Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Chinese philosophy of Change

Sometime soon, the annual Philosophy Day in the Netherlands is devoted to the theme "change". I responded to the call for papers with the following proposal. They turned it down, probably out of a persistent Eurocentric bias among our academic philosophers.

“Except for the fact that everything changes, everything changes.” It would be odd to discuss the phenomenon of Change among philosophers without mentioning the extant philosophy of Change, developed some 25 centuries ago in China. Given that country’s current breakthrough, time has come at last to take China’s central philosophy seriously. It has summed itself up in this nutshell: “One yin, one yang, that is called the Way.”

The world is subject to a polarity of yang (“bright”) and yin (“cloudy”), light and dark, heaven and earth, sun and moon, masculine and feminine, hard and soft, and change is the alternating predominance of either. The character yi, “change”, shows the sun piercing through the clouds. To soften the picture and make it more realistic in a not so black-and-white world of diversity, six intermediate power equations between them are also acknowledged. But still, any change can be analysed as an interplay between these two basic poles, as in the alternation of day and night, summer and winter.

It started with the Book of Changes (ca. 1100 BC), not yet a philosophy but a manual of divination, originated in a milieu of feudal patriarchal sun-worshippers who candidly considered the yang as superior, the yin as inferior. The horoscope as a representation of real-life situations needed its heroes and villains, its white knights and black monsters. This view is systematized in more moderate version by the Confucians in their great commentary, The Ten Wings (ca. 500-200 BC), and by the neo-Confucians (ca. 1100 CE). They re-employed the building blocks of the ancient divination system in a true philosophy of Change.

Meanwhile, Zou Yan (ca. 260 BC) and the Daoists (from 500 BC) revaluated the yin to appreciate its subtle qualities: how the soft can be stronger than the hard, how water quenches fire and erodes the rock. It is this version that has drawn attention in the modern world, esp. by its application in the martial arts. Popular mystifications attribute these sophisticated techniques that turn hard into soft, to “ancient sages”; but of course their very sophistication implies that they could only be developed gradually from a pre-existing simpler tradition of hard and straight fighting. Likewise, the proto-feminist philosophical twist upgrading the yin to a kind of equality with the yang was necessarily and demonstrably a later amendment to a pre-existing tradition that viewed the yang as positive, the yin as negative, unequal par excellence.

“Go with the flow”, “ride with the tide”, such is the practical application of the philosophy of Change. Don’t stand like a rock but adapt to circumstances. Chairman Mao’s dictum: “Withdraw when the enemy is strong, attack when he is weak”, is only a variation on the ancient (ca. 450 BC) strategist Sunzi’s application of the philosophy of Change.

Buddhism, upon entering China with a radical anti-worldly message, oddly found itself in agreement with the pragmatic this-worldly philosophy of Change at least in one key respect: the law of impermanence. “All things must pass”, there is no point in attaching oneself to an existing state of affairs. While abiding by this principle is the way to worldly success, it is also the way to spiritual freedom.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Nostradamus debunked

Are Nostradamus’ predictions true? Why, they aren’t predictions in the first place, and neither were they written by him. Here my discussion of Prof.. Cambier’s book debunking Nostradamus, originally posted to a Hindu web forum in 2005.

Many Hindus with their soft corner for astrology and other forms of divination believe that there is something to the "predictions" of Nostradamus (1503-66, hereafter ND), witness e.g. the book "Hindu Destiny in Nostradamus" by G.S. Hiranyappa, ideologically close to the Hindu Mahasabha. Stuff like: "Nostradamus predicts Hindu Rashtra."

Mind you, Hindus are no worse than Westerners in this regard. ND is the core of occultist fantasies piled on one another. Thus, I saw a TV documentary on him where the makers wondered whether ND was a crypto-Jew or a genuine Catholic (his grandparents on one side were Jewish converts, and it seems unlikely that ND had retained the Judaic faith after two generations, but since ex-Catholic moderns will prefer absolutely anything to their parental religion, the claim that he wasn't really a Catholic is quite popular). So, they interviewed a medium who "contacted" ND in the spirit world, where of course he answered her that he had been a crypto-Jew. And then the documentary continued, taking that point as settled.

