Monday, December 29, 2008

Did He, or Didn't He?

In the 1980's some historians suggested that the Russian composer Tchaikovsky engaged in same-sex genital contact. Some additionally suggested that a secret society ordered him, or blackmailed him, into committing suicide. What is the evidence?

Just nine days after the first performance of his Sixth Symphony, in 1893, in St Petersburg, Tchaikovsky died.

Some musicologists believe that he consciously wrote his Sixth Symphony as his own Requiem. In the development section of the first movement, the rapidly progressing evolution of the transformed first theme suddenly “shifts into neutral” in the strings, and a rather quiet, harmonized chorale emerges in the trombones. The trombone theme bears absolutely no relation to the music that preceded it, and none to the music that follows it. It appears to be a musical “non sequitur”, an anomaly — but it is from the Russian Orthodox Mass for the Dead, in which it is sung to the words: “And may his soul rest with the souls of all the saints.” Tchaikovsky was buried in a graveyard in St Petersburg.

Until recent years it had been generally assumed that Tchaikovsky died of cholera after drinking contaminated water. However, a controversial theory published in 1980 and based only on oral history (i.e., without documentary evidence), explains Tchaikovsky’s death as a suicide.

In this account, Tchaikovsky committed suicide by consuming small doses of arsenic following an attempt to blackmail him over his homosexuality. His alleged death by cholera (whose symptoms have some similarity with arsenic poisoning) is supposed to have been a cover for this suicide. According to the theory, Tchaikovsky’s own brother, also homosexual, helped conspire to keep the secret. There are many circumstantial events that some say lend credence to the theory, such as wrong dates on the death certificate, conflicting testimony from the brother and the doctor about the timeline of his death, the fact that Tchaikovsky’s funeral was open casket, and that the sheets from his deathbed were merely laundered instead of being burned. There are also passages in Rimsky-Korsakov’s autobiography years later about how people at the funeral kissed Tchaikovsky on the face, even though he had died from cholera. These passages were deleted by Russian authorities from later editions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s book.

The suicide theory is hotly disputed by others, who argues that Tchaikovsky could easily have drunk tainted water because his class regarded cholera as a disease that afflicted only poor people, or because restaurants would mix boiled water with cool, unboiled water; that the circumstances of his death are entirely consistent with cholera; and that homosexuality (“gentlemanly games”) was widely tolerated among the upper classes of Tsarist Russia. To this day, no one knows how Tchaikovsky truly died.

Tchaikovsky’s childhood fits the out-dated stereotypical theory of homosexuality: hovering, emotionally high-strung mother, distant father. Tchaikovsky’s younger brother turned out gay, too. Only fourteen when his mother died, Pyotr was devastated by the loss.

After that, his closest female connection was with a rich widow he never met. For fourteen years, he carried on a devoted and remarkably intimate correspondence with her, who supported him financially but insisted on no personal contact. Early on, an apparently serious proposal to an opera singer was called off, and a midlife marriage to a love-struck student was brief and disastrous.

But two of Tchaikovsky’s greatest works were completed in the shadow of that spectacularly ill-starred marriage. It’s hard not to read autobiography into the opera, with its worldly-wise young nobleman spurning a lovesick girl. But one historian has gone so far as to read sexual conflict into the first movement of the Fourth Symphony.

The most hotly contentious issue, though, is Tchaikovsky’s death. For decades, the official story was that he had died of cholera after downing a glass of unboiled water. But in a 1979 article, one historian argued that the composer committed suicide when an unofficial “honor court” threatened to expose his advances toward a young man.

It was a fanciful scenario based on whisperings over the years, but there remains no hard evidence. “We don’t know what caused Tchaikovsky’s death,” a U of M historian in Ann Arbor says. “That is the bottom line.”

But he adds, “The suicide theory just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

To sum it all up, the theories of the 1980’s were this: Tchaikovsky engaged in same-sex genital contact; he was discovered; he was blackmailed into committing suicide.

In order to accept those theories, it would be necessary to prove the following: (1) that Tchaikovsky engaged in those sexual activities; (2) that it was discovered; (3) that there was an organized conspiracy to blackmail him; and (4) that he complied.

One more thing would have to be proven: that it Tchaikovsky’s social circle, homosexuality was condemned to the point that it would entice a man to suicide. In fact, many of the more notorious artists of that era were “out” and flamboyant homosexuals. Why would Tchaikovsky have even cared, if he were a homosexual, and someone exposed that fact?

The unsatisfying conclusion we must draw is this: we have too little evidence to say conclusively whether or not Tchaikovsky engaged in same-sex genital contact. His private life will remain forever that: private.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Too Simple

We know that two factors are mainly responsible for slowing economic growth and causing poverty: taxes and government regulation.

If this is so, why not simply get rid of both?

This is clearly overly-simplistic, and not realistic. But this line of thought highlights the concept of a "necessary evil": we must have some amount of taxes, and some amount of government regulation, even though we know that they will cause harm. The best we can do is keep them to a minimum. To be practical, and not idealistic, we realize that we cannot create an economic utopia. There will be no perfect prosperity. But we can continually strive to make things better than they are. Although we won't arrive at perfection, we can persistently minimize taxes and government regulations, and thereby create the best chances for all citizens to enjoy a better income.

The Net Effect of Government

When we examine theories of government, starting perhaps with Plato and Aristotle, moving on to Polybius and Cicero, and then to Dante's essay on monarchy and the Magna Carta - and finally on to Hobbes, Bossuet, Locke, Rousseau, and still more modern thinkers, we remember the important law of unintended consequences. In the case of government, this takes the form of the general proposition many actions will attain the very opposite of their goal.

When the government declared a "war on poverty" in the 1960's, the only measurable result has been the increase in poverty, the creation of a permanent underclass, and designation of large inner-city areas as ghettos.

When the government wanted to reduce the production, sale, and consumption of marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and other similar substances, the final outcome was the large-scale establishment of organized crime to import such drugs, or manufacture them domestically, and retail them.

History teaches us that, if there is an important situation or problem, society should address that problem directly; society should not ask the government to fix the situation. If society does request government intervention in an important concern, the result is most likely that the problem will not be fixed, but become only worse.

