Keynes “the Immoralist”

We are all Keynsians now.  In Canada, Justin Trudeau was elected on the promise that he would build Canada’s infrastructure (and run large budget deficits).  Trump has also promised a massive infrastructure build out (with hundred year bonds!).  Running multi-year deficits doesn’t seem to matter anymore.  If anyone objects, the theories of John Maynard Keynes are always trotted out.  So who is this guy exactly?

I encountered Keynes unexpectedly while jogging on a road near Cambridge.  I was lost and so I stopped to ask for directions.

Me: Excuse me, can you tell me if there is a trail by the river that will take me back Cambridge?

Fellow: Oh yeah, just take this road to Grantchester Meadow’s and you will find a path from there.

Me:  Grantchester…?

Fellow: You know Grantchester Meadows?  Pink Floyd?

Me: Oh, right!  Pink Floyd!  Of course! Thanks.

That was my first introduction to Grantchester Meadows and, admittedly, to the song by Pink Floyd that was apparently inspired by the picturesque meadow beside the River Cam.  I also learned that Grantchester was the famous haunt of a group of Cambridge intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group.  They might be compared to the Clapham Saints, a group of wealthy and prominent individuals who used their wealth and influence to advocate for social reform and the abolition of the slave trade.  The Bloomsbury Group also sought social change, but in a different direction, by embracing a new kind of paganism (if I am not mistaken, they referred to themselves as ‘neo-pagans’).

Many of the Bloomsbury Group were influential writers, philosophers, academics, etc.  Among their number was one economist, J.M. Keynes.  During his university days at Cambridge, Keynes also belonged to an exclusive club called the Cambridge Apostles.  Founded in the mid 1800’s, the Cambridge Apostles would become famous in the 1950’s when five former members of the club were charged with spying for the Soviets.  Besides Keynes, several other Cambridge Apostles were also part of the Bloomsbury Group.

I am not sure what ‘The Apostles’ were like in the early days but by the time Keynes joined the group it was a philosophic debating club modeled on Plato’s Symposium.  They were the educated elite who had stepped out of the cave of appearances into the broad daylight of reason. In practice this meant throwing off traditional and religious restraints that had come to define Christian morality.

Speaking of his relationship with Strachey, Keynes said that he and Strachey had “repudiated entirely customary morals, conventions, and traditional wisdom.  We were, that is to say, in the strict sense of the term, immoralists. The consequences of being found out had, of course, to be considered for what they were worth. But we recognized no moral obligation on us, no inner sanction, to conform or to obey. … Yet so far as I am concerned, it is too late to change. I remain and always will remain, an immoralist.1

So what exactly does it mean to be an ‘immoralist’?   The following biographical sketches are taken from an article that is sympathetic to Keynes.  It pulls from documents that I presume are reliable.  To begin, here is an excerpt from a letter Keynes wrote to one of his friends, Gerald Shove.

“I did in the end stroll out on Tuesday night and bring a boy back. He told me that there are many fewer this week because last week the police were active and locked two up.” His friend, Gerald Shove – to whom this letter was written – was concerned that he might be arrested. He had written, “I’m not sure your passion for low life isn’t vicious, but perhaps you keep it within bounds ” Continuing, he inquired, “I’m dying to know what your adventure was and whether you’re safe again. Of course, you can’t describe it on paper, but do let me hear when you’re escaped, or are arrested.”  2

Keynes had another affair in those pre-1914 years with a lovely “Cockney lad,” an actor by the name of Francis St. George Nelson. “St. George” – as Maynard and Duncan called him – was engaged in a rather profitless occupation, and Keynes often had to rescue him when he was stranded and broke in some seaside town. They both were very fond of the young man (he was in his late teens), partly because he was “a vicarious source of low-life adventures.” 2

Keynes sexual escapades with boys was an ideal embraced by the Cambridge Apostles whose members aspired to “Higher Sodomy”.  Keynes used his position of power to force a young Indian boy in his late teens to become his lover and preyed on the boy’s vulnerability as a foreigner to get what he wanted.

The Cambridge Apostles had all the makings of a cult, with ideas every bit as absurd as the Branch Davidians.

