The American “Prestige”

 

In our senior Government class, we spend a good amount of time discussing the question, “What is America?” throughout the year.  The question is deceptively simple, and we have a difficult time answering it.  We discussed Book 1, Ch. 4 from The Prince recently in class, and it spurred some interesting discussion.

The text reads as follows . . .

Why The Kingdom Of Darius, Conquered By Alexander, Did Not Rebel Against The Successors Of Alexander At His Death

CONSIDERING the difficulties which men have had to hold a newly acquired state, some might wonder how, seeing that Alexander the Great became the master of Asia in a few years, and died whilst it was yet scarcely settled (whence it might appear reasonable that the whole empire would have rebelled), nevertheless his successors maintained themselves, and had to meet no other difficulty than that which arose among themselves from their own ambitions.

I answer that the principalities of which one has record are found to be governed in two different ways: either by a prince, with a body of servants, who assist him to govern the kingdom as ministers by his favour and permission; or by a prince and barons, who hold that dignity by antiquity of blood and not by the grace of the prince. Such barons have states and their own subjects, who recognize them as lords and hold them in natural affection. Those states that are governed by a prince and his servants hold their prince in more consideration, because in all the country there is no one who is recognized as superior to him, and if they yield obedience to another they do it as to a minister and official, and they do not bear him any particular affection.

The examples of these two governments in our time are the Turk and the King of France. The entire monarchy of the Turk is governed by one lord, the others are his servants; and, dividing his kingdom into sanjaks, he sends there different administrators, and shifts and changes them as he chooses. But the King of France is placed in the midst of an ancient body of lords, acknowledged by their own subjects, and beloved by them; they have their own prerogatives, nor can the king take these away except at his peril. Therefore, he who considers both of these states will recognize great difficulties in seizing the state of the Turk, but, once it is conquered, great ease in holding it. The causes of the difficulties in seizing the kingdom of the Turk are that the usurper cannot be called in by the princes of the kingdom, nor can he hope to be assisted in his designs by the revolt of those whom the lord has around him. This arises from the reasons given above; for his ministers, being all slaves and bondmen, can only be corrupted with great difficulty, and one can expect little advantage from them when they have been corrupted, as they cannot carry the people with them, for the reasons assigned. Hence, he who attacks the Turk must bear in mind that he will find him united, and he will have to rely more on his own strength than on the revolt of others; but, if once the Turk has been conquered, and routed in the field in such a way that he cannot replace his armies, there is nothing to fear but the family of the prince, and, this being exterminated, there remains no one to fear, the others having no credit with the people; and as the conqueror did not rely on them before his victory, so he ought not to fear them after it.

The contrary happens in kingdoms governed like that of France, because one can easily enter there by gaining over some baron of the kingdom, for one always finds malcontents and such as desire a change. Such men, for the reasons given, can open the way into the state and render the victory easy; but if you wish to hold it afterwards, you meet with infinite difficulties, both from those who have assisted you and from those you have crushed. Nor is it enough for you to have exterminated the family of the prince, because the lords that remain make themselves the heads of fresh movements against you, and as you are unable either to satisfy or exterminate them, that state is lost whenever time brings the opportunity.

Now if you will consider what was the nature of the government of Darius, you will find it similar to the kingdom of the Turk, and therefore it was only necessary for Alexander, first to overthrow him in the field, and then to take the country from him. After which victory, Darius being killed, the state remained secure to Alexander, for the above reasons. And if his successors had been united they would have enjoyed it securely and at their ease, for there were no tumults raised in the kingdom except those they provoked themselves.

But it is impossible to hold with such tranquillity states constituted like that of France. Hence arose those frequent rebellions against the Romans in Spain, France, and Greece, owing to the many principalities there were in these states, of which, as long as the memory of them endured, the Romans always held an insecure possession; but with the power and long continuance of the empire the memory of them passed away, and the Romans then became secure possessors. And when fighting afterwards amongst themselves, each one was able to attach to himself his own parts of the country, according to the authority he had assumed there; and the family of the former lord being exterminated, none other than the Romans were acknowledged.

When these things are remembered no one will marvel at the ease with which Alexander held the Empire of Asia, or at the difficulties which others have had to keep an acquisition, such as Pyrrhus and many more; this is not occasioned by the little or abundance of ability in the conqueror, but by the want of uniformity in the subject state.

Machiavelli’s distinction helps make sense of other historical events.  We can look, for example, at Napoleon and Hitler’s invasion of Russia/Soviet Union.  At first glance, Russia must have seemed akin to Persia in Napoleon’s eyes.  After all, Czar Alexander I certainly looked like most other autocrats in history.  But . . . for most of Russia’s existence it resembled France.  Tales in the old Russian folk-epics reveal a shaky relationship of the people to their ruler, but more importantly, old Russia had several distinct provinces/cities that competed for precedence and had their own history and identity.  Napoleon found Russia easy to enter but hard to hold.  The Nazi’s found the same true even 130 years later.  When force no longer sufficed to hold the Soviet Union together ca. 1989-91, the old identities resurfaced almost immediately.

“Never get involved in a land war in Asia,” also has some of the same logic behind it.  A country like China has the appearance of resembling Persia, just as Russia did.  But most of China’s history reveals competing provinces, dialects, and an uncertain relationship to the emperor until later in its existence.

So we asked the question, “Which kind of kingdom is America?”  Does it resemble France, or Persia?  In contrast to Russia, China, or France,  Persia did not have a long, zig-zag run-up to the height of its power.  Their civilization had a jump-start, meteoric rise under Cyrus the Great, who immediately set a pattern of charismatic dominance over the whole of his empire.  In future generations the Persians took their cue it seemed almost entirely from future dynamic leaders like Darius.  Their reliance on this pattern shows even in the failed rebellion of Cyrus the Younger, who fit this mold of dynamic leader better than his brother Artaxerxes II.  The fact that he almost succeeded with no other claim to rule besides his personality says a lot about Persia.

Some students thought that America had a beginning akin to that of France or Russia.  We had different colonies in different parts of the Atlantic coast that developed entirely apart from each other.  These colonies came together only to fight against a common enemy, but essentially remained separate kingdoms until sometime after the Civil War — perhaps not even until into the Great Depression.

