Subversives

To subvert is to undermine an established system or institution, to challenge the assumptions on which it is based. We don’t like subversives, as a look at their synonyms indicate: disruptive, troublemaking, inflammatory, insurrectionary, seditious, revolutionary, rebellious: rebel, renegade, dissident; a dangerous troublemaker, an agitator.

Behind every successful state or institution lies the threat of stagnation and decay, and the subversive has often been the one to keep things evolving. At the very least the subversive helps define just what are the values and forms threatened by their actions, and can cause these to be redefined in a creative and fulfilling way. And when the state or institution is reluctant or unable to change, the subversive is there to help clear it away.

The subversive is not the same as the revolutionary. The revolutionary fights for power, and, if successful, clings to power, eventually to become a reactionary, in allegiance to some cause or doctrine to which they have dedicated their lives. The subversive sees beyond the structures and beliefs of their time: it is the breadth and range of their perspective which makes them dangerous to states and institutions. Their contribution is often in the formulation and dissemination of ideas. Lenin, for instance, was a revolutionary; Marx a subversive.

Here is a look at four subversives, whose message was in favour of individualism, personal values. All four clashed in different ways, in different spheres, with the social values of their time. They all four lived in times when the social structure was more important than any one person’s individual insights or activities, and all four insisted that personal values mattered more than social ones. Two were executed by the state under whose rule they lived, one was tortured into submissiveness, and one was first canonised, then his message carefully obliterated by the power he had challenged.

Sokrates the Athenian

Sokrates was born about 469 BC. He was said to be a stonemason. When he was 37 he fought with the foot soldiers at the Battle of Potidaea, in 432 BC, one of the crucial battles giving rise to the 27 year struggle of the Peloponnesian War, as well as fighting at the Battle of Amphipolis in 422 BC and the Battle and Siege of Delium later the same year, when he was aged 47. In all three battles he was said to have fought with conspicuous bravery in defense of his polis, Athens. In 406 BC Socrates served his year on the Boule, or citizen council, and two years later defied the orders of the Thirty Tyrants, an oligarchic faction which had seized power in Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War. He was 65, and known for his resistance to extreme councils and advocacy of moderate measures in the face of democratic rhetoricians who urged the death penalty on unsuccessful generals in that war or those complaisant to right wing extremists. He had participated in all the affairs of his polis, in peace and war, as a good citizen was expected to do. He was also known to his fellow citizens, for he was a city man, and like all artisans, prone to advertise his skills in the agora, where he was famous for his ability in argument and debate, abilities highly valued in the Greek world.

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The Peloponnesian War was a devastating and traumatising struggle for both Athenians and Spartans, but Athenians had seen their polis slowly destroyed, at first the mightiest polis of them all, home of great figures such as Themistokles, architect of the successful campaigns against Persia, great cultural figures such as Aeschylos, and magnetic leaders such as Perikles, but now impoverished, humiliated, and torn by internecine strife as various extremist groups battled it out for what remained. No wonder that those who had survived the War speculated as to what had gone wrong. Thinkers such as Plato seem to have thought the instability of the democratic system had bought about defeat and ruin; Plato conceived a return to the golden days of the Tyrants, of the reign of a philosopher king, and for a time thought he had found one in Dion of Syracuse. Sokrates may have come to a different conclusion. We have no way of knowing, as he left no writings, but Socrates had seen men driven by anger, hysteria and sickness subjecting their fellow citizens and allies to unjust punishments over a more than 20 year period. He may have asked the question, why? And then, what must a man do to avoid this immoderate behaviour? Support for this surmise can be found in the fact that the Socratic method has very little to do with the doctrines of Platonism: the method of Socrates has very little relevance to the construction of the ideal state, or apprehension of ideal realities. It’s a guide to behaviour, not contemplation.

Socrates devised a method called elenchos, the ‘Socratic method’, which took a commonly asserted viewpoint, and first examined each contention of that viewpoint for logical consistency, then further examined what a person actually meant by repeating it. Although using the method of dialectic, and the process of logic, and forming the foundation of many philosophical systems, the method of Socrates is also akin to that of a Zen master. It tries to break through a conventional interpretation of social norms and personal beliefs to an intuitive awareness of underlying concepts and the relationship of these to the questioner. Much as the Zen master asks, “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” yet forbids an answer.

