Monday, March 1, 2021

Thinking about evil in history (Kekes)

I am currently grappling with how to bring the horrendous events of the twentieth century into the philosophy of history. After doing a lot of reading about recent thinking about the Holocaust (link), it seems clear that we still have failed to fully comprehend the atrocities of the Nazi period, Stalinist rule before and after World War II, and many other episodes of genocide, mass murder, and enslavement in the past century. Only the idea of radical evil seems to remotely capture these historical atrocities. I've added two sections to my article on the philosophy of history in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to address this set of problems; link. But these lines only serve to introduce the subject; much more remains to be done.

The "problem of evil" has a long history of discussion and debate in theology and in philosophy. However, the perspective I take on atrocities is entirely secular and non-religious, so theological debates are not relevant to my analysis. And much philosophical discussion of the topic of evil occurs at a highly abstract and conceptual level, which is likewise not very helpful to my topic. However, a recent book in philosophy that I have found useful is John Kekes' The Roots of Evil (2007).

Kekes' book is interesting for three primary reasons. First, he provides six case studies of evil events in history, for which he provides fairly extensive historical detail. Second, he focuses the problem on the question of "why" the perpetrators did what they did. And third, he attempts to present and refute a handful of existing theories of evil actions, all of which he finds wanting.

Kekes offers a precise working definition of what he means by "evil", a definition that separates it from a religious or theological context. He argues that the idea comes down to three necessary and jointly sufficient conditions:

The evil of an action, therefore, consists in the combination of three components: the malevolent motivation of evildoers; the serious, excessive harm caused by their actions; and the lack of morally acceptable excuse for the actions. (2)

(Parenthetically -- I'm generally unpersuaded by overly precise definitions offered by philosophers. Most interesting concepts don't have "necessary and sufficient conditions" that define and exhaust their meaning. And that seems true in the case of the concept of evil as well. The working definition that I prefer is less precise: “cruelty on a massive scale, including systematic torture, murder, starvation, and enslavement of ordinary, innocent human beings”.)

The cases of atrocity that Kekes presents make for hard reading, because they involve horrific cruelty and human suffering. But, of course, this is why they represent evil. Here are the cases that he presents:
  • The Cathar Crusade (1200)
  • The Terror conducted by Robespierre during the French Revolution (1792)
  • The actions of Franz Stangl, Kommandant of Treblinka
  • The Manson family murders of Sharon Tate and others
  • The "dirty war" conducted by the Argentinean army, navy, and air force
  • The psychopathic violence of convicted murderer John Allen
These cases give Kekes' discussion a specificity and detail that is often lacking in philosophical discussions of evil.

Kekes focuses on the psychological causes of evil-doing -- psychological propensities and motivations:

My aim is to provide a causal explanation of why evildoers do evil. There are excellent recent works giving historical accounts of past explanations, but they are relevant to my aim only insofar as they contribute to the right explanation or illustrate mistakes. The facts I appeal to are psychological propensities familiar to normally intelligent people, not the fruits of research or deep reflection. Common knowledge of them makes it possible for novelists, playwrights, biographers, and historians to write about the character, motivation, and actions of people at places and times other than their own and feel confident about being understood. I have in mind such propensities as desiring a meaningful life, needing to be loved, having conflicting motives, deceiving oneself, wanting to appear other than one is, being ignorant of some of one’s motives, resenting injustice, embellishing the past, fearing the unknown, minding defeat, caring about the opinion of others, and so forth. These propensities are commonplaces of human psychology, but they also have moral significance. (7-8)

He considers a handful of theories of the psychological basis of evil actions, which he finds inadequate. And he considers the theological and quasi-theological theories that have been offered in the past -- e.g. "the world is an inherently good place" -- which he rejects. In place of these traditional theories he offers his own "mixed and multicausal" theory of evil actions:

The explanation of evil has the following general characteristics: it is
  • mixed because it involves the combination of internal-active, internal-passive, external-active, and external-passive conditions;
  • multicausal because the conditions that jointly cause it vary with individuals, societies, times, and places;
  • particular because it involves the detailed consideration of conditions that differ from case to case. (243)
There are two specific points that I find most useful in The Roots of Evil. First, Kekes rejects the relevance of moral relativism in the discussion of evil (as I do):

Slavery, clitoridectomy, blood feuds, assassination, terrorism, mutilating criminals, persecuting religious dissenters, torturing captives, holding innocent people hostage, dooming children to life as prostitutes or castrati are also culturally conditioned practices, but they are evil. The toleration of such evils, the implausible attempts to excuse them, and the reluctance to condemn them endanger civilized life by countenancing the violation of the physical security of their victims. Morally committed people ought to be intolerant of such evils. Those who mouth the catch-phrases of toleration avert their gaze from evil. (214)

The way I would put the point about relativism goes along these lines: In considering terrible events in the past, it is necessary to acknowledge the two perspectives (participant and observer). As became evident in an earlier discussion of the Athenian massacre of the Melians (link), the authors and perpetrators of horrific acts in the past sometimes choose to perform these acts within a moral worldview that they believe justifies their actions. However, we can dispense altogether with the question of moral relativism. It is perfectly reasonable for us in the present to judge that these practices and actions in the past were wrong and unjust (slavery, genocide, deliberate starvation, mutilation, ...), whether or not participants at the time found these practices morally acceptable. Their moral frameworks were defective and corrigible.

And second, Kekes places "decency" and "moral imagination" at the center of what is needed if we are to learn from the historical experience of evil.

It is reasonable to conclude, then, that if moral imagination had enabled evildoers to understand better their victims and their own motives and to realize that they had attractive alternatives to evildoing, then they would have been less likely to become or to continue as evildoers.... Moderately intelligent people have the capacity of moral imagination, but like other modes of imagination, it has to be cultivated. (237)

We can cultivate moral imagination by paying attention to the realities of the experience of other human beings -- through our personal experience, through literature, and through the horrors of the histories of the Cathar Crusade or the Argentinian "dirty war". Human beings are not fixed in their moral capabilities; rather, we can gain compassion and resist the impulses towards participating in evil actions.

The cultivation of moral imagination in this way provides not only personal enrichment but also a moral force that can help make lives better and cope with evil. By increasing self-knowledge, presenting attractive alternatives to evildoing, and providing a basis for the comparison, contrast, and criticism of one’s own way of being and acting, moral imagination helps to avoid the falsifications involved in unintentional evildoing. (238)

This observation about the cultivation of moral imagination points in the direction of a view of how it is possible to learn from history. Learning and confronting the horrific circumstances of the massacres of the Cathars, the torture of Argentine leftists, or the deliberate starvation of Ukrainian peasants, unavoidably brings us to a more vivid understanding of the moral evil of those events: the pain, suffering, and loss that these actions created for human beings much like ourselves. The strongest impression I took away from Hannah Arendt's account of the trial of Eichmann is the utter lack of sympathy, pity, or compassion he showed for the victims of his activities. Atrocities often depend on the total dehumanization of the victims, and compassion makes it more difficult to accomplish that trick.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Epicurean advertising?

image: Epicurus inscription at Oenoanda (credit Jack A. Waldron (link))

In The Consolations of Philosophy Alain de Botton offers an interesting observation concerning one of the sequels to Epicureanism -- a massive public wall carving commissioned by Diogenes of Oenoanda (a small city in what is now Turkey). Diogenes of Oenoanda (not to be confused with the more famous Cynic philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope, who lived in a wine barrel) was an Epicurean Greek philosopher of the second century AD, and his portico in the public market of Oenoanda was filled with thousands of quotations and texts from Epicurean philosophy (link). (Here are English translations of the existing fragments (link), and here is a very interesting blog post of a bicycle visit to the archeological materials of Oenoanda; link.) Botton describes the scene in these terms:

In the AD 120s, in the central market-place of Oinoanda, a town of 10,000 inhabitants in the south-western corner of Asia Minor, an enormous stone colonnade 80 metres long and nearly 4 metres high was erected and inscribed with Epicurean slogans for the attention of shoppers: 

"Luxurious foods and drinks … in no way produce freedom from harm and a healthy condition in the flesh."

