Humanist Society: Meeting of Great Minds
By Robert Bernstein
Aristotle, Sun Yat-Sen, Machiavelli and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were featured guests at the September Humanist Society meeting!
How is that?
This was a re-enactment of a re-enactment created by TV host Steve Allen in the 1970s. This episode brought together:
- Aristotle (William York Hyde) - Philosopher
- Dr Sun Yat-sen (Ed Lee) - Chinese Leader
- Machiavelli (Paul Nay) - Author of The Prince
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Meredith McMinn) - Great Poet
- Host Steve Allen (Tom Mates) - TV Star
Sun Yat-sen is a rare revolutionary hero of both the Communist Chinese and the anti-Communist Chinese. He credits Christian missionaries for converting him.
In 1900 Sun thought the Chinese Revolution would take 30 years. The Russians thought theirs would take at least 100. In fact they took just 11 and 17.
Sun emphasized it takes work and commitment.
China had been dominated by invading Manchu emperors and European occupiers. And by wicked traditions that allowed parents to sell their children into slavery and prostitution.
Ironically, the Europeans brought Western ideas of science, philosophy and political thinking that were the seeds of revolution. Revolution was happening in Russia, Turkey and Mexico at the same time.
Machiavelli joined Sun on stage to discuss political strategy.
Sun found Machiavelli's cynicism "depressing". And Machiavelli thought Sun's Utopian idealism led to his loss of power and failure to fulfill his ideals.
That heated debate was broken by the arrival of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but it would later continue.
Elizabeth told of her personal life in a somewhat detached manner. She explained that she lived much of her life as an invalid. The 11 children were raised by nursemaids and governesses.
When her mother died her father forbid the children to cry. He was extremely controlling of them and became more so.
Her first illness came from falling from a pony at age 15. She felt it was God's punishment for disobeying her father. Sun said the Creator is not so petty and spiteful.
She learned to read at age three and wrote her first poem at age six. Her father rewarded her with money which Sun found strange. But she said it actually encouraged her.
She loved books and her father had a vast library. She was restricted to read books on only one side of the library, but that included Thomas Paine and Voltaire because her father missed restricting those.
She was excited to meet Aristotle who was then introduced. Great thinkers through Darwin and beyond acknowledged their debt to Aristotle. The Church misused his authority on scientific matters, but scholars did not blame Aristotle for that.
Aristotle on stage is appalled that his writings were used to retard the exploration of knowledge; the exact opposite of his intent.
Aristotle explained that Greece was already in decline when he was born. His father was personal physician to King Amyntas II of Macedonia. The king's son Philip II increased the power of Macedonia. But Philip's son Alexander was far more famed as a conqueror.
Greece was conquered by Macedonia, but Aristotle was protected by his association to this ruling family. In fact, Aristotle was recruited to be Alexander's personal teacher. Aristotle had mixed feelings about the conquest of Greece and the success of his pupil.
Aristotle's own learning was at Plato's Academy. He was thrilled to learn from Plato who in turn had learned from the "immortal" Socrates. But much of his learning was from the other famous thinkers at the Academy.
Discussions, not lectures, were the main learning mode. The key was learning organized thinking. And key to that is defining terms. "Philosophy" covered all fields.
Aristotle was eventually forced to leave Athens due to fighting among the Greek city-states. This led back to a discussion with Machiavelli of political power and strategy.
The Medici had jailed, tortured and exiled him. But he saw them as his potential employers. He wrote The Prince to help them.
Elizabeth had received a pure classic education in Latin and Greek and was forbidden to learn math. At age 16 she published a translation of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound. But it went largely unsold which depressed her physically and mentally.
She probably had tuberculosis. Her father tended to her with great devotion, reading to her. And bringing her an "elixir" of opium. Sun was horrified because of the harm done when Europeans spread opium in China.
She published another book which was a failure. Her doctor said she needed to move to Torquay on the English coast. Her father forbid it, but the doctors convinced him to let her go with her brother Bro.
But after a quarrel with Bro, he went on a boat that capsized and he drowned. She blamed herself and she retreated for five years of isolation back home.
Her isolation and her father's control would seem to make it impossible for her to meet anyone. But then she received a love letter from Robert Browning who she adored and admired for his poetry. He felt the same about her and her poetry. He was 32 and strong and she was 39 and ill.
