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In Nazi ideology, the Fuhrer is the living embodiment of the people’s community (volksgemeinschaft); he is the manifestation of the people’s will, and thus ties the entire presentation and ideological system (weltanschauung) together as one cohesive whole. Yet, the “Fuhrer principle” is not wholly explanatory of Nazism, nor should it be taken to be [1]. Rituals, symbols, and their repetition were crucial in the presentation and maintenance of Nazism as an ideological hegemon. This much is obvious – one cannot escape the prevalence of grand illustrations of Nazi spectacles in Western popular media, given the photos of the momentous Nuremberg rallies and others, especially seen in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. They have been seared in the public mind, but in doing so, they have also been mostly emptied of historical context.

Nazism would not have been as successful as it was had there not been historical precedent, and this continuity is crucial to demarcate because it places us squarely in the minds of the German spectator, and grants us an understanding of the allure behind the presentation. Thus, the purpose of this essay is twofold – for one, it aims to further affirm the claims that ritual was crucial to the maintenance of weltanschauung and relied on it; and secondly, I will demonstrate that Nazi rituals harkened back to forms of previous mass public expressions (Catholic, Protestant, Teutonic, and otherwise) which were emptied of their prior substance and used for other ideological ends, namely that of the Nazi state. These rituals took the form of religion in what German legal scholar Herman Heller pithily called “Catholicism without Christianity” [2]. Nazism transformed religion’s rituals and politically utilized it by “[obscuring its] transcendence by means of an ever-larger infusion of ritual” [3]. I hope to show how ritual and historical continuity was one of the central spectral features of the weltanschauung, and was thus integral to its legitimacy.

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I. The Main Components of the Nazi Mythos

A dominant group demands a mythos for it be seen as historically legitimate. One cannot discuss political rituals, or any tradition, without discussing their mythologized origins. As Eric Hobsbawm writes, “[invented traditions] are responses to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations, or which establish their own past by quasi-obligatory repetition” [4]. This type of historical “play” – the usage of history for ideological ends – necessitates a myth and presentation in order for it to be viewed as a consistent narrative by its viewers. The Nazis were able to do so by creating a “holy history,” sanctifying their politics to works towards their mythologized ends [5].

The religious amenities of fascism are well-documented. Academic Paul Mazgaj writes:

Translating the ancient religious topos of death and redemption into a secular myth of national decadence and renewal, fascists were able to project an incredible dynamism, sense that a new society would soon rise from the ashes of the dying one [6].

Several authors had commented on the relationship between mythology and politics more generally. Emilio Gentile theorized about the sacralization of politics as one involving a political liturgy, an elect community, and a specified code of ethics [7]. Karen Anderson has written of the necessity of “sacrifice, liturgy, and ritual” in mythology [8]. Stanley Stowers in his piece The Concepts of ‘Religion,’ ‘Political Religion’ and the Study of Nazism asks us a pressing question – “did National Socialism break down the wall that modernity had recently erected between the secular domain of politics and the domain of religion?” [9]. Perhaps a glimpse of the answer can be found in a quotation from the National sozialistishe Monatshefte in its September, 1938 issue:

It is said that the body belongs to the state, and the soul to the Church or God. This is no longer the case. The whole man, body and soul, belongs to the German nation and to the German state. The latter has also taken all matters of faith under its own control [10].

This supposed “breakdown between politics and religion” must first be understood through the basis of Nazi ideology – the myth.

The Nazi mythos can be broken up into four main mythological “clusters.” Firstly, there is the myth of the leader or messiah represented through the Adolf Hitler whose goal is to unite and lead the volk towards historical salvation. Secondly, there are the people themselves (volksgemeinschaft), who form a community united all under the domain of the Fuhrer. Third is the concept of degeneracy or the myth of culturally alien things which pose a threat to the volk. Nazism depended on moral dualism, which several scholars such as Hamilton Twombly Burden have dubbed “Manichean,” which rests on the premise that all things fall on one of two sides of the dividing line – that which is “good or bad, right or wrong, or us or not of us” [11]. The Manichean evil in this scheme then, for Nazism, is the Jew who represents “the war of life or death” but extends even greater to include everything that is assumed non-German including socialists, Roma people, the disabled, and Slavs [12]. Fourth and last is salvation or rebirth which scholar Rodger Griffin has called “palingenetic ultra-nationalism” taken from the Greek word palingenesis meaning “becoming again” [13]. For Nazism, this rebirth or salvation would come as a cataclysmic end during which all cases of prior anomie, degeneracy, and moral crises would be resolved through the Fuhrer. This is Nazi salvation history (heilsgeschichte), sacralized politics for this world and not the next, which affirmed the reality of their cause; they thus painted reality in this mythos and saw themselves as Germany’s proper eternal return. In doing so, they also created the conditions with which to justify their political ascension.

II. The Necessity of Ritual

Public rituals in Nazi ideology served to create internal consensus where the spectacle would work as a mass suggestion. This was done through huge parties and grandiose architectural feats. And Hitler himself knew the allure of these spectacles. Simon Taylor in Symbol and Ritual under National Socialism brilliantly connects these grandstanding rituals to Hitler’s own words, quoting him writing after a socialist rally in Berlin just after WW1:

A sea of red flags, red scarves, and red flowers gave to this demonstration, in which an estimated 120,000 took part, an aspect that was gigantic from the purely external point of view. I myself could feel and understand how easily the man of the people succumbs to the suggestive magic of a spectacle so grandiose in effect [14].

The Nazi leadership understood the power of these performances. The rituals therefore accomplished a crucial role in the ideological framework of Nazism – it tangibly created the volksgemeinschaft which could be felt and seen, and hence “allowed for mechanisms of mass suggestion [to] operate” [15]. Spaces were thus architecturally designed to concentrate the crowd’s attention on the centerpiece: the Fuhrer or the holy symbol representing him [16]. Such fixtures were previously only seldom used for anything other than holy presentations. Architect Albert Speer’s “Cathedral of Light” (Lichtdom) drew on this historical continuity sharply, and Goebbels even spoke of the “need to emulate the mysticism of the Roman Catholic Church at party rallies” [17]. It is through these spectacles that the Nazis were able to stage-manage the psychological process of identification by using grandiosity and rituals to affirm their ideology’s superiority against the Manichean evil they were fighting against.

III. The Nazification of Tradition and Ritual

Simon Taylor identifies three types of National Socialist celebrations present in various forms from 1919 to 1945: (1) celebration of the National Socialist Year (Jahreslauf), (2) morning celebrations (Morgenfeiern), and (3) life celebrations (Lebensfeiern) [18]. Celebrations marking the National Socialist calendar year were most common and these included the Founding of the Party Programme (February 24th), the Fuhrer’s birthday (April 20th), and the commemoration of the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch (November 9th)[19]. Taylor also mentions other holidays which were previously Christian or labor holidays, but were re-imagined for Nazi purposes such as Christmas and Labor Day. The Nazi Party would use these public holidays to organize support as scholar Barry Stephenson notes in one such example in 1933 when the party rallied in Wittenberg’s Marketplace on the Protestant holiday of Reformation Day, October 31st [20]. In other such example of historical rewriting, the Nazi Party transformed Remembrance Day on March 16th, a day meant to mourn the fallen of World War One, to a day of pride and triumph where “the swastika flag was no longer to be lowered to half-mast, but flown proudly… as a symbol of Germany’s reawakened faith and pride” [21]. Taylor notes that many other holidays suffered the same fate including “Easter, Mother’s Day, Whitsun, [and] the Harvest Thanksgiving” [22]. These Christian and, in some cases, old pagan Teutonic customs, needed to be revived to counter what they called “Jewish-Marxist materialism” [23]. These state-sanctioned holidays created a cycle of “high holy days” which were meant to resemble religious calendars and signified when the people would carry out their yearly rites.

One particular ritual – the 9th of November – became central to the Nazi myth of palingenesis. It was here that narratives were transformed, connecting the defeat in 1923 to Nazi victory in 1933. The message of the ritual was of rebirth and martyrdom, that the spilling of Nazi blood during that failed coup was a prerequisite to the “historical inevitability” of National Socialism. On the morning of November 9th, 1935, Hitler unveiled the Bloodflag (Blutfahne), the flag carried by the conspirators in 1923. It was stained by the flag of its martyrs and was brought out to consecrate the newly-built Temple of Honor in Munich where the sixteen fallen party members were housed. The Bloodflag was a holy symbol and was thus unveiled only on the 9th of November and at Nuremburg during Reichsparty-day [24]. During its presentation, names of the fallen were read as upwards of thousands assembled party members and Hitler Youth responded “Here!” in unison. In this quasi-religious ceremony, the Fuhrer would symbolically unite the living with the dead – united through blood and honor. As Taylor writes, the Bloodflag was the “essential confirmation of the Nazi mythos” [25] symbolizing the Christian cross with Hitler as its figurehead, consecrated as Christ. If it had not already, Nazism had begun to take on religious signification with the unveiling of the Bloodflag. The flag was a “sanctuary,” the blood of the fallen was “holy,” and the Reich was “eternal” as it was constantly repeated through Nazi rhetoric [26].

In order to further affirm their fight against the Manichean evil, public gatherings were planned to combat presumed “degeneracy.” Book burnings were a staple where texts by Jews, certain intellectuals, and leftists were driven around in carriages through the streets for all to see and then subsequently burned. The ritual was not unprecedented in European history – for they were “reminiscent of both the medieval book burnings of Talmudic and heretical texts as well as the Catholic ceremony of the auto-da-fe” during which heretics were burned alive in a public act of penance [27]. An art exhibit of “degenerate art” was also organized by Adolf Zeigler and the Nazi Party 1937 to present to the German people the values that had previously undermined their society.

IV. Closing

Ritual and presentation were not peripheral to Nazi ideology. In fact, they were central to it. These public spectacles solidified the state’s supreme power, and touched on all facets of the Nazi mythos: the supremacy of the Fuhrer, the people’s community, the historical enemy, and Germany’s rebirth as a nation. Throughout all these spectacles, the fixation remained on the Fuhrer. Whereas such presentations were previously reserved for holiness, Nazism made politics sacrosanct; it reappropriated previously-religious symbols and rituals and emptied them of content, and thus filled them for their own use. And if it were not for this historical precedent, Nazism would have had little momentum. It required these historical parallels – and its party members acknowledged their mythic power, and organized with its help. Thus, although not a religion, Nazism took on religion’s mystical form and broke the barrier between the state and religion. It was a quasi-religious ideology without transcendence, Catholicism without Christ, but to its fervent followers, it was so much alike that they followed and swore its allegiance to it all the same.

