Holland Digs Up the Root of Modern Western Values as Others Attempt to Dig It Out

The exposure and expose of a wildly popular myth

I have written about Tom Holland before and the book he published called Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. The story about the book has intrigued me since I heard him talk about it. I am taking my time reading through it.

We all have a perspective, right? We come to whatever we read or hear with certain assumptions that have developed in our thinking. Affirmations of those assumptions sit well, but challenges to those assumptions do not rest easy. You know what I am talking about.

Holland challenges assumptions from all sides, including his own. For that reason, it’s a challenging read, but all lasting growth of any kind comes through conflict and tension.

Holland is a historian with a particular focus on ancient, classical history. He chose dinosaurs over the Bible as a young child. He was more enamored with Pontius Pilate than Jesus Christ. The ancient, classical world and the likes of Julius Caesar captured his imagination. His passion became both avocation and vocation. He became a historian.

When Holland wrote a book, In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire, that painted Islam in a candid and critical light, Holland was criticized and challenged to do a similar history of the assumptions that underlie his worldview. The criticism was fair, so he set out to do it.

His worldview? Holland is an atheist and secular humanist. His worldview is undergirded with ideas we might call basic human, the right to equality, fair treatment and freedoms that might call unalienable, separation of church and state, the value of scientific endeavor and the social necessity of charity and good will.

When he set out to write a book tracing these values back to their sources, he was not predisposed to assume where he would find them, though he certainly had assumptions and presuppositions. Like the paleontologist sifting through layers of a dig site, Holland did the painstaking work.

Beginning with Darius and the great Persian Empire, Holland sought to uncover the lineage of modern western thought from one empire to the next. Holland was looking for the progression that evolved into ideas that inform the modern western mind.

He did not focus on the usual events that historians often catalogue. He focused on thoughts as they developed and the people who championed them and events as they influenced those thoughts and ideas.

In the ancient world, as one might expect, many of those ideas were garbed in metaphysical dress. Holland’s focus, though, is always on the those thoughts and ideas that continue in our modern values today. The ones that died off, like the dinosaurs, are only interesting as side notes to that history.

Much of the book explores the world of gods and beliefs, which seems like an odd thing coming from an atheist, but all the more intriguing. Those were the ideas that animated the ancient world. The beliefs of the ancients are the evolutionary precursors to our modern thought. In those layers of metaphysical sediment lie traces of our modern values.

In sifting through the soils of history, Holland identifies the beginnings and ancestry of the ethics and values that ground his worldview as a humanist in the sedimentary layers in which they arose. As often is the case in such endeavors, Holland makes some startling discoveries.

What Holland carefully and methodically uncovers is one seismic development that diverted and defined the flow of thinking in western civilization – a metaphysical “Cambrian Explosion”. His find caught him off guard: western thinking is founded on, permeated with and inextricably intertwined in Christian ideas.

Thus, when Holland gets into the Enlightenment Era, he exposes a disconnect that arises out of that soil – an incongruity that bears some candid analysis for its deviation from the origin and trajectory of the historical developments to that stage. That the very essence of Enlightenment thinking is sourced in that heritage that it seeks to dig out is both ironic and dangerous, like the man sawing the branch that supports him.

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