Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Revelation Cannot Resolve the Creation/Evolution Debate

Unlike  the atheistic religiosity of Romantic conservatives like Roger Scruton, the theistic religiosity of evangelical Christians is grounded in their faith in the supreme authority of God's revelation--the special revelation of the Bible and the general revelation of nature, the "two books" in which God's revelation can be read by human beings.  Remarkably, however, neither biblical revelation nor natural revelation provides a clear teaching to resolve the debate among evangelical Christians over creation and evolution. 

This becomes evident if one reads the new book edited by J. B. Stump--Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Zondervan, 2017).  Four positions in the creation/evolution debate are represented by four leading proponents: Young Earth creationism (Ken Ham), Old Earth creationism (Hugh Ross), evolutionary creation (Deborah Haarsma), and intelligent design (Stephen Meyer).  This is the first time that these four people have engaged one another directly.  Each of the four has written a chapter, followed by responses from the other three, and then a rejoinder by the chapter's author.

In John 17, Jesus prays to God that all believers will be as one, that they will come to complete unity, "so that the world may believe that you have sent me."  It seems that Christians give witness to the truth of revelation by showing their agreement about that revelation.  In Stump's "Introduction" to Four Views, he says that a primary purpose of this book was to pursue unity in what revelation teaches about origins (16).  But in his "Conclusion" to the book, he laments that this has not been achieved: "I doubt that readers will come away from this book with the feeling that we are any closer to the goal of Christian unity on the topic of origins" (232).

There are three possible explanations for this.  Either there has been no revelation (through the Bible or through nature) of God's teaching about origins. Or there has been such a revelation, but it's so obscure that it conveys no clear message. Or the revelation does convey a clear message, but human beings have a stubborn bias that blinds them to that clear message.  Hugh Ross says that "since most humans will choose autonomy over submission to God," most humans will refuse to see the clear evidence of God's creative activity in nature (166).  But this atheistic bias cannot explain why faithful Christians--like the four authors in this book--would refuse to recognize the clear teaching of revelation.  So we are left with the first two explanations for why these Christians cannot come to agreement about origins: either there has been no revelation about origins, or the revelation is not clear enough to be understood.  All four of the authors believe that God has sent the Holy Spirit "to guide us persistently to truth" (71, 76, 107), but here the Holy Spirit has failed to guide them to agreement about the revealed teaching concerning origins.

Like the other three authors, Ken Ham (the young earth creationist) sees God's revelation both in Scripture and in nature.  But he thinks the biblical revelation is clearer and more truthful than natural revelation, because after Adam's Fall, God cursed creation, and so "the creation gives a confusing message about the Creator" (19).  The creation reveals the Creator to all people, but it does not teach us how and when God created.  For that, we must go to the Bible (101).

Ham insists that the "clear teaching" of the Bible, particularly in the first 11 chapters of Genesis, is that God created everything over six literal days about 6,000 years ago; and therefore the claim of evolutionary science that life and the universe evolved naturally over billions of years is false.  But Ham is silent about the fact that the dating of Creation at 6,000 years ago is not in the Bible.  This date was inferred by Bishop James Ussher, who relied not just on the Bible but also on non-biblical documents.  So this is not a "clear teaching" of the Bible.  Moreover, Ham admits that "most Christians" or "many Christians" do not agree with his interpretation (24, 28, 31, 34, 38, 44, 46).

Ham also claims that the Bible is clear in declaring that God created all the forms of plant and animal life by creating distinct "kinds" (Hebrew min), and that these created kinds correspond to what in modern classification would be called the family (not species or genus) (41, 105).  Thus, new species can arise by natural evolution, but this evolutionary change is within the boundary of a "kind" or "family."  Ham is silent, however, about how, prior to Darwin, "kinds" were interpreted as species.  Once Darwin had shown how species can emerge by natural evolution, some creationists, beginning with Frank Marsh in 1941, began to argue that the Hebrew min was an "imprecise term," and that it should be interpreted not as species but as family.  (I have written about this here.)  Ham has adopted this interpretation without acknowledging that it is an interpretation that is not a "clear teaching" of the Bible.  (I have written a post on Ham's debate with Bill Nye in 2014.)

Against Ham, Hugh Ross (the old earth creationist) insists that the Bible clearly teaches that the six days of creation in Genesis 1 are not literal 24-hour days but "ages"--long expanses of time that correspond to the billions of years for the creation of the universe, the earth, and life that has been confirmed by modern science.  And yet, while disagreeing with Ham about dating, Ross agrees with Ham in reading the Genesis story literally.  So, for example, he agrees with Ham that the human species was originally created with God's creation of Adam and Eve; and he predicts that genetic models will eventually show an initial human ancestral population of 2.  The creation narrative in Genesis is "in perfect accord--both descriptively and chronologically--with the established scientific record" (83).  The Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature are in concord.

Ross believes that the evolutionary history of the universe and life show gaps that cannot be explained by purely natural evolutionary processes, because these gaps arise from God's miraculous intervention. For example, there is an unbridgeable gap between human beings and all other animals, because the creation of Adam and Eve was a miraculous work of the Creator.  Similarly, mass extinction and mass speciation events show God's interventions into natural history.

Unlike both Ham and Ross, Deborah Haarsma (the evolutionary creationist) does not see the creation story in Genesis as a literal history of nature's origins, and she does not see gaps in evolutionary history that require miraculous interventions by God to create what cannot arise by natural evolution.  She writes: "Evolutionary creation is the view that God created the universe, earth, and life over billions of years, and that the gradual process of evolution was crafted and governed by God to create the diversity of all life on earth. Thus, evolution is not a worldview in opposition to God but a natural mechanism by which God providentially achieves his purposes" (125).

Compared with the other three positions, Haarsma's evolutionary creation is closest to Darwin's idea of "dual causality": Darwin speaks of the laws of nature as manifested in evolution as "secondary causes," which leaves open the possibility of God's creative power acting through "primary causes" to create the original order of nature itself.  I have written about this here and here.

Haarsma has carefully chosen the term "evolutionary creation" as an alternative to the term "theistic evolution," because the later term often suggests a deism in which the divine First Cause lacks the personal and providential traits of the Biblical God.  Haarsma's Creator chooses to act through the evolutionary laws of nature rather than miraculous interventions, which distinguishes her position from that of Ham and Ross.  But her Creator does engage in those miraculous acts that are necessary for human salvation--such as the incarnation and resurrection of Christ.  Her Creator hears and answers prayers.  Her Creator really is the Biblical God and not just Meyer's Intelligent Designer.  (As I have indicated in another post, Darwin would have disagreed with Haarsma on this point, because he did not see any clear evidence that the Bible was a divine revelation.)

According to Haarsma, Genesis does not answer the how and when questions of science, but it does answer the who and why questions (131).  Much of the Genesis story repeats the creation stories of the ancient Near East that the Israelites would have known.  God accommodated his teaching to these beliefs.  He could have corrected this cosmology, Haarsma observes, but he chose not to do that.  God's only concern was to teach that there is only one God who is the sovereign creator of all, which departed from the ancient origin stories (128-30).  In this interpretation, Haarsma follows the lead of John Walton, who argues that the Bible was written first to the peoples living in the ancient Near East, and therefore we should not expect that the cosmological teachings should correspond with a modern scientific understanding.

