Why Classicists should like Pro-Wrestling

If one said that our modern political scene resembled the spectacle of pro-wrestling, few might object to the statement. Indeed, I have never cared much for following the daily grind of politics, but I can see how it matters–even though I think many vastly overrate it. But I have never understood why anyone would like pro-wrestling. If we all know that it is essentially staged, and “fake,” why bother? The theater of it all is so obvious, yet people react to it so strongly. So too, our political discourse often seems so often cast in such stark terms, and who can say that this benefits us in any way?

Time for a confession . . . though I teach at a classical school, I have a hard time entering into most Greek drama. Aristophanes is fun, and I feel that I “get” Sophocles to a certain extent. But Euripides, and especially Aeschylus, have always seemed odd and distant. The action, the acting (those masks–how strange they seem to me), and the chorus take on such outsized proportions that the plays seems to offer no avenue to enter into the story. The characters almost become Ideas in awkward human form. Here stands “Rage,” there goes “Justice,” and so on.

But the Greek’s founded western civilization. They produced spectacular achievements in philosophy, science, architecture, and the like. So, Greek drama must be “high culture,” on par with these other elements of their civilization . . . ? If the Greeks are not being “lazy” with their dramatic works, we should consider whether or not “high culture” must always be subtle and refined like the Parthenon.*

In an intriguing essay Roland Barthes writes that,

What is thus displayed for the public [in pro-wrestling] is the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice. Wrestling presents man’s suffering with all the amplification of tragic masks. The wrestler who suffers in a hold which is reputedly cruel offers an excessive portrayal of Suffering. . . . This is why all the actions which produce suffering are particularly spectacular . . . Suffering which appeared without intelligible cause would not be understood. . . . suffering appears as inflicted with emphasis and conviction, for everyone must see not only that he suffers, but also and above all understand why he suffers.

. . . There is here the paroxysm of meaning in the style of antiquity, which can only recall the heavily underlined intentions in Roman triumphs.

From Mythologies, pp. 19-21

Leave it to a French intellectual to use the phrase “paroxysm of meaning” when discussing pro-wrestling. But still–here I discovered why so many could know that pro-wrestling is “fake” and still enjoy it. Lots of people enjoy Greek drama too. Barthes writes earlier in the same essay that,

The function of grandiloquence is indeed the same as that of ancient theater, where principle, language, and props (masks and buskins) concurred in the exaggeratedly visible explanation of a Necessity. . . . Each sign in wrestling is therefore endowed with an absolute clarity, since one must always understand everything on the spot. As soon as the opponents enter the ring, the public is overwhelmed with the obviousness of the roles.

Mythologies, pp. 16-17

At least in the Greek plays I have read, the audience clearly did not go to see a “plot twist,” or subtle character analysis. The action unfolds as the audience expects. Even the dilemmas for the characters have a structural rather than internal or personal character. Everything remains on the surface.

Our last four presidents (Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump), two Democrats and two Republicans, have rarely been subject to shades of grey analysis–especially Obama and most especially Trump.

For many in the print news media at least, Trump has the obvious role of villain. His hair, demeanor, speech, etc. are characterized in outsized terms. His every action must have sinister undertones. Some others see him in outsized heroic terms, even the acclaimed Eric Metaxas (whose biography on Bonhoeffer garnered much acclaim) wrote a children’s book entitled Donald Drains the Swamp, which casts President Trump in a mythically heroic role.

Given these observations, a few options present themselves.

The first could encourage us . . . many have lamented the decline of our discourse evident in increased polarization and lack of critical thinking in the media. But the Greeks did much the same thing with their public “media” in theaters, and they were not barbarians. Maybe we overstate the danger posed by our current discourse, just as cultural critics who lament the existence of pro-wrestling (and probably love Greek drama) should take another look at the various spectacles of our national life.

A problem with this interpretation, however, is that our culture is divided as to who is the villain, and who is the hero. But perhaps the Greeks were more divided than we might think. Just because they had plays doesn’t mean everyone loved them or agreed with their interpretations. Thucydides, for example, gives us plenty of evidence of a divided Athenian body politic.

A more negative interpretation would not focus on the lack of subtlety or nuance in our language, or divisions in our country–serious though they are. What I fear instead is that we don’t express our mythic loves and hates in mythic terms, and this leads to confusion and a lack of stasis in our culture. Our ships pass in the night nearly all the time. That is, we cannot and should not avoid our metaphysical reactions to certain policies or events, but in Greek drama and pro-wrestling, the language and structure is metaphysical, and thus, perfectly clear.

Perhaps our most obvious example of this involves our discussion of immigration. All of our discussions about the economic costs and benefits of increased or decreased immigration do nothing to convince anyone, because they fail to address the deep subtext. Those that favor more immigration really mean to advocate for

  • A world where individual is seen as the key building block of society, and the empowerment of individual choice should triumph group solidarity.
  • Immigrants are often seen as the underdogs, and so more open immigration supports the underdog
  • Having a free market should mean free labor, and the more movement of labor allowed, the healthier and more productive the market will be (which is why libertarians favor more open immigration).

Those who seek more restrictions on immigration really seek to

  • Prioritize the concept of a ‘national’ or local family’ and culture over that of the individual.**
  • Put more of a focus on what happens inside our borders than outside (which is why non-interventionists in foreign policy tend towards wanting less immigration).
  • Create a world where law and boundaries have real meaning and are not just arbitrary, i.e. good fences create good neighbors.

