The Origins of the Enlightenment

Scholastics were medieval theologians. Theologians specialize in studying God. They read and think about books like the New Testament and study Church doctrines. Scholastics had one purpose—defend the Church from intellectual challenges by freedom seeking kings,[1] questioning scientists and troublesome philosophers. Not all theologians of the medieval period were scholastics. Albert Magnus (1193-1280 CE) was a theologian and a scientist. He was not a scholastic thinker. He did not try to defend the Church from scientific challenges. Rather, he focused on trying to reconcile the use of reason (science) and religion. He did not see a contradiction in the two. Instead, he claimed “real truth” would be found in the harmony of science and religion.

Scholastics, unlike Albert Magnus, did not fret with testing their claims through experiments.[2] They emphasized the importance of “revelation” over reason. Revelation, also called “revealed truth”, is when God apparently reveals Himself to the mind of the individual. In other word revelation takes place when God talks to you in your head. The fundamental problem with revealed truth is determining when God was doing the talking or the individual was talking to themselves. The two are indistinguishable because they look exactly alike. Interestingly, the ancient Greeks did not believe people could speak to themselves, i.e. the voice inside one’s head was literally a god communicating to you. So if you were having romantic thoughts they were placed there by Aphrodite and so on. Logically speaking, it is more likely the voice inside your head is placed there by you as opposed to a series of gods or God.

Scholastics relied on not only their inner voice but also the use of logic and deduction.[3] Deduction is a powerful tool because you can use it to reach big conclusions from little information. For example, in the 20th century we finally had telescopes powerful enough to look outside of our galaxy. A Catholic priest named Georges Lemaître (1894-1966 CE) was the first to notice galaxies were either tinted blue or red. Thus, he deduced light was cast from these galaxies like sound traveling from a car to a person standing still (as in the Doppler Effect). When a car approaches a person standing still the sound is low but when the car passes by the pitch becomes higher. Light, Lemaître deduced, must also change when it is traveling towards and away from us, i.e. if a galaxy was “blue-shifted” it was flying away from the Milky Way but if it was “red-shifted” then that galaxy was flying towards us. Deduction, as illustrated in the example above, can be quite a powerful tool; however, it is not without its problems.

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 CE) was an important scholastic and theologian who was responsible for creating something fancy called the “ontological argument” for the existence of God. The word ontology has Greek roots and is roughly equivalent to the English word necessity. Anselm deduced that it was necessary God exist. He reasoned that he could picture the most perfect and powerful being in his mind. The only way this was possible was if God actually existed (because, Anselm argued, the concept of a God had to point to the object God). In other words, it was necessary God exist because otherwise a concept of this being would not be possible. The problem with Anselm’s argument is it is easily disproven. Another thinker came along about 150 years later named William of Ockham (1285-1347 CE). William, like Anselm, was a theologian and worked for the Church. William, however, unlike Anselm was not made a saint by the Catholic Church. Instead, William was persecuted for doing things like absolutely disproving Anselm’s proof for the existence God. Specifically, William reasoned he could conceive in his mind of the most perfect and powerful unicorn; however, he concluded that just because he had a concept of a unicorn in his mind this didn’t necessarily mean the unicorn actually existed; and that’s the problem with scholasticism, really: it was never based on evidence, it was based on a series of self-reinforcing assumptions about reality.

In the 17th century, the Church was successfully challenged by scientists and philosophers. Science represented a new way of looking at the world. The scholastics looked at the world spiritually; they explained the word spiritually. Scientists looked at the world materialistically and explained physical reality by appealing to laws of nature rather than to a God pulling strings behind the scenes. Scientists didn’t rely on revealed truth like scholastics; rather, they literally tested their assumptions against physical reality; it was the work of early scientists, like Galileo Galilei (1564-1642 CE) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727 CE), who nudged science in the direction of finding patterns in nature; and from these patterns they developed laws like the Law of Gravity, the Law of Planetary Motion and the Laws of Thermodynamics. The Church was also challenged by modern philosophy because philosophers like Rene Descartes (1596-1650 CE) and John Locke (1632-1704 CE) encouraged people to “doubt systematically.” When someone doubts systematically they ask a series of questions, and conduct a series of logical tests, to determine whether or not a belief is valid or if it is fallacious. The best philosophers, like Descartes and Locke, also used scientific knowledge to inform their thinking. This is because intellectuals were more focused on finding patterns in nature, patterns in human societies, etc. and from these drawing conclusions about their meaning and significance. Scholastics, on the other hand, started with the meaning and significance and then explained what they saw.

