Temporal Inconsistency.

Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth.

I loathe historical anachronism, I really do. My disdain for it rivals that of my hatred for the pseudo-Celtic intellectual defecations which litter the shelves of many a high-street bookshop. It drives me up the wall. My particular disgruntlement concerning anachronism is based around the imposition of values. Sure, I often use modern examples to explain past events, use modern phrases to elucidate ancient concepts, and current events as mirrors to the past, but in a tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic, if not cynical, fashion. This isn’t academic scholarship, and I would hope that those (very few) who read these little works appreciated the tone and aims of my efforts, but I do my best to refrain from outright anachronism. I do not impose my values on others (though I reserve the right to not approve their inane comments on my tiny corner of the Internet), and I endeavour to not impose my values on the past.

For Example.

I have often heard and seen people balk at the more bloody exploits of the Romans, TV documentaries refer to Imperial conquests as cruel and vicious, and read comparisons of modern American exploits in the Middle East to the grand designs of those pesky centurions from Latinum. Yes, by modern standards the Romans were savage in conquest, cruel in victory, and bloodthirsty in celebration, but, by their standards, that was an exemplary mode of living. A human life was, essentially, worth less; birth and death rates were very high, slavery was ubiquitous, execution was used as a form of military discipline, diseases could strike down the healthy just as easily as the weak, and any number of random events could end a person’s life prematurely, which itself was, more often than not, limited to forty or fifty years. Yes, by modern standards, what the Romans did to large swathes of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East was ethnic cleansing or genocide, but to them, it was business as usual. This may seem callous on my part, to readily dismiss the conquest, execution, and enslavement of tens of thousands, if not millions of people, but, while I do find it reprehensible on a moral level, we cannot judge the past by the standards of the present. That was the way the world worked in those days; the Persians, Egyptians, and any other empire you care to mention did the same whenever they conquered a new territory, and don’t think that this was just a pagan eccentricity; there are several lengthy passages in the Bible where the Israelites annihilate several other peoples during the various expansions of their kingdom (under Joshua, and several of his successor judges, an under the kings Saul and David), but that was okay because ‘god said so’. The belief in implausible fantasies has allowed the commission of many fetid acts and gruesome deeds, the results, and repercussions, of which litter history, and are still apparent in the world today.

A Carpenter’s Bias.

Sometimes when I raise this issue, I must suffer the bland retort that Christianity changed all this, what with its Bee Gee charismatics, and general hippy ethos of make love not war. Yes, the early Christians were more keen on spilling their own blood than that of others, but once they realised that Jesus was not coming back, along with the fact that the Romans got on-board with the whole ‘Son of God’ thing, and that there was money to be made, the tune promptly changed. Christ was introduced to many converts by the point of a sword, or, later, the barrel of a gun, and, more recently, and in arguably a more cruel fashion, as a condition of receiving aid and charity. Christians were, and continue to be, just as good at ethnic cleansing and genocide as the pagan Romans (and I think we all know that to be a horribly true fact), and the capturing, selling, and owning of slaves by good and loving Christians only ended relatively recently in the West (though one could easily construct an argument illustrating the West’s economic enslavement of the much of the rest of the world). Society seems to have rather quickly forgotten how near atrocity is to our peaceful lives, such that we can feel safe in passing moral judgment on the past.

All too Human.

Humanism, not Christianity, is what changed the moral standards of the West. The value of a human life was found to be in life, not in the illusory everlasting nonsense of an ‘afterlife’. The drive to end slavery came not from faith (though it did eventually jump on the bandwagon) but from reason, and the greatest atrocities of our times were committed by religious or cultish autocrats. Our moral standards are a recent convention, and as such we can judge the recent past by our standards; we can be baffled by the horrors that man inflicted upon man in any age, but we only have the right to judge those who have lived since the Enlightenment (to varying degrees). It is equivalent to calling Ancient Egyptians idiots for not comprehending atomic theory, or mocking the Aztecs for not inventing the transistor.  The Roman economy was based on conquest and slavery, and their entertainment would make Abu Ghraib seem positively pleasant. The Vikings’ idea of a good time was getting drunk, eating lots, and rape and pillage, and the same was true of many Medieval peoples. These were vile deeds, but they were also vile times; a judgment on the past, admittedly, but someone like you or I, or the vast majority of people, would number among the dead, enslaved, or raped in such a world. But yet we cannot, in academic honesty, judge people who lived before Rousseau, Kant, or Paine, before the rise of Reason, before Enlightenment. They lived in a time of abject faith and mundane cruelty; if anything, they should be pitied.

