Review: The Bible in Spain

Review: The Bible in Spain

The Bible in Spain; or, the journeys, adventures, and imprisonments of an Englishman, in an attempt to circulate the Scriptures in the PeninsulaThe Bible in Spain; or, the journeys, adventures, and imprisonments of an Englishman, in an attempt to circulate the Scriptures in the Peninsula by George Borrow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Those who wish to make themselves understood by a foreigner in his own language, should speak with much noise and vociferation, opening their mouths wide.

In the year 1835, George Henry Borrow, British traveler and noted eccentric, embarked upon a voyage to Spain with the purpose of making the Holy Bible available to the populace of that hoary nation, and in their native language; freeing that sacred volume from the clutches of friars and priests, who, being papists, jealously guard and keep the scriptures in a language unintelligible to the majority of men and women,—or so opined the author, a proud and uncompromising Protestant.

Mr. Borrow undertook this journey under the direction of the Bible Society, and was chosen for this work due to his previous success, persistence, and tenacity, in propagating the Bible in the vast plains of Russia, where he laboured many long years among poor peasants; and this previous experience was bolstered by Borrow’s prodigious facility in acquiring languages, being possessed, if we are to believe his report of himself, of the Latin, French, Italian, Gaelic, Russian, Arabic, Romani, German, and both the modern and ancient Greek languages,—this list may not be complete,—in addition to his fluency in Portuguese and Spanish, the two dialects on which he was to rely during his time in the Iberian Peninsula.

This book, the record of this noble errand, was pieced together from journal entries, letters, and Mr. Borrow’s apparently remarkable faculty of memory; and narrates his misadventures suffered, voyages undertaken, obstacles overcome, and successes gained, in a style verbose and tending towards the periodic sentence, with hypotaxis being his most habitual mode of expression; a style, nonetheless, of vigour and charm; its only fault, being a tendency to unfurl itself in a monotonous, seemingly endless, series, built of commas and semicolons, that, if imbibed to excess, can have the same soporific effects of opium upon the senses of the reader.

Being a book of travels, much of Mr. Borrow’s narrative, if not the majority, consists of descriptions of noble edifices, foreign cities, strange landscapes, and other vistas of entrancing beauty; as well as many stories of incompetent footmen, derelict guides, incommodious accommodations, unscrupulous innkeepers, and all of the diverse and profuse inconveniences suffered by any traveler in a foreign land; these being supplemented by several vignettes, or sketches, of striking personalities encountered by Mr. Borrow, these personages being from many different classes, creeds, and nations; all of this detail and description serving as the backdrop to Mr. Borrow’s laborious task, selling the Bible in a land generally hostile and suspicious of the Protestant religion, the opposition of the authorities more than once thwarting Mr. Borrow in his noble errand; and this is not to mention the continual fighting, and concomitant destruction of land and property, and the resultant poverty experienced by the people, putting aside the brigandage and banditry rampant across the land, occasioned by the Carlist Civil War.

For all of its merits, and these are many and conspicuous, this book, however, cannot be recommended as providing any significant insight into the culture and history of the Spanish nation, being too absorbed in Mr. Borrow’s own private worries and concerns, and too involved in the slight and superficial impressions gained by the traveler; and seeing as this, namely, gaining knowledge of the Spanish nation, was my primary object in picking up the book, I must admit that I was somewhat disappointed; this disappointment being, I should hastily add, partly counterweighted by the eccentricity and peculiarity of this book, whose style, and whose narrator, while perhaps not brilliant, nor profound, nor even greatly compelling, are, at least, so distinct, that they are impressed upon the soul of the reader, not to be erased by any subsequent experience.

(The above picture is the commemorative plaque, which is posted on Calle de Santiago, 14, in Madrid, where George Borrow stayed.)

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Quotes & Commentary #35: Bacon

Quotes & Commentary #35: Bacon

Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.

—Francis Bacon, “Of Revenge”

The thirst for revenge is one of our ugliest, most satisfying, and most basic tendencies. It isn’t hard to see why.

The urge to revenge ourselves is a straightforward consequence of the urge to preserve ourselves. If somebody has hurt us in some way—by stealing a mate, by physical violence, or merely by a rude remark—then they have clearly shown themselves to be a threat, a dangerous person who can’t be trusted. The logical thing to do then becomes to neutralize this threat, to diminish or destroy his capacity to further hinder us.

This counter-attack will serve two purposes: first, it will harm the enemy, reducing his capacity to harm you in the future; second, by publically revenging yourself on an enemy, it will signal to others that you are not one to be trifled with, and that you will retaliate if anybody tries something funny. The practical benefits of revenge are thus preventative.

It is paradoxical, therefore, that revenge is not often thought of as oriented towards future security, but instead toward bygone injuries. The purpose of revenge, we feel in our bones, is to right the wrongs of the universe, to put the cosmic scale of justice back to zero, balancing a good action for a bad one.

When revenge is conceived this way, as retaliatory and not as preventative, then it can lead to absurdly unproductive actions, notable only for the resources they waste. In this connection, I can’t help thinking of Iñigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, whose obsessive quest to kill the murderer of his father consumed decades of his life.

