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.

8th Grade: Babylon’s “Ball of Confusion”


This week we began our look at Babylonian civilization.

Babylon had many things going for it.  They were the quintessential cosmopolitan city of the ancient world.  Their geography funneled trade, cash, and resources towards them.  Much of ancient learning concentrated itself there.  This would be a city in general more tolerant, vibrant, and diverse than most other cities in the ancient world.  I hope that they remember our examination of the geographical influence of all of this.  ‘Cosmopolitan’ cities throughout history have to be accessible, which usually puts them in relatively flat areas near water.  One thinks of New York, London, and Los Angeles as examples.  Of course, the such cities not only need favorable geography, but they need to be accessible and open-minded culturally as well.  Geography can bring you to water, but can’t make you drink.

But enormous cracks in the foundation lay below the surface.  Babylonian creation accounts paint a bleak picture: Ultimately things “come to be”  because of chaos and confusion amongst the gods.  Unlike in Genesis 1, creation had no intentionality or design behind it.  Nor can we say that the “good” gods triumphed over evil.  Rather, one side simply emerged as the stronger.  This impacted their thought in several ways:

  • Humanity is an afterthought that exists to be manipulated by the gods
  • Stability and order are generally absent (a stark contrast to Genesis 1).This chaos spilled over into other areas:
  • Sin, at root, was not your fault, as you could be ‘jumped’ by malicious spirits (jinn) who would lead you down the wrong path
  • Ishtar was their major goddess – goddess of love and marriage but also war and prostitution.  She was again, a goddess, but was often depicted with a beard (see images below)
  • Not surprisingly, this gender confusion spilled over into society, as Herodotus tells us of the fad among society’s elite for cross-dressing
  • Not surprisingly, Babylon was known for its immorality, notorious for its rampant temple prostitution, among other things.

A society where so much is left to chance is bound to try and find a way to explain it all, and this may have led to the Babylonian passion for dream interpretation.*  A whole list of possible dreams and their meanings was drawn up, but this did not necessarily help.  One tells us that if you dream that you have meat you will have a son.  Later, it says that if you have meat in a dream you will not have a son.  How could one know the truth?

Or perhaps, with the mysteries of the universe completely unknowable, one might stop looking and settle for the ‘eat, drink, for tomorrow we die,’ philosophy.  It is any surprise that Babylon is conquered in Daniel 5 as they are partying?  Perhaps we might also surmise that Babylon’s endless possibilities led in the end to boredom.  We looked at this famous Babylonian text,

Babylon’s View of Life: “The Dialog of Pessimism,” (M stands for Master, S for slave)

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “I will love a woman!”

S “So love, my lord, love!

The man who loves a woman forgets want and misery!”

M “No, slave, I will not love  a woman!”

S “Love not, my lord, love not!

Woman is a snare, a trap, a pitfall;

Woman is a sharpened iron sword

Which will cut a young man’s neck!”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “Straightaway order me water for my hands,

I will make a libation to my god!”

S “Do my lord, do!  As for the man who makes a libation

To his god, his heart is at ease;

He makes loan upon loan!”

M “No slave, I will not make a libation!”

S “Make it not, my lord, make it not!

Teach the god to run after thee like a dog.”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “I will give money to my country.”

S “So do, my lord, so do!

The man who gives money to his land,

His alms have been put in the palms of the god

Marduk himself.”

M “No, slave, I will not give alms to my land!”

S “Do it not, my lord, do it not!

Look upon the ruined mounds of

Ancient cities and look around;

Behold the skulls of those of earlier and later times.

Who is the evildoer, who is the benefactor?”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “Now then, what is good?

To break my neck and thy neck,

To fall into the river — that is good!”

S “Yes my lord.  Who is tall enough to reach up to heaven;

Who is broad enough that he might encompass the earth?

M “No slave, I will kill only you — you go first!”

S “But, you my lord, would not last three days after me!

