Big Think Interview With Karen Armstrong
Born in England in 1944, Karen Armstrong is a TED Prize-winning scholar of comparative religion best known for her bestselling 1993 volume "A History of God." A Catholic nun from 1962 through 1969, she left the order to become a student of English literature at Oxford amidst a struggle with then-undiagnosed epilepsy, a period of her life discussed in her 2004 autobiography "The Spiral Staircase." In 2008 she called for a council of world religious leaders to draw up a "Charter for Compassion" based on the moral principles embodied in the Golden Rule. In November 2009, she unveiled the Charter in Washington, DC and online.
Question: What religious thinkers have influenced you most?\r\n
Karen Armstrong: Well, I never intended to be a historian of religion. My aim was to become a professor of English Literature in a university, but I had a series of absolute career disasters and found myself making television programs about the nature of religion and about Christian history and started to discover about other religious traditions, and that was an absolute eye-opener for me because, in fact, the study of the traditions doesn't necessarily make you want to convert to another tradition, but it helps you to see your own differently and expands your outlook. So, I learned a lot from both, initially Jewish and Muslim theologians that had been missing, perhaps from my rather parochial Catholic upbringing.\r\n
From the Rabbis of the early Talmudic age I learned that there is never a last word on God. There's, you always continue to question. Even God himself could be questioned and you can keep arguing with one another and there will be no end to this conversation about the divine because no human expression of God can be ultimate.\r\n
From the Muslims I learned from the extraordinary pluralism of the Koran, the fact that the Koran endorses every single one of the major world faiths, but I was particularly enthralled by the Sufi tradition, the mystical tradition of Islam, which is so open to other religious faiths. It's quite common for a Sufi mystic to cry in ecstasy that he's neither a Jew, a Christian, nor a Muslim. He is at home equally in a synagogue, a mosque, a temple, or a church because when one's glimpsed the divine, one's left these man-made distinctions behind. There's on quotation I discovered very early in my researches, very early, and it just opened huge doors to me. It's by the major Sufi philosopher/mystic, Ebbon Arabi who lived in the 12th and 13th century and is still deeply studied by Muslims today. And it goes like this: "Do not praise your own faith exclusively so that you disbelieve all the rest. If you do this, you will miss much good, neigh, you will miss the whole truth of the matter. God, the omnipotent, undulmissioned, cannot be confined by any one creed. For he says in the Koran, wheresoever he turn, there is the face of Allah. Everybody praises what he knows. His God is his own creature and in praising it, he praises himself, which he would not do if he were just. But his dislike is based on ignorance."\r\n
I suppose from the time I read that, one of my objectives was to knock down those barriers of ignorance that hold us pack from that kind of openhearted appreciation of the unanimity of the human quest for the divine.\r\n
Question: Why did you decide not to remain a nun?\r\n
Karen Armstrong: Well, I didn't leave the faith just when I left the convent. First I left the convent and that was because I wasn't a very good nun. I could see that I wasn't going to make it. It's very difficult to be a nun, or to live a religious life. It's very difficult to live a life of total celibacy or a life without any possessions or material responsibilities at all, or in total obedience to somebody else, and remain a mature whole human being, and I knew that I wasn't going to be one of those. There were some nuns in the convent who were able to do that and were fulfilled by it, but there were a lot of others who weren't and I could see that I was going to go into that category.\r\n
So, with great sorrow, I left. It wasn't a wonderful freeing experience. I didn't leap over the wall, as we say, in order to travel and wear beautiful clothes, and make lots of money and fall in love. I knew it was going to be awful. And it was awful. I'd been in the convent for seven years from the age of 17 years old to 24. That's a very formative period in anybody's life and I had totally missed the 1960's, which were a huge change in western social mores. I entered in 1962 and left in 1969. I had my first Beatles record in 1970, and I had never even heard of Vietnam. I came out of my convent, I was already at Oxford at that time and all of my fellow students were protesting against the Vietnam War, and I had never heard of it.\r\n
There was one time when we had been told about the Cuba Crisis in 1963, which happened shortly after I had left – or after I entered, I should say. And we were told that the end of the world was nigh and so we were all praying. But then they forgot to tell us that the crisis was over. So, for three weeks we sat and were expecting Armageddon. We were very isolated. That made it very difficult for me to make a comeback to the world because I didn't know what had happened. Society was transformed, it was as though I had been like Rip Van Winkle who had gone to sleep for a hundred years and came out and found totally transformed and unrecognizable world.\r\n
So, when I left, there was never any great moment when I stalked out of the Catholic Church. It fell away from me. I had tried, as I thought as a nun, to open myself to God and God seemed totally uninterested in me. The heavens remained closed and opaque. I now realize, of course, that I had a very, very inadequate idea of God. I was expecting clouds to part, a little sort of whisper in my ear, and of course, that's not what God is. God is not another being; we are talking about something much more profound.\r\n
So, I think I just found increasingly the whole weight of theology and theological dogma incredible and God remained distant and unknowable, and I just sort of drifted away from it.\r\n
Question: Who or what is God?\r\n
