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A brief history of Christianity (part 4 of 4)

Based on the book Dominion by Tom Holland, this post covers the period of the Enlightenment c 1750 through to the modern Era

A Jewish student of Manasseh, Baruch Spinoza, expelled by the Jewish synagogue in Amserdam, in 1656, writes a book, his Theological-Political Treatise in defence of religious liberty. He brought a new philosophy, that God was not beyond the laws that governed the universe, but that God was the whole universe. He argued against many basic Christian beliefs such as the trinity, Christ’s divinity, the authority of scripture. He argued that that ministers of sacred things should not be allowed to make decrees or handle the business of government. But he argued very much in favour of the New Testament teaching of Paul when writing to the Galatians (5:22) the idea of true liberty found in the light and ‘fruits of love, joy, peace long suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control’. By 1674 his book is banned and he is considered by many to be ‘the chief atheist of our age’.

Voltaire, frances most admired writer, baptised a Catholic and educated by nuns, views the Catholic church as an abomination. Denis Diderot, another philosopher, labels him admiringly as the anti-Christ. Increasingly he, with the foremost thinkers of the age view the church with its superstitions and unwarranted privileged as anethema. Despite admiring the tolerance in England, Voltaire is convinced Christian sects will always persecute each other. He still claimed worship God, but ‘a Just God whose acts are beyond human comprehension’, free of any particular religion.

Others went further claiming in blatant atheism, for example in an anonymous Treatise of the Three Impostors, also known as he Spirit of Spinoza, a mythical book title appropriated by several authors from the 13th to the 17th century, reappears in 1719 claiming that Jesus, Moses and Muhammed are all derided as impostors.

By 1753 people start popularising history as having distinct ages, referring to the Middle ages, that it was Luther who banished the shadows from the world corrupted by the Popery of the Catholic Church ushering in the Reformation. And now a new Age of Enlightenment lead by reason.

In 1783 George Washington hails the United States as a monument to enlightenment: ‘The foundation of our empire, was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined than ever before’.

In America New England provided its model of democracy and Pennsylvania its model for tolerance. ‘That all men are created equal, and endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we hold self-evident.’ These were built on fundamentally Christian beliefs. ‘The genius of the authors of the United States Constitution was to garb in the robes of Enlightenment the radical Protestantism that was the prime religious inheritance of their fledgling nation.’ No one represent this better than Benjamin Franklin, one of the authors of the US Declaration of Independence and the US constitution who was born in the Puritan homeland of Boston, New England and ran away to the city of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia with his lifelong admiration of Puritan discipline, his liberal theological views through to his publication of Benjamin Lays exhortations against slavery.

Along comes the French Revolution of 1789, enlivened by the Spirit of Enlightenment, France was to be ruled by new philosophers. Many wanted to sweep away Christianity completely, the counting of years was restarted at the start of the revolution and Sunday’s were to be swept away. ‘In the pagan world, a spirit of toleration and gentleness had ruled all. It was this that the sinister triumph of Christianity had blotted out. Fanaticism had prevailed.’ Now the revolution would change that. But the founding documents of the new republic were built on the example of the US and Christian thinkers : ‘the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.’ As much as the thinkers of this age claimed to harken back to the period pre Christianity, the democracies of Ancient Greece and Rome, their true foundations lay in Christian thinking from the Cannon lawyers of the Middle Ages about the value and rights of the individual. (This declaration also restored he rights of full citizenship to the Jews).

And even in their fervour to separate church from state, their violent actions harkened back to the same actions that the Church had taken in establishing its authority: Maximilien Robespierre leader of the revolution, once an opponent of the death penalty now lead a bloody revolution set on the execution of the king and the nobility, purifying the nation of all the taint of what had gone before in a very familiar pattern. In echoes of the slaughter of the Crusade against Beziers the revolutionaries marching to pacify the town of Vendee in 1794 are told ‘skew with your bayonets all the inhabitants you encounter along the way. I know there may be a few patriots in this region – it matters not, we must sacrifice all.’ A quarter of a million civilians end up dead.

Following on from the revolution there is much enthusiasm for pre Christian symbols: the revolutionary leaders model themselves of Cicero, and much like Ancient Rome, France ends up with a military dictatorship, with Napoleon modelling himself on Caesar, taking on the title of emperor (of France, not the Holy Roman Emperor) complete with laurel wreath and eagle banners.

In 1806 the last of the Holy Roman emperors Francis the II abdicates, bring to an end the lineage since Otto the Great as Napoleon disrupts Europe. By 1814 the monarchy is restored in France in the Bourbon Restoration, but this time as a constitutional monarchy, unable to roll back many of the changes wrought by the revolution and Napoleon. A monarchy continues until 1848, when the French Second Republic is formed under a President Louise-Napoleon Bonaparte (who then goes on to declare himself Emperor Napoleon III in 1852 until 1870) before the Third French Republic from 1870.

Slavery continues to be a key issue. The passages of the bible that appear to sanction slavery continue to be used by the southern United States , and the West Indies. But the tide is rising against it. To be a Quaker or a Baptist or an Anglican was to understand the Good News, that God was a not only the God of Justice but also of Love. ‘Slavery was ever detestable in the eyes of God’. In 1807 Britain passes the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, though other nations were slower to come around. In 1815, eight powers in Europe sign a declaration stating that slavery is repugnant to the principles of humanity and universal morality. Human Rights were increasingly the values that Europe promoted to the world.

Prussia had been key in defeating Napoleon and at the Conference of Vienna the focus is on redrawing the map of Europe. Frederich Wilhelm the King of Prussia, in the face of potential revolution in 1848 is forced to concede a constitution entitling male citizens to vote for parliament and granting equal citizenship to Jews.

An interesting concept that becomes more widely applied in contexts it had not previously been applied is that of the separation of religion and the secular. For example the Jews are now unified by a religion termed Judaism, rather than being a people where the religion and culture were not really differentiated. The Jewish Law was not the law of the countries they live in. This lead to the development of a split amongs Jewish thinkers with the Jewish ‘Reformed’ branch (emphasising faith over Law) and ‘orthodox’ branch (emphasising the definitiveness of Mosaic Law) (I am not very clear here on the exact differences in thinking that lead to this split). Similarly in India the people had no word or concept of religion, but the British imposed a separation between the state and the beliefs that they termed the ‘Hindoo religion’.

Despite the European attempts to halt Slavery it is an ongoing issue. In 1842, this is taken a step further when an American Diplomat defines slavery as a ‘crime against humanity’, the first time this term is used. While it is increasingly halted in the West, it is still common place in

Muslim countries had a different view. Slavery is licensed by Muhammed in the Qur’an and the Sunna, the Islamic collection of traditions and practices. There are more slaves exported from Africa to the Muslim world than were exported to the New World. The British continue to push Morocco and the Ottoman Empire to abolish slavery. In 1854, when the Ottomans need financial assistance due to a series of financial and military crises, the price is the abolishment of slavery and the jizya, the financial tax on Jews and Christians that reached back to the beginnings of Islam. Of course banishing slavery does nothing to dampen Britain’s expansionary colonisation policies, with the typical justification that the barbarians will be better off under their ‘civilising’ rule.

In 1861, the secession of the southern states of the United States from the Union to form the Confederacy over the issue of slavery leads to the Civil War. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln issues a proclamation declairing all Slaves on confederate territory to be free.

In 1859 Charles Darwin, the grandson of two prominent abolitionists, publishes the Origin of Species, promulgating the theory of evolution ‘One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, like the strongest love and the weakest die.’ Of course people were already struggling with the conflict between the age of dinosaur fossils versus the age of the world according to the scriptures. Now there was a direct challenge to the narrative that Man and Women were created in God’s image. In addition the very essence of natural selection of survival of the fittest was a challenge to Christian belief in part because of its contrast to Jesus’s teaching that there might be strength in weakness, victory in defeat and that the meek shall inherit the earth.

Thomas Henry Huxley is a huge champion of science ‘In matters of intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstratable’. This was what he described as the principle of ‘agnosticism’. As before thinkers of the new Age of Enlightenment attempted to paint the new thinking as a contrast to the previous thinking, picking out the example of Galileo that the Church had opposed all science and that some how in past more enlightened times the ancient Greeks and Romans had allowed science to flourish.

Also in terms of sexuality the new age started to rethink things. Homosexuality was a term first coined in 1869 in Prussian morality writing. Why in seeming defiance of Darwin’s law did some choose to sleep with people of their own sex? German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing studied sexuality. He came to the view that homosexuality should not be regarded as a sin but as an ‘immutable condition’, and that the correct Christian response should be one of generosity and compassion. He argued that sodomy should be decriminalised and that ‘homosexuals are no less familiar with the noblest inspirations of the heart than any married couple.’

Capitalism vs Communism vs Fascism in the 20th century

The theory of evolution led to some radical different concepts when different thinkers extrapolated what it meant for society.

Andrew Carnegie, Scottish immigrant, rose to dominate the American steel industry and become one of the wealthiest men alive. Applied evolution to capitalism, believing indiscriminate charity served no purpose but to subsidise the lazy and the drunk. ‘In days when men acted by ecclesiastical rules these prejudices produced waste of capital, and helped mightily to replunge Europe into barbarism,’ said Yale professor William Graham Sumner. But, in Carnegie’s view, that charity was only pointless if it failed to help the poor to help themselves. His objective was to help the poor become rich ‘The best means of benefiting the community is to place within its reach the ladders upon which the aspiring can rise’. He went on to find many community libraries, schools, parks and endowments which last to this day. (There are many examples around London actually for example on the Isle of Dogs in east london a poor area, there is a library sponsored by Carnegie).

At the other end of the spectrum, was Karl Marx the grandson of a rabbi and son of a Lutheran convert, he was exiled from the Rhineland for mocking the religiosity of Frederich Wilhelm IV.

‘Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution as it applies to organic matter, so Marx discovered the law of evolution as it applies to human history,’ so it was said at his funeral in 1883. He believed that over time different classes of society had emerged. Exploitation become the norm. The struggle between the rich and the poor became an unforgiving tale of greed and acquisition. Under the likes of Carnegie it Capitalism became as pitiless as never before, workers were reduced to machines. Marx believed that ultimately this must lead to a great climactic class struggle inwhich capitalism would devour itself and there would emerge a class-less society. Within such a society there was no need for God. Religion was a mechanism of the exploitative class, a stage in the development of the human mind, a snake skin that could now be cast off. ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ was the belief he developed, eerily reminiscent of the early Christian society in the Book of Acts. Throughout history the early church has inspired radicals looking for this holy society. While his theories sounded scientific they continually painted a picture of cosmic forces of a good communal society and an evil and greedy society based on capitalism.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, or Lenin, took up these beliefs most literally, believing that Capitalism was doomed to fail, the workers of the world or ‘proletariat’ were destined to inherit the earth as the gap widened between ‘the handful of arrogant millionaires who wallow in filth and luxury, and the millions of working people who constantly live on the verge of pauperism.’ Religion, the opiate of the masses, needed to be eradicated. Oppression had to be eliminated but his belief that the end justified the means split the ranks of Marx’s followers, with those following Lenin calling themselves ‘the Bolsheviks’ or ‘the Majority’.

In philosophy in 1882 Frederich Nietzsche proclaims ‘God is dead’. He was the son of a Lutheran pastor, a professor by 24, resigning at 34 and then having a mental breakdown and dying in 1900. Not well known during his life, his writings become more popular after his death. More than Spinoza, Darwin or Marx he is the bastion of atheism. He rejected not only Christianity but also some of their associated virtues: ‘such phantoms as the dignity of man, the dignity of labour. Concern for the lowly and suffering is a form of poison. Helping and caring for others, being of use to others, constantly excites a sense of power. Charity in Christendom had become a means to dominate.’ A society focused on the feeble was a society enfeebled itself. He believed that there was no truth, no value, no meaning in itself – and that only be acknowledging this would man cease to be a slave.

By the 1910 Prussia became the centre of a German Empire with a Kaiser (modelled on Caesar). France and Britain push back on the expansion of the Prussian empire and are mired in the standoff of World War One. In the battle of the Somme there are a million casualties.

In November to December 1917 in Palestine, the British win a battle against then Turks of the Ottoman Empire and take back Jerusalem. The British Foreign Secretary issues a declaration supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the Holy Land, a development many Christians believed would herald the return of Christ.

At the end of the war the Kaiser abdicates. But in Russia in 1917 the Bolsheviks led by Lenin overthrow the monarchy and seize power. A quarter of the world’s Christians live in Russia under the Orthodox Church with its Byzantium lineage. Lenin is convinced ‘In practice, no less than in theory, communism is incompatible with religious faith.’ In 1918 churches were nationalised. Bishops were shot, crucified upside down or imprisoned. In 1926 a monastery is converted into a labour camp. In 1929 the responsibility for religious affairs is given to the organisation ‘the league of militant atheists’, their stated goal: to eliminate religion once and for all.

By the 1930s we have the rise of Fascism. Benito Mussolini’s reading of Neitzsche inspires him to become a new Caesar at the head of a new elite state. Similarly in Germany the rise of the National Socialists or Nazis under Hitler, in the belief of a state for the elite race in society, so superior to other races that it justified the extermination of inferior races, and the subordination of personal interests to a common good. This was rooted in Hitler’s interpretations of Darwin: that he had a responsibility to ensure the purity of the German race. Goebbels compares a young Nazi to Christ. By 1937 Hitler is envisaging the elimination of Christianity, largely due to the Churches objections to some of his policies like forced sterilisation. Many Christians hesitated to support the Jews given old emnities that condemned then as the murderers of Christ and in league with the Devil. In contrast some Christians were identifying themselves with Jews in the face of Nazi persecution: in Sept 1938 Pope Pius XI declared himself spiritually a Jew and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in 1933 saying Christians had an unconditional obligation towards victims of any social order, even when those victims do not belong to the Christian community. He was later executed in a concentration camp. Pius was later ciriticised for not saying enough though he does recognise the limits of his power ‘But the Pope cannot speak. If he spoke, things would be worse.’

The allies were also responsible for atrocities. The bombings of Dresden and Hamburg killed many civilians. George Bell, a british bishop and friend of Bonhoeffer’s spoke out ‘if it is permissible to drive inhabitants to desire peace by making them suffer, why not admit pillage, burning, torture, murder and violation?’ In the end many felt the end justified the means.

The country of Israel promised by the British in 1917, is finally founded in 1948. Communism grows to envelop much of Eastern Europe and the Cold War and proxy wars are fought across the globe. Korea, Vietnam.

Post World War 2 the United Nations is formed and with it a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement rises up against continued segregation and discrimination in America. The campaign for civil rights in the 1950s and 60s gave Christianity an overt centrality in American politics that it had not had in the preceding decades. The renewed spark of the abolitionists living on. Following his assassination riots break out and many push for less peaceful, more violent revolution.

In the 19th century Africa has been largely carved up by the European colonial powers. In the 20th century, despite the end of colonial rule, it became the area of fastest growth in Christianity.

In South Africa the doctrine of Apartheid was defended to the fiercely religious Afrikaaners, attributing incorrectly to Calvin a theology that claimed certain people were more likely to be saved than others. They claimed that separate development was needed for each race to come to God. Desmond Tutu and others worked to convince them this was not the case through forensic examination of Calvin’s writings. In the end it was Tutus words that allowed FW de Klerk to trust in a path forward for his people: ‘when confession is made, then those of us who have been wronged must say “we forgive you.”’ A promise Nelson Mandela was then able to execute on as power transitioned peacefully.

The late 1980s also saw the fall of communism.

Many secular countries have become skilled at repackaging Christian concepts for a non-Christian audience. The concept of human rights is far more likely to be accepted if its origins in Catholic cannon law is disguised. The insistence of the United Nations agencies on ‘the antiquity and broad acceptance of the conception of the rights of man’ was a necessary precondition for their claim to a global, rather than merely Western, jurisdiction. While Charle Hebdo attacks the ‘the myth of a God as architect of the universe, the myth of Mary‘s virginity, the myth of Christ’s resurrection’ it was easy to forget that secularism too was founded on a myths that are today accepted as orthodoxy. And today’s orthodoxy in secular society is to accept today’s liberal Western ideals, and expectations: freedom of speech, association and human individual rights.

Thus it appeared to many in the West that it was their own political and social order that constituted the ultimate, the unimprovable form of government. Secularism; liberal democracy; the concept of human rights: these were fit for the whole world to embrace. The inheritance of the enlightenment was for everyone: a possession for all of mankind. It was promoted by the west, not because it was western but because it was universal: It was no more Christian than it was Hindu, or Confucian or Muslim, so its proponents claimed.

