this is an important book that must be read (part 3)

#53 – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

i love how culture is described as “artificial instincts” – “Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called culture’.”

culture is not permanent. it changes.

“Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change.”

example of this contradiction – equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. if a society wants to guarantee equality, it will have to take away the freedoms of the rich.

“Such contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species.”

Cognitive dissonance – the ability to hold contradictory beliefs. “a vital asset”

“does history have a direction?

The answer is yes. Over the millennia, small, simple cultures gradually coalesce into bigger and more complex civilisations, so that the world contains fewer and fewer mega-cultures, each of which is bigger and more complex. This is of course a very crude generalisation, true only at the macro level. At the micro level, it seems that for every group of cultures that coalesces into a mega-culture, there’s a mega-culture that breaks up into pieces.”

example of culture breaking into pieces – christianity splintering into different sects.

“The best way to appreciate the general direction of history is to count the number of separate human worlds that coexisted at any given moment on planet Earth. Today, we are used to thinking about the whole planet as a single unit, but for most of history, earth was in fact an entire galaxy of isolated human worlds.”

isolated human world examples – “For 12,000 years, nobody else knew the Tasmanians were there, and they didn’t know that there was anyone else in the world. ” “America and Europe, too, were separate worlds for most of their histories. ”

“Today almost all humans share the same geopolitical system (the entire planet is divided into internationally recognised states); the same economic system (capitalist market forces shape even the remotest corners of the globe); the same legal system (human rights and international law are valid everywhere, at least theoretically); and the same scientific system (experts in Iran, Israel, Australia and Argentina have exactly the same views about the structure of atoms or the treatment of tuberculosis).”

“The single global culture is not homogeneous”

“One of the most interesting examples of this globalisation is ‘ethnic’ cuisine. ”

the tomatoes italians use in their spaghetti are mexican in origin, which only reached europe after spain conquered mexico.

“Potatoes reached Poland and Ireland no more than 400 years ago. The only steak you could obtain in Argentina in 1492 was from a llama.”

the native americans on horseback – europeans brought horses to America.

“The first millennium BC witnessed the appearance of three potentially universal orders, whose devotees could for the first time imagine the entire world and the entire human race as a single unit governed by a single set of laws. Everyone was ‘us’, at least potentially. There was no longer ‘them’. The first universal order to appear was economic: the monetary order. The second universal order was political: the imperial order. The third universal order was religious: the order of universal religions such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.”

the Aztecs were puzzled about the spanish’s obsession with gold. they usually pay with cocoa beans and bolts of cloth.

even though Muslims and Christians were at war, they were happy to issue and use each other’s coins with religious inscriptions

a simpler economy before money – “mutual favours and obligations plus a little barter with outsiders.”

“An economy of favours and obligations doesn’t work when large numbers of strangers try to cooperate. It’s one thing to provide free assistance to a sister or a neighbour, a very different thing to take care of foreigners who might never reciprocate the favour. One can fall back on barter. But barter is effective only when exchanging a limited range of products. It cannot form the basis for a complex economy.”

“Money was created many times in many places. Its development required no technological breakthroughs – it was a purely mental revolution. It involved the creation of a new inter-subjective reality that exists solely in people’s shared imagination.
Money is not coins and banknotes. ”

“There have been many types of money. The most familiar is the coin, which is a standardised piece of imprinted metal. Yet money existed long before the invention of coinage, and cultures have prospered using other things as currency, such as shells, cattle, skins, salt, grain, beads, cloth and promissory notes. Cowry shells were used as money for about 4,000 years all over Africa, South Asia, East Asia and Oceania. Taxes could still be paid in cowry shells in British Uganda in the early twentieth century.”

“n modern prisons and POW camps, cigarettes have often served as money. Even non-smoking prisoners have been willing to accept cigarettes in payment, and to calculate the value of all other goods and services in cigarettes. One Auschwitz survivor described the cigarette currency used in the camp: ‘… a loaf of bread cost twelve cigarettes; a 300-gram package of margarine, thirty; a watch, eighty to 200; a litre of alcohol, 400 cigarettes!”

