Monday, May 21, 2018

The Thirty Years’ War: Propaganda Hides Motives

The Thirty Years’ War was a series of European conflicts lasting from 1618 to 1648, involving most of the countries of Western Europe, and fought mainly in Germany. The struggle’s direction and character were decisively influenced by various issues, including the dynastic rivalries of ambitious German princes and the determination of certain European powers, notably Sweden and France, to curb the power of the Holy Roman Empire, which was the chief political instrument of Austria and the ruling Habsburg family. Of the many rivalries at stake, perhaps the most notable was between the Hohenzollern in north-central Europe and the Habsburg in central Europe.

This war was one of the first to be accompanied by a significant propaganda effort. The royal houses on both sides of the conflict needed to generate passionate support in their subjects, and the political ambitions of leaders were not sufficient to motivate support for large-scale military action. Religion would be the center of the propaganda effort. Instead of the leadership’s desire for more land, power, and money (the real reasons), the people would be told that they were fighting a Reformation war: Protestant vs. Catholic. The success of this deception depended upon the ordinary person’s lack of information about the other countries involved in the war.

The religious differences that were used as an excuse for the Thirty Years’ War had existed for more than half a century before 1618. In large measure, this situation had resulted from the Peace of Augsburg, an agreement concluded in 1555 between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Lutheran princes of Germany. The generation of nobles who signed this agreement were serious Lutherans and Catholics, and – although they were convinced of the incorrectness of the other’s religious views – knew that their common heritage required that they acknowledge each other as serious, if erring, Christians, and were therefore willing to sign a peace treaty intended to yield a peaceful co-existence.

By 1618, a different generation of nobles was in power. Although nominally either Catholic or Lutheran, they had in fact no serious Christian faith, and were therefore willing to wage war for personal gain. But they were also willing to use religion as an excuse for war, and so they pointed to the religious differences, which had caused no conflict for 63 years, as suddenly somehow necessitating a war.

The war, which was one of the most destructive conflicts in European history, may be divided into four phases, usually styled and dated as follows: Palatine-Bohemian (1618-25), Danish (1625-29), Swedish (1630-35), and French (1635-48).

Tensions were seriously aggravated in Germany prior to the war. Seeking to extend imperial control into the internal affairs of the various German kingdoms, the emperor, who was Catholic, pointed to the fact that many of the kingdoms were Lutheran: Protestant churches in many parts of Germany were destroyed by imperial troops, restrictions were placed on the rights of Protestants to worship freely, and the emperor’s officials made the Treaty of Augsburg the basis for a general resurgence of Roman Catholic power. The emperor also tried to control the internal affairs of the Catholic German kingdoms, but in those cases, of course, he could not use religious differences as an excuse. The German kings were eager to protect their rights to govern their own territories, and to prevent the emperor’s meddling. The emperor, in turn, found allies who would help him try to gain control of the internal affairs of the German kingdoms. With the establishment (1608) of the Evangelical Union, a Protestant defensive alliance of princes and cities, and of the Catholic League (1609), the organization of those who would support the emperor, a violent solution to the crisis became inevitable. The Bohemian section of the Evangelical Union struck the first blow. Outraged by the aggressive policies of the imperial hierarchy in Bohemia, the Bohemians demanded that Ferdinand II, then king of Bohemia, intervene. The king, an ardent Roman Catholic and the Habsburg heir presumptive, ignored the appeal; the majority of Bohemia’s population was Lutheran, and religion made a convenient excuse: in reality, the emperor was concerned about his ability to exercise autonomous power. The peaceful co-existence of a Roman Catholic minority within Bohemia further weakened the emperor’s argument that his reaction to the Bohemians was founded on differences in faith. In 1618, citizens of Prague invaded the royal palace, seized two of the king’s ministers, and threw them out a window. This act, known as the Defenestration of Prague, was the beginning of a national uprising.

