Fantasy Island

I did not grow up watching a lot of TV, as my parents were (thankfully) on the stricter side of things in that regard. Yet, like most everyone else, I watched what I could when they were not around. Almost anything would do when these opportunities struck, and I distinctly remember even watching a few scattered episodes of Fantasy Island. Some of you will remember this show, in which Ricardo Montalban presided over an island resort of sorts, where people would come for vacations. But inevitably, guests would have some kind of unreal and usually traumatic experience, whereby certain unknown issues in their lives would attain resolution. The guests would leave happy, Montalban smiling benignly as they left.

Again, I watched this show even though I never particularly enjoyed it (it was on tv, and that was enough). What’s more, I could never grasp its basic premise or understand what was happening. Were the experiences of the guests real or not? They seemed unreal, but then if unreal, why did people feel so satisfied at the end? How could the island produce just what was needed for each guest (The Lost series, after an intriguing start, definitely borrowed way too much from Fantasy Island in its later seasons)? I remember no explanation, just that, “it had all worked out” somehow in a package that always seemed too neat and tidy

Again, the aggravations I had with the show didn’t prevent me from watching. In my defense, how can one look away from Ricardo Montalblan (still the best Star Trek villain to date)?

Much has been said about the dust-up over the brief video clips from the Pro-Life March involving the “clash” between Catholic high-school students and other protestors. I will say little here, except that

  • I was glad to see some who made ridiculous and ill-founded statements retract their comments when new, extended video evidence came to light. I wish I saw far more laments that thousands of people rushed to extreme judgment of a 17-year-old after seeing 1 minute of video–in other words, the very exercise of commenting on Twitter “in the moment” is desperately fraught with peril. It wasn’t just that people got it wrong, but that no one should have commented in the first place.*
  • I basically agree with David Brooks, who argued that 1) this scary and tribal rush to judgment happens on both sides** (this time the left was at fault) , and 2) the problem we have is also a byproduct a new technology (phones and social media) that we must understand more fully and use more wisely.

But as much as I appreciated Brooks’ wisdom, I think he misses something deeper and more fundamental. No one questions the impact of smart phones on how we interact with each other and the world. We should remember, however, that inventions do not simply randomly drop from the sky. They emerge within specific cultural contexts. While the phone was certainly not fated to arise in America, it makes perfect sense that it did. Apple marketed its products with the letter “i” in front, itunes, the ipod, the iMac, and of course, the iphone. Apple wanted one to think of these tools as a way to radically personalize our worlds, which fits within our cultural and political notions of individualism. It’s no surprise that their products made them billions of dollars. They did not create the need for radical personalization of our lives, they tapped into what already existed and helped us expand the horizons of our collective felt need.

I agree that we need to work as a society to understand the technologies we create, but that is just another way of saying we need to understand ourselves.

Harold Bloom’s The American Religion attempts to do just this. He argues that, as diverse as we are religiously, every culture must have some unifying belief, even if this belief remains below the level of consciousness. Bloom states that America is in fact a gnostic nation and not a Christian one, and he defines gnosticism as:

  • A belief that the physical world is essentially evil, and the “spiritual” is good.
  • That all people have a “divine spark” within them covered over by experience, culture, history, and materiality (the “all people” part of this is our particular democratization of what was an elitist religion in the ancient world).
  • We must find a way to liberate our true selves, this “divine spark,” from its constraints. Culture, tradition, history, etc. often stand as enemies in this effort.

Bloom postulates that this faith lies underneath other professed faiths, be they agnostic, Baptist, Jewish, or Mormon. It has invaded and colonized our institutional religions and our overall mindset. He finds it particular present in Southern Baptists of his era, but today he would likely look to the various mega-churches, which operate on the idea that Sundays should be friendly, relatable, accessible, and above all, not “boring.” Ralph Waldo Emerson no doubt helped found our particular version of gnostic faith, writing in 1838 that,

Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it . . . . Alone in history he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. . . . He spoke of miracles, for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this miracle shines as the character ascends.

1838 Divinity School Address

So too William James wrote that

Religion, as I ask you take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine. . . . as I have already said, the immediate personal experiences the immediate personal experiences will amply fill our time, and we shall hardly consider theology or ecclesiasticism at all.

“The Variety of Religious Experience, 1902

We could easily sandwich Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself in between these two thinkers for the trifecta of the prophets of non-contextualized, disembodied, American hyper-individualism. This kind of individualism has as its mission liberation from other groups other entities that would seek to mold, shape, and define. And, as we look at the crumbling of institutional churches, our lack of respect for governmental instiutions, the crisis at many universities, etc. we must declare that the individualism of Emerson and Whitman has triumphed almost completely.^

I can think of few things more compatible with this faith than combining Twitter and iphones. We can both memorialize our lives (which are of course special and worthy of documentation) and express our inmost thoughts to the world at any time. Conventions of privacy, or politeness, you say? Sorry, the god of individualism is a jealous god and will brook no rivals for his throne. Do we contradict oursevles and treat others as we would rather not be treated? Well, we are large, to paraphrase Whitman, and contain multitudes. We believe firmly that our souls should have the right to break free at all times.

