Posts Tagged ‘Ancient Rome’

Mars as Communist Utopia in Pre-Revolutionary Russian SF

June 7, 2018

I thought this might interest all the SF fans out there. One of the books I’ve started reading is Lost Mars: The Golden Age of the Red Planet, edited by Mark Ashley (London: The British Library 2018). It’s a collection of SF stories written about the Red Planet from the 19th century to just before the Mariner and then Viking probes in the ’60s and ’70s showed that rather than being a living planet with canals, vegetation and civilised beings, it was a dead world more like the Moon. It’s a companion volume to another book of early SF stories from about the same period, Moonrise: The Golden Age of Lunar Adventures, also edited by Mike Ashley. The Martian book contains stories by H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury – from The Martian Chronicles, natch – Marion Zimmer Bradley, E.C. Tubb, Walter M. Miller, and the great novelist of dystopias and bug-eyed psychopaths, J.G. Ballard. It also contains pieces by now all but forgotten Victorian and early Twentieth writers of Scientific Romances, W.S. Lach-Szyrma, George C. Wallis, P. Schuyler Miller and Stanley G. Weinbaum.

Both books are also interesting, not just for the short stories collected in them, but also for Ashley’s introduction, where he traces the literary history of stories about these worlds. In the case of the Moon, this goes all the way back to the Roman satirist, Lucian of Samosata, and his Vera Historia. This is a fantasy about a group of Roman sailors, whose ship is flung into space by a massive waterspout, to find themselves captured by a squadron of Vulturemen soldiers from the Moon, who are planning an invasion of the Sun.

The history of literary speculation about Mars and Martian civilisation, is no less interesting, but somewhat shorter. It really only begins in the late 19th century, when telescopes had been developed capable of showing some details of the Martian surface, and in particular the canali, which the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli believed he had seen. The Italian word can mean ‘channels’ as well as ‘canal’, and Schiaparelli himself did not describe them as artificial. Nevertheless, other astronomers, like Percival Lowell of Flagstaff, Arizona, believed they were. Other astronomers were far more sceptical, but this set off the wave of novels and short stories set on an inhabited Mars, like Edgar Rice Burrough’s famous John Carter stories. I remember the Marvel adaptation of some these, or at least using the same character, which appeared as backing stories in Star Wars comic way back in the 1970s.

It’s also interesting, and to contemporary readers somewhat strange, that before H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, the vast majority of these stories about Mars assumed that the Martians would not only be far more scientifically and technologically advanced, but they would also be more socially and spiritually as well. Just like the Aetherius Society, a UFO new religious movement founded by George King in the 1950s, claims that Jesus was really as Venusian, and now lives on that world along with Aetherius, the being from whom they believe they receive telepathic messages, so there were a couple of short stories in which Christ was a Martian. These were Charles Cole’s Visitors From Mars, of 1901, and Wallace Dowding’s The Man From Mars of 1910.

Other utopias set on the Red Planet were more secular. In Unveiling a Parallel, by Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant, of 1893, the Martians are handsome and intelligent, and their women totally liberated. Another feminist utopia was also depicted by the Australian writer Mary Moore-Bentley in her A Woman of Mars of 1901.

And in Russia, the writer Alexander Bogdanov made Mars a Communist utopia. Ashley writes

While the planetary romance theme was developing there were other explorations of Martian culture. The Red Planet became an obvious setting for a communist state in Krasnaia Zvesda (‘Red Star’, 1908) and its sequel Inzhener Menni (‘Engineer Menni’, 1912) by Alexander Bogdanov. Although reasonably well known in Russia, especially at the time of the revolution in 1917, and notoriously because of its reference to free love on Mars, it was not translated into English until 1984. Kim Stanley Robinson claimed it served as an influence for his own novel, Red Mars (1992), the first of his trilogy about terraforming the planet. Although the emphasis in Bodganov’s stories is on the benefits of socialism, he took trouble to make the science as realistic as possible. The egg-shaped rocket to Mars is powered by atomic energy. His Mars is Schiaparellian, with canals that have forests planted along their full length, explaining why they are visible from Earth. He also went to great lengths to explain how the topography of Mars, and the fact that it was twice as old as Earth, allowed social evolution to develop gradually and more effectively, with planet-wide communication and thus a single language. (Pp. 11-12).

So five years before the Revolution, Mars really was the ‘Red Planet’ in Russian literature. I’m not surprised it wasn’t translated into English until the 1980s. British publishers and censors probably disliked it as a piece of Communist propaganda, quite apart from Anglophone western Puritanism and the whole issue of free love. No naughtiness allowed on the side of the Iron Curtain, not even when it’s set on Mars. Russian cinema also produced one of the first SF films, also set on Mars. This was Aelita (1922), in which Russian cosmonauts travel to the Red Planet to start a revolution, though at the end it’s revealed that it’s all been a dream.

Meanwhile, Mars as a planet of mystery continues in the French SF series, Missions, shown at 10.00 Thursdays on BBC 4. This has French spationauts and their American rivals landing on the Red Planet, only to find a mysterious altar constructed from lost Atlantean materials described by the Romans, and Vladimir Komarov, a Soviet cosmonaut, who has been turned into something more than human with three strands of DNA. In reality, Komarov died when the parachutes on his spacecraft failed to open when it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Tragically, Komarov knew it was a deathtrap, but went anyway because Khrushchev wanted another Russian space achievement to show up the Americans, and Komarov did not want his friend, and first man in space, Yuri Gagarin to go. It’s a tragic, shameful waste of human life on what was a purely political stunt, and Komarov is, because of his desire to save his friend, one of the great heroes of the space age.

But Missions shows not only how much people really want us to travel to Mars – to explore and colonise – it also shows how the Red Planet still remains the source of wonder and speculation about alien civilisations, civilisations that may not be hostile monsters intent on invading the Earth ‘for no very good reason’, as Douglas Adams described the motives of those aliens, who wanted to take over the universie in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. One of the French spationauts, Jeanne, has dreamed of going to Mars since being shown it through a telescope by her father when she was a little girl. Electromagnetic scans of the area, when developed, give a picture of her face, and ‘Komarov’ tells her he has been waiting millions of years for her, and she is the true link between Mars and Earth.

Yes, it’s weird. But different. And it shows that Mars is continuing to inspire other forms of SF, where the Martians aren’t invaders – or at least, not so far-but benevolent guides waiting for us to come to them and make the next leap in our development. Just like Bogdanov in 1912 imagined that they would be ahead of us, and so have created a true Communist utopia.

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Channel 4 Report into Italian Hipster Fascists

March 5, 2018

After the Fascistic policies and behaviour of the Israeli state and its advocates over here, there’s the return of Fascism proper to Europe. I found this Channel 4 report into the Italian Fascist party, CasaPound, on YouTube. CasaPound is a miniscule Fascist party, which takes its name from the American Modernist poet and Fascist, Ezra Pound. Casa is Italian for ‘house’, so I suppose you could translate the party’s name as ‘Pound House’ or ‘House of Pound’. They seem to have been founded by an extreme right-wing rock singer, shown growling out his wretched songs at one of his concerts. The party holds rallies, at which their squadristi respond with the Roman salute. And the iconography of Italian Fascism – the Fasces – the bundle of sticks with the axe projecting from it – and Mussolini’s ghastly fizzog are everywhere.