The Bohemian forces achieved numerous initial successes, and the rebellion swiftly spread to other parts of the Habsburg dominions. For a brief period in 1619 even Vienna, the Habsburg capital, was threatened by Evangelical Union armies. Later in 1619 the Bohemians bestowed the crown of the deposed Ferdinand on Frederick V, elector of the Palatinate. Several sections of the Evangelical Union, which consisted chiefly of Lutherans, thereupon withdrew from the struggle, because Frederick was a Calvinist. Taking advantage of Protestant dissensions - particularly a declaration of war against Bohemia by Lutheran Saxony, and a Spanish invasion of the Upper, or Bavarian, Palatinate - Ferdinand, who had become Holy Roman emperor in August 1619, quickly assumed the offensive. In 1620, a Catholic League army, commanded by the German soldier Tilly, routed the Bohemians at Weisserberg (White Mountain), near Prague. Bloody reprisals were inflicted on the Bohemians after this victory, and Protestantism was outlawed. Although the Evangelical Union disintegrated, Frederick and a few allies continued the struggle in the Palatinate. The Protestants defeated Tilly’s army in 1622 but thereafter met with successive disasters. By the end of 1624 the Palatinate, which was awarded to Maximilian I, duke of Bavaria, had been forcibly returned to the Roman Catholic fold. Frederick’s brother-in-law was a Hohenzollern, who remained neutral during the early years of the conflict; the result was that Brandenburg was ravished by mercenaries and looters from both sides.

The second phase of the war assumed international proportions when various German states sought foreign assistance against resurgent imperialism. England, France, and other western European powers were alarmed at the increasing might of the Habsburgs, but France and England, then allies against Spain, refrained from immediate intervention in the war because of domestic difficulties. The Roman Catholic and Lutheran populations were also becoming aware of the fact that this war was motivated by political ambition, and that their respective faiths – far from calling for war – required them to work for peace. The Christian writers of this era expressed their abhorrence of war and the materialism that causes it and thrives in it; they stressed the pacifistic aspect of Christian thought which makes the preservation of human life an imperative. The king of Denmark and Norway, Christian IV, however, came to the aid of the German states. Christian IV’s intervention was substantially motivated by national considerations, mainly territorial ambitions in northwestern Europe and a determination to end Habsburg control of the Danish duchy of Holstein, Germany.

Supported by German princes, Christian IV mobilized a large army in the spring of 1625 and invaded Saxony (Sachsen). The expedition encountered little effective resistance until a year later. In the meantime, the famous military leader Albrecht von Wallenstein had created a powerful army of mercenaries and entered the service of Ferdinand II, whose only other available force was that of the Catholic League under Tilly.

The use of mercenaries was another blow to the attempt to paint this war as religious: the mercenaries were notorious for their lack of any faith or morals. They often would switch sides in the conflict, seeking a better wage. Wallenstein’s mercenaries won their first victory in April 1626. In August 1626, Tilly completely defeated the main body of Christian IV’s army at Lutter am Barenberge, Germany. The combined imperial armies subsequently overran all of northern Germany, leaving numerous pillaged towns and villages in their wake. Wallenstein’s mercenaries were motivated only by the desire for wealth and adventure, and cared for neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant sensibilities. The destruction they brought upon the communities which they entered was massive, including rape, murder, torture, killing of livestock, and the burning of houses and grain fields. With Wallenstein in pursuit, Christian IV retreated in 1627. Total victory for the imperial cause was signaled when Ferdinand issued the Edict of Restitution. This document nullified Protestant titles to all Roman Catholic property expropriated since the Peace of Augsburg. This meant a massive increase of territory for the empire. In 1629, King Christian IV accepted the Treaty of Lübeck, which deprived him of numerous small holdings in Germany.

Ferdinand’s successes in the second phase of the war sharpened the anti-Habsburg orientation of the French Richelieu, chief minister of King Louis XIII. Because of recurring internal crises, Richelieu was unable to intervene directly in Germany, but he made overtures to Gustav II Adolph of Sweden. A Lutheran, Gustav had already received appeals from the hard-pressed North Germans. Because of this circumstance, as well as the promise of French support and Swedish ambitions for hegemony in the Baltic region, Gustav entered the conflict. In the summer of 1630 he landed a well-trained army on the coast of Pomerania. The rulers of Pomerania, Brandenburg, and Saxony - including the royal family of the Hohenzollern - vacillated on whether to participate in the Swedish venture, seriously delaying the start of the campaign. While Gustav marked time, Tilly, who had been given command of Wallenstein’s army, laid siege to Magdeburg, Germany, which was then in a state of insurrection against the empire. The imperial armies captured and sacked the city in 1631, and massacred the inhabitants. Much of the city was destroyed by fires that spread during the fighting and pillaging. The violence against the citizenry again violated both Roman Catholic and Protestant sensibilities; it was becoming clear that the savageness of this war was in no way motivated by any faith, but rather by the desire - on the part of the princes - for land and power, and the desire - on the part of the mercenaries - for money and adventure.

