November 28, 2006


-EXCERPT: from The Intellectual Devotional By David Kidder and Noah Oppenheim

Daily Devotionals have long been a favored tool of those looking for a regular dose of spiritual growth. Bedside volumes, read upon waking in the morning or before retiring at night, Devotionals consist of 365 exercises in learning and reflection. One easily digestible entry is tackled each day.

The Intellectual Devotional is a secular compendium in the same tradition. It is one year's worth of daily readings that will refresh your spirit, stimulate your mind, and help complete your education. Each entry is drawn from a different field of knowledge: History, Literature, Visual Arts, Science, Music, Philosophy, and Religion. Read one passage a day and you will explore each subject once a week.

These readings offer the kind of regular exercise the brain requires to stay fresh, especially as we age. They represent an escape from the day-to-day grind into the rarefied realm of human wisdom. And, they will open new horizons of intellectual discovery.

A brief summary of the journey ahead . . .

Monday -- History

A survey of people and events that shaped the development of Western civilization.

Tuesday -- Literature

A look at great writers and a synopsis of their most important works -- poems and novels that continue to inspire readers today.

Wednesday -- Visual Arts

An introduction to the artists and artistic movements that yielded the world's most influential paintings, sculptures, and works of architecture.

Thursday -- Science

From the origin of black holes to a description of how batteries work, the wonders of science are simplified and revealed.

Friday -- Music

What inspired our greatest composers, how to read a sheet of notes, and why Mozart is so revered -- a comprehensive review of our musical heritage.

Saturday -- Philosophy

From ancient Greece to the twentieth century, the efforts of mankind's greatest thinkers to explain the meaning of life and the universe.

Sunday -- Religion

An overview of the world's major religions and their beliefs.

We hope your progress through this collection of knowledge inspires your curiosity and opens new areas of exploration in your life.

--David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim

Week 1


Monday, Day 1

The Alphabet

In circa 2000 BC, the Egyptian pharaohs realized they had a problem. With each military victory over their neighbors, they captured and enslaved more prisoners of war. But the Egyptians could not pass down written orders to these slaves as they could not read hieroglyphics.

Early writing systems, such as Egyptian hieroglyphics, were extremely cumbersome and difficult to learn. These systems had thousands of characters, with each symbol representing an idea or word. Memorizing them could take years. Only a handful of Egyptians could actually read and write their complicated script.

Linguists believe that almost all modern alphabets are derived from the simplified version of hieroglyphics devised by the Egyptians four thousand years ago to communicate with their slaves. The development of an alphabet, the writing system used throughout the Western world, changed the way the ancients communicated.

In the simplified version, each character represented only a sound. This innovation cut back the number of characters from a few thousand to a few dozen, making it far easier to learn and use the characters. The complicated hieroglyphic language was eventually forgotten, and scholars were not able to translate the characters until the discovery of the Rosetta stone in 1799.

The alphabet was extremely successful. When the Egyptian slaves eventually migrated back to their home countries, they took the writing system with them. The alphabet spread across the Near East, becoming the foundation for many writing systems in the area, including Hebrew and Arabic. The Phoenicians, an ancient civilization of seaborne traders, spread the alphabet to the tribes they encountered along the Mediterranean coast. The Greek and Roman alphabets, in turn, were based on the ancient Phoenician script. Today most Western languages, including English, use the Roman alphabet.

Additional Facts

1. Several letters in modern-day English are direct descendents of ancient Egyptian characters. For instance, the letter B derives from the Egyptian character for the word house.
2. The most recent edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 words in current usage, among the most of any language.


Tuesday, Day 2


James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) is widely regarded as the greatest novel written in English in the twentieth century. It retells Homer's Odyssey in the context of a single day -- June 16, 1904 -- in Dublin, Ireland, recasting Homer's great hero Odysseus in the unlikely guise of Leopold Bloom, an aging, cuckolded ad salesman who spends the day running errands and making various business appointments before he returns home at long last.

