Friday, December 21, 2012

An Odd Type of Democracy

Pure democracy is very rare, and usually unsuccessful; for this reason, history admits more often of republics. But the democratic principle takes many forms. One of the strangest is when a nation votes to give its monarch the right to veto its vote. This is a political paradox: voting to ensure that the voting does not ensure anything. The English newspaper The Independent reports:

Citizens of the Alpine tax haven Liechtenstein gave their reigning prince a resounding vote of confidence yesterday in a referendum which flatly rejected attempts to curb royal power in one of Europe's most undemocratic countries.

Although The Independent editorializes that the Liechtenstein is "undemocratic," it seems that it was a thoroughly democratic process by which the citizens of that nation chose to give their monarch near-absolute powers.

Proposals to strip Liechtenstein's Prince Hans-Adam II, 67, of his power of parliamentary veto were opposed by 65 per cent of the country's 36,000 subjects in a referendum organised by pro-democracy campaigners.

The results of this election appear unambiguous. One might well wonder why the citizens would vote to render their votes powerless. Perhaps, while each voter trusts his own judgment, most of the voters do not trust the judgment of most of the other voters.

Only 15 per cent voted in favour of the proposal. Sigvard Wohlwend, one of the organisers of the referendum, said he was disappointed by the outcome. He described the prince and his son, Crown Prince Alois, 43, who has been acting in his father's stead since 2004, as "the most powerful monarchs in Europe."

Although living under nearly unrestrained royal power, the citizens of Liechtenstein enjoy a great degree of freedom - understood as the usual mix of civil rights and human rights: freedom of speech, freedom of the market, freedom of religion, freedom of press, freedom to assemble, property rights, and low taxes. Many countries with elected governments have, at least according to international "watchdog" organizations, less freedom.

Again quoting Mr. Wohlwend, The Independent continues:

He said the prince of Liechtenstein held the absolute right to veto any decision taken by the parliament and people. "No judges can be appointed without the approval of the prince," he added.

If, with John Locke, we say that a government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed, then the monarch of Liechtenstein is legitimate in his claim to be able to veto the results of a popular vote by his subjects, or able to veto a decision made by their elected representatives.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Crusades Begin

Most historians cite the year 1095 A.D. as the start of the Crusades. This is generally accurate, but several qualifications must be added. First, the concept of a military counterattack into Islamic lands was indeed first proposed in 1095, but no concrete action was taken until 1096. Second, although the term 'Crusades' is usually used in the plural - historians identify variously six or nine or some other number of allegedly distinct Crusades - the counterattack begun in 1096 was arguably one long action. As scholar Harold Lamb writes,

historians have picked out six of the crises of this conflict and have named them the six crusades. In reality it was all just an ebb and flow of the conflict begun by

Islamic attacks against Europe as early as 711 A.D., when Muslims invaded Spain, almost four hundred years prior to the so-called Crusades. After decades of coastal raiding, Islamic armies invaded Italy in 841, and occupied portions of the Italian peninsula for several decades. Massive Muslim armies attempted to invade France in 732, but were repelled by the soldiers under the command of Charles "the Hammer" Martel. Repeat attempts to invade France over the following two centuries alternated with decades in which the Muslims were content to loot and pillage French coastal cities, but not permanently occupy them.

Third, an emphasis upon the concept of counterattack, i.e., a largely defensive maneuver, must be understood as central to the Crusades. Although the Islamic occupational armies were pushed out of Italy by 884, as historian Will Durant notes,

their raids continued, and central Italy lived through a generation of daily fear. In 876 they pillaged the Campagna; Rome was so endangered that the pope paid the Saracens a year bribe of 25,000 mancusi (c. $25,000) to keep the peace. In 884 they burned the great monastery of Monte Cassino to the ground; in sporadic attacks they ravaged the valley of the Anio; finally the combined forces of the pope, the Greek and German emperors, and the cities of southern and central Italy defeated them on the Garigliano (916), and a tragic century of invasion came to an end. Italy, perhaps Christianity, had had a narrow escape; had Rome fallen, the Saracens would have advanced upon Venice; and Venice taken, Constantinople would have been wedged in between two concentrations of Moslem power. On such chances of battle hung the theology of billions of men.

