Saturday, May 12, 2007

Nietzsche and Slave Morality, Ressentiment and Christianity

I'm writing this in response to this post about morality. Nietzsche's name was mentioned thusly:

Nietzsche attacked the universal principles of Judeo-Christian morality. He said it could not not take into consideration the vast differences of individuality, & although it claims to encompass everyone, it is to the advantage of some & the disadvantage of others. I think some negative parts of Christian history illustrate this.

Nietzsche also suggests Christian morality is a "slave" morality, "vengeful, bitter & filled with self loathing."

That in it's self is a whole nother post because the idea is fascinating. But, here's a link on Ressentiment to get an idea.

I opined that Nietzsche was factually wrong and thus his premises untrue, and L>T disagreed. You can see it on the comments, if you care to look. I said that I could critique Nietzsche at great length and would if the world was given. It was given. So I opine. ;)

For what it is worth, for many years I considered Nietzsche to be my favorite philosopher and writer. I've read everything he's written, most things several times over, and a fair bit of scholarly critiques of his work. About a year ago, Nietzsche fell out of my favor while I reading Lyotard's The Post-Modern Condition. Some of the stuff that Nietzsche said is very interesting, and I consider him the father of deconstruction. He is certainly an absolutely brilliant writer. But he's also a racist, sexist and classist pig, whose work (I feel) supports a totally archaic and backwards ethic that praises brutal force and stupidity. While Nietzsche does not ignore the crimes of the aristocratic class, he does ignore the virtues of the lower class and invents calumnies to support the idea that the lower classes are vicious, cruel and filled with hatred. To the extent the argument works, it does so based on Nietzsche's tremendous wit - he is undoubtedly one of the finest writers in any language and in any period. Still, despite it all, he fell pretty hard from my graces.

In specific, one of the things he says about Christianity is that it is a Jewish religion, and Jews are a slave people, and their priestly society was poisonous to aristocracy, and thus to nobility, truth and beauty. This contains two statements that are ahistorical. The first is that the Jews were a "slave people" and the second is that priestly cultures are somehow uniquely Jewish.

OK, the slave people argument. The calumny that Jews were inherently a slave people is a medieval European invention - during which period the Jews were a fragmented people surrounded by enemies without a homeland. This was not the case during the development of Christianity. Indeed, before 135 CE, the Jews were fairly obviously quite a combative people - and even afterwards, really.

Jehovah, the Lord of Hosts, is a primitive Semitic war god, probably of Canaanite origin. This is plausibly supported by the Old Testament. No, excuse me, it is elaborately supported by the Old Testament.

First, because it needs to be dealt with, is the origin of the lie that the Jews were a "slave people" has a tiny bit of support in the OT. Specifically, the time they were in Egypt. They were slaves there. But, y'know, that's just a few brief chapters in Exodus. Once you're out of Exodus you're into the area of PURE JEWISH BLOODSHED.

Seriously, from Leviticus onwards, the Old Testament is filled with one of the most lurid records of absolute brutality ever written. Hardly a page goes by without the Jews fighting some horrible war, slaughtering some people or the other, or being slaughtered after a terrible battle.

The Hebrew Judges were chosen not for their wisdom, but their ability to kick ass. Some very shocking episodes of violence - heads getting nailed to the ground, for instance - can be found, here. And after the kingship is established, it's no better, a relentless record of civil and foreign wars and slaughters.

Even when the Hebrews were conquered by the Babylonians, it was only after an extremely brutal war. And during the Captivity, the Jews were not enslaved. At least some of them served in extremely high positions in the Babylonian court.

The Old Testament rounds itself out with the Maccabees overthrowing the Seleucid Persians and establishing an independent monarchy. That monarchy would, itself, be destroyed by the Roman Empire, at which point we're into history.

Even as members of the Roman Empire the Jews were extremely difficult to control. The history of the area is of a number of petty rebellions to Roman power and two major ones. The first, the Great Revolt, between 66 and 70 CE, took four years to bring to an end, and would have been even more bloody if not for the faction struggles inside of Jerusalem. The second, the Bar Kochba Revolt, from 132 to 135 CE, was worse because the Jews were much better organized. They managed to establish an independent kingdom for a couple of years, and resisted Roman arms so fiercely that the Romans had to engaged in a scorched earth policy to defeat them. Dio Cassius said that, ahem, 580,000 Jews were killed, 50 fortified towns were destroyed and 985 villages were burned to the ground. The Emperor Hadrian attempted to destroy Judaism entirely because of the frequency with which the Jews rebelled! The Temple was destroyed and replaced with a pagan temple, the walls of Jerusalem were torn down and Jews were forbidden from entering Jerusalem.

