Saturday, April 30, 2011

Updated: The Age of Discovery

Those of use who are history buffs tend to have a particular interest in certain specific time periods or places. For example, especially here in the United States, there are Civil War buffs. Others are fascinated by Tudor England, the Italian Renaissance, World War Two, the Roman Empire, ancient Greece, and so forth.

While I enjoy reading about the history of just about any place and any time period, of late I have focused my attentions on an era that is both very broad and yet still can be put into a specific framework that ties the disparate events and locations into an interconnected whole. That era encompasses the entire 16th century, beginning with the voyages of exploration of the 4th quarter of the 15th century and ending in the early years of the 17th century. Thanks to the invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century, the written accounts of explorers, novels, plays, religious tracts, and philosophical works, among others, could be disseminated widely and rapidly. Fran├žois Rabelais makes note of this in his popular book Pantagruel (1534) in this passage:

"Now all disciplines have been brought back; languages have been restored: Greek - without which it is a disgrace that any man should call himself a scholar - Hebrew, Chaldean, Latin: elegant and accurate books are now in use, printing having been invented in my lifetime through divine inspiration just as artillery, on the contrary, was invented through the prompting of the devil. The whole world is now full of erudite persons, full of very learned teachers and of the most ample libraries, such indeed that I hold it was not as easy to study in the days of Plato, Cicero nor Papinian as it is now." (Underlined and bolded for emphasis).

The 16th century period was a time not only of expanding physical frontiers, but of mental frontiers as well, with the former often stimulating the latter. It was an era that saw, from at least a European perspective, the discovery of two vast continents and the peoples who inhabited them, and the first circumnavigation of the globe. Though other continents and geographical regions remained to be found by European navigators, such as Australia, Antarctica, and the Polynesian Islands, the circumference of the Earth had at last become truly known.

As I wrote above, the discovery of hitherto unknown lands and peoples challenged previously held assumptions about the world held by European societies whose understanding of it was based on the Bible. How come the Bible did not account for the Americas and the people and creatures that lived there? One hint of this can be found in a report by Amerigo Vespucci:

What should I tell of the multitude of wild animals, the abundance of pumas, of panthers, of wild cats, not like those of Spain, but of the antipodes; of so many wolves, red deer, monkeys, and felines, marmosets of many kinds, and many large snakes? We saw so many other animals that I believe so many species could not have entered Noah’s ark.” (Underlined for emphasis)

Though the voyages of discovery were initiated by Europeans, the process of discovery was itself a two way street. The natives of the Americas were discovered by the Europeans, but at the same time the Native Americans, as well as other indigenous peoples, discovered that they too were part of a world that was greater than they had realized.

For the most part, the written accounts we have are from the perspective of the European explorers. Many of my upcoming posts will based on my reading of these works. While they are of course of immense value to us, we also need to be mindful that what they tell us influenced by their own biases and misunderstandings. Fortunately, we are not entirely without written records of the people visited and impacted by the Europeans. From the Kongo Kingdom of Africa, for example, we have a letter by the King of Kongo complaining to the Portuguese king about the activities of Portuguese slave traders in his kingdom. In Japan, the introduction of firearms by two shipwrecked Portuguese men is remembered in a written account of a Japanese witness some sixty years after the event.

In another example of the opening of mental horizons, the 16th century was also the time of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Western Christendom would no longer be synonymous with the Roman Catholic Church, an event that would reverberate beyond the confines of Europe. It was also the time of the Moguls in India and the Ottoman Turks under Suleyman the Magnificent, to name but a few.

It must also be noted that while this period, which saw the birth of today’s global economy, was a period of great discovery, it was also a period of tremendous violence and destruction, especially for the indigenous peoples of the Americas. I’m reminded of a line by Jeff Goldblum’s character in the movie Jurassic Park, “What's so great about discovery? It's a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.” We are certainly still living with the scars of that period today.

Friday, April 22, 2011

What's the Difference Between Religious Filipinos and Crazy People?

Yes, it's Good Friday, and that means it's the time of year in that most Catholic country of the Philippines when a few dozen of the deeply devout and deluded reenact the crucifixion of Jesus Christ by literally having themselves nailed to a cross. However, they must be doing it wrong, because the picture above shows the nail being driven through the man's hand rather than by the wrist.

But interviews with some of the participants in this ghastly ritual suggests that there is more to it than mere religious devotion.

"I hope the Lord will grant my wish to make me win big in 'jueteng' this year," Alex Laranang, a 55-year-old food vendor who said he can't read or write, told Reuters before two 5-inch nails were driven into his hands on a scorching hot day.

