Intellectuals (or Talking Heads) by Paul Johnson

Intellectuals (From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky)Intellectuals by Paul Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The violent collapse of the ecclesiastical caste precipitated by the French Revolution has given rise to the secular intellectual armed with their scintillating rhetoric and dazzling display of scholastic aptitudes; these social, cultural elites have become guardians of cultures and devised moral and ideological innovations, thus replacing the ancient regime of the priestly caste. Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals lays bare the human frailties of these beneficent intellectuals – ranging from Jean-Jacque Rousseau to Leo Tolstoy, to Henrik Ibsen to Ernest Hemingway, and to Noam Chomsky – and invites us to question the duplicity of these intellectuals that contradicts what they preached for the sake of humanity.

Intellectuals have traditionally proclaimed themselves to be liberals, torch-bearers of fraternity, equality, liberty since they became new potent oracles of societies dictating modes of life and modus operandi of political, social, and cultural systems. However, they are actually bound to the canons of external authority and to the inheritance; that is, the intellectuals are and were by no means free spirits as they profess themselves to be. They are the substitutes for the pagan gods and the elites of Prometheus, who stole the numinous fire for humankind into the bargain under the pretext of shaping our attitudes and institutions and of prescribing us panacea for the social ills.

However, many notable intellectuals who have influenced the arts and shaped our modes of thinking were deficient in rectitude toward their kin, families, friends, and others in their everyday life. To illustrate, Rousseau was an absolute egoist, a brilliant self-publicist, tending to equate hostility to him with hostility to truth and virtue as such. He disdained women of low birth, such as seamstress, chambermaids, and shop girls, while he claimed to love people of all walks of life. In fact, this trait of egoism can be also found in the figure of Percy Bysshe Shelley, a great English poet known for his proclamation that “the poets are unacknowledged legislators of the world.” A sublime egoist with a strong moralizing bent, Shelley assumed that others had to applaud his decisions and when they failed to do so up to his expectation, he was quick to display a sense of outrage. And there was also Ibsen, who changed the social thinking of his generation and that of posterity by preaching the revolt of the individual against the ancient regime of inhibitions and prejudices. He did not want to help others, let alone his own family, for richer he became, the less inclined he was to make any contract with them.

To encapsulate, Intellectuals serves as a literary stethoscope to examine the moral and judgmental credentials of select intellectuals most known to us throughout the modern western history. However, this is not a book to slander their intellectual contributions to the enrichment of culture and society on the whole by revealing their personal history. Rather, it is to show us readers a peril of effaced humanity undermined by the importance of ideas as held by most intellectuals, for ideas – or ideology – were their new gods or new mammon. They put ideas before their families, friends, and people for the sake of perfection of the arts, politics, or society. Moreover, so many intellectuals have jumped on the bandwagon of liberalism in favor of careerism. It is this hypocrisy that Johnson wants to bring to light in Intellectuals. And I think this book is one of the must-have books we should keep on our bookshelves to discern true intellectuals who practice what they preach, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson or George Orwell from those who are no more than learned careerists or demagogues or just talking heads of abstract ideas.

The Brilliant Legacy of the Mycenaeans: Ancient Greece’s First Advanced Civilization

The Mycenaeans: The History and Culture of Ancient Greece's First Advanced CivilizationThe Mycenaeans: The History and Culture of Ancient Greece’s First Advanced Civilization by Charles River Editors

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Before Homer wrote about the fearless warriors and extraordinary heroes enshrined in the temples of the Olympians in Iliad and The Odysseys, there were a people of invincible spirits and adventurism on a par with those of the characters – The Mycenaean, the torch-bearers of a great Aegean civilization in the Pre-Classical Greece existing from 2000 to 1200 BC, whose bravery and enterprising minds inspired Homer to pay tribute to them as immortalized in the two great Classical epics in the history of western civilization. Accordingly, The Mycenaeans: The History and Culture of Ancient Greece’s First Civilization by Charles River Editors takes us to look back on the Mycenaean culture in the Pre-Classical era when these ancient ethnic Greeks ruled the Aegean Sea as the maritime power and left their indelible marks on the posterity of the Classical Greek culture.

