Tag Archives: slavery

The Story of the West : V – Earth Crisis

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Feb 2007

As we have seen, world history has been dominated for almost a thousand years by the rise of the West (the societies rimming the north Atlantic). And, contrary to the propaganda of secularism, the most positive aspects of western culture have owed more to Christianity than to anything else.

The modern belief in science, in the freedom and potential of the individual, in the equal rights of all, in democracy and in economic freedom, arose naturally out of Christian belief in the rationality of the universe, in the dignity and responsibility of the individual, and in the obligations that we all have to one another.

However, the whole world now faces an intense crisis, and this also has to do with the rise of the West.

First, the very intensity of our economic activity, coupled with the rise of science and technology, threatens the planet itself. The lifestyle of the richest 5% of the human population is coveted by the other 95% – but the effort to achieve this will inevitably make the planet uninhabitable.

Second, western arrogance and the frustrations that arise out of economic inequality are the root sources of a growing global violence. The ‘War on Terror’ is just one aspect of this problem.

Third, the West seems morally and spiritually bankrupt – offering only addiction as a means of escape from the meaninglessness of life for millions.

Finally, the loss of a sense of moral purpose and direction is hampering the rise of a more just world order that does not exploit the poorest to maintain the luxurious lifestyle of the richest. Millions starve on southern continents while obesity and addiction threaten northern continents with a public health catastrophe.

So the earth crisis that now faces rising generations is multi-dimensional. It is material, spiritual, moral, economic and environmental – all at the same time.  Ireland is now fully part of this global crisis, having experienced in the past decade the full economic benefits of a globalised economy. We now display all the fruits of economic success – as well as the squalor of mass addiction and the vicious criminal culture that accompanies it

We do not need to look far for the roots of this crisis. It arose directly out of the uncoupling of economic and scientific progress from another Western tradition – the tradition of reflection on our tragic human tendency towards vanity and selfishness.

Western imperialism is the clearest manifestation of the betrayal of all that is best in Christianity by the West itself. The technological and economic lead that western Europe had acquired by the 1400s allowed Spain and Portugal – soon followed by England, Holland and France – to build overseas empires by naked military force.

Although slavery had by this time been abolished within Europe itself, these western nations now disgraced themselves by enslaving black Africans to work plantations in the Americas, and by subjugating the native populations there. It wasn’t until the 1700s that the principle of personal and political liberty began to undermine these colonial empires, as well as slavery, and it wasn’t until the last century that these European empires were finally abandoned.

By that time a new power had risen in the west – the USA. By 1945 it was clearly the dominant western power, and by 1989, with the fall of the Soviet Union, it had no obvious rival. Proclaiming itself the champion of democracy and freedom it also championed a global economic system that favoured itself and its closest allies. Economic imperialism had replaced political imperialism, and this was no secure basis for global security, or freedom. The very success of the USA had created an arrogance that reached its culmination in our own time – in the disastrous presidency of the younger Bush.

By then a huge chasm had opened up between the political and economic leaders of the West and some of the key values of Christianity – especially humility, simplicity and compassion.

To some extent, Christian clergies were responsible for this chasm. They had seen western imperialism as an opportunity to spread Christianity throughout the globe, and mostly could not see the cultural arrogance that lay behind it. Catholic churchmen in the 1700s were also highly suspicious of the ‘levelling’ tendencies of western libertarianism, and were often far too supportive of unjust colonial regimes abroad. Overall, Christian leaders were slow to apply a truly Christian ethic to all political activity. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that a Pope could bring himself to condemn a European imperialism that had often sought to impose the Gospel by naked force in the period after 1450.

But another reason for the growing chasm between Western culture and the deepest Christian ideals was the European Enlightenment. This was an intellectual movement of the 1700s whose leaders were convinced that a perfect society could easily be built on what they called ‘reason’ – the abandonment of religious faith and the total reliance on secular science. Resentful of the power of clergies to control thought they sought to secularise the world.

Too often allied with the aristocracies that had ruled Europe since the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church in particular was outmanoeuvred by the Enlightenment. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the world’s Catholic bishops could fully approve the principle of religious freedom, and it wasn’t until 1989 that a pope could declare that the ideals of 1789 in France – liberty, equality and fraternity – were rooted in Christianity. This delay goes a long way toward explaining the secularisation of France, and of most of the west.

Now, in 2006, secularism seems triumphant. But none of the leaders of the original ‘Enlightenment’ foresaw the world we have now. They thought that ‘reason’ would abolish all the evils that had dogged humanity since the beginning – poverty, violence, injustice, crime, disease.

