Monday, November 29, 2010

What is medieval?

In one sense, what makes something ‘medieval’ is obvious: it is the ‘between times’, the time between the classical and the modern. The term itself means precisely that, via French from from Latin ‘medium’ (middle) and ‘aevum’ (era or period).

But that only puts the question off one level: because what makes something “classical” and what makes something “modern”?

Of the two, defining ‘classical’ is easier. The classical period of a civilisation is the period when it has its first flowering of art, literature, culture and thought; establishing forms of the same that become recurring patterns in that society or civilisation. So ancient Greece and ancient Rome constitute the classical period of Western civilisation. The period of the ruling Caliphate from 642 to the C9th constitutes the classical period of Islam. The Nara and Heian periods the classical period of Japanese history, and so forth.

What makes something “modern”? My preferred answer has been that one is in the modern era when a society experiences a continuing breadth and rate of technological and social change that is discernable to its own inhabitants. The problem with that is that one might say that of of C12th and C13th Latin Christendom: and we would not describe that as “modern”.

The other feature we use when presenting at schools to distinguish a medieval period is one of warrior rule: distinguishing a warrior from a soldier.

A soldier is paid for by taxes: his salary, weapons, equipment and training typically using standard gear in an organised unit. He is, in effect, an armed employee and his watchword is duty: fulfilling the obligations he is paid to undertake. The Roman Army had soldiers. Modern armies have soldiers.

A warrior owns his own weapons, his family probably arranged his training, he is likely to have some direct income source, owes personal service and his watchword is honour: fulfilling the service he has promised to uphold. The knight, the samurai, the Iranian azadan, the Central Eurasian iqta (or similar tax farming fief) holder is a warrior: medieval armies are dominated by warriors.

So the classical period in Islam ends, and the medieval period begins, when the Buyids take power from the Caliphs and begin to distribute iqta fiefs. The classical period of Japan ends, and the medieval period begins, when the bakufu (aka Shogunate), the military government of the warrior clans, is set up so Japan becomes increasingly dominated by samurai politics. Classical civilisation ends when the Western Roman Empire collapses and Germanic kingdoms dominated by warriors owing personal service take over. Developing into the “ultimate” period of warrior rule, knightly Europe.

Hence the modern period begins when warrior rule ends: when rulers put armies of tax-paid soldiers, not personal-service warriors, into the field. This is a process of transition rather than an “on/off” thing. For example, seriously outnumbered English armies won victories such as Crecy, Poitiers, Najera and Agincourt not simply because of the longbow, but because they had much better command-and-control than their enemies. (They had much the same arms mix at Bannockburn, but got horribly beaten because the English command-and-control on the field was crap.) English kings had “cashed outknights service and used their funds to hire companies from their nobility and gentry on a contract basis: a sort of militant national capitalism. It meant the English King or Prince in charge could give orders he could reasonably expect to be obeyed. In the “personal service” armies of their opponents, command-and-control was much less reliable.

Nevertheless, in European history, the Battle of Fornovo in 1495 is a good marker, since both the Kingdom of France and the Italian League were fielding armies of tax-paid soldiers – recognisably modern armies even though they were still using knights/men-at-arms as heavy cavalry. Certainly, people at the time realised things were changing – hence figures such as Bayard (who famously knighted his sovereign, Francis I) and Maximilian being referred to during their lives as “the last knight”.

The medieval period in Japan ends with the abolition of the Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration of 1867. So, close to four centuries after it does in Latin Christendom, but the medieval period in Japan also starts about seven centuries later than it does in Latin Christendom (and does not occur due to any sort of social collapse).

Trying to date end of the medieval period in Islam is a bit trickier. The abolition of the privileges of the sipahis and their change into cavalry soldiers in 1828 by the Ottoman Sultan is a good marker. Particularly as it comes two year after the “disbanding” slaughter of the Janissaries (known as ‘the Auspicious Incident’: the Janissaries were hated by that time) and 10 years after the massacre of the Citadel ended mamluk power in Egypt. But it is a reasonable question to ask, for example, if Afghanistan has ever entirely got rid of warlords.

Then again, the period of warrior rule in the Scottish highlands probably did not end until the post-Culloden suppressions, including the 1746 abolition of the right of justice of clan chiefs.

So, a medieval period is a period of history between a classical era and the modern period marked by warrior rule – and different civilisations have their medieval periods at different times. While modernity is a period where armies are of tax-paid soldiers and a society experiences a continuing breadth and rate of technological and social change that is discernable to its own inhabitants. Which also does not happen to all civilisations at the same time.

Just because we are all on the same globe does not mean we all enter modernity in the same way and at the same time. After all, various remaining hunter-gatherer societies have still not made it into the Neolithic Revolution.

History happens, but, even in its more general patterns, in its particular ways in particular places.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity

The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, by Philip Jenkins; Oxford University Press, 2007 (revised edition), $32.95.

This review was published in Quadrant, March 2008

Religion resurgent
WHAT IS THE MOST successful social movement of the twentieth century? Which religion has the most new members each year?

The answers are: Pentecostalism—which grew from a few adherents in 1901 to hundreds of millions by 2000—and Christianity—which is expanding every bit as fast as Islam from a bigger base.

These answers are only startling if one has a Western-centric view of Christianity. Philip Jenkins' The Next Christendom clearly shows how distorted Western views of Christianity (and religion generally) typically are. I do not believe I have read a more enlightening, or more disturbing, book on the contemporary world. Monotheism—belief in the One God, the Middle East's most powerful and enduring contribution to human thought—is the most successful set of beliefs in human history. And it is still gaining strength across the globe.

Its most spectacular growth is in the form of Pentecostalism, which grew out of Methodism and stresses a deeply personal sense of religious involvement based on the infusion of the Holy Spirit as per the first (Christian) Pentecost in the Book of Acts. In Jenkins' words:
In this thought-world, prophecy is an everyday reality, while faith-healing, exorcism and dream visions are all basic components of religious sensibility.
But the appeal of a religious movement that deliberately seeks to recreate the religious sensibility of the first Christians is simply beyond the ken of those who presume the retreat of religious feeling to be a necessary and natural part of modernity. That appeal disconcerts established churches as much as complacent secularists—in the words of a commentator on Latin America:
the Catholic Church has chosen the poor, but the poor chose the Pentecostals.
A basic mistake—as Jenkins regularly points out—is to see Christianity as a Western or European phenomenon. Thus historical Muslim religious aggression (unlike the much more minor Crusades) is not seen as problematic because we forget the history of African and Asian Christianity.

Meanwhile, Christianity has spread most dramatically in Africa since the end of Western colonialism. During the 1960s, Christians came to outnumber Muslims in Africa for the first time since probably the thirteenth century. (What Jenkins actually writes is: "Sometime in the 1960s, another historic landmark occurred, when Christians first outnumbered Muslims in Africa," which, as his own historical survey makes clear, is a bit of a howler. Christians outnumbered Muslims in Africa until some centuries after the Muslim conquest of North Africa.)

Migrants are also a Christianising influence in Western countries.

The disturbing elements in the continuing advance of monotheism are: (1) the possibility of huge religious wars; (2) the very authoritarian views of gender and sexuality that dominate non-Western Christianity; and (3) the lack of support for the separation of church and state. What Mark Lilla calls political theology—the grounding of political arguments in an image of the nexus between the divine, the human and the world—may be making a comeback way beyond Islam.
While Jenkins discusses current realities and their possibilities, at the core of the book is a very enlightening discussion of historical trends. After establishing the scale of the Christianising movement going on in the developing world, Jenkins points out that Christianity has always been a religion in geographical motion. An Asiatic and African religion in its beginnings, it slowly shifted to Europe as its centre (with beleaguered outliers such as Ethiopia) and now has shifted centre again to Latin America, Africa and Asia. Significant Christian communities persist within Islamic countries, Arab Christians having been disproportionately important in nationalist and other secular movements.

Jenkins examines the missionary efforts and the ways Christianity became "localised", then looks at demographic patterns and trends, pointing out that they are subject to potential fluctuations.

Jenkins takes us through just what taking root in a society means. Western concepts of Christianity tend to be based on a very Europeanised view. But, as Christianity takes root in local societies, it evolves in ways that resonate with that society—just as it did in Europe. Indeed, healing and prophets are how Christianity originally started and spread. Pentecostalism (which may have one billion adherents by 2050) has much the same appeal of early Christianity and in broadly similar social circumstances.

Jenkins examines the possible political impact of these changes, as "Southern" Christianity does not have Western Christianity's reticence about being political. After all, that reticence grew out of the experience of bitter religious wars and civil strife. Political theology is natural to human civilisations in general and Christianity in particular.

