The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy

Another fairly self-explanatory title… The series of Cambridge Companions aim to provide a range of scholarly essays on a topic or philosopher, to help advanced students to get to grips with them. Thus, they are introductory from one perspective, but very far from superficial, which makes them an interesting read.

One interesting thing about this book was the number of important medieval Jewish philosophers I’d never heard of. Given that I’ve studied medieval philosophy in some detail, that was a little surprising; not even the names had come up with any frequency. Of course, there were some, Maimonides and Gersonides, most notably, of whom I had heard; I’ve even read Maimonides. One question running through the book is the degree to which Jewish philosophers engaged with Christian and Islamic philosophers in the period, and vice versa, and in many cases the evidence for engagement seems fairly slender. Maimonides and Gersonides are exceptions, which might well be why they were the two I’d heard of; I’ve tended to approach medieval philosophy from the Christian direction.

Another interesting point was the discussion of Judah Halevi, an early twelfth century philosopher who wrote a book known as the Kuzari, dramatising the conversion of the Kazars to Judaism. In this text, he apparently argued that the Jews were racially superior to all other people, and that only Jews could ever be truly virtuous. Conversion was not an option; you had to be a genuine blood descendant of Israel. It’s the first time I’ve come across clear ideas of racial supremacy in a medieval context; the Christians were big on ideological and religious supremacy, but don’t seem to have cared very much about races. Jews (or Muslims) who converted to Christianity were just as good as those who were born that way. Of course, Halevi may have been isolated; certainly, Maimonides seems to have been much less racist. But it was still something of a shock to come across such a pure form of racial supremacy in a medieval text. It’s also something of a shock to come across Jews being racist; they are normally the victims of prejudice in the period. (Not just in the medieval period, either, of course.)

The book also discusses the origins of Kabbalah, albeit somewhat indirectly. Kabbalah tended to be mystical rather than philosophical, and some of its practitioners were opposed to philosophy. Similarly, there was a strong current of medieval Jewish philosophy that thought Kabbalah was a load of rubbish. However, there was also a group, quite important in some areas, that combined Kabbalah and philosophy, generally in a Platonic way. They influenced some Christians who were important in the Renaissance, such as Pico della Mirandola, and that seems to be how Kabbalah broke out of the Judaism and found its way into the mainstream of European occultism.

The book covered far more than I’ve mentioned here, and I now feel like I have a much better grip on what was happening in Jewish philosophy in the period, which should help when it comes to studying Christian philosophy from the same era. It’s rather specialist, but I think it’s a good book.

The Confessions of St Augustine

The Confessions of St Augustine is, of course, one of the great classics of western literature. It’s also one of the earlier classics of African literature, although it doesn’t seem to get put into that category very often; Augustine was born in North Africa, spent his youth there, effectively went to university in Italy, and then returned home. Of course, one could legitimately argue that if you are trying to broaden the literary canon, Augustine doesn’t count. It’s not like he hasn’t been in the canon for about 1600 years.

Having now read the book, I can see why it seized and held on to such a place. It is really very good. Apparently his Latin style is also excellent, but as I read it in translation (I’m such a lazy person), I can’t comment on that. The content, however, is very interesting. Some of the scenes are very famous, such as the “take and read” scene in the garden, or Augustine’s prayer: “Lord, grant me chastity… but not yet”.

It’s clear from Augustine’s account that he was a Christian, and a religious one, from birth. Even when he was a Manichee, he thought that he was a Christian, and arguably he was right, no matter how much he came to disagree later. However, he did a lot of anguished soul-searching, before finally deciding on celibacy and a particular version of Christian doctrine. It is tempting to label that version “orthodox Catholicism”, but a large part of the reason that position is orthodox is because Augustine held it. Within limits, there’s a pretty good chance that any position Augustine had taken would have ended up orthodox.

While the earlier sections of the book are largely autobiographical, there are philosophical and theological elements throughout, and the final sections are dominated by such discussions.