Tilly was repulsed by the Swedes on three occasions in the following summer. George-Wilhelm of Brandenburg, a Hohenzollern, was now supporting Gustav II Adolph with men and money, if not enthusiastically. In the last of these battles, fought at Breitenfeld, Germany (now Leipzig), Gustav was supported by the Saxon army. The Saxons broke ranks and fled at the first charge, exposing Gustav’s left flank and nearly costing him the battle; but he regrouped his forces and routed Tilly’s troops, about 6000 of whom were killed or captured. After the Battle of Breitenfeld the Swedish army moved into southern Germany for the winter. The spring campaign brought numerous victories, notably the defeat (1632) of Tilly, who was mortally wounded on the banks of the Lech River, and the capture of Munich, Germany. Faced with complete disaster, Ferdinand had meanwhile recalled Wallenstein to command the imperial war effort. Wallenstein, hurriedly recruiting a new army of mercenaries, invaded Saxony in the fall of 1632. The Swedish army followed and attacked the imperial force, then entrenched at Lützen, Germany. The ensuing battle cost Gustav his life, but at the end Wallenstein’s army was forced to withdraw. Bernhard, duke of Saxe-Weimar, who succeeded to Gustav’s command, overran Bavaria after this victory, but during 1633 Wallenstein struck repeated blows against the Swedish strongholds in Silesia. Toward the close of 1633 Wallenstein initiated a peace movement among leading circles of the imperial armies. Removed from his command by Ferdinand on suspicion of treason, Wallenstein then entered into peace negotiations with the Protestant leaders. His attempts to end the War aroused the enmity of his own officers, and in 1634, he was assassinated. The imperial armies inflicted a devastating defeat on Duke Bernhard at Nördlingen, Germany. Dismayed by this catastrophe, the leaders of the Protestant coalition swiftly abandoned the struggle. The Peace of Prague (1635), which formally ended the third phase of the war, provided for certain concessions to the Saxons, particularly basic modifications of the Edict of Restitution. Thus the German states regained some of the territory that the emperor had attempted to claim.

The Swedish phase of the war, thus concluded, confirmed that the conflict was not a religious one, because the Lutherans Swedes had happily made common cause with the Roman Catholic French.

In its final phase, the war became an imperialist conflict for hegemony in Western Europe between the Habsburgs and France, which was still under the leadership of Richelieu. Religious issues, which had never been the cause of the conflict, were not significant in the final phase, which opened in May 1635, with France declaring war against Spain, the chief Habsburg dominion aside from Austria. France, which was allied with Sweden and various German Protestant leaders, including Duke Bernhard, was able to quickly overcome serious difficulties that developed during the first stage of the fighting. Thus Roman Catholic France declared war on Roman Catholic Spain, and on the Roman Catholic Habsburg Empire, and allied itself with Lutheran Sweden and the Lutheran parts of Germany. It was now clear that this was not a religious war. The Swedish general defeated a combined force of Saxons and Austrians in 1636, materially damaging the Habsburg position in Germany. In 1636, Spanish invasions of French territory were repelled. The Habsburg position in Germany was further damaged by a defeat inflicted by Duke Bernhard in 1638. After these setbacks the imperial armies were forced to surrender their European strongholds one after another. Between 1642 and 1645 the Swedish scored numerous triumphs, overrunning Denmark, which had become allied with the empire, and ravaging large sections of western Germany and Austria. In the west, the French were also generally successful. Condé routed a Spanish army in France, in 1643. During the following November the French suffered a severe defeat in Germany, but thereafter the Habsburgs were not successful in the war, except in some minor battles.

The French armies badly mauled a Bavarian army in 1644. Representatives of the empire and the anti-Habsburg coalition began peace discussions at Münster and at Osnabrück in 1645, but the negotiations, primarily a concession to the war-weary peoples of western Europe, remained fruitless for a protracted period. After central Bavaria was invaded, however, Maximilian I of Bavaria concluded, in 1647, the Truce of Ulm, with Sweden and France.

Despite these and other reverses, Emperor Ferdinand III refused to capitulate. Desultory fighting continued in Germany, Luxembourg, the Low Countries, Italy, and Spain throughout the remainder of 1647. In the fall of 1647 Maximilian I re-entered the war on the side of the empire. Another army of Bavarians and Austrians was defeated in May 1648. This defeat, as well as the siege of Prague, the siege of Munich, and an important French victory at Lens, France, forced Ferdinand, also confronted with the threat of an assault on Vienna, to agree to the peace conditions of the victors.

The Peace of Westphalia, signed in 1648, fundamentally influenced the subsequent history of Europe. The Hohenzollern family gained dynastic importance. In addition to establishing Switzerland and the Dutch Republic as independent states, the treaty gravely weakened the empire and the Habsburgs, ensured the emergence of France as the chief power on the Continent, and disastrously slowed the political unification of Germany.