Ask anyone to tell you about their ex, and there’s a good chance you will be met with the same vengeful fixation. The revenge intoxicated man is something of a narrative cliche, repeated ten thousand times in novels and television and movies. I would guess that revenge is second only to romantic love as the emotional engine of drama.

The folly of orienting your life around getting back at an enemy is clear to anyone with healthy sense of perspective. The best form of revenge, after all, is being happy, and all-consuming quests for personal justice are not conducive to happiness.

Even as a preventative measure—to incapacitate an enemy and prevent others from springing up—revenge often backfires. This is for two reasons.

First, if you attempt to render an enemy incapable of harming you in the future, there is always a risk you will fall short of full incapacitation. This is dangerous because, if you don’t succeed in fully disabling your enemy—whether psychologically, politically, logistically, socially, or physically—then there is a good chance that you will only embitter him, who will then counter-attack after he recovers his strength.

The second risk, related to the first, is the question of third-parties. If you succeed in fully disabling your enemy, there is still the possibility that he may have powerful friends. The friend of every enemy is another potential enemy, and can be mobilized against you. After successful revenge, you may yourself be the victim of a vengeful act by one of the enemy’s allies. If this revenge against you is successful, then one of your friends might retaliate against this new foe. 

This logic of attack and counterattack is how feuds start. Every act of vengeance can breed another, until half the world is embroiled in a bitter, pointless war against the other half. The most emblematic of these vindictive conflicts was the feud between the Hartfields and the McCoys, but you see this sort of thing in every section and at every scale of human life.

Revenge, as you can see, is a strategy of limited utility. It would, however, be untrue to say that revenge is always futile. In a situation similar to Hobbes’s “State of Nature,” vengeful acts are hardly avoidable. If there is no structure in place to resolve disputes, no laws and thus no method to punish law-breakers, then each party must enforce their own version of right and wrong.

Remember that, for each individual, taken separately, right and wrong are products of self-interest. In other words, in the absence of law, “right” is simply what helps you, “wrong” what hurts you; and without any legal system, you must enforce your own version of right and wrong, since no one else will.

In order to survive in an anarchic world, you must retaliate against those who interfere with your self-interest. If not, it will send the message to those around you that you are a pushover, and that they can take advantage of you without any risk; and you can only expect more enemies to interfere with you in the future. (I teach adolescents, so I know something about an anarchic world.) Some retaliation is therefore necessary. But care must be taken not to take vengeance too readily or too forcefully, or you may be the victim of revenge yourself.

Humans were born into anarchy and we still have the instincts that helped us get through it. This is why revenge comes to naturally to us, and why it tastes so sweet. But this emotional armory does not help us when we live in a society governed by law.

Law is a substitute for revenge, with all of its advantages and none of its defects. With recourse to the legal prosecution—organized retaliation, approved by the community—then we can neutralize threats and protect ourselves from future harm, with only a minimal chance that our enemies’ friends will try to get back at us. Law replaces private desire with public safety; and because the will of the community sanctions the law’s consequences, the law is joined with overwhelming force, to protect its adherents and attack its antagonists.

Living, as we all do, in states governed by law, the emotional urge to take revenge becomes a hindrance rather than an asset. If you are wronged, you can seek legal retribution. But if that is not available, then it is usually unwise to take matters into your own hands, since this makes it possible that legal retribution can be used against you.

True, there are many things that fall outside the confines of the law, the most notable of these being romance. And as expected,  vindictiveness is alive and well in matters of the heart. You still find people revenging themselves on their exes and their rivals, waxing indignant at perceived wrongs and organizing their friends in concerted actions of revenge. Having no social structure to resolve disputes, people fall into anarchy.

Yet I would argue that, even in these cases, revenge is a poor strategy. The revenge mentality is only justified, I think, in anarchic situations, specifically when the consequences for not retaliating are potentially severe. But in the case of romance, there is no chance that you will be seriously damaged. Heartbreak hurts, but it is seldom fatal.

In cases like these—where you can be sure of surviving any enemy attack—then I think another strategy is called for: returning love for hate. This sounds Biblical, but its justification is logical.

Keep in mind that I am talking of a situations like romance, in which harm cannot incapacitate either you or your enemies. (By “incapacitate” I mean render them unable to do future harm.) Since harming your enemies cannot disable them, it can only embitter them and potentially create new enemies; and since you cannot be disabled by being harmed, you have nothing to fear by not retaliating.

Returning harm for harm is thus clearly a poor long-term strategy, even if it might be satisfying in the short-term. You are left with two options: do nothing, or return help for harm. The first option seems superficially like the more logical one. By doing nothing, you don’t risk creating new enemies, and you don’t use resources to benefit your enemy that could be used elsewhere.

The second strategy, returning help for harm, is quite obviously more expensive, not to mention less satisfying. (Who likes to see their enemies happy?) Yet I think it is wiser as a long-term strategy, since it is by returning help for harm that enemies are converted into friends. A friend, after all, is somebody who acts in our interest; and it would be a stubborn enemy indeed who could persist in hating somebody who showed them only love and kindness.