The reporter is shown round their headquarters by a woman. On one wall, when you go in, are the names of various prominent Fascists, written in different colours and sizes. The reporter’s guide tells him that they have this put there, as their counterpart to the Roman household gods that guarded their homes. One of the names on the wall is that of the notorious British Fascist, Oswald Mosley. The building also acts as a hostel, putting up the homeless – but only if you’re Italian. By which, presumably, they mean ‘White Italian’. The party also runs food banks and provides free medical care, such as health check-ups and electro-cardiograms. Again, only for Whites. As the woman explains in the video, only full Whites can be members of the organisation. A White person married to an immigrant cannot be a member, each of whom pays a subscription to the organisation. Along with the names of prominent, infamous Fascists, there’s also their flags and insignia, including that of the infamous Golden Dawn, responsible for the beatings and murder of immigrants and leftists in Greece.

The reporter comments that the place is very military, like a barracks. And it almost goes without saying that Casapound is viciously anti-immigrant. There’s a clip of a rally at which one of their speakers states he wants two ships in the Mediterranean to intercept the migrant vessels and send them back to Libya. The reporter also makes the point that they are trying to exploit the death of a young girl for their political gain. It’s not certain whether the girl died of a drug overdose, or was murdered, but three immigrants were arrested in connection with her death after her dismembered body was found deposited in two suitcases. The next day, a man with very extreme right-wing views opened fire and killed six migrants. The stormtroopers of CasaPound state very clearly that they don’t want immigrants coming to Italy bringing drugs and crime, and that if they had been in power, the girl would still be alive.

At the moment, CasaPound are politically negligible. They need to get three per cent of the vote before they get anywhere the Italian parliament, and there are many other Fascist parties. But the video does show the return of the blatantly Fascist right into Italian politics, even though it’s currently at the fringes.

The video’s important, not just for showing the re-emergence of proper Fascism in Italy, but because it also shows and confirms some of the observations the American radical journalist, Chris Hedges, has made about the way Fascism returns after the liberal elite abandon the working class. Hedges stated that the new Fascism in America took the form of complete little worlds, in which a person could become completely immersed. He was talking about the religious right, and the megachurches, which provide a more-or-less complete environment separate from the secular world outside. CasaPound offers much the same. It’s a lifestyle, as much as a political party.

As well as watching the emergence of Fascism in America, Hedges himself saw it appear during the civil war in Yugoslavia. He states that when the liberal elite abandon the working class to pursue neoliberal policies, which benefit only the business elite, the working class not only turn against them, but against the liberal values of multiculturalism, anti-racism, feminism, gay rights and so on. And again, you can see that here. The welfare services provided by CasaPound for the racially pure show this clearly. Healthcare has been cut, so that many Italians cannot get a doctor. So CasaPound provides one. The party’s squadristi state that the Communist party used to do this, but they don’t appear in the communities any longer. And so their place has been filled instead by CasaPound. Again, the organisation is providing a total social environment, including welfare support, that the state and the supposed parties of the Left have retreated from under the assault of neoliberal free trade dogma. This also affected the Communist Party in Italy, which in the 1980s began to explore other paths to power rather than the methods dictated by Russian experience. In doing so, they became much less radical, despite their Marxist ideology. I can remember the Financial Times in the 1990s stating that they were no more left-wing than the SDP in Britain, the right-wing Labour splinter group that amalgamated with the Liberals to form the Lib Dems.

I don’t know how much of a threat Fascism actually poses in Italy. It’s certainly there, at the margins. But CasaPound are nowhere near as powerful as the Alternative fuer Deutschland, who are also real Nazis with a bitter hatred of Jews and immigrants, and which have just managed to get themselves into the Bundestag. At the moment the major populist force in Italy seems to be Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Party. But this does indicate the way the country could move, if something is not done to bring down the rise in xenophobia and anti-immigrant hostility on one hand, and destroy the neoliberalism that is impoverishing people across the world, and creating such anxieties on the other.

Trump Brings Armageddon Closer by Moving American Embassy to Jerusalem

December 8, 2017

And this is exactly what Christian Zionist millennialists like Tim Lahaie want.

Yesterday, Trump announced that he was going to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This is what the Israelis have been demanding for years, but previous administrations have not given into them, because they were very much aware that this would set off a powder keg of rage and hostility across the Middle East. Jerusalem was taken from the Palestinians, and still contains a sizable Arab population. The Israeli nationalist right would love it to be the capital of their nation, but it is also claimed by the Palestinians.

There have been mass protests and riots against Trump’s decision all over the Middle East. RT yesterday put up this footage of Israeli squaddies or the police trying to put down protesters or rioters in Bethlehem yesterday.

And politicians from across the political spectrum have condemned Trump’s decision, from Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon to Theresa May and Boris Johnson.

May’s condemnation is far less full than one would wish. As you can see, she doesn’t condemn it because it’s a rubbish decision. She only condemns it because it hasn’t been made according to the proper decision making process. As for Boris, he optimistically says that it’s good that the Americans are committed to the two-state solution. In fact, the Palestinians aren’t happy with the two state solution, for the simple reason that the Israelis will keep stringing them and the rest of the world along with it, while taking whatever remains of Palestinian land. The aim now is to demand an end to Israeli apartheid and the full rights of Palestinians as equal Israeli citizens. But as this would threaten Israel’s existence as a racial ethno-state, there’s going to be profound opposition to this.

The Young Turks have also weighed in on this issue. In the video below, Cenk Uygur and John Iadarola explain just why it’s a bad idea. They point out that it’s been mooted before, and there were a series of resolutions passed in both houses of Congress in the 1990s. But then somebody pointed out what would happen if they did. They state that it’s an incendiary situation, because Jerusalem is a holy city to Christians, Jews and Muslims, and that many of them will not want to see all of the city and its shrines placed under Israeli rule. Uygur also points out that for some Christian Zionists, an apocalyptic war is exactly what they want. They believe that there will be a final battle between the forces of good and evil when one of the mosques in Jerusalem is destroyed. This will lead to a nuclear holocaust, following which Christ will return.

Uygur follows this with an atheist rant, which I don’t agree with. But he states that even though he doesn’t believe in the prophecy, it has to be taken seriously because others do, and they are willing to fight and kill for it. He concludes by making the point that it’s just Islam that’s the problem. It’s also Christian fundamentalism. To which Iadarola adds that ‘Fundamentalism is the problem’.

I know a number of people, who hold a very literal view of the Creation story in Genesis, and who could be fairly described as ‘Fundamentalist’. They’re good people. But Uygur is absolutely right about the dangerous, apocalyptic views of the Christian Zionist right. Christian Zionism began in the 19th century, because it was believed that if ancient Israel was restored, Our Lord would return to Earth to usher in the Millennium. In the 1980s this morphed into a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. Now it’s become a war between Israel and Christendom versus Islam.

One of the leaders of American Christian Zionism is Tim LaHaie. LaHaie is one of the authors of the Left Behind series of novels, in which the Rapture has occurred and all the righteous have been taken to heaven in preparation for the rise of the Antichrist and the Tribulation, before Christ’s return and the overthrow of Satan. The novels were a massive hit amongst the American Christian readership, and were turned into a film/TV series.