By 135 CE, Christianity was already distinct from Judaism. None of the persecutions of the Jews after the Bar Kochba Revolt was applied to Christianity. So, given that Christianity was already split off from Judaism by that time, where are these non-martial slave Jews? The Judaism of Jesus' day and the 1st century church was extremely violent, and they considered themselves a warrior people. The history of the Jews before 135 CE is one of almost constant warfare.

The idea that the Jews were not, themselves, a warrior people - with a strong reputation, really, for fighting - simply cannot be supported by history. Since it is not the case that Christianity learned slave habits from the Jews, a person has to question if they existed at all. Which will take me to my second point.

When a society does have a priestly class, it's almost always part of the upper class. Interestingly enough, the best example of this are the Aryans -- the very Aryans that Nietzsche calls the master race, yeah, those Aryans.

Most Aryan tribes were caste based and the priestly caste was not only high class, it was the highest caste. Examples of this are the Hindu brahmin class and the Median and Persian magi castes. The habit of putting priests in charge of society was, quite possibly, an Aryan development and the Jews learned it from the Aryans! When Cyrus the Great conquered the Babylonians and freed the Jews, they mimicked the Persians in many ways - including solidifying their hentotheism into monotheism following the model of Persian Zoroastrianism but also in the sense of elevating the priest to the highest of classes.

Nietzsche must have known the power of the priest caste in Aryan history - but he doesn't mention it in his own books, which is an extremely curious lacuna, shall we say. This is even true when he calls Zarathustra - another name for Zoroaster - the wisest of men. Zoroaster was a member of the priest caste and the inventor of monotheism! This also escapes mention in any of Nietzsche's writings.

Also, some of the earliest converts to Christianity were Germanic tribes. In 310 CE or so, Ulfilas was converted to Arian Christianity and he converted the Ostrogoths and Visigoths. Three years later, Constantine would issue the Edict of Milan.

Christianity would not stop the Romans and Germans from tearing themselves apart for the next couple of hundred years. When the Christian barbarians destroyed the Western Roman Empire, the scale of their slaughter was greater than anything they'd ever done as pagans. Then Europe settled into the Middle Ages, which was a thousand years of constant warfare - warfare so complete and total that the development of higher culture was stalled for literally centuries and many technologies were lost to Western Europe. This frenzied orgy of hyperviolence had two nightmarish climaxes. The first were the murderous rampages of the Crusades and the second was the nightmare of the Hundred Years' War.

Nietzsche says that the violence of the Christian aristocracy was a holdover from Hellenic martial virtues. But, like I've already said, the Jews were every bit as much a warrior people as can be imagined, with an elaborate history of intense violence. Who did those medieval knights engaged in their various orgies of slaughter really emulate? Greco-Roman virtues, pre-Revolt Jewish virtues, or barbaric German virtues? As far as I can tell, they were all the same.

Well, Nietzsche might have said, the ideology of Christianity was intrinsically pacifist and weak. L>T said that this was particular to Christianity. Well, that's not true. The idea that the ultimate ruling force of the universe is benevolent is common to most people, not just the Christians. There is nothing, after all, particularly original about any of the ideas inside of Christianity. It was common Greek belief that "God" was a completely benevolent being, as were the gods, and wickedness was a result of human moral degradation. This belief - Epicureans held it - was common in the Roman Empire as well. The promotion of humility as a virtue? All over the ancient world. The Stoics, also popular in the Roman Empire, taught it, for instance, and they weren't the only ones. Everything that Nietzsche and his followers suggest are unique to Judaism and Christianity are also present in Roman philosophy and religion!

Nietzsche might retort that it was the exclusivity of Christianity that enforced "slave virtues". Greeks and Romans might as easily, say, follow the example of Sparta rather than Dionysus. But the same was true of Christianity. Warrior saints and Jesus reified as the "Lion of Judah" appeared almost immediately in Christianity. St. George, for instance, was a soldier who endured torments that made Jesus' look pretty milquetoast in comparison. By the Middle Ages, St. George became a mythic dragonslayer. Christianity started to produce it's own monster slaying superheroes totally in the Hellenic mold immediately. And, just by inspection, it can't be said that Christianity actually stopped people from being violent. The fights between the Christian barbarians and the Christian Romans were not any less vicious because of Christianity - indeed, the violence was probably the greatest seen in Western Europe.

