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.

Dave

*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.

 

Dave

 

 

 

The Mysteries of the Monotheistic Pharaoh

I loved The City of Akenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and its People. I loved it even though I skipped large chunks of it, and some of what I read went beyond my understanding.  This may sound strange, but Barry Kemp’s work is such an obviously great achievement that it goes beyond whether I like it or not.   All that to say, I do really like the book, and wish I had knowledge and the ability to follow him all the way down the marvelous rabbit holes he traverses.

The book puts a capstone on Kemp’s 35 years excavating the city of Amarna, a city built by Akenaten IV (sometimes known as Ikhneton).  Akenaten has long fascinated Egyptian scholars, mostly because of his religious beliefs.  He departed from the religious beliefs that dominated Egypt for centuries and clearly attempted to change the religious landscape of Egypt in general.  He may have been a monotheist, which adds to the potentially radical nature of his rule.

Differing interpretations swirl around his time in power, as we might expect.  Some like to view him as a great rebel against the constraints of his society.  Some view him as a great religious reformer.  Today, given the overwhelming influence of tolerance, the mood has switched to seeing him as a tyrant and usurper.  I hoped Kemp could help sort out some of these dilemmas.  His book reveals much, and also creates more mystery at the same time.  After reading we get no absolute conclusions.  Usually when authors do this I get frustrated.  But in Kemp’s case, who can blame him?  The historical record is 3400 years old.

But before we get to this, Kemp and the publisher deserve praise for the aesthetic aspects of the book.  It feels good in your hands.  It has thick and glossy paper.  The text and numerous illustrations mesh very nicely.  The book has an almost ennobling quality.  You feel smart just looking at it.

I also have to admire Kemp’s style.  If I had spent 35 years in excavations at Amarna and then wrote a book it would almost certainly have a shrill, demanding tone.  “I spent all this time here and now you are going to look, see, and appreciate it all!”  But Kemp writes in a relaxed, thoughtful manner that seems to say, “Ah, how nice of you to drop by.  If you’d like, I have something to show you.”

So many kudos to Kemp.

But now on to Akhenaten himself.

What was he really trying to do, and how did he try and accomplish it?

Clearly Akenaten wanted something of a fresh start for Egypt.  He moved his whole seat of government and started building a new city called Amarna.  In Egypt’s history this in itself was not all that radical, and other rulers have done something similar, notably Constantine with “New Rome.”  Unlike “New Rome”/Constantinople, however, Amarna appears to be way off of Egypt’s beaten path.  This idea in Egypt means something different than it might for us, as nearly all of life got compressed within a few miles of the Nile.  Even so, Akenaten chose a place rather out of the way by Egyptian standards, perhaps the equivalent of the U.S. making its new capital Des Moines.

Perhaps Akenaten didn’t just want a fresh start, he wanted a totally clean slate upon which to build, free from all outside interference (shot from British excavations in the 1930’s below).

Early Excavations at Amarna

So he was a radical, then?

Perhaps, but in building a city, how radical could one be?  Most cities tend to look like other cities.  He faced limits of resources and experience.  So Amarna looked like most other cities, but a few subtle differences might reveal a lot.

For example, the builders made the entrance to the “Great Aten Temple” much wider than usual temples, so wide that one could not envision doors ever being present.  This may mean nothing other than they ran out of material.  But interestingly, most city-dwellings had this same open feel to it.  In great detail Kemp describes how the houses in the city had few boundaries.  Slaves, officials, and commoners would use the same pathways in and out of the same houses.

Kemp also mentions that the plain of Amarna itself presented itself as very open and flat.

No conclusion forces itself as definitive here.  We can say that,

  • Most places in Egypt had a similar geographic layout to Amarna
  • The houses may have been constructed in an ad-hoc fashion due to lack of resources or time
  • Maybe Akhenaten wanted a really open feel to the front of the Great Temple, but that may not have any particular connection to anything else.  Or maybe they had a plan for very large, ostentatious doors that never got realized.

Or perhaps we should see intentionality in all these elements.  And if intentionality is indeed present, what might that reveal that he really did have a grand vision for real change in Egyptian society.

Another intriguing problem deals with Akhenaten himself.  The most famous statues linked to him and his reign look generally like this:

This one makes him look more thoughtful and perhaps more humanized

Akhenaten

Both statues reveal an intense and thoughtful man, given to much introspection.  Or possibly, obsession?  Kemp points out that the offering tables in the temples stood much larger than those in other standard Egyptian temples.  Was he consumed by an idea, or a Reality?  His faces here perhaps reveal just this.

And yet, it is entirely possible (though far from certain) that he actually looked like this:

What should we make of this?

One possibility is that the last image is not of Akhenaten at all, and this solves the riddle by eliminating it.  But Kemp thinks this last sculpture to be an accurate portrayal of what he really looked like.  I’ll go with the guy who spent his life studying the ruins.

So if he portrayed himself differently than he actually looked, it must have been a propaganda tool of manipulation?

No, Kemp thinks not.  Pharaoh’s often had the moniker, “Lord of the Appearances.”  They would be seen by people often, even commoners.  And this would likely be all the more true in the isolated and not terribly large city of Amarna.  Besides, the statue directly above dates from Akhenaten’s time and surely was “official” and not black market.  Kemp often cautions us not to look for consistency in Ancient Egypt, or at least our modern and Greek influenced sense of consistency.

Kemp suggests that the image Akhenaten projected may have had to do with his role as teacher of righteous living.  Certainly it seems he viewed himself this way, and others did too.  This may not make him a prig necessarily, because it was a role Pharaoh’s often assumed, perhaps as a matter of tradition.  The austere intensity of the first two busts (at least 6 ft. high) help confer the image of a deeply felt inner life that he wanted to communicate.  And since the Egyptians loved visuals more than the written word, his busts carry his theological message.

I didn’t buy the modern, “Akhenaten as a religious tyrant” argument before reading the book, and I think Kemp indirectly argues against this.  For one, we find small statues of other gods in scattered Amarna households.  Their houses were small and the statues of normal size.  Given the free-flowing nature of Amarna neighborhoods, other citizens would easily know about the statues.  For Akhenaten to have no awareness of these gods would mean that he had no secret police, no informants, and this speaks against the possibility of ‘tyrannical rule.’  He almost certainly knew about the gods, and tolerated them, however grudgingly.

Or perhaps he actually wasn’t a monotheist?  But then, how radical could he have been?  Or perhaps he had strong views and wanted wholesale change but approached the issue pragmatically.  Neither option gives us a Stalin-esque tyrant.

Other curious details make me lean away from the “tyrant” position.  Cities designed before Akhenaten had rigid layouts and exacting aesthetics.  But as Kemp writes elsewhere, “Most of this city was built around a rejection of, or an indifference to, a social prescription and a geometric aesthetic.” Instead, “organic harmonies” and “personal decision making prevail instead.”  My bet is that Akhenaten may have been too consumed with his religious ideas to really be a tyrant even if he wanted to.

Akhenaten seems to have had a “smart-bomb” approach to religious reform, at least politically.  His main innovation/change might appear slight to some of us.  The Egyptians depicted their gods in at least partial human form.

But over and over again, Akhenaten depicted himself only with Aten, and in these images, Aten has no quasi-human form.  The sun itself sufficed for him.

And this image from the Aten temple . . .

So perhaps in this area we see clarity of vision and consistency of follow-through, as to what it means, I don’t know.  It fits, though, with his overall theme of simplifying religious belief.

