Christopher de Hamel is a British academic librarian. He is an expert on mediaeval manuscripts. De Hamel takes listeners on an international journey to view ancient illuminated manuscripts.
De Hamel’s peregrinations are fascinating, in part because of his excellent recitation. But also because of interesting stories about manuscript’ provenance, purpose, and location. (A listener’s regret–there are no illuminated manuscript’ plates in the audio book appendix. This review is meant to partially address that regret.)
Illuminated manuscripts are held for safekeeping in controlled access libraries and museums around the world. These manuscripts are called “illuminated” because they were hand-made with images and script drawn in gold and silver. They were made by Western European scribes between 500 and 1600 CE (common era).
They vary in size from as large as three feet tall (Codex Gigas with 310 leaves of vellum made from 160 donkeys) to one so small it could fit into the palm of one’s hand; e.g. the “Prayer Book of Claude de France” produced in the 16th century.
De Hamel reviews 12 manuscripts. The most famous is the “Book of Kels” found in Ireland. The most interesting might be the “Spinola Book of Hours” because the author plays a role in its discovery and collation. The “Spinola Book of Hours” is a 16th century manuscript with 88 miniature paintings. It is presently located in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
The purpose of ancient manuscripts is to educate and enlighten medieval populations. Just as today, the greatest benefit is to the rich. The rich could afford the manuscripts but the poor were offered limited exposure through the few religious schools that served the poor. Many ancient manuscripts were used to teach the young how to read while educating them in the history of the world and the religion adhered to by royalty.
(The invention of the Guttenberg press in 1440 CE was the beginning of the end of the illuminated manuscript but the art of the handmade manuscript survives into the early 17th century.)
De Hamel tells 13 stories about 12 illuminated and one technically not-illuminated manuscript (the “Codex Amiatinus”). All entertain and inform interested listeners.
The following list shows de Hamel’s chosen manuscripts. An interesting manuscript that reflects on modern times is Tres Riches Heurees du Duc de Berry. It reflects on the Black Plague’s European devastation.
BOOK OF DURROW (7th century book of hours, biblical tales and Virgil/Homeric tales, most well known. Located in Dublin @ Trinity College – is the oldest completed illuminated transcript)
CODEX AMIATINUS (created by missionaries, 8th century, North Umbria creation. Bible.) technically not illuminated-no silver or gold.
LINDISFARNE GOSPELS (Somehow saved) 8th century New Testament, stolen by the Vikings. Contains the gospes of Mark, John, Luke, and Matthew.)
THE BOOK OF KELLS (most famous, 9th century, greatest of any era)
ST. ALBANS PSALTER (12th century, detailed art work)
MORGAN CRUSADER BIBLE (13th century) artistic masterpiece about the Old Testament crusades
WESTMINISTER ABBEY BESTIARY (164 illustrations, 13th century, real and imaginary animals)
THE BOOK OF HOURS OF JEANNE d’Evreux (14th century) life of Jesus.
THE BLACK HOURS (15th century) created in Greece, purchased by Piermont Morgan and housed in the Morgan Museum in New York.
TRES RICHES HEURES du Duc de Berry (15th century, master work, unfinished because of the plague.)
Grimani Breviary (16th century, religious and secular stories, made in Flanders. Over 1600 pages – stories from the bible)
PRAYER BOOK OF CLAUDE DE FRANCE (16th century) fit in the palm of one’s hand. Magnifying glass needed.
The Buried-An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution
By: Peter Hessler
Narrated by Peter Hessler
Peter Hessler (American Author, and journalist.)
Peter Hessler chooses to move from China to Egypt just before the 2011 Egyptian revolution. He, his wife, and twin newborns live in Egypt for five years.
Hessler worked for The New Yorker as a staff writer from 2000 to 2007 and became the magazine’s correspondent for China from 2011 to 2016.
Hessler looks at Egypt through the eyes of an American who lived in both China and Egypt as a reporter. His perspective melds Chinese and American acculturation with interesting incite to Egypt’s history, language, and politics.
Egypt is a fascinating country for anyone who has visited or read about its ancient civilizations. With brief comments about Egypt’s historic monuments and museums, Hessler touches the culture of modern Egypt.
