Walk on the Wild Side: Aronofsky’s Black Swan and the Dionysian

Posted by Anti Citizen One on January 8th, 2012

Disclaimer: plot spoilers below and I don’t know anything about the original swan lake. I am talking about Aronofsky’s interpretation of swan lake when I discuss the characters.

I watched Black Swan, and while it’s not the best of Aronofsky’s movies, it is certainly thought provoking. A technically accompished but meek ballet dancer, Nina, is cast as the Swan Queen. This requires the ability to dance two roles: the white swan and the black swan. While she can perform the white swan brilliantly, she has difficulty “losing control” to portray the sultry black swan. The film is primarily about her preparation and opening night to dance as the Swan Queen. The style of the movie is psychological/thriller/horror as she battles with her over protective mother, her paranoia about potential rivals for the role and anxiety about her body.

The roles of the white and black swans are mirrored by the concept of Apollonian and Dionysian aesthetics. The Apollonian artistic impulse is for plastic (visual) beauty, perfection, rationality, goodness. The Dionysian impulse is for instinct, earthly experiences, chaos, intoxication, the orgiastic. Usually, artistic works contain elements of both, since these are two aesthetic extremes and are not mutually exclusive. Nietzsche explored these two standards in The Birth of Tragedy, 1872 and argued that Greek tragedy formerly contained a synthesis for these traits, but this gave way to Apollonian impulse dominating. This change reflected a shift in Greek culture, which also gave rise to Socratic and Platonic philosophy, and move away from the earlier Greek philosophers such as Heraclitus.

My problem with Black Swan is, while Nina attempts to connect with the Dionysian, it is both pretty tame and also filled with either regret or fear. The tameness is partly her actions are almost always socially acceptable and common place – drinking, arguing with her mother, taking drugs once, staying up late, arguing with rivals, masturbating and incinerating her soft toys. Her more extreme actions of sex and murder are revealed to be dreams or hallucination and are basically nightmarish. Critically, she never is seen really throwing herself into these activities without regard for consequences. She is always worrying about how it will compromise herself or make herself imperfect. But this is central to the Dionysian – it is done with a good conscience. If you can imagine combining sexuality with innocence and joy: that is a step towards the Dionysian. The point of the Black Swan character is she seduces the prince in order to destroy the white swan – and enjoys doing it! At no point does the Black Swan regret her actions and neither should Nina, if she actually had an experience that informed her about that character.

Another problem with her coming to understand the Black Swan character is her increasing mental health problems. At no point is insanity linked with the traits of the Black Swan. In the movie, all instincts are self-destructive (although artistically useful). When the previous star walks into traffic, it is a “dark” impulse. The Dionysian is not madness and self annihilation, but rather raw instinct of both darkness and light. However, her mental problems are linked with her metamorphosis into the character (by her sensation of sprouting wings) but are actually contrary to what the Black Swan character needs… unless we subscribe to the view that evil is only a form of insanity.

A final objection: the movie is very predictable. I didn’t have any serious doubt that she would perform the role at the finale of the movie. However, the film was well executed and watchable. As a “walk on the wild side”, it fell flat. Some other movie examples in which a character explores the Dionysian:

Apocalypse Now – of course! The characters are struggling with “good” and “evil”, rationality and instinct, but the battle occurs within a person. Captain Willard is shown to have serious issues in the first scene but he can keep these thoughts to himself and can still function as a soldier. He is sent on a mission to “terminate the command” of Kurtz, who is said to be operating with “unsound methods”. Kurtz, or the jungle itself, represents the Dionysian in letting its instincts totally overcome social norms and rationality. And when Willard and Kurtz finally meet, Willard finds himself on the same path as Kurtz.

Willard: [voice-over] “Never get out of the boat.” Absolutely goddamn right! Unless you were goin’ all the way… Kurtz got off the boat. He split from the whole fuckin’ program.

Fight Club A perfectionist, consumerist office drone rebels against the system with the help of a new friend, Tyler Durden. Although Tyler is in many ways Dionysian, he is also committed to self destruction. This is more of an act of rebellion and in that way he is not Dionysian but more anti-Apollonian.

