"Segne den Becher, welcher überfließen will, daß das Wasser golden aus ihm fließe und überallhin den Abglanz deiner Wonne trage!" – Nietzsche

Archive for the ‘History’ Category

More Fitting to be Friends: Islam and Europe

leave a comment »

One of the greatest works of European literature to come down to us from the Middle Ages, or indeed from any age, is Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Arthurian Romance Parzifal, written early in the thirteenth century.

We don’t know much about von Eschenbach, though he identifies himself as “something of a Minnesinger” in his book. Minnesingers are the German equivalent of the troubadours of Provence, those famous composers of verse and rhyme who filled Europe’s coffers with splendid poetry celebrating love and its virtues.

Here is a bit of verse written by the Occitan troubadour Arnaut Daniel, whom Dante referred to as “the better craftsman.” In this translation of L’Arua Amara, Ezra Pound rendered his Provençal into English:

Shield of Parade, c. 1500
Image (c) Barnaby Thieme

The bitter air
Strips panoply
From trees
Where softer winds set leaves,
And glad
Now in brakes are coy,
Scarce peep the wee
And un-mates,
   What gaud’s the work?
   What good the glees?
What curse
I strive to shake!
Me hath she cast from high,
In fell disease
I lie, and deathly fearing. (1)

This excerpt exemplifies the themes of nature and the open road that properly belong to the troubadour’s heart, along with mortal concern for his idealized beloved, whose lack of favor is worse than icy death.

We can see in this poem an unambiguous shift in emphasis from Europe’s tradition of poetry praising God and king. Daniel holds nation and piety to be of less import than a glance from his beloved:

Pope and Emp’ror I count asses;
Let See and Domain combine them;
From them to her I’d revert
    Who doth burn my heart and frost it,
Yet if she mend not her paces,
Kiss me ere New Year and melt
For my death to hell she’s fleeting. (2)

The poetic imagination of the troubadours, combined with the rich heritage of Celtic imagination, swept through Europe in the High Middle Ages, transforming its art and literature forever. In Arthurian romance we can see these two influences blend, with the troubadour lending Guinevere and Isolde to the idiom, and the Celt supplying fairydom, imperiled queens in enchanted castles, dragons, elves, and dwarves.

This genre of Arthurian romance reached its apex in the hands of two German masters, Gottfried von Strassburg (died c. 1210), who left us the story of Tristan and Isolde, and Wolfram von Eschenbach (died c. 1220), who supplied Europe’s greatest account of the quest for the Holy Grail in Parzifal.

Early thirteenth-century Europe was a lively place. In 1210, the Franciscan Order was established, and in 1216, Saint Dominic founded his order of Friars. Frederick II Hohenstaufen, called by Nietzsche the “first European,” was king of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor. He was a powerful force for the secularization of European polity, and a generous patron of the arts. He would briefly recapture Jerusalem for Christendom, after its knights had been driven out in 1189, by Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, known to Europe as Saladin.

Kneeling Knight
London, c. 1350

This was the landscape in which Parzifal was composed. Its story is primarily concerned with its hero’s spritual transformation, as he seeks for the Holy Grail to bring renewal to the land. It is a wonderful and profound story, but here, I’d like to focus a bit on Parzifal’s family.

His father Gahmuret, the story goes, was king of Anjou in France. After establishing himself as a great knight, he traveled east as far as Baghdad, where he came into the service of the Baruch, or ruler, and distinguished himself greatly during the siege of Alexandria.

After leaving Iraq, Gahmuret wandered the Middle East until he came to the fictional land of Zazamanc, which was encircled by a hostile army. In true courtly fashion, Gahmuret came to the aid of Belacane, the Moorish queen of Zazamanc.

Gahmuret and Belacane fell in love and married, and their son, Feirefiz, combined his mother’s dark hue with his father’s whiteness. Von Eschenbach describes him as a blend of dark skin and light, mottled, like a magpie.

Now, through the course of many adventures, Gahmuret eventually returned to France, where he would marry his second wife Condwiramurs, and father Parzifal. He died, leaving Parzifal in his mother’s care, and the boy grew up ignorant of his heritage.

In time, Parzifal became a knight like his father, and served in the court of King Arthur, where he became involved in the quest for the Holy Grail. And much later, near the end of our tale, Parzifal came to face the army of his brother Feirefiz in battle, with each unknown to the other.

They met in solo combat on the field. Their battle raged and raged, and for the first time, each had met his equal. At length, Feirefiz threw his sword into the forest and called for parley, and they learned that they were brothers. At the discovery of their common heritage, “Parzival found treasure trove, the most precious he had ever lit on.” (3)

Recall that Feirefiz is the son of a Moorish queen. In von Eschenbach’s time, the Islamic Moors still ruled Spain, as they had centuries. The tide turned against the Muslims in Europe only at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, around the time Parzifal was written. And here we have a great European hero, whose father served the ruler of Baghdad, around the time the Crusading Knights were expelled from Palestine, and his beloved brother is a Muslim. This is really quite extraordinary.

Conference of the Birds (detail)
Manuscript Cover, painted by Habib Allah
(click to enlarge)

If we take a closer look at the tradition from which von Eschenbach sprang, we will see that he is himself, in a sense, a half-brother of a Muslim tradition.

In the early thirteenth century, far from Germany, another great poet was setting down his own masterwork. The Perisan Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar was then composing The Conference of the Birds, in which a collection of fowl travel together to a far-off valley, in search of the King of Birds, the mythical Simorgh – a kind of phoenix, if you will. This wonderful allegory describes the Sufi path to union with God, with each valley along the way representing a stage of the contemplative path.

Like the troubadours and Minnesingers, Attar had little use for piety. In a long anecdote related in Conference, Attar tells the story of the Sheikh Sam’an, who lived a good Muslim life until he fell in love with a Christian girl in his travels. In many ways, the story is a mirror image of the story of Gahmuret in Parzifal.

In one shocking turn, the Sheikh’s friends and students urge him to return to his religious life, and he replies “Where is her face / That I may pray toward that blessèd place?” (4) He is actually suggesting that instead of praying toward Mecca and the Kab’aa, he will pray toward the face of his beloved.

In Europe, we find a close parallel to this episode in von Strassburg’s Tristan. The young lovers Tristan and Isolde bravely face death and damnation in the name of their love. In one episode, the two flee into the woods, and make their conjugal bed into an altar, substituting their erotic union for the sacrament of communion.

Now, I do not want to overstate the degree of toleration shown in the thirteenth century. The tale of Sheikh Sam’an is a cautionary tale, and he not only ends up returning to Islam, but converts his Christian love as well. Likewise, Feirefiz converts to Christianity before taking a bride in Parzifal.

