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Book Review: The Swerve, Part 2 [Nov. 19th, 2012|10:50 pm]
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Epistemic State: Taken entirely from one book with an axe to grind with only limited fact-checking. Very interested in hearing why it's totally wrong.


So where were we...ah, right! Violently anti-Catholic screed!

The Swerve purports to be a historical record of the medieval re-discovery of De Rerum Natura, a six-book poem by the Roman writer Lucretius explaining Epicurus' ideas in detail. The book totally fails to title this chapter "Putting The 'Epic' Into 'Epicurus;", which disappointed me, but it quickly regained my interest by turning into a grand drama. Like all good dramas, it features a good guy and a bad guy; in this case the protagonist is Epicurus, and the antagonist the Catholic Church.

A good drama needs to establish the antagonist's villain credentials early on; Star Wars started with Vader threatening Princess Leia, Harry Potter with the story of Voldemort trying to murder an innocent baby. The Swerve proves the Church's villain cred with its lengthy and engaging description of the Council of Constance.

When the Council was convened in 1414, there were three rival claimants to the Papacy, and the most seemingly legitimate contender, John XXIII of Rome, was incredibly corrupt even for a Pope (the phrase "corrupt even for a Pope" made a lot more sense back in the Renaissance). He was suspected to have bought the Papacy using money he earned hiring out thieves to rob carriages, and for a time was suspected of piracy. Yes, that's right. The Middle Ages boasted a Pope who was also a pirate.

PICTURED: Pope John XXIII (artist's depiction)

So in order to sort this out the Church declared a great council of the entire Western ecclesiastical hierarchy. The book lists among the 100,000-odd travelers to Constance not only nobles, monks, priests, cardinals, and bishops, but also those hoping to make a profit off of the sheer size of the gathering, including "merchants, mountebanks, jewelers, tailors, shoemakers, apothecaries, furriers, grocers, barbers, scribes, jugglers, acrobats, street-singers, and hangers-on of all types". There were also "over seven hundred whores", which was apparently considered about the right number for a Church event in the Late Middle Ages.

(now I'm kind of curious how the prostitute-to-dignitary ratio at Constance compares to more modern events like the Republican National Convention. This seems like an important but overlooked statistic.)

These soon got to work on the issue at hand. They quickly rejected two of the less legitimate claimants to the Papacy before turning to the thornier issue of John XXIII. A trial was held, and:
Fearing their effect on public opinion, the the council decided to suppress the sixteen most scandlous charges - never subsequently revealed - and accused the pontiff only of simony, sodomy, rape, incest, torture, and murder. Worst of all - at least among the charges that were made public - was one of that his accusers dredged up from the ancient struggle against Epicureanism: the Pope was said to have maintained stubbornly, before reputable persons, that there was no future life or resurrection, and that the souls of men perish with their bodies, like brutes.

So according to the Council of Constance, not only was the Pope a gay atheist rapist murderer, but there were sixteen charges that are even worse than that. Charges they couldn't reveal! Because they might inflame public opinion! Among segments of the public that were apparently not particularly bothered by an incestuous homicidal torture-Pope! Who is, don't forget, still a suspected pirate!

But the Council eventually deposed him and elected in his stead the relatively non-swashbuckling Martin V. In addition to the main issue, they also decided to address some equally gruesome side business.

Jan Huss had been going around saying maybe it was bad to have ridiculously immoral clergy. And as grievous as this sin was, he compounded it by saying the church should stop selling indulgences, and also what if lay people got a chance to oversee the Church and make sure they didn't accidentally declare any more pirates infallible? He was pretty much a proto-Protestant a century before Luther, but where Luther was an anti-Semitic hate-filled lunatic, Jan Huss was by all accounts a morally exemplary and deeply sympathetic character.