In 1095, Islamic armies still occupied Spain; Muslim raiders were still sacking coastal cities and island around the Mediterranean; Islamic pirates were still marauding among cargo ships in the Adriatic and Aegean. By 1095, Europe had endured almost 400 years of continuous attacks. The time to do something about it had arrived.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Zeno of Citium

Zeno of Citium - not to be confused with Zeno of Elea! - had an impact on culture, religion, and philosophy far beyond the time and space he occupied during his life. Born approximately 336 B.C. in Citium, a Phoenician city on the island of Cyprus, he would have been familiar with both Greek and Phoenician cultures and languages, although to which extent we cannot say with certainty. An experienced merchant, he was shipwrecked on the Greek coastline near Piraeus, and ended up in Athens around 312 or 314 B.C. (he was apparently on a mission to transport purple dye from Phoenicia). His family of origin seems to have been populated with merchants.

There is some ambiguity about the details of his life. The exact dates of his birth and of his arrival in Athens are not precise. Some scholars suspect that he may have traveled to Athens voluntarily, instead of being shipwrecked. There are accounts that he may have been sold into slavery for a brief time, and his freedom regained when a friend purchased it for him. For philosophical purposes, however, we do not need such biographical particulars. What interests us most about Zeno of Citium is his ideas.

In any case, he was in Athens around the age of 22, penniless. Several vignettes describe his entry into philosophy: in one of them, Zeno frequents a bookstore, and is drawn to the works of Socrates - by which we must understand the works of Plato. When Zeno expressed an interest in meeting thinkers like Socrates, the shopkeeper directed him to Crates the Cynic. Zeno got his start in philosophy with Crates, and there are certain clear similarities between Zeno's Stoicism and Cynicism. It was probably while working with Crates that Zeno wrote his Republic, not to be confused with Plato's book of the same title.

Eventually Zeno's school of philosophy became distinct from Cynicism. Perhaps originally cited as 'Zenonians' by contemporaries, Zeno's students soon became known as 'stoics' because Zeno lectured from the Stoa Poikile or 'painted porch' in the agora or marketplace in Athens. This distinction seems to have been in place starting around 300 B.C.

Given the fragmentary nature of the direct textual evidence about Zeno, early Stoicism appears as a hodgepodge of concepts. In part, Zeno's Stoicism - which must be clearly distinguished from later Stoicisms - can be negatively defined, inasmuch as he consciously contrasted himself to other philosophies.

While Epicurus, who'd gained attention around 306 B.C., built his Lebensphilosophie around the concepts of randomness and pleasure, Zeno organized his philosophy of life around an orderly universe governed by the laws of nature and around individual goodness attained by practicing virtue. The concept of Natural Law will be central to Zeno's Stoicism.

In a deliberate contrast to Plato's Republic, Zeno's book seems anarchistic or libertarian: he envisions a society with no currency or money; his understanding of God excluded the need for temples; he posits that a truly rational society, composed of rational individuals, will also not need a legal system or courts of law. Like Plato's book, Zeno's text raises the question of whether the author envisioned these as concrete suggestions for practical concrete implementation, or whether he considered his ideal to be unreachable perfection, presented as an abstract example of his values, but not as a blueprint for social engineering.

Many accounts describe Zeno as ugly and ascribe eccentric behaviors to him; one account implies that Zeno was overly conscious of social propriety, a quality of which Crates tried to cure him by publicly causing him to be doused with lentil soup. Such apocryphal narratives are entertaining, but their accuracy may be in doubt; some contradict each other: one reports that Zeno associated mainly with the undesirable residents of Athens, while another relates that he was highly honored by the city. Again, while enjoyable, such details are philosophically uninteresting.

Much of what we know about Zeno's doctrines comes from later Stoics and some historians; the imprint of Crates and the Cynics is clear in Zeno's thinking. Zeno presents us with an early version of Natural Law theory: it is in the structure of the universe itself that good and evil, right and wrong, are to be understood. To be good or right is to be in harmony with the nature of the universe. Later Stoics will sharpen the idea that the universe may be an organism, a living thing, a mind.

A few astronomical breakthroughs are ascribed to Zeno, along with that fatalism and acceptance which are characterized by the non-philosophical use of the word 'stoic'.

Zeno died around 256 B.C., allegedly after interpreting a minor accident as a sign from the universe that it was time for him to die.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Finding Troy

Homer's Odyssey and Iliad have long been popular books, but by the 1700's, historians had begun to look at them as purely fictional. Professors thought that there had never been a city called Troy, or a war between it and Mycenaean Greece.

