Category Archives: History

NL XLII: The First Barbarism: The Saracens

Index to this series

Executive summary: The barbarians who overran the Western Roman Empire were not barbarists in Collingwood’s technical sense. However, “in the seventh century a movement inspired by hostility towards everything Roman … and everything Christian, flared up on the south-eastern frontier of the Roman world” (42. 22). This movement was therefore barbarist. Failing to conquer Europe, either from the east at Constantinople, or from the west at Tours, the movement settled down and ceased being barbarist—by the account in Chapter XLII, “The First Barbarism: The Saracens,” and later, in Collingwood’s New Leviathan. I check this account against more recent sources; it is barbarist to think that the “movement” in question, or indeed any movement, must always be barbarist; I look at the “civilization” of the British Empire as portrayed in a story of Maugham, and I compare a character of the story to Collingwood.


Collingwood’s historical account of barbarisms is a minefield, if one wishes not to sound like a barbarist oneself. The four examples will be

  1. the Saracens,
  2. the “Albigensian Heresy” (or the Bogomils),
  3. the Turks, and
  4. the Germans.

The very formula “the X”—definite article followed by national or quasi-national adjective—this has a barbaric use in branding a people with indelible features. A retort then is “not all X,” as in “not all men.” Collingwood issues such a proviso himself:

45. 68. Please observe, Reader, that I am not talking about all Germans. I do not say that all Germans are liars. I know of some who are not; those heroes, for example, who continue in spite of everything the Nazis can do to run their secret wireless station and keep on printing Das Wahre Deutschland.

Das wahre Deutschland, from a Swiss antiquarian bookshop, Antiquariat Peter Petrej

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NL XXVII: Force in Politics

Index to this series

Executive summary (added September 12, 2018): Those persons who cannot rule themselves are ruled by force by other persons as their duty, and for the benefit and pleasure of all. Force includes fraud and deceit; their use is limited by the expection that those being ruled now will one day join the ruling class themselves. If they take up the ideals of democracy and aristocracy discussed in the last chapter, a liberal and a conservative party must understand that each needs the other for the dialectic that aims for the best society. If one thinks the two parties waste energy, either in pretending to be opposed, or in actually being opposed, then one is effectively wishing for tyranny.


In my last post on the New Leviathan (which was my first for this year), I said Collingwood would discuss the British parliament in Chapter XXVII. This now my subject.

The ruling class must incorporate new members from time to time, whether anybody thinks about it or not (27. 75). Anybody who does think about it may take up one of two goals (27. 77).

27. 79. To hasten the percolation of liberty throughout every part of the body politic was the avowed aim of the Liberal party; to retard it was the avowed aim of the Conservative party.

27. 8. The relation between them was consciously dialectical. They were not fundamentally in disagreement. Both held it as an axiom that the process of percolation must go on. Both held that given certain circumstances, which might very well change from time to time, there was an optimum rate for it, discoverable within a reasonable margin of error by experiment.

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Samatya Tour, July 2018

This is about a solo walking tour on Sunday, July 1, 2018. I was mostly around the Seventh Hill of the old walled city of Constantinople, ultimately in the quarter called Ψαμάθεια in Greek, and in Turkish Samatya.

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Re-enactment

Executive summary (added October 6, 2018). Historian Niall Ferguson praises Collingwood as a philosopher of history, while showing no sign of understanding Collingwood’s actual philosophy. This provokes me. My comments are in the following sections.

Presupposition
By Collingwood’s account, there is a science of our absolute presuppositions, be these in natural science or in politics. The science of absolute presuppositions is metaphysics, and it is an historical science, because absolute presuppositions do change with time.
Thinking
The historian’s job is to know the thoughts of the past. Leo Strauss disagrees with Collingwood over how one goes about this; but he would seem to agree with Collingwood that what is to be known is thought, as distinct from feeling.
Failures
I know of three examples of failures to understand Collingwood (Niall Ferguson provides a fourth).
History
Ferguson reviews a book in which twenty historians try to recover the feeling of certain historical events. By saying that for Collingwood, “the historian was limited to reconstructing recorded thoughts,” Ferguson errs in two ways.

  1. Those thoughts need not be “recorded,” but anything can be used as evidence for a thought, if one knows how to use it.
  2. Feelings from the past can come down to us, only if they have been converted to thoughts.
Experiment
To know whether “an individual act altered the course of history,” Ferguson does recognize that we need to know more than past feelings. For him, “We need to imagine what would’ve happened if the act in question had not happened.” However, we cannot say where any particular thought is going to go, until we see where it does go, by thinking it. In this sense, every thought alters the course of history. Neither then can we say where a thought would have gone. In this way, history is different from natural science.

