Cortes and Alexander the Great

Sometimes how historical figures are perceived has much more to do with how perceptions change over time than what people actually did in their own lifetimes.  Sometimes certain people in the past take on a romantic hue that also can distort our vision.

I thought about this phenomena while reading Five Letters of Cortes, a collection of letters Cortes sent 51iimHx9yvL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_back to the continent detailing events in Mexico.  The book interested me because historians today routinely treat Cortes as a great villain, and I wanted to see how he measured up to that reputation in his own words. Scholars of course debate the veracity of some details Cortes narrates (without giving much credence to the idea that he simply told the truth as he saw it).  But my interest was not what happened so much as how Cortes wanted his readers to perceive him, regardless of whether or not he spoke fairly and truly.

As I read I thought of how history views Alexander the Great.  The two men have some similarities. Both sought glory, perhaps Alexander most of all.  Both conquered and destroyed a foreign people and culture with at least questionable justification.  Both dealt with internal disputes in their own ranks. Both used diplomacy to great effect, perhaps Cortes most of all.  And yet, history loves Alexander and despises Cortes, generally speaking, and we should ask why.

A few things stood out to me in Cortes’ letters.

  • Cortes de-emphasizes violence and tries to play up his relationship with the natives when he can.  He writes early in the first letter that, “the Indians went among us with as little fear as if they had already had dealings with us for many years.”  He seems proudest when he makes friends.  The “battles” (not battles in a traditional sense) and violence that occur happen when things break down, or in response to a tough situation initiated (in Cortes’ view) by the misunderstanding of the natives.
  • Cortes clearly admires the natives.  A modern westerner expecting to find a racially motivated imperialist will be disappointed.  He describes the sacrifices and violence surrounding Aztec religion in a lengthy passage:

And always on the day before some important enterprise they burn incense in their temples, and sometimes even sacrifice their own persons, some cutting out their tongues, others their ears, still others slicing their bodies with knives in order to offer to their idols the blood which flows from their wounds; sometimes sprinkling the whole of the temple with blood and throwing it up in the air, and many other fashions of sacrifice they use . . .

One very horrible and abominable custom they have which we have seen in no other part, and that is that whenever they wish to beg anything of their idols, in order that their petition may find more acceptance, they take large numbers of boys and girls and even of grown men and women and tear out their heart and bowels while still alive, burning them in the presence of those idols . . .  Some of us have actually seen this done and they say it is the most terrible and frightful thing that they have ever seen.  . . . Your majesties can therefore be certain that there can be no year in which they have not sacrificed some three to four thousand souls.

As to what the Spanish should do in light of this, I leave the reader to decide.  Cortes continues,

Your majesties may therefore perceive whether it is their duty to prevent such loss and evil, and certainly it will be pleasing to God if by means of, and under the protection of your royal majesties, these people are introduced to and instructed in the Holy Catholic Faith . . .

And yet, after describing the most horrible aspect of Aztec society, Cortes concludes the section by writing,

For it is certain that if they should ever serve God with that same faith, fervor, and diligence [as their idols] they would work many miracles.   We believe that by the aid of interpreters who should plainly declare to them the truths of the Holy Faith and the error in which they are, many, perhaps all of them, would quickly depart from their evil ways and come to true knowledge, for they live more equably and reasonably than any other of the tribes which we have hitherto come across.

Cortes also hates the fact that some of the Spanish use the Indians as currency in slaves.  This, he argues, earns the “notorious” Diego Velazquez followers, and Cortes urges the king to remove him from any position of authority at once.

Spanish commentary on the Aztec king Montezuma strike a poignant note.  Multiple sources all converge on the idea of admiration for the man.  Here is Diaz de Casillo writing,

The Great Montezuma was about forty years old, of good height, well proportioned, spare and slight, and not very dark, though of the usual Indian complexion. He did not wear his hair long but just over his ears, and he had a short black beard, well-shaped and thin. His face was rather long and cheerful, he had fine eyes, and in his appearance and manner could express geniality or, when necessary, a serious composure. He was very neat and clean, and took a bath every afternoon. He had many women as his mistresses, the daughters of chieftains, but two legitimate wives who were Caciques in their own right, and only some of his servants knew of it. He was quite free from sodomy. The clothes he wore one day he did not wear again till three or four days later. He had a guard of two hundred chieftains lodged in rooms beside his own, only some of whom were permitted to speak to him.”

