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Subject: ‘Philosophy’

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Frederick the Great, the warrior-king of Prussia

Posted in Historical articles, History, Music, Philosophy, Politics, Royalty, War on Thursday, 13 March 2014

This edited article about Frederick the Great first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 588 published on 21 April 1973.

Frederick the Great, picture, image, illustration
Frederick the Great with Count Agarotti (far left) and Voltaire (right) in the music room of his palace at Sans Souci by Roger Payne

“My motto is ‘Die or conquer.’ In other cases there is a middle course; in mine there is none.” The speaker was Frederick the Great, King of Prussia; writer, philosopher, poet, musician and one of the greatest military strategists Europe has ever produced.

For the most part Frederick did conquer; at least he never had to carry out the implied threat of suicide in his motto. But after plunging all Europe into a continuous turmoil of war in the 18th century – in the Seven Years War alone he was involved in 17 major battles – it is interesting to reflect upon what Frederick has left in Europe nearly 200 years after his death.

His kingdom of Prussia in North Germany no longer exists. His famous palace of Sans Souci at Potsdam lies, almost inaccessible to western travellers, behind the Iron Curtain. And the land of Silesia, in the 18th century a country in its own right for which Frederick fought for two decades, has now been swallowed up as a part of Poland.

Only Frederick’s name and his achievements, rather than his possessions, remain of any use to Western Europe. Certainly the greatest of those achievements was that he gave to the German people a sense of unity. A German historian has said of him: “He not only raised his country to the rank of a great power, but he also lighted for it a torch of truth so powerful that the way to further light and glory can be missed only by the most reckless carelessness.”

It was this greatness, this “torch of truth” which gave the Germans pride in themselves, which led on to their great contribution to the worlds of science and art, and in particular music, in the 19th century.

Yet astonishingly, Frederick had little personal preference either for German people or German things. When he founded an Academy of Sciences in Prussia it was a French Academy, using the French language. When he wrote, it was always in French, the language he preferred to speak. He paid Frenchmen twice as much as Germans. After his first meeting with Voltaire, the French poet and philosopher who subsequently became a great friend, he wrote joyously, “I have now seen the two things nearest my heart – the French army and Voltaire.”

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Benjamin Franklin was a kite-flying philosopher

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Philosophy, Revolution, Science on Wednesday, 19 February 2014

This edited article about Benjamin Franklin first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 557 published on 16 September 1972.

Benjamin Franklin,  picture, image, illustration
Benjamin Franklin experimenting with lightning by John Keay

To set off into the country in the middle of a fierce thunderstorm might seem a strange thing to do, but for the purpose which Benjamin Franklin had in mind, conditions could not have been better.

He and his son went to a field outside Philadelphia, in the U.S.A., carrying a kite with a small pointed wire at the top to act as a lightning collector. Ordinary string was attached to the kite, with a length of silk ribbon joined to the end which was to act as an insulator. Where the string and the silk joined, he attached a brass key.

The kite was sent up, with Franklin holding firmly on to the ribbon. The silk had to be kept dry, so Franklin stood in a cowshed.

The storm was directly overhead. Franklin noticed that the fibres of the string were standing straight out, indicating that a “charge” of some type had collected on the string. With great caution, he moved his hand towards the key. A spark of electricity jumped to his hand. Franklin returned home soaked, but jubilant. He had proved that lighting was a discharge of electricity.

Benjamin Franklin was the tenth of the seventeen children of a poor soap-and candle-maker. Born in Boston, U.S.A., in 1706, he spent his early youth helping in his father’s business. Later, he was apprenticed to his brother James, who was a printer.

In 1723, Benjamin decided to go to Philadelphia to carve out a career for himself. He was hungry and penniless when he arrived. But with great determination and perseverance, he became the manager of a newspaper, and travelled to England to gain experience in his profession. By the time he was thirty, he was clerk to the Pennsylvania Assembly. He progressed from postmaster of Philadelphia to deputy postmaster for all the American Colonies. In twenty years, from his arrival, he rose to become the most important of Philadelphia’s citizens.