But not only are these views extremely dangerous, they’re also abysmally bad theology. The Church Fathers in the Early Church were acutely aware of the temptation of some Christians to try to force events, and were very much against it. Furthermore, the Millennialists predictions depend on a very specific reading of the Book of Revelation. The Book of Revelation is not easy to interpret as very much of it is in symbolism and imagery that was probably well-known to Mediterranean Jewish Christians, but has been lost to us over time. The mainstream view is that the book is part prophecy, part commentary on contemporary events. The ‘Beast 666’ is believed to have been Nero, the Greek version of whose name, Neron, has that value in the Gematria numerological system. Not only did Nero persecute Christians, as a young man he also used to dress up as a beast and go around with his fellow aristocratic yahoos attacking ordinary Roman citizens. So this is partly a commentary on the contemporary persecution of the Church in ancient Rome under Nero. However, the Book is also prophetic, in that it looks forward to the general resurrection of the dead at Christ’s return. But this will happen without there being a tribulation or apocalyptic battle beforehand.

If you’re a Christian, and wish to read more, then I heartily recommend you go over to Tekton Apologetics and look at J.P. Holding’s writings on this issue. Holiding’s a theologically Conservative, Protestant Christian with a literal view of Genesis. I don’t know what his political views are. For all I know, he might be a man of the right. But this doesn’t matter, because he has written very detailed, informed critiques of this dangerous, Millennialist nonsense, and is a very, very fierce critic of the Left Behind books, and the way they have dumbed down American Christianity.

Weak and Wobby May Gets Hit with the Mugwumps

April 29, 2017

Which can be very painful, and requires careful treatment.

Mike yesterday put up a piece describing the way the ‘strong and stable’ Tories, led by weak and wobbly Theresa May were disintegrating before our very eyes. This features some cool video and sound clips clearly showing May looking and sounding lost. Literally, in one case, where she really doesn’t know where she is.

Boris Johnson had attacked Jeremy Corbyn as a ‘mutton-headed mugwump’. So when May appeared on his show, Chris Doidge of Radio Derby asked her if she knew what it was. Listen to it. She doesn’t answer him, but immediately answers a completely different question, about how the Tories represent ‘strong and stable leadership’. Thus giving those trying Mike’s Tory election drinking game their first sup of booze of the day.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines the term as

An Algonkin word meaning a chief; in Eliot’s Indian Bible the word “centurion” in Acts is rendered mugwump. It is now applied in the USA to independent members of the Republican party, those who refuse to follow the dictates of a Caucus, and all political Pharisees whose party vote cannot be relief upon. It is also used in the sense of “big shot” or “boss”.

Johnson was probably thinking of this definition to insult Corbyn by reminding him of the way many members of his party had conspired against him. But it’s also something of a Tory own goal, as there’s clearly opposition to her in her own party. Otherwise, why would the Sun have put such bug-eyed headlines as ‘Crush the Saboteurs’ on their front page?

Of course, in the David Cronenberg’s 1991 film of William S. Burrough’s novel, The Naked Lunch, the mugwumps are the weird lizard-like creatures the hero sees, thanks to the hallucinatory effects of the pest poison to which he has become addicted.

A mugwump and friend discuss May’s strong and stable Tory leadership.

Ah, but who knows what rarified pleasures go on behind the closed doors of the Bullingdon Club!

Then there’s the clip of her appealing to people to come to ‘this particular town’. As one of the Tweeters Mike quotes points out, she doesn’t know where she, and isn’t pleased to be there. Another Tweeter also points out that she looks to the right and down, which is a classic ‘tell’ of liars.

Thursday she turned up in Leeds to give a speech at a workplace. Another Tweeter stated that the clip of that, too, is deceptive. She gave her talk after work, to an audience that as exclusively invited. Far from being a great popular speaker, like Corbyn, it’s all very carefully stage-managed.

There’s a comparison to be made there with Stalin and Mussolini. Stalin also wasn’t a great public speaker, contrary to the impression that mad dictators bent on genocide are always great orators. He used to give his speeches at the annual May Day parades via gramophone records, with a very carefully vetted audience as far away from him as possible.

As for il Duce, the old thug was surrounded wherever he went with members of his secret police in plain clothes. Thus he was always guaranteed an appreciative audience to the exclusion of any real members of the public, who may have wanted to see him. At one public gathering, he asked all the plain clothes thugs to take a step back so that he could see the genuine public. Well, they did, and he didn’t: the crowd was entirely made up of secret policemen, like one of the jokes from G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday.

And Nero also surrounded himself with a sycophantic claque of followers, whenever he fancied himself as the great lyric poet at the theatre. He’s infamous for fiddling while Rome burns. Which is a fair analogy for May’s performance in Britain under Tory leadership. She’s also warbling on to a hand-picked claque, posturing as the great orator, while the country collapses in poverty thanks to her party’s massive economic mismanagement and determination to grind working people down through welfare cuts, wage freezes and the privatisation of the NHS.

‘In the Shadow of Mary Seacole’: Review

October 20, 2016

Tuesday evening, at 10.40 ITV broadcast a documentary, ‘In the Shadow of Mary Seacole’, in which the actor David Harewood went on a journey from Britain to Jamaica and the Crimea tracing the life of Mary Seacole. Seacole was one of the Victorian heroines that have been forgotten with the march of time. In her forties, she went to Crimea to open a hotel to serve the troops, as well as going on to the battlefield to try to heal them with traditional Jamaican herbal remedies. She was at one time as popular as Florence Nightingale, and her memory has been preserved by Black historians and activists. Amongst those Harewood spoke to about her, were a group of mainly Black, but with one or two White ladies, who had formed a society to commemorate her. These ladies had succeeded in their campaign for a monument to be erected to her. As Harewood traced Seacole’s physical journey around the globe, so he also followed the story of the her statue from the initial design as a maquette, or scale model, to the completion of the final, 3 metre tall statue and its installation outside one of London’s hospitals.

Apart from Harewood himself and the ladies of his commemoration society, the other speakers in the programme included Diane Abbott, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, the comedian Jo Brand, a Black actress, a White woman, who had written a biography of Seacole, and a biographer of Florence Nightingale. The latter was very critical of Mary Seacole. He felt that, in contrast to Nightingale, Seacole’s achievements in nursing had been blown out of proportion. He declared that there was no evidence she had saved thousands of lives. He felt she was only being commemorated due to ‘political correctness’ – the need to find a Black counterpart to Nightingale. He stated he had no objection to a statue being put up to her, but did object to where it was to be sited: outside the very hospital associated with Nightingale. Harewood correctly commented that she continued to divide opinions today.

He began the programme at the side of the lakes in Birmingham, where he and his brother used to play as children. He said that at the time he was growing up in the 70s, there were no major figures of his skin colour, and no women. Mary Seacole had been a particular heroine of his. Seacole had been born in Jamaica in 1805, the illegitimate daughter of a free Black woman and a Scots soldier. Her mother ran a boarding house, and it was from her mother that she also learnt her knowledge of Jamaican herbal medicine. She later on married a White Englishman, Horatio Hamilton, who claimed to be the illegitimate son of Horatio Nelson and Lady Hamilton. The marriage unfortunately only lasted nine years. Hamilton was sickly, and Seacole nursed him through his final years before his death. With the outbreak of the Crimean War, Seacole used her own money to journey to Crimea to construct a hotel. There she was known for serving good food, as well as dispensing ‘liquors’ to the troops. Her hotel was particularly patronised by the officer class.

