Musical and Literary Endings

One my favorite bands is “The Bad Plus,” a genre bending jazz trio.  I love just about everything they have done.

I say “just about” because they have a few songs that end in a discordant or incomplete fashion, and to me that’s no ending at all.  I recall a story about a son who always knew how to aggravate his composer father.  He would play seven notes of a scale on the family piano and refuse to play the last.  His father, no matter the situation, would inevitably have to come back to the piano and play the last note.

My question — Is this a matter of taste?  Or is it “wrong” to end a song discordantly?  As far as my limited knowledge takes me, jazz is the only musical genre that does this, however rare it might be.  Can discordant endings be appropriate in certain musical genres and not others?

I tend to think that it is wrong to end a song discordantly.  Songs are like stories and should have a beginning, middle, and end.   The songwriter has a duty to their audience.  There should be wholeness, completion. Don’t get our attention and then not deliver.

But then I check myself, because I don’t always mind, and sometimes even like, movies or books with ambiguous endings.  Should ambiguous or endings be considered ‘discordant’ endings?  Why or why not?


Losers in History vs. Losers in Sports

Historical memory will sometimes romanticize losers.

Robert E. Lee, Hannibal, Napoleon, Vercingetorix — all of them have a romantic glow about them in the minds of some.  In this ‘Romantic’ narrative, all of them begin as significant underdogs, but through pluck and brilliance make Goliath quake.  They nearly succeed, but then one mistake, or one setback of fate, and cruel reality overwhelms them.  So, Lee would have won had Stuart been at Gettysburg, Napoleon would have won if it had not rained at Waterloo, Hannibal if he had attacked Rome after Cannae, and so on.

Life can sometimes imitate art, but it is usually messier.  One can certainly make arguments for the causes of all of the military men I mentioned, but making them tragic heroes can blind us to reality.  Were all of them really underdogs?  Lee and Vercingetorix had many, many, advantages.  Napoleon nearly always faced divided allies.  Hannibal was not forced into choosing what amounted to an all or nothing strategy.  Furthermore, failure on a grand scale like theirs can rarely be attributed to one event.  All of them exhibited, to my mind, poor strategic thinking and were sunk not by fate but by their own choices.

Have you noticed that we don’t romanticize sports losers?  No one waxes eloquent about Joe Flacco, loser in two AFC Championship games, or Donovan McNabb, loser in a variety of NFC champioship games and one Super Bowl.  No one cares that Jake Delhomme nearly beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII.  Commentators killed Miami for losing the NBA championship to Dallas.  No romanticizing there.  The list goes on.  Perhaps the one exception I can think of might be Joe Frazier, but of course he beat Ali once, and was treated horribly by Ali in a way that should draw our sympathy.  My wife brought up the point that we romanticize Dan Marino.  Is there a common thread?

We also never romanticize political losers.  Michael Dukakis?  Who cares?  McCain, Mondale, Dole, — I can’t think of one romanticized defeated candidate.  The concept of gallantry amidst futility (or at least perceived futility) inspires admiration for some historical figures, but not political ones.

What can account for this difference?  I have no answers, but would like some suggestions.



8th Grade: What would the ‘Occupy’ Movement think of Solon?


After the test early in the week, we spent the next few days looking at the rule of Solon in Athens from 590-570 B.C. The ancient world regarded Solon as a great sage, but as we saw, his head was not in the clouds.  He took a society ready to fly apart at the seams and left it with an established social context in which democracy could take root.  I wanted to highlight a few key lessons.

First, the background:

Before Solon there was Draco, a member of the Athenian aristocracy.  His name itself came to symbolize harsh governmental policy, i.e. a ‘Draconian’ law.  His policies helped cement the divide between rich and poor and threatened to make it wider. This dynamic is not unusual.  When one group in society separates itself from others because of wealth or status, they tend to fear the rest of society and thus, isolate themselves all the more.  This increased distance only requires more force to ensure the divide.  One can think of the ante-bellum South, for example, and various laws enacted that made it criminal to educate slaves.  Society built like this can’t last for long.

Enter Solon.

He recognized a few key things:

1. Society needs the rich.  One can argue that the rich abused their power but they are still Athenian, and their resources can benefit Athens
2. The divide between rich and poor must be healed if we are to survive.  This will require sacrifice from the rich
3. This led to what may have been Solon’s invention, and may not have been — a graduated income tax.