None predicted that science could produce weapons capable of destroying the planet – and that a rational, democratic government would actually use such a weapon on an inhabited city.

None predicted that an advanced secular idealism – the extreme socialist tradition – would create the most inhuman tyrannies that have ever existed – in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China.

None predicted that mass addiction could ever accompany economic success, or that suicide would be seriously discussed as a solution to the pain of life on a global communication medium – itself a product of the rise of science.

None predicted that economic inequalities and western success could ever produce such a thing as a ‘war on terror’.

And no one in the 1700s predicted that economic growth could actually endanger the global human environment.

So the Earth crisis we find ourselves in is a secular as well as a religious and spiritual crisis.

So apparently complex is this earth crisis that statesmen often seem totally baffled by it. So do intellectuals – who cannot agree either on its nature or its solution. The fragmentation of knowledge that followed the Enlightenment means that there isn’t – apparently – even a common language in which to discuss this crisis.

And this means we also have a crisis of global insight and leadership.

Meanwhile extreme secularists such as Richard Dawkins blame everything on religion, and religious extremists seem to prove them right by advocating violence and by denying the truths revealed by science.

Invisible to many, however, one science that emerged out of the Enlightenment – anthropology – has rediscovered a biblical concept that helps us to understand most of what is wrong with the world. Seeing this key problem of human behaviour clearly in the myriad of examples that surround us daily, this redefinition of a very ancient word is set to transform the way we look at the problems of the world – and to harmonise and reintegrate everything that is best in the western tradition.

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The Story of the West: IV – The Rise of Capitalism

Sean O’Conaill © Reality Jan 2007

Until fairly recently, as we have seen, historians have favoured a view of history that praises ancient Greece and Rome, and then extols the modern period beginning about 1450. And they have depicted the period in between – from about 476-1450 – as a period when nothing happened. Very often they associate the supposed stagnation of these ‘Middle Ages’ with the ‘dead hand’ of the Catholic church.

Secularist writers often take this approach because they are committed to a view of history that gives little credit to Christianity for anything. Greek ‘reason’ and the rise of secularism explain everything that is good about the modern world, they suppose. As we have seen, this is a blinkered view that ignores much recent historical research. We now know that the Middle Ages, in comparison to ancient times, were enormously progressive, and were in fact the cradle of the very best features of our own era.

And this applies to economic development also. The unprecedented wealth produced by modern methods of economic management derives historically also from the Middle Ages.

To admire the architecture of the ancient world – of Athens or Rome – is usually to forget that these buildings were the result of extraordinary human misery. Slavery in the ancient world was unimaginably brutal. Slaves mostly worked the land, and it was their produce that went to finance and feed and build the cities, where only the landowning elites lived in anything like luxury. Most people lived in nauseating slums that fostered disease. So focused were the wealthy on the consumption of surplus wealth that there was very little reinvestment, which meant that there was very little economic progress either.

Slavery also meant that there was very little technical development in Ancient Greece and Rome. Why spend money developing water power, for example, when Rome’s wars brought slaves who could provide the power needed for milling or paper-making?

So the fall of the Roman empire was not a global disaster, as was once thought. The collapse in the supply of slaves meant that now for the first time there was an incentive to innovate. Out of this incentive arose, for example, the overshot water wheel – powered by water directed onto the top of the wheel to give added impetus. The padded horse collar was another such medieval development, allowing horses to pull far heavier wagons, and, for the first time, ploughs capable of turning the heavier soils of northern Europe.

These technical developments waited only upon secure conditions for the investment of surplus wealth. We now know that this happened first in Medieval monasteries, not in Protestant Europe after the Reformation of the 1500s. Such monasteries were often enormously productive as a result of centuries of land development. Some became giant complexes in which water power was applied to the making of paper, metal working and the milling of grain.

This fact alone is enough to undermine the old belief that it was the ‘Protestant work ethic’ that began the economic miracle of the modern world. R.H. Tawney argued in 1926 that it was hard-working Protestants, whose pleasure-hating moral code condemned luxurious living, who first amassed the capital necessary for continuous reinvestment in economic enterprises. In fact this had begun to happen many centuries earlier in the monasteries of that supposed enemy of all progress – the Catholic church.

Furthermore, it was the steady development of Catholic theology that allowed this economic development. St Augustine began the reconsideration of ancient taboos against the raising of prices to meet demand by arguing that the monetary value of an article could legitimately relate to whatever a customer would be willing to pay. Later, scholastic theologians in the monasteries and universities of Catholic Europe came to argue that the charging of reasonable interest on loans was also morally acceptable. Banking, a vital source of credit for investment, could not have progressed otherwise.

