Apr 082018

Today is the birthday (1859) of Edmund Gustav Albrecht Husserl, a Moravian philosopher who established the school of phenomenology. In his early work, he developed critiques of logic, and in his mature work, he sought to develop a systematic foundational science based on what he called phenomenological reduction, and argued thatg that transcendental consciousness sets the limits of all possible knowledge. Husserl’s thought profoundly influenced the landscape of 20th-century philosophy, and he remains a notable figure in contemporary philosophy and beyond.

I could get into some pretty deep waters here, but I will spare you too much philosophizing. Maybe you are like most people who don’t like to think too much about meaning, consciousness, and that sort of thing. You just like to get on with your life and let crazies, like me, worry about whether 2 or blue really exist. That’s fine. For me, trying to think as deeply as I can about all kinds of things is what makes me happy. I also like cooking and taking photos. There is room for it all. The fundamental point for me, that Husserl helps me with, is that what we can see and what we can think of is not all there is. I expect most people know this at some level. Great scientists of the past were often religious – sometimes deeply so – because they realized that science can only get you so far in uncovering what exists. Logic too. There is more to the world than our perceptions or our thinking can reveal. Buddhists know this. Christian mystics do too. So did alchemists, Sufis, fakirs etc. Failing to grasp this simple fact shows a lack of imagination, in my oh-so-humble opinion. Husserl profoundly probed the limits of what we can know and how we can know it. Just because there are things that are impossible to know, does not mean that they are not real. I am not going to do more than skate lightly over the surface of Husserl’s thinking. First, some background.

Husserl was born in 1859 in Proßnitz, a town in the Margraviate of Moravia, which was then in the Austrian Empire, and which today is Prostějov in the Czech Republic. He was born into a Jewish family, the second of four children. His father was a milliner. His childhood was spent in Proßnitz, where he attended the secular elementary school. Then Husserl traveled to Vienna to study at the Realgymnasium, followed next by the Staatsgymnasium in Olomouc.

Husserl then studied mathematics, physics, and astronomy at the University of Leipzig from 1876 to 1878. At Leipzig he was inspired by philosophy lectures given by Wilhelm Wundt, one of the founders of modern psychology. Then he moved to the Frederick William University of Berlin (the present-day Humboldt University of Berlin) in 1878 where he continued his study of mathematics under Leopold Kronecker and Karl Weierstrass. In Berlin he found a mentor in Thomas Masaryk, a former philosophy student of Franz Brentano and later the first president of Czechoslovakia. There Husserl also attended Friedrich Paulsen’s philosophy lectures. In 1881 he left for the University of Vienna to complete his mathematics studies under the supervision of Leo Königsberger (a former student of Weierstrass). He received his Ph.D. in 1883 with the work Beiträge zur Variationsrechnung (“Contributions to the calculus of variations”).

As a result of his becoming familiar with the New Testament during his twenties, Husserl asked to be baptized into the Lutheran Church in 1886. Herbert Spiegelberg writes, “While outward religious practice never entered his life any more than it did that of most academic scholars of the time, his mind remained open for the religious phenomenon as for any other genuine experience.” Although a steadfast proponent of a radical and rational autonomy in all things, Husserl could also speak “about his vocation and even about his mission under God’s will to find new ways for philosophy and science,” according to Spiegelberg.

Following his Ph.D. in mathematics, Husserl returned to Berlin to work as the assistant to Karl Weierstrass, yet felt the desire to pursue philosophy. When Weierstrass became very ill, Husserl was freed to return to Vienna where, after serving a short military duty, he devoted his attention to philosophy. In 1884 at the University of Vienna he attended the lectures of Franz Brentano on philosophy and philosophical psychology. Brentano introduced him to the writings of Bernard Bolzano, Hermann Lotze, John Stuart Mill, and David Hume. Husserl was so impressed by Brentano that he decided to dedicate his life to philosophy. Two years later, in 1886, Husserl followed Carl Stumpf, a former student of Brentano, to the University of Halle, seeking to obtain his habilitation which would qualify him to teach at the university level. There, under Stumpf’s supervision, he wrote Über den Begriff der Zahl (On the Concept of Number) in 1887, which would serve later as the basis for his major work, Philosophie der Arithmetik (the Philosophy of Arithmetic) (1891).

Husserl’s thought was revolutionary in several ways, most notably in his distinction between “natural” and “phenomenological” modes of understanding. In the former, sense-perception when it corresponds with the material realm constitutes known reality, and understanding is premised on the accuracy of the perception and the objective knowability of what can be called the “real world.” Phenomenological understanding strives to be rigorously “presuppositionless” by means of what Husserl calls “phenomenological reduction.” This reduction is not conditioned but rather transcendental: in Husserl’s terms, pure consciousness of absolute Being. In Husserl’s work, consciousness of any given thing calls for discerning its meaning as an “intentional object.” Such an object does not simply strike the senses, to be interpreted or misinterpreted by mental reason; it has already been selected and grasped, grasping being an etymological connotation, of the Latin percipere, the root of “perceive.”

In Logical Investigations (1900/1901) and Experience and Judgment (1939), Husserl expressed clearly the difference between meaning and object by talking about several different kinds of names for things. For example, there are names that have the role of properties that uniquely identify an object. Each of these names expresses a meaning and designates the same object. Examples of this are “the victor at the battle of Jena” and “the loser at the battle of Waterloo,” or “the equilateral triangle” and “the equiangular triangle.”  In both cases, both names express different meanings, but designate the same object. A classic linguistic puzzle arises from the fact that what used to be called the morning star and the evening star – two different names, with two different meanings – refer to the same object: the planet Venus. There are names which have no meaning, but have the role of designating an object: “Aristotle,” “Socrates,” and so on. Finally, there are names which designate a variety of objects (e.g. table, chair, rock). These are called “universal names.” Their meaning is a “concept” and refers to a series of objects (the extension of the concept). The way we know perceivable (sensible) objects he called “sensible intuition.”

