Just as my first exposure to Buddha came through the sieve of Gore Vidal’s Creation (see my review of Karen Armstrong’s Buddha - http://www.goodreads.Just as my first exposure to Buddha came through the sieve of Gore Vidal’s Creation (see my review of Karen Armstrong’s Buddha - http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21...) so too my first exposure to any representation of Hinduism came via the same medium. In that book, Cyrus Spitama – grandson of Zoroaster and Darius of Persia’s ambassador to the Indian kingdoms – witnesses a Vedic horse sacrifice, one of the most important rituals of ancient Indian kingship:
For an Indian ruler the horse sacrifice is all-important. For one thing it represents a renewal of his kingship. For another, if he is able to enlarge the kingdom that he inherited, he will be known as a high king….
…But today they felt the magic…of an event that seldom happens more than once in the reign of a king despite the ancient tradition that the first earthly king who celebrates one hundred horse sacrifices will overthrow the god Indra and take his place in the sky. (p. 236 of my edition)
Say what you will about his politics, Vidal does his homework. I’ll spare you Vidal’s description of the decidedly “interesting” specifics of the rite since I want to keep this review family friendly but his version largely agrees with that described by Wendy Doniger in The Hindus: An Alternative History (pp. 154-6). Vidal’s actors take the rite a bit more literally than Doniger would allow but that’s one of the central themes of this work – In a tradition that has thrived for c. 4,000 years, one can find nearly anything. “Hinduism” has confronted, shaped and absorbed a tremendous variety of beliefs, and has adapted its native beliefs (e.g., the horse sacrifice) in any number of ways. How often was the sacrifice performed? How literally was the marriage of queen and stallion taken? Hindu writers can be found who take the sacrifice literally, others who argue that it was largely symbolic, and others writing that it was entirely symbolic, or even that it never took place but was a mental exercise meant to illustrate a religious point.
In this book Doniger takes on the daunting task of tracing Hinduism’s evolution from its birth among the Vedic rituals and gods of the Indo-Aryan migrants to the Indus and Ganges valleys through the development of the Upanishads, the Puranas, bhakti, sectarianism (Vishnu and Siva), and Vedantic schools. What emerges from this sprawl is an immense, overwhelming culture that resists definition. (This despite the BJP’s best efforts or Doniger’s, for that matter. But whereas Doniger delights in such complexity, the BJP reacts to anything other than their own interpretations with horror and, sometimes, violence.) The best you (or a Hindu) can do is to respectfully study the traditions and remember that for every positive assertion you can make about Hindu belief, you can bet that you can find its opposite in someone’s creed that purports to be just as genuinely “Hindu.”
I can’t distill this book down into a capsule description – I don’t have the time (not without pay, at any rate) and the scope and structure of the book defies such simplification. What I’ll try to do in the next few paragraphs is highlight a few of the more interesting aspects I discovered in my reading.
To begin, Doniger identifies three alliances that characterize Hindu cosmology/theology (p. 108ff.). The first (and earliest) is that of the gods and humans vs. the asuras and rakshasas. Some versions of the Ramayana reflect this in Rama’s war against the rakshasa Ravana. The second alliance is that of the gods vs. humans. Humans, asuras and rakshasas threaten the position of the gods with their excessive piety and defiance of caste. Defiance of caste is of enormous influence on Hinduism’s development, and Doniger sees this emerge in the written culture with the Mahabharata, India’s second national epic. The third alliance emerges with the bhakti (devotion) movement and revolves around the gods extending their protection to all men, asuras and rakshasas. In its most radical forms, this protection extended even to people who inadvertently honor the gods and even to dogs, the lowest form of life.
Doniger argues that there are three layers of development discerned in Hinduism. There’s the Vedic level, the earliest stratum, concerned with rituals and purity, and with little moral component as moderns understand the term. Even here, though, in the most ancient traditions there’re the beginnings of concern over the righteousness of animal sacrifice and the appropriateness of violence. The second layer, the Brahmanic, emerged in the wake of urbanization (c. the time Vidal’s Creation is set, the Axial Age). The third layer, the Vedantic, emerged with the Upanishads and developed further with the devotional sects of the Medieval and later eras.
“Reincarnation” is, certainly, one of Hinduism’s most recognizable doctrines in Western eyes though we’ve tended to dumb it down into little more than excuses to find out what we did as incarnations of Cleopatra or Atlantean high priests. Hindus feared reincarnation because it meant another death – rather than “rebirth,” we should use “redeath” to describe how a Hindu saw the prospect of another life. Where Buddhism, Hinduism’s bastard child, rejected all heavens, hells and earths as mara, illusion, Hinduism contented itself with simply breaking the bonds of the earthly cycle of redeath and salvation in some heaven.