“In 2006, the sum total of money in the world is about $60 trillion, yet the sum total of coins and banknotes was less than $6 trillion.More than 90 per cent of all money – more than $50 trillion appearing in our accounts – exists only on computer servers. ”

“Because money can convert, store and transport wealth easily and cheaply, it made a vital contribution to the appearance of complex commercial networks and dynamic markets. Without money, commercial networks and markets would have been doomed to remain very limited in their size, complexity and dynamism.”

“money isn’t a material reality – it is a psychological construct. It works by converting matter into mind. But why does it succeed? Why should anyone be willing to exchange a fertile rice paddy for a handful of useless cowry shells?…

“Money is accordingly a system of mutual trust, and not just any system of mutual trust: money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.”

“The crucial role of trust explains why our financial systems are so tightly bound up with our political, social and ideological systems, why financial crises are often triggered by political developments, and why the stock market can rise or fall depending on the way traders feel on a particular morning.”

“The real breakthrough in monetary history occurred when people gained trust in money that lacked inherent value (unlike barley), but was easier to store and transport. Such money appeared in ancient Mesopotamia in the middle of the third millennium BC. This was the silver shekel.”

“The silver shekel was not a coin, but rather 8.33 grams of silver. When Hammurabi’s Code declared that a superior man who killed a slave woman must pay her owner twenty silver shekels, it meant that he had to pay 166 grams of silver, not twenty coins. Most monetary terms in the Old Testament are given in terms of silver rather than coins. Josephs brothers sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty silver shekels, or rather 166 grams of silver (the same price as a slave woman – he was a youth, after all).”

“The first coins in history were struck around 640 BC by King Alyattes of Lydia, in western Anatolia. These coins had a standardised weight of gold or silver, and were imprinted with an identification mark. The mark testified to two things. First, it indicated how much precious metal the coin contained. Second, it identified the authority that issued the coin and that guaranteed its contents. Almost all coins in use today are descendants of the Lydian coins.”

“counterfeiting money has always been considered a much more serious crime than other acts of deception. Counterfeiting is not just cheating – it’s a breach of sovereignty, an act of subversion against the power, privileges and person of the king. The legal term is lese-majesty (violating majesty), and was typically punished by torture and death. As long as people trusted the power and integrity of the king, they trusted his coins. Total strangers could easily agree on the worth of a Roman denarius coin, because they trusted the power and integrity of the Roman emperor, whose name and picture adorned it.”

“The trust in Rome’s coins was so strong that even outside the empire’s borders, people were happy to receive payment in denarii. In the first century AD, Roman coins were an accepted medium of exchange in the markets of India, even though the closest Roman legion was thousands of kilometres away. The Indians had such a strong confidence in the denarius and the image of the emperor that when local rulers struck coins of their own they closely imitated the denarius, down to the portrait of the Roman emperor! The name ‘denarius’ became a generic name for coins. Muslim caliphs Arabicised this name and issued ‘dinars’. The dinar is still the official name of the currency in Jordan, Iraq, Serbia, Macedonia, Tunisia and several other countries.”

“By the late modern era the entire world was a single monetary zone, relying first on gold and silver, and later on a few trusted currencies such as the British pound and the American dollar.”

“People continued to speak mutually incomprehensible languages, obey different rulers and worship distinct gods, but all believed in gold and silver and in gold and silver coins. Without this shared belief, global trading networks would have been virtually impossible.”

“Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.”

“An empire is a political order with two important characteristics.” – cultural diversity and territorial flexibility.

empires are not necessarily made by conquest nor ruled by force. empires can be small. the Athenian empire at its peak is smaller than today’s Greece. The Aztec Empire was smaller than Mexico.

“The land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, which today struggles to satisfy the ambitions of just two peoples, easily accommodated in biblical times dozens of nations, tribes, petty kingdoms and city states.”

empires reduced human diversity drastically.

we may think empires do not work and are evil. “The truth is that empire has been the world’s most common form of political organisation for the last 2,500 years. ”

“Empire is also a very stable form of government. Most empires have found it alarmingly easy to put down rebellions. ”

“when the Western Roman Empire finally fell to invading Germanic tribes in 476 AD, the Numantians, Arverni, Helvetians, Samnites, Lusitanians, Umbrians, Etruscans and hundreds of other forgotten peoples whom the Romans conquered centuries earlier” had disappeared. they had become Romans.

empires brought destruction but also benefitted humanity.

