Monday, January 14, 2013

Fair to Middlin'

I was feeling a little left out at the recent flurry of activity here, so allow me to point all Quodlibeteers to a recent article on Cracked: 6 Ridiculous Myths About the Middle Ages Everyone Believes. The comments are pretty good in general, but I encourage you good folk to further educate the masses.

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Friday, January 11, 2013

A Brown Land of Beauty and Terror

We British are obsessed with the weather.  If it rains in the summer (which happens a lot) we get depressed.  If it snows (which happens occasionally) the country grinds to a halt.  And it only takes a day of sunny weather for crack teams of photojournalists to start hunting for nubile young ladies cavorting in public fountains.

So imagine what life would be like if you transported a few million Brits to a country where they get some real extreme weather.  Or if that is too painful, you only have to look at Australia.

The bush fires raging across the southeast of Australia are a tragedy for all those involved, especially people who have lost their homes and livelihoods.  But conflagrations are not an unusual feature of Australian summers.  Every January, as I shiver is rural Kent, my in-laws in Perth report sweltering temperatures of 40 degrees.  Leave an Australian city and you’ll see a plethora of road signs warning of the risk of fire.  Of course, current technology, especially air-conditioning, makes extreme heat more bearable than it used to be.  But modern life has also made Australians forget how hostile the environment in which they live really is.
Australia is a vast desert island.  Its north coast is swamp, the east and southwest scrubland.  The area which is both reasonably temperate and fertile is a small proportion of the whole.  Admittedly, a thin veneer of Englishness overlays the desert (and it’s getting thinner as the country’s population gets more diverse).  Bondi Beach looks surprisingly like Bournemouth and some of the older buildings in Australian cities can seem jarringly familiar to a visiting Englishman. But they didn’t ship convicts to Botany Bay because it was a holiday camp. 

In the olden days, Australians faced the intimidating climate with a frontier spirit.  They knew that carving a life out of the unforgiving environment was tough.  The national character still reflects that. And, until recently, every Australian schoolchild used to learn Dorothea Mackellar’s poem My Country by heart.  

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains,
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror,
The wide brown land for me.

As so often, the poet gives us truth less varnished than any prose, despite being constrained by metre and rhythm.   During the Queensland floods on 2011, Clive James, an elderly Australian exile and no mean poet himself, wrote a beautiful article for Standpoint about this poem.  Those flooding rains, like today’s fires, were a terror for all concerned.  But, contrary to the media narrative, they were not a surprise or a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe.  They were the inevitable consequence of living somewhere as inhospitable as Australia, even if modern comforts had made people forget where they were.

Today, Australia is fabulously wealthy.  That means that floods, droughts and fires cause enormous monetary loss, even while the cost in human lives is mercifully low.  And with a population of 22 million, there are now many more people living in marginal areas where these three apocalyptic horsemen like to gallop.  Their wealth and healthy economy will allow Australia to recover quickly and perhaps, once again, forget what a miracle it is that they have been able to turn their country into the wonderful place it is today. 

By the way, this blog post isn’t about climate change.  But if it was, it would say much the same as this excellent piece from the Tom Chivers in the Telegraph.  

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Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Magic of Reality

I expect many young people will have received a copy of Richard Dawkins's book The Magic of Reality for Christmas.  I even saw someone reading a copy on the tube this week.  This was the paperback which lacks the illustrations by David McKean.  This is a shame since the pictures were the best feature of the original hardback edition of the book.

The Magic of Reality is intended to provide a general introduction to science for teenagers.  They can learn a great deal about the state of modern science from reading the precise prose.  Unfortunately, the book also gives a very misleading impression of how science works and why it is so successful. Dawkins is especially inaccurate about the relationship between science and religion.

Each chapter begins with an account of some of the myths with which humans once explained different aspects of nature.  These myths are admirably wide ranging.  We learn of the Tasmanian legend in which the god Moinee crafted the first men with kangaroo's tails. The African sky god, Bumba, is invoked for vomiting up the sun.  Dawkins lavishes careful attention on the gory Aztec practices of human sacrifice.  He includes tales from the Bible, such as Adam and Eve, or Noah's flood, in this picturesque gallery of pagan mythology to make his unsubtle point that these stories are all alike.

