A Culture of Victory, a Culture of Collapse

The evaluations of the historically minded often move like a pendulum.  I see this throughout my own life.  Initially, like everyone, I thought Napoleon a great genius.  But then you think again . . . after all, he lost.  And what about what happened in Egypt, to say nothing of Russia?  And what of all those armies he beat from 1799-1809–nothing more than decrepit, out-dated Enlightenment entities destined for the trash-heap anyway.

After a while, however, I thought again and gave credit where due.  Sure, his armies were the perfect foil for the Austrians and Prussians, but he helped create the French army that formed that perfect foil.  Like any great leader he imprinted himself all over his army.  And we say that the armies he faced were bound for trash-heap only with the benefit of hindsight.  Napoleon put them there, after all.

But . . . he lost.

Writing about The Civil War comes with similar pitfalls.  As the states began to come together in the Progressive Era (ca. 1880-1920) we looked for unity and healing from our past, and we lionized Lee as a romantically doomed warrior, who nevertheless, performed heroic feats.  Lee’s generalship for that era stood second to none.  Beginning in the 1960’s historians swung the narrative.  They focused on Lee’s irascible temper, his huge losses, his weak opponents, his strategic failures at Antietam, Gettysburg, and so on.

Joseph Glatthar’s excellent General Lee’s Army brings balance back to this narrative.  He studies the army of Northern Virginia in depth and concludes51tuzkutcjl that of course, Lee was a great commander.  He helped forge a great army with a great record in the field.  He deserves much of the credit he receives.

But . . . he lost, and we do well to remember this.

Glathaar shows us how the strengths and weaknesses of Lee and his army come from the same place by looking at culture, demographics, the life of the common solider, and those directly under Lee’s command.

We do have to take into account Lee’s frequent opponent, the Union’s Army of the Potomac.  From a pure match-up standpoint, it would have been interesting to have Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson oppose Grant, Sherman, and Thomas for the duration of the conflict.  As it happened Lee only faced Grant towards the end of the war, and then Grant had to work with the Army of the Potomac, where he inherited a completely different, and vastly inferior, operational and command culture than he worked with out west.

In  A Savage War, the authors point out that the Army of the Potomac inherited a disproportionate number of soldiers recently graduated from West Point.  A West Point education tended at that time to over-emphasize math, engineering, and organization (something that U.S. Grant lamented in his memoirs).  Such skills have their place, but should not have pride of place in officer training.  Those that drank from the firehose of this approach would inevitably give way to excessive caution. Meticulous organization takes a lot of time.  In addition, once you have built something so “pure” and pretty, one might not wish to do anything that might get it dirty. This helps explain why McClellan (tops in his class at West Point) could think himself a great general even though he couldn’t actually win a battle.  He was excellent in doing what his education, at least in the narrow sense, trained him to do.

The plodding, rigidly organized Army of the Potomac gave Lee and his men a perfect target given their particular strengths.

Glaathar points out that the men in Lee’s army fully believed in their cause and came with the strongest of motivations.  Ante-bellum southern society had the duel influences of the aristocratic planter and the Appalachian border-settlers.  Both of these cultures emphasized honor and courage.  Both of these cultures preached a vision of manliness that gave way to no one.  Letters home from top officers on down the ranks show a constant desire for combat and to prove themselves.

Lee both understood and embodied this himself.  Many other accounts of his generalship focus on his ability to psychologically assess his opposite number on the Union side and devise the proper approach accordingly.  Glaathar adds to this, showing how Lee knew how to use his men expertly.  They proved superlative in the counter-attack, and could march quickly and fight hard back-to-back.  We see this at Bull Run, in Jackson’s Shenandoah campaign, and at Chancellorsville, as at other times.

But both the aristocratic planter and border settler culture had its weaknesses, and these too had a significant impact on the war.


Appalachian border culture emphasized freedom of initiative and eschewed “systems” like tight and itchy collars.  Lack of formal structure gives one great freedom.  But an army of tens of thousands needs tight organization to act as a unit.  Without this organization, large scale offensives could never be undertaken.


Many in the south seceded because they did not want to be told what to do by anyone they did not like or respect.  They tended to run hot and cold alternatively.  Sure enough, Lee had a hard time enforcing discipline.  The army at time looted the Virginia countryside for supplies, stole from the bodies of dead Union soldiers,** and had a hard time maintaining equipment.  Many went AWOL unexpectedly not necessarily out of cowardice but because “they felt like it.”

Honor and Ego:

The aristocratic nature of the army came through in the upper echelon of the officers.  The bickered for position and rank.  At times they disobeyed directly if they felt insulted.   Some at times seemed to prefer maintaining their honor to winning a battle.

All of these weaknesses would make coordinated action over a large distance difficult.  Perhaps this is why Lee spread out his armies in his invasion of the north in 1863.  It gave each commander more independence. But . . . when the time came for coordinated action, invariably Lee’s forces could not pull it off.

