stability or progress

I’ve just been reading one of Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries. Why is this relevant? I’ll explain in a moment. Van Gulik was a Dutch diplomat who wrote a series of detective novels describing the cases confronting a magistrate in China during the Tang Dynasty (7th century AD).
What’s interesting is that Van Gulik’s knowledge of Chinese history, culture and jurisprudence was profound. And in his stories there is not the faintest hint of the cult of progress. He describes a society that valued stability and order to an extreme degree. This reflects the view that historians have always taken about Imperial China, although western historians have mostly seen this as a weakness. The Chinese developed a very advanced civilisation and then stopped. No further progress was considered to be necessary and in fact further progress would lead to instability and was therefore a bad thing.
While it might be an over-simplistic view of Chinese civilisation there’s undoubtedly a lot of truth in this view of a society committed to preserving what it already had rather than pursuing the phantom of progress. 
Looking at the world today it’s easy to believe that the Chinese had the right idea. This is especially so when you consider the misery and chaos that followed the overthrow of the last Imperial government in the early part of the 20th century.
The cult of progress is always tied up with utopianism. If we just keep progressing then sooner or later we’ll have a perfect society composed of perfect people leading amazingly happy and fulfilling lives. This is the philosophical view that started to emerge in Europe in the 16th century and it has taken a firmer and firmer hold with every year that has passed since then. By the beginning of the 20th century it was the one unchallenged dogma of our civilisation. Imperial China was dominated by Confucian thought and Confucian thought most certainly did not see things in this light. Medieval Europe was dominated by Christianity and medieval Christianity did not see things that way either. 
The point is that it is possible to have a fully functional and quite advanced civilisation based on the cult of stability rather than the cult of progress. 
The cult of progress is, by it very nature, destructive. To build a new society we must first destroy the old one. Everything that has happened has been an inevitable consequence of this. Whenever utopia fails to materialise it just means that more destruction is needed.
Should we abandon the idea of progress altogether? Surely the cult of progress has brought us many benefits? There is a genuine dilemma here. The answer is perhaps that the cult of progress needs to be balanced by an equally strong force advocating stability and order. Perhaps if progress could be slowed and controlled it might not be so socially destructive? It’s possible, but progress has a way of continually getting out of control.
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves exactly what kind of progress is actually useful? Technological progress has on the whole been pretty useful. Social progress on the other hand has brought us to the brink of ruin. We might need to accept the harsh reality that there is no such thing as social progress. We probably should ask ourselves also exactly what kind of scientific and technological progress we need. Do we need ever more advanced weaponry? Do we need faster and faster personal computers? Do we need smarter and smarter smartphones?
One conclusion that logically follows from this is likely to be unpalatable to many people who consider themselves to be right-wing. Taking control of progress would require a very strong government. Almost certainly not a democratic one. Imperial China survived for millennia because mostly it had a strong government. It also survived because those who ran the government, the countless bureaucrats that characterised Chinese government, were educated to believe in stability and order and the tenets of Confucianism. It seems to follow inexorably from this that rigid control of education is necessary for the preservation of civilisation and that dangerous and destructive ideas need to be suppressed. Perhaps that is the price that has to be paid if you want a successful stable culture.

Hilaire Belloc’s Elizabethan Commentary

I spoke in a recent post about foundational myths. Intriguingly the foundational myth of Protestant England is centred not on Henry VIII but on his daughter. Elizabeth I, or Gloriana or Good Queen Bess, is Protestant England’s Joan of Arc.