Once elected, an Apostle swore the “curse,” or vow of secrecy, and placed all other obligations second to those of the Brotherhood. Embryos, Apostles, and Angels gathered behind locked doors every Saturday evening, to eat anchovy toast and to discuss a particular Brother’s essay delivered on the hearth rug. In addition to secrecy and ritual, the Brothers invented a coded language and a neo-Platonic schema of the world that divided “reality” (anything and anyone related to the Society) from the “phenomenal” (the non-Apostolic realm of women, politics, and the masses). Though they claimed they wanted “everyone” to “be Apostolic,” the Brothers believed that only they belonged to “a certain type, rare like all good things.” The Society bolted its doors to the uninitiated, allowing only the select few to “breathe that magic air.” 4

During the 1890s, Bertrand Russell argued that the inclusion of women would assist in the discussion of sexual matters, but the Brothers favored the logic of Angel Roger Fry whose paper “Ought We to Be Hermaphrodite?” made it possible to ignore the presence of women at Cambridge altogether. Fry expressed the “terrific thought” that no woman had ever existed or could exist as long as the Society admitted only males to Apostolic reality 5

Years later, the Edwardian Brothers still believed that any unnecessary contact with the opposite sex jeopardized the “Apostolic character” and was “sufficient to frighten others off the higher ground of Sodomy.” 6

The Apostles’ notion of fraternity met with some criticism. Overall, the Brothers described their relations with the opposite sex as “always degraded.”  7

Elected to the Society in 1890, J. E. McTaggart remained at Cambridge, lecturing on Hegel and inviting privileged undergraduates to pay court in his rooms on Thursday evenings. His Apostle paper, “Violets or Orange Blossom,” a defense of male love, was prized and re-read by future members of the Society. According to McTaggart’s theory of reincarnation, male friendships developed out of a recognition of souls that had loved one another in a previous existence. This communion of souls in the perfect love of friendship constituted a heaven in need of no God.  McTaggart designated Love  – male love – as the Absolute, and not even conjugal relations could erode what he called the “all-consuming bonds of spiritual love.” 8

Many will argue that members of this group were genetically predisposed to act this way.  But according to the Apostles, it was their philosophy that led them to form homosexual relationships.  Many of them eventually married.

Though he married in 1899, McTaggart promised the Society that his new state would neither replace nor transcend his ties to the Brotherhood. In fact, his “phenomenal wife,” Margaret Bird, seemed “almost Apostolic” in her fondness of metaphysical discussion and schoolboys. 9

Likewise, another of the Apostles writes that he was never interested in men until he joined the Society.

Dickinson himself did not discover the “highest reaches” until his election to the Society in 1890. In his memoirs he wrote that as a youth he expected to find love with a woman, but his participation in the Society reaffirmed his “discovery of Greek Love as he read of it in Plato.” 10

Keynes eventually settled down with a woman as did Lytton Strachey.  Their homosexuality was an outward expression of their complete rejection of Christian religion and tradition.  The symbols and rituals of the Cambridge Apostles seem to have been designed to replace Christian ones.  They kept a book containing a list of former Apostles together with notes from their meetings.  They called it ‘the book’ and they had a cedar Ark in which they kept essays written by former Apostles.

The Society’s bond of Brotherly Love searched the Society’s ark, a “charming cedarwood chest,” where previous essays and meeting minutes were stored, for a roster of Higher Sodomites and reminded his Brothers that only “Us the terribly intelligent, the artistic, the overwhelmed” attain Love. 11

They worshiped their idealized version of Man and believed that they were on the path to attaining that ideal.  Having embraced the philosophic life they were ready to rule the world.  And rule the world they did.  The membership roll of the Cambridge Apostles (and the Bloomsbury Group) reads like a veritable ‘who’s who’ list of intellectual elite in the UK.

So does it matter that Keynes ‘the economist’ was ‘an immoralist’?  It doesn’t seem to matter to most commentators.  Even those who sincerely oppose his ‘immoralist’ worldview seem to think that our current economic malaise is just a natural part of the business cycle.  But if it is true that beliefs have real world consequences and that the greater the power and prestige of those who hold those beliefs, the more widespread the consequences will be, then yes, it does matter.  The fiscal and monetary regime J.M. Keynes enabled may go down in history as the greatest conceit ever imposed on the human race.

