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.


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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

8th Grade: Water and Mountains in Greece

Greetings,

This week we began Greek civilization.

We began where we began where we began our look at Egyptian civilization, with geography.

Greek geography has three dominant features I wanted the students to notice: water, mountains, and climate (below is rough topography of the region)

MapTopoGreece

I believe water had a few key impacts on the Greeks:

1. Psychological — it is nearly universal human reaction to be drawn out by large bodies of water.   At least I tend to think it is.  Most of us have probably vacationed at the beach before.  Have most of you, like me, stood looking at the horizon of the sea and thought, “One day I shall go forth and seek out boldly new lands and new places”?

Alright, maybe not for everybody.

But why does waterfront property sell at such a high price?  Water may not call us all to adventure, but it does seem to impact our psyche in some way.

2. Water also serves as a means to communicate and interact with others.  So those that live near water tend to explore and trade, and this in turn creates vibrant economies and cultures.  England, the Netherlands, and Venice might be examples of this.

In the end, we can see why great cultural explosions often come from places near water if we combine the possible psychological and obvious practical effects (Greece, Renaissance Italy, the Dutch, England)  Of course like most things, this has its limits.  Witness, for example, classical music from Bach though Strauss, Russian music and literature, etc. in essentially land-locked places.  Still — it seems to me that there may be a connection between water and a civilization’s creativity.  I expand on these possibilities here for those interested.

Mountains and Soil

1. Greece had farmers, but in general the soil was rockier and poorer than in the Fertile Crescent.  This in turn, of course, might only serve to push them outwards all the more.

2. The mountains divided them geographically, which in turn divided them politically.  These mostly independent communities may have helped originate, or at least broaden, the concept of self-government.  All of the civilizations we have studied so far have chosen the ‘big’ route to success, partly through choice and partly through circumstance.  In contrast, the Greek philosopher Aristotle believed the ideal political community should have more than 5000 citizens.

Climate

If most people could pick their ideal climate it would probably be between 50-80 degrees, light breeze, low humidity.  This would be a general description of a Mediterranean climate, and one impact this had on the Greeks was that they lived life outdoors.  So — as they interacted with other areas throughout Greece and the Mediterranean, they also interacted a lot with each other, and this too might have helped contribute to the creativity of ancient Greek civilization.

After looking at geography we went to another key foundation of ancient Greece and looked at their concept of ‘Arete,’ which I think can be best translated as ‘excellence.’  ‘Excellence’ is an amoral concept.  The Greeks admired people who were ‘excellent’ people.  Odysseus was excellent at cleverness and like a cat, always landing on his feet.  Achilles is admired because no one can best him in battle.  But neither would be considered moral people in any Christian sense.  Arete tells you to continually pursue excellence, to never rest on one’s laurels.  One of the problems with arete, however, is that it does not tell you when to stop, something that we will see working itself out in Greek civilization.

We have discussed before that what a civilization worships is what it follows after at all costs, and this may not be found ultimately in the gods themselves.  One question I posed to the students was, which came first, the Greek gods, or Greek arete?  Greek gods have power and beauty, but not morality.  In Greek sculpture their is not much difference between how gods and men are depicted.  This one is of Poseidon:

Posiedon

And another famous one of the discus thrower (stance obviously different, but the ‘body’ is the same:

I should say that the students were right to point out some minor differences, as the gods usually tend to look more imposing or regal, but in general the gods were just somewhat better versions of mankind.

We can contrast this with the Egyptian gods.

Egyptian Gods

The difference is more than mere artistic technique.  When they wanted, the Egyptians could be quite expressive, as this tomb painting with birds shows.

Often times the Greeks depicted the gods in motion, perhaps reflecting the fluid nature of their civilization.  The Egyptians, in contrast, often showed their deities in a static posed, often with arms crossed, reflecting the more stable, tradition oriented nature of the Egyptians.

Next week we will look at the Trojan War and the possible historical roots of the conflict.