Hessler notes the extraordinary ability of Egyptians to hold two opposing thoughts and adjust behavior to accommodate both beliefs. On the one hand, there is a sense of “let it be” when minor or major events occur in the lives of modern Egyptians. On the other, there is a history of autocratic Egyptian rulers who insist on strict control of society. In view of the many non-Egyptian’ governments after the Pharohs, it comes as no surprise that Egyptians are adaptive.
Sadat, Mubarak, & Nasser were military dictators before the election of Morsi who is deposed in the revolution by today’s military leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Hessler comments on the ability of Egyptians to learn languages at varying ages of maturity. Language skill is the lingua franca of the ability to adapt.
From ancient times of the Assyrians, Persians, and Greeks; to more modern times of the Ottomans and British–Egypt remains Egyptian despite their adaptability.
Hessler offers an understanding of Egypt through the eyes of its citizens. He recounts the tumultuous relationship of an entrepreneurial garbage collector and his wife. The garbage collector is illiterate. His wife can read and write.
The garbage collector is in his 30s when he marries his 18-year-old wife. Their marriage leads to three and then four children. The garbage collector is exiled from his children with the threat of divorce initiated by his conservative wife. His wife follows Egyptian culture in covering her face but rejects some of the discriminatory aspects of a patriarchal society.
Hessler’s garbage collector is a great source of information about Egyptian culture because of the details he knows of other lives based on what Egypt’s citizens throw away. The collector is scrupulously honest about the garbage he collects. When he finds something in the trash that has value he returns to his customer. It is a matter of pride; stoked by belief in a cosmic or religious wheel in his mind that tells him what is right. However, the wheel seems to stop when it comes to relationship with his wife and children. This leads to what Hessler suggests is a fundamental flaw in modern Egypt; i.e. women’s inequality.
Because the collector’s wife knows how to read and write, she files an appeal to the court to strip her husband of his house and property. She files for divorce but recants after finding the consequence of such action would make her and her children destitute.
Surprisingly, their tumultuous relationship becomes less combative as their life together matures. Their personal trials seem a paradigm of Egypt’s “let it be” and autocratic culture.
Hessler reports on the ponderous, corrupt justice system that both aids and thwarts the intentions of married couples seeking help.
Women are discriminated against based on their sex in Egypt.
Women are raised to believe their role in life is to have and raise children, and take care of their husbands and families. Girls are not afforded the same educational opportunities as men. Women are expected to sacrifice their entrepreneurial right to a job when they are married. Hessler notes female children are routinely genitally mutilated. This is a tradition based on a belief that sexual pleasure and desire are a threat to society. Hessler compares the torture of genital mutilation to the Chinese tradition of binding women’s feet.
Hessler compares Chinese with Egyptian culture to expose the consequence of sex discrimination. The potential of women’s contribution to the economy in Egypt is eviscerated by its culture of discrimination.
In an adults most productive years, Egyptian housewives cannot work for pay outside of the home. If a woman has a good job, she is expected to relinquish it when she is married. In contrast, Chinese women are full participants in the economy.
Parenthetically, Hessler notes Egyptian homosexuals are persecuted for their sexual preference. The irony of that homosexual persecution is in Egypt’s patriarchal culture that discourages social contact between the sexes. Putting aside genetic predisposition, without social contact with women, male relationships become the only acceptable form of intimate relations.
Egypt’s demonstration against a crackdown on LGBT’ rights.
Hessler’s book is interesting because of his firsthand knowledge of the revolution that removes Morsi from the Egyptian Presidency. In many conversations with Egyptian residents, Hessler notes the weakness of the Brotherhood in Egypt; both in number and in qualification for political leadership.
Hessler contrasts the military with the Muslim religion of the Brotherhood. The military has a long history in modern Egypt. The tradition of strong leaders has an even longer history. The Brotherhood is characterized by strong leaders who only press religion; without understanding the nature of society that desires order, safety, and economic opportunity. Order, safety, and economic opportunity are a “good despot’s” alleged intent.
