The Long View 2006-12-01: Benedict in Istanbul; Transcendent Liturgy; Great Days


I will admit I haven’t thought deeply about whether Turkey’s admission to the European Union would have in fact been good or bad. I do find Pope Emeritus Benedict’s acts less alarming in retrospect than John did at the time.

Some random thoughts:

  • Turkey wouldn’t have been part of the Schengen zone, so travel wouldn’t have been much different, nor would the 2016 migrant crisis have been much different. There were too many people to cross in normal ways, so the tragedies would probably have still happened.

  • If Turkey had adopted the Euro, it would have made Greece’s financial crisis look like nothing. I can’t imagine that Germany would have actually agreed to put Turkey in the Eurozone, but hey, weirder things have happened.

  • John J. Reilly’s point about religious liberty might have been interesting. Maybe the Orthodox Christians and other religious minorities would have benefited Or maybe they would just pack up and leave with easier access to more welcoming lands. I find this one harder to guess.

  • If you think of the EU as a new Christendom, which its founders assuredly did, then admitting Turkey is strange. If, like most people now, you would never even think of this connection, then being opposed for symbolic reasons is instead strange.

The EU flag represents Mary’s crown of stars.  It’s not even subtle .

The EU flag represents Mary’s crown of stars. It’s not even subtle.

  • I’m not sure that the current situation with Syria would really be much different either if the EU border was involved. Turkey is already in NATO.

Benedict in Istanbul; Transcendent Liturgy; Great Days

The Pope took the turban, or so I thought in bleary dismay when the clock radio woke me up with a report like this:

Pope Benedict wound up a fence-mending visit to Turkey on Friday amid praise from the local press for visiting Istanbul's Blue Mosque and praying toward Mecca "like Muslims". ...Catholic officials also presented the mosque visit, where Benedict stood in silent prayer while Istanbul Grand Mufti Mustafa Cagrici prayed aloud, as a key moment of reconciliation... "I would compare the Pope's visit to the mosque to Pope John Paul's gestures at the Western Wall," said veteran Vatican mediator Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, referring to Pope John Paul II's prayers at Jerusalem's Western Wall in 2000.

"Yesterday, Benedict did with the Muslims what John Paul did with the Jews."

This irenic gesture can be theologically defended, and Fr. Jonathan Morris of Fox News duly defended it a few hours later, but you know there's a problem when your friends are using the title: The Pope in a Mosque — Dialogue or Idolatry?

Promoting the positive elements in other religious traditions is not the same as sanctioning their creeds or whitewashing differences. It is to encourage all people of good will to seek and follow the truth in as much as God reveals it to them, in his own timing and mysterious ways.

The goodness Pope Benedict will be promoting today here in Istanbul is not the Quran or the prophet Mohammad; it is the honest piety of many Muslim believers. He believes that when they pray, if they do so sincerely, the same God who listens to him in papal robes and to the homeless man with no robes at all, also listens to them.

To put it more briefly, our relationship to God as "thou" must be distinguished from our knowledge of God as "it," which is lucky, because the latter always needs work. And in fact, it is not likely that the principal author of Dominus Iesus is going squishy on religious relativism. The problem is that, in Istanbul, the pope's job as a statesman collided with his job as a pastor, to the great detriment of the latter. This was true even of his diplomatically defensible hedging about the the admission of Turkey to the EU:

Pope Benedict and the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians said on Thursday minority rights must be protected as the EU expands and appeared to jointly support Turkish membership if it protected religious liberties. ....Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians, strongly supports Turkey's membership in the EU and two days ago the Pope did an about-face from his previous opposition to Ankara's bid.

We have to sympathize with the patriarch's position. He wants Turkey to join the EU because then he will be able to appeal to Brussels over the head of Ankara about the oppression of Christian minorities. However, Benedict knows as well as anyone that the admission of Turkey would be a catastrophe from which Europe might never recover. Indeed, he knows this better than almost any other Western statesman, and a lot of the public respect he had garnered was based on the fact he seemed to be the only political figure note who was willing to be publicly realistic on this subject.

The pope has now lost that respect. He has dismayed his own flock. He has alienated other Christians who admired his fortitude. And the irony is that the journey to Istanbul will advance Christian-Muslim relations not one centimeter. You cannot placate the implacable.

I have every confidence that Benedict will repair the damage. If he does achieve final reconciliation with the Orthodox, the current dismay might even have been worth it. I have my doubts, though: reconciliation is not really in Patriarch Bartholomew's gift.

* * *

History should be irrelevant to religious practice, much less current political questions. The remarks by Father Chrysogonus Waddell in Adoremus are really a sober appreciation about the relevance for today of the 12th-century movement for the reform of liturgical music, but I cannot resist sharing this ghost story:

There are numerous stories from medieval monastic literature which take for granted a connection between our sacred music and the music of heaven. ...Which brings me to a very similar account from the twentieth century. When the great French musicologist Nadia Boulanger lay in a coma just a few days before her death, Leonard Bernstein came to visit her, despite that fact that any kind of communication was absolutely impossible.

Suddenly she spoke: “Dear Lenny …” He searched his mind anxiously for the right thing to say, and then heard himself asking: “Do you hear music in your head?” Instant reply: “All the time.” Bernstein continued: “And what are you hearing at the moment?” He thought of her preferred loves. Mozart? Monteverdi? Bach? Stravinsky? Ravel? Long pause. And then: “One music … with no beginning, no end.” She was already there, wrote Bernstein, on the other side.

And this is the great challenge for the contemporary composer of sacred music: to write music that already anticipates and shares in that music from above; a music that has no beginning and no end; a music that draws us even now to the other side.

We don't usually think of the liturgy as an empirical science, but perhaps we should. The view would be fruitful even if you regard the whole thing as a product of neurochemistry.

* * *

Speaking of dismay, the ever more despondent Victor Davis Hanson entitled a speech he delivered at the Claremont Institute's annual dinner in honor of Sir Winston Churchill Losing the Enlightenment (or at least he called the print adaptation that), and suggested that a "civilization that has lost confidence in itself cannot confront the Islamists." He does, however, end on this note:

So let me quote Winston Churchill of old about the gift of our present ordeal:

"These are not dark days: these are great days--the greatest days our country has ever lived."

I do not think that yet speaks to our condition. I am reminded much more of this passage from Oswald Spengler's The Hour of Decision, about an earlier phase of the same crisis:

We live in one of the mightiest ages in all history, and no one sees, no one realizes it. We are experiencing a volcanic eruption that is without parallel. Night has set in, the earth trembles, and streams of lava are rolling down over entire nations - and we send for the fire-brigade!

I strongly suspect that, if Spengler had lived longer, he would have wound up on Churchill's side, but that's another story.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: A History of the Crusades

Steven Runciman at Cambridge in 1925, photographed by Cecil Beaton

Steven Runciman at Cambridge in 1925, photographed by Cecil Beaton

Sir Steven Runciman's three volume history has seen quite a bit of criticism in the last twenty-five years. However, it tells a hell of a good story, and you can learn something even if you disagree with Runciman's take.

A History of the Crusades
By Sir Steven Runciman
Cambridge University Press 1951-54
(Paperback 1990: ISBN 0 521 34770 X)
Volume I: The First Crusade and the Foundations of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (376 Pages)
Volume II: The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Frankish East 1100-1187 (522 Pages)
Volume III: The Kingdom of Acre and the Later Crusades (528 Pages)


Sir Steven Runciman (1903-2000) was the Edwardian That Time Forgot. Perhaps the leading 20th-century authority on both the Crusades and on Byzantine civilization, he tells the tale of the former largely with an eye to vindicating the latter. The resulting assessment of the Crusading movement was thus somewhat harsh. The last sentence of this history runs: “High ideals were besmirched by cruelty and greed, enterprise and endurance by a blind and narrow self-righteousness; and the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost.” Gibbon, to whom Runciman was often compared, could not have coined a more telling anathema. What makes this a great history is that readers who do not accept that assessment will still find these volumes enjoyable and useful.

