Friday, December 07, 2012

Cruising the Mediterranean

Within a century of Islam's appearance - Muhammad died in 632 A.D. - it had accomplished one of the most amazing military expansions in history. Swinging scimitars and mounted on horseback, Muslims had slashed their way across northern Africa, Persia, Syria, and into Spain. Islam's second century began with an attempt to invade France, over the Pyrenees - and there, for the first time, it met significant resistance. Charles Martel, aptly nicknamed "the Hammer", and his army stopped flood of soldiers which had washed across many hundreds of miles.

The Muslims then turned their attention to other routes: if France, and central Europe with it, could not be invaded over the Pyrenees, then perhaps from the south - from the Mediterranean. Indeed, Islam had already sent platoons ashore to attack towns on the island of Sardinia in 705 A.D., and attack the towns on Corsica in 713 A.D., but these were harassment raids, not full-scale invasions.

Islam stationed its occupational troops in parts of Corsica around 809 A.D., and the fighting on Sardinia was so violent that entire town were abandoned - some temporarily, like Caralis and Porto Torres; others permanently, like Tharros.

Between 823 and 827, the island of Crete was seized by seaborne Islamic forces; it had previously been the target of raiding parties. Setting up permanent military facilities, the Muslims used Crete as a naval base. From it, raiding parties were launched to plunder nearby coastlines, and pirate ships were launched to maraud among the cargo boats of the Mediterranean. Crete remained under the subjugation of Islamic armies until 961, when Byzantine forces aided the Cretans in rebelling against the oppressive invaders and regaining their independence and freedom.

The island of Malta met an even harsher fate. Looted and plundered by Muslims in 870 A.D., the destruction was so great that many of those not slaughtered outright in the invasion soon left to settle elsewhere, and Malta was almost deserted. A handful of Maltese remained under the small Islamic occupational force; taxed and forced into servitude, they lived under the restrictions of the Code of Umar (also sometimes cited as the 'Pact of Umar' or the 'Covenant of Umar'). In 1048/1049, larger numbers of Muslims began occupying the island; Malta was absorbing some of the overflow from the large Islamic armies stationed in Sicily. In 1091, Norman forces came to the aid of Malta and Sicily, helping them to expel the Muslim occupational troops; some Arabic-speaking bureaucrats remained in Malta as late as 1127.

The effective seaborne campaigns of the 700's and 800's emboldened the Muslims to try for bigger prizes. Perhaps, they reasoned, Islam could occupy central Europe after all. The goal - establishing a single caliphate or Islamic military government over Europe, Africa, and Asia - remained foremost in their minds, despite the fact that the chief obstacle to the formation of such a dominating dictatorship was not the resistance of the Europeans, who could be occasionally convincing, like Charles Martel, but who were often ineffectual. The chief obstacle was factional fighting within Islam; rival military leaders conducted battles against each other just as they conducted them against non-Muslims.

But the idea of exterminating Christians in Europe lured them onward, and if invasions over the Pyrenees seemed futile, then Europe had other points for attack. Historian Will Durant wrote that

fortified by mastery of the Mediterranean, the Saracens now looked appreciatively on the cities of southern Italy. As piracy was quite within the

Islamic military pattern of operation at this time, and as the operations based in Crete demonstrate, Muslim pirate ships raided

Christian shores to capture infidels for sale as slaves, Saracen fleets, mostly from Tunisia or Sicily, began in the ninth century to attack Italian ports. In 841, the Moslems took Bari, the main Byzantine base in southeastern Italy. A year later,

in 842, the Italian heartland would face ruin and destruction worse than anything it had ever seen before - not in Roman civil wars, not in the Punic wars. The Muslims unleashed savage destruction upon the Italians;

they swept across Italy and back, despoiling fields and monasteries as they went. In 846 eleven hundred Moslems landed at Ostia, marched up to the walls of Rome, freely plundered the suburbs and the churches of St. Peter and St. Paul, and leisurely returned to their ships. Seeing that no civil authority could organize Italian defense, Pope Leo IV took charge, bound Amalfi, Naples, Gaeta, and Rome in alliance, and had a chain stretched across the Tiber to halt any enemy. In 849 the Saracens made another attempt.

They tried, Durant writes, “to seize” Rome. The Italians had faced mass starvation after the Muslims had burned the crops in the fields. The misery was both physical and intellectual: the libraries burned by Islamic armies contained Roman and Greek works which were now lost forever. Despite the suffering inflicted upon them, the Italians were now both resolved and organized. When the Saracen fleet attempted to attack,

the united Italian fleet, blessed by the Pope, gave them battle, and routed them - a scene pictured by Raphael in the Stanze of the Vatican. In 866 the Emperor Louis II came down from Germany, and drove the marauding Moslems of south Italy back upon Bari and Taranto. By 884 they were expelled from the peninsula.

Although the Italian mainland was now free of the permanent presence of the Islamic occupational army, coastal raids continued - cities were plundered and sacked - for more than another century in Italy, France, and Mediterranean islands.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Machiavelli - Four Possible Interpretations

Few authors have been as reviled as Machiavelli - although, to a few, he presents an ideal path to success, if not the only path. Who was Machiavelli, and what was he trying to accomplish when he wrote his most famous work, The Prince?

Born on May 3, 1469, he spent almost his entire life in Italy, and most of that time in Florence, his hometown for which he had great affection. He did make brief trips to France, Spain, and Germany as a diplomat. The family into which he was born was not wealthy.

