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Posts Tagged ‘Enlightenment

“How does it happen that trade, which after all is nothing more than the exchange of products of various individuals and countries, rules the whole world”*…

 

Expandable version here

The map above is probably the most detailed map of Medieval Trade Routes in Europe, Asia and Africa in the 11th and 12th centuries you can find online. It includes major and minor locations, major and minor routes, sea routes, canals and roads.

martinjanmansson [see here] explains that:

Even before modern times the Afro-Eurasian world was already well connected. This map depicts the main trading arteries of the high middle ages, just after the decline of the Vikings and before the rise of the Mongols, the Hansa and well before the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope…

Explore the global markets of the Middle Ages at: “An Incredibly Detailed Map Of Medieval Trade Routes.”

See also Michael Frachetti’s fascinating Long Now Seminar talk, “Open Source Civilization and the Unexpected Origins of the Silk Road.”

* Karl Marx, The German Ideology

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As we contemplate commerce, we might spare a thought for Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire; he died on this date in 1778.  The Father of the Age of Reason, he produced works in almost every literary form: plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works– more than 2,000 books and pamphlets (and more than 20,000 letters).  A social reformer, Voltaire used satire to criticize the intolerance, religious dogma, and oligopolistic privilege of his day, perhaps nowhere more sardonically than in Candide.

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Written by LW

May 30, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Religion is like a pair of shoes… Find one that fits for you, but don’t make me wear your shoes”*…

 

Procession of the Catholic Holy League on the Place de Grève, Paris, 1590-3 (oil on canvas). Such displays of intolerance became increasingly rare with the advent of the modern European state. [source]

Religious freedom has become an emblematic value in the West. Embedded in constitutions and championed by politicians and thinkers across the political spectrum, it is to many an absolute value, something beyond question. Yet how it emerged, and why, remains widely misunderstood.

According to the conventional narrative, freedom of religion arose in the West in the wake of devastating wars fought over religion. It was catalysed by powerful arguments from thinkers such as John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, Pierre Bayle and Voltaire. These philosophers and political theorists responded to the brutality of the religious wars with support for radical notions of toleration and religious freedom. Their liberal ideals then became embedded in the political institutions of the West, following the American and French Revolutions.

In broad outline, such is the account accepted by most political philosophers and social scientists. But the evidence does not support this emphasis on the power of ideas in shaping the rise of religious freedom, and underestimates the decisive role played by institutions…

Ideas were not enough to realise religious freedom. Crucially, it took political and institutional changes – specifically, the growth and strengthening of the ability of states to create and enforce rules – to make religious freedom in the West possible and appealing. It wasn’t the ideas of Bayle or Spinoza or Locke driving the rise of state power, it was the need to raise resources for governing and war. For the rising fiscal-military state, religious uniformity and persecution simply became too expensive and inefficient…

The first change was the transformation in the scale of European states. In the late Middle Ages, medieval rulers began to invest in building administrative capacity and to raise taxes more regularly. The most dramatic developments, however, occurred after 1500, as a result of developments in military technology that historians label the Military Revolution. This continent-wide arms race, brought on by the development of gunpowder, forced rulers to invest in greater fiscal and administrative capacity.

To pay for larger armies, new taxes had to be raised and a permanent system of government borrowing established. Moreover, there was a shift away from ad hoc, feudal and decentralised tax systems, and a move towards standardisation and centralisation. Rather than relying upon tax farmers, the church or merchant companies to raise taxes on their behalf, rulers invested in vast bureaucracies to do it directly. It was the only way they could pay for their ever-growing armies…

Economic changes complemented the rise of religious freedom, most notably the onset of modern economic growth. As in the Jewish example, greater freedom allowed religious minorities to flourish. French Protestants expelled by Louis XIV brought with them advanced skills and industrial expertise to England, the Netherlands and Prussia. In Industrial Revolution Britain, Quakers and other religious dissenters were overrepresented among businessmen, entrepreneurs and innovators.

The indirect consequences of moving from identity rules to general rules were even more important. Identity rules had limited the scope of trade and the division of labour. As these identity rules were removed – as guilds lost authority, and cities and lords lost their ability to charge internal tariffs – trade and commerce expanded.

The growth of trade, in turn, reinforced the trend towards liberalism. Trade, as Enlightenment thinkers such as Montesquieu argued, encouraged individuals to see the world through the positive-sum lens of mutual beneficial interaction rather than through the zero-sum lens of conflict. Religious freedom began to seem less like a recipe for social disorder and civil war, and more like a win-win proposition…

The history of how religious freedom came to be is a reminder that commitment to liberal values alone is not enough for liberalism to flourish. It requires a suitable political and economic foundation. As the experience of 1930s Germany suggests, religious persecution can quickly re-emerge. We cannot rely on liberal ideas alone to be effective. If we value religious freedom, and other achievements of liberalism, we must look to the vitality of their institutional foundations.

