What Happens when Germans Go Nuts?

They make a rational, thoroughly scientific, argument for the existence of Atlantis, located in the Atlantic (right where Plato said it was) destroyed cataclysmically somewhere around 9000 B.C. (apologies to one of my favorite ad campaigns).

I have written before about the likelihood of advanced civilizations that existed long before their so-called beginning around 4000 B.C.  But it is so much easier to propound vague ideas then to make a concrete case for a specific civilization, let alone one for which we (seemingly) have no evidence for except Plato’s account in one of his dialogues.  And then you realize that one of the more credible arguments for the existence of Atlantis was written by Otto Muck . . . who invented the U-boat schnorkel for the Germans in W.W. II.  Yes, he came over to the U.S. like many other former German scientists after the war, but still,it does not help the case that he worked for the Nazis.

But first, Muck reminds us that Plato discussed Atlantis in two dialogues, not one, the Timaeus and Critias.  Plato has Socrates relate many myths throughout his work, but he speaks of Atlantis in strictly factual terms.  Like many others, I suppose, I had never actually read the full account of Atlantis in the dialogues and Muck makes a good point.  Plato, at least, seems to believe in the historicity of Atlantis, or certainly, Critias does, and he gives a lengthy description filling at least 15 pages of its size, location, topography, plants, and the like.  Critias talked about how the Greeks first learned of Atlantis from the Egyptians, still considered quite wise by the Greeks even in Plato’s day, via the great legislator Solon–America’s George Washington.  Plato invests a lot of heavy-hitters in his account of Atlantis.

It makes perfect sense to me to believe in a cataclysmic flood, as it is spoken of in every major religion of the ancient world.  I expect to find, along with Graham Hancock and others, the existence of civilizations that long predate the fertile crescent of 4000 B.C.  I delight in Jon Anthony West’s interpretation of Egypt’s history, for example, and find it persuasive.  But I cracked the cover of Muck’s book skeptically.  I don’t approach questions like this even primarily scientifically, let alone entirely so.  Still, with Atlantis, even I needed something to hold onto besides stories.  With other sites, you have megalithic architecture, for example.  For Atlantis, I need more than Plato’s account.

I give Muck credit.  He understands skepticism as a scientist and confronts head-on, piece by piece, in methodical fashion.  Some of what Muck wrote I found very intriguing, and others, not so much.

To begin, Muck asks where the Atlantic ocean got its name.  Well, obviously from the Atlantis story, but this means very, very little.  Slightly more intriguing is Muck’s examination of the very similar phonetics between the god Atlas (apparently spelled out ‘Atlants’), who stood at the middle of the world upholding it, and the name “Atlantis” and its topography, which Plato tells us had a large mountain.  Well . . . ok, but . . . ?

He moves on.

If we look closely at Plato’s description of the topography he tells of a huge variety of plants and food that one could find there.  It seems almost fantastical. We assume the variety couldn’t really exist, given the size and location Plato mentions.  But if we consider the gulf stream moving across the Atlantic, then match it with the mountains described by Plato as well as the location, it matches.  You would have warm air from the south-east, with a large mountain in the center impacting the Arctic air, and the variety described by Plato is possible.  What makes this more intriguing is that Plato probably did not have the biological and topographical knowledge to make this up.

More interesting is the Gulf Stream itself.  If you compare latitudes for northwestern Europe and its overseas counterpart, you know that Europe is a lot warmer than the upper reaches of North America.  The Gulf Stream makes this possible.  But we also know that thousands of years ago Europe was much colder.  Then, around the time of Atlantis’ supposed destruction, it started to warm up.  What if the Gulf Stream did not always flow across to Europe, but instead was diverted by a continent in the middle of the ocean?  That could account for the temperature difference at first, and the shift after.

Perhaps the most bizarre, yet intriguing, argument Muck makes involves the habits of eels.

Apparently, a breed of eels exists that spawns in the Sargasso Sea (located just to the east of Atlantis on the map above).  For the longest time scientists could never understand why these eels undertook a long and dangerous migration across the Atlantic.  The females find European rivers, the males sit and wait in the ocean while the female eels fix their hair.  Ok, ok . . . observers discovered that the females can only come to sexual maturity in fresh water, hence their need for rivers.  But why travel east across the Atlantic.  It makes much more sense, from an evolutionary perspective and every other perspective, to go west from the Sargasoo.  The existence of Atlantis, however, would explain this.  For who knows how long the eels would go east for only a short distance from the Sargasso to the rivers of Atlantis.  The destruction of Atlantis did not alter their genetic memory.  They still swim east, and no doubt suppose that when they hit the coast of Europe they are back in Atlantis, more or less.

Plato considered Atlantis a bridge of sorts between land on either side of the ocean, and Muck explores some of the connections between the Americas and the world of Plato’s day.  He considers possible racial connections, considering that the typical look of the Basque people would fit well for a possible Atlantean type, since that “look” could fit in the western parts of Europe, north Africa, and Meso-America–the old sphere of Atlantean influence.  Muck makes you think hard throughout his work, but I think this the most ridiculous of Muck’s arguments.  Maybe I am just squeamish when an ex-Nazi helper-guy talks about race, but it seems that if the Atlantis story is true, 10,000 years of post-Atlantis destruction intermarriage would dilute the racial stock.

Perhaps more interesting are the ancient pyramids built by the Egyptians and Meso-Americans.  Muck seems to argue that both cultures acted as preservers of some kind of Atlantean legacy even thousands later in the post-apocalyptic reboot of civilization.  Perhaps the pyramid shape was meant to recall Atlas and Atlantis’ great mountain. This is more convincing than the racial argument, but I still think it fairly weak.  Both cultures built their structures thousands of years apart, and it seems they had different purposes in mind.  Muck’s earlier arguments about climate, topography, and the gulf stream stand on much more solid footing.  His analysis about the mapping of the ocean floor of the Atlantic indicates the possibility of an Atlantean like form still lying on the ocean floor.

