All doomed?

“A great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”

Will Durant

To make up for a significant gap in my scientific/technological education, I once waded through Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History (abridged version, a mere 1003 pages summarising the original 12 volumes), with significant help from a large Webster’s Dictionary. The ebb and flow of humanity and its civilisations was indeed fascinating. But always there was the question at the back of my mind ‘Why do civilisations fail? This has inspired many historians to produce their own stories and analyses. William Ophuls is familiar with many of these and has produced this short book Immoderate Greatness in which he summarises the conclusions, not the stories.

So why do civilisations fail? Ophuls suggest there are six fundamental reasons:

  1. Ecological exhaustion through systematic exhaustion of the civilisation’s periphery and nature. The money economy tends to become an abstraction disconnected from the real world.
  2. Exponential growth. Essentially the future is valued at a great discount to the present. Decisions are taken for now, not for future generations.
  3. The law of Entropy, disorder tends to increase despite technological advances. Technologies tend to require more energy than they can generate. The natural system based on living processes does not have this problem.
  4. Excessive complexity. Eventually the level of problems created exhausts the capacity of people to manage them.
  5. Moral decay. Glubb identified that civilisations pass through natural ages: pioneers, commerce, affluence, intellect, then decadence. Over a period of around 250 years. In the latter age politics is increasingly corrupt and life unjust with huge wealth discrepancies – with bread and circuses to distract the people.
  6. Practical failure. The previous problems inevitably lead to increasing failure. Inflation,  debasing currency and wars have been the desperate paths historically taken. Reform and revival is possible, but is not the path most taken.

Now we have a global civilisation that has been around for about 250 years. It exhibits many of the symptoms mentioned. Collapse is possible, are we all doomed? Not necessarily.

What is clear is that fundamental change is needed – not least re global warming, catastrophic decline of the natural world, pandemics and global security. All require global cooperation.

The evident reversion of some countries to populism and posturing nationalism are moving in the wrong direction – that of moral decay, privileged elites, bread and circuses. This is the last thing that is needed.

Melchett Mere

The county of Cheshire contains a number of smallish lakes, or meres. Many date back to the glacial period of the last ice age, ‘occupying hollows in the glacial drift surface of the Cheshire Plain’ (see itemised list). The lake in Tatton Park, known as Tatton Mere, is one of these meres of glacial origin.

Tatton Mere, December 2020

Just north west of the top of Tatton Mere lies a smaller lake, named Melchett Mere, but at a noticeably lower elevation. Is this another glacial lake? It seems not. Cheshire also has a history of salt extraction and mining, notably in the area around nearby Northwich and Wincham from the 17th century. Uncontrolled mining activity led to great subsidences of ground and the formation of lakes, such as the notorious Ashton’s and Neumann’s flashes near Wincham.

Melchett Mere, March 2021

Effects of the salt mining activites, and particularly wild brine pumping, were often felt many miles away. According to the National Trust, Melchett Mere in Tatton Park was formed by a sudden collapse in 1922. The resulting lake was named by Lord Egerton after the then chairman of the extractive company he believed to have been responsible (presumably Henry Mond, 2nd Baron Melchett, who became deputy chairman of ICI in the 1940s).

Subsidence due to brine pumping activities is serious business in Cheshire, as evidence by the existence of the Brine Subsidence Compensation Board. Some of the land in this area is still subsiding. Notably this lies on the proposed route for the HS2 high speed train. I hope those guys know what they’re getting into!

The Fall

Most of us are familiar with the biblical story of the fall, when Adam and Eve were thrown out of paradise after an incident with a serpent and a piece of fruit. I remember it from Sunday School at the local Methodist Chapel. Why did our ancestors place so much emphasis on this story? It comes in Genesis 2, in verse 8, just after the creation of heaven and earth.

