March 08, 2008


Whenever you advise a ruler in the way of Tao,
Counsel him not to use force to conquer the universe.
For this would only cause resistance.
Thorn bushes spring up wherever the army has passed.
Lean years follow in the wake of a great war.
Just do what needs to be done.
Never take advantage of power.

Achieve results,
But never glory in them.
Achieve results,
But never boast.
Achieve results,
But never be proud.Achieve results,
Because this is the natural way.
Achieve results,
But not through violence.

Force is followed by loss of strength.
This is not the way of Tao.
That which goes against the Tao comes to an early end.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Ch. 30

March 07, 2008


You may have heard the saying "Everybody wants to go to Heaven but nobody wants to die." In Dante's Divine Comedy, that wasn't the case, although the pilgrim had to literally go through hell to do it.

Dante's trip to Heaven is the topic for this last post in a two week series on the Comedy aimed at encouraging you, Gentle Reader, to give it a try. If this is your first visit, please click on the earlier posts. You will also find links and comments about current events.

After being purified of his sins in Purgatory (see yesterday), the beloved Beatrice guides Dante on a tour of Heaven, with plenty of help from other blessed souls, including St. Bernard.

Holy light show, Batman! The souls of the blessed just love dazzling Dante as he ascends through several spheres of Heaven, which correspond to what was known about astronomy. As with hell and Purgatory, there are different levels in Heaven, according to the capacity of the souls. Everybody is blissed out, but some get better seats.

The spheres Dante and Beatrice ascend include the moon (where people who broke their vows abide), Mercury (for those who desired fame), Venus (people motivated by love), the Sun (the wise), Mars (those who fought for the faith), and so on. He has many encounters with various saints, kings, and famous people, including Cacciaguida, his great-great grandfather.

Cacciaguida gives Dante good advice for bearing up to the sorrows to come. He is told that he will have to live in exile and know what it's like "to climb another's stair" and "how salty is the bread of strangers." Cacciaguida advises him not to be consumed with the typical exile's bitterness and scheming to return. Neither should he give way to the excessive partisanship that devastated Italy, but instead become "a party of yourself" and carry out his mission of writing of what he has experienced.

As was the case with Inferno and Purgatory, Dante's Heaven has interesting characteristics. On the one hand, it seems to go up and up through successive and widening spheres. However, this is just an illusion to make it more comprehensible to the pilgrim. In reality, Heaven is like an atom with God at the very center and with all the souls of the saved surrounding and gazing in awe and wonder at the beatific vision.

At the very end, after passing a quiz by some apostles, Dante is given a chance to look at God, which is indescribable. Here are some lines from Longfellow's translation:

Thenceforward, what I saw,
Was not for words to speak, nor memory's self
To stand against such outrage on her skill.
As one, who from a dream awaken'd, straight,
All he hath seen forgets; yet still retains
Impression of the feeling in his dream;
E'en such am I: for all the vision dies,
As 't were, away; and yet the sense of sweet,
That sprang from it, still trickles in my heart.

I love the last line: a wheel in perfect balance turning, I felt my will and my desire impelled by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Wouldn't it be nice to wind up like that at the end of the road?

THE MIDDLE CLASS SQUEEZE. Here's an interesting item from the Campaign for America's Future about the growing economic crisis many families are experiencing. And here's Paul Krugman's latest column on the possible role of the economy in the coming election.

GREEN JOBS are a major goal for unions.

AND THE HORSE THEY RODE IN ON. Here's an interesting book review on proto Indo-European culture, critters and languages.

WEST VIRGINIA VIEWS. In this op-ed, Ted Boettner and Renate Pore make the case for public investments in health, education and infrastructure. And in this one, state AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Larry Matheney discusses the Worker Freedom Bill, which threw organized business in WV into a hissy fit.

URGENT INDONESIAN HOBBIT UPDATE. Remember those fossilized little guys they found over there? They may have been humans with a severe iodine deficiency.

I GOT ALL EXCITED ABOUT THIS ONE. The headline from this Science Daily item mentioned fossils of giant bats, but the biggest only weighed half a pound. I'm sure that's very respectable for bats and proud we are of all of them, as Maude Lebowski would say. But still it was kind of a letdown. I was hoping for maybe a 20 foot wingspan and all I got was a half-pounder...


March 06, 2008


We're heading down the home stretch of Goat Rope's Fun With Dante series. That's been the main item on the menu this week and last, although there are also daily doses of links and comments about current events. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier entries.

