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.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Rational Insight Demands Action: Plato’s Philosophers are Obliged to be Kings, Even If Against Their Wills

Human action, and the psychology which drives it, explain the course of society, culture, and civilization. An insight into the deliberate choices which people make carries with it the power to act on that knowledge.

That power, in turn, might carry with it the obligation to act: to move from the potential of acting to the reality of acting. As economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe writes:

Just as rationalism implies the desire for system and completeness, so it implies political activism. To rationalists, human beings are above all rational animals. Their actions, and the course of human history, are determined by ideas.

People self-consciously redesign their societies by means of reflection and action based on reflection.

The power of an idea is such that it creates both the desire and the moral obligation to put it into practice.

In the economic realm, this property of ideas guides the introduction of new products into the marketplace, and new technology into manufacturing. In the arts, this principle leads to new styles and genres.

In politics, it is motivates every sincere effort, and distinguishes the sincere efforts from cynical efforts toward merely obtaining power for power’s sake.

Ideas can be true or false, but only true ideas "work" and result in success and progress, while false ideas lead to failure and decline. As the discoverer of true ideas and eradicator of false ones, the scholar assumes a crucial role in human history. Human progress is the result of the discovery of truth and the proliferation of true ideas - enlightenment - and is thus entirely in the scholar’s hands. The truth is inherently practical, and in recognizing an idea as true (or false), a scholar cannot but want it to be implemented (or eradicated) immediately.

The thinker’s desire or obligation to instantiate a thought explains both every failed revolution and every successful one, because revolutions are above all ideological (a coup, by contrast, is a mere seizure of power and not a true revolution, even if its perpetrators use the word ‘revolution’).

The danger exists, however, in our hyper-Romanticist and postmodernist world, that feelings or emotions usurp the role of thought, even among scholars.

When videos, soundbites, and 144-character messages replace the art of the political essay, then passion has replaced reason and feelings have replaced thought. A fictional character in a Star Wars movie advises: “Feel, don’t think!”

The imperative for modern people who seek justice in any form, who seek what’s best in culture and society, who seek to improve government and civilization, is: “Think!”

One need not, and should not, lapse into the opposite extreme. We do not issue the imperative: “Don’t feel!”

It would be foolishness to attempt to prohibit or ignore emotion, exactly as it is foolishness to privilege passion over reason.

Knowledge and reason beget power, and power, as numerous proverbs tell us, brings with it responsibility.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Napoleon’s Army: Overextended

An analysis of Napoleon’s military activity yields the conclusion that his reach simply exceeded his grasp. To fight in Egypt, Spain, and Russia, and to contemplate an invasion of England beyond this, is ambitious to say the least.

With more modest goals, Napoleon might have succeeded and been able to retain both territory and his title as emperor. Archeologists find evidence which documents how his army faced insufficient supplies, as historian Samir Patel writes:

Between 1803 and 1805, Napoleon stationed armies along the French, Belgian, and Dutch coasts for an invasion of Britain that was abandoned after he decisively lost the Battle of Trafalgar. Recent analysis of charcoal excavated from one of these camps shows that official supplies of firewood were apparently not enough to keep the soldiers warm and fed, perhaps because sources were overtaxed by the war. Rather, the men supplemented by collecting their own locally.

Napoleon’s strategy of choice was to focus a conflict into a major battle, instead of a series of small battles. When this strategy worked well, it was a brilliant success. But it required huge armies, with massive amounts of equipment and supplies.

France’s national economy, even with whatever was commandeered or conscripted or impressed from conquered territories, was simply hard-pressed continuously to provide for Napoleon’s ever-expanding field of action.