Thus, if Bloom is correct, if we want to avoid such miscarriages of justice in the future, we may need to do much more than get a better understanding of technology. Brooks is wrong. No quick and mysterious sitcom-like fix is in sight. We need a new religion to avoid such disasters in the future. Our nation, relatively isolated as it is, is still not an island. And, double alas, Ricardo Montalblan is not here to save us.

Dave

*I know that we need journalism, public records of public events, etc., but I will go one step farther. I don’t know why anyone was filming the students in the first place. I know this happens all the time, but it seems to me that you should go to a protest march to protest, not film others protesting. If you want to counter-protest, do so, but don’t go to film others counter-protesting. I agree with Jonathan Pageau, who argued that our incessant desire to mediate our experience through screens fits into the kind of gnosticism Bloom describes. The screen inevitably creates an abstraction, a disconnect between ourselves and reality. He writes,

It is only in the 17th century that men framed their vision with metal and glass, projecting their mind out into an artificially augmented space. Men always had artificial spaces, painting, sculpture, maps, but the telescope and microscope are self-effacing artifices, they attempt to replace the eye, to convince us that they are not artificial but are more real than the eye. It is not only the physical gesture of looking at the world through a machine that demonstrates the radical change, though this is symbolic enough, but it is the very fact that people would do that and come to the conclusion that what they saw through these machines was truer than how they experienced the world without them.

from his “Most of the Time the World is Flat,” a post for the Orthodox Arts Journal

**I am basically conservative and run mostly in conservative circles. So, while I feel that it is mostly the left that mobs people for now for breathing too loudly through their nose, I should say that the right engages in it as well. I remember some years ago glumly sitting through a presentation where a commentator dissected and destroyed the whole personality of Bill Clinton based on 6 seconds of a video clip played in slow-motion. At least Clinton was the most public figure at the time, and not a 17 year old high school student.

^Patrick Deneen has related that when he taught at Princeton, an important study came out that on the Amish that showed that more than 90% of all those who experience “rumspringa” (when as later teens they leave the community to experience the world) return back to their communities. Deneen was taken aback by how much this bothered his colleagues, who could not conceive of living a life bound by tradition and communal standards. For many of our elite Princteton dons, such a life could only be termed as oppression, and some went so far as to suggest that they should be liberated from this oppression.

This, I’m sure, backs up Bloom’s thesis all the more.

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Imagined Communities

Today there is much talk surrounding the idea of the lack of communal identification in America.  We have red states, and blue states, and we bowl alone.  Our kids don’t go outside to play with other neighborhood kids.  We have much to lament.

On the other hand, this social/cultural shift (for our purposes here we’ll assume it’s true) has given us some distance from the whole concept of a “nation.”  Paul Graham has a marvelous post entitled “The Re-fragmentation” in which he discusses the darker side of everyone huddled together around the center.  One could argue that the prime era of nationalism produced an eerie cultural conformity on a scale perhaps not seen since ancient times.

It is this spirit that Benedict Anderson writes Imagined Communities.  The book attempts to tackle how it is that communities71hPv-gXglL called “nations” formed.  At times I thought he drifted into a bit of esotericism, but I found other insights of his incisive and quite helpful.  The first of these insights is in the title itself.  Nations require imagination.  We can understand that those within an immediate geographic proximity could be a community.  We can surmise that those of like-minded belief could find a way to become a community.  But how might I be connected with someone in Oregon with whom I may not share either belief, geography, experience, or culture?  It requires a certain leap of the imagination.

Anderson cites two texts from the fathers of Filipino nationalism to demonstrate how this idea of a national community could be formed.  The first is from Jose Rizal:

Towards the end of October, Don Santiago de los Santos, popularly known as Capitan Tiago, was giving a dinner party.  Although, contrary to his usual practice, he announced it only that afternoon, it was already the subject of every conversation in Binondo, in other quarters of the city, and even in the city of Intramuros.  In those days Capitan Tiago had the reputation of a lavish host.  It was known that his house, like his country, closed his doors to nothing — except to commerce or any new or daring idea.

So the news coursed like an electric shock through the community of parasites, spongers, and gatecrashers, whom God, in His infinite goodness, created, and so tenderly multiplies in Manila.  Some hunted polish for their boots, others looked for collar buttons and cravats.  But one and all were occupied with the problem of how to greet their host with the familiarity required to create the appearance of long-standing friendship, or if need be, to excuse themselves for not having arrived earlier .
The dinner was being given on a house on Anloague Street.  Since we cannot recall the street number, we shall describe it such a way that it may be recognized — that is, if earthquakes have not yet destroyed it.  We do not believe that its owner will have had it torn down, since such work is usually left to God or Nature, which besides, holds many contracts with our Government.  

The second from Marko Kartikromo

It was 7 o’clock Saturday evening; young people in Semarang never at home Saturday night.  On this night, however, no one was about.  Because the heavy day-long rain had made the roads wet and very slippery, all had stayed at home.  

