The Blind Swordsman

Some years ago I watched the movie The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi and enjoyed it, though it did not match my expectations.  I watch martial arts movies from time to time, but usually not for the plot or character development.  As a kid, I watched any movie I could with big explosions.  Now I am a sucker for the balletic action common in many great kung-fu movies from the east.

Certainly the movie has its share of sword fights, but the style of fighting surprised me, ignorant as I was (and am) of Japanese fighting styles.  I expected long, drawn out battles.  In fact, the fights lasted mere seconds as the combatants focused on short, intense stabs.  Towards the end of the movie the best swordsman of the bad guys and Zatoichi face off alone.  “Ah, here we go,” I thought.  No . . . this was the shortest fight of all, consisting of each man doing only one move.

I thought of this movie reading Japanese Destroyer Captain* by Captain Temeichi Hara of the Japanese Imperial navy.  During W.W. II his record made him Japan’s best captain of destroyers, if not one of their top captains in the whole navy.  Much of his memoir reads like I suppose an American or British naval man would recount the war.  I hoped also to glean something of the culture of Japan that would help illumine the war beyond the narrow confines Hara discusses.

Captain Hara avoids using too much military jargon.  At times I had to strain to understand the battles he describes, but usually not.  He writes openly without any obvious agenda.  He has criticism and praise alike for certain American actions, and even sharply criticizes certain member of Japanese high command (I believe he was the first to do so after the war).

I mentioned The Blind Swordsman because the whole atmosphere of Hara’s account has its roots in samurai lore.  Hara often references maxim’s from different literature and famous swordsmen, but he seems to do more than just quote them.  He gives evidence of living inside of them.  His grandfather actually was a samurai and he speaks at the beginning of the book of his deep connection with his grandfather.  He obviously sought to live out this connection in battle.  Often his thoughts on tactics and strategy come couched in aphorisms of the samurai, especially Mushashi Miyamoto.

But this applies to the whole Japanese naval effort.  Certainly Japan faced certain strategic limitations given their relatively small industrial capacity, but their tactics reminded me of the final sword battle of Zatoichi.  The best samurai win with one stroke.  The Japanese developed torpedoes that had longer range and ran without leaving a distinct trail in the water.  This gave them an advantage that they attempted to exploit in samurai like fashion.  They sought to fire first from long range, well before U.S. ships could fire.  If successful, the naval battle would over immediately.  But if not–and the long ranges from which they fired made this less than likely–the advantage would immediately swing to the Americans.  On the one hand, their concepts make sense apart from samurai lore.  If you have a smaller chance of winning a close-fought battle (Americans never had to worry about supplies of ammo) try and win it from long-range.  Even so, we still see the samurai connection.

We this seeking after a decisive final-blow in other aspects of Hara’s account.  He frequently criticized any effort of Japan that failed to use its forces en masse in decisive faction, citing the adage, “A lion uses all its strength when catching a rabbit.”  Even in April of 1945, with no chance of victory, Hara seems strangely at peace with their final naval assault.  Many eagerly sought death in samurai fashion in an entirely hopeless battle.  Hara, if I may venture  a guess, seems pleased in a more detached sense that the navy had marshaled all its remaining ships and at least would now use them all at once.  In this last moment for the Japanese navy we see the Zatoichi sword fight connection.  Rather than keep their ships back to defend Japan, they sought a grand offensive thrust at our beachhead in Okinawa (which also mirrors how they used their torpedos).**

When discussing Guadalcanal Hara shows a keen understanding of strategic and tactical success.  The Japanese at one point won a key battle by sinking several U.S. ships.  The Japanese celebrated.  Hara did not.  He noted that nothing about the situation in Guadalcanal had fundamentally changed.  The U.S. could still supply its men, and the Japanese still could not supply their own.  Soon after the Japanese evacuated their troops.

I thought of this earlier section of the book when reading the last paragraph.  Hara writes,

The powerful navy which had launched the Pacific war 40 months before with the attack on Pearl Harbor had at last been struck down.  On April 7, 1945, the Japanese Navy died.

That’s it?  After giving many opinions and demonstrating time and again the ability and courage to criticize and analyze situations, I found myself mystified that he offered no general conclusions.   Why?  Again, I am guessing . . . but in the midst of battle, Hara dedicated himself to victory at (almost) any cost.^  Part of this ‘cost’ came in the form of even criticizing high command.  But once the war ended, perhaps Hara thought of himself as a ronin, masterless and without purpose.  Reflection about some grand meaning after the fact might for him resemble one hand clapping in a void of space–what would be the point?  Perhaps . . . perhaps, Hara resembled Zatoichi in more than just a sense of samurai vocation.  Perhaps his field of psychological vision was likewise obscured.

Dave

 

*I assume this is a poor translation and the title in Japanese is not so wooden.

**Perhaps another connection . . . Hara laments that the Japanese could not build small torpedo boats akin to our PT class ships.  They had the requisite physical capability, of course, but not, it seems, the ability to match the mental will and physical capacity.  Hara offers no explanation for this so my guess will be exceedingly tentative . . . the PT boat offered nothing that would produce a decisive and grand blow.  No samurai wanted to inflict a death of 1000 cuts.

