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March 13, 2008



I would be inclined to credit Christianity's relative aversion to theocracy because of its Caesar/God dichotomy, except that I think this also applies somewhat to historical Buddhism. Perhaps Buddhism was *too* averse, and unable to provide the counterweight to royal overlords that the Church was.

Whatever the case, I'm inclined to ascribe an unusual amount of collective progress to the avoidance of unitary power, allowing more room for individual (or at least subgroup) conscience and industry.


The credit for Democracy/Republicanism and Capitalism lies with the ancient Greeks and Romans. The power of the Roman empire did not significantly wane until around the time of Constantine, who coincidentally made Christianity the official religion of the state, though one could make a case that the fall of Republicanism and the rise of the Caesar was the first major blow. Republicanism and the necessary enfranchisement of the populace was probably difficult to maintain in light of the expanding boundaries of the Republic due to military conquest. Anyway, the propagation and rediscovery of the ancient philosophical ideals can mostly be credited to the Golden Age of Islam, which probably wouldn't have been possible if not for the invention of paper by the Chinese. From wikipedia:

During the Muslim conquests of the 7th and early 8th centuries, nomadic Arab armies established the Islamic Empire, which was one of the ten largest empires in history. The Islamic Golden Age was soon inaugurated by the middle of the 8th century by the ascension of the Abbasid Caliphate and the transfer of the capital from Damascus to Baghdad. The Abbassids were influenced by the Qur'anic injunctions and hadith such as "The ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of martyrs" stressing the value of knowledge. During this period the Muslim world became the unrivaled intellectual center for science, philosophy, medicine and education as the Abbasids championed the cause of knowledge and established a "House of Wisdom" in Baghdad; where both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars sought to translate and gather all the world's knowledge into Arabic. Many classic works of antiquity that would otherwise have been lost were translated into Arabic and later in turn translated into Turkish, Persian, Hebrew and Latin. During this period the Muslim world was a cauldron of cultures which collected, synthesized and significantly advanced the knowledge gained from the ancient Roman, Chinese, Indian, Persian, Egyptian, North African, Greek and Byzantine civilizations. Rival Muslim dynasties such as the Fatimids of Egypt and the Umayyads of al-Andalus were also major intellectual centers with cities such as Cairo and Córdoba rivaling Baghdad.

A major innovation of this period was paper - originally a secret tightly guarded by the Chinese. The art of papermaking was obtained from prisoners taken at the Battle of Talas (751), resulting in paper mills being built in Samarkand and Baghdad. The Arabs improved upon the Chinese techniques of using mulberry bark by using starch to account for the Muslim preference for pens vs. the Chinese for brushes. By AD 900 there were hundreds of shops employing scribes and binders for books in Baghdad and even public libraries began to become established, including the first lending libraries. From here paper-making spread west to Fez and then to al-Andalus and from there to Europe in the 13th century.

So, I think you give a bit too much credit to Christianity and Western Modernists, and probably not enough credit to the lasting power of superior ideals discovered by more ancient civilizations. If there's a tradition to value here, it would seem that it is the one rediscovered by the Enlightenment and propagated by the Golden Age of Islam, the one that led to the beauty and power of the Roman Republic, the one first strongly held by the ancient Greeks, and the one, that through the study of various scholars of antiquity, eventually came to be the first tradition of American governance.

Nathan Smith

re: "The credit for Democracy/Republicanism and Capitalism lies with the ancient Greeks and Romans..."

