Friday, 22 April 2011

The Great Purge

“What a world! What a world!”  That’s how lecture 9 - Stalin and the Great Terror ends as Professor Gary Hamburg finishes up explaining how Stalin caused misery, starvation and tyranny in the soviet union. 

Prof Gary Hamburg is no pro-Stalinist that’s for sure as he gives detailed accounts of how Stalin purged many of his party members during collectivization.  Stalin saw enemies and traitors everywhere and many show trials were put on for the people to become indoctrinated into Stalinism.

The worst was yet to come after the murder of Sergey Kirov's (Leningrad party leader) in 1934.  Sergey was seen as a successor to Stalin, because many in the party viewed Sergey as a less harsh person than Stalin.  Obviously Sergey knew he was in trouble and spoke to Stalin stating that he could never replace him as leader.  This was not enough to save Sergey and from Sergey's murder, the show trials from 1934 to 1936 were used by Stalin to purge party members as traitors and conspirators.

The Great purge in the Soviet Union has always intrigued me.  I have always wondered how on earth 20 million people could perish and be swept away like a grain of sand in a vast desert.  It was not Stalin who did all the killings.  He had manipulated, placed fear and terrorised others into doing all this work.  People believed in Stalin, worked for Stalin and died for Stalin.  What was to become the project of Socialism ended up as a form of Stalinism, where we see the famous worship of the cult of personality. A view which Leon Trotsky spoke out to the world, before Leon was also purged even though he was all the way in Mexico.

Prof Gary Hamburg’s lecture runs for 45 minutes and gives us an account of what happened to those who got in Stalin’s way.  How Stalin out maneuvered his opponents time and time again, who was purged and why.  Even Stalin’s second wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva was not spared as she had a disagreement with Stalin over his collectivization policies.

Famously Stalin was to also purge his army general, which later was to become one of his greatest mistakes as war was to loom in the not so distant future.  It was almost a baffling joke as Stalin became so paranoid of who his enemies where, that he made friends with someone not only an enemy to communism, but an enemy to Stalin.  That person was Hitler, which was not mentioned in this lecture.  Eventually the purges went too far and the man partly responsible for the purge Nikolai Yezhov (senior figure in the NKVD), was actually purged himself.  Even to be wiped out from the photo shown on this post.
Now you See Yezhov
Now you dont see Yezhov

If you manage to get hold of the course “Rise and Fall of Soviet Communism: A History of 20th-Century Russia” take some time to listen and re-listen to this particular lecture.  Depressing as it may sound, we can learn a lot from Russia’s history and have sympathies for those who perished during the great purge.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Job and the Problem of Suffering

Job's Wife tries to offer him advice

Time to get religious; I have been listening to a course called “Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition, 3rd Edition”.  It has a very interesting lecture on Job and the Problem of Suffering, which is lecture 14.  This is a very large and in-depth course on intellectual endeavour through the ages.  I have not gone through all the lectures, since there are around 84 lectures that are around 30 minutes each.

This particular lecture is taught by Professor Philip Carey

Well going back to this lecture. I have sometimes wondered why some people worship some God even if terrible things happened to them time and time again.  What does it take to have faith in an all-powerful deity even though you cannot see them, feel them or comprehend them?  This is the concept behind the story of Job.  The story is quite famous and for those who do not know the story they can read it in the bible titled ‘The Book of Job’ found in the Old Testament.

The book of Job raised up deep fundamental questions.  What happens when bad things happen to good people? I am quite amazed that a bible or christen text actually has a story that raises questions on God or the nature of God.  The story goes that God has been boasting about Job and how Job worships God faithfully, until in the throne of God, someone challenges God to test Job’s faith by causing bad things to happen to Job.  Job’s faith will be tested to the limit.  What happens is a truly remarkable story.

The lecture breaks down the story in precise detail and goes over the questions the story raises.  The lecture brings out Job’s famous sayings such as:

Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised

I will not mention the other sayings; you will have to listen to the lecture to gain more insight.  What of the implications of the story?  The ultimate implication would be perhaps why did the holocaust happen? Why did God not protect the Jews or other followers? Such questions are not brought up in this lecture, but it does make on think about the nature of evil and how it can weaken faith.