When Moctezuma was allegedly killed by being stoned to death by his own people Cortés and all of us captains and soldiers wept for him, and there was no one among us that knew him and had dealings with him who did not mourn him as if he were our father, which was not surprising, since he was so good. It was stated that he had reigned for seventeen years, and was the best king they ever had in Mexico, and that he had personally triumphed in three wars against countries he had subjugated. I have spoken of the sorrow we all felt when we saw that Montezuma was dead. We even blamed the Mercederian friar for not having persuaded him to become a Christian.

Of course Cortes used violence at times directly and on purpose, however much he wanted to avoid it. In one such instance, we have both Aztec and Spanish sources for the same event.  Regarding a terrible massacre, the Aztecs write,

Here it is told how the Spaniards killed, they murdered the Mexicans who were celebrating the Fiesta of Huitzilopochtli in the place they called The Patio of the Gods

At this time, when everyone was enjoying the celebration, when everyone was already dancing, when everyone was already singing, when song was linked to song and the songs roared like waves, in that precise moment the Spaniards determined to kill people. They came into the patio, armed for battle.
They came to close the exits, the steps, the entrances [to the patio]: The Gate of the Eagle in the smallest palace, The Gate of the Canestalk and the Gate of the Snake of Mirrors. And when they had closed them, no one could get out anywhere.
Once they had done this, they entered the Sacred Patio to kill people. They came on foot, carrying swords and wooden and metal shields. Immediately, they surrounded those who danced, then rushed to the place where the drums were played. They attacked the man who was drumming and cut off both his arms. Then they cut off his head [with such a force] that it flew off, falling far away.
At that moment, they then attacked all the people, stabbing them, spearing them, wounding them with their swords. They struck some from behind, who fell instantly to the ground with their entrails hanging out [of their bodies]. They cut off the heads of some and smashed the heads of others into little pieces.
They struck others in the shoulders and tore their arms from their bodies. They struck some in the thighs and some in the calves. They slashed others in the abdomen and their entrails fell to the earth. There were some who even ran in vain, but their bowels spilled as they ran; they seemed to get their feet entangled with their own entrails. Eager to flee, they found nowhere to go.
Some tried to escape, but the Spaniards murdered them at the gates while they laughed. Others climbed the walls, but they could not save themselves. Others entered the communal house, where they were safe for a while. Others lay down among the victims and pretended to be dead. But if they stood up again they [the Spaniards] would see them and kill them.
The blood of the warriors ran like water as they ran, forming pools, which widened, as the smell of blood and entrails fouled the air.
And the Spaniards walked everywhere, searching the communal houses to kill those who were hiding. They ran everywhere, they searched every place.
When [people] outside [the Sacred Patio learned of the massacre], shouting began, “Captains, Mexicas, come here quickly! Come here with all arms, spears, and shields! Our captains have been murdered! Our warriors have been slain! Oh Mexica captains, [our warriors] have been annihilated!”

Then a roar was heard, screams, people wailed, as they beat their palms against their lips. Quickly the captains assembled, as if planned in advance, and carried their spears and shields. Then the battle began. [The Mexicas] attacked them with arrows and even javelins, including small javelins used for hunting birds. They furiously hurled their javelins [at the Spaniards]. It was as if a layer of yellow canes spread over the Spaniards.

