Saturday, August 27, 2011

Book review: AD 381

A couple years ago I wrote a post about Charles Freeman's book The Closing of the Western Mind, which argues, in a nutshell, that the triumph of Christianity in late Antiquity truly did usher in an intellectual Dark Age, wherein philosophical and scientific questions (and there was not yet a distinction between the two) were settled by theological arguments from authority and free inquiry was discouraged. In A.D. 381, Freeman continues his argument, exploring in more detail how the late Roman emperors injected themselves and the state into theological disputes.

Several reviewer of the book have complained that Freeman in simply updating Edward Gibbon and blaming Christianity for the fall of Rome. This is not how I read Freeman. He blames Christianity – or, to be more precise, certain later Christians and Roman emperors, and the precedent they established – for killing off a great and ancient Greek tradition of free inquiry. But he does not blame Christianity for bringing down the Empire itself.

By the end of the 4th century, while Christianity was growing but did not yet dominate, the Empire was barely maintaining itself. Grown too large for its own governance, it had split into two coeval sections, with capitals at both Rome and Constantinople governing the West and East. The powerful Persian Empire threatened the East, numerous Germanic tribes were invading from the North, and Roman armies were spread across borders that had grown too long and too distant to be efficiently defended. With the military removed so far from the core of the empire, the interior trade routes were less well-guarded and commerce became more difficult and expensive.

Although the East retained a cohesive state for another thousand years, the West disintegrated both politically and economically. After 400, trade all but disappeared in Western Europe. Cities became small towns; the money economy disappeared; well-manufactured goods, once common in even a peasant household, disappear from the archaeological record. Rome's famous aqueducts went dry for a millennium, and even the lead and copper pollution levels recorded in ice cores testify today to the demise of manufacturing during the Medieval Period.


None of this does Freeman blame on Christianity. Given the entirely worldly difficulties that Rome faced, it should be no surprise if the Empire failed to overcome them all. As I read Freeman, he would instead blame the fall of Rome for the intellectually authoritarian turn that Christianity took following the 4th Century. Throughout the Roman world, the scholarly decline was almost comparable to the economic and political collapse. According to Freeman's account, even the renowned Medieval scholars are recognized to have written poorly and less grammatically than their predecessors; where a rich Roman citizen could possess a library with thousands of works, medieval monasteries would be considered impressive if they contained a few hundred. Theology replaced naturalistic inquiry. A Christian mob probably destroyed the remnants of the Great Library at Alexandria1 in 391, and in AD 529, Plato's Academy was shut down after 900 years of free inquiry. Had the Christian authorities not been so hostile to non-Christian literature, more would likely have survived to the present day.

What happened? By Freeman's reckoning, the emperors meddled in theology and set a precedent of resolving scholarly disputes through authority instead of inquiry. As the Empire's organization became ever less adequate to meet external threats, the later emperors were prone to blaming their ineffectiveness on a lack of internal unity. And as Christianity absorbed more and more of the Empire's inhabitants, the emperors began to see the divisiveness of the Church as a principle weakness of the empire. In the centuries after Jesus's death, Christian clergy had taken the Greek practice of philosophical disputation, applied it to theology, and then – disastrously – made it a matter of eternal life or death to declare and defend a single position. “I don't know” was not an acceptable answer, even though it would have been the best answer to questions which were essentially unknowable.

One of the major, unknowable, questions concerned the exact nature of Christ – was he fully human, or fully divine? Maybe he was a human who was temporarily occupied by God? Or was he entirely God all along and only appeared human? However you answer the question, some unpleasant consequences seem to follow. If he was human, then why should we be worshiping him? Or if he wasn't human, then he could hardly have suffered through his crucifixion, in which case his great sacrifice would seem to be greatly overtouted. According to the disputants, immortal souls were at stake, although a cynic might notice that the emperors' habit of extending patronage to certain churches meant there was a lot of money and status at stake in elevating one's own views and disparaging a rival's.

