“We have a great king, who loves ham.”

I recently came across an interesting article about a man who commands fees of $4000 for slicing a leg of ham.

If one reads the article, the startling headline begins to make a bit of sense.  Many consider Florencio Sanchez the pre-eminent international voice for Iberian ham, a traditional Spanish cuisine/delicacy.  Apparently Iberian ham means to Spain what barbecue might mean for Texan.  The pig must be raised in a certain way, cut in a certain way, and so on.  Clearly as well, Sanchez styles himself as an “artiste.”  For Iberian ham to truly be Iberian ham it must be presented in a certain way, with certain instruments that . . .  only he may ever touch. Among other things, Sanchez believes that no true slicer of ham would ever speak English.

One comment in the video below particularly stuck with me, however:

Sanchez clearly takes the most pride in having cut ham for the King of Spain, which should not surprise us.  But he added that, “We have a great king, who loves ham.”

It seemed to me that he could have almost said, “We have a great king because he loves ham.”

Of course, Sanchez has honed and practices a very traditional skill, and monarchy is a traditional form of government that relies on tradition to succeed.  And if the king appreciates Sanchez’s life’s work, we should not blame Sanchez if he feels flattered and even vindicated.  But with this comment, I think Sanchez has an insight into political leadership, and why many in the west–not just in the U.S.– feel less confidence about our democracies at the moment.

A successful monarch need not necessarily have the right policies.  He/she will generally be loved if their actions in some measure reflect well on their country.  So Richard I, the “Lionhearted,” can be revered in English memory though he actually spent very little time in England.  Saint Louis IX lost on two crusades and emptied the treasury in payments to Moslems for his own ransom, but his noble character and sanctity earned him the love of France.  Louis XIV had an enormous appetite (apparently due to his abnormally huge stomach), eating multiple courses for dinner, making a huge show of it in the process, and Frenchmen took pride in that.  “Look what our king can do!”   So too, “Our king loves ham.”  He acts in ways that embody something of Spain, just as Richard did for England.  Such kings overshadow more “successful” monarchs like Henry II.*

Our founders recognized the need for this on some level.  I think they wanted the president to always be George Washington–that is–someone above reproach who used his powers sparingly but with forbearance and wisdom, someone who had no political skin in the game. They utterly failed to anticipate the almost immediate rise of the presidency as a popular/populist office and the impact that would have on our democracy.

Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, and others point out the radical nature of the American Revolution and its clean break with tradition and the past.  This bold move helped make the Revolution successful and gave it its influence worldwide.  But, this recent election might make us wish that we had a king, “who loves ham,” or in our case, perhaps cheeseburgers.


*Before we think that, “Hey, I’ll gladly love ham if you make me king of Spain,” kingship has some very tricky elements.  By the end of his reign the people hated Louis XIV.  Louis might say, “Sure, I lost two big wars, but after all, so did St. Louis IX!  And . . . I can still eat more than most mortal men, right?”

But it wouldn’t have helped him.

People cheered Louis XVI at the opening of the Estates General in 1789.  They executed him a few years later. Kingship works when a quasi-mystical, perhaps sacred connection exists between him and his people–when he rightly acts as the “pater-familias.”

Wikipedia tells us that Felipe VI of Spain has the favor of the Spanish people, and that many want him to intervene a bit more to reconcile party differences.  He seems to have popularity and good-will at the moment. But if Wikipedia accurately reports, he will need great caution, because some of his popularity seems rooted in his abandonment of certain long-standing traditions, such as the practice of elected officials taking their oaths of office upon a Bible or crucifix.

A king’s power rests in large measure upon tradition, and he tampers with that as his peril.  Many assume France’s Louis XVI was reactionary and inflexible.  In fact, as Simon Schama points out in his Citizens, Louis attempted many progressive reforms.  Some of the Enlightenment philosophes initially praised him as just the sort of king France needed (Louis probably did not want their praise, but still . . . ).  Events show that this stance almost certainly hurt rather than helped.

10th Grade: The Galileo Myth

This week we continued with many of the same themes as last week, with a special focus on Galileo.

Thomas HobbesBefore tackling him, we looked at the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes’ concerned himself mainly with outlining his vision of a workable political system, but he was strongly influenced by the tenor of the times.  Hobbes, like Descartes before him, believed that getting at the truth meant reducing the world to its simplest, most understandable components.  If we dig deep enough, we will finally find an irreducible foundation.  For Descartes, it was thought, and Hobbes builds his politics on the concept of motion.  Mankind, for Hobbes, was in many ways “matter in motion.”

The Scientific Revolution did indeed change many things, and this concept of knowledge may have been at the heart of those changes.  The Medieval philosopher would have argued that to see a thing truly, it must be seen as a whole of many parts.  Not only that, they would have gone further and said that to know a thing, one must know its purpose, its end, its “telos.”

Galileo continued the revolution in other facets of thought.  Copernicus had established the possibility of a heliocentric universe in the 16th century, and while his ideas did not gain wide acceptance, Copernicus was not a controversial figure.  Aristarchus of Samos had, in fact, proposed a similar theory in the 3rd century B.C.  Galileo caused controversy by proposing a new idea of how we arrive at truth, and blurred the lines between theory and fact.  In 1543 a man named Osiander wrote in the preface to Copernicus’ work that,

[W]hen from time to time there are offered for one and the same motion different hypotheses…, the astronomer will accept above all others the one which is easiest to grasp. The philosopher will perhaps seek the semblance of the truth. But neither of them will understand or state anything certain unless it has been divinely revealed to him…. So far as hypotheses are concerned, let no one expect anything certain from astronomy which cannot furnish it, lest he accept as the truth ideas conceived for another purpose and depart from this study a greater fool than when he entered it.

