Monday, May 21, 2018

General Notes Concerning History

History has three levels: First, the physical and mechanical facts about people and events, caricatured under the heading of “dates, kings, and wars.” Second, a deeper level looks at the ideas, trends, and movements underlying the first level, “-isms”, politics, and ideologies. Finally, there is a history to the development of philosophy, religion, and worldviews.

Higher level critical thinking about history is possible only when the individual is in command of the lower level data. Attempts to wax philosophical about history in the absence of specific evidence result merely in vacuous generalizations.

History begins with text, with written records of human activity; anything prior to writing is speculative and not part of history, and properly belongs under headings like “archeology”, “paleontology”, and “prehistory.” For the nearly simultaneous start of writing, civilization, and history, a certain amount of stability was needed: the continental drift which now moves land masses a fraction of an inch a year used to move them miles in the same time; volcanic activity was many times what it is now, causing entire mountains to rise and fall rapidly. Geological instability delayed the widespread use of writing and the founding of communities.

History is ultimately about constructing and analyzing narratives, sometimes competing narratives about the same facts; a mere list of facts is a chronicle and not properly a history. A mere list of facts would also be useless and uninformative. The quest for an “objective” history is absolutely necessary, yet elusive. The absolute and objective historical narrative exists, and we seek to discover it, not invent it. Yet human reason and human cognition remain limited, and so our ability to discover is limited; we may be happy that this ability is limited, rather than completely nonexistent.

When we examine a historical person, we can choose the method by which we will conduct our historical evaluation: we can either confine ourselves to the texts written by that person and the actions performed by that person, or we can include other personal data about that individual. The latter approach is called ad hominem, and often includes a quasi-psychological investigation into the childhood relationships to the parents.

Historians also distinguish between primary texts and secondary texts. Primary texts were written at or near the time and place of the events which they describe, and written by eyewitnesses or someone with direct knowledge or experiences of the events. Secondary texts are written by people at removed in either time or space from the events they describe.

One constant factor in history is human nature: from the earliest recorded human thoughts, roughly 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, until the present time, human beings have asked the same questions, encountered the same problems, and sought the same goals. This is what makes you as human as Aristotle or Cleopatra. This is why we can understand the concepts and passions of texts which are thousands of years old: because the authors shared the same unchanging human nature which we all have.

Partly because we all share this same human nature, and perhaps partly for other reasons, there are “eternal questions” which recur throughout history. Historians disagree on exactly how many “eternal questions” there are, but here’s an example of what three of them might be:

  • How can I escape my “subjective bubble” (my ideas, perceptions, and opinions) and obtain objective knowledge?
  • Does God love me or hate me, and why?
  • How should a community or society be organized? How should society and government interact?

There are many other candidates for “eternal questions”. The reader’s imagination should suggest some.

It becomes necessary to clearly and rigorously define some words: “history”, “religion”, and “philosophy”.

The role of religion in civilization and history is both significant and obvious. The emergence of religion from early, non-religious phases of civilization is not so obvious.

Early civilization embraces myth, magic, and manipulation, and lacked religion. Myth explained; magic and manipulation were attempts to control the forces of nature, obtain fertility, and ensure military victories. This type of polytheistic paganism prescribes some ritual or sacrifice designed to persuade a deity to deliver the goods.

Religion concerns relationships: the individual’s relation to God, and to other humans. A religion has a text and a founder. Religion is an attempt to bridge the gap between the perfect/infinite deity and the imperfect/finite human. Religion is personal, inasmuch as it treats both the human and the deity as person, i.e., having beliefs, desires, emotions, and agency. Religion is not private, inasmuch as it encompasses visions of society. A religion is related to a way of life; it has various forms in different times and places; it can be related to geography.

Religion is not ethics and morals, is not traditions, rules, culture, opinions, beliefs.

To directly contradict what has been stated immediately above, there is a different paradigm in which ‘religion’ is defined as exactly those those things: culture, tradition, institutions, and organizations. In such a paradigm, then, religion is an artifact, and the word ‘religion’ then does not refer to the relationship between the individual and the deity, and does not refer to a state of affairs in the world.

We can see how such great confusion has emerged about religion: the word ‘religion’ itself is subject to two quite different definitions. Does it refer, on the one hand, to social and cultural artifacts, or on the other hand, to the deity’s personal agency and relationship to human beings?

