The Effects of Intellectualism

Sunday, July 6th, 2014

Sir John Glubb describes the effects of intellectualism:

There are so many things in human life which are not dreamt of in our popular philosophy. The spread of knowledge seems to be the most beneficial of human activities, and yet every period of decline is characterised by this expansion of intellectual activity. ‘All the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing’ is the description given in the Acts of the Apostles of the decline of Greek intellectualism.

The Age of Intellect is accompanied by surprising advances in natural science. In the ninth century, for example, in the age of Mamun, the Arabs measured the circumference of the earth with remarkable accuracy. Seven centuries were to pass before Western Europe discovered that the world was not flat. Less than fifty years after the amazing scientific discoveries under Mamun, the Arab Empire collapsed. Wonderful and beneficent as was the progress of science, it did not save the empire from chaos.

The full flowering of Arab and Persian intellectualism did not occur until after their imperial and political collapse. Thereafter the intellectuals attained fresh triumphs in the academic field, but politically they became the abject servants of the often illiterate rulers. When the Mongols conquered Persia in the thirteenth century, they were themselves entirely uneducated and were obliged to depend wholly on native Persian officials to administer the country and to collect the revenue. They retained as wazeer, or Prime Minister, one Rashid al-Din, a historian of international repute. Yet the Prime Minister, when speaking to the Mongol II Khan, was obliged to remain throughout the interview on his knees. At state banquets, the Prime Minister stood behind the Khan’s seat to wait upon him. If the Khan were in a good mood, he occasionally passed his wazeer a piece of food over his shoulder.

As in the case of the Athenians, intellectualism leads to discussion, debate and argument, such as is typical of the Western nations today. Debates in elected assemblies or local committees, in articles in the Press or in interviews on television — endless and incessant talking.

Men are interminably different, and intellectual arguments rarely lead to agreement. Thus public affairs drift from bad to worse, amid an unceasing cacophony of argument. But this constant dedication to discussion seems to destroy the power of action. Amid a Babel of talk, the ship drifts on to the rocks.


  1. John says:

    I find it difficult to believe that a so-called student of history, as Sir Glubb appears to be, would be taken in by the flat-earth myth, which only the barest, most cursory reading of any intellectual history will suffice to dispel. I haven’t undertaken a thorough reading of this treatise, but needless to say my suspicions are raised.

  2. Rollory says:

    What’s fascinating to me about the flat earth “myth” is how vociferously certain quarters will assert that it was and is in fact a myth. I read history of all types voraciously throughout my childhood and young adulthood, with a fascination for primary sources, and never encountered this “myth” claim until blogspot. However examples of flat-earth maps and discussions of the contemporary theological justifications for why the earth had to be flat were hardly rare in the reading I was doing, to the point that I considered it as well-supported an argument as the existence of dinosaurs.

    Often the same people asserting that the flat earth view is a myth will also assert that the Dark Ages weren’t dark. In that case, mere numbers are sufficient for disproving the idea; the collapse in terms of total population and land under cultivation between 300 AD and 800-900 AD was monumental. This doesn’t stop the claim from being made. Often highly correlated with the argument that it was a very Christian period therefore it COULDN’T be a bad time.

    I’m willing to believe that certain academicians in their ivory towers discussed among themselves reasons why the earth might have one shape or another. The idea that it was “known” or even generally considered that the earth wasn’t flat, however, is not at all proven.

  3. David Foster says:

    An interesting piece on the flat-earth issue here.

  4. Rollory says:

    Stephen Jay Gould isn’t someone whose uncorroborated assertions I’d trust on anything.

  5. JCB says:

    The Arabs measured the circumference of the Earth in the ninth century? That’s about a thousand years or so after Eratosthenes of Cyrene did it.

    Here’s Strabo’s Geographica, written in the first century:

    As the size of the earth has been demonstrated by other writers, we shall here take for granted and receive as accurate what they have advanced. We shall also assume that the earth is spheroidal, that its surface is likewise spheroidal, and above all, that bodies have a tendency towards its centre, which latter point is clear to the perception of the most average understanding. However we may show summarily that the earth is spheroidal, from the consideration that all things however distant tend to its centre, and that every body is attracted towards its centre of gravity; this is more distinctly proved from observations of the sea and sky, for here the evidence of the senses, and common observation, is alone requisite. The convexity of the sea is a further proof of this to those who have sailed; for they cannot perceive lights at a distance when placed at the same level as their eyes, but if raised on high, they at once become perceptible to vision, though at the same time further removed. So, when the eye is raised, it sees what before was utterly imperceptible.