Hilaire Belloc’s Elizabethan Commentary, published in 1942 (and issued in the US as Elizabeth, Creature of Circumstance), is an entertaining hatchet job on this myth. Belloc believed, absolutely correctly, that the Reformation was the key event in European history and he retuned to it again and again. As a result some of the ground covered in this book is also covered in his other books on the subject.
Belloc approaches his task with his usual combative zeal and it follows his usual idiosyncratic approach to history. He has no interest in a connected narrative, or in any narrative at all. That does not mean this is social history in the generally understood sense of the term although there are elements of this. When writing about the past Belloc’s main aim is to capture the spirit of the age with which he is dealing and he does so far more successfully than most modern historians.
As in his other books he stresses the importance of the rising power of the moneyed class and the greed of that class. The Reformation saw the seizure of the abbey lands in England and this despoiling of the Church was on a breath-taking scale. As much as a third of the wealth of the country was involved. Had this wealth remained in the hands of the Crown the English Crown could have been the richest in Europe and subsequent disasters like the Civil War would have been averted. England might have remained a monarchy until the present day. Unfortunately the hapless Tudors allowed all of this wealth to slip through their fingers to enrich the already wealthy. More importantly this represented a fatal shift of power from the Crown to the moneyed class.
In some ways the highlights of the book are Belloc’s many digressions. He has some interesting things to say on the nature of monarchy. 
There’s also a fascinating chapter on torture. This was a fairly uncommon practice prior to the 16th century, became extremely common during that century and then fairly quickly disappeared from the English scene. Belloc stresses that the purpose of torture was not punishment but to extract information. It was widely used in the 16th century because there were so many plots and the government therefore had a very strong incentive to extract information from suspects possibly involved in such plots. In other words governments are inclined to use torture when their own power is threatened. The history of the past hundred years would appear to confirm this, with governments being very willing to use extreme methods to protect their own power.
He makes the further point, often overlooked, that to the 16th century mind it was almost unthinkable to execute a man unless he confessed. Without modern forensic science, and (another very intriguing point) without modern legal cross-examination procedures, it was difficult to establish guilt. The most effective way was to torture a man until he confessed. Torture was considered to be morally preferable to running the risk of executing an innocent man. It’s another example of Belloc’s thesis that you can’t hope to understand history unless you accept that the past really is a foreign country and they really do do things differently there.
Belloc makes no apologies for presenting a Catholic view of English history, as a counter-balance to hundreds of years of anti-Catholic propaganda. In this instance there’s also the need to present some kind of alternative to the myth of Elizabeth I as the great queen, a myth that remained unchallenged in England for centuries. It’s a task that he approaches with relish.

Foundational Myths and the Cult of Science

Every society has its Foundational Myths. I’m not talking about myths in the sense of mythology – gods and monsters and superhuman heroes and such things. I’m talking about the quasi-historical myths that define a society’s sense of itself.
For the Greeks it was the Trojan War. For the Romans it was Romulus and Remus and the founding of the city but the Romans elaborated their Foundational Myth by extending Roman history back to the exploits of the Trojan prince Aeneas after the fall of Troy. For French republicans it’s the Revolution. For Americans it’s the Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary War.
For modern secularists the Foundational Myth is the Rise of Science. Until around the 17th century there was an age of ignorance and superstition then along came Science! and everything was light. Science! ushered in a blessed age of reason and enlightenment.
Foundational Myths can be entirely mythical, or they can be semi-mythical or even mostly historical. The Trojan War might well have happened although the actual events were probably much more small-scale and much more tawdry than the version promoted by the Greek poets.
The Rise of Science is at least partly historical. There has been a great deal of scientific progress in the past 500 years. The benefits are more questionable.
A Foundational Myth should be inspiring. It should give people a sense of cultural identity but more than that it should give a society some sense of purpose or destiny.
Has the Rise of Science done that? In some ways, perhaps. Although it’s worth pointing out that a great deal of human progress in modern times has owed more to practical engineers than to scientists. The engineers who were responsible for providing Europeans cities with sewerage and clean water contributed more to human happiness and prosperity than any scientists.
The problem with Science! is that it has given us a worldview that is bleak and nihilistic. The followers of the Cult of Science! have rarely taken this into account. Did the acceptance of the heliocentric view of the solar system actually make the world a better place? Did the acceptance of the Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution by natural selection make us happier? Was there great popular rejoicing when the Big Bang Theory displaced the Steady State Theory of the universe? These things made liberal secularists happier because they provided them with ammunition with which to pursue their war on Christianity. Did it make society as a whole better? Are we better off now that we generally believe that the universe is entirely without purpose and meaning and that our ancestors were ape-like creatures?
Of course Science! may well be right much of the time. Nobody today disputes the heliocentric view of the solar system. The question is not whether the scientific view is often correct, it is whether that view of the world has actually represented genuine progress. Progress is after all always a good thing, or so we’re told. But what if the scientific worldview has actually left us without any purpose or meaning in our own lives?
There’s also another very great danger to the cult of Science! Even the craziest ideas can gain credence if they can be labeled as scientific. Marx claimed that his wacky and misguided theories had to be correct because they were scientific. Freud’s even nuttier ideas were sold as science. In the 20th century we were even told there was such a thing as social science, an oxymoron if ever there was one. Straight-out political propaganda can be promoted as science – the global warming hysteria being a fine example.
Rather than eliminating superstition the Cult of Science! has provided us with a whole grab-bag of new superstitions. Rather than ushering in an age of reason what we actually ended up with was a mixture of emptiness, despair and superstition. Some Foundational Myths seem to work better than others.

