Carnival Time

One of my favorite of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentaries is “The Guru of Go,” about Loyola Marymount University’s run-and-gun style of basketball.  Those who follow college basketball today know that scores routinely end up in the 60’s, but LMU routinely scored in the 90’s and had many games of over 100 points or more.  Their command over their own style of play “forced” other teams to try and keep up.  But . . . even when teams could stick with Loyola Marymount  in the short-term, the fact that they got caught up in the fast pace meant that they played on enemy territory.  Inevitably, the pace would wear down opponents and Loyola would shoot ahead, leaving their opponents wheezing on the bench.

Most every Christian in the west of an orthodox (small “o”) bent acknowledges that the so-called culture war is over and has been for some time.  We lost.  This might surprise someone transported from, say, the 1980’s when it appeared that “victory” was at hand, with the ascendancy of the moral majority and political conservatism firmly entrenched.  Now looking back we see that marshaling coalitions and votes for laws and Supreme Court justices only meant playing on enemy territory.  Rather, the “City of God” cannot arise using the tools of the “City of Man.”  Like Loyola’s opponents, we got enticed into playing a game ill suited to us–a secular game on secular turf.

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age will likely prove too deep and dense for me to glean much from.  He writes in a conversational style but with deep concepts and many variations of thought.  One needs a great deal of focus to follow him.  But I felt, perhaps rashly, that the whole of his thesis made sense when he discussed . . .

medieval carnivals.

Medieval carnivals took some different forms in different times and places.  Some days merely involved eating and drinking too much, such as “Fat Tuesday.”  Some had more complexity/absurdity, such as the “Lord of Misrule,” which happened around Christmastide.  In this space of time a sub-deacon or even a peasant might get appointed as chief of festivities, which obviously involved eating and drinking, among other things.   Other such similar days had dukes serve as peasants and peasants occupy manorial houses, and so on.  So in the carnival emblem to the side, all of creation seems reversed, as the hare triumphantly rides the hunting hound.

Most commentators point out that such festivals allowed people to let off steam, especially necessary in a structured and hierarchical society such as medieval Europe.  Even some contemporary clerics acknowledge this role for the carnival.  But this forms only the baseline for understanding the role of the carnival.  The emblem of the hare and hounds attest to something grander at work.

Those committed to Christianity know that it provides a means to understand all of experience, not just life after death.  Much of our Christian life involves holding things in tension.  So we believe that God is one God in three persons, neither favoring the unity or the plurality, but going “straight ahead.”  Jesus is fully God and fully man, “without confusion,” as stated by the Council of Chalcedon.  The Church hymns the Virgin Mary as the “unwedded bride.”  For the Mother of God both terms truly apply, without confusion.  Scripture is the Word of God, written by particular men at particular times, and so on it goes.  Christians rightly recognized the Incarnation as the focal point of human experience, for in the coming of Christ creation gets remade and reborn, as John attests in his Gospel by obviously referencing Genesis 1.  After the Incarnation we live in a new world, but in many ways outwardly it exactly resembles the old world.

In the world B.C.*, people saw childlessness as a curse.  Of course children are a blessing in a physical, natural sense, but at a deeper level we were meant to perpetuate the continuing natural order as a means of bringing about the coming of Messiah.  No children meant no participation in redemption.

In the kingdom to come, however, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage.  Thus, we honor monastics.  At the baseline, we honor them for their sacrifice.  But their vows of poverty and chastity mean that they do not live in ordinary time. Their lives transcend the ordinary needs of the world with its buying, selling, and saving, and also reflects the reality of the new creation wrought by Christ. They live partially in eternal time, which contains all time.  They “neither marry, or are given in marriage,” and of course in the heavenly kingdom no one needs money.**  Monastics may or may not live exemplary lives, but the fact of their “station in life” puts them closer to eternal time than laity and even priests, who must concern themselves with affairs in the world.

