Egypt then and now

hypatia-raphaelThe image is Raphael’s version of Hypatia, the astronomer, mathematician, and neoplatonic philosopher who was murdered by a religious mob in 415.

Hypatia lived and died in Alexandria, Egypt, then a clashing hotbed of philosophical schools and rising radical religion. The rising radical religion of the time was Christianity.

Hypatia’s nemesis was Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria and leader of a fanatical group of Christian activists. The Christians lived their mission of converting everyone, by whatever means, to their doctrine. Under Cyril’s leadership, the Christians accused Hypatia of paganism and witchcraft, threw stones at her allies, and became increasingly violent until a violent Christian mob killed her, dismembered her body, and burned it on a pyre.

(Here is a recent encomium for now-Saint Cyril of Alexandria, “a guardian of the true faith,” by Pope Benedict XVI. For an unflattering portrait of Cyril, Agora is a worth-watching movie about Hypatia’s life and death.)

Those were the bad old days.

egypt_mapFast forward 1,600 years to Egypt now and the resurgent Muslim Brotherhood. The MB movement was founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna (also an admirer of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists), and it has led a mostly-underground existence since then. In the second half of the twentieth century, Sayyid Qutb became the MB’s leading intellectual voice and his Milestones its manifesto:

“When Islam strives for peace, its objective is not that superficial peace which requires that only that part of the earth where the followers of Islam are residing remain secure. The peace which Islam desires is that the religion (i.e., the Law of the society) be purified for God, that the obedience of all people be for God alone” (Milestones, p. 63).

(Muhammad Qutb, Sayyid’s younger brother, was a university professor in Saudi Arabia, where one of his students was Osama Bin Laden.)

The ousting of Egypt’s thug-president Hosni Mubarak has led to a power vacuum, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s has now become a potent political force in Egypt. The MB’s motto: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”

So how different is Egypt 1,600 years later? And whither Egypt’s philosophers, scientists, and independent thinkers?

The Philosopher’s Zone program on “Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and Sayyid Qutb.”
A useful primer: “The Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab World and Islamic Communities in Western Europe.”
Virgina Murr’s essay on Qutb and Al Qaeda, “The Power of Ideas: Sayyid Qutb and Islamism” [pdf].
Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s The Wall Street Journal article, “The Quran Is Our Law; Jihad Is Our Way.”

Audacious historical cause-and-effect claims

In an 1846 review of Grote’s History of Greece, John Stuart Mill makes this claim: “The Battle of Marathon, even as an event in British history,mill-john-stuart is more important than the Battle of Hastings.”

My first reaction to Mill’s sentence was agreement. My second reaction was to the audacity of the claim and to wonder how it could be justified.

The 1066 CE Battle of Hastings was 780 years Before Mill, and the 490 BCE Battle of Marathon was 2,336 years BM. But how does one make cause-and-effect claims about human actions involving millions of people across thousands of years? That takes major conceptualizing cojones.

Here is Mill’s sentence in context: “The interest of Grecian history is unexhausted and inexhaustible. As a mere story, hardly any other portion of authentic history can compete with it. Its characters, its situations, the very march of its incidents, are epic. It is an heroic poem, of which the personages are peoples. It is also, of all histories of which we know so much, the most abounding in consequences to us who now live. The true ancestors of the European nations (it has been well said) are not those from whose blood they are sprung, but those from whom they derive the richest portion of their inheritance. The battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings. If the issue of that day had been different, the Britons and the Saxons might still have been wandering in the woods.”

Mill is doing “What-if” history: We know we are what we are today significantly because of the Greek victory at Marathon, but where would we be if the Persians had won?

marathonLet’s separate two propositions:
1. The Greeks defeated the Persians at Marathon. Therefore, we are where we are today. What evidence do we have connecting those two sentences?
2. If the Persians had defeated the Greeks at Marathon, then … . How do we complete the sentence?

On 1. The Greeks’ defeating the Persians made it possible for Greek culture to be transmitted across the generations. That was not a deterministic process — each generation’s decision-makers to varying degrees had to accept and propagate its distinctive Greek inheritance of independent, naturalistic thinking, and to the extent that each generation did it developed a culture of rationality, creativity, innovation, science, and artistry. As historians we can see the positive evidence for those connections as they played out across time: the western European decision-makers of the 300-1000s largely rejected the Greek philosophy and declined into the Dark Ages; but further east Byzantium continued to flourish, keeping the Greek texts and ideas alive; the decision-makers of the 1100s to 1400s rediscovered and rejuvenated the Greeks and the Renaissance ensued; and so on.

On 2. What counts as evidence here? We can imagine victorious Persians stamping out Greek culture or dispirited Greeks letting themselves slide into insignificance. But we can also imagine a more relaxed Persian regime content with tribute or tenacious Greeks keeping the flame alive and rebelling a few years later.

hypatia-murdered-415Imagination aside, we can think analogically to real historical cases. From the 300s to the 500s CE, the victory of early Christianity did lead to the suppression and extermination of Greek culture. But previously, from 197 to 30 BCE, the Romans systematically defeated the Greeks — yet the Greek inheritance survived, becoming not only part of Roman culture but for many generations the dominant philosophy of the Romans. (I like the saying that the Romans defeated the Greeks but the Greeks conquered the Romans.)

So a Persian victory would have led to which result? I don’t know. And not knowing that, can we say how important Marathon was to where we are 2,500 years later?

My lecture “What Moves History: An Introduction to the Philosophy of History,” available as a free audio download.