Mohammed Morsi (Fifth President of Egypt for 1 year until removed from office by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Morsi dies of a heart attack in 2019.)
Hessler shows the Brotherhood as an association of religious believers that have little organizational skill. They are not educated to lead. They are educated to worship. That educational limitation exhibits itself in Morsi’s weak government. Egypt flounders economically with the election of Morsi. One can argue it is still floundering under el-Sisi but Hessler shows the military is more prepared to lead based on the tenants of worldly desire rather than religious worship.
Egyptian Brotherhood Rally
(In a population of 80,000,000, there are an estimated 600,000 dues paying members of the Brotherhood; of which 100,000 are considered militant.)
Hessler explains there are many conspiracy theories surrounding the Brotherhood’s influence in Egypt. Their small numbers and inept management skill seem unlikely to create a successful uprising in Egypt. The Brotherhood’s revolutionary impact seems symbolic more than real. However, one realizes Russian Bolsheviks were a small minority in 1917.
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (Current President of Egypt)
Hessler notes that el-Sisi’s popularity is diminished by missteps in funding infrastructure improvements at the expense of more direct economic need. He cites the expansion of the Suez Canal as an example of a prudent long-term aid to the economy but a neglect of medical services, justice reform, and housing needs for today’s general population.
There is also the issue of repression by el-Sisi. Hessler recalls the incident of a tortured, and then killed, foreign student that criticizes the current government. The author notes that el-Sisi’s defenders suggest the murder was an accident caused by young and inexperienced supporters of el-Sisi.
In recalling my personal trip to Egypt in 2019, the Brotherhood is a big concern of the government. Tourism is a big industry for Egypt. That industry nearly dies with the election of Morsi. Some Egyptians feel something is getting done with el-Sisi; while no economic progress happened with Morsi.
Hessler offers a glimpse of the hardship Egypt faces in the 21st century. His observations are at a local level of Egyptian society; not at the obscure level of a thirty-day tourist. Time will tell if el-Sisi is the answer to Egypt’s failing economy.
Sisi is acknowledged by Hessler as a good communicator. Sisi is truly an Egyptian focusing on his perception of what Egypt needs now; not the religious salvation of the eternal. The biggest criticism of Egypt’s leadership in Hessler’s book is the unequal treatment of women. There seems no action taken by el-Sisi to address that reality. One wonders if the economy is likely to grow quickly enough to avoid another revolution without gender discrimination reform.
Leo Damrosch (American author and professor of Literature at Harvard)
Leo Damrosch’s biography of “Jonathan Swift” illustrates the power of the pen.
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745, Anglo-Irish satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer, poet and cleric.)
Jonathan Swift is principally remembered for “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World”, better known as “Gulliver’s Travels”. What is less known of Swift is that he was and is a revered Irish hero.
Damrosch has written a comprehensive biography of Jonathan
Swift’s life. Damrosch searches for what
is known, while expressing reservation about what others speculate about
Swift’s life. Jonathan Swift is recognized
as an ordained Anglican priest that reluctantly accepts a position as Deanery
of St Patrick’s church in Ireland.
Swift lives an ironic life. He was born in Ireland but preferred living in England. His life reflects humanity’s ambivalence about money, power, and prestige.
Irony lies in Swift’s desire to become rich, powerful, and respected while skewering the rich, powerful, and respected.
Swift reveres the Anglican Church while he hates the memory of King Henry VIII’s duplicitous murder of Saint Thomas of Canterbury in the 12th century. Irish Catholics are tolerated rather than accepted as religious equals by Swift. Swift’s appellation for Irish Catholics is “those Irish”.
England’s leaders grew to fear Swift’s power of the pen. He became a respected, if not rich, Irish cleric. Religious satire was Swift’s sword but it had two edges.
Just as Swift is endearing himself to English leadership, he writes a satiric book about western Christianity. The book is called “A Tale of a Tub”. It is widely read by literate England. Queen Anne considers the book blasphemous because of its parodies about religion and religion’s use and abuse in politics.
Damrosch believes “A Tale of a Tub” burns Swift’s chance for ever becoming an English Bishop, a well-paying and respected position in the Anglican Church. Without Royal endorsement, Swift has little chance of promotion in England.