The rise of militant Islam in the subsequent decades claimed otherwise. ‘Islam, as practised by the vast majority of people, is a peaceful religion, a religion that respects others,’ said George Bush. To fundamentalist Muslim clerics like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi , there was only laws authored by God. Muslim countries, by joining United Nations, had signed up to a host of commitments that derived, not from the Qur’an or the Sunna, but from law codes devised in Christian countries: that there should be equality between men and women; equality between Muslims and non-Muslims; a ban on slavery; a ban on offensive warfare. Islam was in his and those like him in need of a return to the Salaf, ‘the ancestors’, to be reformed. He orchestrated a car bomb targeting UN headquarters in Iraq in 2003. The lead to the attempt to set up an Islamic State across Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, reintroducing many of the original laws.

But for the vast majority of Muslims, many have come to accept some of these Protestant inspired ideals, in states where religion is separated from the secular, and religious beliefs are something private and personal.

On the other side of this, historically Christian European countries are struggling to grapple with an influx of refugees, many of them Muslim, and the implications for their cultures. Look no further than the Charlie Hebdo related violence in recent years..

Charlie Hebdo defines itself a ‘laic, joyful and atheist’, satirising popes and priests, Christ and the Virgin. And while Catholics have repeatedly been obliged to test their faith against the satire, blasphemy and desecration of the magazine, in 2011 Islam started coming under the same obligation: this is what it is, in a secular society, for Muslims to be treated as equals.

The tensions remain today. In 2017 millions of Evangelical Christians in the US voted for Donald Trump, a proven bullying ‘pussy-grabbing’ misogynistic philanderer because he claimed to stand for Christian values that they felt were even more important: family values, abortion, transgender rights (or against these) and immigration controls.

In the latest iteration in 2020 we are now focused on the current issues. #metoo, gender pay gaps, George Floyd, racism , feminism and the patriarchy. Any condemnation of Christianity as patriarchal and repressive derives from the framework of values that is itself is utterly Christian.

There will always be a tension in Christian people between the demands of tradition, scripture and the claims of progress, between the prerogatives of authority and structure and the longing for reformation, between the Christian supposition that every woman’s body is her own and to be respected by every man, and the rights of an unborn child to life, between the churches enthusiasm for monogamous relationships and its celebration of love, and the biblical condemnations of homosexuality. A retreat of Christian belief does not seem to imply a retreat of Christian values. To the contrary, even in Europe with churches far emptier than those in the United States, the trace elements of Christianity continue to infuse peoples’ morals and presumptions so utterly that many fail even to detect their presence.

And in the secular world, as in the days of Darwin and Huxley, so in the 21st-century, the ambition of agnostics to translate values into facts that can be scientifically understood is a fantasy. The wellspring of humanist values lies not in reason, not in evidence-based thinking, but in history. Securalism owes its existence to the mediaeval papacy. Humanism derives ultimately from claims made in the Bible that humans are made in God’s image; that the son of God died equally for everyone; that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.

Christianity has repeatedly sent its reverberations across the world. First it was the primal revolution preached by St Paul. Then the after-shocks: the revolution of the 11th century that set Latin Christendom on its course, then the revolution of the Reformation; then the Elightenment that killed God. All bore an identical stamp: the aspiration to create a world view, to reform and replace the old, the claim to universalism, and the claim that all human beings are born equal with human rights. While the foundation of its morality are a myth, a myth need not be a lie. As Yuval Noah Harari argues, our myths define our societies and allow homosapiens to achieve great things.

book review · history · Learning · Philosophy

A brief history of Christianity (Part 3 of 4)

Based on the book Dominion by Tom Holland. This post covers The discovery of the New World, the reformation period from c1500 to c1750 and overlaps with what we now call the Renaissance era…

In Spain Isabella is queen of Castile, and her husband, king Ferdinand of the neighbouring realm of Aragon have pushed back the Saracens to the kingdom of Grenada on Spain’s southern most shore. In 1478 they ‘dedicate Spain to the service of God’ and get papal consent to establish an inquisition under royal control. The Jews were given the choice of becoming Christians or leaving to exile. By 1492 they have taken Grenada back from the Saracens and in that same year they finance Christopher Columbus to find a Western route to the Orient when he pledges the profits from such a venture to the re-conquest of Jerusalem.

He goes on by Christmas of that year to have found the West Indies and the New World though not India.

By 1519 Hernan Cortes with 500 soldiers, travels to America as it is now known. He heads for the capital of the Inca’s, Tenochtitlan, and in an audacious move captures the city and deposes its emperor. Of course they find the Inca traditions of human sacrifice abhorrent and its temples and pyramids of razed to the ground. Between putting many to death by the sword and many others dying of exposure to European diseases to which they had no immunity, millions died. Others were forced into slavery.

There were some colonists who took issue with this. In 1514 a colonist Bartolome de las Casas found himself convicted of the sinful mistreatment of the ‘Indians’ as they were known, freeing his slaves and fighting for the freedom of others. He used arguements from Thomas Aquinas stating ‘for they are our brothers, and Christ gave his life for them.’ The head of the Dominicans at the time, Thomas Cajetan attempted to shift the tide on this. He argued that the teachings of the Church were universal in their reach; that the kingdoms of the Indians were legitimate states; that Christianity should be imposed, not by force but solely by means of persuasion; that neither kings, nor emperors, nor the church itself had any right to ordain their conquest.’ However he is ignored.

From there the Spanish and Portuguese conquests proceed at a pace, with Peru, Brazil and the Philippines, with the doctrine espoused by Aristotle, that it was to the benefit of barbarians to be ruled by ‘civilised and virtuous princes’ and in the name of eliminating idolatry, human sacrifice and paganism. De las Casas continued to argue that every mortal, Christian or not had rights derived from God: ‘Derechos Humanos’ or ‘human rights’.

In Rome in 1506 work begins on an immense new church, the largest in the world on the opposite side of the Tiber from the Lateran (where he Popes had held court), in the Vatican, where St Peter lay buried. This is to become St Peters Cathedral. Taxes are raised both for the building of the church but also to raise an army in Germany against the Turks.

In 1517 a theological dispute about the methods the Dominicans employed to raise funds for the papal building program led a particular Dominican friar and professor in biblical studies, Martin Luther in Wittenberg to issue a formal objection in the form of 95 written theses. He was helped in publicising these by issuing pamphlets to the populace produced on newly minted printing presses. These are declared heretical, particularly that Luther viewed Scripture (as defined in the Canon) as more important than the words of the Pope, or other cannon law. Thomas Cajetan, the head of the Dominicans attempts to convince him to recant his views, when he does not he orders him to leave and not return unless he will recant. Luther takes this to mean he is freed of his vows. Luther is free to pursue a new and personal understanding of religion and privately holds his suspicion that ‘the true Antichrist mentioned by Paul reigns in the court of Rome’.

Among his beliefs were that the ceremonies of the church could not redeem men and women from hell, only God possessed that power. So lost were mortals in sin that nothing they did could possibly save them. Salvation was not a reward, it was a gift. God did not treat sinners according to their just deserts – for, where he to do so, then none could ever be saved.

Luther heads back to Wittenberg and there he and some colleagues very publicly burn whole sets of cannon law books, together with the papal decree condemning his teachings. Luther has a protector in the form of Friedrich of Saxony, founder of the university in Wittenberg and one of 7 electors who, on the death of the emperor, were charged with choosing the new Emperor. He wants to have Luther tried by the emperor rather than the Pope. A great assembly called a ‘diet’ of the empire’s power brokers is taking place in Worm, including Charles V, grandson of Isabella and Ferdinand. Luther is promised safe passage to Worms. On his arrival thousands turn up to hear him preach. But Charles V and the Bishops continue to ask him to recant his writings. He will not do it. ‘My conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.’

Charles V stayed true to his title, defender of the Catholic Faith, and declares Luther is excommunicated. But under the grant of safe passage, Luther is free to depart back to Wittenberg. On the way back to Wittenberg his party is ambushed and Luther and two companions are abducted. In fact he had been brought by Frederick’s men to a castle in the Wartburg, disguised as a knight with two servant boys.

During this period he decides to render a new translation of the New Testament from the original Greek into simple, easy to understand German (completing the task in just 11 weeks), making it accessible to the masses.

Over the next few years there are several peasant uprisings across Germany justified as obedience to the bible, with the lords and abbots oppressing them ‘as Pharaoh oppressed the Israelites,’ including a particular rebel Thomas Muntzer who was executed. The imperial nobility of course put these down to brutal effect, slaughtering an estimated several hundred thousand rebels, and blaming Luther for their deaths. Luther attempted to distance himself from the rebels condemning the rebellions, knowing that he needed the support of princes if he was to achieve a reformation.

Princes of the German states who chose to embrace Luther’s reformation, were able to set up a model of their states that no longer ceded any authority to Rome, since Christians now had direct communion with the Almighty, they no longer needed a church state. Ironically these leaders still needed Law to operate justly and in many cases simply adopted much of the cannon law as their local law system.

(As an aside Luther remained particularly hostile towards the Jews, demanding that they be rounded up and put to hard labour, a stance far beyond anything the papacy ever sanctioned).

In England Henry VIII (who is given the title of Defender of the Faith by the Pope for having written a pamphlet against Luther) in 1527 demands an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella and aunt to Charles V. This is denied, the Pope not wanting to offend Christendom most powerful rulers. By 1534 an act of parliament formally repudiates papal authority and Henry is declared head of the Church of England.

Hans Hut preached against infant baptism not found in scripture. In 1526 on Pentecost, the day commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, he received a second baptism: an ‘anabaptismos’. Jan Bockelson, a compatriot of Hans Hut also called ‘John of Leiden’ a Dutch tailor, was the leader of the rebellious city of Munster, instituting several policies banned by the church but which their reading of scripture licensed, including polygamy and communal property. His rule become more repressive, he beheaded a suspected spy. In June 1535 Munster finally fell to the forces of several Lutheran princes who joined together with the forces of the former expelled Bishop of the town! John of Leiden was tortured. The word Anabaptists had become assosciated with violence and depravity, and other Anabaptists, despite not being associated with the violence of John of Leiden and in many cases interpreting the scripture in quite the opposite pacifist way and aiming to withdraw from society rather than rebel, were hunted down and condemned by both Lutherans and Catholic’s.

In 1529 at an imperial diet, 5 Lutheran princes seek to make clear their beliefs in contrast to the Catholic Majority by issuing a formal ‘Protestation’, hence the collective description of all these movements as Protestant. By 1537 Denmark is Lutheran and Sweden is destined to become so.

In essence Luther had set off a chain reaction of protest against the Catholic Church, but with as many variations as there were interpretations of the scriptures.

Luther dies in 1546. Charles V crushes several of the Lutheran princes and Protestants flee to England where Henry VIII’s son (by Jane Seymour), Edward VI, comes to the throne in 1547 aged only 9. Raised Protestant, his uncle Edward Seymour leads the regency council that governs, and as staunch supporters of the Protestants institute many changes. However by 1553 when he dies he is succeeded by Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon and a staunch Catholic. Many of the reformers are burned at the stake and others flee. When Mary dies in 1558, and her half sister Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boylan, Henry’s second wife, comes to power England swings back to its own unique form of Protestantism though England’s church still has bishops, choirs and crucifixes which appalls other Protestant nations as the trappings of popery.

Jean (John) Calvin, a French legal scholar, is forced into exile from France due to his Protestant beliefs. He aims to set up a godly community, and in 1541 the city of Geneva, he is backed by the local city magistrates to do so. He sets about quickly reforming both the church and the civil authority. Calvin wrestled with the practicalities of defining godly order with the ‘privilege of liberty’. He believed every Christian had to be free to join or leave the church, to follow their conscience, that not everyone would be saved, but only an elect few, reaching out to God in faith, would be met by God with his grace. All people were predestined either to heaven or eternal death.

He set up 4 offices in the church: 1. Ministers to preach the word of God, 2. Teachers to instruct the young, 3. Deacons to meet the needs of the unfortunate and 4. Elders or ‘Presbyters’ to guard the morals of the laity. This model is still widely used in Protestant churches today.

The Presbyters and the cities ministers would hold a Consistory court each Thursday. Any congregation member who failed in some way, regardless of rank, would get called before it in order to ‘rectify sinners’ and this became the hallmark of a strict Calvinist discipline.

In accordance with scriptural teaching the Calvinists offered charity to anyone needing it including Jews. But Calvin himself was not above persecuting heretics, he approved in 1553 the burning of a heretic who denied the trinity.

In 1559 John Knox brings Calvin’s teachings back from Geneva to Scotland. A year later there is a brief civil war and the Scottish Parliament vote to reform the Church in Scotland along a Calvinist model.

This set of changes in the Christian church comes to be known as the Reformation, seen by its admirers as a liberation of humanity from ignorance and error, and painting what had been before as a misty dark age (with no mention of the previous Reformatio under Gregory VII).

The Catholic Europeans fight back of course. In 1572 a thousand Protestants in Paris are killed on the feast day of St Bartholomew, with similar slaughters in Lyon and other Catholic cities of Calvin’s followers.

The Dutch rebel against Spanish Rule, with a particularly famous episode being the relief of the city of Leiden in 1574 (nothing to do with John of Leiden who was in Munster other than he originated from there) in which the Spanish Charles V besiegers are forced to turn back after rising floodwaters. (Celebrate each year by eating Herring and bread!) In the Netherlands the Calvinists create the ‘Reformed Church’. By 1620 there are disputes in Leiden on different factions with different beliefs.

The Catholic emperor raises an army to retake Prague from the Protestants. The Dutch send 5000 men to fight for Prague but they and the city are defeated. Back and forth fighting goes across Europe between Catholic and Protestant kings and princes with millions perishing over 30 years from c1618 to 1648.

In England some fear that the English church under Elizabeth has not gone far enough in reforming, and come to be known as ‘Puritans’. They particularly wanted all symbols and idols eradicated. They saw the connection of the Church and the Monarchy and called into question the authority of the monarchy. They leave England in 1607 to go to Leiden in the hopes that it represents the New Jerusalem. When even Leiden is felt to be too impure they choose to move to the New World, and in 1620 the Mayflower lands in the New World packed half full with Puritan ‘pilgrims’ and founding a new city of Plymouth in ‘New England’. Believing themselves to be the elect Of God, they form a very exclusive community with very strict discipline. Similar old patterns repeated, with some Puritans applying themselves to bring the Word of God to the native Indians (as they called them), though it did not take long for them to end up in wars eg. At one stage teaming up with another native tribe to attack a hostile tribe called the Pequots, killing 400 men woman and children.

A new order formed in the Catholic Church In 1540, the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits: Global in scope, they are sworn to undertake any mission given to them by the Pope.

Galileo Galilei is a flamboyant professor at the university in Padua, the second oldest in Italy after Bologna. Galileo had used a telescope (originally developed by a Dutch man) to view craters on the moon, and four moons of Jupiter. In addition Venus is observed to have phases which implies it circles around the sun. His discoveries are corroborated by other Jesuit mathematicians and he is widely celebrated as a great natural philosopher within Chruch circles.

The model that most promoted by most Jesuits at this time for the solar system speculated that the planets orbited around the sun and the sun and moon orbited around the earth. Though Wenceslas Kirwitzer and Galileo promoted a Heliocentric model postulated by the polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus in 1543. The trouble was that this model contradicted Aristotle’s beliefs about the world being the centre of the universe and potentially also parts of the bible: in Joshua God commands the Sun to stand still, and in the psalms it says that the world cannot be moved. Galileo argues this need not be seen as contradictory ‘Thus, given that in many places the scripture is not only capable but necessarily in need of interpretations different from the apparent meaning of the words, it seems to me that in disputes about natural phenomena it should be reserved to the last place.’

In 1616 after some investigation the Inquisition condemn it as a ‘foolish and absurd philosophy’. But Galileo is allowed to continue his studies provided he doesn’t publicise more on this topic.

A number of years later Galileo convinces Pope Urban VIII to allow him to continue work on the theory, which Urban permits so long as he calls it a hypothesis. Unfortunately he publishes a book where the defender of the case against heliocentricity is an Aristotelian of transparent stupidity called Simplico who is modelled on Urban. This is seen as an affront to the church, more because of his insult to the Pope than because of the underlying theory, and Galileo is out on trial in 1633 and condemned for defending the probable hypothesis that the earth moves and is not the Center of the world. Galileo spends his remaking 9 years under house arrest.

