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Twice the First Time

January 1, 2012

I just finished Will McCants’ lovely little book, Founding Gods, Inventing Nations (not to be confused with his earlier work, Much Ado About Prom Night) (okay, so that’s probably a different Will McCants) (or maybe that’s just what he wants us to think?).

Anyway! I think Caitlin’s planning on a real review, which is good, because one of us has studied religion and history extensively and one of us is me. And Founding Gods deserves a real review, which this isn’t. Instead, I’d like to offer some disjointed thoughts and modern parallels that I’m sure Will did not intend anybody to make. Sorry, friend. You should’ve known better.

Caveat lector of this blog post: I’ve taken a lot of cold medicine just before writing this. Caveat lector of Founding Gods: you need a dictionary handy should you wish to read this (which I recommend you do!) – there are many, many Big Words, some of which Will probably made up. You may wish to have Wikipedia close by as well, unless you’re very familiar with the histories of most early civilizations. Also, I recommend reading this backwards – read the book’s conclusion first, then go back to Chapter 1 and read the conclusion of that, then read the full chapter, etc. Founding Gods is short but dense, and it’s easy to get caught up in the details and lose sight of the broader arguments. This is not the Will McCants who rides around in a banana – this is Serious Academic Will McCants, though he does use the phrase “new kids on the Mediterranean block” and makes a sly reference to “winter is coming” (p. 15) (apparently the ancient conception of that idea requires people to build greenhouses, not armies and fortresses – see, you’ll learn things!).

Will’s central idea – that elites used their interpretations of the origins of culture and civilization to shape their political, social, and intellectual environment – seems fundamentally reasonable. I have no basis of knowledge from which to evaluate his scholarship or evidence as presented, but if the origins of a cultural artifact or technai matter, then it’s logical to assume that elites will interpret or modify those origins to suit their needs. In antiquity, the question of whether a technology or type of knowledge was human-derived (and therefore less acceptable and possibly sinful) or taught to humans by a divine being (and therefore assumed to be beneficial to humanity) was worthy of debate, because the origin of the technology  determined the acceptability of its pursuit or study.

There’s certainly modern evidence that origins matter. We’re unlikely to debate the divinity of the origins of modern technology now, of course, but the question of etiology, or origination, remains salient. While I don’t wish to engage in the specific debate, the recent back-and-forth between Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates over the origins and use of intelligence research (1 2 3 4 5 6 7) seems to parallel ancient debates over the acceptability of the use of certain forms of knowledge. While antiquity dealt with more abstract and undocumented innovations such as the invention of clothing, in the Sullivan-Coates debate, the specific question of whence arose research into human intelligence is knowable. For Coates, the ahistoricity of Sullivan’s initial argument is abhorrent, because the history of the research is, broadly speaking, evil – its originators pursued it for racist ends to determine who is considered worthy of society’s resources, and by that token future research into the subject should be pursued carefully, with deep sensitivity to who it impacts. For Sullivan, the history should be noted but should not be allowed to preclude further research. The origins of this research are less important to him, but by engaging and ultimately dismissing Coates’ argument that the research was initially undertaken with evil intent, Sullivan demonstrates the importance of etiology.

Maybe there’s another modern parallel in genetically modified food; there are differing opinions on its origins – OMG Monsanto is evil! v. OMG Monsanto will save the world! – and there are legitimate debates to be had about its use and the implications thereof, which may also feed into value judgements about its origins. In addition to the exchange-of-information value of these debates, they also serve to locate the debaters within their own communities, and to define and reinforce said communities as they jockey for position within broader society and culture.

In short, humans care where their knowledge comes from, and therefore will use the origins of knowledge to for their own ends. That may seem prosaic, and it is, but contrast this with, say, great apes’ use of tools – this is also a technological innovation, but apes seem oddly unconcerned with where, how, or why they gained this knowledge, and do not use the origins of tool-use to promote, say, chimpanzee culture over orangutan culture. I should’ve stopped a paragraph ago, huh?

Switching trains of thought entirely, I found particularly fascinating the ancient ambivalence towards ironsmithing and metallurgy as expressed through cultural ascription of its origins to either a god, an angel, or a human. In a section discussing the Qur’anic depiction of David as a divinely-inspired creator of armor-smithing culture, Will explains how this departed from pre-Islamic understanding of smithcraft:

… This is not something early Jewish and Christian scripture would attribute to God or to a biblical hero. God has nothing to do with iron, and those who originate smithcraft are sinful; moreover, the application of this technology to the crafting of weapons and armor leads to bloodshed and ruin.

The suspicion of smithcraft and of those who practice it went beyond Judaism and Christianity, as may be inferred from Hesiod’s linkage of the deteriorating of the five races and the development of ironsmithing. It was, as Fritz Graf points out, a suspicion held by many in the ancient Mediterranean world. … Prefiguring Qur’an 57:25, Pliny remarks, “Iron is an excellent or detrimental instrument for human life, according to the use we put it to.” But elsewhere he focuses on the destructive results of matellurgy: “Nothing [is] more pernicious (than iron) for it is employed in making swords, javelins, spears, pikes, arrows – weapons by which men are wounded and die, and which causes slaughter, robbery and wars.”

I find it comforting that there’s nothing new to our debates about whether particular technologies or uses thereof are good or bad; in some ways we’re just continuing a long tradition of disagreement (hey, I take comfort where I can get it). Too, norms change; even as smiths were reviled and feared in ancient culture, in colonial America, gunsmiths were prized for their rarity and their talent. In Alexander Rose’s American Rifle, he relates an anecdote from Lewis and Clark’s expedition to the Pacific in which “Le Borgne, a one-eyed Indian chief, threatened to massacre the Corps of Discovery but said he would make an exception for ‘the worker of iron and the mender of guns.'”

To the extent there’s any larger point to be made out of this, it might be that as a unit of culture or technology matures, its origins become less important and its applications matter more. We don’t care who invented ironsmithing anymore; we do care to what use we put said iron. Or maybe the point is just that you should pick up a copy of Founding Gods, Inventing Nations. It’s not an easy read, but it’s rewarding. Yeah, let’s go with that one.

One Comment
  1. January 3, 2012 9:42 am

    Sounds great, I’ve added it to my reading list. Also, the book happens to have a single, hilarious review on Goodreads right now:

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