A Method to the Madness

In the heady days of youth, many a man in my position (i.e., newly engaged, etc.) allowed themselves to watch a whole host of Jane Austen movies with their literarily inclined fiance.  Depending on our taste and level of courage, some of us liked the movies, while others pretended to like them to one degree or another.  But as watched them I recall having a thought (one that I most definitely did not voice at the time) I think most people have when exposed to Austen’s world: “What exactly did these women do all day?”

Enter Norbert Elias to answer this, and other perplexing questions about European aristocratic life in the age of Louis XIV and beyond.  His book The Court Society sets out to give the European aristocracy a context in which they lived.  They had reasons for their actions, reasons that made at least some sense in their world.  And like any other system, the seeds of its destruction embedded themselves right within the virtues the aristocracy practiced.

By early on in the book one realizes that, yes, the aristocracy did have “jobs.”  Of course menial/”blue collar” labor remained beneath them, but each member of an aristocratic household had charge of the family name, and advancing that family name.  Americans have little concept of this, but once we understand this idea, most everything else about the aristocracy falls into place.

While Elias did not deal with Austen’s period, I couldn’t help but reference her work when thinking of what Elias described.  In the Austen movies the women spend a great deal of time visiting one another, and Elias points out how this practice allowed for a display of rank and honor.  Thus, these meetings between aristocracy rarely had a “purely social” character to them.  Some may recall the surprise visit of Elizabeth to Darcy’s estate in Pride and Prejudice.  Darcy quickly puts on his “Sunday best” to receive visitors.  Of course it is polite in any society not to receive visitors in the equivalent of pajamas, but it is important to Darcy as well to reflect the dignity of his house to others.  Of course this may be why his house (like other aristocratic houses) remained open to the public, which seems quite strange to modern Americans.  How can one just show up uninvited?  But the aristocracy generally welcomed such visits, as an actor welcomes a chance to perform.  Proper dress and decorum went beyond mere politeness — it served as a means of displaying and advancing status.  Being a good host/guest was “work” for the aristocracy.  Advancing the family name meant advancing the family fortunes.  One might even imagine the members of the family often “on campaign” to advance or defend the family honor, as this note from the Duchess of Orleans to the Duchess of Hanover makes clear:

I must really tell you how just the King is. The Duchesse de Bourgogne’s ladies, who are called Ladies of the Palace, tried to arrogate the rank and take the place of my ladies everywhere. Such a thing was never done either in the time of the Queen or of the Dauphiness. They got the King’s Guards to keep their places and push back the chairs belonging to my ladies. I complained first of all to the Duc de Noailles, who replied that it was the King’s order. Then I went immediately to the King and said to him, “May I ask your Majesty if it is by your orders that my ladies have now no place or rank as they used to have? If it is your desire, I have nothing more to say, because I only wish to obey you, but your Majesty knows that formerly when the Queen and the Dauphiness were alive the Ladies of the Palace had no rank, and my Maids of Honour, Gentlemen of Honour, and Ladies of the Robe had their places like those of the Queen and the Dauphiness. I do not know why the Ladies of the Palace should pretend to anything else.” The King became quite red, and replied, “I have given no such order, who said that I had?” “The Maréchal de Noailles,” I replied. The King asked him why he had said such a thing, and he denied it entirely. “I am willing to believe, since you say so,” l replied, “that my lackey misunderstood you, but as the King has given no such orders, see that your Guards don’t keep places for those ladies and hinder my servants from carrying chairs for my service,” as we say here. Although these ladies are high in favour, the King, nevertheless, sent the majordomo to find out how things should be done. I told him, and it will not happen again. These women are becoming far too insolent now that they are in favour, and they imagined that I would not have the courage to report the matter to the King. But I shall not lose my rank nor prerogatives on account of the favour they enjoy. The King is too just for that.

The greatness of the “House” depended on the greatness of the family, which explains why Darcy would have hesitated to be in their company.  A man of Darcy’s status would naturally hesitate to confer “honor” to Elizabeth’s family by visiting, or especially dancing, which would have conferred an extra measure of approval for their “low status” behavior.  And with Elizabeth’s family’s status teetering on the brink, one can then see how potentially damaging Lydia’s behavior would be later in the book.

Elias points out that the aristocracy needed to visit others not only to forge connections and give and receive honor, but also to understand their place in the social hierarchy.  Take fashion, for example.  One should always dress appropriate to one’s station, never above it or below.  But the appropriate dress might shift over time depending on how others dressed and what approval they received from those above them.  A lord “goes for broke” and wears a cravat a bit frillier than he might normally while visiting a duke.  The duke gives his tacit approval by wearing an even more outlandish cravat, and now everyone must level jump on their cravat’s.  Suddenly, the “normal” cravat another lord wears is out of fashion — he now dresses as a bore.  If he had been invited to more places and been busier with his “job” he would have known this.  His family’s status declines.  Hence the near obsession with the aristocracy with visiting and being visited.  It was the only way to have “information,” to use a phrase Austen’s Emma frequently uttered.