I hope the students saw the links between Babylonian religion and the problems in their society as a whole. Indeed, the idea that ‘you are what you worship’ is true for individuals as much as societies.
For homework on Tuesday this week the students will look at sections from the “Code of Hammurabi,” what historians believe to be history’s oldest written law code.  On the one hand, forming this code ranks as a significant achievement, but I think we often overrate it.  Why did Egypt, for example, not have a written law code (that we know of, anyway)?  Egypt’s sense of purpose for their lives as individuals and as a civilization had such a strong religious foundation, that they simply appeared not to need a formal written law code.  Incidentally, the Egyptian creation account compares favorably in many key respects to the biblical account.  Babylon’s need for a law code so early in its life may have reflected the fractured nature of their society.

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

12th Grade: The Origins of the Peloponnesian War


This week we started our unit on the Peloponnesian War.  This conflict took place between 431- 404 BC, and was chronicled by one of the founders of History itself, Thucydides.  Thucydides’s genius lay far beyond his dispassionate recording of events.  He concerned himself not only with battles, but also the deeper political, economic, and psychological contexts.  He was a commentator on democracy and human nature itself.  We will attempt to follow his lead, ranging back and forth between ancient and modern times.

We will also shortly begin our own Peloponnesian War game, in which the class is divided up into 5 different teams, each of whom participated in the actual Peloponnesian War.  The game is designed to give each side certain strengths and weaknesses, and different means of winning.  Generally speaking, the teams that have won in the past have focused not merely on eliminating enemy soldiers, but instead on forging a synergy between their economics, politics, and diplomacy, with their military action arising from that context.  This usually means that things start slow, but tend to pick up as weeks go by.

Most of us are used to thinking of democracy as a permanent fixture in our lives, but the Athenians lost, regained, lost, and finally regained democracy during and after the conflict.  Why did this happen?  Does war put more pressure on democracies than other forms of government?  On another note, are democracies naturally inclined toward expansion, or are those democracies that have expanded a product of historical coincidence?

Our study of this conflict should always have the idea of democracy behind it, for the war as a whole, and Athens’ role in it particularly, can teach us a lot about democracies.  Fundamentally, we should consider what makes a country “democratic.”  I offered the students the following choices:

  • In country ‘X’ the people are ruled by a king, but the laws of the realm allow for free speech, equal treatment under the law, freedoms of assembly, religion, etc.  In short, all the trappings we usually associate with democracy, except the people did not elect their leaders.
  • In country ‘Y’ the people have a representative democracy where they elect all their leaders.  But the elected government (which won 60% of the vote) uses their power to restrict the rights those that opposed them.

Which country is more democratic?  Does democracy have more to do with the process than the result?

As we look at the origins of the conflict, we will consider criteria for a ‘just’ war.  What kind of strategy should Athens have pursued, and does it teach us how democracies tend to, or should act, in war?

