The Mirror Crack’d

Some years ago I saw a video about the emergence of Greek culture and the talking heads discussed the magnificent achievements of Greek drama.  Before talking about the drama itself, they mentioned the origins of drama, though only very briefly.  After all, Greek drama began in the worship of Dionysius, a confusing and strange subject for modern ears. I found it fascinating to watch the speakers deal with this aspect of Greek civilization.  They hated being on unfamiliar territory — unfamiliar not so much intellectually, that is, but emotionally and experientially.

Briefly,

  • Dionysian worship started with women sneaking off illegally or at least shamefully, for their rites. Dionysius himself occupied, at minimum, the barest fringe of Greek religion.  Some of the commentators latched onto this, for it promised a narrative we could identify with.  “Aha!  A sisterhood of oppressed women!  And observe the vital contribution they made to their society and the world at large, etc.”  But Dionysian rites also involved men, too, so they couldn’t press that narrative too far.
  • The Dionysian rites for women also seemed to involve ecstatic experiences invoking bulls, snakes, wine, and so on. This too got the barest mention, for the “oppressed sisterhood” narrative didn’t really match the fact that Dionysius was a fertility god, and so the women may have been praying and dancing furiously for the chance to have children, a very traditional “role” (ha!) for women to play.
  • To add insult to injury, male Dionysian worship may have invoked blessings to “survive ordeals.”  This got no mention at all.  It appears that these “rebels” danced around madly and got drunk to attempt to fulfill the most prosaic of traditional gender roles of “tough guy,” and “nurturing mother.”  This square peg had no place in their round hole interpretations.

So, after passing over all this in the quickest fashion, finally smiles came to their faces as they talked about the drama itself. Here they felt far more comfortable.  Greek drama “allows for the community to come together and deal with issues of importance,” or something like that.  Ah, yes, the “humanism” of the Greeks.  This we understand, so this they talked about at length.  Gone were any of the religious associations involving Dionysius.  The important thing to us is the emergence of drama, for without the emergence of drama, how could we watch Dumb and Dumber today instantly on Netflix?*  And we very naturally assume that what is important to us must have been of prime importance to the Greeks.  Dionysian worship, then, got relegated to a mere carrying device for what we understand and what we feel is important.  As a friend of mine stated, whenever we use a word to describe an ancient people that they themselves did not use (in this case, the word “humanism”), we will likely reach false conclusions. The talking heads are not unusual. Most of us unfortunately avoid confrontations with the “other.”

I don’t like anything Tennyson wrote (to be fair I’ve read very few of his works), but his poem “The Lady of Shallot” intrigues me in one way.  The Lady in question deals with a curse, and can only look at reflections in a mirror to ascertain reality.  The mirror of course serves as a poor substitute of reality, and later cracks upon her sad and untimely death.

Out flew the web and floated wide-

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

“The curse is come upon me,” cried

The Lady of Shalott.

Tennyson’s work came from the same spiritual place as the dreaded pre-Raphaelites, whose paintings reveal an intense desire to recover something of antiquity.  And yet the grossly over-dramatized version of the past in their eyes reveals far more about themselves, with their aspirations fit perhaps for the teenage soul more than an adult world (hence L.M. Montgomery has her young Anne of Green Gables grow fascinated with the “Lady of Shallot”).

All of us tend to distort reality to fit our own images of it, but the way the Parthenon has been interpreted over time stands as one of the more curious episodes of this typical human folly.  Joan Breton Connelly chronicles this and gives her own interpretation of the architectural masterpiece in her recent book, The Parthenon Enigma.  The building occupies pride of place in the history of western civilization.  Its marble facade inspired those who saw it to grand notions of ideal beauty.  The building’s perfect proportions inspired noble visions of clarity and a sense of true humanity.  Certain technical achievements of the building are practically unparalleled.

But we made the building in our own image, and Connelly writes to set the record straight.  Ever since the Enlightenment we have seen the Parthenon as reflecting the “humanism” of the Athenians.  We have some justification for this.  If you trace the religion of the Athenians one sees a clear descent from Aeschylus (who takes religion seriously) to Thucydides (who didn’t).  The Athenians elected Pericles to multiple terms of their highest office, and he certainly fits the humanist mold. Observers therefore assumed, as the Parthenon was Pericles’ project that it would reflect his values.  Then again, maybe not.

She has two main arguments, with the first drawn from the he Parthenon friezes, long thought to depict contemporary Athenians mingling with the gods.  Connelly has an ironclad argument that Athens instead hearkens to not to its present but its mythological past.  At Athens’ founding it had a king named Erechtheus, who had three daughters that sacrificed themselves that Athens might survive (images below on a Parthenon frieze).  Athens makes an explicit statement, and explicit prayer of hope, that death might come from life with the Parthenon.

Amidst our wondering at the architectural genius of the building and the democratic (and therefore mostly familiar) practices of the Athenians, we forget that the Parthenon was a temple to Athena.  Excavations show that they built the Parthenon on top of an older temple, so clearly the Parthenon was sacred space, and not merely civic space with a civic purpose.

Corinthian_Column_Head_JerashModern eyes miss many such death-life associations in Greece.  For example, look up any article on Corinthian columns and you will likely see something about their fancy, or perhaps excessive, ornamentation.  Certainly Corinthian columns do not fit with Enlightenment sensibilities about classical decorum and proportion — such people always prefer the Ionic column (I prefer the Ionic — to the right — as well so I don’t mean to cast stones).  But Connelly points out that the plants in Corinthian columns hearken back to ancient myths about death and rebirth in their city.  Articles may describe Corinthian columns as “one example of a Greek votive column” (as one site does) without paying any attention at all to the fact that “votive” columns, like votive candles, have a distinctly religious purpose.  It’s almost as if they use the big words to obscure the meaning.  We will have the Greeks be “humanists” by hook or crook.

A fascinating sub-plot is the length Victorian society went to deny that the Parthenon originally was painted.  Evidence after evidence turned up, mostly brushed aside and denied with too much protest.  A painted Parthenon would overturn all of their ideas of classical beauty and classical purity.  Whole artistic theories got erected on an unpainted Parthenon, and they could not let it go.  This in turn clouded their vision in other areas, and allowed false ideas about the Parthenon to persist well into the 20th century.

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Did the Parthenon have no contemporary political meaning?  Perhaps . . . perhaps Pericles wanted to heal the fractious wounds of a prosperous democracy.  Success has never sat well with democracies, and it would make sense that Athens would want to go back to its founding and a story of sacrifice for the common good.  All this rings partially true, but the bulk of the evidence makes the Parthenon an overtly religious shrine — one that seeks life from death.  Plenty of evidence exists that Athenians saw it this way themselves.  For example, during the plague that struck during the Peloponnesian War, sick Athenians came to the Parthenon for refuge, as well as for healing, and possibly, to die.  It would be hard to imagine them doing so if the Parthenon was their equivalent of our Capitol or Washington Monument.

