Alexander Nevsky and Humphrey Bogart

Whenever I teach about ancient Egypt that civilization always impresses me with its “weight.”  I mean that the Egyptians expressed an utter confidence in the meaning and purpose of their civilization.  We see evidence for this in a variety of places, but I draw attention to the “Tale of Sinuhe,” one of the more beloved early Egyptian folktales.  The story recounts some impressive adventures of Sinuhe abroad, but the climax of the story is not found there.  Sinuhe triumphs when he returns home, when he receives the favor of the king, and (strange to our ears, no doubt) when the king grants him a lavish tomb.  The story concludes,

There was constructed for me a pyramid-tomb of stone in the midst of other pyramids.  The draftsmen designed it, the chief sculptors carved in it, and the royal overseers made it all their concern.  Its necessary materials were made from all precious things one desires in a tomb shaft.  Priests for death were given to me.  Gardens were made for me just as is done for the highest servants.  My likeness was overlaid with gold.  His majesty himself made it.  There is no other man for whom the like has been done.  So I was under the favor of the King’s presence until the day of death had come.

All Sinuhe ever needed was in front of him the whole time, a Hallmark card ending if there ever was one.

Of course the Exodus dramatically and deservedly shook this confidence,* and at times the “weight”and “presence” of Egypt would no doubt feel oppressive and claustrophobic  (as it does for me with the Great Pyramid of Giza), but, nevertheless, they had a marvelous run.

Recently reading a collection of tales from medieval Russia, I had a reaction not unlike the one I have with Egypt.  Russia is different than America — obviously.  But how so?  A quick look at literary luminaries reveals much.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn undoubtedly deserves its high praise, but then one reads The Brothers Karamazov (roughly contemporary works) and discovers something entirely different.  Twain bounces here and there and constructs a fanciful lark (for the most part) out of the idea of rebellion against society.  Though he is thoroughly American, there remains something of the delightful English politeness about him, making his points in circuitous fashion.  Dostoevsky writes from a much more solid, earthy foundation.  The “earthiness” of his foundation gives it all the more spiritual impact.  He writes not of ideas at all — except to criticize them and the very concept of “ideas.”  Instead he comes from a place of absolute confidence in a particular reality.  In his stories the rebels are the bad guys, who try and introduce discontent into the Russian soul.

Just as we have no particular historical roots as a nation, so our folktales take on a whimsical character and have no particular roots in history (i.e., Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, etc.).  Even when Twain makes his best points, they take the form of jokes.  Dostoevsky . . . not so much.**  So Russian folktales usually seem to have much more direct historical roots and could rarely be described as “whimsical.”

In the tale told of about the Polish king Stephen Bathory’s siege of the Russian town of Pskov (ca. late 16th century) we see all of these characteristics.  It speaks of “Holy Russia” without a trace of irony.  When the “pagan” king’s army advances past some of the outer defenses, the story turns:

. . . in the Cathedral of the Life-Giving Trinity the clergy incessantly prayed with tears and moaning for deliverance. . . . [they] began to weep with loud voices, extending their arms to the most holy icon.  The noble ladies fell to the ground and beat their breasts and prayed to God and the most Pure Virgin; they fell on the floor, beating the ground with their heads.  All over town women and children who remained home fervently cried and prayed before holy icons, asking for the help of all saints and begging God for the forgiveness of their sins . . .

After an extended poem on the power of God the tide turns, and the people rally.  But they need to stem a breach in the defensive wall.

. . . [the Russian commanders] ordered that the icons be brought to the breach made by the Poles.  Once the holy icon of the Holy Virgin of Vladimir had protected Moscow at the time of Tamerlane.  Now another was brought because of Stephen Bathory . . . and this time the miracle happened in the glorious city of Pskov,  . . . for divine protection invisibly appeared over the breach in the wall.   . . .  All the commanders, warriors, and monks cried out in unison, “O friends, let us die this day at the hands of the Lithuanians for the sake of Christ’s faith and for our Orthodox tsar, Ivan of all the Russias!

In his marvelous, Everyday Saints, Archimandrite Tikhon of the Pskov Caves Monastery related a story about a particular bishop caught in an unfortunate position amidst a large crowd.  Uncertainty reigned in Moscow in a public square during the collapse of communism in the early 1990’s.  Some soldiers came over to shield the bishop from the crowd and began to take him into their vehicles for protection.  Many in the crowd, however, thought the soldiers were imprisoning the bishop.  The Archimandrite relates that several people rushed out towards the bishop, saying, “It is happening again [i.e., the Communists imprisoning church officials]!  This shall not be!  Come brothers, let us help this good priest.  Let us die for him!”  Soldiers dissuaded them from hurling themselves on their bayonets only by careful explanation of their purpose.