Presupposition

A theme of my last two articles here (namely “What It Takes” and, before that, “Effectiveness”) is the value of metaphysics, as being concerned with such problems as the following:

  • Physics has not been able to reconcile its theories of the infinitesimally small and the infinitely large.
  • America has not been able, in the words of Martin Luther King, to live out the true meaning of its creed, that all of us are created equal.

In a technical sense, these problems may not belong to natural science or political science as such. Considered as diseases, whether of the body politic or of the “body scientific,” the problems may not be curable, either by the body’s own immune system, or by remedies from outside. What is needed may be something resembling psychoanalysis, so to speak, or what Collingwood actually calls metaphysical analysis. This is an examination of absolute presuppositions, or the fundamental assumptions that have heretofore been left unquestioned. The analyst—the metaphysician—may suspect what those assumptions are; but the patient must confirm the suspicion, or else discover the assumptions independently. In any case, the patient will not be cured without agreeing that there is a disease.

Cures do happen, because absolute presuppositions change. Continue reading

Fascism As Abetted by Realism

Fascism is class warfare waged on behalf of the capitalists. This should be realized by anybody who is attracted to accidental features of Fascism such as nationalism, racism, or militarism. The Fascists are not on your side, even if they share your nationality or “race” or fascination with weaponry and military discipline.

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Ahtamar Island

During a mathematics conference, I visit the ruins of a monastery on a remote island in an inland sea. This moves me to consider the relation between introversion and, if not mathematics, then monasticism. On the origins of Christian monasticism, I look at several sources, notably Gibbon (see the References); also Maugham, who writes of a hermit on an island of the Torres Strait. Since the monastery on the island was Armenian, in what is now Turkey, one should consider also the treatment of minority populations here. I only acknowledge the issue, suggesting Wikipedia pages (linked to presently) as a starting point for research. Old books on my shelves are not much help; my own experience, not much more, at least not in a way that lends itself to being written of here. I do know that Turkish politicians will treat imputations of their own Armenian ancestry as an insult.

We visited Ahtamar Island for a second time on Wednesday, August 23, 2017. Thus we saw again the remains of the Church of the Holy Cross. This Armenian church was consecrated in 921 and presumably desecrated in 1915, if not earlier; now, since our last visit, though officially a museum, the church would seem to have been reconsecrated, to judge by the new altarpiece, featuring an icon of the Madonna and Child.


Altarpiece, Church of the Holy Cross, Ahtamar Island

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War and Talk

This is a foray into the mystery of how things happen, based the 164th of the 361 chapters of War and Peace. This chapter contains, in a one-sentence paragraph, a summary of Tolstoy’s theory of history:

Each man lives for himself, using his freedom to attain his personal aims, and feels with his whole being that he can now do or abstain from doing this or that action; but as soon as he has done it, that action performed at a certain moment in time becomes irrevocable and belongs to history, in which it has not a free but a predestined significance.

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Edirne

This is about a May Day trip to the second Ottoman capital from the third. In the latter, the government has been suppressing May Day demonstrations in Taksim Square since 2013. That year, the suppression may have helped provoke the Gezi Park protests, as I suggested in “May Day One Month Late.” I reported on the following year’s suppression in “Madness, Stupidity, or Evil?” This year (2017), labor unions held a legal May Day demonstration in Bakırköy, further west in European Istanbul, as reported by the Anadolu Agency (which as far as I know is owned by the Turkish state). My wife and I just got out of town.

Selimiye Mosque, 2017.04.30

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Homer for the Civilian

The source of this essay is an essay and an ensuing conversation in 2009, on the theme of what Homer may mean in one’s life, and whether an application to one’s life involves an abuse of the original text. I wrote in July 2016 on analogies in Homer and elsewhere in “Thinking & Feeling”; my last post here considered an apparent instance of abuse of the Hebrew Bible.

At the end of the Iliad, to retrieve the body of his son Hector from Hector’s killer, King Priam of Troy visits Achilles in his tent in the evening, in the camp of the hostile Greeks. The scene may recall two political enemies from the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and Congressman Thomas O’Neill, Speaker of the House: these two were able to be on friendly terms “after 6 PM.”

Homer, Iliad,  Wordworth edition

Aleksandr Andreevich Ivanov, “King Priam begging Achilles for the Return of Hector’s Body,“ 1824 (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

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The Hands of an Angry Deity

I first drafted the following essay in late October, 2011, a few days after the first of the earthquakes in Van, and a few weeks after moving to Istanbul from Ankara. I rediscovered the essay recently by chance. It seems worth revisiting, given the political upheaval in the United States last fall, and the potential for more around the world.

Above Mehmetçik Caddesi in Şişli, one of the most densely populated of Istanbul’s 39 boroughs; 2017.04.02

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