Nevertheless, the sense of these episodes is unmistakeable. Parzival’s reconciliation with Feirefiz plays a decisive roll in the climax of the work, and much is made of his dual coloration, converging in a single man like a yin yang. In Attar’s Conference, the love of Sam’an for the Infidel is described at far greater length, and with far greater vitality and attention, than his perfunctory return to religious norms at the end.

In both cases, there is a sense of passing through your opposite and returning to yourself at a higher stage, and it involves the heart’s recognition that something is different, and something is the same.

Attar holds that the true love of God leads the aspirant past piety, through the gates of blasphemy, and into actual communion with the holy source. Piety is rooted in our socially-constructed idea of what God must be like, and it leads to the socially-consecrated image of God. True love for God, like the love of Tristan and Isolde, dares all, even damnation, in its ravenous hunger for the divine. He writes:

Islam and blasphemy have both been passed
By those who set out on love’s path at last;
Love will direct you to Dame Poverty,
And she will show the way to Blasphemy.
When neither Blasphemy nor Faith remain,
The body and the Self have both been slain;
Then the fierce fortitude the Way will ask
Is yours, and you are worthy of our task.
Begin the journey without fear; be calm;
Forget what is and what is not Islam;
Put childish dread aside – like heroes meet
The hundred problems which you must defeat. (5)

Compare this to Arnaut Daniel’s verse, which we saw above:

“Pope and Emp’ror I count asses;
Let See and Domain combine them;
From them to her I’d revert.”

This dramatic similarity is not a coincidence. The points of contact between the Muslim world and the world of Christendom were many and varied, and the encounter with the Sufi Dervishes left a deep mark on the European imagination. The celebration of love by the troubadours and Minnesingers may well carry the stamp of the Sufi poets. Anyone who has encountered Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi knows him to be the very voice of love’s song:

You are my life, you are my life, my life; you are my own, you are my own, my own.
You are my king, worthy of my passion; you are my candy, worthy of my teeth.
You are my light; dwell within these eyes of mine, O my eyes and fountain of life!
When the rose beheld you, it said to the lily, “My cypress tree came to my rose garden.”
Say, how are you in respect to two scattered things! your hair, and my distracted state?
The rope of your hair is my shackle, the well of your chin is my prison.
Where are you going, drunk, shaking your hands? Come to me, my laughing rose! (6)

Compare to Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan:

When the two lovers perceived that they had one mind, one heart, and but a single will between them, this knowledge began to assuage their pain and yet bring it to the surface. Each looked at the other and spoke with ever greater daring, the man to the maid, the maid to the man. Their shy reserve was over. He kissed her and she kissed him, lovingly and tenderly. Here was a blissful beginning for Love’s remedy: each poured and quaffed the sweetness that welled up from their hearts. (7)

The links between the courtly tradition of the troubadours and the Sufis have long been remarked, and it is in fact possible that the word “troubadour” itself is derived from an Arabic root tarab, meaning “to sing.” The thirteenth century appears to have been a time of love’s glory in much of the world, for it was then that Jayadeva wrote his sumptuous Gītagovinda in India, which we considered in an earlier post.

Not only were the crusading knights in frequent contact with Islamic ideas – a historical reality visible in mythopoetic guise in Gahmuret’s trip to Baghdad – but many of the greatest Sufi masters lived in Andalusian Spain. Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240), widely regarded as the greatest Sufi philosopher, lived in Spain while von Eschenbach was writing. His work would come to exert a tremendous influence on Dante. In his comparative study The Legacy of Islam, R. A. Nicholson catalogs some of the features of the Divine Comedy that correspond to Ibn ‘Arabi’s descriptions, including “The infernal regions, the astronomical heavens, the circles of the mystic rose, the choirs of angels around the focus of the divine light, the three circles symbolizing the Trinity – all are described by Dante exactly as Ibnu’l-‘Arabi described them.” (8)

The knowledge of classical antiquity was alive in Arabic translation when it had been forgotten by Europe, and it was largely through contact with the Muslim world that the intellectual worlds of Greece and Rome were rediscovered in the West, triggering the Renaissance. For example, Thomas Aquinas (died 1274), one of the most important theologians in the history of Christianity, relied heavily on the Muslim philosopher Ibn Roschd (Averroes) for his interpretation of Aristotle.

Cowl worn by St. Francis
Santa Croce, Florence

Saint Francis of Assisi (died 1226) was a troubadour before he became a renunciate and founded a new monastic order. The Sheikh Idries Shah has made a persuasive argument that Francis used Sufi poetic imagery in many of his writings, including his famous “Canticle of the Sun,” written in 1224. Francis tried three times to travel to the East – first to Syria, then to Morocco, and last to Damietta in Egypt, where he met with and greatly impressed the Sultan Malik el-Kamil. (9)

Our cursory review here could be dramatically extended, but I trust the point has been made. Many of the masterworks of the European tradition were written in dialog with the world of Islam. The poetical, narrative, and religious imagination of the High Middle Ages, which established a legacy that continues to underlie European culture to this day, is of mixed heritage.

It is more important than ever to keep this in mind, when so many forces are at work in the United States and Europe that dehumanize Muslims in the cultural imagination. The image of Islam evokes for many Europeans and Americans the shadow of the West, appearing as the embodiment of the irrational, the totalitarian, the fanatic, the Terrorist – the barbarians at the gates.

But as von Eschenbach saw and sang 800 years ago, Muslims are not evil, or good, but a blend of the dark and the light, like everyone else.

There is always the possibility that if we throw off the sword, and take off our respective masks, we may find that we are brothers and sisters of the same father. We may find, as Parzifal and Feirefiz saw at once, “It was more fitting for them to be friends than bitter enemies.”

1) Pound E. “L’aura Amara,” from Pound; Poems and Translations. The Library of America. 2003. pg. 489.
2) ibid., pg. 493.
3) von Eschenbach W. Parzival. trans. by Hatto, AT. Penguin Classics. 1980. pg. 372.
4) Attar FUD. The Conference of the Birds. trans. by Darbandi A, and Davis D. Penguin Classics. 1984. pg. 61.
5) Attar FUD., pg. 57.
6) Rumi JAD. Mystical Poems of Rumi 2. trans. by Arberry AJ. The University of Chicago Press. 1979. pg. 50.
7) von Strassburg G. Tristan. trans. by Hatto, AT. Penguin Classics. 1960. pg. 200.
8) Nicholson RA. op. cit. Campbell J. Creative Mythology; The Masks of God. Penguin Books. 1968. pg. 129-30.
9) Shah I. “The Sufis and Francis of Assisi.” Retrieved April 16, 2012.

Written by Mesocosm

April 16, 2012 at 10:59 am

World’s Oldest Lovers

leave a comment »


Natufian calcite figurine, c 9000 BCE
British Museum

In honor of Valentine’s Day, let’s have a quick look at what the British Museum describes as the earliest-known depiction of lovers.

