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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

But it wouldn’t have helped him.

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

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

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

Advertisements

12th Grade: Aristotle and the Modern Political Landscape

Greetings,

This week we examined the philosophy of Aristotle, specifically his theory of truth and how it related to his ideas about government.

Creation

Aristotle saw the created order not as a negative (like Plato), but as a friend or guide to truth.  Truth Aristotleresided here among us, not “up there” among the gods.  For Aristotle, God/the gods may or may not exist, but whether they did or not they had nothing to teach us.  As far as Zeus and Apollo are concerned, the power and immortality of the Greek gods make it so they never pay for any of their decisions.  They stand immune from consequences, and hence, immune to gathering wisdom.  If God existed, Aristotle thought he stood too far removed from human life to be of much use to us.  We experience truth in the created order, not by looking beyond the stars.*

This does not make Aristotle a moral relativist, at least in the meaning that we normally give the word.  However much truth depended on context, what worked could be said to be fundamentally true.  If someone, for example, argued that his heroin addiction benefitted him, because it, “transfers me to a different spiritual plane,” where, “I see myself and the world in radically new way,” Aristotle would respond by saying:

  • You cannot be a heroin addict and function in creation
  • Who you are cannot be separated from your physical body.  Thus, you will not learn anything about yourself by seeking to destroy yourself.

Aristotle did not deny that mankind had a soul, but he thought that the physical and spiritual aspects of who we are cannot be separated, which made his view of creation and the body much more Christian than Plato’s.

balloon-glassI like to think of Aristotle’s view of truth like one of those air-blown figurines.  Some things always remain constants, i.e. human nature and creation.  But, the application of those constants might change depending on the circumstances.  The figure may flap around but always remain rooted to the ground.  A law, for example, can only be considered a good law if it will actually work in the applied context.

Aristotle had a profound influence on the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, who gives a striking example of this principle.  Suppose you were made king of a country that thought murder was a good thing, and had practiced murder for centuries prior to your arrival.  One might think that your first order of business would be to make murder illegal.  Indeed, murder is obviously wrong, but Aristotle would argue that such an action would be foolish, and would not help make your people more virtuous.  Why?

  • The people would not obey this law, and would find it ridiculous.  This would lead to them flaunting the law, adding to their sin.
  • The people would also lose respect for you as king, and refuse to follow your authority.

If you wanted to make the people more virtuous, they must have respect for law in order to change.  This change will come about slowly.  People, like battleships, can’t be turned so quickly.  We discussed in class how Aristotle would face such a situation, and got some interesting responses from the students.  Maybe start, some suggested, by arming everyone to make murder more risky.  Or maybe make a law restricting murder to certain days.  In any event, virtue comes by the practice of it, not from a mere intellectual recognition of what virtue might be.  Abstracting a law from its context is not the way to judge it.  Rather, a law can only be judged properly when we see its application, its result.

Plato spilled a lot of ink thinking about how to form a government without making it too much of a government in the standard sense.  Plato sought for a society knitted together not by law but a community of harmonious souls.  Aristotle seems to have not given such a prospect much thought, as it probably seemed to him pointlessly unrealistic.  He had no doubt that the best form of government would be the absolute rule of one good man.  But just as easily, the rule of one bad individual would create a disaster.  The rule of a ‘few good men’ via an oligarchy of birth can minimize the possibility of autocracy and provide the state with wisdom.  But this oligarchy can easily degenerate into rule by an elitist and wealthy cabal.  Democracy provides more stability, but less brilliance.  It has the advantage of building on the broadest foundation, but can descend into mob rule.  The government that might work best for a given area would depend on what they valued most, and what their current political context might be.

The differences between Plato and Aristotle are not merely academic.  Few of us might always agree with either one, but our leanings to one side or the other will influence our decisions.  Generally those on either the far left or right might have more in common with Plato.  The goal is to move people to the absolute standard of the founders vision (Tea Party?), or create a better society on Earth regardless of the messy context of law and custom (Liberal Progressives?).  Centrists and moderates tend to be more comfortable with moving slowly, tweaking things with the times around the edges, and being ‘realistic.’

We can relate this idea to our views about democracy.  Supposing that one believes that democracy is the best form of government (and that is a big ‘suppose’). Should the U.S. attempt to spread democracy abroad?  Of course this involves some speculation, but we might consider that. . .

Plato

Plato would answer ‘yes,’ if he believed that democracy was the ideal form of government (he did not in actuality). Though not all have an immediate cultural context for democracy, he would argue that democracy appeals to all humanity on a ‘spiritual’ level.  Just as most of us can guess that that Caribbean vacation would be nice even if we’ve only experienced a cold and crowded New Jersey beach, so too things like equality, control of your destiny, participation, and rights, have an immediate gut level connection with us.  We should spread it because it would take root in people’s hearts, even if it might take a bit longer in some places than others to come to fruition.