    And St. Augustine’s City of God in the fifth century claiming that the sphericity of the earth does not imply that there is inhabited land on the other side:

    But as to the fable that there are Antipodes, that is to say, men on the opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets to us, men who walk with their feet opposite ours, that is on no ground credible. And, indeed, it is not affirmed that this has been learned by historical knowledge, but by scientific conjecture, on the ground that the earth is suspended within the concavity of the sky, and that it has as much room on the one side of it as on the other: hence they say that the part which is beneath must also be inhabited. But they do not remark that, although it be supposed or scientifically demonstrated that the world is of a round and spherical form, yet it does not follow that the other side of the earth is bare of water; nor even, though it be bare, does it immediately follow that it is peopled.

  6. Lucklucky says:

    “I find it difficult to believe that a so-called student of history, as Sir Glubb appears to be, would be taken in by the flat-earth myth, which only the barest, most cursory reading of any intellectual history will suffice to dispel.”


    The flat-earth argument is so silly. Everyone that rises to the top of a ship mast or a mountain sees curvature. A mere boat that goes out to sea after a while stops seeing earth. That was known thousands of years ago.

    It usually comes from people that mistake flat earth with geocentrism.

  7. James James says:

    Sir Glubb Sir John

  8. Rollory says:

    “A mere boat that goes out to sea after a while stops seeing earth.”

    Have you actually done this yourself? As in, do you know what it actually looks like when you are in that position, and how far from a given coastline you must be in order to actually notice the effect with the naked eye, given various heights above sea level?

    I have.

    The idea that Greco-Roman era or Dark Age sailors, who used shore-hugging galleys — which, incidentally, could not go out of sight of land, not just because they were physically incapable of handling high seas but because they were incapable of carrying enough supplies for the oarsmen for any noticeable length of time, unlike Renaissance-era sailing ships, which had a much better crew to cargo space ratio — did this routinely is simple nonsense. The Odyssey, after all, is about an island nation’s king and his crew of experienced sailors — members of a seafaring people, whose familiarity with “the wine-dark sea” is a constant refrain — getting lost in the Mediterranean, of all places, for ten years. The same Mediterranean that overloaded dinghies full of Africans cross today by paddling with their hands and broken planks.

    Then there’s the fact that the classical galleys simply didn’t have very tall masts — just not enough height to make the curvature effect anywhere near as easily distinguishable as from the top of an 1800s clipper, or even a 1600s galleon.

    Atlantic seafaring in general was very, very limited for a long time, and very much in the same vein as the shore-hugging style that had developed in the Mediterranean. Columbus’s ships, and Henry the Navigator’s, were the start of mastering deep-ocean travel. Those craft were significantly more advanced than shore-hugging fishing boats, but even so they were rickety primitive contraptions that were hardly suited to the task at hand. The shipbuilding art improved tremendously over the next few centuries, but when the Age of Discovery started, it was absolutely still in its infancy. All the lessons that might be drawn from experience in the far reaches of the ocean were simply not generally available.

    In other words, you are simply, completely, totally wrong. You are making assumptions based on things that are obvious to you about what would be obvious to people in vastly different circumstances with vastly different technology and habits, and you are wrong.

  9. Rollory says:

    As for what those various classical writers or thinkers came up with, I’m not arguing against that. As I said earlier: it’s perfectly plausible that some people made accurate deductions about such things. The idea that it was common knowledge, however — that “the earth is a round ball” was something people outside of the academies could reasonably be expected to know or believe — is not something I’ve seen any credible evidence for at all.

  10. Bruce says:

    “My book is a guide for the perplexed, not for fools, so if you are a retard and think the world is flat, git.”

    — Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed

    “Why bother with theology, when we already have philosophy and Scripture? Truth is found in different ways. You can learn the world is round by astronomy, by mathematics, and by geography.”

    — Aquinas, Summa Theologica

  11. Lucklucky says:

    Yes, I know.

    Twenty to 30 miles from the coast is enough if you are in a cargo ship, which means you are already higher than sea level.

    But to expose even more your silliness, you don’t need to be at sea to realise that; you can be in land seeing ships approaching and going up a mount to see a ship earlier or an island nearby.

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