Friday, December 19, 2014

Charles the Hammer: the Carolingians Save Gaul

The decade of the 750s marked a turning point in history. Between 751 and 754, the Merovingian dynasty came to an end.

Centuries earlier, the family had brought an end to the chaotic condition of Gaul, which arose when the Romans withdrew from the region, leaving a power vacuum in their wake. The Merovingians were Franks, meaning they came originally from Franconia, an area in what is now northern Bavaria.

After the collapse of the Roman domestic administration, and after realizing that the native inhabitants of Gaul were unable to institute a functioning government, a number of Frankish noble families migrated westward into to the area and created an internal structure for the region.

Gaul would eventually be renamed ‘France’ because the Franks had built the civilization there.

Childeric I officially became king of this territory around 457 A.D., and his son Clovis I succeeded him on the throne in 481. Thus began the Merovingian dynasty.

In addition to stabilizing a governmental structure, the Merovingians had a powerful cultural influence. By introducing the ideas of Jesus, they brought an end in the region to the practice of human sacrifice. They began minting the territory’s own coins, rather than relying on a mixture of coins from neighboring or defunct governments. They codified and organized the legal system.

Many of the ordinary inhabitants spoke a native Gaulish or Celtic dialect, or a version of Roman Latin. The nobility and educated classes spoke Frankish.

How, then, did this Merovingian dynasty, which began so auspiciously, collapse three centuries later?

As the throne was handed down from generation to generation, the Merovingian kings began to rely more and more on the major domo, the “mayor of the palace” or the highest official of the household, to coordinate the routine operations of the kingdom.

The major domo was the chief steward and managed the kingdom for the king. As generations passed, this individual did practically all the work of the kings; the Merovingian monarchs did less and less, until they became the idle rich and did nearly nothing. While they held the office of the king, another family, the Carolingians, occupied the role of major domo generation after generation.

Eventually, the Carolingians ruled the region and controlled the Frankish kingdom. They did everything except possess the title of king.

So those who were called kings did none of the real work of a king, while those who were not called kings did all the work of a king.

This situation came to its extreme in the case of Charles the Hammer.

In 711 A.D., Islamic armies invaded and occupied Spain. They destroyed, equally, Jewish synagogues and Christian churches. The Spanish women were raped, the children sold into slavery, and many of the men executed. The Spaniards who remained in the region under the rule of the occupying Muslim armies were subjected to strict and humiliating rules.

On the other side of the Pyrenees, the mountain range which separates Spain from France, the inhabitants of the Frankish kingdom heard reports of how the Islamic armies ruthlessly subjugated Spain. It was, then, with terror that the Franks learned that a massive army of Muslims was marching over the Pyrenees with the intent of invading and occupying France.

True to form, the Merovingian rulers were useless, and could organize no defense of Gaul. The major domo at that time was, however, a man known as Charles “the Hammer” Martel. The year was 732 A.D.

Charles Martel organized Frankish troops. With brilliant tactics, he was able to repel the Islamic invasion force, even though it outnumbered by the Franks by several thousand. Charles the Hammer became the hero not only of Gaul, but of all of central Europe and the British isles.

What had already been known was now more obvious: the Merovingians did nothing to merit retaining the title of king, and the Carolingians were, and had for some time been, the actual kings, even if they lacked that title.

Charles the Hammer had a son named Pepin the Short. After Charles died 741 A.D., Pepin began to agitate for the Carolingians to be recognized as the actual dynasty of the Franks. Historian Thomas Woods writes:

The Carolingians had profited from the decline of the Merovingians. They held what eventually became the hereditary position of mayor of the palace, similar to the role of prime minister. Far more skilled and sophisticated than the kings themselves, the Carolingian mayors of the palace performed more and more of the day-to-day governance of the kingdom of the Franks. By the mid-eighth century, the Carolingians, increasingly in possession of the power exercised by kings, sought to acquire the title of king. Pepin the Short, the mayor of the palace in 751, wrote to Pope Zachary I to inquire whether it was good that a man with no power was called king, while a man with power was deprived of that title. The pope, understanding full well what Pepin was driving at, replied that that was not a good situation, and that the names of things should correspond to reality. Thus did the pope, on the basis of his acknowledged spiritual authority, give his blessing to a change of dynasty in the kingdom of the Franks. The last Merovingian king quietly retired to a monastery.

An examination of the events surrounding the Merovingians and the Carolingians brings linguistic trends to light. The leaders spoke in Frankish, but rarely wrote in that language. The Gauls spoke in either Celtic or the decayed Latin which would become French, but also wrote little in that language. Much, even most, of the writing was done in Latin, which was also still sometimes spoken, but which was also beginning to give way to the vernacular.

The name Clovis, for example, is a Latinized rendering of the Frankish name Chlodowig or Chlodowech. This Frankish name, in turn, is rendered into French and English as Louis (or Lewis), and also became Ludwig in modern German.

Charles the Hammer was known in Latin as Carolus and in Frankish as Karl; his grandson, Charles the Great, is often known by his Latinized name, Charlemagne, and during his own lifetime was known as Karl der Große.

These names show us the historical development of nations: modern-day France still bears the name of the Germanic Franks who stepped in to preserve civilization in the wake of the Roman Empire’s collapse.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Eleventh Century - Good News, Bad News

Central European cities like Speyer, Aachen, Bamberg, and Goslar contain evidence of the Middle Ages. Significant pieces of architecture are silent witnesses to events of a thousand years ago.