A scholar named Heinrich Schliemann startled the researchers of the world with proof that Troy was, in fact, exactly what and where Homer wrote that it was. Schliemann was a traveller, a brilliant linguist, and an archeologist. Having become wealthy in the business world, he was able to finance his own expeditions. Given the views of universities of that time, none of them would have financed an expedition to find Troy.

Between 1870 and 1890, he conducted a series of excavations at the site he considered to be Troy. He arrived at that location by carefully analyzing Homer's description of the landscape, and his description of the sea voyages made across the Aegean by characters in the Odyssey and Iliad.

Schliemann found Troy. Scholars now generally agree that his discoveries attest to narratives of the Trojan War. The traditional account, as found in Homer and other ancient sources, is largely accepted as historically accurate.

A corollary of Schliemann's work now guides contemporary archeologists: ancient texts often provide accurate guidance for finding and excavating historic sites, and such texts should not be rejected as fictional unless the reader is forced beyond any reasonable doubt to do so.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Women Affirmed

The early Roman Empire - the Pax Romana in which Rome's internal competing political ambitions stopped boiling over into civil war, even if there was constant military skirmishing on the borders of the empire - provided the stability needed for the foundation of a new faith: Christianity.

Paradoxically, Rome's steadiness was the incubator for this emerging worldview even as Rome's government sought to exterminate it: for the first three centuries of its existence, Christianity was illegal in the empire, persecuted, and without political or economic clout. Tens of thousands of Christians were beaten, tortured, jailed, and killed.

Yet this new belief grew, steadily and powerfully. There are many reasons why it expanded so heartily. One of them is its affirmation of woman. In the pagan conception, native to Rome, it was quite debatable whether women were human, and if they were, whether they were fully so. By contrast, Jesus was content to conduct a spiritual dialogue with a woman, on the same terms as he discussed with a man.

Women were not only admitted and tolerated within Christianity, but influential. The Roman governor Pliny the Younger, whose job was to rule Bithynia on behalf of the emperor Trajan, was confused to discover, upon investigating the local Christian group, that they were were led by "two slaves who were said to be deaconesses." To Pliny's Roman sensibility, it defied reason that a free male citizen would voluntarily join an organization in which he would be placed under the authority of a female.

Historian Helga Harriman, recounting how women took such leading positions in the church - which met, in most places, in secret - notes that whatever types of leadership roles women had in the early Church,

they were active participants in it. Jesus himself was surrounded by them. One of his most faithful followers was Mary Magdalene, later revered as a repentant prostitute, although the Bible does not specify details about her life. She was among the women who discovered the empty tomb of Jesus and first witnessed his resurrection from the dead. Paul also had contact with many women in his missionary work.

There are some gaps in our knowledge of the details about women's leadership in the early Church. In one of Paul's letters, "he mentions over 30 persons who" administered "the Church in Rome. About half of them are female."

Paul's letters can be interpreted variously as liberating women from patriarchal society or as repressing them under male authoritarianism. Mary Magdalene remains enigmatic, and the most honest thing we can say about her alleged prostitution is that the evidence is weak to non-existent, and we simply don't know if she was or was not a prostitute. In any case, what actually matters is that she has an important role in the canonical text of the four gospels.

Although speculations about Paul's feminism or misogyny, or about Mary Magdalene's pre-conversion employment, are tantalizing, they are also beside the point. That women were attracted to the new faith, that women had leadership roles inside the early church, and that these two factors encouraged each other, is central to the narrative.

Why would they have been attracted to this new and tiny cult? Of overriding importance was the fact that the Christian message was directed toward women as well as men. The doctrine that immortality was within the reach of all who accepted Christ Jesus had wide appeal for both sexes, but women in particular must have appreciated the teaching that they were equal to men in spirit.

In practice, of course, the theoretical equality between men and women was sullied by the pagan Roman culture which surrounded the early church. The church failed to give women perfect equality. But they were treated better than any other institution had ever treated them before, and they joined by the millions.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Hobbes, Not Rights

Thomas Hobbes developed one of the sternest political philosophies on record. His major work, The Leviathan, is careful to list the rights of the sovereign, i.e. the rights of the monarch over his subjects, but lists no rights belonging to the ordinary citizens.