Humanist philosophers used logic and deduction, as well. However, while scholastics designed arguments simply to defend Church teachings and authority, humanists were motivated out of a genuine desired to describe and understand truth for its own sake. This doesn’t mean humanists did not believe in God; on the contrary, virtually every humanist, scientist and philosopher during the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment periods believed in God. God wasn’t in question. The Church’s doctrines, teachings and authority were; and the Catholic Church’s authority gradually grew weaker and weaker over time.

[1] Henry II (1133-1189 CE) of England spent a lot of energy trying to free his kingdom from Church control. This trend of kings and queens weakening the influence of the Church on their kingdoms continued in England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire throughout the 13th to 18th centuries.

[2] Testing something empirically means testing it by means of observation or experience rather than through theory or pure logic.

[3] When we only have a little bit of information we use deduction to work from what little we do know to create a larger picture. The problem with this approach is it requires a lot of imagination and basically no testing or experimentation. Aristotle, for example, used deduction to explain why objects “fell” downwards. He didn’t appeal to the existence of gravity but instead deduced it is in the nature of an object to “want” to fall down. The strange thing about thinkers before the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution is they believed objects actually had intentionality, e.g. magnets were explained as not being attracted due to a force called magnetism but that they had “souls” that sought one another out.


The Trump Effect: Hate Comes to Canada

Dozens of new “white identity” hate groups have emerged in Canada since Trump’s election. Chauvinists and racists existed in Canada well before Trump. But the President has normalized a type of speech giving permission to the impermissible under the pretext he’s standing up to political correctness.

You don’t want to be politically correct? Don’t be politically correct. But don‘t use that as an excuse to be an asshole. People should be decent to one another, not because we are required to use the right words, but because it’s the right thing to do. No, I won’t call you by the pronoun helicopter or “them”. But I’ll call you by your first name and extend a hand of friendship and fidelity to you.

I’ve tried my best to understand why people have given, and continue to give the President, such complete unqualified support. Marco Rubio acknowledged that the way Mr. Trump speaks is dangerous because not everyone who listens to him is “balanced” or “mentally healthy.” What has resulted is what happens when people trade their principles for power, e.g. a less stable, less tolerant, and more violent society.

There’s no sense to it…then again Steve Bannon is on record saying you’d have to destroy the system before you could rebuild it. Perhaps it makes sense to take Bannon (and by extension Trump) that they have no interest in being caretakers of an existing order but makers of a new one.

For my part I’d rather stick with the devil I do know…

A Debate on the Nature of Belief

A Debate on the Nature of Belief 
The medieval philosopher Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 AD) argued faith in something was evidence for the existence of the thing believed in. Anselm was a scholastic philosopher who didn’t worry about whether or not the argument was logical so much as it supported established wisdom (Church doctrine).. Once such doctrine was put forward by the Apostle Paul when he remarked in Hebrews 11: 1 that faith was “evidence in things not seen.” There is a fatal flaw affecting Anselm’s approach though: simply believing something exists does not make that thing exist any more than disbelieving in the existence of a thing makes that thing cease to exist.

Being a scholastic philosopher Anselm was not worried about anything other than preserving the Church’s authority and maintaining respect for Church teaching; therefore, he explained away the above contradiction by constructing the following supporting argument (which eventually came to be known as the Ontological Argument), e.g. we would not even have an idea or concept of “God” in our mind in the first place if this Being did not exist.

William of Ockham’s Reponse to the Ontological Argument
A century and a half after Anselm, the monk and philosopher William of Ockham (1287-1347 CE) refuted the Ontological Argument (also known as the “argument from necessity”).