Though Bloom seems unassuming and ordinary, he emerges as a heroic figure, displaying compassion, forgiveness, and generosity toward virtually everyone in the odd cast of characters he meets. In his mundane and often unnoticed deeds, he practices an everyday heroism that is perhaps the only heroism possible in the modern world. And despite the fact that he always feels like an outsider -- he is a Jew in overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland -- Bloom remains optimistic and dismisses his insecurities.

Ulysses is celebrated for its incredibly rich portraits of characters, its mind-boggling array of allusions to other literary and cultural works, and its many innovations with language. Throughout the course of the novel, Joyce flirts with literary genres and forms ranging from drama to advertising copy to Old English. The novel is perhaps most famous for its extensive use of stream-of-consciousness narrative -- Joyce's attempt to render the inner thoughts of his characters exactly as they occur, with no effort to impose order or organization. This technique became a hallmark of modernist literature and influenced countless other writers, such as Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, who also experimented with it in their works.

Not surprisingly, Ulysses poses a difficult journey for the reader, especially its famous last chapter, which recounts the thoughts of Bloom's wife, Molly. Molly's reverie goes on for more than 24,000 words yet is divided into only eight mammoth sentences. Despite the challenge it poses, the chapter shows Joyce at his most lyrical, especially in the final lines, which reaffirm Molly's love for her husband despite her infidelity:

and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Additional Fact

1. Ulysses was banned for obscenity in the United States for nearly twelve years because of its (mostly indirect) sexual imagery.

Visual Arts

Wednesday, Day 3

Lascaux Cave Paintings

The cave paintings at Lascaux are among the earliest known works of art. They were discovered in 1940 near the village of Montignac in central France when four boys stumbled into a cave. Inside they found a series of rooms with nearly 1,500 paintings of animals that were between 15,000 and 17,000 years old.

There are several theories regarding the function of the paintings. A natural feature of the cave may have suggested the shape of an animal to a prehistoric observer who then added highlights to relay his vision to others. Since many of the paintings are located in inaccessible parts of the cave, they may have been used for magical practices. Possibly, prehistoric people believed that the act of drawing animals, especially with a high degree of accuracy, would bring the beasts under their control or increase their numbers in times of scarcity.

The animals are outlined or portrayed in silhouette. They are often shown in what is called twisted perspective, that is, with their heads in profile but their horns facing front. Many of the images include dots, linear patterns, and other designs that may carry symbolic meaning.

The most magnificent chamber of the cave, known as the Great Hall of the Bulls, contains a painted narrative. From left to right, the pictures depict the chase and capture of a bison herd.

As soon as the paintings had been examined and identified as Paleolithic, the caves were opened to the public in 1948. By 1955, however, it became increasingly evident that exposure to as many as 1,200 visitors per day was taking its toll on the works inside. Although protective measures were taken, the site closed in 1963. In order to satisfy public demand, a life-sized replica of the cave was completed in 1983, only 200 meters from the original.

Additional Facts

1. The cave painters were conscious of visual perspective; they painted figures high on the wall, styled so that they would not appear distorted to the viewer below.
2. The only human figure depicted in the cave appears in the Shaft of the Dead Man. The fact that it is drawn more crudely than the animals suggest that they did not think it was endowed with magical properties.


Thursday, Day 4


In 1997, a baby sheep named Dolly introduced the world to reproductive cloning. She was a clone because she and her mother shared the same nuclear DNA; in other words, their cells carried the same genetic material. They were like identical twins reared generations apart.

Scientists at the Roslin Institute in Scotland created Dolly by a process called nuclear transfer. Taking the genetic material from an adult donor cell, they transferred it into an unfertilized egg whose genetic material had been removed. In Dolly's case, the donor cell came from the mammary gland of a six-year-old Finn Dorset ewe. The researchers then gave the egg an electric shock, and it began dividing into an embryo.

