A society does not rest on its history the way a building rests on its footings

Guest post by Eamon Knight and AJ Milne.

Eamon Knight, starting with a silly claim by Rabbi Sacks:

you cannot expect the foundations of western civilisation to crumble and leave the rest of the building intact.

I see this fallacious metaphor often enough that it deserves a name. A society is not a building; it does not rest on its history in the same sense a building rests on its footings. A society is more like a living organism, with the capability of continually renewing and even resculpting itself (think of the radical transformation of insect larvae into adults).

(But if we do want to run with the civil engineering metaphor, note that these days, we can even replace the footings of large historic buildings in situ, eg. replacing rotted wooden pilings with modern materials like concrete and polymers. And in fact Western societies have been gradually, over the last few centuries, replacing the rotten wood of _a priori_ moral order with secular ethics based on known human needs.)

AJ Milne, starting with Eamon’s retort:

I see this fallacious metaphor often enough that it deserves a name. A society is not a building; it does not rest on its history in the same sense a building rests on its footings. A society is more like a living organism, with the capability of continually renewing and even resculpting itself (think of the radical transformation of insect larvae into adults).

Now that’s actually a decent metaphor, right there.

And re replacing rotting wood, exactly. And it’s not like it’s a new thing, either.

It isn’t like this is actually such an obscure phenomenon, Dear Mr. Sacks. But let’s review all the same, as apparently you’re in the slow class…

See, the earliest human civilizations of any size were fairly brutal affairs by modern standards. And there’s something of a continuum from those to what the various modern states try to make work now. I figure the earliest monarches are a little better than straight out dictatorships really only in that succession is worked out ahead of time, and the relative continuity of the hierarchy did, over time, allow a somewhat persistent social contract between the rulers and the ruled, which could then evolve to something a little less brutally one-sided. If you were lucky, anyway. As in: if it’s been worked out the king actually has to try people (or at least people with any title) in public and declare the charges, his son is generally expected to follow the same rules if he wants to get along as well as he did with folk who might care and might also be armed and/or tempermental.

That’s one of the things state religions maybe did for civilization: having a proper royal cult turned the tyrant into a king, and the state religions Constantine and Uthman found convenient for their purposes did much the same job. That’s one of the ways religious flakes maybe get to declare their preferred superstition a ‘foundation’…

But it hardly means anyone* wants the pharoahs back. Shocking, I guess, how we’ve allowed that particular bit of masonry to ‘crumble’, too, innit.

And the reality is, against the fable propagandists like Sacks sell, it was never about an absolute code. The code was always being worked out and modified over time by humans; it’s just that over the same time, this process has become somewhat less obscurantist. Time was once you declared yourself god and had a priesthood dutifully inform the people regularly that they’d better bow if they knew what was good for them; time moves on and if you had sufficient political acumen maybe you pick your holy man and holy book, or edit it to fit the needs, à la Constantine, and then thereafter if you get a little selective about which rules the constabulary actually bother to enforce, well, again, let’s be practical; who’s going to check whose shirt is of mixed fibres anyway? (Mind, this presents problems, sure; fundamentalists will fundament, given half a chance, and having that canon around was always a hazard that way, but anyway, we’re working with what we got, here…)

And then take that celebrated Magna Carta; it has a proper ‘in God’s name’ on it, somewhere, but it was a treaty made effectively at the point of a sword (and at best very selectively followed for generations after and only revived as the Rule To Follow somewhat conveniently by a parliamentarian who liked the cut of its jib much, much later). And now lots of modern parliaments argue like mad about what the law’s to be, and if you’re paying attention, what actually winds up written, it’s about a lot of things and power and politics and stability and who may actually protest and who may actually pay and who may actually show up to vote and so on… But some clerk will still have the job of stamping some god’s name on the finished document at the end of the day to make it all official-like, all the same. This is a little more naked than were those earlier emperors who would declare themselves god and then work out just what they could get their barons to tithe as a more practical matter behind closed doors, but the principle’s much the same.

Now you can protest legislation isn’t morality, but again, the latter’s essentially the same phenomenon, and they do reflect one another. And they do evolve similarly, and are similarly subject to revision. And we do, again, work them out, bit by bit, between ourselves, as we bump up against one another, fight and argue and sometimes get along. We’re social beasts with this curious thing about us called culture that can change vastly faster than can our biology, and change it does.

So, seriously: Sacks thinks the Gnus aren’t thinking about this? Huh. Cute…

I might be more impressed with his self-serving, tediously overexposed smear, if I could see he were. Or at least that he were reporting it with the faintest interest in reflecting something remotely like the reality our civilization has lived.

(*/Or wait, in fairness, there’s probably people who do. So let’s keep outvoting them, shall we?)

Part deux

I figure I kinda know the minds of hacks like Sacks by now. Next it’s gonna be, oh, look, religion did this great thing, made kings from tyrants, isn’t that great, hallelujah, yadda yadda…

Let’s not oversell anything. Kings may be a mite better, sure. A little more stability, a few fewer revolutions and violent bloodlettings over succession, that’s nice, sure…

But until it’s been tamed by time and politics and angry mobs and rebel barons, that’s the only thing that’s better about a monarchy. And lots of places the only way you get anything near a modern democracy out of that is when those pesky and frequently very ugly Enlightenment revolutions get rolling, and various dark threats about nooses made of intestines are uttered. Some places it’s less marked and total than those revolutions, but even there it’s a messy business often beginning in the streets; you don’t get to Elizabeth II and her largely ceremonial role from Henry VIII without a few very ugly brawls. And claiming any religion has a whole hell of a lot to do with any of that is again, typically facile and self-serving. Note that, sure, it took off in Christian Europe first, but it’s not like we particularly see the religious authorities universally egging it on, either, nor is it ever real clear it’s the religion that has a lot to do with that so much as the wealth and prosperity spreading more generally through society, the causes of which may have as much to do with geography as human creeds. And at a more meta level, sure, the priesthood sometimes does get closer to the people than the king they’re supposed to support, and the politics gets complicated, and you get your Romeros and your revolution theology, but that’s no more surprising than the fact that sometimes the people working in the secret police start realizing what they’re supporting with their work really isn’t in their long-term interest either.

