The Green Stick and the Saint

How does one know if your faith is “really real?”  Christians can sometimes get hung up unnecessarily on this question, but it’s an easy one to ask.  When you don’t have a dramatic night/day testimony it can seem all the more difficult to answer.  The Church can complicate matters by sometimes venerating the Damascus road kind of conversion of the overtly evil man immediately transformed.  Such people have more certainty, we assume, and so have greater faith and a more profound Christian experience.

But aside from the exceptional experience of St. Paul, very little in the history of Christian spirituality suggests this as the norm. Every significant spiritual writer I am aware explains that God almost always works slowly over time through the mundane aspects of life.  Growth in holiness comes by putting one foot in front of the other.  It makes sense then (barring exceptions of course), that those who had an early start and never traveled in the wrong direction for long periods of time would be further up the mountain than even the “dramatic” converts.

Two recent works I encountered bear this out.

We have no equivalent to Malcolm Muggeridge in the west today.  To get him we would probably have to combine G.K. Chesterton, Truman Capote, and David Brooks.  He made his career as a journalist first, but later became a social “man about town” who rubbed elbows with the media and intellectual elite of English society.  He then rejected much 3102608of the pomp and circumstance of his life and converted to Christianity.  He wrote many books, perhaps his most famous being his autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time, a work spread out over three volumes.  In the first volume, “The Green Stick,” he tells the story of his early life, and his embrace of the liberal left.

Throughout the book Muggeridge’s wit and panache shine through.  He gleefully pokes Rude-Gargoyle-1073659himself and his profession.  He had gone from devotee to gargoyle, happily mocking all our pretensions.*  Typical of his style is how he discovered as a reporter how to distill all momentous political speeches to just a few phrases.  “We decided that there was no need for politicians to finish their sentences,” he writes,  “with their end being implicit in the beginning.”  Such phrases are,

On this historic occasion when . . .

There can be no one here present who . . .

We have just passed through an ordeal that . . .

No thinking man will underestimate the . . .

While there are many circumstances which . . .

While recognizing the reality of . . .

It is surely incumbent upon all of us to . . .

Such is the choice that at present confronts . . .

It is idle to think that politicians can . . .

It rests with the common people to . . .

With head erect and clear purpose we . . .

One feels the sham nature of so much of our modern existence reading Muggeridge. Having drank deeply from the world, he can expose it all the more readily.  This brief clip illustrates not only his fabulous voice (and who wouldn’t want the life of sitting around, smoking, and giving one’s opinion on everything), but also his abhorrence with that which most fascinated the 20th century.

Muggeridge takes his title from the Russian legend of the Green Stick, so dear to Tolstoy.  In this story, should anyone find the Green Stick he would have the power to remove all suffering.  The simplicity of the idea charms anyone, but of course nothing is ever that simple.  Muggeridge as a boy talked of his wish for the same Green Stick, which may have helped lead him down socialist paths in his younger days.  One can’t fault him for this, but it strikes me that occasionally Muggeridge’s rejection of so much he experienced led him to oversimplify in the other direction.  Even his brief quote in the clip above reveals this flaw.  Power is not evil in itself, obviously, for we rejoice in God’s own power. Naturally no one on earth perfectly uses power, and most abuse it in great or small ways.  Some of the greatest saints of the Church divested themselves entirely of earthly power.

But Muggeridge would, I think, rejoice to see power rightly used to crush evil or to bring justice.  And this is not mere theory.  On rare occasions (like king St. Louis IX) Christian rulers have used power and worldly status for good ends without it getting to their heads.  So power can be redeemed.  Of course Muggeridge could have said something like, “Power is so dangerous, and so rarely used well.  We in the modern world, with it’s deadly combination of technology and our uncertain moral compass, are particularly unsuited to use power, and we should seek to limit its use whenever possible”

But he didn’t.

Muggeridge’s style easily engages the reader, and he mixes humor with profound insight almost perfectly at times.  I recommend him.  But he also comes across at times as someone with a bit too much baggage. He has a hard time appreciating things in general — perhaps he ruined his palate with the life he led.  A convert to Christianity somewhat later in life, I think he still struggled (as I and so many of us do) to see things clearly as they really are.

The Discourse and Sayings of Dorotheos of Gaza are not as entertaining to read as thMuggeridge, but one senses quickly that his writing comes from a much different place.  His stories have an endearing simplicity, though perhaps lack penetrating insight.  His instructions about the spiritual life seem immediately obvious, but then, the best kind of teaching usually has this quality.  What really struck me, however, about reading this on the heels of Muggeridge was how Dorotheos comes across as so unencumbered, so free of the “issues” that run rampant in modern experience.  He led a simple, unadorned life with monks in the wilderness, and this gives him an almost perfect freedom.  If nothing else, it shows how the dramatic, worldly convert is not better off, and often has less to teach the Church, than the slow and steady Christian who has lived the Christian life with others for countless years.  The clarity and simplicity of the Discourses reminds of Dante, who knew something akin to Dorotheos when he ended his journey by seeing God as a single point of light.

Dave

*This, I’m sure, was the true purpose of the medieval gargoyle — they had little to do with scaring anyone.  They were meant to mock us, to humble us, to poke fun at the culture around us.  That’s why I hate the famous Darth Vader gargoyle on the National Cathedral, which pats our culture on the back in a cutesy way.  I suppose though, that’s what happens when we have a “National” cathedral which serves ultimately as a monument to ourselves.