Kemp shows us that Akhenaten worked hard at cultivating the image of a good life at Amarna.  Many wall murals show him as a generous provider and consumer of goods.  Excavations reveal that this may not have been entirely propaganda, but Kemp reminds us Akhenaten reigned during a prosperous and secure time in Egypt.  But in 2006 excavators discovered a series of tombs for commoners that reveal high incidents of early childhood death, malnutrition,or skeletal injury.   This could throw us right back to the Stalinist image some have of him.  But the high incidents of childhood death could reveal an epidemic in Amarna, which would spread rapidly in its densely packed population.  Hittite records tell of a plague that spread from Egyptian prisoners of war during Akhenaten’s time.  As to the injuries, I can’t say whether or not this is typical for when new cities get built.  Akhenaten may have harshly driven the people to work harder and more dangerously than normal, or it may have been par for the course with ancient construction projects.

The insistence on building a new city may reveal an element of monomania, but certainly other pharaohs did the same thing.  The pyramid builders demanded vastly more labor from their people/slaves.  Besides, Akhenaten had many critics within Egypt after his death, but no one blamed him for building a city.  This fit within the normal roles pharaohs played.

Akhenaten likely saw himself as a religious liberator of the people.  I see a man with a purity of vision, but also a pragmatist in good and bad ways.  He possessed great intelligence and valued introspection.  I see him dialoguing with himself, along the lines of, “I want ‘x.’  But the people only know ‘y’ and expect ‘y.’  So I will try and lead to them to ‘x’ through a modified version of ‘y’ — not to say that I hate everything about ‘y’ — just some things.” If I’m right, this  inner wrestling match would lead to inconsistency and confusion in his own mind.  Perhaps he lost his way a bit.  “I must have a nice new city to show the people the greatness of the truth,” or something like that.

Or maybe not.  I wish I knew more.  Akhenaten provides a great template for a historical novel.

Perhaps he went too far, but I do think he had good intentions.  Of course much evil gets done with this mindset.  We all know where the road of “good intentions” leads.  But it’s hard to say for certain what evil he actually did.   But he did seek to remove certain key beliefs about the afterlife.  The traditional Egyptian’s journey to eternity had many perils and thus required many charms, protections, and so forth.  All this gave a lot of power to certain priests.  Akhenaten’s tomb stands in marked contrast to almost all other kings for its simplicity.  Clearly he sought in some ways to “democratize” death in his religious beliefs.  I think that Akhenaten wanted to simplify things in general for the common man.  But then again, his tomb contains other traditional pieces, such as the “shabti” — special figures designed to do conscripted labor in the next life.  So even the intense, focused Akehenaten either conceded to some traditional beliefs or really believed these apparently inconsistent ideas.

The mystery of Akhenaten continues.

We know that his religious ideas more or less died with him, and indications exist that foreshadow this even during his lifetime. Very few people changed their names to reflect the new ‘Atenist’ belief, and this we know from the many tombs in the area.  Had his beliefs caught on the switch in names would have also, as happened at other times in Egyptian history.  The narrative that we naturally accept about his attempt at religious change sounds similar to this text from Tutankamun, who may have been his son.

…the temples and the cities of the gods and goddesses, starting from Elephantine as far as the Delta marshes . . .were fallen into decay and their shrines fallen into ruin, having become mounds overgrown with grass . . .   The gods were ignoring this land.  If an army was sent to Syria to extend the boundaries of Egypt it met with no success at all.  If one beseeched any goddess in the same way, she did not respond at all.  Their hearts were faint in their bodies, and they destroyed what was made.

But Kemp shows that the above text doesn’t reflect the truth.  Akhenaten kept open most all the temples in the land, and left his reforms for Amarna.  And as we’ve seen, he apparently let the worship of other gods go on unofficially even in Amarna itself.  So if Akhenaten engaged in political hocus-pocus (and maybe he didn’t) then at least two played that game.

So by the end of the book we arrive where we started.  But Kemp’s extraordinary archaeological skills take the reader as far as they can go.  From here on, one must take a leap into the realms of poetry, which is where History really belongs.

10th Grade: Gnawing Insecurity

Greetings,

This week we looked at the English Reformation, beginning with Henry VIII, and culminating with Elizabeth I.  Wherever the Reformation took root, it did so for slightly different reasons and took different forms.  Some say that the English Reformation was driven more by personality and nationality than theology, and there may be truth to this.  In time, Anglicanism would develop a distinct theological voice, but in the beginning the marriages of the monarch determined much of the course of events.

When we think of Henry VIII we often think of a domineering and abusive man, perhaps too much in love with his own power.  This may capture much of the truth of who Henry was, but he did not necessarily begin that way.  He had great intelligence.  He spoke fluently in perhaps three different languages.  He was an accomplished musician and dancer.  He wrote a legitimate and scholarly work on the sacraments.   He had a love for crowds and spectacle, and England adored him in the early years.

When we see him as a young man . . .

we may wonder how eventually he became this man. . .

But I think both pictures share something in common.  We often think of Henry as all confidence and show, like this. . .

But I wonder if this last picture shows Henry “protesting too much.”  The first two pictures to me show a lurking insecurity.  The man in the first two pictures is not at ease with himself or his place in the world.  Perhaps I go too far in psychological speculation, but the image above with him jutting out his chest seems to reinforce this idea of insecurity.  If we see Henry this way, his near obsession for a son begins to make sense to us.  Strong as Henry wanted to appear, his theological views depended greatly on those who he surrounded himself at a given moment in time.  Perhaps this is why many assert that Henry’s last wife, the evangelical Catherine Parr (here below giving her best “Excuse me, will you please keep your children quiet — this is a library!” look) may have been his most important.  She tutored Henry’s son Edward, and had the strength of will to get her vision of Anglicanism imprinted on England.  To outlive Henry (the only of his wives to do so) she must have been a strong woman!

Six years after his death, his oldest daughter Mary assumed the throne.  History knows her as “Bloody Mary,” because of her persecution of Protestants.  In many ways she deserved this epithet, but we must try and sympathize with her.  Henry unjustly divorced and banished her mother Catherine of Aragon.  She had little contact with Protestants, and plenty of time to nurse a grudge, to plan to right the wrongs of the past.  We might understand better if we we realize that she thought that Henry had “ruined the country,” and God placed her in authority to bring England back to a godly foundation.  We can imagine becoming president where your predecessor had done everything against your most deepest convictions.  You would want to set things aright.

To this psychological motivation we should add that neither Henry or Mary’s mother lived very long.  What if she felt that she had precious little time to accomplish her goals before her death?  As the saying goes, “Beware of an old man (or woman) in a hurry.”  In this image to the right we see the same gnawing insecurity her father could not hide.  Like Henry she knew she needed a son if her attempt at reform would last, but as an older woman nearly past childbearing years, she had little hope of a suitor actually appearing.  We can lament the tragic nature of her life without condoning her actions.

After Mary’s death the stage was set for her half-sister Elizabeth to have a glorious reign.  Yet she too had reason to fear.  The pope had declared Henry’s marriage to Anne illegitimate, which meant that Elizabeth herself had no right to rule.  After Elizabeth, the closest to the throne was her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, niece of Henry VIII.  She stayed Catholic, and so remained the focus of Catholic plots to unseat Elizabeth.