A particular sense of reality is evident, and an absolute confidence.

Our heroes play different roles.  Even the golden age of Hollywood, when America supposedly bursted with confidence, gave us heroes like Humphrey Bogart — a man “in the know,” and somewhat detached.  We love the reluctant hero.^  Russians remember instead princes like Alexander Nevsky, who when attacked by the Swedes, supposedly went immediately to church, where

remembering the song from the Psalter, he said: “O Lord, judge those who offended me.  Smite those who set themselves against me, and come to my aid with arms and shields.”

Before his death, Alexander took the most strict of monastic vows, the “schema.”

Alexander’s reaction today could only be mocked by the west, just as Putin’s physicality — be it swimming in icy lakes or wrestling tigers, or whatever — becomes late-night fodder.  But Putin, consciously or not, sincerely or not, very likely taps into something deep within the Russian soul and Russian history — the fearless leader of absolute confidence with not a trace of detached irony.^^

Those who do not like President Obama sometimes don’t see that his appeal has little to do with his policies.  Rather, he embodies a certain idea of American hip culture.  He tells deprecating jokes with wry humor, a wink, and a nod.  He appears on Marc Maron’s podcast and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld. So too we in the west, I think, fail to understand Putin’s popularity.  Perhaps he channels Alexander Nevsky, not Humphrey Bogart.^^^



*I favor a late Exodus date, and so see Ramses II as the beginning of the end, and not an “Indian Summer” after the decline had already begun in earnest.

**Of course Dostoevsky can sometimes be very funny.  I laughed aloud at various points in The Brothers Karamazov, and The Gambler. But Twain was known as a humorist, and while the idea of Dostoevsky as a one man show is funny, the show itself . . . would not be.

^Might Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt of the Mission Impossible movies serve as an exception?  He has none of the smirks of a James Bond.  Hunt “believes” — believes in what?  Who knows?  Who cares?   We don’t watch the movies out of love for the Ethan Hunt character, but for the stunts, scenario’s, etc.

^^The Archimandrite Tikhon has been involved with some controversy and mystery due to his “relationship” with Putin.  An excellent interview with him is here — recommended.  The interviewer represents a typical western perspective and the Archimandrite shows that he is not a modern-westerner.  We should realize that a) Putin may have a sincere religious faith, and b) St. Petersburg will not orient Russia in the way that Peter the Great or other westerners might wish.

^^^Russia has experienced a dramatic rise in religious affiliation since the communist collapse, but not a corresponding rise in regular church attendance, at least according to one Pew Research study.  I don’t mean to suggest that Putin faithfully believes and practices like Prince Alexander.  If left utterly detached from the Faith, Russia’s earthiness will become frighteningly barbaric. As many have noted — Russia is a land of great sinners and great saints.



Politics Make Strange Cities

I am republishing this based on a brief, but interesting article I read about Cairo, with info and links inserted below . . .


The ancient Persian Empire usually doesn’t get the credit it deserves.  I reflected on this as my son read the graphic novel 300.   I give the book credit for its entertainment value and reasonable historical accuracy.  But at one point the story declares that in fighting Persia, the Spartans fought to preserve freedom and the light of truth and reason.  This strikes me as an almost dangerous absurdity, considering that the Spartans enslaved a native population and practiced infanticide.  The Persians built their extensive empire largely on the back of tolerance (note the praise for Cyrus the Great in Isaiah), pioneered some legal improvements, and often paid even their lowliest workers.  One can root for the Greeks against the Persians, as I do, but not quite for the reasons given in 300.

The Persians also are interesting case study in the building of cities.  As a people they originated in the mountainous Iranian plateau, but as their empire spread, Persian natives found themselves far afield from their native climate.  How could they hold their rapidly expanding empire together?  I already mentioned the legal and philosophical approach, but they matched this by having three distinct capital cities scattered in different parts of their empire.

Only Ecbatana, their summer capital, had any proximity to their place of origin.  It made sense to make it their summer capital as it lay further north.  But they gave Susa prominence in the South by making it the final/first stop on their royal road, and they willingly went further south still to Persepolis for symbolic purposes.  Having three different capitals demonstrated the broad-minded, inclusive approach of the Persians.