For the workers in shops and offices Saturday morning was a time of anticipation–anticipating their leisure and the fun of walking around the city in the evening, but on this night they were to be disappointed–because of the lethargy created by the bad weather.  The main roads usually crammed with all sorts of traffic, the footpaths usually teeming with people, all were deserted.  Now and then the crack of horse cab’s whip could be heard spurring a horse on its way.

Samerang was deserted.  The light from the gas lamps shone on the shining asphalt road.

A young man was seated on a long rattan lounge reading a newspaper.  He was totally engrossed.  His occasional anger and smiles showed his deep interest in the stories.  He turned the pages of the newspaper, thinking that he might find something to make him feel less miserable.  Suddenly he came upon an article entitled:

PROSPERITY

A destitute vagrant became ill on the side of the road and died of exposure

The report moved the young man.  He could just conjure up the the suffering of the poor soul as he lay dying on the side of the road.  One moment he felt an explosive anger well-up inside.  Another moment he felt pity, and yet again he felt anger at the social system which made some men poor and others rich.

If we contrast these texts with two other famous opening passages (The Iliad, and Pride and Prejudice) we may begin to see why the above texts could be described as “nationalistic.”

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.

And which of the gods was it that set them on to quarrel? It was the son of Jove and Leto; for he was angry with the king and sent a pestilence upon the host to plague the people, because the son of Atreus had dishonoured Chryses his priest. Now Chryses had come to the ships of the Achaeans to free his daughter, and had brought with him a great ransom: moreover he bore in his hand the sceptre of Apollo wreathed with a suppliant’s wreath and he besought the Achaeans, but most of all the two sons of Atreus, who were their chiefs.

“Sons of Atreus,” he cried, “and all other Achaeans, may the gods who dwell in Olympus grant you to sack the city of Priam, and to reach your homes in safety; but free my daughter, and accept a ransom for her, in reverence to Apollo, son of Jove.”

On this the rest of the Achaeans with one voice were for respecting the priest and taking the ransom that he offered; but not so Agamemnon, who spoke fiercely to him and sent him roughly away. “Old man,” said he, “let me not find you tarrying about our ships, nor yet coming hereafter. Your sceptre of the god and your wreath shall profit you nothing. I will not free her. She shall grow old in my house at Argos far from her own home, busying herself with her loom and visiting my couch; so go, and do not provoke me or it shall be the worse for you.”

The old man feared him and obeyed. Not a word he spoke, but went by the shore of the sounding sea and prayed apart to King Apollo whom lovely Leto had borne. “Hear me,” he cried, “O god of the silver bow, that protects Chryse and holy Cilla and rulest Tenedos with thy might, hear me oh thou of Sminthe. If I have ever decked your temple with garlands, or burned your thigh-bones in fat of bulls or goats, grant my prayer, and let your arrows avenge these my tears upon the Danaans.”

Thus did he pray, and Apollo heard his prayer. He came down furious from the summits of Olympus, with his bow and his quiver upon his shoulder, and the arrows rattled on his back with the rage that trembled within him. He sat himself down away from the ships with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrow in the midst of them. First he smote their mules and their hounds, but presently he aimed his shafts at the people themselves, and all day long the pyres of the dead were burning.

******

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

“Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.

You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

This was invitation enough.

“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”

If we consider the idea that nations are primarily imagined communities we can examine the texts.

The first two texts . . .

  • Conjure up a sense of belonging to a particular place.  The reader may not know the locations described in experience but can imagine being there.
  • Establish a connection between the large groups of people in the story, despite the fact that these people do not know each other — note that in the second text the man feels a connection to the vagrant though they had never met.
  • Presuppose an almost jocular familiarity with the the concept of a “nation.”

But neither The Illiad or Pride and Prejudice do any of these things.  The reader gets dropped into a world that is not theirs, and neither author shows much concern to make it so.  The reader observes the story, but does not participate in the story.  If we consider Austen one of the primary literary voices of her day, we can surmise that the transition to considering “nations” as communities is quite recent.  C.S. Lewis commented that the world of Austen and Homer had much more in common with each other, despite their 2500 year separation, than his world and Austen’s, despite the mere 150 year time difference.^

Too many causes exist for this momentous shift to consider them here.  Anderson focuses on a couple, however, worth considering.

As mentioned above, one can have a sense of community based on physical proximity.  Anderson’s brilliance is to focus on the idea of “imagination” creating this sense of community.  We must always realize, then, in the essential unreality of nationhood, a subject to which we will return.  But Anderson also shows the concrete foundation for the myth of nationality.

Ideologically the idea of equality had to arise before the idea of nationality had a chance.  But the idea of equality needed fertile soil, and Anderson names “print-capitalism” as one primary ingredient.  With the Enlightenment came the idea of rational standardization of measurement (of distance, time, weight, etc.) and language.

The printed book, kept a permanent form, capable of infinite reproduction, temporally and spatially.  It was no longer subject to the ‘unconsciously modernizing’ habits of monastic scribes.  Thus, while 12th century French differed markedly from that written by Villon in the 15th, the rate of change slowed markedly by the in the 16th.  ‘By the end of the 17th century languages in Europe had generally assumed their modern forms.’