“Imperial elites used the profits of conquest to finance not only armies and forts but also philosophy, art, justice and charity. A significant proportion of humanity’s cultural achievements owe their existence to the exploitation of conquered populations. The profits and prosperity brought by Roman imperialism provided Cicero, Seneca and St Augustine with the leisure and wherewithal to think and write; the Taj Mahal could not have been built without the wealth accumulated by Mughal exploitation of their Indian subjects; and the Habsburg Empire’s profits from its rule over its Slavic, Hungarian and Romanian-speaking provinces paid Haydn’s salaries and Mozart’s commissions.”

“Today most of us speak, think and dream in imperial languages that were forced upon our ancestors by the sword. Most East Asians speak and dream in the language of the Han Empire. No matter what their origins, nearly all the inhabitants of the two American continents, from Alaska’s Barrow Peninsula to the Straits of Magellan, communicate in one of four imperial languages: Spanish, Portuguese, French or English. Present-day Egyptians speak Arabic, think of themselves as Arabs, and identify wholeheartedly with the Arab Empire that conquered Egypt in the seventh century and crushed with an iron fist the repeated revolts that broke out against its rule. About 10 million Zulus in South Africa hark back to the Zulu age of glory in the nineteenth century, even though most of them descend from tribes who fought against the Zulu Empire, and were incorporated into it only through bloody military campaigns.”

“Cyrus (the Great of Persia), on the other hand, claimed not merely to rule the whole world, but to do so for the sake of all people. ‘We are conquering you for your own benefit,’ said the Persians. Cyrus wanted the peoples he subjected to love him and to count themselves lucky to be Persian vassals. The most famous example of Cyrus’ innovative efforts to gain the approbation of a nation living under the thumb of his empire was his command that the Jewish exiles in Babylonia be allowed to return to their Judaean homeland and rebuild their temple. He even offered them financial assistance. Cyrus did not see himself as a Persian king ruling over Jews – he was also the king of the Jews, and thus responsible for their welfare.”

Us vs. them. “In the language of the Dinka people of the Sudan, ‘Dinka’ simply means ‘people’. People who are not Dinka are not people. The Dinka’s bitter enemies are the Nuer. What does the word Nuer mean in Nuer language? It means ‘original people’. Thousands of kilometres from the Sudan deserts, in the frozen ice-lands of Alaska and north-eastern Siberia, live the Yupiks. What does Yupik mean in Yupik language? It means ‘real people’.”

is this why the Chinese are always thinking about reunification? “In Chinese political thinking as well as Chinese historical memory, imperial periods were henceforth seen as golden ages of order and justice. In contradiction to the modern Western view that a just world is composed of separate nation states, in China periods of political fragmentation were seen as dark ages of chaos and injustice. This perception has had far-reaching implications for Chinese history. Every time an empire collapsed, the dominant political theory goaded the powers that be not to settle for paltry independent principalities, but to attempt reunification. Sooner or later these attempts always succeeded.”

empires spread ideas, customs and norms to make ruling easier. “Standardisation was a boon to emperors.”

We did it for them mentality of the empires. Very self-serving.

“most imperial elites earnestly believed that they were working for the general welfare of all the empires inhabitants. China’s ruling class treated their country’s neighbours and its foreign subjects as miserable barbarians to whom the empire must bring the benefits of culture. The Mandate of Heaven was bestowed upon the emperor not in order to exploit the world, but in order to educate humanity. The Romans, too, justified their dominion by arguing that they were endowing the barbarians with peace, justice and refinement…

The Mauryan Empire in the third century BC took as its mission the dissemination of Buddha’s teachings to an ignorant world. The Muslim caliphs received a divine mandate to spread the Prophet’s revelation, peacefully if possible but by the sword if necessary. The Spanish and Portuguese empires proclaimed that it was not riches they sought in the Indies and America, but converts to the true faith. The sun never set on the British mission to spread the twin gospels of liberalism and free trade. The Soviets felt duty-bound to facilitate the inexorable historical march from capitalism towards the utopian dictatorship of the proletariat. Many Americans nowadays maintain that their government has a moral imperative to bring Third World countries the benefits of democracy and human rights, even if these goods are delivered by cruise missiles and F-16s.”

