Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Surprisingly Short History of Tarot Cards

At carnivals, circuses, fairs, and other public events, tricksters and swindlers offer, for a cash fee, the “reading of tarot cards.”

Often the fraud is accompanied by verbiage about the ancient nature of this stunt. Tarot cards are, however, a recent invention. The practice of using them to feign predictions is even newer.

Tarot cards were first introduced in the 1400s. They were very rare until the printing press enabled their mass production. They were originally used for playing games, not telling fortunes.

It was not until the 1700s that the cards became associated with divination. As historian Paul L. Maier writes:

They appeared in the fifteenth century as nothing more than playing cards and did not take on significance related to the occult until the late eighteenth.

Although playing cards in general, like those used for common games, go back many centuries in history, the appearance of tarot cards is a recent, and their use for fortune-telling a modern development.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Some Cultures are Better Than Others

It is a fundamental fact about the world that some cultures are better than others. Some civilizations are better than others. Some societies are better than others.

Great efforts have been made to conceal this fact.

Comparative ethnography can be carried out on a micro level: we can compare the cultures of North Dakota and South Dakota; we can compare the cultures of Graz and Linz.

We can also contrast cultures on a macro level: we can juxtapose Brazil with Sweden, or Burma with Japan.

Sometimes, we’ll even find that of two cultures, one or the other is “not better or worse, but simply different.” But that’s not always the case.

Well-intentioned but misguided educators have drilled several generations of students to say, of any social comparison, that various societies are “not better or worse, but simply different.”

In some cases, this is true: that the French produce more red wine, and the Germans more white wine, is an interesting difference, but not one which places a higher value on one or the other. The same is true of the comparison that people in northern Poland eat, on average, more seafood than those in southern Poland.

But in many cases, there is a valuative difference between cultures. ‘Valuative’ in this case refers to a state of affairs: a factual and descriptive evaluation.

A culture which regularly and largely denigrates women, restricts their personal and artistic expressions, denies them legal and political rights, permits and institutionalizes the physical and emotional abuse of women, denies them education, and generally relegates them to an inferior status, - such a culture is worse than a culture which usually does not do such things.

The same is true of race - where ‘race’ is understood to denote innate visible physical characteristics.

A society which structures itself in a manner calculated to minimize human creativity, and thereby eliminates not only much of academic education, but also largely reduces artistic expression in painting, music, and literature, and which so undermines the spirit of rational inquiry that the observational and empirical sciences not only fail to make progress, but rather retreat; a society which stunts the exercise of reason to the extent that higher mathematics and philosophy are neglected, and that those who pursue those disciplines are in danger of being persecuted; - such a society is worse than a society which allows the better and creative aspects of human nature to be developed.

As the International Baccalaureate Organization notes, scholars should “evaluate a range of points of view.”

The IBO is suggesting that differences not merely be observed and noted, but rather evaluated: values should be assigned.

A society which values human life generally, and each human life concretely, and which seeks to maximize individual political liberty for all its citizens, working to create “equal opportunity” and a “level playing field” for people to experiment, allowing them to seek or avoid risks and the rewards which follow them; a society which generally prefers peace to war - such a society is measurably and observably better than a society which seeks to confine and bind the human spirit.

Serious scholarship, examining the historical record, leads the reflective reader to conclude that some cultures are better than others.

[Postscript, January 2017: This post is deliberately provocative, but it is so in order to make this point: that one may not rationally evaluate one race to be better than another, or one gender to be better than the other. While one cannot assign superiority to any race or to either gender, and while one can also not assign inferiority to any race or to either gender, one can assign relative valuations to cultures. A culture which would disadvantage an individual based on the individual's race or gender is, ceteris paribus, inferior to a culture which does not so disadvantage individuals. This is clear in the original post above, but this postscript is added in response to correspondence from various readers.]

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Rome Fell: Or Did It Jump?

The gradual decline and fall of the Roman Empire has been the subject of an amazing amount of analysis: hundreds of books and articles have been written about this topic. None of them agree 100% with each other.

We can safely write that the decline was multifactorial: weather, economics, external military pressure from other nations, internal social decay, agriculture, and other variables had parts to play.

Did the final collapse of the Empire come as a complete surprise to its inhabitants, or did they see it coming, and brace for the impact? Here again, the evidence is mixed, but it seems that at least some of the citizens realized that the government was about to crumble.

Those with foresight understood that, if a government is soon to vanish, then its property is available to anyone who has the physical means to take it. Building blocks were gleaned from many of the large stone buildings in Rome.

Landowners simply sent their servants to disassemble parts of those structures, bit by bit, and use the material to build other, privately owned, structures. Historian Thomas Cahill writes:

Between the Sack of Rome by Alaric in 410 and the death of the last western emperor in 476, the Imperium became increasingly unstable. The large landowners - more and more, laws unto themselves - ignored the emperor’s decrees, going even so far as to use the great public edifices as quarries for private palaces. Rome itself, abandoned by the emperors for the more defensible marshes of Ravenna, saw the splendor of its public buildings crumble before the destructiveness of private greed. Though the emperor announced dire punishments for any official who cooperated in this destruction - fifty pounds of gold for a magistrate, a flogging and the loss of both hands for a subordinate - the looting continued unabated. The Vandals were not the only vandals.

The authority of the emperors was undermined by several factors, one of which was their absence from the city. If they remained sheltered in Ravenna, and content merely to send orders to the city, then the residents of the city felt ever more free to ignore those missives.

The end of the empire was an at least partially peaceful and orderly transfer of government: the Germanic tribal leader Odoacer was acknowledged as the ruler of Italy by Byzantine emperors Zeno and Julius Nepos, and Odoacer worked collegially with the Senate.

It is possible, in fact, that some saw the end of the empire as an improvement: no longer was any effort wasted in sustaining the facade of imperial authority - an authority which had vanished long before its pretense finally expired.

Odoacer - whose name is subject to various spellings - may have represented, in the minds of some Romans, a new start. His rule was largely successful. Given the increasing numbers of Germanic soldiers working for Rome, Odoacer may have had a better chance at leadership than a Roman.