No one likes to pay taxes.  One of the reasons I this is so is that no one really knows where their money goes.  It gets dropped into a vast ocean, never to be heard from again.  Solon, perhaps recognizing this, did things differently.  He did not ask for a direct sum from the wealthy, but offered them opportunity.  The wealthy could fund specific projects.  They could just pay directly for a religious festival, a bridge, or a naval warship.  Of course, they could also get full credit for their funding, i.e., ‘This festival to Athena sponsored by Diodotus.’  So, paying taxes became a way to earn ‘kleos.’  The wealthy could contribute in how much they gave.  Enhancing the well being of Athens was directly connected with enhancing their own status in the community.

Problem solved.

Could this apply today?  We are much too big to do what Solon did on any appreciable scale.  Yet I wonder, with the ‘Occupy’ movement and other kinds of resentment against the elite building, if we couldn’t borrow his ideas. What if we did this for the very rich, and put their faces on front pages with captions like, “Warren Buffet posing with fighter jet paid for with his taxes,” or something like this.  Would this help?

But, we should note that if we had a competition of fame/honor in paying taxes to the government, that would imply a certain relationship and attitude towards our government.  Would that attitude be appropriate?

Solon did not create democracy in Athens, but he established a context for it to exist.   Democracy cannot exist everywhere.  If the majority have an ‘us v. them’ attitude then they will use their power to ‘get revenge’ or exploit the others.  In this environment, society will become cancerous and destroy itself.  Democracy can only really work when the power of the majority does not just represent merely the majority, but in some sense, all the people.


Dave Mathwin

Chesterton Strikes. . .

[The problem] I mean is [modern] man’s inability to state his opponent’s view, and often his inability even to state his own.  . . . There is everywhere the habit of assuming certain things, in the sense of not even imagining the opposite things.  For instance, as history is taught, nearly everyone always assumes that it was the right side that won in all important past conflicts. . . . Say to him that we should now be better off if Charles Edward and the Jacobites had captured London instead of falling back from Derby, and he will laugh. . . . Yet nothing can be a more sober or solid fact that that, when the issue was still undecided, wise and thoughtful men were to be found on both sides.  . . . I could give many other examples of what I mean by this imaginative bondage.  It is to be found in the strange superstition of making sacred figures out of certain historical characters, who must not be moved from their symbolic attitudes. . . . To a simple rationalist, these prejudices are a little hard to understand.

From G.K. Chesterton’s “The Thing.”

Chesterton, as usual has a wonderful eye-opening point here.  But, as usual, after he blows you away you need to step back and make sure you agree.  The question is, what wars would have been better if the ‘other’ side had won?

Let’s remove the very obvious ones from contention.

Clearly the world might have been better off if, for example, the ‘Whites’ had won the Russian civil war against the ‘Reds.’  On the flip side, the right side won W.W. II.  I’m interested in the more controversial examples.

I do think the right side won W.W. I.

Some would disagree, but I say the right side won the American Civil War.

I say Europe was better off that Napoleon lost.

I realize that it is harder than we might realize to think of many wars that we wish would have gone the other way.

If we take Chesterton’s example, the Stuarts did not have a great track record, and it is hard from my perspective to see that they ‘should’ have won.  But I would love for someone to make a case for it.

Can anyone make a case that Carthage ‘should’ have won the Punic Wars?

Some might argue that the ‘wrong’ side won in the Peloponnesian War.  But in my opinion Athens had descended into self-worship and lost what made them great by that point.

I can offer a few moderately controversial assertions.

I would argue that the world would have been a better place if Phillip lost at Charonea, or if Alexander lost at Issus or Guagemela.

Greek democracy limped badly by Phillip’s time, and may never have returned to greatness.  But Philip snuffed it out completely.  By the time the Romans meet the Greeks, all the Greeks have to show them is absolutism, and this disease seeped into the Roman political consciousness.

Alexander obviously has many admirable qualities, but I don’t like him.  He was a butcher.  His success inspired others like Caesar to kill for glory.  His success romanticized him.  Maybe if he had lived he would have turned sour to those that came after him, but his early death sealed his reputation as the ‘boy conqueror.’  His failure to establish a workable political system led to the splintering and continued disintegration of the Greek world.  Though I would agree that Phillip & Alexander don’t create Greek weakness, they capitalize on it.

Can someone else make a good  and controversial case that another major conflict should have gone a different way?