In his essay Leisure, the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper makes that case that the only way to escape the cycle of work is to receive breaks in time from without.  Even vacations, he points out, cannot be “leisure” if we view them strictly as breaks from work.  Modern views of labor probably originated with Marx and his followers, and certainly we should sympathize with the “proletariat,” if we wish to use the term.  But as Pieper wryly remarks, “Proletarianism cannot obviously be overcome by making everyone proletarian.”

Ordinary time may be strictly linear, but not “eternal time.”  Eternal time contains all moments.  We the laity, despite our ordinary and natural station, can still at times participate in eternal time.  Taking the crucifixion as an example, Taylor writes,

Meanwhile the Church, in its liturgical year, remembers and re-enacts what happened . . . [at Christ’s crucifixion].  Which is why this year’s Good Friday can be closer to the Crucifixion than last year’s mid-summer’s day.  And the Crucifixion itself, since Christ’s passion here participates in God’s eternity, is closer to all times than they in secular terms are to each other.

Put in other terms, on this view tracts of secular time were not homogenous and interchangeable.  They were [differentiated] by their placing in relation to higher time.

Medieval carnivals did not participate in sacred time, but they did recognize the duality.  By breaking down the natural order of ordinary time, they testified to the reality of sacred eternity, where a completely new order will forever take hold of the cosmos.  Thus, the breaking down of the order gives it new life, the secular/ordinary order gets reborn freshly after each carnival.  It makes perfect sense that the “Lord of Misrule” would “reign” during Christmastide, for this time on calendar celebrated the breaking in of the eternal into temporal via the Incarnation.  “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while He is with them (Mk. 2:19)?”

Carnivals did not protest against the prevailing order so much as re-affirm it.  Recognizing its temporary and inferior status was the only way it could be reaffirmed, the only way order could perpetuate.

We remember Henry VIII for his many marriages, but it makes perfect sense that an absolutist like Henry would also abolish the days of misrule at Christmastide.  This too accompanies his seizure of monastic lands.  The monastic vocation and the carnival testify to this tension in time, and to the transitory nature of the state.  No statist like Henry likes such things.  Other worlds other than the ones they have made frighten and confuse them.

We see too that whatever its intentions, by abolishing liturgies and the church calendar, the Reformation paved the way for secularization.  Bit by bit Protestant denominations moved away from the “sacred time” of the church calendar year. Taylor cites Walter Benjamin’s description of “homogenous and empty time” as the mark of modern consciousness.  “On this view,” Taylor writes, “time [has no meaning in itself] but is like a container, indifferent to what fills it.  Without “eternal liturgics,” and without a sense of time as a gift to mold and shape us, all that is left is for us to fill time with meaning.  And so we have, and created the secular state thereby.

This secular victory is quite empty, however. The homogenization of time makes everything sterile.  Nothing can have real meaning.  Without fasting, our materialistic civilization cannot even feast.  With the homogenization of time comes the homogenization of space–including space for worship.  With no delineation of either time and space, it’s no wonder that, “we’re all secular now.”

We see this view of the homogeneity and plasticity of time permeate our society. Take Fridays for example.  Back in ye olden days Fridays for everyone involved fasting of some kind, for each Friday participated in some way in the Crucifixion–not just in memory, but in reality.  After abandoning the dual sense of time described above we instead oriented time around our work/school week.  Now Friday has taken on the opposite role in our secular liturgy as a day of release, fun, and celebration.  Imagine a family trying to establish something of the older sense of Fridays, and the enormous accompanying societal/liturgical pressure to go out and have fun with friends from work or school facing them square in the face.

“Resistance is futile.”

Of course, this same story has been played out in so many other areas. Without Advent we get Black Friday.  Without Paschaltide we get “Spring Breakers.”

