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The Claims of Kinship Versus The Claims of Reason — 14

The claim of kinship is that the quality of being related to people by blood, common ancestor, heredity and marriage, is the most important determinant of one’s psychology and morality. The claim of reason is that it knows itself to be the only agent capable of self-legislating its own beliefs and becoming aware of the causal operations of external things upon it and thus abolishing the unknowingness and darkness of outer things and making itself the mediator of all things. Europeans were the only people to become aware of the determination of kinship ties, eliminate their alien character, abolish their blind determination upon their social relationships, create conscious nuclear families, and construct thereof broader national identities based on citizenship and ethnic ancestry over and above clannish/tribal natural bonds.

Are Ideas at the Forefront of History?

Henrich knows that Europeans were unique in their abolition of kinship groups, and in their emphasis on institutions based on rational grounds, individual choice, and impartial standards. And yet he believes that European rationalism did not play an autonomous role in the making of the West. He argues, instead, that Europeans “stumbled onto a collection of marriage and family policies that demolished Europe’s intensive kin-based institutions,” from which point they “unintentionally” went on to create “voluntary associations”. Western rationalism was a by-product of the alteration of the psychology of Europeans induced by the breakdown of kinship based institutions. 

Up to a point, his argument in chapter 10 that, “fancy intellectuals, philosophers, or theologians positing grand theories […] about constitutional governments, liberty, natural rights, progress, rationality, and science,” were not responsible for the making of the modern West makes a lot of sense. The essential kernel of the ideas attributed to the Enlightenment were in fact elaborated in the Middle Ages as these ideas became thinkable to a population that was becoming increasingly individualistic and WEIRD after the Church’s demolition of kin-based institutions. 

It is hard to envision how anyone living in a kinship group, where everyone is a member of a collective group with a prescribed set of obligations, would ever come up (however intelligent) with the notion that individuals have “natural rights” as individuals. The notion that individuals have rights to life, liberty, and property, would be unthinkable in societies where political power and privileges flow directly out of lineage ties, family descent, or the divine commands of religions rooted in kinship. It is likewise hard to envision how kin-based people would learn how to think analytically about properties like mass, electric charge, gravity, and geometrical points. It makes sense that kinship oriented people would be deeply socialized to think in contextual terms about how objects fit within their overall world of interpersonal relations and in terms of the mythical/religious views sustaining these relationships. 

Liberal ideas with actual institutional consequences could only have spread when they fitted and favored an emerging world of individuals increasingly relying upon their own choices, interacting regularly with strangers in impersonal markets, and forming voluntary associations. It makes sense that only within this cultural setting humans would start thinking about impartial rules and impersonal laws, and about a natural world governed by natural laws which can be studied by reason as such, outside a context and independently of kin-based prescriptions. Creating and inhabiting cities, guilds, universities, monasteries, scientific associations, and territorial states, socialized Europeans to focus on abstract rules to regulate their behaviors therein.

The ideals of liberalism were formulated gradually, long before the Enlightenment era. “By 1200,” as Henrich observes, there were incipient notions of natural rights “already in circulation”, articulated by Catholic scholars and lawyers during the so-called “Papal Revolution” of the twelfth century. Urban centers with charters offering citizens “legal protections, tax exemptions, property rights, mutual insurance, and freedom from conscription” proliferated during the medieval era. Lawyers trained in universities enjoying corporate autonomy formulated principles for individuals in a world with growing occupational specializations, and “increasingly focused on [individual] attributes, intentions, and dispositions”. 

How about the Role of Protestant Ideas?

There is a sense however in which Henrich stresses the power of (Protestant) ideas in furthering the WEIRD trajectory of Europe. Protestantism, “the WEIRDest religion,” acted “like a booster shot for many of the WEIRD psychological patterns we have been examining throughout this book”. “Countries with Protestant majorities show even higher individualism, greater impersonal trust, and a stronger emphasis on creativity compared to majority Catholic countries”. Protestants are likewise “less tied to their families,” less tolerant of those who do not consistently follow the rules, and more inclined to trust and interact with strangers. Protestantism induces people to work longer hours, as compared to Catholicism. 