There’s a delineation of the meanings of “karma” that I found of interest (p. 168f.):
(1) action (any), from the verb “to do” (2) ritual action (Rg Veda) (3) morally significant action (Upanishads) (4) morally significant action that has consequences for future lives (5) the reverse of (4), actions that influence past lives (6) (4) and (5) type karma that can be transferred to others
Something else that Doniger brings up but doesn’t develop sufficiently in my opinion is the decline of the old gods (Indra, Agni, etc.) and the growth of devotional cults, primarily to Vishnu and Siva. I would have liked to know why these new gods rose to prominence. In that same vein, I also would have liked to see greater analysis of the meaning of “ahimsa.” This is another term known in the West but little understood in its native context. Doniger makes the tantalizing assertion that Gandhi’s interpretation of the term was something of an innovation but doesn’t develop it much beyond that. (In Doniger’s defense, she does include a 22-page bibliography of secondary sources that could be plumbed for further reading.)
Doniger notes that the “Bhagavad Gita” (an episode from the Mahabharata) outlined three paths to salvation: karma (in the sense of obeying dharma); jnana (faith), in relation to the renunciants’ ideal of moksha (release); and bhakti (devotion). From this emerges the idea of “karma without kama – action without desire. Arjuna can square his dharma as a kshatriya (warrior caste) with the karmic consequences of violence (all bad) by acting without desire. When done without desire, any action is without karmic impact. (At least that’s how I interpret Doniger’s interpretation.) The cynic in me sees this as justification for all sorts of mischief (“But, mom! I didn’t want to steal the cookie. It’s just the dharma of an 8-year-old!”).
One of Doniger’s major aims in the book is to look at Hinduism through the lens of the dispossessed, that is the pariah castes and women, and how the Brahmins responded to them. Not surprisingly, neither Dalits or women fared well under the strictures of Brahmanic thought but in Doniger’s eyes the three great shastras – the Manu, the Arthrashastra and the Kamasutra – reflected idealizations that did not mirror the reality of day-to-day life (p. 304f.).
Interesting culture factoid – the eight varieties of marriage:
(1) Brahma – father gives daughter away (2) Gods – father offers daughter to officiating priest in course of a sacrifice (3) Sages – father gives daughter away for a cow or a bull (4) The Lord of Creatures – father gives daughter away saying “May the two of you fulfill your dharma together (5) Asuras – man takes a woman from desire and pays family and girl (6) Centaurs – girl and lover join out of desire (7) Rakshasas – man carries off woman but doesn’t pay for her (essentially legitimized rape) (8) Ghouls – man has sex with a woman who’s asleep, drunk or insane (the ancient version of date rape)
Doniger touches on Tantrism with a useful anodyne to the stereotypical Western view of sexual orgies and perversions. She characterizes “tantrism” as an orthodox heresy. The doctrines were necessary to break the curse of untouchability. They were “training wheels” for people incapable of accepting the pure doctrines. The other justification for tantric ritual was that it drove the truly evil to the nadir of existence so that they could more quickly rise back up. In the end, Tantrism and the less heretical Puranic traditions helped to bring low-caste Hindus and outsiders into the fold and held out the possibility that their souls could be saved/released just like a high-caste Hindu’s. The original Brahmanic vision of the universe saw it as a finite thing with a finite amount of “good” and “evil” – for every person saved, another was doomed. Doniger argues that that limit was broken with tantrism and the Puranas. Salvation/release was infinite and potentially open to everyone.
From a historical perspective, Doniger’s discussion of the British Raj is fascinating. Essentially, the British coerced Hinduism into developing a unitary doctrine centered around a few texts (the “Bhagavad Gita,” primarily) and fostered the emergence of actively hostile and intolerant sects. The author, rightly, doesn’t lay all the blame on the poor English. Many Hindus through the ages were perfectly capable of xenophobia and rivalry without evil Europeans egging them on. I think her focus on the specifics of the British is that they’re the most recent culprits, the best documented and India is still coping with the world they created (p. 574f.).
To the bad: As I mentioned in a comment made while reading this book, Doniger tends to write in an annoyingly folksy style. Appropriate, perhaps, to a conversation at the local Starbuck’s or a blog but inappropriate, IMO, in a work such as this, even if it is directed to a general audience. It makes the first few chapters rather rough going. But when she focuses on a topic, Doniger can write with grace and insight. An example of this is contained in one of the more interesting sections of the book – her analysis of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. As an example of one of the points she makes there’s the observation that the parallel stories of Rama/Ravana and the monkey kings Sugriva/Valin adumbrates Freudian psychoanalysis and Shakespeare’s Arden by 2,000 years: The forest and its denizens reflect the subconscious desires of Rama and human civilization. Or there’s the observation that the Ramayana is a triumphal celebration of Brahmanic civilization while the Mahabharata questions every one of its assumptions but offers no good answers. (It shouldn’t surprise that versions of both epics circulate that refute Doniger’s conclusions.)
