“Through the Eye of the Needle”

Peter Brown is one of a few scholars for which one must simply stand back and let them pass.  Decades ago he published a seminal biography of St. Augustine that made his name in the field of late antiquity.  Since then he has done nothing flashy, contenting himself with “staying in his lane” and doing what he loves.  He keeps churning out new and interesting things about the transition from Rome to the medieval period, and his latest book, Through the Eye of the Needle is no exception. I did not read anywhere close to all of the book’s 600 pages, but found what I managed to take in eye-opening.

The title references the famous verse in Matthew 19:24, and the subtitle of the book indicates Brown’s purpose of showing how the Church dealt with the idea of wealth. His chosen dates of focus (350 – 550 AD) foreshadow a surprising assertion.  Most understandings of the early church take one of two paths:

  • The growth of the church within Roman society happened primarily in 2nd and 3rd centuries AD as a result of persecution.  Constantine’s “Edict of Milan” granting toleration and preference to Christianity did not create something new so much as confirm an already existing reality.

Or . . .

  • The “Edict of Milan” represents a key and decisive turning point in the history of the Church.  The growth of the Church as a “power” and distinct social force begins because of Constantine.

With this standard dilemma,  Brown both “splits the horns” and creates a new way of understanding the growth of the Church.

Obviously the church grew significantly from its roots in Palestine in the century following Pentacost. But at the time of Constantine Christianity still occupied fringe status in Rome, perhaps akin to Moslems in America today.  This means that, among other things, we cannot chalk Constantine’s adoption of Christianity to political reasons.   Something dramatic really happened in Constantine’s life that led him to shock his contemporaries and side with a distinctly minority faith. Just imagine the reaction the country might have if a newly elected president suddenly declared he was Buddhist.  But the church remained a side-note within the empire.  However the church prospered between the years of 312 – ca. 370, they had little impact on the wider Roman culture.  This may have been because the era of Constantine and his successors was the “era of gold.”  The stability Constantine brought returned economic prosperity to Rome in general and might have reinvigorated faith in Roman civilization.  As time marched on, however, the wealth remained even as Rome began to lose its grip.  When the wealthy began to enter the Church.  The Church needed to decide what to do with “real money” for perhaps the first time in its history.

If we think about money we need to consider it with a wide lens.

Genesis 1 shows us God creating all things good as a gift of His love.  God meant for Adam and Eve to enjoy the world he made.  As Alexander Schememann commented,

Man must eat in order to live.  He must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood.  He is indeed that which he eats. and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet throughout the whole Bible, the central image of life.

Just as God created man soul and body, so too there need be no conflict between the physical and the spiritual.  We shouldn’t even have the categories in the first place.

An ancillary question might be, “Does money aid in our enjoyment of creation?”

In early Biblical history we might see a link between physical wealth and spiritual well-being.  We see this with Job, with Abraham, and with Jacob.  As the nation of Israel forms and grows roots, we certainly see it in the life of Solomon.  But after the division of the kingdom between the northern and southern kingdoms we have the age of the prophets, when God sought to “afflict the comfortable.” Now physical blessings come particularly to those outside Israel’s physical and ethnic boundaries, like the widow of Zarephath (Luke 4).

Jesus talks a great deal about money in the gospels, but never with one absolute message.  At Cana He blessed marriage, wine, and a general sense of “a good time had by all.”  He urges the rich young ruler to sell everything.  Zaccheus shows his repentance by giving away half of his fortune.  The rich will have difficulty entering the kingdom (the “through the eye of the needle” passage), but His “render unto Caesar” may indicate a laissez-faire approach to money in general.  Clearly Jesus Himself had little money, but Matthew may have been wealthy.  We are told in no uncertain terms that, “the love of money is the root of all evil,” and this might make us think of Ananias and Saphira.  But in the epistles we have the encouragement/command to generosity of giving, but not the abandonment of wealth.

Many writers accuse the Church of abandoning gospel simplicity in favor of “worldliness” in the late 4th century, but Brown rightly critiques these voices.  The Biblical evidence presents a complex picture, and ignores the Roman cultural environment in which the Church worked.

