The Histories of Herodotus

herodotus

One doesn’t study history for very long, at least in the West,  before running into Herodotus.  I’ve meant to read him for years,  given his reputation as one of the earliest, if not the earliest,  historian —  that is, someone who kept a chronicle not for a mythic or state purpose, but purely so it would not be lost.   Having trekked through a thousand pages of ancient history with Herodotus,  traveling around the Mediterranean and hearing stories from the mundane to the grotesque, I’m tempted to think of Herodotus as some kind of cultural conservationist.  He repeats anything he hears, but not with careless credibility. His declared intent is to preserve and pass on what he hears, so that the “customs of the Greeks and others will not be forgotten”.    Although Herodotus does assert inaccuracies as fact (“Ethiopians and Indians have black semen”, for instance),  most of the time he cautions his reader: “I don’t believe this, but I was told it”, or “If you find this credible, may you find use of it”,  and so on.     Herodotus is more thoughtful than his reputation belies.   In Egypt, for instance, he offers to the reader his idea that the entire area was at one time underwater, given how often sea shells and other artifacts have been found far inland, as well as many salt deposits; he is also struck by the temple to Heracles in Egypt, which is obviously far older than the stories of Hercules in Greek.    The chief obstacle to reading the histories is the amount of content and the matter-of-fact way it’s often presented, with  Herodotus simply listing things he’s learned, explaining different customs. It’s a mix, to me, of interesting and sleep-inducing observations.  Learning that the Scythians created clothing and equipment out of human skin  (I really hope that was just slander) is one thing; the details of how so-and-so became king of a city I’ve never heard of and will doubtlessly never heard of again…..is another.

I’m going to take the same approach I did with The Canterbury Tales and share a few of the more interesting claims.

  •  The Egyptians had a taboo regarding pigs, and would not touch them.  Swineherds could only marry other swineherds. However!  At the festival of the full moon, pigs were permissible to be slaughtered and eaten.   Interestingly, the Egyptians also practiced circumcision!   One wonders how the stories of the Israelites fit into this, given their own genital circumcision and pig taboo.
  • Cows in Egypt were revered, and Egyptians would not kiss Greeks on the mouth or even eat from Greek plates for fear they were tainted with beef.
  • Prior to the Greek invasion of Troy that offended Persia, there as a lot of wife-kidnapping going on.  But, Herodotus adds,  the women probably asked for it.
  • One queen of Persia had herself entombed above a gate into the city, with an inscription that gold was inside her tomb for any future king who needed it, but they must only open it if they were desperate.   Darius opened it, only to find the queen’s body and a note: if you hadn’t been so greedy, you would have never defiled my tomb!
  • The Babylonians had no doctors ,but instead would  deposit the sick in the marketplace,  where everyone would pass by, ask about their ailment, and offer advice.

 

Again, this is all just according to Herodotus, so…take it with a bushel, peck, or similarly antiquated measure of salt.

 

 

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The Jungle

The Jungle
© 1906 Upton Sinclair
475 pages

jungle

Welcome to The Jungle, but we don’t have fun and games. We have despair, ruin, and death.    The Jungle begins as the story of the Rudkus-Lukoszaite family, who have arrived in America from Lithuania, very hopeful about building a new life for themselves. One of their countrymen owns a prospering shop, and they — leaving the farms of eastern Europe behind — hope to do likewise.     They are directed into the sinkhole of Chicago, Packingtown, where most immigrants are directed, and in that expanse of animal-processing plants, saloons, and shantys, they and their dreams go to die.  In 30-odd chapters we  see a strong, proud man crushed and chewed beyond recognition, until by the final chapters he is barely there at all — but we’ll get to that.

The Jungle is famous, or rather infamous, for inspiring more expansive regulation of the food industry in the early 20th century, despite that not being its intention. The novel was written as a serialized story/tract (published in the socialist Appeal to Reason)  by Upton Sinclair,  with the aim of  stirring up outrage and sympathy with the inhumanity of industrial poverty. Sinclair wanted readers to see the endless line of animals waiting for every little bit of them to be processed, and the endless supply of immigrants who would work for pennies,  who were used up and left to die by the same industry, were one in the same. Instead, people saw the early bits  depicting people falling into vats and being rendered into lard, or  cutting up every sickly animal or moldy bit of meat for use a sausage, and ignored everything else.

