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This is my personal blog. This is the place where I rant and witter inanely about all sorts of things that take my interest from opposition to odious far right groups to personal learning projects such as my intermittent study of evolutionary psychology or the history and development of civilisation.

If you’ve arrived here looking for information on my mental health and social care training and consultancy services you might want to click this link instead. That’ll take you to my commercial website: The Care Guy

You might also enjoy taking a look at Care To Share Magazine while you’re about it. That’s not affiliated with my business at all (or indeed anyone’s business). It’s a community of people who are interested in sharing ideas and insights into social care without any distractions from political ideologies, corporate agenda or media ‘fashion’.

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Civilisation 55: Gregory the Great

Welcome to the ‘Civilisation’ blog series. This is my attempt to categorise some of history’s most famous (and infamous) names. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s silly. I hope you like it.

KAB76926 Pope Gregory the Great by Saraceni, Carlo (c.1580-1620) oil on canvas Palazzo Barberini, Rome, Italy Italian, out of copyright

KAB76926 Pope Gregory the Great by Saraceni, Carlo (c.1580-1620)
oil on canvas
Palazzo Barberini, Rome, Italy
Italian, out of copyright

Gregory the Great (540 – 604) was another of our four ‘fathers’ of the Latin church. The others were St. Ambrose, St. Jerome and St. Augustine.

Pope Gregory the Great wasn’t a ‘great’ innovator himself. Rather he combined, refined, implemented and supported the work of others. He lagged behind the three other ‘fathers’ by more than a century which perhaps gave him the opportunity to pull together their work coherently without the need to become embroiled in the arguments that ensued during their lifetimes. Most notably the dispute between Ambrose and Jerome regarding ‘lying for the church’.

Jerome believed that St. Paul and St. Peter simply pretended to disagree with each other in order to attract contemporary intellectuals to take an interest in the Gospels whereas Ambrose was adamant that such a deception would be sinful and so could not possibly have found its way into the New Testament as Jerome believed. Jerome backed up his view with Paul’s famous acceptance of deceit in Romans 3:7 whilst Ambrose countered with verses such as Jeremiah 48:10 in the Old Testament and 1 Peter 3:12 from the New Testament.

Gregory was able to sidestep this once extremely heated debate between the two Church Fathers and combine both their approaches to develop his own version of exegesis. His four-fold model is still the approach adopted not only by the Catholic church but by many other Christian churches as well – whether they know it or not. So effective was Gregory’s four-fold model that many Christians don’t even realise there was a time when people didn’t read the bible this way. The model contains four basic styles of interpretation, each of which can be applied to different (or even the same) scriptural passages depending upon the knowledge and needs of the reader. The four approaches are…

Gregory the great 2Literal – for example Adam and Eve really did live in the Garden of Eden and really were evicted from it because a talking snake told a woman (who was made from the rib of a man who was made from clay) to eat from a magical tree.

Allegorical – The fall of Adam and Eve may or may not really have happened (literal interpretation) but it’s also a nice story to illustrate the importance of obeying God’s laws and to explain why bad things are allowed to happen. It’s God’s (apparently incredibly fair) punishment on everyone for what someone else did long before any of us were born.

Tropological (Moral) – If you want to know how to behave – then the bible will tell you. For example it’s not a good idea to enslave your neighbours. Only foreigners can be taken as slaves. To take your own citizens into slavery is immoral. This one seemed particularly important to white Europeans exporting black slaves from the African coast in relatively recent centuries. It’s also ok to rape foreign slaves (as ordered by Joshua) but not your fellow countrymen. Lots of Western slaveowners used this little gem too in the not too distant past to justify increasing their ‘livestock’.

Anagogical (regarding prophecy, the ‘end times’ and the afterlife) – Jonah didn’t just survive three days swimming in concentrated hydrochloric acid in the belly of a whale. That’s the literal interpretation of this (biologically impossible) claim but it’s also a prophetic and allegorical rendition of Jesus’ three days in the tomb and subsequent resurrection. The whole of Revelation (along with various other bits of the Bible) is to be read in this way according to Gregory.