As for the cataclysmic end, Muck has an answer for that as well.  Plato’s description has Atlantis lying right around the mid-Atlantic ridge, a potentially volcanic region.  The diagram below right shows the ridge shows the newest ocean floor crust in red:

Muck believes that a very large asteroid struck earth right around 9000 B.C., which matches remarkably with the chronology offered by Plato’s account.  Here is one of a variety of articles on the subject, with impact dates ranging between 10,000 to 13,000 years ago.  Some argue that this asteroid or comet struck the polar ice caps.  Muck argues that it struck somewhere around the mid-Atlantic ridge.  If Atlantis existed, and if a very large asteroid struck near the mid-atlantic ridge, you could easily have had a gigantically massive subterranean volcanic eruption that literally could have had Atlantis sink into the sea in a single night.

 

Muck doesn’t need the asteroid to hit the mid-Atlantic ridge necessarily.  If it did strike the polar ice-caps, it would have caused the destruction of Atlantis in a global deluge not overnight, but within a week or so at the most.

I have left out a great deal of technical information Muck includes, and must content myself with a general summary.

Muck knows he cannot absolutely prove his case one way or another.

I am a big fan of Jonathan Haidt’s work with Heterodox Academy, which encourages more ideological diversity on campus.  Haidt readily acknowledges his liberal beliefs–he has never voted Republican–but even he agrees that the situation has gotten dangerously imbalanced in many departments across many campuses.  He has discovered some interesting links, not surprisingly, between religious belief, psychological temperament, and political affiliations.  You can take various fun tests at his link here.

Just as political leanings often come from moral and religious beliefs, I think what one thinks of Muck’s book will depend on a variety of factors that go a bit deeper than the evidence itself.

If you look to disagree with Muck, most likely . . .

  • You are a committed ‘gradualist’ in all things geological
  • You are strictly scientific in deciding about the past and would hardly value Plato’s account as evidence of any kind.
  • You probably hesitate in part because you don’t want to be associated with various new age crazy people who believe in the existence of Atlantis for all the wrong reasons.
  • You need “hard” evidence like clay tablets, pots with markings, the stuff that archaeologists would find, before you would acquiesece to Muck

If you look to agree with Muck, most likely . . .

  • You are a contrarian by temperment
  • You weigh lots of different kinds of evidence much more equally than those committed to a particular field
  • You think it would be “cool” if Atlantis once existed (an attitude most abhorred by the strict scientific type, who would see this feeling as meaning absolutely nothing.  I think they are right, but only about 90% right in their approbation of this attitude).
  • You admit the possibility of great catastrophe’s altering the fabric of human history as well as geology.

I fall in the latter category, but hope that I have been fair to the former.  Again,some parts of Muck’s book I found nearly persuasive, and others not so much.

To illustrate some of the above differences, we can examine Jon Anthony West’s work in Egyptology.  He got famous/infamous for suggesting that erosion patterns on the Sphinx suggested that it was much older than was commonly believed, and was likely built by a civilization that predated Egypt perhaps by a thousands of years.  Dr. Robert Schoch, who earned his Ph.D in geology at Yale, analyzed the Sphinx and agreed with him.  You can see the video–narrated by Charlton Heston!:)–here.

When Schoch presented his findings at a conference, Egyptologists present could say little about the actual data he presented.  But one retorted, “Well, you say that the Sphinx was built thousands of years before, but if another civilization built it, where is the evidence?  Where are their tools?  Where is their writing?”  Schoch could only stare back rather dumbfounded. Hadn’t he just presented evidence in the form of the Sphinx?  Perhaps they did not accept the fact of the Sphinx itself as evidence because it did not fit into their preconceived notions of what constitutes evidence, which has to be in the form of writing, pottery, etc.  Of course, if a highly developed civilization did exist somewhere around 10,000 B.C., it would have suffered catastrophic collapse as a result of the asteroids that struck Earth around that time.  If they did have a written language and if they made pottery, it would have been washed away almost immediately.

We see how these different areas of belief work together.

So I say, let the Germans go nuts.  Let them make far-fetched claims.  It beats some other avenues they have taken in the past . . .

 

 

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Old Virginia

I have read very few books on the topic of American slavery, but Alan Taylor’s The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 is the best book I’ve read on the subject.  It has gotten national attention, and deservedly so.  Taylor reveals alternate angles and puts a human faces on a great national disaster.  He avoids getting preachy, and he doesn’t need to be, for his writing, and the story he tells, does it for him.

As to why one should focus on Virginia. . . .  Well, first, it’s his area of expertise.  But Virginia arguably had more influence on the founding of this nation than any other state, and so the focus has justification in any sense.  Virginia has more than slavery in its history of course, but slavery had an enormous impact on us as a whole, and so in some ways Virginia’s story is America’s as well.

Two things make this book a great success.

Taylor puts special focus on the lives of struggling plantation owners.  Some of them believe, or at least almost believe, in the injustice of slavery.  But they also felt trapped.  Many had debts from living the required “Virginia Gentlemen” lifestyle that needed paid off.  Many farms started failing due to bad weather and failing soil.  Many also worried that freeing slaves might create a de facto army of those who would eagerly do them in.  In their minds at least (Taylor’s book has copious original source footnotes) they had inherited tiger riding from their fathers and could not get off.  Many at least wanted no more slaves in Virginia than they already had, for fear of tipping the ethnic balance against them even more.  But again, they trapped themselves by their view of slaves as property.  The whole practice of slavery built itself on a certain idea of property, and the liberty of property. Within this framework ownership of slaves could never be restricted. Countless idealistic 20 year olds become weary and defeated 40 year old inheritors of failing estates.  The web of of sin ensnared just about everyone, including many who  initially wanted nothing to do with it.

