Michael Lind has a piece in Tablet, The Revenge of the Yankees: How Social Gospel became Social Justice. As a trained American historian, Lind is always a good read and generally makes erudite and cogent arguments, whether you believe him or not. To me, the piece struck me as trying a bit too hard to fit facts into a thesis…but it foregrounds dynamics of American history that many modern Americans, being totally ignorant, are unaware of.
Knowing people in the D.C. nonprofit world, I recall being told by an old-line WASP that this is where all the WASPs went. So Lind is not seeing something that is not there when he says that WASPs retained control in the “Deep State” and nonprofits, while the white ethnic, Southern, and black, coalition dominated politics and culture between the 1930s and 1960s. The past few generations has seen a realignment of that configuration, but that is not the only thing that happened.
About 15 years ago I read many books on the history of American Catholicism, and the book that stays with me the longest is Catholicism and American Freedom: A History. In it, the author highlights the strong strand of intellectual anti-Catholicism that existed in the 19th century, and the victory of American Anglo-Protestant culture over the Catholic attempt to remain apart and distinct (one of the intra-Catholic stories is the erosion of German-language instruction due to the pressure put by the Irish dominated hierarchy).
One of the threads of Catholicism and American Freedom is the collapse of the intellectual alliance between Jews and Roman Catholics after World War II. Basically, American Jews who secularized and assimilated switched sides in the 1960s and aligned with secular post-Protestants in fighting the attempts of Roman Catholic thinkers to maintain a level of social conservatism informed by religious values on the Center-Left. Earlier, due to the nativism of early 20th-century Protestant progressives, Jews and Catholics had fit together as “white ethnics,” albeit with some disagreements (Jews never supported Roman Catholic attempts to gain support for parochial schools because they, on the whole, took to public education).
What does this have to do with Lind’s piece? Let’s grant his contention that modern-day social justice activism has its roots contingently in WASP Protestant culture, and particularly Yankee culture. Anyone who reads Curtis Yarvin or David Hackett Fisher will see the cultural genealogy here. But secular Jews, who are overrepresented in the Ivy League and institutions more broadly, have assimilated perfectly as well. And not just them. Indian Americans who grew up in this country in the last quarter of the 20th century are extremely well assimilated too.
One of the geniuses of modern social justice ideology is that it’s highly portable and deployable by people who are educated in the WEIRD way.
One of Peter Turchin’s ideas which have had a major impact on me is that of a “meta-ethnic” identity, and how that fits perfectly with what we might term “world religions.” Meta-ethnic identity isn’t a fancy construct, but the name itself gives essential information. In the world of the Bronze Age human societies were scaling beyond tribe, but they lacked the ideological toolkit, or what Samo Burja calls “social technology,” to maintain institutional continuity. In Brotherhood of Kings the author outlines how Bronze Age Near Eastern polities established diplomatic relationships by extending the idea of biological kinship. There was no great creativity, and the analogy was imperfect enough to cause confusion (e.g., Egyptian ideas of status and kinship were substantively different from Levantine and Mesopotamian ones, which led to inefficiencies).
The development of religions which span ethnicities, and unite people in spiritual and ideological kinship and affinity, breaks the biological analogy enough to be flexible and portable. Common books and mythologies serve as transmission vehicles of meta-ethnic norms. As I have noted before, the reason that most of the world religions emerged between the period of 500 BC and 500 AD (give or take a few centuries and definitions) is that this was the period of social technological innovation. Once the major players shook out, ideological oligopolies stabilized into a new equilibrium. There may even have been structural reasons in relation to the scaling of human civilizations that mean the number of world religions was never going to converge upon one (e.g., I believe that Islam is best thought of as an offshoot of Christianity which emerged almost accidentally from the perspective of the principals; perhaps in the pre-printing press world Christianity simply ‘outran its supply lines’).
But though the horizontal nature of meta-ethnic identities seems to have obtained an equilibrium, there has been a great shift in their vertical impact, from the top to the bottom of the social hierarchy. In 360 A.D. Julian the Apostate renounced Christianity, the religion in which he was raised, and embraced Neoplatonism and Late Antique Paganism. This was feasible at the time because Christianity identity had not become solid among the Roman elites, who were still in the main nominally pagan, though there was a vociferous rising Christian minority. But over time Christianity swallowed the Roman elite, so rulers who may privately have had little sympathy or piety would never have engaged in apostasy.
But why? The Reformation and the conundrum of Akbar tell us why. Richard Eaton argues in India in the Persianate Age that Akbar wanted to leave Islam behind for much of his life. By the end, he even innovated and created his own pantheistic religion. He and some of the later Mughals (e.g., Dara Shikoh) were clearly influenced by the Brahmins and other Indian religious thinkers in their circle and felt keenly the tension between world-normative Islam, and the assimilative power of the Indic religious tradition. Just like Julian, Akbar was raised as a conventional follower of a monotheistic religion but became emotionally and intellectually invested in something different, and more ancient. But Akbar never went as far as Julian, who clearly wished to marginalize Christianity in a way that Akbar could never marginalize Islam. The reason is that Julian’s elites were religiously plural, and their identity was still weak and new. By the time of Akbar the Islamic military elites that the Mughals relied upon could imagine no other religious identity than world-normative Islam, to which they were bound by family and cultural ties (e.g., most were Turk, Afghan, and Persian, not Indian converts; Akbar would have been unable to build his rule around Hindu Rajputs alone).
By the 16th century in much of the world meta-ethnic identities have percolated down from the elites to the ruling class. One reason the Reformation happened in much of Europe is that the nobility and proto-bourgeoisie were quite open to the religious change, as winds of reform were blowing through late medieval Westen Christianity. In contrast, the peasantry was less relevant. The little information we have indicates that in places like Denmark and England the rural peasantry was not enthused about changing their folkways through the Reformation commanded from on high, and imposed by elites and sub-elites. But they did eventually change.
