The Human Condition, Ch. 5 “Action”, Analysis

If you’ve never heard of Hannah Arendt, well, I wouldn’t be all that surprised.  I’d never heard of her and her writing is very, very dense.  Quite a few weeks ago I was given a writing assignment, to write an analysis of a piece of writing.  We had a set of options, and I thought I wanted a challenge.  I guess I was feeling brave that day, or maybe I just really wanted to try to figure out what it is that Hannah Arendt was trying to say in Chapter 5 of The Human Condition.  Her ideas, once you can figure them out, or at least make an interpretation of them, are pretty fascinating.  I just don’t care for the density of the language.  I’ve always been more inclined to use clear, direct language.  Even then, I swear people misunderstand what I’m trying to say half the time.  But, everyone interprets things differently.

Anyway, by the time I got through my paper, I realized that what I’d done wasn’t an analysis; it was more of an exploratory writing where I wrote out my understanding of what she said, rather than discussing how she said it.  There’s a fine difference, and I suppose I wouldn’t have realized it without all the great instruction I’m getting in the class I’m taking.  I was a little anxious to see what my grade would be, and sure enough, it wasn’t an A like I was used to.  Also, it had the comment I expected, that it was too much summary.  I also got a comment about being a little “long-winded” in some areas.  Between the composition grade and the content grade I wound up with a B.  Lowest grade so far, but hey, I decided to try to challenge myself, and it was definitely a learning experience.

Anyhow, if you’re trying to get an idea about what Hannah Arendt is talking about in Chapter 5 of The Human Condition, I hope this helps!

Prisoners of Others’ Perceptions

In “Action”, the fifth chapter of the book, The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt analyzes the relationship between action and what it means to be human. She leads the reader through a progression of logic that leaves one with the conclusion that man is ultimately subject to the interpretations of others. What a person attempts to do in life passes through the filter of other people’s personal interpretations, producing reactions that may vary widely from what was intended. Essentially, man is a prisoner to the realities imposed on him by others.

Hannah Arendt bases her argument on the conflict between the indefinable ‘who’ and the sea of other ‘who’s that exist in human society. Who are you talking to? Hannah Arendt begins to answer this question by telling us how speech and action relate to the revelation of man’s unique character to others. She tells us that humanity is a paradox of plurality and that, through speech and action, individuals distinguish themselves and become distinct, revealing the ‘who’ behind the what. She goes as far as to say that to a unique individual, no one existed before he did, because they had not revealed themselves through speech and action. Each person perceives the world differently and an individual’s reality is only as large as what he or she perceives. A person that the individual hasn’t met doesn’t exist in that individual’s mind. When that unknown person intrudes on the individual’s reality through speech and action, they become real in the mind of the person experiencing them. The ‘new’ person begins to define who they are, rather than what they are. The act of revelation transitions the person from being an abstract ‘other’, another body in the sea of unknown bodies in the greater world around the individual, to being a ‘who’, another distinct individual. So, the author tells us that speech and action are a necessary part of the human experience, because they define us in the eyes of others.

But do speech and action really express who a person is, or simply what a person is? Hannah Arendt tells us that “in acting and speaking, men show who they are, revealing their unique personal identities,” but she goes on to say that “the moment we want to say who somebody is, our very vocabulary leads us astray into saying what he is.” Is it possible for a person to communicate who they are without being able to express it? The author tells us it is more likely that the ‘who’ remains hidden to the individual, but is clear to others. However, this ‘who’ that is clear to others is not the same ‘who’ that the individual wishes to express. There is a disconnection between what the person wants to express about themselves and what is perceived, perhaps because of the inability of language to express accurately who man is, rather than what man is. “He’s a kind man.” “She’s a devoted wife.” “This guy is well traveled.” These phrases express what the person is: kind, devoted, a traveler. They do not tell us who the person is. In other words, the essence of a person cannot be captured in language. The moment the individual opens his or her mouth to express themselves, they literally lose something in translation. The author indicates that the true self is something that is beyond expression, something that transcends speech, perhaps in the same way that the soul transcends definition. Hannah Arendt affirms this idea by saying that it is impossible to solidify in words “the living essence of the person as it shows itself in the flux of action and speech.” If the ‘who’ of a person cannot be quantified through language, then it is not possible to transmit the essence of that person beyond the self. If language cannot express who a person really is, then perhaps a person never really knows who they are, having no way to articulate it. Failing to articulate who they are, the people in close contact with that individual may glimpse a deeper truth about who the person is through experience of action combined with speech, but they could never verbally relay that information to another party. The essence of the person would be lost in the language, devolving into descriptions of ‘what’, instead of ‘who’.

