September 28, BC551 The Power of an Idea

Many of the man’s teachings are as fresh and meaningful today as when he himself trod the earth, 2½ thousand years ago.

A boy was born this day in the Zou state of eastern China, a region now known as the Shandong Province. 

The year was BC551.  He was born into the class of Shi, one of four loose castes or “categories of people” comprising the social structure of ancient China and represented by “gentry scholars”.  Kǒng Fūzǐ (Master Kǒng) was educated in the “six arts”:  Traditional Rites, Music, Archery, Chariotry, Calligraphy and Arithmetic, the mastery of which was believed to represent a state of perfection known as junzi, or “respectable person”.

Kǒng’s father Kǒng He died when the boy was three. He was raised in poverty by his mother, Yan Zhengzai.  Even as a teenager, the boy showed a voracious appetite for learning, a trait which would serve him well, in later life.

Kǒng Fūzǐ worked a number of government jobs through his twenties such as bookkeeper and caretaker for sheep and horses and finally, “Minister of Crime”. He is best remembered not for his political career however, but as the learned teacher, scholar and philosopher, his name transliterated by a 16th-century Jesuit missionary as…Confucius.

 Confucius’ teachings emphasized personal and governmental morality, uprightness in social relationships, respect for family and the veneration of ancestors.  2,500 years later, countless tidbits of conventional wisdom begin with the words “Confucius say“.

Many of the man’s teachings are as fresh and meaningful today as when he himself trod the earth, 2½ thousand years ago.

A disciple called Zi Gong once asked: “Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?” Centuries later, the master’s response would find voice in the great Jewish scholars Hillel and Philo of Alexandria, and in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates, and Seneca. We in the West, know it as “The Golden Rule”. The Teacher replied: “How about ‘reciprocity’! Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

To some, Confucianism represents a continuation of an aboriginal Chinese religion, dating back some three thousand years.

Confucius himself claimed to have invented nothing, that he was only transmitting ancient ideas, but European admirers such as Voltaire saw in his teachings not the endless inheritance of “noble virtue” but a “meritocracy” of a sort which would have been familiar to the American founding fathers. A belief system in which the virtuous commoner who cultivates the teachings of the master was a superior being, better in every way to the shameless and wastrel sons of kings.

Such thinking took hold during the mid-Tang dynasty (AD618 – 907) in the form of “Imperial Examinations”, and lasted until the late Qing reforms of 1905. In theory, Confucian meritocracy took the form of written examinations, necessary to enter the civil service. In practice, the three-tiered examination produced a vast unemployable class among those holding the shengyuan or basic degree, while the highest or jinshi achieved degrees of difficulty to be feared as nothing short of savage.

Hong Xiuquan (born “Hong Huoxiu” on January 1, 1814) began studying for the exam, at age 5. By six the boy could recite from memory, the Four Books of Confucianism. Preliminary civil service examinations were easy for a boy who placed first and yet, the third level remained elusive. Years later, Hong Huoxiu took his first stab at the jinshi, an exam which fewer that 1%, ever passed. There was a second attempt at age 22 and a third in 1837 and each time…defeat. It was too much. His was a lifetime’s labor met with failure and the nervous and mental breakdown, was absolute. Hallucinations wracked his body and his mind for weeks and, when he emerged, he did so as the younger brother of Jesus Christ. According to him, quite literally.

Hong set about burning and destroying all the Confucian and Buddhist statues and books he could find, first in his home village and then others. The uprising of the “God Worshippers” would cascade and grow to straight-out civil war. Twenty to thirty million Chinese lay dead by the end of the “Taiping Rebellion”, by some counts as many as 70 million, a death toll only surpassed by World War II, some 100 years later.

Today, a likeness of the Master appears on a marble frieze, located on the courtroom’s south wall of the United States Supreme Court, along with the likes of Hammurabi, Octavian, Moses and Solomon.

Fun Fact: The Analects of Confucius is a written record of the sayings of the philosopher and his contemporaries, compiled in the centuries following his death in BC479. 

In it, a follower called Yen Yüan asked the Master about perfect virtue. Confucius said, “To subdue one’s self and return to propriety, is perfect virtue. If a man can for one day subdue himself and return to propriety, all under heaven will ascribe perfect virtue to him”. 

