More about philosophy

Philosophy is traditionally defined as the search for what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful. Technical terms for those topics are “metaphysics” (the search for what is true, or real—which is followed by “epistemology,” determining how we know what is real), “ethics” (the search for what is good), and “aesthetics” (the search for what is beautiful, and how we recognize what is beautiful). Some twentieth-century philosophers willingly surrendered these searches to other disciplines that had branched off from philosophy. They conceded the search for what is true to science, accepting that whatever scientists recognize as real should be considered real. They conceded the search for what is beautiful to the arts, accepting that whatever artists recognize as beautiful should be considered beautiful. The question of how we know what is real was bestowed upon psychologists, and the question of what is good was bestowed upon sociologists. After all, perception is done in the mind, and psychologists study the mind. Ethics are governed (if not formed) by groups of people, and sociologists study groups of people.

What, then, is left for philosophy to consider? With philosophy left only as a branch on the limb of “liberal arts,” much of the work of modern philosophers concerns language and communication. This is, indeed, a fertile field to plow and plant and tend. The signs and symbols used to communicate ideas fascinate philosophers. Take the idea of 2, which can also be represented as II. It can be called two or deux or dos or zwei. For English speakers, it must be distinguished from the preposition “to” or the synonym of “also,” “too.” Once considered or communicated, though, this sign or symbol represents a powerful idea, an idea that contains more than two apples or two triangles. Philosophers even ask whether the number two exists apart from two apples or two triangles. If it exists as a pure idea, what makes that idea real? Would the idea of “two” exist without a mind to consider the significance of “two” beyond its representation in any pair of objects in the universe?

These questions restore philosophy’s function as a search for truth. Thinkers trained in a scientific approach may fail to appreciate the importance of determining whether the idea of “two” exists apart from the observer or exists only in the mind of the observer. For that matter, philosophers should ask whether science can observe and measure and comprehend everything that is real. Science does a good job studying those things it is designed to study, but other existing things may retain their being outside the reach of science.

Likewise, sociology is not equipped to determine whether a rule or requirement is good. Observing groups of people all over the world, sociologists might report that nearly all groups of people frown upon murder and stealing. That, in itself, does not make those actions bad. A scientist might weigh each individual in a group of people, then establish an average, or normal, range of weights, with abnormal extremes at both ends of the spectrum, but that would not mean that the median weight was the healthiest weight for those people. A sociologist might closely observe a group of people and count the lies told by those people, then establish an average, or normal, number of lies told each day, with abnormal extremes at both ends of the spectrum, but that does not mean that the median honesty was the most ethical honesty for those people.

In short, philosophers never should have limited themselves to studying language and communication, even though that topic is fascinating. Ancient Greeks made the same mistake when philosophy degenerated into sophistry, promising to teach speakers how to be convincing, no matter which side they took in a debate. The career of Socrates helped to correct that mistake. Philosophers need to keep asking the big questions: What is true? What is good? What is beautiful? Information from other specialties assists philosophers in their search for answers. Scientists and artists, though, cannot replace philosophers in the realm of human thinking. J.

Branches of philosophy

Although some early Christians rejected all secular philosophy, many other Christians found philosophy a useful tool to understand creation and to communicate with people living in the world. Church leaders came to regard philosophy as “the handmaiden of theology.” God and his revelation took first place, and the teachings of philosophy were not allowed to contradict the Word of God. Beyond that, philosophy had an honored place in the toolkit of Christian education, and also that of Jewish education and Muslim education.

In the Middle Ages, philosophy and education were expressed in what then were called the seven Liberal Arts. These began with the “trivium”—Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. These studies are in no way trivial: they remain the foundation of thinking and communication, including written composition and public speaking. The other Liberal Arts were Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, and Music. A solid basis of knowledge in these areas prepared any student to specialize in other fields of knowledge, research, and understanding.

During the Enlightenment, appreciation of knowledge, understanding, and education underwent further revision. By modern times, two major boughs had grown on the tree of knowledge. They were called Science and the Arts. Even today, most colleges and universities grant degrees that are designated as either science or arts.

Branches on the bough of science begin with mathematics. This is the purest science, dealing only with numbers. Two is always two, whether it is represented by two apples, two triangles, or the two Natures of Christ. From the branch of mathematics grow further branches, including arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and calculus. Practical mathematics also are taught, such as accounting and statistics.

Physics is a second branch of science. Physics studies objects in the material world and analyzes their qualities and their movement. Astronomy was recognized as a branch of physics once Isaac Newton demonstrated that the heavenly bodies obey the same laws as earthly bodies. Nuclear, or subatomic, physics are another branch, one in which the geometry of Euclid and the physics of Newton no longer apply. Practical physics are found in the various departments of engineering.

Chemistry has become its own branch, although chemistry might be viewed as a more complicated field within physics. Alchemists began with a theory of four elements (air, earth, fire, and water). They eventually discovered a far more complicated table of elements. Theoretical chemistry and practical chemistry are not as easily distinguished as in mathematics and physics.

Biology is the next branch of the sciences. Biology studies living things, whether plants or animals or microscopic forms of life. The most important practical biology is medicine.

All these are pure sciences or natural sciences. On the same bough of sciences are the social sciences, beginning with psychology. Once uniquely identified with philosophy, the study of the psyche—or the self—was transferred to the sciences in the twentieth century, beginning with the work of Sigmund Freud. Along with psychology comes sociology. Psychology looks at human beings as individuals, while sociology studies people in groups. Among the practical branches of sociology are law, politics, and economics. Some schools even treat history as a social science, although most schools consider history one of the arts.

