Everyone thinks they are living in the modern age, at the cusp of technological and social development. At least till they get older, and realize that everything is, instead, going to pot. While we are always at the edge of time, we also live within the institutions and ideas of the past. That became painfully apparent with the recent election, when the electoral college went one way, and the popular vote went dramatically the other way, by a 2% margin.
Our culture and its institutions have been under development for thousands of years, and while the events of much of that time were not very well documented, that doesn't mean they weren't important. Norman Cantor's not terribly scholarly, but highly opinionated and readable overview of the Middle Ages (~500 to 1500) is one of the best sources I have read to understand this period. He takes an analytical view of why institutions developed the way they did, and offers frank views on what was helpful and what was not, in the cause of overall Western progress. No wonder this book is still in print, after over two decades.
His major theme seems to be the establishment of large, competent states as the endpoint of successful social progress. Each epoch is judged by the coherence of its political institutions, from the height of Rome, to the depths of post-German invasion Europe. Cantor is dismissive of the Germanic institutions of government, which were little more than tribal councils and endless warfare. Thus the tension between the new invaders and the inheritance they were so close to, from Rome proper, and from the rump Eastern Roman empire, aka Byzantium.
The invaders (apparently pushed by other invaders to their rear, like the Huns) didn't mean to destroy Rome, really- they just wanted to share in the bounty as well as in its institutions. But Rome didn't have a very welcoming immigration policy, and ended up fighting itself into oblivion. There are many interesting elements to the subsequent story, but I will focus on just a couple- the role of the church, and nature of law.
Once we get into the 500's and beyond, as Rome let go of England and other territories, and was sacked separately by the Visigoths, Vandals, and Ostrogoths, and then was reconquered for good measure by the Byzantines, things had really fallen apart. Various Germanic tribes were in charge of most parts of what was previously the Western Roman Empire, with little institutional memory descended from the Roman epoch. What was the one functional institution? The church. But it was a very long time before the church realized that it had a role to play in the general organization of society.
|10th century depiction of St. Gregory, d. 604 at work in his scriptorium, with the help of the dove of the holy spirit.|
The Benedictine order is by far the oldest form of Western monasticism, originating around 530 with the innovative communal organization, as opposed to the lonely ascetic hermit mode of the East. It was the Rule which organized each house, and gave it a strong, independent, and self-sufficient government. This was in marked contrast to the ambient governments outside its walls, which rose and fell with each dynastic squabble, and whose legal and bureaucratic concepts were virtually non-existent. Only after three hundred more years did the Franks under Charlemagne briefly raise the level of governance, with a Europe-wide kingdom that began a significant alliance with the papacy and developed rudimentary bureaucratic forms to keep the ship running in the personal absence of the king.
While that empire promptly fizzled within a generation or two, the seeds for greater alliance between the educated class (i.e. monks from the Benedictine houses) and the various Germanic rulers had been sown, and as we get into the later 900's and 1000's, monks are the standard administrators for governments across Germany and France. This enabled the Pope to gain power over the kings, whose ministerial staffs were at least partly loyal to the Pope. But the general effect was to raise the level of bureaucracy over the most basic to non-existent level it was at before, and give each state some institutional memory as well as a pan-European perspective (the language was Latin, after all).
By the time of the Cluniacs, (~1100) monks were really riding high on the hog, living well, in great demand, and running affairs all over Europe. In parallel, Cantor emphasizes the enormous innovations conducted by William the Bastard, conqueror of Britain in 1066. He set up a government of unprecedented thoroughness and durability that offered order at the cost of relentless taxation, not to mention the reduction of the previous Anglo-Saxon nobility to serfdom. This renovation of Germanic institutions of law and government was to serve as the springboard for English power for centuries to come.
Cantor also mentions the discovery of the Code of Justinian as an epochal event in Europe, around this same period. This finding did not have much influence in England, but elsewhere on the continent, it quickly provided a whole new view of law and the legal profession. For a newly urbanizing culture, it provided a newly relevant and exceedingly detailed template of jurisprudence from the urban cultures of Rome and Byzantium. And for kings, it provided a ruler-centric vision of law, as the extension of the will of the emperor. Thus the distinction that still exists between English law, with its juries of commoners, and continental law, where judges run the whole show. For the urban elite, it provided a new profession- that of lawyer, which together with the university system, slowly propagated bureaucratic, legal, and scholarly skills beyond the abbey.
What is important in all of this is that our institutions are precious achievements. Government may be the casual target of unending grumbling, abuse and criticism. But virtually any government is better than none at all. Freedom is not the absence of government, but quite the opposite, given that we are each other's primary predators and irritators. The union of justice with power has been the principal achievement of great civilizations, and is what has allowed all the other benefits, advancements, technologies, arts, and sciences to grow like a garden of flowers from a secure and prosperous populace.
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