During Machiavelli's lifetime, Italy was not united into a single nation-state. That wouldn't happen until the 1860's. Instead, there were many small, independent kingdoms and republics. They occasionally engaged in war with each other, and sometimes formed coalitions to fight against another similarly-grouped band of monarchies and republics. Machiavelli seems to have longed for the unified nation-state.

He held a variety of political appointments over the years, and languished in the intervals between such offices. He desire to be part of the political process was great, and being outside the process for any length of time was torture to him.

His career prospered when the Borgia family had control in Florence; although Cesare Borgia was known for ruthlessness, Machiavelli seems to have believed that Cesare's tactics were justified, given the dangers posed by Italy's political situation. When the Borgia family was removed from power in Florence in 1512, he lost his position in the city's government, and was later accused of plotting against the Medici family, who'd taken control in the city. Machiavelli did, in fact, oppose Medici rule.

Machiavelli was eventually tolerated by the Medici. He obtained a minor post, allowing him some small participation in the city's affairs. When the Medici were overthrown, Machiavelli hoped to have a role in the new republican government being formed in Florence. But the meager role the Medici had allowed him to hold in the government was enough to make him suspect; the new government denied him a post because of his association with the Medici. He died soon thereafter, on June 21, 1527

The seemingly harsh tone - or, conversely, realistic perspective - of The Prince has made the book controversial over the centuries. Machiavelli's name has become an adjective. The reader must decide whether Machiavelli is truly endorsing what he presents, or merely describing a pragmatic Realpolitik.

In the universe of interpretive possibilities regarding The Prince, four loom large: first, that the text is prescriptive, in the sense that it is instructing the ruler how he can achieve maximum effectivenss; second, that the book descriptive, in the sense that it is reporting how, in fact, effective princes have conducted themselves in office; third, that it is largely ironic, meant to show how repulsive political behavior can be; fourth, that it is designed as a sort advertisement or solicitation to gain the attention and favor of the Medici and win for Machiavelli a position in their government.

Clearly, there are many possible variants and mixtures of the four above-listed interpretations; and there may well be other interpretations at which we have not here hinted. But, in the main, these four cover the majority of tenable understandings of The Prince.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Islam Expands

When Muhammad died in 632 A.D., his young movement had solidified its power in the Arabian peninsula. Having marched with his army from Medina - former called Yathrib - he defeated the city of Mecca with his army of 10,000 men and made it the capital of his movement. He rapidly conquered most of the rest of Arabia and then died. But his organization would continue to grow. As historian Harold Lamb writes:

What this man of Khoraish had not accomplished in his life came to pass after his death. Desert men wearing motley helmets, mounted on little horses and thin camels, went out to conquer. The fire of fanaticism burned in them and spread from land to land with amazing speed.

Lamb refers to Muhammad's tribe, the Quraysh, by a variant spelling; the reader will remember that transliteration of names originally written in alphabets other than ours yields sometimes numerous alternate orthographies.

Under the Companions, who had been the comrades-disciples of the Prophet, the rush of conquest began. In less than a century the banners of Islam had been carried east as far as the Indus and the outposts of Cathay. The swords of Islam were flashing in the deep gorges of the Caucasus. Egypt had fallen to them, and all the north of Africa, and Andalus - modern Spain.
The scimitar was one of the weapons of choice for Islam: a curved sword. Lightweight versions were used by mounted soldiers; in combat, to slash at an enemy, and in surprise raids on civilians, when at a full gallup bands of soldiers could ride through a village and kill many in mere minutes, often decapitating them in a single swing. Heavier version of the scimitar were used by infantry - soldiers on foot. Ceremonial versions were used, and are still used, for public beheadings ordered by Muslim authorities. Peaceful cultures which had existed for over 500 years - the Copts in Egypt, the Syriac Church - disappeared in the swings of scimitars and streams of blood.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Fall of Constantinople

A single city with three names - on the shores of the Bosporus. The Bosporus is a straight which connects the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea. The Black Sea flows into the Bosporus, the Bosporus flows into the Sea of Marmara, and the Sea of Marmara flows into the Dardanelles. The Dardanelles is a straight which connects the Sea of Marmara to the Aegean Sea. The Aegean Sea opens onto the Mediterranean. The Bosporus, then, as a segment of the route between Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, has had economic, military, cultural, and political significance for over 3,000 years.

The Bosporus has been the scene of bloody fighting. The city which surrounds it has been attacked more often than most cities. This history is reflected in the city's names: Byzantium, Constantinople, and Istanbul. Each political or military wave wanted to leave its imprint on the city - some more successfully than others - and one way of doing that was to rename the city. Historian Dinesh D'Souza writes:

Constantinople used to be a Christian city, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. When Mehmet the Conqueror captured Constantinople in 1453, he rode his horse into the Hagia Sophia and proclaimed that the cathedral would henceforth become a mosque. Mehmet then gave his soldiers permission to loot the city for three days.