Laranang, a father of five, said he had won 3 thousand pesos ($70) twice in the five years he had himself crucified on a cross

Okay, so Mr. Laranang has had a 40% success rate in winning the lottery in the past five years. However, we do not have any statistics for the success rate of his non-crucified (is that even a word?) friends and neighbors who also may have won the lottery in the last five years. And three thousand Philippine pesos? Shit, I have 1,820 pesos in my filing cabinet left over from my last trip to the Philippines. I would have been happy to have given it to Mr. Laranang if it would have kept him from having himself nailed to a cross.

But maybe there's more to this crucifixion thing than winning the lottery. Health benefits, perhaps?

Roli Pantoja, a construction worker, said he felt much better after getting down from a wooden cross. This was his sixth crucifixion.

"I feel very fresh, like a new-born baby. I can't feel any pain," he said

Damn! But if it feels so good, why only do it once a year? How about once a week? That way Mr. Pantoja can feel like a new-born baby all the time.

The Catholic Church in the Philippines officially condemns these crucifixion reenactments. After all, wasn't the whole point of the Crucifixion was that Jesus supposedly did it for us? I thought the message of Christianity was to take up the cross, not to be nailed to one.

Then again, the Catholic Church in the Philippines has more pressing issues, like opposing the Reproductive Health Bill.

A Catholic priest has set off a rumpus when he urged churchgoers during his homily to leave if they were supporters of the controversial reproductive health (RH) bill.

ABS-CBN in a report on its website quoted the priest as saying in a mix of Filipino and English: “If there is anyone in the Mass here who are pro-RH bill…please, go out. It’s useless.”

“What is this Mass for if you are pro-RH bill? What is going to Church for if you’re pro-RH bill?” Ilano was also quoted as saying

I would be willing to pet my 1,820 pesos that at least some of the congregants who were in attendance at that mass were having adulterous affairs or engaged in other activities considered by the Church to be sinful. But the priest didn't say to his congregation, "If you are engaging in acts of adultery, thievery or corruption, please go out." No, instead he attacks those who support a piece of legislation which "promotes information on and access to both natural and modern family planning methods, which are medically safe and legally permissible."

Which leads me to my next question, why does an institution controlled by celibate men get to have so much say over matters involving the sex lives of other people?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Denialism and Shoddy Historical References

The book I'm currently reading during my commute back and forth to work on the Long Island Rail Road is Denialism by Michael Specter. The subtitle of the book is "How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives."

One of the laudatory blurbs on the back cover of Denialism is from David Baltimore, winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine, who praises Specter for describing "the increasing public willingness to deny the hard-won facts of science in favor of myths and shoddy investigation."

Earlier today, while reading the chapter in Denialism about the anti-vaccination movement, which for the most part was pretty good, I winced when Specter writes the following:

"In 1421, China was far ahead of the rest of the world in sophistication, in learning, and particularly in scientific knowledge. It was the least ignorant society on earth. Then the newly completed Forbidden City was struck by a lightning bolt just as it opened, and the emperor reacted with horror. He interpreted the lightning as a sign from the gods that the people of the Middle Kingdom had become too dependent on technology - and were not paying enough attention to tradition or to the deities." (Bold emphasis mine).

Specter then references 1421: The Year China Discovered America by the crackpot Gavin Menzies and states that "the Chinese burned every library, dismantled their fleets, stopped exploring the globe, and essentially shut themselves off from the outside world." While Specter might have seen it as a convenient historical reference to bolster he point he was trying to make, if he were to dig a little bit deeper, he would have seen that most of the claims peddled by Menzies are a load of nonsense, as per the website Talk about "shoddy investigation."

Specter baldly states that early 15th century China, as I highlighted above, "was the least ignorant society on earth." But what does he base this on? By virtue of its population, which included a large imperial bureaucracy drawn from men who passed civil service examinations, Ming China certainly did not suffer from a shortage of literate, educated people. Quantitatively though, I don't know how one can say that a Ming scholar or civil servant knew more about geography or the natural wold than a contemporary educated man in Europe or the Middle East.

While it is true that the Forbidden City was struck by a fire in 1421, the last of the great Ming Dynasty treasure fleets set out ten years later in 1431. The voyages came to an end not because of a palace fire, but for reasons that seemed entirely pragmatic to those who favored their termination.

For one thing, the treasure fleets were enormously expensive and offered little in return except for generating tribute missions from the kingdoms they visited. Second, and more important, the greatest threat to Ming China's security was a land based threat, the Mongols north of the Great Wall. In 1449, the Mongols even managed to capture a Ming emperor in battle. By way of comparison, 15th century Portugal, which had a more or less stable border with Spain on the Iberian Peninsula, and having no other alternatives for expansion, had the incentive and the means to devote its energies to exploration and overseas conquest.

The decline of the Chinese navy also had its roots in the conflict between the court eunuchs and the Confucian bureaucracy. Louise Levathes writes in When China Ruled the Seas, "Seafaring and overseas trade were the traditional domains of the eunuchs, and in striking down those enterprises the Confucians were eliminating a primary source of their rivals' power and income."