The Romans built their civilization around the idea of civic love.  One could say that they worshipped the idea of Rome, or the actual city/cities of Rome, as their true gods.  The patrons of Rome were in fact the “patricians,” the aristocracy.  The patronized Rome with their service to the state, and with their money.  Spending large sums came with the territory, and it could take the form of buildings, religious festivals, and the like.  St. Cyprian in the 3rd century takes this idea and transmutes it.  All Christians, but especially wealthy Christians, should patronize the City of God.  This took the form of providing for the poor (especially or sometimes exclusively to the Christian poor), building churches, and providing for religious feasts.  These were Christian “civic” projects.  In contrast to the “earthly” giving of those in the City of Man, money given to eternal purposes got redeemed, in a sense.

This approach helped give direction to the giving of the wealthy and helped build a distinct physical identity for Christians apart from the Roman monolith.  Christians have a home “not of this world.”  The approach of the early Church, however, gave Christians a physical manifestation of the heavenly city.*  Augustine would use this line of thought to develop his monumental City of God, and he proved pivotal in changing the Church’s attitude toward wealth.

The presence of wealth in the Church for the first time in large numbers brought up the question of the place of wealth.  Wealth may present temptations and problems, but is it evil?  Some believed that no one could claim both wealth and the gospel.  Pelagius, who heretically affirmed the near absolute autonomy of the will, thought that only a grand gesture of giving away everything at once could give proof of true faith.  Augustine disagreed.  He believed foremost in the need for the unity of God’s people.  The rich should receive the same welcome as the poor.  Pride, not wealth, posed the real problem for the Christian.  Naturally Augustine pushed the need for generosity.  Unlike Pelagius, he thought with a longer lens.  Wealth need not be given dramatically all at once, but steadily over time and with a distinct purpose. Their giving should seek to help build another kingdom, the “alternate reality” of the City of God.

With this line of reasoning, the Church could possess wealth, but not individual clergy.  Clergy could use wealth for the Church, but never own it directly.  The line would inevitably be gray and abuses came and went over time, but the principle remained the same.

We think of Augustine as a Platonist, and certainly he had more Platonism in his thought than St. Thomas Aquinas centuries later.  But his ideas gave the Church an idea of a concrete, visible community on Earth.  The idea of making the Kingdom of God manifest in the here and now, comes from Augustine — who may not have been quite the Platonist that we might imagine.**

The concept of using wealth to redeem our experience of creation and to create a “City of God” has many possible consequences and gray areas up for debate.  I thought of Brown’s thesis when thinking about the late Renaissance and the monk Savanarola, who railed against what he saw as the frivolous use and abuse of art, jewelry, makeup, and so on.  That conflict did not end well for anyone or for the city of Florence.  We can begin by stating the obvious — too much attention to adornment risks skewing our priorities, while no attention to at all to appearance honors neither the image of God (in the sense of honoring maleness or femininity) or one another.   The question arises, then — is some degree of focus on our appearance our Christian duty, or perhaps our Christian privilege?  It can be fun to look nice, after all.  And if we should adorn ourselves to some degree, should we not adorn our churches, our “cities of God?”

From this line of thought we can see why priests, bishops, and so on would also want adorned.  If king’s and their counsellors wear finery to show forth the glory of England or France, should not God’s representatives and ambassadors also have a chance to show the glory of their city?  Some would argue that doing this  would mean merely mimicking the world.  But one could flip this — maybe the world has in fact mimicked what the Church should be.

Sometimes I think modern Christians are uncomfortable with such baubles for the right reasons, such as avoiding waste and maintaining proper priorities.  But I wonder if we might also fear creating truly separate identities for ourselves within the Church.  Sometimes I if we fear creation itself.


**Brown points out that St. Augustine did not invent the idea of a “City of God” entirely on his own.  It had roots in African Christianity going back to at least St. Cyprian in the 3rd century.  But St. Augustine does give the concept its fullest expression.

9th Grade: Art, Myth, and Truth


This week we continued our look at Renaissance art through two main lenses and questions.

As Umberto Eco once argued that the Renaissance was a society made by merchants, made by money.  The influx of money into Italy would surely change society in many ways.  Fashion changed, art certainly changed, customs and mores changed, and morality changed.  You cannot have one without the other.