And this development in Christian theology too was directly related to the growing economic power of medieval monasteries.

It was Catholic theology also that first gave real security to what we now call the ‘entrepreneur’ – the would-be capitalist considering investing his wealth in, say, a mining enterprise or the building of a dam to produce water power. The problem with doing that in a society ruled by landowning aristocrats was that the political power, added to the jealousy, of the ruling classes could all too easily lead to the confiscation of any productive enterprise – without compensation to its founder.

This was why China, for example, fell behind medieval Europe in enterprises like mining. A thriving Chinese metallurgical industry was at one point totally destroyed by state and aristocratic interference.

In medieval Europe, on the other hand, scholastic theologians developed a sophisticated theory of property rights, which gave entrepreneurs unprecedented security when it came to investment. Just as Catholic theology undermined slavery, so did it also create a favourable climate for risk-taking economic enterprises.

For all these reasons it is now recognised by leading economic historians that the ‘Protestant work ethic’ had absolutely nothing to do with the origins of western capitalism – the systematic reinvestment of surplus wealth – for the simple reason that capitalism emerged centuries earlier in the most unlikely setting – medieval Catholic Europe.

And it was Catholic centres of medieval trade in Italy – especially Venice and Genoa – that pioneered modern systems of book-keeping and banking that allowed for sophisticated international trading relationships and business practices to develop. The later development of great Protestant trading nations such as England and Holland owed everything to this earlier economic development in southern and Catholic Europe.

The deepest ignorance continues to prevail, however. In a recent letter to the Irish News a proponent of the cause of secularism as the font of all progress again referred to the Middle Ages as the ‘Dark Ages’ – because they were ages of faith. We now know beyond doubt that this misconception is based entirely upon ignorance and prejudice. When all of Western Europe was wholly Catholic it was also progressive in many ways.

And the central key to all this progress was Christian theology, which was itself always in development. Arguing consistently for the dignity of the individual human being, it fostered a progressive mindset. It brought an end to the slavery of the ancient world. It inspired the setting up of great medieval universities and the development of true science.  It led to modern theories of human rights, and it created the conditions for the unprecedented economic progress of modern times.

Now, of course, Christian theology is on the defensive at the very time that western capitalism and science – unshackled from Christianity – threatens our world with nuclear terror, mass addiction and environmental catastrophe. In two final articles in this series I will argue that Christian theology has yet another contribution to make to the history of our world – the understanding and overcoming of all the major dangers that now threaten the human family.

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Western dominance: a product of Catholic theology?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Apr 2006

How did ‘The West’ – shorthand for the societies fringing the North Atlantic – arrive at global cultural, political and economic dominance in the modern era? Challenged to answer this question in as few words as possible, the average historically literate product of a western university might well produce something like the following:

“Modernity is essentially based upon a preference for reason before religious faith, and the journey towards the dominance of reason began in ancient Greece. Laying the foundations of modern science and of personal and political freedom, this Greek achievement was buried for over a thousand years by the rise of Catholic Christendom in the first Christian millennium. Although these ‘Dark Ages’ were not as dark as was once thought, they were nevertheless a period of relative inertia, characterised by religious faith and political tyranny.

“The recovery of the wisdom of the ancient Greeks in the 1400s led to a cultural Renaissance in western Europe, a period of global exploration by European powers, a Scientific Revolution and a renewed interest in democracy. The Protestant Reformation in the West assisted the victory of science and democracy by weakening the obscurantist power of the Catholic church and enabling the rise of capitalism through the ‘Protestant work ethic’. The Enlightenment of the 1700s prioritised reason above faith and led to the emergence of modern secular democracies, in which capitalism, science, technology and individual freedom finally triumphed.”

The questions raised by such a narrative have so far been eclipsed by its simplicity and rhetorical convenience. Weren’t even the most enlightened of the ancient Greeks defenders of slavery and owners of slaves? How did western modernity recover the ancient Greek legacy if it had been so thoroughly buried by Catholic obscurantism in the ‘Dark Ages’? And weren’t the Catholic republics of Genoa and Venice pioneers of capitalism long before the Reformation? Such questions have been asked but have not yet weakened the essential thread of the narrative: Reason, science and freedom – the foundation of all progress – began in ancient Greece, were obscured by Catholic orthodoxy, and could only re-emerge when the Catholic monopoly was overthrown. (The story of Galileo was, of course, the ‘proof text’ of this narrative.)

Rodney Stark’s robust assault upon that essential narrative is all the more intriguing because it comes not from a Catholic apologist but from an agnostic sociologist. In Victory of Reason* he insists that, on the contrary, freedom, reason, science and capitalism – and even the very idea of progress – owed most to the very phenomenon that secular orthodoxy tends to regard as the darkest historical force: the theology of the early Church fathers and the scholastics.

