Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The sword and the scimitar

Just before daybreak on June 20, 1631, two ships manned by Barbary pirates and a force of Janissaries -- elite troops of the Turkish Ottoman empire -- slipped into the harbor of the fishing village of Baltimore, not far from here on the southwest coast of Ireland. With muffled oars they rowed ashore, surprising the villagers in their beds. The village was put to the torch, and nearly two dozen men, thirty-four women and fifty children -- mostly English settlers -- were hauled away to a life of slavery in Algiers. Some ended up in the galleys of the Ottoman navy, many were sold into private hands, some no doubt were sent in tribute to the Sultan in Constantinople and vanished into his harem. Few were ever heard from again.

The hue and cry in England and English-ruled Ireland was great. Barbarians! Infidels! Pernicious devils without a whit of Christian charity! Of course, the outrage did not keep the English from engaging in the same sorts of raids on West African villages in the succeeding two centuries.

One would like to think that we are all rather more civilized now. The idea that some humans might own other humans seems anachronistic, although we remember that the Greeks and Romans at the heights of their civilizations kept slaves, and that even that great democrat of the Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson, was a slaveholder. Slavery still exists in various parts of the world today. But as I sit here looking out my window at the waters plied by the 17th-century Barbary corsairs, all is serene. It would be hard to imagine a perspective less troubled by human greed or misery.

Progress? Is the world really better off today than in the past, and if so why? I would like to believe that the answer to the first question is yes, that a greater percentage of people enjoy security, prosperity, and health today than at any other time in history. As for why -- ah, that is a more contentious issue.

Certainly not a change in human nature. We are no doubt as biologically prone to greed and violence as ever. Religion? Almost everywhere in the world today were strife is rampant religion is part of the mix.

I would suggest that two things have contributed to social constraints on our rapacity.

First is the idea of progress. By and large, we no longer look back to a Golden Age in the past, as humans have done for most of their history. We are Utopians, with our eye on the future. We do not define ourselves by tradition

Second, empiricism. We ground our truths in the close observation of nature, not in tradition, authority or revelation.

These two qualities were being formulated in Europe at the time of the Baltimore raid. Francis Bacon had just died. Robert Boyle and Christian Huygens had just been born, and Newton's birth was a few years in the offing. Galileo was preparing his book on The Two Great World Systems for publication.

The Turks were turned back from the walls of Vienna in 1529, and beaten at sea at Lepanto in 1571. But it was in the realm of ideas, not on the battlefield, that Europe gained its ascendancy. Those two great ideas -- progress and empiricism -- have more than anything else contributed to the scene of security, prosperity and health I see outside my window. They are by no means universally accepted, not even in my own country, dedicated by the founders to secular equality. We are not out of the woods yet.