***

[1] A succinct explanation of the Fuhrer Principle was said by Rudolf Hess at the end of Triumph of the Will: “Hitler is Germany and Germany is Hitler.”
[2] Max Ascoli, Arthur Feiler, Fascism for Whom? (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1938), 281.
[3] Richard Grunberger, The 12-Year Reich (New York: DeCapo Press, 1971), 72.
[4] Eric Hobsbawm, Terrance Ranger, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 2007), 3.
[5] Stanley Stowers, “The Concepts of ‘Religion’, ‘Political Religion’ and the Study of Nazism,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jan. 2007): 9.
[6] Paul Mazgaj, Imagining Fascism: The Cultural Politics of the French Young Right (Cranburby, NJ: Rosemond Publishing, 2007), 30.
[7] Stanley Stowers, “The Concepts of ‘Religion’, ‘Political Religion’ and the Study of Nazism,” 16.
[8] Karen Armstong, A Short History of Myth (New York: Cannongate, 2006), 2-9.
[9] Stanley Stowers, “The Concepts of ‘Religion’, ‘Political Religion’ and the Study of Nazism,” 10.
[10] Otto of Austria, “Christianity and National-Socialism,” World Affairs, Vol. 105, No. 2 (June 1942): 76.
[11] Jason D. Lahman, “The Form that Fuels the Flame: Public Ritual and the Nazi Mythos,” Ex Post Facto, Volume XIX (2010): 47.
[12] Wilard Gaylin, Hatred (New York: Public Affairs Press, 2003), 221.
[13] Jason D. Lahman, “The Form that Fuels the Flame: Public Ritual and the Nazi Mythos,” 40-41.
[14] Simon Taylor, “Symbol and Ritual under National Socialism,” The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Dec. 1981), 511-512.
[15] Ibid., 512.
[16] Ibid., 513.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid., 505.
[19] Ibid., 505-506.
[20] Barry Stephenson, Performing the Reformation: Public Ritual in the City of Luther (Oxford Univ. Press, 2010), 10.
[21] Simon Taylor, “Symbol and Ritual under National Socialism,” 506.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid., 509.
[25] Ibid., 510.
[26] Ibid., 513.
[27] Jason D. Lahman, “The Form that Fuels the Flame: Public Ritual and the Nazi Mythos,” 53.

This is an exercise in historical writing for “a time before there were authors” (Robinson, 14). I will be focusing on Late Antiquity Arabia in an effort to describe what history is. Therefore, the form of this essay, along with the actual historical content, are both equally as important.


A narrative on Muhammad inevitably involves looking at him as he was, as a man of his time. Although it is inescapable that we describe Muhammad’s life with a degree of agency, this is only the fault of our own imaginations. Even greater, it is also the fault of our own narratives. All historical events can be said to be intimately linked to everything before it; this much is obvious. Therefore, it is the historian’s role to delineate which events were formative in history, and which were less so. In other words, which events allow us to view history in motion? – And how are these events situated in relation to another? Little can be said about the continuity of history with any certainty and, as historians, we are left fumbling to find causation.

As Isiah Berlin writes in his seminal essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, “we will never discover all the casual chains that operate: the number of such causes is infinitely great, and the causes themselves infinitely small” (Berlin, 44). Therefore, all historical writing ultimately takes the form of a kind of narrative, none of which are “true” in any objective sense [1]. Rather, they are approximations of a historical reality; all history is the history of approximations, some of which are closer than others, naturally, but they all have a desire to reign in history as an effort to ground it. Walter Benjamin so eloquently writes of this in his Theses on the Philosophy of History: “To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize ‘how it really was.’ It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger” (Benjamin, VI). Any writing of history is such an exercise.

Appropriately, a discussion on the context of pre-Islamic Arabia (and the greater Middle East) before the rise of Muhammad involves privileging certain causalities as more crucial to historical progression than others. Because of this, it is central that a historian examines structures in relation to particulars, rather than just particulars [2] – in other words, we must not look at Muhammad only as a man; we must look at the social fabric in which he was thrown into, and the great powers that shook his conscience so heavily that it demanded he act. Therefore, I will speak of Muhammad through what he did, but we must be cognizant there is no “being” doing anything; everything is happening, and unfolding, in an infinite amount of ways. I propose an account of Muhammad, not as an individual agent [3] but rather as an agent of history, of a force greater than himself, who is irrevocably linked to the material conditions which produced him. In this sense, he is not an actor – he is merely acting. It is on this account that we begin by introducing the world that Muhammad would soon inhabit.

I.  The Material Conditions That Preceded Muhammad

The Arabian Peninsula is vast, “nearly as big as one third of Europe, but very sparsely populated” (Rodinson, 11). The entire region is mostly desert, with low rainfall and dunes that stretch several miles in length and hundreds of feet into the air.  Oases dot the landscape as a refuge for vegetation, along with coastal regions which enjoy agricultural development unlike the majority of the region. It was during these early centuries, before Christ and until a century or two before Muhammad’s birth, that the “the way of life was [solely] dictated by the land.” The majority of inhabits were nomadic, unless they were living in a lush, hydrated area to settle (Rodinson, 12). Therefore, some degree of symbiosis was necessary for social order between the farmers in the lush regions, the Bedouin nomads, and the townsfolk of the surrounding villages. A loose system of protection was developed, where communities purchased safety from the herdsmen. The economic relationship was based in trade, helped by the domestication of the camel, which provided a link between the Fertile Crescent, the caravans, and the bustling communities growing deep within South Arabia. This produced a cultural exchange, hastened through trade, with goods passing through from “India, East Africa, and the Far East on the one hand, and from all over the Mediterranean on the other” (Rodinson, 13). A social structure had emerged – and it lay in the stationary communities alongside oases and the coast which enjoyed all of these cultural treasures that passed through it from all over the known world. The riches flowed into Arabia, especially Southern Arabia, and “the growth of Mediterranean civilizations had the corresponding effect of increasing the wealth of their South Arabian suppliers” (Rodinson, 21). Arabia, therefore, was not a “pure seed in a rotten earth” as it were; it was very much connected to the cultural developments of its time (Rodinson, 24).

It was from the land that basic units of life and of civilization were created – tribes, kinship, and genealogies served as the only foundation with which to grow as a community (Donner, 28). For those living in the Hejaz, life was immensely difficult; they lived on “the verge of famine, drought, and death” (Brown, 3). The tribe and its customs were the only protection an individual possessed in such a tumultuous environment and, naturally, some clans possessed more clout and wealth than others. However, Arabia was still relatively poor – class differences were felt, but in times of war or catastrophe, all social classes were equal in their wretchedness. The instability of life, and the possibility of death and ruin, was the ultimate equalizer.

South Arabia proved to be more fortunate than its northern counterpart, but it is likely that its influence spilled over to its common Arab neighbors. Here, skilled architects built large palaces and monuments. Art was realized, infused by Roman, Hellenistic, and even Indian influences. Luxury commodities began taking form. Writing took shape on social, legal, and administrative questions. All of these developments were in continuous contact with the northern peoples of Arabia. A social divide was thusly being created between the settled peoples of South Arabia and the Arabs in the northern periphery hundreds of years in the making before Muhammad’s birth (Rodinson, 21- 23).

All of this brings us to the 6th century where multiple events transformed the Middle East and, to some, signified apocalyptic proportions. The great Byzantine and Sassanid empires were competing for economic mastery of world. As Maxime Rodinson writes,

From 502 to 505 there had been war under the reforming King of kings [Kavadh I]. He resumed it in 527 over the Caucasus, and it was continued by his son [Khosrau I], who offered to make an eternal treaty of peace with Justinian in 532, But war broke out again in 540 and Antioch fell to [Khosrau I]…. an armistice was signed in 545… however, war broke out again in 572 (Rodinson, 26).

The ruling tribes of Arabia looked at this with envious eyes, for it was them that, too, wanted the fertile lands of Syria and Mesopotamia. Soon, the Arabs settled in these regions found themselves forced to take sides rather than simply assimilate. Because of a lack of resources, the Byzantines and Sassanians established indirect control over parts of Arabia through alliances with its tribes “in exchange for cash subsidies, weapons, and titles” (Donner, 31). Many became auxiliary units, fighting for either ruling power that was willing to give them a reward. And it is certain that culture permeated through these interactions – Christianity had begun to make headway among the Arabs (Rodinson, 28). Christianity’s foothold in Arabia only served to intensify the ongoing war and, by association, now implicated the entire region into the world conflict [4] if it had not been before.

Although it is difficult to personify this 6th century power struggle, its vast implications were felt under the rule of Yūsuf Dhū Nuwās [5] in South Arabia who began persecuting Christians Monophysites in an effort to appeal to Persian power. Byzantine attempted to provide protection to these Christians through Ethiopian auxiliary units in 512, but they were crushed. Thousands were murdered under the rule of Dhū Nuwās consequently. It was to be known as a period of pillage and general indiscriminate slaughter (Rodinson, 32). This undoubtedly made a strong impression in Arabia; for those that had not realized it already, it revealed the serious stakes that were at play.

Everything was changing and history had begun to accelerate in ways previously unseen in the decades before Muhammad’s birth which, according to Islamic accounts, was in the year 570CE. South Arabia became the center of intense conflict, a type of proxy war between Persia and Byznatium, because of its pivotal trading position into the Indian Ocean basin (Donner, 33). Pro-Persian Arabs, the old supporters of Dhū Nuwās, began attacking Southern Arab communities; Abraha came to power in Southern Arabia with the help of Ethiopian soldiers who still remained there, whose successors took a strong anti-Persian stance; Khurso I allied with the Turks and deepened Persian hegemony in Central Asia. All of Arabia felt the pull of history ripping it apart. Southern Arabia felt it most violently, with bloody factionalism draining its wealth and strength (Rodinson, 33-35).  Petty feudal lords began to fill vacuums of power and the Bedouin nomads profited from the chaos by charging more for their protection services. Now with capital and profit, communities soon became centers of Bedouin operations and prospered during regional chaos. All of Western Arabia underwent incredible economic expansion, most notably Mecca and as south as Medina, where new Jewish settlements created an agricultural life previously unfound (Donner, 35). In Mecca, cultivation was unsustainable because of the poor climate; instead, the Meccan tribe of Quraysh turned to commerce and traded with regions as vast as “Yemen, eastern Arabia, and Southern Syria” that were in perpetual need of supplies (Donner, 36). Mecca, and the Quraysh tribe specifically, was now in a position to network with tribes across Arabia and establish joint commercial ventures. It was in the midst of this economic transformation that Justin II declared war on Persia in 572 CE which only further expanded this emerging economic hub (Rodinson, 33).

From the shell of traditional, nomadic Arab society emerged a new form of organization: a mercantile economy. And with it, the tribal structure could not contain itself anymore.  It had begun its slow decline as its values became unintelligible within the new market system. In an environment of panic, a thirst for something new was in the air as some Arabs began to turn to universalist religions as a means of solace, as a means to make sense of the chaos. Yet, these religions – Christianity, Judaism, and all its sects – still seemed foreign; it was not of the land, and could in no way propel Arabia beyond the great powers that were collapsing. Something else was needed. It was at this precise historical moment, amidst an unprecedented shift in Arab consciousness, that Muhammad was thrown into the world to make it his own.

