21 January 2018

Some Thoughts on Creating Modernity from Antiquity

"Ancient Wisdom." It's a term that really only gets taken seriously in areas related to new age medicine, spiritual health, diets, or other hippie-ish shit that I disdain. But from a wider historical perspective, it is a bit sad to see how little we care for ancient wisdom or antiquity in general. That's not to say I'm some luddite or nostalgiafag, but I am fascinated by how much "Antiquity" occupied the minds of past peoples. There was once a time — a time long before it was considered normal to buy a new smartphone after just paying off your last phone's payment plans — when "Antiquity" meant legitimacy, truth, and wisdom. I write antiquity here as "Antiquity" because in an age before sophisticated archaeological and historiographical analyses, popular conceptions of antiquity were more imagined than real. Such imagined constructions of "Antiquity" allowed for new interpretations and ideas, while called a revival at the time, would actually inch society closer to modernity. And it's on this point I just wanted to share some fun examples today.

With the birth of the Renaissance, European intellectuals and artists increasingly sought to revive the wisdom of classical antiquity. While this story of the renaissance, literally meaning "rebirth," is likely familiar to most people, what's often left out from the narrative told by historians of "high culture" is that there was a revival of the military traditions of antiquity. Polybius, the famous Greek historian of Rome, was one classical writer who was rediscovered in this period. Initially, men such as Niccolo Macchiavelli showed interest in Polybius' political philosophy (as evidenced in Discourses on Livy), but by the late 16th century, more and more writers became interested in Polybius' digressions into Rome's military organization and tactics. This desire was likely fuelled in part by the looming Ottoman threat over Europe, but also the rapidly expanding scale of warfare and hot-spots of almost ceaseless military conflicts (ex. Northern Italy) fought by mercenary armies who could be unreliable at the most critical moments.
For late 16th century European writers, familiar with how fickle mercenaries could be, the highly organized and professional nature of classical Roman and Greek armies was an exemplary model worthy of being revived. For example, in De Militia Romana, Justus Lipsius' translation and commentary of Polybius' writings on the Roman army, Lipsius had the following to say about the lack of military discipline in his time:
Whichever way one esteems the discipline of the Ancients, now there is none at all, as the very soldiers will acknowledge. O shame! O dishonour! Even barbarians and Scythians outdo us in this aspect, for at least, they have some kind of standards; we have none!
The drum sounds: they assemble, have their name put in the musterbooks, they make a few changes to their attire, assume a forbidding look, play the ruffians and lose themselves in boozing: here comes the army! (translation taken from chapter 6 of Recreating Ancient History: Episodes from the Greek & Roman Past in the Arts & Literature)
And it was amidst these calls for a revival of military discipline and translation of classical military treatises that one of the most important innovations in early modern warfare was invented by former Leiden University students of Lipsius. I'm of course referring to Willem Lodewijk and Maurice of Nassau's development of the volley-fire countermarch. Now there are several points that I wish to clear up (despite having no academic credentials) just because there seems to be a lot of confusion regarding the terminology and development.
Crossbow volley-fire
First off, volley-fire and countermarch are two separate things and are not interchangeable. Volley-fire simply means having a missile troops shoot in turns at fixed, regular intervals so that there is a continuous volley of missile-fire. This is typically considered better than having missile troops shoot haphazardly because it discourages enemy melee-troops from closing in. The most commonly used method of volley fire in early modern armies around the world was firing by rank, which means one horizontal line of troops would fire at a time while the other lines would be reloading. But there were other methods such as firing by file or platoon. Countermarch, on the other hand, refers to a type of march as the name implies. I thought this was self-evident, but I've read more than a few books and articles that either confuse the two or make a logical leap in assuming volley-fire is always combined with countermarch. Speaking very generally, countermarch is a marching maneuver that involves marching the opposite way from where one was initially facing. This video very clearly demonstrates what it looks like. But in the specific context of countermarching to provide rapid volley fire, it is used to mean how the first rank (horizontal line) will peal away to the back of the formation after they finish firing. You can see a virtual re-enactment of this here.
Two alternative ways of cycling troops in the first rank to the back after firing.
Left was the original proposal of Willem Lodewijk, but the right became what 
was more widely used in actual practice by Dutch armies.
Countermarching need not necessarily accompany volley-fire (see this video), and as guns became lighter, faster, and possible to reload easily while kneeling, it became rather pointless to physically have men at the front line march to the back. It was much faster to just keep men fixed in their positions and keep firing away by either ranks or platoons.