This calcite figurine comes to us from the Ain Sakhri caves near Bethlehem in the Judean desert. It was made by members of the Natufian culture complex around 9,000 BCE.

The Natufians were probably the world’s first culture to domesticate cereal grains, and perhaps to practice animal husbandry as well. The added stability afforded by a relatively-abundant food supply may have allowed the Natufians to congregate in large settlements and devote more time to the arts.

The sculpture was found in a cave with several artifacts indicating habitation, not a grave (1). It therefore appears to have been a figurine of domestic significance, perhaps not unlike the “goddess” figurines commonly found in later Neolithic farming sites.


1. MacGregor N. A History of the World in 100 Objects. Viking Penguin. 2011. p. 40.

Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

Written by Mesocosm

February 14, 2012 at 9:42 am

Posted in Articles, History

Tagged with , , ,

Why has Herakles Left for the East?

leave a comment »

Symbolic motifs can help us trace the movements of peoples and ideas, as illustrated by the case of Herakles, who traveled from Greece to Japan.


In the last few posts, we have traced the diffusion of mythological and artistic motifs into Western culture from the Near Eastern civilizations of Mesopotamia and Anatolia, areas generally identified as the epicenter for the emergence of cities, writing, and agriculture.

Of course, in this day and age the word Western must be read with invisible scare quotes. A study of classical history quickly reveals that so-called Western civilization is deeply indebted to cultures that the Greeks would have considered Oriental.

One of the great thrills of intellectual history is discovering the degree to which cultural zones that one had previously considered to be independent show a remarkable degree of inter-penetration. Most cultures show a surprising degree of receptiveness to foreign elements, making the study of religious symbols enormously valuable. Mythological motifs are extremely robust and may persist without significant modification for millennia, long after languages like Latin or Sanskrit have evolved out of existence. By watching how symbolic motifs pass from culture to culture, we gain important evidence for the movements of peoples and ideas.

Swedish Buddha

Buddha, c. Seventh Century CE
Found in a bog in Sweden

For the mythologist, then, symbols are like the half-sovereign coin that Leopold Bloom marks in James Joyce’s Ulysses, before spending it out into the sea of commerce, keeping watch for its return.

One of the key cultural boundaries that looms large in popular imagination is that separating the East and the West. We have overwhelming evidence for extensive contact between the Occident and the Orient extending far back into antiquity. Roman coins have been found in Vietnam, and the earliest iconic representations of Buddhism were in an essentially classical Greek style. This beautiful little Buddha Statue, carved in North India in the sixth or seventh century CE, was found in a bog near Helgö in Sweden, giving a sense of the range of the Scandinavian seamen of the Middle Ages.

If one takes the epicenter of Occidental culture to be classical Greece, and the epicenter of the great civilizations of the Orient to be India, then countless channels of connection are immediately evident. One must begin with the fact, universally accepted by linguists since the nineteenth century, that Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit all descend from a single lost language, referred to as Proto-Indo European. Many archaeologists currently follow a version of a theory first postulated by Maija Gimbutas, the famous historian of goddess-cultures, that the speakers of Proto-Indo-European were a nomadic people who originally came out of the Steppes of Russia east of the Black Sea (1).



The philologist M. L. West has analyzed symbols appearing in the philosophy, poetry, and literature of various Indo-European cultures to partially reconstruct the religious belief system of the Proto-Indo-European people, before it broke apart as the population spread into different Asian and European groups (2). To give but one example of the kind of light such analysis may shed on symbols, let’s consider an enigmatic symbol commonly found in Tantric Buddhism to this day, the vajra, as it is known is Sansrkit, or dorje in Tibetan.

The word vajra refers to thunderbolts, diamonds, or an indestructible quintessence. The iconographic symbol that is also called a vajra is prominently featured in contemplative Buddhist art as a representation of the active qualities of Buddha’s wisdom. As the title of the well-known Vajracchedika Sutra suggests, the vajra is akin to a “diamond that cuts through illusions.” But what is the origin of this odd implement?

The vajra first appears as the magical weapon or implement of the storm god Indra in one of the oldest surviving Indo-European texts, the Hindu scripture Rg Veda. For example, one Vedic hymn to Indra begins “Let me now sing the heroic deeds of Indra, the first that the thunderbolt-wielder performed. [“thunderbolt” = vajra] He killed the dragon and pierced an opening for the waters; he split open the bellies of mountains.” (3)

Through comparative analysis, West finds that many prominent Indo-European storm gods wield a similar special thunder-weapon, including Zeus with his thunderbolts, Thor with his storm-hammer Mjölnir, and the Avestin god Mithra with his demon-slaying vazra. (4)

A symbol like the vajra is all-but-incomprehensible until it is traced back to its root as a celestial weapon that penetrates and releases. Then its gradual symbolic evolution, by which it sheds its original aitiological value, becomes self-evident.

Gandharvan Buddha

Greco-Buddhist Bodhisattva, 2nd-3rd Century
Art Institute of Chicago
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

The relationship between classical Greek philosophy and the Upanishadic and Buddhist religious material appearing in India at the same time is a topic of monumental importance for intellectual history, and it deserves its own consideration in future posts. For now we will simply note that the doctrines of an endless round of retributive reincarnation broken by a combination of asceticism and contemplative practice appeared in both Greece and India, without antecedent and at the same time. (5)

All of this came to mind this morning when I stumbled upon an interesting article on the Tocharian language, an Indo-European language of western China. I was astonished to read that the Tocharian people have been attested in sources as diverse as the Roman author Plutarch, the Alexandrian author Ptolemy, and the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Hsuan-Tsang (6). All of this suggests to my mind that if a great civilization on the order of China or Rome had ever blossomed in Central Asia, one that persisted and gave lasting shape to the dense zone of interaction that has been in flux for thousands of years, we would not currently think of so-called “eastern” and “western” thought as somehow fundamentally different.

It was a truism among many comparative scholars in the twentieth century, including Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, that the westerner studies eastern religions at great peril, as the religious idioms of the east are intended to produce experiences that the western ego has not evolved to assimilate. I think a historical difficulty in drawing a meaningful line between east and west should pose a serious challenge to this view. I argued in a similar vein in “Nondualism as First Philosophy” that at this point in history, western philosophers can ignore Asian philosophy only to their detriment.

This fact was once pointed out to an acquaintance of mine by no less an authority than the Dalai Lama. My scholar friend asked His Holiness if he should be concerned about studying “eastern religions” as a westerner. His Holiness, with characteristic insight, replied Buddhism is actually closer to European culture than to Tibetan culture. European culture and Buddhism both derive from a common Indo-European source. When Buddhism came to Tibet, it entered a Sino-Burmese linguistic zone of a completely different character, and the native Bon religion had no resemblance to Buddhism whatsoever.

