Speaking With Certainty

A while back, after my propertarian piece (which isn’t much at all about property), someone challenged me to write a follow-up piece on ancient religious views on property, making sure to account for slavery. I immediately agreed to the challenge, but I was paralyzed.

The Judeo-Christian writing called Leviticus, which is a part of the traditional text known as the Pentateuch, or the Five Scrolls of Moses, or just “Moses,” speaks at length concerning property distribution, property rights, and compensation for irregularities and violations. It is a writing which depicts a vigorous society in motion, a book which Jesus summarizes with the well-known apothegm, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The very word “neighbor” evokes property and other notions of personal sovereignty.

Nevertheless, it is practically impossible for me to write a general piece touching on Leviticus or Levitical principles because, with respect to its provenance, I am neither a minimalist nor a maximalist, nor am I some sort of milquetoast via media advocate, either. I happen to take a scholarly, evidence-based approach to the provenance of this book, which is a standard view, but is contrary to what is taught in universities both secular and religious or parochial.

In secular universities, and those religious universities whose worldview is formed by Nineteenth Century Continental philosophy, the minimalist Documentary Hypothesis is still taught as de rigueur, a hypothesis which posits that the books of Moses, especially the Levitical material, were fabricated by a power-mongering priestly caste during the Judahite exile in Babylon during the Fifth Century BCE. I am under the impression that this hypothesis is presented as ironclad secular scholarship, i.e., the truth, when it is essentially the telos of the Sacramentarian movement which came to dominate Enlightenment Era religiosity.

Religious fundamentalism, deeply offended by this radical minimalism, developed a response which became reflexively maximalist, in defiance of all evidence (even internal evidence) to the contrary, namely that Moses wrote every jot and tiddle of his five scrolls somewhere between 1550 BCE and 1440 BCE, and never shall a true Christian vary from that view lest he deny the efficacy of the Word of God.

In public discourse, there is no middle ground. One can write classroom papers and discuss privately a more nuanced view, which is based on the evidence–OK, let’s be fair: I would say that, now wouldn’t I? Here: a nuanced view which assembles the evidence guided by a particular view of history, scholarship, science, and philosophy. So I begin again: there is no middle ground in public discourse.

I presented a paper at a regional meeting of the Society For Biblical Literature once upon a time, a radical deconstructive view of methodology with respect to the academic discipline known as “biblical studies.” In it I noted that the disciplines of the pure sciences, linguistics, philosophy, and history had all evolved drastically over the past two hundred years, but biblical studies still labored under the precepts of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century, and I actually stated that, if this were any other discipline aside from the contentious religious discipline it is, our colleagues in every other department in all universities across the world would remove us with extreme prejudice.

A professor from Harvard was in attendance, so, naturally, I was intimidated. I mean, I still had aspirations to one day maybe hopefully if-miracles-come-to-pass apply for a position at Harvard or one of the Ivy League schools, or even Michigan University, so I really wanted to come off as bright and snappy. He asked, “What do you do with history?”

Without thinking, I blurted out, “I just ignore it,” which is true, in one sense because of my deep respect for the science of linguistics, but not quite right, again, out of a deep respect for post-modern philosophical currents. What I was getting after was the primary importance of community in interpretation, but I didn’t say as much, so the entire room burst into laughter. I tried salvaging my point, but, you know how these things go.

Then I heard a fellow in the front row mutter, “Why do we have to bring ourselves into resonance with other academic disciplines [a phrase from my paper] when we already know what history is?” [his emphasis].

Well, that was the entire point of my paper, which had failed to convince the Harvard University types: we don’t really know history. I did not go so far as to radicalize my view inasmuch as to say that we construct history wholesale, but it is certainly true that we arrange data within a certain framework until we are pleased with the outcome.

A healthy skepticism of the self is thereby necessary. What am I up to? Can I identify my biases? What are my external influences? Why is this emotionally significant to me? Moreover, when it comes to historical realities (for a lack of a better term), an academic humility is very helpful, namely that we don’t know very much at all, and we know that we don’t know very much at all because we don’t have much physical evidence, and we are, most assuredly, arranging evidence as taught, not as is obvious. We make a convincing case, that is all.

So when we speak of Levitical principles, it is nigh impossible to speak on the same ground. If these principles have their origins in a nomadic group of people who had recently escaped from Thirteenth Century Egypt, drawing heavily on Hittite suzerain-vassal arrangements and the attendant societal characteristics, then our vocabulary will be significantly different than if they have their origins in a cynical repristination drawn from a vaguely Babylonian and/or Syrian religion-society.