Theodoric eventually assassinated and replaced Odoacer. The violence of imperial succession outlived even the empire. Theodoric was from a different Germanic tribe than Odoacer, but their successive reigns showed that the Germanic tribes were now in control of Rome, and with it, most of Europe.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Nature of Political Parties

To consider the role of political parties in history, the reader must step back from his own nation and decade, and look at a larger pattern. We think not only about the Republicans and Democrats in the United States; but also about the Conservatives, Liberals, Whigs and Tories in Britain; about the CDU, FDP, CSU, SPD, and AfD in Germany; and about the SPÖ, ÖVP, and FPÖ in Austria.

Looking at the broader global pattern over time, we see that parties are often formed for a quite specific reason or set of reasons, but that they gradually lose focus over the years.

The Republican Party in the United States, for example, was formed for the sole purpose of eliminating slavery. It has, in the intervening century, expanding its concerns to economics and foreign policy.

In addition to losing a specific emphasis over the decades, parties also lose consistency.

The reader will note that on any specific question, there is a diversity of views within almost every party.

As parties lose focus and consistency, they gain a different goal. The goal of nearly any political party eventually becomes that of obtaining, maintaining, and retaining power.

Parties begin by using parliamentary maneuvers to achieve their policy goals; they end by using those maneuvers to keep themselves in power.

Friedrich Nietzsche observed that there is an inevitable tendency to deceive in partisan politics; note that he writes, not that a party member ‘is’ a liar, but that a party member ‘becomes’ a liar:

By lie I mean: wishing not to see something that one does see; wishing not to see something as one sees it. Whether the lie takes place before witnesses or without witnesses does not matter. The most common lie is that with which one lies to oneself; lying to others is relatively, an exception.

Now this wishing-not-to see what one does see, this wishing-not-to-see as one sees is almost the first condition for all who are party in any sense: of necessity, the party man becomes a liar.

Although there is no nuanced question of translation here, the practices of good scholarship, and Nietzsche’s controversial reputation, demand that the text also be examined in its original:

Ich nenne Lüge: etwas nicht sehn wollen, das man sieht, etwas nicht so sehn wollen, wie man es sieht: ob die Lüge vor Zeugen oder ohne Zeugen statthat, kommt nicht in Betracht. Die gewöhnlichste Lüge ist die, mit der man sich selbst belügt; das Belügen andrer ist relativ der Ausnahmefall. – Nun ist dies Nicht-sehn-wollen, was man sieht, dies Nicht-so-sehn-wollen, wie man es sieht, beinahe die erste Bedingung für alle, die Partei sind, in irgendwelchem Sinne: der Parteimensch wird mit Notwendigkeit Lügner.

As the party ages, or ossifies, it attempts to transfer the moral weight of its original focus to its generalized attempt to preserve itself and to preserve and expand its control.

Parties also seek to rewrite history: the desire to sustain power overrides the attraction of intellectual honesty. The Democratic Party in the United States, e.g., does not want to remember that it defended the institutions of slavery and racial segregation.

The lesson for, and from, history is this: there is a significant difference between the principled adherence to an ideology and the unprincipled adherence to a party.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Intellectual Activity During the Middle Ages: Eriugena and Gerbert

The Middle Ages were a time of intense intellectual activity: philosophy, mathematics, and physics flourished. These centuries, however, are often dismissed as ‘Dark Ages’ and are thought to be an era of superstition and ignorance.

How did this period of academic excellence come to be seen as a time of mental dullness? The answer is not simple, but part of it is due to histories written by Renaissance scholars who, hoping to cast their own era in a better light, denigrated the medieval thinkers.

One example of a superlative intellect was John Scottus Eriugena. Alternative spellings of his name include ‘Johannes Scotus Eriugena.’ He was born in Ireland around 800 A.D.

He was known for the ease and nuance with which he read classical Greek texts. He even composed poetry in ancient Greek. He read the writings of Plato, and was familiar with Aristotle. He voiced doubts about the Ptolemaic system of astronomy.

Eriugena died around 877 A.D., and this date, which places him solidly in the early Middle Ages, reveals the weaknesses in claims that the medievals were ignorant and superstitious. Eriugena was neither, and he was not alone in his era: he was appointed as a teacher, and his skill was widely recognized and praised.

The monasteries of the Middle Ages were the homes of learning. They copied the ancient Greek and Roman manuscripts; they were home to investigations about mathematics, physics, philosophy, and astronomy; they were the birthplace of new books and essays.

The monasteries also functioned as the social welfare agencies of the day, distributing food and clothing to the poor, and even offering a place to live and employment to those who had none.

One challenge for the medieval scholars was to get philosophy and mathematics to a wider audience: to those outside the monasteries. One way to do this was the establishment of ‘cathedral schools’ in larger towns.

Historian Thomas Woods writes that “one of the brightest lights of the early stage of” scholarship’s rise

was Gerbert of Aurillac, who later became Pope Sylvester II (r. 999 - 1003). Gerbert was certainly the most learned man in the Europe of his day. He was renowned for the breadth of his knowledge, which encompassed astronomy, Latin literature, mathematics, music, philosophy, and theology. His thirst for ancient manuscripts calls to mind the enthusiasm of the fifteenth century, when the Church offered rewards to humanist scholars who recovered ancient texts.

Gerbert led a school in the town of Rheims. His intellectual energy was part of the run-up to the founding of the world’s first universities. Bologna would be the first in 1088 A.D.

The Germanic Saxon King Otto III requested Gerbert to visit his court to teach the king about arithmetic and about Greek and Latin literature. David Knowles writes:

Despite the intrigues and restlessness of his later public life, Gerbert was — and was recognized as — the most learned, versatile, and influential master of his age. Rheims during his first stay (c. 966–980) became a principal center of the educational revival that was beginning to inspire the cathedral schools of France and that from them passed to the universities. Fulbert, founder of the school of Chartres, was Gerbert’s pupil.

Eriugena and Gerbert are merely two among many examples of intellectuals who flourished during the Middle Ages, even during the Early Middle Ages. The exact charges leveled against the medievals - they knew no Greek and weren’t acquainted with Aristotle - are refuted by these two alone, to say nothing of their many colleagues.