The Church promised him safe passage to Constance so that he could address the Council; Huss, filled with the bright-eyed belief that once he explained that immorality and sin were bad everyone would say they were sorry and reform, jumped at the offer. As soon as he arrived, representatives of the Church seized him and beat him and threw him in a fetid dungeon for a few months, offering the explanation that "one is not bound to keep promises made to heretics". After he'd rotted a suitable amount he was dragged before the Council for trial. His excitement at finally being allowed to give his "actually, sin is bad" speech was dashed when he was informed that this wasn't going to be the kind of trial where the accused was allowed to speak in his own defense (that heretic thing again). He was beaten some more, paraded through the streets in a paper dunce hat with a picture of the Devil tearing apart his soul on it, forced to watch as all his books were burnt, then burnt at the stake himself after having been denied the chance for a last confession (again the heretic thing!).

This wasn't just one bad apple who had somehow gotten a bishopric. These were the actions of the Official Council of Constance, considered to be the official representative of the entire Catholic religion. So on the matter of villain credentials, the prosecution rests.


I expected the conflict between Epicurus and the Church to rest upon the former's atheism, but that turned out not be so big a deal. The partisans of Epicurus - and after Lucretius' manuscript was rediscovered, he had many - argued that because Epicurus lived in pagan times, all he was doing was communicating the correct insight that the pagan gods were stupid and we should reject paganism. He couldn't be blamed for not realizing the superiority of a religion he had never heard of!

The Church didn't quite accept that argument. They villified Epicurus a bit - he gets stuck in a tomb and set on fire on Level Six of Dante's Inferno, and his "live a life of tranquil enjoyment" got retconned to "hold wild orgies all the time while tragically unaware that you are losing your humanity in a sea of brutish pleasure". Also, the Jews to this day use the Hebrew word apikoros, derived from Epicurus' name, to mean a sinner who will not be granted an afterlife. And the authorities did try to suppress Lucretius: one 1516 law forbids teaching De rerum natura in school on penalty of, and I quote, "eternal damnation and a fine of 10 ducats." But overall, the Church knew atheism existed and they weren't going to throw a fit about one more ancient atheist who had a poem written about him.

Epicurus' atomic theory was more of a problem. I didn't realize exactly how unpopular atomism was back in the days before it was realized to be obviously true and so decreed to be completely in harmony with church teachings and everyone had known this all along. Greenblatt quotes a prayer that 17th-century Jesuit students were made to recite before class:
All the bodies of the world shine with the beauty of their forms.
Without these, the globe would only be an immense chaos.
In the beginning God made all things, so that they might generate something.
Consider to be nothing that from which nothing can come.
You, O Democritus, form nothing different starting from atoms.
Atoms produce nothing; therefore, atoms are nothing.

Why all the atom-hate? Atomic theory stood directly in contradiction of Aristotle. If Aristotle was wrong about dualism, it wouldn't make sense to say that things had substances different from their accidents, and so transubstantiation would be on much weaker ground.


But at least according to Greenblatt and the very large, sharp axe he is grinding, the church's biggest gripe with Epicurus was that he had the chutzpah to say that happiness is good.

And here the book discusses how the ancient Church believed that happiness was a tool of the Devil at that everyone had to try to be as miserable as possible all the time in order to reap the spiritual value of suffering. This sounds like some kind of weird P.Z. Myers strawman of religion, but apparently it's not quite as unfair as it sounds. Here's St. Ambrose in a homily against Epicurus:
Epicurus himself also, whom these persons think they should follow rather than the apostles, the advocate of pleasure, although he denies that pleasure brings in evil, does not deny that certain things result from it from which evils are generated; and asserts in fine that the life of the luxurious which is filled with pleasures does not seem to be reprehensible, unless it be disturbed by the fear either of pain or of death. But how far he is from the truth is perceived even from this, that he asserts that pleasure was originally created in man by God its author, as Philomarus his follower argues in his Epitomæ, asserting that the Stoics are the authors of this opinion.

But Holy Scripture refutes this, for it teaches us that pleasure was suggested to Adam and Eve by the craft and enticements of the serpent. Since, indeed, the serpent itself is pleasure, and therefore the passions of pleasure are various and slippery, and as it were infected with the poison of corruptions, it is certain then that Adam, being deceived by the desire of pleasure, fell away from the commandment of God and from the enjoyment of grace. How then can pleasure recall us to paradise, seeing that it alone deprived us of it?