Some have gone on to state that calamity actually strengthens our resolve to survive with the use of knowledge, some mention that evil causes man to have empathy towards others.  There are some philosophers who state that there is usually a reason for evil and that it does not have to do with religion or something that is difficult to explain, we could have natural disasters, evil within man and his society, disease and poverty, why does evil need to come from Satan or from a God who might not protect us?

Another good explanation is that God is mysterious; we could never understand God’s motivations or even comprehend the actions of God. 

When you have the time, check out the course and have a listen to the lecture.  Maybe read The Book of Job or watch some interpretations of story sometime.

I would also like to mention that the use and concept of Dust is very important in the story of Job.

Monday, 11 April 2011

The partially examined life : Leibnitz Monadology

This blog is on a podcast that seems to be shown late at nights over in the US.  The podcast is called “The partially examined life”.  It is quite an interesting show and is centred on philosophical topics.  So far I believe it has 35 episodes, however the podcast is still going strong, so expect more.  The show is hosted by Mark Linsenmayer, Wes Alwan and Seth Paskin. 

This particular episode I have been listening to was episode 6, which is on Leibnitz monadology.  Not an easy episode to begin with and for sure you will have to listen to that episode for a few times, perhaps numerous times.

Although the show is an hour long, the talks are fairly relaxed and the hosts really seem to know their subject intently.  Sometimes they do have guest lecturers helping to describe subjects and they also have a blog of their own.

Gottfried Leibnitz monadology has always been quite interesting to me.  This is quite what you call a metaphysical subject.  Here the hosts discuss with each other Leibnitz theory.   I believe they discuss other theories of Leibnitz, but the monadology is the main discussion point here.

The monadology in a nutshell looks at what is the smallest simplest particle that could ever be perceived.  If such a particle can never be divided any more then what we have something that could be known as a substance that makes up the universe.  We then relate the substance to the idea of god.  

This episode covers what Leibnitz thought what exactly a monad is. How the monad came into being, the monads relation to god and how our perception can help determine monads. 

I am sure I have missed loads of stuff here on the podcast, but hey! Here is a link to the this podcast, have a listen yourself.  It’s free!

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The F Word

My blog for today is on a lecture from a company called “The Modern Scholar”.  I do not know if their site is up at the moment because I wanted to paste a link, but the site was down.  It is a shame because this course called Feminism and the Future of Women is very informative.

The course is presented by Prof Estelle B Freedman and it runs up through to 14 lectures.  I have only listened to lectures on Feminism and Race in U.S. History, Lecture 10 - Reproduction and Sexuality, and Lecture 11 - Violence.  

Feminism and Race in U.S History was quite an eye opener as the audio lecture focused on how the American civil war not only gave African Americans the chance to get their voices heard, but how southern women began to push for rights as well.  We get a chance to hear how the two movements came together to support each other at one moment, and eventually split apart in order to get more rights for their own cause. The two movements continually formed and reformed again during the civil rights movement of the sixties.  I hope to go more into this fascinating lecture in more detail in another blog.

Lecture 10, which looks at Reproduction and Sexuality is quite a deep topic and this lecture will be my main focus for this blog today.  The other lecture on violence is an eye opener and has represented a sad history for women who faced persecution, restriction of movement; restriction of rights and one of the most famous feminist accusations on how gender stereotypes have been forced upon women throughout the ages.  Although later on during the seventies, there have been some feminist philosophers who complained that woman happily accepted these roles.  Feminist of the modern age now feel women must define their own roles.

Well back to this lecture on reproduction and sexuality.  It seems we are posed with a question as to why birth rates have declined in industrial nations. How does this link to the past and to the idea sexuality when basically birth rates were high?  

My first thought on this would be that freedom of choice has empowered women to pursue their goals, although there is a price to pay.  Still technology can always lend a helping hand to those who wish to have children at a much later age, but this can lead to ethical issues.