The Protestants see this as further evidence of the corruption of the Catholic Church: as fanatics too bigoted to permit study of the heavens. John Milton, a young English Puritan visits Galileo Florence and says ‘For there it was that I found and visited the famous Galileo grown old, a prisoner to the Inquisition, for thinking in astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licencers thought.’ The Protestants hailed Galileo as one of their own, dispelling with brilliance the murk of popery and Aristotle.

Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit arrives in China in 1582, learns the language and transforms himself into Li Madou, hailed by Chinese mandarins as a peer. Ricci believes Confucians can be led to Christ. Xu Guangqi, a senior scholar in China realised that the western astronomers had been able to more accurately forecast the heavens. Ricci sends to Rome for Johann Schrek, a polymath astronomer, physician, mathematician and Jesuit who studied at Padua under Galileo, to help the Chinese emperor with recalibrating their calendar. Their predictions are able to forecast more accurately eclipses and other phenomena. In 1603 Xu is baptised as a Christian. Unfortunately Schrek dies in May 1630 after testing out a poisonous herb on himself. In 1634 the Chinese emperor is presented with a telescope, sealing Galileo’s international fame.

In 1649 the king of England Charles I, is beheaded and in 1653 Oliver Cromwell is appointed Lord Protector of the Commonwealth and there is a civil war in England.

There are many new Christian practices: Baptist’s, who dismiss infant baptism; Quakers (or Friends as they called themselves) who shake in fits when possessed by the Spirit; Ranters, who believe every human is equally part of God. Presbyterians fought against these diverse beliefs. But Milton , the Puritan, warned against this ‘no man or body of men in these times can be the infallible judges or determiners in matters of religion to any other men’s consciences but their own.’

How, in this Protestant country of England was religion to be defined? To the royalists, Charles I and the Presbyterians it was ‘The only firm foundation of all power: that cast loose, or depraved, no government can be stable.’ To others, including Cromwell it was an intimate, personal and private relationship that the Protestant had with the Spirit. The founding constitution of the Protectorate made clear that those who professed faith should ‘not be restrained in the profession of the faith and the exercise of their religion.’

Cromwell declared that ‘he would rather see Islam practised in England, then one of God’s children should be persecuted.’ Books might be burnt: but not the men who wrote them. Even a papist, despite his loathing for their religion were known to be guests at his table. In 1657 he moved to ensure that the son of the founder of Maryland – a colony established in the new world specifically to provide a haven for English Catholics – should not be deprived of his rights to the province.

In 1655 a rabbi from Amsterdam, Manasseh ben Israel, travels to England and appeals to Cromwell to allow the Jews residency in England. Though he failed to convince parliament to give formal rights of admission, in practice they were allowed to return.

In Germany and Europe after the 30 year war from 1618 to 1648, thirty years of slaughter of between 4.5 and 8 million (many due to disease and famine) a general peacekeeping was sealed in the series of treaties forming the Peace of Westphalia, where the German princes pledged themselves not to force religion on their subjects: Catholic’s, Lutherans or Calvinists were all granted freedom to worship as they pleased. Toleration of religious difference was being enshrined as a Christian virtue (though this was very much opposed by the Pope Innocent X)

In 1658 two years after Cromwell’s death, the monarchy is restored in England and an Act of Uniformity restores the Church of England’s supremacy and marginalises sects like the Quakers.

In 1688, 150 “Huguenot” Calvinists are expelled from France and make there way to the Cape Colony, founded by Dutch Settlers.

In the New World, New England, Massachusetts, Boston and Plymouth are the providence of the Puritans (A law in 1661 prescribes that Quakers must be tied to a cart and flogged), but to the south a colony named Philadelphia or ‘Brotherly love’, a much more accepting philosophy is taking route. It’s founder William Penn was the son of one of Cromwell’s admirals and a Quaker. It was an experimental city set up to be at peace local Indians, and welcomed all who profess faith in Jesus Christ.

Slavery continued to be an issue. In 1670 when a Irish Quaker called William Edmundson tours Barbados and New England, he asks why ‘if it is unlawful to make slaves of the Indians, is it lawful to enslave the Africans?’ Benjamin Lay and his wife Sarah, both Quakers and both hunchbacks sail from Scotland to Barbados, a largely Quaker colony. There Sarah Lay is shocked to find the quakers engaged in shocking treatment of slaves. Slavery was regarded by the majority of Christians as a brutal fact of life. Like Las Casas, Lay is convicted of the injustice of slavery. They make themselves very unpopular and are forced to leave Barbados in 1720. But they are shocked to find slavery happening in Philadelphia when they arrive therein 1731. He continues to be an activist on this topic, and by 1759 when he dies the Quakers have voted to discipline any Quaker to trades in slaves.

book review · history · Learning · Philosophy

A brief history of Christianity (part 2 of 4)

Based on Tom Holland’s book Dominion. This section covers c1000 to c1500, including the Latin Reformatio, and the crusades.

In c1025 some clerics in Orleans claimed there was no such thing as the church and are the first to be executed as heretics.

Up to this point priests, unlike monks, had never pledged themselves to celibacy. But the popes incur many scandals. In 1076 there is a backlash against corrupt priests, unworthy of practicing the rites and rituals of the church, led by a preacher named Ramihrd. When he accuses Gerard, Bishop of Cambrai, of being filthy with sin and refuses to take the Eucharist from him, a mob burn him alive.

The Emperor Henry III, installs three different popes in succession with the aim of cleaning up the church. They begin a ‘Reformatio’ or reformation of the church, dispensing papal agents called ‘papal legates’ to set things straight. Hildebrand, the son of a Tuscan Carpenter has a vision of St Paul and is convinced his duty is to clean the church from all filth. By 1073 he is the foremost papal legate. After Henry the IIIs death and while Henry IV is still to young, a new Pope is needed and Hildenbrand is the popular choice to become Pope. He chooses the name Pope Gregory VII.

Corrupt priests are the focus of Gregory’s reforming zeal, upsetting much of the established order. Gregory issues a decree formally prohibiting Kings from conferring bishoprics. Ie separate of church and state. Gregory also states that ‘the Pope is permitted to depose emperors’ challenging imperial authority.

In turn Henry IV, the new king and emperor summons a conference of imperial bishops at the German city of Worms in 1076, ruling the election of Hildebrand invalid, and commanding he step down. Gregory in turn declares Henry IV excommunicated and his subjects relieved of their oaths of loyalty to serve him. Various vassal states, sensing an opportunity desert Henry IV and he is forced to beg Gregory for forgiveness. Gregory does not hesitate to stir up militant mobs against rulers or priests where it will support his Reformatio.

Henry IV renages on his promises and invades Rome in 1084 and Gregory is forced to flee.

But the reforms he puts in place continue. The separation of the ‘religio’ from the ‘saeculum’ or secular, first suggested by Augustine becomes an enduring feature. The vision is of a celibate clergy disentangled from the fallen world, in obedience to militant purity.

Pope Gregory VII also marks the start of a widening schism between the Western Church with the Pope in Rome and the Eastern Church headquartered in Constantinople with their own Pope. (The Byzantian church later to become the Orthodox Church)

In 910 in Burgundy a monastery called Cluny is established, and its founder places it under the protection of the Pope rather than the local bishop or king. Over two centuries they build a great church there. Urban II was abbot of Cluny and then advisor to Gregory before becoming Pope himself in 1087. At a council held in Clermont priests and bishops are formally forbidden to do homage to earthly lords.

And at Claremont on 27 November 1087, Urban takes up the issue of Jerusalem being lost to the saracens. He promises warriors that they can cleanse themselves from sin if they retake Jerusalem. ‘For, if any man sets out from devotion, not for reputation or monetary gain, to liberate the Church of God at Jerusalem, his journey shall be reckoned in place of all penance’. For millennia pilgrims had crossed Hungary to Constantinople and on to the Holy Land and Jerusalem. Urban’s decree sets off the first Crusade drawing a great host of warriors from across the Latin west. They defeat the Saracens at multiple points along the way, arriving in Jerusalem in 1099 where the city is taken on 15 July.

But this is also a major change in several political dynamics: warriors fighting under the banner of Christendom rather than a king. By 1122, the new emperor Henry V is forced to sue for peace with the papacy, again at Worms, when the emperor finally agrees that the investiture of bishops belongs to the papacy. It also required that clergy distinguish themselves from ‘laicus’ or the laity by embracing celibacy. This leads to a greater separation of church and state and a greater uniformity of church across all states in Europe, with the priests owing their loyalty to the church and not the state.

Gregory IV had further stated that ‘The pope May be judged by no one’ and effectively that all Christian people , even kings and emperors were subject to his rulings. The Curia, the church law court was the final court of appeal. By rendering itself free of the secular, the Church had itself become a state. The Reformatio establishes across Christendom a single, sovereign hierarchy of the church.

In 1088, one of Urban’s most eminent supporters, the Countess Matilda, sets up a law school in the Italian city of Bologna. She sponsors a scholar and jurist, Irnerius, who discovers and studies a vast corpus of Roman legal rulings. Within decades Bologna sets up twin guilds or a “universitate” attracting young scholars from across the continent, who are studying law, and who go on to populate the Curia (the ruling governing body of the Catholic Church).

In addition to the Roman law, they start collating all of the cannons issued by previous councils of the Church. A monk called Gratian creates a compendium of these laws and papal decrees called the Decretum which came to be know as ‘the Concordance of Discordant Cannons’ due to the many inconsistencies. To make sense of all these inconsistencies Gratian’s corner stone is to follow St Paul’s decree ‘The entire Law is summed up in a single command:”Love your neighbour as yourself.”’ All souls were equal in the eyes of God. If any law was contrary to this it was discarded.

This overturned many age old presumptions: that custom was the ultimate authority; or that the great are owed different justice to the humble; or that inequality was natural and to be taken for granted. The revolutionary objective was to provide equal justice to all regardless of rank or wealth for every individual was equally a child of God.

One example was the problem of a starving pauper steeling from a rich man: according to a growing number of legal scholars he was merely taken what was naturally owed to him in accordance with natural law, it was the rich miser who was the object of divine disapproval. The concept that the rich had a duty to give to the poor had long been established, but it was now met with a matching concept: that the poor had an entitlement necessities of life. And in particular a concept deployed by canon lawyers – ‘a human right’.

Peter Abelard, a combative scholar, who had in 1115 secretly married a student of his Heloise, only to be castrated by her uncle, thereafter retiring to a monastery (and she to a nunnery despite continuing to burn with passion for him), later condemned as a heretic in 1140 for attempting to compile a list of all of the inconsistencies of the church laws, which he wants to iron out, he appeals to the Pope. His key belief is that Gods order was rational, and governed by rules that mortals could aspire to understand. He stated that ‘the constitution or development of everything that originates without miracles can be adequately accounted for’ He takes refuge at Cluny on the way to Rome and dies there in 1142. He is admired by many and described by the abbot as ‘the Aristotle of our age’.

In 1142 that same abbot crosses the Pyrenees to better understand the Saracens. He begins the first translation of the Qur’an into Latin. The king of Castille had taken the city of Toledo in 1085, which housed a great library of Muslim, Jewish and Greek texts. A Venetian cleric Iacopo translates various works of Aristotle, previously thought to have been lost, into Latin by 1147. There is lots of back and forth attempting to reconcile Aristotle with Christian teaching, with at times it being viewed as heretical and at other times brilliant.

This approach of rational investigation becomes orthodoxy upheld by papal Legates over the next century. In 1216 another new order is established by papal decree lead by a Spaniard called Domenic, the Dominicans. The obligation on the Dominicans is to question, to investigate, to evaluate. They use the model of Aristotle in debate.

In 1215 in a statute promulgated by the Pope legally affirms the independence of the university in Paris from the bishop. In 1214 a similar measure establishes the legal status of colleges that had sprung up in the English town of Oxford.

Theology was the foremost ‘science’ studied at the universities. But as Augustine said ‘it is by God’s laws that the whole scheme of things is governed’. Philosophy is increasingly studied, and expands to include ‘natural philosophy’ such as astronomy, animals, plants, and mathematics all became part of the curriculum.

A question tackled by these scholars was “humanity, lost to sin, had been redeemed by Christ. But how?” Was it a ransom paid to Satan? Was it the resolution of a lawsuit between heaven and hell? Abelard gave a more subtle answer: Christ had not submitted to death on the Cross to satisfy the demands of the Devil, but to meet the demands of justice. ‘This is to free us from slavery to sin, to gain for us the true liberty of the sons of God.’ By doing this Christ had affirmed to all humanity that heaven and earth were indeed structured by laws.

Mystery and reason: Christianity embraced them both.

The fourth council convened at the Lateran in 1215 declared ‘there is one Catholic Church of the faithful, and outside of it there is absolutely no salvation. Every heresy that rises against the holy, orthodox and Catholic faith we excommunicate and anathematise. All heretics we condemn under whatever names they may be known.’ Here it was prescribed for the first time that all Christians should make an annual and individual confession of their sins.

However not everyone agreed with the idea of the on Catholic Church, the Reformatio started as a revolution but created a new set of elite rulers. In a pattern that was to continue to be repeated, revolution bred an elite – and this elite bred demand for new revolution.

In particular many clung to the ideal of living as the apostles had done in the book of Acts, holding all of their possessions in community, and living a holy and separate life from the world. They condemned the clergy for failing to practice what they preached.

Waldensians, named after Walden’s, a Lyon merchant who in 1173 sold all his possessions, were refused permission to proclaim their message having appealed all the way to the Pope, and as a result denounced the priesthood. ‘Christ alone was their bishop.’

In contrast in 1206 Francis, in the town of Assisi, aims to create a community within the confines of the Catholic Church. He renounces his wealthy upbringing, handing his clothes to his father becomes a famous monk, serving lepers, preaches to the birds. With 12 friars he arrives in Rome to see Pope Innocent III who grants them the right to create a new order of the church, the Franciscans.

Jerusalem, having been won in 1099, had fallen again to the Saracens In 1187. A campaign lead by the kings of England and France to recapture it fails. A second expedition in 1202 is diverted and attacks the Eastern Christian city of Constantinople and takes and sacks the city in 1204.

Innocent III is convinced much of the ills in the Christian world is due to heresy. In 1207 he declares ‘wounds that do not respond to the treatment of a poultice should be cut away with a knife’. He is particularly concerned about people around Albi and Tolouse, who don’t buy into the idea of the segregation of the clergy from the people and the supremacy of the Church’s order, but instead honour every day people who live piously, that any good Christian may serve the Eucharist and they did not owe priests any service for they were ‘wicked, not good teachers but hired servants.’ In 1208 after the murder of a papal legate, Innocent III decides he has to eradicate the heresy of the Albigensians at the point of a sword:a crusade against Christian heretics. The Town of Beziers is the sight of the first slaughter. When a soldier asks, ‘how are we to distinguish the heretics from the true believers?’, he is told ‘Kill them all, God knows his own’. Even those sheltering in churches were slaughtered. The slaughter of these crusades continues for two decades of terror until it is finally ended under a new Pope Gregory IX in 1229.

Innocent is viewed as successful within the Chuch in his campaign against the Albigensians and also in other areas, particularly in pushing the Saracens south in Spain until by 1230’s they occupy only the southern cities of Córdoba and Seville. The idea that heretics are everywhere, lead by Satan and need to be rooted out, has taken root.

In 1231, the new Pope Gregory IX, authorises a German priest Conrad, not merely to preach against heresy but to search for it – ‘inquisitio’, and though he could not himself pronounce a sentence involving the shedding of blood, he was licensed to compel the secular authorities to impose it. Hence a new bread of officials: inquisitors. The burning of heretics became common place. Conrad claimed that the heretics belonged to the Devil and worshiped Satan, the sort of discussions usually dismissed. Eventually Conrad is ambushed and cut down by a group of German knights who can take the slaughters no more.

A Dominican called Thomas Aquinas (from Aquino) works on a book attempting to reconcile faith with philosophy, including Aristotle, and other philosophers from both Saracen and Jewish backgrounds. He displays a confidence that ‘all Wisdom is Christian no matter where it might be found’.