Tyler Durden: Fuck off with your sofa units and strine green stripe patterns, I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say let… lets evolve, let the chips fall where they may.

Collateral, A perfectionist taxi driver, Max, is forced to drive a hit man, Vincent, around Los Angeles. Vincent explains his views on personal development by adaptation. Max has to become more like Vincent in order to survive…

Vincent: Now we gotta make the best of it, improvise, adapt to the environment, Darwin, shit happens, I Ching, whatever man, we gotta roll with it.
Max: I Ching? What are you talking about, man? You threw a man out of a window.

American Beauty – the Burnham family has the public appearance of perfection but they are privately miserable. Each family member begins to rebel against conformity and perfection and act more on emotional and instinctive drives.

Carolyn Burnham: Uh, whose car is that out front?
Lester Burnham: Mine. 1970 Pontiac Firebird. The car I’ve always wanted and now I have it. I rule!

And other films and TV touch on related themes: A Clockwork Orange (Alex is brain washed to stop being Dionysian), Requiem for a Dream (Aronofsky), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Brave One, Withnail and I, Lord Flashheart in Blackadder (“And always remember – if you want something, take it!”).

Anti Citizen One

Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and most painful episodes, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustible vitality even as it witnesses the destruction of its greatest heros — that is what I called Dionysian […] Twilight of the Idols.

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

Posted by Anti Citizen One on October 6th, 2011

I recently finished On Liberty and I was pleasantly surprised, after his book on utilitarianism. Mill’s basic thesis is that the state should not impose laws on people unless it is to prevent harm on other people. He then sets about examining the arguments for and against his principle. He begins by arguing for the necessity of free thought and speech, based on fallibilism. Since it is absurd to claim we are without error, we should allow what is “true” to be argued in the public space – otherwise we cannot except to arrive at knowing what truth is. Also, without properly knowing the full arguments for and against this “truth”, the knowledge of truth becomes an atrophied belief (like, he claims, Christianity has become in the western world). He then extends this principle of free thought to human action – given that the best mode of life might still be discovered in a diverse society. This seems fairly reasonable except his assumption that moral propositions could be “true” or “false”, so fallibilism would not apply in this case.

The most interesting chapter, particularly from a Nietzschian perspective, is “On Individuality”. I few choice quotes:

Having said that Individuality is the same thing with development, and that it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings, I might here close the argument: for what more or better can be said of any condition of human affairs, than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be?

But these few [innovators] are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool. Not only is it they who introduce good things which did not before exist; it is they who keep the life in those which already existed.

Persons of genius, it is true, are, and are always likely to be, a small minority; but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom.

In sober truth, whatever homage may be professed, or even paid, to real or supposed mental superiority, the general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind.

So he claims that development of individuals and of humans generally is only achieved though diversity and experimentally trying different ways of thinking and living. Due to social pressure and psychology, only a minority can innovate in this way, but the entire history of mankind depends on these types of people. Nietzsche poetically described this as “the song of the necessary ones, the single and irreplaceable melody.” But even Nietzsche would admit that the majority of non-innovators are “necessary” and cannot be done away with (“Are poisoned fountains necessary, and stinking fires, and filthy dreams, and maggots in the bread of life?”). To perhaps summarise the difference these two writers, Mill proposes a safely net for individualism of preventing people harming others – but there is no such safety net in Nietzsche’s concept of the superman. However either system of innovation encompasses morality and this is, according to Mill, incompatible with objective morality. Mill specifically states that Calvinism would be opposed to his principles, because that view considers diversity and expression of human will as something to be avoided – and to some extent this applies to all Christian morality. I touched on a few of this issues in a previous post.

Mill does state a principle of state power and it is a fine summary of my own view:

[T]he greatest dissemination of power consistent with efficiency; but the greatest possible centralisation of information, and diffusion of it from the centre.

Power should be localised, information should be shared. Good stuff!