Written over a gateway at Apollo’s oracle at Delphi was the saying “nothing to excess”. This was a traditional value in ancient Greek life, referred to in Herodotos as the belief you can call no man happy till after his death, when he is released from the power of both good and ill fortune, and giving rise to Aristotle’s dictum of the Golden Mean. If there is anything we can surmise that is consistent in Sokrates’ life and teachings, it is this insistence that men be controlled and moderate in both their beliefs and behaviour. He seems to have sought to puncture pretensions, expose prejudice and inconsistencies, and to cultivate self knowledge and honesty. Although there are indications that Sokrates was deeply religious, had spiritual visions, believed in the Apollonian oracles and was concerned with ethical behaviour, it would be a misrepresentation to see him as a Christlike figure. This has been often done, especially as he was also the victim of an unjust court sentence. Firstly, most ancient Greeks were initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries, a mystical rite assuring initiates of eternal life, and believed implicitly in the oracles, and so far Sokrates was typical of his time. And secondly, Sokrates would have had the over-riding aim with his method of helping to create better and more fair minded decision makers for the democratic system which was the only system of government he knew of.

It was Sokrates’ misfortune that his teachings alarmed men traumatised by almost 30 years of war. What happens when you tell an edgy hijacker that it is politically ineffective to divert the aircraft to a hidden destination where the passengers may be murdered if not ransomed? You get shot. When Socrates went on trial in 399 BC he was 70 years old, a decorated soldier, a well known citizen, with many friends and supporters. Yet he was still seen as a threat by the men living the unexamined life. Sokrates apparently felt that if you can’t die for your beliefs there is little point in living them. He continued to teach what he believed, pointing out how his prosecutors were acting in an unbalanced way, until they condemned him to death. The emotional death sentence followed by the repentant reprieve was a hallmark of Athenian democracy. Had Sokrates chosen exile he would probably have been pardoned eventually. In choosing death he taught a final lesson: the values he pursued were beyond death. His prosecutors, in charging him with teachings undermining religion, and misleading young citizens, were giving way to the feeling that something must be done to fix the dreadful state Athens was in. It was a show trial, an unfocused charge, an inefficient prosecution, and only Sokrates’ insistence on pointing this out bought him the death sentence. Perhaps he lost heart when he saw the democrats were as repressive as the oligarchs or the tyrants.

Xenophon, Plato, Antisthenes, Zeno and Aristotle were influenced by Sokrates. He invented psychiatry, for that is what the examined life is. He challenged his fellow citizens to lay down their fear and anger and so to be free: his question was too big for those he questioned, and they killed him. His belief that a healthy mind produced the best citizen could not be expressed in his time. His question was asked by another man in Syria in 33 AD: “what is truth?”

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We actually know nothing directly of Sokrates: he is only a character in dialogues by other philosophers, and in plays by Aristophanes. These writers were appalled by the destruction wrought by the Peloponnesian War, and became, or were, deeply conservative politically. They portrayed a Sokrates who expressed their own point of view. This may or may not have been Sokrates’ own. But the key to understanding what he taught and believed in can be found in the consideration that his active life fell almost entirely in the period of that war.

A final note needs to be made on ‘democracy’. Plato, Xenophon and other followers of Sokrates were oligarchs. Critias, who led a bloody reign of terror at the end of the War, was a close relative of Plato’s. Alkibiades, who defected to the Spartans, was a prominent pupil of Sokrates. It is possible, though I think unlikely, that Sokrates was an oligarch, even a monarchist as IF Stone believed. I think instead Sokrates opposed both extremes, and that was what caused such hostility. He did not seem to take sides. But taking sides was just what had caused a 30 year conflict. His was the voice of reason and moderation.

All ancient societies, including the Athens of Perikles and Sokrates, were based on slavery. Women and children had no rights or representation either. Approximately 75% of the population of Athens were denied any political, social or economic privileges. A further 15%, the poor citizens, were denied any economic privileges. ‘Oligarchs’ wanted the power vested in the polis restricted to a small number of rich families, about 5% of the population. ‘Democrats’ wanted the power extended, in a limited way, to 25% of the population. Although the theoretical principles behind ancient democracy were used to fashion what we call democracy, ancient ‘democracies’ were unlike what we think of as democratic, offering direct participation of the few instead of representation of the many.