I mentioned one effect of the democratization of the samurai ethos in this post.  In a more mild vein, Hara mentions a samurai drinking ceremony related to battle.  Now, with all supposed to embody the samurai spirit, all would drink as the samurai did.  But, there are many more men in the navy than there were samurai.  Hara recounts several amusing instances when he “had” to drink many many toasts with his men, with almost any occasion an excuse to drink.

^Hara felt that too many in Japan’s military applied the bushido ethic too far and too liberally, merely seeking death as preferable to life.  Hara did not fundamentally object to suicide missions, but he did believe that they must serve some purpose beyond the merely symbolic.  He object to the final sortie to Okinawa not because it would involve the destruction of the fleet, but because it would needlessly destroy the fleet.  Hara wanted instead to sell his life attacking supply and transport ships, to do at least some damage to the U.S.

 

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11th Grade: Haste Makes Chemical Weapons

Greetings,

We moved forward with  W.W. I this week, and this coming week we plan to discuss trench warfare and its companion, chemical warfare.

The map below shows Germany did have Turkey and Austria as allies, but both were very weak, leaving Germany to carry the overwhelming part of the burden against England, France, and Russia.  They knew they could not win a long a protracted war.  Trench warfare would do nothing if not slow the war down to a grind, and Germany knew that this would work against them.

Germany came up with two tactics to try and tip the scales in their favor: Chemical and Submarine Warfare (we will discuss sub warfare next week).

Chemical weapons were made with gas heavier than air.  The idea was that the gas would sink down into the trenches, killing men and perhaps, with high enough concentrations, make the trench unlivable.  This would flush them out of the trench, where they were sitting ducks.  Germany knew that they could not win a long war.   If they wanted victory, they believed, they needed a way to break the stalemate sooner rather than later.  Mustard Gas seemed like it might do the trick.

British 55th Division gas casualties 10 April 1918

England ruled the waves, and this allowed them to continually supply their troops in France and keep their economy moving forward.  Germany’s pre-war challenge to England’s naval supremacy fell short, but subs were a cheaper way to try and eliminate that lead.

Immediately the allied powers regarded both kinds of weapons as unfair and unlawful.  Most nations today agree that chemical weapons should be banned, but submarine warfare stuck around and became standard practice. Why do we make this distinction?  Is it justified?

In regards to chemical warfare:

  • It is a different form of killing, but it is a qualitatively different form?  Does anything separate being killed by a bullet and killed by gas?  Some argue that chemical weapons stay around and linger in the soil.  But what about unexploded land mines?  Should land mines also be banned?  In fact many argue that international treaties should do just that.
  • Sub Warfare was regarded as cowardly and ‘unsporting.’  It is also was patently ‘unfair,’ as it involved hiding from the enemy giving you an unfair advantage.  Thus, in the minds of many, war became murder.

At the back of all these issues is the ‘lawfulness’ of war.  Just war theory as it emerged from the early and Medieval church emphasized the ‘proportionality of response.’  But — if you don’t have ships, can subs be a ‘proportional response?’  If you lack the funds to make jets with precision guided weapons, can you instead develop an anthrax bomb?  Is that a proportional response?   Should war be essentially an affair of honor, like dueling?  Or is war really about victory, despite whatever gloss we put upon it?  We can also ask if moral action would always lead to victory, and what should a commander in chief do if moral action would make their country lose and suffer? Some students countered back to the original question – ‘Why are chemical weapons less moral than artillery shells?’

By the end of World War I, the European idea of war conducted in a gentlemanly way between ‘civilized’ nations disappeared.  Of course this would not be the first time in history that certain ideals about war would erode. Students who had me in the past may recall how the Peloponnesian War ended traditional ways in which the Greeks fought.

Some students thought that you could not introduce chemical weapons, but could use them if someone else did. What is the basis for this distinction, and does it work?

Some thought that Germany’s position of weakness justified their action, but this gets back to the question of whether or not some concept of right action or victory is most important in war.  Of course poorer countries today may not like being in an inferior position militarily, and may say that current bans on chemical and biological weapons are simply a way for the rich countries to maintain their advantage.

Whether the aggressor or not, Gemany’s ‘hurry up and win’ tactics hurt them strategically.  Their actions against Belgian civilians helped drum up political support for the war in France and especially England.  Their use of the submarine would ultimately bring in an entire new country against them, the United States.   It appears that for all their tactical success and ability (all agreed that Germans made the best trenches, for example), they lacked a workable long-term vision for how to win the war.

In this post I reviewed the book Just War and Christian Discipleship where author Daniel Bell makes the point that Christians need to abandon the “checklist” approach to war.  This attitude reasons based on the idea that, “Because you did ‘x,’ now I can do ‘y.’  Such an approach, Bell argues, abandons the idea of war as a distinctly Christian calling, an activity like any other, designed to bring us closer to Christ.  Certainly Bell, I’m sure, would argue that chemical weapons have no place in a Christian concept of war.

Anyway, these questions tackle deep and profound issues that we did not have time to fully explore.  However, I was very pleased at the level of student participation and the depth of the discussion.

Blessings,

Dave Mathwin

The Idea of an “Empire of Liberty”

How we label things, or how we construct their meaning and place in history, obviously will say a lot about us.

The Constitution serves as a good example.