She elaborates on this concept by discussing how the individual functions in relation to the people he interacts with, and how those people interpret the individual. She compares a person’s social relations to a web, where each movement (speech and action) a person makes causes the web to shake. In Hannah Arendt’s own words, “The disclosure of the “who” through speech, and the setting of a new beginning through action, always fall into an already existing web where their immediate consequences can be felt.” What are those consequences? Each person in the web of social relations is impacted by the movement, but it is felt differently depending on where in the web the person experiencing the movement is sitting. In the same way, a person’s speech and actions are interpreted differently by each person that experiences them, since each person is in turn a distinct individual that forms ideas and opinions based on personal experience. So, a person can make him or herself known to others through speech and action, but the exact interpretation of the ‘who’ is limited by the perceptions of those he interacts with. This is in addition to the already defined problem of using language to express ones self.

Hannah Arendt sums up this complex idea by telling us that “nobody is the author or producer of his own life story. … The results of action and speech … reveal an agent … but this agent is not an author or producer.” Though a man may act and speak with the best of intentions, his identity is subject to the interpretations of others. Those who know him personally may have a greater understanding of the ‘who’ behind the ‘what’, but they still interpret him through their own understanding. The truth that the individual projects is not the truth that is received by those he interacts with, and the legacy he leaves behind is one that will constantly be interpreted by others. The beauty of this argument is that while it makes man a prisoner in his own mind, revealing that man is so flawed that he cannot even express his true self to others, it also attests to man’s transcendence. Man is something so noble it is beyond his ability to even describe himself.

Citing ancient and respected thinkers like Plato and St. Augustine, as well as more recent medical research, Hannah Arendt has presented an argument that challenges a basic idea of freedom: that a person can choose to be the person he or she wants to be. She tells us that our freedom is limited, because we aren’t the ones that interpret what our speech and actions mean. Though we may be free to think and act, we are not at liberty to enforce how we are viewed by those around us.

The Mortality of Man, As Expressed in the Odyssey and The Epic of Gilgamesh

Underworld

(Orpheus in the Greek underworld.  On the left, Hades and Persephone are seated on their thrones.  Orpheus is attempting to win his wife’s freedom from the underworld through his beautiful music.)

The final paper that I wrote for ‘World Civilizations: Pre-History to 1500’ dealt with the concept of man’s mortality in the Odyssey and The Epic of Gilgamesh, two examples of epic literature from ancient history.  The Odyssey as we know it today was written down in roughly 700 BC and The Epic of Gilgamesh was composed sometime around 3000 BC.  Today, people look to medical science and wonder if or when immortality will be achieved.  A few hundred years ago, people were questing after the Fountain of Youth (which has a parallel in The Epic of Gilgamesh).  Before that, people looked to magic or grants of eternal life from the gods.  It’s amazing how some aspects of what it means to be human don’t change.  If you’re not a student doing research, this might be dry reading!  Footnotes are at the bottom, along with a bibliography.  The paper was graded and received an A.

 

The Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates back to approximately 3000 BC, is a story that originated in the Mesopotamian area. It has survived to the present in the form of stone tablets and fragments of stone tablets which are being excavated from the ruins of abandoned cities in the modern Middle East.[1] These tablets have been translated by linguists from their various languages and compiled into a readable story by N. K. Sandars. The Odyssey, a Greek tale, was composed and written down in roughly 700 BC[2], but the stories it contains are believed to date from the beginning of the 12th century BC[3]. Prior to being written down, these stories were transmitted from generation to generation orally by professional bards. There is some speculation as to who composed the version used today, but authorship is generally attributed to Homer. Despite the large amount of time that passed between the writing of The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, the stories share many similarities, including an underlying theme of the mortality of man and what it means to die.

Both stories clearly define man’s distinction from the gods, in that men are mortal while the gods are not. In the second chapter of N. K. Sandar’s translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh, titled “The Forest Journey”, Enkidu and Gilgamesh are sitting together and discussing a dream that Gilgamesh has. Enkidu interprets his dream, telling Gilgamesh that “The father of the gods has given you kingship, such is your destiny, everlasting life is not your destiny.”[4] Gilgamesh later agrees by saying, “Where is the man who can clamber to heaven? Only the gods live for ever with glorious Shamash, but as for us men, our days are numbered, our occupations are a breath of wind.”[5] Gilgamesh recognizes the fact that man has a limited life span on earth and that only the gods have power over immortality. This sentiment is echoed by Penelope in the Odyssey when she tells Odysseus that “Men’s lives are short.”[6] Man’s mortality is also expressed in Odysseus’ encounter with Calypso. When Hermes informs Calypso that she is required by Zeus to send Odysseus on his way, she tells Odysseus that he “need grieve no more; [he] need not feel [his] life consumed”[7] there on her island. This demonstrates that man’s time is finite and that it will eventually be consumed and extinguished. She entreats him to stay with her forever and offers him immortality, reminding him that there is a clear difference between them and that without her intervention he will eventually die. She also asks him if his mortal wife, Penelope, can compare to her, an immortal goddess. In his reply, Odysseus affirms that death and old age are unknown to the gods, while at some point Penelope will grow old and die, as all mortals do.[8] In both The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, every man knows that he must eventually die, but there are loopholes. With the assistance of the gods, life can be extended. If Odysseus stays with Calypso, he can be immortal in the sense that he lives forever, but if he leaves, he will age again. This is not true immortality. It is an extension of life. The gods cannot change the fate of man. They can merely delay it. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim is said to be immortal, but his residence seems to be restricted to the island he lives on, presumably because that is where the plant that restores youth grows. One can infer that he is not truly immortal, but gains a modicum of immortality by remaining young through eating the plant, which may be a gift to him from the gods. True immortality is the realm of the gods, and while man may aspire to live forever, he cannot escape his mortality.