Karen Armstrong: We can't say, and that's my answer to you. We can't say what God is, and until the modern period, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians in the three God religions all knew that. They insisted that we have no idea what we meant when we said that God was good, or wise, or intelligent. God is not good, or wise, or intelligent anyway that we know. So, people like Maimonides in the Jewish tradition, Eboncina in the Muslim tradition, Thomas Aquinas in the Christian tradition, insisted that we couldn't even say that God existed because our concept of existence is far too limited and they would have been horrified by the ease with which we talk about God today.\r\n
When I was a young girl, I had to learn this definition of God. "God is the supreme spirit who alone, exists of himself, and is infinite in all perfections." Now, I always found that rather dull and I was eight years old when I learned that and it really didn't mean very much to me. But I now also think it's incorrect because it takes it for granted that it's possible simply to draw breath and define – and the word define means literally to set limits upon a reality that has to go beyond anything we think or know.\r\n
The trouble with a lot of modern theology and a lot of modern thinking about God, is that we think of God a sort of being like ourselves, but bigger and better with likes and dislikes similar to our own. Now, as the great Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich said, "That's an idolatry. That's making a God in our own image." And that's where some of the awful atrocities of religion happened when people assume that God shares your likes and dislikes. The Crusaders when into battle to kill Muslims and Jews and cried, "God will's it." That was their battle cry. Obviously God willed no such thing. The Crusaders were simply projecting onto a deity they’d created on their own image and likeness, all their hatred and loathing of these faiths and made it endorse some of their most awful prejudices and lethal prejudices. And modern terrorists do the same. And that is why the theologians insisted before the modern period, that it was really better to approach God in silence.\r\n
In ancient India, they developed what I think is an authentic model of theological discourse, religious talk about the ultimate. It was called the Remaja Competition. The priests would go out into the forests; we're talking about the 10th century before Christ. And they would make a retreat and put themselves into a different frame of mind. And that's very important, because you can't talk about God in the same way as you would have an argument with a colleague or discuss an abstruse point in law, in politics, or in business. You put yourself in the receptive frame of mind with which we approach music or poetry, which you can measure the difference on a neurological scanner. When they came back the priests would begin the competition and the challenger would kick off and give a description of the Brahman, the ultimate reality that lay beyond the Gods. He would pour into this definition all that he could think, all his knowledge and insight and found a verbal formula, puzzling, illusive, and difficult. But that's what Brahman is.\r\n
And then his opponents would have to build on that and respond to him. But the person who won the competition was the person who reduced all of his opponents to silence. And it was in that silence that the Brahman was present. The Brahman was not present in the wordy definitions. It was present only in the stunning realization of the impotence of speech. And Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theologians all developed similar disciplines, similar rituals, to help people realize that when we talk about God we are at the end of what words and thoughts can do.\r\n
Well, nowadays, we've forgotten all about that. We talk about God as though he was like a **** or somebody. We ask him to bless our nation, or save our Queen, or give us a fine day for the picnic. And we actually expect him to be on our side in an election or war even though our opponents are also God's children.\r\n
So, we think about God far to easily and that's because of a lot of social, intellectual, and scientific changes that have taken place in the western world and that has made God very problematic for a lot of people.\r\n
Question: What can be gained from the study of God?\r\n
Karen Armstrong: It's not what can we study; it's what we do. Religion is a practical discipline and it's one that we have always done, ever since humanity appeared on the scene when Homo sapiens became Homo sapiens. Sapiens became a human being, our minds very naturally segue into transcendence. We constantly have ideas and experiences that go beyond what we can say or know. Most often these are expressed in art, in painting, in music. Music, everyday confronts us with a form of knowing that doesn't depend on words. You know how it is in the symphony when you are listening to the symphony, the last notes die away, and there's often a beat of silence in the auditorium before the applause begins. It's a very full and pregnant silence. Now theology should bring us to live into that silence, into that pregnant pause.\r\n
But religion is a practical discipline and in the 17th century in the West, we turned it onto a head trip. But it's like dancing, or swimming, or driving, which you can't learn by texts. You have to get into the car and learn how to manipulate the vehicle. You have to get into the water and learn against what seems to be the law gravity to float and dancing, or athletics takes you years before you develop a skill. But if you work at it, practicing daily, you can enable your body to do things that are utterly impossible to an untrained physic. And the religions have found that if you behave in a certain way, if you sort of perform certain rituals that expand your mind and make you realize that will make you realize and help you to seguey into transcendence and perform certain acts, adopt a certain lifestyle, you develop new capacities of mind and heart, just like the dancer, or the athlete that make you into a whole human being and principle after one of these disciplines right across the board in all of the faiths is compassion, the ability to feel with the other person.\r\n
Question: How can compassion become a discipline?\r\n
