Historical falsehoods that won't die

* The Roman Empire collapsed due to barbarian invasions. (It actually gradually faded away, and most of the barbarians were immigrants, not invaders.)

* In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church held back the growth of science. (In fact, only in Catholic Western Europe did modern science develop, and it is now well-established that it was in the Middle Ages that its foundation was laid! And it developed at Church-related institutions, such as the universities.)

* Columbus had to triumph over critics who thought the world was flat. (All educated Europeans knew it was round: think of Dante's character in The Divine Comedy, moving through the spheres of Hell and then coming out on the other side of the world.)

* Bishop Berkeley did not believe in the existence of an objective, knowable world outside the human mind. (He made asserting the existence of such a world a cornerstone of his philosophy.)

* Rousseau's ideal human was the "noble savage." (He never used the phrase, and certainly did not hold up primitive people as a paragon of perfection.)

* Adam Smith taught that markets work by the operation of an "invisible hand." (He only used the phrase three times in all his works, and never to refer to the operation of markets in general.)

* Hegel believed that history culminated with his thought. (He did think he was "the dude" so far, but accepted that others in the future would go further.)**

* Scientists in the 19th-century turned away from religion due to new scientific findings. (The turning-away was almost entirely political in its source.)

* Neville Chamberlain was a cowardly appeaser who, if he had just had a little resolve, could have stopped Hitler in his tracks early on. (No, he could not have.)

** Having been reading on Hegel the last two days, I must say that Hegel himself is certainly a problem here: although he explicitly says that thought so far has only going as far as him, as he was not completely mad, there are passages that seem to imply that history does culminate in Hegel himself.

18 comments:

  1. I must confess I don't get this Adam Smith "revisionism" at all. (I had a referee bust me on this point for something I was writing to a lay audience.) What exactly is the position you are claiming is false, Gene? Are there people running around saying, "Adam Smith is an anarcho-capitalist because he thought markets always do the socially optimal thing"?

    If I spell out what I think the conventional wisdom is, regarding the Invisible Hand metaphor, then it will match up with what I think Smith actually *was* saying.

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    1. What is the falsehood? That Adam Smith taught that markets work by the operation of an "invisible hand."

      Why you were reading something about an anarcho-capitalism into this I really can't see.

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    2. Eh it's not worth explaining.

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  2. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church held back the growth of science. (In fact, only in Catholic Western Europe did modern science develop, and it is now well-established that it was in the Middle Ages that its foundation was laid! And it developed at Church-related institutions, such as the universities.)

    Having grown up a Catholic, there was a time when I was a wee bit harsh on the Church. Given the existence of Galileo and other scholars, I never fully bought into the idea of the period being a very dark one.

    Columbus had to triumph over critics who thought the world was flat. (All educated Europeans knew it was round: think of Dante's character in The Divine Comedy, moving through the spheres of Hell and then coming out on the other side of the world.)

    I actually learned this one back in elementary school.

    Adam Smith taught that markets work by the operation of an "invisible hand." (He only used the phrase three times in all his works, and never to refer to the operation of markets in general.)

    This is new to me. To what then did the phrase "invisible hand" reference?

    On a different note, I read Oakeshott on Rome and America and found it to be very insightful. The part about the Soviet Union being better characterized as mercantilist and Oakeshott's comment on the Russian Revolution is fascinating. It also got me thinking about North Korea. After reading it, it struck me that some of the DPRK's traits like its resemblance to feudalism, emphasis on family lineage, and monarchical tendencies might come from the region's Confucian past and its history as a kingdom. Do you think that there might be some substance to that?

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    1. See the work of Gavin Kennedy, in the Adam Smith blog linked to on the right.