Anti Citizen One

On Liberty (Librivox free audio book)

Utilitarianism by J S Mill

Posted by Anti Citizen One on October 26th, 2010

I finished Utilitarianism and I was pleasantly surprised. His approach for arguing for utilitarianism is fairly open and well argued. He doesn’t underestimate the challenge and he covers most of the main objections against his position. Most books that argue for a moral code don’t go as far as Mill, although I am not a fan of utilitarianism myself.

Many of the objections against utilitarianism, he rightly points out are really objections against any moral code. Other arguments he rebuts as straw men. This is often the way in debates, from my own experience: detractors try to steer the discussion into irrelevance. One chapter worrying is titled “Of the Ultimate Sanction of the Principle of Utility”. I find it worrying because I analyse such claims through an existential point of view, and all previous attempts at finding an “ultimate sanction” have so far failed. But this chapter is surprisingly good, as he avoids this trap of is-ought and claims that utilitarianism is also a descriptive model of human action. Moral codes are adopted more by human habit and social pressure than abstract philosophical argument.

The main issue I have with utilitarianism is it assumes that happiness and suffering are mutually exclusive, and are opposite ends of some scale. Unfortunately, this doesn’t tie in with human psychology. Many activities are considered worthwhile but have either intrinsic pain or the risk of pain. To eliminate that risk is like trying to “abolish bad weather” as Nietzsche would say. Mill’s ideas work fairly well in terms of human belief in what is good but, as Mill points out, belief doesn’t always lead to the corresponding action. Humans, as Dostoevsky observes, are often doing actions that contradict any possible system, including self destruction. I also have concerns that utilitarianism, in trying to compare different forms of happiness and suffering, is trying to compare apples with oranges – but that is for another time (possibly every moral action is unique, “there is no requital”).

I believe that these sources of evidence, impartially consulted, will declare that desiring a thing and finding it pleasant, aversion to it and thinking of it as painful, are phenomena entirely inseparable, or rather two parts of the same phenomenon; in strictness of language, two different modes of naming the same psychological fact: that to think of an object as desirable (unless for the sake of its consequences), and to think of it as pleasant, are one and the same thing; and that to desire anything, except in proportion as the idea of it is pleasant, is a physical and metaphysical impossibility.

So obvious does this appear to me, that I expect it will hardly be disputed […]

Always suspect a philosopher when they say something is obvious. If he had tried to argue against his own position here, it would have been more philosophical.

Anti Citizen One

PS I have since been reading Dostoevsky’s Demons for the first time:

There are also lovers of such anguish who prise it more than its most radical gratification, if such indeed where even possible.

The Open Society and Its Enemies, Part 2

Posted by Anti Citizen One on July 8th, 2010

I finished part 2. I already commented on part 1. While the previous volume discussed Plato, the second dealt with Hegel and Marx. Popper is generally not in agreement with the political philosophies of any of these writers but he does note any small areas of agreement when he can. He claims of their systems all justify totalitarianism in various guises. He is scathing of Hegel which is significant since Hegel is held in high regard by many philosophers. Popper observes Hegel sold out his integrity to the reigning Frederick William III and attempted to create philosophical systems that justified Prussian nationalism. Since Hegel does not avoid contradictions, being part of the Hegelian dialectic, he can justify pretty much anything. Popper condemns this as anti-critical rationalism and he agrees with Schopenhauer’s accusation that Hegel was a charlatan.

I started reading Popper’s analysis of Marx but I realised I needed to get up to speed on Marx. I therefore read the communist manifesto (“Workers of the world, unite!”). I want to say a few words on my initial reaction before talking about Popper’s analysis. What struck me about the manifesto was it basically argued that unrestrained capitalism has serious flaws, it was unstable and the only alternative was a classless society – meaning the working class was the only class. It strangely provided very little detail on how to administer a communist system or what it would be like. It only had what engineering designers call “requirements”. Requirements are not a design (but are a good starting point). Marx called for a society where people were not exploited. That is all well and good (apart from being ressentiment morality) but how this is achieved, or if it is even possible, is not addressed.