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12th Grade: Thucydides and the Cold War

Greetings,

This week we began our own Peloponnesian War game on Friday, and in class we delved into the diplomatic tension that ended up bringing on a war between Athens and Sparta.

Athens and Sparta represented two different ways of life, with two different basis of military power.  During the Persian Wars between 490-479 B.C. they attained to a measure of foreign unity only because of a common foe.  Afterwards they resumed their normal role of a “cold” animosity.  Just as the war began the Greek world looked like this. . .

Sparta had an army no one could touch, and the same applied to Athens’ navy.  In a way, they had achieved a kind of ancient M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction).  Both could do each other in, hypothetically, in different ways.  Then Athens decided to build a wall around its city and still preserve access to the sea.  It looked something like this:

Athens' Long Wall

Some of us may remember Reagan’s idea of a “Star Wars” missile defense system.  Many objected to the idea along the grounds that the project would not work or be too expensive, but many in Europe objected to it as well.  Why would even our allies object to a defense system?

  • Some probably thought that if the Soviets could not use their long-range weapons to hit the U.S., they would concentrate on their medium-range missiles and obliterate Europe instead.  Thus, some saw that U.S. actions might have an enormous impact on their lives, and yet they had no say in the making of those decisions. Arnold Toynbee called this the complaint of, “No annhilation without representation.”
  • Others saw that if the system worked, M.A.D. would be obsolete.  The deterrent to war from the U.S. perspective would be gone, which might make offensive action from us more likely.  Or, would the Soviets do a first-strike before the system became operational, knowing that their “time was short?”  In this way, many saw the building of a “defensive” system as an essentially offensive act.

Many in Sparta saw the situation in Athens the same way.  If the Spartans could not invade and sack the city, then the Athenians had much less of a deterrent to venture far and wide with its navy.  The walls had the direct purpose of defending themselves from attack, and after all, the Persians had sacked Athens during the Persian Wars.  But, this was not how others interpreted their actions.

When the Cold War began in the late 1940’s Secretary of State George Marshall urged those around him to delve into Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, for he believed that the conflict had significant parallels to the problems they would face.  He proved prescient.

Athens faced a crucial decision between the years 434-433 B.C.  Corcyra had maintained neutrality in the run-up to what would be the war but faced a crisis.  Corinth threatened them with invasion, and they knew that in time, they would likely fall in a protracted war.  As a neutral they had no allies, but they could turn to Athens (Corinth was a Spartan ally, so they certainly could not ask for Spartan help).  Athens heard from both delegations, and Thucydides records that the debate hinged on a few key points with one of them being the idea of the inevitability of war.

The Corcyrans argued that conflict with Sparta would come sooner or later, but it would certainly come.  Thus, you should ally with us because when war comes you want us as friends rather than enemies.

Corinth countered with the opposite: peace was the current reality between Athens and Sparta and that had every reason to continue.  War would only come by overt disruption of the peace, and Athenian ships tangling with Corinthian ships might be just the thing to bring on war.

LeMay with KennedyIn the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 General Curtis LeMay believed that Kennedy should order a full-strike against the missiles in Cuba and initiate war with the Soviet Union.  He knew that at the time we had a significant lead in nuclear weapons and would therefore win any kind of nuclear conflict.  Yes, millions of U.S. citizens would die, but the Soviets would no longer exist and trouble us no more.  If we waited, the Soviets would close the gap on our lead and then when war came millions more Americans would die and our victory would be much more in doubt.

Athens had the same decision to make, and decided to attempt a halfway solution.  They allied with Corcyra, but only for minimal defensive purposes.  Most of the students approved of this option as a way to get the best of both worlds, and it could have possibly worked out.  In actual fact, the presence of Athenian ships at the Battle of Sybota made Corinth hopping mad, but were not enough to tip the battle decisively in Athens and Corcyra’s favor.  The Corinthian fleet would live to haunt Athens at a later date.

Next week we’ll delve into the actual fighting as the war began.

If you are interested in the speeches of Corcyra and Corinth as Thucydides records them, they can be accessed online, beginning with Book 1, Chapter 32.

Blessings,

Dave

9th Grade: Our Cloudy and Confused Vision

Greetings,

This week we wrapped up our unit on the Crusades.  This difficult era raises many questions for us:

1. Did the Crusades attempt to stem the tide of Moslem aggression, or did they in fact cause more Moslem unity and a resurgence of Moslem power?

Some see the Crusades as a legitimate attempt to strike against Moslem expansionism.  Others argue that the Crusades forced the Moslems to unite once again. Having been invaded by the West, they determined to renew their attacks against them.  Do the Crusades bear any blame for the eventual collapse of Constantinople in 1453?

2. What role should faith and reason play in everyday affairs?

The Third Crusade is a good example of this problem.  Richard I fought his way to Jerusalem, but went home in part because he believed he could not hold the city even if he took it.  Therefore, it was pointless to risk his live and the lives of his men for nothing.  Some criticized his actions, saying something to the effect of, “You must step forward in faith, and watch God bless you.  This is what faith is all about!   You cannot think of this in practical terms. That is not thinking with faith.  Put  a foot into the Jordan, and then watch it part.”

