Posts Tagged ‘Oneworld’

Religions of Iran: From Prehistory to the Present, Richard Foltz (Oneworld 2013)

This book reminded me of a line by one of Saki’s characters: “The people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.” Similarly, the people of Iran make more religion than they can consume locally. Much more. That’s part of why Iran is such an interesting place. I knew enough about Iran not to think it was Arabic-speaking or inhabited by Arabs. This book has taught me some more, but it deserved more time and attention than I’ve been able to give it.

As “Professor and Founding Director of the Centre for Iranian Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada”, Richard Foltz is the sort of scholar who turns up regularly in the New York or London Review of Books. And he probably has done exactly that. Fortunately, his prose doesn’t sink to the levels of pretension and posturing you can often find in the NYRB and LRB. He has some illuminating things to say. But perhaps “irrigating” is a better description of this example:

The “Pool Theory”: Possibilities, not Essence

My own approach to the notion of “religion”, which sees the term as being, for practical purposes, almost synonymous with “culture” and not a separate category, places less of an emphasis on providing a description as such, than on identifying a pool of ideas and behaviour from which communities and ideas may draw in constituting their particular worldviews. I call this approach the Pool Theory: it posits that religion/culture is best understood not in terms of essential features, but as a set of possibilities within a recognizable framework, or “pool”. (Preface, pp. xii-xiii)

The Iranian pool is unusually deep and broad: the region has been creating, influencing and absorbing religious ideas for millennia. Who were the magi of the New Testament, for example? Priests from ancient Persia, that’s who. The new religion of Christianity was drawing on the prestige of a much older religion, that of Zarathustra or Zoroaster, whose life can’t even be given a fixed millennium, let alone a century. As Foltz says: “Among the founders of the world’s major religions, none is more shrouded in mystery than Zoroaster. Basic questions, such as where and when he lived, remain unresolved.” (ch. 3, “In Search of Zoroaster”, pg. 32)

But perhaps if Zoroaster had been less mysterious, he would also have been less influential. Zoroastrianism has also shaped and inspired Judaism and Islam. It’s no longer the dominant religion in Iran, but it’s the part of the cultural pool where Iranians still swim. So is Manichaeism, a religion that appeared in Iran in the third century AD. It’s much less-known than Zoroastrianism, but may be even more interesting: after all, it was “perhaps the most maligned religion in history”. Its founder Mani “died in prison in 276, presumably tortured to death, at the age of sixty” (ch. 10, “Manichaeism”, pg. 138). His eclectic and eccentric religion was known for centuries “only through the polemics of its worst enemies, such as Augustine of Hippo and the various heresiographers and historians of Islam”. (pg. 137)

Manichaeism was eventually driven out of Iran to become an official religion among the Uighur Turks of Central Asia, then die far off and long later even further east: “The last Manichaean community appears to have survived in southeastern China until the seventeenth century, when it became unrecognizably absorbed into popular Buddhism”. (ibid., pp. 143-4) What inspired the enmity that began this exile? Modern scholars like Foltz aren’t able to explain that fully, even now that they have original Manichaean texts from “the widely separated deserts of western China and Egypt” (pg. 142). But Manichaeism, while retaining its own doctrines, seems to have borrowed too readily and adapted too flexibly to other religions. That is, it was a chameleon, so its rivals could never be sure whether their own adherents were truly as orthodox as they seemed. Augustine knew it from the inside: he “was a Manichaean for nine years before converting to Christianity.” (pg. 137) As Foltz notes: “his interpretation of the latter faith was greatly influenced by his rejection of the former”.

So an Iranian religion influenced Christianity again. But Manichaeism influenced Judaism and Islam too, “if for no other reason than that its proselytizing success and extreme doctrinal positions forced apologists for other faiths to refine and strengthen their own views” (pg. 137). And the contrarian spirit of Manichaeism lives on. Iran is today the centre of “Shi‘ism” (sic), the branch of Islam that very roughly corresponds to Protestantism in Christianity and that was born in southern Iraq in opposition to orthodox Sunni Islam. When rebels become rulers in Iran, rebellion doesn’t cease. This is one of the most interesting passages in the book:

[…] the Qajar dynasty was brought to an end in 1921 by an ambitious soldier called Reza Khan (born 1878) who seized power and assumed the title of Shah in 1925. Reza Shah, as he was now known, made a conscious effort to recall Iran’s pre-Islamic greatness by calling his new dynasty the Pahlavi [after an ancient Iranian language]. […] Reza Shah’s modernizing agenda favored those among the traditional clergy, Shariat Sanglaji for example, who showed themselves pliant and willing to preach a reformist version of Islam compatible with the king’s goals. At the same time, his nationalist policies encouraged a celebration of Iran’s pre-Islamic identity. This included a replacement of Arabic words and place-names with Persian ones. Many among Iran’s intelligentsia were attracted to the national reawakening taking place during the 1930s, which sometimes portrayed Islam as an alien religion that had been imposed through force by a culturally inferior people. (ch. 14, “Shi‘ism”, pg. 205)

The dynasty founded by Reza Shah lasted until 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in France to create “The Islamic Republic”. Foltz discusses the republic in chapter 18, but he’s understandably cautious in what he says. He has an Iranian wife and I assume he visits Iran regularly. As he says in the previous chapter, discussing the tribulations of “The Bábí Movement and the Bahá’í Faith”: “Those Bábís who survived [in Iran] adopted the age-old Shi‘ite practice of taqiyya, dissimulation of one’s true beliefs to ensure the survival of the religious community” (loc. cit., pg. 235). In some ways, Bahá’ísm is Manichaeism reborn: hated and persecuted in its land of origin.