A History of the Crusades” is chiefly a military and dynastic history. Large tracts of it are densely genealogical. This was unavoidable: the string of Crusader states along the Levantine coast, collectively called “Outremer,” were small, feudal, principalities, whose politics was the interaction of a few great families. Runciman sometimes discusses economics, but gives surprisingly little sustained attention to culture and religious history. In any case, the work rises above the details to reveal Outremer as an incident in the history of the Near East. Outremer was possible only during an era of shifting balance, from the 11th to the 13th century, between the Caliphate of Baghdad and the Byzantine Empire of Constantinople. When the balance was destroyed, by the Mongols and by the Crusaders themselves, Outremer soon fell, too.

Byzantium had actually recovered nicely from the explosive Islamic expansion of the seventh and eighth centuries. By the end of the first millennium, there was a reasonably stable international system in the Near East. Byzantium was the acknowledged protector of Orthodox Christians throughout the region. Constantinople was by far the largest city of Christendom. The Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad, which represented Sunni orthodoxy, was becoming more venerable than powerful; the allegiance of the rulers of places like Mosul and Damascus was increasingly nominal. Meanwhile, the Fatimid Caliphate of Cairo continued on its own Shia course. Jerusalem was under its control, but Cairo encouraged the profitable flow of pilgrims and traders to the Holy Land. In the 11th century, however, the Seljuk Turks arrived from the east. They quickly revealed the fragility of the region.

The Turks were largely but not exclusively Sunni Muslim. They reduced the Caliphate of Baghdad to ceremonial significance. In the countries they conquered, their rulers adopted the Arabic word “sultan,” meaning “authority,” as the title for the holder of real political power. They went far west, sacking Jerusalem (only Christians were spared), but failed to conquer Egypt. Most important, they ended Byzantine control over most of Anatolia in 1071, at the Battle of Manzikert. That battle was the proximate cause of the Crusades.

The 11th century is also the time when the Latin, Roman Catholic Church of the West and the Greek, Orthodox Church of the East are usually said to have split. The Great Schism occurred in 1054, when the pope of Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople exchanged mutual anathemas. Runciman makes very clear, however, that neither side regarded the differences between the Latin and Greek churches as permanent until the 13th century, or even the 15th. In fact, it was during one of the partial reconciliations between Rome and Constantinople that the Emperor Alexius I asked Pope Urban II, almost as an afterthought, for Western assistance in driving back the new Muslim encroachments onto historically Byzantine territory. The idea was that this would again make it possible for Western pilgrims to visit Jerusalem safely.

Western warriors fighting for Byzantium were not a novelty. The emperor's own Varangian Guard of Englishman and Vikings is familiar to every student of history (and indeed to every student of the better comic strips). Companies of Frankish knights had long featured in the empire's armies. (At least in the beginning, most of the “franks” in the east were from what would become France, but the term later referred to any Westerner.) Alexis I would no doubt have been satisfied with one or two thousand extra mercenaries. What he got was a mass movement.

Urban II preached the First Crusade at Claremont in France, in 1095. The nobility and the laity jumped at the chance to free the Holy Places from the infidel. Runciman makes much of the idea that the Crusades appealed most to the younger sons of feudal lords, who otherwise could have looked forward only to lives as landless poor-relations. This idea has been questioned since; certainly the leaders of the First Crusade were among the most eminent men of their time. He also never quite comes to grips with why the crusading movement so appealed to ordinary people. He suggests that the average peasant may have confused the earthly Jerusalem with the heavenly one. Be this as it may, as long as the Crusade was a popular movement, it was liable to spark pogroms against the Jews in Europe. Before the Crusade proper even set out, rabbles of religious fanatics swarmed toward the east.

Not without a certain amount of pillage and rapine, the First Crusade arrived in the neighborhood of Constantinople in reasonably short order. The emperor tried, with mixed success, to extract promises from the Crusaders that any of the recently lost Byzantine territory they might recover would be returned to the empire. The Crusaders and the imperial army soon did recover big chunks of Anatolia and northern Syria. The Crusaders rather exceeded the emperor's expectations when they recaptured Antioch independently. To everyone's surprise but their own, the Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099. It was not actually true that they slaughtered all the inhabitants (many were ransomed), but their introduction to the region was not such as to endear them to the locals.

Nonetheless, the Crusaders settled into the region quickly enough. They became participants in local politics, fighting with and against the Muslim powers. There was much intermarriage between the Crusaders and the local Christians, particularly the Armenians. Franks newly arrived from Europe, eager to fight the infidel, were often shocked by the Franks of Outremer, with their penchant for native dress and relative religious tolerance. The newcomers thought the Franks of Outremer became soft, and maybe they were right. Though the Franks of Outremer had their territorial ambitions, they were not keen to launch further Crusades of their own. They welcomed Crusades from Europe only when their own situation was desperate. Of the five major Crusades, only the First was completely successful. Only the first three were even directed to the Holy land.

According to Runciman, the real beginning of evils between the Latin and Greek Churches was the Crusader tendency to install Latin Rite bishops into sees that had once been occupied by Greeks. The filoque clause, which was the nominal theological difference between the Greek and Latin churches, was negotiable. The problem was that the Crusaders were sometimes not above deposing an existing Greek hierarchy and replacing it with Latin incumbents. Gradually, despite many compromises, this led to overlapping jurisdiction, bishops in exile, and finally the end of intercommunion between the two rites.

Outremer, during the brief life of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, was something of a fool's paradise. Runciman suggests that there may never have been more than 2,000 adult Frankish nobles, outside the military Orders that arose to defend Jerusalem. Jerusalem itself, for that matter, was a singularly bad place for a capital city. Far more durable was the string of coastal cities and forts, as far south as Jaffa or Ascalon, that owed some degree of allegiance to the King of Jerusalem. (Antioch, though a Crusader state, was nominally a vassal of Byzantium.) Nonetheless, the Kingdom was not without good points. Despite his antipathy, Runciman allows that it was a remarkably tolerant place. Oaths could be taken in its courts on the Bible, the Koran, or the Torah, as the witness chose. Indeed, the Kingdom was thick with law. The real power lay in a High Council, which was not quite either a parliament or a supreme court, where there was some representation for the bourgeoisie and the clergy, as well as the aristocracy. Runciman does note, however, that the only contribution of Outremer to civilization seems to have been its formidable military architecture; Frankish forts were designed with an eye to the fact their garrisons would be relatively small.

With its small population, exposed position, and threadbare economy, the Kingdom's survival rested on two conditions. The first was that the Sunni rulers of Damascus were scarcely on speaking terms with the Shia of Cairo. The other was that, despite the chronic friction between Outremer and the Byzantine Empire, the emperor probably would not have allowed the Kingdom of Jerusalem to be wholly overrun. The latter circumstance no longer applied after the Battle of Myriocephalum in 1176, in which the Byzantine army suffered a defeat at the hands of the Turks from which it never recovered. Meanwhile, the famous Kurdish leader, Saladin, eliminated the Fatimid Caliphate in a palace coup, and so united Damascus and Cairo under a Sunni dynasty. After a siege and negotiation, he accepted the surrender of Jerusalem in 1187.

Saladin might have gone on to destroy all of Outremer, but maybe he was not terribly eager. He needed Palestine to ensure communication between Syria and Egypt, but the Frankish ports had their uses. In any case, the Third Crusade soon arrived. (The Second, which occurred 40 years earlier, had been directed at Damascus; the less said the better.) The history of the Third Crusade makes the best story of the whole Crusading period. The conflict between Richard the Lion Heart of England and Saladin reads like a single combat. In any case, the result was that Outremer survived, with its capital at the port city of Acre. The Crusaders had to settle for access to Jerusalem, rather than actual possession. The second Outremer arguably made better sense than the first. It was more defensible. It also did not contain any provocative holy places. Maybe this was less important than we might think, though. One of the revelations of the last century of the life of Outremer was how little the powers of the Muslim world cared for Jerusalem as a religious site.

We see this point illustrated in the Fifth Crusade (we will get to the Fourth in a moment), which was launched against Egypt in 1217. The Crusade was supposed to take Cairo, and it petered out to a sad end. However, when it briefly seemed to have some chance of success, the sultan actually offered to give Jerusalem back to the Franks. In perhaps the oddest episode in the whole history of the Crusades, the Franks did get it back, in 1228, by negotiation rather than by war. The negotiator was the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II Hohenstaufen, who eventually ran out of excuses not to go on the Crusade he had long promised. Runciman presents him as an evil genius, half an easterner himself because of his upbringing in still partially Muslim Sicily. Be that as it may, he acted like no other newcomer from Europe ever had before. Relying purely on diplomacy, he acquired limited control of Jerusalem for the ruler of Acre, including an access route from the coast. He also acquired the title to the kingship of Acre for his own line, by marrying the princess with the best claim to the throne. She did produce an heir, dying soon thereafter. That line, as well as Frederick's provisions for Jerusalem, came to an end not much later. Still, Frederick's career in Outremer shows what you can accomplish in the Middle East, if you speak the relevant languages and are unburdened by scruples.