Henry of Huntingdon and the Nature of Reality

Henry of Huntingdon’s History of the English People:1000-1154 is one of the more entertaining medieval primary sources.  He drops in the occasional good anecdote, casts his narrative in a theological arc, and displays familiarity with Scripture and the Latin classics.

What fascinates me about him, however, are two passages that cannot help but shock the modern reader.

First, his description of the death of King William:

In the year 1100 King William ended his cruel life in a wretched death.  . . .  [while hunting] there Walter Tirel, aiming at a stag, accidentally hit the king with an arrow.  The king was struck in the heart, and fell without uttering a word.  A little earlier blood was seen to bubble up from the ground in Berkshire. . .  (p. 48, Oxford Classics Edition)

And a little later he writes,

In the same way Earl Geoffrey, among the ranks of his own . . . was struck by an arrow from a foot-soldier.  He scoffed at the wound, but after a few days died of this injury, excommunicate.  See how the vengeance of God . . . is made know throughout the ages, and is executed in the same way for the same crime!  While the church of Ramsey was being held as a castle [by the Earl] blood bubbled out of the walls of the church and the adjoining cloister, clearly demonstrating the divine wrath and prophesying the destruction of the wrong-doers.  Many witnessed this, and I myself saw it with my own eyes’ (p. 83, Oxford Classics Edition).

What are we to make of these appearances of blood?

Like Lewis’s famous “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic” argument with Christ, we do not have many options open to us.

We cannot say that Henry is a mere gullible simpleton.  As we have already noted, he was a well educated man.

We might say that he simply wrong about the first instance.  He does not claim to have seen it himself, and one could argue that he merely reports the prejudices of local simpletons.  But we would still have the second example to deal with.

We can argue that he was lying in the second example.  But this event occurred within his lifetime and many would have witnessed it.  If he was lying he opened himself up to be contradicted quite easily.  Of course, he could still have lied.

Maybe he didn’t see blood at the church, but something that looked like it.  But everyone knows what blood looks like, especially soldiers.

So what would it mean if he accurately reported the truth?

1. It might have been a direct miracle from God.  This could be a valid interpretation of the second incident.  But the casual, offhand mention of blood in the first example make me doubt this.

2. It could have been the ‘expected’ way God works to reveal Himself in creation.  Perhaps this would put what happened at something slightly less than ‘miracle’ level intervention, but above ‘every day providence.’  This could be an interpretation of Henry’s words in the second instance, and explain the seeming nonchalance of the first.

The problem with this is that most of us would not expect this today.  Has anyone witnessed such a thing?  I’m guessing that if we saw it we would be more likely to call it a ‘miracle’ if we saw it today.  If we accept option #2 does it imply that God changes the way He reveals Himself over time?

3. Or, might it be that creation was built in some way to respond to sin in this way?  In other words, in different periods of time or different places is the human connection to creation closer, more ‘symbiotic?’  Has the West’s self-imposed distance from creation over the last few centuries meant that this would/could not happen anymore, at least in the developed world?

4. Owen Barfield seemed to suggest in Saving the Appearances that reality can be shaped in part by our perception of it.  Unfortunately, I could understand very little of his argument in that book.

Has anyone else read it?

While this sounds strange, C.S. Lewis hints at this view (Barfield was a good friend) in Ransom’s talk with Merlin in That Hideous Strength, where Merlin harkens back to a time when Nature could respond against evil, or perhaps even be manipulated by those with a special relationship to it.

This, in turn, might shed light on the heretofore puzzling comment in Mark’s gospel (6:5) that Jesus could  do no miracles because of their lack of faith.  Maybe our relationship to reality is one that flows in many directions.  Since we no longer believe such things to be possible, they no longer happen.  But if we did believe. . . ?

This last view might change our view of the past in a variety of ways.  Egyptian folklore, for example, is riddled with tales of magic and magicians with unusual powers.  Should we see more historical truth in them then we have so far?

As you can probably tell, I tend to prefer one of the last two options, but I have no real strong feelings.  I would love to hear other possibilities or insights.