Despite my caveats, I would still recommend this to anyone interested in Indian culture/religion, or anthropological subjects in general. I’ve never been overly interested in Indian culture but this book is an accessible and overall good introduction, making a confusing landscape at least partially understandable....more
In Disunion!, Elizabeth Varon looks at the 70 years between the founding of the Republic and the opening salvos of the Civil War, focusing on the poliIn Disunion!, Elizabeth Varon looks at the 70 years between the founding of the Republic and the opening salvos of the Civil War, focusing on the political vocabulary in use at the time. Specifically, as the title strongly suggests, the use of the word "disunion." She argues that "disunion" was once the most provocative and potent word in American political rhetoric. "From the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 up to the Civil War, disunion conjured up the most profound anxieties of Americans as they considered the fate of their republic.... Disunion was...a keyword of the nation's political vocabulary - a word that had no fixed `content,' that captured complex ideas of values, and that served as a site for protracted moral, political, and economic conflicts in a deeply...divided nation." (p. 1-2)
Varon seeks to provide a more nuanced view of antebellum America that shows the North and South were not (at first) fundamentally antagonistic societies. Many in the North could live with slavery, their concerns were focused more on the problems of industrialization and workers' rights than on slavery per se (though it's true in the latter half of the period, the anti-slavery side raised the specter of slave-labor competition to rally support). In the South, while slavery was arguably the most important pillar of the economy, the slave-owning class was very small, and class and regional divides make blanket generalizations about the Slave Power inadequate. For example, in the years just after the Revolution plans were noised about in Virginia for the gradual emancipation of slaves (it was, unfortunately for subsequent history, never seriously pursued). Simultaneously, in the North, there was a general movement to deny the franchise to black Americans, and otherwise deny them equal status.
The author considers the idea of "disunion" in five ways:
1. Disunion as prophecy: In this guise, disunion adumbrated apocalypse. Like the prophets of Israel, American politicians bewailed the consequences of disunion (war, chaos, widespread death and terror) to encourage a final solution to the problem of slavery.
2. Disunion as a threat: An especially potent weapon in Southern rhetoric but also found in Northern quivers, the threat of disunion was used to cow political opponents. It was a threat not seriously contemplated except by the most radical partisans (such as Southerner Robert Rhett or the Garrisonian wing of the abolitionists).
3. Disunion as accusation: Here, disunion was used to accuse opponents of treason or of fomenting slave rebellions and disrupting the harmony and future prosperity of the country. As such it was used by all sides: Proslavery advocates (mostly Southerners); abolitionists, who were feared because of their radical ideas about social and gender equality (though there were degrees of commitment, as in any mass movement); and anti-abolitionists, who were antislavery in the sense that they didn't want to see its spread beyond its current limits but were against the abolitionist agenda(s).
It's important to remember that the North was not a bastion of racial equality much less a redoubt of abolitionist crusaders. Its racism could be quite as vicious as any Southerner's. Even among abolitionists and antislavery activists (e.g., Lincoln) black Americans were too often considered little children or hardly better than savages. And the best solution to the slavery problem? Return them to Africa; at the very least, keep the races apart because they could never live together.
4. Disunion as a process: In this manifestation, disunion was part of a process most clearly articulated by that great advocate of nullification and slavery as a "positive good" John C. Calhoun. He invoked disunion as a way to rally Southern and anti-abolitionist interests, and build up an impregnable consensus to resist antislavery agendas. A similar development occurred in anti-slavery circles that eventually coalesced in the late 1850s into the Republican Party.
5. Disunion as a program: As the 1850s passed and all sides became radicalized, the North painted the South as hell bent on disunion; the aggressors in a campaign to destroy the Union and perpetuate slavery in the U.S. and expand it into Latin and South America. Southerners, meanwhile, painted their Northern cousins as plotting to force the South to secede and then launch a war of conquest that would abolish slavery and destroy the Southern way of life.
"Disunion" was a far more pervasive concept than "secession." (p. 14) Secession was an end to be avoided and the horrors of disunion were constantly brought forth to discourage it. But the rhetoric of disunion only exacerbated sectional differences, and contributed to the radicalization of both sides. "Suffused as it was with images of treason, rebellion, retribution, and bloodshed, the discourse of disunion bred disillusionment with party politics; mistrust of compromise; and...the expectation that only violent conflict would resolve the debate over slavery once and for all." (p. 16)
I have written elsewhere on this site that my knowledge of U.S. history between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars is abysmal so I found this book extremely informative and well argued. Varon doesn't call for her argument to support more weight than it can and presents a fascinating and nuanced account of the factors that led up to the bloodiest conflict in American history. Inevitably, the book also invites a comparison between the politics of the era and our modern predicaments. Specific comparisons break down quickly but I chose the quote in the previous paragraph because the zeitgeist it describes in the decade before Fort Sumter could be applied to today's discourse. Americans don't yet have anything as fundamentally divisive as slavery (or as obviously immoral) to radicalize most people but the impulse to demonize opposition and the desire to paper over different interests in the interests of "bipartisanship" are alive and increasingly strong. And the question that faced our forebears is the same one facing us - Is this union ("the last, best hope of the world," to paraphrase Lincoln) worth preserving?