The second Outremer was also more commercially viable than the first, because it was becoming increasingly Italian. The Kingdom of Jerusalem was a vigorous feudal state in the Norman mold. The Kingdom of Acre, and the gaggle of tiny states it led, was more like Genoa or Pisa or Venice, whose quarrelsome citizens made up a larger and larger percentage of the inhabitants of Outremer's cities. Acre and Antioch, indeed, were governed by communes on the Italian model, though they also owed allegiance to feudal lords. The drawback to the Italianization of Outremer was that the whole Crusading movement was increasingly subservient to the interests and policies of the Italian maritime republics. The effects of their rivalries on the already fractious internal politics of Outremer was bad enough. More seriously, Italian influence also led to the greatest scandal of the whole Crusading era, the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Fourth Crusade.

Runciman claims that this atrocity set at naught the whole purpose of the Crusades, which was to defend Christendom against Islam. The Fourth Crusade, he says, so weakened Byzantium that it lost the ability to defend the Balkans from the Turks, thus leading to the sieges of Vienna in the 16th and 17th centuries. Well, maybe, but Byzantium was clearly in decline long before the sack. It had been losing commercial ground to the Italians in the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea for years. This was in part because the imperial government sold trading privileges for ready cash, but also because the trade routes of the world were shifting. Byzantium itself was losing population and territory in Asia Minor and the Balkans. It is not clear how much difference the Fourth Crusade really made.

We do know that the Venetians, with a pretender to the throne of Constantinople in tow, diverted the Crusade from its announced destination and seized the city by force and guile. (Runciman points out that the pope honestly thought the Crusade was headed to the Holy Land, though Eastern historians have claimed otherwise.) When the pretender proved unable or unwilling to pay the Crusaders the amount agreed for their services, they dispensed with him and his dynasty. They then began what must have been among the most remarkable three days of looting in human history. When they were finished, they created the Latin Empire of Constantinople, complete with a Latin patriarch instead of a Greek one.

The Fourth Crusade made Byzantium itself a Crusader state, but only briefly. The Latin Empire never controlled the Byzantine Empire's hinterland, where several successor states immediately sprang up. The Palaeologus Dynasty retook Constantinople in 1261 and reestablished the Byzantine Empire, but meanwhile the world had changed. The empire by then was just one of a number of Orthodox states, one with a great lineage but few resources. More important, the Islamic world had become a harsher place.

One of the impressions I took away from this history was that the legend of Prester John was essentially correct. The Mongols were not themselves predominantly Christian, but their neighbors and onetime overlords, the Kerait people of northeastern Asia, were Christians of the Nestorian variety. The Mongols absorbed the Kerait territory and leadership, as well as their script. Although the Mongol empire, at least in the beginning, made a point of religious tolerance, there was heavy Christian influence among the advisers of Genghis Khan. There was even more Christian influence on Hulagu, who conquered southwestern Asia and eventually became the Ilkhan of Persia.

In the 13th century, there was quite a lot of coming and going between the principal courts of Europe and those of the khans, all with an eye to coordinating an attack on Islam. European representatives to the Mongol capital at Karakorum were exasperated by the Mongol principle that there were no sovereign states in the world, only current and future vassals of the Great Khan. Nonetheless, encouraging words were exchanged. Rather more substantive talks took place with a Nestorian priest from Hulagu's court, who said Mass for Edward I of England and received communion from the hands of the pope himself.

None of this really came to much. The Franks of Outremer was actually more cautious about allying with the Mongols than were their cousins in Europe. It was the local Christians, the Armenians and the Georgians, who accompanied Hulagu when he destroyed Baghdad in 1258. Few world cities have been as thoroughly destroyed as Baghdad was. While they were at it, the Mongols slew the Caliph, who had surrendered to them, and ended the Abbasid Caliphate, along with the Old Regime of Islamic history. (That is the reviewer's phrase, by the way, not Runciman's.)

A shadowy line of Abbasids, whose legitimacy Runciman doubts, continued at Cairo for some centuries. This was merely for show, however. The new legitimacy in the Muslim world was passing to people like Baibars, the new sultan who came to power in Cairo at about the time of the Mongol disaster. A member of the Mameluk corps, and so technically a slave, he overthrew what was left of Saladin's genteel but decadent dynasty. He then set about creating a ruthless and rather intolerant order to the south and west of the new Turkic and Mongol powers. The destruction of Outremer was part of this process. There was none of the courtesy or moderation of Saladin's day. With some exceptions, the cities of Outremer were dismantled and the inhabitants killed or enslaved. Acre itself fell in 1291.

There were later campaigns, against Egypt or Anatolia or in the Balkans, that are dignified by the term “crusade.” The interesting thing is that it became harder and harder to organize crusades, even as the Ottoman threat from Islamic world began to crystallize. Runciman speculates about why. Though he does not use the term, one might say that the Crusade had become a Sorelian myth that had overstayed its welcome. Sorelian myths are not lies, or not necessarily lies. They are the justifications for which power is exercised. The Crusade had long been the reason that governments gave for raising taxes, or for making and breaking alliances, or sometimes just for a bit of piracy. Even when Crusades met with some success, the benefits were not the sort of thing for which one started a Holy War. People were still willing to fight for God and country. They just no longer saw a Crusade as the way to do it.

As we saw at the beginning of this review, Runciman's assessment of the Crusades is wholly negative. Quite aside from the question of religious tolerance, he disparages the secondary benefits that are often claimed for the Crusades. Outremer did little or nothing to facilitate contact between Islam and Christendom, he claims. There was fruitful contact during the Crusading era, but it happened in Sicily and Spain. Outremer itself produced advances in military engineering, but no new art. More to the point, it did not make Christendom any safer. Quite the opposite: by its assault on Byzantium, the Crusades left Europe open to invasion.

Runciman does allow that Outremer might have made a decisive difference, if it had cooperated with the Mongols. Though he restrains himself from elaborating the what-ifs, he hints that, in the 13th century, it might have been possible to end Islam as we know it. With some Western aid and encouragement, the Mongols might have become the ruling stratum all the way to Egypt. It is likely that they would have embraced some form of Christianity, then the religion of large minorities in the Muslim world, and in some places even majorities. Islam, with Baghdad in ruins and with Mecca and Medina soon to follow, might have shrunk to the status of the heterodox Christian churches of the Byzantine Empire. There are problems with this scenario, but not so many that it could not serve as the premise of a counterfactual novel.

More seriously, let me suggest that, if the Crusades did not do much good, they also did not do much harm. The Islamic world became a more desperate and dangerous place after the 13th century, but that was not the Crusaders' fault. Though Outremer never went entirely native, it was never regarded with holy horror by its Muslim or Byzantine neighbors. It was eccentric, but then eccentricity was normal in a part of the world where, for instance, the Assassin sect was a weighty international power. For the most part, Outremer seems to have offered more stable government, and indeed more just government, than the other societies of the region. It is even possible that the Crusades did contribute to the defense of Europe. Though the Byzantine Empire had reestablished a frontier after the Battle of Manzikert, it was a diminished frontier, one that would have left the ports of the Levant in hostile hands. Without the Crusades, Constantinople might have fallen far earlier than 1453, and more catastrophically than in 1204.

Considerations like these would not have impressed the men of the First Crusade, of course. They were on a mission from God. What God actually thinks of their enterprise has yet to be announced.

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

A History of the Crusades
By Sir Steven Runciman

The Long View: What If the Second Temple Had Survived AD 70?

A fun bit of alternative history exploring the likely impact of the survival of the Second Temple upon the religion and politics of the Middle East.

What If the Second Temple Had Survived AD 70?


