This week we delved quickly into our unit on the Constitution, where we focused on a few main ideas, and lay the groundwork for what we will discuss next week:
- We sometimes have the idea that drafting the Constitution was simply a matter of getting on paper what everybody already thought. In reality, many of those present had strongly divergent ideas of what federal government should look like. Some wanted no executive at all, while others (like Alexander Hamilton) wanted a very strong executive elected for life. The federal judiciary seems almost an afterthought as did the Vice-Presidency, and so on.
- Compromise tended to be how the delegates operated, and many today praise the fact that they forged consensus amidst uncertain times, which usually give rise to fear and rigid dogmatism. But this process of compromise extended also to slavery with disastrous moral, and long-term political, effects. For better or worse, they decided that compromise for the sake of union (which they had already done with many other issues) on slavery was worthwhile. A variety of theories exists as to why this happened. Some argue that many believed that slavery would die out eventually on its own within a generation, and thus was not worth forcing some of the die-hards from South Carolina out of the nation entirely. Others state that slavery involved directly only private moral issues that best belonged outside the purview of federal power (some make the same argument regarding abortion today). Finally, some assert a simple exhaustion among the delegates. Having performed so many arduous climbs, the thought of ascending Everest proved too much for them. I enjoyed the students thoughts on the validity of their decision. This issue we will raise again next year as we move towards the Civil War.
- Despite their significant differences, delegates did share some basic principles, such as 1) The federal government did need strengthening, and 2) Federal power needed to avoid concentration in the hands of any particular branch, lest our liberties suffer danger, and 3) A fear of the ‘power of the people.’ While the Constitution did create a more democratic government that existed anywhere else in the West, it contains several barriers to translating the people’s desire into government action. We often complain of gridlock in government, but may not always realize that the Constitution seems tailor made to create it.
- For all its tremendous success, the Constitution did not foresee the quickly approaching era of a popular, national president that embodied the will of the people. This almost led to disaster in the election of 1800, as we will discuss in a few weeks.
People did not immediately embrace the Constitution. Patrick Henry read the first to the three words, “We the people,” and began his vehement objections. States, in Henry’s view, should be the basis of federal power. Henry may have been right or wrong about the wisdom of making “the people” the foundation of political power, but he certainly astutely recognize the difference. The Constitution created a new kind of America, one where national identity would trump local identity in the long run.
Henry also believed that the proposed national capital would in fact become a vast armory, one that would inevitably destroy liberties. In the strict literal sense, he was wrong about that. But he was right that the creation of a national, federal army would put a great deal of power in the hands of the national government. It is an odd and unsettling thought, but we should realize that the only thing preventing the military from taking over the government is that they don’t want to. Should the army desire to march on the Capitol, for example, the Capitol would fall in about 15 minutes.
We spent the bulk of our week on our 4th Amendment unit. I wanted to focus in on one particular aspect of the Constitution to help drill the down the implication of some of its core principles. The 4th Amendment, which reads
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
This amendment has tremendous relevance for us today. Technology has changed the meaning of privacy, and our enemies have no qualms with using our system against us. The government has extraordinary powers at its disposal. Should privacy or security concerns take precedence?
- How private can public space be in the digital age? Do we have a right to privacy from Google or Facebook cameras if we walk down a public sidewalk?
- Can Facebook violate the 4th Amendment, which after all, only prohibits government from infringing on our liberties, and not the private sector?
- Europe has already done a lot to regulate the private sector in regard to digital privacy. Many civil libertarians, for example, would applaud the upholding of privacy concerns that Europe is pioneering. But, given the tremendous growth of technology, regulating these companies requires strong government interference. But — the same people who applaud the privacy are usually ones who do not want government regulation of the private sector. How should we resolve this paradox?
These are some of the questions we will examine at the end of next week.
This week we began looking at Macedonian civilization, and as usual we began with geography.
The map shows Macedon as a land-locked and mountainous area, and we would expect this kind of terrain to have a particular emphasis on its people. . .
