Christianity & liberalism-the wide view

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[finally I'm commencing my multi-part series on liberalism and various world cultures. I am starting with the possible Christian origins of liberalism, but will eventually venture toward the topic of Islam and the future liberalism that might grow out of Confucian values in China. From now on, I will use liberal in the broad-sense mode. In the West we are all liberals now....]

Please note that my responses to comments from my last related post on this topic is in the extended entry portion-I’ll probably continue that with this series….

Is liberalism contingent upon Christianity? Is Christianity contingent upon liberalism? Do the two spring from a common-source, or is it simple coincidence that a Christian civilization was instrumental in the birth & maturation of the liberal idea?

Please note carefully how I phrased it, I said a Christian civilization, not the Christian civilization. Though Christianity and the West are synonymous, this was not always so. Before the Papacy’s ascendance in the High Middle Ages, the period between 600 (the end of Gregory the Great’s time-the Pope who became more than first among equals and planted the seeds that become the great forest of the modern Papacy) and 1100 was marked by a contest of wills between two great Christian civilizations.

In the West, the Church looked to Augustine & Ambrose and was given the task of civilizing the barbarian tribes that had settled amongst the ruins of the Pax Romana. In the East, New Rome (Constantinople) became Byzantium, and the disputes between Athanasius & Arius and their theological scions echoed down through the centuries until Mehmet the Conqueror cut the last strand of political continuity with the ancient Roman civilization. The connection between the two halves of Christendom was as intimate as it was conflicted. There were several periods when a vigorous Emperor of the Romans attempted to extend the Caesaro-Papist tendencies of Constantinople to the West, appointing Popes they attempted to manipulate like puppets [1]. Invariably the Bishop of Rome would rebel against these machinations, and after the crystallization of semi-civilized proto-national elites among the Germanic nobility of the West the Emperor of the Greeks found himself contested by rivals that could act as counter-points which the western Church used to its advantage in securing its independence.

The relatively close relationship that the current Pope is attempting to forge between modern Catholicism and Orthodoxy attests to the fact that though no longer in communion, their roots are intertwined in the deep soil of shared history, fertilized by generations of blood shed and commingled (the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches are both heirs to the blood of the martyrs). The Melkite (Uniate) Catholic churches of the Eastern Rite that submit to the authority of Rome preserve their own traditions within the broad umbrella of the theoretically Universal Church. Eastern Christianity is no less authentic than that of the West. It is not viewed with the same horror as Protestantism (by traditional Catholics at least), for though it is a misguided path, it was never a violent rebellion against Rome, for Rome never truly ruled it. Christ died upon the cross and was resurrected for the Christians of the East as well as the West. The Orthodox accept almost every ancient theological position that the Catholic Church holds, and truth be told, much of the theological formula common to mainstream Christianity issued out of the philosophically inclined minds of the eastern Churchmen such as Origen & Athanasius (aside from the filioque, the supposed reason for the original schism) [2]. No one can deny that the East is as authentically Christian as the culture of the West, and in many ways an unreconstructed distillation of the Apostolic tradition, untouched by the vicissitudes of the Reformation and shielded from the Enlightenment by Turkish and Russian despotism [3].

And yet, the Orthodox Christian civilization, starting from the same theological premises as that of the West, never developed liberalism. In fact some have asserted Orthodox cultures have an anti-democratic orientation (Samuel Huntington distinguishes Orthodox civilization from that of the West). It was perhaps under the influence of the model of absolute Byzantine autocracy (the Emperor was often termed “Autocrat”) that the Russian Czars become the despots they were, for the origins of the original Rurikid dynasty in Kiev was more Germanic (the Swedish Vikings that followed the courses of the Volga and Dnieper south) and might have been progenitors of a more decentralized political tradition if they had followed Poland into the Western Church (of course, the Orthodox political culture of Novgorad was far more free-wheeling than that of Moscow-if Novgorad and not Moscow had risen to preeminence, the Russian political tradition might have been very different and we might not speak of an anti-democratic Orthodox orientation).

The example of Byzantium suggests that political freedom is not an inevitable product of putative salvation bequeathed by civilizational (or individual) baptism. One can be born into slavery, suffer tyranny and die without experiencing personal autonomy, and still be saved by the grace of God so long as the masters of the temporal realm distribute knowledge of the Word (South America and Africa attest to this contemporaneously, while most of Christian history witnesses it as well).