This note takes issue with Donald Harman Akenson's recent book, "Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds." You can find my review of the book by clicking here

--John J. Reilly




Akenson's governing assumption is that the key event that created Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism was the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem in AD 70. Actually, he holds that there never was such a thing as non-rabbinical Judaism. Akenson uses the words "Judahism" to refer to the religion of Yahweh that existed in Palestine between the end of the Babylonian Captivity in the sixth century BC and the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans. This was a religion of very many sects, which often had little in common and sometimes were mutually hostile.

One growing sect after about AD 30 was the Jesus Faith. Another was the closely related (and therefore antagonistic) movement known to us as the Pharisaism. (Akenson makes the interesting observation that we know of just two self-proclaimed Pharisees. One was St. Paul, the other was Flavius Josephus, the turncoat author of "The Jewish War.") Like the rest of Judahism, these two groups greatly revered the Temple, and their religious practice was closely connected with it. According to Akenson, it was only the destruction of the Temple that made it possible for them to become separate religions. They then set themselves to replace the physical temple with mental temples. Thus, the Christian scriptures came to refer to Jesus as the Temple, while the rabbis came to equate studying the rituals that had been performed in the Temple with actually conducting them.

The year AD 70 (well, the Roman-Jewish War of AD 66-73) is a comforting landmark to historians of religion. God alone knows precisely when Jesus was born or what the Sadducees really believed. For scholars of religion to study the first century, they must interpret and reinterpret partisan texts of ambiguous provenance, all while living in terror that someone will blow their beautiful theories to smithereens. (As, indeed, they themselves plan to do to the theories of their colleagues.) For the Jewish War, in contrast, they have vivid first person accounts and sober descriptions by the standard historians of the second century. Scholars are greatly tempted to attribute decisive significance to this event for the perfectly understandable reason that they happen to know a lot about it.

The problem is that the fall of the Temple need not have been decisive for the history of either Christianity or Judaism.

The case of Christianity need not detain us. It is possible that the whole of the "Jesus Faith" was reconfigured after AD 70 to show that it had always been independent of its homeland. Maybe all that the earliest Jesus People wanted was to add a little filigree about the Messiah to their Temple-based religious practice. Perhaps the entire canon of the New Testament grossly misrepresents both the life of Jesus and the careers of the Apostles, particularly that of St. Paul. Well, maybe. The problem with this sort of argument is like the problem with the argument that God created the world in 4004 BC, fossils and all, to look as if it were billions of years old. The fact is that the texts of the New Testament say what they say. They do not suggest that the Temple was central to the concerns of the earliest Christians, or even to Jesus himself. If the New Testament is judged to be wholly misleading on this matter, then fancy can wander freely. However, the result will have nothing to do with history.

With Judaism, the matter is more complicated. The Mishnah, the code of the "oral law," does consist in large part of loving recollection of the structure of the Temple and the rites performed there. Prayers for the reconstruction of the Temple featured in public and private devotions for centuries. These observations, however, do not address the question of whether this preoccupation could not have developed had the Temple not been destroyed.

The obvious analogy is Islam. Like Judaism before AD 70, Islam has a ritual center, in Mecca. It has a legal tradition, the Sharia, which resembles the Babylonian Talmud in seeking to be completely comprehensive both of secular life and religious practice. It has a Book, the Koran, which like the Torah is held to be a special, textual revelation from God. If anything, the Koran is even more insistent on the importance of the ritual center at Mecca than is the Jewish canon about Jerusalem, since the Koran enjoins Muslims to make a pilgrimage to Mecca if they possibly can.

Something else that Judaism and Islam have in common is that their adherents have been spread out all over the world for a very long time. This was true of Judaism (let us forget this "Judahism" hypothesis) even during the period of the Second Temple. This is not the kind of thing you would normally expect of a cult tied to a particular place, which is what is usually meant by a "temple religion." The religion of the Classical world, like that of much of the Far East today, is built around the particular shrines of local gods. Grand abstractions like "Zeus" or "Shiva" are really for poets. The piety of the practitioners of these cults is always local. They worship the god of one temple because he is the god of where they live. If they travel, then naturally they worship the gods of the places through which they pass. To do otherwise would seem nonsensical.

In contrast, what Judaism and Islam, as well as Christianity and some forms of Buddhism, have in common is that they are fairly portable. You can find God wherever you are, and if a holy book directs your attention to a sacred site on the far side of the world, then the site's sacredness comes from the book and not the other way around. This is true today in the case of Islam, even though a ritual center is an important part of its theology. It also has been true of Judaism since the Babylonian Captivity. The term for this is monotheism, and it has more to do with how a religion works than do the details of its ritual dimension.

That said, though, it is hard to imagine that the destruction of the Second Temple did not have some effect on the evolution of Judaism. Here is what might have happened if the Angel of Death had passed over the Temple in AD 70.

It is not difficult to imagine a history in which the Temple survives. The Roman-Jewish War was also a civil war. The contenders actually held different parts of the Second Temple and fought each other as the Romans invested the place. Supposedly, the Pharisees were not really very keen on rebelling against Rome in the first place. That is why many of them were expelled from Jerusalem by the zealots. One of their leaders, Yohanan ben Zakkai, then made a deal with the Emperor Vespasian to allow Yohanan to found the academy at Jamnia, where the Mishnah began to be composed. Suppose that, instead of abandoning Jerusalem, the Pharisees had contrived to gain control of the Temple complex, or some large fraction of it. They might then have negotiated with the Romans to, in effect, trade Jerusalem for the Temple by holding the later against the rebels. Though much of the city might have been destroyed in the Roman assault, still the Temple would have been spared.

Thereafter, the Temple would have continued to function as a ritual center as before, but with some differences. For instance, immediately after the rebellion was put down, the Temple would have found itself in the odd position of being a huge religious center without much of a surrounding population. The Temple would have been in small danger of being abandoned: Jews from all over the world came to visit and sent donations. Doubtless Jerusalem would have been rebuilt, as it had been before. Still, activity in the Temple would have begun to shift away from ritual and toward scholarship, particularly if the Pharisees were running the place. This would have accelerated trends that had long existed in Judaism.

Even before Babylonian Captivity, the prophets complained that God was less impressed by offerings in the Temple than by, say, the fair treatment of tenant farmers and the even administration of justice. The ethical dimension to Judaism would certainly have continued to develop, whether there was a temple or not. There is also some reason to suppose that the ritual practiced at the Temple might have begun to change dramatically.

We have to remember that, when we talk about ritual in this context, was are talking about animal sacrifice. This, of course, was typical of temples throughout the ancient world: they were abattoirs. The difference was that the Jerusalem Temple was huge, one of the wonders of the world, and to some extent it must have been a terrifying place. While this assessment may seem to be the projection of modern delicacies onto ancient people, there is some evidence otherwise. Noted Jewish authorities, including Maimonides himself, have argued that animal sacrifice was a brutal practice that God sought first to restrict and then to eliminate. Also, for what it is worth, we should remember that the other major religious survivor of first-century Palestine, Christianity, dropped the practice of animal sacrifice from the first. (This was the case even though Christianity, too, retained the basic texts on the subject in its Old Testament.)

Ironically, the emphasis given to the old rituals in the Mishnah and the Talmuds was due precisely to the abruptness with which they were cut off. In the normal course of events, one suspects, temple sacrifice would have become rarer and more symbolic, until eventually no actual animals were killed at all. As it was, though, all the early rabbis were left with were memories to record, which they did with great thoroughness.

We must therefore imagine the Temple continuing to function through late antiquity, becoming all the while less like a Classical temple and more like an academy. There was one more major Jewish revolt in Palestine, the Bar Kochba rebellion of the 130s. It is entirely possible that the continued existence of the Temple would have defused this uprising. That rebellion is famous in the study of Messianic millenarianism. (Bar Kochba was called the Messiah, though he may not have claimed the title for himself.) However, richly endowed religious foundations usually take a dim view of militant endtime movements, as the history of the Catholic Church illustrates.

Even if the influence of the conservative Temple failed to prevent the outbreak, the existence of the Temple would still have altered matters. It is likely that the Temple authorities would have stood aloof from the rebellion. Jerusalem might have been declared an open city, or it might actually have resisted Bar Kochba in the name of Rome. Even if the insurgents gained control of Jerusalem for a period, in this case the Romans would have had no reason to destroy the city or the temple when they reconquered the country. Unlike the situation in AD 70, there would have been a normative form of Judaism, one more concerned with the affairs of the spirit than with those of this world. The Romans would have made haste to reestablish this orthodoxy in its chief center as soon as they could. This would have been the quickest way to restore peace. After all, this was pretty much what the Emperor Vespasian did with Rabbi Yohanan.