That last paragraph should be the lead paragraph when I write my propertarian follow-up.


Ancient Egyptian Storytelling

Some instruction emerges when moderns approach ancient literature. We’ve known for quite some time that the ancients memorialized significant cultural experiences in many media, and with respect to literature, both in narrative form and in poetry form.

For a while there, the consensus was that poetry held the more reliable account of history, usually because the story was told more concisely with a few details of the event highlighted. It was reasoned in many dissertations that the narrative forms were expansions and interpretations, the victor creating the world, so to speak, with a version of history friendly to the contemporary regime.

Those dissertations sort-of wore out the subject, so some clever student turned the thing on its head (especially with the discovery of the Annals of Thutmosis III, which has been found to be a reliable description of certain significant cultural experiences in comparison to other extant artifacts and literature), declaring that whenever a prose narrative account and a poetic account are treating the same historical phenomenon, the prose account is the primary source and the poetic account is the secondary celebration.

Well, that was twenty years ago. Where are we now? The question reveals a modernistic bias that if we can somehow determine a primary source of the past, via artifact and/or literary account, we can also determine what really happened, and by having confidence in what really happened, we can get a better grip on our present reality. You know, the truth, objectively speaking.

Someone clever responds to this by saying, “If we really want to be sure about what really happened, we must build a time machine and transport ourselves to the place and time about which we are curious.” Indeed. Indeed not.

Even if you were literally present at these historically significant experiences, you’re still creating the history in your mind and projecting it forward onto a medium of some sort for the sake of posterity. That you think something is significant is significant in itself. Riding the DeLorean back to the future, that you think what they thought to be significant to be significant multiplies significances fractally. And the cat chases its tail.

A better model, I hereby posit, is that the different languages have a symbiotic relationship to each other. The narrative, for example, is a working out of the experience, trying to set order and emphasis, “topic, focus, and foreground” and how they shift and move. Poetry (and also minstrel music, a.k.a. pop music) develops focus further, attempting to reach a different realm, a further realm, of the person engaging the culturally significant experience. Scientific language is doing something entirely different: measuring, perhaps, testing and calibrating; I don’t know. Economic language likewise.

Each is a grappling with the others to invent a history for the sake of participating in it with a sense of safety, perhaps, or freedom, or progress, or something like that–the key is the participation, not the knowing. The knowing is secondary, and presumes an authority over the experience.

How many other languages attempt to realize what really happened?

The Stories We Tell

Welcome to Sweet Talk, Will. Willcome if you will. In your excellent inaugural post, you channel Shelley adroitly.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

Shangri-la, El Dorado (not to be confused with my good pal Eli Dourado or his twitterbot), Atlantis… there’s no shortage of myths surrounding lost cities, lost civilizations. Imagine trotting your goats around the plains of Tell el-Muqayyar and stumbling over the lost ruin of the great city-state of Ur for the first time. The past is an alien land, readily populated by the monsters of our imaginations. Even the canniest hypotheses of why this or that human settlement flourished or failed are difficult to defend against alternative stories, even with abundant archaeological evidence.

Swan’s classic account (1956, sorry, can’t find a non-gated copy) of capital accumulation is the standard economic story of boy-accumulates-capital-stock, boy-uses-capital-to-build-more-capital, boy-creates-economic-growth that fits very nicely with neoclassical econ, the Austrian business cycle story, even New Keynesian models. Heck, even Marx-flavored theories of economic development acknowledge that for groups of humans larger than a clan to thrive, you need the implements of capital. You need specialized buildings, specialized tools, and of course, specialized skills to work these tools, to fill these buildings with the glad hum of industry.

But for the neolithic mega-village, this capital accumulation was stunted. Will suggests that the failure can be traced to the rhetoric carried forth from folks’ forager heritage. The bookbound economist would pin the failure on a lack capital accumulation and specialization. The linguist would probably say that it was the development of writing ~6kya in Sumer that clinched it.

Of course, these three stories are not at all mutually exclusive. It seems eminently reasonable that capital accumulation cannot reliably emerge without a system of accounts supported by writing. Recall that the large bulk of cuneiform, hieroglyphics, and other early writing is the equivalent of the modern spreadsheet: accounts receivable, loans due, that sort of thing. Without a written record of trade, collecting on the seed corn forwarded for a capital expansion project is, in Coasean terms, prohibitively expensive. No capital accumulation, no specialization, no trade, no economies of scale, no proper cities, no gradual shift in the rhetoric of citizens to dignify the merchant, the weaver, or the bricklayer.

