12th Grade: Wag the Dog


Last week we looked at Athens’ disaster in Sicily and the subsequent and extensive fallout.

Why did Athens lose in Sicily?

Part of Thucydides’ brilliance lies in that he does not merely look at battles and personalities, but finds ways to link events to a grand narrative.  Athens had many strengths, and one could argue that their passion for excellence helped produce democracy.  But I think that something began to go wrong just prior to the Peloponnesian War with the completion of the Parthenon, one of the great architectural achievements in history.  Ostensibly the building stands as a temple to Athena, the patron goddess of the city.  But a closer look at the carvings on the Parthenon reveal not scenes of gods and goddesses but of events in their own history.  Athens had in fact, made a temple to themselves, and showed that the true god they worshipped was their own community.

What kind of impact would this idolatry have, and what does it have to do with democracy?  Part of answering this question has to do with what we say the essence of democracy is.  If we say that the mere act of voting, of having a voice, is the meaning of democracy, than a naval-gazing, self-worshipping state will not be far behind.  For in this situation the process counts, and not the result.  If democracy (or any other form of government) serves a higher ideal than it has a built in check upon itself.  With no higher ideal than whatever decision we arrive at must by definition be good, because we thought of it.  This kind of attitude, present in ancient Athens, leads to disaster eventually.  If we travel with our heads down we’ll eventually walk off a cliff.  G.K. Chesterton has a great quote about self-worship in his book Orthodoxy,

That Jones shall worship the god within turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.  Let Jones worship the sun, the moon, anything rather than the “Inner Light.”  Let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, but not the god within.  Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but outwards. . . . The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner-Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.

The problems with Athens’ expedition to Sicily can be traced to their democracy.  Alcibiades wanted the expedition, Nicias opposed it.  Both had wealth, political and military experience, each had their own political power base at home.  They also could not stand each other.  Their personal and political rivalry spilled over into the formation of Athens’ war policy in Sicily.  For example, Nicias’ purely personal political moves against Alcibiades ended up having a dramatic effect on the composition of the numbers and kind of military forces Athens used against Sicily, and perhaps even the goal of the mission.  One wonders if they realized this.  With their heads down, I think not.  In my opinion, they thought that

  • We voted, just as always
  • We picked experienced people
  • We followed the procedures and processes to arrive at a decision

Therefore, everything is fine!

Democracy has to involve more than mere voting, more than mere process.  The Athenians apparently did not see that in voting for the expedition they had approved a massive invasion of another democratic country not directly involved in the war they had been fighting.  The man who ultimately led them (Nicias) argued against any expedition at all.  Self-worship exacted its price in the thousands of dead outside Syracuse.  In his An Historian’s Approach to Religion AJ Toynbee wrote,

The strength of the devotion that parochial-community-worship thus evokes holds its devotees in bondage to it even when it is carrying them to self-destruction; and so the warfare between contending parochial states tends to grow more intense and more devastating in a crescendo movement. Respect for one’s neighbours’ gods and consideration for these alien gods’ human proteges are wasting assets. All parochial-community-worship ends in a worship of Moloch, and this ‘horrid king’ exacts more cruel sacrifices than the Golden Calf. War to the death between parochial states has been the immediate external cause of the breakdowns and disintegrations of almost all, if not all, the civilizations that have committed suicide up to date.

Athens’ failure in Sicily brought about the collapse of their democratic regime.  Their god had failed to provide for their basic needs, and needed replaced.

The oligarchs that replaced the democracy fared no better, ruling wantonly based on the pent-up sense that now is was “their turn.”  We sometimes see this when one party, shut out of Congress for a time, suddenly gains control.  This “my-turn” attitude usually leads to over-reaching and miscalculation.  The Newt Gingrich led government shut down in the mid-90’s comes to mind.

Democracy came back, but the instability engendered by these power struggles weighed like a mill-stone around the Athenians necks.  They had no anchor beyond their immediate needs.  We saw Athens 1) Win the Battle of Arginusae, then 2) Put the victorious generals to death for impiety, and finally 3) Put the lawyer who prosecuted the generals to death (we never should have listened to him!) all within the span of  several days.  Process trumped justice.  The tail wagged the dog.


9th Grade: A Medieval Cold War turns Hot


Henry IIThis week we wrapped up the 12th century by looking at Henry II, king of England from 1154-1179.

Henry had many great leadership qualities, as even his enemies attested to.  Tall, handsome, bold, decisive, charismatic — the list could go on.  Feudal society, however, seemed arranged specifically to prevent strong ‘type A’ personalities like Henry’s from exercising their full potential.  Past updates discussed the various ‘spheres’ of influence, local distinctions, and tangled allegiances that prevented any centralization of power in the medieval world.

