Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Can you think if you can't remember? Do you think you think?

The sound of her silk skirt has stopped
On the marble pavement the dust grows.
Her empty room is cold and still.
Fallen leaves are piled against the doors.
How can I bring my aching heart to rest?
Han Wu - Ti 157 - 87 BC

Sixth emperor of the Han Dynasty (on the death of his mistress), it’s hard to believe that this is 2000 years old. Poetry is outside the scope of quotations and thoughts on thinking. I left this one in because it illustrates that “they were just like us” long ago and hardly “originally stupid”.

Chris says (and she’s in pretty good company):

Denial is the strongest force in the universe.
Christina Bolgiano 1948 -

Men willingly believe what they wish.
Julius Caesar 100 - 44 BC

To have died once is enough.
Virgil 70 - 19 BC

And Molier said much later: We die only once, and for such a long time!

Carpe Diem
Horace 65 - 8 BC

(The rest is “with little thought for posterity.” [although this one can get you into trouble...]). At least that’s what my self-taught Latin translation for “quam minimum credula postero.” is... If you know better feel free to set me straight.

Many receive advice, few profit from it.
Publius Syrus 1st century BC

He also said strike while the iron’s hot, and a rolling stone gathers no moss, and the same shoe doesn’t fit all, and practice makes perfect, and everything’s worth what someone will pay for it, and misery loves company. You get the picture. He was an adage compiler, it’s impossible to know for sure whether anything he said was original but they’re all good. They’re great little packets of obvious truth and they’re all clichés. But he did finish up with:

Everyday should be passed as if it were to be our last.

Whom they have injured they also hate.

Seneca 8 BC 65 AD

He was referring to the Romans and Carthage, but the sentiment is appropriate to so many more situations. We do tend to justify our cruelties either before or after the fact. Our victims deserved it because we hate them. And of course we hate them for good reasons.

A liar should have a good memory.
Quintillian 42 - 118 AD

The great God Pan is dead.
Plutarch 46 - 120 AD

Most folks think of all pre Christian Gods as Pagan, but Plutarch was probably referring to the demise of the Pagan Earth Goddess religion that fell to the Olympian tradition. Every religion that predates our (ONE TRUE) religion is “Pagan” And their Gods and Goddesses have become our Devils. (See my bolg on the Galactic Spaghetti Monster and the Cosmic Ravioli Being.: SO YOU RUE THE LOSS OF RELIGION IN OUR SCHOOLS?)

Plutarch also gave us:

When candles are out all women are fair.

I started reading Plutarch’s History (biography? Lives of Great Men) of Alexander... “Don’t break the furniture!” But I’ve been pulled away by Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. That’s partly how this all got started. Occasionally, I take a wild hair (hare?) to read something really challenging (the original version of these quotes is the result of one of those times. I lost my digital copy of my favorite quotes and had to retype them in order to send off a quote a day (it has mushroomed into this thing you’re reading). Unfortunately, I sure can’t remember them and pull them out when they’re most needed. Now I just recently read: “Never explain, your friends don’t need it and your enemies won’t believe it.” And I can’t remember who said it....sounds like Dorothy Parker though. These quotes have been more or less in chronological order. But occasionally I’m going to mix them up, so here goes the cartoonist, Waterson: Calvin, of Calvin and Hobbs...says:

Why waste time learning when ignorance is instantaneous?

And who can argue with THAT? Not to be out done, Hobbes says:

It’s not the pace of life that worries me it’s that sudden stop at the end.

Back to the ancient past and a few Anonymous Latinisms which most folks know even if they never took Latin:

Flagrante Delicto Sic Semper Tyrannus
Caveat Emptor Errare Humanum Est
In Vino Veritas

I just wonder when these first became clichés (Alcaeus way back ca. 600 BC said, “Wine, dear boy, and truth.”). That’s the amazing thing about reading about the Greeks and the Romans, that they were so much like us. Somewhere I came across an essay about the “point” where/when Homo whatever became “like us”. At what level of cognition, language, and cooperation did we become people rather than “animals”? Whenever it was, I think that it’s cooperation (communication, using language) that’s important. It’s what has allowed us our mental “short cuts” and freed up a lot of brain power. Not to mention that we don’t all have to learn everything the hard way (even though we often do).

After all, 99% of us can’t invent or construct or even explain the workings of 99% of our manufactured goods. People that believe that the world is flat, and that the space aliens have taken over the Government, and that TV psychics can tell the future; still, when banded together and organized, can run a shipyard that builds ocean going vessels. Of course they’re getting information from thousands of wheres and whens and whos (people who know the world is round and even understand the need to plan for forces of shear, tension, compression, torque, friction, and a few million other things, not to mention correolus forces if you want to shoot a cannon at anything that isn’t due east or west). Most of what we know we learned by building on what was alreary known in the past. And we take it all for granted. However good or bad our memories and memory systems are, things would be vastly different if they happened to be more or less efficient. If we had better memories we might not have invented writing.

