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Book review: Religion and the Decline of Magic, by Keith Thomas

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Keith Thomas tells us that this book began as an attempt to make sense of why some now outmoded belief systems, which he terms collectively magical, were current in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. As he wrote he found that there was a close relationship between these beliefs and the religious ideas of the period; sometimes the two seemed to be closely connected, at others they were in conflict. He therefore enlarged the scope of his study to include an examination of these interactions. Inevitably the result was a very long book, even though he deliberately confined the discussion to England, with only brief glances at Wales; he made no attempt to include Scotland or Ireland, let alone continental Europe.

This is probably the most comprehensive and widely cited study of these subjects to have appeared in the last half-century. Although it is a scholarly work, it scores highly for readability.

The historical period spanned by the book includes the Reformation and this marks a boundary in how religious people viewed magical beliefs. In the pre-Reformation period the medieval Church 'acted as a repository of supernatural power which could be dispensed to the faithful to help them in their daily problems.' The priests, set aside from the rest of the population by their celibacy and consecration, and acting as mediators between man and God, were naturally seen as possessing special powers. Religious objects and rituals, especially the sacraments, came to assume magical properties in the eyes of the people. The result was inevitably a blurring of the line separating religion from superstition.

After the Reformation the Protestants tried to separate religion from its unwanted associates. Their success was only partial, but Thomas finds that the Reformation helped to introduce a new concept of what religion actually is.

Today we think of religion as a belief, rather than a practice, as definable in terms of creeds rather than in modes of behaviour. But such a description would have fitted popular Catholicism of the Middle Ages little better than it fits other primitive religions.


This seems to me a most illuminating comment.

A central feature of post-Reformation theology was its rejection of chance. Everything that happened, without exception, did so because it was permitted by God. Hence we get the idea of Providence—the notion that God will provide for the virtuous in this life.

Every Christian thus had the consolation of knowing that life was not a lottery, but reflected the working out of God's purposes. If things went wrong he did not have to blame his luck but could be assured that God's hand was at work; the events of this world were not random but ordered. … The correct reaction of a believer stricken by ill-fortune was therefore to search himself in order to discover the moral defect which had provoked God's wrath, or to eliminate the complacency which had led the Almighty to try him.


(Although Thomas does not make the point, this way of thinking is basic to the Old Testament, adherence to which was a prominent post-Reformation characteristic.)

We tend to think of our predecessors as having been strongly religious, yet complete ignorance of religious doctrine was surprisingly common both before and after the Reformation. This persisted as late as the early nineteenth century, when a new vicar at a Dorset church found only two male communicants. 'When the cup was given to the first he touched his forelock and said, "Here's your good health, sir." The second, better informed, said, "Here's the good health of our Lord Jesus Christ." At Chippenham a poor man took the chalice from the vicar and wished him a Happy New Year.

There is also a surprising number of reports of frank irreligion and scepticism about all aspects of Christianity, among both aristocrats and the lower orders. This is particularly remarkable in view of the harsh penalties, including burning at the stake, that awaited deniers, so there must have been many doubters who preferred to keep quiet about their views. We hear a lot about the decline of religious faith in modern times, but this may be an illusion.

We do not know enough about the religious beliefs and practices of our remote ancestors to be certain of the extend to which religious faith and practice have actually declined.


It may seem surprising that Thomas has three chapters on astrology, but this reflects the fact that this belief system achieved an astonishing level of prestige and intellectual credence in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Most Tudor monarchs, including Henry VIII, patronised astrologers, and Cardinal Wolsey was himself a practitioner. In fact, what needs explanation is how and why astrology eventually was discredited; Thomas discusses this in some detail.

Other sections look at ancient prophecies, witchcraft, ghosts and fairies, lucky and unlucky days, and omens. All the subjects are illustrated with an abundance of quotations, which are referenced in footnotes to the pages rather than in end notes, which makes them easier to consult.

Witchcraft, like astrology, is treated at length. Like most modern academics, Thomas finds little evidence to support the idea that the accused witches were Devil-worshippers or members of a pagan fertility cult. Most supposed witches were impoverished unhappy women who often disliked their neighbours and wished them ill, and may have pronounced curses on them. A number of sceptical contemporaries recognised that the curses had no objective validity but nevertheless thought that the accused deserved to be executed because they wished to commit murder even though the means they chose were ineffective. The poet John Donne was one of those who held this view.

Thomas concludes his study by saying, 'What is certain about the various beliefs discussed in this book is that today they have either disappeared or at least greatly decayed in prestige.' But he also says that 'If magic is to be defined as the employment of ineffective techniques that allay anxiety when effective ones are not available, then we must recognise that no society will ever be free of it.' Almost half a century has passed since this was written, and events have proved it prophetic. Magical healing, in the form of many kinds of alternative medicine, has increased enormously in popularity, and astrology is by no means extinct. Religion, on the other hand is declining. Perhaps there is now a place for a book called 'Magic and the Decline of Religion'.


08-05-2018
%T Religion and the Decline of Magic
%S Studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth century England
%A Thomas, Keith
%I Weidenfeld and Nicolson
%C London
%D 1971
%G ISBN 297 00220 1
%P xviii+pp
%K history, religion

Breast screening error: disaster or blessing in disguise?