Capitalism too played its part.  “In the Middle Ages,” commented Umberto Eco, “one did not ‘make money.’  You either had money or you didn’t.”  Today we hear a great deal about the inequalities of capitalism.  But capitalism helped produced a society in which the vast majority of people can share in common experiences though common consumption.*  The mass production made possible by political unification helped create mass consumption, and so one hand washes the other.  Capitalism and print media together created the newspaper, which formed the ‘daily liturgy’ of the national community.

So to what extent can we say that “nations” have value?  One student of mine refused to take the bait and argued bluntly (but effectively) that “they seem to be doing pretty well so far.”  Ross Douthat writes,

The nation-state is real, and (thus far) irreplaceable. Yes, the world of nations is full of arbitrary borders, invented traditions, and convenient mythologies layered atop histories of plunder and pillage. And yes, not every government or polity constitutes a nation (see Iraq, or Belgium, or half of Africa). But as guarantors of public order and personal liberty, as sources of meaning and memory and solidarity, as engines of common purpose in the service of the common good, successful nation-states offer something that few of the transnational institutions or organizations bestriding our globalized world have been able to supply. (The arguable exception of Roman Catholicism is, I fear, only arguable these days.) So amid trends that tend to weaken, balkanize or dissolve nation-states, it should not be assumed that a glorious alternative awaits us if we hurry that dissolution to its end.

I agree that the effectiveness of nations vis a vis other forms of organization is at least arguable.**  I agree with Douthat that the premature burial of  “nations” before their time, with nothing ready to replace it, would be silly at best.  But . . . Anderson’s work reminds us that we live in purely imagined communities.  They exist not in reality, but for expediency, a product of contingent historical circumstances.

The question remains — will their imaginary existence, like that of the zero, prove so valuable that they will last far into the future?  We can see the challenge posed to them already by the internet, globalization, and political polarization.  We shall see how strong our imaginations can be in the next generation or two.

Dave

*I do not suggest that defining ourselves through consumption is a good thing in itself, merely that consumerism has had this particular impact.

**In brief, we might say that the birth of nations was bloody (ca. 1800-1871), with the next generation settling into a relative peace.  But the first half of the 20th century was catastrophically destructive, with a moderately peaceful era to follow.  For whatever it’s worth, the possibly waning age of “nations” — ca. 1970’s – present, has been a period of steadily decreasing world violence.

^M.I. Finley makes an interesting connection between the two eras in his classic, The World of Odysseus.  Finley looks at Achilles’ comment in Hades and draws an unexpected conclusion.  Achilles seems to state that he would rather be a “thes” on earth than king in Hades.  Most translations assume that “thes” means “slave,” but Finley argues that the best translation would mean something like, “unattached free small landholder.”  This, and not slavery, was the worst fate Achilles could imagine.

This reminds me of a part in the Gwyenth Paltrow Emma movie where Emma disdains the independent farmer.  “He has no society, no information.”  We get another confirmation of the role capitalism and the concept of “equality” played in the creation of nations.

9th Grade: ‘Faith,’ Reason, and The Crusades

Greetings,

This week we wrapped up our unit on the Crusades.  This difficult era raises many questions for us:

1. Did the Crusades attempt to stem the tide of Moslem aggression, or did they in fact cause more Moslem unity and a resurgence of Moslem power?

Some see the Crusades as a legitimate attempt to strike against Moslem expansionism.  Others argue that the Crusades forced the Moslems to unite once again. Having been invaded by the West, they determined to renew their attacks against them.  Do the Crusades bear any blame for the eventual collapse of Constantinople in 1453?

2. What role should faith and reason play in everyday affairs?

The Third Crusade is a good example of this problem.  Richard I fought his way to Jerusalem, but went home in part because he believed he could not hold the city even if he took it.  Therefore, it was pointless to risk his live and the lives of his men for nothing.  Some criticized his actions, saying something to the effect of, “You must step forward in faith, and watch God bless you.  This is what faith is all about!   You cannot think of this in practical terms. That is not thinking with faith.  Put  a foot into the Jordan, and then watch it part.”

We see this same question also running through the idea of the tragic Children’s Crusades, though here the Church strongly opposed Europe’s youth to no avail.* How should the balance between ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ guide our daily lives?  How should we answer the argument of many young people who participated in the ‘Children’s Crusades,’ which ran something like this:

  • God has called his people to crusade for Jerusalem.  We believed so in 1097.  Has God changed?  He is the same, yesterday, today, forever.  Therefore, His call is the same.  We must still vie for the Holy Land.
  • But how shall we go?  Let us not trust in princes, horses, or chariots (i.e. Ps. 20), let us know that our trust is in God, by marching out in true faith.  We see in Scripture that Moses led the Israelites to the Red Sea and it parted. Joshua marched around the city, and it fell.  Guided by God’s word, we shall emulate their example.  God shall make a way for us to take Jerusalem, and do so in a way so that all glory goes to him.
  • Many argue that the problem with the Crusades was a lack of organization, supplies, or reinforcements.  This only betrays worldly thinking.  Would more supplies have made the Crusaders less greedy in 1204?  Would it have made them less violent inside Jerusalem’s walls in 1099?  No, the problem has been our lack of faith and obedience.
  • Jesus pointed out the strength and purity of the faith of children.  Therefore, who better than the Church’s youth to undertake this venture?