The Constitution has its flaws, its oversights, and some ungainliness about it.  We understand that it’s obviously not perfect. But it surely has worked on some level, having lasted this long.  Because it has worked (or at least we assume it has — more thoughts on this later), we think of it as a very “modern” and forward-looking document.  This matches how we think of ourselves.  We are a “progressive” people, the documents that define us must also have the same character.

But in his two books Empire of Liberty, and The Idea of America acclaimed historian Gordon Wood makes the point that the Constitution tried in fact to stem the rising tide of “liberty” and change unleashed by the “spirit of ’76.” The Constitution may not have been a completely “reactionary” document but it was a response to a quick erosion in society of what many elite revolutionaries like Adams and Madison held dear.

Through various quotes and citations, Wood lists the changes seen and feared by such men in the 1780’s . . .

  • A loosening of traditional relationships between men and women — parents had much less control over who their children married.
  • Riots and protests against professors at the few (and elite) colleges by many students demanding curriculum changes, attitude changes, and the like
  • A decided turn against the virtues of the ancient Romans and a great movement toward the ideas of tolerance and conviviality as the means to hold society together
  • Democratization of religion, which became much less authority driven and much more ‘touchy-feely.’
  • Extreme partisan politics on local levels, with stories of violent behavior in state legislatures rampant.  The rise of the “party-spirit” in politics bewildered many.
  • Both “free love” and drugs going mainstream into the culture

Ok — the last is not true, but if one looks at the list, it looks quite familiar to us, making us think of the 1920’s or the 1960’s, or today.  Maybe we must face the fact that this is what America was, is, and ever shall be.  As Alfred North Whitehead once said, “The major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur.”

Wood asserts that while the Constitution succeeded in establishing a structure that put up some barriers to change, overall the idea of liberty and “the people” triumphed over the Constitution’s conservative aspirations.  In the end, the idea liberty and the reality of the voice of the people ended up remaking the Constitution in its own image.  The Anti-Federalists, those who opposed the Constitution’s ratification, lost the battle but won the war.  The best the ideals of Washington and Adams can do now is fight rear-guard actions against the overwhelming power of the “people.”

Though initially shocking to our sensibilities, the idea of a reactionary Constitution helps make sense of much of American history down to the present day.  It also partially explains why appeals to the vision of the founders, or the intent of the founders falls on deaf ears.  For one, Madison and others probably believed that the factional “evils” they saw in state governments would not transfer to the national legislature.  Perhaps Madison wanted a stronger national government because he thought that only the “better sort” would get elected to the national legislature and thereby elevate discourse.  This “better sort” would not fall prey to party politics.  He sought then, more power not so much to the national government but to the “better men.”  However strong Madison’s hopes on this score, they quickly proved illusory.  Madison and others like him either misinterpreted or remained ignorant of exactly what their revolution had wrought.**

At a deeper level, two other questions arise.  Can the structures of organizations curtail underlying driving principles that form such organizations?  I tend to side on this one with the Jurassic Park dictum, “Life finds a way.”  The early “conservatives” could not call upon the spirit of self-determination in 1776 and then expect to put the toothpaste back in the tube once the Revolution had accomplished what they wanted it to.  The population at large could rightly retort, “What about us?” Bowing to the “will of the people” became a necessity, and eventually, a foreordained, positive good. Even a Constitutional “literalist” or “minimalist” like Jefferson gladly dispensed with his principles with the Louisiana Purchase, among other instances.  Like a nuclear blast, the concept of “liberty” leveled everything in its path.  What mattered to most was not the past, but the future.  The founders had done their part, but our vehement abhorrence to anything smacking of aristocracy made us quickly resistant to anything resembling the determining “tyranny of the past.”  John Adams, among others, quickly tried to assert that, “Wait!  That’s not what we meant!”  Most responded with some form of “I don’t care!”  Within a generation of the Constitution’s ratification, “egghead” professions like that of lawyer already were viewed as “elitist” by many, especially towards the frontier.  The seeming radical nature of the “Jacksonian Revolution” actually had its roots laid years prior.

Wood deals with the slavery question related to these political questions, but I found his analysis of the relationship between Americans and Native Americans more intriguing.  He writes,

Conceiving itself as a composite of different peoples, the British Empire could somehow accommodate the existence of Indians within its territory.  But the new American Republic was different: it contained only citizens who were presumably equal with one another.  Since the United States could scarcely imagine the Indians as citizens equal to all other American citizens, it had to regard Native Americans as members of foreign nations with which treaties had to be negotiated.  Of course, most of the Indians themselves had no desire to become citizens of the American Republic.

While the 17th century colonists did fight with Indians, little doubt exists that American Independence proved a disaster for Native Americans.  Problems began years before the war itself — one of the driving issues behind the Sugar Act and Stamp Act involved keeping colonists off Native American land.  Wood’s reasoning fits with de Tocqueville’s thoughts on equality, and the problem persists today. We have yet to work out the tension between liberty and equality.  When the “people” speak (however we measure this) we cannot tolerate deviation from the norm.  The example of Bruce/Caitlin Jenner speaks to this.  How many ESPN commentator’s could keep their jobs and declare that Jenner is tragically mistaken in his actions?  To be fair, had ESPN existed 50 years ago, could anyone have then applauded his actions and kept his job?