The only ‘immortality’ left to men is created and maintained in the memories of others through performing glorious and heroic deeds that will be spoken of, hopefully, for all time. It is with this in mind that Gilgamesh encourages Enkidu to accompany him to the Cedar Forest to do battle with Humbaba. Prior to leaving, Gilgamesh prays to Shamash for permission to enter the Cedar Forest, and in the course of explaining his desire, he again reiterates the idea that man cannot live forever and that he has to establish his name in another way. He tells Shamash, “I have looked over the wall and I see the bodies floating on the river, and that will be my lot also. Indeed I know it is so, for whoever is tallest among men cannot reach the heavens, and the greatest cannot encompass the earth.” He goes on to say that he will “set up [his] name where the names of famous men are written; and where no man’s name is written [he] will raise a monument to the gods.” He wants his name “stamped on brick.”[9] He wants glory and he wants to be remembered. He even welcomes the idea of falling in battle to Humbaba, believing that having his name linked to a great battle will ensure immortality in the memories of men. He tells Enkidu during their journey together to the forest that if they fall, they will “leave an enduring name.”[10] Of course, Gilgamesh does not wish for death, perhaps because that would prevent him from finding further glory, but if he dies, then he wants to die in a way that will ensure his name his remembered. The sister story to the Odyssey, the Illiad, says much about finding glory (‘kleos’) and a glorious death, but the Odyssey has no real parallel with this theme, since it is primarily a ‘nostos’ story, a story of homecoming. The only instance in the Odyssey where Odysseus could be said to be seeking glory is during his encounter with the Cyclops, Polyphemus. During this adventure, Odysseus and his men narrowly avoid being wholly slaughtered by the Cyclops, and while escaping on their ship, Odysseus says, “Kyklops, / if ever mortal man inquire / how you were put to shame and blinded, tell him / Odysseus, raider of cities, took your eye: / Laertes’ son, whose home’s on Ithaka!”[11] Because of the nature of the Odyssey as a ‘nostos’ story, a tale of homecoming and the tragedies of war, this act of glory-seeking is set up as the cause of all of Odysseus’ later problems. Humility, or at least the good sense to make a quick escape, would have had him pulling off quietly from the land of the Cyclops, but instead he taunts him, gives his name away, and thus reveals himself to Polyphemus’ father, Poseidon. Poseidon, enraged at Odysseus, takes actions that prevent him from reaching home, dragging out his return to Ithaka into a 10 year long ordeal that he barely survives. The Epic of Gilgamesh places a lot of emphasis on the necessity of seeking glory for one’s name. The Odyssey takes the opposite approach. In the Odyssey, Odysseus’ act of glory-seeking is the cause of the deaths of his whole crew and it is what prevents him from going home to his wife and son directly after the war. The suitors in his house, the suffering and mental anguish of his wife and son, his own suffering, all are a result of seeking glory. So, the Odyssey leaves the reader with the impression that glory alone isn’t enough, which is a theme that The Epic of Gilgamesh transitions to in the later stories.