And none of this, of course, again, makes the underlying code laid down by any particular religion at any particular time sacred, nor the religion itself that important, nor at all indispensable. Publicly run programs and less formal community and social groups fill vast areas of the civic roles the old state religions took (public education, especially, not that the religion is always so happy about letting that go). What’s worth discussing at any time, sure, is how well those are filling needs, and that will always be a complicated story, and secular democracies, as relatively new phenomena, are always working on those, and societies in general always tuning, always fiddling, and probably always will be. But this isn’t a sign of some dreadful underlying malaise or decay; it’s the hallmarks of the living, dynamic, changeable things our societies all are.




  1. screechymonkey says

    But it hardly means anyone* wants the pharoahs back. Shocking, I guess, how we’ve allowed that particular bit of masonry to ‘crumble’, too, innit.

    Exactly. There are lots of traditions that are part of our history that we’ve decided we can do without. Most societies practiced slavery at one time or another, but I trust that Rabbi Sacks agrees we can do without that particular “foundation.”

    In fact, it’s practically a standard feature of biblical apologetics that we need to excuse or “re-interpret” the morally troubling parts of the bible because they were just artifacts of how society was at that time, which we can safely ignore in our more enlightened times.

  2. lpetrich says

    Monarchy was taken for granted over just about all of humanity’s recorded history — until a few centuries ago. Just about every society larger than a city-state was a monarchy. Furthermore, some monarchies were *very* long-lived, even if not exactly continuous, like the Chinese and Pharaonic monarchies.

    As to how monarchies originated, a theory I’ve seen is the “crown prince problem”. An appointed successor may get too eager to take the office, so the safest one is the leader’s son or some other relative. That’s not usually a problem for systems with well-established leader-independent succession systems, however. Systems like representative democracy, oligarchic republics, and one-party rule. Oligarchic republics like the former Republic of Venice and the Vatican. One-party systems like Communist countries.

    So why did monarchy go into a tailspin over the last few centuries? I’ve yet to find any discussion of the question of why, though it’s no trouble to document what happened.

    Despite monarchy’s great longevity, just about nobody nowadays wants the fallen monarchs back. Who wants the Bourbons back? The Hohenzollerns? The Habsburgs? The Romanovs? The Osmans? The Chinese emperors? A few leaders have made themselves into new monarchs, like the three Kims of North Korea, but that has not been very common.

  3. says

    I’d do the standard self-effacing ‘if Idaknown it was gonna wind up a post I’d have proofread more closely’ disclaimer here, but y’know… So done.

    So I’m just gonna go with, given the chain that turned it out: ‘Ottawa represent’.

    (We all have our tribalisms, apparently.)

    And thanks, OB.

    The other metaphor I’d thought of maybe weaving into this thing is something like ‘foundation not so much, maybe scaffolding at best’, but that one’s been done, too, I guess. It does have its merits. Just because it might be easier to get to where we are through the dark ages doesn’t mean we want to go back there…

    … the other hanging thread I had to leave is: it really isn’t a particularly simple, linear thing, either. Speaking of those dark ages, you can have what look like relatively intellectually vibrant civilizations give way to ones initially far less so (and ones in which the state religion was pretty dominant, again). So, again, easy to give way too much credit, here. And Eamon’s metaphor is probably better than any of this architectural stuff, anyway.

  4. bad Jim says

    Bravi, Milne & Knight.

    So why did monarchy go into a tailspin over the last few centuries?

    It probably had something to do with the increasing popularity of chopping off their heads.

  5. Francisco Bacopa says

    The Jewish and Christian traditions are not the foundations of western culture. They are interlopers and parasites on western culture. When the alleged “Christendom” of Europe rediscovered the pagan Code of Justinian, they went nuts. They found practical laws that could help them. English Common Law has its roots in Germanic traditions that predate the introduction of Christianity to Britain.

    Be proud of who you are as Europeans. We got shit done without the supposed morals and laws of your Bible.

    And don’t think I am being Eurocentric here. Africans have their own traditions that predate the introduction of Christianity or Islam to Africa. Some of them were good enough to get a Linux distro named after them. Ever hear of Ubuntu? Be proud of who you are as a person of African descent. You have your history even though it is not as well known as my history.

    And the Americas gave us the word “caucus”. You might have given us more, but it didn’t work out that way. Sorry.

    Asia is well known for its moral and legal traditions. Thanks for keeping them alive.

    And now for the Middle East. Ah hell naw to Muslims who claim that the area was never really organized until Islam came along. WTF? Many legal traditions. Some of you say the Jews had the first awesome laws, but they did not understand them correctly. Well, you are wrong, those dudes had contact with more advanced civilizations and copied as best they could.

    What I wanna understand is how any person with roots in any of the European cultures could get up and say we get our laws and morality from the supposed “Judeo-Christian” tradition. Do you hate who you are and all you ancestors achieved? Do you hate English Common Law? Do you hate the influence the Vikings had on liability claims?

    Any person of European descent who says our laws are based on the Bible hates America. As a true patriot, I must oppose them.

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