We see this same question also running through the idea of the tragic Children’s Crusades, though here the Church strongly opposed Europe’s youth to no avail.* How should the balance between ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ guide our daily lives?  How should we answer the argument of many young people who participated in the ‘Children’s Crusades,’ which ran something like this:

  • God has called his people to crusade for Jerusalem.  We believed so in 1097.  Has God changed?  He is the same, yesterday, today, forever.  Therefore, His call is the same.  We must still vie for the Holy Land.
  • But how shall we go?  Let us not trust in princes, horses, or chariots (i.e. Ps. 20), let us know that our trust is in God, by marching out in true faith.  We see in Scripture that Moses led the Israelites to the Red Sea and it parted. Joshua marched around the city, and it fell.  Guided by God’s word, we shall emulate their example.  God shall make a way for us to take Jerusalem, and do so in a way so that all glory goes to him.
  • Many argue that the problem with the Crusades was a lack of organization, supplies, or reinforcements.  This only betrays worldly thinking.  Would more supplies have made the Crusaders less greedy in 1204?  Would it have made them less violent inside Jerusalem’s walls in 1099?  No, the problem has been our lack of faith and obedience.
  • Jesus pointed out the strength and purity of the faith of children.  Therefore, who better than the Church’s youth to undertake this venture?

We know that the Children’s Crusades (both of them) ended in utter disaster.  But what would you say in response to their argument?  How can you disprove them? What is faith’s relationship to reason?

3. The west attempted at least seven times at retaking Jerusalem.  What should this tell us about them?

  • That they were foolishly stubborn?
  • That they were intensely dedicated and willing to make great sacrifices for achieving their goal?
  • That they were a people of faith willing to trust in spite of adversity?
  • That they were foolish, naive, and used ‘faith’ as a cover for their prejudice and desire for gain?

In the end, the Crusades would have many unintended consequences.  The West was exposed to Greek literature and philosophy for the first time.  St. Thomas Aquinas, the Renaissance, and Exploration may all have been by-products of this, among other things.  The Crusades also raise many questions about using violence as means to bring about the Kingdom of God that are still with us.  If we agree with the Crusades, should we also agree with the bombing of abortion clinics?

Next week we will return to our look at Medieval Feudal society, and I hope that the students will be confronted with good questions.

Dave

*I should note that scholars debate when these crusades took place, and whether or not there was one crusade or two.  A few even doubt whether or not they were children at all, as some believe they may have been a mass of landless unemployed.  My rendering in class was the traditional story.

9th Grade: Everything Falls Apart

Greetings,

This week we focused on what is known as the First Crusade, the only Crusade to actually reach Jerusalem and conquer the city.  Perhaps more than other crusades, it was this first one that concentrated all that is admirable, strange, and horrifying about this period in the past.

We discussed last week the reasons and motivations for the Crusades, and whether or not one agrees with their reasons, we cannot deny the enormous difficulty of the proposed enterprise.  Capturing Jerusalem meant a journey of several hundred miles on foot without an established supply line, having to take at least one fortified city (Antioch) before even reaching Jerusalem, which would have thousands of defenders behind the large walls of the city.  Even today, parts of the the “old” city of Jerusalem still stands, and we can see what the Crusaders saw themselves 1000 years ago.

Old City Gate

The "Tower of David"

South (?) Wall of Jerusalem

As anyone can see, taking the city would be a formidable task.

From Antioch, the  Crusaders approached the city barefoot, the standard mode of travel for all medieval pilgrims.  This fact alone shows that the Crusaders saw themselves not so much as warriors first and foremost, but on a spiritual quest.  Like Joshua they marched around the city.  This was no standard military operation.

Understandably, they were anxious to get inside the city and claim victory.  They had heard many stories of atrocities perpetrated against Christians in Jerusalem.  They saw with their own own Moslem defenders taunting them, smashing crosses and other relics in front of their eyes.  Moslems also apparently killed pages sent by the knights to get water, which horrified and enraged the Crusaders all the more.  Finally, they broke through and entered the city. One eyewitness described it this way. . .

When the morning came, our men eagerly rushed to be walls and dragged the [seige towers] forward, but the Saracens had constructed so many machines that for each one of ours they now had nine or ten. Thus they greatly interfered with our efforts. This was the ninth day, on which the priest had said that we would capture the city. But why do I delay so long? Our machines were now shaken apart by the blows of many stones, and our men lagged because they were very weary. However, there remained the mercy of the Lord which is never overcome nor conquered, but is always a source of support in times of adversity. One incident must not be omitted. Two women tried to bewitch one of the hurling machines, but a stone struck and crushed them, as well as three slaves, so that their lives were extinguished and the evil incantations averted.