Thanks again,

Dave

Bored Borders

I know very little about the great civilizations of Meso-America, so I was intrigued to at least skim through Tales of the Plumed Serpent: Aztec, Inca, and Mayan Myths.   I have long thought that the myths and folkore of a civilization form one of the best entry points for the novice.  Each of these cultures had remarkable achievements in nearly all marks of what we generally call “civilization.” Their architecture and engineering alone can rival that of Egypt and Rome.

Of course, studying these cultures comes with the big elephant in the room of human sacrifice.  We associate this primarily with the Aztecs, and they may have practiced this on a larger scale than other civilizations in the region.  But the Incas and Mayas both offered human victims on their altars. Some of their myths, as we might expect, help lay the foundation for such terrors.

I understand that any editor should have a light touch in such a collection.  One wants to let the stories speak for themselves. And yet, the extreme desire to stay “neutral” in itself reflects a certain worldview.  On page 87 the editor includes a section on human sacrifice, and writes,

Further to the south, the Incas practiced human sacrifice too.  One notable and particularly poignant custom was the rite of “capacocha,” in which the victims were usually children.  After going to Cuzco to be blessed by the Inca priests, the “capacochas” returned home in procession along straight routes called “ceques.”  Here they were either buried alive in subterranean tombs or killed with clubs and their bodies left on mountaintops.

The word “poignant” seems dramatically inappropriate for such a description.

True, the Spanish found much to admire about the religious zeal of the Aztecs, for example.  Perhaps some of the victims volunteered out of a genuine sense of zeal. But surely we should not assume that children “volunteered.” Surely we have not so lost our way that we cannot call children being buried alive “horrifying,” or at the very least, “tragic.”  

I can’t help but surmise that if the Greeks or Romans practiced this, different words would have been chosen to describe them. For Meso-American cultures suffered under European colonialism, and this seems to mean that, having been granted victim status, they can do no historical wrong.* But the situation has much more complexity than this.

NOVA’s documentary about the deciphering of the Mayan language called Cracking the Mayan Code has many things to recommend it. But it begins with the obligatory castigation of Spanish priests destroying the manuscripts of the Mayans, who clearly did so out of “ignorance” of the Mayans and contempt for their culture. At no point are we encouraged to consider whether or not Mayan culture should remain entirely entact. One can find things to admire about the ante-bellum South, for example, but slavery had to go, and removing slavery might mean altering other aspects of ante-bellum culture. However messy this might get, I would be surprised if many in academia object to the damage done to southern culture in the effort to destroy slavery.

The Spanish priests perhaps prescribed a stern remedy for the Mayans by destroying their manuscripts, but we should at least consider:

  • Did the priests believe that the foundations of human sacrifice needed eradicated?
  • Did the manuscripts provide a religious foundation for human sacrifice?
  • Should the missionaries attempt to end human sacrifice? If destroying the manuscripts helped accomplish this, should we see this as worth the cost of the loss of knowledge about Mayan language and history?
  • Did the priests see themselves as part of the “lineage” of the prophet Elijah, who proposed a contest with the prophets of Baal (whose worship also occasionally involved human sacrifice), or St. Boniface, who chopped down the oak of Thor? If so, was this connection justified?

We must at least entertain these questions, but on many campuses this would not be easy to do.

Acquiring such nimble minds would be entirely necessary for reading Henry of Livonia’s chronicle of Baltic Crusades in the 13th century. A brief synopsis of his account is almost impossible. Some converted under early missionary work, and the church sent other clergy to help establish churches in the area. Some fought against the church by attacking and murdering clergy and other Christians, others reneged on their conversions, making things even messier and more confusing. And so it went. The introduction to his text reveals that in the 19th century, German scholars revered Bishop Berthold for his tenacious will in establishing the church in the area. The editors rightly raise some eyebrows at this, for no one who reads the text would admire the bishop for his love, understanding, and perspicacious wisdom, whatever other qualities he possessed. And of course we know what the early 20th century had in store for Germany. But as one might imagine, today the editors see only the destruction of culture and cruelty, wildly swinging the pendulum of analysis. Even a cursory reading of Henry shows his appreciation for local cultures, but also the tension that comes when we encounter destructive pagan cultural practices. We should cultivate the boundaries of our minds so that we can make judgments without rushing to stark ideological conclusions that have no sympathy for one side or the other. When the introduction to Henry of Livonia reveals is that this is not a strictly modern problem, and that may be of some comfort.

