Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Change in Dynasties

One of the turning-points in world history is the emergence of the Carolingian Dynasty among the Franks in Gaul. This event would lead, in turn, to the establishment of Charlemagne's empire, which would be reinvented as the empire of Otto the Great, and finally as the Holy Roman Empire. All of these would play a crucial role in defending Europe, which would be under period attack for centuries.

Einhard, the biographer who recorded Charlemagne's life, gives us an account of the emergence of the Carolingian Dynasty. Orthography deserves attention in this matter, for two reasons: first, because these events took place in a bilingual environment; chronicles were discussed and recorded in both Frankish and Latin. Second, because the notion of fixed orthography had not yet emerged; spelling was understood to be fluid, and most words had more than one acceptable spelling.

Einhard himself is also recorded as Eginhard and Einhart. Charlemagne is also known Charles the Great and Carolus Magnus; during his life, he was known as Karl.

But the narrative begins much earlier. Long before Charlemagne was born, the Carolingian Dynasty earned respect in the person of Charles "the Hammer" Martel, who defended Gaul, and most of Europe, from an invasion force of thousands of Islamic soldiers. The Muslims had invaded and occupied Spain in 711 A.D., and had periodically conducted raids over the Pyrenees into Gaul. At this time, Gaul was beginning to become known as France, because the Germanic tribe known as the Franks had been stabilizing the area for over two centuries; the area had been a power vacuum in the decades after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D., and the Franks helped to restore civil order after a period of chaos.

Having secured their occupation of Spain, the Muslims wanted France. After a few year of raiding over the Pyrenees mountain range, they attempted a full-scale invasion. Historian Eleanor Shipley Duckett writes:

Ever since their arrival in Spain from Africa in 711, the Muslims had raided Frankish territory, threatening Gaul and on one occasion (725) reaching Burgundy and sacking Autun. In 732 Abd ar-Rahman, the governor of Cordoba, marched into Bordeaux and defeated Eudes. The Muslims then proceeded north across Aquitaine to the city of Poitiers. Eudes appealed to Charles for assistance, and Charles’s cavalry managed to turn back the Muslim onslaught at the Battle of Tours. The battle itself may have been only a series of small engagements, but after it there were no more great Muslim invasions of Frankish territory.

The forces of Charles "the Hammer" were outnumbered by the attacking Muslims, making his victory a tactical masterpiece, and making him an instant hero in Europe. After the victory, Charles Martel pointed out that the Merovingian Dynasty, in the person of Hilderich III, had done little or nothing to contribute to the defense of France, despite the fact that the Merovingians were the reigning monarchs of Gaul. Accusing the Merovingians of negligence, Charles Martel claimed the throne for himself and his family. The pope issued an opinion supporting Charles the Hammer. Einhard himself wrote:

The Merovingian Dynasty, from whom the Franks used to choose their kings, ruled according to the general opinion, up until the time of Hilderich. Hilderich was deposed by order of the Roman pope Stephan, shorn, and sent into a cloister. Although the dynasty, by all appearances, died out with him, it had already long since lost its significance and had henceforth only the empty royal title.

Clovis (Chlodowech or Chlodwig) was the first Frankish, and first Merovingian, king of Gaul, ruling until his death 511. Hilderich III was the last, having ruled from 742 to 751. Pope Zacharias, in office from 741 to 752, had already prior to his death in early 752 ordered the deposing of Hilderich. Pope Stephan, in office from 752 to 757, was chosen in March 752 as successor, and traveled in person to Gaul in order to anoint Pippin. Pippin the Short was the son of Charles Martel and the father of Charlemagne. As long as the Merovingians, having lost any real authority or power, remained on the throne as nomical rulers, the real activity of ruling fell to the major domo, the chief of staff, who happened to be Charles Martel. Einhard continues:

The major domo had real power and authority in the kingdom, the so-called chief of staff, who stood at the top of the government. Nothing was left to the king except to content himself with the title and to sit on the throne flowing hair on his head and an uncut beard and to play the ruler. He was allowed to hear ambassadors, who came from everywhere, and to dismiss them with words which seemed to be his own, but which one had in reality written for him and often had forced upon him.