The Middle Ages may therefore safely be characterized as an era of intense intellectual investigation and philosophical debate.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Roman Borders: Physical and Psychological

The engineering and architectural feat of constructing a straight wall thirty-one miles long, while having it deviate by only thirty-six inches over that length is remarkable under any circumstances, but completing such a project before 200 AD is even more impressive.

That’s exactly what the Romans did. The limes was a series of walls, and frontier outposts which stretched for hundred of miles across Europe along the empire’s borders. The borders in England, Africa, and Asia featured similar demarcations.

At places the border was a wall, at places a river, and at places merely a patrolled line. The border marked the maximum expanse of the empire. Beyond it lay the lands of the Scots and of the Germanic tribes, the groups against which Roman military might could not prevail.

But the borders were not places of constant conflict. There were decades of peaceful coexistence and trade. Yet the Romans kept the walls in place, so, as historian Andrew Currie asks, "If the walls weren’t under constant threat, what were they for?"

“By bringing the sheer scope of the Roman frontier into focus, the effort to create,” Currie continues, a “heritage site may help answer the question.” As archeologists and historians look at the entire border project, it becomes clear that have a well-defined, observed, and controlled border was important to the Romans even in peacetime.

The notion, held by earlier historians, that the walls were constantly under attack by Scots and by Germanic tribes can be replaced by the idea of a border fortification which played an important role in the absence of military conflict. Currie notes that

Ever since British antiquarians organized the first scientific excavations along Hadrian’s Wall in the 1890s, historians and archaeologists have assumed Rome’s walls were military fortifications, designed to fend off barbarian armies and hostile invaders.

Instead of a border designed to defend against, and repel, organized assaults by armies, the border more often may have been a place to control imports and exports, levy tariffs, and regulate immigration and emigration.

The borders also served a psychological and political purpose: to define what it meant to be Roman. A clear boundary was a statement about a separate identity.

To the extent that the Romans were defining themselves, they also created an atmosphere in which the Scots and Germanic tribes were encouraged to define, or continue defining, themselves. There was a mutual encouragement to see the other as the “other.”

Paradoxically, this self-definition as “other” took place also in those peaceful decades, when there was cooperation in import and export, and when there were regular border crossings in both directions. The fostering of this ethnic identity did not preclude good relationships along the border.

This happened too early in history to call these identities “national.” It would be an anachronism to use that word, because the concept of the modern nation-state had not yet emerged - hence, the word ‘ethnic.’

The Roman effort to identify themselves by contrast to the ‘savage’ or ‘barbarian’ others met with some cognitive dissonance, in light of fact that the Germanic tribes were literate at an early date: The Negau Helmet, with its Germanic inscriptions, dates to around 50 BC; the Meldorf Fibula, a broach with similar inscriptions, dates to around 50 AD; and by the time the Goths appeared as a major political power, in the 200s and 300s AD, they were composing extended textual commentaries on other books.

Another source of cognitive dissonance undermining the Roman’s claims of superiority was the military situation. The borders were where they were because the Romans had run into military units which they could not overcome. The Scots and the Germanic tribes represented the limits of Roman military capacity.

The Romans comforted their collective ego by disparaging as ‘savage’ or ‘barbarian’ the very military forces who’d proven themselves Rome’s betters. Historian Avner Falk writes:

Like the ancient Greeks, the ancient Romans considered the Germanic tribes north of the Danube River “barbarians”, and in 9 CE they fought a major battle against these “savage” tribes. The Teutoburg forest, now in the German states of Lower Saxony and North-Rhine-Westphalia, was the site of the that battle between the Roman Empire and an alliance of Germanic tribes. The location of the battle was given by the Roman historian Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (56-117 CE) as saltus Teutoburgiensis (Teutoburg forest valley), a northern extension of the central European uplands, extending eastward towards the Weser River, southward from the town of Osnabrück, and southeastwards to Padeborn, Charlemagne’s future capital. The battle was therefore called the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. Recent archeological excavations suggest that the final stages of the battle took place farther north, at Kalkriese, north of Osnabrück.

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest came to have powerful meaning both for the Romans and for the Germanic tribes. The Roman Empire would survive for another four-and-a-half centuries, and many of those years would be years of peace between Rome and the Germanic tribes.

Yet a precedent had been set. Rome was no longer considered invincible, and the Germanic tribes were seen by themselves and by Rome as something serious.

The self-concepts both of the Romans and of the Germanic tribes changed. The concepts which each held of the other changed, too.

The symbolic significance attributed to Hermann, whom the Romans called Armeinius, arose from the fact that he had been in Rome and received Roman military training, had later worked for the Roman military commander against whom he would lead the Germanic troops in the battle, and had united the independent tribes to fight against the Romans.

The battle is sometimes called the Hermannsschlacht (Hermann’s Battle) in German, and the clades Variana (Disaster of Varus) in Latin. Varus was the Roman commander in the battle.

Although some interpreters argue that nineteenth-century European historians overemphasized the significance of the battle, it remains the case that it caused the Romans to pull back to the Rhine and maintain it as a more modest and defensible frontier. The battle was the permanent end of serious Roman hopes for a large and permanent trans-Rhine presence; the trans-Rhine areas were acknowledged to be firmly in Germanic hands.

The battle was a major turning-point in Roman history, redefining not only the physical border, but both the interior and exterior psychological landscape of the Romans and the Germanic tribes.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Marriage and Society

The institution of marriage is a constant in human civilization. Separated by several centuries and thousands of miles, both Confucius and Aristotle identified it as one of the fundamental relationships which is a necessary component part of society.

Confucius was born around 551 BC, while Aristotle was born around 384 BC. Both produced a short list of relationships which combine to form complex institutions. Aristotle enumerated three, and Confucius five, such basic connection.

For Aristotle, the list was husband and wife, employer and employee, and parent and child. Confucius varies the list slightly: parent and child, sibling to sibling, husband and wife, friend to friend, ruler to subject.

Aristotle’s employer relationship approximates Confucius’s ruler relationship.

While a civilization usually includes many more relationships than three or five, Confucius and Aristotle seem to imply that those other relationships are produced by analogy or by mixtures of analogies to the elemental relationships.

