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Rowan
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Post by Rowan » Wed February 15th, 2012, 10:12 pm

Next group:

John Locke - Lock was lucky. Like many of his more interesting contemporaries, he was well connected and wrote and thought a good deal. But his fortune was to have left a well-preserved archive. Volumes of letters, numerous drafts of his works, commonplace books and other notebooks, as well as a number of bestselling works on philosophy, political theory and religion have meant that subsequent historians of ideas have confected a massive 'Locke industry'. He sells more books globally now than he ever did.

Locke's versions of the origins of government, the nature of knowledge, and the grounds for religious toleration have come to dominate accounts of 18th-century ideas, arguably out of all proportion to the understanding of his contemporaries. His arguments about the nature of political obligation have distorted modern accounts of liberty; his defense of tolerance - essentially a theological position - is regarded as the best defense of liberty of thought (despite it being fundamentally a Christian argument). The hegemony of the legacy of Lockean liberalism has warped our understanding of the 17th and 18th centuries: arguably it has also defined the shape of the political discourse of the modern world.

Without Locke, more time and energy, and hopefully veneration, might have been devoted to his contemporaries - the worlds of the Ranters and Levellers , of the Republican traditions of John Milton, James Harrington and later Benedict Spinoza. For many historians, Locke has been a safe pair of hands, uncontaminated by radical commitments. A nice chap, but definitely overrated. (selected by Justin Champion)

Napoleon Bonaparte - Napoleon, emperor of France from 1804 to 1814 and again, briefly, during the Hundred Days of 1815, is considered the finest military commander of his era, and one of the greatest of all time. Does he deserve to the ranked alongside Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus?

Few of those generals lost a major engagement. Napoleon, on the other hand, was bested in at least three - Caldiero, Aspern-Essling and Waterloo - and even some of his greatest victories, like Austerlitz and Marengo, were close-run affairs, won more by luck than judgment. But the greatest stain on his record was the Russian campaign of 1812 when he was undone not by the enemy commanders - though Borodino, where he lost 35,000 men, was as close as any 'victory' comes to being pyrrhic - but by General Winter and a failure of logistics. He marched in with 400,000 men and left with fewer than 10,000 effectives. Enough said. (selected by Saul David)

Oscar Wilde - I've never been able to fathom the secular deity accorded to Oscar Wilde. So many of his gags seem simply to be mere inversions of popular saws of the day. His decision to sue the Marquess of Queensberry for libel, when Queensberry had accurately accused him of sodomy, was a disgracefully dishonest thing to do; yet Wilde is always held up as a monument to Truth.

His essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism is naïve and even ludicrous. Doubtless he was wonderfully funny company, and some of his books and plays are sublime, but he doesn't strike me as the admirable , almost saint-like figure that his supporters promote. (selected by Andrew Roberts)

Charles Darwin - Showing great forethought for anniversary organizers of the future, Charles Darwin wrote his most famous book when he was exactly 50 years old. On the Origin of Species (1859) is expertly argued, beautifully written and packed with convincing meticulous evidence. But... Darwin did not invent evolution, his opponents were not all religious bigots insisting that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, he avoided mentioning how life might have been created in the first place, and he did not include human beings in his scheme.

A sloppy collector, Darwin tossed unlabelled finches from neighbouring islands into the same bag to be sorted out later by somebody else; and while he was dithering about whether to publish, a young naturalist working in Malaysia came up with natural selection independently. The world, wrote Darwin, resembles "one great slaughter-house, one universal scene of rapacity and injustice" - but that eloquent evocation of the ruthless competition for survival was written not by Charles Darwin, but by his grandfather Erasmus. (selected by Patricia Fara)

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Post by Ash » Thu February 16th, 2012, 12:24 am

[quote=""Justin Swanton""]I meant the doctrine that ties reincarnation to ultimate absorption into Brahma. There is no heaven in the Bhuddist system, merely assimilation by an entity about which one can predicate nothing, and in which one completely loses one's own identity and individuality, one's self. The material world is not seen as good, and one's goal in life is to distance oneself from all involvement in it, withdrawing into a contemplation of Brahma, the great unknowable. One is reincarnated again and again until one finally gets it right - and then disappears.

This is more Bhuddism than Hinduism. The latter has a lot of old-fashioned polytheism in it, though I'm not sure to what extend the Hindu gods are separate individuals in their own right, or just manifestations/incarnations of Brahma.