But as Ham points out, this "accuses God of using error to teach truth" (156).  If God had corrected the errors of ancient Near Eastern cosmology, wouldn't this have confirmed God's revelation as truth that was beyond human understanding prior to modern science?  If there is no correction of ancient cosmology, does this imply that this is not really a revelation of a truth beyond the human beliefs of that time?

Haarsma might respond that we can see this was a true revelation because it corrects ancient theology in teaching a monotheistic religion of a creator God that was new.  But if we're going to read the Bible within its cultural setting, then we might notice that parts of the Bible seem to accept the polytheistic idea that different peoples have different gods (for example Judges 11:24).  We might then wonder whether Yahweh was originally one of many gods who at some point was elevated to be the one universal and transcendent god of Israel, which is the argument of Thomas Romer in The Invention of God (Harvard, 2015).  So why isn't God a cultural invention?  To deny this, it would help to have a revelation in the Bible of cosmological truths that correct traditional cosmologies in ways that people of the ancient Near East could not have understood, but which might be confirmed by modern science.

To all of this, Stephen Meyer (the intelligent design theorist) responds by arguing that although he personally believes in biblical revelation, he sees that the case for an intelligent designer as an alternative to materialist natural science is best made on purely scientific grounds without any appeal to biblical authority.  He claims that the evidence of science based on our natural observations of the world point to the existence of an intelligent designer to explain the appearance of design in the natural world that cannot be explained plausibly by Darwinian evolutionary science.

There are, however, as I will indicate in my next post, some serious problems with Meyer's argument.

Here, I only want to make the point that the disagreement over origins among these four faithful Christians who have carefully studied both the Bible and science suggests that there has been no divine revelation that clearly resolves the debate among evangelical Christians over creation and evolution.

So what?  What difference does this make for orthodox believing Christians?  Sometimes the authors in this book say the debate over origins is only a "secondary issue" for Christians, because one can be a believing Christian without resolving this debate (44-45, 60).  But then Ham contends that the literal truth of Genesis 1-11 is the "foundation" of all the other doctrines of Christianity--it is "the foundation of the whole rest of the Bible" (18).  If this is so, then those who disagree with Ham's interpretation of Genesis are destroying Christianity.

Ham refers to the famous case of Anthony Flew, the British philosopher who argued for philosophic atheism until he was persuaded to accept the argument for intelligent  design, and he became a deist.  Ham observes that since Flew never accepted the clear revelation in the Bible of God as Creator and Jesus as Savior, he died "as a Christ-rejecting sinner who sadly will spend eternity in Hell" (210).  So those who fail to receive the correct revelation of Biblical creationism will go to Hell!  (My posts on Flew can be found herehere, and here.)

Even if they don't go to Hell, professors at Christian schools who don't receive the correct revelation of creationism might lose their jobs.  For example, the editor of Four Views--Jim Stump--was for many years a respected professor of philosophy at Bethel College in Indiana.  But then the College adopted this declaration as part of their statement of  faith: "We believe that the first man, Adam, was created by an immediate act of God and not by a process of evolution."  Since Stump is a proponent of evolutionary creation, who works for Haarsma's BioLogos, the organization promoting evolutionary creation, he believes that Adam was indeed created by God through a natural process of evolution.  Consequently, he was forced to resign from Bethel College.  (I have written about the Adam controversy here.)

So why are faithful Christians unable to reach any agreement about this question of creation, evolution, and ultimate origins?  If the revelation of God's teaching in the Bible or in nature about origins is untrustworthy or unclear, why should we believe that there has been any revelation at all?

Has the Holy Spirit failed us?

Monday, November 20, 2017

Roger Scruton's Fallacious Argument in "On Human Nature"

In his new book On Human Nature (Princeton University Press), Roger Scruton shows the straw man fallacy in criticizing the biological science of human nature as biological reductionism.  Although some biologists do sometimes sound like absolute reductionists, most biologists--beginning with Charles Darwin himself--recognize that any biological science of human nature must explain the emergent differences in kind between human beings and other animals, for which there is no fully reductionist explanation. One needs to see, however, that these emergent differences in kind are not radical differences in kind that would require some creationist or Kantian metaphysics of transcendence.

In The Descent of Man (Penguin Classics, 2004), Darwin did seem to be a reductionist when he declared that the differences between human beings and the other animals was only a difference in degree and not in kind:
"Some naturalists, from being deeply impressed with the mental and spiritual powers of man, have divided the whole organic world into three kingdoms, the Human, the Animal, and the Vegetable, thus giving to man a separate kingdom.  Spiritual powers cannot be compared or classed by the naturalist: but he may endeavor to shew, as I have done, that the mental faculties of man and the lower animals do not differ in kind, although immensely in degree. A difference in degree, however great, does not justify us in placing man in a distinct kingdom" (173).
Against this apparent reductionism, Scruton argues that human beings are irreducibly different in kind from other animals: "We are animals certainly; but we are also incarnate persons, with cognitive capacities that are not shared by other animals and which endow us with an entirely distinctive emotional life--one dependent on the self-conscious thought processes that are unique to our kind" (29-30).

Other animals are conscious, Scruton contends, but only human beings are self-conscious in being able to say "I," who thus become persons rather than mere objects.

Other animals can communicate, but only human beings have language, which allows them to tell stories about themselves and their world; and thus they can live in imagined symbolic worlds that they have created for themselves, which includes the religious symbolism of stories about the divine.

Other animals are social beings who can enforce rules of social cooperation, but only human beings have a moral sense by which they judge the conduct of themselves and others as right or wrong, good or evil, just or unjust.

Scruton concedes that all of these distinctively human traits depend upon biological capacities in the brain that are objectively observable and thus open to scientific explanation.  And yet, he argues, the uniquely human experiences of self-conscious awareness, understanding language, and moral judgment are inward subjective experiences of the mind that cannot be outwardly seen through objective observation, and therefore they cannot be studied by the natural science of biology.

In all of this, Scruton assumes a fundamental dualism that originated in nineteenth-century Romanticism, which is conveyed in Wilhelm Dilthey's separation of Geisteswissenschaften (human sciences or sciences of the mind or the humanities) and Naturwissenschaften (natural sciences) (12, 22-23, 46).  The natural sciences seek causal explanations of the objectively observable realm of Nature.  The humanities seek interpretive understanding of the subjectively experienced realm of Spirit or Mind, which is the uniquely human realm.  This kind of distinction is assumed in the way academic disciplines are organized in Western culture: the natural sciences and social sciences are separated from the humanities.