Harewood explained that the purpose of the War had been to quell fears that the Russians were going to expand southward. The Crimea, then as now, was home to the Russian fleet. And so the British invaded and besieged the town of Sebastopol. After several years of fighting, the British managed to break the Russians, who retreated, sinking their own ships as they did so. The sequences showing the Crimean War were illustrated by clips from a Russian movie made in 1912.

Mary’s fortunes were not so successful, however. She came back to Britain in debt. A banquet was held in her honour, in order to raise money for her, supported by several of the soldiers. Although the banquet was a success, it did not raise any money for her, and she died penniless, eventually to be all but forgotten. She had, however, left an autobiography, a modern edition of which Harewood was shown reading.

The sculptor showed Harewood the model he had made. This would show Seacole as the strong, purposeful woman she was, striding forward with her clothes swirling around her. Behind would be a metal disc, which would bear the imprint of the ground from Crimea. It was designed to be lit up from below at night. To illustrate this, the sculptor showed Harewood the intended effect using the light from his mobile phone. His intention was not only to show Seacole herself, but that the shadows of the people admiring the statue would also be cast onto the disc behind her, so that for a brief moment they too would share her space.

The sculptor stated that there were a lot of photographs showing Seacole’s face from the front, but he wanted to know what she looked like from all sides. Thus he asked Harewood to go to the archives in Jamaica to see what material they had on her. The British archivist there produced a bust of the heroine, in reddish-brown clay, that was made by one of the army surgeons. It was, he said, one of the rarest of its type in the archives and easily the most valuable. Harewood duly photographed the bust from all angles.

Also in Jamaica, Harewood spoke to a former pharmacist, a doctor, who had given up her career in orthodox medicine for one in complementary healing. She explained that Seacole didn’t have any formal medical training, but would have been a ‘doctress’. This meant that she had a knowledge of herbal lore, which she used to treat and heal. It was this knowledge that she used to treat the wounded squaddies on the frozen battlefields of the Crimea.

This led to Harewood and the sculptor, back home in England, discussing Seacole’s features. There’s a debate and a little controversy over how ‘Black’ Seacole was. She was clearly a woman of African heritage, but the sculptor also felt that there would have been some elements in her appearance from her White heritage. Her features, he believed, would have been a little narrower from other Black Jamaicans as a result. He then sent Harewood on to the next stage of his journey of discovery, to the Crimea to find suitable ground from which to take the impressions for the statue’s metal disc.

At the Crimea, he met a local historian, a mature lady, who guided him to some of the battle sites. He looked over the ‘Valley of Death’ through which the Light Brigade charged to spike the Russian guns, celebrated in Tennyson’s poem, and illustrated in a painting from the period. Poring over maps, he traced the site of Seacole’s hotel, and was delighted to discover that there were still relics of her stay littering the ground. These included some of the wine and alcohol bottles she had stocked. Looking at the shards of glass, Harewood and the historian discussed how the British used to shoot the tops off the bottles. Harewood was accompanied on his journey by the technician, who was going to take the impression of the ground. While Harewood and the historian discussed Seacole’s hotel and its remains, he went off to find a suitable rock formation. This was scanned using a laser, which the technician held up to shoot its rays at the rock face, slowly building up a three dimensional computer model of its surface.

The Black actress commented on what a strong, modern woman Seacole would have been. She had travelled on her own across the world without a husband, something which was extremely rare at the time, and which few women did today.

Back in England, Harewood returned to see the immense metal armature the sculptor had constructed, which would serve as the three-dimensional framework for the clay from which the statue would be made. The sculptor trowelled a few pieces of clay into place before inviting Harewood to join in. Harewood did so, but not unsurprisingly found stirring and getting the great gobs of clay from the bucket onto his trowel, and then on to the frame hard work. It struck me that this part of the statue’s construction was not so much like the image of sculpture everyone has, with delicate fingers moulding pliant clay, so much as like a navvy laying down mortar on a brick wall.

Harewood then said that there were a few more things that needed to be done to the statue, with footage of it being covered with various other substances, one of which looked like rubber, before it was due to be taken to be cast into bronze. The programme showed the statue being driven to the foundry on the back of an open truck, securely fastened with tarpaulin and ropes. Once there, the programme showed the molten bronze being poured from a crucible into the mould formed from the clay statue. This was the moment of truth, and the sculptor described it as a form of alchemy.

The statue was being cast in pieces, and the sculptor took Harewood to see some of the pieces that had already been cast, which included her head. At this stage of the process, the bronze was a bright, coppery colour. The pieces would be assembled and welded together. The welding marks would then be removed, before the statue was finally put in place. There was a little footage of this being done. When completed, the statue was a much darker colour.

The programme showed the ceremony for the statue’s installation. Amongst those speaking were Diane Abbott, and the sculptor himself. He said in his speech that there were plenty of statues of White men, mostly monarchs and generals, but only 15 per cent of the statues in Britain were of women, and very few Black people. It had therefore been his privilege to try to redress this. Back in the studio, Jo Brand paid tribute to Seacole, saying that she was a woman of immense compassion. Her biographer answered the criticisms of Nightingale’s biographer by saying that the comments about her going to run a hotel there were meant to disparage her accomplishment by pointing out that there was also a commercial motive. But this did not detract from her achievements. She also answered the criticism that Seacole didn’t have formal medical training by pointing out that nursing as a distinct, respected profession didn’t exist at the time, and was only created by Nightingale after the War. Harewood himself also commented, stating that there were few, if any, statues of people of his colour. But it was important to have them, to show that people of colour had been a part of this country’s history for a very long time.

It was an interesting glimpse into the life of a determined woman, who was rightly celebrated in her day. I don’t think you could quite make her Nightingale’s equal – Nightingale herself was an expert mathematician, who added much to statistics, and whose achievements included the invention of the pie chart. And Nightingale is the genius behind the creation of modern nursing. Nevertheless, she played her bit providing comfort to the wounded in during the horrors of the Crimean War. Brand at one point said she must have been an immense comfort to some poor, teenage soldier dying far away from his mother. And the troops also doubtless appreciated the alcohol she brought on to the battlefield. So, while may be not as great a figure as Nightingale, she certainly deserved her statue.

One other thing also struck me about Seacole and her unofficial status as ‘doctress’. While this may strike people today, used to modern, professional scientific medicine, as something close to magic, it would have been immediately familiar to the ordinary troopers from working class or rural poor backgrounds. Before it was applied to African spiritual healers and practitioners, the term ‘witchdoctor’ originally meant the white witches and wizards of rural Britain, to whom the poor turned to heal their illnesses. Professional doctors before the establishment of the NHS and the welfare state were rare in rural areas, and expensive. Unofficial healers with a knowledge of herbalism were therefore the only people available to the poor, whether they were White British or Black Jamaicans. Professional doctors also had a reputation as rapacious quacks, whose treatments were more likely to kill you as cure you. The rank and file squaddies in the British army were thus probably more prepared to trust her as the type of healer they had grown up with at home, than the properly trained medical men. And clearly, the army surgeon, who had sculpted the bust respected her courage and professionalism, otherwise he would not have tried to preserve her image in clay.

