Category: History

Will the last to go please turn out the lights…

I once heard author Jared Diamond speak about his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” As he was addressing Easter Island, a once forested isle that was eventually denuded by its inhabitants (leading to their demise), Diamond wondered aloud about the last tree. What must the guy who cut it down have been thinking? Now, as the global human population exceeds seven billion, and we watch real and potential cataclysm unfold around us—civil war, collapse of ocean and tropical ecosystems, global warming, storms and floods, the emergence of new pathogens, nuclear holocaust—I can’t help but  ponder the eventual extinction of our species. And I can’t help but wonder what it will be like for the last man or woman left...

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Reflections on “The Gnostic Gospels,” by Elaine Pagels 

I’ve long wondered about gnostics and gnosticism, an early rival movement to Orthodox Christianity. Numerous passages in the New Testament epistles refer to it obliquely (and condemn it harshly). So I sought out Pagels’ books, as well as other sources, to understand the controversy, and to understand Gnosticism. This post is the state of my (possibly flawed) understanding at this point. A more thorough and academic (though biased) treatment is found here. —————————————————— How many Christians today know their own religion’s early history, that beyond the apostolic acts and the persecution of converts? It’s a fascinating and complex story. Christ brought about a seismic shift in human culture. But people reacted as people do in such movements once their leader is gone: with competing ideas and interpretations and directions, and with arguments and infighting and denunciations. So, the first four centuries of Christianity were marked by dispute, power struggles, and political intrigue. In effect, the new movement struggled on two fronts. Externally, the Roman government distrusted Christians and used them as scapegoats and diversions for various political ends. It’s largely from this that we get the persecution stories of the early saints. But the early Church faced an internal struggle as well, as converts fragmented into hundreds of competing sects, each derived from a particular interpretation of Christ’s message, many producing their own sacred texts and narratives. Had it...

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Review of “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” by Yuval Noah Harari

“We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steam ships to space shuttles—but nobody knows where we’re going.” — Yuval Noah Harari (From Animals Into Gods: A Brief History of Humankind, draft edition 2012) —- Harari is Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Israel.  This review is of a prepublication draft of his book, titled “From Animals into Gods,” which I bought on Kindle at the time. He subsequently renamed it on publication in 2015.  A cursory examination suggests the two are functionally identical.  For simplicity, I present it as “Sapiens,” but I read the former.   —-  To begin, I wouldn’t say Sapiens is a profound book, but it is unquestionably useful and insightful, perhaps more so than any I have read. It reflects an ability on the part of Mr. Harari to think holistically and synthetically across many disciplines. In today’s stovepiped academia, this is a rare and commendable trait. Only someone with extraordinary intellectual perspective could have produced this work. It has its faults, enough that I almost put it down. But as I gradually saw disparate disciplines woven into a story, I became hooked. I’d consider Sapiens required reading for anyone wishing to offer meaningful comment on our modern world. The author might have subtitled his work, “A Unified Theory of Civilization.” He treats biology, cognition, culture, religion, history, economics, science, psychology and...

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When and how, yes.  But whether or not?  Hardly…

This is a quote from Yuval Noah Harari’s “From Animals Into Gods: A Brief History of Humankind.”  Mine is a “draft edition,” without a cited publisher, but I’m pretty sure it was finally published under the title “Sapiens,” with the same subtitle: In the year AD 1500, five hundred million people inhabited the world. Today, there are seven billion.  In 1500, global annual production was equivalent to 250 billion dollars.  Today it’s close to 60 trillion dollars.  In 1500, humankind consumed each day about 13 trillion calories of energy. Today, we consume 1500 trillion calories a day.  (Yuval Noah Harari, “From Animals Into Gods: A Brief History of Humankind,” Draft Edition 2012) How long can this last?   Or more to the point, will it end with a whimper or a bang?  Personally, I think we’re whimpering now.  But I’m waiting for the bang (a big one, either real or metaphorical).  After that, it’s anyone’s guess.   Interestingly, this also makes me think of another quote:   “Watch, therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour…”  (Matthew 25:13)...

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Reflections on reading “A History of God,” by Karen Armstrong

Because of its breadth and detail, this is among the more difficult books I’ve tackled. In brief, Armstrong reviews the theological histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the three related monotheistic traditions. She expounds on the complex and often surprising evolution of each, from their origins through the 20th century. It is an expansive treatment, but well worth the six months it’s taken to get through it.  I want to enumerate here the principal insights I gained. This is not a review or critique of the book, but a melange of Armstrong’s historical narrative, my own opinions, and personal reflection. In other words, it should not be attributed en toto to Armstrong. 1. As individuals constrained by short lifespans, we fail to appreciate how our respective religious practices have changed over time. In all three traditions, teachings often presented as absolute have been plastic and malleable. They have all been revised and reinterpreted continuously. Since their inceptions, the respective clergies and other intelligentsia in all generations have argued about right belief and practice. In so doing, they have taken each far from its origin, to the point that rigid and dogmatic interpretation of any is absurd. In fact, Armstrong points out that, over the centuries, people have constantly reinvented the idea of God to keep it relevant to their times and their lives. In this vein, she traces the...