And the Spanish version of the same event:

Cortes wanted to entirely understand the cause of the Indians’ rebellion. He interrogated them [the Spaniards] altogether. Some said it was caused by the message sent by Narváez, others because the people wanted to toss the Spaniards out of Mexico [Tenochtitlan], which had been planned as soon as the ships had arrived, because while they were fighting they shouted “Get out!” at them. Others said it was to liberate Moctezuma, for they fought saying, “Free our god and King if you don’t want to die!” Still others said it was to steal the gold, silver, and jewels that the Spaniards had, because they heard the Indians say, “Here you shall leave the gold that you have taken!” Again, some said it was to keep the Tlaxcalans and other mortal enemies out of Mexico. Finally, many believed that taking their idols as gods, they had given themselves to the devil.

Any of these things would have been enough to cause the rebellion, not to mention all of them together. But the principal one was that a few days after Cortes left to confront Narváez, it became time for a festival the Mexicas wanted to celebrate in their traditional way. . . . They begged Pedro de Alvarado to give them his permission, so [the Spaniards] wouldn’t think that they planned to kill them. Alvarado consented provided that there were no sacrifices, no people killed, and no one had weapons.

More than 600 gentlemen and several lords gathered in the yard of the largest temple; some said there were more than a thousand there. They made a lot of noise with their drums, shells, bugles, and hendidos, which sounded like a loud whistle. Preparing their festival, they were naked, but covered with precious stones, pearls, necklaces, belts, bracelets, many jewels of gold, silver, and mother-of-pearl, wearing very rich feathers on their heads. They performed a dance called the mazeualiztli, which is called that because it is a holiday from work [symbolized by the word for farmer, macehaulli]. . . . They laid mats in the patio of the temple and played drums on them. They danced in circles, holding hands, to the music of the singers, to which they responded.

The songs were sacred, and not profane, and were sung to praise the god honored in the festival, to induce him to provide water and grain, health, and victory, or to thank him for healthy children and other things. And those who knew the language and these ceremonial rites said that when the people danced in the temples, they perform very different from those who danced the netoteliztli, in voice, movement of the body, head, arms, and feet, by which they manifested their concepts of good and evil. The Spaniards called this dance, an areito, a word they brought from the islands of Cuba and Santo Domingo.  While the Mexica gentlemen were dancing in the temple yard of Vitcilopuchtli [Huitzilopochtli], Pedro de Alvarado went there. Whether on [the basis of] his own opinion or in an agreement decided by everyone, I don’t know, but some say he had been warned that the Indian nobles of the city had assembled to plot the mutiny and the rebellion, which they later carried out; others, believe that [the Spaniards] went to watch them perform this famous and praised dance, and seeing how rich they were and wanting the gold the Indians were wearing, he [Alvarado] covered each of the entrances with ten or twelve Spaniards and went inside with more than fifty [Spaniards], and without remorse and lacking any Christian piety, they brutally stabbed and killed the Indians, and took what they were wearing.

I have no wish to downplay a terrible massacre.  For our purposes, however, a few things surprised me about the Spanish account.

  • We might expect ‘righteous’ conquistadors rejoicing in their deed –some accounts of the Crusaders massacring civilians in Jerusalem in 1099 sound this way.  Instead we them troubled and very much aware of the fact that they departed from their faith with their actions.
  • Confusion, not certainty, dominates the text.  They search for answers and have a hard time understanding what it is they face or why it happened in the first place.  Some historians/sources apparently indicate that the Spanish may have believed that they were about to do another human sacrifice, though the account above does not hint at this or use it as an excuse.

One can disagree with the reasons for the Spanish presence in the new world.  One can lament the results of the Spanish conquest and the subsequent treatment of the natives.  But I found my overall opinion about Cortes changed from reading his writings, though I still lack a great deal of familiarity with the events in general and other particular sources to come to definite conclusions.

But other historians presumably do not.  And this brings us back to my question earlier about comparing Alexander and Cortes.  Some historians fall over themselves fawning about Alexander, and no one treats Cortes this way, despite their similarities.

Alexander had a few points in his favor . . .