Family status often had little to do with money.  No aristocrat worth his salt would stoop to such vulgar behavior as to actually care about money.  I believe Saint-Simon relates a story of one baron who gave his son some money to spend on the town.  When the son returned with money leftover he received harsh criticism from his father, who then threw the remaining money out of the window.  In returning with money the son showed not prudence, but foolishness.  Anyone who looked like they counted their money might look like they cared about money, and that stigma would hurt their reputation severely.

Americans often get accused, and rightly so, of focusing way too much on money, which proves our essential boorishness as a nation.  We have to see this malady in some ways as a by-product of equality.  Americans for the most part have no built in social framework for support, no “society” (to use another term from Emma) where we can claim membership.  Money, therefore, more so than family or connections, becomes our primary, if not our only tool, to keep us afloat.  The charge against us is just, but the charge is easier to avoid in aristocratic societies.

Many aristocrats got their names inscribed in stone by risking vast sums on throws of dice and turns of cards.  One might go broke with such games, but even an incredible loss had glory in it and at least proved one’s cavalier approach to money.  Far better a spendthrift than a miser, but this half-virtue ruined many families.  For of course, they did need money just as anyone else did.  Tradition mitigated against them developing a trade, speculating, or becoming a merchant.  They hoped for an appointment to high ranking government or military posts which traditionally went to high ranking aristocrats.  The only way to prove oneself worthy of this honor was not only to have impeccable taste and sense within the pecking order, but also to demonstrate that they never needed to ask the price of anything.  They played a dangerous game, one that Louis XIV must have been only too delighted to see them play.  As long as the fortunes of the aristocracy ebbed and flowed unpredictably, the greater his power.

So a method did exist.  And we see that, yes, they did work of a kind and had many constraints on their existence.  They were not free in the sense we might imagine.  I had students watch the following video about how aristocrats dressed in the 18th century:

As one might expect, they thought their habits pointless, wasteful, and weird (so much makeup for the man!)*, and so on.  But we must seek to understand.

  • Fundamentally, they sought to dress in ways in which commoners could not possibly dress.  They needed to reflect their proper status, for their own benefit, of course.  But it went beyond that–it was for the good of society too (at least in their minds).  To reflect their station was to give witness to the great chain of being.
  • Most of us dress in rather plain ways.  I think they might say of us that, “You have nothing in your society to lift you above the mundane and ordinary.  You have no higher goal than your base entertainment.  Should there be no glory, nothing to strive for?”

I think this last point has some merit.  But I’m not wearing makeup.

Perhaps one might think the life of the king free from constraint, but not so.  Louis XIV put before himself a tremendous task, to become the state.  While apparently he did not utter the phrase, “L ‘etat c’est moi,” he did say

 “The interests of the state come first. When one gives these priority, one labours for one’s own good. These advantage to the state redounds to one’s glory.”

So, while Louis did get to set the rules of fashion (being the top aristocrat all matters of taste and decorum flowed down from him), he had to organize methodically his use of power.  In order to effectively display the glory of France/himself and set the rules, he had to be “on call” all the time.  This lends more sympathy perhaps to the comical and bizarre rituals of various select noblemen watching Louis dress, undress, and eat.  I had always focused on the prison the nobles had allowed themselves to enter, but to keep the nobles beholden to himself, Louis had to keep himself beholden to them.  He too faced severe constraints on his behavior.

This element of control had to be extended at Versailles to nature itself.

garden-versailles_6475_600x450

With Louis XIV one has a possible glimpse of the final apogee of the Medieval idea of the Great Chain of Being, where happiness consisted in knowing who you were by knowing your place in the universe, and how that related to redemption of all things.  But in what could be called its culmination, the egg goes bad instead of hatching.  No wonder so many aristocrats supported the French Revolution, and even supported abolishing feudal titles.  One must always take caution when using one’s own culture and experience to judge the past, but perhaps the aristocracy simply got tired of playing a game no one had any real chance of winning.  One can make a good argument for the real usefulness of the aristocracy during the medieval period, but that time had long past, and one wonders if the French nobility somehow, deep down, knew that to be true.

Dave

*Yes, I too am disturbed by the use of makeup.  But we must be careful . . . it would not have been too long ago that a woman wearing pants would have been considered a form of cross-dressing.  Men wearing earrings takes on different meanings at different times, and so on.

Ritual, Politics, and Power

President Reagan garnered political popularity and power in part by his skillful use of political theater and imagery.