An irony of Swift’s life is that he gained a reputation as a
maker and breaker of English’ politicians and noblemen by writing “A Tale of a
Tub”; i.e. Damrosch notes several examples of English’ leaders that either
solicit mention in Swift’s writing or fear pillory by Swift’s pen. The good consequence is respect for Swift’s
writing skill; the bad consequence is English Royalty’s disdain for Swift’s
writing substance and his ultimate lesser-posting in an Anglican Church in
In today’s news, Pope Benedict implies deterioration of the church is caused by 1960’s sexual liberation.
Swift embraces religion but denigrates its leadership.
Irony follows irony in Swift’s life. Swift is a Tories’ sympathizer that evolves into an Irish hero that decries Tory treatment of Ireland in the early 18th century. He hated Ireland but became Ireland’s hero. Swift promotes Ireland’s boycott of British goods when England forbids export of Irish wool to anywhere but England. Swift decries Irish poverty but suggests poverty is an Irish moral failing.
The climax of Damrosch’s biography is Swift’s publication of “Gulliver’s Travels”. Swift’s dissection of societies’ follies is as relevant today as it was in the 18th century. One might argue that “A Tale of a Tub” is equally important but “Gulliver’s Travels” resonates with all who read for pleasure, politics, or enlightenment; whether young or old. “A Tale of a Tub” is more relevant to the time of its writing.
There are other biographical details about women in Swift’s
life, his stories, and Swift’s idiosyncratic habits but power of the pen is the
thematic giant in Damrosch’s book.
Damrosch shows how Swift became a feared satirist by England’s leaders.
Michael Shermer (Author, American science writer, editor of the magazine Skeptic.)
Michael Shermer is an academic psychologist, writer, myth buster, and faith breaker. Shermer characterizes himself as a religious skeptic. His underlying skepticism about God is grounded in 1.) prayer’s failure to cure the incurable, 2.) the nature and history of recorded life, and 3.) scientific studies of brain function.
Shermer writes of personal prayers’ failure to heal a medically un-heal-able friend. He recounts common sectarian stories that occur in the history of different religions in the world suggesting that stories of religious belief are genetically imprinted; i.e. a condition of human memes rather than proof of God. Sherman has company in that belief. Richard Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene to make the same mimetic point.
Shermer reviews brain function studies that confirm neurological causes for “out of body experience”, “voices from the unseen”, alien abduction, white light cognition during near death experience, and other anecdotes that mythologize the existence of other beings, God , the devil, and/or an “after life”.
The Believing Brain characterizes belief in God as a genetically evolved faith-based myth. Shermer cites science and history to deny God’s existence. Shermer believes faith in God comes from a genetic predisposition of human beings to complete causal, mythological stories to explain unexplained phenomena.
Aside from Shermer’s disbelief in God, his most substantive observations are the experimentally reproducible studies that clearly demonstrate man’s ability to invent stories, deny physical reality, and act in socially reprehensible ways.
Shermer notes how such things as framing an idea distorts human cognition. Scientific studies show that human cognition is proven to be biased by a person’s belief system. Shermer cites B. F. Skinner’s operant conditioning and the famous Milgram obedience experiments to show how human perception, and more consequentially, behavior are manipulated by human instinct and contextual bias.
It is no wonder that “eye witness” accounts of crime are being discounted as a source for conviction of presumed perpetrators.
The foundation of Shermer’s skepticism is what he calls “patternicity” and “agenticity”. “Patternicity” is the human compulsion to see causal relationship in the physical world. “The Believing Brain” outlines a psychological inclination of human brains to manufacture causal patterns and agents (“agenticity”) to support pre-determined beliefs.
The irony of Shermer’s analysis of brain function is that “patternicity” is an essential tool of the scientific community. Without the use of “patternicity”, how would Bohr, Einstein, or Paul Dirac have advanced the world of physics? These men believed something before science could prove them right. They had faith in their own judgement when experiment could not prove their point.
