Archive for the ‘Skepticism’ Category


Cicero on books and the soul

I’m a hunter by nature, but what I hunt are words and meanings in books and now on the internet. One of the things I like to pursue is the origin of popular attributions, but the game is often quite elusive.

This one has been quoted often enough, and declared apocryphal:

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.”

I’ve found the source, and he was a learned and interesting man who was an admirer of Darwin, a defender of archaeological sites, and most famously the man who gave Bank Holidays to the U.K. (We’ll ignore his opposition to Irish Home Rule.)

The young Cicero reading (in a soulful nook?)

Sir John Lubbock wrote an essay for the Contemporary Review vol. 49 (1886) under the title ‘On the Love of Reading.’

He opens with a sentiment that could be echoed today:

Of all the privileges we enjoy in this nineteenth century there is none, perhaps, for which we ought to be more thankful than for the easier access to books.

It’s funny that I was able to access his essay through Google Books, which bypasses the physical object to make access even easier. But early in the essay he says the following, which is the source of the popular quotation:

Cicero described a room without books as a body without a soul. But it is by no means necessary to be a philosopher to love reading.

This essay was reprinted in several other publications, and was evidently so widely-read that some had false recollections of reading the line in Cicero.

So how could an accomplished polymath get something like this so wrong? Was he a fraud?

If he was anything in this instance he was probably too reliant on memory or too free in his interpretation, but it’s not a far leap from Cicero’s words:

postea vero quam Tyrannio mihi libros disposuit mens addita videtur meis aedibus.

– Cicero, ad Atticum IV.8

Translations tend to differ and take the word mens in quite different senses. (For example, a ‘soul’ has been added, according to E.O. Winstedt’s Loeb translation.) Heberden’s translation in the old Bohn edition, which seems a likely source for someone like Lubbock, says that ‘a new spirit has seemed to animate my house.’

To me it seems to say that an ordered library is like the brain of a house, but whether you think of as a soul, a spirit, or a mind, the comparison is clear: the home is endowed with a human property. And if it was no empty of books before, the books were of little use in their disordered state.

So let’s emend the thought (acknowledging that it isn’t a quotation) and say that a home without a library is like a body without a mind.


The myth of New Rome

Recently a minor debate arose on the Byzans-L listserv as to whether Constantinople was originally named by Constantine ‘New Rome’ (in Greek Νέα Ῥώμη, in Latin Nova Roma). I’ve read this claim uncritically a number of times in a number of sources, some of whom are quite good scholars, but it’s a bit like one of those popular attributions that no one ever bothers to check because Oscar Wilde (or Mark Twain) would have said something like that. We read it enough, we hear it enough, and we trust that the tradition we’ve received is accurate.

This is not 'New Rome.'

A case was made that the use of New Rome as a name for Constantinople was based on a sort of power struggle among the Churches of the East, and while the reasoning is sound and I accept the argument, I’m more concerned with the notion that New Rome was ever considered a name in the early period.

Adherents to the ‘New Rome’ position point to Canon III of the First Council of Constantinople (AKA the Second Ecumenical Council) of 381 CE:

Constantinopolitanus episcopus habeat priores honoris partes post Romanum episcopum, eo quod sit ipsa nova Roma

(The Bishop of Constantinople may have the better parts of honor after the Bishop of Rome inasmuch [the city] is itself a new Rome.)

This does not say that Constantinople was named ‘New Rome’ but that it was a new Rome, i.e., the seat of the Empire, a claim that no other city could make. If Rome was princeps urbium, then so was Constantinople, and it and its officials should be on similar footing.

It’s the city’s status, not its name that matters. By this logic the city council of New London, CT could officially decree for their mayor an equal share in the honors afforded the mayor of London, England. But would they?

The other source often cited does not say New Rome at all, but ‘a second Rome.’ This is the Ecclesiastical History of Socrates of Constantinople (1.16):

ἴσην τε τῇ βασιλευούσῃ Ῥώμῃ ἀποδείξας͵ καὶ Κωνσταντινούπολιν μετονομάσας͵ χρηματίζειν δευτέραν Ῥώμην νόμῳ ἐκύρωσεν·

(After making it known that it was equal to Rome under his administration and renaming it Constantinople, he decreed by law that it conduct its business as a second Rome.)

The crux here is the word χρηματίζειν, which many want to read in the sense ‘to take and bear a title or name,’ but the problem with this is that, again, it makes no sense to say that having changed the name to X, Constantine decreed that it take the name Y.