The bough of arts on the tree of knowledge divides into fine arts and liberal arts (also called humanities). The fine arts include visual arts, such as painting and sculpture, and music (which involves hearing rather than seeing). If fine arts involve the senses, then baking and cooking might also be listed as fine arts. But the fine arts also include literature—poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction. History might also land here, as one of the literary arts, a branch of non-fiction. Drama also is a fine art, which branches further into the categories of theater and film

The liberal arts, or humanities, complete the major branches of the tree of knowledge. Most schools include history among the humanities. Other humanities involve the study of languages and the study of cultures. Religious studies are also included among the humanities. Ironically, the study of philosophy—once the essence of the entire tree—has now become a department within the humanities or liberal arts, merely one branch among the many branches of the tree.

Arguments for a third bough of the tree become increasingly common in the late twentieth century and twenty-first century. This third bough consists of vocational education, which focuses on neither science nor on the arts. Modern society needs plumbers, electricians, carpenters, auto mechanics, truck drivers, and hair stylists. Food preparation and service falls into the same category. Even many workers in health care receive vocational training rather than scientific or artistic education. One does not require knowledge of algebra or drama or history to be effective in any of these jobs. Debate continues, though, about how much exposure to science and the arts helps people to be fully human and to be happy in their vocations while living among their common human beings. J.

The Great Depression

The label “The Great Depression” applies largely to world-wide economic conditions after the Great War. France and Russia were badly damaged by the war (and both Russia and the Ottoman Empire continued to experience wartime conditions for several years after the Armistice). Germany was economically devastated and was further stifled by required reparation payments to France and Great Britain. Inflation in Germany was so bad after the way that Germany money was—literally—less valuable than the paper on which it was printed. The British Empire also required time to recover from the cost of the war in lives, dire medical conditions, industries that had been converted to wartime production, and disrupted transportation of raw materials and goods around the world.

The United States’ economy was booming from the economic benefits of a world war. Food, cotton, and many other products had been very profitable during the war and immediately after. But in the 1920s, customers did not always exist for American productivity; food and cotton and manufactured supplies began to pile up in warehouses. The problem worsened as European economies recovered from the war. Surpluses grew, prices fell, and jobs began to be cut. Powerful flooding further aggravated agricultural concerns in 1927. The historic Stock Market Crash of October 1929 was merely the final dramatic symptom of a Depression that had already begun. The banks that collapsed due to the stock market crash were already teetering on the edge of failure. In many parts of the country, the stock market crash was not even front-page news.

But economic depression was not the only kind of depression that the world faced in the 1920s. The Great War undercut everything that Europeans and North Americans had been saying about science and technology since the Enlightenment. Victorian optimism about an improving world was crushed by the War. Supposedly the most civilized and educated leaders had caused the war and had failed to stop it once it started. Science and technology had been used to cause and increase suffering. Optimism about solutions to all the world’s problems had been misplaced. Survivors of the Great War lacked the hope and encouragement that their parents and grandparents had invested in the future.

Some elements of this depression began during the Victorian Age. Cameras made naturalistic painting unnecessary, so painters began to experiment in abstract art, such as impressionism.  After the war, further adventures in art were explored, such as expressionism and cubism. All of these reflected, to a degree, rejection of the schools of art that had dominated European culture since the Renaissance. Likewise, in music, the change began during the Victorian Age. Especially in France, which lost a brief war to Germany in 1870, rejection of German music led to a new style of music which was also called impressionism. After the war, more jarring forms of music emerged, discordant and irregular in rhythm. Pessimism and absurdism began to emerge in literature and theater after the war. Writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald described the darker side of life, while other writers went to greater extremes to reflect their depression, turning away from the confident optimism that prevailed from the Enlightenment through the Victorian Age.

Science contributed to the depression. For several generations, it had seemed that science had achieved all its major discoveries; it appeared that science would now simply define its procedures, making knowledge more complete and more reliable with each new generation. Einstein’s theories of relativity changed all that. Suddenly it was seen that Euclid’s geometry and Newton’s physics only apply to the world we move through in our common experience. The rules are not the same at the very large or at the very small. Subatomic particles follow rules that seem to defy everything we thought we know about the real world. In biology, the prevailing theory of evolution presented men and women as nothing more than animals which were a little more successful than other kinds of animals. Now Sigmund Freud added to the recipe for darkness, arguing that strange and mysterious things are happening in our minds beyond the thoughts of which we were already aware.

In all this doubt and uncertainty—but especially in the turmoil of the economic Depression—large numbers of people put their trust in the power and authority of politicians and government to provide answers. Out of this misplaced trust came totalitarian governments—political powers that exercised control over vast portions of citizens’ lives. Modern technology made this kind of control more possible than ever before. Governments began by controlling communication—newspapers, magazines, books, radio broadcasts, and other way people shared thoughts and ideas. The same governments also controlled education. Stalin and the Communist Party gained that kind of power in the Soviet Union, followed by Mussolini and the Fascist Party in Italy, and Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany. In each of these countries, competing political parties were outlawed. Disagreeing with the government was not allowed. A person who spoke a contrary idea might be jailed as a criminal, or might be hospitalized as mentally ill (only released when that person was “cured” and agreed with the government), or might simply disappear. The government announced its economic successes, and no one was in a position to contradict those announcements. Even after the Second World War, an entire generations of historians continued to report that under the Fascists the trains ran on time. Finally, researchers took the trouble to fact-check that claim and to prove it false.

People from the United States visited the Soviet Union. They saw the new factories, they read the government reports, and they met no one who dared to seem unhappy with the new system. Therefore, they returned to the United States saying, “I have seen the future, and it works!” A Communist Party grew in the United States during the Depression, while other citizens advocated other forms of socialism. The Republicans in power seemed unable to help American citizens, especially when a devastating drought struck the central farmlands of the country in 1930 and 1931. Despairing voters turned to Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Party, hoping that the promises of a New Deal could be kept.