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8 responses to “Temporal Inconsistency.

  1. I get your point – namely that “such were the times”. The problem with using that logic is that it can be used even today to justify horrific acts by countries, or even families. You’ll get the line “Well, that’s the way it’s done here” or “That’s the way it’s done in our family.”

    On a fundamental level, the Romans were just as human as we are. They had the same feelings, cried over the same things, and loved in pretty much the same way. With that parity in place, I see no reason to really apply different standards.

    For example, we don’t often think of Caesar as a monster who let 20,000 women and children starve to death at Alesia…but I think we should – despite my admiration for the man’s genius in battle and politics. But he’s better than someone like say – Caligula who loved torture just for the heck of it.

    • I agree; writing in the midst of a mood of frustration may not have been the best plan to convey my notions. Though, as I said, I believe that codes of morality in the West shifted radically since the rise of Humanism in Europe. And, yes, every era has its deplorable madmen, and as time progresses they find ever new and more disturbingly efficient ways of inflicting horror on the world, such as, as you say, Caligula or that vile Austrian and his cabal of sycophants, but I do think that Ancient conquerors, Caesar, Hadrian, Alexander, Darius, etc., shouldn’t be thought of in the same fashion. They did have an agreed code of conduct in war; siege was laid, for example, to a city, and terms were asked, cities could surrender and pay a price, or take their chances and fight, a consequence of which was the lives of the loser (on either side) were considered forfeit. This is, of course, a generalisation, as conquerors may savagely crush resistance to their rule, but, for example Caesar, did not systematically exterminate the Gauls; some of them fought as his allies, and were rewarded for their participation. Such methods remained in use throughout the Middle Ages, though the Wars of Religion brought about a new savagery in warfare. Attitudes towards the treatment of prisoners, slaves, conduct in warfare slowly changed, and became more humane, if such a thing is possible with such inhuman deeds. And after the brutal cruelty of two world wars, we should know better; no nation or individual should be allowed to perpetrate acts of barbarity based on out-dated modes of tradition. As you point out, the defense “Well, that’s the way it’s done here” or “That’s the way it’s done in our family” is often employed, but that does not make it right, and it is a pathetically flimsy argument; there must be a sustained campaign of reason and education against such acts, from the teaching of Creationism to genital mutilation, perpetrated in the name of ‘tradition’.

      I do agree that the Romans were just as human as we; they loved and laughed, they cried and grieved, but at the same time, they thought feeding people to lions and watching men hack each other to death was entertainment, they owned other humans, and lived in a highly militarised state. They had a very different perspective on life and morality to us. The whole world, including most Germans, were shocked and appalled when they learned of the Final Solution; it was beyond inhuman. Though anti-Semitism was rife in the world at the time, no-one had considered extermination; such a ‘solution’, applied to Jews, Armenians, Hutus, Tutsis, Bosnians, or indeed anyone, was, is, and forever shall be inherently immoral, wrong, and nauseating. Any who defend the the Nazi regime, or any such movement, or defend such acts are to be despised and derided.

      And, yet again, I agree with you that we should see Caesar as he really was, and not ignore his more distasteful acts simply because he was a great general and wrote very good Latin. He should be seen as a complete character, but it should be understood that the world was a very different place two and a bit thousand years ago. Alesia was despicable, but so too was Jericho, and both were lauded as great ‘victories’ in their time, but we find the Allied fire-bombing of German cities during the Second World War to be deplorable because attitudes towards conflict, and the conduct of the military during such times, have radically changed.

      I do realise that I am walking a fine line, and arguing over shades of black, but my initial rant was born of watching a documentary where the presenter kept making, what I thought to be, moral judgments on the Romans, implying that the Gauls and Greeks were ‘more civilised and moral’ because they didn’t have circuses. Which I thought was a bit daft. Maybe I took the whole thing a bit too seriously, and a bit too far…

      Thank you for your thought-provoking comment, I hope I have acquitted myself somewhat.

  2. Thanks for making me ruminate further on this. After thinking, I feel better disposed towards the “old worlders” for the following reasons:

    1. They didn’t know all humans were born equal. They thought slaves were lesser beings, that being high born meant you were special, and that women were less important than men. Today, we know that none of these really matter.