Levathes adds, "With the opening of the Grand Canal in 1415, there was no longer a need for oceangoing junks to carry southern grain supplies northward to feed the capital." Besides, while the Europeans wanted to sail to China and the Indies beause those places had things the Europeans badly wanted, Europe did not have anything that the Chinese wanted, or at the very least China evidently did not know enough about Europe to even consider whether it had anything to offer China.

Another thing that needs to be considered is that one of the factors that contributed to China falling behind may have been because it was one large state covering a territory that was greater in size than Western Europe and which was vastly more poweful than its immediate neighbors. If Chinese government policy shifted towards hostility to overseas trade and exploration, there was no alternative power base to turn to for patronage and support. Western Europe, on the other hand, consisted of numerous smaller kingdoms in competition with one another. So, in late 15th century Europe, a Genoese navigator named Christopher Columbus believes that he can reach China, Japan and the East Indies by sailing westward into the Atlantic. He can travel from one kingdom to another, pitching his idea to their respective monarchs, until at last Ferdinand and Isabela of Spain decide to support his venture. Then once it becomes apparent that vast, previously unknown lands have been found, just about every other European country with the means to build oceangoing ships wants to get in on the action.

Part of the problem in criticizing the Ming for turning inward in the 15th century is that it presupposes that the Ming should have had the foresight to see what is so clear to us today with the benefit of nearly 600 years of hindsight. Yes, they allowed their naval technology to decay at precisely the time when the seafaring kingdoms of Europe were beginning a series of voyages that would culminate in the first circumnavigation of the globe in 1522. But it would not be until the Opium War in 1839, a little over four hundred years after the last treasure fleet returned home, that the reality of their backwardness became apparent to the Chinese. You have to know you're in a race before you can realize that you've fallen behind.

But to circle back to the main point of this post, if Specter is going to rightly criticize people who base their beliefs on incorrect information or forgetting the past, then he shouldn't rely on the work of pseudo historians and lazy generalizations to make his point. It only serves to undermine his own credibility.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Miura Baien and The Disinterested Study of Nature

One of the criteria I use to determine if religious claims are a product of human invention rather than a divine revelation is my human egocentrism test. What I mean by that is that the religion elevates humanity to a position of central importance in the affairs of the divine being credited with creating our universe.

For example, the Abrahamic God, having created a universe filled with billions of galaxies each filled with billions of planets and stars, takes an inordinate interest in the affairs of the species homo sapiens on the planet Earth. What we eat, what we drink, what clothes we wear, and who we have sex with, to list a few behaviors, are all supposedly done under the eye of a ceaselessly vigilant being who wants us to obey its rules and love it with all of our hearts.

From my perspective as an atheist, I view our species and the world we inhabit as part of a larger universe rather than being the reason for the universe. I don't rule out the possibility that our universe is the creation of some higher intelligence, but even if it is, all I can know about such a creator is that it is very powerful and very intelligent.

I was pleasantly surprised recently to see my view echoed in an unlikely place. Like a lot of college graduates, I still have some of the text books I purchased when I was in college. One of them was a book I had to purchase for a class on Chinese and Japanese history. The book, titled Sources of Japanese Tradition, Volume 1, contains excerpts of mostly original documents from Japanese history from ancient times up to the latter years of the Tokugawa Shogunate. For most of the past couple of decades, the book sat largely undisturbed on the shelf amidst my collection of history books.

A couple of weeks or so ago I found myself perusing it, and looking at the table of contents under a chapter titled 18th Century Rationalism, I saw something called "The Disinterested Study of Nature." Turning to the page, it turned out to be an excerpt of a letter written by a Japanese philosopher of the late Tokugawa era named Miura Baien. A fair chunk of the letter, or at least the portion of the letter printed in Sources, addresses the issue of human egocentrism with regard to the study of nature and the universe.

"Now the universe shelters all things in it, and man is just one of those things.... All beings exist together with us, and we are just one of them. Realization that Heaven (nature) is universal, while man is individual, must be the starting point for all discussion of humanity. This is what I call opening the window of the human sphere. The reason men have remained in the dark about the universe is that, remaining fixed in the human sphere, they have considered their own position to be of the highest dignity and their own intellect to be the most exalted. To view Heaven-and-earth in this way, or to study creation and its manifold objects with this attitude, is exactly the same as brewers of sake, su, moro, and amasake who consider rice only in terms of taste and flavor. In the comprehension of the universe, knowledge is most important. But as long as students approach creation without opening the windows of the human sphere, and persist in keeping a smug sense of their own importance and intelligence, their approach is certain to give rise to delusions, as a mote in the eye casts a shadow on what one sees.