It is certainly tempting to ask the government to help us with our problems; but it is also usually a disaster when we do so.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Battle of Badr

Muhammad heard that a large Quraysh caravan, laden with money and goods, was coming from Syria. "This is the Quraysh caravan containing their property," he told his followers. "Go out and attack it, perhaps God will give it as a prey." He set out toward Mecca to lead the raid. But this time the Quraysh were ready for him, coming out to meet Muhammad's three hundred men with a force nearly a thousand strong. Muhammad seems not to have expected these numbers and cried out to Allah in anxiety, "O God, if this group perishes today, you will be worshipped no more."

Despite their superior numbers, the Quraysh were routed. Some Muslim traditions say that Muhammad himself participated in the fighting, others that he exhorted his followers from the sidelines. In any event, it was an occasion for him to see years of frustration, resentment, and hatred toward his own people, who had rejected him, avenged. One of his followers later recalled a curse Muhammad had pronounced on the leaders of the Quraysh: "The prophet said, 'O Allah! Destroy the chiefs of the Quraysh, O Allah!" and names the chiefs one by one.

All the men named were captured or killed during the battle of Badr. One Quraysh leader pleaded for his life, "but who will look after my children, O Muhammad?"

"Hell," responded the Prophet of Islam, and ordered this chief to be killed.

Another Quraysh chieftain was beheaded. The Muslim who severed the head proudly carried his trophy to Muhammad: "I cut off his head and brought it to the apostle, saying 'this is the head of the enemy of God.'"

Muhammad was delighted. "By God than Whom there is no other, is it?" he exclaimed, and gave thanks to Allah for the death of his enemy.

From being a tiny, despised community, the Muslims were now a force with which the pagans of Arabia had to reckon - and they began to strike terror in the hearts of their enemies. Muhammad's claim to be the last prophet of the One, True God appeared validated by a victory against enormous odds.

Islam grew and spread as various cities and tribes were defeated in battle; this encouraged the Muslims, and many of the non-Muslims in the area chose to convert to Islam rather than be killed in battle.

Muhammad the Raider

Muhammad already had experience as a warrior before he assumed the role of prophet. He had participated in two local wars between his Quraysh tribe and their neighboring rivals Ban Hawazin. But his unique role as a prophet-warrior would come later. After receiving revelations from Allah through the angel Gabriel in 610, he began by just preaching to his tribe the worship of One God and his own position as prophet. But he was not well received by his Quraysh brethren in Mecca, who reacted disdainfully to his prophetic call and refused to give up their gods. Muhammad's frustration and rage became evident. When even his uncle, Abu Lahab, rejected his message, Muhammad cursed him and his wife in violent language that has been preserved in the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam: "May the hands of Abu Lahab perish! May he himself perish! Nothing shall his wealth and gains avail him. He shall be burnt in a flaming fire, and his wife, laden with firewood, shall have a rope of fiber around her neck!" [111:1-5]

Ultimately, Muhammad would turn from violent words to violent deeds. In 622, he finally fled his native Mecca for a nearby town, Medina, where a band of tribal warriors had accepted him as a prophet and pledged loyalty to him. In Medina, these new Muslims began raiding the caravans of the Quraysh, with Muhammad personally leading many of these raids. These raids kept the nascent Muslim movement solvent and helped form Islamic theology - as in one notorious incident when a band of Muslims raided a Quraysh caravan at Nakhla, a settlement not far from Mecca. The raiders attacked the caravan during the sacred month of Rajab, when fighting was forbidden. When they returned to the Muslim camp laden with booty, Muhammad refused to share in the loot or have anything to do with them, saying only, "I did not order you to fight in the sacred month."

But then a new revelation came from Allah, explaining that the Quraysh's opposition to Muhammad was a worse transgression than the violation of the sacred month. In other words, the raid was justified. "They question you, O Muhammad, with regard to warfare in the sacred month. Say: warfare in it is a great transgression, but to turn men from the way of Allah, and to disbelieve in Him and in the Inviolable Place of Worship, and to expel His people from there, is a greater sin with Allah; for persecution is worse than killing" (2:214,217). Whatever sin the Nakhla raiders had committed was overshadowed by the Quraysh's rejection of Muhammad.

The general principle which Muhammad took from this particular incident was this: to launch a military attack during the sacred month of ceasefire is OK, if you're killing people who have rejected Muhammad's ideas.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Like a Hot Potato!

The following numbers, although approximate, enlighten nonetheless: around 30 A.D., Europe was 100% pagan. The only possible exceptions were tiny Jewish communities that might have existed in Rome and in some of the Greek city-states. Numerically, these would have been insignificant, if they existed at all; we know that, a few decades later, they did exist.

This means that all of continental Europe, from Spain to Finland, from Italy to Greece, was dominated by a belief system which featured polytheism, human sacrifices, and - in its primitive stages - ritual orgies. This pre-religious quasi-spirituality (for it was neither fully, but perhaps both partially) consisted of myth and magic. Myth is the attempt to explain; magic is the attempt to control. Mythological explanations were offered for the weather, for childlessness, and for military victories or losses. Magic tried to manipulate harvests, human fertility, and the outcomes of battles. Lacking was any sense of personal relationship between the human and the deity.

This, then, was mindset which dominated the area.

By 400 A.D., the majority of the European landmass will be inhabited by populations which contain a significant minority of Christians; some areas will even have a majority of Christians. By 800 A.D., the composition of all of Europe will be approximately 45% Christian and 10% Jewish; the remaining 45% will claim to be Christian. Paganism will be essentially gone; possibly, tiny groups of Druids or others remained for a few more decades in hiding.

Given that paganism had dominated the continent (as well as most of the world) for around five thousand years, it vanished with shocking speed. Although a few centuries may seem like a long time to you and me, it's a mere instant in the grand scheme of world history.

Two questions remain to be asked: Why did people so easily relinquish their old belief system and embrace a new one? And what was the net effect of this change?

To the first question, we may note that ancient paganism had little with which to endear itself to practitioner, and so it would be easy for those people to let go of it. It lacked any sense of personal bond to the gods worshipped, and lacked concepts of forgiveness, comfort, and charity. It encouraged a sense of manipulation along multiple vectors - humans manipulating deities, deities manipulating humans, humans manipulating each other, and even deities manipulating each other. It nudged cultures toward desperation and fear; it spoke of gods who behave erratically, unreliably, and even hostilely toward humans.

By contrast, the Judeo-Christian influence spoke of hope, friendship, and mutual aid. It encouraged humans to accept the unalterable facts of existence, rather than hope for a magical change. It recognized the limits of human knowledge and reason, rather than inventing mythological explanations for those things which lie beyond human power; it revealed a Deity who liked humans and desired friendship with them.

