Hillaire Belloc’s “Waterloo”

Usually I like Hillaire Belloc, and this book was no exception.  Still, Belloc needs approached with caution.  His marvelous intelligence and delight in iconoclasm sometimes led him astray.  Thankfully, this short book, while not spectacular, highlights hints of Belloc at his best.

His best observations center on the political aspects of the struggle, and not the battle itself.  He asks two pertinent questions:

1. How significant was the Battle of Waterloo?

Sir Edward Creasy ranked Waterloo as one of the 15 most decisive battles in the history of the world.  Others wouldn’t go that far, but argue that a victory for Napoleon at Waterloo would have established him securely in France and perhaps led to a fatal fissure in the alliance against him.

Belloc disagreed.  Had Napoleon won, he would still have had to face many more armies, who could ultimately outnumber him by a factor of five.  England, Austria, Prussia, and Russia had staked their entire identity on stopping him and would not be deterred by one loss, just as they did not back down despite many defeats from 1801-1809.  However romantic Napoleon’s comeback seems, it had no chance.  Napoleon sealed his fate in Russia, not Belgium.  Two can play the iconoclasm game, so I’ll and suggest that maybe Napoleon sealed his fate in Spain in 1808-9.  His ruthless policy of repression there destroyed his image and came back to bite him terribly.

Belloc probably has a better argument, one that today, further removed from Napoleon, is not even particularly controversial.

2. Did Napoleon Lose the Battle, but Win the War?

The other major European powers lined up against Napoleon and France.  They feared all that the French Revolution represented, partly out of fear for the social disruption it brought, partly out of self-interest.  Napoleon had little to recommend him as an individual.  As a symbol and lawgiver, he brought death to the old feudal era whose political institutions no longer had mass appeal.  This other heads of state instinctively knew and feared.  They opposed him.

Napoleon’s favored target was the well-ordered, precisely drilled Enlightenment style armies of balance and proportion.  He knew just what made them tic and how to exploit their weaknesses.  His conquests destroyed the armies of the old order, but his impatience and pride led him to establish puppet regimes that could never gain the loyalty of those he ruled.  Thus, in destroying the armies of Europe he created the same kind of national identity that fueled his own rise to power.  This new national identity created new armies, mirror images of Napoleon’s own.

Belloc asserts that the Napoleonic struggle went on for too long after the creation of these new armies for the kings of Europe to avoid the consequences of creating these new armies.  By 1848, many countries had, via revolutions of their own, adopted many provisions of Napoleonic law.

Who had the last laugh?

Belloc has a similar to point to Toynbee, who explored similar ripple effects in his  magisterial work on Hannibal and the 2nd Punic War.  Was the 2nd Punic War really just a battle, and not the war itself?  Was the same true for the years 1797-1815 in Europe?

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Daniel Pinkwater and Public Education

It’s always a blessing in disguise when you fail to turn your kids into clones of yourselves, but still, I feel a slight twinge in my gut when I realize that my children don’t love Daniel Pinkwater’s books.  Yobgorgle, The Last Guru — my absolute favorite The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death — all of them classics, and the list could continue.

Ethan Iverson, the pianist of the jazz trio The Bad Plus grabbed my attention with his musings on Pinkwater here.  The fact that a Pinkwater fable from his book Borgel was recently included on a standardized test in New York is more than a bit ironic, as anyone familiar with his books knows.  The only really evil thing in his books are the schools, and from what I recall he gave them names like “Bat Masterson Junior High,” and “Ghengis Khan High.”  Pinkwater responded to the kerfuffle here for those interested.

I believe that just about everyone involved in education means well.  I have some good friends who do a lot of good in the public school system.  My dad devoted his life to public school education. I went to public schools, and while it could have been better, you can say that about most things in life.

I pull for public schools, in the immediate short term at least.  Society asks schools to do far more than is really possible, given the circumstances.  We ask them to teach huge groups of students with diverse abilities and backgrounds and make it all come out in the wash.  Aside from that, feed them, tell them about drugs, sex, and provide exciting and meaningful extra-curricular activities.  How does anything happen at all?  Having said that, public education has serious, systemic problems, even if we don’t have any one person or group to blame.