For in pride is destruction and much trouble, and in lewdness is decay and great want: for lewdness is the mother of famine. (Tobit 4:13)

  1.   Hession, C. H. (1993). “PERSPECTIVE: Keynes, Strachey, and the Gay Courage To Be.” Challenge 36(4): 55
  2.   ibid. in loc.
  3.   ibid. in loc.
  4. ibid., 32
  5. ibid., 39
  6. ibid., 40
  7. ibid., 52
  8. ibid., 55
  9. ibid., 56
  10. ibid. 59
  11. ibid., 110

Lessons from the Albertina

I visited the Albertina Museum while I was in Vienna where I found an exhibit of sketches and paintings by Durer and Rubens.

Scattered among the paintings by these old masters were some by a more recent artist, Egon Schiele (early 20th century, mostly pre-WW1).

I had to crop and modify the images to make them family friendly.  I am not sure why the curator would place the ‘paintings’ of Schiele next to those of Durer and Rubens.  According to the plaque at the entrance to the exhibit, the goal of the mixed exhibit was to show “the uniquely encyclopedic nature” of the museum.   No doubt!  The museum has taken diversity and inclusiveness to a whole new level!  But then again, it excludes those who want to see paintings by Durer and not the sick pornography of Schiele.

The plaque explaining Schiele’s artwork is full of Freudian buzzwords.

His [Schiele’s] discovery of the damaged psyche and of sexuality were to be the definitive means of unhinging art as imitation of nature.

This is a misleading comment for it suggests that art was once nothing more than imitation.  What modern art dismisses as ‘imitation’ is really the rejection of the basic laws of form and composition observed in nature.  This problem can be seen in other exhibits in the museum dedicated to modern art.   (I have copied portions of the exhibit labels verbatim – in italics)

Fernand Leger, 1928, There is no longer a landscape, a still life, a face. There is the image, the object [...] the useful, useless, beautiful object". For him, all objects, whether organic or inorganic, were equal.
Fernand Leger, 1928, There is no longer a landscape, a still life, a face. There is the image, the object […] the useful, useless, beautiful object”. For him, all objects, whether organic or inorganic, were equal.
Fernand does not see persons, he sees objects.  The human face is a profile to him.

Pablo Picasso, Nude Woman with Bird and Flue Player, 1967 - Towards the end of his life, Picasso frequently painted bucolic or Arcadian scenes. One often encounters a flutist courting a woman in them - a theme that had already been highly propular in Venitiian Rennaissance painting, such as in the art of Giorgione and Titan. The present picture's bucolic not can be associated with the Mediterranean, the pastoral novel, and Daphnis and Chloe, but also contains a distinct erotic allusion, which is expressed by the motif of the dove as a symbol of sexual lust.
Pablo Picasso, Nude Woman with Bird and Flute Player, 1967 – Towards the end of his life, Picasso frequently painted bucolic or Arcadian scenes. One often encounters a flutist courting a woman in them – a theme that had already been highly popular in Venitiian Renaissance painting, such as in the art of Giorgione and Titan.

I guess Picasso did not get to the countryside very often if this is his attempt at a bucolic scene.  Picasso does not seem to perceive nature at all, or the God of nature.

Pablo Picasso, Woman in a Green Hat, 1947 - I deliberately painted this crooked nose [...] so that you are forced to see a nose. Later [...] you'll recognise that it is not crooked at all. You should simply stop perceiving pretty harmonies and exquisite colours." Such portraits as the present example met with rejection and bewilderment: "If all women resembled those painted by Picasso, the earth would be depopulated by the end of the century. Men would run away at the sight of these cadaverous, greenish, amorphous, inhuman creatures.'
Pablo Picasso, Woman in a Green Hat, 1947 –  “I deliberately painted this crooked nose […] so that you are forced to see a nose. Later […] you’ll recognize that it is not crooked at all. You should simply stop perceiving pretty harmonies and exquisite colors.” Such portraits as the present example met with rejection and bewilderment: “If all women resembled those painted by Picasso, the earth would be depopulated by the end of the century. Men would run away at the sight of these cadaverous, greenish, amorphous, inhuman creatures.’
Picasso tells us that we should “stop perceiving pretty harmonies.”  Why does Picasso hate the world so much?