The net effect of polytheism's decline was manifold: most obviously, human sacrifice was ended. Beyond that, there was a change in the very idea of what it meant to be human: every human life became seen as valuable and worthy of respect. The buying and selling of people, whether in slavery or in marriage, ended; women were given a voice in their own lives and decisions. Torture was considered inappropriate, and a conflict of ideas was viewed as an opportunity for a healthy debate, not a physical conflict.

Did European culture live up to these noble ideas which were introduced by the Judeo-Christian tradition? Not always. There are glaring examples in which the Europeans failed, at certain times, to respect human rights. But there were also times at which they did the right thing: times at which they respected the dignity of the individual. And this set them apart from what they had been a few hundred years earlier - significant progress - and it also set them apart from the other cultures of the world.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Moses vs. Hammurabi

The outlook of Moses is one which leads, ultimately, after centuries, to the advances of modern physics, because it leads to a view that the universe is systematic, and uniform regarding time and space and gravity; Moses ultimately points the way to the conclusion that the universe is susceptible to rational analysis, because it is organized according to the rational laws of mathematics. The philosophical view that the world is ultimately based on reason and algebra and geometry is the foundation for modern science.

The culture which descends from the civilization of Hammurabi is one that, after several generations, will ultimately de-emphasize the natural sciences, and chemistry and physics in particular, because it sees the universe as random and meaningless.

If we look at the last several centuries of scientific, mathematical, and engineering innovation, it does not come from the philosophical children of Hammurabi, but rather such technological advancement springs from the philosophical offspring of Moses. A statistical analysis of the number of patents filed in these areas suffices to show this; one can also look at where high-tech firms do business, and who they hire. Westerners are often brought in to do high-tech work in parts of the world; if locals living there are interested in pursuing technological research, they generally leave the country.

The ethic of Moses will lead ultimately to the view that certain legal punishments are “cruel and unusual” – the ethic that crimes may not be punished with fury, wrath, and vengeance, but rather that every human – even a criminal or a slave – still deserves a modicum of decency in treatment, because every human is still worthy of respect and dignity.

The ethic of Hammurabi will ultimately lead to routine applications of punishments such as the amputation of hands, drowning, strangling, public floggings, burnings, skinning, etc.: those very same punishments which the society of Moses ultimately has rejected. In these parts of the world today, no punishment or torture is considered "too cruel". The understanding of human rights, on the one hand, and civil rights, on the other hand, is lacking in these places. This is the legacy of Hammurabi.

We Were Really Good, Weren't We?

When a group can write its own history, and when there is little competing data, it can twist the way in which later generations will view it.

The Classical Greeks of the “Golden Age” are often seen as an ideal, as a virtuous and noble group of people. Yet this is not true: leaders like Themistocles were comfortable with bribery, extortion, and human sacrifice; Thucydides tells us how Pericles gives a speech praising Athens for its morality and then tells us how the Athenians relied primarily upon dishonesty, intimidation, betrayal, murder, and cruelty for political power. Why do they have such a good image in history books, if they were so ruthless and corrupt? Some of the Greeks had a chance to write their own histories, and make themselves look good in the process; other Greeks wrote about how people should act, not about how they actually do act. The Greeks living during the Classical age would laugh themselves sick if they saw modern essays about the “noble Greeks”.

Remember, this is a society which embraced slavery, and notions of human inequality, to an extent which would shock an twenty-first century American; exclusion was one of the foundational concepts on which they based their society. Few societies have been more corrupt, sick, or depraved than Greece during the Classical age, and Athens in particular. Yet we remember then as the noble, democratic, virtuous Greeks!

Moses and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Exodus Experience is paradigmatic for the North American experience of 19th through 21st centuries: Emancipating millions of slaves at once creates the danger of social chaos, unless or until these former slaves, who never made meaningful decisions for themselves, and who never developed leadership skills, are given a social vision and a way to organize themselves. The task of Moses was not merely to bring the Hebrews out of slavery and give them a few laws, but rather to help them create a society. Did the former slaves, and the children and grandchildren of former slaves, find a stable and beneficial social structure after being freed in the American Civil War?

It is no accident that Moses and the Exodus formed a focal point in the preaching of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in American in the twentieth century; they understood that after gaining their freedom, they also needed a "Moses experience" or a "Sinai experience" to give them a sense of direction, a social structure, a moral compass. To exactly what extent this ever happened is debatable.

Tribal, But Not Simplistic

Tribal Europe became strong during the last centuries of the Roman empire. The Goths had a literary culture by 350 A.D., and subdivided into Visigoths and Ostrogoths. The Franks would ultimately be the most influential tribe, forming the basis of modern Europe; they emerged from their homeland (“Franconia” or “Frankenland”), in the area which is now on the German/Czech border.

The tribes began in the area north of the Danube and east of the Rhein, the cradle of Europe, and expanded as Roman influence imploded. These ancient tribes originally engaged in pagan polytheism; consider the close parallels between Norse mythology, Greco-Roman mythology, and Hinduism.

The major European tribal groupings (Germanic, Latin, Greek, Slavic) are siblings to the Persian/Iranian and Sanskrit groupings. Thus “western” culture has some surprising ties to the East.

But Arabic, Hebrew, Egyptian, and other Semitic cultural and genetic groups are not siblings of the Europeans. The eventual spread of monotheism and respect for human life represent the impact of Semitic thought on the Indo-European stock.

Europeans were all originally polytheistic. As the tribes switched from semi-nomadic to domestic lifestyles, the empire of the Franks emerged into dominance; the Merovingian and Carolinian dynasties would lead.

Europeans thus represent a mixed heritage; while the European languages are rather similar to Sanskrit, the moral and spiritual world view is Hebrew. Perhaps this is the source of the fact that “western” cultures are non-xenophobic, while “non western” cultures are xenophobic.

But the problem with this generalization is, as we have seen, it is difficult to define precisely which cultures are to be considered “western” and which are “non western”. The huge distance, in miles, between England and India shows us how far these tribes, originally living together, migrated.

The bottom line: European cultures have demonstrated a consistent openness to other civilizations, while the xenophobia of non-European traditions has led them to lock out foreign influences. Only in the twentieth century did significant numbers of non-European cultures begin to open themselves to other civilizations.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Whom Can You Trust?

