Machiavelli predicts Hong Kong’s Future

I have not followed the protests in Hong Kong in any way closely, but the role of the city in China strikes me as similar to the role played by St. Petersburg in Russia.  Both cities (especially Hong Kong) have a somewhat artificial history imposed upon it by the west — though Peter the Great himself imposed the west on St. Petersburg.  Both cities lead their respective civilizations in producing western style culture.  Neither city has of yet been able to turn their respective civilizations in a more western leaning direction, but perhaps time will tell.

I read a bit of Josephus recently and saw that the Romans got a foothold in Palestine initially because those the rebelled against Antiochus Epiphanes IV and the Seluecid Empire asked for Rome’s aid.  Asking for Rome’s aid proved akin to casting out one devil so that seven might take its place.  Had the Jews had the chance to read Machiavelli, they might have reconsidered their request.  Machiavelli writes concerning such unequal alliances,

And here it is to be noted that a prince ought to take care never to make an alliance with one more powerful than himself for the purpose of attacking others, unless necessity compels him, as is said above; because if he conquers you are at his discretion, and princes ought to avoid as much as possible being at the discretion of any one (The Prince, Ch. XXI).

We need not imagine Rome accepting this alliance ca. 165 B.C. knowing that 200 years later they would raze Jerusalem under Emperor Vespasian.  Rather, it seems to be the way of things that stronger powers almost always subsume the weaker when it suddenly becomes “necessary,” or “convenient.”

The question remain then, which is the stronger, the possible tide of westernization creeping into China largely through Hong Kong, or the rising Chinese nationalism along more traditional and authoritarian lines?

The Guardian weighed in with an essay that argues the future lies with China, not Hong Kong:

Much has changed since 1997. The Chinese economy has grown many times, the standard of living of the Chinese likewise. If you want to access the Chinese market nowadays, why move to Hong Kong when you can go straight to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and a host of other major cities? Hong Kong has lost its role as the gateway to China. Where previously Hong Kong was China’s unrivalled financial centre, now it is increasingly dwarfed by Shanghai. Until recently, Hong Kong was by far China’s largest port: now it has been surpassed by Shanghai and Shenzhen, and Guangzhou will shortly overtake it.

Two decades ago westerners comprised the bulk of Hong Kong’s tourists, today mainlanders account for the overwhelming majority, many of them rather more wealthy than most Hong Kong Chinese. Likewise, an increasing number of mainlanders have moved to the territory – which is a growing source of resentment. If China needed Hong Kong in an earlier period, this is no longer nearly as true as it was. On the contrary, without China, Hong Kong would be in deep trouble.

Understandably, many Hong Kong Chinese are struggling to come to terms with these new realities. They are experiencing a crisis of identity and a sense of displacement. They know their future is inextricably bound up with China but that is very different from embracing the fact. Yet there is no alternative: China is the future of Hong Kong.

All these issues, in a most complex way, are being played out in the present arguments over universal suffrage. Hong Kong is divided. About half the population support China’s proposals on universal suffrage, either because they think they are a step forward or because they take the pragmatic view that they will happen anyway. The other half is opposed. A relatively small minority of these have never really accepted Chinese sovereignty. Anson Chan, the former head of the civil service under Chris Patten, and Jimmy Lai, a prominent businessman, fall into this category, and so do some of the Democrats. Then there is a much larger group, among them many students, who oppose Beijing’s plans for more idealistic reasons.

One scenario can be immediately discounted. China will not accept the election of a chief executive hostile to Chinese rule. If the present unrest continues, then a conceivable backstop might be to continue indefinitely with the status quo, which, from the point of view of democratic change, both in Hong Kong and China, would be a retrograde step. More likely is that the Chinese government will persist with its proposals, perhaps with minor concessions, and anticipate that the opposition will slowly abate. This remains the most likely scenario.*

At another point the article explains a basic difference of approach between China and the West:

This proposal should be seen in the context of what was a highly innovative – and, to westerners, completely unfamiliar – constitutional approach by the Chinese. The idea of “one country, two systems” under which Hong Kong would maintain its distinctive legal and political system for 50 years. Hong Kong would, in these respects, remain singularly different from the rest of China, while at the same time being subject to Chinese sovereignty. In contrast, the western view has always embraced the principle of “one country, one system” – as, for example, in German unification. But China is more a civilisation-state than a nation-state: historically it would have been impossible to hold together such a vast country without allowing much greater flexibility. Its thinking – “one civilisation, many systems” – was shaped by its very different history.

