From Jerry Brotton’s promising A History of the World in Twelve Maps (got for Christmas, currently reading, good so far, but too soon to properly rate it):
“virtually all Greek wtiters point to Anaximander as the first thinker to provide a compelling account of what he himself is believed to have called ‘the order of things’. Anaximander offered a variation on Hesiod’s originating Chaos by proposing that in the beginning was eternal boundlessness, or aperion. The boundlessness somehow secreted a ‘seed’ which then produced flame… As the earth began to form, the enveloping ‘flame’ broke away to create ‘rings of planets, stars, the moon and the sun…’ As a naturalistic explanation of the creation of the universe and humanity, this was a significant development on earlier accounts, but it is Anaximander’s explanation of the earth’s place in this cosmogony which is particularly original… Anaximander argued that ‘the earth is aloft, not dominated by anything…’ From this cosmogony came a new cosmology – the study of the physical universe. Abandoning Babylonian and earlier Greek beliefs that the earth rested on water and air, Anaximander introduced a purely geometrical and mathematical cosmology, in which the earth sits at the centre of a symmetrical cosmos in prefect equilibrium. It is the earliest known scientifically argued concept of a geocentric universe.
“Anaximander’s rational claims for the physical origins of creation defined all subsequent Greek metaphysical speculation.”
And, as such, Anaximander’s perception-shift came to define all subsequent Western Philosophy. This is where the quest for rationalism began, somewhere in Miletus (Milet in modern Turkey), sometime in the 6th century BC. Wikipedia page for the guy here. Well worth a read.
This kind of shift in perception is, I guess, what I’m always looking for with blogging, tweeting, and randomly acquiring seemingly useless historical knowledge: How to see familiar things in totally new ways? How to shake preconceptions, remove ingrained biases? How to approach something old from a completely new angle in such a way that the old way of seeing seems so backward as to be incomprehensible?
The last time I had one of these kinds of revelations was a good decade and a half ago, when I made the shift from hardcore eurosceptic to moderate europhile (not a term I’d apply to myself, but by British standards…). I’m now in need of a new one – and think I’m starting to get there, largely thanks to the day job which, for the last four years, has seen me constantly having to try and see things from a non-Anglophone, non-European perspective, while finding the similarities of interest between the peoples of 70+ countries and 27-odd languages.
After a decade of blogging as a Brit attempting to see things from a European perspective (while very much still being shaped by my British roots), in other words, I reckon it’s high time to try and see things from a non-European/British perspective.
This presents any number of challenges that one simply doesn’t encounter within Europe, where so much culture is shared (at least, until you get to the European borderlands – and even they often share aspects of the outlook of the European mainstream, simply by being, in global terms, so damn nearby…).
I’ve spent a moderate amount of time in the Far East in recent years, and have visited the States a few times – both things I’d not had the opportunity to do when I started this blog almost 11 years ago. It’s very different out there, yet in many ways very similar. The US is, in its way, as alien to a European as Japan.
But while I’ve always been interested in the differences – they’re what make life interesting – I’m also always seeking similarities. In that, I can’t help thinking that, in some ways, Britain has more in common with Japan than with America. The roughly shared language blinds us to the differences – the obvious obscures the important.
So, time to explore cultures beyond Europe, and hunt for how they relate back. Time, too, to fill in the gaps in my European knowledge – the chunks of history I don’t know, from the Baltic to the Balkans, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to the rise (and fall) of the Portugese Empire.
Why? Because context is all important – the present makes no sense without the past; no country’s attitudes can make sense without knowing its culture or its relationship with its neighbours; no attempt to understand one continent can succeed without understanding how it interacts with all the others. To understand Britain’s place in Europe and Europe’s place in the world, it is necessary to take a holistic approach, a global approach.
As with Anaximander starting with trying to understand creation, it’s necessary to start with first principles to understand international relations today – a global approach, with no bounds in time, place or culture. To take just two examples, Japan’s creation myth sees the country as unique, the centre of the universe, the focus of divine creation; England’s sees itself as founded by a descendant of Aeneas of Troy, the legendary founder of Rome, and as such the inheritor of the greatness of the Roman Empire. Both of these foundation myths, centuries old, have their reflections in Japanese and British attitudes towards international relations to this day.
So, there may be a lot of random stuff on here, if I keep this up again. But it’ll hopefully all be random stuff looking for a purpose or connections that will build to make some kind of sense. I hope… It may just end up random things I find interesting. But hopefully some of you will too.