But the cold grey vision of the second Rome was restricted only to the eastern half of the Christian tradition [4]. It is in the West that we look for the seeds of liberalism. Christianity may still be a contingent variable without which liberalism may not take root, but I think we have established that it is not the sole variable-Christianization does not lead to inevitable liberalism.

After I read The West and The Rest by Roger Scruton, it seemed clear the importance of the corporation was paramount in the decentralization of power and the emergence of the individual safeguarded by multiple strands of jurisdiction within the context of a real nation-state (real and false nations are crucial to Scruton’s extended argument, which is not especially original, though his treatment is perhaps more entertaining than others). While in the East the church was subordinate to the whims of the monarch, in the West Charlamagne’s bequest of some temporal power to the Pope and the later reforms that strengthened the Church under Hildebrand allowed the sacred to carve out an independent place for itself in the power structure [5]. This precedent of a “non-governmental organization” seems likely to be important for the development of other sectors of civil society, the guilds and the free cities in which they took root.

Additionally, the sanction that the Church gave to individual rulers, and the nations that they ruled, allowed western Europe to accept the idea of multiple loci of power, while in Islam all rulers considered themselves heir to the Caliphal mantle and would battle until their competitors were eliminated (analogously the Byzantine contenders all vied for the purple, because the Emperor was still in theory & practice the Universal Monarch, in contrast the Holy Roman Emperor was elective and sanctioned by the moderating influence of an independent Church which both gave legitimacy and withheld the blessing of absolutism). The idea of feudalism, and the complex interconnection of relationships between the various estates that distributed power, perhaps maintained the modus vivendi in western Europe of a plurality of states both in practice and in theory. On an aside, it must be noted that Tang China between 600 and 850 was witness to the growth and rise of an enormously wealthy Buddhist clerical establishment that served as a rival power structure to the Son of Heaven. But, as Tang China was a unitary state in contrast to western Europe during the High Middle Ages, the temporal powers were able to dispossess the Buddhist monasteries of their wealth around 850 and de-frocked hundreds of thousands of monks and nuns in an effort to free up labor and wealth that would allow greater taxable revenues to be mobilized in the defense of the state (this was a stop-gap that did not halt the dynasty’s fortunes of course).

In Europe the Catholic Church managed to find champions among the various monarchs, and so was never bullied and expelled from the public arena in a like manner-the original legal fiction of Church independence in the time of Constantine (who dictated the convening of the Nicene Council) later become the reality with the decline of the Universal Empire (this a qualified assertion, the bullying of the Papacy by a united front of Catholic monarchs has occurred, see the history of the Jesuits for instance). It is often asserted as a truism that while impersonal Roman Law was not vigorous enough to resuscitate the Roman Empire, the Confucian tradition of personal judgement by a Mandarin elite unified by a common classical education was able to reunify China and recreate their Golden Age. But while the Roman state continued only in the form of a ghost, its cultural influence as a binding glue between the various ethnos and later states balanced with a new state of de facto political pluralism was more fruitful in the long term.

The web spun by the West, a multifaceted nexus of religion, historical happenstance, geography and tribe is very difficult to untangle. I can not even enumerate the many times I have disputed with those that make a strong case for the overwhelming importance of Christianity in setting the context for the liberal order. And yet these same individuals can not dispute that historically Christianity has been used to justify every political arrangement possible, and for periods of time abetted autocracy. As a theoretical assertion, the enlightened and liberal Caesar and Christ have little to do with each other. But, Christianity does not exist in isolation from the culture around it, and vice versa. I think a compelling, entertaining, though never overwhelming, case can be made for Christianity’s importance in the formation of the liberal idea. The more practical question is this, those of us who are liberals, both Christian and non-Christian, must ask ourselves, should we promote Christianization of cultures that are historically despotic? As a secularist, I could not make an argument sincerely for the Christianization of a culture based on the assumption that that was salvation’s road-but perhaps I could make one on the hunch that liberalism might never take root, that freedom would never flourish, without a phase where the culture, and populace, were scaffolded and guided by the Christian idea.

