Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Augustine in Context

Augustine was born in Northern Africa in 354 AD. His birthplace of Thagaste, a city 200 miles from the coast of the Mediterranean, was firmly within the borders of Rome’s vast empire. This area was rich in ethnic and religious diversity, and for many centuries, it thrived. But by the mid-fourth century, the Roman Empire, including the area around Thagaste, was in decline. There were significant economic and social problems, intensified by a military that no longer could manage all of its borders. During this era of constant change, Christianity was gaining momentum. Christianity had become a legal religion in 313 with Constantine’s Edict of Toleration, but it wasn’t until 393 that Christianity was made the official state religion of the Roman Empire. During most of Augustine’s life, then, Christians were a legal but embattled and oppressed minority group. Before Augustine, Christianity had appealed mainly to the lower classes, even women and slaves, with a promise of eternal life and equality, at least at the spiritual level. But Christianity was not popular with the elite and educated classes in Rome. Many powerful Romans believed it a religion of pacifists and the weak. There were already serious divisive issues that threatened to splinter the church. Moreover, Christianity was perceived as failing to appeal to the intellect. Augustine will be the philosopher who shows it to be otherwise. Why was Augustine able to show Christianity to be appealing to the educated classes of Roman society? Augustine was able to rephrase the concepts of Christian theology into the wordings of Classical philosophy. The original formulations of Christian thought were cast in the setting of Hebrew wisdom literature, which was mystifying to the Roman reader. Augustine recast the Jewish wisdom of Jesus and New Testament into clear Roman-style thoughts, passionate discourse, and succinct logic. Although controversial, he was enormously influential and brought unity to the church. Augustine revealed what Hebrew literary style had kept hidden from Roman eyes: that Christianity met the moral and intellectual needs of man.

He became known as Augustine of Hippo, because he worked mainly in that town. It is only a few miles from Thagaste.

Augustine had a classical education. He studied the writings of classical figures like Vergil, Cicero and Plato. He wrote his letters and books in polished Latin style.

He expressed Christian concepts in the language of Platonic philosophy. Augustine believed Platonic dualism and Christianity have a clear link. He presented his own version of Plato’s Theory of Ideas (The Ideas exist within God). He formulated a Christian Neo-Platonism.

Augustine was an early scholastic, or more accurately a proto-Scholastic, in the sense that he reconciled human reason with Christian faith. When Scholasticism flourishes, centuries after Augustine, there will be a conflict between the Augustinian Scholastics, influenced by Platonism, the Thomist Scholastics, influenced by Aquinas’s study of Aristotle.

Augustine systematically explained the history of man from Adam and Eve to the present. He is one of the earliest philosophers to understand the connection between philosophy and history, and to develop a philosophy of history. He had a clear and well-argued vision of time. In exploring the nature of time, he not only explored the philosophy of history, but also the connections between philosophy and physics. Augustine’s view of history and time incorporated all of mankind.

He examined both similarities and contrasts between Cicero’s stoicism and Christianity. He didn’t like all aspects of stoicism, but could see a tie between Natural Law and God’s universality. Some aspects of morality were similar.

He was constantly on a quest for truth and self-examination. He turned religion into an inward and subjective journey, not with answers found in nature, but within the self. His autobiographical writings are self-critical.

Augustine created unity within the church when rivals like the Donatists and Palagians threatened to separate the church. In resolving these conflicts, he organized logical principles still used today by philosophers.

In 410, Rome was sacked by Visigoths. Many Romans blamed the increasing popularity of Christianity for their misfortunes. He creates, in the City of God, a clear rationale as to why Christians should still be faithful despite the horrors they were experiencing: both from external invaders and from their fellow Romans who made the Christians into scapegoats regarding the invasions. He also demonstrated that the Visigoths attacks in Rome were not caused by the new faith, but that the attacks might have been worse if not for the moderating presence of the belief.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Afghanistan's History

As a region, not a political unit, Afghanistan “was always part of somebody’s empire, beginning with the Persian Empire in the fifth century B.C.,” according to Boston University's Thomas Barfield. Afghanistan has been conquered and occupied continuously “for 2,500 years.”

From Cambridge University, Andrew Roberts writes:

The reason that Alexander stayed in Afghanistan so briefly was that there was so little to keep him there, in terms of wealth or produce; he went to Afghanistan to pass through into India. Afghanistan had already been conquered by the Median and Persian Empires beforehand, and afterwards it was conquered by the Seleucids, the Indo-Greeks, the Turks, and the Mongols. The country was quiet for most of the reigns of the Abbasid Dynasty and its successors between 749 and 1258. When Genghis Khan attacked it in 1219, he exterminated every human being in Herat and Balkh, turning Afghanistan back into an agrarian society. Mongol conqueror Tamerlane treated it scarcely better. The Moghuls held Afghanistan peaceably during the reign of Akbar the Great, and for well over a century afterwards.

