing spree in 1884 with Mollie Smith, a servant who was apparently dragged from her bed to the backyard after the assailant landed several blows to the head of her lover, Walter Spencer. “Her head had been nearly split in two and she had been stabbed repeatedly in the chest and abdomen. Some of the gashes were deep enough to expose her organs,” writes Hollandsworth, who’s executive editor of Texas Monthly. “Her legs and arms were also slashed. Blood was everywhere — bright red lung blood and nearly black gut blood.”
The Daily Statesman, a forerunner of the American-Statesman, described Mollie’s body as “a ghastly object to behold,” with “a horrible hole on the side of her head” being the cause of death. The headline read: “Bloody Work! A Fearful Midnight Murder on West Pecan — Mystery and Crime. A Colored Woman Killed Outright, and Her Lover Almost Done For!”
At first, Austin police and residents were stumped, not knowing what to make of Mollie’s murder. But several aborted attacks on black women in the next couple of months caused many in town to be fearful of the night. Some white Austinites thought the crimes were being committed by “Bad blacks!,” as the Daily Statesman called them.
And then in early May, another fatal attack was made on a 31-year-old servant, Eliza Shelley, who was found wrapped in a bloody bedspread on the floor of her cabin, with her three young boys screaming in a corner. “Parts of her brain were oozing out of a gaping wound in her right temple,” Hollandsworth writes.
Again, the Daily Statesman responded with a “ghoulishly alliterative” headline: “The Foul Fiends Keep Up Their Wicked Work — Another Woman Cruelly Murdered at Dead of Night by Some Unknown Assassin, Bent on Plunder. Another Deed of Deviltry in the Crimson Catalogue of Crime.”
And later that same month, a shoemaker named Robert Weyermann heard a scream and ran outside his home to find his 33-year-old black cook, Irene Cross, lying on the ground, her right arm severed into, “with a long horizontal gash extended halfway around her head, from her right eye past her right ear. It looked as if someone had tried to scalp her.”
Then in late August, a man entered the room where the servant Rebecca Ramey was sleeping with her 11-year-old daughter, Mary. The man had a club, Hollandsworth writes, and he hit Rebecca so hard that she was knocked unconscious. When she came to, Mary was gone.
Two men later found Mary in a shed, and doctors concluded that the killer “had jammed some sort of long iron rod into the cavity of one of Mary’s ears, piercing one side of the brain. Then he had pulled out the rod and jammed it again into her other ear, piercing the other side of the brain — essentially lobotomizing her — before he ran out to the back alley and vanished.”
On Sept. 27, multiple attacks occurred in the servants’ quarters of W.B. Dunham, publisher of the Texas Court Reporter.
As Hollandsworth points out, in late 19th century America, the term “serial killer” did not yet exist. “It wasn’t that people were unfamiliar with the concept of one person committing multiple murders,” he says. “What no one in that era had ever heard about was an anonymous killer who set out to mutilate women, one after another, in almost ritualistic fashion in order to satisfy some depraved libidinous craving or a pathological hatred.”
All sorts of black men were arrested during these months, but the cases didn’t stand up. And by Christmas Day 1885, the town was in a panic after the murders of Eula Phillips and Susan Hancock. The Daily Statesman proclaimed that “The Demons Have Transferred Their Thirst for Blood to White People!”
Before it was all over, Hollandsworth says, “there would be three murder trials of three different suspects, all of whom would vehemently proclaim their innocence.” And the ensuing scandal would ruin “the careers of several prominent Austin men and set off sensational allegations that one of the state’s most well-known politicians was himself the Midnight Assassin.” What’s more, when the killings finally stopped in Austin, similar attacks began in London in 1888, with Jack the Ripper.
Had the Austin killer simply moved on to London? It’s not as fantastic as you might think, and many newspapers made the connection, but you’ll have to read Hollandsworth’s lively and lurid tale to find out his best guess about the truth.