So poor has our discourse become on this issue, that both sides have devolved into nearly equally untenable positions: “Build a wall,” or “open borders.” The first option, at least in how it is understood in symbolic terms, proclaims that only a societal core should exist, that virtues such as hospitality cannot exist within that core. The second proclaims that no boundaries have any moral purpose, that borders–be they physical, cultural, or behavioral, have no place in society, despite the fact that every culture since the beginning of time has had them.

As usual, one gains perspective by not by discussing the ‘thing’ in question, but by something related to it. Maybe the next time you disagree with someone on a political issue, maybe try discussing instead whether or not you prefer Hulk Hogan or Ric Flair, and see where that takes you.


*Another possibility exists, one that I will not explore in depth here, and that is that our division of “high” and “low” culture has no real merit. Or, perhaps the Greeks would have admitted that their drama was “lowbrow,” and we just think it highbrow because it is old.

Going to a Shakespeare play today is quite a “high culture” event most of the time, but Shakespeare has many “low brow” moments in his plays. Of course, one could double back and say that “high” culture needs sprinklings of “low” moments to make it real and tangible, and avoid the danger of pure abstraction.

If we follow the bouncing ball, we might wonder if “low-brow” culture often is more conservative in nature. Or at least, it does not attempt to deconstruct anything.

However we think of these question, I acknowledge that the issue is not as simple as the post above might seem to make it.

A Cronyism Dilemma

A friend of mine related that he had begun to contemplate retirement.  He wanted to teach about another 10 years or so and then thought about opening a small barbershop.  He reasoned that, having spent almost the entirety of his teaching career in one small town, he would hypothetically know a large percentage of the population.  The barber shop need not be a scheme to make his fortune, so much as a pleasant way to stay connected to the townspeople.

He did some research and to his horror discovered that between the mandated schooling, permitting, and licensing requirements forced upon one by Pennsylvania, he would be in the red $20,000 before he plunked down his first rent check on the property.

All this just to have “permission” from the state to cut hair.

He abandoned his retirement plans.

Often we think of regulations as the little guy limiting the power of the big guy.  But sometimes wealthy companies are the ones who favor regulations because they are the only ones who can afford it.  Regulations can serve as a way to limit competition.  This kind of “crony-capitalism” is possibly an extreme example, yet many have noted the vast increases recently in the number of jobs that need state permits, licenses, and so on.  In these polarized political times, this is an issue Republicans and Democrats could unite on.  Republicans could talk about fostering individual initiative.  Democrats could talk about limiting the reach of big corporations.  It’s a win-win for both sides.  One problem is that these regulations come largely at the state level and not the federal level.  Few people pay much attention to state politics anymore (including myself), and so creating pressure for change would require more patience and diligence.

I thought about this issue while reading the “Aristocrats and Semi-Aristocrats” chapter in R.G. Starr’s Economic and Social Growth in Early Greece.  He mentions that the city-state system got its beginnings when aristocrats came together to try and combine their power.  Of course, this same city-state system would eventually significantly limit the power of the aristocracy in Greece.  This seems counter-intuitive. Why did this happen?

Some see an “aristocracy” in the age that Homer describes.  Starr rightly disagrees.  Certainly one can see a social hierarchy in The Iliad, but not I think, an aristocracy in the sense the word usually carries.  True, Odysseus was king of Ithaca and had some men bound to serve him militarily like medieval lords.  Odysseus tried to escape the Trojan War by pretending to be insane.  It was not, however, that fact that he plowed land that gave him away, but that he would not plow over his son.  Odysseus was a farmer in ways that a typical aristocrat never would have dreamed.

By “aristocracy” we mean an established code of behavior and dress that sets one apart from the rest of the population.  Without some kind of population concentration, one cannot have an aristocracy in the truest sense of the word.  This concentration allows for more accentuation of difference.  In Odysseus’ world you have him as king and then everyone else.  But, bring aristocrats together and you can have stratified layers–“Aristocrats and Semi-Aristocrats.”

The initial coming together of aristocrats naturally did increase their power, as Athens’ literally “Draconian” law code evidences (the name comes from an aristocrat named Draco).  But shortly after this apparent victory their power began to erode, eventually ending up with a fairly radical democracy a century and a half after Draco.

Many reasons exist for this shift, I’m sure.  I feel that one of them has to do with the nature of aristocratic stratification.  Distinguishing oneself by birth has never been quite satisfactory in almost any aristocratic society.  Certainly birth alone never quite worked for the Greeks.  Their ideals called for achieving glory for oneself via striving and competition.  Naturally, these aristocrats would seek for allies in this competitive world, even including the “average Joe.”

But be careful, aristocrats.  The average Joe’s outnumber you, and they eventually took over the competition and established the possibility of “arete” for all.  Something similar happened in Rome.  From about 500-200 B.C. an aristocracy largely ran Rome quite effectively by most measures.  Again, the story has complexity, but the aristocracy began to decline when their competitiveness no longer had a foreign outlet.  Their competition against each other naturally led to their enlistment of the commoners for allies.  A vast network of clients & patrons formed.  By the time Octavian triumphed about 100 years after this process began in earnest, the aristocracy had essentially killed themselves off in fratricidal warfare–a war made possible in part by their enlistment of the common man.

We assume that Rome’s emperors continued aristocratic dominance.  But the Emperors, much like the early Roman kings, tended to side with the “people” and rule in their name.  Rome’s aristocracy led the revolution that exiled the Tarquin kings in their early history.  The worst of Rome’s emperors, like Caligula and Nero, did many of their worst deeds to the senatorial class.  Of course many others abused their power in various ways.  Ending the power of the aristocracy meant the creation of, in the end, an even great power.

Such are the dilemmas of politics.