Let’s close with a look at this marvelous image from Wikimedia commons, which illustrates the process of modification by which the Greek hero Herakles, armed with his iconic club, was gradually modified as he passed eastward through Central Asia and China to Japan, where he is now known as Shukongoshin, and may be seen in Buddhist temples to this day.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, click image for source

On the left is a Greek statue of Herakles from the Louvre, and moving rightward (and eastward, geographically), we see a Greco-Bactrian coin showing Herkles, a Greco-Buddhist depiction of the protector-god Vajrapani, and the Japanese Shukongoshin on the right.

Update: After completing this post I learned of this excellent article Heracles in the East by I-Tien Hsing, translated by William G. Cromwell. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the eastward journey and transformation of Heracles. (April 6, 2012)


(1) q.v, for example, Anthony DW. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language; How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the World. Princeton University Press. 2007.
(2) West ML. Indo-European Poetry and Myth. Oxford University Press. 2007.
(3) Rig Veda, I. 42, from Doniger W. The Rig Veda. Penguin Classics. 1981. p 149
(4) West, 2007, pp. 251 ff.
(5) Two important works treating this question are:
McEvilley T. The Shape of Ancient Thought; Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies. Allworth Press. 2002.
West ML. Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient. Oxford University Press. 2001.
(6) Narain AK, “Indo-Europeans in Inner Asia”. in The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia. ed. Denis Sinor. Cambridge University Press. 1990. pp 151-176.

Further Reading

Indo-European Languages
Greco-Buddhist Art

Written by Mesocosm

January 5, 2012 at 12:17 pm

The Dalai Lama and the Politics of Reincarnation

leave a comment »

The astonishing story of the Dalai Lamas of Tibet reads like equal parts history, fantasy, and spy thriller, and extraordinary developments lie just around the corner.

Wheel of Life, by MarenYumi

A crisis has been brewing for years and is set to erupt when the 76-year-old Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, passes away. A struggle over succession will follow, in which monks allied to the Tibetan Government-in-Exile in India will use traditional methods to locate and identify his reincarnation, whom they will enthrone as the Fifteenth Dalai Lama. The Chinese government will use its own methods to identify a different candidate for the Fifteenth Dalai Lama, and will attempt to force the captive Tibetan populace to accept their selection. The result will be a politico-religious schism.

Under the existing Tibetan system of succession, many important teachers and heads of state are believed to be tulkus (= Skt. nirmanakaya) , or reincarnating lamas, who have achieved a degree of yogic realization that allows them to partially determine their next rebirth. Motivated by compassion, these great meditators direct their consciousness at the time of death into the form in which they can most benefit others.

Although different incarnations are held to be manifestations of the same mental continuum, they are regarded as different persons, and their characters may differ substantially. Geshe Lam Rim describes reincarnation as akin to “a flame transferred from one lamp to a second; this being analogous to a migrator who in the passage of taking rebirth is neither annihilated nor unchanging.” (1)

For centuries, this system has been used in the Tibetan cultural sphere to control political and economic inheritance, with important positions passing from one incarnation to the next. While most Buddhist schools teach the doctrine of reincarnation, the Tibetan Buddhists are unique in employing this system of succession. Many important figures in Tibetan history have been tulkus, including the Dalai Lamas, the Panchen Lamas, and the Karmapas, leaders of the Karma Kagyu school.

The Dalai Lamas are the best known and most important of the thousands of Tibetan tulkus, having occupied a central position in Tibetan political and religious culture for centuries. Prior to the Chinese invasion, Tibetan culture was conceptually organized around interlocking religious and political symbols based on the Tantric mandala, a ritual circle-complex in Buddhist iconography and meditation, which depicts an elaborate circular mansion or temple with a deity or Buddha at its center. (2) In the tenth century CE, the Tibetans self-consciously recreated their civic and religious infrastructure on this model, which defines an organized space of interaction constructed around a central figure who exemplifies the ultimate end of all social life: the propagation and realization of Buddhist teachings of liberation. Since the seventeenth century the figure who has occupied the center of that ideology-space has been the Dalai Lama.

Kalachakra Mandala

Kalachakra Mandala

Since the Chinese invasion and subsequent Tibetan diapsora, the unifying role of the Dalai Lama as a historical reference point for national identity has been more important than ever. The Tibetans have been fortunate in the character and qualities of the current Fourteenth Dalai Lama, who has proven to be a brilliant, tireless, and charismatic advocate for the Tibetan cause. His efforts have helped bring the Tibetan plight from obscurity to a familiar issue of international significance.

The Dalai Lama is the de facto head of the Gelukpa reformist church. which was founded in the fourteenth century by the great scholar-yogi Je Tsong Khapa. The first Dalai Lama, Gendun Drup, was Je Tsong Khapa’s disciple. The Third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, solidified the Gelukpa order’s political ties with the warrior-chiefs of Mongolia. The title “Dalai,” a Mongolian word meaning “ocean,” was bestowed upon Sonam Gyatso by Altan Khan, a decedent of Kubla Khan, and he was henceforth known as the Third Dalai Lama. His two predecessors were retroactively designated the First and the Second in the line.

In the mid-seventeenth century, the “Great Fifth” Dalai Lama Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso won political control over Tibet with the aid of his Mongol patrons. After consolidating a ruling coalition of monastic authorities and powerful clans, the Fifth Dalai Lama established Gelukpa control over Tibet, creating a ruling ecclesiastical administration that remained in power until the Chinese invasion in 1949.

As with all recognized reincarnating lamas, the Dalai Lama’s succession is determined by visionary rites. Typically, before dying, a tulku leaves some indication in poem or prophesy of the area in which they will take rebirth. A few years after the lama’s death, a search committee travels to the prophesied region to look for young children. Promising candidates are tested in a traditional manner.

In his autobiography, the present Dalai Lama recalls his own identification, made by a search committee sent from Lhasa. He was born a mere peasant boy, and found living in a rude, mud-floored house in the province of Amdo:

[R]ather than reveal the purpose of their visit [to my parents], the group asked only to stay the night. The leader of the party, Kewtsang Rinpoché, then pretended to be the servant and spent much of the evening observing and playing with the youngest child in the house.

The child recognized him and called out ‘Sera Lama, Sera Lama.’ Sera was Kewtsang Rinpoché’s monastery. Next day they left – only to return a few days later as a formal deputation. This time they brought with them a number of things that belonged to my predecessor, together with several similar items that did not. In every case, the infant correctly identified those belonging to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama saying, ‘It’s mine. It’s mine.’ This more or less convinced the search party that they had found the new incarnation. However, there was another candidate to be seen before a final decision could be reached. But it was not long before the boy from Taktser was acknowledged to be the new Dalai Lama. I was that child. (3)

The identification of candidates has often been a matter of dispute. For example, there are currently two monks living in India who have both been identified by different factions as the Seventeenth Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu order. This is no trivial dispute, for the Karmapa not only occupies an important leadership position, he controls assets valued at many millions of dollars.