Gilgamesh’s attitude towards death changes drastically after the encounter with the Bull of Heaven. Ishtar is offended by Gilgamesh and Enkidu and convinces the other gods that one of them must die. This fate falls on Enkidu and rather than dying gloriously in battle, he dies from sickness. Even worse, it is a prolonged sickness that leaves Gilgamesh traumatized. He realizes that “misery comes at last to the healthy man, the end of life is sorrow.”[12] Enkidu’s vision of the underworld, where even great men like kings and princes are reduced to bird-men that eat dust and clay, terrifies Gilgamesh. After Enkidu dies, he cries out, “Despair is in my heart. What my brother is now, that shall I be when I am dead.”[13] Gilgamesh sees that despite the great adventures they had together, Enkidu’s death is still final and a memory of past glories is not enough. Enkidu is still condemned to sit forever in the house of the dead. Gilgamesh suffers because his brother has been taken from him, but also because he does not want to share the same fate. He wants to live. He realizes that a glorious death is still death, but rather than accept it, he sets out to find immortality. This attitude towards death has a direct parallel in the Odyssey, expressed through Odysseus’ accumulating grief at seeing the ravaged state of the shades in Hades.[14] It reminds him of how final death is. In the shade of Elpenor, he sees that death comes to every man, great and small. In the shade of Agamemnon, he sees that death claims the great. In the shade of his mother, he feels his own impending death personally, as well as a more profound sense of loss at the memories and time with family he missed out on by leaving home in search of glory.[15] Even the shades of great heroes like Achilles and Heracles wind up in the realm of the dead, suffering the same fate as all men. They are separated from life and the people they love, as Gilgamesh finds himself separated from Enkidu. Achilles sums it up best, when he tells Odysseus that glory counts for nothing after death, that it is “better… to break sod as a farm hand / for some poor country man, on iron rations, / than lord it over all the exhausted dead.”[16] This is a lesson for Odysseus that he should enjoy every part of life while he can, before he dies, because after death glory means nothing, especially to the dead. Unlike Gilgamesh, he accepts it. After many trials and travels, Gilgamesh encounters his own shade of Achilles, in the form of a woman that lives in the garden of the gods named Siduri. She gives Gilgamesh advice that echoes Achilles’ statement. When she inquires as to why he has traveled so far, he tells her that he is searching for a way to live forever. She replies:

“Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice.”

Siduri tries to get Gilgamesh to see that his quest is futile and encourages him to enjoy the life he has left in him. Man cannot avoid death and there is no amount of glory that can change the fact that after death, a man will sit in the house of the dead, alongside kings and commoners. The important thing to do is to enjoy the world of the living while one still has life, which is a lesson that Odysseus learned by speaking to the shades of fallen friends and family. Life is more important than glory.

Prior to speaking to the shades in Hades, Odysseus was still living for adventure. The experience, especially of seeing his mother, whom he tried and failed to hug, twice, reminded him of how short life is, and what it really means to die. The Epic of Gilgamesh’s parallel for the Odyssey’s shades can be found in Gilgamesh’s encounter with Utnapishtim. Gilgamesh attempts to convince Utnapishtim to give him the secret to living forever by passing a test, which is itself a reminder of how ridiculous it is for a man to want to live forever. Unable to pass this test, Utnapishtim sends Gilgamesh home, but makes sure to reinforce his point through two more examples. Utnapishtim gives Gilgamesh a set of clothes to wear on his return journey that will not wear out or show signs of aging. This is a reminder to Gilgamesh that even simple objects will outlive a man. One last spur to drive the point home is the plant that Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh about. It is a plant that will restore a man’s youth to him. Gilgamesh is successful in obtaining the plant, but before he returns with it to Uruk, or is able to use it himself, it is snatched away from him by a snake, reminding him that life is fleeting and cannot be held on to by man. Immortality is for the gods alone.

Despite being written by people from two different cultures, over one thousand years apart, the continuity of ideas regarding the afterlife presented in both works remains remarkably similar. In both The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, the heroes admit outright that they know that immortality is reserved to the gods. In both stories, there are examples of opportunities to extend one’s life, perhaps to a semblance of immortality, but this is an exception, rather than a rule, and is not true immortality. Man has a fate and that fate is to eventually die. Only the gods live forever. In both stories, there is an obvious fear of being forgotten, and to avoid being forgotten, men go out seeking glory, to ensure that their names are remembered. Both stories, though, remind man that the best part of living is being alive and that glory counts for nothing after death. Even glorious heroes wind up in Hades or the house of the dead yearning for the living while the living yearn for the dead. What both of these stories try to impart to readers is that glory isn’t as good as it’s made out to be. Life is amazing and should be cherished by filling our bellies with good things, by dancing, being merry, feasting and rejoicing, because being alive and spending time with loved ones is worth more than lording it over all of the exhausted dead.


[1] Introduction by N. K. Sandars, Penguin Classics edition of The Epic of Gilgamesh.

[2] Page 3, “Date of Composition” section of Stanley P. Baldwin’s CliffsNotes on The Odyssey.

[3] Researchers have used astronomical events depicted in the Odyssey to determine that Odysseus slaughtered the suitors in his home on April 16th, 1178 BC.

[4] Page 70, The Epic of Gilgamesh, N. K. Sandars.

[5] Page 71, The Epic of Gilgamesh, N. K. Sandars.

[6] Book XIX, Line 386, Fitzgerald translation of the Odyssey.

[7] Book V, Lines 169 – 170, Fitzgerald translation of the Odyssey.

[8] Book V, Lines 212 – 228, Fitzgerald translation of the Odyssey.

[9] The previous three quotes are from page 72, The Epic of Gilgamesh, N. K. Sandars.

[10] Page 77, The Epic of Gilgamesh, N. K. Sandars.