Of course this sense of feeling trapped had a way out, but it would involve not just tinkering with the existing social system, but destroying it root and branch.  Most simply did not have either the vision or the courage to do this (as an aside — if we judge a man by his contemporaries George Washington shines brightly while Jefferson flows along with the mass.  Washington not only freed his slaves but provided land for them and a fund for their medical care.  This may have been easier for him because he had no children, but still, he who sought so much to be a Virginia gentlemen for much of his life willingly let that go at the end.  Of course this does not excuse everything, but should be noted).

This web involved not only personal contradictions but political ones as well.  Virginia state politics routinely pitted county vs. county, so certainly they had no love for the federal government.  But when war with the British came many demanded federal troops to protect their plantations and prevent slaves from running away, and many demanded federal restitution for runaway slaves.  At least in Taylor’s book, few if any saw the hypocrisy in this, a willful blindness that sin often creates.

Another fascinating plot in the book deals with the impact of the American Revolution on slavery in Virginia.  Many founders believed that slavery would die out hopefully on its own within a generation of the American victory.  Many perhaps followed Jefferson’s assertion (in his original draft of the Declaration) that slavery had a lot more to do with the British than the Americans, and once they left, the condition of slaves would inevitably improve.

The laws of primogeniture seek to keep estates intact by preventing them from suffering division among multiple heirs.  As long as slaves counted as part of an estates’ property, freeing them brought many difficulties under primogeniture law and custom.  In abolishing primogeniture laws, many may have thought that their absence would indirectly help slavery disappear.  But in increasing social and political freedom, they increased their economic freedom as well.  In a cruel twist of unintended consequence, slave owners now found many more ways to profit from their slaves, including selling and even renting them at much greater rates.  And this meant, first, that slave families got broken up much more frequently than before.  Secondly, it meant that the possibility of some cordiality and respect for slaves by masters (Taylor shows how this did happen on occasion) due to familiarity and stability eroded quickly.  In other words slaves became much more like disposable assets rather than valuable family heirlooms.  Finally, the extra profits from slavery made a political solution to the problem much more difficult.  Too many hands got dirty.

Matters complicated themselves further during the War of 1812, when invading British armies sought to liberate slaves whenever possible.  Many slaves “switched sides” and served with British regiments as scouts and guides in what was unfamiliar territory for the British.  Who does one root for in these circumstances?

Today we cannot safely distance ourselves from this and claim it has nothing to do with us.  Maybe your entire family grew up in Maine.  But Virginia’s story is part of all Americans, and the state certainly played an unusually significant rol in the founding of the United States. We have to face this, and should not spare anyone in any era.  Marginal Revolution recently posted the following blurb on George Washington (full article can be found here)

During the president’s two terms in office, the Washingtons relocated first to New York and then to Philadelphia. Although slavery had steadily declined in the North, the Washingtons decided that they could not live without it. Once settled in Philadelphia, Washington encountered his first roadblock to slave ownership in the region — Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780.

The act began dismantling slavery, eventually releasing people from bondage after their 28th birthdays. Under the law, any slave who entered Pennsylvania with an owner and lived in the state for longer than six months would be set free automatically. This presented a problem for the new president.

Washington developed a canny strategy that would protect his property and allow him to avoid public scrutiny. Every six months, the president’s slaves would travel back to Mount Vernon or would journey with Mrs. Washington outside the boundaries of the state. In essence, the Washingtons reset the clock. The president was secretive when writing to his personal secretary Tobias Lear in 1791: “I request that these Sentiments and this advise may be known to none but yourself & Mrs. Washington.”

Ugh.

Kenneth Clark made the astute observation in his Civilisation series that a society really depends on confidence — confidence in institutions, in laws, in “what we’re about,” and in each other.  Without this belief, civilization will collapse quickly, for the foundation upon which our laws, economy, etc. stand will cease to exist.   With it, a society can withstand even great disasters (i.e. Rome in the 2nd Punic War).  And this raises the problem of how we teach our past.  What will happen to us if we can have no “confidence” in the sense Clark meant it?

Someone recently asked me the great question, “Is it the duty of a Christian teacher to promote patriotism, love of country, and devotion to the American way of life?”

To me this question should receive a strong and resounding “No,” in the main, but with a smaller, qualifying, parenthetical “Sort of,” attached to the epilogue of the “No.”

As C.S. Lewis pointed out in Mere Christianity Christians easily fall into the trap of what he called “Christianity and. . . ”  We should apply our Christianity to all areas of life certainly, but “Christianity and Pacifism,” or “Christianity and Low Taxes,” easily morphs into “Pacifism and Christianity,” which then leaves you with just “Pacifism.”  The Truth stands above all civilizations and must remain so in order that civilizations might learn, repent, and change.  Whenever the Truth gets co-opted into an agenda for creating citizens, Truth is the first casualty, but down the line the civilization gets harmed by the collateral damage.  The City of God must never get confused with the City of Man, for the good of both.

But. . . Christians are also called to love particular places, and invest in those around them.  We don’t live disembodied lives, we live as unique people in unique contexts.  To hate and denounce the history of one’s country, or merely to live apart from it in a disembodied state to me seems akin to hating one’s own body.  I don’t appreciate the whitewasher of our country’s sins, but his fault is almost always childlike, like the 8 year old who believes that the sports team he roots for always wears the white hat.  I have much less stomach for the cynical debunker of everything, of the professor who only seeks to get the student not to believe in anything, in order that the poor student might believe only in the professor.

A third type exists, seen in what I suspect may be the trend in high school history textbooks today.  This path seeks to uncritically praise other cultures (especially non-western cultures) while giving hefty criticism to one’s own (I have seen this with my oldest son’s textbook).   This has the appearance of humility, i.e. “think of others as better than yourselves.”  But I think it falls short of that, for it’s not rooted in an actual love of one’s own place.  The “virtue” comes at far too cheap a price. This approach reminds me of the teenager who thinks that his parents are hopelessly stupid — if only we could be like this family, or that family, or any other family but their own.  In other words, this view falls fails as an intellectually mature perspective.