Of course, the past is a foreign land, so my suggestion that proper cities are coeval with that single defining characteristic of civilization, writing, is just another difficult-to-reject hypothesis. Even if archaeologists found evidence of accounting practices in a failed mega-village, I’m sure I could hem and haw my way through a shabby defense of my proposition, but the point isn’t necessarily to say that I’m right and everyone else is wrong. My point is that it’s important to give proper shrift to the keepers of the written word, that they execute their duties faithfully and with honor. To respect the long legacy of those that came before them, the unsung men and women who painstakingly transcribed grain warehouse figures onto clay tablets. To continue, unbroken, the heritage of scribes, scriveners, scholars, and typesetters that came before them. To preserve our frail civilization against the wolves that lurk in the outer darkness. It’s about honor. It’s about duty.

And above all, it’s about ethics. It’s about ethics in journalism.

Did a Change in Rhetoric Give Rise to Cities?

A peculiar phenomenon in early human history has stumped scientists. After learning to farm and establishing a more plentiful food supply about 10,000 years ago, humans began to congregate in larger groupings. Villages grew from 200 people to a few thousand inhabitants. These mega-villages were significantly larger than anything that came before but they clearly were not as large as the cities that would come later. Then, just a thousand years after they first sprung up, many mega-villages vanished and were abandoned.

A number of theories have been put forward to explain the sudden change. An early frontrunner was climate change, as one of the most excavated sites in Çatalhöyük Turkey underwent local environmental changes. But in English mega-villages experienced a similar dip in population without these exogenous changes, so climate has been ruled out. Another theory was that pestilence depopulated mega-villages. But upon closer inspection, this too seems not to hold weight, especially since villages suffer outbreaks of disease and survive.

The culprit for this drop may in fact be the rigid beliefs systems as this recent article at i09 explains:

The problem is that people in Neolithic mega-villages had inherited a system of social organization and spirituality from their nomadic forebears. Because nomadic life requires everyone in the group to share resources to survive, these groups would develop rituals and customs that reinforced a very flat social structure. Certainly there would be families that had more prominent positions in a hunter-gatherer group or small village, but if they ever started hoarding resources too much that would be bad for the entire group. So people would strongly discourage each other from ostentatious displays of social differences.

You can see this set of beliefs reflected in the built environment of Çatalhöyük, where everyone’s house is roughly the same size. Some houses have a lot more stuff in them — more pieces of art, or more ritual objects — but as I said earlier, nobody is living in the Neolithic equivalent of a mansion.

All of this works nicely in a small community, where you know all of your neighbors and only share with people whose lives are bound to yours (even if you don’t like them very much). But once you have a thousand people living together, it’s harder to have a flat social structure. People need local representatives to stand in for them, and perhaps even a system of writing to keep track of everyone and what they own. Some people start to do specialized tasks, and social differentiation begins.

Immediately, Deirdre McCloskey’s theory of industrial change comes to mind. As she argues, it isn’t society’s technical abilities as Joel Mokyr would suggest, the Protestant ethic of Weber or the property rights of Douglass North that explains the Industrial revolution. No, a change in our rhetoric, our ideology of business, is what made the difference.

She writes,

What changed in Europe, and then the world, was the rhetoric of trade and production and innovation… The bourgeois talk was challenged mainly by appeal to traditional values, aristocratic or religious, developing into nationalism, socialism, and environmentalism. But increasingly, as in Jane Austen, a rhetoric by no means enthusiastic for trade did accept — or at any rate acknowledged with genial amusement — the values of the polite and commercial people. The talk mattered because it affected how economic activity was valued and how governments behaved towards it.

Ideas matter. And in Auntie D’s writings, there is a parallel to the changes in beliefs that likely occurred between mega-villages and cities. Just as a change in rhetoric signaled the break from agrarian society to industrial society, the break from hunter-gatherer society to agrarian society required a similar change. The rhetoric that supported the aristocratic, religious world had to be created, which likely developed during this downward lull.

Between the mega-village and the cities that came later lies the formation of the state. Ultimately, this is the world of stratification buttressed through religion. With it came the creation of differing social groups and distinctions based upon rank or property. Yet, the acceptance of social specialization required a new view of the world, a new rhetoric in the McCloskeyian sense. And once that jump was made, benefits followed. Clustered people allowed for more trade and specialization of work, leading to more wealth, prestige and better equipped armies. While still a brutal world, cities had the potential for stability, but it came at the expense of radical equality.

