Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Cultural and Historical Diffusion

I think its important to go over the concept of Cultural/Historical Diffusion one more time. The definition of the term, as we discussed in class, went something like this:

Two or more historical events, environments, situations or ideas, occurring in different geographic places, in which one can clearly be shown to have influenced the other.

The key to understanding cultural diffusion is the concept of interaction. The manner in which people interact inevitably alters the history of anyone who participates in the interaction. In class, this was shown when we looked back to the Environment unit and the Silk Road. Along the Silk Road, traders from all over interacted and exchanged goods. While exchanging goods, they also consistently (and usually unintentionally) exchanged cultural elements-it could be religion or food or clothing-and brought the new cultural elements back home.

When they returned home to their friends and family they (also usually unintentionally) shared those new cultural elements with others. Thus their homes' history would be changed forever. This is really how history happens-the interactions between people that causes them to change, even a little bit. Adding up all those "little bits" equals a huge amount of change for civilization as a whole.

The evidence of this is the documents we've been looking at for the last two days. There were quite a few Israelites who lived in Ancient Egypt for a long time before moving East. Many lived under Akhenaton when he mandated that Egypt move from polytheism to monotheism. Certainly, many were exposed to Akhenaton's "Hymn to Aton".

Over the course of the next hundred years or so, elements of that prayer were probably passed down from generation to generation. When the authors of the Hebrew Bible were putting it together, it is not surprising that they included things that had been passed down through generations. Thus, looking at "Hymn to Aton" and "Psalm 104" today, its pretty obvious that some serious cultural diffusion took place.

So its important, when studying the history of religion, that we look at the role cultural diffusion plays. The "big three" monotheisms: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam did not come out of nowhere. In each, you'll see elements of previous religions. As we move forward on our timeline, keep that in mind as you look at the movement in the world from polytheism to monotheism.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Early Religions

The most recent discussion in class revolved around the earliest man (living in roughly 7500-5000 BCE) and the initial creation of religion. The ruins at Catal Huyuk demonstrate that even the earliest human had within him a belief in religion. For most of this time, that religion was polytheistic.

The major question that you should consider for this discussion is really "why do people turn to religion?" The answer to that question has certainly evolved throughout history. In class today, we discussed why the people in places like Catal Huyuk might have turned to religion-a big reason for their beliefs stemmed from what they needed to be explained to them. There was a lot that they simply didn't understand, from the reason for day and night to the rain (or lack thereof). Polytheism created many gods, each of whom could be responsible for something the ancient people did not necessarily understand. Polytheism made a lot of sense in ancient times, because religion was thought of in terms of a "transaction." If you needed something, you prayed for it and hopefully the god of that thing gave you what you wanted. It was a little like a cosmic slot machine-put in a quarter and hopefully it pays out.

This, of course, is very different from why people today belief in religion. As we know, polytheism has given way to monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam to name a few). And monotheism conceives of religion in a very different way. Its rarely seen in terms of transactions; its more like a way of life. As I mentioned in class, monotheists are much more likely to consider their religion to be a defining characteristic of who they are. As such, religion today takes on a very different meaning for people throughout the world than it did 7000 years ago.

So, the question for today's comment section is this: what do you think is the role of religion in the world today, and if we've answered so many of the questions that created religion in the first place, why is it still around (and incredibly important to people and a powerful force) at all?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Religion and Reality

Today's discussion surrounded an introduction to the unit on religion. Once again, its important to highlight the theme of the unit: "The way people construct reality." As we saw with the reading today, religion is a powerful force in creating for people a sense of themselves, so much so that it can cause people to act quite irrationally.

Bobby Griffith struggled so much balancing his Christian faith with the fact that he was gay that he ended up taking his own life. His religious beliefs had created within him a reality that simply didn't mesh with who he was, and Bobby simply couldn't handle it. Much in the same way, his mother's reality told her that prayer was the only way in which she could, in her mind, "cure" her son's "sickness." While those of us on the outside can see the flaw in her logic, especially as it relates to his first suicide attempt, it is clear that her religion created in her that sense of what was real. Prayer was going to solve the problem. When it didn't, her entire life was shattered. Think back to the reading from last night and the analogy with the pencil. What would happen if you dropped that pencil and instead of hitting the table, it just sat suspended in the air? Your reaction would probably be similar to Mrs. Griffith's when she realized that her prayer did not "save" her son.

And that scenario creates the theme for this unit. Religion has played an incredible role in the history of the world. Even though the very basic beliefs of each religion have changed and evolved over time, religion has continually guided people's sense of reality and given them justification for doing whatever they felt fit into that concept of reality. When people act on that reality, it changes the course of history. But, as a guiding force, religion shapes millions of lives and as such, has played an essential role in human history.

So, based on today's discussion, what are your thoughts about religion? About the story of Bobby Griffith? About the role of religion in history? Feel free to comment...

*NOTE: The movie "Prayers for Bobby," based upon the article you read in class today, will be showing tonight on the Lifetime channel at 8 p.m.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Fascism and Leadership

The most recent class discussion revolved around Mussolini's "Doctrine of Fascism." Before getting into details on it, though, it is important to remember the historical context in which Mussolini is speaking. It will make what he writes a lot more understandable.

Most important of all is that Mussolini is writing during a major worldwide Depression. The economy is down, people have lost jobs and are struggling to put food on the table. Naturally, they are going to be more open to a guy who can promise to get them out of the situation in which they live. When things are going badly for people, they are much more open to new ideas, even though not all new ideas are good ideas.