But in 1985 even this great master of ritual and belief stumbled a bit with the infamous “Bitburg” affair.  A New York Times article read,

It was a day Ronald Reagan had dreaded, even though it was a rite he felt bound to endure.  Walking beside Chancellor Kohl amidst the German military graves of the Bitburg cemetery, he looked stiff and uncomfortable, in awkward contrast to his usual ease.  While Kohl brushed aside tears, Reagan looked straight ahead, careful not to glance down at the graves less he spy the SS symbols sprinkled across the cemetery lawn.  In spite of the West German’s desire to clasp hands over the graves of the war dead, the President’s arms remained resolutely at his side.  Earlier in the day, at a hastily arranged ceremony at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Reagan laid a wreath inscribed, “From the People of the United States.”  At the cemetery, in a ceremony that he was able to limit to just eight minutes, the wreath bore a somewhat different message: “From the President of the United States.”

Reagan got himself into this mess through a series of awkward political circumstances.  First, West Germany had emerged as a crucial ally in the Cold War and Reagan wanted to put a new kind of missile on West German soil.  Second, Chancellor Kohl had engaged in a long campaign of rehabilitation for Germany, and argued that the German people were also the victims of the Nazi regime–a statement most found (and I find) partially true but mostly false.  Still, things in West Germany had obviously changed since the 1940’s.  Still, rehabilitating the Nazi regime . . . ?

Most world leaders balked at any ceremonial recognition.  Reagan felt that he needed to acknowledge West Germany’s emerging role and commitment to freedom.  Plus, the missiles . . . he needed enough political capital with the West Germans to install them on their soil.

So, he decided to go.  He asked that the ceremony be limited in time, pomp, and circumstance.  He asked his aides to pick a spot that would incur the least amount of political damage.  Somehow, in a gaffe of gaffes, his aides picked a spot that included graves of SS officers!  One might understand mourning the ordinary German soldier, but not even Reagan could pull this off.  Still, Reagan had pledged–but he then insisted on another visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in last-ditch attempt to balance things out.  Hence, his stiff posture at the Bitburg cemetery, and the different messages on the wreaths.

The amount of controversy these simple and subtle gestures caused shows us that such gestures are not that simple.  Rituals reflect deeply held beliefs.  More than that, rituals create beliefs that stick in the minds of men.

David Kertzer’s Ritual, Politics, and Power discusses this topic brilliantly.  He writes about weighty topics like ritual, psychology, and sociology with a spring in his step, and shares numerous revealing examples across time and space.  By far, his is the best book I have seen on the subject.

Some of us of a more rationalistic bent might say that rituals have no meaning in themselves.  Perhaps they give outward expression to inward meaning, but certainly cannot create meaning.  Meaning and ritual can easily part ways.

But how far could one take the separation of meaning and ritual?  Imagine we felt respect for someone but failed to shake their hand.  Would we really have this respect?  Some might say, “We love each other and we don’t need the state or the church to tell us that we’re married.” But I doubt that such people would refuse the “act of marriage” that creates intimacy in the first place.  “That’s ok, it’s the thought that counts” would not work as a defense.  Without a physical embodiment of the thought, no evidence of the thought exists.  More than that, our thoughts cannot be said to conform to reality without a physical manifestation of them.  We know a tree by its fruits.

In the Socratic dialogue Phaedo, Socrates argues about the nature of reality.  He comments,

Is their true nature contemplated by means of the body? Is it not rather the case that he who prepares himself most carefully to understand the true essence of each thing that he examines would come nearest to the knowledge of it?”  “Would not that man do this most perfectly who approaches each thing, so far as possible, with the reason alone, not introducing sight into his reasoning nor dragging in any of the other senses along with his thinking, but who employs pure, absolute reason in his attempt to search out the pure, absolute essence of things, and who removes himself, so far as possible, from eyes and ears, and, in a word, from his whole body, because he feels that its companionship disturbs the soul and hinders it from attaining truth and wisdom? Is not this the man, Simmias, if anyone, to attain to the knowledge of reality?”

In On the Celestial Hierarchy, St. Dionysius the Areopagite acknowledges that human beings cannot immediately or directly attain to spiritual contemplation.  Being flesh and blood, we require visible symbols and embodiments to know truth.  Kertzer in turn acknowledges that the president mainly functions as, “the chief symbol maker of the land,” so the minute analysis of Reagan’s gestures should not surprise us.*  Kertzer quotes another scholar who similarly wrote, “Most political controversy centers around which myth to apply to a particular problem.”