How should Christians react to this, and how did they?

Of course many Christians went along happily with the changes, some of them quietly resisted them in their own ways.  Few had stronger criticisms that the famous/infamous monk Savanarola.  Some see him as a saint, a man of the people, a forerunner of the Reformation.  Others saw him as a man filled with anger and bitterness, a man far from God, who, if not a heretic, certainly was a model for no one. Artists of his time had the very same differing opinions.


For him, we can say the following:

  • He was a strong opponent of the D’Medici family, who had transformed Florence from a republic to an unofficial dictatorship by the eminent Lorenzo D’ Medici.
  • He took an uncompromising stand against the incessant corruption within the Church, and fearlessly took on all comers, even the Pope himself.

Against him, we note that

  • His sermons seemed to consist of diatribes and anger.  He judged, condemned, and warned from the pulpit.  But rarely did he show compassion or sympathy, rarely did he speak of grace.
  • He believed that God spoke to him directly, which may or may not have been true.  But this sense of divine guidance led him to drift into occasional self-righteousness.

Savanarola, Florentine Portrait

He is perhaps best known for the “Bonfire of the Vanities,” when he encouraged many of society’s elite to burn their dresses, jewlery, and yes, much art deemed “unholy.”  Renaissance art not only involved nudes, but also used subject matter from mythology, which many felt betrayed art’s true purpose of glorifying God.  This led to a discussion on the question, “What makes art Christian?”

Let us take a famous Renaissance work by Botticell, The Birth of Venus, as an example:

One can argue that this is not a Christian work because it portrays a scene from pagan mythology.  We know that Venus does not and did not exist, so how can the art declare truth?  At best, it’s a meaningless diversion, at worst, a seductive lie.

The other side could argue that the painting does proclaim a Christian message through myth.  Botticelli does not make Venus an object of lust.  Rather, Venus, sees her inadequacy — she covers herself and is about to be covered more fully.  The myth’s meaning gets transformed into the message that for lust to be love it must be conquered with virtue and modesty.

Another aspect of this discussion is the role of myth itself.  Are pagan myths lies in the sense that declaring the sky to be green is a lie?  While Christians disagree on this, I would not agree with this.  I think J.R.R. Tolkien’s view of myth deserves consideration.  As C.S. Lewis neared conversion to Christianity, he had a crucial conversation with his friend Tolkien about the nature of myth. . .

Myths, Lewis told Tolkien, were “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”

“No,” Tolkien replied. “They are not lies.” Far from being lies they were the best way — sometimes the only way — of conveying truths that would otherwise remain inexpressible. We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily toward the true harbor, whereas materialistic “progress” leads only to the abyss and the power of evil.

“In expounding this belief in the inherent truth of mythology,” wrote Tolkien’s biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, “Tolkien had laid bare the center of his philosophy as a writer, the creed that is at the heart of The Silmarillion.” It is also the creed at the heart of all his other work. His short novel, Tree and Leaf, is essentially an allegory on the concept of true myth, and his poem, “Mythopoeia,” is an exposition in verse of the same concept.

Building on this philosophy of myth, Tolkien explained to Lewis that the story of Christ was the true myth at the very heart of history and at the very root of reality. Whereas the pagan myths were manifestations of God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using the images of their “mythopoeia” to reveal fragments of His eternal truth, the true myth of Christ was a manifestation of God expressing Himself through Himself, with Himself, and in Himself. God, in the Incarnation, had revealed Himself as the ultimate poet who was creating reality, the true poem or true myth, in His own image. Thus, in a divinely inspired paradox, myth was revealed as the ultimate realism.


So — does the painting convey a Christian message or not?  Is art “Christian” if it conveys truth about ourselves, the world, or God?  Then certainly non-Christians could create Christian art, just as non-Christians can know true things.  Some students felt that this mean that any art could qualify as “Christian.”  Surely, they felt, we must have another standard, but if we do, what should it be?

Or — let’s say that we agree with Tolkien.  We may say that this gives Christians great inspiration to continue to create great stories, like The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, and so on.  Does that mean, however, that we should use pre-Christian myths as a reference point now that “the truth has come?”  Or now do we have all the more reason to use those myths as they can be truly understood even more in the light of Christ.  Renaissance art gives us much to consider.

