100 Days of Dante: Join the Largest Divine Comedy Reading Group in the World (Starts September 8)

This year marks the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death — which means it also marks the 701st anniversary of his great work the Divina Commedia, known in English as the Divine Comedy. We’ve all got to go some time, and it’s somehow suitable that Dante went not long after telling the tale of his own journey through the afterlife, complete with stops in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. It remains a journey we can all take and re-take — and interpretively grapple with — still these seven centuries later. Starting this month, you can take it as a group tour, so to speak, by joining 100 Days of Dante, the largest Dante reading group in the world.

A project of Baylor University’s Honors College (with support from several other American educational institutions), 100 Days of Dante has launched a web site “through which modern seekers and pilgrims can follow the great epic poem with free video presentations three times a week.”

So writes Aleteia’s John Burger, who explains that “the three books of the Divine Comedy, known in Italian as InfernoPurgatorio, and Paradiso, are divided into 33 chapters known as cantos. [Inferno actually had 34.] Each video will present one canto, with commentary on it from leading experts in Dante studies.” You can also read the entire work on 100 Days of Dante’s web site, in English or Italian — a language Dante’s own poetry did much to shape.

Nobody interested in the language of Italy, let alone the country’s history and culture, can do without experiencing the Divine Comedy. One of 100 Days of Dante‘s aims is a re-emphasis of its nature as a thoroughly religious work, one that renders in vivid, sometimes harrowing detail the worldview held by Christians of Dante’s place and time. But believer or otherwise, you can join in the reading from when it begins on September 8, to when it concludes on Easter 2022. You may well find, as the long Italy-resident English writer and translator Tim Parks observes, that Dante has a way of slipping through convenient interpretative frameworks cultural, historical, and even religious. “Long after the fires of Hell have burned themselves out,” he writes, “the debate about the Divina Commedia rages on.” Find more educational resources on Dante and The Divine Comedy below.

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Visualizing Dante’s Hell: See Maps & Drawings of Dante’s Inferno from the Renaissance Through Today

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Medieval Scribes Discouraged Theft of Manuscripts by Adding Curses Threatening Death & Damnation to Their Pages

I’ve concluded that one shouldn’t lend a book unless one is prepared to part with it for good. But most books are fairly easy to replace. Not so in the Middle Ages, when every manuscript counted as one of a kind. Theft was often on the minds of the scribes who copied and illustrated books, a laborious task requiring literal hours of blood, sweat and tears each day.

Scribal copying took place “only by natural light — candles were too big a risk to the books,” Sarah Laskow writes at Atlas Obscura. Bent over double, scribes could not let their attention wander. The art, one scribe complained, “extinguishes the light from the eyes, it bends the back, it crushes the viscera and the ribs, it brings forth pain to the kidneys, and weariness to the whole body.”

The results deserved high security, and Medieval monks “did not hesitate to use the worst punishments they knew” for manuscript theft, writes Laskow, namely threats of “excommunication from the church and horrible, painful death.”


Theft deterrence came in the form of ingenious curses, written into the manuscripts themselves, going “back to the 7th century BCE,” Rebecca Romney writes at Mental Floss. Appearing “in Latin, vernacular European languages, Arabic, Greek, and more,” they came in such creative flavors as death by roasting, as in a Bible copied in Germany around 1172: “If anyone steals it: may he die, may he be roasted in a frying pan, may the falling sickness [epilepsy] and fever attack him, and may he be rotated [on the breaking wheel] and hanged. Amen.”

A few hundred years later, a manuscript curse from 15th-century France also promises roasting, or worse:

Whoever steals this book
Will hang on a gallows in Paris,
And, if he isn’t hung, he’ll drown,
And, if he doesn’t drown, he’ll roast,
And, if he doesn’t roast, a worse end will befall him.

The plucking out of eyes also appears to have been a theme. “Whoever to steal this volume tries, Out with his eyes, out with his eyes!” warns the final couplet in a 13th-century curse from a Vatican Library manuscript. Another curse in verse, found by author Marc Drogin, author of Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses, gets especially graphic with the eye gouging:

To steal this book, if you should try,
It’s by the throat you’ll hang high.
And ravens then will gather ’bout
To find your eyes and pull them out.
And when you’re screaming ‘oh, oh, oh!’
Remember, you deserved this woe.