Jeshua the Galilean
A civil war was in the making in the lifetime of Jeshua of Galilee, in the Roman province of Syria. The minor power of Judea and Israel, though at the mercy of stronger forces in their neighbourhood for almost their entire existence as a state, believed firmly they were the chosen people of their god, Yahweh, destined for eventual world dominance. The signal for this time was to be the coming of the Messiah, a descendant of King David, who had ruled a united kingdom for a short period around 1000 BC. The Romans under Pompey had ‘pacified’ Judaea in 63 BC, Augustus had made it a province of the Empire in 6 AD (an act which may be the ‘census’ referred to in the gospels), but unrest continued for the next 60 years, with sporadic demonstrations in Jerusalem and guerrilla warfare in outlying districts. In 66 AD a major revolt broke out which ended with the complete destruction of Jerusalem and its people: Rome gave the Jews the Carthage treatment. Many of the guerrillas were based in the province of Galilee, a mountainous area north of Samaria, itself north of Judea. These mountaineers were like the Highlanders of Scotland, or the Afghans, independent, warlike, less affected by the Roman presence than the city dwellers of Caesarea or Jerusalem. They spoke Aramaic with a strong regional accent.

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Jeshua, like Sokrates, left no written account of his teachings. Like Sokrates again, he may have been prompted to spread his message by the continued unrest, dissatisfaction, anger and resentment his countrymen felt, in Jeshua’s case, at their subjection to the Roman power. Jeshua is a figure in several accounts written about him after his death, belief testimonies belonging to cults which had sprung up to honour what had come to be believed was his sacrifice for the salvation of mankind. It is certain this was not a belief of Jeshua himself, who like all Jews, then and now, would have thought the concept sacrilegious. There are minor inconsistencies in the surviving accounts which form the four canonical gospels, which were written, most agree, between 50 and 120 years after the death of Jeshua and reflect cultic practices in various centres of the Graeco Roman world. These inconsistencies may indicate four stages in Jeshua’s development. They may equally indicate the local bias and preoccupation of each cultic centre where a gospel was used in the cult. Although some have suggested it, it seems less likely these inconsistencies may reflect diverse sources for an imaginative biography of a cultic hero about whom only a death narrative was known.

Jeshua is portrayed as a typical rabbi on many occasions, gathering listeners in the synagogue or other public place as he discourses on the meaning of scripture. It would seem uncommon for a Galilean to be a rabbi teaching in the Temple; perhaps he was a ‘back to basics’ revivalist urging traditional values and resisting Greek sophistry. Many of the sayings of Jeshua are in fact quotations from the scriptures. This would place Jeshua firmly in the Pharisaic tradition, which was a recent development of Judaism placing emphasis on the scriptures rather than on sacrifice. Up to that time Judaism had been a religion of sacrifice, with continuous offerings being made on the Temple altars to Yahweh. Jews for many miles around must have been familiar for years with the column of black smoke rising from the holy city of Jerusalem as the people continually gave worship to Yahweh. It would have been an impressive sign of their unity as a chosen people. The group most associated with the ritual of sacrifice, the Saducees, had recently become too aligned with the Roman forces as they pursued a policy of appeasement so as to continue the vital ritual of sacrifice, and the Pharisees, with their emphasis on traditional scriptures explained through stories and everyday references, had become very popular figures. It was impossible not to take sides: either you were for Roman rule (stability, continued sacrifice) or against it (Zion, the Kingdom ruled by the Messiah).

There is another account of Jeshua in the gospels, one who may have belonged to the guerrilla movement based in Galilee, that of the Zealots. These were what we would call terrorists, using assassination as a deterrent, in the belief this would eventually drive the Romans from the area. Several of Jeshua’s followers, including Judas, are thought to be Zealots, the criminal Barabbas (a nonsense name meaning Son of Father, but which could mean son of my father in heaven, god, ie a son of god or holy man or prophet, a term used for those who urged the people to repentance) who was freed in Jeshua’s stead by Pilate was a Zealot. The house prepared for Jeshua when he came to Jerusalem riding on an ass may have been that of a Zealot. The Last Supper can be interpreted as a union feast as the group prepared for the coup they thought would unseat the Roman forces. Here might belong the stories of the angry Jeshua, driving the money changers from the Temple and disrupting the sacrifices, or blasting the fig tree.

