March 1, 2009

1. The Caribbean: An Introduction

We’re planning an April trip to Saint Martin, in the Caribbean, partly because my wife’s six-month chemo-treatment is ending, and partly because a munificent sibling arranged a hotel. I soon realized that I didn’t know what the Caribbean was — except that it was south of North America, and north of South America.

You can think of the Caribbean Sea as a bowl, and the Gulf of Mexico as another bowl, northwest of the Caribbean. (See map here.) The Caribbean is formed by South America in the south, Central America in the west, Cuba and Hispaniola in the north, and the Lesser Antilles in the east, while the Gulf of Mexico is formed by Mexico in the south and west, the U.S. in the north and east, and Cuba in the southeast (see map here). Or you can think of the Caribbean as the dial of a clock, with Hispaniola at noon, Martinique at 3 pm, Aruba at 6 pm, Honduras at 9 pm, and Cuba stretching from 10:30 to 11:30 pm. (Hispaniola is divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.)

There are several islands that lie just outside this “island arc”: The Cayman Islands are south of Cuba, Jamaica is also south of Cuba (and east of the Cayman Islands), the Bahamas are north of Cuba, and Turks & Caicos are an extension of the Bahamas to the southeast. If you complete this arc at Aruba/asparagus, you can continue along the coasts of South and Central America to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, and the resorts of Cancun and Cozumel; the Yucatan is only about 100 miles from the west coast of Cuba, where we started. Now you’ve gone around the bowl of the Caribbean.

The term “Caribbean Islands” is roughly synonymous with the terms “West Indies” and “Antilles” (perhaps the only difference is that The Bahamas is usually considered part of the West Indies, but not part of the Antilles or the Caribbean). “West Indies” comes from Columbus’ belief that he was reaching the Indies by going west (instead of the usual eastern route to the Indies).

“Antilles” is a medieval term for a group of islands that was thought to lie west of the Canaries. The Greater Antilles are the large islands of Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico, while the Lesser Antilles are the smaller islands that form an arc from Puerto Rico to Venezuela. The northern half of the Lesser Antilles are called the Leeward Islands, the southern half are called the Windward Islands (since the trade winds hit the Windward Islands first).

Aruba, Curacao, Bonaire, and other islands just north of Venezuela are called the Leeward Antilles, since the east-to-west trade winds reach them after they reach the Lesser Antilles. Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao are called the “ABC Islands.” Curacao is the largest of the ABC Islands, and lies between Aruba (to the west) and Bonaire (to the east). So if we move from west to east, we have ACB — Aruba, Curacao, Bonaire.

“Caribbean” comes from the Carib Indians, who lived in the Lesser Antilles, having displaced the Arawak Indians shortly before the arrival of Columbus (Columbus usurped the usurper1). One might suppose that the Caribs were more civilized than the Arawaks, hence they were able to displace them. In fact, the contrary seems to be true: the Caribs were more brutal and warlike. One is reminded of the brutal, warlike Mongols, who overcame the more civilized peoples of China and Russia.

Like the Caribs, the Aztecs were a conquering people who built their empire shortly before the arrival of Columbus. When Cortes attacked the Aztecs in 1521, he was assisted by some native tribes. The Incas, too, built their empire shortly before the coming of the Europeans. When Pizarro attacked the Incas in 1533, he took advantage of their internal divisions. In what is now the American Great Plains, the Sioux displaced other tribes shortly before the coming of the white man.2 In sum, the New World in 1492 was a world in flux, a world at war.

While the term “West Indies” is purely geographic, it can be qualified to indicate political affiliation. Thus, we have “British West Indies,” “French West Indies,” “Dutch West Indies,” and “Spanish West Indies”; the British West Indies are sometimes called the “Anglophone Caribbean”. Political affiliation changes, and most Caribbean islands are now at least partly independent, so the following table is based on language and history more than current political affiliation.

BritishNote: Islands arranged north-to-south within each group


British Virgin Islands (Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada, Jost Van Dyke, etc.)
Saint Kitts and Nevis; Saint Kitts is home to Brimstone Hill Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Antigua and Barbuda
Saint Lucia
Trinidad and Tobago (near Venezuela)
Also among the British West Indies (but not in the Caribbean) are the Bahamas, Bermuda (an island about 650 miles east of The Carolinas) and Belize (a small Central American country, near Guatemala).
FrenchHaiti (the western third of Hispaniola)
St. Bart’s
Statia (Sint Eustatius)
the ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao)
Spanish Cuba
the Dominican Republic
Puerto Rico

Saint Martin, like Hispaniola, is politically divided. The southern half of Saint Martin is Dutch, the northern half French. The Dutch half is called St. Maarten (or Sint Maarten), while the French half is called Saint-Martin. Saint Martin is the smallest land-mass in the world that’s controlled by two different nations. Like many Caribbean islands, Saint Martin is partly independent, partly controlled by the “mother countries.”