We know that the Children’s Crusades ended in utter disaster.*  But what would you say in response to their argument?  How can you disprove them? What is faith’s relationship to reason?

3. The west attempted at least seven times at retaking Jerusalem.  What should this tell us about them?

  • That they were foolishly stubborn?
  • That they were intensely dedicated and willing to make great sacrifices for achieving their goal?
  • That they were a people of faith willing to trust in spite of adversity?
  • That they were foolish, naive, and used ‘faith’ as a cover for their prejudice and desire for gain?

In the end, the Crusades would have many unintended consequences.  The West was exposed to Greek literature and philosophy for the first time.  St. Thomas Aquinas, the Renaissance, and Exploration may all have been by-products of this, among other things.  The Crusades also raise many questions about using violence as means to bring about the Kingdom of God that are still with us.  If we agree with the Crusades, should we also agree with the bombing of abortion clinics?

Next week we will return to our look at Medieval Feudal society, and I hope that the students will be confronted with good questions.

Dave Mathwin

*I should note that scholars debate when these crusades took place, and whether or not there was one crusade or two.  A few even doubt whether or not they were children at all, as some believe they may have been a mass of landless unemployed.  My rendering in class was the traditional story.

8th Grade: Victory and Defeat

Greetings,

This week we looked at the Trojan War and its aftermath in Greece.

In some ways the Trojan War belongs to province of literature rather than history, because no real “history” books describe the events as we know them.  But that does beg the question, what is evidence?  Is Homer’s Illiad a kind of historical evidence for the Trojan War?   That of course depends.  As part of our study of the Trojan War we looked at different kinds of historical evidence, and the strengths of each.

The points in favor of “Historical Accounts” seem obvious to most:

  • We know the author, and we assume that either he was a eyewitness himself, or had access to eyewitnesses, or access to the records of eyewitnesses.
  • The fixed nature of the text means the story cannot change over time.

But we should be careful not to discount Oral Tradition

  • Do we unnecessarily give undue weight to books merely because they are written down?  Why is reading a book more trustworthy than hearing a story?
  • Books have a fixed text, but many times we remain at the author’s mercy.  He may  twist and distort the truth in his writing, and we give it extra weight because it is writing.
  • Books are the product of one man, but oral tradition comes from whole communities.  Thus, some argue, oral tradition has more external checks upon its veracity than texts.

Archeological evidence is both the strongest and weakest of the three

  • Archeology gives us direct access to the past, often times unfiltered.
  • But, in contrast to texts or traditions, archeology usually gives us only a fragment of the story, and must be fitted into a larger context that archeology often cannot provide.

The best extended treatment I have seen of the evidence for the Trojan War is Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War.  Unfortunately, this video series is nearly 35 years old and parts of it stand outdated.  Time has tended to confirm and extend evidence for the conflict.  If interested you can view a more “popular” (and shorter) account here

The aftermath of the conflict did not turn out as the Greeks no doubt hoped.  We know the Greeks plundered Troy for gold, jewels, and slaves, and we might expect that this sudden influx of cash, and the long-awaited return of its leaders might lead Greece into a golden age.

In fact the opposite happened, and Greece descended into a dark age that lasted somewhere between two and four centuries.  It certainly appears at least that the immediate aftermath of the Trojan War brought general dissolution to the Greek mainland.

Why did this happen?

In the end we can do little better than speculate, but in class we advanced a few theories:

  • In winning the war, Greece won the lottery.  But by a decent margin, lottery winners report that their winnings made them less happy, not more.  The added wealth brings added stress, and conflict over that wealth with much higher stakes.  Perhaps the same thing happened to Greece on a grand scale.
  • Civilizations, like individuals,  tend to thrive when responding to a challenge.  Greece especially emphasized this through their doctrine and practice of arete.  But the massive cash infusion might have made them rest on their laurels, making them less vigilant about things in general.
  • The Trojan War took most of Greece’s leaders away for 10+ years, according to tradition.  When parents go out for the night they have a talk with their kids — “be good to your babysitter, or when I get home I’ll ask how you behaved and then you will be punished.”  Thus, babysitters have a delegated, proxy authority in the eyes children.  But what if mom and dad never came home?  Would the sitter still have authority?

I asked students to envision what would happen if, on their block, every parent went out for the night, and everyone had a sitter.  But, only 2/3 of the parents returned to their homes, leaving the sitters there permanently.  Without mom and dad to enforce the sitters’ word, their authority would collapse almost immediately.  What would happen to the block?  If even just five parents did not return, what would happen to the “society” of the block, and its social interaction?  When we realize that many “parents” of various Greek provinces did not return from Troy, we can imagine the results for the whole of Greek society.

Dark Ages usually occur when fear and instability lead to isolation, and then isolation leads to a breakdown in the way society functions.  Perhaps this is what happened with Greece.  Dealing with failure requires careful thought and wise action, but so to does dealing with success.

