Monday, April 16, 2018

Cultural Maturation: Shame, Fear, Guilt

In his published work, scholar Jayson Georges identifies three categories into which various cultures can fall: guilt, shame, and fear. He gives a brief explanation of them as follows:

[In a] Guilt [culture] people feel guilty internally and seek justice.
[In a] Shame [culture] people desire honor and avoid shame.
[In a] Fear [culture] people seek spiritual power over [the] unseen world.

While Georges does not assign any temporal or logical priority to these various categories, it may be that there is a chronological and developmental ordering of them.

A shame culture may correspond to an early phase of societal development, a non-religious phase. Honor or shame can be attributed without reference to any deity or divinity. These attributes are merely a subjective attitude of humans toward each other.

A fear culture may represent an advancement beyond the shame phase into a pre-religious phase. A fear culture operates on the bases of myth and magic - on the bases of attempting, respectively, to explain and to manipulate various aspects of nature. Such a culture falls short of a religious phase because there is not yet a direct relationship with the deity, but rather merely an attempt to manipulate or explain the deity. This may be called an external culture.

A guilt culture represents a stage in which civilization has explored rational knowledge, and determined its limits. Such a civilization, instead of composing myths as explanatory vehicles, is content to mark off what is knowable and what is unknowable. Likewise, it discriminates which aspects of the natural world are controllable and which are not. This may be called an internal culture, and now works to relate to the deity rather than to explain or manipulate the deity.

A further hypothesis might be made to the effect that a post-civilized phase, after some catastrophic cultural decline, would return to the non-religious shame phase.

It is perhaps in some way counterintuitive that the shame phase precedes the fear phase. One might assume that the fear phase would come first, imagining a technologically primitive society which was at the mercy of nature - storms, floods, earthquakes, etc.

It may well be, however, that technological development and societal development are not closely correlated.

A transition from a shame society to a fear society would represent a civilization’s maturation in the sense that it is escaping a purely subjective standpoint, in which it deals only with those concepts which have been projected by consciousness, and advancing to a standpoint which has some awareness of a reality which exists independently of consciousness.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Monks and Serfs: Building the Civilization of Middle Ages

When looking at the achievements of Medieval society, it’s tempting to focus on the people at the top: the scholars who laid the foundations for modern mathematics and physics; the artists and architects who created masterpieces which people today admire in museums and cathedrals; the royalty who formulated administrative patterns which freed citizens from the harsh absolutism of the Roman Empire.

But, as Bertolt Brecht would remind the reader in his Fragen eines Lesenden Arbeiters, the actual work of building a civilization is done by lots of ordinary people.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D., social structures would gradually emerge in which much of the creative and productive work was done by two classes of people: the serfs on the one hand; on the other hand, monks and nuns.

The monks did a wide range of tasks: brewing beer and making wine; teaching the Greek and Latin languages to preserve the texts of classical antiquity; managing great libraries which preserved the writings of Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Tacitus, and many other ancients; distributing food and clothes to the poor; providing counsel to those facing grief or hardship; managing agriculture; caring for gardens which grew medicinal herbs; and more.

The serfs did large-scale agricultural work as well as woodwork and other basic forms of manual labor. While the upper classes often faced marriages which were either arranged or at least made with an eye to the financial and political implications of the prospective union, serfs were often free to marry for love.

As historian Irma Simonton Black notes,

Outside the monasteries of the church, where monks worked for the glory of God, fields were plowed and harvests were gathered by peasants. A few of them were free men, but by far the greater number of workers were “serfs.” The word serf comes from the same Latin word as “serve” and “servant.” The serfs were not exactly slaves. A noble could not buy and sell them at will the way he could his cows, for instance.
Although the Middle Ages are sometimes depicted as the ‘Dark Ages,’ it is documented that the scholars in central and northern Europe, as well as on the British isles, were conversant not only with Latin but also with Greek.

Medieval scholars also had the texts of Virgil, Homer, and Aristotle. The thinkers of the Middle Ages did not have to wait for the Renaissance for some alleged ‘rediscovery’ of the treasures of antiquity. Those texts were present and accessible for the medieval monks.