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  3. That Slate article on Chamberlain is deeply flawed. If Germany had gone to war in 1938, it would have had to attack the Czechs on some of the most defensible ground in all of Europe. The Soviets had said that they would fight against Germany in the event of an invasion. Germany had only a small token force in the west in 1938, which would not have been able to withstand a French attack even without British support. Even the Slate article doesn't say that the British military position was stronger relative to Germany in 1939 than in 1938, only that they had more "confidence." And, of course, the anti-Hitler coup plotters were planning on using an invasion order as justification for removing Hitler (and had told the British as much). Chamberlain wasn't playing for time; He was duped into thinking that if he just gave Hitler what he wanted, there would be no war. He was disastrously wrong.

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    1. If there was just a slate article I never would have mentioned this. But this view is the result of extensive recent historical research. I am not an expert on this, But the people with these views are, which means with tremendous likelihood that they are right and you are wrong.

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    2. By the way, Josiah, have you been through this archival British government material that the historian quoted says presents "overwhelming" evidence that Chamberlain really had no option but to negotiate?

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  4. This is hilarious. Relying on the same archival documents and analysis Chamberlain did? You accept now the argument from the Bushies that he had no choice ... good to know I can count you in the Bush wuz right crown Gene.

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    1. No, Bodybuilder, what is "hilarious" Is that you think professional historians don't know how to do their job, and you understand what they should be doing much better than they do.

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    2. Point one of ignorance of the historical method: historians do not "rely" on their sources. They *use* them. The sources are *interrogated*, as a detective would interrogate potential suspects in a crime.

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  5. Unsurprisingly the "Rousseau worshipped the noble savage" trope was taught to me my freshman year of uni.

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  6. The Roman Empire collapsed due to barbarian invasions. (It actually gradually faded away, and most of the barbarians were immigrants, not invaders.)
    I take it you mean the Western Empire--as the Eastern Empire kept going for about another 1000 years. (Calling the "Byzantine" Empire was a habit of C17th antiquarians which, unfortunately, stuck.)
    And the final collapse of the Western Empire resulted from the Vandal conquest and occupation of North Africa, its last secure tax base. Sounds like a barbarian invasion to me.
    Sure, there were also processes of immigration and the deeper issue was the decline of Roman organisation and social cohesion advantages over the Germanic peoples. But barbarian invasions really are a key part of the story. Trying to turn the Western Roman collapse into a triumph of multiculturalism requires rather selective views of events.

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    1. Sorry, Lorenzo, I am not forwarding some original thesis, but just forwarding the conclusions of recent historical science. In fact, you have chosen the wrong point of attack completely: it is not that there were no invasions, but that there was no collapse! And as far as your remark on multiculturalism goes, I have no idea wtf you are talking about: I never said anything like that.

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    2. One reason the idea of a Roman collapse went out of fashion is that the Germanic invaders became transmuting migrants, a sort of C5th multiculturalism. It had more to do with contemporary (European) angsts than the historical reality. There was a collapse of trade, of literacy, of comfort (as Ward-Perkins puts it). It was a slow motion collapse, but the Roman system of rulership was replaced by new polities. Especially after the Vandals conquered the last secure tax base.
      More generally, the conclusions of some historians is not the same as "the conclusions of recent historical science".

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    3. "One reason the idea of a Roman collapse went out of fashion is that the Germanic invaders became transmuting migrants, a sort of C5th multiculturalism. It had more to do with contemporary (European) angsts than the historical reality."

      And your evidence for this is...?

      "Ward-Perkins..."

      Ah, I see, you read one book on this. Ward-Perkins's fame with this book was in fighting the consensus among modern historians, so clearly I am right about what the consensus is!

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    4. "It was a slow motion collapse"

      By the way, Lorenzo, there is a phrase that would capture a "slow motion collapse": fading away. Like I said.

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  7. And Lorenzo, Ward-Perkins may turn out to be right. But not being an expert, I will stick with the consensus and trust the community of historians to get it right in the end.

    Oh, and this whole thing would have gone a lot quicker if, instead of arriving and beginning to lecture me, you had showed up and said "Do you know the work of Ward-Perkins? He disputes this consensus view."

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