In February 2011, Indian police searched the home of one of the Karmapas, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, froze three-quarters of a million dollars in assets, and announced suspicion that he was a Chinese spy. Dorje’s identification has been vetted by the Dalai Lama, but was also approved and supported by the Chinese government, who regarded him as a sympathetic prominent figure in Tibetan culture for many years, before he made a sudden and surprising defection to India in 2000. According to Asia Times:

Former Indian intelligence official B Raman said the allegation that the Karmapa was a Chinese spy was aimed at dividing the Tibetan community in exile before the 75-year-old Dalai Lama passes away. “He was selected according to Tibetan tradition but the Chinese approved his selection. They hope they will be able to use him to influence the selection of the next Dalai Lama. I’m suspicious. I’ve always suspected it’s a Chinese intelligence operation. They think long term” he said. (4)

The Indian accusations shocked the Tibetan community and threatened to create a rift between the Government-in-Exile and their country of refuge. The charges have been widely greeted with disbelief by observers, and are emphatically denied by the Chinese government. India has subsequently back-pedaled on their accusations for now.

The Dalai Lama line itself has been a point of contention in the past. One prominent case involves the Fifth Dalai Lama, who, as noted above, unified Tibet under its modern borders and established the Gelukpa order as the dominant religious authority in the land. When he died in 1682, his regent Desi Sangye Gyatso kept his death a secret for an incredible 15 years, ruling in his stead, and claiming that the Great Fifth was in religious seclusion. K. Dhondup describes this astonishing intrigue:

On important occasions, the Dalai Lama’s ceremonial gown was placed on the throne in the audience hall and all officials followed the routine as though the Dalai Lama was physically present. However, when important Mongol devotees and princes arrived from Mongolia to pay their respects to the Dalai Lama, the [regent] Desi could not refuse them audience outright. At such critical times, an elderly monk named Tasrab from Namgyal Dratsang, who slightly resembled the Fifth Dalai Lama in physical appearance, was made to receive the guests in ceremonial robes, an eye-shade and a hat, most probably to conceal the fact that the monk-impostor lacked the baldness and piercing round eyes of the Fifth Dalai Lama. Placed in such extraordinary circumstances, it required the ruthless genius of one of the most intelligent Tibetans to keep such an important secret for so long. When sometimes the monk from Namgyal Dratsang, bored with his forced imprisonment and scared of his unusual role, tried to escape from the Potala [Palace, seat of the Dalai Lamas], Desi Sangay entreated, beat and most often bribed the monk to stay to fulfil [sic] his unusual role of acting as the Fifth Dalai Lama. In his frenzied determination to maintain the secret, Desi Sangay is said to have murdered both the medium of the Nechung oracle Tseang Palbar and the latter’s mother for getting wind of the secret during Desi’s frequent consultations with the oracle in the nerve-wracking suspense of running the Tibetan administrative show without the presence of the Dalai Lama. (5)

During the period of intrigue, Desi secretly organized a search for the next Dalai Lama, and when word finally got out that the Great Fifth had long since passed away, Desi’s candidate for successor, Tsangyang Gyatso, was waiting in the wings. However, the Sixth Dalai Lama did not take to his expected role, refusing to take monastic ordination and spending his days drinking wine and writing love poetry instead, like this:

Longing for the landlord’s daughter
Blossoming in youthful beauty
Is like pining for peaches
Ripening on high peach trees. (6)

Today, the Sixth Dalai Lama is regarded by many Tibetans as a Tantric master. Such figures often confound expectations with their unorthodox behavior. But in his own time, many doubted that the true Dalai Lama would eschew monasticism. Questions over his status became a battleground for political disputes, with various sides pursuing their respective interests in the guise of supporting or opposing the legitimacy of Tsangyang Gyatso. An alternate candidate for the role of Sixth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Yeshe Gyatso, was installed in parallel, creating a circumstance not unlike the Great Papal Schism in the Middle Ages. Tsangyang Gyatso died under highly suspicious circumstances, most likely at Chinese hands.

These disputes carried over into the reign of the Seventh Dalai Lama, who is generally identified today as Kelsang Gyatso. This candidate was identified as the reincarnation of Tsangyang Gyatso by no less an authority than the Nechung oracle, the primary state oracle of the Tibetan government.

However, because of lingering uncertainties, Kelsang Gyatso had to fight to establish his own legitimacy while simultaneously resisting Chinese attempts to exploit instability to impose control over Tibet through its agents, particularly through the powerful office of the regent, which was formally occupied by the grand conspirator Desi. The Chinese capitalized on uncertainty while the Tibetan loyalists in turn leveraged the ideological power of the office of the Dalai Lama to assert independence. Eventually the Chinese candidate was rejected, which effectively served as a Tibetan mandate rejecting Chinese claims of authority over the region.


Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama, by Jan Michael Ihl

Nearly three centuries later, a similar drama is now unfolding before our eyes. When the present Dalai Lama dies, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and the Chinese government will both present candidates for the Fifteenth. Both sides have been preparing for the showdown for many years. The current Dalai Lama has publicly declared on several occasions that his reincarnation will not be born in any land under Chinese rule. The Chinese response has been characteristically heavy-handed.

Prior to the Chinese invasion, another line of tulkus, the Panchen Lamas, wielded considerable political authority, and were instrumental in identifying new Dalai Lamas. After the tenth Panchen Lama died in 1989, a boy named of Gendun Choekyi Nyima was named his successor, a decision that was confirmed by the present Dalai Lama. In 1995, the Chinese government declared this choice invalid and took the boy into custody. Despite considerable outcry from humanitarian groups and foreign governments, he has not been heard from since. The Chinese have proffered their own candidate, Gyancain Norbu, shortly thereafter. This identification is rejected by the vast majority of Tibetan Buddhists. (7)

It is widely believed that the Chinese government prefers to maintain a Panchen Lama under their own control in order to eventually designate their own candidate for the office of Dalai Lama.

In a strategem that would leave Kafka shaking his head in disbelief, the Chinese government followed by issuing State Religious Affairs Bureau Order No. 5, which requires all tulkus in Tibet to register with the Chinese government, which claims final authority over reincarnation. According to the official Chinese state newspaper, Xinhua, this mandate “aids religious freedom.” (8)

The Dalai Lama has responded with his own statement, concluding with this sentiment:

[R]eincarnation is a phenomenon which should take place either through the voluntary choice of the concerned person or at least on the strength of his or her karma, merit and prayers. Therefore, the person who reincarnates has sole legitimate authority over where and how he or she takes rebirth and how that reincarnation is to be recognized. It is a reality that no one else can force the person concerned, or manipulate him or her. It is particularly inappropriate for Chinese communists, who explicitly reject even the idea of past and future lives, let alone the concept of reincarnate Tulkus, to meddle in the system of reincarnation and especially the reincarnations of the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas. Such brazen meddling contradicts their own political ideology and reveals their double standards. Should this situation continue in the future, it will be impossible for Tibetans and those who follow the Tibetan Buddhist tradition to acknowledge or accept it.