But the problem is it seems no more than a hunch at this point. We have yet to see how the experiments with democracy that predominantly non-Christian societies such as Korea, Japan and Taiwan are making will play out [6]. I see little indication that the accelerating Christianization of many African states is leading to democratization (most of the African elite was Church educated, and even those with Marxist ties like Robert Mugabe rarely leave the churches of their youth, he is for instance still a practicing Methodist from what I know). Social conservatives should remember that conversion to Christianity can have disruptive consequences for a society, and we should proceed with some caution (I believe that traditional African religious practices, for all their superstition, have had some value in maintaining a reasonable social equilibrium on the continent of man’s origin. Obviously they are not appropriate to a modern lifestyle, but the wholesale Christianization that many African nations have undergone seems to have caused problems as well. The questions are always simple, the answers always complicated, alas)

If one argues that the Church(es) serve as conduits for social values of the West, and so can serve as crucial mediating forces for civilization (liberal that is), one must not forget that the Christianity is changing (mutating?) culturally before our very eyes-as Africans, Latin Americans and Asians become a greater portion of the flock. Anyone that observes this will understand that something far more profound than syncretism is going on, rather, though the theological premises of the Church Fathers of the first centuries of Christian the Era are being retained in full, the cultural accreta accumulated after the acceptance of the Church as a hallmark of Roman culture is being jettisoned as superfluous to the practice of genuine Christianity. To me, that is the most ominous point, for I suspect it is the accreta, the cultural adaptation of Christianity to Roman, and later Germanic, culture, and the historical experiences that were internalized through the centuries of Christian coevolution with Europe, that holds the key to liberalism if Christianity is what is necessary to unlock the genius of liberty within man.

[Next: zooming in on the possible Protestant & British (never forget the Scots!) roots of liberalism]

[1] Justinian II early in the 8th century being a prime example.
[2] I mean by “Orthodox” the churches of the Chalcedonian tradition, the Monophysites or the Nestorians, who have parallel histories and divergent traditions. Neither of the latter two developed full blown civilizations, but rather were swallowed by the Dar-al-Islam rather early.
[3] The archaic mindset of the eastern church explains the petty behavior of various patriarchs in response to ecumenical gestures by the Pope in Rome, their memories are long and they still whisper in their hearts “better the turban than the tiara.” Also, the stain of anti-Semitism is much darker upon the modern Eastern Church than that of the West-perhaps explaining some of the attitudes common in Russia (though Jew-hatred seems directly proportional to the number of Jews in the local area).
[4] Cold & grey only in the political context, I do not deny the richness of Byzantine iconography or the vigor of their monastic traditions.
[5] On a whimsical aside, perhaps it was an accident of geography and history that dictated the contrasting fate of the two halves of Christianity. The preeminent see of Eastern Christendom was in Constantinople (Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem were the other traditional centers of the Church), where also resided the Emperor. But after the crushing of the Ostrogoths by Belisarius during the reign of Justinian the Great, Italy become politically fractured, and the center of gravity of Western political power was always in Germany, France, Spain or Britain. In pre-modern times the geographical separation between temporal and sacral powers might have been crucial in cleaving the Church & State.
[6] Christians are influential in all three of these states to various degrees. The last three presidents of Korea, and the last autocrat that ruled that state, as well as the first post-World War II dictator, were Christian (the last two are Roman Catholic, a small minority that is generally over-represented on the political Left). Taiwan’s first three presidents were Christians, Chiang Kai-Shek and his son, as well as Lee Teng-Hui. The current president is a Buddhist, though his background in the dissident movement indicates that he will continue the liberal arc of Taiwanese political culture. Japan is a very non-Christian secular culture, but Christians have traditionally been influential. Many of the women in the Imperial family, including Empresses, were Christian for much of the 20th century. In contrast to most other neo-Christian subcultures, Japanese Christians have tended toward theologically liberal denominations, and even quasi-Christian ones such as Unitarianism. So again, the Japanese are a special case. These three cases, though short-term in their historical scope and mild (to various degrees) in their cultural depth, seem to imply that a Christianized elite or class can serve as an entry-point into a traditionally non-Western culture for liberal values. On one small note-many Americans seem under the impression that Korea is a Christian country, but the last numbers I saw indicated that 25% of Koreans were Christian, 25% Buddhist, and 50% non-affiliated. Most Korean-Americans are Christian, and Seoul is a disproportionately Christian city (while Pusan is a mostly Buddhist city).

I think he misses something here. If all life is equally sanctified, than there is nothing special about humanity – a human being has no more or less relevance than a caterpillar. Christianity preaches that man is at the top of the heirarchy of creation and that man is individually accountable to God. This seems to me to be hugely differerent – and more conducive to liberalism – from Buddism.