I'm sure better read readers can find holes in parts of Varon's argument or details to quibble about but I would recommend the book to anyone interested in this critical period in U.S. history (and read it in conjunction with Sean Wilentz's The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, which offers a related but broader view of the same period)....more
I came across this slim volume (91 pages, text) in a used bookstore quite by chance. It's a collection of essays about life at sea during the "goldenI came across this slim volume (91 pages, text) in a used bookstore quite by chance. It's a collection of essays about life at sea during the "golden age" of the British navy (say, 1750-1850): "The Ships", "The Guns", "The Ship's Company", "Life at Sea" and "Songs". It's by no means a comprehensive history but for fans of Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin who don't want to or haven't the time to read weightier tomes, it's a delightful companion to the series.
I'm always amazed by the conditions these men endured for low pay and little reward....more
Dedication: This review is dedicated to Kelly, my GR Friend, who has patiently and without complaint awaited my thoughts about the book. I take no resDedication: This review is dedicated to Kelly, my GR Friend, who has patiently and without complaint awaited my thoughts about the book. I take no responsibility for whether it was worth it.
It is unfortunate that the only other review of this book appears to be in Arabic because I would be interested in other people’s opinions of the work, especially from the Muslims, to whom the author wants to speak. Diner is “professor of modern history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and director of the Simon Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture at the University of Leipzig” (from the jacket blurb) and an advocate for the better qualities of Western civilization and modernity, “modernity” being a world view that believes humans are naturally curious, creative and inventive, and enshrines the values of individualism and self-direction. While modernism respects the sacred and communal dimensions of life, it separates them (particularly the spiritual) into distinct spheres. It’s this lack of a distinction in Islam that Diner believes has kept it economically and politically backward since the 15th century, when Western European (née Christian) civilization embarked on the ascendancy that it still enjoys (more or less) today.
Diner argues that among the world’s great religions, Islam (particularly Arab Muslims) has been the least successful in responding to modernity. Its failure to do so has condemned much of the Muslim world to appalling economic stagnation and squalor and political despotism. To overcome these manifest handicaps, Muslims must find a way to flourish in a contemporary context without sacrificing their faith. The author’s solution is a desacralization of Muslim culture. In other words, it needs to undergo a Reformation similar to that which transformed the society of Medieval Christendom (which was similar to modern Islam in its outlook) into that of the Modern Era – largely secular, with fairly clear limits between religion and mundane life.
“But there is no mention of secularization in the sense of a separation of spheres of life and social intercourse…. Secularization implies an endless process of definition, interpretation, negotiation, transformation, and conversion of the boundaries between the modes of inner life and the outer world. It also means the decoding and appropriation of the world by human reason. Religion as a system of belief impregnating societies hampers this process. This is especially true in the case of Islam, a religion of law that claims to regulate all spheres of life. The arrested development in the Muslim world can be diagnosed, then, as a deficit of secularization” (p. 17).*
While I’m in sympathy with Diner’s position, as it mirrors my own beliefs and reading, I can’t imagine that this position would garner much respect among believing Muslims. In effect, he’s saying, “Your faith’s got it all wrong, and it’s holding you back. Become more like the West and everything will get better.” Even if I were a secularized Muslim happily coping with the paradoxes of modernity and faith, I’d be offended; you can easily imagine the reactions of a more fervid believer. And that is my problem with Lost in the Sacred. Diner’s facts are evident. The Middle East and North Africa are economic basket cases, and their political systems are largely corrupt dictatorships and kleptocracies. Even the “best” of them – Egypt, Syria and Jordan, say – are dependant upon the whims of a ruler and his cronies. There is no long-term economic or political or legal security that would foster a more just culture. So too is it evident that a significant portion of blame lies at the feet of reactionary interpretations of Islamic law and the Quran (both modern and historic) but Diner’s solution just won’t fly. Islam is struggling with the consequences of modernity in all its manifestations (I would say that the West hasn’t come to terms with it) and it does need a “reformation” because retreat into fear-driven fundamentalism offers no solution.
I have little contact with the latest trends in Islamic intellectual and religious currents but I do get the sense from what little I have had that there are any number of voices that are finding ways to integrate the Quran, Sharia law, social tradition, and modernity in innovative ways without sacrificing faith, which seems to me a more fruitful and potentially successful path than the one Diner advocates.
