The first difficulty posed by this presentation is its careful selection of one brilliant moment of mankind’s history as an example of what polytheism could do. This is misleading.
Why start here? Why not with the Semitic polytheists? Their brand of religion was harsh and unforgiving, and certainly gave short shrift to conquered or deviant people. For that matter, even within their own society, even as they slowly built the processes and systems that we take for granted in urban civilization and culture, they treated their own citizens with a harsh and barbaric severity.
It will be argued that this is yet another example of Middle Eastern fundamentalism. Let us first then look in more detail at the examples cited.
If we examine the record of the Greeks, three facts emerge almost immediately: that within the same polytheistic system,
- there were the Athenians and their brilliant debates, their shining culture and literature, and their innovations in democratic governance;
- there were the Athenians as an imperial power, which was an Athens far bleaker and harsher, an Athens which could order the massacre of an entire allied city, which was a slave society, where less than 200,000 citizens depended on the slave labour of dozens of slaves;
- and there was the other Greece, the Greece that was not Athens, some parts of which contributed brilliantly to this cultural efflorescence, other parts of which, like Sparta, remained a harsh and severe military dictatorship.
If polytheism was such a boon to mankind, why didn’t the Spartans show their cultural capabilities alongside the Athenians? Or display a society as free as the Athenians?
Next, take the Romans. They, too, were polytheistic. Can there be a greater contrast in history between the Athenians and the Romans? What virtues and what freedom came to Rome, or from Rome, as a result of polytheism?
As the city expanded, from isolated city to a community of Latins, to an Italian power, to a power in the Mediterranean, and so on, it had a ruthless record of destruction of cultures and communities which opposed it militarily or culturally. It was a Roman, Cato, who first used the phrase ‘delenda est Carthago’, Before taking any other decision, destroy Carthage. When Carthage was finally destroyed, accounts of the time give a very complete account of the savagery of the pillage and the destruction, the systematic and methodical destruction, that followed. It is not clear that the polytheistic Carthaginians appreciated the softness, the freedom in society that the Romans got from their own polytheism.
When this interesting argument was being crafted, was it intended to tell us that the polytheist Romans had banned the Druids and Druidic practice, and later banned the Jews and the Christians? Was it planned to remind us of the Roman persecutions of Christians, which rose to a crescendo by the end of the 3rd century and the beginning of the 4th century, when the most intense persecutions took place? There is space for mention of the Christian persecution of pagans after the 4th century AD, but none for their persecution at the hands of the Romans.
Now we come to an interesting part of the argument, where the entire burden for the downfall of Roman civilization in the West and the coming of the Dark Ages is assigned to religion, and not to culture.
This is a biased and completely mistaken argument, and romanticizes polytheist religion well beyond its station. The empire was Christian in parts from the 2nd or 3rd century AD onwards; Christianity became the official religion of the empire in 380 AD, with Theodosius. The Empire in that form lasted only a few years more; it fell in the West in 476 to the German barbarians, Rome itself to the Ostrogoths.
In province after province, in city after city, where Romans and the legions of Rome, not the free spirit of Roman governance or laws, but the force of arms, had brought the Pax Romana, the old cities were vandalized, the name itself derived from one of the incoming tribes, and Roman civilization as it had evolved was eradicated and replaced by something grim and German.
What about the role of the Church? In the remarks that follow, let it be noted that these remarks are not from an admirer of either the Catholic Church, or indeed of organized religion anywhere.
Far from being the destructive force that we are being asked to consider it, the monotheistic Church, the orthodox Catholic Church, was the preserver of things Roman, as far as it could, from the hands of the barbarians. Law, architecture, agriculture, viniculture, letters, philosophy, music – even the management of empire – all these were preserved and extended by the Church and its servants, not by secular society.
The hostility of the Church was reserved for representatives of the old religion; the Druids, for instance, in Gaul and in Britain, and the pagan tribes still existing in parts of the empire. Some of Charlemagne’s hardest fought campaigns were against the pagan Saxons. But the point is that the Church-linked Carolingian Empire, where the Emperor accepted his crown from the Pope, was still a civilized oasis compared to the wilderness outside, certainly compared to the Saxons and their barbaric state of being.
The Church did whatever it could, wherever it could, not without self-interest. It persecuted pagans, as it had been persecuted itself. Old temples were taken up and converted to Churches as the pagan congregations dwindled. Estates bestowed on the Church were carefully ploughed, sown and harvested. The need for wine for the sacrament led to the growth of today’s flourishing wine industry. There were barbarian outrages even by the Church, but that Church was not entirely an anti-civilisational body as it is made out to be.
This was in the West.
In the East, the same Roman Empire held on for centuries more, until its final capture by the Ottomans. That Christian Empire, under the monotheists, continued to maintain the culture and the traditions of Rome, in a radically altered manner, largely influenced by the Greeks, and that composite Greco-Roman culture continued until 1453 in that form.
The passage on the struggle between the Empire and the Papacy needs no comment, as it is not relevant to the central issue of societies being more free when their central religion is not monotheistic.
Middle Eastern monotheistic fanaticism is singled out for mention, as an inhibiting factor behind the backwardness of society, when in fact, in the Middle East and Asia Minor, where the monotheistic religion flourished, society and culture also flourished, and only in Europe, under the German tribes and their kingdoms, was society backward. This clearly reveals the nature of the message, where the conclusion is first decided, that societies are more free when their central religion is not monotheist, and the facts are then sought, facts which will bear out this conclusion, all inconvenient and contrary facts being omitted.