I look at some 19th century technology and am amazed. And of course the Romans constructed roads and aqueducts that are still in use today (and can you do long division in Roman numerals?). Still, most people today (at least those with stunted historical perspectives) subscribe to the theory of “Original Stupidity”. Many folks believe that people of long ago must have been stupid not to know things like germ caused disease and that a spherical earth revolves and orbits in a heliocentric solar system full of spherical planets (although, there are lots of folks who don’t believe this to this day). Yet most of these same people, even with what they think they know about the world, were they to be plopped on a island without their toys, couldn’t reconstruct a tiny fraction of the information base that the Romans (in their own turn) took for granted. We build on the past but forget that we do it. And what is history but our attempt to remember?

What fraction of the US population believes that every thing of importance has happened within the last few years (probably coinciding with their life spans)? What fraction of even those with some historical perspective essentially believe that everything important has happened since Jesus was born? And everybody who lived prior to Him was of no significant account. But that’s organized Christianity; don’t get me started on that.... So if the communication revolution changed man into the builder on the past, and the written word expanded this and augmented his faulty memory, and this has led to civilization and science and technology, what’s next? If we ever acquire the ability to “download” from one mind directly to another, it will be another revolution for Homo whatever. It will be a revolution in scale that is so great as to be a revolution in quality. Like the dog sized bumble bee that can’t fly or the inch long battleship that sinks, it will be a new thing not just a more efficient thing. Of course, that won’t happen if we decide that we’d rather see how many babies it takes to destroy the ecosystem. My guess is about twelve billion.

He listens well who takes notes.
Dante Alighieri 1265 - 1321

And the theme of memory comes back. But I’ve jumped from 1st century Latin to Dante. Now I know that there were millions of bon motes between errare humanum est and Dante, but I’ll be damned if I know why I haven’t got them here in my file. As I said, I was more or less systematically going through Bartlett’s quotes and they’re chronological, but he has lifted out the Bible as if it were something different than a collection of quotes. Either I skipped over a bunch, or the “Dark Ages” after the fall of Rome was worse than I thought (and still there’s the whole of the New Testament, and regardless of my opinions of organized Christianity, I know there are quite a few lines worth quoting in that. Plus there are the little things like quotes from Constantine, Augustine, Aquinas, Attila, Mohammed, The Venerable Bede, (whom I recently learned was ignorant of Hadrian’s Wall outside his window. He said it was just a hundred years old at the time of his musings. But it was every bit of 500 years old at the time.) Harold, Charlemagne, a slew of venial Popes with names like Innocent that must have said thousands of ironic things like, “You believe that the universe is infinite? Off with your head, right after we burn you!” (and the two Popes who excommunicated each other, if we only knew which one is in Hell now....), Frederick the Great. There’s Abelard, Saladin ( I more than recognize my ignorance of eastern civilization), Attila, and later Genghis, Mangu, and Kublai Khans...

I do recall a story about Kublai Khan: Rather than a slavering subhuman, he was an able and intelligent ruler and therefore a lover of knowledge. Apparently in 1269 he sent envoys (back with Polo the elder) to Theodosius asking to be sent the 100 “wisest men of the realm” for the purpose of exchange of wisdom. He was sent two Dominican priests who were then in a protracted debate about one of Christianity’s arcane heresies, not to mention the politics surrounding the election of the recent Pope. I don’t think that they ever even made it to the Khan.

I’m reminded of the period when Christian Doctrine was being codified into a unified structure (as opposed to being just another political battle ground.) Something about the Athanasian Creed, and the Arians, Sabellians, and Trinitarians who were into it about various “mysteries” concerning the nature of Jesus/God. The Trinitarians won [of course they would, they had the most ridiculous and presumptuous position concerning the nature of God’s relation to Himself; which is always an irrefutable point to argue from.] This was about when Attila the Hun was boss. He was probably correct not to waste his time talking to those bozos. The Church filled the vacuum of power due to the fall of Rome and they used it, abused it and defined it in their own terms, most of which make little or no sense to us no matter how hard we might try. But Hey! We’ve still got the Trinity; it’s no worse that waving a dead chicken over your head at midnight.

Anyway, I look forward to Gibbon’s discussion of this period, I’m sure he’ll fill me in on a lot that I’ve missed. Unfortunately, having read H. G. Wells two or three times, I still can’t keep it all straight, and his version is likely to be shorter and therefore easier to remember. So much for my own historical perspective. I guess that I have to be content with the fact that at least I know that I’m ignorant. [Socrates] And take solace in the fact that I’m not alone:

What experience and history teach us is this - that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.
G. W. F. Hegel 1770 - 1856

Those who do not learn from the past are destined to repeat it.
George Santayna 1863 - 1952

How can this be?

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