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AMA, or, to Be More Accurate, IMA

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John thinks there’s something wrong with what I’m saying because if I put an Italian and an Icelander next to a !Kung tribesman, I’d also notice their similarities more than their differences.

And, of course, I would.  Italians and Icelanders are both Westerners, albeit from two different branches of the larger enterprise called Western Civilization.   Two Westerners will have more similarities than either will have with a (traditional) Asian or South  Asian, and more differences than they would have with another person from their own country.   You can trace the branches and twigs down to very fine points indeed, so that in spite of the fact that the culture of the United States and the culture of modern Greece both derive from the culture of classical Athens, my cousins will always feel like foreigners in Greece because by now they are foreigners.

But Cheryl is wrong if she thinks I was saying that some cultures do not change or are not open to change–all cultures change, some of them (the larger and more literate ones) almost continually.

When people say “we’ve always done it this way,” what they usually mean is “this is the way I remember it being done, so it must be the way we’ve always done it.”  That leaves quite a lot of room for fluctuations and variations and even wholescale turnabouts.

The issue isn’t whether or not cultures change, but the basis on which they see change as being legitimate.  Having to defend the innnovation you want to make–like ending slavery–by resorting to “this is how we’ve always done it” or “this is what the Koran says is okay” has different results than being able to argue “this is what makes sense even if we’re not used to it.”   It has results that go beyond the argument in question.  It’s an entirely different–and until very recently (say the last four centuries) entirely novel way of looking at the world.

There’s a question, of course, about how far two branches of a culture can diverge before they become entirely separate cultures.   Robert has argued that the split between the United States and Europe is now that wide.  I would disagree, for a number of reasons.

But there have been times when such widely divergent branching has occurred, and some of them have been vitally important for the world we live in now.

Consider AMA–Averroes, Maimonides, and Aquinas.  Or, to be more culturally accurate,  Ibn Rshd, Maimonides, and Aquinas.  Averroes was the name Ibn Rshd was known by in the Latin West.

These three men were all important intellectual figures in the Middle Ages, although they were not exactly contemporary.  Averroes (Ibn Rshd) was a  Muslim living in the Iberian peninsula.  Maimonides was a rabbi and Talmudic scholar living in (eventually) Morocco.   Aquinas was a Catholic monk of the Dominican order living in the Italian peninsula.

Each of these three men served, for their culture and their religion, as the interpreter and reconciliator of what was then called “Greek learning”–the works of Plato and Aristotle, mostly, and the ways in which those works could or could not be fit into each man’s particular cultural and religious commitments.

All these men were geniuses, really, and there’s a lot on the web about them if you want to go look.  I find Averroes (Ibn Rshd) a particularly fascinating figure for a number of reasons, one of them probably being that, unlike Aquinas,  I wasn’t ever required to read great heaping books of his in Latin.

Right now, though, what’s important is not so much what these men did, as how their societies  responded to their doing it.

Maimonides took some flack from the  Jewish religious community, but in the end it came around, Maimonides got the reputation of being the greatest Talmudic scholar in history, and Judaism adopted the many of the methodologies and assumptions of classical Athenian culture–the primacy of logic and evidence over mere authority or tradition most of all. And when they did that, they also adopted Maimonides core assumption Greek (meaning secular) learning–that it was compatible with, and no danger to, religion.

Much the same happened with Aquinas, except that, given the greaterrecourse to centralized authority in the Medieval Christian church, it was even more so.  The Church authorities were driven nearly crazy by Aquinas, and the man died on his way to yet another inquiry about his religious Orthodoxy, but in the end, the Church accepted both his thesis–that “Greek (secular) learning” was compatable with and no danger to religion–and his work.  In fact, they turned him into the greatest and most influential intellectual figure in the history of Latin Christianity.

Ibn Rshd (Averroes) was not so lucky.  Not only was he harrassed throughout hiw life by religious authorities, but the final determination was definite and uncompromising–he was wrong.  Greek (secular) learning was not compatible with religion, and as in fact a great danger to it, and would have to be vigorously suppressed.

At which point, the Muslim world retreated from the position it had established as one of the most learned socities of the Medieval world and opted for–well, for what we’ve got now.  That was the point at which everything that has happened since, right down to the riots this week in the streets of  Tehran, became damned near inevitable.

Ideas have consequences, as the man said, and this particular idea–that secular learning is valid and good, and that it is compatible with and need not destroy even a revealed religion–was the idea necessary to develop science as we understand it, but also a great deal more. 

Put two societies together, one of which accepts this idea and one of which does not, and the one that accepts this idea will be rich and the other will be poor.   The Jews took over a Godforsaken patch of desert in the Middle East, the one patch that didn’t even have any oil under it, and they were richer than any of their neighbors in a matter of mere decades.  And not because we were pumping money into them, either, because various Western countries were pumping money into all kinds of Middle Eastern ones, and some of those Middle Eastern ones were getting rich off oil.

Consider this:  in Saudi Arabia there are state of the art medical facilities, but they’re largely staffed and run by Western doctors; there are complicated engineering projects, also largely staffed and run (on the design and administrative ends) by  Westerners.

Aquinas said, and it became Roman  Catholic dogma, that there is only one truth, that if there seems to be a conflict between science and religion, it’s because we’re misinterpreting something.  That paved the way not only for science, but for wholesale change in religion itself, and especially in the reading and interpreting of the  Bible.   In made both the Renaissance and the Reformation possible, and it goes a long way to explain what is happening today in our arguments about creationism and evolution.

Ideas matter.  The history of ideas really matters.  And to answer Robert’s question, no, the history of ideas should not be taught in the history department.

More on why not, tomorrow.

Written by janeh

June 18th, 2009 at 9:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'AMA, or, to Be More Accurate, IMA'

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  1. Your claim that some cultures will not change unless they can justify that change in terms of tradition or religion does, to my eye, imply that they will change little. But all cultures fight against or for change on the basis of their own traditions or religions or beliefs.

    I don’t really know enough about other cultures to say, but I suspect there’s a lot more to the differences than the need to accept science or reason. Ethnic loyalties, economic systems, what’s called the, oh, I forget – honour culture? The idea that a person can be shamed by the actions of another and that shame can only be erased by blood – more social psychology than something based in reason or religion – they are all important.


    18 Jun 09 at 3:13 pm

  2. Jane has solved a problem that has long puzzled me. Why did the muslims go from being one of the most “advanced” societies in the 1100s to being backward societies now. It suggests that one of the necessary conditions for a scientific revolution is a culture that is open to change. That might also explain why the Chinese and Indians failed to develop science.

    But are there any features of a culture that are sufficient to guarantee that a scientific revolution will occur?


    18 Jun 09 at 5:52 pm

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