Husserl also identifies a series of “formal words” which are necessary to form sentences and have no sensible correlates, such as, “a”, “the”, “and”, “however”, “under”, “two”, “group”, and so on. Every sentence must contain formal words to designate what Husserl calls “formal categories.” There are two kinds of categories: meaning categories and formal-ontological categories. Meaning categories concern judgments; they include forms of conjunction, disjunction, forms of plural, among others. Formal-ontological categories concern objects and include notions such as set, cardinal number, ordinal number, part and whole, relation, and so on. The way we know these categories is through a faculty of understanding called “categorial intuition.”

I’ll leave it at that. If you know any philosophy, chances are you know this stuff already, and if you don’t know it, chances are that you don’t care. I get fixated on these ways of thinking because my garbage mind wants to pull together disparate ways of thinking into one vision. Probably hubristic of me. If you want to view the world through one lens only, I wish you all the best. I don’t. When I see a star, I want to think of it in terms of physics, theology, art, philosophy, psychology, astrology etc. All these avenues teach me something, and they can all come together if we allow them to. It is conceivable to me that a grand synthesis of ideas is within our grasp, but we have to work in that direction. Why do you think I write this blog which combines everything under the sun?

Česnečka is a well-known garlic soup from Husserl’s Moravia, now found widely throughout the region. It always involves heavy use of garlic in broth with potatoes, and can be spiced with caraway, marjoram or cumin. You can also add a local cheese, Olomoucké tvarůžky. It is a ripened soft cheese with very low fat content, pungent taste and strong odor. Dishes containing this cheese can usually be recognized by the word Loštické in their names, such as Loštická česnečka. You’ll need some breath mints afterwards. A mouth smelling of garlic soup and Moravian cheese will fell an ox.



1 head garlic, peeled and minced
1 cup diced white onion
2 cups peeled and chopped potato
2 tbsp butter
4 cups broth (beef or chicken)
3 tbsp fresh marjoram leaves
2 bay leaves
fried bread croutons
Moravian cheese (optional)


Melt the butter over medium heat in a heavy saucepan and add the potatoes. Stir the potatoes often and let them turn color slightly. Then add the onions and cook until translucent. Add the garlic and stir well, so that all the ingredients are mixed well. Add the broth, marjoram and bay leaves, and season with salt to taste. Bring to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are as soft as you like them.

Serve in deep bowls with croutons on top, and some grated cheese if you prefer.

Some cooks use an immersion blender on the soup before adding the croutons and cheese to make a smoother dish.



Jan 162018

Today is the birthday (1516) of Bayinnaung Kyawhtin Nawrahta (ဘုရင့်နောင် ကျော်ထင်နော်ရထာ) king of the Toungoo Dynasty of Burma (Myanmar) from 1550 to 1581. During his 31-year reign, which has been called the “greatest explosion of human energy ever seen in Burma,” Bayinnaung assembled what was probably the largest empire in the history of Southeast Asia, which included much of modern-day Myanmar, the Chinese Shan states, Lan Na, Lan Xang, Manipur and Thailand. Bayinnaung was born Ye Htut to Mingyi Swe and Shin Myo Myat. His exact ancestry is unclear. No extant contemporary records, including Hanthawaddy Hsinbyushin Ayedawbon, the extensive chronicle of the king’s reign written two years before his death, mention his ancestry. In 1724, almost a century and a half after his death, Maha Yazawin, the official chronicle of the Toungoo Dynasty, first proclaimed his genealogy. According to Maha Yazawin, he was born to a noble family in Toungoo (Taungoo), then a former vassal state of the Ava Kingdom. Despite the official version of royal descent, oral traditions speak of a less grandiose genealogy, saying that his parents were commoners from Ngathayauk in Pagan district or Htihlaing village in Toungoo district, and that his father was a toddy palm tree climber, then one of the lowest professions in Burmese society. The commoner origin narrative first gained prominence in the early 20th century during the British colonial period as nationalist writers, such as Po Kya, promoted it as proof that even a son of a toddy tree climber could rise to become the great emperor in Burmese society. All history serves the purposes of the historian.

Although he is best remembered for his empire building, Bayinnaung’s greatest legacy was his integration of the Shan states into the Irrawaddy-valley-based kingdoms. After the conquest of the Shan states in 1557–1563, Bayinnaung put in an administrative system that reduced the power of hereditary Shan saophas (hereditary rulers), and brought Shan customs in line with lowland norms. It eliminated the threat of Shan raids into Upper Burma, a longstanding concern to Upper Burma since the late 13th century. His Shan policy was followed by Burmese kings right up to the final fall of the kingdom to the British in 1885. The Shan are still one of the major ethnic groups in Myanmar with their own language and distinctive culture.

Bayinnaung is considered one of the three greatest kings of Burma, along with Anawrahta and Alaungpaya. Some of the most prominent places in modern Myanmar are named after him. He is also well known in Thailand as Phra Chao Chana Sip Thit (พระเจ้าชนะสิบทิศ, “Victor of the Ten Directions”). His empire was a loose collection of former sovereign kingdoms, whose kings were loyal to him as the Cakkavatti (Universal Ruler), and not to the kingdom of Toungoo. Ava and Siam revolted two years after his death, and by 1599, all the vassal states had revolted, and the Toungoo Empire completely collapsed.

Bayinnaung, who began his reign as a “king without a kingdom,” ended his reign as an “emperor without an empire.” According to Than Tun, Bayinnaung conquered territories not to colonize them but to gain the loyalty of their rulers. He kept conquered kings and lords in their own positions as long as they remained loyal to him. Tun Aung Chain adds that “the extensive polity was held together not so much by formal institutions as personal relationships” based on the concepts of thissa (သစ္စာ, ‘allegiance’) and kyezu (ကျေးဇူး, ‘obligation’).” This was nothing new. Bayinnaung was simply following the then prevailing Southeast Asian administrative model of solar polities in which the high king ruled the core while semi-independent tributaries, autonomous viceroys, and governors actually controlled day-to-day administration and labor. As such, the “King of Kings” governed only Pegu and the Mon country himself, leaving the rest of the realm to vassal kings in Ava, Prome, Lan Na, Lan Xang, Martaban, Siam, and Toungoo. He regarded Lan Na as the most important of all the vassal states, and spent most of his time there in peacetime.