Homer’s Odyssey arguably contains within its epic structure a dramatic subplot about marriage. The driving tension is whether or not Odysseus will be able to return to his wife. The narrative shows a series of decisions to be variously wise or foolish - decisions made by Odysseus and Penelope, decisions which harm or strengthen their marriage. It is the reunion of husband and wife which signals to listener or reader that the plot is largely resolved.

Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is a drama about marriage. Nora and Torvald make a series of disastrous decisions which reveal that they are both quite worldly, and that their devotion to personal acquisition is greater than their devotion to each other. Torvald’s selfishness and greed are obvious; Nora’s flaws are more subtle. The action is the unfolding collapse of the marriage and the character flaws which cause that collapse.

In any case, marriage is seen as an essential part of society. Only in a postmodern, or late modern, worldview is marriage construed as a right. Marriage is one way, among several, in which an individual can fulfill duties and obligations.

Marriage is more often construed as a contract, albeit an usual one. When a person marries, it is the voluntary assumption of responsibilities. To marry is to make one’s self liable, either legally or ethically.

A married person has an obligation to live for the other - for the spouse, and perhaps eventually for the children. Likewise, an unmarried person has that same obligation - to live for the other - but fulfills those duties in a different social structure.

To construe, therefore, marriage as a ‘right’ - analogous to the “right to free speech” or the “right freely to assemble” - is, at the very least, to stretch that analogy beyond any intuitive sense.

Marriage is a necessary precondition for society. Donald Sensing points out that civilization is contingent upon marriage:

Society's stake in marriage as an institution is nothing less than the perpetuation of the society itself, a matter of much greater than merely private concern. Yet society cannot compel men and women to bring forth their replacements. Marriage as conventionally defined is still the ordinary practice in Europe, yet the birthrate in most of Europe is now less than the replacement rate, which will have all sorts of dire consequences for its future.

A civilization needs children, and marriage is the most reliable and efficient way of producing them. While it may sound callous and impersonal to speak of a society’s need for children, and to speak of marriages producing them, it is nonetheless the case that low birth rates will destroy a culture and an economy.

Yet marriage provides other necessary factors to civilization beyond children: stability and clarity. The legal system is clogged with civil procedural suits in the absence of a healthy marriage structure. Society lacks an element of trust and reliability in the absence of a sound marriage culture.

Civilization needs not only marriage, but sound and healthy marriage. It will be an important task to define exactly what is sound and healthy marriage. For ‘sound’ and ‘healthy,’ a variety of adjectives could be supplied. An intuitive rough draft might include something like this: a mutually supportive and affectionate relationship in which each sacrifices willingly for the other, and willingly binds herself or himself to the other unconditionally, giving positive regard.

Much more remains to be articulated about which type of marriage edifies civilization the best and most.

In any case, however, a lack of marriage is as destabilizing and weakening as a low birth rate. It is biologically possible to generate a high birth rate despite a low marriage rate, but there is little benefit to society, and in fact some cost to society, as large numbers of children may be born illegitimately. Donald Sensing continues:

Nationwide, the marriage rate has plunged 43% since 1960. Instead of getting married, men and women are just living together, cohabitation having increased tenfold in the same period. According to a University of Chicago study, cohabitation has become the norm. More than half the men and women who do get married have already lived together.

Economically and societally, then, the United States has been preparing its own downfall for several decades.

Not only are we suffering from a low marriage rate, but those marriages which do take place lose significance in the current environment.

Weddings became basically symbolic rather than substantive, and have come for most couples the shortcut way to make the legal compact regarding property rights, inheritance and certain other regulatory benefits.

In the popular press, much discussion of marriage has been framed in terms of religious interpretations. Whatever one may understand by the word ‘religious,’ marriage is certainly a notion which can be conceived apart from organized religious institutions and apart from religious conceptual frameworks and traditions.

Notably, both Aristotle and Confucius were relatively non-religious in their analysis of society, yet both considered marriage necessary for society.

Whether or not marriage is a right, it is much more a requisite component of society. It is, at most, tertiarily a right. Marriage exists across demographic and national groups.

Marriage is primarily a social institution, not a religious one. That is, marriage is a universal phenomenon of human cultures in all times and places, regardless of the religion of the people concerned, and has taken the same basic form in all those cultures. Marriage existed long before Abraham, Jesus or any other religious figure. The institution of marriage is literally prehistoric.

The institution of marriage supports and strengthens civilization in more than one way. It is part of a larger social structure.

A late modern, or postmodern, misunderstanding of marriage is the ‘romantic’ understanding, which sees marriage as based solely on emotion, and sees marriage solely as an expression of passion. But, as Peter J. Leithart writes,

This isn't what marriage has been through most of human history. Instead, marriage has taken the particular shape it has because it is part of a larger network, the kinship system.

Against the romantic understanding of marriage stands a more objective concept, perhaps somewhat similar to a Kantian concept of duty. Affection is a powerful emotion, and certainly has a proper place within marriage.

But marriage is an objective commitment. The contractual nature of marriage - the word ‘covenant’ is often used - is essential, even if the term ‘contract’ is here used in a most unusual way, quite foreign to the usage of bankers, lawyers, and businessmen.

Quantifiably, a measured decrease in marriage rates is observed to correlate to empirically documented societal destabilization and the declines of civilizations.

Marriage is often viewed as an institution of two people. But such a view ignores the wider range of stakeholders. Society as a whole benefits from, and has an interest in, the success of relatively large numbers of healthy and sound marriages.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Homer, Virgil, and PTSD

Although warfare has been with the human race since recorded history began, around six to eight thousand years ago, societal understanding of war changes over time. While poets have long known that combat experience produce profound changes in the individual psyche, only recently has that knowledge been formalized into the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

In modern times, large-scale mechanized conflicts have increased both the numbers of individuals in combat and the traumatic nature of that combat. The first well-known occurrence is the frequent diagnosis of “shell shock” WW1. The term ‘battle fatigue’ arose around 1944. The designation ‘PTSD’ arose around 1978 in relation to veterans who’d served in Vietnam.

Although the nomenclature may change, the phenomenon itself must have been around for millennia. Some scholars see a description of PTSD in Lady Percy’s soliloquy, found in Act II, Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1.

Going back further, the personalities of some of Virgil’s characters seem to be impacted by PTSD. Aeneas displays, e.g., seemingly uncontrollable fits of rage and sleeplessness.

