Monday 26 September 2022

Socrates Has the Best Answer

     Jewish Heaven- please do not  adjust your set

I'm just putting the final touches on my third post in the much-vaunted series, 'On War'. To break up the bellicose monotony I felt moved to intersperse a post concerning the oft-misunderstood topic of ancient Judaic and early Christian concepts relating to what happens after we die.

Humankind is obsessed with death and the question of what happens after we die. Tis the final great mystery. To be fair, there is no intellectually satisfying answer to this question. If we are, to be honest, we must throw our hands up in the air and state: we don't know. This has not stopped speculation on the matter. Religions, numerous, and the Christian religion, in particular, have an unequivocal answer- yes there is an afterlife, although when pressed, religious leaders are unable to provide specifics, except the Jehovah's Witnesses- they are very specific; they are always specific. Tis to be noted that many Christian sects denounce the JWs and do not consider the adherents as Christians. And likewise, the JWs are more than happy to return the compliment. For simplicity, and for the sake of consistency, I'm happy to exclude Jehovah's Witnesses from the Christian fold and covenant.

Returning to the beliefs of 'Real Christians'. What is the Christian concept of heaven; where is heaven to be placed and what do we actually do there as we ride out an eternity? If we are to accept that Christianity is founded upon Judaism, then we would do well to examine what Judaism teaches about the afterlife, in the centuries before Jesus' birth, and subsequent to his demise (arbitrary divisions). Also, what do modern Jewish scholars think happens after we draw our final breath?

For Jesus' historical antecedents, the above question is easy to answer: there was no expectation of an afterlife. The Torah (first five books of the old testament), if you dare to read, have nought to say upon this matter. All that can be inferred is that your corporeal existence is your Lot. No heaven or 'Great Mystery' was to be asked or answered. Perhaps it was why the ancient Jews (and modern Jews) placed, and place, such a great emphasis on doing good and doing no harm during, this life. This is the core essence of Judaism to this day, the so-called: Golden Rule. It could be argued that any further admonishments/ embellishments are just/Just commentary- go read. This universal view began to change, in some Jewish circles, at least, during the 6th BC century. Thoughtful Jews began to ask: ''how come the righteous in this life suffer, while the rich and the wicked prosper? Surely this is blatantly unfair?'' This line of thought may have become popular at about the time Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians and many Jewish families were marched off into exile. 

While it is true that there is virtually no mention of an afterlife in the written Torah, the oral Torah speaks volumes. I will not go into why the oral Torah became into being, how it was promulgated and why it was thought necessary after 70 AD to put forth into writing.  In essence, the written oral tradition (surely an oxymoron) is but a commentary on the Torah developed by Jewish scholars over many centuries. Anyway, although it is difficult to extract a coherent and consistent 'after-life tradition', certain elements are worthy of comment. When God made Adam, he did so by breathing 'divine breath' into inanimate mud to create life. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for spirit and breath are the same (ruah). And expanding on this theme, we can see how the ancient Jews could conceive of death as a time when the last breath (spirit) leaves the body. Aspects of Judaism began to, as I understand it, perceive a reawakening of life when the physical body and the spirit (breath) come back together. This will occur en masse on a future judgement day (End of Times). Living corpses, deemed righteous and worthy will reside with God, forever. The naughty folk will be destroyed. To be honest, this view is not universal. By Jesus' time the Pharisees believed something like this, although the conservative Sadducees appear to have abided by the teachings of their ancestors, in that, there was no existence after death. Both the body and the soul would cease to exist. From the gospels, it is reasonable to infer that Jesus' pontifications on the afterlife were in tune with what the Pharisees expected. In this regard, consider the parable of the 'Sheep & Goats' (Mathew's Gospel). This is the view of most modern, critical bible scholars on how Jesus viewed the afterlife. That said, not all serious scholars agree. Jesus' teachings are not always internally consistent throughout the Gospels. This likely has more to do with how the unknown gospellers interpreted Jesus' teachings, within their own doctrinal context and prejudices, rather than due to the original teachings of the Nazarene.  