“Everything else” is….grim. Depressing. Grisly. Take your pick.   Jurgis and his family begin strong, proud, and hopeful; Jurgis’ response to any dilemma, any challenge, is simple: “I will work harder!”  But after a few bad financial choices, the family is placed on the brink of ruin and stays there, occasionally drifting into dire and deathly straits before bobbing up again, like some ghastly corpse in the water.  Early on, Jurgis is resolved that his wife and the youngsters will not work, but circumstances force otherwise, and soon it’s all they can do to keep off starvation.  Things really fall apart when Jurgis is injured and confined to bed for two months; when he returns, weak and haggard, he struggles to make a way for himself again, and any progress he makes is invariably disrupted by his own temper or outside tragedy.

In the beginning, The Jungle is utterly effective at winning the reader’s sympathy for proud Jurgis and his increasingly desperate family, but then,  in the last third,  the story….disappears.  Jurgis changes, and then he’s just a mute background piece, listening to speeches and  conversations between people designed to invoke a conversion to socialism. The novel ends with a cry to take Chicago, and….well, what of Jurgis? The sad remnants of his family?   We don’t know, and that’s annoying.  Ayn Rand’s novels may have also been author tracts, but at least they gave us resolution.

I enjoyed The Jungle far more than I thought I would, given my aversion to authoritarian systems like socialism,    and am glad I took it on.

Related:
Critical appraisal of novel from the Foundation for Economic Education

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FREEEEEEEDOOOOOOMMMMM!

This has nothing to do with reading, but last night I celebrated a huge milestone. My student loans are….no more! Vanquished!

Signing my master promissory note in summer 2007,  preparing to go to college:

Making the final-final payment of $0.16 cents, because my final payment of $1,004 seconds prior hadn’t taken into account all of the interest, last night.

 

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The Sea Wolves

odin© 2014 Lars Brownsworth
300 pages

“Deliver us, Lord, from the hands of the Northmen!”    While that exact prayer may be apocryphal,  the sentiment certainly resounded in communities from Ireland to Cordoba to Constantinople.  In two of the final centuries of the first millennium,  raiders, traders, and explorers from Scandinavia ranged far and wide, ravaging the wealth of great and small and creating new states and civilizations in the mix.   The Sea Wolves is a fulsome  narrative history of the activities and impact of the Viking era,  which sees the  reader visit the first discovery of Greenland as well as the beginnings of Russia.  

I’ve previously enjoyed Brownsworth’s narrative history of Eastern Rome (Lost to the West), which I discovered via his podcast on the same subject.  Brownsworth visits each area of Viking activity in turn – raiding, trading, and exploring – before  the final sections of the book which cover the growth of Russia as well as the creation of strong kingdoms  in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway that  put an end to many of the old ways.  As I’m familiar with the Viking attacks in Britain and western Europe, I was most  captivated here by the Swedish exploration of eastern Europe, pushing down the rivers as far south as Constantinople.  Vikings who settled in Kiev — called the “Rus” — would ally and war against both the Khazars and Eastern Rome, and established the seed of Russia.  Brownsworth also covers the journeys to the fringe of North America, as well as raids in southern Iberia. I was particularly fascinated to learn that Constantinople hired both Vikings and Anglo-Saxons as an elite guard, and that these soldiers left their runic marks on the classical world by scratching graffiti in landmarks like St. Sophie’s  in Constantinople.  Brownsworth also stresses the role of Viking women when he can, and that’s more often that one might expect.   Believe me when I say his occasional female subjects are just as terrifying as the men who make a game of throwing captured babies into the air and then trying to “catch” them with spearpoints.

Despite the brutality and widespread chaos created by the Viking period, Brownsworth argues in the end that their destruction was often creative.  In pushing Charlemagne’s Franks, they forced an unwieldy empire to collapse into several much-better consolidated states.  They indirectly  hastened the creation of a united England by destroying the other kingdoms, leaving Wessex to be foundation for a new country under the sterling leadership of men like Alfred the Great…and the not-so-sterling leadership of one of his great-grandsons, who abandoned the country to run off to Normandy.  And of course, they created Russia, with much cultural infusion from Eastern Rome.

Of the few Viking books I’ve read, this is easily the most memorable, and it has me itching to read more about the Normans,  Sicily,  and King Alfred!

 

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Tick, tick, tick

It’s October 1,  meaning only three months remain  in 2019 to meet my reading goals.  How am I doing? 

Classics Club:
I am slightly ahead of  schedule, despite at one point being a month and a half behind.  However,  the Final Boss level – two big Russians —  still awaits me, so no resting on one’s laurels!   

TBR of Doom:
I’ve read 7 books from the Stack of Doom this year, which is on track for my minimum goal  (10) and slightly behind for my hoped-for goal (12). I have also acquired many books this year, however, so the idea of progress is arguable. (Mostly they were library discards!)