The decline of the Greek aristocracy did not lead to the kind of absolute rule Rome experienced.  But . . . without the healthy tension between democratic and aristocratic ideas that existed in the time of Pericles, Athenian democracy acquired a kind of absolute power of its own in the form of its laws.  The death of Socrates serves as ‘Exhibit A’ of this transition.

For the sake of my friend and many others like him, I hope for an end to crony-capitalism.  As to what power we will need to dislodge it, I cannot say.  As to whether or not the trade-off will be worth it . . . that too we cannot say for sure.

Such are the dilemmas of politics.






Napoleon Dynamite

The statistical revolution has transformed how we watch and evaluate baseball, and has made similar inroads into basketball as well. Granted, this has its benefits, but one important downside for all of this is that it ends all of the fun arguments about who is the better player, and so on. With the advent of WAR (wins above replacement player value) we can’t even argue about what is the best statistic to use in player evaluations.

The Roman historian Livy includes a great vignette from the 2nd Punic War between Hannibal and Scipio, with Scipio beginning:

When Africanus asked who, in Hannibal’s opinion, was the greatest general, Hannibal named Alexander… as to whom he would rank second, Hannibal selected Pyrrhus…asking whom Hannibal considered third, he named himself without hesitation. Then Scipio broke into a laugh and said, “What would you say if you had defeated me?

But alas, some of these quips may no longer be possible, thanks to the statistical revolution. A brilliant fellow named Ethan Arsht has used statistics to rank many of the great generals of all-time. He admits that he intends his findings to spark fun debate and not be the final word, but it is impressive all the same. He explains his methodology, and you can check out the full interactive rankings here.

Arsht has many surprises for us, some of which confirm my own thoughts (I have always thought R.E. Lee overrated by most, and Grant underrated by most), some that dramatically challenge them (George McClellan has a higher WAR than Lee–have at it Civil War buffs). But perhaps the starkest shock to my own thoughts is that his model ranks Napoleon Bonaparte as history’s greatest general by a very, very wide margin.

This would surprise no one who lived in the 19th century or perhaps the early 20th. Recently, however, some have challenged the traditional adoration of Napoleon and focused on his debacles in Egypt and Russia, and the fact that he lost in the end. When he started to face reformed and refitted armies, and better leaders, from 1809 onward, his fortunes changed dramatically. My own bias often leans towards challenging prevailing opinion, and I ate this up. But the study has challenged me to reexamine Napoleon and perhaps discover that (horror of horrors) received opinion has always been correct about him.

For my rethinking of Napoleon I turned to Harold Parker’s Three Napoleonic Battles. His premise intrigued me in that he proposed to look at different battles at different points in Napoleon’s career and see what, if anything, changed about his abilities over time. He first shows Napoleon at the peak of his powers against a weak general at the Battle of Friedland. Then, at Aspern-Essling about two years later, his abilities seem to wane as he faces a decent opposing commander within a trickier geography. Finally, we see Napoleon defeated at Waterloo by an excellent opposing commander in Wellington.

Even for those like myself who tend not to like Napoleon, one cannot deny the dash, charm, and incisive brilliance of the man, and all this is on full display at Friedland in June of 1807. At Eylau months previously, Napoleon failed to get a decisive victory over Russia. He got it here.

The battle began and the Russian General Bennigsen noticed a seemingly somewhat isolated French corp commanded by Marshal Lannes. Likely Bennigsen never intended to engage the French, for to do so he would need to cross the river Alle. Still, it looked inviting enough for Bennigsen–he need not engage the whole of the French army, but merely wound it with a quick excursion against a weaker force.

Herein perhaps lies a lesson of leadership: great generals can make great things out of the unexpected, but average to poor leaders need to stay on script to achieve anything at all.

Lannes held remarkably well, and Benningsen, having put his hand to plow, did not want to pull back, assuming that victory was just a few more committed troops away. He pushed more troops over the Alle, but in so doing, put the Russians in a tight spot of having their backs to the river. Time, however, was not on his side. Lannes sent messengers to Napoleon asking him to come with all haste, and if French reinforcements could arrive in time–and the French marched very fast for their day–Russia’s numerical advantage would disappear.*

True to his sanguine spirit and quick mind, Napoleon minded not at all the surprise of the Russian attack, and saw great opportunity in it. He had the knack, too, for creating memorable vignettes of speech, such as the following as he rode hard to the battlefield:

Do you have a good memory?

Passable, sire.

Well, do you know what anniversary is today, June 14?

That of Marengo.

Yes, yes, that of Marengo–and I shall beat the Russians just as a I beat the Austrians.

Below is a map of the field at Friedland

Napoleon arrived on the field of battle, and my impression is that he gave the following orders after perhaps one to two hours of personal reconnaissance of the field.

Marshal Ney will take the right, from Sortlack to Posthenen, and he will bear to the present position of General Oudinot. Marshal Lannes will have the center, which will begin at the left of Marshal Ney from the village of Posthenen to Henrichsdorf.

The grenadiers of Oudinot, which at present form the right of Marshal Lannes, will by slow degrees bear to the left, in order to attract the attention of the enemy to themselves.

The left will be formed by Marshal Motlier, holding Henrichsdorff and the the road to Konigsberg, and and from there extending across the front of the Russian right wing. Marshal Mortier will never advance, the movement is to be made by our right which will pivot on our left.

The cavalry of General Espagne and the dragoons of General Grouchy, joined with the cavalry of the left wing, will maneuver to do the most harm to the enemy when the latter, pressed by the vigorous attack of our right, will find it necessary to retreat.

