Using more or less the same format as my post about the previous chapter, a few issues with chapter 2 --My biggest objection
to chapter 2 doesn't really involve Islam at all, but rather Armstrong's assertion on page 33: "We are future-oriented; our governments and institutions have to look ahead and make detailed plans that will affect the next generation. It will be obvious that this society of our is the achievement of sustained, single-minded rational thought. It is the child of logos
, which is always looking forward, seeking to know more and to extend our areas of competence and control of the environment." I'm not convinced that we are as free of mythos as Armstrong argues. (Nor am I convinced that modern society is as forward-looking as she asserts; rather, the overwhelming trend would seem to be a sort of present-focussed narcissism, one that looks forward only to immediate gains and gratification; is the government really planning for future generations, are only prepping its apologies to them?) I would even go so far as to suggest that our exercise of logos, of the so-called "spirit of discovery," is driven by a mythos that is so ingrained in the psyche of modernity that we are inclined to regard it as something other than mythos. There are clues even in Armstrong's characterizaion: why should we direct our rational thought towards the "control of the environment"? Armstrong seems to regard that as merely the natural end towards which the a purely rational society would turn its efforts, but it is not so intuitive as it may seem. Rather it seems likely to me that there is a very fundamental mythos at work here, one that suggests the work proper to modernity, one that suggests, moreover, the image of a modern person elevated to a control of nature that is not within the power native to a human. But this hints at another point of divergence."Mythological thinking looks backward,"
says Armstrong, "not forward." (p.35) She's wrong, of course, perhaps misguided by an undue emphasis on the pervasive Myth of the Golden Age. With that generality she ignores those myths which suppose a future, even though she has already given an example of a future-looking myth in the Messianic movements of Judaism. We might also point to the apocalyptic future myths, like the Ragnarok of the Norse, or the conjunction of worlds in aboriginal Australian myth. Science fiction sometimes aspires to write our myths of futurity, it seems, though we might doubt the ability of popular culture to produce true myth so long as authorship remains solid. Armstrong's point is a little more revealing than that, though. She asserts further down that "Instead of looking for something fresh, myth focuses on what is constant." From this it seems apparant that Armstrong has viewed myths only as finished forms -- the history of mythological forms suggests otherwise. Myths, like scientific theory, tends to have a more fluid form. You might say that myth evolves, incorporates change, sometimes submits to drastic alteration. The Greeks incorporated Dionysus into their pantheon long after the other gods had become canon. Paul Veyne notes that popular editions of the Upanishads in India sometimes incorporate mentions of the discovery of electricity. Armstrong's intention, it seems to me, is to ally mythos to conservativism, but the perceived relationship does not hold true, so far as I can tell. Rather, she's pointing to the traditions that sometimes form around mythos, that ossify into fixed forms. Insistence on a particular canonized version of a given myth may indicate a conservative ethos, but there is much to suggest that mythos and conservativism are not synonymous.Speaking of the conservative idea
, while we're at it, we might ask how consistently applicable that idea proves. The imperial urge, for instance, seems to explicitly defy the logic that conservativism held free reign in antiquity. Armstrong might argue that the failure of all previous empires proves that conservativism was the proper mode of agrarian based cultures, but it is important to bear in mind that the modernity to which she contrasts all these previous cultures is only some 200 years old. (We might also note that, in that time, the British Empire has shrunken back to regular nation size.) Armstrong is not yet historically justified in asserting the unique fate of the modern world -- as of yet, it's not even as old as the Roman Empire. It seems more likely to me that a scheme discribing the history of the pre-modern world in terms of alternating cycles of agrarian conservativism and imperialistic achievement would prove more consistent that Armstrong's conservative model.That the notion of "returning to fundamentals"
serves in some part as the mode by which conservativism is achieved seems to me a bit of an over-simplification, if you ask me. In that light, we may well look at Einstein's Nobel Prize winning paper on "Physics and Reality" as a form of conservativism. After all, Einstein sought to deal with thoroughly modern problems of physics by returning ad fontes
, to the basis of physical inquiry. No one returns ad fontes
without first rejecting the ediface of what has been built in the meantime, and Einstein's return to the wellspring involved rejecting much of physics as conceived by Newton and company. We find this revision of representation occuring throughout the history of science, and it is a key element of progress once the preceding program of scientific inquiry has reached its limits. But Armstrong makes little mention of this process in science, one that seems to me analogous to that which takes place in religion. Religious forms are grown, and the form a branch takes during its early growth will determine the forms available to it late in life. Religious returns to the wellspring make possible the same thing an ad fontes return makes possible in science, namely a more applicable second growth. So while "returning to fundamentals" may seem superficially like an entirely conservative aim, it is often employed in the service of new growth, of the march towards modernity. We would, I think, be wise to examine some of Armstrong's examples of conservativism in religion in order to assess whether or not they might have been, rather, attempts to move beyond the limitations of contemporary modes of thought.Getting back to the question of historical method
for a moment, I'd like to draw your attention to pages 46-52. These four pages are interesting in their own right, I suppose, but they're also interesting because they present a narrative of events that occur between 632 and 1492, which means that they fall outside the range of dates the chapter claims to cover. I point this out not as a general objection, but rather to point to it as evidence of Armstrong's agenda. If the history of the Imamate is so essential to our understanding of the history of fundamentalism, why treat it as a tangent? Why the insistence on beginning the story with the 1492 expulsion of the Muslims from Spain, when it is clear from this extended passage that it begins at least 800 years earlier?
A few historical points of interest:Armstrong's assertion concerning Safavid authority
(p. 53) seems questionable. She states, "It did not take the Safavids long, however, to discover that the messianic, 'extremist' ideology that had served them well in opposition was no longer suitable once they had become the establishment." She does not, however, mention any events that would lead them to this conclusion. She merely asserts the change of heart without any support. The reason she wants to imply, it seems, is that the Safavids realized, though perhaps not in so many words, that their ideology was based in mythos, and that political authority requires a more pragmatic approach, namely logos. If that were the case, you could expect there to be examples of difficulties caused by the application of an ideology rooted in mythos to a practical circumstance. As it stands, without recourse to an external source, we have only Armstrong's word to confirm her insight into the reasoning behind the change. That a change in policy took place, I don't doubt. But the reasoning supplied by Armstrong for the change is unsupported, and we might think of at least two alternatives to her version of the decision-making process. One is that the position of authority simply softened their view, or less generously, corrupted it. If the reforms were made by a single Safavid, as Armstrong suggests by naming Shah Abbas I, we might imagine this softening to be a generational phenomenon, and it would hardly be surprising to find the successors to the original Safavid leaders taking a different stance once their power had been established. The second alternative might posit that the Safavid's were never committed to their expressed ideology save as a tool to gaining popular support for their political aims. Once they had gained power, their needs changed from those of ascension to those of maintaining power. In the end analysis, I don't know what precisely to believe about the change in Safavid policy, and I think the subject warrants some further research.A question Armstrong does not adequately tackle
, to my mind, is that of why the Islamic empires could not adapt to European modernity. She may, perhaps, deal with this more in depth in the fourth chapter. As it stands, her most salient suggestion is that the conservativism of Islam in the examined period (1492-1799) prevented Islam from accepting the logos-driven spirit of modernity. But at the same time we recognize that Christianity had also passed through a period of conservativism, that at certain points Islam embraced logos far more than Christendom had. So to say that Islam was conservative doesn't quite suffice as an answer. If Christendom could pass from conservativism into modernity, then Islam could as well, and the question of why they did not deserves, in a history like this, more clarity.