John Lewis Gaddis on the failure of the Spanish Armada

Stephen Davies, seeking to explain Europe’s technological and economic breakthrough into modernity, and John Lewis Gaddis reflecting on the emergence of the USA as the world’s current superpower, both identify the defeat of the Spanish Armada as a key moment. Davies says that the failure of Catholic Spain to subdue Protestant England meant that Europe, unlike all the other great civilisations of the world, remained disunited and hence internally competitive.

And Gaddis argues, in his book On Grand Strategy, argues, at the beginning of his chapter entitled “New Worlds” (pp. 151-152) that the defeat of the Armada “made possible the creation of the United States” as we now know it:

It’s not counterfactual to claim that the real events of 1588 in the English Channel echoed loudly and long enough “to shake a hemisphere.” The previous century had seen the Portuguese and the Spanish, neither hitherto seismically significant, exploiting a new understanding of ships, sails, winds, and currents to explore and conquer immensities of strange new things.’ “NON SUFFICIT ORBIS,” Philip II’s motto for his Iberian kingdoms and the empire they’d acquired, was eloquently apt: Eurasia, the old world into which all earlier empires had fit, had indeed not been enough. As the Armada left Lisbon that summer, few from whom it faded from sight would have anticipated anything other than enduring Catholic monarchies throughout what had become known as America.

For how could God not be on the side of the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon that had, in the single year 1492, expelled their Muslim neighbors, ejected their Jews, and almost as an aside expanded the size of the earth? Or, in the year that followed, gained title to the new territories, together with Portugal, by papal edict? Or, as Spain, required only three years to conquer Mexico and not many more to control Peru, thereby ensuring apparently endless supplies of gold and silver? Or, using these riches, imposed administrative and even architectural uniformity on two unfamiliar continents? Or mapped out, for their diverse inhabitants, a single path to salvation? Accomplishments on this scale require more than self-confidence: they presume knowledge of, and correspondence with, God’s will.

Two hundred and thirty-five years after the Armada sailed, however, a staunchly Protestant statesman, in the swampy new capital of a secular state, was drafting an equally presumptuous proclamation for his republican sovereign: “that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” When Secretary of State John Quincy Adams made the Monroe Doctrine a motto for the “United States of America” in 1823, that country lacked the means of securing the “new world” against its “old” masters. It had the self-confidence, though, of Spain in its prime, and that, Adams saw, would suffice.

“The failure of the Spanish Armada,” Geoffrey Parker has argued, “laid the American continent open to invasion and colonization by northern Europeans, and thus made possible the creation of the United States.” If that’s right, then the future pivoted on a single evening – August 7, 1588 – owing to a favorable wind, a clever lord admiral, and a few fiery ships. Had he succeeded, Philip would have required Elizabeth to end all English voyages to America.’ But from the moment his captains cut their anchor cables, Spain began a slow decline, and a new world order its gradual ascendancy.

This book (which I have just ordered from Amazon) presumably being one of the places where Geoffrey Parker (a new name to me) makes this argument.

Venus on the South Bank

October 20th 2007 was a good day for me photoing photoers, and I’ve just set aside thirty five photoers to stick up here. But, because of the lateness of the hour, that will take too long to sort out now, even given how much easier such photo-clutch displaying has now become. So here, in the meantime, is some Art that I photoed on that same expedition, in among photoing all those photoers:

The painting on the left is The Birth of Venus, complete with her strategically long, blond hair. But what is the one on the right? (Aside from not being quite finished.)

Closer up:

I see an angel and a Madonna. I wonder if googling will yield anything.

No luck. Lots of Madonnas, of the modern Italian-American and pop-singing sort, and lots of this famous painting. But nothing like the painting above. So, commenters?

Colourful architecture in the past and in the future

Tim Dunn tweeted the two photos below as a before/after pair.



Before being how Wells Cathedral used once upon a time to look, and After being after the Puritans had got rid of all the colouring in, and had added a couple of towers.

In my mind, I connect the idea that medieval cathedrals used to be riots of colour, which seems to be true, in addition to being an attractive idea to many (me included), with the idea that many new and recent buildings might benefit from a similar sort of process in reverse. In short, brightening up.