General Victor and the infantry and cavalry of the Imperial Guard will form the reserve and will be placed in Grunhof, Bothkeim, and behind Posthenen. I shall be with the reserve.

One should always advance by the right, and one should leave the initiative to Marshal Ney, who will await my orders to begin.

From the moment that the right advances on the enemy, all the cannon of the line must double their fire in a useful direction to protect the attack of the wing.

All of Napoleon’s brilliance is here–the energy of the prose, the clarity of the orders, and the strategic overlay of the entire battle are all present. Bennigsen and the Russians fought hard. But seeing Napoleon’s mental command of the situation in the above orders, it surprises us not that he gained a decisive victory and brought (for a time) the Russians in line with his empire as a result.

Parker then forwards to the Battle of Aspern-Essling, where Napoleon faced a better commander a few years later, in a more confusing situation. Here too, the geography was more difficult, and the river (the Danube), more formidable:

By this time Napoleon had occupied Vienna and controlled much of the Austrian empire, but still had not destroyed the Austrian army in the field. The Archduke Charles led the Austrians, and most rate him as a thorough and competent tactician not likely to make mistakes, but lacking in strategic vision. Napoleon sought to destroy the Austrians, but as you can see from the map above, a competent commander could make that difficult given that Napoleon was in enemy territory with problematic geography.

The battle was confusing and lacked the decisive clarity Napoleon so desired. He needed good bridges over the Danube to concentrate his forces in Lobau, but the Danube, and the Austrians, had no intention of making it easy on them. At Friedland Napoleon assumes the air of absolute mastery, but here he pleads with fate rather than commanding it. A sample of some of his orders:

The interruption of the bridge has prevented us from receiving supplies; at 10:00 we ran out of munitions. The enemy perceived this and has done us great damage. In this state of affairs, to repair the bridges, to send us munitions and food, to keep an eye on Vienna, is extremely important. Write to the Prince of Ponte-Corvo . . . that he may draw toward us.

Here we are far from the Napoleon of Friedland, a commander who seems helpless, who needs reinforcements, who has no direct command of the action.

The Austrians were thus able to pound some French detachments for hours with no threat of retaliation due to their lack of ammunition. Many of the French naturally wanted to withdraw. Napoleon had not badly blundered–the field was confusing, and he had been somewhat unlucky with the bridges. While he lacked tactical clarity in the battle’s first stages, he managed to demonstrate his trademark strategic clarity in his response to his men’s request for withdrawal.

“You wish,” he said to [his field marshals] “to recross the Danube! And how? Are not the bridges destroyed? Without that, would we not be united as victors? We can, it is true, have the men and horses cross on boats; but what will become of the artillery? Shall we abandon our wounded? Shall we say thus to the enemy, and to Europe, that the victors today are vanquished? And if the Archduke, more puffed up by our retreat than by his earlier, pretended success, crosses the Danube behind us at Tulln, at Krems, and Lintz . . . if he brings together his different corp . . . where shall we retire? Will it be to the positions I have intrenched on the Traun, on the Inn, or the Lech? . . . . No! we must run as far as the Rhine; for those allies which victory and fortune have given us, an apparent defeat will take from us and even turn against us. We must remain [in the Lobau]. We must threaten an enemy accustomed to fearing us and keep him before us. Before he has made up his mind, before he has begun to act, we will repair the bridges in a manner to defy all accident, the corp will be able to unite and fight on either bank. The army of Italy, followed by that of Lefebvre, will bring us aid. . . . Then we shall be masters of our operations.

It worked. Parker quotes from Marshal Massena, who commented, “That’s true, that’s right! Yes, the Danube alone has conquered us so far, and not the Archduke!” The French managed to turn the tide the next day enough to allow a complete withdrawal in greater safety for the entirety of their army. The battle belonged to the Austrians, but the Archduke–quite capable in a limited tactical situation–failed strategically in the aftermath. They did not follow-up appropriately. Given this breathing space, the French dealt more decisively with the Austrians later at Wagram.

In the quote above, Napoleon showed that

  • He did not foolishly underrate his opponent the Archduke
  • He framed the issue in larger strategic terms
  • He focused on the problems the river had caused, not the Austrians or their own failures.
  • He summed up their overall strategic situation in Europe honestly and accurately, as it related to their allies.

So, at Aspern-Essling one could say that Napoleon either bit off more than he could chew, or waded into a situation he failed to fully grasp immediately, as he did at Friedland. Still, his energy and sense of the moment remain with him.

For his third battle Parker examines Waterloo. So many have written so much about this battle that neither he or I have much to say about it. What seems clear to almost every observer is

  • Napoleon’s health had declined markedly and he was no longer the same in the field (though obviously still a very good general).
  • At Waterloo he faced a top notch opponent in Wellington, who had sound tactical and strategic sense, had defeated the French in Spain, and had superlatively defensive capability.
  • While Napoleon showed hints of his former self in moments, he showed little of his usual tactical brilliance, relying on frontal assaults against entrenched positions.

Sir Edward Creasy ranked Waterloo as one of the 15 decisive battles of all-time. His account of the battle is worth reading, but his sense of the importance of the battle fails to convince. Napoleon’s own words make this evident. Quoting from his comments at Aspern-Essling again,

. . . for those allies which victory and fortune have given us, an apparent defeat will take from us and even turn against us. We must remain [in the Lobau].