The northeast edge of South America was divided between the major colonial powers. From west to east, there was British Guiana (now called Guyana), Dutch Guiana (now called Suriname), and French Guiana (still called “French Guiana”). To the south of these three small countries is the former Portuguese colony of Brazil, and to the west is the former Spanish colony of Venezuela.

The arc of the Lesser Antilles is an example of an “island arc.” Island arcs are formed when “oceanic crust subducts beneath other oceanic crust on an adjacent plate.”3 Other examples of island arcs are the Mariana Islands (in the Pacific) and the Aleutian Islands (off Alaska).

Perhaps because they originated in the collision of plates, the Lesser Antilles have hills, even mountains, in contrast with the Bahamas, which are made of limestone and coral, and are flat like Florida (the Bahamas are southeast of Florida). The island of Dominica (in the middle of the Lesser Antilles) has a mountain almost 5,000 feet high, while the highest point in the Bahamas is only 200 feet. Dominica is also home to Boiling Lake, an indication of seismic activity. Montserrat, which is about 100 miles northwest of Dominica, has an active volcano; in 1995, the capital of Montserrat (Plymouth) was buried by a volcanic eruption.

Since the Lesser Antilles are a continuous chain of islands, it’s an ideal place for cruise ships. If you don’t like the idea of a big cruise ship, you might consider a “sailing cruise,” which uses a smaller boat, with fewer passengers, and fewer crew-members. My sister took a sailing cruise in The Grenadines, and raved about it. There were 6 passengers and 3 crew-members. She flew into Grenada (not far from Venezuela), sailed north, and flew out of St. Lucia.

Like most of the world, especially the New World, the Caribbean Islands were colonized and controlled by Spain, France, England, and Holland. The Spanish were the first to come, and also the first to leave. There was also a Danish and Swedish presence on some islands. The U.S. has controlled certain Caribbean Islands, notably Puerto Rico and the “U.S. Virgin Islands” (St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas). Perhaps the most recent shift of political power occurred in 1898, when the U.S. defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War, and acquired some islands that had been Spanish, such as Puerto Rico.

Like many Caribbean Islands, Saint Martin was named by Columbus, who passed it on his second voyage, in 1493. Since the date was November 11, the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, Columbus named the island Saint Martin.

As a youngster, I made several trips with my family to the Bahamas. We enjoyed swimming, snorkeling, tennis, eating coconuts, collecting sea-shells, etc. It was around 1980, the Bahamas were newly-independent, and drug-related crime was on the rise. One family we knew came from England to their Bahamian house, only to find it occupied by Cuban drug dealers, who had no intention of leaving. One man we knew went out in his boat, and never returned; it was assumed that criminals had seized his boat, and thrown him to the sharks. Perhaps we should count murder and mayhem among the blessings of de-colonization.

If you want to learn more about the Caribbean, consider the books of Alec Waugh (elder brother of Evelyn Waugh), such as A Family of Islands: A History of the West Indies: 1492 to 1898, The Sunlit Caribbean, The Sugar Islands: a Caribbean travelogue, The Sugar Islands: a collection of pieces written about the West Indies between 1928 and 1953, and Island in the Sun (a novel). Also consider James Michener’s historical novel, Caribbean (1989) and Mark Kurlansky’s A Continent of Islands: Searching for the Caribbean Destiny (1991).

2. Chickens and Eggs

I’m moving along with Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything. Having finished Bryson’s chapters on physics, chemistry, and geology, I’m starting his chapters on biology and anthropology (early man).

Bryson discusses the mystery, How did life originate? This mystery presents us with some chicken-and-egg problems: How can there be proteins without DNA, but what would be the purpose of DNA if proteins didn’t yet exist? And how can you have DNA, proteins, etc. without a cell membrane around them, but how can you have a cell membrane unless DNA and proteins already exist?

In many previous issues, we’ve discussed such chicken-and-egg problems, and we’ve argued that the best solution is The Doctrine of Mutual Arising, a doctrine taught in India. We’ve argued that causality should be thought of as a vast net, where everything is inter-connected, rather than as a linear chain. Perhaps Mutual Arising is non-rational, perhaps it’s occult, perhaps it’s related to synchronicity, but I think it can help us to understand how the world works.

3. Lovejoy on “The Great Chain of Being”

A. Leibniz

Lovejoy says that the Great Chain of Being figures prominently in the philosophy of Leibniz. Leibniz believed in the principle of plenitude (the fullness of the world), in continuity (there were no gaps or jumps or missing links in the chain of being), and in a hierarchical arrangement of creation from lowest forms to highest forms. Leibniz admired Plato, who had said that the world exists for a reason; Leibniz wanted to convert Plato’s poetic flights into systematic philosophy.