The point here can be illustrated by a 17th Cambodian king who converted to Islam. His nobles overthrew him. Similarly, when the Hohenzollern’s became Reformed Christians in the 17 century, the people whom they ruled remained Lutheran. They would not convert. Confessional meta-ethnic had percolated and suffused mass identity by the 17th century in much of the world so that elites could not control it, dictate it.
Today we are far beyond that. The collapse of religious identity in the 1960s in the United States was unpredicted. Its stabilization in the 1970s and 1980s was unanticipated by secularization theory as well. But it’s subsequent collapse again in the 1990s and into the 21st century was also not anticipated (Samuel Huntington’s last work was written in the 1990s and published in the early 2000s, before the research was in about secularization, leading to some erroneous conclusions about the power of religious assimilation). Bottom-up dynamics are hard to model* and occur through information and communication channels which elites and scholars may not have access too (think conspiracy theories).
Meta-ethnic identity emerged during the Iron Age to add solidity to the political structures of the period. They were tools for the elites operationally, no matter the sincerity with which most people held to them. Though peasants had nominal affinities, their deeper beliefs were often animist, and their most important affiliations were in the local community. But with the printing press and thicker more pervasive political and cultural institutions, elite identities became popular identities. Elite control faded away, as popular passions took over.
In the 1990s many of us had delusions about what the internet would do. How information would illuminate and enlighten. What has really happened is that information production and consumption are now driven by popular passions in totality. Meta-ethnic identities emerged to foster social cohesion and stability. Today their protean uncontrolled nature may actually lead to the collapse of societies, as passions are unleashed with no conscious direction and guided by no initiated cabal. The information does not aid humans, it is now parasitic upon our minds and the infrastructure that we created to facilitate it’s spread.
* Is this true? Any modelers in the house? That’s my impression.
I recommend Michael Axworthy’s A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind because there are very few books aimed at the general audience that survey the history of Persia from the ancient period down to the modern one with some balance. Often the Iranian Revolution and contemporary events are given too much space. Or, ancient history is basically just a retread of Herodotus.
The title of the book is somewhat interesting. What does “Empire of the Mind” allude to? I think the primary point is that after the conquest of the Arabs and the rise of Islam Iranian identity persisted as high culture. For nearly 1,000 years ethnic Iranians were ruled by non-Iranian peoples, primarily Turks. Nevertheless, just like Greek under the Romans, Persian became the prestige language on in a broad zone from Ottoman Anatolia, through Iran proper, and onward into Turco-Muslim India. Just as late 18th-century Russian elites cultivated French, the Ottomans cultivated Persian.
And yet arguably the period when intellectuals of Iranian origin flourished the most was during Golden Age of Islam. It is notable that most of the intellectuals who were patronized and shone under the Abbassids in the decades after 800 A.D. were not Muslim Arabs. There were even some oddball characters, such as Tabit ibn Qurra, a pagan Syrian from Haran. One reason al-Kindi was the “Philosopher of the Arabs” is that he was a tribal Arab. But more typical were Iranians such as Avicenna and al-Razi. If you accept S. Frederick Starr’s argument in Lost Enlightenment and Christopher Beckwith’s in Warriors of the Cloisters Iranians disproportionately from Turan, modern Central Asia, were particularly influential in shaping the high culture and intellectual tone of the world of Islam after 800 A.D.
But this brings up the question which was recently mooted: why were Iranian intellectual achievements so much more notable under Arab Muslims and Turks than when Iranians controlled all the levels of politics, culture, and religion. Who were the great Iranian intellectuals under the Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sassanians?
These Iranian polities (the Achaemenids and Sassanian were Persians from Fars, the Parthians were from the northeast of Iran and not technically Persian) did patronize learning and culture more broadly. The Parthians were notably philhellene, even enjoying Greek theater. In the century before Islam, the Sassanian monarchy sponsored the Academy of Gondishapur, which was notable for its repository of learning in medicine and philosophy. The last Neoplatonists even fled the Byzantine Empire and took refuge in the court of the Shah for several years (before eventually returning due to the terms of a treaty between Byzantium and Persia). And yet from what we know much of the philosophical production at Gondishapur was by Christians of various ethnicities, not Persian Zoroastrians.
There were also efforts and translation and transmission of Indian thought. The Iranian Buddhist city-states were intellectually vibrant, though their long term impact seems to be more influential through their transmission of the religion to China and their inflection of Islam in the 9th century. It is also curious that the Persian national epic was commissioned by a Turkic Muslim.
I will venture an explanation for this curious pattern.
First, the scale of the Arab Empire was incredible. Iranians integrated into the Arab Muslim Caliphate had access to Egypt and India. Syria and Ferghana. The rise of Islam as an ideological scaffold resulted in civilizational robustness that the Sassanians were incapable of generating. As with the early modern “Persianate world,” the Iranians engaged in an “entryist” strategy, infiltrating and coopting the Arab Empire with the Abbassids (consider the Barmakids and later al-Ma’mun). Iranians were indispensable to the Arab Empire, providing manpower and a royal ideology after the shift away from the west after the fall of the Umayyads.
Second, the domination of military and political roles by Turks after the fall of the Samanids may have facilitated a shift toward civilian pursuits by the Persian elites. I believe a similar dynamic occurred during much of the Roman Empire. For the first few centuries of the Roman Empire, the Greek cities of the east remained under the Roman peace, but its elites remained focused on their own urban life. The vast majority of intellectuals continued to be produced by the Greek-speaking domains. Anastasius in 491 was the first Roman Emperor who was raised as a Greek-speaker, so insular were Greek elites from broader imperial politics.
The bigger message I think is that cultural and civilizational efflorescence can be hard to predict, and the consequence of unforeseen and contingent processes.
James J. O’Donnell’s The Ruin of the Roman Empire is a poorly edited book laced with a tendentious thesis: that Justinian ended a glorious period of multicultural amity and synthesis. The poor editing shows insofar as the book is far too long, and the author is given to prosaic flourishes. The thesis is shoehorned into contemporary sensibilities. In hindsight, the Gothic Wars were a total disaster, but obviously that was not Justinian’s intent.