"One must regard wealth beyond what is natural as of no more use than water to a container that is full to overflowing."

"Real value is generated not by theatres and baths and perfumes and ointments … but by natural science."

 The wall had been paid for by Diogenes, one of Oinoanda’s wealthiest citizens, who had sought, 400 years after Epicurus and his friends had opened the Garden in Athens, to share with his fellow inhabitants the secrets of happiness he had discovered in Epicurus’s philosophy. As he explained on one corner of the wall: 'Having already reached the sunset of my life (being almost on the verge of departure from the world on account of old age), I wanted, before being overtaken by death, to compose a fine anthem to celebrate the fullness of pleasure and so to help now those who are well-constituted. Now, if only one person, or two or three or four or five or six … were in a bad predicament, I should address them individually … but as the majority of people suffer from a common disease, as in a plague, with their false notions about things, and as their number is increasing (for in mutual emulation they catch the disease from each other, like sheep) … I wished to use this stoa to advertise publicly medicines that bring salvation.' (67)

What is interesting to me -- beyond the existence of the site itself -- is Botton's interpretation of the installation and the meaning that he attributes to it. Botton interprets this large 80 meter by 4 meter stone wall carving as a form of advertising on behalf of the benefits of Epicurean philosophy. This is a striking piece of historical writing, in large part because it juxtaposes a quintessentially modern activity (marketing and advertising) with ordinary life in the ancient world. But does the concept of "advertising" have any literal meaning in the ancient world? Surely it does not. The word "advertise" contained in the quotation from Diogenes (represented on the wall itself) seems to have the meaning simply to "publicize" or "draw attention to". Here is the full passage of Diogenes' statement in translation by the archeology team:

Having already reached the sunset of my life (being almost on the verge of departure from the world on account of old age), I wanted, before being overtaken by death, to compose a [fine] anthem [to celebrate the] fullness [of pleasure] and so to help now those who are well-constituted. Now, if only one person or two or three or four or five or six or any larger number you choose, sir, provided that it is not very large, were in a bad predicament, I should address them individually and do all in my power to give them the best advice. But, as I have said before, the majority of people suffer from a common disease, as in a plague, with their false notions about things, and their number is increasing (for in mutual emulation they catch the disease from one another, like sheep) moreover, [it is] right to help [also] generations to come (for they too belong to us, though they are still unborn) and, besides, love of humanity prompts us to aid also the foreigners who come here. Now, since the remedies of the inscription reach a larger number of people, I wished to use this stoa to advertise publicly the [medicines] that bring salvation. These medicines we have put [fully] to the test; for we have dispelled the fears [that grip] us without justification, and, as for pains, those that are groundless we have completely excised, while those that are natural we have reduced to an absolute minimum, making their magnitude minute.

Our modern concept of advertising is not just about "public expression of an opinion." Rather, it has everything to do with an extensive market economy, a consumer culture, and a social world in which persuasion and the shaping of tastes and wants is a developed professional activity. It has to do with deliberate efforts to market and sell a given product. In other words, "advertising" is a concept that invokes a complex social practice that depends on a set of social relations that did not exist in the second century of the common era. (Here is an earlier post on the invention of advertising in the twentieth century; link.)

But this suggests that Botton's central interpretive point here is faulty: "To counteract the power of luxurious images Epicureans appreciated the importance of advertising" (67). This is surely false: it was no more possible for the Epicureans to "appreciate the importance of advertising" than they could understand chivalry, the trinity, or "socialism in one country". The social relationships and semantic concepts upon which these ideas depend had not yet been invented. It is pure anachronism, a soft drink can left on the shooting set of an episode of Game of Thrones. Much safer, but less dramatic, would be to say something that clearly was true: "Epicureans appreciated the importance of persuading." But Botton's taste for striking phrases and images gets the better of him here; and as a result, he slips into bad historical interpretation.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Making sense of atrocities

Reading Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 has made me aware of something outside his storyline: the normal, routine, and unremarked willingness of medieval peasant-soldiers, leaders, bands, and armies to slaughter one another, to kill the disarmed, to enslave prisoners, and to do all these things with apparently no compunction. Vikings, Franks, Bulgars, Huns, and Romans massacred and burned. Here is just one example, from the wars of Charlemagne:

Saxony was hard to conquer precisely because it was disunited, and it was the theatre of considerable violence, not least for the 4,500 Saxon prisoners massacred in 782 after a Frankish defeat. The conquest was by 780 associated with a conscious process of Christianization; this was one of the few conversion processes openly brought about by force in our period. (378)

Or, when we get around to the high and mighty, we find kings, generals, and emperors who maim and kill their rivals, including often enough members of their own families. Blinding one’s rival or one's brother-in-law, maiming the face or body, these were familiar ways of dealing permanently with a rival. The crimes represented in Greek tragedy were not imaginary.

What are we to make of this fairly simple historical fact about the behavior of our human ancestors a mere 1500 years ago?

Does it imply that “human nature” is inherently cruel and indifferent to the suffering of other human beings, and that compassion is a cultural discovery or innovation?

Does it imply that restraints on violence depend upon social structures and cultural creations — laws, norms, and institutions setting boundaries on violence?

Is there such a thing as a “civilizational” turning away from violence against the innocent? Did human institutions (military law, international conventions, religion) and invented and disseminated moral values (“it is horrible and shameful to harm or kill the innocent”) change the occurrence of atrocity? (John Keegan quotes views to this effect to explain the fact that studies indicated that only 25% of battlefield soldiers fire their weapons in World War II.)

The Ten Commandments have been the foundation of monotheistic religious ethics for more than three thousand years -- including the prohibition against murder. Did monotheistic religions change the behavior of individuals, bands, armies, and states? Were Christian Visigoths or Vandals less cruel in war? Did the armies of Islam commit these same kinds of atrocities, or did the kindness preached by the Prophet prevail? What about ancient Judaism and Jewish communities? For that matter, what about the converts to Judaism in the Khazars — did they massacre their enemies just as wantonly?

Most importantly, does this changing history of cruelty on a mass scale suggest that our human sensibilities themselves have changed in a millennium and a half, so human beings in typical social circumstances are no longer so ready to kill and maim their fellow human beings? Does a religion, a personal value scheme sincerely embraced, or adherence to an ideal of how one should value the human experience and life of anonymous others effectively change a person's social psychology? Can compassion and pity be learned or culturally reproduced?

But if so, what about My Lai, Lt. Calley, and Ghraib Prison? What about Isis beheadings, burnings, and rapes? What about the vicious brutality of Trump rioters against police on January 6?

Here is a fairly concrete question: what did ancient writers and philosophers have to say about the killing of the innocent? Did Seneca or Lucretius make any pronouncements on the behavior of armies, massacre, or killing of the innocent? Here is Seneca, writing in roughly 50 CE, about the morally corrosive effects of the crowd at the "games" (Letters from a Stoic):

2. To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger. 

But nothing is so damaging to good character as the habit of lounging at the games; for then it is that vice steals subtly upon one through the avenue of pleasure. 3. What do you think I mean? I mean that I come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human beings. By chance I attended a mid-day exhibition, expecting some fun, wit, and relaxation,—an exhibition at which men’s eyes have respite from the slaughter of their fellow-men. But it was quite the reverse. The previous combats were the essence of compassion; but now all the trifling is put aside and it is pure murder. The men have no defensive armour. They are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain. 4. Many persons prefer this programme to the usual pairs and to the bouts “by request.” Of course they do; there is no helmet or shield to deflect the weapon. What is the need of defensive armour, or of skill? All these mean delaying death. In the morning they throw men to the lions and the bears; at noon, they throw them to the spectators. The spectators demand that the slayer shall face the man who is to slay him in his turn; and they always reserve the latest conqueror for another butchering. The outcome of every fight is death, and the means are fire and sword. This sort of thing goes on while the arena is empty. 5. You may retort: “But he was a highway robber; he killed a man!” And what of it? Granted that, as a murderer, he deserved this punishment, what crime have you committed, poor fellow, that you should deserve to sit and see this show? In the morning they cried “Kill him! Lash him! Burn him! Why does he meet the sword in so cowardly a way? Why does he strike so feebly? Why doesn’t he die game? Whip him to meet his wounds! Let them receive blow for blow, with chests bare and exposed to the stroke!” And when the games stop for the intermission, they announce: “A little throat-cutting in the meantime, so that there may still be something going on!” 