The cultural heritage of the city quickly evaporated. Priceless paintings, marble statues, and the accumulated civilization of over a thousand years was turned into rubble. The Muslim soldiers made their way through the city, raping women and girls, and destroying what they could not carry away. Drunkenness, rape, theft, and destruction: a painful memory of Islamic invaders, kept alive to this day by the building, the Hagia Sophia, once an impressive cathedral, still an impressive piece of architecture, but robbed of its paintings, deprived of its statues, and denied the music of genius composers which once resounded in its arches.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Feeling Threatened in the Middle Ages

If you lived in Europe, northern Africa, or western Asia after the year 650 A.D., you had good reason to be a little nervous. Rampaging armies were marching hundreds of miles on a mission of conquest. Historian Dinesh D'Souza writes:

Before the rise of Islam, the region we call the Middle East was predominately Christian. There were Zoroastrians in Persia, polytheists in Arabia, and Jews in Palestine, but most of the people in what we now call Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt were Christian. The sacred places in Christianity - where Christ was born, lived, and died - are in that region. Inspired by Islam's call to jihad, Muhammad's armies conquered Jerusalem and the entire Middle East, then pushed south into Africa, east into Asia, and north into Europe. They conquered parts of Italy and most of Spain,invaded the Balkans, and were preparing for a final incursion that would bring all of Europe under the rule of Islam. So serious was the Islamic threat that Edward Gibbon speculated that if the West had not fought back, "perhaps the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the Revelation of Mahomet."

Specifically, Syria and Persia were home to thriving Christian communities, who lived in peace with the Zoroastrians, and who produced a culture flourishing with its own art and literature. Ephrem the Syrian, for example, who died around 373 A.D., wrote a large collection of poems. The areas around Persia and Syria were the heartland of the Nestorian church - remember that 'Persia' is what is today called 'Iran'!

But the Christian communities which had peacefully existed for centuries - the Copts in Egypt, the churches in India, Afghanistan, and what is now Pakistan - were suddenly subjected to the murderous rage of invading armies. They were killed by the thousands; those who survived were oppressed and maintained faith only by means of the strictest secrecy. Throughout Africa, the native population was deprived of its own religious traditions as Islam was imposed upon it. In the early 700's, Spain was invaded by Muslim armies coming from northwest Africa.

In Spain, the Islamic invaders destroyed churches and synagogues, oppressing the Christians and Jews who'd lived together peaceably for centuries. The caliphs - Muslim rulers over subjugated nations - forbade the reconstruction of the destroyed churches and synagogues, or the building of new ones. The invaders called this "the golden era of tolerance in Spain," but the Jews and Christians there were mercilessly persecuted.

Having taken most of Spain - a small section of northwestern Spain remained free by means of valiant resistance - the Muslim attackers moved on France. Most famously by Charles Martel in the 730's A.D., but also by other leaders at other times, the French - the Gauls under the Frankish leadership of Merovingians and Carolingians - repelled the ambitious invaders.

From north-central Africa, other Islamic armies invaded, first Sicily, then the southern end of Italy in the 800's A.D. Southern Italy suffered under the harsh rule of the Muslims, who several times attempted to pillage their way north to central Europe.

Starting from Arabia, and moving in nearly every direction on the compass, Islamic armies struck terror into a large part of the world, killing tens of thousands, and destroying peaceful religious communities.

More than two hundred years after Islamic armies conquered the Middle East and forced their way into Europe, the Christians finally did strike back.

These counterattacks - remember that "the best defense is a good offense" - were an attempt to get at the source of the continued invasions. Rather than meet the invaders as they entered European countries, the Europeans hoped to get at the military base to prevent the Islamic invasions from starting in the first place. These measures, starting in the 1090's A.D., are listed as "the Crusades" in the history books, but that word was not used at the time by the Europeans or by the Muslims. Sadly, the Europeans were able to gain at most only a brief reprieve from Islamic attacks, for soon after the Crusades ended, Islamic armies were again on the march against other nations. Europe's counterattacks

were a belated, clumsy, and defensive reaction against a much longer, more relentless, and more successful Muslim assault against Christendom.

The Crusades were simply too small to be significant, compared to

the Islamic jihad to which the Crusades were a response.

Today, art historians mourn the absence of good examples of early wooden-roofed basilicas in Spain. Priceless architectural monuments were destroyed by the Islamic armies which ravaged Spain. The sacred art of the Christian communities which flourished in Syria, Arabia, Egypt, Persia and other Asian regions is largely lost to the scholars of the world's cultures.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Israelite King, British Museum, Assyrian Stele

The united Israelite monarchy had a short lifespan: after 400 years of existence as a tribal confederation, the nation of Israel restructured itself into a monarchy shortly before 1000 B.C.; by around 931 B.C., the country was split into a northern half and southern half in a civil war. The united monarchy lasted only around a century.

The northern half likewise has a short duration. It was occupied and otherwise absorbed into the Assyrian Empire around 732 B.C.; for the two centuries that the Northern Kingdom lasted, it was ruled by a series of monarchs, most of them corrupt, many assassinated at the end of their reigns.

Confusingly, the united monarchy was known as Israel, and after its split, the Northern Kingdom was also known as Israel. The Southern Kingdom was known as Judah. Historian Jonathan Kirsch tells us about archeological details of the Northern Kingom:

On a stele of polished basalt in a gallery of the British Museum, the image of a kneeling man can be discerned among the dozens of other figures inscribed into the cold black stone. He is believed to be Jehu, an obscure monarch who sat on the throne of the northern kingdom of Israel in the late ninth century B.C., and he is shown in a gesture of obeisance to the Assyrian emperor who subjugated him, Shalmaneser III. "Silver, gold, a golden bowl, golden goblets, a golden beaker, pitchers of gold, lead, sceptres for the king and balsam-wood I received from him," goes the inscription on the so-called Black-Obelisk, which offers the only contemporary image of an Israelite king ever recovered from the archaeological record.