Popper basically agrees with my initial reaction but takes his analysis far further. He praises Marx’s analysis of history based on institutions. Although Marx overemphasised the role of institutions, it was a fruitful endeavour. Popper then turns around and takes apart Marx’s analysis that communism must follow from unrestrained capitalism. The most telling point is that capitalism has been replaced by government interventionism and the conditions of the working class has improved since the mid 1800’s (when Marx was writing). This contradicts Marx’s prophesy that working conditions must worsen over time.

Popper rounds up the two volumes by talking about how histronic idealism and anti-critical rationalism tends to lead to totalitarianism, while critical rationalism tends to lead to “the open society”. This is probably because some propaganda is needed to commit really nasty actions, while most humans tend to think that killing is bad. He observes that critical rationalism in its dogmatic sense is self refuting because we must question the basis for critical rationalism itself. He instead uses a more modest view of critical rationalism but admitting all knowledge is provisional. But he does not go as far as admitting he is using an anti-critical rationalism basis for his system, which I think would have been more accurate. And even if we adopt critical rationalism, which is quite effective at planning social changes, it still does not give us an idea of what type of society we want to achieve. We must again go back to moral choices and possibly anti-critical rationalism (perhaps Popper does not intend to apply these labels to moral choices). But he manages to satisfy my existential tastes by saying (or implying) any legitimacy of the state is based on the choice of a group of individuals, meaning individual choice is the basis for values. This is like an echo of Rousseau’s Social Contract (which I am currently reading) but it does not suppose a population wide “general will”.

Anti Citizen One

The Logic of Scientific Discovery

Posted by Anti Citizen One on June 6th, 2010

I finished Popper’s book The Logic of Scientific Discovery. I learned more than I expected, even considering I try to keep up with discussions concerning science. He is not concerned with how scientists actually work; this is what he calls the naturalistic approach. Popper addresses the logical and epistemological aspects, for example is a scientific theory true or false? how do we know what we know? and what is the difference between scientific and non-scientific knowledge? This last one is the fundamental question for Popper and is what he calls the “demarcation problem”. All these issues hardly matter to mainstream scientists since they mostly grasp the issues intuitively, at least well enough for practical use. To them, the philosophy of science is as much use as ornithology is to birds. But these issues are useful for distinguishing between science, proto-science, pseudo-science and metaphysics. One common theme I noticed between this book and Open Society (part 1) is Popper’s revisiting many well established areas of knowledge (democracy and science), and after finding their traditional ideas lead to logical problems, he attempts to formulate new definitions or concepts that captures the essence of an idea but makes it more satisfactory to logicians. For example he rejects the argument that democracy attempts to promote freedom by inherently anti-freedom methods and formulates a more satisfactory alternative. I will try to convey some of the ideas about science but I don’t claim to be an expert in this area!

Popper identifies two main views of science: inductivism and falsificationism. Imagine a repeated coin toss which represents a simple repeatable experiment. Let us allow the coin to be special: it can be a fair coin with equal chance with heads or tails, or it could be a trick coin with both sides as heads (or tails), or even a coin which is governed by a mathematical law (say alternate heads and tails). We can look at a historic sequence of coin tosses and try to inductively reason the pattern. I will abbreviate heads as H and tails as T. Here are a few finite length examples:

Pattern 1: HHHHHHHHHH
Pattern 2: HTHTHTHTHT
Pattern 3: THTHTTTTTH

Using inductive logic, we can reason that pattern 1 uses a coin having both sides as heads. Pattern 2 seems to be an alternating heads and tails. Pattern 3 seems to be random and might be consistent with a fair coin toss. But these cannot be said to be true without some doubt (being the problem with inductive reasoning). The larger problem with inductive logic is there are an infinite number of hypothesises that fit the observations. We cannot easily distinguish between these possible hypothesis but people tend to invent heuristic rules, such as “simpler theories are preferred”, but this rule cannot be scientifically justified. Popper observes that inductive reasoning prefers to not go beyond the observed data to make predictions, and asks why bother trying to use inductive reasoning when it is preferable to not make unsubstantiated conjectures at all? “silence is better”. The danger of an infinite number of possible explanations is a theory can be defended by addition of ad-hoc hypothesis. (This is like defending the proposition “there is a dragon in my garage” by adding “it’s an invisible dragon” and “the dragon is silent”.)

