Friday, 21 February 2020

The Arch of Titus and the Menorah

The Arch of Titus in the Forum in Rome was erected to celebrate the memory of the Emperor Titus (reigned 79-81).

His main achievement had come when his father, the Emperor Vespasian, had placed him in charge of crushing the great Jewish revolt, which culminated in the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 A.D. The interior of the arch therefore  depicts scenes form his triumph, including the plunder from Jerusalem being carried in procession.
   Here is the Menorah; the great sacred candlestick from the Temple.
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 Originally the scene would have been brightly painted, looking something like this:-
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The Menorah remained in Rome until the city was sacked by the Vandals in 455 A.D., when, along with other plunder it was taken to Carthage. I don't know what happened to it after that. A job for Indiana Jones, perhaps?
   TheTemple in Jerusalem has never been rebuilt.

Friday, 31 January 2020

A different kind of freedom?

The western liberal tradition has been that individual liberty is fundamentally the ability to "do your own thing" with minimal interference from the state. It is sometimes mocked as being no more than a "Liberty pile": a list of things that you are, or are not, permitted to do; the latter hopefully being very short. But a wholly different concept of liberty does exist. It is found in the prayer of St. Ignatius Loyola,in the phrase, "Christ,whose service is perfect freedom". A similar concept is advanced by Rousseau in his "Social Contract", with his argument that "true freedom" is to be found in following the "General Will".
   The doctrine of the General Will is best understood in the following analogy. Suppose the members of a sports team (football, cricket, rugby or whatever) are asked what they would hope for at the next match. Every team member would reply, "I'd want the team to win, and I'd like me to have a brilliant game". In Rousseauist terminology, the desire for victory for the team is the "General Will". All team members should subordinate their individual desires for personal glory to the cause of team victory; and, indeed, individuals who are deemed to be playing solely for their personal glory are not respected by their fellow team members. Rousseau, however, confuses the picture by calling this overaching commitment to the team as "freedom", and saying that those who refuse to give it must be excluded: these people are not being "free", but merely perverse. As with Loyola, freedom is not to be found in "doing your own thing", but in total commitment to a greater cause.
   This is all very well for a small, voluntary organisation like a football team, or a religious faith, (or, for that matter, a company), but is it at all applicable to a much larger and essentially non-voluntary body, such as a state? Rousseau acknowledges that it can really only apply to very small communities, but Hegel, in the early 19th century, believed it held good for the State of his day, within which all the citizens would gain true freedom in return for absolute commitment. Hegel's dictum on this has been translated as, "The state is the march of God through the world". Bertrand Russell mocked this as "freedom to obey the policeman".
   Karl Marx was much influenced by Hegel in his early days. He always maintained that, because of the inevitability of class conflict and exploitation, "bourgeois liberty" was a fraud, because most people could not afford to make meaningful life-choices. After the establishment of Communist society, however, there would no longer be any conflict between individual desires and the good of society as a whole. But obviously, this Utopian society was never actually brought into existence. What Marxist governments maintained, however, was that they were well on the way to achieving Communism, and that therefore all citizens had a duty to submerge their individual desires in this movement, because it represented not the "march of God", but the march of historical inevitability. Those who resisted this were exhibiting not personal freedom, but "petty-bourgeois individuality", or some such condemnatory term, or were even perhaps active saboteurs.
    It cannot be denied that many people experience a sense of fulfilment in immersing themselves in some greater cause; but on the whole, "doing your own thing"; making your own lifestyle choices, seems preferable to compulsion.

Saturday, 11 January 2020

The salutary tale of Ed Punch

Despite his impeccably middle-class background, Edwin was always fascinated by organized crime and the activities of gangster leaders. This led to his hanging around in the bars and clubs of Soho, hoping to be noticed by the Kray twins and their associates, who at this time were enjoying the heyday of their power in the district. This made him feel superior to his less adventurous friends.
   For a long time he was simply ignored, but one evening a thief who was being pursued by the police thrust a piece of jewellery into his hand with the words, “Hold that for me, mate!” Quite probably he had mistaken Edwin for someone else in the gloom. The police arrived shortly afterwards and questioned everyone on the premises, but Edwin, with his respectable appearance and accent, was allowed to leave without being searched.
   He felt immensely proud of his coolness under pressure. A few days later he was approached by two threatening-looking men in dark suits who hustled him into a car and demanded that he handed over the stolen item to them. For a wild moment he considered answering them with snarling defiance, but common sense prevailed. Managing to show no trace of the gnawing fear he felt inside, Edwin answered them respectfully and politely, complied with their wishes without protest, and indicated that he was willing to undertake any similar work in the future. Feeling, probably correctly, that his real name of Edwin Prosserly, was nowhere near hard enough for a would-be gangster, he told them that he was called Ed Punch. His self-regard increased greatly in consequence.
   Before long he was approached again. Edwin sensed that he was being tested, with increasingly important tasks. He was asked to dispose of a pistol, which he duly chucked into the Thames near Windsor early one Sunday morning. Was it, he wondered with a thrill of vicarious danger, a murder weapon? For this task he was rewarded with a considerable amount of money in old banknotes. He decided to devote himself to this new, exciting and potentially lucrative life; and he dropped out of college.
   He rented a flat in Old Compton Street, where shortly afterwards he was required to play host to Tony, a young man he had never met before. Edwin felt very uneasy in Tony’s presence, and took great care not to annoy him, for the young man showed every sign of being a psychopath. He was most relieved when after a couple of weeks Tony disappeared and was not seen again.
    Other tasks followed over subsequent months. He drove getaway cars and later disposed of them, he kept account-books for semi-literate criminals, and occasionally vacated his flat when it was required for other purposes by persons unknown. He was well paid for his work, but the tension was beginning to take its toll. He could sense that, although the mobsters occasionally found him useful, he wasn’t really one of them and never would be: he was just a middle-class kid who thought it was cool to hang around with gangsters, and that they might cast him off or betray him at any moment, without a second thought. And did he really want to spend the rest of his life in company with men like Tony?
     Then one day the police conducted a swoop and arrested the entire gang. They were all interrogated separately, on a charge of involvement in a murder. It should surprise no-one that Edwin was the first to crack and turn Queen’s Evidence in return for immunity from prosecution.

    He is believed to be living in South Africa under an assumed name.  It is safe to assume that he never admits to ever having been called Ed Punch.  .