The book then goes on to discuss the medieval Christians taking this idea deadly seriously. Monastic life was specifically optimized to be as unpleasant as possible, and abbots would boast of the number of torments they inflicted on their followers. Monks were not only whipped for practically any offense or no offense at all, but were also forced to kiss the whip and humbly thank the person whipping them before each stroke (I'm almost sure this is also a bondage/S&M thing).

PICTURED: 15th century monastic life (artist's depiction)

The more pious would cut out the middleman by whipping themselves - I knew of this latter custom as a response to the plague, but I didn't realize there was a large and popular religious movement saying everyone should do it all the time to prove to God how anti-pleasure and pro-pain they were - or would at the very least wear hair shirts to keep themselves constantly uncomfortable. It sounded pretty unpleasant.


The last polemical dichotomy was between Epicurus' enthusiastic embrace of intellectualism and the scholarly virtues and the Church's...less enthusiastic embrace. This section struck at the heart of an interesting historical debate between the classical historians who believe medieval times were a horrible Dark Age of superstition and violence and thank God the Renaissance happened to get humanity back on track, and the so-called "continuity thesis" school who believe medieval times were pretty okay and that human knowledge advanced somewhat continuously through medieval times and into the Renaissance and so on to the present day. Some go so far as to argue that the medieval era was a time of brilliant and original thought and the Renaissance screwed it all up and was a vast mistake.

The Swerve comes down pretty hard against the scholarship credentials of the Middle Ages. Yes, there was some good work going on, much of it among monks and church doctors. But it was surprising just how anti-intellectual a climate the monasteries really were.

Various monastic rules required that monks must learn to read and must read for an hour a day (it adds injunctions to beat any monk who is caught not concentrating on the reading enough). This required that monks have books. This required that monasteries have libraries. Your better class of monastery had your better class of library. This caused monasteries to enter a status competition for more and more books. Copying books was one way to be able to boast to the abbot down the road that you had a copy of The Aeneid and he didn't so you were better than him.

But this did not necessarily imply a university-like community of researchers and scholars debating the merits of what they just read. I'm gonna quote this straight so that people don't accuse me of exaggerating or making it up:
[St. Benedict's Rule prescribed that when reading] "no one should presume to ask a question about the reading or about anything else, lest occasion be given." Occasion for whom or what? Modern editors sometimes insert the phrase "to the Devil" here. Any question, however innocuous, could raise the prospect of a discussion, a discussion that would imply that religious doctrines were open to inquiry and argument.

Benedict did not absolutely prohibit commentary on the sacred texts that were read aloud, but he wanted to restrict its source: "The superior," the Rule allows, "may wish to say a few words of instruction." Those words were not to be questioned or contradicted, and indeed all contention was in principle to be suppressed. As the listing of punishments in the influential rule of the Irish monk Columbanus makes clear, lively debate, intellectual or otherwise, was forbidden. To the monk who has dared to contradict a fellow monk with such words as "It is not as you say". there is a heavy penalty: "an imposition of silence or fifty blows."

This spirit continued into the lives of the scriptorium monks charged with copying the manuscripts. They were actively discouraged from trying to read the books as they copied them, and some of them would use a "window" that blocked out the rest of the text allowing them to focus on the word they were copying without trying to read the book. After all, they had no need to understand the book they were copying, and, as Greenblatt puts it, “curiosity was said by the Church to be a mortal sin. To indulge it was to risk an eternity in hell.”

...and at this point I said "Okay, Greenblatt's totally making this up to serve his own agenda here, no way the medieval church actually believed that." But it turns out that there's a part in Summa Theologica which confirms curiosity as a sin and condemns it. Worse, it turns out a professor of divinity wrote an article condemning curiosity as a sin in the New York Times just like three years ago.

Is this the face OF SATAN??!?!

I do realize that they probably make a distinction between the noble desire to understand the deepest secrets of the Universe and so-called "idle curiosity" where you just feel a nagging urge to know something. Don't care. Still evil. I'm going to let the prosecution, once again, rest.


So the Church condemned Epicurus and Lucretius for preferring atomism to dualism, pleasure to pain, curiosity to certainty. When the rediscovery of Lucretius' poem made a compelling case for the Epicurean principles of atomism, pleasure, and curiosity, it added a bit more fuel to the already-burning fire of the Renaissance. You can see the influence in The Birth of Venus, a painting which was directly inspired by the Venusian hymns of De rerum natura, but you can also see it all across Renaissance-era philosophy.

