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Bad Horse


Beneath the microscope, you contain galaxies.

More Blog Posts697

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May
17th
2016

Review of the Iliad, or, The Rage of Bad Horse · 4:22pm May 17th, 2016

Western civilization began with the ancient Greeks, and the ancient Greeks agreed unanimously that their religion, ethics, and poetry began with The Iliad. So that's where my review of Western literature will begin.

The Greeks would have said "Homer", and they would have meant the person who wrote at least The Iliad and The Odyssey. I haven't done any stylometrics on ancient Greek, but even supposing it were meaningful to talk about the "person" who wrote either, I don't think it's useful to group the Iliad and the Odyssey together. The Iliad is a civilization-founding work of philosophy. The Odyssey is a boy's adventure tale, not meriting special attention. It is more fun to read, though.

I remembered the Iliad as a surprisingly gutsy story for one so old, that took a tough look at the morality of war, duty, honor, and love. Then I read a plot summary of it, and realized I was remembering Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida instead.

When I read the thing itself, I initially hated it. All I saw was a badly-written story with revolting values praised to the heavens so old people who'd gone to Oxbridge could pretend to be the arbiters of taste. But over time, I saw its importance in Western history, and some of the genius behind it. The analysis I'll present here is unique; nobody's come to these conclusions before. But I don't think they're difficult. People are just stupid when they elevate something to the level of a scripture. It makes it impossible to see it for itself anymore.

Rating the Iliad as a 21st century American is a little silly. The Iliad is the exemplar of the values and aesthetics of its time. By reading it, we can learn how much humanity has changed in 2800 years, and how much it's stayed the same. We can ask whether great literature is timeless or transient. So the Iliad is important.

What it isn't, though, is a good read for a modern person. It turns out great literature isn't timeless after all.

Did I read the whole thing? Oh, hell, no. I got halfway through before turning to condensed versions and the Cliffs Notes.

There are spoilers here. But come on. You've had 2,800 years to read it.

Which Iliad?

I tried Alexander Pope’s 1720 translation, which reads like a ghastly nursery rhyme:

The Greeks in shouts their joint assent declare,
The priest to reverence, and release the fair.
Not so Atrides; he, with kingly pride,
Repulsed the sacred sire, and thus replied:

Chapman’s 1598 translation is longer (230,000 words!), and only marginally better:

Achilles’ baneful wrath resound, O Goddess, that imposed
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls losed

Los-ed? Seriously?

I plunged ahead with Samuel Butler’s 1898 translation. It doesn’t try to versify; it renders it as prose. The words seemed stronger and easier to read. All three translations changed the names of the Greek gods into their Roman equivalents, which I found irritating and, frankly, disrespectful. Supposedly the Richmond Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald, Martin Hammond, and Rodney Merrill translations are much better, but they cost money. Oddly, for the most renowned story in Western literature, I had a hard time finding a pirated copy. There are free online versions by Ian Johnston and Anthony Kline (2009).

(Pirates are probably all reading the Odyssey.)

I eventually found Robert Fagles’ 1990 translation, which is free verse. It has a poetic feel like Butler’s, with meter and consonance, without grasping at weak words to fill in the meter, or falling into sing-song whine as Chapman and Pope do.

If you really want to try reading the thing, try the abridged Ian Johnston (pdf here.) It’s only 50,000 words, and this sucker is at least 150,000 words otherwise.

Judging the Iliad in 2015: The Aesthetics

Reading the Iliad in 2015 demands an answer to the question of whether there is a timeless, objective "good" for literature. This story was valued far above all others throughout ancient Greece--it was heresy to say otherwise--and was the most-popular candidate for greatest work of fiction of all time at least until the 19th century, and maybe until James Joyce's Ulysses. [1] Since that claim has been made, I'll evaluate The Iliad aesthetically first.

It's easy to point out that the Iliad is formulaic, unstructured, and about 5 times as long as it ought to be, but this is a feature, not a bug. The text we see may be more like the source code to the Iliad than like what most ancient Greeks heard. A bard would memorize the whole thing, then tell each audience just the parts he thought they'd be most-interested in, or that they had time for. That's why it's so formulaic and unstructured. It's modular: you can skip paragraphs or whole chapters without missing much. This makes the Iliad a bad model for written fiction. Oral poetry can be tailored by a good bard to a specific audience, but in return it gives up the power of a complex, dramatic, thematically-unified structure.

The Good

There are many poetic lines. But I can't tell how much is the poetry of Homer, and how much that of the translator. I like this translation by Fagle:

Like the generation of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
now the living timber bursts with the new buds
and spring comes round again. And so with men:
as one generation comes to life, another dies away.

But Butler's translation is trite and obvious:

Men come and go as leaves year by year upon the trees. Those of autumn the wind sheds upon the ground, but when spring returns the forest buds forth with fresh vines. Even so is it with the generations of mankind, the new spring up as the old are passing away.

Which was Homer?

Here Stanley Lombardo's translation has poetry:

"Who could blame either the Trojans or the Greeks
For suffering so long for a woman like this.
Her eyes are not human.
Whatever she is, let her go back with the ships." (III, 164-167)

where Fagles' translation has none:

Who on earth could blame them? Ah, no wonder
the men of Troy and Argives under arms have suffered
years of agony all for her. for such a woman.
Beauty, terrible beauty!
A deathless goddess--so she strikes our eyes!
But still,
ravishing as she is, let her go home in the long ships.

Homer uses powerful, clean language, full of quick metaphors, similes, and bits of physical detail. He maintains a heroic style but seldom falls into purple prose. This comes across best in the prose translations:

Thus did he pray, and Apollo heard his prayer. He came down furious from the summits of Olympus, with his bow and his quiver upon his shoulder, and the arrows rattled on his back with the rage that trembled within him. He sat himself down away from the ships with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrow in the midst of them. First he smote their mules and their hounds, but presently he aimed his shafts at the people themselves, and all day long the pyres of the dead were burning.

Now and then he adds little details that make me think, yeah, this guy might have fought in a war.

With these words she put heart and soul into them all, while Minerva sprang to the side of the son of Tydeus, whom she found near his chariot and horses, cooling the wound that Pandarus had given him. For the sweat caused by the hand that bore the weight of his shield irritated the hurt: his arm was weary with pain, and he was lifting up the strap to wipe away the blood.

But there are few instances like this--so few that, I know from experience, he could have gotten all of them by talking to a few guys in a bar. And there are other instances where those little details are clearly fabricated:

Antilochus rushed towards him and struck him on the temples with his sword, whereon he fell head first from the chariot to the ground. There he stood for a while with his head and shoulders buried deep in the dust--for he had fallen on sandy soil--till his horses kicked him and laid him flat on the ground, as Antilochus lashed them and drove them off to the host of the Achaeans.

The work from later times which it resembles most in style (AFAIK) is Beowulf, but it's surprisingly similar, even in 18th and 19th-century translations, to American fiction post-Hemingway: strong verbs, few adverbs, and a nearly-neutral external viewpoint that, more than most literature after it, shows instead of telling. The bard comments on the courage and strength of the characters, but reviewers don't notice that he's usually silent on the larger moral questions. Is Achilles' rage justified? When does pride become a vice? This is a key question everywhere, but Homer doesn't answer it. Men and gods argue, and don't agree. Western writers failed to learn "show, don't tell" from Homer for 2,700 years, despite chanting all the while that writers must only imitate Homer. People are stupid.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, in a 1766 essay, “Laokoon”, explains why (in his opinion) paintings of Homer’s scenes are boring: Homer describes things with actions and histories, not images. When he wants to describe Agamemnon’s armor, he doesn’t pause the action to describe it; he has Agamemnon put it on, piece by piece. When he wants to describe the bow of Pandarus, he describes how it was made. He would rather describe the history than the appearance of people and things. All those swords whose histories Tolkien describes so lovingly--that’s straight from Homer. And the histories tell you more important things about them than a description would.

He renders few authorial opinions other than whether a man was courageous, wise, generous, or of noble or divine descent. He doesn’t say whether the war, or Achilles’ pride, or Zeus’ lies, are moral or immoral. He has other characters comment on these things, but when one god accuses Achilles of pride, another speaks in his defense, and Homer doesn’t say which is right. Most interpreters don’t seem to notice this, reading their own prejudices into Homer. My reading is that Homer was saying that even the gods can’t agree what’s wrong and what’s right, so forget about it and do whatever brings you personal honor.

The poetry in the original Greek is supposedly really special. Here’s a New Yorker article describing how Homer supposedly used stress patterns to imitate the sounds of a raging sea.


The Bad

The Iliad is often praised for the distinctness of its characters. I don't see it. The major characters differ in wisdom, restraint, cleverness, and bravery, but all have the same values and the same tiresome heroic cast, and all but Hector are narcissistic and brutal.

Homer repeats sentences and entire paragraphs frequently. I imagined at first he was going for some hypnotic effect, like the chorus of a song. But I can't see it, given the great differences in repetition length, spacing, and similarity of context. It seems to me the bard was just being lazy. Some of this repetition just needs a pass from an editor:

The earth groaned beneath them as when the lord of thunder is angry and lashes the land about Typhoeus among the Arimi, where they say Typhoeus lies. Even so did the earth groan beneath them as they sped over the plain.

The dramatic structure is also repetitive. A well-constructed story has a dramatic arc, driven by the decisions of the key characters, with rising action, a climax, and a reversal hinging on some realization related to the theme. There is an identifiable climax in the Iliad, when Achilles finally decides to fight, but before it are 100,000 words of formulaic repetition: One side is about to win the war. Some god interferes and turns the tide. Repeat. I can't even count how many times this happened. The characters wash up and down the battlefield with the regularity of tides, at the whims of the gods.

It's formulaic on a fine scale as well. Each battle is merely a string of individual fights, and each fight gives a name, a city of origin, a parentage, a brief history, and an entrance wound for the loser. Piling up hundreds of deaths of walk-ons adds horror, but not weight. It's like the opening scene of "Saving Private Ryan": numbing, but not grieving. Here’s a typical passage:

First, Ajax son of Telamon, tower of strength to the Achaeans, broke a phalanx of the Trojans, and came to the assistance of his comrades by killing Acamas son of Eussorus, the best man among the Thracians, being both brave and of great stature. The spear struck the projecting peak of his helmet: its bronze point then went through his forehead into the brain, and darkness veiled his eyes.

Then Diomed killed Axylus son of Teuthranus, a rich man who lived in the strong city of Arisbe, and was beloved by all men; for he had a house by the roadside, and entertained every one who passed; howbeit not one of his guests stood before him to save his life, and Diomed killed both him and his squire Calesius, who was then his charioteer--so the pair passed beneath the earth.

