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Reading Plutarch

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Plutarch in his book “Parallel Lives” compares the lives of famous Greeks and Romans. Always a good read. He tells of the lives of people like Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Pompey, Solon, Pericles and so on.

What I liked best were the lives of Brutus, Cato the Younger, Pompey, Antony, Crassus, Pericles, Alcibiades, Nicias, Lycurgus, and Theseus. Sometimes it is the man I like (Brutus), sometimes it is the times he lived in (Alcibiades), and sometimes it is the tragedy of his life (Crassus).

Plutarch writes about men’s lives to see how their virtue and vice, their moral decisions, their character – what we  in our time call “values” – affected their lives. If I had read Plutarch when I was younger he would have affected me more deeply.

The book is about long as the Bible and, surprisingly, makes a far better case for living a moral life. The Bible’s case is based mainly on fear of God and has few down-to-earth examples to model your life on (King David comes the closest). Even though Plutarch’s examples are generals and statesmen, they seem far closer to everyday men than do Moses or Jesus. Plutarch’s feet are planted on this earth, and that too makes him easier to believe.

Although he is a follower of Plato, he also makes a better case than Plato himself, and for the same reasons: he writes about this earth and its men and their lives, not all this hot air about a higher plane of being.

Things I learned from Plutarch:

  1. Sometimes it’s safer to be brave than not.
  2. Philosophy, like religion, can be a way of life and not simply a way of making sense of the world. (The respectable religions of his day were worn out.)
  3. Moral character  rests on a base of self-control.
  4. Men are defined by their actions, not by their position or property. But then the Bible tells that too.
  5. One of the best things about television is that it shows the terror and waste of war far more than its glory. Plutarch is blinded by the glory. He tells the story from the general’s camp, not from the streets that run with blood.
  6. That maybe Sparta, not Athens, was the crown of Greek achievement.
  7. That war and prison are true tests of a man’s character. I used to hate prison films. No more.

Like the earlier Greeks, he places a lot of value on courage, especially the physical kind. Like them, he sees the glory of war far more than its blood and waste – and this even though he knows from his grandfather’s knee what Mark Antony put Greece through in his failed attempt to rule the world.

Yet unlike the earlier Greeks, Plutarch  does not have the tough, clear mind they had, people like Sophocles, Thucydides and Aristophanes. His thought is based more on hopes and feelings than on reason and a clear eye.

– Abagond, 2008.

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Roman Empire

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The Roman Empire, circa +197.

The Roman Empire (-27 to +476) was the circle of lands round the Mediterranean Sea ruled by Rome. Its ideas about law, government, religion, language and writing became those of the West.

Before -27 Rome was called a republic because the Senate still had some power. But Rome had ruled lands outside of Italy since at least -220. Did it matter to those in Greece or Carthage whether they were ruled by one Roman (the emperor) or many (the Senate)?

And even after Rome fell in 476, the empire in the east continued, ruled from Constantinople, which did not fall to the Turks till 1453. We call it the Byzantine empire, but that is a name made up by French scholars in the 1800s. The empire called itself Roman. Even the Arabs and Turks called them Rumi.

In 117, Rome at its height ruled the lands from Scotland to Egypt, from Morocco to Mesopotamia. It was bound by the Rhine and Danube rivers in the north (except for Dacia, now Romania), the Atlantic Ocean in the west, the Sahara in the south and Persia in the east.

Rome brought peace to all the lands round the Mediterranean Sea for hundreds of years: the Pax Romana or Roman peace.

Rome took the best ideas of Egypt, Babylon and Greece and added ideas of its own about law and government.

Latin was the main language in the west, Greek in the east.

Some of the early emperors were cruel and sick men, like Caligula, Claudius and Nero. They ruled from 37 to 68. Later it was ruled by five good emperors, from 96 to 180: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. They brought Rome to the height of its power and glory in the 100s.

In the 200s war was common: the empire had no peaceful, orderly way to hand power from one emperor to the next.

By the 200s the Christians were seen as a threat to the social order: they did not believe the emperor was a god. They would not even give the idea lip service. But by the 300s most people were Christians. They now became the social order, closing down the old temples and burning old books.