And this dichotomy between atomism pleasure and curiosity and dualism pain and certainty, Greenblatt says, separates a very real Dark Ages from a very real Renaissance. The point of the Renaissance was to switch from the medieval conception of pain as good to the modern conception - now embraced even by the church albeit with qualifications - that pleasure is good. And although they were by no means the only source of the change, it was the rediscovery of Epicurus and Lucretius that lent a new impetus to this movement and helped create the "swerve" - the sudden and unexpected switch from medievalism to modernity which, in analogy to Epicurus' clinamen, gives the book its name.

In our own exactly equivalent term, and no less justly, we might call it a quantum leap.

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[User Picture]From: nancylebov
2012-11-20 04:55 am (UTC)
Borgia popes! Not only did an early one excommunicate a comet, but Cesare Borgia went beyond the usual criminality by playing Diplomacy with real city states.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-11-20 04:10 pm (UTC)
I like to say that, with their practice of promoting illegitimate sons and claiming they were nephews, the Borgias made a euphemism out of nepotism.

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[User Picture]From: sanba38
2012-11-20 05:12 am (UTC)
"eternal damnation and a fine of 10 ducats."

Damnation inflation. At this rate, damnation won't be worth a damn.
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[User Picture]From: maniakes
2012-11-20 05:34 am (UTC)
"The message of adulthood is that message of Christian love that we adults have preached for centuries: that thirty pieces of silver was a good price in its day but times have changed."

-- PJ O'Rourke, Harry Interviews a Grown-Up

Edited at 2012-11-20 05:34 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: maniakes
2012-11-20 05:58 am (UTC)
I've got some sympathy for the Continuity Thesis, but I feel it has to be understood in context of how royally screwed-up the Roman Empire was. The Roman economy was based largely on a mix of systematic plunder and exceptionally brutal agricultural slavery (the Romans had a constant demand for newly captured slaves because they worked their slaves to death faster than they could breed). Their culture considered ruthlessness a virtue and compassion a sign of weakness. Julius Caesar considered it brag-worthy that he was responsible for the deaths of a sixth of the population of Gaul and the enslavement of another third. Child rape was considered a minor routine vice. It was entirely legal for the head of a household to kill his wife or his children for any reason, and under some circumstances it was considered praiseworthy or even morally obligatory. And so on.

In short, the Romans were a people who needed a word for "systematically kill one person in ten".
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From: deiseach
2012-11-20 02:16 pm (UTC)
"it was the rediscovery of Epicurus and Lucretius that lent a new impetus to this movement and helped create the "swerve" - the sudden and unexpected switch from medievalism to modernity"

Hm. I'm more inclined to think it was international trade, the invention of double-entry book-keeping, the establishment of banks, and the relaxation of the rules on usury.

Sure, the Medici were cultural patrons, but the reason they could support court philosophers writing treatises on Epicurus is because they played politics ruthlessly and founded their wealth on trade and investment, which is why they belonged to the Guild of Moneychangers.
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[User Picture]From: kerrypolka
2012-11-20 07:12 am (UTC)
I haven't read your full post yet (and I'm looking forward to it) but I think you'll find it was Tarkin who destroyed Alderaan, not Vader. Honestly, it's glaring disregard for facts like this that undermine the whole rationalist community. ;)
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-11-20 07:22 am (UTC)
I've edited it, but I thought he was involved in the command hierarchy at some point.
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[User Picture]From: kerrypolka
2012-11-20 07:56 am (UTC)
Fearing their effect on public opinion, the the council decided to suppress the sixteen most scandlous charges - never subsequently revealed

I wonder if this was a PR tactic on the part of the council. "This guy was so bad, I can't even tell you. Here's a list of all the terrible things he did, but there are sixteen more that are even worse that I just, I can't. It's better for you not to know. But they're really bad." Then everyone gets busy imagining "gosh, if they brought the incest, sodomy and murder to trial, what on earth are they covering up?" and their own creativity fuels the public opinion against him.

