Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The West's Good, the West's Evil

Common sense tells us that no civilization is perfect, that no society will be perfect, and that no culture can be perfect. Humans, and the world in which we live, are flawed.

By the same token, every human tradition contains something good, and every nation contains something praiseworthy. So we may issue no blanket condemnations, nor may we offer general approval. People and their institutions remain a mix of good and evil.

Sadly, however, as the old proverb tells us, common sense is not common. People still make the error of idealizing one culture and demonizing another. Starting in the second half of the twentieth century, the general trend of thought in many schools, colleges, and universities has been to dismiss that conglomerate known as Western Civilization. Students have been directed away writers, thinkers, and artists who have been part of that cultural tradition.

At the mildest, people like Shakespeare, Chaucer, Bach, Brahms, Leibniz, Descartes, Dürer, and Michelangelo have been classified as tired, stale, and irrelevant. At the worst, they've been tagged as hypocritical, oppressive, and chauvinistic.

The tendency to demonize one culture seems often to coincide with the tendency to idealize another culture: a drive to establish a clear and distinct dualism. Thus those who dismiss Western Civilization seem to praise blindly some other society. The blindness in their praise is the product of ignorance. Anti-western academics praise them merely because they are not western.

Non-western cultures have praiseworthy aspects, and have created artifacts and texts worth studying. But those who proudly proclaim, under the banner of multiculturalism, their affection for these other civilizations generally have little or no knowledge of them. A class titled "Non-Western Civ" usually teaches little about non-western civilizations, but rather is merely a vehicle for a critique of, or even a verbal assault on, the West.

Scholars who seriously study Sanskrit literature or Confucianism, who study the grammar of Nubian or Ge'ez, have both a knowledge of and an affection for these non-western cultures, but do not do so merely as a way to insult the West.

Those who know little about any culture, and loudly proclaim their multiculturalism, are in fact anti-cultural, desiring to instruct their students only in how to disparage the West, and not to be conversant with the treasures of any culture, East, West, or other.

Into this fray steps French scholar Jacques Ellul, who argues for an even-handed treatment. The West has done both good and evil; other cultures have done both good and evil. The standard practice of contemporary academics of painting the West as bad and the non-West as good is simple-minded and intellectually lazy. To assume the opposite view would be equally wrong: we cannot portray the West as good and other cultures as backward. Ellul writes:

I shall not wax lyrical about the greatness and benefactions of the West. Above all, I shall not offer a defense of the material goods Europe brought to the colonies. We've heard that kind of defense too often: "We built roads, hospitals, schools, and dams; we dug the oil wells . . . ." And the reason I shall say nothing of this invasion by the technological society is that I think it to be the West's greatest crime, as I have said at length elsewhere. The worst thing of all is that we exported our rationalist approach to things, our "science," our conception of the state, our bureaucracy, our nationalist ideology. It is this, far more surely than anything else, that has destroyed the other cultures of the world and shunted the history of the entire world onto a single track.

Ellul argues for a different approach. Since we know that no culture is ideally virtuous, and no cultural damnably evil, let us analyze each civilization to identify both its strengths and its weaknesses - both its crimes and its nobility. Any culture will have plenty of both.

But is that all we can say of the West? No, the essential, central, undeniable fact is that the West was the first civilization in history to focus attention on the individual and on freedom. Nothing can rob us of the praise due us for that. We have been guilty of denials and betrayals (of these we shall be saying something more), we have committed crimes, but we have also caused the whole of mankind to take a gigantic step forward and to leave its childhood behind.

And so we have the West's sins and the West's blessings. Perhaps the greatest sin of the West is the promulgation of the technological society - by which Ellul indicates something more than merely the existence of machines and electronic devices. The least significant aspect of the technological society is the existence of transistors and microchips, of airplanes and radios. The more powerful, and arguably more harmful, aspect of the technological society lies in the psychology of technique - the technological man subordinates all areas of life to the concept of technique. This devitalizes and alienates humans.

Another sin of the West is the great leveling, by which the world becomes more homogenous. Everywhere one now finds blue jeans, Coca-Cola, Elvis Presley, and McDonald's. In this homogenizing, we have lost cultural treasures.

But if the West is guilty of these sins, it has also bestowed certain benefits on mankind. The fair-minded scholar will admit this, and many contemporary academics will not.

Ellul notes two main achievements of the West: the concept of the individual and the concept of freedom. Each of these requires volumes of unpacking.

If we examine societies prior to the rise of Western Civilization, or those which existed simultaneously but without significant contact with Western Civilization, the emphasis on the corporate at the expense of the individual is clear. Whether in ancient Mesopotamia, or in later centuries in China and India, the significance of the individual was minimal. This is manifested in the lack of record-keeping. Names of ordinary people - their births, marriages, and deaths - were not seen as data worth preserving. The anonymous grave and the scattered ashes left no trace.

In the West, the individual's name was a matter of public record, and preserving it was a communal duty. The individual human being was more than merely a cell in a corporate whole.

The West's other main contribution, freedom, was assigned to the individual. Certainly, the West did not embody perfect political liberty; it sinned greatly against that concept. But it also exclusively produced that concept. The West crystalized and expressed the concept of freedom so well that it has been embraced by other cultures.

The West failed to purely instantiate personal freedom - in fact, the West committed a wide variety of crimes against freedom. But it was also in the West that such things were identified as crimes. Only the West saw slavery as wrong, even as it committed slavery. Only the West saw torture as inhumane, even as it committed torture. These insights are the West's gift to the rest of the world.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Languages: It's a Family Thing

The science of historical linguistics is both fascinating and inexact. The notion of uncovering, branch by branch, a family tree of the world's languages, showing how each is related to every other, and how they all emerged from one common ancestral language, is fascinating. Given the lack of precise evidence - much of this familial development occurred either in an era without writing, or in an era whose writings did not survive for archeologists to find - it is inexact. Linguists work hard to retain the status of a science; some less than rigorous linguists have given ammunition to those who would question whether or not linguistics is truly to be counted among the sciences.