The NHS computer error that has resulted in some 450,000 women aged around 70 not having received an appointment for a final breast screen is obviously, and understandably, deeply worrying for the women concerned. Predictably, the media have headlined the estimate that up to 270 of them may have developed cancers that are more advanced and difficult to treat than they would have been if diagnosed earlier. But this depends on a number of assumptions. Leaving aside the fact that this is the upper limit of an estimated 135-270 range (compare the "up to" speeds quoted by ISPs - how many customers achieve them?), the situation, as usual, is more complicated than the headlines imply.

New Scientlst has a good discussion of the question (Why breast screening error stories are getting death stats wrong). This article makes the important point that, for some women, the failure to notify them may have done them a favour. The current NHS estimate is that, for every 200 women in the 50-70 age range screened, one will be spared an early death but three will have unnecessary treatment for cancers that would not have been a problem in their lifetime.


... it means that up to 800 women may have been saved from harm by not sending them their final screening appointment letter, as they avoided possible reduction in their life expectancy through unnecessary treatment.


The New Scientist article makes the important point that the women who received unnecessary treatment would never know this and would presumably be forever grateful, believing that their lives had been saved by the 'harrowing treatment process'. So this is an 'invisible' harm that is difficult to quantify.

Book review: The Mind Is Flat, by Nick Chater

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Sigmund Freud did not invent the notion of the unconscious—in one form or another it goes back to antiquity—but he undoubtedly popularised it. Thanks largely to him, many people today think of their minds in terms of the iceberg metaphor, which implies that much of what goes on in our minds is mostly or completely unknown to us. The idea of the unconscious is deeply infused in art, literature, and many other aspects of our life; in fact, it is so widespread that it is practically impossible to escape.

But why has it remained so popular? Probably because it corresponds with how we think of ourselves intuitively. (At least, this is true for Westerners; whether the idea is so deeply ingrained in other cultures I'm not sure.) And yet some psychologists and philosophers have rejected the notion of an unconscious mind. This where Chater stands, although, as he tells us, he came to this view only after a long struggle.

I have now, somewhat reluctantly, come to the conclusion that almost everything we think we know about our own mind is a hoax, played on us by our own brains.


He has reached this position on the basis of what science has told us about visual perception and brain function. He demonstrates this by means of visual illusions and by asking us to perform mental exercises in which we try to manipulate an imaginary wire cube or describe how a tiger's stripes flow over its body without looking at a picture of a tiger. The aim is to show how inaccurate, incomplete and ad hoc is our apprehension of our surroundings, whether we are perceiving them in reality or imagination.

Experiments have shown that our visual mechanism can focus on only one item at a time. The impression we have that we can take in a whole visual scene at once, at a glance, is an illusion constructed by our brains. And the same is true of our thoughts; we can think only one thought at a time. So there is no internal landscape in which unconscious thoughts can roam at will, and therefore there can be no unconscious thoughts. (This doesn't mean that there are no unconscious processes—quite the contrary.)

This account of how our minds work is counter-intuitive, which is presumably why it is not better known generally. Psychoanalysis gives us a different picture which is more in accord with 'folk psychology' and therefore seemingly more plausible. But it emerged from a mistaken approach to psychology on Freud's part. Although he claimed to be a scientist, his method was essentially literary. He based his ideas on case histories—stories which he narrated with considerable literary skill, almost as if he were writing fiction, which in fact he was. But this is not science.

This is how we experience characters in fiction. Chater illustrates this by treating Tolstoy's Anna Karenina as if she were a real person, bringing out what we know or might infer about her. The areas of knowledge and ignorance that exist in her case are similar to those that exist in our knowledge of real people and indeed ourselves. When we infer hidden motives, fears and desires in such cases we are making up stories of greater or lesser plausibility, no more. The principle of depth psychology is that, given the right techniques, we can infer what is going on 'inside', but we are creating verbal fictions, not practising science.

In this book I will argue for precisely the opposite viewpoint: that the charting of our hidden depths is not merely technically difficult but fundamentally misconceived; the very idea that our minds contain 'hidden depths' is utterly wrong. Our reflections on Anna Karenina's fatal act should point us, instead, to a radically different moral; that the interpretation of the motives of real people is no different from the interpretation of fictional characters.


This is not a long book but it packs a huge amount of insights into its pages (though I'd like to have had more discussion of dreams). If Chater is right, most of us will need to revise a lot of our basic assumptions about ourselves.

It is tempting to imagine that thoughts can be divided in two as the waterline splits an iceberg; the visible conscious tip and the submerged bulk of the unconscious, vast, hidden and dangerous. Freud and later psychoanalysts saw the unconscious as the hidden force behind the frail and self-deluded conscious mind.


Much the same could be said of Jungian psychology, which has attracted a much greater array of interpreters than has Gormenghast. It isn't difficult to devote a lifetime to exploring the endless ramifications of Jung's work. But if Chater is right this would be a delusive enterprise.

