Saturday, October 27, 2012

Christianity and Empire

Gibbon created something of a sensation in the 1770's, when he suggested that Christianity helped weaken and dissolve the Roman empire. 
The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers' pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes, who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and the more earthly passions of malice and ambition kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions; whose conflicts were sometimes bloody, and always implacable; the attention of emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secrets enemies of the country.
Gibbon is claiming that the creation of the large Christian system 1) moved money away from more useful pursuits, 2) created factionalism and 3) distracted Romans (even emperors) from more pressing affairs of state.  We know a lot more about the Roman empire now in 2012 than Gibbon did in the 18th century and we can now say with confidence that he is wrong (or at least overstating) each of these problems.  At the very least, he is wrong to lay these at the feet of Christianity in some unique way.
The amount of money that was given to the church was trivial as a whole.  And was probably comparable to what had been given in various celebrations and sacrifices in the pre-Christian era.  Some wealth was taken out of production as churches became more ornate, but again, this was little different than what was happening with wealthy estates.  If anything, the Christian practices of distributing alms to the poor, probably offset any loss.
Factionalism was alive and well before the first Christian apostles appeared.  In fact, well before the time of Christ.  We know this was true at the very highest levels of the Senate and throughout the peoples.  It's more likely that Christianity had an overall unifying effect than otherwise.
The third claim is a bit harder to judge.  Over time, the Romans certainly did lose focus on the qualities that had given them an empire.  Early Roman expansion was built on, among other things, a celebration of military qualities.  Was that weakened by Christian thought?  Well, it certainly didn't end Roman wars.  Constantine was the emperor that made Christianity an official Roman religion.  He fought and others fought after him.  But it has to be noted that the 'map' didn't really expand much after him.

Overall, I'm sympathetic with the notion that philosophical ideas can build up and bring down empires.  I'm just not very convinced by the case that Gibbon brings forth.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Chaucer - Poetry

I've read some Chaucer before but usually in translations.  This time we get a bit in Middle English, though it's not hard to decipher.  From (of course), 'The Canterbury Tales', which we'll tackle in year ten(!).

When that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
When Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Insipired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe course yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eyes-
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages-
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunturbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

I typed this out from the book, so apologies for any misspellings.  My spell-check is kind of freaked out by the whole ordeal.  It must not be set for Middle English.
As before, when reading the beginning of longer poems, this snippet really doesn't do justice to the whole.  I wish that the editor (Leslie Pockell) had done a bit more sections within the longer poems, rather than just taking the first part.  As it is, there is nothing terribly remarkable about this passage.  I can't find a phrase in it that is well quoted.
In this case, I know that Chaucer has good stuff.  This ain't it.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

November Reading

I'm throwing an extra item into the readings for November, simply because it makes sense to me.  Follow along if you'd like, ignore if you'd rather.  The overall selection is a set of the founding documents for the United States.  I'm adding in the 'Articles of Confederation', the lesser known precursor to the US Constitution.  I'm hoping that this will provide a bigger picture on the evolution of the process.

  • Articles of Confederation (link)
  • Declaration of Independence (link)
  • Constitution of the United States (link)
  • Federalist Papers #s 1-10, 15, 31, 47, 51, 68-71 (link)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Gibbon Thoughts

1. I meant to post a bunch this week but I'm under the weather.  2. I wonder if this post title will result in some strange hits to the blog.

I found this month's reading to be frustrating.  Gibbon has an easy style and he is certainly readable.  The problem is that it's frustrating to only read a small section from the middle of a much larger narrative.  This wasn't an issue earlier in the year when we read Plutarch, since his chapters were all nicely self contained.  Not so here. 
Not that I have an easy solution here.  Reading the entire 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' is not a small task.  It certainly wouldn't work inside of the full reading plan where each month we move to something new.  And, sadly, we don't come back to Gibbon at all. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Imperfect Union

Next month we deal with a bunch of the founding documents of the United States.  A friend of mine here in Minneapolis, Eric Black, is doing a series on the Constitution called 'Imperfect Union'.  He's mostly dealing with parts of the Constitution that can be problematic today, like things that cause gridlock.  He's also looking at the way that the rest of the world holds elections.  You may find it a good way to limber up for next month!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Petrarch - Poetry

Click on the 'Poetry' tag for the whole series.

The next entry in the book is from the Italian poet, Petrarch.  This translation is from the Elizabethan poet, Thomas Wyatt.  The title is 'Remembrance'.

They flee from me, that sometime me did seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber:
I have seen them gentle, tame and meek,
That now are wild, and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once, in special,
In thin array, after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she caught in her arms long and small,
There with all sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, "Dear heart, how like you this?"

It was no dream; I lay broad waking:
But all is turned, thorough my gentleness,
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

I'm not sure with this one.  The first stanza sounds like the author is writing about deer.  The second one is clearly about a loved one and yes, I can understand the comparison between women and deer.  Both alike in gentleness and grace.  Both can be timid and hard for men to 'snare'.  In fact, that comparison vividly reminds me of my teenage years!
The third stanza confuses me though.  The poet is not asleep, so it's actually happening.  But the poet is too gentle so it seems as if he is forsaking her?  Do I have that right?  And they are trading her goodness for his 'newfangleness'?  The last two lines make some sort of sense to me, he is saying that he is doing so well from the trade that he wonders how he can make it up to her.  Maybe.
Of interesting note, the book that I've got 'The 100 Best Poems of All Time' is clear in attributing this poem to Petrarch.  The internet wants to say that the whole deal belongs to Thomas Wyatt.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - Gibbon