When I am about ninety I will consult the high Lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the Tibetan public, and other concerned people who follow Tibetan Buddhism, and re-evaluate whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not. On that basis we will take a decision. If it is decided that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama should continue and there is a need for the Fifteenth Dalai Lama to be recognized, responsibility for doing so will primarily rest on the concerned officers of the Dalai Lama’s Gaden Phodrang Trust. They should consult the various heads of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions and the reliable oath-bound Dharma Protectors who are linked inseparably to the lineage of the Dalai Lamas. They should seek advice and direction from these concerned beings and carry out the procedures of search and recognition in accordance with past tradition. I shall leave clear written instructions about this. Bear in mind that, apart from the reincarnation recognized through such legitimate methods, no recognition or acceptance should be given to a candidate chosen for political ends by anyone, including those in the People’s Republic of China. (9)


The dense symbolic field of Tibetan Buddhism has served as a cultural language for articulating and delineating political and economic battles in Tibet for centuries. One often senses that parochial disputes are being expressed in symbolic form, and the subtext is often obvious. One illustration of this phenomenon is the recent controversy among Tibetan Buddhists over the propitiation of Dorje Shugden, otherwise known as Dolgyal. Dorje Shugden is either a demon or a Buddha, depending on who you ask. The Dalai Lama, who once maintained a practice of propitiating this figure, now considers Dorje Shugden to be a harmful spirit and has forbidden his propitiation in monasteries under his control. He arrived at this determination through spiritual introspection and consultation with oracles, and describes one striking episode in his deliberation as follows:

Later, on another occasion, we were performing a ritual of Hayagriva. It was not particularly aimed at Dolgyal. The aim was to destroy anything, be it human, non-human, a lama, a deity or a ghost. That harms the Dharma and the just cause of Tibet. Whatever it is, it should be eliminated. It can’t be helped. One night during the period when we were conducting this ritual, I dreamt that I was sitting on my bed. Beside my bed was a small boy, about seven or eight years old, whom I took to be Dolgyal. This boy was holding my right hand. When I looked again, I saw that where he held my hand the boy’s fingernails were changing into claws and he was extending them. I was annoyed, grabbed the child by the neck and strangled him. My visualisation of myself as Hayagriva and my sense of divine pride were very clear. While still maintaining this clear vision and divine pride, I took the child in my hands, rubbed it between my palms and swallowed it. It was a very clear dream. Then I awoke. And as I awoke I was still in the process of swallowing. (10)

The Dorje Shugden practice has a small but vocal following, and the Dalai Lama’s prohibition led to an ugly public dispute in which its advocates decried what they considered religious persecution. In 1997, the controversy took a shocking turn when supporters of the Shugden practice murdered an outspoken critic, Lobsang Gyatso, head of the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharmasala, along with some of his students.

Although the practice under dispute involves the ritual propitiation of a supernatural being, those familiar with the events can readily perceive the underlying subtext. The lore surrounding Dorje Shugden describes him as a jealous protector of the Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, to the point where he is said to have murdered Gelukpa monks who studied other traditions.

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama has been a staunch ecumenical advocate of harmony among the schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and this position has put him in conflict with orthodox members of his own clergy, who would prefer the Gelukpas to continue to politically dominate the other schools as they did in Tibet. Some of those factions are strongly associated with the small group propitiating Dorje Shugden, and it is difficult not to see the underlying struggle as really being about Gelukpa hegemony in the Government-in-Exile. This issue is described at length in the magisterial article by the scholar Georges Dreyfus (11), which I recommend to anyone interested in these matters.

The problems inherent in interpreting these political disputes are significant and complex. As the Dalai Lama pointed out in his statement above, it is odd to see the Chinese Government simultaneously participate in the reincarnation process of the Dalai Lama while rejecting belief in reincarnation as a primitive superstition. However, it is perhaps not less odd to see those who understand the political subtext of these disputes also affirm the literal content of the argument over reincarnation, even when such views fit poorly with their general outlook. For me this is particularly true for some westerners sympathetic to the Tibetan cause, who may participate in some of these debates in a surprisingly uncritical way, often accepting arguments about the status of Dorje Shugden or the validity of various tulkus at face value.

Some of the greatest minds in Tibetan history have themselves been critical of these disputes, including some who were centrally involved in them. So I would like to close with the possibly-controversial suggestion it might be better for western sympathizers of the Tibetan cause to withhold from acceding to the literal terms of these debates. The facts of the matter are not even clear for ardent proponents of the tradition, and as we have seen, the consequences of these disputes can be extremely serious.

I will end by returning to the the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, who is not only one of the single most important figures in the political history of Tibet, but a great scholar and religious figure as well. When the Great Fifth was identified, he was a boy from a well-positioned family of great prominence, living in a time when control of the country was hotly contested by rival sects. Gaining the alliance of the boy’s family would be considered a significant political victory by any sect.

Samten Karmay describes his selection:

The Fifth Dalai Lama retained bitter memories of his childhood during which the philosophical and religious precepts relative to the notion of reincarnation served political purposes. In his writings he would often recall with irony the political manipulations of his own school which involved the Mongols in all its affairs. Thus he wrote in his autobiography, the Dukula:

Since there was a large Mongol army in the country and the Tibetan leaders were forced to yield much of their land to them, it became customary to recognize the sons of Mongol leaders as reincarnations. It was said that I too was one (even though I was not a Mongol)!

As for his success at passing the traditional ‘tests,’ he is equally as straightforward:

The official Tsha-ba bka’-bcu of dGa’-ldan pho-brang showed me statues and rosaries (that belonged to the Fourth Dalai Lama and other people), but I was unable to distinguish between them! When he left the room I heard him tell the people outside that I had successfully passed the tests. Later, when he became my tutor, he would often admonish me and say: ‘You must work hard, since you were unable to recognize the objects.’ (12)

Update: In May, 2012, the Dalai Lama made a joking statement to the Globe and Mail about this issue: “It is quite strange – as non-believers, totally non-believers, atheists – showing interest about reincarnation. I jokingly tell them: In order to be involved in my reincarnation, firstly, they should accept Buddhism. Or religion. Or Buddhism. Then they should recognize Chairman Mao Zedong’s reincarnation. Deng Xiaopeng’s reincarnation. Then, they have reason to show some interest about the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation. Otherwise, nonsense!” (via BoingBoing)


(1) Lam Rim. A Necklace of Good Fortune. Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. 1997. pg. 7

(2) Davidon, Ronald. Tibetan Renaissance; Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture. Columbia University Press. 2005.