But is he right? If he is, many of us, including me, will have to make a pretty far-reaching re-evaluation of our ideas, and from what he writes that didn't come easily even to him. So this is clearly an important book that merits plenty of rereading.

See also Strangers to Ourselves, by Timothy D. Wilson

26-04-2018
%T The Mind Is Flat
%S The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind
%A Chater, Nick
%I Penguin
%C London
%P vii+223pp
%K psychology
%O kindle version downloaded from www.amazon.co.uk, 2018

Book review: Casting Off, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

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At the end of the third volume of the Cazalet Chronicles, Confusion, a lot of threads were left dangling. Here they are all tidied up pretty completely, against the background of life in post-war Britain, which still has plenty of hardships to be endured more or less stoically. Rationing of food, clothing, and fuel is still there or is even increasing under the Labour government, and there are the famous London smogs, one of which Howard describes vividly.

One difference between this volume and its predecessors is that we see events more through the eyes of the male characters than was the case previously. Rupert, the youngest brother, has returned from France after a long unexplained absence and is trying to rebuild his relationship with his young wife Zoe. Edward, the middle brother, is continuing his affair with Diana and it looks increasingly likely that he will have to decide what to do about his marriage to Villy. Hugh, the eldest of the three, is still broken-hearted after the death of his wife Sybil.

It is however Archie, the friend of practically all the members of the family, who comes to the fore in this book. Up to now his role has been that of wise counsellor, picking up the pieces when relationships break up and offering discreet support to everyone while avoiding getting too personally involved, But here he does become centrally involved in the story.

This is not to say that the female members of the cast, who are mostly in their early twenties, are neglected. In the previous volume there was a lot of information about Louise's increasingly unhappy marriage, but that story is no longer centre stage, which I found to be something of a relief; I felt the autobiographical element was rather too obtrusive. Instead the focus is mainly on Clary, who does a lot of growing up by the end of the book.

At the close we have happy endings, in varying degrees, for pretty well all the characters. This would seem to mark the end of the series, but in fact Howard did write a sequel—All Change—which was published in 2013; it was her final novel.

%T Casting Off
%S Volume 4 of the Cazalet Chronicles
%A Elizabeth Jane Howard
%I Macmillan
%C London =
%D 1995
%G ISBN 0 333 60757 0
%P 483pp
%K fiction
%O harback 4to
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Book review: The Stories of English, by David Crystal

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There have been many histories of English but nearly all of them focus on what Crystal terms Standard English. His book, he claims, is different. Its title is "The Stories of English" and not "The Story of English", because it sets Standard English in the context of the numerous other varieties of the language that have existed and still exist today. All of these, Crystal believes, are equally valid and deserving of respect.

The book covers the whole history of English, starting with Old English and continuing up to the twenty-first century. At all stages on the way we meet a great number of variations, which are illustrated with often lengthy quotations (this is a long book).

Crystal identifies three main stages in the development of the language. The first is marked by something approaching anarchy, with wide variations in spelling, vocabulary and grammar due to regional differences and other causes. The introduction of printing by Caxton in the fifteenth century imposed a degree of uniformity, but it was by no means complete and there was still no standard form of English.

With no standard to act as a control, Middle English illustrates an age when all dialects were equal, in the sense that the written language permitted the use of a wide range of variant forms, each of which was acceptable. There was no hint of a prescriptive attitude… One person may not have liked the way other people spoke or wrote—that is a characteristic for the human race—but there was no suggestion that they were somehow 'incorrect' as a result of doing so.


Standard English, which was largely southern English, began to develop at the end of the Middle Ages although this was a gradual unplanned process that took some 300 years to complete.

It is important to reiterate: only the basis of Standard English existed by 1500. Comparing the kind of language which was being written and spoken in those days to the kind of language we associate with Standard English now, we see a wide range of differences. The clear-cut distinction between 'correct' and 'incorrect' did not exist in late Middle English—that was an eighteenth-century development.


The trend towards control and formality became stronger in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when schoolchildren were firmly taught what was correct English and what was not. The abandonment of such ideas, which Crystal welcomes unreservedly, is well under way today although the process is not yet complete.

Crystal is dismissive of people who seek to resist change in the language. They often object to violations of rules such as not splitting infinitives and avoiding ending sentences with prepositions. Crystal insists that such shibboleths should be ignored; they derive from pronouncements by self-styled 'authorities' and lack any objective justification.

Punctuation pundits are not spared either, especially those who agonise over the apostrophe. The rules about this date from the introduction of printing and are simply conventions that cause unnecessary difficulty to many students and are not based on rational choice. Crystal doesn't have much time for the notorious arguments about 'its' and 'it's'. (I hadn't realised, incidentally, that the use of the apostrophe as a mark of possession was an eighteenth-century innovation; previously it had only indicated omission of a letter.)

For Crystal, as long as there is no loss of clarity, that's all that matters. So, for example, 'between you and I' is perfectly acceptable because there is no risk of misunderstanding what is meant. Like most linguists, Crystal does not accept the idea that languages 'deteriorate' with time; see, for example, Guy Deutscher, The Unfolding of Language.

So are we to conclude that anything goes? Well, not quite.