The hoped-for consequences were not always so grimly humorous. “Gruesome as these punishments seem,” the British Library writes, “to most medieval readers the worst curses were those that put the eternal fate of their souls at risk rather than their bodily health.” These would often be marked with the Greek word “Anathema,” sometimes “followed by the Aramaic formula ‘Maranatha’ (‘Come, Lord!’).” Both appear in a curse added to a manuscript of letters and sermons from Lesnes Abbey. Yet, unlike most medieval curses, here the thief is given a chance to make restitution. “Anyone who removes it or does damage to it: if the same person does not repay the church sufficiently, may he be cursed.”

Curses were not the only security solutions of manuscript culture. Medieval monks also used book chains and locked chests to secure the fruit of their hard labor. As the old saying goes, “trust in God, but tie your camel.” But if locks and divine providence should fail, scribes trusted that the fear of punishment – even eternal damnation — down the road would be enough to make would-be book thieves think again.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Carl Sagan Answers the Ultimate Question: Is There a God? (1994)

Some public intellectuals associated with science court disagreement with religious believers; others cultivate suites of rhetorical techniques expressly in order to avoid it. While Carl Sagan didn’t shrink from, say, debating a creationist on talk radio, he always engaged with characteristic aplomb. But dealing with belligerent callers-in is easier, in a way, than responding to an earnest, straightforwardly expressed curiosity about one’s own religious beliefs. In the Q&A clip above, taken from his 1994 “lost lecture,” Sagan receives just such a question: “What is your personal religion? Is there any type of God to you? Like, is there a purpose, given that we’re just sitting on this speck in the middle of this sea of stars?”

“Now, I don’t want to duck any questions,” Sagan replies, “and I’m not going to duck this one.” Nevertheless, he requests a trifling clarification: “What do you mean when you use the word God?”  Pressed by none other than Carl Sagan to define God, few of us would presumably hold up well.

Here the questioner changes his angle, drawing on Sagan’s own definition in Pale Blue Dot of the “Great Demotions,” those “down-lifting experiences, demonstrations of our apparent insignificance, wounds that science has, in its search for Galileo’s facts, delivered to human pride.” And so, “given all these demotions,” the man asks, “why don’t we just blow ourselves up?”

“If we do blow ourselves up,” Sagan asks, “does that disprove the existence of God?” This is an intriguing reversal, but Sagan doesn’t simply reply to questions with questions. Scientific knowledge increasingly leaves us “on our own,” he says, which is a state “much more responsible than hoping someone will save us from ourselves.” What if we’re wrong, and a deity does indeed step in to save us? “Okay, that’s all right, I’m for that; we, you know, hedged our bets. It Pascal’s bargain run backwards.” The problem lies with God itself, “a word so ambiguous, that means so many different things,” and one used “to seem to agree with someone else with whom you do not agree.” Despite its importance, not least for “social lubrication,” no term can be useful to truth that encompasses so many different personal conceptions — billions and billions of them, one might say.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Life & Art of Hilma Af Klint: A Short Art History Lesson on the Pioneering Abstract Artist

Like many artists whose abstractions cemented their legacy, Hilma af Klint was trained to paint portraits, botanicals, and landscapes.

The naturalist works of her early adulthood depict bourgeois, late-19th century Swedish life, and, by association, the sort of subject matter and approach that were deemed most fitting for a female artist, even in a society where women were allowed to work alongside men.

But something else was afoot with Hilma, as artist and educator Paul Priestley points out in the above episode from his Art History School series.

Her 10-year-old sister’s death from the flu may have caused her to lean into an existing interest in spiritualism, but as Iris Müller-Westermann, director of Moderna Museet Malmö told The Guardian’s Kate Kellaway, the “mathematical, scientific, musical, curious” teen was likely motivated by her own thirst for knowledge as by this family tragedy:

 You have to understand this was the age when natural sciences went beyond the visible: Heinrich Hertz discovered electromagnetic waves [1886], Wilhelm Röntgen invented the x-ray [1895]…Hilma is like Leonardo – she wanted to understand who we are as human beings in the cosmos.

Her interest in the occult did not make her an outsider. Spiritualism was considered a respectable intellectual preoccupation. Abstract painters Vasily KandinskyPiet MondrianKasimir Malevich and Frantisek Kupka were also using their art to try and get at that which the eye could not see.

All but Hilma were hailed as pioneers.