Historians distinguish the early Middle Ages, beginning around 500 A.D and lasting until around 1000 A.D., to the high Middle Ages. But such distinctions are at best vague and ambiguous, and should not be taken too seriously.

The eleventh century (1000 A.D. to 1099 A.D.) was a significant time, because it began with the turn of the millennium. Just as “Y2K” attracted large-scale public attention as the year 1999 drew to a close, the year 1000 was celebrated.

The century began with Islamic attacks on various parts of Europe: Muslims soldiers had occupied Spain for over 200 years, and in 1011, to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Islamic invasion of Spain, they organize a pogrom in Cordoba, killing large numbers of Jews: peaceful and innocent men, women, and children.

Another pogrom was conducted in Grenada in 1066, and coastal raids by Muslim ships continued to attack various coastal towns in Italy and southern France. Islam threatened Europe’s security.

In response, military expeditions were directed to the source of this military aggression: the Muslim lands of the Middle East. Largely unsuccessful, these missions managed to achieve, at best, a mere pause in the Muslim attacks on Europe. These campaigns were called the ‘Crusades’ and are still staple in the both history classes and romantic fiction.

The First Crusade was planned in 1095 and began in 1096. 330,000 people set out for Jerusalem, but only 40,000 arrived there. They were not prepared for the military skill of the Islamic armies.

In central Europe, away from the Mediterranean coast which took the brunt of the attacks, life was more peaceful. Culture and civilization could flourish. Brilliant thinkers like Hildegard of Bingen could work on projects as diverse as musical compositions and the chemistry of medicinal herbs.

Cloisters and monasteries were home to intellectual development. Housing the philosophical texts of the past, from the Greco-Roman heritage of significant thinkers, they were the incubators of the intellectual future, laying the foundations of what would become modern mathematics, chemistry, and physics.

Life in the eleventh century was difficult. The average lifespan was 35 years. But the numbers mislead: the average life expectancy was much older. If a person survived childhood, she or he had a reasonable chance of living past the age of 50.

Schools were continuously improving. The educational momentum had started two centuries earlier with emperor Karl the Great - known as ‘Charlemagne’ - and had continued during the reigns of Heinrich I (ruled 919 A.D. to 936 A.D.) and Otto the Great (ruled 962 A.D. to 973 A.D.).

Literacy was on the rise, students learned Latin grammar, and literature became major occupation.

The word ‘Germany’ was not often used at that time to denote what we think of as the country of Germany. There were many small independent Germanic kingdoms, held together by the emperor in a defensive coalition called the ‘Holy Roman Empire’ (which wasn’t holy, and wasn’t Roman).

The empire also included a few kingdoms which weren’t Germanic. So the word ‘German’ referred more to culture and language than to a unified political nation. The empire was Germanic, the emperors were almost all Germans, but non-Germanic kingdoms were included.

People would have thought of themselves as Saxons or Hessians or Prussians or Franconians - all regions within the boundaries of modern Germany. They rarely thought of themselves as Germans.

Six Germans became pope between 996 A.D. and 1085 A.D., which is significant because the popes not only had religious importance, but also contributed to cultural and political trends.

The German emperors had influence not only in Germanic regions, but also inside France and Italy. The eleventh century was a high point in cultural development and civilization.

One man who might be a good symbol for this era is Heinrich III - in many history books known as ‘Henry III’ - who began his career as a highly educated Germanic king. Historian Hanns Leo Mikoletzky writes:

Henry was the son of the emperor Conrad II and Gisela of Swabia. He was more thoroughly trained for his office than almost any other crown prince before or after. With the emperor’s approval, Gisela had taken charge of his upbringing, and she saw to it that he was educated by a number of tutors and acquired an interest in literature.

An emperor who promoted the intellectual work of the universities, and a spiritual man who valued prayer and peace, his reign began in 1039 with every prospect of being a cultural high point in European history - and in some ways, it was. But by the time he died in 1056, the empire was weakened. His would be the last strong reign for many decades.

The eleventh century was a high point, but it also marked the beginning of a time when Europe languished without the help of Frankish or Saxon ruler.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Inventing the University

Prior to the appearance of the university as we now know it, there were centuries and even millennia of educational institutions. Formalized, institutionalized, and structured schools have been found by archeologists in, e.g., the city of Ur dating from around 2000 B.C.

But the university did not arise until around 1088 A.D. - three thousand years later. What was the difference between a university and the schools which had existed up to that point? Historian Thomas E. Woods explains:

In order to identify a particular medieval school as a university, we look for certain characteristic features. A university possessed a core of required texts, on which professors would lecture while adding their own insights. A university was also characterized by well-defined academic programs lasting a more or less fixed number of years, as well as by the granting of degrees. The granting of a degree, since it entitled the recipient to be called master, amounted to admitting new people to the teaching guild, just as a master craftsman was admitted to the guild of his own profession. Although the universities often struggled with outside authorities for self-government, they generally attained it, as well as legal recognition as corporations.

Thus it was that, while there were many schools which were centuries older than the universities, it was not until Bologna’s school emerged as the first clear university in 1088 A.D. that the conceptual difference became clear. It is probable that Bologna was functioning as a university some time prior to 1088, but the documentation is scant, and the very notion of the university hadn’t been precisely articulated yet.

