Today’s Phrase for Latin Lovers

Rex in Regno suo superiores habet Deum et Legem.

The King in his Realm hath two superiors: God and the Law. -- Henry Care (1646-1688) on English liberties and the Magna Carta


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Ancient History

|Book Club

Wit vs. Wits

My favorite quote (and guide) regarding wittiness is the oft-quoted Shakespeare-coined adage that “Brevity is the soul of wit.” [from Act II, Scene II of Hamlet]

But when it comes to wits (as in “keep your wits about you”), brevity would be a disadvantage.

I’m partway through the 2013 modern costume and set decoration, Joss Whedon-adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” which is a very interesting approach to this classic late 16th-century comedy. It’s intriguing to see how this play would unfold in present-day surroundings (apparently filmed in the director’s own house), simple luxuries and technologies, and illustrates how human nature is little changed in the intervening 400 years.

By removing all the medieval trappings that typically scare 21st-century people and leaving just the dense, florid Shakespearean language, it makes the play more accessible to modern man, while maintaining the purity of the script. The language of the script, for non-Shakespeare scholars, remains intimidating–especially in the first few minutes where it’s all whizzing by you as you’re also trying to grasp who is who and what’s going on. Eventually the rhythm of the words becomes easier to understand, and yet old turns of phrase and vocabulary can keep jamming on the brakes: “challeng’d Cupid at the flight” (challenged to Cupid to an archery contest), “burbolt” (a flat-headed arrow used for bird hunting), “trencherman” (eater), “squarer” (fighter), “parrot-teacher” (an insult, implying someone who says the same thing so often that they would make a good parrot trainer), “jade’s trick” (a jade is a broken-down, overworked horse, a nag, and according to various internet sites, the trick would be 1. giving up before the race is finished or 2. having a horse trader use dyes and spices to make the jade appear young and healthy for sale).

If I’m watching Shakespeare in public (it’s worth the day-long effort to wait in line for free “Shakespeare in the Park” tickets in Central Park), I just have to turn off that part of my brain that questions every new word and phrase I hear and let the words flow over me. I always walk away feeling like I understood all the main plot lines and themes and most of the details.

But when I’m at home, with dictionaries and computers nearby, I only make it through a scene or two before my brain is screaming to put the DVD on pause and look up all of the archaic words and phrases I don’t immediately get so that I’ll understand every detail. (This is why I don’t watch Shakespeare movies every week…or month.)

So pause I have. To my happiness, I found one bit of dialog that flowed right over me, has even more meaning that I can apply to other things:

Alas! he gets nothing by that. In our last
conflict four of his five wits went halting off, and
now is the whole man governed with one: so that if
he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him
bear it for a difference between himself and his
horse; for it is all the wealth that he hath left,
to be known a reasonable creature.

I didn’t need to know this to enjoy Lady Beatrice’s snark about Benedick not having all his wits, but apparently in the Middle Ages, there were thought to be five “inward” wits to go along with the five “outward wits” or senses (taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight). The five wits were imagination, memory, estimation (instinct), fantasy (is this really different from imagination? this reference tries to differentiate it) and common wit (which is akin to Aristotle’s concept of what we now call “common sense”). Not sure where the humorous wit fits among these categories, though.

Therefore, it’s fun to know that instead of tossing out random numbers, Beatrice’s imagination specifically intends to insinuate that Benedick’s mind is deprived of all imagination, memory, instinct and fantasy, but she graciously grants him some common sense.

That’s being witty about wits.

UPDATE: No wonder I missed Beatrice’s jab at Benedick’s wit in the movie. In replaying the scene, I find Whedon has edited Shakespeare here and there, removing the quote I so love. Hmph.

|Interdisciplinary Prudence

On Myth, de Vries and Freud: Losing Our Religion

This week’s thought-provoking interdisciplinary topics: mythology and religion.