First off, it should be noted William of Ockham (1079-1142 CE) was not an atheist. He shared a lot in common with the famed medieval thinker Peter Abelard: a person should not place unqualified faith in the power of belief but test claims and go wherever the evidence takes you. truth (not faith or belief). William also appreciated Thales of Miletus’ (624-546 BCE) approach to learning about the world. Thales was an ancient Greek philosopher who, unlike Anselm, did not just employ reason alone, but actually conducted experiments to test whether his ideas had merit. There was a tendency in Thales’ time to invoke the  gods to explain the mysteries of the physical world. Thales did not invoke the gods. Instead he looked for material and logically consistent explanations for why things worked the way they did.

When it came to disproving Anselm’s Ontological Argument, William used a combination of logic and an appeal to experience. In the great scheme of things, the existence of God simply is not falsifiable. William therefore addressed whether or not Anselm’s argument was logically supportable by testing its plausibility.

William put forth the following counter-argument, i.e. if faith was evidence for the existence of things unseen then faith in the existence of, say, unicorns would likewise be proof of the existence of a one-horned white horse. Ockham pointed out that while faith in God supported the idea of God, it did not support the reality of God’s existence. In other words, it would be absurd to conclude that the simple idea of a unicorn was proof for a unicorn’s existence. We can quite literally conceive of a million different “things” that exist in mind only but do not exist “out there.”

Therefore, to be consistent William rejected the idea that belief in God was evidence of anything; he asserted with equal vigor that believing God did not exist also did not cause God to cease to exist. In the end, God did not depend upon a person’s belief to exist at all. Further still, God could not be postulated out of existence by simply disbelieving in Him. His existence was entirely independent of a person’s belief or lack thereof. Logically, this led William to the following conclusion: God, you, your friend, that cat over there, even that chair, etc. all exist despite of our belief and not because of it.

Yet, for William to successfully refute Anselm he had to tackle Anselm’s supporting idea, e.g. How would the idea or concept of God enter the human mind if it did not already exist in reality?

William used the following two arguments to place the ontological argument in to doubt: firstly, there is a difference between a concept and a thing. For example, an actual thing like a white horse or a single-horned goat do exist in reality. This is an indisputable fact. But there is no such thing as a horse, as defined, that has a horn.

Let’s look at another example: while short Irishmen most certainly exist, it is doubtful that if you chased one down they’d necessarily give you a pot of gold (as per a leprechaun). Yet, the concept of a leprechaun exists. But this concept is just a variation and recombination of things that do exist, e.g. pots, gold, Irish people, short people. The reason the concept–leprechauns, unicorns or God–is a lack of critical discernment on the part of the believer. We literally believe in the power of belief (and frequently do not know what we do not know).

The same logic applies to the existence of any mythological creature. Actually, every single mythological creature—even space aliens—is just a recombination of multiple animals people have first hand experience with; that is, we “copy” and then “paste” the parts of one animal on to another animal to create a new concept. For example in Thale’s time harpy’s and the Chimera were believed to be real. The concept of a harpy most certainly can exist but short of some significant cosmetic surgery a “hawk lady” is simply not possible.

harpy and chimera

In the case of aliens, just think of the way they are represented in film: they’re essentially “little green men” who just look like a weird version of us. They are believed to be uber-intelligent and logically get represented as having extra large heads and eyes. Logically speaking, why would aliens necessarily look like us? The funny thing is on the planet Earth there are stranger looking things than aliens when compared to humans. Consider how different snakes and viper fish are from one another or humans; it stands to reason then that an alien, a being from another planet millions of light years distant, is going to evolve to be at least as different as a viper fish is from a human being (if not more so, e.g. why are both aliens and humans bipedal?).

Producers of alien movies today are an analogue to the scholastics of Anselm’s time: scholastics deal with concepts but not in reality. The philosophy of humanism, which William of Ockham most certainly later influenced, gave people better tools of logical discernment and methods of testing reality.

Secondly, William argued that the creative capabilities of the human mind made people capable of imagining things in to existence that simply did not exist; that being, opinions can exist on things that do not. Therefore, a concept or idea was only evidence of a particular way a person thought about the world; it revealed little about how the actual world operates. So if you believe witches can cast spells then witches cast spells.