One notable feature is that Augustine was wrong on most of the important factual points he made. In his discussion of time, for example, he argues that only the present exists; that the past and the future do not. That position seems now to be untenable. Special and General Relativity mean that “the present” is not uniquely defined, so both the past and future must exist if the present does, because the present for some observers is part of the past and future for others. In his discussion of Biblical exegesis, he argues that Moses wrote so that everyone could understand, and interpret him in all the ways possible, consistently with truth. We now know, of course, that the opening of Genesis is, at the very least, highly misleading. It misled everyone who read it before the mid-nineteenth century, and continues to mislead a significant number of people now. It is possible to interpret it metaphorically so that it isn’t inconsistent with the known facts, but, basically, in any other context there would be no question about saying that it is simply false.

And that raises possibly the most important problem with his position. Augustine never questioned the authority of the Bible, in part because he believed that it was believed throughout the world. He appears to have been completely ignorant of the states of affairs in India, China, and sub-Saharan Africa. That may be forgivable, as the late Roman Empire had few contacts with those places, but there is a more serious point.

In Book Six (6.5.7), he says “Thus you [God] persuaded me … that I should not listen to any who said to me, “How do you know that these books were given to mankind by the Spirit of the one true and truthful God?” That fact was to be believed above all[.]” I have no problem forgiving his ignorance of relativity and evolutionary theory; Augustine was brilliant, but it’s asking a bit much to expect him to manage several centuries of science all by himself. I’ll even forgive his ignorance of the state of most of the world he lived in, because communications were difficult. However, his response to this question is unforgivable. Once that problem has occurred to you, it is deeply intellectually dishonest not to try to come up with an answer, and “I’m not listening! Not listening! La-la-la-la” is not an answer.

I find it very difficult to believe that someone of Augustine’s intellectual acumen and personality was not profoundly bothered by this issue. I know it used to bother me, back when I was a Christian, and I ceased to be a Christian when I decided that there was no good answer to that question. Some people are not inclined to worry about such things, but Augustine was the sort of person who writes a whole chapter on the nature of time, and the problems of trying to pin down what it could possibly be. He has discussions of epistemology in some of his other works.

In short, if he was preaching as he did while as unsure about the Bible as he should have been, he was intellectually dishonest. If he did not harbour the doubts, despite confronting the questions head on and having no answers to give (because I am fairly sure that he would have given them had he had them), he was culpably negligent, and probably lying to himself. It is somewhat disappointing to find that even Augustine falls in this way.

The Origins of Human Society

The Origins of Human Society is part of the Blackwell History of the World. It covers human prehistory from the first emergence of the genus Homo to the first emergence of history. Thus, the end of its discussion varies depending on the part of the world concerned; in the Middle East it ends around 3000BC, in Japan around 600AD, and in North America around 1600AD. Obviously, with such a broad canvas, it cannot cover anything in great depth. Rather, the author concentrates on fitting local phenomena into a broader picture of the development of human society.

I enjoyed it and found it interesting. The parts the overlapped with things I already knew seemed reliable, so I’m inclined to trust the other bits. However, there wasn’t a large overlap, so I could be misled. Blackwell are a generally reliable publisher, though.

Actually, this is a very difficult type of book to write about. It’s a general introduction to a broad field, so its main focus is on providing information. It’s outside my specialist field, so I can’t really criticise the information. So I don’t have a great deal to say.

One thing did strike me, however. The author said that he was working on the assumption that society was shaped by self-interested households. This may be true, but only if “self-interested” covers sacrificing yourself and your family for an abstract ideal. That argument can be made, but it tends to rob “self interest” of any usefulness as an analytical tool. You can redefine “self interest” as “interest in improving one’s own economic standing, either absolutely or relative to the surrounding society”, and that will be useful in explaining a lot of things. It won’t, however, explain the existence of European cathedrals, nor, I suspect, can it explain Stonehenge.

A problem for the prehistorian is that the belief systems that lead to things like cathedrals vary widely between societies, and they don’t get preserved in the archaeological record. Thus, it’s very hard to have evidence for such claims about prehistoric societies. On the other hand, I suspect that it’s even more obviously true that they did exist, in some form, and thus explanations that lead them out can be known, pretty much in advance, to be wrong. Indeed, even in this book the author often talks about religious behaviour, but tends to see it only as a tool used by elites to solidify their power. This is indeed something religion has been used for, but historically it is not the only thing. Making that assumption about prehistory would seem to be unwarranted.

