Healing Hierarchies

A good education should expose people to “otherness,” but our current discourse gives far too narrow a definition of “otherness.” We tend to focus on ethnicity or gender differences, and not necessarily other ways of perceiving the world. I believe the best form of “otherness” comes through exposure to other worldviews, other ways of thinking, and this can come in the most unlikely of places.

Many generally assume that we share much in common with medieval Europeans, and perhaps this accounts for our striking reaction to find profound differences, and we judge them quite harshly when they do not match our expectations. But if we started from a different mindset we would see them more clearly as fundamentally different from us, and this would help us actually learn more from them.

No scholarly consensus exists that I am aware of on the identity of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, except that he was not the Dionysius encountered by St. Paul in Athens. Perhaps “St. Dionysius” wrote in the tradition developed by this same Dionysius. Whoever he was, his writings had enormous influence over the medieval world, as C.S. Lewis points out in his great work The Discarded Image, and perhaps none had the influence of his On the Celestial Hierarchy. In one section he writes,

In my opinion a hierarchy is a sacred order, a state of understanding, and an activity approximating, as closely as possible to the divine . . .  The goal of hierarchy, then, is to enable beings to be as like unto God as possible and to be at one with Him. Hierarchy causes its members to be images of God in all respects, to be clear and spotless mirrors  of reflecting the glow of primordial light and indeed of God Himself. It ensures that when its members have received this full and divine splendor they can then pass on this light generously and in accordance with God’s will to those members further down the scale.

We might expect St. Dionysius to praise hierarchy as a form of divine order on earth, and indeed he does just this. What might surprise us, however, is how he uses the term “generous” in regards to hierarchy, and how communally oriented his hierarchical vision is.

Author Andrew Louth comments on this passage that,

What St. Denys means, is that hierarchy is a radiant display that reaches out from God throughout the whole created order and draws it back into union with Him.  Whereas hierarchies to modern ears evoke separation, exclusion, [and perhaps exploitation], for St. Denys it connotes inclusion and union.

How far back in time should our concept of “western civilization” go? Lots of possible answers exist, but most would probably include the Middle Ages as part of western civilization. Yet, St. Dionysius had a significant impact on the life and culture of the medievals, and in this passage he entirely runs against the grain of one of major assumptions today regarding hierarchies. For St. Dionysius, it seems that hierarchies include rather than exclude because it ensures that everyone has a place, and that everyone has responsibility for someone else. The coherence of the world inhabited by St. Dionysius also allowed for everyone to know their place and, in theory, navigate it successfully.

St. Dionysius’ passage calls to mind an observation by Tocqueville, who warned at the potential downsides of democratic individualism. In a a guest post on the U.S. Intellectual History blog Jordan Heykoop commented that,

Americans are lonely. “Americanization”–understood by European intellectuals and political leaders in the twentieth century as an export of American products and values, an investment strategy to control the economies of other countries, an attempt to educate foreigners in the superiority of American institutions, or a process of modernization, all in the name of the free market–was in some sense an export of glorified loneliness.

A democratic and capitalist spirit cultivated this loneliness in America. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that aristocracy made “of all citizens a long chain that went up from the peasant to the king. Democracy, on the other hand, “breaks the chain and sets each link apart” as it constantly draws each individual “back towards himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly to the solitude of his own heart.” People in a democratic era are no longer bound through loyalty and obligation, values which are far-reaching and stable, but through common interest, which is malleable and subjective. Individuals gather to negotiate and calculate their interests, then disband. This sense of equality breaks social and communal links and leaves the individual looking inward for identity, place, and meaning.[

For Max Weber, a Protestant society, free from the structure and liturgy of the Catholic [or Orthodox] Church, cultivated a deep inner loneliness in which individuals worked desperately to discern signs of God’s favor. This discipline and sense of calling in a worldly vocation created the foundation for a capitalist spirit–the conditions under which a free market economy could thrive. America is the paragon of these processes. Late capitalism had become a “monstrous cosmos,” a world where the values of hard work and the sense of inner loneliness remained entrenched, but was completely unhinged from any religious foundation or teleological connection.[

Even supposing that you agree with Haykoop, we cannot snap our fingers, import the distant past, and make everyone feel comfortable again.* We are a democracy and cannot invent or import a hierarchy wholesale from nothing.

