Some melancholy cliometrics

By skepticlawyer

Often, the historian does not have what he wants, but what he gets. Consider the ancient world. The Roman Empire was a large affair, a huge, literate, rationally administered, urbanized fact, extending over at least six centuries. From it their survive 10 million words in Latin, and 100 million in Greek. Of these, 90% are post-Christian. Had it been pagans who decided what survived from antiquity, the proportion of Christian and non-Christian material might have looked very different.

Of the ten million words in Latin, two million concern Roman law, because lawyers found them interesting. Only one million are pre-Christian. Of the ten million words of pre-Christian Greek, two million are by the medical writer ‘Galen’. To survive the Dark Ages, it was advisable to stick to writing to legal or medical works, and to be a Christian. The remote past has already conquered the remoter past.

— John Vincent, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to History (1995).

He then goes on to detail how Christians destroyed — with a high degree of deliberation — anything scientific and anything written by women. This sort of behaviour is so morally reprehensible that I am tempted to argue that even if the Christian revelation were true, this would be grounds for disregarding it.

There must be some very interesting people in Hell.

37 Comments

  1. Posted May 17, 2009 at 4:34 am | Permalink

    Nice. Having put the boot into both Islam and Christianity, in the sense of fairness we now need one on Judaism.

    Any takers?

  2. Posted May 17, 2009 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Deus – there’s something of an academic and political battle going on over historic sites in Jerusalem, with great concern being that the Israelis are grossly distorting the findings so as to present a convincing picture of Jews being resident there for thousands of years (therefore having greater claim than anyone else). This is a current ongoing situation and was reported on in the NYTs only a week or two ago.

    I guess that covers off Judaism for you.

  3. Posted May 17, 2009 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    He then goes on to detail how Christians destroyed — with a high degree of deliberation — anything scientific and anything written by women.

    It’s such a sin isn’t it?

    One wonders about a god who is determined to punish hald the species and keep us all darkling. Here’s a brain, here’s a sex drive – don’t use them or I’ll punish you.

    I think I’ll give that one the big Fuck You old bean.

  4. John Greenfield
    Posted May 17, 2009 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    SL

    I don’t wish to frighten you, but I am currently tortured over whether to do my Ph.D in History/Philosophy of Science, Economic History, or straight Economics. In each case, my favoured university is Oxford! 🙂

  5. Posted May 17, 2009 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Forget ’em all and do your thesis on the Constructions of Post-Surrealist Discourse Responses To Cyber-Aesthetic Notions of Shopping Mall Ideological Permeatations Pertinent To Contextual Textuality.
    .
    It’ll win you the respect of people you admire and go over really big in the airport bookstores. 🙂

  6. John Greenfield
    Posted May 17, 2009 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    I am not persuaded that significant amounts of scientific writings were destroyed. I think what happened is that education institutions substituted Jerusalem for Athens. As the Xian apologist, Tertullian, famously fumed

    What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? … Our instructions come from “the porch of Solomon” who had himself taught that ‘the Lord should be sought in simplicityof heart’.

    Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus!

    And yet, more than two centuries later, Ausgustine was preaching that The Bible was not to be read literally, and that there was much value in the pagan (Greek) sciences and philosophy for the Xian.

  7. John Greenfield
    Posted May 17, 2009 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Adrien, give me a gram of coke or an ecstasy tablet and I can do that, while farting “God Save the Queen”. 🙂

  8. Posted May 17, 2009 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    But John from the 5th century ACE the level of scientific achievement plummets. No stars were discovered, for example, for a 1000 years. Same in Islam c 12th century: canonical learning comes in shuts down inquiry. Religions hate inquiry. Their cosmology might be threatened.

  9. John Greenfield
    Posted May 17, 2009 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    In fact, the Scientific Revolution would have been impossible without Xianity. In fact, ‘science’ grew out of medieval scholasticism.

