Agora (2010)

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Agora (2010)

Post by Jeff D » Sun Jan 02, 2011 2:45 pm

This film, starring Rachel Weisz and directed by Alejandro Almenabar, didn't reach any movie theaters in my home state, but I bought the DVD. A good film, with impressive production values and pretty decent acting, about the last years of the Alexandrian library and academy in the late 4th century and early 5th century C.E. The action covers roughly the period starting just before the Christians' sacking and burning of the library (391 C.E., with the mob taking a rather liberal interpretation of a decree by Emperor Theodosius) and ending shortly after Hypatia's murder by a Christian mob (415 C.E.).

A number of the characters in the film (two successive bishops of Alexandra, Theophilus and Cyril, and Synesis, bishop of Ptolemais) are real like Hypatia (Weisz), a philosopher/mathematician/astronomer, and some of the relationships depicted are real. For example, Synesius was a student of Hypatia's before he became a Christian bishop, but the film also depicts the local [Roman government] prefect of Alexandria, Orestes, as another of Hypatia's students and as a politically pragmatic Christian.

The violent religious conflicts in Alexandria are shown in an even-handed fashion, with every group (polytheistic pagans, Jews, and Christians) receiving some blame. Religion is generally portrayed as divisive.

Something new (to me) in this film is the depiction of a group of fanatical Christian street enforcers, the Parabalani, who are shown as wearing black and carrying short swords and bags of stones in order to keep the Christians in local power, very much like the Afghan Taliban or the religious police in 21st-century Iran or Saudi Arabia.

Some of the episodes in the film are imagined / invented, which is easy to do in Hypatia's case because none of her mathematical / astronomical works and writings have survived; all we have are the titles of some of her works in various indexes, some copies of letters between Hypatia and Synesius, and 2nd- or 3rd-hand references to Hypatia's works by others.

It's plausible to imagine that Hypatia and her colleagues and students would have discussed and debated the relative merits of the Ptolemaic geocentric system and the heliocentric system of Aristarchus. Here the film goes on to have Hypatia develop an insight that the variations in size and brightness of the sun, and the variations in brightness of the 5 other known planets, could be more simply explained by positing elliptical orbits around the sun (From the surviving titles of Hypatia's mathematical works, we know that she taught and wrote about conic curves and sections, including the ellipse, but the rest here is speculation).

It's also plausible that the arrest and murder of Hypatia (which was in fact advocated by Bishop Cyril) might have been called for during a sermon. In the film, Cyril does this, by labeling Hypatia a witch and a whore, right after reading from what Cyril says is the [pseudo-Pauline] epistle 1 Timothy, the part about how women should remain subservient to men and silent (What Cyril actually reads in this scene seemed to be a combination / pastiche of 1 Timothy 8:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35).

To me, what was most satisfying about this film is the undercurrent of Enlightenment values. When Hypatia comes to the palace of the prefect and declines the pleas by local leaders that she should bow and to convert to Christianity, she is accused by one man of "believing in nothing." Her answer: "I believe in philosophy." In another scene, Hypatia says that she has no choice to but to repeatedly question her own beliefs (slightly ironic, given the real Hypatia's apparent teachings in neo-Platonic philsophy, as distinguished from Socratic skepticism).

Two statements that the Encyclopaedia Brittanica attributes to the real Hypatia:

"Reserve the right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all."

"To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing."
Last edited by Jeff D on Sun Jan 02, 2011 3:03 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Agora (2010)

Post by ShadowSot » Sun Jan 02, 2011 2:50 pm

Over all, I enjoyed the film immensely... excepting the light colored text against the light colored background.
We watched it in a fair sized room and I was in the back.
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Re: Agora (2010)

Post by Speculater » Sun Jan 02, 2011 5:16 pm

Sounds like a nice watch, i'll have to toss it on my netflix list. Thank you for the inciteful review / history as well.
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Re: Agora (2010)

Post by nmblum88 » Sun Jan 02, 2011 8:08 pm

Jeff D wrote:This film, starring Rachel Weisz and directed by Alejandro Almenabar, didn't reach any movie theaters in my home state, but I bought the DVD. A good film, with impressive production values and pretty decent acting, about the last years of the Alexandrian library and academy in the late 4th century and early 5th century C.E. The action covers roughly the period starting just before the Christians' sacking and burning of the library (391 C.E., with the mob taking a rather liberal interpretation of a decree by Emperor Theodosius) and ending shortly after Hypatia's murder by a Christian mob (415 C.E.).

