Thursday, May 27, 2010

May 27th –Saint Ibn Khaldun Day

Story: Abu Zayd ‘Abdu r-Rahman bin Muhammad bin Khaldun Al-Hadrami, was born May 27th 1332 by our calendar, lived until 1406, and is usually just called “Ibn Khaldun.” He was high born, well educated, and following family tradition went into politics. His autobiography reads like an adventure story, involving political intrigue, lots of jail time, reaching high public office, and being exiled again. He bopped around from Spain to Tunis, to mighty Egypt, to the wild Berber tribes. He was at various times an academic, a vizier, a man charged with collecting taxes from hostile barbarians, a prisoner, a diplomat successfully brokering a peace treaty, a soldier, and a judge. He wrote books on history, mysticism, logic, theology, philosophy, and an autobiography.

But we care about him, because of his masterpiece, the Kitabu l-‘ibar- the “Book of Evidence” which was nothing short of a history of the world in 7 volumes. Historians still use book 6, and 7 about the details of the Berber people, and the politics of medieval North Africa, but for everyone else, the action is in book 1, "the Muqaddimah"- the Prolegomena. It is a book of theory, of introduction to the whole project of history. It discusses the methodology of researching history, but also discusses general trends in history. The great British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee called the Muqaddimah "a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.” Ibn Khaldun is frequently cited as the founder of sociology, and I concur. He was deeply interested in WHY groups of people behave in the way they do, and argued that “social cohesion” was more central to the explanation than the groups ideology, or any individuals actions or psychology, even the leader of the group. He is also probably the first person to apply the scientific method to history. He has an elaborate discussion of different forms of bias to which histories are habitually subjected.

Ibn Khaldun argued eloquently for understanding history in terms of cycles based on generations fueled by conflict between town and wilderness. He described a reoccurring process of barbarians conquering “soft” townies, and then over a few generations adopting the ways of town life, and being conquered in turn. His understanding of economics is profound, describing in detail feedback mechanisms that even the economists of the 1800s Europe hadn’t understood. One, famous example, among many is the Laffer Curve, a principle of taxation rates and revenues over time, which is usually referred to after Arthur Laffer who explained it repeatedly to people in the Ford administration in 1974, sketching it on napkin graphs, but is in fact clearly explained in Khaldun in 1332. He ranks with Smith and Marx as among the great economists of all time (and both camps have tried to claim him as a predecessor). He is the first person ever to propound the labor theory of value, and described the multiplier effect typically associated with Keynesian understandings of aggregate demand. Ibn Khaldun even argued for something like the evolution of humans from monkeys in chapter 6 of the Muqaddimah.

Ibn Khaldun is in many ways the father of the social sciences, presaging them, introducing them, arguing for the scientific study of societies, rather than just the unscientific recording of stories about societies. None who read him can doubt he was a pioneer in history, sociology, and economics. On a personal note, my beloved theorists of history, Strauss and Howe, are deeply indebted to Khaldun.

I’m grateful for inquiry into the behavior of societies.
I’m grateful for the theory that history moves cyclically, and generationally.
I’m grateful for the labor theory of value, that all economic values rest ultimately not on gold or land, but on human labor.
I’m grateful for the insight that histories are habitually biased in various ways, unless careful corrective measures are observed, and these minimize rather than eliminate the problems.
I’m grateful for the idea that careful methodology might be applied to social situations as well as to physical sciences.
I’m grateful for the bonds of social cohesion which form us into a society rather than a mere collection of individuals.

Other Notables for me for this day:
The births of Vincent Price (actor), Harlan Ellison (writer), Siouxsie Sioux (musician), Neil Finn (musician of Crowded House)

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