    2. It was eat or be eaten. Today we’re in a position to treat even our enemies with relative generosity because we know they’re not going to up and slaughter us. In those times there was no such security. Indeed, finally Rome did fall to the barbarians so this wasn’t an irrational view to have. Knowing that your enemy has no ethics either makes it necessary for you to behave the same way.

    3. They didn’t know how special life was. Today, I know that life is rare in the universe, that earth like planets aren’t just lying around and that it took billions of years for life to form. This makes me view life (not just humans) in a reverential sort of way. The idea of just killing something gratuitously makes me cringe at the waste of it all. For the Romans however, life was never anything special. God made it and he didn’t care too much either.

    4. They didn’t know any other way. Today, we have seen how it can be. So I have little sympathy for any country who’s connected to the rest of the world, participates in the UN, engages in trade and immigration and still abuses its citizens saying “that’s the way we do it here.” On the other hand, I’d be much less willing to pass judgement on the barbaric practices of some tribe locked away from the rest of humanity who don’t know any other way to live.

    Thanks for the great post and for helping me structure my thoughts!

  3. I don’t see how Humanism as opposed to Christianity changed all that. Even the early Humanists said they got a lot of their Ideas from Christianity, which itself hasnot remained static for centuries. I think you are blindedby an irrational hatred of Christianity and “Religion” myself.

    Besides, Humanism was used as the underlying Philosophy for the Soviet Union, which did not have a good track record.

    I also have to wonder how Milton and John Locke would feel about yoru claims since most Liberal ideas we have today such as all men being created equel is found on the pages of those men, who were also explicitly Christian.

    And didn’t Chrikstians ban torture in the early middle ages? Sure it made a comeback, but whose to say if Humanism as a Religion ( And it is a Religion itself) becoems predomenant torture can’t make a comeback in 500-1000 years under Humanist Justification? Heck, Sam Harris justifies its use now.

    • Thanks again for another comment.

      The underlying philosophy of the Soviet Union was not Humanism; under Lenin it was largely misunderstood and ill-applied Marxism coupled with outright panic, and under Stalin it was state terrorism. After that, it was largely chaos and corruption.

      John Locke was an empiricist who argued all knowledge was a posteriori, a consequence of which would be atheism. This is the very reason why Berkeley wrote against him. Even if he was a Christian, his philosophy wasn’t, or at the very least its logical conclusion wasn’t. I’ve never studied Milton, so I can’t really say much about him other than the Divine Comedy is a fun read and a great band. In general though, I’m not fond of empiricism, it’s a bit cold and detached. But even if they were fine good Christians it doesn’t mean we have to throw away their good ideas; Pythagoras had some funky notions about souls and fruit, but that’s no reason to abandon his ideas on mathematics and music.

      Some Christians banned torture, others were very good at it, let’s roll out the usual suspect, the Inquisition. Is that horse dead yet? Torture rarely, I am led to believe, leads to the truth. Under Roman law, however, certain types of testimony were not admissible unless they were drawn through torture.

      I don’t think I am

      blinded by an irrational hatred of Christianity and “Religion”

      ; I have a reasonable hatred of the Catholic Church (though I could easily refer to Judaism, Moromism, that crazy actor sci-fi faith, Buddhism), an organisation which colludes with, hides, and defends paedophiles, subjugates half of the species based on archaic notions, and hinders education and healthcare in large swathes of the world. I don’t hate Catholics, strangely enough. Some of my best friends are Catholics, and we get along very well. I, broadly speaking, can tolerate faith; religion is a different thing. Religion is systematic method of exclusion, regimentation, oppression, and control using twisted morals and arcane rituals. Religion is not a good thing. I am not blinded by hatred of Christianity and Religion, I see clearly through my love of learning and free-thought.

  4. Not all Christians are Catholic, I must remind, and your tropes about the Catholic Church, such as Paedophile Priests, is somewhat misguided in itself. It snot like the Catholic Churhc is alone in this, or that the Number of Paedophiles in the Catholci CLergy is vast. Rather, accoprdognm to actual Statistics, the Catholic Churches CLergy are less likely to Molest CHildren than Schoolteachers, Police Officers, or even Family Members of the CHild.

    Why then is it Rational to continually harrass Catholic CLergy based upon somehtign less than 2% of them did or were accompliced to?