The second and more important point I want to bring up is how Willem Lodewijk and his cousin, Maurice of Nassau, came to develop the volley-fire and countermarch. There seems to be a popular notion that they were inspired by Roman troops using the countermarch to deliver volleys of javelins, and this is the version you find in this wikpedia page. This is likely wrong because Willem, the one who came up with the idea of applying countermarches to musketeers, was inspired by the Aelianus Tacticus, a military treatise about Hellenistic army tactics and drill, not Roman drills. In contrast, Maurice was the one who preferred learning from the Roman army, hence his adaptation of the Roman maniples. Another reason why it's wrong is that when Aelian discusses countermarching, it's a drill meant for melee heavy infantry (phalangites and hoplites), not missile troops. I'm pretty sure there's no mention anywhere about volley-fire or countermarches for javeliners, slingers, or archers. This might seem odd to you if you've only ever seen countermarching within the context of volley-firing crossbowmen or musketeers. But the countermarching that military officers of antiquity were more concerned with was like this video already linked, which is all about getting a formation of troops to face another direction while still maintaining the same order.
Macedonian phalanxes countermarching before battle 
This might be hard to understand if you imagine an infantry formation as being composed of identical soldiers. But in reality, infantry formations will have inexperienced soldiers, experienced soldiers, junior officers, senior officers, etc. Greek hoplite and Macedonian phalanx formations designated officers at specific positions in the formation, as well as veterans soldiers to be placed at the rear or at the flanks. So let's say you had to get your rectangular infantry formation to meet an enemy attack from the rear. If you simply had each soldier stand in place while turning 180°, then these positions will all be out of order. Same goes for transitioning between a marching column and a stationary battle formation ready for action. That's why the convoluted countermarch was actually necessary in practice to pull off a seemingly simple manuever of turning around. As an aside, I highly recommend reading Christopher Matthews' An Invincible Beast: Understanding the Hellenistic Pike Phalanx in Action because that book does the best job in detailing how many ways such maneuvers could possibly have been done.

My point here with this example is that while military reformers such as Willem Lodewijk and Maurice of Nassau are sometimes thought of simply reviving the lost art of Greek and Roman military drill, but they deserve more credit than that. They ignored Lipsius' suggestion early modern European armies to give up their guns and fight as the Romans did. They also ignored those scholars who argued that the advent of gunpowder invalidated all Roman precedents and that there was nothing applicable from classical military texts. Instead, they sought to take contemporary context within mind as they reinterpreted and borrowed the wisdom of antiquity, resulting in a final product that was quite different from the original. Their version of the countermarch that helped revolutionize early modern European warfare was not something that Roman and Greek armies would have recognized. Rather than being a heavy-infantry maneuver to be used before the actual fighting, the Dutch countermarching volley-fire was a missile-infantry manuever to be used during fighting.