In a recent conversation with Hank Hannegraaf Rod Drehrer recounted his meeting with a group of evangelical pastors near the election.  While Drehrer understood why one might vote for Trump “in sorrow,” as an alternative to Clinton, he admitted an utter incredulity in seeing some pastors positively enthused about Trump.  The response from another evangelical who shared his lament was, “You have to understand, they have no Plan B.  Politics is the only way they can conceive of changing the world.”^

The statism of Henry VIII–and others– has born disastrous fruit.

Many on the more secular left might lament Trump’s election and see it as proof that the “war has yet to be won,” or something like that.  They can relax and break out the cigars.  The war was won long ago, the rest has been mopping-up operations here and there.

I find it hard to tell if Taylor laments or merely describes the shift towards secularism.  He does state that at most all those who hope for a return can do is indulge in nostalgia.  I agree that the tide ran out long ago, but I have more hope.  A proper and effective response will first recognize that turning the battleship will take generations of small faithfulness in our lives and homes.  We should begin with a developing a new sense of time.


Written on the Feast of the Chains of St. Peter, and the Commemoration of St. Paul the Apostle

*The attempt to replace B.C./A.D. with BCE/CE may only be meant as a sop to political correctness or inclusivity.  No doubt people mean well.  But still, the switch is at root an attempt to remake our understanding of time.  Though I lament this shift, it is in many ways long overdue, as we no longer order our lives around the impact of the Incarnation.  It took the French just four years of Revolution to switch their calendar.  It will take us much longer, because we have nothing to replace it with.  We lack the bold audacity of the French, which is a good thing, considering that tens of thousands died in the French Revolution and millions died in the Napoleonic wars.

**Visitors to the monasteries on Mount Athos notice that two different clocks are used in many of the monasteries.  One, the familiar ordinary/secular time, the other clocks measure the now nearly extinct “Byzantine” time (Byzantine clock seen bel0w) to reflect this dual reality.

^So too the French Revolutionaries, which explains the failure of their festivals.  They sought to ape medieval carnivals, but key differences persisted:

  • They were attempting to construct a new order, not deconstruct an existing order.
  • Thus, their festivals had a much more didactic emphasis than medieval carnivals, which
  • Made them much more boring.

11th Grade: Market Psychology


This week we looked at the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and how it happened.   Not all Stock Market crashes cause deep depressions or recessions, and in fact, many now argue that the Great Depression had many other factors besides the ’29 crash.  For example, only about 3-5% of Americans owned any stock at all in 1929.  But I do think that the crash both revealed and foreshadowed deep problems within the economy as a whole, and so I still thought it worthwhile to examine.  At the very time, for example, when the stock market rose dramatically, key industries like agriculture and construction showed major signs of weakness.
Not only that, it gave us a great platform to discuss the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000, which did not bring about substantial economic harm, and the crash of 2008 recently which did.  What were the differences in the two, and which was 1929 more like?  It seems that the 2000 dip revealed a weird anomaly in the economy, whereas in 2008, the problems lay much more at its heart of our financial system in general.  Here are a few different graphs that show similar drops in the market, but each had its own particular effect on the economy:
This graph suggests that maybe market ‘crashes’ are simply ‘corrections.”
We spent two days this week on our own’Stock Market of the  1920’s’ activity.   My main purpose was not recreate  entirely how stocks are actually sold and have value.  I wanted the students to focus on understanding the psychological aspect of not only stock value, but the  value of anything at all.  After all, what makes our paper money  valuable in itself?  Only that we have all agreed as a society that it  does carry value.  If we lost that belief, the economy would collapse  shortly.
In our game this week the market started slowly.  In fact, this class on the first day was the most cautious class I can remember in the last 10 years I have done this activity.  But towards the end of the first day and into the second, the volume of trades and the amounts traded grew a great deal. Crashes usually happen when meteoric rises create a bubble, but in this case most every stock traded at a reasonable growth rate.  “Consumer Confidence” remained high throughout this period, as most teams willingly parted with cash to get stock.  Then, some interesting things happened as certain teams noticed that other teams had a lot of certain stocks.  They then attempted to crash the market for certain stocks, but other teams caught on, and countered effectively.  Though “the market” feared instability and lost some value, in the end it “held” enough for team with the most “blue chip” stocks to win.
Dave Mathwin

8th Grade: The Military Revolution of Macedon


This week we began looking at Macedonian civilization, and as usual we began with geography.