By noon our men were greatly discouraged. They were weary and at the end of their resources. There were still many of the enemy opposing each one of our men; the walls were very high and strong, and the great resources and skill that the enemy exhibited in repairing their defenses seemed too great for us to overcome. But, while we hesitated, irresolute, and the enemy exulted in our discomfiture, the healing mercy of God inspired us and turned our sorrow into joy, for the Lord did not forsake us. While a council was being held to decide whether or not our [seige engines] should be withdrawn, for some were burned and the rest badly shaken to pieces, a knight on the Mount of Olives began to wave his shield to those who were with the Count and others, signalling them to advance. Who this knight was we have been unable to find out. At this signal our men began to take heart, and some began to batter down the wall, while others began to ascend by means of scaling ladders and ropes. Our archers shot burning firebrands, and in this way checked the attack that the Saracens were making upon the wooden towers of the Duke and the two Counts. These firebrands, moreover, were wrapped in cotton. This shower of fire drove the defenders from the walls. Then the Count quickly released the long drawbridge which had protected the side of the wooden tower next to the wall, and it swung down from the top, being fastened to the middle of the tower, making a bridge over which the men began to enter Jerusalem bravely and fearlessly. Among those who entered first were Tancred and the Duke of Lorraine, and the amount of blood that they shed on that day is incredible. All ascended after them, and the Saracens now began to suffer.

They took the city, but then tragically took it one step further, for most of the men went to and fro, killing any Moslem they could find, be they men, women, or children.  The information about this horrifying massacre came not from Moslem sources but directly from the Christians themselves.  One wrote that,

Strange to relate, however, at this very time when the city was practically captured by the Franks, the Saracens were still fighting on the other side, where the Count was attacking the wall as though the city should never be captured. But now that our men had possession of the walls and towers, wonderful sights were to be seen. Some of our men (and this was more merciful) cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands, and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses. But these were small matters compared to what happened at the Temple of Solomon, a place where religious services are ordinarily chanted. What happened there? If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief. So let it suffice to say this much, at least, that in the Temple and porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, since it had suffered so long from their blasphemies. The city was filled with corpses and blood. Some of the enemy took refuge in the Tower of David, and, petitioning Count Raymond for protection, surrendered the Tower into his hands.

 Another account confirmed this, writing,

Many fled to the roof of the temple of Solomon, and were shot with arrows, so that they fell to the ground dead. In this temple almost ten thousand were killed. Indeed, if you had been there you would have seen our feet colored to our ankles with the blood of the slain. But what more shall I relate? None of them were left alive; neither women nor children were spared.

When the pagans had been overcome, our men seized great numbers, both men and women, either killing them or keeping them captive, as they wished.

Both Moslems and Christians committed atrocities during the Crusades, but none would equal the shocking scale and brutality of the massacre at Jerusalem.  And yet, the Crusaders at the time interpreted their actions in almost strictly religious terms.  The account continues,

Now that the city was taken, it was well worth all our previous labors and hardships to see the devotion of the pilgrims at the Holy Sepulchre. How they rejoiced and exulted and sang a new song to the Lord! For their hearts offered prayers of praise to God, victorious and triumphant, which cannot be told in words. A new day, new joy, new and perpetual gladness, the consummation of our labor and devotion, drew forth from all new words and new songs. This day, I say, will be famous in all future ages, for it turned our labors and sorrows into joy and exultation; this day, I say, marks the justification of all Christianity, the humiliation of paganism, and the renewal of our faith. “This is the day which the Lord bath made, let us rejoice and be glad in it,” for on this day the Lord revealed Himself to His people and blessed them.

On this day, the Ides of July, Lord Adhemar, Bishop of Puy, was seen in the city by many people. Many also testified that he was the first to scale the wall, and that he summoned the knights and people to follow him. On this day, moreover, the apostles were cast forth from Jerusalem and scattered over the whole world. On this same day, the children of the apostles regained the city and fatherland for God and the fathers. This day, the Ides of July, shall be celebrated to the praise and glory of the name of God, who, answering the prayers of His Church, gave in trust and benediction to His children the city and fatherland which He bad promised to the fathers. On this day we chanted the Office of the Resurrection, since on that day He, who by His virtue arose from the dead, revived us through His grace. So much is to be said of this.

 The “Jersusalem” crosses they etched inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre can still be seen today.

While we do know that some of the crusaders risked their lives to protect civilians, most joined in the carnage and plunder.  The stain left by this atrocity lingers to this day in minds of many Moslems.  This may seem strange to Americans, but Americans in general have very, very short historical memories.  This is probably because we are a new nation, and an immigrant nation.  Many who came here wanted to make a clean break with the past.  Also, Americans tend not to be rooted in the past with tradition, but look forward to the “next” thing.  Most other societies, and perhaps especially the Mid-East have a much deeper sense of the past, a sense only exacerbated by the significant decline of Moslem power since the mid 16th century.

I related to the students that, in most of the “mountain disaster” books I have read that the problems occur when the climbers descend.  We psychologically ramp ourselves up to reach the summit, and don’t always give as much thought to what comes next.

The crusaders faced a similar problem.  They took vows to liberate Jerusalem, but not to stay and defend it.  Many had been away from home for more then two years, and understandably wanted to return, having fulfilled their purpose.  The west simply could not rally the manpower needed to hold the city, and in 1187 the Moslems retook it.  Several more attempts to retake the city would again be made, the subject of our study next week.

Blessings,

Dave

Song of Wrath

For years now I have wondered how many books actually get published.  In the Christian book world every year, for example, more books on prayer, grace, parenting, and so on tumble off the shelves.  Those I glance at sound almost exactly the same.  Of course it’s no business of mine, but nonetheless, I am surprised.