First, some of the background to the war.
Prior to ca. 500 B.C., Athens was not one of the major city-states of Greece.  They were not nobodies, but they could not be called a New York, LA, or Chicago.  Perhaps a Philadelphia.  Their moment came during the Persian Wars, where their staunch resistance and military success propelled them into a potential leadership role.  How did they handle it?
They helped from what was known as The Delian League, a mutual defense alliance with other city-states that rimmed the Aegean against Persia.  Member states could contribute money or ships.  As one might expect, nearly all chose the ‘money’ option.  It was easier, for starters.  But it also made sense.  Since Persia might return any time it made sense to fund the best navy and get more of the best ships out into the Aegean, and Athens had that navy.
But what if Persia did not look like it was coming back?  Can you leave the Delian League?  Athens said no.  They had some good arguments:
  • Persia was still a major power and could decide to come back at any time.
  • If a city-state left they could potentially make an alliance with Persia, which would threaten all of their neighbors.
  • Even if a city-state did not make an alliance with Persia, they would still get security.  Athens could not let Persia establish a beach-head anywhere in Greece.  Therefore they would get free security, which was unfair.
We can still imagine that the other city-states failed to be impressed with these arguments.  Athens, the one-time champion of the ‘little guy’ had become the block bully in the minds of many.  How should we view Athens?  Who was right?  Here is a map of the Greek world at the time the war began:
I think we have to appreciate Athens’ dilemma, but if we look elsewhere for clues, it appears Athens had fallen into what Toynbee called “The Idolization of the Parochial Community.’  That is, once Athens stood for something, something outside itself. Now, despite the progressive nature of Athenian democracy, drama, philosophy, and so on, Athens seemed to justify its actions based on how it related to themselves and themselves alone.  This can be seen in their siding against certain democracies when it looked like doing so might advantage them in some way.  One can see the comparisons with pre-World War I Europe, with democracy at home, and imperialism and a form of subjugation abroad.  By 431 B.C. the Greeks had made their society into a fireworks stand where anything might upset the apple cart.  Athens’s power, their rivalry with Sparta and Corinth, created a potential disaster.  If you are interested, I include below an excerpt from Toynbee’s ‘An Historian’s Approach to Religion’ on the idea of parochial communities.  When war breaks out next week we will  consider a few different issues.
  • To what extent is a country’s reputation part of its power and security?  Can threat’s to your reputation be considered a threat to your security?  Should war’s be fought if no physical danger is immediately present?  How much importance did reputation have in the Greek world?  Does that make the actions of Athenians and Spartans more or less defensible?
  • Traditionally, just war theory within the framework of Christian thought has focused on 1) The cause, 2) The goal, and 3) Proportionality of response.  One may fight defensively, but not start wars.  One can fight to defend the innocent, but not merely to extend one’s power.   If a rival invades with 1000 troops, you cannot counter with 100,000 and destroy him utterly.  Did Sparta or Athens begin the war?  Can either side lay claim to fighting a just war?
  • Corinth was a city-state covered in faded glory, anxious to reclaim it, and one that burned with indignation at Athens for wearing the mantle of ‘top dog.’  Does Corinth share any similarities with China and Russia today?  How should Athens have dealt with the overly touchy Corinth?How do the ideas of just war fit into the context of the Peloponnesian War?  How do they fit into the modern period? What constitutes an ‘attack’ upon us?  Would a cyber-attack be an act of war that would allow us to kill others? What does the possibility of weapons of mass destruction do to the concept of pre-emption in war?  Are the old guidelines relevant today, or do they need rethought?
Dave Mathwin
Toynbee, “The Idolization of the Parochial Community”
Unhappily, Polytheism begins to produce new and pernicious social effects when its domain is extended from the realm of Nature-worship to a province of the realm of Man-worship in which the object of worship is parochial collective human power. Local worships of deified parochial communities inevitably drive their respective devotees into war with one another. Whereas Demeter our common Mother Earth is the same goddess in Attica and in Laconia, the Athene Polias of Athens and the Athana Chalcioecus of Sparta, who are the respective deifications of these two parochial communities, are bound to be rival goddesses in spite of their bearing the same name. The worship of Nature tends to unite the members of different communities because it is not self-centred; it is the worship of a power in whose presence all human beings have the identical experience of being made aware of their own human weakness. On the other hand the worship of parochial communities tends to set their respective members at variance because this religion is an expression of self-centredness; because self-centredness is the source of all strife; and because the collective ego is a more dangerous object of worship than the individual ego is.
The collective ego is more dangerous because it is more powerful, more demonic, and less patently unworthy of devotion. The collective ego combines the puny individual power of each of its devotees into the collective power of Leviathan. This collective power is at the mercy of subconscious passions because it escapes the control of the Intellect and Will that put some restraint on the individual ego. And bad behaviour that would be condemned unhesitatingly by the conscience in an individual culprit is apt to be condoned when it is perpetrated by Leviathan, under the illusion that the first person is absolved from self-centredness by being transposed from the singular number into the plural. This is, however, just the opposite of the truth; for, when an individual projects his self-centredness on to a community, he is able, with less sense of sin, to carry his egotism to greater lengths of enormity. ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’;5 and the callousness of committees testifies still more eloquently than the fury of mobs that, in collective action, the ego is capable of descending to depths to which it does not fall when it is acting on its individual responsibility.