Bacon had his first scandalous successes in the mid-1940's, with pictures full of violence and brutality. They highlight the human figure, which seems to be exposed to the most terrible physical tortures and mutilation. Bacon preferrably displayed disfigured and decrpit bodies, with, however, simultaneously radiate vitality and aggressiveness. Although in Seated Figure the deformation of reality may have been pused to the limit, the painting does not reflect an ideal world, enclosed within a narrow black case, a man in street clothes appears to perlashing about desperately. It cannot be overlooked that his face and hands are severely inured, if not maimed. In Bacon's art, disformation and distortion are carried as far as the dissolution of form and motif. His works are essentially metaphors of the life based on the dialectics of growing and perishing, of life and death.
Bacon had his first scandalous successes in the mid-1940’s, with pictures full of violence and brutality. They highlight the human figure, which seems to be exposed to the most terrible physical tortures and mutilation. Bacon preferably displayed disfigured and decrepit bodies, with, however, simultaneously radiate vitality and aggressiveness. Although in Seated Figure the deformation of reality may have been pushed to the limit, the painting does not reflect an ideal world, enclosed within a narrow black case, a man in street clothes appears to be thrashing about desperately. It cannot be overlooked that his face and hands are severely inured, if not maimed. In Bacon’s art, disformation and distortion are carried as far as the dissolution of form and motif. His works are essentially metaphors of the life based on the dialectics of growing and perishing, of life and death.

Bacon rebels against the very forms of nature.  His art glories in the obscene and cruel.  He hears the curse, but not the promise.  He sees a world beyond redemption. I was always under the impression that this kind or art did not begin to thrive until after the WW1, after the promise of the enlightenment was shattered by mechanized warfare.  But modern art thrived well before WW1.  The apostle Paul nails it when he connects idolatry with the obscene and describes the very last stage of decadence as the embrace of what is unnatural.

Pascal and Kepler vs. Edward Dolnick

In his book “The Clockwork Universe”, Edward Dolnick argues that the development of science in the 17th century led to man losing his place of primacy in the universe.

“Mankind had long taken its place at the center of the cosmos for granted. The world was a play performed for our benefit. No longer. In the new picture, man is not even the pinnacle of creation but an afterthought. The universe would carry on almost exactly the same without us. The planets trace out patterns in the sky, and those patterns would be identical whether or not humans had ever taken notice of them. Mankind’s role in the cosmic drama is that of a fly buzzing around a stately grandfather clock.”

Dolnick might see himself as “a fly buzzing around in a stately grandfather clock” but the same cannot be said for the 17th century scientists he writes about.   Their discoveries had exactly opposite effect.   Kepler’s study of the night sky led him to view the universe as a vast and wonderful book created by God for man to read,

I may say with truth that whenever I consider in my thoughts the beautiful order, how one thing issues out of and is derived from another, then it is as though I had read a divine text, written onto the world itself … saying: Man, stretch thy reason hither, so that thou mayest comprehend these things”  Johannes Kepler

Likewise, Blaise Pascal believed the vastness of the universe was intended to make man marvel at the omnipotence of God which is the exact opposite of Dolnick’s ‘fly in the clock’ allegory.

Let man then contemplate the whole of nature in her full lofty majesty, let him behold the dazzling light set like an eternal lamp to light up the universe, let him see the earth as a mere speck compared to the vast orbit described by this star, and let him marvel at finding this vast orbit itself to be no more than the tiniest point compared to that described by the stars revolving in the firmament. But if our eyes stop there, let our imagination proceed further; it will grow weary of conceiving things before nature tires of producing them.

The whole visible world is only a imperceptible dot in nature’s ample bosom, No idea comes near it; it is no good inflating our conceptions beyond imaginable space, we only bring forth atoms compared to the reality of things. Nature is an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere. In short it is the greatest perceptible mark of God’s omnipotence that our imagination should lose itself in that thought. (Pensee 72)

Pascal did not conceive of man “as an afterthought” but rather as the pinnacle of creation, with a mind capable of thinking about the universe.

Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.  There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapour, a drop of water is enough to kill him.  But even if the universe were to crush him, Man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying… the universe knows nothing of this.  Let us strive then to think well; that is the basic principle of morality.  (Pensee 347)

As awe inspiring as the universe may be, there is something even more wonderful and mysterious – the mind of man.  Pascal believed that man has a responsibility to think correctly about God, himself, and the universe – this is what distinguishes him from the animals, and it is the foundation of morality.  Modern science doesn’t get this.  But Pascal and Kepler did.  Dolnick does them both a great injustice.

A Brief History of Modesty

Walking through the Louvre the other day, I was struck by how different the Greek and Roman sculpture exhibits are from those of the medieval period.  In the latter, chastity and motherhood are celebrated instead of the purely sensual.