By the time Christianity became the Imperial religion in the fourth century, it is quite likely that Jerusalem would have been a university town, like Athens or Alexandria. Like them, it would have had increasing trouble with the Imperial government's wildly gyrating religious policies. In the fifth century, these resulted in the closing of the academies in Palestine in which the Jerusalem Talmud was composed. In 529, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian closed even the Academy at Athens. It would thus be reasonable to suppose that, sometime in those centuries, the Temple would have been converted into a church, and the associated schools into seminaries.

In the seventh century, with the appearance of Islam, the role of Jerusalem in world history would have become considerably different. It is conceivable that the attraction of Jerusalem, with the Temple intact, might have preempted the choice of Mecca as the center of Muslim worship. (Mohammed prayed to Jerusalem for a time, even without the Temple.) This would have had considerable consequences for the development of later Islamic civilization. Neither Mecca nor Medina are suitable points from which to administer a great empire. They are too isolated, too small, and they depend on local resources that are too thin. To a lesser extent, the same is also true of Jerusalem. As the Ummayid and Abbasid Dynasties realized, Damascus or Baghdad was far preferable. However, if Jerusalem had been the goal of the Haj, with the Temple now the holiest of Mosques, it was close enough to the Mediterranean's major trade routes that it could have continued its role as a center of learning. Jerusalem is wrongly placed to be a large city. With the Temple, however, it would never have become a backwater.

In later centuries, Jerusalem would have been captured and lost by the Crusaders, patronized and abused by the Turks. Its political history might not have been dramatically different from that in our own world. The biggest difference would have come in the 20th century. In 1900, Palestine was a relatively lightly populated country. Its cities, including Jerusalem, were of mainly historical interest. Had the Temple been the center of Islam, however, these things would not have been the case. Certainly the enterprise of Zionism would have been inconceivable. Jews might well have had easy access to the Temple by the second half of the 20th century. Christians have been able to hold services in the Hagia Sofia under the Turkish Republic, to take a comparable case. Nevertheless, we must consider the possibility that one consequence of the preservation of the Temple in the first century might have been the non-existence of Israel in the twentieth.

Copyright © 1999 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-01-23: Presidential Hostage-Taking; Sitzkrieg; Catechesis

John Reilly pooh-poohed a news report in 2004 linking Iran to al-Qaeda, but twelve years later, John Schindler, who was in the NSA at the time of 9/11, still wants to dig into the Iranian connection. Make of that what you will.

John also pooh-poohed the ability of Special Forces to fix what is wrong with the Middle East. Here, he is on much firmer ground. There are lots of reasons to doubt the utility of Special Forces as a matter of strategy, but they are pretty popular at present, especially after Seal Team Six finally killed Osama bin Laden.

Finally, we get a hint of the controversy that had yet to fully erupt regarding Gibson's Passion.

Presidential Hostage-Taking; Sitzkrieg; Catechesis


Regarding the foreign policy side of the current presidential contest, all I need do is cite the 5,897th instalment in Thomas Friedman's series, "Winning the War of Ideas," which appeared in yesterday's New York Times:

First, this notion, put forward by Mr. Dean and Al Gore, that the war in Iraq has diverted us from the real war on "terrorists" is just wrong. There is no war on "terrorism" that does not address the misgovernance and pervasive sense of humiliation in the Muslim world. Sure, Al Qaeda and Saddam pose different threats, Mr. [Will] Marshall [President of the Progressive Policy Institute] notes, "but they emerge from the same pathology of widespread repression, economic stagnation and fear of cultural decline." Building a decent Iraq is very much part of the war on terrorism.

Nonetheless, the irrepressible Friedman purports to be comforted by the progress of the Democratic primaries:

[I]t seems to me that Iowa Democrats, in opting for John Kerry and John Edwards over Howard Dean, signaled (among other things) that they want a presidential candidate who is serious about fighting the war against the Islamist totalitarianism threatening open societies.

The Iowa Democrats signaled no such thing; certainly the Jihadis who are scrambling for an opportunity to nuke a couple of American cities would not understand a Democratic victory in November in those terms. They would be right.

That's the terrifying thing about the current presidential race. The Administration's foreign policy is vital. It is also being executed as well as can be expected. However, it is being held hostage to the Administration's fiscal and social-service policies, which are short-sighted and fatuous. The price for the hope of physical security is the prospect that the federal debt may have to be repudiated by inflation toward the second half of this decade, and the certainty that there will be no solution to the health-insurance famine. It is possible that the people will not agree to pay that price.

When the electorate sent Bush Senior back to Kennebunkport in 1992, it did not matter much. Now it does matter. It's a matter of life and death.

* * *

Speaking of hysterical statements, what is one to make of this report from Germany?

A German judge has delayed his verdict in the trial in Hamburg of an accused accomplice of the September 11 hijackers to consider testimony from a new witness: a former Iranian spy who claims to have evidence that links Iran to al-Qaeda...The unidentified witness is described as a former Iranian intelligence agent. Last week he walked into the Berlin offices of the federal investigative police, the BKA, saying he had evidence that the Lebanon-based Hezbollah and its Iranian intelligence allies had ties to some September 11 plotters, sources said.

One notes that this is happening at the same time that Iranian President Mohammed Khatami is locked in a struggle with the Guardian Council, which has disqualified many parliamentary candidates who support Khatami, on the ground that the candidates are insufficiently Islamic.

Could the more liberal theocrats be trying to disembarrass themselves of Hezbollah and its works? Could they actually be inviting Special Operations against terrorist facilities in Lebanon and Syria?

* * *

On the subject of the use and abuse of Special Operations units, readers should look at a piece by Richard H. Shultz Jr. that appears in the January 26 issue of Weekly Standard: Showstoppers: Nine Reasons Why We Never Sent Our Special Operations after al Qaeda.

Some of the reasons are new to me, such as the argument that Title 50 of the US Code restricts the authority to conduct covert action solely to the CIA. The short answer is that the Code restricts the president's actions in no such way; he can direct any unit he likes to participate in covert actions. In any case, there is a distinction between "covert" (plausible deniability and all that) and "clandestine" (merely unpublicized). The former is governed by statute; the latter is a tactical question.

I remember editing Title 50, by the way, many years ago when I worked for West Publishing. What I chiefly recall was a lot of special legislation that provided pensions for groups of people who were defined in impenetrably elliptical ways. All of it had to be set out in teeny-tiny print in special footnotes. There can be no secret law, but you can punish nosy people by giving them eyestrain. But I digress.

A less esoteric brake on the use of Special Operation Forces [SOF] was the "Big Footprint" problem. As Shultz tells it:

The original concept for SOF counter-terrorism units was that they would be unconventional, small, flexible, adaptive, and stealthy, suited to discreet and discriminate use...[By the time SOF strikes were proposed in the 1990s against al Qaeda] "the Joint Staff and the chairman would come back and say, 'We highly recommend against doing it. But if ordered to do it, this is how we would do it.' And usually it involved the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. The footprint was ridiculous." In each instance the civilian policymakers backed off.

For lightly informed history buffs like myself, this brings to mind the sort of discussions that the French government had during the Rhineland Crisis of 1936. That was when the new Nazi regime, testing French and British resolve, sent a token military force into the Rhineland, which was German territory but supposed to be demilitarized:

General [Maurice] Gamelin explained [the] very "idea of sending quickly into the Rhineland a French expeditionary force, even a more or less symbolical force, is chimerical. It is nonexistent. Our military system does not provide one."...What the Premier was envisaging that evening was a police action against a small band of German troops parading into the Rhineland, and the generals were telling him to envisage, instead, total war..."
The Collapse of the Third Republic
William Shirer

This analogy does not bear up, however. God alone knows what the French General Staff was thinking, but the US brass had ample reason for skepticism. There is a difference between a hostage rescue and a war. Since 911, Special Forces have been used to wonderful effect, but this has been as components of large, conventional invasions. Had it been possible to remove the Baathist regime in Iraq using only special forces, the US would have had very limited say in what replaced it. Even in Afghanistan, a kidnapping of Osama bin Laden and his court would not have ended the willingness of the Taliban regime to host such people. But then, you can't have everything.