Next week we will leapfrog a few centuries and focus on how Sparta and Athens emerge from the Dark Ages.

Blessings,

Dave

Mayan Collapse and the NFL’s City-State Culture

I wish I had tried harder in math class. I always said to myself that I would never have to use all those formulas in real life, but it turns out that it would have dramatically aided my appreciation of John Lowe’s book on the mystery of the collapse of Mayan Civilization, The Dynamics of Apocalypse: A Systems Simulation of the Classic Maya Collapse.

I usually enjoy historical works that focus on the bigger picture, or at least connect a smaller scale event to something larger. But I know its also important to turn the binoculars around sometimes, and Lowe’s book accomplishes this well. I don’t mind his narrow and technical focus. Had I understood more math (most of it appears to be geo-spatial formulas) I surely would have understood his arguments better, but he does a decent job of summarizing the conclusions of all his deductions.

The mystery surrounding the apparently sudden collapse of Mayan civilization draws many different theories. What makes the case more curious still is that certain areas of Mayan civilization continued to thrive after other areas stopped functioning practically on a dime. Some speculate that the Mayans simply abandoned some large urban areas for reasons unknown.

Lowe begins by dealing with various theories of collapse he rejects.

The Environmental Argument

Lowe admits that many archaeologists find themselves drawn to ecological arguments because the two sciences lend themselves to similar kinds of analysis. But the evidence points away from this. Rainfall remained steady or increased in depopulated regions. Perhaps one might wish to say that the abandoned areas had too much rain and got choked by the jungle, but no . . . other swampy Mayan population sites experienced no depopulation.

Some suppose an over-extension of farming or denudation of soil quality. But no–Rowe points out that the Mayans used different kinds of sophisticated farming techniques that would have kept soil relatively healthy. Of course some form of soil erosion took place. In fact, most of it took place in the northeast Petan region. But again–this region experienced depopulation last among Mayan cities.

Disease

Others suppose disease wiped out the Mayans. But if the Mayans had an interconnected civilization that remained relatively homogenous ethnically, why did this disease not wipe out all of them? Most of the truly virulent diseases have their roots in the Old World, and the Old World would not visit the Mayans until some 600 years after the Mayan collapse.

W.H. McNeil proposed something along the Roman model. As he saw it, disease was not solely responsible for Rome’s collapse, but contributed greatly to it. Two plagues struck Rome in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. and had the net effect of depopulating the countryside, setting in motion a chain of events from which Rome was not culturally or politically healthy enough to recover from. But whereas we have plenty of internal evidence for the plagues in Rome, all of the written accounts we have from the Mayans indicate that disease played no factor. Some later sources indicate how healthy people were before the Spanish came. If we cannot rule disease out absolutely, we can safely call it unlikely to have contributed to a collapse.

Ideological Collapse

Much of the rest of the book deals with the more sophisticated and slippery arguments surrounding Mayan beliefs. The basic approach of these scholars argues that, however much certain physical factors might have contributed, the main cause of the fall must have its roots in Mayan religious beliefs.

We know that, for example, the Mayans had a strong sense of cyclical time. D.E. Puleston argues that the general collapse came at the end of an important 250 year cycle, and perhaps the Mayans believed in the need for a general “reset” of their civilization. But the holes in this theory reside in that not all of the Mayans obeyed this “reset,” if it occurred. And other time cycles don’t quite fit the model, so Lowe finds this explanation lacking.

Others, seeing that very specific modeling of ideology can’t quite fit, propose a more general internal negative feedback loop, of sorts. Conditions deteriorate, which makes you double-down on the system of belief, which makes you pour more resources into that system that already leaks. The extra pressure on the system causes it to leak even more, leading to collapse. Rowe remains open to this approach, but it cannot arise to anything more than the level of a guess.

Rowe runs the risk of subjecting everything to such rigorous examination (and complicated mathematical formulas), that he runs the risk of cutting the beef so thin no one can see it. But he eventually gives some of his own theories, which rely on the historical city-state collapse model of ancient Greece and Mesopotamia. Before examining this, I admire that someone with such an analytical bent as Rowe can consider some historical parallels and other paths that one cannot strictly measure.

The city-state model has the advantage of keeping both independence and interdependence at play simultaneously. This flexibility ideally can make them more creative and adaptive. They avoid putting all eggs in one basket, and can theoretically benefit from innovations other city-states make. But the intricacy of the system can make them vulnerable as well. The Greeks stopped cooperating and left themselves vulnerable to assimilation from the north (just as the Mayans from the south likely assimilated to the northern regions) in the form of Macedonia. When cooperation against a possible hegemon remained impossible or ineffectual, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.

This may not be quite fair to Rowe. While I admire his book, Rowe is much more clear with his writing when critiquing other theories. He has had time stating a positive truth clearly, held back by all the possible caveats that no doubt lurk in his brain. I may not have read him accurately, especially at this point of the book.

I think his idea of a political collapse has merit, but I believe we need more focus on the ideological explanations. For example, one can say that the Mayans stopped cooperating, but they appeared physically able to do so if they wished. Why didn’t they, then? You can argue for the power of a northern Mayan hegemon akin to Alexander the Great, but the historical record doesn’t indicate this. Even if it did, it still could not explain why the Mayans could not cooperate.