So, historically, the idea that the Jews were a "slave people" doesn't bear up when you study the history of the Jews as informs Christianity. It also neglects the fact that priestly cultures were not in any way uniquely Jewish, or associated with the lower classes in particular. Furthermore, the sustained violence of Christianity puts to a lie the idea that Christians were infected with a pacifist "slave morality" that undermined their martial aristocratic culture. Also, immediately after the death of St. Peter the Christian church came to be entirely dominated by the Greco-Roman upper class.

Okay, now on to ressentiment. Briefly, ressentiment is the idea that the underclass is filled with hatred towards their oppressors and engages in trickery and deceit to overcome their masters, poisoning their glorious aristocratic martial culture with the virtues of slaves - weakness and cowardice. This glorification of aristocracy and vilification of the workers is, again, simply untrue.

First and foremost, aristocrats are some of the most treacherous, back-stabbing bastards there are. Indeed, they're way more treacherous than the working classes. This goes straight back to those Greek epics that Nietzsche loved so much. How can you tell when Odysseus is lying? His mouth is open. Odysseus, one of the paragons of Hellenic aristocracy, was a low-down rotten bastard. He lied, cheated, stole. He possessed all the traits that Nietzsche attributes to the "slaves".

And the real articles weren't any better. For instance, one of the most common things to happen in the internecine warfare of the Greek city-states was for one leader to switch sides (sometimes in the middle of a war), go to Persia and ask for help to overthrow Greece and serve as a Persian vassal, all sorts of craziness.

Alcibiades will serve as an example. During the Peloponnesian War, he switched sides something like four times. He encouraged the Athenians to try to conquer Sicily but when it was obvious it was going badly, he fled to Sparta. In Sparta, he couldn't keep his hands off the Spartan king's wife and then went over to Persia and then he went back to Athens. This is aristocratic loyalty and honor? Not a string of deceptions, cowardice, venality and greed?

I could really go on about aristocrats and their ways for a long time. So, Julius Caesar was assassinated by the Roman Senate en masse because they knew that if they were all guilty of the crime, none of them would be punished. Foolish men. Because the Triumvirate that came into power after Caesar's death engaged in their own program of assassination to consolidate their gains. Again and again, you see aristocrats behaving in cowardly, manipulative, back-stabbing, venomous ways, you see them holding grudges for literally centuries in some cases, you see aristocrats doing all the things that Nietzsche attributes to the "slave morality" that supposedly Christianity brought to aristocracy in the West. And you see them doing these things again and again before Christianity existed!

In addition to ignoring the fact that aristocrats possessed - and have always possessed - the vices of Nietzsche's "slaves", you've also got to ignore the working classes, themselves. The very idea that a member of the working class, even a slave, spent most of their time plotting the downfall of their "masters" is absurd. It ignores the labor of their hands, their families, and their actual values - which tend to stress the importance of hard work, tending to one's family and things of that nature. The notion of the resentful slave plotting the overthrow of their aristocratic masters is a total caricature. It is quite literally the Nazi's image of the weaselly back-stabbing, squinty eyed Jew - a caricature taken straight from Nietzsche.

Lastly, it also sorta ignores that everything of lasting beauty in this world was created by the very working classes that Nietzsche hated so much. We'll say, nigh constantly, things like, "Lorenzo the Magnificent built this" or "the Emperor Trajan built that", but that's not true, is it? The warrior aristocrat class so beloved by Nietzsche didn't build anything. It was built by the workers, now wasn't it? When a person ignores that - as does Nietzsche, who never talks about work - is the only way to say with a straight face that the working classes are in some way opposed to beauty and culture. You have to ignore that they're the primary builders of beauty and culture, even when they're doing it at the orders of some murderous thug.

So, I think that this pretty much says everything I want to say about why I think that Nietzsche's master-slave morality is ahistorical bunk, and why I don't put any faith in the Nietzschian idea of ressentiment as a class construct.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Separate and Unequal – A Christian Odyssey Into Nothingness

This post was going to go unsent for a couple of days, but in a number of blogs (such as this Friendly Atheist post and this PZ Myer's post) they've been pointing out the MySpace clone, Everything after this paragraph was written before I found out about but I think everyone will agree that it applies and supports my argument.

It wasn't until the Left Behind series had been going for many years that I ever heard of it. I read science-fiction and fantasy and I hadn't heard of it, because for a fairly long time the only place that sold the Left Behind books were Christian bookstores. It didn't stop them from doing very, very well.