- Mountainous areas are always difficult to control, leading to weak central governments
- Usually an aristocratic warrior elite seeps into the culture, which usually divides the people into warring clans (for this and the above point, think of Afghanistan, which has a similar geography to Macedon).
- With this environment, we usually see a low level of cultural output, due to their relative isolation and internal divisions (this is not the case with Scotland, but Scotland is not land-locked as Macedon is).
I was glad to see the students start to make connections between Macedon, Assyria, and Sparta. All three share a similar geography, and all three share a similar geographic position — on the periphery of their respective societies. Sparta and Assyria had stronger central governments than Macedon, but their similarities should make us realize of the power of geography to shape the course of a civilization.
As I mentioned, Macedon had little role in Greek civilization for many centuries. But as luck would have it, Macedon saw the rise of the charismatic and ruthless Phillip II just at the very moment of grave political weakness for Athens, Thebes, and Sparta. Opportunity knocked for Macedon. Phillip looked every inch the tough customer he portrayed, wearing an eye patch over his wounded eye for necessity, and probably, for effect as well. But Phillip combined his personality and appearance with a keen understanding of how to maximize the qualities of his society into a formidable military machine.
One key to the effectiveness of his military was that he matched the personality of his culture with his army. Infantrymen in other Greek city-states often came from the middle-upper classes. He owned land and had a stake in the politics and way of life of his city-state. The Athenian hoplite, for example, therefore oriented himself toward defense of what he had. He wore heavy armor and carried a large shield. This was not a mobile force, but one geared to “make a stand” to defend home turf. A standard Greek military formation might look like this:
In contrast to other city-states, Macedon had virtually no middle class. Anyone recruited for the infantry would be either poor or a mercenary. This type of man would not fight to defend anything in particular. He has no stake in the society for which he fights. Such a man might be motivated to take from others, however, and this would require shifting the balance toward an offensively minded and equipped infantry, which you see below:
In addition to the long spears you see above, their soldiers also carried a long dagger, another offensive weapon. While the image above does show the Macedonians with shields, I agree with Victor Davis Hanson (and others) that argue that Macedonian shields had no real function in battle. They were worn apparently mostly around the neck and draped to the side (as both arms would be needed to wield their spears). Some argue that the shields were used in battle, but mainly as a prop for their spears. If this is so, we see that even their shield served as a offensive weapon of sorts.
Phillip’s infantry gave them much more firepower at the point of attack. Not only did they have longer spears, but because they had to stand sideways to hold the spears, they could fit more men in each row. Some students wisely pointed out that the Macedonians would be vulnerable to a quick flanking movement, but the Greek infantry Phillip faced was “heavier” infantry, and not equipped for fast movement. They could not exploit this weakness of Phillip’s force (though a century later, the Romans would do so).
I hope that the students understood that militaries don’t, or at least should not, be created in a vacuum. They function best when they are a direct product of the civilization from which they arise. Next week we will continue by looking at the most famous Macedonian of all, Phillip’s son Alexander.
Recently in Government class we briefly discussed Francis Fukuyama’s famous/infamous The End of History and the Last Man, a book often cited but perhaps much less read these days.
I have not read it myself.
The occasion for this discussion came from a student question. Might monarchy return to western civilization? Even 30 years ago such a question would be absurd. But, Plato, Machiavelli, and other thinkers tacitly assume a cycle of governments that repeat themselves over time. Fukuyama, as best as I understand, challenges this assumption by stating that democracy has proven itself and will now always remain in the conversation. It will always be “in play” in the world and some type of democracy would become the dominant form of government from here on out. The cycle of “History” has ended. Now all that we have left are “events.”
When we discussed this question in class I remained skeptical about monarchy’s return. But a colleague pointed out that of course it could happen. The cycle of monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, monarchy (in all but name) played out in Rome. Rome began as a monarchy, but expanded as a Republic. If the Republic stood against anything, it was monarchy. Yet, while monarchs did not return to Rome, Emperors made an appearance for nearly 500 years, a revision to monarchy in all but name. Furthermore, after Rome’s fall monarchies appeared even in areas formerly controlled by Rome.
