Sunday, June 24, 2012

Martin Luther: Facts on the Reformation

 MARTIN LUTHER (1483-1546)

Biographical data

Martin Luther was born at Eisleben, 10 November, 1483; died at Eisleben, 18 February, 1546. His father Hans was a rough, ill-tempered miner. His mother Margaret Ziegler, in contrast, was a pious and God-fearing woman. Domestic violence filled young Martin’s early years.
Martin Luther himself wrote: "on account of an insignificant nut, beat me till the blood flowed, and it was this harshness and severity of the life I led with them that forced me subsequently to run away to a monastery to become a monk."
Born to a poor peasant family, Luther obtained an elementary education as a "charity" student. In his fourteenth year (1497) he entered a school at Magdeburg.. In his fifteenth year we moved to Eisenach. When he was eighteen years of age (1501) he entered the University of Erfurt to study law. In 1502 he received the degree of Bachelor of Philosophy, being the thirteenth among fifty-seven candidates. On January 6, 1505 he was advanced to the master's degree, being second among seventeen applicants.
Worried about his personal salvation, Luther became an Augustinian monk and practiced fasting, scourging, and other penitential works. Unhappy with the austere monastic life, he turned to an intensive study of the New Testament and German mystics, reaching the conclusion that salvation comes not through "works" —observing the formal directions of the church— but only through faith in Jesus Christ.
Having been ordained as a priest, he pursued further theological studies at the University of Witten­berg, where he received the degree of Doctor of the Holy Scriptures. Such credentials allowed him to become a professor of theology.
About this time he began his sermons and writings against certain ill practices of the church and in criticism of the prevailing scholastic theology.

What Was the Protest About?

On the eve of All ­Saints day in 1517, he posted on the door of the Castle Church —in Wittenberg— a "Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences." This was a scathing attack on the catholic church’s teaching on indulgences —which could be purchased at will— and their efficacy in absolving sins.
The "Ninety-five Theses," as the Disputation came to be known, was widely read and gained for Luther both enormous influence and aggravation. Dissatisfied with the open criticism the papal hierarchy tried to silence him. Conflict exploded. Martin Luther and his supporters vigorously challenged the tyrannical power of the papacy on matters of belief and worship.
As everyone expected, Martin Luther was excommunicated. In retaliation, in 1520 he launched an all-out attack on all kinds of practices of the church, including liturgy, rites, doctrines, and ceremonial activities.

The Reformation

The Reformation of the Catholic Church began in Germany, with the work of Martin Luther. It was a general movement against the various intellectual and practi­cal tendencies that had been under way for over a century.
Indeed it was a reaction against the methods of scholasticism, bringing about a revival of interest in secular literature, a clamoring for national independence, and the efforts of state governments to free themselves from the ecclesi­astical oppression.
The effects of the Reformation were to shatter once and for all the ecclesiastical unity of Europe, weakening its power as a form of argument, and thus expelling from political governance the notion of universal empire.
The movement split the power of the Church, leading to the formation of a number of mutually independent Christian churches.

Luther’s Writings: Political Philosophy

Machiavelli, the first modern political theorist proclaimed indifference to the truth of religion, appealing more to secular experience and human reason. While Machiavelli’s books Discourses and Prince concentrated on political power and governance, Lartin Luther’s voluminous writings were concerned mainly with theological and ethical questions.
In a pamphlet entitled Concerning Good Works (1519), he replied to the charge that his preference of faith over works meant a rejection altogether of works —meaning good charitable works— as an element of salvation.
His famous Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation was a demand for total reform of the whole table of organization and practice of Christianity, advocating an agency of a council of priests and laymen presided over by the Emperor. The times were changing, and with change came a new fervor for nationalistic sentiment.
In 1523, he published a treatise, Concerning Secular Authority: to What Extent It Should Be Obeyed, in which he argued that civil authority is ordained of God since the majority of the human race are not Christians. Civil authority must be in control —not the church— and it should be defended even the people had to be armed.

Importance of Martin Luther

Martin Luther was a courageous individual who was not afraid to die to expose the truth about the corruption in the Catholic Church, that eradicating abuse and falsehood was a worthy cause. Although many of his writings were not deliberately political, they contain many lessons for political philosophy.

Friday, June 22, 2012

John Milton - Poet, Essayist, Man of Action

XVIII. JOHN MILTON (1608-1674)
Today most readers know John Milton as John Milton the poet, and all this because most colleges and universities focus on this part of his work. The reality is that John Milton was a superb essayist with many seminal political ideas.

In the struggle between Puritans and Royalists in England —in the middle of the seventeenth century— the proponents of republican ideas followed their own instincts about politics based on general principles of fair play and politi­cal justice. The fact that there existed ample statutory and common English law did not deter them.

Pamphleteers and essayist argued for the rights of the people. Slowly but surely a body of doctrine began to take shape, with human rights as their guiding star.