A stele - or 'stela' - is an upright stone slab or column typically bearing a commemorative inscription or relief design. Sometimes a stele can serve as a gravestone. In this case, it did not.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Biography as Philosophy

When Einhard decided to write a biography about his personal friend and employer, Karl the Great, he did so in a reflective and self-conscious manner. The introduction he wrote to the book is more a document about the philosophy of history than about Karl.

A linguistic aside: you probably know Karl the Great as 'Charlemagne' and Einhard's name was originally spelled 'Eginhard' - corruptions resulting from history being rewritten in French, English, Latin, and various Germanic dialects. Karl's native tongue was Frankish, a southeastern Germanic dialect. Although the political leaders of the era all spoke Frankish, most royal records were written in Latin.

Einhard begins his biography - written sometime after Karl's death in the year 814 A.D., and before Einhard's death in 840 A.D.; scholars date the probable writing to somewhere between 817 and 836. Einhard, a theologian and philosopher, begins the introduction to his book with subtle ironic self-contradictions:

I have undertaken to report as briefly as possible about the private and public life, and above all also about the actions, of my master and benefactor, the felicitous and very famous King Karl. In this I took care to leave out nothing that I could discover, and not to scare away by means of lengthiness such readers who have something to criticize about everything modern - i.e, if it is possible at all to satisfy them with a new work, when they really dismiss even the masterpieces of the most learned and ingenious authors.

Einhard hints at paradox by packing together opposites: "private/public" and "briefly/leave out nothing" - the irony of the latter pair is compounded by his concern to avoid wordiness! Although irony and paradox are hallmarks of great authors from ancient times, Einhard understands himself to be modern, making ironic his appeals to classical authors like Cicero.

Indeed, I know exactly that there are learned men who consider current circumstances not so unimportant, that they believe that everything contemporary would earn contempt and should be omitted silently without any attention; they want rather, in their enthusiasm for things past, to describe somehow the famous deeds of others, and hope thereby to avoid that their own name be forgotten by posterity because of authorial inactivity.

In this confusing maze of double negatives and clauses, Einhard makes his plain meaning rather unclear. Perhaps he has done this to mock those who sense of self-importance is derived from their prose styles; perhaps he does this to hint at the ambiguity - another hallmark of great writers, ancient and modern - of the narrative which he is introducing. Yet his the narrative which he is allegedly introducing is barely mentioned in the selfsame introduction, yet another irony.

Nonetheless, all these causes hinder me in no way from beginning with my work, because I am certain that nobody aside from me can depict more exactly the events, which have, so to speak, befallen before my eyes, and to whose veracity I can attest.

Suddenly, Einhard's prose becomes rather clear. When attention is turned away from meta-level considerations of how one does history, or how one does the philosophy of history, and when attention is turned toward the activity of simply making a first-person report, Einhard's language becomes much more direct. Although engaged in a Lockean empirical project - reporting what he has seen - Einhard does so with Cartesian rational certainty. Yet, despite this sudden clarity, we have not yet gotten to the point: Karl's name has been mentioned only once, and then without any concrete content; Karl's name will not appear again for several more lines. Einhard is making it clear to the reader that he is first engaging in the philosophy of history, before to begins to deliver the material substance of history.

Thursday, May 31, 2012


Time has fascinated philosophers throughout the ages: geniuses like Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, and Immanuel Kant have written about it. But not only philosophers have studied time. From a more sociological and anthropological point of view, authors like Alvin Toffler have examined how cultures process time.

In his book The Third Wave, Toffler examines the difference between the "first wave" civilization of agriculture and the "second wave" industrial society. In the ninth chapter of his book, he contrasts their understandings of time.

He examines the mainstream of the agricultural worldview found in the “First Wave” pre-industrial societies, and contrasts it with the industrial worldview found in the “Second Wave” societies. Toffler posits that, despite the appearance of a diversity of ideologies – communist vs. capitalist, faith vs. religion, internationalists vs. isolationists – there is an underlying common conceptual framework which is shared by almost all “Second Wave” societies. He calls this a “super-ideology.”

One part of this set of omnipresent assumptions is a group of three core beliefs.

The first core belief is that “nature was an object waiting to be exploited.” Both capitalist industrializers and Marxist industrializers see mountains as places from which to mine iron and copper; they see oceans as sources of fish and salt. Rivers can be rerouted or dammed; swamps can be drained as locations for future houses or factories. Mechanization has made this possible on a large scale.

The second core belief was evolution. The political implications of Social Darwinism gave industrial societies a sense of superiority regarding agricultural societies. This rationalized both militaristic imperialism and economic imperialism, enabling industrial nations to view themselves as having a natural right to extract raw materials from regions belonging to less developed nations, and enabling them to see those nations as natural markets for exported manufactured products. The Marxists and capitalists “shared the view that industrialism was the most advanced form of society.”

A third core belief was progress, defined as “the idea that history flows irreversibly toward a better life for humanity.” Toffler sees this notion of progress as having “linked nature and evolution together.” Again, both communists and capitalists saw progress as inevitable and irresistible.

Having outlined the three core beliefs of “Second Wave” industrial society, Toffler continues, positing that these beliefs are themselves based upon a quartet of still deeper, more fundamental concepts. These are the concepts which people use to understand the world, and more specifically, these are the particular versions of those concepts which peculiar to “Second Wave” societies. These are time, space, matter, and causation.