After Dante and Virgil have gone through hell (literally), they come up on the other side of the world at an island which is the site of Purgatory, a place where souls destined for salvation atone for sins before they rise to Heaven.

Here's a little background on the idea of Purgatory for the catholically impaired. Medieval theologians wrestled with the problem of what happens to people who died in good standing with the church but still had unabsolved sins and the idea of Purgatory, a sort of cleansing place for the soul, provided a neat solution.

Those who die "in friendship with God," i.e. free from mortal sin, but who were still tainted with venial sins were believed to undergo a temporary period of purgation or cleansing that was generally imagined to involve suffering. It was also widely believed that prayers and masses offered by the living as well as the intercession of the saints would speed the passage of the soul through Purgatory.

This is the site of the second volume of the Divine Comedy. Purgatory is a seven storey mountain (hence the title of Thomas Merton's autobiography) where the taint of the seven deadly sins are removed. There are some striking things about Dante's Purgatory:

*First, the drill sergeant in charge is the Roman Cato the Younger, who was a pagan opponent of Caesar who committed suicide, i.e. not what you would expect to find. Purgatory and Heaven have other surprises too, which are probably meant to remind us that while the divine Mind isn't irrational, it is beyond our ability to comprehend.

*Second, some people get a major time-out before climbing the mountain. These are those who delayed repentance or "made God wait."

*Third, unlike in hell, people are nice to each other here.

*Fourth, Purgatory is all about time. Souls are told "Think that this day will never dawn again."

*Fifth, unlike many mountains, Purgatory gets easier the farther you go. Dante is told in Canto IV,

This mount is such, that ever
At the beginning down below 'tis tiresome,
And aye the more one climbs, the less it hurts.90

Therefore, when it shall seem so pleasant to thee,
That going up shall be to thee as easy
As going down the current in a boat,

Then at this pathway's ending thou wilt be;
There to repose thy panting breath expect;
No more I answer; and this I know for true.

Still, it's no cakewalk. As in hell, the punishment fits the crime. The sin of pride, by which we lift ourselves too high, is purged by carrying heaving stones and facing the ground. Dante, who goes through it in the flesh, at one point has to go through a fire so hot that he says he would have gladly thrown himself into molten glass to cool off.

At the beginning of his ascent, Dante receives seven P's (from peccatum, the Latin word for sin) on his forehead. These are removed as he purges the sin in question. It is at this point that Dante comes to his own and stops relying on Virgil. Virgil for his part as a pagan is out of his league now.

As Dante matures spiritually, Virgil declares his independence by saying "I crown and mitre you lord of yourself." Virgil becomes more silent and eventually disappears at the upper level. This means that reason and human effort can only take you so far and divine grace is needed to ascent closer to God.

At the summit, when his sins are cleansed, he is told he can do whatever he wishes since his will is now aligned with God's. He reunites with Beatrice, whose prayers made his journey possible. Before beginning the journey to Heaven, he drinks from two river: Lethe, the river of forgetfulness so that he will no longer remember his sins and bad tendencies, and Eunoe (from the Greek for "good mind.")

Next stop: Heaven.

MORE ON THE COST OF THE IRAQ WAR: It's worse than we thought.

PRISON NATION. Here's an item on the growing costs of our prison-industrial complex.

TORTURE. It's more common than we'd like to think. Here's more than you wanted to know from Mother Jones.

WEST VIRGINIA ITEMS OF INTEREST. A report by the WV Center on Budget and Policy about the impact of proposed state corporate tax cuts made USA Today yesterday.

Here's the latest on the WV Supreme Court mess, the Megan Williams torture case, and the surprising success (so far) of a bill that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. The bill passed the state Senate, the House Judiciary Committee and now moves to the full house.


March 05, 2008


The theme at Goat Rope this week and last is Dante's Divine Comedy. El Cabrero's hope is to encourage you, Gentle Reader, to give it a try. It's well worth it. You will also find links and comments about current events. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

Yesterday's post mentioned some points of interest in his Inferno. Here are a few more:

*First, here's what the "Welcome to Hell" sign says in Canto III:

THROUGH me the way is to the city dolent;
Through me the way is to eternal dole;
Through me the way among the people lost.

Justice incited my sublime Creator;
Created me divine Omnipotence,
The highest Wisdom and the primal Love.