Kertzer generally ignores religion in his book, but the thin line between religion and politics makes itself perfectly obvious throughout his work–a huge strength in my view.  It illumines the fact that our political commitments come very near, or equivalent to, our religious beliefs, consciously or otherwise.  One immediately thinks of the vesting of clergy to perform religious rites.  We should not be gnostics.  You cannot just “think” yourself into being married.  Even today we still understand that you need a rite, you need “the act of marriage” to create marriage.  We know of the crown, robes, and mitres of kings.  But even in our much more casual modern American democracy, we have fixed expectations of how to look presidential.  To take one example, presidents give the pens they use to sign laws and treaties to favored confidantes or privileged citizens as “sacred” tokens of leadership.

Some may recall how Jimmy Carter’s popularity fell at least in part due to his failure to manage the symbolic nature of his leadership, either in his dress, relationship with Congress, or his tone of voice when speaking.  To take an opposite case, Kertzer shows how Rajiv Ghandi skillfully managed the symbolism of his mother Indira’s funeral to make a political career from nothing to India’s youngest Prime Minister in a matter of months.

We will know that our country’s religion is changing when we see its basic rituals come under fire.  Personally I find the singing of our national anthem at sporting events laborious and excessive.  But once the toothpaste gets out of the tube . . . things get complicated.  Though I find the ritual onerous and misplaced, I acknowledge the power of the rite.  Objectors to singing the anthem wisely engage in a symbolic action of their own.  The fact that they kneel has much more power than holding a press conference to voice their objections.

The more our country moves away from religion and its overt religious rite and symbolism, the more we will seek it elsewhere, the more important our political symbols will likely become, and the more power their proper execution will confer.  Ritual, Politics, and Power makes it clear that we need symbols to make sense of reality, and will have them one way or another.

Dave

*What do our modern presidential elections decide?  Given entitlement and defense spending, our federal budget has very little room to maneuver.  Our system of government and regular elections keep the president more or less in check.  Many believed the world would soon end after Trump’s election, but little of real substance has changed.  I think Kertzer would argue that what is most often really at stake is who gets to craft our symbols.  Neither candidate proposed any radical policy measure, and when Trump talked about a wall few thought it would actually happen.  But . . . it symbolically meant something to talk about it.  The election was bitter and contentious because of the symbolic nature of the candidates.  They may not have actually done radically different things in office but they represent very different symbols of what America is or should be.

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

The Dedication of the Dialogue

The Dedication of the Dialogue

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

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

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

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

The Retrogradation of Mars

The Retrogradation of Mars

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

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

Epicycles and Deferents

Epicycles and Deferents

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Galileo, The Dialogue, p. 131

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

12th Grade: Democracies and their Allies

This week we continued our look at the Peloponnesian War and especially at Athens’ crucial decision regarding their ally Platea.

Platea had been a long time ally of Athens, and a strategically important one because of its geographical location near Thebes, a Spartan ally.  Sentiment and history also bound Athens and Platea, as these two city-states were the only ones to show up at the Battle of Marathon.  Thus, they forged their alliance not just out of mutual need but out of a shared history.

As part of their strategy the Athenians purposely decided to use their infantry sparingly, and rely on their navy to win the war.  Unfortunately almost immediately Thebes took the opportunity to attack Platea and add to their territory.  Platea had success in their initial resistance but knew that ultimately they could not outlast Thebes and would lose.  They asked for Athenian help.

Usually of course, allies come each others’ aid.  But in this case, Athens wasn’t so sure. To get to Platea would mean fundamentally altering their strategy for the entire war. Using Athenian infantry meant exposing their own city to attack by the more deadly Spartan infantry.  The chances of the Plateans maintaining control after the Athenians inevitably left were slim.  How should they respond?

The dilemma the Athenians faced is akin to what we faced regarding West Berlin in the Cold War.  Undoubtedly it was a great coup to have part of a significant city be “on our side” right in the heart of the Iron Curtain.  West Berlin stood as a constant embarrassment to the puppet regime in East Germany.  President Kennedy made this famous speech regarding the city.

But surely much of our talk regarding West Berlin was bravado.  The city remained immensely vulnerable, and we had no way of guaranteeing its security.  If they were attacked, the best we could do would be to retaliate somewhere else.  Would defense of this city truly be worth a world war?  If push came to shove, should the U.S. let its bluff get called, or would we go “all in” on West Berlin?

Though the issue doesn’t have the relevance it once did, the problem of Taiwan and China also has resonance with the Athenian dilemma.  In the aftermath of communist takeover of China, the nationalists fled to Taiwan.  Taiwan had a long history of being a part of China, but the communists lacked the naval strength to take the island from the nationalist party.  We immediately recognized Taiwan as the “true China” and pledged its defense.

Early on this was almost as easily said as done.  China had no real navy or air force.  Recently of course, this has changed.  Their navy has greatly improved, and they have the world’s largest air force.  Defense of Taiwan has become a much more difficult problem.  Not only are they so far away, not only would defending Taiwan require large amounts of our naval resources, war with China would cost a great deal more now than even 25 years ago.  When push came to shove, would we truly risk so much for Taiwan’s sake?