He came to visit when her father was out and she became a changed person, recovering her health. But the doctors said to keep her health she needed to move to Italy for the winter. Her father forbid it.
She secretly married Browning and they went to Italy. Her father declared her "dead". She and Browning miraculously had a son, Penini.
She wrote a collection of poems that she had Browning publish under the title "Sonnets, from the Portuguese" to hide her authorship.
"How do I love thee, let me count the ways…" began one.
She wrote repeatedly to her father and they made two trips to London with Penini. Her father refused to see them. He sent a packet of all of her letters back, unopened. Soon after, he died. She was devastated. Soon after, she died. That ended the First Act
Act II opened without her. The men are discussing how intellectually Greece achieved more in 200 years than the Egyptian empire did in 5,000 years.
Elizabeth returned and they discussed her extraordinary romance with Browning. They felt no competition as poets. At the time she received more praise from critics, but she thought him the better poet and modern critics agree.
Her era was an exceptionally productive era for writers. It was a time of great social upheaval and writers were able to sense and convey that upheaval.
Elizabeth adopted the cause of brutal child labor. She wrote "The Cry of the Children" which ended with:
"It is good when it happens," say the children,
"That we die before our time."
That poem aroused public indignation which led to more humane child-labor laws.
They also discussed how love and marriage traditionally were separate, but Elizabeth wanted to change that through her writing.
The group then turned to Sun to tell his story of being kidnapped in London, facing almost certain death. He was saved only by appealing to a child servant to help him get a message out.
He explained that it took ten failed attempts at revolution before his movement succeeded in 1911. He was in exile in the US when he was appointed president of China.
But after just 43 days he resigned to become Director General of Transportation and Trade. He saw development as key to China's future. He thought General Yuan Shih-Kai could take over as president. It was a terrible mistake. Sun's idealist dreams for China were pushed aside as impractical and Utopian.
Sun's three principles? Nationalism, people's rights and people's livelihood. To better the people of China and to earn the respect of other countries.
He thinks it could all have been achieved if people believed in it and worked for it.
"Free economy" methods had left most Chinese in poverty, ignorance and disease. He planned a socialist redistribution of wealth to allow peasants to own the land that they worked. Machiavelli said no one can forgive having their land taken away.
He said if a ruler must take cruel actions, they should be done decisively all at once. Generous actions, however, should be parceled out slowly to be enjoyed and appreciated.
The discussion turned to Aristotle who explained his invention, the syllogism. The simplest case: If A = B and B = C then A = C. It can be applied to any particular cases of A, B or C.
The challenge? To be absolutely certain the premises are correct. Otherwise the conclusions may be wrong.
In science and math we have verifications. In the realm of ethics we may have to depend on traditions for help.
Elizabeth noted that in religion it is very difficult to determine any facts, yet it is where we find the firmest convictions! Machiavelli noted this often led to brutal oppression by the Church.
Steve Allen offered his hope that if we could teach reasoning skills to children they may be less likely to become religious or political fanatics as adults.
Aristotle noted that our attention is limited relative to a barrage of input, so we are forced to make generalizations.
He admitted that he subscribed to Plato's belief in reincarnation. Not based on evidence, but on the feeling that souls are too precious for God or the universe to waste. But he did eventually reject Plato's theory of a plane of ideals. Aristotle preferred to turn to science. He collected plant and animal samples and classified them.
Act II ended with an agreement that science has fallen short of answering exactly how life began. Yet it deserves credit for how much it has answered.
The panel stood for a final appearance on stage
I should note that I once had the great privilege of meeting Steve Allen in person.
The occasion was a 69th birthday party for Ed Asner in November 1998. The gathering was a fund raiser for the Office of the Americas based in Los Angeles. Office of the Americas grew out of the Reagan years when the US was funding a brutal government and death squads in El Salvador. And a brutal terrorist organization targeting health care workers and teachers in Nicaragua.
Steve Allen had long been a hero of mine. He was the creator of the "Tonight Show" and other TV shows. One of his many talents: The 1985 Guinness Book of Records listed him as the most prolific composer of modern times. Steve Allen wrote more than 8,500 songs in his lifetime!
I am in awe of anyone who can write even one song. I was eager to ask him how he does it. He seemed a bit surprised at my question. He said that writing songs is very easy. The only hard part is marketing them. For him, it seemed, creating a song was as natural as for us to speak or write in prose!