WHICH LEADS to the possibility of strife between religions—particularly with Islam. While there are exceptions—most notoriously, Serbian massacres of Bosnian Muslims—contemporary inter-religion violence is dominated by Muslim violence against non-Muslims. Muslim countries are typically more religiously intolerant than Christian countries of comparable levels of income. Jenkins's matter-of-factness is particularly admirable here.

That Islam is a one-way exercise (you may enter but not leave) increases the potential grounds of conflict. (Jenkins never says directly, but there is a clear implication in The Next Christendom that if Islam was less hostile to conversion, Christianity would be making advances within Islam also.) That there is a large overlap in the religions—for example, the Qu'ran refers to Mary more than the New Testament does, and it is Jesus whose Second Coming will mean the end of Time—can embitter or bridge the faiths, depending on circumstances.

Jenkins also canvasses the potential for violence from and with other religions. The possibilities of strife and misunderstanding will, he says, be aggravated if people in the West base their views on ignorance and false expectations:
Modern Western media generally do an awful job of reporting on religious realities, even in their own societies, leading to the possibility that [t]he North would define itself against Christianity,
the faith of a very large and increasing proportion of the developing world. Indeed, Jenkins sketches out more than one scenario where the West—wishing to preserve access to oil or resisting Chinese interventions in defence of (largely Christian) Chinese minorities—supports Muslims against Christians.

Jenkins stresses that the versions of Christianity that flourish in the developing world are, to Western eyes, very conservative (that is, authoritarian and patriarchal) on matters of gender and sexuality. And, increasingly, they have the numbers in Christianity. Jenkins makes it clear that the Catholic Church is going to remain a very socially conservative organisation: "Of course the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church are so very conservative: they can count." It also means that migrants from the developing world to the West are less likely to have social attitudes that progressivists in the West would welcome.

In his final chapter, Jenkins goes over the remarkable history of Christianity, its ability to move, evolve and survive. It is the largest religion on the planet and is well set to remain so, even to increase its dominance.

I was, before reading The Next Christendom, vaguely aware that Christianity was advancing outside the developed world. Philip Jenkins' profoundly enlightening study shows just what an understatement that is. Intellectuals in the West have been somewhat disconcerted by the "disturbing" strength of religious feeling within their own societies and the re-emergence of the salience of religious belief. This is not a diminishing but an increasing trend. Much more such disconcertion is likely. The Next Christendom is one of those necessary books for understanding the world we live in.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The 30-year rule and 70-year cases

There are patterns in history. Not the Marxian “grand repeated scheme” nonsense, but persistent or recurring tendencies.

In modern politics, there seems to be a roughly 30-year cycle regarding inter-ethnic welfarism: it takes about 30 years for a policy which transfers benefits disproportionately from one ethnic group or region to another to cause a significant polirtical reaction. I suspect it takes about 30 years because that is how long it takes for two things to happen:

First, for it to become clear that the transfers will be endless unless policy changes – that is, that the transfers are not solving the original problem, the problem has become a justification for transfers with no foreseeable end to them.
Second, for a sufficient generation of political activists to grow up for whom the experience of the policy is much more important than the original justification and expectations.

For example, in the mid 1960s, and particularly from 1972-5, we begin to see significant and specific welfare transfers to indigenous Australians. In 1996-8 we get the Pauline Hanson/ One Nation eruption. In the 1960s, Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau introduces bilingualism in Canada with associate welfare transfers; by 1990 the Reform Party of Canada is a serious political contender. In the 1960s, LBJ introduces the Great Society; by 1996, welfare reform is all the rage. In the 1950s and 1960s, transfers to southern Italy became a feature of Italian public policy; by 1991 the Northern League is a serious political contender. The Belgium welfare state expands in the 1950s and 1960s with Flanders disproportionately subsidising Walloonia; by 1991 the Vlaams Blok is becoming politically serious.

Note, these are not cases of reaction to migration, but to transfers between already established ethnicities and/or regional identities. So, for example, the recent surge in the Sweden Democrats vote seems to be very specifically about the surge in Muslim immigration and associated problems. While, in the UK, the issue of the EU has a particular resonance, so the UKIP, which started its surge with the 1999 European Parliament elections has captured current policy-protest vote.

Nevertheless, there do seem to be enough cases to suggest that there is something of a “30 year rule” for significant political reaction against transfers disproportionately from one ethnicity or region to another.

The 70-year cases hardly constitute a rule, but I have noted a curious pattern: that intense centralisation can to lead to some sort of collapse in about 70 years. The most obvious case in the Soviet Union (1917-1991), but it is not the only case in that sort of time frame. For example, France centralises greatly under Louis XIV (r.1643-1715) and (particularly set in train by Colbert, who served 1655-1683). By 1789, there is the French Revolution. Khrosrau Anurshivan (r.531-579) centralises Sassanid Iran; this rather brittle centralism collapses under the Arab attacks of 633-644. The most dramatic centralisation in East Asian history, that of the Qin dynasty, barely lasted 15 years (221-206 BC). If, however, one dates the centralisation from the reforms of Shang Yang (minister 361-338 BC) then one get a roughly 70-year time frame.

Four cases, however prominent, hardly make a strong pattern. The most famous case of centralisation in Western history, that of Diocletian (r. 284-305), is not followed by the official collapse of the Western Empire until 476 while the Eastern Empire kept going. That the official collapse of the Western Empire was 81 years after its final separation from the Eastern Empire does not seem to be other than coincidental.

Still, it does seem a bit odd that you get four such prominent cases of centralisation-followed-by-collapse over a roughly 70 year time frame. Perhaps that is the time it takes for unresponsive brittleness to set in: for the control system to be driven by its internal dynamics rather than adapting to changing conditions.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The House of Wisdom (2)

This is the second part of my review of Jonathan Lyons’ history of the impact of Arab-Muslim civilisation on the West, The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation. The first part was in my previous post.

Adelard the advocate
We then move to the life of Adelard of Bath, the enthusiast for Arabic language scientific endeavour and copies of classical riches Lyons uses as a connecting thread in his narrative. There were a lot of riches of classical learning to discover: the thirteen books of Euclid’s Elements, for example. The 20 volumes of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies had covered geometry, astronomy, arithmetic and music in four pages. Arabic language scholars were much more enthusiastic, translating complete versions of Euclid’s Elements, some of his other works, producing commentaries, adopting his insistence on demonstrable proofs in their own scientific endeavours. Enthusiasts such as Adelard and his students produced Latin translations of Arabic translations of Euclidean geometry, struggling with problems of translation with limited linguistic understanding that slowly improved. This was a general problem for translation into Latin from Arabic: Lyons gives the example of one work which used the single Latin word esse to translate 34 distinct Arabic terms for being and related notions (Pp111ff).

This C12th (re)discovery of Euclid, along with transfers of skills from the Arabic world (Henry I’s court architect was a captured Muslim, while the Syrian chronicler Usama ibn Munqidh tells of a stone mason who moved to the Christian lands and took his skills with him), fed into improvements in European building techniques. Such as the rebuilding of Chartres cathedral, the adoption of the pointed arch and far greater regularity and precision in church and other architecture. Geometry and “Arabic numerals” were incorporated into the techniques of masons and architects—their Church clients continued to use Latin numerals in their accounts for another four centuries. (The “secret” knowledge of masons that fed into Freemasonry myths.) Arabic language astronomy represented data and mathematical understanding far beyond that of Latin Christendom at the time, which was not to produce astronomy to rival those of classical Islam until Copernicus, himself dependant on their observation tables (Pp115ff).

The first known astronomical observation in the history of post-Classical Western civilisation was undertaken by Walcher, the prior of the monastery in Great Malvern, on October 18, 1092, observing an eclipse with an astrolabe, having been frustrated by experience with a previous eclipse (p.125). Adelard’s On the Use of the Astrolabe was to revolutionise astronomical understanding in Latin Christendom (Pp126ff).

The onset of Aristotelian thought generated clerical opposition. The University of Paris repeatedly banned the teaching of Aristotelian ideas. Lyons sees Aristotelianism as threatening the primacy of theology established by the Augustinian framework accepted in Latin Christendom. Mainly through the interest in Arabic astrology it was associated with (and that Aristotle was a pagan) (Pp133ff). This is faith and revelation in conflict with proto-science.

Yet the greatest advocate of Aristotelian thought in Latin Christendom was to be St Thomas Aquinas, who was a supreme theologian: the Arabic writers having bequeathed to Latin Christendom a monotheist Aristotle. (Though Lyons sees his Unmoved Mover as a “removed” God as per C18th Deism: which is not really an accurate understanding of Aristotelian notions of causation. God as First Cause is not an argument about causes as such—the first cause as chain of causation inside time—but about causation, why there is any causation at all, God as ground of causation outside time: a distinction most modern philosophers don’t grasp—hence the puerile "what caused the first cause?" response, as if medieval scholastics were too stupid to have thought of such an "obvious" objection—so it is not surprising if Lyons’ understanding of Aristotelian thought is not quite up to it.)