The very flexibility that allowed them to grow so quickly, however, proved a double-edged sword.  Being Persian came to mean nothing more than having a better economy — in other words — very little about Persia touched the soul.  When Alexander invaded between 333-323 B.C., many willingly and easily switched allegiances to him.

I admire Persia’s feat of flexibility.  No capital city today could “move” to a new location every few months.  We have far too much bureaucracy to achieve that.  Also, they “walked the walk” as well as talked.  They said they were inclusive, and they demonstrated this “on the ground.”  But Persia’s story begs the question of whether or not one can invent history on the fly, whether one can “create out of nothing” a culture and a way of life.  I touched on my skepticism about invented cities in this post a few months ago, and the reasons for the failures of St. Petersburg to lead Russia are quite similar to Persia’s ultimate demise.

Cairo is about to attempt an experiment not unlike Persia.  With their population growth outpacing their population, they plan to build a massive “New Cairo” directly adjacent to the old city to serve as Egypt’s capital.

Ordinarily I might think this a fool’s errand, but Egypt has gone through several distinct historical phases and may not quite have a distinct identity in the modern era.  Maybe, just maybe, this could work (read more here).

America has some similarities to Persia, especially lately with our emphasis on tolerance.  Again, there are many worse things to be known for, and besides, I think being “American” involves more of an inner identity than Persia ever had.  But, we, like Persia, invented our capital city, and we might inquire how that has worked out.

Like Persia, we picked the location of our capital for purely political reasons.  Tradition and geographical position probably pointed to Philadelphia as the best choice.  But, despite a lack of clarity on exactly how we ended up making the decision, it appears that we decided on Virginia both to help them ratify the Constitution and perhaps to honor Washington, Madison, Jefferson, etc.  To build the buildings we had to clear a swamp and import people into it the city from outside.  The transience of the D.C. area has to do with military and government turnover, but has its roots in the fact that most everyone in the region originally got imported. Their homes lay elsewhere.

Thus, D.C. never had a history of its own. It had to be invented, and history has to “happen”–it can’t be invented.  So while New Orleans has Bourbon Street, Memphis has Beale Street, New York has Harlem, D.C. has K Street, where lobbyists and bureaucrats cut a rug.  Not exactly the stuff of legend.

As Toynbee pointed out in Cities on the Move, no city worthy of the name can sustain itself.  It has to import the necessities of life, but evens out the balance sheet in other ways.  All capital cities, for example, export law and national directives.  But one also hopes that they might export some sense of cultural identity, some sense of “soul” for the nation (with the caveat that it need not dominate, but only add flavor).  D.C. will never be able to do this, and we should not expect it.   The town got created out of nothing purely for the function of exporting administration, and a leopard can’t change its spots.

It is a shame that all D.C. can export is bureaucracy, but our invention of the capital does testify to our inherent flexibility as a nation.  Our lack of attachment to History itself has given us the ability to adapt quickly to challenges and allowed individuals in every generation to make of themselves what they will.  The question for the future remains whether or not the lack of cohesive cultural and historical identity will ultimately hurt us as it hurt the Persian Empire 2500 years ago.

12th Grade: Constitutions for Dummies, by Dummies


Several weeks ago the Government class discussed the basics of Plato and Aristotle’s philosophy.  One goal I had in this was for students to understand . . .

  • How fundamental ideas about the nature of reality, and the nature of God, help form one’s ideas about government.
  • How one’s view of the nature of humanity (is mankind a body & soul? What is the relationship between our body and soul?) impact how one governs.
  • What relationship should context & history have in a given situation?

I shared an example from my own life that illustrates some of these issues.  Many years ago I lived in a townhouse community run by an HOA.  The development placed about 5 trashcans every 1/4 mile or so.  When people walked their dogs (and we had a high population density of dogs) we commonly deposited the refuse in the trashcans.  But during warmer weather, more people walked their dogs, and the additional heat made the trashcans, well, stink.  This was unfortunate.  Was it a “problem?”

The HOA came up with a rule: No more deposited dog waste in trashcans.  This, they hoped, would solve the problem.

One can view their solution in two basic ways, from a Platonist and Aristotelian perspectives.

The Platonist would argue. . .

  •  The law is a good one because it seeks to better the condition of all.  The neighborhood would become a nicer neighborhood.
  • The people would be encouraged to accept more direct personal responsibility for their pets — taking the refuse to their own trashcans would help them be more responsible overall.

The Aristotelian might respond. . .

