Thursday, March 26, 2009

Study That Language!

It's amazing how many of history's geniuses have studied Hebrew: Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and William Blake, to name but a few. They did more than take a couple of classes - these men devoted years to researching the grammar and vocabulary of this ancient language and its texts. What ultimate influence did this have on their other famous endeavors?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Islamic Armies Attack Italy

Many of us would be startled if we are told that in the ninth century, a Muslim fleet based in Sicily sailed up the Tiber and occupied and sacked Rome for days, until it was defeated and expelled by the the armies of the Holy Roman Empire and other Frankish contingents. This attack took place on August 28, in the year 846 A.D., when the Islamic military arrived at the mouth of the river Tiber and sailed into Rome.

The Muslim invasion of Italy is often overlooked in history books, because the massive Islamic attacks on Spain and Yugoslavia get more attention. Although the attack on Italy was smaller than the other Muslim assaults, it is worth studying, because it is part of the larger historical trend which characterized these centuries.

Logically enough, the Islamic advance on Italy was made possible after Muslim armies had occupied and subjugated, in stepping-stone fashion, the islands of Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia.

Despite the fact that the military action in Italy was smaller than the massive incursions into Spain and Yugoslavia, its historical importance lies in the fact that the Islamic military succeeded in opening a third front; this forced the Europeans to spread their defensive forces more thinly, to the strategic and tactical advantage of the Muslims.

Further south of Rome down along the Italian peninsula, Islamic forces staged both temporary raids, as well as occupying various provinces on a longer-term basis, sometimes holding a region for several years.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Delacroix's Paintings

Delacroix's painting of the Massacre at Chios, shows sick, dying Greek civilians about to be slaughtered by the Muslims. One of several paintings he made of this contemporary event, it expresses sympathy for the Greek cause in their war of independence against the Islamic empire, a popular sentiment at the time for the French people. Delacroix was quickly recognized as a leading painter in the new Romantic style, and the picture was bought by the state. His depiction of suffering was controversial however, as there was no glorious event taking place, no patriots raising their swords in valour, only a disaster. Many critics deplored the painting's despairing tone, calling it "a massacre of art". The pathos in the depiction of an infant clutching its dead mother's breast had an especially powerful effect, although this detail was condemned as unfit for art by Delacroix's critics. A viewing of the paintings of John Constable prompted Delacroix to make extensive, freely painted changes to the sky and distant landscape.

Delacroix produced a second painting in support of the Greeks in their war for independence, this time referring to the capture of Missolonghi by Muslim forces in 1825. With a restraint of palette appropriate to the allegory, Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi displays a woman in Greek costume with her breast bared, arms half-raised in an imploring gesture before the horrible scene: the suicide of the Greeks, who chose to kill themselves and destroy their city rather than surrender to the Islamic army. A hand is seen at the bottom, the body having being crushed by rubble. The whole picture serves as a monument to the people of Missolonghi and to the idea of freedom against tyrannical rule. This event interested Delacroix not only for his sympathies with the Greeks, but also because the poet Byron, whom Delacroix greatly admired, had died there.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Father Copernicus, the Roman Catholic Priest

Nicholas Copernicus was a Polish priest, who first advanced the doctrine that the sun and not the earth is the center of our system, round which our planet revolves, rotating on its own axis. His great work, De Revolutionibus orblure coelestium, was published at the earnest solicitation of Cardinal Schömberg and the Bishop of Culm. It was dedicated to Pope Paul III, with his permission. No objections or difficulties were raised against Copernicus by any official of the Roman Catholic church. Neither Paul III, nor any of the nine popes who followed him, nor the Roman Congregations raised any alarm.

On the contrary, Copernicus was rewarded with honors by the Pope, and became an influential individual within the Roman Catholic church. In sum, the heliocentric solar system was warmly received by the established church of the day.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Complex Mr. Newton

Isaac Newton was, beyond question, one of the most brilliant scientists and mathematicians who ever lived.

He invented calculus and the reflecting telescope; he discovered the gravity equation, the gravity constant, and the laws of motion. He correctly analyzed the refraction of light. He did most of his work at Cambridge University in England.

But most of his time and effort were directed to spiritual questions. He excelled in his ability to read Hebrew and Greek, and wrote extensive commentaries on the Tanakh and the New Testament. His commentaries are so detailed that he began to calculate astronomical observations using the Hebrew calendar, in which months have names like “Nisan,” rather than the standard English calendar. In fact, he wrote and published more books about religion than he wrote about mathematics and science put together.

As modern scholars study Newton in great detail, two different interpretations emerge, hinging on this question: was Newton a Christian?

Those scholars who believe that Newton was a Christian cite the following facts as evidence: Newton clearly regards the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible as authoritative and historical; Newton refers to Jesus as the Savior of all mankind; Newton understands that the Resurrection is a physical, bodily event, and not a mere metaphor.

Those who write that Newton was not a Christian point to the facts that Newton practiced a form of alchemy which was more like magic than science, and traditional Christianity frowns on the practice of magic, and that Newton called Jesus "the Son of God" but rejected the usual understanding of the Trinity, writing that Jesus is only partially, and not fully, divine, and therefore Newton declined write that Jesus is God.

One of Newton's most famous books is titled Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, and in it he wrote that “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.” The title is Latin for the “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy,” and the book was published in 1687.

So was Newton a Christian? You decide.