Karen Armstrong: Compassion has to become a discipline. It's something that you do. It's no good thinking that you agree with compassion or not, you've just got to do it. Just like it's no good agreeing that it's possible to float, you just have to get into the pool and then you learn that it's possible.\r\n
Every single one of the major world faiths, whether we’re talking about Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Darwinism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, have all come to the conclusion that what holds us back from our better self is ego, selfishness, greed, unkindness, hatred. And it all springs from a sense of thwarted ego. People don't like us as much, people threaten us, and so in various ways, we cut them down to size to enhance ourselves when the best way of getting rid of that kind of unkind grasping frightened ego is by compassion. Which doesn't mean to feel sorry for people, it means to put yourself consistently in the position of another person, put the throne and yourself from the center of your world and putting another there. And that's what brings us, the religions say, into contact with what we call Brahman Nirvana, God, or Dove.\r\n
And every single one of the major world faiths has developed its own version of what's now known as the Golden Rule. "Always treat all others as you would wish to be treated yourself." Or, in the Jewish or Confucian versions, "Don't do to others what you would not like them to do to you." And this requires that you look into your own heart, discover what gives you pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else. Don't do to others what you wouldn't like them to do to you.\r\n
And they’ve all insisted that this is the essence of faith, that this is the test of true spirituality, not correct belief, or adopting the correct sexual behavior, or a certain political behavior, or a ritual practice, it is this essential thing. And Confucius, who is the fist person, as far as we know, to formulate the Golden Rule, said you do it all day, every day. All day, every day. Not just doing, as we often say, "Well, that's my good deed for the day." And then you can return to your ordinary life of greed and selfishness. No, you have to make that—have empathy for the other absolutely reflects it. If you can do that, people have found that you develop a new peace, you encounter within yourself and within the other person, sacredness, a transcendence, and it is that that brings us into relation with the Dove.\r\n
There is a very good story that shows how central that is, associated in the Jewish tradition with Rabbi Hillel, the older contemporary of Jesus. One day, it said that a Pagan came to Hillel and promised that he would convert to Judaism if Hillel could recite the whole of Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg. And Hillel stood on one leg and said, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah, and everything else is only commentary. Go and study it.”\r\n
Now, that's a remarkable and provocative statement. And everything in the Torah, that’s the exodus from Egypt, the creation of the world in six days, the 613 commandments of the Torah, all of this is only a commentary on the Golden Rule. And Jesus, St. Paul made the same point when he said, "I can have faith that moves mountains, but if I lack charity it's worth nothing."\r\n
Question: Can the Golden Rule be separated from faith?\r\n
Karen Armstrong: Look, the Golden Rule lies at the heart of every religious and of every ethical system of morality, it what makes us look at one another. The religions have all adopted it independently, Chinese, Indian, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, because they find it works and because it says something very deep about the structure of our humanity. This is the way human beings work, and if we do it consistently, all day and every day, not when we just happen to feel like it, but even when it's utterly inconvenient, or it goes against our self-interest, then if we do that consistently we discover an enhanced capacity of human mind. The trouble is that most people don't. And so, one of the reasons why I started my Charter for Compassion, was to bring the Golden Rule back to the center of religion and morality and not put other's secondary goals, less demand goals, into the forefront.\r\n
Question: How do you hope to affect global policy by codifying the Golden Rule?\r\n
Karen Armstrong: Well, look. This a huge question. But it seemed to me for a long time that unless we now learn to implement the Golden Rule globally, so that we treat all peoples, all nations, whoever they are and however distant they may seem to us in terms of either distance or ideology, as we wish to be treated ourselves, we are not going to have a viable world to hand on to the next generation.\r\n
We are now linked together as never before, electronically, financially, economically, politically. What happens in Afghanistan or Gaza today can now have repercussions in New York or London tomorrow. It's no longer "trouble spots are over there"; we're all bound together and yet our world is deeply polarized. And a huge imbalance of wealth, and this is both a religious and a moral problem that should concern us all.\r\n
There's a huge imbalance in power and that has resulted in the alienation, rage, fury, and awful amoral terrorism that has erupted and is erupting at the present time. And in order to counter this, we need to make the compassionate voice of religion and morality a dynamic force in our world. And often it has been frustrating to me as a historian for religion that the religions which should be making, because of their ethos of the Golden Rule, a major contribution to this very crucial endeavor of our time, main task of our time are often seen as part of the problem and often when religious people get together all they talk about is doctrines or – I want to change that. And the more aggressive our ideologies become, the more aggressive our discourse whether it's in the United States, from Washington D.C., or whether it's from Tehran, or from some underground Al-Qaeda cell. The more aggressive that discourse is, the more people of moderate persuasion have to organize and speak a voice of compassion. That means to feel with the other.\r\n