Despite this rationality, crusaders are still encouraged to view Saracens, heretics and pagans and legitimate targets for eradication. Interestingly however the Jews are exempt because of the scriptural references to them. Innocent III says magnanimously ‘they are not to be severely oppressed by the faithful’. Interesting quote from a pupil of Thomas Aquinas which showed some of the cultural priorities of Jewish parents: ‘A Jew, however poor, if he had 10 sons would put them all to letters, not for gain, as the Christians do, but for the understanding of God’s law – and not only his sons, but his daughters.’ However this did not stop people from claiming the the Jews were in concert with the Devil. In 1144 outside of Norwich, England, a priest blames the death of a young boy on the Jews. Despite the anti Jew rhetoric being repudiated by the Pope himself the anti Semitic sentiment continued to rise. In 1255 another murdered boy in Lincoln is blamed on the Jews, 90 are arrested and 18 hanged. In 1267 a church council bans sexual relations between Christians and Jews. And in 1290 the king of England orders all Jews to leave his kingdom, with the French King following suite in 1306.

In 1303 the king of France, Philip IV, and the Pope Boniface VIII again clash on who is in charge, and Philips agents cease the Pope. Is is freed shortly thereafter but dies within a few months. The new Pope, a Frenchman, abandons Rome and sets up residence in Avignon france in 1309.

What of woman in this time?

In Milan a nun named Maifreda da Pirovano teaches her followers that she is destined to rule as Pope and that all the cardinals would be woman. This was laughable to the church, harkening back to the story of Eve in the downfall of man. Priests had to be celibate to avoid the temptations of women. She was of course executed as a heretic. But there were some positive female role models in the bible: Mary Magdaline whom Christ had first revealed himself to after rising from the dead, and of course most importantly the Virgin Mary, who had ‘redeemed the fault of Eve in bearing Christ.’ Mary takes on a more and more prominent role inChristian art, often depicted with equal dignity with Christ in the simple understandable relationship between a mother and son.

Siena is the city of the Virgin Mary. In Siena, an Ancient Greek marble statue of Venus, lost and buried for centuries is found. It is placed in the great campo on a fountain. Siena is building a great cathedral even larger than their rivals cathedral in Florence. But from that point onwards everything seems to go wrong: a financial crash, the plague in 1348 kills half of the population, a coup, a military defeat by the Florentines. They decide that the statue must have brought God’s wrath and in 1357 they haul it down, smash it and bury the pieces beyond the borders in Florentine territory. Work on the Cathedral is abandoned forever.

Catherine of Siena is a young woman (the illiterate daughter of a dyer) of the city born in 1647. Having been tempted by the Devil with sexual yearnings she becomes the exemplar of a chaste and virgin women setting herself aside as she dreams she is married to Christ himself, the Bride of Christ, witnessed in her dream by St Paul and St Dominic and King David. She defies her parents plan to marry her off, cutting of her hair and lives a life of extreme discipline and fasting and becomes quite famous. She urges Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome from Avignon, and, after he dies, her support of the Italian Pope Urban VI is key to securing his election over a rival from Geneva.

That marriage was a sacrament, a visible symbol of Gods grace (like the Eucharist, baptism etc), was a doctrine that took many centuries for Christians to accept. Historically marriage was about family and political alliances, with those involved having little say in the matter. Cannon Law was now redefining this as something that had to involve the consent of the woman and the man, and redefining it in the long term as something based on mutual attraction and love. Parents could no longer impose their will on children, in fact priests could marry a couple without their parents consent and we see the starting of the development of the idea of freedom of choice, where the rights of the individual start being placed ahead of those of the family. Along with this came much stronger demands on the couple: Man and woman were joined together in marriage as Christ was to the Church, becoming ‘one flesh’. Women were instructed to submit to their husbands, but husbands were instructed to be faithful to their wives. Divorce was very rare. All of these concepts were completely alien to the ancient Romans and Greeks.

The Church also defines further other law as at this time, for example against incest and sodomy. Again led by Paul’s writings on ‘men committing indecent acts with other men, and woman with woman’ and Thomas Aquinas defines this more clearly as a vice/sin in his writings. In several instances, occurrences of the plague and other bad luck in Venice, Siena, Florence are blamed on loose morals and sodomites. Florence was so notorious for its ‘depravities’ that the German word for sodomites was ‘Florenzer’.

The Byzantine Empire in Constantinople expelled the crusaders from its capital in 1261. But it faced a new Muslim enemy, the Ottoman Turks.

The schism between the Eastern and Western churches continues.

In Oxford John Wycliffe denounces both factions as demonic and the papacy itself as lacking any divine foundation. He is now viewed by many as the predecessor to the Reformation. He dies in 1384 though is posthumously denounced as a heretic.

In Prague a movement arises declaring that the Pope is the antichrist as the church is once again rich and corrupt, with a preacher Jan Hus, inspired by Wycliffe is denouncing the German speaking elites and the church hierarchy in Prague and the papacy in 1414. The emperor-elect Sigismund invites Hus to travel to Constance under safe conduct. However he is arrested, put on trial and sentenced to death as a heretic and burned at the stake. In 1419 Hussites storm city hall in Prague and seize control of the churches.

In Tabor, a group of people from all over Bohemia, collect together. The Taborites aimed to set up a new city, in an abandoned castle,a new Jerusalem and pledge themselves to living in community as the apostles did; and to revolution against the church, the emperor and the papacy as they prepared for the Apocalypse as foretold in the bible.

Sigismund and the papacy declare a crusade against the Hussites and advance on Prague at the head of a great army in 1420. The Taborites march to relieve Prague, lead by a man called Jan Zizka, and in a surprise attack Sigismund is forced to withdraw. Zizka is very successful despite having only one eye and then losing that eye during a battle. By 1424 all of Bohemia is under Taborite rule. But the apocalypse, the end of days, fails to come. The really radical Taborites start to fade and the more extreme Taborites are defeated by a force of Hussites in 1434. In 1436, the Hussites manage to negotiate a concord with the papacy!

In 1453 Constantinople falls to the Ottoman Turks. They press their advantage aiming to take Rome and in 1480 capture Otranto (site of the ancient Greek city Hydrus) on the heel of Italy, beheading its bishop and killing some 800 other citizens.

book review · history · Learning · Philosophy · politics

A brief history of Christianity (1 of 4)

This is based on my reading of Dominion by Tom Holland, who gives a detailed narrative the history of the development of Christianity and its influence on global thinking over two millennia.

In the words of Jewish scholar Boyarin, Christianity emerges from the Roman Empire as ‘the most powerful of hegemonic cultural system in the history of the world’.

For me, this book was really helpful in several ways:

1. Giving context to many of this historical figures we hear referred to in the context of Christian history,

2. Understanding the historical development of philosophical thinking from the amalgamation of the Greek and Jewish philosophies into early Christian beliefs, to then understanding the development of Christian philosophy itself, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, and then contextualising it with the Enlightenment and more modern philosophy in the 20th and 21st century.

3. Understanding the very strong Christian values that underpin modern democratic liberal and secular values worldwide

4. And in dispelling some of the myths of ‘the dark ages’ and to giving a more subtle understanding to the developments of history…

In the rest of this post and the next 3, for the purposes of helping my own memory, here is a brief history of the development of Christian thought focused on the characters, events and philosophical stances along the way and the key role that they played in the development of the story. This post covers 2000 BC to 1000 AD. The next three posts will cover 1000 AD to today! What I initially thought would be one post, has ended up being 4 : its a very dense book and history! I have quoted very liberally, directly from Tom Holland throughout, so cannot claim any ownership, though if there are any errors those are entirely mine.

To set the scene, for anyone less familiar with some of the key religious background, there are three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity that all claim a common patriarch in Abraham, a man who worshiped the ‘one true God’. Abraham has two sons: Ishmael and Isaac. Islam claims its lineage through Ishmael, an ancestor of Muhammed. Jews claim their linage through Isaac who has a son Jacob, who has twelve sons who go on to form the twelve tribes of Israel. The Jews come to live in the Promised Land, in Palestine under their most famous King, King David and then his son King Solomon, who builds the first Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Christianity claims its lineage through the Jewish tradition, but that Jesus Christ, born of the line of David, and of the Virgin Mary, came to earth as the promised Messiah, prophesied in the Old Testament scriptures. He starts his ministry at around the age of 30, recruiting 12 Jewish disciples. At 33 he is crucified by the Romans having offended the Jews. But 3 days later he rises from the dead and 40 days later ascends to heaven. His disciples, later called the apostles set out to tell the Jewish world of his story, led by Peter and are joined by another Jew, Paul who meets Jesus in a vision, and is tasked with taking the Good News to all of humanity.

Much of history can be traced through the rise and fall of empires each with their own religious and cultural beliefs. To understand Christianity it is important to understand some of these empires and cultures, particularly the Greek and Roman empires. Of note slavery is common place in the ancient world and it is fairly normal for societies to have hierarchical patriarchal structures. Very few societies place value on the poor and wretched, with the possible exception of the Jews.

Homer gave the Greeks the Odyssey and Iliad, a written account of the Greek Gods myths and legends and the story of Troy. This gives a good sense of Greek polytheistic (many-gods) religious belief.

The bible relays much of the history of the Jewish people. For our purposes we will start at King David, a shepherd from Bethlehem who rises to become king of Israel. His son Solomon builds a Temple on Mount Moria, in the city of Jerusalem, in Judea, the country that the Jews have claimed as their own. In the temple is the Holy of Holies, and in that, the greatest treasure, the Ark of the Covenant, originally housing the stone tablets setting out the 10 commandments written by God for Moses. The Holy of Holies is said to be the very dwelling place of God on earth.

Several centuries after the Jewish temple is built, the Assyrians conquer the Northern Kingdom of Israel and take the 10 tribes of Israel into captivity, and they vanish completely from history.

In 612 BC Assyria falls to the Babylonians. In 587 the Babylonians capture Jerusalem. The Temple is razed to the ground and the treasures carted away along with many of the elite Jews who are assimilated into Babylonian culture but remain distinct. The Babylonians supreme deity is Marduk, king of the heavens. But the Jews refuse to bow to him (see the bible book of Daniel).

The Persians defeat the Babylonians, and King Cyrus gives some of the Jews permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, but the Ark is lost.

The Jews have a strong tradition of meeting in synagogues and have transcriptions of God’s Law, called the Torah, typically stored in a box to echo the Ark.

500 BC, Philosopher Xenophanes proclaims the existence of a single morally perfect deity who guides everything through the sheer power of his consciousness.

The Greek word Philosophos means ‘lovers of wisdom’.

Aristotle, from northern Greece establishes a school in Athens, he dies in 322 BC. Studying order in the universe: orbits of stars and planets, structure in nature, the way society organised itself. Apparently he said “I thank Fortune, first that I am human and not a beast; second, that I am a man and not a woman; third that I am a Greek and not a barbarian” – not hard to find the patriarchy then! An early indication of the beliefs that man was the master of woman and barbarians were fitted to be the slaves of Greeks. ‘That one should command and another obey is not just necessary but expedient.’ Also he believe in Fortune, goddess Tyche to the Greeks, ‘it is not intelligence that guides the affairs of mortals, but Fortune’

In 312 BC another philosopher Zeno arrives in Athens from Cyprus, teaches students in a painted stoa colonnade, founding the Stoics. They argued Nature itself was divine, God was active reason or ‘logos’ animating the entire universe. Living in accordance with nature was to live in accordance with God. All male/female, Greek/barbarian were equally endowed to distinguish right from wrong. The spark of divine in every mortal was Syneidesis, ‘conscience’. They did not believe in Fortune, but rather that everything was connected and deterministic.

In 334 BC Alexander, king of Macedon, a student of Aristotle, Later known as Alexander the Great, crosses the Hellespont and 11 years later when he dies has defeated Persia and rules an empire from Europe to the Indus. He founds the city of Alexandria in Egypt.

Many Jews are by now living outside the Promised Land eg. speaking Greek in Alexandria.

Demetrius of Phaleron, born 350 BC, by 307 BC, student of Aristotle , leader of Athens, disenfranchised the poor making owning property a qualification to vote. He flees from Athens as to Thebes as another Macedonian general takes over Athens. He helps to establish the library and centre of learning in Alexandria, bringing together scholars from all over the world. Demetrius orders the translation of the core of the Torah the 5 scrolls of the Pentateuch from Hebrew into Greek and imports 72 scholars from Jerusalem to do the task. More translations of other Jewish scriptures follow. They are hailed by the Greek speaking Jews as ‘ta biblical ta hagia’ or ‘the holy books’.

Then we have the rise of the Roman Empire. Pompey the Great arrives in Rhodes in 67 BC. Posidonius a Stoic is a philosopher who claims Rome’s rise is in obedience to ‘natural law’ and fated to happen. Cicero is a great admirer of his. They did not really have a notion of a battle between good and evil, it was more that their destiny through courage, unbending discipline and mastery of the body and soul led them to lead the world to set it in order.

Pompey goes on to conquer Jerusalem for Rome in 63 BC. The Jewish Temple on Mount Moria – the House of God – is captured and Pompey visits it, probably equating the supreme God of the Jews, to Zeus or Jupiter in Greek and Roman beliefs. Curious about what is inside the Temple’s Holy of Holies he is bemused to find it empty. He appoints a new high priest, leaves the treasures of the Temple in place and allows the priests to continue with their daily sacrifice.

Jewish scholars when asked why God allowed this calamity to occur, concluded that the repeated disobedience of the people, in following God, is why they were punished thus. The book of Job (written between 700 and 400 BC) also grapples with a novel problem: the origin of evil. It refers to Satan. This may come from the Persian idea of equal and opposite forces, Arta and Drauga in the battle between the embodiment of good and of evil.

The scholars are also wrestling with the incongruities of a omnipotent God, who was all-just, who was powerful but intimate with his people, combining menace and jealousy with compassion. God speaking to Cyrus in the scripture says ‘I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster. I, the Lord, do all these things’

The Jewish prophecies In the Old Testament however look forward to a new universal kingdom of righteousness, with Jerusalem as its capital and a new king in David’s line, destined to rule as Messiah, translated into Greek as ‘Christos’.

The Roman world collapses into civil war in 49 BC and a new general Julius Caesar defeats Pompey in battle.

Julius Caesar declared himself a god.

Next came Caesar Augustus (the adopted son of Julius Caesar), also known as Octavian, the first Roman emperor. Augustus, born in 63 BC, was also deified, and proclaimed Divi Filius or ‘Son of God’ and cults set up statues to worship him. He is the Caesar who ordered the census, for which Mary and Joseph were compelled to travel to Bethlehem, Joseph’s home town, and thus when Jesus was born. A proclamation in Galatia states of Augustus, ‘He brings war to an end; he orders peace; by manifesting himself, he surpasses the hopes of all who were looking for good news’ (Euangelia) – from an inscription in Priene on the Aegean coast, 29 BC.

In Ancient Rome death by crucifixion was considered to be the most repellant and wretched of deaths, suitable only as a punishment for slaves. Roman citizens could not be executed this way. Romans refused to countenance that the practice even was started by them, claiming it was a practice of the barbarian tribes. Jesus’s crucifixion in one of the only detailed written accounts of such an event. Crucifixion was not unusual, but the fact that his body was taken down and given a proper burial afterwards was very unusual.

The book, Dominion, does not dwell on the details of Christ’s life, but moves on to the experiences of Paul.

Paul of Tarsus, was a Pharisee, a zealous Jewish scholar, fluent in Greek and Hebrew, and possibly a Roman citizen. He was well-versed in the Torah and Jewish Law and a fierce defender of the Jewish faith, persecuting early followers of Jesus. On the road from Jerusalem to Damascus Paul has a vision of Jesus Christ and his life is wholly transformed and he comes to believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that he is called to spread the Good News (Euangelion) to all nations (not just the Jews to whom Jesus had preached) and be an apostle of Christ (the first and direct disciples who hear directly from Christ).

The idea that a ‘crucified criminal might somehow be a part of the identity of the One God of Israel’, was shocking to the Jews and the Romans. Caesar embodied the very idea of a God and the ‘Son of God’. That the Messiah might had suffered the death of a slave, submitting willingly to suffering on the Cross was scandalous. According to Paul ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ And a philosophy that ‘the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’ Throwing out the need for Jewish adherence to rituals such as circumcision as a sign of belonging to God. The ‘Old Covenant’ between God and the Jewish nation established in the promises to Abraham, had been replaced by a ‘New Covenant’ for anyone who believed in Christ. The believers came to be known as Christians.