Falsificationism is the view advanced by Popper. He claims that only theories that are falsifiable are scientific. He uses the concept “basic statements”, that are inter-subjectively repeatable experimental observations. Basic statements may falsify scientific theories. However if a theory has no possible basic statements that could lead to falsification, it is labelled metaphysical and not scientific. In consequence, a theory can never be “proven” or called “true”. If a theory makes no inter-subjectively testable predictions, it is not scientific. This interestingly allows some physical phenomena to exist but to be non-scientific, as long as they remain untestable. To continue with my “dragon in garage” example, this hypothesis would be disallowed if there we no empirical predictions (even if there really was an invisible dragon). Philosophical naturalists claim that only detectable phenomena are worth consideration (but of course this is not a scientific claim).

One issue for falsificationism is that all three patterns (above) are compatible with the hypothesis of a fair coin toss, because we occasionally get unusual patterns in a random sequence. Getting ten heads in a row has a relatively large probability of 1 in 1024. How can we falsify a statistical prediction? This would take an infinite series of coin tosses to provide falsification, which is impractical. This is discussed in depth by Popper but he uses the fact that repeatable empirical tests have an associated measurement error. He is content to say a statistical prediction can be falsified as long as the difference between prediction and an observation is well below the measurement error. (At least as far as I understand the author.) With both the “verification” and “falsification” being knotty problems, it puts science on a very tentative footing. This is the way it should be.

A side note, not contained in this book, is the falsifiability of evolution and intelligent design (ID). Some have claimed that evolution is not falsifiable, which indicates the speaker is either profoundly uninformed, without a grasp of logic or lacking in intellectual integrity. If people doubt evolution is falsifiable, several explicit possible “basic facts” are listed in Darwin’s Origin of Species that would fatally undermine his idea (more here). The falsification of ID depends on its exact formulation, but in most cases the GLARING logical flaws in the argument make falsification a moot point. (But most versions of ID are un-falsifiable.) These particular issues would be unworthy of consideration in Popper’s book, but he is often mentioned in the modern discussions of ID.

Anyway, I have only scratched the surface here. This book is quite dense, including mathematical proofs and the like. There is an interesting discussion on the issue of corroboration of theory, but again, Popper rules out theories being “true”, we can only go as far as saying “they are consistent with experimental observations”. The concept “truth” is almost a distraction in the epistemology of science, but ironically it is what scientists aim to find.

Anti Citizen One

PS See the Gay Science aph 344

Enough by John Naish

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 19th, 2010

I finished reading Enough by John Naish. It is a sustained attack on consumerism where he questions the assumption that “more is good”, which is at the heart of modern culture and economics. I agreed with many themes in this book. To reject the hamster wheel of consumption is far from easy, practically as well as philosophically. Since he effectively argues that consumerism is a misguided attempt at hedonism, because the actual routes to happiness are not the ones people actually pursue (and this results in people in affluent countries being no happier than elsewhere). Simply put, consumerism fails to produce happiness beyond a 5 minute rush when purchasing (and the guilt soon follows, particularly in a debt based economy). Because our actions are not even based on hedonism, is there any basis to current western civilisation? It is all nihilism and distraction from ennui. The author calls “enough” by saying goals we seek (even if it is hedonism) can be found outside of consumerism.