The majority thought otherwise.  True, the first colonies hardly interacted with one another, but they came to America with similar purposes from similar cultures.  At the core, they were about the same thing, which is why the French-Indian War could so easily unite them and start us thinking about the “people.”  When examining the history of China, Russia, or France one sees a host of regularly occurring rivalries, small conflicts, and so on.  But America we only see one big blowup  — the Civil War.  The Civil War showed that obviously, we differed on much.  But it was the kind of big blowup that occurs in families, when often unity exists. It was the exception that proved the rule.

I acknowledge much merit in the “France” argument, but in this case I sided with the majority.  Tocqueville noticed back in the 1830’s the tendency towards centralization in our democratic experiment, and the already growing power of the majority.  He wrote,

The very essence of democratic government consists in the absolute sovereignty of the majority; for there is nothing in democratic states that is capable of resisting it.

We have different political opinions, but in no political election is any fundamental question of identity at stake.  Many rejoice/lament the election of a particular president.  But whoever may win the election, the next day our lives remain unchanged.

In Book Five of his Poliitcs Aristotle speculates that democratic constitutions* remain most safest when threats to said constitution remain either far away or very close.  The first seems obvious.  When nothing threatens us we live at ease, and it’s easy to have peace with others.  A very near threat like an invasion would bind us together quickly.    This kind of threat might also be merely an obvious one, like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which immediately united a divided country in the war effort.

The in-between threats, however, pose a real challenge.  Since the danger is neither obvious or near, we can easily divide not just on how to respond but whether or not to respond.  We might think of the Vietnam War as an example of this, and sure enough, it brought on significant internal changes to our constitution.  The “War on Terror” fits into a similar mold. Should we intervene here or there?  Should we increase surveillance or not, what about privacy rights, and so on.  And, true to Aristotle’s form, we see increased political polarization with this “intermediate” threat.

But our class speculated on exactly what an “invader” — whatever form that might take — would find.  Once Cyrus the Younger died in the Battle of Cunaxa his cause died with him.  Once Darius III died, Alexander had essentially conquered Persia.  But at what would America’s enemies take aim?  Not the president, surely, for at any given time half the country will not like him.  Not the capital, either.  As the British discovered in 1813, burning D.C. did little to aid their war effort.  One could hypothetically detonate a strong EMP in the atmosphere to knock out our electrical system.  But that would take out any first or second world country and so that answer lacks enough specificity to the United States.  This “absolute sovereignty of the majority,” would be hard to pin down.  Where is it?  And how would one attack it?  Get too close, and the unity of the people to defend their “constitution” would quickly emerge.

The “prestige” in magic is the trick’s big reveal, and of course sometimes what is revealed is nothing at all.  This would happen perhaps to an invader, who might never find the rabbit inside the hat.  Rather, as Aristotle suggests, and the experience of Rome certainly plays out, democracies will be far more likely to erode themselves from within as opposed to without.

Dave

 

*By “constitution” he does not mean merely a written document, but our way of relating to one another in general.

 

 

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8th Grade: Solon and the Occupy Movement

Greetings,

This week we looked at the esteemed Athenian statesman Solon.
Solon of AthensThe ancient world regarded Solon as a great sage, but as we saw, his head was not in the clouds.  He took a society ready to fly apart at the seams and left it with an established social context in which democracy could take root.  I wanted to highlight a few key lessons.

First, the background:

Before Solon there was Draco, a member of the Athenian aristocracy.  His name itself came to symbolize harsh governmental policy, i.e. a ‘Draconian’ law.  His policies helped cement the divide between rich and poor and threatened to make it wider. This dynamic is not unusual.  When one group in society separates itself from others because of wealth or status, they tend to fear the rest of society, and thus, isolate themselves all the more.  This increased distance only requires more force to ensure the divide.  One can think of the ante-bellum South, for example, and various laws enacted that made it a crime to educate slaves.  Society built like this can’t last for long.

Enter Solon.

He recognized a few key things:

  • Society needs the rich.  One can argue that the rich abused their power but they are still Athenian. Secondly, their resources can benefit Athens.  If we heal the fear between the two groups we can create opportunity for the wealthy to feel a bit more free with their resources.
  • The divide between rich and poor must be healed if we are to survive.  This will require sacrifice from the rich
  • This led to what may have been Solon’s invention, and may not have been — an early version of a graduated income tax.

No one likes to pay taxes.  One of the reasons for this is that no one really knows where their money goes.  It gets dropped into a vast ocean, never to be heard from again.  Solon did things differently.  He did not ask for a direct sum from the wealthy, but offered them an opportunity.  The wealthy could fund specific projects.  They could just pay directly for a religious festival, a bridge, or a naval warship.  Of course, they could also get full credit for their funding, i.e., ‘This festival to Athena sponsored by Diodotus.’  So, paying taxes became a way to earn ‘kleos.’  The wealthy could contribute in how much they gave.  Enhancing the well being of Athens was directly connected with enhancing their own status in the community.  Solon therefore made paying ones taxes a way for the wealthy to maintain and even enhance their “kleos.”

We should not view this as “taxes,” in any sense of the modern world.  First of all, they were not precisely calculated to income, only loosely.  Secondly, they came with no direct legal obligation.  Solon erected a social framework where aristocratic status came with a kind of obligation, perhaps an early form of noblesse oblige.  We see this idea reflected in various ways up until quite recently in the western world, the idea that you demonstrated your status by public service.

Problem solved.

Could this apply today?  We are much too big to do what Solon did on any appreciable scale.  Yet I wonder, with the ‘Occupy’ movement and other kinds of resentment against the wealthy building, if we couldn’t borrow his ideas. What if we did this for the very rich, and put their faces on front pages with captions like, “Warren Buffet posing with fighter jet paid for with his taxes,” or something like this.  Would this help?

But, we should note that if we had a competition of fame/honor in paying taxes to the government, that would imply a certain relationship and attitude towards our government.  As we discussed, what we think of Solon in parts depends on what one thinks about the purpose of law and government.  Many of us think from a Roman context where law has an essentially “negative” character; i.e., the law tells you what not to do.  Greek concepts of law had different goals in mind.  The Greeks saw law as a tool to help shape the souls of individuals and communities.  Greek law did not alwys say, “You must do this,” (with Sparta as an exception), but it did seek to produce certain definite outcomes.