All of this sort of thing no doubt maddened Henry, just as it would frustrate anyone who liked efficiency, action, and “getting things done,” not to mention power.  Henry did his best, however, and had a great deal of success.  One of his final frontiers remained the creation of universal law throughout England, and here he met the staunch opposition of the Church, in the person of his one time friend Thomas Becket, a man to whom he had personally shown enormous favor, raising him from his “common” birth to the heights of power.  Henry also wanted the power to appoint bishops to vacant sees, and to try monks and clergy who had committed crimes.  Becket didn’t mind the first so much, acquiesced on the last, and ended up dying for his opposition to Henry’s claim to control the clergy.

The medievals inherited one of their dominant theological motifs from St. Augustine’s “City of God.”  In his treatise Augustine outlined the existence of two cities on Earth, the “City of Man,” and the “City of God.”  The City of Man has its manifestation in the use of power to maintain order — the State.  The state has legitimacy in the eyes of God. It performs crucial functions for our well being.  But don’t kid yourself into thinking that the City of Man has any redemptive qualities or possibilities.  It performs purely ‘negative’ functions.  It restrains evil but cannot serve as a conduit for redemption.

The City of God, on the other hand, looks beyond the maintaining of power to redemption.  It focuses on love, forgiveness, and grace.  The City of God, therefore, must not be ‘infected’ by the City of Man.  The two are ultimately incompatible not because the City of Man is inherently bad but because they have different goals.  For many medievals, the political and legal independence of the Church helped maintain the Kingdom of God on Earth.

The feud between Henry and Beckett likely had its personal undertones, but at its heart, Beckett believed he stood for the independence of the Church.  Henry’s claim to appoint bishops and discipline clergy to Beckett looked like the City of Man trying to control the City of God.  If the City of Man got its clutches on the Church, the Kingdom of God would suffer, the light of Christ would dim.

Becket and Henry

Becket’s opposition to Henry seems arcane to us.  But to keep its independence, the Church believed that it needed to maintain both its territorial and legal separation from the state.  For his part, Henry felt that he could not tolerate a de facto “state within a state” while he reigned.  In the end, four of Henry’s knights killed Becket, though perhaps not on Henry’s direct order.  Nevertheless, Henry ‘lost,’ for the people blamed him for Becket’s death, and he had to publicly do penance.  At the end of the post I include one medieval contemporary’s admiring evaluation of Henry II.  He had many strengths, but some of these strengths could turn to weaknesses in the wrong context.

Previously we examined aspects of the medieval “guild” system.  Guilds had three basic functions:

  • To provide a means to train new workers
  • To enforce a uniform standard of quality
  • To protect its members

But beyond these basic functions, guilds, whether consciously or not, reinforced basic values of medieval society, which valued community and stability over competition and change.  I assume they would look at modern day America and shake their heads.  So much turmoil, so much of the “rat-race” mentality, so much cut-throat competition.  Why not all agree to scale back and relax a little?  Why make the middle-class dad have to stay open later to stay ahead of the competition just to keep up with competitors and miss his son’s soccer game?  In the end, it’s not worth it.

Guilds also provided another check and balance, or block of power and influence in the medieval stew.  They further prevented any kind of concentration of power.  Understanding the guild system can help us understand why Henry II actions brought so much controversy.

But, as students noted, the guild system geared itself towards stability and community, not innovation.  In America, for example, we do not shed a tear if Hechinger Hardware loses to Home Depot, so long as we get a better deal (does anyone else remember Hechinger?).  We understand that competition benefits consumers, and we accept the occasional disruption and instability that brings to the economy.  The medievals, on the other hand, made a different choice, thinking more of the immediate local community and less of the amorphous general public.

Many thanks,


Here is the “friendly” source on Henry II

To Walter, by the grace of God archbishop of Palermo, once associate, now lord and dearest friend in Christ, Peter of Blois sends greeting and wished continual success of your desires.

The blessed Lord God of Israel, who visited and made his mercy upon you, raised you up in need from the dust, so that you may sit with kings and princes and may hold the throne of glory. Terrible is the Lord in his judgments, and great in his compassion, very worthy of praise, for “His compassion is over all that he made.” [Psalm 145:9] Therefore of his compassion, which he has magnified in you, you have continual and steadfast memory, nor is that Judaic reproach seen in you: “They are not mindful of His benefits and of his wonders which he has shown to them.” [Psalm 77:11] There is nothing like ingratitude to provoke the indignation of the Most High: the very provocation of evils, deprivation of benefits, extermination of merits. On account of reverence for that one, who delivered you from contemptible poverty, may you exhibit most fully the office of humanity to the Cisalpine poor; truly those who go to, or return from the land in which walked the feet of our Lord, you could strike down in many ways, but you must fulfill their needs with the solace of more humane grace, just as your predecessors in office. You will recognize that the Father is himself Father of orphans and paupers, who exalts the humble, and humiliates the proud: for which on behalf of his poor pilgrims he will uncover you, so that they may find among you aid of customary goodness. And therefore let it frighten you, lest their clamor and complaint ascend to the ears of that one, who is terrible among the kings of the earth, who judges the case of the poor, and accuses on behalf of the meek of the earth.

