Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Going Native

When the British oversaw an empire "on which the sun never sets" - meaning that, because it had large territories around the world, it was always daylight somewhere in the empire - they used the phrase "going native" to describe a certain phenomenon: when an Englishman, sent to work in one of the colonies, would be begin to adapt himself to the ways of the local cultures. An British man who began to dress according to local fashions, converse with the natives, eat their type food, perhaps marry a local woman, learn their languages, and - the ultimate step - begin to identify with them instead of with his fellow Englishmen and to see things from their point of view, they said that he had "gone native."

Now, to be sure, this was sometimes a negative evaluation, and sometimes merely a neutral observation.

The British Empire has faded away, but this concept can help us to understand a current situation.

The politics of the Middle East are very complicated, and it would be foolish to think that they could be completely explained in one small blog posting. How can one ever completely analyze the intricacies of Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Syria, Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, and Egypt, with their various languages, cultures, religions, and histories? No, I will not present a comprehensive examination of the entire political situation in the Near East.

But I will examine one small part of this big puzzle.

In 1948, when the modern state of Israel was organized, it was done for several different reasons: one of them a hope to transplant a handful of European Jews, and with them, the western concept of democracy, and of a democratic republic; the hope was that these concepts would take root in the Middle East, and spread the notion of this type of government and society. The dream was that the Near East would begin to look like Europe, and that the nations there would begin to operate on a basis which would allow them to make peace with each other, and with the rest of the world, and to enter into a more normalized relation with the states in the rest of the world. The modern state of Israel was supposed to be a "seed" of a modern democracy republic in the region.

That was one thought behind the founding of the nation. There were others, perhaps more important, or at least more dominate, which we will not discuss here.

How did matters fare? Well, there will be different interpretations of the last fifty years of world history, but one interpretation is to say that some of those European Jews, who were to plant democracy in the region, "went native" - that is to say, instead of changing the region, the region changed them. They may have adopted the ancient attitudes of the Near East, attitudes alien to democratic republics, even alien to the peculiar way in which western civilizations value human life, and value peace over war.

The Middle East, at war for centuries, is, or has become, comfortable with war as a way of life; this is a a worldview which is at odds with Eurocentric ideologies, a worldview in which human life is not necessarily extremely valuable.

Have some of the citizens of modern Israel adopted this viewpoint - have they "gone native"?

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Definitions are Everything!

What do Jesus and Karl Marx have in common? Well, to start with, they were both Jewish, and they both were Communists. That may startle you, but this shocking statement also depends on how you define "Jewish" and "Communist" - and reminds us that definitions are the key to understanding confusing episodes of both history and philosophy.

Jesus was spiritually, culturally, and genetically Jewish; Karl Marx merely happened to have Jewish grandparents; so they were both "Jewish", but in very different senses of the word. Jesus inspired his followers to put their money and material possessions into a common treasury, and share equally from it; this would qualify him as a "Communist" - but in a very different sense than Marx. Marx's version of Communism relied on the government as the ultimate power, on material objects as the ultimate reality, and on atheism as the ultimate belief. Jesus, to say the least, was not an atheist.

Many politicians are debating about "immigrants" now - but we must first define whether we are talking about legal or illegal immigrants.

Biologists are discussing "stem cells" these days - but are they examing those taken from adults, or from unborn babies?

It is precisely in these topics - the most emotional, passionate, and political themes - that we must focus most carefully on the definitions of words. Only then can we speak more rationally.

An atheist once attacked a philosopher with the often-repeated question, "can you really prove that God exists?" The philosopher, tired of the game, returned with a question, "can you even define the word 'God'?"

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Patterns in History

Over the years, different historians have found - or have claimed to find - recurring patterns in world history. Alexander Fraser Tyler, also known as Lord Woodhouselee, a Scottish history professor, writing in the 1780's, examined the rise and fall of Athens, and concluded: "A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship."

Tyler continued, noting that civilizations tend to develop until they hit their high points, and remain at that high point for an average of two centuries: "The average age of the world's greatest civilizations, from the beginning of history, has been about two hundred years. During those two hundred years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence:

1. From the bondage of supersition, myth, and pagan magic into the freedom of spiritual faith.

2. From spiritual faith into great courage, motivated by that faith.

3. From courage to liberty, bought and protected by that courage.

4. From liberty to abundance, attained by diligent application of that liberty.

5. From abundance to complacency.

6. From complacancy to apathy.

7. From apathy to dependence.

8. From dependence back into bondage."

Do you agree with Tyler's analysis? Can you think of specific, concrete examples in ancient or modern history to support his general conclusions?

Friday, July 14, 2006

Evaluating a Pope

For more than a thousand years, popes have been playing an influential role in world history. From the Reformation to the Fall of the Iron Curtain, the top officer of the Roman Catholic church is a player in culture and civilization. Some popes are very famous, others almost unknown. But how do you evaluate a pope?

Well, if you happen to be an actual, practicing Roman Catholic, as opposed to those millions who merely called themselves Roman Catholics, you'll have to figure this out on your own. Because as an "insider", you will evaluate a pope as an internal matter, from within the framework of the Roman Catholic church. I can't help you on this one.

I, the author of this blog, happen to be an outsider, i.e., I am not a Roman Catholic, and so have an external perspective on a pope. So, if you happen to be an outsider as well, how do we evaluate a pope?