Toynbee once declared,

In a previous part of this Study we have seen that the process of growth [leads to] civilizations becoming differentiated from one another.  We shall now find that, conversely, the qualitative effect of disintegration is standardization.      — “The Study of History,” vol. 5

The unintended consequences of education reform have resulted in vast increase in standardization.  This mad rush to standardize cannot serve education, which should ultimately have an expansionistic and not reductionistic character.  It cannot serve political freedom, for it subtly encourages everyone to think in the same way.  As to why we standardize, the answers are grim:

  • We standardize because we lack the willpower or ability to think of more creative solutions
  • We standardize because we have no other choice — we are completely overwhelmed with a problem that we cannot fix.
Related to this second answer, a friend of mine who teaches 9th grade English has commented to me that of course he would like to assign more essays, but how can he grade 175 of them at a time?  So, Scan-tron it is.  If Toynbee is right, once standardization takes hold only a few outcomes remain:
  • A slow drift towards Kafka-esque absurdity, irrelevance, and disintegration, or
  • A reversal towards greater freedom and mobility of mind, but this can only come when the standardizing system gets forcibly dismantled.  This process brings with it large amounts of pain and disruption.
The fact that an alternative to public schools, or a solution to the problem within public schools, seems impossible to fathom is an indication that we are deeply embedded into a problematic system.  We have a long way to go.

I have been too gloomy for my tastes, so all who have read this far need rewarded. .  .

From The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death:

Everybody ate in silence until the Bullfrog Root Beer was served. Then the conversation at the table got started. Aunt Terwilliger began making a sort of speech about grand opera. She was against it. Later, Rat told us that her aunt had just about every opera recording ever made. Her aunt spent hours in her bedroom listening to them, but all the rest of her time was spent arguing that people shouldn’t listen to operas, and, above all, they shouldn’t go to see them performed. Rat said that Aunt Terwilliger makes regular appearances in Blueberry Park, where she tries to convince people to live their lives opera-free. She feels that operas take up too much time. Also, she has an idea that people who like opera will become unrealistic, and not take their everyday lives seriously. Most of all, she believes that operas are habit-forming, and once a person starts listening to them, it’s hard to stop, and one tends to listen to more and more operas until one’s life is ruined.

Aunt Terwilliger has pamphlets printed up that she hands out. Her most popular one is called “Grand Opera: an Invention of the Devil.”

Brian Christian’s “The Most Human Human”

The backdrop for this book is the famous Turing Test, devised decades ago by the scientist Alan Turing.  Questions about AI existed from the very beginning of the invention of computers, and scientists wondered about a time when computers might possibly be able to “think” in a human-like way.  Turing speculated that if a computer could successfully impersonate a human 30% of the time, we would know that the necessary threshold had been crossed.

The advent of the internet has allowed computers to amass huge amounts of data and gain proficiency at this task much faster than Turing could have imagined.  And of course, technology in general improves all the time at speeds never before thought possible.  But I found Christian’s central premise quite intriguing: Is it possible that computers are better at impersonating humans not just because of the growth of technology, but  because we are worse at being human than we used to be?

Hidden behind this premise is to what degree we begin to act more like machines the more we interact with them.  When different cultures interact each leaves an imprint, however faint, on each other.  Does the same happen when we interact with machines?  Will our spoken language, for example, eventually reflect the language we use in texting?

I have just a few minor quibbles with the book.  He rambles a bit and wanders into other questions (though admittedly related ones) about the nature of language, the soul, and so on.  Here Christian summarizes the basic ideas on these questions throughout history, and because he didn’t seem to inject much of himself into these sections, they left me flat.

Still, kudos to Christian for raising a timely and interesting question.  But I wish he went further.  More questions need addressed, such as, “Why are so many so interested in proving that computers are “human?” I have a few possible theories:

  • The people who push the limits of AI do so in a vacuum, or in their minds, “science for Science’s sake.”  Science, or knowledge, is the only reward or consequence worth pursuing.  Let others deal with the moral consequences, that’s not our job.

Or

  • Some pursue the so-called merging of man and machine because they nurse a secret, perhaps unconscious hatred of Humanity itself and seek to abolish it.

Or

  • They believe that the best science helps us understand ourselves.  Thus, the success of computers at mimicking us will only push us to a further and more exploration of humankind.  The more we understand ourselves, the better we can know God.

I would guess that all three views (and no doubt others I have not thought of) exist in the computer science camp.  No doubt others do as well, so if you think of any, please let me know.

Many thanks,

Dave

The Blessings of Impractical Civilizations

(What follows was originally written in 2012) . . .

Ad Fontes is located in Centreville, which puts us within spitting distance of Dulles Airport.  That meant that we had a wonderful view of the space shuttle Discovery as it piggybacked its way to the Udvar-Hazy Center for display.  The students admired the sight (and enjoyed getting out of class), but in discussions I had with them no one seemed particularly chagrined that the shuttle program had ended.  “Why should we bother with space exploration,” many argued, “when we have so many other problems?”  To them space exploration has no point to it, “unless we know that something valuable is out there.” This argument is hardly unusual.