Shelby Foote wrote that, “Gettysburg was the price the South paid for having Lee command their army.”  I’m guessing that he meant at least that no one is perfect.  But I surmise that he meant more.  The weaknesses of Lee’s army, and of much of southern culture, outed themselves at that battle.   To make their situation worse, the Confederacy fought their weaker opponent in ways that favored their slim strengths.  The good ground and interior lines of the Union forces at Gettysburg played right into the laps of their slower, plodding, yet more bull-headed nature.^

Lee’s 1863 invasion may have been a mistake, but he intuited correctly that the South could not win a long and protracted war.  He emphasized the Confederacy’s logistical shortcomings, but the army had cultural shortcomings as well.  Perhaps Lee had read and recalled Tocqueville’s commentary on aristocratic and democratic societies at war.  In Chapter 24 of his musings, Tocqueville comments that,

In aristocracies the military profession, being a privileged career, is held in honor even in time of peace. Men of great talents, great attainments, and great ambition embrace it; the army is in all respects on a level with the nation, and frequently above it.

We have seen, on the contrary, that among a democratic people the choicer minds of the nation are gradually drawn away from the military profession, to seek by other paths distinction, power, and especially wealth. After a long peace, and in democratic times the periods of peace are long, the army is always inferior to the country itself. In this state it is called into active service, and until war has altered it, there is danger for the country as well as for the army.

It may be remarked with surprise that in a democratic army after a long peace all the soldiers are mere boys, and all the superior officers in declining years, so that the former are wanting in experience, the latter in vigor. This is a leading cause of defeat, for the first condition of successful generalship is youth. I should not have ventured to say so if the greatest captain of modern times had not made the observation.

A long war produces upon a democratic army the same effects that a revolution produces upon a people; it breaks through regulations and allows extraordinary men to rise above the common level. Those officers whose bodies and minds have grown old in peace are removed or superannuated, or they die. In their stead a host of young men is pressing on, whose frames are already hardened, whose desires are extended and inflamed by active service. They are bent on advancement at all hazards, and perpetual advancement; they are followed by others with the same passions and desires, and after these are others, yet unlimited by aught but the size of the army. The principle of equality opens the door of ambition to all, and death provides chances for ambition. Death is constantly thinning the ranks, making vacancies, closing and opening the career of arms.

. . . An aristocratic nation that in a contest with a democratic people does not succeed in ruining the latter at the outset of the war always runs a great risk of being conquered by it.



*Interesting parallels exist between Lee and Napoleon’s armies.  Both faced stiff, rigidly organized opponents.  Both emphasized movement, speed, and capitalized on the energy and spirit of their men.  Both had great success early, but both also suffered significant setbacks as their respective wars dragged on.  Each faced manpower issues, but also, their opponents got better over time and neither Napoleon or Lee made the necessary adjustments based on the improvement in their opponents.

In fairness to the Army of the Potomac, the soldiers displayed extreme courage at Fredericksburg, and were stalwart in the defense at Gettysburg.

**Many southerners decry the actions of Sherman.  Glaathar demonstrates that Lee’s army did many of the same things, albeit on a smaller, less organized scale, as Sherman’s army.  And . . . they did this not just in Pennsylvania but in Virginia as well.

^Fredericksburg might serve as a good example of these qualities, with a negative outcome.


10th Grade: The Dutch Have Their 15 Minutes


This week we looked at the golden age of Dutch culture from around 1630-75, and how that related to the painting of Rembrandt.  I can think of three instances where a naval based culture defeats a large empire, and then subsequently experienced a ‘golden age.’

1. Athens defeats Persia ca. 480 BC, which leads to Periclean Athens (Aeschylus, Euripides, etc.)
2. England defeats Spain in 1588, which leads to Elizabethan England (Shakespeare, Philip Sydney, etc.)
3. The Dutch defeat Spain ca. 1600, which brings about the Dutch Republic (Rembrandt)

I don’t know if this is coincidence or not.  Can anyone think of other examples?  We discussed before what needs to happen to create a ‘golden age’ in a culture, but I don’t know if having a solid navy needs to be part of that. Might we suggest that navies give people a broader perspective of the world, which allows for broader minds to create culture?  Or, do navies lead to trade, which brings economic prosperity, which also seems to be an ingredient?   I am not sure.

The Dutch defeat of Spain had military and economic causes.  The Spanish had seemingly inexhaustible silver mines in the new world, but the Dutch had something new and more powerful: a stock market.  Initially all of us might take the silver mine over the stock market, but why did the stock market beat the silver mine?  We discussed this in class, with the caveat that I am not an economist:

  • A silver mine would make one feel rich, but what does one do with the wealth?  If everyone wins the lottery, no one in fact would win, because inflation would skyrocket as prices would inevitably rise.  Loads of silver are in the end a wasting asset.  In fact, prices rose some 400%  in Spain over a period of a century.
  • Besides this, how the money is used makes a difference.  If it is used in a consumptive way, no new wealth is created.  If you buy a series of fancy dinners, well and good, but the money is in your belly.  If money was invested or used to create, it could create ‘new’ money, like a perpetual motion machine.
  • Of course, having money create new wealth requires a society where innovation is possible, a society that allows for creativity and risk.  When studying the Spanish Armada we saw how Spain lagged behind other European nations by maintaining a traditional social structure.
  • Currency can be anything that has value.  If you buy $10 worth of stock, the certificate = $10.  But if the value of the company goes up, the value of what you own does as well.  That $10 certificate can become $30 over time. You just made $20 — new wealth appears almost by magic.  But this new wealth would ideally, at least, be tied toward actual production which would benefit society.  So, ideally again, the value is not simply ‘on paper’ but has some tie to reality.  Stock market bubbles burst when value becomes artificial, supported merely by belief or false delusion, and we discussed the first stock market boom/bust with the tulip craze.

The Dutch also invent the idea of the corporation.  Though today many view the corporation as  the epitome of entities estranged from “the people,”  their original invention had a lot to do with the broad Republic created by the Dutch.  The corporation not only allowed resources to be maximized and risks minimized, it allowed for the ordinary Joe to have a shot at wealth and status.  No longer would money be in the hands of the aristocracy, or those granted a royal monopoly.  It is a bit ironic to see what has happened to the image of corporations recently, but perhaps some of it is just.  Perhaps corporations have grown so large as to become essentially faceless and detached from a human and understandable context.  This, I think, is the root of some of modern unease some feel towards corporations today, but in the beginning the corporations was the ‘underdog,’ the People vs. the Established Powers.  Still, I long for the day when a corporation is not the bad guy in a recently released movie.

On a related note, we had a good discussion about the morality of stock markets, and whether or not it is just for someone from the market.  Should someone profit without work?  Or is investing in company a kind of ‘work’ that benefits society?  I’m happy to say that the students did very well with these heady concepts.

A few weeks ago we  looked at the  art of Rembrandt, the great Dutch master, and compared him to Carravaggio, contemporaries of each other.  The Reformation emphasis of the sanctity of the everyday, of humanity itself, shines through in Rembrandt’s work.  His portraits get inside people’s skin, bringing dignity and meaning to each individual.

Rembrandt painted many religious works, and his up and down life may have helped him not pull any punches with himself.  In this famous work, many believe that Rembrandt puts himself in the work (bottom right), associating himself with those that killed Christ.

Though Carravaggio was a Catholic, his emphasis on everyday people amidst the drama of salvation shows the influence of the Reformation (and perhaps a resurgence of the Medieval mindset against the Renaissance) as well.  He excelled in painting sinners.  In my favorite work of his, “The Calling of St. Matthew,” all of his genius gets poured to Matthew’s surprised, yet hopeful eyes.

Carravaggio’s possessed a wild and unruly streak, one that led to him killing a man in a duel in a dispute over a woman.  In perhaps his most dramatic work (and one of his last), he uses his own head as the model for Goliath.

How can one choose between two great masters?  Yet the differences in their work reveal differences in their personalities and their respective cultures, something I wanted the students to consider.


Dave Mathwin

11th Grade: The Civil War: Causes and Conclusion

For the coming test I want the students to think about the following question: ‘How did the causes of the war impact  how the war was fought, and how did these factors help lead to the ultimate victory of Union forces?’

The first thing they need to do is to discern what they believe to be the root cause of the war.  The three main options are:

1. Some say that slavery is the root cause of the war.  While slavery was not a direct issue in 1861, it influenced all the political controversies of the time, and all the previous political controversies, going back to the Declaration of Independence itself (where a section condemning slavery was removed from the original text).

2. Some say that the root cause of the war was growth of federal power that came to erode a proper constitutional balance between state and national government.  This theory sees the Confederacy not as radicals but as preservers of a truly American vision.

3. Both of the previous theories have good guys and bad guys (in the first, the South is the bad guy, in the second, the North), but there is another approach to the war that does not see good guys v. bad guys, what I will call ‘The Cultural Opposition Theory’ of the conflict’s origin (if nothing else, the name makes me sound smarter than I really am :).

This theory sees both sides drawing upon the founders vision.  We tend to think of the founders in 1787 having one coherent vision for the country, but this was not so.  The North latches on more to Alexander Hamilton’s idea of the U.S. having a strong national government with a manufacturing base.   The South adopts Jefferson’s vision of limited national power with an agricultural base.  Thus, both sides were right in a sense in claiming to be the inheritors of what it meant to be “American.”  These different ideas produce different societies that have different values, practices, and cultures.  These opposing cultures each have their merits, their strong and weak points.  But — they would inevitably come to blows at some point.  In this view the war doesn’t have a good guy or bad guy.  The conflict started because one of these visions had to win out in the end, though neither vision was “right” or “wrong” per se.

To the best of my knowledge these are the theories with the most prominence among historians.  There are a few others, such as those that historically see conflict inevitably associated with territorial expansion (in this case, the Civil War had its roots in the huge expansion after the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican-American War) or those that use economics as the key to explaining human behavior.  If students are not satisfied with any of the suggestions I offered, they are welcome to come up with their own.