  10. John Greenfield
    Posted May 17, 2009 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Adrien

    No. It doesn’t. It stagnates from the late second century AD to Charlemagne (9th century), before picking up slowly, then exploding in the 12/13th.

  11. John Greenfield
    Posted May 17, 2009 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Remember, the Romans were simply not like the Greeks interested in natural philosophy and mathematics. The only significant scientific/technological contribution of the Romans was concrete.

  12. John Greenfield
    Posted May 17, 2009 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    For example, one of the most marvellous books, taught to all student from the fifth to fifteenth centuries was Martianus Capella’s The Marriage of Philology and Mercury .

    Its theme of linking the physical sciences, mathematics, and the humanities was precisely the inspiration of CP Snow’s early twentieth century “two cultures” debate, which resulted in Kuhn’s SSR.

  13. Jacques Chester
    Posted May 17, 2009 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    I do sometimes wonder about what has been lost. In many ways the modern world and the “Great Books” has been shaped by absolute chance.

    John — most Romans might have thought Greek culture effete and pointless, but they hired (well, took as slaves) Greek philosophers as teachers and tutors. They had a thriving publishing industry publishing new works and translating old ones into Latin. What they created and sustained for some time were conditions ideal for flourishing intellectualism (except, of course, in poltiics).

    Probably most depressing is when you have enough to know what you’re missing out on. Take Suetonius, for instance. We have The Twelve Caesars, but we have to miss out on Lives of Famous Whores.

  14. John Greenfield
    Posted May 17, 2009 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Jacques

    I agree with you. That is what I meant by “stagnate” though perhaps I mean more ‘stabilise’. My main point is to rebalance causation of this stability/stagnation a bit more towards the Romans (pagan) themselves, rather than dump it all on Xianity’s door.

  15. Posted May 17, 2009 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    What they created and sustained for some time were conditions ideal for flourishing intellectualism (except, of course, in poltics).

    Why not in politics? Because of an absence of liberalism? I don’t think our kind of society would’ve been possible then.

    Altho’ it might’ve been possible a lot sooner if the Church hadn’t shut down thinking for a thousand years.

  16. John Greenfield
    Posted May 17, 2009 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Adrien

    But the church did not do shut down thinking for a thousand years.

  17. Posted May 17, 2009 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Lives of Famous Whores.
    .
    Mmmmm? 🙂

    Reminds me. I remember a guy at school who was sooo boring. (How boring was he?) He was sooo boring that he gave a speech for Ancient History on ancient prostitute priestesses and it was dull enough to make you consider suicide.

    WTF? Went on to major in pure maths at uni. Of course. 🙂

  18. Posted May 17, 2009 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Various spec fic writers and historians have interesting things to say about the growth of knowledge in the post-Medieval period, all of which point in different directions. I don’t think the medieval scholastics deserve as much credit as you think, JG. The people who stood up to them (sometimes in not very nice ways — some of the Italian princes were getting very close to ‘how many divisions has the Pope’ territory) do, however deserve our undying gratitude.

    No, I’m making a point about the Abrahamic faiths nobbling intellectual inquiry. And before you write the Romans off, you might want to thank them for the roof truss (essential to the later construction of railway bridges). As an engineering mate over here often says, ‘Greek roofs were intellectually squalid’.

    I’m not sure that the Church shut down thinking for a thousand years, but I think it shut down thinking for about 500. That’s quite bad enough, thanks.

    Liberalism/our type of society requires free markets. End of. Which means Adam Smith is as important to what we have now as any philosopher or scientist you care to name.

    And yes, I’m all for a bit of equal opportunity pisstaking, although Judaism hasn’t done anything rotten for a very long time so it’s a bit more difficult to line it up…

  19. Posted May 17, 2009 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Hey, I reckon for some of us the Church shut down thinking for ever. 🙂

  20. Posted May 17, 2009 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Our type of society is dependent on industrial technology. Otherwise you need a huge class of people who’re effectively domesticated livestock. And in those types of society the military and/or the clergy ran things.