As the center of our own culture erodes the our physical and mental boundaries inevitably become more porous. Douglas Murray tackles this in The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam. Murray writes with conviction but this is not a screed. He at least appreciates the tension between maintaining a cohesive identity as a culture and helping those in desperate situations. If we cannot recognize this tension debating the issues will go nowhere.

The problem Europe experiences over these issues, however, runs deeper than the plight of the desperate. First of all, many of those who migrate appear not to be desperate refugees but young Moslem men looking for greater economic opportunity. That, of course, does not make them bad people by any definition, but it should alter the debate somewhat. Murray believes that European leadership has distanced itself from their people. Their willingness to allow more migrants significantly outdistances the desires of most voters. But to the extent that this is true, the problem can easily get fixed in subsequent elections.

The immigration issue exposes deeper rifts in beliefs about democratic practice. Those on the right and left both believe in democracy. Conservatives tend to see democracy as somewhat fragile. Democracy can work only with healthy institutions and an instinctive level of trust between people that comes from shared values and a shared culture. If your candidate loses the election, you can shrug your shoulders and try next time, knowing that, whatever your differences on tax policy or budget allocations, you know that nothing substantive about your life will change. The moment you stop believing this about other candidates from other political parties, fear may drive you to do more than simply shrug your shoulders

Many liberals these days** (so it seems to me–I am a conservative, so forgive and feel free to correct any misrepresentation), believe that democracy is primarily a powerful idea, not a complex practice or culture. Ideas can transfer easily, thoughts have no borders. So, democracy requires little more than belief in “freedom” or “equality,” and participation–“make sure you get out and vote”–to work successfully.

Conservatives might balk at the prospects of bringing in millions of mostly young men who neither share your religion, your cultural values, your shared democratic practice, and no history or context for understanding the issues. If recent immigration policies tell us much, liberals tend to believe that this poses no fundamental problem to continuing our democratic practice.

For Murray, the deeper problems involve a profound spiritual malaise, a great crisis of confidence Europeans feel about their own institutions and culture.

One can argue that civilizations should function much as individual people function, and have the capacity to exercise humility and repentance, though this is dicey and comes with many complications. But granting this and leaving the question aside, one could argue that western civilization has much to repent of, such as imperialism, slavery, etc. Of course western civilization is hardly alone in committing such sins, but we can only repent of our sins, and not those of others. But as St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians, and St. Peter and Judas demonstrate, there is a godly sorrow that leads to life, and a sorrow that leads to death.

Much of Murray’s book indicates that large swaths of the political class of Europe may wish for something akin to an atoning annhiliation of their culture–akin to Van Gogh cutting off his ear. Recently an op-ed piece from Todd May in no less than the New York Times argued that for the good of the Earth, humanity as a whole should make itself extinct. But most on the far-left only desire this of western culture. Consider a very small smattering of examples:

  • Sweden’s PM Frederic Steinfeld stating that, “only barbarism is genuinely Swedish.”
  • The extreme reluctance of law enforcement agencies to publish the ethno-national information of the accused when they come from Moslem areas, lest they (so I suppose) seem racist.
  • In the aftermath of the coordinated sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany on New Years Eve 2015, the response of some was to give instructions to women on how they should behave around young migrant men. What makes this troubling to me is the assertion that Germans should adjust to the behviors and culture of their guests, and not vice-versa (no one would, or should, make the equal assertion that Germans abroad should expect their hosts to conform to German cultural norms).
  • The failure of states to aggressively try and curb the rise of anti-semitism in areas of high Moslem concentrations.

All of his examples illustrate Murray’s main theme of internal cultural immolation,^ a drastic diagnosis, but one that seems apt.