There are many schools which predate Bologna’s university, some of which contend that they should be recognized ahead of Bologna. But the school of al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco, although it expanded beyond being a mere madrasa, was not a university until long after Bologna’s emergence. Located in the city of Fes, this school is also transliterated as ‘al-Karaouine’ or ‘al-Karueein’ and it was not until centuries after Bologna’s founding that al-Qarawiyyin added certain essential curricula such as mathematics or languages. Although some writers want to claim Morocco as the home of the world’s first university, such assertions lack any evidence, given the definition of university.

One fundamental aspect of the university was that it took the trivium and the quadrivium as foundational and essential, but not as limiting. The trivium consisted of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The quadrivium included arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.

Not to be left out of the competition, the Byzantine Empire asserts that its Magnaura University is a couple of centuries older than Bologna. In fact, however, the narrative of the Magnaura has been conflated with the University of Constantinople. While both institutions were admirable centers of learning, the Magnaura, founded around 855 A.D., was a palace school, and lacked the breadth and structure to be a university. The “University of Constantinople” was founded in 425 A.D. as a school, not a university, and lacked the structure and degree-granting privileges of a university until much later in its history.

The al-Azhar University, in Egypt, certainly predates Bologna, but as a strictly Sunni institution, its intellectual explorations were limited, and only centuries after its founding around 972 A.D. did it add the full range of faculties found in a university.

Another defining characteristic of a university is debate. Exemplified by in Paris in the 1200s and in Erfurt in the 1400s, the original form of this academic exercise require a student to prepare and present argumentation to support a thesis chosen by the professors, and then required the student to organize and deliver argumentation against the same thesis - a good student was expected to deliver plausible and persuasive arguments for and against any randomly chosen proposition.

By contrast, schools like Iran’s Nizamiyya, founded around 1065 A.D., while offering a range of subjects, lacked intellectual independence of a true university.

The seven subjects of the trivium and quadrivium were called ‘the liberal arts’ long before the university appeared in 1088. They were so called because they were the skills a citizen would need to be part of public life. During the era of the Roman Republic, ending around 27 B.C., citizens had opportunities to vote and speak publicly on political matters. The “liberal arts” ensured that their their balloting and opinions were informed and well articulated.

From this ancient Roman heritage, the university inherited some amount of civic awareness, and a mission to inform those who would take part in the public life.

Thomas Woods explains how, while the university received parts of its form and parts of its content from Greco-Roman Classicism, it represented simultaneously something new:

The university was an utterly new phenomenon in European history. Nothing like had existed in ancient Greece or Rome. The institution the we recognize today, with its faculties, courses of study, examinations, and degrees, as well as the distinction between undergraduate and graduate study, comes to us directly from the medieval world. The Church developed the university system because, according to historian Lowrie Daly, it was “the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge.”

The universities existed on the border of independence and dependence. While self-governing, and recognized as legal corporations, they sometimes needed external support, which came either from local nobility or from the church. With such support came, occasionally, the intimation that the university should honor its patrons by respecting them in lectures: a nod to the local duke or earl or baron, or a kind word about the church.

Yet the universities largely retained their intellectual independence. Bologna, during its first centuries, was explicit that it was run by laymen, not ordained church officials. This left the universities free to examine sacred texts as they saw fit.

Such intellectual exploration was the impetus for the invention of the university. After all, palace schools and cathedral schools and monasteries were educating enough people in the basics of mathematics and writing. But the desire for academic investigation of text drove people to design the university. The addition of professional schools - e.g., law and medicine - would come later.

Thomas Woods describes the gradual emergence of the universities.

We cannot give exact dates for the appearance of universities at Paris and Bologna, Oxford and Cambridge, since they evolved over a period of time - the former beginning as cathedral schools and the latter as informal gatherings of masters and students. But we may safely say that they began taking form during the latter half of the twelfth century.

Such a desire for scholarly creativity in independent thought could not have been the driving force behind the original founding of al-Qarawiyyin 859 A.D. - it was clearly bound by Sunni sensibilities.

Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the university was that it came into conflict with the church at different times and different places over its first few centuries.

Such conflicts - signs of intellectual independence - were based on scholarly study of text. Often, professors were more attuned to nuances in sacred scripture than church officials.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Gender and Society

Civilizations in different places and different times have created social structures around the concrete manifestations of gender. In various cultures, humans have organized diverse traditions around the same phenomenon.

The phenomenon of gender may be subdivided into several sub-phenomena, some of which are physical, and some of which are psychological.

First, each cell in the human body can be identified by gender. In every cell of man’s body, the genetic material is peculiarly male. In every cell of a woman’s body, each cell is clearly and exclusively female.

Second, bone structure is determined by gender. For this reason, paleoanthropologists can determine the gender of human remains given no more than a few bones from a skeleton. Given a fingerbone, an anklebone, and a rib, it is possible to discover the gender of the individual.

Third, brain structures are divided into male or female: given a brain, a neurologist can examine it and learn the gender of the individual from whom it came.

The three physical factors outlined above show us the raw data of gender: yet each culture or society will develop different structures around this common evidence.

Such concrete physical manifestations remain constant, consistent, and universal across time and space, from culture to culture, but the social constructs around them vary.