Obviously Boethius plays a major role in the book. But perhaps more interesting in our current age is Cassiodorus. While Boethius died, and also contributed a philosophical work which influenced early medieval thinkers, Cassiodorus spent his last decades preserving the cultural inheritance of the ancient world. Cassiodorus’ life spanned an enormous cultural distance. He was born in the late 5th century when Rome was still a large city, albeit under Gothic rule. The Gothic hegemony over the West Roman domains can be thought of as analogous to the Arab conquests of the Near East of the 7th century: the fundamental underlying structure of society remained unchanged. It was the wars of the 6th century which wore Italy down to the point where Rome was a shadow of itself by the end of Cassiodorus’s life.
One can make their own judgments of whether Cassiodorus succeeded or not. But he was conscious that something was happening in the West, and he had to do something. A new age of barbarism was being born. Civilization’s locus was moving to the east.
About half a decade ago Steven Pinker wrote The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. There were many criticisms of the book, but on the whole, I think it pushes forward an argument that is a reasonable description of reality: descriptively, violence has declined over the Holocene.
Why? Carl von Clausewitz asserted “war is a continuation of politics by other means.” I think this gets at an important aspect of the “modern way of war”, and the instrumental use of state and social violence: they exist to reinforce a particular social order. And order tends to go along with peace.
I do not think Clausewitz would have correctly described the world 10,000 years ago. In War before Civilization, the author describes a world of great brutality during the early Neolithic. Peter Turchin has criticized Pinker on these grounds, arguing that violence peaked during the early Holocene, during the transition from a world of hunters and gatherers, to a world of farmers. During the Neolithic, war is often best understood not as diplomacy, but pure eliminationist competition. Animal conflict between rival troupes.
Neolithic farmers, who probably had tribal confederacies, engaged in violence against hunter-gatherers. But except for the more dense societies of the coastal fringes, on the whole, the relationship was probably similar to that between European settlers and Australian Aboriginals: they perceived the indigenous European Mesolithic people as vermin or pests, not as other societies which could be bargained with, or absorbed (though the latter did occur). This probably explains the relatively long period of genetic segregation, as there were strong barriers between mixing between the two populations.
As we come closer and closer to the modern age, war became less about elimination, and more about diplomacy, co-option, and absorption. War was a preamble to the next stage of negotiation.
When Genghis Khan conquered northern China he wanted to turn it into pastureland. This would mean a famine to remove the human population of the region. His Khitai advisor, Yelu Chucai, who was stepped in Confucian learning, argued that taxation of the native population would be much more profitable than the Mongols and their allies engaging in primary production through pastoralism. The key to preventing genocide was convincing warlike elites that rents were easier and more profitable than acquiring more land which one had to toil oneself. That is, acquire people, not just land.
I write this in the context of trying to understand the genetic history of India. Why is it that Indo-Aryans contribute at least ~15% of the ancestry on the Gangetic plain, while the later Turco-Muslims contribute almost none? The answer here ventures into ideologically fraught territory because many Hindus take the word of Muslim chroniclers at their word that the predations upon the local population were marked by great brutality and killing.
The northwestern fringe of southern Indian was quite populous during the Indus Valley Civilization period. It was far larger in territory than Mesopotamia or Egypt. In contrast, the Eurasian heartland was always thinly populated. Then, and now. The number of Sintashta descended Indo-Aryans was originally small. It was always reasonable to suppose that their demographic impact was very small. Perhaps like that of the Magyars in Hungary. Ten years ago when the first evidence emerged that India was reshaped by Holocene admixtures I simply refused to believe it at first due to the demographic heft of the region.
So what happened? I think we need to understand that it is likely the early Sintashta warriors did not have Yelu Chucai whispering in their ears. They were horse-warriors par excellence, while the Eurasian oikoumene was relatively underdeveloped compared to what it would be later. There is evidence from Europe that early farming societies underwent massive demographic collapse due to endogenous forces (and perhaps exogenous climate shocks). There is no reason this could not be true elsewhere. Second, aside from the cultural toolkit of farming practices being underdeveloped, ideological justifications for social cohesion were primitive.
When the original Indo-Aryans arrived as agro-pastoralists into a semi-barbarized post-Indus Valley village society I believe they saw pastureland for their cattle and horses! Though some sort of priesthood probably survived, and transmuted into Brahmins (who assimilated many Indo-Aryan priests and shamans), there were no learned advisors handing out ancient traditions of yore. The Indo-Aryans saw an animal battle for resources, and despite their small numbers they “squeezed” the local peasantry (the mtDNA indicates very few Indo-Aryan females, so these were muarading males). This was not an organized ideological genocide, it was simply niche displacement.
In contrast, 2,000 years later when the White Huns arrived from Central Asia, they established themselves as the warrior elite of an already organically elaborated society, with a clear and distinct ideology of self, and local sub-elites which were in place to extract rents from the populace. The Indo-Aryans were more like the Dark Age Greeks, with Odysseus, a “king” still doing some of his own farming and shepherding.
The Turco-Muslims were different in that they had another alternative ideology. They were not uncooked barbarians, they had already been cooked by Islam. They were not absorbed into India because they maintained connections with Iran and Turan, and were part of the broader Dar-ul-Islam. They were in India, but not of India. But, the institutional structures of India were useful for the purposes of extracting rents. India was rich, which for most of history meant rich in people.
The Turco-Muslims came out of a milieu where they were originally slave soldiers of Iranian rulers who lived richly in sumptuous cities. Eventually, they invariably overthrew their masters and moved into the palaces themselves. Unlike the Mongols or their own ancestors, these were not people who had just come out of the tents. They did not have to be educated in the fact that maintaining the mechanisms of the old order would be more profitable than creating from anew.