Evola’s Revolt Against the Modern World.

My current reading is Julius Evola’s Revolt Against the Modern World. It’s heavy going, especially if you limited tolerance for the wilder shores of mysticism, esotericism, magic and the occult. If you persist with it though there are plenty of profound and important insights into the sorry state in which our civilisation has landed itself. The second half of the book in particular is filled with key insights.

Evola’s idea of a revolt against the modern world is breathtakingly radical. In his view things started to go wrong a very very long time ago, and they went wrong in very fundamental ways. And his ideas on tradition are not exactly conventional.
There’s a lot of material to plough through in this book and I remain sceptical of much of it. I really wouldn’t feel in the least bit qualified even to attempt to review this book. There are however a few things that happened to catch my interest as they connect to other things I’ve been reading recently.
The first is his spirited championing of caste systems. Given that egalitarianism has proven to be a dangerous chimaera and that hierarchies are almost certainly both inevitable and necessary in a healthy society, and given that class divisions produce endless futile conflict, a caste system does seem to have its attractions.
The second point that struck me in this book is Evola’s enthusiasm for the ideal of chivalry. This is a little surprising at first in view of Evola’s disdain for Christianity. He argues however that the medieval ideal of chivalry was not entirely Christian in inspiration and that it avoids many of what he sees as the flaws and decadent features of Christianity. Of course it could be objected that chivalry was an ideal that was in all probability seldom practised, at least in a pure form. That doesn’t really matter. The fact that the idea of chivalry existed and that it struck such a powerful chord in the medieval imagination is what’s important.
My own reservations about Christianity are centred on its passive and excessively feminised nature and its unfortunate tendency to encourage the cult of victimology. These regrettable tendencies seemed to be much less evident in medieval Christianity, and the ideal of chivalry did seem to be a way of minimising those negative factors.
Medieval Christianity was a masculine religion that respected women. Such a thing is possible.
There seems to be no question that Christianity has lost its way and that this has been a gradual process that has taken centuries. The Middle Ages was the high water mark for the Christian faith. It’s been all downhill since then.