The map shows Macedon as a land-locked and mountainous area, and we would expect this kind of terrain to have a particular emphasis on its people. . .


  • Mountainous areas are always difficult to control, leading to weak central governments
  • Usually an aristocratic warrior elite seeps into the culture, which usually divides the people into warring clans (for this and the above point, think of Afghanistan, which has a similar geography to Macedon).
  • With this environment, we usually see a low level of cultural output, due to their relative isolation and internal divisions (this is not the case with Scotland, but Scotland is not land-locked as Macedon is).

I was glad to see the students start to make connections between Macedon, Assyria, and Sparta.  All three share a similar geography, and all three share a similar geographic position — on the periphery of their respective societies.  Sparta and Assyria had stronger central governments than Macedon, but their similarities should make us realize of the power of geography to shape the course of a civilization.

As I mentioned, Macedon had little role in Greek civilization for many centuries.  But as luck would have it, Macedon saw the rise of the charismatic and ruthless Phillip II just at the very moment of Phillip of Macedongrave political weakness for Athens, Thebes, and Sparta.  Opportunity knocked for Macedon.   Phillip looked every inch the tough customer he portrayed, wearing an eye patch over his wounded eye for necessity, and probably, for effect as well.  But Phillip combined his personality and appearance with a keen understanding of how to maximize the qualities of his society into a formidable military machine.

One key to the effectiveness of his military was that he matched the personality of his culture with his army.  Infantrymen in other Greek city-states often came from the middle-upper classes.  He owned land and had a stake in the politics and way of life of his city-state.  The Athenian hoplite, for example, therefore oriented himself toward defense of what he had.  He wore heavy armor and carried a large shield.  This was not a mobile force, but one geared to “make a stand” to defend home turf.  A standard Greek military formation might look like this:

Greek Phalanx

In contrast to other city-states, Macedon had virtually no middle class.  Anyone recruited for the infantry would be either poor or a mercenary.  This type of man would not fight to defend anything in particular.  He has no stake in the society for which he fights.  Such a man might be motivated to take from others, however, and this would require shifting the balance toward an offensively minded and equipped infantry, which you see below:

Macedonian PhalanxIn addition to the long spears you see above, their soldiers also carried a long dagger, another offensive weapon.   While the image above does show the Macedonians with shields, I agree with Victor Davis Hanson (and others) that argue that Macedonian shields had no real function in battle.  They were worn apparently mostly around the neck and draped to the side (as both arms would be needed to wield their spears).  Some argue that the shields were used in battle, but mainly as a prop for their spears.  If this is so, we see that even their shield served as a offensive weapon of sorts.

Phillip’s infantry gave them much more firepower at the point of attack.  Not only did they have longer spears, but because they had to stand sideways to hold the spears, they could fit more men in each row.  Some students wisely pointed out that the Macedonians would be vulnerable to a quick flanking movement, but the Greek infantry Phillip faced was “heavier” infantry, and not equipped for fast movement.  They could not exploit this weakness of Phillip’s force (though a century later, the Romans would do so).

I hope that the students understood that militaries don’t, or at least should not, be created in a vacuum. They function best when they are a direct product of the civilization from which they arise.  Next week we will continue by looking at the most famous Macedonian of all, Phillip’s son Alexander.

Many thanks,



Meandering Thoughts on Equality

For the past several years now we have seen a fair amount of thought on the idea of economic inequality. Some see it as a serious problem, others perhaps as a temporary byproduct of the switch from a production economy to one rooted in service.  I suppose a very few might celebrate the possibilities free market economies in the fact of inequality.