Perhaps, then, monarchies could return even to the West, given several generations. We tend to believe that history progresses or declines, more or less in a continuous line. Maybe we should give more credence to a more cyclically influenced theory of events.
I thought of this conversation reading Carle Zimmerman’s Family and Civilization. He wrote just after W.W. II and foresaw our modern family crisis. But because he roots his observations in historical observation over many centuries, the book has a timeless quality. Fundamentally, Zimmerman argues that we should abandon linear evolutionary concepts of the family, not just because he may not agree with evolutionary scientific theory, but primarily because the history of western civilization shows a circle rather than a straight line.
Zimmerman identifies three different basic family models throughout history:
- The ‘Trustee Family’ resembles something akin to our idea of Scottish clans. Trustee families are so called because each family member acts as a mere caretaker of the bloodline, property, customs, and traditions of the extended family. Powerful families are a law unto themselves–a kind of miniature state–and stand in active solidarity with other family members in terms of rewards and punishments.
- The “Domestic Family” has more of a nuclear composition and mentality. The father heads the family, but they can own property outright. The domestic family shares corporate blame for minor offenses, but the trend leans toward individual responsibility. Neither the clan nor the state makes a domestic family or governs it, but the Church (or other religious affiliation).
- The “Atomistic Family” describes our own age. In the absence of the state, the Trustee Family assumes significant control over “horizontal” relationships. The Domestic Family has a sacramental sacredness ordered primarily though religion. The Atomistic Family is based on the idea of functionality and convenience. It’s horizontal nature extends only to individual members. It has no horizontal sacred dimension. Personal choice determines the shape of individual families.
Few disagree with Zimmerman’s descriptions, but most modern sociologists assume an evolutionary line of change that will eventually dissolve the family as we know it. Zimmerman shows that each type existed before in Greece and Rome, and that after Rome’s fall, the cycle began again. He traces all three models this way:
Trustee Family Era’s
- Homeric Greece–ca. 800 B.C.
- Early Roman tribal era–12 Tables of Law (ca. 450 B.C.)
- The post-Roman barbarian Age (ca. 500 A.D.-12th Century)
Domestic Family Era’s
- 8th-5th century Greece, from Hesiod-Pericles
- 12 Tables of Roman Law–Dissolution of the Republic
- 13th Century-18th Century (Aquinas-Enlightenment)
- Sophists-End of classical Greece ca. 150 B.C.
- Augustus-Barbarian Age of Europe
- Enlightenment Rationalism-Present Day
The main part of the book concerns itself with showing the family transitions from the fall of Rome until today.
The church stood against much of accepted family mores in Rome’s decline. From an early point the Church declared marriage a sacrament, and worked against the atomistic view of marriage and family in late Rome. This makes sense. After Rome’s fall, we they had two polar opposite views of the family to contend with, as the atomistic model lingered alongside of the trustee model brought by barbarian tribes.
The church found itself stuck between a rock and a hard place. They abhorred the individualism of the atomistic Roman family, but the trustee model led to uncontrolled violence and lack of individual moral responsibility. Caught between these two, the Church leaned towards working with the trustee model. Part of this may have had to do with the fact that the collapse of the Roman state made the trustee model almost inevitable. It also shows, I think, that the values of the early Church do not match our own. Needing to choose, they preferred unchecked violence to rampant individualism.*
However, the Church quickly worked to transform ideas of the family in small but concrete ways. They allowed for marriages even in the absence of familial consent. They insisted that, as marriage was a sacrament, the Church and not the family made a marriage. Under most barbarian trusteeships, the groom had to provide a financial gift to his father-in-law, as he “took” someone from his family. The Church transformed this practice into the groom giving a gift of property/cash to his wife. The practice of writing wills also allowed for a widow to inherit property independent of her husband’s family.
All of these things helped bring about the Domestic Family, though the slow and steady rise of the state also aided in this as well.