Gibbon opens chapter 15 by announcing that he'll be looking at the role Christianity played in the decline of Rome.
The theologian may indulge the please task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption, which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.  
Nowadays, it is fairly common for academics to look for errors and corruption when dealing with religion.  Gibbon ran something more of a risk back in the 1770's.  He then moves on to provide five reasons why Christianity became so dominant throughout Europe and increasingly the rest of the world.  They are as follows:

  • 1. Early Christians kept the Jewish tradition of shutting out other gods, which made them less likely to be seduced away.  But they changed from the Jewish tradition and instead reached out to make converts of the Gentiles.
  • 2. They believed in an afterlife.  They also believed that the end of the world would happen soon and urged people to join them very quickly.
  • 3. The Christian churches produced miracles for the non-believers.  They often spoke of other miracles that were happening in other Christian churches.
  • 4. The Christians themselves lived up to their ideals and moral values.  They proved fairly incorruptible. 
  • 5. The church developed a hierarchy inside of the Roman world, that was not guided by the Roman world.     
Gibbon speaks at length on each of these points.  I found the comparison between the early Christians and the Jews to be the most interesting.  Also interesting was the step by step development of the hierarchy of the early Catholic church.  (As a non-Catholic, I was fairly ignorant in how Christian history got from the book of Acts to the world of the Vatican.)
He also writes of the early Christians as being pacifists who would not work to defend the empire (or serve it in administrative ways).  I'd never heard this particular criticism before.  It falls very strange on modern ears.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Biography of Gibbon

Edward Gibbon was born in 1737 in London.  His brothers and sisters died in infancy and it seems that her mother was distant at best.  He was sickly while young and he took refuge in books, especially history books.
When he was 15 he went to Oxford to spend time at Magdalen College.  Stories differ but it seems that there he became acquainted with deist and rationalist thought.  He objected to it and converted to Roman Catholicism.  His father sent him to Switzerland and shortly after threatened to disinherit him if he didn't go back to the Protestants. 
Gibbon served a stint in the military during the Seven Year's War.  In 1763 he went on a Grand Tour of Europe.  While there he visited the 'great object of my pilgrimage', that of the city Rome.  He there had what he called his 'Capitoline vision', the idea of constructing an extensive history of Rome and the Roman empire. 
In 1776, Gibbon released the first volume of 'The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'.  It became very popular.  He released the next five volumes over the next twelve years.  Wikipedia quotes him upon finishing:
It was on the day, or rather the night, of the 27th of June, 1787, between the hours of eleven and twelve, that I wrote the last lines of the last page in a summer-house in my garden. ... I will not dissemble the first emotions of joy on the recovery of my freedom, and perhaps the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind by the idea that I had taken my everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that, whatsoever might be the future date of my history, the life of the historian must be short and precarious.
 Gibbon was active in London's literary society.  He rubbed shoulders with such people as Adam Smith and Horace Walpole.  His health declined and he died in 1794 at the age of 56. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Author Timeline

Aristophanes 446 - 386
Plato 424? - 348?
Aristotle 384 - 322

Plutarch 46 - 120
Gospel of Matthew, Acts of the Apostles (around the end of the first century)
St. Augistine 354 - 430
Machiavelli 1469 - 1527
Rabelais 1494 - 1553
Montaigne 1533 - 1592
Shakespeare 1564 - 1616
Locke 1632 - 1704
Rousseau 1712 - 1778
Gibbon 1737 - 1794
Declaration of Independence - 1776
The Constitution of the US - 1787
Federalist Papers 1787 -1788
Smith 1723 - 1790
Marx/Engles 1818 - 1883/1820 - 1895

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Year Two Readings

This is the list for the second year of readings.  Thought it might be nice for people to be able to plan ahead.  I won't be linking to Amazon or B&N any more as it seems that link drift kills off any helpful aspect.  And it isn't too difficult to find the items through their websites.  Instead I'll simply link to the Project Gutenberg edition or similar.
I'm curious which of these pieces people are looking forward to.  Or if any of my more well read fellow travelers have comments on the year ahead.

Homer: The Iliad link

Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Choephoroe, Eumenides link, link, link
Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Antigone link

Herodotus: The History (Book 1 and 2) link

Plato: Meno link
Aristotle: Poetics link
Aristotle: Ethics (Book 2, Book 3 Ch. 5-12, Book 6 Ch. 8-13) link

Nicomachus: Introduction to Arithmetic link

Lucretius: On the Nature of Things (Book1-4) link

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations link

Hobbes: Leviathan (Part 1) link
Milton: Areopagitica link

Pascal: Pensees (72, 82-83, 100, 128, 131, 139, 142-143, 171, 194-195, 219, 229, 233-234, 242, 277, 282, 289, 298, 303, 320, 323, 325, 330-331, 374, 385, 392, 395-397, 409, 412-413, 416, 418, 425, 430, 434-435, 463, 491, 525-531, 538, 543, 547, 553, 556, 564, 571, 586, 598, 607-610, 613, 619-620, 631, 640, 644, 673, 675, 684, 692-693, 737, 760, 768, 792-793)* link
Pascal: Treatise on the Arithmetical Triangle link
*think of these as being like 'proverbs'

Swift: Gulliver's Travels link

Rousseau: A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality link
Kant: Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals link

Mill: On Liberty link

Monday, October 1, 2012

October Reading

Gibbon: 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' chapters 15 and 16 (link)

I've read a few things on the decline phase of the Roman empire.  There is a pretty good book called 'The Fall of the Roman Empire' by Peter Heather that I enjoyed.  One of my all time favorite time travel books, 'Lest Darkness Fall', involves a modern man (well, 1939 modern) who is instantly transported to sixth century Rome.  He has to try and figure out how to use his knowledge of superior technology to help him.  Simply a great read.