I had a chance to think about this a bit recently, and attempt to bring some historical perspective.

It is hard to imagine this issue being resolved more successfully than the Athenians under Solon, ca. 590-570 B.C.  There were the aristocrats and the commoners, with law and wealth heavily sided in favor of the aristocratic class (the ‘Code of Draco’).  Debt spiraled out of control, society was coming apart.

Enter Solon.  He was given full powers to resolve this crisis. He did not need to curry votes or constituents. He was not an aristocrat, but he was rich.  He could appeal to both sides and be trusted by both sides.  He believed that Athens needed its rich citizens, as we might expect.  More crucially, he knew how to motivate reform by appealing to the aristocratic ‘need’ for glory, or arete.  One can’t just dismiss this, as it was part of the Greek mindset for centuries.

He made paying high taxes a sign of arete. You could pay your high taxes not in terms of a fixed percentage, but in terms of

  • Pay for this religious festival, and we’ll say loud and long that you paid for it
  • Build a trireme and pay the crew, but you get to command the ship
  • Build this bridge and we’ll name it after you
  • Etc.  You get the idea.

By some accounts aristocrats paid a percentage 12x higher than the poor, but they got ‘arete’ for those taxes, and they had a direct hand in how they were spent.  

He did other things, like expanding the merchant fleet and encouraging trade, which put a lot of people to work.  This sounds easy but must have been politically difficult, given the role of farming in almost every ancient civilization.

He canceled all debts, but he refused to redistribute property.  

In the end

  • Athens had a stronger middle class
  • Athens had relative social stability
  • Many believe that this helped lead to the cultural/political explosion in their ‘golden age’ a century later.  They  create modern science, literature, democracy, etc.)

Alas, many things about Solon are not replicable for us.  For one thing, change did not come from a democratic process.  He was a ‘tyrant’ (a technical description and not a bad word).  C.S. Lewis commented a few times that to get good results for democracies often you have to achieve them in non-democratic ways.  We are locked into our one democratic tradition, and have not nearly the flexibility the Athenians had.

I love his taxes idea, but we just too big and bureaucratic to copy it.  Could we do something like it–give the rich the privilege of naming how they contribute if they willingly contribute more, and giving them public recognition for this, i.e. naming a bridge after them, getting their name on a fighter jet’s wings, I don’t know).

The idea of a ‘bridge-builder’ politician we can do, and have done successfully before.  But we lack the civic-mindedness of the Athenians.  For better or worse we are more individualistic.  The ancient world would find our attitude towards the state unfathomable.  

Unfathomable, yes, but their conception of rule, society, etc. was far more personal, far more uniform, and far more religious than ours.  Ancient Persia could be an exception.  The Roman Republic could also serve as an exception.  They did integration and pluralism quite well until they ventured beyond Italy and the Alps and into the Mediterranean.  It proved too much for them to swallow. Most Italians had similar cultures.  But in North Africa, Spain, etc., . . . they were different.  This is another factor, I’m sure, in the collapse of the Republic.  It may be that societies with higher ethnic diversity have a harder time with equality.  If so, this makes America’s relative equality all the more impressive.*

The trade-offs are huge.  You can get more civic buy-in, in theory, in America, but you would probably have to sacrifice some sense of personal rights, and you would definitely have to ditch pluralism and open immigration.  The first is highly unlikely, the second probably impossible.  Would you want to make these trades even if it was possible?

Anyway, we can’t dismiss the rugged individualism out of our national DNA, nor should we want to. Solon could not dismiss arete.  But . . . he found a way to work with it.  

Can we create low-skilled jobs from the digital revolution and keep them in America?  If we did so, would it make things worse for workers in Asia?  Would we want the flag-waving and possible economic confrontations that would come from a more nationalistic America?  Would the world be safer?  I don’t know the answers to these questions.