In my reading today, this passage criticizing a mythology theory by Max Müller, who deemed mythology a “disease of language,”* spoke to me:

Nomina, not numina! [Mere names, not divine powers!] How could one say such a thing about the gods of pagan polytheism, who move us time and again exactly because of their strong personal character? Indeed, were Zeus and Wodan, Indra and Donar [Thor] no more than empty names? They were true gods—-one could almost say of flesh and blood–so human were they in their imagery, so persuasive in their doings. They demanded veneration because of their powerful intervention in life; awe and confidence, fear and love were felt for them in accordance with their power and character. Mythology is not a disease of language; it is a reality immediately apparent to man; it has its being in all that is limitless and enigmatic in nature or in himself.

Max Müller’s theory demonstrates once more the gap that lay between nineteenth-century man and the sundry faiths he knew existed. To the extent that modern man’s soul detached itself from Christianity, to the extent that Christianity was allowed to deteriorate into a mere moral lore as the core was taken out of its dogma and the sense for its mystery got lost, to that extent also man’s understanding for other religions disappeared. It seemed to him that these religions were so naïve that they could not have any connection with deep human experience. Max Müller’s theory makes abundantly clear that he never fathomed belief.”

— Jan de Vries, “Theories Concerning ‘Nature Myths'” from Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth, edited by Alan Dundes

The Dutch folklorist Jan de Vries wrote this back in 1961 in his book The Study of Religion. Moving from his European vantage point, we now advance 50 years to today. American atheist activists have spent the intervening years fighting and shrieking and clawing to remove any inklings of Christianity from the public square so as to not have their rigid, ideological, intolerant sensibilities offended. They’ve been remarkably successful, replacing Christianity with their religion: an utter absence of any sense of spirituality in the public arena.

They’ve been so successful that many children who grow up in areligious homes (ones not necessarily opposed to religion or spirituality, but not practicing any themselves) have little chance to come in contact with religious opportunities or to even know how much of it still survives in private realms.

I may no longer be a believer myself, but I worked at educating myself on the various religions, both as a child and an adult. I’m thankful for the religious training I received as a child, as it gave me a foundation in morals. Most of all, it gave me an ability to respect others’ religious beliefs—even when they seem far from my own. When others mock or belittle someone for their faith, my religious education makes me irritated, if not indignant (almost as if I were being attacked too) at the intolerance.

And so to read de Vries saying that when one has no religion, one loses the ability to understand those with religion, I can’t help but agree. The evidence is all around us. Hostility towards religious persons (or even those that just believe in a religion) is rampant in media, entertainment and academia.

I also can’t help but wonder if de Vries had Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontentsin the back of his mind as he wrote this as well, seeing as how Freud began the book marveling over and misunderstanding a friend’s comment that religion is based in a feeling of being eternally connected to the whole universe—an “oceanic” feeling. Freud then proceeds to try to figure out this feeling he says he has never experienced and cannot understand. He ultimately concludes that it’s not him that’s deficient, that well-adjusted psychologically fit people would not have this feeling, and therefore it proves that religious people are just really screwed-up neurotics.

This is an all-too-brief summary of the screwed-up Freud that I should expound on later. I bring it up here because it so fits with de Vries criticism of Müller; Sigmund Freud himself said he could not fathom belief, and we have gotten the same result de Vries explained above.

“Intellectuals” have long used pseudo-science devoid of any proof beyond the hypothesizing of a pompous cokehead to actually deny something to which billions of people can attest (even non-believers such as myself) to then claim those billions are just all intellectually and psychologically inferior and must conform to the “intellectual” view or be forever ridiculed and derided.

Tolerance doesn’t necessarily require respect for someone else’s beliefs. To respect someone’s beliefs requires understanding someone’s beliefs.

From there, it’s courtesy, not tolerance, that tells one it’s impolite to make fun of another’s beliefs. Tolerance merely requires us to not try to force our superior beliefs down someone else’s throat.

* I’ve not yet personally read the writings of Max Müller, a 19th-century philologist who was instrumental in creating the field of comparative religious studies. Therefore, I take at face value de Vries assessment of Müller’s theory and familiarity with faith, primarily because my launching point is not Müller’s thoughts, but de Vries’ take on them.