Again, a concept is not a “thing” in and of itself; and things do not need us to believe in them to exist. In the end, a concept is just an opinion; and the existence of opinions—or ideas—are not evidence of anything other than the existence of a thought bumping around in a person’s mind; and, again, opinions can exist on things that do not.

William of Ockham was not an atheist. He was a Catholic monk. He also wasn’t even a Renaissance writer and thinker; however, his work anticipated both the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. This is because he was one of the first scholars (in a long line including Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, and eventually, Albert Einstein) who wanted to see the world as it actually was as opposed to how it was believed to be.

The Study of History: The Medieval Model versus the Humanist Model

The enthusiasm people had for the Greeks and Romans during the Renaissance was largely because people started looking at history differently.

The way people think about the past reveals a lot about how they think about themselves. For example, medieval scholars divided history into two periods: an ancient world before the time of Christ (which was a time of darkness) and then the period after his resurrection (regarded as a time of light). We have not thought in these historical terms—times of darkness and light—for a long time. Nonetheless, up until about 1998 CE the majority of scholars still organized time by directly referencing the birth year of Jesus, e.g. Julius Caesar was assassinated om 44 BC (or 44 years before the birth of Jesus) or the Emperor Constantine died in 337 AD (337 years after birth).

In an effort to establish secular (or non-religious calendar), historians now use the acronyms BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) instead of BC and AD. Interestingly, despite the fact Western society has not believed in the medieval view of history for centuries the BC/AD structure is still sometimes used exerting a continued and subtle influence on the way we think about history.[1]

Renaissance-era historians were humanists. Humanists were less preoccupied with religion compared to medieval writers. For this reason humanist historians formed a different model of history. Unlike their medieval counter-parts, Renaissance historians did not divide history into two but three periods:

  • The first age belonged to the ancient Greeks and Romans (it was regarded as a period light characterized by a flowering of culture and progress)
  • The second age, or middle-age, was a time of darkness or a “dark age” (humanists like Petrarch branded it as an age of cultural decadence and barbarism)
  • Humanists represented their own age as a new historical era of a special kind: a renaissance[2]—an age of light after darkness, an awakening after sleep, a rebirth after death

According to the humanist model of history, once Rome disappeared all that was good and beautiful was lost. However, light returned to the West once Petrarch (1304-1374 CE) re-introduced the world to the writings of Virgil and Cicero. Petrarch valued the literature of the Greeks and Romans above any other culture because of their emphasis on reason and logic in the pursuit of knowledge.

Another humanist thinker named Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536 CE) re-envisioned the history of religion in humanist terms. He argued that in the early days, the Catholic Church was a “beacon of light” surrounded by a sea of “pagan darkness”; however, the fall of the Roman Empire and flood of barbarians steered the Church from its true path. Erasmus observed the Church became so concerned with preserving its worldly power it forgot its original purpose: to preserve the simple message of Jesus as presented in the Gospels. Erasmus also blamed the Church’s problems on ignorant monks and mind-numbing scholastics (like Thomas Aquinas). He argued the clergy had become ineloquent and fixated with superstitions and medieval scholasticism[3] as opposed to Jesus’ simple message. Erasmus was optimistic though: he believed the rediscovery of Classical Greek and Roman literature meant the Church might possibly return to the simplicity and purity of its past.

Medieval historians believed they were living literally at the end of an age. Humanists, by contrast, felt they were living at the beginning of a new and brilliant period in human history. This filled them with a sense of optimism about the future. So while humanists knew both the Church and society needed reforming, they looked hopefully to a future Golden Age. This would be a time when Roman eloquence and Greek philosophy would be re-established; and this, it was reasoned, would revive a purer form of Christianity. Medieval historians and thinkers by contrast were not optimistic; they looked at the world as broken (full of sin). The world to medieval scholastics was something to be escaped, not celebrated or rediscovered.