* * *

I was recently asked to do a poster for a Latin Mass group that would incorporate the words "It is as it was," which are attributed to John Paul II as an assessment of Mel Gibson's upcoming film, The Passion. Did the pope really say that? I am persuaded that he probably did. After the report was circulated worldwide, the pope's staff, reasonably enough but too late, realized that he should not be doing movie reviews. They are now making a hash of denying the report. Where are the Borgias when you need them?

I raise the matter now to clarify, not for the last time, what looks likely to be the central controversy that the film will generate. Consider this report from today's New York Times:

[T]wo of the nation's most prominent Jewish leaders said yesterday that they had watched recent versions of Mel Gibson's unreleased movie "The Passion of the Christ" and found it anti-Semitic and incendiary in the way it depicted the role of the Jews in Jesus's death.
Mr. Foxman said that in one scene in the version he watched, the Jewish high priest Caiaphas calls down a kind of curse on the Jewish people by declaring, of the Crucifixion: "His blood be on us, and on our children." In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Chapter 27, Verse 25, the only place in the Bible in which that statement appears, it is said to come from a crowd of Jews shouting for Jesus's death. The message of that passage, that the Jewish people were guilty of deicide, was repudiated by the Second Vatican Council.

Certainly the interpretation of that passage as a general indictment of the Jewish people was rejected by the Second Vatican Council. The original meaning of the passage, however, is that the sins of the Jews, like those of everyone else, are at least potentially washed away by the bloody atonement of Calvary, and this is true whether the beneficiaries of the atonement know it or not.

The kind of irony that we see in that passage of Matthew is not unique in the Gospels. Here is another example from John 11:45-53:

45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.

46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.

47 Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

48 "What are we accomplishing?" they asked. "Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation."

49 Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, "You know nothing at all!

50 You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish."

51He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation,

52 and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.

53 So from that day on they plotted to take his life.

Two points for the theologically informed: First, I recognize that there is a difference between the doctrines of general and limited atonement, but the Matthew passage can be read to the same effect using either theory. Second, general atonement does not require apocatastasis. But don't get me started.

It is not absolutely certain that Matthew 27:25 will even appear in the film. If it does, the interesting question will be how many of today's theologically relaxed clergy will have the ability, or the inclination, to explain the passage correctly to their congregations. Orthodoxy is vital, too. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View

The Long View

Another year of John's blog down. In many ways, this is a journey of self-discovery, as well as remembrance. It is painful to read the things John wrote about Iraq in 2003, but if we are honest with ourselves, many of us said or thought the same things at the time. Forgetfulness does us no favors here. It is best to acknowledge our sins and move on.

Since this post in particular is all about predictions, let us see how John did in hindsight.

  • Shooting Wars — All wrong. We got in more wars in the Middle East, failed in our occupation of Iraq, and North Korea is still sticking it to everyone with abandon.
  • Culture War — Much better. The big swing of American politics over the next ten years was indeed a return to the Culture Wars. John guessed in July of 2002 that Newdow would be overturned at the Supreme Court. Then he modified his guess in October of 2002. He ended up being right, insofar as the Court punted on this one, to my non-legal eye. John also correctly noted that the Republican Party mostly pays lip service to Culture War ideas. He guessed wrong on how gay marriage would end though.
  • Election 2004 — John guessed that Howard Dean would face off against W, and lose. This was fairly close to what happened, until Dean self-destructed and Kerry was nominated. Fairly good.
  • The Economy — John guessed that the Euro would strain the EU considerably, and that turned out to be very right. However, Gordon Chang is still wrong.

Surmises for 2004


The perfect prediction was made many years ago by a fellow who called himself "The Great Kreskin." He said that, in the future, people would remember that he had once made a prediction. That forecast works a little like how the Ontological Proof of the existence of God is supposed to work; simply to state it is to verify it. Unfortunately, such perfection is far beyond my feeble powers. I will confine myself, therefore, to timid speculation:

Shooting Wars: We are universally assured that the Iraq War is going to be the last of the wars against the Axis of Evil, at least for some time to come. The argument is that the US military is already fully deployed, and its stocks of munitions are depleted. This is less true than is often asserted. If General Shinseki had had his way, of course, an army of half-a-million would have gone to Iraq, which was roughly what happened in the Gulf War. However, Donald Rumsfeld has used Afghanistan and Iraq to demonstrate that such huge deployments are unnecessary to win a conventional war.

They are not necessary for a successful occupation, either, as should be apparent by spring.

That said, of course, no other engagements on the scale of Iraq are in the hopper politically. (Iraq itself had been in the "sooner or later" category since at least 1998.) A type of maneuver for the next few years that seems obvious to me, if not to the Pentagon, might be called "Osiraq Plus." The name refers to the destruction of an Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osiraq by the Israelis over 20 years ago. What the world needs now is a way to not just blow up, but briefly seize suspected WMD sites. Locations in Syria are candidates. So are some in Iran, though the partially democratic nature of the political system there makes intervention more problematical. The big issue, however, is nuclear-armed Pakistan. The nominally pro-Western government lives in hourly peril of assassination and overthrow. The next time that happens, it would be irresponsible to simply hope that the nukes are safe and secure.

As for the People's Looney Bin of North Korea, I begin to suspect that it may be closed soon for lack of interest. Would this happen in 2004? I have no idea.

* * *

Culture War The big deal in American history for at least the next ten years will be the segue from the Terror War to the Cultural Reconquista. This is not to say that Americans will simply lose interest in foreign affairs and turn toward domestic ones: quite the opposite, in fact. Transnational progressives have, in recent years, opened many international channels to address what had traditionally been domestic questions. Eventually, they will receive blowback in the form of answers they will not welcome.

All well and good, but what about 2004 in particular?

Over the summer, I said that Newdow, the decision holding that the words "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance are unconstitutional, would be overturned when it comes before the Supreme Court. By the fall I had begun to hedge, however, and now it seems likely to me that the Supreme Court will in fact agree that the words are unconstitutional, at least in a public-school context. Such a decision would be defensible, though hardly inevitable. It would be a blow to the Supreme Court's legitimacy, but the Court has withstood worse embarrassments in the past. The problem this time around will be the presence of the various incarnations of the gay issue. Polygamy; gays in the military; statutory rape: the list is quite extensive. Even when these questions are not on the Court's docket, there is a lively popular awareness that many of them are of the Court's manufacture. History shows that the political system routinely grants constitutional judicial review a great deal of deference. Still, there are limits, as the Court's collapse under the pressure from the Roosevelt Administration in the 1930s illustrates. "Under God" could be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

The Republican political establishment does not seem to have taken on board just how strongly its social-conservative base feels about these things. Of course they want a constitutional amendment to circumvent the courts on gay marriage, for instance. They want it today rather than tomorrow. The party leadership's dithering is alienating. They forget that theirs is the God & Mammon Party. God is quite capable of staying home on Election Day.

As for the gay thing in general: if it were a stock, you should sell it. Look for the beginning of a move to re-medicalize the whole subject. (I have no information about such a project, but it seems inevitable.)

* * *

The Election of 2004 William Safire has just gone on record to predict an October Surprise, in the form of a terror attack in the US just before the election. I suspect his prediction is just a surmise, so what you read here is a surmise about a surmise.

Would such an attack at that time discredit the Bush Administration? I rather doubt it. People are surprised that there has been no follow-up to 911. With what justice I cannot say, the Administration has received some popular credit for domestic security. Actually, since some people have begun to doubt that the danger persists, another attack might serve simply to persuade them of its reality. The greater danger of discredit, in my opinion, would be posed by an attack early in the year. That would allow time for any mistakes and gaps in the security system to come to light, thus creating an issue that could be used against the Administration in November.

Actually, the danger to the Administration might not be merely political. Suppose the president is assassinated, or gravely injured? Republicans who take delight in highlighting the many follies of the Democratic leadership don't notice how small their national team is. Too many people are running for the Democratic nomination, but five of them (Lieberman, Gephardt, Kerry, Dean, and Clark) are serious candidates. Aside from George W. Bush, the only plausible Republican alternative is John McCain, but the party establishment is quite capable of backing George's brother, Jeb. (Dick Cheney would make a comforting stand-in for the remainder of Bush's term, but he is old, he has a bad heart, and he has been tainted, unjustly in my estimation, by his stint as CEO of Haliburton.)