Modern lay Jews, if they have an opinion on the matter, are likely to stick to the Pharisee's interpretation. This also seems to be the majority viewpoint amongst Rabbis. Judaism has always been a religion of 'this life', as already mentioned. Modern Judaism reflects this ancient tradition. Furthermore, Jews are becoming increasingly secular in their thought. There are, however, ultra-conservative sects that remain strict in their observance of the Law and the tenets of Judaism. From my observations, a significant proportion of Jews are 'unbelievers' however, they continue to practise Jewish rituals, to a lesser or greater extent, as a consequence of strong cultural associations and identity. In addition, there is a minority perspective that speculates that even the 'ungodly' will eventually be saved after a relatively brief period in some form of purgatory. This is akin to Catholic doctrine. Though, as I understand it, purgatory, in the Catholic tradition, is a place where 'the good/godly' go to be purged (tis in the name, after all ) of their sins before being allowed into heaven- this is not an option for the naughty- straight to the hot place, for eternity, for them.  The Jewish doctrine of purgatory seems a tad more humane than the Catholic version. And let's be honest, with our knowledge of human nature, to the fore, a more sensible and ultimately practical, proposition. 

And finally, I'll consider the early Christian stance and thoughts on the 'thereafter'. I think it is fair to state, that the earliest Christians (they were born Jews, after all), adopted the mainstream Jewish doctrine, of the time, with regard to the possibility of an existence after death. Christianity's future (and virtue) lay, not with the Jews, but with the Greek-speaking gentiles of the Roman Empire. Gentile converts immersed in Greek concepts of life and death undoubtedly had different ideas from their Jewish contemporaries. And these ideas and concepts were well established amongst the ancient Greeks and differed significantly from Jewish notions. It is fair to state, that the Greeks considered their own teachings, culture and philosophy vastly superior to those of different cultures, including the Jews. Therefore, Greek-speaking converts added their own Greek philosophic concepts to Christianity, and this included their own pagan Greek ideas of  'life after death'. And it is these concepts that would form the basis of Catholic philosophy, eventually- Jewish doctrines were to be discarded, willy-nilly. 

Tis enough for one post. I will go into more depth on the topic of 'Early Christian Thought on the Afterlife' in a second post. Also, I would like to look at how the concepts of Christian Heaven and Hell developed over the centuries culminating in the dominant views of the various, major Christian denominations. This may develop into another enthralling series.      

Saturday 24 September 2022

Promenading About Town


Needs a Nostrum, Methinks

Yesterday, I decided to wander around my local town to engage in a modicum of focused shopping. Mrs F did not accompany me on this occasion. Sadly, she has had a series of surgeries on her right foot and is thus convalescing at home with a strict injunction, from the banebrake, not to place weight upon her macerated appendage. Consequently, shopping in the town is forbidden. And so, I'm allowed to shop unfettered. Although I would not wish enforced immobility on my good wife, the opportunity to engage in light, untethered shopping is a boon that needs to be clasped/grasped between two plastic shopping bags (if you can find 'em), with alacrity.

 When it comes to shopping, Mrs F is not of this world. To be honest, I regard shopping as a necessary chore, and as such, should be undertaken as efficiently and quickly as possible. Mrs F belongs to a different school of philosophy where shopping is a studied and divine form of recreation. She is quite happy to spend all day shopping and to return to the garth with nowt but corns. In practice, this means I avoid accompanying Mrs F on any of her 'shopping extravaganzas', with due gusto. I am not alone in my assessment of my wife's shopping prowess. In fact, our son and daughter are also none too keen to engage in said activity with the woman that gave them life. Moving forward.......