Of course, it also has to be firmly stated that certain standards have to be maintained in linguistic schooling. It is important for students to be able to write and speak clearly, to avoid ambiguity, to be precise, to develop a consistent style, to spell properly, to suit their language to the needs of the situation, and to bear in mind the needs of their listeners and readers. Everyone needs help to shape their own personal style and to develop their ability to appreciate style in others, and the role of teachers and of good linguistic models (the 'best authors') is crucial. The more people read widely, acquire some analytical terminology, adopt a critical perspective and try their hands (and mouths) at different genres, the more they will end up linguistically well-rounded individuals.


In this revealing passage Crystal concedes quite explicitly that there is such a thing as good writing, and this admission doesn't sit entirely easily with his rejection of 'correctness'. I'd say that it's one thing to flout the rules selectively and deliberately and quite another to ignore them completely because either you have never heard of them or you hold all rules in contempt. There is a potential tension in writing between old and new, formality and informality, and how you resolve this tension depends partly on personal preference and also on the audience you have in mind. Getting the tone right is crucial but often difficult. This is something that is hardly touched on here, but I find I'm constantly aware of it myself when I'm writing.

Crystal suggests that our linguistic prejudices largely reflect our age. If you were brought up to adhere to certain standards in writing you will probably object when these are ignored. Up to a point I agree, so I keep my own linguistic preferences (prejudices?) under review to test their validity. But I don't want to jettison them wholesale. I know there is no good reason not to split infinitives or place prepositions at the ends of sentences and I already feel free to do both at will. But nothing will persuade me to use 'bacteria', 'data' or 'graffiti' as singulars or to write 'between you and I'. To do so would feel like the literary equivalent of deliberately playing a wrong note or dragging my nail down a blackboard. And I shall continue to distinguish between 'infer' and 'imply', 'disinterested' and 'uninterested', and 'lay' and 'lie'.

It's a losing battle, of course. Changes are on their way in all these matters and in ten or so years' time the usages I now reject will probably be the accepted norm, but they aren't there yet, at least for me. I don't intend to adopt them myself, but I'll try to be less censorious when others do so.

It isn't only the written language that Crystal takes a critical look at; he does the same for spoken English too. As usual, taking the historical view brings plenty of surprises. For example, the increasing use of the glottal stop in many parts of the country goes a lot further back than you might think. Nor is it uniquely a lower-class phenomenon; there is evidence for its use by the actress Ellen Terry and even Bertrand Russell.

Whether one fully agrees with Crystal or not, there is no doubt that he has written a fascinating book It contains unexpected information on all kinds of subjects. One that particularly surprised me was the rapid evolution of a local dialect on Pitcairn Island, where the Bounty mutineers established a colony. To illustrate this he quotes, verbatim, the transcription of an islander's oral description of how to cook a local dish.

Reading this book has given me a useful term to describe something I'd often noticed while reading but didn't know how to describe: eye-dialect. When authors want to represent the speech of a rustic or uneducated character they may write something like "That's wot I sed". In fact, this isn't dialect; it's how a speaker of Standard English would pronounce these words, but the comic spelling is used to show the status of the speaker. This is an example of eye-dialect.

There are also some nice examples of myth-busting. For example, it is often claimed that rural Americans, especially the Appalachian mountain dwellers, preserved a lot of Elizabethan English in their dialects. In fact, there are relatively few such usages and, as would be expected, all the dialects have changed a good deal over the two centuries since the settlements.

This is a book that anyone with a serious interest in writing will enjoy reading and learn a lot from. But I don't think we need to throw out all our books on style, even if we should perhaps read them with a more critical eye. I shall certainly hold on to my copy of F.L. Lucas's Style.


Book %T The Stories of English
%A Crystal, David
%I Penguin Books
%C London
%D 2004, 2005
%G ISBN 978-0-141-90070-4
%K language
%O kindle version downloaded from www.amazon.co.uk, 2018 review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.

An interesting paper, possibly relevant to acupuncture

Structure and Distribution of an Unrecognized Interstitium in Human Tissues
doi:10.1038/s41598-018-23062-6

This paper is very interesting in its own right and I think may have relevance to acupuncture. Although the focus is mainly on internal organs the findings also relate to the skin and connective tissue generally. The authors describe a previously unknown but widespread system of fluid-carrying channels of potential clinical significance.


"We propose here a revision of the anatomical concepts of the submucosa, dermis, fascia, and vascular adventitia, suggesting that, rather than being densely-packed barrier-like walls of collagen, they are fluid-filled interstitial spaces. The presence of fluid has important implications for tissue function and pathology. Our data comparing rapidly-biopsied and frozen tissue with tissue fixed in a standard fashion suggest that the spaces we describe, supported and organized by a collagen lattice, are compressible and distensible and may thus serve as shock absorbers."


This mechanism is thought to occur in the skin under mechanical compression and in the musculosketal system during activity.


"In sum, while typical descriptions of the interstitium suggest spaces between cells, we describe macroscopically visible spaces within tissues – dynamically compressible and distensible sinuses through which interstitial fluid flows around the body. Our findings necessitate reconsideration of many of the normal functional activities of different organs and of disordered fluid dynamics in the setting of disease, including fibrosis and metastasis."



