An ideofact is an artifact imbued with meanings other than its technical function.
Thursday, May 23, 2002
In his 4th post of May 22, Josh notes that Saudi's haven't had much luck exporting Wahhabism to Bosnia. I doubt they're having much luck in Turkey either. There's a difference between what we might call Ottoman Muslims, who more or less accepted modernity, and the paleo-Muslims (actually, neo-paleo-Muslims?) who push Wahhabism. Or, to put it more succinctly a fairly large number of Bosnian Muslim women like to wear mini-skirts, go to discos, drink wine and beer in cafes, and see themselves as part of Europe. They also see themselves as good Muslims, regardless of what some Saudi Wahhabi tries to tell them. Which is one of the reasons why I don't buy the "Islam is our enemy" school of thought.
Update:This was part of a much longer post, which I think blogger ate (in fairness, I might failed to post the completed version before hitting publish, so it may not be blogger's fault, as opposed to the problems I have with the ever disappearing archives). In any case, I'll try to reconstruct my larger point later tonight, but I'll let this stand for now...
Medieval tax planning
Joshua Treviño of i330 fame discovers (in his 12th post on May 22) the joys of modern taxes, and longs for the dark ages, when the Church took a mere 10 percent and the state another 10 percent of one's income. I sympathize, and would advise him, as my wife and I did, to become a feudal lord in his own right, and get the home mortgage interest deduction.
The strange case of Jean Gimpel, part three
In the Precolumbian Americas, time was reckoned in cyclical, rather than linear, fashion. The Aztecs, for example, divided time into 52-year periods. Their chronologies, or what little of them have survived the ravages of conquest and time, make little sense to those with a Western notion of time. Some kings appear to have reigned for well over a hundred years; seminal events and rulers can be dated to either the beginning or the end of dynasties; some rulers, it appears, lived and died twice.
Borges wrote a short story called The Theologians, in which a heresy is founded on the notion of time repeating itself; eventually the heresiarch is captured and condemned to death:
“This has all happened and will happen again,” said Euphorbus. “You are not lighting a pyre, you are lighting a labyrinth of flames. If all the fires I have been were gathered together here, they would not fit on earth and the angels would be blinded. I have said this many times.” Then he cried out, because the flames had reached him.A somewhat less dramatic version of this idea is the notion that history repeats itself; that what has come before will come again; that there is a pattern to history that can be read and from which the future can be deduced. I think of both Hegel and, later, Marx’s scientific certainty in his vision of the proletariat succeeding the bourgeoisie who succeeded the mercantilists and the feudal lords, returning man to a state of grace, or at least a state in which the age-old alienation from the means of production would be undone.
From the past, you can read the future. Or so says Jean Gimpel:
At first I established that the era of growth of medieval France had lasted from 1050 to 1265 and her era of maturity from 1265 to 1337, but eventually I placed the beginning of France’s mature age not in 1265 but in 1254, when Saint Louis returned from the Crusades and stamped the age with his own decisive maturity, and its end not in 1337 but in 1277, when mysticism gained ascendancy over reason. I chose 1850 as the year the United States entered her era of growth, and I tentatively considered 1953 to be the year she entered her era of maturity, because that was the year in which the celebrated Lever House was constructed on New York’s Park Avenue. A glass structure only thirty stories high and built primarily for aesthetic reasons rather than with a view to commercial profit, it symbolized a turning point in American psychology: a greater awareness of aesthetics and the beginning of a certain contempt for strictly monetary considerations. Eventually, I came to believe that 1947 might better be considered the point when the United States became “mature,” for that was the year of the Truman Doctrine, when the United States took upon herself the responsibility for all the “free world.”Forgive the lengthy quote—there are a few more to come (perhaps I’m so fond of Eusebius because, like him, I prop myself up with quotes).
Gimpel assumed that he had discovered constants – he even made a visual aid to show the periods of growth, maturity and decline:
…I rediscovered my graph, which had lain neglected in a file for sixteen years, and found that the evolution I had forecast was happening: decline of civic virtues and of the crusading spirit, increased interest in aesthetic values, limited growth of the G.N.P., interdependence of the economy, decline in energy resources, devaluation, increasing inflation, resistance to new technology. I was now able to date the entry of the United States into her aging or declining era: 1971. In 1971 the United States Congress refused to allocate funds for the supersonic transport project, and this antitechnological vote represented a complete reversal of the traditional attitude of the United States toward technology. If we accept 1947 as the beginning of the previous era, the United States had an era of maturity of almost 25 years. The Golden Age of Pericles, which was sometimes recalled during John Kennedy’s time in the White House, lasted about the same number of years.Now, there is much with which to quibble in this analysis, not the least of which is the importance that Gimpel attaches to the SST. Certainly, private companies could continue to develop their own Concorde; that the U.S. Congress chose not to involve itself in airframe design isn’t necessarily an anti-technological vote, but rather one of financial prudence. And one could argue that the U.S. air travel system that developed – moving many people cheaply rather than a few at great cost – is more in line with the height of the medieval technological revolution, when, for example, there was one water-powered mill for every 50 households. But what I find most startling is the notion that you can take from the past a kind of temporal cookie cutter, and place it over the current age, and then interpret events accordingly.