The issues go beyond art to the idea of Truth itself.  What makes something true?  If we say that 1 + 1 = 2 for reasons that do not involve God, then we assume that a realm of Truth exists that exists apart from God’s existence.  If Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life then all thing cohere in Him, even 1 + 1 = 2, or the meaning inherent in a photograph of a tree.

But back to the Renaissance. . .

I have always believed that one of the best ways to know a culture is through its artistic expression, whether that be in painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and so on.  How we look interpret Renaissance art will determine a lot of what we  think of the Renaissance itself.

One school of thought sees the Renaissance as glorifying mankind, of making man the center of all things.  Scholars like Francis Schaeffer see mankind portrayed in outsized, godlike fashion, with no sense of sin or humility left.  He pointed to the outsized hands on Michelangelo’s “David” as exhibit “A” for his argument:

Others see it differently.  Some see the Renaissance making man aware and responsible for his time in creation.  Art now places humanity in a real context, with real consequences, as opposed to what some might call the “over-spiritualization” of man in the Middle Ages.  They point to the Brannacci Chapel, and the painting of Adam and Eve.  Here we have feet planted firmly on the ground, and real people in a real world.  Having a portrayed them in reality, they have to do deal with the consequences of their sin. The skeletal nature of Eve’s face foreshadows her death and ours as well. One commentator suggested that the angel does not drive out Adam and Eve so much as their sense of sin and shame motivates them to drive themselves out of the garden.

These two competing views of the Renaissance might each have their place — the Renaissance was multifaceted.  But in the end the students will need to choose what they see as the dominant spirit of the time, and what primary influence the Renaissance will pass onto the era that follows.

Finally, we looked at this magnificent 3-D image of the Sistine Chapel, surely one of the greatest artistic creations of the last 500 years.  Use the cursor and fly around it, and try and not make yourself dizzy, as I did to the students!

Here is the link:


Have a good weekend,


Flotsam from “The Palace of Reason”

Like most great artists, Johann Sebastian Bach created his immortal works amidst uncertain times and an unusual amount of philosophical and cultural upheaval.  One could sense a perceptible shift away from theology as “queen of the sciences” towards the dominance of abstract reason and scientific methodology.  James Gaines chronicles one particular episode in Bach’s life representative of this shift in his Evening in the Palace of Reason.  Bach, the great Baroque composer, received an invitation to visit Frederick the Great of Prussia, the great Enlightment monarch.  Their brief meeting led to Bach composing “A Musical Offering,” considered by some to be his greatest instrumental work, and a definitive statement of his theological and musical convictions.

Gaines’ book is serviceable, if unremarkable.  It certainly is more accessible than other works on Bach I’ve attempted.  On the other hand, Gaines’ background is in magazine editing, so as one might expect, the books lacks expertise and depth. Life presents us with many such trade-offs.

Reading the work did spur on a few thoughts and questions in my mind . . .

To best understand Bach and the shift in the sciences taking place during his life, Gaines briefly describes the cosmological beliefs Bach inherited from his contemporaries.  Gaines has a difficult job with this material.  On the one hand, his book seeks a more conventional and conversational tone and such information bogs down modern readers in a mass of unfamiliar material.  But Gaines needs to cover the material to properly understand Bach. Unfortunately Gaines gives a dismissive rendering of the information, interspersed with parenthetical comments such as, “This will be over soon,” and “There will not a quiz on the forgoing.”  Gaines seems to find the pre-modern scientific beliefs absurd and embarrassing, despite his frank admission that such beliefs had a direct connection to music of the period. As one contemporary of Bach commented, “. . . an individual is both inwardly and outwardly, spiritually and physically, a divinely created harmonic being,” (emphasis mine) reflecting the divine harmony of the cosmos itself.

Some regard Bach as perhaps the greatest composer Western civilization has produced. Everyone agrees that at bare minimum he’s one of the all-time greats.  Is it possible then, that such great music could come from theological and scientific foundations (in Bach’s day these two naturally went together) utterly removed from the truth? Bad trees produce bad fruit, but the scientific tree of the Baroque era gave us something else entirely (for an extended look at the transition between Galileo and the past, please enjoy my friend Bill Carey’s post here).