Roosevelt and the Democrats believed that some problems are so big that only the government is big enough to solve them. New Deal programs included several government ages that hired workers—building schools and parks and armories, paving roads, digging ditches, and contributing in other ways to the infrastructure. Artists were hired to paint murals in government buildings, especially post offices. Writers were hired to interview the last surviving former slaves, to record the memories of pioneers, and to pen travelogues of the various states. Women were gathered to sew and to learn how to can fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile, Social Security was created—collecting a tax from workers and their employers to pay other people (mainly the disabled and the elderly) not to work. Farmers were paid not to plant crops. Lands seized for tax default were offered to homeless farm families under generous programs that helped them to reestablish themselves on the land.

Historians debate whether the New Deal ended the Depression or prolonged it. Since the Second World War ended the economic struggle of the Depression (as well as some New Deal programs), a clear conclusion about the value of the New Deal cannot be found. But Roosevelt and the New Deal Democrats did not seek or establish a totalitarian state. They did not outlaw the Republican Party, or even the Communist Party. Instead, Roosevelt spoke in favor of four freedoms: “Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.” Even while expanding government’s presence and power in the lives of its people, the New Deal continued to focus on freedom for American citizens. J.

Philosophy

One might say that every person is a philosopher, just as every person is a scientist, and every person is an artist. We all seek to understand the world around us and what it contains; with a combination of observation and experimentation, we all try to gain information and clarity about our world. We all express ourselves, from time to time, by humming a tune or doodling a design or telling a story. We all ask the Big Questions, at least once in a while, such as, “Who am I?” and, “Why am I here?”

But only a few become professional scientists, studying a science and earning a degree and taking a paid job to work with science. Only a few become professional artists, making a living in music or painting or storytelling or another of the arts. Only a very few become professional philosophers, and most of them end up teaching about philosophy in universities. In general, people understand why science and the arts should be funded. They don’t always know why philosophers should be paid for what they do.

Probably the earliest humans were scientists and artists and philosophers. The Neolithic Revolution—that time when people began to settle in communities and raise food rather than hunting and gathering food—allowed more specialization in such matters. Stone Age people and Bronze Age people had thoughts and ideas about their place in the world. These thoughts and ideas tended to emphasize relationships. People knew who they were by seeing their place in their families and their communities and by understanding where they stood in relation to their environment and their gods.

About twenty-five centuries ago, after the establishment of the Iron Age, a new wave of thinking arose in the world’s most established gatherings of people. Many of these new approaches are studied today among the world’s religions: from China, Confucianism and Daoism; from India, Buddhism and Upanishad Hinduism; and from Persia, Zoroastrianism. Each of these focused more than earlier teachings upon the human individual as an individual. Each taught followers to look within themselves for virtue and for truth. These new approaches have been described as the Axial Age in religion and philosophy. But the Greek experience of the Axial Age differs in some ways from what was happening at the same time among other cultures.

Greek Axial thinkers approached the world with questions about its nature, and they tried to answer these questions without resorting to religious formulas. The earliest asked about the structure of the world—from what are all things made? One thinker suggested water, another suggested fire, and still another suggested numbers. Thinkers debated whether the true world is always in motion or always at rest. After a time, such discussions degenerated into sophistry, as teachers offered to train their students in rhetoric, promising that they could win any argument, no matter which side they chose to defend. But another series of thinkers broke the pattern of sophistry by asking about what is good. How do we define goodness? How do we recognize goodness? How do we make ourselves good? Socrates and Plato and Aristotle are associated with this approach, and the Greek and Roman worlds were shaped by their thinking and by the generations of thinkers who followed their approach.

The Greek word for this kind of thought is “philosophy.” Literally, that word translates into English as “love of wisdom.” But the translation only requires us to define two words instead of one. “Philo” denotes love as in friendship or loyalty; it is neither the erotic love of romance and marriage nor the “agape” love for God and for one’s neighbors. “Sophia” as wisdom is not the ability to learn and retain a list of facts, nor is it the mechanical ability to use those facts to shape and change the world. Wisdom is not even the steady and helpful thought process that has been mislabeled “common sense.” Wisdom is a broader understanding—but an understanding of what? The most helpful description of wisdom is to view it as pursuit of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

For Greek philosophers, wisdom was distinct from religious knowledge and comprehension. Earlier thinkers in Israel had said the opposite. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” the Bible says in the books of Psalms and Proverbs. Psalm 14 adds, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Wisdom, as described in the book of Proverbs, resembles what the apostle Paul would call “faith.” For this reason, James wrote, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach” (James 1:5). Thus, we encounter two competing paths to wisdom—one which has the thinker look within, seeking the Good and the True and the Beautiful; and the other looking to God, hoping to find in God the Good and the True and the Beautiful. Which is fascinating, since one of the major questions asked by those on the first path is, “Does God exist?” J.

The Victorian Age, part one

She was still a teenager in 1837 when Alexandrina Victoria’s uncle died and she became Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom. By this time the royal authority was more ceremonial than governmental, yet this queen became the symbol of an era, an era during which it was said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” This saying was literally true, as the nation had claimed lands in the western hemisphere (Canada, Jamaica and other islands in the Caribbean, British Honduras, and British Guiana), in Africa, in south Asia (India and Burma), in east Asia (especially the port of Hong Kong), and in the south Pacific (including Australia and New Zealand). At no time during the twenty-four-hour day was the sun failing to shine on British soil. Its preeminence in worldly politics made the saying figuratively true as well. British power was balanced in Europe by France, Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Ancient China and the new United States of America also had their place in the grand scheme of things. But for most of the nineteenth century, Britain was the most powerful and important nation on earth, and Queen Victoria was the most power and important person in Britain.