After making a case for the war, students then need to link the cause with how the war was fought, and then link again the fighting to the eventual Union victory.  This means that they have to synthesize what they know from 1800-1865 and create a unified narrative.  This is a challenge, but I hope that students will enjoy that challenge and rise to the occasion.

As always, students are welcome to show me any rough draft or outline of their thoughts before the test.

Dave Mathwin

The Passions of Digenis Akritis

I honor Francis Schaeffer as one of the great Christian voices of the 20th century.  While I am not certain, I think he was one of the first to urge Christians to focus on the power of art to shape culture.  He also urged us to pay attention to environmental and stewardship concerns decades before such topics became mainstream.  As well as he commented on the modern age, I feel he badly misrepresented early Christian and medieval culture in his How Shall we Then Live? series.  In his view medieval culture indulged in too much spiritualization, too much “etherealizing,” and missed the stark reality of the Kingdom of God.  He acknowledged Dante’s genius, but then proceeds to essentially dismiss The Divine Comedy because of his idealization of Beatrice and her role as his guide to Heaven.  I fail to see how one can accuse an era that went on the Crusades, built cathedrals, and founded the first universities, of too much “spiritualization.”  As Schaeffer resided in the Reformed Protestant camp, perhaps he carried too much anti-Catholic baggage to see the medieval era straight.

And yet . . . when it comes to his essential critique of Dante, he has a partial point.  Before I continue, I should say that I regard The Divine Comedy, along with Shakespeare’s plays, as the greatest literary achievements of the western world in the last 1500 years.  I have no idea who could possibly challenge them.  But Dante had some of the faults as well as the great strengths of his culture.

The aristocratic tradition of courtly love came out of the positive development of the possibility of men pursuing women romantically and remaining “men,” as C.S. Lewis points out in his Allegory of Love.  But then it morphed into a kind of love that had no feet on the ground.  Romantic love without its proper end in marriage has all of the substance of leaves in the wind, a dance of disembodied heads.  Courtly love could descend into a kind of idealization of a mere passion, which could then become an idealization of lust itself.*

The Orthodox Byzantine epic poem Digenis Akritas** (translated, “The two-blood border lord”), for all its charm and energy, cannot match up to some other contemporary western epic poems such as The Song of Roland.  But its simplicity and clarity reveals a strength, a helpful corrective to the whole courtly love tradition.  To outsiders, Eastern Orthodox practice probably looks “mystical,” with its icons, incense, and so on.  Those with more experience know that Orthodox life and worship has a decided earthy practicality about it.

We see this in the story.  It begins en media res with the life of hero’s father, a prominent Moslem emir.  He raids a Christian town and captures one particularly beautiful Christian woman.  Utterly captivated, he eventually agrees to convert to Christianity and marry her, forsaking family, title, and everything for the sake of her love.  So far we might see parallels to The Divine Comedy, where Dante comes to God through love of Beatrice.  But again, the “earthiness” of Orthodoxy stands out, for in this story the man actually marries the woman.

Interestingly, while Digenis Akritas celebrates the marriage and the emir’s conversion, it warns that such ardent passion can lead also lead to “madness.”  It celebrates the results of the passion of the Emir, but not the passion itself.

In time our hero is born, and as a young man, like his father, he forms an unquenchable passion for  a young maiden.  They marry and live happily.  But . . . the poem’s earlier warning about the possible destructive possibilities in such a passion come to fruition with Digenes.  Twice he commits adultery.  The first time it happens he recounts his repentance bitterly.  The second time, he defeats an Amazon warrior, and then, carried on by his passions, one thing leads to another.  His wife accuses him of infidelity and he denies it.  But again, now possessed by anger and shame, he goes back to the Amazon woman and murders her.

Our hero and his wife die together in the faith, but his tale recognizes what medieval Christendom did not.  When controlled by our desires, if we end up doing the right thing it may be no more than mere luck.  Just as often, such desires lead us into destructive behaviors.  Malory’s version of the Arthurian legends perhaps hint at something similar by showing how Lancelot and Guinevere destroyed the fellowship of the Round Table.  But Digenes Akritas is much more direct.

We see this directness in Orthodox iconography.  From the outside I understand those who may feel that, whatever the merits of the artists, icons remain static and lifeless.  But viewed from within the tradition, one sees that icons often depict (though in different ways) victory over the passions.  This victory does not banish emotion, it gives us dominion over them.  Hence, the saints remain quiet, yet alert, like St. Anthony the Great (below) in any all circumstances They have freedom because they have been freed from the dominion of the passions.

The Life of Saint Anthony the Great

Though Digenis Akritis falls a bit short in overall literary merit with other epic poems, it possesses a directness and practicality its western counterparts often lack.


*As I mentioned, I don’t agree with Schaeffer’s main point.  But on the fringes . . . . ?  For example, the scholastic movement in the late Middle Ages over-rationalized theology.  Too much emphasis on reason, like courtly love, can put one in danger of living purely in a mental construct and risk falling into a kind of gnosticism.