  • The law is foolish because people will likely not obey it.  They will either continue to deposit the refuse in the trashcans, or worse, simply not pick it up at all.
  • The law cannot be enforced.  The HOA has no mechanism to police the area.  Thus, people’s disobedience will only encourage a more hostile attitude towards the HOA than they may already have.  In other words, a good law can only be called “good” if people actually obey it, no matter how good in theory the law might be.

I hope students enjoyed this unit.  I then wanted to have the students see how some of these ideas applied in the making of our own government.  To that end we spent the last few days reading Madison’s diary of the constitutional convention debates. We see that different people had different perspectives, different notions of what “liberty” meant and how to achieve it.  They wrestled with the big ideas, referencing key political texts, but also worried how those ideas would apply in the current political climate.  Some of there more lengthy debates seem immediately relevant today, others quite arcane.The decisions they reached sometimes came from unanimity, but more often came through compromise and disagreement.  And despite their brilliance, they failed dreadfully in not foreseeing a popular presidency, and what this meant for the Vice-Presidency.

I had a few main goals with this particular unit:

  • I wanted students to see that political agreements required a great deal of compromise.  I don’t mean to use compromise as a word of praise or derision.  Some compromises achieve great things, others, like the compromises made on slavery, condemn the future to deal with an issue that has had time to fester.
  • I wanted students to consider whether or not the many compromises they made had roots in their agreement on fundamental principles, or whether America was built on band-aids to the deep divisions between Americans at that time (and now).  If they agreed on fundamental principles, what were they?  If they had no agreement on such principles, why not?
  • What did the Constitution do particularly well?  In what areas did it fail?
  • Many of the men at the original Constitutional convention had years of experience in law and government, and an education that rooted them to the classical world.  And yet at times the decisions made seemed based more on arbitrary circumstance than profound guiding principles.  Should this worry us, or is this the way of the world?  Or perhaps it’s a gift, a reminder that we are all in need of God, that none of us, however intelligent, will ever have all the answers or the stamina to decide them fairly?


Thanks again,



The American “Prestige”


In our senior Government class, we spend a good amount of time discussing the question, “What is America?” throughout the year.  The question is deceptively simple, and we have a difficult time answering it.  We discussed Book 1, Ch. 4 from The Prince recently in class, and it spurred some interesting discussion.

The text reads as follows . . .

Why The Kingdom Of Darius, Conquered By Alexander, Did Not Rebel Against The Successors Of Alexander At His Death

CONSIDERING the difficulties which men have had to hold a newly acquired state, some might wonder how, seeing that Alexander the Great became the master of Asia in a few years, and died whilst it was yet scarcely settled (whence it might appear reasonable that the whole empire would have rebelled), nevertheless his successors maintained themselves, and had to meet no other difficulty than that which arose among themselves from their own ambitions.

I answer that the principalities of which one has record are found to be governed in two different ways: either by a prince, with a body of servants, who assist him to govern the kingdom as ministers by his favour and permission; or by a prince and barons, who hold that dignity by antiquity of blood and not by the grace of the prince. Such barons have states and their own subjects, who recognize them as lords and hold them in natural affection. Those states that are governed by a prince and his servants hold their prince in more consideration, because in all the country there is no one who is recognized as superior to him, and if they yield obedience to another they do it as to a minister and official, and they do not bear him any particular affection.

The examples of these two governments in our time are the Turk and the King of France. The entire monarchy of the Turk is governed by one lord, the others are his servants; and, dividing his kingdom into sanjaks, he sends there different administrators, and shifts and changes them as he chooses. But the King of France is placed in the midst of an ancient body of lords, acknowledged by their own subjects, and beloved by them; they have their own prerogatives, nor can the king take these away except at his peril. Therefore, he who considers both of these states will recognize great difficulties in seizing the state of the Turk, but, once it is conquered, great ease in holding it. The causes of the difficulties in seizing the kingdom of the Turk are that the usurper cannot be called in by the princes of the kingdom, nor can he hope to be assisted in his designs by the revolt of those whom the lord has around him. This arises from the reasons given above; for his ministers, being all slaves and bondmen, can only be corrupted with great difficulty, and one can expect little advantage from them when they have been corrupted, as they cannot carry the people with them, for the reasons assigned. Hence, he who attacks the Turk must bear in mind that he will find him united, and he will have to rely more on his own strength than on the revolt of others; but, if once the Turk has been conquered, and routed in the field in such a way that he cannot replace his armies, there is nothing to fear but the family of the prince, and, this being exterminated, there remains no one to fear, the others having no credit with the people; and as the conqueror did not rely on them before his victory, so he ought not to fear them after it.