Asking this question leads one into the deep waters of the nature of scientific truth, waters too deep for me. The real problem, I think, is that the modern view of truth (in science or elsewhere, but perhaps especially in science) has very little to do with poetry. Or to take a different approach, the scientific tree of the baroque period produced fantastic music, but less than able surgeons. Can science do both equally at once?  This is a question science must answer.

With the transition to the Enlightenment, Bach’s music and convictions fell out of favor. People no longer sought complex harmony, they wanted more “pleasing” — and easier — melodies.  The purpose of music and art shifted from lifting us up to the divine to meeting our needs here and now.  This was not merely a matter of taste. These different ideas about music arose from a shift in cosmology and theology.

When we think of the solar system, we probably think in a horizontal rather than vertical fashion.  We also likely think of each planet “doing it’s own thing” floating around in space.  Space between planets is empty and cold. In the medieval conception of the universe the planets descended hierarchically, with the movement between the planets forming a glorious celestial harmony — the “music of the spheres” — which in turn reflected the eternal “perichoresis” (the Greek word used by early church fathers meaning “circle dance”) of the Trinity.

Whichever we prefer, we should note that modern and medieval choices in regard to the cosmos are theological and poetic in nature, not strictly scientific.

This theological and poetic shift impacted musical opinions of Bach’s later years.  His critics believed that emphasizing harmony (as Bach did) made the music too difficult.  What’s more, harmony itself was “artificial” and “unnatural.”  Music should instead focus on singable, “natural” melodies, which we can “perform” as individuals.

Baroque harmony and counterpoint, then, came from a theological perspective that emphasized the importance of the trinitarian community, and scientific perspective that emphasized the “community” of planets.  So we might only think of harmony as “artificial” if we believe that either

  • The spheres have no music, or
  • If they did, it would be irrelevant as it would not be part of our daily experience.

Of course the medievals believed both that the spheres make music, and that their motion had an impact, however indirect, on our lives.  Thus, celestial harmony for them occupied a very real place in creation and could hardly be called artificial.

So once again we see the intersection of science, poetry and theology in musical theory, and we see the stark difference the Enlightenment brought to many aspects of our life and thought.  The legion of trickle-down effects on poetry, music, church architecture and like are everywhere present.



Grade 12: Hot Coffee


This week we began looking at tort law and its relation to the democratic process and democratic values.  As the year winds down and the seniors focus on their thesis presentations, I think this unit works well at dealing with some interesting concepts in a lighter and more relaxed classroom atmosphere.

Tort law deals with the realm of damages and liability in civil courts.  No one goes to jail in tort law cases, but they can still generate a great deal of controversy.  Many of us may have some familiarity with tort law through the famous (or infamous) McDonald’s “Hot Coffee” case from 1992, when 79 year old Stella Leibeck spilled coffee on herself and eventually had a jury award her about $175,000, though the actual settlement amount remains  unknown.

The actual facts got lost in the hype surrounding the case, and the internet does a good job of giving us the story we Hot-Coffee-DVD-Fmay not be aware of.  On the one hand, it seems ridiculous that McDonald’s should be responsible for a customer spilling coffee on themselves.  But on the other hand. . . .

  • By company mandate, McDonald’s kept its coffee at around 185-190 degrees, about 50 degrees hotter than coffee is normally served.  At this temperature, serious burns can result within 2-7 seconds on continued skin contact.
  • Over period of several years, McDonald’s had received several hundred complaints from customers stating that they had been burned by their coffee.
  • Mrs. Leibeck’s burns were extensive.  She required a long hospital stay that involved skin grafts over a large area (the internet has pictures of the burns, and they are extensive).

The case ended up being the subject of a documentary, and spurred on debates surrounding tort reform in various law schools.

The multiple layers of issues make these cases intriguing.

Product Liability

If a product injures you, company liability depends on how you used the product.  If you are mowing the lawn with your lawn-mower in a normal fashion and it blows up and injures you, the company has liability.  If it blows up while you try and use the lawn-mower to chop down a tree, the company has no liability.

