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

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.

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.

If you have further interest, check out my podcast on sports and culture with Steve and Marc at the link below:

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?