Early in his career as a teacher and healer, Jeshua seems to have fallen under the influence of John the Baptist. There is a famous passage in the gospels where he is initiated into this sect of Judaism, baptised by John in the river Jordan. Nothing is known of John and his teachings, but it is likely he was preaching the end of days, a final judgment when the world would end and the faithful and pure be admitted to heaven. The rite of baptism was a purification rite, a visible sign of purity attained through repentance of sin. John was a charismatic preacher in the mould of the earlier prophets, a recognisable figure to all Jews, and his message a response to the unsettled and volatile state of affairs in Judaea at the time of his ministry. John attracted thousands to his mission. Accounts in the gospels showing Jeshua baptising, or giving the ritual formula “thy faith has made thee whole” accompanied by a dipping in water or even the anointment with spit when there was no water, show Jeshua to have continued as a baptist for some time, and to have encouraged his followers to do likewise. John eventually attracted so many followers that King Herod was alarmed about Roman intervention, and had him killed. A similar fate was to befall Jeshua.

A breakaway sect called the Essenes lived in monastic communities around the Dead Sea, dedicated to a life of ritual purity (including baptism) and following a revisionist form of Judaism, with a selection from the Jewish scriptures among other teachings. They revered a Teacher of Righteousness who may have founded the sect, about 100 BC. Quotations from this Teacher of Righteousness survive among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and are very similar to many of the teachings of Jeshua, who may have been quoting them when recorded in the gospels. This has prompted many to speculate if Jeshua was for a time a resident in an Essene community, perhaps in one of the periods where he is said to have spent 40 days and 40 nights (a phrase meaning a long period of time) in the desert.

Jeshua also seems to have evolved his own message, which included many concepts from Essenes, Baptists and Pharisees. This could have included the coming of the end of days, and the need to be ready, pure in heart. A striking phrase which removed his teaching from any sect or prevalent teaching of the time is “the kingdom of god is within you”. This could be interpreted as a message to attain mystical union with god by discipline and ritual purity, much as a yogi in Hinduism does. As god is eternal, salvation is always present. The rite of resurrection may have been part of this teaching, a ritual entombing and then a resurrection to eternal life, a kind of passion play of which the story of Lazarus might have belonged. The parables of Jeshua, though a form used by the Pharisees in their teaching, contain a distinctive blend of ethical teaching with paradox, exaggeration and use of the absurd. With injunctions such as “love your enemies”, Jeshua was challenging and stimulating his followers to abandon their preconceptions, to think for themselves, to comprehend basic realities underneath social norms. It was the method of Sokrates, of the Zen master. No one was listening then; no one has listened since. So much easier to hate your enemies, the message of fundamentalism.

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Some time about 30-40 AD, after the Zealot movement had been suppressed but before the Revolt of 66 AD, Jeshua was indicted by the Sadducee High Priest, tried by the Roman courts and executed as a seditious troublemaker, one of many similar figures who were executed by the Romans at that unsettled time. The recorded charges are peculiar. Jeshua is said to be committing blasphemy by preaching repentance and claiming to be a son of god, something all the prophets did and a part of Judaic tradition. The Pharisees, expounders of scripture, are said to object to practices of Jeshua they claimed were contrary to prevalent ritual. This is more likely an objection that the Saducees could have made. But none of Jeshua’s actions is contrary to established ritual. Jeshua was a devout, observant Jew according to all the gospel stories. The existing accounts of the trial are very peculiar. They contradict all known Roman legal procedures in Judaea. The proceedings seem to have been run by a mob, who first tell the High Priest what to do, then threaten the King and the Prefect. These men all had soldiers serving them, and would have beaten, arrested or killed any members of a mob attempting such an unruly action. The reason for this confusion is not far to seek. When the gospels were written, Jerusalem was a big hole in the ground. No records of any kind survived. Any follower of Jeshua who may have attended his trial would have been killed in the sack of Jerusalem. The gospel writers would have had to use their imagination. As they were writing a text to accompany a religious ritual, not writing a history, this presented no problem. They already knew what Jeshua’s religious role was, and recreated it, accompanied with what scraps of knowledge they did have, fleshed out with quotations from the Jewish scriptures. The story made clear that Jeshua died to fulfill scripture, not as a criminal.

A summary makes clear how ahistorical the gospels’ accounts are. Jeshua teaches according to the Law of Judaism, in the sayings and practices recorded; he is accused of trying to overthrow the Roman occupying forces as the expected Messiah, though no evidence is given; he is executed by Roman forces acting under pressure from the Jewish people who are said to abhor the very idea of the Messiah; he comes again to establish a church of salvation for believers.