In this case, jurors believed that Mrs. Leibeck used the coffee as McDonald’s intended it to be used.  Nothing strange or out of the ordinary happened.


If a product injured someone due to a flaw in the design and the company had no prior knowledge or suspicions, the company will have less liability than if they knew everything and covered it up.  Of course all kinds of grey area exists in between these extremes.  On the one hand, 700 complaints about burns is a large number.  On the other hand, 700 complaints represents about .0001% of all the coffee they sold during that time.  How we see the 700 previous complaints will be crucial for how we assess fault in the case.


In a grocery store, if an employee drops a few bananas by mistake and five seconds later and breaks a hip, would the store be liable?  Perhaps, but that liability would increase dramatically if it had been on the floor for an hour, with customers complaining about them, and the store doing nothing about it.  We had a good discussion over whether or not the number of complaints over time increased or lessened McDonald’s liability.

If a court finds a company liable a jury assesses damages, which come in two forms.

Compensatory damages literally compensate the victim for whatever they lost.  Some aspects of this kind of penalty are easy to assess, like doctor’s bills, time missed from work, and so on.  Here the wealth of the person injured is not a factor.  Just as we return stolen property from mansions, so a wealthy person deserves just compensation.

But very quickly compensatory damages enters murky waters.  If one is physically scarred from an accident due to negligence, how much is that worth?  Would it depend on where the scar was?  Would we compensate a woman more for a scar than a man?  What about emotional scars?  What about lost opportunity?  The subjective nature of these judgments can result in very different jury verdicts (Mrs. Mathwin has a friend who served on a jury in a liability case a few years ago. The jurors disagreed wildly, with some wanting to award the plaintiff a few hundred thousand and others nothing.  Eventually they simply took the average of what each of the 12 jurors thought the plantiff should receive, and that dollar amount — about $25,000 — became their ruling).

Punitive damages punish the company for their wrongdoing, and should deter the company from acting in a similar fashion in the future.  Here the wealth of the company does need to be a factor, for hypothetically if the company had enough resources, the fine might be so small that it would be more profitable for them to continue the negligent behavior.  This is part of the reason why punitive damages can far exceed compensatory damages.


Many thanks,


Pope John Paul II and the Body in Art

We live in a deeply confused age regarding sexuality and the body.  We can understand Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it,” concept regarding pornography in terms of necessary legalese, but especially in this day and age, Christians (and the world) need more specific guidance.  How are we to understand how the body can be used in art?

I wish I had the time and theological understanding to devote to John Paul II monumental Man and Woman man-and-woman-he-created-them_3He Created Them, where he developed a full-fledged “theology of the body.”  Though I read only very small portions of the text, those few parts have made a huge impression on me.

First, he makes the observation that nakedness is mentioned in a spousal connection, which means that nakedness is a kind of gift of one to the other — a revelation, in fact.  For this can rightly be called a gift because it involves a kind of mutual possession of one another — “I am yours and you are mine.”

These ideas of possession and gift lead to another truth, that the body itself is a form of revelation.  I had never realized this before, but of course it makes perfect sense.  We talk often of how the beauty of flowers, or the variety of the birds, or the majesty of mountains, reveal something about God Himself.  But we (or perhaps just I) forget that the body of course is part of that same creation that will reveal something of the Creator.  And perhaps the body may reveal more than mountains or flowers, as He made humanity of all creation in His image.

These truths deserve more contemplation than I can give them.  But I do think that John Paul’s wisdom can give us profound guidance on the nature of the body and how the body can or should be used in a “public” way.  He writes,

Artistic objectification of the human body in its male and female nakedness for the sake of making of it first a model and then a subject of a work of art is always a certain transfer outside this configuration of interpersonal gift that belongs originally and specifically to the body.  It constitutes in some way an uprooting of the human body from the configuration and a transfer of it to the dimensions of artistic objectification specific to the work of art or the reproduction typical of the works of film and photographic technologies of our time.