The folly of ‘inclusive’ restrooms


Target is just the latest business to yield to political correctness


By Tammy Bruce
http://www.washingtontimes.com/
May 2, 2016


This Monday, Aug. 11, 2015, file photo, shows a Target store in Miami. Target is making a stand on the debate around what type of bathrooms transgender people can use. In a statement posted on its company website Tuesday, April 19, 2016, the discounter, based in Minneapolis, said transgender employees and customers can use the restroom or fitting room facility that "corresponds with their gender identity." (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)


Never did I think the gay civil rights movement would devolve into irrelevant arguments about bathrooms, but here we are. The newest controversy involving Target stores highlights how leftists aren’t concerned at all about bathrooms, but about using gay rights as a cudgel with which to punish those who do not pay allegiance or conform to the liberal agenda.
This is where Target’s announcement about “inclusive” bathrooms and fitting rooms comes in. For some reason, Target felt compelled to announce to the world that everyone in its stores should feel comfortable using whichever bathroom and fitting room that “corresponds with their gender identity.”
Most of the news is covering this as bathroom policy, but it also involves fitting rooms, and struck me as an almost pleading declaration with Target attempting to please some new overlord. It reeks of painful political correctness; a position based on a desperate need to avert potential harm.
And, of course, that’s exactly what it is.
Target has been vocally supportive of the liberal gay agenda since it came under fire in 2010 for donations to Republicans the gay left deems “homophobic.” Since then, the pathetic pandering hasn’t stopped.
Which brings us to the current controversy of Target’s bathrooms and fitting rooms. With its policy announcement, which it says is nothing new, the company is genuflecting once again before a group it fears has the power to damage it if target is accused of “homophobia.” Reality be damned, the accusation is enough.
My, how far we haven’t come. The gay civil rights movement was an effort to not be treated differently because of who we are. We are devolving into a roving band of bullies insisting that we are to be treated differently, and most troubling at the expense of everyone else.
The building outrage about the so-called Target trans-gender policy has nothing to do with fear of having a transsexual in the fitting room next to you; it’s a genuine concern about the ability of any man having carte blanche to enter women’s and girls’ environments without being challenged.
Consider this report from KMOV in Missouri in May 2015: “Missouri man was arrested on April 23, 2015 after allegedly secretly filming women in a Target dressing room. The Brentwood Police Department arrested Foerstel on April 23 after he allegedly held a camera phone under a dressing room door while a female shopper tried on swim suits at the Target store in Brentwood.”
This from just a week ago from WHIO in Ohio: “Joshua Sheldon, 33, pleaded guilty Thursday to voyeurism, a second-degree misdemeanor, according to Miamisburg Municipal Court. Sheldon was accused of looking under a woman’s dressing room door at a Target store in Miami Twp…”
These are just two examples of dozens of incidents in Target stores across the country. The point is, Target’s new policy, in a strange attempt to appease liberal gay activists, has made it even easier for men to enter an area of the store where privacy is necessary for security.
I know a few transgendered individuals. None of them consider the public bathroom or fitting room experience as confirmation of his or her real inner self. But they do admit it’s a public argument that hammers into everyone else that there’s a price to pay if you don’t conform.
To be true to the civil rights we fight for, our effort should be about co-existence with people of faith and everyone else. But no. Now it’s about bullying everyone who thinks differently.
In our free marketplace, treating people with dignity is a must, no matter who they are. If you treat customers badly, of course there will be a market price to pay. But creating an artificial standard with which a business must comply under threat of harm, is the antithesis of what the gay civil rights movement stood for.
When I was on the left we marveled at how conservatives never really defended themselves or companies when threatened with boycotts or other marketplace harassment. We knew if they began to do so, the power of the left would be diminished if not wiped out.
I’m happy to see conservatives stepping up, and perhaps this will allow companies to feel comfortable not engaging in social policy fights, and focus on what’s good for business and what’s right for their customers. All of them.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Middle-Earth and the Middle Ages