Zimmerman sees the Domestic model as the ideal. Marriage has a sacramental purpose and reality, but the family is not absolute, as many Scriptures attest. Because the Church creates a new family, the family has a degree of independence from the state. Civilizations were healthier with these kinds of families. Greece experienced its explosion of cultural and political growth largely under the Domestic Family. In Rome the Republic never had healthier days than during the prevalence of the Domestic Family. In Europe we see the 12th century golden age that experienced innovations in architecture, philosophy, music, etc. etc.
Several things happened over two centuries that eroded the domestic family.
- Erasmus (Zimmerman calls him a “sophistic playboy” and other Renaissance humanists began to enamored with classical culture and its attendant individualism.
- Building on this, the Reformation 1) Removed marriage as a sacrament, giving the Church less power over marriage and giving more to the state, and 2) Marriage had a higher place than celibacy, which lessened marriage’s spiritually symbolic purpose and paved the way for the “contract view of marriage.**
- Social contract theory put the emphasis of marriage on fulfilling mutual needs of each “party,” and opened the door to different kinds of marriages–all legitimate in theory provided only that both parties freely consented.
Many in the west today see the rise of the atomistic model concomitant with the rise of political and social freedom. This view has some merit. The Reformation and Enlightenment democracies broke down nearly all traditions, which led to a focus on the individual. The individual rights we enjoy likely would not have come without a breakdown in the “Domestic Family.”
But Zimmerman has an apt word of caution–society cannot exist without some method of organization and accountability. The family has long served as the repository for moral training, education, preparation for life, and so on. If the family can no longer perform these functions, the state will have to step in, making the state itself our de-facto family. This happened in Rome. When social order decayed, the state had to take up the mantle, and they proved in their laws and actions much more stern than the typical pater-familias. The history of the west, at least, shows us no more than three mechanisms of control: the clan, religion, and the state. We must choose. But the state, due to the variable nature of law, and with no particular method or goal, has shown itself the most unpredictable of the three.
We should not assume that the family has disappeared. It may have gone underground for now but remains the key element of society. It will return.^ Zimmermann is not a historical determinist or a pessimist. In his reflections on the history of the family Zimmermann believes that had a few things happened here and there at the top of each society, the history of the family could have gone much differently and better. He believes that societal elites have been largely responsible for inculcating anti-family policies into society. If they can be converted we might turn the tide.
I wish it would be so simple. Today it seems that much of the flow of modern life in its labor, technology, habits, etc. exert great pressure on the family. Our recent election suggests that our cultural elites have less influence than ever before. Then again, I believe in the witness of history, and believe that no one period of time is so starkly different from another. This era then, might have more in common with Imperial Rome than otherwise. That might sound like bad news, but from the perspective of the family, it isn’t. It would mean that turning the heads of a few elites could dramatically improve our situation. This would be vastly easier than a total societal breakdown that occurred during the last major family crisis.
*We see this in other areas as well. The medievals viewed Saturn (which makes melancholy isolationists) as the Infortuna Major, while Mars, (which brought war–but war at least brings some groups together) as the Infortuna Minor.
**In an interesting aside, Zimmerman points out how the influence of the primacy of the text over tradition in the Reformation helped aid this transition. Nothing in the history of the Church supported this shift to de-sacralize marriage, but a) Reformers had a hard time finding a text in the NT saying exactly that marriage was a sacrament (although Ephesians 5 certainly fits–what text is supposed to say exactly that anything is a sacrament? The undue influence of the bare text quickly gave Protestant denominations doctrinal confusion with the Trinity, the Incarnation, and other areas–and b) They found a couple of OT texts that they used to support this lessened view of marriage.
However, Zimmerman also argues that most of the Reformers were strongly traditional pro-family in many other ways. It was not so much the Protestant preacher in the pulpit that eroded the family, but instead the humanist scholars who influenced the Reformation. The influence of the Reformation on the family, then, is mixed.
^Zimmerman sees the rise of divorce, homosexuality, youth crime, etc. as the symptom of family breakdown, not its cause.