Alleged “gender reassignment” therapies and surgeries cannot change these specific gender manifestations. They are unavoidable.

Beyond physical data, there are psychological manifestations of gender.

Across all cultures, civilizations, and societies, it is a constant that men commit the majority of violent crimes - and not merely a majority, but an overwhelming majority.

Arson, assault, murder, kidnapping, and other manifestations of physical violence are clearly correlated with the male gender.

A second psychological trait of gender is a preference for certain learning styles. It is possible to offer a presentation tailored to favor one gender or the other.

For example, an algebra lesson can be designed so that it more effectively facilitates learning among girls, or among boys, or equally for both genders. An individual’s psychological style of learning is determined, in part, by her or his gender.

The task of the historian or anthropologist or sociologist is, then, to examine how different societies respond to the universal facts of gender, or how different cultures create very different institutions and traditions around the same phenomena.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Historical Romanticism - Romanticist History

While Romanticism is primarily introduced in schools as an artistic style in painting, poetry, and music, its political implications are also significant. What is a Romanticist political view?

One answer can be given in a single name: Rousseau. While Rousseau sought a sense of freedom, he based it on extreme subjectivism, arguing that science and art did more to harm morals than to strengthen them. He saw humans as born with a good nature, but corrupted by society.

To improve both humans and human society, then, Rousseau argued that we should free them from the formative influences of culture and tradition. That meant shielding them from a variety of influences, including disciplines as seemingly disparate as algebra and religion.

For Rousseau, however, those were not as different as they might seem: both were a discipline of the mind, requiring analytical thinking.

Knowing that his program would not be easily implemented, he warned that some people, not understanding what was truly good for them, might resist his reshaping of society. They would, he stated, need to be forced to be free.

Equally paradoxically, while demanding the end to establish institutional religion as it was known, Rousseau created his own religion, and argued that anyone who failed to embrace it should be put to death.

Rousseau’s militant irrationalism was eerily predictive of the massive bloodshed which would constitute the French Revolution.

In such a system, the individual was trammeled by a mass movement which was undertaken, ironically, for the cause of liberating the individual. Rousseau had no patience for economics, and was not interested in giving the kind of freedom which allowed the simple baker or tailor or carpenter to make goods in his workplace and sell them as he saw fit. Rousseau was interested in mass movements, and among Rousseau’s followers, this turned into visions of nations and ethnic groups. Allen Guelzo writes:

The bourgeoisie, therefore, was nothing more than what Goethe called “the gawping public.” What Rousseau hoped to be ruled by was a mysterious “general will” emerging from “the people” as a tribal mass, not by the checks and balances of individuals and their representatives. Nations, as culturally defined organisms rather than assemblies of free and equal citizens, became the object of Romantic ardor.

Rousseau, and the Romanticist politics he engendered, ignore or shun the concepts which had been carefully formulated by a previous generation of thinkers. Locke had crystalized notions like the legitimacy of a government being based upon the consent of the governed, and the idea of majority rule. Rousseau was not interested in a republic in which citizens could freely elect representatives.

Also rejected by Rousseau was any effort to analyze human nature, and from that understanding, to form a notion of how society might be structured, given that humans are what they are. Rousseau seems to reject the notion that “being human” has any clear meaning or definition, and seems rather to think that it can be or mean whatever he wants. Allen Guelzo continues:

Authoritarian notions of society and polities built on Blut und Eisen feed their souls on a Romantic rejection of democratic universalism and natural law. In that sense, Romanticism’s darkest legacy is the one that stained the 20th century with fascism and socialism.

Sadly, those very concepts which Rousseau rejects are the ones which place a limit on the power and authority of government. While Rousseau thought he was building a future with some type of freedom, he was in fact paving the way for tyrannies and dictatorships.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Defining Romanticism

A dutiful student will hopefully develop some intuitive understanding of Romanticism as exemplified in poetry by Goethe, Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Byron, and as exemplified in music by Beethoven and Wagner, and as exemplified in the visual arts by Caspar David Friedrich, J.M.W. Turner, and Eugene Delacroix.

Yet this same student might be forgiven for being confused if told about Romantic Astronomy, Romantic Chemistry, Romantic History, Romantic Linguistics, or Romantic Politics.

Romanticism is more than an artistic style for painting, music, and poetry. In fact, Romanticism had a major impact on political revolutions and on the science of historical linguistics. But what exactly is Romanticism?

Both Romanticism and its intellectual grandchild, post-modernism, can be characterized as the privileging of emotion over reason. While that characterization is helpful, it is also merely the beginning of an exploration of how one might construct a reasonably useful and accurate definition of the word ‘Romanticism’ - as Professor Allen Guelzo of Gettysburg College writes,

In 1836, Alfred de Musset created two fictional blockheads, Dupuis and Cotonet, and allowed them to make themselves ridiculous in the pages of the Revue des Deux Mondes, trying to define “Romanticism.” At first, they “thought that romanticism meant imitating the Germans.” Then, in 1830–31, they were sure it meant writing historical novels about “Charlemagne, Francis I, or Henry IV.” Then it occurred to them that “romanticism might be a system of philosophy and political economy.” But on further reflection, it seemed more likely to have “consisted in not shaving, and in wearing waistcoats with long, stiffly starched lapels.” In despair, they finally wondered, “Is it anything, or is it only a fine-sounding word?”