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Reflections on early civilizations and social stratification

I’ve spent six years now traveling throughout Western Europe, also reading histories of western civilization…from earliest prehistory to modernity.  I’ve but scratched the surface, I know…an adequate appreciation would require a lifetime.  But even with my limited exposure, there is one theme I see virtually taken for granted rather than deeply explored:  social stratification, class and the distribution of power and wealth.  The effects have been hugely studied: feudalism, the French Revolution, colonialism and imperialism, capitalism and Marxism and communism, slave revolts, American civil rights,  even in budding movements like Occupy Wall Street within the U.S. today.  And the recent election in the U.S. is no less a reflection of its continuing dominance.  But I want to know the when, the how and the why:  When, how and why did differentiation and stratification by income and social status begin?  What are its drivers?  Why has it been so ubiquitous throughout history, and why have the less empowered classes accepted it so readily?  And what’s more, why throughout history have those in power so insistently treated their “lessers” like dirt…and why do the underprivileged so readily put up with it? This seems indeed a ubiquitous theme throughout all recorded history, and not just in the West…Ancient Egypt, the Middle East, the Orient, India all did the same.  A cursory consideration would suggest it arose in the Neolithic with the onset...

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Hubris…

Concluding a week in Rome, I stood yesterday at the top of the monument to Emmanuel Vittoria II, liberator and first king of the unified Italy that emerged in the 1860’s. Wikipedia records the monument (including the statues atop it) as 443 ft wide and 266 ft high, with an area of 20,332 square yards. The 360 degree Rome skyline includes the ruins of the Colosseum and Palatine Hill, remnants of colossal temples, dozens of standing domes and obelisks, and the astonishing wealth of the Vatican…itself an ironical tribute to a child born in a barn. The singular, recurring word in my head was “hubris.” All these pretensions to eternal power and esteem, sad reflection on how a small, insignificant and transient creature graced with a remarkable brain and opposable thumbs has chosen to express his gratitude for such gifts.   I came home and looked up Percy Bysshe Shelly’s poem to the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II. Ramesses was an Egyptian king who, 3,500 years ago, had similar aspirations. Here is the final stanza: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.” –Percy Bysshe Shelley...

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War in Human Civilization, by Azar Gat

This is the last of a trilogy of posts on death and destruction.  Then we can move on to something serious… So, I spent the time since my last post reading War in Human Civilization, by Azar Gat. Gat is Ezer Weitzman Professor of National Security in the Department of Political Sciences, Tel Aviv University. I wanted closure on this theme before moving on, so I pulled this title (purchased long ago) from my digital bookshelf and dove into it. What I found was not only closure, but also validation.  Gat offers a rare multi-disciplary perspective on this topic, combining a history of intrahuman fighting at every scale with insights from anthropology, archeology, psychology, ethology, economics, history and political science, and a dash of genetics…an undertaking of some 10 years. He spans prehistoric aboriginal fighting to 21st century nuclear proliferation and terrorism. And in the end, his conclusions are forthright. Simplest is to quote directly from his concluding chapter: “…there is nothing special about deadly human violence and war. Fundamentally, the solution to the ‘enigma of war’ is that no such enigma exists. Violent competion, alias conflict–including intraspecific conflict–is the rule throughout nature, as organisms vie among themselves to survive and reproduce under ever-present conditions of acute scarcity, conditions accentuated by their own process of propagation.” Azar Gat, War in Human Civilization, Oxford University Press 2006. In essence, his...

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More on war and death…

I’ve contemplated this follow-up post for a week or more now.  My visit to Berlin has me wondering how to think about the massive numbers of war dead between 1915 and 1945. Finally, I decided to put it into perspective, so began exploring other intentional mass death events. Lamentably, I gave up.  There are too many:  Biblical slaughter, Mongol invasions, the Crusades, the Protestant-Catholic wars, Europeans in the New World, the slave trade to the Americas, the Belgians in the Congo, the Irish potato famine, Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Empire, Stalinist purges, Spain under Franco, politically-induced famine in Africa and China and North Korea, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, political coups in Chile and Argentina, Serbian atrocities in Bosnia, Rwandan genocide, ethnic cleansing in Darfur and the Sudan, dictatorship and war throughout the Middle East, the ongoing spectacle in Syria…for a start. I finally decided that, in the context of the human species, this is all just business as usual. We want to tag such atrocities as inhuman, but the problem is, they are not.  They are exactly the opposite.  It’s not that mass killing isn’t wrong.  In the context of our culture, it certainly is.  But in the context of our biology, it seems to be inevitable. Death in whatever form is the ultimate consequence of life, the price we pay for participating.  The ugliness is in the varied...

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Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin…and the “war to end wars”

I haven’t posted for the last several weeks because I’ve been drifting…northern France, various places in Holland, also Berlin and what used to be East Germany. Maybe I didn’t post because it was inconvenient, no good place to write. Or maybe because topics were everywhere. How to choose? The theme of war was ubiquitous to one who knows 20th Century history. And yet (other than in Berlin, where they’ve made a tourist industry out of) it could be completely overlooked without that historical perspective. I’m tempted to say war is in our DNA, but I’m more likely to say that simple aggression is. I think there is a difference between individual aggression–over food or breeding partners or tribal territories or personal insult–and the organized aggression we think of as war. Aggression at a national scale by one group on another is largely about power and greed on the part of a few and manipulation of the many. A retaliatory response is understandable, sure. But more than anything else, WWI was about using tenuous alliances to grab territory…and it cost 18 million lives. And that was, in the words of H.G. Wells, the “war to end war.” Yet, within 30 years, 60 million more people had died in WWII. Remnants of all this are ubiquitous in Europe: monuments to executed resistance fighters throughout France, statues to deported Jewish children in...

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