And the Lord God had planted a paradise of pleasure from the beginning: wherein he placed man…

God creates Adam and then Eve and by the end of Chapter 4 (verse 23), because Eve partook of the fruit of a forbidden tree (it was clearly the woman’s fault):

…the Lord God sent him out of the paradise of pleasure, to till the earth…

This was obviously highly significant to the men (well they probably were of that gender) who set down the Old Testament. Why? Well, Steve Taylor’s book The Fall has an answer to this question, not only for the scribes of that era, but also for ourselves and future human beings.

It’s taken me a while to get around to reading this book – first published in 2005 and highly recommended by many reviewers. I guess I sort of thought I knew the story, but it was not with the wonderful vision encompassed by this book. Steve is a psychologist, so his story is imbued with a deep understanding of human psychology, but he has also clearly researched and understood many disciplines to produce a work of this scope. This is a history of the fall and a vision of our potential return to paradise.

Read More »

The Fight for The Fens

Having grown up surrounded by The Fens (see earlier post), I was delighted to receive the book Imperial Mud by James Boyce, which outlines the history of this area of England. But why a book about English history written by an Aussie historian from Tasmania? This becomes clear as you realise that Boyce is also author of Van Diemens Land, a history of Tasmania. It turns out that the history of The Fens in England has strong echoes with the history of Tasmania – both being stories of displacement or co-opting of indigenous peoples in a colonial project, stealing their land for settlement.

The thing about the English Fens is that they were not easily settled by farmers, nor easily dominated by landowners. The low-lying land comprised varying degrees of bog/marsh, depending on season. But there was an abundance of fish and wildlfe, so it was possible to survive without the large farms in other areas of England. Also, travel was difficult, so the local people were very independent and distrusting of outsiders.

Boyce tells the story of the formation of the Fens and what he calls the ‘Fennish’ people with the emergence of a marshland environment in the East of England around 3-4000 years ago. The Roman invasion in AD43 had a significant impact, draining and colonising part of the Fens, provoking the rebellion led by Boudicca. After the Roman withdrawal in 410 the next ‘invasion’ came from the Christian church, through establishment of numerous monasteries, which grew into powerful centres integrated into the social fabric, and doing their own drainage projects. With the Norman invasion of 1066, feudal lords owned much of the land, alongside the monasteries, but there was still much ‘common land’ managed according to traditional practice, particularly in the Fens.

Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s led to major change, as many of the new landowners eventually wanted to enclose some of the common land and drain it for farmland. Land reclamation by drainage became big business in Holland in the late 1500s and this expertise inevitably found its way to the Fens. The political will came with the Stuart kings in the 1600s.

Boyce outlines the events of the ‘fight for the Fens’, where landowners sought to drain the land and create settlements by removing access to the Common land of the people. This was naturally resisted by local people whose way of life was being destroyed.

Read More »

Having grown up surrounded by The Fens (see earlier post), I was delighted to receive the book Imperial Mud by James Boyce, which outlines the history of this area of England. But why a book about English history written by an Aussie historian from Tasmania? This becomes clear as you realise that Boyce is also author of Van Diemens Land, a history of Tasmania. It turns out that the history of The Fens in England has strong echoes with the history of Tasmania – both being stories of displacement or co-opting of indigenous peoples in a colonial project, stealing their land for settlement.

The thing about the English Fens is that they were not easily settled by farmers, nor easily dominated by landowners. The low-lying land comprised varying degrees of bog/marsh, depending on season. But there was an abundance of fish and wildlfe, so it was possible to survive without the large farms in other areas of England. Also, travel was difficult, so the local people were very independent and distrusting of outsiders.

Boyce tells the story of the formation of the Fens and what he calls the ‘Fennish’ people with the emergence of a marshland environment in the East of England around 3-4000 years ago. The Roman invasion in AD43 had a significant impact, draining and colonising part of the Fens, provoking the rebellion led by Boudicca. After the Roman withdrawal in 410 the next ‘invasion’ came from the Christian church, through establishment of numerous monasteries, which grew into powerful centres integrated into the social fabric, and doing their own drainage projects. With the Norman invasion of 1066, feudal lords owned much of the land, alongside the monasteries, but there was still much ‘common land’ managed according to traditional practice, particularly in the Fens.

Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s led to major change, as many of the new landowners eventually wanted to enclose some of the common land and drain it for farmland. Land reclamation by drainage became big business in Holland in the late 1500s and this expertise inevitably found its way to the Fens. The political will came with the Stuart kings in the 1600s.

Boyce outlines the events of the ‘fight for the Fens’, where landowners sought to drain the land and create settlements by removing access to the Common land of the people. This was naturally resisted by local people whose way of life was being destroyed.

Read More »

My Fens

I grew up in the city of Lincoln, and was aware that much of the surrounding county of Lincolnshire was flat. And I sort of knew about The Fens, the drained area of farmland around and between the huge estuaries of the Humber and the Wash, that comprised much of the county – ‘the sticks’ we townies used to call it. The Fens also extend down to Cambridgeshire, as shown in this rough map.

Rough Map of The Fens

My family was involved in The Fens. My father worked as a designer of pumps. Now why was there such a company in Lincoln? For drainage. Uncle Bob managed drainage in The Fens. Uncle Charles worked in the engineering teams ensuring continued flow in the drainage waterways, which passed through much of the surrounding farmland, draining water into the River Witham which ran down to Boston. My great grandma lived in Bardney, where we went for walks around yet more drainage channels. My country family, with their broad flat accents, seemed to live in a different world away from the city.

There was even the Sincil Drain running past the Lincoln City football ground, where I went every Saturday. The ground is known as Sincil Bank.

Yet despite all this, and cycling around much of the countryside, I never learned much about the history and geography of the area. My technical education was more oriented to learning about the new and upcoming technologies rather than all this old stuff, and history and geography were soon dropped in favour of maths and science.

So then I went to university at Cambridge, to discover that I was still in an area of flat fields, which were also fens. I even got an evening bar job serving at a country pub in Fen Ditton, and great fun it was too.

I cycled to Cambridge from Lincoln, to move my bicycle from one place to the other. It was flat most of the way. You might think that made the riding easy; on the contrary, strong winds coming across flat fens meant a rather more extended journey than anticipated. I stopped for a rest at Crowland Abbey near Spalding, not realising what a significant place it was in the area’s history. Why was there a large abbey in the middle of this flat farmland?

Cambridge was even more fen country than Lincoln. Regular fog in winter, bitter cold when the east wind blew across from the Urals. This would have been a hard environment before the coming of the cities and farms. In fact, The Fens would have been one big bog.

While I was at Cambridge, my father’s pump company was taken over by another one in Bedford, which lay not far from the southern edge of The Fens. They moved to Bedford, but hadn’t quite escaped The Fens.

After I married we moved west, to Cheshire, and I forgot about my origins in The Fens, until I was given a book telling the history of this area, which is quite fascinating, as I will describe in a future post.

Featured image shows the channelled River Nene, near where it runs into The Wash at Sutton Bridge (2020).
The rough map of The Fens is by Jb?, CC BY-SA 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

The Old Man of Calke

It was salutary recently to visit the National Trust’s Calke Abbey in Derbyshire and come across the Old Man of Calke, an oak tree believed to be over 1000 years old – indeed there are two such oaks in the grounds. This tree was well established by the time of the great Norman conquering of England in 1066 and has ‘seen’ times of nearly a millennium since then, while living its majestic existence in the peace of the Derbyshire countryside.

Now that puts quite a context on the relative sound and fury of the affairs of the English since then. So many kings and queens, wars and revolts, comings to agreement and falling out with European neighbours, so little effect on this majestic being. Until the modern days, when who knows what threats climate change might mean for its continuation.

Our Story

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

TS Eliot, Little Gidding

In the beginning, after the big bang and the formation of the earth and living beings, human beings emerged embedded in the dream of nature. There was no differentiation.

Gradually there emerged language and groupings of people.