This lecture will try to answer the question of declining birth rates and look into how feminists protected women’s sexuality time and time again.  We end up with a conclusion that sexuality and reproduction has become separated due to many factors, but surprisingly sexuality has become more commercialised and now many women play up to the roles of sexuality to men, but is this a bad thing? Considering how the lecture mentions how contraception’s were supressed and banned throughout the US around the 19th century. 

Ida B Wells

The lecture mentions a few figure heads helping to empower women in an age of stereotypes and restrictions on.  We have Ida B. Wells helping to remove the stereotypes enforced on black women to state that they were sexually impure in accordance to white women and thus were open to rape and prostitution.  Such stereotypes are perhaps still circulating today.  

 With feminists fighting another struggle to protect women’s sexuality in the modern age, what are their chances due to the high sexual nature of advertising and mass communication?

Monday, 4 April 2011

The Romantic Era

A few days ago I had been listening to some lectures from a course called 'European Thought and Culture in the 19th Century'.  It is taught by Professor Lloyd Kramer and my main blog for today will be on lecture 09 - Literary Culture of Romanticism.  Romanticism is a vast cultural and literary movement, so it is highly unlikely that my blog will do it any justice with just one topic.  I am hoping to revisit this subject in more detail later, but I feel compelled to write something about it now from what I have learnt on this wonderful course.

So then, what are the romantics? And why did they form? What did they have to say? I think a good start would be that romanticism formed as a reaction against the notion that rationality was the best and noble trait humans could aspire to. This was portrayed in the age of Enlightenment.

The Romantics who were usually novelists, artists, political activists and musicians wanted to persuade the establishment the following ideas.
  • Where there is order, there is disorder and that there was nothing wrong with it.
  • Where there is reason, in life there is also beauty in the irrational.
  • Where nature can be contained and controlled, there is nature all around us and it astounds us with its wonder.
  • Where there is urban sprawl and the order of the city, there is peace, wonder and tranquillity in open spaces, far places. We can learn much from tribes far away.  Perhaps city life is not all that great; maybe we were much happier living in the wild.
 The list could go on and on and I know for sure I have missed many important distinctions about romantic era. Prof Lloyd also went through the meaning of romanticism and why historians actually look to the works of art and literature to understand the culture of the age past. One thing the romanticists where good at is producing major works of art, literature and music.

Just look at some of the pictures below.   

As you can see the painting called 'Wanderer above the Sea of Fog' by Caspar David Friedrich. Shows us how astounding nature can be.  This painting shows how a young man has reached a top part of a mountain and looks down at the mist.  This is how the romantics look at nature, how vast, open and enormous.  The man has not conquered the mountain; he is just there to take in its sites.  Nature cannot be controlled; it is disorder and goes where it pleases.  Surprisingly, this picture is used to represent a cover of one of Fredrick Nietzsche’s book.  He used to go on many long walks.  I would not be surprised if many of his theories were formed on one of his long walks.

 Let’s look at another romantic era painting.   

Here we have The Forest of Countess Mordvinova by Ivan Shishkin.  Yet again, it is another painting of nature, but this time in a forest.  Just look how vast the forest is and how it fills the painting.  The painting is practically dark and the forest dwarfs the figure wandering the area.  If we place ourselves as the man in the painting, you can just imagine how happy and free he feels walking amongst the trees.

We also had many great books produced in the romantic era.  William Wordsworth who did many great sonnets and had wrote over five hundred of them. William Blake producing many poems, art and other works and we had Mary Wollstonecraft a famous feminist who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women.

The lecture centred on three famous artists in this period. Friedrich Schelling was the German idealist who developed many philosophies on nature, art and linking rationality to the external idea of spirit.

Next we looked at Madame de Staƫl who was the exiled romantic writer that expressed her political ideas, she was to link German romanticism with French romanticism.

Last but not least we moved on to Lord Byron an English poet who had many lovers. He tried to live and express his idea through romanticism. His young death also was the expression of the romantic period.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Return to Sophie's World....Fear and Trembling

It is time for reflection, philosophising and absurdity.  Yes! that’s right, it is total irrationality.  I have come to episode 28 on the novel Sophie’s world and this particular chapter reflects on the ideas of Soren Kierkegaard.  Who was a famous Dutch philosopher around the mid-19th century living in Demark.