II. The Movement of Ideas

Ideas cannot be separated from their historical moment nor can be they seen wholly separate from the material conditions that produced them. Therefore, ideas Muhammad transformed for his own movement were not entirely new, but they came at a time when there was the historical “space” for them. Muhammad’s ideas would have had no currency had the situation not been so dire, had the entire social order not been slowly uprooted by new economic necessities. The conditions were ripe for Muhammad’s religion to materialize.

Philosophies were constantly in flux in the Near East and their influence was felt deep within Arabia, starting hundreds of years before Muhammad’s birth. Many of them became infused with indigenous cultures in the region, but this would reach its ultimate conclusion with the establishment of Muhammad’s movement. We must first understand Arabia’s own way of life, however, in order to fully comprehend how these other foreign ideas fused with it. The most widespread means of native expression in this largely nomadic society, still unstructured, was through words – poetry was highly prized as a means of persuasion, for it showed wit and vitality, not to mention it being incredibly useful within tribal politics (Rodinson, 15). It was a culture of “mainstream orality and marginal writing, where poetry and other forms of oral performance were Arabian tokens of pride” (Robinson, 11). Muhammad must have encountered these orators, for he was a man with a gift for persuasion. He was a “remarkably able diplomat, a capable of reasoning with clarity, logic, and lucidity” (Rodinson, 53).

Arabia also lacked a cohesive moral structure before Muhammad’s movement. There was nothing uniting the Arabs in social, political, or moral terms which would allow them to assert their power effectively. Communities had moral standards, but these were not inspired by religion; they were “realists” in this sense, and mostly believed in what would create order. The most prized personality was one who had virility and this was maintained through honor. If a man did not act with courage and compassion towards his kin, he would disrespect his honor within the tribe (Rodinson, 17). None of these social organizations had any real supernatural basis that was felt strongly. Many Arabs were, however, polytheists – but some also nurtured an ancient legend of the one God, the God of Abraham, especially those living in the Hejaz. Symbolically, Mecca also had the Kaba “which was a shrine built ages ago by Abraham as the ‘first house of worship appointed to men’” (Brown, 4). Despite these appeals to a greater divine order, for most living in Arabia, man was the measure of all things. In such a harsh environment, there was no time for meditations on the infinite. Muhammad would be responsible for changing the equation; Instead of man being the measure of all things, it would be God.

However, which ideas entered the collective consciousness of those living in Arabia around the 6th century? – And from where did they come? South Arabia was the first to experience an influx of new ideas, but by the 6th century this had begun to spread to all fringes of the desert and even to Bedouin nomads themselves. Aramaic and Hellenistic influences were felt most strongly. This is even demonstrated through the language used in Southern Arabia, where Arabic “had assimilated Greek, Latin, and other foreign words, for the most part through the channel of Aramaic” (Robinson, 25). It was also around the 6th century that Arab paganism began “receding in the face of a gradual spread of monotheism” (Donner, 30). After the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem around the year 70CE, communities of Arabic-speaking Jews began to spread into Arabia and were especially prominent in Yemen and the northwest. Christianity, too, began to penetrate into Arabia and its communities settled in Yemen (with the help of Byzantine influence), eastern Arabia and the northern fringes bordering Iraq and Syria (Donner, 30). Monotheist religions and their philosophies were being felt throughout all of Arabia; they constituted a kind of “religio-cultural matrix” which was a continuum of “belief, ritual and practice, overlapping multiplicities of Neoplatonism, monotheism and polytheism” which avoided being formalized into any idea that could concretely take hold across all of Arabia (Robinson, 6). All of these philosophies lacked the impetus to catch the entire region in its imagination on their own. This would require someone that was of the land, who was deeply in tune with Arabic traditions, and who would make these monotheist religions accessible to Arabs while also transforming it into their own project.

III. The World-Historical Moment Through Images

To the common people of Arabia and the greater Middle East, the war between the Sassanian Empire and Byzantine Rome signified apocalyptic proportions. It had begun in the 6th century but such feelings continued well until the mid-7th century and the establishment of a new major power, the Rashidun Caliphate. Muhammad was forced to reconcile these early cataclysmic events with his conception of the divine, for it seemed as though God was Himself intervening and accelerating history — and to Muhammad this signified a change in the very direction of what was to come.

IV. The Role of Muhammad in This Historical Moment

As been demonstrated many times over now, Muhammad was not born in a vacuum. There were world powers vying for hegemony in Arabia and the entire Near East, which situated Muhammad in a historical moment and propelled him into a role almost without his choosing. God chose him; and, if we take this for its deterministic implications, history had chosen him as well, even without him consciously choosing.

However, what was Muhammad’s historical “role?” He was situated in a context that demanded him to take on certain responsibilities, divinely-inspired no less, but he still had serious material concerns for the well-being of his contemporaries. Still, the question of “’Who was this Muhammad?’ … was a question posed already during his lifetime” (Robinson, 4). Above all, he claimed he was just a man, which further grounded him in the material conditions of his time. And, just as importantly, he was “the seal of the prophet” whose aim was to remedy the abundance of philosophies that were flowing into Arabia and make them one whole. Muhammad’s role as totalizing all these particulars which were in constant conflict (the many sects of Christianity, Judaism, etc.) was a direct response to the moral panic that ensued during the instability of the 6th century – Arabs were being humiliated abroad; tribal customs were outliving their worth; no one know which gods to worship; and the rich began to trample on the disenfranchised (Rodinson, 66). The Second Rome was expected to fall and apocalyptic catastrophe, Judgement Day, seemed imminent. Muhammad was necessary to stem the tide, so to speak, and to prevent Arabia, and supposedly the world, from succumbing to its rampant vices and violence.

For much of his life, Muhammad was situated in Mecca which was booming economically. The tribe of Quraysh had raised themselves to dominance. They held many Ethiopian slaves and those who settled in Mecca could become clients of their power (Brown, 6). Those who flocked to Muhammad’s words were oftentimes the most alienated in Meccan society. These included adolescents who wanted fresh ideas, those who were dissociated from the social system, those critical of Meccan power, the impoverished, and many others. The Quraysh looked at this amusingly at best and, at worst, “there was a certain contempt for the low social status of those involved” (Rodinson, 102). Whether Muhammad had formalized it or not, what he was doing was creating a power in direct opposition to the elites – and “perhaps Muhammad thought that Allah would make use of the fortunes of war between Byzantium and the Persians” and use it to rally his people to create a new society (Rodinson, 123).

Muhammad, therefore, took on a very social role that was very much intertwined with the politics of his day. He was an arbitrator between different classes, an orator of the divine, and a mediator in times of conflict. After arriving in Medina, the first thing he did was write up a written agreement with the townsfolk and his believers (Brown, 27). The very material basis for his actions is even evident in the Qur’an itself, for “not only did the Qur’an provide guidance for dealing with the poor; it also dominated much of the thought and behavior concerned with economic activity” (Bonner, 392). This is no coincidence. For Muhammad, every ‘social’ act was a means of worshiping God and would form the foundation for a new social order.

History knows no true narrative, and no real causality, but we are forced to create them for the sake of relevancy.  Although history cannot be personified through any single individual, the phenomenon of the “holy man” or “prophet” is precisely about acting as if one is this personification. As Peter Brown writes in The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity:

What is decisive, and puzzling, about the long term rise of the holy man is the manner in which, in so many ways, the holy man was thought of as having taken into his person, skills that had previously been preserved by society at large (Brown, 100).

Muhammad encapsulated this phenomenon by being the vehicle through which his long-view of history could be realized. In this sense, he was the living embodiment of the events that tore apart his time. Muhammad, thus, can be said to be the personification of the entire sum of his society, all that preceded him. It is by this account that we can begin to construct a history without agency, and without a Great Man to direct it. Just as God spoke to Muhammad to push towards what was divinely inevitable, we, too, can play with this language and characterization – we can speak freely of God, an ever-present force said to guide us, as synonymous with the incessant march of history forward. If it is not God who we serve as determined beings, then maybe it is God who serves history, for whom Muhammad was the vehicle towards what He deemed as salvation.

***

[1] “Objectivity” is a difficult concept to even conceive of, especially in historical writing. Surely, there are “facts” that are true, but how do these facts fit into the greater narrative? Is there one correct narrative? It is on these grounds that I discount “objective” or “scientific” history as being impossible.

[2] By particulars here, I mean individual actors and events. It would be foolish to stress these without placing them within the structure from which they were conceived.

[3] Once again, language fails us here. I will be speaking of Muhammad as a “man,” sometimes even discussing his actions, but this is only because it is rhetorically useful; if we abstract too much, we might be left with absolutely no narrative at all. We just must remember that his actions are not wholly his own.

[4] In the context of the time, this was most definitely a “world conflict” or “world-historical moment” in the sense that this encompassed what was the known “world” at the time, or the center of it at least.

[5] Interestingly enough, Yūsuf Dhū Nuwās was of the Jewish faith allied with Persian power which showed that religion was perhaps more fluid during this time than it is now.

Bibliography

  • Berline, Isiah. Russian Thinkers. 22 – 81. The Viking Press, New York. 1978.
  • Benjamin, Walter. On the Concept of History. Dennis Redmond. 2005. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm
  • Rodinson, Maxime. Trans. Anne Carter. Pantheon Books, New York. 1971.
  • Donner, Fred M. Muhammad and the Believers. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2010.
  • Brown, Jonathan A.C. Brown. Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Robinson, Chase F. History and Heilsgeschichte in Early Islam: Some Observations on Prophetic History and Biography. City University of New York.
  • Bonner, Michael. Poverty and Economics in the Qur’an. Journal of Interdisciplinary History. Pp. 391 – 406. XXXV:3 (Winter, 2005).
  • Brown, Peter. The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity. The Journal of Roman Studies. Pp. 80 – 101. Vol. 61 (1971)

Note: Western travelers evoked history as they traversed Bosnia and the Balkans, writing down their experiences and explaining them, and by doing so also proliferated a certain kind of discourse. Therefore, the history of travelogues — and how these narratives were constructed over time — is crucial to understanding Western conceptions of Bosnia, and more generally, how orientalist discourse has been used to illustrate the “Other.” This is the last part of three essays.