Recently, Christians have opened the doors for Conservapedia. A Wikipedia-esque site for conservatives! Also recently coming online has been GodTube, a Christian alternative to YouTube. Also, the homeschooling movement, which is being primarily driven by fundamentalist Christians who don't want their kids to be exposed to sex education and science.

It is looking to me like Christians are starting to . . . opt out. During the 60s, hippies had a saying, “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” Well, it's looking a lot like 21st century Christians have discovered this. There seems to be some attempt to withdraw from society – to create a second . . . world. A world where a Christian can do everything that they do without having to contact anyone that ruffles their beliefs at all. They can go to Christian book and movie stores, go to Christian schools, have a Christian Internet. They can create a Christian bubble around themselves, completely ignorant of society at large! And, unlike those hippies, there are two hundred million of them in America.

There are two points, though, I want to make.

The first is even as they try to withdraw from society, they are nevertheless mimicking the very things that they despise. GodTube and Conservapedia are not innovations – but copies. Even now, they are dependent on the outside world to pull away from it. They hope by mimicking something they can exceed it? Rather than demonstrate what a pitiful copy it is? Well, good luck with that.

The second point is that it displays how frightened Christians are of the world. They're terrified of us, so much so that they're retreated into an increasingly closed society. I can't think of any humanist or atheist comparison. Oh, sure, we have our own organizations and all, but we're not trying to create a separate world for ourselves. We understand, generally, that we have to get by in this world and we engage in this world.

I suspect this will create a strange loop. The more they retreat the more, well, other people will step up. Not just atheists, either, but all the fringe groups, gays, feminists, Muslims, Wiccans, New Agers, you name it. And the more they/we step up, the more the conservative Christians will retreat.

Then, like a black hole eaten of it's own mass, they'll disappear.

At least, I hope.

There is precedent for this. The pagan religions that Christianity replaced, some of them were well over 2000 years old. Christians like to think that something that has existed for so long must continue to do so indefinitely (or, at least, to the end of the world – which they're still waiting for, after 2000 years), but there's no reason to assume that, none at all.

So, I say, let them retreat into their shells!

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Thoughts on Western Technological Dominace

Most people will just assume that the West has been the technologically dominate force forever – after all, didn't “we” invent science? Most of the rest will realize that during the Middle Ages that technological development was stagnant compared to a lot of the people around them and will generally say that it was the Renaissance when European technology shot ahead of the rest of the world – after all, what else could really explain the European dominance of the world that followed the Renaissance?

Mostly, that's nonsense, however. Europeans achieved clear technological supremacy, globally, only in the 19th century – and by the 21st century, it's been lost, already, as Japan and South Korea have both eclipsed Western nations in terms of technological development (and China is fixing to do so).

I'm going to talk about ships and then metal. I could keep talking about issues like agriculture (in many ways, 20th century agriculture is a step back from 19th century Indian and Chinese techniques because of the consequences of mechanization and fertilization insofar as erosion and soil damage, but it wasn't until the 20th century, really, that Western farmers could claim to have any edge on South and East Asian farmers and even that might be illusionary as the world fuel situation changes).

European ships and exploration

One of the key areas that we believe the West has always had a clear advantage is ships and navigational techniques. That is not, actually, true. Western sailing ships until the 19th century were technologically inferior in most ways to Asian ships, particularly the junk. We see the junk and we think it is a comical ship, but the truth is that it is easier to sail because it has a less complex rigging and holds closer to the wind. This is primarily due to the semi-rigid sail it uses, with horizontal slats with bits of cloth sail between them – this creates a light, stiff sail. All that billowing that Western sails do? That's inefficiency. The Chinese junks quite likely circumnavigated the world in the 1420s as part of the exploration of for trade imperialism. The great Chinese admiral Zheng He is believed by basically everyone to have traveled from at least Egypt to Mozambique to Taiwan to Sumatra. A small, but apparently growing, group of people have followed Gavin Menzies in believing that Zheng He effectively circumnavigated the globe, and traveled to both North and South America, Australia, Greenland, you name it. Paul Chiasson believes that the Mi'kmaq people in eastern Canada are genetic descendants of Chinese sailors. Chinese imperial brass has been found in an archaeological site 250 miles inland in America. At the bare minimum, in the 15th century the Chinese naval prowess was superior to Europeans. If Menzies is right, then the Chinese naval prowess was superior to what Europeans would see until at least the 18th century.