The contrary happens in kingdoms governed like that of France, because one can easily enter there by gaining over some baron of the kingdom, for one always finds malcontents and such as desire a change. Such men, for the reasons given, can open the way into the state and render the victory easy; but if you wish to hold it afterwards, you meet with infinite difficulties, both from those who have assisted you and from those you have crushed. Nor is it enough for you to have exterminated the family of the prince, because the lords that remain make themselves the heads of fresh movements against you, and as you are unable either to satisfy or exterminate them, that state is lost whenever time brings the opportunity.

Now if you will consider what was the nature of the government of Darius, you will find it similar to the kingdom of the Turk, and therefore it was only necessary for Alexander, first to overthrow him in the field, and then to take the country from him. After which victory, Darius being killed, the state remained secure to Alexander, for the above reasons. And if his successors had been united they would have enjoyed it securely and at their ease, for there were no tumults raised in the kingdom except those they provoked themselves.

But it is impossible to hold with such tranquillity states constituted like that of France. Hence arose those frequent rebellions against the Romans in Spain, France, and Greece, owing to the many principalities there were in these states, of which, as long as the memory of them endured, the Romans always held an insecure possession; but with the power and long continuance of the empire the memory of them passed away, and the Romans then became secure possessors. And when fighting afterwards amongst themselves, each one was able to attach to himself his own parts of the country, according to the authority he had assumed there; and the family of the former lord being exterminated, none other than the Romans were acknowledged.

When these things are remembered no one will marvel at the ease with which Alexander held the Empire of Asia, or at the difficulties which others have had to keep an acquisition, such as Pyrrhus and many more; this is not occasioned by the little or abundance of ability in the conqueror, but by the want of uniformity in the subject state.

Machiavelli’s distinction helps make sense of other historical events.  We can look, for example, at Napoleon and Hitler’s invasion of Russia/Soviet Union.  At first glance, Russia must have seemed akin to Persia in Napoleon’s eyes.  After all, Czar Alexander I certainly looked like most other autocrats in history.  But . . . for most of Russia’s existence it resembled France.  Tales in the old Russian folk-epics reveal a shaky relationship of the people to their ruler, but more importantly, old Russia had several distinct provinces/cities that competed for precedence and had their own history and identity.  Napoleon found Russia easy to enter but hard to hold.  The Nazi’s found the same true even 130 years later.  When force no longer sufficed to hold the Soviet Union together ca. 1989-91, the old identities resurfaced almost immediately.

“Never get involved in a land war in Asia,” also has some of the same logic behind it.  A country like China has the appearance of resembling Persia, just as Russia did.  But most of China’s history reveals competing provinces, dialects, and an uncertain relationship to the emperor until later in its existence.

So we asked the question, “Which kind of kingdom is America?”  Does it resemble France, or Persia?  One clue to this question is to look at Persia. In contrast to Russia, China, or France,  did not have a long, zig-zag run-up to the height of its power.  Their civilization had a jump-start, meteoric rise under Cyrus the Great, who immediately set a pattern of charismatic dominance over the whole of his empire.  In future generations the Persians took their cue it seemed almost entirely from future dynamic leaders like Darius.  Their reliance on this pattern shows even in the failed rebellion of Cyrus the Younger, who fit this mold of dynamic leader better than his brother Artaxerxes II.  The fact that he almost succeeded with no other claim to rule besides his personality says a lot about Persia.

Some students thought that America had a beginning akin to that of France or Russia.  We had different colonies in different parts of the Atlantic coast that developed entirely apart from each other.  These colonies came together only to fight against a common enemy, but essentially remained separate kingdoms until sometime after the Civil War — perhaps not even until into the Great Depression.

The majority thought otherwise.  True, the first colonies hardly interacted with one another, but they came to America with similar purposes from similar cultures.  At the core, they were about the same thing, which is why the French-Indian War could so easily unite them and start us thinking about the “people.”  When examining the history of China, Russia, or France one sees a host of regularly occurring rivalries, small conflicts, and so on.  But America we only see one big blowup  — the Civil War.  The Civil War showed that obviously, we differed on much.  But it was the kind of big blowup that occurs in families, when often unity exists. It was the exception that proved the rule.

I acknowledge much merit in the “France” argument, but in this case I sided with the majority.  Tocqueville noticed back in the 1830’s the tendency towards centralization in our democratic experiment, and the already growing power of the majority.  He wrote,

The very essence of democratic government consists in the absolute sovereignty of the majority; for there is nothing in democratic states that is capable of resisting it.