And that doesn't just mean that we all fall into each other's arms. This requires dedicated practice. In order to always treat others, as we would wish to be treated ourselves, we have to learn about each other. Not just relying on an op-ed piece we may have read here, or a half-remembered interview on the television program there that happens to chime with our own views. We have to make a disciplined effort to find out what our governments are doing in these various parts of the world and what is actually happening. We have to learn to listen to each other's stories. Something we are not very good at. We are opinionated society. We're very happy to spout forth our own views; we're not good about listening. We have to listen to other's stories. Learn to listen to the stories of the terrorists just as we hope that they will listen to ours because very often these narratives express frustrations, fears, and anxieties that most societies can safely ignore.\r\n
St. Augustine, founder of the western Christian tradition, said that if a biblical text seems to teach hate and violence, you have to give it an allegorical interpretation and make it speak charity even if this distorts the meaning of the original biblical author, and the rabbis in the Talmudic age do the same. Somehow this has to be orchestrated and now we've got onboard in the charter, at this moment about 140 partners, worldwide, and they have their own website, and these people have all been working on this, but independently, in isolation. Now we can all work together and create a global grassroots network. Thousands of people are signing onto the charter online, and that means an act of commitment. We'll keep them informed. We want to create, never mind the leaders or the bishops or chief rabbis or imams, or Popes. We want to create a grassroots movement where people will become attuned to uncompassionate discourse in the same way as we are now attuned to sort of gender imbalance in our speech.\r\n
I was reading in a book the other day where people spoke about man and mankind. Now, that's offensive. Now, we're attuned to that. I want to give people an ear to that. I want to create a rapid response team, right around the world, perhaps starting originally with our partners, similar to the one we have in the United Nations whereby, where there's a problem in our society which demands a compassionate response, an educated, informed, not just a splurgy emotional thing, but an informed compassionate response that puts yourself in the position of the other and sees all sides of the problem, not just your own, there'll be somebody poised in each society who can write to the media, write an op-ed piece, to go on TV or radio.\r\n
Question: Can faith and science be reconciled?\r\n
Karen Armstrong: There's no question of reconciling them. They have different jobs to do. And before the modern period, people in all cultures understood this. People knew there were two ways of coming at truth. One was science, or what the Greeks called Logos, reason, logic. And that was essential that the discourse of science or logic related directed to the external world. The other was mythos, what the Greeks called myth, which didn't mean a fantasy story, but it was a narrative associated with ritual and ethical practice but it helped us to address problems for which there were no easy answers, like mortality, cruelty, the sorrow that overtakes us all that's part of the human condition. And these two were not in opposition, we needed both.\r\n
If your child dies, or you witness a terrible natural disaster, yes, you certainly want a scientific explanation as to what's happened. But science can't help you to find meaning, help you deal with that turbulence of your grief, rage, and dismay. A science can diagnose a cancer and can even find a cure for it, but it can't, and a scientist will be the first to say, it's can't help you to deal with the stress and disappointment and terror that comes with a diagnosis, and nor can it help you to die well, like Socrates, kindly, not railing against faith, but in possession of your own death. For these imponderable questions people have turned to mythos.\r\n
But the important thing about myth is that it's not just something that you believe, a myth is essentially a program for action. And unless you translate a mythical story, or a doctrine out of the church, into practical action, it just remains incomprehensible. Rather like the rules of a board game which seem very sort of dull and complicated and incomprehensible until you pick up the dice and start to play, when everything falls into place.\r\n
And so, the early doctrines of the church, even doctrines like Trinity and Incarnation were originally also calls for action, calls for selflessness, calls for compassion, and unless you live that out compassionately, selflessly, you didn't understand what the doctrine was saying.\r\n
Question: As a scholar, what attracted you to Tennyson’s struggle with faith?\r\n
Karen Armstrong: It doesn't say much his struggle with faith and doubt that attracted me; it was something else. At the time, I was studying for my doctorate, studying the poetry of Tennyson. I was suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy. It's a form of epilepsy that derives from a brain injury that I probably received at birth. There's a big scar on my brain that gives you all kinds of weird and strange psychic experiences, and I thought I was going mad. It wasn't diagnosed until I was 34 years old. People just dosed me with anti-depressives, which didn't touch this brain disorder. I recognized in something similar in Tennyson. And years later, I discovered that he too had suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy and that he too, and as did his whole family, a sort of familial thing. It was a great disgrace in Victorian society. Epileptics were shut away into asylums, so he kept it dark. But I could experience – I could see certain few mistakes in his poetry which was similar to some of the rather disturbing experiences I was having myself.\r\n
Question: Does severe illness bring the sufferer closer to God?\r\n