The Industrial Revolution and the European age of exploration had helped to make Britain great. Enlightenment ideas regarding human rights and equality, limited government, and a capitalist economy all contributed to the greatness of Britain as well. Britain shared her greatness with the world, and accomplishments from the rest of the world added to the triumph of civilization in the United Kingdom. Human triumphs increased each year, and it seemed unlikely that human progress would falter or fall anytime soon.

The heyday of modern thought had arrived. Science had triumphed over superstition. Astronomy, chemistry, and biology all contributed to make students wiser than their predecessors, and it seemed that all science needed to do was continue refining its techniques to place the final details on its picture of the world as it truly works. These scientific discoveries were harnessed into technology. Travel was faster and safer than ever before. Electrical power had been tamed and forced to serve humanity. Communication flew from city to city at the speed of light. Photography captured accurate records of images, and ways were also being found to record sound. Travel through the air was within reach, and travel to the moon—and beyond, to the stars—was no longer unthinkable. Education was reaching more and more people. Cheap paper made newspapers and magazines available, and also allowed the mass distribution of new novels and of classical texts. Everything was becoming the work of machines: factory work, agriculture, and even warfare. Humanity was coming ever closer to achieving its full potential… or so it seemed at the time.

This optimism was felt in international politics. The Congress of Vienna resolved Europe’s problems after the Napoleonic wars, ensuring that the powerful governments would no longer battle one another in endless wars. A new liberal notion, called nationalism, was added to the other Enlightenment ideas of human rights and limited governments. Nationalism said that a nation—a group of people with common language, religion, culture, history, values, traditions—could live together in one place under a government of their own people, rather than having to live as part of someone else’s country. Nationalism was breaking apart empires like the Ottoman Empire, while at the same time it united countries such as Germany and Italy, both long fragmented into smaller pieces of property, each with its own government. German unification included brief border wars with Austria, Denmark, and France. Afterward, Otto von Bismarck of Germany pledged faithfulness to the same balance of powers affirmed in Vienna half a century ago. The United States endured a painful and destructive Civil War in the middle of the nineteenth century, but most powerful nations were able to push war to the fringes—to the nationalist revolution in Greece, the border conflict between Russia and the Ottomans in the Crimean region, the British effort to end the resistance of Dutch settlers in South Africa (the Boer War), and similar struggles in India, China, and other places far from the homeland of Enlightenment.

The same optimism prevailed in the United States. Believing that a Manifest Destiny gave them preeminence over North America, Americans defeated the Indian tribes and the Mexican government, soon stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans across the continent. The Civil War ended with the abolition of slavery, and industrialization helped to conquer the economic costs of the war. Education brought science, literature, morality, and patriotism to the growing population. Before the end of the century, America had become a world power, defeating the Spanish Empire, offering freedom to the island of Cuba while adding Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippine Islands to America’s domain.

Optimism was felt in religious spheres as well. Some Christian scholars, building upon the Enlightenment, purged the Bible of superstition and distilled from it ethical guidance for human life. Others held firmly to the historic teachings of the Bible, laboring to bring Christ to people everywhere. Christians countered the oppressive effects of capitalism and industrialism, delivering food and medicine and Gospel comfort to the poor, encouraging business owners and governments to defend the rights of the working class, and rescuing sinners from the evils of alcohol, gambling, and prostitution. The same fervor sent Christian explorers into the depths of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the south Pacific lands. The brought the Gospel of Jesus Christ; they also brought medicine, scientific knowledge, and the benefits of civilization while working to counter slavery and other oppression and to gain knowledge of the geography, resources, and populations of previously-unknown portions of the world.

This was the Victorian Age: a time of optimism, accomplishment, and unceasing progress. Science and education would improve life for people everywhere. Heaven on earth was achievable. Queen Victoria’s death early in the twentieth century seemed little more than another ceremonial passing of the torch to the next generation. People did not realize how quickly their optimism could be overturned. J.

The Industrial Revolution, part two

The Industrial Revolution did not happen overnight. Everywhere it occurred, it was a gradual process. Ways were developed to manufacture more and more items that people needed or wanted. High-quality steel and steam power were applied to more and more uses. Transportation radically changed with the introduction of railroads and steam-powered boats. Later would come the horseless carriage, or automobile, first powered by an electric battery, but soon improved with gasoline engines. By the twentieth century, air travel also appeared.

Technology led to more technology, and also to scientific discoveries, and then new scientific discoveries offered new technology. Electricity was understood and harnessed for technology. Glass lenses, already invented in the late Middle Ages, were combined into telescopes—Galileo was one of the first to aim a telescope at the sky rather than at distant features on earth—and then into microscopes. Chemical research and development multiplied the rate of innovation. Cheaper production of paper—made from wood pulp rather than from cotton rags—opened a new world of books, magazines, and newspapers. Before long, technology offered instant communication and the preservation of sounds and images, all of which would have seemed magical to people who lived only a short time earlier.

Every historic change brings both gains and losses. Access to new forms of material wealth and comfort enticed many people away from the timeless promises of religion and of the Church. Meanwhile, urban poverty also multiplied as more families left agriculture and crowded into the cities. Factory owners hired women and children; their smaller hands and bodies suited the new machinery, and they were less likely than men to demand better working conditions and higher pay. Unemployed men sometimes turned to crime or to alcoholism. Prisons were filled with petty criminals and with men whose only crime was debts they could not repay. Frequently their wives and children joined them in the prisons because they had nowhere else to live. Meanwhile, the crowded conditions of the cities and the output of the factories caused pollution of the air, the water, and the land.