We have different political opinions, but in no political election is any fundamental question of identity at stake.  Many rejoice/lament the election of a particular president.  But whoever may win the election, the next day our lives remain unchanged.

In Book Five of his Poliitcs Aristotle speculates that democratic constitutions* remain most safest when threats to said constitution remain either far away or very close.  The first seems obvious.  When nothing threatens us we live at ease, and it’s easy to have peace with others.  A very near threat like an invasion would bind us together quickly.    This kind of threat might also be merely an obvious one, like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which immediately united a divided country in the war effort.

The in-between threats, however, pose a real challenge.  Since the danger is neither obvious or near, we can easily divide not just on how to respond but whether or not to respond.  We might think of the Vietnam War as an example of this, and sure enough, it brought on significant internal changes to our constitution.  The “War on Terror” fits into a similar mold. Should we intervene here or there?  Should we increase surveillance or not, what about privacy rights, and so on.  And, true to Aristotle’s form, we see increased political polarization with this “intermediate” threat.

But our class speculated on exactly what an “invader” — whatever form that might take — would find.  Once Cyrus the Younger died in the Battle of Cunaxa his cause died with him.  Once Darius III died, Alexander had essentially conquered Persia.  But at what would America’s enemies take aim?  Not the president, surely, for at any given time half the country will not like him.  Not the capital, either.  As the British discovered in 1813, burning D.C. did little to aid their war effort.  One could hypothetically detonate a strong EMP in the atmosphere to knock out our electrical system.  But that would take out any first or second world country and so that answer lacks enough specificity to the United States.  This “absolute sovereignty of the majority,” would be hard to pin down.  Where is it?  And how would one attack it?  Get too close, and the unity of the people to defend their “constitution” would quickly emerge.

The “prestige” in magic is the trick’s big reveal, and of course sometimes what is revealed is nothing at all.  This would happen perhaps to an invader, who might never find the rabbit inside the hat.  Rather, as Aristotle suggests, and the experience of Rome certainly plays out, democracies will be far more likely to erode themselves from within as opposed to without.



*By “constitution” he does not mean merely a written document, but our way of relating to one another in general.



11th Grade: World War I: Tension between Diplomacy and Military Action


This was a short week just getting back into the swing of things from what I hope was a restful and blessed break. This week we examined four crisis that led to the outbreak of war in 1914.  In American World War II has always gotten more attention, but in Europe “the War” is still World War I, and I think with good reason.  World War II can be seen as a continuation of the first World War, and it was the first World War which ushered ended one world and brought forth another.
The outbreak of such a devastating conflict gives us a couple key points of focus:
  • Tension between Diplomacy and the Military — Diplomats, by their nature and job description, like to keep their options open and maintain the greatest possible flexibility.  This allows for the greatest amount of possible outcomes, and in their view, a greater chance for peace.
  • The military of course, needs to be fully prepared to face the worse case scenario, which is war.  It is wrong to view the military as always wanting war.  But, it is not unusual for them to argue that, in the event of war, we must be ready.  So often, political leaders will begin military preparedness in the midst of negotiations.  This rush to prepare, to call up troops, amass weapons, etc. inevitably narrows the options of the diplomats negotiating for peace.  If they are not careful, events will take on a life all their own.  In times of crisis, the goals of the diplomat and the general can easily veer in separate directions.
  • One of the problems in the days leading up to World War I was that in the minds of many ‘Mobilization means war.’  Once the Russian military began it’s mobilization, for example, Germany felt it must mobilize, and other countries followed suit on down the line.  It could be argued that no one really wanted war (this is debatable), but how could war be avoided if every nation acted as if war was imminent?
  • The Problem of Interpretation — As is often said by BIblical scholars, no one disagrees on what the Bible says (except in rare cases), they disagree on what it means.  It boils down to interpretation.  In the same way, does a strong military buildup send the message that 1) We are getting ready to fight you and want to be strong enough to win, or 2) We are a peaceful nation that wants a large military to deter any future attack.  If we were weak, we would be vulnerable, and invite war.  Thus, it is in the interest of peace that we build up our military.

The buildup of the German navy, for example, brings these issues into sharper focus.  For the entirety of the 19th century, England put nearly all of its security eggs in their naval basket.  They maintained one of the smallest infantries in Europe.  When Germany united in 1871 they immediately had the largest and best infantry in Europe.   This in itself posed no threat to England.  But in the 1890’s Germany begins a significant naval buildup, and one can have two basic perspectives.