To state it clearly, Christians believe that Jesus Christ, together with God the Father and the Holy Spirit are One God, the same God as the Jewish God; that Christ was God incarnate, made flesh who came to earth to be the prophesied Messiah, and that he died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins in God’s sight, thereby redeeming anyone who believes in him to a renewed relationship with God. Not only did he die, but he rose from the dead three days later, and 40 days later ascended to heaven where he sits at the right hand of the Father, and that he will return to judge the living and the dead. This is the concept of his impending return or the ‘parousia’ of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul challenged many of the societal norms including slavery. Yet freedom from these laws did not mean Christians could do anything ‘everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial’. The law of Christ served the good of those who obeyed it – the common good. His creed was to focus on the primacy of love (‘if I have faith that can move mountains, but I have not love, I am nothing’) and that God’s Law was written on the believers heart (not needing the Jewish Law). How was God’s Law to be recognised? From the Stoics he adopted the idea that God’s Law was revealed through our consciences, ‘syneidesis’. In this way Paul fused Jewish morality with Greek philosophy in a world-changing way.

Paul preached Christ, and his understanding of him, across Europe, travelling almost 10,000 miles in his lifetime. However he was unable to escape his schooling as a Pharisee. He preached that Christ had freed the believer from the Law, but he clung to various traditionally-held Jewish ideas like monogamous, heterosexual marriage as the only model for sexual relationships (in contrast to Greek beliefs at the time); and the traditional roles of women and men.

By now Nero, the great, great, grandson of Augustus had risen to become Caesar. He turned out to be a particularly vindictive and sadistic emperor. When in 64 AD a deadly fire breaks out in Rome, Nero blamed Christians and had many condemned to death: tied to crosses, smeared with pitch and burned as human torches. Among those put to death are Peter, Jesus’s disciple, and traditionally held to be the first Pappas (Pope) or Father of the Church. Before Jesus own crucifixion, he commanded Peter to look after his flock. Peter is crucified upside down. Paul is also put to death, beheaded, as befits a Roman citizen. (It is not clear in the history books whether this was after the fire or before).

Many of the earliest extant Biblical manuscripts are Paul’s letters to churches in Galatia, Ephesus, Rome and Corinth. These typically predate the gospels which were recorded somewhere in the period 50 to 90 AD.

The Gospel of John, the youngest of Jesus disciples and often referred to as ‘the one whom Jesus loved’, starts with the words… ‘The Logos, which was with God, and was God, and through whom the world was made, had come into the world, but the world did not recognise him.’ Usually, Logos is translated as ‘Word’, but the Stoic understanding (See Zeno above) gives new understanding of why he chose this wording.

In AD 66 the Jews in Judea revolt. Four years later the Romans crush the rebellion, burning down the Temple and taking its treasures.

Justin, a Christian apologist 150 years after Christ defends the morality of the Christian life to the emperor Antoninus.

Ignatius Bishop of Syria defines the Church as katholikos : universal. Christians are viewed with suspicion in the Roman world because of their distinctive worship and rituals (eg. Misunderstanding the communion wine and bread, becoming the blood and body of Christ, which leads to assumptions of cannibalism) In AD 177 in Lyon, many Christians are killed, and jailed and tortured. One particular slave girl, Blandina, refuses to renounce Christ despite being tortured and becomes a martyr.

Irenaeus (130 to 202 AD) is an early ambassador of the church who is sent from Lyon to Rome. He had direct links to the apostles. He trained under Polycarp who knew John. Irenaeus starts to define Christian orthodoxy. Iraneus suggests a cannon: the writings of the apostles and Paul plus gospels of Luke, John, Matthew and Mark, the new testament. He sets out to repudiate the gnostics who claimed ‘special knowledge’ beyond the cannon.

The emperor Carracella in 212 AD grants everyone (every free person) in the Empire, Roman citizenship. But he then proceeds to persecute Christians in Alexandria for not offering sacrifices to the gods. In 250 AD everyone except the Jews are instructed to offer sacrifices to the gods, and again many Christians are persecuted.

Alexandria was a melting pot for philosophy. Origen, the son of Christian parents executed in that city, develops a theologia : a science of God. He further mixed Jewish scripture and Greek philosophical thinking. He embedded the Jewish Old Testament with the New Testament as the full Cannon. He also clearly articulated the concept of the Trinity – three in one (though this is not the final form in the Nicean creed). He was then tortured to death in 250 AD, after everyone was ordered by Caracalla to offer sacrifices and he refused.

303 AD an edict is issued by the Emperor Diocletian, all Christians are ordered to comply with traditional Roman religious practices and to hand over their scriptures or face death. Many are persecuted for refusing, but many Christians also choose to deny Christ and hand over their scriptures.

In Carthage, Donatus and his followers are unwilling to forgive those who surrendered scriptures. Those who surrendered the scriptures, referred to as ‘traditores’ by Donatus and his followers, elect their own bishop Caecilian, who proceeds to stand against Donatus.

In 312 AD Constantine marches on Rome, winning a battle at the Milvian bridge on the Tiber River against a rival. Prior to the battle he sees a cross in the sky and in a dream is visited by Christ and is convinced Christ granted him victory. He becomes the first Christian emperor. Constantine has Christian sympathies and restores confiscated possessions to the churches. In 313 AD he wants to create a single, roman ‘religiones’, and issues a proclamation to serve ‘the divinity who sits in heaven’ – a deliberately obscure reference because direct support was not yet politically palatable. Constantine bans crucifixion.

Donatus complains against Caecilian to Constantine, but his request is denied. Constantine believes it is his mission to uphold the unity of the church.

Donatus is exiled and dies three decades later, but for many decades thereafter the schism continues, with Donatists killing or torturing Catholic bishops in Carthage.

Throughout Christian history the yearning to reject a corrupt and contaminated world, to refuse any compromise with it, and to aspire to a condition of untainted purity would repeatedly manifest itself.

In 325 AD Constantine convenes bishops from across the (Western) world and after a month of debate they finalise a common creed and cannon. The Nycean Creed declares the Father and Son ‘homoousios’: ‘of one substance’. ‘the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God fron true God, begotten not made.’

Flavius Claudius Julianus, Constantine’s nephew, becomes emperor in 361 AD and repudiates Christianity. He tries to roll back reforms and reinstate the goddess Cybele.

At the time, society looked down on the poor and destitute – in Rome, Greek, Persian societies, people who find themselves in this situation are not deserving of sympathy nor do they merit assistance.

In Cappadocia, Basil, initially a lawyer, is elected bishop of Ceasaria in 370 AD, and his younger brother Gregory, a theologian, is appointed Bishop in Nyssa. Gregory introduces the idea that the poor have taken upon them the person of our Saviour. God’s love for the outcast demands that mankind love them too. Basil builds a huge Basileias in 369 AD providing shelter and a hospital for the poor. Gregory preaches that ‘not all the universe would constitute the adequate payment for the soul of a mortal.’ However, when he spoke out against slavery, it was rejected by Basil and others.

Also at this time, babies were regularly abandoned across the Roman world (this was not a Jewish practice), whether due to deformity, or gender. Many would end up as slaves or in brothels if they survived. Basil and Gregory’s sister, Macrina (the Younger), sought out baby girls and raised them as their own. She is now venerated as a saint.

Martin was a soldier under Julian. His most famous story is that outside Amiens in Northern Gaul he found a beggar shivering in the cold. He cut his cloak in two and gave it to the beggar. Later Christ appears to him in a dream. Much like the (parable of the) Good Samaritan. When he left the army he became ‘servant of Christ’ choosing to live a life of chastity and solitude as a ‘monachoi’ (monk): those who live alone. He developed a reputation though he wanted to avoid any form of grandeur. In 371 AD without putting himself forward he was elected as Bishop of Tours (when he heard this he ran away and hid in a barn but was betrayed by geese). Even as bishop he refused to move into the palace. There were reports of healings. This proved threatening to the rich and elite bishops of the church. He died in 397 AD and there ensued a fight for his body, by different groups. He was eventually buried in Tours in a small tomb.

In 394 AD a very wealthy man Meropius Pontius Pailinus, admirered Martin who had miraculously healed his eye. After losing a son at 8 days, he and his wife Therasia sold all of their many properties and possessions, and gave all their wealth to the poor. They then pledged to live out their lives, in poverty, in a hut near Naples. He continued to fund many projects including the building of churches. ‘..It is not riches themselves that are either offensive or acceptable to God, but only the uses to which they are put by men.’

Pelagius (360 to 420 AD) believed man was created free, and whether he lived in obedience to God’s instructions or not, the decision was his own. He believed that sin was merely a habit – which meant that perfection was attainable. He zoomed in on the book of Acts where Christ’s followers sold their goods and shared everything they had.

Augustine of Hippo (354 to 430 AD) believed more in the diversity of the church: ‘the poor will always be with you’ All are equally fallen – whether rich or poor. He saw Pelagius’s belief as heresy that could risk damnation. Original sin needed daily repentance including the giving of alms to the poor and protection of the weak, by the powerful, which might secure favour from heaven. This was a new model of Christianity for those with power and riches: it would later develop into the belief and practice that a place in heaven could be bought.

100 years later in c500 AD Martin’s tomb is venerated. Clovis, a Frankish warlord prays to him for favour in battle and the cloak, the ‘capella‘ Martin gave away, is recovered and guarded by a special class of priests, or ‘capellani‘, or chaplains in times of war. And the word “Saints” rather than applying to the living faithful as Paul used it in the Bible, is now applied to those who have died.

Emperor Heraclius in 632 AD commands visitors, residents, children and slaves to be forceably baptised. This decree was partly due to the Jews who refused to do so. 

In 636/637 AD Palestine is invaded by the Saracens (Muslims). Claiming the same lineage to Abraham as the Jews and the Christians, they acknowledge Jesus as a ‘messenger of God’ (but denying his deity and crucifixion). They believe that Muhammad was given the one true Deen, the one true expression of allegiance to God, ‘submission’ to him in Arabic Islam. His texts, the Qur’an are believed to be the direct words of God as revealed by the angel Gabriel.

Islam spreads across North Africa, with many Christians captured into slavery in 670 AD. In 695 AD Carthage falls following two sieges. It is razed to the ground and a new Muslim capital is built in Tunis. 

In 689 AD work begins on Mt Moria in Jerusalem to build the Dome of the Rock Mosque on the site of the old Jewish Temple.

Muslims compile a corpus of law called the Sunna, every word said to have been spoken by the prophet, much like the Jewish Talmud. In contrast to this Muslim belief, stands the Christian belief that God would write his commandments on the hearts of his followers – to follow conscience and act in love. Universal salvation is available to anyone who believes in Christ, without the need to follow very strict laws to earn God’s favour and therefore, salvation, this is in contrast to strict Judaic and Islamic requirements.

Britain had fallen to the pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes, as the Roman Empire collapsed and the original Christian influence of Patrick and Pelagius was lost. In 597 AD Pope Gregory sends monks to Canterbury. The King of Kent is baptised (by Augustine) and over the subsequent decades many more warlords turn to Christianity in Britain.

Theodore in c665 AD from Tarsus who studied in Syria and Constantinople is sent from Rome, to Marseille, then on to Paris and on to Britain, (and specifically Canterbury in Kent). He was accompanied by Hadrian (of Hadrian’s Wall fame). They set up a school at Canterbury teaching Greek and Latin.

Bede, an Anglican monk is taught by them. Bede devised the method of calculating the year’s date from the time of Christ’s incarnation, the system of Anno Domini, ‘year of our Lord’ is born. Bede was based at Jarrow monastery, where he was instrumental in building a huge library collection of books from Rome, funded by Biscop Baducing, the local Lord. He in turn, had travelled back and forth to Rome six times bring a ‘boundless store of books’ back with him. Biscop is renamed Benedict in Latin. Irish monks also contributed to Jarrow. Bede works on the idea that the Angles (a pun on the conceit that their ‘faces are those of angels’), Saxons and Jutes are like a new ‘chosen race’, having made an exodus across the sea to Britain. Thus the narrative develops, of a single people-group, which in time becomes a uniting of kingdoms known as Anglia and their own language ‘Engalonde’ later to become the English.

This motif of a new group of chosen people, is set up to reflect ideals of the early church as described in the book of Acts. This mythology of origin-narrative reoccurs throughout Christian history.

In c711 AD Muslims start to invade Spain. The Visigoth Christian King’s of Spain fall and over the next two decades Spain becomes al-Andulus, a Muslim kingdom. By 731 AD Arab raids are intruding into the south of modern day France. In 732 AD the Duke of Aquitaine is defeated and Bordeaux is torched. In October 732 AD the Arabs aim to take Tours and the shrine of St Martin, but the Franks repel them and the tide of Arab westward expansion is turned.

The Franks counter-attacked at Poitiers led by Charles ‘Martel’, ‘the hammer’, a leader who fused the Eastern Rhine-based kingdom with the Western Paris-based kingdom (previously led by the heirs of Clovis) of the Franks. He reclaims Provence and Aquitaine, Arles and Avignon and by 741 AD commands a kingdom from the Pyrenees to the Danube.

In the east, around 725 AD, the Saracens carry out a three-year seige of Constantinople that ultimately fails, however most of the lands of the middle East and North Africa are now under their control. 

Charles Martel’s son is Pepin, who gives rise to the Carolingian empire, a Christian empire. Charles does not look to the emperor of the Byzantians, besieged by the Saracens, but instead defines new Western Christian Empire. The east including the original home of Christianity in Syria, Palastine, Egypt and Africa is lost to the Saracens.

Boniface a missionary, born in Devon in the Saxon kingdom of Wessex, travels to convert the Saxons (modern day Germany) with the backing of the Pope and of Charles Martel. In 722 AD he cuts down a great tree: Thunor’s oak, a Saxon totem. In 772 AD he fells Irminsul another tree believed by the pagans to uphold the heavens.

From Saxon we get the word hel, for the pagan underworld and the spring festival Eostre, both of which are adopted into Christian teachings as Hell and Easter. He is martyred in Frisia, but the swift retribution visited on those who kill him, by the Christian Franks, subsequently convinces (or forces) most pagans to convert.

In 771 AD Pepin’s younger son, Charles, becomes sole ruler of the Franks. He is a strong promoter of the Christian religion and is later known as Charles the Great or Charlemagne.

Many bloody battles with the Saxons ensue, who rebel and massacre of the local priests. In 776AD Charles imposes a treaty on the Saxons obliging them to accept baptism. But the Saxons remain obstinate. In 782 AD he orders the beheading of 4500 prisoners in a single day.This sets a bloody precedent in forcing people to convert to Christianity. 

Charlemagne goes on to recapture Barcelona, northern Spain from the Saracens.

In 789 AD he sets out his ambitions: to have his subjects ‘apply themselves to a good life’ through ‘correctio‘: their schooling in the authentic knowledge of God. 

From Tours, under an Abbott called Alcuin, many copies of scripture are produced called biblia, ‘the books’ containing both the old and new testaments in Latin, are distributed across Charlemagne’s empire, together with a program of educating the priesthood. Everyone in the empire must know the Creed and the Lord Prayer.

In 800 AD on Christmas day, Pope Leo III crowns Charlemagne, (Charles, son of Pepin, grandson of Charles Martel) as ‘Augustus’, the King of the Franks and the Emperor of the Romans in St Peters in Rome. He is the first Emperor to Rule from Western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476AD. This is a break with the tradition of Pope submitting to the Emperor in Constantinople.

Charlemagne dies 814 AD but his programs endure, forming a uniform basis of Christianity across the Frankish empire and beyond to Britain, Ireland and Spain. 

By 840 AD Charlemagne’s Empire is starting to fray with Saracen pirates raiding the Italian coastline and enslavement of captives; they even manage to sail up the Tiber and loot St Peter’s in Rome. Britain and Ireland are overthrown by armed marauders: the Vikings.

By 905 AD the last descendent of Charlemagne is deposed and there is no Emperor – the kingdom of the Franks fractures, with the two largest, eastern and western flanks, later becoming France and Germany. For 50 years there is no Emperor.

In 937 AD the last King in Britain to hold out against the Vikings – Athelstan of the West Saxons, King of Wessex –defeats a Viking invasion and secures a Christian Anglo-Saxon kingdom from Northumbria to the Channel.

From the steppes of the Carpathian mountains, in 955 AD, Hungarians mounted on horseback invade the Bavarian lands.

They are repelled by Otto the Great who came to rule France, ‘heir of Constantine’ (The first Roman Christian Emperor). Ironically he came from Saxon stock, but was now champion of the Christian world. He fought back with three thousand horseman and the ‘spear that had pierced Christ’s side’. Following the victory he was crowned Emperor by the Pope in Rome.