Owen Barfield, a contemporary of C.S. Lewis, wrote in his Saving the Appearances, that Galileo

began to affirm that the heliocentric hypothesis not only ‘saved the appearances,’ but was physically true.” What they professed was in fact a new theory of the nature of theory; namely that, if a hypothesis saves all the appearances, it is identical with truth.

What (I think) Barfield meant by the idea of “saving the appearances” was the old idea that our notions of scientific truth should do their best to explain the reality that we see around us, to preserve the validity of the senses.  However, this was always recognized to represent our “best guess” and may not reflect actual truth.

But after Galileo the burden of proof shifted.   Arthur Koestler writes in his book The Sleepwalkers that,

if theologians could not refute Galileo their case [would] go by default, and Scripture must be reinterpreted.  This implied (though Galileo did not dare state it explicitly) that the truth of the system was rigorously demonstrated. It is all so subtly done that the trick is almost imperceptible to the reader and, as far as I know, has escaped the attention of students to this very day. Yet it decided the strategy he was to follow in the coming years.

Galileo was right about the Earth’s rotation around the sun, though we would later discover that the sun, too, is in motion.  The issue that I wanted to stress to the students, however, was the fact that one can be right for the wrong reasons.  Many great scientific minds of this time were likely sincere Christians, but the ways which they reached their conclusions may have helped lead people away from Christianity.  True knowledge must involve more than what we see with our senses.

The Scientific Revolution also raised the question of how we should interpret Scripture.  To what degree should scientific discoveries impact how we read the famous passage about the sun standing still in Joshua?

On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel:

“Sun, stand still over Gibeon,
and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.”
 So the sun stood still,
and the moon stopped,
till the nation avenged itself on its enemies,

as it is written in the Book of Jashar.

The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listened to a human being. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel!

Of course the Church made mistakes at this time too.  In condemning Galileo they surely overreached and made themselves look silly, contributing to an unnecessary and unhealthy divide between science and faith that lasted for at least three centuries, from which we have fully to recover.

“A Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” by Galileo Galilei

The Dedication of the Dialogue

The Dedication of the Dialogue

I repost this wonderful offering from my friend and colleague Bill Carey . . .


A Gallup poll of 6 July 1999 of more than a thousand adults determined that only about four out of five Americans believe that the Earth orbits the Sun. Fully one in five believes that the Sun orbits the Earth. [1] It’s interesting that four in five Americans believe something that seems obviously and demonstrably false. The Earth doesn’t feel like its moving underfoot, and every day we see the Sun rise and set. We believe the moon orbits the Earth, and it sure looks like the behavior of the Sun and moon is pretty similar. Why do four out of five Americans believe that, contrary to our intuition, the Earth orbits the Sun?

I’ve been taking an informal survey of my friends, with just two questions. The first is whether the Earth or the Sun is the center of the solar system. [2] After I assure them it’s not a trick question, everyone answers the Sun. We’re beating Gallup’s averages. The second question confuses people: “How do you know?” The most common answer I’ve gotten is, “Duh, everyone knows that”. Some people know that Copernicus and Galileo got in trouble with the Church for saying the Sun was the center of the solar system. Others vaguely remember a science or history teacher telling them about “heliocentrism”. Fair enough.

When I rephrased the question to ask how human beings originally figured that the Earth orbits the Sun, my friends gave me a quizzical look. I was no better off than them; I knew that Galileo and Copernicus had gotten everyone to switch from the geocentric view to the heliocentric. I didn’t know how or why. How did those astronomers convince everyone to abandon more than a thousand years of careful science and replace it with a new framework? What arguments and data struck the telling blows for heliocentrism?

The Retrogradation of Mars

The Retrogradation of Mars

The work that I turned to to understand the arguments for heliocentrism is Galileo’s delightful Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. It is a surprising book. The first surprise it delivers is its style and structure. Galileo imitates a Socratic dialogue. Like all good literature, conflict drives the plot of the Dialogue. In particular, the conflict between Ptolemy and Aristotle on the one hand, and Copernicus on the other, motivates Galileo. His protagonist, Salviati, argues for the Copernican world system. The canny, initially neutral Sagredo drives the conversation forward. The wryly named Simplicio attempts to prop up the Ptolemaic system. Simplicio’s bumbling affords Galileo an opportunity to clearly articulate his ideas about physics and the motion of the stars. Of Aristotle, Salviati says that “[w]e need guides in forests and in unknown lands, but on plains and in open places only the blind need guides. It is better for such people to stay at home, but anyone with eyes in his head and his wits about him could serve as a guide for them. In saying this I do not mean that a person should not listen to Aristotle; indeed, I applaud the reading and careful study of his works, and I reproach only those who give themselves up as slaves to him in such a way as to subscribe blindly to everything he says and take it as inviolable.” [3] The arguments about the motion of the heavens make the work science; the metaphors, plot, dialogue, and humor make it literature.

The second surprise in the Dialogue is Galileo’s outstanding ear for argument. He refutes Aristotle’s arguments bluntly and often amusingly. Aristotle claims that a ball of iron will fall one hundred cubits in the time a block of wood falls ten cubit. This is preposterously false, and Sagredo doubts whether Aristotle ever actually tried it out: “I greatly doubt that Aristotle ever tested by experiment whether it be true that two stones, one weighing ten times as much as the other, if allowed to fall, at the same instant, from a height of, say, 100 cubits, would so differ in speed that when the heavier had reached the ground, the other would not have fallen more than 10 cubits.” Simplicio leaps to the defense of his preposterously wrong philosopher by pointing out that “[Aristotle’s] language would seem to indicate that he had tried the experiment, because he says: ‘we see the heavier’; now the word ‘see’ shows he had made the experiment.” Galileo’s characters are forthright in dismissing this tomfoolery. They describe experimental procedures that we can repeat today that confirm Galileo’s ideas and to refute Aristotle’s.