Scruton illuminates this distinction through an analogy (30-32).  When painters paint on a canvas, they create physical objects by physical means.  When we look at the painting, we are looking at the physical blobs of paint on the physical canvas.  But if we see a face in the painting, the face is in some manner something more than the physical blobs of paint.  Seeing the face is a subjective experience in our inward mental experience.  Natural science can explain the physical and chemical properties of the painting as objectively observable phenomena.  But our subjective awareness of the face is an inward mental experience that cannot be reduced to the physical and chemical properties of the painting.  Similarly, we might say that persons are to their bodies as seeing the face in the painting is to the physical blobs of paint on the canvas. 

Personhood is an emergent feature of the human organism that depends on the biological capacities of the organism but without being fully reducible to those biological capacities.  The brain scientist can explain the natural physical and chemical properties of the brain that make personal subjectivity possible, but this cannot fully explain the subjective experience to which a person has direct access, but which is invisible to the scientific observer.  We can design machines that paint pictures, but we cannot assume that those machines see faces in their pictures.  Thus, the human person is an emergent entity rooted in the human animal body but belonging to a higher realm of reality beyond biology.

Emergence occurs when quantitative differences pass over a critical threshold of complexity to become qualitative differences: differences of degree become differences in kind.  So, for example, with rising temperature, ice becomes water, and then water becomes steam.  Scruton concludes: "What we are trying to describe in describing personal relations is revealed only on the surface of personal interaction.  The personal eludes biology in just the way that the face in the picture eludes the theory of pigments.  The personal is not an addition to the biological: it emerges from it, in something like the way the face emerges from the colored patches on a canvas" (41).

The straw man fallacy in Scruton's argument is in his false assumption that biologists must be reductionists who fail to see the need for the idea of emergence as part of their scientific explanation of subjective mental experience.  In fact, as I have argued in various posts (here, here, here, and here), many biologists, beginning with Darwin, have recognized biological emergence.

Despite Darwin's explicit statement that humans differ only in degree, not in kind, from other animals, he implicitly recognized all the differences in kind that are stressed by Scruton.  That is to say, that Darwin recognized that human beings have some traits that other animals do not have at all.

Darwin noted that self-consciousness is uniquely human: "It may be freely admitted that no animal is self-conscious, if by this term it is implied, that he reflects on such points, as whence he comes or whither he will go, or what is life and death, and so forth" (105).  Morality is also uniquely human: "A moral being is one who is capable of comparing his past and future actions or motives, and of approving or disapproving of them.  We have no reason to suppose that any of the lower animals have this capacity. . . . man . . . alone can with certainty be ranked as a moral being" (135).  And language is uniquely human: "The habitual use of articulate language is . . . peculiar to man" (107).

Darwin could implicitly affirm such emergent differences in kind without affirming any radical differences in kind.  Emergent differences in kind can be explained by natural science as differences in kind that naturally evolve from differences in degree that pass over a critical threshold of complexity.  So, for example, we can see the uniquely human capacities for self-consciousness, morality, and language as emerging from the evolutionary expansion of the primate brain, so that at some critical point in the evolution of our ancestors, the size and complexity of the brain (perhaps particularly in the frontal cortex) reached a point where distinctively human cognitive capacities emerged at higher levels of brain evolution that are not found in other primates.  With such emergent differences in kind, there is an underlying unbroken continuity between human beings and their hominid ancestors, so there is no need to posit some supernatural intervention in nature that would create a radical difference in kind in which there is a gap with no underlying continuity.

Scruton agrees with this in that human uniqueness emerges from small steps in evolution without any need for positing some separate miraculous origin for human beings: there is "no impassible gap" (66).

Scruton and Darwin also agree about what Scruton calls "the mystery of the subjective viewpoint" (135).  We can see the body through outward observation.  But the mind is invisible, and we can know it directly only by our own inward experience of mental awareness; and therefore we can only infer mental experience in other human beings or other animals by interpreting their outward movements as evidence of inward subjectivity similar to our own.  So, as Aquinas said, "the internal passions of animals can be gathered from their outward movements."

Darwin recognizes "the impossibility of judging what passes through the mind of an animal" (105).  But he believes that scientists can make reasonable inferences about the invisible subjectivity of animal minds from careful observation of their bodily movements and bodily expression of emotions. And, of course, this is what ethologists do when they infer animal psychology from observational and experimental studies of animal behavior.  Ethologists thus engage in scientific "mind reading."  And, as we have seen in some posts (here), some ethologists see experimental evidence for other animals having a "theory of mind," so they read the minds of other animals.  Oddly, Scruton ignores this when he asserts that interpreting animal minds is not part of science, but belongs only to the humanities and to ordinary folk psychology.

Scruton also ignores the scientific study of what Darwin called the "mental individuality" of animals (Darwin, 106), which includes the study of "animal personality" (a topic for various posts here and here).  Scruton does admit that other animals show "shallow individuality," although he insists that only human beings show "deep individuality" (80-82).

And while Scruton denies that other animals have morality, he does admit that apes show "near equivalents of punishment, appeasement, and reconciliation" (84).

If it is possible for biological scientists to study the mind--the Geist--then they can study those uniquely human traits that arise through mental subjectivity--self-consciousness, morality, and language--and thus biology can account for the fullness of human nature as including both body and mind.  If this is true, then biology includes the Geisteswissenschaften as well as the Naturwissenschaften.

And this biological study of human psychology includes the biological study of religious psychology as rooted in the evolved human propensity for detecting intelligent agency: just as we read the invisible minds of other human beings and other animals, we read the invisible mind of God.  Our natural desire for religious understanding is rooted in our natural desire for understanding invisible minds.  Evolutionary psychologists can agree on this without agreeing on whether this religious psychology points to the real existence of a divine mind, which has come up in posts (here).

In his affirmation of atheistic religiosity, Scruton affirms religious longing as part of human nature grounded in evolved human psychology, but without affirming the doctrinal truth of that natural religion.

Scruton's atheistic but religious conservatism resembles the position of other conservatives such as Peter Augustine Lawler, who have tried to argue that evolutionary science provides a true, but only partially true, account of human nature.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Atheistic Religiosity in Kantian Conservatism: Roger Scruton on Wagner's "Ring" Cycle



Tomorrow, I will see the new production of Richard Wagner's Die Walkure at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.  This is the second of the four operas in Wagner's Ring cycle.  In the spring of 2020, Lyric will have performances of all four of the operas in one week, so that audiences can sit through all 17 hours of the cycle over a few days, as Wagner originally intended.

As I have indicated in my previous posts on Wagner (here, here, here, and here), I regard Die Meistersinger as his best opera, because it shows how a free society with only a limited "night-watchman state" can foster the full range of human virtue, from the low to the high, including the virtuous cultural activities of art, science, and philosophy, and thus it provides no support for Hitler's Nazi statism.  By contrast, Wagner's Ring cycle manifests the Romantic conception of art as appealing to the Dionysian emotions of an atheistic religiosity, which was so attractive to Hitler and the Nazis.