Perhaps the greatest expounder of St. Dionysius’ ideas was St. Maximus the Confessor. The back cover of Andrew Louth’s book on St. Maximus encourages us with the statement that St. Maximus is the theologian for a world in crisis. Indeed, St. Maximus shows us how practical theology can be.

Monistic religions leave no room to breathe, no room for distinctions, and thus create tyrannies. For example, though officially an atheistic state, the “party” represented a monistic tyranny in Soviet Russia. By definition, the “Party” was always correct, and all outside it cannot belong to the body politic. Such outsiders needed dealt with. Polytheistic religions might give more freedom in theory, but lack any point of unity. So these societies tend to succumb to (in Toynbee’s phrase) “the idolization of the parochial community.” Wars of all against all arise, like the Peloponnesian War in Greece at the end of the 5th century B.C.

By the 7th century A.D., the Church had worked out the doctrine of the Trinity (more or less), but had yet to fully develop the doctrine of Christ and the relationship between His deity and humanity. One key issue involved whether or not Christ had one divine will, or two wills in one person, a human and divine will. Maximus asserted that Christ had to have a human will to be fully human. In addition, it is the submission of Christ’s human will to His divine will that makes a pathway for us to become more like Christ and thereby “participate in the divine nature.”

Perhaps St. Maximus is best known for his development of the cosmic nature of redemption, and Christ’s fulfillment of various patterns within redemptive history.As one example of this, we can examine the Christ’s entering into the pattern of the right and left hand, and simultaneously affirming and transforming that pattern.

The idea of a “righteous” right hand and sinister “left-hand” go far back into history–at least the to Egyptians–but other ancient cultures used it as well. Even so-called “rational” cultures like the Greeks used such categories frequently. Indeed, while many today will mock such as ideas as superstitious, unless we want to fully embrace chronological snobbery, we must assume a universal truth to this pattern and category even if we fail to understand it.

Christ used such imagery when speaking of the last judgment in Matthew 25, and icons of this event depict this consistently.

Perhaps the most famous icon of Christ is the “Pantocrater” image, with Christ blessing all with his right hand, and holding the Scriptures (which also represents separation, categorization, and therefore some sense of judgment), with his left.

But we should hold back if we assume that Christ categorizes His creation merely terms of right and left imagery. Two of the greatest saints of the Church are of course Mary His Mother and St. John the Baptist. Mary bears God within her womb, and spent her formative years in the temple in Jersusalem–right at the very center of God’s presence. John the Baptist, on other hand (a phrase that indicates that we too still use something of the right/left imagery) wears odd clothing, eats odd food, and resides in the wilderness outside the city, in the realm of chaos. So, the Church depicts Mary on the right of Christ, and St. John on the left to indicate a hierarchical difference between them

Yet obviously the “left-handedness” of St. John does nothing to diminish his status per se in the kingdom. Christ calls him “the greatest among men.”

We see the same treatment of the two great apostles of the Church, Saints Peter and Paul. St. Paul comes later, he’s younger, and he actively persecuted the church. He comes as one “unnaturally born,” to use his own words. St. Peter was one of the original twelve, the “rock,” a witness to the resurrection, and the preacher at Pentecost. Peter will therefore be shown on the right of Christ, Paul on the left.

Yet we remember too Peter also denied Christ, and Paul rebuked him for embracing the teaching of the Judaizers in the book of Galatians. The right hand has its faults just as the left hand. The hierarchy can be both affirmed and transcended at the same time.

We need a St. Maximus’ today, or at least we need to heed his wisdom. On the right of the political spectrum we have those that affirm the values of order and unity at the “center.” They are wary of the fringe’s of society, and this can make for rigid authoritarianism. The far left exalts the fringe above the center, idealizing the exception rather than the rule.** But if the falcon’s widening gyre leaves no center at all, we will have chaos. Or rather, we will have a hierarchy, but one that will invert basic reality and create a purposeless and powerless structure, with the “oppression olympics” and the race not towards strength, purpose, and so on, but towards impotent victimhood as one example of this.