Dawkins then asserts that a scientific view of the universe has displaced all the myths.  Humanity, he implies, has grown out of the fairy tales that gave comfort to its youth.  As a mature species, we have now learnt how to discover the truth - a truth that is just as exciting as the legendary tales it replaced.  Of course, we no longer directly blame angry deities for earthquakes and plagues.  But Dawkins is peddling a naive myth himself to explain the rise of science.  He imagines that the only requirement for a scientific worldview to take root was for man to look upon the world with eyes unclouded by religion.  This is not only patronising to just about every culture that has existed on Earth. Propagating his own myth means that Dawkins distorts the story of science even if he accurately describes scientific theories.  And more dangerously, he explicitly states that science is the only road to truth and that alternative modes of thought have no value.

The story of how modern science really arose shows the danger of uncompromising rationality and the importance of other ways of looking at the world.  In particular, religion had an essential role in scientific advance.  Even by the standards of their day, many great scientists were especially devout, if not always orthodox, Christians.  Johannes Kepler, Blaise Pascal, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell were all unusually religious men.  And this ignores the host of Jesuit scientists, like Roger Boscovich, who have been written out of English-language histories of science. 

This should alert us to the risk that Dawkins's vision of science is overly simplistic.  Today, it is commonly believed that science was invented by pagan Greeks and held back by Christianity.  But Dawkins denigrates even the scientific achievements of ancient Greece.  For instance, he files the theories of the physician Hippocrates, which were the keystone of medicine until the nineteenth century, under mythology.  It is true that Greek science, Hippocratic medicine included, was very often mistaken.  But it had almost nothing to do with the legends with which we are all so familiar.  You don't find many mentions of Zeus or Apollo in the works of Aristotle.  Hippocrates specifically denied that the "sacred disease" of epilepsy had a divine cause at all. 

Aristotle's careful demonstrations, derived by a method of observation and logical analysis, meant that his science stood on a foundation of pure reason.  Dawkins should have been proud.  The trouble is, as Dawkins is well aware, Aristotle's science was almost completely wrong: wrong to say the sun and other planets orbit the earth; wrong to say that moving objects must be moved by something else; wrong to say heavier objects must fall faster than lighter ones; wrong to say vacuums are impossible; wrong to say the universe was eternal; and wrong to say animal species are fixed and unchanging.

All these mistakes are forgivable.  Aristotle did not fail to discover the workings of nature because he was careless or foolish.  His problem, like that of his fellow Greek philosophers, was too much reason and not too little.  He lacked the scientific method of experimentation and the radically irrational idea that we must test theories even if we already think they are right.  It is no good blaming religion or superstition for the Greeks' scientific errors.  And the central message of Dawkins's book, that modern science arose when faith was rejected for reason, is clearly wrong too.

Contrary to Richard Dawkins, Christianity has a central place in the rise of science.  And he is wrong to imply that modern science was something that happened when clever men and women started to investigate nature with their blinkers removed.  It was not the triumph of reason over faith.  Scientific advance requires us to look at the world in a very special way, and Christianity provided a reason to start doing it.  

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Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Creation according to the Greeks and Babylonians

In around 700BC, a shepherd left his flocks on the slopes of Mount Helicon in central Greece and travelled east.  When he reached the coast, he took passage to Chalcis on the island of Euboea, just off the mainland.  It was the first time the shepherd had been at sea.  At Chalcis, the funeral of a local king was taking place and, as part of the mourning rituals, athletes were competing in honour of the dead. As usual, alongside the sporting events, there was a poetry competition.  A later legend even pretended that Homer himself had entered the lists.  The shepherd from Helicon did take part in the contest and performed his poem about the origins of the gods.  His name was Hesiod and he won a bronze tripod.

The poem that Hesiod sang at the competition is today called Theogony.   Together with Homer’s epics, The Odyssey and The Iliad, it is among the earliest surviving Greek verse.  Theogony recounts how the gods were born, how they fought each other and how Zeus ended up as the leading deity.  The story is a Freudian nightmare of fathers eating their sons and sons mutilating their fathers. 

After a hymn of praise to the Muses, Hesiod began,

First came the Chasm, and then broad breasted Earth... Earth bore first of all one equal to herself, starry Heaven, so that he should cover her all about, to be a secure seat forever for the blessed gods.

Thus, for Hesiod the world just existed.  It was not created and had no creator.  The Earth simply sprang spontaneously into being from the emptiness of the Chasm (the Greek word is more usually translated 'chaos').  Here the gods, even the oldest, are of the world and exist only within it.  Zeus himself is among the third generation of the gods.  Despite being immortal and enjoying marvelous powers, he cannot claim any credit for making the world.  He is as much part of it as the humblest insect.  This must mean that the gods are comprised of the same stuff that the universe is ultimately made of.  As to what stuff that is, or where it came from, Hesiod provides no answer.  It is doubtful he ever thought to ask the question.