The United States for the most part adopts this “one country, one system” approach.  In our history it has its roots at least as far back as Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech.  So we end slavery, end segregation, and impose homosexual marriage from our more centralized court system, rather than the more diverse state legislatures, based on this principle.  It has its pro’s and con’s.  But the increasing polarization of the political landscape makes me wonder how long this can continue.  We see cracks in our “one system” approach in the drug laws of Colorado which directly contradict Washington.  If China takes in Hong Kong successfully (and I agree with the article cited above, I think it will.  “Democracy” as an idea doesn’t seem to have the power these days that “China” does), will they model this “one country, two systems” for the world at large successfully?  Could this system provide relief for American democratic practice?


*If you read the whole article, one detects an unnecessary amount of British imperial guilt throughout.  Maybe England should not have had Hong Kong in the first place, but who would argue that under Mao people in Hong Kong were much better off than those under his control?


9th Grade: You Can’t Go Home Again


This week we continued with Rome’s decline and saw the rise of Constantine, and with it a significant change in the history of the west.

The 3rd century AD was a bad one for Rome.  General after general assumed power, with no real progress or change to show for it.  In 284 Emperor Diocletian took control, and one might surmise, here for the first time in a while was a sane man.  He realized that:

1. Rome was too big to control himself.  He divided up the empire into administrative regions and delegated much of his power, which was quite unusual for a Roman emperor.

2. Rome’s problems went far beyond the military.  They had a ‘spiritual’ or ‘moral’ problem at heart.  Diocletian sought to revive Roman values, tradition, and religion.

Diocletian was a man of insight in this regard, but his solution begs the following questions:

1. Can you ‘go home again’?  Can you use force to create things like patriotism, or belief in general, for that matter?

2. Was Christianity a threat to Rome?  In one sense the answer is of course, ‘no.’  In general Christians were good citizens who could have breathed new spiritual life into Rome.  But in another sense, Diocletian shows his insight by recognizing that Christians were indeed a threat to Rome’s values of strength, pride, and power.  Christianity baffled Rome by preaching weakness and humility.  His persecution of Christians was Rome’s last and most intense.  It’s failure only helped contribute to the ‘triumph’ of the Church.

I mentioned in class that I feel bad for Diocletian.  Far from being mad with power, he actually sought to divest himself of power to make Rome more secure.  He saw the various political and economic problems Rome faced and realized that their real problems lie deeper — in culture and morality.  He had some keen insights, but came to disastrous conclusions from those insights.

We see some of this transition in the busts made of Diocletian.  Here, early in his life, he reflects the typical Greek image so prevalent among his predecessors:

But later in life, he abandoned that for a much more Roman look, consistent with his goal of revitalizing Rome:

Still, Diocletian’s persecution of Christians only continued Rome’s blindness.  They failed to see their own selves as the problem.  Typically, they projected their problems onto others.  As many historians have noted, Rome’s own decadence, decline, and violence helped create a spiritual vacuum that Christianity filled.

Not surprisingly, Diocletian’s passion for re-ordering Rome through direct control spilled over into his desire to control Rome’s economy and manage prices throughout the empire.  Price-controls in any circumstance almost always have negative effects.  Price-controls across an expanse as vast and diverse as the Roman empire would without question bring disaster.

With the rise of Constantine, some new questions emerge:

1. Would Constantine’s support of the Church be good for society?  Would it be good for the Church?  If we arrive at different answers for those questions, should we favor the Church or society?

2. Constantine claimed to be a Christian, but as emperor he had many official duties related to the old Roman religion.   Can a leader have ‘two bodies,’ one public and the other private?  If he represents more than just himself, might he have duties that put him in conflict with his private convictions?  What should leaders do in these situations?  Does Constantine’s dual roles put his ‘conversion’ into doubt?