Why was Hobbes willing to sacrifice the rights of the subject - including himself, inasmuch as he was not a member of the royal family? Hobbes had been witness in his lifetime to two major bloody conflicts: the Thirty Years' War (1618 - 1648) and the English Civil war. These conflicts were perhaps a bit more cruel than the usual war, and left Hobbes haunted by the atrocities. Historian Mark Levin writes:

Thomas Hobbes was a partisan of the English royalty who was appalled by the series of civil wars between the English Royalists and Parliamentarians, religious turmoil, and general anarchy that led to the execution of Charles I. He fled to France where, in 1651, he wrote Leviathan, which was influenced by what he had observed and experienced.

Hobbes generalized from his experiences and formed a hypothesis about human nature: he thought that humans were by nature selfish and violent. He then reasoned that the only way to ensure a peaceful and safe society would be to grant absolute, or nearly absolute, power to the ruler, who would ensure that men behaved in a civilized fashion. Anticipating objections, Hobbes believed that even a corrupt and evil ruler should retain absolute power, because to overthrow him would be to risk something even worse - anarchy.

Hobbes argued that as men live in a constant state of fear, anxiety, and conflict, they could not be trusted to govern themselves. As such, a "Sovereign" must be given absolute power over men ("Subjects") to protect them against themselves and outside invaders (a Sovereign can either be a single person such as a Monarch, or an assembly of men). The Sovereign was an all-powerful Leviathan - a totalitarian state with a vast bureaucracy controlling the lives of its Subjects.

Given the precarious nature of human life without a sovereign to provide security, Hobbes conceptualized absolute monarchy as a voluntary agreement: men would be willing to place themselves under a nearly limitless government in exchange for the law and order that would be imposed on society.

Submission to the Leviathan (or Commonwealth) mean transferring one's rights to the Sovereign. That way, Hobbes believed men could live in peace, stability, and contentment. The rights transferred included, among others, the control of the judicial system (what is right or wrong), control of the Subjects' free will (what Subjects could or could not do), control of Subjects' possessions, (what goods the Subject could enjoy), distribution of materials such as land, and control over foreign trade. Hobbes described this relationship as a social contract or compact.

Hobbes was not the first to frame this relationship in terms of a contract. Plato had described a contractual relationship between the individual and the state in the Crito. Nor was Hobbes the last: a century later Rousseau would write a book with the title The Social Contract.

With what are we left, if we accept Hobbes and his logic? Hobbes unfolds a system of government from the starting point of his version of the social contract. He describes it in the pages of his book.

From Leviathan springs not a virtuous government protective of the civil society but a totalitarian regime. As in Plato's Republic and More's Utopia, in Leviathan Hobbes rejects self-government because, he believes, the individual and man generally cannot be trusted to govern themselves. Hobbes designs another inhuman utopian structure that devours the individual.

We face a paradox: we see human nature as deeply flawed (wars allow us no other inference), and yet we see that to preserve man from his own nature, we should construct an inhumane government which violates man's liberties (the scheme of Hobbes). We are left with either evil run rampant, or evil enthroned: a poor menu indeed.

Hobbes, however, may have found a way out. After writing most of the Leviathan, he added the seldom-read last chapters, in which he hints at solution: if the source of the problem is human nature, perhaps we can patch that nature. If we can counteract or counterbalance the evil found in men by nature, then the possibility of peaceful and secure self-government will arise.

The solution, Hobbes intimates (he does not explicitly write this), lies in the realm of things spiritual. Meditation on sacred text and the activities of worship might cancel out or compensate for the flaws in human nature. If a society grooms its spiritual side, men may become suitable to engage in self-government. After having shown us why men's imperfect nature precludes self-government, Hobbes alludes to a course of action which might offset that corrupt nature and open the pat to self-government.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

How and Why We Do History

A history book, properly constructed, consists largely of narratives. To be sure, it will contain other things as well - raw data, maps, etc., and importantly, competing interpretations - but narrative remains the centerpiece of history, despite the claims by some scholars that historians should not present narratives.

When we do history, we are doing narratives. This is not the end of an explanation, but rather the beginning of one. We must examine how and why we do history - how and why we construct narratives. The methods and motives for telling about people, places, and events will shape the competing accounts we place side by side.