The following is a summary and excerpt from a recent newspaper column by David Hasey:

James Madison, in the “Federalist Paper #51” expressed this sequence of ideas: If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. He concludes that since neither is the case we must have governments and that they must have a system of checks and balances in order to function well. In effect, he is saying that since we are not divine, and therefore can’t be counted upon to always do what is right, we need a government. At the same time, since those who govern are also not divine, we must have a system of checks and balances to keep them from abusing their power. Alternative political parties, other branches of government and regulatory agencies fill this role in society. Madison goes on to say that “experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” There are too many people throughout history who have abused their position in government for Madison to be optimistic about the future.

But if ethical responsibility and public morality have gone by the wayside, a carefully designed system of limited government with checks and balances in jeopardized. As John Mark Reynolds noted in a recent article “Without morality on the individual level, no laws, contracts, or rules will help our society. Bad men will always find a way to cheat.” Without a moral sense, there is nothing within a person to which he can hold himself accountable. The only deterrent becomes the fear of getting caught. As one’s power and prestige increase even the fear of exposure diminishes. This leads to the corrupting atmosphere, whether in ancient Greece or modern America. As a society continues to lose its moral stance, there will be less and less to keep people from acting badly.

The technical sophistication of a legal safeguards against the abuse of power by those in government relies on ethical convictions for their power.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Which Darius?

Over the course of Persian history, there have been several kings named Darius. The most significant are:

Darius the Great, who lived until 486 B.C., and is also known as Darius I. He is mainly known for his ill-fated attempt to militarily punish the Greek city-states, especially Athens, because a couple of them had helped Aristagoras, who was a leader in the Ionian colony city of Miletus, when he rebelled against the Persians who had annexed most of Asia Minor and were demanding tribute payments from these Greek colony cities. This attempt by Darius to punish Athens was defeated at the famous Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.

Darius III fought against Alexander the Great, and was assassinated by one of his own officials in 330 B.C.

Darius the Mede is recorded by Hebrew historians as conquering Babylon. Due to obscurities in translation and transliteration, this reference is somewhat unclear; it could refer to Darius the Great, or it could be a way of referring to Cyrus; it could allude to one of several kings of the Medes; it could also indicate Ugbaru-Gubaru, who was a military leader of the Medes. Yes, that is a real name.

There are a number of other kings and leaders named Darius in Persian history, but these are the most important.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

What Was Hammurabi Thinking?

Consider these interpretations of Hammurabi’s legal code: His main interest is in preserving his society. He’s not trying to change anything, start anything new, or end anything old. He’s got momentum in his civilization, and his goal is to keep it going strong. Babylon was around for several centuries before and after Hammurabi, so he’s in the middle of a good run. So we look at one of his laws not as a moral statement, but as a principle for keeping a society strong. Any society that consistently acts outside of his laws will dissolve into chaos – at least, that’s what he thinks. Hammurabi is not interested in morality. He’s not saying that a certain action is “wrong” or “evil” – he’s simply saying that he wants a community that is capable of existing into the future and not destroying itself. Think about the difference between “good vs. evil” and “legal vs. illegal” – this is the difference between morality and legality. I also think that Hammurabi is not terribly interested in religion. True, he mentions some magic and mystic topics in his laws, and the laws are carved on a tablet that pictures the Babylonian sun god Shemesh, but if we examine the logic of the laws themselves, they are more political than religious. Hammurabi’s society was certainly interested in myth and magic, which is very different than our modern conception of religion as a relationship with a deity. A society embracing myth and magic includes, in the case of Mesopotamia, the concept of a “fertility religion” – a belief system centered on ways to make crops grow, and make the livestock robust. Remember that famine was a real and serious threat. So persuading the sky god to give rain, and the earth goddess to make plants grow, was the main goal of “fertility religion.” This still falls under the heading of “myth and magic,” because the goal is to manipulate – to make something happen. Our more modern concept of religion, by contrast, centers on communicating with a deity – worship, prayer, conversation – and serving a deity.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Gin and Tonic with Lime

Yes, if you're enrolled in our high school's Humanities program, you're too young to legally purchase or consume a Gin and Tonic with Lime, but you're old enough to learn about its historic origins.

Starting in the 1750's the English managed India for almost two hundred years. Unaccustomed to living in that part of the world, with its own weather and wildlife, British soldiers were susceptible to contracting malaria. Their physicians encouraged the continuous consumption of small doses of quinine, a medication used even today to prevent malaria.

But quinine tastes very sour, and isn't something that the men wanted to take frequently.

Mixing quinine with carbonated water, the physicians created "tonic water" - you can buy it today in every grocery store. This tasted a little better, and so the soldiers were more likely to drink it.

In order get them all to drink it, however, the tonic water was mixed with gin, the favorite drink of the English soldiers! The British military had also long encouraged the consumption of limes to prevent the scurvy, a disease resulting from lack of vitamin C. So, to complete the beverage, a twist of lime was added.

By the early 1800's, the drink was well-established among the English living in India. As they finished their years of service and returned home, they brought the recipe with them back to Britain. It was no longer needed to prevent malaria, but the taste had become popular.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The War Between Athens and Sparta

The differences between Sparta and Athens didn't stand in the way of a confederation, when the Persian empire threatened them. But after the victories at Salamis and Plataea, Sparta did not join the Athenian maritime federation. The Spartan warriors were too intent on not endangering their position of power on the Peloponnesian peninsula. They had there not only subjugated the Messenians, but also forced most of the other city-states into cooperation in the Peloponnesian league. Sparta and Athens both had now brought a large number of city-states behind them, and competed for the hegemony in Greece.

Starting in 431 BC, the two powers led war against each other. Because Athens had the strong fleet and much money, Pericles and most of the Athenians thought that they could attain the ultimate hegemony in Greece. The Spartans had neither a fleet nor money, but announced an inflammatory goal for their war: all Greeks should be free and independent - specifically from the oppressive Athenian mastery over the maritime confederation. Because both sides had many allies, and wanted to win unconditionally, almost all Greeks were soon enveloped in a long and bloody struggle. Finally, the Spartans even worked with the Persians, in order to build a fleet also. Athens was weakened, as shortly after the war's beginning, many people died of a plague. After that, victories and defeats alternated. Finally, Sparta defeated Athens at sea. The city was starved, and had to surrender in 404 BC.

But it became clear in the next century that actually both powers had lost. Sparta could maintain its new leadership position in Greece only with violence, and even then not continuously. The continuous oppression of the majority of the inhabitants in their city weakened the Spartans too much. And even democratic Athens could not win its old power back again.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

What Type of Liberalism?