The poem Erlkönig, written by Goethe in 1782, exemplifies a calmly calculated text designed to give the impression of an agitated spontaneous outpouring. Its strict form - rhyme and meter - are used in a way to suggest an emotional power which seeks to break the bonds of strict formalism. Thus Romanticism - for the Erlköig poem was paradigmatic for Romanticism - contains this internal tension within itself.

Historians influenced by Romanticism tended to produce narratives in which ambiguous individuals were recast as clear heroes or clear villains, and the power of the narrative was regarded as more important than its attention to actual data points of recorded events. Romanticist history texts are often suspiciously devoid of specifics.

Scientific linguistics, under the influence of Romanticism, saw itself not as simply cataloguing and analyzing the historical development of languages, but rather as somehow tapping into the essential nature of ethnic groups by revealing their roots and sources. Thus it was that when the Grimm brothers began to collect their famous tales, originally for the purpose of documenting regionalisms in the German language and for preserving the various forms which narratives took in different localities, their project slowly morphed into a one of Romantic nationalism. They, and others, began to see these tales as revealing a psychological core of the peoples of central Europe.

Romantic history and Romantic linguistics gave way to Romantic nationalism: history and linguistics were used to fuel a vision of what it meant to be “truly Polish” or “truly French” or to belong to any nation - a nation defined as an ethnic group. Romantic history gave a narrative to each nation.

Romantic nationalism in turn fuel revolutionary movements against monarchies. A grand shift took place: what gave identity to the state was not its hereditary dynasty, but collective identity of the nation. In Germany and Italy, this took the form of a question for unity, as dozens of small kingdoms and republic united to form modern nation-states.

In Russia, the Romantic nationalist drive took the form of Slavophilia, as the Russians looked less toward Europe and more to their own heritage for identity. In England, the citizens began to identify with the nation instead of with the monarchy. In France, a series of revolutions left citizens with no predictable political identity, but a culturally national one.

Although Romanticism’s impact on the observational and empirical sciences was not obvious, it was nonetheless significant. In contrast to Newtonian optics, Goethe’s theory of colors sought to show that the phenomena of color were internal to the human mind, not an external reality about wavelengths; this was an attempt to put a the physics of light on a subjective rather than an objective footing.

Likewise, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818, exemplified the Romantic understanding of science; Shelley was not a scientist herself, but as a Romantic saw science as a “promethean” opportunity for man to exercise a grand control over nature. Allen Guelzo continues:

Defining Romanticism has not gotten any easier since 1836, but neither has our sense of its importance diminished. Isaiah Berlin thought Romanticism was “the greatest single shift in the consciousness of the West”; Kenneth Clark believed that it introduced an entirely new sensibility into European art. But what it certainly was, at the very least, was a revolt against the Enlightenment — against the bourgeois capitalism the Enlightenment had turned into the stuff of heroism, against natural law and natural rights, and against the balance and predictability that Newtonian science had imparted to the 18th-century world. It clothed itself, as so many revolts do, in the costume of what it deemed an unjustly despised past — Hugo’s medieval Paris, Ossian’s epics, the Grimm brothers’ German fairy tales — but its real grasp was for the future, a future that would glorify the politics of race and blood, the philosophy of Dionysian passion, and the aesthetic of the mysterious.

The effects of Romanticism are clearly seen in the twenty-first century: in, for example, what is variously called ‘the politics of identity’ or ‘identity politics’ (notice how many times the word ‘identity’ appeared in some of the paragraphs above). This is the notion that one votes, or should vote, based primarily upon one’s identity as old or young, as African-American or Asian-American, as male or female, as English-speaker or Spanish-speaker, and not based upon those things which are common to all humans, not based upon reasoning about the universal human condition and human nature.

In the religious trends of North America and Europe in the twenty-first century we also detect the impact of Romanticism, in the form of postmodernism, as people do not base their religious understanding on the formulated statements of religious institutions, nor on the careful analysis of text. Rather, they base their religious feelings, not understandings, on experiences and emotions. So it is to the postmodern individual that a question like “are you Presbyterian or Methodist?” has become both meaningless and uninteresting.

Romanticism - whatever it was - has had a lasting impact on civilization. It paved the way for Hitler’s National Socialism (note the ‘national’) and gave permission to postmodern man to ignore reason and follow his passion.

It would be too simple to call Romanticism good or evil. It gave us both Beethoven and Dachau. It gave us Mary Shelley and politicized racism. Whatever it is, it’s important.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Essence of Western Civilization

Naming civilizations is a complex task. If we use the term 'European culture', we must immediately point out that the roots of the civilization are found in the Ancient Near East, and its modern domain includes the Americans, Australia, and is spreading into parts of Asia and Africa.

If we use the term 'Western Civilization', we note that there is nothing on the compass which indicates societal trends: Senegal is west of Portugal, but it is not more "western" than Portugal. The term probably arose when Europe saw itself as the western end of the known world, and saw China as the eastern end. Even if we ignore that the Americas would be found further west, and that Japan was further east, the geographical designation, while handy and, at least at that point in time, intuitive, is not to be taken literally.

