On the infallibility of truth. From the United States Magazine, Democratic Review. 1848. “Freedom of Opinion.”

The truth or the supposed truth is not sometimes upheld by the arm of authority and power, or restrained by weight of penalty and  force? Do we never wish nor seek a legislative sanction to support  our doctrines in preference to opposing ones? Is angry passion never made to supply the place of rational investigation? Do we never support the religious or political or reformatory measures of our particular sect with the poisoned weapons of fierce denunciation– with despiteful reproaches and malignant anathemas? If we do so–if though no longer permitted to apply the physical torture to correct men’s notions, we have not yet won the soul’s emancipation from the house of bondage–then are we still sustaining a despotism none the less mischievous, none the less galling, that it is more popular or less apparent than of olden time. And is this subjection, and are such persuasives necessary to the cause of truth and virtue, of  Christianity and Republicanism? Let us calmly consider of this is to be. Truth, universally is but the concurrence and harmony of different ideas. For man, it has existence only as that agreement is seen and recognised. A proposition is true or false, as its terms are perceived to agree or disagree; and that perception is it, which constitutes belief or disbelief. Is the agreement doubtful? It is but saying that the truth is uncertain. Truth ever has its appropriate proofs; and upon them alone rests its title to our reception. If a proposition is incapable of its legitimate confirmation to us it can never be an admitted truth. It is not for us however valuable or however demonstrable it may be to other intelligences. If I have discovered what I conceive to be new truth, I am impelled by every principle of duty–by every sentiment of philanthropy, to it truth to others, that they too may attain to the same high point that I fancy I have reached. But let me beware lest, in the eagerness of proselytism, I require assent founded upon other  principles than those of reasoning. If fraud or force–the strong delusions of prevailing falsehood, or the influence of authority and station, of hopes and fears, that I may have the power of wielding, are the means whereby I spread my doctrine, I am doing grievous wrong. My notions may be false; I may be only propagating error. Such have ever been the chosen instruments error has employed to build its empire; such never are the principles upon which truth really rests. By so much as my truth stands not on argument, by so much am I deprived of the very method and the only method of establishing its reality. Let me beware, then, how I substitute faith for belief.

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Nor would I be more justified in such a course, even were I assured by a voice from Heaven that my doctrine was correct. “If I were secured against the possibility of mistake, mischief and not good would accrue from imposing my infallible truth upon my neighbor, and requiring his submission independently of any conviction I could produce in his understanding. My truth! I must make it another’s truth or it will be worthless. As well might I tell my brother man to fatten off the food that I have eaten, as tell him to admit results without obtaining their processes. I must direct him to the source and method of my nourishment, and he must gather for himself. My convictions are as profitless to him as my digestion; they can never form part of his spiritual growth and strength; they must first become his own. We are reasoning as well as assimilating things. If these considerations are just, how wrongful must be every attempt of individuals or, of governments to coerce belief. ” Nor would I be more justified in such a course, even were I assured by a voice from Heaven that my doctrine was correct. “If I were secured against the possibility of mistake, mischief and not good would accrue from imposing my infallible truths upon my neighbor, and requiring his submission, independently of any conviction I could produce and requiring his submission, independently of any conviction I could produce in his understanding.” My truth! I must make it another’s truth or it is worthless. As well might I tell my brother man to fatten off the food that I have eaten, as tell him to admit results without obtaining their processes. I must direct him to the source and method of my nourishment, and he must gather for himself. My convictions are as profitless to him as my digestion; they can never form part of his spiritual growth and strength; they must first become his own.

Empire and Truth. It is not what you think it is.

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THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE – A New History of Rome and the Barbarians. By Peter Heather.