Bayinnaung administered Lower Burma with the help of ministers, the vast majority of whom were of ethnic Mon background. His chief minister was Binnya Dala, known for his military and administrative abilities, and literary talents. He introduced administrative reforms only at the margins. By and large, he simply grafted the prevailing decentralized administration system, which barely worked for petty states like his native Toungoo, to the largest polity ever in the region. It did not work for mid-size kingdoms like Ava, Hanthawaddy, Lan Na, and Siam. He, perhaps inadvertently, did introduce a key reform, which turned out to be the most important and most enduring of his legacies. It was his policy to administer the Shan states, which had constantly raided Upper Burma since the late 13th century. The king permitted the saophas of the states to retain their royal regalia and ceremonies, and feudal rights over their subjects. The office of the saopha remained hereditary. But the incumbent saopha could now be removed by the king for gross misconduct although the king’s choice of successor was limited to members of the saopha’s own family. The key innovation was that he required sons of his vassal rulers to reside in his palace as pages, who served a dual purpose: they were hostages for good conduct of their fathers and they received valuable training in Burmese court life. His Shan policy was followed by all Burmese kings right up to the final fall of the kingdom to the British in 1885.

Bayinnaung introduced a measure of legal uniformity by summoning learned monks and officials from all over his dominions to prescribe an official collection of law books. The scholars compiled Dhammathat Kyaw and Kosaungchok, based on King Wareru’s dhammathat. The decisions given in his court were collected in Hanthawaddy Hsinbyumyashin Hpyat-hton. He promoted the new law throughout the empire so far as it was compatible with customs and practices of local society. The adoption of Burmese customary law and the Burmese calendar in Siam began in his reign. He also standardized the weights and measurements such as the cubit, tical, and basket throughout the realm.

Another enduring legacy of Bayinnaung was his introduction of a more orthodox Theravada Buddhism to Upper Burma and the Shan states. He propagated the religious reforms begun by King Dhammazedi in the late 1470s. He viewed himself as the model Buddhist king and distributed copies of Buddhist scriptures, fed monks, and built pagodas at every new conquered state from Upper Burma and the Shan states to Lan Na and Siam. Some of the pagodas are still intact. Following in the footsteps of Dhammazedi, he supervised mass ordinations at the Kalyani Thein at Pegu in his orthodox Theravada Buddhism in the name of purifying the religion. He prohibited all human and animal sacrifices throughout the kingdom. In particular, he forbade the Shan practice of killing the slaves and animals belonging to a saopha at his funeral. His attempts to eliminate animist nat (spirit) worship from Buddhism, however, failed.

Bayinnaung donated jewels to adorn the crowns of many pagodas, including the Shwedagon, the Shwemawdaw, the Kyaiktiyo, and many less famous ones. He added a new spire to the Shwedagon in 1564 after the death of his beloved queen Yaza Dewi. His main temple was the Mahazedi Pagoda at Pegu, which he built in 1561. He tried but failed to secure the release of the Tooth of Kandy from the Portuguese in 1560. He later interfered with the internal affairs of Ceylon in the 1570s, ostensibly to protect the religion there.

His kingdom was mainly an agrarian state with a few wealthy maritime trading ports. The main ports were Syriam (Thanlyin), Dala, and Martaban. The kingdom exported commodities such as rice and jewels. At Pegu, overseas trade was in the hands of eight brokers appointed by the king. Their honesty and business-like methods won the esteem of European merchants. The capital was so fabulous that contemporary Europeans were said to “never tire of describing Pegu—the long moat full of crocodiles, the walls, the watch-towers, the gorgeous palace, the great processions with elephants and palanquins and grandees in shining robes, the shrines filled with images of massy gold and gems, the unending hosts of armed men, and the apparition of the great king himself.” The king appointed officials to supervise merchant shipping and sent out ships to undertake commercial voyages. The prosperous life at the capital, however, was probably not replicated at the countryside. Annual mobilizations of men greatly reduced the manpower necessary to cultivate the rice fields. Harvests at times fell perilously low, causing severe rice shortages, such as in 1567.

Bayinnaung’s empire was built on what is sometimes called “breathtaking” military conquests, but his success was more than just Portuguese firearms, foreign mercenaries, and massive forces. There was also a strong element of personal charisma. Certainly, he benefitted from the arrival of Portuguese cannon and matchlocks in large quantities. Portuguese weaponry proved superior in accuracy, safety, ballistic weight, and rapidity of fire to Asian-made firearms. Finally, Bayinnaung was able to marshal more manpower than any ruler in the region. He required every new conquered state to provide conscripts for his next campaign. Using both larger forces and superior firearms, he had no trouble reducing Manipur and the entire Shan world to tributary status. His larger forces and their greater fighting experience proved to make the difference against Siam, which too was a wealthy coastal power with a powerful well-equipped military.

It turned out however that Siam was not his greatest adversary. It was the remote mountainous states like Lan Xang, Mohnyin and Mogaung whose guerrilla warfare gave him constant trouble. Many of his men died from starvation and disease while fruitlessly searching for elusive bands of rebels, year after year. (The death toll must have been significant since it is mentioned in the chronicles.) He was fortunate that the charismatic guerrilla leader Setthathirath died. In the end, his military might alone could not bring lasting peace. He needed competent local rulers, who commanded the respect of the local populace, to rule the lands on his behalf.

