Sunday, July 06, 2008

Trading Among Tribes

UPDATE: discussion continues here

Assistant Village Idiot addresses root cause:
It is a huge philosophical shift to go from the more natural counting of time as a repetition of daily hours, days of the week, and seasons of a year to picturing time as always moving forward. . .

I submit that the idea of linear rather than circular time is the foundation of this. Christianity claims that this world and even this universe had a beginning, and with shadowings in the Hebrew scriptures, through a dramatic Revelation to John, this earth will have a definite end. Because many cultures have origin-myths and Gotterdammerung myths, the Christian version may not seem unusual at first. It is easy to take a facile Golden Bough/Joseph Campbell approach and think them all the same. But Genesis has a proto-calendar in it from the start, and its events are located in a specific geography, however uncertain we may be about it now. The Revelation to John has many time-interpretations: the events already happened in the 2nd C; the events have unfolded over 2000 years; the events will take place in a short seven years at the end. But days, years, and definite locations are in the marrow of the book. The Norse Gods will fight the giants at the end of the world, and great heroes from Valhalla will participate – but the time and place are entirely shadowy.

In the Christian world, time may cycle through its weeks and years, but it is always moving forward.
Though not singling-out Hinduism, AVI's post continues with a heavily-caveated speculation on the consequences of the contrary worldview:
I find it difficult to conceive of a life in circular time as anything but clan or tribe-centered. They seem to go together naturally. There isn’t much point in putting your energy into anything that doesn’t benefit you or your clan pretty immediately. You might fix a car, but why invent one? Why study diseases of plants grown in the next county, even if it would make the area prosperous? These are not either/or propositions, of course. Clan-based societies certainly have their sciences (though technology might be a more accurate term), and people in our forward-time, progress-seeking cultures in the west don’t orient all their actions toward posterity.
I have long held this "Kipling-esque" view, and think it accurate, as a general matter, without AVI's reservations. Yes, I'm aware that liberal critics have reached the opposite conclusion about at least some aspects of historically Christian societies. And though it's hilarious, AVI's analogy to Oberammergau (NOfP note: been there; seen it) is mostly misplaced (recalling the past isn't the same thing as repeating it; besides, the audience changes and reactions often are ever-new). AVI's reference to "origin-myths" is more incisive: As the late Daniel Boorstin shows in his 1993 book The Creators: A History of the Heroes of the Imagination, that God of Genesis made man--in his image--a creator himself has huge consequences (Chapter 8 passage quoted here):
The relation of the Muslim God to his creature man, then, is quite unbiblical. The uniqueness of the biblical Creator-God was in his powers of making; the uniqueness of man and woman would be in their power to imitate their God and after their fashion to exercise the power of creation. After God created the species in the Beginning, he blessed them to be fruitful and multiply; He made them so that each procreated after its kind [Genesis 1:22]. This spectacle of Creation shaped and limited Western man’s thinking.

In the Koran, God’s fiat recurs in the conception and gestation of every human being, in every repetitive phenomenon of nature. Again and again God gives his order, “Be,” and it is, for each stage in man’s growth. Every such decree of re-creation provides an additional “sign” of God’s power and authority.

Why did God create man? The God of the Bible would judge man by his fulfillment of his godlike image. Not so in Islam.
I have only created
Jinns and men, that
They may serve Me.
I create the Jinn and humankind only that they might worship Me.
[Surah LI, 56]

Since Allah would judge men only by their attitude towards Him, Muslims do not like to be called Mohammedans. This is a kind of sacrilege. implying that any man, even the Prophet himself, could claim the submission due to God alone. The people of the Koran prefer to call themselves Muslims, from “Islam,” the Arabic word for submission and obedience. The Koran repeatedly reminds us that Allah’s creatures are also his "servants” or “slaves.” What clearer warning against reaching for the new? For a believing Muslim, to create is a rash and dangerous act.
(Boorstin's reference to "limited" Western thinking mirrors AVI's reservations--though, as I've said, "everything is 'compared to what?'")

AVI's post ends by seeking reactions in "the context of foreign relations":
specifically . . . trying to spread democracy (or technology, or prosperity) throughout a region. Things that seem like obvious progress and advantage to us do not seem so to others.
On this topic, I've oscillated between an earnest faith in representative government and full-scale "clash of civilizations." (Cf. the column that got Ann Coulter fired from National Review.) I may address that issue again, especially in the context of the 2008 campaign.

But the purpose of this post is to solicit info from AVI and other readers. Religion, and the history thereof, are outside my core expertise. Yet it seems to me that circular time and creation myths tell only half the story. AVI mentions moving beyond "tribe-centered" concerns--without effectively showing how a linear time sense makes that inevitable. I have a suggestion: the link is the Christian commandment to proselytize:
19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:

20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
Matthew 28:19-20.