The development of orientalist discourse on Bosnia can most concretely be traced through the eyes of Western tourists that wrote of their experiences in the region. Through travelogues, these adventurists documented their perceptions of the Balkan periphery, and their observations permeated throughout their respective societies and provided a discursive basis for viewing the Bosnian “Other.” The first instances of Western travel interest in the troubled region began in the late 16th century, mostly among the British upper-class [1]. However, to explore Bosnia was not their immediate goal – for Bosnia was intimately linked to the Ottoman, and it was merely seen as a passage towards Istanbul [2]. The goal of these early travelers was to understand the “Ottoman peril” during a time when the empire was cutting deep into Europe, threatening the very existence of European trade on the Italian peninsula. Therefore, their observations proved to be meager, totalizing, and nebulous; interest in Bosnia was secondary to actually exploring the Ottoman East. As the 17th century unfolded, Westerner travelers abruptly changed their routes and began to altogether ignore the southeastern passage [3]. Passing through Vienna and Budapest proved to be much more fascinating, and perhaps familiar, to these tourists in their travels towards Istanbul and it was not until the mid-19th century that Bosnian travel literature began to reappear in Western literary discourse yet again. During this time, political conditions had changed and Western policy towards the region began to reorient itself with new material realities. If British foreign policy is to be taken as an indicator of this development, Britain changed its viewpoints because of the changing times – the Crimean War (1854 – 1856), the 1856 Treaty of Paris, and the resurgence of the “Eastern Question” put Bosnia, and southeast Europe, once again on the Western map [4]. Interest only intensified after the Bosnian peasant revolts of 1875 and its occupation by Austria-Hungary, which put a friendlier, more accessible face to the Bosnian Orient.

During the height of these peasant revolts in 1875, archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans traveled to Bosnia to record the insurrection that was unfolding and recorded his experiences in his text Through Bosnia and the Herzegovina on Foot During the Insurrection, August and September 1875. The first part of his text is an immediate account of the troubles, captured through short phrases spaced by abrupt dashes. Violence by the Turkish Orient against Christians is highlighted as a particular problem. He writes of a “murder of a young Christian by two armed Turks,” the “dangerous spirit of the Mahomentan population,” an “outbreak of Moslem fanaticism,” “farmers… being tortured by Turks,” “panic amongst Christians,” and describes the insurrection as a “Mahometan counter-revolution” [5]. His imagination of the Bosnian woman shows a gendered orientalist discourse, as he recounts his experiences with the feminine Other. He speaks of them as covered in glittering jewelry and tunics; and compares them to “exotic insects… with the forewings of dazzling gauzy white and underwings of scarlet” [6]. In his text, he recounts a brief history of Bosnia, stressing its Slavonic origins, and how the Islamization of the region was the elevating of Islam to a “national character… of a fanatical hue” [7]. He further writes:

 … Even Englishmen may be inclined to accept the conclusion that the present connection between Bosnia and the hated government of the [Ottoman] must be severed; the more so as the geographical configuration and position of Bosnia—a peninsula connected only with the rest of Turkey by a narrow neck—make it almost impossible to hold out against a serious invasion, and put it always at the mercy of foreign agitators.

Such a revolution may seem a Utopian dream… For the moment, however, the ultimate form of Bosnian government is a question of secondary importance to the paramount necessity of re-establishing order in that unhappy land [8].

In the spirit of a kind of Christian “cleansing,” he thus recommends “reconciling the Mahometan population of Bosnia to the new order of things… by sacrificing the [Ottoman]” [9].

The tropes of Western orientalist discourse are seen here in full view, to the point where one can easily list them as Edward Said characterized them [10] – such as (1) traveling to an exotic land and the exoticization and fetishizing of its people, (2) assuming fictional, unchanging essences of the land’s people, and (3) a claim to know more than the Orient which is apparent in his diagnosis for the necessity of an anti-Mohometan revolution. However, all of these are fictitious projections by Sir Arthur Evans and speak more of the orientation of Western discourse towards Bosnia than Bosnia itself. As he traverses the violent landscape, Evans illustrates history through his writing, reducing centuries of Bosnian experiences to the perceived, unchanging Orient essence. Through the travelogue, he is not merely documenting his experiences – he is directly involved in the production of history, and of narratives, using the people he encounters to pass his own judgements, and his own politics.

Still, other Western tourists followed in these same footsteps. James Creagh in his 1875 text Over the Borders of Christendom and Eslamiah: A Journey through Hungary, Slavonia, Servia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Dalmatia, and Montenegro, to the North writes of his experiences in Bosnia during the same time Sir Arthur Evans was present. Particularly, he draws a sharp contrast between the Germanized Slavonski Brod of Croatia with that of deeper, Turkish Bosnia with the former being “modern” and the latter as “decadent” and of the East [11]. Belgian author and traveler Emile de Laveleye in his 1887 text The Balkan Peninsula also places a geographical boundary as being the Sava River. He writes,

I have never seen the difference between West and East so strongly marked. Two civilizations, two religions, two entirely different modes of life and thought, are here face to face, separated by a river… this river has really divided Europe and Asia [12].

However, he would go on to argue that this division, although existing for hundreds of years, would be corrected through Austrian influence during which “the Mussulmen character would rapidly disappear” [13]. British aristocrats Pauline Irby and Humphry Sandwith during the same period likened Bosnia to the “wilds of Asia,” which felt more like the Orient than their actual travels into Turkey and Mesopotamia [14]. It is in this sense that Bosnia to these Western travelers was more “East” than the Orient itself; exotic and different, it was akin to stepping into another world, and the geographic proximity of this other world within Europe was seemingly magical. It was magical insofar in that it was a European anomaly, and they firmly believed that stepping into it would give them insight into the East more than the actual East ever could. It was through this crude mythologized narrative that Bosnia’s suffering became the Western traveler’s entertainment, pleasure, and interest – and, to them, it was a clever, accessible way to access the Orient without actually stepping outside of continental Europe.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West deviates from this standard orientalist discourse, but only towards the Serbs; Bosniaks are excluded from West’s focus altogether. Much can be said about the over 1,100 pages of detailed text, which are filled with historical weight that is delicately put alongside West’s travels in the Balkans. She thus re-imagines the landscape with what came before it. However, she falls into a different kind of orientalism, perhaps even inverting the entire discourse – whereas previous writers had seen this Other as contradictory to themselves, West instead fetishizes them. She illustrates them to be somehow “more European” than Europe itself, possessing almost magical qualities that she has now rediscovered. This has much to do with her opinion of the Serbs, towards whom she holds the highest, almost fanatical, regard for. That being said, she maintains the same discourse as previous travelers of the Bosniaks, except it stems from a different source: she looks negatively on Bosnias because she is a Serbian nationalist, and thus views them as unfortunate “Muslim Serbs.” West reproduces the orientalist discourse through her Serbian nationalism, and thus maintains the “bulwark myth” [15] as a central component of Balkan identity which rests on being exclusionary towards Muslims. Her work absolves the Serbs of their wretched history in Western narratives, very prolifically and poetically even — but for the rest of the peoples living there, especially the Bosniaks, the same orientalist narrative is peddled with no regard.

Rebecca_2

Rebecca West. Year Unknown.

She writes of the Slavs as having an “infinite capacity for inquiry and speculation,” as opposed to the Turks who “have no word in their language to express the idea of being interested in anything” [16]. Interestingly enough, oftentimes orientalist discourse does not come from West’s words, but rather, is re-imagined through the people she encounters. In one such encounter, a Jewish man remarks that “I used to feel ashamed because the Germans took me as an equal, and here in my house I was treated as an inferior to men with fezes on their heads.”[17] In yet another heated encounter, a Bosniak man steps into their conversation, seemingly as a discursive intervention against orientalism: “then perhaps you can explain why your Belgrade gangster politicians have devised this method of insulting us Bosnians… [And] we have seen them insulting our brothers the Croats” [18]. Despite having little to no prior knowledge of the Balkans, West makes very firm statements on the nature of its people, and her diagnosis of its problems, and what should be done in the spirit of all Western travelers who came before her. She describes Bosnian women as not “[looking] in the least oppressed… they are handsome and sinewy like their men” and, in fact, they resemble the men in that “[they] look like heroes rather than heroines.”[19] In one absurd observation, she remarks “always, in this part of the world, where there is running water, there is an elderly Moslem contemplating it” [20]. Her solution to the region is, most concretely, Serbian nationalism. Her curiosity of Bosniaks stemmed from how little she knew of Islam; a “population of Islamicized Europeans” struck her as “antithetical to Europe” [21]. The Turks, she felt, “deserved destruction collectively” and that they had left the Bosniaks as a kind of “walking dead,” as the damned, with the Serbs being their opposite, as the saved [22]. According to West, however, the Bosniaks were not directly guilty of their misdirection. Their supposed “Turkishness” could not uprooted through the forces of any other group, she believed, Serb or otherwise. If we accept her words that nationalism “had come to a stage where fantasy becomes a compulsion to suicide,” then perhaps the solution for West would be symbolic suicide, one of culture, and one where Bosniaks retracted their history to embrace the fantasy, the one she took as valid, i.e. bellicose Serbian nationalism. It is in this sense that she might have agreed with Sir Arthur Evans, albeit for different reasons: in order to redeem Bosnia, its people must begin “by sacrificing the [Ottoman]” [23].

Regardless of the lucidity of the text, and the sheer brilliance of its prose, West’s text (and all of these travelogues) leaves me asking a question that may be unanswerable: can the Western traveling author ever escape the orientalist discourse? – and, even further, can any author documenting regional history ever escape the trap of essentializing, of generalizing a peoples into a pathology in an effort to describe them? The travelogue falls into these traps, for it is immensely difficult, if not impossible, to discuss Bosnia without illustrating an image of the “common person” [24]. In some sense, West’s account is “more true” than previous travelogues of Bosnia because it gives historical weight to every encounter, however I question whether even phrasing it in this fashion lends itself to being more accurate. For it is not necessarily that an account is actually “more true,” because all accounts are steeped in projections and speculations; that much is inescapable. However, it could be said that West’s account is more “vivid” if anything, because of its historical narrative and detail, but this does not necessarily make it an accurate, true representation of Bosnia. This is arguably impossible to capture in literary form. All travelogues fall victim to deferring their comparisons relative to their author’s origins; one cannot escape these biases and, in some sense, should sometimes be welcomed as a means of legitimate comparisons (within reason, of course). All of these travelling accounts attempt to get to the “real” Bosnia, oftentimes portrayed as one before Turkish influence, but locating this precise origin is impossible – this is because it does not exist. There is no derivation with which to judge Bosnia on, no historical “essence” which was lost, and no glimpse into a bright future inscribed in the land. All of these are an author’s constructions, conscious or not, and are engraved in the literary form as such. Looking at these with a critical eye, all we have left is no form, just our description of it, and perhaps that is enough to make it “true.” As it was said by photographer Michael Ackerman, “places do not exist, a place is just my idea of it” [25] – and, given that there is no historically fixed point, perhaps that is all we can actually argue at its most basic level.