The Mycenaeans, the first Greeks, were never unified under a central state and were a collection of several kingdoms. Influenced by the earlier Minoan civilization (2000-1450 BC) at Knossos, Crete, the Mycenaean adapted the Minoan art and religious practices and developed them to their highest expectation of militaristic and cultural ideology. For example, the Mycenaeans developed Linear B Script, which was the writing system comprising hieroglyphics, used between 1450 and 1100 BC especially in Knossos and Pylos, the corporate headquarters of the Late Bronze Mycenae. The letters were mostly written in clay tablets largely concerned with documenting economic transactions of the palace administration and various business transactions. In fact, the Linear B Script, preserved as the oldest Greek writing system, indicates that the Mycenaeans were the linguistic and ethnic ancestors of the Classical Greeks.

In addition to transcribing economic activities Linear B Script also lets us glimpse into the belief system of the Mycenaeans with the names of the deities they worshiped, such as the head of the Pantheon and Poseidon, the god o f the seas whom the Mycenaeans paid special due respect for their being sea-faring people. The Mycenaean reverence for Poseidon is worth noting because it betokens the importance of the Mycenaean as the maritime power of the Aegean Sea as well as the most of the Mediterranean Sea. They eclipsed the Minoans and their Aegean neighbors in terms of open sea trade by establishing trade routes with the islands of Sardinia and Sicily as well as the Libyan coastline and importing more goods than exporting, such as grain from Egypt and metal from Cyprus and Anatolia to make weapons.

With respect to artistic and cultural historiography of the Mycenaeans, the art of burial practices entailed the Minoan influence assimilated into the Mycenaean of their own accord, which was akin to the fashion of Hellenism, the spread of the Greek culture through enculturation by Alexander the Great centuries later. Likewise, after then conquest of Crete, the Mycenaeans continued to employ many of the Minoan artistic traditions one of which was burial practices and their beliefs in afterlife as expressed in the Hagia Triada Sarcophagus on the island of Crete. Made in a Minoan style under the rule of Mycenaeans, it depicts scenes of funereal game held in honor of a fallen warriors and dead kings, consisting of the following athletic events as part of the ritual:

  • Chariot Race – Popularized by the Hittite and the Egyptian as a symbol of power and prestige; powered by 2 to 4 horses carrying a team of 2 to 3 men. The Hittite had 3 men – a driver, a shield bearer, and a warrior- while the Egyptian simply had 2 men – a driver and a shield bearer. The Mycenaeans would most likely to have either of the styles, though not manifested.
  • Armed Combat – conflated with the Hittite sport
  • Boxing – popularized by the Minoan and developed by the Mycenaean

In fact, the actuality of the aforesaid athletic sport events is alluded in Homer’s Iliad, suggesting a Bronze Age tradition of funerary games in Greece with vivid descriptions of the games to honor the slain Greek warrior named Patroclus, which were all coordinated by Achilles. However, contrary to the nude events of the Classical Greece Olympics, which were the offspring of the Mycenaean funereal games, the competitors in the funereal sport events wore loincloths called “zoma.”

The demise of the Mycenaean Kingdom resulted from several factors one by one in a period of times, including the invasion of the Sea Peoples and the emerging of the Dorian in the north, all of which represented the end of the Mycenaean Age, coinciding with the collapse of the Bronze Age in the ancient Near East, where the Mycenaeans played an important role as a formidable trade partner with the Egyptian. Notwithstanding the fall of the Mycenaeans as the major sea power in the ancient Bronze Age, the brilliant legacy of the Mycenaean culture still thrives in; (1) the form of Linear B Script, the oldest writing system of the Greek language before the adoption of the Phoenician alphabet system many centuries later; (2) the belief system in which Zeus and Poseidon were first recorded in the writing tablets and revered with due respect; and (3) the initiation of  the sparks of the organized athletic events developed into the Olympic Games in posterity. It is this ingenuity imbued with the spirit of adventure and the policy of engagement in adopting cultural traditions of other people that exemplified themselves among other Pre-Classical peoples, which is something we in the modern time should adopt as well, so that our posterity can benefit from what their ancestors learned and experienced, for it also becomes our legacy of heritage and culture to pass it down from generation to generation.