But this interpretation also challenges my own thoughts regarding the Parthenon.  The “humanist” interpretation fit how I tended to see the late 5th century Athenians as essentially worshippers of themselves.  This view gets lots of support from seeing contemporary Athenians mixed with gods on the Parthenon friezes.  With the Parthenon cast in this new light, I think that interpretation gets challenged but not overthrown.  I think other evidence exists for seeing the Athenians as self-worshippers, and perhaps the Parthenon itself still supports that view.  But this will need rethinking on my part.

The lesson of this book is the peril of using history rather than receiving and letting it change you. Self-idolatry is alas, not only confined only to the Greeks, or the Enlightenment and Victorian eras.

Dave

 

*To be fair, this is actually a pretty good movie . . .

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The Way of the Fox

I can always count on a few “Let’s conquer Canada!” “jokes” a year from my students.  We might be studying the Mexican-American War and someone will say, “No, no, no.  We need to find our ‘true north’ and fight Canada!”  If it’s the Spanish-American War it could be, “Spain?  Why Spain?  We should fight Canada!”  If it’s W.W. II . . . “We fought on the same side?  Phooey.  After the Germans, on to Canada!”

Mild groans or exasperated rebukes (from the girls) usually ensue.

So it comes as a delightful surprise (to the boys) to actually find out that we did try and conquer Canada in 1775.

Because the idea of conquering Canada is such a passe joke, we assume that George Washington was crazy to order such an attempt.  In the minds of many our invasion comes to nothing more than a madcap escapade, a schoolboy’s lark.

Dave R. Palmer argues in his book The Way of the Fox (newer editions have a different title indicated by the cover to the right) that in fact such an invasion not only nearly succeeded, but also made sound strategic sense.  Palmer seeks to rescue Washington from his saccharine and wooden image and recasts him as an effective and in some ways brilliant grand strategist for the American Revolution.  And yes, this includes his invasion of Canada.

Today many think of Washington as either a great man/demi-god or nothing more than a member of elite/exploiting class.  Both views are cardboard cutouts.  Palmer shows us someone who thought carefully and with subtlety, someone who adjusted his thinking on multiple occasions to deal with changing reality.  British generals often referred to Washington as the “old fox,” sometimes with contempt because he would not fight, sometimes with admiration for his cleverness.  The moniker should stick — it brings Washington and the war to life.

First and foremost Washington stood as the perfect symbol for the Revolution. Certain qualities made him the obvious choice for command, such as his experience, his height, his bearing, and the fact that he hailed from the South.  But none of these things would matter if Washington failed to think in broad strategic terms effectively. Palmer divides the Revolution into three stages, and correspondingly sees Washington adjust his strategy each time.  Washington made specific mistakes as he went, but in terms of broad strategic goals Palmer has Washington never miss a beat.

Palmer argues that revolutions possess an offensive character by their very nature.  They seek to effect change and so must act accordingly.  Thus, Washington was entirely right to begin the war with an aggressive strategy that sought to expel the British.

This failed to fully succeed, which allowed the British to send massive reinforcements.  This meant that Washington, now outmanned and outgunned, needed to withdraw and avoid having his army destroyed by a pitched battle he could not win.

France’s entry after 1778 changed the situation yet again.  Now momentum and manpower lay with the Americans. Washington needed to take advantage of the alliance while it lasted.  So during this period Washington should have sought to press his dramatic advantage, which he did with great effect at Yorktown.

I take no issue with either Palmer’s interpretation or Washington’s actions for phases two and three.  But it’s the first phase, which includes the invasion of Canada, where we can push back most easily.  It seems to me that Washington should have been cautious until the final phase where the advantage finally tipped in his favor.  His aggressiveness at the start of the conflict seems out of place to me.

True, at the beginning of the war you have an emotional high that you can capitalize on.  But you will have undisciplined and untested troops. What’s more, they will not yet have developed that cohesion that great armies have of sharing routines, time, space, and danger.  Think of Caesar’s legions — nothing remarkable when they started into Gaul, and unbeatable five years later.  In our Civil War one reason for the South’s early success had to do with the offensive burden the North faced.  When General Irwin McDowell objected to offensive action at Bull Run in 1861 due to the lack of experience of his men, Lincoln replied that “[both sides] are green together.”  Yes, but McDowell knew that a green attacker has a lot more to worry about than a green defender, and so it proved.

Beyond this psychological reason, Palmer asserts another more narrowly strategic goal for invading Canada.  America’s size and her numerous ports put a huge strategic burden on England.  Colonial armies could easily retreat inland and lead British forces on goose chases through the wilderness.  Add to that, the layout of the land presented very few “choke points” at which the British could use their superior manpower to any real effect.  Perhaps the only such point lay at the nexus between England and Canada — the Hudson River.

Flowing from north of Albany down to New York City, British control of the Hudson would have allowed them to control the upper third of the colonies.  Controlling New York and Boston would have meant control of America’s biggest ports.  Cutting off New England would further mean nabbing most of the colonies financial resources and a hefty portion of its intellectual political capital.  Everyone on both sides of the Atlantic agreed that control of the Hudson could determine the war.

So if it makes sense for Washington to defend the Hudson, why not go just a bit further into Canada itself?  To capture Quebec would have given the colonies everything else in Canada.  Success would have prevented England from having a free “back door” entry point into the colonies via the St. Lawrence River.  Shutting down the St. Lawrence would topple another domino by cutting off England from potential Indian allies* out in the west.

Reading Palmer’s lucid and logical defense, I found myself almost persuaded.  Palmer urges us to remember that the failure of Benedict Arnold’s invasion (yes, that Benedict Arnold) — and it nearly succeeded, does not prove that the idea or the goal was faulty.  Had it paid off, the war might have been over within a year or two instead of eight.

Yes, but . . .

Arnold  lost in Quebec and Washington lost in New York City.  Palmer gives a generous interpretation of Washington’s actions in New York and believes that politically speaking, Washington had to defend the city.  Maybe so.  But if he had to defend the city for the sake of politics, then why also invade Canada and divide your forces? Palmer wants it both ways.  He believes that circumstances called for an aggressive campaign in 1775-early ’76, but that politics and not military necessity alone forced Washington’s hand to defend New York.  This seems to admit the fact that Washington should have given ground and played defense in New York alone.

