Monday, September 20, 2004

Time for a quick note from sunny Spain: Seville to be precise.

The major sights here in Andalusia are the remaining great Islamic buildings such as the Alhambra, Mesquita and Giralda in Granada, Cordoba and Seville respectively. There is no question that these are masterpieces of architecture and that the Moorish civilisation that built them was advanced and cultured. Add to that the philosophers such as Moses Maimonides and Averroes, who both hailed from Cordoba, and one wonders how it was all lost. The answer is that the Moors split into a patchwork of small states and the more united Christians could pick them off one by one. Once Aragon and Castille joined together under Ferdinand and Isabella, even Granada could hold out no longer, falling in 1492.

But the question that I found myself asking is why was it that the Islamic invaders of the Eastern Roman Empire could immediately form an advanced civilisation while the invaders of the Western Empire, such as the Goths, Franks and Saxons took five hundred years before they achieved a comparable level. After all, both sets of invaders had started off as nomads on the fringes of the Empire. The silly but traditional answer is that Islam was somehow more "enlightened" than the Christianity of the western invaders whose religion left them in the Dark Ages. Clearly this is rubbish as the Christian states were eventually able to overtake the Caliphate in both technology and culture. But the fact remains that Islamic civilisation got a head start. Why?

I´ve been reading Jared Diamond´s Guns, Germs and Steel over the holidays. I´ll have some critical comments to make about it later but inspired by him, I think I can answer the problem I set out above. Two answers present themselves.

First, the Western invaders were made up a of several tribes that each over ran the same area. This meant that individual cities were often sacked many times as the Vandals, then the Goths, then the Franks and finally the Huns all arrived from the East. It meant the damage to infrastructure and society was much greater than in the East. There, Islamic invaders were united so there was only a single invasion that was able to capture territory with its infrastructure intact. The Arabs just supplied a new ruling class. This had initially happened in the West too where Theodoric the Goth ruled over Roman senators, but further invaders destroyed this.

Second, the cultural heart of the Roman Empire was the East and not the West. All academic work, maths, philosophy and medicine was available only in Greek. It was the Greek speaking part of the Empire that the Arabs took over and hence it was easy to find Greek speakers to transmit knowledge to them. In the West, the language was Latin which had no scientific tradition and so the invaders were not going to be exposed to classical learning. Even the Western church was Latin based and so it could only preserve literature in that language.

Thus, the combination of the Arab invaders taking over in one fell swoop, combined with their occupation of the intellectual heartland of the Roman Empire, including Alexandria, meant they were much more able to continue a high level of civilisation than the warring tribes flooding piecemeal into the west.


jack perry said...

Here are my scattered thoughts on the idea, based on reading some history of philosophy and some histories of Venice and Byzantium.

I'm very certain your first conjecture has very little to do with it. It is more likely that it has to do with fending off external enemies. After all, Spain was for some centuries a center of barbarian warfare, so you would think its infrastructure had been wrecked. Yet that is the home of Moses Maimonides and Averroes, as you note. They were fed by the Islamic flowering in Iraq (think al-Khowarizmi). The Caliphate faced no real external enemies; I don't believe the Mongols ever invaded Persia or the Middle East (maybe I'm wrong). There was infighting and fragmentation, but that's the worst of it.

Compare this to the Byzantines, who faced serious external enemies from every possible direction: Franks, Normans, Venetians, innumerable tribes of Slavs, Magyars, Arabs, Turks... They were expending all their cultural energy in a futile attempt to stay alive.

I think your second conjecture is far better. Boethius was executed in the middle of his project to translate Plato and Aristotle into Latin; IIRC all he ever managed was Aristotle's treatise on Logic, so that the Westerners became great logicians, but for several centuries they had nothing much to think about, aside from religion.

There's also an element of cultural genius. The Romans never really appreciated philosophy or mathematics; being more practically-minded, they became politicians and engineers. (Compare to Europe and the USA.) Anthony Gottlieb notes in his history of philosophy ("The Dream of Reason") that both the Romans and the Romanized Greeks neglected philosophy and science, allowing philosophy to degenerate into mysticism (Stoicism, Epicurianism, Neoplatonism).

When the Romans fell apart, who replaced them? Culturally backwards barbarians who for several centuries had nothing to contribute. It was one such foreigner (Theodoric) who executed Boethius under suspicion of treason. Boethius' death is the end of classical philosophy.

You might say that the Arabs were also culturally backwards barbarians, but the Muslims who made for great scholars were not usually Arab; they were non-Arabs who served Arab rulers. Al-Khowarizmi (who invented high school algebra) was Persian, and I have read that many of the great scholars in the courts of the Caliph were in fact Christians and Jews. Back in those days, the Arabs took seriously the notion that as long as the Christians and Jews paid the tax, they should be left unmolested. I don't know enough to say for certain, but it's quite possible that the beginning of the decline of the Muslim empires could be tied to a less tolerant Islam, stimulated perhaps by the Crusades; whereas paradoxically the first intellectual flowering of Western Christianity was in the 12th and 13th century, at a time of intolerant Christianity, and was ended by the Black Plague.

Also: the Byzantines made a fair amount of progress which has either been discounted or lost. As an example of their being discounted, I'd offer John Philoponus, who chaired Plato's Academy and discovered many of Galileo's results several centuries well before Galileo's birth (pp. 385-387 of Gottlieb's book). The Byzantines wielded Greek Fire and built the magnificent '???? ?????. It was they who so impressed the Russian legates of the 9th (?) century that the Russians became Christians instead of Muslims — imagine a world where the Russians had chosen Islam instead!

Right! so it's probably obviosu that I'm a mathematician who should stick to mathematics, with at best an amateur's understanding of history... but those are my thoughts on the matter...

jack perry said...

Those ????? are supposed to be Greek letters, in case you can't see them: Hagia Sophia.