Robert Wright details the methods of linguists as they analyze the systematic changes made as sounds shift within languages to yield new languages, or at least to yield new versions of old languages:

Resurrecting dead and unfossilized languages would be easier if the laws of phonetic change were simple and universal - if, for example, p's always turned into f's, given a millennium or two, and f's were always the residue of former p's. It doesn't work that way. Still, there are vaguer things that can be said about phonetic drift generally. For example, p's often turn into f's - and, moreover, f's almost never become p's. (Try uttering pf, then try fp. Doesn't the second effort feel more like a struggle against biomechanical forces?)

For example, the linguist Jacob Grimm articulated a pattern, noted by earlier linguists, called Grimm's Law or die Erste Lautverschiebung. In this pattern, p's do indeed turn into f's, and the word for foot, which in the most primitive languages begins with a p as in the case of the Sanskrit word for foot, begins with an f in developed languages. Likewise the word for fish. Grimm's Law also reveals patterns in which b's turn into p's, d's turn into t's, and g's turn into k's. Many of these changes can be documented, because they are recorded in some of the earliest samples of writing to survive. But such shifts do not apply with the consistency of algebraic properties. The shifts may occur at different times for different regions or for different sets of vocabulary; there are exceptions of various types.

This complex algebra of sounds gives rise to an intricate science. It is sounds which primarily interest the historical linguist; the written symbols must be understood as merely the conveyors of sound. Writing can be misleading in this regard, for the same th that represents the sounds in thick and thistle also represents the different sounds in lithe and tithe. And, of course, the different letter of the Greek and Cyrillic and Runic alphabets can present the same sounds.

While not strictly universal, shifts such as those described in Grimm's Law provide clues to linguists, because they are directional. In large numbers, p's turn into f's, but not the other way around.

An example of how this directionality comes in handy is the reconstruction of of the proto-Indo-European word for "birch." Here is the word in four Indo-European languages, each drawn from a different main stock: German (Germanic) birke, Lithuanian (Baltic) berzas, Ossetian (Iranian) barz, and Sanskrit (Indic) bhurja. To judge sheerly by numbers, you might guess that the third consonant in the proto-Indo-European word was a relatively soft sound - like the z in berzas or the j in bhurja - and that through a freak mutation it got hardened in the German birke. But it turns out that such a mutation would be freakish indeed. It is common for a "velors" (k or a hard g) to shift into "affricates" (ch or j, respectively), and even to slip further, winding up as "fricatives" (s or z), but the reverse is almost unheard of. So it looks as if the third consonant in the proto-Indo-European "birch" was a hard sound, a velor.

The exact reconstruction is one part of historical linguistics; that reconstruction yields clues, and deciphering the historical meanings of those clues is another part. We can learn about conditions and societies which left no written record, because when we reconstruct their languages, we find that their vocabularies reveal their lifestyles. Societies which lived in the desert or in tropical regions have no word for "ice" or "snow," and civilizations located far from coastlines have no word for "whale" or "jellyfish." William Bennet writes:

Common Indo-European words indicating seasons, flora, and fauna, together with ethnic and geographic data, suggest that the home of the Indo-Europeans was a district connecting southeastern Europe with Asia, probably southern Russia. As the tribes expanded over an increasingly wider area, they became separated into numerous smaller groups, which absorbed varying proportions of other populations. Whether the Indo-Europeans were already of mixed origin is a matter for conjecture: their possession of a common language indicates only that they had been affiliated by social and cultural ties. In the course of the expansion and ethnic mixture, extending over many centuries, the speech of the separate Indo-European groups became progressively divergent, though within each community some degree of linguistic reintegration must have taken place as certain dialects became predominant and others became extinct.

It is a commonplace that the landscape of Russia contains more birch forests than, say, the landscape of North America. And so the fact that the original Indo-Europeans had a word for "birch" is historically significant, even if our reconstruction of their word is only approximate. As Robert Wright notes,

At any rate, the letter-for-letter accuracy of each reconstructed word is in some ways moot. For historians and archaeologists, how the Indo-Europeans pronounced the word for "birch" is less important than that they did pronounce it: apparently they lived somewhere in the vicinity of birch trees. And "birch" is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a whole book called Proto-Indo-European Trees, and countless hours have been spent trying to infer the Indo-Europeans' homeland from their flora and fauna. Maps of Europe and southwestern Asia have been drawn with birch zones, beech zones, beaver zones, and so forth, in hopes of finding a region common to all. It hasn't worked. Argument about the proto-Indo-European homeland persists.

From that homeland, wherever it was, a few groups emerged, wandering hundreds and then thousands of miles in various directions. Those few groups - Germanic, Slavic, Baltic, Indo-Iranian, Romance, Greek, etc. - multiplied as each of them subdivided: the Germanic group yielded Dutch, Swedish, Flemish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic, Gothic, German, etc., while the Slavic group yielded Polish, Russian, Czech, Slovakian, Ukrainian, Serbian, Bulgarian, etc.

Historical linguists, in effect, are researching the family tree of civilization and culture.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Composer Retains His Composure

The Thirty Year' War was, and remains, one of the worst conflicts in human history. The fighting was savage; soldiers killed not only other soldiers, but innocent civilian bystanders as well. Mercenaries switched sides readily, lacking any loyalty to nations or causes, and sometimes amused themselves by torturing harmless noncombatants. In the wake of the bloodshed, famine and disease swept through the area. Entire towns disappeared - the population killed by fighting or disease, valuable and food plundered by soldiers, and buildings and fields burned. The total population in central Europe was reduced by 25% to 40%, and individual kingdoms and regions sometimes lost over two-thirds of their population.

The horror was compounded by hypocrisy - both sides were motivated primarily by greed, yet put forth propaganda which claimed that they were fighting for religious motives. Their rhetoric fooled few: it was clear that the real goals were land, money, and power. It would be those with truly spiritual motives - a collection of Lutherans and Roman Catholics - who would create peace in 1648, negotiating a settlement between worldly monarchs. It was a religious war in name only; those with no spiritual interests starting and fueled the conflict. The truly religious leaders were those who brokered the peace.