And Harewood is right: Black people have been in Britain since the Romans. It is thus only right that Seacole should have a statue in her honour.

Boris Criticised by Own Party for Cynical Decision to Join ‘Out’ Campaign

February 23, 2016

Mike over at Vox Political also has a very interesting piece about Boris Johnson’s decision to join the ‘Out’ campaign. Mike points out that until a couple of weeks ago, BoJo appeared to be in favour of Britain remaining in Europe. He was certainly in favour of Turkey joining it. Now apparently he’s decided to put all that behind him. Mike writes

Soon after Boris Johnson declared that he would campaign for the UK to leave the European Union, we were all reminded that he had campaigned for Turkey to become a member, so he was already guilty of double-standards (why want them in, and us out?) but more was to follow.

We have since learned that Mr Johnson has been hoping an ‘Out’ vote might lead to further renegotiation with the other EU countries, leading to a settlement for the UK that would make him happier.

(Or – as most of us surmised – he thought joining the ‘Out’ brigade might endear him to Tory backbenchers, or at least enough of them to ease him into Number 10 after Cameron slings his hook.)

This has earned Britain’s own tousle-haired buffoon (I wonder – are he and Donald Trump clones from the same genetic laboratory?) a swift rejoinder from Dave Cameron, who has told him that it’s going to be a straight case of Britain either being in Europe or leaving. There is no plan for renegotiation.

See: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/02/22/tory-infighting-leads-to-a-very-public-takedown-for-boris-johnson/.

This debacle shows BoJo for what he is: a demagogue. If he genuinely wishes that a vote to leave Europe would result in a second referendum, and further negotiations to revise the conditions of Britain’s membership so that we remain in, then he’s simply supporting the ‘Out’ campaign as a kind of political utilitarianism. He’s really in favour of membership, and always has been, but he hopes he can use it to frighten the EU into granting concessions. It’s a dangerous game to play. The danger is that by that time, the EU could be so sick and tired of us, that they can’t be bothered to indulge us, and will just simply say, ‘Well, be like that. Go away then!’

And I think Mike’s right. This is all about trying to enhance BoJo’s standing within the party, as the ‘man of the people’, and the populist candidate against Cameron. It really does look like he’s angling for backbench Tory support. In a Classical simile that Boris should appreciate, he’s rather like the Greek philosopher Carneades. Carneades went on an embassy to Rome. There he decided to give a talk on ‘virtue’. In the morning he argued for it, and in the afternoon, he argued against it. It was part of the attitude of the Sceptic school that knowledge could never be absolute and information was always provisional. And Carneades was also a bit of a wiseacre, who liked to show off how clever he was by arguing contradictory positions. Boris is basically doing the same thing here. It’s nasty, and shows that one thing Boris is not and will never be, is a statesman of the mould of Solon or Pericles.

Vox Political: Thatcher Was Urged to Levy Poll Tax on the Homeless

February 20, 2016

This piece from Mike over at Vox Political shows not only what utterly contemptible villains were in Maggie Thatcher’s government, but also how they were blissfully unaware that their wretched tax reforms undermined the basis of civilisation itself. Just as their successors are doing now.

Recently declassified documents released from the National Archives show that Thatcher’s Welsh Secretary, Peter Walker, wanted to impose the ‘Community Charge’ not just on those with homes, but also the homeless. He was afraid that if they were exempt, then people would start sleeping on the streets to avoid paying it. Mike says of this

Obviously Peter Walker was scum and the Poll Tax was a disaster – but worse people than him are running the Conservative Government now.

The idea of charging homeless people a tax on property is clearly ridiculous but that wasn’t the point Walker was trying to make.

He wanted to ensure that every last penny was squeezed from the poorest people, in order to support Conservatives and Tory voters who no doubt needed the money to clean the moat in their duck pond or suchlike. He’s further afraid that the intervening years have made people more susceptible to Tory lies, not less, and that they’ll be taken in the next time they peddle another fraudulent scheme.
See http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/02/19/margaret-thatcher-was-urged-to-make-homeless-people-pay-poll-tax-by-senior-cabinet-minister/.

It’s a truly grotty piece of legislation, but what has been missed is the way that it effectively threatened to destroy part of the fabric of society. If people cannot afford to pay a tax, so that they are forced to leave their homes and sleep rough, then you’ve effectively dealt a blow to civilisation. The very word after all comes from the Latin civilis, a city. It’s part of the reasons why Rome fell: the taxes became so great, urban citizens could no longer afford to pay them. The senatorial aristocracy all moved away to avoid paying their whack, and the burden of taxation fell to the free poor, who couldn’t. As a result, they too moved into the countryside. The result was that in the Third Century AD there was rising inflation and a declining number of urban tradesmen – the bakers, butchers, cobblers, carpenters, smiths and so on that form the industrial and commercial life of cities. The Romans tried to stop this steady migration of tradesmen away from the cities by making certain trades hereditary, setting up a caste system rather like Indian. Unlike India’s, it didn’t work. And so the empire tottered on to its doom as the barbarians invaded.

Not that you’ll hear this from the Tories, including classicists like Boris Johnson. Oh, Boris admires the early Roman Empire with its small bureaucracy, but you won’t hear him talk about how, like now, the Empire fell because the senatorial super-rich decided to escape paying taxes by fleeing to their country estates, just as the super-rich today try to shirk their financial responsibility to society by registering their companies offshore. And they really, really won’t want to talk about how they shifted the tax burden on the free Roman poor, just as today’s working and lower middle classes are also required to make up the tax deficit left by the rich.

No, to them, the real threat to western civilisation comes from an influx of foreigners, just like the Romans had during the barbarian invasions.

But their tax policies and continuing impoverishment of the poorest sections of society are undermining our society and weakening it, quite apart from its complete absence of any morality. These are people, who will grind down the poor to the extent it’ll bring down society itself, just to be that little bit richer.
Complete amoral psychopaths.

Meme on the Poisoning of Navajo Land by Mining Corporations

February 10, 2016

The big environmental news in America over the past few weeks is the massive poisoning of the local water supply in Flint, Michigan. This has been going on for years, and the water is seriously contaminated with lead, even in the local hospitals. The authorities did absolutely nothing, and continued to ignore the problem despite coverage from the local press. After about a year, the story’s managed to get through to the national American media, and it’s became a major scandal.

This is another scandal involving the poisoning of a people’s water supply, but it’s one that hasn’t made the news yet. It’s the contamination of the water supply of the Navajo First Nation by abandoned uranium and coal mines. The meme states that 75 per cent of all abandoned uranium mines are on tribal lands, which might indicate that other Native American peoples are affected.

Now this is very much an American issue, but it’s also part of what’s happening globally. Way back in the 1980s the Telegraph over here was moaning about how environmentalists weren’t letting the uranium mining corporations dig out the fuel from Aboriginal tribal lands in Oz. I’ve got a feeling there’s still a scandal and controversy going on about it, which centres around proper payment for the Aboriginal owners and clean-up operations afterwards. I have a feeling – though I don’t know – that the same is being done to the Aboriginals Down Under. Their land is being trashed, and not cleaned up afterwards.