***

[1] Berber, Neval. Unveiling Bosnia-Herzegovina in British Travel Literature (Spirit of Bosnia, Vol. 5 No. 4., 2010).
< http://www.spiritofbosnia.org/volume-5-no-4-2010-october/unveiling-bosnia-herzegovina-in-british-travel-literature-1844-1912/
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Evans, Arthur, Sir. Through Bosnia and the Herzegovina on Foot During the Insurrection, August and September 1875 (University of California Libraries, 1877).
[6] Ibid., Ch.1: “The Dress of the Woman”
[7] Ibid., XCVI “Historical Review of Bosnia”
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Bullock, Allan. Trombley, Stephen. The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought (Harper Collins Publishers, 1993), pp. 617.
[11] Unveiling Bosnia-Herzegovina in British Travel Literature (Spirit of Bosnia, Vol. 5 No. 4., 2010).
[12] De Laveleye, Emile. The Balkan Peninsula (Bibliolife, 2008), pp. 72.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Unveiling Bosnia-Herzegovina in British Travel Literature (Spirit of Bosnia, Vol. 5, No. 4).
[15] A core component of Serbian nationalism is seeing themselves as the honorable bulwarks against Ottoman invasion.
[16] West, Rebecca. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (Penguin Classics, 2007), pp. 302.
[17] Ibid., 313.
[18] Ibid., 311.
[19] Ibid., 327.
[20] Ibid., 396.
[21] Hall, Brian. Rebecca West’s War (New Yorker Magazine, 1996), pp. 80.
[22] Ibid., pp. 82.
[23] Through Bosnia and the Herzegovina on Foot During the Insurrection, August and September 1875 (University of California Libraries, 1877).
[24] A central problem in deconstruction literary theory: an image produced by any text is never stable.
[25] Dyer, Geoff. Journeys into History (The Guardian, 2006). Accessed May, 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/aug/05/featuresreviews.guardianreview2/

Las Hilanderas (1657) by Diego Velazquez

Las Hilanderas (1657) by Diego Velazquez

I. The Merging of Catholic and State Power

“The empire on which the sun never sets”

This phrase encapsulated Spanish pride during the 16th and 17th centuries. Behind all of that however, the Spanish Golden Age involved the systemic subjugation of indigenous peoples, expropriation of their natural resources, and assimilation of their respective cultures. Generations destroyed by Spanish (and other Western) colonialism left a crippled continent that lacked the capital to upstart its uphill battle from subservience, even to this day. As Uruguayan journalist writes in his book The Open Veins of Latin America: “Our part of the world, known today as Latin America, was precocious: it has specialized in losing ever since those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of the Indian civilizations.” And with the arrival of Spanish boats on the Latin American continent emerged a new chapter in their once-proud history; one marked with decline and subservience to a power that simply saw their blood as money. The Spanish invasion of Latin America was pushed by its thirst for economic prowess, and was facilitated by demands that held Spain and its Habsburg royal family by the handles. These included mineral profiteering, religion, and finance. Ideologically, the Catholic Church and its thinkers played a crucial role in legitimizing colonial expansion. Monetarily, the influx of silver and gold from Spain’s colonial plunders financed the growth of arms and territorial expansion. This vicious cycle was largely made systemic until the steady decline of the Spanish Empire in the 19th century.

RequerimientoBefore creating conflict, presumably war, it is essential to have academic backing beforehand to hold popular support. Despite being an autocratic monarchy, an ideology was necessary to justify Spain’s colonial ventures. The Catholic Church proved to be a viable outlet since its power was diminishing on the European stage. Critics, such as Martin Luther, questioned the Papacy and threatened the Catholic rule that had been the status quo for over a millennium. The Church struggled to counteract the powers that were splintering its unity and it found leverage in Spanish politics. Given the expansionist aims of Spain, the Catholic Church viewed this as a proper opportunity for evangelical expansion. Therefore, the Spanish state and the Catholic Church worked hand in hand but for different reasons – the former wanted to reap profit and the other wanted to expand its mode of theological thinking. Throughout the Spanish Empire, the Catholic Church worked alongside colonial interests to build on its influence although its prevalence was most prominent in the formative years of the empire. Many conquistadors pursued conquest for materialist and religious aims. Declarations titled Requerimiento were read aloud by Spanish authorities upon calling a new region their own, citing divine law and God’s plan as their justification. Written by Juan López de Palacios Rubios, a Council of Castile jurist, these degrees were given credibility through the Catholic Church and its dominion. The language was purely Catholic, naming Saint Peter and his Papal successors as proper evidence that God had the right to rule over the entire earth. Naturally, by association, God had given this authority to the Spanish monarchy. And if the indigenous people refused to be converted or ruled, they were threatened with murder, torture, and enslavement. Oftentimes, such theological justifications were read to indigenous people despite language barriers and to empty towns as a rationalization for murder and destruction. Dominican friars usually accompanied the conquistadors as they read the declarations, granting the decree holy justification. Despite enriching the coffers of the Spanish ruling class, the Requerimiento was abolished in 1556, since it was deemed unjust to impose a religion by threats if the victims had never heard of Christ prior. However, Requerimiento served its purpose – it established the religious justification for Spanish imperialism.

The marginalization of the New World began with the creation of administrative regions of control. The North and South American continents were carved up by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 between the Spanish Crown and Portugal. Another treaty was signed between them in 1529 titled the Treaty of Zaragoza, which aimed at determining their respective regions of control in Asia. With the territorial lines set, the Spanish empire could now employ its ecomienda system of labor which institutionalized the enslavement of indigenous peoples and spread its Catholic evangelical message by sword even more efficiently. The Catholic Church sanctioned these territories with the papal bulls given in 1493, setting the groundwork for the Treaty of Tordesillas and Zaragoza. Called the Bulls of Donation, it granted overseas territories to the Catholic Spanish monarchs and Portugal. The major area of contention was Latin America, but is also involved a few islands in Asia among other regions. This holy sanctioning of land fundamentally usurped the power away from the Native Americans and granted the Spanish Crown the divine right to rule. Likewise, this was evoked many times over in conquest. Aside from the Requerimiento, which was read after a region was conquered, the Spanish Crown also instated the Spanish Requirement of 1519. This solidified Catholic rule in the colonies. It decreed that the Spanish Empire was divinely decreed to take the land of the New World. It also explicitly granted Spain the privilege of exploiting, subjugating, and enslaving the native inhabitants when they saw fit. The conquistadors that invaded, then, evoked this and believed those who resisted occupation also resisted God’s plan. Thereby, from then on, the colonial mission was fully set in motion – it had a monetary incentive, since territorial expansion provided bullion for the coffers of those in power, and it provided an ideological justification through God’s will.

II. The Catholic Theological Debate Over Colonialism 

The Spanish Empire was unique in that it had a strict religious undertone. Other empires, such as the British and French, lacked such a prophetic message and were not as fervent in their religiosity to new-found lands. The difference was that the religious and governmental spheres of Spanish societies overlapped. This was especially evident in the Spanish Crown’s insistence in spreading Catholicism by lawful decree. The law of Burgos was passed in late December of 1512 and it was the first set of laws to govern the behavior of Spaniards living in the Americas in their treatment of indigenous peoples. It forbade them from being “mistreated” and facilitated converting them to Catholicism.  However, it was largely ineffective in preventing the former. The system of ecomienda was too ingrained in the colonial economic system to be ruined by Spanish decree. This was tried to be corrected again in 1542 by King Charles V, but it was again largely ignored in the largest colonial regions. The native peoples of the Americas were then left with mistreatment and forced Catholic conversations, the decrees doing little to better their condition beside force more religion upon them.

Chiapas Bartolomé de las Casas was arguably one of the first to conceive of universal conception of rights.

Chiapas Bartolomé de las Casas was arguably one of the first to conceive of universal conception of rights.

In theological circles, the question of forced conversation and treatment of indigenous peoples in the Americas was one of much debate. Although the political sphere justified its colonization of peoples through a religious lens, the Catholic consensus on the matter within the upper echelons of its administration were split. This disagreement on the treatment of Native Americans would eventually reach its culmination in the Valladolid debate, which was held in the Colegio de San Gregorio of the Spanish city of Valladolid. The two debaters were the Bishop of Chiapas Bartolomé de las Casas, defending their right for equality, and Dominican Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who argued that their enslavement was justified by divine law. Casas was one of the first individuals to criticize Spanish colonization and argued that the Native Americans were capable of reason and could be brought to Christianity without coercion. And, according to natural law, they were to be treated just as the Europeans were. Sepúlveda, on the contrary, argued from a strangely secular position. Arguing from an archaic Aristotelian point, he stated that indigenous peoples have a predisposition for slavery since they fall into the definition of “barbarian.” Hence, they were to be considered “natural slaves.” He went on to outline four mine reasons for the enslavement of native peoples of the Americas. Firstly, their condition in nature was one that was akin to slavery and demanded a Spanish master. Secondly, it prevented the indigenous peoples from engaging in obscene acts such as cannibalism and sexual perversion. Thirdly, it prevented chaos amongst them and stopped them from engaging in forms of offensive sacrifice. And finally, slavery was the most effective way of teaching them of European Catholic culture. Casas, furious, responded that there is an international duty to protect innocence from being treated unjustly. Remarkably, this was one of the first public callings for universal human rights. The debate ended with both sides polarized and there was no clear “winner” of the Valladolid debate. However, Casas’s arguments had an effect on policy to some degree. The ecomienda labor system was marginally weakened and the New Laws of 1542 were passed, however this did little to better the condition of the Native Americans. All in all, neither side came out truly victorious – to Cases’s dismay, Spanish colonialism and expansion continued and Sepúlveda, who wanted to strengthen the ecomienda system, failed to tangibly do so.

BARTSCH_4830005

Papal bulls served as the moral justification for colonization since the Spanish Empire had little in the law books over the mistreatment of the indigenous peoples.

III. The Ultimate Victor 

Despite the winner the argument being ambiguous, Sepúlveda argument for “natural slavery” is one that was prevalent in Christian circles. It originates from Aristotle, that certain individuals have a predisposition for slavery and subservience. The ideologically basis for it is inherently racist, Euro-centric, and was used to justify enslavement of the Native Americans by political, military, and Church leaders. However, it would be unfair to argue that the entire Church condoned the actions of the Spanish empire. Bartolomé de las Casas was only one of many that opposed such mistreatment on the basis of natural rights. Much of the opposition grew out of the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, which was interpreted as a rebuttal to the enslavement of Native Americans. This would eventually form a new school of ecclesiastical thought, from the turn of the 16th century, which aimed to reconcile the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas with the new emerging political order. It was titled the School of Salamanca. They tackled the topics of the Spanish empire and its treatment of peoples, the Reformation, and the rise of humanism. The school represented the eventual end of medieval thinking and the focus on individual liberty in ethics. Natural rights were elaborated upon and were argued to have been given to all humans, including Native Americans. This was contrary to the dominant opinion in Europe at the time, which was that indigenous peoples lacked such rights and were made for subservient positions. Moreover, this was one of the first times in history when a group of intellectuals questions the basis of imperial conquest rather than merely justifying it. One of the leaders of this group was Francisco de Vitoria, who was also the founder of the School of Salamanca. He argued that the claims to land by the Spanish Crown were largely illegitimate and that the peoples of Latin America also possessed property rights. From this, he outlined a rough conception of international law, which was the first of its kind, and his Just War theory. Thereby, he concluded as did others in the intellectual movement, that the enslavement of the indigenous peoples was unjust on the basis that it was provoked and it usurped them of their natural right to free will. Contrary to mainstream thought, Vitoria made the bold claim that wars for glory or forced conversion against “heretics” or “infidels” were inherently unjust since they were inherently aggressive rather than defensive.