Karen Armstrong: Illness itself can make you angry, enraged, furious, and it made me angry, enraged, and furious. I don't think it brought me to God at all. It depends how you deal with it. And I think that, at its best, three little words that always have to be applied to religion, religion can help you to deal with that. Not by giving you some **** story about how Jesus loves you anyway and you'll soon be reunited with everybody upstairs. But helping you to do some serious work on yourself, psychological work on yourself, helping you to deal with your fears, helping you not to exclude other people, but to let them in on your sorrow. Help you not to sink into a morass of self-hatred and egotism, and that's a continual challenge and it doesn't just come with singing a couple of hymns. This requires hard discipline, serious work.\r\n
And if you sit lightly to ego – I'm not at this stage yet, I have to say, but I'm still struggling towards it – but if you teach yourself, day by day, all day and every day, as Confucius said, to sit lightly to ego, putting ego on the back burner and putting yourself in the place of another, it doesn't seem quite so terrible when you get ill yourself.\r\n
Question: Can religion help people die well without deceiving them?\r\n
Karen Armstrong: I think there are two examples which show – I can think of many examples, which show how to die well. One is Socrates. Who is condemned to death, unjustly by the Athenian democracy and is forced to swallow the hemlock. But there is no rage in Socrates, he could have escaped, he chooses not to escape. He swallows the hemlock, he is thinking all the time of other people. He washes his body to save the women the trouble. He jokes kindly with his jailer, he doesn't rail against him. And he sits and accepts the loving companionship of his friends as he drinks the Hemlock. There is no rage, there's a big accepting kindness. And that was not just because Socrates got a blast from God at the end, but because his whole life had been about facing the unknown, preparing for this moment, sitting loose to life and ego, and emptying himself compassionately in dialogue with other people. In a Socratic dialogue, the kind of conversations he had without other people, nobody won the argument, everybody realized that they knew nothing at all and it always had to be conducted throughout with gentleness. There must be no anger or malice. And that endless discipline throughout his life enabled him to face this unjust death.\r\n
And the other one is Jesus, who on the cross in the depths of agony is presented by the gospel writers as having time to have a kindly word for one of his fellow victims, to make provision for his mother, and forgive his executioners. But again, we don't know much about Jesus' disciplines. But he had lived a compassionate life.\r\n
It won't just come at the end. I've just seen my mother through her last years and a lot of the distress that she experienced in her life came to the fore in the end, things that she hadn't really dealt with. Now is the time to prepare for death. A lot of the religions say that life is a preparation for death, which sounds morbid, but extinction, something we find very, very difficult to cope with, the idea that we're not going to be here anymore and that we've got to go through as the Buddha always said, "Sickness, old age, and an undignified death." He himself suffered a death of dysentery in some jungle miles from his friends and died comforting his followers saying,” Don’t worry about me. You have got in yourself the means to go on." Thinking of them.\r\n
And I'll tell you one personal story if you'd like of somebody who was dying and who made an immense impact on me and has remained an icon with me. When I was a young nun, we were trained quite abrasively. People who have read my story always think it reminds them of boot camp in the Army, and you don't expect your Sergeant Major to be full of compassion towards you. He's supposed to be training you to face fire and to be tough.\r\n
But I had one Superior who was kind. And she had had a grim life. At the age of 29, she'd gone deaf and had a very good mind, but spent all of the intervening years I think something like 30 or 40 years, sewing and mending sheets in the laundry. You'd think a waste of a life and anybody else would have become rageful and bitter. But she didn't. And at the end of her life, she was dying all the year that she was training me. She was dying of cancer. When I arrived in her community, she had been given three weeks to live, but she lasted the whole year and she refused to take any pain killers because she said they would make her head muzzy, and she was dealing with young people and had to be alert for them. Now, you couldn't put her on a pedestal, but she was really quite eccentric in many ways, had many, kind of quirky eccentricities. She used to get furious if we broke things. As a result we were also nervous. I had never broken so many things in the whole course of my life, but I was beginning to realize that I was going to have to go. My body was telling me, all ready. I was starting vomiting, sickness, nose bleeds, all psychosomatic symptoms that I was going to have to leave the convent. But she was always so kind.\r\n
Then came the day when they were going to take her away to the Mother House to die and she was in bed, full of pain, skin and bones. We all went in, us young nuns to say goodbye to her and she smiled, rather like Socrates, and joked with us. And said she'd be looking down on us from heaven and she'd be dead soon and all the rest of it. Sent us out, and she asked me to come back. And I went and knelt by the bed and she said, "Sister, I was told that you would be a troublesome young woman. I want to tell you, you have never been a trouble to me. You've been a good girl, sister. And always remember I told you so. You are a good girl." And then she put her hand on my head and blessed me and I went out.\r\n
Now, for someone in an extreme of agony to take notice to no doubt a rather annoying young woman, troubled young woman in that moment of that extremity. I've never forgotten that. But that's—she had trained herself, through all those difficult years not to become bitter, not to think, why me? Why am I deaf? Why am I wasting my life? And as a result, she has remained in me as an icon of what a good person should be.