We are such a big nation (like almost every other one) that our problems become abstract and impersonal.  In Athens more or less everyone knew everyone in some way.  Dealing with inequality has much more meaning when we have a personal connection to the problem.

Rome faced a similar problem ca. 150 B.C. that Athens faced in 600 B.C.  They never found a way out, and the Republic collapsed.  All agree this period has many complexities, and historians hotly debate why the collapse happened, but I think most agree that

  • Both sides used violence to settle issues
  • Both sides tended to view politics as a zero-sum game, very much an ‘us vs. them.’  They destroyed each other with a century of intermittent civil war.

The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the revolutions in China, SE Asia, Cuba, and even arguably the American Revolution created far worse tyrannies than those they replaced (this is a stretch in the U.S.– the British weren’t tyrants, and neither were the victors, but the victors did exile many loyalists, slavery expanded, Indians fared far worse than under the British, etc.).  The Roman civil wars gave us the emperors.  

We need a political genius of sorts, who can find a synthesis between liberty and equality, between civic responsibility and rugged individualism. He/she would need to be trusted by the common man in Iowa and in Silicon Valley.  He/she would have to, perhaps, give huge tax breaks to corporations who did not outsource jobs–a pro-nationalist low taxes weird hybrid.  If we find him (and I don’t see him/her around), he would not have nearly the power Solon had, at least by the letter of the law.  

None of these mostly unoriginal thoughts get to the unspoken root issue.  Why is inequality a problem in the first place?  By “problem” I don’t mean whether or not inequality exists, but whether or not people perceive it as an issue worthy of much attention.

We might think that inequality is problem in every society but, not so.  For example, monastics renounce property and have all things in common.  We say that communism has never worked, but it works in monastic societies, though of course on a small scale and with everyone present strongly and voluntarily committed to that idea.

Other societies experience inequality, but seem not to think much of it. Neither Homer, Plato, Augustine, Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Austen ever made it a burning issue.  But we do see the issue move right to the front of political thinking just after Austen in the mid-19th century.**  We see it in Marx as well as Dickens, and thereafter inequality could be a rallying cry for political revolution.

Surely the Industrial Revolution has something to do with this, for it created a society where, having mastered the elements of nature, one could quickly have great material success.  The first two generations of factory workers at least likely lived at lower standard of living than previously.  Vast gaps between classes opened up.

Vast gaps existed in ancient Egypt as well between the pharaoh and the peasants, for example, but these gaps made sense to their society historically and theologically.  In a society where “all men are created equal” inequality hits with much greater force.

Marx thought that in the first 50 years or so of Industrialism some of these “non-sensical” gaps would certainly destroy the capitalistic state.  Marx had many things wrong.  But on this, I can’t blame him for his guess.  Why did the capitalist state survive?  Marx, the great materialist, had ironically underestimated our materialism as a society.  Its reasonable to assume that the social gaps created by the industrial revolution, coupled with our ideology of equality, would end the industrial-capitalist society.

The “cause” of the problem of inequality perhaps lies in solving this riddle.  It seems that the poor want what the rich have. Both rich and poor want the same thing, and the values of western society tell them they should have the same thing.  I don’t mean to say that inequality is not a problem or no such problem of economic injustice exists, or that the poor should rest content with the rich as mortal gods on earth.  I am not advocating a revival of ancient Egypt.  I merely point out that our society as a whole has surrendered to the materialist impulse which makes easing the problem that much harder.

Of course this parallels the rise of the issue in the mid-19th century just as social Darwinism, textual biblical criticism, and other de-mythologizers of life gained pride of place.  All that we left ourselves had to do with the here and now, i.e. applied science to increase our standard of living, and our various abstractions to make these things real.

All this to say, dealing with crippling inequality in society will involve a spiritual solution.  The monastics show us that it is possible.