By 1746, he was wealthy enough to be able to spare time from business to take up the scientific research which fascinated him. Franklin was interested in the little-understood phenomenon of electricity. He had experimented with Leyden jars (ordinary glass jars covered inside and outside with silver paper) which were capable of storing a quantity of electricity until, on connecting the inner and outer coatings, the charge was liberated in the form of a spark. He thought that flashes of lightning were such sparks on a much larger scale.

In 1752, Franklin decided to put his theory to the test and the “kite” experiment took place.

As a result of his experiments in the field of electrical science, Franklin suggested that lightning conductors should be fixed to tall buildings to protect them during thunderstorms.

Although he led a busy life as a diplomat and politician, he continued scientific experiments in various fields. When he was sent to England on a diplomatic mission in 1757, he was welcomed as a distinguished scientist as well as a diplomat and was honoured by the universities of Oxford and St Andrews, Scotland.

Democracy was invented in the city-state of Athens

Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Institutions, Philosophy, Politics on Friday, 31 January 2014

This edited article about Ancient Greece first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 536 published on 22 April 1972.

Athens,  picture, image, illustration
The city of Athens in Ancient Greece

Men have lived on the hill which soars above modern Athens for nearly five thousand years. Pieces of the walls they built in the Bronze Age are still standing. They were lured by its dominating position, and precious natural springs, life-giving water in a land often barren and parched.

On that great rock, at a time when the Egyptians were building temples to the god Osiris, and the Jews raising their voices in hymns to “the one true God of Righteousness,” lived a race of people who worshipped a whole hierarchy of Gods, from Zeus, the king of them all, to Cerberus, the three-headed dog who kept the gates of Hell.

Superstitious though they sound, they were about to take a step into the future which would influence the whole way of life of everyone in the western world. To the Romans, we owe our knowledge of civil engineering; to the Jews our idea of one God. For almost everything else, we are indebted to the Greeks. All our science, literature and art began with them.

Greece at that time was a country of scattered independent villages, and little primitive townships which often perched on a hill-top site called an acropolis.

The peaceful peasants loved their fields, and countryside, and composed songs and dances to celebrate the seasons. Out of their pastoral festivals grew the great Greek dramas we know today. Out of their love of making beautiful things grew the simple, elegant architecture which is one of the world’s marvels.

Peaceful though they were, they seem to have been constantly at war, and from about 800 B.C. they began to draw closer together for mutual protection. Many people moved from the scattered villages to the shelter of the hill-top townships, which squatted there like mother-hens. Other villages, for increased strength, merged their governments. In some places a mixture of the two took place.

This happened in a district called Attica, a great plain with hills to the north, and to the south the Gulf of Aegina, part of the Mediterranean Sea.
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With its dominating acropolis, the natural watchdog of this area was Athens – named for Athene, goddess of wisdom, science and art – six miles inland from the sea.

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Gautama abandoned wealth and found Four Noble Truths

Posted in Historical articles, History, Philosophy, Religion on Thursday, 30 January 2014

This edited article about Buddha first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 533 published on 1 April 1972.

Prince Gautama,  picture, image, illustration
Prince Gautama (later called Buddha) went for a coach ride in the company of a servant and witnessed many puzzling things

When Siddharta Gautama was born he was no ordinary boy. Hundreds of people filed by his crib just to get a look at him and scores of prayers were offered up to the Hindu gods of his native land of Nepal, near the border of India, offering thanks for his safe arrival in the world.

And what a world it was for him! For Gautama was the son of a rich maharajah, and every luxury was his to command.

He was only a few years old when the local Hindu priests warned his father that if ever the boy were allowed to see poverty or disease or old age with his own eyes he would want to renounce his birthright and change his way of life.

The maharajah was aghast. Henceforth he decreed that Gautama was always to remain within the palace grounds. When he was 19, the handsome prince married, and his father built for him three palaces, ‘one for the cold season, one for the hot, and one for the rainy season.’