In the first episode of Theogony, the god Kronos castrated his father, Heaven, with a sharp-toothed sickle on the advice his mother, the Earth.  Admittedly, Heaven deserved it.  He had imprisoned all his previous children in a cavern deep within the Earth, which she found mightily uncomfortable.  

Kronos himself, now ruler of the gods, knew he was destined to be overthrown by one of his children.  He attempted to curtail this fate by swallowing them all at birth.  His wife, the goddess Rhea, grew angry with this behaviour, and substituted a large rock for her youngest son Zeus.  Kronos gulped down the boulder without even noticing the subterfuge.  Zeus was brought up in secret on the island of Crete.  On reaching maturity, he castrated Kronos and became king of the gods himself.  Zeus learnt that a son of his first wife, Metis, would replace him.  To avoid the fate of his father he swallowed his wife before she could give birth.  So far, this desperate measure seems to have worked.  Or at least, when Zeus was finally deposed, it was by the God of the Hebrews and not by the son of Metis.

All this raises very difficult questions about Greek religion.  If Hesiod and his fellow countrymen really did believe that the gods, and Zeus in particular, were fornicating patricides with a sideline in cannibalism, why did they worship them?  And if they didn’t believe this, how dare they say such things about the gods?  Because, with the exception of a few intellectuals, almost all Greeks did believe in the gods and worshipped them sincerely.  The amount of wealth that went into building temples and idols tells us that this was a genuinely religious society.  Hesiod was fully aware that Zeus had deposed his father and eaten his wife.  But he still expected that the king of the gods should be the guarantor of justice.

Classicists continue to argue over these issues.  Perhaps the answer can be found in the way that a monarch is regarded by his subjects.  They can distinguish between the sacred office of the king and the pathetic individual who might occupy the throne at a given time.  Kings demanded loyalty not because they were good, but because they were royal.  Maybe Hesiod worshipped Zeus because he was divine, not because he was Zeus.  And if he had been deposed by his son, as was foretold, Hesiod would have had no qualms in transferring his reverence.

Much of Hesiod's material for Theogony came from the mythology of other Middle Eastern civilisations such as the Babylonians.  But it is only since the original texts have been found in archaeological digs that scholars have realised the extent to which Greek myths have their roots in the East. 

The Babylonian creation myth preserved in these tablets is usually known as the Enuma Elish after its first two words.  For a long time, scholars assumed it must date from the early second millennium BC, making it far older than the Greek equivalent.  However, nowadays many prefer a date of about 1100BC. 
The Enuma Elish was primarily intended to celebrate Marduk, the chief deity of the Babylonians.  Nonetheless, it has some key similarities to the Greek story told by Hesiod.  Both the Babylonians and the Greeks imagined that creation sprang from pre-existing chaos or emptiness.  In the Babylonian cycle, the chaos was called Apsu and had some sort of evil personality.  His wife was a great monster called Tiamat.   
The initial creation is described as follows:

When the skies above were not yet named
Nor earth below pronounced by name,
Apsu, the first one, their begetter
And maker Tiamat, who bore them all,
Had mixed their waters together…
Then gods were born within them.

The reference to a mingling of waters sounds like some sort of sexual reproduction.  In any case, as a result, Tiamat had several children who resided inside her.  They started to make a racket and this led Apsu into a plot to murder the child-gods.  Tiamat helped their leader Ea to kill him.  The resemblance to the story of Kronos as told by Hesiod is obvious.  However, the motif of god slicing off his father’s genitals is found in a Hittite rather than Babylonian source.  These tales must have been carried westward by traders or settlers, perhaps, as Robin Lane Fox suggests, the Euboeans who hosted the poetry competition where Hesiod had triumphed.  As texts produced by the Hittites and other near eastern civilisations are translated and published, it has become clear that Hesiod, Homer and their fellow poets had a rich stock of traditions to draw upon.