Recorded on November 16, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen
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As bad as this sounds, a new essay suggests that we live in a surprisingly egalitarian age.
- A new essay depicts 700 years of economic inequality in Europe.
- The only stretch of time more egalitarian than today was the period between 1350 to approximately the year 1700.
- Data suggest that, without intervention, inequality does not decrease on its own.
Economic inequality is a constant topic. No matter the cycle — boom or bust — somebody is making a lot of money, and the question of fairness is never far behind.
A recently published essay in the Journal of Economic Literature by Professor Guido Alfani adds an intriguing perspective to the discussion by showing the evolution of income inequality in Europe over the last several hundred years. As it turns out, we currently live in a comparatively egalitarian epoch.
Seven centuries of economic history
Figure 8 from Guido Alfani, Journal of Economic Literature, 2021.
This graph shows the amount of wealth controlled by the top ten percent in certain parts of Europe over the last seven hundred years. Archival documentation similar to — and often of a similar quality as — modern economic data allows researchers to get a glimpse of what economic conditions were like centuries ago. Sources like property tax records and documents listing the rental value of homes can be used to determine how much a person's estate was worth. (While these methods leave out those without property, the data is not particularly distorted.)
The first part of the line, shown in black, represents work by Prof. Alfani and represents the average inequality level of the Sabaudian State in Northern Italy, The Florentine State, The Kingdom of Naples, and the Republic of Venice. The latter part, in gray, is based on the work of French economist Thomas Piketty and represents an average of inequality in France, the United Kingdom, and Sweden during that time period.
Despite the shift in location, the level of inequality and rate of increase are very similar between the two data sets.
Apocalyptic events cause decreases in inequality
Note that there are two substantial declines in inequality. Both are tied to truly apocalyptic events. The first is the Black Death, the common name for the bubonic plague pandemic in the 14th century, which killed off anywhere between 30 and 50 percent of Europe. The second, at the dawn of the 20th century, was the result of World War I and the many major events in its aftermath.
The 20th century as a whole was a time of tremendous economic change, and the periods not featuring major wars are notable for having large experiments in distributive economic policies, particularly in the countries Piketty considers.
The slight stall in the rise of inequality during the 17th century is the result of the Thirty Years' War, a terrible religious conflict that ravaged Europe and left eight million people dead, and of major plagues that affected South Europe. However, the recurrent outbreaks of the plague after the Black Death no longer had much effect on inequality. This was due to a number of factors, not the least of which was the adaptation of European institutions to handle pandemics without causing such a shift in wealth.
In 2010, the last year covered by the essay, inequality levels were similar to those of 1340, with 66 percent of the wealth of society being held by the top ten percent. Also, inequality levels were continuing to rise, and the trends have not ended since. As Prof. Alfani explained in an email to BigThink:
"During the decade preceding the Covid pandemic, economic inequality has shown a slow tendency towards further inequality growth. The Great Recession that began in 2008 possibly contributed to slow down inequality growth, especially in Europe, but it did not stop it. However, the expectation is that Covid-19 will tend to increase inequality and poverty. This, because it tends to create a relatively greater economic damage to those having unstable occupations, or who need physical strength to work (think of the effects of the so-called "long-Covid," which can prove physically invalidating for a long time). Additionally, and thankfully, Covid is not lethal enough to force major leveling dynamics upon society."
Can only disasters change inequality?
That is the subject of some debate. While inequality can occur in any economy, even one that doesn't grow all that much, some things appear to make it more likely to rise or fall.
Thomas Piketty suggested that the cause of changes in inequality levels is the difference in the rate of return on capital and the overall growth rate of the economy. Since the return on capital is typically higher than the overall growth rate, this means that those who have capital to invest tend to get richer faster than everybody else.
While this does explain a great deal of the graph after 1800, his model fails to explain why inequality fell after the Black Death. Indeed, since the plague destroyed human capital and left material goods alone, we would expect the ratio of wealth over income to increase and for inequality to rise. His model can provide explanations for the decline in inequality in the decades after the pandemic, however- it is possible that the abundance of capital could have lowered returns over a longer time span.