The history of Spanish plunder in their occupied territories is one of complete destruction – not just in Latin American, but elsewhere also. Generally speaking, the purpose of colonization was to expropriate mineral-rich reserves from the colonies while maintaining it benevolent in the eyes of Catholic dogma. Largely efficient for Spaniards in power, some questioned it and such criticisms lead to the establishment of natural rights in intellectual circles. International justice came from ills of Spanish colonization, from within the Catholic establishment, and a set a precedent for future human rights movements. Thinkers along the likes of Bartolomé de las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria argued against the subjugation of indigenous peoples from a principled position of ethics. Rejecting the Aristotelian argument of “natural slavery,” their writing focused on the soul of each man as being equal. This consequently broke the chains of medieval thinking, but it would take a long while until such criticisms reached the mainstream. Despite the dissenters, Spanish colonization was based largely on Catholic evangelism. Catholicism was the underpinning of all of Spain’s imperial conquests, one of the only empires to exclusively do so, and it provided a rationalization for the torture and violence that they would inflict on the native peoples. The synthesis of the Church, with the Pope’s involvement, and the political system of Spain created a deadly dualism that would eventually lead to one of the greatest tragedies in human history –involving the complete destruction of certain cultures and peoples just for the sake blood profiteering. With the Catholic justification as the mainstream ideology supporting colonization, its critics scrambled to stop the bloodshed. Eventually, their voices would be heard, but only after millions have been victimized by the brutal labor system imposed by the Spanish Crown. And this plunder would roll the clock back on the Latin American experience, and other colonies, hundreds of years. It is a tragic setback that is still felt today, in culture and in economy, and a wound that will perhaps never be fully healed.

616px-William_Blake_-_Socrates,_a_Visionary_Head_-_Google_Art_Project

Socrates, a Visionary Head (1820) by William Blake

In Athenian society during Greek Antiquity, religion played a crucial role in mediating public and state affairs. It served a social function rather than a personal one. Polytheism was embedded as the cultural foundation of Athens, where “priests and officials were regularly voted honors for their sacrifices that they had performed ‘on behalf of the Athenians’ or ‘for the health and safety of the Athenians’” (Parker, 95). Assemblies were opened with religious rituals to demonstrate good faith (Parker, 100). Thus, although individualist in nature, Athens was paradoxically mostly collectivist in its interpretation of religious affairs. To go against this consensus was public suicide – and likewise, any denigration of these practices was met with scorn by Athenians, especially by the more conservative members of the ruling class. For Socrates, this would mean his eventual trial and execution.

Impiety is relative to the culture in question. When discussing the charges against Socrates, it is important to realize the society which produced them. Firstly, the assumption must be made that Athenian law was justified in prosecuting persons for impiety, despite the fact that this type of offense does not exist in the contemporary Western world. From there, having abandoned our modern biases, the real contextual controversy arises – was Socrates impious or not?

Given what is known about Athenian religion, it would be very probable to argue Socrates was in fact guilty. In Plato’s account of the trial, Socrates speaks of a divine voice that prevents him from doing certain actions.

It may seem strange that while I go around and give this advice privately and interfere in private affairs, I do not venture to go to the assembly and there advise the city. You have heard me give the reason… I have a divine or spiritual sign… This began when I was a child. It is a voice, and whenever it speaks it turns me away from something I am about to do, but never encourages me to do anything (Apology, 31c – 31d)

Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David

Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David

In alternate translations, this “divine or spiritual sign” is called daimonion in Greek. According to Socrates, this voice has been present since he was a child. He follows it to a fanatical degree, resembling religiosity, and it “continues [to come] to [him]” (Euthyphro, 3b). To the typical Athenian observer, Socrates’s daimonion comes off as antithetical to religious norms. He had a private channel of talking to the gods (Ferguson, 174), which threatened the power of priests who were seen as the mediators between gods and man. Plato hints towards the rowdiness of the crowd as Socrates truthfully explains his “inner voice,” while at the same time begging the crowd to bear with his defense and believe him (Apology, 31a).

In the earlier part of Apology, Socrates tells the story of Chaerephon and the oracle which proclaimed that there is no man wiser than Socrates (Apology, 21a). Socrates goes on to question different groups of people, each skilled in their craft, to test if their wisdom was greater than his own. “As a result of this investigation… I have acquired much unpopularity,” Socrates goes on to remark (Apology, 23a). In an effort to justify his inquiring, he appeals to the gods.

So even now I continue this investigation as the god bade me – and I go around seeking anyone, citizen or stranger, whom I think wise. Then if I do not know who he is, I come to the assistance of god and show him that he is not wise. Because of this occupation, I do not have the leisure to engage in public affairs to any extent, nor indeed to look after my own, but I live in great poverty because of my service to the gods (Apology, 23b).

However, the immediate question that arises is – when did the gods ask that of Socrates? There was no command by the gods for Socrates to do such actions. The oracle merely declared that he was the wisest of men. The story is, therefore, inconsistent. It is likely that Socrates said this to appeal to the audience and to further prove his piety, albeit disingenuously.

Socrates’s assertion that his actions were god-inspired can be interpreted differently when related to his daimonion. He describes his divine signs as never action-inducing, but are rather a means to prevent him from doing wrong. Xenophon’s account of the trial disputes this. Socrates says bluntly, “a clear divine voice indicates to me what I must do” (Xenophon, 12). This is a noteworthy distinction. According to Plato, Socrates’s spiritual visions prevent him from doing certain actions. In Xenophon’s account, these induce him to act. Therefore, Socrates’s appeal to piety is a method to mask this inner voice. Regardless of this voice’s origin, be it religiously rooted or not, such a phenomenon goes against the orthodox Athenian conception of religion. Athenians practiced a public religion, not one of unique personal revelation – if such an interpretation was to take hold, the chief structure of Athenian culture would lose its rigidity. This was the fear of the Athenian ruling class and why Socrates was deemed impious, despite his efforts to mask these “voices” through the gods. In the context of the city’s religion, it certainly went against the consensus.

There are hints of Socrates’s skepticism in Plato’s Euthyphro. In the beginning of the dialogue, he questions the basis of believing in the stories of the Homeric gods (Euthyphro, 6b). However, this by itself is not entirely impious. Dr. Manuela Giordano-Zecharya writes in As Socrates Shows, the Athenians Did Not Believe Not in Gods, “[Athens] was moving away from a focus on ‘belief’ and towards questions of ritual, power relations and symbolic ambiguity…” (Zecharya, 328). Therefore, the fact that Socrates was questioning the Homeric stories themselves was not impious – it was that he responded to his skepticism by failing to engage in religious public life as he truthfully tells the audience in Apology.

Given what is known about Athenian religion, Socrates was indeed impious. His impiety can be broken up in two parts. One, Socrates failed to engage in the public rituals which held Athens together. Religion served a social function, to maintain hierarchy and social cohesion, and his absence from these customs was seen as contrary to orthodox traditions. And second, Socrates’s daimonion angered the ruling religious class in Athens since it was unprecedented. It created a personal channel with which Socrates could speak to the gods. And if such a conception became commonplace, it would leave religion to individual speculation and action rather than to experts. Aside from being offensive to the religious ministers, it threatened the Athenian consensus on religion. Simply put – regardless if death was the proper punishment or not – Socrates was impious.

***

– Parker, Robert. Polytheism and Society at Athens. USA: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

– Cooper, M. John. Five Dialogues. Hackett Pub Co, 2nd Edition, 2007. Print.

– Freguson, A.S. The Impiety of Socrates. The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Jul 1913), pp. 157-175

– Giordano-Zecharya, Manuela. As Socrates Shows, the Athenians Did Not Believe in Gods. Numen, Vol. 52, Fasc. 3 (2005), pp. 325-355.

I.   The Rise of the Bourgeois Work Ethic

The Crystal Palace, home of the Great Exhibition of 1851, was the first World Fair where Britain showed its industrial might and astute culture.

The Victorian Era was a strange time of mystic sexual morality, distinct fashion, industrialization, and — above all — imperial conquest. It was Britain’s century, their colonialist high-point, and they likewise influenced lands far beyond their water-locked country. The “Victorian morality” was a strange development in the emergence of bourgeois society. It was hypocritical as much as it was limiting; the mantra was to better the human condition, while, at the same time, turning a blind eye to the plight of the child worker and the general laborer (There were exceptions, of course. A spare few were in fact unsettled by the plight of these poor folk, one of them being Karl Marx).

With the rise of industrialization in the British mainland came a downplaying of hedonism. Pleasure was seen as seemingly antithetical to the ideal Victorian, where hard-work was cherished as a means to religious salvation [1]. Max Weber spoke of this in his seminal work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, where he argues that the rise of Protestantism gave headway to new laborious expectations and allowed for further divisions of labor. In the Calvinist view, Martin Luther’s, and others of the Reformation, it was not enough to be devoted to supernatural salvation; one had to also be devoted to earthly labor and his craft. Because of the inability of individuals to influence God’s grace, given the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, they struggled to find signs of their destiny — which was either eternal damnation or salvation. A rigorous work ethic was preached as being a sign of “God’s grace,” and it became the epitome of the Calvinist tradition. Although only Scotland of Great Britain was largely Calvinist, due to the teachings of John Knox, the rest of the industrializing island also exemplified a similar outlook on labor. Religious individualism was crucial in any Protestant tradition that broke from the Catholic Church, even in the Anglican Church of England. In contrast, places such as Ireland (predominately Catholic), according to Weber, lacked this attitude due to the authoritarian nature of the Catholic Church and its overreaching doctrine, which limited individualism [2]. Coupled with the fact that “sloth” was considered a deadly sin in Christian doctrine, the development of bourgeois society fall hand-in-hand with the development of this new robust industrial individualism and the facilitation of Protestantism.

II.    Demonizing Lust 

Because of the development of a new work ethic, sexuality became an impediment to such ends. Such relations were relegated to private rooms, away from public sight. The majority of children, even among the poor, were sent to Sunday school where they were inculcated in a belief that one must abstain from sexual perversion. It was seen as an obstacle to God’s grace (let us not forget, “lust” is yet another deadly sin) [3]. Pleasure, as told by religious dogma, was merely a test of faith and should not be responded in kind. In part by this, sexuality become externalized — it became part of the object, rather than the self — and became regarded, seemingly, as a necessary evil.