ON THE BACK OF THE BOOK

The death of the Roman Empire is one of the perennial mysteries of world history. Now, in this groundbreaking book, Peter Heather proposes a stunning new solution – centuries of imperialism turned the neighbors Rome called barbarians into an enemy capable of dismantling an empire that had dominated their lives for so long. A leading author on the late Roman empire and on the barbarians, Heather relates the extraordinary story of how Europe’s barbarians, transformed by centuries of contact with Rome on every possible level, eventually pulled the Empire apart. He shows first how the Huns overturned the existing strategic balance of power on Rome’s European frontiers to force the Goths and others to seek refuge inside the empire. This prompted two generations of struggle, during which new barbarians coalitions, formed in response to Roman hostility, brought the Roman West to its knees. The Goths first destroyed a Roman army at the battle of Hadrianople in 378 and went on to sack Rome in 410. The Vandals spread devastation in Gaul and Spain before conquering North Africa, the breadbasket of the western empire, in 439. We then meet Attila the Hun, whose reign of terror swept from Constantinople to Paris, but whose death in 453 ironically precipitated a final desperate phase of Roman collapse, culminating in the Vandal’s defeat of the massive Byzantine Armada, the west’s last chance for survival. Peter Heather convincingly argues that the Roman Empire was not on the brink of social or moral collapse.What brought it to an end were the barbarians. FROM PETER HEATHER’S BOOK PAGES 443/444.  IN PRESENTING my own take on the reasons for the collapse of the west Roman Empire, I find myself lined up against one of the oldest historical traditions of all – in English writing, certainly. Famously, Edward Gibbon emphasized internal factors: The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. Gibbon’s analysis picked up from where the Greek writer Polybius left off. Polybius, like most ancient historians, saw individual moral virtue or vice as the main moving force behind historical causation. The Roman Republic rose to greatness
because of the self-discipline of its leaders, went his argument, and started to fall from grace when the excesses produced by success fed through to corrupt their descendants. Polybius was writing in the second century BC, long before the Empire reached its full extent, let alone started to shed territories. Picking up his general line of argument, Gibbon, addressing the subject of Christianity, saw it as contributing massively to the tale of woe. For him, the new religion sowed internal division within the Empire through its doctrinal disputes, encouraged social leaders to drop out of political participation by becoming monks, and, by advocating a ‘turn-the-other-cheek’ policy, helped undermine the Roman war machine. There may be something to be said for this way of thinking but there is one counter-argument that relegates it to no more than a footnote in the debate. Any account of the fall of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century must take full stock of the fact that the eastern Empire not only survived, but actually prospered in the sixth.  All the evils identified in the western system applied equally, if not more, to the eastern. If anything,
the Roman east was more Christian, and more given to doctrinal argument. Also, it operated the same kind of governmental system over the same kind of economy. Yet the east survived, when the west fell. This alone makes it difficult to argue that there was something so inherently wrong with the late imperial system that it was bound to collapse under its own weight. And if you start looking for differences between east and west that might explain their different fates, accidents of geography are what come most immediately to mind. The richest provinces of the east, the band stretching from Asia Minor to Egypt, were well protected by Constantinople against invaders from the north and east, whereas the western Empire had most of the Rhine and Danube frontier line to protect, and we have seen what hazards that threw up. Both of these points were made by two earlier commentators, N. H. Baynes and A. H. M. Jones; but since Jones was writing -forty years ago – it has become more necessary, I would argue, in any account of the collapse of the Roman west, to shine the spotlight on the barbarian-immigrant issue. This is for two reasons. First, the only factor that Jones saw as playing any real role in the different fates of east and west was their relative prosperity. In his view, overtaxation crippled the late Roman economy. Peasants were not being left with a large enough share of their yearly produce to feed themselves and their families, so that both population and output saw steady, if unspectacular, decline. This, he believed, was especially true in the west. Jones’s view of the late Roman economy was entirely based, however, on written, above all legal, sources. As he
wrote, the French archaeologist George Tchalenko was publishing the account of his revolutionary trove of prosperous late Roman villages in the limestone hills behind Antioch (see pp. 112-13); and since Jones wrote, rural surveys, as we saw in Chapter 3, have completely recast our view of the late Roman economy. We know that in the fourth century, taxes were certainly not high enough to undermine peasant subsistence. In the west as well as the east, the late Empire was a period of agricultural boom, with no sign of an overall population decline. The east may still have been richer, of course, but there was no major internal economic crisis at play in the Roman world before the fifth century.  Equally important, understanding that both moments of frontier crisis, 376-80 and 405-8, had the same non-Roman cause, and reconstructing the detailed narrative of subsequent imperial collapse from 405 to 476, underline the central role played by outside immigrants in the story of western collapse.

Memoirs of a Geisha. John Williams, Itzhak Perlman, and Yo Yo Ma.