So when Hilderich was deposed, he in reality had no power to lose anyway. His long hair and beard were symbols of royal power, but they had become empty symbols. When Carolingians ascended to the throne, they ruled in reality, having already long ruled behind the scenes.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Notes Toward a Philosophy of History

Thoughts about the Philosophy of History do not belong to the study of History, but rather to Meta-Historical thought, or perhaps even to Meta-Meta-History. Conducted with more rigor than will here be shown, they would belong to Philosophy. (The Philosophy of History should not be confused with the History of Philosophy!)

One possible point of departure for a Philosophy of History is human nature. Among the many traits belonging to humans are a set of needs and wants, a set of flaws and imperfections, and a set of strengths and virtues.

Human needs and wants include food, clothing, water, and shelter; humans also want someone to care for them and care about them; they have a desire to know and be known, a desire for a sense of meaning in their lives, and a desire for some form of happiness and joy.

Sadly but realistically, human nature is inherently flawed. Thomas Hobbes famously wrote that in the state of nature, meaning if humans lived out their innate qualities, their lives would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." As evidence, one might mention that nobody needs to be taught how to lie, how to be selfish, or how to be overly aggressive in a moment of anger. It comes quite naturally.

By contrast, there are also some constructive elements in human nature. Humans naturally love - nobody needs to be taught to feel affection for someone else. Humans are creative and inventive. Humans are sometimes even noble.

Human nature is, in short, a mixed picture. The result of this is, however, that human flaws prevent people from getting those things which they need or want.

To this end, society attempts, sometimes successfully, to develop correctives for the imperfections found in human nature. There are many such ventured remedies, but most of them may be grouped under three headings: art, philosophy, and religion. (G.W.F. Hegel wrote something vaguely related about those three.)

In art, society attempts to bring the individual into contact with beauty. (In this context, many writers will capitalize the word Beauty.) True beauty can inspire humans and can bring joy to them. If a society can successfully connect the individual with art, it might be a partial corrective to the intrinsic flaws in human nature. But a society's attempts can also fail in this regard, either by failing to bring the individual into contact, or by bringing him into contact with something which is not true beauty.

Philosophy attempts to bring the individual into contact with truth. (Again, many will capitalize the 'T' here.) Using the powers of human thought and reasoning, philosophy attempts to find realities which are in some sense foundational or deep. Because there are many different schools of philosophy, some of which would reject the use of the words 'foundational' or 'truth', it is a complex and murky enterprise. If successful, however, philosophy can give the individual some grasp of reality and his position in it. But philosophy can also fail, yielding nothing fruitful, and perhaps something harmful.

Religion attempts to bring the individual into contact with God, who cares for and about the individual, and who offers a sense of meaning and joy to the individual - all this despite the realities of living in a flawed world. Successful religion, which allows the individual to receive a sense of unconditional positive regard writ on a cosmically large scale, can indeed be a corrective to the innate corruptions found in human nature. But unsuccessful religion can bring harm rather than benefit, instilling in the individual a sense of needing to somehow accumulate enough merit to earn God's favor. Successful religion yields peace which instills qualities like helpfulness, cooperativeness, and contribution into the individual. Unsuccessful religion instills selfishness and aggressiveness, and yields war.

History, then, is the concrete playing out of the above. History is the specific unfolding of the better parts and the worse parts of human nature - the imago dei and the original sin - in particular times, places, and people. History would end, or rather would go on infinitely, in a cosmic stalemate between good and evil thus described, were it not for an intervention. History contains one more, one new, element.

Society's efforts - by means of art, philosophy, and religion - , however noble, remain limited because they are, finally, human products, and subject to the flaws and limits of their human creators. History reveals intervention by a force beyond, or above, humans. Art, philosophy, and religion attempt to bring humans into contact with something better. But as human products, art, philosophy, and religion are as flawed as the humans who created them. The intervention occurs when beauty, truth, and God bring themselves into contact with humans.

As the old proverb says, "If the hill will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet will go to the hill." Francis Bacon, who probably coined this phrase, was indicating that it is important to identify the agency in an action - who's actually doing something? The proverb is often quoted as "If the mountain won't come to Muhammad, then Muhammad will go to the mountain."

History records an intervention - ab alio - which finally tips the scale in the grand stalemate. In this intervention, agency is not with the humans. It is for this reason that History is temporally finite. The correctives, ultimately powered and empowered ab alio, change the course of History. When truth, beauty, and God are agents - and not objects of study - the course of History takes a decisive turn toward its eventual end. Which then gives meaning to the phrases "the end of History" and "after History" - phrases on which philosophers have long meditated.