The original wave of liberalism was lead by thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith in the 1700's. This became known as "Classical Liberalism" and emphasized the freedom of the individual. Several centuries later, we are confronted with what is often called "New Left" Liberalism. How are these two sorts of Liberalism different? We will see that the word "Liberalism" can refer to very different schools of political thought.

Originally, liberalism had referred to political and economic liberty as understood by Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith. For them, the ultimate desideratum was maximum individual freedom under the benign protection of a minimalist state. The size, power, and role of government were to be kept to a minimum, to prevent it from controlling individuals and thereby reducing their freedom. A free market would be good for the poor, as it offered them opportunities, instead of keeping them locked in poverty. The freedom of association guaranteed that civil society would be a free and open space occupied by voluntary groupings - neighborhoods, clubs, sports teams, political parties, any kind of voluntary gathering - independent associations of citizens who pursue their own interests and ambitions free from state interference or coercion. Classical liberalism saw government as a necessary evil, or simply a benign but voluntary social contract for free men to enter into willingly. Civilized people have disagreements, and those who participate in a parliamentary democracy have arguments: classical liberalism is based on this fundamental insight - individuality is more valuable than unity. An ideology of individual freedom and democratic government - the result of parliamentary debate and majority rule - gave birth to the true civil rights movement in the 1960's, when Martin Luther King declared that we should judge people by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin. Freedom of speech, religion, the press, and thought are part of the package of classical liberalism.

This sounds good. So why would anybody oppose it?

A different breed, the New Left Liberals, arose because of well-intentioned desires to promote "the common good" in society. For example, cigarette smoking is bad, so should we impinge on the liberties of individuals to deter or prevent them from smoking? By doing so, we will, after all, help them to be more healthy, and save the rest of society from paying the medical bills involved. Another example is the economy: people will suggest that the government can alleviate the suffering of the poor by setting maximum and minimum prices for certain products. Certainly we all want to help the poor. Or maybe we can make a more harmonious and peaceful society by asking people not to voice certain opinions.

Out of good desires - for public health, or helping the poor, or reducing hate in society - people are tempted to violate the first principle of civilized society: to protect individual freedom. Even if we know cigarette smoking is harmful, we must allow individuals to do it. Even if we guess that certain economic measures might help the poor, we must allow individuals to make their own decisions with their property and money. Even if holding serious moral beliefs makes some people uncomfortable, we should not attempt to stop those who engage in ethical meditations.

History teaches us about the bad results of good intentions: the Prohibition Era was based on a good desire to prevent alcohol-based problems, but gave rise to more crime. Stalin's Soviet Union wanted to create a classless utopia for workers, but ended up creating artificial famines to start millions of freethinkers to death.

There is no goal which justifies compromising the freedom of the individual. That is the essence of John Locke, Adam Smith, and Classical Liberalism.

Friday, May 30, 2008

An Example of How a Simple Question Becomes Complex

Few things in life are as simple as they should be. For example, one can ask whether the famous Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is a Christian. That should be answered with a simple "yes" or "no" - but it isn't. When we start to examine the historical evidence, it quickly becomes a very complicated issue:

Gorbachev was baptised in the Russian Orthodox Church as a child. He campaigned for establishment of freedom of religion laws in the former Soviet Union. All of which would make you think that maybe he's a Christian. But Gorbachev has also expressed pantheistic views, saying, in an interview with the magazine Resurgence, "Nature is my god."

Remarks by Gorbachev to Ronald Reagan in discussions during their summits, made the President deeply intrigued by the possibility that the leader of the Evil Empire might be a "closet Christian." Reagan seems to have seen this as the most interesting aspect of his meeting with the Soviet leader in Geneva.

At the end of a November 1996 interview on CSPAN's Booknotes, Gorbachev described his plans for future books. He made the following reference to God: "I don't know how many years God will be giving me, [or] what His plans are."

Gorbachev was the recipient of the Athenagoras Humanitarian Award of the Order of St. Andrew Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople on 20 November, 2005.

On March 19 2008, during a surprise visit to pray at the tomb of Saint Francis in Assisi, Italy, Gorbachev made an announcement which has been interpreted to the effect that he was a Christian. Gorbachev stated that "St Francis is, for me, the alter Christus, the other Christ. His story fascinates me and has played a fundamental role in my life." He added, "It was through St Francis that I arrived at the Church, so it was important that I came to visit his tomb."

However, a few days later, he reportedly told the Russian news agency Interfax, "Over the last few days some media have been disseminating fantasies — I can't use any other word—about my secret Catholicism, [...] To sum up and avoid any misunderstandings, let me say that I have been and remain an atheist." In response, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox patriarch Alexei II told the Russian media: "In Italy, he (Gorbachev) spoke in emotional terms, rather than in terms of faith. He is still on his way to Christianity. If he arrives, we will welcome him."

So what does Mikhail Gorbachev really believe? As you see, the answer isn't simple.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Was Martin Luther Anti-Semitic?

Martin Luther is routinely praised by historians, liberal or conservative, American or European, as creating a positive spiritual revolution which re-vitalized European intellectual life. His Reformation sparked a fresh wave of creativity in music, painting, poetry, and architecture. Although focused on people's spiritual well-being, his work had ripple effects in politics, economics, and sociology.

But some have accused this inventive thinker of being anti-Semitic. Is Luther guilty of hating the Jews?

The question, and its answer, are not as simple as we might hope. In the 1500's, many people used the word "Jew" as a racial or ethnic category; Luther, however, saw it primarily as a theological category. So, when he spoke of "Jews", he wasn't talking about who they were, he was talking about what they believed.

A second complicating factor lies in the nature of Luther's writings. Luther wrote over one hundred short books in his life, over a time span of nearly fifty years. Over the course of those decades, his opinions changed from time to time, and so we don't always find a consistent theoretical system expressed in these texts (which is why even the Lutheran Church doesn't take Luther's writings as a definitive statement of Lutheran theory). Luther often wrote in a polemic tone, doing his best to deliberately irritate certain segments of the reading public; so often he goes out of his way to use harsh language: this can lead to misunderstandings.

So what did Luther write? In 1520, he wrote: "Damnable is the rage of some Christians (if indeed one can call them Christians) who believe they are doing God a favor by persecuting Jews in the most hateful manner, entertain wicked thoughts about them, and mock their misfortune with pride and contempt." Read that sentence again carefully.

Luther was friends with Josel von Rosheim, the chief Rabbi of Germany; Luther intervened when anti-Semites in certain provinces threatened to confiscate all Jewish books: Luther's influence allowed the Jews to keep their books.

