OPINION: Reading and learning from history

Edmund Tayao

Posted at Sep 16 2019 04:07 PM

There are problems today that have already been encountered and addressed before. One will be surprised that the problems of extremism and nationalism have always been there and addressed differently, quite more effectively before. Until of course modernity happened and attributed so much of what is good only to those who eventually became the victors in history. So much of what we know today is simply dictated by whoever carries the proverbial big stick.

Today’s world is complicated, characterized by development and underdevelopment, wealth and poverty, health and illness, even debilitating sickness. Despite all these, we assume that this world is a lot better than it was some hundreds, if not thousands of years back, not only because of the advancements in science, but also the sophistication of man’s understanding of society. Or so we thought; upon close examination however, it comes as a surprise that we have the same—but more sophisticated and complicated problems—today compared to before, that it became such because of the way they were supposedly resolved.
Take the case of group instinct and its significance to issues of nationalism and, of course, nationhood, terms that are often confused and abused in many types of literature. Amy Chua has been exhorting the US government, particularly its foreign policy, even military experts, on the way to approach the problem of extremism. She explains that the great enlightenment principles of modernity—liberalism, secularism, rationality, equality, free markets—do not provide the kind of tribal group identity that human beings crave and have always craved. They have strengthened individual rights and individual liberty, created unprecedented opportunity and prosperity, transformed human consciousness, but they speak to people as individuals and as members of the human race, whereas tribal instinct occupies the realm in between.

Upon reflection, the reader is inevitably reminded how the West, compared to the East, defines the concept of democracy differently. The former is focused too much on the individual, without considering that the individual is as much a creature of the society or community. Driving home this point, Amy Chua amusingly cites that the only time Earth is united in Hollywood movies is when it is under attack by another species from another planet. Especially in societies where people fear for their safety or some struggle just to survive, idealistic principles will often ring hollow—and in any case have a hard time competing with appeals to more primordial group passions. Universal brotherhood, she explains, is thus incompatible with gross inequality.

In Frankopan’s Silk Roads, the story of civilizations and, of course, religions, was traced and one might be surprised to read that the world today, one of globalization and free exchange of goods and services and of people and therefore information, technology and beliefs around the world, already existed before. It may not be one of speed, that one can get his hands on the latest goods easily and get one’s message across in a nano second, but just the same, there was this global connectivity. It was even noted that Herodutus viewed with wonder how a road network linking the coast of Asia Minor with Babylon, Susa and Persepolis, a distance of more than 1,600 miles, was completed in just the course of a week.

The most interesting detail in the book is how ancient Persia was governed. Persia presented itself as a beacon of stability and fairness, as a trilingual inscription hewn into a cliff face at Behistun demonstrates. Written in Persian, Elamite and Akkadian, it records how Darius the Great, one of Persia’s most famous rulers, put down revolts and uprisings, drove back invasions from abroad and wronged neither the poor nor the powerful. Keep the country secure, the inscription commands, and look after the people righteously, for justice is the bedrock of the kingdom. Tolerance of minorities was legendary, with one Persian ruler referred to as the “Messiah,” and the one whom the “Lord, the God of Heaven” had blessed, as the result of his policies that included the release of the Jews from their Babylonian exile.

Persia’s empire expanded owing largely to its tolerance and deftness of the Sassanian rulers who pursued inclusive policies at times when the aristocracy and Zoroastrian priesthood were pacified. In fact, there were more Christians in Asia than there were in Europe then; after all, Baghdad is closer to Jerusalem than to Athens, while Teheran is nearer the Holy Land than Rome, and Samarkand is closer to it than Paris and London. It is by no surprise then that later in the 6th century, meetings of the church of the east were even beginning with earnest prayers for the health of the Persian ruler. The Shah could even be found not long afterwards, organizing the election of a new patriarch, urging all the bishops in his realm to come. The Sassanian ruler had gone from being the prosecutor of Christians in Asia to being their champion.

What connected the world then was not only the need for goods, for food and clothing and other articles but more so for knowledge, technology and, of course, religion. The intellectual and theological spaces of the Silk Roads were crowded, as deities and cults, priests and local rulers, jostled with each other. The stakes were high. This was a time when societies were highly receptive to explanations for everything, from the mundane to the supernatural, and when faith offered solutions to a multitude of problems.

The struggles between different faiths were highly political. The equation was as simple as it was powerful: a society protected and favored by the right god, or gods, thrived; those promising false idols and empty promises suffered. There were strong incentives, therefore, for rulers to invest in the right spiritual infrastructure, such as the building of lavish places of worship. This offered a lever over internal control, allowing leaders to form a mutually strengthening relationship with the priesthood who, across all the principal religions, wielded substantial moral authority and political power. In fact, even Constantine’s motivations for conversion were certainly more complex than accounts written during his lifetime or shortly afterwards like to suggest.

What comes to mind in reading about history and learning about life then is that the many problems we encounter today are essentially the same problems yesterday. The difference? Just close your eyes and imagine a world where there are no phones, internet, cars and airplanes, only the same people in different clothes and belonging to different political aggrupations. Then ask yourself if everything is a lot better.

(The author is the Executive Director of the Local Government Development Foundation and a professor of Modern Local Governance at the Ateneo School of Government.)

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