All in all I agree that Washington brilliantly guided the colonies to victory, and Palmer argues this decisively.  He points out also that Washington faced a bungling and confused command structure in England.  But Washington had Congress to deal with, who although more intelligent and capable by far than their British counterparts, had much less experience in running a war.  By any measure, Washington deserves his place as one of the great generals of the modern era.

But I can’t let go of the invasion of Canada.

If we try and evaluate Washington’s gambit in Canada we should try and compare it to similar kinds of military actions across time.  My case remains that the invasion made logical sense in a certain way.  He was not reckless or foolhardy to try.  But I feel that he should have focused more on defense, and perhaps even success might have hurt him in the long run.  The colonies might have had the direct motivation to expel the British, but would they support long-term the occupation of Canada?**

I can think of three campaigns that might be comparable in certain ways . . .

  • Athens’ invasion of Sicily in 415 B.C.
  • Hannibal attacking Rome directly instead of defending Spain
  • Napoleon going on the offensive in Belgium in 1815 instead of rallying the people to “defend France.”
  • Our invasion of Iraq in 2003***

Sometimes foxes can be a bit too clever.  Still, unlike Athens, Hannibal, and Napoleon, Washington committed a relatively small portion of his forces to the plan.  As a general most would not rank Washington with Hannibal, Napoleon, and the like.  But Palmer argues that not only should we put Washington in their company, but given his military and political success, make him the general of the modern era.

Dave

 

*This no mere fancy.  In 1777 the British did invade via the St. Lawrence and did gather some Indian allies for their “Saratoga” campaign.  That escapade ended in disaster for the British, but Washington’s strategic fears did come true nonetheless.

**Strange as it may sound now, Palmer points out that the motivation to occupy and settle Canada ourselves might have existed not on strategic but religious grounds.  Many in 1775 saw Canadian Catholicism as a mortal threat to our freedoms and would have gladly occupied it in the name of liberty.  Certainly we showed the ability to expand and settle territory in the west. Why not in the north as well?

***Right or wrong, Bush enjoyed overwhelming support to fight in Afghanistan in 2001.  It made sense to us in the way that (again, right or wrong) responding to Pearl Harbor made sense.  But his case in 2003 was much less compelling.

Liberty and Coercion

Almost every political philosopher I am aware of from Aristotle down through Montesquieu believed that a democracy/republic had to be small in size.  Self-government required, among other things:

  • A population where people know each other enough to trust each other to some degree.
  • A population where people can have enough land to support themselves, but a geography that does not allow any one particular faction to have too much land, thus gaining too much of an advantage over their fellows.
  • A relatively culturally homogeneous population that shares core values

The American experiment is unique in many ways, one of which being that Jefferson and Madison attempted to turn this reasoning on its head.  They argued that

  • Democracies/Republics floundered because of too much population concentration, not too little.
  • These population concentrations gave way to passions and factionalism that could easily destroy liberty by trampling on the minority (cf. Madison’s brilliant Federalist #10).
  • Hence, what Democracies/Republics need is not a small geography, but a large one.  People need to spread out so that 1) All will be sure to have land, and 2) No one particular faction could concentrate its power enough to override the rights of minorities (hence, Jefferson’s impetus for his semi-Constitutional Louisiana Purchase).

Maybe necessity helped them invent these ideas, maybe it sprung direct out of their heads.  Either way, with this reasoning Madison and Jefferson show their genius, confidence, and perhaps, their arrogance.  I have wondered if one might not view the whole of American history through the lens of this question: Were Jefferson and Madison right or wrong?*

I expected Gary Gerstle’s Liberty and Coercion to take on the grand question of the thorny question of the interaction between liberty and power, and how sometimes “liberty” for oneself means power over others.  Instead, he narrowed his focus and proceeded in a methodical way to show how over time the “police power” of the federal government grew.  Gerstle disappointed me by never exploring the relationship of our founding ideals to this question.  But at times his narrower focus allows him to make some incisive observations.

For example . .  .

Many presidents and perhaps many Americans had a desire to act in some measure of good faith with Native Americans, but things never went right.  Some might explain this via a grand clash of civilizations.  Gerstle looks instead at the inherent dilemmas posed by our philosophic commitments.  Our commitment to self-government limited the scope of federal government.  No one, whether a Federalist, Anti-Federalist, Democratic/Republican or the like, believed that a large professional army went well with liberty.  But with no money and no political will to even create agencies to establish firm borders and grant land titles, let alone enforce such borders militarily, various presidents found themselves giving in to the settlers “squatters rights.”  We wanted to prevent the national government from having too much power to coerce, but without this power, settlers had the liberty and the power to coerce others.

Time and time again, our sheer size made the relationship between governmental power and self-government difficult.

A similar line of reasoning happened with non-WASP immigrants, be they Catholics from Ireland/southern Europe or Asians settling in the west.  They did not have the same rights as others, but how could they?  For communal self-government relied on shared religious and cultural beliefs and habits.  If these immigrants did have these same values, they could possibly participate in the democracy.  Gerstle shared Teddy Roosevelt’s fury and frustration with the treatment of Japanese migrants in the U.S. just as he was negotiating sensitive deals with Japan.  But he had no ability to force local governments to do as he wished.

Here Gerstle misses an opportunity to connect our dilemmas with our founding ideology.  American colonization began with the idea of transplanting certain distinct communities intact.  But by the later 18th century Enlightenment ideas led to the bold “All men are created equal” mindset of the Declaration.  Simultaneously, America had no real justification to exclude anyone from its shores, but neither could they practice local, autonomous, self-government if they did.

The history of political philosophy has its revenge–or at least makes itself known.

Of course slavery is the preeminent manifestation of this dilemma.  On the one hand, I think most of the founders knew that slavery ran against their moral principles as a nation.  But their political principle of limiting the power of national government meant granting a lot of autonomy to the states.  The clash of these two propositions embedded the possibility of civil war into the fabric of our origins.

Gerstle cites one illuminating aspect of this problem that I had not heard of before.  After Nat Turner’s rebellion many abolitionist presses mailed anti-slavery publications “free of charge” to the South.  This infuriated President Jackson, who believed that such publications only sought to stir up more trouble.  He asked for Congress to ban their mailing.

But southerner John C. Calhoun recognized that such a ban would not serve southern interests.  They would gain in the short term but give away one of their core principles–the right of states to decide such questions.  He advocated against the ban.  But many states arrived at a solution by instructing local postal workers to simply not deliver this mail.  This at best awkward compromise could only last so long, however much it tried to resolve federal and state issues.**

States were seen early on as the means by which well-ordered communities could be established.  Thus, they had broad ranging police power.  The constitution reflects this by enumerating the powers of the federal government and giving everything else to the states.  Today the power of states is much weaker relative to even just a few generations ago.