That's my (limited) understanding. Point taken though - I should know more about it, especially as, where I live, half the people I work with are Hindus.[/quote]

If you are interested in learning more, I can recommend a couple of really good reads: Karen Armstrong's The Great Transformation, is a good comparative lit volume between several religions that developed about the same time (called the Axial age). Her Buddha is also a good starting point (tho I haven't read that one, it comes well recommended)

You also might like Joseph Campbell's Masks of God: Oriental Mythology. I have heard great things about his entire Mythology series (I've read bits and pieces of some) This one focuses on the religions of the area and has a whole section on how the philosophy of Yoga is seen differently in both Buddhaism and Hinduism. I found that he can be difficult to read at times, But you may find this one helpful.
Last edited by Ash on Thu February 16th, 2012, 12:27 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by SGM » Thu February 16th, 2012, 8:05 am

[quote=""Rowan""]John Locke
Without Locke, more time and energy, and hopefully veneration, might have been devoted to his contemporaries - the worlds of the Ranters and Levellers , of the Republican traditions of John Milton, James Harrington and later Benedict Spinoza. For many historians, Locke has been a safe pair of hands, uncontaminated by radical commitments. A nice chap, but definitely overrated. (selected by Justin Champion)[/quote]

The trouble with potted synopses like these is that they make generalisations that are really not helpful. The use of the term "Levellers" is just such a one that lumps together a very disparate group of people with hugely varying ideas. Many of the so-called Levellers had advanced ideas (so advanced, they are still ahead of their time) but the truth is that they were Independents and to treat them as one body is misleading in the extreme. I have an interest in the more radical political ideas of the seventeenth century but found it difficult to get through this generic term. I have a similar problem with the use of the term 'Puritan', which again implies a unity that reallly did not exist amongst those who were unhappy with the Elizabethan Church settlement.
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Post by Justin Swanton » Thu February 16th, 2012, 12:27 pm

[quote=""Rowan""]Next group:

Napoleon Bonaparte - Napoleon, emperor of France from 1804 to 1814 and again, briefly, during the Hundred Days of 1815, is considered the finest military commander of his era, and one of the greatest of all time. Does he deserve to the ranked alongside Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus?
[/quote]

Being a wargaming enthusiast, especially for the Antiquity period, I've read plenty on who was history's greatest general. Good generalship seems to involve several abilities:

- good strategic vision: understanding what a viable war objective is and how to achieve it. Napoleon was good at this and came unstuck only in Spain and Russia - he could not and did not take Wellington and the Spanish guerrilla resistance into account, and he did not anticipate the determination of the Russian soldier fighting on his own soil.

Alexander in this respect was lucky: he had only the Persian king and army to contend with, and never had to face popular resistance. But he was very good at politically getting the various peoples of the Persian empire on his side by intermarriage, etc. and so pre-empted any potential rebellions.

Caesar took on a determined but divided enemy in the Gauls, and was able to beat them piecemeal. It was only when Vercingetorix partially united the tribes that he nearly came unstuck.

Hannibal invaded Italy with the intention of bringing Rome to her knees, but never made a serious attempt to take the city, a strategic mistake of the first order.

- good tactical planning: incorporates a good understanding of the enemy's strengths and weaknesses, and the strengths and weaknesses of one's own troops, and devising a plan accordingly.

My impression is that Napoleon was good at bringing the biggest club to the fight, something he managed with mass conscription and the corps system - marching an army piecemeal to speed progress and solve the supply problem, and combining it for the battle. In battles themselves he seems to have been wrong-footed more than once (as at Marenga). When badly outnumbered, as at Leipzig, he did not have a rabbit to pull out the hat.

Alexander was peerless in this respect: his plans seemed suicidal and would be for anyone else who tried them, but he knew exactly how to make them work.

I don't recall Caesar ever making a bad battle plan (when he had the time to make one). He certainly took Pompey out in style at Philippi.

Hannibal was an excellent tactical planner, so long as he was dealing with a standard Consular army led by incompetent generals. The Roman army was built like a giant club: send in the first line, pull them back, send in the second line and, if that didn't work, pull them back and send in the third. Always the same thing. It was when Hannibal met a general who did something different - Scipio Africanus - that his lovely plans came to pieces.

- the ability to improvise: this means being able to read a battle and react quickly and decisively when things don't go according to plan.

Napoleon seems about average at this, Caesar good, Alexander brilliant, and Hannibal hopeless. Patrick Waterson, in a penetrating study of the battle of Zama, maintains that Hannibal had planned a double envelopment with his infantry, believing his cavalry superior in numbers to the Romans. Scipio deceived him on this score, and then played his trump card - an additional 5000 Berber horse that arrived at the last minute. Faced with a sudden change in circumstances, Hannibal dithered and did nothing, allowing the Romans to scatter his cavalry and beat his three infantry lines one after the other.

So who comes out tops? My vote is: 1. Alexander, 2. Caesar, 3. Napoleon and 4. Hannibal. And now let me run for cover. :D
Last edited by Justin Swanton on Fri February 17th, 2012, 5:27 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Brenna
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Post by Brenna » Thu February 16th, 2012, 4:23 pm

Rowan-thank you for typing up all of this, I brought the magazine to work today just in case!