When you add Henrich’s additional argument that Protestantism sharpened the verbal and WEIRD analytical skills of Europeans by encouraging the spread of literacy, we have a considerable emphasis on the historical role of this religion. Henrich’s key point still stands, nevertheless, that Protestantism did not spring suddenly onto the historical scene but was anticipated by prior religious currents; Luther’s message spread fast because it “resonated deeply with important swaths” of a proto-WEIRD population.

Reason Versus Kinship in Ancient Greece

As I see it, the claims of reason began in ancient Greece with the Presocratics and that once reason took off it became a force in its own right, although I agree with Henrich that we should not view reason as some ethereal force bound to affirm itself, acting upon history right out of the minds of original intellects, for there is no guarantee that reason will be able to become conscious of itself, otherwise many peoples with reasonably high IQs would have become as rationally oriented as the West. The original context for the rise of reason was not the abolition of kinship in the Middle Ages. It was the aristocratic lifestyle of Indo-Europeans with its incipient individualism and its war bands existing slightly outside kinship ties and norms, based on heroic principles and the struggle for individual honor and prestige. It was also the weaker, or less intense, kinship ties of Northern Europeans, as Kevin MacDonald argues. With the Greeks, the inherent decentralization and feuding of polygamous clans came to be recognized as harmful, while the value of monogamous families for the establishment of a broader sense of community beyond tribal units, via the creation of republican city states, came to be gradually recognized. 

Ancient Greek tribes

Monogamy was invented by the ancient Greeks and continued by the Romans. Christians were influenced by Hellenistic arguments in favor of monogamous families, adding their own Christian morality against certain Greek-Roman sexual practices (e.g., pederasty, concubinage), and then intentionally compelling the polygynous Germanic kinship groups who took over after the fall of Rome to adopt this Christian morality. The WEIRD rationalism of ancient Greece was a not mere by-product of their Indo-European aristocratic background and WEIRD monogamous families. Different clans and tribes coalesced around city states, but tribal groups persisted with their own names and ancestral ties, at the same time as the claims of reason would continue to grow.

Before the rise of Socratic philosophy  (470–399 BC), there were no philosophers making rational claims about moral standards over and above the norms accepted by their own particular communities (though we find attempts in the Presocratics to formulate universal concepts about nature). Social practices and norms were accepted unreflectively as the way things were. With Socrates we see the beginnings of standards by which to question the values of one’s community. With the creation of city-states, and the formation of citizenship identities, we see philosophical arguments about the universal meaning of friendship, courage, self-restraint, wisdom, justice. Socrates and Plato wrote about human life as it ought to be. 

However, these new ideals could not achieve much influence yet. Socrates was put to death. The sophist argument that a view from nowhere was impossible, that all value judgments were relative to a particular community, and that there is no justice as such, was dominant among elite members. It is a very complicated cultural history. It depends on what particular generation of Greeks one is examining. In the tragic drama of Aeschylus (525–455 BC) and Sophocles (497–406 BC), there were two incomparable conceptions of the good: the moral imperatives of kinship loyalty versus the moral imperatives of the city-state, and beyond the particularities of each city-state, the moral imperatives ascertained by reason as such. Before the modern era, however, reason still sought these imperatives in some cosmic order existing beyond time and outside subjective consciousness. Something outside man was in charge of dictating the moral precepts by which he should organize society. Only with the onset of the modern era, with anticipations in the Christian principle of inner conscience, do we find an emphasis on the ultimate authority of thinking for oneself what is to be decided as truthful, rather than appealing to some external cosmic order. Only in modern times do we find the principle, which begins with Descartes, that truth can only be ascertained by a subject that thinks freely and draws its truthfulness from within its mind.