Anyway, I was between shops when I espied a gaggle of folk on the corner of Ferret Street and Ferret Boulevard. As I'm of a curious disposition I was drawn unto the congregation and peregrinated thereoff/ forthwith. To my surprise, and on further inspection, the commotion concentrated upon a proselyting duo of Jehovah's Witnesses (henceforth known as, JW x 2). Why do they always come in twos- if not pairs?  If I had been accompanied by Mrs F, I would be obliged to look the other way and continue without gainful and fruitful engagement. I would get the: 'don't you fucking dare/stare'. As I was without restraint/constraint either physical or ethereal, I decided to ask the sweet smiling, middle-aged lady for spiritual enlightenment. After a few probing enquiries, it became quite apparent that I was not dealing with the intellectual elite of the organisation. My opinion became fully cemented once she asked from where I once hailed. I replied that I was birthed in the township of  Dudley in the faraway kingdom of England.  Immediately upon my exclamation, she followed up with: "Then you must have heard of Kenny Smith, he's from England". After a brief pause/hiatus, I replied, accordingly: "Could this be the Kenny Smith of 24 Mons Road, Kate's Hill, Dudley. She responded: "No, he was from Wigan". Twas at this time I decided to terminate the conversation, go home, and drink copious amounts of fine ale. This was of course rather unusual as the majority of JW x 2 I have conversed with in the past have buggered off, of their own volition, admittedly after I had been confronted upon my own doorstep. For reasons, that will always remain inexplicable to me, JW x 2 are none too keen to prolong our dialogue.  But on this occasion, I made an excuse, stating that the 'Mega Supa Big Woppa Do Da Store' was having a sale on expired and fire damaged  Arthur Askey Memorabelia- I thank you. I wonder if Kenny Smith reads my blog?    

Sunday 11 September 2022

On War II

  A work of art or war?

This post is a continuation of the previous post, titled, 'On War'. Rather unimaginatively I have entitled the second post in this unbidden and often forbidden series: 'On War II'. In my ignominious first foray, I made a series of unsupported and sweeping statements concerning how our stone age ancestors engaged in armed struggle with fellow man. I also mentioned that the Western concept of war, as initially practised by the Ancient Greeks, was somehow different from how most cultures conducted warfare. I also noted that the Greek mode of organised fighting went against human nature's innate preservation instincts. I would now like to advance a few observations and ideas on why this form of armed struggle became predominant amongst the Ancient Greeks.

Ancient Greek warfare developed its characteristic form during the 7th century BC. Individual warriors were called 'hoplites' after the large round shield carried into battle (the hoplon). In addition, the hoplite wore a cuirass of bronze and or layers of linen glued together; bronze greaves to protect the lower leg and the highly characteristic bronze helm. The Greeks were armed with a long spear, of 8 feet in length, and a short, 'stabbing and cutting' sword. The hoplite stood shoulder to shoulder with his comrades and thrust his spear overhand or underhand depending on his position within the ranks. Due to the great length of his spear, those men in the second and third ranks could extend their spears past their comrades in the front rank. This disposition made the replacement of those killed in line relatively easy and without loss of cohesion.  

The Greek phalanx existed as a dynamic interlocking whole. Each man faced the enemy warrior to his front and would try to aim his spear at any exposed areas of flesh whilst his opponent did the same. Each warrior relied on his companions left and right to perform the same dance of death. Engagements were short-lived and it has been estimated that the battle proper did not last longer than 30 minutes. Fighting in heavy armour, in the sun, and under conditions of constant controlled terror could not be maintained for long. When a battle line eventually broke, the army would lose cohesion and it is only then that the actual killing would occur. However, it was a rare occasion, when Greek was contesting with Greek, that wholesale destruction of the beaten army would follow. Modern estimates suggest that the casualty rate never exceeded 15%.  The victorious hoplites rarely pressed the defeated for long and were usually content with their triumph and possession of the battlefield.   