Solon did not create democracy in Athens, but he established a context for it to exist. Democracy cannot exist everywhere.  If the majority have an “us v. them” attitude then they will use their power to get revenge or exploit the “them,” whether they be rich or poor, black or white, etc.  In this environment, society will become cancerous and destroy itself.  Democracy can only really work when the power of the majority does not just represent merely the majority, but in some sense all the people.  In our own age of bitter partisanship and resistance to compromise, we would do well to take Solon’s wisdom to heart.

Blessings,

Dave Mathwin

10th Grade: The Iroquois Get Nothing for Their Trouble

Greetings to all,

During this week we left Europe and went back to America ca. 1700.  We will begin the buildup to the American Revolution over the next few weeks.  As a backdrop, I wanted the following questions to be in our minds:

  • Why did the American Revolution happen?  Was it inevitable?  Was it mainly motivated by economics, politics, culture, or religion?  From the beginning, the colonists were in an unusual relationship to England.  England did not usually force them out — most left on their own accord.  And yet most left for a reason rooted in dissatisfaction with England.  Colonial charters affirm loyalty to the king, but don’t say anything about Parliament.  More on that difference later. . .
Of course, a combination of distance and internal English politics meant that both sides mutually ignored one another for generations.  All that began to change around 1750.
  • Was the American Revolution Christian in origin and execution?  Or did it have to do more with prevailing Enlightenment ideas of the time?  Can the desire for ‘liberty’ in the colonies be reconciled with the presence of slavery?  What did the colonists mean by ‘liberty?’
  • How did the Revolution look from the British perspective?  Most of us have always heard the story from ‘our’ side, so I think it’s crucial that we try and understand the issues from the English point of view.
We began by looking at the events that precipitated the Seven Years War, also known as the French-Indian War, from 1756-63.
The war involved the major European powers overseas, but on the continent the war had some of its origin in the fate of the Iroquois Nation.  Here is a map:
 
When the colonies were first being settled, had the Indians united against them the European settlers would have had no chance.  Native American tribal unity appears to have been rare, however, except in the case of the Iroquois Nation.  This unified stance allowed them to maintain themselves with the British to the NE in the South in the New England settlements, and French to the West of them.
They maintained their survival by trying to play the British and French off one another and never letting one get too powerful — a tricky game to be sure.  One could easily argue that the British posed the greater threat.  Their settlers formed unified social and political communities, whereas the French just did trading posts.  But, if you thought that the British might one day just take it, perhaps you should find a way to pre-empt and get something for it?  Of course this risked alienating the French, who were more likely to be their natural allies.
In the 1740’s the Iroquois sold land to the British.  Did this solve their problems?  No — for the French got scared, and bulked up their presence, so the British returned the favor and bulked up theirs  Eventually war broke out between the two powers and the Iroquois would not be able to survive.  One can’t help but feel bad for the Indians in this.  The “Iroquois Nation” managed to do what so few other tribes managed to do — unify in the face of the European threat.  But this bought them only a slight amount of time.  Sandwiched between two greater powers with a history of animosity, almost every move they made would bring suspicion from one side or the other.  Their fate was the unfortunate fate of so many small nations caught between bigger ones.  One only needs to think of Poland and their history with Prussia/Germany and Russia, for example, to see that their fate was the fate of many other such nations in similar circumstances.
The conflict had other roots too, perhaps in the basic perception of the continent both the English and French had.  Here is America according to the French:
And here according to the British (look how far the faint pink line extends west!)
Blessings,
Dave Mathwin

Truisms that are (at least mostly) Not True

I have an affinity for the crazy theory.  I know that they can’t all be true, if for the only reason that if all of them were true, we would have no crazy theories to enjoy contemplating.  Our times have a strange character to them, however, for it seems the crackpot plays the role of conservative.  Older views of things look bizarre today.  Before continuing, I should fully disclose that, though I love crazy ideas, I am actually a very boring person.  The reason these two fit together in my life is that today the harebrained idea is sometimes quite conservative and, upon closer examination, sometimes even obvious.

Take, for example, a variety of truisms in our day.  We say that in football you have to have a great quarterback but . . .  Blake Bortles, Nick Foles, Case Keenum . . . at least one of them will play in the Super Bowl this year.  One can easily envision some coach with a crew-cut from the early 1960’s telling us how it’s a “team game, and not one of you means more than another,” and so on. We have traveled back in time.

History has its truisms as well.  I hear all the time, even from religious conservatives, that America’s religious competition has saved America from going the way of secular Western Europe.*  I have a particular antipathy for this obvious falsehood.  Medieval Europe had very little religious competition, and religion did quite well there.  Religion thrived in ancient Egypt with almost no competition for millennia.  To take the reverse, ancient Babylon had a lot more religious competition and their religion and morals seemed to suffer.  Today France may be nominally Catholic and Sweden nominally Lutheran, but no laws exist forbidding one from becoming Baptist, Methodist, or Buddhist in either place.  At least some religious competition surely exists there today.  This truism about religious competition is actually a far-fetched theory, based on only the most recent evidence.

To get slightly more controversial, we hear all the time how printing serves as one of the great civilizing tools for mankind.  No one questions this truism. But, just look for a moment . . . it seems obvious to me that the 15th century in Europe had a higher degree of civilization than the century after the printing press gained prevalence.  The printing press brought a lot of religious violence and political fragmentation in its wake. We hear too the truism that, “getting a Bible into everyone’s hands” is the key to spiritual health.  But, again, just look . . . it seems clear that the Church did quite well without the printing press for quite some time.  And, to return to an aforementioned truism, the fact that the Bible always tops bestseller lists has not prevented the west from becoming more and more secular over the last two-three centuries.

Maybe civilization and religion actually rely on things far older, far more “tried and true,” for success rather than new technologies–the crackpot as bland conservative strikes again.