The economic, social, and cultural consequences of the war were vast, with Germany the principal victim. Modern estimates suggest that the total population of Germany fell by at least 25 percent; some regions suffered a loss of over 55 percent as a result of casualties and the displacement of their residents. Villages, as opposed to fortified towns, suffered the most. Except in port cities such as Hamburg and Bremen, economic activity went into decline all across Germany. Uncertainty, fear, disruption, and brutality marked everyday life and remained a memory in German consciousness for centuries.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Moral Equivalent of Religion: Passionate Secular Ideologies

Scholars of diverse perspectives agree that religion is often the motor of history. Great social and cultural movements are commonly fueled by, and based on, those worldviews enshrined in belief systems. This is true on all six inhabited continents and through the last six millennia of chronicled human activity.

But what, precisely, counts as ‘religion’ for this purpose?

When religion is cited as the engine of civilization, it is more than simply belief in a deity.

There are many instances of a belief in God which does not carry the societal impact of a formalized religion: consider on the one hand those rationalistic assertions of God’s central role in the universe, like the views of Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton, which see God as decisive in mathematics, physics, and philosophy; consider on the other hand those intimate friendships with God, types of quietism and mysticism, which locate God as pivotal in the life of the individual but without taking on the momentum of a major cultural movement.

Contra some common usages of the word, mere belief in the existence of God does not qualify as a ‘religion,’ and certainly not as the massive historical force responsible for major social changes under that name.

Conversely, as historian Yuval Noah Harari writes, some movements which explicitly embrace atheism have managed to function precisely in the ways which scholars see as ‘religious’ motives and forces in history:

The last 300 years are often depicted as an age of growing secularism, in which religions have increasingly lost their importance. If we are talking about theist religions, this is largely correct. But if we take into consideration natural-law religions, then modernity turns out to be an age of intense religious fervour, unparalleled missionary efforts, and the bloodiest wars of religion in history.

The hypothesis that religions have lost importance over the last three centuries is one worth investigating. It is, to be sure, a contested question: there is much evidence on both sides of the debate. Such historical trends are complex, and subcurrents often run in contradictory directions.

The waxing and waning of organized religion is noncontiguous: religion can be growing in one place while declining in another. These phenomena can be cyclical: the decline of institutional religion in one century is often followed by its resurgence in the next.

In any case, the ebb and flow of organized religion is distinct from the fortitude of personal belief in God.

If one accepts the hypothesis that religions have lost importance over the last three centuries, then it is understood that belief in God has not lost its impact. These two are independent variables: the importance of institutional religion on the one hand, and on the other hand, the impact of personal spiritual belief.

It is quite possible, and in fact is often the case, for an individual to have a strong attachment to organized religion while having little or no personal belief in, or relation to, God.

Those who were inclined toward religion for its cultural and social dimensions are likely to attach themselves to other movements which offer a similar impact on civilization, as Harari writes:

The modern age has witnessed the rise of a number of new natural-law religions, such as liberalism, Communism, capitalism, nationalism and Nazism. These creeds do not like to be called religions, and refer to themselves as ideologies. But this is just a semantic exercise. If a religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order, then Soviet Communism was no less a religion than Islam.

Passionate blind faith in socialism or in progress can be fervent as faith in any religious institution. What is common to both situations is a desire to explain and manipulate the flow of historical events.

What is also common to both phenomena is, first, the lack of surrender to, and acceptance of, the unchangeable aspects of the world as they are. Secondly lacking is the occasional abandonment of one’s individual will.

Thirdly lacking is the overarching primacy of the concept of relationship. Those who practice a truly spiritual relationship to the deity, in contrast to those who have a passionate attachment to a religious organization, understand a relationship with God to be foundational. Because their emphasis is on that which is relational, like gratitude and affection, there is less emphasis on attempts to control or explain.

Secular movements and religious institutions are not so different: first, because they both focus on attempts to manipulate and explain; second, because they both lack emphasis on the spiritual relationship between God and the individual human being.

The surprise in all of this is that organized religion can, and often does, have little to do with God. True spiritual engagement with God can also have little to do with religious institutions.

The historical impact of religion and the historical impact of God are two different, and sometimes even two opposite, things.

Thus it is that secular movements and organized religions can lead to all manner of evil in history: injustice, wars, persecutions. Thus it is that Yuval Noah Harari can place Soviet Communism and Islam into the same category, as phenomena of similar natures.

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!