Sexuality become a construct of public attention and scrutiny even in common language. It became impolite to bring up such topics in company and euphemisms emerged to describe them, need it be brought up [4]. Nearly every part of the body had a corresponding euphemism, with even the term “leg” being impolite and being replaced with “limb.’ The entire concept of procreation was made into fables that were nicely-worded to be avoided with children; such as the famous story of the “white stork” being the harbinger of small children that became popularized with the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Storks [5].  Equally absurd, genitalia were seen as too explicit to be shown in any context, even in artistry, during Victorian times. Expurgation, the censorship of the “offensive,” become common. Perhaps the best known example is one of the “fig-leaf,” where Queen Victoria, as the story goes, was repulsed to see the genitalia of Michelangelo’s statue David. A proportional fig leaf was then made to cover the obscenity, so the figure could be tolerated [6]. Even classical literature was found guilty of obscenity — Dr. Thomas Bowdler omitted and rewrote Shakespearean plays to make it more “accessible to children and wives.” Called The Family Shakespeare,  minor expletives were omitted and death was made gentler, among other things. With the gentry holding morality of society by the handles, these such moral impositions pervaded all facets of British life, from the top down. Consequently, these norms were brought to all dominions of British rule and, given its vast empire, its sexually-repressive influence was vast and lasting.

III.   The Patriarchal Family

The standard Victorian family had many children.

Perhaps most striking, in contrast with late developments of the family, is the role of women in society. The structure was overtly patriarchal. In Victorian society, the woman was servile and sexually docile. She was bound to her domestic life, despite having some political and civil autonomy, and was given the unspoken task of functioning as the moral instruction for servants and children. Women were expected to give birth to many children and the standard was set by the Queen Victoria and her husband — i.e. the “Royal Family” — who, in total, had nine children. Standards of femininity were established in the higher rungs of Victorian society and were expressed actively in the arts. The great Victorian poet Lord Alfred Tennyson espoused such repressive virtues in his poem The Princess: 

Man for the field and woman for the hearth:
Man for the sword and for the needle she:
Man with the head and woman with the heart:
Man to command and woman to obey;
All else confusion [6].

One of the reasons for this gender polarity and rigidity is the development of the bourgeois middle-class during the Victorian era. The average Victorian male worked, unlike the gentry, and was able to afford at least three servants [7]. The household became a symbol of the male’s moral character and was regarded as a reflection of social class.. Thereby, it did not matter if the working man had to face obscene conditions and do monotonous labor to earn his living; as long as he had a respectable house to come back to, his social class was maintained. The paradox of experiencing a inferiority in the workplace induced a need to establish a superiority in the household, ultimately giving rise to patriarchal sentiments and female submission. This dynamic would establish two separate spheres of control in Victorian society — the private and the public, the workplace and the home, and the domestic and the business.

IV.   Sexuality as an Object

The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction by Michel Foucault

In 1976, philosopher Michael Foucault published one of the first volumes to a three-volume series that would come to be known as one of his seminal works. His book, The History of Sexuality, analyzed the role of human sexuality in the Western world and its development. It aimed at questioning the presupposed “repression hypothesis” — that the current repressive elements of sexuality are a symptom of the Victorian era, which is when rigid restrictive norms were put in place. Although Foucault does not outright reject repressive Victorian morality as a major factor in the rise of modern Western sexuality, he turns the mainstream thesis on its head in arguing that sexuality was more discussed than ever before during the Victorian era.

The long rule of Queen Victoria has been characterized by sexual repression, censorship of the obscene, and domestication of the female; however, is there more to Victorian culture than merely superficial restrictions on discourse? Although there was relative silence on the topic between child and parent, teacher and pupil, or even master and house servant — was there not also, perhaps, a growing fascination with sexuality as a human condition? In 1841, the British state, for the first time, became instituting a full census of their population. This expansionary measure would include statistics on marriage, birth rates, and death rates [8]. The family was promoted as the building block of British life and marriage was superimposed as a guiding force in establishing such social harmony. Prostitution became an epidemic  as poor female laborers struggled to find an income and were economically coerced to sell their bodies to usually wealthy upper-class gentry [9].  Priests became more interested in “confessions on the flesh” during the Christian practice of Penance, where individuals would confess to the priest their supposed “impurities.” Foucault writes:

But while language may have been refined, the scope of the confession — the confession of the flesh — continually increased. This was partly because the Counter Reformation busied itself with stepping up the rhythm of the yearly confession in the Catholic countries, and because it tried to impose meticulous rules of self-examination; but above all, because it attributed more and more importance in penance — and perhaps at the expense of other since — to all insinuations of flesh: thoughts, desire, voluptuous imaginings, delectations, combined movements of the body and soul; henceforth, all this had to enter, in detail, into the process of confession and guidance [The History of Sexuality Vol I, 19].

He goes on to argue how the establishment of Penance in Protestant (and Catholic) nations began deviating from actual confession of sins and became obsessed with the smallest of pleasures.

According to the new pastoral, sex must not be named imprudently, but all its aspects, its correlations, and its effects must be pursued down to their slenderest ramifications: a shadow in a daydream, an image too slowly dispelled, a badly exorcised complicity between the body’s mechanics and the mind’s complacency: everything had to be told [The History of Sexuality Vol I, 19].

Likewise, the Victorian era and the few decades prior to its development set a standard: Now, not only did one need to confess to acts that were against the law, they also had to tell all their pleasures and desires in church discourse, under the watchful eyes of the priest or minister. This set a new tone to sexuality in the Western world previously unheard of — it gave rise to innumerable euphemisms to describe acts or body parts previously taken as merely “being,” in an effort to describe this new sexual fascination. Sexuality was now externalized, treated as undesirable pleasure, and was to be repressed in public. And henceforth, the repression in Western culture took on a two-faced form; on the one hand, sexuality was to be beaten down from the public eye, but, on the other hand, was to be properly dissected under the guise of an authority that demands it.

Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Kraft-Ebing, author of

Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Kraft-Ebing, author of “Psychopathia Sexualis” (1886).

In academia, sexuality began to be added to the scientific lexicon. The Oxford English Dictionary began to add specific terms to their newly-printed releases;  “sexual intercourse” (1799), “sexual function” (1803), “sexual organs” (1828), “sexual desire” (1836), “sexual instinct” (1861), “sexual impulse” (1863), “sexual act” (1888), and “sexual immorality” (1911). Moreover, sexual behavior became robustly studied as a field worthy of attention [10]. Sexuality was seen, in scientific circles, as a proper way to assess one’s personality and behavior. Who you slept with became, peculiarly, also an identity in the Western mindset. This became especially prevalent in psychiatry, before the Freudian revolution of thought, where sexual deviancy was seen as particularly problematic. And this phenomenon was present far beyond the bounds of Victorian England, since talks on sexuality were rising in the confession booths all across Christian Europe. Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Kraft-Ebing published his work Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886 in which he outlined four sexual categories of, what he considered to be, symptoms of neurosis. They were titled: paradoxia (sexual desire at the wrong time), anesthesia (not enough sexual desire), hyperesthesia (too much sexual desire), and paraesthesia (sexual deviancy, i.e. queer and fetishism). He goes on to discuss the sexual “impassivity” of the female compared to the male, describing the male as having a “stronger sexual appetite” — only reaffirming the hypocritical sexual expectations of the male and female which is pervasive in Western culture to this very day.

V. Modern Victorian Sexuality 

The ramifications of such repression, and private sexual objectification, has reared its ugly face even in contemporary society. The hysteria over discussion on sexuality is still pervasive and shied away in any public discourse. Archaic conceptions of sexual “immorality” are still being tossed around in the public arena and are commonly told to children. Rigid notions of femininity and masculinity are institutionally enforced and kept in check by popular disapproval once one steps outside the preconceived bounds. Perhaps, what is seen more vividly, is the persistent caricature that one’s sexuality is an indicator of one’s personality. The marginalization of sexuality continues to plague the Western mindset, always thrown to the back-burner of our minds, too frightening to be discussed. Such are the chains that have to be properly broken if we wish to actually articulate real “sexual liberation’ or any humanization of what, should be considered, natural human urges. To put it most bluntly, perhaps it is time to bring, first and foremost, such topics of sexuality to light. And all the while, let us give those that decry its discussion the proper response — ignore and pressure them to change their repressive ideas of sexuality, which have been shamefully penning individuals in a sexually-normative box ever since its adoption as a Western moral imperative. It is about time the discussion has been opened, rather than have sexuality continue to be an object of scrutiny.

***

The Victorians: Gender and Sexuality 

I. The First Big Leap

The transition to a new communicative medium has never been easy for any society. From our lofty origins in oral tradition to the new techie substitutes, such a dynamic has never been without consequences. With the advent of a new methodology, comes a losing of the elements of the old. And with it, also comes those that oppose the change — those that regard it as vile and damaging to order and stability. Socrates, for one, was skeptical of the early transition to written word. In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato captures Socrates’s words (perhaps ironically) in a story about the Egyptians:

Socrates: But when they came to letters, this, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality [1].

Using this tale, Socrates tells us what is lost with the written word: the passion of speaking, the revelation of dialogue, the bearing of truth. He postulates that writing not only degrades truth, it only works to reciprocate it rather than expound it authentically. To Socrates, it denigrates memory by promoting record-keeping rather than mental recollection and contemplation. In essence, it introduces forgetfulness and keeps man from bearing the responsibility of remembering for himself. It is also constant; it bears no substantive change over time, other than, perhaps, its interpretation. And finally, it does not discriminate its audiences — making it accessible even to those that do not understand it. A speaker can change his tone and message depending on the audience. A work of writing can not.

Through this dialogue, Plato captures Socrates’s main concern, which was sustaining the art of rhetoric and fruitful dialogue. Was Socrates right; were some of his ‘predictions’ fulfilled? Absolutely, we certainly did lose something when oral tradition lost prominence. We lost the art of “story-telling,” and perhaps also some of the values of tribal kinship, but we remarkably gained much more. We attained the ability to spread ideas quicker and keep thoughts well-preserved for future generations to enjoy. Satirically, it was because of writing that Socrates is so revered today, despite the criticisms he had of it.

Not surprisingly, however, much of the initial mistrust that was said of the development from oral tradition to written word has been lost. Without a written account of these criticisms, such accusations have failed the test of time — Socrates is the only ones that remains, due to Plato’s writings, but we can only assume similar criticisms were being thrown around at the time. It is very unlikely that Socrates was the only individual making such claims in his day and age.

II. Suppression and Turmoil

“The printing press is either the greatest blessing or the greatest curse of modern times, one sometimes forgets which” – James Matthew Barrie 

“The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre” by François Dubois.

Turmoil ensued after the creation of a new technology that would radically alter communication. The printing press was invented in the 1440s by Johannes Gutenberg, and with it came violent social upheaval and a loss of Church dominance. With Protestantism on the rise, catalyzed by Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and spread through mass-printing, the Catholic Church finally saw a threat to its power. They soon scrambled in fear; Pope Innocent VIII introduced censorship in 1487, requiring that the Church approve of all books before publication [2]. The Bible was prohibited to be printed in any language except Latin. Violence erupted in Western Europe as sectarian religious conflict escalated. Huguenots were slaughtered in France by Catholic mobs during the later half of the 16th century, supposed heretics were burned at the stake during the Inquisition of Spain, and the Thirty Years’ War, which was rooted in religious territorial disputes, became a full-scale European conflict by the first quarter of the 17th century.