All this is relevant because some people, Muslim and Hindus, assert that the Turco-Muslims engaged in massive killings and persecutions. The Turco-Muslims themselves claimed to have engaged in incredible violence against the unbelievers, styling themselves ghazis, warriors for the faith. Modern South Asian Muslims implicitly agree with the decimation when they assert that their ancestors were West and Central Asian. Both these contentions are false. The Turco-Muslims, like the Teutonic Knights and Sword Brothers in the Baltic, were proximately motivated by a desire for wealth and leisure. This is clear because the same people spread west out of the fringes of Khorasan, taking over Iranian and Arab polities one after the other through violence. But in the westward movement, there was no religious rationale given, because the Turks were Muslim, and those whom they conquered were mostly Muslim (though the Seljuqs presented themselves as protectors of Sunni Islam, overthrowing the Shia Buywids).
Obviously, this was not the case in India. An idealistic rationale presented itself to mask their avaricious behavior, and they promoted that rationale.
Second, genetically the data is clear that very little ancestry in South Asian Muslims is exogenous. Almost all the ancestors of South Asian Muslims were residents of South Asia 1,000 years ago. Many of the upper-class Muslims who claim West Asian ancestry actually descend from upper-caste Hindus. This is clear when you look at the true Y chromosomal lineages of Syeds, those who claim paternal descent from the lineage of Muhammad’s clan.
From the perspective of Hindus, 30% of the people of the Indian subcontinent are now Muslims. This is a traumatic fact for them. Additionally, between 1200 and 1750 AD Muslims were dominant across most of the subcontinent, and engaged in a project of cultural imperialism and hegemony which left psychic scars on the Indian elites, and physical scars on the architectural landscape. To be entirely frank, a project of coercive, brutal, and violent, conversion to Islam by Turks is in some ways more reassuring to many Indian elites than the fact that there was a softness to the support for native Indian religious views in many parts of the subcontinent. As it is, Hinduism remained the overwhelming religion in the heart of Turco-Muslim power in the upper reaches of the Gangetic plain, with Islam made particular headway in the margins and fringes of South Asia.
The bigger picture here is that human societies and cultural systems evolve, and become more robust. The gap between the Han and Suit-Tang was more than 300 years. The “handoff” between the Ming and Ching (Manchus) was nearly immediate. The Chinese ideological system of rule became more efficient, more effective, over time. The ideological system of domination and control was perfected. The Manchus placed themselves on top of machinery that they inherited roughly intact from the Ming. This is not to say that they could not employ genocidal brutality. The Oirat Mongols were the last great nomadic polity. To “solve” this problem the Manchus in the 18th century engaged in a program of extermination against the Oirat led Dzhungar confederacy. By some estimates, 90% of the Dzhungars died, whether through direct slaughter, or, more often, starvation.
Of course, the Manchus were not ideologically oriented toward genocide. It was simply an instrument. Nor do I believe that the peoples of the Neolithic and Bronze Age were ideologically oriented toward genocide. The question would not make any sense. Rather, the extermination of other groups was simply an instrument of existence in their lives. They died. Or their enemies died.
The interests of the German peasant-warrior flooding into the Roman territories were to drive off the local peasants and their landlords. The interests of the tribal elite was to increase the number of people whom they ruled and could extract rents from, as well as maintaining the position of some of the older elites as service nobilities and candidates for positions within the Church. Similarly, the English settlers in the New World consistently behaved in a more brutal manner toward the native peoples and attempted to push into the interior far more vigorously, than anything the British crown wished to countenance. In an economic and political world of stability, the British crown would do better, but the interests of the American colonists was toward more aggressive dynamism.
It was the emergence of complex multiethnic imperial systems, along with class stratification and divergence of interests, that the reflex toward genocide declined. A “flat” world is a violent world.
In The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire Kyle Harper argues that the Plague of Cyprian, between 249 to 262 A.D., served as a massive exogenous shock to the Roman Empire that changed history. Harper observes that the structures of Roman society were reordered in the face of near collapse and exhaustion due to the onslaught of disease. The Plague of Cyprian, at least in Harper’s telling, plays a major role in the rise of Christianity and the fading away of the traditional religion (more through the inability of the old pagan institutions to persist in the face of social instability as opposed to a crisis of faith).
But the change was more than cultural. It is well known that Augustus, the first of what we call Roman Emperors, styled himself Princeps, and maintained the external fiction that he restored the republic. The term Imperator was not applied regularly to Roman Emperors until the reign of Vespasian, in the last quarter of the 1st century A.D., nearly a century after Augustus came to power. But even then the rulers of the Roman world maintained a conceit and fiction that they were scions of the old republican world, the first among the aristocrats. This was certainly true of Marcus Aurelius, who famously styled himself something of a philosopher-king as well.
After the disastrous reign of Marcus Aurelius’ son, Commodus, the dynasty founded by Septimius Severus moved in a more nakedly autocratic direction. Severus notably presented laws to the Senate as expressions of his fiat will. But Severus was from the old aristocracy of Rome. He underwent the cursus honorum under the Antonines.
The true shift came during the late 3rd-century and the rise of the Tetrarchs. These military rulers, who came out of the barracks of the Illyrian legions, ushered in the Dominate. This is the despotic later phase of the Roman Empire and derives from the fact that Diocletian added dominus, lord or master, to one of his titles. Diocletian and his successors did not see the need for the pretense that their world was that of the Republic. It was fundamentally different. They accrued to themselves the powers and styles of despotic eastern rulers.
Why? The shock of the Plague of Cyprian induced instability in the Roman world, which a powerful ruler stabilized. But according to Peter Heather in The Fall of the Roman Empire the Romans were reacting to the emergence of the Sassanians, who had reconfigured Persia to be a more formidable rival to Rome.* The irony here is that just the Persians became the great enemy of Rome, the Emperors of Rome began to resemble their eastern rivals in their external form and internal self-identity.
* Adrian Goldsworthy disagrees that Sassanian Persia was so formidable, ascribing the military parity more to Roman decay than the rise of Iran.
Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome is a work of monumental scholarship. The late author was a master of the textual sources to such an extent that no non-specialist can truly comprehend the force of his argument or its veracity in a deep manner. That being said, the book is essential reading in large part because it is an armamentarium against a conventional argument that the victory of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire was established and sealed by the victory of Theodosius the Great at the Battle of the Frigidus in 394. And, that that victory was contingent upon that battle.
The standard model is that the rise of Christianity among the ruling class of the Roman Empire after the conversion of Constantine in the first decades of the 4th-century triggered a conservative traditionalist reaction, centered around prominent Roman Senators, precipitating out into armed resistance in the 390s. The rebellion against Theodosius is framed as a pagan cause against the devoutly Christian ruler.
Cameron rejects this whole narrative to a great extent as a projection of contemporary sensibilities and preoccupations with the ancient past. The Last Pagans of Rome presents the case that it was Gratian’s removal of public subsidies from the traditional cults in the early 380s which marked the turning point.
The term “case” must be used because the author is so convinced of his argument and conclusions (reached after a lifetime of scholarship), that the text comes across as almost lawyerly in its tone. At some point, you realize that whenever there is ambiguity and uncertainty, the conclusion will always be drawn in a way so as to buttress the thesis favored by the author, rather than simply leaving the uncertainty as is. Whereas those presenting the contrasting thesis (that pagan revival and resistance was real in the 390s) might assume that a particular individual was a pagan, Cameron points out various reasons to be uncertain about this inference, and often will conclude “it is just as likely or perhaps more like that this person was a Christian!”
In the footnotes of The Final Pagan Generation, a more sober work, you actually see comments which argue that Cameron pushes his case for the decline and extinction of paganism too far.
Despite this qualm, I believe that Cameron’s thesis is broadly correct. First, it is entirely reasonable to suggest and suspect that modern authors are laundering their own romantic preoccupations into their interpretation of the past. I myself have been known to portray Quintus Aurelius Symmachus as a paragon of broad-minded latitudinarian tolerance, in sharp contrast with the narrow-minded intolerant scold, St. Ambrose. This is a common reflex among those given nourishment by the values of the Enlightenment. The Last Pagans of Rome casts doubt on the way in which these men have been depicted historically, suggesting that their own self-conceptions and place in society was fundamentally different from what we might assume (to obtain powerful Christian sympathy, Symmachus had to portray himself as a tolerant individual. To maintain Christian respect, Ambrose had to show that he was a zealot).
Second, our understanding of the anthropology of religion of the past flattens the true realities and imposes cartoonish identities which likely did not correspond with anything real. Our modern idea of religion and society is conditioned on the sectarian conflicts in the West in the wake of the Reformation, as well as the formal separation of confessions enriched in the legal framework of Islam. That is, individuals are seen to have delimited and exclusive identities. Though this framework is somewhat a difficult fit in South and East Asian societies, they have nevertheless integrated and accepted it in some fashion due to the hegemonic influence of the modern West, and in South Asia the historical legacy of Islamic rule.
Obviously none of this applied to the late Roman Empire. Though Christianity made exclusive claims upon its believers, just as the Jewish God made exclusive claims on the Jews, pagan religiosity was pluralistic and promiscuous. It was integrative, non-exclusive, and diffusely delimited. This was, in fact, one of the reasons that Judaism and Christianity became influential and widely practiced in the ancient world. In The Fate of Rome, the author suggests that civic public paganism declined in the late 3rd-century, after the Plague of Cyprian, and well before Constantine’s conversion. One could argue that the centrality and dominance of Christianity in the 4th-century had less to do with victory in the competition with paganism, than the fact that there was a vacuum at the center of the state which Christianity was suited to fill.
In The Last Pagans of Rome Cameron suggests that the elite pagans of the late 4th-century were not religious fanatics. On the contrary, their priestly duties were hereditary marks of prestige and status, rather than earned piety. One of the major reasons that they likely lagged in their adherence to the new favored religion was that it did not have a patina of prestige. As noted in Through the Eye of the Needle and The Making of the Christian Aristocracy, class prejudice, and snobbery against the decidedly middle-brow character of Christianity retarded adoption by the elite. The class origins of the early Christians was evident in the early translations of the Bibles into Latin: they were not of the aristocratic variant, but a more common register. Only when aristocrats began to convert to Christianity and join the Church in large numbers did the religion become part and parcel of the identity of elite society.
The elite of the Roman world had seen sects and cults come and go. In the late 1st-century, Vespasian brought an affection for Isis to the center of the Roman world, while in the early 3rd-century a priestly Syrian family ascended to the purple. In the late 3rd-century Solar religion and Mithraism became quite popular. It is entirely likely that the many 4th-century Roman Senators viewed the rise of Christianity as just another religion, that would have its time in the sun and fade.
Cameron in The Last Pagans of Rome argues that rather than Christian and pagan (the latter being a set defined by all those who were not Christian or Jewish), many people in the 4th-century occupied a range of views in terms of religion and identity. Some individuals were exclusive and devout Christians, while others were convinced pagans. But many individuals were nominal and mercenary about their religious affiliation, moving with the winds. This is important because it implies that not all identified Christians would be unremittingly hostile toward pagan religion due to deep ideological commitments. The 4th-century man of letters, Ausonius, is perceived by many to have been Christian primarily due to its social advantage.
Conversely, many who were nominally pagans may have not had much opposition to becoming Christian in regards to their beliefs, but were held back by other considerations. For example, perhaps their role as pagan priests was socially advantageous in the locality to a far greater extent than the low probability of obtaining favor from the imperial center through conversion to the favored imperial religion. This example then suggests why the cessation of subsidies to the pagan cults in the 380s was so essential and critical: without public funds, the maintenance of the urban and elite segment of the old religions would fall back on the wealthy families. Instead of being a social boon obtained at no personal cost, the old religion would become a fiscal burden upon the traditional elites.