Epicycles and Deferents

Epicycles and Deferents

Claudius Ptolemy offers Galileo a foil with more scientific substance. [3] Ptolemy’s exposition of the geocentric world system in the unreadably complex Almagest is a surprisingly empirical and scientific work. Ptolemy’s system of deferents and epicycles is a compelling, mathematically precise, vision of the world. To refute it, Galileo works through a detailed analysis of the parallax of various celestial bodies and their distances from the Earth. The argument is technical and subtle. Writing before the great tectonic shift from Euclid to Descartes, Galileo’s mathematical reasoning tends towards geometry as well. Here he argues with Ptolemy on the latter’s home turf. A good edition that reproduces the figures is essential, as the characters lean on them as much as the reader. When a character references a table of astronomical data, Galileo’s language leads one to vividly imagine the characters sitting around a table passing papers to one another as they eat and drink.

The third surprise nestled in the Dialogue is that it’s deeply unsatisfying. It’d be tempting to say that, having read Galileo’s dialogue, I can answer the question about how we know the Earth goes around the Sun. The truth, though, is that I’ve just replaced one authority with another. I haven’t observed the phases of Venus, and I haven’t observed the parallax of the fixed stars (much less of the planets) that would let me work out the celestial mechanics on my own. Even so, reading Galileo’s argument is valuable. When I trust his authority, it’s an authority that I understand a little better than before. It’s an authority that’s grounded in reason and argument that I can wrestle with and assess critically. But if I want to add to the conversation myself, take a stand along with Ptolemy and Galileo, I need to telescope-up and start looking at the stars.

Too often we treat science as an Athena, sprung full grown and clothed from the head of Zeus. We trust our predecessors when they say that the Earth orbits the Sun without understanding how they came to believe that. We belittle people who disagree without understanding the arguments that make us correct. It turns out that the story of scientific discovery is always messy, usually fascinating, often wildly contingent, and occasionally well told. Whenever we can grapple with not only the results of scientific inquiry, but also the story behind it, we should. In his preface to the Dialogue, Einstein writes that, “[t]he leitmotif which I recognize in Galileo’s work is the passionate fight against any kind of dogma based on authority.” Galileo would rue his fate; like Aristotle before him, he’s become an authority, chalky and dead. We can rescue him from that cruel fate by listening carefully to the scientific conversation and the adding our voices to the tumultous banter.

[1] See http://www.gallup.com/poll/3742/new-poll-gauges-americans-general-knowledge-levels.aspx

[2] An astute reader pointed out to me that I beg the question here, so ingrained is the heliocentric system in my mental picture of the universe.

[3] Galileo, The Dialogue, p. 131

[4] Ptolemy will be the subject of another post, I hope. He deserves far more credit as a scientist than we’re inclined to give him.

The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki

Some paint the Middle Ages as a period of narrow intolerance.  I’ve said enough in other posts not to address that directly here, but in short, that view has little support in the lives or sources of the time.  We see in Beowulf, for example an appreciation for the pagan past and an understanding of the difficulties in trying to make sense of the Christian faith in light of their past, not a “narrow intolerance.”

The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki can’t quite equal the power and style of Beowulf, but it has many of its outstanding 71ebyqgznclqualities, as well as a similar task.  The author retells a famous Norse story to a newly Christian Norse audience.  At various points he likely altered the story slightly to make certain theological points.  One such instance caught my attention.

At the end of the story our hero returns triumphant from defeating the villain.  Before setting out on his expedition, he took advice from a seemingly simple farmer and reduced his army (in similar fashion to Gideon in the book of Judges).  After victory he marches back and sees the same farmer again.  They greet each other warmly, after which the farmer offers more help.

This time King Hrolf refuses.  It’s not immediately clear why.

As they take their leave Hrolf declares that the farmer was none other than the Norse god Odin in disguise.  He had to refuse his help.  He would not take advice from a pagan god though all knew that Odin brought success to those who honored him.

In refusing Odin’s help, he refused “Victory.”  The consequences of this decision for him and his kingdom follow predictably.  Hrolf Kraki loses everything by the end.  But the author clearly believes he should indeed have preferred failure to success at the price of aid from a pagan god.

In a recent article entitled “No Enduring City,” author David Bentley Hart muses on the success of Christians and their involvement in politics.  He begins citing two events in medieval Europe.  He writes,

The first occurred on August 25, 1256, when the  podest  and  capitano del popolo of ­Bologna summoned the citizens of the  comune to the Piazza Maggiore in order to announce the abolition of all bonded servitude within the city’s civil and ­diocesan jurisdictions. Some 5,855 serfs were redeemed from their  signori—who were remunerated out of the communal treasury at a total price of 54,014 lire—then placed under ecclesiastical authority, and then granted their liberty.

An irrevocable abolition of serfdom in Bologna was then issued in a short text known as the  Liber Paradisus, in which was indited the name of every emancipated serf. Historians have occasionally ­spe­culated on the economic benefits that Bologna may have reaped from this decision—for one thing, freedmen were eligible to pay taxes—but the actual cost of the manumission, immediate and deferred, was so exorbitant that it is rather difficult to see how the municipal administration could have calculated any plausible profit from its actions.

Perhaps, then, one should take seriously the motives the  Liber Paradisus itself actually adduces: “Paradisum voluptatis plantavit dominus Deus omnipotens a principio,” it begins,“in quo posuit hominem, quem formaverat, et ipsius corpus ornavit veste candenti, sibi donans perfectissimam et perpetuam libertatem”: “In the beginning, the Lord God Almighty planted a paradise of delight, in which he placed man, whom he had formed, and whose body he had adorned with the garb of radiance [a shining raiment], endowing him with perfect and perpetual freedom.” It was only by sinning, the argument proceeds, that humanity bound itself in servitude to corruption; God in his mercy, however, sent his Son into the world to break the bonds that hold humanity in thrall, that by Christ’s own dignity all of us should have our natural liberty restored. Thus all persons currently bound in servitude by human law should have their proper freedom granted them, for they along with all the rest of us belong to a single  massa libertatis wherein now not so much as a single  modicum fermentum of servitude can be tolerated, lest it corrupt the whole.