There were some societies where the connection with nature remained strong, where language worked in consort with the one, where men and women each brought their own strengths to that cooperation with others and with the one. They developed wonderful creativity in their cave paintings, and a wonderful science that enabled them to comprehend and relate to the cosmos through great stone constructions. They told stories that passed through the generations, passing on archetypal knowledge, lessons of experience to each new generation.

With the coming of written language, some feared that the knowledge of connection would be lost. They wrote it down, hidden away for when ignorant barbarians came, which surely they did.Read More »

Ambition Unbridled

lustrumRobert Harris writes very engaging novels based on historical events. Lustrum tells the tale of the great Roman orator Cicero, from the period when he was seen a saviour of the Roman Republic, to the time just a few years later when he was exiled from Rome by populist forces. The story is written from the perspective of Cicero’s secretary Tiro.

The story articulates well the threat to the Republic coming from the influx of money and veterans from the victorious generals Pompey in the East and Julius Caesar in the West. The hapless senators of the home Republic are increasingly subject to the machinations of these men, making Rome increasingly ungovernable.

One figure stands out in this story – the ambitious, ruthless, implacable Julius Caesar, clearly destined for power and apparently unwilling to share it with anyone else. Cicero recognised the threat, but was in the end unable to do anything about it.

I also read Dictator, the third volume of Harris’s Cicero trilogy, but found it a bit of an anticlimax as it tries to make sense of the complex events that followed, from Cicero’s exile from Rome to his death 15 years later – as Rome subsided from rule by the triumvirate of Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus into civil war, leading of course to the dictatorship of Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire.

Featured image is 16C bust of Julius Caesar by Andrea di Pietro di Marco Ferrucci.

 

End of an Empire

fate of romeWhy did the Roman Empire collapse? Kyle Harper’s very readable book The Fate of Rome makes a persuasive case that this was much to do with climate change and epidemic disease, both of which were consequences of the process of Empire itself.

It is salutary to reflect that such a political system is a process that has consequences on its environment and its citizens and their well-being. The parallels with today’s climate change and threatening global pandemic are obvious.

We could see this fatalistically in cataclysmic terms, or we can see it optimistically as being a story in need of constant renewal and redirection. It’s our choice.

My notes below outline the Empire’s story.Read More »

The Magic of Vézelay

After a recent visit to a favourite town, Vézelay in Burgundy, I dug out this unpublished article I wrote in 2002. Here it is with a bit of editing to bring it up-to-date, and a few photos.

The small town of Vézelay is a special gem. Visit here, and allow yourself to be entranced by its beauty, inspired by its spiritual quality, fascinated by its history, and restored by its natural surroundings.

Vézelay owes its existence to the tradition of pilgrimage. Its Basilica of Mary Magdalene has attracted pilgrims from all over Europe for over a thousand years. The main attraction was the relics of Mary, brought to the then monastery in the 11th century from St Maximin in Provence, where she was said to have been buried. Vézelay became one of four major starting points for pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostella in north west Spain (Paris, le Puy and Arles are the others).

Set along a hilltop, the Vézelay skyline offers an enticing perspective as you approach from any of several directions. If you park at the bottom of the hill, the main street winds picturesquely upwards past a selection of shops offering, among other things, provisions, crafts, wines, souvenirs and books, also galleries, bars, and restaurants.Read More »

Porta Nigra

After visiting Aix la Chapelle / Aachen, capital of the Holy Roman Empire around 800, it seemed appropriate to also visit Trèves / Trier around 100 miles to the south. Trèves was conquered by the Romans in the time of Emperor Augustus around 16BC, when it got its name Augusta Treverorum.  Trèves became one of the leading cities of the Roman Empire, and eventually in the 4th century oversaw much of the Western part of that Empire – that Charlemagne re-established 400 years later.

The most impressive Roman remain here is the Porta Nigra, built in 170AD, the best preserved Roman City Gate north of the Alps. This is a massive structure, a clear demonstration of power, but hardly beautiful.

porta nigra werner

I understand that we owe the current restored state of the gate to another Emperor, Napoleon.