This is a strange claim, considering that (a) the Greeks and Romans never established anything that really deserves to be called republicanism, or democracy, or capitalism, and (b) even to the extent that there were some intimations of it, they quickly disintegrated, and the Greco-Roman civilization as a whole succumbed to decline in ruin. No doubt the ancient civilizations came up with some good ideas, but it was the Christians that were able to implement them and make them endure. For that matter, the Christian civilizations exploited Chinese gunpowder and Indian "Arabic" numerals far more effectively than did the originators of those ideas. The patterns of cultural diffusion are so... well, diffuse... that if one wishes to trace the origins of the central achievements of Christian civilization to non-Christian sources, there is rarely a lack of plausible stories. But such explanations dodge the central task of explaining why, by the year 1500 AD, a hugely energetic and creative civilization had emerged in Europe whose subsequent success has dwarfed that of all other civilizations past and contemporary.

re: "I'm inclined to ascribe an unusual amount of collective progress to the avoidance of unitary power, allowing more room for individual (or at least subgroup) conscience and industry."

I've heard this argument before, i.e., the argument that the success of Christian civilizaion is its division of powers, "checks and balances," if you will. I understand it, and I don't. To paraphrase this thesis "Only a house divided against itself can stand" does justice to the oddness of the claim. There have been plenty of civilizations in which an inordinately powerful noble class eviscerated central authority, and plenty of civilizations torn apart by civil war. Generally this has been a path to ruin. And yet it does seem to be true in America today that the division of power is beneficial to freedom, and it certainly seems arguable that the diffusion of power in medieval Christian civilization was comparably beneficial. Why? In contemporary America, one reason may be that the power is, in the first place, not so much divided as specialized: the president, Congress, and the judiciary each have certain powers, as do the federal, state, and local governments; the jurisdictional squabbles that provoke journalists to deploy the phrase "checks and balances" reflect that the borderlines of these specialized spheres of power can never be clearly and finally demarcated, and the squabbles are indeed healthy symptoms of the continued functioning of the system; but "checks and balances" is really a rather cynical formulation, which reflects the tyrannophobia of the Founders, a healthy tyrannophobia no doubt, but one that is perhaps slightly misleadnig as a lens through which to describe the American system. It often, perhaps even typically occurs, that the branches of government do not so much check each other as cooperate with each other in the public interest.

So why was the division of power between Church and State in the Middle Ages more productive than, say, the division between Bosnians, Serbs and Croats in Yugoslavia, or the division of power between strong nobles and a weak king that ruined early modern Poland? To answer this you need some answer to the question: What kind of entity was the Church? Might one be well advised to entertain the possibility that the Church "allowed more room for individual (or at least subgroup) conscience and industry," not merely blindly and accidentally because it was a locus of power different from the state, but consciously, purposively, and systematically? Might it be relevant to note that the most casual glance at Christian teachings, as expounded, say, at your friendly neighborhood church, do, among other things, promote conscience and industry deliberately and persistently, as a matter of course? Or that, in fact, Christian churches preserved literacy through the Dark Ages, invented the university, and agitated against the slave trade?

And then, why did the state tolerate this partially independent, partly rival, entity, the church, seeing as the church hardly ever visibly possessed the force to resist takeover or suppression by the state? Two casual if not dismissive answers that might be offered-- (a) the state needed the church for legitimacy, and (b) an attack on the church could provoke popular resistance-- shed some light on what kind of entity this is. It had power, yes, but a different kind of power: *moral* power, a power of moral suasion at the grassroots level, not always but typically and paradigmatically divorced from the use of coercive force, which could be deployed on the state's behalf, or against it, but which was also deployed for ends tangential to the state and its purposes and which gradually worked towards what I might vaguely and somewhat inadequately call "the advance of civilization," to put it in a misleadingly neutral language designed to evoke a universal approbation that is part of the identity of any modern Western liberal yet would be hard to justify philosophically except on Christian grounds. No entity in the ancient world, no entity in China, no entity in the Islamic world, certainly no entity in the pre-Columbian Mexico or Peru, or in sub-Saharan Africa, had, or indeed conceived of, *this* kind of power. And that is the difference.


The avoidance of unitary power has to persist for a while - to be relatively stable - to allow other institutions room to evolve and strengthen. If chaos and unresolved hostilities give extra room for independent actors to grow, they certainly destroy most of them in their infancy. The extended, if wary, dynamic equilibrium between Church and State is unprecedented as far as I know.

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