Hart continues . . .

The second episode, however, which to our sensibilities might seem the more outlandish of the two, was for its time far and away the more ordinary. Some twelve to fifteen years after the promulgation of the  Liber Paradisus (the date cannot be more precisely determined than that), Thomas Aquinas put the finishing touches on that famous (or infamous) passage in the  Summa Theologiae  where he defends the practice of executing heretics. The argument he laid out there was quite a simple one, consisting of only two points, both of which he considered more or less incontestable. First, as regards the heretics themselves, their sin by itself warrants both excommunication and death. Second, as regards the Church, the graver evil of heresy is that it corrupts the faith, which gives life to the soul; and so, if we execute forgers for merely corrupting our currency, which can sustain only temporal life, how much more justly may we deal with convicted heretics not only by excommunicating them, but by putting them to death as well.

Of course, Thomas adds, out of her mercy towards each man who has strayed, the Church hesitates to pronounce a final condemnation until “the first and second admonition” have both failed; but then, if the heretic remains obstinate, “the Church, no longer hoping for his conversion, turns itself to the salvation of others, by excommunicating him and separating him from the Church, and furthermore delivers him over to the secular tribunal so that the latter might remove him from the world by death.” Nor can ecclesial compassion extend any further than this. Recidivism, for instance, even of the most transient kind, is unpardonable. Says Thomas, “At God’s tribunal, all who return are always received, because God is a searcher of hearts, and knows those who return in sincerity. But the Church cannot imitate God in this, for she presumes that those who relapse after being once received are insincere when they return; so she does not obstruct their path to salvation, but neither does she shield them from the sentence of death.”

Both examples have their counterpoints.  Some rather cynically suggest that the economic motive of creating more taxpayers formed the real motivation behind freeing the serfs.  Others point out, that, whatever we may think of Thomas’ counsel, he sought to save souls and not to kill people.

Still, however we slice it, we cannot avoid a contradiction.

Hart goes to suggest that Christian involvement in politics always seems to go south at some point.  On the one hand, when Christians have the power to do good, they can accomplish good things in a unique and lasting way.  On the other, such power either corrupts or puts one in an awkward enough position where a compromise of gospel ethics becomes essentially inevitable.  We can cite numerous examples of the good and the bad.  Betrayals of the gospel ethic may not even be anyone’s “fault,” per se–it could be the nature of the beast.  He draws no firm conclusions, but asks us to consider how we should deal with this problem.

I admire Hart a great deal.  He has a powerful mind and thinks deeply.  His The Doors of the Sea is the best book I have read on the problem of evil.  But I found myself a bit frustrated with “No Enduring City.”  He has the intellectual capital to spend, but plays the miser. He holds too much back. I wanted more from him to try and settle this conundrum.

When surveying the history of Christian involvement in politics, I think we have the following options:

  • Christians should never be involved in politics.  Whatever good they will do will be outweighed by the inevitable corruption of their witness to the gospel.
  • Christians will likely fail in some way in the political realm.  But, we should expect that their failures will be less damaging, and they will accomplish more good in their time in power.  Thus, Christians should be involved in politics as much as they can.
  • Compromising one’s Christian witness may likely happen in the political realm, but it is not inevitable.  Thus, the potential good from Christians involvement in politics is worth the risk, with the right people.
  • Compromising our witness to Christ is indeed quite likely in the political realm. Christians should avoid political office. However, Christians should do what they can to influence those in power.  In this way they can hopefully create some good for society and escape direct blame for the bad in politics.

Other options likely exist.

In his article Hart hints (but not outright declares) that the continual cycle of success/failure might serve the good purpose of continual renewal, keeping the Church on its toes and supplied with fresh blood.  This parallels in some ways Toynbee’s creative/dominant minorities in society.  A particular system gets stale and rigid.  A ‘creative minority’ finds a way to challenge this system successfully, which brings them into power.  Eventually, however, this ‘creative minority’ succumbs to temptation and morphs into its own ‘dominant minority,’ starting the cycle over again.

But Hart will not outright declare one way or the other, because the mere fact of such a cycle doesn’t mean that the good of the creative minority outweighs the bad of dominant minority.

If such a man as Hart cannot decide, I will not either.  Perhaps historical analysis is not our best servant for this question.  Perhaps we need epic poetry to instruct us.

King Hrolf Kraki ultimately fails.  His realm grows a bit soft and corrupt.  Yet before that happened he managed to defeat a wicked and truly evil king who had wrought chaos throughout the land for years.  He fails, but the good outweighed the bad.  So too king Arthur fails.  His sins, and the sins of others catch up with them.  Yet, the good that came from the golden age of Camelot inspired the very idea of chivalry, which formed the ethic of the west for 500 years at least.  When Roland receives the assignment of the rear guard, he suspects treachery, but turns to his stepfather and says,

Ah, slave and coward, malicious heir of dishonored ancestors, did you think I would let the glove fall to the ground as you did the staff when you stood before Charles?

The rearguard is destroyed under Roland’s command, but Charlemagne returns just in time Beowulf defeats the dragon but could not establish the kind of kingdom that had others fight the dragon instead of him.  But . . . who doesn’t love the character of Beowulf?

The attempt referenced above, however, were all “grand gestures” involving personal risk.  Epic literature is of course literature and not history.  But they give some historical insights.  The politicking of the religious right involved no grand gesture, no personal risk for anyone.  Christian involvement in the political realm will likely fail in some way, no matter how great the sacrifice.  But the utterly mundane garnering of power through votes not only failed in the U.S., it engendered resentment against the religious right.  The relative political disengagement of most younger Christians today testifies to the insipid nature of such action.