The Importance of Analyzing & Criticizing History
If someone wanted to accurately forge (copy) a piece of writing created two hundred years ago they must know enough history to avoid anachronisms.[4] For example, if while reading an account of the Battle of Yorktown (1781 CE) the historian explains the Americans defeated the British by dropping atom bombs you should be skeptical, i.e. the first atom bomb was dropped in 1945 on Imperial Japan. Also, the Thirteen Colonies dropping nukes on England would be anachronistic because the technology (nukes) did not exist in the 18th century.

Humanists valued historical accuracy. For this reason they developed methods to test a document’s reliability. For example, who would be more of an authority on Christianity—the Apostle Paul who actually lived in the First Century or Pope Leo X (a pope living in the 16th century CE)? The humanist historian would argue Paul is the greater authority: Paul was closer in time to Jesus than Leo X; therefore, Paul was positioned better both historically and intellectually to discuss events related to Jesus’ time and thought. Lorenzo Valla (1406-1457 CE) used newly developed investigative techniques to prove that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery. The Catholic Church argued they received a “donation” in the 4th century from Emperor Constantine giving them control of vast parts of Italy. Valla looked at the language of the Donation document discerning it had actually been written in the 8th century, not the 4th. He pointed out that the word “fief” occurred in the document but this word was first used in the 8th century. Thus, there was no way Constantine—a person living in the pre-feudal 4th century—could have given Italy as a “fief” to the Catholic Church.

Erasmus applied similar critical techniques to studying the Bible. He translated the New Testament from Latin into Dutch and published it in 1516 CE. In his translation, he left out the following verse (commonly referred to as the Comma Johanneum) from the First Epistle of John that is the scriptural basis for belief in the existence of the Trinity. The text of 1 John 5:7-8 reads as follows:

And there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood, and these three agree in one.

Erasmus, like Valla, proved the first verse was not authentic. In particular, he found the reference to “the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost” was absent in all of the oldest available Greek editions of John’s epistle (letter); the verse was also absent in all the oldest available Latin manuscripts. Lastly, upon investigation he discovered that this verse was entirely unknown to any Christian writer before the Fourth Century CE (300s).

Erasmus argued, by appealing to the available evidence, that if the verse had existed, it certainly would have been quoted by writers at a time when the doctrine of the Trinity was the center of a theological controversy. The controversy about the Trinity actually threatened to tear the early Church part. The majority of Christians did not believe in the Trinity. Instead, most Christians—called Arians—believed in the idea of dualism, e.g. Jesus was the adopted not actual son of God. The Arians argued that the Holy Spirit was not a distinct person; it was just a quality Jesus and God shared in common. So, Erasmus reasoned, those who supported the idea of the Trinity would certainly have appealed to 1 John 5: 7-8 as evidence to disprove the Arian view. But they did not. They could not. They could not because John’s verse did not exist (yet). The controversy over the nature of God was eventually resolved in favor of the Trinity at the Council of Nicaea (325 CE). Erasmus concluded that the Catholic Church must have added the verse after the council ended to give scriptural authority to the doctrine of the Trinity.[5]

Textual criticism of this kind represents a more scientific approach to understanding history that emerged specifically during the Renaissance. Scholastics would have found a way to explain away the change to Epistle of John. Erasmus being a humanist believed truth was more important than appearances. Nonetheless, Renaissance-era historians were far from perfect: they tended to write in a flowery style sometimes sacrificing accuracy to elegance; they looked at history differently than we do; that is, they looked at it as a branch of literature (not its own branch of knowledge). Nonetheless, advances made by humanist historians helped secularize[6] historical writing and thinking. People still saw God at work in history; but they no longer automatically reverted to discussing God in order to make sense of events.

Renaissance historians were more secular in their outlook and conception of history compared to medieval thinkers. Medieval historians were convinced the course of history was simply the fulfilling of scripture, e.g. a savior was promised, a savior was born, and the world was saved. History demonstrated God’s dominion over humanity. In the humanist view history was a guide to life. You could learn from the past and apply those lessons to the present and the future. The study of history, according to the humanists, should inspire one to act virtuously while discouraging living a life of vice; history trains future statesmen in politics and war; it is the mother of experience and the grandmother of wisdom. Old men are said to be wise because their judgement rests on the accumulated experience of a lifetime; therefore, a right reading of history makes people wise. Thus, the new humanistic history emerging during the Renaissance was a secular description of the past; it focused on worldly matters, not God. The causes of events were not explained in terms of God’s will. Causes and motives were explained solely in human terms. The humanist approach remained the preferred model of historians well into even the 20th century.