Christian teachers do not have a duty to “see the best side of everything,” but they should encourage a healthy sense of appreciating where they are, for it is where God has placed them.  We must come to terms with our country just as we must come to terms with ourselves.  But hating oneself is not Christian.  St. Francis used the term “Brother Ass” for his body/himself.  Chesterton made the great point that, like a donkey, our bodies can be stubborn, stupid, foolish, and even willfully spiteful at times.  But how could one really hate a donkey?  Just look at that face!

The term, and the attitude seem appropriate to have towards one’s country.  “No one hates his own body” (Eph. 5:29).  I am guessing that just about every nation could qualify for the moniker, “Brother Ass.” I confess I don’t know exactly what this means in light of our past with slavery, Native Americans, and so on.  I also couldn’t say how African-Americans, for example, might react to my proposed metaphor.  But for now . . . it will serve as a place to start.

11th Grade: Lord Grantham vs. the 49ers

Greetings,

This week we looked briefly at the California Gold Rush of 1848-49, where I want to touch on a few different issues:

1. The link with land and opportunity

Americans since early colonization often associated this country with opportunity – be it economic or religious in nature.  The Gold Rush did not present the lure of an easy life with easy riches.  Travel was long and dangerous, finding gold was not guaranteed, nor could you be sure to protect your claim.  Still, the possibility of changing your circumstance, of making something for yourself, proved irresistible to thousands.  The idea of opportunity has always been powerful for Americans. Often this idea of opportunity was linked with land.  We talked last year about how absurd the Americans must have seemed to the British with our near obsession for land.  After all, even before the Louisiana Purchase we far exceeded England in terms of size.  Today we still link home ownership, for example, with independence.

We can trace part of the difference in our approach to land in the different cultures.  In England many lived and worked due to the patronage of a benefactor, usually someone in the aristocracy.  In America the idea of patronage ran counter to our “do it yourself” mindset of personal independence.  There is a lot to say for our attitudes.

But we should not view this European mindset as mere laziness.  Many felt that if one had the means to hire a maid and a gardener, you had a duty to hire them and provide jobs.  It could be considered part of the duties of one’s “station in life.”  At its best, this mindset produced a sense of community and mutual responsibility. Mrs. Mathwin is a big fan of Downton Abbey, and I saw one scene where Matthew (who feels that all the servants are waste of time and money) is upbraided by Lord Grantham, who asks Matthew to think about where the butler will go if he had no job at Downton.  The best aristocratic tradition saw having servants as a means to provide for others.  But without a “benefactor class” in America, individuals had to make their own way, and land always played a key role in making that happen.

It is this belief in independence and opportunity that led many to oppose slavery who were not necessarily generous in their attitude to blacks.  This attitude can be just as puzzling to us today as those who favored slavery in the name of liberty.  But many Californians opposed slavery because slavery represented being rich enough to hire someone else to do your dirty work.  In this line of thinking, slavery stood against the “do it yourself” ethic inherent in the 49ers, and so stood against the idea of independence and liberty.  But we should be careful of thinking too highly of their motives.  Again, many of them had no love for blacks per se, however much they opposed slavery.  Others in the North shared this same attitude.  Unfortunately, strict abolitionists were a distinct minority.

2. Institutions Travel

It is probable that many of the 49er’s simply thought of themselves as seeking their fortune.  But institutions and economies would inevitably travel with them.  With money came the need to protect it, and for that you ultimately need political institutions (unless you would prefer lawlessness and spoils going to the strongest).  On Friday the students played a ‘Gold Rush Game.’  I hope they had fun, but I also hope they saw how 8 separate fortune hunters would inevitably want to create institutions.  This was not always, however, a squeaky clean process, as violence became part of the picture — not unlike the real life of the old west.  In fact, for at least one team, crime did pay!   On the whole, this class strongly resisted forming any institutions that might limit their mobility on the board.  The game will have to be tweaked a bit more next year to give more incentive to the formation of banks and towns.

3. Cultures Linger

As a curious side note, the names of the towns created by the Gold Rush reveals a lot about the people there.  In contrast to much of the rest of the county that named towns with European associations (i.e. New York), Biblical references (i.e. Providence, Rhode Island), virtues (Philadelphia) or a virtuous past (i.e. Cincinatti for the Roman Cincinattus, and Columbus, Ohio).  Gold Rush towns had very different names like Devil’s Thumb, Rough and Ready, Hangtown, etc.  Clearly, many came to California with entirely different goals and outlook than those that settled North America initially in the 17th and early 18th centuries.  There are those that say that California today marches to a different drummer than other parts of the country, and clearly this has its roots dating to the Gold Rush. The culture of a particular place will often have deeper roots than we think, and our actions have longer ripple effects than we usually imagine.

I will look forward to updating you next week, when we delve deeper in the slavery question and other issues that began to split the country in the 1850’s.

Dave Mathwin

9th Grade: Rome’s Final Frontier

Greetings to all,

This week we continued our look at the formation of the Empire under Augustus Caesar.  His leadership gave Rome peace and stability, but this came at a price.  Augustus solved some of the decayed Republic, but his solution created other problems.

Decades of civil war faced Rome with the need for change.  Rome’s society, however, was built on tradition. Augustus carried himself as a leader in the old tradition, but in reality eroded all of the old checks and balances of the Republic.  He was much more careful than his uncle Julius, who made no secret of his power.  In reality, however, Augustus had just as much, if not more power than Julius ever did.  He certainly understood the power inherent in manipulating his image. . .

The problem may not have been the power itself, but the fact that it was done more or less secretly, and so did not encourage Rome to face reality.  We talked of how Rome was in a sense, ‘pretending’ — living in a fantasy land that told them that Rome was still Rome, after all.  This pretending, however, can be dangerous for a civilization, because the tension between your imagination and reality can grow over time.