The problem of borders often raises its head often in history. On the one hand borders strike us as entirely artificial. Nothing in the nature of the universe would have it that America occupy a certain amount of space with a certain amount of prosperity. If borders be artificial, no good reason exists to prevent anyone from moving anywhere.

But, on the other hand, borders must exist, for without them we would have no way to order our lives politically or economically. Borders lack the legitimacy of natural law they have a relationship to natural law. I think national boundaries are akin to our relationship with food. There is nothing that says we must have either chicken, pizza, or salad, but we must eat some kind of food to survive. Some form of national and cultural boundaries, then, seems necessary to our existence.

The borders in our mind are more crucial. Maintaining distinctions in creation is one of the hallmarks of Genesis 1. Light is not darkness, morning is not evening, trees are not fish, and men are not women. As we review Incan mythology, we have to say that burying children alive is worse than being merely “poignant.” We must not assume that a pagan culture is by definition “oppressed” when they come into contact with the Christian west. We have to have conversations about emotionally difficult subjects like immigration. If the viral malaise that stymies this bores its way into other borders of our mind, eroding the entirety of our mental structure, so our cultural structures. will follow suit. And because chaos has no differentiation, the sameness of all things can get boring–as well as dangerous.

Dave

*Without excusing the subsequent actions of the Spanish and Portuguese in the least–actions that many contemporary Europeans themselves criticized–one must remember, for example, that Cortez had a great deal of help in bringing down the Aztecs. Many other local tribes rallied around him, and perhaps they did so at least in part because they wanted to protect themselves from the Aztecs sacrificing them on their altars.

**Some could also lump the neo-conservatives of the early 2000’s into this group, so perhaps this is not exclusively a liberal belief.^I will go on record as saying that I agree with Murray that Europe is a undergoing a kind of cultural suicide, but I don’t see this necessarily as a recent phenomena of the last 15-20 years. In other words, it’s not primarily the fault of too much immigration. Perhaps this is merely a symptom. Rather, Europe began this process many decades or perhaps centuries ago. Europe as we know it had its foundations with the Church, and has painstakingly eroded that foundation. Without this, the edifice built upon this now non-existent foundation will have to collapse.



The Family and Civilization

Recently in Government class we briefly discussed Francis Fukuyama’s famous/infamous The End of History and the Last Man, a book often cited but perhaps much less read these days.

I have not read it myself.

The occasion for this discussion came from a student question.  Might monarchy return to western civilization? Even 30 years ago such a question would be absurd.  But, Plato, Machiavelli, and other thinkers tacitly assume a cycle of governments that repeat themselves over time.  Fukuyama, as best as I understand, challenges this assumption by stating that democracy has proven itself and will now always remain in the conversation.  It will always be “in play” in the world and some type of democracy would become the dominant form of government from here on out.  The cycle of “History” has ended.  Now all that we have left are “events.”

When we discussed this question in class I remained skeptical about monarchy’s return.  But a colleague pointed out that of course it could happen.  The cycle of monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, monarchy (in all but name) played out in Rome.  Rome began as a monarchy, but expanded as a Republic.  If the Republic stood against anything, it was monarchy.  Yet, while monarchs did not return to Rome, Emperors made an appearance for nearly 500 years, a revision to monarchy in all but name.  Furthermore, after Rome’s fall monarchies appeared even in areas formerly controlled by Rome.

Perhaps, then, monarchies could return even to the West, given several generations.  We tend to believe that history progresses or declines, more or less in a continuous line.  Maybe we should give more credence to a more cyclically influenced theory of events.

I thought of this conversation reading Carle Zimmerman’s Family and Civilization.  He wrote just after W.W. II and foresaw our modern family crisis.  But because he roots his observations in historical observation over many centuries, the book has a timeless quality.  Fundamentally, Zimmerman argues that we should abandon linear evolutionary concepts of the family, not just because he may not agree with evolutionary scientific theory, but primarily because the history of western civilization shows a circle rather than a straight line.