**Many modern perspectives assume that  medieval Christians from the east and west had an implacable, ignorant hatred of Moslems.  And yet, our hero here is half Arab/Persian, half “Roman.”  In Malory’s Morte de Arthur, he includes admirable accounts of Sir Palomides, a Moslem knight.

11th Grade: Faces of Leadership

For our discussions this week, we looked at three different generals. . .

First we looked at Lee.  Though not a supporter of slavery or secession, he believed himself bound to defend his friends and his home of Virginia.  One might say that he did not fight for a ’cause,’ but for his friends.  Clearly he was a man of integrity and faith, an inspirational leader.  He also was able to size up opponents psychologically to a remarkable degree.  One sees in his eyes intelligence, melancholy, and a deep fire.

For the first 100 years or so after the war, scholarship on Lee remained entirely favorable to him.  For most, the South was doomed to defeat from the beginning.  Only Lee’s brilliant generalship staved off disaster, and in fact, even got them close to pulling off a “miracle” victory.

But recently many historians have taken a much different view of the South’s chances, and see the Civil War as one that they had every chance of winning.  This shift has led to a reevaluation of Lee himself.  If one believes that the South could have won by using a “bend, don’t break” approach, then we need to ask why Lee employed the strategy he did, and what its impact was.

Military historians have taken Lee to task for his offensives into MD and PA, both of which cost the South dearly.  Lee let himself be drawn into other broad ranging offensives actions, that even when successful (like Chancellorsville) came at great cost.   Some see more than just a tactical mistakes.  Some see Lee as a good general, but not a great one, a man bound by the honor dictates of the South’s culture.  Some see this sense of honor manifesting itself not only in his “need” to attack, but also in the vague deference he showed his subordinates.  Those who may be familiar with the Battle of Gettysburg know that for the first two days of the conflict, Lee did not have his top cavalry commander, Jeb Stuart, who spent time away from the army gathering supplies. But Lee bears some responsibility for this himself, as we can see if we look at the orders he gave Stuart as the army prepared to march into Pennslyvania.
Lee’s Orders to Stuart before Gettysburg
‘If you find that Hooker is moving northward, and that two brigades can guard the Blue Ridge and take care of your rear, you can move with the other three into MD and take position on Gen. Ewell’s right, place yourself in communication with him, guard his flank, keep him informed of enemy movements, and collect all supplies you can for the use of the army.’
General Longstreet took an opportunity to perhaps add some clarity to Lee’s intent of having his cavalry stick close by:
‘Lee speaks of your leaving Hopewell Gap and passing by the rear of the enemy.  If you can get through by that route, I think you will be less likely to indicate your plans than if you pass to our rear.  You had better not leave us therefore, unless you can take the proposed route in rear of the enemy.’
But the next day another set of orders arrived from Lee, which muddied the waters yet again. . .
‘You will be able to judge if you can pass around their army without hindrance, doing them all the damage you can.  In either case, after crossing the river [Lee presented two options to him of where to cross] you must move on and feel the right of Ewell’s corp’s collecting information and provisions.
Lee’s lack of clarity to Stuart about exactly what his job was may have been the reason for his absence at Gettysburg. But that’s not all.  Many lament that General Ewell did not seize the heights during the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg.  But Lee’s Orders to Ewell regarding the heights show the same ambiguity that he communicated to Stuart:
You are to take the heights, if practicable, but avoid any general engagement until the arrival of the others divisions of the army.
You may notice a certain deference in these orders.  Lee was a gentle man at heart.  But the ambiguity could be misinterpreted.  Was Stuart to get provisions,  or stay close to his flank? Longstreet,notice, speaks with more directness on what his priorities should be.  Should Ewell take the heights, or avoid a general engagement?  We enjoyed debating the merits of Lee’s offensives, with some students agreeing with recent critics of Lee, and others arguing that the South needed to try some kind of offensive to win, and they might as well have used Lee.

U.S. Grant had none of the dash or style of most important commanders, not even an impressive mustache like the Union’s Joshua Chamberlain.  He seemed every inch the average man from Ohio.  Rumors said he drank too much. Strategically, he displayed little creativity.  Yet he had a tenacity and single-mindedness that most other Union generals lacked.  As Lincoln said of him, ‘I can’t spare this man.  He fights.’

Grant stands in stark contrast to the elegance and pedigree of Lee, and in that way mirrors Lincoln.  Nothing about his bearing or manner spoke of anything to do with flash.  His tactics reflected his straightforward, methodical nature.  But to my mind there must have been something maddening about fighting Grant.  Never brilliant, he had tremendous consistency.  He kept moving, and demanded that you (his opponent) never slack.  He had an large reservoir of patience, and tended to see not what he lost in battles, but in what he gained.  His men believed in him.  Lee, for all his gifts, could not beat him.