Christ shows us that submission of the human to the divine does not debase the human, but exalts it. Rather than set the right hand against the left He affirms both without denying the place of either. In fact, for the right and left to work properly, they need each other. His hierarchy includes rather than excludes. This, our only viable political path forward, gives witness to deep theological truths. Of course, St. Maximus suffered for these truths and for this way of life,^ and perhaps we may need to as well.

St. Peter on the right (of Christ that is, imagining Him at the center), St. Paul on the left

*The medieval period had its share of rebellions, violence, etc. I am not trying to glorify the past so much as point out the difference in how they saw their place in the world, and to attempt to put a finger on our current malaise.

**We should ask the question whether or not we have a genuine “right hand” in America. The left is socially liberal but wants more government control over the market. The right tends towards more social conservatism but wants the market to operate without restrictions to maximize efficiency, not seeing how the market easily disrupts traditional communities and economies (for example, when Wal-Mart comes to a small town, say goodbye to Main Street). In the end, libertarians embrace both “left-handed” sides of things.

As Patrick Deneen has commented, we have solid anti-authoritarian safeguards built into our national DNA, but it appears that we lack an antidote for excessive individualism. Of course, both sides have elements of the excessive fringe and the excessive center embedded within them. For the right, the excessive center manifests itself in dangerous forms of nationalism, but their fringe enters with its exaltation of individual rights. The left praises every form of fringe behavior as liberation from group consensus, but their “center” manifestation that all must adhere to proper speech guidelines, for example (note the various numbers of people banned from Twitter, for example, who do not conform to proper speech as defined by the socially powerful).

What we witness now, in fact, is what happens when we lose sight of Christ, the Son of Man, and the Son of God.

^As an old man the theological and political tide turned against St. Maximus, and he had his tongue and right hand cut off. He died without seeing any earthly vindication of his theological vision.

9th Grade: Planetary Influences

Greetings,

Last week when we looked at medieval society we saw that the basic “flow” of their civilization ran towards security and stability over opportunity and change.  This week we looked at the historical context of this choice, and what other areas of belief may have influenced those choices.

Many of us may believe that we have freedom to make of our lives what we will, that we paint upon a blank canvas.  In reality, where we live, when we live, and what happens around us influence us a great deal, sometimes subconsciously.  So too, we must evaluate the choices made by the medievals in light of the context from which they emerged.

In the centuries after the fall of Rome, change and uncertainty formed the dominant theme, as the map below indicates.

Barbarian Invasions

No one can live like this for long.  Wen respite came after the conversion of many of these tribes, it made sense that one would want to create a society where one knew their place for themselves and their children.  We see this love of “knowing one’s place” in their cosmology.  A few different ideas dominated their view of the cosmos.

Heirarchy

In space up and and down is all relative, but we need to find an orientation to make sense of our surroundings.  When we look at the sky moderns today would say we look “across” the universe (like the famous Beatles song) at other stars, planets, etc.  All of the pictures I remember of the Solar System had the planets in a horizontal line, like this one:

For the medievals one looked “up” at the stars from a fixed position on Earth.  Everything you saw stood higher than you, and naturally height conveyed superiority.  The Earth occupied a pride of place, in the sense that other planets revolved around it, but what many overlook is that it also occupied the bottom rung of the ladder, a combination of dignity and humility.

Spheres of Influence

Each planet, or section of the universe, had its own sphere of influence, it’s own “part to play.”  If you play second chair oboe, you keep your eyes off the music of first chair trumpet.  Here is a rough outline of how they saw things:

This concept of “spheres of influence” may have seeped into medieval feudalism, where each noble had their own territory, or “sphere” where they had a large amount of power and discretion.  Thus feudal Europe knew little of the problem of political centralization (though they had other problems).  I should note that the above picture shows Earth much larger than they believed it to be in reality.  Everyone followed Ptolemy’s Almagest which stated that,

The Earth, in relation to the distance of the fixed stars, has no appreciable size and must be treated as a mathematical point.