It is paradoxical that then we move on to the Renaissance, and the re-discovery of pagan classical learning, as if pagan classical learning was parachuted from the skies. Since it does not fit the thesis, the small but inconvenient fact that all this pagan classical learning had been carefully preserved by the Arabs has been completely omitted, an inconvenient tribe of monotheists, and only subsequently acquired from the Byzantines, after the fall of Constantinople. By that date, the Renaissance was far advanced; the wonderful reign of Frederick II Hohenstaufen, Stupor Mundi, was long over, and therefore any direct link with Byzantium is clearly unlikely.
On the question of the humanism of the Renaissance, why thinkers took man as their measure is too long to deal with on a blog comment. It certainly owed something to the idea that God was unknowable, but putting Man at the centre was due to a far more complex process of philosophical reasoning than that bland statement.
Regarding the comment on the domination of secularist thinking having much to do with the exhaustion of the religious preoccupations of the endless wars of the Reformation and the Counter-reformation, it is accurate enough, but it needs to be pointed out that in this same blog, the precise dates, the date of the Treaty of Westphalia, or the Peace of Westphalia, and the motto that governed its provision, Cujus regio eius religio, has been discussed and debated threadbare, in the context of a discussion of secularism. Not that it invalidates the statement made, but it needs to be said that this is not new, that this has been considered, that this is not entirely unfamiliar.
So much for the guide to European history. It would appear from a more careful examination than the cursory and selective treatment that has given it that actually the case for polytheism is far from being proven. Certainly the explanations that have been supplied lead to no such conclusion.
In the final part of the note, the European escape from the barbarism of Middle Eastern monotheism has been ascribed to European society being more variegated than that of the Arabs. This variegation has even been specified: the relative importance of the merchant class in Europe, and the separation of the personal property of the ruler from the rights of the ruled to own property.
Take just the passage above.
Europe did not escape from barbarism after all. It ran the full course. Whether this was due to Middle Eastern monotheism or German lack of civic and civil processes has been answered by historians already; fortunately, we need not depend on an individual’s unsupported word for this.
On the other hand, there was no equivalent period, no Dark Ages, in the Middle East, which should have been there if this thesis was even superficially correct. In contrast to Europe, the Middle East had a flourishing civilization and a global culture of vastly superior nature compared to the Europeans at that stage.
It has been said that European laws relating to property tend to be more supportive of private property, and thereby lead us, through mercantile capitalism of full-blown capitalism in the West; it is a mistake, however, to assume that the mercantile class was in superior condition in the West, in Europe, compared to the Middle East.
Quite the contrary.
Within the protection of a cultural aura of favour that was attached to the merchant class, which was not without its association with the early Islamic leaders and their occupations, the merchants of the Middle East went far afield and used commercial systems that were far advanced compared to their European brethren. It will take a full-scale book to describe how the merchants of Europe emerged gradually, mainly in Italy and in the Low Countries, later in the Hanseatic League, and slowly acquired rights under the feudal system, which was initially hostile to merchants.
In brief, yes, the legal system favoured the Europeans, largely through its preservation (ironically) by the Catholic Church, and thereafter by the efforts of national monarchies to control jurisprudence and centralize power. And no, the merchant class was not weaker in the Middle East compared to Europe.
It is ironic that the conclusion that European society enjoyed the immense and invaluable wealth of pre-Christian thought is brought out as a weapon against Christian intellectual nullity. This is just plain wrong, and ironic that this statement should be made.
It is ironic because this very European society was a brutalized, barbaric society for more than four centuries, during which time, the invaluable wealth of pre-Christian thought was preserved by the monotheistic, rigid, hide-bound Arabs, by the Church which according to the note was the mainspring of barbarism, rather than the preserver of old tradition, and by the Empire of Byzantium, located in the Middle East and in Asia Minor.
The description of the Arabs as a ruler-oriented society is accurate; however, this should be related to a particular point of time, not as an eternal verity.
It was true from the time of the coming of Islam, when the concept of a single ruler of the faithful emerged, and was not true earlier. Earlier, the concept of Empire emerged from Persia first in history, largely because most of the world had little or no knowledge of developments in China, and thence through Alexander to the Romans, bearing in mind that the Persian model was alive and well until late in the day in the East, whereas the Alexandrine model was more or less co-opted by the Romans, who put a definitive stamp on the idea of Empire.
To conclude that humanity advances when Judaeo-Christian-Islamic religion is absent, and that it retreats, or regresses, when these obsessions are powerful, is quite misleading. Religion is religion, whether polytheist or monotheist. It has its dead hand on civilization in either case. But we will see more of that when we examine the next thought.
The question of the post-Christian West, Hindu India and the Confucian Far East, with their easy-going attitude to religion and the gods is justified in terms of social harmony, in terms of Muslims being free through most of India to publicly ridicule Hinduism, as is proper. This is far from evident from the record. Large numbers of riots break out due to the smallest causes, and these are by no means initiated by the Muslim community in all cases. The present events in Bareilly are a case in point. These examples can be multiplied indefinitely. Where does this easy-going attitude show up? Not in Xinjiang, not in Tibet, not in the savage Japanese treatment of their indigenous Ainu, not in their contempt of the Korean dog-people. One is curious to know if there are examples for this magnanimity which can be cited, any firmer evidence than an unsupported statement.
The comment about Nehru and his Hinduism are in no way connected to the historical inaccuracies and the gross errors of understanding that fill the note posted.