One unsaid implication of Wood’s book is pride of place between the American and French Revolutions.  Most see the American Revolution as giving birth to the French Revolution, with the French Revolution as the bastardization of all that went well in America, then withering on the vine as Napoleon took over.  But we might instead see the French Revolution as the real victor, with its sense of the power and authority of the “people” in more or less full swing by the early 19th century in America.  He who laughs last laughs loudest.  Or perhaps both of these positions wrongly presume an essential difference between the two events.  Maybe the American Revolution started to resemble the French Revolution because they had the same origins — fraternal if not identical twins.  If we consider this option, then we may need to reevaluate America history as a whole — an exciting if not daunting task.

“A man’s worst difficulties begin when he is able to do as he likes.” — T.H. Huxley

Dave

*We should note that those at the the Constitutional Convention had different ideas, and others whom we might consider “founders” like Patrick Henry, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were not at the Convention at all.

**Wood cites a variety of sources to demonstrate that the traditional understanding of the need for the Constitutional Convention being the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation are false.  Many had perfect awareness of these weaknesses and their fix remained relatively simple.  The real concerns of men like Madison and Washington lie rather in their observations of the petty bickering of state legislatures, and the fact any man Jack seemingly could get elected to state legislatures.

10th Grade: There’s More than One Way to Skin a Cat

Greetings,

As we reflected on the Scientific Revolution as a whole, we saw how people’s view of their experience in the world changed.  Newton and others gave us a universe of order and balance — a somewhat reductionistic world of cause and effect.  One could argue that a subtle shift occurred between the Reformation/Counter-Reformation era of the ‘inner’ man, the world of faith, etc., and a new focus on what can been seen and measured.

The reign of Louis XIV in some ways embodied these new principles.  Symmetry and order were key concepts of his reign, and they both were abundantly evident in the architecture of his royal residence in Versailles.  Many may tend to think of absolute monarchies existing in the Medieval period, but this is far from the case.  The era of absolutism might be dated between 1600-1750, and the Reformation certainly may have impacted this.  With the political power of the Church as a separate entity broken, that power would have to land somewhere.  For many, the most convenient and obvious place for that power to reside was in the person of the king.  And, if a neat house, for example, reflects to our eye a well-run house, than the order and symmetry in the architecture surely reflected back on Louis himself.

Hall of Mirrors

and
Gardens at Versailles
Louis himself put great stress on managing his own image, as this picture shows
Louis XIV

Perhaps most striking aspect of Louis’s reign, however, was how he controlled  the nobility.  Like many nations France’s nobles had a tumultuous relationship with the crown, with a variety of wars and compromises as the result.  Louis changed the dynamic by changing methods.  He created an elaborate system of ritual and custom. Violating these rules of ‘polite’ society meant ostracism, which meant loss of influence.  What the nobles apparently did not notice, however, was that under Louis’s system they had no influence.  Louis had them immersed in a bizarre system of etiquette.  Things like discussing politics or deep questions of life were not against the law, but frowned upon.  It was ‘not done.’  Thus, their lives became almost ridiculously trivial and inconsequential, with literally hours taken up in deciding who could sit where, who should stand for who, and so on.  Ask your children if you are interested about some of the specifics of this etiquette involving door knocking and chair sitting, among other things. The French Revolution would reveal some of the consequences of this development.

To control others, Louis did not use force.  Instead he dazzled, charmed, and confused the nobility.  To function all states need to establish some kind of order and control.  Louis, of course, had bigger fish to fry.  He did not want the status quo so much as he wanted a political revolution, a more centralized state.  To accomplish this most might have resorted to force, a “1984” style of authoritarian rule.  Louis was not known for his book learning but he must have had a keen “street-smarts,” for he chose a different path, the “Brave New World” path to control.  This path controls others not directly, but indirectly.  It creates a scenario whereby you, the individual, gladly give up some measure of political liberty to gain something you think is better.  Those who have seen the movie Matchstick Men might recall the line where the main character Roy defends himself by saying,

I’m not a criminal.  I’m a con-man.  [The difference being], I don’t take people’s money–people give me their money.

There’ more than one way to skin a cat.

We can say that Versailles was many things.  It was a social hot-spot.  It was a place of elegance and beauty, or at least, a certain idea of beauty.  But it was also a piece of political propaganda.  Louis was known as the ‘Sun King,’ and this statue of Apollo on his chariot dragging the sun up stood in a prominent place:

pd2047369

Louis masterfully tried to have image morph into reality.  Apollo, for example not only had the power to move the sun, he also was the god of music and culture.  In using Apollo, Louis claimed not just preeminence of power but also of taste, a place the French have enjoyed for centuries since.  Yet, for my money, while I would readily call Versailles impressive, I don’t think I would call it beautiful.  Louis wanted to subtly scream “Authority!” which did, I think, create a chilling effect.

Next week we will look more deeply into the policies and practices of Louis’ France.  In this update I have painted perhaps too black a picture of Louis.  He was certainly far from an overtly evil or cruel man.  He had many endearing qualities.  But the changes he began did have significant consequences.

Blessings,

Dave

Imagined Communities

Today there is much talk surrounding the idea of the lack of communal identification in America.  We have red states, and blue states, and we bowl alone.  Our kids don’t go outside to play with other neighborhood kids.  We have much to lament.