Also, I didn't know 'apikoros' comes from Epicurus' name! That's hilarious!
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[User Picture]From: cartesiandaemon
2012-11-20 09:43 am (UTC)
I was thinking that, although I also wondered if it was something like "Sure, he was atheist, murderous, piratical (in a bad way), debauched (in a bad way), corrupt etc, etc but did you know (lowers voice) he thinks the ritual feasting on Jesus' flesh is a metaphor" :)
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[User Picture]From: mindstalk
2012-11-20 08:00 am (UTC)
Review is hilarious, especially with the illustrations, and I'll just link to the series rather than reviewing the book myself.

But oh right, Christianity and Epicureanism. Have you ever heard someone say the New Atheists are just a Christian heresy, or at least very obviously *Christian* atheists what with their proselytization? Go back, and that turns around; Epicureanism seems to have been a missionary philosophy of life, with its own rituals and communities. Christianity is metaphysically intrinsically opposed, yet shares a bunch of social traits.

Years ago I read some web page arguing for a strong Epicurean influence on Pauline Christianity. One set of Epistles is apparently literally Paul speaking to Epicureans (and Stoics?) somewhere, but it also claimed Paul talks about 'nature' in a way Epicureans do and the Gospels don't. Staying out of corrupting politics, being somewhat withdrawn from the world, focusing on peace and love or friendship, and being good to women (*early* Christianity) and slaves would also be similarities. (Caveat: Epicurus taught women and slaves; I don't know if we know about Epicureanism as practiced over the centuries.)

Ah, found it.

So you've got both theological opposition and real world competition for the same people.

Edited at 2012-11-20 08:16 am (UTC)
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From: harpersprose
2012-11-21 01:52 am (UTC)
I also enjoyed the illustrations, but the bondage one was a bit awkward for the library....
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From: deiseach
2012-11-20 02:05 pm (UTC)
Well, I was looking forward to the violent anti-Catholicism, because I've been a bit depressed lately and a good row is just what I need to cheer me up, but this is not that bad, considering.

By which I mean, it's more of the same old stuff. Eh. I'm not particularly inclined to re-fight the Wars of Religion, but I'd just venture to say that Hussite Bohemia would not have been anymore receptive to Epicurean atomism than Papal Rome (his followers were able to get their hands on enough artillery to fight running battles for fifteen years).

Ah, the good old Avignon schism! As regards pirate popes, at first I thought "John XXIII? Surely some mistake in the numbering!" but you - or rather, Greenblatt - mean the antipope of that name. And Renaissance popes were good at being bad, but for real corruption you need the earlier period known as the pornocracy. Also, I think Benedict IX more than capable of giving John a run for his money; the 1913 "Catholic Encylopedia" restricts itself to a very terse account of his reigns (he managed to gain the papacy more than once) and describes him as "a disgrace to the Chair of Peter".
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From: deiseach
2012-11-20 02:08 pm (UTC)
Too, it's a bit unfair to lump in the Rule of Benedict with Columbanus' rules; our Irish monastics were notoriously hardcore about asceticism, and Benedict's reforms and re-founding of Western monasticism were to soften down the rigours and strictures.

The bit about "no questions" must be taken in the context of readings during communal mealtimes and the like, where the idea is not to start arguments or even study periods but to occupy the mind while the body is occupied.
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[User Picture]From: ice_hesitant
2012-11-20 02:58 pm (UTC)
and make sure they didn't accidentally declare any more pirates infallible?

The doctrine of Papal Infallibility is a very recent one. It didn't exist back then.
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[User Picture]From: Chris Hallquist
2012-11-20 03:39 pm (UTC)
I have no expertise in most of what you talk about here, but on the continuity thesis, you define it as containing two propositions that are, as far as I can tell, unrelated:

1) medieval times were pretty okay
2) human knowledge advanced somewhat continuously through medieval times and into the Renaissance and so on to the present day

I'd say (2) is true, (1) is somewhere between dubious and obviously false.