The emperors began to take sides in these disputes, something that had never happened with philosophy or pagan religion. In AD 381, the emperor Theodosius issued an edict declaring the Nicene faith – an incoherent declaration that Jesus was simultaneously fully God and fully human, and you could conveniently flip from one to another whenever you needed to dodge a contradiction2 – was orthodox and that all other views were heretical. Clergy with contrary views were disfranchised and their churches closed. A decade later, Theodosius banned pagan rituals and sacrifices altogether.

Theodosius's efforts did not succeed in solving theological questions; all he managed to do was thoroughly politicize these disputes and cement the role of the state in establishing religious orthodoxy. Through the following century, Christians continued to gain strength and began to suppress pagan practices even more thoroughly than had been Christianity in earlier eras.3 Curiously, the disputatious eastern empire survived as the Byzantine Empire until 1453; it was the western empire, where theological questions seemed less urgent and there was no such thing yet as “papal authority,” that thoroughly fell apart.

As for the promises of orthodoxy … Freeman tells this story. In AD 428 the bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, put the case as baldly and boldly as could be: “Give me, king, the earth purged of heretics, and I will give you heaven in return. Aid me in destroying heretics and I will assist you in vanquishing the Persians.” A few years later, Nestorius himelf was condemned for portraying Jesus as too human. Not that he had adopted any known heresy; he just wasn't orthodox enough. Thus the promise of fundamentalism; thus the all-too-often-delivered reality.

1. The case is ambiguous and disputed. It seems likely that the Library suffered several episodes of destruction after its zenith in the last couple centuries BC. It's not clear how much was left to be destroyed by the mob in 391, but they did destroy what they found.

2. Yes, that's my own definition.

3. It comes as a surprise today to be told that the Romans were religiously tolerant, but it's fairly true to say they were. In conquered territories, they did their best to amalgamate local religion with their own, while polytheism would naturally tolerate anyone's decision to choose a certain god as his particular patron. An upstanding citizen would be expected to make a show of honoring a city's gods, just to keep them happy, but this didn't require him to reject any other gods. Jews refused to adopt polytheism, but they were never upstanding citizens (generally not legal citizens at all). I'm not well-studied enough to say this with confidence, but I suspect Christians would never have suffered persecution if the religion had remained confined to the lower classes; their religious views wouldn't have mattered to anyone.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Friday photo

Golden Spike National Historic Site, Promontory, Utah. June 2005.

Did you know it could have been "Golden Rail National Historic Site"? Alas, a certain San Francisco booster discovered there wasn't enough enthusiasm for donating that much gold, so he settled for a golden spike instead. Nevada also offered a silver spike (from the Silver State, of course), while Arizona produced a silver spike with a golden head and a San Francisco newspaper gave a second golden spike. At the famous completion ceremony, these were (gently) tapped into place with a special silver-plated maul and then immediately pulled out again so that real spikes could be put in their place. Railroad magnates Leland Stanford and Thomas Durant tried to drive the iron Last Spike into place, but made a hash of the job; a real rail worker had to finish. The precious spikes were dispersed to various repositories and none resides at Promontory today*.

As a matter of fact, neither does the transcontinental railroad. The site was forced as a huge and inconvenient detour around the Great Salt Lake and, even today, it's almost 150 miles of vacant desert and single-lane road from Brigham City. Fortunately, the Salt Lake is quite shallow and crossing it with a trestle was well within 19th Century engineering capabilities. The Southern Pacific Railroad** completed such a cutoff in 1904 and, except for tourists visiting the National Historic Site, no one has seen much need to travel around the north side of the lake ever since.