Ten years after his marriage Gautama went for a coach ride in the company of a servant. During the ride he saw several things which disturbed him; an old man bowed by poverty, a young man disfigured by disease, a dead man, and a holy man made thin and haggard with long fasting and contemplation of the sins of this world.

Gautama thought hard about what he had seen. The one memory that stayed in his mind was that of the holy man. He became convinced that he should renounce his life of luxury and all his splendid worldly things and go out to search for a solution to the mystery of life.

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The shameful execution of the great Utopian philosopher-politician, Sir Thomas More

Posted in Historical articles, History, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Royalty on Friday, 8 November 2013

This edited article about Sir Thomas More originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 453 published on 19 September 1970.

Trial of Sir Thomas More, picture, image, illustration
The trial of Sir Thomas More was was a travesty of justice, but the court was backed by the King and his Chancellor was found guilty and sentenced to death

“I say no harm, I think no harm: but I wish everybody good,” once declared Sir Thomas More, the great English statesman, writer and scholar. This was no idle boast, for the man who made it was a charming, kind-hearted man, who loved his fellow beings. While utterly devoted to his family, his King and his faith, he refused to be influenced by the dangerous whims and intrigues of the court circle.

He was too honest for Tudor England where learning to step through the minefield of politics was a dangerous pastime for ambitious men. To succeed meant great material reward; but to fail meant disgrace and obscurity or, at the worst, imprisonment and death. Many well-known families at that time could claim the dubious distinction of having a share of impaled heads above the tower gate of London Bridge. The life of Sir Thomas More lit up and ruthlessly exposed the monstrous realities of his age.

Thomas was born on 7th February, 1478, the son of a distinguished London lawyer, Sir John More. At the age of 15 he became a page in the household of Cardinal John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, who used to say of him, “This child here waiting at the table, whosoever shall live to see it, will prove a marvellous man.”

Four years later Thomas entered the University of Oxford. Like his father he became a very successful and popular lawyer. His work brought him into contact with many people. The miseries and hardships of the ordinary people horrified and saddened him. Punishments given for the smallest crimes were brutal. It has been estimated that over 72,000 people were executed during the reign of Henry VIII for criminal offences, while the number who suffered branding, mutilation, and humiliation is beyond counting. Thomas associated the harshness of the laws with the high crime rate, and argued that the constant use of the death penalty was an open invitation to murder.

When Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509 he and Thomas became close friends. They both recognised and respected the good qualities in each other. In time Thomas was knighted and held a number of important official posts, including that of Speaker of the House of Commons.

After the fall from power of the mighty Cardinal Wolsey in 1529, Thomas was made Lord Chancellor of England. This was the first time that high office had been held by one who was not in holy orders. He was now one of the most powerful men in the land but he remained modest and unaffected. He was grateful, too, for the King’s friendship and confidence. In return he served his royal master with unswerving loyalty and devotion.

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Plato described the death of his teacher, Socrates

Posted in Ancient History, Education, Historical articles, History, Philosophy on Friday, 8 November 2013

This edited article about Socrates originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 451 published on 5 September 1970.

Death of Socrates, picture, image, illustration
The death of Socrates by Roger Payne

Athens in Greece, towards the end of the 5th century B.C., was a fine spacious city. It was considered so important that poets, artists, sculptors, dramatists and musicians arrived there from all parts of Greece in search of rich patrons.

Among the best-known figures seen walking in the paved streets and market places was an awkward-looking man with a thick squat body, short neck, bald head, upturned nose, and large bulging eyes. In all seasons he wore a simple woollen robe and went barefooted. He had the air of a man constantly in search of someone or something new and exciting.

Now and then he would stop and address, with some simple question or observation, some well-dressed Athenian who would scornfully step aside. His speech and appearance were so strange that many people avoided him when he approached them. But he would continue undisturbed on his leisurely way, his alert eyes looking for a familiar face in the crowds thronging the market places.