In 9th grade we just finished looking at the incredible boom of exploration during the early years of the Renaissance, ca. 1450-1500.  Historians have speculated on the reasons for this sudden jump, and many suppose that the answer must be “technology.”  I agree with Felipe Fernandez-Armesto who argues in his book Pathfinders that the exploration boom happened not because of any particular technological advance, but because they simply wanted to go.  Sailing technology did not measurably increase for about 300 years after the 15th century boom, when we discovered how to measure longitude, yet that their relative lack of technology did not deter them.  Given the great dangers of sailing in those early days, one cannot say that exploration was a particularly practical activity, though certain voyages did generate large profits. Despite this, people continued to travel, and most historians agree that exploration helped define and benefit Renaissance civilization in important ways.

Other civilizations did this too.  What could be more impractical than a massive cathedral?  And yet cathedrals popped up throughout northern France and England in the 12th century, then spread throughout western Europe.  Some historians talk about the economic benefits of cathedrals, as it drew visitors and trade and so on.  However true this may be, cathedrals cost tons of money and took decades to build.  I don’t think the medievals built them to create trade, and yet clearly the Gothic cathedral defined and shaped an era.

As far as glorious impracticality goes, its hard to top the Celtic monks who illumined so many manuscripts in the 5th-10th centuries.  In the midst of the Dark Ages, when civilization itself needed rebuilt, you had some of the best educated men playfully “wasting their time” drawing monsters on the pages of St. Matthew when they could have been about so much more!  And yet many historians credit this process with helping revive civilization after Rome’s fall.

Other civilization have been “impractical” in different ways.  The Age of Reason had opera, which as Kenneth Clark notes in this brief clip, has nothing rational about it.  And yet, Mozart left part of his greatest legacy in opera, and there can be little doubt of its impact on opera’s cultural impact from the mid-1700’s up until the 20th century.

This brief survey makes me wonder in what sense our civilization is wonderfully impractical, and I don’t think the question merely frivolous.  Much of what we appreciate about civilization has little direct practical value.  Take education, for example.  If we decided that a good education consisted merely in technical training human society would collapse shortly thereafter.   We could build better dams than beavers, but the difference between man and beast would be one of degree and not kind.  Thankfully, students rarely ask, “When will I need to use this in real life?” when reading Shakespeare (though they ask it all the time in math, which should clue us in that something is wrong about how we teach it).

Of course, we don’t have to pick the space shuttle program as our cultural fancy.   We can choose something else.  And, given the diversity of our culture (which has much to commend it), its unlikely that we’ll land on one thing like cathedrals or sailing.  Still, nothing prevents us as from changing civilization by starting with ourselves.  History speaks and says, “Be impractical.”

The best reason for a revival of philosophy is that unless a man has a philosophy certain horrible things will happen to him. He will be practical; he will be progressive; he will cultivate efficiency; he will trust in evolution; he will do the work that lies nearest; he will devote himself to deeds, not words. Thus struck down by blow after blow of blind stupidity and random fate, he will stagger on to a miserable death with no comfort but a series of catchwords; such as those which I have catalogued above.  . . .The idea of being “practical”, standing all by itself, is all that remains of a Pragmatism that cannot stand at all. It is impossible to be practical without a Pragma. And what would happen if you went up to the next practical man you met and said to the poor dear old duffer, “Where is your Pragma?” Doing the work that is nearest is obvious nonsense; yet it has been repeated in many albums. In nine cases out of ten it would mean doing the work that we are least fitted to do, such as cleaning the windows or clouting the policeman over the head. “Deeds, not words” is itself an excellent example of “Words, not thoughts”. It is a deed to throw a pebble into a pond and a word that sends a prisoner to the gallows. But there are certainly very futile words; and this sort of journalistic philosophy and popular science almost entirely consists of them.

From G.K. Chesterton’s “The Revival of Philosophy”

12th Grade: Hayek’s Retort

Greetings,

We wrapped up our unit on economic theory over the past two weeks and began our economic activity game.  With the field trip last week, field day this week, and senior thesis preparations under way, we did not make much progress, but I wanted to let you know about our examination of theories of F.A. Hayek.  At various times throughout the 20th century, either Keynes or Hayek has been in fashion.  In the Great Depression it was Keynes, then in the mid-late 70’s Hayek began his run, and recently Keynes has made a comeback.

Keynes and Hayek differ philosophically in a few key ways.  Keynes sees economics working like Legos.  While certain laws govern economic activity, these laws depend more on human activity in particular contexts, especially spending.  We can manipulate economies, like legos, in ways to fit our particular needs at the time.  When Keynes said, “In the long run we’re all dead,” he did not mean to lay out a pessimistic philosophy of life.  Rather, he argued that economics does not exist in the realm of absolutes.  It is a human creation that exists for human needs.  We do what we can in the moment.  Bailouts are not wrong, anymore than having a cup of coffee in the afternoon to get you through the day is not wrong.  Ideally we do neither, but neither are either of them wrong in the strict moral sense.