After all the forecasts people have read in "his" enigmatic ca. 942 quatrains, "Les Centuries", I had heard a few years ago that Rudy Cambier, a retired Romance Philology professor of Liège University, Belgium, had given a purely historical explanation of the text. No esotericism, no alchemy, hardly any astrology, but only history and esp. Church history provides the background that explains all the enigmatic phrases. Last week I attended a lecture by Cambier's research assistant Mark Vanden Daele, giving the detail of this theory. It was quite convincing regarding the authorship question (less so on a second point, see at the end) and left no stone standing of ND's reputation. For the benefit of Hindu readers who are under the spell of ND, I'll summarize Cambier's findings here. Feel free to forward or to cross-post.

Michel Nostredame was a French physician and astrologer of whom some writings have been preserved. These include private letters, horoscope interpretations and his great speciality: jam recipes. And two books on medicine, one completely plagiarized and one containing remedies against the plague of which none works. In fact, he had been thrown out at the medical faculty and had no medical diploma, though he had some experience as a self-taught pharmacist. His writing style is totally different from that of the Centuries. He was a very bad astrologer whose predictions were invariably wrong, yet he managed to build himself a reputation. Thus, he gained fame with the "prediction" in the Centuries of the death of an unnamed king, then thought to refer to French king Henri II, who died in a duel with a young opponent by getting a spear through his helmet and into his eye, then dying a cruel death after a few days of agony (I.35: "Le Lyon jeune le vieux surmontera..."). In fact, not long before the event ND himself had predicted a long life to the king. He ingratiated himself with the queen-widow by predicting a long life for her young son, who nevertheless went on to die at age 24. He also revealed that her sister, married to the king of Spain, was pregnant; she sent presents to celebrate the good news, but her sister turned out not to be pregnant yet. And so on.

ND was a thief and a fraud. In his young days, he travelled for some years, not to Egypt and Persia as the myth would have it, but only in the Romance-speaking countries. In 1545, he stayed at a monastery in Cambron, in the Earldom of Hainault, now in Belgium, then part of the Holy Roman Empire, but on the frontier with the earldom of Flandres, then the richest vassal of the French kingdom. There, he got to see a manuscript written by abbot Yves de Lessines in 1323-28. We can imagine that because of his reputation as a mystery man, the monks showed him the enigmatic text hoping that he could make sense of it. At any rate, he stole the manuscript and later published it under his own name: Les Centuries. He first published a few quatrains, testing the waters for any reactions to his plagiarism. But the first printed books still spread only slowly, and in that age of religious wars the monks had other worries. So, when nothing happened, he published the whole text in three successive books. Since the publisher, who paid him by the quatrain, refused to pay him for the handful he had already published earlier, he made up a few of his own. These forged insertions are readily recognizable to the trained eye: they don't follow the verse form and use a 16th-century Parisian or Provençal (southeastern) French, whereas the original is in 14th-century Picardian, the northernmost dialect of French, then commonly used as a language of administration in Artois, Picardy and Hainault.

Indeed, the Centuries are in an older and local form of French, with rhyme-words that didn't rhyme in 16th-century standard French, words that had gone out of use, and words and expressions borrowed from the neighbouring Flemish. They also contain political references that no longer made sense in the 16th century, e.g. to "imperial Flandres", the small part of the Earldom of Flandres that did not belong to France but to the Holy Roman Empire. By the 16th century, the Low Countries had been unified under the Burgunds and then the Austrian Habsburgs and these medieval feudal distinctions had gone out of use. In a letter to his son César (who was an accomplice in his frauds), ND himself wrote that he had acquired the text and burned the original manuscript as "Satanic", but not before copying it. He also claimed to have copied the text faithfully but to have jumbled the order of the quatrains.

So, what is the contents of the Centuries? It is a guidebook for "l'attendu", "the expected one", expected to restart the Order of the Knights Templar after the political winds would have changed enough to make it feasible. The text says that he will understand its cryptic guidelines with the help of the Holy Ghost. In 1307, on Friday 13 October, the martial-monastic Order of the Knights Templar, founded in the context of the Crusades in 1128 but by then best known as a banking network spanning Europe, had been disbanded and destroyed by the French king Philippe IV "le Bel" (the Fair) with the support of Pope Clemens V. The arrested knights were tried under torture and died at the stake. Their Grand-Master Jacques de Molay confessed under torture to charges of idolatry, sodomy, blasphemy
etc., but later withdrew his confession, and for this recanting he was executed at the stake in 1314. Legend has it that he cursed the king and the pope, both of whom died within one year. Some knights managed to flee and in some countries, the Order continued under a different name, particularly in Portugal (which still carries a variation on the Templar Cross in its flag) where they were to play a role in the beginnings of naval exploration. But most knights within the reach of the French king were taken completely by surprise. Official history has it that the arrest had been prepared in complete secrecy. But a few anomalies in the data argue against this, and the text of the Centuries confirms the alternative version that emerges.