In a short space of time, this renewed tide of Christianity draws in surrounding kingdoms from Scandinavia to Hungary where King Stephen heartily pursues Christianity. He is rewarded with a queen, the niece of Otto the Great, and is proclaimed a saint after his death in 1038 .ad

In 1033 AD the Christian world holds its breath, expecting the return of Christ, a thousand years after Christ’s death – with many pilgrimages made to Jerusalem via the newly christianised Hungary.

In 1054 the Great Shism is the formal breaking of the commune of the Eastern Orthodox Church from the Western Roman Catholic Church due to a series of theological, jurisdictional and organisational disputes that built over several centuries.

Anselm, a scholar from North Italy, of noble birth, who is very sensitive to all living creatures (eg. he commands a trapped hare be freed, having burst into tears seeing it) is appointed to lead the English Church, (suffering a spectacular nosebleed when told this) in 1093 AD. He shifted the emphasis away from Christ’s triumph over the Cross (and Death) and to his suffering humanity. There follows a shift in the visual art’s depictions from serene-Christ to suffering-Christ.

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Ready Player One: a vision of the future

If you haven’t watched it, stop now, go and rent it, and watch Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One“ (RPO).

The movie is set in “the Stacks”, a high density city of container homes situated in Columbus Ohio in 2045. It is a world where everyone spends most of their time online in Virtual Reality world called the Oasis. It centres on a group of video gamers including our hero Parzival (Wade Owen Watts in the real world), who spend their time playing different computer games in this virtual world. The Oasis was created by a geeky tech programmer, James Halliday and has made his company, Gregarious Games, the world’s most valuable business.

It always surprises me how little known this film seems to be beyond the circles of science fiction fans. And yes, for science fiction fans it’s a great film. But I think it’s more than that: I think it is a prescient vision of what the real future may well look like. I am not talking about the storyline itself or the fairytale ending, but about the vision of how our future world might operate socially and economically.

I am going to describe how and why I think this film is such a prescient a picture of our online future.

I will structure this as 3 sections

1. Why is Ready Player One a likely vision of our social future?

2. The idea of online virtual economies, and some of my own speculations of how these might develop in future

3. The interaction between those online virtual economies and real world economies

1. The vision of a virtual social future

Let me state my hypothesis: that an online virtual world is going to be the future of the majority of our social interaction.

Already some of our children spend more time interacting with friends that they meet online, than they do with the friends from their own school.

Why? Because those friends they meet online have by definition the same interests: they are playing the same game. It’s unlikely you are going to find 5 people in your local neighborhood with the very specific interests you have, but online you can find your “tribe” of 50,000, amongst the millions of players out there all brought together by the phenomena of online social gaming.

For many it is easier to connect in the virtual world. In the words of James Haliday: “I created the Oasis because I never felt at home in the real world. I just didn’t know how to connect with the people there.”

Just like in the movie, the beauty of online is that your avatar can be whoever you want – you can choose how you want to portray yourself to the world. The ultimate version of “how you choose to identify” in an age of gender fluidity. You can choose to identify as a beautiful girl when in reality as H says, “‘she’ could be a 300 pound dude who lives in his moma’s basement in suburban Detroit. And her name is Chuck.”.

In this online world you will gladly pay real world dollars to buy a fashionable cloak or “skin”, and to get the upgrades and artefacts. Just like real world fashion, this is the price to be “in” with your tribe, to communicate who you are and provoke the envy of your peers.

In the words of Parzival, “People come to the Oasis for all the things they can do, but they stay because of all the things they can be”

Beyond the ability to self identify, why are virtual worlds so alluring? In psychology, the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is “self actualisation”. This is what we most aspire to as humans. Online games offer an quick way to a superficial level of “self actualisation”: players learn new skills as they master a game; they create new art and architecture in Minecraft. They post a video of it that is admired by many on YouTube, and if it goes viral they get their 5 minutes of fame. These are things that give people a sense of value and contribution and potential aspiration. And anytime they get bored, there is always the option of starting on some new game.

The film depicts an evolution from today’s gaming, which we are already starting to see: it is not about a single game, it’s about a virtual online platform on which many games are hosted. These different games are available on the platform, perhaps created by different developers. Players can jump around between games in the same virtual environment.

It’s not just computer games that will be hosted in this virtual world. Think of the real world places that we go to socialise such as bars: would you members of the Curiosity Club fancy having our next meeting at the Moss Isley Bar on Tatooine, or the Distracted Globe in the Oasis?

It will also host real world events like concerts, and music festivals. Hopefully you had the chance to Have a look at the recent virtual music concert by US rapper Travis Scott, attended by 12.3 million people live, simultaneously on the Fortnite platform. Compare that to the largest physical concert ever, by Jean Michel Jare, in Moscow in 1997 with an estimated 3.5m live audience. Having watched the music show, you can now buy a Travis Scot “skin” for only 2500 V Bucks in game, real world price $25.

Beyond social interaction we are also likely to see many real world business services in these online worlds. Healthcare consultations, meeting your insurance broker or banker, may all be far more efficient than meeting face to face in the real world.

So the future of our social interaction it seems, will be predominantly virtual!

Which brings us to point 2, the economies within these virtual worlds

What is particularly interesting to me is that these games are creating online economies. These virtual gaming economies are already exhibit many, but not all, of the characteristics of a real world economy.

In RPO people are out to collect coins, and artefacts (clothes and weapons), which they can lose if something happens to their avatar in a game.

At the moment most games have some form of currency. Just like Fortnites VBucks. This virtual currency is typically earned through game play, or purchased with real world dollars in order to speed up game play and enjoyment.

Players can get paid for work they are prepared to do. In RPO, H is building an Iron Giant and repairs other peoples broken artefacts. He has skills that are valued and paid for in the virtual world.

Games like Minecraft already enable players to work with each other , and for each other, in virtual worlds. My son will often offer to help out some other player building an “iron golem farm” (don’t ask) on a Minecraft server, in exchange for some online compensation like “enchanted diamonds.”

In Online Minecraft servers, the prices of virtual commodities like “red stone”, “wheat” and “enchanted diamonds” fluctuate with supply and demand created by other players. You can execute sophisticated real world strategies to make “money” in these games. For example, my son has figured out, entirely on his own, time zone arbitrage: buying goods cheaply in the morning in Britain when there are fewer players and less demand, selling the same thing more expensively in the evening when the American players come online and demand increases. In real world financial markets, arbitrageurs routinely engage in these sorts of strategies across time zones.

And there are all the real world characteristics that come with this virtual commerce: both the good: creativity, deals, alliances, productivity, and altruism, and the bad: cheating, reneging on promises, and stealing.

So all of this already exists today. If you will permit me, here are some of my speculations of how these online economies might develop in future:

I anticipate we will start seeing forms of virtual currency being created that are interchangeable between games.

Just like in the real world perhaps different games on the same platform exchange different currencies, and there are exchange rates between the currencies of the different games. Exchange rates set not by the game developer but by the community of players based on supply and demand.

And more importantly there will also be two way exchange rates between real world and virtual currencies. Thats when it starts getting really interesting economically speaking: When you can quantify the value of an hour of virtual world work in real world dollars.

How do these virtual economies differ from real world economies?

One of the challenges in these virtual economies is that the game designer is god. They could at any point modify the rules of the game, and reset everything. That could be unfair both for players and for any businesses that develop in the ecosystem around the game. I anticipate that in time there will need to be governance systems developed for these online virtual worlds in order to keep users and virtual businesses engaged, invested and protected.

Successful real world economies are built on a sense of “trust” in the governance of the economic system. How can this be created in these virtual worlds? More sophisticated games in future will no doubt allow the formation of virtual legal contracts between players, or between players and virtual businesses (including the games creators), for the delivery of virtual goods or services.

Block chain technology (the technology behind cryptocurrency like BitCoin) could be part of the answer. This technology could be used to guarantee ownership, to manage currency creation and secure other other forms of contracts in these virtual worlds. This might form the equivalent of “rule of law” in an online economy, creating the necessary framework and stability for a flourishing of these economies.

Might we see virtual independent central banks that have power over the supply of virtual currency to these worlds? There will quite possibly be a virtual world reserve currency… perhaps that will be Bitcoin?

3. Finally what about the real world Economic implications of these virtual economies?

Economically speaking, in the real world the biggest beneficiary of course will be the owner of the platform.

The gaming platform can create new virtual goods at zero marginal cost, target demand and charge real world money for your latest invisibility cloak or light sabre. All of this supported by AI algorithms that are designed to exactly optimize these experiences based on realtime feedback from millions of users, for that perfect dopamine hit; to keep us predictable human beings coming back for more and more and more…

We are already starting to see the idea of gaming platforms hosting multiple games with the likes of TenCent providing a gaming platform for developers and companies like Epic Gaming, the creators of Fortnite talking about making it into an online platform that hosts different games.

The power of social network platforms is the size of the social network. Network economics are exponential. The more people using one network, the more people are drawn to using that network, the more powerful it becomes. As they say in RPO ”Except for eating, sleeping and bathroom brakes, what ever people want to do, they do it in the Oasis. And since everyone is here, this is where we meet each other, this is where we make friends”.

So it’s very natural that there will be only a handful of dominant companies like james Haliday’s aptly named Gregarious Gaming, and Innovaitive Online Industries, their rivals.

Just as Facebook, Google, Alibaba and TenCent are dominant in today’s world because they have the network effect and they own the data. It’s not the AI algorithms that are valuable, it’s owning the data of the network on which they operate.

I am a bit of a pessimist when it comes to future real world employment. I think AI automation is going to replace a lot of menial jobs, and a whole lot of not so menial jobs. We will need coders, data scientists and medical scientists and so forth, but they are not going to be needed in such volumes as to replace the jobs lost in the real world. Even tasks like computer programming are going to become far more automated.

There will be many new jobs created in these online worlds and a new generation will find their job opportunities in these virtual worlds. Just as today Search Engine Optimisation has become a career option, virtual world optimisation will likely be a career choice in the future. No doubt many new online businesses will be created in these virtual worlds, making their creators wealthy.

The challenge is going to be the exchange rate between the real world and these virtual worlds. It’s very unlikely, in my opinion, that an hour of work in a virtual world is going to provide anything like minimum wage in the real world.

These platforms are built around classic network effects. A handful of gamers, or artists, gather the largest followings and are our future celebrities. They live in symbiosis with the platform. They get huge publicity, and their real world wealth builds as they get more followers, endorsements and marketing power. Just as in today’s social networks, the wealth is distributed across a very steep exponential pyramid, with very few at the top getting fabulously wealthy, a few more behind that making a decent living and a multitude beyond that being hopeful but earning only a pittance.

Given the diversity of special interests across the globe, there is plenty of opportunity for smaller chieftains to emerge, people who become the leaders of special interest groups because of their passion and their ability to sell themselves online as an expert or influencer to the 50,000 people interested in “that one thing”. But in every tribe the structure is the same, a few at the top of the exponential pyramid reaping relatively large rewards compared to a large base of fans who put in more than they get out.

To illustrate: my younger son explained his calculations to me this week: Mumbo Jumbo, his favourite Minecrafter, gets about 1.5 million views per video, he posts two videos a week, and therefore earns, from YouTube, between £2000 and £4000 per week. This all seems to be common knowledge for today’s 11 year olds. “So you can make a lot of money being a YouTuber”. My reply to him was, “yes you can, and you and approximately 1.5million other kids watch and want to be Mumbo Jumbo twice a week. That’s a lot of competition for that top spot…”

So as in RPO, in the real world we might end up living in a distopian world, with very large swathes of the population scraping together what they can in the real world from very low paying virtual world jobs. Their aspiration may we’ll be to afford just enough to buy that new VR headset or suit that allows them to experience their next virtual vacation.

In this virtual world we will see all the same tendencies and deviancies we see in the real world, but amplified in this online world.

Those with compulsive gambling tendencies are sure to be easy targets for AI algorithms, as demonstrated by Rick, Aunt Alice’s loser boyfriend who bets all their home deposit savings on upgrades for a game he was sure to win if he just had the right pair of gloves. People are likely to be met with scammers and charlatans. Policing, fairness and justice will all be big challenges.

Here I hope that RPO is not a prescient vision of the future. In the movie many people work for IOI in “loyalty centres”. They are forced to work to repay loans advanced by IOI to them. IOI also make money in the movie by selling Virtual Reality hardware (haptic suits, gloves, omni-directional treadmills) to people in the real world; but as our evil arch nemesis Nolan Sorento says in the movie “debt services dwarfs hardware”. And of course they make their money like our tech giants do, “selling up to 80 percent of a players visual field [to advertising] before inducing seizures”.

One of the things I am very concerned about is the burden of debt in this future world. In a world where real world income is shrinking, debt will be the killer.

In the movie it is Art3mis’s dad who, having borrowed gear, built up debt, got sick and could not afford to pay off his debt. He died in an IOI loyalty centre trying to work off those debts. Then IOI purchase and consolidate all of Art3mis’s (Samantha’s) debt and remand her to an IOI loyalty centre until her debts are paid off.

Just as in RPO, many individuals in the real world will likely have substantial debt burdens, from student loans, credit cards, medical bills and possibly, in game obligations. Add to that governments that are currently as heavily indebted as at any point in history, made even worse by the recent COVID19 crisis, will need taxes to pay that off. All of that Real world debt needs to be paid for with real world income.

Already as society we are starting to see a questioning of whether the tech behemoths are contributing to society fairly for the profit they extract. It’s likely that tax changes will occur to ensure that both these companies and the wealthy few who benefit from them pay a substantial portion of the tax burden. Solutions will have to be found to tax where revenue is generated in these global ecosystems.

Another possible development is the idea of a Universal Basic Income: a social safety net whereby everyone receives a certain minimum income from the state, presumably afforded by taxing the tech companies. Andrew Yang, one of this years early Democratic presidential candidates in the US, championed the idea of UBI as an antidote to automation lead job loss.

On a bleak note, I am afraid I don’t expect to see RPOs fairy tail ending. In particular I think it’s relatively unlikely that we will end up with a benevolent “High five” set of idealistic gamers in charge of the greatest profit generating business in the world. And I don’t anticipate that they will close it on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We are going to have to find the will power within ourselves to tear ourselves away from the virtual world.

So in summary, my speculations are

1. In future the majority of our work and social interactions will happen in online virtual worlds

2. Those virtual worlds will have virtual economies and there will be exchange rates between the virtual world currencies and real world currencies. They may have to develop forms of governance and virtual legal contracts to enable those virtual economies to flourish.

3. Because of automation and the pyramid nature of the online world we might see even more inequality in society with large swathes of the population enjoying themselves in the virtual world but scraping together a minimal income in the real world. How will society adapt to these challenges?

Is it all doom and gloom?

The luddites beleived technology would destroy jobs and they were wrong. The Prometheus myth has always instilled the fear that steeling fire (inventing new tech) will draw the wrath of the gods destroying human-kind but it’s never been the case. On that basis these fears may be overblown, perhaps we just don’t have the imagination to know how we will adapt to this new world.

All is not lost: In the words of James Haliday at the end of the movie: As terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place that you can get a decent meal.

And that’s not about to change any time soon.

Because like James Haliday said, “Reality is the only thing that’s real.”

Health · Learning

Why we sleep by Matthew Walker

This book was recommended by so many podcasts and work colleagues and I finally got around to reading it. It’s an excellent read I would thoroughly recommend it as one of the most potentially life changing reads you could complete. As a society we don’t understand sleep, and don’t value it. This book will change your attitudes towards sleep completely.

Sleep is one of the oldest evolutionary functions present in all known animals even down to the most basic like worms (and sharks and fish in case you wondered do sleep even though they keep moving, just like your heart keeps pumping). So it must serve some very useful functions! But the nature of the sleep does differ significantly between species

The basic structure of sleep

NonREM sleep – slow wave sleep with regular pulses of activity from the prefrontal lobe to the back of the brain. These are accompanied by occasional “spindles” of electrical activity that appears to be associated with the transfer of memories. This deep sleep facilitates the “file transfer” or consolidation of information recently learnt from the hippocampus used for short term memory to the neo-cortex for longer term storage, freeing up space to absorb new information. It is also used to pair down unnecessary connections and undo information that we know to be incorrect. Ie it is selective and intelligent about what memories and facts are stored or forgotten depending on how they are labelled! This seems to happen because of cycles of the spindles between the frontal lobe which directs intention and action, and the hippocampus. This storage function also applies to “motor memory” (particularly in hours 7 and 8 of sleep) and in fact can even enhance performance of repetitive tasks relative to what we were able to do pre sleep! We actually get better at tasks because of sleep!