Source: this article was created in part using Eugene F. Rice’s book The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460-1559 (pages 79-83).

[1] The modern world continues to make use of all sorts of primitive or medieval notions. For example, the ancient Greeks believed the white cloudy substance in the night sky was the milk of the goddess Hera. We still call our galaxy the “Milky Way” but no one believes Hera exists any longer. Also, we still use terms like “sun set” and sun rise” which reflects an ancient belief in a flat earth. In reality the sun neither sets nor rises; rather, the earth spins revealing the sun during the day and concealing it during the night.

[2] The term “Renaissance” was first prominently used by the French historian Jules Michelet in 1858, and it was set in bronze two years later by Jacob Burckhardt when he published his influential work The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.

[3] Scholasticism was represented by a school of thinkers who believed in the importance of preserving the power and influence of the Catholic Church above all else. For this reason they stressed the importance of making all human knowledge conform and agree with Church teachings and a literal reading of scripture. The problem with scholastics is they did not pursue knowledge for its own sake; instead, they were more concerned with preserving the appearance of the Church being the unquestioned leader and authority on science, on politics, economics, the law, and religion.

[4] An anachronism is a thing belonging to or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists, e.g. Romans did not have smart phones; therefore, if you were to read a “historical” account of Julius Caesar texting his friends on his smart phone this would be an example of an anachronism.

[5] Various editions of scripture have been changed or altered for different reasons. Martin Luther, for example, disliked the Epistle of James because it stressed the value of completing good works to “earn” salvation. Thus, Luther left James out of his German translation of Erasmus’ translation.

[6] Secularize: to separate from religious or spiritual connection or influences.

How to Think About History

A). Studying history is sometimes a straight-forward task; yet, no matter how simple we think the history is we are studying we still need to be careful: this is because we frequently make assumptions without ever being conscious of it. Below you’ll find three such assumptions defined and illustrated:

  1. Firstly, we believe our knowledge is complete. No historian has perfect insight or all of the facts. Further research might unearth some information either confirming what the historian thought or successfully challenges that thinking. You can never have access to too much information (if it is relevant). For example, many people still believe Christopher Columbus and the Catholic Church argued about whether or not the Earth was round or flat. In reality the argument was actually about the Earth’s circumference (or the sheer size of the planet). The Church argued it was much larger than Columbus assumed. The reason people continue thinking the Church believed the Earth was flat is because of the perpetuation of a historical error committed by an amateur historian named Washington Irving in the early 19th century. The error first appears in Irving’s book The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828). The book was considered authoritative shaping the understanding of readers for decades. Teachers who subsequently used Irving as a resource in their classrooms inadvertently taught millions of students a historical error—and some of those students became history teachers or even professors themselves.
  2. Secondly, we think we know more than we actually do. Frequently we believe we know something but our confidence is not supported by the available evidence. By acknowledging our tendency to believe in things as opposed to understand them, we appreciate how uncertain even our best established theories and histories really are. For this reason it is wise to possess a questioning attitude (testing both our assumptions and those of others). The example of Washington Irving’s error cited above demonstrates the dangers of believing ourselves more certain than we should.
  3. Thirdly, we are what we think about. The thoughts we have directly reflect the experiences we have had (and, perhaps even more importantly, reflect the experiences we have not had). For this reason it can be difficult for men to appreciate the experiences of women. Also, it can be difficult for white people to appreciate the experience of people of color. This is because white men and, say, women of color have very different experiences with power or a lack thereof. Further, an expert in physics is not necessarily an expert in psychology or economics. This does not stop the physicist from expressing opinions about either psychology or economics. In the end, expertise in one area does not necessarily mean a person will possess expertise in every Since there are so many different types of knowledge, it makes sense that a person must possess a certain minimum amount of expertise before their opinions might be considered trustworthy. For example, there are a lot of people with a background in economics who challenge the scientifically proven theory that climate change is the result of human industrial activity. What these economists do not recognize is being an expert in one area (economics) does not translate into expertise in fields related to climate science (chemistry, physics, climatology, marine biology, and so on). Thus, the economist in this case literally does not know what they do not know.[1]

Again, we are what we think about and our individual worldview reflects the parenting we have had (or the absence of parenting), our education (or lack thereof), and to a certain extent genetics or our personal temperament (in a sense the world looks like it does to us because of our personality, e.g. a pessimist has a darker view of the world than say an optimist does, and so on).