1C0A2691
Virgin of the Annunciation (?) – D’apres Mino da Fiesole (?) Papiano, Palagio fiorentino, 1429 – Florence, 1483 (Courtesy of the Louvre R.F.588)

The symbols and representational artwork of natural religion have remained constant through the ages.  They may be expressed spectacularly in Greek sculpture or Renaissance art, or they may be depicted crudely on primitive tribal masks or on MTV, but they draw from the same well.

Greece in Germany

M. Legaspi argues that we cannot understand the change in attitude towards the Old Testament in German universities in the 18th and 19th centuries without also considering the way in which classics departments in these same universities embraced ancient Greek literature.   Legaspi writes,

German philhellenism was not simply a movement: it was a “faith”.  To its proponents, it entailed the monumental task of replacing Christianity with a new form of life derived from an imaginative engagement with Greek antiquity. To say this is to indicate the kind of personal, intellectual, and creative investment that characterized philhellenists and inspired them to create journals, pioneer new forms of literature, undertake Mediterranean pilgrimages, adopt looser sexual mores, and abandon respectable careers.   One of the pioneers in this field of study was J.J. Winckelmann (1717-1768), of whom Goethe hails as “the first great pagan of his time.” (Legaspi 2010, 56)

Winkelmann sought to throw off the shackles of Christianity, which he believed suppressed the human individual, and replace it with the beautiful, free, noble view of humanity he found in classical antiquity.  Goethe continued Winckelmann’s project, “immersing himself in Greek literature and art and began the constructive enterprise of creating a pagan alternative to bourgeois Christian culture. This was the new gospel preached in Germany. Schiller argued that the best hope for humanity lay in “a new, hellenically inspired program of aesthetic ennoblement, the creation of a kind of “asesthetic state” to transcend the existing political and religious order.” (ibid.)

Almost contemporary with Winkelmann was another pioneer figure in the German university, J. D. Michaelis, who taught Old Testament at Gottingen.  Michaelis approached the Old Testament from a purely literary perspective.   The students taught by Michaelis and Winkelmann would dominate Biblical studies for the next century.

References

M. Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies, Oxford University Press (2010)

Externsteine and the Irminsul

There are a group of rocks near Detmold that a friend showed me one wet and miserable day. (thank you Jon!)
IMG_3408

There is some evidence that it was an ancient cultic site.  There is apparently a hole cut in the rock at the top of one of the pillars that aligns with the sun during the solstice.  The sun may have shone through this hole into a darkened chamber of some kind. One can see something similar to this at Casesarea Maritima where a hole was cut in the ceiling of an underground vaulted chamber so that the sun shone into the chamber and lit up a small altar during the summer solstice.   The chamber was used by devotees of Mithras, an eastern cult that was very popular in the Roman world in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.

From what I am told, the top of the central pillar is where the sun chapel is thought to have been built.
From what I am told, the top of the central pillar is where the sun chapel is thought to have been built.

There are also tombs in the area although I am not sure how old they are.

IMG_3486

It looks like the top of the tomb chamber was used as a podium of some kind.

IMG_3460

The most interesting thing about these pillars is the relief carved into the rock face that to dates the middle ages.

These pillars were a landmark along an important road through central Germany.
These pillars were a landmark along an important road through central Germany.

The iconography follows a common theme in the religious art of the period. The middle panel shows Christ being taken down from the cross by his disciples.  Their heads are bowed in mourning The upper panel shows Christ triumphant, holding a banner. The lower panel shows death and the ancient serpent, Leviathan, defeated at the cross.

IMG_3410

Externsteine Christ Triumphant
Christ triumphant holding a victory banner.

One of Jesus’ disciples is standing on a tree that is bent over under the weight.

The irminssul and the serpent.
The irminssul and the serpent.

The museum description says that the followers of Christ are standing on a chair and that nothing more is intended by the symbolism here.  But this is quite clearly not the case.  it is a tree and not a chair!  Here are the reasons I think so:

  1. You can see the curling acanthus leaves that are a universal symbol of growing things in classical architecture.
  2. And you can see the trunk firmly rooted to the earth.
  3. If you straitened the trunk you would have a perfectly symmetrical pillar.
  4. The tree seems to be associated spatially with the serpent depicted directly below it.