  • The fact that he was king and thus the focal point of all narratives about him.  Cortes reported to the emperor, there were other conquistadors, Montezuma is a striking figure, etc.
  • Alexander destroyed the Persians in classic and dramatic pitched battles, the events of which featured himself.  The Aztecs died partly as a result of cunning diplomacy, Montezuma’s attitude, some skirmishes, etc.  Lacking a Battle of Issus or Gaugemela, we have a hard time latching onto Cortes to fully appreciate his skills (you don’t have to approve of Cortes to admire certain aspects of him).
  • Alexander operated within a “heroic” culture where for the most part, great deeds needed no particular justification. Even modern treatments of Alexander pick up on this, consciously or no.  I can’t recall any in depth discussion from ancient writers, for example, about Alexander’s motives, or the justice of his cause.  They simply don’t matter.  Cortes operated within a much different (and certainly superior) moral framework that calls much of the Spanish enterprise into question.
  • Of course we cannot discount the fact that, however well intentioned Cortes may have been, those that followed often exploited the natives for wealth and personal gain.  We should not directly blame Cortes for this, but his association with it taints him inevitably, and perhaps with some justice.

Of course unlike Alexander, Cortes never killed those close to him out of paranoia or political expediency (i.e. as Alexander did with Parmenio and Cleisthenes), nor did he murder his friends in fits of drunken rage (Cleitus).  But these acts usually get overlooked amidst the grandeur of Gaugemela.

Whatever we may think of Cortes, sifting through accumulated historiography about him is a tricky business, especially in light of his own words.


Wise as Serpents

Sometimes the meaning of Jesus’ words, and their application, seem entirely obvious once you read them.

Sometimes He confounded His audiences both then and now.  He did not always seek to give answers.  It seems to me that sometimes He wants to draw us deeper into a Mystery.

His command to be “wise as serpents, and innocent as doves” (Mt. 10:16) has always perplexed me.  Do we have to be one or the other, or can we be both wise and innocent at the same time?  The command to be “innocent as doves” seems easy to understand, but of course hard to achieve.  The first part apparently asks us to mimic the cleverness of the Devil, which might seem easier to our fallen selves but surely more dangerous.  And how to apply this first admonition?  I have no idea.

I thought about this saying of Jesus during one particular section of Kyriacos Markides The Mountain of Silence, a series of interviews with one particular monk from the monastery on Mount Athos.  I strongly recommend the work, not because of the author but because for most of the book he simply allows his subjects to speak at length.  Early on in the book the author tells of two events in the life of the monastery.

In W.W. II the Nazi’s began to overrun Greece and the monks on Mount Athos wondered what they might do.  The monastery is located at the very edge of one of the Chalcedonian peninsulas and remains somewhat isolated territorially.  As a pre-emptive strike of sorts, they decided to ask Hitler to put the monastery under his personal protection.  They correctly deduced that Hitler would be flattered to do so, which might have spared the area damage from bombs, or at least allowed the monks to stay.  They then proceeded to use their privileged position to hide many Jewish women from the Nazi’s, the only time in their long history that they have allowed women within their walls.

Turkey invaded Greece in 1974, which again endangered both the physical structures of the monastery and its spiritual independence.  This time the monks made a special appeal to Leonid Brezhnev of the Soviet Union to have the monastery put under his personal protection.  Perhaps they hoped to hearken to Russia’s own special monastic tradition. Or perhaps they hoped to appeal to Russia’s rivalry with Turkey in the late 19th/early 20th century over the fate of the Balkan Orthodox Christians.

Both instances, and especially the appeal to Hitler, did not at first impression sit well with me.  But then I reconsidered.  In neither case did the monks side with their protectors.  They stood above the purely national aspects of the wars — but not the moral ones.  They had the foresight to use Hitler’s vanity for good.  In the second instance they may have exhibited real foresight in standing above the national aspects of that conflict.  Alas, based on what very little I have read, it appears that many Mediterranean churches use the events of the 1970’s as a rallying point for Greek nationalism and ignored deeper spiritual aspects.  The monks on Mount Athos avoided this.