[11] Book IX, Lines 548- 552, Fitzgerald translation of the Odyssey.

[12] Page 93, The Epic of Gilgamesh, N. K. Sandars.

[13] Page 97, The Epic of Gilgamesh, N. K. Sandars.

[14] In “Singers, heroes, and gods in the Odyssey”, Segal reaches this conclusion through the formulaic repetition of the line “When I saw him I wept and pitied him in my heart”, said by Odysseus, upon seeing the shades of Elpenor, his mother and Agamemnon. Page 41.

[15] Segal, Page 42.

[16] Book XI, Lines 579 – 581, Fitzgerald translation of the Odyssey.

 

Bibliography

Baldwin, Stanley P. CliffsNotes on Homer’s The Odyssey. John Wiley and Sons, 2000.

Fizgerald, Robert. The Odyssey. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 1998.

Maugh II, Thomas H. “Astronomers hit a homer with ‘Odyssey’.” Los Angeles Times. June 24, 2008. http://articles.latimes.com/2008/jun/24/science/sci-odyssey24 (accessed July 29, 2011).

Sandars, N. K. The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.

Segal, Charles. Singers, heroes, and gods in the Odyssey. Cornell University Press, 2001.

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The Power of Religious Texts in History

This is something I wrote for a World Civilizations: Pre-History to 1500 (101) class.  The task was to pick a piece of literature, from religious texts to epic poems to economic records found at archaeological sites, and then describe how that work affected history.  I suppose you could say I took the easy way out and chose to write about the Bible and how it has affected history.  If you’re curious, this paper received an A.  Footnotes will be appended to the bottom of the post, along with the bibliography.

bible1

(Image via godisforreal.wordpress.com)

Literature has always played an important role in recorded history. It is a method of preservation of the moment. It captures the ideas, the problems, the aspirations and dreams of a society and, when read from a historical perspective it can offer an open window into the world of the writer. No form of literature has as much impact on history as religious texts. Perhaps the most influential religious work of all time, the Bible[1] has impacted the lives of countless people throughout history. In this paper, the impact of the Bible will be briefly explored to demonstrate the importance it has played in shaping, stabilizing, and sometimes disrupting society.

When Christianity first appeared in the Middle East it was a revolutionary movement with no specific set of religious texts. Various gospels and epistles were being circulated, but there was no accepted canon of scripture until perhaps the late 4th century AD.[2] The result of this is that there was a wide array of Christian sects, all with varying beliefs. There was no structure to the religion, which could cause confusion about what was and wasn’t ‘true’. Through the work of early church figures, like Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, that changed. Bishop Athanasius worked to consolidate which scriptures would be regarded as canonical and which were, according to him, heretical.[3] Coming at about the same time that Theodosius I declared Catholic Christianity as the official and only permissible religion of the Roman Empire (380 AD), this acted as a strong unifying force that would have an enduring effect on history, European history most especially. The Catholic Church claimed its authority based on the newly standardized canon gospel of Matthew, citing chapter 16, verse 18, which says, “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” as the source of its legitimacy.[4] The acceptance of the canonicity of the gospel, what we know as the Bible today, is what allowed the Catholic Church to hold power over the people, as well as to stamp out opposition. The Church also used its divine authority to control the rulers of the people throughout Europe up until the French Revolution of 1789-99. With the Bible as its basis, the Papacy of the Catholic Church bestowed divine authority on the monarchies of the developing European nations, allowing for the formation of governments and modern nation states. Most of the countries in Europe today exist due to monarchical legitimization by the Catholic Church, which derived its religious authority from the Bible. These nations have played major roles in the development of the rest of the world and, in most cases, continue to be major world powers today. These nations that are shaping the world today were themselves shaped by Christianity and the Bible.

In addition to shaping nations, Christianity has played a role in creating social stability through Christian morality and Christian value based legal systems. Mircea Eliade wrote that “The manifestation of the sacred ontologically founds the world. In the homogenous and infinite expanse, in which no point of reference is possible and hence no orientation can be established, the hierophany[5] reveals an absolute fixed point, a center.” Or, in other words, religion creates a stable center for people to start from, a check to balance their view of the world and define their existence. The religion revealed through the Bible served this purpose for Christians. The Bible affects the lives of those who read and believe in it by influencing them to conform to a lifestyle that is in accordance to its teachings. John 14:6[6] tells believers that Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” It is impossible to come to Jesus without repentance and living according to the teachings of the Bible. Getting into Heaven is a strong incentive to develop and maintain a Christian, Biblical lifestyle, which regulated everything from birth (baptism) to marriage (holy vows) to death (Christian funeral rites), and most things in between. As mentioned earlier, this belief in the Bible and Biblical living created the monarchies and modern nations which, along with creating common customs, stabilized society, but it also went a step further in creating social stability through later legal systems. The values established by Christianity were converted into the foundations of Western legal systems. Christian values have persisted in our Western legal systems and institutions up until the modern time. John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States (1789-95) once wrote in a letter that “The Bible is the best of all Books, for it is the Word of God, and teaches us the way to be happy in this world and the next. Continue therefore to read it, and to regulate your life by its precepts.”[7] While not expressed outright in the US Constitution or legal system, the values that Americans inherited from Christianity have influenced and continue to influence the workings of government. A good modern example is the current debate on the legality of homosexual marriage, which is undeniably being opposed on wholly religious grounds.

