Wednesday, August 16, 2017

When Civilizations Behave in an Uncivilized Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Quest: Defining ‘Western Civilization’

Classes titled ‘History’ or ‘Social Studies’ often make reference to ‘Western Civilization,’ yet the exact referent of that term remains elusive. What is Western Civilization? Attempting to clarify, historian Jonah Goldberg writes:

I mean the thing both liberals and conservatives alike have celebrated for hundreds of years since words like “liberal” and “conservative” had any relevance to politics.

Indeed, the words ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ have a long and convoluted history, each coming to mean near its opposite at times. The direction on the compass is not relevant: the “West” is, first, a relative term: any point on a map has a relative location to any other point, but none of that has anything to do with culture, society, or civilization.

Secondly, the “West” was born in the “East” - Hammurabi and Moses, the two founders of civil law, were nowhere near Europe, as Goldberg notes:

the West has largely been defined by Christianity, but who can deny that? Though let’s not forget that Christianity itself was born in what used to be called the Orient (ditto Judaism).

This observation segues neatly to the next: whatever “Western” civilization is, it’s not something exclusively Christian. The word ‘Christian’ demands an entire discussion of its definition, but in any case, many individuals who are by their own declaration not Christians - those who are atheists or Hindus or Buddhists - have long since come to embrace “Western” values.

Part of the “Western” mindset is xenophilia: the fascination and affection for that which is ‘other’ or different:

even in the earliest days when Western Civilization was not particularly civilized, it was borrowing from other cultures. That’s a huge part of what makes Western Civilization so special. Sure, it’s got its history of bigotries, atrocities, and other sins — quick, tell me which civilization or society doesn’t? — but a central part of the West’s modus operandi has been to sift through what is best in other cultures and our own and appropriate it or modify it. The West, historically, has been more interested in other cultures and civilizations than any other. Celebrating our long history of open-minded curiosity and tolerance is not closed-minded bigotry>

Western society has a long list of failures and mistakes in its past, but it has demonstrated a dogged persistence in its effort to correct those errors. One characteristic feature of the West is self-criticism.

The willingness to point out its own inconsistencies and its own hypocrisies is a distinctive feature of the West.

The West uniquely rejected concepts such as torture and slavery - while other cultures celebrated them and designated them as foundational. But the West went even further: when it violated its own tenants, when it embraced that which it had declared to be evil, it exercised self-examination:

Slavery is a human universal, appearing in every culture around the world. What makes the West unique is not that we had slavery, but that we put an end to it because it was not compatible with our values.

It will always be difficult to define ‘Western’ civilization, but at least four points are obvious: an emphasis on the individual; an emphasis on liberty and freedom; an emphasis on self-criticism; and an emphasis on xenophilia.

Western civilization cannot be limited to territory on a map: wherever a passion for individual political liberty emerges, Western civilization is there. Wherever something resembling the concept of ‘property rights’ emerges, Western civilization is there.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Societal Development: Iceland

In many locations, like Europe and the Americas, a native civilization was in place for centuries or even millennia before the arrival of Jesus followers.

The inhabitants of Europe, with their light-colored skin and red or blond hair, must have been curious about the Jesus followers from the Near East who arrived with darker skin, darker hair, and news about a Messiah.

Perhaps these original Europeans were even skeptical or suspicious.

But gradually the new Semitic faith spread. The native cultural practices, like slavery and the buying and selling of women, were replaced with new values. The Jesus followers nudged the Europeans, and later the Americans, toward a society which valued each individual human being.

But traces of the ancient roots remained. In Europe and in the Americas, wherever gender inequality or chauvinism emerged, they were the faint echoes of those civilizations which held sway before the new faith arrived.

The history of Western Civilization can be conceptualized as a type of struggle between between two sets of ideas: the ancient paganism, which embraced slavery, treated women as property, and saw human life as expendable; and the new ideas introduced by the Jesus followers.

Iceland is an exception to this generalization. Iceland was uninhabited until relatively late in history. There were no permanent dwellers there in prehistoric times, and even in early historic times the island was uninhabited.

At some time in the 700s, Iceland became home to continuous residents. As historian Sigurdur Magnusson writes,

The first human beings known to have lived in Iceland were not Norsemen, but Irish monks and hermits (papar). As early as A.D. 795 we have an account of some Irish hermits staying in Iceland from February to to August. When the Norsemen came to Iceland in the ninth century they met some of these Christian hermits.

In contrast to other nations, then, Iceland’s earliest beginnings were shaped by the presence of Jesus followers. To be sure, some of the Norse settlers, who arrived a few decades after the first Irish residents, were pagans.

Some of these Norsemen brought with them the paganism of their Scandinavian homelands. Norse polytheism was thus introduced to the island and coexisted with the Jesus followers for a several decades.

The difference, however, between Iceland and Europe was this: Europe had been thoroughly saturated by paganism long before any Jesus followers arrived there. Iceland, by contrast, from its very beginning had a strong presence of Jesus followers, even if paganism arrived and endured for some years thereafter.

During its first inhabited century, therefore, all the residents of Iceland seem to have been Jesus followers.