Fuck, I now realize I spent over a thousand words in a throwaway example from military history, so let me finally get to what I originally intended to talk about: Confucian economic thought.
Ideal four-class Confucian social structure as envisioned in early modern Japan
For people even remotely familiar with Confucianism or early modern East Asia, it's an oft-repeated idea that merchants were repressed or disrespected in traditional Confucian society. The ideal Confucian social structure consists of the gentry/militarized aristocracy, farmer, craftsman, and merchant; in this social order, the merchant was reviled for being immoral, greedy, or even lazy as Confucian ideologues typically saw them as economic parasites who profited from the labour of others. To a certain extent, this anti-merchant bias in Confucianism is undeniable, but it's often exaggerated by armchair cultural anthropologists (according to me, another armchair expert). For instance, there was once a popular axiom in the early 20th century that East Asian economies failed to develop on account of Confucianism, but in the wake of the Four Asian Tigers' growth, some scholars and journalists were now crediting Confucian social solidarity as a critical reason for their economic successes. Such facile analyses ignore the fact that even within one "group" of intellectual thought such as Confucianism, thinkers can be surprisingly flexible in the way they interpret canonical texts. This should be obvious to anybody who ever read about how much Marxists bickered among themselves. A related joke here would be, "If you ask two people of the same religion one question, you'll get three answers."
On an unrelated note, as a guy not too interested by metaphysical philosophy,
Neo-Confucianism is a little "too much" for my liking.
Confucian thinkers, like those of other religions or philosophies, were thus able to change their interpretations of the supposedly unchanging "Confucian tradition" in response to different contexts they lived in. As such, it's not surprising to see a more commerce-friendly Confucianism emerge in the highly commercialized world of early modern China, during which most Neo-Confucian bureaucrats came from merchant families, since they were the ones who could actually afford the expensive education needed to pass the civil service exams. For instance, Zhu Xi (1130-1200), one of the most famous fathers of Neo-Confucianism, came from a very wealthy merchant family in Huizhou. Although his ideas are commonly thought to be anti-merchant, Zhu Xi differentiated "human desire" (a term typically used with negative connotations in opposition to "heavenly principle" in classic Confucian canon) into those human desires that conformed with heavenly principle and those that were excessive and deviated from heavenly principle. Such ideas of "human desire" that could be compatible with "heavenly principle" were then further explored by Huizhou merchants who eagerly adopted specific Neo-Confucian ideas to justify their trade and profit-making.
No offense, Wang Yangming, but your hat looks like there's a red dick flying out from it.
Another example comes from Wang Yangming (1472-1529), the leading figure in the school of Neo-Confucianism that competed with Zhu Xi's school of Neo-Confucianism. In Zhu Xi's philosophy, knowledge is prerequisite to morality. That is to say, it is only by investigating Confucian texts that a person can learn what is good or evil, and thus live virtuously. In contrast, Wang Yangming takes a more Kantian view (or perhaps, it should be vice-versa, since Kant came more than 200 years after Wang Yangming): people can innately differentiate good from evil because moral knowledge comes from intuition rather than rational reason. I bring this up because it is from this concept of "innate knowledge" that Wang Yangming goes on to state that all four social classes shared the same dao/Path and could thus attain sage-hood  Hence, his famous proposition that even a merchant or one who does business all day long could become a sage.
Google Noguchi Tetsuya if you haven't heard of him.
But the most striking example comes from the Japanese Neo-Confucian scholar Kaiho Seiryou (1755-1817) who wrote thus to justify the pursuit of economic profit:
It is efficient to look at the root of things. Why are rice fields delivered to farmers and rice is paid by them? What is the logic to take rice from farmers? . . . All things between heaven and earth are goods, including rice fields, mountains, seas, money and rice. It is a principle that goods repeatedly give birth to goods. That rice fields give birth to rice is no different from money yielding interest. It is the principle of the universe that mountains give birth to wood, that seas contain fish and salt, and that money or rice yields interest. Rice fields produce nothing if left unattended. Money yields nothing if set aside. Rice fields are lent to farmers, and a ten percent land tax is paid by them. This is the same as collecting ten percent interest. . . . Taxes on rice fields, mountains and the sea are the same as interest. Taxation is the equivalent of lending goods and taking interest. It is natural that interest must be taken. . . . It is the principle of the universe. . . . This is the situation with lower-status merchants, and it is not bad. From the earliest times, it has been said that the relations between lord and retainer conform to the way of the market (shidō 市道). A lord lets a retainer work by giving him an annual stipend, and a retainer obtains rice by selling his own power to a lord. A lord buys a retainer and a retainer sells oneself to a lord. That is just buying and selling. Buying and selling is good.
For people unfamiliar with Neo-Confucianism, "principle" isn't some word you just throw around. Principle (理, Ch. li; Jpn. ri; Kor. yi) is a metaphysical term that more or less refers to the inherent order that makes up the universe and every thing that exists within it. It's a term of vital importance in the entire philosophy of Neo-Confucianism. So for a guy to use Principle itself to justify the pursuit of economic profit is like... I dunno, maybe like a Christian theologian using the concept of trinity to justify usury? It's fucking insane! But that's my whole point here. Sometimes, we tend to think of pre-modern people as being highly traditionalist. This static view is (or maybe, was) especially prominent in Western views of non-Western cultures. But believe it or not, even people back then had a way of tinkering around with the so-called "hallowed Antiquity whose ideas and traditions must not be changed." Hell, even that OG-mofo known as Confucius said he came to "restore tradition (fuli)" but surprise, surprise, he actually added a whole shit-ton of innovations to the ancient Zhou rituals.