In the midst of this horror, amazingly, a series of brilliant thinkers kept the arts alive. During the harshest of times during these three decades, from 1618 to 1648, composers like Michael Praetorius, Melchior Franck, and Michael Altenburg kept the musical and spiritual life of Europe alive. Perhaps the most significant and influential composer of the era was Heinrich Schütz. Heinrich Scheidemann laid important musical foundations for the work of Dieterich Buxtehude. Buxtehude, who would be only eleven years old at the war's end, was able to achieve his stellar successes because men like Scheidemann had kept the arts alive during the war (Buxtehude's first name is variously spelled 'Dietrich' and 'Diderich').

Another creative thinker who endured the suffering of this era was Paul Gerhardt. Professor Uwe Siemon-Netto writes:

For most of his childhood, youth, and maturity, Paul Gerhardt, who was born on March 12, 1607, in Gräfenhainichen, Germany, near Wittenberg, lived through one of the worst calamities of Central Europe - the Thirty Years' War (1618-48). Yet "the religious song of Germany found its purest and sweetest expression" in his hymns, wrote Catherine Winkworth (1837-1878), whose English translations of Gerhardt's verses reflect their purity of thought, beauty, and elegant iambic meter.

While Winkworth's nineteenth century translations now suffer from archaisms, paradoxically, Gerhardt's texts and melodies, two centuries older, strike the eye and ear as fresh. Gerhardt, born in 1607, lived through all thirty years of the war's horrors. While his music reflects the suffering of those years, it also contains a hope which looks beyond them.

A remarkable mix of Trost und Trotz (consolation and defiance) lends Gerhardt's hymns their unique allure, according to Heidelberg theologian Christian Möller. This defiance is directed against pain, while consolation comes from his trust in God's governance and goodness and the knowledge that all torment will pass. Gerhardt's genius lies in his insight that one would not work without the other.

This same thought lies in the works of the other composers who lived through, and composed during, the war. This notion applies also to the decade or two after the end of The Thirty Years' War - the destruction was so great that the region did not recover quickly.

Paul Gerhardt ranks the second-most important crafter of hymns in German Protestantism, after Martin Luther, but he had worthy contemporaries. As the Swedes laid siege to the town of Eilenburg, fellow Saxon pastor Martin Rinckart wrote, "Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices" - and this while burying an average of 50 plague victims every day!

Four hundred years later, works like Rinackart's Nun Danket Alle Gott, Mit Herzen, Mund, und Händen and Gerhardt's Befiehl du deine Wege and Nun ruhen alle Wälder remain frequently performed. The suffering during this era did not end with the peace treaty of 1648. Because the secular aims of the leaders who started the war had been hidden behind empty religious rhetoric, the postwar milieu was bitter. While the real Christians, both Lutheran and Roman Catholic, had worked to end the war and bring peace, the non-Christian leaders who proclaimed themselves to be Christians caused anger and resentment among the public. It was difficult to distinguish between the true peace-seeking Christians and the warmongers who called themselves Christians but were not. Thus the war's misery was followed by a bitter and resentful peacetime. Gerhardt's beautiful music grew out of all this misery and suffering.

There was the Thirty Years' War when Gerhardt lost his parental home. There was the loss of his wife and four of his five children to disease. There was his personal illness. There was the loss of his powerful pulpit at St. Nicholas Church in Berlin due to the political war between Lutherans and Calvinists. Ministers of both attacked each other ferociously in their sermons. In 1665, the Elector Frederick tried to put a stop to that, insisting that Lutheran pastors sign a document pledging not to criticize

the Calvinists, also called the "Reformed" theologians, in contrast to the Lutherans who were "Reformation" theologians. Because both groups were Christian, they shared quite a few common beliefs. But tensions between the two were accented by worldly leaders who saw religion in terms of political influence. Thus an allegedly 'religious' debate was actually amplified by non-religious political leaders, who nudged it from friendly disagreement into societal conflict.

Likewise, the well-intentioned but heavy-handed attempt by the Elector Frederick to resolve the tension resulted merely in a loss of the freedom of religious expression. Preachers were figuratively muzzled. The Elector, so-called because he had a role in selecting the Holy Roman Emperor, lacked both the instinct for religious liberty and the nuanced approach required to deal with sophisticated theological distinctions.

Until that point, Gerhardt had been restrained in his public disapproval of Calvinism. But after the elector's edict, Gerhardt became very outspoken. Though ill, he assembled Berlin's Lutheran pastors at his sickbed, imploring them to remain steadfast in asserting their right to free speech.

Gerhardt was ultimately transferred out of Berlin to work at a church in Lübben, a few miles outside of Berlin.

He later called the loss of his influential position "a small sort of Berlin martyrdom," which was all the more egregious as he was separated from his organist, Johann Crüger, who had put many of Gerhardt's poems to music.

Crüger and Gerhardt collaborated on numerous compositions. Their joint efforts are regarded as some of Gerhardt's best work. An ironic twist revealed to the world the truth about the allegedly religious tensions of the era - that they were not at all rooted in religious, but in worldly power politics - when the value of Gerhardt's hymns was recognized by the Roman Catholic church:

There was also a fascinating ecumenical side to Gerhardt's work. Only 30 years after his death in 1676 in Lübben, then Saxony, Gerhard became perhaps the first Lutheran poet to have a song published in a Roman Catholic hymnal: "O Sacred Head Now Wounded"

was included, a song still considered today to be "perhaps one of Gerhardt's most haunting verses." The inclusion of Gerhardt's work in Roman Catholic hymnal manifested clearly the underlying commonalities between Lutherans and Roman Catholics, and exposed as a fiction the claim that religious differences had led to the war. The misery during the war's thirty years, and the misery in the decade or two afterward, although caused by worldly greed, although falsely labeled a religious war by those who needed an excuse for the conflict, nonetheless served as a spiritual incubator in which enduring works of music were composed.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

And the Whole Earth Was of One Language, and of One Speech

The study of text ultimately includes the study of language, which in turn will include the study of language's history: how did human language come to be? Reading a text, whether in its original language or in translation, will inevitably engage us in the history of language if we read carefully enough. Even something as familiar as "Fourscore and seven years ago" incites us to consider how numbers are relayed through language, and the history and variety of patterns which languages use to transmit numbers.

Linguists generally agree that all human languages are related, descending from one common ancestor. About the universal family tree of all languages, however, further agreement eludes us. There is little consensus, for example, about where or when that one primordial language was spoken, or about its vocabulary or grammatical features. Most controversially, one group of linguists term that primeval language 'Nostratic' and attempt to trace all, or at least most, known languages back to a proto-Nostratic source.