Barring these grotesque hypothetical disasters, however, I fully expect that race will be Bush versus Dean, and that Bush will win. George Bush often says things badly. Howard Dean says too much he has to unsay.

* * *

The Economy Northcote Parkinson once remarked that economists are equally at ease thinking about a thousand and a million dollars, because they have no personal experience of either sum. That does not quite apply to me, but then I am not an economist, either. I have just two points, mostly about exchange rates.

Regarding the euro, it is contrary to nature for a currency to maintain value indefinitely without a state attached to it. The European Constitutional process has adjourned in confusion. That might be just a temporary setback, were it not that the confusion showed that eastern and southern Europe have no intention of letting the French and Germans run the Union. Particularly the French. Paul Johnson has prophesied that France will break the EU as soon as the Union makes a decision that France regards as contrary to France's interests. He's probably right; if so, the money will fall apart first.

Gordon Chang has suggested that the Chinese economy will collapse around 2006, when its banking system implodes on contact with WTO rules. That's a bit of a stretch. Still, one can't help but notice that the value of the People's Republic's currency is politically distorted, just as the currencies of Japan and the East Asian tigers were before reality set in. Whether or not there is a general collapse, the time for making adjustments grows short.

* * *

Enough predictions have already collected on this site to make it possible to assess their quality. Oh my.

I merely note the piece about the prospects for 2001. The bit in it about "The Big Terrible Thing" happening in Lower Manhattan actually comes from Peggy Noonan. The item for 2003 has at least one plausible line:

The hard part in the Middle East would come after the occupation of Iraq.

However, that is in the context of a discussion of possible follow-on wars. They may occur yet occur, despite what I said above, but they showed no sign of happening last year. The rest of the item was too general to allow of disconfirmation. I did do a single-column column for 2002, by the way, but it appeared only in print, in the January 2002 issue of Business Travel Executive. It contains one of the very few references anywhere to the possibility of a baby-boom starting in that year.

Then there's Reilly's Folly. The section of Spengler's Future that covers the period 1992-2022 is called Imperial Populism. The book itself was written in 1992 and published in 1993. I find some of the prose really cringe-making at this point. I am not bothered that some sentences say things that are clearly wrong; that is only to be expected. The problem is that some don't say anything at all. Others do appear to say something significant, at least at first sight:

Note that this [decay of political institutions] occurs precisely at what seems to be the moment of maximum international security, because internal business need no longer be deferred in the face of a hostile world. In the next period, policies based on this misplaced confidence in the safety of the international system have predictable results.

If 911 is taken to be the Predictable Result, then that was a lucky shot-in-the-dark. However, the text can be read to imply that the Predictable Result would occur no earlier than the second decade of the 21st century. And what did I actually mean when I wrote it? Nothing in particular, or at least nothing more particular than what it says. The text is a medley of comparative historical possibilities.

Events interpret the text. John Cardinal Newman said that, and it's good enough for me.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-11-20: Snappy Answers

Apollo Astronauts Training at Cinder Lake Near Flagstaff, Arizona

Apollo Astronauts Training at Cinder Lake Near Flagstaff, Arizona

John's 2003 ponderings about Mars in this post and the last are fortuitous, since I just reviewed the Martian by Andy Weir. This is exactly the kind of thing that got me interested in science, and directed me to physics as a field of study. Planetary science has always been close to my heart, possibly since the USGS Astrogeology Science Center is in my hometown.

Life on other planets has deep roots here too, since Percival Lowell's obsession with Mars spurred the construction of the observatory that still peers into the heavens here. A lot of fun science fiction was written before we visited other planets with automated probes, but Weir's book demonstrates that sci fi can still be fun even now that we know more about the other planets.

From the point of view of 2016, I would that we had more seriously considered breaking apart Iraq into three states on sectarian lines. John mocks the idea here, but hindsight improves its prospects. Of course, Iraq could still very well have turned into a shithole if we had tried something different, but at least we could have claimed to have applied the same logic that animated the dissolution of the empires of Europe after WWI. Sometimes W is called Wilsonian, but if we had partitioned Iraq he would have actually deserved that epithet.

My caution on the hypothetical partition of Iraq comes from two sources. First, national self-determination has probably been good on balance in the 100 years or so since it was imposed in Europe by President Wilson, but also at terrible cost. Even now, cases like Putin's adventuring in Ukraine or the sham that is Belgium expose the limits of the idea. Second, it is hard to exaggerate the ways in which the Middle East is a messed up place, and the smart bet is on chaos and disaster.

As for John's musings on economics in the end of this post, I find that I mostly distrust everyone on economics after the 2008 housing bubble. A few smart people noticed something was wrong, but almost everyone, including well-known economists, had no clue whatsoever. Clearly, we don't know what we are doing.

Snappy Answers

Many thanks to Jay Manifold of A Voyage to Arcturus. He did the math (not just once but twice ) in response to my question about how the lack of a Martian magnetic field can explain the planet's tenuous atmosphere, when Venus with its very dense atmosphere also lacks an intrinsic magnetic field. To put it briefly, he points out that the Venerian atmosphere is dense because it consists largely of the sort of material (carbon, mostly) that makes up a big fraction of the crust of the Earth. This means that the atmosphere of Venus is so dense that one would reasonably expect quite a lot of it to be left by now. This would be so even if the solar wind eroded it much faster than it eroded the atmosphere of Mars, which presumably was once denser than today, but never as dense as the atmosphere of Venus.

This is perfectly reasonable, but it does illustrate the limits of the hypothesis that the density of the atmosphere of a terrestrial-type planet can be explained by the strength of the planet's magnetic field. Compared to the atmosphere of Venus, Earth's atmosphere is a pretty good vacuum, yet Earth is a strong magnetic field. Just as there are additional factors to explain the state of the Venerian and terrestrial atmospheres, so there are likely to be other factors to explain the current state of Mars.

* * *

A point of usage: Why do I wrote "Venerian" instead of "Venusian" when referring to Venus? Because philosopher and science-fiction writer Olaf Stapledon did. He did it because you are supposed to form an adjective from a Latin noun by using the oblique root. (E.g., "tempus" = "time," but the English adjective is "temporal," from "temporis" (which is "of time"). I know that an editor would not let me get away with an affectation like this, but that's the point of having a blog.

* * *

Speaking of other factors, I for one was greatly surprised when The New York Times took David Brooks as a regular columnist. The Times , frankly, has been leaning toward liberal totalitarianism for many years now, and the editorial page in particular has been kept scrupulously clean of thought crime. Brooks, however, is a serious conservative. It seemed for a moment that the Times was starting to thaw.

Now we know the reason the Times could tolerate him, I'm afraid. Brooks may support the Bush Administration and he has audible doubts about affirmative action, but he is sound on gay marriage. In his editorial of November 22, The Power of Marriage , he adopts a mutual-aid model of the institution that is independent of gender, and indeed of everything except the affections of the people involved.

That is enough. If you accept that human beings are nothing more than senscient rights-holders, then it makes no ultimate difference what else you believe. You will concede the rest of the postmodern agenda in due course.

* * *

David Brooks, I suspect, is merely confused. For some real public policy malice in the pages of the Times, you can't do better than Leslie Gelb's Op Ed piece that ran yesterday, The Three-State Solution. Here is the plan for Iraq from the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations:

The only viable strategy, then, may be to correct the historical defect and move in stages toward a three-state solution: Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the center and Shiites in the south.

Almost immediately, this would allow America to put most of its money and troops where they would do the most good quickly: with the Kurds and Shiites. The United States could extricate most of its forces from the so-called Sunni Triangle, north and west of Baghdad, largely freeing American forces from fighting a costly war they might not win. American officials could then wait for the troublesome and domineering Sunnis, without oil or oil revenues, to moderate their ambitions or suffer the consequences.

Leslie Gelb was later interviewed by National Public Radio about this column; he could barely restrain himself from spitting whenever he said "Bush Administration." He obviously thought that the war was a bad idea; the point of his lunatic proposal, I suspect, is to help ensure that the war turns out in such a way that everyone will have to agree with him.