We all know that peace treaties have a shaky track record. When wars end we hope that the suffering might mean something, that it might translate into a political order that helps ensure that history does not repeat itself. And yet, often these treaties fail. We might think of the numerous wars between France and England, for example. Various forms of “Punic Peaces” work, whether they take the form of utter destruction or sending Napoleon to St. Helena. Most agree, however, that when we think of “peace” we often have something loftier in mind.
Some treaties do work. The Civil War will not restart anytime soon. Japan and the U.S. have been friends since 1945, and the same is true of our relationship to West Germany/Germany. But many don’t work, and fewer treaties failed more spectacularly than the Treaty of Versailles after World War I.
Historians offer many theories to explain why treaties fail in general. The typical mistakes usually fall into a few categories or patterns:
1. Failure to View the War as an Organic Whole
Though it may seem artificial, I think that major events should be viewed through a narrative lens. World War I had its own prologue, beginning, middle, and end. Wars tend to take on a life of their own once they get started. As the “story” changes shape one can easily forget how it all started. But this is a mistake. A peace treaty should serve as the end of a story that had a certain beginning and middle. If the end has nothing to do with the beginning, people will hate the ending and demand a rewrite, or at least a sequel.
I think this is one key reason why many treaties end up being no more than pauses in the action. Combatants want an intermission, but don’t want the end to come just yet. For them, there remains more to the story.
I think the victors in W.W. I would be strongly tempted to forget this principle. Any analysis of the causes of the war would have to blame a variety of factors and nations. Certainly one could blame Germany mainly for the causes of the war, but other nations had their part to play as well. Yet the combatants fought the war so grimly, and the death toll rose so unimaginably, that the victors would almost certainly think only of the fighting (the middle) and forget the beginning of the story. The ending, then, would not fit within the story as a whole.
2. Failure to Look Ahead
Perhaps one can take my “story” analogy too far, because if we try and keep a war purely contained as its own entity, we miss the inevitable ripple effects that have spilled out into society because of the conflict. Thus, a peace treaty has to deal with the war behind and look ahead to the world it made. This need to “look ahead,” however, does not come easily. We rarely see the nose on our own face, and lacking omnipotence, are left somewhat in the dark.
Treaties usually handle the “physical” aspects of ending wars such as reassigning territory, reparations, etc. but rarely consider the psychological aspects. The horrors of the conflict imprint themselves on our minds, and the victors often want to “close the book” on that period as soon as possible. We want to move on, relax, be happy. The victors feel this way, at least. But often the losers don’t want to move on. They often want to dwell on the pain and humiliation they feel. They want to be heard, and will not want to “move on.” Exhaustion on the side of the victors, more than apathy or ignorance, can be society’s greatest foe at this stage.
I think a good example of this is The Congress of Vienna, which decided that shape of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars of 1797-1815. Millions died as the French Revolution convulsed the world and every monarch knew their days might be numbered. My interpretation is that the assembled powers, smarting under years of war, tried to put Pandora, i.e. the French Revolution, back in the box. They suppressed popular movements, conceptions of “rights” — anything that smacked of the Revolution, and threw the baby out with the bath water. Some might argue that the Congress of Vienna worked to keep the peace throughout the 19th century, but to my mind the Revolutions of 1848, The Crimean War, the wars of Italian and German Unification, the conflict between Turkey and Russia, and the eventual explosion that was World War I say otherwise. Pressure cookers explode sooner or later.
3. Avoid Too Many Mixed Messages
Try as we might, mixed messages can’t be avoided. As parents we give lip service to the ideal that we treat our children equally, but then reality sets in. The age, gender, and personality of our children all play a role in how we parent. We modify our expectations and begin to tailor certain things to certain children. Children pounce on these discrepancies immediately and bemoan their fate, but if parents keep their different expectations reasonable and at least mostly clear, we can keep the ship afloat.
Every peace treaty should have justice in view, but practical reality will always intervene. Even the justly victorious must account for the fallenness of the world and the messiness of reality. The vanquished will seize upon these crossed signals of justice and cry foul, but if the signal mixing is not too serious, they deal with it.