Gregory founded several monasteries out of his own pocket and revived The rule of St. Benedict to govern the lives of monks therein. He also wrote The guide to the pastoral care, the first book that Alfred the Great had     translated into English. Gregory’s guide (also known simply as ‘Pastoral care’) laid down a huge array of rules for Bishops and other clergymen concerning their personal behaviour and the philosophical stance they should adopt. Unsurprisingly it labours heavily on humility, selflessness and subordination to the Church as well as the role clergymen are expected to adopt in their everyday dealings with the laity they profit from serve.

Unfortunately he also fuelled the developing rift with the Eastern Church by demanding that his own Western church take precedence. In hindsight that may not have been the most sensible stance to take, fuelling the fire that ultimately led to The Great Schism of 1054

You can find links for each post in the Civilisation series here.

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Civilisation 54: Boethius (the forgotten one)

Welcome to the ‘Civilisation’ blog series. This is my attempt to categorise some of history’s most famous (and infamous) names. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s silly. I hope you like it.

BoethiusI like Boethius. He was one of the early medieval world’s greatest minds in my opinion. He wasn’t just a philosopher, he was a statesman, a writer and an educator. Boethius (Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius) was well versed in both Latin and Greek (a rare feat for the time) and he used this knowledge to bring many of the ancient classics to Western Europe. Without Boethius it’s likely that Plato and Aristotle would have arrived much later into the medieval mindset, if at all.

Born in 480, Boethius had an interesting life. Born into a wealthy, privileged position he was orphaned as a child and for a time might have been consigned to obscurity had he not been adopted by an equally noble family. As an adult he rose to the dizzyingly high rank of consul under the Western Emperor Theodoric.

Building upon the work of Plato, Boethius defined categories of learning that still influence university delineation today. The ‘quadrivium’ as he called it comprised Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy. Boethius contended (as had Plato) that one could not be truly educated until one had achieved proficiency in all four of these subject areas. He believed that students should move on to study the Quadrivium only after achieving proficiency in three more fundamental topics – Rhetoric, Grammar and Logic. Although the name never seems to have occurred to Boethius himself these three more basic topics later came to be known as the ‘Trivium’. Together the Trivium and Quadrivium comprise the seven ‘liberal arts’ which became the prerequisite for all further study in the early medieval university system.

Even in the fifth and 6th centuries, Boethius was concerned about the implications of the growing division between Eastern and Western orthodoxy with in the church. With apparently remarkable foresight he seemed to predict the great schism between the two orthodoxies five hundred years before it actually came to be. It may be that his attempt to heal the divide to come was the thing that brought about his death.

In 523 this high official of the Western empire attempted to negotiate with the officiates of the Eastern Empire. The Western Emperor, Theodoric believed that his consul was conspiring with his Eastern counterpart, Justin to overthrow him. Boethius was arrested and spent the next year in prison with little hope of a happy ending.

Had he done nothing more in his life Boethius would have earned his place in this series well before his imprisonment. But in the style of a true genius, the great Boethius left the best until last.

During his year of imprisonment Boethius put his mind to his most pressing problem – how he had come to such a story state of affairs. The answer he came up with remains a masterpiece of consolatory philosophy to this day. Apt that it’s called ‘The consolation of philosophy’ then. The impact this book had on the medieval world where life was brutal, precarious and often short cannot be over-estimated.

Boethius consolation of philosophy

In The consolation, Philosophy visits Boethius in the form of a young woman who guides him to both awareness and acceptance of his lot. She is his guide throughout, arguably a literary device that really takes the places of a range of previous thinkers from the Stoics and Platonists to St. Augustine.

Philosophy explains that Boethius’ suffering is a disease and she has the cure. All he needs to be healed is embrace goodness and virtue, to move closer to the divine and so achieve contentment. Philosophy, Like Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, advises that happiness and virtue are internally generated regardless of external events. We can be virtuous regardless of circumstance.

In The consolations Boethius also introduces the concept of The Wheel of fortune, a tangible model of the changing circumstances of life. In this model it is seen as inevitable that those who are set high will be humbled just as those who are humbled will be exalted in time. It’s not difficult to see how this understanding would come to strike a consoling chord in the lives of oppressed peasants over the centuries to come.

Fortune goes on to explain that great wealth and status actually move people away from virtue and that those who greedily hang on to power and riches are simply moving further away from the Divine nature of God. Be glad when you are humbled because your Heavenly reward will be all the more secure as a result.