This fascinating essay in its entirety at: “Ideas were not enough.” (Note earlier examples of of religious freedom as both a tool and a result of statecraft, e.g., Genghis Khan’s building of the Mongol Empire.)

* George Carlin

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As we celebrate tolerance, we might send free-thinking birthday greetings to Tommaso Campanella; he was born on this date in 1568.  A Dominican friar, philosopher, theologian, astrologer, and poet, he was an early empiricist and a vocal critic of the Aristotelian orthodoxy (indeed, he wrote and published a defense of Galileo during the great astronomer’s ecclesiastical trial).  For his heterodoxy, he was denounced to the Inquisition and imprisoned.

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Written by LW

September 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life”*…

 

Portrait of Edmund Burke– who figures formatively in this tale– by the studio of Joshua Reynolds

While the 18th century is commonly perceived as the quintessential age of rationalist modernity, it was also the cradle of a second and strikingly different movement. In fact, at the very moment when rationalist thought seemed to have reached its peak, a comprehensive revolt against the Enlightenment’s fundamental views erupted in European intellectual life. From the second half of the 18th century to the age of the Cold War and today, the confrontation between these two modernities has formed one of the most prominent and enduring features of our world.

The Enlightenment wished to liberate the individual from the constraints of history, from the yoke of traditional unproven beliefs. This was the motivation of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Kant’s Reply to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?, and Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality: three extraordinary pamphlets that proclaimed the liberation of man. It was against the liberation of the individual by reason that this new “Anti-Enlightenment” movement launched its attack, and its campaign was infinitely more sophisticated and subtle than that of the classical, undisguisedly authoritarian enemies of the Enlightenment. This anti-Enlightenment movement constituted not a counterrevolution but a different revolution. It revolted against rationalism, the autonomy of the individual, and all that unites people: their condition as rational beings with natural rights…

The anti-democratic political tradition that opposed Enlightenment thinking advanced the catastrophic campaigns of Nazi Germany and haunts us still: “The Origins of Anti-Intellectualism.”

* Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge‘”*…   – Isaac Asimov

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As we opine on opinion, we might send understanding birthday greetings to Herbert Marshall McLuhan; he was born on this date in 1911.  A professor, philosopher, and public intellectual, he was a foundational thinker in media theory, coining the expression “the medium is the message” and the term “global village,” and predicting the World Wide Web almost thirty years before it was invented.

McLuhan was a– arguably, the– central figure at the center of the discussion of media in the 1960s and 70s; his views were controversial and his influence began to wane in the 1980s.  But with the advent of the web, there has been a resurgence of interest in his thinking.

“Only puny secrets need protection. Big secrets are protected by public incredulity…”

– Marshall Mcluhan

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Written by LW

July 21, 2017 at 1:01 am

“As a rule of thumb I say, if Socrates, Jesus and Tolstoy wouldn’t do it, don’t”*…

 

This is the age of big data. We are constantly in quest of more numbers and more complex algorithms to crunch them. We seem to believe that this will solve most of the world’s problems – in economy, society and even our personal lives. As a corollary, rules of thumb and gut instincts are getting a short shrift. We think they often violate the principles of logic and lead us into making bad decisions. We might have had to depend on heuristics and our gut feelings in agricultural and manufacturing era. But this is digital age. We can optimise everything.

Can we?

Gerd Gigerenzer [above], a sixty nine year German psychologist who has been studying how humans make decisions for most of his career, doesn’t think so. In the real world, rules of thumb not only work well, they also perform better than complex models, he says. We shouldn’t turn our noses up on heuristics, we should embrace them…

Why simple rules of thumb often outperform complex models: “Gigerenzer’s simple rules.”

* John Gardner

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As we extrapolate, we might spare a thought for Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis of Condorcet; he died on this date in 1794.  A philosopher, mathematician, and early political scientist, he was a rationalist (and biographer of Voltaire) who advocated a liberal economy, free and equal public instruction, constitutionalism, and equal rights for women and people of all races.  He was a formulator of the Enlightenment ideas of progress and of the indefinite perfectibility of humankind.  And with his wife (and intellectual partner) Sophie de Grouchy, he hosted a salon that attracted foreign dignitaries and intellectuals including Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Cesare Beccaria.  But he may be best remembered for the Condorcet method of voting, in which the tally selects the candidate who would beat each of the other candidates in a run-off election.

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“The sad thing about artificial intelligence is that it lacks artifice and therefore intelligence”*…

 

For the past few decades, humans have ceded thrones to artificial intelligence in games of all kinds. In 1995, a program called Chinook won a man vs. machine world checkers championship. In 1997, Garry Kasparov, probably the best (human) chess player of all time, lost a match to an IBM computer called Deep Blue. In 2007, checkers was “solved,” mathematically ensuring that no human would ever again beat the best machine. In 2011, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter were routed on “Jeopardy!” by another IBM creation, Watson. And last March, a human champion of Go, Lee Sedol, fell to a Google program in devastating and bewildering fashion.