The serfs enjoyed a life which represented an advance of the absolute rule claimed by the Roman emperors. While the Roman system asserted an total authority for the emperors, the feudal system articulated two-way obligations: to be sure, the serfs owed certain duties or payments to their feudal lords, but the lords also had commitments to the serfs, and the serfs were even able to make claims against a feudal lord who failed to carry out his responsibilities.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Jacques Ellul and the History of … ?

In the thought and writings of the French philosopher Jacques Ellul the ambiguity of civilization and its value is clearly manifest. What is our civilization, and how is it to be labeled and assessed?

Each of the three common names for civilization contains a bit of truth, and yet each of the three is somewhat misleading: to call it ‘Western Civilization’ makes use of a geographical designator that is both incorrect and irrelevant; to call it ‘European Culture’ is to ignore that its roots lie in the valleys of the Jordan, the Tigris, the Nile, and the Euphrates; to call it the ‘Judeo-Christian Tradition’ does not take into the account that since their inception, these peculiar values and worldviews have occasionally been embraced by Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, and others.

Whatever it may be called, French historian Jacques Ellul has at least three things to say about it.

First, it’s not perfect. Although Western Civilization came up with some great ideas - social and legal equality for all races and both genders, political liberty for all citizens, human rights for all people, the value and dignity of every human life - it didn’t always follow through on these ideas. There have been times in which the worst crimes against humanity and the worst atrocities have been committed by individuals were part of Western Civilization.

Second, Western Civilization has made important contributions to the world. Despite its crimes and flaws, it is the custodian of certain unique concepts: that the dignity of each human is recognized in acknowledging and honoring that human’s freedom and individuality. Despite instances of torture or racism, Western Civilization had the distinctive insight that these things were wrong: that they were evil. Despite instances of injustice, Western Civilization developed its characteristic system of values which worked toward equality between men and women. These are the identifying marks of Western Civilization.

Third, Ellul argues that modern, and even more so postmodern, academics have been too harsh on Western Civilization. Its faults and crimes are constantly recited, but its achievements rarely mentioned. Instead of balanced study and an attempt at objective appraisal, academia has presented an unrelenting attack on the West.

Jacques Ellul wrote between 1936 and 1992, and has been called a sociologist, philosopher, historian, anarchist, existentialist, and a communist, among other labels. Given the variety of words applied to him, it is safe to say that he does not fit easily into any of the usual intellectual categories. He cited Marx and Kierkegaard as two of the biggest influences on his thought.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Religion in Iceland: Unusual Development

Many nations share this developmental pattern, that the culturally predominant religion in them changes over time. In the Near East or Middle East, this took the form of Islamic conquests in the 700s.

In Europe, it took the form of ‘Christianizing’ missionaries, many of them Irish, who wandered alone or in small groups into the forests of eastern and northern Europe. As historians E.O.G. Turville-Petre and Edgar Charles Polomé write,

The Germanic peoples were converted to Christianity in different periods: many of the Goths in the 4th century, the English in the 6th and 7th centuries, the Saxons, under force of Frankish arms, in the late 8th century, and the Danes, under German pressure, in the course of the 10th century.

The history of Iceland is in many ways different than other parts of the world. It was essentially uninhabited until sometime in the eighth century. Around 750 A.D., give or take a few decades, the first permanent settlements on Iceland were founded.

These original residents of Iceland were Christians from Ireland. In later centuries, additional Irish arrived, as well as settlers from Scandinavia, some of whom were Christians, and some of whom were not. Turville-Petre and Polomé note that

Icelanders were, in many ways, the most international of northern Scandinavians. Among those who settled in Iceland in the late 9th century were men and women partly of Norse stock from Christian Ireland. Some of these were Christians; some were mixed in their beliefs, worshiping Christ and Thor at once.

Iceland is therefore distinctly different from other territories in that it did not require ‘Christianizing’ because its initial founders were Irish monks.

Despite the occasional bloody feud, the Icelanders of varying faiths enjoyed a mostly peaceful existence. Perhaps this was caused by, or perhaps this caused, Iceland’s famed early development of freely-elected representatives.

Long before other nations, around 930 A.D., the Icelanders formed their Althing, a sort of parliament or congress, and became a republic with freely-elected representatives.