Euryalus killed Dresus and Opheltius, and then went in pursuit of Aesepus and Pedasus, whom the naiad nymph Abarbarea had borne to noble Bucolion. Bucolion was eldest son to Laomedon, but he was a bastard. While tending his sheep he had converse with the nymph, and she conceived twin sons; these the son of Mecisteus now slew, and he stripped the armour from their shoulders. Polypoetes then killed Astyalus, Ulysses Pidytes of Percote, and Teucer Aretaon. Ablerus fell by the spear of Nestor's son Antilochus, and Agamemnon, king of men, killed Elatus who dwelt in Pedasus by the banks of the river Satnioeis. Leitus killed Phylacus as he was flying, and Eurypylus slew Melanthus.

Butler’s translation is 153,000 words long. About 40,000 of those words are variations of the above. (I estimated using random samples.) Pick a hero; make up a name for a victim, a few facts about his history, and an entry and exit wound. Repeat. This is the inventiveness that Alexander Pope calls “the greatest invention of any writer whatever” by “the greatest writer that ever touched the hearts of men by the power of song.”

Heroes spout great monologues in the middle of heated battle, digressing like Tristram Shandy:

When they were close up to one another Diomed of the loud war-cry was the first to speak. "Who, my good sir," said he, "who are you among men? I have never seen you in battle until now, but you are daring beyond all others if you abide my onset. Woe to those fathers whose sons face my might. If, however, you are one of the immortals and have come down from heaven, I will not fight you; for even valiant Lycurgus, son of Dryas, did not live long when he took to fighting with the gods. He it was that drove the nursing women who were in charge of frenzied Bacchus through the land of Nysa, and they flung their thyrsi on the ground as murderous Lycurgus beat them with his oxgoad. Bacchus himself plunged terror-stricken into the sea, and Thetis took him to her bosom to comfort him, for he was scared by the fury with which the man reviled him. Thereon the gods who live at ease were angry with Lycurgus and the son of Saturn struck him blind, nor did he live much longer after he had become hateful to the immortals. Therefore I will not fight with the blessed gods; but if you are of them that eat the fruit of the ground, draw near and meet your doom."

(Glaucus’ reply is three times as long.)

And here's where the Iliad really falls down: Even after we recognize that Homer's themes are repugnant to us, his characters unsympathetic, his plot unbelievable, what still draws people to the Iliad is the action. But the action is not that good.

Homer’s description through actions and histories rather than images may have been a virtue made of necessity: he’s a wiz at describing the sound and the feel of things, but seems unable to visualize anything. Maybe he really was blind. We have no idea what Troy looks like, how big it is, how high its walls are, or how close to the sea it is. About halfway into the Iliad we learn it's near a bay with a sandy beach, and that's it for description. We have no idea what the land they're fighting on looks like or how large it is. In battle, we seldom have any idea where anyone is standing. Each duel seems to take place in its own separate misty no-man’s land, with endless room around it for chases on foot and in chariots [2]. So there is no larger tension about the ebb and flow of the battle. It is a grinding recital of who killed whom, and what their lineages were.

A battle, like a story, has structure. It changes over time. The changing tides of battle can be managed as a dramatic arc, to provide suspense. Homer can't do that, because he hasn't visualized any of the fights, and so can't say how they come together to make a battle. There are no causal relations between the elements. There are no tactics, no logistics, no terrain, no real planning, no cavalry charges or infantry maneuvers, no successful use of phalanxes [3], no shifting front lines, no confusion. So there is no dramatic structure to the battles or to the war. We simply watch people being killed until some random events changes the tide at the last moment.

So the bulk of the Iliad is a series of formulaic events, strung together without causal connection, interspersed with irrelevant monologues, which progress in one direction until some random event turns things around and moves them in the other direction. This is not the structure of a good book; it's the structure of a daytime soap opera.


Judging the Iliad in 2015: The Ethics

You wanna talk about the patriarchy? This is the patriarchy. This is a world in which murder, rape, and theft aren't just good, they're the greatest good. A man is esteemed according to how many men he's murdered, how many beautiful women he's raped, and how much stuff he's stolen.

The Iliad is about a bunch of guys fighting over who gets to rape whom. The Greeks have come to Troy to stop Paris raping Helen. Apollo fights the Greeks because Agamemnon won't stop raping his priest's daughter Chryses. Agamemnon has to give up Chryses, so he takes Briseis instead, whom Achilles had wanted to rape, and Achilles stomps off in a huff and prays to his mother Thetis to help the Trojans kill his fellow Greeks. Women are literally trophies; they give them away as awards at sports competitions. Whenever I find some 19th-century Victorian scholar who would have been shocked to see a woman's ankle in public go on about the Iliad containing all of the ethics needed for civilization, I consider it a vindication of Freud. Throughout history, the more sexually repressed England was, the more its men loved the Iliad.

Homer doesn't angst over the cycle of violence, either. One of the few places where the narrator expresses a moral opinion is in upholding the obligation for revenge:

Then Menelaus of the loud war-cry took Adrestus alive, for his horses ran into a tamarisk bush, as they were flying wildly over the plain, and broke the pole from the car; they went on towards the city along with the others in full flight, but Adrestus rolled out, and fell in the dust flat on his face by the wheel of his chariot; Menelaus came up to him spear in hand, but Adrestus caught him by the knees begging for his life. "Take me alive," he cried, "son of Atreus, and you shall have a full ransom for me: my father is rich and has much treasure of gold, bronze, and wrought iron laid by in his house. From this store he will give you a large ransom should he hear of my being alive and at the ships of the Achaeans."

Thus did he plead, and Menelaus was for yielding and giving him to a squire to take to the ships of the Achaeans, but Agamemnon came running up to him and rebuked him. "My good Menelaus," said he, "this is no time for giving quarter. Has, then, your house fared so well at the hands of the Trojans? Let us not spare a single one of them--not even the child unborn and in its mother's womb; let not a man of them be left alive, but let all in Ilius perish, unheeded and forgotten."

Thus did he speak, and his brother was persuaded by him, for his words were just. Menelaus, therefore, thrust Adrestus from him, whereon King Agamemnon struck him in the flank, and he fell: then the son of Atreus planted his foot upon his breast to draw his spear from the body.

The Iliad's ethics are grotesque by our standards, but were appropriate for Homer's times (the Greek Dark Ages), and for the centuries after when Greece fought Persia. They needed a reputation for ruthlessness against their enemies, and they needed brave fighting men at any cost, even that of reducing half of their population to commodities. This is why great literature is not timeless.

Actually, this is an interesting point: Who needed brave fighting men at any cost? Answer: The men did. If we look at tribal societies, conflicts between neighbors were usually over territory or over women. "Territory", however, really meant "the territory of a group of males", in the same way that it does for birds. Females were always welcome. You could argue that tribes, cities, and civilizations were things men built to keep other men from stealing their women. That is, in fact, what the Iliad is about: the Greeks trying and repeatedly failing to achieve civilization-level cooperation in order to stop the Trojans from stealing their women (Helen).

The result, though, was to value fighting men so highly that civilization wasn't a very good deal for women. Maybe they would have been better off without it if it weren't for the tendency of men to kill the babies of the women they captured.

In fact, the main ethical take-away I get from the Iliad is that there are way too many of these damn men. They're pests, like swarms of flies. They are just getting in the way, building walls around cities, standing outside of cities, preventing people from farming, making other men lay down their hoes and pick up swords, and eventually killing or raping everybody. And then they write non-ironic literature glorifying doing all that stuff.

If the birth ratio were, say, 4 women to 1 man, things would be just about perfect [7]. We have the technology to make this happen today. I say, go for it. Kickstarter, anyone? :trixieshiftright:

The historical position of the Iliad, right at the beginning of Greek civilization, and its focus on the construction of a civilization as a method to maintain access to women, highlights the importance of sex to civilization. Society is, at root, how we decide who gets to have sex with whom. Men deny that society tries to control women. Women deny their sexual power over men. Hence we argue and argue and ignore the fundamental issues.


Judging the Iliad in 2015: The Philosophy

Okay. Now that I've got that out of my system: the Iliad is important as philosophy, not as... fiction. I was going to say "literature", but the Iliad literally defined what literature was: a triad of fiction, philosophy, and ethics.

There are several really interesting things about the Iliad. The first is that it's the Greek national story, but the Greeks are all assholes. The only admirable, likable character is Hector, son of King Priam and the leader of the Trojan warriors. He even gets a cute scene playing with his baby son. (By contrast, the leader of the Greeks, Agamemnon, sacrificed his daughter to Artemis so the fleet could have winds to sail to Troy.)

The second is that the Iliad is usually interpreted as a condemnation of the pride ("hubris") of Achilles, but the text doesn't support that. I looked for it, and it isn't there, except in the first line in Chapman's translation, which I suspect is Chapman's own interpretation [8]. Achilles is very, very proud, but he is also very, very great, and the text explicitly says that great men should act proud, demand respect and submission from their inferiors, and not tolerate insults.

The plot resembles 20th-century absurdist theater. The characters are all nearly helpless. Agamemnon is a shitty "king" [6] who no one likes. He's greedy, ungrateful, disliked, impetuous, murderous, deceptive, foolish, and has kept the Greeks here to fight a pointless war that isn't worth the trouble even if they win. The smart thing to do would either be to go home, or to work out a deal or compromise with the Trojans, and the Greeks try to do both. Nothing ever works. The Greeks should be able to walk right over the Trojans, but they cause themselves more problems than the Trojans do, and if some stupid Greek doesn't mess things up, some god does. They are stuck on Troy's shores like Estragon and Vladimir are stuck waiting for Godot, and the first half of the plot, for all its deaths, is about as consequential as the first half of Waiting for Godot. Neither side wants to fight, and neither side wants Helen--most of the Greeks don't care, and most of the Trojans would like to throw either Paris or her over the walls--yet they keep fighting and fighting.

And Homer is weirdly okay with that. He's like, That's just how the world is. That guy over there is just like you, and he doesn't want to fight, and you don't want to fight, but you gotta fight, and one of you has to die.

The most-important odd thing about the Iliad is that its heroes have no morality. When I say "morality", I mean "a code of behavior which demands actions from a person which do not benefit that person sufficiently to be worth her while." We're so used to morality that we see it everywhere, but it isn't in the Iliad. If a hero does something brave, or shows mercy to an enemy, it's because he expects to get something from it. He isn't doing it for the sake of his nation (he doesn't have one) or even his tribe, and certainly not for his god (unless he hopes to get something from his god). (Maybe for his brother, but loyalty doesn't feature prominently in the Iliad.) The things that appear to be exceptions to this amorality, I'll argue, are what the Iliad is about.

The Iliad is the foundational story of Greek civilization because its question is how to build a civilization. It posits a world in which men are selfish, war is inevitable, reason and kindness are helpless, and morality--what's that? The Greeks and the Trojans must fight, and one side must die. To live, a side needs many great warriors to work together.

And there's the rub. The Greeks have come together for this great collective deed, the siege of Troy, and they've got the manpower and the talent, but not the organizational skills. To be a great warrior, a man must be proud, violent, and high-spirited, but when you bring hundreds of proud, violent, high-spirited men together, they fight each other. To defeat the Trojans, many Greeks must die, but the treasures to be won aren't rationally worth the risk to the individuals fighting. The puzzle the Iliad poses in the persons of Achilles and Hector is, How do we train selfish men to be violent killers, and then convince them not to fight each other, but to die for their nation?

