Friday, 1 December 2017

Divisions in history

Right now, the UK is at an intriguing crossroads in its history, whereby whatever happens a very large proportion of the population will be quite cross (the middle ways of an associate membership of the EU or EFTA/EEA membership were not offered in Cameron’s renegotiation and were rejected by May, respectively).

However, whilst fringe lunatics on either side shriek and wail, and a great many in the middle would just like reason to prevail, it’s worth noting that this ideological polarisation is nothing new. And nor is it anywhere near as bad as it has been in the past.

If we go back about two and a half thousand years, there’s the Peloponnesian War. This was between democrats, led by Athens (ironic, given Athens had a maritime empire), and the oligarchs, led by Sparta. Perhaps because there aren’t overriding personalities like Hannibal and Scipio, the war is less well-known than some ancient conflicts. As well as inter-city rivalry (which is more serious than it sounds. In Greek xenos [root of xenophobia] referred to another Greek but who came from a different city [barbaros referred to a non-Greek]), there was the clash of ideals. Democracy inherently sounds better to us, but it’s worth noting the Athenians executed most of their best admirals after a successful naval battle.

Yes, you read that correctly. The admirals in question failed to retrieve Athenian bodies from the water (not an easy task) and were punished for this with death. Democracy and mob rule are not so very far apart.

Within other cities that weren’t as firmly rooted in either camp, rival factions of pro-oligarchy and pro-democracy thugs arose. Thucydides wrote of how nuance and being reasonable was seen as cowardice, and treacherous backstabbing, ambushing the enemy, was seen as the height of bravery. As well as the major battles and prolonged warfare, a huge amount of bitterness was kindled all across Greece. This was quite unusual as warfare generally is about seizing resources or trying to avenge a misfortune.

More recently, but still about a thousand years ago, Byzantium was in the throes of iconoclasm. There was a clash between traditionalist iconodules, who adored icons (sometimes too much), and iconoclasts, who wanted to smash them. Icons were venerated but sometimes to such an extent that one might be named a godparent. This reached such extremes that a backlash movement arose, intent upon destroying the icons, smashing the physical substance and restoring faith and worship to the intangible. Countless works of religious art were destroyed before, eventually, the furore died down and a sort of soft iconodule solution was reached.

Hundreds of years ago, in Italy/Germany, there was a religious and political clash between those who supported the Pope and those who supported the Holy Roman Emperor (arguably the least accurate title in history). The Guelphs supported the Pope, and the Ghibellines backed the Holy Roman Emperor.

The first so-called Holy Roman Emperor was Charlemagne, who was crowned by the Pope in Rome on Christmas Day 800AD. This was not a continuation of the (Western) Roman Empire, but in the same way that Latin was used by the Church long after the Empire fell and Russia once described Moscow as the Third Rome, the Roman Empire still loomed so large in the cultural memory that both the Pope and Charlemagne wanted to be associated with it.

Such closeness between emperor and pontiff was not always the case. Centuries later, sometimes for more political reasons than religious or philosophical ones, the Guelph and Ghibelline factions arose. Often, pro-imperial Ghibellines lived in places at risk of rising papal power, and pro-papacy Guelphs dwelt in areas at risk of waxing imperial authority (so they were frequently bound together not so much by love of the one they supported as fear of the one they did not).

And that has some relevance to the present day. Many in the UK both dislike the EU’s politics and drive to integrate, and dislike the thought of utterly going it alone. For some, it’s a question of what they dislike more, rather than what they strongly support.


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