Poker may be close to all we have left…

But not, perhaps, for long: “The Machines Are Coming For Poker.”

* Jean Baudrillard

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As we cut ’em thin to win, we might spare a thought for Giambattista Vico; he died on this date in 1744. A political philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and jurist, Vico was one of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers. Best known for the Scienza Nuova (1725, often published in English as New Science), he famously criticized the expansion and development of modern rationalism and was an apologist for classical antiquity.

He was an important precursor of systemic and complexity thinking (as opposed to Cartesian analysis and other kinds of reductionism); and he can be credited with the first exposition of the fundamental aspects of social science, though his views did not necessarily influence the first social scientists.  Vico is often claimed to have fathered modern philosophy of history (although the term is not found in his text; Vico speaks of a “history of philosophy narrated philosophically”). While he was not strictly speaking a historicist, interest in him has been driven by historicists (like Isaiah Berlin).

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Written by LW

January 23, 2017 at 1:01 am

“If God dropped acid, would He see people?”*…

 

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We had long periods of silence and of listening to music. I was accustomed to playing rock ‘n’ roll while tripping, but the record collection here was all classical and Broadway show albums. After we heard the Bach “Cantata No. 7” Groucho said, “I may be Jewish, but I was seeing the most beautiful visions of Gothic cathedrals. Do you think Bach knew he was doing that?”

Later, we were listening to the score of a musical comedy Fanny. There was one song called “Welcome Home,” where the lyrics go something like, “Welcome home, says the clock,” and the chair says, “Welcome home,” and so do various other pieces of furniture. Groucho started acting out each line as if he were actually being greeted by the duck, the chair and so forth. He was like a child, charmed by his own ability to respond to the music that way…

Paul Krassner, publisher of  The Realist and all-round avatar of counter-culture, guided T. S. Eliot’s buddy Groucho Marx through his first acid trip (using the a dose from the same batch that fueled Richard Alpert’s last trip before he became Ram Dass).  He wrote about it both in High Times and in The Realist.  More of the backstory at Dangerous Minds.

[TotH to buddy Chistopher Enzi]

* Steven Wright

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As we hum “Eight Miles High,” we might send well-reasoned birthday greetings to Enlightenment giant John Locke; the physician and philosopher died on this date in 1704.  An intellectual descendant of Francis Bacon, Locke was among the first empiricists. He spent over 20 years developing the ideas he published in his most significant work, Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), an analysis of the nature of human reason which promoted experimentation as the basis of knowledge.  Locke established “primary qualities” (e.g., solidity, extension, number) as distinct from “secondary qualities” (sensuous attributes like color or sound). He recognized that science is made possible when the primary qualities, as apprehended, create ideas that faithfully represent reality.

Locke is, of course, also well-remembered as a key developer (with Hobbes, and later Rousseau) of the concept of the Social Contract.  Locke’s theory of “natural rights” influenced Voltaire and Rosseau– and formed the intellectual basis of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

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Written by LW

August 29, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Learning languages is like learning history from the inside out”*…

 

In a way that’s analogous to the evolution of morphology via mutation, the changes in the languages that we speak are driven by “mistakes” that get baked into practice.  For instance…

AMMUNITION

projectiles to be fired from a gun

It is common to misanalyze an article that precedes a word as if it were part of that word. Here the French phrase la munition was misanalyzed so the “a” of the article became part of the word, becoming l’ammunition

ARCHIPELAGO

a group of many islands in a large body of water

The etymology of archipelago seems like it should be from Greek arkhi meaning “chief” andpelagos “sea,” suggesting the importance of a sea with so many islands. The problem is that this form never occurs in ancient Greek, and the modern form is actually borrowed from Italian, with the intended meaning being “the Aegean Sea.” If that’s the case, then the archi- inarchipelago is actually a corrupted version of Aigaion, which is how you say “Aegean” in Greek…

More words that originated in error.

* Eric van Lustbader

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As we misspeak creatively, we might spare a thought for Baruch (or Benedict) de Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher who lived a quiet public life as a lens grinder– but whose rationalism and determinism put him in opposition to Descartes and helped lay the foundation for The Enlightenment, and whose pantheistic views led to his excommunication from the Jewish community in Amsterdam.  He died on this date in 1677.

As men’s habits of mind differ, so that some more readily embrace one form of faith, some another, for what moves one to pray may move another to scoff, I conclude … that everyone should be free to choose for himself the foundations of his creed, and that faith should be judged only by its fruits; each would then obey God freely with his whole heart, while nothing would be publicly honored save justice and charity.

Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, 1670

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Written by LW

February 21, 2015 at 1:01 am

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