I’m taking an amazing history course. It’s setting my head on fire with new understandings about
how we got where we are, and what’s going on in the world today. Zeke, my assistant director of
Covert Activities told me about it and I’m grateful.
The course is called “A First History for Adults.” You can read about it here.
It’s not cheap, but worth every penny (and you get a – I think – 10% discount if you mention
the name of a student who steered you to the course).
The way it works is that Scott posts course materials on a website. Then once a week,
the class “meets” in a conference call (note: it’s a long distance call and you do pay those costs).
If you miss a conference call lecture, or can’t afford the call, Scott posts his lectures on the site
an hour or two after he delivers them and you can listen or download to your iPod.
Scott says that the best way to take possession of a piece of history is to write about it from
a personal point of view. I’ve done that. So from time to time I’ll be posting my “homework”
essays here. Hope you enjoy them.
Essay 1: Formation of Europe
Between 451 and 843 c.e., the areas we now call Europe were bonded as a cultural block by resistance to
two terrifying invaders, the Huns and the Arabs. This act of resistance generated the primeval soup
from which the culture of America eventually emerged.
The first of these invasions was led by Attila the hun. Attila, who proudly sported the nickname
"Scourge of God," was such a fierce threat that the Romans (under Aetius), Goths (under Theodoric),
and the Franks (under Merowig) -- a trio normally not on friendly terms -- formed an alliance to fight
Attila. Teamwork worked. In the Battle of Chalons in 451, the alliance sent Attila on a retreat
from which he never recovered.
Over the next two centuries, two Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Islam, became aggressive.
Both were based on fundamentally the same mythology, and each saw itself as the only true religion,
and both wanted non-believers on ice.
In the west, Clovis the Merovingian had made a deal with the Christian god: If the Christian
god would let him win at Alemani, Clovis would become a Christian. God paid up, and Clovis gave
Christianity a hard sell in the Frankish empire.
In the east, Mohammed had started another brand of the same product with an equal compulsion to
take over the world. These Muslims swept forth against the Infidels, moving in great conquering
waves across Northern Africa, to conquer Spain in 711. By 732, they'd mopped up parts of Gaul,
beat Aquitaine to a pulp, and, led by super-commander Emir Abd Er Rahman, were moving on to Tours.
That left the Franks with fewer resources than they had had in Attila's day. The Goths had moved on,
and the Romans were no longer a military force. But among the now-Christian Franks was Charles Martel
("Chuck the Hammer"). He led a well trained, iron-willed infantry against Abd Er Rahman's famed cavalry.
Martel was a serious strategist and commander, who placed his militia in a classic defensive formation on
ground that was awkward for cavalry to access, and gambled that the Arabs would attack. The Arabs fell for
the strategy and in the resulting battle Abd Er Rahman was killed. Unable to agree on a new commander,
the Muslims retreated and that wave of conquest was repelled.
After a period of Christian advancement and the attendant Frankish bumbling, Charlemagne emerged and
continued to hold his own against the East. By the time Charlemagne was crowned by the pope in 800
(a deft bit of positioning by the Church) the foundations for an essentially Christian Europe were
falling into place.
Charlemagne, by the way, had a knack for naming things. He called his sword, "La Joyeuse (the happy gal)."
Hannibal's sword had a nickname, too, but not nearly so witty. He called it the Spirit of Death.
Had Europe failed in its attempts to fend off those two terrifying invaders, we would -- no doubt -- have
had a very different America. But what would the differences have been?
It's reasonable to guess that if Islam *as it is today* were ruling modern America, the rights
of individuals would count less. But we really should ask: Given that the Muslims had relatively
sophisticated mathematics and substantial access to the ancient Greek thought, might their culture
have taken a different turn if it had been exposed to France's vineyards and England's cold and fog?
Is there anything intrinsic in Islam that makes it more destructive to reason and science than Christianity?
Is there something in the chillier, darker climate of Europe that permits reason to pierce,
here and there, the psychotic armor of religions born in the desert?
Christianity is not exactly a sane or tolerant faith. Nor does it play well with reason and science.
If the Muslims had won at Tours, would Islam have stretched as much as Christianity did? Or would
the Inquisition just have had different costumes? Would Galileo have been persecuted by imams?