Come now; do you not understand even this truth, that a bad example reacts on the agent? Thank the immortal gods that you are teaching cruelty to a person who cannot learn to be cruel. 6. The young character, which cannot hold fast to righteousness, must be rescued from the mob; it is too easy to side with the majority. Even Socrates, Cato, and Laelius might have been shaken in their moral strength by a crowd that was unlike them; so true it is that none of us, no matter how much he cultivates his abilities, can withstand the shock of faults that approach, as it were, with so great a retinue. 7. Much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed; the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbour, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere. What then do you think the effect will be on character, when the world at large assaults it! You must either imitate or loathe the world. (Seneca, letter VII)

The text treats cruelty obliquely. This is not his primary target; rather, Seneca uses the scene of the "exhibition" as an occasion for making a different point -- the harmfulness of associating with "the crowd". But in his framing of the example, he makes it clear that he sees the behavior of the crowd as detestable and awful in its bloodthirstiness and cruelty. And he sees the behavior as contagious: when a virtuous person -- even a Socrates or Cato -- is exposed to this sight, he will be harmed in his virtue. And why is this cruelty awful? Because, it would seem, it involves the horrible imposition of pain, mutilation, and death on the weak, for the entertainment of the many. It is recognition of the human reality of the pain and desperation of the victims that motivates Seneca, it seems; he is empathetic with these other unfortunate human beings.

The historical evolution of massacre and cruelty raises huge and important questions. The topic converges with an earlier discussion of the Athenian massacre of the Melians, described in Thucydides (link). And the questions are genuinely difficult to answer. Human nature? Moral progress? The favorable role of religion? Institutions designed to limit violence? Perhaps some will even consider the intuition embraced by Dr. King in 1967 -- "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice." But if we want to understand the particular evils of the twentieth century -- Holocaust, Holodomor, and Gulag, to name just the most awful -- we need to consider the nature and situations of the human beings -- versions of ourselves -- who have committed acts like these at other times in history.

(Relevant books to consider on this topic include John Keegan's The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, Glenn Gray's The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, and Philip Hallie's Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Frankish kings and Mynyddog's gold ...

Chris Wickham's The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 is a fascinating book to read, if you are interested in how various strands of culture, politics, and economy developed in Europe between the fifth century and the beginning of the eleventh century -- that is, between the end of the Roman Empire and the high medieval period. Wickham is an evangelist when it comes to understanding medieval history; he believes that our intellectual culture has seriously misunderstood the nature of society, politics, culture, and religion in the millennium between the fifth century and the fifteenth century. The opening words of the book capture this conviction:

Early medieval Europe has, over and over, been misunderstood. It has fallen victim above all to two grand narratives, both highly influential in the history and history-writing of the last two centuries, and both of which have led to a false image of this period: the narrative of nationalism and the narrative of modernity. Before we consider a different sort of approach, we need to look at both of these, briefly but critically, to see what is wrong with each; for most readers of this book who have not already studied the period will have one or both in the front of their minds as a guiding image. (3)

His point against "ontological nationalism" is straightforward and entirely accurate: there was no "France" or "Belgium" in the fifth century, and there was no precursor to those national identities either. Rather, the "France" that emerged as a nation a thousand years later was the product of a myriad of contingencies -- military, climatic, religious, global, and internal -- and, in fact, France even in the twentieth century was not a single unified nation. Alsace and Breton retain regional identities to the present that diverge to various degrees from the notion of "unified French identity". (See discussions of Emmanuel Todd (link) and Theodor Zeldin (link) on these points.) Wickham is entirely right, then, to object to the teleological idea that various European nations were in the oven in the early medieval period, and just waiting to be born. 

But likewise, Wickham rejects the teleology of inevitable economic and political development as well -- the idea that the continent was making its way towards modernity, extensive trade, and modern production techniques. As readers of the blog have seen in discussions of the "breakthrough debate", it is evident that European economic development was both more heterogeneous than this conception would permit, and also much more subject to contingency and path-dependency than the modernization paradigm would suggest (link, linklink). Against these teleological frameworks for historical understanding, Wickham insists on something different:

I am in favour of most of these final ends myself; but to me as a historian the storyline still seems ridiculous, for every period in history has its own identity and legitimacy, which must be seen without hindsight. The long stretch of time between 400 and 1000 has its own validity as a field of study, which is in no way determined by what went before or came after. To attribute values to it (or to parts of it, as with those who, with the image of the ‘Carolingian Renaissance’, want to attach the ninth and perhaps tenth centuries to the grand narrative of ‘real’ history, at the expense, presumably, of the sixth to eighth) is a pointless operation. And to me as a historian of the early Middle Ages, the ‘othering’ of the period simply seems meaningless. The wealth of recent scholarship on the period gives the lie to this whole approach to seeing history; and this book will have failed if it appears to support it in any way. (6)

Or in other words, we need to treat the developments that unfolded between the boot of Italy and the north of Scotland in their own terms, recognizing heterogeneity, multiple actors, path-dependency, surprising events, and the deep and persistent fact of contingency. "The third aim has been to look at the period 400–1000, and all the sub-periods inside that long stretch of time, in their own terms, without considering too much their relationship with what came before or after, so as to sidestep the grand narratives criticized above" (p. 11). Wickham refers to a new emerging paradigm for medieval history:

That paradigm sees many aspects of late Antiquity (itself substantially revalued: the late Roman empire is now often seen as the Roman high point, not an inferior and totalitarian copy of the second-century pax romana) continuing into the early Middle Ages without a break. More specifically: the violence of the barbarian invaders of the empire is a literary trope; there were few if any aspects of post-Roman society and culture that did not have Roman antecedents; the seventh century in the West, although the low point for medieval evidence, produced more surviving writings than any Roman century except the fourth and sixth, showing that a literate culture had by no means vanished in some regions; in short, one can continue to study the early medieval world, east or west, as if it were late Rome. This position is explicit in much recent work on the fifth-century invasions, but it affects the study of later centuries, into the ninth century and beyond, in much more indirect ways. It is rare to find historians actually writing that Charlemagne, say, was essentially operating in a late Roman political-cultural framework, even when they are implying it by the ways they present him. This is a problem, however; for, whether or not one believes that Charlemagne was actually operating in such a framework, the issue cannot properly be confronted and argued about until it is brought out into the open. And it can be added that historians have, overall, been much more aware that catastrophe is a literary cliché in the early Middle Ages than that continuity – accommodation – is one as well. (8-9)

An important part of the historiography of Wickham's work is his recognition that archaeology and the documentation of material culture is progressing rapidly, even as the available texts from the period have come close to exhaustion. Moreover, he recognizes that the study of material culture -- the architecture of manors, rural homes, and fortifications, for example -- provides a different kind of insight into the history of the period than do the available documents. This isn't a new idea in history; Mommsen recognized the importance of material artifacts and inscriptions in his History of Rome in 1871. but it continues to be an important reminder for historians who tend to continue to be primarily interested in texts and archives. His treatment of architecture during the period -- great and small -- is especially interesting and revealing, and the photographs that accompany the exposition are outstanding.