Zimmerman identifies three different basic family models throughout history:

  • The ‘Trustee Family’ resembles something akin to our idea of Scottish clans. Trustee families are so called because each family member acts as a mere caretaker of the bloodline, property, customs, and traditions of the extended family.  Powerful families are a law unto themselves–a kind of miniature state–and stand in active solidarity with other family members in terms of rewards and punishments.
  • The “Domestic Family” has more of a nuclear composition and mentality.  The father heads the family, but they can own property outright.  The domestic family shares corporate blame for minor offenses, but the trend leans toward individual responsibility.  Neither the clan nor the state makes a domestic family or governs it, but the Church (or other religious affiliation).
  • The “Atomistic Family” describes our own age.  In the absence of the state, the Trustee Family assumes significant control over “horizontal” relationships.  The Domestic Family has a sacramental sacredness ordered primarily though religion.  The Atomistic Family is based on the idea of functionality and convenience.  It’s horizontal nature extends only to individual members.  It has no horizontal sacred dimension.  Personal choice determines the shape of individual families.

Few disagree with Zimmerman’s descriptions, but most modern sociologists assume an evolutionary line of change that will eventually dissolve the family as we know it.  Zimmerman shows that each type existed before in Greece and Rome, and that after Rome’s fall, the cycle began again.  He traces all three models this way:

Trustee Family Era’s

  • Homeric Greece–ca. 800 B.C.
  • Early Roman tribal era–12 Tables of Law (ca. 450 B.C.)
  • The post-Roman barbarian Age (ca. 500 A.D.-12th Century)

Domestic Family Era’s

  • 8th-5th century Greece, from Hesiod-Pericles
  • 12 Tables of Roman Law–Dissolution of the Republic
  • 13th Century-18th Century (Aquinas-Enlightenment)

Atomistic Era’s

  • Sophists-End of classical Greece ca. 150 B.C.
  • Augustus-Barbarian Age of Europe
  • Enlightenment Rationalism-Present Day

The main part of the book concerns itself with showing the family transitions from the fall of Rome until today.

The church stood against much of accepted family mores in Rome’s decline.  From an early point the Church declared marriage a sacrament, and worked against the atomistic view of marriage and family in late Rome.  This makes sense.  After Rome’s fall, we they had two polar opposite views of the family to contend with, as the atomistic model lingered alongside of the trustee model brought by barbarian tribes.

The church found itself stuck between a rock and a hard place.  They abhorred the individualism of the atomistic Roman family, but the trustee model led to uncontrolled violence and lack of individual moral responsibility.  Caught between these two, the Church leaned towards working with the trustee model.  Part of this may have had to do with the fact that the collapse of the Roman state made the trustee model almost inevitable.  It also shows, I think, that the values of the early Church do not match our own.  Needing to choose, they preferred unchecked violence to rampant individualism.*

However, the Church quickly worked to transform ideas of the family in small but concrete ways.  They allowed for marriages even in the absence of familial consent.  They insisted that, as marriage was a sacrament, the Church and not the family made a marriage.  Under most barbarian trusteeships, the groom had to provide a financial gift to his father-in-law, as he “took” someone from his family.  The Church transformed this practice into the groom giving a gift of property/cash to his wife.  The practice of writing wills also allowed for a widow to inherit property independent of her husband’s family.

All of these things helped bring about the Domestic Family, though the slow and steady rise of the state also aided in this as well.

Zimmerman sees the Domestic model as the ideal.  Marriage has a sacramental purpose and reality, but the family is not absolute, as many Scriptures attest.  Because the Church creates a new family, the family has a degree of independence from the state.  Civilizations were healthier with these kinds of families.  Greece experienced its explosion of cultural and political growth largely under the Domestic Family.  In Rome the Republic never had healthier days than during the prevalence of the Domestic Family.  In Europe we see the 12th century golden age that experienced innovations in architecture, philosophy, music, etc. etc.

Several things happened over two centuries that eroded the domestic family.