A number of the characters in the film (two successive bishops of Alexandra, Theophilus and Cyril, and Synesis, bishop of Ptolemais) are real like Hypatia (Weisz), a philosopher/mathematician/astronomer, and some of the relationships depicted are real. For example, Synesius was a student of Hypatia's before he became a Christian bishop, but the film also depicts the local [Roman government] prefect of Alexandria, Orestes, as another of Hypatia's students and as a politically pragmatic Christian.

The violent religious conflicts in Alexandria are shown in an even-handed fashion, with every group (polytheistic pagans, Jews, and Christians) receiving some blame. Religion is generally portrayed as divisive.

Something new (to me) in this film is the depiction of a group of fanatical Christian street enforcers, the Parabalani, who are shown as wearing black and carrying short swords and bags of stones in order to keep the Christians in local power, very much like the Afghan Taliban or the religious police in 21st-century Iran or Saudi Arabia.

Some of the episodes in the film are imagined / invented, which is easy to do in Hypatia's case because none of her mathematical / astronomical works and writings have survived; all we have are the titles of some of her works in various indexes, some copies of letters between Hypatia and Synesius, and 2nd- or 3rd-hand references to Hypatia's works by others.

It's plausible to imagine that Hypatia and her colleagues and students would have discussed and debated the relative merits of the Ptolemaic geocentric system and the heliocentric system of Aristarchus. Here the film goes on to have Hypatia develop an insight that the variations in size and brightness of the sun, and the variations in brightness of the 5 other known planets, could be more simply explained by positing elliptical orbits around the sun (From the surviving titles of Hypatia's mathematical works, we know that she taught and wrote about conic curves and sections, including the ellipse, but the rest here is speculation).

It's also plausible that the arrest and murder of Hypatia (which was in fact advocated by Bishop Cyril) might have been called for during a sermon. In the film, Cyril does this, by labeling Hypatia a witch and a whore, right after reading from what Cyril says is the [pseudo-Pauline] epistle 1 Timothy, the part about how women should remain subservient to men and silent (What Cyril actually reads in this scene seemed to be a combination / pastiche of 1 Timothy 8:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35).

To me, what was most satisfying about this film is the undercurrent of Enlightenment values. When Hypatia comes to the palace of the prefect and declines the pleas by local leaders that she should bow and to convert to Christianity, she is accused by one man of "believing in nothing." Her answer: "I believe in philosophy." In another scene, Hypatia says that she has no choice to but to repeatedly question her own beliefs (slightly ironic, given the real Hypatia's apparent teachings in neo-Platonic philsophy, as distinguished from Socratic skepticism).

Two statements that the Encyclopaedia Brittanica attributes to the real Hypatia:

"Reserve the right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all."

"To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing."
It is for posts like this that I am married (mostly more rather than less monogamously) to this forum.
Are there any other forums or web sites, with god or without one, that have participants like Jeff D.?
I don't think so...
.
For me the bottom line for this film is that it exists at all..... Hypatia having been severely neglected, the very awareness s of her existence (apart perhaps from the grisly and therefore attractive death) is a kind of elitist badge.
And in the context of some recent topics/exchanges here, one does have to ask the fans: how does "to teach superstition as truth is a most terrible thing," stack up against "life is like a box of chawklits?"

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Your fanciful card games, movie sojourns and exciting overseas trips, that all take place within the four walls of an aged care retirement home, do not suggest your own children offered you the care, I gave my parents."

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Re: Agora (2010)

Post by Jeff D » Sun Jan 02, 2011 10:00 pm

Thanks for the kind words, Norma.

There are participants like me (except that quite a few of them are better-read than I am, and some of them write better than I do) on other forums / fora, and I have the pleasure of reading what these folks write almost every day.

Examples:

The peerless Eric MacDonald, who now has his own (highly recommended) blog, www.choiceindying.com.

The regulars, including Ophelia Benson herself, who post at www.butterfliesandwheels.org.

Jason Rosenhouse, a mathematician, at www.scienceblogs.com/evolutionblog.

Jerry Coyne and his gaggle of regular commenters (including Benson, MacDonald, and Russell Blackford) at www.whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com.

To say nothing of Amanda Marcotte, Greta Christina, whose stuff I unfortunately don't read regularly, and of course the other folks here (especially NMB, Herk, and Lausten, as veterans from the old LGOG Forum).

* * * *

Although I was familiar with the destruction of the Alexandrian library, I had not heard of Hypatia by name until maybe 10 or 12 years ago, when I heard a bit of a talk by Carl Sagan, describing her wisdom and her terrible demise. I think it might have been from Cosmos or from some other TV series.