The intervisuality of architectural style is one of the most powerful conveyors of meaning and visual effect. As remarked at the start of this book, archaeology, and the study of material culture in its widest sense in art history and architectural history, tends to tell us different sorts of things from the study of narrative and documentary texts. Material culture tells us more about the use of space, the function of spatial relationships, as well as, of course, stylistic and technological changes; written culture tells us more about human relationships, choices, conscious representations of the world around us. But the construction of visual meaning, by emperors and peasants alike, links these two worlds: it is material culture, not words, which tells us about the choices of al-Walid, or Paschal, or Julian and Domna in Serjilla. That is why this chapter is the central one in this book; it offers a way to compare the strategies of every actor in the early Middle Ages, rich or poor, and not – for once – just those who had access to the written word. And the audiences of buildings such as these were also far wider than those of any written text, save of the sections of the Bible and Qur’an most often read out in religious ceremonies, and these latter tended not to change much across time and space. The whole population of Europe was thus involved in the communication discussed in this chapter, and could even, if they chose, participate as communicators, not just as audiences. Indeed, as archaeology makes its inevitable advances in the future, this is a sector of historical knowledge which, for a change, we shall know progressively more about. (250-251)

Another noteworthy aspect of Wickham's approach to the history of this millennium of change is that he is interested in considering the actors' points of view -- including at least occasionally the points of view of peasants, women, traders, and other non-elite participants in medieval society. Here is a complicated story involving legal institutions, the daughter of a lesser landowner, and an exercise of the woman's creative agency to achieve her goals:

In 721 Anstruda of Piacenza in northern Italy made an unusual charter. She sold her own legal independence to the brothers Sigirad and Arochis, because she had married their unfree dependant (servus). She and they agreed that her future sons should remain the brothers’ dependants in perpetuity, but her daughters could buy their independence at marriage for the same money, 3 solidi, that Anstruda herself had received. Although Lombard Italy was a relatively legally aware country (and Piacenza is not far from the capital), this charter breaks at least three laws: the law forbidding free–slave marriages; the law, or at least assumption, that the unfree were not legal persons, so Anstruda’s daughters could not be assigned future rights; and the law prohibiting female legal autonomy. Anstruda’s father Authari, a vir honestus or small landowner, consented to the document, but the money for Anstruda’s legal rights went to her directly, and she is the actor throughout. There is an ironic sense in which this account of a young peasant woman, even though she was selling her own freedom, shows how she could make her own rules, create her own social context, even in as restrictive a society for female autonomy as Lombard Italy. This may say something about Anstruda as a person; it also says something about the fluidity of peasant society in Italy. (203)

Consistently with Wickham's emphasis on contingency and heterogeneity across space, many of the regions he discussions from the sixth and later centuries display an extreme degree of political fragmentation. "Kings" were often monarchs of very limited domains indeed, and especially so in Britain:

The post-Roman British in the lowlands probably operated on a smaller scale still. The only lowland powers who can be traced in any detail are the kings of Ergyng, Gwent, the Cardiff region and Gower, all in lowland south-east Wales, some documents for whom, land-grants to churches, survive from the late sixth century onwards: these kings ruled perhaps a third of a modern county each, and sometimes less. This was the Romanized section of Wales, and this sort of scale may well have been normal in the whole of lowland Britain. It probably derived from the first generations after the end of Roman rule, in which local landowners had to look to their own self-defence, and even the Roman city territories, the traditional units of government in lowland Britain as elsewhere, soon fragmented into rather smaller de-facto units. (152-53)

It is not easy to tell what Welsh kings did. They evidently fought a lot, and their military entourage is one of their best-documented features. They were generous and hospitable to their dependants, and (at least in literature) got loyalty to the death in return, although where they got their resources from is not so clear. They took tribute from subject and defeated rulers, and also tribute or rent from their own people, but the little we know of the latter implies that only fairly small quantities were owed by the peasant population to their lords; Mynyddog’s gold, silver and glass were a literary image, too. (154)

Frankish kings operated on a vastly larger scale. They controlled more territory, they gathered more significant armies, and they gathered taxes and resources on a much larger scale.

The lasting importance of the Merovingian royal courts was in large part due to the huge wealth that every king or maior could dispose of. Kings owned very large tracts of land; they had access to commercial tolls and judicial fines. They also for long controlled the surviving elements of the Roman land tax. These are described (and complained about) by Gregory of Tours, and they seem to have been most firmly rooted in the south-west, the Loire valley and Aquitaine. Even in Gregory’s time, as noted in Chapter 4, the tax system was not very systematically maintained: registers could go without updating for a generation, tax levels were far lower than under Rome, and royal cessions of tax immunity to whole city territories were beginning. Indeed, an organic fiscal structure of a Roman type could not still have existed if kings moved cities between each other so easily. By the mid-seventh century tax liabilities seem to have become fixed tributes, taken from smaller and smaller areas. In the north, this process may well have started earlier, and Chlotar II formally renounced the right to new taxes in 614; by 626–7 a church council at Clichy near Paris regarded taxpayers as an inferior category, to be excluded from the ranks of the clergy. It is likely that the tax system had already decayed so much that Chlotar could regard it as worth abandoning, for political effect; it only survived regionally after that (it is documented in the Loire valley into the 720s at least). (120)

Of particular interest is Wickham's treatment of the nature and extent of trade during the sixth and seventh centuries. This is interesting because of the light it sheds on the question of the degree of social integration that existed across regions. But it is also interesting in light of Henri Pirenne's assessment of the dynamics of trade in those centuries (link). Significantly, Wickham goes into a fair amount of detail in addressing Pirenne's account, which he finds to be incorrect in several important ways.

Wickham concurs with Pirenne that trade became substantially more limited and localized in the early medieval period (fifth century) than during the Roman Empire. (He also notes that there is evidence of population decline in absolute numbers and density, though he suggests that the reasons for this decline are not yet well understood.) 

The early medieval period was also one in which exchange became much more localized. We have already observed that the fifth century saw the weakening of the great Mediterranean routes when the Vandals broke the Carthage–Rome tax spine in 439. These routes by no means vanished overnight, however. (218)

The evidence that Wickham believes to be most important today -- though not available to Pirenne at the beginning of the twentieth century -- is archaeological: excavations that have uncovered pottery, metal goods, and other routine and ordinary products used in everyday life and that permit historians to document trading networks with some exactness. Pirenne's account depends on written records that mention items such as spices, precious metals, and papyrus. But as Wickham points out, these are luxury goods, and are poor "markers" for the networks of trade that existed in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries. And this is a crucial problem for an account that attempts to provide an accurate economic history of the period.

Early Anglo-Saxon England is the best-documented example of a really simple exchange system. Its archaeology shows us that all English pottery before around 720 was handmade, and mostly very locally produced, not necessarily by professional potters, and not even in kilns. Nor did the Anglo-Saxons import much wheel-turned pottery from the Continent (most of it is found in Kent). The frequent presence of weaving tools in house-compounds and female graves shows that cloth was made inside individual households, as well.... It would be difficult, however, to say that England had much of a market economy before the eighth century; the huge bulk of production of artisanal goods was at the level of the single village. England can here stand for Wales, Scotland and Ireland, where much the same was true. (218)

England was at the low end of economic activity in the early medieval period; the most extensive trading systems existed across the English Channel:

The largest-scale economy in the early medieval West was the Frankish heartland. Here the networks of late Roman ceramic productions, based on supplying the Rhine army but extending across the whole of northern Gaul, in the Argonne forest above Verdun for terra sigillata tableware, in the Mayen industrial kiln complex near Trier for coarse-ware containers and tableware, continued after the army vanished, a little reduced in scale but still available over wide areas. Argonne ware had gone by 600, and Merovingian carinated fine wares were generally made on a rather smaller scale, but the Badorf ware of the kiln sites near Cologne, which replaced them after 700, was a new centralized production which could be found throughout the middle and lower Rhine valley, and further afield, and Mayen ware continued to be available over similar areas without a break. (220)

Here the archaeological evidence is extensive, and most so in the case of ceramics (plateware). The system of manufacturing and trade that Wickham describes is certainly large in scope and implies developed systems of traders, markets, and money.