* * *

I see that we have had more than a flurry of good economic news in the last two days. The US GDP was at an annualized rate of 8.2% in the third quarter, and other numbers are nifty, too. Niftiest of all is the fact that inflation shows no sign of picking up, despite low interest rates and the enormous federal deficit.

How is this possible? No doubt because we live in a fundamentally deflationary world. This is due in part to the growing economy of China, and increasingly of India. Also, the millennial talk about the New Economy was not all hype; new technologies really do allow for continuous increases in productivity, which means that wages can rise and unemployment can fall without sparking price increases.

The most interesting aspect of this situation is that governments can get away with printing money. If fact, they have to. Too much fiscal discipline in a deflationary environment is a recipe for disaster. Thus, it may seem that we have arrived at the best of all possible worlds.

To that I say Hah. It is of course true that inflationary environments don't last forever, and that the bills will come due. There is, however, another downside to this situation, one that would apply even if deficit spending could go on forever with impunity. A government that can simply print money is in much the same position as a government that supports itself by selling some lucrative commodity. When a government can support itself through oil sales, for instance, it no longer has to worry about taxes. When that happens, it no longer has to worry about the people, either.

The governments of oil states do in fact make some effort to buy popular acquiescence for the regime. When these efforts succeed, the government can be as corrupt and incompetent as it pleases, so long as the people get their subsidies and their public-works projects. Retail industries may benefit, but the productive economy tends to languish, as people buy their goods from abroad.

This is, pretty much, the tale of what went wrong in much of the Middle East and Latin America. Sometimes I wonder whether a grander version of the same process might be happening to the US.       

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly


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The Long View: Questions and Answers on 9/11

If I were on the ball, I would have posted this on 9/11.

Part of the reason I foster John's memory is that he perceived the structure of events so acutely. He knew the worst outcome of 9/11 for the United States would be a universal loss of will, rather than any kind of actual military defeat, which no terrorist group has ever been able to do. The United States has many sins to answer for, but the world would likely be a far worse place without us filling the role that we do.

There is a prediction buried in this post that seems like it has come true: security institutions have expanded to fill the gaps exposed by 9/11 and the Global War on Terror. Partly, this is due to an increase in trained personnel who need something to fill their time.

Questions & Answers on 911


Q: Why was the World Trade Center attacked on September 11, 2001?

A: For glory, in this world and the next. The attackers wish to create an aggressive theocracy in the Persian Gulf. The presence of the United States in the region thwarts that ambition.


Q: Are there contributing factors?

A: The US neglected the region after the Gulf War in order to deal with domestic matters. The US response to attacks on US installations and personnel has been symbolic and ineffective. This was good evidence that the US is unable to retaliate seriously.


Q: Why do the people of the Middle East hate the US enough to do this?

A: They don't. Hate is not the explanation. Brutal acts will be committed when they seem likely to be profitable and to go unpunished. As the decline in domestic crime in the US during the 1990s demonstrated, the search for "root causes" is an evasion.


Q: Is it arrogant for Americans to seek to enlist the whole world in the conflict?

A: The necessary is never arrogant. True arrogance consists in the attitude of some Americans that they are so safe that they need not concern themselves with mere questions of survival, but need focus only on ascertaining their own degree of culpability for the attack.


Q: Is this the end of globalization?

A: In effect, September 11 signifies an attempt to export Middle Eastern political culture to the rest of the world. When commerce expands beyond the range of law enforcement, piracy is the result. September 11 probably initiated a decade-long process of expanding security institutions to cover the global economic system.


Q: Was September 11 the beginning of a war between civilizations?

A: Yes, though the conflict is an asymmetric encounter between states on the one hand and private adventurers on the other. The conflict will continue to be asymmetric, even if states join the adventurers. To put the matter briefly, the West is approaching a phase of unity, while Middle Eastern civilization continues the disintegration that began with the decline of the Ottoman Empire. The conflict will accelerate both processes.


Q: Is this the end of "The end of History"?

A: Not in the sense that Francis Fukuyama meant in his book by that name. The conflict that began on September 11 does not present the question of which ideology will prevail within Western society. Those issues have been settled. The September 11 conflict is just a fight for the survival of Western society.

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The Long View 2002-04-15: 2002 < 1914

I loved Star Trek: TNG growing up. Looking back, I can see John's point though. The series really was relentlessly PC, but in a sunnier, happier time when PC hadn't metastasized yet.

John was also correct in noting that despite popular millennial theology to the contrary [for both Christians and Muslims], war in the Middle East is currently unlikely to cause World War III. Peace is in fact possible, since the general unrest in the Middle East is a contemporary invention. Ukraine may be another story.

2002 < 1914


The Star Trek series spun off several television sagas in later decades, my least favorite of which was Star Trek: The Next Generation. Nonetheless, even that lifeless exercise in political correctness produced a few interesting story ideas, such as the episode about the alien society whose language seemed to consist almost entirely of proper nouns. Eventually, the crew of the Enterprise realize that the aliens' references to persons and places were really concise references to historical incidents. The key to communicating with them was building up some common history to refer to.

The use of historical events as symbols is not novel. That's how the I Ching works, for instance. Often, though, we use dates rather than proper nouns. There was an example of this in the Sunday New York Times of April 14. In an essay entitled "When Savage Passions Set a Trap for the World," R.W. Apple considered the significance of "August 1914" for the current state of things in the Middle East.

There are obvious differences, of course, and Apple does not fail to mention them. The biggest is that there is no Mutual Assured Destruction treaty system connecting Arabs, Israelis, and Iranians to the world's great powers. It was almost the case in Europe in 1914 that a war anywhere on the continent would oblige every major power to fight on one side or the other. The mechanism was not as automatic in practice as it was on paper. Some historians have exaggerated the amount of freedom that the British had about intervening in Belgium, but certainly the British obligations were more diplomatic than legal. The Italians actually reneged on their understanding with Austria and Germany when the time came; they even joined the other side later. Still, a general war was the path of least resistance. One of the powers would have had to adopt a steadfast new policy to prevent it. In the Middle east today, the path of least resistance has the opposite slope. If outside powers really want to pick a fight with each other, they might do it in the Middle East, but only if they abandon their policies of many years' running.

The parallel that Apple does see is that war in the region might be not so much inevitable as irreversible. Particularly if civilian populations become more and more targeted, it will become impossible for the immediate parties to negotiate, even if they have a mind to. The same emotional investment would trap their patrons and make them unable to talk to each other. The result could be not so different from that of the First Battle of the Marne in 1914. Before that point, even after the invasion of Belgium, it might have been possible for the Western powers to negotiate a settlement. A viable settlement might even have been possible had one side won a decisive victory. As things turned out, however, the result was a bloody stalemate for which all parties wanted revenge.

For my part, I hold that the significant analogy between the events of 1914 and those of recent history is the 911 attack, and that the only strong parallel is with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Serbian terrorists of the dreaded Black Hand hoped that a general war would make the Great Powers withdraw from the Balkans, much as Al Qeda hopes with regard to the Middle East today. The Serbian strategy worked, and Yugoslavia was their reward. Al Qaeda is less likely to succeed, but of that more below.

The biggest difference from 1914 is that it is anachronistic to talk about "Great Powers" in the plural. No matter how interested China and the European Union and Russia may be in the Middle East, none of them has the ability to project significant force into the area. The US does not have unlimited military options, either, but it is unique in having some options. (This is the real meaning of hegemony in a demilitarized world: the hegemon is the smart kid in the dumb room.) The notion that the Middle East is the point from which a world war of the Great Powers could start is a fixed feature of the popular imagination. For many quite astute people it is a point of theology. Nonetheless, it is very hard to spin even an improbable scenario that would result in such a conflict. The world has lost the structural prerequisites for a world war.

Readers will note that, in this piece, I have not distinguished the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the Al Qaeda War, or either of them from the threat of weapons of mass destruction produced by Iran and Iraq. The omission is deliberate, since the distinctions are largely chimerical. Iran subsidizes the terrorist campaign against Israel, Iraq had quite a lot to do with 911, and the Palestinian campaign legitimizes both regimes domestically. The real issue is the fate of Saudi Arabia; the Palestinian question is a carefully maintained diversion.

The long-term solution is obvious enough: regional demilitarization and the limitation of sovereignty. Some foreign policing will be necessary, as will some segregation of populations. As the Ottomans demonstrated for 500 years, peace in the region is possible.

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