(3) Dalai Lama. Freedom in Exile; The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. HarperPrennial. 1991. pg. 12

(4) Sehgal Saransh. ‘Chinese spy’ allegations rock Tibetans. Asia Times Online. Feb 2, 2011. Retrieved 11/12/2011.

(5) Dhondup K. Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama. Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. 1996. 12-13

(6) ibid., 47

(7) Gearing Julian. “Tibetan tale of two rival teenage lamas.” Asia Times Online. April 22, 2004. Retreived 11/12/2011.

(8) Xinhua. “Rule on living Buddhas aids religious freedom.” Xinua. Dec 27, 2007. Retrieved 11/12/2011.

(9) Dalai Lama. “Statement of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama,” Tenzin Gyatso, on the Issue of His Reincarnation. Sept. 24, 2011. Retrieved 11/12/2011.

(10) Dalai Lama. “Concerning Dolgyal with Reference to the Views of Past Masters and other Related Matters.” October 1997. Retrieved 11/12/2011.

(11) Dreyfus George. “The Shugden Affair: Origins of a Controversy.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. Vol., 21, no. 2 [1998]: 227-270.

(12) Karmay Samten G. “The Fifth Dalai Lama and his Reunification of Tibet.” from The Arrow and the Spindle; Studies in History, Myths, Rituals, and Beliefs in Tibet. Mandala Book Point. 507-8

Written by Mesocosm

November 14, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Medieval Castles and Occupy Wall Street

with one comment

I was recently challenged by a thoughtful friend on my general support for the Occupy Wall Street movement. I hope I don’t do violence to his perspective in approximating his position in my own words.

If the last few years have shown us anything, he argues, it’s that the government is an unreliable guardian of the public good.

What happened with the 2008 bailouts is horrible – banks were able to privatize their profits and socialize their losses. The world would probably have been better off if we had simply let the big banks fail.

It may be true that the government has been co-opted by special interests; that’s what happens to governments, by and large. The answer cannot be to demand the government fix things, because it can’t be trusted with regulatory power. The answer is less federal regulation of markets.

The attitude of the protesters, he continues, is that the government should be called upon to fix everything, and to guarantee a certain minimum level of social welfare. That is a childish perspective. All you are guaranteed in life is a chance to succeed, and you should focus on working to improve your lot, rather than asking the government to fix it for you. Asking the government to ensure social prosperity is asking it to do something it has neither the competence nor the mandate to do.

I won’t try to address every point of this position – I’d like to focus on what I found the most provocative assertion – that the government is an incompetent custodian of social welfare, and it should be deprived of authority rather than reformed.


Image by Johannes Robalotoff, licensed under Creative Commons

In formulating my reply I’d like start with a story. While I was traveling by train from Heidelberg to Cologne I passed through a gorgeous area of Germany called the Oberes Mittelrheintal, a river valley that stretches some 65 kilometers along the Rhine, crowded with beautiful medieval castles. They are so dense that by train you pass one every ninety seconds or so for perhaps half an hour.

Why are there so many castles along the Middle Rhine Valley, and what does it have to do with federal regulation?

During the period between the tenth century and the introduction of gunpowder artillery into Europe, a well-built castle was essentially impregnable. The creation of castles under the Holy Roman Empire was carefully monitored and strictly controlled by the central government, because once a castle went up it was almost impossible to force a local ruler to do anything. For a period of centuries a pattern emerged – during times of a strong federal government, castle building was slow. If you built an unauthorized castle during the reign of Charlemagne, for example, an army would come and stop you before it was completed, and your lands would be seized. During times of weak central government – when succession was being contested, or the monarch was in his minority – local nobles would seize the chance, and build castles as quickly as they could, granting them local autonomy and weakening central control.

The castles along the Rhine were built by nobles who were little more than gangsters, the infamous robber barons, who would use fortified positions on the Rhine to gouge river merchants for “tolls.” As a river merchant traveled down the Rhine, he would encounter a heavy chain barricade at each castle, and pay a toll in order to proceed. The practice of extorting tolls from merchants, who had depended on the river for trade for many centuries, was so lucrative that many castles were built in a crowded region.

Eventually the castles fell into ruin, and remained in poor condition until the nineteenth century, when Germany experienced a love affair with the middle ages, and the Prussian government poured money into restoring them to their former glory.

Incidentally, it occurred to me as I was traveling through the Rhine Valley that the Gibichungs in the great German Romance Nibelungenlied, which Wagner took as the basis for his Götterdämmerung, would certainly have been robber barons of this type. We can see what a thick gloss of romantic nostalgia does to transform the basic facts of history.

But I digress. What is important for this discussion is that the merchant sailing down the Rhine, when confronted by a castle, has two options. He can pay the toll, or give up being a river merchant.

This simple example illustrates two tendencies in the social, political, military, and economic history of Europe that inevitably confront the student of history: 1) transactions do not occur in a vacuum, they occur in the context of power relationships which help determine their outcome. When there is little symmetry or parity in the degree of power brought to the table by the various parties, the more powerful party will generally extract favorable terms. 2) In the absence of counter-balancing forces, there is a historical tendency for the accumulation of power and resources to form a positive feedback loop, whereby the wealthy and the powerful use their wealth and power to become more wealthy and more powerful.

As a psychological aside, it seems that people who are at a disadvantage due to power asymmetries are much more likely to be aware of them. The reasons for this are obvious, I think, and are clearly projected by some of the dismissive responses we’ve seen to the Occupy Wall Street movement by economic elites, who often seem prepared to believe that their massively disproportionate accumulation of wealth is just and proper, and due to their hard work and merit alone. Or, of course, they may simply not care who suffers.

One might say to the river merchant, you should just find some other river, or travel overland. We must first ask if this constitutes a morally-acceptable reply to the situation, since the exorbitant tolls are essentially a form a robbery. In addition, one generally finds that every river eventually has its castles.

Coming back round to the case of Occupy Wall Street, we find that in modern capitalist societies one of the primary functions of an elected government, if political economists like Jürgen Habermas are to be believed, is to counter-balance the asymmetries inevitably implied by capitalist markets, so that the rich and powerful do not simply screw over the vast majority of people.

Now, as a historical matter, I think it’s important to take sufficient stock of an elementary fact that doesn’t seem to inform contemporary political discussions as much as it should. Since the emergence of cities in Sumer in the fourth millennium BCE, a great many people for a great deal of history have been in thrall to a tiny ruling class. Many centuries have rolled by in which most of the people on the earth were near-slaves to political and military elites. For example, nearly everyone living in an urbanized society between around 1500 and 1000 BCE (with the notable exception of Bronze Age Crete) was a virtual slave of royal rulers, who formed a unified ideological transnational cohort. Their priority in mutually protecting their privileged status is clearly shown in extant treaties, which emphasize matters such as putting down insurrections and returning escaped slaves.