In each of these dimensions, and in each of them in a different way, the human body loses that deeply subjective meaning of the gift and becomes an object destined for the knowledge of many, by which those who look will assimilate or even take possession of something that evidently exists (or should exist) by its very essence on the level of gift–or gift by the person to the person, no longer of course in the image, but in the living man.  To tell the truth, this act of “taking possession” happens already on another level, that is, on the level of artistic transfiguration or reproduction.  It is, however, impossible not to realize that from the point of view of the ethos of the body, understood deeply, a problem arises here.  It is a very delicate problem that has various levels of intensity depending on various motives and circumstances, both on the side of artistic activity and on the side of knowledge of the work of art or its reproduction.  From the fact that this issue arises, it does not at all follow that that human body in its nakedness cannot be the subject of works of art, only that this issue is neither merely aesthetic, nor morally indifferent.

This, I think, trumps “I know it when I see it.”

The Shadow of Arginusae

Towards the end of the Peloponnesian War Athens had to fight for its very life.  Their catastrophic defeat in Sicily in 411 B.C. meant that their survival depended on maintaining their lifeline of supplies from allies in the eastern Aegean Sea.  This meant in turn that Athens would have to win virtually every naval battle to stay afloat.

At the battle of Arginusae in 406 B.C. the Athenians got a decisive victory over the Spartan League.  Athenian custom and religion dictated bringing home the bodies of the slain to give them proper burial.  Unfortunately a storm arose in the aftermath of the victory, and in the ensuing confusion the Athenians retrieved just a fraction of their dead.

You might think that the Athenians would rejoice in the victory and shrug off the failure to retrieve the dead.  After all, they might not have survived as a city-state had they lost.  Instead, (due in part to a confluence of unusual circumstances described expertly by Donald Kagan in The Fall of the Athenian Empire) they put the eight victorious generals on trial for impiety and dereliction of duty.  They found all eight guilty, and executed all eight that same day.

A few days later the Athenians lamented their actions and believed they had committed an injustice.  Such an injustice needed rectified, so they put the prosecutor on trial for inciting them to murder.  He was found guilty, and he too was put to death.

This unfortunate incident no doubt deeply impacted Socrates, and in turn Plato, and from there the whole attitude of western political thinkers toward democracy.  In the modern era, ardent defenders of democracy like I.F. Stone argue that such ancient and early-modern critics cherry-picked their objections to democracy and took certain incidents out of proportion.  I wonder, however, whether or not the above incident isn’t symptomatic of democracies in general, and if the essential critique offered by Plato and his followers might have merit.

I thought of the Battle of Arginusae when a friend sent me a fascinating graph of the speed of social change in America in the 20th century.  With the Supreme Court hearing arguments on the constitutionality of gay marriage it seems appropriate to consider our history of seismic shifts [note to the reader–this post was written originally a couple of months before the courts made gay marriage the law of the land.  We have seen since then how fast it has gained traction, and how quickly the marriage issue has spilled over into transgender issues.  The speed of the change is all the more remarkable considering that in 2004 many states voted to try and prevent gay marriage from becoming law, and in 2008 President Obama supported what I believe he called “traditional marriage”].

Of course the ability to change quickly is in itself neither good or bad, as with speed we can adopt either good or bad courses of action.  What we should consider, however, is what this means for us as a democracy, and where this puts us relative to other democracies at other times.

Change began to accelerate in the 20th century, and this coincides with two other shifts in American life.  The first was the rise of the prominence of the U.S. internationally, and along with that the inevitable rise of executive power. With a few exceptions, the 19th century saw congressional dominance, the 20th executive dominance.  No one president or party can be blamed for this, if blame is what you seek.  As with Rome, the growth of power inevitably centralizes power.  Add to that, the Constitution puts foreign policy mostly in the hands of the executive.  The centralization of power in the executive makes change come more quickly, if for no other reason than efficiency.

But this in itself can’t explain the radical leaps noted above in the graph, because changes in Civil Rights and gay marriage have not come primarily from executives, but from the courts, which are supposed to be more immune to the whims of the people, be those whims good or bad.