Matters got more complicated when Mary fled to England for refuge after some accused her of murder. Personal letter between the two reveal a long friendship between them, but almost immediately after her arrival in England, Elizabeth imprisoned her.  Eventually one of Elizabeth’s spies uncovers evidence of Mary implicating herself  in a plot to overthrow Elizabeth.  The trial is a foregone conclusion — she’s guilty of treason.

We know that Elizabeth agonized over the options about what to do with her friend and cousin.  Many  believed that England and Elizabeth could never be safe as long as Mary lived.  Now that Mary had committed treason, Elizabeth had every right to deal with the problem once and for all.  Elizabeth had a few options:

  • She could execute her
  • She could keep Mary imprisoned, knowing that plots could still arise
  • She could exile Mary, but in exile she could still raise an army and return
  • She could ignore it altogether and hope it would not happen again.  But what head of state can ignore treason?

Neither option appealed to Elizabeth.  Sometimes we don’t have good choices, only a series of bad ones.

Some students wondered astutely if Elizabeth could escape all these choices by marrying herself.  If she had kids, her place on the throne, and the future of Protestantism, would be much more secure.  As to why she never did marry, my theory is the Tudor love of power.  If she married, she would still be queen, but someone else would be king.  This image below shows Elizabeth, like her father, perfectly comfortable in the role of outsized, grand monarch.

Next, the Spanish Armada.

Many thanks,

Dave

10th Grade: The Big Armada that Couldn’t

Greetings to all,

This week we continued our look at Elizabeth’s reign in England, and began our special focus on the Spanish Armada of 1588.  This crucial naval battle was the high water mark of the Hapsburg Empire.  With hindsight, we can see that Spain’s defeat here sent them spiraling into a decline for the next few centuries.  Traditionally, the conflict between England and Spain is viewed through the following lens:

1. Spain was the big dominant empire, with all the advantages that brings, led by an intolerant king bent only on increasing his power.

2. England was the ‘Little Island that Could’ — the huge underdog that through scrap and pluck defeated the big bully.

I think this analysis is flawed for a number of reasons:

  • Did Spain have a legitimate strategic reason to attack England?  The English had been raiding the Spanish coastline, as well as Spanish ships in the Atlantic, for years.  England’s support of the Dutch’s rebellion against the Spanish would have made communication and supply very difficult for the Spanish.  None of this is to say that Spain had a good plan, or that you have to root for Spain — but it is important to understand what might have motivated the Spanish in the first place.
  • England’s ‘privateering’ could in one sense be called ‘state-sponsored piracy,’ and what the Spanish might have called, ‘State-Sponsored Terrorism’ (though the Spanish, with the conditions of their mines and their treatment of the natives across the Atlantic, cannot claim moral high ground either).  The English knew they could not beat Spain in the purely conventional sense.  But they also knew they did not need to.  If they could hit them here and there unpredictably, the Spanish would be forced to expend a great deal of resources to cover themselves everywhere.  Maybe Spain could be slowly weakened not by destroying them from without, but putting too much strain on them from within.
 We can see Spain in the mirror when we look at our current situation.  In some ways, we are the Spain of today, one of the few nations with a truly global reach of power and presence.  Al Queda and other like minded groups are in some ways in the position of England.  What happened on 9/11 was devastating in the sense of shock and loss of life.  The ripple effects, both financial (new government agencies, extra security measures, wars, etc.) and psychological continue to this day.  They don’t have to hit us everywhere all the time to hurt us.  To help identify with Phillip further I  asked the students to consider the following hypothetical possibility:
  • You are president, and your Secretary of Defense comes to you with a plan.  If the U.S. acts quickly, he has an idea, that if successful, could end the War on Terror and bring peace to the Mid East for the next 50 years.  The plan is realistic and achievable
  • However, the plan requires a large commitment of our available forces
  • The plan has about a 50% chance of success
  • If the plan fails, perhaps as much as 1/3 of our forces might be wiped out.

Would you approve of the plan and take the risk?  Most students said they would.  Though if it failed, history would likely paint you as an ignorant fool who had blind faith, just as Phillip tended to get portrayed until the latter 20th century.

3. What were the strategic burdens the Spanish faced?  They had more ships, but their ship were bigger, slower, and of course, needed to carry a lot of men and supplies (for the invasion).  Spanish ships had, at best, 5% of their weight as weaponry, while the average English ship had about 14% of its weight as weapons.  Who is the real underdog?

Below is the image of the newly designed English “race” ship:

And here we have the a typical Spanish ship of the time:

Of course, these differences in their respective ships are not the product of coincidence, but of the overall culture of Spain and England.  Spain and England had many similarities, with neither monarch presenting us with either the image of a saint or sinner.  Spain fought Protestants, but Elizabeth persecuted Catholics.   We must careful to find good and bad guys too quickly.

I do think we can say with confidence that England was a more ‘open’ society.  Next week we will examine the relative advantages more open societies have over their more ‘closed society’ counterparts.  England was not necessarily more tolerant than Spain.  They persecuted Catholics with the same zeal as Spain persecuted Protestants.   But England had more social mobility.  For example, in England non-nobles like Francis Drake could have enormous influence.  In Spain, Philip II appointed the Duke of Medina Sedona as the top commander of the Armada, chiefly I think because he was the highest ranking nobleman available.  He did this in spite of the fact that the Duke had rarely even been at sea, let alone commanded ships at sea.  The Duke protested to the king to no avail.  For Philip, the nature of things dictated that the highest ranking nobleman command the fleet.

Philip II may not have been tyrannical, but he did close himself off from his people.  He never communicated in person – it was all done through official letters.  While he communicated frequently with people, it was not in a manner that would generate a free flow of ideas.   He issued pronouncements, and did not invite dialogue.  Take a look at his palace in this image here, which shows his physical as well as psychological isolation:

In any contest, there are many factors at work, including what we might call luck.  But we should not be surprised to see connections between winning and losing armies, and the respective contexts from which they are born.
As a total aside, here is a painting of Philip II, not afraid to show a little leg!  Elizabethan fashion remains a mystery to me.  When I asked what fashion accessory future generations will scratch their heads at, a few students said, “Ties.”  I say, “Stiletto heels.”
Blessings,

Dave Mathwin

12th Grade: Bad Music Begets Bad Government

This week we continued in our reading of Plato’s Republic.  In class we have simply been reading and discussing excerpts from this great philosophical treatise, and I have enjoyed seeing them to react to Plato and responding to him.

As we hinted last week, The Republic has political implications, but the dialog begins with a discussion about justice.  The participants realize that to see justice more clearly, they had to talk about something larger than justice in individuals.  “If we look at justice in the state we will see justice more clearly,” they suppose, “for the state has a much greater size than any one individual.”  But justice itself becomes a vehicle for larger questions of truth.  Thus, the dialog always has immediate application for individual lives even as we consider their political implications.  Plato writes The Republic, I think, not so much to create a better state but to hopefully make better people, who will then make a better state.

The dialog starts early on discussing the origins of the state.  No matter their talents, everybody at one point realizes that they need others even to meet basic needs.  We then divide up tasks to accomplish them more efficiently.  Providing for our basic needs is relatively natural and easy, but then we begin to want “luxuries,” which Plato terms anything more than what we need for a decent, ordinary life.  This desire for luxury corrupts the soul and creates problems in the state itself, because now the state will have to provide for something beyond the “natural,” and at times the only way to do this involves taking from others.  Hence, war and the attendant expansion of the state come into being.