Posted by jimbo at January 14, 2003 06:39 AM

I believe that the Indian religions have a spectrum of value. They are monistic. All life is a reflection of the One in Neo-Platonic parlance. Humanity is the apex of worldly life-and in Hinduism Brahmins and gurus are the apex of humanity. In Buddhism you also have the concept of Boddhisatva-a god-like being still subject to Karma, but of super-human powers and inclinations.


Also-Islam, Judaism and Confuncianism also hold man as the apex of Creation (though Confucianism has no Creation Myth). In Islam and Judaism it could be argued that man is accountable to God as well.

It could also be argued that the protestantism is somehow more “rational” than Catholicism. But there were/are some pretty nutty protestant sects and Catholicism today is far less anti-scientific than Southern Baptists and some other sects.

Protestantism is hard to generalize, so be careful here. Southern Baptists are “less scientific,” but Congregationalists, and Unitarians (who come out of the Congregationalist tradition in the United States) are more open to science than Roman Catholics.

It may that Eastern religions reflecting the collective effort of higher IQ individuals anticipates conclusions of Western science. Or it could be that since liberalism contains the notion of a soul axiomatically in its development (“endowed by their creator,” evolution, “with certain inalienable rights”), that there really is such a thing as a soul. (Think of liberalism as a pragmatic, real world experiment of the hypothesis of the existence of the soul. It’s worked, therefore there must be a soul.)


Posted by Steve at January 14, 2003 10:05 AM

Remember that “Eastern religions,” and to lesser extent Western religions too, exist in different forms in various levels of society. Ergo, the contrast between intellectual and folk Buddhism, or philosopical and religious Taoism.

Christianity tees up the ball for liberalism from its morality and its assertion that all men are equal in the sight of God, not from its theology or any religious dogmas about the soul (which in traditional thought is basically the mind, i.e. mind==spirit==soul==consciousness.), or man’s place in the order of things.

Yes-and Stoics assert that all men have the divine spark. Muslims believe that all men are nothing in the sight of Allah. Buddhists believe that all men can attain Enlightenment if they follow the correct path.

As per other religions and the like, I don’t think that even if they sort of follow something like the Golden Rule, none of them are as spare about it, i.e unlike Christianity where the GR is all that there is, there are lots of other religious commandments that come along with it that aren’t deducible from the GR alone, and they get in the way as far as adopting the Social Contract. Razib I’m sure knows Islam better than I ever will, but I get the distinct impression, that there are a lot of moral commandments in Islam that wouldn’t be deducible from the GR.

There is probably something to this-Paul’s emphsis on the spirit rather than the letter of the law probably helped in allowing Christianity to redefine itself in changing political and social conditions. But other religions-Buddhism for instance, have shown themselves to be highly flexible as well. Scruton in The West and the Rest emphasises the idea of Christian forgiveness and special, and that is likely true. But if you look toward a general idea of morality and goodness, Confucianism, with its concepts of jen (good-heartedness) also can serve as a model, for it was highly adaptable for 2,000 years.


This is already pretty long, I do think that it’s no accident that liberalism started in a Protestant country, and that Protestant country was England, though once developed was easily portable to Catholic ones, and some non-Christian ones. Maybe I’ll expound on that later, if properly motivated.



Was it more exportable to Catholic countries? Spain and Italy aren’t that far ahead of say Japan in terms of their democratic experiments (the pre-World War II versions, just like Japan’s, devolved into autocracies). France has shifted wildy in various directions since the French Revolution.

Here’s the interesting thing for me: can liberalism survive without the social capital generated by an underlying Christian structure? It’s something that has long interested me. I myself am not a believer, but I was brought up in a solidly religious (mainline protestant) household. Although I intellectually reject the teachings of Christianity, I realize that my basic ideas about morality are based on that foundation. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen the self-destructive behavior of friends without that kind of upbringing, but I wonder if you need an essectially irrational social foundation to sustain a rational society…


Posted by jimbo at January 14, 2003 02:53 PM

All cultures have morality. I believe that much of “Christian morality” is based upon a common biological foundation of “right” or “wrong.” Religion simply reappropriates what is already there (I am not saying man is “good” or “bad”-I am simply saying that evolutionary psychology indicates that there is a universal morality which all faiths and systems will tap into and sacralize).