The biographer Einhard, writing sometime after the year 814 A.D. about Karl the Great, is self-consious about his process as he writes. Among the motives for his textual creation, he notes that

it is also not completely certain that anyone else will yet report about these things. And so I consider it better that these events be delivered to posterity in varying, if also similar, portrayals, instead of allowing that the glorious life and the incomparable and currently unrepeatable deeds of this most respected king of his time disappear in the darkness of the past.

Among other possible motives, Einhard - also known as Eginhard - is concerned here to ensure that data is not lost. Yet he also alerts us to ambiguity, before he even starts his actual narrative, warning us that we will encounter "varying if also similar" accounts. He tells us that he has more than one reason for constructing this biography:

There are yet still further valid and, as I believe, sound reasons, and each of them individually would have been sufficient to move me to the recording of this text: there are above all the education, which King Karl gave to me during my childhood, and also the lifelong friendship which bound me to him and to his children since my arrival at court. Therefore I am rather obliged to him, and he has made me in life, as in death, into his debtor. One could therefore properly call me unthankful if I silently passed over this man's great deeds, who rendered outstanding services to me, and if I allowed that his life received no written appreciation or fitting recognition - as if he never existed!

Einhard gives us an unusual explanation about the formation of his narrative. First, it is laced with the technical vocabulary of mathematic logic - words like 'valid' and 'sound' and 'sufficient' - which remind us that Einhard was a philosopher and theologian, and lead us to understand that there is, at least in Einhard's opinion, some deep internal logic informing his method and motive. Second, Einhard does not shy away from forming a value judgment about Karl (also known as 'Charlemagne'); an interesting tension exists between Einhard's declaration that he is willing to offer competing narratives, and his declaration that Karl/Charlemagne is a personal friend and benefactor.

Perhaps Einhard is willing to risk presenting his reader with a somewhat unusual approach because his logic demands that he consistently follow his premises through to their conclusions, and that he clearly state both. In any case, he presents us with an unusually sophisticated meta-level analysis of historiography.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Utopia, Dystopia, and Irony

Great works have been written over the centuries, presenting themselves as blueprints for an ideal society. The most obvious of these is Sir Thomas More's Utopia, written in 1516. He coined the word 'utopia' - the literal meaning is 'nowhere' - and used the book as a vehicle for social criticism. He was preceded by Plato, whose Republic has, in its closing chapters, a plan for the perfect society.

By contrast, 1984 and Brave New World are books in the category of dystopia: a world gone wrong. Like utopian literature, dystopian literature can, and often does, serve as a vehicle for social critique: these two titles are find fault with Soviet totalitarianism and with spiritually void materialist consumerism respectively.

While the message in dystopian prose is relatively clear, utopian works are more likely to be misunderstood: otherwise sophisticated scholars have taken both Plato and Thomas More to be serious social engineers, instead of seeing the irony with which both proposed their recipes for ideal societies. Utopia and the Republic were not meant to be taken literally: as Aristotle's analysis quickly revealed, Plato's proposed ideal society would be utterly impractical if one attempted to implement it on a word-for-word basis; beyond being impractical, it would be universally undesired (which parent would happily turn his child over to the state at birth?). More's Utopia was likewise not intended as a strict blueprint, but merely a hypothetical construct designed to highlight certain flaws found in the society of More's time.

By contrast, other utopian works are almost certainly intended as literal instructions. Both Marx and Rousseau seriously considered themselves as giving a set of instructions for social engineering. Both, when readers took them as seriously they hoped, led to disaster.

The common thread is a type of intellectual naivety: a literal reading of More and Plato naively assumes that they saw themselves giving literal instructions, which Marx and Rousseau naively thought that it was possible to give instructions which would successfully yield a utopia.

The opposite of such naivety is a sober realization that a perfect society is not possible in this world, given that human nature is what it is: humans being flawed, any society composed of humans will be flawed. To strive for the perfect society inevitably leads to a crash. It is more practical, and more humane, to attempt to formulate a society which is good but not perfect, i.e., to account for humans flaws rather to the try to eradicate them.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Metternich, Kissinger, and Hitler

Why would a modern diplomat, the Secretary of State, at the end of the twentieth century, bother investigating what an eighteenth century diplomat's actions in the early nineteenth century? In other words, why would Henry Kissinger, who was Secretary of State from 1973 to 1977, study the diplomacy of Metternich's Congress of Vienna in 1814 and 1815?