The same phenomena exists in the world of history as well, perhaps especially in ancient history. Here we deal with limited sources and unsure timelines, and so it seems that one can say only so much.  When dealing with the Peloponnesian War I thought that we had reached our limit.  The advent of archaeology and the concomitant renewed interest in the ancient world in the late 19th century begot groundbreaking history on ancient Greece. This all culminated, I thought, with Donald Kagan’s masterful four-volume work published in the 1960’s-70’s.  Having read portions of those books, I thought that the final word had been uttered.  Victor Davis Hanson’s disappointing A War Like No Other, and Nigel Bagnall’s  even more disappointing book on the conflict proved to me that indeed Kagan had the last word. Now saying anything else would put one in an awkward position . . .

Or so I thought.

After all, in any field we should encourage new books because we have to encourage new ways of thinking.  Maybe 90% of what gets published never need see the light of day but that 90% might be needed to get the 10% that shines new light just where it’s needed.

Enter J.E. Lendon, Virginia’s own spirited iconoclast, and his new book Song of Wrath.

Every student of the Peloponnesian War rightly begins with Thucydides, and he impresses immediately with his penetrating analysis and fluid arguments.  He talks little about what would be for us, the curiosities of ancient life (commonplaces to them of course), and instead focuses on what moderns would tend to appreciate.  For Thucydides, practical power politics and universal psychological principles explained the war.  But Lendon points out that the very fact that Thucydides has to argue for his point of view shows that he departed from traditional ways the Greeks understood conflict.  He did not reflect, then, a typical Greek understanding of the war.  This does not mean he was wrong, but it means that we must wonder if this great authority spoke rightly.  In the end, Lendon admirably challenges some of Thucydides’ key beliefs and conclusions.

Lendon begins his work by discussing Achilles.  The Iliad begins with a seemingly petty dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles over who has the right to a captured slave-girl.  Agamemnon pulls rank on Achilles and takes Achilles’ woman which leads Achilles to withdraw from the fighting altogether.  Most every modern reader inevitably views Achilles as a total heel, a petulant jerk who would rather see his companions die than accept Agamemnon’s decision, however unfair it may be.  And yet Achilles, not Agamemnon or Odysseus, remained for centuries a revered hero of the Greeks, nearly worshipped by such luminaries as Alexander the Great.

How can this be?

Lendon uses this as a window into what the Greeks valued and how they structured their world.  Once we see the great value they placed on rank and honor, we understand the reasons for the war, and the reasons for certain strategies pursued by both sides much more clearly.  Achilles earned his reputation by sacrificing all to the Greek concept of honor.  We know that he sacrificed long life for glory in battle for starters, but he also willingly defies his king and his friends to preserve his honor.  He reenters the conflict not when his honor receives satisfaction, but when his friend Patroclus dies.  When Achilles fights  he does so not for Agamemnon, but to revenge Patroclus, another key Greek concept.  After slaying Hector, Achilles goes too far and succumbs to hybris.  He drags around Hector’s body and initially refuses burial.  For this, he suffers ignominious retribution in the form of an arrow from spineless Paris. But — he had a magnificent run before he ran aground, and that’s what mattered most.

If we understand honor, revenge, and hybris, Lendon argues, we will understand the Peloponnesian War.

Some might suppose this to be a mere gimmick, but I found this lens suddenly made sense of things that had always puzzled me.  Take the strategy of Pericles the Athenian in the wars earliest days.  Thucydides records Pericles arguing that,

[Sparta’s] greatest difficulty will be want of money, which they can only provide slowly; delay will thus occur, and war waits for no man. Further, no fortified place which they can raise against us is to be feared any more than their navy. As to the first, even in time of peace it would be hard for them to build a city able to compete with Athens; and how much more so when they are in an enemy’s country, and our walls will be a menace to them quite as much as theirs to us! Or, again, if they simply raise a fort in our territory, they may do mischief to some part of our lands by sallies, and the slaves may desert to them; but that will not prevent us from sailing to the Peloponnese and there raising forts against them, and defending ourselves there by the help of our navy, which is our strong arm. For we have gained more experience of fighting on land from warfare at sea than they of naval affairs from warfare on land. And they will not easily acquire the art of seamanship; even you yourselves, who have been practising ever since the Persian War, are not yet perfect. How can they, who are not sailors, but tillers of the soil, do much? They will not even be permitted to practise, because a large fleet will constantly be lying in wait for them. If they were watched by a few ships only, they might run the risk, trusting to their numbers and forgetting their inexperience; but if they are kept off the sea by our superior strength, their want of practice will make them unskilful, and their want of skill timid. Maritime skill is like skill of other kinds, not a thing to be cultivated by the way or at chance times; it is jealous of any other pursuit which distracts the mind for an instant from itself.

The Athenians, Thucydides, and the ancients who commented on the war all approved of Pericles’ strategy, which the above quote outlines in bare detail.  Essentially Pericles wanted to make Athens an island by bringing the population within its walls and refusing to fight the Spartans on land.  Then, with their superior navy they could ravage the Peloponnesian coasts.  Most moderns, on the other hand (myself included) have thought little of his approach.  At best it appears a recipe to avoid losing rather than actually winning.  At worst, it’s a passive strategy guaranteed to give all the advantages to the other side.