The answer is clever. You might call it evil, but let's remember that it worked. Remember the Greeks were not Christians. They weren't trying to convince men to win treasures in heaven, or to fight because it was the Right Thing to Do. The Greeks had gods who were assholes. They had no transcendental realm or God governing right and wrong. They were basically Nietzschians.

This is a hard thing for Christians to grasp. They think morality has to be dictated or revealed by some transcendent being. The Greeks did not believe that. They had what Christians would consider an unspiritual worldview. Their gods were not transcendent beings. They were just big frat boys. Zeus said how things would go down, and you'd be foolish to oppose him, but that didn't make him right or just. Humans had to choose what to do on their own. Prometheus was a hero for defying the gods.

So the Iliad invented self-interested, libertarian, civic virtue.

Achilles is sitting in his tent, and warriors come and try to persuade him to join the fight. He knows [4] that if he fights, he will die but win everlasting glory, while if he does not fight, he will return home and live to old age [5]. So why should he fight?

Hector is behind the walls of Troy, and faced with growing discontent from the Trojans, who want him to hand over Helen to the Greeks. He wants to hand over Helen to the Greeks instead of fighting. If he fights, he and his family will die. Homer devoted scenes to showing how much Hector loves his family. So why should he fight?

They should fight, the Iliad argues (though not directly), because life is overrated. Life is an endless cycle of flailing about helplessly in a universe that doesn't care. Life is being the plaything of the gods. The best thing for you, personally, is to win glory for yourself; that's more valuable than more of this life stuff. It doesn't last anyway.

This was a very interesting pivot point in the history of the West. This was a point where the West could have veered left like everybody else, but veered right instead. The obvious choice was for Homer to say that a man should fight for his people because he loves them and he loves his family and wants to defend them. The obvious choice would be to say civilization should be based on morality.

Homer didn't do that. He said civilization should be based on selfishness.

And that's when Western civilization was created.

On that hypothesis, the Greeks built a civilization of nation-states, each defended by amoral, basically irreligious warriors, who were willing to give their lives for their state for selfish reasons. And then it was this small civilization, in which men were encouraged and expected to do great deeds to seek their own glory, that almost immediately had the greatest, most intense burst of artistic and intellectual creativity and inventiveness in the world's history.

Selfish civic virtue was eventually diluted by morality, but the West still honors selfishness and individuality more than other civilizations. This is a large part of why the West has been so successful.


[1] Joyce meant for his book to bring in a new era of literature. Its quick victory over public opinion was the result of a careful propaganda campaign which Ezra Pound had been laying the groundwork of for years. Joyce chose for this purpose to retell a story of Homer's, not to honor Homer but to bury him, to turn Homer on his head and declare that everything had changed, that what had been good was now bad and what had been bad was now good.

(Joyce chose an easy target; Homer had been turned on his head, one way or another, many times before: by Euripides, by the Christian church, by Shakespeare, by the Enlightenment, by the 19th-century naturalists.)

[2] The word “phalanx”, the key component of Greek warfare, appears only four times. One of them describes a march to the battle; the other three describe a lone hero easily smashing through a phalanx.

[3] There is support for this view of Dark Ages Greek war in The Warrior State: How Military Organization Structures Politics by Everett C. Dolman, page 51-55:

Battles [in 1000-800 BCE, at least 200 years after the alleged Trojan War, but during the accepted time of Homer] were exclusively characterized by groups of high-born champions facing each other in single combat, and were “fluid, free-for-all encounters in which the great aristocrats of one state dueled with those of another.” … Military rank was bestowed as a birthright, and promotion was based on noble association…. about 900 BCE the individual had almost no rights, being absorbed into a totalitarian kinship group, in a system of such groups with no state and no real idea of public authority…. The phalanx formation probably developed between 750 and 650 BCE.... The Homeric Kings, who went out before their people to challenge their equals in single combat, had no place in the phalanx… A dominant leader was, in the age of the phalanx, not a heroic warrior, but a master tactician and organizer.

This would explain why Homer doesn’t use the phalanx correctly, though not how he mentions it at all, if it hadn’t been invented when he wrote, let alone when the events took place hundreds of years before. But that could easily be a later interpolation; the earliest full manuscript of the Iliad is from the 9th century A.D.

[4] We think Achilles knows! This is Homer's most-critical screw-up. We really need to know whether Achilles knows this or not, but Achilles gives several reasons for not fighting, and it isn't clear which is his real reason, and it isn't clear whether he was really told this prophecy, or is making it up for his own purposes.

[5] There is a great irony in interpreting Achilles' dilemma in light of the further history of the Greeks. It was the philosophers of Athens, not the warriors of Sparta, who brought ancient Greece the most undying fame and glory. Yet the philosophical Greece did not survive long--only about a hundred years from Euripides to Alexander the Great. The decision that faced Greece at the dawn of its golden age, had they known it, may have been the obverse of that faced by Achilles: continue to honor valor in combat above all, and survive, or dare a hundred years of free thought, and die, but with everlasting glory.

[6] Agamemnon isn't the king of the Greeks. He's the warlord with the most men.

[7] So why is the birth ratio 1:1? Very good question! It's not like fixing that would be too complicated for evolution. I don't know the answer, but I suspect it's group selection, more specifically the evolution of traits that enable evolution. Most selection in mammals is probably not the result of animals dying, but of males failing to breed. Producing too many males and then forcing them to fight it out over females is the most-important selection mechanism. Western monogamous societies circumvent this. This slows most evolution, but increases the force of kin selection, because a person growing up in a monogamous culture shares half her genes with her siblings, as opposed to between 1/4 and 1/2 in a polygamous culture. This means monogamous societies should, over time, produce people who are stupid and weak, but very nice to each other and cooperative. Quite a conundrum for those trying to decide which is "better".

[8] Tip: If you're going to translate something, don't start at the beginning and translate as you go. Read it first. I remember the Reader's Digest condensed edition of the Bible. The last paragraph of the Bible says, "If anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city." They decided to leave that out.

Comments ( 58 )
Wanderer D
Moderator

And now I'm 100% sure you confused the shit out of some kid here who thought the Brad Pitt movie was canonical.

That's a depressing conclusion. I mean, isn't fascism this but with states instead of people? Is our taboo against mass murder and genocide and violating human rights keeping dictators from reaching their true potential?

I feel like I ought to have more to say about this than I do, but I've spent more time engaged with the Odyssey than the Illiad.

First, the pedantic:

All those swords whose histories Tolkien describes so lovingly--that’s straight from Homer.

That's actually not a thing. Tolkien doesn't really go in for gratuitous weapon porn of that sort. A lot of his weapons are named, but the most important one of them is Narsil/Anduril, and even that only has a cursory history. Herugrim and Orcrist and Glamdring don't have extensive biographies. The closest thing we get is Anglachel, whose entire history is very extensively detailed... but Anglachel isn't an entirely passive object, being a character in its own right.

And I feel like that's a corollary to a larger point, which is to be very, very careful about laying out the Illiad as the foundational literary epic of Western civilization. It certainly came first, or at least, was codified first in a way we still remember three millennia later. But it's the foundational epic of specifically southern and western Europe. The traditions it spawned and the reverence in which it is held propagated across time and geography and either co-opted or swamped over everything else... south of the alps and west of the Rhine.

North and east of that you have some very, very different storytelling traditions, philosophy, and morality in play. The peoples of eastern and northern Europe, (Magyars, Vandals, Jutes, Geats, various flavors of Goths from Ostro to Visi, etc.) didn't give a shit about Homer or, for that matter, his works. They had their own epics (many of which are now lost to time) and their own way of doing things, and it was not the same.

One could argue that those places are not properly thought of as being part of western civilization(tm), but if you're defining western civilization in a way that excludes Germany, I think one needs to consider just how useful that term is.

I do have a point here, which I'm getting to. Do you know where the southern European literary traditions and the northern and eastern ones came together in a great big mess?

Thaaaaaat's right. England. Inhabited by Celts, colonized by Romans, conquered by vikings, and then conquered again by different vikings (the Normans were basically vikings; they were not Franks) who had, themselves, been heavily influenced by what was left of Roman culture in France.

Tolkien specifically, despite the fact that he was an Oxford don and thus is supposed to be a stereotypical lover of latin, draws just about everything he writes from the dark forests and bearded axe-wielders of northern Europe, not the bright sunshine and sandal-clad swordsmen of the Mediterranean. His works have nothing to do with Homer and everything to do with Snorri Sturluson.

A lot of English (and, by extension, American) literature, philosophy, and culture is like that. Our society owes as much to the mores worked out by people figuring out how to productively relate to the people on the other side of the fjord as it does the Roman Empire and the city-states of ancient Greece. Much of what is still perceived as how to conduct honorable business dealings or how to behave as a polite host owes more to the vikings than it does to the Romans.

You wanna talk about the patriarchy? This is the patriarchy. This is a world in which murder, rape, and theft aren't just good, they're the greatest good. A man is esteemed according to how many men he's murdered, how many beautiful women he's raped, and how much stuff he's stolen.

Kieron Gillen (or at least, one of his characters) made an interesting point about this sort of thing recently in The Wicked and The Divine; patriarchy doesn't really mean rule by men. It specifically means rule by fathers.

And that's important, because regardless of whether they've managed to reproduce or not, most men will never really be fathers in that sense. They're sons. And the role of sons is to serve. It is their job to die on the battlefield in order to maintain the Empire and make sure the fathers continue to have brand and cigars, and what they're offered in return is "glory" and the small possibility that they'll become part of the ruling class and thus be made fathers in their own right.

Most of those dudes in the Illiad who are murdering their way through entire phalanxes at a time are fathers in this sense. But a few of them are sons.

Selfish civic virtue was eventually diluted by morality, but the West still honors selfishness and individuality more than other civilizations. This is a large part of why the West has been so successful.

Ennhh... I feel like there was a lot of luck involved. Europe was the shitty backwater of the planet for a very, very long time, and I'm uncomfortable ascribing the rise of Europe (and North America, which lets face it is an extension thereof) over the past three centuries or so to "suddenly our way of doing things started working better."

The analysis I'll present here is unique; nobody's come to these conclusions before. But I don't think they're difficult. People are just stupid, especially when they elevate something to the level of a scripture.

Read this aloud in a Fluttershy voice. It's hilarious.:yay:

3951069

A lot of English (and, by extension, American) literature, philosophy, and culture is like that. Our society owes as much to the mores worked out by people figuring out how to productively relate to the people on the other side of the fjord as it does the Roman Empire and the city-states of ancient Greece. Much of what is still perceived as how to conduct honorable business dealings or how to behave as a polite host owes more to the vikings than it does to the Romans.

