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Posted in Historical articles, Literature, London, Philosophy on Friday, 24 May 2013
This edited article about originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 267 published on 25 February 1967.
The Indian poet, philosopher, educationist and writer of popular songs, Rabindranath Tagore, was well known outside his native Calcutta. He visited England several times, and in 1912 stayed at No. 3 Villas on the Heath, in the Vale of Health, Hampstead. A plaque over the door commemorates his visit.
One of seven sons of the leader of an Indian religious sect, Rabindranath was brought up amid a continual whirl of creative activity. His family occupied a large house in which lived all his near relatives, as was customary. Tutors visited the house to give him lessons and from an early age he spent much of his spare time writing, singing and acting. At eight he was already writing verse.
At 16 he was sent to England to study law. His education completed, he returned to India, where he rapidly became engrossed in writing and journalism. He started with short stories, poems and essays for papers published by his brothers, and this activity developed naturally into the production of full-length novels.
Tagore was interested in the philosophy of education, and in 1901 he opened his own school at Bolpur, near Calcutta. In spite of his unusual methods – traditional Hindu ideas were blended with others from Europe – the venture was a success, and the school became acknowledged as an important institution. He envisaged it as a ‘home for the spirit of India’ and later expanded it by adding a university.
Meanwhile he continued writing, winning the Nobel prize for literature in 1913. Until then Tagore was unknown, outside India, but now a much wider public began to take notice of him. He undertook extensive lecture tours in America and Great Britain. In both countries his Oriental appearance attracted attention, and he was much in demand for drawing-room parties; this caused some damage to his reputation as a ‘serious’ person.
In 1915, he was awarded an English knighthood, but returned it four years later in protest against methods used to put down the political disturbances then occurring in the Punjab. Nevertheless, he was more interested in social reform than political freedom, and opposed the Indian practice of child marriages and the rigid caste system.
In his later writing, Tagore, anxious to promote his ideal of a universal human culture and unity, tried to interpret Eastern philosophy for the West. In 1940, the University of Oxford paid him the extraordinary compliment of calling a special meeting of convocation at Santiniketan, Tagore’s own university, to award him a doctorate of literature. He died in 1941, much of his work still untranslated.
Posted in Historical articles, History, Philosophy, Religion on Monday, 29 April 2013
This edited article about William Paley originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 234 published on 9 July 1966.
William Paley, clergyman and philosopher
Clergymen, lawyers, writers and all other educated men in England at the beginning of the 18th century liked to think that they were, above all, reasonable men. Many of them were convinced that Christianity was a reasonable religion, and even those who disagreed with them felt it only right to do so in a reasonable fashion.
Gone were the bitter disputes of Tudor and Stuart times. With political affairs now more securely settled than they had been for two centuries, feeling ran far less high in the affairs of both Church and State. Life was more serene and stable. Difficult questions of belief, no less than problems of government, could surely be solved by polite discussion. It was the self-styled “Age of Reason”.
The “reasonable” men of those days, whose thinking and writing were intended to spread and strengthen the Christian faith in Britain, are scarcely remembered today. Their answers to life’s awkward questions seem far too easy to be true. They were not great thinkers, and have been well described as “little men asking big questions”.
Many of them claimed that it was possible to prove the existence of God by reasonable arguments. They did not think it necessary for God to “reveal” Himself, as the Bible claimed He had done. Those who held this view were called “Deists” (Latin Deus=God). They particularly disliked any display of emotion in connection with religion, and contemptuously called this “enthusiasm”. (The words “Down with enthusiasm” were even found engraved on a church bell made early in the 18th century!) They preferred to try to show, from the wonders of the universe, of which they were becoming increasingly aware, that God was a reasonable being who had made a reasonable world, of which they themselves were the most reasonable product. To us, looking back, they appear rather pleased with themselves.
Best remembered of those who wrote in this way is William Paley, an Anglican clergyman who lived in the second half of the 18th century, by which time the “age of reason” was well established. The title of one of his books clearly shows the way he thought. It is called: Evidence of the Existence of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature. Paley’s most celebrated argument suggested that if he were out for a walk and found a watch lying on the ground, this would prove to any reasonable person that a watch-maker existed, and that such a thing as a watch did not simply “happen”. He went on to argue that the whole universe requires the existence of a Maker far greater than the maker of a watch. He concluded that “Under this stupendous Being we live.”