Heading East

One of the great delights of reacquainting with Heraclitus has been rediscovering the East, the cradle of Western Civilization. The Ancient world centered on Babylon of the Sumerians, pre-semitic peoples who sprung up, it seems, from the mud flats of Mesopotamia, creating a civilization that endured for a gazillion years, a civilization that bears no small resemblance to the one we inhabit in Europe and North America today, at least socially speaking. Technologically, of course, that’s another story.

They wrote stuff down, the Sumerians did, and we’ve only recently re-deciphered some of what they wrote. One of the more fascinating artifacts of their writing is the Sumerian King List, which lists historically verifiable personages and dynasties, but then, randomly, veers into the fantastic, listing mythical personages who endured on the throne for tens of thousands of years. University nerds work themselves into a tizzy with respect to overall reliability and verifiability of the list, both of the unimaginably long lifespans of these antediluvian rulers, but also the historically verifiable personages and dynasties. After all, if they were prone to believing the nonsense of myth (being more primitive than us progressed Anglo-Saxons), then how can we put confidence in their historiography? Their methods are surely suspect!

Other thinkers, non-nerds, thankfully, have pondered the more important subject of the artifact, namely its effect. What is the effect of the Sumerian King List? What is it trying to do? Preserve history? No, that is no reason to create a fantastic archive coupled with a “real” one.

Here the opinions diverge, which is fun. Some would argue that the Sumerian King List was created in order to legitimize the culture, to root it in a culture that was antediluvian, and, therefore, pristine. Or something like that (I’m not being entirely fair in my generalizations, but that’s not the point I’m driving toward; have patience, gentle reader). In other words, the Sumerians had doubts about their own identity, even after several hundred years of uninterrupted prosperity. Fun, right? I hereby argue that the Sumerian King List may be doing that, but also, if not entirely intentionally, the Sumerian King List is teaching insignificance.

The Ancient Near East, in general, preserves for us a sensibility of vastness, that the cosmos works in great big sweeps, rocking back and forth in swaths of ten, twenty, or even thirty thousand-year patterns. One reads Sumerian literature, and Akkadian literature (the first Semites), and Hittite literature, and Egyptian literature, and Assyrian literature (that’s Babylon again, come round full circle), and last, but not least, Hebrew literature, observing a cosmos that is enormous in size and scope, stretching backward into time primordial and messy, boundary-free, but moving, oscillating, renewing. There is a detente, see, and it’s hard to ascertain, but it’s there, and if you work at it, you can acquire some sort of harmony with the universe, coming into resonance with its patterns. You are thereby absorbed into it and given significance in spite of your insignificance. If you resist the patterns of the cosmos, grasping for immortality, you will be swept aside. Thus, the ancients observed that the virtuous endured humility, were brought low by pain and suffering; at the same time the powerful (assuming that the powerful came into power by the usual non-virtuous means) enjoyed prosperity for a little while (generations, even), but the broom of the cosmos was already making its corrective sweep. What is man, therefore?

Markets opened and closed, trade routes flourished and were disrupted, order was susceptible to entropy. Nothing endures because virtue does not endure, but virtue re-emerges, and the thing begins anew, renewed. The Bronze Age, for example, wasn’t nothing; it was progress, representing a human triumph over the cosmos, which is merciless in its movements. Nevertheless, the Iron Age brought the Bronze Agers to naught. Where was progress? Over the horizon, threatening the 6-row barley harvest–and the wine (the Disney treatment Fantasia captures this very well, I think, in its exposition of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring). You can see why the Sumerians were suffering an identity crisis. When is it our turn to be returned to detente?


Moving west, however, one finds a smaller cosmos, beginning with the Unmoved Mover, from which (whom?) emanates the material of the known world, which creates a cosmos of the mind, for the sake of taxonomy–and control. Moving further west and north and closer in time, the cosmos is no longer a cosmos at all, but a town about the size of Königsberg, with no real history, only a future into which history inexorably marches, easily ascertainable, observable, and obvious. Can you not see the Emperor’s new clothes?

Is it fair to evaluate, saying that as we have made the world smaller and more malleable, the individual has been swallowed up by history, insignificant?

The Ebola, poor governance, impending revolutions, terrorist threats, and even asteroid strikes are threatening to those who believe that history is driven along by those who understand its progress and its direction. Somehow, and irrationally, this progress is entirely dependent upon collectively-minded people who acquire power. If the collectively-minded people are not in power, then the oceans will surely rise to punish us for our redirecting of history; progress will go off the rails.