  • Erasmus (Zimmerman calls him a “sophistic playboy” and other Renaissance humanists began to enamored with classical culture and its attendant individualism.
  • Building on this, the Reformation 1) Removed marriage as a sacrament, giving the Church less power over marriage and giving more to the state, and 2) Marriage had a higher place than celibacy, which lessened marriage’s spiritually symbolic purpose and paved the way for the “contract view of marriage.**
  • Social contract theory put the emphasis of marriage on fulfilling mutual needs of each “party,” and opened the door to different kinds of marriages–all legitimate in theory provided only that both parties freely consented.

Many in the west today see the rise of the atomistic model concomitant with the rise of political and social freedom.  This view has some merit.  The Reformation and Enlightenment democracies broke down nearly all traditions, which led to a focus on the individual.  The individual rights we enjoy likely would not have come without a breakdown in the “Domestic Family.”

But Zimmerman has an apt word of caution–society cannot exist without some method of organization and accountability.  The family has long served as the repository for moral training, education, preparation for life, and so on.  If the family can no longer perform these functions, the state will have to step in, making the state itself our de-facto family.  This happened in Rome.  When social order decayed, the state had to take up the mantle, and they proved in their laws and actions much more stern than the typical pater-familias.  The history of the west, at least, shows us no more than three mechanisms of control: the clan, religion, and the state.  We must choose.  But the state, due to the variable nature of law, and with no particular method or goal, has shown itself the most unpredictable of the three.

We should not assume that the family has disappeared.  It may have gone underground for now but remains the key element of society.  It will return.^  Zimmermann is not a historical determinist or a pessimist.  In his reflections on the history of the family Zimmermann believes that had a few things happened here and there at the top of each society, the history of the family could have gone much differently and better.  He believes that societal elites have been largely responsible for inculcating anti-family policies into society.  If they can be converted we might turn the tide.

I wish it would be so simple.  Today it seems that much of the flow of modern life in its labor, technology, habits, etc. exert great pressure on the family.  Our recent election suggests that our cultural elites have less influence than ever before.  Then again, I believe in the witness of history, and believe that no one period of time is so starkly different from another.  This era then, might have more in common with Imperial Rome than otherwise.  That might sound like bad news, but from the perspective of the family, it isn’t.  It would mean that turning the heads of a few elites could dramatically improve our situation.  This would be vastly easier than a total societal breakdown that occurred during the last major family crisis.

Dave

*We see this in other areas as well.  The medievals viewed Saturn (which makes melancholy isolationists) as the Infortuna Major, while Mars, (which brought war–but war at least brings some groups together) as the Infortuna Minor.

**In an interesting aside, Zimmerman points out how the influence of the primacy of the text over tradition in the Reformation helped aid this transition.  Nothing in the history of the Church supported this shift to de-sacralize marriage, but a) Reformers had a hard time finding a text in the NT saying exactly that marriage was a sacrament (although Ephesians 5 certainly fits–what text is supposed to say exactly that anything is a sacrament?  The undue influence of the bare text quickly gave Protestant denominations doctrinal confusion with the Trinity, the Incarnation, and other areas–and b) They found a couple of OT texts that they used to support this lessened view of marriage.

However, Zimmerman also argues that most of the Reformers were strongly traditional pro-family in many other ways.  It was not so much the Protestant preacher in the pulpit that eroded the family, but instead the humanist scholars who influenced the Reformation.  The influence of the Reformation on the family, then, is mixed.

^Zimmerman sees the rise of divorce, homosexuality, youth crime, etc. as the symptom of family breakdown, not its cause.

Politics Make Strange Cities

I am republishing this based on a brief, but interesting article I read about Cairo, with info and links inserted below . . .

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The ancient Persian Empire usually doesn’t get the credit it deserves.  I reflected on this as my son read the graphic novel 300.   I give the book credit for its entertainment value and reasonable historical accuracy.  But at one point the story declares that in fighting Persia, the Spartans fought to preserve freedom and the light of truth and reason.  This strikes me as an almost dangerous absurdity, considering that the Spartans enslaved a native population and practiced infanticide.  The Persians built their extensive empire largely on the back of tolerance (note the praise for Cyrus the Great in Isaiah), pioneered some legal improvements, and often paid even their lowliest workers.  One can root for the Greeks against the Persians, as I do, but not quite for the reasons given in 300.

