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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

one book leads to another

In my life, one book leads to another. Occasionally I might stroll through a bookstore and pick up a book that happens to catch my fancy, or find a book through some other more or less serendipitous means (I recently got the Maus comics after seeing their author-artist, Art Spiegelman, interviewed on TV), but that is increasingly unusual.

More often I acquire books as part of following a line of thought or investigation. Take Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs, a book that I recently took down from my shelf to read again. I first bought and read it in March 1997 (I inscribe the purchase date inside each book). The book, written (unusually for Jacobs) in the form of a Socratic dialogue between modern characters in New York, is, as its subtitle says, A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics.

I was led back to it as part of my investigation into good and evil. What's good and what's bad--and why? What exactly is evil?

In the ancient world there were natural evils--that is, natural events that were regarded as evil, such as famines or floods. To me these are more what I would call misfortunes or disasters. Painful and unwanted, yes--but not evil in the same sense as the deliberate and unjust infliction of harm by one person on another. The cruel treatment of the helpless and innocent seems especially evil. Where does it come from? Why does it happen?

Following the thread of this line of thinking back, I recall reading in John Keegan's A History of Warfare that the phenomenon of the mounted warrior arose in the steppes of Central Eurasia sometime around 3000 BC. These people were nomadic pastoralists who gained most of their living from herding and hunting animals. To round up and slaughter defenseless animals requires a certain hardening of the heart, and Keegan observes that the techniques of wrangling herds were exactly the same techniques used by these nomadic warriors in combat: driving and encircling foot soldiers, and then slaughtering them. The feeling of superiority that the mounted warrior felt over his livestock was transferred to his similarly unmounted enemies. They were weak, passive creatures to be controlled and killed for his benefit.

Then I recalled reading in Mary Boyce's book Zoroastrians that it's possible that Zarathustra, the great Indo-Iranian prophet of (possibly) 1500 BC, received his revelation of the cosmic warfare of good and evil in response to his experience of these same mounted (or in his period, chariot-driving) warriors, who mercilessly pillaged peaceful farmers on the steppes.

Another input: in Vintage: The Story of Wine, by Hugh Johnson, I read that the ancient practice of dining while reclining on couches--the eating style of the nobility throughout the Mediterranean world--was acquired from the nomadic tribes of the steppes and deserts. It struck me that the mounted warrior, that creature of the steppes of Central Eurasia, who eventually morphed into the medieval knight, was the basis of what we call the aristocracy or the ruling class. By virtue of their mental toughness and superior prowess, they have the ability and the right to rule over those who are not of their class. Farmers produce wealth, warriors take it.

These thoughts led me to reading up on the steppe cultures of Central Eurasia, but then I also remembered Jane Jacobs's book on morality. She discovered that there are two different and mutually exclusive moral "syndromes" in the public world: one which she called the Commercial Moral Syndrome, which governs the affairs of people in industry and trade; and one called the Guardian Moral Syndrome, which governs the affairs of those in government, politics, and the military.

These two syndromes are mutually dependent in a functioning, thriving society, but what is "good" in one part of the system is "bad" in the other part. Jacobs lists 15 "precepts" that make up each of the syndromes, and the first precept of the Commercial Syndrome is "Shun force". The first precept of the Guardian Syndrome is "Shun trading". Merchants trade, and it's wrong for them to engage in the coercion of force; guardians (that is, police, soldiers, etc.) use force to achieve their aims, and it's wrong for them to engage in trade. When a merchant uses force, or a cop sells things, you have wrongs such as extortion and corruption.

This is the merest outline. My point is that one book leads to another for me, a flow, like one neuron lighting up the next in a train of thought in the brain.

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