These individual ingredients alone cannot explain Bayinnaung’s success. The same ingredients were available to his successors. Yet no one (in Burma or elsewhere in the successor states of his empire) could put them together. One historian notes: “From his teens until his death, he was constantly in the field, leading every major campaign in person. The failure of other kings who attempted the same conquests is the measure of his ability.” Bayinnaung died on 10 October 1581 after a long illness. His eldest son and heir-apparent Nanda took over the throne without incident. But the empire, which Bayinnaung had built on military conquests and maintained by both military power and personal relationships with the vassal rulers, crumbled shortly after.

Nowadays Myanmar cooking is divided into homestyle cooking and royal cooking. It’s hard enough for me to describe homestyle cooking, let alone royal style. Hop a plane. The difference between home and royal cooking is more one of quantity than quality. Rice is the staple, and various main dishes and side dishes accompany the rice. Royal meals involve many more dishes than home meals, but the general cooking methods and ingredients are the same (although royal dishes can involve more meat). Indigenous vegetables predominate.  Here are two videos. The first is quite detailed and shows cooking in the Shan style from Inle lake.

The second shows a rather festive dish, and indicates, if the first doesn’t sufficiently, how obscure some of the ingredients are for Westerners.

Nov 212017

Today is probably the birthday (1694) of François-Marie Arouet, known to posterity by his nom de plume: Voltaire. He was known in his day, and still is, for his wit, his attacks on the established Catholic Church and Christianity as a whole, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and separation of church and state. For these, and other “sins,” he was imprisoned in France and then exiled for some time. In addition, life was frequently made uncomfortable for him in his native Paris. But he stuck to his guns, suffering the usual fate of those who criticize (or in his case ridicule) the powers that be. He was a versatile and prolific writer, producing works in almost every literary form, including plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works. He wrote more than 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets.

Voltaire was born in Paris, the youngest of the five children of François Arouet (19 August 1649 – 1 January 1722), a lawyer who was a minor treasury official, and his wife, Marie Marguerite Daumard (c. 1660 – 13 July 1701), whose family was on the lowest rank of the French nobility. Some speculation surrounds Voltaire’s date of birth, because he claimed he was born on 20 February 1694 as the illegitimate son of a nobleman, Guérin de Rochebrune or Roquebrune. Two of his older brothers—Armand-François and Robert—died in infancy and his surviving brother, Armand, and sister Marguerite-Catherine were 9 and 7 years older, respectively. Voltaire was baptized on 22 November 1694, with François de Castagnère, abbé de Châteauneuf, and Marie Daumard, the wife of his mother’s cousin, standing as godparents. He was educated by the Jesuits at the Collège Louis-le-Grand (1704–1711), where he was taught Latin, theology, and rhetoric. Later in life he became fluent in Italian, Spanish, and English.

By the time he left school, Voltaire had decided he wanted to be a writer, against the wishes of his father, who wanted him to become a lawyer. Voltaire, pretending to work in Paris as an assistant to a notary, spent much of his time writing poetry. When his father found out, he sent Voltaire to study law, this time in Caen. Nevertheless, he continued to write, producing essays and historical studies. Voltaire’s wit made him popular among some of the aristocratic families with whom he mixed. In 1713, his father obtained a job for him as a secretary to the new French ambassador in the Netherlands, the marquis de Châteauneuf, the brother of Voltaire’s godfather. At The Hague, Voltaire fell in love with a French Protestant refugee named Catherine Olympe Dunoyer (known as ‘Pimpette’). Their scandalous affair was discovered by de Châteauneuf and Voltaire was forced to return to France by the end of the year.

Most of Voltaire’s early life revolved around Paris. From early on, Voltaire had trouble with the authorities for critiques of the government. These activities were to result in two imprisonments and a temporary exile to England. One satirical verse, in which Voltaire accused the Régent of incest with his own daughter, led to an 11-month imprisonment in the Bastille (16 May 1717 to 15 April 1718 in a windowless cell with ten-foot thick walls). The Comédie-Française had agreed in January 1717 to stage his debut play, Œdipe, and it opened in mid-November 1718, seven months after his release. Its immediate critical and financial success established his reputation. Both the Régent and King George I of Great Britain presented Voltaire with medals as a mark of their appreciation.

He mainly argued for religious tolerance and freedom of thought. He campaigned to eradicate priestly and aristo-monarchical authority, and supported a constitutional monarchy, along the lines of the British monarchy, that protected people’s rights against absolutism.

He adopted the name “Voltaire” in 1718, following his incarceration at the Bastille. Its origin is unclear. It is an anagram of AROVET LI, the Latinized spelling of his surname, Arouet, and the initial letters of le jeune (“the young”). According to a family tradition among the descendants of his sister, he was known as le petit volontaire (“determined little thing”) as a child, and he resurrected a variant of the name in his adult life. The name also reverses the syllables of Airvault, his family’s home town in the Poitou region.

In a letter to Jean-Baptiste Rousseau in March 1719, Voltaire concludes by asking that, if Rousseau wishes to send him a return letter, he do so by addressing it to Monsieur de Voltaire. A postscript explains: “J’ai été si malheureux sous le nom d’Arouet que j’en ai pris un autre surtout pour n’être plus confondu avec le poète Roi”, (I was so unhappy under the name of Arouet that I have taken another, primarily so as to cease to be confused with the poet Roi.) This probably refers to Adenes le Roi, and the ‘oi’ diphthong was then pronounced like modern ‘ouai’, so the similarity to ‘Arouet’ is clear, and thus, it could well have been part of his rationale. Who knows?

Voltaire came under a lot of criticism in his lifetime for his open mindedness about numerous subjects, especially religion. The accusation that he was anti-Semitic is unfair, I believe. He disliked most religions, especially the faiths of Abraham (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), quite equally. He did approve of Hinduism, however, because it had a distinct openness to a variety of avenues into the spiritual.