Things have taken a strange turn in the novel because Alberto (the philosopher) is teaching Sophie about the history of philosophy, but for some reason odd people keep turning up at Alberto's door. They have been sent by some metaphysical person called Albert Knag, who likes playing tricks on the two. 

This time Alice in Wonderland turns up to offer Sophie potions to drink.  Sophie is hesitant at first, but eventually drinks the potions.  She begins to see the world differently and notices things, which she could not have possibly noticed before.

This then in turn leads on to a good explanation on how Kierkegaard saw the world.  In a nutshell Kierkegaard was unhappy about how Christianity was being practiced in Denmark.  He felt that Christianity was being associated too closely to reason and rationality.  All this came about because of a major philosopher Hegel wanted to merge Christianity with reason.  Hegel felt rationality is the way forward and can be used to push civilization to the perfect ideal.  Everything could be proved, even god!

Kierkegaard was also at odds with the romantics, at odds with the idea of conformity, of rationality and of group action and group identity.  Kierkegaard wanted to go back to the individual.  He wanted people to see how important faith is to the person.  Still, there was a major problem.  How could Kierkegaard explain something as irrational and absurd as faith? This was a difficult task, and although he was at odds with Hegel, Kierkegaard did pick up some of Hegel’s traits.  That is Kierkegaard wrote books (via pseudo names) to get people’s attention.

Kierkegaard explained the importance of religion in many famous books such as Fear and Trembling, either/or and Stages of a life's way.  The main idea's Kierkegaard wanted to push forward is that one cannot be born into a religion and say that they are perhaps Christian because it is a state religion, it requires more than just conformity and identity. 

Religious practice requires faith beyond reason and it requires the practitioner to try and understand the dilemma faith has placed upon them.  This is so that they can understand their relationship with god would require something so absurd that the practitioner would need a leap of faith to get where they need to go.

So it seems reason has little place in religion.  We just cannot keep going to church on Sunday, sing hymns and go home without a thoughts notice of what we have done.  We cannot preach to others on doing rituals.  We need to reflect personally how absurd and powerful, that religious doctrines has placed on us and on us alone. 

Such ideas led to the birth of existentialism, which looks our choices and the angst it can sometimes lead to. 

Shall one dare to take the leap of faith to understand god or does one sit calmly in the seat of rationality?

Kierkegaard also looked at the stages of life in accordance to how one views the world in emotions.  These would be as follows

The aesthetic life: Those who were not immoral, but amoral where they seek pleasure in order to experience life. Yet they would not seek pleasure out of malice, but only because they find it makes life more interesting.

The ethical life: Those who seek to be ethical, but using rationality to be fair and just within the social order.

The religious life: Those who throw themselves into their faith even if the doctrines require irrationality. Their faith would place extraordinary demands upon them, asking them to purge themselves of sin.

Kierkegaard viewed the religious life as the highest of ideal, but there is a warning that such a life would be demanding. This is because it would lead to the individual in anxiety of the choices they would have to make. Only because they fully realised what faith actually requires of them. 

Kierkegaard lived according to the religious principal and become persecuted because he disassociated himself from state religion and then criticised it.

I felt the chapter wrapped up Kierkegaard's philosophy quite nicely. Though some parts of the chapter I did not fully understand. Why?

Well it seems the more I try to understand Kierkegaard’s philosophy, the more I am in doubt of how difficult it is to explain what seems irrational.  The curse of trying to explain the irrational might have landed on this particular chapter in Sophie’s world.  Yes, I can understand the chapter on Karl Marx, I can understand the chapter on Charles Darwin and on Hegel (oddly enough), but Kierkegaard takes quite some understanding.  I guess in a nutshell, one cannot become too comfortable in their faith. 

To be is just not enough, one must also do and become, but the leap of faith forces doubt on our choices. 

There is more to come from our famous Danish philosopher as I have other lectures and books on him.

Soran Kierkegaard