Using the same example, the Bible has been so influential that it has also caused disruptions in societies throughout history, including Christian societies and modern societies. As a sacred text, the meaning of the words it contains is open to constant interpretation based on who reads it. Those interpretations haven’t always had a positive effect. During the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, the Roman Catholic Church used its Biblical authority to declare religious wars on neighboring nations. The effects of the Crusades continue to be felt today by Islamist terrorists using the concept of Crusades as a justification for violent and lethal actions against Western, ‘Christian’ nations. The Bible has also been used as a justification for the violent suppression of minorities throughout history. Well known examples are the Medieval Inquisitions, the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials. The Bible has been used to oppress women through selective quotation and reading out of context, with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 being a prime example:

“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”[8]

The Bible was used to justify slavery in the United States, either arguing its morality through the omission of its condemnation in the Bible or by making a broad claim that God created slavery and so it must be good, as Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America did. He said, “Slavery was established by the decree of Almighty God…. It is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…. It has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in the nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.”[9] Today, the Bible is used as a source of justification for the suppression of the right to equality that homosexuals should enjoy under the secular government in the United States. It is still used by fringe groups to support destructive beliefs. The Bible is just as strong a force for disruption of society as it is for good.

Throughout history, the Bible has been used extensively to justify both positive and negative actions. It has been used to stabilize and homogenize society. It has been used as the basis for customs, holidays, and the building of nations. It has also been used to destroy enemies, suppress minorities and justify violence. Without a doubt, the Bible is an epic piece of religious literature that has had a profound effect on our world, exemplifying the power of the written word to influence history.


[1] The general concept of a canonical written Bible as accepted by branches of Christianity, without considering the differences between accepted canon and apocryphal works in various traditions.

[2] According to the Columbia Apologetics Toolkit, adapted from the materials of Professor Paul Hahn of the University of St. Thomas, Houston, Texas.

[3] According to the National Geographic special, The Gospel of Judas.

[4] King James Version

[5] Mircea Eliade defines “hierophany” as the sum of its etymological content, “something sacred shows itself to us.”

[6] The Book of John, Chapter 14, Verse 6 of the King James Version of the Bible.

[7] John Jay to Peter Jay, April 8, 1784.

[8] King James Version.

[9] From the antebellum slavery debates in America, quoted in a book by Mason Lowance.

Bibliography

National Geographic: The Gospel of Judas. Directed by James Barrat. Performed by Peter Coyote. 2006.

“Development of the Biblical Canon.” Columbia: Apologetics Toolkit. 1995. http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/a/canon.html (accessed July 9, 2011).

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 1959.

Hutson, James H. The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations. Princeton University Press, 2007.

Lowance, Mason I. A house divided: the antebellum slavery debates in America, 1776-1865. Princeton Univeristy Press, 2003.

Thomas Nelson Bibles. The Holy Bible; Containing the Old and New Testaments; Authorized King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2001.

 

The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary: Opening a New Door on History

This is a writing assignment I did for a World Civ 100 class I’m currently taking.  Expect more regular updates soon.

The question:

First you should summarize the article, then give your thoughts about it and tell how it might be useful in our class and to the scholarly world in general. You can certainly include negative andpositive thoughts about the article.

The article:  After 90 Years, A Dictionary of an Ancient World (NYTimes)

My response:

The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary: Opening a New Door on History

After 90 years of effort on the part of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, a project titled the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary has finally been completed. This 21 volume dictionary compiles the definitions and usage explanations of words from the ancient Mesopotamian language, including its Babylonian and Assyrian dialects. This monumental achievement has opened a new door for all scholars interested in researching the Mesopotamian people and their culture.

According to a New York Times article published online (footnote was inserted here), this dictionary covers the language as it was used from roughly 2500 B.C. to 100 A.D. The project was initially started by Dr. James Henry Breasted in 1921, but didn’t make too much progress until after World War II, when the project was reorganized. The first volume of the set was published in 1956, with 20 following volumes being published over a 55 year period under the editorship of A. Leo Oppenheim, Erica Reiner and Dr. Martha Roth, the current dean of humanities at the University of Chicago. The dictionary is comprehensive, covering word usage and nuances, as well as cultural material available that relates to the word being defined.