In their “Res Getae” assignment the students got an idea of the subtlety with which Augustus worked.  He saw what happened to his uncle Julius, and modified his actions accordingly.  He never (or hardly ever) took power, he waited to receive it from others.  He rejected the title of Dictator which would have brought odium upon himself, but he took bits and pieces of other offices that added up to total control in the end, a kind of “majority ownership” of Rome.

Next week we will see that one problem Augustus faced was the German frontier along the Rhine and Danube river.  He was right to recognize its weaknesses.  This map shows the wedge into Roman territory created by the meeting of the Rhine and Danube river.

Do rivers make for good frontiers?  We might think so, for rivers are not easy for armies to cross.  But when compared with mountains or deserts we see that rivers can be quite porous. Neither side, after all, has a barrier to using the river on their side of territory.  Furthermore, most people use rivers for fishing, travel, and commerce.  Thus, rivers often act to bring people together rather than separate them.  The MD/D.C./No. VA area is a good example of this.  Augustus needed a new frontier, a more secure border.

Prudence might dictate falling back to something more secure.  But Augustus built his power in part on the fantasy that Rome had not changed.  Rome never falls back!  He tried to push forward further into Germany to the more advantageous Elbe/Danube frontier, seen here below. . .

and picked the arrogant Varus to command.  Varus fell for Arminius’s trap and led his army to disaster at the Battle of Tuetonburg Forest.  We will discuss how Augustus was right about his frontier being vulnerable, but was he right in his solution?

We shall see that their are limits to what the military can accomplish when the situation requires a  political solution While Rome would win battles against Germans in the future, they could never end their power of resistance.

Next week we will do an activity where I want the students to rethink the Roman frontier.  In the ideal world Rome could have pulled back a great deal.  But of course that would completely ignore political realities.  If he withdrew in one place, would he have to advance in another?  If so, where?  I hope the students enjoyed this change of pace and the chance to view the problem in a different way.

Here is a map of the Empire from a topographical perspective:

Where could Rome get an ‘easy’ victory to allow them to withdraw on the German border?  Where should troops be concentrated?

When we wrap up Augustus we will discuss various aspects of his reign.  He ended a century of civil war and brought peace throughout the Roman empire.  Under his leadership the economy and culture of Rome revived.  The system he established did give Rome stability long after he departed, and as far as masterful politicians go, I would rank Augustus as one of the all-time greats.  On the other hand, while Augustus was very effective, he had to curtail civil liberties to achieve his goals.  He never sought to make Rome face reality, to take them from their current perception of reality at point ‘A’ and bring them to the necessary point ‘B.’  In this way, Augustus lacked true leadership greatness.

After Augustus we will see how the system he established fared under different emperors.  Tiberius and Caligula will get our attention next week.

Many thanks,

Dave

To the Victor go Some of the Spoils

Many often declare that since, “To the victor go the spoils,” so too, that, “Victors write the history books.”  This pithy phrase assumes that historical narratives boil down to power, a concession to postmodern theory that I am loathe to make.  Aside from the debate over the theory, however, history itself will not confirm the statement.  Several examples exist to prove this point:

  • The Athenians exiled Thucydides but we read of the war that helped bring about his exile almost exclusively through him.
  • Athenian Democracy “won” by executing Socrates, but subsequent generations of readers learned Athenian democracy primarily through Plato’s eyes.
  • The triumph of the “imperial” system over the Republic in Rome became a fact of life after Augustus, but we think of that triumph foremost through the writings of Tacitus, a significant critic of most of the emperors.
  • The North won the American Civil War, but the Confederacy had a variety of champions shortly after the war and a variety of sympathizers today,

and so on.

As Tocqueville noted, mere physical force can control the body but often has the opposite impact on the soul.  The examples above demonstrate also that, contra the mundane postmodernist, shaping how we see the world has much more to do with our imagination that rote political force.

Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Excellent Empire disappointed me overall.  He is likely one of the few who could have possibly made a history of Christian doctrine an exciting read, and he did just that in his four volume work The Christian Tradition.  In The Excellent Empire he flashes his ability to deftly dance from text to text, but seems to get trapped into the detached tone of his main subject, Edward Gibbon, whose The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire forms the backdrop of this book.

I give Gibbon much credit for his labors, his erudition, and for having a defined point of view.  Alas, he writes like a know-it-all, and I cannot buy into how he frames his narrative.  Pelikan seems to accept Gibbon’s perspective (or–is just playing a scholarly game, or am I too dense to notice something else?), and discusses how GIbbon’s perspective relates to Christian thoughts at the time from Sts. Jerome and Augustine, as well as a touch of Salvian and Orosius.

Gibbon’s work is an interesting examination of who gets the last laugh.

Roman contemporary critics of Christians viewed them as a drain on the Roman state, and in many ways enemies of the Roman state.  Jerome saw the collapse of Rome in the most starkly apocalyptic terms, and in the most anguished.  He compared Rome’s end to various passages from Revelation.  He saw Rome as ripe for judgement.  Yet, he grieved over their fall, seeing their end as the end of all things as he knew them.  Augustine took a more cerebral approach, which gained him some more penetrating insights.  He conceived of a Rome built upon shaky foundations from the start.  In one brilliant passage from Book 3 of The City of God he writes,

First, then, why was Troy or Ilium, the cradle of the Roman people (for I must not overlook nor disguise what I touched upon in the first book(2)), conquered, taken and destroyed by the Greeks, though it esteemed and worshipped the same gods as they? Priam, some answer, paid the penalty of the perjury of his father Laomedon.(3) Then it is true that Laomedon hired Apollo and Neptune as his workmen. For the story goes that he promised them wages, and then broke his bargain. I wonder that famous diviner Apollo toiled at so huge a work, and never suspected Laomedon was going to cheat him of his pay. And Neptune too, his uncle, brother of Jupiter, king of the sea, it really was not seemly that he should be ignorant of what was to happen. For he is introduced by Homer(4) (who lived and wrote before the building of Rome) as predicting something great of the posterity of AEneas, who in fact founded Rome. And as Homer says, Neptune also rescued AEneas in a cloud from the wrath of Achilles, though (according to Virgil (1))

“All his will was to destroy
His own creation, perjured Troy.”