Revenge, born of anarchy, is both a social and a personal ill. It is rendered obsolete as soon as people begin living in a society governed by law. It is a waste of resources and a poor survival strategy, and has no place in a just legal system or in the conduct of a wise individual.

Quotes & Commentary #15: Ecclesiastes

Quotes & Commentary #15: Ecclesiastes

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

—Ecclesiastes 1:9

Today in my history class I showed my students a similar quote, this one by the medieval Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun: “The past resembles the future more than one drop of water resembles another.”

I asked my students to tell me what this quote means. Both the language and the philosophy were a bit advanced for them, yet one student hit upon the basic idea: people are always the same. We may change our world, and we can change our behavior, but we can’t change our nature.

True, in many ways the present is manifestly different from the past. Technology has advanced, science has expanded our knowledge, and political institutions have become more democratic and fair. Trade and industry have made us so wealthy that even modest citizens can afford pleasures considered a luxury a short time ago. We live longer, wealthier, and healthier lives than ever before; and we live in a society that, however imperfectly, is more tolerant of more different types of people—atheist, gay, black—than at any other time. In short, notwithstanding our endless limitations and our serious problems, progress is possible.

And yet every step forward is a victory over ourselves, a victory over our darker nature. Human history is an endless war of virtues against vices. Civilization is not the inevitable result of human intelligence, but a prize that countless generations have fought to achieve. Progress has been anything but linear. We have stagnated, and we have retrogressed. The same mistakes, follies, and brutalities have been repeated endlessly through time, over and over, each generation forgetting the lessons learned by the last one.

The philosopher George Santayana famously said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But as the historian Will Durant reminds us: “History is an excellent teacher with few pupils.”

I used to think that progress was natural and inevitable. I grew up believing that racism, at least in its more brutal variety, had been largely eradicated. The emancipation of the slaves, the enfranchisement of women, and the acceptance of homosexuality seemed in retrospect like the unavoidable result of progress. It was only natural that we had become more tolerant, and the future would be even more accepting than the present.

And now? Now I see clearly that all these accomplishments, all these victories of toleration over racism, sexism, and homophobia, were hardly inevitable. Rather, they were the hard-won fruit of a bitter battle, a battle that is far from over, which in fact will never be over. The future may be different from the past, and that which shall be may be different from that which has been, but only if we fight for it. If we are complacent, if we take things for granted, then truly there will be no new thing under the sun.

Quotes & Commentary #8: Shakespeare

Quotes & Commentary #8: Shakespeare

There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

—Shakespeare, Hamlet

This is one of Shakespeare’s most popular quotes, especially among philosophers. And no wonder: it is moral relativism in a nutshell.

“Goodness,” as a concept, is famously difficult to analyze. Plato conceived of the Good as something external to the human mind, more real than the material world. Aristotle, always more prosaic, said that the ultimate good was happiness, since we desire other things for the sake of happiness but never desire happiness for the sake of other things. Recently I read Epicurus, more naturalistic even than Aristotle, who thought goodness was pleasure, pure and simple.

The concept of goodness obviously plays an important role in religions as well as philosophy. Zoroastrians conceived of life as a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil. In Judaism, goodness is similarly seen as something objective. Hamlet is prophetically damned in the Book of Isaiah (5.20): “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” In Christianity, good is often conceived of as God’s will (leading to Plato’s famous Euthyphro dilemma: does God will things because they’re good, or are they good because God willed them?)

The Christian concept of an objective, ideal good—influenced by Plato—held sway in Europe for a long while. Morality was conceived of as absolute and objective. What is good for me is good for you; what was good in ancient days is still good today.

In Shakespeare’s day, however, the idea of moral relativism began to take hold in the European mind. About sixty years after Hamlet’s aphorism, Spinoza had this to say:

As for the terms good and bad, they indicate no positive quality in things regarded in themselves, but are merely modes of thinking, or notions which we form from the comparison of things one with another, thus one and the same thing can be at the same time good, bad, and indifferent. For instance, music is good for him that is melancholy, bad for him that mourns; for him that is deaf, it is neither good nor bad.

If you physically or chemically analyze an object, you will never find goodness or badness in it. Those are judgments, and thus exist in our perception of objects, not in the objects themselves. We have learned this lesson very well in the modern world, which is why we frequently dismiss things as “subjective.”

There does seem to be a limit to moral relativism, however, and a danger in pushing it too far. I discussed this in regards to Milton’s quote about making a hell of heaven and a heaven of hell. Some situations are quite simply unfair, dehumanizing, exploitative, or painful. Those judgments, too, only exist in the mind; but every mind is attached to a body, and every body has certain limits and needs. The mind, too, is not infinitely flexible; some things we simply cannot accommodate. This is why long-term solitary confinement, for example, is unambiguously bad: it deprives the mind of something it needs.

For this reason, I cannot fully agree with Hamlet. Because of the constitution of our brains and bodies, some things are almost always bad, and others good. Nevertheless, for most of us in daily life, I suspect that our judgments of reality cause us more pain than the reality itself. Of course this is not always so; the world has many genuine problems.

The wise course, it seems to me, is to strike a balance between striving to improve the world around us, and striving to make peace with what we cannot change.