“The conquered no longer saw the empire as an alien system of occupation, and the conquerors came to view their subjects as equal to themselves. Rulers and ruled alike came to see ‘them’ as ‘us’. All the subjects of Rome eventually, after centuries of imperial rule, were granted Roman citizenship. Non-Romans rose to occupy the top ranks in the officer corps of the Roman legions and were appointed to the Senate.”

“A similar process occurred in the Arab Empire. When it was established in the mid-seventh century AD, it was based on a sharp division between the ruling Arab–Muslim elite and the subjugated Egyptians, Syrians, Iranians and Berbers, who were neither Arabs nor Muslim. Many of the empire’s subjects gradually adopted the Muslim faith, the Arabic language and a hybrid imperial culture. The old Arab elite looked upon these parvenus with deep hostility, fearing to lose its unique status and identity. The frustrated converts clamoured for an equal share within the empire and in the world of Islam. Eventually they got their way. Egyptians, Syrians and Mesopotamians were increasingly seen as ‘Arabs’. Arabs, in their turn – whether authentic’ Arabs from Arabia or newly minted Arabs from Egypt and Syria – came to be increasingly dominated by non-Arab Muslims, in particular by Iranians, Turks and Berbers. The great success of the Arab imperial project was that the imperial culture it created was wholeheartedly adopted by numerous non-Arab people, who continued to uphold it, develop it and spread it – even after the original empire collapsed and the Arabs as an ethnic group lost their dominion.”

no cultures are pure. “All human cultures are at least in part the legacy of empires and imperial civilisations, and no academic or political surgery can cut out the imperial legacies without killing the patient.”

“Indians are passionate cricket players and chai (tea) drinkers, and both game and beverage are British legacies. Commercial tea farming did not exist in India until the mid-nineteenth century, when it was introduced by the British East India Company. It was the snobbish British sahibs who spread the custom of tea drinking throughout the subcontinent.”

is there a global empire as the author believes? “The global empire being forged before our eyes is not governed by any particular state or ethnic group. Much like the Late Roman Empire, it is ruled by a multi-ethnic elite, and is held together by a common culture and common interests. Throughout the world, more and more entrepreneurs, engineers, experts, scholars, lawyers and managers are called to join the empire. They must ponder whether to answer the imperial call or to remain loyal to their state and their people. More and more choose the empire.”

“Today religion is often considered a source of discrimination, disagreement and disunion. Yet, in fact, religion has been the third great unifier of humankind, alongside money and empires. Since all social orders and hierarchies are imagined, they are all fragile, and the larger the society, the more fragile it is.”

“Religion can thus be defined as a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order. This involves two distinct criteria:

“1. Religions hold that there is a superhuman order, which is not the product of human whims or agreements…

2. Based on this superhuman order, religion establishes norms and values that it considers binding. ”

“In order to unite under its aegis a large expanse of territory inhabited by disparate groups of human beings, a religion must possess two further qualities. First, it must espouse a universal superhuman order that is true always and everywhere. Second, it must insist on spreading this belief to everyone. In other words, it must be universal and missionary.”

“As far as we know, universal and missionary religions began to appear only in the first millennium BC. Their emergence was one of the most important revolutions in history, and made a vital contribution to the unification of humankind, much like the emergence of universal empires and universal money.”

when humans were animistic, we were concerned about “a multitude of other beings, such as animals, plants, fairies and ghosts” “Such religions tended to be very local in outlook, and to emphasise the unique features of specific locations, climates and phenomena. Most foragers spent their entire lives within an area of no more than a thousand square kilometres. In order to survive, the inhabitants of a particular valley needed to understand the super-human order that regulated their valley, and to adjust their behaviour accordingly.”

when we were animistic, we did not send missionaries. it did not matter what the people in another area believed.

when we were hunters and gatherers, we did not consider plants and other animals inferior to us. in fact, we might have worshipped certain beings that live in them.

“Hence the first religious effect of the Agricultural Revolution was to turn plants and animals from equal members of a spiritual round table into property.”