Because the principles of international relations do not change, even if the settings do. Writing about Kissinger, Robert D. Kaplan noted that

if the technology of war had changed, Kissinger implied, the task of statesmen remained the same: to construct a balance of fear among great powers as part of the maintenance of an orderly international system - a system that, while not necessarily just or fair, was accepted by the principal players as legitimate. As long as the system was maintained, no one would challenge it through revolution - the way Hitler in the 1930's.

Metternich is worthy of study: if peace is the goal of a diplomat, Metternich excelled. The Congress of Vienna created a stable system that ensured peace for a century.

With the British Foreign Secretary, Viscount Robert Stewart Castlereagh, Metternich built an order so ingenious that from 1815, the year of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, to the outbreak of the First World War, a hundred years later, Europe knew no major conflicts, with the exception of the ten-month-long Franco-Prussian War, in 1870-1871. Thanks in significant measure to Metternich, who did everything in his power to forestall the advent of democracy and freedom in the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires, Europe in 1914 saw peace and steady economic growth as natural and permanent conditions. Europe had thus lost that vital, tragic sensibility without which disaster is hard to avoid, and troops rushed onto the battlefields of Flanders in a fit of romanticism.

In addition to the Franco-Prussian War, there was also the Crimean War, and a few other conflicts - all of which, added together, were laughably small, compared two the horrors which flank the century of peace: the 25 years of French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars at the beginning, and World War One at the end.

Although Kissinger's study of Metternich, published as a book with the title A World Restored, is in no way about Hitler, the generalizations which he makes seem to implicitly reflect Kissinger's experience of Germany in the 1930's:
Kissinger's response to Munich and Nazism in A World Restored is pellucid. The key word is "revolution," something that Kissinger's experience as a youth, augmented by scholarship, taught him to fear. Rapid social and political transformation leads to violence, whether throughout the Europe of the early 1800's, owing to Napoleon's aggression -- itself a direct result of the French Revolution - or in the Germany of the 1930's. Although the word "revolution" is applied to the America of the 1770's ... the cultural and philosophical awakenings among English settlers in America ... took place over decades and were, in truth, evolutions. Iran did experience a revolution in the late 1970s, as did Cambodia in 1975, China in the late 1940's, and Russia in 1917.
Kissinger saw, as did Edmund Burke and others, that the American Revolution and the French Revolution were fundamentally and essentially different - and latter marked out a path to later be taken by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Cultural Success, Political Failure

When Karl the Great - often known as 'Charlemagne' - united most of Europe into his empire, and fueled a burst of education, art, and science which illuminated the intellectual climate to the extent that some historians call it 'Carolingian Renaissance', it would have surprised most of his contemporaries to learn that within a few generations, his empire would crumble. Although his academic impact would propel human learning for many centuries, his political structure left something to be desired. Frederick Copleston writes:

The empire of Charlemagne turned out to be a political failure. After the emperor's death his dominions were divided. Further, a wave of invasions occurred. The year 845 witnessed the burning of Hamburg and the sack of Paris by the Northmen or Vikings, while in 847 Bordeaux suffered a like fate. The Frankish empire was ultimately split into five kingdoms, frequently engaged in war with one another. Meanwhile the Saracens were invading Italy and nearly captured Rome.

We see two forces arrayed against the Carolingian Dynasty: one internal, the failure to plan an orderly succession which would keep the empire unified; one external, the Muslim Saracens whose Islamic armies would attack Italy, Sicily, and along the Mediterranean coastline from Spain to Greece.

A third force destabilized society: the corruption and destabilization of the Church. Long a center of learning - the monasteries of the early Middle Ages housed the sum of Greco-Roman classical wisdom and literature - and a center of social support - food, clothing, vocational training, and employment were offered freely to those in need - the Church was infiltrated by those who were interested neither in rational reflection nor in social welfare. Pretending to embrace the Christian faith, these spies insinuated themselves into the Church's structure and spread their unchristian activities from within:

The Church fell victim to exploitation by the new feudal nobility. Abbacies and bishoprics were sued as rewards for laymen or unworthy prelates; and in the tenth century the papacy itself was under the control of local nobles and factions. In such circumstances the educational movement inaugurated by Charlemagne could not be expected to bear much fruit.