Whether this discovery will ultimately prove to have relevance for acupuncture remains to be seen, but it's certainly something we need to be aware of. For example, it may be an additional reason for rejecting skin pressure as a valid control in acupuncture trials. So watch this space (literally).


Book review: Christian Beginnings, by Geza Vermes

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Geza Vermes, who died in 2014, was an advocate for the view that Jesus can only be properly understood in a Jewish context, something he argued in more than twelve books; see, for example, The Changing Faces of Jesus. He portrays Jesus as a rural Galilean prophet, exorcist and healer who preached the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God but made no claim to divine status.

Christian Beginnings, as Vermes explains in his introduction, takes the story further. It is "an attempt to sketch the historical continuity between Jesus portrayed in his Galilean charismatic setting and the first ecumenical council held at Nicaea in AD 325, which solemnly proclaimed his divinity as a dogma of Christianity".

Vermes is not the first to describe this extraordinary transformation, of course, but he does so in an unusual way. Naturally he uses the New Testament sources, especially Paul and the Fourth Gospel, but he also draws on other sources that are likely to be unfamiliar or even unknown to most non-specialists. These include, for example, the Didache, or Teaching of the Apostles. Written in the late first century, it describes the initiation of new church members and the organisation of the infant church. It has been said to be one of the most significant literary discoveries in primitive Christianity. A little later than the Didache we have the Epistle of Barnabas, which was nearly included in the New Testament.

The two documents present differing views of Jesus. For the Didache, whose author was evidently Jewish, Jesus is the Servant of God but not himself divine. He is a great teacher but not a superhuman being. Barnabas, in contrast, refers to Jesus as Son of God, who is pre-existent from eternity; this is similar to the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel. The author of Barnabas was apparently a Gentile and there is an implied criticism of Judaism in the way the text is framed as a dispute between 'us' and 'them'.

Between the end of the first century and the middle of the second century there is a group of writers known as the Apostolic Fathers: 1 and 2 Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Hermas and Diognetus. They provide an idea of how the church was developing at this time and of progressive changes that were occurring in Christians' view of Jesus as he moved towards full divinity.

In the late second and early third centuries we find the "Three Pillars of Wisdom": Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. All made important contributions to Christianity although both Tertullian and Origen were later declared to have been heretical. At this period Christianity faced danger externally, from the hostility of Rome, and also internally, from conflict with Gnosticism. Both problems were addressed by these writers.

Origen is particularly interesting because although he was very influential in early Christianity he is little known to non-specialists today except perhaps for having castrated himself for religious motives at the age of eighteen.

The power and the originality of the teaching of Origen were bound posthumously to inspire conflicting attitudes towards the great Alexandrian. His admirers worshipped him and his critics subjected his name to vituperation. Attacks on Origenism, on ideas some of which he actually held and others erroneously attributed to him, continued for centuries. The chief points of controversy concerned the doctrine of the pre-existence of souls, Origen's purported rejection of the literal sense of the Bible in favour of allegorical exegesis and his denial of the eternity of hell. … The greatest mind and most creative thinker of early Christianity was anathematized by the church of second-rate followers.


Like other Christian writers at this time, Origen struggled with the theology of the Trinity. The Trinitarian conundrum is in fact surely insoluble; the modern Roman Catholic church describes it as a Mystery, which seems to mean it resembles a Zen koan (the sound of one hand clapping). The problem is to explain why saying that God contains three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit doesn't imply there are three Gods.

The only escape route away from the trap of suspected formal polytheism was by denying equal status to the various persons within the single Deity. Only the Father was fully the God; the Son was only the second or lower God and the Holy Spirit, something vague and unspecific, floating somewhere below the Son.

This idea, Vermes thinks, was what prevailed in the whole church before Nicaea and was already foreshadowed by Paul and John. It was expressed clearly and logically by Arius, the founder of the Arian heresy. But it "was challenged, attacked and finally overturned by a minority of bishops with the backing of the emperor at the Council of Nicaea".


Even so, the arguments continued for over half a century, until the Emperor Theodosius declared Arianism illegal in 381. Divergent opinions were no longer tolerated.

Christianity, as generally understood in the light of its Gentile development, is focused not on the genuine existential spiritual legacy of the Jewish Jesus, but on the intellectual acceptance of the divine Christ and his superhuman existence within the mystery of the church's triune Godhead.


The book provides a readable if rather detailed account of the arguments that shaped Christianity in the first few centuries. Its chief interest will probably be to Christians who are curious about the early years of their faith and are prepared to look at the question through critical but not hostile Jewish eyes. Secularists may well find the whole subject esoteric and obscure, but given the continuing importance of religion in general and Christianity in particular in the modern world, some will probably feel it worth while to explore this unfamiliar territory.