One little tid-bit about Hypatia, which I got from Brittanica, is that Charles Kinsley wrote a novel in which Hypatia was a leading character. I forget the title, but now, in the Googlezoic Era, it's a cinch to look it up.
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Re: Agora (2010)

Post by ShadowSot » Sun Jan 02, 2011 10:38 pm

I had heard of Hypatia a while back, but nothing specific until I heard about the film. I have a book that mentions her and has a few pictures of art that's described as being her.
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Re: Agora (2010)

Post by Gord » Mon Jan 03, 2011 2:14 am

"Knowledge grows through infinite timelessness" -- the random fictional Deepak Chopra quote site
"Imagine an ennobling of what could be" -- the New Age BS Generator site
"You are also taking my words out of context." -- Justin
"Nullius in verba" -- The Royal Society ["take nobody's word for it"]
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Re: Agora (2010)

Post by nmblum88 » Mon Jan 03, 2011 3:32 am

When I first became acquainted with St. Hypatia in a seminar on hagiographies taught by a defrocked Jesuit (in a secular school) was appalled to hear her referred to as the "patron Saint of atheists.."
Now I have absolutely NO sense of humor when it comes to the infernal insistence of the religious that atheism is just another organized religion, save for the dress codes and the tithing....... and my invisible t-shirt says "there are NO Saints in atheism! Not even Daniel Dennet."
However there was no doubt that between Hypatia in the 4th Century CE and the loony and politically victimized St. Joan in the 15th , most of the Saints were simply pallid, not very interesting examples of religious conformity, despite their occasionally extreme (repellant) responses to stimuli,...
I do think, for what my opinion is worth, that given what is attributed to Hypatia is actual, she does verify that skepticism about religion has been around as long as religion itself; some humans have ALWAYS, even before the evolution of language, probably been more observant, more capable of critical thinking, than others.
It is not only in "New Yorker" cartoons that the skeptical caveman exists.
There probably have been some stubborn bastards around at every turn of history, averse to marching to the authoritarian drum, and who viewed dependency on, worship of, the gods as both foolish and dangerous
Which is why the hysteria of the Creationists is futile.... we have always been around to call the charlatans to account, to challenge the obedient and subservient to think. And we always will be, until our cries of "question, question, question..." are no longer needed.....
And then we can all become film critics

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Re: Agora (2010)

Post by Jeff D » Tue Jan 04, 2011 2:36 pm

Lest we think that violence between adherents of different "Abrahamic faiths" is primarily something that happens in movies about 4th- and early-5th-century Egypt. . . .

. . . This week, in Alexandria, sectarian conflicts and resentments continue (despite efforts at ecumenical outreach across the "faith divide"), after a massive bomb went off outside a Coptic Christian church.

The explosion is suspected of being the work of Muslim extremists, in the context of rumors that Coptic Christians have been pressuring Muslims to convert to Christianity (Only one-way conversion to Islam is legal in Egypt).

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose . . .
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Re: Agora (2010)

Post by Gord » Sat Jan 22, 2011 10:40 pm

I went out and bought Agora, it was great, thanks for the heads-up.

I also bought Valhalla Rising. It was...weird, and artsy, and I'm not sure what to think of it. Or even how to think of it. The scenery was nice, but the plot left me baffled.

Any more good movies out there? I love "historical"-type films, even though they're never quite historically accurate for me. 13th Warrior type movies. I'm thinking of getting the new Centurion next.
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Re: Agora (2010)

Post by Jeff D » Sun Jan 23, 2011 8:27 am

Well, among the historical action movies where "armorers" [plural] are listed prominently in the closing credits, I don't recall any terrific ones within the past year or so except these two:

Ridley Scott's Robin Hood (the "director's cut" version on DVD is better, in my opinion, than the theatrical release version).

John Woo's Red Cliff, which I have seen in its [approximately] 5-hour "international" two-disc DVD release of "Parts 1 and 2." It's based on semi-legendary warfare in China in the 3rd century C.E., involving characters who are probably well known in Chinese popular culture, but not to me. Mind-boggling, amazing battle scenes of massed regiments, notably toward the end of disc 1. I don't know how many other parts there are supposed to be.

I'd have to go back a few -- or many -- years to find action movies set in the 1000 C.E. to 1800 C.E. time frame that were not huge [financial] blockbusters and which I enjoyed enough to instantly remember them. . . . Another Ridley Scott picture about the Crusades, Kingdom of Heaven (2005), whose 3 or 4 main characters were real individuals who kinda sorta did some of things the film depicts them as doing. Kenneth Branagh's 1989 version of Henry V, which has some great performances and a terrifically staged Battle of Agincourt that owes a few debts to Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954). John Boorman's retelling of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Excalibur (1981), with a very good cast including some Royal Shakespeare Company alumni (Helen Mirren, Nicol Williamson, Nigel Terry, Cherie Lunghi), and [in smaller roles] Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson.
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Re: Agora (2010)

Post by Gord » Mon Jan 24, 2011 6:17 am

Oh, Red Cliff, I forgot that one! Adding it to the list now....

