David R. Henderson  

Matt Ridley on the Christians and the Romans

PRINT
My Bias on High-Risk Mortgage ... New Commanding Heights Watch...

The Problem with the JCs

Although I always read a whole book before I write a review of it [Exception: I reviewed the New Palgrave for Fortune after having read "only" about 300 of its 1,196 entries] and I usually read the footnotes, somehow I missed this one from Matt Ridley's excellent book, The Rational Optimist:

Incidentally, I find it strange to recall that my education was utterly dominated by two stories: the Bible's and Rome's. Both were disappointing examples of history. One told the story of an obscure, violent and somewhat bigoted tribe and one its later cults, who sat around gazing at their theological navels for a few thousand years while their fascinating neighbors--the Phoenicians, Philistines, Canaanites, Lydians and Greeks--invented respectively maritime trade, iron, the alphabet, coins and geometry. The other told the story of a barbarically violent people who founded one of the empires that institutionalized the plundering of its commercially minded neighbors, then went on to invent practically nothing in half a millennium and achieve an actual diminution in living standards for its citizens, very nearly extinguishing literacy as it died. I exaggerate, but there are more interesting figures in history than Jesus Christ or Julius Caesar. (p. 389 of hard cover)

This is slightly overstated as was, I argued in my review [scroll down], some of the rest of Ridley's book. The most important thing I learned from the Bible during my Christian days, for example, was to turn the other cheek. Still, Ridley makes a good point.

HT to Jeff Hummel.


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (16 to date)
ThomasL writes:

Anti-Semitic, Anti-Christian, and exhibiting a poor grasp of history all accomplished in a single paragraph. I must agree that Ridley is a very concise writer.

Todd Fletcher writes:

I think he's wrong about the Romans. They secured the Mediterranean for trade, which then exploded. The mercantile cities were too fractious to unite against foreign invaders and couldn't provide security against pirates, so the Romans stepped in a grabbed it. Yes of course they took plenty of loot in exchange for it. They also provided a fairly uniform legal & educational system across the empire. So it was a sort of unified (though not "free") trade zone. All of these were public goods needed for the Eastern mercantile cities to prosper after Greece failed to secure the Mediterranean after Alexander.

See "The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization" by Bryan Ward-Perkins for more.

Randy writes:

Ridley does have a point, but I find myself forced to realize that the two forms of "barbarism" represented, religion and aggression, lead to success. Commerce may be the bedrock, but those who participate in commerce will be forever exploited by mystics and warriors.

david nh writes:

Hmm. How naughty and provocative.

On the other hand, the Romans invented concrete and left behind all sorts of magnificent architecture and infrastructure like aqueducts and roads. Rome was a city of over a million souls at its height, when Matt Ridley's Druid ancestors were still painting themselves blue.

Also, the fact that the Roman empire's fall "very nearly extinguish(ed) literacy" was presumably not the fault of the empire itself but rather its lack and more specifically the barbarism that followed in its wake.

Christians brought us the Renaissance (with the aid of their Roman forbearers), perpective (in art), banking, double entry bookkeeping, the invention of the individual (see: Renaissance), competitive government (and defence) like Arnold Kling likes (see Renaissance yet again, this time specifically the Italian variety), ultimately the Enlightenment, some magnificent church music, capitalism, the work ethic, Sophia Loren and Ferraris (and probably some other stuff I forgot to mention).

Sure, we were savages but, hey, how can one evolve if one starts out perfect?

Blackadder writes:

The comment seems out of keeping with the otherwise amiable nature of Ridley's book. Frankly, it's not clear what purpose comments like this are supposed to serve.

david nh writes:

@blackadder:

The comment seems out of keeping with the otherwise amiable nature of Ridley's book. Frankly, it's not clear what purpose comments like this are supposed to serve.

Signalling?

DougT writes:

Judaism / Christianity brought a codified moral law. I'm surprised Ridley didn't seize on the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, but by every account the 10 Commandments were a cornerstone of efficient jurisprudence. Roman courts and laws sought uniform application, and even in the first century a nascent form of "rights" was in development.

A few thousand years of theological navel-gazing brought us the best application of Plato (Augustine) and Aristotle (Thomas) the world has ever seen. Wait, there was Averroes--or not. Thomas predicted tri-partite government by applying Aristotle's politics to high-medieval society. And Jefferson's Declaration is impossible to envision without Plato. Wait, that was geometry.

Wow, now I'm not so sorry I missed the book.

Curt Doolittle writes:

Interesting comments. Mostly silly.