At Aspern-Essling his clarity about his overall grand strategical situation led to his remaining on the field. It was the right call, for he was correct about the nature of his allies. Events with Russia and Austria proved him right. I can appreciate Arsht and Parker for helping me to see Napoleon with new eyes. Napoleon was a brilliant tactician, and an excellent strategist. My push-back to Arsht would be Napoleon’s failure in grand strategy. I suppose no one can do everything. But, Napoleon’s victories never really created anything lasting for France, for it would all go away after a significant defeat, as it did after Russia in 1812, as it did after Waterloo in 1815. But even if he won at Waterloo, he would have faced similar circumstances soon thereafter, and then again, and again.

Not even the best should burden themselves with being perfect, and if they do, maybe this should be held against them.


*It seems obvious in hindsight that Bennigsen should have withdrawn back across the river when his initial attack failed. There is even the chance that he could have lured the French to counter-attack him, and he would then be in the advantageous position of defending a bridgehead. But the history of human nature shows that this is psychologically very difficult to do–akin to an act of great repentance.

11th/12th Grade: An Ideal Republic


We started off the year by reading some excerpts from St. Augustine’s City of God to examine how we are defined by our loves.  This “definition” holds true for civilizations, states, and individuals.

Our first major work that we will spend significant time will be Plato’s Republic, one of his earlier and perhaps most significant works.

Plato grew up in Athens and experienced the decline and fall of Athens as a result of the Peloponnesian War.  Not only did they lose the war, the character of their democratic practice changed, and not long after their defeat they execute Socrates (Plato’s mentor) for impiety.  All of this must have shaken Plato to his core, and he uses this psychological disruption to examine what went wrong.  Clearly Athens’ foundation must have been faulty for it to crumble so quickly under stress.  What purpose should government’s serve?  How should they best accomplish this?  These questions drove Plato’s thoughts throughout the Republic.

We will look at the early books of The Republic next week.

Socrates begins the dialog by assuming that people and governments naturally desire justice.  But his companions immediately challenge this and make the following arguments:

  • People give lip service to justice, but really what everybody wants is to practice injustice to their own advantage and get away with it, and they want their country to do the same.
  • Even if people seek justice, it will only be for show.  People will pursue it for a good reputation, or as a bargaining chip on future actions.

Thus, people don’t want justice, so it cannot form the foundation of any state.  It won’t work, because it won’t be built for those who live in it.  The most we can hope for is to limit the desire and practice of injustice.

Before we think these arguments harsh, let us examine them.

As to point 1, who among us has not gone to the grey areas of not being courteous in traffic, or dropped something and not picked it up, because “we were in a hurry.”  We expect to get away with these actions — we justify them by our own self-interest.  According to us, it is in fact “just” that do these things.

As to point 2, some research has shown that when people perform a moral act, they then feel entitled to do an immoral one in exchange.  The moral act “paid” for the transgression.  The fact that many of these “exchanges” involve “small” sins is beside the point.  I recall a recent example in my own life where, when driving I let a couple into my lane, but then the light went yellow before I could cross the intersection.  I remember distinctly thinking to myself (as I went through the intersection on yellow-red) that, given my kindness, I “deserved” to go through the light.  Perhaps I am not alone.

Socrates counters that even our bad actions are often an attempt to seek justice, however skewed that version of justice might be.  So I “deserved” to cross the intersection, or we believe that “being in a hurry” makes it just that I run the light, or what have you.  So justice remains a central concern. We can’t escape it, as our sins bear witness to it.  But at this point the dialog shifts.  Socrates supposes that, as a state is larger than an individual, we will see justice writ larger if we look at the state instead of individuals.  So the key to understanding justice lies in understanding the state.  If we want to understand the state, we must imagine a world where no state exists that we might see how it should be built from the ground up.  When we see the state in this way, we will see the true nature of justice.

Plato has an expansive definition of justice.  We tend to think of punishing right and wrong.  But we can go further–justice “happens” when all is rightly ordered, when we can say that peace has been established.  A just man will have rightly ordered loves and affections.  A just state will not really even need laws, for just people govern themselves.

Understanding Plato involves entering into a pre-modern understanding of the world.  We in the modern world usually tend to think that governments and societies are for us to mold and shape according to our needs and desires.  The world comes to us as series of malleable situations.  What matters most is that we agree on how to mold the clay of our society.

Ancient/medieval societies differed in their perception of the universe.  They believed that human society should be ordered around a pre-existing and hierarchical reality.  Life meant living into an already existing reality.  Perhaps some of you may have said to your children, “The men of our family don’t act like this.”  In other words, you expect your children to live into a reality, a habit or pattern, that predates them that they are not free to alter.  This is a modified form of the pre-modern view–modified because the Johnson family still created this reality.  For the Egyptians, Aztecs, Medievals, many Greeks and Romans, and so on, the structure of their society came from God/the gods.

Next week we will continue to explore these themes, and our journey will lead us into all sorts of interesting places, such as art, music, and education.

Until then,


The Definitive Absence

I have always thought, along with C.V. Wedgwood and others, that Charles I got a raw deal in the aftermath of the English Civil War (1642-49). Leaving aside the matter of his personal guilt, I can see no good legal argument for Parliament having the authority to put him to death after their victory. But as many have remarked, as sympathetic a figure as Charles cuts at his trial and the end of his life, one finds it hard to embrace him as king.

In discussing this, many pay attention to the combination of poor decisions, occasional overreaching, ideological and religious foment, and bad luck during his reign. Some perhaps mention that in addition to the above factors, Charles simply lacked the ability to “look the part” of King of England, and this I think gets more to the root of the issue.

But why would this be? Charles had a personal piety and beliefs in tune with the vast majority of his countrymen. His real leadership flaws should not have risen to level of revolution and the loss of his head. After all, he had certain strengths as a leader as well. Something else must have been going on within England, perhaps even on a subconscious level.