As my colleague Mr. Rogers pointed out, they represented the Earth thematically in relation to the rest of the cosmos, for here is where the drama of salvation takes place.

Harmony

It is precisely this division and separation that created the overall harmony.  Space for medievals brimmed with energy and life, in contrast to the modern view of a great cold void.  Sound comes from motion, and it seems that they literally believed in the “music of the spheres,” a grand cosmic symphony created by planetary motion.

Everyone knew their place in the cosmos, and knew that place to have significance.

One can exaggerate the importance of these ideas on everyday life.  The path of Saturn would not change the fact that you have pick up your kids at soccer practice.  But deep down, surely our view of a vast, linear, and empty universe impacts us.  Some of us might echo the French philosopher/mathematician Pascal, who wrote that, “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.”

As a brief aside, we note that for the medievals, education involved not just the “trivium” — the grammar, logic, and rhetoric of a subject — but also the “quadrivium,” consisting of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.  To see music grouped with these three will strike us as odd.  But for the medievals the only way to understand math was to understand music, and so too, astronomy could not be properly understood without knowing music.  Music then, served not just to entertain but to teach us about the reality of the universe itself.

Whether they consciously linked their cosmology and their daily life or not, we can see a direct connection between their view of society, though can’t tell if the chicken preceded the egg.  Like all societies they had their own system, their own strengths and weaknesses.  Whatever its faults, in feudal Europe you knew your duties and what was expected of you, as this text from ca. AD 1200 shows. . .

I, Thiebault, count palatine of Troyes, make known to those present and to come that I have given in fee to Jocelyn of Avalon and his heirs the manor Gillencourt, which is of the castle La Ferte sur Aube; and whatever this same Jocelyn shall be able to acquire in the same manor I have granted to him and his heirs in augmentation of that fief I have granted, moreover, to him that no free manor of mine will I retain men who are of this gift.  The same Jocelyn, moreover, on account of this, has become my liege man, saving however, his allegiance to Gerard d’ Arcy, and to the lord duke of Burgundy, and to Peterm count of Auxerre.  Done at Chouadude, by my own witness, in the year of the Incarnation of our Lord 1200 in the month of January.

Yes, it could be complicated (but less so that the software contracts we “agree” to).  Basically the king ruled at the behest of the nobility, but the nobles owed the king military service.  Peasants farmed the land of the lord, but the lord owed them protection and patronage, and so on.  The whole of society was a dance of mutual obligation.  But just as the Earth could not switch places with Jupiter, so too your station is your station, whatever betide (for the most part).

Next week we will look at those outside the basic feudal structure, the craftsmen and merchants.  Until then,

Dave

11th Grade: War Narratives and the Failure of Peace

Greetings,

We all know that peace treaties have a shaky track record.  When wars end we hope that the suffering might mean something, that it might translate into a political order that helps ensure that history does not repeat itself.  And yet, often these treaties fail.  We might think of the numerous wars between France and England, for example.  Various forms of “Punic Peaces” work, whether they take the form of utter destruction or sending Napoleon to St. Helena.  Most agree, however, that when we think of “peace” we often have something loftier in mind.

Some treaties do work.  The Civil War will not restart anytime soon.  Japan and the U.S. have been friends since 1945, and the same is true of our relationship to West Germany/Germany.  But many don’t work, and fewer treaties failed more spectacularly than the Treaty of Versailles after World War I.

Historians offer many theories to explain why treaties fail in general.  The typical mistakes usually fall into a few categories or patterns:

1. Failure to View the War as an Organic Whole

Though it may seem artificial, I think that major events should be viewed through a narrative lens.  World War I had its own prologue, beginning, middle, and end.  Wars tend to take on a life of their own once they get started.  As the “story” changes shape one can easily forget how it all started.  But this is a mistake.  A peace treaty should serve as the end of a story that had a certain beginning and middle.  If the end has nothing to do with the beginning, people will hate the ending and demand a rewrite, or at least a sequel.

I think this is one key reason why many treaties end up being no more than pauses in the action.  Combatants want an intermission, but don’t want the end to come just yet.  For them, there remains more to the story.