I don't know whether "as much" is justified, but this is a good point. And within fantasy literature, we owe a great deal more to the Nordic tradition. Everybody in England studied Greek mythology until very recently, but English fantasy today is all Celtic & Nordic. Odd, that.

It's formulaic on a fine scale as well. Each battle is merely a string of individual fights, and each fight gives a name, a city of origin, a parentage, a brief history, and an entrance wound for the loser. Piling up hundreds of deaths of walk-ons adds horror, but not weight. It's like the opening scene of "Saving Private Ryan": numbing, but not grieving.

Ah, so this is the man who brought us the soldier showing the audience a picture of his wife and kids five minutes before he dies.

Fortunately, we have learned in the last 2,800 years that, while this can be effective, it is not a good idea to do it five times in a row.

If the birth ratio were, say, 4 women to 1 man, things would be just about perfect. We have the technology to make this happen today. I say, go for it. Kickstarter, anyone?

This wouldn't be very effective for a wide variety of reasons, not the least of which is that women are likely no less violent than men in the end; lesbians abuse their partners at the same rate as men, and women abuse children more often than men. The reason we associate men with violence is simply because men are better at bringing violence against adults. Violent people just tend to punch down or sideways, not up.

Nice try, though. :V

So the Iliad invented self-interested, libertarian, civic virtue.

Well, then. I guess it matters after all.

I remember the words of the monkeysphere:

As long as everybody gets their own bananas and shares with the few in their Monkeysphere, the system will thrive even though nobody is even trying to make the system thrive. This is perhaps how Ayn Rand would have put it, had she not been such a hateful bitch.

3951069

A lot of English (and, by extension, American) literature, philosophy, and culture is like that. Our society owes as much to the mores worked out by people figuring out how to productively relate to the people on the other side of the fjord as it does the Roman Empire and the city-states of ancient Greece. Much of what is still perceived as how to conduct honorable business dealings or how to behave as a polite host owes more to the vikings than it does to the Romans.

This is an interesting and fair point.

Thaaaaaat's right. England. Inhabited by Celts, colonized by Romans, conquered by vikings, and then conquered again by different vikings (the Normans were basically vikings; they were not Franks) who had, themselves, been heavily influenced by what was left of Roman culture in France.

The mongrel people speaking a mongrel language on a mongrel island.

And then they came to America.

Ennhh... I feel like there was a lot of luck involved. Europe was the shitty backwater of the planet for a very, very long time, and I'm uncomfortable ascribing the rise of Europe (and North America, which lets face it is an extension thereof) over the past three centuries or so to "suddenly our way of doing things started working better."

Europe has had the most advanced civilization on the planet for the majority of the last 2,500 years. That's unlikely to be coincidence. If you expand it to "areas around the Mediterranean", it spent almost all of recorded history ahead of other civilizations.

3951069 Maybe we don't like Greek mythology because we studied it in school. We see a gorgon, and part of us thinks, "Will there be a quiz on this?"

3951235

This wouldn't be very effective for a wide variety of reasons, not the least of which is that women are likely no less violent than men in the end; lesbians abuse their partners at the same rate as men, and women abuse children more often than men. The reason we associate men with violence is simply because men are better at bringing violence against adults. Violent people just tend to punch down or sideways, not up.

The issue is that men fight over women, not that women are more virtuous. Women don't have to fight over men. Each women gets a man; many men may get no woman.

If only bonobos, or wolves, had become the dominant species, the world would be less ethically problematic.

(Side note: When looking for behavioral differences between men and women, lesbians are probably not a good study group.)

3951305
Women fight over men all the time. Both genders compete over their partners.

It makes sense if you think about it; humans are semi-monogamous, and we know from studies of real people that two-parent households do a better job of raising children.

Consequently, women have a great deal of incentive to compete for exclusive relationships with the most desirable men. The more artificial limitations have been removed from this competition, in fact, the more we're seeing this competition.

It is mostly a subfraction of men over which women compete the most. But they definitely do it. Hence the whole "homewrecker" trope.

When a younger woman rolls in and seduces an older successful man, getting him to divorce his present wife and go with her, isn't she outcompeting the other partner for the highly desirable (at least to her) man?

There's a reason for the girl tween/teen movie trope of the school female bully having a hot, nice boyfriend who over the course of the story sees what a jerk his girlfriend is, dumps her, and gets with the main character. Also why there is a bachelor of the year.

3951328

When a younger woman rolls in and seduces an older successful man, getting him to divorce his present wife and go with her, isn't she outcompeting the other partner for the highly desirable (at least to her) man?

That only happens in monogamous societies which have been organized to prevent men from fighting over women. And it's not life-or-genetic-death for the woman. She can always get pregnant if she wants to, by some man who ranks well above her in the social scale. Women fight over men, but men kill each other over women.

3951336

Much as we all love to use Evolutionary Psychology to try and create a logical reason for every single human behavior, I think at this point you're simply generalizing too far. If a woman's preference for a man isn't tied into her genetic's struggle to replicate, then on what basis can we judge a woman's behavior as it relates to genetic replication?

3951336
I'm pretty sure that this happened in Ancient Egypt as well, with women wanting to be the Pharaoh's favorite wife or whatever, and with kings, who often had many mistresses, who would want to be their favorites. Realistically speaking, you can only favor any particular person so much - you only have so much favor to go around - so polygamy doesn't really change that.

And given that historically, wives who fell out of favor were sometimes killed, there is some danger to it.

And it's not life-or-genetic-death for the woman. She can always get pregnant if she wants to, by some man who ranks well above her in the social scale.

This isn't necessarily true. According to this, studies have found 16-19% of men and 13-14% of women never have children in the US. That's not a very significant gap.

3951198

I don't know whether "as much" is justified, but this is a good point.

I may have oversold that, yeah. But even my overselling is at least debatable.

And within fantasy literature, we owe a great deal more to the Nordic tradition. Everybody in England studied Greek mythology until very recently, but English fantasy today is all Celtic & Nordic. Odd, that.

It's not that odd, really. Today, everyone is marinating in the tropes popularized by Tolkien. Tolkien, in turn, was marinating in what some people still call "the Matter of Britain;" namely, Arthurian mythology, stretching all the way back to Geoffrey of Monmouth via Thomas Malory.

King Arthur is the central mythological figure of Great Britain, cutting across all cultural lines there (he's a hero to the Welsh AND to the English, a neat trick if you can manage it) and his entire cycle of stories is nearly pure northern Europe with a tissue-thin Christian/Roman gloss.

The traditions of English "fantasy" or speculative fiction have always been thus. Arguably the first sci-fi novel was The Blazing World, and that's essentially a bunch of northern European mythological tropes bolted onto nascent utopian ideas.

This isn't to say it doesn't also have a huge strain of what we'd regard as more classically-inspired fiction, but in many ways Shakespeare was an outlier in that regard, not an example of the norm.

3951235

Europe has had the most advanced civilization on the planet for the majority of the last 2,500 years. That's unlikely to be coincidence. If you expand it to "areas around the Mediterranean", it spent almost all of recorded history ahead of other civilizations.

Well this just ain't true.

Well... hmm.

It depends a little bit on how you define "advanced." If you mean militarily, technologically, and organizationally, that's just straight untrue. China, Japan, India, and the Middle East spent many, many centuries "ahead" of Europe in all those areas. Not all at once, mind, and not all the time, but they were. Europe rocketing ahead of everyone technologically and militarily is a recent innovation that only started in the 1500s and only REALLY took off in the 18th century. If you were to look at the world circa 500 AD to 1500 or so, you'd place bets on whether China or this new upstart Islam would eventually come to dominate the globe, with occasional side bets on various steppe nomads who were shockingly good at empire-building. You would probably not regard Europe as much of a contender, because it was a bunch of postage-stamp sized nations who had no idea how to run effectively organized governments and had squandered what technological sophistication had once been bequeathed to them by now-fallen Rome. And even Rome isn't obviously superior to, say, the Qin dynasty as a civilization. Nor were the Greek city-states obviously superior to the Zhou.

If you mean culturally that's almost impossible to evaluate objectively. Like, it's hard to make an argument that, say, the Four Great Classical Novels of China are superior to the Song of Roland, or that tapestry is a superior art form to calligraphy.

Huh. I hadn't really considered the importance of self-interest to the glory of Western Civilization.

"...The first is that it's the Greek national story, but the Greeks are all assholes...."

Yeah, when I was writing Neighborhood and trying to keep it fairly family friendly, I kept reading back into the stories of the Greek gods and saying, "Nope, not going to put that in. Or that. Or particularly that." To paraphrase one of my commenters, Greek mythology goes roughly: Something/somebody interesting shows up. Zeus (censored) it, with possibly offspring resulting, and most likely casualties. Repeat.

Great work, Bad Horse! Very fun and thought-provoking read. I note a very Nietzschean view of the Ancient Greeks. Thought, of course, he'd say that Socrates ruined it all even before Christianity came along. Personally, I think what brought forth morality isn't philosophy's martyred patron-saint so much as on the city. Civilization, etymologically and otherwise, is all about cities. In small groups internal disputes are, essentially, family disputes and are resolved using built-in relationship neural circuitry and custom. External disputes are best served by glory-seeking warrior types. But once you have a city-state and some form of government within it you start needing some sort of virtue and once you start talking about that some annoying snub-nosed freak in a patched tunic is bound to come along and ask annoyingly inconvenient questions.

I do have one problem with your conclusion, though. Isn't this the exact same conclusion that plagues any martial tradition of antiquity? I mean, around this time, recall, the first Vedas are being written and in them a Kshatriya must fight, even if he is terrible at it and doesn't want to do it because to a Kshatriya the greatest virtue is to fight. The famous "I am death destroyer of worlds" quote-thing comes from a bit where that exact point is made, if memory serves. And the northern sagas have a very similar take with, likewise, a very grim fatalism about things. You could assume that this sort of glory-seeking intangible-benefit-to-self-above-all-others approach is either something societies just do at some point or that it is the feature of the Great Invaders: the vast mass of Indo-europeans that poured into Europe and made R1b the dominant haplogroup and Indo-european the dominant language group.

Either way it seems common and Christianity is actually a reversal of the trend but since it basically ate society we can't see it anymore. If you look at the philosophy of late antiquity[1], you'll see what almost seems a psychotic self-regard. Philosophy is all about maximum benefit to yourself except, of course, benefit is given a different definition and involves a lot of reflection and restraint. But it is still about achieving the maximum for oneself. It is individualistic as hell. There's even po-faced discussions on whether one needs friends at all and, if so, what for[2].

It's Christianity that bucked that trend and even then not directly. A lot of early interpretations either went gnostic[3] or became obsessed with collecting Virtue Points to the point that you suspect that it became a rousing game of Religimon (gotta collect 'em all!) to some of them.

Lastly, I've every reason to suspect that the story sounds a lot better than it reads. Even the structural problems vanish if you are listening while, say, feasting in a goodly hall or somesuch. :) I think that for a modern person to experience it is to listen to a nice reading. Unfortunately I can't seem to find one.

