Of Hebrew Remnants and Greek Republics (Second year university 1)

After failing my medical supplementary exams in February 1960, I registered for a B.A.  I wanted to start “pure” philosophy courses straight away, but these  could only be taken in the second year of the B.A. My first year subjects were Psychology I, Sociology I, Hebrew Special, Greek and Roman Literature and Philosophy, and French Elementary. I hated Psychology. It was all about rats and reflexes. Sociology introduced me to the premier attribute of man: he was a “socius”; a social animal. The other thing I remember about the Sociology course was Professor Batson. Not his lectures, because he didn’t lecture the first-year students. What I do remember is his ebullient shock of wavy silver hair as he wafted down the passage. He started the University of Cape Town chair of Social Science at the young age of 29 where he introduced sampling techniques in the measurement of poverty that made his department famous throughout South Africa. He was later made a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa. Isn’t that just human all too human  to be so obtuse in the perception and evaluation of others: I focused on gloss and ignored the essence. But if we weren’t so unaware, there would be no advertising industry – or teachers.

The Hebrew Special course was quite easy because it was a basic course, and also because I had learnt some Hebrew at Chaida (Hebrew School). We didn’t understand much of the Hebrew we learnt in Chaida. Hebrew classes at Chaida were more like parrot races. I described what we did in Chaida in “Letters of Hebrew fire – the depth and death of meaning”. We had to learn long bits of the Tanakh by heart. No one in the class understood what they were reading. Stuppel was the star of the show: he vomited large chunks of writ at full speed, and without dropping a single fiery letter. He was stupplefying.

In the University Hebrew course, I remember the Genesis passage where Abraham tries to persuade the LORD not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Here is the last part of the passsage:

Then Abraham said, “I don’t have any right to ask you, LORD, but what would you do if you find only twenty?” “Because of them, I won’t destroy the city,” was the LORD’s answer. Finally, Abraham said, “Please don’t get angry, LORD, if I speak just once more. Suppose you find only ten good people there.” “For the sake of ten good people,” the LORD told him, “I still won’t destroy the city.” After speaking with Abraham, the LORD left, and Abraham went back home.

But the LORD couldn’t even find ten good people, and so destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.

This passage consists of many repetitious phrases, and so it was easy to learn;  ideal for Chaida. And that’s how we were also treated in Hebrew “lectures”; like Chaida kids. But, we weren’t much better than kids because we were doing the Hebrew Special course, which was for beginners. As Churchill would have said if he had gone to synagogue instead of church: the university Hebrew Special course wasn’t the beginning of the beginning of my Hebrew knowledge, nor was it the beginning of the end; it was the end of the beginning.

To return to where I began: Genesis. When I now consider this Genesis passage (quoted above), I’m struck by its devastating significance.Who would think repetition was anything but a bore. The repetition of phrases about destruction may be a bore, but when you’re being destroyed yourself – that’s no bore.

This passage sets the mood for the whole history of Israel as well as its destiny and the destiny of all mankind. The term “remnant” is not used in this passage, but it is used over the rest of the Older Testament as well as the  Newer Testament. In the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, very few were saved. In Isaiah, God says that even “though a tenth remains in the land, it will again be laid waste;” only a remnant of a remnant will remain. But God promises that “as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”

“Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, LORD, have never forsaken those who seek you (Psalm 9:10).”

“The Lord may hide His face for a season from His people, but He never has utterly, finally, really, or angrily, forsaken them that seek him.”[1]

I enjoyed the Greek and Roman Literature-and-Philosophy course best. In this course, I got deeper into Plato’s “Republic”, which I had begun to read on the beach in Gordon’s Bay during the previous vacation. (See The Cave of Ignorance: In Concert with a Frog (First year University 3)

Plato’s “Republic” also featured large in all my other six philosophy courses of the following two years. Alfred North Whitehead said that all the general ideas of European philosophy are footnotes to Plato. Plato, unlike modern philosophers, was not obsessively obsessed with being recognised as an original thinker. He goes out of his way to stand back and let Socrates – the main character in all his writings – get all the glory. Socrates was Plato’s teacher. It might very well be true that Plato didn’t have many original bones in his body; he didn’t seem, though. to lose any sleep over  that.

Which reminds me of Isaac Newton. I’m getting a new spring in my step. That’s what someone’s shoulders does for me. My autobiography up to this point has been one long intermittent slouch. It must be the loftiness of the thoughts that are deliciously percolating through the sloth of self preoccupation. But, an expert on biography – like Plato – might argue  that I’ve got the wrong end of the candle, or rather, that there is nothing wrong with burning two candles at the same time; the one to shed light on eventful incidents that make for a real story, the other candle, to light up the unlit corners of the mind, where the really real story  is conceived and unfolds.

Plato, the philosopher, reminds me of Isaac Newton, the “mechanic”. It was Newton who formulated the foundational laws of modern mechanics. Newton can’t help you much if you’re fixing your car, but he could be of great help – he might even save your life – if you’re in the grave situation of being trapped below a cliff with a wayward car gravitating down on you.  Only a giant can save you, not Newton, even if you think he deserves the tag. He would have been the first to say: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Alexander Pope, the English poet, was less coy about Newton. Pope wrote: Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said “Let Newton be” and all was light.” Newton, the father of modern physics; Plato, the father of modern (western) philosophy. In Newton’s world as well as Plato’s, God doesn’t intervene in the ready-made world. For both Plato and Newton, the universe was designed along rational and universal principles. Newton and Plato had a different take on the “Principal Architect” of the universe. For Newton, God created the world out of nothing – the Judeo-Christian view. In Greek philosophy, as in Plato, there is no creator, but a hierarchy of interconnected being, ranging from the highest, which is spirit, to the lowest, which is gross matter. The “demiurge”[2] the supreme architect, brings cosmos (order) to the chaos.

When we get to the Kabbalah, things really get complicated. But that’s for another time, and for another place like my “deep” discussions on Judaism found elsewhere on this site.

[1] Charles  H. Spurgeon’s The Treasury of David, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass., Vol.1, pp. 98-99.


[2] Demiurge from Greek: demi – people, ergon – work. Hence “artisan”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s