Spreading the Gospel meant moving beyond the tribe. It demanded learning local languages and customs. And contact meant intercourse (in both senses) and brought commerce. Even were none were converted, every ship broadened our horizons.

I reason by counter examples, fully aware they may be controversial. Jews historically had limited ability to convert adult males outside the faith for reasons too painful to detail. (Although Islam is an evangelical religion, it shares this constraint to some extent, and first expanded largely via conquest.) Many other faiths de-emphasize or downplay conversion; the Christian Shakers being an extreme reverse-example. I need not delineate cause and effect to observe that several such peoples tend to be tribe-centric.

So, finally, my thesis: evangelizing expanded the boundaries, allowing trade to cure tribalism. As AVI says, "discuss."


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Christian evangelism as the first major cultural effort to supercede tribalism is an intriguing thought. Though I would like for it to be true, I would wonder if the Roman Empire might not get some credit as well.

You and gringo both related this to Islamic thought. I am not well-versed in Islam, but I did note as an outsider that they had not transcended tribalism in practice. The seeds of such may be in Islam, and the pan-Arab movement of a generation ago suggests that it is not a cultural impossibility. Europe moved from tribalism to nationalism over time, and I believe Europeans see the EU and the UN as natural extensions of that. Throughout that thousand-plus years in Europe, intellectual exchange took place on a religious stage in a way it never did in the ME, India, or China.

Steve Sailer would maintain that you could find the answer much more readily in genetics. That would be much less fun for students of history and culture to discuss, though.

Carl said...


I might be inclined to give Rome more credit for extra-tribal intercourse if the empire hadn't salted the fields of Carthage.

OBloodyHell said...

He made them so that each procreated after its kind

Hey, the Muslims believe this, too. They just believe that "their own kind" is mainly 12yo virgins.

OBloodyHell said...

> Christian evangelism as the first major cultural effort to supercede tribalism is an intriguing thought. Though I would like for it to be true, I would wonder if the Roman Empire might not get some credit as well.

Well, if you are going to do this (And I don't particularly disagree), I'd have to remind you of that other guy... what was his name? Oh, yeah: Alexander.

You might want to check out a map and take a look at the area between Greece and India, and count off how many "Alexandria"s there are. The man was an Ancient-Age Gaines.

The survival and expansion of the Greek mode of thought and way can be particularly attributed to Alexander, who spread it all along the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean and the Indian Oceans. The Romans certainly extended this legacy throughout Europe and around the entire Mediterranean -- but Alexander spread its infuence all the way to India.

I think the thesis is far from correct. While missionary work certainly has been significant in the spread of culture and reason, it is far from the only, or even the first, cause.

Gringo said...

Pope Benedict caught some flack several years ago for a speech which quoted a Byzantine emperor about Islam. That speech gives a good metaphysical/philosophical reason why Christianity developed and Islam stagnated. Benedict's wisdom is such that he can show even nonbelievers such as myself or Oriana Falacci that ultimately our society has Christian roots.

Many History of Science studies will show the correlation between Christian belief and the advancement of science from the Renaissance on.

Darlington's Evolution of Man and Society shows that the engineering and scientific advances in 17-19th century England came from Dissenters, NOT from Episcopalians or Catholics.

Carl said...


I'm a big fan of that Benedict speech. I'm less of a fan of Darlington, because it's an after-the-fact explanation for two centuries of Scottish exceptionalism that I don't think is rooted in Religion. Still-either way--Darlington doesn't undermine my thesis.


I don't consider myself an Islam expert, but I have read the Koran, plus Pipes and Bernard Lewis--and think Boorstin's argument (which was among the first to impress me on Islam) valid.


I'm not much of an Alexander-as-first-causer type. Despite my snide comment above, I side with Polybius in ascribing much to the rise of Rome.

OBloodyHell said...

Carl, I think Rome brought Western Thought to Europe and the Mediterranean Coast. I'd argue that it was Alexander who spread it eastward, towards India. A large part of the intellectual output of Persia and other ME states before they melted down into the modern insanity was tied to both the Alexandrian input into their territories and the competition with Byzantium.

Carl said...


Perhaps, but it was a temporary enlightenment. In contrast to Rome, and apart from the founding of Alexandria (which soon fell under Greek and Roman influence) what was Alexander's lasting impact on the territory he ruled, especially the eastern portion?

Anonymous said...

Islam, the Koran, is the greatest threat to freedom, humanity, civilization and all good things. We had better come up with a solution to this growing problem.
The sadistic barbarians have no respect for individuals and may indeed be stark raving mad lunatics having been brainwashed from birth in this destructive line of thought and belief.

Perhaps we should do unto them as they do unto others.