How to avoid this?  Some see the state as a mere conduit of whatever the people desire.  The government’s job, in this view, is to actualize our choices.  Plato feels differently, and like many Greeks believed that the state should help us live the good life, which might sometimes mean giving us what we might even dislike–just like parents helping their kids healthy by feeding them vegetables.  In Plato’s famous analogy of the cave he imagines humanity bound in chains underground.  All they can see are their shadows cast on the cave walls made by the fire behind them.  They believe the shadows are reality, and the fire true light.  But eventually some break free and walk out of the cave to see true light and true reality.  Their discovery brings pain — we shrink from the sun’s light, and the reality we discover will be so much different than what we imagined.  When these people go back to the cave, few if any believe them, and nearly all prefer to live in the shadows.

Plato asks us to understand that just because we fail to immediately appreciate the truth might even point to the truth of what he argues.

Plato may surprise his modern readers at least with going from war as a result of greed to a discussion of music and the arts.  But political problems for Plato begin with disordered souls, and Plato believes that little has more power to shape the soul than music.  Plato relates a common anecdote of the time of Sparta banning certain kinds of music altogether.  Perhaps even Plato thought the Spartans too severe, but he agrees with the fundamental idea that musical change brings  political changes.

Many moderns think of music as a matter of personal taste and personal enjoyment.  We listen to the music we like, and imagine ourselves having control over the music.  Plato asks us to think more carefully about the music we hear, and wants us to admit that “gets under our skin” in ways we might not even notice.  Upon reflection some of us might testify to the power of music.  It can move us even when we might not want to be moved.

Understanding Plato’s doctrine of the soul helps explain his views here.  Some think of the soul as encompassing the merely moral part of us.  Plato went further.  For him the soul was the “heart” of man in the Hebraic sense, encompassing everything about someone.  Our moral acts do define, mold, and shape us, but we are more than our moral acts.  So for Plato, a beautiful soul would be one that not only loved truth, but also had it itself shaped by beautiful things.  Separating truth from beauty never occurred to Plato.

So if we want to concern ourselves with “doing right” we need first to provide the necessary surroundings, the necessary training, for our souls.  Plato admits that this means certain music can stay, and other forms must go in the ideal state.  The state has a vested interest in the arts because the arts shape the soul.  Badly formed souls will create badly formed governments.  He writes,

Philosophy, [said Socrates], tempered with music, who comes and takes her abode in a man, . . . is the only saviour of his virtue throughout life.

Justice for Plato means having all things in their proper place, or giving each thing its proper due.  This leads to Plato’s prescription that only music that emphasizes balance and proportion should be allowed.  If we want harmony in the state we must have proper training of the soul, and that means the right harmonies in our music.  The rhythm must not over-excite, nor should it be too “soft.”  Curiously for the students, Plato seemed to link rhythm with the idea of grace.  He writes,

But there is no difficulty in seeing that grace or the absence of grace is an effect of good or bad rhythm.

and,

Then beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity, — I mean the true simplicity of a rightly and nobly ordered mind and character, not that other simplicity which is only an euphemism for folly?

What can Plato mean here?

When we see the word “grace” we immediately put it in a distinctly Christian context.  The Greek word for grace is “charis,” which had different connotations.  The basic meaning had roots in something like “power” or “movement” — hence a “charismatic” man has the ability to “move” people.  The Greeks also used the word in the context of the social graces, which can have the sense of proper “movement” in society.  But Plato, I think, has something more in mind besides mere politeness.  If we think of a gracious hostess, for example, we think of how she controls, or “moves” a social event.  She will possess a certain rhythm of movement and speech.  She’ll have impeccable timing, she’ll neither be overbearing nor invisible, akin to a symphony conductor.  Thus, for Plato, if we immerse ourselves in proper rhythm and harmony, we will train our souls towards “graciousness.”^

Plato has an ulterior motive for his seeming harshness about music.  Problems in the state arise from the people’s desire for luxury.  This desire is almost inevitable given human nature, but Plato believes the state can curb it (thereby saving everyone lots of trouble) by proper training of the souls of the young.  If we purge the person of luxurious taste in music, or the desire for too much variety in music, we can form the soul to desire less.* This can get into a “chicken or the egg” argument.  Does music reflect or shape the culture?  Well, we can say  perhaps that it performs both functions, but which primarily?  Here, I at least agree with Plato (and Francis Schaeffer, Kenneth Clark, and others) who feel that in general, artists work ahead of culture and do more to shape it than reflect it.

If all this seems hopelessly idealistic, I think Plato would respond by saying that,

  • You have to aim for something to hit anything, and
  • My point here is not to create the perfect state so much as it is to use the state to better see Justice and apply that understanding to how we live our lives.

For all his fans, Plato probably has more critics. To achieve anything resembling this we would have to appoint leaders with a great deal of power, and some see Plato as the forerunner of modern tyranny.  I think this goes too far, but Plato clearly challenges many modern western notions of government and life itself.  I see it as my task first and foremost to help students understand Plato and to get the full force of his arguments.  Just because he is old and famous doesn’t mean that he is right, and just because we are modern Americans doesn’t mean that we are right either.  After we conclude Plato, students will have a chance to formally respond to his ideas.

Next week we will look at Plato’s ideas of how different souls create different forms of government.

*Many in the modern world make the argument that classical music makes one smarter.  Plato did not focus so much on classical music (it didn’t exist) or increased intelligence.  Rather, the right music would help form the right kind of soul, not brain.

^Since the New Testament writes use “charis” to denote grace in the Christian sense, we may wonder whether or not a certain “rhythm” exists in God’s grace — a certain pattern, timing, or tempo, perhaps?

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.

Dave

*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.

12th Grade: An Ideal Republic

Greetings,

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,

Dave

10th Grade: The Reformation Roller Coaster

Greetings,

This week we looked at how the Reformation began to spread beyond Luther and his theology.  We looked at a couple of key ideas and themes:

1. Erasmus was a notable scholar.  He wrote many powerful critiques of the Catholic hierarchy.  He believed in going “back to the sources,” and translated the New Testament into Greek.  He initially admired Luther, but felt that a) Luther went too far, and b) Breaking with the Church would cause more harm than good.  Erasmus’ life should make us consider whether or not the cost of the Reformation outweighed its benefits.

2. Mainstream reformers like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli believed that while the Church needed reform, society as it stood should be preserved.  Others of a more radical bent believed that both Church and society needed drastic overhauls.  They borrowed heavily from Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” theology and established their own views of faith, revelation, and the culture around them.  They went much further than Luther ever intended.  The logic of their ideas ran something like. . .

  • All believers have equal access to God, and have an equal chance of understanding His Word
  • Therefore, we have no need of any kind of hierarchical leadership in the Church
  • Those with the Spirit of God have more wisdom than those who do not.  Therefore, we have no real need of local governments.
  • To achieve real holiness of life, and real holiness in society, the godly must separate themselves from the ungodly.

Luther and others were aghast when they saw how others interpreted their ideas.  When Luther wrote pamphlets urging the nobility to crush the radicals without mercy, some felt that Luther had become a ‘Protestant Pope.’

Our look at the ‘Radical Reformation’ forced us to consider the Church’s relationship to society.  Calvin’s followers wanted to blend civic and religious duties almost until there was no distinction.  In other words, Church and Society in their view should blend seamlessly together.  Radical Reformers wanted the kept entirely separate.  I hope the students understood that our ideas of how the Church should function impact how we think Christians should interact with society.