The core of the evidence presented here is the production and distribution of pottery, always the best evidenced product in archaeological excavations. Metal and also glass seem to have had similar patterns, generally showing distribution networks a little wider than those of ceramics, though they are less clearly visible (one can often tell from petrological analysis of potsherds where they came from; metal and glass are too often melted down for this to be possible, and we are reliant on stylistic analysis, which can be misleading, as there was much local copying of successful styles in our period). Cloth, the most important of all, is the great unknown out of such artisanal productions, for it so seldom survives on sites, but it would be reasonable to argue that the scale of its production often matched that of ceramics, and this seems relatively clear in England at least. These were the major artisanal products of the early Middle Ages, and they are the essential markers of economic complexity, along with more occasional agricultural specializations for sale, like the vineyards of northern Francia and also of parts of the south Italian coast. It is reasonably clear from this evidence that northern Francia had a much more complex and active exchange system than anywhere else in the West before 800, that the Mediterranean lands were more fragmented, with pockets of greater complexity and greater simplicity; and that Britain and the rest of the North was as a whole far simpler in exchange terms than almost anywhere further south. The difference between the two sides of the English Channel was particularly acute, and certainly not overcome by imports into England, which were anyway not so very numerous. (pp. 221-222)

This reconstruction of medieval trade differs from that provided by other historians, and differs from Pirenne's account in particular. In addition to the fact that the archaeological evidence now available was not available to Pirenne, Wickham believes that Pirenne's analysis made two large mistakes of historical interpretation:

The first was that it laid far too much stress on long-distance exchange, between the East (sometimes the Far East) and the West, which was always marginal to the main lines of trade; these latter operate above all inside regions or between neighbouring regions, and only very exceptionally extend beyond them (as with the African hegemony over the late Roman Mediterranean, which was, precisely, a product of the needs of an exceptionally powerful state). The second was that most of Pirenne’s arguments concerned luxuries: the availability of gold, spices, silk and papyrus in the West (the last of these was certainly not a luxury in Egypt – it was an industrial product – but arguably had become so in the West by the seventh century). This was perhaps forgivable, as luxuries are almost all the examples of traded goods that are mentioned in early medieval written sources. But luxuries, too, are marginal to economic systems; they are defined by their high price and restricted availability, so that only the rich can possess them, and they therefore represent wealth, power and status. (p. 223)

And just in case the reader is wondering about King Mynyddog of Gododdin, here's a snippet:

Our earliest poetic texts in Welsh date from the seventh century to the ninth, and these contain a number of laments on dead kings, including Marwnad Cynddylan, the earliest, for King Cynddylan, based in or near modern Shropshire, who died in the mid-seventh century, and Y Gododdin, the longest, for King Mynyddog of Gododdin, who supposedly took his army from his capital at Edinburgh to Catraeth, perhaps modern Catterick, where they all died around 600. These show a homogeneous set of ‘heroic’ values, which were clearly those of the Welsh aristocracy by 800 at the latest: ‘The warrior . . . would take up his spear just as if it were sparkling wine from glass vessels. His mead was contained in silver, but he deserved gold.’ Or: ‘The men went to Catraeth, swift was their host. Pale mead was their feast, and it was their poison.’ It is not unreasonable to suppose that these values were already shared in the sixth century. Whenever they developed, however, they were a world away from those of Rome. This is important as a reflection of the political crisis we began with, for these military élites were lineal descendants of British Romans, unconquered by invaders; all the same, all their points of reference were by now different. They were quite parallel, however, to those of the Anglo-Saxons. (p. 154)

Is medieval history cumulative? Do contemporary historians build on the tracks laid down by the historians of the period who came before? That is a complicated question, and one can justify "no" as well as "yes". It is of course true that earlier historians of the early medieval period have discovered and presented much that is accurate and interesting about the period. But it is also true that history changes over time: historians come to see the blindspots of their predecessors, they come to conceptualize the past differently, and they come to understand that some aspects of the story have not been investigated at all. Wickham's history does some of all of that: reconceptualization, highlighting of new questions, and discovery of ways in which distinguished historians in the past century or so have both discovered their own important insights into the material, and made substantial errors of interpretation or reconstruction.

There is much more to Wickham's book than has been mentioned here. In a later post I expect to treat his reconstruction of the Muslim conquests of these same territories.


As I've felt many times in reading complex histories, I wish that authors and publishers would catch up to the basic possibilities of computer animation as companion materials for a history book like this one. It would be enormously helpful to have a handful of animated maps the reader could follow as he or she reads the text, watching (for example) the spread of Arab conquerers over a fifty-year period from Spain into France and Italy, or the rise and fall of small and medium-sized kingships around the Rhine, or the advance and retreat of the armed power of the pope and bishops. These are historical dynamics that are difficult to express or grasp fully in text, but would be visible at a glance with a well-constructed animation showing stages of change in 25-year increments. A resource that provides some of this capability is the Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilizations, maintained at Harvard University (link), which allows the user to locate places and a number of relevant historical events on a single ESRI digital base map. Here is a screenshot of a display including medieval towns across the continent.

And once we are thinking about computer graphics to accompany a work of historical exposition, it would also make sense to have a large number of reproductions of the existing paintings, sculptures, buildings, fortifications, roads, fields, ploughs, and granaries that are still available. This is one reason I collected a number of basic maps in a recent post on new thinking about the medieval period (link). (I made a similar suggestion in my discussion of Steve Pincus's new history of the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688: The First Modern Revolution (link).)

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Does philosophy offer consolation?

image: Martin Buber

Alain de Botton's Consolations of Philosophy poses a bit of a puzzle. Why "consolations"? And why philosophy? How does philosophy come into the picture? For many professional philosophers from the past seventy-five years, the answer would be: not at all. Philosophy, in the analytic tradition anyway, is not concerned with the individual person's subjective wellbeing, or the way she or he thinks about life's challenges, disappointments, and tragedies, or the human predicament from the inside. So "consolation" isn't part of the job at all. It's hard to imagine Quine or Carnap thinking much about the topic, or even taking it seriously. And likewise, it's hard to see Berkeley, Hume, or Kant engaging in this strand of conversation. But it isn't hard to imagine a rich conversation on this general range of topics with with philosophers from other traditions and times -- for example, Plato, Seneca, Montaigne, Ricoeur, Buber, or Levinas. We might think most broadly of a divide between the "underlaborers of science" view of philosophy (Locke) and the "interpreters of the human condition" view of philosophy (Socrates).

In fact, we need to recognize from the start that philosophy is not one unified thing. Carnap on the foundations of empirical knowledge is as intellectually distant from Martin Buber on the I-thou relationship as zoology is from organic chemistry. Philosophy is not defined by its etymology; philosophy is not "the discipline embodying the love of wisdom". "Love of wisdom" does not define a unified discipline at all. The tradition of philosophy that derived most strongly from issues about the nature of empirical knowledge, and that eventually became philosophy of science and mathematics and the school of analytic philosophy, is profoundly different from the tradition woven around the moral realities of a human life -- the examined life -- from the ancients to Montaigne. Locke and Socrates are indeed miles apart -- as are Ryle and Buber. Most categorically, we might say that they have nothing in common but the name.

Is there a term that could be used to encompass the approach to the kinds of reflections associated with Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, and Lucretius more adequately than simply "philosophy"? Perhaps there is -- a term that also derives from ancient philosophy and plays a key role in Aristotle's ethics. This is the concept of phronesis, or practical wisdom. In contrast to two other kinds of human knowledge identified by Aristotle (episteme and techne), phronesis has to do with "wisdom in the conduct of action". Contemporary philosophy seems to be best understood as the lineal descendent of the study of episteme. This kind of philosophy already has a name; it is "epistemology". If we understand the challenge of acting wisely as including the pursuit of a clear and justified understanding of one's guiding values and purposes, then the study of phronesis would encompass the kind of self-reflection and deliberation characteristic of Socrates and Epicurus. So we might call it "phronesiology," in analogy with "epistemology". (Oddly enough, this word is already in use; look it up on Google!) This distinction permits a reconsideration of the branches of philosophy. The kind of examination of the genuine value of a human life well lived that is the central purpose of Botton's Consolations of Philosophy and Status Envy has a very natural home in the family tree of philosophy; it is a developed theory of phronesis.