[1] Because there's a lot of it and it also represents a philosophy people tried to live by, day-to-day.
[2] Ponies would never approve. Though the pro-friend position, I think, won though didn't acquit themselves in a particularly glorious manner: friends are still means to an end, no more.
[3] Which is a Christianized warmed-over mixture of warmed-over Proclus and Iamblichus, I swear.

3951305
The scenario you posit ends in polygamy, and there still being people without a mate, I suspect.


3951235

Europe has had the most advanced civilization on the planet for the majority of the last 2,500 years. That's unlikely to be coincidence. If you expand it to "areas around the Mediterranean", it spent almost all of recorded history ahead of other civilizations.

European civilization has been the most advanced for about four hundred years, tops. During all of the rest of the time it was either prosperous and unexceptional or a backwater. The Romans were great an all, but they were not exceptionally better than the Persians nor were they better than the Chinese with which, mind, they had contact. The Chinese liked the Romans (no, seriously, they found a letter an emissary sent) and were pleasantly surprised with how alike they were).

In fact, a good proxy for 'advancement' would be urbanization, say the location of the largest city? City means commerce and trade and it implies infrastructure and engineering because without the latter two you don't get to have a large city for long though you do get an excellent necropolis in record time. So how does the chart for city size over time look like?

Well, in antiquity it looks like you might imagine: Egypt and Mesopotamia trading places a lot. Rome rules from about 100 BC to 500AD with Rome, at first, and the Constantinople—during the reign of Justinian the great Byzantine/East Roman[1] emperor Constantinople was the greatest city in the world. After that, it's China, solid until 1900 or so.

It might seem that European civilization[2] was always destined to get here but I think otherwise. But for a few swerves of history[3], it might not have turned out this way. Say, if the conquest of the new world wasn't so easy what with smallpox giving a helping rash-covered hand, and if the West Africans were less enslavable, there wouldn't be an easy way to get enough ready capital to finance all those gentleman-scientists we relied upon before grants were invented. And certainly not enough capital to kickstart the industrial revolution.

There but the grace of historical quirks...

So, I wouldn't beat against the drum of clearly superior western individualism because of all of the above and, also, because, well, it really wasn't that individualistic to begin with. If you look up the way medieval society worked in, say, England, you see that they didn't even have the concept of individual guilt in some respects—tithings were practically a codification of that. And certainly no concept of the rights of an individual.

[1] Why we persist in the term 'Byzantium' confuses me. If you went and asked people back then, they'd be confused and explain that they are Romans.
[2] Or Western European civilization, since, of course, the Russians and Poles are aliens from the counter-Earth who invaded recently.
[3] There's a credible hypothesis that the reason for the Chinese not ruling the world lies in just two things: hanzi is a nightmare to write and they were too damn good at porcelain. The former made their invention of movable type damn near useless and the latter meant they never bothered much with glass. What glass they had was imported as a curio and decoration. Paper was good enough for windows[4], and liquids could be stored in porcelain vessels. The problem was that without glass you have no optics and without optics science grounds to a halt.
[4] It let light in and kept the draft out. You couldn't look out of it, but frankly, you couldn't through most glass until quite recently when we finally figured out how to make soda-lime glass.

So, what your saying is, that Homer beat Ayn Rand to the punch by over 2,000 years?

Also, do Gilgamesh next.

3951455
People often think that Europe became backwards during the Dark Ages, but while Rome itself fell, the Roman Empire survived until the 1400s. The Eastern Roman Empire - AKA the Byzantine Empire - was a hugely powerful and important country for a very long time. Heck, in 555 - long after the traditional end date for the Roman Empire - it controlled Rome and pretty much the entire Mediterranean. It remained a pretty huge country until the 7th century. The Carolingian empire was pretty big as well, containing 10-20 million people and a big chunk of Western Europe.

The Umayyad Caliphate was powerful, to be sure, but like many large empires, it didn't last very long - less than 100 years. And it was unable to ultimately fully conquer the Byzantine Empire, and it was ultimately turned back by the Franks in Western Europe. Its successor, the Abbasid Caliphate, peaked in 850.

And that's really the thing. There were powerful empires here and there over time, but ultimately, most of them didn't last very long. So, yeah, Europe didn't always have the most powerful country in the world at any given time, but no one really did - they were constantly falling apart and building back up.

Europe was a tough nut for outsiders to crack - the Ottomans were probably the most successful in the east, thoguh the Umayyad Caliphate did take what later became Spain.

The Ottoman Empire's greatest extent was in 1683, for instance, and it was a very powerful country at that point, but so were Spain, France, and Britain. Hell, even Portugal and the Dutch had empires at that point.

China, for all its power, was conquered by the Mongols, as were the Muslims, but the Europeans managed to stave them off long enough for the Mongol Empire to fall apart.

Europe probably contained the most advanced civilization from about 2400 (roughly when the Persian empire declined) to 1300 BP, and probably also from about 600 BP to the present. Between about 700 and 1400, there were other contenders - the Muslims, the Mongols (though via conquest, not their own thing), the Chinese - but even during that era, it wasn't like the Europeans didn't have a lot of stuff going for them.

You would probably not regard Europe as much of a contender, because it was a bunch of postage-stamp sized nations who had no idea how to run effectively organized governments and had squandered what technological sophistication had once been bequeathed to them by now-fallen Rome.

The Byzantines, the Bulgars, the Carloginians, the Normans, the Papal States... there were a lot of powerful countries in Europe. And even things like the Ventians, though tiny, wielded outsized influence. It wasn't like they were a bunch of nobodies; there's a reason why the Muslims overran the Middle East and North Africa but failed to overrun Europe, despite Europe's fractious nature.

It is a common view of history to see the Dark Ages as a bunch of nothing in Europe, but there was a lot going on, and the Europeans were dangerous; they just weren't particularly unified. It is true that they didn't build a bunch of really huge infrastructure projects during that era, but there was still stuff giong on, and by the 2nd millenium they were already recovering.

And even Rome isn't obviously superior to, say, the Qin dynasty as a civilization. Nor were the Greek city-states obviously superior to the Zhou.

The Romans controlled more than twice the land area of the Qin, and over 1 in 5 people on the planet lived in the Roman Empire at the time. Their infrastructure and cultural exportation was legendary.

They were an enormously powerful (and just plain old enormous) empire.

Not to sell the Qin short, but I think the Romans had them beat pretty well.

It seems like it is popular to pretend like the Europeans got lucky at the last minute, but the reality is that the Europeans were really just an extension of the older Mediterranean powers, and that the Meditteranean has been a center of a lot of important and powerful civilizations for a very long time. The center of power gradually migrated northward and Westward to France, Germany, Britain, Spain, Portugal, Russia, and the Norse over time.

Sure, if you said in 500 BCE that the isle of Great Britain would one day become the most powerful country on the planet, it would have seemed laughable, but the idea that someone in Europe would end up being the most powerful civilization wasn't really a silly idea back then. Even in the Dark Ages, there was still a lot of latent power there, and the background strata of Christianity pointed towards a greater degree of unity than was readily observed. The underlying strata of a common religion replaced the underlying strata of Rome.

But the Renaissance and Age of Exploration didn't just come out of nowhere; there's a reason that Europe colonized everywhere else. Indeed, the pressure cooker of the numerous nation-states in Europe may well have helped spur their development in many areas.

It is true that the Europeans were not head and shoulders ahead of everyone else in, say, 1000 CE, but they certainly weren't miles and miles behind, either, and if someone said in 1000 CE "Oh, there's going to be a big European Empire again", it wouldn't have seemed strange at all.

3951395

This isn't necessarily true. According to this, studies have found 16-19% of men and 13-14% of women never have children in the US. That's not a very significant gap.

That's because the US is monogamous.

3951500
The use of a separate term for the eastern Roman Empire is most certainly a conceit of historians due to the fact that it existed in a neighboring, but distinct, era in history. The Roman Empire was the last hurrah of antiquity, the Byzantines were the first hurrah of the Middle Ages. Why Byzantines specifically? No idea, they were no more or less greek than the romans were. :V

3951500

European civilization has been the most advanced for about four hundred years, tops. During all of the rest of the time it was either prosperous and unexceptional or a backwater. The Romans were great an all, but they were not exceptionally better than the Persians nor were they better than the Chinese with which, mind, they had contact. The Chinese liked the Romans (no, seriously, they found a letter an emissary sent) and were pleasantly surprised with how alike they were).

I agree that the Europeans were not what they ended up becoming until the Age of Exploration, but they were pretty much one of the top dogs for a very, very long time.

It might seem that European civilization[2] was always destined to get here but I think otherwise. But for a few swerves of history[3], it might not have turned out this way. Say, if the conquest of the new world wasn't so easy what with smallpox giving a helping rash-covered hand, and if the West Africans were less enslavable, there wouldn't be an easy way to get enough ready capital to finance all those gentleman-scientists we relied upon before grants were invented. And certainly not enough capital to kickstart the industrial revolution.

I don't think that European civilization was "always destined" to get here, but I think that, rewinding history 3000 years or so, its odds of ending up top dog were pretty good. Realistically speaking, it was probably either going to be Europe or the Far East because of the relative lack of advancement of the Americas; whoever ended up colonizing the Americas would probably "win" as they'd suddenly gain +2 continents (the Europeans actually gained +3 by taking over Australia as well). That's not to say that the Middle East/India weren't important, but their geographical positioning was disadvantageous. I suppose they might have colonized Australia, and then from there, elsewhere, but they didn't, and there may or may not be good reasons for that.

Apparently there's some indication in Aboriginal DNA that the Indians visted 4000 years ago, and they just completely died out/merged with the local population.

It is, I suppose, worth remembering that the firstest, greatest civilization was Egypt, which was a Mediterranean power, and it gave us the alphabet, which has proved to be a powerful weapon in our arsenal. The Egyptians were the Greeks and Romans to the Greeks and Romans, after all.

Not to say that things always were going to turn out the way that they did. Rewinding history, I could see the Far East winning. I just don't think that the Europeans were particularly unlikely to win, and indeed, may well have had some advantages.

Say, if the conquest of the new world wasn't so easy what with smallpox giving a helping rash-covered hand, and if the West Africans were less enslavable, there wouldn't be an easy way to get enough ready capital to finance all those gentleman-scientists we relied upon before grants were invented. And certainly not enough capital to kickstart the industrial revolution.

To be honest, I'm not sure that the Native Americans really ever stood a chance, with or without smallpox. Yes, it killed a lot of people, but the reason we know that 90% of the Native Americans in some Mexican cities died of various epidemics is because we had already conquered them by that point. They were a bunch of bronze age at best cultures which had very few real empires being confronted with a bunch of people who had vastly superior technology and social infrastructure and backing. Many of their civilizations had sharp rocks as the apex of their technology, and the lack of things like, say, horses and the wheel, was not very helpful either.