Of course, Luther never envisioned that he was starting “The Reformation.”  He believed that the Church needed reformed, and that under his guidance, the Church had more or less done so.  In his mind, after the reforms he helped initiate, it was time to stop “The Reformation.”  But Luther had unwittingly opened the floodgates.  The genie was out of the lamp, roaming free across Europe.

We discussed that while Protestantism solved many problems, it created others:

1. There are thousands and thousands of Protestant denominations worldwide.  What did this mean for society in the 16th century?  What does this mean for us today? Is this a problem?  If so, can Protestantism solve it, or is it part of its very nature?

2. In the 16th century, Catholics persecuted Protestants (and vice versa), but Protestants also persecuted each other, largely over disagreements over what is ‘essential’ to the faith.  How do we know what an essential of the faith is?  Can Protestants reach unity on this question today?  Why could they not do so in the 16th century?  As we discussed in class, few disagree about what Scripture says.  We disagree about what it means.  Why did the social, political, and religious climate of this time lead to so much violence?

The peasant revolts, the political shifts, and the multitude of opinions that emerged from this period should make us ask — “What was the Reformation exactly?”  For our first formal discussion of the year we got different perspectives on this question.  Whatever our answer, we must see that the Reformation involved much more than a change of church doctrine.  In fact, the Reformation shows us that changes in the Church will get reflected in society at large.

We continued to examine the Reformation in England, and its consequences for the rest of Europe. On Thursday we looked at Henry VIII early life and reign.  I include here four pictures of him at various points in his life.   No matter the period — I don’t trust those eyes!

Last Thursday I had the students look at a variety of maps in an effort to look at the Reformation from a purely geographical perspective.  In other words, did geography do anything to shape the course of the Reformation? Are there any patterns for us to observe?  The maps are here, which include the topography that the students had to match up with the religious divisions.

European Topography:

Some of them noted how mountains walled off certain religious groups.  Some theorized that different countries of like religious beliefs usually were close enough to be trading partners.  Religious groups in more rugged terrain (Spanish Catholics, French and Scottish Protestants) tended to have a bit more militancy to them than others did.  The possible link with rugged terrain and more intense religious expression may go beyond Europe.  Most of radical Islam, for example, does not come from Indonesia (the most populous Moslem country) but from the deserts of the Mid-East.  Looking at events from different angles hopefully can give us a more full complete picture of an era.

Many thanks,

Dave Mathwin

Democracy and the Feminine

This was originally written in March 2019 . . .

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Any observer of our political and media cycles knows that we have a problem. Unfortunately, for as much as we talk about various problems, we seem no closer to solving them. We do not understand the roots of the problem, or what the problem even is. We have no common platform on which to stand to start to discuss it meaningfully. Here I do not wish to discuss red-state/blue-state divides, inequality, immigration, or any such thing. They all have importance. But we must go deeper into basic symbolic language to see what these issues mean in our context. Without this, we will continue to spin our wheels

Many who care not for President Trump seem mystified that he can violate a variety of established presidential norms and have more or less the same approval rating. The recent revelations of the Mueller report aside (and the partial indictment on the media that comes with it), one could point to many missteps and oddities. Those with other political perspectives felt similarly about President Obama. To their great frustration, neither a terrible Iran deal, or the labryinth of the financially unsustainable health care bill–his two main initiatives–had any effect on his supporters. Neither president inspires(d) middle-ground opinions, and I believe that we can explain this only by understanding that neither one of them functions(ed) as traditional politicians, but rather as heavily symbolic figures. People identify with them primarily not through their policies or even their personal actions, but by what they represent.

If true, this may forebode difficult times ahead, for it shows that we disagree on fundamental things, and that whatever we say about the marginal tax-rate may only serve as a smokescreen for what we really mean beneath our words. We will fight hard for our narratives. This should impel us not just to understand the symbolic nature of our politicians, but also the “location” of democracy within traditional symbolic archetypes.* I will primarily reference biblical models and explanations, but I readily acknowledge that other civilizations use many of the same understandings.

Much confusion exists as to the meaning of masculinity today. We can start correcting this by understanding that all of us, men and women, are “feminine” in relation to God. That is, the masculine is the originator, the beginning and the end, the initiator. The “masculine” is steady, solid, not in flux. We might expect the feminine to have a merely passive role, and true, we see the feminine as “becoming,” rather than “being.” It is God who seeks us out, hunts us down (think of Francis Thompson’s great “The Hound of Heaven”). But, the feminine plays a strong supporting role.

We can see this even in the modern penchant for guys to call cars and boats “she.” The feminine gives the masculine a context for action, a space to develop. Cars and boats both create a womb of sorts, and (most) every mythological hero needs a ship. Indeed, we are all born from water, just as God drew creation itself out of water in Genesis 1. And because it involves flux, so too the feminine can give flexibility to the straight and “narrow” nature of the masculine. Again, God is the “Masculine,” but both men and women are made in the image of God, and both have equal worth and dignity in His sight.

I confess that I find it rather silly that some feminists find the modern west toxically patriarchal. If we understand male and female archetypes, one immediately sees that modern democracy may be the most Feminine form of government in human history. We embrace change, possibility, and the new. We allow for individual expression and variation. While the west’s history with immigration has been somewhat erratic, overall we have welcomed far more foreign people’s than other cultures. We should expect this in democracies, for women are usually the best and most gracious hosts. They are generally better at managing social dynamics than men.

In human history, myth, and folklore the masculine tyrannizes much more often than the feminine. St. Francis’ marvelous Canticle of the Sun praises “Brother Fire” for being bright and strong, but fire so easily gets out of hand, flaring up at any time and place. Heat burns, but we quickly can remove ourselves from it (hopefully). So too, St. Francis honors “Sister Water” as being humble, clear, and pure. But Scripture, myth, and folklore all attest that, when feminine tyrants do happen to arise–though they are rare–they are the most dangerous.

One might see this in Medusa, Medea, and Jezebel. In Babylonian myth, the goddess of the sea, Apsu oversteps her bounds and inspires the other gods to rebel against her, with Marduk gaining the victory. Not surprisingly, the feminine aspects of Babylonian thought lingered on in their culture ever after, with the goddesss Ishtar reigning over most aspects of everyday life.** True to their feminine nature, Babylon was probably the most cosmopolitan and open city in the ancient world, but so open, however, that Scripture refers to the city in the book of Revelation as the archetypal harlot to the world.

In his magisterial Democracy in America, Tocqueville says much in praise of what he observed. But he devotes some time to discussing “What Sort of Tyranny Democracies Have to Fear.” Though he does not use Male/Female categories of thought explicitly, one can see them when he contrasts two types of abuse of power. “Masculine” forms of government such as monarchy or aristocracy go wrong in obvious ways. They rage, they lash out. But such tyrants usually care nothing for what you think. They are too direct for such subtlety. Tocqueville points out that the more masculine forms of tyranny may imprison the body, but they leave the mind free.

In contrast, democratic/feminine tyranny may be more rare, but will have greater power over individuals indirectly. They care not so much for the body but the soul. They don’t want you to empty the dishwasher, so much as they want you to want to empty the dishwasher. They want love, not obedience.^ They come for your soul and care little for the body, weakening one from the inside out. They work

Still, those that lament the feminization or infantilization of our culture have to acknowledge that, as already stated, democracy itself borrows much more heavily from feminine archetypes. It has no hierarchy for us to consult.^^ But, even if one wanted to establish a more “masculine” form of government like monarchy to counteract this, such an endeavor would be foolish and impossible. It seems, then, that we have an impasse between masculine and feminine visions.