In theory, the capitalist laws of supply and demand would fix these problems. Factory owners, seeking to maximize their profits, would compete with each other for the better workers, offering higher wages. Competition for more customers would result, not only in lower prices, but in higher-quality products. In theory, governments would remain uninvolved in the economy—“laissez-faire,” meaning “leave it alone,” was the capitalist message to governments. But even Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations acknowledged a need for some government regulation. Governments exist to protect citizens from dangers abroad and dangers at home. Governments do more than arrest and punish thieves and murderers. They inspect factories and their products, ensuring safety for workers and for customers. They respond to pollution, treating sewage and gathering garbage and requiring respect for the environment. Governments even created child labor laws, sending the children to school instead of the factories. An image was created of the Victorian family—the father earning wages to support the family, the women staying home to care for the house and the children, and the children having time to play and lessons to learn. Many families were unable to achieve this dream, but the ideal existed all the same.

Christians in Europe resisted the problems of industrialization. Christians denounced the emptiness of life with more wealth and comforts but no spiritual meaning or significance. They also reached out to their neighbors most in need. Often the romantic arm of the Church—the Pietists and Methodists and others of that ilk—were most active in resisting the darkness. Members were urged to turn from petty crime and from addictions to alcohol, tobacco, opium, and other dangers. Doing so, they were also equipped to reach out to the poor, the hopeless, and the victims of addiction. Sunday Schools met the needs of children still employed six days a week in the factories. Food and shelter and medical care was offered to families in need. Even though more lives reflected the novels of Charles Dickens than those of Jane Austen, Christianity offered spiritual hope and practical help to many who otherwise were victims of the dark side of industrialization.

The same Christianity also defended the Enlightenment principle that all people are created equal, with human rights to be respected and protected. Abolition of slavery followed industrialization as it moved from the United Kingdom to other European nations and to parts of the world colonized by European nations. At times, the freed slaves and their descendants were as badly oppressed in a wage-earning economy as they had been under slavery. Still, the message of equal rights and equal opportunity sent educators and social rights activists to the people with the greatest needs—and those who sent them were generally leaders of the Church.

For a while, the proposals of Enlightenment thinkers remained interesting theories. European governments grew increasingly powerful, centered around royal leaders such as Louis XIV of France and Peter the Great of Russia. Warfare over national policy was just as destructive as warfare over Christian doctrine had been. Indeed, exploration and colonization meant that European wars had now become World Wars, even without Roman numerals to identify them. The War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-1748), and the Seven Years War (1756-1763) all involved many European governments, their armies, their navies, and their possessions overseas. King Charles of Sweden set a pattern later to be followed by Napoleon and Hitler when, in 1708 he invaded Russia, eventually destroying an empire (his own). But Enlightenment theories and industrialization would soon lead to a new kind of conflict, revolutions which would not be industrial or scientific, but which would be political, economic, and world-changing. J.

Entering the modern world

Repugnance over the violent wars of the Reformation helped to usher in the modern era. But modern thought and activity would not have been possible without a rich inheritance bestowed by the high and late Middle Ages, the age of European exploration, the Renaissance, and the Reformation.

Chinese technology had traveled west along the Silk Roads until it sparked revolutionary change in Europe. The wheelbarrow, the water wheel, and the magnetic compass all came from China. So did gunpowder. So did printing. Johannes Gutenberg is credited with inventing the printing press in Europe, but he merely adapted technology already in use. Even so, the development of printing arguably allowed Martin Luther’s ideas to be transmitted more easily than those of Waldo, Wycliffe, and Huss, making Luther the hero of the Reformation.

Knowledge and wealth flowed into Europe from new trade routes along the coast of Africa and then to Asia, as well as into the Western Hemisphere. Capitalism had already developed from the medieval guilds and leagues and from Renaissance bankers, but trade and colonization opened new avenues of capital investment and profit. Scientific thought began with medieval philosophers. Galileo and Newton could not have been heroes of the early Modern Era without Nicholas of Cusa, Roger Bacon, and Nicholas Copernicus. These ingredients simmered together during the crisis years of the Reformation, yielding a stew of new thoughts and ideas that can only be described as modern.

Modern thought is characterized by confidence in the superiority of reason, belief in the objective assessment of data, expectation of a comprehensive explanation of whatever is being examined, and certainty of inevitable progress. All four of these have been challenged by post-modern thought in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; post-modern thinkers question reason, doubt that any delivery of information is untainted by subjective opinions, treat most explanations as only partial views of reality, and assess both gains and losses with every change. Modern thinkers credit science and education with the ability to improve the world and solve its problems; post-modern thinkers readily challenge science and education without assuming that they are undoubtedly right and their results will be completely beneficial.

Early modern thinkers called their time the Enlightenment. Historians reluctant to bestow such a value-laden label on those years are shifting to the term Baroque. Already used to describe music from that time (Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, and so on) and painting from that time (Rembrandt and Rubens, among others), the term Baroque provides a value-free description of the time period that begins with the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and continues to the American Revolution and French Revolution of the late eighteenth century.

The first important Baroque philosopher was Rene Descartes (1596-1650). To encounter truth, Descartes began by doubting everything. He asked if he could be certain of anything, and proved to be certain of one thing—that someone, by doubting, was thinking. “I think, therefore I exist,” he concluded. But information was reaching his thinking mind; something else must exist outside of his mind. That something must have a source, a First Cause, a God who made its existence possible. Descartes insisted that any God who made the flow of information from an outside world possible must be good; he said it was unthinkable that an evil God would be playing tricks on his perception. (The Matrix movies had not yet been filmed.) Therefore, he could rely on his senses and learn about the world around him. Starting from himself and moving on to God, Descartes found himself living in a reasonable world.

Baroque philosophers generally conceded the existence of God, but they were careful not to define God. In fact, they insisted upon each individual’s right to encounter God and understand God in his or her own way. Reformation warfare soured them upon government-supported religion. As Luther had already been willing to separate Church and State, so the Baroque philosophers wanted the Church and the State to leave each other alone.