Leibniz argued that not only does the world exist for a reason, but everything in it does, too; he called this “the principle of sufficient reason.” This principle had a psychological aspect, which stated that our choices must be based on reasons;4 “value was purely objective, and valuing a strictly logical process.”5 Leibniz was a rational philosopher par excellence, a representative of The Age of Reason. In Leibniz’s view, “the reasonableness of the universe [is] of the same type as the reasonableness of a geometrical system.”6

Buridan’s Ass was completely rational, and was given a choice of two piles of hay that were equally good, and equally close to him. Not having any reason to choose one over the other, he starved to death. Leibniz’s God was not unlike Buridan’s Ass: He never acted without a reason, so if He lacked reasons, He didn’t act. Leibniz said that, if there were three equal bodies, there would be no reason to put them in any particular order, and therefore “they never will be placed in any order by Him who does nothing without wisdom.”7 This is the triumph of rationality over spontaneity, this is rationality carried to a ridiculous extreme. Rational philosophy tends to make philosophy itself ridiculous.

As we said in the last issue, Lovejoy scoffs at Leibniz’s distinction between “inclining reason” and necessity. Lovejoy says that Leibniz wants to have his cake, and eat it, too.8 Leibniz tried to avoid the determinism of Spinoza, while still maintaining that God would always choose the best alternative. Leibniz tried to distinguish between metaphysical necessity and moral necessity; he tried to argue that it was certain God would choose an alternative, but not necessary, that God was “inclined” by a particular reason, but not necessitated. “The distinction which Leibniz here attempts to set up is manifestly without logical substance; the fact is so apparent that it is impossible to believe that a thinker of his powers can have been altogether unaware of it himself.”9 Lovejoy is a great historian of philosophy, and also a great critic of rational philosophy.

According to Lovejoy, Leibniz used verbal gymnastics to avoid the determinism that Spinoza accepted.

Leibniz lacked the candor and courage to express the certain, and almost obvious, outcome of his reasonings, in his more popular writings, without obscuring it by misleading if edifying phraseology — especially by the verbal distinction, absolutely meaningless in the light of his other doctrines, between “necessitating” and “infallibly inclining” reasons.10

Lovejoy tells us that Leibniz believed “nature is everywhere teeming with life, all of it accompanied with some degree of sentiency.”11 Leibniz said, “In every particle of the universe a world composed of an infinity of creatures is contained.” Leibniz opposed those who believed that a vacuum was possible. Leibniz’s remarks remind one of modern physics (subatomic particles, etc.), modern biology (countless tiny cells, etc.), and The Philosophy of Today (there’s no dead matter, everywhere is energy, life, etc.).

B. Spinoza

Philosophers often argued that God exists of necessity. Spinoza went further than most, and argued that everything exists of necessity. Nothing that exists could be any different than it is, so don’t regret anything, don’t think about what might have been. Spinoza found this doctrine calming; there’s a certain tranquillity in his philosophy. While Leibniz subscribed to the optimistic view that this is the best of all possible worlds, Spinoza argued that this world must be just as it is, there’s no room for choice, no goal, no teleology, no better or worse, no good or evil. Everything simply is. What is, must be. This is the amoral strain in Spinoza that Nietzsche so admired.

“Okay, so everything exists of necessity. But why doesn’t everything exist now, and exist permanently?” Spinoza had difficulty answering this question; Spinoza’s system was static, timeless. “Becoming and change... simply do not fit into an eternal rational order.”12 Spinoza’s failure to deal with time/becoming created a task for the philosophers who came after him (Hegel, for example, stressed the importance of history and becoming).

Spinoza believed that everything exists of necessity, that it was God’s nature to pour Himself out into the Creation. The Creation is God — this is Spinoza’s pantheism. Spinoza’s God wasn’t “a God above the world in his eternal and absolute self-sufficiency, but the total collection of finite beings.”13

Spinoza subscribed to the principle of sufficient reason (everything exists for a reason, or doesn’t exist for a reason). Like Leibniz, Spinoza was a rational philosopher, a representative of The Age of Reason. (While Nietzsche admired the amoral strain in Spinoza, he deplored Spinoza’s logical/geometrical writing-style.)

C. 18th-Century Thinkers

Lovejoy begins his discussion of the 18th century by saying how popular the Great Chain of Being was in the 18th century, and how frequently it was discussed. He says, however, that there were two prominent critics of the idea, Voltaire and Samuel Johnson.