Nearby in the attractive city centre is the cathedral, said to have been originally commissioned by Emperor Constantine, but clearly most of it is much more recent. It’s a nice enough cathedral to explore, along with its cloisters and the neighbouring Liebfrauenkirche.

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There are more Roman remains in Trier, but we didn’t tarry long. Traffic problems seemed even more intense than in the UK. We headed for France!

The first image of the gate is from Wikimedia Commons, thanks to Berthold Werner

 

Charlemagne’s Cathedral

I’ve previously mentioned how Aix la Chapelle, or Aachen, was the original capital of the holy Roman Empire founded by Charlemagne in 800. As befits an Emperor, the cathedral built for Charlemagne, completed around 805, is even today quite magnificent.

The interior is painted or marbled in magnificent fashion, which quite took my breath away on a recent visit. Of course, the original cathedrals were decorated both inside and outside. Here at least the interior decoration remains, giving a taste of just how impressive these buildings originally were. And just imagine the collective dedication and money that has gone into maintaining such an edifice over more than twelve centuries.

Here are just four photographs (as slideshow) to give a brief impression. You just have to go there for the experience.

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Aix la Chapelle

To visit Europe is to travel through history, and in my case gradually build up a picture of Europe’s history that was neglected in my education. I first heard of Aix la Chapelle as the capital of the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne, which reunited Western Europe, effectively recreating the original Roman Empire (European Union is not a modern idea!). Charlemagne was crowned Emperor there in the year 800.

Eventually I realised that the romantic-sounding Aix la Chapelle is actually known as the much more dour sounding Aachen in German. The roman languages are so much more poetic! Aachen is today in Germany, close to the Belgian border.

According to Wikipedia, Aach, means river or stream, corresponding to the Latin aqua and the French Aix. Remains show that Aachen was indeed a Roman ‘spa’ town. ‘La Chapelle’ of course refers to Charlemagne’s cathedral, one of Europe’s great and most historic buildings, originally completed around 805.

aachen cathedral
Chapelle of Aix/Aachen

I intend to say more about a recent visit to Aachen in a future post.

Featured image shows Aachen town hall and cathedral,
by Arne Hückelheim via Wikimedia Commons

The Shortest History of Germany

shortest history of germany.jpgI’ve been reading this little 227 page paperback by James Hawes. It does a great job of outlining the history of Germany for a popular audience. Having had a severely deficient education in the history department, I feel that this sort of knowledge should be the baseline of all Europeans, whether Brexited or not. This is after all the history of the centre of our continent.

Take some of the key points:

  • The Roman Empire  in its greater form was established by Julius Caesar. In 58BC he gave name to the peoples beyond the River Rhine that he could not easily conquer: the Germanii. He even used them as bodyguards.
  • Around 16AD Germanicus eventually claimed the territory between Rhine and Elbe for the Empire. This was not particularly secured and eventually a defensible ‘wall’ was built roughly along and to the west of the Rhine (The Limes).
  • When the Empire began to fall apart there was eventual ‘renewal’ by Constantine 306-337, changing the focus of the Empire to the east at Constantinople. But the Empire gradually fell apart with successive waves of invasion from the east – goths, franks, huns, vandals and so on.
  • After the fall of the Roman Empire the franks attempted renewal resulting in Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire around 800, extended beyond the Elbe to the Oder by Otto in 948, but this extension to the east was fragile and the place was run by independent lords who became known as known as Junkers. The HRA lasted for many hundreds of years of manoeuvering between Kings, Emperors and Popes.
  • The peak was around 1229 when Frederick II briefly liberated Jerusalem without a fight. The teutonic knights that had helped pilgrimage to the holy land were given the new task of subduing an area in what is now Poland/Russia – Prussia.
  • In 1356 the Kings freed themselves from the Pope and established control on future Emperors.
  • The Reformation was begun by Luther on the Elbe and took root to the east, the west remaining Catholic. Conflict began. There was a temporary truce in Charles V’s Peace of Augsburg (1555), but eventually 30 years of war (1618-48) that destroyed much of Germany, but the Prussian/Junker state survived and prospered through great power machinations.
  • Following the French Revolution of 1789, Napoleon effectively re-established the Holy Roman Empire – his hero was Charlemagne. He established the Confederation of the Rhine that got the west Germans organised again.
  • After the first defeat of Napoleon, Prussia was ‘given’ some of these west German states, instigated by Britain – to provide a counterweight to a possible French resurgence.
  • This was eventually crystallized by Bismarck into the dominance of an aggressive Prussian Germany. In 1870 Napoleon III fell into a trap set by Bismarck, and France was overrun in the subsequent war. A new German Empire was declared, and France lost territories. By 1887 the seeds were set for the coming 1914 world war, as France/Russia faced off against Germany/Austria.
  • Following the end of WW1 the liberal Weimar Republic desperately tried to re-establish a functioning country despite the over-burdensome terms of Versailles. They were undone by the 1929 Crash, with resulting reduction in American support and rising unemployment. The Nazi party gradually arose from the East, where their main support lay, and eventually got into power due to misjudgements that they could be ‘controlled’. They could not, and WW2 came to complete the battle against Prussian dominance.
  • The new West Germany was basically the old confederation, once a core part of the Roman Empire. The new East Germany was basically the residual Junker/Prussian state, Prussia itself having been obliterated.
  • Following the collapse of the USSR in 1989, Chancellor Helmut Kohl engineered the recombination of the two Germanys, which has proved a major drain on the West German economy ever since. One has to wonder, was this wise? Polls show the East to be poorer, older and more right wing…

For me, this is a stunningly informative and thought-provoking book, putting in context much of European history and throwing light on modern events. (Apologies for my own oversimplification and misinterpretations.) Essential information really for understanding our world.

And of course, it is completely different from the Neil MacGregor’s Germany, reviewed a few years ago.

Ever Flowing

I contemplate the huge flowing mass of water before me, opposite the ‘German Corner’ in Koblenz where rivers Rhine and Moselle join together, overlooked by the massive monument to Kaiser Wilhelm, first German emperor 1871-88. Here is inexorable power and movement before me, a part of the cyclic flow of the earth’s water system. Today, tomorrow, it is always there, pretty much as in Wilhelm’s day, yet always different.

As it happens, I have been reading The Shortest History of Germany, by James Hawes and A Short History of Europe by Simon Jenkins. I am struck by how the major figures in these histories have their brief flowering influence, usually driven by an overwhelming ego, often associated with some abstract concept, and without concern for the consequences on their own and other peoples: Julius Caesar, Constantine, Charlemagne, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Bismarck, Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, and on and on…

Recent events suggest that this flow goes on, to new dimensions, with environmental breakdowns and resulting attempted migration of populations, and the rise of populists – more blooming egos with their destructive consequences. Yet ever new challenges require ever better solutions, not the gross over-simplifications of those who appeal to what is lowest in us. They will be seen in time for what they are.

The flow of history, and the zeitgeist, inevitably moves ever on, just as those great rivers – the same as before, yet ever different.

Maybe we should not fear too much. The flow that matters is here, now. Our fears are that the future may not be the same as the peace and plenty of our recent past (in the West). Our present is the opportunity for our own best action, guided by conscience, not by selfish ego or abstractions.