Even among Nostratic theorists, there is not complete consensus; they are far from monolithic in their understanding of language development, and the more cautious among them restrain their claims.

Far less controversial, and in fact uncontested, are the understanding of the sub-families which claim to be parents, not of all or most human languages, but of defined subgroups. The history of Semitic languages, for example, is accepted among academics and tells us that Arabic, Hebrew, Ethiopic Ge'ez, Babylonian, Assyrian, and other languages of the Ancient Near East arose from a common root.

Also widely recognized is the understanding of a group of languages known as Indo-European. Scientists have shown that languages from Sanskrit to English, from Russian to Persian, and from Latin to Greek, are all related in a family which includes German, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Dutch, Flemish, and others. Linguist William Bennett writes:

Indo-European, the common ancestor of most European and some Asiatic languages, has left no written records, nor have its first descendants. At an early period, probably before 2500 B.C., the speech of the Indo-European tribal communities had already become divergent, subsequently developing into parent forms of Indo-Iranian, Greek, Italic, Celtic, Germanic, Baltic, Slavic, Albanian, Armenian, etc.; these in turn were to break up in preliterate times, leaving groups and subgroups of descendant Indo-European languages.

Of special interest to speakers of English is the Germanic group, from which English descended. Both the grammar and the vocabulary of English are largely Germanic, as can be seen by a list of common German/English pairs: Apfel/Apple, Bäckerei/Bakery, Trink/Drink, Tür/Door, Kuh/Cow, Kalb/Calf, Bulle/Bull, Bring/Bring, Brust/Breast, Brot/Bread, Buch/Book, Blau/Blue, Blut/Blood, Band/Band, Ellbogen/Elbow, Finger/Finger, Feuer/Fire, Fisch/Fish, Faust/Fist, Flasche/Flask, Flotte/Fleet, Fleisch/Flesh, and Flur/Floor. Hundreds of other examples can be listed.

Proto-Germanic, the common parent of the Germanic group, had broken up into several dialects before the beginning of our era. Among these was Pre-Gothic, the immediate ancestor of the Gothic language. The essential features of Pre-Gothic, like those of Proto-Germanic and Indo-European, can be determined only through reconstruction.

With painstaking linguistic research, scientists can reconstruct those languages of which we have no written evidence. Knowing, for example, that Danish, Icelandic, Swedish, and Norwegian have a common ancestor, the common features of those languages guide linguists as they work backward to the unattested source language.

As mentioned, while Indo-European linguistic history is relatively undisputed, Nostratic theory is quite contested. According to Robert Wright,

A basic tenet of Nostratics is that Western comparative linguists, in classifying the world's languages and thus tracing their historical lineage, have been too timid. Western linguists, by virtual consensus, consider the largest language family in Eurasia to be Indo-European, which encompasses the languages native to most of Europe and to a stretch of land extending southeast through Iran and India. What this means in historical terms is that all these languages, from English to Bengali, are descended from a single language, "proto-Indo-European," thought to have been spoken at least 5,000 years ago. So far so good, the Nostraticists say. But they then go further and ask the next logical questions: From what language did proto-Indo-European descend, and what other modern language families, if any, are also descended from the proto-proto-language? Most Indo-Europeanists shy away from these questions, citing a lack of evidence.

Just as Indo-European gave birth to several daughter groups - Germanic, Slavic, etc. - so Nostratic had several daughter groups, of which Indo-European is one. The other linguistic children, according to Nostratic theory, were an Afro-Asiatic group which included Semitic, Berber, and Cush; a Kartvelian group which includes Georgian; a Dravidian group which includes Tamil; a Uralic group including Finnish and Hungarian; and an Altaic group including Turkish. In some versions of the hypothesis, the Altaic group includes Japanese or Korean.

Nostraticists are not known for shying away from questions. According to classic Nostratic doctrine, the Indo-European language family is only one of six branches of a much larger family. This "superfamily" - the Nostratic family - extends to the south, covering languages of northern Africa and the Middle East (and languages of India unaccounted for by Indo-European), and well to the north and east, covering scores of languages from Finland through Siberia all the way to Korea and Japan. The idea is that all these languages are offshoots of the proto-Nostratic tongue, spoken by a people who lived more than 10,000 years ago. Nostraticists, through the arcane detective work that is a primary pastime of comparative linguists, have reconstructed this language. They have compiled a dictionary containing hundreds of proto-Nostratic words, modeled after the proto-Indo-European dictionaries that have long been accepted in the West as standard reference works.

In addition to being controversial, some aspects of the Nostratic hypothesis are still undergoing refinement in light of ongoing research. Bringing all known human languages, including those of the Native Americans and Australian Aborigines, into a single family tree of linguistic development is a daunting task. Persuading skeptical colleagues about the accuracy of such reconstructions is even more difficult. The debate, in any case, rages and will continue for decades.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Ayn Rand's Mistake

Ayn Rand remains, nearly a century after her first publications, a controversial author, attracting fiercely devoted followers and equally passionate detractors. Her clear, uncompromising, and in some cases extreme, views guarantee heated discussion.

The word 'objectivism' is used to describe her worldview, but such a description helps only if that word is clearly defined. Stephen Hicks writes:

Objectivism is rational self-interest and self-responsibility – the idea that no person is any other person’s slave. The virtues of her philosophy are principled policies based on rational assessment: rationality, productiveness, honesty (in order to rationally make the best decisions we must be privy to the facts), integrity, independence, justice, and pride.

She takes the concept of self-interest to its conclusion: self-interest is, for her, not merely permissible, but virtuous. She sees selflessness as a vice. In these views, Rand managed to cross both the Judeo-Christian tradition which formed Western Civilization, and the atheistic statist communism which dominated the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during Rand's lifetime.