Three cornerstones of civilization, as it emerged in the ancient world: (1) the alphabet replaces other symbolic forms, (2) monogamy is valued, (3) human sacrifice is gradually phased out.

Another recurring theme in history is the tension between centralized and decentralized forms of government. From Persia to Rome, from Alexander the Great to the Holy Roman Empire, this will be a consideration; feudalism, often derided as an archaic system, proves to be, in this light, a champion of local independence and of decentralization. It is also no accident that the series of “Star Wars” films by George Lucas echoes the events of Roman history.

Feudalism also introduced a mutuality of obligation: the feudal lord was obliged to his vassal to the same extent that the vassal was obliged to his lord.

As we look at historical texts, we will need to be alert to issues of translation and transliteration.

Maps are also an important part of studying history.

There are different ways to look at historical change: it might be an organic process, working its way gradually through societies and populations in the attitudes and decisions of the average person, or it might be the decisive choice of one man at a crucial moment. History is either a series of historical choices by great men at decisive moments, or it can be told as a gradual process of growth and change in slow waves and trends through entire communities, cultures, and civilizations.

Population and Economics: the pattern seems to be that a steadily growing population is the best circumstance for economic prosperity and stability, as well as political tranquility. If the population grows too quickly, too slowly, or erratically (i.e., the annual rate varies too much from one year to the next), or if the population does not grow at all, or even shrinks, then economic hardship is inevitable. This pattern is relevant to events both in the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. It is relevant also to the study of Thomas Malthus, whose brilliant, but sadly misunderstood, views have been reinterpreted in light of the discovery of the fact that our planet has always produced more food than was needed by the humans living on it, and that all hunger and starvation has been unnecessary, and the result of human incompetence or greed. The deeper insight of Malthus was the imperfectability of the world.

Since the time of Moses, we see that the majority trend within “western” or “Euro-centric” civilization has held a certain “sympathy for the underdog”, a tendency to consider, and act in, the interests of those who are most vulnerable in society. Notable exceptions, of course, exist, in the persons of Nietzsche, Hitler, and Stalin. But general trend has held, and perhaps even gained in predominance, over time. This strength, however, of our civilization has also recently become a weakness, because those who wish to gain power by claiming to be victims can exploit this sentiment. It has now become necessary to distinguish between those who are at the bottom of societal structures and those who merely claim “victim status” as a path to political power. In non-western, or non-Eurocentric societies, this path to power is not open.

The events of history take place within the framework of time, space, matter, and energy. Another way of saying this is that the events of history involve elements that are, at least in principle, directly or indirectly detectable by the five senses. We need to be aware that these are the minority of events. The majority of events are composed of elements that lie outside of space and time, which are therefore not composed of matter or energy, and not detectable to the five senses. Strictly speaking, history does not concern itself with such things. Practically, however, we will concern ourselves with them to some extent, when we consider the history of philosophy and the history of religion. We need to be aware, then, that we have, at that point, left behind history, narrowly defined, and entered a separate field of study.

Given that text is central to historical study, issues of language will interface; at a minimum, we will need to continuously acknowledge that we are dealing with texts that are either translated into our language, or written in an older form of our language. Philology is relevant to history.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Popular Sovereignty in an Unlikely Context: Spanish Scholasticism

A century before John Locke, a Spanish cleric named Juan de Mariana articulated what would become known as key Lockean concepts. In his writings, which are part economics and part political science, Juan de Mariana asserted that a king cannot claim that he owns the property of his subjects.

Juan de Mariana is analyzing feudalism, and more particularly, a late form of feudalism as he encountered it in Spain. In such a structure, all land was ultimately understood to be royal property - understood as the king’s personal property. Through layers of subinfeudation, it was parceled out to vassals and serfs.

This economic system is often called ‘manorialism’ or ‘seignorialism.’

Earlier Germanic forms of feudalism featured a mutualism or reciprocity in which the lord and the serf each owed things to the other. This later form of feudalism had decayed into more of a top-down structure.

As a scholastic, Juan de Mariana developed his thought systematically. It is noteworthy that he took property rights as an axiom in his logical system. This foundation entails political liberty and personal freedom.