Aristotle

Likely Aristotle would answer ‘no,’ or at least ‘no’ most of the time.  He would have wanted to see certain key structures in place before even considering spreading democracy, like a strong middle class, an educated populace, a stable economy, and a general trust across class, race, and religion.  Without these things democracy would have no place to take root, like a bird trying to make a nest in the air.

If I had to make a personal wild guess, Aristotle might think that democracy in Iraq has about 33-50% chance of succeeding.  In Afghanistan, with its mountainous terrain, strong tribal affinities, little education, and divided population, I’m guessing his estimation of success would be much lower.

Plato would counter that since true knowledge is ‘remembering,’ the truth is bound to take root once they have a chance to truly experience democracy.  Democracy would not be a narrowly western system in this view, but truly universal, applicable regardless of context.  Again, this is mostly speculation, but hopefully profitable nonetheless.

Many thanks,

Dave Mathwin

*The Incarnation provides the bridge between Aristotle and Plato’s ideas.  It fits within neither one of their philosophies, but their systems stand in sore need of a proper unity between the eternal and the temporal.

10th Grade: Authority and the Stuart Kings

Greetings to all,

This week we continued our story in England.  With the death of Elizabeth, the male Tudor line ended, but the line could continue through Henry’s niece Mary, known as Mary Queen of Scots.  She had been executed for treason by Elizabeth, but now ironically, it was her son James that was called upon to take the reigns of power in England.

James I defense of absolute monarchy raises a dilemma occasioned by  the Reformation.  Protestants often accused Catholics of being ‘authoritarian.’  “Look,” they might say, “you have to obey bishops, popes, councils, and the like. Man has no chance to have an individual, personal relationship to God.”  Thus, according to this argument, Catholicism and democratic government could never go hand in hand.  Catholicism is inherently authoritarian.

Catholics would likely respond that Protestantism has the “authoritarian” problem.  By reducing everything to “Scripture alone” and forgoing reason, tradition, etc. we put ourselves at the mercy of whoever has the authority to give the “right” interpretation of Scripture.  With no buffer between man and the state in an independent church, the state would naturally grab up all the power.

As for Catholicism and democracy, what about the local village elections in the Middle Ages, or the Italian city-state republics of the 15th century?  Democracy has its roots in Catholicism, not Protestantism.

Both sides of this debate are a bit of a caricature, but absolute monarchy arose first within Protestantism, beginning with Henry VIII and extending down to James I.  In class we discussed when absolutism can gain acceptance by the people.  It takes certain historical circumstances, generally, for that sort of thing to fly.  One needs a time of great transition or crisis for people to accept this kind of authority.  In the aftermath of the Wars of the Roses, Henry VIII had the license to reign autocratically.  In the aftermath of “Bloody” Mary and the Spanish Armada, perhaps his daughter Elizabeth did as well.  By the time of James I, however, this license may have expired.  But James exercised his absolute rule generally to bring moderation.  His portraits reveal an ease with himself and his surroundings,  He is comfortable in power, and makes others comfortable thereby.

James_I_of_England_404446 James_I_of_England_by_Daniel_Mytens

His son Charles, however, inherited his father’s ideas about absolute rule, but without the political sense  and personality of his father.  One look at his most famous portrait shows a man of unease and intensity, someone who might “upset the apple cart.”

His actions and those of others would bring about a clash that would shape the question of power and rights in England and perhaps western Europe, for decades to come.

From our vantage point monarchy seems quaint and outdated.  But we must realize that democratic movements are the relative newcomer on the historical stage.  It behooves us then, to consider the arguments for monarchical government.

Most such arguments that I encountered focus on some the technical aspects of kingly rule.  Monarchy is faster, more efficient,  and more unifying than democracies, and so on.   I think these arguments, whatever their merits, miss the major point of monarchies from a Christian perspective.  We should consider whether or not certain forms of government, and not just how they function, can aid or detract from our spiritual lives.

We begin by recognizing that the physical world is inextricably bound up with our spiritual lives.  Of course creation itself reflects God, but it goes beyond that.  Certain physical states may be more “spiritual” than others at certain times.  Thus, kneeling to pray put our bodies in a submissive posture, which can aid our prayers.  Or we stand to praise God, rather than recline on a couch during worship.   God gave humanity the special privilege of being created in His image, and we in turn should “image” God to the rest of creation as well as to each other.

In this line of thought, our form of government should image God’s governance of His creation.  Having a king, then, (regardless of whether the king acts well or poorly) gives us a physical reminder that we serve a heavenly king.  Serving a king (whether or not we agree with him) trains and prepares us to serve the King of Kings.