One of the reasons Dolly's creation was so astounding was that it proved to the scientific community that a cell taken from a specialized part of the body could be used to create a whole new organism. Before Dolly, almost all scientists believed that once a cell became specialized it could only produce other specialized cells: A heart cell could only make heart cells, and a liver cell could only make liver cells. But Dolly was made entirely from a cell extracted from her mother's mammary gland, proving that specialized cells could be completely reprogrammed.

In many ways, Dolly was not like her mother. For example, her telomeres were too short. Telomeres are thin strands of protein that cap off the ends of chromosomes, the structures that carry genes. Although no one is sure exactly what telomeres do, they seem to help protect and repair our cells. As we age, our telomeres get shorter and shorter. Dolly received her mother's six-year-old telomeres, so from birth, Dolly's telomeres were shorter than the average lamb her age. Although Dolly appeared to be mostly normal, she was put to sleep in 2004 at the age of six, after suffering from lung cancer and crippling arthritis. The average Finn Dorset sheep lives to age eleven or twelve.

Additional Facts

1. Since 1997, cattle, mice, goats, and pigs have been successfully cloned using nuclear transfer.
2. The success rate for cloning is very low in all species. Published studies report that about 1 percent of reconstructed embryos survive birth. But since unsuccessful attempts largely go unreported, the actual number might be much lower.
3. Before she died, Dolly was the mother of six lambs, all bred the old-fashioned way.
4. A group of Korean researchers claimed to have cloned a human embryo in 1998, but their experiment was terminated at the 4-cell stage, so there was no evidence of their success.


Friday, Day 5

The Basics

Music is organized sound that can be replicated through imitation or notation. Music is distinct from noise in that the sounds of a door creaking open or fingernails on a blackboard are irregular and disorganized. The sound waves that map these noises are complex and cannot be heard as identifiable pitches.

Some of the basic ways that we analyze musical sounds are:

Pitch: How high or how low a sound is to the ear. Pitch is measured technically by the frequency of a sound wave, or how often waves repeat themselves. In western music there are twelve unique pitches (C, C-sharp or D-flat, D, D-sharp or E-flat, E, F, F-sharp or G-flat, G, G-sharp or A-flat, A, A-sharp or B-flat, and B). The pitches followed by sharps or flats are called accidentals, and they are most easily described as the black keys on the piano keyboard. They are located musically, one half step between the two pitches on either side of them. For example, D-sharp and E-flat have the same pitch. When referring to pitches in the context of notated, or written music, they are called notes.

Scale: A stepwise arrangement of pitches (for example, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C) that often serves as the basis for a melody. A piece, or a portion of a piece, will often use only notes found in a particular scale. Western music primarily uses the major scale or the minor scale, in one form or another. To most people, the major scale, because of its particular arrangement of pitches, has the quality of sounding "bright," "happy," or "positive." A minor scale, likewise, is usually described as "dark," "sad," or "pessimistic."

Key: An arrangement or system of pitches, usually based on one of the major or minor scales, that is meant to serve as a reference point and a guiding force of a melody. The tonic of a key is often the starting and ending point for a piece written in a particular key -- so if a piece is in E major, then the pitch E will serve as the piece's tonal center.

Additional Facts

1. All of these basic elements can be notated on the staff, which is a repeating of five parallel horizontal lines. Often it is divided into measures to indicate metric divisions in the piece and marked at the beginning of each staff of the page with a clef to indicate reference points for identifying pitches.
2. When a piece strays from its basic key, this is called modulation. Keys are indicated in written music by a key signature at the beginning of each staff.
3. There are hundreds of scales used in the world's many different musical cultures. In India, music played on the sitar and other instruments chooses pitches from a collection of twenty-two possibilities, with the distances between scale steps sometimes larger and sometimes smaller than those used in Western music. This can make differences between pitches extremely subtle and demands a high virtuosity from Indian classical musicians.


