This blog aims to follow the spark of human brilliance back through the generations. How did it happen that more people alive now have access to information and exchange than ever before? What are the foundations of that? Like following a string through a labyrinth, we can find the building blocks, the events that facilitated the formation of our current highly connected world.
In generation 469 the search gets a bit tricky, however. In most of Europe (which is where the story has brought us so far) the highest aim for the men in the most privileged sector of society was to get dressed up in a suit of expensive armour, mount a horse that was strong enough to carry the weight, challenge an opponent of equal rank to a fight, and then try to kill or maim them. The women watched the carnage and supported their champion. I could not believe that our modern world is based on such limited ideas of human purpose. Where had it gone?
As we saw in generation 470, those living in this world did have an intensity of feeling. In Norwich in the east of England at this time, a reclusive nun by the name of Julian prayed to be brought so close to death at the age of thirty that she would be purged. This happened as she had petitioned. She was ill for three nights, and on the fourth the last rites were read as she was not expected to live until morning. In that experience she found in herself a reason to live – so that she could know and love God better. She then had a series of sixteen visions, known to us today as the Revelations of Divine Love.
The most famous part of the revelations is probably this section:
“… I saw that (our Lord) is to us everything that is good, as I understood it.
Also in this revelation he showed a little thing,
the size of a hazel nut
in the palm of my hand,
and it was as round as a ball.
I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought:
‘What can this be?’
And it was generally answered thus: ‘It is all that is made.'”
She was not the only one to have ecstatic visions and write them down. St Catherine of Siena, who lived at the same time, was not a recluse like Julian but was impelled by her revelations to intervene in worldly events. She travelled to Rome, Avignon and Florence, trying to avert bloodshed and reconcile the divided papacy. She is now one of the two patron saints of Italy.
But this blog is about how we got to where we are now, and ecstatic visions are only one ingredient. Where is the restlessness, the enquiry, the thing in us that says that there is more to life than this?
Allow me to present a man who probably knew Catherine of Siena: Coluccio Salutati. He was a cultured and well-educated man who corresponded with the leading thinkers of the time. His prose style was so accomplished that it was compared to that of Cicero. (Praise indeed – Cicero was the most famous writer and orator of classical Rome. His name is still invoked in modern Italian for a clear and well-informed guide.) He had a respect for the achievements of the classical world, and confidence in the human ability to build on those achievements to produce something new. He was also Chancellor of Florence. In that capacity he invited a scholar from Byzantium to come and teach Greek in the university. Greek was important because it gave access to the literature and culture of classical Greece, which was slowly being rediscovered.
But even Salutati represents a flickering of a candle compared to the bright flame that was burning over the Mediterranean. He was probably only dimly aware of the islamic tradition of learning and enquiry that could be traced back for 600 years, and it was still going strong in this generation. I have a suspicion that from now on our journey will focus on this world.
For example, there was Ibn Khaldun. He is now considered to be a founder of sociology and economics, although he thought of himself as primarily a historian. He was born in Tunis into a family that had fled from Seville after it fell to the christians, and travelled to Granada, Morocco and Egypt. He was impressed by the high level of learning and culture he found in Egypt, and befriended the sultan. On his behalf he went to negotiate with Tamurlane, the Mongol invader who had reached Damascus.
In sociology he developed a theory of social cohesion, which attempted to explain the rise and fall of dynasties. He saw how the tribes came to the cities from the desert and could overthrow the regime. Their strong common values and loyalties gave them a cohesion and focus that made them stronger than the rich culture they found. However, once established as the new rulers, they had no external imperative to maintain their unity, and would become subject to the same temptations and luxuries that allowed their parents’ generation to invade in the first place. Inevitably after a few generations their dynasty would in turn be invaded by the next set of lean and focussed invaders from the desert.
What this says is, Ibn Khaldun looked at the world he lived in and tried to find the patterns at play. That approach is still used today. Another example of his brilliance is his definition of government: “an institution which prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself”. That is pithy, dispassionate and to the point, I think you would agree.
Another example of brilliance comes from the arabic scientists’ fascination with timekeeping and the motion of the planets. The most famous astronomer of this generation was Ibn al-Shatir, who was based at the umayyad mosque in Damascus. Building on the work of his predecessors, he wrestled with the inaccuracies in Ptolemy’s model of the orbits of the sun and planets. He improved on Ptolemy’s work – and somehow his writings reached the west over a hundred years later. Nicolaus Copernicus used the same data (in one instance directly copying a diagram) and made the intellectual leap to propose that the planets rotate around the sun, rather than the earth as al-Shatir still believed.
And here, as further evidence of the breadth and brilliance of expression in the islamic world, is a poem from this generation, from the Persian poet known to us only as Hafiz (meaning ‘strong memoried’). He delights in life in a similar vein to his predecessor Omar Khayyam:
The Feast of Spring
My breast is filled with roses,
My cup is crowned with wine,
And by my side reposes
The maid I hail as mine.
The monarch, wheresoe’er he be,
Is but a slave compared to me!
Their glare no torches throwing
Shall in our bower be found;
Her eyes, like moonbeams glowing,
Cast light enough around:
And well all odors I can spare,
Who scent the perfume of her hair.
The honey-dew thy charm might borrow,
Thy lip alone to me is sweet;
When thou art absent, faint with sorrow
I hide me in some lone retreat.
Why talk to me of power or fame?—
What are those idle toys to me?
Why ask the praises of my name?
My joy, my triumph is in thee!
How blest am I! around me, swelling,
The notes of melody arise;
I hold the cup, with juice excelling,
And gaze upon thy radiant eyes.
O Hafiz!—never waste thy hours
Without the cup, the lute, and love!
For ’tis the sweetest time of flowers,
And none these moments shall reprove.
The nightingales around thee sing,
It is the joyous feast of spring.