This was the kind of religious view in favour during the Age of Reason. Most of the writings of the Deists are forgotten today, but “Paley’s watch” became a popular argument for the existence of God, and is perhaps the only one which ever had lasting appeal.
Posted in Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Philosophy, Politics, Religion on Monday, 18 February 2013
This edited article about Gandhi originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 138 published on 5 September1964.
It is a quarter past five, India time, on the afternoon of January 30, 1948. The hot New Delhi sun beats down on a crowd of Indians who stand silent in the grounds of Birla House. They shuffle their feet in the dust; the time for the evening meeting has already come, but the man who will lead them in prayer is late.
Now there is an excited murmur – he is coming! The crowd falls back to allow passage to a frail, elderly man who makes his way across the lawn, supporting himself on the shoulders of two of his followers.
This is Mohandas Gandhi, unofficial but powerful leader of India. When the country was under British rule, it was Gandhi who organized and campaigned for independence. Then, as now, the thought of bloodshed was repulsive to him, and he taught how peaceful non-co-operation with the British was as effective as any violence.
Now India was free, but her struggles continued. Moslem fought Hindu, Hindu fought Sikh. Gandhi held no political or government post, yet the respect of all India made him the most important man in the country. Peace was still his theme, and he was now trying to separate the warring Indian religious factions.
At the prayer meeting, Gandhi moves through the throng of people. Suddenly a man in a khaki bush-jacket steps from the crowd, and greets Gandhi by raising his hands pressed together. The old man turns and smiles. Quickly the other reaches under his jacket, draws an automatic, fires three times. Gandhi staggers and falls.
The crowd, horrified, surges forward. A Royal Indian Air Force sergeant disarms the attacker, and draws his own pistol to kill him. The police rescue the assassin as Gandhi is carried indoors. He dies half an hour later, and India, in her grief, is united for the first time.
Thus did Nathuram Vinayak Godse, in one fanatical act of assassination, put himself into the world’s news headlines, and inflict a grievous loss on the whole of India.
Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature, Philosophy, Science on Wednesday, 13 February 2013
This edited article about Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 132 published on 25 July 1964.
Mary Wollstonecraft wrote Frankenstein
after being inspired by a vivid dream and encouraged by her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Picture by C L Doughty
Each night in her Italian villa Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley listened to the fantastic stories told by a brilliant circle of literary men. Lord Byron, the poet, created a horrific tale about a vampire. Percy Bysshe Shelley, her poet-husband, related spine-tingling ghost stories. A young Italian doctor frightened all of them with his account of a lady with a skull for a head.
As their imaginations ran dry, the men turned to Mary for a story.
“Come,” said Byron. “You have been sitting here quietly all these weeks listening to our weird imaginings. Surely you can invent your own supernatural adventure. Something that will outdo all of us.”
Before going to bed that evening Byron and Shelley argued about the possibility of creating a human being. They felt that life could be restored to a corpse by electricity, that a “creature” could be assembled and imbued with human vitality. As Mary sat listening, she realized that this was the story she would contribute to their collection of the macabre.
In her diary she wrote: “Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest. When I placed my head upon my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me . . . with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie.
“I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the workings of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.
“Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.
“The idea so possessed my mind that a thrill of fear ran through me . . . On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story.”
The story she then outlined to the two enthusiastic poets was the beginning of “Frankenstein”; the novel about a man-made man that was to ensure immortality for the nineteen-year-old bride who had previously been so overshadowed by her husband’s genius.
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Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Literature, Philosophy, Politics on Monday, 14 January 2013
This edited article about Aristotle originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 100 published on 14th December, 1963.
The education of Alexander the Great by Aristotle, by J Armet
A quarter of a million pounds – that is what Aristotle is said to have received as a present from his star pupil, Alexander the Great.
The great philosopher was already a wealthy man. At the age of seventeen his father, physician to the King of Macedonia, had died, leaving him a large fortune.
A year later, Aristotle went to Athens to attend Plato’s famous Academy. He was a colonial boy, with accent, dress and manners very different from the polished society of Greece’s greatest city state. He soon picked up more cultivated customs. Short and slender, he copied the foppish clothes of the wealthiest students, and affected a lisp.
But he quickly showed promise of becoming the “best educated man who ever trod this earth,” and “the master of those who know.”
At Athens Aristotle became a devoted follower and friend of Plato. He learned, and he himself taught.