12th Grade: Platea, Taiwan, and SOPA

This week we continued our look at the Peloponnesian War and looked at a few important topics:

1. Athens and Platea,

Platea had been a long time ally of Athens, and a strategically important one because of its geographical location near Spartan allies.  Platea’s position was much like that of West Berlin in the Cold War, and perhaps, Taiwan today.  When they came under attack, Athens faced a brutal decision of either abandoning them or attempting a very risky attempt at reinforcing them.  Of course this is shortly after their city suffered an attack of the plague that killed perhaps 1/3 of its citizens.  What should they do?  The class was divided on this question, and it resulted in some interesting debate.  Would/should we, for example, be willing to defend Taiwan at any costs if China attacked?

2. The Athenian Assembly

Thucydides gives us a great behind the scenes look at Athenian democracy in action.  Here we see something much different than we are used to from Congress.  They discussed real issues in plain language with arguments that people could follow.  No 800 page laws passed here.  Average, everyday people could have a direct impact who were not even elected officials, like Cleon, the son of a tanner.  Anyone who has watched congressional sessions on C-Span and found themselves less than inspired would, I think, find accounts of the Athenian assembly bracing.

But there was a down side, as sometimes this rough and tumble process found itself outside established law.  The first time this happened, they approved of a military action that resulted in their biggest success of the early part of the war.  Years later, when they did something similar after the Battle of Arginusae, it would be a disaster.

Is it possible to have our cake and eat it with democracy?  Must we choose between an emphasis on law, with its attendant stuffiness, and dynamic social interaction, with it’s propensity to get carried away?  If so, which should we choose?  Is it possible for our country and our system of government to have the latter even if we wanted to?

3. The War Expands

When the Peloponnesian War began in 431 BC, I think it safe to say that both major proponents felt the war would be over in a year.  After all, no major strategic question divided them (or so, perhaps, it merely appeared to be so). Why was the early phase of the war indecisive?  How did this lead to a change of tactics for both sides, and how did this end up changing the war itself?

On Wednesday we took a detour and discussed the SOPA law being debated before Congress.  I thought this was worthwhile not just because it was a hot topic of conversation, but because it has a lot to do with how one thinks of democracy and society properly functioning.

The law raises a couple of key questions:

– Most see the internet as a good thing for democracy.  Witness, for example, the role of cell phones, web broadcasts, and other such things during the Arab Spring.  The internet puts enormous amount of choices before consumers, which can translate into an enormous amount of power.  The relative ease with which the public can pirate media forces media conglomerates to not take the consumer for granted.  Many have written, for example, of the entrenched arrogance and aloofness of the record companies ca. 1995.  CD”s made them huge profits, and they reduced customer choice.  After all, what other choice did we have but to go to them and buy whole albums? Such is the usual attitude of dictatorships before the fall.

– On the other hand, the digitizing of information has allowed those with power (be they governments or corporations) to amass enormous amounts of data about us.  The data is easy to acquire, store, and retrieve. Privacy has been redefined by the very existence of such technology.  As we have said in class before, the only thing preventing our military from taking over the government is whether they want to or not.  Even citizens with all the automatic weapons the NRA would want available would be no match for an air force, laser guided bombs, etc. In the same way, the only thing preventing government’s from accessing and using this information is whether they want to or not.

On another note,

I noticed during our conversation that the democratization of information may have led to a democratization of Constitutional interpretation.  One student objected to the law because, “It makes the companies instead of the individual the arbiter of what is or is not copyright infringement.”  This student said this almost without realizing the revolutionary implications of such a thought.  For myself, the idea that individuals decide what infringes copyright is a radically new idea.  For the student, it seemed perfectly obvious.

Of course the proposed law does ultimately involve the courts.  Media companies can’t put anyone in jail.  But it struck me that ‘Government’ as the deciding entity rarely came up in the discussion.  This may reflect something Philip Bobbitt discussed regarding the ‘Market State’ back in our mid-term project unit.  He predicted that in the ‘Internet’ era government’s would grow weaker in their connection to the people.  We just don’t need the centralization governments give society anymore.

All in all, it was a wonderful rabbit trail, and one we will likely revisit in a week or so when we see if the law passes.


Dave Mathwin

A Word on Methodology and the Purpose of History

On the first day of school in 8th grade Ancient History (which is the first time I will have taught any of the students in that class), I begin class with the premise that I am wasting their time.

History, after all, (I argue) has no real bearing on your life.  We study some names and dates from the past, a few battles here and there.  Sometimes it might have entertainment value but will never really impact you in any way.  Whatever Cyrus the Great did, be it good or bad, won’t impact on you today.  The past has no present.