Alas, I have nowhere near the familiarity with Mayan belief systems to propose anything specific. But I can suggest an analogous situation to illustrate my point with the Redskins and the NFL.

First, we can view the NFL as a civilization of city-states. The NFL has customs and laws shared by every team, but every team has its own independent leaders and cultures. Some teams are healthier than others, but all share in a degree of common fate. The city-state model roughly works.Now, the Redskins. In the early phases of their existence the team had a very modest amount of success. They entered their “golden era” around the early 1970’s, and it lasted until January 1992 with their last Super Bowl victory. I lived through this golden era and it was gloriously fun.

Such a run of success created an enormous cache of goodwill among the fans. I have no wish to make this anti-Dan Snyder post or to catalog the many abuses of fan goodwill and the terrible decisions from the late 1990’s until today. There is more here for those interested. But, many outward edifices of a successful team still appeared in place. Fans came to games, fans cheered their team, paid for jerseys, the team made money, etc. One of the puzzling things about the Mayan collapse is that certain elements of their civilization, such as the high quality of their pottery, lasted right up until the end. We see this too with Roman coins. They maintain their weight and intricate design for decades after most historians (with the possible exception of Gibbon) mark the beginning of the end.

This year the team started 6-3 and seemed playoff-bound in a weak NFC East. But underneath lay definite problems, such as terrible performances for key home games, fans and players feuding, etc. And then, suddenly, for the last game of the year–utter collapse, as Eagles fans outnumbered Redskins fans at least 2-1 in the Redskins stadium.

The Redskins had issues in the past with other teams’ fans buying up tickets. The problem came in spurts for different teams, especially big name teams like the Steelers. But for a divisional rival . . . nothing like this has ever come close to happening before.

Of course the NFL can absorb one terribly dysfunctional team. The NFL, for now, need not worry too much. Faith in the “shield” continues on. But, imagine a scenario where

  • The Redskins don’t recover anytime soon and become dead weight in the league
  • A few other franchises (perhaps Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, the Jets) slide into similar positions
  • The concussion and player safety issue grows in importance
  • Domestic abuse and other player issues continue

Then we might see a very sudden collapse of faith, and a sudden exodus from stadiums and television sets. One might imagine abandoned stadiums to accompany abandoned temples.


Valleys of Neptune

Several years ago I attended a conference in which Dr. Peter Kreeft was one of the featured speakers.  I have read a few of Dr. Kreeft’s works and liked them all, and especially enjoyed his essay on surfing, one of his great loves.

During one of the lunch breaks I had the immense good fortune to find myself sitting next to Dr. Kreeft at one the random round tables in the dining area.  I asked him for some surfing tips and he proved gracious and helpful.  Based on his love for the sea I also wanted to run a pet theory of mine by him.

The theory runs something like this. . .

Mankind’s greatest feats of creativity have always come near water.

  • Egypt had the Nile and the Mediterranean
  • Babylon had the Tigris and Euphrates
  • Greece had the Mediterranean
  • Northern Europe gave birth to the Gothic Age, by the English Channel and the North Sea
  • London then led the way with the Channel, North Sea, etc.
  • The Dutch had a brief but brilliant golden age, again right on the water
  • In America the great cultural centers have always been Boston, New York, L.A., etc.

Even when sometimes you think of an exception, the theory still holds.  Chicago is in the middle of the U.S., but has the Great Lakes.  Twain invented American Literature in the Mid-West. . . but his formative years were spent on the Mississippi.

And so on, and so on.

Assyria was in the Ancient Near East, but not creative in any way that contributed to humanity. They did not live near any great body of water.  The Greek city-state of Sparta was one of the few far away from the Mediterranean, and their culture stagnated.  Rome obviously had lots of power, but came to the Mediterranean late in their game and thus borrowed a great deal from everyone. Their creative cultural contributions pale in comparison to Greece, but also Egypt and probably Babylon as well.

Some might suggest that the key is majestic expanse, not just water.  But I disagree.  The Great Plains have majestic expanse in spades and have not led the way in creative impulse.  The Himalayas have the tallest mountains on Earth but have not produced great thinkers, architects, etc.  Sparta was surrounded by mountains on all sides and may have been one of the more culturally stagnant of all civilizations.  Of course mountains and plains have a beauty all their own and can inspire, but they do not appear to have the universal impact of water.  I still think there must be something to water itself.

A purely rational or mechanical view of this would probably put the emphasis on the fact that living near water would inevitably result in overseas trade, which would blend cultures and ideas to a degree that would naturally lead to creativity.

But I think that this puts the cart before the horse.  For a civilization to think of something beyond survival and necessity, it has to think outside of itself, and for that it needs inspired.  It is this sense of inspiration that opens them up to travel, other cultures, and other things.  In other words, substantial bodies of water subconsciously unlocks our creativity and then civilizations take advantage of the opportunities before them.

“What do you think?” I asked Dr. Kreeft.

“I agree.”