Before me there were no created things,
Only eterne, and I eternal last.
All hope abandon, ye who enter in !

(That was from Longfellow's translation.)

*Second, some of the damned aren't even cool enough to make it into hell. They included humans and angels who remained neutral in a time of grave crisis and are driven like dust in the proverbial wind and tormented by gadflies and wasps. Of these, Virgil tells Dante,

This miserable measure the wretched souls maintain of those who lived without infamy and without praise. Mingled are they with that caitiff choir of the angels, who were not rebels, nor were faithful to God, but were for themselves. The heavens chased them out in order to be not less beautiful, nor doth the depth of Hell receive them, because the damned would have some glory from them....mercy and justice disdain them. Let us not speak of them, but do thou look and pass on.

*Third, an interesting feature of the Inferno has to do with what the damned know and don't know. In general, they have some knowledge of the past and future--it is in Inferno that Dante the pilgrim learns that he is destined to be exiled--but they have no knowledge of the present. They frequently ask Dante about current events. But when the Last Judgment comes, there will be no future and they will know only their present misery. That'll be a downer.

*Fourth, the worst part of hell, which is reserved for those who betray, isn't hot: it's very cold. At the very bottom is Satan, who has three mouths in a grotesque parody of the Trinity. In each mouth, he chomps on a different traitor: Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus; and Cassius and Brutus, who betrayed Caesar.

*Finally, when you go so far down, the only way out is up. Dante knew the world was round and thus Satan is placed where he landed when cast out of Heaven. Dante and Virgil crawl down past the devil and wind up on the far side of the world, at an island in the south seas where Purgatory is. Purgatory is where souls that will be saved undergo the spiritual equivalent of a root canal to get in shape for Heaven.

About which more tomorrow.

THE COST OF THE IRAQ WAR is the subject of this sobering discussion of the UK Guardian with economist Joseph Stiglitz.

BUSH AND THE ECONOMY. In the spirit of fair play, President Bush doesn't deserve all the blame for the tanking of the economy--but he should get his fair share. Here's Dean Baker on the subject.

SOCIAL SECURITY PRIVATIZATION REDUX. Candidate John McCain supports President Bush's failed effort to privatize Social Security, according to the Wall Street Journal.

PROPOSED CORPORATE TAX CUTS under consideration in the legislature could cost over $500 million over the next several years. This is money that would otherwise go to education at all levels, social services, etc.

MORE ON MISANTHROPY. Marshall's decision to accept big bucks from BB&T to teach the ideology of Ayn Rand has generated some ink in and out of WV. This is from AP, this is from the student paper The Parthenon, and this is from Inside Higher Education.

END OF AN ERA. Here's an item from Slate on the demise of William F. Buckley and (maybe) his brand of conservatism.

NOT A DINOSAUR BUT INTERESTING ANYWAY. Scientists have found the remains of an ancient one-ounce primate in Mississippi. Dating from around 56 million years ago, it's the earliest primate found in Europe or America.

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: why don't they make songs like "Tweeter and the Monkey Man" anymore?


March 04, 2008


The theme at Goat Rope this week and last is Dante's Divine Comedy, one of literature's all time greatest creations. You'll also find links and comments about current events. El Cabrero's goal, Gentle Reader, is to encourage you to give Dante a whirl whether for the first or fiftieth time.
For more background on Dante, please click on the earlier entries.

To briefly recap, Dante is so far gone that his only hope for salvation is to take the grand tour of the afterlife, which was brought about by the intercession of souls in Heaven. His guide for most of the story is the ancient Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid.

Basically, hell is shaped like a funnel with the spout pointed down. It's bigger at the top and gets worse as you go to the bottom. There are nine circles, although some circles have more circles within them. The kind of punishment a condemned soul gets in hell is designed to fit the sin. To use just two examples, fortunetellers have their heads on backwards and people driven by lustful passions are blown around in a storm, just as they metaphorically were in life. You kind of become what you invest in.

The only difference, however, between souls that are saved and those that aren't is that the latter did not repent. People in Heaven did just as much bad stuff as those in hell but changed course. Here's a line from Heaven explaining that:

When condemnation of the sin bursts forth from the sinner's lips, here in our courts, the stone is turned back against the blade.

Dante's classification of sins and punishments in hell is probably different than ours would be. Most people today would probably place violent people in the bottom. He uses a different schema, based on an ancient version of psychology. Sins of intemperance, such as lust or gluttony, are not as bad for him as sins of violence. Sins of violence are not as bad as sins of fraud and deceit.