While her ethic of self-interest managed to alienate many American and European readers, those same readers were attracted to her passionate devotion to liberty. Rand saw self-interest and liberty as necessary companions to each other. Hicks continues:

Rand’s ethic of self interest is integral to her advocacy of classical liberalism. Classical liberalism, more often called “libertarianism” in the 20th century, is the view that individuals should be free to pursue their own interests. This implies, politically, that governments should be limited to protecting each individual’s freedom to do so. In other words, the moral legitimacy of self interest implies that individuals have rights to their lives, their liberties, their property, and the pursuit of their own happiness, and that the purpose of government is to protect those rights. Economically, leaving individuals free to pursue their own interests implies in turn that only a capitalist or free market economic system is moral: free individuals will use their time, money, and other property as they see fit, and will interact and trade voluntarily with others to mutual advantage.

While readers in the traditions of Western Civilization and European culture find it easy to agree with Rand's classical liberalism, or libertarianism, those same readers are alienated by Rand's essential rejection of altruism. Instead of seeing political liberty and economic freedom as allowing individuals to freely choose to help others, Rand abandons an ethic of altruism. There are two reasons for her repudiation of altruism, although she may perhaps be aware of only one of them. First, she finds altruism and Kantian ethics to lack a fully rational decision procedure; she claims that the altruist receives no unambiguous guidance from his altruism in practical concrete situations - given multiple possible actions in a single situation, which of them does altruism advise? Second, Rand's rejection of altruism is an emotionally-fueled overreaction to the faults Soviet communism, which had imposed collectivism under the guise of altruism; while understandably eager to reveal Leninism's ideological underpinnings as fallacious, Rand mistakenly rejected the altruism which Leninism never embraced but which Leninism used as a excuse to impose totalitarianism. Neera Badhwar writes:

Rand regards goodwill towards others, or a generalized benevolence, as an offshoot of proper self-love, with no independent source in human nature. There is only one alternative to being rationally self-interested: sacrificing one's proper interests, either for the sake of other people (which she equates with altruism) or for the sake of the supernatural (which she calls mysticism).

Rand seems reluctant to accept the notion that one might freely choose altruism - i.e., that altruism could be an authentic expression of the individual. Rather, she sees altruism as capitulation: either capitulation to an external physical power, as in Soviet Leninism, or ideological capitulation to psycho-political forces such as leftist political views. In her reckoning of freedom, she does not see a freedom in which the individual makes an un-coerced choice to sacrifice for the sake of another. Neera Badhwar continues:

Kant's ethics is a secularized mysticism insofar as it rests on categorical commands and duty for duty's sake, which is to say: regardless of any earthly desire or interest.

Similar to the difficulties which the utilitarian encounters in the attempt to calculate net happiness, Rand argues that Kant will encounter ambiguities which prevent his concept of duty from yielding a concrete decision in a specific situation. As Badhwar writes,

The altruistic ethics equates right action with self-sacrifice for the sake of others' good and immorality with “selfishness,” while saying nothing about the standard of the good.

Rand argues that the ambiguity in Kant's ethical system not only leaves us in ambiguity when we attempt to apply it in a concrete situation, but its ambiguity also leaves it vulnerable to being exploited as a cover for insincere and cynical ideologies who will use it as an excuse to lead people into servitude. Badhwar writes:

As a moral code, altruism is impractical, because its requirements are contrary to the requirements of life and happiness, both the agent's and other people's. As such, it is also profoundly immoral. Like Kant's deontology, altruism leaves us without any moral guidance in our everyday lives and gives morality a bad name.

Thus, while Rand's libertarian and "classical liberal" impulses should place her comfortably in the mainstream of Western Civilization, her rejection of altruism alienates her from the Judeo-Christian tradition and the powerful force of private-sector charity which that tradition unleashes. Having rejected Soviet Leninism and the statist socialism found in western democracies, she also closes the door on private-sector charity which is the only effective help for social classes vulnerable to exploitation, but which is dependent upon the concept of altruism which she rejects. In 1946, in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, she wrote:

The greatest guilt today is that of people who accept collectivism by moral default; the people who seek protection from the necessity of taking a stand, by refusing to admit to themselves the nature of that which they are accepting; the people who support plans specifically designed to achieve serfdom, but hide behind the empty assertion that they are lovers of freedom, with no concrete meaning attached to the word; the people who believe that the content of ideas need not be examined, that principles need not be defined, and that facts can be eliminated by keeping one's eyes shut. They expect, when they find themselves in a world of bloody ruins and concentration camps, to escape moral responsibility by wailing: "But I didn't mean this!"

In some passages, Rand seems vaguely aware that her lack of enthusiasm for altruism makes her writing seem heartless and soulless. It almost - but not quite - seems as if she's wrestling with, agonizing over, or attempting to make up for, that deficit. In other passages, however, she fiercely defends her views. Mining isolated quotes from her texts - cherry picking isolated sentences - can produced evidence to support divergent interpretations of Rand. But more sustained close reading of longer passages reduces these divergences. See, for example, the eleventh chapter of her novel Anthem.

Ayn Rand made, by means of her accurate critique of collectivism, a major contribution to the cause of freedom. But her failure to embrace the altruistic power of private-sector charity, and to see it both as the product of liberty and as the only source of constructive help for society's vulnerable classes, prevented her thought from receiving an unproblematic reception inside Western Civilization.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Hittite and the Development of Alphabetic Writing

The beginning of writing and written records is the beginning of history. At various points in time, cultures and civilizations undertook a conscious redesign of writing systems. The earliest writing systems were ideographic and pictographic. People eventually modified such logographic elements into alphabetic elements, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs and Germanic runes. In this trend belong also various types of cuneiform writing.

Probably around 3300 B.C., in Ancient Near East, primarily in Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent, cuneiform writing systems emerged. Historians Warren Held, William Schmalstieg, and Janet Gertz note that

The Hittite cuneiform writing is derived from the Babylonian-Assyrian or Akkadian cuneiform. The cuneiform sings consist of wedge-shaped impressions made on a clay tablet with a stick (cf. Latin cuneus 'wedge'). This stick, a rectangular solid form four to six inches long, measured about 1/4 inches on each side to that each end, of course, had a square shape. It resembled somewhat a foreshortened chopstick. The scribe held the clay tablet in his left hand and in his right hand he held the writing stick with which he made the characters in the wet clay.

Many, even the vast majority, of early writing systems, and cuneiform writing systems in particular, were developed for Semitic languages: Egyptian, Babylonian, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Eblaite, Assyrian, and others. Hittite is an exception to this generalization, one of the few, or perhaps the only, Indo-European language to be recorded in cuneiform writing.