April 26, 2016

middle earth and the middle ages

Arguably the most important literary influence on The Lord of the Rings, the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf, helps us understand the way in which Tolkien both conceals and reveals the deepest meaning in his own work.
Probably dating from the early eighth century, making it contemporaneous with the lives of Saints Boniface and Bede, Beowulf is a wonderful and wonder-filled narrative animated by the rich Christian spirit of the culture from which it sprang, brimming over with allegorical potency and evangelical zeal. It also conveys a deep awareness of classical antiquity, drawing deep inspirational draughts from Virgil’s Aeneid, highlighting the Saxon poet’s awareness of his place within an unbroken cultural continuum.
Tolkien translated Beowulf in its entirety, though his translation would not finally be published until 2014, and he wrote a scholarly essay on the epic, “The Monsters and the Critics,” which is considered by many to be the most masterful critique of the poem ever written. Clearly, Tolkien knew Beowulf well, perhaps better than anyone else of his generation, and there is no denying its seminal and definitive influence on his own work. Most obviously are the inescapable parallels between the dragon episode in Beowulf and the similar episode in The Hobbit. It is, however, in a more subtle way that the Anglo-Saxon epic can be seen to have left its inspirational fingerprints on The Lord of the Rings.
beowulfBeowulf is divided into three sections in which the eponymous hero fights three different monsters. In the first two episodes, as Beowulf confronts and ultimately defeats Grendel and then Grendel’s mother, the work is primarily a narrative in which the theological dimension is subsumed parabolically, especially in the recurring motif that human will and strength is insufficient, in the absence of divine assistance, to defeat the power of evil. This is presumably an orthodox riposte to the heresy of Pelagianism,[1] which plagued Saxon England and which is a major preoccupation of Bede in his Ecclesiastical History, probably written at around the same time as Beowulf.[2] The Lord of the Rings adopts a very similar approach in the way that it subsumes the presence of grace within the fabric of the story, unobtrusively and yet inescapably, something which is beyond the scope of our present discussion. It is, however, the allegorical technique that the Beowulf poet employs in the final section of the epic which most illumines the technique that Tolkien will himself employ in his own epic, emulating the anonymous poet who had taught him more than anyone else about the art of storytelling.
The dragon section of Beowulf commences with the theft of “a gem-studded goblet”[3] from the dragon’s hoard, an act which gained the thief nothing but which provoked the destructive wrath of the dragon. Beowulf takes eleven comrades with him as he goes to meet the dragon in combat, plus the thief, “the one who had started all this strife” and who “was now added as a thirteenth to their number.” Unlike the eleven who had accompanied their lord willingly, the thief was “press-ganged and compelled” to go with them, acting as their unwilling guide to the dragon’s den. Clearly the poet of Beowulf is employing numerical signification to draw parallels between Beowulf’s fight to the death with the dragon (an iconic signification of the Devil) and Christ’s own fight to the death with the power of evil in His Passion. Equally clearly, Beowulf is not a formal or crude allegory because no character in the epic is merely a personified abstraction. Beowulf is not literally Christ, though he could be called a figure of Christ, one who is meant to remind us of Christ; the dragon is not literally Satan, though he or it is clearly intended to remind us of the Devil himself. Similarly, the thief is not Judas (nor Adam) but is intended to remind us of the disciple whose act of treachery brought about his lord’s death, and the other eleven are, of course, reminiscent of the other eleven apostles. The numerical coincidence exhibits the poet’s intention of drawing parallels between his own story and its biblical parallel without ever succumbing to the level of formal or crude allegory. Beowulf is always Beowulf, even though he is meant to remind us of Christ.
Continuing the allusive parallels, this time with Christ’s agony in the Garden, we are told that, on the eve of battle, Beowulf is “sad at heart, unsettled yet ready, sensing his death.” Later, as battle is about to commence, Beowulf’s appointed followers, “that hand-picked troop,” “broke ranks and ran for their lives,” all except Wiglaf, who emerges as the signifier of St. John, the only one of Christ’s apostles who remained at his side during the Crucifixion. Wiglaf reprimands his comrades for their cowardice in deserting their lord, reminding them that Beowulf had “picked us out from the army deliberately, honored us and judged us fit for this action.”
death of beowulfPrior to his death, Beowulf instructs Wiglaf to order his men to build a burial mound in remembrance of him. After his death, ten shamefaced warriors emerge from the woods, indicating that the thief was not among them. At the epic’s conclusion, there are, once again, twelve warriors riding ceremoniously around the burial mound, which had been duly constructed in accordance with Beowulf’s command, indicating that the traitor had been replaced by a new member, reminiscent of the appointment of St. Matthias to replace Judas as the twelfth apostle.
Although nobody would suggest that Beowulf is an allegory in the formal or crude sense, it is clear that the poet intends his audience to see suggestive parallels between Beowulf’s sacrifice of himself in the battle against evil and that of the archetypal sacrifice of God Himself on Calvary. For the Christian, the Beowulf poet was indubitably Christian, all acts of genuine love involve the laying down of our lives for another. Furthermore, all those who genuinely love in this way are ipso facto figures of Christ, from whom all genuine love flows and towards whom all genuine love points. In true life as in true literature, all those who live and love like Christ are Christ-like and, as such, can be said to be figures of Christ. Christ is the archetype of which all virtuous men, in fact and in fiction, are types. The Beowulf poet shows this through the use of numerical clues. Tolkien does something very similar in his own work, emulating the work of his Anglo-Saxon mentor.
Tolkien signifies the deepest meaning of The Lord of the Rings in the clue he supplies with regard to the specific date of the destruction of the Ring. The Ring is destroyed on March 25, the most significant and important date on the Christian calendar. This is the feast of the Annunciation, the date on which the Word is made flesh, when God becomes man. It is also the historic date of the Crucifixion, a fact which is all too often forgotten by modern Christians because of the fact that Good Friday is celebrated as a moveable feast which falls on a different date each year. This is what the Catholic Encyclopedia says about the significance of March 25:
All Christian antiquity…recognized the 25th of March as the actual day of Our Lord’s death. The opinion that the Incarnation also took place on that date is found in the pseudo-Cyprianic work De Pascha Computus, c. 240. It argues that the coming of Our Lord and His death must have coincided with the creation and fall of Adam. And since the world was created in spring, the Saviour was also conceived and died shortly after the equinox of spring. Similar fanciful calculations are found in the early and later Middle Ages…. Consequently the ancient martyrologies assign to the 25th of March the creation of Adam and the crucifixion of Our Lord; also, the fall of Lucifer, the passing of Israel through the Red Sea and the immolation of Isaac.
Let’s recall at this juncture that Tolkien is both a Catholic and a very scholarly mediaevalist. He would have known of the symbolic significance of this date and his ascribing of this particular date as that on which the Ring is destroyed has palpable and indeed seismic consequences with regard to the deepest moral and theological meaning of The Lord of the Rings.
J.R.R. Tolkien