  • Germany is a nation like any other, and with a powerful industrialized economy will come the desire to have a powerful navy.  This is only natural.  Secondly, France and Russia have an alliance against them, and to prevent blockade and encirclement in the event of war, it is only fair, just, and reasonable that they have a well-equipped modern navy.  Germany’s navy is rooted in self-defense, not aggression.
  • By building a navy, Germany did the one thing guaranteed to provoke England and turn them against themselves.  Their naval buildup was not necessary, so it cannot be termed self-defense.  England is their biggest trading partner and so any worries they have concerning their trade England can cover.  The only reason for Germany to build a navy, therefore, must be that they want to change the status quo, which they can only do through aggressive action.  The German navy means that Germany poses a distinct threat.

Which is it?


Death by Abstraction

“A theology without practice is the theology of demons.”  So said St. Maximos the Confessor.  Abstractions have never held any weight within Christianity.  The devil believes, and it makes no difference.  The Incarnation explodes the possibility of the efficacy of “abstraction.”  God became a particular man at a particular time in a particular place.*

We see this theological truth spill out into other areas.  Beware, for example, of vague descriptions of “Human Rights.”  Without application in a particular context, such “rights” have no meaning.  Hence France’s “Declaration of the Rights of Man” declared in 1789 gave absolutely no protection to anyone during the Reign of Terror in 1793.  The Committee of Pubic Safety interpreted such rights as they pleased to do what they wished.  Beware the man with grand visions of glory who cares nothing for the actual human cost.  On such foundations were the great tyrannies of the 20th century built.

A great deal of debate exists as to the question, “What is America?”  Different answers have been given to this question, but we don’t often stop to question why we have so much debate about our identity.  I think the root of this problem lies in the commonly accepted idea (whether it is true or false) that America has its origin in certain ideas about liberty, freedom, and so on, not in any particular experience in history.  In a few other posts on this blog I muse on this question (see here and here if you have not wearied of me quite yet:).

Some historians argue that America took a decided turn with the victory of the North in the Civil War.  Proponents of this do not necessarily assert that the South was “good” and the North “bad,” though some may argue this.  Some in this school of thought, like Clark Carlton from Tennessee Tech, don’t even put the focus on the good of one side vs. the other, or on state’s rights and federal power, but rather on culture and the idea of what America actually is or should be.

Carlton argues that the two sides in the Civil War represented two different ideas about America.  The North, dominated by a New England ethos, believed that America had its roots in certain ideas that should have application everywhere for all men.  The South, rooted in a very different migratory pattern (discussed brilliantly by David Hackett Fischer in Albion’s Seed, by far the best book I’ve read on colonial America), saw America as a place to transplant a certain kind of Anglo-Celtic way of life.

I lack the wherewithal to discuss the merits of this theory, except to say that it has enough plausibility to deserve consideration.  For the moment let’s assume its core proposition and explore its possible merits.  For the theory to hold water, we would need to trace the development of abstract ideas throughout the history of New England and see its pernicious effects.**  Of course this means that we find that they did in believe such abstractions.

Recently I read the The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex by Owen Chase, written in 1821.  The book tells of the shocking attack and sinking of their ship by a sperm whale, the inspiration for 51-cWJypx5L._SX355_BO1,204,203,200_Melville’s Moby Dick.  Most American whaling crews hailed from the New England area, as did the Essex.  The account held my interest all the way through.  For our purposes here, I couldn’t help notice, however, how the author spoke about God.  I don’t believe he ever used the word “God,” referring instead to “Providence,” or “the benefits of the Creator,” or something like that.  Certainly they never made any reference to Jesus Himself.  Such language left me cold.  Whether or not the author and his crew believed in Christ I cannot say, but this impersonal and ultimately abstract language is certainly not a Christian way to speak about God.  It seems to exactly mirror the Transcendentalists like Emerson, who of course hailed from New England.^

As their journey in the lifeboats continued, their supplies of food obviously dwindled.  At first when crewmen died they buried them at sea decently.  But after several weeks they grew more desperate, and fell to eating parts of the deceased crew’s body before burial.  They did so even though they still had small amounts of bread left, so they had other options.  One of the lifeboats even eventually drew lots to see who would be shot, so his flesh could be consumed.  A man named Owen Coffin drew the short straw and apparently submitted to his fate willingly.