By the 300s the emperor rarely came to Rome. He spent most of his time in Milan and the new city of Constantinople, founded by Constantine. Sometimes the empire was ruled by two emperors, one in the west and one in the east. The last emperor to rule both halves together was Theodosius I from 379 to 395.

In the 400s the army in the west was mainly German defending the empire against other Germans! No surprise, then, when the west soon found itself cut up like a birthday cake among German generals, some of them from the Roman army itself. One of those generals, Odoacer, overthrew the last emperor in the west in 476.

In the 500s Justinian sent Belasarius to take back the west. He took much of Italy – by destroying its cities – but in time even Italy was lost.

– Abagond, 2007, 2016.

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The Roman Republic / Empire from -510 to +530.

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100s

The 100s (100-199), the second century after Christ, saw the Roman Empire at the height of its power and glory – the Pax Romana and all that. Edward Gibbon said in the 1700s that this was when mankind was at its happiest.

Rome was ruled by the five good emperors, as Machiavelli called them:

  • Nerva (96-98)
  • Trajan (98-117)
  • Hadrian (117-138)
  • Antoninus Pius (138-161)
  • Marcus Aurelius (161-180)

There were about 180 million people in the world then:

  • 40m Roman Empire
  • 4m Parthia (now Iran)
  • 35m India
  • 60m China
  • 40m elsewhere

In 117 the Roman Empire ruled more land than it ever did or would, having just taken Dacia (now Romania), Armenia and Mesopotamia (now Iraq).

India saw the invention of the first stirrup, a thing to help keep a man on a horse by giving him footing. This would make the horse far more important in war. By the 400s it would bring the Roman legions and the power of Rome to an end.

Another invention of this time was paper in China. It spread westward, but very, very slowly: it did not reach the Muslim world till the 700s, the West, not till the 1200s.

In the 120s the Roman emperor Hadrian built a wall across Britain.

In the 130s the Jews rose up against Rome, led by Bar-Cochba. His name means “son of a star”. Some said he was the Messiah, that he would take over the world and bring peace. It did not turn out that way: the Romans won in 134 and forced the Jews out of their homeland. They did not come back in numbers till the 1800s.

In the 160s when Marcus Aurelius ruled, Rome and Parthia battled over Armenia and Mesopotamia. It was then that the Romans destroyed Seleucia in Mesopotamia, the last great Greek city in the east. When the Roman soldiers came home from the wars they brought the plague. Millions died.

This was when Apuleius wrote the “Golden Ass”, when Suetonius wrote about the lives of emperors and Juvenal made men laugh at Roman faults.

In philosophy, Epictetus, born a slave, and Marcus Aurelius, an emperor, wrote the two best books on Stoicism to last down to our times.

It also saw the last two great names in Greek science: Ptolemy and Galen. Soon Christians would outlaw cutting up dead bodies, even for the sake of medicine as Galen did. Ptolemy’s books on Greek knowledge about the heavens and the earth, the “Almagest” and the “Geography”, became the starting point for the Western knowledge in the 1400s.

Greek science and philosophy was losing ground to the religions of the east, Christianity among them. The best known form of Christianity in these years is not the kind we know, but Gnosticism. It said that Jesus saves not through his death on the cross to pay for our sins, but through the secrets he told Thomas, Mary Magdalene and others. This was when the Gospel of Judas was written.

What to read:

  • Ptolemy: Almagest
  • Apuleius: Golden Ass
  • Marcus Aurelius: Meditations
  • Epictetus: Discourses
  • Suetonius: Lives of the Twelve Caesars
  • Pausanias: Description of Greece
  • Gospel of Judas

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Ptolemy

Claudius Ptolemy (about 100-170) of Alexandria is the inventor of the Ptolemaic system, a theory of the heavens that said the stars, sun, moon and planets went round the earth. The earth did not move, it did not even turn. In the early 1600s this was replaced by the theory of Copernicus and Kepler that held that the earth and everything else went round the sun.

Ptolemy also wrote about music, astrology, optics and geography. He was among the first to apply trigonometry to science.

He wrote about his theory of the heavens in the “Almagest” (150) and other works. With it you can get the position of the sun, moon and planets on any given day, past, present or future.

Ptolemy built his theory on 25 years of his own observations and the work of Hipparchus — and probably the work of others (now lost).