While all or most of the European nations developed their separate and different cultures along similar lines, Iceland’s pattern was different.

In Europe, Jesus followers encountered a strongly rooted culture of pagan values, and worked to gradually make inroads against that social pattern. In Iceland, Jesus followers arrived to a totally uninhabited land, and could create a new social pattern without having to displace a previous one.

What are the measurable and observable results of Iceland’s unique developmental path? A report released in 2010 by the Obama administration’s State Department (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor) evaluated Iceland’s society as being at the highest levels of protecting both civil rights and human rights.

Likewise, a 2015 report by the Obama administration’s State Department (International Religious Freedom Report) depicted Iceland’s excellent record of protecting and preserving individual political liberty and religious freedom.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Athenian Politics: Not So Nice

Thucydides made a career, around 400 B.C., of documenting how contemptible and despicable the Athenians were. Despite his careful documentation of their bribery, extortion, and dishonesty, some modern readers still assume that the Athenians were noble and honorable.

Although Thucydides provided ample data to show that the Athenians were largely scoundrels and miscreants, later generations were led astray by the self-serving propaganda of Pericles, whose famous ‘funeral oration’ presents the Athenians as virtuous and moral.

Archeologists have unearthed evidence which strengthens the case which Thucydides made more than two thousand years ago. As historian Jarrett Lobell writes,

The end of the seventh century B.C. was a tumultuous period in Athenian history. Though once ruled by a king, the increasingly powerful region of Attica, home to Athens, had come to be presided over by aristocrats who maintained their hold on power through land ownership and lifetime appointments. But as the century drew to a close, the political climate was primed for a new type of government — that of a single ruler, or tyrant. An evocative gravesite on the outskirts of Athens is a testament to this contentious moment in history.

Athens seems to have oscillated between oligarchs and dictators. In such power struggles, both sides were unprincipled and unscrupulous.

Although Athens is associated with democracy, the word is misleading. Athenian democracy was based on exclusion and inequality.

As Thucydides made clear, the Athenians were more than willing to use intimidation and brute force in their political dealings.

Excavators at the Phaleron Delta necropolis have uncovered the remains of 80 men, shackled together at their wrists, lying in a mass grave. The most recent osteological studies have determined that the majority of the men were between 20 and 30 years old, although four were much younger, and that all 80 had been killed in the same manner — with a fatal blow to the head.

The excavation in question here deals with events a few years prior to the Peloponnesian War which Thucydides describes. But the evidence dug up is also after Home and after beginnings of Greek colonization.

The data from this archeological site, then, are of a piece with ‘Classical’ or ‘Golden Age’ Athens. These data are late enough to be part of a transition out of ‘archaic’ Greek history.

They do not belong in the core ‘archaic’ history, and are therefore relevant to Thucydides. Jarrett Lobell discusses the date of the site:

The discovery of two small vases buried with them has allowed archaeologists to date the grave to the mid-to-late seventh century B.C., suggesting to project director Stella Chrysoulaki that the men were executed in the course of one of these attempts to gain political primacy. “For the first time,” Chrysoulaki says, “we can illustrate historical events that took place during the struggle between aristocrats in the seventh century and led, through a long process, to the establishment of a democratic regime in the city of Athens.”

The brutality of Athenian political murder is enough to cure the reader of the illusion that the Athenians were high-minded and respectable practitioners of political fairness. In face, Greek philosophers often analyzed virtue precisely because they found so little of it in their society.

The murders detailed in this evidence were not a rare occurrence, and constituted rather the usual procedure and methodology of politics in ‘classical’ Greece.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Western Civilization: It's Difficult to Define, But You'll Know It When You See It

The study of history includes the study of what people usually call ‘Western Civilization.’ Central individuals, events, and movements are included under this heading: Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, and Mozart; Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Botticelli; Capitalism, Communism, Socialism, and Libertarianism; Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Edmund Burke, and Samuel Adams; the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution; the abolition of slavery, the concept of universal suffrage, freedom of speech and press, and the value of the individual human life.

Clearly, even this partial list of Western Civilization’s products is impressive. This magnificence leads the reader to ask, “What is Western Civilization?”

Whatever Western Civilization may be, the designation ‘Western’ is misleading. There is nothing a priori about the compass direction which creates such a society. A look at the map shows that ‘Western’ culture is scattered in various directions around the globe.

Consider: Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, is west of Athens; the mouth of the Congo River, flowing into the Atlantic, is west of Vienna; Dakar, Senegal is west of London. No, there is nothing ‘western’ about Western Civilization.

One attempt to define ‘Western Civilization’ is offered by historian Victor Davis Hanson:

What do we mean by the West? Roughly speaking, we refer to the culture that originated in Greece, spread to Rome, permeated Northern Europe, was incorporated by the Anglo-Saxon tradition, spread through British expansionism, and is associated today primarily with Europe, the United States, and the former commonwealth countries of Britain — as well as, to some extent, nations like Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, which have incorporated some Western ideas.

Hanson’s attempt to articulate the essence of Western Civilization is noble, but perhaps incomplete. To it should be added that culture which emerged in Mesopotamia around 2000 B.C., and which settled in the Levant before spreading further.