I have written before about another one of my least favorite truisms, that of the evolutionary view of history and progress.  The theory basically means that civilization starts small and has run in a more or less unbroken line of progress and advancement.  Though this theory has general acceptance in many textbooks and the minds of men, it is, in fact, a radical, crazy, notion, for it ignores obvious facts.  For one, we know that a complex civilization could collapse more easily, quickly, and completely than a primitive one, due to its inevitable interdependence.  The presence of advancement makes large steps backward more, not less likely, like stock-market bubbles.  For another, we have a universally acknowledged and plain example of the fall of Rome and the subsequent so-called Dark Ages.  Whatever one thinks of the Dark Ages, Italy ca. 100 A.D. had a much higher level of civilization in most respects than Italy ca. 600 A.D.  Still, the prevalence of the evolutionary view makes those who state otherwise seem crazy.

Enter Charles Hapgood, whose book Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings postulates that, based on an examination of certain ancient maps, it appears that an unknown and likely quite ancient civilization developed a geographical and nautical understanding that humanity would not equal until the modern era. Hapgood’s theory joins the voices of Graham Hancock, Jon Anthony West, and other megalithic architecture (such as Gobeckli-Tepe) that argues that pre-historic people not only existed, but existed at a far higher level of civilization than anyone previously imagined.

Unfortunately for the layman like me, Hapgood immerses the book in large amounts of technical terms and technical data.  I think one would need special knowledge of cartography, geography, and math to understand large portions of the book.  Perhaps no other way existed to make his case.  I found myself junping over much of the technical sections but hope I still understood the basic case, which runs like this:

  • In 1929 an unusual map, named, the Piri Re’is, was discovered in the old Imperial Palace of Constantinople, dated the year 1513 A.D. (Moslem reckoning 919).
  • The map was extensive and showed the coast of North America in excellent detail.  This map differed from all other 16th century maps by giving correct longitudes for South America and Africa.  No 16th-century navigator that we know of knew how to calculate longitude except by guesswork.
  • Further investigation showed that Piri Re’is (or basically, Admiral Piri) claimed to copy this map from earlier maps, some of them dating back to (he claimed) the time of Alexander the Great.
  • Even a rough study of this map indicated that it used highly advanced mathematics, including spherical trigonometry, which we do not believe existed in the classical world

So, where did the map come from?

Perhaps Hapgood’s critics are right, and the Greeks knew enough spherical trigonometry to make these maps.  But did they sail across the Atlantic?  No evidence exists for this.  Did the Egyptians or Babylonians have this knowledge?  It appears not, but if they did, they did not sail across the Atlantic to map the coasts of the Americas.  Maybe the Romans in Ptolemy’s time had the knowledge, but again, did not sail across the ocean. Did it come from the medieval period?  But they did not sail much, and no other medieval map exists that compares with the quality of the Piri Re’is.

The best map from the classical period comes from Ptolemy, who worked in Alexandria and had access to all of the accumulated knowledge the world knew at the time.  His map shows great skill:

 

But it cannot compare with the Piri Re’is (although this is only a portion):

And again:

The Portolano Map, of late Medieval/Renaissance origin, is again, very good, but not quite up to snuff, at least in terms of the extent of what it mapped:

The inclusion of Antartica on the Piri Re’is map is particularly noteworthy, as many speculate that it maps landforms that for thousands of years have been covered with ice. In other words, the map seems to have been made before the ice age, and not after.

A few quotes scattered throughout the book from Hapgood illustrate his proposition:

We have discovered that in most cases the errors on the Piri Re’is mapper due to mistakes in the compilation of the world map, presumably in Alexandrian times [that is, the Piri Re’is was discovered in different pieces and put back together not quite accurately], since it appears that Piri Re’is could not himself have put them together at all.  The component maps, coming from a far greater antiquity, were far more accurate.  The Piri Re’is Map appears, therefore, to be evidence of a decline of science from remote antiquity to classical times (p. 39).

******

For a long time after the voyages of Columbus we find the latitudes of Cuba and Haiti are wrong on most maps.  Almost all the mapmakers put the islands above rather than below the Tropic of Cancer [in contrast to the Piri Re’is] (p. 41).

********

To sum up, then, this part of the Piri Re’is Map suggests a source map of Africa, Europe, and the Atlantic islands probably drawn originally on some sort of trigonmetric projection adjusted to the curvature of the earth.  By default of any other narrative, we must assign this map’s origin to a pre-Hellenic people.  The trigonometry of the projection suggests the work of Alexandrian geographers, but the evident knowledge of longitude implies a people unknown to us, a people of seafarers with instruments undreamed of by the Greeks, and as far we know, not possessed by the Phoenicians either (p. 49).

********

The suggestion of a vast antiquity behind the [Piri Re’is] is conveyed by a feature to which Captain Mallery first drew my attention.  He pointed out that the Zeno Map [which very likely had the Piri Re’is as a source map] shows Greenland with no ice caps.  The interior is filled with mountains, and rivers are shown entering the sea, in some cases at the points where glaciers now move through mountains to the coast (p. 152).**

*********

This culture [that made the Piri Re’is] may well have more advanced than Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome.  In astronomy, nautical science, mapmaking, it was likely more advanced than any culture before the 18th century of the Christian era.  Not until the 18th century did we begin to send ships to the Arctic or Antarctic regions.  Organized government is indicated [by the map], as many expeditions would be needed to gather the appropriate information to map the area so precisely (p. 193).

Hapgood writes haphazardly and does not always reason in a clear, linear fashion, a trait he shares with his modern fellow believer in pre-historically advanced ancient civilizations, Graham Hancock.  The key I think to both writers lies not in the exactness of their data but in the accumulation of enough “probably’s” to make their case.  I heard most of a conversation between Hancock and Sceptic editor Michael Shermer.  The discussion went nowhere, with Shermer begging for even a small handful of absolute, concrete, data points, and Hancock pleading with him to consider the mass of “probably’s,” while admitting in the end that the study of ancient civilizations cannot provide the kind of concrete proof Shermer demanded.

Rather than ask, “Can we be absolutely sure if an ancient, advanced, prehistoric civilization existed,” (obvious answer-“no”), or, is it possible that such a civilization existed (obvious answer–“yes”) we should instead wonder whether we should expect or not expect to find such a civilization.  Is the idea reasonably likely?  Hapgood will likely not convince anyone who needs something along the lines of what Shermer requires.  He may entice others who think it likely that some kind of ancient civilization along the lines of those who like Hancock’s work.