Finally, the term 'Judeo-Christian tradition', while accurately identifying the source of much of Western Civilization's values and world views, ignores the fact that now Hindus and Sikhs, atheists and Buddhists, and followers of many other belief systems are now part of this Judeo-Christian tradition. The prophet Muhammad consciously and deliberately placed himself and his ideas among the outgrowths of this tradition.

While these names for civilization have the defects noted, they have been and probably will continue to be in widespread use in textbooks and classrooms. A more accurate name would reflect the two key features of Western Civilization: its discovery of, and emphasis on, the individual - and its discovery of, and emphasis on, freedom.

French scholar Jacques Ellul examines this notion of personal liberty:

Let me return to my main argument. It was the West that established the splendid interplay of freedom, reason, self-control, and coherent behavior. It thus produced a type of human being that is unique in history, true western man. (I repeat: the type belongs neither to nature nor to the animal world; it is a deliberate construct achieved through effort.) I am bound to say that I regard this type as superior to anything I have seen or known elsewhere. A value judgment, a personal and subjective preference? Of course. But I am not ready on that account to turn my back on the construction and on the victory and affirmation it represents. Why? Because the issue is freedom itself, and because I see no other satisfactory model that can replace what the West has produced.

Perhaps a concrete example of Ellul's formulation would be George Washington. While exerting himself maximally to obtain a degree of freedom previously unknown in world history, he imposed upon himself a moral and behavioral code more rigorous than the personal codes of those against whom he fought. Freedom does not, in Ellul's framework, imply anarchy. Quite the opposite: in order to retain liberty, individuals and societies must exhibit reason, self-control, and coherent behavior.

One peculiarly human feature which distinguishes us from plants and animals is the ability to say 'no' to one's self: the habit of identifying a desire or drive or impulse and then denying it. Self-control, or self-denial, is an essential ingredient for political liberty. Those who use liberty as an excuse for license will lose that liberty. Societies will eventually invite authoritarianism, even at the cost of society's liberties, to quell anarchy.

While such self-control is required for enduring liberty, it is also a feature which aspiring despots seek to exploit. Tyrants attempt, and sometimes succeed, in persuading citizens that this virtue of self-denial should be extended beyond what is actually necessary to maintain liberty. Samuel Adams wrote insightfully:

Subordination is necessary to promote the purposes of government; the grand design of which is, that men might enjoy a greater share of the blessings resulting from that social nature, and those rational powers, with which indulgent Heaven has endow’d us, than they could in the state of nature: But there is a degree of subordination, which will for ever be abhorrent to the generous mind; when it is extended to the very borders, if not within the bounds of slavery: A subordination, which is so far from conducing “to the welfare and happiness of the whole”, that it necessarily involves the idea of that worst of all the evils of this life, a tyranny: An abject servility, which instead of “being essential to our existence as a people,“ disgraces the human nature, and sinks it to that of the most despicable brute.

Thus it is that, when despotic governments seek to regulate and tax, they are not only reducing or ultimately eliminating liberty; they are striking at the very foundations of civilization itself.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Being Poor: Poverty and Society

Comparing societies around the world and throughout time, a number of distinctions emerge. One of them is this: in some societies, wealth and poverty are viewed as permanent conditions. In such societies, it is assumed that people who are poor will always be poor, and people who are rich will always be rich. Similarly, the wealthy in such societies accumulate influence, power, control, and alleged authority, forming plutocracies. Hence the proverb, "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer."

But in other types of societies, the permanency and inevitability of one's social class has been dismantled. The possibility of a transition from poverty to wealth, or from affluence to impoverishment, exists in principle for each individual. The concept of social mobility frees humans from a sense of irrevocable fate, even as it introduces a sense of risk for those who possess material wealth.

Paradoxically, in exactly those societies in which the poor have a chance at escaping poverty, there is a heightened awareness of social class. In societies with the possibility of social mobility, one is more aware of one's status as rich or poor, precisely because it is variable, and because one must take care about it. By contrast, in those societies which view poverty or wealth as an inevitable lot, the poor and the wealthy take their situations for granted and are less aware of them.

This can be seen to some extent in the comparison of Moses and Hammurabi. The Babylonian king Hammurabi presided over a society which was largely fixed: those born into the upper class would remain there, and those born into the lower class could not even conceptualize that their condition could ever change. Yet Moses represents a different worldview: a conceptual framework in which slaves could escape slavery, form their own society, and live as autonomous and free in their own land.

French scholar Jacques Ellul notes a corresponding difference in concepts of deity: a distant god who irrevocably assigns humans to their fates, or a God who creates humans with the ability to make meaningful and consequential choices about their lives:

Similarly, and as part of the same process, the West brought about the division of societies and the world into rich and poor. Please note, however: I am not saying that there had not been rich and poor earlier and in other parts of the world. The point is, rather, that everything used to be so organized that wealth and poverty were stable states, determined (for example) by the traditional, accepted hierarchy, and that this arrangement was regarded as due to destiny or an unchangeable divine will. The West did two things: it destroyed the hierarchic structures and it did away with the idea of destiny. It thus showed the poor that their state was not something inevitable. This is something Marx is often credited with having done, but only because people are ignorant. It was Christianity that did away with the idea of destiny and fate.