Thus, king’s should at times be dressed regally to reflect the splendor and majesty of kingly rule.  Also, a king should lead in service, modeling himself after how Jesus exercised His kingship (St. Louis IX of France and Emperor Michael II of Byzantium are notable examples of this).  Either way, it is the office of kingship that teaches us about God’s Kingship over creation. It has nothing to do with the person itself, who got the job merely by accident of birth.  And that’s the point (in part): some have the job of lawyer, or shoemaker, and some have the job of pantomiming the kingship of God.  Democracy, in contrast, gives us not just a poor but even detrimental spiritual example (the argument goes), because it essentially states, “What you want, you get.”  Democracy then, can encourage the worst of our spiritual impulses.

When we get to the democratic movements that sweep America and France we will make the case for a different form of government.  For now, I want students to understand the logic and motivation behind the actions and attitudes like James and Charles.

As some of you may know, the title of this site is drawn from the historian Kenneth Clarke, one of my favorites.  Last week we looked at parts of the ‘Protest and Communication” episode of his epic “Civilisation” series.  I include the entire episode below if you are interested, but even if you had time to see just the first few minutes, that alone reveals how much insight art can give into an era.

8th Grade: Elements of the Exodus Debate

Greetings,

Last week we looked at the monotheistic pharaoh Akhenation IV, also known as Ikhneton.  Ikhneton had many distinctive qualities — a most unusual pharaoh.

  • He was a monotheist, a tremendous contrast to the polytheism of his surrounding culture.
  • He had only one wife — a significant departure from the usual practice of pharaoh
  • He wrote poetry

The surviving images of Ikhneton are not typical for pharaohs either.  His bust does not exude power, but rather thoughtfulness, depth, and caring.  The image to the right with his family highlights this as well.  Again, as far as I know, for pharaoh’s to depict themselves like this in public was quite unusual.

Where did these beliefs and practices come from?  A few theories exist:

1. He learned them from the Jews, possibly enslaved during his reign.

2. He learned them from stories he heard about the Exodus, which may have happened about 75 years before he came to power.

3. Perhaps God appeared to him in a vision.

4. Perhaps he learned it from creation around him.

Did he believe in the true God under a different name?  I wanted to pose the following to the students:

  • Whether or not Ikhneton believed in the true God, he was certainly at least far closer to the truth than his countrymen.  What should he do with this knowledge?  If people don’t believe him, should he use force?  What would the responsibility be of the average Egyptian who agreed with him?  Is Ikhneton responsibility different because of his position of power?

As it happened Ikhneton did attempt to use force to spread his religion.  He destroyed/banned worship of other gods and declared his own faith to be the only legal one in the realm.  Was this the right choice?

  •  Ikhneton’s project to ‘convert’ his countrymen failed almost entirely.  Why was this?  Can any kind of force ever work in religious matters?  If so, which kind?  What does his failure tell us about the power of tradition.
  • While many historians come down hard on Ikhneteon, we looked at the Book of the Dead to understand exactly what it was that Ikhneton fought against.  Here we see inside Egyptian religion, and are confronted with a maze of charms, spells, and formulas to assure a good afterlife.  I can’t imagine anyone keeping it all straight, and this gave enormous power to the priesthood of their hundreds and hundreds of gods.  Ikhneton did fail, and perhaps went about his project in the wrong way.  But Egypt remained trapped in a religion that gave enormous power to the priesthood.

In this way, Ikhenton’s story can have meaning for our own day.  We too need to consider the strengths and weaknesses that come whenever religion is associated with law.

We also looked at the Exodus.  As Christians we can have confidence that the Exodus was an historical event, but there is not a great deal of evidence within  Egypt itself to support it.  Some modern scholars use this as evidence against the Exodus, but we discussed in class why Egypt might want to “cover-up” such events.

An interesting possibility involves the presence of the Hyksos in Egyptian history.   The word “hyksos” can apparently mean either “foreign invader,” or “foreign dweller.”  Egyptologists propound different theories as to their identity, with some believing them to have been occasional foreign invaders, others foreign immigrants.  A couple of curious details, however, may link the Hyksos to the Exodus:

  • The dates given for the Hyksos presence in Egypt correspond roughly to the time span the Israelites spent in Egypt (ca. 1800-1300 B.C.)
  • Many Hyksos names appear to be semitic in origin
  • Many debate whether or not the Hyksos coexisted peacefully or not with Egyptians.  But if their co-existence was sometimes peaceful, sometimes not, that would fit the Exodus narrative.

