The Promethean Legacy: Harari’s Sapiens

Harari. Yuval Noah. Sapiens. A Brief History of Human Kind. [Kinneret 2011] Trans. Yuval Noah Harari. Toronto: Signal-McClelland & Stewart, 2014.

Whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the planet and of the survival of humankind upon it, you will find some of this book disturbing. You may also find some solace. In a lively, even entertaining, style unencumbered by some of the verbiage we might normally associate with discourse in the social sciences, Harari traces the development of our species and our associated cultures from the emergence of “animals much like modern humans . . . about 2.5 million years ago” (4) to “a world in which culture is releasing itself from the shackles of biology” (409).

Many of us, I suspect, have absorbed an attitude towards humans that places our species at the top of a hierarchy. Then we remember that should we be stalked by a cougar or harassed by a shark, we are actually prey, no longer beings at the top of the food chain. Sapiens challenges many of our notions about ourselves, suggesting how “time and again . . . a dramatic increase in the collective power and ostensible success of our species went hand in hand with much individual suffering” (97).  It’s hard to disagree with him. Just consider for a moment how much more leisure time hunter gatherers have than we do. Just how free from our labours are we, tied as we are to our screens? Would we all be better off psychologically if we still lived in small self-sufficient communities untouched by the outside world? Exactly what does it mean to be human? Just how do we live with ourselves? These are the kinds of questions that Harari’s work raises. He reminds us “the dynamics of history are not directed towards enhancing human well-being . . . . history disregards the happiness of individual organisms (244).

If you are uncomfortable thinking of humans simply as organisms not as something greater and different from other species, then you will probably be even more uncomfortable with Harari’s understanding of what constitutes a religion: “a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order” (228). He emphasises his use of the term “superhuman” rather than “supernatural” and suggests that distinguishing between what is religion and what is ideology is “just a semantic exercise” (228). You may be made even more uneasy with his recognition of capitalism as a “new religion” (314), one side of the coin of which the other side is consumerism (349).

As you can see, Harari takes his readers into disconcerting territory holding up a mirror to our sense of history, a mirror that is not particularly flattering. He asks us to reconsider our ideas of progress. From a certain perspective, we may actually have regressed. While we are freer from disease than our ancestors, are we any happier? We can shop more, but does retail therapy actually offer us any sense of permanent satisfaction? Whether he’s discussing religion or the nation state, Harari challenges many of the “givens” in our world. He’s certainly not the first to do so, and I’m sure that his views will resonate with many readers. Perhaps what is so impressive about this book is its scope, the whole of human history. But then, of course, one of the points the book emphasises is that within the history of our planet, homo sapiens has actually not been around for that long.

Sapiens is an intensely readable, compassionate look at our history. The conclusion Harari draws from his assessment of the past is that the future of humans may well be precarious, if the species has a future at all. He describes us as “self-made gods” (415) who “are constantly wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction,” and he ends his work by asking, “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?” (416).

Earlier, I remarked that there may well be some solace in this book. I found it in the fact that in some ways the moral, ethical, and cosmic questions that Harari raises are not actually new questions. We are faced with the same questions about what is the meaning of our lives and how to live the good life that we have been asking perhaps for ever. A pessimist might say that if we still need to ask the questions then something is wrong. The optimist might reply that because we still strive to consider what is right and good means there is hope.

Suffice it to say, I was so engaged by this book that I have already ordered Harari’s subsequenet work Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.













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Plumbing the Mystery of Stephanie: A Brief Encounter With Janet Evanovitch’s Bounty Hunter

Evanovitch, Janet. One For the Money. New York, Scribners, 1994. ebook

—. Eleven On Top. New York: St. Martins, 2005. ebook.

From time to time, often towards the end of a semester, my reading group eschews “literary” fiction and takes a look at what is often called genre fiction. In preparation for our next meeting, I have just read two Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovitch, a writer with whom I was unfamiliar. Evanovitch has just published her twenty-third book featuring Stephanie Plum. Our group decided on her eleventh, but not wanting to begin my acquaintance with Ms. Plum in medias res so to speak I decided to read the first book in the series before beginning our chosen volume.