On the other hand, this social/cultural shift (for our purposes here we’ll assume it’s true) has given us some distance from the whole concept of a “nation.”  Paul Graham has a marvelous post entitled “The Re-fragmentation” in which he discusses the darker side of everyone huddled together around the center.  One could argue that the prime era of nationalism produced an eerie cultural conformity on a scale perhaps not seen since ancient times.

It is this spirt that Benedict Anderson writes Imagined Communities.  The book attempts to tackle how it is that communities71hPv-gXglL called “nations” formed.  At times I thought he drifted into a bit of esotericism, but I found other insights of his incisive and quite helpful.  The first of these insights is in the title itself.  Nations require imagination.  We can understand that those within an immediate geographic proximity could be a community.  We can surmise that those of like-minded belief could find a way to become a community.  But how might I be connected with someone in Oregon with whom I may not share either belief, geography, experience, or culture?  It requires a certain leap of the imagination.

Anderson cites two texts from the fathers of Filipino nationalism to demonstrate how this idea of a national community could be formed.  The first is from Jose Rizal:

Towards the end of October, Don Santiago de los Santos, popularly known as Capitan Tiago, was giving a dinner party.  Although, contrary to his usual practice, he announced it only that afternoon, it was already the subject of every conversation in Binondo, in other quarters of the city, and even in the city of Intramuros.  In those days Capitan Tiago had the reputation of a lavish host.  It was known that his house, like his country, closed his doors to nothing — except to commerce or any new or daring idea.

So the news coursed like an electric shock through the community of parasites, spongers, and gatecrashers, whom God, in His infinite goodness, created, and so tenderly multiplies in Manila.  Some hunted polish for their boots, others looked for collar buttons and cravats.  But one and all were occupied with the problem of how to greet their host with the familiarity required to create the appearance of long-standing friendship, or if need be, to excuse themselves for not having arrived earlier .
The dinner was being given on a house on Anloague Street.  Since we cannot recall the street number, we shall describe it such a way that it may be recognized — that is, if earthquakes have not yet destroyed it.  We do not believe that its owner will have had it torn down, since such work is usually left to God or Nature, which besides, holds many contracts with our Government.  

The second from Marko Kartikromo

It was 7 o’clock Saturday evening; young people in Semarang never at home Saturday night.  On this night, however, no one was about.  Because the heavy day-long rain had made the roads wet and very slippery, all had stayed at home.  

For the workers in shops and offices Saturday morning was a time of anticipation–anticipating their leisure and the fun of walking around the city in the evening, but on this night they were to be disappointed–because of the lethargy created by the bad weather.  The main roads usually crammed with all sorts of traffic, the footpaths usually teeming with people, all were deserted.  Now and then the crack of horse cab’s whip could be heard spurring a horse on its way.

Samerang was deserted.  The light from the gas lamps shone on the shining asphalt road.

A young man was seated on a long rattan lounge reading a newspaper.  He was totally engrossed.  His occasional anger and smiles showed his deep interest in the stories.  He turned the pages of the newspaper, thinking that he might find something to make him feel less miserable.  Suddenly he came upon an article entitled:

PROSPERITY

A destitute vagrant became ill on the side of the road and died of exposure

The report moved the young man.  He could just conjure up the the suffering of the poor soul as he lay dying on the side of the road.  One moment he felt an explosive anger well-up inside.  Another moment he felt pity, and yet again he felt anger at the social system which made some men poor and others rich.

If we contrast these texts with two other famous opening passages (The Iliad, and Pride and Prejudice) we may begin to see why the above texts could be described as “nationalistic.”

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.

And which of the gods was it that set them on to quarrel? It was the son of Jove and Leto; for he was angry with the king and sent a pestilence upon the host to plague the people, because the son of Atreus had dishonoured Chryses his priest. Now Chryses had come to the ships of the Achaeans to free his daughter, and had brought with him a great ransom: moreover he bore in his hand the sceptre of Apollo wreathed with a suppliant’s wreath and he besought the Achaeans, but most of all the two sons of Atreus, who were their chiefs.

“Sons of Atreus,” he cried, “and all other Achaeans, may the gods who dwell in Olympus grant you to sack the city of Priam, and to reach your homes in safety; but free my daughter, and accept a ransom for her, in reverence to Apollo, son of Jove.”

On this the rest of the Achaeans with one voice were for respecting the priest and taking the ransom that he offered; but not so Agamemnon, who spoke fiercely to him and sent him roughly away. “Old man,” said he, “let me not find you tarrying about our ships, nor yet coming hereafter. Your sceptre of the god and your wreath shall profit you nothing. I will not free her. She shall grow old in my house at Argos far from her own home, busying herself with her loom and visiting my couch; so go, and do not provoke me or it shall be the worse for you.”

The old man feared him and obeyed. Not a word he spoke, but went by the shore of the sounding sea and prayed apart to King Apollo whom lovely Leto had borne. “Hear me,” he cried, “O god of the silver bow, that protects Chryse and holy Cilla and rulest Tenedos with thy might, hear me oh thou of Sminthe. If I have ever decked your temple with garlands, or burned your thigh-bones in fat of bulls or goats, grant my prayer, and let your arrows avenge these my tears upon the Danaans.”