Seven or eight centuries before Virgil wrote the Aeneid, Homer wrote the Odyssey and the Iliad, around 750 BC, although precise dates for Homeric composition are difficult and controversial.

Homer’s characters display questionable judgment and substance abuse in ways compatible with a diagnosis of PTSD.

Understanding the psychological aftereffects of combat may prove to be a useful interpretive tool for various works of world literature.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Founding of Rome: Competing Narratives

The most common hypothesis about the founding of Rome is a harmonization of the broad outlines of both the familiar mythological narrative and of archeological findings. Leaving aside the notion of twin baby boys abandoned in the forest and raised by a wolf, the events begin with veterans who’d fought in the Trojan War.

After the war ended around 1184 BC, these soldiers mustered out, and set sail to find a new home. They settled on the coast of Italy and founded a city known as Alba Longa.

Archeologists have found graves in Italy which seem to have been structured in the Trojan or Ionian fashion, and which seem to be from the centuries surrounding the Trojan War. Around 753 BC, colonists from Alba Longa eventually planted a daughter city. That city would eventually became Rome.

There are, however, alternative narratives which compete with this standard account of Rome’s founding.

This variant explanation starts with a patriarch named Sabinah, who descended from an earlier patriarch named Tubal, and who founded the tribe known as the Sabines. This narrative connects with the documented split of the Sabines into two groups, one of which merged with the Romans, and the other of which opposed the Romans.

The latter group eventually also joined the Romans, after many decades of conflict.

Early texts from the Ancient Near East use the word ‘Kittim’ or ‘Chittim’ to refer to, variously, inhabitants of a city on the island of Cyprus, or more generally, inhabitants of the Mediterranean world west of the Levant. Ken Johnson writes:

The most ancient history of Italy records that Sabinah, the grandson of Tubal, settled in Italy, founded a city, and named it after himself. Some time afterwards, Chittim (or Rome) was founded. In order for Rome to grow quickly, a decree was issued that any criminal that would come to help colonize Rome would be declared a free man and made a citizen of Rome. This attracted a lot of criminals and caused the sons of Tubal not to intermarry or trade with them.

A language called ‘Oscan’ is documented as belonging to ancient inhabitants of the Italian peninsula, but not to the Etruscans.

A variant of the Tubal and Sabinah narrative ties the speakers of Oscan neither to the Ionians nor to settlers from Cyprus, but to pioneers from somewhere near Greece or Macedonia.

Italian history has theorized that a tribe called the Sabini came from the Adriatic coast; possibly speaking a language called Oscan, and settled on the western coast of Italy.

Ken Johnson’s narrative accounts for the famous narrative about the rape of Sabine women. By his reckoning, it would have occurred around 1721 BC:

The Romans decided that since they could not trade or intermarry with the children of Tubal, they would secretly slip into their cities and steal as many of the young women as they could. They then took the women back to Rome. Tubal’s children gathered forces and started a war to free their daughters. The war lasted eight years.

A few years later, around 1713 BC, the two groups confronted each other. This version of the narrative fits with the archeological evidence that the Sabines split into two groups, one of which merged with Rome, and the other of which remained independent for a few more decades.

The Sabine daughters all had children of their own. The Romans stated if the Sabines did not stop the besiegement of Rome they would put their own daughters and grandchildren on the front lines. Like it or not, they were all now related. So Tubal’s children had no choice but to end the war and return home.

In historiography, a competition between two narratives is sometimes best resolved, not by a victory of one narrative over another, but rather by a harmonization of the two.

If Sabinah or Tubal can be identified with one, or more, veterans from the Trojan War, then there is at least the possibility that this competing narrative could be merged with the others.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Lycurgus: Order out of Chaos

The Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus - alternately, Lykurgus - is so shrouded in ambiguity that some scholars question whether he even existed. While the latter view may be extreme, it is a reminder to caution when formulating assertions about Lycurgus.

Living somewhere between the ninth and seventh centuries BC, he created more than simply laws. He formulated what might even be called a constitution. He shaped Spartan government and society.

Plutarch, relying on earlier sources like Plato, tells us that Lycurgus was pivotal in the formation and stability of Spartan government. Recall that ‘democracy’ meant here ‘mob rule’ and not the formation of a republic by freely elected representatives.

For the state, which had hitherto been wildly oscillating between despotism and on the one hand and democracy on the other, now, by the establishment of the Council of Elders, found a firm footing between these extremes, and was able to preserve a most equitable balance, as the eight-and-twenty elders would lend the kings their support in the suppression of democracy, but would use the people to suppress any tendency to despotism.

It was the wild oscillation which made Sparta ready, perhaps, to embrace a rather stark life as proposed by Lycurgus. His patterns made the word ‘Spartan’ from a mere geographic designation into a synonym for austerity. Plutarch describes the social patterns:

The training of the Spartan youth continued till their manhood. No one was permitted to live according to his own pleasure, but they lived in the city as if in a camp, with a fixed diet and fixed public duties, thinking themselves to belong, not to themselves, but to their country.

Clear-minded Athenians harbored some admiration for the Spartans, although the two were at war with each other. The political corruption and decadence among the Athenians made the model of Lycurgus attractive.

The Spartan collective memory understood that the uncomfortable disciplines had been their path out of anarchy, an anarchy which would have rendered them easy prey for the Athenians. Thus they continued the disciplines for generations after the first-person experience of that moment of crisis.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Caesar Augustus: Natural Law and the Empire's Lust for Power

Roman Stoics are among the earliest thinkers to explicitly articulate something resembling a Natural Law concept. (Granted, they got it from Zeno of Citium, a Greek.) Among philosophers, Natural Law is understood as a method of ethical thought, but not as determining the moral content of such thought.

Natural Law is the “how” but not the “what” of ethics.

Cicero, although he probably appropriated Stoic rhetoric more than he sincerely embraced Stoic worldviews, authored a number of formulations which are taken as early versions of the Natural Law hypothesis. Cicero’s writings on this topic were influential on Roman thought.

Octavian, later known as Caesar Augustus, either cooperated in the assassination of Cicero, or at least did not block the murder. Yet even he was influenced by Natural Law thinking.