“I beg to ask the steps of that process”, asked Yen Yüan, to which the Master replied, “Look not at what is contrary to propriety.  Listen not to what is contrary to propriety.  Speak not what is contrary to propriety.  Make no movement which is contrary to propriety”.

The Confucian maxim may have crossed from China to Japan with a Tendai-Buddhist legend, sometime around the 8th century. At the time, the story had nothing to do with monkeys.

In medieval Japanese, mi-zaru, kika-zaru, and iwa-zaru translate as “don’t see, don’t hear, and don’t speak”, -zaru being an archaic negative verb conjugation and pronounced similarly to “saru”, the word for monkey.

The visual play on words, then, depicts Mizaru, covering his eyes, Kikazaru, covering his ears, and Iwazaru, covering his mouth. Although it’s rare to see him anymore, there is a fourth monkey. Shizaru is generally depicted with his arms crossed or covering his privates, the name variously translated as “do no evil”, or “know no evil”.

The first known depiction of the “Three Mystic Apes” appears over the doors of the Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō, Japan, carved sometime in the 17th century.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a Hindu lawyer, member of the merchant caste from coastal Gujarat, in western India. Today he is known by the honorific “Mahatma”, from the Sanskrit “high-souled”, or “venerable”. He is recognized as the Father of modern India, who brought Independence to his country through non-violent protest. Gandhi owned almost no material possessions at the time of his assassination by a Hindu nationalist on January 30, 1948, preferring instead, a life of simplicity and poverty. Beside the clothes on his back, Gandhi owned a tin cup and a spoon, a pair of sandals, his spectacles, and a carved set of 3 monkeys, reminding him to hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil.

May 28, 585BC Battle of the eclipse

Dating the historical events of antiquity with any kind of accuracy can be problematic, but not this one.  The “solar clock” can be run backward as well as forward.  Thanks to Herodotus, it’s possible to calculate the date with precision.   May 28 is one of the cardinal dates from which other dates in antiquity, may be calculated. 

On this day in 585BC, ancient precursors of the Iranian and Turkish people squared off for battle, along the banks of the River Halys in Asia minor.  They were the Indo-Iranian Medes inhabiting the west and north-west of modern Iran, and the Indo-European Lydians inhabiting the west of modern Turkey.  The two sides had been at war for 15 years

Sometime during the battle, the sky began to darken.  It wasn’t long before the sun was obliterated, altogether.   Stunned and terrified, the armies ceased fighting and laid down their weapons.Dating the historical events of antiquity with any kind of accuracy can be problematic, but not this one.  The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that the mathematician and astronomer Thales of Miletus predicted the eclipse in a year when the Medians and the Lydians were at war.    The “solar clock” can be run backward as well as forward.  Thanks to Herodotus, it’s possible to calculate the date with precision.   May 28 is one of the cardinal dates from which other dates in antiquity, may be calculated.

Interestingly, this is believed to be the first solar eclipse to be successfully predicted.

It wasn’t the first recorded eclipse of the sun, just the first to be foretold. Two Chinese astrologers lost their heads back in the 22nd or 23rd century BC, for failing to predict one.  Clay tablets from the Babylonian period record an eclipse in Ugarit in 1375 BC. Other records report solar eclipses which “turned day into night” in 1063 and 763 BC.

Eclipse of ThalesPredicting a solar eclipse isn’t the same as predicting an eclipse of the moon.  The calculations are far more difficult. When the moon passes through the shadow of the sun, the event can be seen over half the planet, the total eclipse phase lasting over an hour. In a solar eclipse, the shadow of the moon occupies only a narrow path.  The total eclipse phase at any given point, lasts only about 7½ minutes.

The method used by Thales to make his prediction is unknown. There is no record of the ancient Greeks predicting any further eclipses. It’s possible that he borrowed his methods from Egyptian astrologers, using their techniques of land measurement (geo-metry in Greek), later codified by Euclid and loved by 8th graders, the world over.unnamed-2Be that as it may, for the first time in history a full eclipse of the sun had been predicted beforehand.  The Battle of Halys marked the first time in history, that a war was ended when day turned to night.  Aylattes, King of Lydia and Cyaxares, King of the Medes, put down their weapons and declared a truce and their armies, followed suit.  With help from the kings of Cilicia and Babylon, the two sides negotiated a more permanent treaty.

To seal the bargain, Alyattes’ daughter Aryenis married Cyaxares’ son Astyages.  The Halys River, now known as the River Kızılırmak, was to become the border between the two peoples.