Al-Andalus the sophsticated
We then move on to al-Andalus and the marvel that was the Umayyad capital of Cordoba. Al-Andalus was a centre of agronomy (and related disciples) and of the most sophisticated analysis of Aristotle (it turned out to be a problem for Islam that Aristotelian thought reached its peak on the Islamic periphery: but very useful for Latin Christendom). With the collapse of the centralised Cordoban caliphate, the military weak small kingdoms competed against each other culturally (Pp148ff).
Alas, Lyons informs us, in Spain, Sicily and the Crusader kingdoms, the ignorance of Christian peasants and “rigidity” of the feudal system lead to the slow loss of this Muslim agricultural innovation (Pp150ff). Except that even a Muslim chronicler such as ibn Jubayr noted that the Franj treated their (mostly Muslim and local Christian) peasants better than they were in Muslim-ruled areas while the feudal system was to prove quite willing to adopt agricultural innovations: one suspects something else is going on here, such as different incentives regarding food versus “cash” crops.

Christian “expansionism” in Spain is treated as being destructive, with Lyons sneering at the use of the term ‘Reconquista’; part of his treatment of Muslim conquests as things that just happened—or a sign of energy and vitality—while Christian conquests are nasty aggression.

Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, commissioning a Latin translation of the Qur’an was a rare attempt to enquire seriously into Muslim religious beliefs, rather than their knowledge and skills. Abbot Peter interpreted Muslim beliefs from a Christian perspective, however, rather in their own terms (Pp152-3): another perennial human failing.

Lyons struggles, as so many do, with the contradictory nature of Frederick II “Stupor Mundi”. Curious and cosmopolitan on one hand, overbearing and autocratic on another, his court and realm was a vehicle for the transfer of Arabic learning to Latin Christendom yet his style of rule was largely barren in its long-term effects. Thomas Aquinas began his career in Stupor Mundi’s realm at the University of Naples (a place where Arabic learning was available) before moving to the University of Paris (a rather more vibrant intellectual centre). Lyons does warm to Frederick’s lack of “the fear of change” which Lyons sees as holding back the intellectual life of medieval Europe (Pp168ff). Yet, as Jean Gimpel points out, this was a society with a widespread belief in progress and considerable technological dynamism.

Aquinas and other thinkers got access to Greek thought from the work of European translators, a process which was largely a by-product of the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204, with Jacques de Venise being the most important figure. Not something Lyons pays attention to.

The most important intellectual in the spread of Aristotle’s thought to Latin Christendom, however, was Averroes, ibn Rushd, known as The Commentator, as Aristotle himself was known as The Philosopher. He was the central figure in the dispute with al-Ghazali in the debate within Islam over emphasising God’s Will or His Rationality. Lyons puts it as:
The theologians fight tooth and nail to preserve a maximalist reading of God, while the philosophers led by Averroes seek to create a metaphysical space for reason and for a natural world governed by immutable laws—both essential ingredients for true science (p.182).
In Latin Christendom, the great standard bearer for Aristotelian thought was Thomas Aquinas—who was certainly a theologian as well as a philosopher. In Judaism, the great standard bearer for Aristotelian thought was Maimonedes—who was also a theologian as well as a philosopher. Ibn Rushd himself was a religious judge. Lyons’ division into theologians versus philosophers is perhaps a bit too pat.

Lyons also suffers from the difficulty that the “philosophers” won out in Latin Christendom (and Judaism) but the “theologians” won out in Islam: a bit of a problem for his “enlightened Araby/benighted Christianity” theme. The solution is simple, blame the Christians! Christian aggression forced Muslim leaders in al-Andalus to pander to conservative clerics and Averroes found himself tried, banished from court and his books burned (Pp182-3).

The full story of the triumph of al-Ghazali’s attack on Aristotelian thought is rather more complicated. First, insisting on the uncreated nature of the Qur’an as the direct word of God had been a defence against the brutal autocracy of a centralising and rationalist caliph, for it preserved law as outside his control. Second, al-Ghazali lived and wrote in the centre of Islam, not the periphery. Third, the notion of honour inherited from tribal-nomadic cultures encouraged the notion that limiting God’s Will insulted His honour.

Thomas the synthesiser
The final chapter, “The Invention of the West”, looks at the career of Aquinas and the forging of a marriage of reason and revelation. Lyons continues to equate Aristotelian thought with science and to see Aristotelian thought as fatal to Augustine’s characterisation of philosophy as the handmaiden of theology (Pp184ff). Even though Augustine’s own theology insisted on the primacy of the world as the direct creation of God over scripture as the indirect creation of God.

With the growing scope and confidence of the universities—who were increasingly serving the expanding career opportunities for more secular education—Aristotelian thought, and associated Arabic science, was both attractive and increasingly embraced: to the nervousness of various religious authorities. This tension was at least as much about authority as ideas—scientific publishing was later to be largely driven out of post-Reformation Catholic Europe due to priestly control over the licensing of printing, despite Catholic theology being more friendly to science than Protestant instance on the primacy of scripture. In the C13th struggle, conservative theologians made some rather overblown claims about the content of the Arabic Aristotelians and their works—even though, as Lyons points out, ibn Rushd himself respected revelation and thought philosophy and theology were explorations of a single realm of truth (Pp187ff).

Into this realm of controversy comes Thomas Aquinas, whose work shows the influence of Avicenna, Averroes and Maimonedes. His consideration of the perennial flashpoint between Aristotelians and text-first theologians—Aristotle’s doctrine of the Eternity of the World, which contradicted scriptural stories of Creation—was an example of the Thomist synthesis, concluding that the world could be both eternal and created by God since God, as the ground of causation, operates across all time (Pp190ff).

The Thomist synthesis gave a realm to natural philosophers while, in effect, narrowing the ambit of theology. It provided a bridging compromise that spared the Church “a debilitating and possibly fatal struggle” between reason and revelation (Pp192-3). Aquinas updated Augustine’s Neoplatonic theology of scriptural interpretation with Aristotelian “natural theology”.

Not that this synthesis was adopted without a struggle. After his death, the Franciscans launched a furious attack on the doctrines of this Dominican troublemaker, leading to the strongest condemnations yet by the University of Paris of various Aristotelian doctrines. The doctrines of Aquinas eventually won out: he was canonised in 1323 and his teachers formally cleared of any heretical taint in 1325. Not without tumult and dispute—including the condemnations of 1277 and the blighting of various careers: notably that of the pugnacious student-brawler turned metaphysician and advocate of philosophical freedom Siger de Brabant (Pp 193ff).

Lyons argues that a major reason why Aristotelian natural theology won out in the end in Latin Christendom was precisely because it came via Arabic thinkers, who bequeathed the West a monotheist Aristotelianism (Pp196-7). Lyons concludes by tracing the work of Arabic astronomers and mathematicians in revising the work of Ptolemy: adding and correcting observations, incorporating trigonometry, making the Earth the single central rotation point. He points to hints that Copernicus may have had contact with Arabic learning when he studied in Italy before launching his conceptual breakthrough of identifying the Sun as the centre of the Solar System (Pp197ff).

Inventing invention
Which leads to the conviction of Galileo for heresy that, in a conventional way, Lyons misconstrues as a conflict between science and religion rather than due to Galileo’s insistence on the right to contradict scripture without being able to answer a reasonable objection (if the Sun is the centre of the Solar System, why do we not observe parallax motion in the stars?). Lyons is in much stronger ground in critiquing the Church for its opposition to intellectual freedom (of which it was most certainly guilty, both in the case of Galileo and more savage examples, such as the burning of Giordano Bruno). Whether the Church had, as Lyons argues, failed to abide by the Thomist compromise for a “peaceful and productive coexistence” between faith and reason is a more moot point: Aquinas clearly saw heresy as a capital crime and sin.