%T Christian Beginnings
%S From Nazareth to Nicaea (AD 30–325)
%A Vermes, Geza
%I Allen Lane
%C London
%D 2012
%P xvi+243pp
%K religion
%O kindle version downloaded from www.amazon.co.uk, 2018

Book review: This is Going to Hurt, by Adam Kay

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Adam Kay is now a comedian and writer for television and film. Before that he was a junior doctor in the NHS for six years and this book contains the diaries he kept at that time. We follow him as he embarks on his career after qualifying, and quickly finds that his medical training has not prepared him for what awaits him: not just responsibility for the lives of his patients but frequent relocations, substandard accommodation, and above all lack of sleep. The experiences he describes will no doubt surprise anyone whose idea of hospital medicine has been formed by a diet of medical soaps but will be entirely familiar to readers who have been there themselves.

Like all other British doctors, after qualifying he became a House Officer (the lowest rank in the medical hierarchy); a year later, as a Senior House Officer, he had to decide what direction his future career should take. He chose obstetrics and gynaecology, known as 'obs and twats' at his medical school, thereby ensuring four or five more years of sleeplessness (he should have chosen dermatology). All this is vividly described; the tone of the writing is racy and witty with lots of good jokes and well supplied with expletives (not deleted)—more MASH than Holby.

Eventually Adam reached the rank of Senior Registrar, meaning he was one step away from becoming a consultant. Then came disaster. He carried out a caesarian section which went wrong. The patient had an undiagnosed placenta praevia (the placenta blocking the exit from the womb). The baby was dead and the mother bled heavily and was saved only at the cost of a hysterectomy (this was her first pregnancy).

No one blamed Adam for what happened, but he was unable to come to terms with it and, a few months later, decided to quit—a victim of 'burn-out'. Particularly in the more stressful specialties such as obstetrics this isn't an unusual story, as he makes clear.

Throughout the book there is an underlying thread of barely restrained anger at the way the good will of the junior doctors is being exploited, and this culminates in an open letter to the Secretary of State for Health printed at the end of the book, in which this is made explicit. Everyone who holds this office, Adam suggests, should have to work some shifts alongside junior doctors.

Not the things you already do, when a chief executive shows you round a brand-new ward that's gleaming like a space station. No: palliate a cancer patient; watch a trauma patient have their leg amputated; deliver a dead baby. Because I defy any human being, even you, to know what the job really entails and question a single doctor's motivation.


The book exemplifies Horace Walpole's epigram: life is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel. Adam both thinks and feels, but the feeling won out in the end.

03-02-2018
%T This is Going to Hurt
%S Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor
%A Kay, Kay
%I Picador
%C London
%D 2017
%G ISBN 978-1-5098-5864-4
%K autobiography, medicine
%O electronic edition
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Book review: Somewhere Towards the End, by Diana Athill

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This book was written in old age, when Athill was about to turn 90 (she is now 100). But although the experience of growing old and facing death is one of her themes, it is far from the only one. She writes perceptively about people she has known and objectively and frankly about herself and her earlier life, including her many love affairs. Hers has been a pretty full life, one would think, but she wishes it could have been even fuller—one regret is that she would have liked to learn modern Greek and to have lived and worked in Greece.

Although she had previously published a collection of short stories and a novel, she didn't think of herself as a writer, and discovering in old age that she could produce memoirs that people wanted to read came as a delightful surprise. It shouldn't have done. She is more of a 'writer' than are many of those who ostentatiously describe themselves as such.

I enjoyed the book but it wasn't until I started to write this review that I realised whom she reminded me of as a writer: the sixteenth-century French essayist Montaigne, which is praise indeed. Sarah Bakewell, in her biography of Montaigne, writes:

Whereas most of his contemporaries struck literary postures and tried to impress their readers, Montaigne wrote in a colloquial informal style. Reading him, we are admitted to his innermost thoughts and emotions. He made no attempt to follow a train of argument or put forward a philosophy, and the titles of his essays often have little connection with their content.

All this could be said of Athill too (except that her chapters don't have titles). The book is quite short, because she favours simplicity and brevity (something she says she learned in her working life as an editor). Of her plan for an earlier book, about her life in publishing, she says: "It would be short, but that wouldn't matter because to my mind erring on the side of brevity is always preferable to its opposite." If only more writers thought this!

She is objective about her own character and what some might see as faults. For example, she is not a natural carer; she has had to take on this role at least twice, once for her mother and once for a former lover, but she didn't enjoy it and felt she could have done better. In the case of the lover she found herself acting like a wife although they weren't married; in fact, she never wanted to be married and preferred to be 'the other woman'.

She felt nothing for babies and didn't want children herself—she terminated an unwanted pregnancy on one occasion. Yet when she became pregnant again, at the age of forty-three, she found to her surprise that she was overjoyed at the prospect of becoming a mother. But it didn't happen. In the fourth month she had a miscarriage that almost killed her.

As she recovered from her near-fatal haemorrhage Athill experienced "a great wave of the most perfect joy [which] welled up and swept through me. I AM STILL ALIVE! It filled the whole of me, nothing else mattered. It was the most intense sensation I have ever experienced." So intense was the joy that it almost completely overwhelmed regret at the loss of the pregnancy.