Or, to put it another way, a lot of modern Americans believe in their religion. It seems likely that a lot of prehistoric Americans did, too. Any theories of prehistory that don’t take that into account seem likely to miss things of great importance.

The Cults of the Roman Empire

The title of this book is a little misleading; there is almost no coverage of the state cults of the Roman empire, the cult of the emperor, or the indigenous cults of western Europe. The original French title (it’s a translation) referred to the “oriental cults”, which is more accurate, but still not completely so, as two of the most important oriental cults get virtually nothing. On the other hand, there are plenty of other sources on Judaism and Christianity, so I suppose the author can be forgiven.

Once past the title, the book does, I think, a good job at what it actually set out to do. There are chapters on groups of oriental cults, discussing their arrival in the Roman empire, their development there, and their spread. This includes the Egyptian cults, particularly Isis, the Syrian cults, the Magna Mater, Mithras, Dionysus, and a few lesser figures for which there is less in the way of evidence.

In fact, a shortage of evidence is a common problem. The final victory of Christianity means that all the cults described in the book died, and any writings they may have had were lost. Reconstructing Mithraism is described as akin to trying to reconstruct Christianity on the basis of the Old Testament and the iconography of medieval cathedrals; this would clearly be a rather unreliable process, and our evidence for Mithraism is relatively good. This is probably why so many cults can be covered in a relatively short book; the amount that can be said about each without straying into unsupported speculation is rather limited.

That said, I now think I know a good deal more about those cults than I did before reading the book. I’m not sure that I agree with the author’s assessment that the failure of the cults in the face of Christianity was inevitable, because they failed to truly appeal to Romans in the later stages of the Empire. The fact that Christianity did win tends to colour our assessments; had it failed, many historians would doubtless have felt that was inevitable. In particular, he criticises the cults for not having a developed and coherent theology, like Christianity. However, we don’t know that they didn’t, as we are missing a lot of material. If we only had the Old Testament and cathedral iconography, Christian theology would look fairly impoverished, and the Jesse Windows would probably lead to theories that Christians though that Christ grew on a tree. And then was nailed to one, and rose from the dead – clearly a simple vegetation deity, which would explain why Christianity failed to catch on as compared to the elaborate soteriology of Mithraism. (Actually, I do tend to agree that Mithraism’s exclusion of women doomed it, assuming that such an exclusion was universal. The cult of Isis might be a better candidate, especially as a number of aspects of Isis seem to have been adopted into the cult of the Virgin Mary.)

One of the most intriguing sections was the description of the cult of Dionysus. It seems to have been quite popular, despite official attempts to suppress it, much like Christianity. If that had been the one to win, with its celebration of wine, women, and song, the history of Europe would have been very different. It also seems to be an element of society that never goes away; look at the history of carnival in Europe and matsuri in Japan. I know that quite a few scholars have written on this topic; I’d quite like to get around to reading some of them eventually. So many books, so little time.

Anyway, this was a good book, which I can recommend to people with an interest in the pagan religions of ancient Rome. It certainly provided me with a lot of useful inspiration.

The Satyricon

The Satyricon is another Roman novel, this one written in the first century, by Petronius, who was the emperor Nero’s arbiter of good taste. Which, to be honest, sounds like the ultimate nightmare job, and Petronius was forced to commit suicide in 66 AD.

The Satyricon is not complete. We have maybe a fifth of it, and what we have is fragmentary. There is a complete description of an over-the-top Roman dinner party, and some other more-or-less complete incidents, but there are gaps, and odd jumps that suggest errors. It can’t be an easy text to translate.

It is also very, very rude. The title actually means “Dirty Stories”, and the main “romantic” triangles are between two men and a teenage boy. (One of the men is constant, but the second changes in the bits we have.) There’s a lecherous priestess, a brief visit to a brothel, and several bed scenes. The famous dinner party actually has less sex than just about any other part.

As a result of all the problems, I’m not sure that this is just worth reading for entertainment. There’s too much missing. On the other hand, it is a very interesting document of Roman attitudes at the period, and provides some very useful information on aspects of life that don’t figure in most text books — that is definitely useful for writing roleplaying games. (Why yes, everything I read serves as research for what I write. That’s how writers tend to work.)