Waxing lyrical on the achievements of Western science and the Scientific Revolution, Lyons concludes dramatically that:
Under the direct influence of the Arab Aristotelians, Thomas carved out a truce between traditional church teachings and the discoveries of the emerging generations of modern Western scientists. That compromise defines the rules of engagement to this day between the realms of faith and reason. And it stakes the Arabs’ claims as inventors of the West, a debt that Adelard of Bath identified many centuries ago on his return from Antioch: “Of course God rules the universe,” he assures his readers. “But we may and should enquire into the natural world. The Arabs teach us that.” (p.201)
If “the Arabs” invented the West, why did they not create the Scientific Revolution? Why did Aristotelian thought triumph in Latin Christendom, but fail in Islam? As historian Edward Grant notes, ibn Khaldun himself expressed the failure of philosophy, particularly natural philosophy, in Islam vividly:
Despite his brilliance as an historian, Ibn Khaldun included a chapter in the Muqaddimah titled 'A refutation of philosophy. The corruption of the students of philosophy' (Ibn Khaldun 1958, 3:246-258). In this chapter, Ibn Khaldun condemns the opinions of philosophers as wrong and proclaims to his fellow Muslims that 'the problems of physics are of no importance for us in our religious affairs or our livelihoods. Therefore, we must leave them alone' (Ibn Khaldun 1958, 3:251-252). He regarded the study of logic as dangerous to the faithful unless they were deeply immersed in the Qur'an and the Muslim religious sciences to fortify themselves against its methods.
And what about the heritage of Greek philosophy itself? As Razib Khan points out in his typically perceptive and informative review:
One could write another book about “how the Greeks and Persians civilized the Arabs.”
The tedious modern intellectual habit of attributing “good” agency to non-Westerners and “bad” agency to Westerners is perhaps the biggest failing of The House of Wisdom.

As Razib Khan also notes, there are gems of interest in The House of Wisdom, but it is very much a book that requires a fair bit of background knowledge to put said gems in useful context. A “corrective” which itself needs so much corrective knowledge in a reader has too much polemic and not enough sense.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The House of Wisdom (1)

Contemporary Western writing about Islam and Islamic history comes in various identifiable streams. One stream is writing that seeks to encourage a positive, even rosy, view of Islam: Karen Armstrong is an example of this. One motive for such writing is to encourage positive interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims. Another is to assert a sense of moral superiority over those fellow Westerners who have a more angst-ridden or hostile view of Islam. (These motives are not mutually exclusive.) Then there are those who worry that if the more hostile views of Islam become received wisdom, many Muslims (particularly young Muslims) will simply “buy” that picture of Islam, and adopt it for themselves.

The latter stream of thought merges into those with a nuanced view of Islam. Who are aware of its complexities and varieties, even though they may be quite hostile to its more radical versions. Writers such as Daniel Pipes and Michael Totten fall into this category.

Then there are the writers who take a hostile view of Islam: who see it as fundamentally an intolerant, violent, persecutory religion; or, at least, as having inherent tendencies in that direction. Mark Durie, Andrew Bostom and Robert Spencer are examples of various forms of this approach. Precisely because they are arguing against received wisdom, such writers are often excellent at locating information and sources the mainstream ignores or glosses over.

Complicating all this is that the logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of believers. Someone may identify as a member of a religion without accepting the entire package, or any particular version of the package. This is not necessarily clear to outsiders, however. The most important single reason why the C16th and C17th debates over torture have suddenly been reopened is because we live in the return of the C16th—both in the sense of Islam is going through the same text-based “purification” of faith that the Christian Reformation represented and because we confront the same issue with Muslims that Elizabethan and Stuart England faced with Catholics: how can we tell the “good” law-abiding believers from the “will kill us in our beds” believers? The destructive possibilities of modern technology add further fear to the mix.

One pattern in the “rosy” presentation of Islam is for Muslim conquests to be treated as events that “just happened”, while Christian crusades are (noxious) moral events: this despite the fact that the former both pre- and post-date the latter, as well as being hugely more extensive.

Jonathan Lyons’ history of the impact of Arab-Muslim civilisation on the West, The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation, is of the rosy view. Starting with the time line at the front of the book. The first surge of Muslim conquest is entirely glossed over apart from:
732 An Arab raiding party is defeated near Tours, in southern France, effectively ending Muslim penetration of Western Europe from Spain (p.xi).
This is a fairly elliptical treatment of the largest surge in religious conquest in history; one in stark contrast to the much more extensive treatment in the opening timeline of the (much smaller) Western crusades.

Lyons starts with crusade-era Antioch and Adelard of Bath, an enthusiast for Arabic-language learning, a conduit for that learning’s spread to Latin Christendom and a key figure in the book. Lyons informs us that
This great struggle between faith and reason was about to crash down on an unsuspecting Europe (p.4).
This is a very modern secular-humanist take on what was happening at the time. The actual debate was in terms of focusing on God’s Will or God’s Rationality: all the participants were monotheist believers and all sides used the tools of logic and reasoning. All three Abrahamic monotheisms—Latin Christendom, Judaism and Islam—went through this debate in overlapping centuries. In Latin Christendom and Judaism, focusing on God’s Rationality won. It was Islam where focusing on God’s Will carried the day: this creates a certain difficulty in seeing Islam as the purveyor of the light of reason to a benighted Latin Christendom. Or, as Lyons puts it:
The arrival of Arab science and philosophy, the legacy of the pioneering Adelard and those who hurried to follow his example, transmuted the backward West into a technological and scientific superpower (p.4).
But, strangely, failed to come to fruition in the Islam that was the source of all this intellectual ferment.

There is the further difficulty that this ‘Arab science and philosophy’ was the heritage of Greek thought, Indian mathematics and other achievements of various cultures that Arab-language thinkers and scholars utilised—and extended in certain areas. But, as Mark Durie points out in The Third Choice, conquering and supplanting a culture is a somewhat strange basis to get credit for preserving it.
Though there are cases of such. The British in India, for example, revitalised interest in Hindu culture and history: but that was in contrast to Muslim rulers who had often despoiled and suppressed that culture. As V. S. Naipaul points out, Muslim conquest tends to be a particularly thorough form of colonisation, involving the conquered and converted people rejecting their own history. The first (and possibly greatest) of historical sociologists, Ibn Khaldun expressed this rejection well:
(The Muslims) desired to learn the sciences of the (foreign) nations. They made them their own through translations. They pressed them into the mold of their own views. They peeled off these strange tongues [and made them pass] into their [own] idiom, and surpassed the achievements of (the non-Arabs) in them. The manuscripts in the non-Arabic languages were forgotten, abandoned, and scattered. All the sciences came to exist in Arabic. The systematic works on them were written in (Arabic) writing. Thus, students of the sciences needed a knowledge of the meaning of (Arabic) words and (Arabic) writing. They could dispense with all other languages, because they had been wiped out and there was no longer any interest in them.
In the West, the legacy of the pagan past was not treated that dismissively.

Still, as Lyons’ points out, English is full of terms—admiral, algebra, zero, zenith—which are Arabic in origin. He clearly sees his mission as being to overturn the West’s “wilful forgetting” of this Arab legacy (Pp4-5)

Crusading brutality
Having framed the issues and concerns, Lyons starts with Pope Urban II preaching the First Crusade, noting that (Christian) religious thinkers had been moving towards the permissibility of violence and that the Crusades were in part a reaction to the defeat at Manzikert (Pp10-11). There is no entry for ‘jihad’ in the book’s index, however: Lyons’ concern for “wilful forgetting” seems a touch selective.

Lyons takes us through the grim passage of the First Crusade, including the slaughter of the scholar class in Jerusalem, along with the rest of its inhabitants, when the Crusaders took it. The violence and ignorant barbarism of the Christian crusaders is displayed for the reader: the brutal violence being characterised as the product of ignorant, Christian anti-Muslim propaganda (Pp22ff). In fact, the slaughter of resisting city populations was a sad feature of warfare for millennia: particularly when the besieging forces themselves were short of supplies and under imminent threat, as was the case in the siege of Jerusalem. The Muslims had done the same to the inhabitants of Syracuse when they conquered the city in 878, for example.

Lyons sets out the sad state of the preservation of the Classical intellectual in Dark Age Europe—the loss of original sources, the reliance on patchy compilations: particularly Bishop Isidore’s Etymologies (Pp34ff). Preferring easily accessed secondary sources is a human perennial, apparently.

Medieval civilisation is presented as clinging to a few patchy bits of Plato, a society deeply fearful of change (Pp48-9). In fact, medieval Europe was a society full of technological and institutional innovation. Every time that things settled down enough to start generating a sufficient economic surplus, there was a renaissance, a cultural resurgence—the Carolingian renaissance when Big Karl and his son Louis the Pius briefly established a stable political order; the renaissance of the C12th, when the knightly order was sufficiently established for trade to revive; the Renaissance itself, when the post-Black Death labour scarcity encouraged capital investment, generating increased literacy, culminating in printing. (Thanks to the invention of which, we live in the Renaissance-that-never-ended, since literacy and books became so widespread that the preservation of knowledge became dramatically cheaper and more robust: meanwhile, Islam showed little interest in printing technology—it took over three centuries for printing to move from the Christian north of the Mediterranean to the Islamic south.)