Writing about him, Jesus Huerta de Soto notes that

From this, Mariana deduced that the king cannot demand tax without the consent of the people, since taxes are simply an appropriation of part of the subjects’ wealth. In order for such an appropriation to be legitimate, the subjects must be in agreement. Neither may the king create state monopolies, since they would simply be a disguised means of collecting taxes.

The notion that each individual person can have property, and that the king may not violate the property of his subjects, is foundational to other human rights and civil rights.

Juan de Mariana is formulating something very near the ‘consent of the governed,’ a phrase which would become associated with Locke’s thought, although Locke himself seems not to have ever written this exact phrase.

As an economist, he was alert to the subtle ways in which the king might violate the property rights of the ordinary people. Jesus Huerta de Soto writes:

And neither may the king - this is the most important part of the book’s contents - obtain fiscal revenue by lowering the metal content of the coins. De Mariana realized that the reduction of the precious metal content in the coins and the increase in the number of coins in circulation is simply a form of inflation (although he does not use this word, which was unknown at the time) and that inflation inevitably leads to a rise in prices because, “if money falls from the legal value, all goods increase unavoidably, in the same proportion as the money fell, and all the accounts break down.”

Segueing from economics to political science, Juan de Mariana went on to note that as the total number of laws or regulations increases, the likelihood of an individual being aware of any specific one of them decreases. A state with a high degree of regulation will find itself therefore unable to accurately enforce all of them.

He lived in Spain, which at the time was shaped by the Habsburg absolutism. There was no parliamentary body.

The laws would therefore be enforced on a hit-or-miss basis, and as the general population becomes aware of this pattern, corruption and lawlessness will increase. As a state legislates more and more laws, these laws will receive less and less respect.

A state with few laws will be more likely to be able to enforce them consistently, accurately, and thoroughly. Juan de Mariana’s advice to the monarch is, therefore, to make as few laws as possible.

He articulated principles of Lockean political liberty and personal freedom, and did so long before Locke.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Middle Ages: When and What

What is that period of time we call the ‘Middle Ages’? When was that period of time?

These two deceptively simple questions are challenging, in part because the Middle Ages is a construct. In history, a ‘construct’ is something which is not an event, not a place, not a person, and not a date. A construct is not a specific, concrete, verifiable datum.

Instead, a construct is a vague generalization which attempts to capture a pattern or trend among historical events. In the language of the mathematical sciences, it is a best-fit line.

There is a precise and unambiguous answer to questions like these: When was the Battle of Hastings? Where was the Battle of Hastings?

But a construct, like the Middle Ages, is rather impressionistic and does not admit of such precision or verification. As historian Irma Simonton Black writes,

The Middle Ages, then, was a time of excitement and danger, of isolation and self-reliance, of faith, progress, and much, much more.

Note that the concept is large enough to embrace opposites: medieval thought contained seeds of both free-market capitalism and statist communism. It laid the foundations for the zenith of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also for atheism. It modeled both political liberty and authoritarian control.

Notably, the Middle Ages took the Germanic structure of early feudalism and created a system which, unlike the previous Roman imperial system, imposed mutual obligations: the vassal was obliged to serve the lord, but the lord was equally obligated to provide for the vassal.

Attempting to give temporal starting and ending points for the Middle Ages is a vain task; author Irma Simonton Black presents her effort:

The term refers to a period of time of about one thousand years following the collapse of the Roman Empire during the fifth century (400 to 500 A.D.). Modern historians divide this era into the Early Middle Ages (until about 1050), the High Middle Ages (from 1050 to 1300), and finally the Late Middle Ages or Renaissance.

Note that she identifies the ‘Late Middle Ages’ with the ‘Renaissance’ in contradiction to numerous other historians. Such a conflict in definition will have no resolution, because of the high degree of ambiguity inherent in the concepts.

Debates about when the Middle Ages ended and when the Renaissance began are fruitless because the question itself is malformed. Unlike that Battle of Hastings, or the Coronation of Charlemagne, or the signing of the Magna Carta, a conceptual construct like the Middle Ages or the Renaissance cannot have a precise date.

If we cannot answer the question about when, perhaps we can explore the question about what.

“Middle” was used because historians used to think of these years as a time of intellectual stagnation which came between the high civilizations of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and modern times. More modern historians looked more closely into the period, however, and recognized it as a time of great and valuable change and growth.