Courtly Culture: Literature and Society in the High Middle Ages

I’ve been reading Joachim Bumke’s Courtly Culture: Literature and Society in the High Middle Ages. It was published in German in 1986 and the English translation dates from 1991. It’s an odd book. Bumke isn’t arguing that the courtly literature of the 12th and 13th centuries accurately reflected the realities of aristocratic society at that time but he does seem to be arguing that the literature does tell us something real about the period, or at the very least about the way that society viewed itself.
Like most modern historians he seems reluctant to draw actual conclusions. After he has presented masses of intriguing evidence the book just stops. 
There is some fascinating stuff here though. In the 11th century western European aristocratic society was still very much an honour-based warrior society. It was Christian, but not thoroughly Christianised. It certainly had little use for Christian notions of morality. Over the course of a couple of hundred years the Church engaged in a fierce struggle to change this. The contest ended in a fairly complete victory for the Church. 
The lords regarded marriage as a purely economic and dynastic arrangement. Marriages were arranged and if you didn’t like your prospective bride or groom it was too bad. Force could be, and was, used to compel agreement. The Church was having none of that. The Church’s position was that no marriage was valid unless both partners consented. By the later Middle Ages they had more or less won their point. A degree of coercion might still be employed but if you absolutely refused your consent you could reasonably expect the Church to back you up.
The aristocracy also had a free-and-easy attitude towards fornication and even adultery, at least as far as men were concerned. The Church’s position was that sexual misconduct was sexual misconduct regardless of the sex of the transgressor. The Church certainly didn’t win a complete victory on this issue but they did manage to change attitudes to a degree.
The Church also tried, with some success, to limit the endless feuding of the nobles.
The Church was acting as a civilising agent at a time when western European society badly needed such an influence. Of course it’s all a matter of balance. This was a society that was excessively violent and immoral so at that time the civilising and feminising influences of the Church were a good thing, shifting the balance in a healthier direction.
The other thing that really intrigues me in this book is the survival of an oral literary tradition possibly as late as the 13th century. The idea that you could be totally illiterate and be a poet seems bizarre today but in the High Middle Ages there were indeed poets, and great poets at that, who were illiterate.  What’s really interesting is that the oral literary tradition and the written literary tradition co-existed for centuries. Some of the most important literary works of the period, such as the Nibelungenlied, certainly originated within the oral tradition. Other epic poems written at precisely the same time originated as             written works. 
We don’t actually know how the audience of the time consumed (for want of a better word) their poetic works. Most were presumably sung or recited but whether there was an actual reading audience is unknown. The literacy levels at the various princely courts varied widely so we have no idea how much of the audience for literature comprised actual readers.
All interesting stuff, and it’s helping to feed my growing obsession with things mediaeval.

Hilaire Belloc’s James II: book review

James II
Hilaire Belloc’s James II appeared in 1928 and it’s typical of its author’s slightly idiosyncratic approach to both history and biography. He has little interest in connected linear narratives or in chronicling the events of his subject’s lifetime. He offers us a series of impressions, each of them calculated to shed as much light as possible on the underlying truth.
The story is also of course a tragedy. James II, the last legitimate King of England, lost his throne in 1688. The tale has been told a hundred times but almost always with a conscious or unconscious anti-Catholic bias, and of course with an anti-Stuart bias (England’s current queen being a representative of the usurping house that ousted the Stuarts).
The Stuarts also suffer from the disadvantage of being the historical losers and history, as the saying goes, is written by the winners. It’s easy to assume that the losing side must have lost because their defeat was inevitable. Unfortunately history is rarely so clear-cut although admittedly the odds were stacked against the Stuart kings.
In approaching this volume it helps of you’ve read some of Belloc’s other books, specifically those dealing with the Reformation. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was the culmination of the English Reformation. As Belloc is at pains to point out the Reformation in England was largely about money. The issues of church discipline and organisation could in time have been sorted out. The Reformation became permanent because it offered the great landowners the chance to enrich themselves still further, to enrich themselves in fact to an obscene degree, by helping themselves to land stolen from the Church. Some of this land theoretically went to the Crown, but only temporarily. The Crown ended up poorer than it had been prior to the Reformation.
While helping themselves to Church lands the great magnates also took the opportunity of adding even further to their wealth at the expense of the small independent landowners. This was a social revolution, a revolution of the rich against both the poor and the Crown.
The impoverishment of the Crown forced the English kings to rely on Parliament for money, their income being hopelessly inadequate to carry on the government of the realm. Parliament in the seventeenth century had of course nothing whatever to do with democracy. It was an assembly of rich men, selected by themselves, to advance their own interests. If the King had not been reduced to penury then Charles I would have had no need to summon the Parliament that brought about his downfall. Charles II would have had a chance of restoring the royal powers. James II might then have inherited a secure throne. 
Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953)

Religion of course played a major role in the downfall of James II. His conversion to the Catholic faith gave the enemies of the Throne the weapon they needed. They were able to exploit religious paranoia and bigotry to overthrow the King. Belloc points out that the idea that the Catholic Church could be restored to its position as the national church in the late 17th century was absurd and James had no thought of trying to achieve such an aim. At most he hoped to give Catholicism as chance of survival in the kingdom.