A timeline might explain some of these anomalies.
6 AD – 35 AD
• political unrest in Judaea: the Messiah expected to expel the Romans
• revisions within Judaism: Essenes, Pharisees, Baptists, Jeshua
35 AD
• arrest of those claiming to be the Messiah: Barabbas, Jeshua, others
• attack of Saducees, and the Tetrarch, on prominent Pharisees, the Baptist and others to demonstrate loyalty to Rome and stop unrest
• trial and execution of Jeshua for claiming to be the Messiah
36 AD – 70 AD
• further unrest culminating in the Revolt, and then destruction of temple and city of Jerusalem, and so of Judaism, including followers of Jeshua
• synthesis of revisionist Judaism with Greek mystery cults by Paul
• spread of Christianity as successor to destroyed Judaism
70 AD – 150 AD
• writing of the gospels
• reforming of Judaism as a religion of the book
• elimination of Christian heresy
150 AD – 400 AD
• gradual rise of church at Rome to primacy
• creation of Christian theology, administration and political role of church

In 100 AD, when the gospels were being written, there was no Judaism. The temple, visible centre of Judaism, was gone. All there was left was centres of Judaism in Syria and Alexandria, speaking a different language and with variant copies of the scriptures. This inspired a great revival of Judaism eventually, but the gospel writers didn’t know it.

They had a world saviour at the centre of a new religion, but they didn’t fully realise that either. This is why there are inconsistencies in the gospel accounts. The tradition about Jeshua includes a lot of information about his teachings and deeds. Most of this is revisionist Judaism of his day. Similar accounts survive of Jeshua’s contemporary Hillel, and of the Teacher of Righteousness in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Accounts such as these might form the document ‘Q’, the common source used by Matthew and Luke, which might have been Jewish, not Christian in origin. As these accounts don’t really accord with Jeshua’s role as world saviour, promulgated by Paul (the reason why Paul himself doesn’t mention them), their survival is a clear indication they were part of an authentic tradition, ie, that Jeshua really was a revisionist Jew, one of many of his time. The Jeshua stories also make it clear Jeshua was not a Messiah claimant. That was a political claim, but the Jeshua stories are ethical, not political. Specifically, the Jeshua stories are part of the history of Judaism. The story of Christ the world saviour begins with Paul, the start of the history of Christianity. The gospels represent an attempt to combine both traditions. The new doctrine needed credibility, and the texts of Judaism, as they had survived in the Greek world, provided this credibility, as they were interpreted as foretelling the coming of the world saviour. The Christ of Paul was merged with the Jewish figure of the Messiah. As the gospels were written at the time when there was no existent Judaism, there were no Jews to object, as Peter for instance had earlier objected to the first teachings of Paul.

Did the gospel writers portray the evolution of the beliefs of one of the most enlightened men who has ever lived? Or did they reflect the local preoccupations of their separate communities in the days before the churches became united in one church? Or did they create the story of Jeshua to honour the god who had come among men to bring eternal life? All we can say for sure was that a prevalent Greek religious belief, seen in the worship of Adonis or Orpheos, had been added to the teaching of a revered Jewish rabbi, and that the original Jewish followers of Jeshua, who would have thought this synthesis sacrilegious, had been destroyed in the sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD, leaving the new synthetic cult to spread like wildfire through the Graeco Roman world.

Jeshua may have taught man’s self responsibility for salvation. Sokrates may have taught man’s need to control his passions and find moderation. Both put healing back in the hands of the individual. Both were killed.

Francesco of Assisi
‘Francesco’ di Bernadone (Francesco was a nickname) was 24 years old in 1204 AD, when he had a visionary experience that transformed his life and prompted his abandonment of the life of a wealthy merchant. He had earlier served as a professional soldier, been captured and spent time in prison, and suffered several serious illnesses, perhaps as a consequence of his imprisonment. He seems to have had a difficult relationship with his father, and may earlier have experienced conflict and guilt growing up as the child of very different parents, a worldly and rich father, and a devout mother who was French. Four years later, aged 28, Francesco’s life was transformed again by hearing a sermon on a passage in the gospel of Matthew telling of the immanence of the kingdom of god and exhorting the followers of Jeshua to preach to all, taking no care for themselves, living in absolute poverty without even a bag to carry supplies or sandals for their feet.