All that having been said, is Diner’s book worth reading? Yes, of course it is! You may disagree with the solution but the problems of Arab Islam as laid out in its six chapters are real, and it’s important that all, Muslim and non-Muslim, should understand the elements that impede progress toward a more just society.**
The jumping off point for Diner’s thesis is the Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) – a yearly assessment of the state of the Arab world. It’s compiled by native sociologists, political scientists, economists and cultural scholars and, in the 2002 report, identified five areas of concern:
1. Stagnant economies 2. Restricted freedoms 3. Declining levels of education 4. Restrictions on science and technological development 5. Abysmal human rights records (esp. regarding women)
The efforts of Middle Eastern regimes to import Western technology have ignored and tried to suppress the concomitant social, economic and political changes that fostered and emerged from those technological developments. There is no public sphere for debate, criticism or accountability, and power and wealth are controlled by a tiny oligarchy. Since there is no separation between politics and economics, there’s no stability that might foster long-term growth.
The most familiar attempt by Islam to accommodate modernity is Kemal Ataturk’s creation of the Turkish state. Despite pressures from its religious community, Turkey remains the most secularized, most Western state in the region, and – from a Western point of view – remains the most “successful,” however that term is defined. Ataturk’s experiment created a backlash (in part, an anti-Western/anti-colonialism reaction but one can never underestimate the Arab loathing of the Turks as usurpers). All of these efforts were characterized by a desire to return to an “uncorrupted, pure Islam.” The Indian Mawdudi denied any comparison between the West and Islam and called upon believers to rely solely on the Quran and Sharia. Of even greater influence was Hasan al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood. Diner writes of his views: “The way out of the decadence of Arab and Muslim societies…passes through awareness of original pure, uncorrupted Islam, an Islam freed from the burden of the interpretations piled up by theologians across the centuries, an Islam that rejects all writings that have appeared in the interim, basing itself solely on the Koran (sic), the Sunna, and their classical interpreters” (p. 58). And explains Sayyid Qutb’s, the philosopher of the movement, views: “Islam depicts a self-contained, divine truth that cannot…be compared with the knowledge-fixated culture of the West and the modernity it had spawned. Muslims live in a timeless temporal order imbued with the sacred, for which any historical conception of time is anathema. Everything is laid down in the Koran and Sunna. An alteration is…heresy. Compromises or adaptations to other worldviews are to be resisted by all means” (p. 62).
Chapter 3 – “Test and Speech” – argues that classical Arabic, the language of the Quran, is sacred, complex and is not allowed to adapt as a living language. Since the regional dialects by and large have no literature, it’s difficult to express modern concepts in an acceptable medium, and to work in academics, one needs to learn and write in a second language (shades of Medieval Europe vis-à-vis Latin).
Emblematic of Islam’s technological retardation is the printing press. In the West, the printing press was ubiquitous by 1500, only two generations after its invention. By contrast, the first printing press in the Ottoman Empire began in 1727, and the printing of sacred texts was forbidden. Also, significantly, the press was controlled by the central government, and subject to the resulting censorship. In the West, the press sparked the Reformation, inspired vernaculars and political involvement, and made knowledge (theoretically) accessible to everyone. In Muslim lands, “Islamic civilization remained committed to an orally transmitted culture based on scripture” (p. 73). Diner makes the point that Islam has always been chary of the written word. “True” knowledge is transmitted orally and memorized – “all written texts other than the Quran are the object of intense suspicion” (p. 75).***
Briefly, chapter 4 details the economic stagnation that set in when the Old World was flooded with the wealth of the New. Diner writes that it reduced Ottoman revenues by 60% - a devastating blow to any economy – but that the Turks were unable to adopt political or economic policies that could compete with capitalism.
I’m fascinated by Diner’s explanation for why the Ottomans failed to adapt, and I understand the distaste they expressed for Western methods: Istanbul remained committed to a morally grounded economic order. The West embraced the idea that states were referees of markets controlled by private interests whose guiding ethos was maximum productivity at maximum profit without regard for social consequences or the well being of the have-nots.
Chapter 5 touches upon three things mentioned in the book earlier but now explored in detail. The first is the different conceptions of public and private space in Western (i.e., Roman) law and Sharia. The clear, precise distinction in Roman law between public and private property is not found in Islam, where the natural tendency for private interests to trump public utility occurs frequently. Since law was also the sphere of the imams, every aspect of legality was sacred; the notion of a separate canon law (of the Church) and a secular law never developed.
The second idea is the Western concept of time as a factor in its material success. Western time is abstract, regulated and independent of nature. Eastern time remained “agricultural” – defined by seasons, the rising of sun and moon, etc. – and not conducive to fixing recurrent events or regulating human activities in a factory.
The final thing is what Diner says is the fundamental difference between Western society and Islamic, and deserves to be quoted in full:
“The Western notion that a person’s personal integrity has to be protected from injury by immediate public intervention, and the Muslim command to encourage what is right and forbid what is wrong – these seek to protect different goods. In the first, harm to a person must be prevented; in the second, a sin against God must be averted. In the context of Western civilization, intervention is called for when a person … is threatened. In the Muslim context, it is less a matter of the person than of preventing damage to the umma (the community of believers). Damage is considered to have been inflicted when no concrete harm to a person results. The fact that in Islam conduct can be harmful, even if no one has been concretely harmed by it, can mean only one thing. God is present among men. It is the presence…of God that leads Muslim social life being steeped in the sacred” (p. 152).