He avoids the obvious trap of calling for action based solely on collective good. He also avoids environmentalism for its own sake. Astutely, he claims selfish and collective action is united in rejecting consumerism. The problem is to find a way to break the hold of endless consumption, given that the rational calls for restraint and environmentalism have failed. We need more than a rational argument – we need one that appeals instinctively. Part of the problem, according to Naish, is our brains are good at seeking more “stuff”, due to their ancient origins. The question is, how do we change society? If we don’t then we run out of resources, the planet over heats and millions or billions will die (probably after being displaced by environmental factors or wars for resources). A few initial thoughts are outlined about the way ahead. It seems this is a fertile area of thought: can we transition to a sustainable society? (or have I been at the “Plato” too much?) I recently discovered the de-growth movement. I will need to do further thinking and research on this. Currently, I am sceptical that a society can be formulated that is both consistent with human happiness and human psychology (look how Marxism did not consider that). But I have an solution: human happiness is really a secondary consideration, particularly given that the modern world is addicted to consumption of goods. If we are heading to a world with zero or negative economic growth, my choice is a world with billions of unhappy (or merely content) people rather than billions of dead people (which is what we will get with current policies). To be continued (I hope).

Anti Citizen One

PS I am sure the Roman Empire did not expect it would collapse…

Review: Gospel According to John

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 15th, 2010

To finish the gospels, I read John. The contrast in the style and teachings of Jesus was very noticeable. The relative modesty (Mark 10:18) of Jesus in the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) is replaced by a more egotistical Jesus (John 8:12). The central message in John is “believe in Jesus and have eternal life (or else)”, although with “love one another” (John 13:34). The latter is claimed to be a new commandment, which seems in contrast to the previous statements of “love thy neighbour” being already part of religious law:

He [Jesus] said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he [a certain lawyer] answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. Luke 10:26-27

The synoptic gospels had a different moral message than John. The emphasise the duty of obeying god, loving thy neighbour, forgiveness of sin and having faith. Although these things are touched upon in John, they are very minor themes.

The difference in style is interesting. The synoptic gospels have Jesus teaching almost always in parables (Mark 4:2, Matthew 13:34) but in John he generally uses long metaphorical discourses. The discourses in John are quite abstract and contain rhetorical paradoxes e.g.

Jesus cried and said, He that believeth on me, believeth not on me, but on him that sent me. John 12:44

The abandonment of parables in John seems strange to me, because I can more or less understand the intent of the parables in the other gospels. I can’t make much sense of his teachings in John, or rather I see they can be interpreted in many different ways. Even his disciples were confused by his method of teaching (John 8:43). This in effect replaces the Bible with body of specialist bible interpreters (notably a human institution) which provides “the truth”, since the metaphorical style in John is frankly obscurantism. There is a trend beginning in Luke and expanded in John to move the concepts of Jesus from a deistic interventional God to being a metaphysical dualistic God. But with this shift, God becomes an unknowable enigma and, I hardly need to point out, an unknowable “objective” morality is a strange an enigmatic beast. Unknowable morality, from our human perspective, is the same as no moral standards (at least within earthly life). If there are exceptions, they are rare – possibly moral knowledge gained from revelation. From my sparse reading, it seems like a shift from William Blake style religion (more themed like the Gospel of Mark) to Kierkegaardian (more like John) but I would be interested in expert opinion on that. I wonder what their preferred gospels were? 🙂

John also has many less miracles than the other gospels. Since miracles usually were accompanied by the teaching “with faith anything is possible”, this teaching is not as evident in John.

Strangely, Judas seems to be encouraged by Jesus to betray him (John 13:27). Although this is very like a Dostoevsky plot, it is not explained in a psychologically consistent way (his actions are blamed on the devil). It is likely a hint at the fulfilment of prophesy. This raises implications for free will but I won’t get into that quagmire now. The gospels seemed to go down hill for me, in order they were written (John probably being the last)…

Anti Citizen One

PS Links to previous: Matthew, Mark, Luke.
PPS Will UK civil service scupper civil liberties reform?

Review: Gospel According to Luke

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 13th, 2010

Continuing my series on the gospels, I read Luke. Probably being the last of the synoptic gospels to be written, the evolution of the stories was very noticeable, as details were inserted and potentially difficult passages removed. I guessed the order the gospels with written was Mark-Matthew-Luke, and this interpretation is in agreement with most historians. There is a fascinating diagram showing the proportions of overlap between the synoptic gospels on wikipedia.