The New York Times review of Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 1986 exhibit The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, mentions some of their spiritual bona fides:

They were generated by such ventures into mysticism as Theosophy, Anthroposophy, Rosicrucianism, Eastern philosophy, and various Eastern and Western religions. Spiritual ideas were not peripheral to these artists’ lives, not something that happened to pop into their minds as they stood by their canvas. Kupka participated in seances and was a practicing medium. Kandinsky attended private fetes involved with magic, black masses and pagan rituals. Mondrian was a member of the Dutch Theosophical Society and lived briefly in the quarters of the French Theosophical Society in Paris. He said once that he ”got everything from the Secret Doctrine” of Theosophy, which was an attempt by its founder Helena Petrovna Blavatsky to do nothing less than read, digest and synthesize all religions. It has been known for some time how much of Mondrian’s symbolism – including the ubiquitous vertical and horizontal lines – and how much of his utopianism, was shaped by Theosophical doctrine.

Reviewer Michael Brenson devotes one sentence to Hilma, “a previously unknown Swedish artist whose somewhat mechanical abstract paintings and drawings of organic, geometrical forms were marked by Theosophy and Anthroposophy.”

Thirty-five years later, she’s receiving much more credit. As Priestley says in his video biography, Hilma, and not Kandinsky, is now hailed as the first painter to experiment with abstraction.

Would Hilma have welcomed such a distinction?

She maintained that she was but a receiving instrument for Amaliel, a “high master” from another dimension, who made contact during the séances she participated in regularly with four friends who met weekly to practice automatic drawing and writing.

Amaliel charged her with creating the artwork for the interior of a temple that was part of the high masters’ vision. The Guggenheim’s classroom materials for The Paintings for the Temple note that her friends warned Hilma against accepting this otherworldly commission, “that the intensity of this kind of spiritual engagement could drive her into madness.”

But Hilma threw herself into the assignment, producing 111 paintings during a one-and-a-half year period, claiming:

The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless, I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brushstroke.

For whatever reason, the paintings proved too much for Rudolph Steiner, the founder of the Anthroposophical Society, whom she had invited to view them, paying his travel expenses in hope that he would provide a detailed analysis and interpretation of the images. Instead, he counseled her that no one would understand them, and that the only course of action would be to keep the paintings out of sight and out of mind for fifty years. To do otherwise might endanger her health.

A disappointing response that ultimately led to the paintings being socked away for an even longer period.

Good news for Kandinsky… and possibly for Steiner.

At any rate, the competition was coerced into eliminating herself, inadvertently planting the seeds for some major, if delayed art world excitement. Hilma, who died more than forty years before the L.A. County Museum show, was not able to bask in the attention on any earthly plane.

For those curious in a take that is not entirely rooted in the art world, Lightforms Art Center in Hudson, New York hosted a recent Hilma Af Klint exhibit. Their strong ties to the Anthroposophical community make for some interesting exhibit commentary.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Eastern Philosophy Explained: From the Buddha to Confucius and Haiku to the Tea Ceremony

There was a time, not so long ago in human history, when practically no Westerners looked to the East for wisdom. But from our perspective today, this kind of philosophical seeking has been going on long enough to feel natural. When times get trying, you might turn to the Buddha, Lao Tzu, or even Confucius for wisdom as soon as you would to any other figure, no matter your culture of origin. And here in the 21st century, introductions to their thought lie closer than ever to hand: on The School of Life’s “Eastern philosophy” Youtube playlist, you’ll find primers on these influential sages and others besides, all playfully animated and narrated by Alain de Botton.

De Botton himself has written on many subjects, but has found some of his greatest success in one particular area: presenting the work of writers and thinkers from bygone eras in a manner helpful to modern-day audiences. That his best-known books include The Consolations of Philosophy and How Proust Can Change Your Life suggests a personal inclination toward the Western, but throughout subsequent projects his purview has widened.

With the School of Life’s Youtube channel he’s cast an especially wide cultural and intellectual net, which has pulled in not just the ideas of Plato, Kant, and Foucault but the principles of rock appreciation, kintsugi, and wu wei as well.

Who among us couldn’t stand to cultivate a little more appreciation for rocks, or indeed for the other seemingly mundane elements of the world we pass our days ignoring? And surely we could all use a bit of the worldview behind kintsugi, the art of repairing broken pottery in such a way as to brilliantly highlight the cracks rather than hide them, or wu wei, a kind of flexibility of being comparable to slight drunkenness.

If these concepts appeal to you, you can go slightly deeper with the School of Life’s introductions to such historical personages as Zen poet Matsuo Bashō, acknowledged as the master of haiku, and Sen no Rikyū, who developed the Japanese “way of tea.” These would once have seemed unlikely subjects to interest people from the other side of the world; but as the popularity of these videos underscores, that era has passed. And as the School of Life expands, might it not find an even more robust audience of Easterners getting into Western philosophy?