I suggest, however, that the Church gives us a path forward, showing us how the feminine plays a crucial role in establishing, or reestablishing, a new sense of order. I will take just a few examples, but many more exist.

Postmodern thinkers like Jacques Derrida talk of the need for “radical hospitality,” a radical openness to the “other,” a dramatic extension of the feminine archetype. Such openness obviously invites chaos and self-obliteration. But, look again . . . perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that when Joshua sends spies to the Promised Land it is a woman (Rahab), and a prostitute who practices “radical hospitality,” that shelters them (my thanks, once again, to Jonathan Pageau for this example). So too Mary Magdalene, another loose woman, devotes herself completely to Christ before His disciples. Rahab’s openness to the new allows her to see that her civilization must be destroyed–by men of war. She becomes a hero of the faith (Heb. 11:31). But we must not also forget that she joins with Israel, and has her head shaved as a sign of her submission to the new order, and her devotion to God the Father.

Mary, the Mother of God, gives us an even more constructive example. Tradition tells us that she–in defiance of all expectation and tradition–was raised in the Temple, the very center of life for the people of God. Germanos of Constantinople marveled in the 8th century that

Do [we] not see a girl born as a result of a promise, and she at the age of three, being taken within the inner veil as an umblemished gift to live there without interruption, also being carried in procession by the wealthy among the people? . . . What then will this child become (Lk. 1:66). But as for us, the peculiar people of God . . . let us approach the Theotokos and approach the divine mysteries! . . . Let us see how the prophet admits her by his own hand and brings her into inaccessible places, having been in no way displeased, and without having said to her parents, “I am not undertaking this most novel practice and leading a girl into the holy of holies to dwell there without interruption, where I have been instructed to enter only once a year.” The prophet uttered no such thing; instead he knew in advance what would come to pass, since he was a prophet.

Mary Cunningham, translator for the above text, notes that

The high priest was only allowed to enter the holy of holies, the most sacred part of the building, shielded by a veil, representing the boundary of the created order and the realm of divinity. The preacher emphasizes here the extraordinary exception that was made in admitting the Virgin Mary to this sacred space and allowing her to live there throughout her childhood.

We might say that Rahab serves as a precursor to Mary–both women expressed an openness to God that made salvation–entering the Promised Land–possible. We might say that it is convenient that God could only become Man through a woman, but it makes “sense” mythically and archetypally just as it does biologically. And in her Magnificat, Mary alludes that this “openness” will not destroy order but in fact reaffirm it. Her “radical hospitality” becomes not a tyranny of chaos, but instead, wondrous devotion to the new kingdom ruled by her Son.

When “I AM” is both Alpha and Omega (Rev. 21:6) the hierarchy can be inverted and reaffirmed at the same time. This forms the solution to our current political and social difficulty. On the one hand, the “Masculine” must acknowledge that the possibilities inherent in the “Feminine” might bring about our “salvation” (using that term in an earthly and limited sense). But even in a democracy, the “Feminine” must acknowledge that the openness they bring best serves the reaffirmation of order, and not its destruction.

Dave

*All of what comes after this point assumes the following:

  • That gender/sex differences are real, rooted in creation, and not mere social constructs (though some degree of variation may occur over time and space as to how these differences manifest themselves).
  • That certain mythological constructs/ideas are also not mere human constructs–however universal they may be–but go deeper, and express “real reality.”

**True to the potential of excessive openness in the feminine, Ishtar reigned over love, marriage, war, and . . . prostitution.

^We see this in some of the worst democratic tyrannies, such as the French Revolution. In a near parody of the impossible female, one could get imprisoned in Paris ca. 1793-94 for either being too excessive in one’s love of liberty, or conversely, not excited enough about liberty. So too in Stalinist Russia (for communism is a western form of government), you could be shot for not keeping up with the intricacies of party dogma.

Today the idea of safe spaces, of the regulation of language so no one gets feelings hurt, etc., conjures up the image of a smothering mother–in contrast to the typical bad dad who is absent or physically abusive.

^^Perhaps not surprisingly, the first great western democracy had Athena, goddess of wisdom, for their patron deity. Scripture also calls Wisdom “she,” for wisdom is subtle and contextual.


Renaissance and Reformation, Act 2 (?)

I published this originally in 2016 a few weeks after Trump’s election.  In re-reading it, I would change very little of my original thoughts.  I am still not sure of what to make of Trump’s presidency and where it will take us, and I still am not sure what criteria to use to evaluate his presidency.

Without further comment, the original post . . .

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Like many I awoke Wednesday, November 9 to a big surprise.  Like many I wonder in what sense business as usual (more or less) will be the order of the day as Trump begins to actually govern, or whether or not we will see a significant pivot in our national life.  Time will tell (full disclosure, I supported neither candidate and hoped for a 3rd party revolution that never materialized).

I confess there is much I fail to understand about the election.  I have no strong opinions as to why Trump won.   I will attempt to focus on a broader historical perspective and will not deal with issues specific to the campaign, whatever their importance might have been.  I will not seek to take sides so much as to explain.

Consider what follows speculative . . .

Like many I search for historical parallels to our situation.  Many months ago I suggested Andrew Jackson, or perhaps Rome’s Marius, as a historical counterpart to Trump.  A few months ago Tyler Cowen suggested that, based on a book he had read, our world might resemble that of the Reformation.  I filed that away and thought little of it–until November 9.  All six of Cowen’s observations have merit, but two immediately jumped out at me:

1. Many of the structures in places are perceived as failing, even though in absolute terms they are not obviously doing worse than previous times.

2. There is a rise in nationalist sentiment and a semi-cosmopolitan ethic is starting to lose influence.

In his Civilisation series Kenneth Clark displayed an obvious affection for Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536).  Who can blame him?  Erasmus had a great intellect and a good sense of humor, especially about himself.  Erasmus had no particular attachments anywhere and so he cultivated friends all over Europe.  He represented what some might see as the apotheosis of the medieval vision–a cosmopolitan, universal man of Christendom.

Such status did not prevent Erasmus from engaging in polemical criticism.  From what I hear, his Praise of Folly (I have not read it) mercilessly lambasts much of society at that time, in and out of the Church.  And yet, Clark points out that Erasmus could not accept challenges to authority from the common man.  In a personal letter he wrote with horror at the fact that hardly anyone in a town he visited doffed their caps to him–to him–a respectable pillar of Society.  We can almost hear him say, “I’m the one who gets to criticize society.  Not you!  You don’t know what you’re doing, whereas I (obviously) do!”*

Erasmus could criticize aspects of society but would never think of criticizing Society itself and the conventions that held it together.  He lived in an urbane, intelligent, tolerant world of reason, progress, proportion, and the like.  But the temper of times overwhelmed him.  Europe’s darling in 1511 found himself playing the role of “Mr. Irrelevant” soon after the Reformation began in 1517.

Even Clarke, I think, sees the problem with Erasmus.  No one doubted his character, but they questioned his conviction. Erasmus wore too much on his sleeve and not enough (at least to observers) in his heart.  His glib dance throughout Europe made many wonder what he actually believed.

