Sunday, December 17, 2006

How Did a Moustache Come to Mean Tough Guy?

A few brushes in my life with moustaches:

1) I remember while studying in Inner Mongolia, a friend of mine suggesting at one time I just keep a moustache (at the time I had a beard). He then commented "Of course, you'd look a little like a truck driver."

2) Being in New Jersey for the year, I have taken the New Jersey transit a few times to New York and Philly. Now on the trains are adds for "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" showing various hard men doing high-risk, hyper-masculine things around scantily clad young ladies. Funny thing is, those macho men all have moustaches.

And 3) this coin of the Gothic king Theoderic, who ruled Italy in the early 500s. In everything he is a Roman -- note the toga, the winged victory, the whole deal. But as Bryan Ward-Perkins points out there just one funny thing -- that extra bit of hair on his lips. Theoderic had a moustache. In fact, as he points out, only Goths and other assorted Germanic types had moustaches. A few Roman emperors adopted beards, but beards weren't moustaches; beards meant "thoughtful Greek philosopher scornful of artificial conventions and trying to go back to a more authentic way of life", while moustaches meant "Goth." And very often, to the Roman, "Goth" meant "tough guy who likes to cause pain."

Which brings us right back to the "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" ad. Isn't it amazing the way 1500 years later, beards still mean "thoughtful philosopher scornful of artificial conventions and trying to go back to a more authentic way of life," moustaches (at least certain kinds) still mean "tough guy who likes to cause pain," and no beard at all means either "all business, no nonsense" or else just "does what everyone else does conformist." (Of course Theoderic's toothbrush style moustache kind of says "dweeb," but leave that aside -- the bigger point stands.)

As I said in a previous post, I see a lot of parallels between the clashing conservative-liberal ethics of today and the clashing knight-clerk ethics of the Middle Ages. And of course to some degree the knight-clerk distinction tracks the Germanic warrior ruling class and the Roman civilian class distinction of the Dark Ages. So how much of our contrasting views of liberal and conservatives go back to resentful semi-vegetarian Mediterranean civilians writing books about how they hate being ruled by boorish, gloriously carnivorous, mustachioed, Germanic fighters?

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The Victorious Life in the Augsburg Evangelical Faith

In catechizing my children a few weeks ago, I noticed that victory over sin is indeed part of the Augsburg Evangelical life:

God, indeed, tempts no one; but we pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us, so that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us, nor seduce us into misbelief, despair, and other great shame and vice; and though we be assailed by them, that still we may finally overcome and gain the victory.

First, we see what the first opponent of the victorious life is: misbelief. This is because misbelief, by teaching wrong ideas of God, the Lord, and the Spirit, and of the forgiveness of sins, closes the door back to Them. And the second is despair, because that leads us to conclude there is no way back to Him. After that follows all the great shames and vices that can't finally kill us as long as we do not fall into misbelief or despair. And why "great"? Do we not pray against venial shames and vices? No, because, as Walther taught in his Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel, in their inherent nature all sins are mortal.

So where is this victory? It is worth noticing that it is not in the third article of the Creed as something the Holy Spirit gives us (as He does the forgiveness of sins in baptism), but in the exposition of the Lord's Prayer's Sixth Petition "But lead us not into temptations, but deliver us from evil." In other words, victorious living has its place in the Evangelical life not in some assertion of what is factually true or what we are or are not capable of, or receive from the Holy Spirit, but in our prayer. Victory is what it is our privilege and duty to pray for. And praying for it we know, as soon as we say, "amen," that we shall have what we pray for. Because what does "amen" mean?

That I should be certain that these petitions are acceptable to our Father in heaven and heard; for He Himself has commanded us so to pray, and has promised that He will hear us. Amen, Amen; that is, Yea, yea, it shall be so.

To doubt that God will grant us the victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil who torment us is to contravene the very Word of God. And to set a time in our minds when this victory must come is to tempt God, either by saying it must be achieved now, or by saying it must not be achieved now, but only in heaven. Rather we pray for it sincerely all our lives according to our Lord's teaching, we know it will happen, and we leave it up to God to answer us in His time.



Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Some New Results in Economic History

Been reading, for comparative purposes, two histories of the fall of the West Roman Empire, one by Peter Heather and the other by Bryan Ward-Perkins. Both are very readable and (I think) solidly reliable pieces of history writing, over-all. Heather is more comprehensive, aiming to tell the whole story, while Ward-Perkins is out to prove a point, that the fall of the West Roman Empire really was a disaster for all concerned. Cool factoid: sixth-seventh Anglo-Saxon Britain actually lost the art of the potter's wheel; Ward-Perkins estimates that the Anglo-Saxons threw Britain back to a level of technology not just lower than the Romans, but lower than that of the prehistoric Iron Age, all the way back to the Bronze Age. The Slavs did pretty much the same to the southern Balkans and Aegean in the seventh-eighth century.

As a set of notes to myself, I'd like to sketch out a few things that I've gleaned from my reading in the above books, in David Hackett Fischer's Great Wave, and Jack Goldstone's piece in this edited volume on China, and other works. What I like about these things is that they can be stated very clearly and succinctly. Popular view of socio-economic history changes slowly. There are lots of views which are the common property of educated persons the world over which are just plain wrong. Usually, they have to do with economic history, since the progress in the field has been so recent.

1) The European economy didn't become qualitatively different from the economies of other Eurasian countries until 1815-1830. The Europe of Luther, Rembrandt, Cromwell, or Voltaire was not consistently wealthier than contemporary Turkey, India, or East Asia, nor did it have any inherent dynamism that those economies lacked. The economies of all these regions went through greater and smaller efflorescences that burgeoned in favorable circumstances and with implementation of new efficiencies, but always came to an end when resources when the efficiency gains were played out and population pressure mounted. The Dutch efflorescence of the seventeenth century, for example, ended in a decline in both top-end wealth and overall productivity in the eighteenth. Sometimes, these declines became Eurasia wide: 1350-1400, 1620-1660, and 1810-1825 were such times of collapse (of varying degrees of severity) from England to China.

But from around 1815-1830, a qualitatively new type of economic growth began around the North Atlantic. By continuously applying science to production for the first time, this new economy produced growth which was not an efflorescence but a cumulative and (so far) unending process. To exaggerate just a bit: economically speaking, George Washington's world had more in common with Julius Caesar's than with Abraham Lincoln's.

2) Before this era of modern growth, the three periods of highest population density in Western European history were: 1) the fourth century AD -- that is, the late Roman empire from the time of Constantine to Theodosius, 2) the early 14th century, that is medieval Europe at the time of the Mongol empire and just before the Black Death; and 3) the 18th century.

Yes, you read that first one right. Archeology has demonstrated that the Roman empire of superstitious, Christian, and philosopher-bashing Constantine and Theodosius was unquestionable richer overall and with a level of mass comfort higher than the nobly pagan Roman empire of Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, and Christians to the lions. Unfortunately, with a series of cascading events, this flourishing Christian empire came to an end in the fifth century with the "barbarian invasions." Historians have shown that the new Germanic kings, with a few notorious exceptions (see Anglo-Saxons above) wanted to preserve the old Roman order, but the archeologists have likewise demonstrated that they couldn't. They just didn't have the unity and skills. Economic decline in the 400s and 500s was slower in France, Spain, North Africa, and Italy than in barbarous England, and probably slowest around the city of Rome itself, but it was steady, and resulted in levels of poverty, depopulation, and technological crudity that by 600-650 was virtually English.

And yes, you read that second one right, too. The period around 1300 saw a population in Western Europe not matched until the eighteenth century. The mid-century collapse -- Black Death, cooling climate, etc. -- has given the fourteenth century a bad name, but it opened as one of the peak efflorescences of European economic history, building on the growth in the thirteenth century (the era of the Gothic cathedrals). It was also a period of tremendous growth in geographical knowledge, especially of Asia, due to the Mongol empire. In some ways -- exploration and military expansion, wealth at the top levels, etc. -- the 1500's recovered the ground lost during the disasters of 1350-1450, but not in basic population and living standards.

So in economic history, the "Middle Ages" is a bogus concept. Some "Middle Ages" really were barbaric and awful, but others were far wealthier, expansionistic and adventurous than the provincial and timid Italian Renaissance.

Although the eighteenth century, as we have been taught an era of prosperity, especially in Britain and China, it was in both cases a prosperity that was of the efflorescence type, which in both cases came to an end in the early nineteenth century. It was not until coming out of the world-wide depression of 1815-1830 that, as I said, you see modern economic growth beginning -- in Britain, but not in China.