With this metamorphosis toward democracy, faith in Norse mythology declined. Again, cause and effect are not easily discerned: did democracy cause a decline in paganism, or did a decline in paganism cause democracy?

In any case, Turville-Petre and Polomé report that

Lack of faith in the heathen gods seems to have grown during the 10th century.

When the Althing eventually embraced Christianity as the nation’s religion, it did so with the explicit proviso that those who wished to remain with Norse polytheism be allowed to do so, and should not be harassed for doing so.

But within a few decades, Norse mythology had ceased to be an operative belief system for all but a few Icelanders. Traces of the Norse characters and narratives remained in folk art, but not as objects of dynamic faith.

One consequence of Iceland’s unusual developmental path is that, in terms of gaining legal, social, political, and economic equality, Icelandic women were ahead of their peers in other nations.

Friday, August 18, 2017

It’s Not Pretty: The Earliest Phase of Civilization

While the word ‘civilized’ is often used to denote cultured or polite behavior, not all civilizations were civilized in this sense of the word. In fact, the earliest phases of human civilization tend to be rather ‘uncivilized.’

With startling uniformity, civilizations in Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas all began with some rather savage tendencies. With no regard to race, ethnicity, or language, the earliest stages of human cultures featured practices like “exposure” or “abandonment” - historians use these words to describe the practice of leaving unwanted babies in the wilderness.

Perhaps most shocking, every known human civilization on earth practiced, in its initial periods, human sacrifice. They were under the influence of a pre-religious or proto-religious mindset which focused on myth and magic - the attempt to explain and control natural - instead of on a relationship to the deity which forms the core of a more mature religion.

Humans were sacrificed to obtain good weather, good harvests, or military victories. The best and brightest were sacrificed: young, healthy, and good-looking.

The histories of the Old World and the New World are parallel in this regard, as historian Michael Salemink writes:

Abortion, abandonment, and outright infanticide ran as rampant in pre-Columbian America, tribal Africa, the Far East, and the South Pacific as it once had in imperial lands. Ritual human sacrifice and slave trading predominated nearly universally in these cultures as well. Women and children, along with ailing, impoverished, and aged people, faced prevalent neglect, if not absolute contempt. Hindus, Scandinavians, Chinese, Maori, and some Native American communities cremated widows alive in their husbands’ funeral pyres. Euthanasia and cannibalism commonly occurred.

While Hammurabi and Homer may have been geniuses, they and their societies still had not yet developed those hallmarks - a regard for every human life as valuable, and a regard for the liberty of the individual - which mark Western Civilization and Eurocentric culture.

It would take centuries of slow progress, often against resistance, from Abraham to Moses, from Jesus to Augustine, before these concepts - the dignity and value of every human life, and the prominence of personal freedom - established themselves as central cultural edifices.

Civilization took a long time to become civilized!

Friday, August 04, 2017

This Blog’s Author is Guilty of Plagiarism!

You’re reading a post which belongs to a long series of entries dating back to April 2005. Among the earliest installments in this blog are some which contain instances of undeniable plagiarism.

By way of a halfhearted defense, it should be noted that the Internet and the World Wide Web brought about large changes in communication styles. The Oxford English Dictionary chronicles the appearances of words like repost, which appeared as early as 1983 in ‘Usenet newsgroup,’ before the emergence of WWW and the modern Internet.

The OED also informs us that ‘netiquette’ first appeared in 1982. The original context for the word seems to have, in fact, been related to the practice of posting and sharing unsigned humorous texts.

So, from the earliest years, the Internet has been wrestling with the question of how to precisely apply the concept of plagiarism.

The ease of ‘cut and paste’ technology, and the ability to forward emails or parts of emails led to an onslaught of ways to share text: reblogging, retweeting, crossposting, and more.

All of this stretched, mutilated, and challenged the understanding of ‘plagiarism’ as it existed, say, up until 1980 or so.

Without ill intent, many users pasted into their emails paragraphs from something they’d read and wanted to share with others. The ambiguity arises because it is not always clear whether the user intended to claim the text as his own creation - obvious plagiarism - or whether he merely meant to draw attention to a text which he’d seen: “hey, look at this.”