Think about that again: after he renamed it Constantinople he decreed by law that it be named Second Rome? Apply some thought.

The usual meaning of χρηματίζειν is to to do business, and specifically the business of the βουλή or the ἐκκλησία. Not only is Constantinople on the same footing as Rome, but it will follow the administration of Rome.

All of this talk of a ‘new Rome’ or a ‘second Rome’ has nothing to do with the city’s name, but with its status and administration.


Pseudologus: Bowra in the buff

Christopher Hitchens, who (I must confess) is a personal hero, recently used an anecdote about the venerable (and notorious) C.M. Bowra (Slate: ‘Anatomy of a Scandal‘), who was a real-life member of the real Order of the Phoenix (unlike that Harry Potter character).

The anecdote is one of those great stories that people like to tell about distinguished types. It’s humorous and humanizing and suits his reputation as a wit. And as one of those stories that people like to tell, Hitchens has told it before (Slate: ‘The Cult of ID‘):

At Oxford, where two rivers meet, there is a private stretch of the bank (or there used to be) called “Parson’s Pleasure.” Since Victorian times, this shaded resort was reserved for male dons who wished to swim and sunbathe in the nude. A barrier prevented any stray punts or boats from interrupting this idyll, and women and girls understood that this retreat was off-limits. One day, however, while the river was higher and faster than usual, a ladies’ boating party was swept through the barrier and into the all-male backwater. Shrieks and giggles from the boat, and a sudden, protective downward reaching of the hands on the part of all bathers on the bank. All but one. The late Sir Maurice Bowra, Hellenist and epigrammist, raised his hands to shield his craggy visage. There they all stood or sat until the fair intruders had sailed past, whereupon a general outbreak of sheepishness occurred, punctuated by Bowra saying: “I don’t know about you chaps, but I’m known by my face around here.”

You needn’t look very hard to find the anecdote here and there, with the quotation changed, or even the subject. It’s been told of others, for example Dundas, whom ‘Mercurius Oxoniensis‘ provocatively referred to as ‘the late Master Robin Dundas, of Christ-Church and Parson’s Pleasure.’

(Try googling +”Parsons’ Pleasure” +”my face”. Then try the same search on Google Books, though not all references include the supposed words of the don.)

In Leslie Mitchell’s biography, Maurice Bowra: A Life, we find a very good explanation, that includes this:

Wadham men found it ‘pleasant to hear all the Jowett stories being told about you.’

The Parsons’ Pleasure story is briefly mentioned as one of the many apocryphal tales ascribed to Bowra as ‘oral myths intended to describe what a great academic might have done.’

It’s still a nice story, but let’s be skeptical.


Bertrand Russell: ‘On Astrologers’

Here is a bit on nonsense through the ages, applicable to education, world politics, and the spread of irrationalism in such movements as homeopathy, anti-vaccination hysteria, and–still today–astrology.

There is always something pathetic about a great and ancient tradition which has fallen on evil days. The astrologer, as one pictures him in the past, is an aged sage with a long white beard, speaking in a slow and trance-like manner, and felt by his auditors and himself to be possessed of mystical lore. In his most glorious days, he controlled the destiny of nations: among the Chaldeans, he stood to the King in the same relation as the Governor of the Bank of England now stands to the Prime Minister. In ancient Rome he was reverenced, except by a few rationalistic Emperors, who banished from the City all ‘‘mathematicians’’, as they were called. The Arabs consulted them on all important occasions; the wisest men of the Renaissance believed in them, and Kepler, the great astronomer, had to become an astrologer in order to win respect and a livelihood.

Astrologers still exist; it has been my good fortune to know several. But how different they are from the magnificent beings of former times! They are, so far as I have come across them, hard-working and highly meritorious business men or women, with an aged mother or an invalid husband to support. They follow by rule of thumb the ancient formulae about the House of Life and planets in the ascendant and the rest of it, but their language is sadly modernised, and their horoscopes, instead of being inscribed cabalistically upon parchment, are neatly typed upon the best quarto typing paper. In this, they commit an error of judgement which makes it difficult to have faith in their power of deciphering the future in the stars.

Do they believe themselves in the sciences that they profess? This is a difficult question. Everything marvellous is believed by some people, and it is not improbable that professional astrologers are of this type. And even if they are aware that their own performances are largely guesswork and inferences from information obtained otherwise, they probably think that there are superior practitioners who never resort to these inferior methods. There was once a worthy man who made a vast fortune by professing to have discovered how to make gold out of sea water. He decamped to South America before it was too late and prepared to live happily ever after. Unfortunately another man professed to have made the same discovery; our friend believed in him, invested all his money in the new process, and lost every penny. This incident shows that people are often less dishonest than they might be thought to be, and probably professional astrologers are in the main honourably convinced of the truth of their doctrines.