Consider this discussion of phronesis (practical wisdom) in Nicomachean Ethics, Book VI, sect. 5:

Regarding practical wisdom we shall get at the truth by considering who are the persons we credit with it. Now it is thought to be the mark of a man of practical wisdom to be able to deliberate well about what is good and expedient for himself, not in some particular respect, e.g. about what sorts of thing conduce to health or to strength, but about what sorts of thing conduce to the good life in general. This is shown by the fact that we credit men with practical wisdom in some particular respect when they have calculated well with a view to some good end which is one of those that are not the object of any art. It follows that in the general sense also the man who is capable of deliberating has practical wisdom.

Here is a more specific passage in which Aristotle offers a specific analysis of the goods a person pursues (NE Book 1, sect. 1). Notice that it has much the same character as the reflections in which Botton, Epicurus, and Montaigne are engaged:

Further, men seem to pursue honour in order that they may be assured of their goodness; at least it is by men of practical wisdom that they seek to be honoured, and among those who know them, and on the ground of their virtue; clearly, then, according to them, at any rate, virtue is better. And perhaps one might even suppose this to be, rather than honour, the end of the political life. But even this appears somewhat incomplete; for possession of virtue seems actually compatible with being asleep, or with lifelong inactivity, and, further, with the greatest sufferings and misfortunes; but a man who was living so no one would call happy, unless he were maintaining a thesis at all costs. (Book 1, sect. 1)

Here Aristotle asks some fundamental questions: What do men pursue, what are the authentic goods towards which they should aim, and what are the merely instrumental goods? Further, Aristotle postulates that we can answer these kinds of questions through abstract, reasoned analysis and deliberation -- or in common terms, "philosophy".

Now we can understand better what Botton means by "philosophy". Botton's underlying premise is that there is an ancient tradition of reflective thinking focused on the human condition, from the individual subjective person's point of view. This kind of philosophy raises questions of self-definition, self-awareness, an understanding of one's position in the world, and the nature of the situations in the world that influence one's aspirations, happiness, and satisfaction. For Botton, philosophy is about the human condition, in celebrations and moments of happiness, and in illness, disappointments, and death. And the philosophers whom Botton admires most are those who spent their lives taking seriously the question, what is it to be a human being? How should I live? This is the branch of philosophy that cares about reflection, self-definition, and critical assessment of one's own life and the lives of others. Or using the term just introduced, it is "philosophy as phronesiology". 

So what about "consolations"? What is it to be consoled? What is it to need consolation? Here is one interpretation: Consolation is part of a complex relationship between a person, his or her expectations of life, and a severe disappointment. It may be the tragic loss of a loved one, or being fired from one's job, or having a really bad book review for a book one spent years writing. It is a shocking divergence between what one wants and what one unexpectedly gets. To be consoled is to be reconciled with a circumstance that seems horrible, unhappy, and impossible to accept. Reconciliation does not imply erasure of the bad event; rather, it implies coming to see that the event can somehow be incorporated within a broader understanding of the context. One's phronesis can be broadened. And this seems to require something like a reorientation towards one's expectations of life and the world. For example: We've arrived at the exotic luxury restaurant for a long-anticipated meal with a valued group of friends; but the restaurant is unexpectedly closed. We are deeply, profoundly disappointed. Consolation comes when we reflect on the source of our disappointment -- the anticipation we had experienced of unforgettable conversation with special friends in the context of a unique gastronomic experience. We then readjust our thinking -- the friends and conversation are still available to us, the gastronomy is a brief and fundamentally unimportant pleasure, and we can have our "dinner with Andre" at the Wendy's down the road. As Botton demonstrates in the sad story of Marcia, mother of Metilius who died young, consolation may take the form of recognition that fate is haphazard and cruel; there is no meaning to a tragic death of a young person; and yet one's grief must come to an end and one must live again (8).

So, once again, why philosophy? In what sense can "philosophy as phronesiology" lead to consolation? Botton suggests that there is a tradition of thought, encompassing Socrates, Diogenes, Epicurus, the Stoics, and others that provides something like an answer. If one has thought deeply and extensively about the human condition, the things one really values, the randomness of "luck", the brevity of life -- that is, if one has thought in the ways that Epicurus or Seneca reflected -- then bad fortune, betrayal, the collapse of a business enterprise, and the loss of a loved one all have a place in one's map of the nature of life. It is no more than magical thinking to wish that bad luck had not happened to me; it is in the nature of bad luck to strike without warning. Best prepared is the person who has recognized the possibility of bad luck, who has sorted out the goods that are genuinely important, and who has acted persistently with one's talents and creativity to bring those goods to fruition during the time one is allotted. This person can be consoled by philosophy, or through philosophy.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

The late Roman Empire and what came next ...

There is a great deal of drama in the fairly limited ideas we have today about the passing of the Roman Empire, the consolidation of "barbarian" kingdoms, and the rise of the Islamic presence in Europe. In particular, there is the drama of the sacking of Rome and the end of Roman civilization; an extended period of ignorance and economic collapse across the continent of Europe; and the rapid spread of an intolerant Christianity.

Two books shake up those narratives -- one fairly recent and the other almost a century old. Chris Wickham's The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 appeared in 2010, while Henri Pirenne's Mohammed and Charlemagne appeared in Belgium in 1937. But both books challenge the most basic assumptions of common narratives of the transition from Roman civilization to the Renaissance. The "dark ages" weren't dark, and the "Middle Ages" weren't just a thousand-year ellipsis between Roman civilization and the Renaissance. Here I'll examine Pirenne's arguments, and in a later post I will look at Wickham's recent contributions.

Henri Pirenne was one of the twentieth century's most distinguished medieval historians and a teacher of Marc Bloch (link, link). The most surprising finding in his book is that the sack of Rome in 411 was a non-event; the "barbarian" invasions of Rome, including the Germanic wars, were almost equally inconsequential; and that it was the military threat and invasion of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries that fundamentally altered the Roman order. The hinge, according to Pirenne, was control of the Mediterranean Sea. When Rome and its allies lost maritime control of the Mediterranean to Islamic fleets, its power, economic system, and cultural hegemony were finished. A major part of this crucial role for sea-born commerce was the fact that the Roman Empire depended upon cheap grain from Africa for its survival. Losing control of the Mediterranean meant losing its lifeline to bread and chocolate (or bread anyway).

Thanks to the Mediterranean, then, the Empire constituted, in the most obvious fashion, an economic unity. It was one great territory, with tolls but no custom houses. And it enjoyed the enormous advantage of a common monetary unit, the gold solidus of Constantine, containing 4˙55 grammes of fine gold, which was current everywhere. (5)

But Roman power failed to hold the Mediterranean, and Vandal king Genseric succeeded in seizing Carthage:

Succeeding where the Goths had failed, Genseric, in 427, with the aid of the Carthaginian ships, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and landed 50,000 men upon the African coast. For the Empire this was the decisive blow. The very soul of the Republic—says Salvian—was destroyed. When in 439 Genseric captured Carthage —that is, the great naval base of the West—and then, shortly afterwards, took possession of Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearics, the position of the Empire in the West was completely shaken. It had lost the Mediterranean, which had hitherto been its great weapon of defence. (14)

The barbarian tribes prevailed in the West; but the structures, political institutions, and culture of Rome survived. The tribal victors were Romanized.