It is this Wagnerian art of atheistic religiosity that appeals to conservative philosophers like Roger Scruton, as is evident in his book The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung" (Allen Lane, 2016).  Scruton is one of the preeminent theorists of political conservatism; and like many conservatives in Great Britain and the United States, he thinks a religious attitude is essential for a healthy moral order, and therefore that traditional religious experience needs to be defended against a Darwinian science that claims to explain the place of human beings in the natural world without any reference to a transcendent realm beyond nature.  And yet--again like many other conservatives--Scruton does not believe in the literal truth of Christianity or any other religion.  He wants to have a sense of the sacred that comes from religious emotions, but without the need to believe any religious doctrines.  We know that God is dead, but we also know that human beings need to satisfy their religious longings for transcendence and redemption.  That's the truth that Scruton sees in Wagner's Ring cycle.

Scruton traces that truth back to Kant and to the German philosophers in the nineteenth century whose thinking was shaped by Kant's idealism: "Kant begat Fichte, who begat Hegel who begat Feuerbach; and Feuerbach began both Wagner and Marx" (16).

I cannot embrace the atheistic religiosity of Kant, Wagner, and Scruton, because this line of thinking is incoherent self-deception, and because it led to the Nazi philosophers of the 1930s.  (I have written a post on the Kantian idealism of the Nazi philosophers.)

Scruton thinks that Wagner saw the "bleak truth" that "we are here on earth without an explanation and that if there is meaning, we ourselves must supply it" (36).  "The core religious phenomenon, Wagner believed, is not the idea of God, but the sense of the sacred. . . . religion contains deep truths about the human psyche; but these truths become conscious only in art, which captures them in symbols.  Religion conceals its legacy of truth within a doctrine.  Art reveals that truth through symbols" (40).  In other words, "Wagner sees his art as expressing and completing our religious emotions.  Art shows the believable moral realities behind the unbelievable metaphysics" (41).  Religion is an "elaborate fiction," because the gods exist only in human imagination, but in Wagner's imaginative art, the gods symbolize truthfully the spiritual needs of our human psychology (56).

Our deepest spiritual need is redemption from a world that has no meaning.  And Scruton believes that Wagner's Ring cycle satisfies our human longing for redemption.  For Scruton, this is clearest in two parts of the Ring.  First, in Act 3 of Die Walkure, which begins with the famous ride of the Valkyries.  In the previous act, Siegmund has been killed, and Brunnhilde has taken his wife Sieglinde onto the saddle of her horse to save her from Wotan.  Sieglinde sees no reason to live.  But Brunnhilde tells her that she must live to save the child--the future hero Siegfried--whom she carries in her womb.  The music introduces the motif of Siegfried as hero followed by a passionate climax with the motif of Sieglinde's blessing, which is often called the "redemption motif."  This motif is not heard again until we hear it at the very end of the cycle as the last music we hear at the end of Gotterdammerung ("The Twilight of the Gods").  So, the meaning of the whole Ring cycle, it seems, is the artfully aroused emotion of redemption.



I must say that when my wife and I saw the complete Ring cycle at the Lyric Opera in April of 2005--four operas over six days--the closing music did leave us with an ecstatic feeling that might be identified as redemption.  (Well, okay, we were also feeling exhausted relief that we had finally made it through the 17 hours of Wagnerian opera!)

But then, as Scruton admits, anyone who wonders about what this really means must ask: redemption from what, to what, by whom?  The Christian will answer: redemption from our sinful human condition, to an eternal life of bliss with God, by the grace bestowed on us by Jesus Christ.  C. S. Lewis conveyed this thought in his account of his early life in Surprised by Joy.  He remembered the first time he saw a book with the title Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods will illustrations of Wagner's Ring cycle.  He became totally taken over by Wagner and Norse mythology.  He tried to write a heroic poem on the Wagnerian version of the Nibelung story.  Here he felt what he called "the stab of Joy" that would later be fulfilled in his conversion to Christianity.  Wagner's Ring cycle was a pointer to something else--to the Joy that only Christians can know.

But since Wagner and Scruton deny the truth of these Christian doctrines, this kind of redemption is not possible for them.  The only redemption that can come through Wagner's operas is the artistically induced feeling of redemption, which does not require any belief in the literal truth of Christian redemption.

I think Nietzsche was right--during the middle period of his writing career, when he freed himself from his Dionysian enchantment with Wagner--in saying that this is all a magician's trick that gives us the fake emotions of a fake redemption.  It's entertainment for atheists who want religious feelings without religious doctrines.

Scruton restates Nietzsche's objections to Wagner (296-99).  But, oddly, Scruton doesn't even attempt to refute those objections.  His only response to Nietzsche is to point out that in his last years Nietzsche revived the love for Wagner that he had had earlier in his life.  "Clearly then, his attacks on Wagner did not cure him of the enchantment, and we are left wondering how sincerely he meant them" (299).  Scruton then passes on without any further thought about what this reveals about Nietzsche's struggle with Wagner's atheistic religiosity.

In many posts (some of which can be found hereherehereherehere, and here ), I have argued that Lou Salome (the woman who turned down Nietzsche's proposal of marriage) understood Nietzsche better than all of the other commentators on Nietzsche.  (I have also written about this in my Nietzsche chapter in Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Pinker.

Salome saw that Nietzsche was deeply moved by religious longings that made Wagner's art appealing to him, that he escaped from this only in the middle period of his writing (particularly in Human, All Too Human), when he adopted a scientific view of the world, which was the most intellectually defensible position that he ever took, but then in his later writings, he returned to the religious longings that were expressed in his attempt to create a new Dionysian religion. 

In his middle period, Nietzsche understood how the need for redemption had become so strong for human beings that even those who believe themselves to be atheists are moved by the religious desire to find some transcendent satisfaction through art.  Those who might otherwise be considered atheistic free spirits enjoy music like Wagner's operas that stirs religious feelings without requiring belief in religious doctrines.  Romantic art in general shows "the magic of religious feeling" as the modern artist appeals to those who have given up religious beliefs but who still yearn for religious ecstasy through art.  (In his essay "Nietzsche on Wagner," Scruton jumps from Nietzsche's early writings to his later writings, while passing over in silence Nietzsche's middle writings.)

In his middle period, Nietzsche defended a Darwinian science of evolution according to which "everything has evolved."  By Nietzsche's Darwinian account, morality does not elevate human beings beyond the natural world, because human morality arises as a natural development of animal nature.  There is no need for a redemptive transcendence of nature to give meaning to human life, because life, even in its mortality and contingency, is inherently good in its intrinsic purposefulness without any need for cosmic purposefulness.  (I have suggested that this thought is conveyed in Wallace Stevens' poem "Sunday Morning": "Death is the mother of beauty.")

Scruton occasionally comes close to saying something like this, but then he insists on the need for redemption in a way that renders his thought incoherent.  Explaining Wagner's operatic art, he observes:
". . . it takes the turning points of human life and frames them as religious sacrifices--it is a 'making sacred' of those moments when we must pay the full cost of being what we are.  It is not absurd to give to these moments the name that Wagner clung to when attempting to summarize their power--Erlosung, or redemption.  He did not mean that word in its Christian sense, as invoking the promise and the purchase of a better life to come.  He meant it as a description of the religious rite itself, and hence of the moment of transcendence on the tragic stage: the moment when life is shown to be intrinsically worthwhile, exactly when it is engulfed by the ambient nothingness" (302).
But if we know that life is "intrinsically worthwhile," so that we have no need for "the promise and the purchase of a better life to come," then it makes no sense to say that life's worth depends on transcendence, if only the fake transcendence of operatic emotion.  Moreover, it's hard to see how such fake transcendence works if we know it's fake.