For the golden sash and silken girdle, and samite, and other exotic goods, which through the bearer of gifts from your largess I receive not as much as I wish, but as much as I deserve, I give back thanks. Truly from this the ancient integrity of your liberality is clear, which neither intervening time nor distance of places, nor assumption of honor, nor other things destructive to friendship were able to undo.

Since however you have demanded from me with all insistence that I should send to you the shape and habits of the lord king of England in an accurate description – which exceeds my faculties, and for which indeed the vein of Mantuan genius would seem insufficient enough – I nevertheless will communicate to you what I know without envy and detraction. About David it was said [I Kings 16] to the commendation of his beauty, that he was red-haired; however you will know that the lord king has been red-haired so far, except that the coming of old age and gray hair has altered that color somewhat. His height is medium, so that neither does he appear great among the small, nor yet does he seem small among the great. His head is round, just as if the seat of great wisdom, and specially a shrine of lofty counsel. Such is the size of his head, that so it matches with his neck and with the whole body in proportionate moderation. His eyes are round, and white and plain, while he is of calm spirit; but in anger and disorder of heart they shine like fire and flash in fury. His hair is not in fear of the losses of baldness, nevertheless on top there is a tonsure of hairs; his leonine face is rather square. The eminence of his nose is weighed to the beauty of the whole body with natural moderation; curved legs, a horseman’s shins, broad chest, and a boxer’s arms all announce him as a man strong, agile and bold; nevertheless, in a certain joint of his foot the part of the toenail is grown into the flesh of his foot, to the vehement outrage of the whole foot. His hands testify grossly to the same neglect of his men; truly he neglects their care all the time; nor at any time, unless carrying birds, does he use gloves. Daily in mass, in counsels and in other public doings of the realm always from morning until vespers he stands on his feet. And, he never sits, unless riding a horse or eating, although he has shins greatly wounded and bruised with frequent blows of horses’ hooves. In a single day, if necessary, he can run through four or five day-marches and, thus foiling the plots of his enemies, frequently mocks their plots with surprise sudden arrivals; he wears boots without a fold, caps without decoration, light apparel. He is a passionate lover of woods; while not engaged in battles, he occupies himself with birds and dogs. For in fact his flesh would weigh him down enormously with a great burden of fat, if he did not subdue the insolence of his belly with fasts and exercise; and also in getting onto a horse, preserving the lightness of youth, he fatigues almost every day the most powerful for the labor. Truly he does not, like other kings, linger in his palace, but traveling through the provinces he investigates the doings of all, judging powerfully those whom he has made judges of others. No one is more cunning in counsel, more fiery in speech, more secure in the midst of dangers, more cautious in fortune, more constant in adversity. Whom once he has esteemed, with difficulty he unloves them; whom once he has hated, with difficulty he receives into the grace of his familiarity. Always are in his hands bow, sword, spear and arrow, unless he be in council or in books. As often as he is able to rest from cares and anxieties, he occupies himself by reading alone, or in a crowd of clerics he labors to untangle some knot of inquiry. For while your king knows his letters well, our king is more literate by far. Truly I have judged the abilities of both in learned matters. You know that the king of Sicily was my student for a year, and had had from you the basic arts of versification and literature; he obtained more benefit of knowledge through my industry and solicitude. However as soon as I had departed the kingdom, that one turned himself over to abject books in imperial leisure. But yet in the household of the lord king of the English every day is school, in the constant conversation of the most literate and discussion of questions. No one is more honest in speech than our king, more polite in eating, more moderate in drinking; no one is more magnificent in gift-giving, no one more munificent in alms-giving: and therefore his name is like poured oil, and the entire church of saints describes the alms of such a one. Our king is peaceable, victorious in war, glorious in peace: he is zealous for the things to be desired in this world and he procures peace for his people. He considers whatever pertains to the peace of the people, in whatever he speaks, in whatever he does; so that his people may rest, he incessantly takes on troubled and enormous labors. It aims to the peace of his people that he calls councils, that he makes laws, that he makes friendships, that he brings low the proud, that he threatens battles, that he launches terror to the princes. Also that immensity of money aims at the peace of his people, which he gives out, which he receives, which he gathers, which he disperses. In walls, in ramparts, in fortifications, in ditches, in enclosures of wild beasts and fish, and in palaces there is no one more subtle, and no one more magnificent to be found.