The best way to understand any culture is by examining primary sources. The best primary source is a set of written records, but those records are meaningless if a scholar cannot completely understand the language. By unlocking the Assyrian language and making it accessible to scholars everywhere, the team at the University of Chicago has opened a door to new and hopefully more insightful studies of the Mesopotamian civilizations. Having a reviewed and reputable resource to draw from, scholars can now make better informed translations of the material they’re working with, whether it is a cuneiform tablet of a contract, or a literary work. The effort the team made in defining the nuances and various usages of the word, rather than giving simple definitions, added immense value to the work as a whole. The meaning of a text can sometimes change drastically based on a misinterpretation of one word. With a new standard to build from, scholars and translators can hopefully render the Assyrian language into English with greater efficiency and accuracy. Additionally, currently existing translations can now be vetted against this dictionary to check for accuracy.

This accomplishment can also greatly benefit classroom study. A common misconception among people today is that people from ancient civilizations were inherently less intelligent than modern people. By presenting examples of the Assyrian language (from entries in the Chicago University’s Assyrian Dictionary) to students today, a professor could demonstrate the complexity and depth not only of their language, but of their society as a whole. When discussing literature from Mesopotamia, the professor could introduce printouts of key terms from the work for classroom study so that students will have a greater understanding of the social constructs present in the work. As Gil Stein, the director of Chicago University’s Oriental Institute said in the New York Times article, this dictionary “is an indispensable research tool for any scholar anywhere who seeks to explore the written record of the Mesopotamian civilization.”

The compilation and publication of the Assyrian Dictionary by the University of Chicago will have a lasting and profound impact on the study of Mesopotamia. It is a vital and robust tool that can be used by professionals and scholars to make more accurate translations of the Assyrian language. For students, the dictionary will be an excellent tool for expanding their knowledge of the Mesopotamian world and ancient civilizations in general. The Assyrian Dictionary is a work of immense value that sheds new light on an ancient civilization and it will be used as a basis for research and study far into the future.

Bibliography

Wilford, John Noble. “After 90 Years, a Dictionary of an Ancient World.” The New York Times: Science. June 6, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/07/science/07dictionary.html (accessed July 7, 2011).

This paper received an A, but I don’t think it was graded too critically.

The Effects of “Strange Fruit”

The following is a main outline for a speech I wrote for my Speech Foundations class.  The information presented is true and includes a works cited section at the end of the blog post.  However, the information was presented in a fictional setting, with myself as a Professor of History at UGA speaking at the Jazz Education Network annual conference, which is a real conference.  Three other people presented speeches on the social impact of Jazz, besides myself.  The first person talked about the birth of Jazz in New Orleans.  The second person talked about the Harlem Renaissance.  I gave my speech, and then the last person spoke about how Jazz has spread to other countries, and about how it’s empowering.  The purpose of the assignment was to determine our ability to give an informative speech, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to do this research and presentation.  It gave me a new appreciation of Jazz music.

At the top of the speech text I’ve embedded the PowerPoint slides I used during my presentation.  Cues for changing the slides are in the text.  I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed learning and speaking about it.

Title:  The Effects of “Strange Fruit”

Speaker:  Professor of US History, University of Georgia

Specific Purpose:  Recognizing the cultural influence of Strange Fruit, a Jazz song, at the third annual Jazz Education Network (JEN) conference.

Thesis Statement:  The Jazz song, Strange Fruit, played an important role in raising public awareness regarding the horrors of lynching and the necessity of ensuring civil rights.

 

I.  Introduction

1)      Attention Getter:  In 2009, a group of Caucasian and Latino firemen sued New Haven, Connecticut, for racial discrimination when a promotion test was thrown out, simply because no African Americans were able to pass (Tedford).  The fight to find equality between the races is far from over, but these days conflicts are usually resolved in court.  That wasn’t always the case.  There was a time when the answer to race conflict usually ended with a public lynching.  (slide 2)

2)      Establishment of Ethos:  As a professor of American history, I have been studying and teaching civil rights issues and how they have affected US History for almost 10 years.  What I’ve discovered is that…

3)      Thematic Statement:  … Jazz music, through Billie Holiday’s rendition of “Strange Fruit”, played a significant role in raising public awareness of civil rights issues.

4)      Preview of Main Points:

a)      Despite efforts and progress made during Reconstruction, racism increased dramatically, to the point it became publically acceptable and a source of pride among Caucasians.

b)      Racial tensions were running so high that Billie Holiday didn’t even want to sing “Strange Fruit” initially, but after agreeing, it became a huge success.

c)       Billie Holiday’s song, “Strange Fruit”, became an important reminder to the public of the horrors of lynching and a reminder to African Americans of what they were fighting against.

(Transition:  (Open image of lynching).  To get an idea of the social climate when “Strange Fruit” was first sung, let’s take a look at this photo of a lynching.)