To give Hapgood’s theory a shot, it helps to believe that:

  • The myths and folklore of most every ancient civilization that describe advanced civilizations that experienced thorough destruction (like the Atlantis story) likely have a fundamental truth behind them.
  • Civilization devolves just as much as it evolves, and in fact, devolution may be more prevalent than evolution in civilizations.
  • The flood described in Genesis 6 (and many other ancient religious texts) was substantive, historical in at least some sense, and would have had the power to destroy civilizations very quickly.
  • The absence of evidence would not condemn the case outright, as civilizations have at times experienced a catastrophic loss of a great deal of accumulated knowledge (the burning of the library at Alexandria, the collapse of Rome, etc.)

With this in place you might buy what Hapgood sells.  But without these beliefs, his book will likely frustrate readers.  In any case, I don’t find the above propositions crazy.  In fact, I find them rather ordinary.  Folklore and myth are common to all.  Belief in a historical flood of some kind is nothing new, with most ancient civilizations sharing this story.^  We have actual historically undisputed losses of vast amounts of intellectual capital at certain times in the past, such as the destruction of the library at Alexandria.

As I said earlier, despite my inclination towards “crazy” theories, I’m actually a very boring guy.

Dave

P.S.–A good friend and a math/science teacher glanced over the basic arguments of the book and found them wanting, and Hapgood’s selection of material suspicious.  He has a better nose for such things than I and his thoughts give me pause.

My friend and I both believe that ancient civilizations tend to be far more advanced then we might think.   Neither one of us believes that the history of civilization always proceeds in a directly linear way, and certainly not in a progressive evolutionary way.  We thus share some crucial assumptions.

My friend thought that Hapgood underestimates the knowledge of ancients.  For example, we know the ancient Phoenicians existed, we know they were great sailors.  It makes much more sense to say that perhaps they made the map and sailed farther than we thought, then to suggest that an unknown civilization of which we know nothing made the map.

My response would be something like, “If we know a lot about the ancients but have no record of them sailing to the Antarctic, it is plausible that they did not do so.  Thus, someone else must have.”

Plus, I confess that I just simply find the idea of advanced pre-historic civilizations fun, satisfying, and enormously entertaining.  Someone could wave such ideas in front of me daily and they would always get me pretty excited.

*One might modify this theory and argue that perhaps in today’s intellectual and cultural climate, one must have religious competition for religion to survive.  This argument has more plausibility.

**Some believe the Zeno Map to be a hoax precisely because of this feature and other “phantom islands” that do not now show themselves above water.  But Hapgood argues that a perfectly plausible explanation exists for this if the Piri Re’is was a source.  Another map, the Ibn Ben Zara Map, has a remarkably accurate depiction of the Aegean.  But it also includes several islands no longer visible.  How to explain this paradox?  How could the map be so accurate in some respects and so false in others?  We can say the map is a hoax or is filled with errors.  But another possibility is that a source map of great antiquity was constructed when these islands stood above sea-level.

^I do not mean to suggest that the Bible is merely historical.  It certainly has metaphysical, “mythological,” symbolic, and theological meaning beyond history.  But I don’t see these categories as exclusive.  What is real is not opposed to what is mystical, symbolic, or spiritual.

 

 

8th Grade: Enslaving Others, Enslaving the Self

Greetings,

This week we looked at Spartan civilization and began our look at the beginnings of democracy in Athens.  We will have a test next week on Early Greece.

We began our look at Sparta by examining its geography.  They had access to a limited water supply via a river, but otherwise a variety of mountains nestled them inland, and they had little contact with the sea.  We have seen this kind of geography before — in Assyria.  Geography never commands, but it does suggest, and like Assyria, Sparta developed with an almost exclusive focus on warfare.  One historian commented

When the Spartans found their ploughlands too narrow for their population, they did not turn their eyes to the sea, like the Corinthians or Megarians.   The sea is not visible either from Sparta city or at any point on the Spartan plain.  The natural feature which dominates the Spartan landscape is the towering mountain range of Taygetus.

Archeological records indicate a significant shift in Spartan civilization sometime around the year 730 B.C.  According to tradition a group of Dorian Greeks invaded Sparta successfully, and became the “new” Spartans, enslaving the locals called Messenians.  But they quickly faced a problem.  The Messenians vastly outnumbered them and had already attempted one revolt.  It seemed likely that other revolts would follow, and eventually they would overwhelm their conquerors.

The Spartans could have retreated, or they could have simply slaughtered the inhabitants and moved on somewhere else.  But their solution to the problem seems uniquely Greek to me.  They transformed their society by militarizing it, making every male a soldier, allowing themselves to continually have a challenge to master.  All this provided extra opportunity for showing “arete,” or, “excellence.”  No longer could one choose to be a shoemaker, farmer, and so on.  By 620 B.C., after the second war between Sparta and its enslaved population, every male now carried a spear, and the slaves grew the food.  Herodotus records one  Greek commenting to the Persians in 480 B.C. that

Free though the Spartans are, they are not free altogether.  They too serve a master in the shape of Law.  They show this by doing whatever their master orders, and his orders are always the same: ‘In action it is forbidden to retire in the face of the enemy forces of whatever strength.  Troops are to keep their formation and either conquer or die.

They sacrificed everything to make this happen.  Making every male a soldier, and using the slaves to farm did consolidate their conquest.  But 1) All traces of cultural creativity disappeared, 2) No personal freedom of job, lifestyle, or travel, was allowed, 3) Boys were separated from their families at a young age, 4) Slave economies lack effeciency, so resources were precious.  Any infant deemed physically unfit was usually killed, and so on.  Spartan society  ‘stopped’ in sense.  But they developed the most feared heavy infantry force in ancient Greece, and that was enough to give them power and influence.

This ideal impacted their marriages.  They arranged to have the strongest men marry the strongest women to create the best chances of strong sons.  If marriages did not produce strong children, they were encouraged to look elsewhere.  Women bought into this ideal as well.  They spent their time training their bodies to have children.

Their society had all the strength of a high powered rifle bullet.  Powerful, yes, but narrow in its application.  The Spartans sacrificed what most would consider to be the things that made life worth living, such as personal freedoms, family life, cultural experiences, etc.  Truly, you are what you worship.