We might also recall that De Tocqueville astutely predicted that modern democracies could create an unstoppable force when the idea of equality joined with the idea of majority power.  This force, when mobilized, created magnificent massed armies (think Generals Sherman, and Patton).  But this same power could apply to our social lives and our moral compass.  Democracies, De Tocqueville argued, would not create tyrants in the traditional sense.  They would leave the body alone. Rather, they can at times kill the soul through enormous and unseen social pressures.  So just as our military efforts could go from nothing in December 1941 to significant victory in June of 1942 ( the Battle of Midway), so too we can move with the same speed and power socially.  This power would be great enough to steamroll even the supposedly resistant-to-change court system.

But this won’t work entirely either, for it presumes that the courts were the last domino to fall during these seismic social changes, whereas with abortion, civil rights, and gay marriage, they have spearheaded change.*

With this realization we get pressed beyond typical right/left categories and our modern, narrow vision, beyond arguments about activist courts and the like. This should let us know that we may be nearing our prey.

I have two possible explanations to suggest:

The first deals with the fact the courts interpret the Constitution.  While the founders no doubt positioned the courts as above the political process to make them slower, this very position in many ways allows them to move faster. They have no Congress to lobby.  But I still think this fact leaves out part of the explanation.  If the founders set up the Constitution to greatly reduce the power of mass democracy (and the fear of “mob rule” runs throughout the Constitutional Convention debates as recorded by Madison) then we might wonder whether or not we live under a different Constitution altogether.  Of course the words remain the same, but how we interpret and stretch it (note how the commerce clause experienced this in the 20th century) changed over time.  The founders hoped for the Senate to dominate our government.  Now we have powerful courts, an extremely powerful executive, and an almost exclusively reactive legislature that asserts itself only when it stands in the way of what the executive wants to do

Thus, when the courts interpret the Constitution today, they in fact interpret a different constitution then the one the founders set up.  That explains the significant and rapid social changes.

The second hypothesis . . .

I think that the Constitution sought to create a senatorial democratic-infused oligarchy based on the Roman Senate of old.**  If true, at first glance we obviously have a different constitution than the founders envisioned. But a second glance might suggest that not a great deal has changed.  If polling data that suggests most Americans are pro-life and not in favor of gay marriage is correct, then we still can say that an oligarchy rules us.  This oligarchy no longer resides in the senate, however, but in other places, be it media, the courts, and so on.  If correct, then at least some of the fundamental guiding principles of the Constitution have not changed, but how we apply them has.

Finally, we have the idea proposed by Christopher Ferrara in his thought provoking book Liberty: The God that Failed.  Ferrara suggests that for Americans, the idea of liberty never had connections to tradition, religion, community, and so on but always stood for individuals defining themselves against them.  Liberty means power, power to do as one wishes, whether that be to own slaves or change the definition of marriage.  As to the good Americans have done (civil rights and racial equality, a relatively open immigration policy, etc.), one could argue that we often do these things irrespective of law, or stretch existing laws beyond recognition to justify them.  Good laws, bad laws, traditions, all become very inconvenient and discarded in a pinch when we decide we want something else.  Historically we have remarkable consistency on this score, whether Washington bypassed Pennsylvania’s laws on slavery, or Andrew Jackson ignored the Supreme Court against the Cherokees, or the modern explosion of executive orders from both parties, and so on, and so on.  Washington the Federalist is supposed to be the conservative, while historians speak of the “Jacksonian Revolution.”  But perhaps they had a lot more in common than we might suppose.

I still think the first possibility  above the likeliest by a slight margin, but I waffle, and like many of us, I am confused, overwhelmed, and ultimately not quite sure what’s going on.

But those really in the know have another theory . . .


*Incidentally, one look at the graph shows that there must be a strong connection between women voting, prohibition, and equality.  I think we can tie prohibition to the idea of equality in ways akin to laws about motorcycle helmets and seat-belts, i.e. we’ll all be safe and healthy together — instead of liberty (I’ll smoke and drink and ruin my life if I want to — it’s my life after all — and you can’t tell me otherwise).

**Before we pass judgment, consider that the Roman Republic must surely rank as one of the most successful governments of all time by most measurements.  They had roughly 350 years of relatively problem-free yearly elections and created an empire rooted in concepts of law that last to this day.  So strong were Rome’s institutions and ethos that they still held it together long into its “empire” phase, despite some ridiculously bad emperors along the way.