The Romans who lived during the decades of transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire encountered complex ethical questions because of this transition, and Natural Law often entered into the public discussion of these questions.

To be sure, some public statements were more sincere than others, but even those who wrote or spoke cynically needed the logic of Natural Law to persuade their audiences.

As a method, Natural Law fit well into this situation, because Roman religion was increasingly nonfunctional: few took the pantheon of Roman polytheism literally or seriously. Although vague allusions to “the gods” or to one of the gods by name were standard ornamental phraseology in Latin and Greek rhetoric, these words could have as easily appealed to nature, common sense, or experience.

Even if, and to the extent that, one took the pagans gods seriously, they were of little help in addressing ethical dilemmas. These deities were capricious and arbitrary, often motivated by rage or jealousy, committing adultery, and betraying, fighting, punishing, waging war against, and killing each other.

The Stoics had no logical or systematic motivation to engage in the polytheistic system, but used occasional rhetorical mention of the gods and goddesses as cultural accommodations.

Stoicism contained within itself the germ of the logical rejection of polytheism, and the seed of a systematic monotheism, which in the thinking of some Stoics took the form of a pantheistic conception of the entire universe having its own agency, personhood, teleology, or consciousness.

But despite the Stoic inclination toward monotheism, Stoic ethics founded itself on a version of Natural Law which was based more on nature than on divine legislation. (A millennium or two later, this would emerge explicitly in the thought of writers like Grotius.)

Thus among pagans and Stoics, and among both sincere and insincere adherents of the two groups, the vocabulary of Natural Law - again, sometimes sincerely used, and sometimes not - formed a mutually intelligible basis for public discourse about ethical questions.

Consequently, among a wide range of Roman historical persons, Natural Law formulations are used to discuss moral propositions. Historian Korey Maas writes:

abortion was discouraged by Rome’s first Emperor, Caesar Augustus, and even punished by the similarly pagan emperors Septimus Severus and Antonius Caracalla. The Stoic philosopher Musonious Rufus, in particular, and the philosophical school of Stoicism more generally, objected to it. Some first-century physicians, interpreting the Hippocratic Oath as forbidding all abortions, refused to perform them. The satirist Juvenal could bluntly describe the abortionist as one “paid to murder mankind in the womb.” The Roman poet Ovid, not otherwise given to moralizing, could be so harsh as to declare that “Who unborn infants first to slay invented, Deserved thereby with death to be tormented.”

Despite this commendable evidence, all was not well with Natural Law discourse during the Roman Empire. The actions of the empire undermined the moral credibility of its society’s authors and speakers.

While Roman writers and orators contributed to the spread of Natural Law discourse, they also contributed to its emptiness. However sound or valid their argumentation may have been, they operated within a system which many in their audiences saw as baseless, or as based only on the lust of power.

Although Caesar Augustus had some moral impulses which the Roman public viewed as noble, some of his other actions were perceived as unnecessarily harsh. While his rule brought some relief from decades of civil war, his greed for power was undeniable.

Many thinking citizens saw the empire and its emperors as illegitimate, although it was dangerous to say so. In authors from Lucan to Tacitus, one detects hints that the moral illegitimacy of the empire spread like a disease, infecting other areas of life, including private life, with vanity, with vacuity, and with meaninglessness.

Because an amoral monster like Nero employed those who used both Stoic rhetoric and Natural Law discourse, such verbiage was seen as bankrupt. The willingness of audiences to take such vocabulary seriously was undermined.

Thus it was that during the Roman era, Natural Law discourse flourished for the first time, and during that same era declined.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Hadrian's Wall and Free Trade

Of the many civil engineering feats performed by the Romans, Hadrian’s Wall is one of the most famous: it stretches over seventy miles across the island of Great Britain, from east to west, from one coast to another.

Traditionally, historians reckoned that these walls were constructed to deter an invading army. The Romans had stopped their northward expansion at this point because of the fierceness of the Scots.

Recent reconsiderations of Hadrian’s wall, however, have raised the notion that the wall would not have been an effective barrier to a large military force, especially because it has gates at intervals along its length. The numbers of Roman soldiers stationed along the wall also would not have been sufficient for the purposes of repelling a large-scale attack.

If not strategic defense, what, then, was the purpose of the wall? Historian Andrew Curry asks:

If the walls weren’t under constant threat, what were they for?

Although scholars are diligent in their efforts to be objective, they are nonetheless affected in many and subtle ways by their time and by their location as they study events in other times and other locations.

Perhaps those who hypothesized about Hadrian’s Wall were retrojecting geopolitical patterns from their own era onto the earlier Roman era. Andrew Curry writes:

Ever since British antiquarians organized the first scientific excavations along Hadrian’s Wall in the 1890s, historians and archaeologists have assumed Rome’s walls were military fortifications, designed to fend off barbarian armies and hostile invaders.

The wall seems to constitute a sealed border, Romans to the south, Scots to the north. Why, then, the gates? Why no evidence of massive battles along the wall?

The wall was of a physical size and shape that a large invading army could easily scale it with ladders or ropes, and doing so in large numbers, would easily be able to overwhelm the few soldiers stationed there.

For decades arguments focused on tactical details: Did soldiers stand along the wall to rain spears and arrows down on invaders or sally forth to engage the enemy in the field? The trenches of WWI — and the deadly back-and-forth battling of WWII — did little to change the prevailing view of the ancient frontier as a fixed barrier separating Rome from hordes of hostile barbarians.

Perhaps Hadrian’s Wall was less like the ‘Iron Curtain’ border between East and West Germany during the Cold War, and more like the wall which divided East and West Berlin. The former was in anticipation of large-scale military formations and attacks, the latter was designed to prevent individual defectors or smugglers, or those in very small groups.

These same questions can be raised about other Roman borders, like the Limes fortifications and walls between the Rhine and the Danube in central Europe. Historians face divergent paradigms in thinking about the Roman frontiers.

Archaeologists studying the frontiers in the 1970s and ’80s later found that the Iron Curtain dividing Europe had shadowed their view of the distant past. “We had in Germany this massive border, which seemed impenetrable,” says C. Sebastian Sommer, chief archaeologist at the Bavarian State Preservation Office. “The idea was here and there, friend and foe.”