REM sleep – rapid eye sleep, when we dream, the brain switches off our voluntary motor control systems so that we are paralysed and don’t act out our dreams. In this stage it seems new data is integrated into our brains forming and strengthening new connections between neurons allowing association between very different historic experiences to develop, and creativity to flourish. Our prefrontal lobe which regulates emotional control when we are awake is more disabled during this period allowing emotional processing to occur, almost like having your own therapist. (Disorders like PTSD could be due to an inability to process emotionally traumatic events during sleep). Without this sort of processing during sleep our ability to respond appropriately to emotional cues decreases substantially the next day.

We cycle between NREM and REM every c 90 minutes throughout the night, typically for about 5 cycles in a night. We get more NREM earlier in the night and more REM later in the night. The mix and length of sleeping also varies dramatically over our lifetimes. Babies have massive REM as the brain forms, in the late teenager years we need more NREM in order to prune down the connections and develop more emotional control.

The most important point is that your really really need both types of sleep to function well.

What drives sleep?

Melatonin production is triggered by darkness in the early evening leading to the onset of sleep a few hours later, but it’s not what makes us specifically go to sleep. Melatonin production is substantially decreased by blue light especially LED light from our devices.

Our circadian rhythm is our “wake up drive”. It is controlled by our bodies internal clock driven by a group of neurons in the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus that sits just above the crossing point of the optical nerves. This naturally keeps track of an approximately 24 hour cycle but takes signals from senses such as our eyes and eating cycles to keep the clock synchronised to 24 hours.

The circadian rhythm drives many functions across the body including in part our sleeping rhythms but also core body temperature which peaks in the evening and then drops as we go to sleep until the early morning when it starts increasing again.

Adenosine is a “sleep pressure hormone” that creates our “go to sleep drive”. It increases steadily from morning until late evening. Once we fall asleep it decreases until we wake up again in the morning.

It’s the combination of the circadian rhythm and Adenosine that makes us go to sleep or wake up. The difference between our circadian rhythm and adenosine peaks in the late evening when we feel tired, and troughs in the early morning as the Adenosine is at its lowest and the circadian rhythm begins to pick up.

Fun facts and hypotheses

The patterns of sleep differ substantially between species. Most fish, insects, amphibians seem only to have NREM sleep. Most birds and all mammals with a few exceptions seem to have REM sleep (birds and mammals evolved separately so REM sleep seems to have evolved twice independently). The exceptions are aquatic mammals like dolphins and killer whales because they can’t afford to be paralysed in the water (they may experience REM sleep but for very brief periods of time). Seals have REM sleep on land but only NREM sleep if in the water. Some mammals and birds can sleep one half of their brain while the other half remains active! Some birds can literally have one eye open and vigilant for danger, the other closed and sleeping, but they can’t sleep for long periods while flying (on long migrations some do have short periods of sleep in the air).

Humans have more REM sleep than other species. Unlike all other apes we have much more REM sleep. Probably a function of not sleeping in trees: during REM sleep muscles are paralysed which is a bad idea if you are sleeping in a tree. Apes sleep in trees to avoid predators and ground bugs. It’s possible the development of REM came about as a result of the mastery of fire which allowed human ancestors to start sleeping on the ground with smoke and fire scare off predators and bugs. Hence enabling greater periods of REM sleep and perhaps leading to our greater creative intellect.

Babies in the womb have huge amounts of REM sleep as the brain develops, in the second and third trimesters, peaking at up to 12 hours a day just before birth. However that’s not when baby is kicking you because the REM sleep paralyses the muscles!

Infants have 50/50 % NREM/REM decreasing to 70/30 % by age 5 and 80/20 by the late teens. NREM is also when the brains usage is “pruned” aiding brain development and maturation as a teenager refining cognitive skills, reasoning and critical critical thinking.

Teenagers also have a shift in their circadian rhythm towards waking up later. There are compelling studies to show that allowing teenagers to sleep in rather than waking too early for school dramatically improves their mental and learning abilities. There is good evidence from many studies globally that starting school later in the morning eg. A 9am or even 9:30 start leads to better outcomes particularly in teenagers.

In mid to old age, quality of sleep deteriorates. It’s not that older people need less sleep, it’s that they fail to get good quality sleep. NREM sleep quality is typically what deteriorates into late 20s and 30s. By your 40s your quality of NREM sleep has typically decreased by 60 to 70% compared to your teenage years. Sleep becomes more fragmented. Starting off with having children. Then later we wake up more often at night, for many reasons but including because of a weakening bladder, needing to head to the loo more often. One challenge is that we are really poor at self assessing the quality of our sleep so we may not notice this, or make the association between poor sleep and other health conditions we might be facing.

The human population consist about a 1/3rd Larks, 1/3rd Late Night owls and 1/3rd in between. These are genetic drivers linked to the circadian rhythm. Evolutionarily this is valuable because it gives members of a group ability to overlap their wakeful hours reducing the total time the whole group are asleep and might be exposed to danger because of sleep.

Health and lifestyle impacts

Matt Walker links a lack of sleep to a whole host of health problems. Good sleep is linked to a whole host of lifestyle benefits. At first you think these will just be associative links but in case after case he points to very tangible scientific evidence of the linkage to sleep with credible biological mechanisms. These are the things that really drove me to seriously consider changing my sleeping habits. Whether they actually achieve that shift is another thing… check in with me in a year!

Humans do naturally have biphasic sleep. We tend to want a post lunch afternoon nap of 30 to 60 minutes, preferably before 3pm so as not to interfere with our night time sleep. And then 7 to 9 hours of night time sleep. There seems to be good evidence of increased risk of 37 % of death due to heart disease in societies forced to move from a siesta to a continuous working culture eg. A study done in Greece.

To learn best we need to have had good sleep before we start learning. This resets the hippocampus, transferring information to longer term memory allowing us to store new information. Naps during the day will allow us to reset and store more information.

A good sleep the night after and for the next several nights then seals this storage of information (via NREM sleep, particularly later NREM closer to the morning even though sleep is the night more dominated by REM) and makes new creative associations (via REM sleep). Good sleep can even allow us to repair and remember past memories we might have been unable to recall. And you can even be intentional about which memories you wish to store by intentionally recollecting those specific thoughts prior to going to sleep. The brain will actively filter those for storage and discard any data you are intentional about wanting to forget! And the brain can even improve on what you learnt during the day, working on problems that you could not master during the day but having slept on them, you can find they come naturally the next day.

REM sleep drives creativity by creating links between distant ideas stored in our brains, particularly as the executive function control and logic is suspended allowing us to make unusual leaps.

Conversely studies show that poor sleep makes us much more likely to forget things. Not only because the “file transfer” doesn’t happen front he hippocampus but also because the hippocampus is less able to absorb new information.

Poor sleep makes our emotional control less good the next day and we are less able to assess social cues. This is driven both by more activation of our amygdala (which controls flight or fight responses) and by our striatum (which is assosciated with reward responses) and deactivation of our prefrontal cortex which gives us executive function and control. It can cause us to swing both positive and negative exacerbating conditions like depression, aggression, overeating, and substance abuse.

Poor sleep is a massive contributor to motor accidents. People who have been sleep deprived are not only less alert, they can experience “micro sleeps” when they loose consciousness for a few seconds often leading to dangerous motor accidents. You are 11 times more likely to be involved in a car accident if you have had less than 4 hour sleeps, and twice as likely if you have had between 5 and 6 hours sleep compared to over 8 hours.

Caffeine has a half life on 5 to 7 hours, ie 50pct is still active after 5 to 7 hours. Caffeine bonds to receptors of all of the cells in our body preventing the normal sleep hormone Adenosine, binding keeping us awake. Once the caffeine wears off the built up Adenosine hits and you crash Ie. Don’t have caffeine after mid day if you want a good nights sleep. Caffeine disrupts NREM sleep.

Alcohol is one of the most powerful suppressors of REM sleep. Alcohol is a sedative. But sedation is not sleep. It has more in common with anaesthesia than natural sleep. Alcohol results in very fragmented sleep, though we may not be aware of this fragmentation afterwards. It is a significant suppressor of REM sleep, due to aldehydes that are metabolised from the alcohol by the body. Memory retention is far worse in experiments for those having alcohol compared to those don’t who did not.

Athletes perform more poorly and get more injuries on less sleep. On less than six hours, physical endurance can decrease by 30 %.

A lack of good quality REM sleep could be correlated with conditions like autism, as REM sleep is thought to be important in wiring the brain, and there seems to be some correlation between atypical sleep patterns (30 to 50 pct less REM sleep than a normal child normal ) and autism. Causality is unclear.

Other psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, ADHD, bipolar, depression all tend to appear first in teenage years and their may also be linkages to sleep quality, here particularly to do with NREM sleep. ADHD in particular symptomatically is easily confused with poor sleep, and unfortunately the treatment with amphetamines like Ritalin causes those children to be very much awake.

In older age poor sleep can also contribute to and is Assosciates with diabetes, depression, stroke, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s!

Stroke recovery is aided by good sleep, particularly REM sleep as the brain rewires itself to bypass injured parts of the brain.

In older age, some symptoms that might be attributed to dementia might in fact be due to poor sleep quality eg. Forgetting things. There is a link between deterioration in brain health and deep sleep in that brain deterioration often begins in the middle frontal lobe that generates NREM deep sleep waves. This may explain the forgetting since it’s not the memory part of the brain but this “file transfer function” that is most affected.

NREM sleep already deteriorates with age, but in Alzheimer’s patients that is much more pronounced. Alzheimer’s is assosciated with a build up of a protein called beta-amyloid, particularly in the frontal lobe, responsible for generating NREM deep sleep. Rather than affecting the memory parts of the brain (the hippocampus and neocortex) the protein buildup is seen more in the frontal lobe. Hence the poor memory may be a function of the failure of the file transfer part of the brain because of the failure of the NREM sleep. A system in the brain called the glymphatic system, is responsible for “clearing the brain” of all the waste products produced by metabolism in the brain throughout the day, including the beta-amyloid and tau proteins associated with Alzheimer’s. This systems functioning increases 20 fold during NREM sleep, as glial cells shrink between neurons allowing a deep “wash” of cerebrospinal fluid cleaning out the brain. Without proper NREM deep sleep this cleansing system may not be working properly allowing further buildup of the harmful proteins and hence further deterioration in NREM in a self reinforcing cycle that makes the disease worsen.

In support of these hypotheses, there is now increasing evidence that getting too little sleep through the adult life may heighten the risks of Alzheimer’s disease, explained by the mechanisms above. Conversely it may be possible to delay or minimise the chances of getting Alzheimers by getting good sleep.

Poor sleep is also directly associated with heart disease and heart attacks. Studies show this even after correcting for other influences such as smoking diet etc. A short nights sleep increases blood pressure and heart rate measurably, people is less than 6 hours sleep are 2 to 3 times more likely to have calcification of arteries which can lead to heart-attacks. The bodies sympathetic nervous system controls the fight or flight response we have when we come under stress. A lack of sleep puts this nervous system into a continual state of activation, causing higher heart rates, construction of blood vessels through, higher cortisol release (a stress hormone), and a reduction in Growth hormone – a repair hormone that is released at night that repairs arteries and other parts of the body. NREM sleep is usually associated with a slower heart rate, and a calming effect in the cardiovascular system so you need it! Every year when we switch to daylight savings time with one hour less sleep, that day correlates with a spike in heart attacks relative to base rate, and when we get an extra hour sleep it’s associated with a drop!

A lack of sleep is also assosciated with weight gain and increased chances of type 2 diabetes. Like heart diseases the effect is found in studies even after allowing for other common correlates such as body weight, alcohol consumption, smoking etc. After a week of sleeping only 4 hours a night, participants in a study were 40pct less able to absorb a dose of glucose than normal. This was due to both less insulin release and cells becoming less sensitive to insulin. Also affected are hormones grehlin which triggers the sensation of feeling hungry and leptin which signals feeling full. With short sleep, grehlin increases and leptin decreases causing us to eat more and put on weight. In well controlled trials people on short sleep ate significantly more calories and tended to gravitate more towards unhealthy snacks. This may be explained by sleep depravation decreasing activity in the prefrontal cortex where we exercise judgement and increased activity in parts of the primal brain like the striatum that drive desire. On top of that when sleep deprived we tend to feel more lethargic and be less prone to exercise. Further more if you are sleep deprived and trying to diet, more weight loss comes from muscles, whereas if well slept more comes from fat. When sleep deprived the body tries to hang on to its fat reserves.

Very interestingly, some argue that we need more calories when we are sleep deprived because we will burn more as we are awake longer. it turns out this is not true. A person who is awake for 24 hours burns only 147 more calories than someone who has 8 hours sleep! Sleep is actually quite a metabolically active state for the brain and the body.

Ample sleep can really help achieve the opposite in many of these cases. It may also affect your microbiome, again through less activation of the sympathetic nervous system which cultivated different bacteria in our guts compared to when less cortisol is present.

Sleep seems essential for a good immune system response to infection. Hence why we tend to sleep when we get sick. Those with better sleep have better initial immunity to avoid catching a cold. You are much more likely to build much higher level antibodies if you get good sleep prior to a flu vaccine than not (and this must therefore be similar to getting sick since a vaccine is using a dead virus to activate the immune system to get antibodies).

Disruption of sleep and circadian rhythm is assosciated with increased risk of various cancers shown by studies on shift workers. The WHO classifies night time shift work as a possible carcinogen. A european study showed a 40 % increase in cancer risk for those sleeping 6 hours or less. Again the sympathetic nervous system seems to be implicated here, putting the body into a state of more sustained inflammation when we get less sleep. Some cancers use the bodies inflammatory response to start growing, and may aggravate metastasis (spreading to other parts of the body). In mice models sleep deprived mice develop cancer tumours at 3 times the rate of non deprived mice. It looks like a lack of sleep may also diminish cancer fighting M1 macrophage immune cells and increase cancer inducing M2 macrophage cells in the body.

Finally it seems that poor sleep can actually damage cells directly though shifting the expression of different genes, (increasing harmful, decreasing helpful expressions by as much as 200%) and even damage the DNA in our cells through shortening the telomere tips that protect chromosomes in our DNA from damage. This is a very similar effect seen in natural aging a telomeres get shortened… ie poor sleep makes you age faster literally.

Poor sleep in the health professional, especially by doctors where long shifts are seen as a badge of honour could be contributing to massively to incidence of mistakes, so our life might depend on other people’s lack of sleep

A final finding: there is no good evidence that too much sleep is bad for you. We naturally seem to need somewhere around 8 hours in 24. If you are sleeping for significantly longer on a continual there might be something else going on but sleep itself does not seem to be harmful. Ideally you sleep until you wake up naturally rather than having to have an alarm clock.

What’s going on when we dream?

One function of Dreaming is to be our own inbuilt therapist to help us process emotional experiences. We dream during REM sleep. During REM sleep a key stress hormone Noradrenaline is completely shut off within our brain (the brain equivalent of the bodies adrenaline). Key emotion and memory related structures are activated during REM sleep. It’s possible to therefore reprocess emotional states in a “safe” dream state. This may help us remember helpful details and forget some of the more painful parts as we experience the experience without the same stress.

PTSD sufferers suffer from disrupted REM sleep. PTSD might well be contributed to by a breakdown in this emotional trauma processing function in REM sleep, particularly because noradrenaline is not shut off. A drug that reduces noradrenaline has now been approved for the treatment of PTSD.

REM sleep generally seems to retune our emotional calibration and function the next day, making us more able to understand the emotions playing across other peoples faces, a key skill in navigating every day life as a human.

Dreaming also seems to be the creative centre of our brain. Many great breakthroughs seem to have come to people after a night of dreaming including the construction of the periodic table by Mendeleev, some of the great songs by the Beatles etc. Experiments on associations formed in wakeful periods versus just after REM sleep show very different associative patterns, with dream associations being far less obvious and connecting more distant concepts compared to the waking associations which tend to be far more logical.

In studies participants are far more able to spot short cuts and innovative solutions after sleeping on a problem, 20 percent when presented with the problem and asked for a solution 8 hour later compared to 60 % spotting it if they had slept overnight!

It does seem that the content of the dream matters. If you are dreaming about something related to the problem you are working on you may fix it, if it’s something else it might not be very effective.

Some people including Thomas Edison develop habits of waking themselves up from a dream to then write down the creative ideas they had.

Some people seem to experience “lucid dreams” where either they are aware that they are dreaming or in some cases they seem to be able to direct what the dream is about. Experiments have shown that lucid dreamers are able to communicate to researchers through their eye movements while in REM sleep.