    Did it need to? I don;t know. But without the fecundity of industrialism and the leisure it grants I very much doubt we could enjoy the kind of freedom we do.

    Sorry to be such a Marxist.

  21. John Greenfield
    Posted May 17, 2009 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    SL

    I wrote an HD Essay on the relationship between Xianity and pagan Rome if you are ever bored shitless! 🙂

  22. Posted May 17, 2009 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    So did I, JG, back in the days of my classics major in the dim dark past. I’d stopped believing in any of it by the time I was about 14, but IIRC that put the nail definitively in the coffin.

    Adrien: on the point you’re making, Marx and Smith would come close to agreeing. You need free markets and the industrial world they create. You also need to abolish chattel slavery; in fact, in many respects getting rid of chattel slavery is more important than anything else. You don’t need people to be particularly philosophical or speculative — the English were always being attacked from across the channel for being such unintellectual pragmatists (much like the Greek view of the Romans).

    But the English booted slavery early. And had to pull their fingers out of their butts because they didn’t have a large class of people to treat as domesticated livestock.

  23. John Greenfield
    Posted May 17, 2009 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    SL

    The education curriculum remained quite consistent throughout Late Antiquity – the trivium – rhetoric, grammar, and logic – followed by three years of the quadrivium – arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.

    There were two great bursts in numbers educated:

    1. Charlemagne’s requirement that all cathedral attach a school next to them;

    2. The establishment of universities – such as Paris, Oxford, and Bologna – from the eleventh cebntury onwards.

    The global warming and attendant population European population explosion urbanisation resulted in more than fifty if these universities existing inb the fifteenth century.

    Much of the sucess of the universities was due to their legal status – as corporations – which gave them a degree of independence from both state and church.

    The Scientific Revolution would not have happened, nor is comprehensible today without acknowledging the scholasticism of these medieval universities was the overwhelming friving factor.

  24. Posted May 17, 2009 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    We’ll just have to agree to disagree, John, because those characteristics existed in many other places, too — Mauryan India and Han and Song China, to name three — and none of them had the Industrial Revolution. Similarly, the collegium was Roman law’s equivalent of the medieval corporation, and actually did the job rather better — ie it was a true separation of ownership and management. They were this close to true limited liability, which in the common law only came about as a consequence of the needs of mill owners in the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

    We’d have done better without the intervention of Christianity (and Islam, which kept bloody invading us, but that’s a separate point) when it comes to industrialisation or science. That said, our dependence on the Scottish Enlightenment is simply bloody extraordinary and possibly incalculable.

    Where you can make a case for a certain strain of Christianity (not Roman Catholicism) is in the abolition of slavery. No-one — not even Smith — spotted the negative intersection of chattel slavery with free markets. The Quakers who convinced Britain to abolish it (and it was largely Quakers, with a few Anglican hangers-on) did so for profoundly moral reasons, but it had far-reaching economic consequences.

    That said, they were also great traders and merchants, so maybe they did see something the rest of civilisation didn’t see, but if so there’s no written evidence for it.

    Slavery has been so much a part of the human condition for so long that for a single relatively small religious group to spot how economically disastrous it can be is profound.

    And another thing: much as I love Oxford, and appreciate the grand old buildings, it took a long time to become truly great (as opposed to being great because there was no-where else to go, apart, of course, from The Other Place). The Ancient Scottish Universities were great before Oxbridge. It is not something the English like to admit, but it is nonetheless true.

  25. Posted May 17, 2009 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    Deus – there’s something of an academic and political battle going on over historic sites in Jerusalem, with great concern being that the Israelis are grossly distorting the findings so as to present a convincing picture of Jews being resident there for thousands of years (therefore having greater claim than anyone else). This is a current ongoing situation and was reported on in the NYTs only a week or two ago.

    [email protected]:

    I wouldn’t consider that a fault of Judaism (the religious philosophy) but Zionism (the political philosophy).