3) The idea that over-taxation, over-militarization, and stratification of rich and poor in the 200s and 300s put unbearable strains on the Roman Empire, which then collapsed with the slightest touch from 375 on (the A.H.M. Jones hypothesis) has no merit. The 200s were indeed kind of bad, due to military pressure from a resurgent Iran, and the administration was very different in the 300s than in the 100s, but the empire really did recover and go on to new strengths under Diocletian, Constantine and successors. The whole empire's economy was going strong until 400 or so.

4) The Roman empire wasn't overthrown, the West Roman Empire was overthrown. While the West Roman Empire's economy was falling apart in the 400s and 500s, the East Roman Empire was virtually unaffected. In the early 600s, Avars and Slavs caused a similar Anglo-Saxon-style sudden economic collapse in the Aegean (Greece, the Balkans, western Turkey), but the Levant and Egypt remained unaffected by it. The Arab conquest thus brought the only remaining functioning part of the developed Roman economy under the new Arab empires, and they remained going strong through the 700s.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

What Are We Looking at Here?

What are we looking at here? For starters, that's me. For seconds this is Alkhanai National Park in the Aga Buriat Autonomous Area, in Siberia, Russia.

But what are we looking at? A scene of "nature," to be enjoyed as "beautiful"? Or a scene of a not-so pristine "environment" that needs "protecting"?

Or a "Buddha field" in which we can make merit by circumambulating the Buddha thereof?

Or all three at once?

Alkhanai has all the appurtenances of a national park: a big campgrounds near the entrance packed with campers and trailers, with electric sockets and faucets, concessions stands, even a disco running at night. Like many national parks the world over, Alkhanai has too many visitors. The camping center when I visited this summer was supposed to accomodate 200 campers; it had more like 2,000. The visitors (and the concessions stands owners) are mostly Russian, but the site is in some sense "owned" by the Buriats, for whom it is a sacred site. People come to do two things: first bathe for their health in the pure, frigid waters coming down from the mountain. These are called arshaan, a word that incidentally comes from Sanskrit rashayana "holy water." Second they come to follow one or more of the rather arduous hiking paths up through the mountains to various sites of striking scenery.

As we went further and further up the mountain, I enjoyed the scenery immensely, and found the Russian daytrippers to be rather less annoying than my Buriat hosts did (probably since I couldn't pick up the incessant curse-words that apparently many of the younger ones were flinging). But as we went through the stone arches decorated with blue khadags (scarves; example here), it suddenly occurred to me that this wasn't just some generic "sacred mountain", a concept about which I had gotten a bit blase, since virtually every mountain is sacred in the Mongolian plateau. I knew where I'd heard of specifically this type of site before -- it was the kind of Buddhist pilgrimage site that Toni Huber wrote about here and which is described in this very illuminating autobiography by this nineteenth century Tibetan monk Tsogdug Rangdul, (also known as Shabgar). Perhaps I was a bit slow, but I had not yet come across such sites in Mongolia (you have to remember, when I began in Mongolian studies it was the 1980s, just as the Mongols of Mongolia, Russia, and China were thawing out of Communism).

The climax sites, near the peak, were circumambulating the stupa (reliquary) blessed by the Dalai Lama, crawling through the nügelei nükhe "hole of sin," a narrow crevasse in the rock, which when you do it is both a test of your moral state and a purging, and near the peak a pit or umai "womb," in which the fortunate can dig with their hands and find stones, that will be their blessing. (There was also a shrine of the famous Buriat lama Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov.) Along the way, I took to picking up the trash which was pretty common in the area, but had to be careful, because coins and bottles of vodka were often not trash but votive offerings along with the khadags.

I crawled through the hole of sin, but gave the "womb" and circumambulating the stupa a pass. It was a sight of unforgettable strangeness to watch as the Russian campers, many wearing showy crosses, processing around the stupa with their palms together as the Buriat guide preached to them, "Think about the Buddha here, feel your sins dropping away, all your anger and impatience." The mountain was beautiful, and the pilgrimage trail was satisfyingly arduous, although my aging knees took a while to recover. Of course, as a pilgrimage trail, the arduous hike was part of the point: working hard to show your devotion builds merit.