For many Westerners, the premodern shift of religious identity is framed by the Reformation. Religious lands were seized and secularized. Monks were defrocked. To a great extent, it was a rupture and a forcible one. This has analogs in other societies. China in the 9th-century saw the evisceration of the Buddhist establishment by Emperors who feared an over-mighty “First Estate.” Similarly, Oda Nobunaga in the 16th-century literally burned down the Buddhist monasteries of Japan because so many had become laws unto themselves. Cameron’s argument in The Last Pagans of Rome is that paganism in the Roman Empire expired of natural causes. It was not killed. The assault on the Serapeum was the exception, not the rule. Though some Christians in the 4th-century began to make the case for coercion in religious belief, this seems to have been rare (in contrast, practices offensive to Christians, such as animal sacrifice, were clearly sharply curtailed).
To understand what happened in the 4th-century, and later, it is useful to look at analogies in other societies and at other times. Both Tibet and Japan saw strong reactions against the adoption of Buddhism by elements of the nobility. This is strikingly similar to what reputedly occurred in the Late Roman Empire. There was resistance to the move away from Roman Catholicism in England in the 16th-century, from principled intellectuals such as St. Thomas More, to aristocrats such as the Duke of Norfolk, and peasants in the northern English countryside. In the Indian subcontinent, a succession of Muslim monarchs and elites presented the native peoples with a religious vision sharply distinct from the customs and traditions of the local religious movements. Finally, in Germany in the 17th-century several lines of rulers changed from the religion of their subjects, but were unable to convert any of their subjects.
In Tibet and Japan, the anti-Buddhist faction initially succeeded, arresting or reversing the spread of the religion, but ultimately failed in changing the long-term religious arc of the society. In India, the Muslims only converted a minority of the population, and those conversions were regionally concentrated (Islam was much more successful in the far west and east of the subcontinent). In England, there was a gradual shift toward Protestantism in the 16th-century, though a minority always remained Roman Catholic. Finally, in Germany, the confessional identities were deeply rooted enough that elite preferences were irrelevant.
It is clear that deeply rooted mass confessional identity in a modern sense did not exist in the ancient world. Some Protestant thinkers go so far as to assert that Europeans were not truly Christian until after the Protestant Reformation, which forced individuals into personal religious faith. This seems to go too far in light of broad-based popular religious movements in the late medieval period, but the relatively muted reaction of the peasantry of the rapid shift to Protestantism triggered by elite conversion and identification strongly indicate that religious identity was weak and diffuse in the pre-modern period. In the ancient world, Christians introduced a sharp and clear religious identity, but to a great extent, this was a feature of urban areas and urban sub-elites (see Rodney Stark’s unfortunately polemical Cities of God). Similarly, in the early modern period, Protestantism was initially rooted in urban areas around cultural and socio-political elites, only slowly transforming the religious life of peasants with a new sort of piety.
So the issue then is not the whole society, it is the nature of the conversion of the political and cultural elite of the Roman world. The Neoplatonists of the 6th-century remained non-Christian because their metaphysical system could not be fully integrated into Christianity (though it clearly influenced Christianity). In contrast, it seems that the social and political elite became predominantly Christian much earlier. Why? As suggested above the disconnect between the state and traditional religion starved the old cults of fiscal support, and their withering removed any prestige accrued to elite lineages through patronage and priestly duties. Additionally, it took several generations after the initial patronage of Constantine for Christianity to produce the sort of highly cultured elite individuals which added a luster of cultivation to the religion which was attractive to the sensibilities of the aristocracy. It was a much easier task to convert nobles if those who preached Christianity to them were from their own class, sharing broad values and educations.
The spread of Christianity can be analogized to the spread of Islam in the Christian and Zoroastrian world in the 7th and 8th-centuries. Aristocratic Christians such as John of Damascus had a role within the Islamic polity so long as Greek language and forms were the dominant administrative culture of the Ummayyad state. The shift to Arabic changed the incentive structure. In The Rise of Western Christendom Peter Brown contends that the movement to Arabic by Christians was the dominant variable in the conversion of the Near East. In Iran, the emergence of Islam as a majority religion was coincident with the conversion of the local nobility and the defeat of the last independent Zoroastrian warlords.
We tend to carve reality into distinct and striking categories. The Last Pagans of Rome argue that the categories “pagan” and “Christian” divided into two classes what was really a spectrum. Similarly, the Christianization of antiquity was a gradual affair, and numerically the punctuated nature of events such as the Battle of Frigidus was probably far less striking than we wish them to be.
There are similarities to the situation of early Muslims in India to early imperial Christians in Late Antiquity. Islam in the subcontinent was very much a court religion. Though Hindu rulers persisted around the peripheries for nearly the whole time, the pinnacle of rule by and large took on a Turkic and Islamic cast in the subcontinent for many centuries. And yet Hinduism, or what we call Hinduism, but was truly a multiplicity of native Indian religious forms, persisted in the face of Islam. This is a contrast to Zoroastrianism and Christianity, which eventually lost their demographic preponderance in the face of Islam.
The situation of ancient paganism may have been even more hopeless. Rather than terming these “pagans,” an appellation that some Christians might apply to Hindus and Buddhists, I think a better way to think of the Greco-Roman traditional religions is that they were tribal religions. The Greco-Romans had a sophisticated set of metaphysics and ethics elucidated in their philosophies, but these remained sealed off from the traditional religion. Christianity integrated some elements of philosophy into the tribal religion of the Jews and then universalized it. In the short term, there were strong incentives for individuals and communities to resist Christianity, but its cultural innovativeness made its final victory likely inevitable, just as in Tibet and Japan Buddhism returned after the initial persecution.