Their undefined God is often called the Deist God. Deists believe in a God who created the world and set all its rules; they do not acknowledge a God who interferes with the world and breaks his own rules. Scientists like Newton can study the world and learn the rules of its Creator. Nature always follows the rules of the Creator. His ethical or moral rules are just as important, and people should follow those rules. Among those rules, as listed by John Locke, are human rights: the right to life, to liberty, and to property. Governments exist to protect those rights. Governments cannot bestow them, and governments cannot remove them without good cause. Other Baroque philosophers wrote about a Social Contract in which some rights are surrendered to the government for the sake of society as a whole. But Baroque philosophers, for the most part, emphasized the need to limit governments, to allow them as little power as is necessary. The human individual matters more; governments should not be allowed to stifle the freedom of individual people.

Of course Baroque governments did not fall into line behind Baroque philosophers. The kings and queens of Europe were becoming more powerful than ever before. New wealth from the rest of the world and new technology made it possible to control more people and to battle more enemies. War did not cease with the Peace of Westphalia and the halt to religious wars. Nations now went to war against nations for purely political, economic, and nationalistic reasons. Although they did not receive Roman numerals, the first world wars were fought in this era. Britain and France and Spain and Prussia and Austria and Russia wrestled for dominance on the land and on the sea. English pirates sank Spanish ships and were rewarded by the crown. Louis XIV spent half the national treasury of France on luxury for himself (such as the palace of Versailles) and spent the other half at war with his neighbors. Enlightenment ideas were merely ideas at first; only later would they be tested in new forms of government, first in North America, and then, finally, in Europe.

Even among philosophers and scientists and artists, modern thought and modern methods were not universal across the culture. But the two sides of modern thought will require a separate post. J.

The so-called Renaissance

Clearly no one living in the Middle Ages thought of their time as being the Middle Ages. Like people today, the people of medieval Europe saw themselves as the latest thing, living on the edge of the future. Probably some of them were convinced that “they’ve gone about as far as they can go” in historic progress and/or in wickedness and corruption. Many Christians living in those centuries were prepared for the End of the World and the New Creation, because the times seemed troubled, just as the Bible describes the Last Days.

Likewise, no one living in the Renaissance called their time the Renaissance. The label was attached centuries later by historians determined to teach that Europe experienced Dark Ages that lasted for centuries before reemerging into the light of civilization. “Renaissance” means “rebirth,” and those later historians interpreted certain events and trends to mark a rebirth of the glory of ancient Greece and Rome, overcoming the darkness brought on by acceptance of the Christian faith, invasion of Germanic and Asian tribes, and other supposedly bad things that happened in Europe between the years 500 and 1500 AD.

Getting historians to agree on a time span for the Renaissance indicates how illusionary the label truly is. The widest possible range would stretch from the beginning of revival after the worst of the Black Death—around 1350 AD—to the end of religious wars triggered by the Reformation—around 1650 AD. This three-hundred-year Renaissance swallows the Late Middle Ages, the time of European Exploration, and the entire Reformation era. But when one starts trimming away the events and trends of the Late Middle Ages and the Reformation era, very little history is left to apply to the Renaissance label.

The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks might be a fitting end to the Middle Ages and beginning of the Renaissance, since the Byzantine Empire represents continuity from the Roman Republic and Empire. Distinguishing the Renaissance from the Reformation—which traditionally begins in 1517—we are left with a sixty-four-year Renaissance in Italy and the rest of western Europe. Even then, many of the events and trends assigned to the Renaissance belong to the Late Middle Ages. Trying to dial back the Renaissance to 1400 or 1350 clouds the issue. Some historians split the Renaissance into two pieces—one for Italy, which had an earlier and longer Renaissance, and one for the rest of western Europe, which joined late and had a shorter Renaissance culminating in the Reformation.

Historical progress and set-backs, bright ages and dark ages, are largely illusions. Many gains are accompanied by losses. Resistance to change often outshouts new ideas for a while; as a consequence, when historians seek the beginning of new ideas, they find their origins happened earlier than most people realized. The Scientific Revolution, for example, was well-supported by Middle Age philosopher/theologians including William of Ockham, Nicholas of Cusa, and Roger Bacon. Nicolaus
Copernicus lived from 1473 to 1543, but his revolutionary suggestion that the Earth and other planets circle the sun was already suggested as an alternate model of the universe in Ptolemy’s famous work from the second century (and earlier Greek scientist/philosophers had made similar proposals).

Aside from allegedly rediscovering the civilization of ancient Greece and Rome, what made the Renaissance different from earlier times, particularly the High and Late Middle Ages? Renaissance artists strove to imitate the world as they saw it rather than using the visual arts to reinforce religious teachings. As a result, Renaissance artists developed new techniques to make their paintings and statues more photographically accurate. Famous artists, including Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo (yes, and Raphael and Donatello—they were all Renaissance artists in Italy before they became mutant ninja turtles), are famous for the realism of their artwork. Previous artists could have achieved similar work; they chose not to because the purpose of their art differed from that of the Renaissance artists.

That observation signals a second difference: Renaissance artists and thinkers valued the individual more highly than medieval artists and thinkers. Research must be done to uncover the names of those who built and decorated the medieval cathedrals. Their work was a gift to God, and they celebrated their anonymity. The heroic stature of Leonardo and Michelangelo reflects a philosophy of humanism, one which includes among its values the preeminent significance of the individual.