Chapter six continues with the theme of sacred and profane time, and introduces the author’s final nuance on his argument. For nearly its entire history, Islam has been the dominant partner in its relationships with its neighbors. There were minor set backs – the Crusades, the Reconquista, the Norman states in Italy and Sicily (and a very brief one in North Africa) – but they never impinged on Islam’s core belief in its superiority. That belief has been shaken and Islam is still trying to deal with the question “What is the place of Islam in the context of a world where Muslims live in non-Muslim societies?”
I don’t think Diner’s solution to Islam’s woes adequately addresses the problems. It’s becoming evident that the amoral, short-term exploitative practices of Western modernity are bankrupt. There’s no question that they’ve made life better for a relatively small segment of the human race but at the price of destroying the long-term capacity of the planet. (Make no mistake, I’m very happy taking advantage of in-door plumbing, penicillin and the Internet, and I’d like to believe that we can find some way to retain all the advantages of the modern world but not at the expense of the planet and a majority of humans who aren’t benefiting from it. It’s not going to happen, however, by adopting the ethos of our English mercantilist ancestors.)
* This sentence is an example of one of the stylistic flaws that crops up while reading this book. Diner has an unfortunate tendency to drop into the jargon of sociology. The sentence above is one of the milder offenses to grammatical aesthetics. The worst, probably, is the following: “Unless we reflect on the asymmetries of simultaneous nonsimultaneity in the periodization of history, and so agree to relativize the impact of European-cum-Western periodizations on historical thought, the construction of world history as a universal timeline accommodating different cultures and civilizations and their multiple reciprocities will be difficult to achieve” (p. 157).
** I realize, having written this sentence, that in the eyes of a Taliban or al-Qaida member they are working (and fighting) for a more just society – one that goes back to that mythical first community under the Prophet when Muslims lived only one remove from the divine Word of God. But that society never existed. I may be suffering to some extent from Western arrogance in believing that individualism and self-direction are moral goods but I’m also speaking from the point of view expressed in a recent book I read by the Dalai Lama, Becoming Enlightened – teachings that do not lead to greater peace and happiness are wrong. Afghanistan under the Taliban (1996-2001) was not a better place (Afghanistan under our puppets is no better but that’s a whole ‘nuther shelf of books). Iran under the clerics is not more peaceful or happier.
*** I’m reminded here of the (probably) apocryphal tale of the Arab general who conquered Alexandria. He wrote back to the Caliph about what to do with the great Library. The Caliph wrote back to destroy it since any writings that concurred with the Quran were superfluous and any that did not were anathema. I’m also reminded of the episode Qanta Ahmed recounts in In the Land of Invisible Women A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom, where she meets a young woman who had attained a special status because she had memorized the Quran (note, not that she necessarily understood it or had commented on it but only that she could parrot it back without error)....more
The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han is a readable overview of the histories and culture of the first two dynasties of imperial China, a period lastThe Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han is a readable overview of the histories and culture of the first two dynasties of imperial China, a period lasting from 221 BC to AD 220. It’s the first in a series of histories about China published by The Belknap Press of Harvard. If they maintain the quality evidenced in this book, I’ll be interested in seeing subsequent volumes. However, one of the drawbacks in any work of this sort is that the reader flies at a tremendous height over China’s landscape, only dipping down occasionally to take a look at an interesting feature of the geography, getting little in the way of a sustained argument for a particular interpretation. If a reader doesn’t have some background in Chinese history, they can easily get lost. That, I think, is my strongest criticism of Lewis’ effort – he may assume too much prior knowledge on the general reader’s part. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone other than a person who already has a good but not extensive background in the period and wants to know more without necessarily getting bogged down with academic focuses like “The Development of Han and Wei Yueh-fu as a High Literary Genre.” A fascinating article, I’m sure, but probably more information about that particular topic than the general reader wants to know. Which is why the bibliography and the notes are two of the more attractive features of the book – anyone interested in a specific topic has a good resource to find more specialized knowledge (I acquired four books for my own To-Read shelf). To get a better handle on the general history of the period a reader might want to start with an edition of Jacques Gernet’s A History of Chinese Civilization or Wolfram Eberhard’s A History of China.
The book is divided into ten chapters that cover the usual suspects starting with “The Geography of Empire” and continuing through “A State Organized for War,” “The Paradoxes of Empire,” “Imperial Cities,” “Rural Society,” “The Outer World,” “Kinship,” “Religion,” “Literature” and “Law,” and a short concluding essay. One of the greatest pleasures in reading was that every chapter held heretofore unknown information and/or made me see China in a slightly different light, enhancing my understanding of the era.