Watch nine videos here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Buddhist Monk Sings The Ramones: “Rock ’n’ Roll High School,” “Teenage Lobotomy” & “Beat on the Brat”

The Ramones restored speed and simplicity to 70s rock. It’s rare to find a Ramones tune clocking in over three minutes. The sweet spot’s closer to 2 1/2.

“We play short songs and short sets for people who don’t have a lot of spare time,” original drummer Tommy Ramone remarked.

It took them all of 2 minutes and 20 seconds to bomb through their single for “Rock ’n’ Roll High School.”

So why does Japanese Buddhist monk Kossan’s cover take more than twice that long?

Because meditation is an integral part of his music video practice.

Kossan, aka Kazutaka Yamada, plays drums, piano, and sanshin, and introduces a Tibetan singing bowl into his Ramones tributes.

His cover of 1976’s “Beat on the Brat” runs a whopping nine minutes and 15 seconds — a mindful approach to punk, and vice versa.

By comparison, “Weird Al” Yankovic’s accordion-enhanced cover hews far closer to the original adding just six seconds to the Ramones’ 2:30 time frame.

Kossan cut most of the meditation from “Teenage Lobotomy,” his earliest Ramones cover.

We’re glad he committed to preserving this element in subsequent uploads, including his takes on Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.”

It furthers his mission as a zazen teacher, and patient viewers will be rewarded with his bright smile in the final seconds as he resumes his discourse with the larger world.

You can hear Kossan play sanshin and more of his Western rock covers on his YouTube channel.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Largest Free Kitchen in the World: Discover India’s Golden Temple Which Serves 100,000 Free Meals Per Day

If you find yourself hungry in Amritsar, a major city in the Indian state of Punjab, you could do worse than stopping into the Golden Temple, the largest Sikh house of worship in the world. It thus also operates the largest community kitchen, or langar, in the world, which serves more than 100,000 free meals a day, 24 hours a day. Anyone familiar with Sikhism knows that, for its believers, serving food to the hungry constitutes an essential duty: not just to the poor, and certainly not just to fellow Sikhs, but to all comers. Wherever in the world you may live, if there’s a Sikh temple or shrine in the vicinity, there’s quite possibly a langar you can visit as well.

Of course, no other langar matches the scale of the Golden Temple’s. As explained in the Food Insider video above, it operates with a permanent staff of 300 to 350 employees as well as a large number of volunteers, all of whom work in concert with machines around the clock to produce an unending stream of vegetarian meals, which include daal lentil stew and chapati bread. There’s always been a market for free food, but recent years have seen increases in demand great enough to necessitate the construction of additional dining halls, and total operating expenses come to the equivalent of some US$4 million per year. (Every day, $5,000 goes to ghee, or Indian clarified butter, alone.)

Apart from the people of Amritsar and pilgrimage-making devotees, the Golden Temple langar has also drawn the attention of culinarily minded travelers. Take the Canadian Youtuber Trevor James, better known as the Food Ranger, to whose taste for extreme scale and quantity the operation no doubt appeals. His visit also affords him the opportunity, before his meal, to be outfitted in traditional dress, up to and including a Sikh turban. (The Golden Temple requires its diners to wear a head-covering of some kind.) James’ stock of travel-vlogger superlatives is nearly exhausted by the splendor of the temple itself before he steps into the kitchen to observe (and even lend a hand in) the cooking process. “Look at this,” he exclaims upon taking his seat on the floor of the hall with a tray of his own. “This is an almost spiritual meal” — an aura exuded whether you believe in Waheguru, the gods of street food, or anything else besides.

via Metafilter

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Discover Ibn Sina (Avicenna), a Missing Pixel in Your Image of Philosophy: Partially Examined Life Episode #267 Featuring Peter Adamson

Most American students in philosophy live on a diet of ancient Greek philosophy on the one hand, and then “modern” philosophy, which starts around the time of Descartes (the 17th century), with numerous schools and approaches spilling into the present day. If you get anything from between those ancient days and modernity, it’s probably some churchmen, i.e. Augustine (from the 4th century) and Thomas Aquinas (the 13th century), with perhaps a few Romans thrown in there and (if you’re Jewish) Maimonides (12th century).