A hoplite army was mainly/manly composed of heavy infantrymen, as described. Cavalry was never a significant component of the army. Greece never had the grazing capacity to support a large horsed contingent. Light infantrymen also played a role prior to the clash of their heavier armoured brethren and would trade missiles (javelins and sling stones/lead pellets) with light infantrymen of the opposing army. This group consisted primarily of young men without the means to support the expensive arms and armour required of the classical hoplite. Once a formation broke and fled, lightly armoured men would chase down the encumbered enemy hoplite. In these circumstances, the defeated hoplite would often discard their heavy shield and spear. For a hoplite to draw a sword was considered a mark of desperation.    

Hoplite battles had a regularity, constancy and ferocity about them that may seem strange, at first consideration, but are readily explainable given the circumstances under which the Ancient Greeks laboured. The Ancient Greeks were a disputatious folk and agreeably fond of fighting amongst themselves, often to their overall detriment. Their civilisation centred upon the city-state and each city-state was fiercely independent. And to maintain their independence, a military force, for defence and aggression, was required. The military force was maintained through a 'militia system', the only notable exception, of course, was Sparta. Therefore, freeborn men (generally, although not exclusively, georgic tillers of the sod) who were able to purchase their military equipment and trappings were expected to muster, when called, to undertake their military duty. In contrast to modern professional armies, the Greek armies were distinctly middle class. To be called to arms was an honour and an obligation unto your polity. The Greeks would come together as an affiliated 'nation' only in times of a serious external threat, for instance as occurred during the Persian wars of the 5th century BC. A coming together of several cities, often termed 'leagues', to form a military alliance was a pragmatic expedient to prevent domination of the isthmus by a single state. Not all leagues were primarily military in nature but could reflect commercial, religious or ethnic considerations  The various leagues formulated over the centuries are worthy of a post unto itself- if I can be arsed (Arse).

As for the peculiarity of the Ancient Greek mode of war, modern historians have proposed a number of ingenious ideas worthy of note. Greece is a mountain-dominated country and suitable arable land is limited and a highly desired resource. One goal of a warlike expedition into enemy territory would oft be directed at destroying the enemy's crops.  If the invading army could achieve this aim, this, of course, could lead to serious famine in the succeeding year. Crops to be destroyed would be put to the fire- for some reason I find this concept strangely alluring. Moving on. It seems that grain crops, (in Greece at least) prior to harvest, are only dry enough and therefore combustible for a few weeks in May. After harvest, the ears of corn would be stored, and concentrated, in easily defended barns and silos. Consequently, if an enemy could be kept at bay, from ravishing the fields, for just a brief period, the worst effects of their despoilation would be averted. Also to be taken into account is that, the aggressors' fields would be vulnerable to destruction whilst their war band was off a rollicking as there would be insufficient armed men left behind and available for their own defence. All this taken into consideration, would place a premium on a rapid and decisive outcome. For the Ancient Greeks, the nature of the land, the people and the intractable cultural environment telescoped war into a nightmarish but brief affair. The fact that the temporal dimension of war was short favoured a brutal decisive clash. A desultory, low-key extended strategy would not do and therefore we see an evolution of warfare unrivalled in sheer ferocity. The frightfulness was self-limiting. Once the din and clash of arms subsided both protagonists seemed content, and no further military action would occur for that year. After the battle, a truce would be called and the all-important ritual of tending to the fallen could be undertaken without fear of interference. The victor would errect a cairn of triumph and war would be over for this season. How civilised.

The Romans were the natural heirs of 'Greek War'. They were willing students and thus embraced and nurtured the Greek concept of 'innate horror' of the set piece battle with relentless gusto. But they did not practise the Greek concept of limited war or military restraint. For the Romans, the nastiness continued unabated and Western warfare lurched into/unto a new adventurous landscape of supreme terror, where the enemy could expect no respite, temporal or otherwise.  As a continuation in this seminal and singular series, I will now turn to contemplate the phenomenon that was Ancient Rome, at war. This post will be the penultimate in my trilogy, in four parts, 'On War'.  May the Gods that look over such madness forgive me.