At the end of The Song of Roland Charlemagne cries out, “O God, my life is a burden!”  He knows that all of his fighting and all of the sacrifice will not bring about a heaven on earth.  But, he smashed the pagans, avenged treachery, and Julienne was led triumphantly to Christ.

Truly sacrificial action, whether political or otherwise, has a lasting impact despite our sins and limitations.

Perhaps herein lies the answer Hart seeks.




8th Grade: The Clash of East and West at Marathon


The week before break we had our discussion on the forms of government, and this week we concluded our look at Persian civilization.  Early next week we will have a test on our Persia unit.

We looked at Persia’s expansion in Europe under Darius as they crossed the Hellespont into Greece.  Why did they do this?  I think there are a variety of possibilities.

  • We talked before about the ‘Burden of Cyrus.’  His extraordinary accomplishments made Persia a world power.  However, this legacy could be a burden as well as a gift.  Both with Cambyses and Darius we see this ‘need’ to do something grand that Cyrus did not do, something that would allow them to leave their own mark on Persia.  For Cambyses, this took the form of the conquest of Egypt.  For Darius one could argue, it took the form of conquering Greece.  One needs only look at how childhood stars often fare in their adult lives to see the problems of too much success too quickly.
  • The answer could be simpler.  Expansion may erase current enemies but it usually creates new ones.  The Aegean Sea may simply have been the ‘next’ enemy for Persia given their previous expansion through Asia Minor.
  • A more obvious and practical reason may have been Athens’ support for rebellions against Persia amongst “Greek” cities in Asia Minor.  Though this support amounted to little more than a token gesture, Darius may have felt than any slight to Persian power needed dealt with.  If this story is true, it has similarities to Emperor Claudius’ decision to invade Britain (Britain may have been giving aid — in the barest sense of the term — to conquered Gauls) during his reign in Rome.
  • Herodotus records a few stories that suggest that Darius may have had personal motivations for conquering Greece involving a personal attendant of his who was Greek.  The stories may or may not be true, but they might have a ring of truth.  It is not unknown for kings or country’s to act at least in part with this kind of motivation.

We wanted to realize, however, that expansion across the Aegean would be a different kind of expansion than the Persians were used to.  Almost the entirety of their empire was land based.  Anyone can walk.  Not everyone can sail.  Their expansion overseas would mean the creation of a whole wing of their empire.  Embarking on the sea would put them in a position where they would need a strong presence but have little experience.  In contrast, most Greek city-states grew up on the water.  Persia would still be able to muster an overwhelming advantage in raw manpower.  For most city-states this would be enough.  But as we shall see, not for all.

We looked at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., and what it revealed about Persia.  Persia’s defeat at Marathon hardly spelled doom for Persia, but it did demonstrate their weaknesses, and perhaps, the fact that they had finally stretched out their imperial arm too far.  The map below shows them coming right up against classical Greece at this time:

Persian Empire

Persia was, in general, less oppressive and more tolerant than previous empires.  They provided economic advantage and security.  But being part of Persia did not come with any sort of identity.  One might argue that Persia was all head, but no heart, and on some level people need inspired.  They possessed huge armies, but the majority of those armies had conquered troops that probably felt little reason to fight for Persia.  Thankfully for Persia, most of the time their huge numbers meant that they often did not have to fight at all.  In fact, Persia’s absolute requirement for military service for all eligible males shows them at their least tolerant.  When one father asked King Xerxes to exempt his youngest son to stay on the family farm, Xerxes executed his son, hacked his body in two, and had his departing forces march between the pieces of his son’s body as they left the city.  They allowed for no exception to their ‘No Exceptions’ policy.

At Marathon, the Athenians gained a tactical advantage by focusing their attack on the non-Persian members of Persia’s force.  The Persian force collapsed quickly as large portions of their force beat a hasty retreat.  They may have been willing to follow orders and march where told.  Why would they risk more than that?  What were they fighting for?  On a variety of occasions, Herodotus speaks of the bravery and skill of the purely Persian troops. But the conquered and incorporated troops proved to be a hindrance rather than an asset.  But I also think that the Athenian victory was part psychological.  They ran at the Persians — they actually attacked!  Herodotus hints at the shock the Persians must have felt under such a circumstance.  In Greece, Persia would meet a people who refused to accept their ‘deal.’  The fact that Persia needed to build a navy to deal with this threat put them in an unusual position, like fish out of water.  We will see in a few months how and why the Greeks defeated Persia when their clash grows into something much more than a skirmish.

Many thanks,


10th Grade: Ramandu and the Scientific Revolution

Greetings to all,

We spent the week looking at three key figures of the Scientific Revolution.  An explosion of scientific awareness and knowledge occurred from the beginning of the 17th to the middle of the 18th centuries.  Some of the great minds in history like Descartes, Galileo, and Newton made extraordinary discoveries and changed the way we viewed the world.  All three of these men may have been devout believers but their ideas seemed to push people away from Christianity.  Why was this?

In the aftermath of the devastating period of religious wars that ended after the Thirty Years War in 1648, people began to search for a new way of understanding the world.  During the Middle Ages things were understood first as a whole, then broken into its component parts.  Now knowledge would begin with the particulars.  One gained understanding of a thing through observation and induction.

This new way of understanding is perhaps best encapsulated by a conversation in C.S. Lewis’s ‘The Dawn Treader.’  In this volume of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” the character Eustace meets a retired star named Ramandu (in Narnia stars are personal beings), and tells him that “in our world a star is  a huge ball of flaming gas.”  “That is not what a star is,” replied  Ramandu, “but only what it is made of.”  Eustace represents this new way of understanding as a result of the Scientific Revolution, the star the old.  Eustace has a reductionistic view of reality, one influenced by our modern scientific outlook.  The star sees things more in terms of their teleological purpose — who we are should be defined not by our biology, our circumstances, or even our choices — all measurable, tangible things.  Rather, our identity should come from we were made for, our design, our “telos.”