Gods, then, so great as Apollo and Neptune, in ignorance of the cheat that was to defraud them of their wages, built the walls of Troy for nothing but thanks and thankless people.(2) There may be some doubt whether it is not a worse crime to believe such persons to be gods, than to cheat such gods. Even Homer himself did not give full credence to the story for while he represents Neptune, indeed, as hostile to the Trojans, he introduces Apollo as their champion, though the story implies that both were offended by that fraud. If, therefore, they believe their fables, let them blush to worship such gods; if they discredit the fables, let no more be said of the “Trojan perjury;” or let them explain how the gods hated Trojan, but loved Roman perjury. For how did the conspiracy of Catiline, even in so large and corrupt a city, find so abundant a supply of men whose hands and tongues found them a living by perjury and civic broils? What else but perjury corrupted the judgments pronounced by so many of the senators? What else corrupted the people’s votes and decisions of all causes tried before them? For it seems that the ancient practice of taking oaths has been preserved even in the midst of the greatest corruption, not for the sake of restraining wickedness by religious fear, but to complete the tale of crimes by adding that of perjury.

Such analysis gave medieval Europe a whole new foundation of political and religious ideology on which to proceed.

Rome attacked Christians for not giving themselves fully to the well-being of the state.  For the Romans, this might have taken the form of not giving due sacrifices to the emperor, or not joining the army.  Gibbon pointed out as well that the best men in the Church gave themselves to the Church, and not Rome.  Imagine a Rome where Athanasius, Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose, etc.–with all of their energy and intelligence–served as provincial governors instead of bishops.

Jerome and Augustine responded variously with how Rome had doomed itself to destruction via its sins, or how Christians were in fact the best citizens of Rome.  Their analysis won the day.  Monastics, for example, appear on the surface at least, to not contribute anything to the well-being of civilization.  But monastics would be honored in the west for the next 1000 years.  Their presence made no sense to either the Romans or to Gibbon.  The “social triumph of the church,” as Pelikan calls it, gave the Church the power of interpreting Rome’s history.  But I gathered that Pelikan thought Augustine and Jerome thieves, to a certain extent.*  Perhaps for Pelikan, Gibbon restored Rome’s vision of itself back to the stream of history.

Augustine and Jerome appeared to be the victors in the 5th century A.D. and beyond, as the Church had a strong hand on shaping the next millennium.  But historical spoils can be slippery things.  In an irony that perhaps not even Gibbon might have foreseen, today’s Christians, having abandoned much of the otherworldliness of the Church of the 5th century, may find more congeniality with Gibbon’s interpretation as opposed to Augustine’s.  What modern mega-church leader, for example, would tell anyone to become a monk?  We have our eyes set on this world and have no concept of how to patttern ourselves after the heavenly realms.  Some may applaud this.  But without the worldview of Augustine and Jerome we may find ourselves wishing, along with Gibbon, that St. Augustine had served as proconsul of Alexandria.

DM

*I could be totally wrong here.  Part of the difficulty I had with this book was I felt that I was reading a different Pelikan than the one I encountered in The Christian Tradition.  I had assumed that The Excellent Empire was written before this series, because its tone seemed more distant to me, less committed to the idea of truth than The Christian Tradition.  I knew that Pelikan had converted to Orthodox Christianity in 1998.  But I had somehow thought (how I thought this I’m not sure) that The Christian Tradition was written during/after his conversion, when in reality the early volumes stretch back to 1973, and the last volume predates his official reception into the Church by eight years.

This could mean that

  • I have misread Pelikan entirely in The Excellent Empire
  • Pelikan is deft at hiding his particular point of view from the reader and is simply examining certain points of view in a more detached way.
  • He does admire Gibbon (which is understandable) and agrees with Gibbon that Christians really did bring down Rome from the inside out.  This stance is not Augustine’s or Jerome’s, but it is certainly not an anti-Christian idea in itself.  Nebuchadnezzar’s first dream may hint at this (Daniel 2).  Perhaps I am too ingrained in my distaste for Gibbon’s pompous Enlightenment attitude to see that, despite this weakness, he may have been right after all about the Church’s relationship to Rome.

 

 

 

The Emperor Might Need New Clothes

Some months ago my students and I came across a remarkable passage in Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention.  The delegates debated some issue about term limits or representation, when one of the lesser known men commented that, in effect, “this constitution will last us about 75 years, after which we will have to make a new one.”*

This comment passed apparently without much notice or fuss.  Perhaps it was a generally assumed idea, or perhaps they simply had enough trouble in the moment to worry about arguing whether or not their document would last past their grandchildren.

This shocked everyone in class because we think of America like any other country, a more or less solid oak in the earth.  Of course, we have also been brought up with political rhetoric from both parties that venerates the constitution (though perhaps different parts of it).   Because Americans share little besides some form of faith in the constitution, if that shakes, we all fall down.

Because American history has many unique aspects, I find getting an interpretive handle on our past very difficult.  I have taught American History for about 15 years and have only some educated and less than educated guesses.  Clearly, however, politically and culturally we are currently shifting in some direction or another at the moment.  How should we make sense of it?

One of the more remarkable periods of positive dynamic change occurred in Greece between the years ca. 800-500 B.C.  We know about the Bronze Age, but sometime after the Trojan War Greece descended into a dark age about which we know very little.  Perhaps Homer was the beginning of the rebirth.  Early on in his The Economic and Social Growth of Early Greece: 800-500 B.C. Chester Starr makes an interesting point.  Definite ideas or concepts like “equality” or “rights” did not guide the Greeks ca. 800 B.C.  Rather, the concept of eunomia, or “traditional right” formed the basis of Greek social and political interaction.  Sometimes they invoked eunomia against abuse of power by tyrants or aristocrats, at other times aristocrats invoked it rightly against the “mob.”  This flexibility surely gave them good ground on which to innovate.