All cultures have time, but the notion of time embrace by industrial civilizations differs from that of the “First Wave” societies. In agricultural settings, time had been measured primarily in large spans: seasons and years. Smaller cycles of time were noted, e.g., the daily milking of the cows. But there was no need to measure minutes or hours, and any reference to small units of time were imprecise. By contrast, the mechanization of processes demanded precise measurements of small amounts of time: minutes and seconds became important. In addition, there arose the need to synchronize events, so standardization of timekeeping meant that 9:30 in New York was also 9:30 in Miami. In addition to precisely measuring small units of time, and synchronizing them across ever larger distances, a third aspect of time is associated with the “Second Wave” industrial worldview: that time is linear. Many ancient societies in an agricultural, or pre-agricultural, phase conceived of time as circular. The notion of linear time allows for the possibility of significant progress.

The second concept which assumes a distinctive form during the industrial phase is space. Pre-agricultural societies – the “hunters and gathers” – understood themselves as roving through the universe’s vastness. Farming families and their neighbors, by contrast, were rooted to a specific piece of land, and in sociopolitical systems like feudalism, often spent their entire lives within a few miles of their birthplace. Industrialization returned greater degrees of mobility to people, but in a different form than the mobility of the hunters and gatherers. This new type of mobility was characterized by precision. While the ancient wanderers roamed the landscape in search of food, the industrial traveler left Chicago and knew not only that he was going to Omaha, but he knew exactly which building, and often even which room, was his goal. Railroads lent this great precision to man’s movement through space. A journey of a thousand miles was plotted accurately – one’s point of arrival could be calculated to within a couple of feet: a man knew not only that his train would arrive on track thirty-two of the Union Station, but he could even count on stepping out onto the front, the middle, or the back of the platform. In addition to precise journeys, the industrial concept of space is specialized. Architects and engineers design spaces for specific purposes. A large stone castle built during the reign of Charlemagne might have many rooms, but they were interchangeable in use. Designs of the industrial age feature rooms constructed for specific activities. Beyond the scope of a single building, towns and cities are also now organized in their use of space. A medieval town is a jumble of structures, placed in no particular pattern – houses, bakeries, carpenter’s shops, schools, churches – no clear residential zone and no clear business zone, and winding streets which grew organically without premeditated designs. Industrialization brought with itself urban planning, zoning laws, and cities whose streets from a Cartesian grid on a map. On a still larger scale, boundaries and borders between nations were now surveyed with great precision. On both the smaller level – individual rooms in buildings – and on the larger level – borders stretching hundreds of miles – the Cartesian plane’s right angles and straight lines made themselves felt. The medieval house often had walls which gently curved, and its rooms were randomly trapezoidal, quadrilateral, or merely closed figures. The modern homeowner, by contrast, expects all the angles in his house to be ninety degrees, and walls and floors to be straight lines.

The third concept used by the “Second Wave” worldview to process reality is the concept of matter. The industrial perception of nature reduced matter to interchangeable units to meet the needs of mechanization. All of matter was reduced to the known elements – approximately one hundred in number. Every atom of a particular element is chemically interchangeable with every other atom of the same element, e.g., we can substitute any carbon atom for any other carbon atom. This physical atomism quickly expanded to shape a general worldview and led to social, political, and economic atomism. Just as one atom can be substituted for another, one worker can be substituted for another, one dollar for another, one customer for another, one vote for another, and one voter for another. The interchangeability of automobile parts, computer parts, airplane parts, and steam engine parts led to the interchangeability of human beings. This detachable notion of the individual was different than the “First Wave” concept of society, in which the individual was an extension – an organic limb – of society: in the “First Wave” conception, neither society nor the individual could exist without each other, and severing the connection would destroy both. The “Second Wave” society is a complex whole, constructed of many individuals – but individuals who can be replaced and who are interchangeable. As the paradigm of atomism was transferred from chemistry to society, individuals could become more useful to the industrialization process, because they could be torn loose from their families, towns, and religions. If you needed one more accountant in your Toledo office, and had one too many accountants in your Milwaukee office, you simply relocated an accountant. Because the individual was seen as an atom, it didn’t matter whether the accountant’s cousin or grandmother lived in the Milwaukee area, or if the accountant had formed attachments to the local church or community.

The final concept needed for a “Second Wave” worldview is a notion of mechanistic causation. The laws of chemistry as formulated by Boyle, and the laws of physics as formulated by Newton, offered a paradigm which would be generalized to all of reality. Every phenomenon – every event seen or heard – could be explained in terms of, and reduced to, a series of causes and effects occurring with law-like regularity and predicability. This understanding of reality led to similarly-structured attempts – often successful – to control reality: to make things happen. While this mechanistic conceptualization of the world led to amazing achievements in science and technology, it also was dismissive of that which it could not quantify, dismissive of imagination and creativity, and attempted to reduce people to oversimplified units. It sought an engineering solution to every problem, and caused human suffering by ignoring those human needs which could not be expressed in mechanistic quantification.

The completed “Second Wave” worldview, then, has three core values – nature as something to be exploited, evolution, and progress – and understands reality through the lens of four concepts – time, space, matter, and mechanistic causation. This “super-ideology” provided a framework in which both capitalism and Marxism would produce their self-justifications. It created a society of organizations, cities, bureaucracies, and economies. According to Toffler, it is also a worldview that is now on its way out, is being disassembled, and will be replaced by a “Third Wave” worldview.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Plague Reveals Heroism

The suffering inflicted by The Black Death between 1346 and 1351 is difficult to imagine: from region to region, between 10% and 90% of the population died in less than a year. Some towns were utterly erased with 100% fatalities. Historian Barbara Tuchman writes:

The disease was bubonic plague, present in two forms: one that infected the bloodstream, causing the buboes and internal bleeding, and was spread by contact; and a second, more virulent pneumonic type that infected the lungs and was spread by respiratory infection. The presence of both at once caused the high mortality and speed of contagion. So lethal was the disease that cases were known of persons going to bed well and dying before they woke, of doctors catching the illness at a bedside and dying before the patient. So rapidly did it spread from one to another that to a French physician, Simon de Covino, it seemed as if one sick person "could infect the whole world." The malignity of the pestilence appeared more terrible because its victims knew no prevention and no remedy.