His most powerful and most noble father the count [of Anjou] extended his borders greatly; but the king added to his paternal lands with abundance in his strong hands the duchy of Normandy, the duchy of Brittany, the kingdom of England, the kingdom of Scotland, the kingdom of Ireland, the kingdom of Wales; he increased inestimably the titles of his magnificent inheritance. No one is more mild to the afflicted, no one more friendly to the poor, no one more unbearable to the proud; he always strives to oppress the proud with the semblance of divinity, to raise up the oppressed, and to stir up against swelling of pride continual persecutions and deadly troubles. When however he may according to the custom of the kingdom have had roles in making elections of most important and most powerful, he nevertheless always had his hands pure and free from all venality. I merely touch upon, I will not describe these and other endowments of soul as much as body, with which nature has marked him out before others; truly I confess my insufficiency and would believe that Cicero and Virgil themselves would sweat under such a labor. I have briefly tasted this little morsel of his appearance and habits at your request; truly I shall seem either to have undertaken an unbearable work, or to have cut back much about the magnificence of so great a man through jealousy. Nevertheless I, serving your charity, do what I can do, and what I know without envy and without detraction, I communicate with most prompt good will, and also among other great men, who write in praise of my lord, I put my might of devotion in a treasure chest along with the poor widow.

We Still Consult our Oracles

This post has had a few different lives.  It was one of the first posts on the blog years ago, but occasionally I come across a bit of information that might confirm what is a favorite and wild theory of mine.  I cannot prove the assertions I make, but I “feel” it to be true.  Below is the original post. . .


For some time I have had a pet theory that I am far too proud of.

When we look at the ancient past we sometimes see law in the hands of the priesthood, or at least understanding of the law in their hands.  When civilizations are at this stage it is not uncommon to see people spend a lot of time going to oracles to help interpret law, make sense of their surroundings, and so on.

When we see this historians and archaeologists immediately think, “This civilization is in its early, pre-sophisticated stage.”  We assume that the obfuscation of law and the concentration of those who interpret in the hands of a select few must mean that their society has yet to come to intellectual maturity.

But then, look at us today.  What layman can understand our laws?  Who can fathom the depths of the health-care bill?  Who can actually read it, let alone make sense of it?

Only a special class of people, our priests, whom we call “lawyers.”

Not having understanding, the layman seek out their oracles to bring clarity to the foggy mysteries of law.  Some go to FOX, CNN, Stephen Colbert, Rush Limbaugh, or NPR.  They interpret for us. They become our ‘mediums’ to give us access to the secret knowledge.  But notice, we never interact with the law itself.  Nor do we interact with the ‘holy’ priesthood of lawyers.

And yet no one would say we are an unsophisticated civilization in its “early stages.”  If anything we are far too sophisticated.  But this sophistication may really be a form of regression, albeit a regression that cleverly hides behind advancing technology.

So, when we look at the past and see priests and oracles playing a large role maybe we should not think, “New, unsophisticated civilization,” but ponder the possibility that instead we see, “Old, over-complicated, tired civilization,” one with possibly a more vibrant and clearer past.


That was the original post of a couple years ago, but recently I came across somethings else that made me think of the topic again.

UnknownIn Toynbee’s Cities on the Move he makes a fascinating observation to begin his examination of the city throughout history.  He begins by looking at the nomadic character of early civilizations, where those who kept flocks had to keep their livestock moving to find land to graze.  He also cites the “slash & burn” agricultural practices of the earliest civilizations.  He then writes,

Our pre-nineteenth-century ancestors would have been surprised but perturbed if they could have seen present-day descendants of theirs who had seceded from the sedentary way of life as the pastoral nomads had seceded from it three or four thousand years earlier.  They would have hardly believed that any human being who once lived in a fixed house would prefer life in a traveling car.  The trailer towns in present-day Florida would have reminded our forefathers of the pastoral nomads of huts or tents.  The daily orbit of the present day commuter would have recalled the annual orbit of the nomad or shepherd; and it would have seemed appalling that ‘civilized’ sedentary populations should have been driven by economic necessity once again to become peripatetic.   . . . It is a spiritual misfortune for a worker to be alienated emotionally from the place where he has done his work and earned his living. . .