Thus, at the beginning of the 6th century there was not an inch of soil in the West still subject to the Emperor. At first sight the catastrophe seems enormous; so enormous that the fall of Romulus has been regarded as beginning a second act of the world-drama. But if we examine it more closely it seems less important. (For the Emperor still had a legal existence. He had abdicated nothing of his sovereignty. The old fiction of the allies was maintained. And the new upstarts themselves acknowledged his primacy. (18)

There could be no greater mistake than to suppose that the idea of the Empire disappeared after the dismemberment of the Western Provinces by the Barbarians. There is no justification for doubting that the βασιλεὺς who reigned in Constantinople still extended his theoretical authority over the whole Empire. He no longer governed, but he still reigned. And it was toward him that all men’s eyes were turned. (41)

So the replacement of direct rule by Roman governors by barbarian kings fulfilling much the same functions in much the same way presented little drama for the societies in the west in which this transformation occurred in the fifth and sixth centuries. Pirenne provides a short outline of the structure of society, which as he notes, includes the embryo of feudalism:

As for the social classes, they were the same as before. The upper class consisted of freemen (ingenui), and it included an aristocracy of great landowners (senatores). The class of free citizens properly so-called probably constituted a minority. Beneath them were the colonists, especially numerous among the Visigoths, and the liberated slaves. There were still plenty of slaves. As we shall presently see, they were mostly alien Barbarians, Anglo-Saxon or others, prisoners of war. There was also an urban population of which we shall say something presently. On the large estates there were workshops in which the women spun yarn, and in which other workers, slaves or domainal serfs, practised various crafts. But these workshops had already existed during the later centuries of the Empire. The population had retained the form which had been impressed upon it by the fiscal organization, although this had been greatly diminished by the almost complete curtailment of the military and administrative expenditure. (54)

And so -- little change as a result of the "fall of the Roman Empire":

From whatever standpoint we regard it, then, the period inaugurated by the establishment of the Barbarians within the Empire introduced no absolute historical innovation. What the Germans destroyed was not the Empire, but the Imperial government in partibus occidentis. They themselves acknowledged as much by installing themselves as foederati. Far from seeking to replace the Empire by anything new, they established themselves within it, and although their settlement was accompanied by a process of serious degradation, they did not introduce a new scheme of government; the ancient palazzo, so to speak, was divided up into apartments, but it still survived as a building. In short, the essential character of “Romania” still remained Mediterranean. (p. 104)

By contrast, Pirenne believes the Islamic assault on the Western Roman Empire in the seventh century was transformative, catastrophic, and entirely unexpected. "The Empire had never regarded this as one of its vulnerable points, nor had it ever massed there any large proportion of its military forces" (110). And: "The Arab conquest, which brought confusion upon both Europe and Asia, was without precedent. The swiftness of its victory is comparable only with that by which the Mongol Empires of Attila, Jenghiz Khan and Tamerlane were established. But these Empires were as ephemeral as the conquest of Islam was lasting" (p. 112).

Pirenne is first and foremost an economic historian, and the evidence he finds most compelling is the material evidence of trade. In particular, he takes note of evidence of the availability of spices and papyrus at various times in late antiquity, and draws a crucial conclusion: trade routes between western ports and eastern sources were severed, leading to a complete disappearance of these valuable products in cities and monasteries in the west. In the sixth century these products were widely available in the West:

Papyrus was another thing that came from the East, and of which great quantities were consumed. Egypt had the monopoly of furnishing the whole Empire with the writing material in general use, parchment being reserved for special purposes. Now, both after and before the invasions the art of writing was practised throughout the West. It was a necessary constituent of social life. The juridical and administrative life of the Empire, the very functioning of the State, necessitated the practice of the art, and the same may be said of social relations. The merchants had their clerks, mercenarii litterati. Masses of papyrus must have been required by those who kept the registers of the fisc, by the notaries of the tribunals, by private correspondents, and by the monasteries. (pp. 65-66)

From the middle of the seventh century (about 650 AD) onwards the major trade between the west and the east was broken. The evidence is clear for Pirenne, beginning with papyrus:

Papyrus was the first to disappear. All the works written in the West on papyrus of which we have knowledge are of the 6th or the 7th century. Until 659–677 nothing but papyrus was used in the royal Merovingian chancellery. Then parchment made its appearance.592 A few private documents were still written on papyrus, doubtless obtained from old stocks of this material, until nearly the end of the 8th century. There is no sign of it after that. And the explanation cannot be that it was no longer manufactured, for this supposition is disproved by the beautiful papyrus documents of the 7th century in the Arab Museum of Cairo. The disappearance of papyrus in Gaul can only have been due to the fact that commerce first declined and then ceased. Parchment does not seem to have been widely used at first. Gregory of Tours, who calls it membrana, mentions it only once,593 and seems to indicate that it was manufactured by the monks for their own use. Now, we know that the habits of a chancellery are extremely tenacious. If at the close of the 7th century the royal offices had ceased to make use of papyrus it was because it was becoming very difficult to obtain any. (129)

And along with trade, the largescale traders disappeared as well:

One consequence of the suppression of the Oriental trade and maritime traffic was the disappearance of professional merchants in the interior of the country. Henceforth merchants are hardly ever mentioned in the documents of the period; any references that do occur may be understood as applying to occasional merchants. I can find no mention at this period of a single negotiator of the Merovingian type: that is, a merchant who lent money at interest, was buried in a sarcophagus, and gave of his goods to the churches and the poor. (132)

Pirenne believes that two factors explained the successes of the Islamic invasion. The first was ideological, and the second was naval. The religious ideas and values of Islam sustained a separate identity for Islamic occupiers in previously held territory; unlike the Franks or the Goths, they were not "romanized". And the naval power of Islamic forces proved to be formidable.

That Charlemagne was able to derive so little advantage from the taking of Barcelona was due to the fact that he had no fleet. He could do nothing against the Saracens, who were in possession of Tunis, dominated the Spanish coast, and held the islands. He attempted to defend the Balearics, and won some ephemeral victories there. In 798 these islands were ravaged by the Musulmans. (120)

And with maritime and naval supremacy came the ability to dominate the Mediterranean:

So long as the Mediterranean remained Christian, it was the Oriental navigation that maintained commercial intercourse with the Occident. Syria and Egypt were its two principal centres; and these two wealthy provinces were the very first to fall under the domination of Islam. It would obviously be an error to believe that this domination put an end to all economic activity. Although there was great confusion and disorder, and although many Syrians migrated to the Occident, we must not suppose that the economic machinery collapsed. Damascus had become the first capital of the Caliphate. Spices were still imported, papyrus was still manufactured, the seaports were still active. Once they paid taxes to the conquerors, the Christians were not molested. Commerce, therefore, continued, but its direction was changed. (124)

Pirenne draws two central conclusions -- the persistence of "Mediterranean" civilization for centuries following the barbarian onslaughts of the 5th century, and the crucial historical role played in the transformation of this system by the advance of Islam.

1. The Germanic invasions destroyed neither the Mediterranean unity of the ancient world, nor what may be regarded as the truly essential features of the Roman culture as it still existed in the 5th century, at a time when there was no longer an Emperor in the West. Despite the resulting turmoil and destruction, no new principles made their appearance; neither in the economic or social order, nor in the linguistic situation, nor in the existing institutions. What civilization survived was Mediterranean. It was in the regions by the sea that culture was preserved, and it was from them that the innovations of the age proceeded: monasticism, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, the ars Barbarica, etc. The Orient was the fertilizing factor: Constantinople, the centre of the world. In 600 the physiognomy of the world was not different in quality from that which it had revealed in 400.

2. The cause of the break with the tradition of antiquity was the rapid and unexpected advance of Islam. The result of this advance was the final separation of East from West, and the end of the Mediterranean unity. Countries like Africa and Spain, which had always been parts of the Western community, gravitated henceforth in the orbit of Baghdad. In these countries another religion made its appearance, and an entirely different culture. The Western Mediterranean, having become a Musulman lake, was no longer the thoroughfare of commerce and of thought which it had always been. (228)

What is fascinating about this work for the philosophy of history is the support it provides for the idea that the past is not "given", and the history of an epoch is never finished and complete. Instead, the practice of historical research and writing has the continuing possibility of discovering new truths about a past that we thought we understood.

(Discussions of late Roman history have appeared elsewhere in the blog over the years (link, link, link, link, link). Here are a few useful maps ranging over the centuries of change described by Pirenne.)

AD 117

AD 300 (Emperor Diocletian)

AD 411 (Alaric sacks Rome)

AD 526

AD 815

AD 900

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Botton's philosophy of life in the world

image: Diogenes and his barrel

I've somehow missed reading any of the numerous books of philosophical reflections authored by Alain de Botton. They have often given me an impression of being written in a clever way for a literate audience, but without the heft of a Rawls or a Ricoeur. Now, with a copy of Status Anxiety to listen to through my Audible subscription, I've changed my mind. This book is very interesting, thought-provoking, and philosophically engaging.