Ellul further notes that there is a detectable difference in history between those who merely use the word 'Christian' to cloak their own selfish desires with the mantle of respectability, and those on the other hand who sincerely engage in the concepts taught by Jesus. In blunt terms, 'fake' Christianity has been used to justify efforts to keep the poor 'in their place,' while true followers of Jesus have been about the work of helping the oppressed find escape from their misery.

Doubtless there have been Christians who used the notion of "God's will" to determine the order of the world and the distribution of wealth and wretchedness. But that is a deviation from true Christian thought (as Stalin was a deviation from Marx), and in any event it could not suppress the self-assertion of freedom itself. Marx made the Christian line of thought his own and reasserted the authentic message; he is unthinkable without the Christian infrastructure. He is utterly representative of the West in everything he wrote.

In addition to highlighting Marx's Christian antecedents, Ellul points out that the entire spectrum of different types of revolutions are founded on the assertion, by Jesus, that humans were not governed by arbitrary fortune. There is irony in the fact that many of these revolutions, some successful and some not, cast themselves as explicitly anti-Christian, while operating in fact on premises articulated by Jesus.

Once Christianity had destroyed the idea of destiny or fate, the poor realized that they were poor, and they realized that their condition was not inevitable. Then the social organisms that had made it possible to gloss over this fact were challenged and undermined from within.

This notion of a revolution, which has brought benefits to people when well-executed and brought misery to them when poorly conceived, is a product of Western Civilization. Through a long train of events, the Hebrews conceptualized freedom as no other society had previously done, the Greeks systematized such freedom and designed societal institutions to realize it, the Romans actualized and put those institutions into practice, and European culture developed a worldview and artistic traditions to ensconce this notion of freedom.

To be sure, all of this was done impurely. As James Madison noted, men are not angels. European culture has been guilty of exploitation. Yet it was the only culture to articulate liberty. Thus any critique directed at European culture is a critique based on European values. If we point out that Western Civilization has been at times unjust, it is only by a Western standard of justice that this claim makes sense. Ellul writes:

Against all this background we can see why the whole idea of revolution is a western idea. Before the development of western thought, and apart from it, no revolution ever took place. Without the individual and freedom and the contradictory extremes to which freedom leads, a society cannot engender a revolution. Nowhere in the world — and I speak as one with a knowledge of history — has there ever been a revolution, not even in China, until the western message penetrated that part of the world. Present-day revolutions, whether in China or among the American Indians, are the direct, immediate, unmistakable fruit of the western genius. The entire world has been pupil to the West that it now rejects.

When the charge is leveled, that in some instance, representatives of Western Civilization were guilty of torture, all are outraged, and none more so than the inhabitants of Western Civilization. Those in other civilizations are less surprised when any hierarchy - East or West - uses torture. In fact, in those civilizations, torture is blithely assumed to be one of the proper tools a government may use when carrying out justice.

Only those exposed to, and influenced by, Western Civilization are outraged at torture. Any critique of the West, based on the fact that in some instances, representatives of the West may have used torture, is a critique which can be carried out only by accepting the values of the West.

The same is true if the West is criticized because it, in some cases, may have failed to offer freedom of speech or political liberty. Such critiques, true as they are, are based only on values found exclusively and solely in the West.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Peculiar Values of the West

What are we studying, when we study human civilization? Although seemingly simple, this question eludes easy answers. If we speak of Western Civilization, we note first that the earth is a sphere, and any one point on a parallel - on a line of longitude - is to the east and to the west of every other point on that line; both Senegal and Sierra Leone are to the west of Spain, Portugal, and the rest of continental Europe; Africa is to the west of Australia. There is certainly nothing a priori about the direction west on the magnetic compass that gives it cultural or societal priority over the other three.

If, instead, we speak of the European Culture, we encounter similar difficulties in analyzing this definition. The roots of such culture lie outside of Europe - neither Moses nor Hammurabi, neither Jesus nor Cyrus ever set foot in Europe. Even the initial sparks of intellectual brilliance which we associate with the archaic Greeks were often located outside of Europe - Homer, Thales, and a handful of pre-Socratic philosophers lived in Asia Minor, not in Europe. In the twenty-first century, we find this culture's peculiar values - the value of each human life, personal freedom and individual liberty, due process, etc. - all around the globe. The Americas, Australia, parts of Asia and Africa - it is not limited to Europe.

A third attempt at defining civilization's progress is to use the phrase "Judeo-Christian tradition," which is as problematic as the first two. The characteristic values of this tradition, which have significant elements in common with European Culture's values, are however now embraced by a wide range of people who are neither Jews nor Christians. A diverse spectrum of people now embrace these values: people with other religions like Hindus and Buddhists, people with no religion like atheists and agnostics, and people with unusual religions like Unitarians and Scientology followers.

Whatever we call it, and however we define it, this Western Civilization has introduced its peculiar values to the rest of the world - values which dictate that every person is entitled to humane treatment, even in prison; that a society should work to ensure personal freedom and individual liberty for each citizen; that every human life is valuable, precious, and should be respected and its dignity acknowledged. Ironically, Western Civilization has spread these values, at times, by violating them.

It was precisely because India had been dominated by the British that Gandhi learned to see such domination as wrong. While committing sins against the Indians, the British had also exposed them to a great train of thought - from the Magna Carta of 1215 to the Bill of Rights of 1689 to Wilberforce's principled abolitionism in the early 1800's. Gandhi accused the English of violating their own principles in their treatment of the Indians - he did not accuse them of violating Indian principles. Indeed, prior to the arrival of the British, and of the Portuguese before them, the Indians had been treated worse at the hands of their own leaders and thought nothing of it.