Might we consider these actions as correct applications of the Jesus’ words cited above?  Perhaps.

One can springboard from thoughts about these incidents to speculations about the relationship between the church and state, something the church in the west may have to reconsider in light of recent events.  In western thought the classic exposition of the issue came from St. Augustine’s City of God where he outlined the nature and purpose of the “City of Man” and the “City of God” — in simplistic terms — the state and the church respectively.  Augustine seems to advocate cooperation between the two when it appears that interests genuinely align, even though they may seek to achieve the same ends for very different reasons.

This sounds entirely reasonable. It looks like something along the lines of what the monks of Athos did in the circumstances cited above. But I wonder about its applicability in modern democracies, a context Augustine did not envision.

A monarch or emperor has the sum total of political power in his hands.  He may share power with unofficial advisers or an an official council like a Senate.  But whether an absolute ruler or no, the power remains with him.  In these situations the Church can easily stand aside and say, “This is good king, we can work with him, ” or the opposite as the case may be. Whether they cooperate or no, they stand outside the power structure and can detach themselves (in theory) from it with ease.

But in democracies power coheres with the amorphous “majority.”  Cooperation in the sense Augustine entails with a democracy would likely mean the need to become part of the power structure itself. Standing outside said structure effectively puts you within the minority.  Influencing government would then involve not cooperation with the City of Man but joining the City of Man.  Of course in a monarchy all are equal because everyone is in the minority.

We shall need great wisdom to navigate this dilemma in the coming years.

Structure vs. Sound

I always enjoy musicians who can talk intelligently about their music.  Glenn Gould combined his brilliant technique with a brilliant mind, and thankfully, availed himself of many opportunities to speak.

The video appeals to me on a number of levels.  For starters musician and filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon almost parodies the speech and approach of a rather stuffy French intellectual (though I would never assert that’s what he actually was). What really intrigued me, however, was their discussion of whether or not one can truly play Bach on a piano instead of a harpsichord, which leads then to other digressions.

Gould breaks down composers into two types:

  • The first seek to create the “ultimate” piece that can only be played in very specific ways, in very specific settings.  Such composers, he argues, concern themselves primarily with the reception of the music rather than the music itself.
  • The second (whom he clearly prefers) concern themselves with the structural integrity of the music itself.  Gould always admired Bach for his “vertical and horizontal” integrity.  That is (I think) the piece went somewhere definite (vertical), but never at the expense of the relationship of the notes to each other (horizontal).

Certainly Bach has been a much more enduring composer than either in the first group Gould mentions.  Who can think of Paganini without the violin, or Liszt without some long-haired guy playing the piano?  But Bach shows up everywhere, with mandolins, saxophones, organs, and in different genres like jazz and even some heavy-metal.  His structural integrity allows then, for improvisation and modification.*  The fact of his endurance and applicability must give us hints as to how to operate in other areas of life.

Historian Arnold Toynbee talked about the traps that civilizations fall into that bring them down.  I appreciate that Toynbee often gave a spiritual focus to this topic, and focused on “idolization” of ephemeral techniques or institutions as one key problem.  In other words, at some point in the past a particular institution or method helped achieve some great good.  The solution to our present concerns then, means returning to some point in the past.  Toynbee comments,

We can see that this nemesis would bring on social breakdowns in two distinct ways.  On the one hand it would diminish the number of possible candidates for playing the creator’s role in the face of any possible challenge . . . On the other hand . . . these ex-creators, by virtue of their previous work, will now be in positions of power and influence. In these positions they will not be helping the society move forward any longer; they will be “resting on their oars.”

Classical education, it seems, can easily fall into the temptations of the first category of composers above.  We, perhaps unlike others, seek the “perfect” for all time in our educational content and methods.  This in turn can lead us to idolize the past, freeze it, and bring it forward to today.  But if we do this we forget that education involves primarily the transmission of certain experiences and beliefs from one generation to the next.  For it to transfer, it must have life, which means it must have some degree of wiggle-room and applicability in different contexts.  Athens’ own history is an example.  With their curiosity and passion for eternal things they might have created the idea of classical education.  But eventually they became a parody of themselves.  “For the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or hear some new thing” (Acts 17:21).