A previous post on the financing of the transcontinental railroad

* The second golden spike has since been lost, perhaps in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire

**Not part of the original transcontinental railroad, which was built by the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Action-adventure games

I want this game.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Forever and ever, amen

It's always amusing to hear people intone that God is the same today as he was yesterday, and will be the same tomorrow. It clearly contradicts all historical experience -- just pick any period in history, examine the teachings and behaviors of any Church, and ask yourself if there have been no changes from then until now. It also contradicts Scripture itself, at least as God was portrayed in some of the early books of the Bible.*

So it's hard to resist poking fun as someone who says, "God wants me to do X," and when he changes his mind, breezily announces that "God wants me to do Y." Matt Hinton pokes a little fun at Oregon football player Lache Seastrunk, a highly-recruited player who has just transferred to Baylor in search of playing time. When he first went to Oregon, Seastrunk told reporters, ""I just really leaned on God and asked Him where I really need to be."

Now that he's going elsewhere, it's "When I first intentionally went there, I felt like God wanted to be there. But God also does things — God also pulls you out of the storm before it happens. So I felt like something was about to go down and God just wanted me to get up out of there." So nice of God to pull you out of a storm you wouldn't be in if you hadn't listened to Him in the first place. He can be just swell that way.

In the Mr. Deity world, I imagine the following conversation:

Larry: "We totally punked him! Oh, I know! Now tell him you want him to go to Alaska-Fairbanks!"
Mr. Deity: "That'd be awesome! He's from Texas; Alaska would just kill him!"
Larry: "Plus, they don't even have a football team!"

* My favorite example: when the Israelites worshiped the golden calf at Sinai, God told Moses that he was going to destroy them all and offered to make Moses's own descendents become the great nation of sycophants that He longed for. Apparently six or seven centuries is plenty of time for even God to forget that He had made the same solemn promise to Abraham. Fortunately, Moses was a far more forgiving and compassionate person than Yahweh and talked Him into changing His mind back again.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Fun with Photoshop

I missed the Indycar race Sunday. Hate to do that, but my sister-in-law was appearing in an excellent performance of "Singing in the Rain" and, if I skipped that, there wouldn't be any YouTube highlights to tell me what I missed.

What I did miss was a major executive-decision screwup: with 5 laps left and the cars running under caution due to rain, the race was restarted even though it was clearly still too wet to race safely. Unnecessary mayhem ensued and Will Power, never the shrinking violet, let Race Control know what he thought of their decision:

(And no, that wasn't ABC that put Power's fingers on a loop)

At iRacing, someone suggested that this was a great topic for Photoshop and I agree. Here are my submissions.

Will Power, the movie actor:

Will Power at the center of historic events:

Will Power vacations in Scotland:

More here

More. This is fun!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Friday photo

Wet cat. Monroeville, Indiana, August 2011.

This may be the most bizarre thing I've ever seen: a cat sitting in a puddle of water. Surely it's a sign of the apocalypse; can Republicans embracing tax hikes, or Richard Dawkins joining the Southern Baptist Convention, be far behind?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

(Bear) death in Yellowstone

A month ago a hiker was killed by a grizzly bear in Yellowstone; nothing was done against the bear. Monday the Park Service killed a different grizzly bear that had charged a man and taken the food in his backpack.

The difference? The first bear appears to have been doing nothing but protecting her cubs (a misjudgment, but an understandable one). That sort of behavior doesn't indicate that the bear is any more likely to attack another hiker than any other bear.

The second one, however, seems to have figured out that hikers carry food and that you can get it from them (rather easily, in fact, if you're a bear). Its chances of challenging the next hiker he comes across, and even seeking out the trails where hikers can be found? They might be rather high, which makes this bear far more dangerous than the iconic "mama grizzly." So the bear was destroyed, even though no one had been killed -- yet. Thus confirming the dictum that "a fed bear is a dead bear."

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Buyers, beware

I don't know eBay rules, or even if the seller is serious. But surely this sale will not go through?

$430 bid for the box an iPad came in. On the one hand, the ad clearly says, "the ipad 2 box does not come with ipad 2 or any accessories.this auction is for the box's for someone whom are trying to get the box to make their ipad 2 complete."

On the other hand, the box is also described as having "Connectivity: Wi-Fi + 3G" and "Storage Capacity: 32 GB." I'll bet it doesn't.