The societal response was amazing. Although some fled to the relative safety of the countryside, and others exploited the occasion for looting, most people saw their duty to provide comfort for the sick or dying. The notion of a 'hospital' in the modern sense hadn't yet developed, so makeshift infirmaries were set up wherever possible. The first line of caregivers were monks and nuns - Benedictines, Dominicans, Augustinians, and Franciscans. But it became clear that more would be needed, especially as caregivers were more likely to be infected, and more likely to die.

True heroism was seen among the ordinary laypeople - farmers and townspeople - who risked their lives, and in some cases almost ensured their deaths by enlisted to care for the ill. This desire to help revealed something profound in Western Civilization: an ethic of service toward one's fellow man. Centuries of culture and tradition had taught this principle, and when European culture faced one of its worst humanitarian disasters, this principle was securely in place among the people.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Science vs. Scientists

"Confidence in scientists has declined the most among the most educated" of America's politically active citizens, reports the Los Angeles Times, citing a report from The American Sociological Review, which noted that "discontent with science was not attributable to the uneducated but to rising distrust among educated" voters. It is important to sort out whether it is science or scientists being questioned.

Noting that this is a change from previous years and decades, Gordon Gauchat, the report's author, indicates that scientists have become increasingly politicized. Summarizing him, the L.A. Times wrote that, in the past,

the role science played was mostly behind the scenes, creating better military equipment and sending rockets into space. But with the emergence of the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, scientists began to play a crucial and visible role in developing regulations.

The voters began to see scientists not as doing science, but as doing politics - as authoring arguments to support various political views.

The study also found that Americans with moderate political views have long been the most distrustful of scientists, but that

such distrust was now spreading to other parts of the political spectrum. The study suggests that the public sees a disconnect between science and scientists. This perception is fueled by the fact that funding for various types of research has become increasingly politicized, by the fact that an increasing percentage of this funding is from the government, and by the fact that scientists are seen as mouthpieces for political views rather than agents conducting neutral inquiries into the nature of the universe.

Scientists have come into conflict with science in recent years in the climate debate about "global warming", in the debate about embryonic stem cell research, in debates comparing different sources of energy, and in debates about whether there are genetic causes for deviant social behaviors.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

An Emotional Time

The era called the 'Renaissance' was a time of emotion - a time when logical thinking was abandoned, and introspection on one's feelings were preferred. Musicologists call the compositions of the Middle Ages 'objective' because of their mathematical and structural aspects; the tunes of the Renaissance are called 'subjective' because orderly calculation was abandoned.

The writers who lived during the Renaissance praised their own generation, calling it a time when learning flourished. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Those who seriously investigated mathematics or physics during the Renaissance were lonely souls, ridiculed by their contemporaries. Historian John H. Plumb writes:

The frequency of assassination, the perennial plots, the constant vicissitudes, encouraged superstition and a romantic view of Fate. Men felt themselves to be the prey of strange destinies and turned to astrologers and magicians to strengthen their hope, to check despair, and to help them meet the uncertain future with confidence. The stars were studied as intensely as diplomatic dispatches, as a guide to action; and superstitious dread threaded the daily course of men's lives.

A narcissistic age, filled with ambitious grasping at reputation or power, is a more accurate description of the Renaissance. Those who wrote often wrote to emote or to impress, and rarely to attempt a crystallization of truth. Historian Lynn Thorndike writes that

Italian humanism produced relatively little of scientific or philosophical importance from its investigation of the classical past: Leonardo Bruni of Arezzo said that the subtleties of arithmetic and geometry were not worthy of a cultivated mind. In any case, most available works of Greek science had already been translated into Latin before 1300.

Who was this Leonardo Bruni? He was an author who wrote about political intrigues in the city and republic of Florence; he served for a time in the Vatican as a bureaucrat and later in the government of Florence; and he translated Greek literature into Latin. He was known for having a rather artistic style in his Latin prose. The point is this: He was not a mathematician, a philosopher, or a scientist in the sense of the modern observational or natural sciences. He was more interested in political machinations than in calculating the force of gravity; he was more interested in peddling influence than in applying the quadratic equation. A man of his time, born in 1370 - a Renaissance man - he was little interested in the powers of reason. Frederick Maurice Powicke writes that modern science was

made possible by the earlier, medieval belief in the reasonableness of the world.

The underlying notion that algebra can describe the natural laws of the universe - that objects act in accord with rules which can be expressed in equations - arises from the Scholastic philosophy of the Middle Ages. The medievals understood that chemistry and physics describe processes in terms of laws:

the belief in law was at the root of the new investigation into facts.

The birth of modern chemistry and physics during the Middle Ages, this "new investigation into facts," would have to wait out the Renaissance before it could resume the rationalism which it began. The scholasticism of the Middle Ages - Aquinas, Anselm, Abelard, Ockham - led to the rationalism of Descarte, Leibniz, and Spinoza - and to the modernism of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. The Renaissance constituted a pause in this development of human reason. As Thorndike writes,

The fact that Valla's treatise on novelties unknown to the ancients has not survived indicates that his age was more interested in classical antiquity than in recent inventions. Of the three inventions that used to be associated with the Renaissance, namely the mariner's compass, gunpowder, and printing with moveable types, only the last can still be ascribed to the period, since the other two are now known to date back at least to the 13th century.