So, very much worth reading to learn more about the period, but not really worth reading if you’re just after dirty stories.

The Golden Ass

The Golden Ass is the only novel from classical antiquity to survive complete. It was written in the late second century by one Apuleius, and deals with the tragi-comic misadventures of a man who has been turned into a donkey as a result of a little too much interest in magic. It also includes the tale of Cupid and Psyche, as a tale-within-a-tale. It has a lot of magical events in, quite apart from the main character being turned into a donkey, and gets quite deeply involved with Roman mystery religions, particularly the cult of Isis, towards the end. It is, in other words, quite clearly a fantasy novel.

It’s also quite good. Standards for entertainment shift over time, and as this book is pushing 2,000 there are a few bits that don’t quite work by contemporary standards. Cupid and Psyche is about a fifth of the book, for example. Lucius, the main character, gets into some fairly entertaining bits of trouble along the way, and there are early versions of a number of classic comic scenes. But there are also tragedies. I think it is worth reading as a story, and very definitely worth reading if, like me, you are interested in historical beliefs in the supernatural.

Of course, the fact that it is a novel makes it a bit tricky as a source. It is generally agreed that some bits are supposed to reflect reality; some bits are independently attested. But when it comes to the stories of magic, it isn’t clear how much of that contemporary people actually believed. If you took, say, Anne Rice’s vampire novels as indicating what contemporary people believed, you’d get an inaccurate picture. At the time, it was probably obvious which bits were plausible and which just made up, but we don’t have that cultural background, so we are left wondering.

Fortunately, when writing for roleplaying games, you can generally gloss over such problems. If people told stories about that then, the elements are suitable for telling stories set then. And, of course, if you’re just reading the book for fun, you don’t need to worry about it at all.

The Later Roman Empire (AD 354-378)

This book is the Penguin Classics translation of the Res Gestae by Ammianus Marcellinus, the most important primary source for the fourth century in the Roman Empire. As you may notice from the title, it only covers about a quarter of the century, and it spends a lot of time on Julian. Part of the reason is that we are missing the first thirteen books; at some point in the vicissitudes of history, the last copy of them was destroyed or misplaced. However, the book apparently originally started at the end of the first century, so it isn’t clear how much detail there would have been on earlier periods anyway. I gather that the bit historians would most like to still have is Ammianus’s section on Constantine.

So, what about the bit we do have? It’s good classical history. That is, he gives speeches to characters that almost certainly aren’t what they actually said, but which serve to establish character and advance the narrative. It’s also very focused on the doings of emperors, although not exclusively; he also wants to tell us what is happening in Rome, which very few emperors so much as visited in this period. It does, however, focus on Julian. Ammianus was a pagan, and Julian was, in many ways, his hero. Still, he is not entirely uncritical, and is quite harsh about some specific decisions, such as the law banning Christians from basic teaching. He also has an assessment of Julian’s character faults.

This is encouraging; it suggests that his accounts of other incidents may not be too distorted, and they do match quite well with what else we have from the period, allowing for religious bias. He’s a lot more positive about Julian than most of the Church Fathers, for example. There are some lovely incidents, such as the vampire meeting the Goths right at the end, or the exchange between Julian and a prosecutor at a court case. The accused denied the crime (a fraud), and the prosecutor had failed to gather documents to prove his case. Julian acquitted the accused, and the frustrated prosecutor said “Will any be convicted, if a denial is enough to procure acquittal?”. Julian replied “Will any be acquitted, if accusation is enough to secure conviction?”.

There is another incident in which someone informs the emperor that one of his (the accuser’s) enemies is having a purple tunic made. This could be serious; purple was the imperial colour, and making clothes in that colour could indicate plans to bid for imperial power, something that happened a lot in this period. Other emperors tortured people to death for less, but Julian instructed his tailor to send the man a pair of purple boots, to emphasise the emptiness of the symbols without the power.

Governments also seem to have been just as prone to witch hunts against enemies of the state (literal witches, in this case) then as now. It’s a good book, with a good introduction, and, as a primary source on the period, well worth reading if you’re interested in that time. In fact, if you’re seriously interested in the period, it’s essential, and you’ve probably read it already.