The gap between “shame” and “guilt” cultures is interesting though (non-West vs. West).

Lots of good stuff here, as always; I would mention only the possibility that a liberal political order arose where it did because of the “optimal fragmentation” of Europe and the character of both societies, Christian and pagan, that were in contact there — a case of a “verge” producing something which neither could have produced alone.
(See for Jared Diamond on optimal fragmentation.)


Posted by Jay Manifold at January 14, 2003 04:57 PM

Very good point. General enough also to have some truth.

The pagan influence on Christianity is obvious too, which makes it more easily adaptable to different cultures and different times and allows for equalizing mythologies to develop. An example is the emergence of the Virgin as major theme in Western art and consciousness around the 12th century, which may have played a moralizing force on Christianity[1]. Christian artists also captured and explored the human condition in all its pathos and tragedy, while Islam hypnotized itself with geometric abstractions. As a memetic organism, Christianity is a more clever adaptation to humans than what appears a more rigid Islam.

I don’t know if it’s more clever memetically than Islam-Muslims kill all those who convert other religions traditionally :)

I don’t think it had anything to do with Protestantism itself – the Church of England was more a political calculation than a theological schism.

Not strictly true-the Church of England was a latitudinarian one-with Calvinists (Low Church) and Catholics (High Church Arminians) and Liberals (Broad Church).

Posted by Steve at January 14, 2003 08:15 PM

I wonder how seriously most mainline Christians take the idea of Jesus’ divinity. My guess is that a good many pay it lip service, but that the belief itself is really quite inconsequential to their general views on life.

I tend to agree here. Remember though that few people think their faith through in a rational manner like say Aquinas-rather it is more of custom, habit and tradition. Your parent’s faith is the #1 reason you will be of a certain faith.

Steve, there is absolutely nothing irrational about anything in Christianity at all. An irrational thing is logically impossible, i.e. a square circle or a married bachelor. Christianity violates many tenets of materialist dogma but there isn’t anything logically necessary about materialist dogma. A Richard Dawkins can say Christianity is irrational all he wants, but that just isn’t so, maybe someone should buy him a dictionary.

This is not strictly true. Depends on your conception of Christianity. For instance, to be overly simple.

A) God is perfect-all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful
B) The Bible is the literal Word of God (inspired directly)
C) The Bible has contradictions and inaccuracies

This God seems absurd then. You can change the definition, and remove B) and save your God, but this shows how Christianity can be irrational. The more standard arguments about God have to do with logical impossibilites in his definition and what not-the Argument Against God from Incoherency

Also, the pagan influence on Christianity amounts to stealing feast days along with there customs and renaming them and that’s about it. Some Christian feast days and feast day customs might be borrowed but Christian doctrine isn’t (except from Judaism of course).

This is debatable. Where do you get the Trinity? Where is it in the Bible? (Newton thought it was a pagan insertion into Christianity) Neo-Platonism obviously influenced Augustine, and therefore Christian doctrine. Aquinas drank heavily on Aristotle, and Summa Theologia is now official doctrine of the Catholic Church.

Ressurection of the body is Hebraic, the non-corporeal soul is Greek, ergo pagan. Where is the divine logos in the original Hebraic tradition of the Church? Heaven seems more like Elysium than the numinous Sheol of Jewish tradition (please note that many pagan concepts also influenced Judaism, even the anti-Hellenists among the Pharisees).

Jesus was born of a virgin, by coincidence, many pagan cults also featured this (pre-Christian ones).

Angels, heaven & hell come from Zoroastrianism via Pharisaec Judaism.

Christianity was a product of its culture-a pagan culture.

Also, I agree with you that Protestant theology had nothing to do with the rise of liberalism, but Calvinist church governance, i.e. the minister serves at the pleasure of the congregation, did. Kings and bishops go together, and in England the Calvinists were the most democratic since this was ‘normal’ for them, that’s how they ran their churches. If the preacher serves at the pleasure of the congregation, why not Caesar also ? Also I left out another liberal hotbed, Holland, which was every bit as liberal as England and predates England in this, though it produced no political philosophers. But England did add the last piece of the liberal puzzle, religious toleration (anything other than Calvinism was illegal in Holland while it became liberal in everything else).