On another note. . .

On Thursday we had the privilege of seeing an extensive private collection of coins from the empire, with a one in particular dating back to Alexander the Great.  I hope the students appreciated the chance to actually see and touch history from 2000 years ago.  History speaks to us from a variety of ‘texts,’ and the coins show not just the personalities of the emperors, but also broadly how Rome functioned.

Next week I want to show the students another kind of archeological evidence.  Roman fort design changed over the centuries, and these changes tell a story.

In the second century AD, their forts looked like this:

2nd Century Roman Fort

The relatively little effort put towards defense shows the openness and confidence of not just the army itself, but the army’s sense of security in occupied territory.  Rome may very well have expected a good relationship in its provinces.

But we see things change in the next century:

3rd Century Roman Fort

Now they placed much more emphasis on defense, and the trend continues in the 4th century, where Rome not only focused on defense, but made sure to build forts on the high ground:

4th Century Fort Design


The nature of Rome’s army, and the nature of its relationship to the world outside Rome, had changed dramatically.

Dave Mathwin

The Face of Roman Decline

As I mentioned here, I believe that art reveals a great deal about a civilization.  This is decidedly not a radical concept, but I always enjoy coming across things that confirm that premise in one way or another.

We can trace Rome’s decline, I think in the sculptured busts over the centuries.  The faces say it all.

First, the hard-bitten men of the Republic, Cato the Elder, and Scipio Africanus Major, ca. 200 B.C. You may not have liked them, but you would have respected them:

Then, Julius Caesar, ca. 50 B.C. — the expression, the eyes, are different — hungrier. He seems part machine, part man, a shark on the prowl.  The basic humanity of Rome’s leaders begins to fade here.

Then Augustus, ca. 10 B.C. —  we see a clean break with the past.  He is an image, not a man.  Unlike his uncle, Augustus was hardly the military type, yet here he poses in military garb. On the right is the soft Emperor Domitian, ca. A.D. 90:

Fast forward and we get the pompous, detached Marcus Aurelius (ca. AD 165, below left), and his son Commodus (ca. AD 190, below right) who went native.  Aurelius’s stoic philosophy of detachment comes through every pore, and his admiration for the Greek style in his facial hair may signal that his mind lay elsewhere.  Commodus, dressed as Hercules, also gets caught up in this Greek sense of unreality.  Like father, like son.

The Emperor Philip, ca. AD 250.

Here we have a relatable man again for the first time in centuries, but we, and Philip too, know it’s too late.

The smug, satisfied look of Marcus Aurelius has got to be the worst of them all.  Similar perhaps to this guy?

Yes, I know that Robespierre was really wicked while Aurelius was merely insufferable.  But still. . .

9th Grade: The Window of Roman Architecture

Greetings to all,

I am a believer in the revealing power of architecture in a civilization.  There are many ways to get insight into the past, but I think that architecture is one of the best, for it puts a civilization’s creative power on display, and it involves much more than the work of one individual.  One of themes I wanted to stress with this was a shift in emphasis in how Rome built its buildings, and what this revealed about them as a civilization.  Arches, for example, were a great innovation used in aqueducts to bring water into cities.

The design of cities pushed people toward the center, which was in keeping with Rome’s Republic (literally a ‘public thing’).

But as time went by, arches are used to build monuments to emperors, and whatever talent they possessed went to make things like the Emperor Hadrian’s villa:

Here below is the general outline of the whole of Hadrian’s villa:

And again, another so-called “good emperor” of Rome (Marcus Aurelius) put his focus on the building of private monuments, like this personal “arch” monument below (contrasted with the public use of the arch for water above)

And another personal monument column to add to that. . .

If Rome was committed to understanding the changes in their culture, perhaps they may have been used for good, but Rome would not do this, and preferred to live in the past.  Their innovations (never a strong point) dried up, and whatever was new in Rome was simply borrowed from the Greeks (as the statue in Hadrian’s villa indicates).  Rome had grown stale and petrified, but would they see this?  As we noted, this would not be likely, for another thing the architecture reveals is whereas in the past their energies were directed to the public sphere, now most of what they did centered around the emperor.