I think the victors in W.W. I would be strongly tempted to forget this principle.  Any analysis of the causes  of the war would have to blame a variety of factors and nations.  Certainly one could blame Germany mainly for the causes of the war, but other nations had their part to play as well.  Yet the combatants fought the war so grimly, and the death toll rose so unimaginably, that the victors would almost certainly think only of the fighting (the middle) and forget the beginning of the story.  The ending, then, would not fit within the story as a whole.

2. Failure to Look Ahead

Perhaps one can take my “story” analogy too far, because if we try and keep a war purely contained as its own entity, we miss the inevitable ripple effects that have spilled out into society because of the conflict.  Thus, a peace treaty has to deal with the war behind and look ahead to the world it made.  This need to “look ahead,” however, does not come easily.  We rarely see the nose on our own face, and lacking omnipotence, are left somewhat in the dark.

Treaties usually handle the “physical” aspects of ending wars such as reassigning territory, reparations, etc. but rarely consider the psychological aspects.  The horrors of the conflict imprint themselves on our minds, and the victors often want to “close the book” on that period as soon as possible.  We want to move on, relax, be happy.  The victors feel this way, at least.  But often the losers don’t want to move on.  They often want to dwell on the pain and humiliation they feel.  They want to be heard, and will not want to “move on.” Exhaustion on the side of the victors, more than apathy or ignorance, can be society’s greatest foe at this stage.

I think a good example of this is The Congress of Vienna, which decided that shape of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars of 1797-1815.  Millions died as the French Revolution convulsed the world and every monarch knew their days might be numbered.  My interpretation is that the assembled powers, smarting under years of war, tried to put Pandora, i.e. the French Revolution,  back in the box.  They suppressed popular movements, conceptions of “rights” — anything that smacked of the Revolution, and threw the baby out with the bath water.  Some might argue that the Congress of Vienna worked to keep the peace throughout the 19th century, but to my mind the Revolutions of 1848, The Crimean War, the wars of Italian and German Unification, the conflict between Turkey and Russia, and the eventual explosion that was World War I say otherwise.  Pressure cookers explode sooner or later.

3. Avoid Too Many Mixed Messages

Try as we might, mixed messages can’t be avoided.  As parents we give lip service to the ideal that we treat our children equally, but then reality sets in.  The age, gender, and personality of our children all play a role in how we parent.  We modify our expectations and begin to tailor certain things to certain children.  Children pounce on these discrepancies immediately and bemoan their fate, but if parents keep their different expectations reasonable  and at least mostly clear, we can keep the ship afloat.

Every peace treaty should have justice in view, but practical reality will always intervene.  Even the justly victorious must account for the fallenness of the world and the messiness of reality.  The vanquished will seize upon these crossed signals of justice and cry foul, but if the signal mixing is not too serious, they deal with it.

Problems come when the victors take a sanctimonious stance.  The infamous “War Guilt” clauses of the Versailles Treaty did just this.  Germany had to assume full blame for everything, despite the fact that no country had their hands clean during the conflict.  The infamous Article 231 reads,

The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.

Versailles also tried to reorder Europe along the idea of “national self determination,” and the elimination of empires.  Such was President Wilson’s grand vision for peace.  So, the war’s aftermath saw the creation of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, etc.  Except for Germany — Germans don’t get to be “self-determined.”   Some Germans went to Czechoslovakia, others to Poland, others faced occupation by the French.  We can compare the following two maps, the first showing the political divisions, the next, the ethno-linguistic ones, and the differences reveal themselves.

Europe, 1919

Overseas England and France kept their empires, however, but not Germany.  Neither did the U.S. give up its interests in the Philippines.  The gaps between “What we say,” and “What we do” grew very large at Versailles for the allies, and Germany noticed.

4. Don’t Kick them when They’re Down

This applies to Germany, but also Russia.  The Communist Revolution threw Russia into a tumult and made them persona non grata at Versailles.  They too lost big chunks of territory to Poland.  Both Germany and the Soviets had little to no choice on accepting the terms given their immediate internal domestic realities .   But both would seek to, in their mind, “set things to rights” as soon as they had a chance.  In Europe’s case, it took about 20 years for this to happen.