Chapter one: Early China was divided along two axes – an east-west one (the floodplain of the Yellow River and the highlands west of the Hangu Pass) and a north-south one (the Yellow River and Yangzi River valleys, respectively). The eastern side of the axis (Guandong) represented the economic and cultural center of early Chinese life; the western half (Guanzhong) represented the military and political focus of the empire. In this period, the north-south divide was one of culture – the north was the home of civilization; the south was full of uncultured barbarians still, it’s later economic and demographic dominance awaited the Song dynasty. From its earliest days, the empire struggled to suppress local customs, laws and culture in its effort to create a unitary, universal kingdom. The superior man (the sage) was someone who knew the text-based, universal wisdom of Shang and Zhou; inferior was the man who only knew the wisdom of a particular region, which (at best) was the corrupted knowledge of the ancient sages.
Even before unification, Qin had been a highly regimented state devoted to maintaining the army and the agricultural base that supported it. These policies (reminiscent of Sparta’s in the West) were carried over into the empire and were a major cause in Qin’s overthrow. Yet Han also tried to maintain a base of small, independent farmers to man and feed their armies. Unfortunately, imperial policies didn’t always lead to imperial goals, and the Han were less and less successful in curbing the centrifugal developments that eroded imperial authority.
Another stereotypical feature of Confucian governance – its loathing of the merchant class – found early expression in imperial policy: Income from mercantile activity was taxed at twice the level of landed wealth. A strong incentive for the wealthy to convert as much of their wealth into land as possible; and an irresistible force pushing peasants into tenancy and turning the wealthy into landlords.
Chapter two picks up and amplifies the discussion of Qin’s political organization. Much of its success during the Warring States period was due to its subsummation of other priorities to waging war. Qin fielded armies better led, trained and supplied than any of her enemies could hope to muster (or were willing to). But this organization proved inadequate to governing a unified state and, as we saw in Chapter one, led to the first dynasty’s collapse not even a generation from its founding. The most interesting section of this chapter is Lewis’ discussion of strong evidence for a growing, powerful regionalism that the Qin and Han ruthless suppressed. He suggests that, absent the Qin, Chinese unification was not a foregone conclusion. In an alternate universe, a China as politically and culturally diverse as Europe is not farfetched.
Chapter three charts three trends that led to a political unification that has shown surprising resilience for the last two millennia. The first is the professionalization of the armies. A process that every major state undergoes when its peasant levies or citizen militias prove inadequate to the demands of the state. The second factor was the enforcement of a common imperial culture as the government assumed control over the patronage of art and literature. Local variations continued, of course, but their legitimacy went unrecognized, and any ambitious man was perforce obligated to master what the capital prescribed to secure any position. The third factor in unification was the growth of an elite commited to imperial service, which owed its position and wealth to local networks of family and allies (an uneasy compromise between the interests of court and gentry).
In “Imperial Cities,” I was struck by the dual nature of most Chinese cities: There were two quite distinct districts. One was devoted entirely to the government; the other was devoted to residents and the economic pursuits of the city. Lewis argues that this was the physical expression of the deep divide existing between the state and the urban elements that threatened its power: mercantile wealth; gangsters and “wandering swordsmen”; and the grey market of esoteric teachers, beggars and prostitutes.
Chapter five is an unfortunately (but unavoidably) cursory overview of rural China. As with all premodern civilizations, the overwhelming majority of Chinese were farmers, and imperial policy was explicitly formulated (at least in theory) to support them. It discouraged trade, inhibited landlordism and protected the small farmer. In theory. As mentioned above, the state constantly struggled to curb the growth of large estates full of tenants not paying their taxes.
One of the more interesting sections here was Lewis’ discussion of the elite’s ethos – namely, the strong ethic to redistribute wealth. To accumulate too much was to invite immorality – “wealth was of value only when circulated” (p. 123).
Chapter six takes a look at the early empire’s relations with its neighbors, primarily the nomads to the north and west. For most of the time, these were represented by probably the first of the great nomadic “empires” that periodically arise in the steppe – the Xiongnu. It’s interesting to note that the Chinese emperors (huangdi) acknowledged the equivalency of the Xiongnu leader (chanyu), which departed from later dynasties that made all rulers subordinate to the suzerainty of the emperor. Ultimately this policy failed: The Xiongnu were broken in the late second century AD, no similar nomad empire took its place, and the Chinese were never able to understand the nomads as anything other than a mirror image of the imperial court. A cultural blindness that made it difficult to respond effectively to nomad threats. It didn’t help, either, that the Eastern Han (post AD 25) tended to neglect the western provinces and the army.