A bored and uncreative people will  tend to think bigger is better all the time.  The Romans were no exception. Like an addict, it takes more and more over time to get the same response.  As the activity’s reward decreases, more effort only gives diminishing returns.  As we began our discussion of the games, we saw  how an old Etruscan funeral rite grew into an unregulated black market trade, to ‘opening act’ for the chariot races, eventually growing to a hideous and repulsive spectacle on a grand scale before tens of thousands.  How did this happen, and what does it say about Rome?

We need to see not only the moral dimension of this problem, but the political one as well.  The Games served to enhance the prestige of the emperor and keep people amused and distracted, in a sense, from the reality around them.  One may recall the Wizard of Oz’s line not to look behind the curtain.  The whole system of Empire had degenerated essentially into a military dictatorship by Vespasian’s time.  No emperor could ill afford a populace too rowdy or too thoughtful.  The Games helped buy them off.
Casinos, for example, want you to lose money, but not all of your money.  After all, they want you to leave happy so you will come back.  When you start to lose too much, often times an employee will appear suddenly, encourage you to stop, and offer you a coupon for a free steak dinner at their award winning restaurant. Their goal of course, is that you think, “Hey, that casino is really great for giving me this free dinner,” instead of, “I just lost X amount of money at that casino.”  I think the Games worked much in the same way.
Certain emperors, of course, may have felt more of a need to establish their legitimacy than others.  Claudius, for example, was a big proponent of the games, and he was the ‘runt’ of the Julio-Claudian line, and Caligula’s uncle.  Vespasian built the Colosseum specifically for the games, and he came to power after a year of civil war.
There are other means of cementing your power, notably, buying your friends.  This dynamic was not, I think, the main reason for the debasement of Roman currency, but it surely did not help.  I passed this chart out to the students showing the general decline of currency value, with some being more responsible than others.  Those emperors that rose to power after a change in dynasty often did so after civil war (marked with an *), and would have extra need to buy the loyalty of key people, and especially, key army legions (though to be fair, Nerva does not fit this pattern).

The Rise of Politics, the Decline of Faith

Measuring religious decline is a tricky business.  How can we measure abstract ideas, principles, and so on?  Well, one helpful guide is to try and see if anything makes a move to displace an idea.

Some interesting but disheartening stuff from Marginal Revolution confirms that politics may be so divisive because politics is becoming a new religion.  By that I mean, politics is becoming the bell-weather by which many make their most important decisions.

In 1960, 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said that they would feel “displeased” if their son or daughter married outside their political party. By 2010, those numbers had reached 49 percent and 33 percent. Republicans have been found to like Democrats less than they like people on welfare or gays and lesbians. Democrats dislike Republicans more than they dislike big business.

To test for political prejudice, Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, political scientists at Stanford University, conducted a large-scale implicit association test with 2,000 adults. They found people’s political bias to be much larger than their racial bias. When Democrats see “joy,” it’s much easier for them to click on a corner that says “Democratic” and “good” than on one that says “Republican” and “good.”

To find out whether such attitudes predict behavior, Iyengar and Westwood undertook a follow-up study. They asked more than 1,000 people to look at the resumes of several high-school seniors and say which ones should be awarded a scholarship. Some of these resumes contained racial cues (“president of the African American Student Association”) while others had political ones (“president of the Young Republicans”).

Race mattered. African-American participants preferred the African-American candidates 73 percent to 27 percent. Whites showed a modest preference for African-American candidates, as well, though by a significantly smaller margin. But partisanship made a much bigger difference. Both Democrats and Republicans selected their in-party candidate about 80 percent of the time.

These findings remind of Toynbee’s words,

A crushing victory of Science over Religion would be a disaster, for if Science succeeded in expelling the Higher Religions from the human heart, she would not be able to prevent the lower religions from taking their place (Matt. 12:43-45).

We need not call politics part of the “victory of Science” per se to see the similarities.