Thus did he pray, and Apollo heard his prayer. He came down furious from the summits of Olympus, with his bow and his quiver upon his shoulder, and the arrows rattled on his back with the rage that trembled within him. He sat himself down away from the ships with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrow in the midst of them. First he smote their mules and their hounds, but presently he aimed his shafts at the people themselves, and all day long the pyres of the dead were burning.

******

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

“Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.

You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

This was invitation enough.

“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”

If we consider the idea that nations are primarily imagined communities we can examine the texts.

The first two texts . . .

  • Conjure up a sense of belonging to a particular place.  The reader may not know the locations described in experience but can imagine being there.
  • Establish a connection between the large groups of people in the story, despite the fact that these people do not know each other — note that in the second text the man feels a connection to the vagrant though they had never met.
  • Presuppose an almost jocular familiarity with the the concept of a “nation.”

But neither The Illiad or Pride and Prejudice do any of these things.  The reader gets dropped into a world that is not theirs, and neither author shows much concern to make it so.  The reader observes the story, but does not participate in the story.  If we consider Austen one of the primary literary voices of her day, we can surmise that the transition to considering “nations” as communities is quite recent.  C.S. Lewis commented that the world of Austen and Homer had much more in common with each other, despite their 2500 year separation, than his world and Austen’s, despite the mere 150 year time difference.^

Too many causes exist for this momentous shift to consider them here.  Anderson focuses on a couple, however, worth considering.

As mentioned above, one can have a sense of community based on physical proximity.  Anderson’s brilliance is to focus on the idea of “imagination” creating this sense of community.  We must always realize, then, in the essential unreality of nationhood, a subject to which we will return.  But Anderson also shows the concrete foundation for the myth of nationality.

Ideologically the idea of equality had to arise before the idea of nationality had a chance.  But the idea of equality needed fertile soil, and Anderson names “print-capitalism” as one primary ingredient.  With the Enlightenment came the idea of rational standardization of measurement (of distance, time, weight, etc.) and language.

The printed book, kept a permanent form, capable of infinite reproduction, temporally and spatially.  It was no longer subject to the ‘unconsciously modernizing’ habits of monastic scribes.  Thus, while 12th century French differed markedly from that written by Villon in the 15th, the rate of change slowed markedly by the in the 16th.  ‘By the end of the 17th century languages in Europe had generally assumed their modern forms.’

Capitalism too played its part.  “In the Middle Ages,” commented Umberto Eco, “one did not ‘make money.’  You either had money or you didn’t.”  Today we hear a great deal about the inequalities of capitalism.  But capitalism helped produced a society in which the vast majority of people can share in common experiences though common consumption.*  The mass production made possible by political unification helped create mass consumption, and so one hand washes the other.  Capitalism and print media together created the newspaper, which formed the ‘daily liturgy’ of the national community.

So to what extent can we say that “nations” have value?  One student of mine refused to take the bait and argued bluntly (but effectively) that “they seem to be doing pretty well so far.”  Ross Douthat writes,

The nation-state is real, and (thus far) irreplaceable. Yes, the world of nations is full of arbitrary borders, invented traditions, and convenient mythologies layered atop histories of plunder and pillage. And yes, not every government or polity constitutes a nation (see Iraq, or Belgium, or half of Africa). But as guarantors of public order and personal liberty, as sources of meaning and memory and solidarity, as engines of common purpose in the service of the common good, successful nation-states offer something that few of the transnational institutions or organizations bestriding our globalized world have been able to supply. (The arguable exception of Roman Catholicism is, I fear, only arguable these days.) So amid trends that tend to weaken, balkanize or dissolve nation-states, it should not be assumed that a glorious alternative awaits us if we hurry that dissolution to its end.

I agree that the effectiveness of nations vis a vis other forms of organization is at least arguable.**  I agree with Douthat that the premature burial of  “nations” before their time, with nothing ready to replace it, would be silly at best.  But . . . Anderson’s work reminds us that we live in purely imagined communities.  They exist not in reality, but for expediency, a product of contingent historical circumstances.

The question remains — will their imaginary existence, like that of the zero, prove so valuable that they will last far into the future?  We can see the challenge posed to them already by the internet, globalization, and political polarization.  We shall see how strong our imaginations can be in the next generation or two.

 

Dave

 

*I do not suggest that defining ourselves through consumption is a good thing in itself, merely that consumerism has had this particular impact.

**In brief, we might say that the birth of nations was bloody (ca. 1800-1871), with the next generation settling into a relative peace.  But the first half of the 20th century was catastrophically destructive, with a moderately peaceful era to follow.  For whatever it’s worth, the possibly waning age of “nations” — ca. 1970’s – present, has been a period of steadily decreasing world violence.

^M.I. Finley makes an interesting connection between the two eras in his classic, The World of Odysseus.  Finley looks at Achilles’ comment in Hades and draws an unexpected conclusion.  Achilles seems to state that he would rather be a “thes” on earth than king in Hades.  Most translations assume that “thes” means “slave,” but Finley argues that the best translation would mean something like, “unattached free small landholder.”  This, and not slavery, was the worst fate Achilles could imagine.