While I've so far been drawing examples almost exclusively from the early modern era, I do want to point out that this refashioning of Antiquity to either intentionally or unintentionally approach modernity was quite important in the modern era especially for non-Western cultures threatened by Western imperialism. For many non-Westerners, a choice had to be made: to admit the incompatibility of Western and native traditions and thus make a mutually exclusionary choice, or to "discover" their compatibility. To better demonstrate this idea, let me draw a few examples from the Middle-East. In the 19th century, many Islamic intellectuals fiercely debated whether or not things like Western science, democracy, or banking practices could be adopted without violating Islamic law. For some reformers, the threatened state of the Islamic Ummah meant that one shouldn't be too afraid of breaking some aspects of traditional Islamic law. Some of the more radical reformers ended up losing faith in Islam and became apostates while others remained religious but supported secularism in governments. But either way, these reformers often hit a brick wall because their willingness to "bend" certain Islamic traditions meant their ideas lacked legitimacy. And it's this issue of legitimacy that the movement of Islamic Modernism attempted to solve. Basically, these guys went back to the foundation and came up with elaborate ways to make modern Western institutional practices compatible with the Islamic tradition. For instance, some saw in the idealized and "pure" world of early Islam, practices that could justify socialism or communism. Others revived the use of ijtihad, something that had gone mostly out of practice in Sunni Islam, to justify adoption of things like Western science or legal reform borrowing from Western models (side note: ijtihad is the Islamic legal term to describe the process of a jurist to make an appropriate legal decision by using independent reasoning for cases when neither the Quran nor the Sunnah provided a ready-made solution).

But I think the most interesting example comes from Iran. Whereas many Arab intellectuals sought for solutions in the idealized and partly imagined nature of the Islamic Golden Age, Iranians were reminded by European archaeologists that there had once been a mighty Iranian empire long before the advent of Islam. When combined with the Aryan master race theory, it became natural for some Iranians to conclude that Iran's weakness in the modern-age was a consequence of the brutish Arab yoke repressing Iranian/Aryan ingenuity during the Islamic conquests. This rise of anti-Arab sentiment, especially among Iranian reformers, was thus accompanied by a glorification of Iranian Antiquity, something perhaps best encapsulated by the following quote from Hassan Taqizadeh, a prominent Iranian politician: "Iranians must become aware of their ancient culture and their thinkers, artists, and kings so that they will be aware of their great nation in the past before Islam and of what race they derived from, how they have reached their current condition, and how to regain their original greatness as a nation."

Naturally, it was impossible to envision pre-Islamic Iran without bringing up Zoroastrianism. And so, what resulted was this bizarre imprinting of modernity onto Zoroastrianism. That is to say, the legitimacy problem I mentioned previously was solved by anachronistically projecting modern ideals of rationalism, science, hygiene, and even women's rights onto Zoroastrianism. As such, Zoroastrianism became so distorted that rather than being an actual religion, it became re-imagined as a secular tradition accessible to all Iranians and thus not mutually exclusive with Islam. This seems to have reached a peak in the years of the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979) when there was heavy state support of Zoroastrianism and all things pre-Islamic Iran. For instance, Zoroastrians in Indians were asked to come and revive the Zoroastrian tradition in Iran. Another more famous example is the claim that the Cyrus cylinder was "the world's first charter of human rights," which is nowadays often dismissed as mere hyperbole. Of course, with the 1979 Iranian Revolution, there was a sharp turn-around, but even today, the grandeur of Iranian Antiquity lingers on to be periodically invoked by hopeful reformers (for example, see this paper).

Alright, that's enough rambling for one post. I hope you found some of these examples as interesting as I did when I first learned about them.


  1. I enjoy reading your history (also news and manga) posts but as someone who knows dick about history despite having an interest in it, I typically don't have much to say except ⊙△⊙ (I also have a lot of problems commenting through blogspot)
    However, I chose to brave the captcha hell to support re-examining the ancient wisdom of Wang Yangming's hat.

    1. No need for a witty or insightful comment. Just seeing that there are people who actually read through my several thousand word-post on history is enough to make me happy.