The strange, barefooted man was Socrates, the wisest philosopher of his time. His arguments changed the whole course of human thought.

Despite his odd appearance the beauty-loving Greeks could not resist the fascination of his speech. Very soon he had collected about him some of the most gifted young men and boys in the city. He would sit for hours in their midst arguing about a multitude of subjects and delighting in their fresh approach to life.

Born in Athens in 469 B.C., Socrates studied sculpture, which was his father’s profession. From a very early age he worked long hours trying to translate his ideas into the dead, cold stone as he had so often seen his father do. But his carvings never seemed to come alive.

During this time also he received a sound pattern of education, mastering the elements of arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. On his days off from his father’s workshop or on the numerous religious festivals he would astonish all his friends by drinking large quantities of wine without becoming drunk or unsteady. His physical strength became famous.

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Sparta was a militaristic society which banned self-indulgent luxuries

Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Philosophy, Sport, War on Friday, 11 October 2013

This edited article about Sparta originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 424 published on 28 February 1970.

Sparta, picture, image, illustration
Sparta was famed for the rigorous training of her men, for whom even sport was a battle, and winning was vital, by Ruggero Giovannini

One of the most famous cities of ancient Greece was Sparta. The peculiar qualities of its people have given us the word “Spartan” to symbolise discipline, courage, and a frugality bordering on meanness. It was the capital of the city state of Laconia, which was occupied by the Spartans who were a military people who had conquered the other tribes in the area around the end of the 11th century B.C.

Sparta had two kings, but neither had absolute power except over the armies. The administration was run by members of the aristocracy but the final authority lay in the hands of the ephors, the highest magistrates of Sparta, who were elected annually from among the free Spartans.

The purpose of all Spartan authority was an efficient military force. To this end, women were trained to rear the sort of men needed for the army. Discipline was imposed from an early age. Curtness of speech was encouraged, and luxury was prohibited.

Fa-Hsien – the Buddhist monk who crossed deserts and mountains to reach India

Posted in Historical articles, History, Philosophy, Religion, Travel on Friday, 11 October 2013

This edited article about remarkable journeys originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 424 published on 28 February 1970.

Chinese Buddhist monk, picture, image, illustration
Buddhist monk in a pagoda of an imperial palace, China

It seemed a little hard. Fa-Hsien had been on his travels for many years. He had survived a grim overland journey from China to India, a long stay there, a typhoon and a near-shipwreck. Now he was on the last stage of his journey home, and the crew and passengers of his ship wanted to put him overboard.

At least they did not want him to drown. They appeared to have decided to put him on the first island they came to and leave him there. It seemed as if his luck had finally run out.

Fa-Hsien was a Chinese Buddhist monk. In A.D. 399 he had set out for India with four friends from his home at Tchang’an on the Wei-ho River in central China. In India he hoped to find a complete copy of the Rules of Buddhist Discipline: in China the only available copies were incomplete.

It was a brave project, which involved heading north to the borders of China, then westwards across the dreaded Gobi Desert, believed to be a haunt of evil demons, then south across Tibet and the Himalayas and down into India and to the River Ganges.

On the edge of the Gobi the five travellers were provided by the military governor of the area with “all necessaries” for crossing the desert. One hopes these included two-humped Bactrian camels. They saw no demons; in fact very little except the bleached bones of men who had perished in attempting to cross the desert. The five were luckier.

After crossing the desert, two of the party had had enough, so Fa-Hsien headed south across Tibet with only two companions, Hwui Ying and To-ching. Somewhere in the Himalayas Hwui Ying died of exposure. After having desperately tried to save him, Fa-Hsien and To-ching pushed on and reached India safely.

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In Ancient Greece men often philosophised after eating a banquet

Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Philosophy on Thursday, 3 October 2013

This edited article about Ancient Greece originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 416 published on 3 January 1970.