The Library of Alexandria: The History and Legacy of the Ancient World’s Most Famous Library

The Library of Alexandria: The History and Legacy of the Ancient World's Most Famous LibraryThe Library of Alexandria: The History and Legacy of the Ancient World’s Most Famous Library by Charles River Editors

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first time I visited the New York Public Library to write a research paper on female monasticism in the High Middle Age, I was amazed by the volumes of book it possessed and its classification system of organization staffed by knowledgeable librarians, as well as the colossal architectural building in the middle of Manhattan, New York. Perhaps it might have been this kind of awe and wonder kindled in the minds of ancient travelers or scholars who had seen or visited the Library of Alexandra, one of the largest and greatest of the ancient libraries in the history of civilization, which is said to exist from the 3rd century B.C. until the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 B.C. The Library of Alexandra: The History and Legacy of the Ancient World’s Most Famous Library by Charles River Editors presents a comprehensive history of this great ancient library from its genesis to demise on the grounds of historical accounts and logical scientific reasoning thereof.

For centuries when libraries were still few and far between as written knowledge had been exclusively held by the religious classes in private repositories, the image of this ancient library once existent in Alexandria had been evocative of mysterious ambience of esoteric mystical knowledge of the bygone eras and thus inspired imagination to create myths and legends. In fact, libraries as we know now and find ubiquitously are fairly a modern invention born of the cultural legacy of the Library of Alexandria as the apotheosis of two ancient literary and cultural traditions converging the Greek and the Egyptian.

  • The Egyptian Background
    When Alexander the Great and his army conquered the ancient Middle East in the 4th century – one of which was Egypt -, they were encountered with cultures with long literary traditions and traditions of literary documents in repositories called, “the House of Life” and “the House of Books” that housed thousands of documents written in papyrus-made scrolls for the Egyptian and clay tablets for the Mesopotamian under the administration of the priest class. Of these two houses of documents, it is the House of Life, the ancient Egyptian equivalent of a library, from which the majority of texts have survived until the present time. Consequently, Alexander and his army were overawed with the rich literary culture of their conquered land, took the ancient Egyptian concept of a library and transformed it from a religious to a secular institution by providing a bridge of knowledge from the most ancient concepts of libraries to the modern libraries in the process of Hellenization of the Egyptian.
  • The Greek and Hellenization (The spreading of the Greek culture)
    Alexander’s Hellenization was a two-fold political program consisting of (1) acculturation by performing and accepting certain religious and cultural traditions making him look “Egyptian” to gain acceptance by the Egyptian elite class; and (2) the promotion of the Greek culture, “Hellenism” by spreading the Greek culture throughout Egypt. The process of Hellenization in Egypt was well succeeded by his general named Ptolemy, (the founder of the Ptolemy dynasty from 304 to 330 B.C., including Cleopatra VII) who made Alexandria the capital of Egypt and the cultural center of the Hellenistic and the famed Library of Alexandria as the centerpiece. In fact, the Ptolemies’ subsidization of the Library was their way to link their dynasty, which was in a foreign land far away from their homeland Greece, to the greatness of their culture. They also banned the export of papyrus from Egypt, which resulted in increase of prices for books and creation of the industry of forgeries and plagiarism.

According to the Greek historian/geographer Strabo (64 B.C.-24 A.D.) upon visiting the Library of Alexandria, it was part of the royal palace and an annex to the museum, which was a community of academic and religious scholars gathering in the shrine of the Muses of the arts and intellect. The membership was exclusive to the men holding property in common with a priest in charge of the museum. The library housed over 500,000 papyrus book-scrolls written by the ancient notables, such as Homer, Euripeds, Sophocles, and Herodotus, all in Greeks as most of the documents stored therein had been translated from their original languages by priests under the Hellenistic influence. Besides, the Library organized all the entries into alphabetical order as a classification system of library organization that is akin to modern library information system.

  • Destruction of the Library of Alexandria
    Since there has been no definite archeological evidence of the Library discovered, myths and legends concerning its end are still rampant in the imaginations of creative minds. It is said to be burned down by the Civil Wars in 48 or 47 B.C. by Plutarch in Life of Caesar, the theory advocated by Seneca, a famous Roman orator, and later popularized by Edward Gibbon of “The Fall and Decline of the Roman Empire.” However, the most plausible and logical theory of the destruction of the Library is that the humidity must have ensued the destruction of books in papyrus and that the process of destruction would have taken place over hundreds of years contrary to a popular dramatic version of its being burned to ashes by Caesar’s men in one night. Also, another speculation is that after Egypt was annexed to the Roman Empire in 30 B.C., the presence of the Library of Alexandria became an afterthought to the Romans, who imported Greek Scholars and books into Rome, rather than made a long trip to the foreign land. The Romans were more concerned with building their own architectural building, including libraries and schools, in their own land by sending their book agents to the Library of Alexandria to take the originals back to Rome, which contributed to a gradual demise of the Library, by making its presence obsolete and unnecessary for the upkeep of the maintenance.

