Going from hunting human beings, to being equal before the law. That was a change that would bring good consequences.
This had begun much earlier, not with a change in ideas, but in behaviors.
Of hunting human beings…
In two phases: first the hunters became warriors. And then, they began to capture humans as slaves. Societies were split into two parts: on the one hand, slave owners; and, on the other, those subject to serving as slaves to the former.
Since then, humans who lived from the work of others built stories that explained their behavior because of the inferiority of others or because they deserved it. And they built gods that justified killing and subdue other human beings, as they had been doing with animals and plants.
In chapter 16 Building the enemy (1) we saw the consequences of this process of complacency.
The human ability to make friends and enemies
Humans and hominins descend from predatory mammals. Once we taste the blood, we usually recover the vice of killing. Why strive to build something, when we can get it by force? That is our sin, nothing original.
But we also inherit another possibility: to make friends. Even bacteria know how to make friends. And other mammals; That is why wolves and jackals became our friends and even become part of our families, converted into domestic dogs.
Between both poles we move throughout history.
These things always start with a first encounter. When two human groups meet for the first time, the initial situation is usually the same: If both parties show their weapons, blood will be shed. But if the leader of a group shows his bare right hand, without words, he is already saying: – “I don’t want to hurt you”. And if the leader of the other side does the same, as saying: – “Me neither.” And if one of the parties places some fruits on the ground or something that is considered an offering, the encounter may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Así, en todo el planeta, primero los homininos y luego los humanos crearon relaciones de confianza mutua. Una relación correspondiente es el comienzo de acuerdos comerciales, matrimonios, alianzas políticas … Durante milenios fue así. ¿Por qué entonces rompió una costumbre que tenía tantas ventajas?
Trade and war
The extraordinary fertility of the land in southern Sumeria produced surplus food in some cities. For everything else, they needed what others had: even stones to build temples or walls behind which to defend themselves. Those walls turned the Sumerian towns into cities.
Other cities, in less fertile areas, specialized in handicrafts and had surplus of supplies, ceramic jars and desired products.
The inhabitants of a city needed things or food that others had. And they had food or things that others needed.
Thus the job of merchant arose: people dedicated to transport merchandise for their exchange. And these merchants were the victims who began attacking the treasure hunter warriors.
Between war and war, the warriors were left unoccupied and dedicated themselves to assaulting merchants. These responded by grouping in caravans and arming to protect themselves. The new occupation of the robber was specialized in trade routes by land and sea; the latter were called pirates.
The merchants defend themselves
Trade and war are incompatible; but also complementaries. Merchants defended themselves of assaults with weapons. And the wars needed supplies and therefore merchants. The army that protects a city ends up protecting merchants and chasing pirates.
The Roman Empire grew up making wars of conquest. But when he could no longer grow, his armies began to corrupt; and, they went from sustaining the order and commerce of the Empire, to engage in the looting of cities.
In the Middle Ages something even more curious happened. The so-called barbarians had been converting to Christianity. And now they could combine the defense of their lands (and their king’s) with the assault on caravans of infidels, Jews and heretics. Or merchants in general.
For example, Syracuse was a Greek colony on the island of Sicily in southern Italy. Its economy was based on commerce and it was there that Archimedes, the greatest scientist of antiquity, lived and worked; until in 212 the Romans invaded the island and killed the wise (unintentionally, because the Romans respected the wise, but that warrior was hooked on the vice of killing).
Other European cities also specialized in commerce. Since the fifth century, the city of Venice became the center of maritime commerce, creating its own fleet to defend its ships from pirates.
Equality before the law, seen by Shakespeare
Something more than a century after the beginning of the Renaissance, in 1600, Shakespeare premiered his play The Merchant of Venice. I bring it to this chapter, because that fiction story helps us understand how trade made the end of the Middle Ages possible in cities like Venice.
The drama relates the conflict between a lender and a merchant. The lender, offended by a matter of honor, imposes an abusive clause on his client, whereby, if the debtor does not return the loan on a certain date, The creditor may collect it in a pound of meat cut to your liking on the debtor’s body.