This modern sense of rootlessness manifests itself in our lack of connection with where we work and where we live.  So many notables of past eras, be they Thucydides, Socrates, Cicero, Dante, Machiavelli, or Browning all professed a great love for their respective cities.  We may pine for our homes, but I doubt that anyone pines for Centreville or any of the other random suburbs throughout America, which exist mostly as the equivalent of bus stations to take people somewhere else.

The most recent update to this post comes in the form of . . .

UPS drivers now use a system called “Orion” to guide their routes, and nearly all do not like it.  The formula they use makes no sense to the drivers, leading to what Alex Tabborok called “Opaque Intelligence.”  He writes,

I put this slightly differently, the problem isn’t artificial intelligence but opaque intelligence. Algorithms have now become so sophisticated that we human’s can’t really understand why they are telling us what they are telling us. The WSJ writes about driver’s using UPS’s super algorithm, Orion, to plan their delivery route:

Driver reaction to Orion is mixed. The experience can be frustrating for some who might not want to give up a degree of autonomy, or who might not follow Orion’s logic. For example, some drivers don’t understand why it makes sense to deliver a package in one neighborhood in the morning, and come back to the same area later in the day for another delivery. But Orion often can see a payoff, measured in small amounts of time and money that the average person might not see.

One driver, who declined to speak for attribution, said he has been on Orion since mid-2014 and dislikes it, because it strikes him as illogical.

He continues with what I think is the key point, “Human drivers think Orion is illogical because they can’t grok Orion’s super-logic. Perhaps any sufficiently advanced logic is indistinguishable from stupidity.”

I’ve always thought Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man an underrated work.  Here he attempted to reframe the typical evolutionary way of viewing history made popular especially by H.G. Wells’ Outline of History.  He may cinch the argument with his opening lines in the chapter “The Antiquity of Civilization:”

The modern man looking for ancient origins has been like a man watching for daybreak in a strange land and expecting to see that dawn breaking behind bare uplands or solitary peaks.  But the dawn is breaking behind the black bulk of great cities long built and lost to us in the original night; colossal cities like the houses of giants, in which even the carved ornamental animals stand taller than the palm trees. . .  The dawn of history reveals a humanity already civilized [i.e. see how quickly “civilization” develops in the early chapters of Genesis].  Perhaps it reveals a civilization already old.  And among other important things, it reveals the folly of most of the generalizations about the previous and unknown period when it was really young.

“The (Optimistic) Spirit of Medieval Philosophy”

There exists an “old saw” approach to Christianity that runs something like this: A long time ago Christians devoted themselves to practical matters of personal morality.  The early Church lived as a community of love devoted to good works.  Then, along comes ________ (this “blank” takes many forms — St. Paul, St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, etc.) and Christianity forever tainted itself with “theology” and a philosophical turn of mind completely at odds with the spirit of Christ and his early followers.”

I believe firmly in the idea that every organization gets the culture they deserve.  Perhaps the Church over time has contributed to the great error described above by focusing too much on morality as such and not on transformation.  Perhaps Christian education has concerned itself too much at various times with mere outward good results and good looks rather than giving a firm foundation in eternal principles.

But I also think that those that attack the “philosophical” elements of Christianity have a conscious or unconscious agenda to keep religion tucked away in its own small corner.  “You Christians please continue to be nice to each other and try and help others.  We’ll handle the big stuff.”

In his The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy Etienne Gilson sets out to refute those who wish to keep Christian belief in a 1124081small corner.  Gilson was a pre-eminent scholar and philosopher in his day, and alas for me, some of his philosophical vocabulary went over my head.  But one of the great strengths of his work is its simplicity.  He asks the critic to please, just actually read the Bible and Christian theologians honestly, and the idea that Christian belief was never “philosophical” melts away.

For starters we have the book of Job as a deep philosophical statement on the nature of suffering.  Many Old Testament history books like the book of Judges show artful arrangement to make pointed statements about the nature of man.  We have Ecclesiastes and many Psalms.  Some would say Jesus said nothing “philosophical” but this can only possibly hold water if one discounts the Gospel of John entirely.  Then of course we have the “dreaded” St. Paul who “intruded” with his theological cast of mind, and so on, and so on.

Gilson’s main point, however, deals with the Middle Ages.  Here most critics (at least in his day) stated that whatever philosophy the medievals attempted strictly copied from the Greeks.  They had no originality.  Gilson’s quick retort to this deals with the nature of originality itself.  In one sense, “all philosophy is a footnote to Plato,” as Alfred North Whitehead stated.  Of course the medievals took some ideas from the Greeks.  What philosopher would not?

Others (like Edward Gibbon) charge the medievals with dimming the light of reason with the obscurantism of faith and revelation.  Gilson shows with many examples that the bulk of medieval thinkers saw reason enhanced, not diminished, by faith.  He writes,

By revealing to man what he could not actually know, revelation opens up the way for the work of reason.