This changed in stages.

The Industrial Revolution may have done more damage to the vision of the founders than any president or political party.  It broke down local rural life and lumped most people together in the cities as one amorphous mass.  Such conditions created a national state. Without any direct power to act, the government outsourced, deputizing local civic groups to undertake tasks related to civil order.

Whatever the successes such organizations had, they were destined for embarrassing failures.  They discriminated against blacks and immigrants.  They imprisoned without fair trials, and so on, all in the name of the Justice Department.  They needed stopped, but the only way to do so involved finding a way to increase the power of the national government.

Over time the national government used various legal strategies mostly related to the 14th amendment and the commerce clause to achieve their aims.  Perhaps the Industrial Revolution destroyed the possibility of self-government that our constitution depends on.  Rather than create a new constitution, we sought to stretch certain enumerated powers far beyond their original purpose.  Much hay has been made of the commerce clause, for example, which many conservatives lament.  However, our military and national defense (an issue dear to many conservatives) has also assumed a shape utterly unrecognizable to anyone who lived before W.W. II.  The size and cost of our military has in turn stretched the power of the presidency far beyond the vision of the constitution.  Gerstle cites many examples of how our military ballooned in size and then rapidly decreased when conflicts ceased.  Of course we can cite the strategic dilemmas faced by the U.S. after W.W. II as a justification for maintaining a large military.  In a very real sense, W.W. II did not end until 1989.

Strategic considerations aside, we should speculate if any other forces influenced this shift.

Eighteenth-century theorists drew upon the “citizen-soldiers” of times past.  Greece and Rome both provided examples of this.  On the one hand, we cannot have a militarized state, which would jeopardize our liberty.  On the other hand, we need national defense.  A nation of property owners motivated by legitimate self-interest would certainly rally to defend their land, their communities, if need be.  The first 175 years (give or take) of our history demonstrated this.  Right up through the end of W.W. I we demonstrated the ability to dramatically expand and contract the size of our military.

Perhaps our strategic situation changed so dramatically in 1945 that it necessitated the rise of a “military-industrial complex.” Or perhaps it was we ourselves that changed.  Gerstle does not speculate.

Embedded in this question is the relationship between liberty and order.  We have always recognized the need for someone to have the final say, and the need for people to “pursue happiness” in the way they see fit.  This has always meant tolerating things one may disagree with.  Should we ban pornography or not?  Do we grant the freedom of some to own slaves?  Do we grant the freedom of some to oppose same-sex marriages?  Who gets to decide?

Gerstle’s book rather prosaically shows how this power to decide has transferred over time from the states to the federal government.  This happened mainly under Democratic leadership.  But conservatives also played a role at crucial times with their traditional issues of national defense/military.  By “prosaically” I don’t mean that it was easy or unconvincing.  He has extensive research and uses a methodical style that makes him quite convincing.  But he leaves us with some unexplored questions and neglects to swing for the fences.

He makes clear the fact that ideas of liberty and coercion have always existed.  All we have done over time is basically transferred the power of coercion from the state to the national government.  As to whether representative government can exist in the post-industrial era, as to whether or not Jefferson was right or wrong, these grand questions go largely untouched.  I for one can’t help but admire the brilliance and confident boldness of Jefferson’s vision–though I think I disagree.  I wish Gerstle had done a bit more to inspire me one way or another, and done a bit more to help answer the perplexing question of the nature of America’s idea of liberty.

Dave

 

*Another possible historical lens would be the “wheel of fortune”–the idea that every civilization (and every ruler?) will experience a kind of boom/bust cycle.  The medievals would argue, I think, that this cycle was meant to teach us about redemption.  This lens would argue that some choices could delay the progress of the cycle perhaps even for a long time, but that “nothing lasts forever” and that some kind of decline remains inevitable.

Again, this idea had a historically long run, from the ancients down through Machiavelli at least.  Our founders, many of them heirs to the Enlightenment, would not have accepted this idea.

**The same held true for the Fugitive Slave Act.  Most pro-slavery advocates rejoiced at the new provisions of the law, but others saw that to achieve this they abandoned a key principle of keeping the federal government away from the slavery issue.

Without question slavery is a terrible moral evil.  We must realize that the issue had other dimensions to understand the colonial and ante-bellum period.  We may deplore the actions of another country or culture.  When should we use force to change them?  By what authority?

 

Immigration and American Identity

The machinery of modern states sometimes makes things harder, not easier.

Coming to a proper solution for the immigration question is one example of this.  A variety of sources and polls indicate that most Americans favor allowing more legal immigration and have for years.  Back in simpler times one could enter a land, ask the king to stay, usually he said “yes,” with not much fuss. Perhaps one took an oath of fealty to his person.  Now, we have a whole mess of courts, paperwork, etc., etc. that make coming legally quite difficult.  The good intentions of most Americans gets lost in the morass of modern civilization.

Incremental reform of the system seems unlikely to lead to dramatically different results, so I have great sympathy for the argument made by Prof. Bryan Caplan.  As a libertarian Caplan believes in limiting government as much as possible, but his stance on immigration comes from a strongly moral place.  He would like to essentially eliminate the morass but eliminating almost every test that could prevent someone from working and living in the U.S.  He argues that

  • No one chooses to be born in a particular place, and almost always the best way to get out of poverty in a poor country is to move to a rich country, where your labor has a much greater value.
  • Those in the rich country benefit from their birthplace, which they also did not choose.  They have no moral right to deny someone something they did not earn or choose themselves.
  • As long as 1) An employer consents to have someone work for them, and 2) A worker consents to work for that same person, then no good moral reason exists for denying both people the right to hire/work.

Caplan breaks his argument down into even simpler terms:

  • Someone wants to come in my house, but I do not want them to.  Ok, then, they cannot come in.
  • Someone invites someone in, but they don’t want to come.  Ok, they can certainly refuse to come.
  • Someone invites someone into their house, and they accept, but a 3rd party–i.e., the Government–tells them that this cannot happen.  This, Caplan argues, makes no moral sense and yet this perfectly encapsulates our current immigration policy.

He made these points quite well in this debate below:

As well as Caplan argued (and we can note the contrast between the more intense, east coast, suit-wearing Caplan, and the laid-back Californian Wellman), I found myself siding with his opponent.  Their debate has the added bonus of illuminating much about our identity as a nation and our past.