Depending on their personality and previous experience students either get very excited or troubled by the prospect that we can blow off the year.  Yes, eventually we get around to reasons why hopefully I will not waste their time, but we should not sweep the arguments against History under the rug too quickly.  Before we bother with History in the first place, we should know what we are doing and why.

Some students respond by stating that history offers us lessons.  When people do bad things, we can learn to avoid them, when they do good we can emulate them.

This is a very common answer, with some truth in it, but I refuse the premise on which it’s based.  Reducing history to didactic lessons runs akin to telling people that Christianity is about adhering to a superior morality.  Whatever truth lies in that statement, Christianity really is not about “morality” at all, or at least, the moral component makes no sense without a much larger context.

In the same way, History does not begin and end with proverbs and moral lessons.  It should be about encounter.  It should be about transformation.

History is often and easily abused.  One common form of abuse is using History as a vehicle for proving a pet theory, something all of us can be guilty of at times. Such an approach is both dangerous and uncharitable.  Uncharitable, because History has no room to speak for itself when we insist it conform to us.  We stop listening and lose the possibility of empathy and understanding.  Dangerous, because manipulating the past puts us in a position of great power.  We erect a wall between ourselves (the “good,” or those with knowledge and understanding) and others, those who “should know better.”  If we do this, we cannot learn, cannot be challenged, and cannot grow.

Finitude will always limit our experience, but we need confronted with “the other” to get shaken out of our narrow field of vision.  Historians can often make the mistake of viewing the past in terms of the present, but this robs the power of the past to really do its work.  Seeing through different eyes pushes us beyond ourselves.  In writing about great books, C.S. Lewis said,

. . . in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

This is how History (like all our endeavors) should prepare us for the Beatific Vision.  The “otherness” of different cultures and people can by grace train our hearts for the “otherness” of God’s Kingdom.  Other times and places should also make us humble and charitable.  Hindsight is a great luxury, but we must avoid “finger-wagging.”  We must honor the past by viewing it as they saw it, not as we see it now.  We too act in a fallen context without omniscience.  Those in the past lived under the same constraints.  What kind of decisions would we make in their place?

Bringing it to the present, how do we act morally and justly with the information we have?  How do we make decisions in a fallen world?   We must take responsibility for these decisions, and the difficulties we face should make us rely on God’s grace and wisdom.  Our own sin should make us slow to judge those in the past that struggled with many of the same things as ourselves.  Are we so sure that we would do better?  When we, with proper conviction, call out the past for its mistakes we likely will need the humility to call ourselves and our own society to account.

I am not interested so much in changing the opinion of any student about, say, Napoleon or the Industrial Revolution.  But I am very much interested in 1) Each student coming to a greater understanding of their view of the world, and the extent to which that view can be supported by Christian belief, ethics, etc., and 2) Each student more fully understanding the implications of their decisions in the short and long term for themselves and others.

Mark Twain once said that history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.  As we see connections and patterns, we learn more about humanity.  But humanity does not exist in a vacuum.  As in all disciplines, the study of History involves an attempt to understand Reality, imbued with God’s presence.  As Francis Schaeffer said, “He is there and He is not Silent.”

About the Title of This Site

‘A Stick in the Mud’ pays homage to the late great Kenneth Clark, who won international acclaim for his ‘Civilisation’ series in 1969.

To be sure, Clark has his detractors.

Against him, one might say that,

  1. He is a mildly stuffy British lord
  2. He has bad teeth
  3. Niall Ferguson (another favorite of mine) took a shot at Clark in his latest work, “Civilization: The West and the Rest.”  Ferguson argued that civilization isn’t about pictures and sculpture so much as it is about roads, banking systems, and stable governance.

Would Clark have disagreed?

I think so.  All decent civilizations have roads, financial systems, and so on.  Their differences in these areas would be quite instructive though I suspect we would find more similarity. The variety of artistic styles, however, shines immediate and obvious light into the values of any creative people.  After all, one might make a banking system as a mere slipshod afterthought.  No one would do this with a sculpture.

I heartily encourage you to try out Clark on your students.  Those who do will be delighted by his insight and careful eye.  Yes, your students may groan at the prospect.  When they do that with me I tell them, “You protest too much.  You are only groaning to cover up your real love for Clark, and to maintain some semblance of cool in the eyes of your classmates.  It’s alright, I’ve been there too.”

They usually do not groan after that.