The Last Pagan

As I mentioned when talking about The Later Roman Empire, historians of the fourth century spend an inordinate amount of time on the emperor Julian, because the sources for his life are unusually good. This book is a good example: it’s a biography of Julian.

Of course, the other reason that Julian is interesting is the big “what if?” that he raises. As a committed pagan emperor, could he have reversed the Christianisation of the Roman Empire? It’s an interesting question, because the answers are not obvious either way.

Julian was a talented leader, with a fair amount of military talent, wide reading, and a good head on his shoulders. He was also fully capable of alienating large numbers of people through tactless political goofs; after becoming emperor, he appointed a Gaul he trusted to high office, which alienated the Senate. He would never have made a democratic politician, but he wasn’t asked to. He got to be an autocratic ruler.

The evidence is that he would not have endorsed a full-on persecution of the Christians; he doesn’t seem to have gone for that sort of thing. However, he would have restored pagan temples, knocked down some churches, and he did forbid Christians from teaching the normal school curriculum of rhetoric. More important, paganism would have been in favour. There would have been new temples, pagan rituals would have been restored to public life, and pagan philosophers would have had the whip hand in challenging the Christians. This all suggests that he could have reversed the trend.

On the other side, his personal version of paganism was rather eccentric. Even his friends and supporters thought that he was a bit too into sacrificing hundreds of animals to the gods. He was also, it seems, a devotee of the Unconquered Sun, although he was a henotheist rather than a monotheist. That is, Julian’s paganism did not connect to the religiosity of most people in the empire. It might have been doomed to die with him, just like Akhenaten’s religious reforms did in Egypt.

The question is purely academic because he miscalculated badly, getting into a war in Iraq and dying on the battlefield after only eighteen months as emperor, without a clear heir. (Back then, leaders who took their nations into disastrous wars tended to die in battle. It is notable that this doesn’t seem to have stopped them.) In the end, then, he is almost completely irrelevant to the course of history. The interest is that he might not have been, and this book, which is, after all, one of my main sources for what I know about Julian, is a good account of him as a fully rounded individual, drawing on multiple sources. I recommend it.

The Later Roman Empire

Recently, I’ve been reading a bit about the later Roman Empire, essentially the fourth century (284 to 430). This is a period I didn’t know much about before, so I started with this book, which is a general introduction. As far as I can tell, it’s a pretty good general introduction, too. It starts with a discussion of what came before (near-collapse, basically), a chapter on the sources for the period (not as good as we would like), and then has a series of chronological chapters. Finally, there are a few thematic chapters, covering society, the military, and the rise of Constantinople, which was refounded by Constantine in the early fourth century.

It’s an incredibly important period for world history, because it’s when Christianity went from being a marginal, sporadically persecuted sect to being the official religion of the Roman Empire, relentlessly persecuting all others. (That finished after the period of the book, when all the non-Christians had been wiped out.) It thus covers just about the only other period (other than the present day) when Christianity was both dominant and relatively tolerant. It’s interesting that this period roughly coincides with the living memory of the persecution of Christians, although I’d want a lot more evidence before drawing any causal links.

Another interesting feature of the period is the importance put on the eighteen month rule of Julian, the last pagan emperor. This is because the main source for the period, Ammianus Marcellinus, was a pagan, and devotes a large number of pages to Julian’s reign. Ammianus also seems to be fairly reliable, so we have a detailed, apparently trustworthy source for the period. It may not, in fact, have been particularly interesting or important. This happens a lot in ancient history; historians write about what sources exist for, and assume that the other stuff is less important. This isn’t as unreasonable as it might be, because people do tend to write about important things, and they tend to be preserved. This blog probably won’t exist in 1700 years time, unless I go on to be massively influential in some field, for example. On the other hand, occasionally it is pure chance; a lot of ancient material survives in one manuscript. Thus, there is always the nagging feeling that we might be missing something vital.

Still, that isn’t the fault of the author of this book. It gave me a solid framework for the period, so that the books I read later could be slotted in relatively easily. Thus, in so far as my non-expert opinion is valuable, I can recommend it as an introduction to the period.