But Gimpel goes even further. Having established that the United States is the last in a series of dominant Western countries (France and Great Britain preceded it), he argues that the West has run out of gas. Consider this quote, from his preface:
The creative time span of these great technological eras [medieval and modern] lasted for some two and a half centuries before symptoms of decline became apparent. Our own last two decades demonstrate that today Western technological society is revealing much the same pattern of history as its medieval predecessor.Gimpel wrote that passage in June 1975. It is perhaps understandable that, in the wake of the first oil shocks, the Watergate scandal, the apparent ascendancy of Communism and the decline of Democratic Capitalism (I can remember my sixth grade teacher explaining to us that it was inevitable that the United States would become more and more like the Soviet Union, that such an evolution would end the senseless arms race that was destroying – not the Soviet, but the American economy – and would be our salvation), that Gimpel might have argued at that point in history that the West was over. In part four of this series (sorry, there’s more to come) I’ll discuss this in more detail. But in part five, I’ll note that twenty years after writing The Medieval Machine, Gimpel argued that there was nothing wrong with his 1975 thesis. Despite the advent of personal computing, of cell phones, of a vast array of modern gadgetry, Gimpel still argues that the technological plateau was reached some time in the early 1970s, and that his statement, that “We can anticipate centuries of decline and exhaustion. There will be no further industrial revolution in the cycles of our Western civilization,” was as valid in the 1990s as it was in the 1970s.
In case anyone is interested, part one of this series could have been read here if blogger hadn't eaten my archives again, and part two could have been read here, but can't, alas, because every time I turn around something is screwed up with blogger.
Update:Blogger still won't cooperate with reposting the archives -- I guess I've got to quit my day job so I can devote every waking hour to making sure they stay up. In any case, part two can be read (I hope) here and part one here.
Wednesday, May 22, 2002
Whatever happened to...
Alan Greenspan? Didn't he used to be the most powerful man in Washington?
I don't really have a lot to add to this. His words were tremendously weighty just a few years (one year?) ago. He'd give a speech, and every major paper, MSNBC, CNBC, CNN, etc. etc. would dissect his every Delphian utterance -- often, as I recall, producing wildly divergent analyses. I know he still gives speeches, and I'm sure he's as cryptic as ever, but it's been a while since I read a breathless interpretation of the Greenspan tea leaves. Of course, it may be that I'm not just paying attention anymore.
For a trip down memory lane, check out this March 23, 2001 Time article on Greenspan. My favorite part:
If Greenspan turns out to be right, by summer U.S. businesses will be able to imagine healthy growth again, the markets will embark on a slow and steady bull run, and sometime in early 2002 Greenspan will be acknowleged, with fresh awe, to have Done It Again.I don't know why, but it almost seems quaint.
Monday, May 20, 2002
Reader Heather McFarlane makes this astute observation:
Whenever the Mongol attacks on Europe are discussed or shown on TV, the European knights in shining armour are presented as comic figures, with their heavy awkward armour perched on big dumb looking horses.I lived in Philadelphia for about 14 years, and one thing I didn't do often enough was visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Along with the Chagalls and the Picassos, the museum featured a room filled with suits of armor and weapons (regrettably, the museum doesnt seem to have anything online about it). The craftsmanship is amazing, and Ms. McFarlane is right -- "gadgetry" is the proper word for it. Another amazing thing: I'm about 5' 9" tall, in reasonably good shape (or I was in those days) and I swear there's no way I could swing some of the swords they had on display with any authority, let alone while being covered from head to toe in armor.
Here's a few contemporaries of the "Franks" on their prowess in battle: Anna Commena, a Byzantine lady who hated them, wrote: "Their chief means of defense is a coat of mail, ring joined to ring, and the iron of that fabric is so good that it repels arrows and keeps the wearers body unharmed. An additional defense is a shield which is not round but long, very broad at the top and tapering to a point." She added that "A Frank on horseback is invincible," and that a Frankish cavalry charge "is irresistible."
Anna Commena adds that the crossbow "was absolutely unknown to the Greeks," and Lynn White Jr., who is the source of much of the information here, adds that the words in Byzantine Greek, Turkish, Tamil, and Malayam (as far as Southern India) for the device are based on chancre, which was the French term for the crossbow. It is true, however, that crossbows were known to the Romans and the Chinese long before the Crusaders.
Finally, Ibn Sa'id, writing in Spain (or more accurately, Andalusia) in the 13th Century, noted:
Very often the Andalusian princes and warriors take the neighboring Christians as models for their equipment. Their arms are identical, likewise their surcoats of scarlet or other stuff, their pennons, their saddles. Similar also is their mode of fighting with bucklers and long lances for the charge. They use neither the mace nor the bow of the Arabs, but employ Frankish crossbows for sieges and arm infantry with them for encounters with the enemy.Interestingly, Jean Gimpel believes that a love of gadgetry is one of the sure signs of a technologically healthy culture, and argues that the West -- today, right now -- has lost its love of gadgetry, and is in an era of technological decline. I'd write more on this topic, but my cellphone is ringing, I have to check email, and then run out to buy batteries for my Handspring. Now, what was that Gimpel was saying about not loving our gadgetry?