Lyons notes that Saracen raids in the C8th and C9th:
failed to generate the sort of aggressive anti-Muslim hysteria that began to take shape in the eleventh century (p.49).
Possibly because Dark Age Europe had more pressing issues, such as Norse, Avar and Magyar raids and invasions and establishing basic political order.

Lyons, drawing explicit parallels with the contemporary “war on terror”, sees the “anti-Muslim hysteria” of the Crusades as a tool of centralising Papal power (p.50). Diverting the martial energies of the emerging knightly warrior class to more Godly pursuits was a likely motive: an extension of the Peace of God efforts. With Norman advances in Sicily providing an example of what was possible in retaking lands for Christendom after centuries of retreat under Muslim advances, advances that had recently taken most of Anatolia and prompted a plea for help from the Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) Emperor.

Abbasid inquisitiveness
We then move to the Abbasid revolution against the Umayyads. Muslim armies “had successfully retraced the path of Alexander the Great”, with Iran, Western China and parts of India having been taken into the lands of the Caliphate. This left Arab Muslims as a ruling minority over diverse cultures, with a lot of new converts much more impressed with the hereditary claims of the Abbasids over those of the Umayyads (p.56). (That the Abbasids supported overturning Umayyad insistence on Arab superiority no doubt also helped their cause.)

The religious persecutions of the Eastern Romans against non-Orthodox Christians made Muslim rule more attractive in land seized from the Eastern Romans, encouraging use of diverse talents by the Abbasid Caliphate, though non-Muslims were subject to the jizya tax (p.56). (That Muslims were still a relatively small minority also meant that the costs of intolerance were high: as the Muslim percentage of the population increased over time, the costs of intolerance fell and Muslim rule became more oppressive—a similar pattern can be seen in Norman-Hohenstaufen Sicily, Reconquista Spain and, indeed, the Christian Roman Empire.)

Muslim rule united a huge area under the same legal system. Islam also became the “crossroads” civilisation of Eurasia, both transmitting and mixing ideas and techniques—notably the Chinese invention of paper, which had obvious benefits for scholarship and contrasted with Christendom’s reliance on far more expensive parchment (Pp57-8).

Caliph al-Mansur’s new capital of Baghdad became the focus of cross-cultural influences, from trade with India and China to self-conscious adoption of Iranian heritages. To the extent of propagating the claim that Greek science had come from Iranian sources after Alexander’s conquests—a myth that then persisted for several centuries (Pp60ff).

The Caliph’s interest in learning and scholarly endeavour from both conquered and foreign cultures led to the creation of the House of Wisdom, a translation centre and intellectual clearing house. Official delegations sought copies of Greek texts from the Eastern Romans, scholars searched for texts to bring back and copy. Supporting scholarship and intellectual endeavour became an enduring enthusiasm of the new elite:
Over the course of 150 years, the Arabs translated all available Greek books of science and philosophy. Arabic replaced Greek as the universal language of scientific enquiry (p.64).
In fact, Arabic-speakers translated, not necessarily Arabs: Lyons labels as ‘Arab’ and ‘Arabs’ when it was in fact Arabic speakers—of whatever background—who were intellectually active. Aristotle’s dialectics in his Topics helped, Lyons claims, religious law to become the basis of Muslim society. It also saw the beginning of the conflict between God’s omnipotence and the human desire to control the environment (Pp65-6). A conflict I prefer to characterise as between emphasizing God’s Will or God’s Rationality: how it looked from their, rather than our, perspective. As Adelard himelf put it:
I will detract nothing from God, for whatever is, is from Him … We must listen to the very limits of human knowledge, and only when this utterly breaks down should we refer things to God (p.124).
Indeed, a longer version of Adelard's statement, from p.131 of Ibn Warraq's Defending the West, shows the outlook even more clearly:
I do not detract from the power of God, for all that exists does so from him and by means of His power. However, this is not to say that nature itself is chaotic, irrational or made up of discrete elements. Therefore it is possible for men to achieve an understanding of this rational order inherent in nature, an understanding as complete as the extent that human knowledge [scientia] progresses. ... Consequently, since we do not turn pale before our present state of ignorance about nature, let us return then, to the method of reason.
But the Augustinian concept of the role of scripture—as the indirect creation of God, when the world is His direction creation—made this easier. Islam was to adopt a very different epistemic and metaphysical understanding of scripture—as the timeless, uncreated, direct Word of God.

The scientific endeavours of the period included astrology as an area of legitimate—indeed useful—enquiry. But it was, as Lyons point out, an avenue for wider intellectual and scientific activities: particularly astronomy and mathematics. Including interest in Hindu astronomy and mathematics: as this was published in Sanskrit verse, struggling with the material meant grappling with the fundamental ideas of the mathematics involved. This was the path whereby “Arabic” numerals and the concept of zero passed to Christendom. It also led to Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi—probably of Iranian/Zoroastrian origins—developing algebra and quadratic equations; work that reflected the mixing of Indian, Iranian and Greek influences (Pp67ff).

Just as Islam claimed to be the true path of Allah—restored by the Prophet after Jews and Christians had corrupted it—so now Caliph al-Mamum claimed that Islam was restoring the true glories of Greek learning that the Christianised Romans (“Byzantines”) had forsaken and corrupted (Pp 76-7).

Originating Islam
Lyons then takes a back-step to the origins of Islam, a very rosy view of its origins:
Al-Mamun’s great Abbasid Empire owed much of its enormous vitality to the spiritual and intellectual energies unleashed two hundred years earlier in a remote corner of the Arabian Peninsula (p.78).
That would be the beginning of Islam and of a thousand years of aggressing against every culture and civilisation it came up against. We are treated to a picture of Muhammad as social justice activist opposed by greedy plutocrats:
Muhammad’s message of social justice, the need for good works, and the oneness of God attracted some members of Mecca’s elite … And it resonated with members of the lesser Arab tribes and the urban poor in his native city of Mecca. But it also drew the anger of many among Mecca’s powerful merchant class, grown fat on their command of valuable trade routes and their monopoly over lucrative religious tourism to the city’s cube-shaped Kaaba shrine, then a center of traditional idol worship (p.78).
Lyons places Muhammad’s Meccan revelations in the “age-old Near Eastern tradition of spiritual warning” and goes through Muhammad’s attempts to woo the local Jews. Faced with the refusal of the local Jewish tribes to recognise him as a prophet, Muhammad shifted to a more hostile stance to Judaism (Pp79-80).

Lyons discusses the importance of the direction of prayers in fostering Islamic concern with direction and geographical enquiry, how early Islam encouraged intellectual enquiry more generally and did not fulfil modern notions of antimony between science and religion (Pp80ff). We are spared the Medinan revelations, the denouement of Muhammad’s interaction with the Jewish tribes (their defeat in war, the beheading of their men, selling their women and children into slavery), Muhammad on artistic freedom (beheading a poet who wrote verses against him) or the suppression of paganism. Islamic conquest of vast tracts of territory and people is a mere “spreading”:
The rapid spread of Islam across much of the known world that followed in the years following began to put the accurate determination of time, date and direction out of the reach of basic folk astronomy (p.83).
With happy implications for intellectual enquiry, as the vastness of the Arab empire gave science something to do in the service of faith (find the direction of Mecca for prayer). As did the injunctions to heal the sick did for medicine, the need for ritual cleaning for water delivery and controversy over graven images did for the development of the geometry of complex mosaic patterns. The Caliph’s wish to know about the vast empire he ruled encouraged interest in geography and the size and shape of the earth (Pp83ff).

There is then a shift of gears to discussing the glories of Roger II’s Norman kingdom—based, of course, on his wise adoption of Muslim patterns of religious toleration and patronage of Muslim learning. This leads into a discussion of Muslim contributions to Latin Christendom’s slow development of cartographical skills and geographical understanding and the importance of al-Idrisi's Book of Roger in providing Latin Christendom a window into Muslim knowledge and science. Based on contemporary sources, Lyons suggests that Vasco da Gama may have used a Muslim map and possibly a Muslim pilot (Pp91ff).

This review will be concluded in my next post.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Grasping the past: the American Civil War - people do not secede over trade policy

I find having a perspective from Downunder can sometimes be a useful one to have on American debates. For example, the experience of Australian monetary policy makes the fears of inflation that seem to grip large slabs of American opinion just bizarre. (As such fears, as Scott Sumner points out, manage to both replicate 1930s debates and completely ignore current market signals, they become even more bizarre: if you want to follow Scott's excellent monetary economics blog, start with his FAQs.)

A strain of opinion I find more bizarre still is the claim that the American Civil War was not over slavery, it was “really” more over trade policy—in particular, tariffs. Actually, no: people do not secede, and go to war with their fellow countrymen, over tariffs—they simply do not matter that much.