The title of the debate, “Is Immigration a Human Right” might slip past us but the very idea of human rights as opposed to “A Right of Americans” represents a fairly radical shift in thinking.  We see this same shift in the years leading up to the American Revolution.  When colonists protested the Stamp Act in 1765 they talked of their rights as British subjects.  By the time we get to the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson argues that King George III has violated their human rights, that “all men are created equal.”  On the one hand, because we believe that God has created all mankind in His image, the clarity of Jefferson’s Enlightenment inspired prose makes perfect sense.  But it also makes things muddier—for incarnating this idea politically means different things to different people.  Treating all people equally from different political communities makes the whole concept of political communities irrelevant, aside from posing many other questions.

Even within a family, parents will love all their children equally but treat them differently as their circumstances require.  And when Joey argues that Billy’s parents let him stay up late, every parent knows the classic retort, “Well, you are not in Billy’s family.”

Interestingly, both Caplan and Wellman agree that societies do not exist via consent and that governments do not therefore derive their legitimacy from the “consent of the governed” per se.  This slips by without much discussion but I find it a crucial point.  The fact that the colonists failed to consent to certain British measures inspired many to revolt.  But even a moment’s thought about the concept of consent regarding the whole of society renders it a bit silly.  We “consent” to very little that shapes our lives.  We do not choose to be born, we do not choose our families, our gender, our personalities, or our looks.  We receive them, just as we do not consent to where we are born.  Nor did any of us in America today “consent” to our system of government. Imagine the chaos if everyone had to consent to their governments in some kind of purely rational vacuum.  Even the most die-hard supporters of consent would likely not want continual plebiscites to determine whether or not we should be governed by our Constitution, or a king, or an oligarchy.

The question then remains as to whether or not the fact that we do not really consent to our society supports Caplan or Wellman’s position.  For Caplan, the fact no one chooses where they are born and how they are governed means that everyone should have the freedom to go where they please and pick a place where they actually do consent to a particular society.

But Wellman has a powerful counter to Caplan’s “house” analogy mentioned above.  He poses a scenario of him leaving for a week and returning home to ask his wife what happened during his absence.  “Well, let’s see,” Wellman imagines his wife replying, “On Wednesday, I went to yoga class. On Thursday I met Carol for lunch.  And on Friday, I adopted a young man named Bob into our family.  Here he is, meet your new son.”  Wellman goes on to ask rhetorically whether or not she and Bob, as consenting individuals have the right to do this.  Caplan’s house analogy, he argues, needs more nuance.  Caplan’s argument above has a fair amount of moral force, but it would also overthrow our entire conception of the state as a community.  Unwittingly or not, Wellman’s analogy hearkens to the older Aristotelian idea of the state-as-family analogy, hence the notion that the king served as a “father” to his people.  One cannot simply alter the composition of the family at will, nor make unilateral decisions as “sovereign,” consenting individuals apart from the family at large.

Here we see how truly radical the American Revolution was and glimpse why it had such an impact on the world.  The notion that the state in fact was not a family perhaps finished off Aristotle’s formal influence in the modern world, a process begun in the Scientific Revolution.

And here we see something else–why the immigration issue poses such a difficulty for us.  If any nation could apply Caplan’s form of the “house” analogy, it is the United States.  As a “nation of immigrants” our belief in universal rights is woven into our DNA, however poorly we have applied it at times.  But pushed as Caplan wishes to push it, the idea becomes non-sensical. His vision of the state primarily as a conglomeration of free-floating individuals renders the idea of “society” almost meaningless.

The same Enlightenment ideas that inspired the idea of “human rights” also led to the creation of modern democracies.  The irony, perhaps even the tragic irony, with this issue, is that cutting red tape and making legal immigration much simpler could be achieved much more easily with a monarch than our federated democracy, with its attendant slowness, interest groups, and the like.  We might even reflect that minorities and outsiders (i.e. African-Americans and Native Americans) fared somewhat worse in the aftermath of our victory in the American Revolution.

 

Dave

 

From Puritan to Yankee

Recently I found myself talking politics with a Trump supporter.  Interestingly, he mentioned very little about his policies or personality.  Rather, he seemed drawn to him because of the multitude of attacks against him.  No one, he argued, deserved what Trump receives from at least some in the media.  Politics had very little to do with this, for this same person said that he liked both Obama and Hillary Clinton for much the same reason–in his mind of them have been attacked to an unfair extreme.

I have no great love for the Puritans, and perhaps this might explain why I sometimes seek to defend them.  I certainly felt this way at the start of Richard Bushman’s From Puritan to Yankee: Character and Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765.  When describing Puritan society in the first chapter he invariably uses words like, “austere,” “imposing,” “monolithic,” and that most dreaded word for an academic who originally published this book in 1967, “conformity.”*

Later in the book Bushman shows his excellence as a historian of a certain type, but I did not like the first chapter.

We naturally have difficulty in understanding and evaluating the Puritans.  They look like us in many respects, but then part with modern society in other radical ways.  It is the heretic, rather than the unbeliever, who always poses the greater threat.  Hence, our natural distaste for the Puritans.  But we must keep certain things in mind.

First of all, the Puritan ideal of social order oriented around religion hardly broke new ground.  They borrowed from the medieval idea of the “great chain of being,” and in orienting their society around religion they merely did what most civilizations practiced up until that point.  Numerous examples of this exist, with the Egyptians, early Romans, the Mezo-American civilizations, and the aforementioned medievals to name a few (this should clue us in on the radical nature of post-Enlightenment western society–more on this later).

Secondly, many moderns, progressive or otherwise, would likely admire some of the main goals of Puritan society.  The Puritans sought to live a common life together by minimizing  (though not eliminating) economic competition and distinctions in wealth.  Bushman himself notes that in the early days of settlement even the richer members of society lived much in the same way as their neighbors, working fields and milking cows like anyone else.  Bushman and others may not realize that such a society cannot exist with modern notions of liberty that tell us to “find our own way,” “follow your heart,” and so on.  Societies like the early Puritans must get their formation from shared conviction that only comes with religious belief. You cannot have one without the other.  One Puritan stated, “Law should serve free exercise of just privileges.  Without this, lives and liberties would be a prey to the covetous and cruel.”  Modern notions of liberty, in the view of early Puritans, would lead to exploitation and alienation.

Bushman himself cites early in chapter two that this shared communal life allowed government in Connecticut to be, in his words, “flexible” in ways that “minimized local conflicts.”  This hardly seems “austere,” or “monolithic.”

True, certain “upper-crust” Puritans (apologies for the emotionally laden word choice) had a fear of any of the “lesser sort” getting into political power.  We can snub our noses at this.  But we should remember that it is 1700.  Puritan Connecticut was more democratic than the England of William and Mary, and infinitely more so than Louis XIV France or Frederick the Great’s Prussia.  Almost every other European society at the time shared these same fears of “lesser men” ruining everything. We have good evidence that many of our founders decades later had these same fears, as of course did every major western political thinker from Homer on down the line.