This stands in contrast to our history.  We founded America on ideas, whether because we thought that the best way to go, or because we had no other choice.  We often agreed on the results we wanted, but rarely on the “why” of that result.  Even early colonial America had a great deal of cultural diversity, at least by 17th century measurements.  We have never really had a shared culture to build upon, except perhaps for a vague sense of Protestantism.

Starr goes to demonstrate that the creation of the much admired political unit of the city-state had at least part of its origins in the desire of the aristocracy to concentrate its power.  Later, asPericles of Athens we know, democracy arose in many Greek city-states, a tribute to the aforementioned flexibility.  But many Greek democracies still had their aristocratic imprint.  The outstanding reformer Pericles made Athens more democratic while definitely living and fashioning himself as an aristocrat, and not as a “man of the people.” His bust makes this clear.

All good things come to end, and the Greek system had played itself out by the time of Alexander, who had little trouble putting it to rest.  Still, all in all, a good run by any measure, one too that makes sense in some clearly defined stages.

In light of Greek history and our own, I offer some some highly speculative thoughts . . .

Theory 1

Since early colonization America has gone through several iterations:

  • Colonial America – 1600-1756
  • Revolutionary America – 1756-1828
  • Jacksonian America – 1828-1860
  • Progressive America – 1860-1929
  • New Deal America – 1929-1965
  • Global Power America – 1965-2001
  • ???

Obviously some of these dates can be disputed and overlap.  Basically, Theory 1 asserts that because America has been rooted in ideas and not culture/tradition, we subject ourselves to significant shifts every 2-3 generations (the first phase doesn’t really count, as we had no concept of an American “nation” until the mid 1700’s).  We can reinterpret our common language on the fly and create “new Americas” every so often–though of course each era has some connections to past eras.  This ability has its strengths and weaknesses.

This theory, if true, may comfort us now because the the shifting ground beneath our feet will settle again as it has for previous generations.  We’ve done this before, we can do it again.

Theory 2 . . .

proposes more unity for the majority of American history.  Yes, some cultural and political shifts happened over time.  But we consistently maintained faith in the democratic process, and in our reason for being.  Even in the Civil War, the Confederacy broke away not out of a rejection of the American ideal, but out of a belief that they represented the true America.  We had “confidence,” that crucial element of any civilization, even in the midst of our most profound domestic crisis.

But something significant happened in 1965.**  In this year we passed the Voting Rights Act, which could be viewed as the apotheosis of what America was supposed to be.  In this year also we dramatically increased our involvement in Vietnam, again, in some ways I think, out of a belief that this was what we were “supposed” to do.  We increased our troop presence initially at least with the general backing of Congress and the population at large.

However, almost immediately after we passed the Voting Rights Act the riots in Watts began.  Rioting continued sporadically in many major cities for the next few years.  Perhaps this was pure coincidence, but I think not, though I would not claim to really understand the reasons for the violence.  But I think that part of the reason might be an intuition that we had “done all we could do,” but that it wasn’t enough.  The supreme confidence we had in our democratic way of life taught us that things would always improve, but now we knew better.  Shortly after our troop surge in Vietnam waves of self-doubt began surging through the country.

The two phenomena are likely connected, though I’m not sure how.

Along with this, the counter-culture “hippie” movement went mainstream into popular culture and eventually most of academia.  Western icons like the Beatles went to India to learn see the world in a non-western way.  We lost confidence in our own culture, and we have not regained it.    We had never agreed fully on the why we did what we did, but we had agreed on what we did.  After this era we could no longer claim this for ourselves, and this makes the modern shift much different than others in our history.  The lack of political flexibility may have hastened the at least seeming collapse of the principles that guided us.  Some of the “vomiting up” of our past in some areas of our culture seems willfully self-induced.^

Recently The Guardian ran a great article about Tory MP Rory Stewart.  Stewart got a great education and attempted on two occasions to serve in difficult postings in Iraq and Afghanistan.  His comments say much about the state of the western world:

Ten years ago he would have listed 10 things Afghanistan needed to build a new state: rule of law, financial administration, civil administration and so on. “And, then you would say, well, how do you do that? Well, I’d say, by a mapping of internal and external stakeholders, definition of critical tasks – all this jargon talk. And I’ve only now just begun to realise these words are nonsense words. I mean, they have no content at all. We should be ashamed to even use them.”

They are nothing more, Stewart now acknowledges, than tautologies. “They pretend to be a plan, but they’re actually just a description of an absence. Saying ‘What we need is security, and what we need to do is eliminate corruption’ is just another way of saying: ‘It’s really dangerous and corrupt.’ None of that actually tells you how it’s done.”

And later,

In some sense I’m a romantic. I like the idea of organic history and tradition. But I think Britain is such a different place now, and changing so quickly, that I’m coming slowly, painfully, to accept that we need to start again.

I emphasize that these comments come not from a reactionary revisionist Liberal, but a member of England’s conservative party.

If we agree that we need to “start again,” in some way, will we agree on where to start from, and where we wish to go?

Dave

 

*My apologies, I have looked back and forth for this comment and cannot find it again to save my life.

**A possible counter-date might be the end of W.W. II.  As Arnold Toynbee regretfully admitted, democracies are not well-equipped to handle something like nuclear weapons, though, so far so good on that score.

^Trump gets rightly accused for excessive negativity, but why does no one focus on the obvious negativity from the Left?  Here is Clive Crook, via Marginal Revolution . . . 

Trump’s critics complain about his relentless invoking of crisis — despite agreeing with him that the system is collapsing. Conservatives keep telling us that the American project is in mortal danger, that liberty itself is at stake. Liberals keep telling us that global capitalism is wrecking everything that’s decent in society, that the U.S. is institutionally racist, and America’s traditional values are so much hypocrisy. I think back to the rapturous reception accorded by the left in 2014 to Thomas Piketty’s “Capital,” which argued, you may recall, that capitalism is an engine of injustice, headed for self-destruction; progressives everywhere nodded wisely in agreement. Here’s what puzzles many of them today: Why does Trump have to be so negative?