In particular, human knowledge took a huge hit with the collapse of the Roman Empire. But the middle ages/Renaissance terminology is somewhat confusing, because ancient learning was already starting to be recovered towards the end of the "middle ages" (See: Aquinas and Aristotle).
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-11-20 09:58 pm (UTC)
Yes, I agree that those two theses are unrelated, and it looks like the continuity thesis as such only covers the first. I do tend to see both of them debated together for what I'm guessing are political reasons.

I think 2 is underspecified. I agree that there were some smart medieval scientists and thinkers, and that they did a lot of the work in re-acquiring ancient texts. But it also seems true that the Renaissance represented a pretty radical discontinuity in the way people thought and investigated the world.
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[User Picture]From: oscredwin
2012-11-21 04:30 am (UTC)
Sadly there are still those, even among your readership who still "prefer[] atomism to dualism, pleasure to pain, curiosity to certainty" at least some of the time.
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[User Picture]From: oscredwin
2012-11-21 05:46 am (UTC)
Actually I meant the opposite. There are those who prefer dualism to atomism, pain to pleasure, certainty to curiosity.
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[User Picture]From: lastconformer
2012-11-21 03:27 pm (UTC)
Well it's not totally wrong, it's half-true, which always works best. That way all i can say looks like minor nitpicks. So here are the nitpicks:

ad I
Um, yes, nothing to defend here. That kind of sucked.

ad II
I think it's anachronistic to mix philosophical atoms with the modern physical objects that share their name. The kind of atoms Democritus thought about don't exist and those that do exist aren't even relevant to the question of objective concepts.

Anyway, early scientists were quite clearly not made possible by believing in atoms, because they didn't. Physicists denied atomism until well into the 20th century, and while chemists bate them by a century that is still well after the scientific revolution. By the time it was a scientific controversy (but not a certain thing yet) the Catholic line was pretty much that these are not the kind of atoms we hate.

ad III

Very similar, it depends on what you mean by happiness. We like the kind Plato&Aristotle talk about, the Epicurean version not so much. This is a bit like you hating freedom.

The pain thing is basically radicalism, like deciding that factory farming might not be such a nice thing to do and then going vegan. So I'll try to explain a much milder version: I often take cold showers. That's not fun, though habit makes it somewhat more tolerable. Stripped of all religious aspects the idea there is that fulfilling every physical desire tends to rot will power, so total happiness might be improved by crushing the occasional desire even if it is not for something immediately harmful.

ad IV
Well, there I'll defend the distinction. For example, most Internet procrastination is driven by a desire for knowledge. I do want to read one more blogpost or page of lolcats or whatever. But indulging that desire will make me waste hours when I have better things to do and rot my brain. In Thomistic language the desire for knowledge is good substantially, but in this case accidentally bad.

And the window in particular looks like a medieval version of turning off the Internet while you have work to do. Basically book-copying was their assigned work, like working the fields for others. Goofing off reading would miss the point. But this doesn't mean the book won't get red any more than not reading in the field means the crops won't get eaten.

ad V
Well, if it helped on Monday and was irrelevant on Tuesday...
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-11-21 07:39 pm (UTC)
The only one of these where I think we have a significant disagreement is (II)

As far as I can tell, philosophical atomism was motivated by the questions of form and change. That is, how do things keep forms like chairs or dogs? And how does something change its form, like a chair turning into ashes when burnt?

If you asked me, as a 21st century person, to solve those problems, I would also solve them with atoms. Forms like chairs and dogs exist because they are arrangements of comparatively shapeless and quality-less atoms as building blocks. Things change their forms because the atoms shift their arrangement. This seems obvious today but it's clear from the non-atomistic Greek philosophers that it wasn't at all obvious then. So as far as I can tell, the atomists came up with philosophical atoms for exactly the right reasons - because it was the correct solution to the problems they were contemplating. That's enough to satisfy me they were talking about the same things we are.

(I know from previous discussions that we have differing opinions on whether you still need something else, like Aristotelian forms, once you have atoms.)

I understand that the Greeks weren't thinking of atoms in the sense of "agglomerations of protons, neutrons, and electrons", but I think they got at least one level deeper than the non-atomists and can be forgiven for not understanding that there were deeper levels still.

I don't understand what the kind of atoms that Catholics hate would be, or how they would be different from our own physics-atoms.
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