I am looking forward to hearing what other members of my group have to say about the book. What struck me most about the two novels I’ve just finished was their cinematic quality, and I was unsurprised to discover that One For the Money was made into a movie in 2012. The IMDb website shows the movie as having garnered a 5.3 star rating.

Stephanie Plum is a bounty hunter based in her home town of Trenton, New Jersey. She apparently has a voracious appetite for cake, for sex, and for inadvertently trashing her cars. The books are peopled with characters for whom the description “quirky” would be extreme meiosis. As a bounty hunter, Stephanie does not always get her man. In her social (?) life, the situation is somewhat different.

What to make of these two novels? I’m awaiting the meeting of my reading group with some interest. Some of the slapstick action of the novels made me laugh but also left me wondering what it is that is so attractive about female characters like Stephanie: chaotic, disorganized, and frantic. Take the Bridget Jones books, for instance.  I remember thinking when I first read Bridget Jones’s Diary, “Do I know anybody in their early thirties who is actually still this chaotic in her life?” Stephanie Plum evokes much the same reaction. Yes, I know thirty is the new nineteen or so, but really .  .  .  .  Am I supposed to sympathise with Stephanie or laugh at her?

I can’t help but feel that characters such as Stephanie Plum actually perpetuate a lot of rather negative stereotypes about women. The same cannot be said about Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs or Lindsey Davies’ Flavia Alba, for example. Yes, those two series are set in the past, but they are written now, and their female detectives are lively and independent but certainly don’t verge on being tawdry. Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins is not tawdry and successfully navigates the still rather male centric waters of the Church of England. What is it in the air at the moment that validates a kind of squalid behaviour, whether that squalor takes the form of men behaving boorishly with beer or of women engaging in cake fights or misplacing their underwear? Where are the Cary Grants and Audrey Hepburns for today’s popular culture? Too middle class for you? Where are today’s Bogey and Bacall? I know; I sound like somebody’s grandmother, but certainly not Stephanie Plum’s Grandmother Mazur, who is probably as whacky and vulgar as Stephanie.

No doubt, I’m out of step with contemporary taste. So be it. After all, I didn’t like the movie Bridesmaids either, and it gained a ninety percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I shall indulge myself with revisiting Miss Marple and Miss Silver1 and drink my tea from a bone china cup.


1Patricia Wentworth’s detective.











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Confronting The Down Climb: Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life

Seethaler, Robert. Trans. Charlotte Collins. A Whole Life. [Munich: Hanser Berlin, 2014] Toronto: Anansi, 2015.

At only 149 pages, A Whole Life can hardly be classified as a novel. It is, however, a somewhat disturbing work covering as it does the entire life of its main character Andreas Egger.

Set in the Austrian Alps, the novel spans Egger’s life from when as an orphaned child he is housed by his uncle, who beats him so regularly and so severely that Egger is permanently crippled, to his death as an old man. Apart from years in a Russian Prisoner of War camp during and after the Second World War, Egger spends his whole life in one village, first selling his strength and labour to any who will hire him and then spending much of his life as an employee of the cable car company. For a brief time, Egger is married, but he is widowed when an avalanche sweeps his cottage away, kills his pregnant wife, and leaves him so further crippled he is unable to work on the cable cars. However, the building of the cable car has ended the village’s isolation, and a thriving tourism industry develops allowing Egger to become a mountain guide until he feels too old to continue: “On the mountain his foothold was still firm, and not even the strong autumn downwinds could make him lose his balance, but he stood like a tree that was already rotten inside” (131).

So what is it about this little work that draws the reader in? The diction is not particularly exciting, and while it is always a little difficult to know for sure when dealing with a translation, I feel it safe to say, given that good translations capture the tone of the original, that the somewhat flat, simple sentenced prose captures a sense of not exactly dreariness but of endurance. Moreover, Seethaler’s third person narration does not venture very far into Andreas Egger’s own consciousness even though his life appears to have been, narrow, defined by injury, and by loss.