That this should be possible is creditable to them but very discreditable to our educational system. In schools and universities information of all sorts is ladled out, but no one is taught to reason, or to consider what is evidence for what. To any person with even the vaguest idea of the nature of scientific evidence, such beliefs as those of astrologers are of course impossible. But so are most of the beliefs upon which governments are based, such as the peculiar merit of persons living in a certain area, or of persons whose income exceeds a certain sum. It would not do to teach people to reason correctly, since the result would be to undermine these beliefs. If these beliefs were to fade, mankind might escape disaster, but politicians could not. At all costs, therefore, we must be kept stupid.

28 September 1932

Elsewhere (in the essay which gave us the famous quote proclaiming that ‘the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt’), Russell, foreseeing the terrors of the ‘Hitlerites’, concludes that skepticism may be a ‘luxury’ to be set aside for intelligence paired with ‘moral fervor.’ He saw the great hope for liberty, therefore, in American democracy. Prescient.

But the real need today may be not for the abandonment of skepticism but for the acknowledgment of skepticism as a valid foundation for morality. Skepticism is not relativism or doubt in the extreme. Rather, it is a bold denunciation of unfounded claims and a rejection of the moral authority of astrologers and other true believers whose modes of thought mirror those of the ‘Hitlerites’ and their ilk.


Can tree rings shed light on Roman History?

BBC is reporting the results of a study of tree rings growth, calling their article, “Roman rise and fall ‘recorded in trees.’”  Tree rings can show us climatic change, because trees grow more in good years, less in years of drought.  The beginning of the article suggests that this sheds new light on Roman history, saying,  ”They found that periods of warm, wet summers coincided with prosperity, while political turmoil occurred during times of climate instability.”  Okay, that doesn’t seem particularly surprising, but could be intriguing.   I’d be interested to see the year-by-year in Italy during the Social Wars, or during the rivalry of Clodius and Milo– we know that grain shortages were of fundamental importance to political shifts in the late Republic, and the article seemed to suggest that we’d have further elucidation on this point.

As I continued to read the article, however, I learned that this is not the kind of thing the study looked at.  By the end of the article, it is revealed that the “rise and fall” discussed in the study is actually this: “‘Increased climate variability from 250-600 AD coincided with the demise of the western Roman empire and the turmoil of the migration period,’ the team reported.”  Correct me if I’m wrong, as I’m not an expert in the later Roman empire, but didn’t we know this?  Didn’t we know that the southerly migrations that pushed tribes like the Vandals on to Rome were brought on by climatic change?  So the way this article is written, it is suggested that we’ve unlocked a great mystery, when in fact we’ve got some good scientific corroboration to something we’ve known for a while.  Of course, I am betting the study in fact could tell us quite a bit, but that the journalist had to find some kind of “hook,” and this was what he picked, perhaps not realizing that we don’t need tree rings to tell us that the late Empire migrations were caused by climate change.


The royal engagement ring and the ‘Historic Society’ that doesn’t understand Roman numerals

Kate Middleton's engagement ring is seen in this official engagement photo.

People who care about royalty and pageantry seem to be all wrapped up in the coming wedding of Prince William (as he’s called) and his fiancée, Kate Middleton. ‘News’ reports keep cropping up showing these people how they might obtain — from local markets — cheap pieces of costume jewelry bearing a slight, superficial resemblance to the engagement ring.

Now TELEbrands (the company behind many of your favorite infomercials) is selling a poor replica of Ms. Middleton’s ring (with ‘simulated diamonds’, &c.) through a recently registered trademark, the ‘British Historic Society.’ This is intended to lend the shoddy trinket an air of legitimacy and encourage the fools at home to throw their money away.

Inventing a “society”, however, wasn’t enough, nor was adopting the British Royal Coat of Arms. To make this seem really official they needed to throw in some Latin or something, and what could be easier than Roman numerals?

The “British Historic Society” seems to have been founded in the year XIXVIXIMMX:

The British Historic Society? More like Historic BS.

If that doesn’t mean anything to you, then you probably understand how Roman numerals work. Unlike TELEbrands.