Fermat’s Last Theorem

fermat coverI was a sucker for this book, having been fascinated by the history of mathematics from an early age. As Simon Singh’s book Fermat’s Last Theorem explains, the origins of this theorem came from the early days of mathematics, with Pythagoras in Ancient Greece. Everyone knows Pythagoras’ theorem that the sum of the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, e.g:

32 + 42 = 52

In fact, it was eventually demonstrated that there are an infinite number of triples of integers x,y,z for which

x2 + y2 = z2

Mathematicians puzzled for centuries as to whether a similar equation might be possible with higher powers of any integers, i.e. cubes, power of 4, 5, 6,…

xn + yn = zn

Pierre de Fermat was a supreme mathematician of the 17th century, who worked largely alone, rather than with colleagues. When his work was subsequently examined he was found to have made major advances to mathematics in a number of areas. In particular there was a famous note written in a margin that he had found ‘a truly marvellous proof’ that there could be no instance where such an equation was possible, yet there was insufficient space in the margin to explain it. This became a challenge to all the top mathematicians since then.

Simon Singh takes us through much of the history of mathematics in recounting the development of efforts to solve what had become known as Fermat’s Last Theorem. And a fascinating tale he tells, with potted histories of the involvement of many leading mathematicians over the centuries – including the story of the 21-year-old Frenchman Evariste Galois, who jotted down what proved to be key insights during the night before he was shot and killed in a duel early the next morning.

Finally there came the assault by Cambridge mathematician Andrew Wiles, working for some years in a solitary fashion similar to that adopted by Fermat himself. Finally, in June 1993 Wiles outlined to a packed meeting of leading mathematicians a proposed argument that demonstrated that Fermat’s Last Theorem was true. But this was only a prelude to drama, as a fault was discovered in the logic of his proof. It was not until October 1994 that Wiles and a colleague finally laid rest to centuries of speculation and completed their proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem.

Simon Singh makes the development of deep ideas in mathematics in some way accessible to us, even though we could never understand the detail. Few people do!

Featured image of Pierre de Fermat from Wikimedia Commons

Want of foresight

Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong – these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.

Winston Churchill, Speech, House of Commons, May 2, 1935

Churchill was looking at the patterns of history and making a point about his own times. He could have been commenting on modern crises such as global warming, ocean acidification, over-use of pesticides, plastic pollution, Brexit, Palestine and on and on. It seems to be in the nature of humanity that only extreme crisis forces the needed change. We are not (yet), in that sense, a collectively rational species.

Picture of dark storm clouds rolling in at the Pawnee Buttes National Grasslands, Wyoming, by MichaelKirsh via Wikimedia Commons

Senatus PopulusQue Romanus

spqr coverI guess this will be my only blog title in Latin, a conceit from an early education that included this ancient language. It means ‘The Senate and People of Rome’, often abbreviated to SPQR, which is the title of classicist Mary Beard’s book.

Rigorous but readable, Mary tells the tale of 1000 years of ancient Rome. I enjoyed it, probably more so, and with greater insight, than I did reading the abbreviated version of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire many years ago.

She begins in the middle, around 63 BCE, with the story of Cicero putting down the conspiracy by Cataline and other members of the Roman Senate itself, a story that is well understood because Cicero himself was a writer, many of whose works have survived, and history is written by the winners. The true story we do not know!

Mary then takes us back to the beginnings of Rome and the legend of Romulus and Remus, the foundation story of Rome. As Rome began to expand and co-opt nearby communities there eventually emerged what is characterised as a time of absolute kings, which ended around 490 BCE when Tarquin was defeated, a Republic was declared, and kingship got a bad name. Pairs of consuls were elected and ruled on an annual basis, overseen by the Senate – or rather such a system eventually emerged. Rome expanded, co-opting subject peoples into the system, particularly the army.

While Cicero was still alive, ever expanding overseas adventures led to the emergence of two major figures, Pompey in the East and Julius Caesar in the West. After years of accomodation, in 49 BCE Caesar ‘crossed the Rubicon’ and engaged in civil war with Pompey. Pompey was eventually defeated and Caesar became dictator, or Emperor. Not for long, he was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 BCE. Amazingly this led to many years of stability as Augustus Caesar dominated the scene for many years, dying in old age (possibly).

Problems of succession then dominated for the next 14 Emperors. In 212 ACE Caracalla extended citizenship to all inhabitants of the Empire, and a different game began, with ever-increasing turnover of Emperors. This is where Mary Beard leaves the subject, to be taken up by someone else!