John Milton distinguished himself for his original political essays. Not only were his essays serious and accessible, but he wrote them with a depth of philosophy. Not only did Milton write, but he was also an activist, not unwilling to tangle with established authority.

Controversy followed him. First he tangled with church government. Of this entanglement he drew the conclusion that there ought to be a definite separation of church and estate. Milton was also an advocate of free expression, even of the right to privacy which included the right to divorce. His arguments were so convincing that the American founding fathers’ considered them in drafting the Constitution of the United States.

Charged with contempt and embittered by it he published an essay entitled Areopagitica: a Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, to the Parliament of England. In this essay he wrote about the evil of censorship of the press, going beyond into a defense of liberty.

After Charles I was executed Milton immediately aligned himself with the republican group, expressing the justification of the execution in a pamphlet on The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates; proving, that it is lawful and hath been so held through all ages, for any, who have the power, to call to account a Tyrant, or wicked King, and after due conviction, to depose, and put him to death, if the ordinary magistrate have neglected, or denied to do it, and that they, who of late, so much blame deposing are the men that did it themselves.

In 1660 he wrote another essay: The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, and the Excellence thereof compared with the incon­veniences and dangers of readmitting kingship in this nation.

The Eikonoklastes (" Image­Smasher") was another piece written in reply to the Eikon Basilike (" Royal Image"­ an anonymous pamphlet believed by many to have been penned by the King himself).

John Milton was an indefatigable man of letters and action; not just an idle poet. Besides his popular works, he also wrote scholarly essays in Latin.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Nathaniel Hawthorne: American Magic Realism in Young Goodman Brown

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Although magic realism has been seen by many critics and scholars to be a product of Eastern European and Latin American writers, the genre has been practiced in the United State by writers of different generations.

If one thinks of magic realism as a literary genre that mingles fantastic or dreamlike elements with realism, that places fabulous stories in a normal, quotidian contemporary world, then writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, John Cheever, Toni Morrison and William Kennedy qualify for inclusion in the magic realism genre.

Let’s taken Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek” to illustrate my point. The story opens with a description of a man about to be hung from Owl Creek Bridge. At that deadly instant time seems to distort and slow down, with the man’s consciousness considering a miraculous escape by swimming in the river below him. In a flashback —the hero— Peyton Farquhar (an Alabama planter) longs to aid the Confederate army and is captured. Then his death by hanging is a foregone conclusion. But the rope snaps and Farquhar falls into the river below, manages to remove the noose, evading the soldiers' bullets. Out of the river Farquhar disappears into the forest, arriving back at his house. As he is about to embrace his wife, readers learn that Farquhar is in fact dead in the noose hanging below Owl Creek Bridge, having hallucinated the whole escape episode.
Who can dispute that Bierce’s Occurrence at Owl Creek isn’t a hallucinatory story that contains all the serious elements of magic realism?

Drawing on native fables, folk tales, fairy tales, and puritan myths, American writers, as we shall see, have a body of work that display hallucinating trickery, dream sequences, and often plain distortion and bending of what we accept as the real natural world.

Given the abundance of material this article will deal with one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's works only: “Young Goodman Brown.”

Rather than novels Nathaniel Hawthorne cultivated 'romances' —which allow the writer a quicker suspension of disbelief and more latitude than novels — that border on fantasies and dreams, one can say that romances such as The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables do contain elements of magic realism. In particular, I like the closing scene of The House of The Seven Gables in which Uncle Venner "seemed to hear a strain of music and fancied that Alice Pyncheon ... had given one farewell touch of a spirit's joy upon her harpsichord as she floated heavenward from the House of the Seven Gables." This scene is reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's fabulous scene in which Remedios the Beauty —a character in One Hundred Years of Solitude— ascends to heaven in the midst of flapping sheets.

But it is in Hawthorne's short stories where we find magic realism in full display; or as critic R. P. Blackmur put it, these stories are the "daydreams which edge toward nightmare." I want to focus on his short story "Young Goodman Brown" to highlight the features of magic realism.

In this short story, “Young Goodman Brown,” much like Dante, "had taken a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through ... " In this dense dark forest Brown meets a traveler who happens to be the devil himself, yet the stranger bears a strong family resemblance such as that of father and son. If this scene isn't terrifying in itself, at least is sinister enough to foreshadow what is to come. Delirious, bewildered, and right in the midst of a hellish nightmare brought to reality by the tangible proof of his wife's ribbons, Young Goodman Brown watches the full liturgy of a black mass:

"There is my wife, Faith." As he spoke, he pointed his staff at a female figure on the path, in whom Goodman Brown recognized a very pious and exemplary dame, who had taught him his catechism in youth, and was still his moral and spiritual adviser, jointly with the minister and Deacon Gookin."

And the entire town he sees there in that wicked witches worship—of the devil! After delighting readers with such hallucinating scenes, Hawthorne's narrator asks: "Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch meeting?"