If there was no religious toleration in Holland why did the Sephardic Jews flee there from Spain? The Calvinists had supremacy, but Catholics have always existed as a minority in there-as have Jews. Also, the religious philosopher Arminius was Dutch, and he effected the Anglican Church greatly in the early 17th century, leading to much of the disputes between the followers of Bishop Laud (who favored Arminianism) and the Calvinists.

Posted by j mct at January 15, 2003 08:52 PM

I just don’t have time to comment on all the great posts on the board. Keep up the good work!


  1. Razib, this is all very interesting stuff – highly speculative, of course, but also of some importance. When you say

    “perhaps I could make one on the hunch that liberalism might never take root, that freedom would never flourish, without a phase where the culture, and populace, were scaffolded and guided by the Christian idea.”

    It is important to determine just what the Christian “idea” is. I think we’ve looked at various ideas in Christianity which are compatible with the development of liberalism as well as the various historical, political, geographical and cultural elements that helped give rise to liberalism. I think it’s clear that we secularists can extract the sound ideas (the golden rule, the moral significance of the individual, the separation of church and state, emphasis on the spirit of the law, etc.) from Christianity and leave those that are superfluous or downright irrational. I don’t think that those countries already progressing toward liberalism need to adopt Christianity when they already have their own religious traditions, but it may be that those that aren’t do need Christianity, complete with its religious trappings.

    As an aside, I’d like to ask you about the influences of East Asian (and to a lesser extent Indian) ideas on American culture. A few things have prompted this question: On NPR the other day, there was a story about Honda’s plant in Alabama and how Honda is exporting their corporate culture and ethic to America; the continued trendiness of Yoga, Buddhism and Zen; and the popularity of Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh and Jackie Chan among children. I couple Jackie Chan episodes I watched with my daughters were particularly enlightening. In one good and evil were turned around, the characters that possessed the stereotypes of good, turned out to be evil, while those with evil stereotypes turned out to be good. And a recurring theme is the balance between good and evil, as opposed to the Christianity’s neurosis concerning sin.

    Finally, I need to stand up for “my people.” You write. “The stain of anti-Semitism is much darker upon the modern Eastern Church than that of the West-perhaps explaining some of the attitudes common in Russia (though western-leaning Catholic Poland also has a history of Jew-hatred, so this is highly disputable).” I want to point out a pretty iron clad law of anti-Semitism: The more Jews in a country, the more anti-Semitic the people are accused of being, with America being perhaps the only known exception. Prior to partition, about ¾ of all Jews in the world lived in Poland/Lithuania. Is it any wonder that Poles are morally condemned for anti-Semitism while the Irish, say, are largely free of this particular sin? It could be argued that Jews migrated in such large numbers to Poland because of Polish tolerance rather than Polish anti-Semitism. And indeed Jews did live for centuries largely free of the persecution inflicted upon them regularly in places like Spain and Germany.

  2. i fixed the anti-semitism thing-and yes, it is true, your people are the white n***er, except you can get away with making fun of poles without social ostracism….

    i think the influence of east asian culture is peripheral-more trendy than substantial. the new age & buddhism of the states is mostly elite culture-pentacostalism is many orders of magntitudes numerically more significant. i think more influence comes from buddhism directly from india during the early years of the christian era than today-many have indicated that buddhism influenced much of greek philosophy (ergo, christianity) and also served as a model for the monastic idea….

  3. I’d be hard pressed to come up with another nation that has had to endure as much shit over the last 2 centuries as Poland. Luckily Poles deal with it and try to move on.

    Anyway, I’m quite struck between the a neo-Platonist like Plotinus and Buddhism, particularly Zen. Though Plotinus lived well after the golden age of Greece, I was unaware that there could have been much influence on him from Buddhism – I thought it was more coincidental. It’s something I’ll need to look into more.

    As for the influence of Asian culture on the West, I think there’s been a steady trickle since the 17th century Jesuits, but I think that in the upcoming centrury it will only increase, just by the weight of demographics and the relative power balance. Though the cultural diffusion may appear to be superficial and take on a combination of elements from both cultures, I have no doubt it will occur and the results will mostly be positive.