How can I tell? Because the tariff issue bitterly divided Australian politics in the late C19th and early C20th. The great divide in politics was between free traders (who wished to use income and wealth taxes to fund government) and protectionists (who wanted to use tariffs as a protective device and prime source of government revenue). Not only did the issue never even remotely threaten to lead to war within or among the Australian colonies; while the debate was raging, Australia managed to federate to form a single Commonwealth of Australia.

Country bitterly divided by trade policy unifies!

Yet some Americans insist on trying to claim that no, the Civil War was not about slavery, but far more about trade policy. About what level tariffs would be (if any).

Let me think: slaves represented about one-third of the total wealth of the South. Freeing the slaves would wipe out at a stroke one-third of the total wealth of the South and reduce the value of the labour and vote of free (mostly white) men. Tariffs would reduce the income of exporters. Which one of these is an issue worth fighting over?

The question answer itself. People at the time knew what the real issue was. It was slavery. This reprinted opinion piece from 1860 makes this quite clear. Tariffs are worth but a passing mention, slavery and Westward expansion are the entire focus of the piece.

For if you add in the issue of who would get access to the new lands being opened up Westwards, the wealthiest group in the US, or the hard-scrabble migrants, then there are lots of issues worth fighting about: none of which hinge on tariffs and trade policy but all of which get their power from the implications for the institution of slavery.

(It was also why a lot of Amerindians supported the South: the last Confederate general to stand down was Brigadier-General Stand Watie principal chief of the Cherokee nation.)

In the words of the writer of 1860:
Republicans come to Washington not just with an eye to stopping the expansion of slavery. Their program also includes lower tariffs, which will increase the power of Northern manufacturers; support for the railroads, which will lead to the settlement of the West and to the creation of who knows how many anti-slavery states between the Mississippi and the Pacific; and unrestrained immigration. Eighty percent of new arrivals settle in the North, swelling its power with their labor and their votes. The Constitution may prevent the Republicans from abolishing slavery now, but Southerners are concerned that the great unsettled Dakota prairies will be carved into a dozen states that will become full of Republican-loving Italians and Poles and Irishmen and escapees from the revolutions of 1848. See what happens then.
But it all came down to the threat all this posed to slavery.

As the 1860 article reminded its readers, there was a long history of Southern agitation threatening secession prior to the election of Lincoln in November 1860:
Southerners, of course, have called this tune before. They threatened to bolt in 1820, floated the divisive theory of nullification in the 1830s, and angrily convened in Nashville in 1850.
One seen at the time as being all about the issue of slavery:
Whatever the time and whatever the provocation, the story has always been the same: threats, indignation and outrage, followed in the end by placations from the North and reconciliations that left the South wealthier and the institution of slavery more entrenched.
We can see this concern in the rhetoric coming out of the South at the time, as quoted in the 1860 piece:
Here [is] a present, living, mischievous fact. The Government of the Union is in the hands of the avowed enemies of one entire section. It is to be directed in hostility to the property of that section.
Or even grander claims:
Let the consequences be what they may — whether the Potomac is crimsoned in human gore, and Pennsylvania Avenue is paved ten fathoms deep with mangled bodies, or whether the last vestige of human liberty is swept from the face of the American continent, the South will never submit to such humiliation and degradation as the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.
Dr Johnson used to wonder “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”. The observation of the servitude of others may make one’s own liberty sweeter, but thought of the power of the votes of former slaves if they were freed would surely be at least as much a concern.

One commenter in an online debate on the causes of the American Civil War put it pithily:
Regarding tariffs, etc., this could always be compromised over. Slavery couldn't. You were either for it or against it.
And the implication of the voting rights of freed slaves was a very real one. After all, Jim Crow was all about stopping people from voting, and justifying a sense of one’s own superior—and the excluded’s inferior—status that went with that.

The American Civil War was over slavery and its implications. People thought so at the time, all the serious scholarship since provides further confirmation of that. Trying to pretend it was more over trade policy is the worst kind of historical “revisionism”.

ADDENDA As commenter Fred notes below, Marx had some things to say at the time about pretending the issue was tariffs instead of slavery. Such a claim was evasion then and it is evasion now.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium

This is a post in response to a request: my first on this blog, I believe. (But what Skepticlawyer wants, Skepticlawyer gets.)

What did folk want to read about in the year 2000? Apparently, life in the year 1000—Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger’s The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, An Englishman’s World was a best seller.

It is easy to see why. Clearly and simply written, taking you through the months of the year based on the Julius Work Calendar, full of delightful vignettes of life a thousand years ago, The Year 1000 is popular history at it best.

For it is also good history: the acknowledgements at the end list almost two pages of academics who assisted the authors. This is up-to-date scholarly understanding rendered in very easily digestible form.

The first chapter starts with the details of creating a parchment manuscript: specifically the Julius Work Calendar, the oldest surviving document of its type, laying out the cycle of the year, both worldly and spiritual. North-Western Europe, but particularly England, is (along with Japan) the best historically documented region in the world. (Other places with longer histories of literacy have also had more profound institutional turmoil, with much destruction of records.)

Twelve chapters follow, one for each month. They discuss what was done at that time of year, but also connect things to events and the recording of events. So we get a discussion of the beginning of the hybrid English language and how differences between Norse and Anglo-Saxon led to simplification in plurals and loss of giving nouns genders (Pp33-4). Or that the King’s Council falling through the floor in 978 is the earliest written evidence of a building being more than one-storey high in England (p.36).

We find out that mead was the reveller’s drink of choice, being more alcoholic than wine—which was about 4% alcohol; light and fruity and mostly made to be consumed within the year—while ale was much safer than water (Pp62-3). The process of coin-making is described, Anglo-Saxon England producing far more silver coins than any other part of Europe at the time (p.70).

We then get the vivid comparison that the records pertaining to President Clinton’s sex life amount to 30 times the storage space of all the surviving Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. Sex scandals are a hardy perennial, however. When King Eadwig failed to turn up to his coronation feast he was found vigorously enjoying the charms of a young lady—her mother did not object, as she was cavorting in the same bed beside her. We just don’t do sex scandals like they used to (p.71).
England was an importer of silver (all those coins), a result of increasingly vigorous trading activity. In Pavia, English merchants had proved so violently obstreperous when searching of their bags was demanded, it was agreed they would forgo tolls and instead pay a levy every three years (Pp90ff). Those hooligan English!

The month when the gap between rich and poor loomed largest was July, the month just before harvest, when grain prices soared. Not only were people light-headed through hunger, ergot would bloom on the rye producing lysergic acid (LSD), a combination that produced mass hysteria and delirium (Pp101-2).

The first wave of Anglo-Saxon monasticism was wiped out in the first great surge of Norse (“Viking”) incursions. In the C10th, there was a rebirth of the monasteries, partly based on a solid alliance of Church and Crown. So much so, that in 973, King Edgar was anointed, a jealously guarded sacrament of the Roman Church (the Scots kings had to wait until 1331). This raised English kings to emperor status: the coronation of English monarchs ever since has been based on this 973 ceremony (p.108).

October was the preferred month for campaigning (the Battle of Hastings, the first time an Englisc army faced cavalry, was in October 1066). At that time of the year, the countryside was dotted with barns full of grain, hence it was the time for raiding and invading:
One serious autumn raid could mean ruin for generations to come.
It is hardly surprising that so many sports and pastimes related to war in the year 1000 (p.157).

Chess was the new craze, though the queen was not to become the superpower of the board until the C15th. There were no playing cards until the C14th. But games such as backgammon and tictactoe were played, while the Englisc loved riddles (p.158).

Anglo-Saxon was a fairly “non-sexist” language, the term ‘mann’ (plural ‘menn’) applying to both sexes—so the descendants of Adam and Eve were descended from ‘two menn’. Men and women had the same property rights—there are 30 surviving Anglo-Saxon wills, 10 from women and their wills read just the same as those of the men. Two powerful women—Aelfthryth, mother of King Ethelred and regent during his minority (after his half-brother King Edward’s mysterious murder: the prime suspect being the woman who became regent and her son king) and Emma, wife of Ethelred (and later Canute, who put aside his first wife to marry the English queen) and mother of both Harthacanute and Edward the Confessor—dominated English politics (Pp163ff).

That the House of Wessex did not use primogeniture—all royal princes were aethelings, “throne worthy”—but selected who seemed most capable gave the women who raised capable sons status and potential leverage. But it is hard to go past the history of Alfred’s daughter Aethelfraed, the “Lady of Mercia”, who built fortresses and (successfully) led armies as the epitome of feisty (and admired and respected) Englisc women . The Norman chronicler William of Malmesbury seems to find her achievements somewhat more surprising than the Anglo-Saxons did—after all, half the mixed sex religious establishments founded in the C7th were led by women. By the year 1000, however, there were no mixed sex establishments: the Church was “tightening up in matters sexual”. Until the mid C10th, married clergy were common, but church reformers began to enforce celibacy (Pp167ff).