Science Survey 2019
I have four categories left to fill (Flora and Fauna;  Local Astronomy;  Anthropology; Weather and Climate)  and none are particularly worrisome, as I already have books selected for them.   I’ve also already secured some reads for Survey 2020, so everything is in order here!

Books Read
This is not an official goal or anything, but 150 is usually an easy annual goal for me, one I usually pass in the fall. That….has not happened this year, though 150 by December 30 shouldn’t be a problem. I blame Red Dead Redemption 2 and the Classics.  

 

All in all, I’d give myself a solid A-.  

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The Faith Healers

© 1987  James Randi
328 pages

Recently I chanced to watch a lecture by “The Amazing” James Randi, a professional magician who, in the 1980s,  began investigating paranormal racketeers — and exposing them.   As someone who used people’s assumptions to amuse them, Randi took offense at those who trafficked in cheap tricks to make people believe they really possessed supernatural abilities.    Hucksters weren’t limited to spoon-bending Israelis or contemptible  women named Sylvia Brown, though:   there were also the shellacked-haired  preachers, who with unctious manners charmed and wheedled money out of millions of poor, infirm,  aged, and desperate people  — claiming God was talking in their ear, telling them about these people’s fears and needs,  and offering healing for a little ol’ donation.

Randi refers to these men as the Faith Healers, although  some distinction should be made between the merchants of false hopes on television who he takes on here, and the tradition of faith healing which is common in some Christian sects,  especially Pentecostalism.    The difference between them is that the latter are sincere, more often than not;    I grew up in the Pentecostal church and left it in late 2005,  and at least three times a week (for most of my life) I saw people who would go up to have their infirmities prayed over by  other church members or their preacher, all of whom sincerely believed that laying on of hands and praying would help  — if it were God’s will and they had faith.   The Faith Healers of Randi’s book, however, are  cynical con artists.    Randi investigated as many of the major grifters he could — Peter Popoff and W.V. Grant have especially large sections —  and not only does he expose the tricks these men used to pretend, but he discovers even their faith is fraudulent.

What are some of the tricks of the trade?    The ambitious faith healer should avoid praying for people with physically obvious problems, like missing limbs:    convincing the faithful is a mind game only possible when their maladies are inside, where  feelings of euphoria can overwhelm the discomfort or pain for a while.  Heart problems  and cancer are excellent candidates for faith-healing. (Just don’t urge the person you’ve “healed” to run up and down the aisles. One person documented here was told to do that by the preacher and immediately collapsed.)    Healing the blind is  easily possible, so long as they’re only legally blind and the audience doesn’t know that: do the prayer shtick, ask them how many fingers you’re holding, and voila!     You can announce to the radio-listening world that you’ve thrown away their dark glasses and white stick when they never carried them to begin with!   Several preachers here use the tactic of having people who didn’t need wheel chairs to begin with sit in them during the service, and they were then commanded to rise and walk.  Oooh, ahh, such miracles. The wheelchairs were owned or rented by the preacher.

But what about the faith healer’s “psychic” abilities,  their being informed by the “Word of Knowledge”? How did faith healers working a room know so much about people  — their names, their maladies?  Well, those people told them. Not the preachers themselves,but their staff. Maybe they talked to a volunteer as they were finding their seat, who recorded the information and passed it on; maybe they filled out a prayer card that was also sent to the back.  Some preachers would memorize the information through mnemonic tools; others, like Popoff, were lazy and just had their wives feed them the information through an in-ear transmitter.   Others were cold readers, or just held mass meetings and did the shotgun approach. (“Someone is being healed of stomach cancer RIGHT NOW! There’s a Helen in the balcony with a thyroid condition — God is touching that RIGHT NOW!” etc).

Randi has previously impressed me as a lecturer —  interesting, amusing, and warm — but his investigation here  impresses on its own. Randi and his staff attended numerous services,  tracked down people who had gone or who were healed and talked with them; they interviewed past and present members of the preachers’ staffs; they donned false uniforms and infiltrated the buildings where healing crusades were being held, so they could  see what was going on backstage; and  they even took home trash bags to sort through them. All this bears fruit — the discovery of radio transmissions, the finding of crib sheets used by the preachers to find their “high value targets”,   and  the revelation of some interviewees that the “preachers” often have a stage persona wholly different from their real one, and Grants’ Christianity seemed to be limited to his performances.