The King’s personality played its part as well. Belloc portrays him as a man of intelligence and application of very strong principles. Alas these useful qualities were combined with others far more harmful. The King was very inflexible and he was a remarkably poor judge of men. James would not compromise his principles even in relatively small things even when it would have been wise to do so, and in the country’s interests as well as his own.
To Belloc the Glorious Revolution was the end of the line for the English monarchy although in fact it had already been grievously weakened. James II may have been England’s last legitimate monarch but Charles I was the last king to exercise anything like genuine royal power. Whether James II ever had any real chance of restoring the fortunes of the Crown is doubtful but he at least was determined to make the attempt. 
In Belloc’s view the undermining of the monarchy was a disaster, the King being the only real defence of the common people against the greed and viciousness of the rich. Since the Glorious Revolution British monarchs, apart from not being legitimate, have been mere pawns of the wealthy ruling class.
Belloc can always be relied upon to offer a view of history that is refreshing original, provocative and eccentric. Highly recommended.

Spengler on classical Greek culture

Oswald Spengler (1880-1936)

I’ve been reading Spengler. Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, a book as capable of arousing controversy today as it was when first published in 1918.

Incidentally the title was not inspired by the First World War. Spengler had already started work on the book, and chosen the title, as early as 1912.
Whether or not one accepts Spengler’s theory in its entirety (and I haven’t read enough even to contemplate making such a judgment yet) there’s no question that he throws out some striking and provocative ideas along the way.
One of the most interesting such provocative ideas so far is his view of the Classical Greek world. Spengler sees the Classical Greek culture as being entirely alien, to the point that any kind of understanding of that culture is quite challenging. Spengler claims that the Greeks lived entirely in the “pure present” and had no real sense of either past or future. For the Greeks of the Classical era the past hardly existed and to the extent that it did exist it was hopelessly confused with myth. The idea of organising past events into an ordered linear sequence did not occur to them, although it had certainly occurred to both the Egyptians and the Babylonians. The idea of the future held no interest for them either. It’s a way of looking at life that is so different from the later western outlook that there is virtually no common ground.
According to Spengler the fact that the Greek lived and thought totally in the here-and-now explains a great deal of their art and their philosophy, and even their mathematics. The Greeks made great progress in in this field but their geometry was always limited to concrete concepts that could be visualised. Their art also reflected their here-and-now approach to life. Greek tragedy for example bears no resemblance whatsoever to Elizabethan tragedy. Even Greek sculpture bears a characteristic impress to their view of life. 
One very interesting point he makes is that we use many words (such as democracy and republic and freedom) and concepts borrowed from the Classical culture and this misleads us into believing that the thought processes of Greeks of the fifth century BC were pretty similar to our own. Nothing could be further from the truth. We also need to be aware that to the Greeks words such as democracy and republic and freedom had very different and to us very alien meanings.
Of course it’s obvious enough that different cultures have different ways of seeing and understanding the world but in the West we tend to assume that the worldview of the Classical Greeks was very similar to our own. In fact we assume that Classical culture was the bedrock on which our own culture was built. Spengler argues that this is entirely false. In his view the Renaissance was in no sense a revival or rediscovery of Classical Culture. Classical Culture has actually had no real influence on western culture. 
Of course there’s a great deal more to Spengler than this. His theory of world-history is vast and complex and at times fiendishly impenetrable. I’ll undoubtedly have more to say about Spengler when I’ve finished the book. It’s very heavy going indeed, but worth the effort. You plough through page after page of esoteric philosophical-mystical theorising and just as you’re about to give up he suddenly comes up with an extraordinary and terrifyingly bold insight that turns all your ideas upside down.