An attempt to carry out these precepts was made about the time of Francesco’s birth by the followers of Peter Waldo but without Church authorisation. The Waldensians were formally declared heretics in 1184 and persecuted by the Church. The Church had spent many centuries ensuring uniformity of doctrine, and valued orthodoxy extremely highly. The bible was early translated into Latin, and the Church ruled it could only be interpreted by priests. Charismatic preachers had divided the church in its first few centuries as Gnostic speculation was rife in the Greek world, and they were to fragment the church eventually at the time of the Reformation. In Francesco’s period the church maintained full control. Two hundred years after Francesco’s time the Church was to show its repressive power against personal communion with god by burning Joan of Arc at the stake.

So Francisco was risking condemnation as a heretic when he went around the towns of Umbria preaching his vision of an immanent god. He, or some of his followers, were realistic enough to approach the Pope with a request Francisco be allowed to form an order of friars. This brought him under the aegis of the Church in 1210 and prevented him from being burnt at the stake.

Two things distinguish Francesco from other devout figures of his time. His literal, totally committed, terrifyingly simple, application of Jeshua’s command to poverty. He fully understood Jeshua’s reason for the command: the urgency of seeking salvation. And secondly his realisation that everything he could comprehend around him was part of god’s creation, and so part of god, and that he and the whole creation was united in god. He expressed this in his famous canticle, composed in 1225, the year before Francesco died at the age of 45.

…Praise be to you, my god, and all your creation,
Especially to my holy brother sun,
Who creates the day, and brings brightness;
And beautiful is he and radiant with splendour great,
A sign of your own splendour and glory.

Praised be my god, for sister moon and for the stars,
In heaven you have formed them clear and precious and fair.

Praised be my god for brother wind
And for the air and clouds and fair and every kind of weather,
Through which you give to your creatures nourishment.

Praised be my god for sister water,
So greatly helpful and humble and precious and pure.

Praised be my god for brother fire,
By which you make light the dark,
And fair is he and gay and mighty and strong.

Praised be my god for our mother earth,
Which sustains and keeps us
And brings forth diverse fruits with grass and flowers bright.

Praise ye and bless ye my god, and give him thanks,
And be subject unto him with great humility…

Contrary to the commands of the church Francesco wrote widely circulated hymns, such as the canticle quoted above, in his native Umbrian dialect, and they constitute some of the earliest examples of Italian literature.

There were several reasons why Francesco succeeded in living his unorthodox life of poverty, preaching to the people without permission of the church and independent at first of church control. Firstly he was widely recognised by the common people, then by churchmen, as a saint. Secondly, unlike the peasant Joan of Arc, his family were wealthy members of the middle class and had influential friends. Thirdly, very early in his career as a friar he won a very powerful friend, Cardinal Ugolino of Segni (the future Pope Gregory IX).

The crusades had sent belligerent barons to kill Christians and Muslims in Syria, and the Albigenses or Cathars were only beginning to formulate their heretical beliefs. In the lifetime of Francesco it was possible for the church to be flexible and absorb movements such as Francesco’s into the church as part of a reform movement.

But even in Francesco’s lifetime, due partly to the very popularity of the order of friars Francesco founded, there emerged a movement, organisational in nature, which bureaucratised and negated the original impulse to live a life of poverty based on the example of Jeshua. The Little Brothers of Francesco eventually grew to become, like the Church itself, a large organisation, complex in structure, owning much property, formulating intricate rules, the very opposite in fact of what Francesco wanted. There is quite a polarity between the joyful saint who had found poverty and sang as he travelled the roads of Umbria telling of the unity of god’s creation, and the tortured friar receiving the stigmata. The first is almost unique in human history, but there are many parallels to the second figure in Christian tradition. Francesco was canonised very soon after his death, but his ideas were discarded even before. The church was taking no chances.

The example of Francesco has been with us ever since, showing a simple, non-threatening way that anyone can utilise to transform their life.

Galileo the Pisan
In 1616 Galileo, who was one of the most famous and admired men of his time for his achievements as both a teacher and mathematician, came into conflict with the Inquisition over the theory of Copernicus, that the earth revolved around the sun, this explaining, Galileo thought, the motion of stars and planets more accurately than other systems. The Church held that the bible categorically stated the sun moved around the earth, and therefore any statement to the contrary was heresy. The bible was after all the word of god. What was the best guide for humanity, the fallible senses, or the inspired word of god? Galileo believed, and put into practice, the idea that observation of phenomena and study of the results could enable a skilled man to arrive at general principles explaining how the material world worked, and that these findings could be tested by other experimenters in order to evolve more exact results. He was one of the first thinkers we know of to state the general method and theory of all scientific procedure.