But we don’t need to wonder many centuries later whether the hatred and persecution are in any way justified: we can see for ourselves that they aren’t. Like Ahmadis in Pakistan, Bahá’ís aren’t officially recognized except as enemies of the true faith. Like Ahmadis, many have left the country in which their religion took shape. History is repeating itself as tragedy, not farce, but the tragedies of Iranian history are part of what makes the country so interesting and you can see another side of the Islamic Republic in another chapter: “…Zoroastrians in Iran enjoy a number of privileges denied to Iran’s Muslim majority.” (ch. 19, “Iranian Zoroastrians Today”, pg. 258) For example, like “Iran’s Christians and Jews, they can make and produce alcoholic beverages”.

Persecuting or tolerant, innovative or heresy-hunting, Iranian religion is both fascinating and important. You can get a good idea of its depth and complexity in this book, whether you paddle or plunge into the millennia’s-worth of ideas, stories and personalities that swirl and mingle here.


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Infinitesimal by Alexander AmirInfinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World, Amir Alexander (Oneworld 2014)

Infinitesimal is an entertaining read on a fascinating topic: the pioneers of a new form of mathematics and those who opposed them. Amir Alexander claims that “the ultimate victory of the infinitely small helped open the way to a new and dynamic science, to religious toleration, and to political freedoms unknown in human history” (Introduction, pg. 14).

It’s an extraordinary claim and I don’t think he manages to provide extraordinary proof for it. In fact, he probably gets cause-and-effect reversed. Is it likelier that new mathematics opened minds, dynamized science and transformed politics or that open minds created new forms of mathematics, science and politics? I’d suggest that support for the new mathematics was a symptom, not a cause, of a new psychology. But Alexander makes a good case for his thesis and there is no doubt that the world was changed by the willingness of mathematicians to use infinitesimals. Calculus was one result, after all. The book begins in Italy and ends in England, because the pioneers lost in Italy:

For nearly two centuries, Italy had been home to perhaps the liveliest mathematical community in Europe. … But when the Jesuits triumphed over the advocates of the infinitely small, this brilliant tradition died a quick death. With Angeli silenced, and Viviani and Ricci keeping their mathematical views to themselves, there was no mathematician left in Italy to carry on the torch. The Jesuits, now in charge, insisted on adhering close to the methods of antiquity, so that the leadership in mathematical innovation now shifted decisively, moving beyond the Alps, to Germany, England, France and Switzerland. (ch. 5, “The Battle of the Mathematicians”, pg. 178)

Why were the Jesuits involved in an esoteric mathematical dispute? You might say that de minimis curat Loyola – Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Jesuits, cared about anything, no matter how small, that might undermine the authority of the Church. In the view of his successors, the doctrine of indivisibles did precisely that: “in its simplest form, the doctrine states that every line is composed of a string of points, or ‘indivisibles’, which are the line’s building blocks, and which cannot themselves be divided” (Introduction, pg. 9).

Indivisibles must be infinitesimally small, or they wouldn’t be indivisible, but then how does an infinitesimal point differ from nothing at all? And if it isn’t nothing, why can’t it be divided? These paradoxes were familiar to the ancient Greeks, which is why they rejected infinitesimals and laid the foundations of mathematics on what seemed to them to be solider ground. In the fourth century before Christ, Euclid used axioms and rigorous logic to create a mathematical temple for the ages. He proved things about infinity, like the inexhaustibility of the primes, but he didn’t use infinitesimals. When Archimedes broke with Greek tradition and used infinitesimals to make new discoveries, “he went back and proved every one of them by conventional geometrical means, avoiding any use of the infinitely small” (Introduction, pg. 11).

So even Archimedes regarded them as dubious. Aristotle rejected them altogether and Aristotle became the most important pre-Christian influence on Thomas Aquinas and Catholic philosophy. Accordingly, when mathematicians began to look at infinitesimals again, the strictest Catholics opposed the new development. Revolutionaries like Galileo were opposed by reactionaries like Urban VIII.

But the story is complicated: Urban had been friendly to Galileo until “the publication of Galileo’s Dialogue on the Copernican system and some unfavourable political developments” (pg. 301). So I don’t think the mathematics was driving events in the way that Alexander suggests. Copernicus didn’t use them and the implications of his heliocentrism were much more obvious to many more people than the implications of infinitesimals could ever have been. That’s why Copernicus was frightened of publishing his ideas and why Galileo faced the Inquisition for his astronomy, not his mathematics.