Voltaire’s view of historiography was not absolutely original, but it was deeply influential. In his article on “History” in Diderot’s Encyclopédie he wrote, “One demands of modern historians more details, better ascertained facts, precise dates, more attention to customs, laws, mores, commerce, finance, agriculture, population.” Voltaire’s histories imposed the values of the Enlightenment on the past it is true, but at the same time he helped free historiography from antiquarianism, Eurocentrism, religious intolerance, and a concentration on great men, diplomacy, and warfare.

His Essay on Customs traced the progress of world civilization in a universal context, thereby rejecting both nationalism and the traditional Christian frame of reference. Influenced by Bossuet’s Discourse on the Universal History (1682), he was the first scholar to make a serious attempt to write the history of the world, eliminating theological frameworks, and emphasizing economics, culture and political history. He treated Europe as a whole, rather than a collection of nations. He was the first to emphasize the debt of medieval culture to Middle Eastern civilization, but was rather weak on the Middle Ages on the whole. Although he repeatedly warned against political bias on the part of the historian, he did not miss many opportunities to expose the intolerance and frauds of the church over the ages. Voltaire advised scholars that anything contradicting the normal course of nature was not to be believed.

I could go on, but you can read Voltaire for yourself. Here’s a few quotes I enjoy.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well.

Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.

Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.

‎Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.

It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.

God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh.

In February 1778, Voltaire returned for the first time in over 25 years to Paris, among other reasons to see the opening of his latest tragedy, Irene. The 5-day journey was too much for the 83-year-old, and he believed he was about to die on 28 February, writing “I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition.” However, he recovered, and in March saw a performance of Irene, where he was treated by the audience as a returning hero after years of (mostly self-imposed) exile from the capital. He soon became ill again and died on 30 May 1778. The accounts of his deathbed have been numerous and varying, and it has not been possible to establish the details of what precisely occurred. His enemies related that he repented and accepted the last rites given by a Catholic priest, or that he died under great torment, while his adherents told how he was defiant to his last breath. According to one story of his last words, his response to a priest at his deathbed urging him to renounce Satan was “Now is not the time for making new enemies.” However, this appears to have originated from a joke first published in a Massachusetts newspaper in 1856, and was only attributed to Voltaire in the 1970s.

Because of his well-known criticism of the Church, which he had refused to retract before his death, Voltaire was denied a Christian burial in Paris, but friends and relations managed to bury his body secretly at the Abbey of Scellières in Champagne, where his companion’s, Marie Louise Mignot’s, brother was abbé. His heart and brain were embalmed separately

One final quote:

Ice-cream is exquisite – what a pity it isn’t illegal.

Ice cream was popularized in the 18th century by French and Italian chefs and caught on in England. You had to keep ice in an ice house, collected in winter and stored until summer, but with it you could use a forerunner of the modern ice-cream churn, the sabotiere, probably invented in Naples in the 17th century. Frozen ices, akin to sorbets, were more common than ice cream, but I am sure Voltaire meant ice cream using cream and eggs.

Italian chef Domenico Negri who worked in London in the 1760s popularized continental ice cream. His apprentice Frederick Nutt published The Complete Confectioner in 1789, giving 32 recipes for ice cream and 24 for water ices.

This one is interesting. By “syrup” he means a simple syrup of half sugar and half water, boiled and cooled.

Parmesan Ice Cream

Take six eggs, half a pint of syrup and a pint of cream put them into stewpan and boil them until it begins to thicken; then rasp three ounces of parmesan cheese, mix and pass them through a sieve, and freeze it.

This one might be more what Voltaire was thinking of however:

Royal Ice Cream

Take the yolks of ten eggs and two whole eggs; beat them up well with your spoon; then take the rind of one lemon, two gills of syrup, one pint of cream, a little spice, and a little orange flower water; mix them all well and put them over the fire, stirring them all the time with your spoon; when you find it grows thick take it off, and pass it through a sieve; put it into a freezing pot, freeze it, and take a little citron , and lemon and orange peel with a few pistachio nuts blanched; cut them all and mince them with your ice before you put them in your moulds.

May 082017

Today is the birthday of Edward Gibbon FRS, English historian famous for The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788 and is known for the quality and irony of its prose, its use of primary sources, and its open criticism of organized religion. Gibbon traces the trajectory of Western civilization (as well as the Islamic and Mongolian conquests) from the height of the Roman Empire to the fall of Byzantium. The work covers the history, from 98 to 1590, of the Roman Empire, the history of early Christianity and then of the Roman State Church, and the history of Europe, and discusses the decline of the Roman Empire in the East and West. Because of its relative objectivity and heavy use of primary sources, unusual at the time, its methodology became a model for later historians. This led to Gibbon being called the first “modern historian of ancient Rome”

According to Gibbon, the Roman Empire succumbed to barbarian invasions in large part due to the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens. They had become weak, outsourcing their duty to defend their empire to barbarian mercenaries, who then became so numerous and ingrained that they were able to take over the Empire. Romans, he believed, were unwilling to live a tougher, military lifestyle. Furthermore, Gibbon argued that Christianity created a belief that a better life existed after death, which fostered an indifference to the present among Roman citizens, thus sapping their desire to sacrifice for a larger purpose. He also believed that Christianity’s comparative pacifism tended to hamper the traditional Roman martial spirit. Finally, like other Enlightenment thinkers and British citizens of the age steeped in institutional anti-Catholicism, Gibbon held in contempt the Middle Ages as a priest-ridden, superstitious Dark Age. It was not until his own era, the “Age of Reason,” with its emphasis on rational thought, he believed, that human history could resume its progress.

He compared the reigns of Diocletian (284–305) and Charles V (1519–1556), noting some similarities. Both, for example, were plagued by continual war and compelled to excessive taxation to fund wars. We might do well to compare these two reigns with the US of our own times.

Gibbon’s style is frequently distinguished by an ironically detached and somewhat dispassionate yet critical tone. He occasionally lapses into moralization and aphorism. He is so eminently quotable:

History is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortune of mankind.