    As a Historian you should also know that the Inquisition is, in fact, a Dead Horse. The Popular Mythology about it and its rampent power and abuses were mainly inventions of Later writers. The Actual Inquisitional Courts had a Higher STandard of Evidnce than the Secular Courts and henerally more Lenient Sentances. The reality of the Inquisition is that it was a more advanced and fair court than any other at the Time it operated.

    As for Torture, you have to look at mroe than just Christianity, but total Cultural Trends. If the ROmans also demanded Torture before Christianity and some cultures today still use it then its fairly obvious htta more is happenign than just Christianity.

    That said, if Christianity is guilty of advocatign Torture because some CHristians did, then Humanism cannot escape being tied to Marxism, Lennin, and Stalin, as each man openly declared their allegience to Humanist Ideals and Goals. Saying they did not live up to them and weren’t really Humanist allows for one to say the same thing about Christianity. If I argued that any Christian that advocated the use of torture was not a Real Christian, and thus Christianity can’t be implicated, I am makign the same argument as you are regarding Humanism and Communism.

    Humanist Ideals still lay at the Heart of Lennins Original Ideas, and it was an ultimate Humanist Goal that promped Stalin, though he was ore of an Ends Justify the Means sort. Humanist Ideas also prompted Mao, Pol Pot, and even Fidel Castro. One need not look too far to realise this, as most of these men have a lot of their writtings online, and if you compare it to Humanist Philosophy the Principals that animate their enture Political Philosophy cannot be divorced from them. Plus some of them outright claim to be Humanists.

    Incidentlaly, they also saw Relgiion as you did, as somehow hindering Free THought and Advancement and inclusion, so sought to eliminae it by force. How then does the Humanism they espouce really promote Inclusion, Advancement, and Freethought?

    The only thing you were allowed ot think or beleive in was what the State told you you could. Is that not more coercve and contollign than Midaeval Europe where as you already noted Sects ran rampant and the Catholic CHurhc was powerless to stop them?

    Even today it is the “Secularists” who promote an increasingly aggressive STance to eliminate “Religion” from everything. I find that pretty exclusive.

    And thats my point. Humanism is guilty of the same foibles, and you shoudln’t just dismiss ther examples of when this occures and say they weren’t True Humanists.

    I also find it difficult to beleive that Relgiion causes so much harm in and of itself. Surley it snot Relgiion, so much as peopel who refuse to tolerate others who do not share their views, and htis is something that exists indeopenant of Religious beleifs. I’ve seen Right WIng Political Figures intolerant of Lft WIng Figures, and Left Wing Political Figures in turn are Intolerant as well.

    Peopel who beleive in complete Free Market Capitalism and peopel who beleive in absolute Socialism can both be exclusive, or use institutions in society to force evryone to do as they say as well.

    Really its not Religion thats the problem, its a lack of willignness on someones prt to really allow disagreement and attmeot to force heir will onto all in society, and htis is not somethign that Relgiion alone produces or that Relgiion produces in greater quanity than anythign else.

    I also don’t think Atheism is linked to Free THinking and Relgiion to blind subjection. For one thing, as I said, I dont see the Atheist as Non-Religious. I also don’t see the evidencr that those who are “Religious” in this parce setup are all Midnless Drones who have no will fo their own, or else who never question Religious Dogmas. I see quiet the opposite.

    Free Thinkign doesn’t mean you myust surrender elef in Godm or CHrisrianity, or Islam, or anythign else, it only means you are willing to look at other ideas, and to examien your own.

    Someone who beleives in God can do this even forbeleif in God, just like an Atheist can be closed minded and refuse to do this.

  5. That said, while I am not an Empirisict but a Rationalist ( an it still irrirates me when an Atheist calls themseles a rationalist whilst promoting Empiricism as the only method for learning, which is the opposite of Rationalism) I must however defend Locke.

    While I disagree with a lot of what he wrote, I dont’ think his Empiriscism leads to Atheism, and the same complaint was levied agaisnt Rationalists like Des Carte.

    Just because you can find someone whlo says that somethign must ;logically lead to Atheism doens’ mean it will. In fact, the same is True in reverse. The Big Bang Theory was rejected by many Philosophers and even Scientists because it implied a Creator and lead to beleif in God! Nowadays it is Ironically used to prove God doesnt exist!