The point Ridley is making, is that his education was still steeped in Christian dogma, when there are many more worthwhile COMMERCIAL societies to study and learn from. Today's education is still steeped in democratic and socialist dogma. But as someone states above, we study mystics and conquerors rather than merchants. We even study inventors, heretics and perverts. But we rarely study merchants. And were they are studied they are demonized.

The fact of the matter is, that if not for Roman economic dependence upon conquest, and military over extension, their financial house (given that they had very few financial tools to work with) might have not caused a descent into ignorance and poverty for a millenium (in the west if not the east.)

If not for the aggressive Roman conquest of the jewish lands, and the subsequent use of jewish mysticism as a means of creating community among rebels in the empire, then the jews would have become an irrelevant people absorbed by the muslims, rather than diasporic traders.

The greeks were fascinating. The Chinese were fascinating. The Migration period is fascinating. The viking traders were fascinating. The most fascinating commercial history is that of the european states from the norman conquest onward. The most interesting economic history is the development of technology in china and europe and the different courses that they took. Instead we waste our time on mystics and conquerors.

Studying the world of trade is far more valuable to us than studying the world of Dysfunctional Mystics and Abusive Conquerors. I mean, the romans, the persians, the muslims, the mongols as warriors are indeed impactful on history. But that doen't mean that we can't learn more from commercial societies.

Creating a history of the world for primary and secondary schools that sees trade as the constantly changing and evolving process that governments abuse and destroy would be a service to generations to come.

That is. If the predatory state was not interested in emphasizing mystics and conquerors. :)

david nh writes:
Creating a history of the world for primary and secondary schools that sees trade as the constantly changing and evolving process that governments abuse and destroy would be a service to generations to come.

Agreed. But what culture created the greatest explosion of trade, commerce and prosperity and I wonder if its accumulated philosophical and religious origins played a role?

Curt Doolittle writes:

David nh:

Whatever set of property definitions one constructs, whether the most totalitarian, or the most libertarian, that system of property definitions has required the application of violence to obtain a) a geographic monopoly, trade routes, and the preservation of trade routes, b) administration to codify rules and resolve differences, and c) a mythology that prescribes the opportunity costs individuals must forgo (ethics and morals), as well as community goals and methods, as well as basic metaphysical knowledge that is needed for individuals to participate in the market order we call society.

Mysticism (reliance on magic) at least appears, in all cases, to be somewhat destructive. Although it allows the lower classes to use sheer numbers and the religious bureaucracy to establish the terms by which they consent to be ruled, just as much as it creates a vehicle for rulership by the elites. Mythology is not destructive and at least appears to be pedagogically necessary. The dual relationship of Taoism and Confucianism in China, and the Church/State divide in the west, seem to be more effective than the single hierarchy methods used elsewhere. (These topics are covered at length by historians.)

Not only is mysticism dangerous, but it also looks like the development of idealistic rather than practical arguments (such as the development of moral rather than practical arguments in china, or the platonic ideas in their many forms) are destructive.

Either way, the point being that the world would be better off, as RIdley implies, with an emphasis on the market as an organizing principle not on the abuses of it.

razib writes:

the romans were masters of extracting corporeal rents, and the hebrews were masters of extracting mental rents :-) i don't know, but it sounds amusing.

i thought ridley was too glib and imprecise. it's provocative rhetoric. but some of the rejoinders on this thread attempting faux-erudition are even more embarrassing.

Hugh writes:

This book costs $9.86 (paperback) or $13.08 (kindle) at Amazon.

My heartfelt thanks for saving me the money.

PS: This is an example of the internet generating economic wellbeing, and may be used as a counter-example to Tyler Cowen's GS.

guthrie writes:

'All right... all right... but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order... what have the Romans done for us?'

(I can't count how many times this quote comes up on this blog, but I couldn't resist!)

David R. Henderson writes:

@guthrie,
Touche.

OneEyedMan writes:

@ Doolittle when you say "If not for the aggressive Roman conquest of the jewish lands, and the subsequent use of jewish mysticism as a means of creating community among rebels in the empire, then the jews would have become an irrelevant people absorbed by the muslims, rather than diasporic traders.", where do you get this from?
I would think that without Christianity, Islam wouldn't exist.

Mattheus von Guttenberg writes:
sanitation... medicine... public health... freshwater system... baths

These are all the same things. So the argument is, they gave us health and order?

I'm shocked this argument still stands. Who among us would gain any intellectual traction if they tried to justify the US government along similar lines? "Well, they gave us roads and airport security.."

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top