If we contrast the rapid progress of this mischievous discovery [of gunpowder] with the slow and laborious advances of reason, science, and the arts of peace, a philosopher, according to his temper, will laugh or weep at the folly of mankind.

The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.

The five marks of the Roman decaying culture:
Concern with displaying affluence instead of building wealth;
Obsession with sex and perversions of sex;
Art becomes freakish and sensationalistic instead of creative and original;
Widening disparity between very rich and very poor;
Increased demand to live off the state.

 I make it a point never to argue with people for whose opinion I have no respect.

Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved to write a book.

Corruption, the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty.

I know no way of judging of the future but by the past.

The history of empires is the history of human misery.

The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.

Gibbon succumbed, as did many writers of his age (and later), to the debatable notion that a culture’s base temperaments are heavily influenced by the foods they eat:

THE CORN, or even the rice, which constitutes the ordinary and wholesome food of a civilized people, can be obtained only by the patient toil of the husbandman. Some of the happy savages, who dwell between the tropics, are plentifully nourished by the liberality of nature; but in the climates of the north, a nation of shepherds is reduced to their flocks and herds. The skilful practitioners of the medical art will determine (if they are able to determine) how far the temper of the human mind may be affected by the use of animal, or of vegetable, food; and whether the common association of carnivorous and cruel deserves to be considered in any other light, than that of an innocent, perhaps a salutary, prejudice of humanity. Yet if it be true that the sentiment of compassion is imperceptibly weakened by the sight and practice of domestic cruelty, we may observe that the horrid objects which are disguised by the arts of European refinement are exhibited in their naked and most disgusting simplicity in the tent of a Tartarian shepherd. The ox, or the sheep, are slaughtered by the same hand from which they were accustomed to receive their daily food; and the bleeding limbs are served, with very little preparation, on the table of their unfeeling murderer.

Anthropologists and archeologists (including myself) have long argued that the people who herd (and slaughter) animals are the ones to fear, over the long run, more than the farmers. I don’t believe it’s so much a matter of diet as of lifestyle. Herders are mobile whereas farmers are sedentary. Farmers, therefore, are more prone to armies of defense, whereas herders can be actively aggressive. Who are the warrior heroes of the Hebrew Bible? Abraham, David etc. – all herders. Of course, this is grossly simplistic, and things change over time, especially with the rise of empires.  But it does give me a segue into a recipe for the day.

I’ll resort to Hannah Glasse for an 18th century recipe, and I’ll choose a rice dish to favor Gibbon’s notion of a peaceable diet. I used to be very fond of rice in broth (my daily starter on board an Italian ship going from Australia to England), but Glasse’s rice soup is closer to rice pudding than to soup. (Be careful of the long “s” – which ignorant people mistake for “f”).

To make a rice ſoup.

TAKE two quarts of water, a pound of rice, a little cinnamon; cover it cloſe, and let it ſimmer very ſoftly till the rice is quite tender: take out the cinnamon, then ſweeten it to your palate, grate half a nutmeg, and let it ſtand till it is cold; then beat up the yolks of three eggs, with half a pint of white wine, mix them very well, then ſtir them into the rice, ſet them on a ſlow fire, and keep ſtirring all the time for fear of curdling. When it is of a good thickneſs, and boils, take it up. Keep ſtirring it till you put it into your diſh.

If you’re more in the mood for conquering Rome, have a steak.

Dec 252015


Christmas Day (by the Julian calendar in use in England at the time), is the birthday (1642) of Sir Isaac Newton PRS, who is widely regarded as one of the most influential scientists of all time, and as a key figure in the 17th century scientific revolution. His book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”), first published in 1687, laid the foundations for classical mechanics. Newton made seminal contributions to optics, and he shares credit with Gottfried Leibniz for the development of calculus.

Newton’s Principia formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation, which dominated scientists’ view of the physical universe for the next three centuries. By deriving Kepler’s laws of planetary motion from his mathematical description of gravity, and then using the same principles to account for the trajectories of comets, the tides, the precession of the equinoxes, and other phenomena, Newton removed the last doubts about the validity of the heliocentric model of the solar system. This work also demonstrated that the motion of objects on Earth and of celestial bodies could be described by the same principles. His prediction that Earth should be shaped as an oblate spheroid was later vindicated by the measurements of Maupertuis, La Condamine, and others, which helped convince most Continental European scientists of the superiority of Newtonian mechanics over the earlier system of Descartes.


Newton built the first practical reflecting telescope and developed a theory of color based on the observation that a prism decomposes white light into the many colors of the visible spectrum. He formulated an empirical law of cooling, studied the speed of sound, and introduced the notion of a Newtonian fluid. In addition to his work on calculus, as a mathematician Newton contributed to the study of power series, generalized the binomial theorem to non-integer exponents, developed a method for approximating the roots of a function, and classified most of the cubic plane curves.

Newton was a fellow of Trinity College and the second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. He was a devout but unorthodox Christian and, unusually for a member of the Cambridge faculty of the day, he refused to take holy orders in the Church of England, perhaps because he privately rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. He was a devout, but unorthodox, Christian. Beyond his work on the mathematical sciences, Newton dedicated much of his time to the study of biblical chronology and alchemy, but most of his work in those areas remained unpublished until long after his death. In his later life, Newton became president of the Royal Society. Newton served the British government as Warden and Master of the Royal Mint.


I am going to assume that you either are familiar with Newton’s work in physics and mathematics, or don’t want a lesson from me. Instead I’ll focus on a few lesser known aspects of his life and work. First , here are two well-known quotes that I think adequately display his humility:

If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.

I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

These are less well known:

We build too many walls and not enough bridges.

Genius is patience.

Plato is my friend; Aristotle is my friend, but my greatest friend is truth.

I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.