God’s gift of rationality now has more to chew on, and thus gets more of a workout.  For the medievals revelation makes mankind more rational, not less.*

But the bulk of the book forms Gilson’s main point that the medievals creatively used and transmuted Greek philosophy rather than copied them rote.  They had a strong desire to save everything they could and use it for Christian purposes.  My favorite example of this comes from Boethius.  Gilson writes,

Fate had weighed too heavily on men’s mind’s to be too summarily dismissed.  Boethius took the trouble to put up some rather complicated architecture in order to ensure it a niche in the Christian temple.  Providence is then the divine intelligence comprehending all things in the world; that is to say their natures and the laws of their development.  As reunited therefore in the divine ideas the universal order is one with Providence; as particularized, broken up, and so to speak, incorporated with the the things it rules, the providential order may be called Fate.  All that is subject to Fate is thus subject to Providence, since Fate depends on Providence as a consequence on its principle.

Boethius himself wrote,

For as the innermost of several circles revolving around the same center approaches the simplicity of the mid-most point . . . while the outermost, whirled in an ampler orbit takes in a wider sweep of space–even so whatever departs from the Primal mind is involved more deeply in the meshes of fate, and things are free from fate in proportion as they seek to approach the center; while if aught cleaves close to the supreme mind in absolute fixity, this too, being free from movement, rises above Necessity.  Therefore as is reasoning to pure intelligence, as that which is generated to that which is, time to eternity, a circle to its center, so is the shifting series of fate to the steadfastness and simplicity of providence.

I admit I don’t fully understand it, nor do I buy what he sells. Whatever the explanation I think it best to avoid the word “Fate” altogether.  But who wouldn’t smile at Boethius’ boyish enthusiasm and deft mental gymnastics?  Aquinas, a more mature and clearer thinker than Boethius, rejects this concept of Fate as well.  I’m sure that Aquinas understood him, and I’ll stick with his analysis.

Of particular interest to me was Gilson’s explanation of the medieval view of history.  Previous historians in the Greek and Roman tradition did brilliant work.  But even the best of the ancients, i.e. Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius, all show the tendency toward Fate and Inevitability.  For Herodotus, everyone eventually crosses the boundaries of natural law — even Cyrus — and gets crushed for it.  Thucydides sees civilization doomed by the passions and fears of man that lie just below the surface.  Even the more spiritually minded Polybius sees mighty Rome caught up in the grand cycle of growth, peak, and decay from which they cannot escape.

Medievals demonstrated originality in their historical vision.  They saw linear progression where others saw only vicious cycle.  With revelation illumining reason we can build on the past, move forward, and advance.  The medievals had humility in relation to the past.  They knew the Romans and Greeks had done better than they in most ways.  But they never felt imprisoned by that presumption.  Rather, they sought to press on and hopefully help carry mankind to a better place.  In comparison to what came before, Gilson rightly claims this as an original philosophical development.

This view of history has its roots of course in theology.  History is a poem, which makes sense only when we know the beginning and the end.  Thanks to revelation, we know both, and can now see Christ building His kingdom on Earth, one that grows as a mustard seed.  If God be true, we have the opportunity to progress in relation to the past, though of course we may reject that chance.  This explains Boethius’ desire to save Fate from the chopping block — we must save everything so we can build on everything — but it also explains Aquinas refusal to yield.  God binds no one by Fate.  Otherwise, how can God’s kingdom advance?

The medievals, often portrayed as dour and gloomy, strike me as a hopeful people.


*Perhaps one example of this is the doctrine of the Trinity, a reality beyond the realm of reason.  But after revelation announces the doctrine, reason and experience can then deepen our understanding, which seems to be the experience of the early Church.

9th Grade: High Society


Next week we will look at medieval cathedrals.

We discussed what architecture reveals about a civilization,  and how specific buildings and designs reflect certain ideas and theological leanings.  In discussing cathedrals, I first wanted the  students to discuss their own churches.  Some observations we made were:

  • One church had sanctuary that used folding chairs and doubled as a  multi-purpose room.  The church had an informal worship service, with  a pastor that was generally laid back and easy going.  At the center of the stage lies the pulpit, and as we might expect, the sermon occupies the central place in their worship service.
  • Another met in a room for worship with movie theater style seats, with screens occupying a prominent  place on the wall.  This church, we discovered, puts a premium on  cultural relevance and an interactive experience for the worshippers.
  • One church met in a building similar to an office building complex.  One key idea of the church seemed to be not to intimidate anyone with “church.”  The sanctuary design and flow of the service had what could be described as a “familiar” feel.
  • Another church was designed in the traditional way, but with a higher ceiling.  They had an altar rail in front, with a choir in robes, a processional with the cross, acolytes, etc.  The pulpit is placed off to the side, and true to form, the sermon is not the centerpiece of the service.  Instead, with the communion altar at the center, the celebration of the eucharist takes the bulk of the service time each week.
I shared my experience worshipping in an Eastern Orthodox Church some years ago.  When you enter, the church immediately had a “this is different” feel.  The colors, smells, and chanting all told the attendee, “You are in a different place, you have left “the world” and are now surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, somewhere between Heaven and Earth.  Instead of sitting, you spent most of the time standing or kneeling.  The point was not to make you comfortable, but to take you out of yourself and your daily surroundings.  They might also add that one should not sit in the presence of God.
Each of these designs reflect different philosophies on worship, and  their architecture reflects that.  While it was certainly not my purpose to  say that one is better than another, it is important that we  tried to understand that theology will be reflected in architectural style.
Willow Creek, Chicago
From a cosmological and societal perspective, height had great  importance to the medievals.  When I look at the intricate design and  strange creatures that adorn many cathedrals, I get the sense that  they were enjoying themselves.  Cathedrals took at least 30 years and often more than 50 to  build.  What does this say about them?  What church today could sell a  building program that would take at least 30 years to complete?   What does that say about us?  Were the medievals wasteful and foolish, or  is it us who have made worship a humdrum bare bones experience?  Do cathedrals, as Abbott Suger said, serve to ‘urge us onwards from the material to the immaterial?’
When we looked at images of a cathedral, their height immediately struck most of the students:
 Most likely, our involuntary reaction to these buildings would be to look up and feel small, and that indeed is part of the point.  They felt it important that you lose yourself in the face of immensity.  Clearly, this kind of architecture stressed the “otherness,” holiness, and transcendence of God.  Conversely, it does not emphasize the “nearness” of God.  But we must not have the idea that Gothic meant “dark, heavy, and foreboding.”  Rather, the medievals came up with their architectural advances specifically to let in more light.  They do not press us down to the ground (like pyramids, for example) but take us “upwards” to heaven.
Christ in Glory, Canterbury Cathedral
Their architecture takes us back to their cosmology, which also emphasized height, as we saw last week.
Finally, we noted how it reflects the Medieval linking of the physical and spiritual.  They did this even with the location of their buildings, most especially in the Mont St. Michael Cathedral in Normandy, France.
Mont. St. Michael
The cathedral is dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, who fights the Dragon in the book of Revelation.  They built it in the furthest point possible out into the sea, in itself a testimony and prayer that God and His angels are their first line of defense.  Mt. St. Michael perfectly illustrates what medievals believed not only about church, but about how physical things reflect spiritual reality.

Sherlock Holmes and the Solar System

I knew I would like E.M.W. Tillyard’s book The Elizabethan World Picture early on when Tillyard references Shakespeare’s famous, “What a piece of work is a man,” speech from Hamlet.  He writes,

This has been taken as one of the great English versions of Renaissance humanism, an assertion of human dignity over medieval asceticism.  Actually, it is within the purest medieval tradition.

Hah!  Take that those who exalt the Renaissance over all else!  Tillyard goes on to add how Shakespeare writes within the medieval “chain of being” tradition, which they derived from the Church fathers.  He could have added something about Psalm 8, but we’ll let it slide.

Tillyard talks about how he began the book trying to get at the context of Shakespeare, but found that his subject grew on him until he found he had to continually peel back layers of the onion.  It’s hard not to gain a kind of fascination and admiration for the medieval view of reality, and this is the book’s real subject.

C.S. Lewis tackled the exact same thing in his excellent The Discarded Image.  Tillyard’s book lacks the depth and insight of Lewis, but his writing is also much more accessible.  I wish I had started with him first.  The fact that so much of the book deals with the medieval view of the world rather than strictly the Elizabethan stands as one of Tillyard’s main arguments.  Yes, the Reformation broke with certain things from the past, but in the main they kept much of the medieval synthesis intact.  The Scientific Revolution, not the Reformation, ended that view of the world.

The medievals borrowed from the classical tradition, Scripture, and the Church fathers to give themselves a very distinct world filled to the brim with sharp corners.  Their universe had

Order and Unity: Everything had its place, everything played a part.  In that sense it was crowded, with nothing out of place.  But it was purposeful.