Hayek did not disagree with everything Keynes taught, but he did part ways with him in at least two key areas.  First, he argued that economies function well when they reflect real value.  He did not think that if you gazed into the heavens long enough you would discover that a candy bar should cost $1.  Candy bars do not have an inherent value in themselves, but the market gives it a “real” value in its particular time and place.  If merchants can freely sell, and customers freely buy, then the price of the item will reflect its “real” value in that time and place.  The item’s price has been arrived at through a silent, though nonetheless democratic process.  If the price is too high, not enough will buy it.  Too low, and he won’t profit and stay in business.

We understand in general the concept that proper functionality depends on the extent to which you allow things to work as intended.  Market manipulation, by government, by collusion, or other such means will create an artificial barrier between merchants and customers.  An imposition has come between the people and the price.  What we pay no longer reflects its real market value, but an artificial one.

This process of messing with prices distances economies from reality, and hurting the economy will hurt other areas of society.  When we no longer deal in reality, we deal in fantasy, and every fantasy must end sooner or later.  What will reality be like after our flight from it?

Hayek would not panic with society using a cup of coffee every so often to get through the day, but he would worry about where that cup of coffee might lead.  Soon would we need it?  Would we then need more than one cup?  What other stimulants might we try?  Would we then need depressants to sleep?  In time we might be living only through constant manipulation of our moods and energy, but this would not truly be living at all.  Likewise, a manipulated economy is not a real economy, and cannot reflect real value.

In his famous The Road to Serfdom Hayek felt that a process of manipulating the economy would lead to dependance on someone to deliver us from reality, a process by which we abandon our freedom and liberty.  That is of course the worst-case scenario.  But Hayek would add that every market manipulation messes with the people’s ability to freely negotiate prices with producers.  It sets up a collusive, oligarchical barrier to democracy.  And how will this price be set?  Will bureaucrats know more than the aggregate wisdom of the people?  Likely not, and so again, the market, and the people, will suffer.

I really enjoyed our discussions in class on these issues, and gladly saw students take both sides.  Some pointed out that Hayek’s “dependance” analogy can go too far.  When we are sick, we take medicine to restore normalcy, not flee from it.  Of course, we could get addicted to medicines, but that doesn’t stop us from using them when we need it.

Below I include two You Tubes, both of which are admittedly a bit cheesy.   All cards on the table — they are also pro-Hayek in their interpretation.  But agree or not, this was a creative way to communicate the ideas!

How Advanced are “Primitive” Societies?

I have noticed in some history books that certain assumptions get made about the age of so-called developing societies.

Generally one sees an argument that goes something like this:

  • Most societies go through a stage where laws are not written for the public.  Instead law stays unwritten, in the hands of a priestly caste of some kind.
  • Without law as an observable guide for the public, they seek out oracles, who provide guidance, and give people direction and a measure of certainty.
  • This stage is supposedly evidence of a civilization in a early stage of development, which they then pass through to become more advanced.
  • In this advanced stage, they have written, public laws accessible to the people, which breaks the power of the once dominant oligarchic collusion.

I don’t deny that these phases exist, but as to how we label them, I’m not so sure.

Let us take the state of law in the modern day U.S., and for example of a law we’ll use the controversial health care legislation.

While technically this law is written and available to the public, is this true in a de facto sense?  Can you or I actually read and understand this law and its implications?  It is not written in English that the common man can understand.  It is demonstrably not written with the public in mind.

Ah, but there exists a certain priestly caste that does understand this strange language.  We call them lawyers.

And us, the citizen body, who have no real direct access to the law itself — we consult oracles to divine the law’s meaning.  Some of us seek out the CNN oracle, or Rush Limbaugh, or NPR, or Jon Stewart, or anyone else.  Many of us adhere to our oracles with a semi-religious fervor, which, as long as we’re dealing with oracles, is only appropriate.

The great thing about democracy is the proliferation of oracles.

But oracles they remain, for we cannot read and understand the law on our own.

Thousands of years from now if people write our history they might look back at us and say, due to the mystery and incoherence of our laws, that we were a “primitive” society.   Most of us would probably object to this, and argue that we are hardly primitive.  Look at our technology, our intricate power grids, and the abundance of bloggers!

Either we will have to change our concept of primitive societies, or our concept of ourselves.  Or, I’m wrong in my theory.

If I am right, then the news is bad for us.  We may be worse off than we imagined, and the problem won’t be located in either political party, but deeper, in the fundamental roots of our civilization.  But all is not lost.  This interpretation of our current state actually does provide a good bit of hope.

If what we called “primitive society” in the past was really an advanced stage of decay, those civilizations found a way to renew themselves.  By the grace of God, that option stands open to us as well.

Dave