You can see MMX at the end, and possibly XI at the beginning, and the name was registered in November of 2010, but beyond that it’s just a ridiculous mess. It almost seems to punctuate the company’s crass cynicism as it can’t be bothered to do anything remotely sensible with one of the tools of their deception.

‘Yeah … make it all British-y … put in some beefeaters or something. Ooh! Make the seal more, like, Latin-y. You know — like XIXVIXIMMX or whatever. Perfect!’

I hope that no one you know has been tricked. Whenever I see an ad like I imagine scores of well-meaning but naive grandmothers trying to do something nice, and scores of relatives too polite to say anything. So sad.


Poll: Critical thinking in the humanities and the sciences

This may be news to many readers of the blog, as I haven’t blogged about skepticism (except perhaps in my post on chiropractic, Herodotus: the father of handiwork) but I am a longtime skeptic. (Brian Dunning’s concise statement, What is Skepticism?, will give you a good idea of what I mean when I use the term.)

For my money, the one thing students need above all else is the ability to develop critical thinking skills, which encompasses such things as knowing how to assess information and being aware of common pitfalls to understanding (e.g., logical fallacies, emotional appeals, etc.). Too often my own students show a willingness to believe whatever I tell them, a tendency I exploit on a regular basis with humor in an effort to promote more critical thinking.

I don’t want to say much more right now, though I’m sure my position will be clear in the poll options below, but I’m interested to hear from others on the issue of critical thinking in the humanities, its relationship with the sciences, and potentially those in the humanities who are sympathetic to or interested in the skeptical viewpoint.

So without further ado, my (admittedly) awkward poll:

Results after the fold.
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Herodotus: the Father of Handiwork

Here’s another post from my private archives, originally from the first of this year.

Wow. David Meadows (AKA the Rogue Classicist) has been on a roll lately, and one of his latest posts is right up my alley.

He’s started a new series of posts inspired by the Ontario Provincial report card designation “Level R” (R for remediation). One such publication he’s flagged for a remedial review of the past is the Wrightsville Beach Magazine for its piece on “knowledge of the spine.” He quotes the following passage as “one of those mind bogglers,” and boy is he ever right:

The actual profession of chiropractic as a distinct form of health care dates back to around 1895, although even the Greek physician Hippocrates (460-370 BC), known as the “father of medicine,” noted that one should “get knowledge of the spine, for this is the requisite of many diseases.” Herodotus, a contemporary of Hippocrates, gained some fame with his use of therapeutic exercises to cure diseases. When a patient was unable to perform these exercises, Herodotus would do the work with his hands, manipulating the spine, which reportedly led the philosopher Aristotle to register a criticism of his “tonic-free” approach that might well, then and now, have sent older men rushing to their nearest chiropractor.


“Herodotus,” Aristotle complained, “made old men young and thus prolonged their lives too greatly.”

Now, David opted out of researching the origins of the claim, but I don’t think much research is necessary. I’ll do the research as I write and guarantee I’ll find it a fraud.

Let’s get to it.

David noted that these ridiculous and unfounded statements appear on chiropractic websites. The earliest reference is easily found on Google Books in The Science of Chiropractic, by D.D.Palmer, the aptly-named founder of this bit of pseudo-science, and his opportunistic son B.J. They offer in this book a series of brief, laughable statements about the practice (beginning with “Chiropractic is a science.”), among which we find the following:

Four hundred years before Christ, Iccus and later Herodotus, applied bodily exercises and manipulations of the body to assist in restoring health.

One immediately recognizes that Herodotus is out of place, but what about Iccus? Good readers of Plato may recall Iccus of Tarentum, who is mentioned both in the Protagoras and in the Laws. He is remembered as a master athlete and trainer, part of whose regimen involved sexual abstinence, both from women and from boys. (The Greeks, after all, gave the world pederasty as well as philosophy.) In the Protagoras he is mentioned alongside a certain Herodicus, a contemporary of the speakers in Plato.

Herodicus and his predecessor Iccus, apparently emphasized diet and exercise to maintain the health of athletes under their direction. (Interestingly they are classified in the Protagoras as sophists using physical training to mask their true aims. I have little doubt that despite the woefully deluded among the chiropractic community, there are still many others who willfully deceive.) The point to be taken away is that they attended to the health of athletes by paying attention to diet and nutrition. Where is the evidence that they did any manipulation by hand?

But here we see the error: Palmer mistook (or his editor misprinted) Herodotus for Herodicus, and in their utter disregard for accuracy (as in their utter disregard for science), his followers have repeated and even added to the error in embarrassing and infuriating ways as noted above.