For the most part the students agreed that Athens really shouldn’t help Platea, and neither would they really have started World War III over West Berlin.  This prompted the question, “Are democracies more likely, less likely, or just as likely to keep these kinds of alliances as other forms of government (such as monarchies or oligarchies).

If we believe that different forms of government have their own personalities, their own strengths and weaknesses, then we might expect them to act differently in different circumstances.  Some  might point out that aristocratic governments might indeed be more willing, for aristocracies have a great deal in common across national lines.  A duke in country ‘X’ has more in common with a duke in country ‘y’ than he does with a factory worker in his own country.  Thus, alliances between aristocratic countries will be more personal, and less politically abstract.

Some suggested that since monarchies and aristocracies rely much more on tradition than democracies, the past assumes much more importance for them — thus past alliances hold more weight.  Often aristocracies put a strong emphasis on a shared honor code, and this too might give them more internal incentive to keep past agreements.

De Tocqueville suggested the democracies would be inherently more practical than aristocracies.  In a famous passage he wrote,

Nothing is more necessary to the culture of the higher sciences, or the more elevated departments of science, than meditation; and nothing is less suited to meditation than the structure of democratic society. We do not find there, as amongst an aristocratic people, once class which keeps in repose because it is well off; and another, which does not venture to stir because it despairs of improving its condition. . . .  Men who live in democratic societies not only seldom indulge in meditation, but they naturally entertain very little esteem for it.

Thus, he concludes that aristocracies can be driven much more by ideas than democratic countries, who will usually use “practicality” as a guide for their decisions.

Whether or not De Tocqueville is correct, the issue of alliances and when to uphold them will always be relevant.  Athens preserved its infantry by refusing to come to Platea’s aid (to be fair to Athens, much of their population was stricken with a deadly plague) but Platea paid the price.  They succumbed to a joint Theban/Spartan attack.  The Thebans executed all their men, and sold their women and children into slavery.  Platea simply ceased to exist.

Next week we will see how the war expanded and changed its character as time went on.

Blessings,

Dave

Historical Philosophy in Renaissance France

Like many of you I have spent some time wondering where we are as a civilization and how we got here.

It might seem like a book about French historians of the 16th century might have very little to do with this question.  But bear with me!–George Huppert’s book The Idea of Perfect History: Historical Erudition and Historical Philosophy in Renaissance France might indeed have something to do with where we find ourselves.

Though perhaps getting there via this informative but slightly dry tome may require more patience from readers than usual!

Huppert makes that point that the writing of history changed dramatically during the period he examines, but to understand this we need to briefly glimpse the history of “History,” for the study of history as we know it came into being comparatively recently.

In the ancient world various kings had their escapades recorded for posterity.  A text of the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III, for example, has him slaying 1000 lions with a single arrow and other such things.  We can wonder, did Thutmose expect others to believe him?  Did he believe it himself?  More likely, he had no wish to record exactly what happened but inhabited another way of thinking and another form of writing.  Herodotus records a combination of personal observations, investigations, and poetic constructions.  He saw no need to differentiate.  Apparently, he didn’t think it mattered.  He saw no need to concern himself exclusively with what “actually happened.”  Even Thucydides–who had a much more scientific bent and witnessed many of the events he records–surely invents certain speeches to craft an artful narrative.

The medieval period formed the immediate context for many of Huppert’s subjects.  Many wrote first-hand accounts of kings or crusades during this period.  What they knew and saw they described.  But when going beyond this, they no problem filling in gaps with some educated guesswork, and like the ancients, saw no need to be clear about the difference.  Others went further.  In his History of the Kings of Britain Geoffrey of Monmouth includes a lengthy section on King Arthur.  Here Geoffrey is on at least semi-historical footing.  King Arthur, or someone like him, may have existed.  But Geoffrey includes a section detailing Arthur’s denunciation by the senate of Rome, and his combat against a rag-tag army which included “Kings from the Orient,” which certainly never happened.  Moreover, Geoffrey and his readers must have known this never happened.

We also see in many medieval histories the desire to connect one’s own particular history with a grander narrative.  One can do this with myth directly, but others did this “mythically.”  Vergil has the origins of Rome come from Troy, and Geoffrey has the English, in turn, come from Rome/Troy.  French historians have the Franks come from Troy as well.*  Again, the desire to connect poetically/narratively with the grand story of civilization trumps that of what “actually happened.”  They did this quite self-consciously.