Given the predominance of Semitic languages among cuneiform texts, it may well be that a significant percentage of the scribes held the clay tablet in their rights hands. Cuneiform texts needed only for short periods of time, and not for permanent records, may have been inscribed on wax, or wax-coated, tablets; these, of course, are lost to history. On rare occasions, cuneiform characters were chiseled or carved into stone.

Since the writing stick was held at an angle in the right hand the horizontal and oblique wedge-shaped grooves are always deeper and wider at the left and the vertical wedge-shaped grooves are always deeper and wider at the top.

There are five main types of wedge created this way: four narrow wedges and one wide. The four narrow wedges distinguish themselves from each other by orientation on the tablet: a horizontal, a vertical, one with the wide end at the upper left leading to a point in the lower right, and one with the wide end at the lower left leading to a point in the upper right. Theoretically, it would be possible to have had two other such narrow wedges, with the wide ends in the upper right and lower right, but the wrist motion needed to make such wedges would have been very awkward, probably accounting for their absence. The one wide wedge seems to have always the same orientation on the tablet; it is given the technical name Winkelhaken among linguists.

The Winkelhaken was produced by impressing the end of the stick in the clay at a slight angle from the upright position, thereby producing a near triangle, the deepest part of which is the angle at the left. The five types of wedge are combined in various numbers to form a single cuneiform character. These individual wedges are combined in various ways to produce the various cuneiform symbols.

Cuneiform texts present significant interpretive challenges to the modern reader. One such challenge is the frequent use of loan words. Hittite tablets often include, in addition to Hittite words, words from Sumerian, Akkadian, Luwian, Proto-Hittite (known as 'Hattian'), Palaic, Hurrian, and Mitanni (an Indo-Iranian language). Another challenge is that a single cuneiform symbol may have both an alphabetic value, representing a phoneme, and a pictographic value, representing a morpheme - the reader must determine which value is meant in each occurrence of the symbol. Likewise, each symbol can have multiple values, one for each of the languages listed above.

The direction of writing is from left to right and typically the clay tablets have two columns, rarely three. The first column is on the left hand side and the columns follow from left to right. After completing the right-most column the scribe turned the tablet over and continued the right-most column on the opposite side, writing also on the bottom edge of the tablet. The columns on the reverse side follow then in a right to left direction, so that the final column is on the opposite side of the initial column. When finished, the tablet was baked in an oven to harden the clay.

As societies and civilizations undertook to redesign their writing systems from time to time, the net result was to create systems which were quicker and easier to learn. It took less time to learn to read, it took less time to learn to write. As a result, literacy rates increased. Likewise, the actual tasks of reading and writing, as opposed to the learning of them, also took less time. Therefore more was written and more was read.

The abandonment of early pictographic and ideographic systems for cuneiform, and the abandonment of cuneiform for later purely alphabetic systems illustrates this. Consider that in the modern world, the majority of any population can be relatively proficient in reading and writing by the age of five or ten years old. Rates like that were not possible with cuneiform. Thus the invention of the 22-letter consonantal alphabet by the Phoenicians and Hebrews represented significant progress and led to the final abandonment of cuneiform.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Battle of Lepanto

The Battle of Lepanto in 1571, like the Battle of Tours and Poitiers in 732 A.D., and like the defenses of Vienna in 1529 and in 1683, was an example of Europe successfully deflecting an Islamic invasion. Lepanto, unlike the other examples, was a navy battle. Muslims were expanding from Turkey, marauding along the Mediterranean coastlines. Malta and Sicily were in play, and Greece was the target at the moment.

Philip II of Spain had developed a powerful navy, which was charged with protecting the cargo vessels running import and export between Spain and the Americas. This navy would join others at Lepanto. All the nations with Mediterranean coastlines were exposed to the dangers of raids or invasions: Spain, France, and Italy.

Greece had long been a target for Islamic armies. It represented a strategic position in terms of Mediterranean sea routes, and would be a foothold in Europe. Historian Dorothy Mills writes:

All through the sixteenth century the Turks had been gradually increasing their power in the Mediterranean. In 1571, in response to an appeal made the preceding year by the Pope, Pius V, Philip joined the Papacy and Venice in an alliance against Turkey. The result was the battle of Lepanto. The Spanish and Venetian fleets were under the command of Don John of Austria, the half-brother of Philip. The Turkish fleet, never yet defeated and larger than that commanded by Don John, was beaten with heavy losses and the Italian shores of the Mediterranean were saved from further Turkish attacks.

The Spanish navy's heroic defense of Europe against the attacking Islamic fleet brought glory. That glory would fade in 1588, when the Spain and England squandered the security which the Battle of Lepanto bought for them.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Cyrus: Building an Empire

During the time of Cyrus, Persia went from being a regional national kingdom to being an international empire. Cyrus was not the first king of Persia, and he was not even the first Persian king with that name: although often cited as simply 'Cyrus,' he was more accurately Cyrus II. He was named after his grandfather, Cyrus I. The generation between Cyrus I and Cyrus II was Cambyses: Cambyses was the son of Cyrus I and the father of Cyrus II. Historian John Lee writes that Cyrus accomplished much in

a brief but crucial era of four decades, from 560 to 522 B.C., during which time the Persian kings Cyrus and Cambyses assembled a world-spanning empire. Scholars and others often ask what causes historical change: Do great men and women shape history, or are deeper societal processes and currents responsible, including the lives of those who may have shaped history but are not recorded by it? The likely answer is that we need to combine these perspectives to gain a true understanding of the past.

Cyrus came from Anshan, a city, or city-state, in southwestern Persia, on the coast of the Persian Gulf. Anshan was part of a larger region, Elam, which extended along the Persian Gulf from Anshan to Susa.

The founder of the Persian Empire was Cyrus of Anshan, who came to the throne in 559 B.C. Anshan was a kingdom of Elamite origin that lay in the modern province of Fars in southern Iran.

Many accounts refer to Cyrus's empire as the "Empire of the Persians and the Medes." To which extent was this was a willing merger of equals? Or did the Persians dominate the Medes? Culturally and linguistically, the Medes and the Persians, while distinct, were also similar, and for many historical purposes, we can tolerate conflation and continue to use the concept of "Medes and Persians" without precisely untangling them. In some segments of time, the two groups were largely geographically coextensive. The Zagros Mountains run parallel to the coastline of the Persian Gulf, a few miles inland.