I am intrigued by the theory that suggests that the Hyksos may have been the Israelites.  It would fit with the “foreign immigrant” theory, and melds also with the narrative in Exodus 1, which indicates that the as the Israelites grew more numerous they had less favor with some in Egypt.  Thus, when the Egyptians talk about “expelling” them from the land ca. 1300-1200 B.C. they may have engaged in the ultimate historical spin.  In the official Egyptian narrative then, the Israelites didn’t leave due to plagues, God, etc., but because we forced them to leave!  It was a great moment of national pride!

After ca. 1200 B.C. archaeologists note a transition in how the Egyptians built cities.  Previously, most Egyptian cities had no walls, contrary to Mesopotamian cities of the same time.  After ca. 1200 B.C., most Egyptian cities had walls, marking a transition perhaps to a more unstable, frightening period.  Clearly, the 10 plagues would have devastated and de-stabilized Egypt significantly, and this of course weakened them.  The presence of walls may very well reflect the kind of dramatic decline the plagues would bring.

Still, I stress that this is only a theory.

Whenever we think the Exodus took place, we should realize that the plagues exposed every foundation that Egypt built its society and identity upon.  In class I compared the plagues to waking up and realizing that the life you thought you led wasn’t real, and actually you lived as a nomad in the Sahara with an entirely different family.  The psychological impact must have been devastating, which explains why many left Egypt with the Israelites.  I also think it explains why many stayed.  With such a radical change required, many might prefer to live in a dream.

Another issue is, when did the Exodus take place, and who might the pharaoh have been?  Wide disagreement exists within the scholarly community on this issue, but there are two main theories:

1. An ‘Early’ Exodus somewhere around 1450 B.C.   1 Kings 6:1 talks of ‘480 years’ between the Exodus and Solomon’s reign,B.C.  And might the Hyksos invasion, which took place around the same time, have been facilitated by the disaster of the plagues?  Could we then see the rally of Egyptian civilization under Ramses II as a kind of Indian summer, a last gasp?

2. A ‘Late’ Exodus somewhere around 1250 B.C., which would be at the time of Ramses II.  Didn’t Ramses build a new city, which would fit with the Israelites task of making mud brick, as described in Exodus?  Might ‘480 years’ be a symbolic number (12 x 40, or the completion of the wandering of the tribes)?  I wanted the students to think through the various possibilities, with the caveat that faithful Christians can easily disagree on this, as the Bible does not speak with absolute clarity.

Still, the images of Ramses II seem to reflect the kind of image conscious, stubborn, and arrogant man Moses must have confronted (much different than Ikhneton’s):

Good evidence exists on both sides of this question.  Here is one interesting piece of ‘internal evidence’  on the historicity of the Exodus from Egypt itself that may recall the plagues and confirm parts of the Exodus narrative, the Ipuwer Papyrus, which has some possible parallels with the Exodus account:

1. The Plague of Blood as mentioned in Exodus 7: 14-25

Ipuwer 2:3 “Pestilence is throughout the land, blood is everywhere.”

Ipuwer 2:9 “The River (Nile) is Blood. Men shrink…and thirst after water.”

2. The Plague on Egyptian Livestock as found in Exodus 9: 1-7

Ipuwer 5:5 “All animals, their hearts weep. Cattle moan.”

3. The Plague of Hail and Fire as mentioned in Exodus 9: 22-26

Ipuwer 9:23 “The fire ran along the ground. There was hail, and fire mingled with the hail.”

Ipuwer 2:10 “Forsooth (Help Us), gates, columns, and walls are consumed by fire.”

4. The Plague of Locusts as mentioned in Exodus 10: 1-20 (possible allusion)

Ipuwer 6:1: “No fruit nor herbs are found…Oh, that the earth would cease from noise, and tumult (uproar) be no more.”

Ipuwer 4:14: “Trees are destroyed and the branches are stripped off.”

5. The Plague of Darkness as mentioned in Exodus 10: 21-29

Ipuwer 9:11 “The land is without light.”

6. The Plague on Egypt’s Firstborn in Exodus 12

Ipuwer 2:13 “He who places his brother in the ground is everywhere.”

Ipuwer 3:14 “Groaning is throughout the land, mingled with lamentations.”

Ipuwer 4:3 “Forsooth, the children of princes are dashed against the walls.”

Ipuwer 6:12 “€œForsooth, the children of the princes are cast out in the streets.”

7. Freeing of the Slaves and their Pillage of Egypt as seen in Exodus 12: 31-36

Ipuwer 1: “The plunderer is everywhere, and the servant takes what he finds.”€

Ipuwer 2: “Indeed, poor men have become wealthy.”

Ipuwer 3: “Gold, silver and jewels are fastened to the necks of female slaves.”€

Ipuwer 5: “Slaves (who have now been freed) are throughout the land.”

Ipuwer 10: “€œThe king’€™s storehouse has now become common property.”

And here is a good discussion of the evidence for and against various dates for the  Exodus, if you are interested.

Blesssings,

Dave