It was generally believed that man formed a middle link in the Chain of Being — higher than animals, but lower than angels and other spiritual beings. Lovejoy quotes Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man:

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great,
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err...
Chaos of Thought and Passion all confus’d;
Still by himself abus’d or disabus’d;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.14

Lovejoy points out that Bacon believed in final causes, in teleology, and Bacon believed that everything in the world was meant to serve man, “insomuch that if man were taken away from the world, the rest would seem to be all astray, without aim or purpose.”15 Descartes, however, rejected teleology, pointing out that there were many creatures that man never even came into contact with, much less derived any benefit from. This rejection of teleology was shared by some 18th-century writers, who rejoiced in the world’s beauty and diversity; Lovejoy speaks of,

the cosmical piety and the sort of Romantic delight in the world which can arise, not from any belief in its adaptation to man’s needs or hopes, but from its infinite richness and diversity as a spectacle, the prodigious sweep of the complex and often tragic drama which it exhibits.16

While Bacon had said that every animal exists for man, Goethe reversed this, and said “every animal is an end in itself.”17

Discussing the optimism of 18th-century thinkers like William King and Alexander Pope, Lovejoy says that these optimists were hard put to explain why, if this is the best of possible worlds, it’s far less good than the Garden of Eden or Heaven. If this is the best of possible worlds, if earthly evils are a necessary part of the “fullness” of the world, then why are these evils conspicuously absent from Eden and Heaven?18

The optimists created theodicies that attempted to show that evil and suffering are necessary parts of the world. According to the principle of plenitude, everything that can exist must exist, and that includes evil and suffering. We shouldn’t try to eliminate evil and suffering. “Both hedonism... and an abstract moralism were equally contrary to the value-theory implicit in the principle of plenitude.”19 Since Leibniz was a champion of the principle of plenitude, he argued that neither moral goodness nor pleasure is the most important thing.20

Turning to 18th-century biology, Lovejoy says that it was becoming widely believed that species weren’t natural — that is, species were a creation of the mind, not of nature. It was also becoming widely believed that man wasn’t entirely different from animals, that there wasn’t a gap or jump between animals and man. Lovejoy contrasts these 18th-century views with Renaissance views, and says that the Renaissance clung to Aristotle’s belief in natural species, while rejecting Aristotelian influence in physics, metaphysics, and astronomy.

Even in the 17th century, Locke had questioned whether species are natural. Locke was skeptical of abstractions and generalizations; Lovejoy speaks of Locke’s semi-nominalism. Locke even doubted whether our own species can be clearly defined. If we go back to earlier forms of our species, it would be difficult to say where the boundaries of “man” should be set.

18th-century thinkers like Rousseau and Monboddo went even further than Locke, and argued that man and higher apes are the same species. A naturalist named Bonnet said that orangutans were capable of education, and could be good servants; this proves, says Bonnet, the axiom of Leibniz that “Nature makes no leaps.”21 The French naturalist Buffon said that species are human constructs and in nature itself, only individuals exist. Later, however, Buffon realized that hybrids are infertile, and he changed his mind, and argued that species are natural.22

Turning to the discoveries of Leeuwenhoek, Lovejoy says that they agreed with the principles of plenitude and continuity, and were even predicted in advance on the basis of these principles.23 Just as the principle of plenitude led to a belief in innumerable worlds, and inhabited worlds, so too the principle led downward to microscopic worlds. “The ‘two infinites’ — the infinitely great and the infinitely little — both were implicates of the same premises.”24 Only a full world is consistent with God’s infinite power.

© L. James Hammond 2009
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1. In my book of aphorisms, I asked, “Who is really indigenous? Are we not all usurpers?” back
2. “The history of the northern and central American Great Plains in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is far more complicated than the tragic retreat of the Indians in the face of an inexorable white advance. From the perspective of most northern and central plains tribes the crucial invasion of the plains during this period was not necessarily that of the whites at all. These tribes had few illusions about American whites and the danger they presented, but the Sioux remained their most feared enemy.” (“The Winning of the West,” by Richard White, in American Encounters: Natives and Newcomers from European Contact to Indian Removal, 1500-1850, edited by Peter C. Mancall and James Hart Merrell, p. 543) back
3. Wikipedia back
4. Ch. 5, p. 168 back
5. Ch. 5, p. 173 back
6. Ch. 5, p. 174 back
7. Ch. 5, p. 169. “Where there was no preponderance of value in one contemplated object rather than another, an intelligent agent would be as powerless to move as a piece of matter in an equilibrium of forces.”(Lovejoy) back
8. Ch. 5, p. 169 back
9. Ch. 5, p. 172 back
10. Ch. 5, p. 174. back
11. Ch. 5, p. 182 back
12. Ch. 5, p. 154 back
13. Ch. 5, p. 163 back
14. Ch. 6, p. 199 back
15. Ch. 6, p. 187 back
16. Ch. 6, p. 189 back
17. Ch. 6, p. 189 back
18. Ch. 7, p. 221 back
19. Ch. 7, p. 224 back
20. Ch. 7, p. 224 back
21. Ch. 8, p. 235 back
22. Ch. 8, p. 230 back
23. Ch. 8, p. 237 back
24. Ch. 8, p. 237 back