In 1523, Luther reminded the Germans "that Jesus Christ was born a Jew," and that "we in turn ought to treat the Jews in a brotherly manner."

Why then have some accused Luther of antisemitism? In 1543, Luther wrote some rather angry things about the Jews, very different in tone than the words quoted above. In contradiction to his peaceful comments, Luther did, in that year, make some statements that could well be interpreted as anti-Semitic.

What then will we say of Luther? Perhaps that he was inconsistent.

It may help to place the matter into perspective by reading how he wrote about his own people: he wrote that the Germans were "brutal, furious savages," and that they were spiritually "deaf, blind, and obdurate of heart." If Luther describes his own nation - and therefore himself - this way, it is hardly surprising when he directs similar language at Italians, French, Poles, or Jews.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Radical Interpretaion of Martin Luther

Over the years, different historians have viewed Martin Luther very differently. Some have seen him as a spiritual think, concerned mainly with understanding God and reading the Bible. Others have seen him as a political or social revolutionary, eager to overturn an unjust system.

Professor Huston Smith (formerly of M.I.T., now at the University of California Berkeley) has his own interpretation of Luther. We should note that Professor Smith is, himself, a radical, having experimented with the famous Professor Timothy Leary in the use of hallucinogenic drugs to attempt to induce religious experiences. Anyway, Huston Smith writes that Martin Luther

allows expression to spiritual propensities that Christianity had insufficiently provided for, ones which (to pursue the matter of ethnic types) the Germanic temperament probably houses disproportionately. Centering in an extreme consciousness of human limitations, one so acute that it totally despairs of man's power to meliorate them, Luther turned directly to God. Faith in God's power to effect a change is the human access to that change, so faith, and faith alone - solo fide - is the key to the kingdom.

Professor Smith is saying that Luther was more likely, because he was German, to understand that human beings are essentially limited, and unable to help themselves. Humans need help from something beyond themselves, something they can't reach or grasp, something which must reach out to them, because they can reach out to it. That something is God.

This interpretation is radical because Smith is relying on the fact that Martin Luther is German to explain the unique and powerful impact of the Reformation. It is true that others before Luther had moved in the direction of a Reformations - Italians, Englishmen, Bohemians and Czechs - but can we say that Luther succeeded because he was German? Others will say that Luther succeeded because he had access to new technology (the printing press). Suffice it to say that there are many ways to understand the powerful impact of the Lutheran Reformation.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Adam Smith and William Blake

What can Adam Smith, a mathematical economist and coldly calculating observer of modern mechanized and industrialized urbanization, have in common with William Blake, a passionate poet and painter, whose works focus on the individual human experience?

Their thoughts and experiences intertwine with each other in a complex web. Blake was passionately religious, but adamantly anti-church. He attacked the notion of "natural religion," but embraced the notion of revealed religion, and saw God as the center of all things; yet he criticized the institutional church and organized religion as failing to address the human misery created by the Industrial Revolution. Whether, in Blake's mind, the church could not, or simply would not, help, is not clear.

Enter Adam Smith. Although writing somewhat earlier than Blake, his comments anticipate, agree with, and to a certain extent answer Blake's. In the fifth and final part of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith addresses the social effects of urbanization, mechanization, industrialization, and the modern economy. Smith, like Blake, sees the churches of the time as inadequate to address the human needs of these new forms of life.

But Smith goes a step further: he predicts that new forms of spirituality will arise. And in the early 1800's we see these new forms of Christianity arising, in the movements that would ultimately flourish in the middle of century in the birth of three large Christian institutions: the YMCA, the Salvation Army, and the Red Cross. But even before the middle of the century, this new version of the New Testament message would make its impact felt in various reform movements to help conditions in the slums of industrialized big cities.

What Blake longed for, what Adam Smith foresaw, actually came to be.

Reacting to the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution was a major change in society. It affected many different areas of life, and affected all social classes. It threatened some social institutions, and gave rise to others. It gave power and money to the middle class, took power and money from the old aristocracy, and made life miserable for many of the lower class. We can trace of number of specific reactions to the Industrial Revolution:

The Art of William Blake focused on the human misery that was created by the Industrial Revolution; he did not allow his readers to escape or forget the suffering that filled the slums of London, or that this anguish was brought about for the comfort and greed of the middle classes. The British Romanticists, in both poetry and painting, sought escape, or more accurately sold escape, to their middle class audiences, who would rather envision an idealized rustic rural life, than remember the coal smoke and child labor surrounding them. Marx, the communists, and the socialists demanded some form of revolution to overthrow this system, to destroy the political, social, and economic systems, and establish a utopia, a worker’s paradise of equality. John Stuart Mill and the Reform Liberals wanted a less radical solution; rather than destroy the system, they wanted to fix it, to adjust it, via child labor laws and the unionization of workers, among other means. Kropotkin and the anarchists also demanded a revolution, but instead of replacing the system, they wanted an end to all systems, and a return to an imagined state of nature and harmony. The Conservatives, represented by Metternich, and to a lesser extent Burke, saw the Industrial Revolution as a threat, because it emboldened the middle classes, and undermined the aristocracy; they fervently sought to maintain the old social order as it had existed before the Industrial Revolution, and realized that the threat was not from the lower classes, but rather from reform-minded individuals who naively thought that they were acting on behalf of the lower classes.

The breadth of the Industrial Revolution’s impact reminds us that, as in the case of the printing press, it is often not the lofty thoughts of academic philosophers, but the physical devices of daily life which can bring about the most sweeping changes in history.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Rousseau's Civil Religion

It is not easy to understand the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau. It takes much thought and patience to read his books. When you finally have figured out what he's trying to say, then you have to decide whether or not you agree with it!

Take his ideas about religion, for example. At the climax of his book, The Social Contract, he carries out a historical analysis concerning the development of the relation between religion and government. He says that in the earliest phases of human history, religion and government were one. He thinks here of the ancient societies in the Fertile Crescent, and of the earliest phases of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian culture. He then identifies the emergence of Christianity as a crisis point in human history, because this new faith wants to separate religion and government. He explains that this is why ancient societies wanted so desperately to kill Christians: they found this new belief intolerable. Rousseau blames Christianity for creating a social split which has never fully healed. To this day, he says, we see religion and government as two separate things. Human society can never be fully at peace until they are reunited.