In an ironic twist, when Young Goodman Brown dies, the entire community —all the participants of the black mass— follow him through town in a long procession as he is "borne to his grave." Was this a second black mass?

While many critics consider this story a horror story —much like Stephen King’s novels— there is more to it, for all the elements of magic realism —including props such as a staff that resembles a snake, ribbons that materialize, clothing, the shape-changing devil, and an animated forest— mentioned above are all present.

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James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

While Ulysses may be considered James Joyce’s best book, I seldom ever revisit it. Yet, I always find myself going back to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

So, what is the attraction of Joyce’s Portrait?

Two passages are the guiding stars of Joyce’s literary universe. The first one I love has to do with aesthetics:
“Aquinas says: ad pulcritudinem tria requiruntur, integritas, consonantia, claritas. I* translate it so: Three things are needed for beauty, wholeness, harmony and radiance.”

We humans move through life with the assurance that we know something that is elementary, essential, and irrefutable; we live from cradle to grave with the knowledge of nature’s four elements: air, fire, earth, and water. Of course, Quantum physics has somewhat eclipsed this basic knowledge, yet there’s some comfort in grasping something that isn’t just for scientists.

In aesthetics, James Joyce’s —through the voice of Stephen Dedalus in the Portrait, chapter 5— translated Saint Thomas Aquinas basic elements for beauty: wholeness, harmony, and radiance. When assessing art, I can’t find anything else that may be remotely as easy and graspable as these 3 elements.
Had Joyce not translated this sentence from Aquinas discussion of aesthetics in his Summa Theologica, such knowledge would have been lost to our age, since no one ever reads Aquinas today.

While this second passage applies to all arts, it is mainly applied to writing of literary works:
“The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”

When I write fiction I always keep in mind Joyce’s admonition: don’t let the heavy hand of the author show in your stories or novel—let the characters live their independent lives. This same sentiment was expressed by Flaubert:

“An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere” (Letter to Madame Louise Colet (December 9, 1852).

Is James Joyce’s Ulysses a superior book to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young man? My answer should be obvious from the above discussion.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Romney: Broken Promises

Friday, June 1, 2012

Adam Smith's Division of Labor

Essay 1 — Introduction to Adam Smith’s Legacy

Like Aristotle, Adam Smith (1723 – 1790) was a polymath (a learned man in many fields) who had an eagle-eye to see an interconnected world. Only a selected minority of talented individuals can probe the depths of the human condition and attain a global vision. Adam Smith was one.
Although today Adam Smith is recognized as the father of political economy, his legacy includes major works on rhetoric, logic, ethics, literature and criticism, astronomy, history, the law, theology and even poetry.
To Smith, labor was the discernible strand that made possible for common people to enjoy the necessities and conveniences produced by a nation. And within that strand, he saw that the division of labor was the direct cause of efficiency, and that when it was complemented by the accumulation of capital and machinery, opulence (or as we say today: prosperity) was the inevitable result.  
His economic analysis established the major factors of production: the landholder gets paid rent; the worker (laborer) gets paid his wages. And the producer —given his investment of capital (money, equipment, and facilities)— is entitled to the profits. Although some of the descriptive economic terms have evolved and others fallen into disuse, all contemporary textbooks in macro and microeconomics are but a revision of Adam Smith’s model—as brought to light in his landmark book The Wealth of Nations.
British economist, also a man of many talents, John Maynard Keynes once wrote:
Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.
Keynes was correct in his assessment, for history has often proven that styles of governments —directed by practical men and madmen in authority— are but the extract of the ideas of a small band of dead economists, with much of these ideas contributed by Adam Smith.
Let’s name a few defunct economists: Adam Smith —the father of capitalism— gave us the invisible hand of competition and self-interest, laissez-faire, and the division of labor. Karl Marx (1818-1883), hated free markets, and believed in a system of communism in which government should own all the means of production. John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) rescued capitalism by inventing fiscal and monetary policies (with democrats favoring the former and republicans the latter). Milton Friedman (1912-2006) and his Chicago School of Monetarists believed in the total power of the mighty dollar, and hated Keynes and his fiscal policy (deficit financing).
Go figure the reach of these defunct economists!
Even today are we slaves of these dead economists’ ideas, for their followers continue to perpetuate their teachings. Hard as I look for original thinkers, I fail to find them anywhere in the contemporary economic landscape. Larry Summers, Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke, Paul Krugman, and other minor economic luminaries are still distilling the teaching of the above mentioned old masters. And so are madmen in authority like Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro.
Today the old band still plays, and old man Adam Smith still rules.
This Scottish moral philosopher and economist took ten years to write his magnum opusThe Wealth of Nations (1776). The textbook became not only the foundation of classical economic theory, but also the moral imperative for people’s liberty within the system of laissez-faire capitalism. 
Excerpted from my ebook Adam Smith's Division of Labor and Your Wealth.