So Mussolini promises to return Italy to "the days of Rome." This is an important part of Fascism: the use of Nationalism to inspire people. Essentially, he is saying "we were were the most powerful nation on earth once (for 1000 years), we can do it again." This is also going to be appealing to people.

Finally, he continually refers to Fascism as "spiritual." In doing so, he's putting his governmental ideas on par with a religion. This is important because he wants people to think of Fascism as more than a government-it should be a way of life. This is taking Machiavelli's ideas even further than even Machiavelli wanted. Remember-Machiavelli said that a government should never give anything to the people, because they will become dependent upon the Prince. Mussolini goes further and says "not only should the government not give anything to the people, the people should give everything to the government." He wants total control and total support (hence totalitarianism).

Overall, Mussolini does represent some important aspects of leadership that fit into our overall unit theme. He represents one of the two major characteristics of leadership. Those two are:

1. The ability to motivate people to follow you (Mussolini was great at doing this).

2. The foresight to take them in the right direction (Mussolini-not so much here).

These two characteristics of leadership should stay with you as you think about all the pieces we read this unit. To what extent did each of the people we read embody both or either of these two characteristics? Furthermore, how does Mussolini compare to the other leaders/philosophers we have studied this unit?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Communism, Democracy, and Equality

Today's discussion revolved around the initiation of communism. What was important to understand from today's discussion was the environment into which communism was introduced: the factory system was a completely unchecked enterprise-the only thing that could control how much workers were paid was the number of unemployed workers out on the street. If there were a bunch of people unemployed, then the factory owner simply could hire the one willing to take the least amount per day for his services. Because factory work at that time required few specific skills, there was no reason for a factory owner to pay someone more than necessary. Necessary, in this case, was very little.

Of course, this lead to a situation in which the rich got A LOT richer and the more got A LOT poorer. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels saw this as a problem and, unlike Toqueville (who felt that Democracy was inherently a good thing), felt that true equality could only be reached in a system in which the government collects all private property and wealth and redistributes equally among the population. Communism was born.

As you read for today, the Communist Manifesto laid out ten ways in which the government would acquire wealth in order to create what the communists believed would be a more equal society. This was in great contrast to the American system at the time in which the role of the government was simply to provide defense and basic infrastructure (roads and things like that).

So the question that remains is: what is the role of government in the lives of the people? Should government be more like the communists wanted, in which the government intervenes in order to create a sense of equality (whatever they feel that "equality" means) or is government better when it is more like the "laissez-faire" style that was going on in the United States, in which government left all economic elements alone and chose not to intervene regardless of the situation?

What do you think?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Legitimacy and Leadership

The key point from this last week in relation to the history we’ve been studying has to do with the concept of legitimacy. Legitimacy in governing is key to how a government runs effectively; the less legitimate citizens feel their government is, the less abilities that government has in ruling. A leader can never rule effectively if he is considered illegitimate.

For much of world history, especially before 1700, legitimacy was determined by the mention of a higher power. If a leader could convince the people that the higher power was in his corner, he was considered legitimate. James I in England took that a step further: he felt that he (as king) was really no different than God. No one could question his power, as he had the connection to God. In a way, he argued that kings had the hotline to God and as such, their decisions were always correct. Of course, today we in this country could never imagine a president who would claim that God speaks to him, right?

The Divine Right of Kings in Europe took the concept of legitimacy pretty far. Inevitably, there was a reaction by the people. When someone claims to have spoken to God, it isn’t long before others start to wonder why God hasn’t spoken to them. This begins the questioning of government in general. In England, that took the form of John Locke’s Of Civil Government. This threw the whole concept of legitimacy on its ear. According to Locke, God was no longer an acceptable way for rulers to claim legitimacy. Locke argued that legitimacy only came from the consent of the people. At least for Europe, this was the beginning of the movement towards democracy. If one admits that government only comes from the consent of the people, it won’t be long before they realize that “consent” usually must come in the form of a vote.

This represents a fundamental change in the conversation regarding the history of government and leadership. To lead, a person now has to consider the collective power of the people to put him/her into the role of leader and thus their collective power to remove him/her. Leadership from this point forward becomes much more complicated for those in power, but much more fair for those under that power.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Machiavelli and the Prince

There is plenty to chew on when reading through Machiavelli's "The Prince." Most important to remember, however, is just how much Machiavelli is concerned with efficiency and power rather than any kind of ideas regarding "good government." Everything Machiavelli writes about has to do with HOW to run a government, not whether that government will produce anything morally correct.

Machiavelli was born into a world, especially in Europe, that was dominated by kings and queens who ruled without any consideration for the livelihoods of the people. The middle ages weren't exactly kind to the average person, so in some ways, Machiavelli was very much a product of the era in which he lived. Keep that in mind when judging his ideas, as nasty as those ideas really are.

Consider, as well, how this fits into the overall theme of this unit. Whereas Aristotle, Socrates and Confucius are utterly consumed with the idea of "good government," Machiavelli is the opposite. In a way, they complement one another quite well. This is not to say that these historical philosophers would ever agree with one another, however. I'm sure Confucius would not in any way support Machiavelli's ideas. But the question that really arises here, and the one I'd like you to think about, is to what extent does Machiavelli really compliment the other philosophers studied this unit? Can a ruler attempt to reach a "perfect" and virtuous government without using some ideas Machiavelli supports in order to get to a position of power?

We've seen over the last week in the news that our very own governor has used quite a bit of Machiavellian tactics to get to where he got. What do you think Machiavelli would have to say about governor Blagojedsfsdfhsufhsdfsoi?