December 5, 63BC The Catiline Conspiracy

Lucius Sergius Catilina was a Roman Senator, best remembered for his attempt to overthrow the Republic. In particular the power of the aristocratic Senate. He seems to have been an unsavory character, having murdered first his brother in law and later his own wife, before being tried for adultery with a vestal virgin.

Following the overthrow of the  Monarchy in 509BC, the Rome of antiquity governed itself, as a Republic. The government was headed by two consuls, annually elected by the citizens and advised by a Senate. The Republic operated on a separation of powers principle, with checks and balances and a strong aversion to the concentration of power. Except in times of national emergency, no single individual was allowed to wield absolute power over his fellow citizens.

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A series of civil wars and other events took place during the first century BC, ending the republican period and leaving in its wake an Imperium, best remembered for its conga line of dictators.

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Lucius Sergius Catilina

Lucius Sergius Catilina was a Roman Senator during this period, best remembered for his attempt to overthrow the Republic. In particular the power of the aristocratic Senate. He seems to have been an unsavory character, having murdered first his brother in law and later his own wife, before being tried for adultery with a vestal virgin.

Catilina’s second wife, the formidable Aurelia Orestilla, reputedly murdered the Senator’s grown son, for objecting to the match.  The American political commentator and Rutgers professor Leonard A. Cole once said “You are not responsible for what your friends do, but you will be judged by the company you keep“. Seems about right, to me.

The first of two conspiracies bearing his name began in 65BC. Catilina was supposed to have conspired to murder a number of Senators on their entering office, and making himself, Consul. He may or may not have been involved at this stage, but he certainly would be for the second.

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H/T zbrushcentral.com for this astonishing representation, of the second wife of Catilina

In 63BC, Catilina and a group of heavily indebted aristocrats concocted a plan with a number of disaffected veterans, to overthrow the Republic. On the night of October 18, Crassus brought letters to Consul Marcus Tullius Cicero warning of the plot. Cicero read the letters in the Senate the following day, later giving a series of four speeches: the Catiline Orations, considered by many to be his best political oratory.

In his last speech, delivered in the Temple of Concordia on December 5, 63BC, Cicero established a basis for other speakers to take up the cause. As Consul, Cicero was not allowed to voice an opinion on the execution of conspirators, but this speech laid the groundwork for others to do so, primarily Cato the Younger.

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The actual Senate debates are lost to history, leaving only Cicero’s four orations, but there was considerable resistance in the Senate to executing the conspirators. They were, after all, fellow aristocrats.

Armed forces of the conspirators were ambushed at the Milvian Bridge, where the Via Flaminia crosses the Tiber River. The rest were executed by the end of December. Cicero’s actions had saved the Republic. For now.

history-catalineAt one point during this period, then-Senator Julius Caesar stepped to the rostrum to have his say. He was handed a paper and, reading it, stuck the note in his toga and resumed his speech. Cato, Caesar’s implacable foe, stood in the senate and demanded that Caesar read the note. It’s nothing, replied the future emperor, but Cato thought he had caught the hated Caesar red handed. “I demand you read that note”, he said, or words to that effect. He wouldn’t let it go.

Finally, Caesar relented. With an actor’s timing, he pulled out the note and read it to a hushed senate.  It turned out to be a love letter, a graphic one, wherein Servilia Caepionis described in detail what she wanted to do with Caesar when she got him alone. As if the scene wasn’t bad enough, Servilia just happened to be Cato’s half-sister.

Here’s where the story becomes very interesting. Caesar was a well-known lady’s man. By the time of his assassination, the Emperor had carried on with Servilia Caepionis, for years. Servilia had a son, called Marcus Brutus. He was 41 on the 15th of March, 44BC. The “Ides of March”. Caesar was 56. The Emperor’s dying words are supposed to have been “Et tu, Brute?”, as Brutus plunged the dagger in. “And you, Brutus?” But that’s not what he said. Those words were put in his mouth 1,643 years later, by William Shakespeare.

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Ciaran Hinds plays Julius Caesar in the series Rome

Eyewitness accounts to Caesar’s last words are lost to history, but more contemporary sources recorded his dying words to be “Kai su, Teknon?” In Greek, it means “And you, my child?”

It seems unlikely that Brutus murdered his own father on the Ides of March.  The dates don’t seem to work out. Still, it makes you wonder…

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