B). We just looked at three assumptions affecting both readers and writers of history.

  • We believe our knowledge is complete
  • We think we know more than we actually do
  • We are what we think about

These assumptions share one thing in common: in one form or another they all reflect problems with the thinking of the individual. The next three problems to discuss are structural issues associated with writing and interpreting history. These problems are known by the following names:

  • The problem with omission
  • The problem with anachronism
  • The problem with historical models

The Problem with Omission
When we omit (literally leave out) people or events from the telling of history—intentional or not—we change the impression people form of the past. The role of women, for example, often gets downplayed or even ignored in histories covering either the medieval period or the Renaissance. By omitting the actions of women a false impression is created: it becomes as if they did not do anything noteworthy. In reality many women—like Eleanor of Aquitaine, Sibylla Fugger, and any number of women from the Medici family—played critical roles in the respective evolution of their nations. Historians have tended focusing on the accomplishments of great men like kings, merchants, bankers, popes, generals and knights. Also, the contributions of minorities have typically been either understated or ignored until relatively recently.[2]

If the purpose of telling history is to describe events as they actually happened, it makes sense taking into consideration many perspectives. In so doing, we might approach a more complete and comprehensive picture of both what happened in the past and its significance to us in the present.

The Problem with Anachronism
Anachronism reflects either the individual historian’s ignorance on a particular subject or a deliberate attempt to deceive on their part.

An anachronism is the attributing of a custom, event, or object to a period in which it does not belong. For example someone writing about how people “surfed the web” during medieval times would be guilty of anachronism. If you have a little knowledge, anachronisms are easy enough to detect. Sometimes they are subtle (see the second example below) and sometimes obvious (the first example):

Some people, for the first example, insist dinosaurs and human beings lived at the same time. They go so far as to say Adam and Eve actually domesticated (tamed) and then placed saddles on velociraptors (riding them like horses). The fact is no evidence whatsoever exists of human beings and dinosaurs living at the same time. The fossil record is quite unambiguous firmly establishing these two species are separated by 65 million years. Complicating matters is the saddle itself was not even invented until around 365 CE by the Sarmations. This is 300 years after the time of Jesus. If Adam and Eve existed around six thousand years ago like is claimed by Creationists, and it is not entirely certain they even existed,[3] they could not have placed saddles on horses let alone raptors. Saddles did not exist yet.

A famous second example of an anachronism is found in a document called The Donation of Constantine. The Catholic Church argued the land they occupied in Italy (called the Vatican) was a gift from the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century CE. The Church pointed to The Donation of Constantine as proof of this gift. Enter Lorenzo Valla. Valla was a historian during the Renaissance. He caused a ruckus by demonstrating in 1440 that the Donation was a forgery (fake). He showed how the document’s writing style did not reflect that of the late Roman imperial period. Instead the style used in the Donation reflected one dated conclusively to a much later time (around the 7th century CE or a full 300 years after the death of Constantine). Additionally, Valla pointed out the document contained the word satrap. This word is a Persian, not a Roman word, meaning roughly “governor.” It is exceedingly unlikely a Roman emperor would use a Persian term in a Latin document.

 The Problem with Model Dependent Realism
Human beings are natural born story tellers. In 1700 BCE the Babylonians interpreted eclipses as a sign of divine displeasure. For this reason Babylonian priests conducted elaborate rituals to appease their gods Tiamat and Abzu. Comets likewise have always evoked superstitious reactions. Comets were harbingers (warnings) of impending disaster or indications of divine wrath. The ancients believed comets even foretold the deaths of princes and the fall of kingdoms. Fairly early on in their existence the Israelites adopted the Babylonian worldview (like most Semitic people). This, in part, explains the description of a star following Jesus’ mother Mary around when she was pregnant as presented in the Gospel of Mathew (Matthew 2: 1-12).