Perhaps one can see the impact this might have on Christianity, which would ultimately be robbed of mystery and imagination.  Without mystery and imagination, orthodox belief about the incarnation, the trinity, and the atonement, among others, cannot be sustained.  The full impact of this way of thinking for society would not be felt until the 20th century (at least in my opinion), but we will see the beginnings of its effects in the Enlightenment and French Revolution, and more debatably, perhaps also in the founding of America.

We began by looking at Francis Bacon, the “Father of the Scientific Method.”  He believed that science had long laid imprisoned by dogma.  Medieval Science had largely proceeded along the following lines.

1. Deduction over Induction

Deduction works like this:

All Men are Mortal

Socrates was a Man

Therefore, Socrates was mortal.

We have a certain conclusion based upon a universal premise.  But of course, the premise must be assumed, it can’t be proven.  In other words, you have to work from assumptions, from ‘faith.’

2. The Dominance of the Past

Aristotle, Ptolemy, and others held great sway over Medieval science.  Part of this fact was rooted in humility.  If you and Einstein did the same problem and arrived at different results, would you trust Einstein or yourself?  Part of this attitude had its roots in the loss of so much scientific heritage after the fall of Rome, and the fact that the Romans were not particularly scientific to begin with.  This led to an assumption that past thinkers were smarter than you.

In general, Medieval society was not geared towards innovation, both in economics, industry, and science.  That is not to say that no innovation existed in the Medieval world.  It did exist, especially in architecture.  But,  it was not their priority.

Bacon sought to overturn the whole basis of science by focusing not on unproved assumptions, but measurement, observation, and experimentation.  He favored Induction.  If we return to our previous syllogism we see it would run this way.

Socrates was a man

Socrates was mortal

Therefore, ???

What can you say in the final analysis?  You cannot say that all men are mortal.  You can only say that Socrates is mortal, or perhaps that ‘Some men (meaning at least 1 man) are mortal.  Nothing needs to be ‘taken on faith,’ but on the other hand, no ultimate truth can be discovered.  Modern science would be much more effective at advancing our specific knowledge of the finite world, but would not be able to communicate any grand meaning.

Marshal McLuhan wrote in 1964 that, “The medium is the message.”  This idea has many facets, but one of them is that the form of communication will have a decisive influence over what exactly we communicate.  Bacon did much for Science in freeing from over-reliance on accepted theory. But, if Science has as its “modus operandi” observation and experimentation, then the ability to do something becomes the reason for doing it.  Hence, science  can gallop far ahead of a society’s moral compass, i.e. abortion, nuclear weapons, cloning, and so on.

We see this specifically in the philosophy of Descartes.  Descartes fought in the 30 Years War and must have thought that the world he knew, all the old certainties, were crashing down about him.  He sought a new path to certainty.  Ultimately he wanted a fresh basis for acting in the world which certainly included God and the Church.  What went wrong?  With his famous phrase, “Cognito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am) Descartes builds his system on

  • Doubt.  He found that he could doubt everything — except the fact that he was doubting.  This doubting proved that he must be thinking, and if he was thinking he must exist.
  • Himself.  It is the individual thinking man on which Descartes builds his universal system.  But we are finite, and not universal.  Thus, any system built upon something finite would be bound to fail.  In a famous Socratic dialogue, the philosopher Protagoras proclaimed that ‘Man is the measure of all things.’  “Which man?” was the essence of Socrates’s famous reply.

Again, and again, with Thomas Hobbes, Galileo, and perhaps even Newton we will see this phenomena.  Galielo, for example, said,

“In every hypothesis of reason error may lurk unnoticed, but a discovery of sense cannot be at odds with the truth.”

Is this indeed true?  Are our senses infallible?  Is what we can measure the highest standard of truth?

A great deal of good came from the Scientific Revolution, and many of these pioneering scientists professed a Christian faith.   What I want the students to recognize for how, however, is the reductionistic view of reality shared by most of these Scientific pioneers.  Descartes, for example, reduced everything to doubt, while Hobbes reduced everything to motion.  The de-mystifying of the world around us would not serve Christianity in the long run.

It is not so much the conclusions they reached, but how they reached them, that should have been of great concern to the Church.  Unfortunately the Church’s hold on the populace had diminished, mostly thanks to their own actions, wars, and brutalities.  We see this spirit of reaction against the concept of ‘faith’ in general throughout these eminent men.  Many, like Bacon, Descartes, and Galileo, seemed to be honest Christian men who thought they did Christianity a favor.  No doubt in some respects they did.  But some of  their assumptions were just as unproven as Aristotle’s.

Next week we will continue with a few other thinkers of the Scientific Revolution as we work towards the mid-term exam.

If you are curious, I include below some primary source text from the period indicating the shift that took place.

The Great Divide: Primary Sources on the Scientific Revolution and Religion

The fierceness of violent inspirations is in good measure departed: the remains of it will soon be chased out of the World by the remembrance of the the terrible footsteps it has everywhere left behind it.  And yet, though the Church of Rome still preserves its pomp, yet its real authority is also decaying.   This is the present state of Christendom.  It is now impossible to spread the same cloud over the world again: the universal disposition of this age is bent on rational religion.

Let it be a true observation that many modern naturalists have been negligent in the worship of God; yet perhaps they have been driven on this profaneness by the late excesses of enthusiasm.  The infinite pretences to . . . Divine inspiration that have abounded in this age have carried several men of wit so far as to reject the whole matter.   From hence it derives that [for religion to recover its place] it must not endeavor to cast a veil of darkness, but chiefly to allay spiritual madness.