I suppose that Scruton would say that it's not completely fake, because the longing for transcendence in human nature is a real phenomenon of human psychology.  That's his claim in his new book On Human Nature, which I will take up in my next post.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Lockean Social Contract in Ancient Mesopotamia

In various posts in recent years, I have argued that John Locke's evolutionary history of politics has been largely confirmed by the modern research of evolutionary anthropologists and archaeologists. 

Locke was correct in seeing that most human beings throughout history have lived in a state of nature in which they were free, equal, and independent.  They lived in families in small bands of hunter-gatherers, hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants.  They organized their social lives through customary laws of mutual cooperation, and they settled conflicts through informal negotiation and arbitration, with each individual having a natural right to punish those who violated the customary laws. 

In time of war, they might appoint someone as a temporary chief to lead them in war.  In time of peace, some prominent men might act as informal leaders.  But they resisted any attempt by anyone to exercise dominant rule over them as an violation of their natural freedom and autonomy, and so they had no government.  Despite the occasional wars between bands, this state of nature without government was generally a state of peace. 

But then, a few thousand years ago, as human beings moved from hunting and gathering to farming--harvesting domesticated plants and herding domesticated animals--it became harder to settle disputes peacefully.  They consented to a government that would act as a common superior over them in making, judging, and executing laws.  But those rulers who abused their governmental powers in oppressing their people rather than securing their natural rights could provoke popular resistance and rebellion, which could overthrow a tyrannical government and lead to establishing a new government that seemed more likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Locke saw evidence for all this in the anthropological history of the New World, because he believed that "in the beginning all the world was America," and that "the Kings of the Indians in America" is "still a pattern of the first ages in Asia and Europe" (Second Treatise, paras. 49, 108).  Archaeological studies over the past two centuries suggest that the transition from nomadic hunting and gathering to settled farming villages and then to cities with centralized states occurred for the first time in Mesopotamia between 5,200 BCE and 3,200 BCE.

Does this new history of the earliest states in Mesopotamia confirm or deny Locke's history?  James C. Scott's new book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States helps to answer this question, because he provides a survey of how new evidence from the fields of prehistory, archaeology, ancient history, and anthropology brings into view how states arose in ancient Mesopotamia for the first time in human history.

Beginning around 5,200 BCE, there is evidence in Mesopotamia for small towns of sedentary foragers, farmers, and pastoralists who manage their collective affairs and trade with the outside world.  So even after the development of agriculture, with the farming of domesticated plants and the herding of domesticated animals, human beings still lived in societies without states.

If one is looking for those attributes of "stateness" that point to "territoriality and a specialized state apparatus: walls, tax collection, and officials" (Scott, 118), then Uruk was the first state.  A city wall was first built at Uruk around 3,200 BCE.  By then Uruk was the largest city in the world, with a population somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000.  Following the model of Uruk, roughly twenty other city-states arose in the Mesopotamian alluvium.  As Scott indicates, each city was small enough that one could walk from the center to the outer boundary in a day.

Scott is best known for a series of books (Scott 1976, 1998, 2009, 2012) that shows an anarchist scorn for organized state societies, based on fixed-field agricultural production, as a plague upon humanity--bringing slavery, conscription, taxes, forced labor, epidemics, and warfare.  For Scott, this explains why many people have rightly chosen to remain stateless; and in doing so, they have shown how ordinary people are capable of organizing their lives through spontaneously cooperative enterprises without any need for oppressive regimentation by the central planning of a state bureaucracy.  Although libertarians and libertarian anarchists have pointed to Scott's books as supporting their opposition to statism, Scott himself rejects libertarian anarchism in favor of the socialist anarchism of those like Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin. 

You can see this in a YouTube video of a debate between Scott, David Friedman, and Robert Ellickson, with Ellickson speaking for classical liberalism as opposed to the anarchism of Scott and Friedman.
Some of my posts on anarchism can be found herehereherehere, and here.

Although Locke was not an anarchist, he shows an anarchist propensity in his account of the state of nature as showing that life in stateless societies is natural for human beings, that there have been no governments throughout most of human history,  and therefore formal governmental institutions are artificial creations of human will that have arisen only recently in human history. 

The evidence surveyed by Scott confirms this line of thought in Locke by showing that indeed most of human evolutionary history, for hundreds of thousands of years, has been a history of stateless societies without government in bands of hunter-gatherers.  About 7,000 years ago, some people in Mesopotamia formed settled villages with farming and herding, but they still organized their social life without a state apparatus.   It was only about 5,000 years ago that the first states began to appear first in Mesopotamia.  Moreover, Scott shows, even after the emergence of states, most human beings continued to live outside the state as "barbarians."  Even at the time of Locke's birth in the seventeenth century, a majority of the human population around the world was probably living in stateless societies.

If this supports Locke as correct about the state of nature, then this sustains Locke's fundamental claim that human beings by nature have the ability and propensity to live in the natural and voluntary associations of stateless societies without centralized governmental rule.  If this is so, then this also supports Locke's claim that human beings naturally can and will withdraw their obedience to a government that they see as oppressive in depriving them of their liberty and failing to secure their lives and property: they are naturally inclined to assert their natural right to resist and rebel against despotic government.  It's in this way that we can understand all government to depend upon the consent of the individuals subject to its rule.  This is what has been called the social contract theory of government, although Locke himself does not use the term "social contract."

Scott, however, seems to deny that this is true for the history of the earliest states in Mesopotamia.  In Against the Grain, he casually dismisses Locke's social contract theory in one sentence: "If the formation of the earliest states were shown to be largely a coercive enterprise, the vision of the state, one dear to the heart of such social-contract theorists as Hobbes and Locke, as a magnet of civil peace, social order, and freedom from fear, drawing people in by its charisma, would have to be reexamined."  But then in the next two sentences after this passage, Scott seems to concede Locke's point that people can and will resist an oppressive state: "The early state, in fact, as we shall see, often failed to hold its population; it was exceptionally fragile epidemiologically, ecologically, and politically and prone to collapse or fragmentation.  If, however, the state often broke up, it was not for lack of exercising whatever coercive powers it could muster" (26-27, 29).

"Walls make states," Scott observes.  And while walls might protect a city's people from invaders, the walls should also be seen as keeping the city's people inside--walls demonstrate "that the flight of subjects was a real preoccupation of the early state" (139).  Repeatedly, Scott notes that the records of the Mesopotamian states are full of evidence of people running away from their states--slaves running away from their enslavement, soldiers running away from their conscripted service in war, taxpayers running away from oppressive taxation, laborers running away from coerced labor, and people generally running away from cities racked with famine and contagious diseases (150-64, 205-218).  Scott also notes the evidence for frequent rebellions.