While Grant is best known for wearing Lee down at the end of the war, many consider his most impressive campaign to be his taking of Vicksburg in July 1863.  As the map indicates, he had to travel far and wide, but in the end, simply would not let go of his objective.  The capture of Vicksburg ensured Union control of the Mississippi and allowed them to choke the life out of the Confederacy.

3. At one point during the war William T. Sherman was out of the army, depressed, and even contemplated suicide.  Volatile and somewhat unpredictable, he got another command and began to earn the trust of Grant. After taking Atlanta in September of 1864, he had the idea of taking his army and marching it to Savannah, away from supplies and communication, targeting wealthy southern properties for destruction.  Many thought the idea foolhardy, but Sherman thought otherwise:

  • His army was composed mostly of men from the midwest, which was at that time the ‘west.’  These were independent minded and self-sufficient troops.
  • He believed that just these independent minded men might be especially motivated to ransack the property of wealthy southerners.
  • He also believed that this would help drastically shorten the war.  For Sherman, it was not so much the supplies that the South would not have, but the psychological impact of the property destruction.  The South, he believed, went to war to defend their property.  If he proved they could not defend what was most dear to them, the Confederate cause would lose legitimacy and promote desertions in Confederate armies.  Slaves, too, would leave their masters and again, this would hasten the collapse of the Southern cause.

Many controversies surround Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea.’  Those in favor of him would probably argue the following:

  • Sherman’s actions did shorten the war and saved lives in the process.  His campaign was much less costly than any of Lee and Grant’s battles.  It is much better that property be burned than men killed.
  • Sherman’s army liberated directly or otherwise, thousands of slaves
  • Sherman was simply more far-sighted and innovative than other generals.  Don’t blame him for doing things no one else thought of.  If you are against his targeting farms, than you have to be against our destruction of civilian areas in World War II, which culminated in our atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Those against him might say:
  • Sherman started the idea of ‘total war,’ which would lead to so many horrors of 20th century warfare.
  • Sherman’s targeting of civilian property was simply wrong and violated the ‘rules of war.’
  • Many starved in the south in the aftermath of his attacks
  • If the ultimate goal of the North was reconciliation with the South, Sherman worked against this.  His humiliation of the South lingered in their minds for generations and produced a bitterness that in some areas has still not gone away.

If Lee’s picture shows his aristocratic roots, and if Grant’s belies a plain pugnacity, Sherman’s face shows us all of his brilliance, all of his craziness, and the fact that he just doesn’t care.  I wouldn’t want to face him.

The NFL vs. Toynbee’s Theory of Decline and Renewal

This post of many lives lives again

This time, I repost for two reasons:

The 3rd(?) intro from the original post is just below.


Shamelessly I repost this yet again, based in part on this article from Bill Barnwell.  At their latest meetings the NFL has yet again added more regulations about player behavior.  Thanks to the NFL’s passion for off-season rule changes dunking of the ball over the goalposts, that scourge of TD celebrations everywhere, will no longer threaten our beloved sport.

I speculated some time ago that the NFL was in danger of drifting from an “administrative” phase of business development to a “bureaucratic” one, from which return to sanity is difficult if not impossible, and  Mark Cuban seems to agree!  

So below is a brief intro from the first time I reposted.  Behold, the post that will not die . . .

Back then I wrote .  . .

I am reposting this as I’ve just read this article from the always insightful Tyler Cowen on the sometimes enjoyable Grantland site from Bill Simmons.

Regarding concussions. . . their recent increase in their acknowledged frequency has a lot to do with our increased knowledge of head trauma.  But football’s success helped create this problem.  The money and attention the sport gets increases the pay, which increases the time players can train, and so on.  Salary increases have likely been commensurate with increases in the speed and strength of the athletes.  Increased media coverage means more microscopes on more areas of the sport.  Thus, like many areas in life, success has solved problems and created others for the NFL.

And now, the original post (from 2012) . . .

The NFL dominates the sports landscape as well as TV ratings.  No other major sport can get close enough to smell them.  But I wonder about their long-term future, given some of the trends in place today.  I think that a historical perspective on the process of growth and decline shows that the NFL’s long-term prospects are bleak.

My fears about the NFL are not based on revenue sharing, but on their increasing push towards standardization, which leads to outmoded application of old ideas, which leads increasingly to irrelevance and vulnerability, which leads to decline.

In his career Arnold Toynbee uncovered what he believed were patterns that human civilizations followed.  He was not a determinist – nothing was inevitable – but people tend to act in similar ways when put in similar situations.  Civilizations grow when what he calls ‘Creative Minorities,’ who are not bound by current patterns and thus have the possibility of greater freedom of vision and action, have a chance to impact and shape existing institutions.

The problem is that more often than not, after this creative minority has success and obtains power they forget how they rose to prominence in the first place.  They tend to believe that it was a specific technique or solution that brought them where they are.  They forget that it was their elasticity that produced those solutions.  So – this ‘creative minority’ becomes a ‘dominant minority.’   They become arrogant, and this arrogance leads to increased standardization (“my way or the highway”).