The warfare to which parochial-community-worship leads is apt to rankle, sooner or later, into war to the death; and this self-inflicted doom is insidious, because the ultimately fatal effects of this religion are slow to reveal themselves and do not become unmistakably clear till the mischief has become mortally grave.
In its first phase the warfare between deified parochial states is usually waged in a temperate spirit and is confined within moderate limits. In this first phase the worshippers of each parochial god recognize in some degree that each neighbour parochial god is the legitimate sovereign in his own territory. Each local god will be deemed to have both the right and the power to punish alien human trespassers on his domain who commit a grievous wrong against him by committing it against his people; and this consideration counsels caution and restraint in waging war on foreign soil. It tends to prevent war from becoming total. The bashful invader will refrain, not only from desecrating the enemy’s temples, but from poisoning his wells and from cutting down his fruit trees. The Romans, when they had made up their minds to go to all lengths in warring down an enemy community, used to take the preliminary precautions of inviting the enemy gods to evacuate the doomed city and of tempting them to change sides by offering them, in exchange, honourable places in the Roman pantheon. When a local community has been exterminated or deported in defiance of the local divinity and without regard to his sovereign prerogatives, the outraged parochial god may bring the usurpers of his domain and scorners of his majesty to heel by making the place too hot to hold them except on his terms. The colonists planted by the Assyrian Government on territory that had been cleared of its previous human occupants by the deportation of the Children of Israel soon found, to their cost, that Israel’s undeported god Yahweh had lost none of his local potency; and they had no peace till they took to worshipping this very present local god instead of the gods that they had brought with them from their homelands.
Thus the conduct of war between parochial states is kept within bounds, at the start, by a common belief in the equality of sovereign parochial gods, each within his own domain. But this belief is apt to break down, and, with it, the restraint that is imposed by it. They break down because the self-worship of a parochial community is essentially incompatible with the moderation commended in such maxims as ‘Live and let live’ and ‘Do as you would be done by’. Every form of Man-worship is a religious expression of self-centredness, and is consequently infected with the intellectual mistake and the moral sin of treating a part of the Universe as if it were the whole—of trying to wrest the Universe round into centring on something in it that is not and ought not to be anything more than a subordinate part of it. Since self-centredness is innate in every living creature, it wins allegiance for any religion that ministers to it. It also inhibits any living creature that fails to break away from it from loving its neighbour as itself, and a total failure to achieve this arduous moral feat has a disastrous effect on social relations.
A further reason why it is difficult to keep the warfare between parochial states at a low psychological temperature is because parochial-community-worship wins devotion not onlyby ministering disastrously to self-centredness. It wins it also by giving a beneficent stimulus to Man’s nobler activities in the first chapter of the story. In the histories of most civilizations in their first chapters, parochial states have done more to enrich their members’ lives by fostering the arts than they have done to impoverish them by taking a toll of blood and treasure. For example, the rise of the Athenian city-state made life richer for its citizens by creating the Attic drama out of a primitive fertility-ritual before life was made intolerable for them by a series of ever more devastating wars between Athens and her rivals. The earlier Athens that had been ‘the education of Hellas’ won and held the allegiance of Athenian men and women, over whom she had cast her spell, for the benefit of the later Athens that was ‘a tyrant power’; and, though these two arrogant phrases were coined to describe Athens’ effect on the lives of the citizens of other Hellenic city-states, they describe her effect on the lives of her own citizens no less aptly. This is the tragic theme of Thucydides’ history of the Great Atheno-Peloponnesian War, and there have been many other performances of the same tragedy that have not found their Thucydides.
The strength of the devotion that parochial-community-worship thus evokes holds its devotees in bondage to it even when it is carrying them to self-destruction; and so the warfare between contending parochial states tends to grow more intense and more devastating in a crescendo movement. Respect for one’s neighbours’ gods and consideration for these alien gods’ human proteges are wasting assets. All parochial-community-worship ends in a worship of Moloch, and this ‘horrid king’ exacts more cruel sacrifices than the Golden Calf. War to the death between parochial states has been the immediate external cause of the breakdowns and disintegrations of almost all, if not all, the civilizations that have committed suicide up to date. The decline and fall of the First Mayan Civilization is perhaps the only doubtful case.
The devotion to the worship of Moloch is apt to persist until it is too late to save the life of the civilization that is being destroyed by it. It does break down at last, but not until a stage of social disintegration has been reached at which the blood-tax exacted by the waging of ever more intensive, ferocious, and devastating warfare has come palpably to outweigh any cultural and spiritual benefits that the contending parochial states may once have conferred on their citizens. . . 

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.