The first stages of Cyrus's reign are difficult to recover. Possibly his first move was to reconquer the old Elamite city of Susa. That victory may brought him into conflict with the Medes in the central Zagros. Babylonian chronicles record wars between the Medes and Anshan in the later 550s.

Cyrus was a political genius, inasmuch as he knew how to accumulate the cooperation and even loyalty of those whom he had conquered. Ecbatana lies northwest of Susa; by making Ecbatana one of Persia's capitals, Cyrus gave the Medes a sense of ownership in the larger empire.

Cyrus ultimately conquered the Medes but then made sure to present himself as a legitimate Median king. He honored the former Median king, Astyages, and perhaps married one of his daughters. Ecbatana, along with Susa, became an important Persian administrative center.

The western extreme of Cyrus's empire was Turkey, also known as Anatolia or Asia Minor. By advancing westward across the Halys River, also known as the Kızılırmak River, Cyrus planted Persian outposts in Ionia, which is the western coast of Turkey. The Halys is roughly in the middle of Anatolia. Here the Persians encountered both Greeks, who'd formed colony cities in Ionia, and Lydians. Lydia was a region just to the east of Ionia, and it was ruled by King Croesus from his city of Sardis.

In 546 B.C., Croesus sent his powerful army eastward across the Halys River, where the Lydians ran into Cyrus. The initial fight was a draw, and because winter was approaching, Croesus withdrew to Sardis, likely planning to return in the spring.

The Persian army was known for its many successes and few failures during Cyrus's reign; its experience in Asia Minor would be no exception.

Instead of hunkering down for the winter, the Persians marched on Sardis. Croesus led his troops out to meet Cyrus, but according to Herodotus, the scent and appearance of Persian camels arrayed on the front line spooked the Lydian horses. After a hard fight, the Persians trapped the Lydians in Sardis.

The fall of Sardis was recorded by Herodotus, who is the source for many details about Cyrus and his empire. Professor John Lee continues:

The walled city of Sardis was formidable, but Cyrus announced that the first man to scale the wall would be rewarded. A Persian named Hyroeades led an assault party up a path he had observed being used by a Lydian; the city fell and Croesus was taken alive.

The expansion to the west would be a source of revenue for the Persians. Both cash and produce could be expected from Anatolian colonies.

Cyrus was generous with Croesus, retaining him in the royal entourage. The Persian king put a garrison in Sardis and sent Lydian gold east to fill his own coffers.

An early revolt foreshadowed more significant challenges which the Persians would face in Turkey. Cyrus managed to maintain his control there; his successors - Darius and Xerxes - would face similar challenges.

Cyrus then hurried back east, but the Lydian governor he left behind almost immediately rebelled, with the help of some Ionian Greek cities. Cyrus sent troops back to Lydia and Ionia. The Persians managed to quell the revolt, but the conquest of Ionia wasn't yet complete.

After expanding westward into Asia Minor, Cyrus turned his attention to other possible acquisitions. After exploring opportunities to the north and east, he looked to Mesopotamia:

Cyrus spent much of the rest of the 540s expanding his empire in central Asia, but the real prize lay in the Tigris and Euphrates valley: the ancient city of Babylon.

By the time Cyrus moved on Babylon, that city was past its prime: the glories of Nebuchadnezzar were merely a memory. Babylon's king, Nabonidus was not particularly popular among his people (he restricted religious freedom among them by discouraging the worship of the Babylonian god Marduk), or among the Jews then held captive in the city. It was easy for Cyrus to win the people's favor by restoring the Marduk religion and by freeing the Jews.

At the time, King Nabonidus ruled Babylon, but some of his subjects allied with Cyrus, including the governor Gobryas. Nabonidus had a strong army and held out against Cyrus for several years. At last, on October 12, 539 B.C., a Persian army under Gobryas entered Babylon; Cyrus himself arrived soon after, and Nabonidus was taken alive.

Cyrus, who was no gentle soul, goes down in history finally as a liberator. Although perhaps unearned, this reputation was cemented by his liberating the Hebrews to return to their homeland, resume their worship, and build a temple. In many ways, Cyrus was an oppressor, an aggressive empire builder, who did not shy away from unprovoked attacks or from massive loss of human life. His personal morality would have been equally dubious - he had concubines in addition to multiple wives, and lived only a generation or two removed from his ancestral practice of human sacrifice. Yet his clear mark in history is as an emancipator:

Cyrus allowed the people of Israel and others who'd been deported to Babylon to return home. To the Hebrew people, he allowed the right of rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.

Cyrus took Persia from one kingdom among many and made it the dominate empire in the world during his time. It would remain in that status under his successors for several generations.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Origins of the Modern German Nation-State

As a territorial nation-state, Germany is one of the youngest countries in Europe. Germanic culture and language go back thousands of years in history, but it was only in 1871 that the independent kingdoms and city-states were formally joined together in a political process. German unification had been discussed since the time of Napoleon - and even earlier - but a number of obstacles prevented it from happening. One question was about whether there would be a Großdeutch or a Kleindeutsch unification - a 'Greater Germany' including Austria, or a 'Little-German' Empire without it.

The earliest hopes for German unification came from the political left, but it would finally be accomplished by the political right. Historian Herbert Schnädelbach writes:

The subsequent foundation, by Bismarck in 1871 and under Prussian leadership, of a 'Little-German' Empire (that is, one which excluded the Germans of Austria) was preceded by a long period of reaction to 1848, marked by the imposed constitution of 1850 in Prussia and neo-absolutism in Austria, and by the period of what Prussian official history described as 'wars of unification' - the conflicts with Denmark (1864), with Austria and its allied South German states (1866) and with France (1870-1). As a result, Bismarck was able to have the Prussian King proclaimed as German Emperor in Versailles and without participation by the bourgeoisie. German unity was not established in the sense of the political demands of the years before 1848. The German national state was a result of a policy imposed from above, a policy, in Bismarck's words, of 'blood and iron', and this was also one reason for the rejection by many intellectuals of this solution of the national question. For the most part, the bourgeoisie made its peace with this 'Little-German' or Prussian Empire, which represented, constitutionally speaking, a compromise between absolute monarchy and the principle of popular sovereignty: the Imperial constitution was more democratic in several respects than the constitutions of the German Confederation, for instance in regard to universal suffrage.