A hint lies in the coronation celebrations, or lack thereof, in the reigns of Elizabeth I and the unfortunate Charles. Several accounts exist of Elizabeth’s coronation procession into London, the first from an Italian ambassador:

The houses on the way were all decorated; there being on both sides of the street wooden barricades, on which the merchants and artisans of every trade campe in long black gowns lined with hodds of red and black cloth . . . with all the emblems and banners–it made a very fine show.  Owing to the rain there was much mud, but the people had made preparations, by placing sand and gravel in front of their houses.

[He estimates perhaps 1000 horses in the procession], behind which came the queen, in an open litter, trimmed to the ground in gold brocade.  She herself dressed in royal robe rich in golden color, and over her head a coif of gold. Her crown was plain, with no gold lace, but studded with precious gems.

Another commented,

Onlookers noted, “For in all her passage she did not only shew her most gracious love toward the people in general, but also privately if the baser personages had either offered her any flowers or the like as a sign of their goodwill, she most gently staid her chariot and her their requests.

Thomas Mulcaster [Ass’t to the Lord Mayor of London?] added, “London was showed a most wonderful spectacle of a noble-hearted princess toward her most loving people, and the people’s exceeding comfort in so worthy a sovereign.

Holinshed’s Chronicles notes [I have updated the spelling]

For in all her passage she did not only shew her most gracious love toward all the people in general, but also privately if the baser personages had either offered her grace any flowers or any other sign of their good will, she most gently, to the common rejoicing of all onlookers, staid her chariot and heard their requests.

David Bergeron comments that,

The whole report creates the unmistakable impression that this queen in the golden litter forms very much a part of the action, one of the actors in the pageant, part of the theatrical experience.

English Civic Pageantry, 1558-1642, p. 20

Accounts exist of Elizabeth’s own words:

I thank my Lord Mayor, his brethren, and you all.  And whereas your request is that I should continue your good lady and queen, be ye ensured that I will be as good unto you as ever any queen unto her people.  No will in me can lack, neither do I trust that I lack any power. And persuade yourselves, that for the safety and quietness of you all, I will not spare, if need be, to spend my blood, God thank you all. 

As for Charles’ coronation, we have the following from the Earl of Pembroke, 25 of May, 1626:

My Lord,
Whereas your lordship and the rest of that Court now formerly directed by letters from the right honourable Earl Marshall, to prepare and erect in several places within the city various and sundry pageants for the fuller and more significant expression of your joys upon his Majesty, and his royal consorts intended entrance through your fair city: His Majesty having now allowed his said purpose, and given me Command to signify such to you, it may please your Lordship to take notice therof by these, as also remove the said Pageants, which besides the particular charge they accrue, do choke and hinder the passage of such as in coaches or carriages that have occasion to go up and down.  

Charles’ desire to save money actually was mostly moot, as many of the preparations had already been made for his procession. Workers would still need paid. Perhaps Charles had no knowledge of this, but I think not. Rather, Charles, unlike Elizabeth, could not force himself to go through with the public spectacle of coronation. Perhaps this was his introverted and private personality. Or perhaps his sense of royal dignity was so acute as to be intensely personal, and thus misguided.

Either way . . . Elizabeth clearly understood how to embody what it meant to be queen, and she communicated that understanding in a publicly meaningful way. By meaningful, I mean liturgical. One sees this throughout her reign. She mastered the art of the “royal progress.” Theatrical and symbolic encounters, such as when a child might present her a book and a flower, or a peasant giving her a trowel, or whatever, she made look completely natural and appropriate. This I am convinced is the key difference between Charles and Elizabeth. Charles modeled himself on Elizabeth in certain respects and even in certain laws (i.e., the Ship’s Tax). But it all fell flat. Charles could not embody and transmit the meaning of his kingship effectively to enough of his people.

We see this difference in portraits of the two monarchs. Elizabeth revels in overtly outward display.

To many today she no doubt appears ridiculous. Indeed, it seems that Elizabeth Tudor hardly appears at all. But “Elizabeth I” is in full view, and the English responded to her.

Scouring Google, I think Charles seems to be holding something back in every image I saw.

And . . .

Perhaps those like me feel sympathy for Charles even if we might not like him very much because his portraits reveal something of the man that was Charles Stuart. But where is Charles I?

As for his son Charles II, say what you will, but he certainly knew how to project, both as a young man, and later in life.

The first image might let Charles Stuart Jr. bleed through a little bit, but it is at least a more likeable person than Charles I that we see. As he got older, he learned to be more fully Charles II. Alas for Charles I–during his reign much less religious persecution existed than under Elizabeth, and he certainly had far superior morals than his son, all to no avail. His morally reprobate son was far more popular and effective as king.

I think many miss a central lesson we can draw from Elizabeth and the Stuart kings: if one can’t communicate outwardly the meaning of leadership through symbol and liturgy, then people will be driven inward in the fraught and dangerous realm of ideas and ideology.