Finally, nearly all the early Puritan settlers came from the same east-Anglia towns and villages.  They knew the content of Puritan theology, they knew Puritan leadership.  It’s not as if the Puritans pulled a bait-and-switch on the journey across the Atlantic–“You thought you signed up to run wild and free in the woods, but no!  Now that we have you in the middle of the ocean, welcome to John Calvin!”

If some settlers grew frustrated with Puritan leadership, well, they knew what to expect.

So yes, the Puritans need criticism, but criticism with the right context in mind, and aimed in the right place.

After chapter one, Bushman shows his great skill at sifting through data to form larger conclusions.  He puts the focus on the problems settlers faced due to a growing population, which would necessitate an inevitable territorial expansion of the colony.  Some civilizations, like the Romans, link most everything in life to land.  Some see the beginning of the  Roman Republic’s political problems beginning the moment land in Italy disappeared for their soldiers.**  Not every civilization operates with this mentality.  Carthage, for example, and possibly Periclean Athens, largely freed themselves from land as a measure of identity (they had different problems).  But our early settlers fit well within the Roman mindset.

In the first generation or two land distribution remained equitable.  The size of the colony allowed everyone to attend the most important churches pastored by the acknowledged town leaders in piety and purpose.  The population’s proximity to these churches and to town hall bound the colony together politically.

But time marches on, and fathers want the same for their younger sons as for the oldest. In a settled mostly aristocratic society like England of the time, the younger sons of even minor aristocracy join the army or perhaps the clergy.  You see this even in Austen’s novels 100 years later.  Settlers in the new world, however, believed in equality, more or less, and wanted everyone to have an equal chance.

Expanding the size of the colony meant greater distances from the town center.  Naturally those predisposed to want to lead the settlement would stay close to its center.  Those with some disaffection towards leadership might more easily head a few miles outbound.  With this even small scale migration came an inevitable tension, and an inevitable choice.

The colony could either, a) Split off in different settlements and grant autonomy to each.  However, this came with the problem of effectively ending the Puritan dream.  Those who left for outbound land tended towards a more enterprising, individualistic mindset.  Or they could, b) Increase the power of the original settlement’s leaders and weaken the participatory democracy carefully crafted by the original settlers.

As is typical of most any democratically government they chose neither absolutely, though probably favored option ‘b.’  Everyone recognized that the social order had suffered due to increased wealth–a wealth occasioned by expansion (again, similar to Rome ca. 200-75 B.C.).  But try as they might, too many things swirled in conflict with one another to make sense of it all.  In the end tensions increased between eastern and western settlers in most religious and economic matters.  Once they let the’Yankee’ mentality of individual enterprise get its foot in the door, their social construct had its days numbered.

Let us give credit where due.  Bushman’s work should help us to see certain larger issues with more clarity.  For example, Thomas Jefferson bucked historical convention in his belief that a republic should have lots rather than a little territory.  He hoped that the Louisiana Purchase would allow everyone to practice self-government and live free and independently on their own land.  But–if everyone can live free and independently from one another, how can we maintain order?  Only by doing as the Puritans attempted to do–by increasing executive authority.  If we want the kind of liberty envisioned by Jefferson, let us count the cost.  Rome saw this same increase of executive authority as their territory expanded beyond Italy.  Whatever our uniqueness as a nation, we cannot escape history.

But in the end I think Bushman misses the real point.

Bushman mentions religious issues and gives them due treatment, but he gives pride of place to the decline of Puritanism to land and economic issues.  He deals with the source material masterfully.  But he seems to argue that certain geographic and social issues caused the religious issues to manifest themselves later.  We can acknowledge the influence of geographic and economic factors.  But in the end, I think he puts the cart before the horse.  The key to Puritan disintegration must be found in their religion.

For example . . . the Roman Republic experienced some of the same stresses faced by the CT settlers, with a much larger population over much larger territory.  Yet, the Republic maintained its central identity for at least two and perhaps three and half centuries, in contrast to Puritan ideals lasting no more than  two generations.  Egyptian civilization also had some of the same issues regarding land, and though obviously not a republic, maintained their identity for perhaps 1500 years.

Yes, democracies traditionally have a problem maintaining identity and cohesion.  One can a make a good case that Pericles built the Parthenon primarily as a way to reestablish unity by calling people back to their religious roots, whereas we today tend to look at this period in Athens as the pinnacle of democratic experience. This “pinnacle of democratic experience” may have had more cracks than we initially assume.  Athens at this time certainly had lots of money, which tends to work ill upon democracies.  If Thucydides tells only mostly the truth, they did not have much social cohesion. Rome lasted longer than CT or Athens with similar geographic and economic factors at play, and so I feel a reason exists beyond land distribution and the expansion of trade that Bushman focuses on.^

In the Puritans particular case we should note that their theology departed from traditional orthodox Christianity in certain respects.  Their emphasis on the will of God rather than the love of God reduced their faith to more of a philosophy, a handbook of propositions for life.^^  They had no appreciation for sacraments and thus no way for the grace of God to be made manifest in their lives except by how they thought. This led to impersonal abstractions gaining sway.  The famous (or infamous if you prefer) 5 Points of Calvinism work on the mind like a geometric proof, inexorably moving toward a foreordained conclusion.  Abstract ideas, however, are slippery things, and ideas floating in the air don’t always land on the ground in the same form for repeated generations.  Like a point in infinite space, various lines can connect with it and go almost anywhere.

Interestingly, Puritans created a government structure that tended toward defending an abstract notion of rights.  As the colony expanded, Bushman documents a swell of lawsuits and disputes centered around the “claims” of one settler vs. another.  Communal relationships disappeared as “rights” dominated public discourse.  Religious revivals like the Great Awakening followed this pattern in some ways..  The religious impulse coming from this revival did not push people back into communal life.  Rather, we see a rise in the individualistic idea of the “liberty of the conscience” gaining the upper hand among the (formerly) Puritan settlers.

Whatever the merits of my very incomplete analysis above, by the early 19th century New England certainly had adopted a vague mixture of theism and deism as its unofficial religion–a death by abstraction.

We see hints of 1776 as this abstract notion of rights grew.  In time colonial corporations made grants of land to settlers.  When royal officials came over and examined these title deeds they annulled them outright.  No “corporation,” they argued, can grant title to anything.  What is a “corporation” after all?  It’s surpra-personal identity meant it had in effect no personality, and with no personality, how could it truly exist?  A king can grant title, for the king is an actual person, and actual people can own things and give them to others.