We could use him around today. As many of my readers know, I do not use superlatives such as “best” in relation to the greats of the world or their works. But I certainly stand in absolute awe and wonder at what Newton accomplished. Here’s a few tidbits from his life.


Although born into an Anglican family, by his thirties Newton held a Christian faith that would not have been considered orthodox by contemporary Christianity, and, in consequence, he did not make his fundamental beliefs public. By 1672 he had started to record his theological researches in notebooks which he showed to no one and which have only recently been examined. They demonstrate an extensive knowledge of early church writings and show that in the conflict between Athanasius and Arius, which spawned the Nicene Creed, he took the side of Arius, the loser, who rejected the conventional view of the Trinity. Newton saw Christ as a divine mediator between God and humans, who was subordinate to the Father who created him. He wrote, “the great apostasy is trinitarianism.” Newton tried unsuccessfully to obtain one of the two fellowships that exempted the holder from the ordination requirement. At the last moment in 1675 he received a dispensation from the government that excused him and all future holders of the Lucasian chair from being ordained.

Newton was not a deist, in the conventional way, however. Rejecting trinitarianism did not mean rejecting Christianity. Although the laws of motion and universal gravitation became Newton’s best-known discoveries, he warned against using them to view the universe as a mere machine, as if akin to a great clock. He said, “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”


Newton wrote works on Biblical textual criticism, most notably An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture. He placed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at 3 April, AD 33, which is now one of several dates accepted by some scholars. He believed in a rationally immanent world, but he rejected the hylozoism (matter is living) implicit in Leibniz and Baruch Spinoza. The ordered and dynamically informed universe could be understood, and must be understood, as directed by active reason. In his correspondence, Newton claimed that in writing the Principia “I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity”. He saw evidence of design in the system of the world: “Such a wonderful uniformity in the planetary system must be allowed the effect of choice”. But Newton insisted that divine intervention would eventually be required to reform the system, due to the slow growth of instabilities. For this, Leibniz lampooned him: “God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion machine.”

Newton and Robert Boyle’s approach to a mechanical philosophy was promoted by rationalist pamphleteers as a viable alternative to the pantheists and enthusiasts, and was accepted hesitantly by orthodox preachers as well as some dissidents. The clarity and simplicity of science was seen as a way to combat the emotional and metaphysical superlatives of both superstitious enthusiasm and the threat of atheism, and at the same time, the second wave of English deists used Newton’s discoveries to demonstrate the possibility of a “Natural Religion”.


In a manuscript Newton wrote in 1704, in which he describes his attempts to extract scientific information from the Bible, he estimated that the world would end no earlier than 2060. In predicting this he said, “This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail.”

It is now just beginning to be recognized in the wider intellectual world that Newton spent over 30 years studying and writing about alchemy. John Maynard Keynes, who acquired many of Newton’s writings on alchemy, asserted that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason: He was the last of the magicians.” Newton’s interest in alchemy cannot be isolated from his contributions to science. In Newton’s day there was no clear distinction between alchemy and science. Had he not relied on the occult idea of action at a distance, across a vacuum, he might not have developed his theory of gravity. Newton’s writings suggest that one of the goals of his alchemy was the discovery of The Philosopher’s Stone (a material believed to turn base metals into gold), and perhaps to a lesser extent, the discovery of the highly coveted Elixir of Life. Some practices of alchemy were banned in England during Newton’s lifetime, due in part to unscrupulous practitioners who would often promise wealthy benefactors unrealistic results in an attempt to swindle them. The English Crown, also fearing the potential devaluation of gold, should The Philosopher’s Stone actually be discovered, made penalties for alchemy very severe, including execution.


The story of Newton and the apple has sometimes been debunked as legend, and often popularly altered to claim that the apple struck him on the head. In fact, Newton himself often told the story that he was inspired to formulate his theory of gravitation by watching the fall of an apple from a tree. Acquaintances of Newton (such as William Stukeley, whose manuscript account of 1752 has been made available by the Royal Society) do in fact confirm the incident. Stukeley recorded in his Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life a conversation with Newton in Kensington on 15 April 1726:

we went into the garden, & drank tea under the shade of some appletrees; only he, & my self. amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. “why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,” thought he to himself; occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood. “why should it not go sideways, or upwards? but constantly to the earths center? assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. there must be a drawing power in matter. & the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the earth must be in the earths center, not in any side of the earth. therefore dos this apple fall perpendicularly, or toward the center. if matter thus draws matter; it must be in proportion of its quantity. therefore the apple draws the earth, as well as the earth draws the apple.

John Conduitt, Newton’s assistant at the Royal Mint and husband of Newton’s niece, also described the event when he wrote about Newton’s life:

In the year 1666 he retired again from Cambridge to his mother in Lincolnshire. Whilst he was pensively meandering in a garden it came into his thought that the power of gravity (which brought an apple from a tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from earth, but that this power must extend much further than was usually thought. Why not as high as the Moon said he to himself & if so, that must influence her motion & perhaps retain her in her orbit, whereupon he fell a calculating what would be the effect of that supposition.

It is known from his notebooks that Newton was grappling in the late 1660s with the idea that terrestrial gravity extends, in an inverse-square proportion, to the Moon; however it took him two decades to develop the full-fledged theory. The question was not whether gravity existed, but whether it extended so far from Earth that it could also be the force holding the Moon to its orbit. Newton showed that if the force decreased as the inverse square of the distance, one could indeed calculate the Moon’s orbital period, and get good agreement. He guessed the same force was responsible for other orbital motions, and hence named it “universal gravitation”.


Various trees are claimed to be “the” apple tree which Newton describes. The King’s School, Grantham, claims that the tree was purchased by the school, uprooted and transported to the headmaster’s garden some years later. The staff of the [now] National Trust-owned Woolsthorpe Manor dispute this, and claim that a tree present in their gardens is the one described by Newton. A descendant of the original tree can be seen growing outside the main gate of Trinity College, Cambridge, below the room Newton lived in when he studied there. The National Fruit Collection at Brogdale can supply grafts from their tree, which appears identical to Flower of Kent, a coarse-fleshed cooking variety.