To further complicate his analysis, he makes the distinction, as do other historians, between the real Christian faith on the one hand, and what most people usually consider to be Christianity on the other. Rousseau winds up rejecting both, though, because they both lead to the social split identified earlier. Rousseau says that the only hope for human society is to get rid of Christianity in any form entirely.

In its place, he has invented his own religion. In contrast to Christianity, it has no basis in historical events; it is a collection of Rousseau's own personal ideas. Rousseau rejects the idea that God would ever freely forgive humans and extend unearned favor toward them. Instead, he wants to teach people that they must earn their own way into heaven, or be damned. Rousseau believes that his religion is central to any chance for a human society to heal itself, so he recommends that we make Christianity illegal, and require everyone to believe Rousseau's theory about God. Anyone who might reject Rousseau's made-up religion should either be exiled or put to death.

The bizarre theory of religion lies at the base of Rousseau's envisioned society, and is a part of his plan to "force people to be free."

Isaac Newton and Jesus?

As we investigate the work of Sir Isaac Newton, it becomes clear that for this genius, all of modern mathematics and physics are seen as an extension of a spiritual reality. Calculus is the mathematical plan by which the universe was designed, according to Newton; his astronomical observations and his refinements in telescope design were done largely with an eye to calculating the dates of events in the Bible through stellar movement. Yet, for this most religious of men (Newton wrote more books about God and the Bible than he wrote about mathematics and physics), the exact nature of his religious beliefs remains a matter of controversy.

Newton spent most of his life in or near the university in Cambridge, England.

Some historians are inclined to view Newton as a Christian, because Newton does clearly state that Jesus is both the Savior of all humans and the Son of God. Further, he clearly states that Jesus rose from the dead, in the most physical and bodily sense. Finally, Newton proclaimed that the texts of the Tanakh and the New Testament were historically true and literally accurate; Newton wrote entire books, commenting in detail about the writing of the prophets (he could read Hebrew and Greek very well). All of which would make it seem that Newton is probably a Christian.

Yet other historians say that Newton was not, technically speaking, a Christian. They imply that Newton developed some very radical religious views, so strange that he cannot be called a Christian. First, Newton doubted the usual sense of the Trinity: Newton claimed that, although Jesus is both the Son of God and the Savior of the human race, yet Jesus is not identical with God nor equal to God. Second, Newton engaged in some rather occult practices, including the practice of alchemy (in the broader sense of magical chemistry, rather than the narrower sense of the attempt to synthesize gold). These two factors may be enough to make it questionable whether or not Newton can accurately be called a Christian.

Newton's chief work was published in 1687 under the title Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, meaning Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. In one of his history books, written around the same time but published later, he wrote, “I take it for granted that the Passion was on Friday the fourteenth day of the month of Nisan, the great feast of the Passover on Saturday the fifteenth day of Nisan, and the Resurrection on the day following.”

Thursday, March 27, 2008

It Must Be True - I Saw It On The History Channel!

The flood of documentary films which fills both classrooms and many hours of cable television can powerfully inform or misinform millions of viewers. We watch them regularly, and there is a psychological temptation to believe or trust what they show or say. But how reliable are they?

Documentaries can misinform in several ways. First, the images themselves can be misleading. Often, if no still or movie picture of a historical event is available, some "reenactment" or "simulation" is often shown. But any such footage is, at best, an educated guess, and not as reliable as actual historical photographs. Worse, when a reconstruction or simulation is too expensive to manufacture, stock footage from Hollywood films is often inserted. Hollywood is fine for entertainment, but lousy for informing and educating.

Even when actual footage or still photos are available, there is a double bias: first, of the original photographers on the scene, and then of the selections made for the film.

A second danger of documentary films is not in what you see, but in what you hear. Typically, several experts or eyewitnesses are interviewed on camera. Of the many hours spent interviewing, only a few minutes will wind up on camera - and those are often chosen, not for the information, but rather for the drama, which they present. And of the "experts" interviewed, it is understood that one who has a radical or iconoclastic interpretation to offer will be the most interesting on-screen, even if that alleged specialist is sadly mistaken. Historians and scientists whose views are outrageous rather than rational make for entertaining films, but not not for informative ones.

Even the background music can be misleading: a recent documentary about English history showed scenes of London in 1965, while playing "Won't Get Fooled Again," a song not recorded until 1971. The film gave the misleading impression that the song was written in mood of that historical moment, when it was in fact written at a time far removed.

A final strike against documentary films is that the actual amount of information - of quantifiable data - is rather small for the time investment. For sixty minutes spent watching a documentary, compared to sixty minutes spent reading a textbook, fewer facts are gained. Documentaries are simply an inefficient way to inform one's self about a topic.

William Blake and the Doors

Jim Morrison's 1960's rock group, The Doors, took its name from one of William Blake's poems, in which Blake laments the spiritual blindness of humans:

If the doors of perception were cleansed,
Everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.
For man has closed himself up,
Till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.

Blake's concern here revolves around the relation between reality and perception. He sees that, as a result of the Fall, as a result of the imperfections which have become part of human nature, our perception of reality is inaccurate. Can we fix our perceptions? Can we learn to see things as they really are? In addition to being a poet and a painter, and engaging in other forms of the visual arts (e.g., drawings, engravings, etc.), Blake is here concerned with what is fundamentally a philosophical question: to what extent can humans have clear and unhindered access to reality? To what extent can I escape my own bias and prejudice to see things as they really are?

Blake's answer is found in the title of one of his short writings, "There is No Natural Religion", and places him into the midst of one of the great philosophical debates, not only of his era, but also of our era.

The discussion revolves around two possible versions of religious thought: "natural religion" is a view championed by rationalist philosophers, who thought that the most accurate information about God is available to human reason through the process of logical reflection; "revealed religion" is alternative, endorsed by empirical philosophers, who state that only by examining external evidence (mainly texts) can humans correctly inform themselves about God.

By endorsing the idea of "revealed religion" and rejecting the idea of "natural religion," Blake joins Issac Newton, John Locke, and Robert Boyle. For Blake, then, rational thinking and logical argumentation alone are not enough to fully inform us about reality. To "cleanse the doors of perception," Blake wants us to use our five senses to learn additional information, important information, about God. Logic and reason, says Blake, will tell us perhaps, at most, that God exists, and that He created the universe. But to learn the more interesting and relevant facts about God, i.e., that He loves all humans, that He forgives sins, etc., Blake tells us to use our senses, to study nature, to study texts and language, and to see the ultimate power which lies at the base of all which we experience.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Adam Smith - Then and Now

In the March 2008 issue of The Atlantic, author Walter Russell Mead notes that "in 1776, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, a sly and subversive classic." Smith's book is "too often mistaken today for a mere lecture on the benefits of capitalism," continues Mead. In fact, the book probably contains comments of a wider interest about human nature and society: "Smith saw what we see: the progress of modernity, he noted, was not undermining religion in the Britain of his day. Instead, religious revivals were blooming. These new religious movements often rejected the liberal values."