If we continue the trends outlined in the study above, politics will become almost tribal, and little will then separate us from barbarism.  De Tocqueville’s fears about the tyranny of the majority may then come fully home to roost.

The two greatest (in my opinion) theologians of the Church, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, had different visions of political life for Christians.  Augustine believed the “City of God” operated along different lines than the “City of Man.”  While Christians can potentially live at peace with the City of Man, the two really have nothing to do with each other.  Christians should not fool themselves into thinking that they can accomplish meaningful redemptive acts operating within the City of Man.  He writes,

When these two cities began to run their course by a series of deaths and births, the citizen of this world was the first-born, and after him the stranger in this world . . .

Accordingly, it is recorded of Cain that he built a city, (Genesis 4:17) but Abel, being a sojourner, built none. For the city of the saints is above, although here below it begets citizens, in whom it sojourns till the time of its reign arrives . . .

And again,

. . . it has come to pass that the two cities could not have common laws of religion, and that the heavenly city has been compelled in this matter to dissent, and to become obnoxious to those who think differently, and to stand the brunt of their anger and hatred and persecutions, except in so far as the minds of their enemies have been alarmed by the multitude of the Christians and quelled by the manifest protection of God accorded to them. This heavenly city, then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace. It therefore is so far from rescinding and abolishing these diversities, that it even preserves and adopts them, so long only as no hindrance to the worship of the one supreme and true God is thus introduced. Even the heavenly city, therefore, while in its state of pilgrimage, avails itself of the peace of earth, and, so far as it can without injuring faith and godliness, desires and maintains a common agreement among men regarding the acquisition of the necessaries of life, and makes this earthly peace bear upon the peace of heaven; for this alone can be truly called and esteemed the peace of the reasonable creatures, consisting as it does in the perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God and of one another in God.

Aquinas saw more hope for integration of the Christian and political life.  With Aristotle, he saw governments as natural to life together.  We would still have something akin to government even if we lived without sin, for government is mainly about rightly ordering our life together, just as God rightly orders the orbits of planets.

Aquinas and Augustine complement each other in some parts and appear exclusive in others.  Their visions of government differ fundamentally, but the Church can take counsel from both.  Perhaps the model we adopt should depend on the context.  Augustine wrote in the waning days of the Roman Empire when a stark contrast between pagan and Christian could easily be seen.  Official power in Rome came with all the necessary attendant pagan trappings.  Rome dedicated itself to earthly glory.  In this environment more spiritual and even physical separation of Christians from government might be warranted.

Aquinas wrote in a much different time, when the overwhelming majority of people accepted key Christian doctrines and exceptions.  Some kings and nobles may not have been Christians themselves, but the hypothetical possibility of applying Christian principles to governance existed.  Thus, Christians could “use” the state more effectively and with less spiritual risk in his day.

We should ask which of these two contexts most fits our current situation.*

I recently attempted to read Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks.  After Book III or thereabouts I put in down in frustration.  I just could not keep up with all of the Hingest’s killing the Umvold’s marrying the Griselda’s.  I got lost in the maze.  I mentioned my frustration to a colleague and superior medievalist.  He replied along the lines of, “Of course those parts are confusing — Gregory doesn’t care about politics.  He’s really interested in what’s happening with the Church.  That’s where he focuses his attention and does his best writing.”  With this insight I plan on trying Gregory again sometime.

The time may have arrived for the American Church to follow Gregory’s lead, not just for our sake, but for the sake of those around us.

*We should think that Augustine preached a withdrawal from civic life altogether, or that he advocated for Christian “holy huddles.”  Rather, I see Augustine advocating an approach that would help the Church maintain its salty taste.  We shouldn’t enter games where the rules are by design stacked against the God’s command to love one another, to consider others better than ourselves.  Every Congressman, Senator, and President must think primarily of their base.  Every negotiation, every law (so it appears) is formed not from trust but from negotiating partners that start with an untenable position and then give grudgingly.