Many assume the that the medieval period practiced more than its fair share of intolerance.  Scholar and historian Regine Pernoud points out, however, that the latter Renaissance had many more persecutions of heretics and witches than any period in the Middle Ages.  She offers no direct reasons for this, but we can speculate.  By 1200 A.D. Europe had attained a significant measure of stability, but not yet a great deal of movement.  The elite of society had “real” jobs and connections to the common man.  The “people” did not live as well as the aristocracy, but they lived with the elite in the same communities and moved in the same circles.  The sea had yet to tempt medieval society, which limited physical mobility and perhaps added to the stability.

By the mid 13th century Thomas Aquinas begins to dabble in the powers of reason and Aristotle.  The Black Plague disrupted the settled social arrangements (among other things).  The 15th century saw plenty of change with the beginnings of exploration and the printing press.  The papal court practiced pagan Greek city-state thinking more so than the service of God.  Now too, elites like Erasmus moved in entirely different circles than “the people.”  With the revival of classical culture came the revival of classical pagan religion, and the rise of occult practices.  It adds up to too much change too quickly.  The Reformation happened not just because of Luther, but in part because Europe had several different people rise up simultaneously willing to challenge an out of touch status quo many no longer cared anything for.  Rightly or wrongly, many felt that elite Renaissance culture had gone too far.**  As Pernoud points out, the reaction against this outwardly benign march of “progress” began before the Reformation in the late Renaissance.

In another post, again from a few months ago, Cowen suggests the possibility that too much immigration may result in a backlash against immigration (we should note that Cowen favors increased immigration as a matter of ideology, but might be pragmatic as a matter of policy–I don’t know). If the pace of change moves too fast, people react against it even if the change itself benefits them overall (most data shows the increased benefits of increased immigration). Rapid change often creates psychological problems of dislocation.

Others with different ideological perspectives seem to agree with him.  Slavoj Zizek argues (warning to those who follow the link: Zizek uses profanity rather “liberally” in places:) that on European immigration issue, allowing for more democracy would significantly restrict immigration policies in multiple countries.  Right now more inclusive policies must come from the state and not from the people.^  Ezra Klein had an interesting exchange with Tyler Cowen recently where they discussed the subject of diversity.

COWEN: …Now Putman, let me ask you about Putnam, and how Putnam relates to Donald Trump. As you know, Robert Putnam at Harvard, he has some work showing that when ethnic diversity goes up that there’s less trust, less cooperation, less social capital.

If you think of yourself in the role of an editor, so you have an American society, diversity has gone up, and a lot of people have reacted to this I would say rather badly — and I think you would agree with me they’ve reacted rather badly — but there’s still a way in which the issue could be framed that while diversity is actually a problem, we can’t handle diversity.

Putnam almost says as such, and do you think there’s currently a language in the media where you have readers who are themselves diverse, where it’s possible not to just be blaming the bigots, but to actually present the positive view, “Look, people are imperfect. A society can only handle so much diversity, and we need to learn this.” What’s your take on that?

KLEIN: I strongly agree. We do not have a language for demographic anxiety that is not a language that is about racism. And we need one. I really believe this, and I believe it’s been a problem, particularly this year. It is clear, the evidence is clear. Donald Trump is not about “economic anxiety.”

Might Trump have a doppelgänger of sorts (not religiously, not even close!) in Martin Luther?  In Luther, we see, among other things, someone with an authoritarian nationalist streak, one who could not stand the polite pagan-infused niceness of elite Europe, one who had no trouble calling fire and brimstone down upon a variety of people, and one who dabbled in opportunism from time to time.

One possible explanation for Trump might lie in the reaction against some of the sweeping changes that have come into the consciousness of America, such as

  • The “trigger warning” and “snowflake” phenomena across many college campuses
  • The Supreme Court case legalizing homosexual marriage across the land (overturning a variety of state laws in the process).
  • The extreme pressure directed against those who refuse to cater, provide flowers, etc. for homosexual weddings
  • The debate over transgender bathrooms, the reaction against the NC law, etc.

None of these changes directly effect the well-being of very many at all, but they do impact how one sees the their place in the world.  Without considering who is right or wrong in these actions, might the western cosmopolitan set across the U.S. and Europe have flown too close to the sun too quickly?

I listen to classical music on a very low level, when I actually listen to it. I can usually tell if it’s Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart, but that’s about it.   One day I decided to get cultured and tried to listen to a Mahler symphony.  My reaction?

In Absolutely on Music, Japanese author Haruki Murakami recorded a series of interviews with the famous conductor Seiji Ozawa.  In one interview Murakami asks,

Just listening to the third movement of [Mahler’s] First Symphony, it seems clear to me that his music is filled with many different elements, all given more or less equal value, used without logical connection, and sometimes in conflict with one another: traditional German music, Jewish music, Bohemian folk songs, musical caricatures, comic subcultural elements, serious philosophical propositions, Christian dogma, Asian worldview–a huge variety of stuff, no single one at the center of things . . . .  Isn’t there something particularly universal or cosmopolitan about Mahler’s music?

To my admittedly very limited experience of attempting to listen to Mahler, Murakami could have just as easily asked, “Isn’t there something meaningless and incomprehensible about Mahler’s music?  After 1/2 hour of attempting to “elevate” my cultural understanding, I would have begged someone to play me a Sousa march to at least bring my brain back into focus.

Cowen’s final thought on how this world might resemble that of the Reformation . . .

The world may nonetheless end up much better off, but the ride to get there will be rocky indeed.

Dave

*A possible parallel to this exists today.  A variety of high-profile fashion designers have said that they will not provide gowns for Melania Trump.  Bruce Springsteen canceled a concert in North Carolina over his objections to their transgender laws.  The great jazz pianist Ethan Iverson called for a boycott of Steinway pianos because the owner of Steinway supported Trump in some vague fashion (in 2012 Iverson urged a boycott of a particular jazz musician for his support of Romney.  Were Iverson a politician, this would be extremely dangerous territory, i.e., punishing someone not for their actions but for their particular beliefs). All of them were perfectly within their rights to do so.  Many applauded them putting moral convictions over profit or convenience.

Can progressives not extend the same rights to those who wish not to cater homosexual weddings?  It appears that some do not wish to extend the same right of protest.  Stephanie Slade at Reason magazine wrote,

The problem is not that Theallet was willing to dress Michelle Obama and isn’t willing to dress Melania Trump (which is, like it or not, a form of discrimination). The problem is just how many people don’t seem to think that same freedom should be extended to bakery owners, photographers, and other wedding vendors who object to same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

As Theallet put it, “we consider our voice an expression of our artistic and philosophical ideals.” I suspect Barronelle Stutzman, the white-haired grandmother who owns Arlene’s Flowers, feels the same way about her craft. But instead of assuming a live-and-let-live attitude on the matter, Washington state has systematically worked to destroy Stutzman’s business unless she agrees to take part in a celebration to which she is morally opposed.

**Whatever authoritarian streak the Middle Ages might have had, the Renaissance had it too, but it came not from the people, but from the elite makers of taste.  In many cathedrals the colorful stained glass (made by a variety of local artisans) got smashed out and replaced with clear glass to better fit wth their ideas of classical purity and decorum.

Pernoud argued with some force that the culture of the Middle Ages was “populist,” which the culture of the Renaissance was “elitist.”