Was it worth it?  Some might argue that their slaves lived better lives than the Spartans.  It appears they had more variety in their diet, and possibly more personal freedom as to who they married.  Of course, they had harsh lives under the constant watch of Spartan overlords, but did the Spartans live much better?  The Spartan world and lifestyle had all the narrowness of slavery.  The old adage, “This will hurt me more than it hurts you,” might stand true for the Spartan regime.

Aristotle wrote the best epitaph of the Spartan system, saying,

Peoples ought not to train themselves in the art of war with an eye to subjugating neighbors who do not deserve subjugation. . . . The paramount aim of any social system should be to frame military institutions, like all social institutions, with an eye to peace-time, when the soldier is off duty; and this proposition is borne out by the facts of experience.  For militaristic states are apt to survive only so long as they remain at war, while they go to ruin as soon as they complete their conquests.  Peace causes their metal to lose its temper; and the fault lies with the social system which does not teach its soldiers what to make of their lives when off duty.

Arnold Toynbee concurred and wrote,

The superhuman–or inhuman–fixity of Sparta’s posture, like the [doom] of Lot’s wife, was manifestly a curse and not a blessing.

Blessings,

Dave

The Rings of Saturn

Bernard Bailyn starts his book The Peopling of British North America with an illuminating analogy about the rings of Saturn.  When astronomers first noticed Saturn’s rings their beauty appeared as a shimmering uniformity.  Now that technology has given us a closer look, we see that in fact, the “rings” are comprised of thousands of bits of rock and dust, some as big as your hand, some as big as a car, some almost microscopic.

History, he then argues, is often like this.  From a distance things look easy to understand but get up close and the elegant simplicity and uniformity of the past dissipates into confusing bits that won’t go together.  Reality will confound our ability to understand it as a coherent whole.

A lot about this analogy rings true for me.  When young we learn that George Washington was the father of our country, a great leader, and so on.  As we get older, we need to deal with his owning slaves, his social striving, his possible mixed motives for fighting the British, etc.

But ultimately historians can’t stop where Bailyn leaves off.  After seeing what the rings of Saturn actually are, he/she then needs to find a way to have them make sense.  He must interpret and synthesize.  Bailyn’s book tantalizes at times with revealing details about early colonial settlement, but I found myself frustrated that the book never quite got off the ground.

The book shows us that settlement of the colonies happened seemingly without real pattern, aside from the obvious facts that most immigrants were young, male, from a middle-class or lower background.  Different things seemed to happen for different reasons.  In sifting through the data, Bailyn admits that it might take a a poet or impressionist painter to make sense of the disparate information.  This is a wonderful admission of his, and seems to go against his “rings of Saturn” analogy.  Bailyn admits that in this instance he can’t fulfill that role (though he did just this in his great Ideological Origins of the American Revolution).  Interestingly, Bailyn contrasts the disparate design and feel of American settlements with new towns in Germany of the same period.  In Germany, new towns all looked the same.  So again, sometimes the rings of Saturn look exactly like we think they should look.  It may be American history in particular, rather than History in general, that presents a unique picture.

Ultimately, of course, this must be Bailyn’s point.  We might imagine the early days of European settlement to have uniformity, with diversity coming in the 19th century with large scale immigration, but no — from the earliest times no one story could account for everything.  “Let us celebrate America’s diversity,” and all that.

I thought of Bailyn’s work while reflecting on 8th grade reactions to the history of the Roman Republic.  In the year’s “Great Debate” over whether ancient Greece or Rome was the superior civilization, the boys invariably choose Rome by about a 2/3 margin, and the girls Greece by the same amount.  Many years of teaching this class bear this out for me, so why might this be?

Though images of the ancient Greeks reveal a touch of brutishness, they had more feminine qualities than the Romans.  They displayed more creativity and originality than the Romans.  They appreciated beauty and proportion.  As for the Romans, their plodding, methodical nature probably fits very easily within the mind of an 8th grade boy.  Their lack of imagination and their pig-headed stubbornness may have been designed specifically to both infuriate their ancient opponents and the average modern 8th grade girl.  I have seen a few young ladies actually stomp their feet in anger when Rome manages to rise after their disaster at Cannae, as the boys chuckle in Beavis and Butt-head like fashion.  “We’re still here,” the Romans seem to be saying to Carthage, “dunking your pigtails in inkwells yet again.”

I can identify somewhat with this aggravation, but there is something magnificent about how the Romans embraced their sense of identity.  The Roman scholar J.V.P.D. Balsdon makes the observation that the Roman origin story of Romulus and Remus raised by wolves had nothing to commend it to the ancient world.  Apparently it would have been much better if they had been suckled by she-goats, as the Greeks did with Zeus.  To what extent they truly believed in the myths I can’t say, but even a quick perusal of Rome’s stories show fratricide, violence, and no hint of elegance.  The touching Greek story of Pygmalion carried no truck with the Romans.  When they needed women, they simply stole them from the Sabines.  Even when the Romans “invent” their stories (though I am not comfortable with that word, but like a typical guy I can’t think of a better one) they utterly lack imagination and adornment.  And the Romans chuckle stupidly again.  They’re perfectly happy with their unimaginative early history.  Aggravating or no, their fierce sense of identity, no doubt gleaned partially from their commonly accepted founding mythology, gave them great strength of purpose and dedication.  They knew they were a gritty, uncouth, blue collar bunch and reveled in it.

When discussing the Arthurian legend in his A Short History of England G.K. Chesterton made the comment that the “tradition” surrounding Arthur was more true than the “history” surrounding him.  He meant that the Arthurian tradition may not be entirely accurate, but expressed more truth about the past than the confusion produced by historians who tackle the same subject.  I think the same holds true for Rome.  Take Will Durant (whom I like, for the record) in his Caesar and Christ, where he vaguely talks of Roman origins in terms of nomads from the steppes, and scraps of pottery dated to some people at some unsure time.  This tells us nothing.  No one should trust in the full accuracy of Livy’s history, but Livy communicates something more true about Rome’s early period than Durant.