9th Grade: Bad Roman Fathers


This week we looked at the aftermath of Nero’s suicide in 68 A.D.  Having no heirs, Nero did not establish any process for a succession.  Three generals, Galba, Otho, and Vitellius ended up holding power alternately before the last, Vespasian, remained standing and took up Imperium himself and stability returned.

The Civil Wars did not last long and probably did not impact the common people very much, but this “Year of 3 Emperors,” portended ill for Rome.

  • It showed that in the absence of any family successor, power could simply go to the strongest
  • The system Augustus established at least maintained a fictional role for the Senate.  Some emperors (like Claudius) used the Senate to a moderate degree.  Now however, the Senate lost all role in who governed Rome.  The mask was off the pig.  Power belonged to the army, not to any of the pre-existing public institutions.

Vespasian looks like a solid sort, and he ruled well by most standards.  He eliminated a massive debt (largely through raising taxes).  He had no obvious vices to bring himself or Rome down.  He began the project that turned the land that housed Nero’s ridiculous private palace into a large public building for all people, known then as the Flavian Amphitheater (after his family name), known to us as the Colosseum.

One of the main functions of this intricately engineered building was to house the gladiator contests, that by Vespasian’s time, became more and central to Rome’s way of life.  What began as a holdover from old Etruscan funeral rite ca. 600 B.C. then became ad hoc neighborhood entertainment by 50 B.C., and finally turned into a horrendous spectacle where criminals (and Christians) were tortured and killed for amusement by 100 A.D.  When we realize that Rome financed much of the construction from looting the Temple in Jerusalem, and that thousands of Jewish slaves built it, we see that even when Rome tried to go “good” it brought about a terrible evil.  We discussed how this could happen. . .

1. Among other things, the Romans demonstrated what happens to addicts.  More and more is needed as the ‘drug’ gives less and less back, but it becomes so much a part of you that stopping is near impossible, at least humanly speaking.  Along those lines we discussed how in Scripture sin is described as a ‘power,’ a kind of black hole like vortex.  We delude ourselves when we think that we can easily jump back and forth between sinning and not sinning.  Quicksand doesn’t work that way.

2. The games satisfied Rome’s need for glory and courage.  Rome believed that they were still Rome, but very few citizens fought anymore.  Cicero, among others, thought the games served the purpose of ‘toughening’ the citizens. The Pax Romana created a breathing space for Rome that they could have used to transform themselves to some degree.  However, the very foundation of the Augustus’s principate system was built on the idea that Rome had not changed.  The games allowed the Romans to imagine that they were just like their ancestors, tough and able to deal with violence.

3. The games were also related to Rome’s broken political system.  Like the Wizard of Oz, Rome’s emperors could ill afford the citizens a look behind the curtain.  The games proved a marvelous distraction for the populace.  Also, since all power became centralized with the emperor, he needed to appear all powerful.  The bigger the spectacle, the better it tended to reflect on the emperor.

But the political problem had broader foundations than this.  With the rise of wealthy landowners gobbling up the small farms, thousands ended up flocking to the cities to find work, especially Rome.  What could be done with these people? Ultimately. . .

4. The games also show Rome’s continual band-aid approach to its problems.  They were not good at making hard choices about who they were at this point in their history.  The games distracted people and bought the short term favor of the lower classes, but it produced nothing for their society.  Whole armies of soldiers, slaves, and animals perished, countless money was spent, merely to enhance the image of the emperor and entertain the people.   But no creative or productive activity flowed from the games.  It was all ‘sunk costs.’

5. The Romans viewed the games as a means of displaying their power, in at least two ways.  First, it meant that Romans could say something to the effect of, “Look at what we can make people do for us!”  Perhaps this was more subconsciously believed than stated.  But the variety of people and the different fighting styles they employed did serve as a visual reminder of the scope of their power.

Had Rome been more productive or creative economically, this population influx might have led to a economic revolution of sorts for Rome, if we imagine the mid-late 19th century Industrial Revolution on a smaller, less technical scale.  However, being economically creative can’t just happen when you want it to.  It takes a foundation in education and attitude that Rome did not have.

Thus, the games reveal not only Rome’s moral bankruptcy, but its political and economic stagnation.