India and China both resisted assimilation by foreign religions because they had more than simply tribal religions. In China Buddhism in the 9th-century became overbearing, which resulted in concerted persecution by the state (a practice which would reemergence several times in Chinese history). But there was also a strong anti-Buddhist elite critique from Neo-Confucians. Neo-Confucianism presented itself as a better alternative, rather than simply a reversion to a tribal religion. In China, the tribal religion persists in the form of local folk religion. But this is an entirely plebian affair. In India the religious traditions were fertile and robust, giving birth to the first world religion in the form of Buddhism, and pioneering the idea of the mobile religious community, the sangha. Some of the same could be said of the Hinduism of the period, which had integrated insights from Buddhism, and developed a complex fusion of philosophy and spirituality that became the Vedanta. The Hindu-Muslim tension and conflict which has been a feature of Indian history in various forms emerges from the fact that the assimilation of Hindus into Islam as converted Muslims is not inevitable due to the latter’s clearly superior sophistication over the former.
The Last Pagans of Rome describe a world in which inchoate and decentralized paganism was confronted with a new cultural innovation, a universally oriented exclusive religious community that synthesized popular devotionalism with elite rationality. The Christianization of the aristocracy was a matter of establishing the details of the accommodation, not whether that accommodation would happen.
Back in the 1990s I read David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo series of future history science fiction.* Set in the year 2200, Wingrove depicts a world in which China is not only ascendant but in some ways the world is China.
For me, an implausible “twist” is that the political and cultural elite of this period falsified history. In this future history, the past 2,000 years has been erased from memory. China under the Han dynasty expanded westward under leaders such as Ban Chao and conquered the Roman Empire. Organized and institutional religion (Christianity and Buddhism), the rise of the West, and eventually the decline of China, never happened. Within the series itself, the rulers know the real history. Additionally, through a process of investigation and deeper analysis, bright individuals can also piece together the past. But the vast majority of humanity is totally unaware that only a few centuries ago the world was radically different.
At the time this was the most unbelievable aspect of Wingrove’s future history. How could the history of the world be so radically rewritten? Today my views are different. I have come to understand that most people do not engage in active critical-rationalism. Rather, they look to authorities from whom they can receive enlightenment, or be initiated into esoteric truths. For them, history is not a set of facts and processes about the past, but a narrative and framework which is a handmaid to an ideological project.
The examples are legion. The American Founders were white supremacists. The American Founders were devout Christians. The American Founders were radical progressives. The truth of the matter of these claims is less important than the symbolic value of the idea of who the American Founders were. The truth is secondary to the utility of the message.
This has always been, and will always be. What I am less sure of is whether today people are more ignorant of the past, or, if more people feel confident in expressing opinions about the past despite little solid knowledge about the past. Either way, this is concerning, because the truth is a critical antidote to totalitarian temptations. A smugly ignorant populace is manipulable populace.
* The original publisher gave up on the series after book seven, and Wingrove wrote a hasty and bizarre eight novel to complete the series. More recently has been rewriting the series to give in a more definitive conclusion.
I’m old enough to remember an America that wasn’t too far from the 1960s. One of my childhood best friends had a mother who was a “hippy” in a classic sense, dressing like a “flower-child” deep into the 1980s. Basically, her sartorial sense was frozen in the second half of the 1960s, when she was at university. She was no longer with my friend’s father, who suffered from post-traumatic stress due to his experiences in Vietnam.* The late 1960s and early 1970s really had a huge impact on my friend’s life.
The people who went through the 1960s as young adults, the Baby Boomers, experienced something that transformed our culture. 1964 was closer to 1944 in many ways than it was to 1968. In Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson the author argues that one of the reasons that the sociopathic cult leader was able to flourish in Southern California during this period is that people had no expectations of a future anything like the past. People expected literally anything to happen. No matter how crazy.
Since the late 1960s, we really haven’t seen anything similar in terms of cultural tumult. The period between 2015 and 2020, for example, isn’t that shattering. On the other hand, I wonder if in some ways 2015 will be seen as a watershed. That was certainly the year many of us started to be worried and confused about what was going on in this country.
But the reason I’m posting this is to ask older readers who remember the 1960s: does this feel similar in any way? Clearly there is a contrast, in that the late 1960s was filled with hope, and the early 2020s not so much.
* Strange note, many years later when I lived in Berkeley, California, at the other end of the country, I ran into my childhood friend’s half-brother, who was a computer science graduate student at Cal. He had a very distinctive last name, when he told me where he had grown up I realized who he was.
Update on the Tutsi genotype project. Many years ago I was given the genotype of an individual who had three Tutsi grandparents and one Hutu grandparent. You can see the result above in comparison to the single Hutu and the dozen or so Tutsi. This individual is shifted toward the Kenyan Bantu groups (while the Hutu individual is on the edge of that cluster). For those curious, the “Ethiopian” samples seem to be stratified between those who are Oromo and those who are Amhara. The latter is more West Eurasian shifted than the former (the “Ethiopian Jews”, the Beta Israel, tend to cluster with the various Habesha groups).
In relation to this project, some of the reaction from the peanut gallery has been what you’d expect. Ultimately, the reason I’m doing this is that Tutsi who are making recourse to personal genomic services are coming back with results that don’t make sense in light of the narrative that the government of Rwanda, and to some extent, the media and the academy, put out there. That is, that the Tutsi-Hutu categories can be chalked up to the machinations of the Belgians. White people. A social construction having to do with wealth and modes of production.
To be frank, I’m more interested in what the Tutsi correspondents have to say than the online white saviors (one of the Tutsi individuals had second thoughts about involvement, and their genotype is no longer in the project).
The big questions that loom over this sort of analysis are simple. Did the Belgians create these ethnocultural categories? Did the Belgian act set in motion the events of the Rwandan genocide?
It is quite common in various parts of the educated set to assert that nationalism and ethnicity and identity have shallow roots. The academic view can often be distilled down to Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (apparently this is the most assigned book among undergraduates, explaining its influence). Though Anderson’s thesis is not quite as general as people make it out to be, I do think it leads one toward the conclusion that national, ethnic, and communal identity is shallow, superficial, recent, and, of European causal origin.