Lorenzo Valla died in Italy in 1457, his best work unappreciated by his contemporaries - a man interested in technological innovations living during the Renaissance's studied ignorance of such applied science.

Although many older history textbooks still recite the fairy-tale of the Renaissance as an era of learning, scholars have seen that the main achievements of the Renaissance were taking credit for the accomplishments of the Middle Ages and publicizing itself as an era far more rational than it actually was.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ancient Laws in Modern Times

The case of a 16-year-old girl, Amina Filali, who killed herself after she was forced to marry her rapist has drawn attention Morocco's Islamic law code.

Article 475 of the Moroccan penal code allows for the "kidnapper" of a minor to marry his victim to escape prosecution, and it has been used to justify a Muslim practice of making a rapist marry his victim to preserve the honor of the woman's family.

The victim's father said in an interview with an online Moroccan newspaper that it was the court officials who suggested from the beginning the marriage option when they reported the rape. According to the CIA's World Factbook, the population of Morocco is 99% Muslim.

In Islamic societies, the loss of a woman's virginity outside of wedlock is a huge stain of honor on the family. In Muslim nations, there is a tradition whereby a rapist can escape prosecution if he marries his victim, thereby restoring her honor.

Even though Morocco updated its law code as recently as 2004, in cases of rape, the burden of proof is often on the victim and if she can't prove she was attacked, a woman risks being prosecuted for debauchery, a serious crime in Islamic law.

The Moroccan court pushed the marriage, even though the perpetrator initially refused. He only consented when faced with prosecution under Muslim law. The penalty for rape is between five and 10 years in prison, but rises to 10 to 20 in the case of a minor. Amina complained to her mother that her husband was beating her repeatedly during the five months of marriage but that her mother counseled patience.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Steinbeck vs. FDR

Novelist John Steinbeck is famous for capturing the mood of the Great Depression. The title of one of his most famous books, The Grapes of Wrath, expresses his anger at the situation, but also at the people who created the misery.

The wording of the title itself is an allusion to the fourteenth chapter of the biblical book of Revelation. At the end of chapter 25 in Steinbeck's story, the characters look on as food is destroyed - crop are burned, or dumped into rivers; millions of pigs are killed and buried.

This willful destruction of food that could have nourished people was a part of FDR's plan to help the economy. By destroying crops and livestock, Roosevelt hoped to increase the market price at which farmers could sell.

Whatever the New Deal intended, Steinbeck saw hungry people who were forced to watch as food was destroyed. Records indicate that six million pigs were killed and buried; crops were left to rot in fields rather than be harvested; other crops were burned.

Steinbeck saw a horrible injustice, carried out in the name of helping the poor, but actually inflicting a man-made food shortage on society's most vulnerable members. The wrath in The Grapes of Wrath is directed at FDR's progressivist New Deal plan of destroying food in order to help the hungry.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury's famous dystopia ranks with 1984 and Brave New World as a crystalizing moment in Western Civilization's literary protest against Stalinism, Maoist totalitarianism, Naziism, and other related mid-twentieth-century forms of repressive governmental structures. Bradbury recalls his youthful literary personality, and the internal revulsion to intellectual oppression. Writing in 1966, he recalled writing the book almost twenty years earlier, and his learning, a few years earlier still, about Nazi who burned books:
It followed then when Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history they are one and the same flesh. Mind or body, put to the oven, is a sinful practice.
Bradbury started writing Fahrenheit 451 in 1947; at that stage of development, it was a short story called "Bright Phoenix" and it would be reworked into a somewhat longer novella called "The Fireman" and finally into the novel we know today. As Bradbury was writing in 1947, Hitler was gone, but other socialist parties were still burning books, shocking him, and filling him with horror:
Of course. There was Hitler torching books in Germany in 1934; rumors of Stalin and his match people and tinderboxes.
So it was not Hitler alone, but Stalin explicitly, and perhaps Mao and others implicitly - although Mao would not fully emerge until 1949, after the basic setting of Fahrenheit 451 had taken shape. Bradbury correctly comprehended the nature of these regimes, and did so very early, long before the standard images and cliches about the Cold War would be ossified.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Pagans and Christians Agree?

It is difficult to imagine many areas of agreement between the Pagans of ancient Rome and the early Christians, especially because those pagans were busy killing Christians in large numbers. Contrasts were numerous: pagans were polytheists, Christians are monotheists; pagans saw little or no connection between ethics and religion, Christians saw morality as a way of showing gratitude for unearned blessings; pagans saw human life as expendable, Christians perceived that each human life is valuable and has an innate dignity. The early Christian leader Augustine wrote around 400 A.D., sharply critiquing the Stoic philosophy which the pagan aristocracy embraced. Yet, despite the fact that Roman pagans beat, tortured, and executed Christians by the tens of thousands, there was one area of agreement.

A philosophical principle which has captivated most, if not all, human civilizations is the concept of Natural Law. This idea is appealing because of its intuitive correspondence to our usual perception of the way things are, and because it is flexible enough to adapt to almost any worldview or value system. One of the earliest expressions of Natural Law theory was given, a few decades after 100 B.C., by Cicero.