But the relationship of the mountain to the pilgrimage is deeper than just making it difficult of access. When we went into the freezing waters, it occurred to me that the meaning of the term arshaan nowadays meaning "natural mineral waters" really was not so far from the old Sanskrit "holy water." I'd come to think of turning "holy water" into "mineral water" as some comic modernization, but that was too shallow a viewpoint.

In Hinayana Buddhism, the concept had been that this world is suffering and you have to get out of it through training yourself to really feel that fact and extinguish desire for it. I am "here," and nirvana is "over there." In Mahayana Buddhism, with the concept of everything in the world being empty of inherent existence (which is not saying it doesn't exist), you don't have to go anywhere, you just have to realize that suffering exists precisely because your mind has recreated the world as desire and suffering. Don't change the world around, change the way you think about it. Nirvana isn't "over there"; it's right where you are -- you only have to train your mind to realize it and know it. But in Vajrayana Buddhism, a further inversion takes place: if we perceive the material world around us as painful, turmoil-filled, and fleeting solely because we are subject to delusion and desire, then the more we transform (mentally/magically) the material world around us into that which is delightful, peaceful, and abiding then the more we have eliminated suffering, desire, and delusion in our minds; since the bad world and the bad mind are linked by a necessary and sufficient causal connection, which one is the cause and which one is the effect is irrelevant. So transforming springs into holy waters, mountains into residences of the Buddhas -- all of this makes the pilgrimage not just a way of building merit, but a way of grasping that the mountain already is a Buddha field, a perfect world, and hence, by living in that Buddha field, to eliminate delusion and desire.

While I appreciated hiking this beautiful scenery and delightfully soothed my aching knees in the icy waters in one way, Buddhist pilgrims appreciate it in a whole different way. Arshaan was mineral water/holy water together for them, in a way that it couldn't be for me. Maurice Freedman, an anthropologist in Hong Kong's "New Territories," must have had this happen to him too, suddenly realizing the person next to you is not seeing what you see at all. He describes yet another way of seeing the scenic, neither as a beautiful and sublime creation of God, nor as a Buddha field but as a set of hidden forces ready to bless or blight those connected to the bones buried therein:

One may stand by the side of a Chinese friend and admire the view -- and in the New Territories, as elsewhere in coastal southeastern China, the combination of hills and sea produces splendid vistas. One's own pleasure is aesthetic and in a sense 'objective': the landscape is out there and one enjoys it. One's friend is reacting differently. His appreciation is cosmological. For him the viewer and the viewed are interacting, both being part of some greater system. The cosmos is Heaven, Earth, and Man. Man is in it and of it. So that while my characteristic reaction to a landscape may be to say that I find it beautiful, my friend's may well be to remark that he feels content or comfortable
[ -- reminds me of the discussion in Abolition of Man]. . . . The landscape affects him directly, in the ideal case making him feel relaxed and confident. (It is for this reason that English-speaking Chinese in Hong Kong often use the word 'psychological' to refer to the effect of feng-shui. They do not mean, as one might at first suppose, that geomancy is an illusion. They are asserting a human response to forces working in the cosmos.) And just as a landscape affects a man, man may affect it. In a landscape there are mystical [I would prefer to simply say 'concealed'] entities (an Azure Dragon, a White Tiger and so on): as men we may harm them or improve them, weaken them or strengthen them: if we do, the landscape will no longer be the same, and in turn it will differently affect us. The landscape I see and the one seen by my Chinese friend are not, therefore, exactly the same thing . . . (from Maurice Freedman, Chinese Lineage and Society: Fukien and Kwangtung, pp. 121-122).*

*Don't get the idea this is all "man in harmony with nature and his fellow man" stuff. There are only a limited number of geomantically favorable burial sites, and competition for them is fierce and usually decided by the checkbook, but sometimes by clever subterfuges. Burying, or reburying, your parents or grandparents in a good site (preferably all six, each in a different good site) is a strategy for success.

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Friday, December 01, 2006

A garden, not a jungle

I've often toyed with writing a post about how pets, at least the better sort, like dogs, parakeets, and horses, and even (I'm gulping hard here) cats are an important part of the theology of nature. How raising pets is in some sense participating in Adam's command, his naming of all the animals. How it is only in that way that we achieve our right relation with the non-human world, and the non-human world receives some surcease, a drop of water in their ceaseless toil of want and ignorant sufferings.