The colonists may have nodded “sure!” to these royal representatives, but likely crossed their fingers behind their backs. Though kingship has the advantage of being personal, a king across an ocean has perhaps even less personality than a corporation.  In any case, they no longer had a connection to government rooted directly in either religious belief or social ties. They put their eggs in propositions, in “rights,” in “liberty of conscience,” which no one can touch.  Their point in infinite space must be free to go where it pleases.

A standard debate among historians of the American Revolution involves the question of whether or not the founders were radical or conservative in their ideas.  Years ago I would have answered with the latter, but not anymore.  Bushman’s work accompanies Bernard Bailyn’s and Gordon Wood’s thesis that our stodgy, wig-wearing founders had radical ideas.  For the first time, society would not be oriented around God/the gods.  Nor would social order have its roots in personal relationships, i.e., feudal society, or the lives and patronage of prominent families.  Now for the basically the first time, society would be organized around certain ideas, or we might almost say, geometric axioms.  What Bushman’s book shows us is that you don’t need to go to 1776 to see these principles at work.  If you wish, you can content yourself with a small CT settlement, ca. 1700.

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*Here I must give credit to the playwright Arthur Miller.  His work The Crucible certainly criticized certain aspects of Puritan society.  And yet in his preface to the play he spends most of his time trying to get the reader to sympathize with the Puritans.  This sympathy, in fact, serves as the only solid basis for critique.

**I think the land issue a contributing factor accompanying deeper causes for Rome’s Republic, much in the same way I think Bushman overstates land issues as the primary cause for the collapse of the Puritan ideal.  In Rome’s case, one can see a shift in religious belief occasioned by their contact with Greece and the Mediterranean as the precursor to their political and social fragmentation.

^This is another great example of how Bushman’s book shed’s light on larger issues.  Most every commentator on Plato’ Laws calls Plato a grumpy old fart for banning trade from his theoretical realm.  But increased trade undeniably negatively impacted CT’s social order. Farmers deal roughly with the same soil and the same weather.  Surplus food grown by one poses no real threat to other farmers.

But trade seems to encourage more of the competitive spirit.  Trade deals more with luxuries than necessities, so unsold surpluses can ruin a merchant.  Hence, the extra competition to sell, and so on.  The rise of money and trade certainly played a role in the demise of Rome’s Republic.

^^I realize that this one sentence is hardly a reasonable defense for my views on Puritan theology,   My apologies–to defend them here is a bridge too far for me.  If I am correct, however, there are some  similarities in Puritanism to Stoicism (I stress “some”–the Puritans probably gave much more room for the emotions than the Stoics), a religion for Greece and Rome’s intellectual elite, but not for the masses.

 

 

A Leopard Cannot Change His Spots

I originally write this in January 2013, so don’t be too puzzled by the very dated football playoff reference!

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It’s playoff time in the NFL, and many talking heads now say that Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has “made the leap” by engineering a late game comeback against the Seahawks this past Sunday.  Having won the “big game,” Ryan can now join the club of “clutch” quarterbacks.

But if Matt Bryant had missed the field goal, we would be having a different conversation, one that focused on Ryan’s crucial 4th quarter interception that helped lead to a Seahawks comeback.  I agree with Grantland’s Bill Barnwell.  A lot depends on context.  After the Falcons lost to the 49ers, thanks in part to a Matt Ryan fumble, Barnwell wrote amusing follow-up here.

What is the stuff of leadership?

Any visitor to a library can get stuffed to the gills with theories of leadership, and while I admit to judging these books by their covers, I don’t think I buy any particular “theory” of leadership.

Of course all good leaders demonstrate the same basic characteristics.  They show firmness at the right time, or flexibility at the right time, or the willingness to listen and adapt at the right time, or to maintain the strength of their convictions at the right time, and so on, and so on.  But anyone can write this without any special talent.  Add to that, much leadership theory presupposes that people can fundamentally change who they are, that “type B” leaders can become “type A” leaders whenever the situation arises.  I doubt this happens much.  The same firmness and clarity of vision from Winston Churchill that helped save Europe in W.W. II also led him to be nearly all wrong on the Indian question throughout the 1930’s.

Bernard Bailyn’s book The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson demonstrates that people who might be great leaders in certain circumstances are utter failures in others.

Bailyn begins his book by revisiting the worst of the riots over the Stamp Act of 1765.  A variety of British officials received threats and intimidation, but none received the level of concentrated violence as Thomas Hutchinson, the Lt. Governor of Massachussets and also the Supreme Court justice.  Looters ransacked his house methodically for three days straight, taking several thousand dollars in cash and valuables, while causing another few thousand dollars damage to his house.

With this in mind, we would naturally make many assumptions about the man.  He probably gave loud and hearty support to the Stamp Act.   He probably displayed a haughty character.  Maybe he was even not native to the land, but a British import.  Probably he lived ostentatiously and lorded it over his fellow men.

But nearly all of our natural assumptions about him would be wrong.  His portrait reveals a man of some reserve with the pleasant “Smile of Reason” the Enlightenment philosophes had down pat.   His house was nice, but not over the top.  He was born and bred in the colonies, and even wrote what is considered to be the best contemporary history of the Massachusetts  Colony.  He never published it. He commented to a few friends that it had too many flaws.

Thomas Hutchinson

The Hutchinson HouseAdd to that, he opposed the Stamp Act!  As Chief Justice he commented that he thought the Stamp Act bad policy and sure to fail.  He earnestly hoped that the British would see reason and cease their plans for the doomed tax.

But he, more than any other, received the laser-like focus of wrath from the Sons of Liberty.  John Adams, along with James Otis, vilified him in print year after year, and Hutchinson, perhaps totally flummoxed, never seems to have responded in kind.  How did this happen?  Why did such a mild-mannered man as Hutchinson cause so much anger and resentment?

John Adams rarely passed up an opportunity to call Hutchinson a “courtier” — someone of no account who fawned his way to the top of society.  True, the marriages within his family aided his cause, but this form of social climbing was hardly unknown even in the colonies, and certainly known in England.  For what it’s worth, Hutchinson appeared to have a very good marriage, and he grieved long and hard for his wife who died in childbirth.

Others point to the fact that in 1765 Hutchinson held two offices, Lt. Governor and Chief Justice, and thus ran afoul of the emerging doctrine of the separation of powers that would make itself manifest in the Constitution.  But Hutchinson never sought a position on the court.  The governor nominated him, and he initially refused, claiming that he “had not the necessary legal mind” for the job.  He took it only reluctantly after repeated entreaties from the governor himself.