Sprat, The History of the Royal Society for Improving Natural Knowledge, 1667

Man’s lot is so unfortunately placed that those lights that deliver him from one evil precipitate him into another.  Cast out ignorance and barbarism, and you will overthrow superstition.  But in the act of illuminating men’s mind’s regarding these [mental disorders], you will inspire them for a passion to examine everything, and they will apply the fine tooth comb, and they will go into such subtleties that they will find nothing to content their wretched Reason.

Bayle, The Dictionary, 1696

It is worthy to be observed and lamented that the most violent of these defenders of truth, the “opposers of errors,”  . . .do hardly ever let loose this their zeal for God, with which they are so inflamed, unless they have the civil magistrate on their side.  As soon as court favor has given them the better end of the staff, they begin to feel themselves the stronger, then presently peace and charity are laid aside.

One finds that, as soon as Christians were in a position to persecute, they leveled the same reproach against religious error that Paganism leveled at Christianity.  Unhappy advocates of intolerance!  Your malady must indeed be a bizarre one, considering that it is proof against being cured by the application of lex talionis.

John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689

When [the spirit of religious division] is rife, you need have no fear that the multiplicity of sects will create many skeptics.

Bayle, Letters, ca. 1690

The doctrine of right and wrong is perpetually disputed, whereas the doctrine of lines and figures is not so, because men care not so what be the truth as pertains to their lust or ambition.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651

Mechanics is the paradise of the mathematical sciences, because with mechanics, we reach the fruit that mathematics can be made to bear.

Mechanical science is most noble above all sciences, because this one is the means by which all living bodies that have the power of movement perform all their operations.

Science is the Captain and Practice the rank and file. . . .   People who fall in love with Practice without Science are like the skipper who boards ship without rudder or compass and who consequently never knows where he is going

Leonardo da Vinci

All knowledge is to be got the same way that a language is: by industry, use, and observation.

Whatever other hurt or good comes by such holy speculative wars, yet certainly by this means the knowledge of Nature has been very much retarded. . . .  The wit of men has been profusely poured out on religion, which needed not its help, and which was thereby made tempestuous.  Experimental Philosophy [i.e. Science] will prevent men spending the strength of their thoughts about disputes by turning them into works.

Sprat, The History of the Royal Society of London, 1667

It cannot be denied that it is rare to find any great religious devotion in people who have tasted of the study of mathematics, or have made any progress in the province of Science.

Bayle, The Dictionary, 1696

Only let Mankind regain their rights over Nature, assigned to them by the gift of God, and obtain that power, whose exercise will be governed by right reason and true religion.

F. Bacon, Novum Organum (emphasis mine), 1620

I perceived it to be possible to arrive at a knowledge highly useful in life, . . . .to discover a practical philosophy, by means of which — knowing the force and action of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, . . .we might also apply them in the same way to all the uses to which they are adapted, and thus make ourselves the lords and possessors of Nature.

Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, 1637

Have a great weekend,


11th Grade: Bismarck and “Unnatural States”


This week we began to look at German unification, orchestrated under the brilliant and controversial Prime Minister of Prussia Otto von Bismarck.

Bismarck raises some important and perhaps uncomfortable questions about leadership.  What is the line between serving the interests of your country and serving God?  Should nations be treated akin to how one would treat individuals, and therefore punished and rewarded like individuals?  Or, should nations be thought of as artificial entities that do not have to play by the same rules as people?  Cardinal Richelieu said to this effect: ‘People are immortal and thus subject to the law of God.  Nations are mortal ] and are subject to the law of what works.’ That is, artificial and unnatural creations — one can’t imagine the universe as it is without gravity, but it would be the same universe without the United States.  This hearkens again to Richelieu who would have argued that while Frenchman are Catholic, France is not.  France can’t be Catholic any more than a cardboard box could be Catholic.  Frenchmen may be redeemed, but France will have no heavenly judgment or reward.  For better or worse, Bismarck would have agreed with him.  He also said,

If one wants to retain respect for laws and sausages, don’t watch them being made.

Politics for Bismarck was a dirty business, and there was no point pretending that success would not mean getting his own hands dirty.  But for Bismarck, the world of international politics remained essentially unredeemable, a conclusion Christians may not wish to share.

While there are many debatable aspects of Bismarck, a few things are beyond dispute.  He gained an advantage over some of his foreign political adversaries in part because he recognized what the Industrial Revolution would mean for politics before others.  He realized that

  • Mass production would lead to a ‘mass society,’ where mobilization of opinion could make a huge difference.
  • Old aristocratic Europe was finished, at least in the sense that kings and nobles could no longer act without direct reference to their populations.  The press and public opinion would be nuisances to others.  Bismarck saw them as opportunities for making Prussia’s actions much more potent.

Bismarck is  controversial because

  • He used democracy, but he had no time for it.  Democracy, he felt was for doe-eyed idealists. In the end for Bismarck, ‘blood and iron,’ not speeches, win the day.  Force and strength were the best projections of power, though to be fair to Bismarck, he believed in a limited/surgical use of force.
  • Bismarck was the ultimate realist.  He believed that concerning oneself with justice, for example, could lead one to get carried away, to lose focus.  The primary motivation for policy should be whether or not it serves the interest’s of the state.  Don’t first concern yourself with rewards or punishments.  Do what serves the ends of the state.  A foreign policy built primarily on  morality (an example might be punishing or rewarding a country based on their human rights record) was not proper for a nation, however much individuals should be concerned with it.