But Amir’s thesis makes an even more interesting story: the tiniest possible things had the largest possible consequences, creating a new world of science, politics and art. In Italy, two of the chief antagonists were Galileo and Urban; in England, two were the mathematician John Wallis (1616-1703) and the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Alexander discusses Wallis and Hobbes in Part II of the book, “Leviathan and the Infinitesimal”. Hobbes thought that de minimis curat rex – “the king cares about tiny things”. Unless authority was absolute and the foundations of knowledge certain, life would be “nasty, brutish and short”.

However, there was a big problem with his reasoning: he thought he’d achieved certainty when he hadn’t. Hobbes repeatedly claimed to have solved the ancient problem of the “quadrature of the circle” – that is, creating a square equal in size to a given circle using only a compass and an unmarked ruler. Wallis demolished his claims, made Hobbes look foolish, and strengthened the case for religious toleration and political freedom. But I don’t think this new liberalism depended on new mathematics. Instead, both were products of a new psychology. Genetics will shed more light on the Jesuits and their opponents than polemics and geometry textbooks from the period. Alexander’s theory is fun but flawed.

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Volcanoes A Beginners Guide by Rosaly LopesVolcanoes: A Beginner’s Guide, Rosaly Lopes (Oneworld 2010)

My first introduction to volcanoes was fictional: Willard Price’s Volcano Adventure (1956), which stands out in his Adventure series because it centres on something inanimate, not on animals like lions or gorillas or elephants. This book by the NASA scientist Rosaly Lopes is factual but equally enjoyable. And some of it would fit well into Volcano Adventure anyway:

[V]olcanoes come with different sizes, shapes and temperaments. It is fascinating to study what causes these differences and understand that, while generalizations are possible, each volcano has its distinct quirks, just like people. We could also compare volcanoes to cats: with few exceptions, they spend most of their lives asleep. (ch. 1, “What are volcanoes?”, pg. 1)

When a volcano wakes, look out. They’ve slain cities, devastated eco-systems and shaped landscapes. They’re also shaped cultures. Like a thunderstorm or earthquake, an erupting volcano raises a big question in the minds of human observers: What caused something so powerful and impressive? Our explanations began with myth and moved to science. And they moved a long time ago: the ancient philosopher Anaxagoras “proposed that volcanic eruptions were caused by great winds within the Earth, blowing through narrow passages” (pg. 5) and becoming hot by friction. Two-and-a-half millennia later, scientists are plotting “silica (SiO2) content” against “alkali content” as they classify “different volcanic rocks” (ch. 2, “How volcanoes erupt”, pg. 15).

But Anaxogaras’ principles are still at work: seek the explanation in mindless mechanism, not in supernatural mind. Classification is another essential part of science. In vulcanology, the scientific study of volcanoes, magmas are classified and so are eruptions, from subdued to spectacular: Icelandic and Hawaiian are on the subdued side, Peléean, Plinian and Ultraplinian on the spectacular, with Strombolian and Vulcanian in between. Some eruptions are easy to understand and investigate. Some are difficult. Volcanoes can be as simple or complicated as their names. Compare Laki, on Iceland, with Eyjafjallajökull, also on Iceland.

Laki is an example of an eco-slayer:

Although the eruption did not kill anyone directly, its consequences were disastrous for farmland, animals and humans alike: clouds of hydrofluoric acid and sulphur dioxide compounds caused the deaths of over half of Iceland’s livestock and, ultimately, the deaths – mostly from starvation – of about 9,000 people, a third of the population. The climatic effects of the eruption were felt elsewhere in Europe; the winter of 1783-4 as noted as being particularly cold. (ch. 3, “Hawaiian and Icelandic eruptions: fire fountains and lava lakes”, pg. 31)

Lopes goes on to look at city-slayers like Mount Pelée and Vesuvius, but they can be less harmful to the environment. A spectacular eruption can be over quickly and release relatively little gas and ash into the atmosphere. And death-dealing is only half the story: volcanoes also give life, because they enrich the soil. They enrich experience too, not just with eruptions but with other phenomena associated with vulcanism: geysers, thermal springs, mudpools and so on.

And that’s just the planet Earth. Lopes also discusses the rest of the solar system, from Mercury, Venus and Mars to the moons of gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. The rocky planets have volcanoes more or less like those on earth, but the moons of the gas giants offer an apparent paradox: cryovolcanoes, or “cold volcanoes”, which erupt ice and water, not superheated lava. On Neptune’s moon Triton, whose surface is an “extremely cold” -235ºC, cryovulcanism may even involve frozen nitrogen. The hypothesis is that under certain conditions, it’s heated by sunlight, turns into a gas and “explodes” in the “near-vacuum of Triton’s environment” (ch. 11, “The exotic volcanoes of the outer solar system”, pg. 138).

Hot or cold, big or small, on the earth or off it, volcanoes are fascinating things and this is an excellent introduction to what they do and why they do it.

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