  4. on the buddhist & the ancient western philosophy thing, pythagoras is reputed to have gone to india-and there are similar rumors about plotinus. indian philosophy was present in the cultural mix in alexandria. just as hellenism was present in afghanistan & the punjab, indian ideas percolated west via persia & maratime intermediaries-manichaenism for instance, which penetreated as far west as gaul, had a strong buddhist influence.

    i also believe that also human philosophies tend to run back to our instinctive view of what is “right” or “wrong.” the withdrawl from the world, moderation and dispassion that seem to characterize many of them are not necessarily the result of diffusion, but simply an expression of a human universal (for instance, stoics & epicureans were great philosophical rivals, but they basically prescribed the same thing in practice-moderation & self-cultivation).

    i have read a bit about the sino-philia of leibniz & voltaire…seems they used it more to beat the west over its head with its imperfections in comparison to the east than anything else. similarly, the original apologists for islam in the 19th century were often attacking the superstition of their own cultures rather than praising the nobility of islam.

    though south asian by extraction-i am personally very attracted to the confucian ideal-in particular the philosophy of hsun-tzu. i plan to write more on it in the future-but the contrast between China & The Rest is peculiar-the chinese elite abandoned the idea of a personal god in their elite culture 2,500 years ago (the mohists constantly inveighed against confucian irreligion). the west has struggled back & forth-while india has the most vivid differentiation between High & Low culture that i can think of….

  5. It would be curious that Pythagoras would have gone to India and have come back without the concept of zero. Perhaps with the reliance of Greek mathematics on geometry, Pythagoras did not see the significance and usefulness of such a concept.

    I agree that from a purely philosophical point of view, ideas can arise independently in different times and different places. It may be tempting to posit Buddhist influence on Plotinus and Christian monastic traditions, but they could have risen with almost no cultural diffusion.

  6. steve,

    perhaps-but the idea of celibate monasticism is not universal….

  7. Wow Razib, you are a learned gentleman.

    One, you’re right about the Scots and Presbyterianism and I know what you’re going to write, and I’ll let you do it.

    Two, I think Christianity tees the ball up for liberalism because of the habits that arise from it, not from the doctrine itself, and in fact the reasons why liberalism works aren’t Christian ones. In addition one must add that ancient societies weren’t liberal ones, liberal orders are decidedly modern, Athens was a democratic state, but it was not a liberal one. Democracy is not necessarily liberal.

    In addition, liberalism is not a political theory about happiness or justice, at least not directly, it is a blueprint for a political order that will not collapse for internal reasons and all of its features are directed to this design spec, to restate what I said earlier. It is trying to answer the same question that Machiavelli attempts to do in The Prince, only better.

    Take the Social Contract, which is like the Golden Rule. The Social Contract creates society, and without it one is in the State of Nature, i.e. only having to obey the Natural Law (in modern idiom, the laws of physics). Since all men are roughly equal in ability when the natural law is the only law they obey, there being no other, to commit violence on each other, the state of nature is a war of all against all, and this war is a stalemate. This results in life in the state of nature being nasty, brutish and short. Man gets out of this state by agreeing to a Social Contract with his fellow men, thus creating society. The wording of the contract, don’t do to other people what you wouldn’t have them do to you, denotes a mutual non-aggression pact, that man can see using his reason is advantageous to him, thus he adopts it. Man’s motivation in agreeing to the Social Contract is his reason, and his fear of his neighbor, not faith and his love of his neighbor. The reasons or motivations couldn’t be more different, but the behaviors each produce are quite similar.

    Take equality before the law. Because all men are equal before God. No. Any perusal of English history before 1600 (or the history of any European country) will show that political turmoil, i.e. successful rebellions entirely from within (1066 and 1381 don’t count), were caused mainly by the the existence of overmighty subjects. What made these overmighty subjects overmighty? Legal inequality. The Duke of York or the Earl of Warwick were not overmighty because they were superior men, the were overmighty because they had the legal right to draft their tenants, for no pay, just upkeep, into an army that could fight the king. They had legal rights the average man did not have. Take away these legal rights and they cease to become dangerous, even their money doesn’t pose a problem, if they had to pay mercenaries they’d run out of money before they could win. In addition, property beyond what a man can carry on his person and the ground he occupies is only his property because it is guaranteed by the state, the state can easily cut a rebellion from money off at the knees. Bill Gates and $50 billion isn’t dangerous to the state, Bill Gates and the right to draft all the able bodied men in California into an army is dangerous. If you take away all special legal rights, what do you get ? Equality before the law. No airy fairy stuff about human dignity here.