There are several places in Luke where the narrative in Mark has added detail inserted before it returns back to the original Mark based events. For example when he calls Simon (Peter) and Andrew for the first time to be “fishers of men” (Mark 1:16-18, Matthew 4:18-20) they “straightway” follow Jesus. But in Luke, he talks to Simon on his own and Jesus does a quick fishing trip miracle (Luke 5:1-8) which is serves as a parable instead of a literal statement. So this is an example of a simple event narrative being expanded to being a dual purpose story/parable. (Or somehow both versions are literally true, which seems unlikely. Two separate events?) Similar expansions and insertions are used for love thy neighbour and the parable of the good samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), an angel appearing at the mount of olives (Luke 22:44), Jesus talking to the other two being crucified (Luke 22:39-43) and Jesus meeting Herod (Luke 23:7-9) (this seems particularly arbitrary).

I can’t remember if I have ranted on the blog before about Jesus being strongly anti-materialism and extremely anti-wealth. When I mention this to Christians, I usually get some equivocated answer about “cultural changes”. Anyway the strongest statements I have found is Luke 14:33, Luke 12:33, Luke 6:24, (rich man told to sell up) Luke 18:22, Mark 10:21, Matthew 19:21, (widow’s mite) Mark 12:42-44, Luke 21:1-4, (instruction to apostles and disciples) Mark 6:8, Matthew 10:9, Luke 10:4, Luke 22:35, not to mention the camel/eye of needle thing (Mark 10:25, Matthew 19:24, Luke 18:25). This is also backed up by Jesus’s example in life. I don’t think this could be much clearer! (Obviously, I personally feel we need to culturally reinterpret the Bible – to the extreme in fact, but this is a central point in the text and not lightly ignored.) On a related note, Nietzsche point it out it is weird saying one should give away your possessions when this burdens the recipient with just what you cast away!

The point at the end of the parable of Lazarus is strange:

And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead. Luke 16:31

Which implies Jesus did not expect his resurrection to be persuasive. But it might be possible to justify the whole exercise on other grounds.

Prophesy gets a good watering down in Luke:

And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you. Luke 17:20-21

I guess they got bored of waiting for the earlier predictions in Mark and Matthew:

For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works. Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom. Matthew 16:27-28

Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. [9] And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power. Mark 8:38-9:1

This also makes the kingdom a perspective rather than an event or place. This allows a great number of metaphysical inventions to escape their Pandora’s box. (I should write more on that some time.)

Finally, Jesus’s last moments. What is going on there? Three different versions are reported in three gospels. The biblical literalists have a particularly poor response on this conflict: they claim that all three are true but each narrative omits details. This is done because each author has a different “perspective”. This is pretty much an admission that the gospels are not literally true. (As if we needed that admission!)

Anyway, I now know why I was taught Mark at school, it has the least spin and “improvements” compared to the other synoptic gospels.

Anti Citizen One

Review: Gospel According to Mark

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 12th, 2010

I continued into read the gospel according to Mark. There are a few interesting things at the start of Chapter 6. He seems to have met his “brothers” and “sisters” (6:3) in his home country. This may be an interesting case of translation ambiguity. Brothers and sisters in the local culture could indicate his cousins or not, it is hard to say. There seems to be controversy on this point, at least among Internet commenters. After stating people were generally unfriendly and “offended”, it goes on to say:

And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them. Mark 6:5

Which is a bizarre claim for an supposedly omnipotent being (see also 10:40). The implication is possibly that he could not because of the lack of faith. Apologists claim that “he could” might be better translated as “he would”. This might wash, if the problems were not compounded in 6:6, with Jesus being “amazed”, which implies he is not omniscient. A sceptic like me is not surprised that miracles don’t happen in unfriendly audiences, because they are not as credulous (this would also be consistent with psychology and experience). Alternatively, Jesus did seem to follow a pattern of rewarding faith with miracles. On that theme, Jesus claims that no signs from heaven will be given to that generation (Mark 8:12) but I guess he forgot he was due to be resurrected, which is lucky “corrected” in Matthew 12:39 (and Luke 11:29). The gospel according to Mark seems to contradict that this sign was the primary goal of Jesus’s appearance. This also raised my eyebrows:

And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God. Mark 10:18

Which implies Jesus does not consider himself good. To argue otherwise is torturing language beyond the limit (except for possibly a bad translation, which is torture enough). The prohibition against exercising political authority is very interesting (10:42-43), which might be worth a read for most US and UK politicians (not to mention many others).