However, in his stoic endurance, he survives. He accepts. He accepts the mystery of life—“he  had barely understood Marie, [his wife] and all other women were far more of a mystery to him” (116)—and its brutalities:  “The corpses in the Russian ice were the most dreadful thing he had seen in his life” (130), but he values life.

The novel begins with Egger’s attempt to save the life of dying Johannes Kalishka, known as Horned Hannes. He fails but only because Horned Hannes flees back up the mountain into the snow. His body does not appear for many more years being discovered only decades later when Egger is himself an old man. This beginning of the novel in medias res suggests that Seethaler wants us to consider the conventions of epic. The novel begins with a death and ends with Egger’s own death. Egger remembers that “Horned Hannes . . . seemed strangely happy. In his final hour he had laughed up at Heaven” (130) even though as Egger had struggled to get the dying goatherd down the mountain Hannes had told him, “The cold lady comes and goes. That’s all. She seizes you as she passes and takes you with her and sticks you in some hole” (5).

The novel begins, then, by asserting that all we have to look forward to is the end of life and oblivion, but it spends the rest of the novel showing how even the ordinary life, no matter how deprived, is heroic, how even the most humble person can survive both change and personal loss with dignity. Therefore, to answer the question I asked earlier about what is it that draws the reader into this novel, I would say it’s the fact that we cannot avoid comparing ourselves with Egger. In doing so, we are forced to confront our own possible insignificance and the fear we might not be as strong as he is to withstand the wounds of changing times and fortunes.

All in all, a very disturbing book.


In the interests of complete accuracy, I should note that the picture is not the Austrian Alps but the Canadian Rockies in Canmore, Alberta. It is more decades than I care to recall since I was in Austria.



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Another Year. International Women’s Day 2017



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A Gentle Illumination: The Stories of Jane Gardam

DSCN1357 - Version 2Gardam, Jane. The Stories of Jane Gardam. New York: Europa 2014.

As you know from earlier posts, I do have a certain fondness for Jane Gardam, so when a friend lent me her copy of The Stories of Jane Gardam, I certainly didn’t refuse the offer. I was more familiar with her novels, and I have to admit here that I tend to prefer novels to short stories. The short story is somehow just too short. I also suspect that in a way reading several short stories one sitting becomes more emotionally exercising than immersing oneself in the development of the novel.

DSCN1357 - Version 2One of the reasons why the good short story works, even in its limited scope, time frame, and cast of characters, results from the emotional journey the reader makes within the very concentrated span of the tale; however, such an experience can be a little daunting. I’m thinking particularly here of the stories of writers such as Alice Munro, whose stories are perfectly crafted and multi-layered, but whose intensity and somewhat bleak world view leave me exhausted. The stories I return to again and again are Joyce’s Dubliners and many of those written by Katherine Mansfield. It seems from what Gardam reveals in her introduction to the collection that she and I share this enjoyment of these two writers.

DSCN1357 - Version 2This introduction also tells us that The Stories of Jane Gardam was undertaken in response to a request from her publisher Richard Beswick of Little, Brown, who had “asked for ‘a big, chunky anthology of all . . . [her] favourite short stories’”(16). These “favourite” twenty-eight stories (thirty if you count the three sections of Telegony (341-381) as individual stories) span thirty years from 1977 to 2007. In some of them we meet characters such as Edward Feathers, Old Filth, whom we’ve met before in the novels. For the most part, I found the stories took me into familiar Gardam territory, a particularly English place, a middle-class place, a place of people who know the “passwords” (“Rode By All With Pride” Stories 155).

DSCN1357 - Version 2However, despite their sense of not quite superiority but of confidence they are right, the people in Gardam’s stories are often exiled from the world around them. They are returned ex-patriots who served a Britain that no longer exists; they are “dotty little” (“Easter Lilies”Stories 159) women with nothing left in their lives but the church, people who find that after being “out East thirty years there’s limits to Welwyn” (“the First Adam” Stories 177).  They live in Putney, Wimbledon, and Barnes. They are not as well off as they used to be. Often, they are growing old, cut off from the security of their pasts. As I reconsider these stories and try to find connections between them, I realise that what pervades much of the collection is a sense of loss: a loss of a time long passed, loss of youth, loss of love. Gardam’s characters are separated from their pasts, from their children, from their lovers. While the stories are pervaded by a sense of wistfulness at times, even nostalgia, it’s a delicious reminiscence, delicious as the memories evoked by the smell of lavendered sheets, say, or by the sound of a blackbird in an English summer evening garden that recalls other evenings, other times.