But then one might counter — isn’t that what public schools essentially do?  They have a curriculum that is essentially interchangeable and standardized.  This curriculum, based on the standardized test, can then be easily transferred from one teacher to another.  In many classical schools, curriculum seems much more teacher-centric and would not transfer nearly as easily.

However, such approaches to curricula are essentially gnostic.  They have no incarnation.  Without a definite incarnation of an idea or method in the person of a particular teacher, there can be no power, no application, no life.  The Spirit could not descend until after the Son had come.

Perhaps we can conclude by saying that if one ever writes curriculum, pay extra attention to its structure instead of its sound.  When we play Bach, let Bach be Bach.  But be sure to put something of yourself into your own performance. I have never understood objections to those who say, “But Bach wouldn’t have played it that way.”  We do not go to concerts to hear Bach play, after all.**


*I remember reading one musician who said something like, “If Bach was alive today he would be a jazz musician.”  For those interested I include here part of an interview with the famous jazz pianist Keith Jarrett conducted by fellow piano player Ethan Iverson, on the subject of Bach.

EI:  Do you play the piano every day?

KJ:  Now I do, yeah. There was a long time in my life (when I was ill) when I didn’t practice really at all regularly, but now, yes, I do. It really depends on what I am working towards or away from or both. Sometimes I have to slowly erase one thing and move towards another.

I was just working on Bach over the last few months, and now I have to shelve that and pretend that I know how to do a solo concert, and while I’m pretending that, that’s practicing. But! I thought I was going to shelve the Bach, but now I’m playing the Bach, and for the last twenty-five minutes I do the other thing and it works very well. Because by the time I do the finger-work that Bach requires, and the control thing, my fingers are ready to be completely out-of-control and in-control at the same time. I didn’t realize that it was helping me improvise until Gary Peacock looked at me between sets and said, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”

EI:  So, at one point, going between jazz and classical felt like more of an embouchure change than it does now? Is it beginning to even out?

KJ:  It really depends. When I was getting ready to record Mozart I couldn’t have mixed both. And in general, that’s the case. I generally don’t mix things. But I’ve seen how it seems to work this time, and I’m just taking advantage of it. Probably I’m in better shape than I was before, due to some of the patterns Bach forces upon you. The jazz player doesn’t ever play these patterns: they don’t come up; certainly not in the left hand. And working on the fingering puts you in a hypnotic state, playing the same phrase down one half step at a time or down a scale, and you’re doing the same fingering but it isn’t the same fingering, depending on how many black keys are involved. And Bach has this crazy ability to change key in the middle of a scale. So you’ve changed harmonic center in the process of playing what you thought was a simple scale so you can’t take your eyes off the music. And even with the bass line, if you stop looking you think you know what it is, but he always thought it out so well that it’s not always not predictable, but his note is always better than yours.

EI:  Do you work out your fingerings early on, or keep experimenting?

KJ:  I’ve had all kinds of experiences. With the Shostakovich, I just played it and played it and played it. When I realized I was going to record it, I had to say to myself, wait: I’ve got to find an edited version of this with fingerings! Because what I normally do is find different fingerings every time I play, probably. I just improvise that part of it. It works sometimes, but it doesn’t work in the studio, when you don’t want to do a second take. So I went through three different editions of the Shostakovich and ended up with absolutely no fingering: theUrtext, with no fingerings at all, and that’s always what I prefer in the end. With the Bach, I’ve been able to stick with that. I don’t even like making a mark on the page…

**If you listen to Glenn Gould recordings of Bach you will usually hear him humming faintly in the background.  Some object to this, but I like it.  It reminds me that the music I’m hearing doesn’t come to me disembodied, but from a real person in love with the music he plays.  Thus, Gould recordings can nearly achieve the immediacy of a live performance.