.A great mediaeval work of literature that employs the same allegorical use of significant dates that Tolkien employs to convey deep moral and theological meaning is Chaucer’s “Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” In this parable about the Fall of Man and his subsequent redemption by Christ on the Cross (masquerading as a fable about a rooster), we are told that the story takes place thirty-two days after the beginning of March, “the month in which the world began…when God first made man”.[4] Apart from Chaucer’s reference to the theological significance of March, he signals that Chauntecleer’s “Fall” (Adam’s) and the Fox’s (Satan’s) happens on April 1, i.e. April Fool’s Day!
In following his mediaeval mentors in their employment and deployment of allegorical clues to deepen the theological dimension of their stories, Tolkien was infusing the genius of Christendom and its literary giants into his own timeless epic. In doing so, he was thereby situating his own work firmly within that tradition. He was also deploying those same clues to signify that The Lord of the Rings was working its magic most profoundly on the level of theology. Since Original Sin and the One Ring are both destroyed on the same theologically-charged date, they become inextricably interwoven so that the Ring is synonymous with Sin itself. With his Ring, Tolkien weds his own work morally and theologically to the deepest truths of Christianity, forging it in the flames of his lifelong faith.

Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. A version of this essay originally appeared in Latin Mass: The Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition (Fall 2014) and is republished here with gracious permission.

[1] The Pelagians believed that men could forge their own eternal destiny, earning themselves a place in heaven by obeying the teachings of Christ through a triumph of the human will over temptation. Such a belief denied the need for grace and therefore denied the need for the Church and her sacraments.
[2] There is much disagreement about the exact dating of Beowulf, its composition being shrouded in mystery. The present author agrees with those, including Tolkien, who believe it was written sometime between the mid-seventh and mid-eighth century.
[3] All quotes from Beowulf are from Seamus Heaney’s translation (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002)
[4] For the sake of clarity, Chaucer’s original English has been modified. The purist, I hope, will forgive me.