Problems come when the victors take a sanctimonious stance. The infamous “War Guilt” clauses of the Versailles Treaty did just this. Germany had to assume full blame for everything, despite the fact that no country had their hands clean during the conflict. The infamous Article 231 reads,
The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.
Versailles also tried to reorder Europe along the idea of “national self determination,” and the elimination of empires. Such was President Wilson’s grand vision for peace. So, the war’s aftermath saw the creation of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, etc. Except for Germany — Germans don’t get to be “self-determined.” Some Germans went to Czechoslovakia, others to Poland, others faced occupation by the French. We can compare the following two maps, the first showing the political divisions, the next, the ethno-linguistic ones, and the differences reveal themselves.
Overseas England and France kept their empires, however, but not Germany. Neither did the U.S. give up its interests in the Philippines. The gaps between “What we say,” and “What we do” grew very large at Versailles for the allies, and Germany noticed.
4. Don’t Kick them when They’re Down
This applies to Germany, but also Russia. The Communist Revolution threw Russia into a tumult and made them persona non grata at Versailles. They too lost big chunks of territory to Poland. Both Germany and the Soviets had little to no choice on accepting the terms given their immediate internal domestic realities . But both would seek to, in their mind, “set things to rights” as soon as they had a chance. In Europe’s case, it took about 20 years for this to happen.
Next week we look at the Communist Revolution in Russia, and touch on the ‘Roaring 20’s back in America.
This week we saw the great golden age of Periclean Athens collapse into the abyss of the Peloponnesian War. We began the week by asking why “Golden Ages” tend to last not much longer than a generation.
- Some suggest that the success and power a golden age brings would bring about the envy of others, and this envy could turn into a threat.
- Another might suggest that the generation that grew up with the ‘golden age’ in place would likely have a much different experience than their parents. I found this comment especially perceptive. As we saw last week, golden ages usually arise from a creative response to a particular challenge. Those that grow up without the challenge won’t have the experience or ‘training’ to continue what their parents started.
- Last week we also noted how golden ages require a variety of factors coming together at once, some physical and others psychological. No one can reasonably keep all the plates spinning for long. Eventually nature dictates that something will begin to spin off the axis sooner or later, and this will drag other things down with it.
Some of their comments did in fact apply directly to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, especially#1. Athens went from plucky underdog in 490 B.C. to the then equivalent of the New York Yankees or New England Patriots by 431 B.C. Many city-states lined up against them with Sparta. We did not spend a great deal of time on the war itself, as during their senior year we devote a few weeks entirely to this conflict and the issues it raises, but we did touch on a few key points
1. How in war the unexpected and unforeseen can occur
Of course the unforeseen can always occur, in war or at any other point. But since war requires a great deal of planning, many assume that the conflict will go as we wish. The making of the plans itself creates that expectation. Yet, in war as in life, things rarely go according to our preconceived version of events.
2. Peace treaties may not be what they seem
After 10 years of intermittent conflict, both Athens and Sparta signed a treaty called the Peace of Nicias. But treaties in name may not be in fact. Some treaties bring real peace, some only reflect a desire to call a ‘time out’ in the fighting. Unfortunately for Athens, this treaty turned out to be one of the latter.
3. War Stresses Democracy
War will put stress on any form of government and any society. Some wars brought down monarchies — like W.W. I. We assume that democracies are more stable, but the Peloponnesian War brought out many weaknesses within Athenian democracy and for a time ended it within Athens. We looked at how desperation and panic act on a democratic people in the battle of Arginusae. The Athenians won this battle, but the generals failed to pick up the dead and give them proper burial, something that could be considered sacrilege, and sacrilege could be punished by death. Grief stricken, the city put the generals on trial, found them guilty, and executed them. A few days later they regretted their actions. They put the lawyer who prosecuted the generals on trial for murder, found him guilty, and executed him also.
