Christ was born into the Pagan world of Rome, a world of cyclical despair. As historian of science Stanley Jaki spent his life documenting, the pagan world view was one of endless cycles, of oscillations, of rise and fall, golden ages of glory, bronze ages of decline, iron and stone ages of despair, with no genuine permanent progress. For this reason, among others, Jaki says neither the ancient Greeks nor Romans produced modern science, which depends greatly on the idea of progress.
I would argue that this is the reason why they also failed to create modern economics, which is also based on the idea of progress. For the ancient pagans you can move along supply curves, but not shift them to the right. Hesiod said if you want to have more wealth the only way is to work more hours.
The idea of the Labor Theory of value fits perfectly with a world of cyclical futility. More money comes only from more sweat; the only thing resembling an escape is the acquisition of slaves through conquest. Wealth for the slave owner is still built on sweat, but the slave’s, not his. The only thing he risks is the blood that he loses in combat acquiring the slaves.
That’s the world of the Caeser Augustus whose executive order for a tax census sent Joseph and Mary back to their home town of Bethlehem to be counted. Augustus’ wealth came from Joseph the carpenter’s sweat. And if Joseph resisted, then it would be blood, so a pregnant woman is conscripted into a perilous journey.
Technological breakthroughs, better business modeling, virtuous cycles built on capital accumulation were not the basis of Augustus’ wealth; confiscation was. In fact, according to Aristotle, return on capital was a violation of the nature of things. If the only way to create more wealth was to shed more sweat, then capital was unnatural, the attempt to find fertility where only barrenness could exist. Interest, therefore, was based on an unnatural act, that of treating wealth as though it was fertile, when it was as barren as a mule.
Which brings us to Christmas. What is more barren than a virgin’s womb? (Perhaps only the tomb, but that is a topic for a column in April.) The late Christopher Hitchens quipped more than once that if civilization suddenly collapsed, would we really need to remind ourselves that Christ was born of a virgin?
The obvious implication is that the Christmas story (Fact? Myth? Both?) is useless for the rebuilding of civilization. That is a very odd observation from a man who prided himself on his knowledge of history, because, in fact, that is exactly what civilization did remind itself of after it collapsed. What Civilization?
Why Christopher Hitchens’ civilization and yours and mine: Western civilization.