So successful is the junk rig – the way that a sail is made and controlled aboard a ship – that the rig is still being used today. Indeed, some competitive sailors use paneled sails not very different from the ones used by Chinese sailors for most of Chinese history, and paneled sails are indisputably Chinese technology, originally. In contrast, most modern sailing boats use a Bermuda rig, which was developed in the 17th century – and it is largely tradition that keeps the Bermuda rig alive. All said and done, it is impossible to say that European sailing techniques ever exceeded Chinese sailing techniques until the Age of Steam.

Then, as so often happens, luck ruled the destiny of humans. A change in rulers in China put an end to Chinese exploration. The Mings had decided that rather than pursue expensive foreign exploration they would focus on a policy of inward development and cultural isolation. This ruinous policy would, in time, lead to China's domination by Europeans, especially the British, but at the time it looked pretty sensible, I suppose, as China was the richest country in the world. Why did they need anywhere else? So the fleet of Zheng He was destroyed. The Chinese would continue to be active merchants all through East, Southeast and South Asia, but there would be no more coordinated efforts to explore the world. It was into this vacuum of exploration that the Europeans would step.

You might notice I'm explaining Europe's success in exploration in cultural and political, not technological, terms. I am. That's because Chinese ships and navigation techniques were demonstrably at least as good as European ones.

European metallurgy

Europeans also believe that they have held the grip on metallurgy since at last the Renaissance. This is one of the more interesting technological stories.

Since time out of mind, the country that was traditionally regarded as having the finest metallurgy in the world was India. Indian metallurgy was just head and shoulders above everyone else's. Right now, to this day, in Delhi, there is an iron pillar that is 1600 years old that has never taken with rust. They are outdoors where they have been exposed to centuries worth of Indian monsoons. India also developed wootz steel, which was what the legendary “Damascus steel” blades really were (the term Damascus steel is often conflated with pattern welding forge techniques, I should add, so there is ambiguity to the term). Wootz steel was destroyed, along with the rest of the Indian steel industry, in the 19th century. It has only been recently that it has been rediscovered.

Even in the 19th century, while European cannons were made of bronze because steel ones would burst, the largest guns in the world were in the hands of northern Indian warlords, made out of steel that did not burst.

However, by the early 19th century, steel production and export was a big deal to European economies. The British steel manufacturers coveted the Indian market. But they had themselves a pretty big problem. Indians wouldn't buy European steel because it was inferior in quality to locally produced metals. Indian steel output, at this time, was also roughly equal to Britain. British steel makers sent people to India to find out what made Indian so good. They didn't have a lot of luck, though, because Indian steel was made in a distributed system of a lot of small mills with a lot of individualization of techniques. Furthermore, the steel making castes weren't willing to show their trade secrets to the English. Stymied because of the secretiveness of the Indian metallurgists and not able to replicate the economy of Indian metallurgists, and also wishing to disarm the Indians, they decided to handle things the old fashioned way and lean on the British Raj to force the Indian metallurgists to sell their mills, which were then closed down. Having no other option, the Indians started using the lower quality and more expensive British steel.

(The British did the same thing to Indian shipping. They didn't want the Indians to build ships because, y'know, they wanted to maintain India's dependence on England.)


Since I don't want to go on forever about this, I'm going to sum up, here.

None of this is to doubt the intellectual contributions of the West. That'd be absurd. However, Europeans have really undertaken a massive project of cultural imperialism and have stricken out the rest of the world's contributions to the arts and sciences, and ignored or trivialized the debt that Western science owes to other people and other cultures. Most people don't realize the vast debt that the world owes to Chinese and Indian science, including their mathematical advances that were further streamlined and improved by the Muslims before being absorbed into the West during the Enlightenment. When Europeans learn about scientific progress, it's almost inevitably as if Europeans did it all. If people from other cultures are mentioned, it's as a footnote or, perhaps, a sidebar. This is pure racism. When one looks at the actual technological development of non-Western societies it's actually pretty easy to find areas where those societies matched or exceeded the West (and, obviously, are doing so, again). I have given only a few examples but the list goes on and on, especially once you start bringing agriculture into it.

I hope that people will start to more seriously consider non-Western contributions to the sciences as a way of overcoming the continuing racism that the world suffers – I hope that people, when they understand how much we've been dependent on each other for learning and progress rather than seeing other people in other places as an impediment to progress they'll see them as partners in progress.

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