Ostensibly, Sparta won the Peloponnesian War. But in truth the war had no real winners in Southern Greece. All exhausted themselves in the conflict. Thebes, involved in the conflict but slightly to the north, emerged as the strongest party in the more immediate aftermath of the war. But it would be Macedon, further still to the north, and never involved in the fighting at all, that would eventually assert absolute supremacy over Greece in the person of Phillip of Macedon and his son Alexander. We’ll look at them next week.
You can see the geography of it below here, with everything pink or yellow caught up in the fighting (with even blue areas involved sporadically), and Macedon waiting patiently above in brown.
For those of you who have seen From Russia with Love, the scene where “Number 1” talks about the Siamese Fighting Fish is a good parallel, if we think of Macedon as the fish who stays out of the fight.
Some years ago I saw a video about the emergence of Greek culture and the talking heads discussed the magnificent achievements of Greek drama. Before talking about the drama itself, they mentioned the origins of drama, though only very briefly. After all, Greek drama began in the worship of Dionysius, a confusing and strange subject for modern ears. I found it fascinating to watch the speakers deal with this aspect of Greek civilization. They hated being on unfamiliar territory — unfamiliar not so much intellectually, that is, but emotionally and experientially.
- Dionysian worship started with women sneaking off illegally or at least shamefully, for their rites. Dionysius himself occupied, at minimum, the barest fringe of Greek religion. Some of the commentators latched onto this, for it promised a narrative we could identify with. “Aha! A sisterhood of oppressed women! And observe the vital contribution they made to their society and the world at large, etc.” But Dionysian rites also involved men, too, so they couldn’t press that narrative too far.
- The Dionysian rites for women also seemed to involve ecstatic experiences invoking bulls, snakes, wine, and so on. This too got the barest mention, for the “oppressed sisterhood” narrative didn’t really match the fact that Dionysius was a fertility god, and so the women may have been praying and dancing furiously for the chance to have children, a very traditional “role” (ha!) for women to play.
- To add insult to injury, male Dionysian worship may have invoked blessings to “survive ordeals.” This got no mention at all. It appears that these “rebels” danced around madly and got drunk to attempt to fulfill the most prosaic of traditional gender roles of “tough guy,” and “nurturing mother.” This square peg had no place in their round hole interpretations.
So, after passing over all this in the quickest fashion, finally smiles came to their faces as they talked about the drama itself. Here they felt far more comfortable. Greek drama “allows for the community to come together and deal with issues of importance,” or something like that. Ah, yes, the “humanism” of the Greeks. This we understand, so this they talked about at length. Gone were any of the religious associations involving Dionysius. The important thing to us is the emergence of drama, for without the emergence of drama, how could we watch Dumb and Dumber today instantly on Netflix?* And we very naturally assume that what is important to us must have been of prime importance to the Greeks. Dionysian worship, then, got relegated to a mere carrying device for what we understand and what we feel is important. As a friend of mine stated, whenever we use a word to describe an ancient people that they themselves did not use, we will likely reach false conclusions. The talking heads are not unusual. Most of us unfortunately avoid confrontations with the “other.”
I don’t like anything Tennyson wrote (to be fair I’ve read very few of his works), but his poem “The Lady of Shallot” intrigues me in one way. The Lady in question deals with a curse, and can only look at reflections in a mirror to ascertain reality. The mirror of course serves as a poor substitute of reality, and later cracks upon her sad and untimely death.
Out flew the web and floated wide-
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.
Tennyson’s work came from the same spiritual place as the dreaded pre-Raphaelites, whose paintings reveal an intense desire to recover something of antiquity. And yet the grossly over-dramatized version of the past in their eyes reveals far more about themselves, with their aspirations fit perhaps for the teenage soul more than an adult world (hence L.M. Montgomery has her young Anne of Green Gables grow fascinated with the “Lady of Shallot”).
All of us tend to distort reality to fit our own images of it, but the way the Parthenon has been interpreted over time stands as one of the more curious episodes of this typical human folly. Joan Breton Connelly chronicles this and gives her own interpretation of the architectural masterpiece in her recent book, The Parthenon Enigma. The building occupies pride of place in the history of western civilization. Its marble facade inspired those who saw it to grand notions of ideal beauty. The building’s perfect proportions inspired noble visions of clarity and a sense of true humanity. Certain technical achievements of the building are practically unparalleled.