Natural Law, in its simplest form, simply indicates that somethings are good, and others are evil. It is a way of moving past opinions, beliefs, and perceptions. Rather than ask, "what do you believe is good?" Natural Law asks, "what is good?" For example, we can get move beyond a statement like "most people believe that it is good for the rich to share their wealth with the poor," to a more real statement like "it is good for the rich to share their wealth with the poor." Natural Law explores the structure of the universe.

Formulated by the pagan Cicero, it also appealed to the early Christians. The famous New Testament author Paul, writing to a group of Christians in Rome, stated that when those people,

who have no knowledge of the Law, act in accordance with it by the light of nature, they show that they have a law in themselves, for they demonstrate the effect of a law operating in their own hearts. Their own consciences endorse the existence of such a law, for there is something which condemns or commends their actions.
Paul is here saying that even if one has not had formal instruction in law, i.e., reading it from a text, there is nonetheless an internal, a priori, awareness of law

Thursday, January 05, 2012

The First University

Schools have been around for a long time. Archeologists have found schools dating from 2000 B.C. in the city of Ur, Abraham's hometown.

But a university is something different and more than a school. The world's first university began around the year 1088 A.D., in the city of Bologna, Italy. How and why did it start? The answer will take us a few centuries earlier, into the institutions of Medieval education.

Prior to the appearance of universities, the Middle Ages had three main educational institutions. The first of these was the cathedral school. Even the smallest villages had churches, but only larger towns and cities had cathedrals, which were organizational centers for church activity. One major function of the church in society at that time was record-keeping. Every birth, marriage, and death was carefully recorded; these were of personal interest to families, but also important legal records: they helped to determine who inherited which property. To keep these records, the institutional church across Europe needed a cadre of able scribes, people who could read and write well. Literacy rates back then weren't as high as they would be in some later centuries, so build this group of record-keepers, cathedral schools arose as a way of teaching reading and writing. Over a few centuries, this gradually contributing to an increase in literacy.

The second educational institution which existed prior to the universities was the monastery. Around Europe, monasteries formed the literary and intellectual backbone of the continent. They preserved the literary, historical, and philosophical wisdom of ancient Greece and Rome. They sharpened the academic discipline of learning the grammar of various languages: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. A monk working in one of these monasteries would become familiar with a long list of major texts: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Cicero, Virgil, Homer, Marcus Aurelius, and many others. It is important to note that the one missing piece in the early Middle Ages was a portion of Aristotle's works. Monasteries at that time had most, but not all, of Aristotle's books. When Europe received the missing pieces of Aristotle in the High Middle Ages, it further energized intellectual life in the monasteries and later in the universities. The monasteries were also the source of commentaries: the monks had become experts in the texts of Greece and Rome - they had, after all, copied them by hand, and learned Greek and Latin grammar to a refined degree - and began to write commentaries and interpretations of them. They also began to pose sharp questions about philosophical issues. The monks learned to read, understand, and analyze various languages and grammars. This ability to do 'close reading' will be the intellectual spark which lights the fire of the universities.

Finally, law schools arose as the third major educational institution prior to the university. With the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476 A.D., there began an erosion of systematized legal thought. The first few centuries of the Early Middle Ages were dominated by local feudal lords, who often acted as judges in various matters, but without the benefit of a law code or standardized legal processes. As the Middle Ages progressed, Charlemagne formed a large empire, which in turn required a formalized legal system. Charlemagne was, of course, known as 'Karl der Grosse' or 'Karl the Great' in his own era; the name 'Charlemagne' was applied to him only by certain historians who wrote in Latin, not in Frankish, the Germanic dialect which he spoke. The rise of laws schools - part of the Carolingian Renaissance - began with the study of the laws of Rome's republic and empire. Since Karl was forming a similar empire of his own, he reasonably thought that he could model his laws of those of Rome; when Karl was crowned in 800 A.D., there hadn't been a major empire since Rome fell. The law schools fostered, first, the careful reading of Roman legal texts, second, the careful analysis, evaluation, and discussion of them, and third, the debate about which changes were necessary to update Roman law for an empire operating four centuries later.

These three educational institutions - the cathedral school, the monastery, and the law school - created a vibrant intellectual atmosphere in the Middle Ages, and set the stage for the birth of the university. In fact, the university could be interpreted as the merger of these three institutions.

Bologna, Italy, was the first city to create a university. The exact date is unclear, but we know that Bologna's university existed by 1088 A.D. at the latest. The name 'university' comes from the Latin phrase studium generale - general studies. (General studies included the study of everything, i.e., universal studies.) The structure of Bologna's university was loose, compared to modern standards. There was a 'school of the arts' into which most students first entered. The prerequisite was that one could prove mastery of the Latin language - 'mastery' construed as a reasonably large vocabulary and a basic knowledge of general. Once admitted, a student worked at the first level: the 'trivium' - studying grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Upon demonstrating mastery - the word 'mastery' is used often here, and led to the modern "Master's Degree" and complemented the use of the Latin magister for those who taught in the university - a student advanced to the second level, called 'quadrivium' and consisting of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Seeing music nestled among mathematics and observational physics (which is astronomy) gives us a clue about why Medieval music is often called "objective" in contrast to "subjective" form into which music decayed in the Renaissance era: for the Medievals, music was treated mathematically - the study of intervals and rhythms. Upon completed this second level, students could proceed, if they wished, into professional schools: law and medicine. There was no fixed timetable for progression through this system; a student attended lectures and studied until he felt ready to take an exam. If the student did well in the exam, he moved on to the next level; if he didn't, he stayed at the lower level a while longer and took the exam again.