Another interesting tidbit: according to the Palmers’ own account, the name came from a patient whose daughter D.D. Palmer had previously healed of a life-threatening ankle sprain (?!) through the agency of magnets (?!). (Until now I’ve never felt the need to use an interrobang.) Anyway, this patient, the Rev. Samuel H. Weed, was receiving a realignment or some such nonsense and was asked by Palmer to suggest a name for this new “science and art”:

He simply translated the doctor’s description of it, “done by hand,” into Greek, and thus originated the name Chiropractic.

Mr. Weed, by receiving adjustments himself from Dr. D.D. Palmer and from his son B.J. Palmer, for various serious ailments, and observing closely the results of adjustments on many others, strongly endorses this most simple and efficient system and will hail the day when poisonous drug treatments, needless painful or torturous butchery, called surgery, is discarded and Chiropractic is universally adopted.

Now this brings me to the point of what I infelicitously called a tidbit a moment ago: chiropractic is not only a silly, unscientific, and dangerous surrogate for science-based medicine, it’s also a very poor translation that stands up badly beside a certain medical term that’s actually derived from Greek: “surgery.”

Chiropractic was supposed to be Greek for “done by hand,” and it was supposed to be justified by certain ancient analogs that don’t really exist (i.e., Iccus and Herodicus didn’t know anything about ‘subluxations’ or ‘alignments’). Instead we find that surgery (from Greek kheirourgia, χειρουργία, “done by hand,” from kheir “hand” + ergon “work”) was very real way back and still today.

And chiropractic? A fiction. A fraud. Like the story of Herodotus aligning spines.

Adherents of chiropractic are typical quacks who want to see themselves as David to the Goliath of medical science. They will happily grasp onto whatever traditional evidence they think might lend a shred of credibility. Yet they fail continually because of their own lack of respect for science and accuracy.


The pretense of a classical education

Quoth Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in Die Hard,

‘When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.’ Benefits of a classical education.

Hans clearly presents this as a quotation, presumably from a classical source, but there seems to be no real antiquity to it. At least not in that form. It may be a distortion of a passage in Plutarch, as the page linked suggests, a suspicion I had come to just before reading that page. Plutarch had actually said that Alexander wept upon hearing that there were infinite worlds, realizing that he had not yet conquered even one of them.

The mistake is easy enough to understand. A) Everybody knows that Alexander conquered the world, B) we hear that Alexander wept … hm … something about other worlds … ah-ha! C) Alexander wept when he realized there were no other worlds to conquer!

Variations on the theme crop up throughout 19th century works in much the same form as today, namely as vague references to something we all just know to be true. One book review I found from 1842 uses a slight variant and justifies itself by saying, ‘the books tell us,’ suggesting that it was already a commonplace:

Alexander wept for other worlds to conquer, the books tell us, because, forsooth, he had marched with an army in one direction through countries whose utmost extent was about two-thirds that of the United States.

This is clearly drawn from the passage in Plutarch referred to above, though through some intermediate source that has blurred the original and offered the wrong context. (Incidentally, the review in which this crops up is for a work of alternate history by Louis Geoffroy, apparently one of the first of its kind.)

Even before this and for long after it was a commonplace in English grammar and composition books. Searches like those I performed with Google Print show wild variations more than a century and a half ago, indicating that this non-classical quotation was, even then, used by those professing a classical education, doubtless unchecked by others eager to maintain the same pretense.

It’s clear in their contexts that earlier writers such as Calvin and Molière understood the original, but the repetition of an obscure quotation seems, in this case, like a particularly romantic game of telephone.

In fact, I wonder now if a misreading of Calvin wasn’t the original culprit. Calvin used the reference in his interpretation of Psalm 146 (’3. Trust not in princes; in the son of man in whom there is not safety. 4. His breath shall go forth; he shall return to his earth, in that day his thoughts [285] shall perish.’):

When he says that in that day all his thoughts perish, or flow away, perhaps under this expression he censures the madness of princes in setting no bounds to their hopes and desires, and scaling the very heavens in their ambition, like the insane Alexander of Macedon, who, upon hearing that there were other worlds, wept that he had not yet conquered one, although soon after the funeral urn sufficed him.

That Calvin juxtaposed this event closely with Alexander’s death (which I’m not sure Plutarch hints at) made it easier to confuse conquering no world with conquering this world, a feat acknowledged by all for Alexander, who died young.