This reminds me of a part in the Gwyenth Paltrow Emma movie where Emma disdains the independent farmer.  “He has no society, no information.”  We get another confirmation of the role capitalism and the concept of “equality” played in the creation of nations.

 

 

 

11th Grade: Stravinsky and the Idolatry of the Victorians

Greetings,
This week we wrapped up our look at the Progressive/Victorian Era.  I wanted to look at things in a little different way, by asking if there are there any possible links between Darwinism and Victorian morality.  Victorians devoted themselves to duty, both to country and family.  But as many have noted, Victorian morality was ‘defensive’ in nature.  That is, it focused on protecting themselves from outside forces. This is reflected by the segregation of Europeans from other natives in the imperialized countries, among other things. This is not a Christian concept because love is ‘positive’ in nature and should push us out of ourselves.  We see this ‘defensive’ attitude in their fashion:
Womens’ dress reflected  this idea of protection and isolation.  Darwinism says that we are little different from the animals, thus, we need protected from the ‘animal’ instincts just below the surface.  As some students commented, the women are not allowed to look like women at all.  Does modesty require a denial of femininity in general?  Men’s fashion does not change nearly as much as women’s, but even the men seemed quite buttoned up in their multi-piece suits:
Queen Victoria herself set the tone by projecting soberness and duty:
As we discussed in class, ‘modesty’ does not mean denying one’s femininity.  I would even argue that Victorian fashion projected the idea that they needed to protect themselves from themselves as well as the world.
Can patriotism become a religion in its own right?  Arnold Toynbee remarked that the ‘victory’ of science over Christianity proved disastrous.  It did not and could not eliminate religion.  Rather, it turned people from a ‘higher’ religion to the ‘lower’ pagan religions.  Toynbee writes further about the turn of the 20th century,
‘The most serious symptom was that, professedly Christian countries . . . .were by this time, practicing the primitive pagan worship of the bee-hive by the bee and ant-heap by the ant.  This idolatry was not redeemed by being concealed under the fine name of patriotism’ (Study of History, vol. 7b).
Along these lines, we discussed briefly Stravinsky’s (very likely a Christian) premiere of his ‘Rite of Spring’ in 1913. which was meant to depict pagan ritual.  Shocked and horrified people nearly rioted at performances.  Did they do so because Stravinsky destroyed traditional artistic conventions of what music and dance should be, or because the he held up a mirror to a society that refused to see themselves for what they were (or perhaps both)?  We watched this clip in class:
All religion involves sacrifice.  If God was no longer present to sacrifice Himself, if man robbed the Crucifixion of its reality and power, would the sacrifice have to come from within the community?  If so, would this help explain the advent of the cataclysmic conflicts in the west during the first half of the 20th century?  It might also help explain the not often discussed dark underbelly of the Progressive/Victorian Era, the rise of eugenics.  My personal take is that Stravinsky was trying to unmask the very carefully cultivated civilized veneer of European society.  I think they thought of themselves this way, with Strauss’s famous, ‘Blue Danube’ waltz.
It is to this first dramatic conflict, World War I, that we will turn our attention after Christmas break.  How did a globalized, modernized, Europe, where few if any had much to gain from the risks of war stumble into it?  What factors, be they religious, political, ideological, economic, or psychological, brought this on?  I look forward to tackling these questions with the students after the mid-term.
Dave Mathwin

11th Grade: Roosevelt and the Modern Presidency

Greetings

This week we had test review, and the test itself, so we did not cover a lot of new ground.  We did manage to start on what is known as ‘The Progressive Era’ in America (dated ca. 1880-1920), or the Victorian Era in England (ca. 1860-1900).

We first looked at how Teddy Roosevelt embodied this period in American history.  Born a bit sickly and weak, he transformed himself into a ‘healthy’ and physically vigorous man.  He believed that nothing good in life came easily.  Struggle was essential to growth and achievement, so he rarely backed down from either a personal or political challenge.  His relentless energy and enthusiasm reflected America’s ‘can do’ spirit of the time.  This is certainly revealed in some famous photos of him:

Teddy Roosevelt is known as the first ‘modern’ president for a variety of reasons.  He made the presidency the focus instead of Congress.  His energy and drive made him a national figure.  A keen and perceptive man, he also understand the power of the modern press to craft and publicize an image.  Of course with Roosevelt there was a strong connection between these images and reality, but he used them nevertheless.  These famous photos of him with his family garnered national attention, for example:
I handed out a sheet of quotes from Roosevelt that I hope accurately reflect his beliefs and personality.  While he was a Republican, you can see that he would probably not fit into the Republican party of today in some crucial ways.  These quotes are at the bottom of this update.  We also looked at the phenomena of expansion and imperialism.  While Europeans had been colonizing on some level since the age of exploration, we see a significant expansion throughout Europe and the United States at this time.  Clearly, something was in the air.  What made this period so focused on imperialistic pursuits?  I thought the students came up with some accurate hypotheses in class, among them. . .
  • Industrialization allowed for bigger and more powerful things to be built, which made sea travel over longer distances possible
  • Rapid industrialization would create the need for raw materials to be imported
  • England had always had an empire.  Industrialization meant that others could try and catch up.  England, wanting to keep its lead, would expand to do so.
  • Missionary efforts, while probably not the motive for imperialism, was certainly a by-product of it.
These are good answers, but they do not quite touch on what expansion reveals about the heart of western civilization at this time.There are two main schools of thought:
The traditional view states that expansion is the sign of health.  By 1900 western civilization controlled perhaps as much as half the globe.  Expansion requires energy and drive, and this in turn, requires health.   In this line of reasoning, western civilization peaks as its territorial and ideological expansion peaks.  Niall Ferguson adheres to this, arguing that western culture peaked around the turn of the 20th century.
The minority view states the opposite.  The first historian I am aware of to advance this theory was Oswald Spengler, a quirky German recluse who first published his ‘Decline of the West’ in 1926.  Spengler interpreted the life of civilizations much in the way we might view the life of an individual.  For Spengler, a civilization is healthy when it possesses a vibrant ‘inner-life’ and is at peace with their place in the world.  When a civilization exhausts its inner life, the only thing left is to extend the possibilities of the self outwardly.  So — expansion is sign of boredom, of weakness, of an actual lack of vitality.  Just as we would think that a person who needed constant variety would be bored, so too civilizations.