Lendon argues that we misunderstand the strategy because we misunderstand the Athens’ war aims.  Athens did not care about imposing their will on Sparta, or finding their “center of gravity” (a la Clauswitz) so much as they desired equal rank with Sparta.  Sparta had the rank of “hegemon” in the Peloponnese, Athens sought hegemon status in Attica and thus, equal status with Sparta in the Greek world.  Sparta will ravage our lands, but we can ravage theirs as well.  We don’t need a “shock and awe” response because we strive not to prove our absolute superiority, but our equality.  Besides, the Athenians would wish to avoid the hybris of seeking something beyond their station. They contented themselves with equality, follow the unspoken rules of war, and avoid the wrath of the gods.*

Armed with this perspective, suddenly other aspects of the war made sense to me. Before I criticized Athenian coastal raids for wasting time and resources to achieve purely symbolic results. This led me to make broader conclusions about the vacillating nature of democracies at war.

Lendon argues of course, that honor and rank have everything to do with symbolism. The Athenian coastal raids had nothing to do with “imposing their will” or tactical advantage, and everything to do with displaying status.  So Lendon’s work not only entertained me, it has forced me to reconsider most of my lesson plans for teaching the war.  Grudgingly . . . I give Lendon my thanks.

Does any of this new analysis have a modern application in war?  Some have suggested that 3rd-world warfare resembles many of these “traditional” concepts of honor and symbolism, and that we must abandon all the Cold-War principles that guided our statecraft.  Some argue that acts of terrorism have a lot more to do with symbols of honor than tactical advantage.^ I cannot comment on this as I lack the knowledge to do so.  But I do think we see a lot of the same principles in our modern political scene.  Democrats and Republicans both press for legislation that will give them “honor” in their districts or with their national following, and often this legislation has mere symbolic value.  Both sides too can obstruct purely for reasons of status, or to refuse honor to the other side.  Some might argue that this is part and parcel of any democracy.  If so, we will need to redefine our definition of democracy, and accept that at least in its modern context, it has little to do with Christianity. It may bear much more direct similarity to our pagan democratic ancestors, and to the song of wrath sung in ancient times . . .

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus. . . .

*In Kagan’s great work he comes close to understanding this.  He addresses the modern puzzlement over Pericles’ strategy by pointing out that the Athenians essentially voted for it on multiple occasions and kept it going even after a plague struck their city  In other words, he points out that the strategy surely made sense to them and they must have thought it effective for their purposes.  Lendon argues that after a few years, Athens could have made a legitimate argument that they had won and proved themselves.  The problem with such conflicts lie in that they need interpreted, and Sparta did not interpret events as the Athenians did.  So the war continued, and in time ended with defeat for Athens in a way no one could misconstrue.

^The tragic attacks on Charlie Hebdo led to a massive and inspiring show of solidarity from the French public.  I applaud them, and to us it appears as a striking rebuke to terrorists.  Part of me wonders, however, if the terrorists derived a sense of satisfaction from it all, i.e. “Look at what we made them do!  Clearly we touched a nerve, which is what we really care about.”  Did they gain status and honor from such a demonstration?

I hope not.  But if the answer is “yes,” the show of solidarity for the side of freedom is worth it regardless of how it gets interpreted by radicals.

This response is also very exciting.

9th Grade: The Crusades and “The Fog of War”

Greetings,

In his famous work, On War, the Prussian Carl von Clausewitz commented,

War is an area of uncertainty; three quarters of the things on which all action in War is based are lying in a fog of uncertainty to a greater or lesser extent. The first thing (needed) here is a fine, piercing mind, to feel out the truth with the measure of its judgment.

This truth makes itself felt in many areas, with the Crusades certainly among them.

This week we began to look at the Crusades.  The Crusades would be one of the defining events of medieval civilization and they raise many questions.

Why did they go on the Crusades?

We understand some of the parallels from the Crusades to today, with religiously motivated conflict once again making a return to history.  But every a cursory look at the Crusades repels most modern observers.  Their reasons and motivations seem entirely foreign to us.  When we examine Crusading literature, for example, we cannot help but be struck at the importance they placed not on “holy war” against Moslems, or “breaking Moslem power,” (very general, broad reasons), but  specifically the recovery of Jerusalem, and more specifically still, the recovery of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ may have been buried and raised from the dead.  Many miracles were recorded at the site in the Middle Ages, which we moderns may or may not believe.  But there can be little doubt that nearly all medievals believed God was present in a special way at this church.

Exterior, Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Interior

Many may have a hard time relating to this today.  We tend not to think of some places as more special than another.  For early medievals, however, Jerusalem was part of their spiritual inheritance.  Not having access to it might be the equivalent of not being able to have access to the Bible for some Protestants.

One need not read Scripture every day to be a Christian.  But if someone or some power decided that Christians could no longer have access to Scripture, that would be a problem.  If we see Scripture the way medieval Christians viewed Jerusalem, we would see that the Bible is part of God’s gift to the Church.  God need not ‘prove’ His love by giving us this, but He gave us His word as a gift, for our benefit.  It is part of His inheritance for us.  Should we seek to recover our inheritance?  Would we be justified in using violence to do so?