Hopefully Boethius himself gained some consolation from this great interface of philosophy and theosophy in his own final days. He was executed by Theodorus for the crime of treason in 524.

You can find links to each post in the ‘Civilisation’ series here

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Civilisation 48.1: The council of Nicea

Welcome to the ‘Civilisation’ blog series. This is my attempt to categorise some of history’s most famous (and infamous) names. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s silly. I hope you like it.

Although unbaptised the Emperor Constantine had converted to Christianity during his struggle for dominion over the Roman Empire. Unfortunately for him the Christian church he joined (and inherited a fair degree of control over) was far from unified. These were the days before any robust form of mainstream doctrine had been decided and nobody really knew which beliefs were heretical and which conformist. It’s hard to conform to an orthodoxy when you don’t yet know what orthodoxy means.

Council of Nicea fresco in the sistene chapel

So in 325, Constantine summoned a selection of Bishops to Nicea and convened the very first Ecumenical council. Ostensibly the agenda was to decide whether or not the branch of Christianity known as Arianism was acceptable or heretical. The doctrine, first suggested by Arius of Alexandria and popular in the East held that Jesus Christ was not part of a Triune God but, having been made flesh, was both created by and lesser than God the Father.

Predictably enough the Nicean creed which issued from this momentous meeting made it clear that the Trinity is both three and one. This meant that any suggestion of Jesus’ subordination became heretical. Incidentally it is this doctrine of the Trinity, the triune God, that caused Muslims to see Christianity as polytheistic, rather than monotheistic (a charge hotly denied by most Christians then and now).  The council also decided which four gospels to authorise (and which of the many more to exclude from the authorised Bible). Less successfully Constantine’s council tried but failed to enforce celibacy among priests. That would have to wait until concerns about the inheritance of what would otherwise become church property gave the issue a new importance during the feudal era.

The council also failed to settle the thorny problem of the date of Easter or exert its authority over the hierarchy of churches as it decreed. It seems that even then the Christian church couldn’t agree on very much.

You can find links for each post in the Civilisation series here.

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Civilisation 53: Attila the Hun

Welcome to the ‘Civilisation’ blog series. This is my attempt to categorise some of history’s most famous (and infamous) names. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s silly. I hope you like it.

Attila the HunAttila the Hun was born somewhere around the turn of the fifth century and died in 453. From 434 he ruled the Hunnic Empire, a vast region populated by the famed barbarian warriors who lived off the horses they rode around the plains of Eastern Europe and Asia. Although he led his people to many victories his expansionist dreams didn’t go entirely unopposed. Attila suffered defeats in many campaigns including failing to conquer France, Rome, Constantinople, Persia and the Eastern Roman Empire. But failures don’t make the most compelling legacies for warrior kings. Tales of heroic victories are far more enduring.

Attila probably hailed from East Asia or so it seems, based upon contemporary descriptions of his physical appearance left by the Roman diplomat Priscus (who actually knew him).

The Huns were skilled horsemen whose nomadic lifestyle led to a form of warfare almost entirely reliant upon their steeds. Attila was born at around the time when the Huns first entered Europe, achieving victory upon victory. The strategies of native European tribesmen were no match for the onslaught of these mounted warriors with their expertise at shooting arrows literally ‘on the hoof’. The impact of this on the already split and declining Roman Empire was extremely significant as entire populations were displaced and the Empire struggled to adapt to the changing landscape.

Attila’s uncle, Ruga died in 434. Ruga had been ruler of one of the Hunnic tribes and his death led to a power vacuum which was filled by his two nephews Attila and Bleda. A treaty with Rome soon followed along with several years of peace between the two factions. However it wasn’t to last and the Huns broke the treaty in 440 when they once again invaded the Roman Empire, looting and burning as they went. This distracted the Romans and allowed other tribes such as the Vandals to win their own victories against the Western empire. Facing multiple onslaughts the Romans were unable to mount an effective defence and Attila led his Hunnish horde deep into the Balkans. Eventually the Eastern Emperor, Theodolus admitted defeat and agreed to pay an increased tribute to the two barbarian brothers in return for an end to hostilities. Not long after this Bleda died in 445, leaving Attila sole ruler of his expanding Empire. Taking advantage of his good fortune he subsequently went back on campaign, getting as far as Thermopylae, the site of Leonidas’ heroic last stand centuries before.