If one takes these as a given then the essential, necessary, and causal role of the Belgians in fomenting conflict in Ruanda-Urundi is perhaps warranted. As it happens, I reject the generality of Anderson’s thesis. Rather, I believe that Azar Gat’s argument in Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism is much more persuasive. Gat is not saying that the French nation originated with Vercingetorix. But, he does argue that the elements of national identity which crystallized and converged with the French Revolution were deep and longstanding.
The same is clearly true of many non-European ethnicities and nationalities. They existed long before the arrival of European colonialism and political ideology.
Just as with Anderson’s Imagined Communities, I believe that Edward Said’s Orientalism has elements of truth, but that its insights are over-generalized. For example, it seems clear that the British did have some ideological interests in mind when interpreting the history and ethnography of the Indian subcontinent. But they did not invent the categories of Muslim and Hindu in any substantive fashion. Nor did they invent the ethnolinguistic diversity of the subcontinent which resulted in imperfect integration of the culture of the far southern states, which speak Dravidian languages, with the Hindi “cow-belt.” This diversity preexisted the arrival of the British.
Don’t get me wrong. I do think that the Great Divergence occurred. I do think Europe for various reasons developed on a separate and distinct path. But, I do not think European history and European experience is so sui generis that the cultures and societies of the world today must be, and can only be, understood in light of their post-colonial experiences with Europe. The colonial experiences were impactful, but history did not begin with the colonial period. More crassly, non-white peoples existed with form and texture before they were observed and shaped by white people. White peoples’ agency is not the predominant element in non-European social identity.
In relation to the causal agency of white Europeans in relation to non-white peoples, imagine if the general consensus was that the massive death tolls of the Thirty Years War were due to the malevolent choice of certain Protestant princes in the prior century to align and foster religious reform. The reality is most people would argue that the causes of the war were complex, multifaceted, and somewhat contingent. The same sort of framework applies to situations outside of Europe. Instead, what we get are reductive explanations of the form “because white colonialists!”
So what’s going to explain the pattern of reducing non-European societies to bit-parts in a drama of European history? The cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer contends that theories give you “information for free.” Postcolonial theory then is a cheap and easy way to understand causal processes in history without having to read and know any history. There are no details necessary. Just apply the theory and produce results!
But why now? For a few years now the grad student Zach Goldberg has been writing about the “Great Awokening”. This refers to the radicalization of many white progressives on racial issues since ~2015. Zach’s plot above shows that The New York Times mentions of “racism” shot up over the last few years. The same with a host of other variables.
Before 2015 I might have agreed I was “socially liberal.” Today I wouldn’t say that, because I disagree with the utility of assertions of the form “all white people are racist” and “all men are sexist.” I have no idea honestly what I’m agreeing to if I say I align with social liberals since the revolution in views is moving so fast.
But there is another wrinkle which I think is important to acknowledge about the Great Awokening: it hasn’t been associated with a massive change in behavior by white liberals from what I can see. Arguably, most of my friends are white liberals, so I’ve been able to observe them over many years. Their rhetoric is different (or more precisely more frequent). But their behavior is very similar.
I will give two anecdotes to illustrate what I’m talking about. After 2016 many of my white academic friends began to post incessantly on Facebook about the recent upsurge in racism, and how frightening it was to be a racial minority. Curiously, I noticed that many of the Facebook threads were populated exclusively by white people talking about how horrible racism was. The American population is 63% non-Hispanic white. And a much lower fraction among younger cohorts. This was not a random sampling of the population.
At one point I actually decided to speak to an experience of racism on a thread, and how much it has declined since the 1980s and 1990s. So many of the people talking seem to be speaking of abstractions since they were non-Hispanic white and seemed to be friends overwhelmingly with only non-Hispanic whites. They were totally unaware that the extent of casual racism had declined radically since the 1980s because they themselves knew very few nonwhites intimately from what I can tell.
The second anecdote occurred in a city that happens to be a bit under 50% non-Hispanic white. I was having a casual dinner at a friend’s house. This friend is a sincere white progressive and academic. In the middle of eating their elementary-age child interrupted and asked bashfully why my “skin is brown like that.” Basically, this child had not experienced nonwhite people in preschool or school, and from what I could tell I was one of the few nonwhite friends of this academic. The reason that this is notable is that it reflects the high level of racial segregation in their lives that white progressives in racially diverse urban areas often choose. This is not surprising in light of the fact that the most diverse counties are the most assortative in mating (this is presumably due to larger numbers of ethnic minorities who can find mates).
These facts are open secrets. Just look at where more progressive-than-thou white liberals actually live (around people just like them), and who populates their Facebook friends list (again, people just like them). Since this is so universal there isn’t a great shame in this sort of behavior. As they say, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.
But the abstract nature of white progressive concern with racism and inequality causes serious problems in their understanding of the world around them. They begin to see everything around them as the playing out in history of “white supremacy,” as if it’s the ground of all being. It is a metaphysical abstraction. This problem is more serious for millennials and zoomers, who have been educated more recently.
The new regnant ideology has changed the way I write historically inflected pieces. When I wrote The Blood On Brown Hands Is A Legacy Of All Of History, it came in at 5,000 words. I consciously loaded it with erudition to make it clear to white progressive readers that I actually have forgotten more history than they’ve ever known. On some level, I will accept that most white progressives are sincerely anti-racist, but my experience as a non-white person who disagrees with their “sacred values” on race is that unless I come to the table “with receipts” (as they’d say) they will dismiss me as an ignorant rube who has been brainwashed (non-whites tend to lack independent agency in their ontology unless they express the views that they believe non-whites should express; I won’t question their motives, but I’ve experienced this way too often to not anticipate it).
They know because they are white. They are the agents of all history. They will redeem the evil which they have wrought by their sacrifice of copious internet virtue signaling.
Addendum: I will make one note: the quality of conversations about racial discrimination and racism is quite different when one is talking to a woke white person who is married to a nonwhite person. Probably the cause here is that racism and racial diversity are concrete, rather than abstract. There’s something to actually grapple onto that’s beyond someone’s imagination and beliefs. It’s not just a theoretical debate.