The central topic is self-evaluation and its obverse -- status anxiety. What do people live for? Is a person's worth defined by her own internal standards and self-expectations? Or is she defined by the judgments of others? The perfectly self-defined person could not suffer from status anxiety, because he or she would set goals and assess his or her excellence by one's own standards. The phenomenon of status anxiety can only arise when people define their worth in terms of the valuations that others place upon them. "If our position on the ladder is a matter of such concern, it is because our self-conception is so dependent upon what others make of us. Rare individuals aside (Socrates, Jesus), we rely on signs of respect from the world to feel tolerable to ourselves" (9). Botton's special contribution here is his ability to consider the historical and social reality of "self-evaluation" and status envy through a wide knowledge of literature, economics, paintings, and philosophy.

Along the way Botton lays the basis for some very critical thinking about consumerism, materialism, and lives structured around competition for the economic and social spoils of one's environment. “Across the United States, new longings were created by the development of shopping malls, which enabled citizens to browse at all hours in climate-controlled environments. When the Southdale Mall opened in Minnesota in 1950, its advertising promised that “every day will be a perfect shopping day at Southdale” (28). This isn't exactly a new insight; but Botton succeeds in making it poignant and existentially important. How much is enough? Can we live like Diogenes or Socrates? Is there a difference between our needs and our wants? Does the 2021 Porsche 911 Turbo S at $273,000 do a better job of moving its passengers from point A to point B than the humble 2021 Chevrolet Spark at $14,400? Is the Porsche 20 times better? And where, in the mindspace of the person who might purchase the Porsche, is there room for consideration of the needs of others, the future of the planet, or the nature of true contentment, compassion, and mortality?

Botton distills two triptychs of stories about the poor and the wealthy.

  • The poor are not responsible for their condition and are the most useful in society
  • Low status has no moral connotation
  • The rich are sinful and corrupt and owe their wealth to their robbery of the poor

And the rich:

  • The rich are the useful ones, not the poor
  • Status does have moral connotations
  • The poor are sinful and corrupt and owe their poverty to their own stupidity

If one is poor, it matters very much which story one accepts. And if one is rich, a lot rides on bringing one of the last three stories to the top of mind of the public. The first batch of stories favors the dignity of the poor and derives often from the texts of humble Christianity, while the second favors the superiority of the rich and derives from the texts of eighteenth-century political economy and social darwinism. Botton draws out the ideological importance of the second batch of stories:

Such doctrines found a receptive audience among the self-made plutocrats who dominated American business and the American media. Social Darwinism provided them with an apparently unassailable scientific argument with which to rebut entities and isms that many of them were already suspicious of, not to mention threatened by on the economic level: trade unions, Marxism and socialism. On a triumphant tour of America in 1882, Spencer was cheered by gatherings of business leaders, who were flattered at being compared to the alpha beasts of the human jungle and relieved to be absolved of any need to feel guilty about or charitable towards their weaker brethren. (80)

There are a great many interesting factlets embedded in the book. Did you ever wonder what a "snob" is? Botton has the answer: “The word 'snobbery' came into use for the first time in England during the 1820s. It was said to have derived from the habit of many Oxford and Cambridge colleges of writing sine nobilitate (without nobility), or 's.nob,' next to the names of ordinary students on examination lists in order to distinguish them from their aristocratic peers” (84). Or what, exactly, defined the literary genius of Jane Austen, whom Botton admires? It is because Austen looks behind the status-obsessed judgments of the aristocratic class, to the forms of human virtue and kindness that are rendered invisible by the categories of class, dress, and status. “The novel’s author takes a little longer than Mrs. Norris to make up her mind as to who is deficient, and in what capacity. For a decade or more, Austen follows Fanny patiently down the corridors and into the reception rooms of Mansfield Park; listens to her mutterings in her bedroom and on her walks around the gardens; reads her letters; eavesdrops on her observations about her adoptive family; watches the movements of her eyes and mouth; and peers into her soul. In the process, she picks up on a rare, quiet virtue of her heroine’s” (133). Austen sees the human being in Fanny, not the dress. And Botton notices a similar "seeing" in Zadie Smith's White Teeth, and the apparent invisibility of the Bangladeshi waiter Samad in London. And if only the customers could see his inner thoughts: “I AM NOT A WAITER. I HAVE BEEN A STUDENT, A SCIENTIST, A SOLDIER, MY WIFE IS CALLED ALSANA, WE LIVE IN EAST LONDON BUT WE WOULD LIKE TO MOVE NORTH. I AM A MUSLIM BUT ALLAH HAS FORSAKEN ME OR I HAVE FORSAKEN ALLAH, I’M NOT SURE. I HAVE A FRIEND—ARCHIE—AND OTHERS. I AM FORTY-NINE BUT WOMEN STILL TURN IN THE STREET. SOMETIMES” (139). Again -- the human being, not the apron.

What does it all amount to, this lifelong struggle for recognition and "status"? Botton addresses this question through the final arbiter -- death. In particular, he gives a fine reading of Tolstoy's story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan Ilyich, it turns out, lived for status, rank, and recognition -- and it brought him nothing that could sustain him when his final illness and decline to extinction finally came.

For his part, Ivan, with only a few weeks left to him, recognises that he has wasted his time on earth by leading an outwardly respectable but inwardly barren life. He scrolls back through his upbringing, education and career and finds that everything he has ever done has been motivated by the desire to appear important in the eyes of others, with his own interests and sensitivities always being sacrificed for the sake of impressing people who, he only now sees, do not care a jot for him. One night, as he lies awake in the early hours, racked by pain, “it occurred to him that those scarcely perceptible impulses of his to protest at what people of high status considered good, vague impulses which he had always suppressed, might have been precisely what mattered, and all the rest had not been the real thing. His official duties, his manner of life, his family, the values adhered to by people in society and in his profession—all these might not have been the real thing.” (227)

So what about Status Anxiety? Is this philosophy? Is it cultural commentary? Is it an interpretation of the human condition through a historical sampling of art, literature, economic tracts, and shopping malls? It's a little bit of all of these things. But what appeals, most fundamentally, is that it raises the question, from many points of view, of what a valuable and well-lived human life really amounts to.

Compare for a moment this book with the personal-reflective book of philosophy written in 1989 by the forever-young star of analytic philosophy, Robert Nozick, in The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations. Nozick wrote unflinchingly of illness and death in The Examined Life, and sadly died of cancer in 2002 at the age of 64. Here are the opening lines of Nozick's book:

I want to think about living and what is important in life, to clarify my thinking -- and also my life. Mostly we tend -- I do too -- to live on automatic pilot, following through the views of ourselves and the aims we acquired early, with only minor adjustments. No doubt there is some benefit--a gain in ambition or efficiency--in somewhat unthinkingly pursuing early aims in their relatively unmodified form, but there is a loss, too, when we are directed through life by the not fully mature picture of the world we formed in adolescence or young adulthood. (11)

Nozick's book is striking for its honesty and occasionally for its insights. And the same can be said of Botton's book. What is an "authentic" human life? Is "performance of a role" a dehumanizing act? These are questions that philosophers from Socrates and Aristotle to Sartre and Camus have found to be tremendously important and difficult, and Botton's book stimulates fresh thinking from start to finish.


The publisher's blurb for Status Anxiety seems designed to evoke exactly that initial impression that I have had in flipping through other titles by Botton -- flip, clever, superficial: "Whether it’s assessing the class-consciousness of Christianity or the convulsions of consumer capitalism, dueling or home-furnishing, Status Anxiety is infallibly entertaining. And when it examines the virtues of informed misanthropy, art appreciation, or walking a lobster on a leash, it is not only wise but helpful." Entertaining, amusing, and believe it or not -- wise and helpful! What could be more of a turnoff for a person looking for some serious philosophical insights into something that matters! Lobsters on a leash, indeed!