DSCN1357 - Version 2What prevents Gardam’s stories from evoking deep melancholia is her compassionate, gentle humour. As often happens in some of the best short stories, there is always a twist at the end, an epiphany or situational irony that turns the story around. Some of these twists are intensely satisfying: the really snobby and selfish tend to get their comeuppance as in “The Tribute,” (101-117) and “The Easter Lilies” (159-173); young lovers are reunited in “Lunch with Ruth Sykes” (41-56). For the most part, the stories suggest that good can ultimately come even from disappointment, and even when a story ends on a minor note as is the case in “An Unknown Child” (211-225) or “Rode By All With Pride,” (139-157) for instanc,” Gardam’s treatment of her characters’ despairing realisation of their own blindness is gentle and sympathetic.

DSCN1357 - Version 2Most of the reversals in her stories are not completely devastating to her characters. In “Hetty Sleeping” (22-40), for example, Hetty discovers her old lover and her tutor in art school Heneker has run off with the pub barmaid even though only the night before he had protested, “‘there was never anyone but you, Het’” (37). We are not distressed by Hetty’s loss of Heneker; we’re actually rather glad, for we understand Hetty’s situation only too well. What Hetty is actually mourning is not Heneker, but the dream of her lost past self. This is not a story about a woman trapped by societal and patriarchal expectations; it’s a story about how she has grown into the choices she has herself made. Heneker reminds Hetty that it was she who left him all those years ago, reminds her of her own tidiness, her desire for order, of the fact that even then she had already given up painting. She made the choice not to have a life with Heneker. It isn’t in her nature to live the sort of life she would have lived with him. It is in her nature to live the sort of life she has with her husband, Charles. The story ends with Charles bringing her tea. Gentle and understanding, he asks her to “‘wake up soon’” (40).

DSCN1357 - Version 2How well Gardam understands that feeling of nostalgia for what might have been and reveals how we know we don’t truly regret it. She knows how love is not always passion but often compromise, how people learn to accommodate each other. Even in her more gothic stories such as “The Boy who Turned into a Bike” (383-391), “The Green Man” (423-450), and “A Spot of Gothic” (89-100), for example, there is still that note of wistfulness. But that yearning is acknowledged with a kind of relief, with what I might call the optimism of acceptance, that sense of accepting and carrying on and making the best of things. There are some who would say that this is a very English trait, but then, as I said earlier, Gardam’s milieu is very English.

IDSCN1357 - Version 2n her introduction, Gardam asserts that writing short stories teaches you when to stop (16). I wouldn’t argue with that. Her tone in that introduction is valedictory. She ends by saying, “The luck in the writer’s life always is to have been able to use the sweets of fiction to get near the truth” (17). If the luck in a reader’s life is to meet a writer whose creation is “near the truth,” then the readers of Jane Gardam are very lucky indeed.






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An Unfinished Journey: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

the-underground-railroadWhitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Toronto: Doubleday, 2016.

This is an extremely disturbing novel for several reasons. First is its subject matter and second is what Whitehead does with his story. The Underground Railroad is more than merely the tale of one young woman’s escape from slavery on a cotton plantation in Georgia: it’s an acutely sensitive examination of racism and exclusion, of hypocrisy and hate, and of hope and endurance.

the-underground-railroadThe narrative follows Cora, who is already isolated by some of her fellow workers on the plantation, who consents to flee Georgia with fellow slave Caesar and head for freedom in the north. They take the underground railroad; in Whitehead’s novel, this is a real railroad running on tracks underneath the various states it crosses. Cora’s journey takes her to the Carolinas, Tennessee, Indiana and the North. Along the way, she experiences hope and exhilaration and enormous cruelty. The vicious slave catcher Ridgeway is on their track, and his only real failure in the past was his inability to find Cora’s mother Mabel who is believed to have actually achieved freedom. The novel ends with Cora joining a group of wagons heading for St. Louis and the trail to California.