The incident of looking for figs on a fig tree, when it was not even the season for figs is an interesting note on the arbitrariness of Christianity (11:13). However there is probably an even deeper message when this incident is raised in 13:28 when it is considered as a parable. This might imply the original story really a parable and not a description of a real past event. Or it could be both a real event and used as a metaphor. The point is parts of the narrative shift between events and parables and we are not necessarily told which is occurring. Imagine if the source material for Mark 13 was lost, many would claim a miracle had occurred in Mark 11. And if Mark 11 was lost, people would claim Mark 13 contained the a parable of the fig tree. Given the murky history of the bible text and the general illiteracy of the time, we can safely assume some relevant sections were omitted (and the irrelevant retained). Since any part of the Bible could have important missing contextual information, the whole descents into a post-modern enigma. This also makes my earlier points somewhat redundant but I am not too concerned. The primary cultural impact of the Bible has been under the assumption it was true based on a rather superficial reading (such as in my limited capability).

Anti Citizen One

Review: Gospel According to Matthew

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 11th, 2010

It’s been a while since I looked at the Bible. I thought I’d have a read to refresh my memory, after Pullman’s retelling, I’d go back to the original the more popular version. I’d thought I’d jot down a few thoughts on the Gospel According to Matthew. These points are not from a post-modern perspective at all. I am mainly interested in mainstream culture, religion and the implications of Matthew.

Jesus claims he has only come to address the Jewish people (10:5, 15:24), but sometimes he seems more concerned with gentiles (21:41, 22:5). He is a critic of religious institutions of his day (15:9, 23:5-8) and these points probably apply to modern institutions (which is a central theme of Kierkegaard). There are strong statements against having or valuing wealth (6:25, 19:21, 19:23), which might be food for thought in the recent UK elections and those putting economic factors as the most important issue. He taught pacifism and non-judgementalism, to the point of “resist not evil” (5:39, 7:1, 26:52), which is contrary to most political systems (and many moral systems). I was amused by the prohibition on public prayer in 6:5-6, which is contrary to national prayer days mooted in the US and in a narrow interpretation, against church going!

There are many instances of Jesus addressing God is a separate entity (7:21, 10:32) and at least once God addressing Jesus as a separate entity (3:17). They don’t seem to share knowledge or their intentions (26:39). There is not much impression of the unity of these two beings. It is also strange that Jesus predicts the world will end within the lifetime of his disciples (16:28, 24:34). History is full of attempts at predicting the end of the world (it probably appeals to human psychology) but predictions have so far ended with egg on face.

The uniqueness of the resurrection might be contrasted by the other instances of rising from the dead in the gospels. This seems to have been a relatively common occurrence (9:24-25,27:52-53). A significant part of the narrative is given over to Jesus curing illnesses. Perhaps this impresses the intended audience of the Bible, but it is not particularly relevant and quite odd give the relative sparseness of the recordings of Jesus’s teachings.

I also noticed two verses saying truth faith can move mountains (17:20, 21:21) which seems at odds with common experience. On one hand Jesus mainly spoke in parables. On the other, he made the claim twice and in both times it was to explain how miracles are be performed. Obviously, this point can only be a criticism to believers of religious miracles based on faith. I mention it because it was raised by Dostoevsky in the Brothers Karamazov. Since we don’t see mountains move in modern times, we can conclude that true faith no longer exists (or decide not to read the Bible this literally).

The motivation of Judas for betraying Jesus is left unstated. It seems rather bizarre considering the circumstances. Imagine if Dostoevsky had written the Bible, it would have been the central issue of the narrative!

Anti Citizen One