Here’s the sort of thing I mean:

I downloaded that photo from the www, but then lost where I had found it and couldn’t find it again. Nevertheless, there it is, the Sydney Opera House, lit up with what look like Aboriginal type graphics.

I also came across a French medieval cathedral lit up in colour like old Wells Cathedral

Which is all good, but such a thing only works well at night.

Actual paint, on the other hand, is permanent, and good luck persuading those who have got used to plain stone colour that they should instead get used to a highly controversial version of what their cathedral might have been like in the past.

Time for someone to invent magic electronic paint. This is the sort of pain which you can slap on just like regular paint, except that it is transparent, like varnish. But this varnish is different, because it consists of a billion tiny mass produced little magic spheres which, when activated by a magic message from afar, can light up in whatever colour you want. You sit down with your computer and Photoshop in lots of colours, and then you switch it on. Voila! It looks like it used to, before the Puritans went all puritanical with the first lot of paint. But, it’s only temporary so the grumblers who would have grumbled very obstructively will only grumble a bit and not enough to stop it. More Photoshopping means that you can switch to a totally different colour scheme, just by switching another switch.

Soon, all the now ugly concrete monstrosities will be covered in this magic paint, and the world will become a more colourful and much better place. Patent pending.

Niall Ferguson on networks versus hierarchies

I have been reading Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower, and so far am enjoying it. It’s about how historians have tended to emphasise the impact of orderly hierarchies because these leave big paper trails, and to neglect less orderly networks, because these leave less of a paper trail. Yet, networks clearly matter a lot, even if, as Ferguson points out, networks are not necessarily benign in their impact.

The chapters are short, which I like because I am reading this book in short snatches, in among doing other things. Even a short burst of reading means me probably getting through an entire chapter and maybe even two or more chapters.

Right now, however, I am in the middle of a chapter, about how Guttenberg met Luther, and about how Guttenberg turned Luther’s merely written thoughts into best-selling printed volumes, thereby unleashing the Reformation and much else besides. (Like modern science. Printing enabled science to accumulate.) This is a process that has long fascinated me, and it happened because two people merely met, rather than because one person met another person and gave that other person an order. (Modern science is likewise a network rather than a hierarchy. When modern science becomes hierarchical, it tends to degenerate into propaganda for the hierarchy it is serving.)

Modern science has mostly been benign: But the only slightly delayed impact of the Reformation was, as Ferguson notes, that (p. 84):

Religious conflict continued to simmer and erupted again in the Thirty Years’ War, a conflict that turned Central Europe into a charnal house.

I will now finish reading this chapter.

If ever a sign needed a vocative comma …

That’s what Newcastle language teacher Mike Metcalf tweeted about the sign in this photo:

Quite right. Are we Satan’s Brainwashed Cattle? And must we wake up? Or are we supposed to wake up a flock herd of Satan’s Brainwashed Cattle, in the event that we encounter such a thing? Either way, I would have thought that it would surely be better for Satan’s Brainwashed Cattle to remain slumbering.

I don’t know where this photo was photoed.

Exploring The City: Monument thoughts

When I say exploring, I mean three kinds of exploring, rather than just the one. The “just the one” is going there, and taking photos. But the second is finding things out from the Internet about the various things I saw and photoed. And the third is exploring my photo-archives for related photos that I photoed during earlier explorations.

Here’s an internet discovery of what the place I was exploring looked like, in (guess) the late eighteenth century:

That image is one of a collection of images to be found at the top of the Website for the Parish and Pilgrimage Church of St Magnus the Martyr in the City of London.

At the back there, the Monument, and the church of St Magnus the Martyr. Note how you also see three other church spires, and a rather distant church tower. In those days, churches dominated the London skyline.

Here another Monument image, this time one which I photoed in the vicinity of the Monument, yesterday:

At the top of that, beyond, you can just about make out a horizontal slice of the Monument itself.

I’ve obviously been up this London Big Thing, but not very recently. Now, I want to look more closely at how this London Big Thing looked, when it first arrived on the scene:

I’m sure there are plenty of references to God and how he should bless and receive into heaven, or wherever, all the people who perished in the Great Fire of London, at the base of the Monument.