Once again I'm reminded of Montaigne. He too had a near-fatal illness after a riding accident. Outwardly he appeared to be in agony yet he was inwardly completely at peace. Something similar happened again in later life, when he suffered a good deal from kidney stones; he experienced a spiritual liberation after the attacks passed, and even when the pain was severe he preserved a sense of inner freedom.

A third possible similarity to Montaigne is in Athill's view of religion. She is an atheist and doesn't believe in an afterlife.

I can't feel anything but sure that when men form ideas about God, creation, eternity, they are making no more sense in relation to what lies beyond the range of their comprehension than the cheeping of sparrows.

(I say 'possible similarity' because we know little of what Montaigne really thought about religion. Wisely, in view of the times in which he lived, he took refuge in silence, saying only "what do I know?".)

Wikipedia comments on the "remarkable modernity of thought in Montaigne's essays. The same could be said of Athill's writing. She may, as she acknowledges more than once, be old, but her writing is fresher and more enjoyable to read than that of many younger people.

01-02-2018

%T Somewhere Towards the End
%A Athill, Diana
%I Granta Books
%C London
%D 2008, 2009 (ebook version)
%G ISBN 978-1-84708-158-2
%K autobiography
%O kindle version downloaded from www.amazon.co.uk, 2017

Book review: Candide, by Voltaire

Voltaire's satirical novel Candide is probably known by reputation to more people, at least in the English-speaking world, than have actually read it. This is a pity, because it scores very highly for readability as well as importance. It is quite short and the narrative moves along at a cracking pace so there is no time to be bored.

Many of the events it describes, such as the Lisbon earthquake and the public burning of heretics that followed, were recent news items at the time the book was written, but this doesn't make it appear dated. It works as satire because it is so firmly based in human nature.

There is a lot of cruelty and savagery in the story. Horrible things happen to Candide and to those around him, and he himself kills a couple of people, although in self-defence. But all this is described in near-farcical terms, so that the horrors strike you almost as an afterthought, in a double take; you find yourself thinking, "This is absurd", and then you realise that such things really do happen.

This double-take effect is enhanced by the abundance of impossible coincidences that occur, making the narrative into a fable. There are other impossibilities too. The characters are like those in a Walt Disney cartoon; they are hanged or mutilated or burnt alive, yet they don't die but reappear later—horribly disfigured and at first unrecognisable, but still alive.

The characters are also cartoon-like in not developing psychologically, no matter what they experience. They are two-dimensional mouthpieces for philosophical views. The prime example is Candide's tutor Pangloss, who maintains his optimistic philosophy (based on Leibnitz) throughout all the misfortunes he suffers. Only Candide himself is a partial exception; he remains almost (but not quite) as kindly and good-natured throughout as he was at the beginning of his adventures, but he does lose his naivety and gains a measure of worldly wisdom by the end.

This e-book version doesn't credit the English translation to anyone but from the style I think it is by Tobias Smollet, who translated all Voltaire's works in the 1760s.

19-01-2018
%T Candide
%A Voltaire
%K fiction
%O downloaded from www.feedbooks.com, 2017
%O English version; French version also available

Book review: Ultimate Questions, by Bryan Magee

See my 570 other reviews

In Confessions of a Philosopher, published twenty years ago, Magee described his thoughts about the possibility of survival after physical death and said that this was a question that troubled him deeply. In his new book he returns to this theme, whose importance for him is now even greater than it was when he last wrote because of its greater immediacy (he is now in his late eighties). The book could be described as an extended meditation on the nature of the self and what this means for our future prospects, if any.

Many people would turn to religion for answers to questions of this kind but not Magee; he has no religious faith. The alternative is often taken to be the view that there is nothing beyond the empirical world—what we know or can know. But this is wrong too, according to Magee, who holds, on rational grounds, that we cannot know the whole of reality.

We can know (and I think we do know) that aspects of reality exist that are permanently outside the possibility of human apprehension. We can raise questions about them which, as questions, have enormous significance; but unless we can make contact with a source of information which is outside the range of human apprehension we cannot get answers on which we can rely.


Religious people think that God is such a source of information but Magee does not find this credible, although he is agnostic about the existence of God as he is about practically everything else, including our own nature.

Science is important in helping us to shape our view of ourselves and the world but it is not sufficient. Magee names three philosophical mentors who have done most to guide his thinking; he sees them as links in a continuous chain of development extending over 200 years.

There is a tradition within Western philosophy that has irradiated these questions with light, even though it has not and cannot provide them with definitive answers. This tradition began with Locke, proceeded through Hume, and reached its highest development in the works of Kant and Schopenhauer.


The lack of definitive answers may make some readers feel that this is a bleak outlook. Magee himself seems to feel this. Now that he is in his eighties he finds that his attitude to the search for truth has changed somewhat.

I used to regard commitment to this kind of truth-seeking as the overriding value—the need to discover and live in the light of as much truth as we can find out about whatever it is we are—and it is still how I would like to live as much as I can. But I have discovered that there are things that I cannot bear.


But this not his ideal position—it is a compromise, as he makes clear later.

What I find myself wanting to press home more than anything else is that the only honest way to live and to think is in the fullest possible acknowledgement of our ignorance and its consequences, without ducking out into a faith, whether positive or negative, and without any other evasions or self-indulgences.