It would be decades before the intellectual engine of Europe would reach peak operating power again: but when it did, the Scholastic philosophers of the High Middle Ages would lay the groundwork for modern chemistry and physics as they turned human reason's attention both to nature and to the mind's own processes.

Monday, February 20, 2012

How Long Do We Live?

Common wisdom tells us that in our era, people tend to live longer lives; a century or two ago, life spans were shorter, and during the Middle Ages, they were very short. Right? Maybe not. Our lives may not actually be that much longer than those of our ancestors.

How did the general impression arise that we now have much longer life spans? One of the chief culprits is ignoring the difference between 'average life span' and 'life expectancy'. These two phrases sound similar enough that we care inclined to think that, because the average life span in the Middle Ages was shorter than current life expectancy, we are living much longer nowadays. A Washington Post article tells us that:

To hear that the average U.S. life expectancy was 47 years in 1900 and 78 years as of 2007, you might conclude that there weren’t a lot of old people in the old days — and that modern medicine invented old age. But average life expectancy is heavily skewed by childhood deaths, and infant mortality rates were high back then. In 1900, the U.S. infant mortality rate was approximately 100 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. In 2000, the rate was 6.89 infant deaths per 1,000 live births.

To be sure, we are living longer. But the difference may not be as much as we think, given the nature of the statistics. 'Average life span' is what it seems to be: on average, how long a person lives. But the phrase 'life expectancy' is used to factor out infant mortality, and unusual statistical hiccups reflecting large numbers of unexpected deaths: 'life expectancy' is how long a person will probably live, if she or he has made it through childhood, and if nothing drastically unexpected happens (a war, a famine, a plague, or a hurricane); it's an attempt to capture a person's natural life span. Declines in infant mortality have boosted average life spans, but don't really change life expectancies:

The bulk of that decline came in the first half of the century, from simple public health measures such as improved sanitation and nutrition, not open heart surgery, MRIs or sophisticated medicines. Similarly, better obstetrical education and safer deliveries in that same period also led to steep declines in maternal mortality, so that by 1950, average life expectancy had catapulted to 68 years.

Imagine the statistical skewing which would result from factoring out death deaths caused by WWI and WWII. Those would be huge numbers. So average life spans in the Middle Ages might seem short because they include the millions of deaths resulting from the Thirty Years' War and the Black Death plague, but the life expectancy of twentieth-century populations factors out the war casualties.

Statistics about life in the Middle Ages are to some extent guesswork; we can make much more precise comparisons about recent decades. Were lives really that much shorter a hundred years ago? Maybe not:

For all its technological sophistication and hefty price tag, modern medicine may be doing more to complicate the end of life than to prolong or improve it. If a person living in 1900 managed to survive childhood and childbearing, she had a good chance of growing old. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a person who made it to 65 in 1900 could expect to live an average of 12 more years; if she made it to 85, she could expect to go another four years. In 2007, a 65-year-old American could expect to live, on average, another 19 years; if he made it to 85, he could expect to go another six years.

The lesson? Life in our era is, in some ways, very different than life in previous eras; but in other ways, our existence isn't that different. The task is to determine what the similarities are, and what the differences. One of the similarities is life span: despite our mental images of the previous eras, lives weren't that much shorter in the past.

Friday, January 6, 2012

University Life in the Good Old Days!

What was it like to be at a university, when universities were still a new idea? The world's first university was up and running by 1088 A.D. in Bologna, Italy. How was it organized?

The early universities were very loose in structure, compared with the institutions of later eras. The professors who taught there were very much "freelance" businessmen. If you wanted to teach, you simply posted a notice about when and where you would be lecturing, and what the topic of your lecture was. Students didn't pay the university, but rather they paid each professor individually. A professor could get a higher price for his lectures if he had the reputation of being a good teacher. What helped him build that reputation? If his students could pass the comprehensive examinations given by the university. In such as a system, there was a great deal of freedom for both professors and students.

Eventually, both groups realized that they had something to gain by uniting. The professors formed a guild, much as other Medieval tradesmen (bakers and cobblers, for example) did. Students formed unions. The guild for professors was called a collegium - the origin of our words 'college' and 'colleague'. The guild helped to stabilize prices and set standards for what students could expect.