Attila’s reign was a succession of conflicts leading to a greatly expanded empire for his people. He made and broke treaties whenever he saw advantage and was both ruthless and indefatigable in the pursuit of conquest. As if to presage the coming age of Vikings he regularly attacked the soft targets of the church, particularly monasteries with their rich pickings and non-combatant inhabitants. Easy pickings for the mounted Huns who brought the sword without warning and left with everything of value as swiftly as they arrived.

Eventually, however Attila’s luck ran out. A series of natural disasters and a renewed determination on behalf of the Roman empire led to the defeat of his armies. He was beaten back in ignomy and died soon after, possibly stabbed by his wife, possibly defeated in battle, possibly due to internal bleeding as a consequence of excessive drinking. Reports vary. The site of his reportedly lavish grave remains a secret to this day although legend has it that he was buried under a river, the path of which was temporarily diverted for the purpose.

You can find links for each post in the Civilisation series here.

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Civilisation 52: St. Augustine of Hippo (the revered one)

Welcome to the ‘Civilisation’ blog series. This is my attempt to categorise some of history’s most famous (and infamous) names. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s silly. I hope you like it.

AugustineSt. Augustine (354 – 430) is another of the four most influential early church leaders. Along with St. Jerome, St. Ambrose and Pope Gregory the Great he is credited with the development of doctrine and with aiding the establishment of a Christian religious institution that has lasted for many centuries after his death. A contemporary of both Ambrose and Jerome he was a regular correspondent with both (although primarily with the more gregarious Ambrose).

It was Ambrose who inspired Augustine to keep away from petty disputes about the exact rituals to be followed in different parts of the Christian world. He saw ritual as an aid to worship – not as a justification for pointless squabbling and infighting between Christians. Ambrose’s advice in this regard has become simplified but remains familiar in English as the proverb “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”.

The sometime Bishop of Hippo, Augustine was the author of, among other things, the seminal Christian texts, ‘City of God’ and ‘Confessions’. He was praised by Jerome (no mean feat in itself) for renewing the faith, arguably because of his work in developing the doctrine of original sin and for his rather elaborate work in justifying the concept of Holy War. That was an argument that would be much quoted centuries later when the crusading Holy Roman church launched its brutal (and generally ill-fated) assaults upon the Muslim citizens of the Holy Land.

Rather strangely, this revered Roman Catholic saint is also credited by many Protestant sects (notably Calvinists) as a proto-reformationist because of his attitude to Divine grace and the individual road to salvation. His teachings on predestination (based as they are upon the doctrine of God’s omniscience and omnipotence) are particularly appealing to the Calvinists for whom predestination is a central tenet of the all-knowing and all-powerful nature of God. This in itself is rather strange since, although Augustine accepted the assumption that God knows what we will do before we do it, he also accepted the seemingly incompatible doctrine of free will. The reasoning by which Augustine arrived at this seeming contradiction is too involved for this short series although it does provide a remarkable insight into the mind of a man with one foot in the Middle Ages and the other in late Antiquity. The very simplified explanation is that whilst man exercises free will and makes decisions within linear time, God exists ‘outside of time’ and so allows free will whilst still knowing what we will decide to do.

Augustine was well aware of the dangers of the flesh, so to speak. It was he who uttered the famous prayer…

“God grant me chastity – but not yet.”

Augustine fathered a son, Adeodatus via his long-lasting illicit affair with a Carthaginian woman. The relationship began in around 373 and continued until the prospect of marrying a wealthy heiress came along in 385. His behaviour here was far from saintly and little is known about what became of his son and former lover once he had abandoned them. His account of this episode in ‘Confessions’ is poignant and the decision to break with his illegitimate family seems to have been a source of deep regret both at the time and subsequently.

It was at around this time that Augustine met Ambrose and he converted to Christianity in 386. He was, it seems, much more taken with Ambrose’s oratory and rhetorical skill than his theology at first. This, it seems was the ‘hook’ that kept Augustine coming back to speak with Ambrose until eventually the power of the older man’s arguments overtook him. Augustine later recorded the impetus for this as a ghostly voice commanding him to “Take up and read”. Augustine interpreted this instruction as directing him toward the Holy Bible. He obeyed, opened the Holy book at random and read….

“Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.”

(Romans 13: 13-14)

His Christian conversion was complete.