Nicole Gilles’ Annals of France (ca. 1525) gives us a late example of this.  He begins with Creation itself and then recounts some aspects of Biblical history.  He moves quickly to the history of France’s kings, but here he includes many legends and miracles.  The giants he describes, as well as the kings, have an ancestry. It just so happens in the Annals that the Franks were founded by a man named Francio, . . . also from Troy. Even the giant Feragut, slain by Roland, descends from Goliath.  Perhaps Roland and Francio did not exist, but certainly Charlemagne did.  But he has Charlemagne do things that few would really think actually happened, such as undertake a crusade to Jerusalem.  His book was a wild success, which surely frustrated many of the France’s emerging humanist scholars.  Those scholars might have taken solace had they known that the Annals were the last of its kind.

We see the shift evidenced by the comments of two humanist scholars in the mid 16th century.  Claude Fauchet wrote that medieval historians had, “failed in the chief responsibility of the historian, that is, to tell the truth.” And Lancelot Popeliniere declared that “no man of honor ever practiced [history in France], since the profession had always been in the hands of clerics,” whose limitations and biases prevented them from giving an objective appraisal of events.

These statements contain within them a revolution of thought, but they both beg questions: What does it mean for a historian to tell the truth?  And who is objective?

Their passion for “what really happened” involved the following:

  • Making history a science that concerned itself with the affairs of men, not so much the intervention of God, which cannot be measured or predicted.
  • Broadening the scope of history beyond national or religious concerns, and focusing on the history of all, and
  • Getting the best texts, and staying faithful to the best texts, would get us to the truth.  Truth comes from texts, not so much from tradition.

The astute observer no doubt notices a strong correlation between this last goal and the emerging Protestant Reformation.  Indeed, some of this new breed of historians had much sympathy with the French Protestants, and we can say more on this later.  But regardless of religious affiliation, all three goals also added up to a rejection of the idea that history involved a kind of devolution, a falling away from grace.  Rather, for these French humanists, just as we could improve the study of history and cleanse from the muck of the errors of the past, so too could our whole society move forward and progress.**

Huppert details the writing of several French historians of the 16th century who followed these axioms.  The details here ran a bit dry for me, but the overall effect was the same.  When one combines the work of these scholars in the 16th century with the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, the work of history changed dramatically, and we should evaluate the fallout for good or ill.

The passion for precision and the value of the text have done a great deal to improve history in a variety of ways that seem axiomatic to mention.  We have more access to more information, we have more texts in translation, and almost certainly, a better idea for “what really happened,” than previously.  The late Renaissance humanists foreshadowed the Enlightenment, which gave us a variety of other secondary blessings, especially related to advancements in science that comes with breaking things down into component parts.

But we have lost a great deal in the exchange, and the exchange may not have worth it.

First, I stress that while we have a “better idea” for what really happened in the past, we still don’t really know.  We still have to guess and be comfortable with guessing.  Having more texts will not solve the problem of interpreting the texts.  But all this says is that the French humanists had a bit too much optimism, hardly a dreadful fault.  But this optimism has had certain consequences.

Their methods assert that we can get outside traditions and into a place of pure perspective and rationality.  We know that we cannot do this.  Their reliance on texts exacerbates this.  A text, divorced from tradition, can have an almost infinite amount of interpretations.  Note how the reliance on “sola Scriptura” has doomed Protestants into constant splintering and thousands of factions, each claiming to base their ideas on the “text” of the Bible.  In the end, different traditions of interpretation do in fact form, with Reformed Study Bibles, Scofield Reference Bibles, and so on.

We must also deal with Geoffrey of Monmouth and Nicole Gilles and ask if they write history. We may say that the discipline of History involves many things, but we must first ask what it involves primarily.  Is it primarily an art or science?  If we had to choose would we rather have eyewitness testimonies to tell us what happened in Guernica, or Picasso’s painting?

If we side with Picasso we will begin to understand medieval historians.

For History to have any real significance, it must have meaning.  Meaning requires interpretation, and interpretation requires poetry, something beyond mere facts.  We might surmise that in having Arthur deal with Rome, Geoffrey sought to display his view of Arthur as the inheritor of the mantle of Christendom after the fall of Rome–the literary equivalent to an interpretative painting of him, or perhaps an “icon” of Arthur (a great example of how truth can be communicated in image can be found here). The same could be said of Gilles’ “depiction” of Charlemagne.

We do not critique paintings by saying things such as, “He didn’t look exactly like that, so that’s not painting.”  But humanistic rationalism treated the text as having more truth than the image.  This is why they treated medieval historians unfairly.  They failed to see how truth claims could be communicated in the text artistically (and entertainingly as well, as anyone who has read Geoffrey of Monmouth can attest).^  I have no problem calling Geoffrey and Gilles historians, albeit historians of a different type.  They told the “truth,” (if their interpretations were accurate), but in a different way.  They had their biases, but so do you and I.