Saturday, Day 6

Appearance and Reality

Throughout its history, one of the great themes of philosophy has been the distinction between appearance and reality. This distinction was central to the thought of the earliest philosophers, called the Presocratics, because they lived before Socrates.

The Presocratics believed that the ultimate nature of reality was vastly different from the way it ordinarily appeared to them. For instance, one philosopher named Thales held that appearances notwithstanding, all reality was ultimately composed of water; Heraclitus thought the world was built from fire. Further, Heraclitus maintained that everything was constantly in motion. Another thinker, Parmenides, insisted that nothing actually moved and that all apparent motion was an illusion.

The Presocratics took seriously the possibility that all of reality was ultimately made up of some more fundamental substance. And they suspected that uncritical, everyday observation tends to present us with a misleading picture of the world. For these reasons, their thinking is often considered a precursor to modern science as well as philosophy.

Many later philosophers -- including Plato, Spinoza, and Leibniz -- followed in this tradition and presented alternative models of reality, which they claimed were closer to the truth than ordinary, commonsense views of the world.

Additional Facts

1. The distinction between appearance and reality is also central to the venerable philosophical tradition known as skepticism.
2. Immanuel Kant also addressed the difference between appearance and reality. He distinguished between things we experience and what he called a "thing-in-itself."


Sunday, Day 7


The Torah is the name generally given to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, or the Five Books of Moses. Christians refer to these books as the Old Testament. The word Torah can also refer to the entire breadth of Jewish law encompassing several texts as well as oral traditions.

The Five Books of Moses are the basis for the 613 laws that govern the Jewish faith, and they are the foundation for the world's three great monotheistic faiths -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They are as follows:

Genesis: Tells the story of creation as well as the history of the Israelites, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their families
Exodus: Recounts the exodus from Egypt to Canaan, including Moses receiving the Ten Commandments
Leviticus: Contains the rules and practices of worship
Numbers: Relates the journey of the Israelites in the wilderness
Deuteronomy: Consists of speeches made by Moses at the end of his life that recount Israelite history and ethical teachings

The five books are traditionally believed to have been given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Alternative theories claim the beginning of the Torah was given on Mount Sinai but that the revelation continued throughout Moses's life.

Historically, archaeologists have argued that the Torah was written sometime between the tenth and sixth centuries BC. Proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis, which according to Orthodox Jews is heretical, claim that the original five books came from four sources, eventually compiled into one by a fifth author or redactor. The arguments in favor of this theory are the multiple names used for God, varying styles of writing. and the repetition of stories.

From the beginning, the Torah was accompanied by an oral tradition, which was necessary for its complete understanding. Although it was thought to be blasphemous to write the oral tradition down, the necessity for doing so eventually became apparent, leading to the creation of the Mishna. Later, as rabbis discussed and debated these two texts, the Talmud was written in order to compile their arguments.

The Jewish tradition uses the text of the Torah to derive innumerable laws and customs. Rabbinic scholars have spent entire lifetimes parsing every word for meaning.

Additional Facts

1. Torah scrolls written in Hebrew by hand, contain 304,805 letters and may take more than a year to produce by hand. If a single mistake is made, the entire scroll becomes invalid.

It's certainly less painful to read a blurb about Ulysses just before bedtime than to suffer the book.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 28, 2006 10:26 AM

I'll stick with my brieviary, thanks.

Posted by: Lou Gots at November 28, 2006 11:25 AM

Wow. I need to stop to catch my breath. Interesting selections, however, and surprisingly even-handed. My PC meter didn't go off at all.

Ditto on Ulysses. I'll bet there are fewer people who have read the whole book and understood it than could read hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt.

Posted by: erp at November 28, 2006 12:38 PM

Ludovice, quod breviarium legis? Habeo "Divinum Officium" a Angelus Press in lucem eductum, sed amplius breviarium iam quaero. Velim quidquam cum lectionibus ex Patribus.

Posted by: Pontius at November 28, 2006 1:29 PM