*If this is true, we are faced with choosing between the competing goods of liberty and equality.  Would we prefer economic peace between our citizens or freedom of movement for all?

**Others I’m sure would disagree, but I don’t see the French Revolution being driven primarily by inequality.

The Mirror Crack’d

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


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

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

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

Out flew the web and floated wide-

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

“The curse is come upon me,” cried

The Lady of Shalott.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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

11th Grade: The Left-Handed 1920’s

This week we wrapped up the Versailles treaty and introduced the “Roaring 20’s” in America, a time when the mood of the country shifted significantly away from the values of the Progressive Era, and what it meant to be an individual in America took on new meaning.  We discussed a few different things:
1. The Automobile
We take cars so much for granted these days we might forget about how they changed so much of ordinary  life when originally mass produced.  How did cars change things?
  • They made us more personally independent and mobile in general, although in time this became especially true for youth.  Cars became the equivalent of what making a name for yourself in the western frontier might have meant for generation in the 19th century.  Americans love cars, and not just for convenience sake, but because cars still feed our sense of identity and independence.
  • The car freed people from geographical limitations.  But this “freedom wasn’t free.”  The increase of our geographical mobility lessened ties to our local communities and families.  In an age less overtly Christian than previous ages, people would find their concept of community increasingly in the nation itself.
2. Prohibition
Prohibition failed in nearly every respect and must rank as one of our worst legal experiments.  It’s genesis had to do with a weird conflagration of unusual interests.  For example, the KKK backed prohibition as part of their overall anti-immigrant anti-Jewish agenda, but many women’s groups did as well.  The political power of women’s movements grew in the years prior to Prohibition, which culminated in the 20th Amendment giving them the right to vote.   In any case, Prohibition’s failure led to some good questions for us to discuss.
Why did it fail so badly?
Prohibition served as the last gasp of the Progressive Era, a time of energetic communal action to make things “better.”  But one can wind things so tight for only so long.  The war had exhausted much of that energy, and Warren G. Harding propelled himself to a landslide victory in 1920 based on his made up phrase, “A return to normalcy.”  And yet we picked just this time to forbid people from doing something they had always done, a juxtoposition made all the more awkward by the increased independence given by the car and the nation’s newfound status as a global economic power.
Here are a few indications of that failure, the first being crime rate:
Prohibition Era Crime Rate
 People were certainly not drinking less during Prohibition. . .
What comparisons can be made with the Drug Wars of Today?
Many have compared our current failures in the “War on Drugs” to our failure during Prohibition.  Is such a comparison justified?
Prohibition and Crime Rates
Despite some important similarities, alcohol has been used and abused in every age.  It has formed the fabric of many religious rites and celebrations across time and space.  Narcotics simply do not have the roots in human experience that alcohol does.
Another difference is that, while the vast majority use alcohol appropriately, narcotics destroy the lives of most all who use them.
This does not mean, however, that practical realities may not force our hand in some respect.  Some in the class advocated strongly for much less tougher laws on even the strongest narcotics.
3. The Culture that Was the 1920’s
“Ragtime” reflected and helped fuel the image and feel of the 1920’s.  Here is Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag”
We can see how the tempo and bounciness of the song reflects the spirit of the times.  But the innovation of “Stride Piano” in the later 20’s only fueled this sense of ‘movement.’  Here is James Johnson’s famous “Carolina Shout.”  Note the active and “bouncy” left hand in the bass clef, and how he plays around with standard meter.  The herky-jerky unpredictability of the song can be seen in sections like .49-1:12.  In the topsy-turvy world of prohibition, cars, women voting, and so on, here was music to fit its time.
To see a modern stride pianist where you can visually get a sense of the movement in the left hand, see the video below (fast forward to the 2:00 mark if you get impatient:)
Most of the time the right hand leads the way in piano music, but here the left steals the show, which again makes things seem upside down.   Music and society connect once more.
Hope you enjoy the music,
Dave Mathwin