    Take liberty. According to liberal political philosophy the silence of the law is the freedom of the individual. What should the laws look like ? Answer, a short list of don’ts (no do’s) that the citizen can understand, if he thinks about it, that are in his enlightened self interest to follow. Any restrictions on him being able to do as he pleases for any other reasons will make him angry, and an angry citizenry does stuff like removing the source of its anger, i.e. overthrowing the government. No Millsian, libertarian sop about the immorality of telling other people what to do here.

    Reasoning concerning private property and the freedom to contract is a bit longer and this post is already pretty long, but it continues in the same vein.

    Now that I’ve shown off a bit, the point to remember is that Christian doctrine does not promote liberalism, Christian habits do, in fact Christian doctrine and liberal political theory as to why one should behave in a certain way are almost 180 degrees opposed. Hobbes, Locke et al were quite pleased that their hard headed reasoning about a stable political order didn’t mean that they had to abandon their religion, i.e. they could have a stable political order without turning into Machiavelli’s Prince, but their reasoning is quite Machiavellian. Any ethic that promotes habits like Christianity does will do as far as liberalism is concerned, and the philsophical justification for the ethic doesn’t really matter and getting into the specifics of Christian doctrine is overkill, IMHO.

    As to ‘foriegn’ influences on Christian doctrine, methinks you, like any secularist who must explain things as some sort of historical progression, severely underestimate the ‘bolt from the bluedness’ of it. Christianity is quite unique vis a vis the environment it came out of in what it says about ‘the big picture’, even if the behaviors it promotes might be like other religions. Fodder for another post, if you don’t ban me for being boring and I’m feeling intellectually exhibitionist.

  8. One issue not discussed in this article is the relation of liberalism to the development of science and technology. I suspect there is something of a feedback loop here–certain societies may have had cultures that were better “preadapted” to scientific/technological innovation (japan and western europe, for example–see Landes’ book ‘The Wealth and Poverty of Nations’), and when innovation actually occurs it tends to strengthen the “liberal” aspects of society that are most friendly to scientific progress. If there is any truth to the idea that christianity is more liberalism-friendly than other philosophies, it may in part be an indirect effect of the fact that western christianity was more conducive to the emergence of modern science (which is probably intertwined with the fact that it was more conducive to the development of modern capitalism), although there is controversy among historians of science as to whether it actually was more science-friendly.

  9. Quite an essay Razib. I think it would have been interesting to consider the role of reason in Christianity vs its role in the Eastern Church and in the Orient. If I remember correctly the Orthodox Church never produced any thinkers with a commitment to reason as strong as that held by Augustine or Aquinas. The Orthodox Church centers on a more mystical interpretation of Christ, not absent in the Western church of course but balanced by an elaborate, Greek influenced Christian philosophy.
    As well, the political and geographical fragmentation of Europe surely plays a role in this. Certainly, an event like the abolition of firearms in Japan after the reign of (Tokogawa?) could never have been done in Europe because a competing jurisdiction would have embraced the competitive advantage. It seems likely to me that this same phenomenon played a role, in combination with the influence of Plato and Aristotle, in the development of liberalism.
    I look forward to your piece on Anglo-Celtic influence on the development of liberal thought.

  10. john-

    on your point about reason vs. mysticism on west vs. east, my initial reaction is no, this is not a valid dichotomy. the most intellectually brilliant thinker(s) in church history tend to come out of the greek-not latin mileau. for instance, i would argue that the philosopher Origen was with Augustine & Aquinas one of the three greatest of christian philosophers. additionally, the nicene creed was in large part the work of Athanasius, a churchmen from alexandria (also origen’s place of origin i believe, though he visited the court in rome and spoke to the empress julia domna-he was a colleage of Plotinus in fact). it from Origen that Christian philosophy gets its start, Justin Martyr being thin gruel indeed….

    also-remember it was the Latin churchmen & Origen’s near contemporary Tertullian who said, “I believe because it is absurd.”

    in sum, i believe that the western and eastern “thinkers” of the church are a reflection of their indigenous pre-christian cultural traditions, the east produced philosphers & esoteric systemizers (Origen, Athanasius, John of Damascus) while the west produced rhetoricians, administrators, men of more worldly inclination (Ambrose, Augustine and Gregory the Great).

    of course, my ruminations of these topics are starting to go beyond the perview of any self-respecting blog :) perhaps i should give amy wellborn an account on Gene Expression? :)

  11. needs pictures of Kings