The secret preparations had become known in early 1307 through the earl of Flandres, the king's richest and strategic vassal, whose territory comprised important Templar strongholds, esp. the Chief Commandery in Ypres; and possibly also through the wayward wife of a cuckolded relative of the king. But the Order's acting high command didn't take the warning seriously, and the Grand-Master was away in Cyprus (to limit the losses of the crusader states against the Muslims), whence he was summoned back to France by the king and the pope later that year, in what proved to be a trap. Yet, when the warning was out, a procedure was put in motion that the Order had provided for 80 years earlier, after the sudden arrest of the Knights Templar in the kingdom of Sicily by the king of Sicily and later Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II. He had led a fairly successful crusade to Jerusalem, making sufficient impression on the Muslims to restore the status quo ante, the toleration arrangement that had prevailed before they had blocked Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem (the casus belli of the first crusade). But then he had had to flee and hide in the crusader fortress of Saint-Jean d'Acre, after a conflict with the Knights Templar, and though they made up with him and ended up transporting him safely to Sicily, he had not forgotten the humiliation, so he confiscated all their property within his domains. With an eye on a possible repeat of this type of crisis, they had established a rule that in that event, someone could take dictatorial powers and instruct all the Templar centres on what to do to limit the damage.

So, in 1307, the knight whom the earl had informed of the king's plans, and who is only known as "the Flemish Templar", after fruitlessly warning the formal leadership, seized this power and sent the instruction to all Templar centres to bring "the Templar treasure" to safety. This included the stock of silver and gold, or part of it, but far more importantly, the Templar archive: all their internal directives, contracts with kings etc. On the other hand, all the declarations of debt were to be left in place, so the king would seize them and use them to extort the debtors, thus pitting them against himself (the king himself was one of their biggest debtors). We know that this instruction was carried out, consistent with
the Knights Templar's reputation as a well-oiled and disciplined organization. Then the Flemish Templar went underground and reappeared seven years later (right after the death of the last Templar leaders including the 23rd Grand-Master Jacques de Molay) as a guest in Yves de Lessines' monastery, where he too awaited "the expected one". Remember that the monastery was in Hainault, just outside the reach of the French king.

Among the documents spirited away, one was the proof of "the Pope's treason", repeatedly alluded to in the Centuries. This is still a mystery to historians: why the Pope betrayed his agreement with the Knights Templar and okayed the French king's persecution of them. In 1302, pope Boniface VIII's Papal Bull Unam Sanctam had made a bid for theocracy, i.e. for subordinating the worldly authorities to the Pope's authority. This only provoked an attack on him and his imprisonment by a French general, followed by his release, collapse and premature death. Having learned its own military weakness, the Papacy then made a deal with the Knights Templar for protection. Yet, the French second-next Pope, Clemens V, who was to
move his Holy See to the French city of Avignon in 1309, agreed to the destruction of his own protectors. Had the king forced his hand, and if so, how or at what price? A document in the Templars' treasure may tell us.

The "expected one" never showed up. The aged "Flemish Templar" died a few years after his arrival at the monastery and Yves de Lessines died in 1328, after writing down his instructions in cryptic form. These gathered dust and their message was forgotten until, in a totally different political and religious context, the monks showed them to a visiting astrologer-conman, ND. One merit must be conceded to the charlatan, viz. that he copied the text, which he himself didn't understand, very faithfully for publication. The mistakes are few, mostly recognizable by their breaking the versification scheme or by yielding words unknown in Picardian.

Read from the perspective outlined so far, the text becomes an open book, at least for one who can read the language and knows the history of the Christian Middle Ages and is familiar with the geography of Hainault and Flandres. Thus, dear friends from India, the repeatedly-used expression "l'Inde", otherwise meaning "India", is not India at all, but the name of a little river in Hainault near the monastery. "Athenis" is not the Greek city Athens but "from Ath", a town in Hainault. Names like "ciel" (heaven) and "paradis" (paradise) are still-existing hills and ponds and forests and landscape features of that region, incomprehensible to people who have never visited it. Often the reader needs to decipher the deliberately enigmatic style, replacing names with circumlocutions or related names. The future tense systematically replaces the past tense, concealing as prediction what was actually history, thus fooling readers starting with ND himself.