Dominant minorities engage in pointless expansion just because they can, and they refuse to change with the times. marcus_aurelius The Roman Empire, for example, expanded into Britain, Egypt went into Syria under the Pharaohs, etc. all for no reason other than that they could and knew no other way.  This mentality gets the leaders it deserves.Take a look, for example at this image of the so called ‘great’  emperor Marcus Aurelius here, who evidences all the above characteristics.


The Confederate South fits this bill too, where our key creative minority founders (southerners mostly like Washington, Madison, P. Henry, Jefferson) turned into ‘Dominant Minority’ Jefferson Davis’s in a few generations.  They insisted on keeping slavery and tied their future almost exclusively to the possibility of territorial expansion out west.  When Lincoln threatened this, they rebelled, trapped in a mindset that believed the lie that ‘1 Southerner can beat 10 Yankees, etc.’  Anyway, this drive to expand, whether successful or not, overextends civilizations and is a factor in their demise.

Record companies were doing quite well, and then hit the master stroke of the cd.  This boosted their profits enormously, but they got foolish and greedy.  They standardized their industry, eliminating the sale of singles, forcing people to buy whole albums.  They established, on the whole, even greater control of the artists and how that product was distributed through conventional media.  The price of cd’s never declined like we thought it would – in fact prices rose.  With almost complete control over the process, they felt no need to lower prices.  Because we were stuck the money kept rolling in.  But when the internet came along they were stuck in outmoded thinking, and ended up attempting to fight a battle with all the sense of arrogant people living in the past, and music consumers have little sympathy with them as we watch them struggle in vain.

I fear the NFL is demonstrating some of the same tendencies, like standardization and expansion.  Everyone will wear only NFL gear (no Tom Landry  suits and hats, for example).  Everyone will adhere to outmoded black out rules – we’re the NFL, after all, and we rule the sports world.  We will certainly not adapt, as we may not even know how to anymore.  Starting with Fed-Ex field, stadiums are expanding to ridiculous sizes that will only serve to lead to more blackouts.  And expansion is not evidenced only in the stadiums, but also on how often football is televised.  Note how many more Thursday games there are today as opposed to a few years ago.

If we could track the decline we would have the bold, innovative Rozelle give way to the administrative Tagliabue, succeeded by the bureaucratic Goddell.

When a civilization reaches this point, it does not look good.  Decline usually happens, but it is also true that this encrusted situation begs for a ‘creative minority’ type to enter and shake things up.  Such movements and people can revive organizations.  In American history, Lincoln (from out west in Illinois, his political power based in the new and up and coming Chicago) and Teddy Roosevelt (from NYC but with his heart and mind out west) I think fit this bill.  Rome, for example, never got and never wanted such people, and so marched themselves over a cliff, and that is the normal pattern.  The NFL needs to embrace something like this soon before things go beyond the pale.  One of their problems, however, is that so much of what they have done will be tied up in stadiums.  Indeed, once an empire expands, retreat from ground gained is very difficult to negotiate, both psychologically and politically.  This, I think, will be the NFL’s albatross, and they will need some creative leadership to avoid shipwreck.  They don’t appear to be heading in this direction, as now the league looks like it will pick Super Bowl sites based on who has a new stadium.

12th Grade: The Presence of Law is Half the Problem


This week we wrapped up our discussion of Plato’s political philosophy, at least for the moment.  This week we spent some time with Plato’s dialog The Statesman.  Many take the position that Plato’s Republic represents his best-case, unrealistic dream-world, and his subsequent dialogs (such as The Statesman) represent a more realistic approach.  I think this too simplistic, but clearly in The Statesman Plato wrestles with the fact that a) Rulers are not divine, and b) people are not sheep who will easily obey.

The problem gets compounded for Plato when he considers the nature and purpose of law.  States cannot exist without law, and yet Plato believes that the presence of law at all reveals a fundamental weakness in the state itself.  This sounds confusing, but if we consider our relationships with our spouses and friends, they are not governed by law.  We don’t have stipulations such as, “You must call me every day from work or you will face ‘x’ consequence.  Law in fact would kill the relationship.  The bonds between us have to be more organic and natural for the relationship to function well.

The same holds true for the state itself.  The presence of law presupposes problems in our relationships with one another.  If a state relies on law to hold itself together, the bonds will be merely external and therefore weak.  Plato knows that “philosopher kings” who know all and get obeyed by all is an impossibility.  He knows that a law-bound state will lack the internal harmony* required for success.  How to proceed?

Plato believes that the problem will have a partial solution if our leaders are “statesman,” and not “politicians” in the standard sense of the word.  Politicians attempt to curry favor with the people, or blow with the prevailing winds in a pavlovian manner, without regard for wisdom.  Politics then, can be a matter of mere technique.  Statesmanship, on the other hand, is an art form.  Statesman don’t rule via law, they find a way to knit people together without law.  We can approach Plato’s idea here if we think back on our greatest Presidents, who seem to embody something “American” for all people.  We don’t call them successful presidents for the great laws they passed, but for how the embody us and motivate us.  Law can do neither of these things.