When a shipwreck prevents the debtor from returning the loan, the lender requires that the contract be fulfilled in the debtor’s flesh.
The Doge – the highest executive and judicial authority in Venice – cannot prevent the Law from being enforced in this particular case, even if it wishes to. But the city’s commerce and wealth depend on the trust that other nations have in Venice. And for that, all contracts must be fulfilled.
Counterparadox of a woman disguised as a lawyer
Porcia, friend of the protagonist and heroine of this story, is presented at the trial disguised as a man, posing as a doctor in law advising the Dux. And he gives the lender the reason: “This promissory note has expired without being paid. So, a pound of meat from that merchant belongs to you: the law gives it to you and the court awards it to you. However; This promissory note does not grant you a drop of blood. Take, then your pound of meat. But if you pour a drop of Christian blood, your land and your property, according to the laws of Venice, will be confiscated.”
The paradox is that the law requires compliance with the contract, but, if it is fulfilled, an injustice occurs; therefore, it cannot be fulfilled nor breached.
The counterparadox consists of “prescribing the symptom”; that is, execute what you want to avoid. By proposing that no one expects, the situation changes the existing framework and enters a new situation that resolves itself (2).
Shakespeare does something as disconcerting as Michelangelo when painting his Last Judgment (3).
The law and merchants
I have asked these works of art for help, to highlight two aspects, without whose collaboration the Renaissance or modern thought would not have been possible (3).
The first is that citizens could relate to each other as equal persons before the Law. That era and remains the basis of mutual trust, not only between citizens, but between states. Without it, only barbarism remains.
In the theatrical performance there is no – nor should – a theologian interpreting the will of God, even if he reasoned as Sto. Thomas Aquinas. It is not necessary, because the “Reason” is already explicit in the receipt that the lender has in his hands. The only thing missing is that the law is fulfilled. And there is no god who can prevent it. This is a radical turn towards secular society; since Emperor Constantine declared Christianity imperial religion.
When there is a sustainable situation of equality before the law, politics is born and reborn as a continuation of the war by other means. The law is fighting against piracy and crime, to maintain a framework in which it is possible to dialogue and reach beneficial agreements for both parties. That defines civilized society. Centuries were missing for democracy, but some pillars that would make it possible began to be placed.
The second aspect that I wanted to highlight is the way to do it. I will deal with this specifically in the next chapter. But before finishing with the merchants, I would like to emphasize in their tribute, something that we inherit from them through their children.
The inheritance of the merchants to their children
Merchants did not need theologians to do business. They had already been expelled from the temple by Jesus Christ.
By thriving in business, merchants began to have wealth despite not being noble. And they wanted their children to thrive in civil life; Not in religious life. Better to be a prosperous merchant or artist or philosopher, than abbot of a convent, theologian or military by profession. They did not send their children to study theology, but philosophy, art, architecture or the emerging sciences recovered from Aristotle and Archimedes.
Thus, in the following generations, artists and scientists formed with new ideas appeared, inconceivable ideas during slavery. Although, to break prejudices, superstitions and metaphysical limitations, there was still a long and difficult road.
A lot of left hand was going to be necessary: a new way of dealing with situations. And to that would contribute decisively the art.
Next chapter Michelangelo’s trick. Between an almost universal illiteracy and the iron control of the theologians, artists made their way. Their trick: Not using words.
See Chapter index
Current chapter NOTES
(1) The ch. Building the Enemy shows the consequences of this process of self justification. Social inequality was and remains a problem created and managed by men.
(2) Counterparadox: Prescribe what you want to avoid. If this seems contradictory to the reader, he is absolutely right, because it is a contradiction. We owe his discovery to psychiatrist Paul Watzlawick.
(3) See: Michelangelo’s trick
(4) Another aspect in which traders moved towards modern thinking was the adoption of algorithms and numbers, including zero, imported from Arab culture. The numbers inhabited a territory foreign to theologians and inquisitors. The algorithms allowed to develop the calculation, essential for the commerce and the development of modern sciences. And in the twentieth century they would make electronic computer programming possible.