Pugging tooth

Pugging? An odd adjective. Even the Oxford Dictionary struggles:

Obs. rare—1.

Of uncertain meaning; perhaps: ‘that pulls or tugs, thieving’.

Then the OED directs us to the single known usage, from The Winter’s Tale, Act IV, scene iii:

The white sheet bleaching on the hedge,
With heigh! the sweet birds, O, how they sing!
Doth set my pugging tooth on edge;
For a quart of ale is a dish for a king.

Autolycus, of course.

That came back to Malcolm, courtesy of a very worthwhile thread on politics.ie. It stemmed from a deceptively simple question:

Why the Romans turned their backs on the old Gods and embraced Christianity

Surprise, surprise, Malcolm demurred from the general direction of the subsequent exchange:

 for a start there is the clear distinction between the ‘official’ state religion and what seemed to be the superstitions, ancestor worship and good-old-fashioned spiritualism at the level of the ordinary family.

If, by the ‘old gods’, we mean that collection of mythological beings we were taught at school (Jupiter, Juno, Venus, Mars, …), then I suspect the answer is they were never given much credence. They were after all largely imported from the south Italian Greek colonials (Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Ares …), and it’s clear from the Greek myths that they weren’t treated exactly with prostrating reverence. Any doubts on that, try the bit of divine how’s-your-father from the bard Demodocus (whose name actually translates as “received by the public”) in the Odyssey, book viii. Were those myths, constantly embroidered and ‘improved’ by successive generations of writers and story-tellers, a kind of prototype soap-opera?

However these mythical figures are the façades for an amalgam of spirits and characteristics: ‘power’, ‘motherhood’, ‘love/lust’, ‘conflict’ … So the waters of Bath were Aquae Sulis: the Celtic goddess-spirit, whom the Romans happily conflated with Minerva — you can, should you wish, impute a connection to Sulis as the ‘eye of the underworld’.

That’s consistent with the worship of Lars, ‘spirits of the place’, where every home, every home, locality, wood, spring, crossroads had its own particular guardian/resident spirit. We persist in the tradition of roadside shrines to this day (as at the scene of every road death) and we surround ourselves with images of our ancestors.

The other side of this thread is why was Christianity adopted, and why did it, in variant forms, and against the odds, succeed in becoming the standard ‘official’ belief for the Empire and its successor nations (note that I’m unconvinced the older spirit-worship doesn’t persist at the demotic level).

Not to anybody’s surprise, Malcolm’s considered thoughts went unheeded and ignored by other contributors. That doesn’t, in any way, undermine his recognition that, below the ‘official’ and orthodox religions — whatever they are — the ordinary soul wanders around, set in the Old Ways. We are still essentially superstitious spirit-worshippers, with our shrines and places of pilgrimage (the nearest to Redfellow Hovel being White Hart Lane, Wembley and the Emirates Stadium. Or, if your religious bent is consumerism, Brent Cross and Oxford Street).

Then a contributor, Half Nelson, dropped this into the thread:

According to former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Dominic Lawson, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has discovered what Europe has chosen to ignore.

“One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact the pre-eminence, of the West all over the world,” said a senior member of the Beijing Academy. “We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had.

“Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system.

“But in the past twenty years, we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful.”

Malcolm smelt Rattus, and went sniffing.

The cyber-archaeology seems to be Half Nelson taking from Alan Craig of the Christian People’s Alliance, who in turn ‘borrowed’ from Tom O’Gorman of the Iona Institute. Nothing outrageously wrong with all that: any blog-artist is a modern Autolycus,

who being, as I am, littered under Mercury, was likewise a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.

 It’s just good to know where a view is really coming from, especially lest it be wrenched and thieved from an original context, pulled, tugged, and mendaciously re-deployed. Malcolm recognises a pugging tooth is the case here.

So Malcolm felt we should revisit the decent point Dominic Lawson was making. He was making it in a specific context, reviewing Niall Ferguson’s Civilisation for The Sunday Times (secured from prying eyes by the Murdochian the pay-wall, but in the issue of 27th February 2011).

When we arrive at the Ferguson connexion, we find it is arguing something a considerable distance, and a whole millennium, away from the politics.ie thread.

In essence (and assuming there’s the odd bod around these parts who hasn’t read the thing), over four hundred closely-printed and closely-argued pages, Ferguson propounds the bases of western civilisation (each with its own segment of the book): competition, science, property, medicine, consumption and — finally — work. The Chinese and religion thing is the prefatory quotation to that final tranche:

In the past twenty years, we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.

— Anonymous Fellow of the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences.

 Fair enough? Ferguson opens this segment of his book, clearing his throat, and doing a short Autolycus on Gibbon, specifically (pages 258-259:)

Gibbon’s most provocative argument in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was that Christianity was one of the fatal solvents of the first version of Western civilisation. Monotheism, with its emphasis on the hereafter, was fundamental at odds with the variegated paganism of the empire in it heyday. Yet it was a very specific form of Christianity — the variant that arose in Western Europe in the sixteenth century — that gave the modern version of Western civilisation thew sixth of its key advantages over the rest of the world: Protestantism — or, rather, the peculiar ethic of hard work and thrift with which it came to be associated.

Notice there: Christianity was one of the fatal solvents of the first version of Western civilisation. Ferguson is not so facile to see Gibbon proposing the arrival of Christianity as more than one of the fatal solvents, in the collapse. His other considerations embrace:

  • the extended Pax Romana suppressed the enterprise and initiative of the Roman State,
  • military effectiveness degenerated with administrative flabbiness and conservatism;
  • the taste for luxury and ease corrupted morals, while those outside the charmed circle wanted in;
  • employing barbarians in the military led to their rise to power and importance — eventually, since they were running things, they cut out the middle man and ran their bits of the empire in their own ways;
  • taxes became onerous, and were evaded by the rich and powerful, meaning the lower orders bore the brunt, and were alienated, concluding in what later would be termed ‘popular resistance movements’.

All that apart, Ferguson doesn’t linger over this, but swiftly segues into:

Max Weber — the father of modern sociology and the author who coined the phrase ‘the Protestant ethic’ (see page 259 of the paperback edition).

Thus the politics.ie discussion topic and the historical context could be re-phased, perhaps more relevantly, in Weberian terms:

The question was: what was different about Protestantism? What was it about the teaching of Luther and his successors that encouraged people not just to work hard but to accumulate capital?

The prime suspect, the name in the frame, there should be Friar Luca Pacioli (Leonardo’s maths teacher, no less) and his invention of double-entry book-keeping. We might stick in the dock alongside Luca his close contemporaries, the Fugger brothers of Augsburg, who turned usury and bank-loans into an art-form of monopolistic proto-capitalism. Neither Luca, nor the Fuggers, were greatly held back by their Catholicism, or by anticipating (by only a few years, admittedly) Luther.

There must have been something in the post-Cinquacento air, and not just in Saxony.

Or, perhaps it all starts by nicking the laundry of others. Which brings us back to Autolycus.

Malcolm’s pugging tooth, however, mainly involves stealing the ideas of others.


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Filed under blogging, History, Niall Ferguson, politics, Quotations, reading, Religious division, Shakespeare

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