Category Archives: philosophical

“Since the time of Jesus, when the only two known religions were Christianity and Judaism…”

Here’s another student’s compulsive history sketch-in. Why do they insist on doing this? Is it an effort to add a scholarly dimension to their comments, or some gravitas, or an air of authority? They just about never get the history right, undermining not only those hopes but also the credibility of whatever is going to come next.

Surely there were more than two “known” religions in “the time of Jesus.” What about those Romans, for a start, bosses in the same neighborhood?

We might even pick a nit or two and suggest that in the time of Jesus “Christianity” wasn’t a religion at all; Jesus claimed he was trying to purify or clarify the religion of the Hebrews, and most of his followers were Jews. Christianity as a cult, and then as a religion per se, developed after his death and resurrection.

But that was just the preparation for the rest of her sentence:

“Since the time of Jesus, when the only two known religions were Christianity and Judaism, the human race has come a long way and developed many other religions in which various people follow.”

Is it just a function of my place in the history of the world that when I hear “come a long way” I think of Virginia Slims, those elegant cigarettes designed to grace a woman’s hand (and bring the lung cancer statistics into gender balance)? Oh, sorry, be that as it may….

My student is somehow implying that having only two “known” religions is rather primitive: we’ve “come a long way” by developing a lot more religions. But what then of all those religions the Old-Testament Hebrews were trying so hard to stamp out? Did the world go backwards in getting down to two? What does she mean?

You’ll also notice the “in which” witch. Somewhere in the more recent past there must have been one hell of a teacher, pounding into thousands of student brains the notion that “which” cannot stand alone but always must be preceded by “in.” Even the Beatles had the notion “in this ever-changing world in which we live in.” I’m sure teachers were trying to teach no such thing: they wanted their students to stop ending sentences with prepositions, and so began conscientiously moving the “in” to stand before the “which” that usually lurked elsewhere in the sentence. But the students’ desire to put that beloved preposition at the end resulted in doubling it, putting one in front of the “which” and one at the end of the sentence. Now I even get sentences, like today’s, that require no preposition at all but throw “in” in front of “which” just the same. I also get sentences that use different prepositions but yet retain the “in”: “The college in which I went to,” for example. Maybe we need some ancient Hebrews to stamp that quasi-religious practice out!

My student does seem to have no doubt as to where religions come from: the human race “develops” them. So much for divine visitations. Well, we’ve done a great job, and now we’ve developed a lot of them, a veritable holy smorgasbord for “various” people to choose from. Or from which various people can choose.

I wish I had noted the actual subject of the essay from which this sentence came, because I can’t now imagine what point she might have been headed for.

But I must I say I like her suggestion that the more religions, the better off the human race is, and her evident belief that there’s no problem which religion “various” people choose to follow. If only we could all be so broad-minded.


“These buried people are dead and gone.”

Before or after they were buried?

Actually this is not necessarily another case of a student inept at writing about death, of which I have had words before. So often they are trying for a gravitas, a profundity, that they can’t get at with ideas or words. After laughing, I do spend a moment appreciating their aspirations.

The student who wrote about “buried people” here was discussing the case of a man who stole damaged or disintegrating cemetery art, refurbished it, and in some instances, including one spectacular case dealing with a Tiffany window, sold it. I ask students to decide what the man had actually done, and how criminal it is. I get some interesting essays from this topic.

This student is trying to say that the dead don’t care what happens to the stones (etc.) above them—or, in the case of the Tiffany window, the mausoleums around them. This is part of her argument that it is impossible actually to steal from the dead. So by “these buried people” she means “the people whose remains lie in this cemetery,” and by “dead and gone” she means “no longer capable of owning anything or having an opinion about material goods”; “no longer in this world.” She’s taking the clichéed “dead and gone” quite literally.

And I knew what she meant.

Alas, though, as in many of the other Horrors I copy into my little book, she may have meant it, but she didn’t write it.

The written word is a funny thing. We set great store by it, and whole disciplines—industries—have been built up to serve and interpret it (Literary Criticism, History, Constitutional Law, Theology…). Yet it is slippery, elusive, protean, relative, source-dependent, reader-dependent, inadequate.

Nevertheless, any effort at interpretation must begin with the thing itself, das Ding an sich—in this case, the word. And by that measure, my student has not made a point: she has merely written what seems to be a self-defining sentence that evokes laughter. Or at least silly questions.

Well, all I can say is, I hope I am well dead and gone before anyone tries to bury me.


“It left my blood boiled in cold water.”

Another student trying to express extreme emotion.

It’s a hard thing to do. I’ve been reading and listening today as people try to put their reactions to the latest senseless slaughter into words; I’ve been trying to express my own reactions too. Our vocabulary of horror and outrage is too small, and our culture has exploited it too often to hype fairly trivial things; language is less adequate than ever. (When we hear this kind of exchange every day—”Is there any ketchup?” “Yeah, here.” “Awesome”—how to describe the Grand Canyon, a major tornado, or God? When passing a healthcare bill is equated with the Holocaust, how can we think about the real Holocaust? When someone beholds a redecorated rec room and says “Oh My GOD!” how will she react to something worthy of such a powerful invocation?)

I don’t remember what event or literary situation or vision occasioned this student’s effort at strong language, but for a reader like me he achieved exactly the opposite of what he was trying for: he got helpless laughter.

Of course I knew what he meant. He was reaching into his brain for a figure of speech and accidentally grabbed parts of two, rather than one intact one. “It made my blood boil”—I was filled with rage.  “It made my blood run cold”—I was filled with a chilling horror.  He jams those two opposite figures of speech into one impossibility: a boiling coldness. The discordia concors, or paradox, so popular with Renaissance poets (“That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow. How shall we find the concord of this discord?” asks Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) that the lover simultaneously freezes and burns with passion is seemingly invoked here. “I freeze, I burn,” indeed.

But that isn’t actually what he’s saying. He’s saying that his blood was boiled in cold water. Sort of the opposite of the frozen dinners that come in pouches, ready for immersion in boiling water to become a delectable treat: here perhaps the blood is in a bag and, by some miracle, immersed in cold water in order to boil. Maybe the water has some dry ice in it and will bubble and steam?

No, this would not have worked in my physics lab when I was a student, and it really doesn’t work on my student’s paper now.

I can certainly sympathize with his effort to express, his inability to express, an emotion—rage, most likely, not love!—that has filled him and shaken him. I celebrate his ability to feel emotion so strongly.

And I also sympathize that his teacher was ultimately unable to approve the wording as well as the emotion. Still, there it is.