The great ancient Library of Alexandria as an architectural artifact might have disappeared into history, but its cultural inheritance of civilization preserving intellectual act of learning in appreciation of arts and beauty still strongly resonates with its historiography and contribution to our modern world by continuing to inspire our minds to carry it on for posterity. The Library of Alexandria still exists in the presence of any place of learning or knowledge as long as we appreciate such cultural influence on what we take for granted, such as using our own library. Now that I have read this book, the next time I visit any library, I will think of those ancient librarians and appreciate the legacy of the Library of Alexandria and Alexander the Great for making it all possible.


The Sea Peoples and The Collapse of Civilization

The Sea Peoples: The Mysterious Nomads Who Ushered in the Iron AgeThe Sea Peoples: The Mysterious Nomads Who Ushered in the Iron Age by Charles River Editors

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the passage of history, there have always been great transitions marking epochs of civilizations that have changed the structure and course of world history fundamentally, such as the fall of the Roman Empire and the Industrial Revolution. However, before these epoch-making events, before the birth of city states, such as Thebes, Athens, or Sparta, and even before the time of Alexander the Great, there was a collapse of a great ancient civilization during the late 13th and early 12th centuries of the Bronze Age that shook down the diplomatic and political systems of kingdoms of the Aegean, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Near East regions, dawning the age of the Iron Age. At the center of this momentous drama of human civilization, there were mysterious Sea Peoples. The Sea Peoples: The Mysterious Nomads Who Ushered in the Iron Age by Charles River Editors describes unsolved mystery of these invaders who wreaked havoc across the Near East during the late Bronze Period.

In 1200 BC, before the arrival of the Sea Peoples, a political and social stability was existent between the major powers of the region, which were Egypt, Hatti, the Aegean, and the eastern Mediterranean kingdoms under the modus operandi carefully crafted through a combination of diplomacy and military conquest. During this period, Egyptians, Hittites, Mesopotamians, Semites, and Mycenaeans on the Greek Mainland formed a kind of multiple interconnected societies and maintained an international hierarchy by means of trading goods and exchanging cultural artifacts. However, all of sudden, the Sea Peoples from the Mediterranean and the Near East raided the region at the end of this period by dismantling the stability of the region, as the catalyst for the collapse of the Bronze Age and thus changed the face of the ancient world forever. Then who are these Sea Peoples? What prompted them to raid the region?

It’s the Egyptian hieroglyphic texts (writing with pictures) that first and foremost depicted these mysterious people because the Egyptians fought them off three times successfully; however, it was Pyrrhic Victory eventually bringing out a butterfly effect to the region by greatly affecting the international trades one by one among the interconnected states. According to the Egyptian historiography – also known as “The Papyrus Harris” – of the nine Sea Peoples, the following are the most known of all:

• The Lydian: a tribe from a modern day Libya
• The Sherden/Shardana: a tribe from today’s Sardinia
• The Peleset: a major participant of the raid , believed to be originated from today’s Palestine
• The Tjeker: a tribe that claimed to be descendants of Troy from Sicily
• The Teresh: a tribe originated in Asia Minor then moved to Italy to become the Etruscan
• The Ekwesh: Achaean/Mycenaean Greeks

Between 1200 and 1050 BC, these Sea People with new innovative military tactics of mercenary services and weapons, such as swords, shields, and helmets made out of metals from the Balkan, began to move into the inland of the Near East with the influx of peoples from Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and the Greek Mainland possibly due to catastrophic drought and other environmental factors, including disastrous earthquakes on the Greek Mainland as recorded by Herodotus’s writing a thousand years later. Also, there was a precipitous increase in the population of southeastern Europe, which might have propelled the invasion of the Sea Peoples. In fact, it is known that some invasions of Sea Peoples accompanied civilians and even cattle, which betokened a possible migration intention following from such events. Besides, this was also the period when the epic city of Troy was besieged and finally destroyed by the Achaean/Mycenaean/Ekwesh raiders as recorded by Homer.