Greek banquet, picture, image, illustration
Banquet given by the Seven Sages of Greece by P Ros

In ancient Greece, so famous for her sober and learned philosophers, it may seem a little surprising that one of them, called Epicurus, had many supporters for his teaching that the greatest good in the world is the pursuit of pleasure. Nowhere did the Greeks practise this philosophy more earnestly than at the banqueting table.

Men of the higher social orders in ancient Greece had plenty of time for enjoying themselves. They would usually congregate in the market place in the morning for a chat, and then they would go to the gymnasium for wrestling and physical training.

In the evenings they sometimes went home to a quiet dinner with the womenfolk. But men who had plenty of friends more often went feasting with them. All banquets, except wedding feasts, were for men only, and as slave girls and dancers were an essential part of the evening’s entertainment, no respectable woman would have consented to attend.

According to the great philosopher, Aristotle, men setting out for a banquet should take care to arrive clean, and not sweaty or covered in dust. “And a man when he first enters another person’s house for a feast, ought not to hasten at once to the banqueting room as if he had no care but to fill his stomach, but ought to indulge his fancy in looking about him, and examining the house.”

Guests for the feast lay back on comfortable couches and waited for the slaves to bring the food. Sometimes this was quite simple fare, with bread, cakes, cheese, some sort of meat or fish and fruit. Although the Greeks did not think up such weird recipes as the Romans, they had several favourite foods. Tunny fish was one of the most popular, especially its intestines, the virtues of which were extolled in verse:

“These things poor men cannot afford to buy,

The entrails of the tunny, or the head Of greedy pike, or conger or cuttlefish,

Which I don’t think the gods above despise.”

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H G Wells was a draper’s assistant with a vivid imagination and literary ambitions

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Space on Tuesday, 17 September 2013

This edited article about H G Wells originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 404 published on 11 October 1969.

Kipps by H G Wells, picture, image, illustration
A scene from 'Kipps' by H G Wells

Each morning at 7 o’clock sharp 15-year-old Herbert George Wells and his fellow draper’s apprentices were brusquely roused from their dormitory beds. Anyone who failed to get up had the sheets pulled from him and was likely to have something docked from his meagre wages. After this rude awakening, the day proper began for the trainee shop assistants.

“We flung on old suits,” said Wells, “tucking our nightgowns into our trousers, and were down in the shop in a quarter of an hour, to clean windows, unwrap goods and fixtures, dust generally before eight.

“At eight we raced upstairs to get first go at the wash basins, dressed for the day and at half-past eight partook of a bread and butter breakfast before descending again.”

From then on the day was one of almost unbroken tedium. Wells had to bring samples to the window-dresser, arrange counter displays, carry headless dummies from the costume room, refill the pin bowls, and prepare the paper and string for the dozens of parcels that left the Southsea Drapery Emporium.

“There were a hundred small fussy things to do, straightening up, putting away, fetching and carrying. It was not excessively laborious but it was indescribably tedious. . . . The length of those days at Southsea was enormous until closing time; then the last hour fell swiftly past me to “lights out” at half-past ten.”

After two years of this drudgery, the unhappy apprentice could stand it no more. “I had reached a vital crisis of my life,” he stated. “I felt extraordinarily desperate and, faced with binding indentures and maternal remonstrances, I behaved very much like a hunted rabbit that at last turns and bites.”

To the distress of his mother, Wells quit his job and started on the path that was to take him to worldwide fame as a novelist, short story writer, and sociologist. But despite his many later triumphs, Wells never forgot or forgave his superiors in the drapery shop.

Twenty-four years later, in 1905, he published his renowned novel, Kipps, the Story of a Simple Soul. In the book Wells appears lightly disguised as Art Kipps, a humble draper’s apprentice. After coming into some money, Art rises in the social scale and falls in love with a girl from a better background than his own.

His adventures in society are both humorous and touching, and it is fascinating to discover whether Kipps will marry “above” himself, or settle for Alice, the housemaid who has always admired him. Although H. G. Wells – who was born in Bromley, Kent, in 1866, and died in 1946 – wrote more than 30 books, none of them can rival Kipps, which has justly been called the first modern novel.