The Americas might not be quite as white as they are today without those epidemics (though it is worth remembering that not all of those diseases were Eurasian in origin), but I'm not sure how different things would have really ended up.

Enslaving West Africans was helpful, but I'm not sure if it was actually truly critical to the Industrial Revolution, or if it was just a convenient way to get there. In any case, the places that ended up wealthiest ultimately weren't the places with all the slaves, but the places that didn't have the slaves.

It is also probably worth noting that the only reason Africa didn't get taken over by those to the North was because Malaria and other nasty tropical diseases made it a very hostile place to them. So that was probably a historical accident that worked out in the favor of the Africans, at least as far as "not getting conquered" goes (though it is, I suppose, arguable that it was bad for them in the long term, as being conquered gives you new culture and tech).

Of course, this is all counterfactual speculation about history, which is pretty much impossible to prove right or wrong.

Really, we have no real idea why, say, the Americans ended up so far behind others, or why the Australians were even worse off, or why the Africans south of the Sahara never really went north, or why the Horn of Africa didn't end up developing a more powerful civilization to rival those of the rest of the world, instead of simply being #1 in Africa.

But I fear at times we have gone so far on "let's actually remember the rest of the world exists and not be totally eurocentric" that we have gone a bit to the other side and have forgotten that Europe probably had a lot of things going for it in order to win.

3951500

The scenario you posit ends in polygamy, and there still being people without a mate, I suspect.

The bonobo scenario ends in sex for (almost?) all and a very loose concept of a "mate". What the Sixties promised.

A wolf pack has one breeding alpha female and one breeding alpha male. There may be intense competition to mate, but it's entirely symmetric. There is no gender-based dominance or asymmetry. I say "may be" because some wolf researchers think that, in nature, many wolf packs were atomic families. This may be impossible to know now, as many human influences have changed the way wolf packs form and how large they get.

3951487

"Oh, the mountains look on Marathon
And Marathon looks on the sea,
And I look up at the Parthenon
And the Greeks look down on me."

--Flanders and Swann, who also observed that Greek is the only language in which the word for "foreigner" is the same as that for "guest," xenos--"as in xenophobia, fear and hatred of guests."

It is a good analysis, I liked it. The morality issue was nice. Gods of old were more akin to men.

Selfishness was a positive factor for advancement of west but it is never so simple.

If you ask me I would say the reason is wars, trade and threat of destruction. Europa owns everything to wars, so many different cultures and ethnics led to war, with threat of war and destruction rulers could not limit the technological advancements as they needed it for war efforts.

The Buffon's needle problem is actually desinged for military, how many lines of soldier can a cannonbal can pierce.

China could discover new world centuries before colombus if rulers had not prevented technological advancement. However, that did not happen as they burnt all the trade ships.

It was the necessity that encouraged the advancement, the countries which did not modernize lost, their land taken, their rulers killed, their women taken.

Those who feel content and happy, those don't feel the necessity and the obligation to become more and fail to clean the mistakes were eaten alive by those who did.

That is the humanity in a nutshell, it is no wonder equastria seems like an utopia to us but even if we went there I seriously doubt anybody would be satisfied, we are just assholes in its purest form and manage to limit this viciousness under the name of civilization.

3951198

Everybody in England studied Greek mythology until very recently, but English fantasy today is all Celtic & Nordic. Odd, that.

Tolkien's doing I suspect, and just about single-handedly (Lewis was a devoted Classicist).

3951835

--Flanders and Swann, who also observed that Greek is the only language in which the word for "foreigner" is the same as that for "guest," xenos--"as in xenophobia, fear and hatred of guests."

I was at a talk last week where a speaker observed that, in all of the Native American languages he'd studied, the word for "foreigner / stranger" was the same as the word for "enemy".

3951733

I don't think that European civilization was "always destined" to get here, but I think that, rewinding history 3000 years or so, its odds of ending up top dog were pretty good. Realistically speaking, it was probably either going to be Europe or the Far East because of the relative lack of advancement of the Americas; whoever ended up colonizing the Americas would probably "win" as they'd suddenly gain +2 continents (the Europeans actually gained +3 by taking over Australia as well). That's not to say that the Middle East/India weren't important, but their geographical positioning was disadvantageous. I suppose they might have colonized Australia, and then from there, elsewhere, but they didn't, and there may or may not be good reasons for that.

If you include what I'm going to call 'Hellenistic civilizations[1]' in your definition of Europe, which you very nearly seem to be doing then, yes, that does seem very likely. However, this is a different definition of 'Europe' than one commonly used. And it certainly isn't 'The West' though, I suspect, it is west of some places.

And India colonized a lot of southwest Asia. From there it is just a hop a skip and a jump to Australia, I guess, but they never made it. They didn't have the wherewithal for long-term ocean voyage, it would seem. Hardly anyone did. The Chinese could do it (witness Zheng He who could have so easily got to Australia if he wanted to) , but perversely chose not to.

But there wasn't much reason to go to various New Worlds for a lot of Empires. Australia was a slam dunk because it is in many respects like Europe: European cultures work quite well there and so it was perhaps the most successful colony. But elsewhere? Not really. If it weren't for spices (which the Chinese and the Indians had) and the Asiento trade those voyages would be like the space program: nice in a 'final frontier' sort of way but desperately expensive.

[1] All those civilizations who are firmly based on the cosmopolitan-Greek culture of late antiquity, viz. geographical Europe, the Levant, large chunk of the middle east, and Russia, European and Asian halves both.

It is, I suppose, worth remembering that the firstest, greatest civilization was Egypt, which was a Mediterranean power, and it gave us the alphabet, which has proved to be a powerful weapon in our arsenal. The Egyptians were the Greeks and Romans to the Greeks and Romans, after all.

Well... Ancient Egypt probably wasn't the first but whoever the first was they lived within a stone's throw of the Levant somewhere around the rest of the fertile crescent or up in Anatolia. Either way within extended-Europe.

Not to say that things always were going to turn out the way that they did. Rewinding history, I could see the Far East winning. I just don't think that the Europeans were particularly unlikely to win, and indeed, may well have had some advantages.

Provided you extend Europe as above then, yes, I agree. It's about 60-40 for China, eyeballing it. They had to drop the ball which they did, once they stopped their great voyages of exploration and discovery.

To be honest, I'm not sure that the Native Americans really ever stood a chance, with or without smallpox. Yes, it killed a lot of people, but the reason we know that 90% of the Native Americans in some Mexican cities died of various epidemics is because we had already conquered them by that point. They were a bunch of bronze age at best cultures which had very few real empires being confronted with a bunch of people who had vastly superior technology and social infrastructure and backing. Many of their civilizations had sharp rocks as the apex of their technology, and the lack of things like, say, horses and the wheel, was not very helpful either.

Actually, the Mesoamericans had the wheel. They just didn't use it. Hilly country plus no draft animals. No point.

I see your point, but once they met the Europeans they took to new tech damn quick and, well, just add fifty million annoyed Indians to the Indian Wars and they might turn out the other way around. I'm not saying that they'd repulse the Europeans from their shores entirely, but the balance of power might be otherwise and the 'States might have actually kept to the treaties they signed instead of betraying them.

Enslaving West Africans was helpful, but I'm not sure if it was actually truly critical to the Industrial Revolution, or if it was just a convenient way to get there. In any case, the places that ended up wealthiest ultimately weren't the places with all the slaves, but the places that didn't have the slaves.

Well, if you look at what Europe did it certainly seems to have helped a lot. The Elizabethans had a lot of nice things to say about it, that's for sure.

At any rate, no, having slaves is a great way to suicide, economically in the long run (in the short run it is awesome except for the whole 'you soul withers into a blackened husk' part) Selling slaves for profit, however, and running the triangular trade is very profitable indeed. And then you take all that money, wipe the blood off of it and, I don't know. Build Hardwick Hall, possibly. Invest in glass-making workshops.

It is also probably worth noting that the only reason Africa didn't get taken over by those to the North was because Malaria and other nasty tropical diseases made it a very hostile place to them. So that was probably a historical accident that worked out in the favor of the Africans, at least as far as "not getting conquered" goes (though it is, I suppose, arguable that it was bad for them in the long term, as being conquered gives you new culture and tech).

And nobody comes to trade, either, because you are surrounded by impenetrable pestilence-filled jungle.

Of course, this is all counterfactual speculation about history, which is pretty much impossible to prove right or wrong.

Agreed! My point is, rather, that we cannot use the current state of affair to derive conclusions like 'Individualism is clearly the best because individualists won in the end!" Things might have been otherwise. This isn't the only history.

Really, we have no real idea why, say, the Americans ended up so far behind others, or why the Australians were even worse off, or why the Africans south of the Sahara never really went north, or why the Horn of Africa didn't end up developing a more powerful civilization to rival those of the rest of the world, instead of simply being #1 in Africa.

I'm with Jared Diamond as far as this goes. Eurasians got to start Civilization in a really nice place. Take Incas: Amazing complex civilization but they had no draft animals. Not one. So that means no plows (they used terrace farming anyway) and crap transport. That leads to low demand for metal (because all the really cool uses for metal are not important) and so they did some bronzework and never moved on. Didn't need to.

But I fear at times we have gone so far on "let's actually remember the rest of the world exists and not be totally eurocentric" that we have gone a bit to the other side and have forgotten that Europe probably had a lot of things going for it in order to win.

Maybe. But I see opinions largely split between annoying triumphalism (We won history! We must be the best!) and equally annoying ashes-on-head-hairshirtism (Only filthy Euros ever did anything bad[1]) both are silly. Also your definition of 'Europe' is really not the one used most of the time, I find. The definition of Europe that gets used when people speak of Eurocentrism stops somewhere around the Oder river.

[1] For these I would recommend a short bracing course in "Things That Happened in China, All Sorts of Things, Really, One Damn Thing After Another"

3951733

Enslaving West Africans was helpful, but I'm not sure if it was actually truly critical to the Industrial Revolution, or if it was just a convenient way to get there. In any case, the places that ended up wealthiest ultimately weren't the places with all the slaves, but the places that didn't have the slaves.

I don't know if anyone has done an analysis of whether slavery was profitable. What with the cost of getting, maintaining, and guarding slaves, the loss of Haiti to a slave revolt, the cost of failed slave revolts, the cultural schisms and revolutions caused all through Central and South America by having mixed-race populations, the lack of motivation for slaves to work or to innovate, I find it plausible that slavery was financially unprofitable, except that a large proportion of the costs were either gambles, or borne by the entire society.

It seems that slavery was unprofitable for the 2nd half of the 18th century, during which slave populations declined in America (I think). Then the cotton gin was invented--by a young kid from Massachusetts who was visiting Georgia and said, "Hey, you should automate this tedious work." Southerners didn't invent much, because they had slaves. That's a huge social cost they were unaware of.

3951922

I see your point, but once they met the Europeans they took to new tech damn quick and, well, just add fifty million annoyed Indians to the Indian Wars and they might turn out the other way around. I'm not saying that they'd repulse the Europeans from their shores entirely, but the balance of power might be otherwise and the 'States might have actually kept to the treaties they signed instead of betraying them.