If Chesterton is right we should consider his principle in light of America’s history.  The newness of our country means that we can have far more accurate information about our past than almost any other civilization.  For many of us, the stories we learned in elementary school no longer have persuasive power.  Postmodernism has done its deconstructive work well.  We see this in the words of the great jazz pianist Vijay Iyer who recently spoke at Yale, where he seemed to suggest that all success in America is somehow linked to exploitation (I hope I’m reading him incorrectly, as I like Iyer’s music and don’t want his name attached to something silly like this).  Iyer commented,

And as we continue to consider, construct and develop our trajectories as Americans, I am also constantly mindful of what it means to be complicit with a system like this country, with all of its structural inequalities, its patterns of domination, and its ghastly histories of slavery and violence.

Many of us are here because we’ve become successful in that very context. That’s how we got into Yale, by being voted most likely to succeed; and that may be what emboldened some of us to show our faces here this weekend, because we actually have something to show for ourselves, that somehow in the years since we first dined at the Alternate Food Line we’ve managed to carve a place for ourselves in the landscape of America. Whether you attribute it to some mysterious triple package or to your own Horatio Alger story, to succeed in America is, somehow, to be complicit with the idea of America—which means that at some level you’ve made peace with its rather ugly past.

Perhaps at least a few of those voted, “Most Likely to Succeed” actually worked hard?

But we need not fear or lament the postmodern landscape, but see an opportunity.  We need to seek the truth, and the deconstructive project has helped us do that.  But somewhere out there, I hope, is a historian who can give us a “true tradition” amidst the rings of Saturn to anchor us moving forward.

The Best Reason for Democracy is . . . Democracy?

Several years ago I read an article where the man interviewed had positive things to say about some developments in Italian democracy.  “The people are now ready to criticize and poke fun of their leaders,” he commented.  “We’ll know we have arrived as a democracy when the people can criticize themselves.”  At the time I read this, I thought, “Good for you, Italy.  One day you may join us.  We’ve got something better here.”  But upon reflection, I’m not so sure this is true.  How many politicians, for example, could get away with criticizing the American people?  How many political documentaries create a divide between us and them, whether they come from Rush Limbaugh or Michael Moore?  It always appears to be “their” fault, never “our” fault.

Judgments about one’s own society, however, are tricky.  To see the nose on one’s face you need a mirror.  Without significant experience of democracies on a historical scale, the example of Athens from 508-338 B.C. will always prove important for us to get our bearings.

Writing critical assessments of things or events can be more fun than offering praise. Critical people can sometimes come from a distant and cynical spiritual place, and we shouldn’t give much weight to their comments.  Sometimes, however, criticism arises out of love, and this should grab our attention.  Loren J. Samons’ What’s Wrong with Democracy does this.  He seeks to get past our modern adulation of democracy, and thus, our adulation with classical Athens.  When we examine them afresh, he argues, we won’t always like what we see.  In his criticism Simons sometimes overreaches and sometimes seems to contradict himself.  But his book is, as historian J.E. Lendon stated, “cleansing.”

Amidst the various topics Samons discusses, I think the essence boils down to the following issues:

What is democracy really about after all?

Christopher Ferrara tackled this question head-on in his book Liberty: The God the Failed.  Samons takes a more indirect approach, but still feels that democracy, standing by itself, may lead to little more than a means to perpetuate whatever we happen to desire.  The only reason we will have for democracy is . . . democracy.

He looks at Athens’ financial history and its relationship to democracy.  He traces a few distinct stages:

  • An early phase where the ‘tyrants’ got overthrown and the franchise expanded.
  • The heralded Periclean phase, often seen as the high-point of democracy.  But Samons points out that this phase of democracy was made possible only by 1) Their silver mines, and 2) The imperial tribute they received from their client states.  The practices we tend to admire about them, such as paying people to attend the Assembly, and large cash payments for their very large juries (101-501) people, could happen only because of their predatory practices abroad.
  • The era after the Peloponnesian War, where they lacked the cash reserves of earlier times, but refused to modify their practices.  This led to serious financial problems and hard choices for the Athenians.  Yet, when faced with the task of defending themselves against Macedon or continuing to vote themselves cash payments, they consistently chose the latter.

Perhaps the Athenians didn’t just simply make bad choices, perhaps the kind of democracy they practiced would naturally encourage them to make bad choices.  If democracy is all about “serving the people” or “giving the people what they want,” then democracies will inevitably choose to short-term gains and quick fixes.  Salmons wrote his book before our own failure to arrive at a budget, or to either 1) Decrease spending, or 2) Raise taxes made itself manifest. Is our own system of government equipped to make hard choices?  Given how we consume energy, we may also have to conclude that our democratic lifestyles have a predatory aspect.

Samons’ next points out that in Athens, their more aristocratic past provided a healthy check on democracy.  Having a different past gave them a compass from which to orient their democratic practice.  It could also serve as a reminder that democracy need not serve as the be all and end all of political life.  In America we have no such check, which leads us to nearly worship democracy as a vital part of our existence.  This in turn, has led to a confused and misguided foreign policy.  On a couple of occasions Athens even voted to switch to a more aristocratic oriented governance, which Samons views as healthy.  In time, Athens banned any alternative to their democracy, and this choice contributed to their eventual conquest by Macedon.  They refused to allow any other method of making decisions, even when they methods they employed to make choices had no real hope of facilitating good outcomes.

On this issue Samons has weaker arguments.  True, I very much wish that we would appreciate democracy because it is ours, instead of investing it with angelic qualities. But the political instability in Athens from 411-400 B.C. was not always as smooth as Samons lets on.  Political exiles and political murders came with such transitions. Having the alternative to democracy came at a price.

However, if a democracy has no reference point outside itself, we should consider whether it may be worth the risk to have such an alternative.  Currently we have no particular ‘North Star’ of religion or virtue to guide our own political practice, and this will lead to everyone scrambling for whatever they can get. We may be in a position now where we could really benefit from a distinct alternative to borrow from, to get some separation from democracy that we might understand its strengths and weaknesses more clearly.  If we have no firm moral guidelines derived from a common faith, the check on democracy may have to come from other viable political ideologies and practices.  Of course such an alternative is entirely unthinkable in our modern context. This may bode ill for us.