To begin with, he insists, the greatest of the ancient Greeks didn’t even believe in progress. Although Aristotle thought he was living in a ‘Golden Age’, he, and all ancient Greeks, saw history as essentially cyclical, with periods of decay inevitably following every period of advance. He believed, for example, that the technical achievements of his own era would not be bettered in any future era.

And for this very reason, coupled with their lack of belief in a rational unitary deity who had created a rational cosmos, the ancient Greeks did not originate the linkage essential for true science – between theory and research. Aristotle, the ‘great empiricist’, contradicted Alcmaeon’s theory that goats breathed through their ears but does not record any experimental troubling of any goat to prove his point. He believed also that stones of different weights would fall at speeds proportionate to their weights but never tested this by experiment either – for example by dropping stones of two different weights but the same volume from the same high cliff to see if the heavier would indeed reach the ground below before the lighter. It simply never occurred to him to devise repeatable experiments or systematic observations, so he, the most scientific of the ancient Greeks, was never a true scientist.

Rodney Stark contrasts this Greek intellectual pessimism with the attitudes of some of the early Christian fathers, most notably Augustine. From the beginning Christians, like Jews, believed that history was not cyclical but moving forward inexorably in linear fashion towards a future end point. And the fact that Jesus never left a single definitive text like the Quran meant that theologians were free to attempt to discern answers to all the questions he did not resolve, using reason (i.e. logic) as their method.

Of all the great religions, Stark insists, Christianity was alone in believing that reason ruled all things, since they had been created by a reasonable God. “Heaven forbid,” declared Augustine, “that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals. Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not even believe if we did not possess rational souls.” Furthermore Augustine believed that such a search would be fruitful, declaring that although ‘certain matters pertaining to the doctrine of salvation’ could not yet be understood, ‘one day we shall be able to do so’.

If reason could discover more about God, it followed that the natural world, created by the same God, should also be rational, full of secrets waiting to be discovered by reason. Far from rejecting theology, the great scientists of the early modern era, such as Newton, saw science as the handmaiden of theology. It was this that led Alfred North Whitehead to declare in 1925 that “The greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement [was] the inexpugnable belief that there is a secret, a secret that can be unveiled. … It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God.”

Even Bertrand Russell was mystified by the failure of the Chinese to develop science, since the intelligentsia of ancient China had rejected popular religion and theism. The reason, Stark insists, was that for that very reason they never developed a rational theology either. Mystical works like the Tao stressed not a caring creator God of reason but an ineffable essence wrapped in mystery, lacking all personality, desire and intention. The Chinese view of history was also therefore non-progressive. How could there be an attempt to discover what could not exist, since the ancients had known all that was to be known?

And if Greek thought would lead of its own accord to science, why didn’t that happen within Islamic culture, which had also inherited the Greek legacy? The reason again was the lack of systematic theological inquiry within Islam, the conviction that all that needed to be known had already been revealed in the Quran.

It was, uniquely, Christian theology also that led to the western understanding of individual freedom. Whereas Greek tragedy held individuals (Oedipus, for example) to be the necessary victims of circumstances outside their control, Shakespeare’s Hamlet chooses his own fate. Stark traces this shift to the Christian emphasis upon individual responsibility by Jesus himself, an emphasis that continued throughout the Middle Ages.

This also marked a shift in the dignity to be accorded to every individual, without exception. There is simply no equivalent in classical thought to Paul’s insistence that for God there are no distinctions between ‘male and female, slave and free’. On the contrary Plato believed, with Hitler, that there was indeed such a thing as a ‘slavish people’, and both he and Aristotle kept slaves.

This theological emphasis upon the moral equality of individuals, without distinction of gender, class or race, meant that there was always an ambiguity and tension in the continuation of slavery in the late Roman imperial and then the medieval period under baptised Christian rulers. Contrary to some authorities, serfs were not slaves as they were free to marry and their children could not be taken from them, and it was in Christian Europe alone that the institution of slavery gradually became odious. Stark declares emphatically: “Slavery ended in medieval Europe [only] because the church extended its sacraments to all slaves and then managed to impose a ban on the enslavement of Christians (and of Jews).”

The later enslavement of non-Europeans by Christian Europe was, of course, especially odious, but here again the main early impetus for an end to the practice globally came from Christianity alone. Islam could not be in the vanguard of liberty for the simple reason that Muhammad, totally unlike Jesus of Nazareth, was also a slave owner. (And Voltaire, high priest of the Enlightenment, invested the unprecedented profits from his writings in the French slave trade based at Nantes.)