The catastrophe theory put forth by Walter Scheidel suggests that the only force strong enough to wrest economic power from those who have it is a world-shattering event like the Black Death, the fall of the Roman Empire, or World War I. While each event changed the world in a different way, they all had a tremendous leveling effect on society.
But not even this explains everything in the above graph. Pandemics subsequent to the Black Death had little effect on inequality, and inequality continued to fall for decades after World War II ended. Prof. Alfani suggests that we remember the importance of human agency through institutional change. He attributes much of the post-WWII decline in inequality to "the redistributive policies and the development of the welfare states from the 1950s to the early 1970s."
What does this mean for us now?
As Professor Alfani put it in his email:
"[H]istory does not necessarily teach us whether we should consider the current trend toward growth in economic inequality as an undesirable outcome or a problem per se (although I personally believe that there is some ground to argue for that). Nor does it teach us that high inequality is destiny. What it does teach us, is that if we do not act, we have no reason whatsoever to expect that inequality will, one day, decline on its own. History also offers abundant evidence that past trends in inequality have been deeply influenced by our collective decisions, as they shaped the institutional framework across time. So, it is really up to us to decide whether we want to live in a more, or a less unequal society."
Our love-hate relationship with browser tabs drives all of us crazy. There is a solution.
- A new study suggests that tabs can cause people to be flustered as they try to keep track of every website.
- The reason is that tabs are unable to properly organize information.
- The researchers are plugging a browser extension that aims to fix the problem.
A lot of ideas that people had about the internet in the 1990s have fallen by the wayside as technology and our usage patterns evolved. Long gone are things like GeoCities, BowieNet, and the belief that letting anybody post whatever they are thinking whenever they want is a fundamentally good idea with no societal repercussions.
While these ideas have been abandoned and the tools that made them possible often replaced by new and improved ones, not every outdated part of our internet experience is gone. A new study by a team at Carnegie Mellon makes the case that the use of tabs in a web browser is one of these outdated concepts that we would do well to get rid of.
How many tabs do you have open right now?
We didn't always have tabs. Introduced in the early 2000s, tabs are now included on all major web browsers, and most users have had access to them for a little over a decade. They've been pretty much the same since they came out, despite the ever changing nature of the internet. So, in this new study, researchers interviewed and surveyed 113 people on their use of — and feelings toward — the ubiquitous tabs.
Most people use tabs for the short-term storage of information, particularly if it's information that is needed again soon. Some keep tabs that they know they'll never get around to reading. Others used them as a sort of external memory bank. One participant described this action to the researchers:
"It's like a manifestation of everything that's on my mind right now. Or the things that should be on my mind right now... So right now, in this browser window, I have a web project that I'm working on. I don't have time to work on it right now, but I know I need to work on it. So it's sitting there reminding me that I need to work on it."
You suffer from tab overload
Unfortunately, trying to use tabs this way can cause a number of problems. A quarter of the interview subjects reported having caused a computer or browser to crash because they had too many tabs open. Others reported feeling flustered by having so many tabs open — a situation called "tab overload" — or feeling ashamed that they appeared disorganized by having so many tabs up at once. More than half of participants reported having problems like this at least two or three times a week.
However, people can become emotionally invested in the tabs. One participant explained, "[E]ven when I'm not using those tabs, I don't want to close them. Maybe it's because it took efforts [sic] to open those tabs and organize them in that way."
So, we have a tool that inefficiently saves web pages that we might visit again while simultaneously reducing our productivity, increasing our anxiety, and crashing our machines. And yet we feel oddly attached to them.
Either the system is crazy or we are.
Skeema: The anti-tab revolution
The researchers concluded that at least part of the problem is caused by tabs not being an ideal way of organizing the work we now do online. They propose a new model that better compartmentalizes tabs by task and subtask, reflects users' mental models, and helps manage the users' attention on what is important right now rather than what might be important later.
To that end, the team also created Skeema, an extension for Google Chrome, that treats tabs as tasks and offers a variety of ways to organize them. Users of an early version reported having fewer tabs and windows open at one time and were better able to manage the information they contained.
Tabs were an improvement over having multiple windows open at the same time, but they may have outlived their usefulness. While it might take a paradigm shift to fully replace the concept, the study suggests that taking a different approach to tabs might be worth trying.
And now, excuse me, while I close some of the 87 tabs I currently have open.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Seek pleasure and avoid pain. Why make it more complicated?
- The Epicureans were some of the world's first materialists and argued that there is neither God, nor gods, nor spirits, but only atoms and the physical world.
- They believed that life was about finding pleasure and avoiding pain and that both were achieved by minimizing our desires for things.
- The Epicurean Four Step Remedy is advice on how we can face the world, achieve happiness, and not worry as much as we do.