Shermer notes that science is the key to knowledge. Science requires experimentally reproducible results. When experimental results are not the same, knowledge escapes. Experiment recently confirmed existence of the Higgs Boson 16 years after François Englert and Peter Higgs created the theory.
One must presume Shermer chooses to call himself a skeptic because—when asked if he believes in God, no experiment can be done to confirm or deny existence.
Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False
By: Thomas Nagel
Narrated by: Brian Troxell
Thomas Nagel believes Darwin’s theory of natural selection is wrong. Nagel suggests natural selection fails to encompass the concept of mind. Even though Nagel acknowledges biology and physics have made great strides in understanding the nature of life, he suggests the mind should be a starting point for a theory of everything. Nagel infers that science research is bogged down by a mechanistic view of nature. Nagel suggests science must discover the origin of consciousness to find the Holy Grail; i.e. an all-encompassing theory of nature.
Nagel does not believe Darwinian evolution can explain consciousness. Nagel offers a sliver of hope to believers in God as the Creator but, as an atheist, he suggests there is a teleological (an account of a given thing’s end or purpose) explanation for consciousness that is yet to be discovered. In that discovery, he believes there will be a theory of everything that encompasses the true nature of life.
Nagel acknowledges God may be the answer but places that idea near the level of space aliens leaving seeds of life on earth. He argues that discovery of the origin of consciousness through science will be the key to open the door to a theory of everything. Like Einstein and Newton, Nagel believes humans live in a world of cause and effect. But, like Newtonian’ physics failure to encompass the universe’s laws of motion, and Einstein’s belief that God does not play with dice, Nagel believes Darwin’s concept of natural selection is, at best, incomplete. (Both Newton and Einstein failed to incorporate laws of quantum mechanics in their respective theories of nature.)
Without agreeing or disagreeing with Nagel’s idea, it seems propitious for the United States to fund and begin their decade-long effort to examine the human brain. A giant step forward was taken by President Obama but Trump’s anti-science mentality suggests Nagel’s idea will not be explored during Trump’s administration.
Though nearer term objectives are to understand Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, the longer term result may be to discover the origin of consciousness. Contrary to Nagel’s contention that natural selection cannot explain consciousness, brain research may reveal consciousness rises from the same source of mysterious elemental and repetitive combinations of an immortal gene that Darwin dimly understood. Brain research offers an avenue for extension or refutation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
Mind and Cosmos is a tribute to Nagel’s “outside the box” philosophical’ thought. Like some who say string theory is a blind alley for a theory of everything, natural selection may be a mistaken road to the origin of life.
David R. Hawkins died in 2012. He was 85 years old. At turns, Hawkins transitioned from agnosticism to atheism to belief in God. This progression seems correlated with education and experience but ends in philosophical belief. In each transition, Hawkins uses his intellect to form a philosophy that has appeal to many in search of life’s meaning. At times, Hawkins seems beyond reason but each step he takes offers insight to how one may live a more fulfilling life. Hawkins might be broadly characterized as a mystic. Even so, he was a formally educated, practicing physician, and psychiatrist.
Mysticism lies in Hawkins belief in human dualism, a belief dating back to Plato and adopted by many later philosophers. Hawkins dualism is belief in a distinct separation between mind and body. More precisely for Hawkins, it is a separation between mind and brain.
Hawkins becomes a mystic when he posits belief in a cosmic mind shared by all humanity. The power of this cosmic mind can cure all the maladies of humankind, both physical and mental. Hawkins implies this cosmic mind can cure physical disease manifested in the body. If you cannot see; if you cannot hear; if you cannot feel, your condition can be cured by a force of will that engages the cosmic mind.
This is a point at which Hawkins loses some believers. However, before one gets to a point of rejection, Hawkins offers wise counsel on how to live life and approach a level of what Abraham Maslow labeled self-actualization.
Hawkins argues that everything that happens in one’s life is because of the mind’s interpretation of the world. The mind gets trapped in Plato’s cave and only sees shadows of reality. Reality is obscured by what the human mind tells them. The mind’s interpretation of life’s events distorts reality. A child remembers a father’s or mother’s rebuke as an eternal judgement when reality may have been to protect a child from harm. The shadow is created and remains with the child for the rest of his/her life.