And I have a horrible feeling that some of those corporate vultures involved may be British, or will want to come to Britain to do the same thing to our Green and Pleasant Land. If they aren’t doing it already, thanks to Bliar and Cameron. One of the companies that poisoned another Amerindian people’s land decades ago certainly was. Way back in the 1980s the Hanson Trust was in the Sunday Express. It was being sued by the Sioux, because their cement works was polluting their reservation. And this didn’t surprise me at all.

Lord Hanson was an asset-stripper, who bought up other companies, only to strip them and sell them off at a profit, before going on to carve up the next one. He was the Thatcherite dream. And he did it to W.H. and H.O. Wills in Bristol. Wills were a booze and cigarettes combine. They had several tobacco factories in Bristol, one of which was a huge construction that was used as a location in the Tom Baker Dr Who story, ‘The Sunmakers’. They also owned Courage’s brewery in the centre of the city. These both went their separate ways when Hanson got hold of them.

And he also tried to get his mitts, Maxwell-like, on the company’s pension fund. However, he found the pensioners’ lawyers were too good for him, and ended up selling the company off a few years later. Although that kind of corporate theft is associated with Robert Maxwell’s looting of the Mirror pension fund, the legislation that allowed it was Tory. It was passed by one Margaret Thatcher. You could also tell how grotty the Hanson Trust was because they also launched a PR campaign on TV. This bent your ear about how many times the plastic chairs they made would go around the world, if you lined them up one by one. It ended with the slogan ‘A company from over here, doing rather well over there’. ‘Over there’ meaning America. Well, God help our American cousins. Ben Elton recognised what they were and sent them up as the archetypal nasty corporation in his stand-up tour, Motorvation.

It doesn’t matter what colour the ordinary man or woman’s skin is to these vultures, whether your White, Black, Asian, Amerindian, whatever – companies like the Hanson Trust just loot, pollute and move on. They’re everywhere, and we need to stand up to them, no matter where in the world they’re operating. Because if the do it to one of us, they’ll do it to all of us.

Navajo Water

If you want to see the original, it’s on the over 18 Tumblr site, 1000 Natural shocks at http://greybeard55.tumblr.com/image/138997619025.

Beyond the affect on the Navajo people’s own health, and the global politics of the situation, there’s also the issue of the destruction of the ancient heritage of the American people as a whole. The Navajo reservation contains some of the most stunning and beautiful scenery in the US. The sand paintings made by the tribal shamans during their healing ceremonies are highly regarded by art connoisseurs. And the area possesses some of the most enigmatic and fascinating indigenous American archaeology in the US. From the 12th to 14th centuries AD the area was the centre of several highly developed civilisations. They built brick fortress cities high up in caves in the canyon walls, and a system of irrigation canals. They also had a peculiar system of roads. These appear to have been cut straight through the landscape, like the Romans. They also made them double, so that there was a pair of roads running parallel to the same destination. No-one quite understands why, though it’s thought that there might be some ideological or religious reason for it. I also think that, like many of the other Native American civilisations in the South West, they had extensive trade contacts with Mexico and the great civilisations there, such as the Aztecs. But it’s another mystery how those trade systems operated. Mesoamerican goods and motifs appear in the remains of the peoples of the Southwestern US, but they don’t appear in the material record of the peoples in between. What was going on? Why not? How were these items traded, and why?

And the history of the area also bears witness to the devastation caused by climate change. Many of the civilisations in what is now the Navajo reservation vanished in the 14th century as drought finally dried up their water supplies, and they were forced to move out of the area. Their cities and crops were abandoned. Now there’s a lesson relevant to today, and the contemporary crisis surrounding climate change and global warming.

There are still many unanswered questions, and vital lessons to be learned from the Navajo and similar peoples. The poisoning of them, and the destruction of their land are an attack both on their people and civilisation, and that of the wider American people. And needless to say, they and the people of Flint, deserve better.

Mechanical Limbs Before the Machine Age

October 19, 2013

A few days ago, I post up here a review of a collection of texts on Cyber culture and information technology published by Phaidon almost a decade ago. I’ve also got an interest in cybernetics, which was originally the attempt to reproduce in machines the functions of human organs, such as arms and legs. Since Norbert Wiener in the 1940s and ’50s much of the research into such devices has been based around electronic ‘command and control’ systems. The attempts to replace missing limbs with artificial devices long predates the terrible carnage and injuries inflicted during the Second World War. The classic example of the artificial limb in history, is Long John Silver’s wooden leg and Captain Hook’s eponymous replacement for his hand from Treasure Island and Peter Pan, respectively. In fact, such replacement limbs were made long before this, back into ancient Persia.

According to the Greek historian and anthropologist, Herodotus, the first artificial limb was a foot made by Hegistratus of Elis in the middle of the sixth century BC. Hegistratus was a Persian soldier and seer, who had been captured by the Spartans. Sentenced to death, he escaped from the stocks by cutting off part of his own foot. He then made a part to replace the section of foot he had cut off to help him walk 30 miles to Tregea. He was unsuccessful in this, and was captured by Zaccynthius and beheaded.

The ancient Egyptians were also replacing lost parts of their feet. One of the mummies from ancient Egypt possessed an artificial big toe, presumably to help the wearer to walk after he lost the real digit. The Roman naturalist and historian, Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century BC, also records how the Roman general Marcus Sergius had his hand replaced with an artificial one during the Second Punic War against Carthage, from 218 to 210 BC. During the battle, Sergius received 23 different wounds and his right arm had to be amputated. This was replaced with an iron hand so that he could his shield. He returned to the battle, and fought a further four more against the Carthaginians, during which he had two horses killed from under him.

The oldest known artificial limb was found in a Capuan tomb In 1858, and dated to about 300 BC. This was the period of the Samnite Wars, and the leg was presumably made for a Roman soldier, who had lost his own in battle. It was made from a mixture of copper and wood. It ended up in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, where it was unfortunately destroyed in an air raid in 1941. It has since, however, been replaced by a copy.

Roman Leg

Copy of Roman Leg dating to 300 BC

During the Sixteenth century physicians and engineers across Europe attempted to construct artificial limbs to replace those of the soldiers, who had lost theirs in the numerous wars of the time. An iron hand was made in 1509 for the German knight, Goetz von Berlichingen, who was the later the hero of a play of the same name by the great German dramatist, Goethe. It was not entirely successful. Goetz remarked of it that ‘My right hand, though not useless in combat, is unresponsive to the grasp of affection. It is one with its mailed gauntlet – You see, it is iron. Later in the sixteenth century the great French military surgeon, Ambroise Pare, also designed and built a number of artificial limbs, including a leg, hand and arm. Some of the artificial hands were operated by an ingenious system of ratchets and levers so that they could extend and flex their fingers. These artificial limbs promoted the development of springs, ratchets and gear. In the opinion of Geoff Simons, a contemporary writer on robots and cybernetics, they also contain important clues for designing modern, robotic artificial hands. This is particularly impressive as it has proved very difficult to design artificial hands with the range of movement and dexterity of the original. R. Pawson in his 1985 book on robots even suggested it would be easier to build an artificial brain than a robotic hand.

Pare Hand Leg

An artificial hand and leg built by Ambroise Pare (1510-90)

Pare Arm

Another of Pare’s creations: an artificial arm

The design of artificial limbs has made truly incredible advances over the past few decades. Scientists and doctors have produced a number of artificial limbs that respond to impulses from the wearers nerves, and can even feel certain types of sensation. These awesome developments in medical engineering are built on the solid foundations of the ancients and their search for artificial replacement limbs.