When Plato died, philosophy became almost a branch of mathematics at the Academy. Aristotle rebelled, and he departed for Asia Minor where he formed a group of thinkers whose views were nearer to his own.
In 342 B.C. the forty-two-year-old Aristotle became tutor to fourteen-year-old Prince Alexander, grandson of the king whom his father had served.
At Pella in Macedonia, and among the orange and lemon groves of Stagira, where Aristotle was born, he laid the foundations of the character of a boy who was to become the supreme war-lord of his day, an astute politician and a brilliant ruler – Alexander the Great.
At Stagira, which had been destroyed by war, Aristotle gave his pupil a unique practical lesson in statecraft. Together, they reassembled the scattered population, organized the complete rebuilding of the town, drew up its laws and formed its local government, and laid out an academy, gymnasium and park.
Never has so great a pupil had so great a lesson from so great a teacher.
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Posted in Communism, Historical articles, History, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Revolution on Tuesday, 8 January 2013
This edited article about Das Kapital by Karl Marx originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 809 published on 16th July 1977.
The Reading Room at the British Museum is famous for one particular reader – the economist and political philosopher, Karl Marx, who introduced Communism to the world
In 1870, Paris was under siege by the Prussians during a strange, short war that had been largely brought about by the Emperor Napoleon III’s dream of restoring some of the glory to his country’s old imperial court.
In some ways it was an old fashioned war because, even though it was little more than a hundred years ago, Paris, France’s capital, was still ringed by a high wall. And it was still possible to observe the classic military situation in which a large number of troops surrounded a strongly defended city and tried to starve its inhabitants into submission.
Certainly, the defenders of Paris got very hungry indeed, so hungry that they not only ate their horses and pet dogs, but even sewer rats and elephants in the local zoo. But what made the Franco-Prussian conflict a very new fashioned war was its aftermath.
Napoleon III was forced to acknowledge defeat after a few short months, but the people of Paris were so disgusted with the mismanagement of their affairs that they overthrew their council and proclaimed an organisation known as the Commune, a movement of working people who were less interested in waging war than in gaining better wages and working conditions for themselves and their families.
The Commune’s power was confined to Paris, and as the country at large recognised the legal government at Versailles there was never much likelihood of the revolution becoming nationwide. Moreover, instead of consolidating their position, the 90-strong Commune frittered away its time in endless discussions, until on 21st May no less than 70,000 government troops marched through one of the city gates.
Only then did the Communards stop arguing and begin to fight, and for seven days the streets of the city ran with blood. It seemed as though each side was trying to commit the most terrible atrocities, and prisoners, women and children, were usually the victims. At the end of a week 38,000 Communards had been taken prisoner and the uprising was at an end.
It was a brief and bloodthirsty incident that horrified most people but was welcomed by at least one man with unstinted approval. In London, the German born Karl Marx hailed the Commune as “the harbinger of a new society”.
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Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Literature, Philosophy on Monday, 7 January 2013
This edited article about Marcus Aurelius originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 808 published on 9th July 1977.
Throughout the land, Romans were falling easy victims to plague, earthquakes, famines and floods. No one had ever known so much universal tumult, desolation and distress
Gladiators in the Roman Colosseum had a shock one day in the second half of the second century A.D. when their supervisors produced handfuls of buttons and told them: “Put one on the tip of your sword when you go into the arena.”
When the gladiators protested that they could hardly be expected to kill their opponents with the tip of their sword covered by a button they were told that henceforth killing was not what they were supposed to do.
“The order to cover your sword points comes directly from the new Emperor!” said the supervisors.
The new Emperor was Marcus Aurelius, a man whose desire for peace was known all over the Roman Empire – a man who had taught himself, we are told, “to consider virtue as the only good, vice as the only evil, all things external as things indifferent.”
Marcus hated bloodshed of any kind. One day when he was watching a circus in Rome a young boy tightrope walker suddenly slipped and plunged to the ground. The crowd gasped and leaned forward, but the Emperor covered his eyes with both hands.
The accident made such an impression upon Marcus that he at once issued orders that from that day mattresses were to be placed beneath the high ropes to break the fall of any performer in case of accident.
The Romans grumbled a great deal about the blunting of their “thrills”. Eighteen hundred years ago, a man paid a high price for being one of the common people and death and injury were regarded as entertaining distractions from the burden of life in a big city. But Marcus, brought up as a philosopher rather than a tough soldier, who from an early age “submitted his body to his mind, his passions to reason,” preferred gentle diplomacy to hard battle and bloodshed.