    It’s quite funny from a religious standpoint because the Hebrew Bible says quite explicitly that God gave the Jews the land already occupied by the Caananites who had to be driven from it by force way back in the dim dark past. Because of cultural similarities between the groups some scholars are trying to argue that the Jews ARE Caananites so it was already their land anyway but that doesn’t stack up with the written historial record (ie. the Old Testament) which makes a very definite distinction between the two groups.

  26. John Greenfield
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 4:12 am | Permalink

    SL

    Well once we start getting into the Industrial Revolution – 18th and 19th centuries – we have moved a very long way from the relationships among the Roman Empire, pagan literature, Xianity, and science. 🙂

    Even though each of Copernicus, Tyco Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton, were deeply religious, my rooting for religion’s role in science and social advancement becomes much more subdued when we hit the IR, where I think you and I – and others – would be in much more agreement that [English common law] property rights and capital markets were of prime importance. But they too have their origins in the economic thinking that flourished in the monasteries in the first few centuries of the second millennium.

    Remember, for all the common lament that Xianity quashed the glory that was Greek science, even Aristotle claimed that the ‘First Science’ was metaphysics (theology) followed by physics, then mathematics. And Arsitotelian science was not mathematical, even though it was empirical.

    While St.Andrews was a very important Enlightenment hub, Oxford’s role in the Scientific Revolution – 15/17th universities was crucial. In the thirteenth century, men like Roger Grosseteste and Roger Bacon made important advances in scientific/experimental method. In the fourteenth century, Merton College led the mathematisation of motion – the famous ‘Oxford/Merton’ Calculators – leading to notions surrounding velocity, a great advance from the former Aristotelian treatments of motion from merely inductive and syllogistic perspectives.

    Thus long before St.Andrews was even built, Oxford scholastics were instrumental in further gelling the relationships between the church and natural philosophy (physics), mathematics, medicine, cosmology, astronomy, and so on. I would argue these men continued Augustine’s perspective that science played a “handmaiden” role to theology.

    I am a vigorous advocate AGAINST the position that ‘science and theology are [necessarily] antithetical. In fact, I argue Xianity was the main driver of the Scientific Revolution. In fact, I go one step further and call the SR the “Greco-Xian Revolution”. But, THAT, my dear, is a whole other discussion.

  27. Jacques Chester
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Slavery has been so much a part of the human condition for so long that for a single relatively small religious group to spot how economically disastrous it can be is profound.

    I think that a lot of Romans approximately understood some of the drawbacks of slavery, but too many powerful factions relied on them. In particular, membership in the Senate was based on land holding, and most land holdings were worked by slaves because it was cheaper than paying free men for the work.

    As for the early relation of christianity and paganism, it wasn’t a happy lineup. The Romans had no end of trouble with Christians, who like the Jews refused to chip in at religious festivals. Plus they insisted on persecuting each other with sickening violence and general nastiness, especially in the provinces. Very disruptive the Pax Romana.

    Of course we’d all probably be Mithraists or Zoroastrians or still offering to Minerva and Jupiter Optimus Maximus if it wasn’t for the greatest coincidence ever.

  28. John Greenfield
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Jacques

    Actually, the persecution of the Xians by the Romans is one of history’s biggest conjobs.

  29. Jacques Chester
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Tell me more!

  30. John Greenfield
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    I will, but I’m a bit pushed trolling Lefty sites at the moment! 🙂 Just don’t believe a word bloody Lactantius said! 😉

  31. Posted May 18, 2009 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    You need free markets and the industrial world they create. You also need to abolish chattel slavery; in fact, in many respects getting rid of chattel slavery is more important than anything else.