One can point to many reasons why we experience our current political situation.  Some of them do indeed have a connection to the historians of Renaissance France.  The founders (not the early colonists) drank deeply from the same Enlightenment-oriented spirit of our aforementioned historians.  They too focused heavily on texts, and indeed, we base our life together not on shared traditions, but the texts of the Declaration and Constitution, and this has certain consequences.

The postmoderns rightly tell us that texts can have an almost uncountable number of interpretations.  The search for the “absolute” interpretation of the text will get us nowhere.  So, both those who drive pickups with big American flags, and those who drink latte’s and protest the national anthem can claim to live out what it means to be an American (i.e., “protest is the most American thing one can do,” and so on).  On the one hand, Trump takes an ax to many traditions of how a president should act.  But on the other hand, he “connects with the common man,” and isn’t America all about the common man and freedom from tradition?

Hence, we see our dilemma.

But postmoderns fail us because not every interpretation has the same validity.  We have to have a way of distinguishing and separating the good from the bad.  With only texts and no traditions at our disposal, however, we will have a hard time reigning in the various interpretations.  Other ways of seeing and apprehending the “truths” of history can provide checks, balances, and possibly, a return to sanity.  In his introduction to Fr. Maximos Constas’ The Art of Seeing Bishop Maxim asks

For example, if you have a photograph of Christ and an icon painting of Christ, which is more truthful?  Certainly, if you have a naturalistic approach, you would say, “the photograph.”  But if you say [the icon] you point to unconventional and eschatological truth.  . . . .Therefore, there is truth in art that does not correspond to the mind of reality.

Dave

*I find it interesting that everyone wanted to come from Troy and not Greece.  Troy lost.  Many say that the Europeans wanted to come from Troy to connect themselves with Rome.  I can’t deny this might have something to do with it, but I think it goes beyond that.  Hector, for example, became a Christian name, while Odysseus and Achilles did not.  I’m sure there is more here to explore.

**The idea that history means speaking of such devolution is hardly the property of medievals alone.  Most every ancient society had myths of golden ages in the past we should attempt to emulate, whether these ages be mythical, quasi-mythical, or presented as historical (as perhaps Livy does in his work).  What looks benign to us in the French scholars really represented a radical shift from the past.

I consider the idea of devolution in history here.

^I think this attitude towards texts and the reduction of the idea of truth to “what actually happened” contributed greatly to the Galileo controversy and the subsequent tension between science and religion. In my limited reading of the situation, no such tension existed before this time.

 

 

Democracies and their Aristocracies, pt. 2

This serves as a companion piece to this post of some time ago . . .

Hat tip to Martin Gurri, who makes an excellent point in his new book.  The information revolution may very well serve mass democratic movements, and that may not be a good thing . . .

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Many events leading up to the Peloponnesian War helped increase tensions between Athens and Sparta.  I never ascribe to theories that make certain events “inevitable,” but given the history between two of Greece’s pre-eminent powers, war was probably a better than 50-50 bet as tensions between them increased in the mid-5th century B.C.  Athens’ decision to build walls around the interior of the city and its harbor clearly added to these tensions.

I had always interpreted Athens’ decision in almost entirely military terms.  The Persians sacked their city in 480 B.C., and the Athenians recovered it only after a last stand naval battle in Salamis.  The psychological and physical scars of that event would naturally lead to a desire for more defense.

Naturally such an action strained things between Athens and Sparta.  Athens had a great navy, Sparta had its infantry.  Each could hurt the other in its own way, a kind of ancient application of “M.A.D.”  Now, Athens could hypothetically hurt Sparta or its allies without worrying too much about the consequences.  As great as Sparta fought in open battle, they had limited abilities in siege warfare.  Athens could remain safely behind the walls of Athens.  You could see the walls of Athens as a first strike weapon, one that allowed them to sally forth with Sparta not able to retaliate in kind.  So too, when President Reagan proposed his SDI “Star Wars” defense, many believed the invention would create a more dangerous world, not a safer one.

Peter J. Fleiss’ book Thucydides and the Politics of Bipolarity showed me a side of this issue I had not realized before.  Athens’ walls would never have been built without a decisive shift towards democracy in mid-5th century Athens.

Like almost any other place in the ancient world, Athens’ identity came from its landowning farmers.  However, around 600 B.C. the wealthier oligarchs gained an unstable amount of power via the Code of Draco.  At this point, Athens chose a tyrant named Solon to take control of Athens for 20 years, beginning in 590 B.C.  The choice revealed a lot about the Athenians.  Solon had wealth, which earned him the trust of the aristocracy, but . . . he was not an aristocrat, which earned him the respect of the people at large.