Renaissance humanism was not like modern secular humanism; sometimes it is called Christian humanism. While humanists asserted that “man is the measure of all things,” they did not deny the existence of God or his importance in creation and in salvation. Many of the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo depict Biblical persons and events. Still, these artists—along with philosophers and writers and historians of the Renaissance—emphasized the humanity of their subjects and the humanity of their audiences. (This trend also can be traced back to medieval thinkers such as Peter Abelard and Dante.)

Politics and economics are said to have changed significantly during the Renaissance, beginning in Italy. The shift from feudalism to capitalism can already be perceived in the guilds of the Middle Ages and in the development of banking, which did not appear out of nowhere in fifteenth-century Italy. Economic shifts happened in Europe because of the population decline due to the Black Death and to population growth after the plague diminished. At the same time, new wealth poured into western Europe from the explorers—first the Portuguese on the Atlantic coast of Africa, then the Spanish entering the New World, then the English and French and others also entering the Americas. These all contributed to the political and economic changes that were reshaping Europe at the very same time that the Reformation of the Church developed.

Which, of course, leads to several more historic posts in the coming days…. J.

The Late Middle Ages

Efforts to distinguish the High Middle Ages of Europe, the Late Middle Ages, and the Renaissance are as arbitrary and capricious as are efforts to distinguish the several generations of recent American history. A steady process of development and growth marks European culture throughout this time span. Historians traditionally try to place any good developments of medieval times into the High Middle Ages, treating the Late Middle Ages as an era of trouble and collapse, thus introducing a splendid and sparkling Renaissance or rebirth in Europe. But the good and the bad are intertwined, as they always are in human history, and the Renaissance is more a continuation of medieval progress than it is any rediscovery or rebirth of ancient culture and virtue.

One key development in world history overlaps the High Middle Ages of Europe: the sudden appearance of the Mongol Empire in Asia. Genghis Khan (born Temujin) assembled in his lifetime the largest landmass under one government in all human history. (Wikipedia quibbles regarding this achievement, suggesting that some World War II developments achieved greater control over the Earth, but the Mongol Empire remains the largest by any reasonable definition of “empire.”) The land ruled by the Khan included China (formerly under the Chinese Song Empire), other central Asian states, Persia, western Asia almost to Egypt, and northeastern Europe covering most of modern Russia as well as parts of Poland and other east European lands. Under his successors, the Mongol Empire would divide into four cooperating governments; Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis, would attempt to add Japan to his Japanese holdings; his failure, largely due to adverse weather, is as important to Japanese history as the Persian invasion is to Greek history and the Spanish Armada to British history. The greatest impact upon medieval Europe from the Mongols was indirect; controlling much of the Silk Roads network, they facilitated the import of Asian products into Europe, enriching the economy and creating a greater demand for Asian products in Europe.

Commodities traveled along the Silk Roads. So did ideas. So did disease. Bubonic plague had been known in the Mediterranean world long before the time of the Mongol Empire, but a new virulent strain of the disease traveled along the Silk Roads west into Europe and east into coastal China, leading to outbreaks of sickness and death commonly called the Black Death. This plague killed at least a quarter and perhaps more than a third of the population of Europe in the fourteenth and fifteen centuries. Periodic outbreaks of the plague continued in later centuries. No one was immune—rich or poor, noble class or peasant, church worker or casual worshiper or secret unbeliever. Some members of the European communities turned to the Christian faith hoping for supernatural protection from the disease; others rejected religion and followed the motto, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we will die.” The population decline across Europe added value to the remaining lives, especially in the working class. Peasants demanded more from the noble and the wealthy in exchange for their work; when the noble and wealthy refused, wars of rebellion broke out on occasion. This class warfare set the stage for greater change in Europe during the coming centuries.

Another important event of the Late Middle Ages was the death of Charles IV of France, last of the Capetian line of kings. He had no sons or brothers to inherit the throne; his nearest male relative was Edward, the nephew of Charles, who was King of England. French officials refused to acknowledge Edward as King of France; instead they crowned a cousin of King Charles, beginning the line of France’s Valois kings. Edward did not take this insult sitting down. He brought the English army into France, seeking to claim the throne that he considered his. Instead, he began the Hundred Years War between England and France.

The Hundred Years War actually lasted 116 years, but those years included two lengthy peace treaties between the French and English governments. English fighters had superior training and weaponry with their longbows, but they were unable to defeat the French in any conclusive manner. Instead, in the last years of the war, the French forces were rallied by a teenage girl named Jeanne Darc (Joan of Ark in English), who heard voices that told her what the English were planning and how they could be defeated. Eventually Jeanne was captured in battle, tried for witchcraft, condemned, and executed. But the Hundred Years War ended with the French government taking control even of lands that had belonged to the English crown, while the English government disintegrated into a civil war known as the War of the Roses.

Other unpleasantness at the same time as all these events was the highly unexpected Spanish Inquisition. Several governments in Europe had inquisitions—judicial tribunals of the Church that identified heretics, traitors, and other undesirable members of the citizenry and handed them over to the civil government for punishment. The atrocities of the Inquisition have been exaggerated by many writers, but the work of the Inquisition was far from modern judicial systems that respect the rights of the accused and grant them a hearing before a jury of their peers.

In spite of the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, and the Inquisition, European culture continued its progress during these years. Philosophers such as Roger Bacon, Nicholas of Cusa, and William of Ockham (famous for his principle of Ockham’s Razor) helped to invent the scientific method of observation, prediction, and experimentation. Great literature was being written by Dante and Petrarch, by Chaucer, and by numerous poets who built the romantic legends of King Arthur and his knights. Meanwhile, a mystic tradition of Christian devotion was growing, a tradition that helped to prepare the Church for its Reformation and for its existence and growth in the Early Modern world. J.

Free to be stupid

ARE WE FREE TO BE STUPID? OR IS IT STUPID TO BE FREE?