As an example of his policy we can look at his actions during the Polish bid for independence from Russia.  When the Poles attempted to break from Russia almost every major power gave speeches expressing their support for the Polish cause.  They did so, no doubt, for a variety of reasons:

  • The Poles vs. Russia was a great underdog story and everyone loves an underdog
  • Independence movements were rife throughout Europe and everyone loves to bandwagon.
  • Polish success would weaken Russia’s power, and most wanted Russia weakened whenever possible.

Bismarck shocked everyone by not supporting the Poles, but even offering public support — and troops — to aid the Russians in crushing the rebellion.  Why did he take such a position?

  • Speeches make you feel good and important, but speeches themselves will not help the Poles one whit.
  • These speeches, however, will serve to alienate Russia, and you would have gained nothing and angered a major power.
  • No foreign power would actually send troops to aid the Polish, so again, the expressions of support mean nothing in reality.
  • The Poles, without foreign aid, would certainly lose.

Thus, it seemed far better to Bismarck to go against the grain and actually aid his country by standing up for Russia in their time of need.  Yes, other countries would get momentarily upset at Prussia’s actions, but again, it would mean nothing.  Bismarck planned to cash in  the favor he performed for Russia later, and he did in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866.

To put Bismarck’s actions in perspective, think of the “Free Tibet” movement that we occasionally hear about.  Lot’s of people make speeches to end Chinese occupation of Tibet.  But . . . no one will actually do anything about it.  No one would risk war with China over this issue.  The words of sympathy given to Tibet 1) Do nothing for the Tibetans, 2) angers China, which makes them 3) not just worthless, but counterproductive.

To put Bismarck’s actions here in perspective, imagine if a U.S. president not only did not support Tibet, but publicly supported China.  “Yes — go China!  Crush the Tibetans!  Nature wills that they stand subject to your glorious might!”

It would be a bold move.

This does not mean that Bismarck was personally amoral.  Rather, if nations are essentially ‘pieces on a chessboard’ they cannot be sinned against.  You can sin against people.  But you cannot sin against shapes on a map.  This hearkens back to Richilieu’s foreign policy for France some 250 years prior, and to Machiavelli before that. In the same way, no one would call you a ‘sinner’ if you bluffed in poker.  The poker game is in a sense, an alternate reality where different rules apply.  For Bismarck, the same is true of politics.  We see this philosophy come through in his famous musings after Prussia’s victory in the Austro-Prussian War:

We had to avoid wounding Austria too severely; we had to avoid leaving behind in her any unnecessary bitterness of feeling or desire for revenge; we ought rather to reserve the possibility of becoming friends again with our adversary of the moment, and in any case to regard the Austrian state as a piece on the European chessboard. If Austria were severely injured, she would become the ally of France and of every other opponent of ours; she would even sacrifice her anti-Russian interests for the sake of revenge on Prussia. . . .The acquisition of provinces like Austria Silesia and portions of Bohemia could not strengthen the Prussian state; it would not lead to an amalgamation of German Austria with Prussia, and Vienna could not be governed from Berlin as a mere dependency. . . .Austria’s conflict and rivalry with us was no more culpable than ours with her; our task was the establishment or foundation of German national unity under the leadership of the King of Prussia.

….To all this the king raised no objection, but declared the actual terms as inadequate, without however definitely formulating his own demands. Only so much was clear, that his claims had grown considerably since July 4. He said that the Austria could not be allowed to escape unpunished, and that, justice once satisfied, we could let the misled backsliders off more easily; and he insisted on the cessions of territory from Austria which I have already mentioned.

I replied that we were not there to sit in judgment, but to pursue the German policy. Austria’s conflict and rivalry with us was no more culpable than ours with her; our task was the establishment or foundation of German national unity under the leadership of the king of Prussia.

Passing on to the German states, the king spoke of various acquisitions by cutting down the territories of all our opponents. I repeated that we were not there to administer retributive justice, but to pursue a policy; that I wished to avoid in the German federation of the future the sight of mutilated territories, whose princes and peoples might very easily (such is human weakness) retain a lively wish to recover their former possessions by means of foreign aid.

If we wish to dismiss his ideas, we should pause first.  After all, it is wrong to kill, but a nation can commission soldiers to kill, and we do not say they sin necessarily by doing so.  People shouldn’t lie, but a nation can spies to disseminate false information.  Is this sin?  If we say no, we have a dilemma on our hands of how we think of states as they relate to ‘individual’ morality.

In the end, Bismarck’s creation of a unified Germany would radically change European politics.  Germany became the greatest land power on the continent immediately.  But the change went deeper than that — the rationale for how a state comprised itself changed.  The idea of a “Germany for Germans” would spread and eventually undo European empires, and sow the seeds of the militant democracies of the early 20th century.

One bittersweet moment for me was the class’s viewing of the last episode of Kenneth Clarke’s ‘Civilisation’ series last Friday.  Beginning in 9th grade, I show students at least parts of all the episodes in this series.  Clark has a wonderful eye for discerning the meaning of an age through art, architecture, and music. While I don’t always agree with his conclusions, I am always challenged by them.  I believe all episodes are available on YouTube should you be interested yourself.

Clarke’s take on the industrial world is a sobering one.  In the opening lines of the last episode he says as the camera pans on New York City ca. 1968 (I paraphrase),

‘New York City in its present condition took almost as long to build as the Gothic Cathedrals.  This begs a comparison.  While the cathedrals were built for the glory of God, it appears obvious to me that our cities are built to the worship of money.’

AJ Toynbee also discusses the industrial age in his book, ‘An Historian’s Approach to Religion.’  For him, the industrial age is simply the outgrowth of western civilization’s “Idolization of the Technician,’ which he believes began in the mid 17th century.  If we acquire the ability to do a thing, that in itself becomes it’s justification.

Clarke and Toynbee’s ideas may not call for agreement, but they do call for a response.  We shall see the effects, good and bad, of the increasing industrialization and mechanization of society in the weeks to come.

Many thanks again,

Dave Mathwin