Concern for the world and compassion for the masses is benevolent in motive, but the study of creation in human terms is not conducive to true knowledge. Those whom the world acclaims as leaders in thought and action take humanity and human motives as the basis of their thinking and speculation in order to set up standards for what is to be believed and done. But human minds are like human faces; their preferences differ from one another. Each considers what he has arrived at to be right, a revelation from Heaven or a deposit of truth from antiquity, and thinks those who do not accept his standards should be exterminated. It is my conviction, therefore, that there is no systematic truth or logic except that which enables man to comprehend the universe without setting up standards conceived in terms of humanity or human motives

I don't know if Miura Baien had ever read the Bible, though he likely did not.* Based on what he wrote above, if he did read the creation account of Genesis, he would object to it on account of it being expressed in terms of human needs, with the stars being created to provide us with light at night, and with God creating the fish and the animals so that man could exercise dominion over them. It would be like the flora in our intestines telling each other that humans only exist so that microbes could live in our digestive tracts.

*In 1637-38, there was an uprising of Christians in Shimabara that was brutally put down at the cost of some 37,000 Japanese Christians. Japan was closed off to the outside world except for the presence of a small Dutch presence near Nagasaki. Japanese Christians after that conducted their worship mostly in secret and proselytization by foreigners was no longer possible.

Tominaga Nakamoto, in his "Testament of An Old Man" (1738) wrote "In the world today there are three religions: Buddhism, Confucianism and Shinto." None of the other excerpts of Japanese philosophers or historians in Sources during the 18th century period make reference to Christianity and focus primarily on Confucianism. It suggests that the ban on foreign contacts and the suppression of Christianity was such that most educated Japanese in the 18th century knew little or nothing about it, or if they did, that they lived in a climate where even discussion of Christianity could engender the risk of punishment.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Collecting More of the Wisdom of the Ancients

Recently, the Borders bookstore in Westbury announced its closure and in its final weeks sold off its stock of books at discounts that rose as the supply of books shrank.

In the course of several trips there prior to its final closing, I purchased a number of Penguin Classics and other translated works of ancient historians and philosophers. As I wrote in a post I did on reading the works of Saint Augustine, when you read the writings of educated people from the past, it is a fascinating opportunity to see the world through their eyes. Often times, what you get is a combination of profound ignorance mixed with tremendous wisdom and keen insight, and the occasional surprise when you see that a person living some two millennia ago knew of something that you did not expect them to.

For example, one of the books I purchased was a Penguin Classics collection of some of the writings of Cicero, a Roman orator and statesman, called On The Good Life. One of the selections is from Discussions At Tusculum, which is written in the format of a dialogue between two persons, though one of the speakers, presumably meant to represent Cicero himself, tends to monopolize the discussion. At one point, the Cicero character talks about the experience of physical pain and of people who willingly embrace pain even to the point of death.

In one of his examples, Cicero describes the Indian practice of sati, "And Indian women too, when the husband of one of them dies, compete with one another to decide which of their number he loved the best (because each man usually has more than one wife). Whereupon the woman who is proclaimed the winner, escorted by her relations, joyfully joins her husband on the funeral pyre, and the loser goes sadly away."

Since the Discussions At Tusculum were written sometime in 44BCE, Cicero's description of sati is evidence that the tradition of Hindu widows joining their deceased husbands on the funeral pyre dates back at least to the 1st century BCE, if not longer. Given the tremendous distance that separates Italy and India, it is also indicative of how trade networks connected disparate places and served not only as conduits for the exchange of goods, but for information about far away places and peoples where the trade goods originated.

Another ancient classic I am currently in the middle of readings is The Modern Classic Library's edition of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. More a collection of random jottings of whatever came into the second century Roman emperor's mind than a coherent work, the Meditations is a mixed bag of wisdom, melancholy, and occasional morbidity, such as when Marcus writes "The stench of decay. Rotting meat in a bag. Look at it clearly. If you can."

Nevertheless, there are quite a few nuggets of practical wisdom and observations that resonate just as well today as they did when Marcus wrote them. When it comes to the topic of confronting injustice and oppression in the world, it is not uncommon for someone to quote Edmund Burke's famous line "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." The emperor Marcus Aurelius was ahead of Burke by some 1,600 years when he wrote a simpler version of the same thing, "And you can also commit injustice by doing nothing."

Since I'm not quite finished reading the Meditations, I can't say yet what my favorite passage is, but among the ones I have underlined*, the following is probably a leading candidate:

"Not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren't packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human - however imperfectly - and fully embrace the pursuit that you have embarked upon."

*Yes, I have not yet made the leap to buying a Kindle, Nook or other kind of e-reader. Eventually I will probably get around to it, but I still like to hold a physical book in my hand and underline or circle passages that interest me. Since many of the books I read are history books containing maps and pictures, I don't know how well they fare in e-book format. If anyone knows, please feel free to share in the comments section. Lastly, one thing you can't do with an e-book that you can do with a physical book is to get it signed by the author.