The Persians also are interesting case study in the building of cities.  As a people they originated in the mountainous Iranian plateau, but as their empire spread, Persian natives found themselves far afield from their native climate.  How could they hold their rapidly expanding empire together?  I already mentioned the legal and philosophical approach, but they matched this by having three distinct capital cities scattered in different parts of their empire.

Only Ecbatana, their summer capital, had any proximity to their place of origin.  It made sense to make it their summer capital as it lay further north.  But they gave Susa prominence in the South by making it the final/first stop on their royal road, and they willingly went further south still to Persepolis for symbolic purposes.  Having three different capitals demonstrated the broad-minded, inclusive approach of the Persians.

The very flexibility that allowed them to grow so quickly, however, proved a double-edged sword.  Being Persian came to mean nothing more than having a better economy — in other words — very little about Persia touched the soul.  When Alexander invaded between 333-323 B.C., many willingly and easily switched allegiances to him.

I admire Persia’s feat of flexibility.  No capital city today could “move” to a new location every few months.  We have far too much bureaucracy to achieve that.  Also, they “walked the walk” as well as talked.  They said they were inclusive, and they demonstrated this “on the ground.”  But Persia’s story begs the question of whether or not one can invent history on the fly, whether one can “create out of nothing” a culture and a way of life.  I touched on my skepticism about invented cities in this post a few months ago, and the reasons for the failures of St. Petersburg to lead Russia are quite similar to Persia’s ultimate demise.

Cairo is about to attempt an experiment not unlike Persia.  With their population growth outpacing their population, they plan to build a massive “New Cairo” directly adjacent to the old city to serve as Egypt’s capital.

Ordinarily I might think this a fool’s errand, but Egypt has gone through several distinct historical phases and may not quite have a distinct identity in the modern era.  Maybe, just maybe, this could work (read more here).

America has some similarities to Persia, especially lately with our emphasis on tolerance.  Again, there are many worse things to be known for, and besides, I think being “American” involves more of an inner identity than Persia ever had.  But, we, like Persia, invented our capital city, and we might inquire how that has worked out.

Like Persia, we picked the location of our capital for purely political reasons.  Tradition and geographical position probably pointed to Philadelphia as the best choice.  But, despite a lack of clarity on exactly how we ended up making the decision, it appears that we decided on Virginia both to help them ratify the Constitution and perhaps to honor Washington, Madison, Jefferson, etc.  To build the buildings we had to clear a swamp and import people into it the city from outside.  The transience of the D.C. area has to do with military and government turnover, but has its roots in the fact that most everyone in the region originally got imported. Their homes lay elsewhere.

Thus, D.C. never had a history of its own. It had to be invented, and history has to “happen”–it can’t be invented.  So while New Orleans has Bourbon Street, Memphis has Beale Street, New York has Harlem, D.C. has K Street, where lobbyists and bureaucrats cut a rug.  Not exactly the stuff of legend.

As Toynbee pointed out in Cities on the Move, no city worthy of the name can sustain itself.  It has to import the necessities of life, but evens out the balance sheet in other ways.  All capital cities, for example, export law and national directives.  But one also hopes that they might export some sense of cultural identity, some sense of “soul” for the nation (with the caveat that it need not dominate, but only add flavor).  D.C. will never be able to do this, and we should not expect it.   The town got created out of nothing purely for the function of exporting administration, and a leopard can’t change its spots.

It is a shame that all D.C. can export is bureaucracy, but our invention of the capital does testify to our inherent flexibility as a nation.  Our lack of attachment to History itself has given us the ability to adapt quickly to challenges and allowed individuals in every generation to make of themselves what they will.  The question for the future remains whether or not the lack of cohesive cultural and historical identity will ultimately hurt us as it hurt the Persian Empire 2500 years ago.