Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Discovery Of The Past II

In "The Discovery of the Past" (Past Times, New York, 1984), Poul Anderson lists six kinds of human being:

a Navajo herdsman;
an Australian bushman;
a Yankee capitalist;
a European socialist;
a Confucian scholar;
an Islamic warrior -

- and argues that we can learn about humanity from all of them, as indeed we can. Do all of these different characters even belong to the same species? (They display more diversity than many fictional aliens.) Yes, they do, but only because it is a dynamic and diverse species. On the one hand, a baby born in any one of these societies could have been abducted at birth and brought up in any of the others, learning the appropriate language, dialect, attitudes, values, beliefs and skills. On the other hand, it is human beings that have built the societies. So we are both plastic and creative.

Anderson writes that, instead of the Roman Empire merely expanding, stagnating or falling into ruin:

"A heretical offshoot of the religion of a subjugated people, afar in the corner of the Mediterranean ambit, took over Romans and barbarians alike, completely transforming them and breeding new, utterly different civilizations." (p. 190)

I would not put it like that. My account would be:

slave-owning society collapsed;
feudalism grew in its ruins;
trade and mercantile wealth grew within feudalism until they overthrew it, releasing previously unsuspected productive capacities that are still being developed.

Which religion from the Roman Empire managed to provide an ideology for these social changes was a secondary matter - although, as a matter of fact, it was Jewish monotheism freed from the Jewish Law, with a single perfect sacrifice replacing repeated animal sacrifices, that answered the need for a historically new revelation and universal faith far better than the men-only Mystery of Mithras, despite Roman soldiers bearing the latter to the farthest frontiers of the Empire.


Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Paul!

I'm sorry, but I don't agree with how you argue Western civilization arose. I lean more to Anderson's view that Christianity TRANSFORMED both Romans and barbarians alike, turning them into something very different from what they would likely have become.

Moreover, Western feudalism evolved gradually from the ruins of the Roman Empire. Slavery faded away into serfdom. Nor was feudalism ever dramaticall overthrown--it too faded away largely because the rise of gunpowder weapons and the centralized national states we saw in England, France, Spain after about 1500 made the military basis of feudalism obsolete.

In fact, some countries like the UK and Spain still has some remains of feudalism, mostly in law and some now fairly rare forms of landownership.

And I do agree that free market capitalism, the beginnings of which goes back to the great banking families of the Middle Ages, also played a role. A largely beneficial role which is being strangled by the top heavy administrative state (socialism)of our times.

And I simply can't think of religion as merely an ideology, because a faith deals with the ultimate questions of life and death, sin and goodness, heaven and hell, salvation, etc. But, I would agree to calling Islam an "ideology," because it believes in merging mosque and state into a theocracy. The ideal polity, for a Muslim, is a caliphate administered according to Sharia law.


Paul Shackley said...

I agree religion goes deeper than ideology. Hence, my reading of scripture, study of religious philosophy and practise of meditation. Islam includes Sufi mysticism so is not homogeneous.

Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Paul!

Good! I'm glad you agree religion goes more deeply than a merely "ideological" view.

Yes, I have heard of the Sufi school within Islam. But, the problem is that Sufiism is very much a minority, even a despised minority, within Islam. I've seen Muslims dismissing Sufiism with contempt because it had been inflenced by Christianity.