I've been scanning the internet for people's lists of top 10 medieval movies, hoping to find something compelling. So far, it's been frustrating. Come on, people! Shrek does not count as a "historical movie!" (I weep for the world....) And, yes, I enjoyed Ladyhawke, but that's not exactly what I'm looking for -- nor, I suspect, are any of the others on that person's list.

The problem may be that I don't know how to find quite what I'm trying to look for. I think the criteria should be:

1. Battle scenes. I like large-scale battles. Small-scale fights should be more "realistic" (aka "quick"), not about flashing swords clattering back and forth (aka "swashbuckling").

2. Historical believability. Good costumes, proper setting, nothing terribly anachronistic (if you're set in 1000 AD, you shouldn't be in dressing in plate armour on your way to the Crusades).

3. Relativity. I want recent films -- say, anything since the mid-80s. (What can I say? Old movies are good, but they so often fail on the first two points.)

4. Availability. (If I can't find it, just knowing it exists will frustrate me for the rest of my life.) There are a few Russian and/or Polish films I'd like to own, but I can't get my hands on them.

5. Good acting, without some overall "message" that makes me wanna vomit. (No Mel Gibson movies!)

This is not to say I won't want to see this movie, however: " onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;

But that's a different story altogether....
"Knowledge grows through infinite timelessness" -- the random fictional Deepak Chopra quote site
"Imagine an ennobling of what could be" -- the New Age BS Generator site
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Re: Agora (2010)

Post by Gord » Mon Jan 24, 2011 6:20 am

Hmm, this one looks interesting: http://www.medievalists.net/2009/08/29/ironclad/" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;
"Knowledge grows through infinite timelessness" -- the random fictional Deepak Chopra quote site
"Imagine an ennobling of what could be" -- the New Age BS Generator site
"You are also taking my words out of context." -- Justin
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Re: Agora (2010)

Post by nmblum88 » Mon Jan 24, 2011 4:01 pm

Just a word on Mel Gibson films, singled out by Gord as lacking in interest, or worse:
Gibson may be personally non grata, but he DOES know how to make films, and it would be like an anti-Semite having by-passed "Some Like it Hot" or never humming "White Christmas" or "Over the Rainbow" to dismiss them out of hand.
Perhaps that's what's wrong with lists.... rather than conversation: they don't permit of expanding on the theme of film making as comprehensive art: often an otherwise offensively bad film will have a moment that is memorable, even great, and unfortunately one does not have to be a saint to create a work of art: what list of great films makers can omit the wonders of Leni Riefenstahl's eye for the ravishingly beautiful?

So Gibson: "Braveheart" is extremely cinematic, and while "Passions of the Christ," is politically offensive and actually dropped from sight (even religious partisans seem to have forgotten it after the hysteria of its first appearance) and "Apaocalypto" was seen by about 10 people, both are remarkable examples of imaginative as well as carefully conceived, passionate but detailed, film making.
Art demands that the viewer divorce the medium from the message......otherwise atheists would picket "the Last Supper," and demand the destruction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and the medieval cathedrals of Europe, as prejudicial and corrupt.
Gibson's messages are repellent but the quality of his films, his craft, and yes, his art, should not be confused with his personal life , his infantile rants, and even more important his primitive attachment to his religion.

Which after all DOES play a great part in who and what he is as an adult example of the predations of religion as a prejudicial and negative influence in human development.


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Re: Agora (2010)

Post by Gord » Tue Jan 25, 2011 2:38 am

nmblum wrote:Gibson's messages are repellent but the quality of his films, his craft, and yes, his art, should not be confused with his personal life , his infantile rants, and even more important his primitive attachment to his religion.
Perhaps, but he makes my stomach squirm unpleasantly, which can cause sudden discomfort when I see him in a movie. If he were able to alter his voice and appearance so as not to be immediately recognizable, that would be wonderful -- however, "acting" skill is, surprisingly, not known for its ability to disguise such things! I often wonder at this, but I'm told that "believability" is not considered that important in films, and that rather it's the importance of emotional connection which is highlighted.

Frankly, I much prefer actors who disappear into their parts. They don't get many roles anymore, alas. Movies have turned full circle again into cults of personality.