The native inhabitants of South Africa learned their slogans - "home rule" and "majority rule" and "integration" - from their uninvited European colonizers. Their desire for freedom, and their expression of such desire, was learned from the very powers which violated their freedoms. Anti-colonialism, the force directing itself against the West, is a product of the West. Jacques Ellul writes:

This is a point we must be quite clear on. If the world is everywhere rising up and accusing the West, if movements of liberation are everywhere under way, what accounts for this? Its sole source is the proclamation of freedom that the West has broadcast to the world. The West, and the West alone is responsible for the movement that has led to the desire for freedom and to the accusations now turned back upon the West.

Consider the outrage which emerges when it is suggested that an American soldier has in some way violated the rights of a citizen - whether a citizen of the United States or of any other nation. Among the most diverse political gatherings, consensus quickly emerges: an American soldier should never humiliate or maltreat anyone. We need not here get sidetracked into a detailed discussion of the precise definition of 'torture' - by unanimous consent, Americans, civilian or military, should not commit even less severe forms of abuse.

But this outrage is peculiar to Western Civilization. In other parts of the world, torture is not only permitted, it is positively demanded by law and custom. Public torture is considered, in parts of Asia and Africa, to be an appropriate part of legal justice. While Europeans are shocked, appalled, dismayed, ashamed, etc., at discovering that one of their own might be guilty of committing torture, other civilizations are not shocked: torture is expected among them. Americans are shocked if there are unproven rumors of torture at Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib. No resident of the Middle East is shocked to learn that governments there routinely flog, beat, or brand their prisoners; no pretense is made of hiding or denying such activities - indeed, they are advertised as part of the justice system there.

Today men point the finger of outrage at slavery and torture. Where did that kind of indignation originate? What civilization or culture cried out that slavery was unacceptable and torture scandalous? Not Islam, or Buddhism, or Confucius, or Zen, or the religions and moral codes of Africa and India! The West alone has defended the inalienable rights of the human person, the dignity of the individual, the man who is alone with everyone against him. But the West did not practice what it preached? The extent of the West's fidelity is indeed debatable: the whole European world has certainly not lived up to its own ideal all the time, but to say that it has never lived up to it would be completely false.

There is deeper significance to the oft-told tale of Marco Polo's meeting Kublai Khan than merely entertaining children with an odd scrap of world history. Polo's arrival in China, around 1275, was an intersection of individualism and collectivism. The Italian explorer marveled at the Chinese culture, and the Chinese probably marveled at him, not merely because of strange clothing, language, food, or customs. Polo came from a culture which acknowledged and validated the individual and the individual's freedom. To be sure, the West's acknowledgement was then, and is not, not perfect, but it was an identifiable principle which was unfamiliar to the east Asians.

It is this confirmation of individuality, and the equal value of each individual as a member of the human race, which motivates the opposition to torture. Only a society which clearly conceptualizes the individual as such can see torture as a violation of the individual. If the collective whole is seen as an undifferentiated mass of humanity, then any one thread in that cloth can be treated arbitrarily without hesitation. If individuals are merely the indistinguishable atoms of a social body, each can be treated capriciously without remorse.

In any case, that is not the point. The point is that the West originated values and goals that spread throughout the world (partly through conquest) and inspired man to demand his freedom, to take his stand in the face of society and affirm his value as an individual. I shall not be presumptuous enough to try to "define" the freedom of the individual. But there is no need that I should: we know well enough, without verbalizing it or defining it, what that freedom means. Look at the way societies have developed. We can legitimately say that all of them have moved from monolithic structures toward more flexible ones in which old bonds are broken; from a stage in which individuals are not distinguished from one another toward true individuation of the members; from an "original community" toward a sum-total of distinct and separated men and women; from a complete absence of freedom and independence toward a progressive assertion of this freedom and an affirmation of the self that brings with it an exigency for liberty and independence.

Western Civilization has, in fact, earn rebukes from other cultures; it has at times sinned against them and violated their rights. But Western Civilization taught the world how to deliver such rebukes - it taught the vocabulary of rights and freedoms, of the dignity of each individual human life. The rest of the world did not have the conceptual apparatus to critique the West until the West enunciated principles of liberty and individualism. While the West is not xenophobic, it did, however, originate the practice of self-critique.

This characterization of the West is significant in the light of educational trends at the end of the twentieth century, and at the beginning of the twenty-first century: a large number of schools, colleges, and university have conformed, or have been conformed, to a programmatic defamation of Western Civilization. Students are taught to be dismissive of the cultural products of the West. If they are taught about the literature and history of West, it is only in the form of a critique.

Admittedly, the West is not perfect. But whatever crimes it may have committed, it is also true that it generated within itself a series of concepts - liberty, rights, freedom, individuality - and formulated these concepts clearly. Distinguished by these concepts, the West shared them with the rest of the world. Sometimes it transmitted these values accidentally, or even in the course of committing oppressions, but it is nonetheless the source of these singular societal principles. To be dismissive of Western Civilization is to be dismissive of human dignity. To critique the West for its sins - a critique which it deserves - is to embrace and use the principles of the West.