Next week we look at the Communist Revolution in Russia, and touch on the ‘Roaring 20’s back in America.

Blessings,

Dave Mathwin

Sherlock Holmes and the Solar System

I knew I would like E.M.W. Tillyard’s book The Elizabethan World Picture early on when Tillyard references Shakespeare’s famous, “What a piece of work is a man,” speech from Hamlet.  He writes,

This has been taken as one of the great English versions of Renaissance humanism, an assertion of human dignity over medieval asceticism.  Actually, it is within the purest medieval tradition.

Hah!  Take that those who exalt the Renaissance over all else!  Tillyard goes on to add how Shakespeare writes within the medieval “chain of being” tradition, which they derived from the Church fathers.  He could have added something about Psalm 8, but we’ll let it slide.

Tillyard talks about how he began the book trying to get at the context of Shakespeare, but found that his subject grew on him until he found he had to continually peel back layers of the onion.  It’s hard not to gain a kind of fascination and admiration for the medieval view of reality, and this is the book’s real subject.

C.S. Lewis tackled the exact same thing in his excellent The Discarded Image.  Tillyard’s book lacks the depth and insight of Lewis, but his writing is also much more accessible.  I wish I had started with him first.  The fact that so much of the book deals with the medieval view of the world rather than strictly the Elizabethan stands as one of Tillyard’s main arguments.  Yes, the Reformation broke with certain things from the past, but in the main they kept much of the medieval synthesis intact.  The Scientific Revolution, not the Reformation, ended that view of the world.

The medievals borrowed from the classical tradition, Scripture, and the Church fathers to give themselves a very distinct world filled to the brim with sharp corners.  Their universe had

Order and Unity: Everything had its place, everything played a part.  In that sense it was crowded, with nothing out of place.  But it was purposeful.

  • Sin and Progress: Medieval people believed in the reality of the first, but the possibility of the latter. A healthy tension resulted from a clear view of human folly on one hand, and the love of God on the other.  Tillyard writes,

This is one of things that most separates the Elizabethan from the Victorian world.  In the latter there was a general pressure of opinion in favour of the doctrine of progress: the pessimists were in opposition.  In the Elizabethan world equal pressure existed on both sides, and the same person could be simultaneously aware of each.

In our day, we seem to believe in nothing in particular, though a belief in progress and progress alone would I’m sure be more insufferable.

  • Hierarchy: The “Chain of Being” meant that an infinitely long descending ladder from God down to the creatures far beneath the sea.  Earth itself had a rather humble spot on this ladder.  But the main feature here were the connections.  Air had superiority to earth, and earth to water.  Air is linked to water through earth, and so on.

The system had many advantages.  Tillyard includes many quotes from the period and one immediately realizes how much authors had to work with and build upon.  They could know that their audience would understand a multitude of sacred and secular references, and have a shared view of the world.  Modern authors have to do so much more work for much less assumed reward.  Tolkien had to create an entirely new world to write an epic.

But we should be careful not to romanticize such a world.  Their cosmology did not directly conflict with Christian teaching, but neither was it inherently Christian, and as such left much to be desired.  It was so crowded one did not have much space to maneuver.  The only ones who seemed to have that freedom were fairies, and their role in redemptive history remained undefined — not a good place to be.  Such a cosmology might easily arise in a time that begged for stability in the aftermath of the Dark Ages, and just as easily would wear out its welcome in due course, and even Shakespeare had his fun with it just as he depended upon it.  Tillyard quotes from Twelfth Night in a revealing passage that links parts of the body with constellations:

Sir Toby Belch: I did think by the excellent constitution of thy leg it was formed under the star of a galliard.

Sir Andrew Aguecheek: Ay, tis’ strong, and it does indifferently well in a flame-coloured stock.  Shall we set about some revels?

Sir T: What shall we do else?  Were we not born under Taurus

Sir A: Taurus: that’s sides and heart.

Sir T: No, sir, it is legs and thighs.