Self-help books are consistently on the best-seller lists across the world. We can't seem to get enough of happiness advice, wellness gurus, and life coaches. But, as the Book of Ecclesiastes says, there is nothing new under the sun. The Ancient Greeks were into the self-help business millennia before the likes of Dale Carnegie and Mark Manson.
Four schools of ancient Greek philosophy
From the 3rd century BCE until the birth of Jesus, Greek philosophy was locked into an ideological war. Four rival schools emerged, each proclaiming loudly that they — alone — had the secret to a happy and fulfilled life. These schools were: Stoicism, Cynicism, Skepticism, and Epicureanism. Each had their advocates and even had a kind of PR battle to get people to sign up to their side. They were trying to sell happiness.
Epicurus's guide to living is noticeably different from a lot of modern self-help books in just how little day-to-day advice it gives.
Many of us are familiar with Stoicism, a topic I covered recently, because it forms the foundation of cognitive behavioral therapy. Skepticism and Cynicism have become watered down or warped variations of their original forms. (I will cover these in future articles.) Today, we focus on the most underappreciated of these schools, the Epicureans. In their philosophy, we can find a surprisingly modern and easy-to-follow "Four Part Remedy" to life.
Epicureans: The first atheists
The Epicureans were some of history's first materialists. They believed that the world was made up only of atoms (and void), and that everything is simply a particular composition of these atoms. There were no gods, spirits, or souls (or, at most, they're irrelevant to the world as we encounter it). They thought that there was no afterlife or immortality to be had, either. Death is just a relocation of atoms. This atheism and materialism was what the Christian Church would later come to despise, and after centuries of being villainized by priests, popes, and church doctrine, the Epicureans fell out of fashion.
In the atomistic, worldly philosophy of the Epicureans, all there is to life is to get as much pleasure as you can and avoid pain. This isn't to become some rampant hedonist, staggering from opium dens to brothels, but concerns the higher pleasures of the mind.
Epicurus, himself, believed that pleasure was defined as the satisfying of a desire, such as when we drink a glass of water when we're really thirsty. But, he also argued that desires themselves were painful since they, by definition, meant longing and anguish. Thirst is a desire, and we don't like being thirsty. True contentment, then, could not come from creating and indulging pointless wants but must instead come from minimizing desire altogether. What would be the point of setting ourselves new targets? These are just new desires that we must make efforts to satisfy. Thus, minimizing pain meant minimizing desires, and the bare minimum desires were those required to live.
The Four Part Remedy
Given that Epicureans were determined to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, they developed a series of rituals and routines designed to help. One of the best known (not least because we've lost so much written by the Epicureans) was the so-called "Four Part Remedy." These were four principles they believed we ought to accept so that we might find solace and be rid of existential and spiritual pain:
1. Don't fear God. Remember, everything is just atoms. You won't go to hell, and you won't go to heaven. The "afterlife" will be nothingness, in just the same way as when you had no awareness whatsoever of the dinosaurs or Cleopatra. There was simply nothing before you existed, and death is a great expanse of the same timeless, painless void.
2. Don't worry about death. This is a natural corollary of Step 1. With no body, there is no pain. In death, we lose all of our desires and, along with them, suffering and discontent. It's striking how similar in tone this sounds to a lot of Eastern, especially Buddhist, philosophy at the time.
3. What is good is easy to get. Pleasure comes in satisfying desires, specifically the basic, biological desires required to keep us alive. Anything more complicated than this, or harder to achieve, just creates pain. There's water to be drunk, food to be eaten, and beds to sleep in. That's all you need.
4. What is terrible is easy to endure. Even if it is difficult to satisfy the basic necessities, remember that pain is short-lived. We're rarely hungry for long, and sicknesses most often will be cured easily enough (and this was written 2300 years before antibiotics). All other pains often can be mitigated by pleasures to be had. If basic biological necessities can't be met, then you die — but we already established there is nothing to fear from death.
Epicurus's guide to living is noticeably different from a lot of modern self-help books in just how little day-to-day advice it gives. It doesn't tell us "the five things you need to do before breakfast" or "visit these ten places, and you'll never be sad again." Just like it's rival school of Stoicism, Epicureanism is all about a psychological shift of some kind.
Namely, that psychological shift is about recognizing that life doesn't need to be as complicated as we make it. At the end of the day, we're just animals with basic needs. We have the tools necessary to satisfy our desires, but when we don't, we have huge reservoirs of strength and resilience capable of enduring it all. Failing that, we still have nothing to fear because there is nothing to fear about death. When we're alive, death is nowhere near; when we're dead, we won't care.
Practical, modern, and straightforward, Epicurus offers a valuable insight to life. It's existential comfort for the materialists and atheists. It's happiness in four lines.