The places with the most Native Americans were actually the places we conquered first. A lot of estimates of the North American (US and Canada) native population put it at only a few million - there may well be more Native Americans north of the Rio Grande today than there were when Colombus got here.

In any case, it isn't really clear that it was really "disease" per se that did them in in the first place. While, yes, disease was bad, a lot of the reason it was bad was because their societies were basically being wrecked by the European expansion and contact, with the disease rolling in and killing them off when they were already stressed from loss of land and conflict, not only with Europeans, but with other tribes which had either been displaced or which bought weapons from the Europeans so they could go conquer their neighbors.

It is a lot easier for a bunch of half-starving refugees to die of disease than a healthy civilization. After all, it wasn't like Europeans didn't die in droves to smallpox, too.

Another major weakness of the Native Americans was their fractiousness. The only empire that really had any real degree of unity was the Incas (the Aztecs were hated due to the whole cutting-out-people's-hearts bit - they were rather poor neighbors), and even they were overrun. Had all the American natives all banded together, the Europeans might have had more trouble than they did. But, well, let's face it; it is not as if the Europeans were all one big happy family either, so expecting the Native Americans to do any better was probably a big ask.

I'm with Jared Diamond as far as this goes. Eurasians got to start Civilization in a really nice place. Take Incas: Amazing complex civilization but they had no draft animals. Not one. So that means no plows (they used terrace farming anyway) and crap transport. That leads to low demand for metal (because all the really cool uses for metal are not important) and so they did some bronzework and never moved on. Didn't need to.

While the Incas did not have draft animals (though llamas can pull carts), North America had horses, buffalo, mammoths, caribou, moose, and many other things when the ancient Americans got there. The Native Americans probably ate the horses and mammoths, but they never domesticated, say, mountain goats, buffalo, caribou, or moose - and they really have no excuse in the case of the caribou, as other civilizations did domesticate them, which is why most people call them reindeer.

Besides, there were giant sloths and glyptodons in South America when the Native Americans got there, and they ate them too, forever denying the world giant sloth and glyptodon cavalry. So really, they got what was coming to them.

Also your definition of 'Europe' is really not the one used most of the time, I find. The definition of Europe that gets used when people speak of Eurocentrism stops somewhere around the Oder river.

It is a kind of strange geographical distinction to begin with. Had Hannibal won out over Rome, we'd probably think of North Africa as being a natural part of the European sphere; indeed, we probably would anyway were it not for the Muslim conquests. For a good chunk of history, the Mediterranean was much more "European" than, say, Germany or France, let alone Britain.

Then again, I'm a filthy American. I had to look up where the Oder River was.

3951922

If it weren't for spices (which the Chinese and the Indians had) and the Asiento trade those voyages would be like the space program: nice in a 'final frontier' sort of way but desperately expensive.

I think there's a contradiction between calling ocean voyages desperately expensive, and calling the slave trade tremendously profitable.

3951746
Well yeah, but we aren't bonobos or wolves, now are we? :twilightsmile: Humans give strong indication that they are hypergamic, do they not?


3951835
I suspect it has a bit to do with Greeks having a lot of people around them with whom trading was easy and profitable. No need to antagonize the... guests. :twilightsmile:

3951991
There isn't. It's expensive unless there's a profitable reason to go a-traveling. Traveling to space is hideously expensive, yes? But imagine if, on the Moon, there was a huge lode of Unobtanium which is a room-temperature superconductor. Suddenly, while expensive, it is economically very worth it, and we start doing it a lot and, by doing it, we get better at it and, centuries later, where everyone has as much unobtanium as they want, space travel is trivial but we got over the hump by way of unobtanium.

3952121 Yes, but a slave ship could carry only about 200 slaves, meaning the cost of the voyage must be less than the value of the labor of 200 untrained agricultural workers. That's peanuts to a major civilization even in the days we're talking about.

3952103

Well yeah, but we aren't bonobos or wolves, now are we? :twilightsmile: Humans give strong indication that they are hypergamic, do they not?

My scenario was that humans did not become the dominant species.

3952332
Humans are somewhat violent superpredators who are capable of curbing their violence. That may well not be coincidental.

Also, frankly, given the sheer energy requirements of big brains, it wouldn't surprise me if near-monogamy is standard for such things. Even in modern societies, children with one parent are severely disadvantaged compared to those with two.

3952445 The usual human alternative to monogamy has been polygamy, not lack of bonding. Would 3 or 4 parents then be an advantage?

Before anyone starts the discussion on whether humans are "naturally" monogamous/polygamous, I think the question is usually not precisely defined enough to be meaningfull. We call societies in which polygamy is allowed polygamous, even though most matings within it may be monogamous. Monogamy with noise is called polygamy. Under that definition, of course humans are "naturally" polygamous, because 100% monogamy requires social enforcement.

3952503

The usual human alternative to monogamy has been polygamy, not lack of bonding. Would 3 or 4 parents then be an advantage?

One of the theories I've read about homosexuality is the "gay uncle" theory, namely that a gay uncle would devote more of their resources to their relatives' kids, thereby helping them produce more offspring. That said, I don't buy it.

Anyway, as far as polygamy goes: remember, each woman has X many kids, so really, you're looking at Y parents/(Y-1) * X kids. If you've got Y-1 female parents, then your equation is Y/((Y-1)X) in terms of adults per child, while in a monogamous couple, it is 2/X. Children in a polygamous relationship will effectively have fewer parents per child, resulting in them getting less resources. A polygynous relationship would give even more resources per child, but would reduce the total number of offspring produced, making it disadvantageous as a mating system unless your males were significantly less resource-intensive than females.

I suspect most polygamous societies were violent enough that a significant fraction of males died, so the small minority of males who ended up with multiple wives weren't really "depriving" many men of wives. Also, high-ranking males probably had more resources, mitigating the math of having multiple children.

Less violent cultures would be expected to be more monogamous, because the excess females (due to lesser male-on-male violence) would no longer exist, and there might even be a deficit due to deaths in childbirth. Greater parental attention leads to significantly better outcomes, at least in modern societies, suggesting that there are benefits to having fewer children per parent.

I'd imagine humans have evolved to be somewhat flexible in terms of mating systems - we're "monogamous", but we're capable of operating in polygamous and even polygynous environments. It makes sense for humans to be able to opportunistically engage in systems like that as they occur, because those who could likely left behind more offspring.

3952121 3952332 You are missing a point here. Slavery was profitable. If it were not, it would not have existed. Had the slave traders lost money with every voyage, there would have been no voyages. Capitalism is ruthlessly efficient, and only restrained by the morality (or lack thereof) of the people who have utilized it to the logical extremes.

In that era, it would not have been unusual for a relatively non-wealthy individual to have a servant around the house, or perhaps two, or even indentured servants, which is somewhat of Slavery-Lite. Social layers were extremely stratified, and it took considerable work to raise oneself up above their station. As long as nobody upset the applecart, the merchant with a black manservant or the mansion-dwelling landowner with an entire plantation of slaves were both perfectly happy to keep their property, and their property knew their place.

Of course, that applecart was in danger of being toppled from the first day, and quite thankfully eventually fell. Both social pressures from abolition groups and economic pressures from technology combined with the political pressure of southern over-taxation to make our first Civil War. Um. Not the one with Captain America. The other one.

3952932 If you'll re-read my comment, you'll see that it's asking whether slavery has positive expected value to slaveholders as a group, not whether slave trading is profitable, or whether a balance sheet indicates it has positive marginal utility to an individual slaveholder.

3952950 Well, um... Value to the group... Hm... I'll have to loop back on this again and say, if the slaveholders individually didn't expect it to have an expected value to themselves, they would not have done it. After all, they had money, and they chose to invest it in a way which they anticipated would bring them more money. It's not like the Government came along and said, "Ok, you have five thousand dollars, so you have to purchase a minimum of one slave." That would be silly. The government can't force anybody to buy a product or service. Um. Except health insurance.

It was the abolitionists who invested their money into projects which they knew would not return them any money, such as buying slaves and transporting them north to free them. In this case, the 'positive expected value' would not be measured in money, but in works. (James 2:14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.)

Somehow, the concept of slaveholders as a group deciding to 'rescue' these slaves from their native lands and give them employment in the US... doesn't work nearly as well.

One thing I try to remember is a variant of Enlightened Self-Interest: Free people do what they do because they think it is right. People who do not act in this way are crazy. Slaveholders thought making money was their highest calling, so they did morally reprehensible things to advance their economic state. Most abolitionists (but not all, because some of them had less than noble motives) were moral individuals who took the risks they did in order to save lives. The exception to this (of course) are non-free peoples, who follow orders rather than be killed or have their families suffer for their actions.

Regarding why different civilizations progressed at different rates, Jared Diamond, in the book Guns, Gems, and Steel, provides an argument based on evolutionary ecology and geography. Advanced societies were based on the ability to domesticate plants and animals, which enabled civilizations to transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agrarian societies. Agriculture would then allow for populations to increase and for society to support artists, scientists and politicians.

Eurasia had significant advantages in the development of both domesticated plants and animals. That Eurasia is organized along an East-West axis means that the climate was similar across a huge area, enabling domesticated crop to spread more quickly than in continents organized more on a North-South axis. In terms of domesticated animals, the large mammals in Africa co-evolved with the ancestors of humans and became too clever to domesticate. In contrast, humans colonized Oceania and the Americas relatively late in their evolution. The animals in these areas were not used to humans as predators, so many were hunted to extinction. Eurasia, where animals met humans and other hominids in an intermediate stage, were most amenable to domestication.

These geographic factors explain why Africa and the Americas did not become dominant, but why did Europe prevail over Asia, especially since, as many in this discussion have pointed out, China had a similar (if not greater) amount of social and technological advancement? Here, I think Bad Horse might be right. China explicitly decided not to explore and conquer the world (some wanted to do so but the emperor forbade it). Perhaps the selfishness of Western culture that Bad House identified in The Iliad expands why Europeans wanted to conquer the world but China did not.

3953008 There are hidden costs to slavery that don't show up in a balance book. Some are risks: Every now and then, you and your family get killed in a slave rebellion. This never shows up in the cost-benefit analysis of any living slaveholder, yet was not a rare event when you average across the Americas. Some are externalities (tragedies of the commons): every community has to devote time and money to maintaining slave-chasing posses, to creating an ID system, for example. Some are costs imposed on others: Wages for free workers go down. And some are invisible costs which no one was aware of at the time, notably that having slaves resulted in the South stagnating technologically.

3951922
3951733
As to the fate of the Native Americans without being killed off by disease. I think it would have made a vastly different America, but I don't think they would have repulsed the Europeans.

I think they would have been conquered, eventually, or at least large parts of the country conquered. The combination of inner fractions and technological gap is too much to overcome. But with so many people living on the continent already, there would have been a lot less room for European settlers to come in and fill up the place. It would have resulted in either a very large scale deliberate genocide or an America that bears more resemblance to some place like South Africa or Zimbabwe.