But to those of us who sigh humbled under the yoke of the cosmos, we know that our virtue is valuable in the grand scheme of things, whatever that may be. The asteroid strikes from outer space, ebola strikes within, and damnable taxes steal yet more of my labor, but this, too, shall be swept away so that virtue may resurrect, this time a little more pure, a little wiser, and less proud. What is progress?

Smaller, Better, Faster, Stronger

My co-blogger Adam Gurri reviews his father’s new book over at the Umlaut. I haven’t read the book myself yet, so this is response is based on AG’s review (which I assume is honest and fair). I’m sure the book is great throughout and everyone should read it in its entirety, but today we are just sticking to the topic’s raised by AG.

[In this piece I’m going to refer to Adam’s dad as “Martin” in order to avoid confusion over usage of the name Gurri, and I’m going to refer to Adam as “AG” in order to avoid confusion with myself]

I want to posit that I agree with Martin that the Internet generally (and “social media” specifically, which is a term I use broadly to include wherever online identity has persistence – Twitter and Facebook of course, but also WhatsApp, message boards of all sorts, AIM, Second Life, etc.) has an erosive effect on all kinds of pre-Internet power structures. What we are seeing is a two-fold change in the rate of information flow, both of the changes feeding on each other to multiply the rate of social change. In respect, we are seeing more information flowing from “what institutions do” to “what the public knows” at a faster rate and from more directions compared to any historical free press (limited by the technology of a previous era). And second we are seeing an increase of information among the public, both on public forums like Twitter and in private peer-to-peer technologies like WhatsApp or the humble SMS message. Together these flows both increase the incentives and lower the costs to act collectively.

I further agree with Martin and AG’s belief that this is related to the soft power of “legitimacy”. It is my belief that all revolutions and wars for independence, at least since the invention of the modern firearm, are a crisis of legitimacy in the previous regime. Just look at what is going on this last week in Iraq, where a fairly small force (7,000) of ISIS fighters was able to route a force forty times its size and take over the second-largest city in Iraq. Neither the Iraqi army nor the Iraqi people in Mosul were able to organize an effective response. Does anyone believe that ISIS would have similar luck in Tel Aviv? Not in a million years, because even if the Israeli army was unable to intervene for some reason, the Israeli people themselves would resist ISIS violently and effectively. And I have no doubt the same would be true in Rome or Dallas-Forth Worth. There can be no stronger proof that the Iraqi people (both its army and its citizens) just don’t believe that their current collection of institutions is worth fighting for.

Note however that two paragraphs above I use the term erosive, rather than corrosive, and this is where I start to disagree with the tone of Martin’s book (as far as I can tell from AG’s review). Corrosive implies an acidic, damaging, eating away of useful things. Erosion is what happens when inflexible objects are caught between water and water’s desired destination. Water flows downhill, and not even the greatest mountain can stand in its way forever.

I think the effect that Martin is describing is real, but see it as very good for humanity in the long run. I also disagree that the unrest seen in places like Egypt or Tunisia (or even the United States) is united solely by a wish to negate the current regime. When that poor man in Tunisia lit himself on fire (a very impressive bit of rhetoric-by-action), the people rallied around a cause to make things better. They weren’t just against the institutions in place, they were for economic opportunity and a “better deal” than the one they had. Likewise, the protesters in Tahrir Square are not just for “anyone but Mubarak” – a fragmented majority of them were aware of the human rights available in Europe, and wanted them, while another plurality of protesters were aware of the orthodox Islamic governance available in other parts of the world, and wanted that (like ISIS does).

Are these goals vague? Some of them. But we will also see that as the process of revolution and reassessment continues to iterate, we should expect people to learn from their success or lack thereof. Another Occupy Wall St. (OWS) is incredibly unlikely precisely because the first one produced no lasting results. The lessons of OWS are also archived for anyone to read going forward, available globally, so that the lessons will spread further and remain with us longer.

Globally, egalitarian society is now moving, learning, and changing inside the OODA Loop of every pre-Internet institution, and this is the test that will reveal every reason for desertion. Only institutions with fundamentally sound practices, that genuinely meet the needs of the people within its writ, will not suffer a crisis of legitimacy in the near future. And this is a good thing indeed, as the bad passes through the meat grinder into history and only the institutions which genuinely meet our needs remain.

Just be thankful that if you’re reading this, you (probably) live in a country that will (probably) go through this process democratically.