The Almagest is a work of genius and beauty that stood for over a thousand years, but it is hardly perfect:

  • We now know some of his observations were made up.
  • It contains arithmetic errors that just happen to let his proofs come out right.
  • It was based on Aristotle’s physics, some of which was easy to prove wrong if anyone took the trouble to check it out against the real world. Someone finally did: Galileo.

Ptolemy takes Aristotle’s physics as a given and then comes up with a theory that fits both Aristotle and his observations.

The root trouble with his theory is not what you think – where he put the earth – but his use of circles.

According to Aristotle heavenly bodies were made up of something called quintessence. Quintessence, being perfect moved in perfect circles. Aristotle said that was the perfect motion.

And so Ptolemy manfully stuck to circles. But to get his circles to match his observations, he needed circles within circles – the dreaded epicycles.

Planets move in stretched-out circles called ellipses, as Kepler later found out. It is not that Ptolemy could not do ellipses – it was just the sort of thing he was good at. It was his physics that held him back.

Copernicus used circles and epicycles too, so he was not that much better. It was not till the work of Galileo, Kepler and Newton that Copernicus’ theory won the day. Galileo proved it true, Kepler made it usable and Newton provided the physics.

Astrology: Ptolemy believed that the movements of the heavens affect us. In his book “Tetrabiblios” he shows how in terms of Aristotle’s physics.

Geography: his book on geography was not known in the West till 1300. In it he gives the latitude and longitude of over 8000 places from Spain to China, making possible a detailed map of the world as it was known in Alexandria in his day. It is from Ptolemy that we get the idea of north being “up.”

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Ptolemy’s world map (c. AD 150)

Ptolemy knew the earth was round but thought it was smaller than it really is. That is why Columbus thought that he could easily get to Asia by sailing west across the ocean.

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Epictetus

Epictetus (55-135) was one of the leading lights of the Stoic school of Greek philosophy. He became a Stoic while still a slave in Rome. Later freed, he was kicked out of Rome with all the other Stoics by Domitian in 90. He went to Greece and started his own school. We have two of his books, the “Discourses” and the “Encheiridion”.

If you have read the Bible, you should read Epictetus: he is the missing chapter between Socrates and the New Testament. In the time of St Paul Stoic philosophy affected people’s everyday thinking like how Freud and Marx affects ours. Stoic thought was the mental background noise of the age.

Surprisingly, Epictetus often makes a stronger case for what we would call good Christian living than the Bible does – because he gives down-to-earth reasons for it, not those of heaven and hell.

At times in Epictetus it almost seems as if Christianity is just Stoic philosophy for the masses.

At times, because they part ways on two very important questions: sin and death.

Sin:

Epictetus says that you can become a good person by an act of will, through self control and right reason. Christians say that is impossible: it takes an act of God – what is called grace. To a Christian, the whole point of the Old Testament is that man cannot make it on his own, that just knowing what is right and wrong and wanting to do good is not enough. If it were, we would all be Jews. Or Stoics.

Death:

Both Epictetus and Christians see that death is at the root of our fears and drives us to do senseless things. For example, people do not become famous, get rich, own large houses and fancy cars because they need them in and of themselves. At root, they do it because they are afraid to die. The fear of the abyss ruins our character. We will never live right, we will never be all that we should be, till we face death and somehow overcome it.

Part of what makes Christ stick out so much in people’s mind is how he was so unafraid of death and lived life accordingly.

Where the Stoics and Christians part company is how they overcome death. Christians overcome it through faith in God and his promise of a blessed afterlife for the faithful. Stoics, not believing in an immortal soul, have to come to terms with death head on.

Epictetus cares little about nature – for him the burning question for philosophy is how best to live. In this he is a child of his age. Yet his answer is hard to take since it means giving up everything we have built our lives on.

Epictetus, like Plotinus, unwittingly shows you how to put together the best of Greek philosophy with Christianity; how they are not really all that far apart.

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The Library of Alexandria (-295 to +646) was the largest library of ancient times. It stood for almost a thousand years. In 2002 a new Library of Alexandria was opened.

The ancient library had about 490,000 scrolls. That comes to about 100,000 of our books or, on a computer, 64 gigabytes. For us that would be a small-city library. In its time only the Library of Pergamum (the library that invented parchment) came close. In our time, the Library of Congress, now the largest, did not pass that size till the late 1800s.