“A leading theory about the origin of the gods argues that gods gained importance because they offered a solution to this problem. Gods such as the fertility goddess, the sky god and the god of medicine took centre stage when plants and animals lost their ability to speak (it was believed that spirits lived in them), and the gods’ main role was to mediate between humans and the mute plants and animals. Much of ancient mythology is in fact a legal contract in which humans promise everlasting devotion to the gods in exchange for mastery over plants and animals – the first chapters of the book of Genesis are a prime example. For thousands of years after the Agricultural Revolution, religious liturgy consisted mainly of humans sacrificing lambs, wine and cakes to divine powers, who in exchange promised abundant harvests and fecund flocks.”

“As long as people lived their entire lives within limited territories of a few hundred square kilometres, most of their needs could be met by local spirits. But once kingdoms and trade networks expanded, people needed to contact entities whose power and authority encompassed a whole kingdom or an entire trade basin.”

“Animism did not entirely disappear at the advent of polytheism. Demons, fairies, ghosts, holy rocks, holy springs and holy trees remained an integral part of almost all polytheist religions. These spirits were far less important than the great gods, but for the mundane needs of many ordinary people, they were good enough. While the king in his capital city sacrificed dozens of fat rams to the great war god, praying for victory over the barbarians, the peasant in his hut lit a candle to the fig-tree fairy, praying that she help cure his sick son.”

“Animists thought that humans were just one of many creatures inhabiting the world. Polytheists, on the other hand, increasingly saw the world as a reflection of the relationship between gods and humans. Our prayers, our sacrifices, our sins and our good deeds determined the fate of the entire ecosystem… Polytheism thereby exalted not only the status of the gods, but also that of humankind. ”

“Polytheism does not necessarily dispute the existence of a single power or law governing the entire universe. In fact, most polytheist and even animist religions recognised such a supreme power that stands behind all the different gods, demons and holy rocks. In classical Greek polytheism, Zeus, Hera, Apollo and their colleagues were subject to an omnipotent and all-encompassing power – Fate (Moira, Ananke). Nordic gods, too, were in thrall to fate, which doomed them to perish in the cataclysm of Ragnarök (the Twilight of the Gods). In the polytheistic religion of the Yoruba of West Africa, all gods were born of the supreme god Olodumare, and remained subject to him. In Hindu polytheism, a single principle, Atman, controls the myriad gods and spirits, humankind, and the biological and physical world. Atman is the eternal essence or soul of the entire universe, as well as of every individual and every phenomenon.”

why we need so many gods when there’s already a single power? – “The fundamental insight of polytheism, which distinguishes it from monotheism, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of interests and biases, and therefore it is unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares and worries of humans.”

“The only reason to approach the supreme power of the universe would be to renounce all desires and embrace the bad along with the good – to embrace even defeat, poverty, sickness and death. Thus some Hindus, known as Sadhus or Sannyasis, devote their lives to uniting with Atman, thereby achieving enlightenment. They strive to see the world from the viewpoint of this fundamental principle, to realise that from its eternal perspective all mundane desires and fears are meaningless and ephemeral phenomena.”

“Most Hindus, however, are not Sadhus. They are sunk deep in the morass of mundane concerns, where Atman is not much help. For assistance in such matters, Hindus approach the gods with their partial powers. Precisely because their powers are partial rather than all-encompassing, gods such as Ganesha, Lakshmi and Saraswati have interests and biases. Humans can therefore make deals with these partial powers and rely on their help in order to win wars and recuperate from illness. There are necessarily many of these smaller powers, since once you start dividing up the all-encompassing power of a supreme principle, you’ll inevitably end up with more than one deity. Hence the plurality of gods.”

“Even when polytheists conquered huge empires, they did not try to convert their subjects. The Egyptians, the Romans and the Aztecs did not send missionaries to foreign lands to spread the worship of (their gods)…”

“Subject peoples throughout the empire were expected to respect the empire’s gods and rituals, since these gods and rituals protected and legitimised the empire. Yet they were not required to give up their local gods and rituals. ”

“The only god that the Romans long refused to tolerate was the monotheistic and evangelising god of the Christians. The Roman Empire did not require the Christians to give up their beliefs and rituals, but it did expect them to pay respect to the empire’s protector gods and to the divinity of the emperor. This was seen as a declaration of political loyalty. When the Christians vehemently refused to do so, and went on to reject all attempts at compromise, the Romans reacted by persecuting what they understood to be a politically subversive faction. And even this was done half-heartedly. In the 300 years from the crucifixion of Christ to the conversion of Emperor Constantine, polytheistic Roman emperors initiated no more than four general persecutions of Christians. ”

“Still, if we combine all the victims of all these persecutions, it turns out that in these three centuries, the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.”