Ea himself had a son called Marduk, like Zeus a third-generation god.  And like Zeus, Marduk did battle with the old gods, led by Tiamat.  After the battle, Marduk celebrated his victory by creating the earth and heavens from her carcass.  He then created plants, animals and mankind.  The Greeks would have instantly recognised the Babylonian legends as resembling theirs.  Both feature a plethora of gods engaged in an orgy of sex and violence.  But neither the Greeks nor the Babylonians claimed their gods created the universe.  Creation just doesn't seem to be a religious question.  No wonder the philosophers of Melitus stepped in.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Eric Hobsbawn was still an old Stalinist

Over the Christmas period, The Guardian has been has remembering famous people who passed away this year.  Unfortunately, Neal Ascherson's piece on Eric Hobsbawn is as obsequious as the obitories at the time of his death in October.  Here's what I thought about that, from First Thing's On the Square.

The death of Eric Hobsbawn in October, at a grand old age of 95, has shown the British Left in its worst light.  Hobsbawn was a lifelong apologist for some of the most monstrous crimes in history.  For this, the British Establishment welcomed him to its bosom.  He was professor and then president at my alma mater of Birkbeck College at the University of London.  Prime Minister Tony Blair consulted him and advised the Queen to make him a Companion of Honour in 1998.  His death has produced the predictable deluge of tributes.  Labour Party Member of Parliament Tristram Hunt wrote a particularly oleaginous piece for the London Daily Telegraph concluding Hobsbawn was “a great scholar and undaunted public intellectual”.  Blair’s successor and the current leader of the Labour Party, Edward Miliband, mourned the loss of “an extraordinary historian, a man passionate about his politics, and a great friend of my family”.

There are many who argue that Hobsbawn was indeed an excellent historian.  Others might disagree, believing that historians need to work at the coalface of the sources, mining information and refining it into new knowledge about the past.  Ironically, for such a defender of the working class, Hobsbawn rarely went near a coalface, metaphorically or literally.  He was a teacher (by all accounts, quite a good one) and a synthesiser (again, a good one).  

Leaving aside his academic achievements, Hobsbawn should have been notorious as the last of Stalin’s foot soldiers.  He joined the Communist Party in the 1930s and remained loyal even after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, when several of his comrades left.  While Khrushchev’s extinction of the Hungarian bid for freedom caused a crisis among British communists, they had been able to swallow Stalin’s purges and the Nazi/Soviet pact of 1939.  Hobsbawn has a particularly malodorous record in this respect.  He wrote a pamphlet with Raymond Williams defending Stalin’s alliance with the Nazis, thus destroying at a stroke the justification for their support of the Soviet Union as a bulwark against fascism.  On the purges, Hobsbawn told the Canadian journalist (and later, politician) Michael Ignatieff in 1994 that they would have been a price worth paying for the Marxist workers’ paradise.  

Eric Hobsbawn wasn’t the only Stalinist to rise high in the esteem of British academia and society.  His fellow traveller, Christopher Hill, was another example.  When he died in 2003, also in his 90s, encomiums filled the newspapers.  In Hill’s case there is now little doubt about his significance as a historian.  He was thoroughly second-rate.  He did read the primary sources relating to his favoured period of seventeenth-century England but his reconstructions were so tendentious that historians of the period no longer take them seriously.  My graduate research overlapped with Hill’s work on the subject of England’s universities, so I included a passage refuting his views in my PhD dissertation.  My supervisor rebuked me for flogging a dead horse. 
Whereas Hobsbawn thought Stalin’s murders might be justified, Hill simply denied they ever happened.  In a television interview broadcast shortly before his death, he insisted that he’d been in Russia in the 1930s and had seen no evidence for the atrocities.  And it’s true.  He was there.  Like many contemporaries on the Left, he enjoyed a carefully supervised tour of the Soviet Union’s wonderful achievements.  When Stalin died in 1953, Hill announced “He was a very great and penetrating thinker. Humanity not only in Russia but in all countries will always be deeply in his debt.” The reward for his unwavering admiration for Uncle Joe was election as Master of Balliol College, Oxford.  

How did these men remain fĂȘted throughout their lives?  In large part, a popular misapprehension about communism saved them from the opprobrium they deserved.  Too many people still accept the good intentions of communists to make the world a better place, even if, in practice, it all went terribly wrong.  This is a fundamentally flawed analysis.  At its most basic level, communism must crush freedom.  It is the forcible merger of the individual into the system.  It is not a utopian system that went wrong, but the antithesis of much that is best about humanity.  That the perpetrators of communism’s crimes thought they were acting for the greater good is no mitigation.  In many ways, it made the situation worse.  As CS Lewis observed, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive... those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Stalin didn’t take in everyone on the Left, especially once his crimes were manifest.  George Orwell saw communism for what it was and, in Animal Farm and 1984, gave us dreadful illustrations of its true nature.  A one-time comrade of Hill and Hobsbawn, EP Thompson, became a fierce critic of Stalin while remaining on the hard left. Today, writers like Nick Cohen and Martin Amis keep alive the tradition of leftwing liberalism.  And the Labour Party itself, when in government, gave no quarter during the Cold War. 
So let us hope that, with Hobsbawn’s passing, we will no longer have to endure sentimental fawning over men like him: Men who can praise a society which would have packed them off to Siberia with alacrity and where they surely would not have lived into their nineties.