The ancient world, and the medieval world, was still far from this modern view. The ancient world remained caught between the moral imperative of kinship norms and the notion that reason could discover what was absolutely true through a process of intense education until one’s mind learned to apprehend the nature of the cosmic moral order. In Aeschylus’ Oresteia we have a conflict between the rules of kinship vendetta, and the orderly procedures and laws of the city-state, between the barbaric furies and vengeance of clans, and the civilized self-restraint and balanced judgment of the city-state. In Sophocles’ Antigone we have a conflict between the stubborn determination of Antigone to follow the immemorial claims of kinship, which required her to perform proper burial rites for her dead brother, in defiance of the edicts of the city-state that she should not perform burial rites because he had been accused of committing treason against the laws of the city-state. 

Yet, for all this, and in time, the claims of reason would grow considerably in ancient times. Starting with the consolidation of city states and Solon’s rule (630–560 BC), and culminating in Plato and Aristotle, the Greeks would promote a whole new ideal of education, paideia, in which the emphasis was on what is best for the education of man as a man, what it means to be a good citizen, rather than what it means to perform one’s kindred obligations, and what are the eternal standards of excellence, rather than what constitutes excellence for a particular people or class. 

“Antigone in front of the dead Polyneices” by Nikiforos Lytras, 1865.

Although the ancient Greeks did not rise to the modern level of self-conscious freedom, they did come to the realization that the proper path to knowledge lies in understanding the intelligent purposive principle of the world through the employment of the mental faculties of humans. Once the mind was discovered, and the highest intellects of the age began to rely on their reason, increasingly freed from the envelopment of nature and kin-based prescriptions: reason became an agent in its own right, not just in the classical age but continuously through the Hellenistic era, reaching new heights of rational analysis in Euclid’s geometry (300 BC), in Eratosthenes (276-195BC), who measured the distance between the Sun and the Earth, and the size of the Earth quite accurately; in Archimedes (287-212 BC), who laid the foundations of hydrostatics and statics, and explained the principle of the lever; and in Ptolemy’s Geography (AD 150), which introduced the WEIRD principles of Euclid to mapmaking, depicting with geometric consistency a curved surface (of the globe) on a flat surface (a map) using a gridwork of latitudes and longitudes, and thus laying the foundations for the science of cartography. 

How could the claims of reason have moved so far ahead in a Greek world that had not experienced the “demolition of kinship” Henrich associates with the medieval Catholic Church and upon which he hangs his entire theory about the WEIRDness of Europeans? If the rational psychology of Europeans became visible in the Middle Ages, why would Aristotle remain the most influential thinker in logic throughout the Middle Ages, unsurpassed in his logical insights until the nineteenth century? Aristotle argued that truth can only arise if the mind frees itself from particular contexts and learns to provide reasons or philosophical explanations based on abstract-analytical categories (substance, quantity, quality, relationship, place, time, state) for why something is so. Aristotle called a “good syllogism” a statement that had nothing to do with a context but depended for its truth only on how the terms were formally related to each other.

These questions are unanswerable unless one recognizes the inherent dynamic of reason as it starts to assert itself. Despite his theory about the analytical reasoning and WEIRD psychology of Europeans, Henrich remains trapped to the view that history is driven by forces beyond reason. One does not need to get to the Enlightenment to observe the effects of reason upon history. Aristotle’s logic and Euclid’s geometry exercised a profound influence on modern thought. Henrich does not discuss Aristotle other than to say in passing that “the impact of a WEIRDer psychology” in science in the sixteenth century was evident in the realization that “the great ancient sages, like Aristotle, could be wrong”. This is very misleading. While Aristotle’s ideas about motion were superseded, the geometry of Euclid, which systematically organized together everything that was known in the ancient Greek world, famously known for its axioms, definitions, and theorems, exercised an indispensable influence on the rationalistic methods of modern science. The geometry of Isaac Newton’s work Principia Mathematica was Euclidean. “Newton called his famous laws of motion ‘axioms’ and deduced his law of gravitation in the form of two mathematical theorems. As Newton famously wrote, “it’s the glory of geometry that from so few principles it can accomplish so much“. 

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