Spengler’s analysis was not greeted with wild enthusiasm at the time, as you might imagine.  His work generated a lot of controversy due to the variety of atypical opinions he espoused.  He also wrote sentences like, “So we see that historical investigation can be reduced to interpretation of morphological symbolisms” — sentences that might make you wonder if you’ve been had.  Still, his thesis would be picked up and reinterpreted later by AJ Toynbee, and to some degree by Kenneth Clark.  It deserves consideration.

Sincerely,

Dave Mathwin
Teddy Roosevelt Quotes:
War
  • Preparation for war is the best guarantee of peace.
  • I killed a Spaniard with my own hand, like a Jackrabbit!
  • When I took my gun to Cuba, I made a vow to kill at least one Spaniard with it, and I did!
  • The most absolutely righteous foreign war of the century! – Opinion on the Spanish American War
  • I deserve the Congressional Medal of Honor, and I want it.
Business and Government
  •  The greatest corporations should be responsible to popular wish and government command.
  • . . .in no other country was such power held by the men who had gained these fortunes.  the government was impotent.   Of all forms of tyranny, the least attractive and the most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of plutocracy.
  • As a people we cannot let any citizen live or labor under conditions which are injurious to the common welfare.  Industry, therefore, must submit to the public regulation as will make it a means of life and health.
  • We stand for a living wage.  Wages are subnormal if they fail to provide for those in industrial occupations.  A living wage must include . . . enough money to make morality possible, to provide for education and recreation, to for immature members of the family, to maintain the family during sickness, and to permit reasonable savings for old age.
Nationalism and Imperialism
  • Of course our whole national history has been one of expansion. . . . That the barbarians recede or are conquered. . . . is due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace in the red wastes where the barbarians held sway.
  • We shall never be successful over the dangers that confront us; we shall never achieve true greatness, unless we are Americans in heart and soul, in spirit and purpose, keenly alive to the possibility implied in the very name American, and proud beyond measure of the glorious pleasure of hearing it.
  • It is, I’m sure, the desire of every American that the people of each island, as rapidly as they show themselves ready for self-government, shall be endowed with self-government.  But it would be criminal folly to sacrifice the real welfare of the islands . . . under the plea of some doctrine which, if it had been lived up to, would have made the entire continent of North America the happy hunting ground of savages. — TR urging that America put down the rebellion in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War.
  • America’s duty to the people living in barbarism is to see that they are freed from their chains, and we can free them only by destroying barbarism itself.
TR the Conservationist
  • The lesson of deforestation in China is a lesson mankind should have learned already.  Denudation leaves naked soil, they gullying down to the bare rock.   When the soil is gone men must go, and the process does not take long.  What happened in other parts of the world will surely happen in our own country if we do not exercise that wise foresight which should be one of the chief marks of any people calling itself civilized.
  • Forests do not exist for the present generation alone.  They are for the people, [which] always must include the people unborn as the people now alive, or the democratic ideal is not realized.
  • As a people, we have the right and duty . . . to protect ourselves and our children against the wasteful development of our natural resources.
  • 512 — The number of animals Roosevelt and Kermit killed while on safari in Africa, including 17 lions, 11 elephants, 2 rhinos, 9 giraffes, 47 gazelles, and other creatures including the kudo, aardwolf, and klipspringer.
Being President
  • My view was that the executive officer was a steward of the people bound actively and affirmatively to do all he could for the people, and not content himself with . . . keeping his talents undamaged in a napkin.  I declined to adopt the view that what was imperatively necessary for the nation could not be done by the president unless he found some specific authorization to do it.  My belief was that it was not only his right but his duty to do anything the needs of the nation demanded unless it was forbidden expressly by the Constitution.
  • I do not believe any president has had as much fun as I have.
Miscellaneous
  •  ‘Why, that’s bully!’ — One of his favorite expressions
  • Why couldn’t they call them ‘Theodore Bears?’  — He hated the name ‘Teddy.’
  • I will make this speech or die.  — Said after an assassins bullet had passed through his lung while campaigning for president in 1912.
  • Father wants to be the bride at every wedding, and the corpse at every funeral — Remark attributed to one of Roosevelt’s sons.