the-underground-railroadNot only does Cora’s fantastic—I use the word advisedly—journey take her through states, it also takes the reader through time. For example, the eugenics programs and the syphilis research Whitehead refers to actually took place long after the antebellum period in which Cora makes her journey. In some ways, the novel feels like a collage of incidents from American history held together by the narrative of Cora’s flight.

the-underground-railroadDoes this historical inaccuracy undercut the effect of the work or contribute to its depth? The novel does, indeed, demonstrate just how flexible and powerful fiction can be. Fiction can transcend space and time. Fiction creates new worlds, plays with words. It turns the idea of an underground railroad into a literal railroad complete with stations running under the ground. It can build skyscrapers where there aren’t actually any. It can move events centuries. It can challenge preconceptions. It can be a cry for justice and equality. However, having an audience take your fantasy for fact may be even more troubling than having an audience miss one’s irony in satirical writing. Despite the fact of The Underground Railroad’s often being compared with Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, it lacks satire’s hyperbole. The horrors described in the novel are not shocking because they are gross overstatement drawing attention to the ridiculousness of the object of the satire; they are shocking because they are true. The beatings, lynchings, rapes, murders, and betrayals described by Whitehead happened, but not always as and when Whitehead places them.

the-underground-railroadMy concerns are somewhat addressed by Juan Gabriel Vásquez in his August 5, 2016 review of the novel for The New York Times. Vásquez reminds us of “the myriad ways in which black history has too often been stolen by white narrators”; he goes on to say, “Whitehead’s novel is constantly concerned with these matters of narrative authenticity and authority, and so too with the different versions of the past we carry with us.”  A prime example of this difference is the history of Cora’s mother, Mabel. What Cora, Caesar, and Ridgeway believe about Mabel is actually not what Whitehead reveals to the reader near the end of the novel. Vásquez believes the novel to be “Whitehead’s own attempt at getting things right, not by telling us what we already know but by vindicating the powers of fiction to interpret the world.” He goes on to assert, “In its exploration of the foundational sins of America, it is a brave and necessary book” (“In Colson Whitehead’s Latest, the Underground Railroad Is More Than a Metaphor,” The New York Times 5 August 2016. 20 February 2017).

the-underground-railroadThe National Book Award judges’ assessment of the work is that in detailing “the grotesque barbarities of  . . . [United States’] history” Whitehead gives “us an electrifying narrative of the past, profoundly resonant with the present” (  20 February 2017). True indeed. As I commented earlier, comparisons between The Underground Railroad and Gulliver’s Travels are quite common. For me, however, the work that came to mind was Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Here, too, the naïve picara endeavours to find her way to autonomy. As she passes through each stage of a game that is apparently without real rules or order, she struggles to make sense of each individual scene in which she finds herself. Just as each square offers Alice a slightly different world vision and experience, so, too, each state or stage of Cora’s journey offers a different perspective on inter-race relations and politics, each one ultimately as bewildering as the last.

the-underground-railroadAlice discovers that even as a queen she is still in a world where the rules work against her, but Alice wakes up from her dream. Cora’s journey is the stuff of nightmare. Cora is on a wagon to St. Louis to join a trail to California. What will she find there? Whitehead doesn’t exactly finish the story. How can he? The story of  inequality and oppression remains unfinished, in need of resolution.








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Confronting the Cosmic Drama: Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic

Version 2
Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England. Weidenfeld and Nelson, 1971. Harmondsworth, Middx.: Penguin 1973.

I started a very leisurely progress through this book early last fall. A friend lent it to me with the suggestion, “Don’t read it all at once.” I took her advice but am still not sure whether I was right to do so. Because I read a section and then paused, I’m not sure whether I have a truly coherent sense of Thomas’ thesis in this book. But then I’m also not totally sure that Thomas has a single thesis. The work is panoramic in scope, covering, as its title suggests, two centuries of English social history, and this breadth is at times somewhat challenging as Thomas shifts between examples from the mid 1500s to those from the late 1600s.