There followed a pregnant pause but all I could think was, “He agreed!  Yee-ha!”

He continued (I paraphrase his words), “There is something about water that ties us to creation itself.  It is where we came from.”  And with that, he politely excused himself.

Part of me wanted him to say more, but upon reflection he had in fact said it all.  I doubt very much that by the “where we came from” comment he meant anything in a purely Darwinian sense.  Genesis 1 talks of creation being drawn up through water.  Our new creation involves the waters of baptism.  1 John 5 talks mysteriously of the three-fold agreement of the Spirit, water and blood.  I know of a physics teacher who begins the year by looking at ancient views of creation and the cosmos, and mentions Thales’ idea that all matter comes from water.  The students tend to scoff until they re-read Genesis 1.  There is the Tradition of the Church which portrays Mary hearing the Annunciation, with the attendant re-creation of all things through the Incarnation, sitting by a well.  The creation of the “new Adam” would obviously take us back to Genesis 1, just as St. John does in the opening of his gospel.

In the Odyssey (13.102-112) Homer refers to a cave sacred to nymphs which contains “ever flowing springs of water.”  Also in the cave are “jars made of stone,” along with “looms, likewise of stone, in which the nymphs weave sea-purple garments.”  The Neo-Platonic philosopher Porphyry writes,

The “garments of sea-purple” are obviously the flesh, which is woven together from blood; the sea-purple dye is derived from blood, and the wool that it colors is also the vital fluids of animals.  All flesh is thus fashioned from blood through blood . . .

To this day Jimi Hendrix stands firmly entrenched as the greatest electric guitarist of all time.  He did things with the guitar that still no one else can equal.  I don’t think it coincidental that some of his most intriguing songs (“Rainy Day, Dream Away,” “Castles Made of Sand,” “May This be Love,” “1983 . . .A Merman I Should Be”) involve water.  Perhaps in some way he understood the power and meaning of water as Peter Kreeft did that day at lunch, a serendipitous moment for me if there ever was one.

11th Grade: World War I: Tension between Diplomacy and Military Action

Greetings,

This was a short week just getting back into the swing of things from what I hope was a restful and blessed break. This week we examined four crisis that led to the outbreak of war in 1914.  In American World War II has always gotten more attention, but in Europe “the War” is still World War I, and I think with good reason.  World War II can be seen as a continuation of the first World War, and it was the first World War which ushered ended one world and brought forth another.
The outbreak of such a devastating conflict gives us a couple key points of focus:
  • Tension between Diplomacy and the Military — Diplomats, by their nature and job description, like to keep their options open and maintain the greatest possible flexibility.  This allows for the greatest amount of possible outcomes, and in their view, a greater chance for peace.
  • The military of course, needs to be fully prepared to face the worse case scenario, which is war.  It is wrong to view the military as always wanting war.  But, it is not unusual for them to argue that, in the event of war, we must be ready.  So often, political leaders will begin military preparedness in the midst of negotiations.  This rush to prepare, to call up troops, amass weapons, etc. inevitably narrows the options of the diplomats negotiating for peace.  If they are not careful, events will take on a life all their own.  In times of crisis, the goals of the diplomat and the general can easily veer in separate directions.
  • One of the problems in the days leading up to World War I was that in the minds of many ‘Mobilization means war.’  Once the Russian military began it’s mobilization, for example, Germany felt it must mobilize, and other countries followed suit on down the line.  It could be argued that no one really wanted war (this is debatable), but how could war be avoided if every nation acted as if war was imminent?
  • The Problem of Interpretation — As is often said by BIblical scholars, no one disagrees on what the Bible says (except in rare cases), they disagree on what it means.  It boils down to interpretation.  In the same way, does a strong military buildup send the message that 1) We are getting ready to fight you and want to be strong enough to win, or 2) We are a peaceful nation that wants a large military to deter any future attack.  If we were weak, we would be vulnerable, and invite war.  Thus, it is in the interest of peace that we build up our military.

The buildup of the German navy, for example, brings these issues into sharper focus.  For the entirety of the 19th century, England put nearly all of its security eggs in their naval basket.  They maintained one of the smallest infantries in Europe.  When Germany united in 1871 they immediately had the largest and best infantry in Europe.   This in itself posed no threat to England.  But in the 1890’s Germany begins a significant naval buildup, and one can have two basic perspectives.

  • Germany is a nation like any other, and with a powerful industrialized economy will come the desire to have a powerful navy.  This is only natural.  Secondly, France and Russia have an alliance against them, and to prevent blockade and encirclement in the event of war, it is only fair, just, and reasonable that they have a well-equipped modern navy.  Germany’s navy is rooted in self-defense, not aggression.
  • By building a navy, Germany did the one thing guaranteed to provoke England and turn them against themselves.  Their naval buildup was not necessary, so it cannot be termed self-defense.  England is their biggest trading partner and so any worries they have concerning their trade England can cover.  The only reason for Germany to build a navy, therefore, must be that they want to change the status quo, which they can only do through aggressive action.  The German navy means that Germany poses a distinct threat.

Which is it?

Blessings,
Dave