When rulers were threatened by external invaders or internal enemies, the rulers were inclined to increase their extraction of resources from their people--increased confiscation of grain, increased taxation, increased conscription of laborers and soldiers.  This increased exploitation of the people would provoke flight or rebellion that could bring the disintegration of the state.  Commonly, historians describe this as a "collapse" of the state following by "dark ages" of stateless barbarism.  But as Scott indicates, this language assumes an unjustified bias in favor of the state.  A "collapse" of the state that brings a "dark age" might be better described as "a bolt for freedom by many state subjects and an improvement in human welfare" (209, 255).

Scott doesn't reflect on how this "bolt for freedom" shows the people withdrawing their consent from the state, which confirms Locke's account of how people through resistance and rebellion against governmental tyranny reclaim their natural freedom.

Seth Richardson (2010, 2016) has noted the evidence that over 3,000 years of Mesopotamian political life, there were hundreds of rebellions.  He has also noted how these rebels were described by the state authorities: "characterizations of rebels as the violators of contracts (mitgurtu, rikistu) necessarily implied that some bilateral obligations were incumbent on the state through the framework of the social contract" (2016, 35).  The Akkadian words mitgurtu and rikistu denote agreement, consent, contract, or treaty.  Richardson suggests: "Those motifs relating to violation-of-contract strike a familiar chord to us moderns, since they suggest the premise of a social contract between ruler and ruled, or at least the existence of legal treaties and loyalty oaths" (2010, 9).

Not only in ancient Mesopotamia, but also throughout the ancient Mediterranean world--the Near East, Greece, and Rome--one sees the same pattern of rebellions against the state in which rebels assert their natural freedom from oppression, and thus confirm Locke's understanding of government as dependent on the consent of the governed (Howe and Brice 2016).



REFERENCES

Howe, Timothy, and Lee Brice, eds. 2016. Brill's Companion to Insurgency and Terrorism in the Ancient Mediterranean. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

Richardson, Seth. 2010. "Writing Rebellion Back Into the Record: A Methodologies Toolkit." In Seth Richardson, ed., Rebellions and Peripheries in the Cuneiform World, 1-27. New Haven, CN: American Oriental Society.

__________. 2016. "Insurgency and Terror in Mesopotamia." In Howe and Brice 2016, 31-61.

Scott, James C.  1976.  The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

__________.  1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.  New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

__________.  2009.  The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.  New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

__________.  2012.  Two Cheers for Anarchism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

__________.  2017.  Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Amagi: Mesopotamian Liberty in the Goodrich Seminar Room







The cuneiform symbol above is the Sumerian word amagi or amargi, which is thought to be the first word in the oldest written language for "liberty."  It appears on the clay cone above that is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris.  This clay cone is a document commemorating the social reforms of Urukagina, who was the ruler over the Sumerian city-state of Lagash around 2350 B.C., and who had overthrown the ruling dynasty founded by Ur-Nansche about 2500 B.C.

The Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer described this document in 1956 in his book History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Recorded History, which was originally published under the title From the Tablets of Sumer.  Pierre Goodrich, a successful Indiana businessman, read this book; and when he founded the Liberty Fund to promote the study of liberty, he decided that the cuneiform symbol for amagi should be the logo for Liberty Fund. 

Goodrich's search for the first word for liberty might be considered part of the search for the origins of the word "liberalism," which has been the subject of a previous post.

Goodrich used amagi in his design for what became the Goodrich Seminar Room in the Lilly Library of Wabash College in Indiana.  At the center of the room is a large circular table.  Around the room at the bottom of the walls are library shelves full of books.  Etched into the high limestone walls of the room are the names of the writings and authors that Goodrich identified as contributing the most to our understanding of liberty and responsibility.  The names are arranged chronologically to show the history of the idea of liberty.  It shows the influence of Kramer's book in beginning in ancient Mesopotamia--first the symbol amagi and then the Ur-Nammu  Code, Urukagina, Gilgamesh, and Hammurabi's Code. 

I visited this room some years ago as part of a Liberty Fund conference.  It's a pilgrimage to Mecca for libertarians.

You can take an interactive virtual tour of the Goodrich Seminar Room at the Liberty Fund website.



Goodrich was implicitly claiming that liberty as understood by classical liberals like himself was not a modern cultural invention of Western culture, because it was actually a human universal, rooted in human nature, that could be seen in the written records of the earliest states that arose first in Mesopotamia.  And, consequently, the walls of this seminar room present the evolutionary history of human liberty beginning around 2400 B.C. in Sumer on the east wall and then moving through history across the south, west, and north walls (including 88 people such as Moses, Zarathustra, Socrates, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Aquinas, Locke, and Hume) and ending in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence on the right side of the north wall. 

There are two symbols on the walls.  On the left end of the east wall, there is a symbol of the Sun.  It's not clear whether this Sun of liberty is rising at the beginning of the history or setting at the end.  The other symbol is a large cross on the west wall.  Oddly, this is not located next to the name of Jesus Christ.  It is located on the timeline between 300 A.D. and 400 A.D.  Is this location in time connected to the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in 312, or to the proclamation in 393 by Emperor Theodosius I that all citizens should be Christians?

One has to wonder about Goodrich's principles of inclusion and exclusion.  For example, he includes Socrates and Aristotle, but excludes Plato.  He includes Origen, Ambrose, Boethius, Anselm, Francis of Assisi, and Thomas Aquinas, but excludes Augustine.  He includes Savonarola, but excludes Machiavelli.  He includes Locke, but excludes Hobbes and Rousseau.  He includes two forms of religious singing--Roman chant (also called Gregorian chant) and Reformation chorale--but excludes all other forms of music, unless one considers Psalms to be a form of religious singing. 

And why does he stop with the Declaration of Independence?  Is he suggesting that the Declaration is the fullest expression of the theory and practice of liberty, and as such the consummation of the history of liberty that began in ancient Mesopotamia?  Is this, in some way, the end of history?

When I was in this room, I thought about the fact that almost everything there depends on writing and written documents, beginning with amagi, a word in the first system of writing invented by human beings.  (Later, there were three other independent inventions of writing--in Egypt, China, and Mayan Mesoamerica.)  Was there a history of liberty before the invention of writing?  Is writing necessary for the thoughtful exploration of the meaning of liberty, which had already arisen in an unreflective way in human experience before writing was invented?  Does the invention of writing depend on the invention of the state?  After all, for 500 years or more, the only purpose for cuneiform writing was bureaucratic bookkeeping for the state.  But doesn't the state threaten the liberty enjoyed in stateless societies?  Beginning in ancient Mesopotamia, only a tiny elite of scribes could read and write; and even up to the nineteenth century, most human beings were illiterate.  If thinking about liberty depends on writing, does that mean that until recently most human beings could not think very deeply about liberty?  Does human emancipation depend upon the emancipation of the mind through literacy and literate education?  Is that what we mean by liberal education?  Is that why Liberty Fund is organized around reading, discussing, and publishing written texts that illuminate the idea and practice of liberty?  Are these the kind of questions Goodrich wanted his Seminar Room to evoke?