When Alexander took Afghanistan, he wasn't taking it from the Afghanis, but rather from the Persians. And when it ceased being part of Alexander's empire, it became part of the Seleucid Empire. There is no phase of independence. In fact, the very name "Afghanistan" was inflicted on the nation by outside conquerors, when the peaceable inhabitants were forced by invading Muslim armies, after thousands of them had been executed merely as a show of power, to accept Islam as the state-imposed religion.

Hardly any of these empires bothered to try to impose centralized direct power; all devolved a good deal of provincial autonomy as the tribal and geographical nature of the country demanded in the period before modern communications and the helicopter gunship. Yet it was they who ruled, and the fact that the first recognizably Afghan sovereign state was not established until 1747, by Ahmad Shah Durrani, illustrates that the idea of sturdy Afghan independence is a myth.

The government of 1747 didn’t last long, as Afghanistan was part of the British Empire during the 1800’s. Despite stories of a British defeat in 1842 with 16,500 casualties, the Afghanis didn't offer any substantial resistance to the English. The reality was that the casualties were mainly non-British, and the few British who died were the victims of the commanding officer's stupidity. In any case, the English hold on the territory wasn’t loosened. Andrew Roberts continues:

For all the undoubted disaster of Britain’s First Afghan War, the popular version of events is faulty in several important respects. It is true that 16,500 people died in the horrific Retreat from Kabul, but fewer than a quarter of them were soldiers, and only one brigade was British. The moronic major-general William George Keith Elphinstone evacuated Kabul in midwinter, on Jan. 6, 1842, and the freezing weather destroyed the column as much as the Afghans did; one Englishwoman recalled frostbite so severe that "men took off their boots and their whole feet with them." Wading through two feet of snow and fast-flowing, freezing rivers killed many more than jezail bullets did, and despite Lady Butler’s painting of assistant surgeon William Brydon entering Jalalabad alone on his pony, in fact several hundred — possibly over a thousand — survived the retreat and were rescued by the punitive expedition that recaptured Kabul by September 1842. Early in 1843, the governor-general, Lord Ellenborough, sent Sir Charles Napier to capture Sind, and thereafter Afghanistan stayed quiet for 30 years. Sir Jasper Nicolls, the commander-in-chief of India, listed the reasons for the defeat at the time as: "1. not having a safe base of operations, 2. the freezing climate, 3. the lack of cattle, and 4. placing our magazines and treasure in indefensible places."

So the 16,500 casualties turns out to be actually less than 4,000 - and instead of one lone survivor, there were many. Of those who did die, the causes of death were not combat-related, or even war-related. But the real bottom line is that English dominance remained. The tales not told are of the 1880 battle, for example, in which the British army suffered almost no casualties while retaining control of Kandahar.

After the 1747 government's brief independence, the next real shot at having their own state was in 1919:

After 1880, in the words of Richard Shannon’s book The Crisis of Imperialism, “Afghan resistance was subdued and Afghanistan was reduced to the status virtually of a British protectorate” until it was given its independence in 1919.

Although independent again for several decades, it was rather unstable - a long string of assassinations kept the government rather shaky. Finally, the Soviet Union occupied it for several years, and when they left, the Taliban would be the next invader.

The lesson: although the Taliban imposed a harsh cruelty on the Afghani people, they were simply the most recent power to occupy the nation. While the Taliban were brutal foreign rulers, the contrast between the Taliban and previous eras of Afghani history is not that the Taliban were foreigners who established their rule over Afghanistan, but rather than they were ruthless in doing so. Afghanis have been accustomed, for centuries, to not having their independence and being part of someone's empire, but Taliban's Islamic severity set them apart from previous imperial governors.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Turning Point

Greek philosophy in the archaic era is quite different from Greek philosophy in classical era. What are the differences? What caused the changes?

In the archaic era, the pre-Socratic philosophers lived largely outside of Greece in the Greek-speaking Mediterranean colonies. They were interested in topics related to physics, astronomy, mathematics, biology, and chemistry. They came from a comfortable middle-class or merchant class, having leisure time to think about such topics. Living away from mainland Greece, they were more adventurous in personality, corresponding to the frontier nature of their surroundings. They were optimistic, because the colonies abounded with financial and political opportunities.

During the classical era, the philosophers lived mainly in Greece itself. While retaining interests in physics and metaphysics, they were very interested in social and ethical questions. They were men of less influence and less wealth.

Certain factors in Greek society may have caused philosophers to focus more on political and moral questions: the Peloponnesian War, begun because of Athenian greed, and carried out under pretentious propaganda, weakened Greece and removed optimism. The fabled democratic government of Athens turned out to be, in reality, a system of bribery and extortion, leading to incidents such as the death of Socrates. Greek heroes, like Themistocles, revealed themselves to be savage and brutal, capable of atrocities. (Remember that Themistocles engaged in human sacrifice on the evening before the Battle of Salamis to ensure his victory.) Small wonder that someone like Plato would write a detailed discussion of the question: what is justice?