The most incredible thing about the Faith Healers is that no matter how many people go away dissatisfied from their services, how many people go bankrupt feeding these parasitical pretenders with “love offerings”, how often they are exposed as frauds,  how obviously profit-driven they are…..people still keep coming back.  One of Randi’s interviewees suggests that people want to be fooled. They know it’s a fake,but they want to believe.   Randi also reflects on the limits of medical knowledge, and how ominous diseases like cancer that seem beyond a cure are at least countered with hope from the profit-seeking prophets– if only for a little while.     For his humane approach to understanding the victims, and his dogged attack on their predators, Randi’s work deserves high praise indeed.

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The Federalist Papers

 

“It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”

In September 1787, delegates from throughout the thirteen States gathered for the purposes of amending the Articles of Confederation,  They emerged not with an amended confederation, but with a new Constitution altogether.     Each State was called to ratify the document, resulting in heated debates, and several anonymous framers of the Constitution contributed to the debate in New York by writing a series of letters explaining the whys and wherefores.   The letters are generally thought of as being penned by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, with  Hamilton penning a majority of them.   The papers remain popular today in certain circles which contend they explain the Founders’ intent when creating the Constitution.   That’s not quite accurate, of course; the framers hotly argued between themselves and were still arguing after the constitution was offered to the public;  these gentlemen writers represent one voice in half the argument.  Even so,   from a historical point of view, I wanted to read the papers to encounter their voices for myself.

The authors begin by arguing first for some kind of American union at all, rather than a continuing existence as  thirteen separate States,  or a future of multiple republics competing against one another.  The thirteen states have fought a war together and signed treaties together; they share a common language, a common heritage, and North America east of the Appalachians seems made for unity,  with uniform good soil, many rivers linking the states, and a coastline with extensive harborages.   From this more sentimental argument, they then argue that a union, particularly a stronger one, make sense for reasons of security and commerce.   The states divided might war with one another, raising tariffs against their brethren; they could form small republics and bully their neighbors, or be manipulated by outside powers  to the disadvantage of all Americans.   Americans would squander their wealth by maintaining armies to defend themselves against one another, on fortresses. In a Union, however, they could benefit from a common market, uniform currency, and coordinated economic activity against outside threats. He often looks to the example of the United Kingdom, pointing out the many wars between England and Scotland prior to union.

All this is argued in the first fifteen articles, after which point Hamilton and company say bluntly: the Articles of Confederation aren’t up to the job.   They then examine similar failure points in other confederations (the authors always refer to the government of the States as a confederacy), and reflect on the essential roles of any proposed government before – almost halfway at, at #39 in my collection —   addressing the Constitution itself.  What follows from there are answers to general arguments against the Constitution from those who feared it created an all-too powerful central state, and then specific arguments based on suspected future abuses of the various branches of government.

The papers are dense, especially when the authors get into the weeds of the roles and checks of the government in the final thirty. However, there is immense value, particularly for Americans, in taking on this collection.  There are gems of wisdom buried in the legal reflections, and the protracted arguments reveal how much the Constitution was a child of compromise and pragmatism.  One important argument for them is that the Constitution creates a stronger union, yes, but its government is not a consolidation: it is a Federal one,  splitting sovereignty between the national government and the States; the states in fact are members of the government, directly appointing Senators. (This is no longer the case;   senators are now elected, and are so removed from State interests that they needn’t even be residents of the state they allegedly represent!)

From hindsight, the papers are almost amusing in some of their arguments: Hamilton is baffled why people would fear overreach from the national  government. Why,  so few things will be left to its purview? By the main,  most people will still only be effected by their local and State governments; the federal entity would be mostly focused on big thing, like foreign policy and  inter-state disputes.   (They are similarly puzzled as to why State governments would fear the national government, when so much of the power remains in the States’ hands.)  The  Legislature is also viewed as the branch of government most likely to go mad with power;,  which is quite a change when most of the bloated mass of government in DC are officially operated under the Executive branch.  So small was the national government prior to 1789 that it was expected to fund itself entirely on import duties!

In reading the papers, I could not help but again be impressed by the substance of the writers and their rivals.  Before radio, television, and the internet reduced elections to sordid popularity contests,   those who sought public office did so through considered public debate, of which the papers were a part.   Would we today tolerate a politician who began reviewing the history of the Netherlands, the Greek city states, and the Holy Roman Empire to add background to the idea he was proposing to you?  This work leads me with a greater respect for the problem before Americans in 1787, and a greater appreciation for the document which emerged from the convention. Although the Constitution has been much abused over the years, especially in the 20th century and beyond,  both the consideration that went into it, and the product itself should be cherished.

If anyone is curious,   I put the notes I was keeping into a public Google Docs file.  As you can see, I lost steam in the last leg!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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