But a key part of this lineage was the Eastward turn that the great works of Greek and Roman philosophy took during the so-called Dark Ages, when they were preserved and copied in the Islamic world, and this period produced a wealth of philosophy including two figures who became influential enough in the West that their names were Latinized: Ibn Sīnā (980-1037 C.E.) and Ibn Rushd, a.k.a. Averroes (1126-1198). Aquinas was very familiar with these figures and incorporated them into his influential works, and in the case of Ibn Sina, at least, important figures like John Locke had definitely known at least about his views, if not his actual works.

On the Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast, which has been going for 13 years now, we range widely over the history of philosophy but had not actually cracked the Islamic world. Luckily, Ibn Sīnā is one of the favorite philosophers of one of our favorite guests, Peter Adamson of King’s College London. Peter runs his own podcast, The History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps), which as the name implies, covers Medieval philosophy with admirable thoroughness, covering not only Ibn Sīnā and Ibn Rushd, but also figures like al-Rāzī, al-Fārābī, Al-Ghazālī, and many others.

Peter was good enough to recommend some readings to introduce us and our listeners to this figure, some of which he actually wrote. Because of the volume, redundancy, and style of Ibn Sīnā’s writings, some sort of guide to collect and to some degree explain passages is essential for getting a handle on this idiosyncratic and brilliant thinker. He wrote at least three different versions of his all-encompassing system, which was influenced by and meant to supplant Aristotle’s. In addition to philosophical/theological topics, it included mathematics, science, psychology, and more. So instead of trying to read a whole work covering all that, it makes more sense to pick individual topics and then look at the various formulations he gave about these.

Our two topics for this discussion were a peculiar argument for the existence of God — with important implications for talking about metaphysics more generally — and an argument for the immateriality of the soul, which likewise tells us a lot about the way that Ibn Sīnā thought about knowledge and its relation to the world.

The argument for the existence of God was later called by Thomas Aquinas “the argument from contingency.” It posits that things in the world don’t simply exist, but that they require something else to support their existence. This isn’t a cause is the chronological sense that we talk about it: a prior event that gave rise to the thing. Rather, the material components of something in a certain arrangement make it continue to exist as that thing right now; for example, a house exists because its component wood parts exist, with nails and such holding them in place. And the wood in turn has its character because of its physical/chemical components, etc. If these component causes weren’t in place, the thing would not exist; the thing is thus “contingent,” meaning it might well not have existed were it not for those causes.

This picture of the universe thus includes a giant network of causality, but does that network itself rest on anything? According to Ibn Sīnā, there must be something that is not contingent that holds everything else up. But is this thing God (in the sense that a good Muslim of his time would recognize it)? Ibn Sīnā then has a long series of arguments to show one by one that just by being “the necessary being,” this entity also must be unique, must be all-powerful, generous, and all the other things one would expect God to be.

The argument for the immortality of the soul is perhaps Ibn Sīnā’s most famous argument, often called the flying or floating man argument. It’s a thought experiment whereby you imagine you’ve just been created, but fully mature, so you can think, but with no memory, and your senses are inoperable. You can’t even feel gravity or the ground under your feet (thus the “flying” part). According to Ibn Sīnā, you would still in such a situation know that you exist. Since your apprehension of self did not include any part of your body (you couldn’t feel your body at all), that is supposed to prove that your body is not an essential part of what you are.

Ibn Sīnā thought this argument definitive because of his theory of knowledge by which if you know anything at all, then you know about the essential components of that thing. If you know what a triangle is, you know that it’s an abstract geometrical figure with three straight sides. If you know what a horse is, you know that it’s a biological animal with a particular character that you can identify. And to know what you are essentially, you only need know that feeling of your own mind; anything else about that mind being associated with a particular body that lives in a particular part of the world and is just knowledge of contingent, relational facts about yourself.

PEL hosts Mark Linsenmayer and Dylan Casey grapple in detail with Peter about these arguments, both on this recording and on a second part of the discussion for those that want to hear more. To read more about these arguments and get the citations to the texts we read for this discussion, see the essay for this episode at partiallyexaminedlife.com. The History of Philosophy podcast also features four monologues and an interview about Ibn Sīnā. Don’t let this gap in your knowledge of major figures in intellectual history remain unfilled!

Mark Linsenmayer is the host of the Partially Examined Life, Pretty Much Pop, and Nakedly Examined Music podcasts. He is a writer and musician working out of Madison, Wisconsin. Read more Open Culture posts about The Partially Examined Life.

Image by Solomon Grundy.

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