Relic

The Introduction to Relic opens this way:

American government is dysfunctional . . . .  As a decision-maker Congress is inexcusably bad . . . utterly incapable of taking responsible, effective action . . .

So why is this happening?  The common view is that Congress’ problems are due to the polarization of the [political] parties over the last few decades.  By this rendering, if the nation could move towards a more moderate brand of politics–say by reforming primary elections or campaign finance–Congress could get back to the way it functioned in the good old when it (allegedly) did a fine job of making public policy.

But this isn’t so.  . . . The brute reality is that the good old days were not good. . . . Congress’ most fundamental inadequacies are not due to polarization.  Nor are they of recent vintage.  Congress is irresponsible largely because it is wired to be that way–and it’s wiring is due to Constitutional design.

[Congress’] pathologies are not really of it’s own making.  They are rooted in the Constitution, and it is the Constitution that is the fundamental problem.

I have concerns over the growth of presidential power in the last few generations, but . . . I love it 41XKcNSIeQLwhen writers undertake such magnificent and almost dashing glove-slaps to our received wisdom.  Authors William Howell and Terry Moe teach at the University of Chicago and Stanford respectively, so this is not a talk-show rant.  They write with an apolitical bent for the most part and take a broad view.  They focus on clarity and concision and don’t try and dazzle us with their erudition.

I don’t think I agree with them, but I admire their efforts.  We need more books with these strengths.

Their basic argument runs as follows:

Before the Revolutionary War each colony acted almost entirely independently of one another.  No one had any idea of a “United States of America.”  During the war we created the Articles of Confederation, which, while it created a national government, made it exceedingly weak.

This then, is their first main point.  Yes, the Constitution created a stronger national government–but not that strong.  We have to understand the Constitution’s grant of executive power not in a vacuum but in relation to the Articles of Confederation.  The Constitution still allowed for states to have the pre-eminent place in people’s hearts.*

The design of our federal government reflects this by giving nearly all the most important powers to Congress.  This in turn makes it very difficult to enact national policy.  This was not a mistake.  This is the exact intention of most of the founders (though not all, such as Alexander Hamilton, who argued for a much stronger executive at the Constitutional Convention).

When we manage to create a national policy, such policies get diluted, confusing, and sometimes absurd because of the fact that all laws have to come through Congress.  Everyone wants their piece of pork, everyone needs something to crow about.   The confusion of many laws, and the expense needed to enforce them, weakens government, expands bureaucracy, and lowers quality of life.  Again, the authors don’t blame Congress for this.  Our representatives have job of representing their districts, not the national interest.

The authors argue that Congress has never solved a national problem.  It has either taken either national emergencies (like war, disasters, etc.) or unusually shrewd or charismatic presidents to get Congress to move.  They concede that perhaps our form of government worked in the pre-industrial era when towns remained largely isolated from one another (though Congress certainly could not solve the slavery issue, the biggest contributor to the Civil War). But the Industrial Revolution created a new country that drew the states much closer together.  We now think of ourselves as “Americans” and need national policies on a consistent basis.  Again, we should not say that Congress will not solve them. Congress cannot solve them, just as pigs can’t fly.  We have, in fact, many problems on the horizon that have existed for decades that Congress will never solve, such as Social Security reform, the tax code, the national debt, and so on.  And while the American Revolution inspired a variety of democratic movements across the globe, no one has copied our system of government.**  This should tell us something.

Their solution mirrors the simplicity of their writing.  They know that rewriting the Constitution is impossible, and officially amending it very difficult.  Instead they seek “fast-track” authority for certain kinds of legislation.

Lest we deride their analysis as overblown, the authors point out that we already recognize the foolishness of our constitutional design with international treaties and trade agreements.  We give the president power to negotiate such agreements without congressional interference.  Presidents then can present them to Congress for a simple “yes”/”no” vote.

The authors propose that we simply allow presidents to submit legislation to Congress involving national policy for this kind of yes/no vote.  No pork, no earmarks, no preferments, no deals. Congress needs to keep its diseased hands away from issues like the national debt, health-care, and national defense. If such laws passed they would have the clarity and unity needed for effective policy.

That’s it.  No fuss, no muss.  It preserves the Constitutional role for Congress and merely expands slightly the powers of the executive.

The authors write with great force, but part of me wonders, has it really been so bad?  Sure, the separation of powers brings problems, but America has a top notch military, technological innovation, a leading economy, a high standard of living, and so on.  Yes, we have difficult social issues, but we also have much greater challenges in this regard than most other nations.  Ok, we have rocky outcroppings in many parts of our history, but so too do other modern democracies.

It’s hard to disagree, however, that Congress annoys us like no other branch of government.

As much as I enjoyed the book, the authors missed the root question.  Of course their suggestion would make government more efficient and policy more workable.  The authors argue that their proposed alteration involves no real philosophical issue.  We simply need something that works.  Wanting a dishwasher that works, for example, need not involve politics, philosophy, or theology.

Part of my hesitation to jump in with the authors, however, lies with just these concerns.  We should concern ourselves with more than whether or not something works.  We should consider the implications of increased executive power.  Many of the founders were philosophers as well as practical politicians.  We owe it to our past to at least consider such things before going far beyond what they intended.

Dave

*I wonder if the authors would have agreed with Napoleon’s assessment of America while in exile on St. Helena in 1816.  Napoleon foresaw the Civil War, among other things.  He commented,

What is needed for national defense? Unity and permanence in government. America remains united for now due to their common interest of their emancipation from the English crown. But their existence as a great nation was impeded by their federal constitution. A dissonance exists between northern and southern states which reflects on the weakness of the federal principle. Either the national government will be strengthened by conquest, or else national unity will be broken by local interests and commercial rivalries.

**This is a good point, but America also had a unique historical situation that preceded their revolution.