Plato uses the analogy of weaving to describe the statesman’s art.  I include an excerpt from the dialog below if you have the interest.  Weaving shows up in many ancient texts, and seems to represent more than just skill with cloth (something I discuss in this post).  Plato kept on exploring, and he entitled one of his last dialogs The Laws, which may be an indication that he abandoned his dream late in life.  We need not see this necessarily.  Perhaps Plato wanted to tackle the problem of good governance from many different angles, and even in the laws he focuses on the importance of the soul.  We shall look at The Laws later in the year.

*A harmonious state requires harmonious souls within the state, hence Plato’s frequent references to music and the need for the state to control music within it.

Plato’s “The Statesman” — The Art of Weaving


Then you and I will not be far wrong in trying to see the nature of example in general in a small and particular instance; afterwards from lesser things we intend to pass to the royal class, which is the highest form of the same nature, and endeavour to discover by rules of art what the management of cities is; and then the dream will become a reality to us.


Very true.


Then, once more, let us resume the previous argument, and as there were innumerable rivals of the royal race who claim to have the care of states, let us part them all off, and leave him alone; and, as I was saying, a model or example of this process has first to be framed.




What model is there which is small, and yet has any analogy with the political occupation? Suppose, Socrates, that if we have no other example at hand, we choose weaving, or, more precisely, weaving of wool—this will be quite enough, without taking the whole of weaving, to illustrate our meaning?




Why should we not apply to weaving the same processes of division and subdivision which we have already applied to other classes; going once more as rapidly as we can through all the steps until we come to that which is needed for our purpose?


How do you mean?


I shall reply by actually performing the process.


Very good.


All things which we make or acquire are either creative or preventive; of the preventive class are antidotes, divine and human, and also defences; and defences are either military weapons or protections; and protections are veils, and also shields against heat and cold, and shields against heat and cold are shelters and coverings; and coverings are blankets and garments; and garments are some of them in one piece, and others of them are made in several parts; and of these latter some are stitched, others are fastened and not stitched; and of the not stitched, some are made of the sinews of plants, and some of hair; and of these, again, some are cemented with water and earth, and others are fastened together by themselves. And these last defences and coverings which are fastened together by themselves are called clothes, and the art which superintends them we may call, from the nature of the operation, the art of clothing, just as before the art of the Statesman was derived from the State; and may we not say that the art of weaving, at least that largest portion of it which was concerned with the making of clothes, differs only in name from this art of clothing, in the same way that, in the previous case, the royal science differed from the political?


Most true.

STRANGER: In the next place, let us make the reflection, that the art of weaving clothes, which an incompetent person might fancy to have been sufficiently described, has been separated off from several others which are of the same family, but not from the co-operative arts.


And which are the kindred arts?


I see that I have not taken you with me. So I think that we had better go backwards, starting from the end. We just now parted off from the weaving of clothes, the making of blankets, which differ from each other in that one is put under and the other is put around: and these are what I termed kindred arts.


I understand.

STRANGER: And we have subtracted the manufacture of all articles made of flax and cords, and all that we just now metaphorically termed the sinews of plants, and we have also separated off the process of felting and the putting together of materials by stitching and sewing, of which the most important part is the cobbler’s art.  Then we separated off the currier’s art, which prepared coverings in entire pieces, and the art of sheltering, and subtracted the various arts of making water-tight which are employed in building, and in general in carpentering, and in other crafts, and all such arts as furnish impediments to thieving and acts of violence, and are concerned with making the lids of boxes and the fixing of doors, being divisions of the art of joining; and we also cut off the manufacture of arms, which is a section of the great and manifold art of making defences; and we originally began by parting off the whole of the magic art which is concerned with antidotes, and have left, as would appear, the very art of which we were in search, the art of protection against winter cold, which fabricates woollen defences, and has the name of weaving.


Very true.


Yes, my boy, but that is not all; for the first process to which the material is subjected is the opposite of weaving.


How so?


Weaving is a sort of uniting?




But the first process is a separation of the clotted and matted fibres?


What do you mean?


I mean the work of the carder’s art; for we cannot say that carding is weaving, or that the carder is a weaver.  Again, if a person were to say that the art of making the warp and the woof was the art of weaving, he would say what was paradoxical and false.


To be sure.


Shall we say that the whole art of the fuller or of the mender has nothing to do with the care and treatment of clothes, or are we to regard all these as arts of weaving?


Certainly not.


And yet surely all these arts will maintain that they are concerned with the treatment and production of clothes; they will dispute the exclusive prerogative of weaving, and though assigning a larger sphere to that, will still reserve a considerable field for themselves.


Very true.


Besides these, there are the arts which make tools and instruments of weaving, and which will claim at least to be co-operative causes in every work of the weaver.


Most true.


Well, then, suppose that we define weaving, or rather that part of it which has been selected by us, to be the greatest and noblest of arts which are concerned with woollen garments—shall we be right?