This is a deeply personal book. Although Magee occasionally quotes other philosophers he provides no references or lists for further reading. Perhaps for this reason, I found it impressive but rather claustrophobic. Not everyone is as appalled by the thought of extinction as Magee is. In Confessions of a Philosopher he mentioned that Karl Popper was not troubled by it; nor was David Hume, and there are plenty of other examples among philosophers. In fact, the late C.D. Broad said that he would be more annoyed than surprised to find he had survived the death of his physical body.

As always, Magee writes clearly, without jargon, and he makes his case for profound agnosticism with considerable force. I find it difficult to disagree with him, but I think the distress he describes himself as feeling is probably an individual quirk of character.

03-01-2018
%T Ultimate Questions
%A Bryan Magee
%I Princeton University Press
%C Princeton and Oxford
%D 2016
%K philosophy
%O kindle version downloaded from amazon.co.uk, 3017

OpenBSD after 4 years' use

Revised 2 February 2019

Why I'm posting this
I started using OpenBSD for my desktop in September 2014 after many years on Linux. I thought it might be useful to summarise my experience since then, particularly for anyone who is thinking of making the same transition. I've blogged a lot about this previously (see the bsd tag) so this is really just an update.

In brief, I still like OpenBSD and have no thought of going elsewhere. I use the -current flavour and update the system about once a week. OpenBSD -current is roughly the equivalent of Debian Sid or Arch; in other words, it's a moving target. This may suggest that you need a lot of experience to use it and that doing so is rather risky, but I've found it to be if anything more stable than either of those linux distributions.

There have been occasional hiccups, mainly with packages rather than the base system (unlike in Linux, these are maintained separately in the BSDs), but there have been no show-stoppers and I've been able to solve problems with help from various kind people on the internet. But OpenBSD differs from Linux when it comes to finding help.

Getting help
OpenBSD users are always advised to read the (excellent) man pages, which often provide the answer, so that's usually the place to start. The online FAQ is also essential reading.

All the Linux distributions I've used have mail lists and these are probably the most widely accessed resources for help with the different distributions. OpenBSD has a general mail list (misc@openbsd.org) but this is not the place to ask newbie questions. Most of the discussion is more technical than what you will find on a typical LInux list and many of the topics are not relevant to desktop users. I read it daily and learn from it, but even after 4 years much of it still goes over my head.

A very good place to go when starting out with OpenBSD is http://daemonforums.org. There are some very knowledgeable people there who kindly and patiently answer beginners' questions. Remember to search the site before you ask your question; you'll often find that it's already been answered.

If you think you've found a bug either in the base system or a package you can submit a bug report. Even if you don't do this it can be useful to keep an eye on the bug reports at https://marc.info/?l=openbsd-bugs. If the problem is with a package you can email the package maintener whose address is given in the info page for each package; I've had very helpful responses in this way. Incidentally, a useful place to look for ports is http://openports.se.

If you are following -current you should certainly keep an eye on https://www.openbsd.org/faq/current.html.

Finally, anyone who has decided they want to use OpenBSD regularly should get a copy of Absolute OpenBSD by Michael W. Lucas.




Book review: Confusion, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

This book continues the story of the Cazalets from the point it reached at the end of Marking Time. It covers the period from March 1942 to the end of the war in Europe in 1945. The main characters are the same as in the previous volume except that Sybil, who had terminal cancer, has died. Read more

Water companies use dowsing to find leaks

Today's Daily Mirror reports that an engineer working for the Severn Trent water company used dowsing to search for a leak at a property. The property owners' daughter, who is studying for a Ph.D in evolutionary biology at Oxford University, contacted the water company; they confirmed that some of their engineers practise dowsing and they have no objection. She then wrote to other water companies and found that nine of them used dowsing.

Dowsing is generally regarded as pseudo-science. Wikipedia lists a number of scientific studies of the practice that have been conducted since the early twentieth century; they have almost uniformly found the results were no better than chance.

A number of homeopaths use dowsing, usually with a pendulum, to choose their medicines. In the 1980s, when I was a physician at The Royal London Homeopathic Hospital (now The Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine), I contacted a dowsers' society to ask if their members were willing to take part in a trial to see if they could distinguish real homeopathic medicines from placebos. They agreed to do this and I started to set up the trial, but unfortunately they then backed out.

Book review: How Language Began, by Daniel Everett

Everett is an anthropological linguist who has lived for extended periods with the Pirahãs, a small group of Amazonian natives (see Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes). His new book presents his view of how language has developed in the course of human evolution.

There is a wide range of opinions about the antiquity of language. Some, notably those influenced by the theories of Noam Chomsky, think that it is quite recent, perhaps only 50,000 years old, and is due to a new brain adaptation to construct and understand grammar. Language is therefore confined to Homo sapiens, and recent Homo sapiens at that. Everett is at the other end of the scale; he finds that language is more than one million years old and arose in Homo erectus. No sudden mutation was required for this; it resulted from a progressive increase in brain power linked to more complex culture. Language is a cultural invention, not primarily a biological phenomenon. Continue reading.