As for the medieval view of Jerusalem, I tried to explain it to student using the idea of experience and inheritance.  Suppose for a moment that there is a special place associated with your childhood and your family.  Take, for example, your grandfather’s house that had a place you enjoyed.  In my case it would be the stream in his backyard.  I had many great times there building forts, shooting bb guns, playing elaborate games of tag. Now suppose that upon his death he left the property to me in his will from now until doomsday. Let’s suppose that circumstances prevent me from staying on the property, and I get word that someone else occupies  the property and dumps toxic waste into the stream.  If I didn’t care, what it would say about how I view my grandfather, or my inheritance?

Of course, even if my analogy accurately describes the west’s view of Jerusalem, it still begs a variety of questions.  In what sense was Jerusalem the ‘inheritance’ of Christians?  Is it only history that makes it special, or are certain places (such as the Holy Sepulchre) really a literal “fount of blessing” for the Christian faithful?  If it were, what would be best way to regain it?  What methods would be justified?  Should they even attempt to do so, or ‘turn the other cheek?’

So why did people go?

  • Some went out of a general sense of holy duty.
  • Some, and perhaps many, went in a sense of a pilgrimage, in response to the call for soldiers to exercise penance (indeed, I think we have understand the idea of penance to understand the Crusades).
  • Some went out of a sense of adventure.
  • Some went out of response to the stories of Moslem persecution of Christians. Historians argue that the stories medieval Christians heard contain some exaggeration, and that may be true.  Exaggeration or not, the stories were believed, and we should keep in mind that some of the stories of Christian persecution were undoubtedly true.
  • Some argue that some went in the hopes of adding land to their existing estates.   I admit this possibility in isolated cases, but find it unlikely for the majority.  If their main concern was to add wealth, they would have stayed home and managed their estates.  The Church, for example, enacted several provisions against molesting the property of crusaders.  Their long absence surely would have opened their property up to danger in their absence.
  • Some may have seen it as a way to break the political and military power of the Moslem empire in half, and perhaps hasten its decline.

While the motives of the Crusaders may have varied, there are a few that I believe do not fit the period.  Some say that the Crusades were motivated by anti-Moslem bigotry.  This may have been true in isolated cases,  but the purpose of the Crusades cannot have been to ‘kill Moslems.’   Plenty of Moslems, for example, resided in Spain and were much closer than Jerusalem.  Also, the Crusaders occasionally made alliances with Moslems on their way to Jerusalem, which they would not have done if their avowed purpose was to kill as many as possible.  Also, while some may have wanted to add to their territory, the Crusade in itself was enormously expensive. Nobles who left paid their own way, as well as their attendants, along with being absent from their estate, which also would have reduced their income.

The Crusades had numerous causes, and sifting out the most important is very difficult.

One indirect cause surely was the rise of Moslem power from 630-750 A.D.  From modest beginnings in Arabia, they quickly grabbed the near entirety of the mid-east, along with North Africa and Spain.

But the Crusades do not begin until the late 11th century, so the growth of Islam cannot be the main proximate cause.  Some suggest that around 1050 AD a new breed of tough warrior Moslems called Seljuks caused great alarm in the west.

Moslems had also taken territory from the Byzantine empire, composed largely of Orthodox Christians.  Their appeal to the west for help opened the door not only to political reconciliation, but also reconciling of eastern and western churches, a tempting prospect.

The rise of the power of the state also contributed.  Before mid 11th century, the state generally was weak vis a vis the hold of Church on society.  With the overall stability of the civilization by 1050 came the rise of more powerful monarchs who could control more and more the lives of the warrior caste. Pope Gregory VII, for example, raised his own army of “holy warriors” to combat the rising power and threat of Henry IV.  Since fighting and violence is not in itself wrong, the Church sought to “Christianize” or refine it in the lives of Europe’s warrior caste.

All this of course, does not answer the question of whether or not the Crusades were a good idea, from either a purely military or Biblical perspective.  Even today the Crusades raise important questions:

  • Can violence be used in the name of Christ to achieve ‘holy’ ends?  If we think in Augustinian terms, can violence be part of the ‘City of God?’  Or, can the ‘City of God’ borrow from the ‘City of Man’ without being tarnished?   Can one kill others for God and His Church?  If so, how does this fit within the Christian ethic of loving our neighbors?  If not, is being a soldier wrong for a Christian?  Nearly the whole history of the Church would say ‘no’ to this question.  If a soldier cannot kill ‘for God,’ then for whom should he kill?  How can we know whether or not one truly fights for God?
  • In what sense should the Crusade be thought of in practical terms, and in what sense should the idea of a ‘leap of faith’ enter the picture?
  • Why did the Crusades not result in the reunion of East and West, as many hoped?  What impact did they have on the future of East/West relations?

All in all, the Crusades raise important and profound questions for us today.  At certain times the Crusades have been romanticized.  Today for some the Crusades are the ultimate example of religious bigotry.  Of course, the Mideast has its own remembrance of the Crusades which we do well to consider.

We will delve more into these questions next week.

Blessings,

Dave

11th Grade: Power and Markets in the Progressive Era

Greetings,
The week before break we wrapped up our look at Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive Era.

How did he begin the ‘modern’ presidency?

1. America’s rising power (I think China today is in the position America was 100-120 years ago) meant that they had a role on the world stage.  Foreign policy is the purview of the executive, not the legislative branch.  Inevitably then, the power of the presidency increased as our power relative to the rest of the world increased.