It would be only a few years after Smith's The Wealth of Nations that John Stuart Mill would start modern political liberalism and its rejection of Locke's principle of majority rule.

Adam Smith, from Scotland, but familiar with the industrialization process throughout England, "observed a relationship between these revivals and the process that we now call urbanization." As the alienation, later identified by Marx, left the individual workingman without a sense of community, "the city's small sectarian religious congregations gave rural immigrants a social-support network and a moral code." In the experience of the individual, "these movements were a response to the dislocations of modernity."

In a different aspect of society, the technological innovations of the industrial revolution continued a trend which had begun in earlier centuries: the simultaneous deemphasis of organization religious institutions and the growth of individual religious spirituality. While technical geniuses like Michael Faraday grew increasingly unimpressed with the organized church, they became all the more committed to their individual religious faiths. So, while technological growth can undermine religious institutions, it seems to fuel increasingly serious personal commitments to spiritual beliefs: witness the missionary activities of chemist Robert Boyle, discover of Boyle's law.

"The symbiotic relationship between alienating, amoral modernity and fervent religion can still be seen," continues Mead. In modern education, in a technological society, "the intense competition for top university spots favors adolescents with steady homework habits, harmonious relationships with school authorities, and the ability" to control impulses when necessary to negotiate complex bureaucratic systems.

Technology, industry, and modern physics have not created a society of soulless robots; rather, it has reinvigorated personal spiritual activity. Isaac Newton symbolizes this well: while he was prone to disagree with a stuffy and inflexible Anglican church, he was even more prone to believe that "the Greek and Hebrew scriptures offer a wholly trustworthy guide to God's will for humankind."

It was, after all, not some conservative bishop or priest, but rather the radical Isaac Newton, who not only revolutionized physics and math, but also saw the events reported in the New Testament as central to the human experience.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

How Faith Contributes to Society

It is clear that religion is, in many ways, the engine which drives history. Many, perhaps even most, significant historical events and trends find their roots in religion. Many pivotal people in history form their thoughts in the framework of spirituality, or, like Hitler or Stalin, react against traditional religion.

What are, then, the net impacts of religion on society? In Western Civilization, or European Culture, we see the rise of civil liberties: during the Middle Ages, the craftsmen who were members of the guild system practiced among themselves a form of democracy which was arguably much more direct and equal than anything found among the Greeks of the Classical era; in the settling of North America, even before we gained our independence from England, the churches began to operate with various forms of direct democracy; the view that we are obliged to respect every human life is part of a larger world-view. Gandhi's desire to dismantle the caste system was formed while he was a student in England.

A truly reflective spirituality, as opposed to astrologers and palm-readers, promotes scientific investigation: the medieval scholastic philosophers emphasized that God is rational, and that the universe is therefore structured on uniform mathematical principles, which paved the way for the development of modern chemistry and physics; European Culture, including America and Australia, have led the way in technical research and development; Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote, "The weapons of a Christian are not physical violence, but prayer and knowledge ... knowledge and learning fortify the mind with salutary precepts ... a sensible reading of the pagan poets and philsophers is a good preparation ... "

Erasmus is not only giving us the classical teaching of Western Civilization that intellectual knowledge is a better way to change the world than violence (Gandhi formulated his principles of non-violence while a he was studying in England), but is also calmly willing to study a diverse array of pagan opinions - and thereby modelling another typically Western trait, the openness to new ideas. One need only note that, in the universities of Western world, philosophies from every culture and country are studied, while in other parts of the world, studying European philosophy is forbidden.

One final religious trait can be seen in society: the willingness to serve in someone else's cause. It was free white people who fought for the liberty of black slaves; it was men who worked to give women the right to vote; it is adults who work to end child labor; it is the rich countries who offer help and hope to developing third-world countries; it is the educated who desire to create schools for those who have none. Varous phrases and words carry the same theme: altrusim, self-sacrifice, noblesse oblige.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Just Justinian

The Byzantine emperor Justinian was born in 482 A.D., just a few years after the fall of the Roman Empire, or technically, for those who view the Byzantine Empire as the continuation of the eastern half of the Roman Empire, just a few years after the fall of the western half of the Roman Empire. In any case, he did not come from a rich aristocratic family, but rather from a poor rural family. He worked his way up the political ladder, finally as an assistant to the emperor Justin. When Justin died, Justinian became emperor.

Justinian had a keen interest in philosophy and religion, and wanted to carefully define words like "trinity" and "incarnation" and supervised the re-building of the Hagia Sophia. His reign was marked by alternating political tensions and friendship between his empire and remnants of the western Roman Empire. These political ups and downs were accompanied by varying emphases on the similarities and dissimilarities between the eastern and western branches of the Christian church. In reality, the belief systems were very similar, but at times of political tensions, attempts were made to make them seem different.

He also did much to popularize the Christian faith, although, at times, he became too enthusiastic and wanted to force people to believe in the new religion. But he never completely illegalized Judaism or paganism, figuring that it is better to persuade people with ideas and not with swords.

The Greatest Goth

Before I tell you that Theodoric was the greatest ruler among the Goths, I need to clarify that there were many Gothic kings named Theodoric. I'm talking about Theodoric the Great, who was born in 454 A.D. in what is now Austria.

His father, also king of the Goths, had defeated the Huns and sent them retreating back into Asia. As adult, Theodoric's first political move was to take over Italy, partly at the request of the Byzantine emperor, who wanted Theodoric as friendly government in Rome. Theodoric was happy to comply, and ruled as king of Italy and king of the Ostrogoth territories, in an alliance with the Byzantine empire. Eventually, he gained control over the Visigoth Empire as well, and formed a friendly alliance with the Frankish Merovingian dynasty.

Theodoric demonstrated the power and skill of the Germanic tribes as a ruler, and a high point of European culture. One story will suffice to demonstrate his spirit: In 519 A.D., when a mob of Italians had burned down the synagogues of Ravenna, Theodoric ordered the town to rebuild them at its own expense.