Tillyard comments,

Characteristically both speakers are made to get the association wrong; and Shakespeare probably knew that to Taurus were assigned neck and throat.  There is irony in Sir Toby being right in a way he did not mean.  He meant to refer to dancing — legs and thighs — but the drinking implied by neck and throat is just as apt to the proposed revels.  The present point is that the serious and ceremonious game of the Middle Ages has degenerated into farce.

This clip from the excellent Sherlock series from BBC recalls Holmes’ famous quote on his knowledge of the solar system:

Who wants to disagree with Sherlock Holmes?  But he is wrong — one’s view of the solar system does matter.  We have yet to find a workable replacement for Ptolemy and the medievals, and this surely has impacted our cultural life as a whole, and our individual sense of our place in the world.  Like Major Tom, we float aimlessly and need to find a place to stand.

Maybe We Don’t Stink at Parenting

A mantra thrown around the column circuit from time to time is the idea that, back in the good old days, parents were parents and children were taught responsibility, duty, and thrift.  Scenes like this no doubt abounded. . .

Embedded in this picture is the idea that adolescence as a distinct stage of life was an invention of the Victorians in the mid-19th century.  This essentially artificial creation of a previously non-existent stage  then created all sorts of problems that we deal with in the modern world, as our youth postpone “growing up” well beyond what is “normal,” or at least what existed before the Victorians ruined everything.  Many commentators point to the laws against child-labor, and the increase of wealth during the late 19th century that allowed for children to have more leisure, and so on.  The argument makes sense logically.

In her book The Life Cycle of Western Europe, ca. 1300-1500 (“Take courage,” I thought to myself as I picked it up, “The book can’t possibly be as boring as the title.”), Deborah Youngs sets out, at least in part, to debunk this modern notion.  The medievals viewed life as happening in 4-5 distinct stages, with different expectations for each stage.  Childhood, and yes, adolescence, has its roots far beyond the Victorians.  Logical, common sense must give way to the historical record.

Youngs crafts no narrative but her book managed to hold my interest due to the surprising amount of information she gives you in a short book.  Thus, while her work contains no lofty insights, it gives the reader plenty to chew on.  Among some of the highlights:

  • The medievals in general were much less concerned with one’s actual age, however much they fixated on “stage of life.”  When Henry IV of France sought an annulment of his marriage based on the fact that he was too young to give legal consent, no one could remember exactly when he was born.  Opinion varied — some said he was 12 at the time of the betrothal (which would have allowed an annulment) and some said he was 15 (he would have to stay married).  
  • Adolescents (12-18) were universally acknowledged to be in an irresponsible stage.  Medieval literature expected erratic behavior from them.  They simply had too much “heat” in their bodies and too little reason to control it.  Many of us might have an image of an authoritarian and rigid medieval culture, but to my mind they were surprisingly tolerant.  For example, boys who engaged in homosexual activity under 18 were given a “free pass” of sorts.  After 18, not so much.  Some might not find this “tolerant” at all. But if you account for the fact that they believed homosexual behavior to be a great sin, then by their standards they were tolerant, at least in this respect.
  • Some might guess that medieval culture expected all to be “saints” from the toddler years on, but again, the data confounds our expectations.  The key for them was “acting your age.”  Each stage came with certain expected behaviors.  True, acting outside these expectations brought censure, but this held true even with “good” behavior. For example, regarding piety, they had a saying: “Young saints make old devils.”  Those who have read Belloc’s The Path to Rome might recall him saying that he always felt much more comfortable when altar boys made faces at each other rather than standing with scrupulous and solemn attention to duty.  If boys were boys, he took it as a sign that all was right with the world.

In this way, some medievals had more of a sense of “stages of life” than most moderns, who see human nature as more fungible than those in the past.

Youngs argues for no main thesis, but underneath her writing runs the current of the universality of human nature.  We lack a sense of the past, and this opens us up to think unrealistically about the present.  We exaggerate our virtues, vices, problems, and successes.  Youngs reminds us that six year olds have always been noisy, and that twelve year olds have never been responsible.  Parents, take heart, we are not alone.