Subsequently, the repeated raids of the Sea Peoples in the course of time resulted in a dispersion of the new cultural, political, and social customs throughout the Ancient Near East, weakening the stable system of a coalition of states that was mostly provided by  Hittites and Egyptians who relied on extremely archaic political and military system, such as relying on chariots at warfare, and a feudal system. Moreover, a succession of ineffective rulers, declining trading volumes, and crop failure in the regions might have contributed to the demise of the Bronze Age, which was only precipitated by the pesky invasions of the Sea Peoples.

There are many other theories of how exactly the Bronze Age came to an end as to the relation of these mysterious Sea Peoples and their impacts on the collapse of the great ancient civilization. Nonetheless, what is viewed herein is considered as a widely accepted theory of the end of the Bronze Age as comprehensively chronicled in The Sea Peoples: The Mysterious Nomads Who Ushered in the Iron Age. By understanding the cause and the result of this unknown, mysterious epoch, we can also relate it to the diplomatic and political situations of our time that do not seem remotely distant but disarmingly similar and thus learn something about human nature that does not seem to be changed after all these years.


For Love of Fate: Book review on Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

Man's Search for MeaningMan’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Many books are to be tasted or swallowed, whereas certain books are to be chewed and digested for the nourishment of our minds and souls, such as Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl, the founder of Logotheraphy, the third Viennese School of Psychoanalysis, along with Freudian psychoanalysis and Adler’s individual psychology, that deserves of its recognition of being one of the books of our time for its content as well as its origin. This book is not of survival literature of the Holocaust but of a memoir of a courageous human soul that did not succumb to despondency. It is less about what he suffered and lost as a prisoner at four concentration camps during World War II than it is about the sources of his intention to live through it, attesting to the words of Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

Man’s Search for Meaning is a fruit of Frankl’s resilient soul ever resisting the existential horrors of situations that life could afford; whenever the miserable conditions of the camp suppressed the spirit, Frankl diverted such negative energy to reconstructing the manuscript which he had lost in the disinfection chamber of Auschwitz and scribbling the key words in shorthand on tiny scraps of paper. In fact, it was a way of intensifying his inner life full of intellectual resources and spiritual freedom to which he could retreat from his terrible surroundings by forcing his thoughts to turn to another subject, which made him enable to rise above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment.

In addition to the willful act of deluding anxiety and negative feelings, Frankl ensures us that a sense of humor is another of the soul’s weapon in the fight for self-preservation and can afford an aloofness and an ability to transcend any situation, for developing a sense of humor and seeing things in humorous light is a kind of trick learned while mastering “the art of living.” That is, by laughing about any sordid or callous situation, we ease our mental distress and are able to take on a different stance on the situation in a less negative way that is essentially not overwhelmingly stressful or unbearable. After all, humans are the only biological organism that can laugh, and thus this sense of humor is our prerogative as human.

It is also interesting to learn that the prisoners who did their utmost best to look good even in the sordid surrounding survived the dreadful experience because they looked “fit” for survival. This act of grooming links to will to meaning – that is, a will to live- that has physiological bases of psychic energy which rejuvenates the body and the spirit to see a why to live. On the other hand, there was a young inmate in the camp whose sudden loss of hope and courage to live affected his already typhus-stricken body so adversely that such mental condition lowered the man’s temperature and resistance against typhus, which ultimately caused his premature death. This episode shows us that what we believe becomes our truth and thus can alter our reality with another one, a virtual reality as a product of psychosomatic effect, which also links to the three sources for meaning of life as follows:

Creative Value – Doing something meaningful, such as Frankl’s scribbling the manuscript
Experiential Value – Appreciating beauty of the Arts or love, such as his thinking of his wife in another camp whenever he was on the verge of falling into an emotional distress; and
Attitudinal Value – Triumphing over biological, social, and cultural inhibitions during difficult times, such as Frankl’s endless efforts to divert his thought to another object of lofty value. It is this value that gives to our sufferings meaning by the way in which we respond to.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl testifies to Nietzsche’s dictum as aforesaid that suffering can grow out of existential frustration in the sense that there is a point to sufferings, that there is a hidden meaning in the guise of suffering, as there is only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand. The essence of existence, which is search for meaning of life, underlies our awareness of a possibility against the background of reality – that is, what we can do about our given situations, not depending on the happenstances. Our emotions, which are interpreted as suffering, cease to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it by applying the three sources for meaning of life. Viewed in this light, this book is a veritable guide to how to overcome the struggles of our lives and achieve demands imposed upon our daily tasks however insurmountable they seem, which gains utmost credibility against the backgrounds of his own anguish in Auschwitz.