In the present day, we do not interpret eclipses as signs of divine displeasure. This is because, unlike the ancient Babylonians and Israelites whose histories essentially took the form of storytelling, we use science. We test claims. Specifically, stars do not normally follow people around; it is not possible for one entered Earth’s atmosphere (as described in Matthew) and not destroy the planet. This does not mean the author of Matthew was intentionally lying. Rather, since the ancients stressed storytelling over science, the incorporation of a symbol like a star would help a First Century CE audience better appreciate Jesus’ “kingly” significance. Again, today, we stress a scientific model over a story-based one: we do not appeal to the will of the gods. We understand the world by appealing to the existence of proven material forces.

The historical model medieval historians developed was divided into two periods: a period of darkness (e.g. all the time before Jesus’ birth) and a time of light (e.g. all the time after Jesus’ resurrection). Renaissance historians actually divided time up into three distinct time periods, e.g. the ancient world, the so-called Dark Ages (medieval period) and the Renaissance (or their present) in the 15th century. Interestingly, people living during the Renaissance did not actually use the word “renaissance” to describe their time. Instead, the term Renaissance was literally coined by French 19th century historians to describe a period of cultural renewal between the 14th to 17th centuries CE.

Historical models, like dividing human history into two or three distinct periods for instance, are useful primarily because they help people describe see the “big picture.” However, models oversimplify the situation because history is not neat and tidy; and ultimately the “big picture” has more to do with storytelling than with describing how the world actually works. Certainly there are patterns in history we can identify and explain and learn from, e.g. when a society experiences stress minorities are often the victims of persecution.[4] Yet, there are forces at work shaping events randomly like a storm destroying a Spanish invasion fleet off the coast of England in 1588 CE.

The point is history is not as “neat and tidy” as historical models and historians make them out to be. Not really. Many historians in the present day argue the Renaissance was not even a “thing.” Instead, the “renaissance” was really just an extension of an existing and flowering medieval culture. Historical models are problematic then because they can be used to force events to fit a structure; and this reveals something important that must be understood about models: since we are creating models—sorting events into neat and tidy time periods—we run the risk inventing history. For this reason it is important to challenge existing assumptions about historical interpretations.


[1] In the field of psychology, the Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people mistakenly believe their cognitive ability is greater than it actually is, i.e. they literally do not know what they do not know.

[2] The situation has largely been rectified with the present’s greater emphasis placed upon describing the role of sociological forces as opposed to focusing mainly upon political histories or the deeds of “Great Men”.

[3] Biblical literalists read and interpret scripture literally, i.e. if scripture says X happened then X happened exactly as described; however, there are also people called biblical contextualists. Contextualists do not read scripture and think they are reading a scientific historical account; rather, they read stories in Genesis for the lessons presented and for meaning.

[4] When the Black Death hit Europe in the 14th century Jews were accused of causing it and killed. Similar to that in the 1930s Jews were similarly persecuted during the Great Depression in Nazi Germany.

Mitch McConnell, the Bill Buckner of Politics, Drops Ball Again

Mitch McConnell just responded to Trump’s latest racist tweets. Here’s what McConnell said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [and women of conscience] to do [or say] nothing.”

Well done, good sir! So glad to hear human decency at least isn’t negotiable….oh wait…he didn’t say that. He actually refused to comment.

When is the breaking point, do you figure, when people stop giving such unqualified support to the President? You’re supposed to be loyal to the Constitution (not a Person). It’s okay to be critical of the government (even the administration you voted for…in fact…you’re kind of expected to do this to keep the whole democratic experiment and rule of law functioning as intended).

Technology is Perplexing

Perplexing. Technology shrinks the globe and enables “democratic” movements like the Arab Spring. But does it also shrink the world and enable governments or oligarchies to control the denizens of the globe that much easier…?