The Library was conceived as a universal library: to have a copy of every book ever written. At 490,000 scrolls it probably came close that for Greek books.

It was not a free-standing, public library. It was part of the Museum of Alexandria, which in turn was part of the king’s estate. It was not a museum as we think of it but something like a research institute, which brought together some of the greatest minds of the age. It had labs, an observatory, a botanical garden and a zoo with a polar bear.

The Museum and Library gave us, among other things:

  • putting things in alphabetical order,
  • dividing a work into “books” (= separate scrolls),
  • the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament),
  • the works of Homer as we know them,
  • grammar books in the form we are used to seeing them,
  • punctuation,
  • the first good measurement of how big the earth is,
  • latitude and longitude,
  • heliocentrism.

The Library had a branch in the temple of Serapis. It was about a tenth the size but seems to have been opened to the public.

Ships that came to Alexandria were searched for books. Those that were found were copied: the owner got the copy, the Library kept the original! The Library sent buyers abroad to find the oldest copies of books. The older the better. If it had several old copies of the same book, it would work out what the original must have been. That is how the Library came to have the most trustworthy copies in the world.

It had the stolen originals of the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides and books from the libraries of Aristotle and Theophrastus..

Languages: it had books in at least Greek, Egyptian, Aramaic (Babylonian) and Hebrew..

The Library was (partly) destroyed in:

  • -48 under Julius Caesar, who may have taken some of its books to Rome;
  • 272 under Aurelian to put down an uprising in Alexandria;
  • 295 under Diocletian to put down yet another uprising;
  • 391 under Theodosius when the Serapis branch was destroyed as a temple to idols;
  • 646 when Arabs destroyed what remained.

Of its books, 99% are lost forever. But if it were not for the Library, we would not have much of what do have, through copying and recopying, like the works of Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Thucydides and Herodotus.

Of the physical remains of the actual books that once sat in the Library, all we have are some torn pages.

– Abagond, 2006, 2015.

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Gnosticism

Gnosticism was the most common form of the Christian faith among the rich in the first three centuries after Christ.

Gnosticism says that Jesus saves us not by his death on the Cross, as most Christians now believe, but by the secret knowledge – the gnosis – that he told certain disciples, such as Thomas or Judas or Mary Magdalene. The death on the Cross thing comes from Peter and Paul. It was widely believed among the poor, but what did they know?

So there were Gnostic gospels: a Gospel of Thomas, of Judas and so on. As you will soon see, they did not make it into Holy Scripture.

In Gnosticism the Demiurge, the god of the Jews, is not God Himself and is not even a good god. He created this evil world of matter which has become our prison. Our souls are not from this world but from a high heaven. Jesus was sent by the real God to show us the way back. That is the secret knowledge or gnosis that he has come to tell us. It is not a place we can get to now, but only after death. But to make it back, we need to know the way now.

When the Greek philosopher Plotinus speaks about the Christian faith, he is thinking of Gnosticism, not the sort we know. There was an exchange of both people and ideas back and forth between Gnosticism and his school of Neoplatonism.

Gnosticism was not one church, like the Catholic Church, but a family of sects. Many were small – just a teacher and his followers. Some grew into real churches complete with martyrs, lasting centuries, such as the Marcionites.

Gnosticism reached its high point in the early 200s. A century later, however, the Catholic Church saw the Arians as a greater threat than the Gnostics. Still, what Gnostic sects remained were either crushed by persecution or became part of Manichaeism.

Why did the Catholic Church win and not the Gnostics? Some say it was divine providence. Others point out that the Catholic Church had a unity the free-wheeling Gnostics could never match and, later, the backing of the Roman Empire. To be fair, by the time the Catholics had the power of the state Gnosticism was already close to dead.

But perhaps it is much simpler than all that: the Pauline gospels are, at least to me, much more believable than the Gnostic ones. And I doubt I am alone in that.

Because the Catholic Church won its gospels became part of Holy Scripture, not the Gnostic ones. But the Church said that the Gnostic gospels were not merely wrong, they were made up!

For centuries the Gnostic gospels were lost, but in the late 1900s they came to light again from finds in Egypt. The largest of these finds was the Nag Hammadi Library.

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