Old encyclopedias are informative in new ways

The National Library of Scotland has made available to the public digitized versions of all 3 volumes of the 1771 edition of the Encyclopædia Brittanica. I’ve been browsing through it, and it’s a fun read — it doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind about whether it’s a dictionary or an encyclopedia, but it does have long sections on 18th century agriculture, algebra, and chemistry, so if you ever want to know what people actually thought about those subjects over 200 years ago, you can look them up.

There isn’t much on the stuff I study though — biology hadn’t been invented yet, so you’ll search through the “B”s fruitlessly. I thought maybe there’d be something on embryology, but no, this is it, and it’s rather brutal. They were straightforward about abortion back then.

There is a substantial illustrated section on midwifery, though, so if you ever need to deliver a baby without anesthesia or sterile technique, but you do have a great big handy pair of kitchen tongs, this section will do it for you.

Incels strike again

There’s been another shooting by an incel, and when you read about the hateful stuff he actually believed, you will be surprised that anyone made it through life with that degree of bullshit festering in his head.

But then, read this account by a medievalist of the warped notion of “courtly love”, and you’ll notice this is an ancient and familiar trope. You’ll never be able to watch “Camelot” again.

Boaters & Bowlers

Speaking of time machines, here’s a video recording of a stroll through New York city in 1911.

A couple of things struck me: the hats! Everyone is wearing them, with the exception being the kids. I wonder if there was some sort of ritual associated with coming of age amongst the New Yorkians — “Now you are a man, and may and must wear this headdress at all times, lest ye scandalize the populace with the distressing dome of your skull.”

Also notice how the pedestrians just wander across the street on a whim, as if they haven’t yet realized that the steely horseless carriages are going to claim total ownership of the thoroughfares.

Hey, wait, maybe the hats are the secret passkey to allow one to ignore traffic. I’m going to have to try it next time I’m in NYC — put on a nice Panama and stride confidently into Times Square.

The ship’s not there any more

On 16 April 1834, the HMS Beagle was beached to inspect the hull for damage (click on that for more detail). The event was noted by this well-known engraving.

Charles Darwin noted the specific latitude and longitude in his notes, so we can actually go to Google maps and find the site, as I did.

I’m just wondering if anyone else would go to the link and zoom in the satellite photo and be vaguely disappointed that the Beagle isn’t there? Jeez, I need more coffee. Or maybe Google Time Machine.

I’d rather be a Thespian than a Spartan

It has always struck me as odd that the brutal meatheads, the Spartans, were portrayed brilliant heroes in that movie, 300. It was odder that they went into battle half-naked rather than as armored hoplites. It was oddest of all that they kept howling about “FREEDOM!”, but Sparta was a slave society, and one of the reasons they were so focused on war was the need to keep the helots oppressed. Finally, someone says it: the Spartans were morons.

The word spartan, taken separately from a military context has come to mean utilitarian, basic. In ancient times the word was more pejorative, carrying a connotation of stupidity and coarseness. The word Thespian, has come to mean artistic and sensitive. At Thermopylae the 700 Thespians fought as bravely as any other force. There was a city-state that balanced the need of self-defense and to develop culture.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the alt-right idolizes Sparta, with their simplistic worship of brute rigidity and hypocritical adoration of slogans. We just have to remember: the Spartans lost, and left nothing of value to civilization.

A Puzzle for Humanism

I should start by saying: unlikely my previous posts, this isn’t properly a book review. The major ideas in the discussion spring out of Kate Manne’s book Down Girl: The Logic of Mysogyny. I do give a general review of the book over on Goodreads; TL;DR: The book is excellent, timely, and thoughtful; people should read it. Manne illustrates a particular problem that I think is worth raising on this blog, given the discussions of ethical positions around humanism, feminism, Atheism+, etc.

Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” is one of the most widely cited phrases in public ethics and social justice, but it is often egregiously misused. Somewhat famously, Chelsea Clinton cited it in discussion of a man casually committing a horrific act of violence; political scientist Corey Robin was quick to point out that this is not the way Arendt was using the phrase. Documentarian Ada Ushpiz has similarly pointed this out in criticizing Eva Illouz. To gloss over these longer responses there, the dialectic goes like this.

Many folks think that “the banality of evil” refers to the attitude of indifference towards humans by the person causing harm; the idea that evil can be regarded as banal by the person committing the evil act because they have dehumanized the victim. This is the wikipedia gloss on Arendt’s view, butthe focus on dehumanization actually gets the point entirely (and dangerously) wrong.

Manne points out, as Arendt did as well, that many callous and casual acts of violence are not the result of dehumanization of the person against whom one directs the violence, but rather the result of paranoid or vindictiveness. The effort to dehumanize Jews holds far less prominence in Nazi thought than the thought that Jews were manipulating the political state of affairs, exploiting gentile Germans, and the like. It was not regarding them as inhuman, though there are tropes that track dehumanization, but rather the paranoia around “the Jewish Question.”

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