Perhaps most importantly of all, the bloodshed Europe experienced after the introduction of the printing press tells us of the power of ideas. The Catholic Church was relatively left unchecked in its power and prestige before Gutenburg’s revolutionary invention. Now that ideas could spread more efficiently, dissent was brewing within Church dominion. In retrospect, the persistent efforts of the Catholic Church extend far beyond the religiosity they were attempting to control; they were the representatives of state power during the Middle Ages. During the height of Catholic rule, individual nations were fragmented and lacked governmental oversight in any meaningful degree. Domestic policy was open, and governance was mostly left to Catholic elites within the appointed hierarchy. The spread of a new communicative medium, the printing press, threatened the Church in its power. Its efforts to preserve its authoritarian hold was under the guise of preserving Catholicism, but that was the populist sentiment to stir peasantry support rather than the actual motivation. The Church still functioned as any other state apparatus; As a rule, the free flow of ideas is always antithetical to centralized power. The Catholic Church was no exception in this regard. It scrambled to secure its power just as any other power structure ultimately does when it feels threatened.

The Original Printing Press.

Catholic control would continue to diminish as the decades went on. The Enlightenment questioned the very nature of divine rule, and nationalism began to fully flourish after the Greek War for Independence, eventually replacing Christian “unity” with nationalist fervor. The printing press, and its quick dissemination, would consequently spark national, linguistic, and cultural unity amongst regional peoples which would form the basis for nationhood. Professor Benedict Anderson analyzes this phenomenon in his book, “Imagined Communities,” in which he cites the spread of nationalism to, what he calls, print-capitalism. The profit incentive to increase circulation by print-masters was so strong that they soon abandoned Latin as the standard, and adopted regional languages to facilitate sales [3]. Soon, regional ties began to emerge as individuals began to relate to one another by their language and dialects, which soon evolved into nationalism and the modern nation-state. More generally, this spurred the beginnings of the modern market and facilitated trade amongst commoners. The Catholic Church now found the land it once controlled severely cut, as regions began forming their own respective governmental structures based on linguo-ethnic commonalities, eventually replacing Catholic dominion by state control in their respective regions. It was over, the Catholic Church finally lost its iron grip. A new epoch had emerged.

III. Reaching Modernity

“Modernity” is characterized by all the gadgetry we enjoy today. Television, radios, and telephones have all advanced our communicative capabilities and have allowed us to be in tune with each other and issues beyond our immediate setting. Recent developments, however, have transcended these inventions and have surpassed them in capacity. The Internet just could be the most remarkable and revolutionary creation of the modern era. Characterized by globalized communication, easy access, and plentiful information — the Internet has created an aura of data that has perhaps exceeded the human ability to indulge in it all. The social impact has been unequivocally exceptional. Spurring social movements in the Middle East, facilitating transparency in governance, and instigating awareness and understanding of worldly phenomena, the Internet has created an atmosphere rich of progressive potentiality and knowledge. It has brought an entirely new dimension to the validity of “spontaneous order.” The Internet, it seems, was created out of pure spontaneity; its branches being a natural development when left to its own means.

The Icon of the Declaration of Internet Freedom.

One of the largest problems in any society is the distribution of information. Generally speaking, whoever controls the influx of academic instruction ultimately holds the populace by the handles. Slowly, as humanity has progressed from each new communicative development, this centralization of information has drastically decreased. The commoners were now able to read, to write, and to engage in discourse — to a limited degree. With the advent of the Internet, this entire dynamic has been turned on its head. In its purest form, the Internet is the democratization of information. Relatively, anyone can comment and discuss issues if they have access. Rather than being restricted to academic elites, such topics have been moved from the institutional setting to the populist pool of discussion. Credentials, at least on the Internet, have become largely defunct.

In its current form, Internet discussion is in its infancy. With the fallacious claims and unsubstantiated arguments that frequent comment threads, we must realize that recent developments are still fundamentally in its early stages. The discussion has been handed to the people, for all the delve into, and it now must be absorbed likewise. Never before has there been such an explosion of knowledge given to the masses, and it can only be expected that its dealings will take several decades to fully take root. The so-called “Internet Generation” will, predictably, adapt to such changes and become used to its functions once they come of age.

Of course, as such changes begin to surface, questions begin to arise. Speculations have been made that the Internet has made us supposedly “dumber” [4]. These Neo-Luddite criticisms bear resemblance to Socrates’s hesitations during the transition to the written word — we are losing a crucial component of our memory, we will only realize superficiality, and our attention will be deluded, it is said. The same archaic arguments are resurfacing, unsurprisingly. In another interesting parallel, the governmental organizations of the modern world are in a frenzy over the Internet’s potential for conflict, just as the Church was when it was threatened. In an effort to curb imaginary terrorism, legislation such as ACTA has been constantly brought to the table to address the issues of the cyber-terrorism, patent law, and threats to domestic tranquility [5]. These resolutions have always come with a human face, promising safety and making clear its supposed necessity. Underneath this persona is the real intention; the facilitation of information is a threat to corporate and state power. Monopolization of power is in the interest of those within the dominion structure, and any clash of opinion is seen at ends with normalcy. The Internet has brought this conflict to the forefront. The struggle between those that wish to constrain information and those that hope to free it has become an acute contention in the modern world. We can only hope the institutions that wish to exhibit this control crumble before the conflict escalates. Freedom comes at a price; and it must be defended likewise.

***

“The Critics Need  a Reboot. The Internet Hasn’t Led Us Into a New Dark Age.”

“The Impact of Print” 

Some more information on Professor Benedict Anderson and his work, “Imagined Communities.”

The beliefs of Western liberal society are at a fundamental crossroads. In one direction, lies secular humanism — at the other, lies ancient Judeo-Christian heritage and its supposed claim of relevance. Most individuals walk a very fine line between the two; holding onto the cultural implications of religion, while also not minding its declining involvement in government. Belief acts as a mediator which holds this delicate balance together.

Belief, in and of itself, is a obligatory view. It is a tenet you live your life by, and it has profound implications on your social psychology and the general organization of a civilization. It would be foolish to discredit the influence of religiosity in the West, in spirit and in practice. However, belief can function as a sort of ideological trapSimply put, acting on a belief is not equivalent to actually believing it. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek provides us with a story to illustrate this point, in which he tells us the tale of physicist Niels Bohr.

“A well-known anecdote about Niels Bohr illustrates the same idea. Surprised at seeing a horseshoe above the door of Bohr’s country house, a visiting scientist said he didn’t believe that horseshoes kept evil spirits out of the house, to which Bohr answered: ‘Neither do I; I have it there because I was told that it works just as well if one doesn’t believe in it!” [1] 

In an excellent passage, Zizek essentially explains the function of belief in modern society. Although individuals may personally not believe an ideology, they act as if they do because they take it others believe. In fear of reprisals, they then live as if the belief is theirs. But there is a twist: what if the other individuals do not believe it either? With this, an entire belief system is build upon the existence of non-belief among individuals. I take religion to be in this same stride, functioning as a belief in a sea of disillusioned disciples.

Such a statement is hardly revealing to the standard American Christian household. The father takes his son to Church, to educate his child on Christian values. The father, himself, was pressured to do so by his own parents. They would be disappointed if he raised his children without such a pretense. The father, himself, does not believe, but acts as if he believes to give a proper impression on his parents. The child lacks the belief also, but to not disappoint his father, he refuses to tell him. Instead, he acts as if he believes. Here, we have a situation of two non-believers, paradoxically imposing a belief on one another. Would it not be another twist of irony to say the father’s parents do not believe, just as the father and the son do not? This belief is likewise solidified, passed through familial relationships, and built upon a structure of non-belief — giving those trapped within this dilemma the illusion of a belief that is absent from the individual’s own choosing, being imposed on them by the technicalities of human relationships.

This is the death of God. The death of God is not external invasion unto the Christian church hierarchy. It is not an attack from outside the prayer circles — it is within them. It is when God as an entity becomes irrelevant to the actual substance of belief, being replaced by a complex foundation of non-belief. In Europe, trends of non-belief are stronger than in the United States. According to surveys by the Financial Times/Harris Poll, only 27% of individuals living in France truthfully believe in a Christian God or Supreme deity. This is contrasted with 73% of those in the United States [2]. Bearing in mind the different histories of European and American ancestry, I take it that such a large disparity between religiosity is largely due to the culture of the United States. Religious disbelief is looked down upon, even persecuted, in American media and society — denigrated in excessively negative terms. The question is, how many of the religious belief structures in the United States are founded on fear of consequences? Potentially, very many, I would say.

However, the implications extend further than Zizek’s story on ideology. Equally important are those that believe (for cultural reasons generally), but live their lives as if they do not. Done through ritualistic ends, their religious ideology becomes a routine rather than a philosophy of action. For many Western Christians, this is the reality. They find themselves lofting to church on some Sundays, and then vehemently arguing over whether we should say “Merry Christmas” during the holidays, and fighting to preserve prayer before football games [3]. The extent of Christian ideology in American culture has largely become a gimmick of cultural preservation more than anything else, serving as the last backlash of a decaying social phenomenon.

Christian ideology makes many universal claims. It promotes objective truth and meaning, a belief system that is dogmatic and said to be true by its disciples. They have this bastion of knowledge, the key to God’s judgement and mercy, that is said to be the absolute truth. And yet they live their lives as if this is hidden, only resurrecting (excuse the pun) it when socially beneficial. If an individual held such truth of the universe, would they not devote their entire lives if they believed so strongly it was true, rather than bickering over trivialities on cable television? The charade of these religious charlatans defending “Judeo-Christian America” is a testament to the hypocrisy of the ideology in the hearts of those that follow it. True belief would not frequent itself in discussions on media sensationalism, in an attempt to keep what always has been in American society; it would prepare, and act, in the interests of God and rely on his judgements. Perhaps if they took God’s objective truth to its fullest conclusion, they would sit and pray rather than rely on themselves. If they are so convinced of their beliefs, they would be equally be convinced God would give them a hand.

The death of God does not involve the elimination of religion, nor does it involve the tearing down of religious institutions. It involves the hollowing out of religion by its believers. It makes God into a centerpiece of disbelief, propped by complex interlocked relationships and cultural enforcement. A belief propped by non-belief, it finds itself as the comfort to those that fear the destruction of their religious and cultural identity. It finds itself as the poster-child of reactionary backlash, the broken center of the exaggerated dichotomy of secularism and religiosity, and the illusionary opponent of civil institutions by religious disciples that lack the belief themselves. During the height of Catholic ascendancy, the belief was not so fractured. Prayer was seen as a powerful tool; the Devil was a real distinguishable threat. We have long abandoned such views, despite what is heard in Evangelical circles (I can assure you there would be little hesitation for them to take human action over prayer if their own lives were in peril). Let’s be frank, God is dead –The emperor has no clothes on, we are looking straight at him, but we are too naive to admit it.

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