Augustine spent the rest of his life wrestling with the more complex and confusing apparent contradictions of Christianity. A controversial figure even now, his work is not universally accepted and many Eastern orthodox Christians object strongly to his ideas surrounding free will and predetermination as described above.

Once he converted Augustine became utterly committed to the rigours of the contemplative life, avoiding further pleasures of the flesh (he had broken off his engagement), working tirelessly and giving away his possessions the better to imitate the life and circumstance of Jesus Christ. The Augustinian order continues the same tradition to this day. Augustine was canonized after his death and named a ‘Doctor of the Church’ by Pope Boniface VIII in 1298.

You can find links for each post in the Civilisation series here.

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11 knots

image

It’s that time again. Every year at around this time Gill and I make our way to Castlerigg stone circle, in the heart of the English Lake District for a little ritual. It’s based upon a very ancient, pre-Christian tradition known as hand-fasting.

The basic idea is one of renewal. Originally the ceremony was linked to the Beltane – an ancient festival of fertility. Handfasting on the Beltane created a contract lasting a year and a day. The day is significant. It meant that if not renewed at the next Beltane each former partner would have to wait for the next Beltane to pair up with another spouse. Not bad, eh? How’s that for a ‘cooling off’ period?

So far our handfasting ribbon has 11 knots tied into it, each one signifying a year in our relationship. Incidentally that’s the origin of the modern expression “Tying the knot”.

Here’s hoping for many more knots to come. Hopefully with better weather!

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Civilisation 51: Hypatia (AKA Ipazia)

Welcome to the ‘Civilisation’ blog series. This is my attempt to categorise some of history’s most famous (and infamous) names. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s silly. I hope you like it.

One of the things I’ve found striking but unsurprising whilst researching this little series is the remarkable lack of women featured so far. Of course this pattern will change somewhat as we near our own time but even so – the ratio remains lamentably unbalanced. I don’t imagine for a second that there were no great women thinkers in ancient times. Rather I think the problem is that for most of human history the contribution of women was obscured by the overly patriarchal cultures that gave rise to the modern world. I think that this is still a problem in our own time, although undoubtedly less so in the industrialised West than in other parts of the world.

Please don’t imagine that my use of the term ‘patriarchal’ means I’m speaking as a radical feminist here. I’m most certainly not. You’ll need to wait for my series on ‘isms’ (currently in preparation) to find out why I dislike feminism though. What I do regret is the way that history has largely ignored or misattributed female contributions to our understanding of ourselves and the world. It’s nice to be able to feature a female polymath like Hypatia then.

hypatia teaching

Hypatia lived in Alexandria in Northern Egypt. She was a genuine polymath who taught philosophy, mathematics and astronomy. She knew Plutarch the younger and was respected by many of the great and good of her time including Bishop Synesius (her student) and the Pagan, Orestes who, rather strangely, disappeared from history after objecting to the persecution of Alexandria’s Jews.

One of the things I most like about Hypatia is her refusal to conform to the oppressive gender role assigned to her. She wore the clothes of an academic and moved freely around without male escorts. She even drove her own chariot and was influential in Alexandria’s political life (a remarkable feat for a woman of the time).

hypatia murderedBishop Cyril of Alexandria opposed her regularly from the pulpit. In fact it was Cyril’s rabble-rousing that incited a mob (led by Cyril’s own monks) to attack Hypatia in the street, strip her naked, murder her and then dismember her remains as a warning to other women who might not know their place. It isn’t clear whether Bishop Cyril was motivated by religious concerns about the place of women or simple political rivalry regardless of gender. Either way, Hypatia was at the sharp end and of a particularly nasty illustration of man’s inhumanity to man (and woman).

Yet Hypatia’s memory lives on. The school of philosophy she headed continued until the 7th century and her mathematical and astronomical work was undoubtedly influential in the development of both disciplines. Inventions such as the graduated hydrometer and the hydroscope have also been attributed to her, ensuring that her name survived long after those of her small-minded, monkish murderers were forgotten.

Hypatia was an intellectual, an academic, a philosopher and a martyr. Her story serves as a warning to us all. If history teaches us anything it is that we must always be on our guard against the excesses of authorities, be they motivated by political or religious ideology.

You can find links for each post in the Civilisation series here.

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