The first step is to gather information. This is not easy, because almost everyone who writes about a pope has a "spin" which they are trying to inflict on the reading public. Anything written from within the Roman Catholic church will give us glowing reports about the pope, making him seem like Superman, talented and skilled in every manner, and seemingly without flaw. Most articles written from outside the Roman Catholic church are from organizations, like Time, Newsweek, or The New York Times, which have the clear purpose of opposing the pope, and so will make each of his actions seem like a blunder or mistake, and interpret every speech as proof of either ignorance or ill will.

How, then, can we accurate information about a pope, if the sources are explicitly skewed, either for him or against him?

The clearest picture of a pope can perhaps be gained by letting him speak for himself. Every recent pope has written a number of books, both before and after becoming pope. These texts will show us what was on his mind, and will show us if he changed his mind in any way after becoming pope. Admittedly, such documents may difficult to read, but getting to an actual, objective truth is usually hard work. Reading propaganda is easy.

So, ignore the books written by monks and nuns, designed to make a pope look good; and ignore The Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and the TV reports on ABC, NBC, CNN, and CBS, which are composed to make the pope look bad. Both are equally biased. Instead, see what he himself has written.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Jus Primae Noctis

From opera (Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro) to Hollywood (Braveheart), the notion of jus primae noctis has been a great dramatic device, because it inspire's the deepest sense of outrage at injustice in the viewer, and the dramatic energy is enough to propel the plot forward. It is part of the larger pattern of many great dramas to posit a horrific injustice, which energizes the forward action of the storyline as the protagonists attempt to restore justice.

For those who don't know, jus primae noctis is a legal term for the right of the local nobility (usually a count, or a duke, or a baron; originally a feudal lord in earlier times) to be the first man to sleep with any girl on the night of her wedding before she is allowed to sleep with her husband.

Despite the depth of the outrage which this phrase invokes, and despite the high profile which it has attained in literature and other art forms, one question remains: did this ever actually happen in real life?

According to most historians, the answer is no. Although history knows many examples of aristocrats who used their influence to seduce, or rape, girls in their territories, there seem to be no recorded examples of a royal who attempted to codify this as law, or who attempted to systematically carry out this idea. It seems to be a powerful, but ficticious, literary invention. Sociologists have noted that, if anybody had ever actually tried to institute this as a legal practice, he probably would have been quickly assassinated.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Home of Modern Science

What we call science, or, more properly, natural science, has been around at least since Aristotle started organizing categories of animals and thereby founded biology.

But science was re-started, and what we call modern science arose and found its home in Europe during the late Middle Ages and Early Modern Era. Astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and the mathematical infrastructure needed to form them constituted a new era in scientific thinking, an era which continues to this day. But why did this happen in Europe, and not somewhere else in the world?

European culture in the late Middle Ages had reached a point, after several centuries, at which it could clearly formulate six ideas which contributed to a scientific mindset:

[1] The physical world is real, not an illusion. Many non-European cultures had embraced a philosophy which taught that the physical world is an illusion. Eurpean philosophers taught that the world is real and can be known. This assumption primed Western thinkers to value the physical world and to consider it worthy of study.

[2] Nature is good but not divine. Many primitive cultures held animistic beliefs, which taught that the world is the home of the divine or an emanation of God's own essence. Consequently, they believe that nature is alive with sun gods, river goddesses, and astral deities. Eurpean philosophers taught that the sun and the moon are not gods; historians call this the "de-deification" of nature; nature is not to be worshipped, it is to be studied.

[3] Nature is orderly and predictable. Another unique contribution of European thought was the ideas of the laws of nature. Nobody had ever before used the word "law" in relation to nature. Many other cultures had regarded nature as mysterious, dangerous, and chaotic. Early scientists acted on the belief that nature is orderly, before they had amassed enough evidence to prove it. Modern physics is based on the ideas that the universe is rational because it is understandable, uniform because law like gravity operate in the same way on different planets, and organized according to the laws of mathematics.

[4] Humans can discover nature's order. Early scientists acted on the hypothesis that the order in nature can be discovered by the human mind. The ancient Chinese, by comparison, believed that the order of nature was inscrutable to the human mind; so they never developed science as a self-correcting, experimental enterprise.

[5] We need to experiment. The ancient Greeks had organized natural sciences, like Aristotle's biology, as a largely reflective effort. They thought about biology, but they did not investigate biology.

[6] The order in nature is mathematically precise. Modern science depends on the idea that the order in nature is precise and can be expressed in mathematical formulas; European thought did not see nature as random or haphazard, but rather structured and organized by equations.

These six ideas formed a culture which was the ideal place for a new set of scientific breakthroughs. This is how culture relates to science.

The Most Superlative

It is not unusual to hear or read statements like, "Alexander the Great was an excellent tactian and strategist" or "the Magna Carta was formative" or "the Thirty Years War was devastating." These types of propositions are routine in history, and are no problem, if you can support them by citing specific facts: "Alexander the Great was an excellent tactician and strategist because he managed to invade and conquer Greece, Persia, and Egypt" or "the Magna Carta was formative because it has shaped not only the government of England, but also the governments of several other nations (USA, Canada, Australia), and has exerted this influence continually over the last 800 years" or "the Thirty Years War was devastating because more people died in it than in any other war prior to 1914." General statements are fine, if they are supported by specific facts.

What are, however, much more problematic, are superlative generalizations. To say that "Alexander the Great was the most excellent tactician and strategist" is very hard to prove: what about Napoleon or Ulyses Grant? To write that "the Magna Carta was the most formative political document every written" is difficult to support: what about the Ten Commandments, or the Declaration of Independence?

So be very careful when using superlatives: "the most" or "the greatest" can get you into trouble. Much safer are "one of the greatest" or "one of the most"; but they still need to be supported by citing details.