The Church has had a bad press for taking the position they did, but their position was understandable. At various times in the past the church had adopted an allegorical interpretation of scripture enabling churchmen to reconcile their own experiences and observations with those made in the very different world of ancient Judaism. The Church had given Thomas Acquinas its blessings for his monumental reconciliation of Christianity with the works of ‘the philosopher’ Aristotle. Its viewpoint, in the end, was based on the fallibility of mankind, symbolised by the story of Adam and Eve. Who can say confidently that mankind is not fallible? Politically the church looked to the past, to the feudal system that had survived and built stability in a world devastated by the collapse of the Roman Empire. Had Galileo given lip service to the church’s position, and expounded his ideas as theoretical possibilities, he would have been left undisturbed. But things were about to change. The vehemence of their viewpoint on the part of both Galileo and the Church resulted in extreme measures being used against those who thought otherwise than the Church taught. Giordano Bruno had died at the stake in 1600, burnt to death by the Inquisition, for holding opinions we would regard as those of a free thinker. The censure of Galileo, though expressed in the terms that neither he nor anyone else had adequately proved the heliocentric theory therefore it could not be maintained against holy scripture, was no idle threat. Galileo was in danger of suffering torture and an agonising death.

There are two apocryphal stories about Galileo, which express the essence of what happened to him, no matter how imaginary they may be. In the first, Galileo’s supporter at the Papal court, Cardinal Bellarmine, reproves Galileo for advocating the forbidden system of Copernicus. Galileo shows the Cardinal the telescope he has invented and improved, and invites him to look at the stars in their orbit so he can see for himself that they do not all orbit the earth. The Cardinal places his hand on a copy of the bible, and tells Galileo, “I have no need to look”. In the second story, Galileo has gone through a devastating cross examination by the lawyers of the Inquisition, threatened with torture, all his writings banned, all his freedom curtailed, with a horrific death hanging over his head, and forced to recant his views. These are the result of exact observation, and intricate and sophisticated mathematical analysis, yet Galileo must swear they are false. He mutters under his breath (of the earth’s motion) “But yet, it moves!”

Here is a classic clash of extremes. Galileo was a superstar of his day, someone whose attainments and achievements outshone others, and he was arrogant in the way he expressed himself. He antagonised his friend Pope Urban VIII, and the Jesuits as well, by ill considered satire of beliefs he thought foolish. The Church knew well what Galileo’s influence was on other learned men throughout Europe, and to curb him, and contain heresy, took a repressive, authoritarian stand. The result was to see science become antagonistic to religion, at least in the popular view, an opposition only recently dying out. Of course there is nothing damaging to religion in science, nor to science in religion. Atheists have entered the church as a political career since the time it was founded; many scientists are extremely devout, and find their work confirms their faith, not erodes it.

Galileo created a new faith, one that supplanted belief in original sin, a belief designed to inculcate humility but which in fact created a debilitating fear. He discovered that the data supplied by the human senses, when subjected to rigorous mathematical analysis, gave unsuspected insights into the workings of the natural world in which we live. It was certainly not faith that caused churchmen to burn heretics to death; it was certainly not atheism that prompted scientists to examine the world and discover its mechanisms.

Four subversive ideas:
1. know yourself; be honest; act moderately. Sokrates discovers that extremists are the same, and create the same noxious results, no matter what political creed they subscribe to, and teaches the middle way.
2. be yourself; see god, the world, and your place within. Jeshua discovers that god is within you, paradise is a way of seeing, and salvation is happening now, not some time in the future.
3. trust yourself; follow your beliefs, give the love you have. Francesco puts into practice the way of Jeshua despite all the objections of ‘common sense’ and persuades others to follow him through the joy he expresses.
4. have confidence in yourself; reason, sense, evaluate. Galileo discovers that the senses, when moderated with reason, bring discoveries that endlessly expand the world we live in.

Four men who taught these ideas, and how we treated them: subversives. Ideas that are still hard to accept, that we still can’t contain in any system we have devised.

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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