  • Sin and Progress: Medieval people believed in the reality of the first, but the possibility of the latter. A healthy tension resulted from a clear view of human folly on one hand, and the love of God on the other.  Tillyard writes,

This is one of things that most separates the Elizabethan from the Victorian world.  In the latter there was a general pressure of opinion in favour of the doctrine of progress: the pessimists were in opposition.  In the Elizabethan world equal pressure existed on both sides, and the same person could be simultaneously aware of each.

In our day, we seem to believe in nothing in particular, though a belief in progress and progress alone would I’m sure be more insufferable.

  • Hierarchy: The “Chain of Being” meant that an infinitely long descending ladder from God down to the creatures far beneath the sea.  Earth itself had a rather humble spot on this ladder.  But the main feature here were the connections.  Air had superiority to earth, and earth to water.  Air is linked to water through earth, and so on.

The system had many advantages.  Tillyard includes many quotes from the period and one immediately realizes how much authors had to work with and build upon.  They could know that their audience would understand a multitude of sacred and secular references, and have a shared view of the world.  Modern authors have to do so much more work for much less assumed reward.  Tolkien had to create an entirely new world to write an epic.

But we should be careful not to romanticize such a world.  Their cosmology did not directly conflict with Christian teaching, but neither was it inherently Christian, and as such left much to be desired.  It was so crowded one did not have much space to maneuver.  The only ones who seemed to have that freedom were fairies, and their role in redemptive history remained undefined — not a good place to be.  Such a cosmology might easily arise in a time that begged for stability in the aftermath of the Dark Ages, and just as easily would wear out its welcome in due course, and even Shakespeare had his fun with it just as he depended upon it.  Tillyard quotes from Twelfth Night in a revealing passage that links parts of the body with constellations:

Sir Toby Belch: I did think by the excellent constitution of thy leg it was formed under the star of a galliard.

Sir Andrew Aguecheek: Ay, tis’ strong, and it does indifferently well in a flame-coloured stock.  Shall we set about some revels?

Sir T: What shall we do else?  Were we not born under Taurus

Sir A: Taurus: that’s sides and heart.

Sir T: No, sir, it is legs and thighs.

Tillyard comments,

Characteristically both speakers are made to get the association wrong; and Shakespeare probably knew that to Taurus were assigned neck and throat.  There is irony in Sir Toby being right in a way he did not mean.  He meant to refer to dancing — legs and thighs — but the drinking implied by neck and throat is just as apt to the proposed revels.  The present point is that the serious and ceremonious game of the Middle Ages has degenerated into farce.

This clip from the excellent Sherlock series from BBC recalls Holmes’ famous quote on his knowledge of the solar system:

Who wants to disagree with Sherlock Holmes?  But he is wrong — one’s view of the solar system does matter.  We have yet to find a workable replacement for Ptolemy and the medievals, and this surely has impacted our cultural life as a whole, and our individual sense of our place in the world.  Like Major Tom, we float aimlessly and need to find a place to stand.

The Half-Hearted Return of Thor

I find the trend in modern history books to use BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era) quite amusing.  Clearly as a culture we have a profound unease with the Christian roots of our civilization.  Naturally, then, many take issue with dividing time around the Incarnation.  Obviously I disagree with such a stance, but it makes sense that people would want to order their world around their beliefs.  And yet, using BCE/CE seems such a laughable attempt at “kicking against the goads.”  “When is the ‘Common Era?'” one might ask.  “After the coming of Jesus,” is the only response. “What makes that era ‘Common?'” as opposed to other eras?”  I can’t fathom anything other than a shrug at that point.  One archaeologist stated, “Before the Common Era (B.C.E.) and the Common Era (C.E.), are exactly the same as B.C. and A.D. but have nothing to do with Christianity.”

No . . . certainly not!

If you’re going to abandon a Christian understanding of time, abandon it already.  It will make things clearer in the culture and one’s own mind as well.

That’s why part of me applauded when I read this article  which tells us that devotees to 1000paganism in Iceland are building a temple to Thor.  For many decades now Christian understandings of nature, the human person, of sexuality, etc., etc. have steadily eroded, and been replaced in some ways by a neo-pagan revival.   If you actually build a temple, it communicates the reality that we are really worshipping something and calling a spade a spade.  Again, Jesus tells us that He prefers hot or cold people.  It’s all the lukewarm mush in our culture that makes things so difficult.

As I read a bit more, however, I discovered that they’re not going to sacrifice animals. Of course in many ways this is good news because, after all, no one wants to see animals sacrificed.  But in other ways . . .  the concept of sacrifice and propitiation, so crucial to Christianity, if taken seriously can lead one back to Christianity.  It is an example of the benefits of clarity.

And then Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, high priest of Ásatrúarfélagiðadded, added, “I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet.  We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.”

Ugh.  More mush, then.  Thor, I think, would not be pleased.