The Australian performance artist has also explored the new dimensions and possibilities for augmenting and even redesigning the human body offered by modern cybernetics. AS I mentioned in previous posts, he has given himself an artificial third hand, and connected himself to the internet, so that his body could be operated remotely and automatically by a cybernet search engine through galvanic stimulators. I found this sequence of videos in which he talks about his work and disability in a conversation with the stand up comedian and disabled rights activist, Liz Carr, at a disabled arts conference at Warwick University. I object to Stelarc’s statement that the human body is now somehow obsolete, but his work is a fascinating exploration of the transhuman condition. In the interview with Carr he talks movingly of the hope some of the technology used in his performances have given the disabled. The wife of one of the scientists, with whom he has worked, tragically suffers from ‘locked-in syndrom’, and can only communicate with her right eye. Stelarc recalled how delighted she was when they fixed galvanic stimulators to her arm, and for a moment she briefly had the power to move her arm slightly again. Here’s the interview below.

Stelarc on Experimenting on His own Body

Stelarc: Would having a Prosthetic Arm be enough for You?

Stelarc: Is the Human Body Obsolete

Stelarc on How Do We Cope with Change to the Body We Can’t Control?

Liz Carr’s Conclusion and Surprise for Stelarc

For all that his work is frequently disturbing in its implications for the future of humanity, Stelarc himself comes across as surprisingly normal, with an engaging attitude and ready laugh. It’s fascinating seeing him and Carr find that they have a common ground in their exploration of what philosophers call ‘the human condition’.

Sources

Jack Challoner, (ed.), 1001 Inventions that Changed the World (London: Cassell 2009)

Michael Pollard, Felicity Trotman, Merilyn Holme, The Illustrated Dictionary of Inventors and Inventions (London: Claremont Books 1995)

Geoff Simons, Robots: The Quest for Living Machines (London: Cassell 1992).

Christianity and the Origins of the Dark Ages

March 21, 2009

Wakefield Tolbert, one of the great commentators on this blog, points to a series of articles attacking Christianity at the Butterflies and Wheels blog:

‘Christianity responsible for Dark Ages and lack of reason?

http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=350

In another article not linked this same author details how while its true science
cannot answer everything, unlike faith, it IS self-correcting AND also uses real
experts, not people prone to “talk” with God, etc. Thus his mockery, but
still……

http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=166

Christianity as responsible for Fascism and horrific crimes against humanity?

http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=298’

I know this is quite a bit. But fight it we must.’

As Wakefield has pointed out in another of his comments, there are many who claim that Christianity was responsible for the origins of the Dark Ages, and this point of view clearly needs to be critiqued and attacked. So, let’s analyse Christopher Orlet’s arguments that Christianity was responsible for the fall of Rome and the ensuing Dark Ages in his article ‘The Barbarians’ Raw Deal’.

Firstly, Orlet is quite correct that many of the barbarian peoples who overran the Roman Empire were Christians. These were the East Germanic tribes, such as the Goths, who had been converted to Arian Christianity by Bishop Ulfilas. Ulfilas was the descendent of Roman citizens who had been captured and taken into slavery by the Goths, and who had translated the Bible into Gothic. Some of the Gothic kings, such as Theodoric the Ostrogoth, were extremely cultured, able rulers. Theodoric’s ruled a Gothic kingdom in Italy with its capital at Ravenna. He had a splendid court, and one of the greatest works of late antique/ early medieval architecture is his basilica at Ravenna. This has a number of fine mosaics on its walls depicting Christ, Our Lady and the saints, and Theodoric and his court, including the leading Roman prelates. However, the Goths and other, East Germanic tribes, such as the Vandals, were Arians who believed that Christ, while divine, was not equal to God the Father, and was more like a creature than an equal person of the deity, because, although the Son of God had existed before the creation of the Universe, and it was through Him that the Universe had been created, nevertheless he had been created by God the Father and so was not eternal. The debate over the nature of Christ’s relationship to God the Father, and His divinity was one of the major doctrinal issues in ancient Roman Christianity, and resulted in bitter controversy and persecution between Catholics and Arians. Other Germanic peoples, such as the Franks in Gaul and the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who invaded Britain, were pagans who later converted to Roman Catholicism. It’s also true that many of the barbarian peoples who entered the Roman Empire did so because they wanted to become Roman citizens, and enjoy the benefits of Roman civilisation rather than overthrow it. The great defender of Roman civilisation, Stilicho, was a Goth. After the Fall of Rome, the various barbarian states that succeeded it looked back on ancient Rome as the perfect state, a wealthy, powerful and highly cultured civilisation. They strongly associated Christianity with ‘Romanitas’ – Roman civilisation, and so converted to Christianity in order to participate in the great culture of ancient Rome.

The barbarian invasions were a major cause of the collapse of the Roman Empire, but there were also number of others. Rome experienced a series of severe economic and social problems from the third century onwards, and the causes of some of these are unclear. Rome experienced massive inflation in the middle of the third century, which the Roman emperor Diocletian attempted to solve through legislating stipulating the prices for a number of staple commodities, such as bread, clothing and so on. There was also an increase in taxation as the imperial authorities attempted to find the finances to support the Roman state and defend it against barbarian attacks and attempted invasions, which had occurred before these peoples converted to Christianity. Urban life declined, as the aristocrats and wealthy individuals who formed the town councillors and were responsible for maintaining the basic services of the towns, such as building viaducts, sewers, baths and other public amenities, withdrew to their country estates. Other parts of the population, including artisans and professionals, also left the towns for the countryside to the point where some Roman emperors had attempted to maintain supplies of food and other vital commodities by making membership of certain professions, such as baking, hereditary and demanding that they remain in the towns. This legislation, however, had to be repealed because of considerable opposition. It has also been suggested that the Roman population itself had suffered considerable decline, particularly through outbreaks of plague, though this is the subject of considerable debate. Some of the towns in the eastern Roman Empire, for example, seemed to have not suffered any loss of population and were still extremely large, populous cities.

As for the barbarian invasions, Rome had had a policy of settling barbarian tribes within its borders as foederati, imperial allies. These peoples then provided military service as auxiliaries defending Rome against other, invading tribes. A number of military tombstones and monuments from Roman Britain record Germanic soldiers serving in the Roman army. The immediate cause of the Gothic invasion was their revolt against exploitation by Roman merchants. Barbarians had been attacking and raiding the Roman frontier territories for centuries before the invasions of the later Roman Empire. However, the attacks and invasions increased during the fifth century, and there appears to have been a general migration of peoples, which disrupted traditional tribal territories and alliances across Europe. This was partly caused by the migration of the Huns into central Europe from their original homeland in central Asia. The Goths attempted to flee from them, and took refuge in the Roman Empire. According to Roman historians, however, they were then ruthlessly exploited by Roman merchants, who reduced them to complete poverty. In response, the Goths revolted and began a series of campaigns against the Roman state. Other barbarian peoples, such as the Vandals, Franks, Lombards, Alans and Gepids joined them. These peoples attacked both the Romans and the other barbarian peoples as they attempted to establish their own barbarian states within the decaying Roman Empire. Climate change may have been a factor in these migrations. There is evidence that during the fourth century sea levels began to rise, threatening the coastal homelands of some of the Germanic tribes, such as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who lived along the North Sea coast. In addition to attacks from the barbarians from outside the Empire, there were a series of peasant revolts, such as by the Bacaudae in Gaul, against the high levels of taxation levied by the Roman state.