But I don't have to write it because Stephen Webb just wrote it for me -- and thanks to Lee at verbum ipsum who brought it to my attention:

It starts off slow. The first half is stuff that is good and right to say, but has been said before. But the second half gives voice to things I've never heard anyone say before:

As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I was never a nature lover. I began my thinking about animals, in fact, purely by happenstance. I had a dog, a dachshund named Marie, and I loved her more than my friends thought I should have. . . .

In Marie’s eyes I saw the glimmer of freedom, the first movements of spirit emerging from matter, wounded by what we humans had demanded of her species. Her eyes demanded responsibility, and even more, mutuality. Howard, our cat, would only glance at me, while Marie stared. Cats have a haughtiness that makes them hard to understand. They embrace their animality in spite of their freedom. Dogs plead, and thus risk losing everything. Dogs demand; cats indict, and turn away. Dogs are creatures in transition, incomplete without us. To hold a dog’s gaze is to set the dog free. The fragility of this dependence is easily abused, of course, but I was convinced that dogs say something not only about us but also about the origin and destiny of all animals.

. . . Perhaps Hegel spoke more truly than he understood when he argued that Schleiermacher's famous definition of religion as `absolute dependence' turned the dog into the best Christian. I too wanted to write a theology for the dogs.

I probably loved Marie too much, but then again, there is something excessive in all true love. I was convinced, in fact, that excessive love is what enabled both humans and dogs to overstep their species boundaries in the adventure that we call domestication. . . . Dogs made humans out of us, just as we have gone a little way toward making honorary humans out of dogs. . . .

I know that many of you will suspect that my relationship with Marie was more pathological than the typical environmentalist’s love for nature. Nonetheless, it seems to me that loving individual animals—and loving them for what they will yet become, rather than pretending that they are enough like us to merit equal consideration—is a more Christian gesture than loving nature as a whole.

. . .

Getting kicked out of my own organization only confirmed for me that Christianity was right to value vegetarianism in monasteries and on fast days but not to require it for everyone. For Christianity, compassion should be rooted not in dogmatic claims about the equality of humans and animals, or in an escapist flight from the realities of this world, but in our ability to be compassionate, to reach out and care for another being. Loving a dog, to return to my relationship with Marie, would not be such a bad way to begin and practice that compassion. Until the church can articulate an alternative to the modern animal rights movement, Coetzee's story demonstrates that the gnostic version of vegetarianism is still very much alive and well.

. . .

Christians have no business promulgating the aesthetic appreciation of coherence—a part of the whole is good as long as it contributes something to that whole—which reflects the old idea that this is the best of all possible worlds. The world is fallen, and nature is not what God intended it to be. The violence of nature is not all our fault, either, because the world into which Adam and Eve were expelled was already at odds with the peaceable harmony of Eden. If nature is fallen and its fall preceded our own, then there is little we can do to change nature in any dramatic way. Yet we can, like Noah with his ark, save a few fellow creatures from suffering as we try to warn others about God’s impending judgment.

. . . .

Nature cannot be a source of Christian morality, but it can be an object of Christian compassion. Yet it is impossible to have empathy for all of the animals that must become meals for others. Such sacrifices are biologically necessary, and to mourn necessity is foolishness. Perhaps this is why so many people today admire wild, carnivorous animals. It is easier to admire predators than their victims when there is nothing that we can do to change the one and save the other. Besides, wild animals confront us as something inassimilable to human measure, caring not for our help or sentiment. These animals follow their nature in beautiful, effortless and dignified ways, so that our inability to make moral judgments about them tempts us to romanticize them instead. The Christian idea that God sides with the victims somehow gets lost when we watch nature documentaries, wincing but marveling at a fearsome display of power that seems innocent and natural.

. . .

Traditionally, Christian theology portrays heaven as a garden, not a wild jungle, a place, like the original Garden of Eden, where God allows life to grow without the countless sacrifices of violent death. It is thus possible to argue that pets are the paradigm for the destiny of all animal life. In other words, according to the Christian myth, animals were originally domesticated, in the sense of being nonviolent and being in a positive relationship with us, and they will be again.

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