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de Camp's memetics

I'm still reading Ancient Engineers, and de Camp's raised the question in chapter 7 of why science came to a halt in the Roman Empire. He refuses to blame slavery, tyrannical emperors, or Christianity per se, as the timings are wrong, or the lack of instrumentation, since they actually had a lot of techniques, and even observation of magnification effects, though not application thereof. Instead he blames the rise of supernaturalism in general, not for being openly hostile to science but for taking energy away from it.

Now, the great intellectual movement of the classical world under the Principate was towards supernaturalism; that is, religion, mysticism, and magic. There was nothing new about these. All went back to primitive times. Mystery cults had flourished in Greece from -500 on and probably before if the record were complete.

But, under Rome, those who exploited the human love of the marvelous and fear of the unknown made striking advances in methods, just as metal workers learned to make brass and glaziers to make windowpanes. They found that it added to their following and advanced their own power, glory, and wealth to flourish a body of sacred writings with which to confound the heathen; to promise lavish rewards and punishments after death, in order to right the injustices of earthly life; to set up a tightly-knit, far-flung, conspiratorial organization; to expound a verbose and seemingly logical body of spiritual doctrine; to impose a fixed code of morals and tabus [sic] -- some reasonable and some purely arbitrary -- on their followers; and, most of all, to incite a fanatical hatred of rival groups and a grim determination to win the world to one's own faith.

All these procedures were inventions, just as much as Heron's toy steam engine. With these new techniques, the priests, prophets, and magicians could more effectively compete for public attention and support. Credulity they redefined as "faith", and fanaticism as "zeal", while respect for the laws of cause and effect was condemned as "blind materialism".

The success of a cult depended on its fidelity to these principles. This success, needless to say, had nothing to do with the objective truth of its doctrines, any more than the success of a modern advertising campaign has to do with the virtues of the cigarette or detergent being sold.

As a result, the world witnessed a great "return to religion". The new cults grew swiftly. The old Greek and Roman polytheisms, with no central organization, no theology but a mass of childish and inconsistent myths, and no particular doctrine of future life, crumbled before the tide. The worship of Kybele, Mithra, Isis, Yahweh, Serapis, Abraxas, and Christ waxed mightily. The magical cults of the Neopythagoreans, the Neoplatonists, and the Gnostics throve. The pseudo-science of astrology flourished, and hedge-wizards like Simon Magus swarmed.

The methods listed above had already, before the Christian era, appeared to some extent in Judaism and Zoroastrianism. So it is not surprising that the strongest of the new religions should prove to be Christianity and Mithraism, heretical offshoots of Judaism and Zoroastrianism respectively.

Of all the mass religions, Christianity made the most effective use of these principles. Possessed of the tightest organization, the most bewildering logic, the most impressive sacred literature, and the most fanatical spirit of any, it captured the Principate while Christians were still a small minority in the Empire. Then, armed with the terrifying doctrines of exclusive salvation, eternal damnation, and the imminent end of the world, and backed by the Emperor's executioners, it soon swept its rivals from the board.

Regardless of whether he got all the historical details exactly right, the general story, published in 1960, is very similar to post-Selfish Gene memetic analyses of Western religion. One difference is that de Camp, writing as an engineer, seems to assume conscious invention and intelligent design of the new religions. A memeticist could relax that constraint, remaining agnostic as to what anyone thought they were doing, but noting that 'mutations', changes, in the directions he describes would have the adaptive effects he describes, whether such changes were planned for that purpose or not.

It also reminds me that a friend of mine said once that -- if I understood and remember her correctly -- she thought the remarkable success of Christianity indicated that something special and weird must have happened back then. de Camp expresses the rejoinder I didn't make at the time, which was that I thought the special circumstances were that of a remarkable period of vigorous religious experimentation, with Christianity emerging as the religion most suited to sweeping a population and stomping out its rivals -- plus some element of luck in that the Emperors took it up, and not some other cult, to unify their domains.



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 6th, 2007 06:15 pm (UTC)
why science came to a halt in the Roman Empire.

I like to go with lead in their water supply myself. The bread and circus model works too, but if you move that to modern times would it be fast food and wrestling or fast food and cable?
Nov. 6th, 2007 08:02 pm (UTC)
Regarding a profusion and confusion of supernaturalisms:
Wikipedia on Serapis has this quotation from Hadrian:

The land of Egypt, the praises of which you have been recounting to me, my dear Servianus, I have found to be wholly light-minded, unstable, and blown about by every breath of rumour. There those who worship Serapis are, in fact, Christians, and those who call themselves bishops of Christ are, in fact, devotees of Serapis. There is no chief of the Jewish synagogue, no Samaritan, no Christian presbyter, who is not an astrologer, a soothsayer, or an anointer. Even the Patriarch himself, when he comes to Egypt, is forced by some to worship Serapis, by others to worship Christ. (Augustan History, Firmus et al.)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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