My question here is whether Goodrich was right in locating the starting point for liberty in ancient Mesopotamia.  In doing this, Goodrich denied the traditional idea of "Oriental Despotism."  Beginning in ancient Greece, with Aeschylus and Herodotus, it has been common to contrast Eastern despotism and Greek liberty, so that liberty was seen as an innovation of the ancient Greeks.  Later, those like Hegel saw modern liberty as emerging only with the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution: in the ancient Orient, only one person--the ruling despot--was free; in ancient Greece and Rome, some people--the class of citizens--was free; only in the modern West were all people, in principle at least, declared to be free.  Thus, all of human history is the history of the unfolding of the idea of liberty.

Karl Marx suggested that when agrarian societies first appeared in ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, and ancient China, agriculture in those arid parts of the world depended upon bureaucratically planned irrigation systems, which centralized power in the hands of despotic rulers, and he called this the Asiatic Mode of Production.  Later, Karl Wittfogel elaborated this idea in Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (1957) as the "hydraulic theory" of ancient despotism. 

Recently, however, Sumerologists have pointed to evidence that agriculture arose in the rich alluvial areas of southern Mesopotamia where the flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers provided the conditions for growing grain, without any need for complex irrigation systems, and this supported agrarian settlements for two thousand years before the appearance of the earliest states (see Jennifer Pournelle's Marshland of Cities: Deltaic Landscapes and the Evolution of Early Mesopotamian Civilization, Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego; and her "Physical Geography," in Harriet Crawford, ed., The Sumerian World [Routledge, 2017], 13-32).

Mesopotamia in 3,500 B.C.

Mesopotamia in 1,500 B.C.


As these maps indicate, archaeologists now believe that in ancient Mesopotamia, the northern shoreline of the Persian Gulf was much farther north than it is today, so that what is today the city of Basra in southern Iraq would have been underwater, and the ancient cities of Lagash, Larsa, Uruk, and Ur would have been on or near the shoreline.  Isolated agrarian settlements existed in the southern alluvium near the Persian Gulf around 5,200 B.C., at least two thousand years before the earliest states such as Uruk emerged around 3,200 B.C.

Moreover, some scholars now argue, even the early Mesopotamian states left a written record that shows both the idea and the reality of liberty, long before the Greek city-states.  Daniel Snell has argued for this in his book Flight and Freedom in the Ancient Near East (Brill, 2001).  Eva von Dassow has argued for this in her book chapter--"Freedom in Ancient Near Eastern Societies," in Karen Radner and Eleanor Robson, eds., Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture (2011), 205-24.  Von Dassow, a professor of ancient Near Eastern history at the University of Minnesota, is now working on a book elaborating her reasoning. 

If we're persuaded by this position, then we would have to say that Goodrich was right to start his history of liberty with amagi in the ancient Mesopotamian documents.  We could also conclude from this, as Snell does, that this shows the desire for liberty to be a human universal of evolved human nature, just as Goodrich claimed, and so the history of liberty has been the progressive expression of that natural desire.

Liberty understood as liberation from constraint and oppression was manifest in the rhetoric of Mesopotamian kings like Urukagina, who promised to release their people from excessive taxation, debt servitude, and oppressive power.  This release from encumbrance and subordination was understood as a restoration to an original state of liberty, which was expressed in the Sumerian word amagi and the Akkadian word andurarum.  Amagi literally meant "return to mother," and it acquired the connotation of "emancipation" or "freedom."

What did this mean in Urukagina's Lagash?  I will follow Kramer's interpretation, since this so influenced Goodrich, but I know that there are other interpretations among the scholars of the ancient Near East.  Kramer reports: "By and large, the inhabitants of Lagash were farmers and cattle breeders, boatmen and fishermen, merchants and craftsmen.  Its economy was mixed--partly socialistic and state-controlled, and partly capitalistic and free" (46).  While in principle, the soil belonged to the city god and his temple, much of the land was the private property of individuals.  Much of the economic life was organized through free markets and free trade.

But then a ruling dynasty over Lagash was established by Ur-Nanshe around 2500 B.C.  These rulers expanded their power over Sumer through bloody wars of conquest, which were successful for almost a century.  But then Lagash was weakened by attacks from other city-states, and particularly from the city of Umma.  To raise and support armies, the rulers of Lagash increased taxes and appropriated property belonging to the temple.  Palace bureaucrats and tax collectors were everywhere.  And those who could not pay their taxes could be put into debt slavery.

When Urukagina came to power, he made a special covenant with Ningirsu, the god of Lagash, that he would liberate the people of Lagash from the oppression of the Ur-Nanshe dynasty.  He removed many of the bureaucratic controls over the economy, he restored to the temple the property that had been seized, he reduced the taxes, and he released those who had been put into debt slavery.  This was a "return to mother" in the sense that he restored the people of Lagash to their original condition of liberty through what Kramer called "freedom under law."

And yet in less than ten years, Urukagina was overthrown and Lagash conquered by Lugalzaggisi, the ruler of Umma, who then became the king of Sumer for a brief time.  So the final lesson here might be that achieving and preserving liberty depends on the contingencies of warfare.

Goodrich stressed the importance of law for Mesopotamian liberty by including two law collections--the Laws of Ur-Namma and Hammurabi's Code.  (Good translations of these texts can be found in Martha T. Roth's Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor [Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1997].)


King Ur-Namma of Ur liberated the city of Ur from being ruled by the city of Uruk.  During his reign (2112-2095 B.C.), he founded the Third Dynasty of Ur, which united all the city-states of both southern and northern Mesopotamia.  His collection of laws is the oldest such collection ever found.  The tablets are fragmentary, however, and only the prologue and fewer than forty laws have been preserved.

The Laws of Hammurabi were compiled toward the end of the reign of Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.), who was the sixth ruler of the First Dynasty of Babylon.  This collection of laws is the longest and best preserved of the law collections from Mesopotamia.  It consists of a prologue, as many as 300 laws, and an epilogue.  This collection was copied and recopied over centuries in various parts of Mesopotamia.  It was made world famous by the excavation in 1901-1902 of the black stone stela that is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris.




The Louvre stela is almost seven and a half feet tall.  The top one-third of the stela shows the sun-god Shamash, the god of justice, seated on his throne, with King Hammurabi standing before him.  It is not clear whether the god is dictating the laws to Hammurabi, or Hammurabi is presenting the laws to the god, or Hammurabi is accepting the rod and the ring that are the emblems of authority.  In any case, this conveys the clear message to the viewers--even the many illiterate people who cannot read the laws--that Hammurabi's laws are divinely authorized by the god of justice.