The uneasy cooperation from the political left ended with World War One, and the Prussian monarchy was no longer in charge of the Empire, which then became a republic. As the left tolerated the Empire until 1918, the right tolerated the Weimar Republic until 1933. This internal tension was exploited by Hitler and the Nazis, who were neither traditional imperial conservatives nor Weimar-style leftists. Detested by both the right and the left, Hitler promised enough to both sides: "German nationalism" to the right, "Worker Socialism" to the left. The official name of the party reveals this insincere and internally contradictory set of parallel promises: "the National Socialist German Workers Party" - notice how 'national' and 'German' alternate with 'socialist' and 'worker' - a stew of rightist and leftist vocabulary. Both sides thought that perhaps uneasy cooperation would again be the best path. Both sides came quickly to understand that they had been duped - but too late.

Hitler's government ruthlessly stamped out any sense of a private sphere. In any meaningful sense, there were, after 1933, no private schools or private medical practices. The government either owned or extensively regulated industrial and banking enterprises. The freedoms which had been preserved under uncomfortable compromises - the imperial era and the Weimar era - were gone.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Voltaire contra Atheism

Like many thinkers during the Enlightenment era, Voltaire held beliefs which were nuanced and complex. Such beliefs are commensurate with his powerful intellect, but have the disadvantage of being easily misunderstood, and sometimes deliberately misunderstood.

Voltaire was a constant and sharp critic of the Roman Catholic church, and of organized religion in general. He ridiculed some religious leaders as hypocrites, and others as simply stupid. He believed that the Bible - the Old and New Testaments - was a flawed book.

Consistent in his critique of all forms of organized religion, Voltaire's play Mahomet is his rendering of an episode in the life of Muhammad. He shows him to be "the founder of a false and barbarous sect," and the plot reveals "the cruelty and errors of a false prophet." The play is primarily an evaluation of Islam, but secondarily an estimation of all institutional religion.

But Voltaire was no atheist. Many readers have mistakenly assumed that his antipathy toward spiritual traditions implied atheism, and many scholars have fostered that misunderstanding by suppressing portions of Voltaire's own writings. British philosopher Alfred Jules Ayer notes:

Voltaire was not himself an atheist but a deist. He thought that he had rational grounds for the belief that there is a necessary eternal supreme intelligent being, by whom the universe is governed. He did not consider it demonstrable that there is such a being, but he thought it vastly more probable than the alternative hypothesis that the order which is discernible in the world and the intelligence and sensitivity which are exhibited not only by human beings but also by many species of animals, are the product of an ultimately fortuitous collection of material atoms. In short, he accepted what is most commonly known as the argument from design.

Voltaire saw belief in God, not as a result of tradition, nor as the result of a divine revelation, but rather as the reasonable conclusion. He found that it was logical to believe in God, just as he found it logical not to accept churches or organized religions. In response to Blaise Pascal, Voltaire wrote:

Simple reasoning will afford us proofs of the truth of the creation; for when we perceive that matter cannot exist, move, etc. of itself, we readily come to know that it must have been assisted; but we can never discover by the bare help of reason, how a body which we see continually subject to change, is to be restored again to the same state as it was in at the time it put on that change: neither will reasoning satisfy us how a man could be produced without the seed peculiar to his species. Hence it follows, that the creation is an object of reason.

Voltaire, however, did more than simultaneously criticize religion and assert the existence of God. He also was actively critical of atheism.

It is at this point that the career of Voltaire and the career of the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe are tangential to each other. Voltaire, who was born in 1694 and who died in 1778, was older than Goethe, who was born in 1749. When Goethe was a university student, he was an admirer of Voltaire's work. Goethe studied at Leipzig from 1765 to 1768, when he was between 16 and 19 years old; Voltaire would have been between 71 and 74 years old during that time. Additionally, Goethe studied at Strasbourg from 1770 to 1771; he was between 21 and 22 years old then, and Voltaire was between 76 and 77 years old. The young Goethe saw the aging Voltaire as an example of intellectual courage. Goethe relates how Voltaire did not surrender to the increasingly vicious attacks of the atheists:

Those principles, for which he had stood all his life, and to the spread of which he had devoted his days, were no longer held in honour or esteem: nay, that very Deity he acknowledged, and so continued to declare himself free from atheism, was discredited.

Even as Goethe praised the courage with which Voltaire resisted the efforts of those who would "discredit" the concept of God, he also was disappointed in Voltaire's continued attacks on religion.

Voltaire's factious dishonesty and his constant perversion of noble subjects became more and more distasteful to us, and our aversion to him grew daily. He seemed never to have done with degrading religion and the Holy Scriptures on which it rests, for the sake of injuring priestcraft, as they called it, and had thereby awakened in me feelings of irritation.

In a bizarre turn of events, Voltaire's devotion to God and hatred of the church led him to comment on fossils. Because the fossil record suggests that there was a major flood which covered most of the earth's surface at one time, Voltaire rejected the veracity of the fossil record. Voltaire wanted to demonstrate that there had been no flood, because he wanted to undermine the authority of the Old Testament. To deny the evidence presented by fossils, however, took arcane reasoning. Goethe recounts:

when I now learned that, to weaken the tradition of a deluge, he had denied the existence of all fossilized shells, and admitted them only as lusus naturae, he entirely lost my confidence; for my own eyes had shown me on the Bastberg, plainly enough, that I stood on what had been the floor of an ancient sea, among the exuviae of its original inhabitants. These mountains had certainly been once covered with waves, whether before or during the deluge did not concern me; it was enough that the valley of the Rhine had been one vast lake, a bay extending further than eye could see; no amount of talk could shake me in this conviction. I hoped, rather, to extend my knowledge of lands and mountains, let the result be what it would.

Voltaire created enemies on both sides: atheists attacked him relentlessly, because he firmly believed in the existence of a creating and logical God; Christians were disappointed in the extremism of his attacks on anything connected with traditional religion.