The Church was expanding its control over life (“Nanny Church” in the authors’ nice phrase): particularly marriage, with adverse effects on the status of women. Anglo-Saxon marriage was a secular affair, with divorce an accepted institution:
though the record are scanty, thanks to filtering by the church in later years, it does seem that Anglo-Saxons separated and divorced when they had to, without any particular ethical complications. The only concern of the community was practical — the proper partitioning of property and the care of the children. One Anglo-Saxon law code makes clear that a woman could walk out of her marriage on her own initiative if she cared to, and that if she took the children and cared for them, then she was also entitled to half the property (p.171).
The law strove to protect the frailer sex in a rough, male-dominated warrior society. Men were waepnedmenn “weaponed-persons”, and women were wifmenn, “wife-persons”, with wif deriving from the word for weaving. Men protected and women provided clothes. But the increased Christian moralism was not good for women—Canute’s law code decreeing that a woman who committed adultery her legal husband got all her property and her nose and ears were to be removed: there was no similar penalty for a male adulterer. This law did not, however, persist with the law not treating female adultery so harshly until Cromwell’s time (Pp.172-3).

Anglo-Saxon law was fine (wergild) based, with men and women valued according to their social status. King Alfred’s code decreed that fondling the breast (uninvited) of a freewoman was a 5 shilling fine, throwing her down cost 10 shillings, rape 60 shillings (a huge sum). All these fines being paid, like all wergild, to her (p.172).

While marriages were negotiated between (male) heads of households, the morgengifu, “morning gift”, paid on satisfactory completion of the wedding night, was paid to the wife—which encouraged her to be virginal on her wedding night. Not that the law required virginity: if the husband did not care, the law saw no reason to get involved. But, if deception was involved, King Aelthelbert decreed the gift was to be repaid (apparently to stop husbands being saddled with the child of another man). King Alfred allowed men to fight another man found in bed with his wife, daughter or married sister or mother and, if he killed him, no retribution was liable. Wives were not held responsible for the criminal actions of their husbands, unless they were active accomplices (Pp.173-4).

It was also a time of trial by ordeal (asking God, the witness of all acts, to bear witness), which was not to be abolished until the Church withdrew its support for requiring miracles-on-order from God in the Lateran Council of 1215 (Canon 18 forbidding clergy to take part in such trials, which rather took the point out of them). The typical Anglo-Saxon ordeal being to hold a red-hot iron while walking 9 paces, having his hand bandaged for a weak. It was then inspected to see if it was healing: if not, he was guilty and the penalty enacted (for thievery, hanging). Gallows stood at every town and crossroads, with bodies dangling until the birds picked them clean; a grisly warning against law breaking (Pp.174-5).

As for worries about the year 1000 (or 1033) being the date of the Apocalypse, none of the wills composed in the 990s do other than assume that the world would continue as it had (p.186).

We get a nice excursion into the career of Gerbert of Aurillac, Pope Sylvester II—a widely read, quick-witted man of science and adviser to Emperors and Kings whose intellect and success inspired considerable envy, and dark claims of pacts with Satan. His re-introduction of the abacus was a major boon to Europe intellectual (and commercial) life. This in a world where Alcuin had claimed that 9,000 was as high as figuring could go—given Latin numerals were being used, so 9,000 was MMMMMMMMM, one could perhaps see the difficulty (Pp188ff).

The last chapter, "The English Spirit", contrasts amazing craftsmanship with a woman buried with the bones of the baby still trapped in her birth canal inside her. The authors note that England in the year 1000 would hardly seem much of a candidate for future greatness, there were plenty of more impressive societies around at the time. And yet:
all these locally dominant power structures were autocracies — and autocracy, in the long run, was not to prove the way ahead. It was inflexible and hidebound, fatally resistant to the spirit of innovation on which progress depends. The English may have looked foolish when they paid their Danegeld to the barbarous Vikings in the years around 1000, but at least they knew how to generate their money through enterprise rather than through crude conquest, and the taxes that were doubtless raised with great grumbling could only have been levied and paid over so repeatedly on some ultimate basis of popular consent.
Consent and social co-operation are among the most difficult elements to define in any society, but they were to prove crucial for the long-term future of the English way … The English described themselves as “subjects” in the year 1000, as they do today, but ten centuries of political development were to earn them rights and privileges that made them the envy of “citizens” elsewhere (Pp196-7).
Administrative weakness required consent to make up the gaps. This was to prove the basis of the medieval development of representative principle, from Alfonso IX of Leon and Castile asking merchants to elect delegates to discuss taxes and Simon de Montfort doing the same, and adding in elected knights of the shires, to justify standing up to the King’s ministers, followed by Edward I being clever enough to work out that taxes which are consented to are easier to collect and giving an avenue to listen to people’s concerns can avoid getting too badly out of touch, thereby avoiding his father’s problems.

But this was building on patterns that can already be discerned in Englisc society. This was a society full of latent possibilities—the first Arabic numerals turn up in a Western document in 976—one where rule of law and property rights were already considerably developed.

Lacey and Danziger make the society of the time more understandable without condescending. Their final words are warning against what C. S. Lewis called the “snobbery of chronology”, which our own time is rife with:
But whether we display more wisdom or common humanity is an open question, and as we look back to discover how people coped with the daily difficulties of existence a thousand years ago, we might also consider whether, in all our sophistication, we could meet the challenges of their world with the same fortitude, good humour and philosophy (p.201).

The Year 1000 is an excellent journey into a past made accessible through a happy melding of scholarship, clear and lively writing, and good sense.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Trusting liberals and competent conservatives

Conservative US columnist Charles Krauthammer has set out how, in the US, conservatives think that liberals are stupid and liberals think that conservatives are evil. (Throughout this post, I am using ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ in their, somewhat odd, American uses—American conservatives being folk who accept what, historically, was liberal politics and economics while American liberals are social democratic/progressivist: but this is the terminology of both American politics and American social science, hence the terminology I will use in this post.)

Amusingly, some recent research suggests an empirical basis for Krauthammer’s polemical dissection. Jacob Vigil, an evolutionary psychologist, working from Jacob Jost’s analysis that political ideologies:
like virtually all other belief systems, are adopted in part because they satisfy various psychological needs … [which] is not to say they are unprincipled, unwarranted, or unresponsive to reason or evidence
has come up with an analysis of liberal-versus-conservative political identity as coming from different personal interaction strategies.

The basic idea is that:
Conservatives, being more oriented toward dominance, tend to acquire a larger group of friends and associates than liberals. They are more sensitive to potential threats because there are more people in their orbit, and thus the danger of their being hurt by a duplicitous person is greater. Liberals, being more inward-oriented, have smaller, tighter social groups and thus feel less threatened, which in turn allows them to be more open to unfamiliar experiences.
Or, to put it even more pithily:
“The basic idea is that folks who have small social spheres are going to be demonstrating more trust cues, and those who have bigger social spheres, more capacity cues.” Liberals, in other words, are demonstrating trustworthiness as a way of attracting the social support they need, while conservatives are demonstrating power for the exact same reason.
So, consider Krauthammer’s take on American liberals:
Liberals tend to be nice, and they believe -- here is where they go stupid -- that most everybody else is nice too. Sure, you've got your multiple felon and your occasional war criminal, but they're undoubtedly depraved 'cause they're deprived. If only we could get social conditions right -- eliminate poverty, teach anger management, restore the ozone, arrest John Ashcroft -- everyone would be holding hands smiley-faced.
Liberals believe that human nature is fundamentally good. The fact that this is contradicted by, oh, 4,000 years of human history simply tells them how urgent is the need for their next seven-point program for the social reform of everything.
Liberals suffer incurably from naivete, the stupidity of the good heart. Who else but that oracle of American liberalism, The New York Times, could run the puzzled headline: "Crime Keeps On Falling, but Prisons Keep On Filling." But? How about this wild theory: If you lock up the criminals, crime declines.
Sure, Krauthammer’s poking fun. But the underlying idea sits rather nicely with Vigil’s analysis.
Then there is how Krauthammer summarises the archetypal American liberal take on conservatives:
They think conservatives are mean. How can conservatives believe in the things they do -- self-reliance, self-discipline, competition, military power -- without being soulless? How to understand conservative desire to abolish welfare, if it is not to punish the poor? The argument that it would increase self-reliance and thus ultimately reduce poverty is dismissed as meanness rationalized -- or as Rep. Major Owens, D-N.Y., put it more colorfully in a recent House debate on welfare reform, "a cold-blooded grab for another pound of flesh from the demonized welfare mothers."
Is this not someone who operates via an intentions-matter signalling-trust mechanism reacting in horror at people operating according to a consequences-matter signalling-capacity/competence mechanism?