The prologues of both the Laws of Ur-Namma and the Laws of Hammurabi invoke the gods An and Enlil as the divine source of the king's authority.  These gods are preeminent in the Sumerian creation myth that we know from the prologue to the Gilgamesh Epic.  In the beginning, there was only Nammu, the primeval sea.  Then Nammu gave birth to An, the sky, and Ki, the earth.  An and Ki mated and gave birth to Enlil, who separated An from Ki and carried off the earth as his domain, while An carried off the sky.  Thus, the laws of Ur-Namma and Hammurabi have the moral authority of cosmic divinity.

Here in ancient Mesopotamia is the first cosmic teleology of human law rooted in divine law, which is restated in Plato's Timaeus and in the Bible, and which becomes the theme of the Divine Cosmic Model of the universe that runs through human civilization for four thousand years.  Goodrich points to this in his many references to the texts and authors of theological cosmology as part of the history of liberty, culminating in the Declaration of Independence, which appeals to God as the cosmic Creator, Legislator, and Judge. 

Whether the natural law of liberty must depend on such a divine law of the cosmos has been a question raised in many posts herehere, and here.  I have also written about the evolutionary science of moralistic "big gods" here.

In claiming theocratic sovereignty over their states, Ur-Namma and Hammurabi might seem to exemplify the tradition of Oriental Despotism and thus deny individual liberty.  There are, however, at least two kinds of evidence in these law collections to justify Goodrich's including them in the history of liberty.

The first kind of evidence for liberty in these documents is that the principal class of persons identified in these law collections is the free person called "man" (the Sumerian lu in Ur-Namma's laws and the Akkadian awilu in Hammurabi's laws), which includes men, women, and children.  Citizens have the rights to freedom and security in one's person, family, and property.  For example, the laws declare that free people are to be protected from physical assault, theft, and breach of contract.  They are also protected in their engagement in marriage, family life, and free trade.

Some classes of people are not fully free, however.  The commoner (the Akkadian muskenu) is inferior to the free person in some rights and privileges.  And the male and female slaves (wardu and antu) belong to free persons, commoners, or the palace.  People could be enslaved by being captured in war, by incurring debt that they could not pay back, or by being born into slavery.  And yet there were ways that slaves could be emancipated.  Slaves could emancipate themselves by simply running away.  That fugitive slaves were a problem is indicated by the laws in Hammurabi's Code for punishing runaway slaves and the people who help them run away (see paras. 15-20, 226-227).

Thus, in these law collections, we see that the Mesopotamians recognized the idea and reality of freedom.  Many people were free, and they expected the government to secure their freedom.  Those people who were enslaved could claim their freedom by running away.  But while we see slaves resisting their enslavement, we don't see slaves seeking to abolish the institution of slavery.  We don't see any Mesopotamians affirming that all human beings are by nature born free and equal.  That affirmation comes much later in Goodrich's history of liberty in the writing of Locke and the Declaration of Independence.

In a previous post, I have noted that while humans claiming freedom and resisting enslavement can be seen throughout history, the idea of completely abolishing slavery is a new idea that arose with Lockean liberalism.

The second kind of evidence for freedom in these law collections is what one scholar has called "the curious absence of the state in the text" (Seth Richardson, "Before Things Worked: A 'Low-Power' Model of Early Mesopotamia," in Clifford Ando and Seth Richardson, eds., Ancient States and Infrastructural Power: Europe, Asia, and America [University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017], 37).  In his prologue and epilogue, Hammurabi claims absolute divinely granted authority over Babylonia.  But in the hundreds of laws in his code, there is almost no reference to himself or to the central state as providing judgment or enforcement of the law.  Most of the laws seem to assume private enforcement: when something goes wrong, the wronged party must act on his own with the help of local people to investigate, try, convict, and punish the guilty parties. 

This is what today we would call "private governance," the subject of a previous post.  We could also say that what we see here is what Seth Richardson has called the "presumptive state": the early states in Mesopotamia were presumptive in claiming a sovereignty that they did not in fact possess ("Early Mesopotamia: The Presumptive State," Past and Present, no. 215 [May 2012]: 3-49).  Their rhetorical claims for absolute sovereignty have been mistakenly interpreted as evidence for the reality of Oriental Despotism.

Once we see how in actuality the powers of the Mesopotamian state were severely limited, we can see how they left plenty of room for liberty.


Saturday, November 04, 2017

A New Orangutan Species--Rousseau's Natural Man?




Primate taxonomists have identified six living species of non-human great apes: Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, eastern and western gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos.  The Sumatran and Bornean orangutans were first identified as separate species in 2001.  Now, a team of biologists has identified a third orangutan species--the Tapanuli orangutan Pongo tapanuliensis (pictured above). The orangutans are our most distant evolutionary relatives among the living hominids, and now the Tapanuli orangutan seems to be the oldest evolutionary lineage in the genus Pongo.  The New York Times has an article on this, which includes a link to the report: Alexander Nater et al., "Morphormetric, Behavioral, and Genomic Evidence for a New Orangutan Species," Current Biology 27 (November 20, 2017): 1-12.



The Tapanuli orangutan is found south of Lake Toba in northern Sumatra in the Tapanuli Forest.  The other Sumatran orangutan species--P. abelii--is found north of Lake Toba.  The third orangutan species--P. pygmaeus--is found in Borneo.  Orangutans in the wild are not found anywhere else in the world.

The Tapanuli orangutan has been found to be both morphologically and genomically distinct from the other two species.  This analysis also suggests that the Tapanuli orangutan was the first orangutan species to arrive in Sumatra about three and a half million years ago from mainland Asia.

As I have indicated in a previous post a few years ago, I am sure that Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have been fascinated by these studies, because he inferred from some reports about apes in the wild that savage man in the state of nature was actually an orangutan as "a sort of middle point between the human species and the baboons."  He looked forward to the time when scientists would travel the world to study the ape ancestors of human beings to understand the evolutionary history of humanity in the state of nature.

Rousseau would have discovered, however, that these modern studies deny his claim that the earliest human ancestors were utterly solitary animals, and thus "man is naturally good," because solitary individuals free from any dependence on others have no motive to be wicked.  In fact, orangutans have a complex social life organized around the social bond between mothers and their offspring and a dominant adult male.

Here, then, is an example of how a claim in political philosophy--Rousseau's account of an asocial state of nature--can be refuted by the empirical science of evolutionary biology.

Recently, Nelson Lund--in his book Rousseau's Rejuvenation of Political Philosophy: A New Introduction (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)--has tried to defend Rousseau's position as confirmed by modern primatology and anthropology.  He concludes: "Orangutans live much like man in Rousseau's pure state of nature; gorillas generally live in patriarchal family bands, much as Rousseau imagines man must have lived after the 'first revolution'; and chimpanzees are cooperative and contentious hunter-gatherers, like the people in Rousseau's 'nascent society'" (54).

Lund fails to see, however, that the complex social life of orangutans is not at all like the utterly solitary life of Rousseau's "nascent man" in the state of nature.  I have elaborated this point in my chapter on Rousseau in Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Pinker (2015).

Rousseau's interest in orangutans as possibly revealing the ancestral origins of human evolution is well studied in Robert Cribb, Helen Gilbert, and Helen Tiffin's Wild Man from Borneo: A Cultural History of the Orangutan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2017).