    Locke wrote an entire book on the reasonableness of Christianity, and while I again do not agree with Locke very often I simply don;t see how Empiriscism must automatically lead to Atheism.

    • Firstly, I must make my jokes less subtle; the comment about flogging the Inquisition horse was meant to be a pointed comment, hinting at what you outlined. Oh well. I suppose tone doesn’t transmit well via text on screen.

      Secondly, for the sake of argument, let’s skip over the whole secularism/Lenin/torture/humanism/kitchen-sink thing that’s going on, mostly because none of that really matters. You are right in what you say about drones, I’ve read some dire drivel written on atheist forums and social networks, wheeling out a very familiar intolerance which was once only the domain on religious extremists. As for state inflicted ideas, what is religion? Sure, discussion and free-thought is allowed, but only within well-defined parameters, and with a conclusion already in hand; not quite free thought…

      Thirdly, there is no Zeus. Or Easter Bunny. Or Santa Claus, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Thor, Ba’al, Ishtar, Superman, or Quetzalcoatl (sometimes, considering the state of the world we live in, the bloodthirsty gods of the Aztec seem like far more likely candidates for the creators of mankind, but then you read the OT…). Oh, and lest I forget, there is no God. We made them all up. Delightful fictions that have hung around for so long they have become ingrained in society, which is not necessarily a good thing. Creative iron-age tales which, bizarrely, determine the decisions of politicians, educators, moral leaders, and, well, lots of people. Isn’t that just plain weird? People pray for the economy to recover, don’t believe the evidence for global warming because God can’t create imperfection, or don’t see the problem of denying rights to people who don’t tag along in whichever eccentric notion the ruling class have decided to adhere to. Most people don’t even choose their faith, they are born into it, indoctrinated from birth, predisposed to believe in the other. Worse still, many nations have laws which deny women sovereignty over their own bodies because a body of people, let’s face it, men, have decided to enforce a set of laws that are, apparently, divine, and therefore unquestionable. Faith and religion determine the lives of many people, whether they realise it or not. All for the love of money and power. Oh, and the God fella. I’m sure that’s involved in the process too. Even the conceit of the god of a particular faith being ‘the one’, well, wouldn’t it be hilarious if the Korowai of Papua New Guinea had the right idea? The rest of us wouldn’t last very long.

      Fourthly, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! (Sorry, I had to throw it in, what with previous references to the period).

      Moving on…

      Arriving at a previously assumed conclusion is a terribly easy thing to do. Assuming ignorance, examining the evidence, and arriving at a rational explanation of available information is a bit more difficult, but also more rewarding. That’s just a general comment, it applies to pretty much everything.

      The bottom line is this – I don’t care. I do not believe in Thor, God, gods, divine forces, supernatural events, whatever goes bump in the night. It would take an impressive feat to convince me otherwise; if the God of the NT appeared in the sky I’d still have serious doubts, and I would love to see what experiments could be performed to explain the divine manifestation. And oh so many questions to be asked… Anyway, back to the point. I don’t care. I don’t care what you think, believe in whatever you want, that is your right, and I strongly believe in democratic rights. Don’t read “I don’t care what you think” in a negative fashion, it’s a positive sentiment. Why should I care what you think, so long as your thoughts have no negative impact on any other individual? I also mean, I really don’t care. Nothing you can say will convince me of the existence of a deity, and I imagine that I would be hard-pressed to dissuade you or your belief, so what’s the point? This isn’t a ethical debate over whether or not consequentialism is superior to deontology; I am convinced that belief in a God or gods is, at best, misguided, whereas you believe otherwise. The argument becomes circular, and tedious. So, I don’t care. I don’t care if you believe in God or faeries, the healing power of crystals or homeopathy, that’s your individual right. The problem is religion is given precedence in the world for no particularly good reason. A good democracy would defend the rights of the religious and non-religious equally and without bias, but that is not the case. I hope for a world in which every church and temple is a library, and every basilica and cathedral a museum, where the surviving faiths are treated in the same fashion as the ancient ones, as an academic subject. I probably won’t get that world, but I’d settle for free universal secular education and healthcare, individual sovereignty for men and women, decisive separation of (any and all) church and state, and for religions to pay taxes (why are they exempt in so many nations?).

      In any event, the key point to take away from this is I will not become embroiled in an inane and futile debate. I am going to go make a sandwich…

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