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Happy new year everyone. I''m afraid - aside from a brief burst of activity at the beginning of last year - I haven't done a lot of blogging. I have however managed to settle into my adopted country, kit my house out with a load of cheap furniture and unnecessary plastic objects and - like the late historian John Keegan - adopt a very large and unruly Maine Coon cat which stands sentinel over my bookcase.

On the history front, I did come across a site called Quora. At first glance I wrote this off as some kind of Stephan Fry cult or a space for self styled 'entrepreneurs' to chest-beat about how much they know about 'freemium' and 'crowd sourcing'. However I can't resist the opportunity to delve into a few historical debates. Here's a few of my answers.

1) Would the USSR have collapsed if Reagan like polcies had occured earlier

Nope - the Soviets were raking it in from oil revenues in the 70s.

2) History of Science: Is the chart comparing scientific advancement vs. time truthful?

No; it is the work of a half-wit.

3) What were the greatest events of medieval history?

There's quite a few of them....

4) Did Christianity cause the Dark Ages ?

The 'Dark Ages Boot Camp' is sorely needed

5) World History: Was it a right decision for Hadrian to surrender Trajan's conquest in Mesopotomia (Iraq)?

He had lost them anyway...

6) Why did Britain lose the American War of Independence?

Those damn colonials (and Euroscepticism)

If you get bored Tim O'Neil has about 230 answers on there which as always are worth reading.

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Monday, January 07, 2013

Labour is tough enough without the National Childbirth Trust

Kirstie Allsopp, the host of UK TV show Location, Location, Location, has discovered that the National Child Trust (”NCT”) is politicised,dogmatic and scary.  One of the NCT’s tutors has demanded that Allsopp be sued for describing the NCT as politicised, dogmatic and scary, which rather proves the point.

My youngest is now five, but I can remember all the NCT propaganda that we were subjected to.  We were assured that home births are the natural way to deliver a child and that anything other than breast milk for your new born is a sin.  But like Kirstie Allsopp, my wife endured two emergency caesareans.  Both our children were delivered by a surgeon in an operating theatre.  We had a friend who was determined to give birth at home.  She too ended up in an ambulance with her child emerging into this world through an incision in her abdomen rather than the more conventional orifice.  Thankfully, she gave up on the home birth malarkey for her next two children.  Experience is a wonderful school.

It is not often talked about, but labour can be sheer agony over a long period of time.  I’m not talking about “stubbing your toe and hopping around” agony.  It’s more like a red hot poker in your nether regions... for hours and hours and hours.  When you have seen what childbirth is like, the NCT leaflets no longer seem wrong-headed.  They become downright sinister.  The advice, to “welcome” contractions and that “pain is progress”, sounds like the preaching from a sect of flagellants.  But far worse is the way that mothers who have had caesareans or epidurals feel like failures, as if they haven’t given birth properly.  Worse follows once the baby is safely delivered, with massive pressure to breast feed.  Again, if this isn’t suitable for a particular mother, they feel like they have betrayed their child.  Breast milk remains slightly better than the artificial alternatives, especially for the first few months, but not by enough to get very stressed about.  

Where there are no complications, home births are fine.  It’s also true that delivering a baby at home is likely to be a less stressful for the mother.  But it’s impossible to know in advance that a labour will go smoothly.  Depriving the baby of oxygen for just a few minutes can lead to irreparable brain damage and that doesn’t seem to be a risk worth taking.  So, I would discourage home births even though the scientific literature remains inconclusive on their safety.  Certainly, I have little time for the earth-mothers who seem to think that “natural” birth is intrinsically better than taking advantage of modern medicine.

Luckily, the traumatic experience of giving birth almost always has a very happy ending.  Welcoming new life to the world is such a great reward that women are willing to go through labour all over again.  For that, men should be very grateful, while silently giving thanks that we don’t have to go through it ourselves. 

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