Nevertheless, I wonder if The Monument was actually some sort of turning point for London architecture, in the sense that it is very tall, but not a place of worship. The Monument, from the moment it was built, was what is nowadays called a “visitor attraction”. It works by allowing people to climb up a big staircase inside to a viewing platform at the top, from which anyone who cared to make this effort could then gaze down upon London, and its many churches. No worshipping involved, unless you want it to be.

Until the Monument, I’m guessing that the last place of non-worship to dominate the London skyline so forcefully was the Tower of London.

The Monument must have caused quite a stir when it first appeared. Did some people then think it was an eyesore? (A major function of blogging, for me, is that it records questions. That’s one I don’t want to forget.)

And if the Monument was thought of by some to be an eyesore, did this make it easier for people later to argue for taller – also secular – buildings in its vicinity, the aesthetic and spiritual damage already having been done? Like the Guy’s Hospital Shard story, only this time for the entire City of London.

To bring the story up to date, here’s a photo I photoed a while back of The Monument and its immediate surroundings, from the top of the Walkie Talkie:

The Monument and St Magnus are still a bit taller than their immediate surroundings, which are nevertheless pretty bulky. But as for the Walkie Talkie, and the other Big Things beyond, it’s definitely a case of The Monument being dwarfed by modernity.

Here’s another photo of The Monument, this time from the Top of the Tate Modern Extension:

Again, dwarfed by modernity.

Walkie Talkie on the left there, behind the red crane. And since we have a crane there, here’s a roof clutter photo, also feature the top of the Monument:

Photoed from the other side of the River also. Don’t get me wrong, I love this kind of alignment/juxtaposition, as regulars here will know. But, that’s how little the view of the Monument from any sort of distance now matters to London’s aesthetic overlords.

Stephen Davies on Ruling Classes and Industrious Classes

Stephen Davies is my sort of libertarian historian in many ways, and in particular in not denying the historic importance of the predator class in times gone by. It is one thing to regret the enormous power held by predators, and the comparative powerlessness of producers – the power of the taxers and the impotence of the taxed – but it is quite another to assert that the powerful predators were not in fact the people who made the historically significant decisions and that the impotent producers were actually very powerful. Libertarianism is the claim that the predators should lose their power, not that they have already lost it, or worse, never, historically, had it.

At the heart of Davies’s book The Wealth Explosion is the claim that the wealth explosion only happened because of a rather anomalous glitch in the typical behaviour of the predator class, which took the form of a non-united Europe. Normal predator behaviour throughout the rest of Eurasia meant that the wealth explosion was only able to happen in Europe.

Here (pp. 11-12) is some of what Davies says about this distinction:

There was a basic social division found in all societies after the advent of agriculture. This was between those who produced wealth by production or exchange on the one hand and those who acquired it through the use of force or fraud on the other. The first category included peasant farmers (the great majority) as well as artisans, merchants, and traders of all kinds. The second category were those who controlled not the means of production but what we may call the means of predation – organised force or systematic mystification in other words. These were the ruling classes of society such as aristocrats and clergy. The second group often did come to control and own great wealth and much productive resources, such as land for example, but this was a consequence of their privileged position rather than the cause of it. That position derived in the first instance from their greater access to the means of violence. They were not however simply parasitical because, partly for their own advantage, they came to provide what economists call ‘public goods’ such as defence against other human predators (bandits, criminals, or members of other tribes and political communities), or a means of settling disputes peacefully (so a legal system).

These ruling groups were the primary subjects of historical accounts until very recently. There is a good reason for this, quite apart from the practical point that most of the surviving sources are concerned with them, which is that they were the primary active force in human history. It was rulers and elites who had the power to actually make things happen. They were the ones with agency in other words. In addition, as Peter Laslett famously argued, they were the only social class in society with true class-consciousness, a self-conscious awareness of their own group interest. (Laslett, 2015) This and their nature meant that their relation to innovation and activities that actually changed the world in a positive way was ambivalent. On the one hand, to the extent that innovation led to actual growth in productivity, that meant more resources for them to extract from the productive part of society. On the other hand if it went on for a long enough time it would tend to weaken their position and increase the capacity of other social groups for effective action. Another aspect of the ruling classes historical role was the way that successful groups tended to expand the area of the planet that they controlled and so create an empire. Empires produced internal peace and so although they were created using (often) savage violence, once established they brought social peace to a large part of the planet’s surface. However this also meant an even stronger incentive for the successful group to keep things the same.