But Bailyn holds that the main cause of Hutchinson’s singular failure lie in his personality.  His love of careful compromise, his lifelong aversion to stirring the pot unnecessarily, made him singularly unsuited to leadership in a revolutionary age.  Indeed, had Hutchinson held power in England, we might very well be reading about how his careful, compromising leadership helped King George avoid war with the colonies.  But in America, that shoe did not fit.

We get an idea of the temper of the times when colonists criticized Hutchinson not for being for the Stamp Act, but for being against it for the wrong reasons.  Where people like Adams and Otis saw deep-seated principle at stake, Hutchinson saw misguided policy, and this attitude led to Hutchinson’s most unfortunate and damaging mistake.  Bostonians drew up  an eloquent and passionate objection to the Stamp Act to send to Parliament, but Hutchinson put on the brakes.  He argued, tinkered and pleaded for a month to change much of the tone and some of the substance of their entreaty, while still sharing their objections to the tax.  In the interval, other colonies gained fame and glory by publishing their own heated objections, making Boston look weak and tepid.  Between their first headstrong and final lukewarm drafts, England settled their minds and began the road to enforcing the Act.

Boston was not amused.  They vented all their considerable anger directly at Hutchinson.  Many of them suspected him (erroneously) of merely stalling for time and not really being against the Act at all.

If the revolution had never happened, who’s to say that the colonies would not in time have developed their essential independence along the lines of Canada? Such a smooth, uneventful and gradual transition would have tickled Hutchinson pink.

What Hutchinson never saw, however, was how his own mindset and personality had been shaped by a revolution 75-100 years prior — the intellectual paradigm shift known as the Enlightenment.   All that calm reasonableness would not have fit within the late 16th century any more than it did in late 18th century North America.

Alas for Thomas Hutchinson, a good and decent man, but one decidedly not of his time — a leopard who could not change his spots.

8th Grade: The Parthenon

Greetings,

Recently we spent time looking at the Parthenon in Athens, in my opinion one of the greatest buildings ever constructed.  I think that looking at architecture is one of the best ways to gain insight into the past.  I didn’t come up with this idea, but borrowed it from the man to whom this site pays homage.  As I have said before, a civilization might throw a banking system together haphazardly, but would not do so with a sculpture.  And buildings, more so than individual works of genius, reveal more because they involve the mind and skills of whole civilizations.

Here is what the building probably looked like ca. 435 B.C.

Parthenon Original

They built it atop of their Acropolis, the highest point in the city which served as Athens’ religious epicenter.

Acropolis Recreation

The building as it looks today. . .

Of course most people when first gazing upon the Parthenon usually think, “Yes it’s good, but what’s the big deal?”  We understand instinctively perhaps the influence this style has had on western culture.  Banks, the Supreme Court, and almost any other building that wants to convey wisdom and trust.  That in itself should clue us in that the Athenians had “something” special in their design, but we have to look closely to see the real genius of the Athenians.

When we look at tall buildings like skyscrapers on the Washington Monument, at least from certain angles, the buildings do not appear straight.  Built with 90 degree right angles, our eyes fail to perceive the perfectly straight.  I don’t understand the science of why this happens, but we have all experienced it.  Part of it has to do with how our converging line of sight deceives us.  For example. . .

the top line appears longer, but is in fact the same size as the bottom line.  In this second image the middle lines appear bowed, but are perfectly straight.

The Athenians understood this and built the Parthenon to compensate for the tricks our eyes play.  Each column has extremely slight variations throughout its many cylinders, sometimes with fractions of a millimeter the only thing distinguishing one block from another.  But the cumulative effect compensates for our vision and always makes the columns appear perfectly straight.  The following images exaggerate the effect, but give us the basic idea of what the Greeks accomplished:

Parthenon Columns

In fact a close look at the Parthenon reveals few right angles.  Each of the thousands of column drums remains an unique construction to that particular column.  This is not a lego set of interchangeable parts, but each part of the building stands as work of art unto itself.  If you have the time and interest, this video, and especially the last 30 minutes, give a good overview of their techniques in creating this building.

We can and should marvel at its construction, but we should go one step further and ask what the Parthenon means, and whey the Athenians built it as they did.  In class we focused on a few key areas:

  • The Greek Ideal of Perfection

In much of their philosophy and politics, the Greeks searched for the abstract ideal beyond the visible, a trend that would not really shift until Aristotle.  The Romans, for example, or at least the early Republican Romans, rarely idealized people when depicting them,

Cato the Elder

but we can say with only slight exaggeration that the Greeks did nothing but idealize people in their sculpture.

The Athenians went to tremendous lengths to bring make this ideal of perfection at least  seem  real among them in stone.

  • A Theological Statement

In theory, the Athenians built the Parthenon as a temple to Athena.  Originally a huge 35 foot statue of Athena overlaid in gold stood right at the center inside the building.  But architecture rarely lies.  The figures on the outside of the Parthenon tell a different story.  Here the Athenians put sculptures of Athenian heroes, with the clear intent of showing that the gods and men can intermingle, that Athens itself can achieve the perfection the gods embody.

That, at least, is one interpretation.

But another interpretation argues that this “temple” to Athena merely served as a cover for their true (even if subconscious) intent to glorify themselves.  It would be as if we built a church and called it “Trinity Church,” but put images of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, etc. throughout (this actually begs the question of whether or not American flags should reside in churches).

  • Mankind as the Measure

The Greek philosopher Protagoras has received a lot of bad press over the years for his comment that, “Man is the measure of all things,” and deservedly so.  But before we critique him we should understand the context of what he said and ask ourselves if the Greek gods were good “measures” of things.  Clearly, Protagoras and other philosophers had a measure of genuine spiritual insight in rejecting standard Greek religion as a guide for their lives.  The gods lived lives free of consequence, free of any restraint other than the power of other gods.

In the Parthenon the Greeks did not use the “eternal” or “mystical” dimensions as in the pyramids.  The proportions of the building in fact reflect the proportions found in the human body, as represented in Da Vinci’s famous “Vitruvian Man” (named after a famous Roman architect).

Vitruvian Man

This is not to say that buildings that use these proportions are inherently geared towards humanism, but in the context of classical Athens, I am comfortable using this as circumstantial evidence against them.

Unfortunately, the Athenians took a correct spiritual insight about their own gods and misapplied it, taking their religious instinct in an even worse direction.  As G.K. Chesterton once said, (I paraphrase), “Let a man worship a stone.  Let a man worship a crocodile.  Let mankind worship anything besides himself.”

Next week we’ll look at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War and the end of Greece’s golden age.  Athens would navel-gaze itself right over a cliff.

Blessings,

Dave