How were the relations across the border at the frontier? Were the Scots north of England, or the Germanic tribes northeast of Gaul, regarded as enemies simpliciter?

Or was there mutually beneficial trade between local farmers and villages on both sides of the borders? It is known that the Romans sometimes hired mercenaries from among those on the other side of the border. This would indicate that the border had more the character of an administrative structure than of a sworn blood feud.

Today a new generation of archaeologists is taking another look. The dramatic, unbroken line of Hadrian’s Wall may be a red herring, a 73-mile exception that proves an entirely different rule. In Europe the Romans took advantage of the natural barriers created by the Rhine and Danube Rivers, patrolling their waters with a strong river navy. In North Africa and the eastern provinces of Syria, Judea, and Arabia, the desert itself created a natural frontier.

The Roman border guard may have been more about monitoring roads and commerce than about confrontations between massive armies.

Taxes and tariffs were an important source of income for the imperial government, a purpose for which it would gladly spend the money needed to keep soldiers stationed along the border. Was their main purpose perhaps tax collection?

Military bases were often ad hoc installations set up to watch rivers and other key supply routes. The Latin word for frontier, limes (LEE-mess), originally meant a patrolled road or path. We still use the term: Our “limits” comes from limites, the plural of limes.

Perhaps the detachments who served along the border were more like customs officials than a strategic defense. The Romans would want to keep an eye on the people and merchandise which entered and left their empire.

Artifacts show that there was substantial trade across the borders of the empire. Roman products are found deep into Germanic territory; Germanic products, like amber from the shores of the Baltic, are found deep in Roman territory.

Outposts on rivers like the Rhine and Danube or in the deserts on Rome’s eastern and southern flanks often resemble police or border patrol stations. They would have been useless against an invading army but highly effective for soldiers nabbing smugglers, chasing small groups of bandits, or perhaps collecting customs fees. The thinly manned walls in England and Germany were similar. “The lines were there for practical purposes,” says Benjamin Isaac, a historian at Tel Aviv University. “They were the equivalent of modern barbed wire — to keep individuals or small groups out.”

In the empire’s later centuries, there was a need for workers in the Roman provinces, and slave or servants were imported from outside imperial borders. But the bureaucrats of the empire would want to know who, and how many, and from where these servants came.

Both observing and controlling the flow of people and goods across the borders would be important to Roman economic policy.

Isaac argues that the frontiers resembled certain modern installations more than thick-walled medieval fortresses: “Look at what Israel’s building to wall off the West Bank. It’s not meant to keep out the Iranian army, it’s made to stop people from exploding themselves on buses in Tel Aviv.” Warding off terrorists may not have motivated the Romans, but there were plenty of other factors — as there are today. “What the United States is planning between itself and Mexico is substantial,” says Isaac, “and that’s just to keep out people who want to sweep the streets in New York.”

The outposts along the borders may have had as goals, in addition to monitoring and regulating trade, expanding trade. A permanent and official presence at the outer limits of the empire may have been meant to encourage traders from deep inside Germanic or Scottish territory to bring their wares for trading.

Roman coins have been found, e.g., on the Scottish island of North Uist, almost unimaginably far north of Hadrian’s Wall.

More archaeologists are endorsing that view. “Isaac’s analysis has come to dominate the field,” says David Breeze, author of the recent Frontiers of Imperial Rome. “Built frontiers aren’t necessarily about stopping armies but about controlling the movement of people.” The Roman frontier, in other words, is better seen not as an impervious barrier sealing Fortress Rome off from the world but as one tool the Romans used to extend influence deep into barbaricum, their term for everything outside the empire, through trade and occasional raids.

In Denmark and Sweden, archeologists have found Roman coins. Although we must exercise caution in drawing conclusions from the these finds - we don’t know how or why those coins came to be in those locations - these finds indicate at least the probability of widespread Roman trade beyond the borders of the empire.

Might we conjecture that a Roman merchant would venture past the lines which marked the edge of the empire? Profit would be a powerful motive for such travels. Likewise, Germanic and Scottish traders, we can say with certainty, entered and left the empire on a regular basis to peddle their wares.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Roman Walls

The Roman Empire, having risen around 27 B.C. from the remains of the Roman Republic, expanded and reached its largest size in the middle of the second century, around 150 A.D., give or take a few decades. Having occupied such a large area of land, it needed to defend and hold that land.

The momentum of expansion dwindled and was redesigned into the momentum of defense. The Roman military had formerly focused on conquering new land and transforming such land into integrated provinces of the Empire. Now, the military was more interested in ensuring that competing powers - like the Germanic tribes, the Scots, and the Irish - did not expand into Roman land.

In addition to stationing garrisons along the border, the Romans, ever the good engineers, undertook another amazing building project: a series of walls which would eventually stretch for hundreds of miles along selected segments of the empire’s borders.

The empire sprawled across Africa, Asia, and Europe, and included islands like Great Britain. The borders totaled thousands of miles. Historian Andrew Curry describes how

A stunning network of walls, rivers, desert forts, and mountain watchtowers marks Rome’s limits. At its peak in the second century A.D., the empire sent soldiers to patrol a front that stretched from the Irish Sea to the Black Sea as well as across North Africa.

As a percentage of the total imperial border, the walls were a small fraction, built where strategists figured they were most needed. The engineering precision is impressive. In one case, a 31-mile stretch of wall is almost perfectly straight, deviating merely 36 inches. The design of the wall is precise and crisply geometrical. The exact shape of the wall varies: Hadrian’s Wall between England and Scotland is a different structure than the Limes wall in Germany.

Why did the Romans build the walls? To protect a regime besieged by barbarians, or simply to establish the physical edge of the empire?

The walls were only a small part of the border system. More often, there were watchtowers spaced at intervals. How porous were these borders? Certainly, local Germanic and Celtic tribesmen in central Europe were used to trading with each other, and if a Roman border ran between two small settlements, that would have meant little to them, and little to the Roman military men stationed there. The borders were most likely surveilled for the purposes of watching for major military movements.

But such imperial thinking was foreign to the original Roman Republic, a governmental structure dating from around 509 B.C., and designed to administering a city-state and a few agricultural lands surrounding it. The Republic’s success in expanding would also be its downfall.