In his Myth and Reality Marcel Eliade made an observation about modern art that struck me with great force. He notes the decline of a common symbolic language and forms in the wake of the Reformation, and perhaps especially after the Enlightenment. The lack of a common outward symbolic language–the Enlightenment called such things “superstitions”–leads then to a destruction of a common visual language in the arts. Eliade writes,

Beginning with painting, this destruction of language has spread to the novel, and just recently [writing in 1963] to the theater. In some cases there is a real annihilation of the established artistic universe. Looking at some recent canvases, we get the impression that the artist wished to make a ‘tabula rasa’ of the entire history of painting. There is more than destruction, there is a reversion to chaos . . . *

I found Eliade’s book in turns deeply illuminating and frustrating. But one only needs to think of cubism, dadaism, Jackson Pollack’s work, and some of Picasso as well, to see the force of his statement. Perhaps his greatest insight came with his assertion that the rise of psychotherapy directly accompanied the destruction of forms in the art world. With outward and visible avenues of meaning eliminated, we retreated inward for answers. But Eliade points out rightly that we are still following the mythological tropes. We still seek the lost paradise, (the Romantic movement) we still seek to deal with original sin (for the SJW’s this is ‘prejudicial conduct’), and we still seek the end of history (communists and other utopians). Without the common language, however, our fights will grow only deeper. Without something transcendent outside the system for us to reference, we will have to put all of our eggs into our earthly baskets.

Both Presidents Trump and Obama understand/stood very well, consciously or no, how to embody certain symbolic types. No one much cared how much money Elizabeth spent if she fit the part so well. So too, Mitt Romney could never equal Obama’s symbolic value. If Democrats want to beat Trump, they will need someone who can equal Trump’s archetypal value to the culture, even if it is a different archetype. Presidents Clinton and Reagan also excelled at politically embodying the “meaning of America” for their eras. Whitewater/Lewinsky and Iran-Contra might have sunk other leaders with less symbolic/liturgical footing with the culture at large.

Recently a government sponsored arts festival in Germany ran for a week, with its basic message being that, “European democracy is, and always has been, racist construct based on power and prestige,” later declaring that, “wretchedness is the basis of all art.” Such sentiments have a lot in common with the conspiracy theories of those like Alex Jones. Conservatives like myself who lament such things have to take Eliade’s insight seriously. The German ‘festival’ (which sounds like something from “Sprockets”), Jones, and others testify to the loss of a common narrative, a common language made manifest in the culture we can all adhere to. I am wondering if an Elizabeth I or even a Charles II** might emerge, if not in America, then hopefully somewhere else.


**Eliade could have mentioned movies as well. Think of all of the grand epic films of the 1950’s, with their oversized sets and out-sized acting. Charlton Heston has something in common with Elizabeth I. In The Magnificent Seven, the inner life of the heroes is not important and not explored. Charles Bronson’s character–rugged individualist that he is–knows he is not the hero. Fast forward a few years to the Guns of Navarone, where David Niven’s character is played with a sense of restraint and knowing detachment (though Peck’s character rebukes him for this). The common forms still hold, but we see possible cracks in the foundation. Just about 10 years after Bronson’s turn in The Magnificent Seven, his (and Donald Sutherland’s) knowing smirks in The Dirty Dozen testify to the imminent collapse of the common forms. Of course in Europe this shift probably happened decades earlier.

Here I do not seek to romanticize the 1950’s or any other previous era. Every time and place has its problems. I just seek to point out the differences.

**For the record, I have no great love for either monarch. Elizabeth persecuted many Catholics, and Charles II would have been hard for me to respect, though I acknowledge he was popular for a reason. What we need is someone like them whom we can rally around not in terms of his policies but as a symbol. Many of the best monarchs understood this intuitively, as thinking “symbolically” was part and parcel of their culture.

The Social Justice Warrior and the Meaning of Creation

Before I write anything I should say that anyone familiar with the ideas of Dr. Jordan Peterson or Jonathan Pagaeu will note their presence all over what follows.  My debt to them is deep in this post.  My thanks to them both.

Some time ago I had fun debating with a colleague about Russia’s move to restrict the freedom’s of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  No western commentator approved the move.  Everyone thought that this added to the examples of how Russia is lurching away from the West, is authoritarian, is evil, and so on.  Even Trump lodged a protest.  Now, while I happen to agree with Russia’s move (or mostly agree), I acknowledge that my position is far from a slam-dunk.

It seems impossible for us to imagine society working without more or less complete freedom of religion.  But, every society up until quite recently, from ancient Egypt down through the Scientific Revolution, limited freedom of religion.  Somehow their societies functioned just fine.  Even here and now we restrict the liberties of Jehovah’s Witnesses in some ways, along with other religions.  Would we give “freedom of religion” to satanists who sacrificed chickens next door?

Anyway, Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, do not allow for blood transfusions.  When one of their children comes to the hospital needing a transfusion, the state assumes temporary guardianship if the parents refuse to allow for proper treatment.  The child receives a transfusion and lives.  We have no problem with restricting the religious liberties of Jehovah’s Witnesses in this respect.  Russia just takes our approach a bit further. The difference between us is one of degree and not kind.  In fact Russia stated that the blood-transfusion issue particularly bothered them.  Russia may not even have the guardianship laws we do in the U.S., making the possibility of children dying in their hospitals potentially a genuine reality.

The point being, every society has to draw a line somewhere.  Every society must distinguish between order, chaos and the acceptable margin.  Civilization could not exist otherwise.  Maybe Russia has erred in judgment.  But all must acknowledge that freedom has limits, and maybe those limits should have different boundaries in different places depending on the culture and context.  As Peter Augustine Lawler noted, many of those who champion a homogenous amorality concerning religion get quite judgmental regarding “obesity, smoking, alcohol, and seatbelts.”

Every society has a doctrine of creation that flows from their creation story, and this story informs every society in how they will deal with the boundary between order and chaos. Genesis deals with this quite directly and more clearly than any other I have read.  In one chapter we see the following:

  • The existence of a formless void far too vast for us to begin to understand.  We are finite, and cannot comprehend the infinite (some brilliant mathematicians have gone insane trying to do this).  If the vast scope of the created order defies imagination and numbs the mind, how can we begin to understand God Himself?
  • God creating differentiation, separating light from dark, the sea from dry land, plants from animals, and so on.
  • God creating mankind in His own image–differentiating them as male and female–inviting them to participate in this process of dominion and creating differentiation themselves  In chapter 2, for example, we see Adam naming the animals.
  • It is this very order, then, that allows for us to understand our place in the world and begin to know God.