Sunday, May 19, 2002
Photius, a ninth century Patriarch of Contantinople, said of Eusebius, "His style is neither agreeable nor brilliant, but he was a man of great learning." A 20th Century editor offered an even bleaker assessment:
Eusebius knew an awful lot; it is less clear how much he really understood. His works are full of endless citations from the works of others; rarely does Eusebius allow himself to speak with his own voice. Such writing is valuable to have, though tedious to read.Valuabe because Eusebius, a Greek born in Palestine around 260 a.d. who lived through seven decades of periodic persecutions to finally see Constantine adopt Christianity, preserved excerpts of the works of some classical philosophers and Christian apologists that would otherwise be lost to us. In his A Preparation of for the Gospel, for example, Eusebius, like Origen before him and Augustine after, demonstrated that the ethical ideas of the pagan philosophers were embodied in Christian doctrine and practice. Unlike his models and antecedents, Eusebius' Preparation is little read for its own merits, but rather for the endless quotations of those pagan philosophers whose work justifies his apology.
In his Ecclesiastical History, which traces the Church from Christ to Constantine, this manner of writing is evident. "This is what he wrote," "...he goes on," "His account bears on our subject," "...he makes this comment," "...a list is necessary to quote at this point," "The same writer sketches the origins of heresies in his day." All these lines, taken from just the fourth of the ten books of the Ecclesiastical History, are followed by lengthy passages from the writings of others. Yet in the fifth book, Eusebius, after relating the martyrdoms of Christians in Rome, Antioch, and Jerusalem, and before moving on to those in Gaul, allows his own voice to be heard:
Other historians have confined themselves to the recording of the victories in war and triumphs over enemies, of the exploits of commanders and the heroism of their men, stained with the blood of the thousands they have slaughtered for the sake of children and country and possessions; it is peaceful wars, fought for the very peace of the soul, and men who in such wars have fought manfully for truth rather than for country, for true religion rather than for their dear ones, that my account of God's commonwealth will inscribe on imperishable monuments; it is the unshakeable determination of the champions of true religion, their courage and endurance, their triumphs over demons and victories over invisible opponents, and the crowns which all this won for them at the last, that it will make famous for all time.It is difficult to tell whether Eusebius believed, when he wrote that passage, that he too might one day be called on to make the ultimate sacrifice; to die, as so many of those he describes died, in an arena, jeered by pagans, facing torture, wild beasts, or fire, all while professing his faith, and refusing to worship Caesar as a god, or to offer homage to the state religion. Even a pedant can be a martyr for his faith. Perhaps more significantly, even a pedant can recognize how his own program differentiates himself from the prevailing pedantry of the time.
But there is some question as to whether Eusebius understood his own milieu. He quotes Irenaeus and Origen and Justin attacking their opponents, but offers little of their own perceptions of Orthodoxy. Even stranger, among the few facts we know about his own life (Acacius, who succeeded him as bishop of Caesarea, wrote a life of his erudite predecessor; regrettably, it is a lost work), is the curious fact that Eusebius himself was condemned as a heretic at the Council of Antioch in 325 for espousing Arianism. He nevertheless attended the Council of Nicaea, at which a creed, or statement of orthodoxy, was approved. Eusebius accepted the creed; he left Nicaea in the company of the orthodox. He was in this sense fortunate to live in age when the temporal power of the Church was weak; later, those accused of heresy had little opportunity to return to the fold.
His last work, which remained unfinished at his death in 339, was a life of Constantine, in which he celebrated the virtues of the emporer, and passed over his faults. In that work, Eusebius explained that the Christian emporer rules by God's will, and expresses that will through his decrees. Thus was born the divine right of kings, a doctrine which would dominate Christendom for more than 14 centuries, and would only be undone when unruly American colonists threw off the yoke of monarchy, and established a Republic. They did so thanks in part to the polemical writings of a very different sort of man from Eusebius. Tom Paine invoked the example Old Testament judges as evidence that God preferred his chosen people to be ruled not by a monarch, but by themselves.
Update: In the text of this post, I corrected one error, and in this update offer a clarification. The Council of Nicaea was the Church's response to the Arian heresy, and the Canon approved was a creed which set forth as orthodox the idea that Christ was an equal part of the trinity, and not subordinate to God the Father. One can read about it here. It was not concerned with the canonical books of the New Testament; originally I had included some remarks on Eusebius' views on which of the works of the apostles were divinely inspired; somehow, when cutting and pasting, I ended up with the mistaken implication. Secondly, I write that the idea of the divine right of kings comes from Eusebius. Obviously, in its pagan manifestations, the idea was familiar long before Eusebius was writing; I mean, specifically, that the Christian idea of the divine right of kings begins with Eusebius.