But beyond its extent in physical geography, the content of Western Civilization is more relevant to historical study, as Hanson continues:

And what are Western ideas? This question is disputed, but I think we know them when we see them. They include a commitment to constitutional or limited government, freedom of the individual, religious freedom in a sense that precludes religious tyranny, respect for property rights, faith in free markets, and an openness to rationalism or to the explanation of natural phenomena through reason.

Perhaps alternative names can shed light on this society: the terms ‘European Culture’ and the ‘Judeo-Christian Tradition’ are nearly synonymous, if not perfectly so, with ‘Western Civilization.’

Each of these names has its flaws: the ‘Judeo-Christian Tradition’ arose in the Middle East, and is in Europe an alien influence, which has gradually made its home there after a millennium or two.

In the modern and postmodern eras, the values of the ‘Judeo-Christian Tradition’ have been appropriated by Hindus and Buddhists, by atheists and secularists, and by a broad range of other belief systems, who now use those distinctive Judeo-Christian concepts to offer a critic of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Likewise, although many of the core values of Western Civilization found their birthplaces in Europe, a culture which is now in the Americas, in Australia, and in regions of Asia and Africa can hardly be given the geographical designation ‘European.’

These ideas were combined in various ways through Western history, and eventually brought us to where we are today. The resultant system creates more prosperity and affluence than any other.

A concrete example of Western Civilization at work shows us the effects which it has on both nations and individuals. Why was it that Mahatma Gandhi’s years on England were formative for his outlook? How did that British influence allow Gandhi to then travel to Africa and work there?

Gandhi was neither a Jew nor a Christian nor a European. Yet he is, in some ways, an example of Western Civilization. He was shaped by thinkers like John Locke and Edmund Burke, and he carried their influence to India and Africa.

Western Civilization has certainly failed, in some places and at some times, to live up to its own ideals. We must be clear that Western Civilization has committed a list of misdeeds. But those misdeeds are identifiable only in terms of its own values.

If Western Civilization has trespassed by occasionally failing to rein in those individuals who might want to commit acts of torture, then it violated its own distinctive and peculiar code which separates it from other civilizations: other civilizations which not only find nothing wrong with torture, but which are rather founded upon torture, and whose members publicly demand it and approve of it.

If Western Civilization has done wrong by not giving legal and social equality to women, then it failed to uphold its proprietary ethic to which it gave birth. Other civilizations make no pretense of even speaking of such equality, but rather operate axiomatically on an inequality between the genders and on the exploitation of one gender by the other.

So it is that Western Civilization is flawed and imperfect. Yet it also carries uniquely within itself those very ideals by which it is judged as flawed and imperfect. As Hanson phrases it,

And of course, I don’t mean to suggest that there was Jeffersonian democracy in 13th century England or in the Swiss cantons. But the blueprint for free government always existed in the West, in a way that it didn’t elsewhere.

Because ‘western’ ideas and ideals have spread across the globe, criticism of the ‘West’ itself now comes from Africa and Asia. Any meaningful or significant criticism which might be directed against the ‘West’ is in fact a product of the West.

Certain regions in Africa and Asia articulate thoroughly Marxist viewpoints: in so doing, they manifest that they have been schooled by a 19th-century German Jew who later lived in London.

Whether or not accusations about imperialism and torture are true, it was from the ‘West’ that other civilizations learned to identify imperialism and torture as somehow ‘wrong’ - they shed their inherited values to embrace ‘Western’ ones.

Whether it’s called ‘Western Civilization’ or ‘European Culture’ or the ‘Judeo-Christian Tradition,’ it’s difficult to define. But its effects are clearly visible and conspicuous.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Enlightenment's Political Project

An attempt to understand Enlightenment political concepts:

The world is organized into nation-states. Such states are answerable to and for their citizens.

Everyone is a citizen of some state. (The exceptional case of individuals with dual citizenship is far less than one percent of the globe’s population, and states pressure these individuals to shed one of the citizenships eventually.)

States exist to protect the lives, liberties, and properties of citizens. Residency is not citizenship.

States may cooperate with each other, forming alliances for common causes. States may compete with each other. Each state, however, is finally accountable to its own citizens.

A government is legitimate to the extent that its citizens consent to be governed by it (Locke’s “popular sovereignty”). Citizens rationally calculate the utility of a government as it fails or succeeds to protect their lives, liberties, and properties. As Locke phrased it in 1689,

Whenever the legislators endeavor to take away and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience, and are left to the common refuge which God hath provided for all men against force and violence. Whensoever, therefore, the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society, and either by ambition, fear, folly, or corruption, endeavor to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people, by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and by the establishment of a new legislative (such as they shall think fit), provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society.

Or, as he frames it in the same treatise, “the people shall be judge.”

In addition to popular sovereignty and the limitation of government to maximize individual political liberty, this Enlightenment framework allows for maximal engagement of the individual in the positive aspects of society.

Arts, education, and charity are fueled by the citizens who’ve delegated the negative work to the government. As Thomas Paine wrote in 1776,

Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices.

Both Locke and Paine worked to articulate a distinction between society and government. The Enlightenment project was to free society as much as possible to go about its productive activity.