Turning to economic and technological advance, Stark summarises a lot of recent research to explode the myth of the Middle Ages as a period of even relative stagnation. First, it was during this period after the fall of Rome that Europe advanced ahead of the rest of the world in the use of water power. By the thirteenth century paper was being manufactured using overshot water wheels – something that had happened nowhere else until then. Similar innovation occurred in wind power, the shoeing and harnessing of horses, fish-farming, crop rotation, shipbuilding, and, more lamentably, the use of gunpowder in warfare.

In Education the medieval church universities were an advance on anything existing in the ancient world because, far from simply recycling ancient lore, they gained fame by innovation. Moreover they educated far more students, who were taught not simply to study ancient sources but to critique and improve on them. Without them there could not have been a Copernicus, who drew on medieval authorities also for his heliocentric theory. Kepler’s discernment of the elliptical orbits of the planets rested upon centuries of planetary observation. Newton’s reference to the ‘giants’ upon whose shoulders he had stood should no longer be thought to exclude the products of medieval Catholic universities. It was in the late Christian Middle Ages that the systematic linkage of theory and research, the foundation for true science, first occurred.

Turning then to capitalism Stark explodes the notion that Europe had to wait for the ‘Protestant ethic’ to produce the essential characteristic of capitalism – the systematic reinvestment of profits to produce further income. It was Augustine who first taught that the price of an article could legitimately relate to the desire of a potential buyer, and that therefore wickedness was not inherent in commerce. Later theologians further undermined, and eventually overthrew, the ban on usury – the lending of money at interest. It was large medieval monastic institutions that became the first stable capitalist institutions in history – reinvesting in, for example, overshot water power for a variety of enterprises. Subsequently, the Mediterranean Catholic republics of Venice and Genoa developed a more advanced capitalism than had existed anywhere in the world until then.

Essential to this historical process was the Christian concept of moral equality – the true source of the notion of inalienable human rights. It was this, not classical philosophy, that first drew limits to the legitimate power of governments. Whereas China had developed a thriving iron industry at one point in its history, this was undermined by a government and ruling class that had the power to strangle it. Medieval capitalist institutions in Europe usually escaped such a fate because Christian theology protected them – and for no other reason.

‘The Rights of Man’, that cornerstone of modern secular ideology, did not therefore spring new born from John Locke and the Enlightenment, or from ancient Greece, but from a long tradition of Christian theological emphasis upon the moral equality of all humans, beginning with the the Sermon on the Mount.

On a negative note, although Stark takes pains to insist that he uses the word ‘capitalism’ to describe an economic rather than a political and social system, his entirely positive ‘take’ on capitalism, without reference to current issues of global injustice and the environmental crisis, is a little disconcerting. His facile dismissal of liberation theology underestimates its continuing positive impact in societies where a corrupt capitalism is still wreaking havoc.

However, there are so many other good things in this reasonably priced book that it can heartily be recommended to all who have either a basic historical education, or an interest in acquiring one. Every teacher of history in a Catholic institution should acquire a copy. It is an important milestone in the overthrow of that mistaken ‘grand narrative’ of western history that underpins the rhetoric of a rampant and often daftly anti-Catholic secularism.

Indeed ‘The Victory of Reason’ suggests an entirely new historical apologetics founded not upon defending Christendom, or a Christendom model of church, but upon discerning the thread of progressive and optimistic faith in reason that links the best of modernity with the early and medieval church. Voltaire’s 18th century historical schema was a self-regarding story of ancient classical enlightenment obscured by blind Biblical and Catholic faith, but then recovered by his own heroic movement – the modern Enlightenment. It was based upon an entirely ignorant perception of the Middle Ages, but has cast a fog of intellectual odium over the Judeo-Christian tradition for more than two-and-a-half centuries. That fog is, thankfully, beginning to lift – allowing us to see clearly, and to counter, the absurd hubris of an anti-Catholic secularism that is still too often wrapped in the darkest Voltairean self-delusion.

So in due time will, doubtless, the pall that now hovers over the history of the Catholic church in modern Ireland. Catholicism has been, for over fifteen centuries, the essential source of the cultural vitality and distinct identity of most Irish people. Now that we know that Catholic theology is the most important source of all that is best in modernity, we can surely be joyfully modern and Catholic as well. The great tradition of Catholic theologians and philosophers who had more faith in reason than most contemporary philosophers is a far more secure and hopeful foundation than that self-declared and morbid cul-de-sac, postmodernism.

*The Victory of Reason, by Rodney Stark, Random House, New York, 2005.

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