“Kinship,” Chapter seven, is a fascinating essay. Lewis highlights the competing visions of the family. On the one hand you have “lineages,” tracing descent from father to son across generations. Competing with this vision is the “household,” defined by the nuclear family and the relationships between husband/wife and parent/child. Also under the Han, children first became the topic of literary reflection. Adumbrating the “Baby Einstein” craze of a few years ago, Chinese philosophers stressed the importance of the prenatal environment in the child’s destiny. What the mother saw, ate, heard, said and did were critical to producing a “good” child. Or – to be avoided – Damien from “The Omen.”
Chapter eight introduces us to early imperial religious practice. There were four primary intersections between the secular and spiritual. The first was at the sacrificial shrine or altar. The second was contact with spirits, usually mediated by a shaman. The third consisted of geographical foci – mountains, lakes, streams, etc., or the extreme ends of the earth (the Taoist Immortals were rumored to live on floating islands to the east, for example). The final contact with the supernatural was via divination, which didn’t predict specific events so much as illuminated general trends and possibilities. Religion, as a whole, is characterized by a lack of systematized mythology or creation myths, and focused on maintaining a proper order betwixt the quick and the dead, heaven and earth. The afterlife is of a nature with this one; so much so that it’s just as prone to bureaucratic inefficiency as the earthly empire. (For the interested, Gore Vidal’s novel Creation is the marvelous account of Zoroaster’s grandson’s adventures as the Persian ambassador to the kingdoms of China and India where some of these differences between eastern and western spirituality are explored in a setting that doesn’t demand knowledge of or even great interest in Chinese history.)
Passing quickly to the final two chapters: “Literature” discusses what the Chinese (the elite, at any rate) were reading. In its efforts to control thought, the empire quickly established several classes of “legitimate” writings: The canons (jing) (which included belles lettres) and their commentaries (zhuan or shuo), which were universal principles and explanations that showed how to apply them. Of somewhat lesser stature were the encyclopedias, which endeavored to gather together the sum of all knowledge. The last class of literature is the history, which aimed to give expression to the “project of empire” (p. 214). As with every aspect of imperial culture, authors such as Sima Qian were remarkably focused on upholding and justifying the idea of a unified empire under a universal monarch governing with universal principles. The very idea of intellectual disunity reflected decay and social disorder. An attitude which strongly mitigated intellectual curiosity or dissent.
“Law” proved to be another fascinating chapter. There’s a surprisingly modern “feel” to the rules for investigating crime scenes. The investigator is supposed to carefully inspect the physical evidence; closely question witnesses and suspects; and extract a confession from the guilty. Punishments were usually corporal, usually brutal, often fatal, though there was in increasing tendency for many to be condemned to serving as laborers or in the armies.
The concluding essay wraps things up nicely. Lewis argues here that the fundamental reason for Eastern Han’s collapse was that its court lost touch with its subjects and, more importantly, lost its monopoly on violence, i.e., it lost control of its armies, which became the personal militias of landlords and generals. A phenomenon all too common in both modern and premodern states....more
When I began my undergraduate career I was part of an honors seminar where this was one of the books we read.
It was an eye-opening experience and probWhen I began my undergraduate career I was part of an honors seminar where this was one of the books we read.
It was an eye-opening experience and probably did as much as anything at that time in propelling me to specialize in Medieval history. Montaillou was a village in southern France that suffered an inquisitorial investigation in the mid-14th century because of a recrudescence of the Cathar heresy (which had been "eradicated" in the previous century, or so the Church believed). The book's fascination and brilliance lies not so much in its discussion of the inquisition but in the insight the inquisition's depositions (that it took from the peasants) gives into the lives of the people of Montaillou.
LeRoy Ladurie is a major figure in the Annales strain of Medieval historiography, which focuses on such sources to tease out how people lived and thought, and Montaillou is one of the better examples for a general reading audience to enjoy.
It's been 20 years since I read this book but I can still remember the sexual peccadillos of the village cleric, Le Clergue, and I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the period and looking for something other than a history that relies upon the usual sources - monastic chronicles, primarily - and talks about the usual "stuff" - politics & economics....more
I would describe this book as a professor's collection of undergraduate-level lectures about the Dark Ages - which, as he correctly points out, weren'I would describe this book as a professor's collection of undergraduate-level lectures about the Dark Ages - which, as he correctly points out, weren't quite as "dark" as the general public might think. Of course, John & Jane Q. Public don't often consider the Dark Ages except when they're watching scurrilous TV shows or movies, and then, do they care?
Among the cognoscenti of amateur and professional Late Antiquity/Early Medieval historians, Wells is not exactly breaking new ground.
Among this collection of lectures, he does present some interesting information about the evidence for trade and culture and wealth that refutes the hoary notion of howling barbarians, burning cities, ravished populations and empty landscapes.
If I had come across this book in high school or early in college, I'd probably be more excited about it. As it is, I've read this before and at much greater and incisive depth (Goffart's Barbarian Tides and Whittaker's Frontiers of the Roman Empire immediately come to mind)....more