Most political arguments boil down to questions of freedom and of human rights. Sometimes debate results from a conflict of rights. For example, does an unborn baby possess the right to life, or does his or her right to life begin only after birth, when it no longer depends directly on the support of his or her mother? Does a woman’s right to freedom allow her to do whatever she wishes to her own body—even to the point of killing a child developing within her body—or is her freedom limited by her child’s right to life? People who have made up their minds about such issues are sometimes unable to see the reasonable thinking that supports the opposing position.

As American citizens, we have freedom of speech. But that freedom is restricted. We are not free, for example, to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We are not free to threaten public leaders, or any person or group of people, with violence, or to call other people to attack them violently. Yet we are free to disagree with our leaders. We are free to contact them, to try to persuade them to exercise their authority in certain ways. We are free to support their political opponents and to try to persuade our fellow citizens to vote for those opponents. When support for a leader or a party is prohibited by law or attacked by powerful corporations that provide space for public statements, then democracy and freedom both suffer.

Part of the debate about freedom relates to the Social Contract. Citizens willingly limit their rights and freedoms to the government for the benefit of all citizens. The government builds roads, defines how the roads are to be used (speed limits and other traffic laws) and taxes the use of those roads (license fees, tolls, and fines for breaking the law, for example). Citizens use the roads. They might willingly break traffic laws. They might even avoid paying some of the required taxes. But, when those citizens are caught breaking the speed limit or driving with an expired license, the law punishes them with further fines and other penalties. We accept government control over the roads for the obvious benefit of safe and rapid transportation.

At some point, though, citizens begin to resist the restrictions made by their government, restrictions that are intended (at least on the surface) to benefit all citizens. People are required to wear seat belts and are fined if they are caught traveling unbuckled. This is supposed to protect those people and also to save the general public from sharing the medical costs of injuries to unbelted drivers and passengers when they suffer from a collision. Smoking tobacco is prohibited in many places, and taxes are placed on cigarettes to discourage smoking. Freedom to smoke is not entirely prohibited, but the government protects non-smoking citizens from second-hand smoke and, in general, uses its power and authority to discourage smoking.

How do issues of personal freedom and the Social Contract relate to the current virus crisis? For the good of all citizens, does any government (national, state, or local) have a right (or even a responsibility) to require all citizens to be vaccinated or to require all citizens to wear masks? Can these questions be answered by appealing to precedents set by the seatbelt debate or by the smoking debate? First, cigarettes can be taxed to discourage smoking, but no fair tax can be applied to people who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID or refuse to wear masks. Second, rapid transportation by car is a right that can be regulated by the government, including license fees and speed limits and even the use of seatbelts, but people are free to walk or ride bicycles or use public transportation; they do not need to travel by car if they dislike the regulations about transportation by car. But a law requiring vaccination, or even a law requiring masks, reaches beyond personal privilege into choices that should involve individual freedom, choices that should not be coerced by government rules and regulations.

Ironically, the labels pro-life and pro-choice that, for more than a generation, have applied to sides in the abortion debate appear to have flipped in the mask and vaccination debate. Regarding abortion, the conservative position is called pro-life because it defends a baby’s right to life, even before that baby has been born. The liberal position is called pro-choice because it defends a woman’s right to do as she chooses to her own body, even while that body supports the growth and development of a child. But now the conservative position regarding masks and vaccines can be called pro-choice. Citizens can choose whether to wear a mask. They can choose whether to receive a vaccine. The opposing position calls itself pro-life. It claims that lives are being lost to the virus, lives that would be spared if everyone wore a mask and if everyone received the vaccine.

Science is used to support both sides in the abortion debate, the seatbelt debate, the cigarette debate, the mask debate, and the vaccine debate. Once the debate has ended (as is the case with seatbelts and cigarettes), people remember the science that supported the winning side and forget the science that supported the losing side. While debates continue, people remember and quote scientific facts and statistics and observations on both sides of the debate. Science is used to support either side; science does not end the debate and declare a winning side and a losing side.

Freedom to smoke cigarettes, or freedom to ride in a car without wearing a seatbelt, might be described by some people as “freedom to be stupid.” When a debate is not settled, though, either side might consider the position of the opponent to be “stupid.” If national and state and local governments passed laws prohibiting all the behavior that some people consider “stupid,” no judge or lawyer would be able to remember all those laws, and no police force would be capable of enforcing all those laws. Rules and regulations generally address the most important choices and decisions, leaving people free to make a lot of decisions on their own, even at the risk that some people—probably most or all people—will, from time to time, make a stupid decision.

Because it is entwined with politics on the highest levels, debate about the current virus crisis has become highly enflamed, with both sides regarding their opponents as stupid. Some claim that thousands (or even millions) of lives are at stake; others reply that the freedom of all citizens is at stake. Some citizens prefer to live with a government that exercises close control of personal decisions, minimizing risks and protecting all citizens from any preventable danger. Other citizens prefer to live with a government that protects freedom, regulating only behavior that is so dangerous that it can rightly be labeled “criminal.” Inevitably, elected leaders must seek and establish a compromise that protects freedom as much as possible while also reducing danger to citizens as much as possible.

Given the choice, I lean toward freedom. I do not trust the government to monitor my life and to protect me from all the stupid decisions I might make. While the virus crisis is not the best arena to shape a national debate about personal freedom and government control, it happens to be the arena in which we stand today. While we await compromises reached by our elected leaders, I continue to wave the banner of freedom. After all, I have been taught to think for myself. I have been taught to question authority. Watching movies like Dead Poets’ Society and Footloose and The Matrix—not to mention Star Wars and Blues Brothers and Ferris Buehler’s Day Off—I have learned the important of remaining free, challenging the status quo, and defending my independence as a human being. That, my friends, is the battle we are fighting today. J.