Version 3If we think about it, life in 1699 must have been rather different from life in 1500. The period begins pre-reformation and ends in the Enlightenment. Taking a rather simplistic view, I suppose one could argue that Thomas is examining the transition from alchemy to chemistry, from a theological world view to a more philosophical outlook, from absolutist monarchy to the beginning of constitutional monarchy in 1689’s Bill of Rights.1

Version 6In his Forward, Thomas tells us that he is “attempt[ing] to make sense of some of the systems of belief which were current in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, but which no longer enjoy much recognition today.” He goes on to say that he has “been much helped by the studies made by modern social anthropologists of similar beliefs held in Africa and elsewhere” (ix). Despite Thomas’ remarks about “unhistorically minded sociologists” (205), his work at least to someone whose training is in literary studies not history seems distinctly to draw on the practices of the social sciences, and there were moments when one felt he was looking at the past rather as a biologist looks at specimens under a microscope, and for some reason, this point of view made me feel somewhat uncomfortable.

Version 4Perhaps it has something to do with particular turns of phrase. When discussing, for example, the development of witchcraft in Europe, he comments how what “was to distinguish it from the witch-beliefs of other primitive [my emphasis] peoples” was the witch’s “pact with the devil” (521). I’m not sure how comfortable we are today with designating any peoples or cultures as “primitive,” and I am not at all sure that we see past Tudor and Stuart societies as “primitive.” Far from it. True, Thomas does emphasise that his examination covers the “popular” beliefs of the period. But to what extent are today’s “popular” beliefs actually grounded in a firm understanding of contemporary science or philosophy?

Version 8Thomas’ somewhat paternalistic tones may perhaps grate somewhat, but the book was, we must remember, published in the early seventies. However, it is still a highly useful and informative resource, heavily researched and copiously annotated. Sometimes the footnotes will take more page space than the main text. There are times when one wants Thomas just to move on towards his conclusion. It was his section entitled “Conclusion” that I found the easiest to deal with. Unsurprisingly, here is where he draws all his research together and summarizes the previous chapters. If one were interested only in having the overview, this section would suffice. I would also have like a detailed Bibliography. Chasing down sources from footnotes only can be not a little irritating.

thomas-magic-1When published, Religion and the Decline of Magic received many accolades, deservedly so. It remains, I believe—my research into the matter I must admit has been scanty and superficial—one of the most detailed books on the subject. It remains available in several formats. If you are interested in the topic, you will find the book interesting.

Version 5If I were to try and abstract what I took from Thomas’s book, his thesis, if you like, I would note it something like this:

  1. Protestantism removes much of the magical from religion.
  2. Despite Neoplatonic influences, the development of the empirical scientific method is demystifying the practice of natural sciences


  1. The decline of rural village communal economies and the rise of the individual capitalist destroys communal ties and leads to a “conflict between neighbourliness and a growing sense of private property” (663).
  2. Such conflict leads to anxiety.

Version 2Thomas concludes, “If magic is to be defined as the employment of ineffective techniques to allay anxiety when effective ones are not available, then we must recognise that no society will ever be free from it” (800). I suspect not. Just what techniques allay our societal anxieties? How many of us consult our horoscopes every day? Buy crystals? Avoid walking under ladders? Take various chemical nostrums not necessarily listed in the Pharmacopoeia? In the sixties and early seventies there may well have been a certain consensus that the influence of religion was waning. I’m not sure that we can claim that to be true now. All in all, I’m not sure that anyone studying contemporary society would find anything that different in terms of people’s responses to social instability and change from what Thomas observes about the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: a somewhat sobering thought.


Version 9
It’s  just about impossible to imagine Henry VIII or Elizabeth I even contemplating the possibility of such a Bill. William III had little choice but to accept and also had his Dutch experience of having to be appointed Stadtholder by the Dutch states. Despite these changes, however, at some levels, some things had not changed. Some people still consulted astrologers, for example. Of course, some people consult astrologers today. You can if you want access your daily horoscope on line. I’m not sure, however, how many medical doctors today would want to see your astrological charts as well as your x-ray reports and blood tests.







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