The Mosaic law extends this in a variety of ways.  God called the Israelites to differentiate in the foods they ate, the clothes they wore, and of course, in the God they worshipped.  And yet, sprinkled throughout the Old Testament God gives reminders that the laws He gave and the differentiation he required were not absolute.  One thinks of the visions of Isaiah or Ezekiel, for example.  Often we see God and/or the psalmists tell us that He does not desire sacrifice, but then of course tells us to sacrifice all the same.  David understands this tension perfectly in Psalm 51, one of the most important psalms for the Church.

The Incarnation destroyed some of the old paradigms and created new ones.  Jesus breaks down the differentiation between Jew and Gentile, slave and free.  He destroys the dominion of sin and death.  He creates, or perhaps re-creates, a new kind of humanity.  The “chaos” outside of our categories invaded and transformed the world.  But . . . He still left us with “categories.”  We still have the Apostles as the foundation of the Church (Eph. 2:20), the canon, the liturgy, the bishops, and so on.

In his recent writing and in his numerous interviews, Jonathan Pageau discusses the relationship between the core of society, its margins, and the chaos beyond (the linked article is a fascinating discussion of the role of zombies in our culture, and a look at how the Church has dealt with the core and margin in its iconography).  Every society has a core of values and behaviors that shape culture, social interaction, politics, and so on.  So too each society has people and behavior on the margins, and the realm of nonsense and chaos beyond.  Total devotion to complete order would suffocate us.  If we let anything go at any time you have (to use Pageau’s phrase) “the flood”–a complete absence of differentiation that would destroy us in short order.

Each element has its place.  Generally speaking, the chaos exists as a warning.*  We can’t go there and live.  No one can see the face of God. The margins serve the dual purpose of challenging the core and thereby strengthen it at the same time.  Sometimes the margins penetrate the core and find ways to enlarge it and reshape in a healthy way.  The margin reminds us as well that the order we created is not absolute.  Societies need their margins and need to respond to them.

Not to stereotype too dramatically, but usually the artistic, creative groups in society occupy the margins.  To say this is “where they belong” is no insult.  That is where they are most effective.  We need only think of how certain musicians, comedians, and actors helped with the Civil Rights movement, for example.  But, would we want Picasso or Miles Davis as our congressmen?  What would happen to our arts and music?  Unfortunately at the moment, the margins of society, especially those in favor of radically different understandings of sexuality and gender, seek to become the core via judicial or executive fiat (and not the legislative process), and to enforce the ethics of the margin upon the mainstream.

This flipping of roles will work out badly for everyone.  The margins have no idea how to maintain a stable core–their whole business involves continually exploring new possibilities.  The core, ousted from their traditional role, will serve us very poorly as the prodding margin.  Just imagine a Sousa march as radical, avant-garde culture.  The end result will either result in another flood or a swing toward stifling authoritarianism, just as in France ca. 1791, or Germany in 1933, or perhaps even in Athens in 404 B.C.**

We have lived with democracy too long to see the nose on our face.  We cannot comprehend why others, including Russia, might feel apprehensive about adopting our system and our values wholesale. Democracy has a time-tested ability to plow through core traditions with extreme rapidity.  One need only look at how quickly our sexual ethics have gone from thinking about homosexual rights in the late 1990’s to state mandated speech regarding gender in about 20 years.  Perhaps we might think of democracy akin to an Italian sports car.  A sight to behold, powerful, able to move quickly in any direction.  At the same time, such cars are temperamental, break easily, and shouldn’t be driven by just anyone.

This remarkable adaptivity, however, may save us in the end.  Maybe the margin and the core can trade places rather quickly.  We have gone through transitions in the past and at least mostly righted the ship.  Hopefully soon we’ll have Aristophanes making us laugh again, and we’ll get Brad Lauhaus off the perimeter and back to grabbing rebounds on the low block.  All would be right with the world.


*I believe it is in Mere Christianity where C.S. Lewis mentions that many atheists or agnostics have no clue what it means to say, “If God would only show Himself plainly to all, then I would believe,” or something to that effect.  Lewis rightly points out that when the playwright steps on stage, the play is over.  God’s full revelation of Himself would overwhelm everything.  There would be no time for “belief.”

**Examples of this abound everywhere, especially on campuses around the country.  Just recently Brandeis University pulled the plug on a play by one of their own students about Lenny Bruce . . . for being too controversial.  Or read what happened to Prof. Bret Weinstein (an acknowledged supporter of Bernie Sanders, and far from a conservative) at Evergreen State University.

Finally, some might say that I contradict myself.  I favor (sort of) Russia putting limits on Jehovah’s Witnesses, while I am critical of those on the left imposing their own limits.  To clarify, I see a difference.

  • The actions of Russia are taken to reinforce their core.  Russia has a tremendously long history, and a religious history very different from our own.  We have a hard time understanding this in America, as we build off an abstract concept of rights divorced from culture, whereas Russia builds first from culture.
  • The actions of the progressive left seek to radically alter the core with ethics and practices from the margin.

Russia’s action may go too far, but fundamentally it changes very little about who they are as a people. Our recent changes are an attempt to radically shift what our core is, and introduces uncertainty about what we should be, which is dangerous to a society.