And mostly, except in Europe, this is what happened.

Find your way to more bits from this book by going here.

Food photos as prayers of gratitude

This from the American Spectator seems to me to be saying something rather true:

It is easy to be cynical. We might dismiss these photos as brazen self-promotion or a symptom of millennial self-absorption. Headlines like “Instagram Food Is a Sad, Sparkly Lie” and “Instagramming Millennials Are Burying the World in Food Waste” capture the standard sentiment. Slurs such as “foodgasm” and “food porn” often taint these photos with the suggestion of lechery. Perhaps, though, a more sincere explanation is possible. As odd as it sounds, I do not see pornography in these images. I find prayer.

I believe these pictures are a new incarnation of an ancient instinct: the ritual of tableside grace. Derived from the Latin gratia for “thanks,” grace is a specific type of prayer given before or after a meal to express gratitude and to invoke a blessing. It is an exercise in devoting reverential attention to life’s bounty, and through this enriched attention, achieving an expanded sense of belonging. “It becomes believers not to take food … before interposing a prayer,” Tertullian wrote in the third century, “for the refreshments and nourishments of the spirit are to be held prior to those of the flesh, and things heavenly prior to things earthly.” Grace is more than gratitude — it is gratitude ascendant, aimed above the earthly appetite toward a higher vocation. The Catholic Catechism defines prayer as “the raising of one’s mind and heart to God.” Thus grace gives our gratitude wings that lift the mind from the necessities of the flesh toward the nourishments of the spirit. For many people, photographing their entrées fills the same social role as grace: a ritual of aspirational attention that elevates bodily sustenance into spiritual refreshment through the simple power of a genuine “thank you.”

I often find myself describing my fellow digital photoers as “worshippers”. They see something which seems to them meaningful and express that feeling by photoing whatever it is. I do this myself of course, constantly.

On the other hand, this piece also helped me to understand the widespread annoyance at the way food photoing is such a big part of social-media-ing. Saying grace is fine. But it’s a shared moment for those present (God included, if you think He’s the one to be thanking), and then you get stuck in. Do you record this expression of gratitude and then expect your friends to listen to it? No.

But on the other hand, two of the things that twenty-first-centurions now have to learn are: not to pay attention to everything that your friends put out there; and: not to expect your friends to pay attention to everything that you put out there. If a friend posts lots of food photos and you think it’s too much, just pay less attention.

Also, this:

More about this wondrous concoction here.

And while I’m on the subject of food photoing, take (or not (it’s entirely up to you (if we are friends, our friendship will not be affected))) another look at what I think is one of my best-yet food photos, here.

Stephen Davies is writing a horse book

Much as I would like to replace the late Findlay Dunachie, I don’t think I’m cut out to be a book reviewer. It takes too much focus. While you’re doing it, you can’t afford to get stuck into reading anything else. When it comes to book blogging, blog postings provoked by some particular thing in a book is probably the best way for me to go.

But, I am trying to review The Wealth Explosion (you can read bits from this book here – here and here) by Stephen Davies, and I am determined to get this done, Real Soon Now.

Part of my homework for writing this review was attending an event at the IEA last week, at which Davies spoke about this book.

Which was fun, of course. But for me the biggest and best surprise came afterwards, when I asked Steve about his next book (about the Devil), and then if he was doing any more books after that Devil book. Yes, he replied. Two more. I forget the second of these two, but the first is going to be about the history of the horse.

That being my excuse for mentioning this today, Fridays being my day for cats and/or other creatures.

Historically, I surmise that the contribution of the horse in quite recent times, like the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is a rather neglected subject. I remember reading how horses multiplied during the early decades of the railways, to get people and goods to and from railway stations. More recently, I read, I think in one of James Holland’s book’s (this one maybe?), how the Nazi war effort, for all its much touted mechanical virtuosity, was amazingly dependent upon literal horsepower.

I’m really looking forward to Steve Davies’s horse book. Given how much people love horses, now more than ever, it just might sell very well. Consider the success of this recent horse-based show.

(Something similar applies to how much people disapprove of – yet are fascinated by – the Devil.)