P.S. I went out and bought Red Cliff today -- the extended version, 288 minutes long. Can't wait to watch it. 8-)
"Knowledge grows through infinite timelessness" -- the random fictional Deepak Chopra quote site
"Imagine an ennobling of what could be" -- the New Age BS Generator site
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Re: Agora (2010)

Post by fromthehills » Tue Jan 25, 2011 2:51 am

I liked Braveheart, but it seemed to spark a whole genre of movies, that may be enjoyable to a point, but make me want to yell, " For Christ sakes, let's explore a bit, huh."

I can't wait to see True Grit. Yes, it's a remake, but I think it will do justice. I like the Coen Bros.

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Re: Agora (2010)

Post by nmblum88 » Tue Jan 25, 2011 8:36 am

Gord wrote:
nmblum wrote:Gibson's messages are repellent but the quality of his films, his craft, and yes, his art, should not be confused with his personal life , his infantile rants, and even more important his primitive attachment to his religion.
Perhaps, but he makes my stomach squirm unpleasantly, which can cause sudden discomfort when I see him in a movie. If he were able to alter his voice and appearance so as not to be immediately recognizable, that would be wonderful -- however, "acting" skill is, surprisingly, not known for its ability to disguise such things! I often wonder at this, but I'm told that "believability" is not considered that important in films, and that rather it's the importance of emotional connection which is highlighted.

Frankly, I much prefer actors who disappear into their parts. They don't get many roles anymore, alas. Movies have turned full circle again into cults of personality.
Which reminds me that fairness demands that the record show that Mel Gibson came to international attention as one of the major protagonists in what is certainly a great anti-war film, perhaps one of the greatest: "Gallipoli."
With a performance by Gibson to match.
It is possible that he had no idea what he was doing at the time, and just read the lines that were put in front of him,
But although jokes about great actors who are actually morons abound, I don't really believe that it is possible to be totally devoid of sensibility and produce such a moving character.
Such a possibility could not have led to the remarkable, truly moving performance that he gave in the film...

Weird it is that I should be defending, of all people, Mel Gibson.. but I assume it is understood that I am defending his right to have his films judged by their worth, the good ones and the truly terrible ones.
And that of course, when he drives while inebriated and/or when he hits women he should probably go to jail....
About his not liking certain portions of the human race .... that's another subject altogether, and if I knew what to do about that, I would certainly do it.
And sooner rather than later.
Alas, it is not a crime to indiscriminately hate a group.... as long as you don't keep them from exercising their civil rights, or keep them from employment, or hit, maim or kill them.... and that's true whether it is the Jews of Hollywood that he so despises,.... or vice versa.

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Your fanciful card games, movie sojourns and exciting overseas trips, that all take place within the four walls of an aged care retirement home, do not suggest your own children offered you the care, I gave my parents."

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Re: Agora (2010)

Post by Cognitiophile » Tue Jan 25, 2011 3:47 pm

Jeff D wrote:. . . In another scene, Hypatia says that she has no choice to but to repeatedly question her own beliefs (slightly ironic, given the real Hypatia's apparent teachings in neo-Platonic philsophy, as distinguished from Socratic skepticism).

Two statements that the Encyclopaedia Brittanica attributes to the real Hypatia:

"Reserve the right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all."

"To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing."

Further insight into the "irony" concerning Hypatia and into her questioning of her own beliefs is found at http://www.newbanner.com/AboutPic/athen ... _hypa.html:

"... Her mathematical and scientific endeavors were integral with her teachings in philosophy, a variant of Neoplatonism closer to that of Ammonius of Saccas, a third-century holder of her chair, than to that of his pupil, Plotinus, whose tetradic ontology found favor with those who later attempted to rationalize a “reconciliation” of the rational skepticism of natural philosophy with the dogmatic mysticism of Christianity and Islam. For Hypatia, such compromise was incompatible with her determination to question her beliefs."

"That Hypatia met such a horrible death at the hands of Christians might seem somewhat ironic in that her philosophy, more practically naturalistic and scientific and less intransigently pagan and mystical in focus and methodology than the Neoplatonism taught and practiced by others, was actually more consistent with that of Plato's independent student, Aristotle, than with that of the Neoplatonists who were predominant in the Athenian school at that time."

A lengthier version of the second quotation of Hypatia posted by Jeff is also found at the above referenced site:
  • “Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing. The mind of a child accepts them, and only through great pain, perhaps even tragedy, can the child be relieved of them.”
Additional quotations attributed to Hypatia are also found there:
  • “To rule by fettering the mind through fear of punishment in another world is just as base as to use force.”
  • “All formal dogmatic religions are delusive and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final.”
  • “Men will fight for superstition as quickly as for the living truth – even more so, since superstition is intangible, you can't get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.”
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