Solon embarked on a program to bring social stability back to Athens.  He had to walk a tightrope between competing factions and earned high praise from the ancient world for his reforms. For our purposes here, we note that

  • He refused to redivide land and let the wealthier aristocrats keep what they had acquired from the newly poor.
  • At the same time, he taxed the wealthy at a much higher rate
  • He helped grow a middle class by encouraging the growth of a merchant fleet

The growth of merchants provided a valve to let off social steam.  In addition, many of the city’s poor got jobs rowing the ships.  Solon attempted balance in his reforms, but hindsight shows us that the power of traditional elites was on the clock.

The economic story of Athens ca. 590-450 B.C. mirrors what happened to Rome when she started to shift to a more merchant oriented economy from 200-60 B.C.  Rome’s shift helped to destroy the very elites who profited most from this shift.  The power of elites rests on tradition.  Tradition comes from continuity, and continuity comes from land.  This has been the way of things from the days of yore.  Once cash money, and not land, formed the primary currency, the land-owning elites lost much of their power.

As Athens naval might grew the population shifted to more urban areas.  Of course poorer farmers resided outside the 350px-pelopennesian_war_walls_protecting_the_city_431_b-ccity walls, but we can be sure that the older, established families had most of their land outside the city limits.  This land would be the first target of any invading army.  Building the wall would allow for more protection, but any defensive structure sends a double message.  The Germans, for example, could invade Poland with confidence in 1939 because the Maginot line signaled a purely defensive posture for France along the frontier.  Building the walls around the city signaled that in the event of war Athens would willingly let the majority of its exterior farms fall into Spartan hands–until the war was won, of course.

Popular democracy would be the only plausible political vehicle to accomplish this.  Land of the elites outside the walls would suffer before the merchant class within the city.  In the event of a Spartan invasion, the navy, and the poor who rowed the ships, would rise even more in importance.  Only the navy could then procure food for the city under siege.  When the time came, Pericles proposed this exact strategy.*  At the start of the Peloponnesian War Athens retreated inside its walls and let Sparta have the run of the countryside, while their navy shouldered the military load.

Athens’ walls signaled a cultural shift as well.  Some of the established elites outside the walls were obviously more conservative, and might have had more in common with the average Spartan than the average Athenian inside the city.  The walls repudiated the statesmanship of leaders like Cimon who sought rapprochement with Sparta.**

To me Pericles’ strategy could have the hallmarks of the “tyranny of the majority” problem discussed by so many political philosophers.  Older, elite families lost land, but more importantly, they lost the possibility of gaining status in the war.  In the Greek world, status gave power, not vice-versa.  Pericles’ proposed strategy greatly limited the chances of the landed gentry gaining honor and status via battle, while greatly increasing the chances of the “demos” to gain in both departments.^

The failure of Pericles’ strategy, partly caused by the unforeseen plague that hit Athens, does not prove that democracies need elites.  But their failure in the overall war effort might suggest it.  Solon gained fame, honor, and success by pursuing a political agenda that both rewarded and burdened both the people and the elites.  In the 100 years after Solon left power, Athens went from an also-ran to a major power in the Greek world.  As democracy grew, so too did the people’s opportunities to strike back at their own elite.  They should have resisted the temptation.  As Tocqueville wrote, democracies usually win their wars, but that’s only when they unite against a common enemy.  In Athens’ day the political infighting that began the war lasted only until their situation got desperate.  We can’t measure the effect, but it surely hampered their efforts.  We might wonder if things would have been different if Pericles pursued a military strategy that allowed for participation and honor for both the people and the gentry.

Our recent election saw much ink spilled on the question of “elites.”  Some argued that Clinton is “elite” because of her connections and long political career.  Others argue that Trump is elite because of his wealth.  Whatever your definition, “elite” has become a dirty word.  That’s a shame, because history tells us that healthy democracies need, and perhaps even embrace, their “elites.”

Dave

*Thucydides argues that such a strategy would have worked had the Athenians had the discipline to stick with it.  This comment has always perplexed me for three main reasons: 1) At some point the Athenians would have had to deal with the Spartan infantry, and a policy of withdrawing behind walls would only embolden the Spartans, 2) The Athenians did have patience.  They tried this strategy for about 4 years, with no real success.  Initially the Spartans came, burned what they could, and left.  But eventually they realized they could come and stay for much of the year with impunity, because the Athenians never challenged them, and 3) Thucydides shows some disdain for the popular democracy throughout his narrative, and this policy only strengthened the hold of the demos on affairs of state.

**The mood shifted decisively with Cimon’s ostracism.  He father fought and won the Battle of Marathon.  Cimon himself had many noteworthy victories against the Persians.  Everything about “traditional values” pointed to a long and respected career for Cimon.

^This is one reason why I disagree with Thucydides’ assertion that Pericles’ time in power created an aristocratically leaning government with some democratic underpinnings.  Here I agree with Donald Kagan that Periclean democracy was really fully democratic.