3953008

Slaveholders thought making money was their highest calling, so they did morally reprehensible things to advance their economic state.

That strikes me as an over-simplification. Slaveholders thought having slaves was more important than treating certain people like human beings instead of tools or animals. That is not precisely the same as what you've just said. Perhaps they thought their highest calling was keeping the family plantation running the same way their parents did. Or that their highest calling was fighting in wars for personal glory (the Greeks kept slaves, after all). Making money could be second or third on the list. Or even barely on it at all, if having slaves is something done for prestige instead of profit. The important thing is that 'respecting these people we're enslaving' isn't on the list of priorities.

3952332
And their descendants. 200 people and their descendants. That's quite a lot, really. Also, these do jobs that others refuse to: the conditions while farming sugarcane were incredibly inhospitable and so free people volunteering for the work were, ah, thin on the ground, as it were.

3952932

Capitalism is ruthlessly efficient, and only restrained by the morality (or lack thereof) of the people who have utilized it to the logical extremes.

Actually, it isn't. If that was true, capitalism wouldn't require regulation. However, in reality, capitalism is often very inefficient and doesn't lead to free markets, which is a major reason for regulation.

Monopolies and oligopolies exist because of fixed capital costs and difficulties of entering markets, among other things. They can lead to massive inefficiency.

Another known flaw of capitalism is externalized costs.

The argument that Bad Horse is fundamentally making is that slavery imposed a large externalized cost on society.

As it turns out, there's actually good reason to believe this is true.

Slavery, as practiced in the South, creates an underclass (slaves) who are given no incentive to innovate; a slave who comes up with a more efficient means of production is not rewarded with more money, generally speaking, and certainly is guaranteed no award.

Moreover, in the South, they worked to maintain the blacks as an underclass - meaning that they denied them the ability to rise to theri maximum potential purposefully, because slaves who were too smart, had too may skills, ect. would gain too much power. Indeed, we see stories about slaves who did exactly this in the South. Many places sharply suppressed their slaves for this very reason - they wanted to avoid letting them gain power, and kept them as unskilled agricultural labor.

Not only did this diminish the overall value of the work force, but it also distorted the market in favor of agricultural work which required large amounts of land. This created a widely-distributed population, which damaged their ability to build up solid infrastructure and industry. Factories were never in the South to the same extent they were in the North due to the more thinly spread population and because of the dominance of agriculture.

Poor white people were basically put on the path of wanting to be plantation owners because the plantation owners had easy lives and much more money. The whole thing was distorted around one particular, not very efficient form of agriculture which disincentivized most of its workers from innovating.

The net result was the massive inferiority of the South to the North, as demonstrated by the Civil War. The South fought hard, but they simply lacked the economic power and might of the North.

That strongly indicates that capitalism was not, in fact, "ruthlessly efficient" in the South, but rather that it created a very inefficient system which was resistant to change. Eventually, the result was the North conquering the South and breaking up their way of life to some extent, though the South continued to employ large numbers of sharecroppers until the 20th century.

Really, Capitalism is only as efficient as the system it is in. It is easy for capitalism to run down a blind path and get stuck, because there are often local maxima.

Externalized costs are a major problem with all systems, and in capitalism, you must force people to pay externalized costs, or else favor companies and organizations and economic models which benefit from externalized costs. Externalized costs may well make the total cost of a product much greater to society as a whole, but benefit those who are benefitting from externalizing much of the cost of their operation to others.

3953008

One thing I try to remember is a variant of Enlightened Self-Interest: Free people do what they do because they think it is right.

The problem with the notion of Enlightened Self Interest is that most people lack it. It is a useful notion to keep in mind, but people frequently make poor decisions which are not, in fact, in their enlightened self interest, even though they think they are.

A good recent example of this is people losing their health care in some Southern states after voting in someone who was very strongly anti-Obamacare. The people voted for the person, and then lost their benefits, and were unhappy. They didn't recognize the cost to themselves at the time that they voted.

Another good example is Flint, Michigan, which elected a series of incompetent and corrupt local politicians, eventually culminating in the city going bankrupt after proving itself to be utterly incapable of managing itself, which then resulted in it being put under the control of an incompetent state politician. No one wanted to get a ton of lead in their water, but the people of Flint repeatedly passed up on improving their water system and repeatedly elected incompetent representation which eventually lead to the disasters of modern-day Flint.

The Egyptian Revolution is another recent example - the secular people there pushed for the end of the military dictatorship and Democracy. Then, after the Islamists got elected, the secular folks were okay with the military taking back over, because the Muslim Brotherhood sucked. Overthrowing the old military regime seemed like a good idea at the time, but in the long run, it probably hurt the Egyptians.

The present situation in Syria is ultimately in no one's self-interest, but everyone thinks that they will be able to get one over on the other guy, so they keep fighting.

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Ultimately, I feel that while it is interesting to look at the geographic and biological distribution of stuff back at the dawn of civilization, I don't think that it really has the explanatory power Diamond attributes to it.

For instance, buffalo and reindeer are both native to the Americas. Buffalo are not intrinsically any more intractable than aurochs (the ancestors of cattle) were as far as we know, and we domesticated numerous similar animals (like the Musk Ox) elsewhere in the world. Reindeer were actually domesticated in Siberia and other northerly climes. Mountain goats seem like something that the Americans could have domesticated, but never did as well.

And it is worth remembering that humans drove the ancestors to modern horses and cattle to extinction in Eurasia as well; we just domesticated them first.

The Americas had tons of pretty excellent agricultural plants, and indeed, many staple crops today (including in Africa!) are from the Americas.

The Europeans did not uniquely bring over diseases; there were already diseases in the Americas which killed a bunch of Native Americans, and it isn't really clear that the European diseases were intrinsically al that much worse for the Americans than they were for Europeans.

It is undoubtedly true that the Eurasians ended up with the more advanced civilization, but it isn't really clear why just from looking at the geography or the local biota. The best answer is maybe population, but why didn't the Americas end up with a big population, when the Americas are pretty danged fertile and have lots of good crops like maize, squash, and potatoes?

The whole axes argument - the idea that Eurasia won out because it is oriented in a horizontal fashion, while the other continents are north/south - is problematic because a great deal of that horizontal area is dominated by large deserts in the Middle East and eastern China, not to mention enormous mountain ranges present in Europe, Russia, and Asia. The Europeans and Chinese ended up growing pretty different sets of crops despite being in supposedly the same "axis".

The Great Plains and the eastern portion of the Americas are a huge, pretty open area which seems ideal for continuous agriculture, and indeed, is similar in many ways to China. It even has its own aurochs in the form of buffalo, not to mention horses earlier on, as well as reindeer in the north and mountain goats in the west. Why didn't it become a China as well?

Why did Australian Aborigines never develop agriculture at all while the Polynesians, who were on far smaller land masses, did?

None of these things are things that Diamond can really explain. If his argument was just "Well, the Europeans happened to domesticate cows and horses, and spread them throughout the region, resulting in everyone getting a leg up," that would be at least a reasonable explanation (and possibly a correct one), even if it doesn't tell us why the Eurasians got those things in the first place. But he claims a level of geographic determinism which seems unjustified by the evidence.

If you're interested, here's a big long critical review of his theory.

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Workers in the tropical regions were often worked to death rather than for breeding populations because it was cheaper to import new slaves to replace their dead workers. In America, slaves were more of a long-term investment.

3956473 Ok, with politicians, we can call that Unenlightened Self-Interest. :pinkiehappy: Free people make wrong decisions they *think* are right, which explains copper bracelets, crystal healing, and boy bands.

Correction: ' people losing their health care in some Southern states' - should be 'people losing their ability to afford health insurance' to be accurate. I'll stop there, because I could vent for days on the difference.

In Flint, 100% of the responsibility lies with the water plant manager. The blame can be spread far and wide, but if the plant manager had done his job (and most likely been fired for it), the resulting mess would not have happened. Also, the 'mess' is less of a problem than reported, as lead levels never exceeded those glorious halcyon days of the '70s and leaded gasoline. Still, you never see a headline "Minor Problem Sweeps Flint, Thousands Possibly Inconvenienced"

Getting back to the Iliad: With modern morality, is it even possible for a writer to write a bestseller book set in that era anymore? I mean treating women as chattel/cattle, killing someone who has surrendered in a battle, etc... Feminist groups would lambaste it online, minority groups would clobber it for treating slavery as a norm, and right-wing Puritan-type groups would hammer it for morality issues until you would be lucky to sell two copies, yours and the one your mother buys.

3956276 I don't think you pay for the descendants. Capital value doesn't look that far forward. Currently, the rule of thumb is that price / yearly earnings ~ 10. Re. the difficulty of the work, this is only a multiplier of 2 at max; I'm sure you could hire a farmhand to do half the work of a slave.

According to reddit, Columbus' voyage cost 2 million maravedis, and according to data here, the average wage for a day laborer in 1502 was 22 maravadis. (Maravadis were comparable to English pennies.) So the first voyage cost about 30,000 days' worth of unskilled labor, or a year's wages from 100 unskilled laborers, per ship, assuming 50 weeks work, 6 days per week. It sounds to me like not much of the cost of the ships is counted in that (ships can be re-used) and the cost is basically paying the 87 sailors (average of 29 per ship). (Cost of food must be included in their wages to make their wages comparable to land-bound workers.)

The conversion to modern units is problematic, but in any case it wasn't much money for an empire.

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I do agree with some of the arguments presented by you and the linked article regarding crop domestication and Diamond's East-West vs North-South axis argument. However, since plants were domesticated in many areas (not only Eurasia), crop domestication is probably not the central issue underlying the faster development of Eurasian societies. Regarding animal domestication, bison have rarely been successfully domesticated and are quite dangerous to humans. Just because relatives on other continents have been domesticated does not mean that other relatives can be domesticated quite as easily. Even if American caribou and mountain goats could be domesticated (neither have been, there are domesticated reindeer in Alaska and Canada, but these were imported from Russia and Scandinavia), they do not exist in areas conducive to agriculture.

Remember that large animals in the Americas underwent a strong selection process. Animals that were relatively friendly to humans basically all got hunted to extinction, and the only ones that survived to the present day were the ones too dangerous to hunt to extinction or lived in habitats that did not support large human populations. Many animals in Europe did not undergo such extinctions likely because they met humans at earlier stages of their biological and technological development. By the time humans had developed the capability to hunt their populations to extinction, some of the more friendly species had co-evolved around humans enough that they could be more easily domesticated. It's certainly possible that other factors influenced the domestication vs extinction of animals on the various continents, however.

Diamond's thesis certainly does not give a complete explanation of history, but it's certainly a helpful starting point in understanding the differential development of civilizations across the globe. As a student of evolutionary biology, I'm certainly more inclined to view the way Diamond does versus the way people in the social sciences typically view history.

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