“The religious wars between Catholics and Protestants that swept Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are particularly notorious.”

“These theological disputes turned so violent that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Catholics and Protestants killed each other by the hundreds of thousands. On 23 August 1572, French Catholics who stressed the importance of good deeds attacked communities of French Protestants who highlighted God’s love for humankind. In this attack, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, between 5,000 and 10,000 Protestants were slaughtered in less than twenty-four hours. When the pope in Rome heard the news from France, he was so overcome by joy that he organised festive prayers to celebrate the occasion and commissioned Giorgio Vasari to decorate one of the Vatican’s rooms with a fresco of the massacre (the room is currently off-limits to visitors). More Christians were killed by fellow Christians in those twenty-four hours than by the polytheistic Roman Empire throughout its entire existence.”

“With time some followers of polytheist gods became so fond of their particular patron that they drifted away from the basic polytheist insight. They began to believe that their god was the only god, and that He was in fact the supreme power of the universe. Yet at the same time they continued to view Him as possessing interests and biases, and believed that they could strike deals with Him. Thus were born monotheist religions, whose followers beseech the supreme power of the universe to help them recover from illness, win the lottery and gain victory in war.”

“Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than polytheists… Since monotheists have usually believed that they are in possession of the entire message of the one and only God, they have been compelled to discredit all other religions. Over the last two millennia, monotheists repeatedly tried to strengthen their hand by violently exterminating all competition.”

“The monotheist religions expelled the gods through the front door with a lot of fanfare, only to take them back in through the side window. Christianity, for example, developed its own pantheon of saints, whose cults differed little from those of the polytheistic gods.”

“Just as the god Jupiter defended Rome and Huitzilopochtli protected the Aztec Empire, so every Christian kingdom had its own patron saint who helped it overcome difficulties and win wars. England was protected by St George, Scotland by St Andrew, Hungary by St Stephen, and France had St Martin.”

“The Christian saints did not merely resemble the old polytheistic gods. Often they were these very same gods in disguise. For example, the chief goddess of Celtic Ireland prior to the coming of Christianity was Brigid. When Ireland was Christianised, Brigid too was baptised. She became St Brigit, who to this day is the most revered saint in Catholic Ireland.”

“Dualism explains that the entire universe is a battleground between these two forces, and that everything that happens in the world is part of the struggle.
Dualism is a very attractive world view because it has a short and simple answer to the famous Problem of Evil, one of the fundamental concerns of human thought.”

“So, monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe – and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.”

“monotheism, as it has played out in history, is a kaleidoscope of monotheist, dualist, polytheist and animist legacies, jumbling together under a single divine umbrella. The average Christian believes in the monotheist God, but also in the dualist Devil, in polytheist saints, and in animist ghosts. Scholars of religion have a name for this simultaneous avowal of different and even contradictory ideas and the combination of rituals and practices taken from different sources. It’s called syncretism. Syncretism might, in fact, be the single great world religion.”

“the religious history of the world does not boil down to the history of gods. During the first millennium BC, religions of an altogether new kind began to spread through Afro-Asia. The newcomers, such as Jainism and Buddhism in India, Daoism and Confucianism in China, and Stoicism, Cynicism and Epicureanism in the Mediterranean basin, were characterised by their disregard of gods.”

“The modern age has witnessed the rise of a number of new natural-law religions, such as liberalism, Communism, capitalism, nationalism and Nazism. These creeds do not like to be called religions, and refer to themselves as ideologies. But this is just a semantic exercise. If a religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order, then Soviet Communism was no less a religion than Islam.”