This lack of an outside reference point for many modern historians  impacts how they view ancient critics of Athens.  Invariably, whether the ancient chronicler be Thucydides, Xenophon, Socrates, or the “Old Oligarch,” they get discounted due to their “aristocratic bias.”  Now, naturally all historians have bias — even democratic ones. But we cannot dismiss them for this bias alone, however uncomfortable their conclusions may be.  Perhaps the the extreme form of democratic bias comes in the form of the book by I.F. Stone on the trial of Socrates. I applaud Stone for his enjoyable and Herculean efforts to at least partially exonerate Athenian democracy while writing about one of its great crimes.  His book rises to the level of a  great counter-factual history.  But in the text Stone spills a lot more ink discussing Socrates’ “aristocratic bias” then in blaming the governmental system that executed him unjustly.

Critics of Salmons conclusions have two good points.

Salmons offers some good criticisms of Athens in particular and democracy in general. But he proposes no alternatives.  What does he want?  Would he prefer a monarchy or a dictatorship?  I grant this makes the book somewhat unsatisfying, but I can’t fault him for it.  To develop a viable alternative with historical and philosophical backing would require another book.

More problematic is Salmons’ seemingly simplistic take on the problems Athens faced. Surely he realizes that other forms of government have their problems too?  Yes, Athens had issues, but exactly how much blame can we put for their problems on democracy?  Would their problems have been less with a monarchy?  He can say that Athenian democracy made bad decisions, but kings make bad decisions, oligarchies make bad decisions, and so on.  For his book to really work he would have to show that democracies will make more bade decisions, or more catastrophic decisions, then other forms of government.  He fails to do so.

Even still, these flaws don’t bother me that much.  Salmons modestly set out to 1) Give a more balanced picture of Athenian democracy, and 2) Pour some cold water over our ardent devotion to democracy.  He succeeds, and this makes his book worthwhile.

Machiavelli is at various turns a cold man, a dangerous man, and a wise one.  Below I include a section from his Discourses on Livy where he discusses the merits of Rome’s Republic building into its foundation an alternative to the Republic when necessary. This, I think, was Machiavelli in one of his wiser moments.

Dave

Book XXIV

Those citizens who first devised a dictatorship for Rome have been
blamed by certain writers, as though this had been the cause of the
tyranny afterwards established there. For these authors allege that the
first tyrant of Rome governed it with the title of Dictator, and that,
but for the existence of the office, Cæsar could never have cloaked
his usurpation under a constitutional name. He who first took up this
opinion had not well considered the matter, and his conclusion has been
accepted without good ground. For it was not the name nor office of
Dictator which brought Rome to servitude, but the influence which
certain of her citizens were able to assume from the prolongation of
their term of power; so that even had the name of Dictator been wanting
in Rome, some other had been found to serve their ends, since power may
readily give titles, but not titles power. We find, accordingly,
that while the dictatorship was conferred in conformity with public
ordinances, and not through personal influence, it was constantly
beneficial to the city. For it is the magistracies created and the
powers usurped in unconstitutional ways that hurt a republic, not those
which conform to ordinary rule; so that in Rome, through the whole
period of her history, we never find a dictator who acted otherwise than
well for the republic. For which there were the plainest reasons. In
the first place, to enable a citizen to work harm and to acquire undue
authority, many circumstances must be present which never can be
present in a State which is not corrupted. For such a citizen must be
exceedingly rich, and must have many retainers and partisans, whom he
cannot have where the laws are strictly observed, and who, if he had
them, would occasion so much alarm, that the free suffrage of the people
would seldom be in his favour. In the second place, the dictator was not
created for life, but for a fixed term, and only to meet the emergency
for which he was appointed. Power was indeed given him to determine by
himself what measures the exigency demanded; to do what he had to do
without consultation; and to punish without appeal. But he had no
authority to do anything to the prejudice of the State, as it would have
been to deprive the senate or the people of their privileges, to subvert
the ancient institutions of the city, or introduce new. So that taking
into account the brief time for which his office lasted, its limited
authority, and the circumstance that the Roman people were still
uncorrupted, it was impossible for him to overstep the just limits of
his power so as to injure the city; and in fact we find that he was
always useful to it.

And, in truth, among the institutions of Rome, this of the dictatorship
deserves our special admiration, and to be linked with the chief causes
of her greatness; for without some such safeguard a city can hardly
pass unharmed through extraordinary dangers. Because as the ordinary
institutions of a commonwealth work but slowly, no council and no
magistrate having authority to act in everything alone, but in most
matters one standing in need of the other, and time being required to
reconcile their differences, the remedies which they provide are most
dangerous when they have to be applied in cases which do not brook
delay. For which reason, every republic ought to have some resource of
this nature provided by its constitution; as we find that the Republic
of Venice, one of the best of those now existing, has in cases of urgent
danger reserved authority to a few of her citizens, if agreed among
themselves, to determine without further consultation what course is to
be followed. When a republic is not provided with some safeguard such
as this, either it must be ruined by observing constitutional forms,
or else, to save it, these must be broken through. But in a republic
nothing should be left to be effected by irregular methods, because,
although for the time the irregularity may be useful, the example will
nevertheless be pernicious, as giving rise to a practice of violating
the laws for good ends, under colour of which they may afterwards be
violated for ends which are not good. For which reason, that can never
become a perfect republic wherein every contingency has not been
foreseen and provided for by the laws, and the method of dealing with it
defined. To sum up, therefore, I say that those republics which cannot
in sudden emergencies resort either to a dictator or to some similar
authority, will, when the danger is serious, always be undone.

We may note, moreover, how prudently the Romans, in introducing this new
office, contrived the conditions under which it was to be exercised.
For perceiving that the appointment of a dictator involved something of
humiliation for the consuls, who, from being the heads of the State,
were reduced to render obedience like every one else, and anticipating
that this might give offence, they determined that the power to appoint
should rest with the consuls, thinking that when the occasion came when
Rome should have need of this regal authority, they would have the
consuls acting willingly and feeling the less aggrieved from the
appointment being in their own hands. For those wounds or other injuries
which a man inflicts upon himself by choice, and of his own free will,
pain him far less than those inflicted by another. Nevertheless, in the
later days of the republic the Romans were wont to entrust this power to
a consul instead of to a dictator, using the formula, _Videat_ CONSUL
_ne quid respublica detrimenti capiat_.

But to return to the matter in hand, I say briefly, that when the
neighbours of Rome sought to crush her, they led her to take measures
not merely for her readier defence, but such as enabled her to attack
them with a stronger force, with better skill, and with an undivided
command.