To escape the trap of Plato’s cave, Hawkins explains one must use their senses to accept the mind’s perception of reality and continually let it go until its negative power disappears. An example would be one who gets angry over some event or action and accepts the anger; looks at it, accepts it, uses the mind to understand why there is anger, where it is coming from, and then letting it go. In the process, one finds anger has no meaning other than what one’s mind gave it.
With continual use of this process, Hawkins believes individual minds tap into a cosmic mind that shows the world as it really is; not simply as shadows on a cave wall. There is wisdom in Hawkins’ perception of life and how one can more constructively deal with its vicissitudes. “Letting Go” is wise counsel for those troubled by emotional and/or physical trauma. However, the principle of a cosmic mind takes a leap of faith.
The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology
By: Robert Wright
Narrated by Greg Thornton
ROBERT WRIGHT (AUTHOR, JOURNALIST)
Robert Wright emboldens Darwin’s theory of evolution in “The Moral Animal”. Wright argues that Darwin infers evolution is biological, an all-inclusive generative theory. Not only is humankind evolving physically through natural selection, it is evolving psychologically.
Wright suggests every human action in life is determined by evolution.
The import of that conclusion is that all life is pre-determined at birth by evolution. Humans, like all others in the animal kingdom have no free will. Life is physically and morally pre-determined by evolution. Unlike Richard Dawkins, Wright wastes no time creating the idea of memes (inherited social customs) as a determinant of behavior. Wright suggests every human action in life is determined by evolution. In other words, Wright is saying he devil did not make you do it, and God is only a false construct of human evolution.
Wright argues that all life is based on arbitrary evolutionary changes in reproduction. Physical (genetic) and psychological (motive) changes that reinforce survival are pre-determined controllers of human behavior. Wright’s experimental evidence for physical evolution is research on human remains. His evidence for psychological evolution is advance in biological science.
The discovery of endorphin, serotonin, enzyme, and other chemical interactions that effect human behavior are markers for evolutionary change in human psychological influence and control.
Biological research shows that chemical interactions in the human body effect psychological behavior, just as genetics effect physical being.
Physical and psychological correlation with evolution changes one’s view of civilization and its discontents. It is not only suggests the death of God’s omniscience and control, but the death of free choice. Humans are born programmed; programmed to be good and evil. Humans kill, cheat, lie, and steal. At the same time, humans build cities, create art, love others, and sacrifice their lives for something greater than themselves.
Without God; without free choice, where is morality, where is good will, where is value in living? Wright suggests morality evolves into normative ethics, an ethics of pleasure as long as pleasure’s pursuit does not harm others. Wright’s idea is that humans level their moral behavior using a “tit for tat” penalty/reward system designed by evolution. A precursor of this philosophy is inferred by Epicurus in 4th century BC but evolves into utilitarianism in the 19th century.
Without God; without free choice, where is morality, where is good will, where is value in living? Wright suggests morality evolves into normative ethics, an ethics of pleasure as long as pleasure’s pursuit does not harm others.
Wright argues that humankind historically demonstrated sympathy, empathy, compassion, conscience, guilt remorse, and justice. Whether evolutionary or God-given, these moral beliefs are historically exhibited by civilization.
Civilization benefits from these feelings. Wright argues that penalties for violating rules of doing no harm to others are a part of a “tit for tat” evolutionary psychology that sustains civilization. Whether this idea reflects God, evolution, or free-choice; “tit for tat” offers a morally grounded philosophy that has pragmatic and utilitarian value. It helps humans feel better or worse, depending on their side of the “tit for tat”.
Wright suggests Freud was on to something in the idea of id, ego, and superego. Wright endorses Freud’s suggestion of homo sapient need for social interaction and the libidinous nature of humanity. However, Wright believes Freud took the idea too far when suggesting humans have a death instinct or Oedipus complex. Neither a death instinct nor Oedipus complex makes sense in an evolutionary world where replication of life is the essence of being.
English ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author.
In summary, like Richard Dawkins, Wright is saying human beings are only replicating machines; without God; without free will, and dependent upon the arbitrariness of natural selection.