Mary cautions against trying to draw lessons for today from these historic events. But what is clear from Rome’s history is the danger of any state becoming identified with one man (it’s always a man!). Then there is the inevitable problem of succession, competitors, warring factions, and wars. This is what democratic systems avoid, by providing for the people to elect a new leader from time to time. So beware any leader or faction which seeks to extend his/its leadership beyond the specified time, who wants to rule for life or be a one-party state, in fact any dictator, populist or otherwise, and any party that seeks to rule forever. I won’t name names.

 

 

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The Templars

the templarsThere’s a thing about the Knights Templar, something romantic lodged in the European brain. Maybe it’s the idea of monk-like knights dedicated to fighting for Christendom, or the tales of valour in the holy land and the Iberian peninsula, or their tragic ending at the hands of the king of France… Who knows why stories get lodged into the collective imagination, but this one did. Historian Dan Jones’s very readable book The Templars tells the story well.

The Templars arose in the aftermath of the first crusade, which culminated in the taking of Jerusalem in 1099. When the main Christian forces had returned home the occupied lands were always vulnerable to being recaptured by local or regional forces. The Knights Templar were established to help protect these Christian outposts and keep safe routes for pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

The Knights Templar were founded in 1119, and in 1129 rules were established for the lives of these knights, based on the rules that had been established for the recently established Cistercian order of monks. The hugely influential Bernard of Clairvaux was instrumental in this. They were effectively fighting monks, with a code that meant they would fight to the death for the cause.

How strange to the modern mind that the rules of monasticism should be applied to the battlefield.

In subsequent battles, particularly from the second crusade in 1147, preached by Bernard himself, the Templars proved to be the most effective European fighting force, often, with the similar Knights Hospitaller, formed the vanguard or rearguard of the advancing forces.

Through the many crusades and the Spanish reconquista, up to the mid-1250s, the Templars played a major role. They provided trans-national services such as banking and fighting forces to the various kings in Europe. They became very powerful, which was fine while they held the confidence of those kings.

But the various crusades were not well organised and the Templars took the brunt of failures of the leaders who came looking for glory. There were a number of massacres of Templars and eventually the crusader project seemed to be coming to nought, with all gains being cancelled out. It seems there was some blame pointed at the Templars for these failures.

Jones tells the story of the various crusades and battles in an engaging manner. The balance of power clearly changed when the Mongols arrived and sacked Baghdad in 1258, and the Mamluk state joining Egypt and Syria was established in 1260. The Christians were effectively squeezed out.

The Templars remained influential across Europe until the coming of the French king Philip IV. Philip was a new sort of French king, establishing a strong centralised state, and moving against other sources of power. His first target was to get rid of the Jews, next came the Templars. On Friday 13 October 1307 all Templars in France were seized, imprisoned and tortured.

Neither the French pope Clement V nor the other European leaders agreed with Philip’s move, but it seems that the pope was persuaded to spread the investigation of Templars throughout Europe. These were the days of inquisition to detect heresy, so it was not difficult to trump up charges. The net effect was that the order of the Temple was suppressed in 1312, and the last leader of the Templars, Jacques de Molay, was burnt to death after recanting his forced confession a couple of years later.

It had been less than 200 years. What a story!

Footnote. Since the fall of the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire Western forces have been engaged in the Middle East in many ways, including establishing the Israeli outpost safeguarding Jerusalem, several encounters in Iraq, Syria, catastrophe in Egypt (Suez),… Le plus ça change…

Featured image from the website Knight Templar International.

 

 

Interview with René Descartes

I recently came across this interview, dated 2001/1649.

Interviewer: Bonjour, Monsieur Descartes. Can I call you René?

Descartes: Allô, allô. Mais of course!

Interviewer: I have come back from the twenty first century to ask you a few questions. People there are very interested in your ideas, but you have been getting some bad press lately. Are you happy to take part?

Descartes: I think so.

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