Whether Vigil has got the connection between experience in childhood and adolescence and adult politics correct is a moot point. But his descriptions of the adult strategies of signalling competence or signalling trust do seem to be getting at something. So, in his words, people who are:
competency-oriented; they’ve discovered they have the ability to influence the lives of others. They advertise this capacity, which makes them desirable not only as potential mates, but also as potential friends or business associates. Thus they acquire a larger social sphere.
They would have an approach which is concerned with what works, and where finding out about folk’s character, and dealing with them accordingly, is important. That would tend to lead to a certain sort of politics.

Then there is the signaling-trust strategy:
To advertise their desirability as friends or associates, they take a different route, emphasizing their ability to care for, and about, others.
It is all about intentions and compassion: a different sort of politics flows from that.

The work of Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues on the psychological foundations of morality (which I recently posted on) has some congruence with this, in that it postulates a wider set of moral concerns for conservatives over liberals in ways that also seem to overlap with Vigil's analysis. I am sceptical of Vigil’s take on the childhood and adolescent origins of different people-management strategies. But he has broached a line of research that does seem to be on to something worth pursuing.

Elizabeth Moon and posterior-interior cerebration within the American left

I have, from time to time, enjoyed the SF novels of Elizabeth Moon, mainly the Familias Regnant stories. She is not one my favourite SF writers, but I have never done other than enjoyed reading one of her books. I am sure that, over the years, she has engaged many an adolescent (and not so adolescent) male in her tales of smart, badass women and the notion that female naval admirals is just where the future goes.

In other words, she has practised more reaching-the-public feminism than many a “who reads this constipated jargon anyway?” academic feminist, convinced of the superiority of their cognition—not least because most of the public would not even be able to understand the thoughts said academic feminist expresses in such a way as to ensure they don’t.

Elizabeth Moon recently (Sept. 11 2010) published a meditation on citizenship on her livejournal. The first ten or so paragraphs are moderately liberal-Democrat in tone on the need to contribute to society and criticising the American right as having a selfish conception of liberty, white flight from attempting to create racial balance in schools as undermining public schools as vehicles of social integration, while using crass statements by Ken Lay of Enron and Laura Bush as examples of blind self-involvement.

Then she moves on to the point that creating a nation of immigrants means that immigrants have some responsibility to fit in. Living in a country with a considerably higher proportion of foreign-born citizens than the US (25% of Australian residents are foreign-born compared to 14% of US residents), I take her point, one that is expressed moderately sensibly. Certainly, well within the realm of reasonable discourse:
The point here is that in order to accept large numbers of immigrants, and maintain any social cohesion, acceptance by the receiving population is not the only requirement: immigrants must be willing and able to change, to merge with the receiving population. The new place isn't the old place; the new customs aren't the old customs. "Acceptance" is a multi-directional communications grid. Groups that self-isolate, that determinedly distinguish themselves by location, by language, by dress, will not be accepted as readily as those that plunge into the mainstream. This is not just an American problem--this is human nature, the tribalism that underlies all societies and must be constantly curtailed if larger groups are to co-exist.
She then proceeds to make some fairly obvious points about proposing to build a new Islamic centre at or near the site of the 9/11 attacks:
When an Islamic group decided to build a memorial center at/near the site of the 9/11 attack, they should have been able to predict that this would upset a lot of people. Not only were the attackers Islamic--and not only did the Islamic world in general show indecent glee about the attack, but this was only the last of many attacks on citizens and installations of this country which Islamic groups proudly claimed credit for. That some Muslims died in the attacks is immaterial--does not wipe out the long, long chain of Islamic hostility.
She also makes her own position (politely) clear:
It is hard to believe that those making the application did not know that--did not anticipate it--and were not, in a way, probing to see if they could start a controversy. If they did not know, then they did not know enough about the culture into which they had moved. Though I am not angry about it, and have not spoken out in opposition, I do think it was a rude and tactless thing to propose (and, if carried out, to do.)
There is absolutely nothing morally or intellectually offensive in any of this. Her expressed opinion puts Elizabeth Moon well within mainstream US opinion on the issue, given polling finds that nearly 70% of Americans (and 71% of New Yorkers) oppose the proposal: indeed, it puts her on the liberal wing of that mainstream opinion.
What she is after is a bit of give-and-take and what disturbs her is that she is not seeing or experiencing enough of it from Muslims she reads about or meets:
I can easily imagine how Muslims would react to my excusing the Crusades on the basis of Islamic aggression from 600 to 1000 C.E....(for instance, excusing the building of a church on the site of a mosque in Cordoba after the Reconquista by reminding them of the mosque built on the site of an important early Christian church in Antioch.) So I don't give that lecture to the innocent Muslims I come in contact with. I would appreciate the same courtesy in return (and don't get it.)
But—and here’s the thing—she take Islam, and its doctrines, seriously:
The same with other points of Islam that I find appalling (especially as a free woman) and totally against those basic principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution...I feel that I personally (and many others) lean over backwards to put up with these things, to let Muslims believe stuff that unfits them for citizenship, on the grounds of their personal freedom. It would be helpful to have them understand what they're demanding of me and others--how much more they're asking than giving. It would be helpful for them to show more understanding of the responsibilities of citizenship in a non-Muslim country.
Wicked her!

Now, the historically illiterate will no doubt refer to C19th and early C20th suspicions about Catholics, or more recent suspicions about Vietnamese or whoever (even though Elizabeth Moon has already made that point).

Right, please nominate the Catholic (or Vietnamese, or whoever) equivalent of 9/11 (or the Bali bombings), or the jihadi networks more generally, in the historical experience of the United States or the Commonwealth of Australia; go.

What makes Islam and Muslim migration a much more difficult issue is the beliefs and actions of many Muslims: beliefs and actions that, alas, have a lot of history and doctrine behind them. In her US liberal-polite, wanting–to-be-reasonable way, Elizabeth Moon is grappling with these realities.

And it is a very liberal-Democrat form of politeness and reasonableness she presents. (The goals of libertarians don’t “only benefit themselves” for example: and there is plenty of perfectly genuine patriotism among Tea Partiers—neither group is, en bloc, failing to understand the requirements of citizenship.) But still, by admitting there are genuine, and specific, issues with Muslim integration, Elizabeth Moon broke a major progressivist taboo.

And was promptly punished for it by being “dis-invited” from being guest of honour at a feminist science fiction convention, along with getting a lot of online opprobrium.

Her post was, apparently, “an anti-Muslim rant”. No, actually, it wasn’t; as anyone who reads it—and whose cognition is not stuck somewhere within their own posterior—can tell for themselves.

But it gets better. A definition of feminism was promulgated for the convention—this being a feminist science fiction con after all. Read the definition. Particularly this para:
Feminism is many things to many people, but one way to describe it is as a belief in the social, political, and economic equality of all. Feminism is part of a larger constellation of movements seeking social, political and economic equality for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, creed, ability, status, or belief.
Notice anything about it? Reclusive Leftist certainly has. I will just let her go to town on it:
Notice anything? Like maybe the fact that this definition of feminism doesn’t even mention discrimination based on sex? We have “gender identity” and “sexual orientation,” which covers the GLBTQ crowd, but what about just plain old sex discrimination? Apparently, equality regardless of sex just isn’t on the menu.
Notice anything else? Like maybe the fact that this isn’t a definition of feminism at all? Feminism is a movement and political philosophy that addresses the systematic oppression of females because they are female. What WisCon is offering up instead is just a general definition of liberal social justice. Sexism isn’t even mentioned.
Oi vay!

I am sure the posterior-interior cerebration on display in the dis-inviting of Elizabeth Moon, and in describing her meditation on citizenship as an “anti-Muslim rant”, is warm and cosy. Reassuring even. It is just not, in any sense, useful. Not for understanding the world, nor changing it for the better. Elizabeth Moon’s feisty, competent heroines are much more useful for the latter.

If you want to understand why the left side of American politics just got an almighty electoral shellacking, the sort of sneering, intolerant, intellectually incompetent, not-talking-to-you (but will shout-at-you) self-delusion that Elizabeth Moon has experienced is part of the story.

ADDENDA A poll finds that US Muslims only support the proposed mosque slightly more (43%) than atheists/agnostics/no-religion (42%) and other non-Christians (41%), are the group least likely to support moving the proposed ground zero mosque to another location (14%) but the most likely group to support making it an interfaith centre (30%), making US Muslims marginally against the proposal (43% in favour, 44% interfaith centre or another location).