It has been suggested that this is an ancient depiction of the Irminsul, a Saxon cultic pillar.  The  relief places the cross next to the Irminsul to make a statement.

This site has an interesting history in the modern era as well.  The Nazis turned Externsteine into a national monument and used the meager archaeological evidence to invent a history of the place.  It is interesting that the Nazi’s were so keen to promote pagan historical sites in Germany.

Wehrmachtssoldaten_Externsteine
source Wikipedia

Neo-pagans come here each year to celebrate Walpurgis night.

Eresburg and the Irminsul

According to the Frankish Chronicles, the Irminsul was a Saxon idol destroyed by Charlegmagne:

The most gracious Lord King Charles then held an assembly at Worms. From Worms he marched first into Saxony. Capturing the castle of Eresburg, he proceeded as far as the Irminsul, destroyed this idol and carried away the gold and silver which he found. A great drought occurred so that there was no water in the place where the Irminsul stood. The glorious king wished to remain there two or three days in order to destroy the temple completely, but they had no water. Suddenly at noon, through the grace of God, while the army rested and nobody knew what was happening, so much water poured forth in a stream that the whole army had enough. Then the great king came to the River Weser. Here he held parley with the Saxons, obtained twelve hostages, and returned to Francia. He celebrated Christmas at Herstal and Easter, too. And the date changed to… 773.  (from here)

From this chronicle we learn that the Irminsul was:

  1. Somewhere beyond Eresburg from the direction of Worms
  2. An idol
  3. Probably attached to a temple that served as a treasury
  4. The temple was large enough that it required at least a few days to destroy
  5. Some distance from a perennial source of water

The 12th century Kaiserchronik (an important sources for early German history) provides further clues as to what exactly the Irminsul was.

Upon an yrmensul
Stood an idol huge,
Him they called their merchant.  (ie. Hermes, the Greek god of merchants?)

Romans him untruly slew,
On an yrm they buried him.

On an yrmensul he [Simon Magus] climbed,
The land-folk to him all bowed.  (Massmann as cited by Jakob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, pg 116)

Based on these texts, an irm seems to be a pedestal or mound upon which an image could be placed.

Rudolph of Fuld defined the Irminsul as “a universal pillar that bears all.”   ( Jakob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, pg 117) According to Grimm, the German tribes believed that Irm was the high god of the whole human race and not just a local deity.  Grimm further suggests that there may be some connection between Irm and Hermes for whom the Greeks also raised pillars.  1

There is a church in Eresburg, on the hill overlooking Obermarsburg, that is purported to be built on the place where the Irminsul once stood.  It is certainly one of the most impressive hills in the area.

Eresburg Panorama
The hill of Eresburg where a Saxon cult center called the Irminsul may have been located.

The original church in Eresburg was built by Charlegmagne in 800 AD.

Church Eresburg
Church on Eresburg built on site of church built by Charlemagne dating to 800 AD.

A statue standing in the entrance to the church has an interesting inscription.

O Mars!  You were supposed to be God.  But here I stand before you with scoffing and mockery.  Ages ago the heathen would call upon you.  Now In true faith We call upon Christ.  (1757 AD)

Ironically, the middle of the 18th century saw a resurgence of pagan ideas in Germany.  New classics departments were established in German universities that celebrated a somewhat sanitized version of Greek mythology and a the Bible was demoted from scripture to literature.

 

Sculpture Eresburg
Sculpture at entrance to church at Eresburg

 

There is another possible site for the Irminsul that I think is even more interesting.  But I will have to save it for another post.

  1. Now whatever may be the probable meaning of the word irman, iormun, eormen, to which I shall return in due time, one thing is evident, that the Irman-pillar had some connection, which continued to be felt down to a late period (p.H6),with Mercury or Hermes, to whom Greek antiquity raised similar posts and pillars, which were themselves called Hermae, a name which suggests our Teutonic one. (Teutonic Mythology, pg 118)

Power and the Poor

Gnaeus Mallius Maximus (thrived circa 100 BC) sought powers to grant Roman citizenship as a way to expand his power base.   He also began to recruit men for his army from the very lowest census rank.  With regard to these innovations, Sallust remarked,

If a man is ambitious for power, he can have no better supporters than the poor: They are not worried about their own possessions, since they have none, and whatever will put something into their pockets is right and proper in their eyes.  (Sallust, Jugurthine War 86.3)

The poor have nothing to lose and therefore tend to vote their stomachs – or the NDP.