So all in all eight crewmen survived, but at what cost?  I do not judge them too harshly.  They endured severe trials and privations.  After several weeks I’m sure they had nothing left physically, mentally, and emotionally.  I have never endured anything remotely akin to their ordeal.  Yet in the writing of the account itself I expected some remorse, some second-guessing of their practices, especially given the time proximity of their rescue to their cannibalism.  In hindsight, such horrors probably were not even necessary for their strict survival.  But Mr. Chase has no such reflections.

I can’t help but wonder if their cold and distant manner of speaking about God might contribute to their cold, impersonal view of each others lives and bodies.  This surprised me because earlier in the book he wrote touching passages about the attachment of the crew to each other.  After the ship sunk the crew found themselves in three separate lifeboats.  Chase talks movingly of losing sight of their fellow ships at night and their frantic efforts to find each other lest they be separated.  But in the end, I suppose, their abstract notions of life won out.

But this crew did not invent such a way of speaking.  These abstractions must have had their roots somewhere.  We might start with the New England Puritans.  Initially, it seems that the Puritans were anything but abstract in their views.  They practiced a very particular way of life and belief.  But a second look tells otherwise.  I have no wish to “pile on” the Puritans, who get a lot of bad press, much of it undeserved.  I admire certain things about them.  But their strong Calvinism does lead one to a kind of abstraction regarding God.  God’s abstract “will” often asserts itself to the fore in Puritan theology, pushing more personal characteristics such as love, mercy, etc. to the periphery.  Their conception of the “will” of God swallowed up all individual personality.  So I think we can say that abstraction had its roots in the foundation of New England society.^^

The American Revolution had many of its roots in New England, and there again we can say that they had an attachment to abstractions.  They began by charging the British with violating their rights as British citizens in 1765, but ended by conceiving of Lady Liberty (a goddess?), and human rights that should apply to all men everywhere.

This abstract seed has grown many branches, some good and some bad.  The root issue seems to be the idea that once a certain group of people latch onto a particular incarnated meaning of “liberty,” they seek to apply to all everywhere.  So we have the New England abolitionists on the one hand, and LGBT rights on the other.  Both have very different seeming applications, but both might have the same root.+

In the end I’m not sure “abstraction” was a distinctly New England problem.  Carlton sees the Civil War as a turning point for American ideals of abstract liberty, and here I disagree.  Perhaps New England held to such “abstractions” more than others, but by 1800 at least these ideals had spread most everywhere.  Where I agree with him fully, however, is that latching onto abstract propositions to guide us has resulted in many theological and civil problems.

As we end the Christmas season, may the truth of the Incarnation lead us in a different direction.



*Hence the importance of the prologue of St. Luke’s gospel, the historical books of the Old Testament, and various other portions of Scripture.

**I don’t mean to leave aside the possible pernicious effects of Anglo-Celtic culture.  For his part I don’t believe Carlton means to glorify this culture.  Rather, he seems to assert that the culture was uniquely their culture, and thus they (and not anyone else) had ownership of its strengths and sins, slavery obviously among them.  Their moral life remains their responsibility and not those of other states/countries, or the Federal government.  Perhaps he might continue to argue that taking it out of their hands in a way absolved them of ownership and responsibility — creating a pernicious distance between themselves and their political and cultural lives.  Did this then lead to actually more mistreatment of blacks?  It seems hard to argue this, as slavery ended because of the Civil War.  But . . . perhaps this “distance” gave them more subconscious permission to continue subjugating blacks as an act of defiance?  This would be a pretty radical idea, one that we could not test and can therefore only speculate.  But it does seem a bit of a stretch to me.  Still, I am only speculating as to his argument.

^Such manner of speaking about God is not only confined to New England, however.  Washington, Jefferson, and other southerners spoke in a similar  way.  This may cast doubt on Carlton’s thesis.

^^We can find other examples, I think.  The Puritans did not really grow a local culture, but rather “imported” and imposed a large measure of it from the Old Testament — or at least their interpretation of it.  We might argue that Puritan culture was the byproduct of abstract theological ideas.

+On the issue of slavery Carlton argues that the New England abolitionists accomplished nothing in part because of their abstractions.  They had no roots in the culture they critiqued.  They merely espoused vague notions of liberty.  He wanted southern abolitionists (such societies did exist, at least in the upper South) to solve the issue — alas, they did not.  But neither, I suppose, did northern abolitionists.  They both failed alike to avert Civil War. As to why America could not solve this issue legislatively, as England did, I’m not sure.