Marcus Aurelius succeeded Antoninus Pius to the Roman throne in A.D. 161 when he was 40 years old and enjoying life as a writer and thinker. The great Hadrian himself had made it a condition that Marcus should rule the Roman world after Antoninus. With the name of Marcus, old Hadrian had coupled another Roman, Lucius Verus, so Marcus decided that he would take Lucius as his associate and equal in governing the state.
Perhaps the peace-loving Emperor thought Lucius would be able to do his fighting for him – for it was clear that there would have to be fighting. If that were so, it was a terrible mistake, as we shall see.
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Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Philosophy, Science on Thursday, 17 May 2012
This edited article about Pythagoras originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 706 published on 26 July 1975.
Remembered best for his work in mathematics and music and his ideas about the soul, Pythagoras was one of the three first Greek philosophers and lived during the 6th century B.C.
He settled in Crotona in southern Italy with a group of some 300 people, the Pythagoreans, who devoted themselves to following the rules laid down by Pythagoras and his ideas about religion and philosophy.
His name is often mentioned in the study of geometry. Knowing that Egyptian engineers had constructed a triangle with sides in the ratio 3:4:5 in order to make a right-angle, Pythagoras formulated his theory of the square on the hypotenuse, which enabled him to construct a right-angled triangle of any size.
And in the field of astronomy, Pythagoras was the first Greek to recognise that the morning and evening stars were identical, although this had been known to Babylonians for 1,500 years.
Pythagoras also said that the earth was a sphere revolving round a central fire and that as it revolved it made music.
Although many of the ideas and teachings of Pythagoras are still known, he himself wrote nothing down. He taught that the souls of dead people might appear on earth again, not only in new human beings but also in animals. This idea is called metempsychosis or the transmigration of souls.
As far as is known, the people of Crotona rose up against the Pythagoreans and set fire to the building in which they were all gathered one day. It is believed that Pythagoras died in the fire with his followers.
Posted in Biology, Mystery, Philosophy, Psychology, Religion, Science on Tuesday, 10 April 2012
This edited article about life originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 686 published on 8 March 1975.
What is life? Most scientists today admit that they do not know the answer to this question, although they know a great deal about the way in which plants, animals and human beings behave.
If a drop of pond water is examined through a microscope, we see things which move around and things which do not move at all. Many of us might assume that the moving things we can see are alive.
For a very long time, the words animate and inanimate were used to distinguish things that were alive from the things that were not. These words come from the Latin verb animare which means “to set into motion” or accelerate. In fact, the word animal has similar origins. Even in the times of the Romans, there was quite a natural association between life and motion.
Yet few of us today would say that things which move must be alive. Things which seem to move of their own accord, like the modern electronic robots which can fly a plane, or the guided missiles which can “home” on to their target, are not alive.
For anything to be alive, it obviously must have other properties beyond the ability to move around.
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Posted in Architecture, British Cities, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Leisure, Literature, Philosophy, Royalty, Scotland on Thursday, 9 February 2012
This edited article about Edinburgh originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 635 published on 16 March 1974.
James Craig’s New Town in Edinburgh with its neo-classical architecture and axial grid
High upon a hill in Scotland can be seen one of the finest panoramas in Europe. The view extends northward over the Firth of Forth, while in the foreground below is Auld Reekie (“Old Smoky”), as the local people affectionately call their city.
The hill, as every Scotsman knows from that description, is Castle Rock, which dominates Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland. Up there is Edinburgh Castle, built into the rock as if its foundations went into the very core of the earth. For centuries the fierce, cold wind of the north has blown around its corners, and it still looks the most unassailable fortress in the world.
Castle Rock, 437 ft. high, crowns Edinburgh as the Acropolis crowns Athens. This, together with the city’s intellectual and political dominance, has led people to compare it with the Greek capital, so that, besides Auld Reekie, Edinburgh is sometimes called “The Athens of the North.”
Some of the public buildings down in the New Town, where Princes Street, one of Europe’s most famous thoroughfares, is a tourists’ magnet, self-consciously echo the Athenian theme. They have been built in the classical Greek style, thus proving that classical Greek architecture was best done by the Classical Greeks.
No visitor could spend even an hour in Edinburgh without looking up in awe at the colossus which is Castle Rock. It looms like a grey sentinel over the city, as timeless as the pyramids of Egypt.
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