Recommendations for good sleep

Matt has a whole section on sleep disorders which I will not recount, if you suffer from any then please read the book. His biggest recommendation is to be very wary of sleeping pills, most of which do not result in a proper natural restful sleep but more like a coma induced state without the benefits of either REM or NREM sleep.

He also makes the point that the issue is really as a society we need to change our attitude towards sleep: to move away from wearing short sleep as a badge of honour and undervaluing it and towards understanding that getting proper sleep is one of the most powerful life and health enhancing habits we develop.

His strongest recommendation To get good sleep: go to sleep at a consistent time every night (including weekends) and wake up at a consistent time every morning. This stops unnatural shocking of the circadian rhythm on a regular basis.

Don’t look at blue light late at night, this suppresses melatonin production by only 50 %. Make sure your device tones down blue light after a certain time. Ideally just ban devices from the bedroom.

Maintain darkness for your sleep, blackout curtains, no flicking lights from devices.

Keep the temperature cool. To initiate sleep your body’s core temperature needs to drop by 1 degree Celsius. Hence it’s easier to fall asleep in a cool room. A drop of temperature also indices melatonin production. Your hands feet and head help radiate away heat from the core. A room temperature as cold as 18.3degree C seems to be optimal given standard bedding. A hot ironically helps with this because it draws blood to the skins surface allowing you to cool off as you dry off and go to sleep.

Don’t doze off or nap after 3pm, that will disrupt the later circadian rhythm. Don’t doze off in the evenings infront of TV, if your are sleepy go to bed.

If you are awake in bed, struggling to sleep, don’t lie there, get up and do something and then come back to bed

Cut out alcohol and caffeine at night, perhaps even after 3pm

An alarm clock can be bad for your blood pressure. Hitting the snooze button repeats this. Try to just have a consistent time getting to sleep and waking up. But if you need to use an alarm clock this is okay if you are following a consistent sleep schedule.

Exercise is good for sleep and sleep is good for exercise but don’t exercise in the three hours before going to sleep.

Don’t eat and drink too much late at night

Do something relax before going to bed, not on a screen. Eg have a hot bath, read, listen to music

Get bright light, preferably sunlight in the morning. 30 minutes of sunlight is good.

Culture · Evolution · Genetics · history · Learning · Science

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

A fascinating read about human evolution from c 12000 bc by a scientist anthropologist with tremendous real world experience. He hypothesises about the key driving forces that have really made the world as we know it today, a world largely dominated by Eurasian societies and provides compelling evidence in support of those hypotheses.

This book has been recommended on numerous podcasts and one the Pulitzer Prize. I think it connects well with some of Edward O Wilson’s themes from Consillience and I suspect, though I have not read it it should connect through to Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari which is still on my reading list.

Jared argues persuasively that the differences in human development across the globe come not from innate differences in the cleverness or superior culture of one group of individuals versus another but really due to a few simple overarching realities of human development driven ultimately by geography. I like it because it really addresses and decimates some of the common rather racist views of cultural superiority that tend to be espoused.

He traces the dispersion of humans from Africa through Eurasia, to New Guinea and Australia, to North and South America and to the islands of the Pacific.

In the end he argues that there are several very basic key determinants of human development:

1. The development of agriculture through the domestication of plants and animals which allowed a move from simpler hunter gatherer clans into more complex societies. Agriculture allowed specialisation with some members feeding more than just themselves, allowing others to become crafts men, warriors or politicians. This also lead to our more familiar societal structures with leaders and hierarchies, and tax and tribute and the need for collective narrative like religion and culture to keep those societies working effectively together. Effectively in almost all instances globally, agrarian societies displaced hunter gatherer societies.

2. That the domestication of animals lead to us being exposed to many of the germs from to those animals that created many of our common disease: measles, tuberculosis, smallpox, flu, whooping cough etc. The more domesticated animals, the more diseases. This lead to greater immunity via natural selection in those communities who first domesticated these animals. Later contact with communities who had not domesticated as many animals or the same animals resulted in massive devastation by the germs carried in by those with immunity eg. The Spanish and European invasions of America introduced these new diseases with devastating consequences.

4. That it was pretty much evolutionary luck across the globe as to which particular areas had more plants or animals that could in-fact be domesticated, with the Fertile Crescent and Eurasia happening to be particularly lucky in this regard.

5. That simple Longitudinal geography makes a huge difference. The Eurasian/North African east west landmass along similar latitudes made it possible to have rapid transmission of technology, agriculture and germ immunity across that land mass with similar enough climate conditions. It was much harder to move North South, the Tropics have very different diseases to the temperate regions, very different cultivatable plants, hence transmission of agriculture and technology along north south continents like from North Africa to Southern Africa, or North to South America, or North Asia to Australia was far slower.

4. That cultures with head starts in agriculture then developed further technological advantages, from metal working, first copper, later iron, to boats and sea-faring, to writing as a means of organising and transmitting knowledge, to eventually guns allowing the further consolidation of power ultimately into empires.

He covers developments of all parts of the world in fascinating detail including China, Africa, the Americas and the Pacific islands.

This book has really brought home to me the power of evolution over long periods of time to completely transform societies. Also very relevant today as we face new viral pandemics to understand that and the innate connection between humans the contacts we have with animals.

Overall I found the book fascinating but it is a long read where he argues and seeks to prove his hypothesis and it can feel a little repetitive in places. Still I enjoyed it immensely.

artifical intelligence · Big data · Business Culture · decision making · Investment · Learning · Maths · Statistics

The unrules by Igor Tulchinsky, founder and CEO of WorldQuant

Igor’s rules

  1. The UnRule: all theories and all methods have flaws. Nothing can be proved with absolute certainty is, but anything may be disproved, and nothing that can be articulated can be perfect.
  2. You only live once. Your time on earth is the only truly irreplaceable resource. If today was my last day, what would I be doing with it?
  3. Life is unpredictable. There are limits to planning; the key is to act. Foster opportunities, then take advantage of outcomes. If you have to decide and you can’t, flip a coin. If it’s the wrong action, you will feel it and reverse course. Actions have a compounding effect; it’s bad to deliberate for too long.
  4. Establish concrete quantifiable goals and always go from A to B. Concrete things are attainable. Abstract and nebulous wishes are not.
  5. Develop willpower and persist. The most important limit is how much ability and persistence you have. Age means little.
  6. Play to your strengths, don’t compromise. Weaknesses can only be improved marginally, but strength can be improved more.
  7. Obstacles are information. If you can’t get something to work there is a reason. Learn adjust and attack it again.
  8. Aim for the anxious edge, the point of mild anxiety
  9. Arrogance distorts reality. Arrogance makes you perceive the environment in the way that maximises your ego. Environment does not exist for you, so your perceptions turn into fiction. You make bad decisions by chasing illusions. This gets harder after success when hubris slips in.
  10. Make everyone benefit
  11. Opportunity is unlimited, ideas are infinite
  12. Blame no one else. Minimise regrets.
  13. There is a virtue in economy of expression. Efficiency implies clarity and economy of thought. Pretend you have a fixed number of words in your life. The sooner they are all said, the sooner you’ll die.
  14. Value diverse and competing methods. Because all theories are flawed, the best approach is to collect as many of them as possible and use them all, in as optimal a fashion as you can devise, simultaneously.
  15. Value multiple points of view.
  16. Make everyone benefit. Align your endeavours with everyone around you and you will create your own tail wind.

Quotes and other insights

  1. To be successful in this investment business you have to think about it all the time. Thomas Peterffy
  2. Keep losses small. Profits will take care of themselves. Izzy Englander
  1. Don’t get emotional about your trades. React instantly to bad news. If it’s scary run. Take aggressive risks but manage losses. Aggressive behaviour forces your environment to react to you, rather than the other way around. You’re in control; you have the wider array of options in a higher probability of success. You need an exit route if it doesn’t work out.
  2. In systems with a high degree of interactive complexity, multiple and unexpected interactions of failure are inevitable.
  3. A good business runs itself. And create this by choosing the right people. A lot of time should be invested in that activity. Optimal compensation schemes are vital.
  4. Minimise bureaucracy. Time is money; time is scarce. Bureaucracy wastes time and money. If you have the right people, right systems and the right compensation scheme you can scale without adding bureaucracy.
  5. What makes a good trader? Intelligence, focus, action orientation, and the ability to learn from errors; economy of words and thoughts, honesty, and a strong sense of self; the ability to take risks, compartmentalise, and handle setbacks without ego getting crushed.
  6. What makes a good researcher? Creativity, tenacity, attention to detail, intelligence, relentlessness, follow-through, and top-level programming skills.
  7. What makes a good manager? Empathy, intelligence, creativity, relentlessness, and follow through.
  8. In their view, quantity of alphas is far superior to quality. Quality cannot easily be defined. They seek to maximise exponentially the number of Alphas they pursue.
  9. If data increases exponentially, predictability should improve linearly.
  10. They key to testing ideas is to have good simulation software.
  11. As complexity increases so will the number and frequency of non linear events will also increase (ie many std dev events – rogue waves, schrodinger equation)
  12. Power laws very common in nature. In some systems the largest entity often brakes scale invariance, ie. it is even bigger than predicted eg. In network systems, dominant player much bigger.

WorldQuant online university in financial literacy worth checking out.

Business culture · Culture · Learning · Relationships

Team of teams by General Stanley McChrystal – leading teams to work effectively together

The book has a few essential ideas which are worth while but it takes quite a lot of background to get to them. Below are my key takeaways.

The context for McChrystal was trying to get specialist units in very different parts of the military, who each worked incredibly effectively in their specific area, to form a cohesive whole to adapt to rapidly changing situations in Iraq Eg. Getting Army Rangers, working with Navy Seals, with airforce, with the NSA and with the CIA. Each branch tended to create its own cohesion creating tightly knit teams but resulting in territorial behaviour and collectively failing to complete their missions.

The basic message is that in the the 20th century progress was made through industrial efficiency with perfectly planned production processes around complicated problems but with perfectly predictable outcomes that engineer can solve. In these structures vertical command and control management worked effectively with each team operating efficiently but limited need for close interaction between teams.

In the 21st century, in modern organisations, we face problems of complexity, networked systems where small perturbations can lead to unpredictable outcomes. To operate in complex problems we need to be able to function with much greater flexibility and adaptability, connecting disparate information, and making quick decisions with dynamic and changing plans. To do this requires a very different management style for our organisations.

His prescription is three fold

1. A need for complete information sharing across all teams to create contextual awareness across teams and a “shared consciousness”

2. A need for strong trust between teams with multiple connection points, to create a team-of-teams type operating mentality

3. The need for the right type of leadership creating an environment of “empower execution” , where the leader is focused on culture and prioritisation to drive the team dynamic

Taking each of those in turn

1. The need for information sharing across teams

  • “In a domain characterised by interdependencies, what ever efficiency is gained through silos is outweighed by the costs of “interface failures””
  • Emergent intelligence between teams can be achieved in larger organisations willing to commit to the disciplined deliberate sharing of information
  • Fuse generalised awareness, “shared consciousness” with specialised expertise
  • To achieve this there needs to be common purpose.
  • Emphasis on group success to spur trust, cooperation and common purpose.
  • To do this they created a daily common forum, using technology, like a global video conference where everyone called in from all of the world. Anyone from any team could participate, everyone had access to all the information with almost total transparency.
  • The success of this depended on it being quality useful information rather than beautifully dressed up rehearsed message sending.
  • The update piece from a team outlining their facts would be short eg 60 seconds, then there would be 2 to 3 minutes of open questioning and conversation from leadership. Key is active listening and real exploration, potentially followed by some perspective or framing from the senior team, but then letting the individual team decide how they would proceed. Allowed all teams to see problems being solved real time and the perspectives of senior leadership team. This gave teams confidence and permission to solve their own problems, rather than having to have decisions come from the top.
  • Think about the physical space and the way you go about doing this information sharing carefully, but also about your decision making procedures.
  • Information was shared widely without constraint. As information was shared, it encouraged others to share.

2. Creating real trust and collaboration between teams

  • The key issue is that good collaboration between teams requires sacrifice (of resources or achievement in one area) on behalf of each team for the greater good. This happens any time there are scare resources, eg engineering resources working for something good for one team or something else for another team.
  • In Game theory the prisoners dilemma type problem illustrates a situation where the individually dominant strategy (betrayal, taking the resource to further your own ends) is suboptimal to the collectively dominant strategy (cooperation but sacrifice of the resource to the greater good). Even with wholistic awareness of the situation the prisoner still has to take a leap of faith in trusting the other party.
  • The dominant strategy in a multi round game is to start with cooperation and then to always follow what the other person did in the previous round. If they betrayed you, you betray them in the next round as punishment. If they cooperate you continue to cooperate. The punishment only lasts as long as the bad behaviour continues and stops as soon as there is cooperation. A track record of cooperation at a certain point then becomes the norm and trust builds.
  • Leaps of faith are only possible when there are real relationships of trust between individuals on the different teams.
  • To build trust they encouraged individuals from one unit to spend a secondment with another unit, to be a liaison officer with that unit. And they encouraged the teams to send their best people on these assignments. People capable of building relationships even in an initially hostile environment on another team, people with low ego. They encouraged the units “if giving up this person does not cause you pain, you are sending the wrong person”
  • They supplied the liaison officer with continued intelligence and information that would be useful to the unit they were in, and gave them access to the senior team so that when a liaison officer called in a favour, they could deliver value to that team.
  • This built a system where teams got more out of accepting these liaisons and were then willing to commit their own best people to do the same in reciprocation.
  • When it comes to sharing scarce resources, if teams can understand why and how their resources will make a difference somewhere else they are much more willing to make the sacrifice of giving up that resource.

Together, the strong sharing of information around a common shared purpose, and a strong bond of trust and mutual cooperation at multiple levels between teams create the ground for “shared consciousness” across teams. Hence the books title team of teams.

3. The role of leadership

So their aim is coordinated operations that exhibit an emergent adaptive intelligence, decentralised control with empowered decision making built around a shared consciousness and information. The role of leadership is to enable all of that.

  • The role of a leader is to build, lead and maintain a culture that is flexible and durable.
  • Don’t misinterpret empowerment. Simply taking off constraints can be dangerous
  • It should only be done if the recipients of new found authority have the necessary sense of perspective to act on it wisely.
  • Team leaders and members can be free to make decisions as long as they provide full visibility under the “shared consciousness” model. They have to provide sufficient clear information to leadership and other teams about what they are doing.
  • It’s an “eyes on – hands off” model of leadership.
  • The objective is “smart autonomy”, not total autonomy, because everyone is tightly linked in a shared consciousness with the same purpose.
  • The role of the senior leader is “empathetic crafter of culture, rather than the puppet master”. It’s a gardner creating the right environment rather than the heroic leader or chess master taking all the big decisions.
  • The leader should be taking fewer decisions, but should be keeping the organisation focused on clearly articulated priorities.
  • This leadership comes from consistently explicitly talking about what the priorities are but also demonstrating the way the team should operate, leading by example,
  • Less is more, focus on only a few key messages and repeat them consistently. Nothing is learned until it’s been heard multiple times, and it’s only sunk in when it’s echoed back in the words of others.
  • Your strongest form of communication is your own behaviour.
  • Eg. Information sharing sessions never cancelled and attendance mandatory
  • The rules for any meeting are established more by precedent and demonstrated behaviour than by written guidance.
  • Be clear on your central role as a leader. To lead, to inspire, to understand, to guide, to prioritise
  • Watch the small behaviours. If you look bored, if you are unprepared you send a message. Interest and enthusiasm are your most powerful behaviours. Prepare, ask questions, demonstrate you have really listened, compliment work publicly, suggest improvement privately, and say thank you often.
  • Get the balance of reporting information vs active interaction right for the meeting. Get the right level of candour through the way you interact.
  • Think out loud, summarise what you have heard, how you process the information, outline your thoughts on how we might proceed, ask the team members what would be an appropriate response and what they plan to do. Ask for opinions and advice. Admit when you don’t know. Empower them to take the decisions.
  • Develop the art of asking good questions. Questions that help people arrive at the answers and see errors for themselves.
  • Be careful of overcommitment on your schedule, when you cancel people get disappointed, work done preparing for meeting with you is wasted.
  • Avoid a reductionist approach, no matter how tempting micromanaging a situation may be. The leaders first responsibility is to to the whole, to the big picture, no matter how good they may be at the particular situation.