7. Finally, the games reflect Rome’s social and cultural climate “gone bad.”

When thinking of how the empire functioned we cannot lose hold of the context of Rome’s past Republican history.  Rome’s revolution in 508 B.C. created some measure of what we would call democracy, but it mainly gave the aristocracy/patricians more direct control over policy.  Americans view aristocracy as a dirty word, but Rome’s Republic functioned very well for many centuries.  One reason for this is that Rome’s aristocracy usually considered themselves patrons and acted as “patrons of Rome” without being overly “patronizing.”  The “patrons” sought to look after the lower classes, to provide for them, give them gifts, and sometimes be the stern father figure.  In fact, the patrons of Rome came from the “patrician” class, i.e. the “fathers.”

Good Roman fathers have many roles.  They lead worship.  They provide law.  They provide continuance of the family line.  Sometimes, too, they give gifts.  “Here’s 20 bucks, go have a good time at the movies with your friends,” and so on.  Emperors served as Rome’s ultimate patrons.  The Civil Wars of 133-31 B.C. decimated Rome’s aristocracy and left the Senate impotent.  Thus, whereas before Rome had many “fathers,” now for the most part, they have just one, the Emperor.

We understand Roman reaction to their emperors better if we view it through this lens.

  • Augustus cast the perfect balance between stern, reliable Roman father upholding the morals of Rome, with a sprinkling of gifts (of money, bread, etc.) and indulgence.
  • Tiberius was a great manager of money, but viewed as a miser.  He never threw a party, never gave gifts, etc.  He had no “heart.”
  • Caligula was a disaster — completely unreliable, giving no family stability
  • Claudius didn’t look the part, which was a drawback.  He had some problems with women — also a drawback.  But in the main he followed Augustus’ model.
  • Nero was the dad in perpetual mid-life crisis, who spent your inheritance and that of his brothers. He steals from other families when that runs dry.  He quits his job to become a very unsuccessful opera-singer and provides no leadership, no example, for his children.

Roman fathers had to show that they identified with their children’s interests.  The Roman Games were one big party, given as a gift.  Of course because Rome’s political system meant that they had just one father, the party had to be huge to cover the whole population.  The expense, the expectation, and the length of the games (by the 2nd century the games might last 4-5 months) all grew as each emperor tried to establish his credentials as a proper Roman father.*

All of this is bound to catch up with them at some point.  This week we will take a look at Rome’s decline through the lens of economics and architecture, and begin to find our way towards the coming of Constantine.

 *We want dads to provide the party for his teenage children, but not really to join in the party.  That would be weird and off-putting, most “un-fatherly” conduct.  Hence, the Romans did not like it when Emperor Commodus “joined the party” by participating personally in the gladiatorial games.

Naming Infinity

If you were like me you grew up thinking that math stood as the most obvious, least abstract, and therefore most inherently “atheistic” of the disciplines.  Literature involved interpretation, who knows what happened in the past with History, but math was always math, brutal, hard, and cold.

Long after my last math class I found out that in ye olden days, Greek philosophers considered math the most inherently religious of the disciplines.  It involved, after all, abstractions, universals, unchanging reality, and perfection, the very things inherent in the spiritual realms.  After the Greeks, some of the greatest mathematical advances came from deeply religious people like Pascal and Newton.

A strength of Naming Infinity, by Loren Graham and Jean-Michel Kantor, is that it looks at some of the deepest questions about the truths in Math through one obscure group of people at the turn of the 20th century.  In Russia at that time a group of monks arose who engaged in a practice called Name Worshipping.  The roots of this practice go back to the “Jesus Prayer” prevalent in Eastern Orthodox spirituality, where a person repeats the prayer, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me a sinner” continually to achieve greater spiritual awareness.  Name Worshippers went further, believing that “the Name of God is God.”  The name of God contains His character, so speaking the name of God revealed God Himself.

The church labeled this practice heretical.  God’s name stands for God Himself to be sure, but the church’s  main criticism of this practice stemmed from the seemingly “magical” qualities the monks attributed to the name itself.  And of course, since the name of God gets rendered differently in different languages, it could open up the charge of polytheism.

