May 6

If a man is not interested in having children, but is keen on winning victory crowns at the games or is engaged in some other such pursuit to which he recognizes that sexual intercourse is detrimental, then nothing would be of greater benefit to him than castration. It is time therefore for us to cut off the testicles of Olympic athletes. – Galen, (129-c. 210), On Semen

May 5

1260 Kublai Khan becomes Mongol Emperor

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree,/ Where Alph, the sacred river, ran/ Through caverns measureless to man/ Down to a sunless sea. Thus did Samuel Coleridge, in one of the greatest drug-induced poems of the 19th century, describe the summer palace of Kublai Khan, Mongol emperor and founder of the Yuan dynasty that ruled China for for the next century.

Kublai was the grandson of the Mongol leader Genghis Khan, born in 1215. Though Mongol military genius would create an empire that stretched from the Black Sea to the Pacific and encompass a fifth of the land on the planet, its primitive political structure created civil war and fracture every time a ruler died. After a period of strife with rival princes, Kublai achieved pre-eminence in 1260 as Great Khan and set out to add to his empire by conquering China. He defeated the forces of the Song dynasty and made China, sophisticated, populous and rich, his centre of operations — this vexed the western Mongols who complained that Kublai was becoming sinified and forgetting the good old Mongol ways. Rebellions by ambitious Mongol princes were quashed and the leaders were smothered to death in heavy carpets (to avoid the taboo of shedding royal blood).

As a Mongol leader, Kublai was hooked on ever-more conquest; he succeeded in subduing Korea and Burma but his attempts to invade Vietnam, Java, and Japan ended in disaster. His reign in China saw the strengthening of the state, the repair of infrastructure damaged in war, progress in military technology and science, and contact with Europe. He used Muslims, Christians (including the Venetian Polo family) and other minorities in his civil service but he tended to persecute Daoists and forbade some Muslim and Jewish ritual practices.

Kublai died, gouty and obese, in 1294 but the founder of a unified China with its capital at Beijing.

May 4

At a meeting of the college faculty, an angel suddenly appears and tells the head of the philosophy department, “I will grant you whichever of three blessings you choose: Wisdom, Beauty—or ten million dollars.” Immediately, the professor chooses Wisdom. There is a flash of lightning, and the professor appears transformed, but he just sits there, staring down at the table. One of his colleagues whispers, “Say something.” The professor says, “I should have taken the money.” – Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, 2007

I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this. – Emo Phillips, HBO comedy special, 1987

May 3

St James the Lesser

Saint James, as “the son of Alphaeus” appears four times in Scripture in lists of the Twelve Apostles. There are, however, a number  of other appearances by a figure named James and sorting them out has been a challenge. He was clearly not James “son of Zebedee”, but was he the James “son of Mary”, or perhaps the James “brother of the Lord”, mentioned in Galatians? Catholic tradition has it that he was son of Alphaeus and Mary and brother (which is to say “cousin”) of Jesus.

James appears to have been prominent in the Christian community in Jerusalem. He met with Paul on a number of occasions and agreed with the decision that Gentile converts need not adhere to Jewish ritual law. Whether he was martyred by being thrown off the Temple and beaten with clubs or crucified in Egypt is uncertain but a club has long been used in art as his symbol. He is the patron saint of druggists and fullers (both professions use clubs), milliners, and Uruguay.

May 2

A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is merely relative, is asking you not to believe him. So don’t. Deconstruction deconstructs itself, and disappears up its own behind, leaving only a disembodied smile and a faint smell of sulphur.  – Roger Scruton, Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey, 1994

Bart: We want the truth.

Sideshow Bob: You can’t handle the truth! No truth-handler, you. BAH! I deride your truth-handling abilities. 

– “Sideshow Bob Roberts”, The Simpsons, 1995

April 30

The adjective “modern”’, when applied to any branch of art, means “designed to evoke incomprehension, anger, boredom or laughter”. – Philip Larkin, All That Jazz, 1985

I don’t know what art is, but I do know what it isn’t. And it isn’t someone walking around with a salmon over his shoulder, or embroidering the name of everyone they have slept with on the inside of a tent. – Brian Sewell, Independent, 26 April, 1999

A cow and calf are cut in half/ And placed in separate cases/ To call it art, however smart/ Casts doubt on art’s whole basis. – Anonymous, in Spectator, 5 July 2003

April 28

After all they were a democracy; and, as Thucydides fully recognizes, a great mass of men, if it does commit infamies, likes first to be drugged and stimulated with lies: it seldom, like the wicked man in Aristotle’s Ethics, “calmly sins.” – Gilbert Murray, Euripides and His Age, 1946