But we made the building in our own image, and Connelly writes to set the record straight. Ever since the Enlightenment we have seen the Parthenon as reflecting the “humanism” of the Athenians. We have some justification for this. If you trace the religion of the Athenians one sees a clear descent from Aeschylus (who takes religion seriously) to Thucydides (who didn’t). The Athenians elected Pericles to multiple terms of their highest office, and he certainly fits the humanist mold. Observers therefore assumed, as the Parthenon was Pericles’ project that it would reflect his values. Then again, maybe not.
She has two main arguments, with the first drawn from the he Parthenon friezes, long thought to depict contemporary Athenians mingling with the gods. Connelly has an ironclad argument that Athens instead hearkens to not to its present but its mythological past. At Athens’ founding it had a king named Erechtheus, who had three daughters that sacrificed themselves that Athens might survive (images below on a Parthenon frieze). Athens makes an explicit statement, and explicit prayer of hope, that death might come from life with the Parthenon.
Amidst our wondering at the architectural genius of the building and the democratic (and therefore mostly familiar) practices of the Athenians, we forget that the Parthenon was a temple to Athena. Excavations show that they built the Parthenon on top of an older temple, so clearly the Parthenon was sacred space, and not merely civic space with a civic purpose.
Modern eyes miss many such death-life associations in Greece. For example, look up any article on Corinthian columns and you will likely see something about their fancy, or perhaps excessive, ornamentation. Certainly Corinthian columns do not fit with Enlightenment sensibilities about classical decorum and proportion — such people always prefer the Ionic column (I prefer the Ionic — to the right — as well so I don’t mean to cast stones). But Connelly points out that the plants in Corinthian columns hearken back to ancient myths about death and rebirth in their city. Articles may describe Corinthian columns as “one example of a Greek votive column” (as one site does) without paying any attention at all to the fact that “votive” columns, like votive candles, have a distinctly religious purpose. It’s almost as if they use the big words to obscure the meaning. We will have the Greeks be “humanists” by hook or crook.
A fascinating sub-plot is the length Victorian society went to deny that the Parthenon originally was painted. Evidence after evidence turned up, mostly brushed aside and denied with too much protest. A painted Parthenon would overturn all of their ideas of classical beauty and classical purity. Whole artistic theories got erected on an unpainted Parthenon, and they could not let it go. This in turn clouded their vision in other areas, and allowed false ideas about the Parthenon to persist well into the 20th century.
Did the Parthenon have no contemporary political meaning? Perhaps . . . perhaps Pericles wanted to heal the fractious wounds of a prosperous democracy. Success has never sat well with democracies, and it would make sense that Athens would want to go back to its founding and a story of sacrifice for the common good. All this rings partially true, but the bulk of the evidence makes the Parthenon an overtly religious shrine — one that seeks life from death. Plenty of evidence exists that Athenians saw it this way themselves. For example, during the plague that struck during the Peloponnesian War, sick Athenians came to the Parthenon for refuge, as well as for healing, and possibly, to die. It would be hard to imagine them doing so if the Parthenon was their equivalent of our Capitol or Washington Monument.
But this interpretation also challenges my own thoughts regarding the Parthenon. The “humanist” interpretation fit how I tended to see the late 5th century Athenians as essentially worshippers of themselves. This view gets lots of support from seeing contemporary Athenians mixed with gods on the Parthenon friezes. With the Parthenon cast in this new light, I think that interpretation gets challenged but not overthrown. I think other evidence exists for seeing the Athenians as self-worshippers, and perhaps the Parthenon itself still supports that view. But this will need rethinking on my part.
The lesson of this book is the peril of using history rather than receiving and letting it change you. Self-idolatry is alas, not only confined only to the Greeks, or the Enlightenment and Victorian eras.
*To be fair, this is actually a pretty good movie . . .