The student unions found that they could bargain lecture prices downwards when they bargained as a group: a negotiating tactic which has many parallels. The students would also boycott a certain professor's lectures if his teaching was found to be defective. The student body was self-governing: they wrote and enforced their own rules upon their fellow students.

The first generation of universities were independent of both ecclesiastical authority and the power of nobles. They were organized and operated by laymen - by ordinary Christians, not employees of the church. This led to a certain amount of speculative freedom in theology: professors taught students from the text of Scripture - Hebrew and Greek - instead of from the church's interpretation of Scripture. In areas of politics, too, there was a chance to discuss divergent views.

Eventually, however, the nature of the universities would change. Their success led to growing numbers of students, and more universities, and the demand for more facilities. To fund the infrastructure - libraries, dormitories, lecture halls, cafeterias - required more funding than the freelance structure could provide, and so the universities looked for sponsors with deep pockets. Most universities would end up being funded either by local nobility, or by the church. If funded by regional aristocrats, the political teachings of the university might be somewhat self-conscious in light of the view of the local duke, earl, or baron. If funded by the church, the theology department might keep its speculations a bit more tame.

The university movement started in Bologna, and spread throughout Europe in a couple of centuries. A notable exception was Spain - of which Portugal was still a part - which lagged behind the rest of the continent in terms of cultural development. It was still recovering from the damage of several centuries of occupation by Islamic armies.

The university of Paris is often considered the high point of Medieval academic life. Founded by William of Champeaux and Abelard of Brittany around 1170 A.D., it is an example of the more developed stage of the university. Although William and Abelard are listed as the 'founders' of the university, this is not entirely clear; like Bologna, the university in Paris was formed in part by merging several older schools. In any case, it soon developed the more formalized structure typical of the university after its founding phase. The teaching faculty - the term magister was retained - was no longer purely freelance, but rather had to be licensed to teach by the university. One the one hand, this helped to ensure quality; on the other hand, it could generate a limiting force on academic freedom. The university in Paris was organized around four faculties: theology, cannon law, medicine, and the arts. 'Cannon law' is the body of regulations applying to those who work for the church. 'The arts' - or 'the liberal arts' as we now call them - includes disciplines such as mathematics and physics.

The teaching methods of the university at this stage consisted of two main practices. The first was dictation and lecture. The printing press, and the revolutionary changes it would bring into intellectual life, had not yet been invented. (Gutenberg would do that in the 1400's.) Student brought large quantities of blank paper with them to lectures, sometime bound into a book form, other times as loose sheets. The professor would read very slowly a text - perhaps a couple paragraphs of Aristotle or Cicero - and the students would copy exactly what he said (this was the 'dictation'). After the students had captured the text, the professor would then go on to deliver what we would consider a normal university lecture about those texts, taking questions at the end. Over the course of several years at the university, a student would create for himself several books this way: the collected dictations and lecture notes. Since it was impossible to buy textbooks (no printing press!), students literally had to make their own.

The second teaching method which dominated at the universities was debate. This was crucial, not only to learning the subject matter at hand, but also to forming the creative intellects which would make the major scientific discoveries of the Middle Ages. A debate would begin with a question posed. Often it was in the form of a statement, and the implied question following it was "is this true or not?" Students were assigned to prepare evidence for the debate, and the professors acted as umpires or referees. A student, or team of students, on one side of the question would offer data to support the statement - quotes drawn from pagan philosophers, from Holy Scripture, and from the church fathers; evidence could also be based on original reasoning from the students. On the other side of the question, the same procedure was followed: students presented data to attempt to prove the statement false. The professors judged the work according to the quality of the argumentation. After such a debate, students then changed sides, and were required to argue in favor of the other view - thus students became thoroughly familiar with both sides of the argument. This method was used in teaching all subjects.

It can be seen how this type of instruction - requiring students to become familiar with both sides of a dispute, encouraging them to develop sophisticated logic to out-maneuver the students on the other side of the debate, and allowing them to use their own original reasoning in addition to the data found in texts - created several generations of shrewd and clever mathematicians, astronomers, philosophers, physicists, and theologians. The large amount of intellectual creativity generated during the Middle Ages was responsible for advances and progress in various academic disciplines. The relative lack of progress made in subsequent times (during the Renaissance) was hidden by the fact that the Renaissance would claim as its own many of the intellectual creations properly belonging to the Middle Ages.