    I agree that’s fundamental. The Enlightenment introduced that particular concept of rights altho’ I think that Christinaity laid the groundwork there. And Capitalism footed the bill. Weber’s argued that the Protestant Reformation was central to the development of Capitalism, I’d say the resurgence of various aspects of pagan antiquity were just as, if not more, important. The Greeks invented Humanism really. They just couldn’t afford it. The need to enslave masses of people runs to directly in contrast to any liberalism. Liberty as we understand is simply incompatible with situations in which people can be livestock.

    You don’t need people to be particularly philosophical or speculative

    Thank God. If that were required we’d all be sitting around eating raw fish and grunting at each other. On the other hand, if no-one did it tho’ we’d all be sitting around eating raw fish and grunting at each other.

    The English were always being attacked from across the channel for being such unintellectual pragmatists (much like the Greek view of the Romans).

    Have you read Hitchen’s Blood, Class and Empire. He touches on the comparison that people often make between Greece-Rome and Britain-America. He gets it right tho’. The Yanks are the Greeks: y’know romantic idealists, brilliant, too emotional and nuts.

    The French Enlightenment would never’ve happened without the Scottish one. Y’know the useful one 🙂

  32. Posted May 18, 2009 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    It’s quite funny from a religious standpoint because the Hebrew Bible says quite explicitly that God gave the Jews the land already occupied by the Caananites who had to be driven from it by force way back in the dim dark past.

    I think every country on Earth apart from Iceland and the Oceanic nations was pinched from someone else. But how many bloody times have the Jews come back to that scrap of spooky desert? I count at least four.

    Jesus. If they really want it that bad…

  33. Posted May 18, 2009 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    Deus – yes, can’t argue with your point, seems sound.

    I hadn’t attributed ‘responsibility’, just quickly noting the current situation so that the Jewish community didn’t feel left out. 🙂

    I gather the methods and academic standards are not under question, per se, just the misguided spin. Of course, such an approach has a halo effect, raising questions and doubts about what is left out, hidden, or at worst, destroyed. It leaves a bad taste in the modern era, or any era, of course.

    John

    “Adrien, give me a gram of coke or an ecstasy tablet and I can do that, while farting “God Save the Queen”.

    Sure, easy to say dude, but doesn’t a PhD last four years, minimum?

    Adrien

    “Jesus. If they really want it that bad…”

    Indeedy-doo.

    But then they do nothing but whine that they’re surrounded by Arabs! (Hello?!)

    But then the rest of the world has to kick in to help them bloody keep that godforsaken scrap of desert!

    And on it goes …

  34. Posted May 18, 2009 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    My favourite story on the Catholic Church’s ambivalent attitude towards slavery is Pope Pius IX weaving a Crown of Thorns for the defeated and imprisoned president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. At the time it was noted that the Crown could not have been made without inflicting significant wounds upon its maker.

    Apparently it looked like this: http://apps.facebook.com/causes/sharings/287728?m=1a15a652

    A sickly sweet condolence letter accompanied the Crown of Thorns.

    ps- you were a late convert SL. I was kicked out of Sunday School at age 12 for preaching atheism.

  35. Posted May 21, 2009 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    SL said “But the English booted slavery early. And had to pull their fingers out of their butts because they didn’t have a large class of people to treat as domesticated livestock.”
    The English kept serfdom for as long as they could – until plague created a labor shortage and gave the proles some market clout.

    Also, the stuff missing in Greek is more annoying. I want a copy of Plutarch’s Epaminondas. For many playwrights of the ancient world, it’s like having Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida”, “Much ado about nothing”, scraps of “Macbeth” and reviews by others about how great “Hamlet” was.

    Jacques said: “Of course we’d all probably be Mithraists or Zoroastrians or still offering to Minerva and Jupiter Optimus Maximus if it wasn’t for the greatest coincidence ever.”
    (1) We’d all be Zoroastrians but for Thermopylae/Salamis.
    (2) We’d be offering to everyone but for a strategically placed lacuna in Ammianus Marcellinus that probably indicated the killer of Julian Apostate. Vidal fills in the gap: a cabal of Christian generals soon to become Christian emperors.

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