Egyptian Slaves

Egyptian Prisoners of War Working as Slaves

Clearly the positive feedback loop of capital accumulation is the basic engine that drives this phenomenon. An instructive example of this is the collapse of Rome’s agrarian economy between the fifth and the first centuries BCE, as farmers were driven off their lands by moneyed elites, who were able to manipulate the law and the economic conditions of the Roman empire in their own favor, allowing them to buy up farm land into massive super-estates that were worked by slaves captured in war. This, in turn, drove the Roman Empire into ever-more-bellicose expansionism.

The farm economy was driven to extinction by a handful of wealthy senators and owners of massive agricultural estates, and the cities became swollen with the resulting influx of farmers, who had to find work, generally in conditions far less favorable to those they had previously known. The ultimate ultimate outcome of this is well-known: bread and circuses.

In democratic societies, weak federal governments with weak regulation offer the most favorable conditions for the powerful and the wealthy to leverage their resources. That seems obvious to me, but if we need evidence to this effect, I suggest examining the correlation between deregulation and income disparity in the last 30 years in the United States. I daresay the fact that the powerful and wealthy tend to favor ideologies opposed to regulation is another indication. Economic conditions that find, in the wealthiest nation on Earth, 400 individuals in the possession of more wealth than the poorest 150 million people, do not just happen.

An important theoretical consequence to the principle that transactions are shaped by power asymmetries is this: in the actual world, there are no level playing fields. That is, in every zone of transaction or competition, power may be brought to bear to change the conditions of transaction or competition, in ways that favor the powerful and disadvantage those who lack power. Parties come to transactions in the context of their circumstances. The belief that unregulated markets are in some sense neutral strikes me as theoretically naive and dangerous.

The function of proper market regulation is to limit the effect of power asymmetries insofar as they act against the public good, which they frequently do. Otherwise, the market is simply a bellum omni contra omnes, a war of all against all, which is a deplorable and primitive condition.

I do not see any way for the staunch laissez faire market advocate to deal with the problem of castles. The castellans have no legitimate right to extract tolls, and telling the merchant that he should simply find another river is inadequate in nearly every way, not least because such a position guarantees more and more castles. And again, with history as our guide, it is rather common for massive and oppressive accumulations of power and capital to endure for centuries. This is neither an unprecedented nor unlikely outcome.

I see no effective mechanism in the world today for constraining power asymmetries outside of a democratic government. If the government abdicates this responsibility, or is sufficiently co-opted by elites that it remains unable to perform that function, I do not think it will take long for the increasing economic disparities to reach medieval levels or worse.

Written by Mesocosm

October 31, 2011 at 12:06 am

Germany and the Extent of Human History

with 3 comments

For the last week I’ve been traveling up west Germany to Berlin, where I will be studying German at the Carl Duisberg Center for the next two months.

After arriving in Frankfurt I immediately jumped on a train to nearby Heidelberg, home of the oldest university in the country. It’s a beautiful little town and a great place to crash-land. It is near Frankfurt, the primary international port of entry, and has a developed service industry. It is easy to acclimatize in a town where most people are glad to see foreigners.

Heidelberg Altstadt

Heidelberg Altstadt

One of the highlights of my visit to Heidelberg was the intriguing Apothecary Museum, located inside its famous and picturesque castle. In this seventeenth century painting we can see Christ depicted as a pharmacist:

Christ the Pharmacist

Not far from Heidelberg, the remains of Homo heidelbergensis were discovered, a possible ancestor to both neanderthal and modern humans who lived around 600,000 years ago.

Continuing north I arrived in Köln (Cologne). The name derives from the Latin Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensis, bestowed on the city by the Roman Emperor Claudius in 50 AD. The centerpiece of the cityscape, immediately adjacent to the central train station, is the indescribably huge cathedral. The western bell tower is around 40 stories high.

Cologne Cathedral

The cathedral was built above the Roman city walls that lie beneath its grounds.

Roman Walls

After the Roman Empire became embroiled in conflict with the Goths, pre-Germanic Frankish tribes moved into the region. A fourth century grave containing a Frankish noblewoman buried in finery was discovered on the cathedral grounds during construction in 1959. The grave of a young boy was found nearby – he was buried around 530 CE with adult armor and weapons, which were probably his inheritance.

The cathedral itself was begun in 1247 on the site of an old Carolingian church, but it was not completed for some seven hundred years when the Prussian Kaisers pumped massive amounts of cash into the project. It houses artifacts ranging from a tenth century crucifix to a stained glass window donated by local artist Gerhard Richter in 2007. Designed in a modern abstract style, the window is composed of a pixelated wash of joyous colors arrayed at random with the help of a computer.

Richter Window

Richter Window

The La Tène Celts dwelt upon this site before the Romans. They were an Indo-European people of the first millennium BCE with a warrior ethos, elegant metalwork, and fine ceramics.

Before the Celts, the area was home to a Linear Ceramic neolithic farming village which flourished in the sixth millennium BCE.

And before that, the region was inhabited by pre-humans. In the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in nearby Bonn, you can see the remains of “Neanderthal 1” (circa 40,000 BCE), discovered by Hermann Schaffhausen in the Kleine Feldhofer Grotte in 1856. Its discovery inaugurated the birth of paleoanthropology.

And just 50 km from Köln, the Kakus Caves were inhabited by neanderthals and humans from 100,000 BCE, down through to the High Middle Ages.

Paleolithic Tools

Paleolithic Hand Axes from the Kakus Caves

Near the French border, about an hour west of Köln by train, lies the town of Aachen, where you may see the cathedral of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor. He was crowned on Christmas Day in the Year of Our Lord 800 by Pope Leo III. In this picture you can see the original cathedral that was once part of Charlemagne’s palace. The enormous brass chandelier was donated to the building by Emperor Friedrich Barabarossa, who was crowned in that chapel. It represents the city of New Jerusalem descending from the sky, as described in the Book of Revelation.

Aachener Dom

Aachener Dom

What we have here in a very small region, then, is the remains of almost every significant cultural stage of European development over the last 100,000 years, except for the Aurignacian horizon that flourished in France around 30,000 BCE, and apparently left little mark on the region.

That is quite a journey from my starting point in San Francisco, which until 1800 was inhabited by Ohlone tribes who left almost no material remains of any kind. The urban environment of San Francisco only began to take shape in the second half of the nineteenth century after the discovery of gold. Before that the peninsula was a trading outpost and a Spanish mission, dotted with seasonal villages used by the Native Americans.

Most of the Ohlone’s technology was based in wood, animal skins, and tule reeds, which they used to fashion their huts and excellent canoes. These material remains have not survived.

Ohlone Hut Replica

Ohlone Hut Replica, Mission San Francisco de Asís

Written by Mesocosm

July 16, 2011 at 1:24 pm

Posted in Articles, History