The details of the technology involved kept, and keep, changing: electronic bulletin boards, email discussion lists, FB, Twitter, blogs, etc.

This constant change made it difficult for an appropriate definition of ‘plagiarism’ to develop.

Naturally, from the very beginning of electronic communication, the more thoughtful and astute posters have worked to ensure that they attributed any texts to their true authors. But millions, e.g., have used the acronym “LOL” without citing Wayne Pearson, who allegedly authored it in the mid 1980s.

So, by way of a lukewarm confession and perfunctory admission of guilt, there are, among the earliest posts in this blog, instances of unmistakable plagiarism. These transgressions arose out of ignorance not malice.

It is, however, to be noted that these sins are limited only to the first few years of this blog’s history, and that citation of sources has been scrupulously observed in recent years.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Finding the Historical Impact of Jesus: The Struggle of Christianity Against the Church

In the course of Western Civilization, there is an ongoing struggle between two opposing forces, each of which wants to claim for itself the titles of “church” and “Christianity.”

The central presence of the church and the Christian worldview in European cultural history makes it a central project for the historian to figure out what they really are, and not merely what they claim to be, or what others label them to be.

It should be simple: ‘Christianity’ is the name given to body of thought presented by Jesus; ‘church’ is the human organization whose task is to implement those thoughts.

Jesus followers attempt to put distinctively Christian values into practice: peace, justice, equality, education, liberty, freedom, etc.

So we see, e.g., Francis of Assisi visiting Egypt to broker a ceasefire, or the Peace of Westphalia negotiated largely by clergy: peacemaking missions. We see women’s suffrage and other measures toward women’s legal equality from the Magna Carta of 1215 to the Wyoming legislature of 1869: the mission of equality. As Andrew Wilson writes,

In many ways, the story of Christianity is full of light — mission, education, art, healthcare, abolition, compassion, justice — and I have read, taught, and loved that story for many years.

A simple happy story, right?

Sadly, no. The words ‘Christian’ and ‘church’ have often been used by those who opposed the ideas of Jesus. Some who hate the church and hate Christianity often call themselves by these very words, for the purpose of undermining the credibility of them.

One need think only of the so-called “Westboro Baptist Church,” an institution which constantly works to oppose the Christian faith. The Westboro Baptist Church is a group of non-Christians, or anti-Christians, who ensure that they are publicly perceived as a ‘church’ or as ‘Christians’ and then commit outrages so that the name and reputation of both are smeared.

There are many examples of this in history. Andrew Wilson tells us that

But there is an undeniable dark side: attacking, burning, crusading, drowning, enslaving, flogging, ghettoizing, hunting, imprisoning, Jew-hating, killing, lynching, and so on.

Through the centuries, repeated attempts to discredit Christianity follow the same pattern: first, an individual or a group creates the impression of being ‘Christian’ or of being a ‘church.’

Once that false impression is firm in the minds of the public, they perpetrate all manner of evil, so that this evil is then blamed on Christianity. The church is held responsible for the misdeeds of those who actually oppress the church.

How is a historian to untangle this mess in which two opposing parties both claim the same title?

If Christianity is the collected ideas which Jesus presented, and if the church is the institution which seeks to make those ideas into reality, then we must start with those ideas.

Jesus, depending on your interpretation, is either moderately pacifistic or radically pacifistic, but in both cases, Jesus is pacifistic. By extrapolation, to be ‘Christian’ or to be a ‘church’ is to be pacifistic.

While there is some gray area regarding precise definitions, it is still clear that unprovoked aggression - that starting a war - is beyond Christianity. Nonetheless, throughout history, there are numerous examples of those who would call themselves ‘Christians’ and yet instigate conflict.

Such actions, despite the ubiquity of the label ‘Christian,’ cannot possibly be Christian. In fact, they are the very opposite: they constitute an opposition to, and an oppression of, Christianity.

History, then, suffers from a confusion of terminology on a massive scale.

Perhaps the best solution is to jettison the words ‘church’ and ‘Christianity’ altogether, and instead simply identify individuals, groups, and movements which either correspond to the ideas of Jesus or which oppose those ideas.