In the Middle Ages, thinkers like Thomas Bradwardine laid the foundations for modern physics. The Magna Carta established legal rights for women.

Women in the Middle Ages still faced challenges, but had gained a social and civil status far greater than women in Greece and Rome. Scholastic philosophers argued that the universe was organized around rational thought, and that therefore it was valid to use mathematics to explore the observational and empirical sciences; they thereby set the stage for modern chemistry.

Although some scholars had used the word ‘Renaissance’ to intimate that the medievals were ignorant, they in fact had access to the large corpus of text which the Romans and Greeks had left for them. John Scottus Eriugena, for example, was carefully analyzing Greek text in the 800’s A.D., centuries before the self-proclaimed ‘Renaissance’ declared that it had ‘discovered’ them.

Questions about the ‘what’ and the ‘when’ of the Middle Ages will never receive fully satisfactory answers.

Importantly, however, it is clear that the centuries after 476 A.D. were filled with formative and influential events. Thinkers and writers established what would become the modern notions of mathematics, chemistry, physics, and philosophy. Artists produced works of lasting value. Engineers and mechanics developed significant machinery.

Writers during the Renaissance era attempted to cast the medievals in a bad light. They argued that the people of the Middle Ages were ignorant and superstitious.

The conventional image, which relied on generalizations, of medievals as oppressed and unimaginative has been shattered by research about the specific people and events who lived during these centuries.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Unintentional Mutilation of Text: Speaking the Written Word, Reading the Spoken Word

It is common practice to task students with reading poetry. They have an anthology book, or some electronic text on a class’s website, and are told to read various poems by various dates, and then to be ready to discuss, analyze, write about, or take a written examination about these poems.

This is the ubiquitous structure of literature classes.

In this way, students are exposed to, and hopefully consume, magnificent poetry: Longfellow, Wordsworth, Blake, Poe, etc.

There may, however, be something fundamentally wrong with this approach: poetry is almost always designed to be an auditory, not a visual, experience.

Among the exceptions are visual poems, sometimes called ‘concrete’ poetry, like Lewis Carroll’s “The Mouse’s Tale.”

Despite these anomalies, the vast majority of poems are intended mainly to be heard.

Would it be more legitimate for teachers and professors to assign students to hear, rather than read, poetry? With the ability to post audio files on the web, this could be easily done, and might in some cases conform more closely to the author’s intent.

By the same token, is violence done to written texts when they are transformed into ‘audio books’?

A novel by, e.g., Jane Austen or Mary Shelley, was written to be visually consumed, not auditorily. If a person listens to Middlemarch or Atlas Shrugged, rather than seeing the text, is the experience less than, or other than, what the author intended?

When approaching a text, then, it is worth asking, relatively early on in the process, whether the author intended the text to be seen or heard.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Ethics and Exodus, Morality and Moses

According to the dictionary, ‘ethics’ or ‘morality’ have to do with right and wrong conduct in accordance with set rules or standards. Often, ‘morality’ is associated with specific and concrete standards or prescriptions, while ‘ethics’ describes a more generalize and conceptual meta-level view of good and evil.

Often the relation between religion and morality is blurred and confused in the popular imagination, in part because they are intertwined in texts. While interwoven with each other, they are not identical, and the relationship between them can be loose or indirect.

To be sure, there are ethical principles and moral obligations that are stressed in, e.g., the Mosaic Code as it was revealed in the Exodus text. Moses gives, simultaneously, a moral code and a spiritual worldview.

But it is possible to disentangle these: a Mosaic morality and a Mosaic theology can be distinguished from each other. They are not identical, although they are connected by concepts like mercy, grace, and forgiveness.

Moses differentiates, e.g., between a murder and an accidental homicide, and reduces the legal punishment for the latter. He also addresses the notion of deterrence, hoping to prevent crimes rather than avenge them. He introduces, in some cases, a revolutionary equality between men and women.

Moses also establishes a legal recognition that a slave’s life is a human life, and is to be treated as such - not surprising, inasmuch as Moses was establishing a legal and social structure for a nation of escaped slaves.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Hit or Miss: Experimenting with New Forms of Religion in Response to the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution changed many aspects of daily life for a large segment of the population in Europe, and later in North America. These changes prompted changes in religious life.