To honor Newton I’ve culled several apple recipes from 17th century cookbooks. The first, entitled “To fry Applepies” comes from A True Gentlewomans Delight, 1653. These are like fruit empanadas or empanaditas. You need to peel the apples and chop them very fine, otherwise they will not cook when you fry the pastries. You could parboil the apples in a little sugar syrup before filling the pastry if you wish.

To fry Applepies.

Take Apples and pare them, and chop them very small, beat in a little Cinnamon, a little Ginger, and some Sugar, a little Rosewater, take your paste, roul it thin, and make them up as big Pasties as you please, to hold a spoonful or a little lesse of your Apples; and so stir them with Butter not to hastily least they be burned.

Here’s apples in wine sauce and cream from Archimagirus Anglo-Gallicus; Or, Excellent & Approved Receipts and Experiments in Cookery, 1658. The herb and spice combinations are well worth a try.

Apples in wine sauce & cream

Boil six Pippins pared, (doe not cut the cores apieces) in Claret wine, a little more than will cover them, put in of sugar a good quantity, then boil a quart of good cream, with a little rosemary and thyme, sweeten it with sugar, one spoonful of sack, when they be cold put them together, lay your Apples like Eggs: Remember to boil in your Apples some ginger, lemmon pils very thin sliced.

Finally a refreshing alternative to cider from The Closet Of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digby Kt. Opened, 1677, where, again, rosemary is the flavoring of choice.

Apple-Drink with Sugar, Honey, &c..

A very pleasant drink is made of Apples, thus: Boil sliced Apples in water, to make the water strong of Apples, as when you make to drink it for coolness and pleasure. Sweeten it with Sugar to your taste, such a quantity of sliced Apples, as would make so much water strong enough of Apples; and then bottle it up close for three or four months. There will come a thick mother at the top, which being taken off, all the rest will be very clear, and quick and pleasant to the taste, beyond any Cider. It will be the better to most tastes, if you put a very little Rosemary into the liquor when you boil it, and a little Limon-peel into each bottle when you bottle it up.

Merry Newtonian Christmas !!!

May 272014


Today is the birthday (1906) of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu an influential Thai ascetic-philosopher of the 20th century. Buddhadasa fostered a reformation in conventional religious perceptions in general, not just within the Buddhism in which he was trained and ordained as a monk. Buddhadasa developed a personal view that rejected specific religious identification and considered all faiths as principally one. His ground-breaking thought inspired such people as Pridi Phanomyong, leader of Thailand’s 1932 revolution, and a group of Thai social activists and artists of the 1960’s and 70’s.

Buddhadasa was born Nguam Panitch in Ban Phumriang (Chaiya district), southern Siam. He renounced civilian life in 1926. Typical of young monks during the time, he traveled to Bangkok for doctrinal training. But he found the wats (temples) there dirty, crowded, and, most troubling to him, the Sangha (monastic community) corrupt, ‘preoccupied with prestige, position, and comfort with little interest in the highest ideals of Buddhism.’ As a result, he returned to his native rural district and occupied a forest tract near to his village. He named it Suan Mokkh, from Thai suan, ‘garden’ and Vedic moksha, ‘release, liberation.’ He strove for a simple, pristine practice in attempt to emulate the Buddha’s core teaching, “Do good, avoid bad, and purify the mind.” He felt that the original teaching of the Buddha had been completely overlaid with layer upon layer of interpretation over the centuries. He therefore avoided the customary ritualism and internal politics that dominated Thai clerical life. His ability to explain complex philosophical and religious ideas in his native southern “Pak Tai” vernacular (Southern Thai language) attracted many people to his wooded retreat. However, Buddhadasa was skeptical of his increasing fame; when reflecting on the busloads of visitors to Suan Mokkh he would say “sometimes I think many of these people just stop here because they have to visit the bathroom.”


From the earliest period of his religious studies, Buddhadasa used a comparative approach and sought to be able to explain “Buddhist teachings through other doctrines such as Tao, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Natural Science.” Through such a methodology he came to adopt a religious world-view that rejected exclusionary religious identification. In his No Religion (1993) Buddhadasa famously remarked, “in advanced perspectives there is no religious identification whatsoever. Those who have penetrated to the highest understanding will feel that the thing called ‘religion’ doesn’t exist after all. There is no Buddhism; there is no Christianity; there is no Islam. How can they be the same or in conflict when they don’t even exist?” Words to live by.


To celebrate Buddhadasa I offer you a great Thai soup – tom yum — characterized by its distinct hot and sour flavors, with fragrant herbs generously used in the broth. The basic broth is made of stock and fresh ingredients such as lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lime juice, fish sauce, and crushed hot peppers. It can be hard to get these ingredients but it is reasonably easy to get a base paste that includes all them. Commercial tom yum paste is made by crushing all the herb ingredients and stir frying in oil. Seasoning and other preservative ingredients are then added. The paste is bottled or packaged and sold around the world. Tom yum flavored with the paste is somewhat different from that made with fresh herb ingredients. Many households in SE Asia use commercial pastes because of convenience.

As with other soups that I have given to you that have as many varieties as there are domestic stoves, I’ll just give you the basic idea of tom yum. The essence of the soup is the broth itself. Start with a stock of choice (depending on the main protein), bring it to a gentle simmer, and then add tom yum paste to suit your taste. Then take your pick of ingredients. I tend to use rice noodles as a base, with some chicken (cooked and sliced thin). Shrimp are also good, and very popular these days. After that I throw in whatever I have to hand – mushrooms, sliced Chinese cabbage, tofu – whatever suits my fancy. Remember it is the hot and sour, spicy broth that makes tom yum what it is, not the other ingredients.