Most of their ideas regarding “stages of life” bear a general similarity to ours, with one exception: the final stage.  I think if you asked most people what kind of death they preferred they would answer, “Quick and painless.”  Medievals had a different perspective.  A quick death robbed one of the chance to prepare, to “pack” for the final journey.  Medievals wanted the chance to reconcile with God and man, and provide a firm legal pathway for their relatives.  Here I think they had an advantage over us.  In general they did not ignore or flee from death, but called a spade a spade.  Again we are faced with the possibility that medievals did a better job facing reality than we do currently.

9th Grade: Societies Give, Societies Take Away

Greetings,

We did not cover a lot of new ground this week, but did manage to introduce the basic premise of feudal society.

Imagine you had the following choices at age 16:

Option 1: You have the maximum possibility of social and professional  mobility.  A variety of opportunities will be open to you.  Therefore, there is the possibility of great success and the “life of your dreams.”  However, there are no guarantees, and no safety net.  What you achieve will be up to you and up to circumstances.  Perhaps you fail, and be left destitute with nothing.

Option 2: You will be guaranteed a basic middle class life that  conforms to our image of the 1950’s.  You will have a house, 2 cars, and 2.5 children.  You will  live in a community where people know you and will look out for you, but your ability to move jobs and locations is significantly restricted.  You may not love your job, but it will not be horrible.   You will be able to work at your job for many years and retire modestly.

What would you choose?   Most students chose door #1, but some definitely preferred the security of #2.

Neither option is right or wrong per se, but each  option does reflect different values.  We distribute the benefits of each this way:

The Modern West

  • Opportunity
  • Individuality
  • Mobility

Feudal Europe

  • Stability and Security
  • Community
  • A sense of “place,” a “rhythm of life”

When I surveyed the students about the jobs of their parents, many of them had held at least 2-3 different ones over their lives already, and this represents a slight difference, I think, from my parents generation.  Many of my friends that are my age have already held 2-3 different jobs.  It seems that are moving more and more in the direction of increased social mobility, which may translate into a lesser degree of social stability.  If I’m right we will have to wait and see what this will mean for us in the future.

Whatever we choose, we must realize that to some extent these choice are mutually exclusive.  We cannot have unlimited opportunity and a maximum amount of security.  We cannot have strong communities and great mobility.  We must choose, and whatever our choice, we need to own the consequences of those choices.

For example, there is much that we find distasteful about the feudal idea of birth and class.  It runs directly counter to many ideas we hold dear.  But to be born into nobility was to be born into responsibility.  You would have many tenants on the land, but their condition reflected on you.  At least in theory, a sense of mutual obligation existed between noble and peasant.

Today we have (in theory) no difference in class, but also no sense of obligation to others, and our physical mobility makes it hard for many of us to connect in our neighborhoods.  This leads us to rely a great deal on money as a means of security, as we have no “social network” to fall back upon.  Our societies do have places and programs for the poor, but as they are often run by the state, they can have a distinctly impersonal feel to them.  Plus, most of us do not interact with the poor on any regular basis, whereas in medieval times, the poor had a much greater chance to be part of a community.

A key to understanding medieval society is the idea of “knowing one’s place.”  We can imagine the evil person in every Disney movie telling some plucky young child to “know your place,” but it had a different connotation in the medieval period.  The medieval view of society resembled something of a jig-saw puzzle.  No matter how unique each piece might be, it has a specific role within the whole.  When Jesus says, “the poor you will always have with you,”

  • We would say that the poor will always be with you because of social injustice, economic injustice, or the presence of sin in general, while
  • Medievals probably would argue that we will always have the poor because we will always need opportunities to exercise charity (the poor demonstrate the virtue of humility in receiving charity), just as some have money in order to exercise liberality.  Both are necessary because both are meant to image/reflect different aspects of the Christian life to us.

I do not mean here to romanticize feudal society, but only to point out that their structure gave them a good chance of doing some things better than the modern west does currently.

Blessings,

Dave Mathwin

8th Grade: Solon and the Occupy Movement

Greetings,

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

First, the background:

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

Enter Solon.

He recognized a few key things:

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

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

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

Problem solved.

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

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

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

Blessings,

Dave Mathwin