II. Body

1)      If you look at this photo, you can see how widespread and publically acceptable it was to lynch African Americans during the years following Reconstruction.  If you look closely, (point to man pointing at bodies) you can see that for many people, it was even a source of pride.  This man definitely wants his peers to know he approves of what’s being done.  After the Reconstruction Era, race relations quickly degraded.  Gone With the Wind, first published in 1936 and often considered one of the best books ever written (Loewen 144), even “suggests that slavery was an ideal social structure whose passing is to be lamented” (Loewen 137).  (slide 3)  A passage from that book reads:  “The former field hands found themselves suddenly elevated to the seats of the mighty.  There they conducted themselves as creatures of small intelligence might naturally be expected to do.  Like monkeys or small children turned loose among treasured objects whose value is beyond their comprehension, they ran wild – either from perverse pleasure in destruction or simply because of their ignorance” (Loewen 144).  (slide 4, I added this after writing the speech, at the last minute, and spoke about how lynching was so publically acceptable that it developed into an industry like modern day tourism) With so much positive social reinforcement for keeping blacks in their ‘place’, is it any wonder that whites engaged in lynching or that they were in fact proud of their participation, even posing in lynching photos like this one?

2)      A picture very much like the one above prompted Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx, to write “Strange Fruit”, which was originally a poem (Strange Fruit: The Film).  (Pass out lyrics to class).  Billie Holiday was first approached to sing the song while working at an establishment called Café Society.  When she read the lyrics, she was reluctant to commit to singing it. (slide 5, emphasize the climate of fear in the late 30s)  She later said, “I was scared that people would hate it” (White 49-50).  The café manager, Barney Josephson, insisted that she perform the song and turned it into a dramatic production.  When she sang, all service would stop and the lights would be turned off, with only a spotlight on Billie’s face.  Josephson said, “People had to remember Strange Fruit, get their insides burned with it” (White 50).  People did remember it.

3)      “Strange Fruit” climbed to #16 (Kolodzey) on the US Billboard Chart and, according to a PBS documentary, “made it impossible for white Americans and politicians to continue to ignore the Southern campaign of racist terror” (Strange Fruit: The Film).  According to Caryl Phillips, who wrote a stage play called “Strange Fruit”, based on themes in Billie Holiday’s song, “Those who heard “Strange Fruit” in the late 30s were shocked, for the true barbarity of southern violence was generally only discussed in black newspapers.  To be introduced to such realities by a song was unprecedented…” (Phillips).  What was truly revolutionary about this song was that it broke the traditional role of the café singer, which was to entertain (Phillips).  Instead, Billie Holiday was able to use this song to promote an idea to her audience, to educate them and leave them unable, as PBS said, to ignore the problems of racism.  Because of its high popularity, “Strange Fruit” is credited with a major role in increasing Caucasian social awareness of the fledgling civil rights movement (Kolodzey).  When she performed the song for an African American audience at the Apollo, the end of her song was followed by a moment of heavy silence and then a rustling noise as 2000 African American patrons collectively sighed, perhaps after mentally reliving horrors in their minds that they had themselves witnessed (White 55).  To Billie herself, the song came to symbolize “all the cruelties, all the deaths, from the quick snap of the neck to the slow dying from all kinds of starvation” (White 55).

(Transition:  You’ve heard about the social atmosphere during the 1930s.  You’ve heard about how the song was created and initially introduced to the public.  You’ve heard about the impact it had on American culture.  Now, I’d like to give you an opportunity to hear the song for yourself. )

(Slide 6, Play video. Note: Video doesn’t work in the embedded slideshow, so I’ve inserted it below)

III. Conclusion

1)      (slide 7)  Music is powerful.  Billie Holiday’s use of “Strange Fruit” to excite the public imagination regarding the horrors of lynching and the need for equality prove that.  In an atmosphere of fear, she was brave enough to sing it.  Because of her passion, she turned it into a powerful call to action that affected Caucasian Americans across the country.

2)     So, when you think of Billie Holiday, don’t just remember her for being an entertainer.  Remember her for using Jazz music as a platform for promoting the necessity of one of the greatest accomplishments in our nation’s history, the establishment of civil rights.

Works Cited

Kolodzey, Jody. “Stranger Than Fiction.” 24 March 2003. In These Times. 17 June 2011 .

Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: Touchstone, 2007.

Phillips, Caryl. “Blood at the root.” 18 August 2007. Guardian.co.uk. 17 June 2011 .

“Strange Fruit: The Film.” n.d. PBS: Independent Lens. 17 June 2011 .

Tedford, Deborah. Ruling on Firefighters Tests Tensions In New Haven. 1 July 2009. 15 June 2011 .

White, John. Billie Holiday: Her Life & Times. New York: Universe Books, 1987.