2. A united America would now think of themselves as ‘Americans’ instead of ‘Virginians,’ for example.  In a sense, all the people elect the president, at least in a way that ‘the people’ do not elect senators from Maine.  The formation of a nation would again, put focus inevitably on the presidency.  Along with this, the ‘nationalization’ of industry would lead to a more national focus for media outlets.  National news and national figures would take precedence over local ones.

 There are many across the political spectrum who believe that presidential power needs to be curtailed and is out of line with the founders vision for a dominant legislature.  Truly, there have been very few weak presidents since Roosevelt’s time in office. But those who want to curb executive power need to realize that presidential power takes place in a broad political, economic, and social context.  To add to these factors, Roosevelt had an expansive view of executive power.  For him, if the Constitution did not forbid it, he could do it.  Roosevelt also believed in the government not so much as a threat to people, but as an extension of them.  Government was the people’s steward, the sword point of the arm of the ‘people.’  This attitude led to a couple of groundbreaking actions taken:
  • Roosevelt believed in the establishment of national parks.  Part of this was personal, as Roosevelt’s experience in the west transformed him.  But part of it stemmed from his belief that the land did not belong to individuals, so much as to the nation at large.  Land then, could be used only as it referred to the public at large (he did of course believe in private ownership as well).  Having land set aside for the public fit right in with this vision. . .
  • As did his vision of corporate power and regulation.   The economics of the Industrial Revolution concentrated enormous resources in the hands of a few.  Are economic monopolies consistent with an American view of liberty?  Well, that depends.  If you see liberty as freedom from outside constraint, then there could be nothing inherently wrong with monopolies, provided they were honestly obtained.  But Roosevelt saw monopolies as a threat to liberty.  Monopolies limited the people’s ability to chose, and opened up the possibility that they could be exploited.  Besides, monopolies eliminated competition.  As the students are reading for homework, Roosevelt believed that only a ‘Strenuous Life’ could make us great.  Monopolies could lead to laziness, and in the end, national decline.

These issues raise important questions of constitutional interpretation.  Does the Constitution proscribe a certain attitude towards federal power?  What is the truest meaning of ‘liberty?’  How should we balance individual liberty with the rights of others?  I enjoyed our discussions on these questions, and we related them to the recent controversies surrounding the new body scans at airports.

This also led to a broader discussion of capitalism itself.  Many ‘classical’ economists look with fondness back to the pre-Roosevelt era as the heyday of a more pure capitalism.  This provided an opportunity to consider capitalism itself.   I wanted to place special focus.  I wanted us to consider the following:
1. Does capitalism share common ancestry with Darwinism?  Both rose to prominence at about the same time.  Both stress that it is through competition that we progress.  Both shed few tears over those whom competition eliminates.  Both, curiously enough, have a certain fatalism to them in their purest form, one of class strife, the other of the invisible hand of the market.  Fatalism, no matter the form it takes, is usually a sign of exhaustion or boredom, whether in the individual or the civilization.  C.S. Lewis argued in ‘Mere Christianity’ that a fully Christian economic system would resemble socialism or communism in some key ways (see his ‘Social Morality’ chapter in that book if you are curious).  Taking a different rout. a Christian defense of certain key free market principles can be found here.
Others would counter that while the free market of the Industrial Revolution had its problems and inequalities, surely the end result proved beneficial?  The western world saw unprecedented economic growth and the rise of a truly broad based middle class that is still the foundation of modern democracies.  When all was said and done, standards of living increased, and more people had access to more goods than ever before.
But that still begs the question: Does the free market promote Darwinism?  Or,  as Milton Friedman has argued, is it one of the best indirect promoters of personal freedom?  Or is it, as Philip Bobbitt and Guido Calabresi argued in their book ‘Tragic Choices,’ a method whereby society sometimes avoids hard decisions and puts them in the hands of ‘the market?’
2. If there are links between Darwinism and capitalism, what does that do to our interpretation of capitalism?  Do we affirm it in full, believing that Darwin may have latched onto a truth about existence?  Or does the market need regulated, or ‘softened’ to inject more community oriented values?
3. What might the doctrine of the Trinity have to do with this question?  With God we have community (1 God) and individuality (3 Persons) cohering in their fullness simultaneously.  We, however, are finite, and so we cannot experience both individuality and community in their fullness simultaneously.  Being made in the image of God, we desire and need both.  Might much of our political debates, both then and now, be helpfully viewed through this prism?  How should a society’s economic structure reflect both individual and community values?  Where should the emphasis lie?
Finally, towards the end of the week we looked at some aspects of Progressive Era culture.  Each society has its values and cannot help but give expression to those values, consciously or otherwise.  Here is an image of the city of Chicago ca. 1900
The plan of the city bears all the hallmarks of the Progressive Era.  The design is effecient, ‘scientific,’ and rational.  The design allows the city to be easily navigable to outsiders, reflecting the increasing sense of national over local identity.  Other cities would follow Chicago in their design, and thus cities could be like chain restaurants, more or less the same wherever one went.  Here is an image of St. Louis from about the same time:
Naturally this efficiency of design helped the flow of goods to and from other cities.  The links between cities and regions of the country grew easier to forge and thus became stronger.  To get a sense of the difference and meaning behind the change, here is an image of Philadelphia ca. 1750:
Granted, it’s not as if Philadelphia had no order to it, but the sense of standardization is less.
Blessings,
Dave