It contains many references to the history of the Crusades and the Knights Templar against a background of further references to Greco-Roman and Christian history. Thus, the famous quatrain I.60 supposedly describing the birth and career of Napoleon splendidly, actually refers to Friedrich II. In accordance with the quatrain, he was indeed "born near Italy", a name then referring to the northern two-thirds of Italy, part Papal State and part HR Empire, while southern Italy was termed, along with the island Sicily, as "the kingdom of both Sicilies". Indeed, to disprove rumours propagated by Papal agents that his mother, a Sicilian princess and
daughter-in-law of HR Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa (which is why his birth worried the Papacy, afraid of being surrounded by HRE-controlled states), wasn't pregnant at all and that the child to be produced would be a mere stand-in with no royal heredity, she gave birth to Friedrich II in the marketplace of the "Sicilian"/"Italian" border town Jesi in front of hundreds of witnesses. To Friedrich II, the empire was "sold dearly", as the quatrain says: after some popes had fought him, the Papacy ended up supporting him as candidate for the imperial throne (an elective office rotated between the leading German nobles) and notoriously paid heavy bribes to the other electors not to oppose his candidature.

Likewise, the "Le Lyon jeune le vieux surmontera" quatrain refers to Byzantium, the second or younger Rome, the lion city (deemed to be astrologically ruled by the Zodiac sign Leo), and to a royal dispute between two brothers. In the fourth crusade, the Crusaders had captured Byzantium, forcing the East-Roman emperor to retreat to Nicea. The French king of Byzantium, Isaac Ange, was taken captive by his younger brother Alexis, his eyes plucked out (a common practice in Byzantinian palace revolutions), thrown into a pit and left there to die (as described in the
quatrain:) "a cruel death". Note the use of multi-level meanings artfully combined into the quatrains' dense metonyms, metaphors and anagrams.

Now, what happened to the Templar treasure? After debunking the ND myth, we have to deal with another myth here, that of the Templar treasure, which Philippe le Bel never found and of which Jacques de Molay never betrayed the location (possibly because he didn't know it). Well, Prof. Cambier has deciphered the detailed indications in the text, and claims to have found its location. It's underground on a farm leased by Yves de Lessines to a local town councillor (apparently to distract attention from his own link with the place), with a contract stipulating that the monastery could buy it back after 30 years. The official documents of the transaction are still extant. But it was never bought back and remained in the councillor's family til today. One of his descendants is professor Cambier himself.
That could make you skeptical of his theory, but fortunately the acid test for the theory's correctness is imminent.

The law in Belgium says that if you discover or deduce the presence of something of archaeological importance, you must stop digging at once and ask permission for a professional excavation. The Walloon regional authorities have rejected the request, or rather, they have allowed it on condition that the digging is done by the proper aracheo-authorities, who refuse to allot the necessary funds to the project but nonetheless insist on their monopoly and refuse to let the job be done by anyone else. Now the case is pending before the State Council, which is expected to pronounce in 2007 at the latest. That is exactly 700 years after the forced abolition of the Order of the Knights Templar. Enthusiasts of Templar romanticism have been saying for some time that the Order would be revived after 700 years, claiming another pre-stake prediction by Jacques de Molay. Ground radar scans have confirmed the presence of orderly stocks of metal (gold/silver bars?), but only the excavation will decide the matter. We shall see.

The debunking of ND is by no means dependent on the accuracy or otherwise of Prof. Cambier's decipherment of the instructions for localizing the Templar treasure. Whether the treasure is there remains to be seen, but Nostradamus has been buried for good.

A final remark: in following the explanation of Prof. Cambier's findings, I realized that very few people outside Belgium and northern France would be able to understand all the arguments and references right away. It requires a thorough knowledge of the local languages and history, of Latin and Christian theology, of the labyrinthine institutions of the Church, etc. For a Hindu, it would take years to acquire the necessary background knowledge. So conversely, I realized that for a non-Indian non-Hindu, it must be equally difficult to acquire sufficient knowledge for solving the
puzzles and riddles of Vedic history and religion. I'll try to keep that in mind before rushing headlong into inter-Hindu discussions.

Post scriptum, March 2010: The request to start digging is still pending before the Belgian State Council, in spite of a petition by archaeologists and history enthusiasts to expedite the process. As a citizen of Belgium, I feel like apologizing for the dysfunctional condition of the Belgian political and judiciary institutions.

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