Now while economic collapse, urban decline and barbarian invasion were the major causes of the fall of the Roman Empire, none of them were directly linked to Christianity. While Roman Catholic political theorists state that Christianity provides a basis for politics in providing a transcendental support for friendship and the belief in immortality, as well as other institution, which formed the basis for human society and politics, Christianity itself is not a political system. There were certain institutions the Church Fathers believed were fundamental to human society, such as private property and the duty to provide support to the poor, sick and incapacitated. The medieval church also discussed and passed legislation on a variety of social and economic issues in order to create a moral, Christian society. Nevertheless, apart from insisting on justice and concern for the poor and disadvantaged, Christianity did not produce a specific political programme. The early Church shared many of the cultural views of Roman society as a whole, and while the Church viewed itself as comprising a community beyond the limits of Roman world, its members in the Roman Empire also saw themselves as Roman citizens. Furthermore, the barbarians, who invaded the Roman Empire had a strongly warlike, military culture in which warfare and combat played a major role. As for the greed of the Roman merchants who caused the Goths to rebel by exploiting them, this was simply the product of fallen human nature. Finally, the Romans themselves had problems finding solutions to the economic and social problems affecting the state, regardless of their religious beliefs. So Christianity cannot be considered a cause of Rome’s decline and collapse.

Now let’s deal with some of the other points Orlet makes in his essay. Regarding Tertullian’s attack on Platonic philosophy, Tertullian himself was not attacking philosophy itself. Indeed, he was profoundly influenced by Stoicism. He was critical of Greek philosophy because of the way it had been used to form the basis of heresies such as Gnosticism, which attacked and rejected Biblical Christianity through philosophical speculation. The Gnostics considered that matter and the world was created by an evil god, and that humanity was ruled by a series of archons that attempted to keep it separate from its true home with the good God in heaven. The origins of Gnosticism are the subject of considerable debate. There were different Gnostic schools and even non-Christian, pagan Gnostic sects. However, much of Gnosticism was based in Platonic philosophy, and so Tertullian was attacking Platonism as the basis of Gnosticism, rather than philosophy as a whole.

Now let’s discuss the accusation that Christianity attacked ancient philosophy and culture, and so destroyed ancient science and learning. Now it’s true that ancient philosophers, such as Galen and Pliny, did consider Christianity to be a religion of the poor and uneducated, and much of the opposition to Christianity came from pagan philosophers such as Porphyry and Hierocles, a Roman philosopher who, after writing various books attacking Christianity, also used physical force and persecution. The early Church was initially critical of the Roman curriculum because of its basis in ancient paganism. This situation altered, however. The fourth century Church Father, Basil of Caesarea, defended pagan learning in his work Ad Iuvenes – ‘To Young People’, and many of the other Church Fathers were highly educated. Indeed, the sermons of some of the greatest of the ancient ecclesiastical writers included references to the great writers of antiquity. They maintained this highly educated style of writing not just in their sermons addressed to leading Roman citizens, such as the senators, officials, aristocrats, governors and members of the imperial family, but also to the ordinary people attending their churches. Many of the Church Fathers also wrote treatises, which attempted to reconcile the Church’s teachings with Graeco-Roman scientific knowledge. These writers included Lactantius in the fourth century, while a recent edition of the works of Epiphanius notes that his writing contain of wealth of Graeco-Roman scientific knowledge and ideas. Roman pagans considered Christianity to be a philosophical school. However, while pagan philosophy tended to be restricted to members of the aristocracy, who had the leisure time to study it and the wealth to afford the fees charged by pagan philosophers for attendance at their lectures, in Christianity an understanding of the Gospel was open to anyone who came to Church on Sunday to hear the bishop expounding it from the Bible.

Now Orlet seems to assume that Greek philosophy was a form of ancient science, and appears to view the brutal murder of the female philosopher, Hypatia, as a Christian attack on ancient science and learning. Now this was very much the view of the late Carl Sagan, who seems to have taken it from Bertrand Russell. It is not shared by contemporary historians and philosophers. The dominant philosophical school in the later Roman Empire, and one, which was to influence Christian learning in the Middle Ages after the Fall of Rome, was Neo-Platonism. This combined Aristotelian science with Platonic metaphysics. It has been described as ‘the mind’s road to God’, as its goal was to gain mystical union with God or ‘the One’, or ‘the Good’, through a system of intellectual ascent through the emanations produced by ‘the One’, Mind, and Spirit. The great Neoplatonic texts, such as the Enneads of Plotinus, are essentially religious in their discussion of the nature of morality and the One. While the murder of Hypatia was a truly horrific incident, it does not seem to have been part of a general attack on ancient culture or philosophy. She did not, for example, object to the closure by Christians of the pagan temples. Her attack by a mob, caused by the preaching of Cyril of Alexandria appears to have been part of a political rivalry between the bishop and the local Roman governor, with whom Hypatia appears to have sided. Cyril appears to have condemned the attack afterwards and done penance for it.

Sagan and Russell claimed that Hypatia’s murder marked the end of philosophy and science in Alexandria. It didn’t. It carried on in the city for at least two centuries afterwards. Indeed, it was the Christian, Alexandrian philosopher John Philoponous in the seventh century who contributed to the later collapse of Aristotelian philosophy and the triumph of the Copernican system by arguing that the heavens were not pure and unchanging, but were composed of the same matter as terrestrial objects. As for Justinian’s closure of the philosophical schools in 523, historians have suggested that this did not occur, and that Justinian merely redirected the funds the imperial government traditionally granted to it to the war effort to reconquer the lost territories. Certainly Graeco-Roman culture was very widespread in Byzantium, both amongst lay aristocrats and the Church, and there was certainly a university in Constantinople in the 12th century with a curriculum very much like that of the western universities. As for Neoplatonism, this was partly adopted into Christian theology, where it formed the basis of the mystical speculation of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, and the scientific knowledge of the early medieval world before the discovery of the original Aristotelian and Platonic texts in the 12th and 15th centuries.

Now, in a previous essay discussing science and education in the Roman world, I pointed out that pagan, Roman authors had lamented in the early Empire that original scientific research had declined. While Roman writers such as Orbilian had established a curriculum, there was no system of state schools and indeed no Roman school building has yet been found. The usual system was for a group of parents to band together and hire a tutor to teach their children, with the schoolroom quite often being a stall in the market partitioned by screens from the rest of the area.

Thus, while Christianity attacked paganism, it did not universally reject Greek philosophy and indeed adopted and preserve much of it in the later Roman Empire, and preserved as the Empire was attacked and collapsed. Furthermore, while Rome fell due to the invasions of the barbarians, some of whom were certainly Christian while others, the Franks and Anglo-Saxons, later converted, this was itself part of a number of severe economic, social and political crises that were not produced through Christianity but the part of the general conditions of the late ancient world. Thus, Christianity did not cause Rome to fall, and indeed preserved much of Roman culture and passed it on to the barbarian kingdoms that succeeded it.