“In early modern Europe, murderers were thought to violate and destabilise the cosmic order. To bring the cosmos back to balance, it was necessary to torture and publicly execute the criminal, so that everyone could see the order re-established. Attending gruesome executions was a favourite pastime for Londoners and Parisians in the era of Shakespeare and Molière. In today’s Europe, murder is seen as a violation of the sacred nature of humanity. In order to restore order, present-day Europeans do not torture and execute criminals. Instead, they punish a murderer in what they see as the most ‘humane’ way possible, thus safeguarding and even rebuilding his human sanctity. ”

“Even though liberal humanism sanctifies humans, it does not deny the existence of God, and is, in fact, founded on monotheist beliefs. The liberal belief in the free and sacred nature of each individual is a direct legacy of the traditional Christian belief in free and eternal individual souls. Without recourse to eternal souls and a Creator God, it becomes embarrassingly difficult for liberals to explain what is so special about individual Sapiens.”

“The main ambition of the Nazis was to protect humankind from degeneration and encourage its progressive evolution. This is why the Nazis said that the Aryan race, the most advanced form of humanity, had to be protected and fostered, while degenerate kinds of Homo sapiens like Jews, Roma, homosexuals and the mentally ill had to be quarantined and even exterminated. ”

“According to the Nazis, Homo sapiens had already divided into several distinct races, each with its own unique qualities. One of these races, the Aryan race, had the finest qualities – rationalism, beauty, integrity, diligence. The Aryan race therefore had the potential to turn man into superman. Other races, such as Jews and blacks, were today’s Neanderthals, possessing inferior qualities. If allowed to breed, and in particular to intermarry with Aryans, they would adulterate all human populations and doom Homo sapiens to extinction.”

“Our liberal political and judicial systems are founded on the belief that every individual has a sacred inner nature, indivisible and immutable, which gives meaning to the world, and which is the source of all ethical and political authority. This is a reincarnation of the traditional Christian belief in a free and eternal soul that resides within each individual. Yet over the last 200 years, the life sciences have thoroughly undermined this belief. Scientists studying the inner workings of the human organism have found no soul there. They increasingly argue that human behaviour is determined by hormones, genes and synapses, rather than by free will – the same forces that determine the behaviour of chimpanzees, wolves, and ants. Our judicial and political systems largely try to sweep such inconvenient discoveries under the carpet. But in all frankness, how long can we maintain the wall separating the department of biology from the departments of law and political science?”

the more you know, the more you don’t know – “This is one of the distinguishing marks of history as an academic discipline – the better you know a particular historical period, the harder it becomes to explain why things happened one way and not another. ”

“It is an iron rule of history that what looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time. ”

anything can happen – “It is particularly important to stress that possibilities which seem very unlikely to contemporaries often get realised. When Constantine assumed the throne in 306, Christianity was little more than an esoteric Eastern sect. If you were to suggest then that it was about to become the Roman state religion, you’d have been laughed out of the room just as you would be today if you were to suggest that by the year 2050 Hare Krishna would be the state religion of the USA.”

“Not that everything is possible. Geographical, biological and economic forces create constraints. Yet these constraints leave ample room for surprising developments, which do not seem bound by any deterministic laws.”

“History cannot be explained deterministically and it cannot be predicted because it is chaotic. So many forces are at work and their interactions are so complex that extremely small variations in the strength of the forces and the way they interact produce huge differences in outcomes. Not only that, but history is what is called a ‘level two’ chaotic system.”

“Level two chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it, and therefore can never be predicted accurately. Markets, for example, are a level two chaotic system. What will happen if we develop a computer program that forecasts with 100 per cent accuracy the price of oil tomorrow? The price of oil will immediately react to the forecast, which would consequently fail to materialise.”

“Unlike physics or economics, history is not a means for making accurate predictions. We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.”

“history’s choices are not made for the benefit of humans. There is absolutely no proof that human well-being inevitably improves as history rolls along.”

“Ever more scholars see cultures as a kind of mental infection or parasite, with humans as its unwitting host. Organic parasites, such as viruses, live inside the body of their hosts. They multiply and spread from one host to the other, feeding off their hosts, weakening them, and sometimes even killing them. As long as the hosts live long enough to pass along the parasite, it cares little about the condition of its host. In just this fashion, cultural ideas live inside the minds of humans. They multiply and spread from one host to another, occasionally weakening the hosts and sometimes even killing them. A cultural idea – such as belief in Christian heaven above the clouds or Communist paradise here on earth – can compel a human to dedicate his or her life to spreading that idea, even at the price of death. The human dies, but the idea spreads.”

Mark Zuckerberg inspired me to start an annual personal project – read a non-fiction book every week and write about it. 

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