After reading the entire article this morning while waiting for a doctor's appointment, I am actually quite put off by the tone of the article and the arrogance of the "historians" in why they think the person they chose is overrated. They depicted the people in a negative light (IMHO) making them sound silly and irrational. The way they described Matilda was too simplistic and by stating twice that she was never "Queen of England" makes it sound like she did nothing, when in fact she beat Stephen and was ruling England for a very short period of time.

I just wasn't impressed by the article, but then like all writing, this was very subjective.
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Rowan
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Post by Rowan » Thu February 16th, 2012, 4:35 pm

Brenna - I will finish the last three today. Although I haven't looked yet, I have a suspicion that these people are all historical fiction authors who are just trying to promote their ideas over someone else's. I just think it's too much of a coincidence that there's one historian with a book about Mary Queen of Scots dissing Mathilda as the first Queen of England and another historian doing the same thing to Mary.

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Post by Brenna » Fri February 17th, 2012, 2:31 pm

Agreed! And they didn't seem to really base their opinion in any kind of fact, just opinion.
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Post by Margaret » Sun February 19th, 2012, 12:14 am

There is no heaven in the Bhuddist system, merely assimilation by an entity about which one can predicate nothing, and in which one completely loses one's own identity and individuality, one's self. The material world is not seen as good, and one's goal in life is to distance oneself from all involvement in it, withdrawing into a contemplation of Brahma, the great unknowable. One is reincarnated again and again until one finally gets it right - and then disappears.
Well, I can't let this pass. My boyfriend is a Chan Buddhist (Chan Buddhism being the forerunner of Zen), and he strictly does not believe in reincarnation (no heaven, either). I speak as someone who does (provisionally), so am not saying it's better not to believe in reincarnation, just that Chan Buddhists don't. There are a variety of different Buddhist traditions; I believe Tibetan Buddhists do believe in reincarnation, having picked it up from a Tibetan belief system that preceded Buddhism. Personally, I'm a fan of the material world on the whole (wish we humans treated it better), but I meditate pretty regularly and find it a sustaining practice that supports my ability to achieve a state of contentment. Like anything else, religion is susceptible to human prejudices, desires and resentments, so pretty much any religious doctrine can be twisted to justify the less attractive human passions and prejudices, and probably has been.
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Post by Justin Swanton » Sun February 19th, 2012, 9:29 am

[quote=""Margaret""]Well, I can't let this pass. My boyfriend is a Chan Buddhist (Chan Buddhism being the forerunner of Zen), and he strictly does not believe in reincarnation (no heaven, either). I speak as someone who does (provisionally), so am not saying it's better not to believe in reincarnation, just that Chan Buddhists don't. There are a variety of different Buddhist traditions; I believe Tibetan Buddhists do believe in reincarnation, having picked it up from a Tibetan belief system that preceded Buddhism. Personally, I'm a fan of the material world on the whole (wish we humans treated it better), but I meditate pretty regularly and find it a sustaining practice that supports my ability to achieve a state of contentment. Like anything else, religion is susceptible to human prejudices, desires and resentments, so pretty much any religious doctrine can be twisted to justify the less attractive human passions and prejudices, and probably has been.[/quote]

OK, I've dug around a bit on Wiki, the articles of which seem to be careful about citing sources:

Reincarnation
This seems to be a core doctrine of mainstream Bhuddism and most of its spin-offs, also Hinduism.

Rebirth refers to a process whereby beings go through a succession of lifetimes as one of many possible forms of sentient life, each running from conception[30] to death. Buddhism rejects the concepts of a permanent self or an unchanging, eternal soul, as it is called in Hinduism and Christianity. According to Buddhism there ultimately is no such thing as a self independent from the rest of the universe (the doctrine of anatta). Rebirth in subsequent existences must be understood as the continuation of a dynamic, ever-changing process of "dependent arising" ("pratītyasamutpāda") determined by the laws of cause and effect (karma) rather than that of one being, transmigrating or incarnating from one existence to the next.
Source here.

No independent existence in the 'next world'.
For Advaita Vendanta (the most influential philosphical school of Hinduism) there is no independent existence once an individual has broken free of the cycle of death and rebirth. For the Dvaita school there is.

The exact conceptualization of moksha [liberation] differs among the various Hindu schools of thought. For example, Advaita Vedanta holds that after attaining moksha an atman no longer identifies itself with an individual but as identical with Brahman in all respects. The followers of Dvaita (dualistic) schools identify themselves as part of Brahman, and after attaining moksha expect to spend eternity in a loka (heaven),[113] in the company of their chosen form of Ishvara. Thus, it is said that the followers of dvaita wish to "taste sugar", while the followers of Advaita wish to "become sugar". Source here.

My big difficulty is denial of the autonomous existence of the individual, which seems preponderant in both systems. Being told my conviction that I am an autonomous being is an illusion and that enlightenment will consist in realising that I am not, is something I find problematic, to say the least.
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