Naturally the monks accused of heresy had good arguments in their defense, denying that they believed literally in the divinity of the letters or sounds themselves.  Rather, the name of God stood as the most important signifier of divinity in the world (the idea of “signs” would prove to be a link to mathematical innovation). The book frustrates somewhat on this topic, because although this so-called “name worship” will have an indirect link to the story the authors tell, it gets dropped early in the book.  Still, the authors are not Church historians or theologians, and probably rightly step out of the way of an issue they wouldn’t understand well.  This is one weakness of the book — the authors introduce an esoteric and unfamiliar concept and then drop it for the vast majority of the story.

The real root of the book deals with a mathematical and not a theological controversy (though theology remains indirectly involved in the story).  On one side we had the French, who stressed “continuity,” the idea that to get from one mathematical point to another, one must pass through all intermediate points.  Math then, is a closed system, a measurable system, where numbers have a concrete reality that cannot be manipulated.

Russians occupied the other side, the more interesting one for me.  They stressed “discontinuity,” or the idea that reality is not as set in stone as we think, and thus, reality can be manipulated.  We can call reality into being through the creation of numbers, or sets of numbers. In the west at this time determinism held sway over many scientific and mathematical minds.  A Russian priest and mathematician, Pavel Florensky, led the opposition to this school of thought.  He preached discontinuity in all fields, not just in math.  Here the book frustrates yet again, for they back off from going into any real detail linking mysticism and math.  I think the central idea of the Russian school had to do with the concept of naming sets of numbers (linked to set theory), and hence the connection to the heretical school of Name Worshippers.  To quote the authors,

To take a simple example, defining the set of numbers such that their squares are less than 2, and naming it “A,” and analogously the set of numbers such that their squares are larger than 2 and naming it “B,” brought into existence the real number the square root of 2 (emphasis mine).  Similar namings can create highly complex new sets of real numbers.  . . . When a mathematician created a set by naming it, he gave birth to a new mathematical being.

If math dealt with more than finite possibilities, then “real reality” too had to be more than just finite.  The connections of math with religion become obvious, as creation happened in Genesis 1 via the Word, via naming (this idea is present in Egyptian texts as well).

Freed from normal approaches to mathematical questions, the Russian school made key advances in math.  They also taught in new and unusual ways.  One student recalls that,

Luzin would start from the outset by posing to his students who were hardly out of high school problems of the highest level, problems that stymied the most eminent scholars.

The authors add,

One characteristic of the Russian school stood out — the conviction of the best Russian teachers that the most fruitful attack on problems was direct and straightforward, without any preliminary, long, and heavy reading.  In other words, start from scratch.  By doing so one got an almost physical feeling of being directly in contact with mathematical objects and experienced the sensual pleasure of having to fight intellectually with one’s bare hands.  One of the great mathematicians of the time, Israel Moisseivich Gelfand, “We should study this topic before it has been tainted by handling.”*

Here we sense the mystical side of math where one bypasses “matter” to get right in touch with “reality.”  It sounds thrilling, but I don’t understand it.  I never was any good at math, but this sounds appealingly very little like the math I had in high school.  But one also might sense its weaknesses.  The great Luzin (mentioned above) would sometimes brag that he “never solved equations anymore.”  That is, math resided for him not in reality, but perhaps in some gnostic fairy world.  Math need now always have a direct physical application to have value.  The training of the mind itself has great value.  But math must, I think, have some “physical” applications to root us close to the Incarnation.

But though I found the book oddly structured, and though it bounced around too much from topic to topic, the book has great value in exposing western laymen like myself to a whole new way of thinking about math, and about reality itself.


*This whole approach reminds me of Dostoevsky’s theories on reality as it applied to gambling.  In his story The Gambler, it seemed to me that he thought the interaction of the human will could influence the games played.  It was never about mere statistics.  Likewise, I had a friend who swore that he developed a “system” to win on roulette, which seems like a game one must lose if played for any length of time.  Yet he assured me that over the course of more than a year, with 10+ trips to a local casino, that he had come out ahead $880.