Religious institutions found new ways to carry out their old tasks: education, care for the poor, and caring for the spiritual concerns of ordinary people as they faced the challenges of life.

As spiritual leaders experimented with new forms of caring for people, some of these attempts were more successful than others, as historians Hans Hillerbrand and Martin Marty write:

The Lutheran churches in Europe in the 19th century also engaged in what they called “inner mission,” the effort to tend to the physical and spiritual needs of the poor and downtrodden, especially those who had been marginalized by the Industrial Revolution. Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808–81) was the great organizer of this work in Germany. Under his aegis, the inner mission movement established local branches throughout Germany. Although the Lutheran churches thus ameliorated some of the excesses of the Industrial Revolution, they did not adequately address the vast demographic and social changes it had caused. The common people, therefore, became increasingly alienated from the church, which they perceived as being allied with the state.

In the city of Hamburg, Johann Wichern founded his charitable institution which still operates today, educating and feeding the poor, offering medical assistance and counseling.

Johann Wichern is also known for inventing the “Advent Wreath,” a circle of greenery laid horizontally on a tabletop, with three purple and one pink candle placed equidistant around its circumference and a white candle placed in the middle.

These attempts in Europe were parallel to efforts in England and in the United States, when Christian organizations like the YMCA and Salvation Army were likewise addressing the social needs which were caused by the living circumstances of the Industrial Revolution.

But, as noted, some efforts in continental Europe failed to gather momentum because in the mind of the public, they were linked, correctly or not, to the government. They were therefore not perceived as an authentic expression of a charitable impulse.

By contrast, the Red Cross, which was also started in Europe, was successful and spread quickly to other parts of the world. It was seen as a successful application of distinctively Christian principles to the new conditions of the Industrial Revolution.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

When Civilizations Behave in an Uncivilized Way

The great trove of texts, sculpture, and architecture - along with the occasional engineering or military masterpiece - left by the societies of 2,000 or 3,000 or 4,000 years ago is so dazzling that it sometimes tempts the student - or teacher - to forget that these cultures had a side which was not only dark, but sinister and inhumane.

“The ancient pagan world,” writes historian Michael Salemink, “regularly disposed of lives deemed unproductive.” The concept that every human life is valuable - the concept of the dignity of every individual - hadn’t yet travelled widely throughout various cultures.

Tucked away in obscure corners of Semitic societies, the concept of individual freedom and the concept of value of human life were still in chrysalis forms. They would emerge onto the stage of world history a few centuries later.

Despite their magnificent achievements in philosophy, literature, and other fields, the ancients were not uniformly honorable, as Michael Salemink explains:

Greeks and Romans routinely abandoned babies to exposure, disowned and drowned unwanted infants — especially the impaired or female ones. In addition, they persistently pursued fresh and more effective methods for aborting pregnancies — surgically and chemically — as had every Mesopotamian empire that preceded them. Popular demand for amusement pressed slaves, condemned criminals, and prisoners of war into service as blood-sport gladiators. The thrill-seeking public forced them to fight each other or wild animals to the death (popular not only with Romans but also in Greece, Syria, and Asia Minor). Human sacrifices — particularly newborns and captives — were often offered to heathen idols by Canaanites, Irish, and other predecessors of present-day European peoples, as well as Meso-American Aztecs and Mayans prior.

Only later, after the time of Constantine, would there be a wider trend toward what might be called a ‘recognition of human dignity.’ Until that trend, which flourished and became an intellectual edifice during the Middle Ages, a callous disregard for human life was common.

Classical philosophers popularized suicide in Greco-Roman civilization, not only accepting but encouraging it through instruction and example. Women were denied basic freedoms and deprived of human dignities such as property, employment, monogamy, and mobility.

Simply put, human life was cheap, and some lives were cheaper than others. Slaves were property, and their owners could with impunity kill or injure them. Women were also often treated like property. Prisoners could be killed for entertainment.

After the humanitarian trends of the early Middle Ages, which moderated these cruelties, society was still, to be sure, dotted with occasional holdovers from the earlier, more vicious era. Occasional instances of inhumane behavior, even at the present time, are sadly to be expected, and are to be understood as an empirical manifestation of that earlier era - as a manifestation of innate human nature which our current culture can only imperfectly hold at bay.