Friday, August 11, 2017

stray thoughts: the rhyming spiral of history (pt 2)

Ary Scheffer & Charpentier, Portrait of John Calvin Meditating

Elsewhere in The Western Intellectual Tradition from Leonardo to Hegel (1962), authors Bronowksi and Mazlish relate the brutal methods of theocratic dictator John Calvin in settling a dispute with Michael Servetus:
Calvin enforced his regimen with great vigor and, frequently, with outright ferocity. One of his "citizens" was beheaded for writing a set of what Calvin called obscene verses. A card player was pilloried, and an adulterer whipped through the streets and then banished.

Among these, the persecution of Servetus was the gravest incident of Calvin's rule in Geneva. Servetus, who was a doctor and scientist living in France, wrote a book attacking the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Thereupon, he and Calvin became engaged, by letter, in a violent theological polemic. Calvin's anger mounted to the point where, himself a heretic from the Catholic Church, he secretly accused Servetus of heresy to the Catholic Inquisition in France. Servetus was forced to flee; and, as bad luck would have it, his escape route took him through Geneva. Although his book had been neither written nor printed at Geneva, Calvin had Servetus seized and burned at the stake.
I'm not saying that John Calvin invented or even prefigured the au courant practice of "swatting," but you've got to admit that going through back channels to anonymously rat out a despised ideological adversary to the Inquisition is similar in spirit, if not substance, to sending a SWAT team to someone's door on a bogus report of a hostage situation because they offended your sacrosanct beliefs regarding ethics in gaming journalism (or whatever).

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

stray thoughts: the rhyming spiral of history (pt 1)

Walter Raleigh (artist unknown) and Donald Trump (via Vasco Gargalo).
Note the politicians' shared affinity for ruffs.
Given all the signs and wonders promulgated daily in the sci&tech news, it can be tempting to believe the hype, to conclude that our present epoch isn't merely brighter, more diffuse, and faster than earlier ages, but that it signals a social mutation no less explosive than the genesis of agriculture. Maybe so. But as long as one can turn to the literature of earlier ages and still relate to it, and find consonance between accounts of historical moments and today's current events narratives, one must admit that all our extracutaneous prosthetics haven't entirely reinvented humanity and its social institutions (not yet?), but rejiggered them, accelerated them. This isn't to say that our age isn't unexceptional, but it's often difficult to tell where the quantitative changes end and the qualitative transformations begin.

Case in point: I've been reading Jacob Bronowski and Bruce Mazlish's The Western Intellectual Tradition from Leonardo to Hegel (1962)—I grabbed a used copy ten years ago from a "take these or we're throwing them out" table at my alma mater and finally dug it up and cracked it open—and am routinely writing "cf. virilio" or "we use twitter for that now" in the margins. For example, the chapter on the Elizabethan Age contains a few paragraphs about Walter Raleigh:
[Raleigh's] progress at court was made simpler by the fact that he was a handsome man. He was also helped by his intellectual accomplishments. For example, he read not only the learned tongues but French and Spanish fluently; and none of this was lost on Elizabeth, who was also proficient in languages (it is said that she knew five or six fluently, and read Machiavelli in the original).