Comfort, Comfort my People

“Nothing in the horizon. Nothing in the sky… Around him are darkness, storm, solitude, wild and unconscious tumult, the ceaseless tumbling of the fierce waters; within him horror and exhaustion.” – Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

The people of Judah in Isaiah’s day might have identified with Hugo’s description of the drowning man.  They too, were ‘up to their neck’ in a raging Flood that swept across the land – the  Assyrian invasion. Picture the hills swarming with orcs like in the Lord of the Rings, and you get some idea of the absolute terror the Assyrian army inspired. Life in those days was short and brutal.  Everything was constantly shifting and changing.  But in those days of darkness and despair, the prophet Isaiah brought a word of comfort.

A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.   Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isa. 40:3-5 ESV)

The LXX version of this passage is quoted in Matthew, Mark and Luke in reference to John the Baptist.  (Lk. 3:3-6, cf. Mk. 1:2-4; Matt. 3:1-3) And John the Baptist said that his ministry fulfilled these words of Isaiah. (Jn. 1:22-23)  That this passage is quoted in all four gospels gives some indication of its importance.  What makes this passage particularly significant is the context in which it appears.  Isaiah connects the revelation of the glory of God with the Word of God and the proclamation of Good News.

A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.   The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass.   The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.  (Isa. 40:6-8 ESV)

I recently read this verse with my grandmother and found myself choking up a little. I saw in her face, a vivid illustration of the meaning of Isaiah’s words. At 90 years of age, her outward beauty had faded away… As I read, I wondered if Isaiah offered any hope to my grandmother, and to the rest of us?

Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news (mevasheret tzion); lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”    Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.   He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. (Isa. 40:7-11 ESV)

The root word Isaiah uses for ‘good news’ (bashar) is always used in the context of war, and more specifically of news that the war is over and has been won.  The one who brought the good news was a mevesheret, a herald of good news.

Phidippides by Luc-Olivier Merson.  According to popular legend, Phidippides brought news from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens that the Persian army was defeated.  He collapsed and died due to extreme physical exertion, but not before he uttered the words, "We have won".
Phidippides by Luc-Olivier Merson. According to popular legend, Phidippides brought news from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens that the Persian army was defeated. He collapsed and died due to extreme physical exertion but not before he uttered the words, “We have won”.

In ancient times, the swiftest soldier was sent from the battlefield to announce the news that the battle was won.  Soldiers contested for the honor of being that person who announced to the cities that everything would be ok, that they no longer had to fear the enemy at the gate. This was truly good news although it is difficult for we, who have only known peace, to comprehend.   If the battle was lost, it meant certain death for a great many; rape, pillage, and deportation for the rest.  This has always been true in war.

I asked my grandmother what it was like to hear the news that WWII was over.   Although she can barely speak, she can still reminisce a little about memories that are particularly vivid.  She said, oh yes, she remembered when the news reached her small farm in central Alberta.  The hired hand picked her up and hugged her.  She was 19 at the time.  My grandmother knew what it was like to hear the news that the war was over, and so did the millions of others who danced in the streets as church bells rang in every village and the boats on the Thames sounded their giant fog horns.  It gave rise to a spontaneous outpouring of joy, the likes of which the world has rarely seen.  The war is over!

Like so many other passages in the book of Isaiah, it is difficult to separate the near from the far, the historical from the prophetic.  Although Isaiah’s words have a very real historical context, probably the invasion of the Assyrians, his words rise far above that event.  When the glory of God is revealed, all flesh shall see it together. (vs. 5)  Then all wrongs shall be made right and justice will be established on earth. (vss. 10-11) Isaiah uses the very real threat from the Assyrians and the good news that comes with victory in war to enable his listeners understand the real significance of an event that will bring world history to a conclusion.  Our hope is in God, no matter how dark our own personal circumstances become.

The Hebrew word Isaiah uses for ‘good news’ (bishra) is translated as euangelion in the Greek and ‘gospel’ in English.  (go = good + spel = story).  About this good news, the apostle John declared,

From God we have received the eternal Word that “became flesh and made his dwelling among us… We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn. 1:1, 14 NIV)

And so the angels sang,

Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests. (Lk. 2:14 NIV)

Oh tidings of comfort and joy!  Merry Christmas!

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…  (Is. 9:2a)