I think this goes back to the Greek idea that we had a three-part soul. The lowest level was associated with the appetites, the middle was concerned with honor and spirit, and the highest was the rational. The perversion of our highest self was considered more serious than lack of self control or lashing out in anger.

One more item for today: Dante's hell has scars. It was wrecked at the time between the death of Christ and his resurrection when, as the Apostle's Creed asserts, "he descended into hell." In medieval times, this was believed to mean that he rescued the souls of the faithful from the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament who were held there. He pretty much trashed the place.

More on hell tomorrow...

ON A RELATED SUBJECT, many Iraqi refugees have given up the hope of returning to any kind of decent life, according to this report.

RESTORING THE RIGHT TO ORGANIZE could get us back to an economy with shared prosperity, economist Dean Baker argues here.

BEING HAPPIER is easier when we don't act like selfish jerks, according to this Washington Post article.


HYENAS are smarter than we thought.


March 03, 2008


If you've ever had one of those moments in life where you realized you're not where you wanted to be and don't know how you got there, you will be able to relate to Dante's Divine Comedy, which is the theme at Goat Rope these days. If this is your fist visit, please click on last week's entries. You'll also find links and comments about current events.

Here's the opening line:

In the middle of our life's journey, I awoke to find myself in a dark wood, having lost the true path.

Roger that. I've been there quite a few times.

Here's a ridiculously brief summary of all three volumes (there will be more to come this week).

Dante in the dark wood is threatened by three wild beasts, which probably symbolize his own sinful tendencies. He meets a stranger who offers to guide him to a better place. The guide is none other than Virgil, ancient Roman author of the Aeneid and the most venerated poet in the late classic and medieval periods. All this has come about by the intercession of three people in Heaven, the Virgin Mary, Saint Lucia (aka "holy light") and Beatrice, a woman that Dante adored from afar.

The reason for all this special attention is that Dante's soul is so far gone this is his only chance for salvation. And he needs a boost. He will find out on his journey that he is destined for a life of exile from his beloved city of Florence.

Virgil takes Dante on a tour of hell. At first, Dante is totally dependent on him, although he begins to mature as the journey continues. Virgil, by the way, as a pagan, didn't make it to Heaven but resides in Limbo on the outskirts of Hell with other good pagans who never had the chance to hear the Gospel. There's no punishment there, other than "desire without hope of attainment"--i.e. wanting to see God but not being able to.

After going all the way through hell, they come up on the far side of the world at the seven storey mountain of Purgatory. End of Inferno.

Purgatory is a place where people who are going to be saved but still have sins to atone for work off their time. It's pretty bad, but you know you're getting out. Unlike Hell, people are nice to each other here. At a certain point, Virgil goes as far as he can and disappears and Dante has other guides. He drinks from two rivers to purify his mind and is ready to see the vision of Heaven. End of Purgatorio.

Heaven from one point of view is like what was known of astronomy. There were different levels (the moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, etc.) according to the capacity of the saved soul to see God. But it's all good. Dante gets to talk to all kinds of saints and to his great great grandfather who tells him he's going to have a rough life of exile and gives him some good advice.

After going to the top and passing a quiz administered by the Apostles, he gets a brief vision of God. It kind of ends suddenly there. Presumably Dante goes back to his life and faces the trouble in store for him, but the grace he has gained has given him both a way to deal with it and a mission in life: to tell of what he saw in The Divine Comedy. End of Paradiso.

That's a really crude overlook, so check back this week for some more details.

CIVIC ENGAGEMENT. Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam of social capital and Bowling Alone fame sees hope in the social engagement of younger Americans.

GAME ON for the next health care debate.

MIDDLE CLASS SQUEEZE. Here's a good source with lots of links on the declining state of the economy for most Americans under Bush misrule.

AWESOME OP-ED from today's Sunday Gazette-Mail is here.
It's about the need for WV Supreme Court justice Brent Benjamin to recuse himself from cases involving Massey Energy. Benjamin was elected due to Massey CEO Don Blankenship's decision to spend $3 million of his own money to defeat his opponent. This mini-drama served as the inspiration for John Grisham's latest novel, The Appeal. Both authors are attorneys who have held posts of responsibility regarding legal ethics.

URGENT DINOSAUR UPDATE here. This one is a 50 foot long sea predator.