From around 500 B.C., Rome expanded continually for six centuries, transforming itself from a small Italian city-state in a rough neighborhood into the largest empire Europe would ever know.

The Republic was not capable of effectively governing this large territory. The Empire replaced it.

The emperor Trajan was an eager heir to this tradition of aggression. Between 101 and 117, he fought wars of conquest in present-day Romania, Armenia, Iran, and Iraq, and he brutally suppressed Jewish revolts. Roman coins commemorated his triumphs and conquests.

Trajan left a gigantic empire to his successor. Had Trajan lived longer, he might have learned that the empire was perhaps too big to be thoroughly organized and successfully defended.

The military requirements - defending borders in England, across central Europe, into southwestern Asia, and across northern Africa - were enormous. Too big, in fact. The regular Roman army was supplemented at first by domestic mercenaries, then by foreign mercenaries. But this help was often actually another problem.

When he died in 117, his territory stretched from the Persian Gulf to Scotland. He bequeathed the empire to his adopted son — a 41-year-old Spanish senator, self-styled poet, and amateur architect named Publius Aelius Hadrianus. Faced with more territory than Rome could afford to control and under pressure from politicians and generals to follow in the footsteps of his adoptive father, the newly minted emperor — better known as Hadrian — blinked. “The first decision he made was to abandon the new provinces and cut his losses,” says biographer Anthony Birley. “Hadrian was wise to realize his predecessor had bitten off more than he could chew.”

The Romans had ventured northeast of the line on which the Limes wall would eventually be built. The earliest walls had actually been built as far back as the reign of Octavian-Augustus, who suffered a humiliating defeat in 9 A.D. at the hands of the Germanic tribes.

Under Hadrian's rule, they would pull back a few miles to more defensible positions.

But under Hadrian and his successor, the Limes boundary line, roughly the southwest border of Germany, would reach its full structural development of walls, watchtowers, and forts.

The new emperor’s policies ran up against an army accustomed to attacking and fighting on open ground. Worse, they cut at the core of Rome’s self-image. How could an empire destined to rule the world accept that some territory was out of reach?

As it turned out, the Roman Empire had not only stopped its expansion, but it was preparing to shrink. The Germanic tribes in Europe, and the Scots in Great Britain, became bolder and more familiar with Roman military practices. Knowledge of the Romans allowed the tribes to strategize ways to outmaneuver and outfight the Romans.

The Limes marked the highpoint of the empire, but at the same time marked the beginning of the end.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Spanish Scholastics and Modern Political Liberty

Scholasticism, and the thought of the Middle Ages generally, manifests itself under close examination as seminal. Medieval thinkers laid a foundation for observational, empirical, natural sciences by asserting that mathematical laws apply consistently across the physical universe; the medieval axiom that the world can be rationally understood encouraged scientific research.

Thomas Bradwardine has become, perhaps, one of the more famous examples of the way in which medieval thought formed a basis for modern thought. He articulated, in the early 1300s, mathematical formulations of the mean speed theorem, as well as proofs for it. Together with his colleagues, the “Oxford Calculators” of Merton College, Bradwardine opened the door to the use of exponential calculations in physics.

But not only did the Middle Ages make modern mathematics and physics possible, it also was foundational for the social sciences.

Thomist concepts, crystalized by scholastics in the High Middle Ages, allowed later thinkers, like Juan de Mariana, to precisely formulate questions about economics and political science, and to articulate answers to those questions.

“The prehistory,” writes Historian Jesús Huerta de Soto,

of economics can be found in the works of the Spanish scholastics written in what is known as the "Spanish Golden Century," which ran from the mid-sixteenth century through the seventeenth century.

The work of these post-medieval thinkers, ushering in the era, not only of modern political science and economics, but also of Lockean notions of liberty, was made possible by the Aristotelian and Thomist conceptual framework of previous centuries. “Who were these Spanish intellectual forerunners,” asks Jesús Huerta de Soto,

of economics? Most of them were scholastics teaching morals and theology at the University of Salamanca, in the medieval Spanish city located 150 miles northwest of Madrid, close to the border of Spain with Portugal.

Juan de Mariana studied and lectured on the texts of Thomas Aquinas, and authored detailed history books. He thus combined both an abstract conceptual framework with the concrete and specific content which would inhabit that framework.

These scholastics, mainly Dominicans and Jesuits, articulated the subjectivist, dynamic, and libertarian tradition on which, two-hundred-and-fifty years later, Carl Menger and his followers would place so much importance. Perhaps the most libertarian of all the scholastics, particularly in his later works, was the Jesuit Father Juan de Mariana.

Nearly a century before John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, Juan de Mariana articulated concepts which are now widely viewed as Lockean. Even as Bradwardine may deserve credit for discoveries assigned to Galileo, so Juan de Mariana may deserve credit for notions of political liberty assigned to Locke.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Before Locke?

Nearly a century before John Locke articulated the principles which have become associated with his name, and which have made possible modern civilization, a Spanish scholastic named Juan de Mariana seems to have anticipated Locke and given relatively precise expression of those same principles.

The view that the legitimacy of a government is based on the consent of the governed is a view now associated with Locke. Yet, as historian Jesús Huerta de Soto notes, this Spanish scholastic, enjoying the freedom of thought which Spain experienced after the occupying Muslim armies were repelled from the area in 1492, expresses Lockean ideas at a time long prior to Locke:

Although Father Mariana wrote many books, the first one with a libertarian content was De rege et regis institutione (On the king and the royal institution), published in 1598, in which he set forth his famous defense of tyrannicide. According to Mariana, any individual citizen can justly assassinate a king who imposes taxes without the consent of the people, seizes the property of individuals and squanders it, or prevents a meeting of a democratic parliament. The doctrines contained in this book were apparently used to justify the assassination of the French tyrant kings Henry III and Henry IV, and the book was burned in Paris by the executioner as a result of a decree issued by the Parliament of Paris on July 4, 1610.

The logic of Juan de Mariana clearly antedates and foreshadows Locke, who in turn influenced the Declaration of Independence. Could it be that the “Spirit of ‘76” owes as much, or more, to a Spanish late scholastic than to an middle-class English political philosopher?