^We can see the Brexit vote as a symptom of this same phenomena.  Europe’s pundits all seemingly declared that Britain would vote to stay in the European Union.  Part of me wonders whether or not the vote to leave had more to do with “sticking it to the cosmopolitan man” (which certainly includes most pundits) than any particular economic or social issue.

“I See Satan Fall like Lightning”

This was originally published in 2014, then again in 2015 after Girard’s death.  I post it again in light of some discussions this past week in government class.

And now, the post . . .

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I’ve said before that for the most part, I can’t stand the modern British historian, or at least, a certain kind of British historian. This is the type that Toynbee rebelled against and patiently denounced for years.  This model calls for exacting discipline to attempt to focus only on the “what” and never the “why.”  They see their jobs as using a microscope to discover the most amount of facts possible, but never think to lift up their heads. Leave that to the metaphysicians.  Historians should tell you what happened and keep their noses clean of any other venture.

This approach has flaws from top to bottom.  First of all, it’s dreadfully boring, and second, it’s a lie. We simply can’t avoid metaphysics — we will always worship and point to something, though they seek to drive ourselves and others away from such a fate.

The Abbot Suger of the Abbey St. Denis once declared, “The English are destined by moral and natural law to be subjected to the French, and not contrariwise.”  Leave it to the French to say crazy things!  And with historians anyway, I agree.  French historians to the rescue!   They have their share of great ones, from Einhard to Tocqueville, Fernand Braudel, Marc Bloch,  Regine Pernoud, and so on.  Historians should not forget that they too are made in the image of God, and that history has no meaning or purpose without us seeking to “sub-create” and give meaning and purpose to the world around us.*

Rene Girard fits into this mold with his great I See Satan Fall like Lightning, a brief, but dense and thought provoking book that challenges how we read the gospels, mythology, and all of human history.  A magnificent premise, and he delivers (mostly) — all in 200 pages.

To understand Girard’s argument, we first need to understand two main lines of thought regarding civilization.  The first and overwhelmingly dominant view sees civilization as a great blessing in human affairs. Civilization allows for creativity and cooperation.  It fosters a rule of law that prevents a cycle of violence from overwhelming all.  Civilizations give the stability that, paradoxically, gives us space and time to challenge existing ideas and move forward.

The distinct minority believes that civilization can do no better than aspire to a lesser evil than barbarism.  It at times descends below barbarism because it enacts great cruelties under the comforting cloak of “civilization.” At least the abject barbarian harbors no such illusions.  The very organizing principle of civilization concentrates the worst human impulses to impose their will on others and count themselves innocent in the process.  Before we dismiss this uncomfortable thought, we should note that in Genesis 4 the “arts of civilization” are attributed to Cain and his lineage, with violence as the hallmark of their work.  God confuses language at the Tower of Babel because collectivized human potential is simply too dangerous.  In his The City of God Augustine seems at least sympathetic to this view, as his memorable anecdote regarding Alexander the Great makes clear:

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.

I used to associate this negative view of civilization exclusively with French post-modernists like Foucoult (not that I’ve actually read them 🙂 and therefore dismissed it.  But, there it is, in Genesis 4, in St. Augustine, and likely other places I’m not aware of.  So, when Girard asks us to accept this view, he does so with connection to the Biblical tradition and some aspects of historical theology (Girard accepts the necessity of government and order of some kind but never fleshes out just how he wants it to function).

With this groundwork we can proceed to his argument.

Scripture tells us that Satan is “the Prince of this world,” but in what sense is this case, and how does he maintain his power?  Where he wields influence, he sows discord internally in the hearts and minds of individuals and in society in general.  Hence, the more influence he has, the more dissension, and thus, two things might happen:

  • He risks losing control of his kingdom, as no kingdom can withstand such division for very long.
  • The chaos might incline people to seek something beyond this world for comfort, which might mean that people meet God.

How to maintain control in such a situation?  Girard believes that mythology and Scripture both point to the same answer: Satan rules via a ritual murder rooted in what he calls “mimetic desire.”  The war of “all against all” fostered by Satanic selfishness must be stopped or he risks losing all.  Mimetic desire heightens and gets transformed into the war of “all against one.”  The people’s twin desires for violence and harmony merge in an unjust sacrifice.  This restores order because we have find the enemy collectively, and find that the enemy is not us — it’s he, or she, or possibly they — but never “us.”  Satan’s triumph consists of

  • His control restored
  • His control rooted in violence
  • A moral blindness on our parts
  • A reaffirmation of our faith in the ruling authorities to bring about order

“Mimetic desire” has a simple meaning: we seek to imitate the desires of others, and by doing so take them into ourselves, into the community.  Girard speaks at some length about the 10th commandment which prohibits coveting. While this prohibition is not unique to the Old Testament, it places greater emphasis on the problem of desire than other cultures. Desire in itself is good, but Satan, the “ape of God” gives us his desires, desires for power, for more.  Once these desires spread they turn into a contagion, or a plague that infects people everywhere (Girard believes that many ancient stories that talk of a “plague” may not refer to something strictly biological).  Once begun, resistance is nearly futile.

To understand this we might think of two armies opposing one another.  Neither wants to fight, but both fear that the other might want to fight, so both show up armed.  Once the first shot is fired, be it accidental or otherwise, all “must” participate. All will fire their weapons, and you would not necessarily blame a soldier for doing so.  It just “happened,” and with no one to blame, there can be no justice — another victory for Satan.

He references Peter’s denial of Jesus just before his trial.  Often our interpretations focus on the psychological aspects of Peter’s personality — his impulsiveness, and so on.  Girard won’t let us off the hook so easily.  Such psychological interpretations distance ourselves too comfortably.  In reality, Peter fell prey to the desires of the crowd in ways that ensnare most everyone.  Peter is everyman, in this case, and perhaps its more telling that he extracts himself from that situation.

Pilate too succumbs, in a way typical of politicians everywhere.  Pilate needs order — his cannot afford that Justice be his primary concern.  To maintain order he has no other choice but to give in.  Girard would argue, I think, that this is nothing less than the bargain all rulers must make from time to time.  Politics, then, get revealed as more than a “dirty business,” but one with indelible roots in the City of Man.

Many ancient stories show forth the nature of mimetic violence, but the Cross itself stands as the example par excellence. The people in general have no hostility to Jesus, but once they become aware that the religious authorities are divided, and the Romans start to weigh in, the plague of mimetic desire settles in.  They turn on Jesus, and believe that His death will solve their problems.  It looks like a repeat of other events and another victory for Satan.  But this victim not only possessed legal innocence, He actually had true and complete innocence.  Now Satan’s methodology gets fully exposed, for “truly this was the Son of God.”  His resurrection and ascension vindicate Jesus and establishes His lordship and His reign over a kingdom of innocent victims.**  This “exposure” has its hints in the Old Testament at least in the Book of Job.  His troubles must be deserved in some way, so say Job’s friends.  If he follows his wife’s advice to “curse God and die,” he will bring peace to the community by vindicating their perception of the world.  He resists, and God vindicates him in the end.

Girard argues that Jesus does not give commands so much as introduce a new principle, that of imitation.  He counters our mimetic desires not by squashing them, but by redirection.  Jesus asks that we imitate Him, as He imitates the Father.  The epistles carry this forward.  Paul tells us to imitate him, as he imitates Christ, who imitates the Father.  Well, Jesus did give commands, but his commands about love in John, at least, invoke this pattern of imitation.  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34).  What makes this commandment new is not the injunction to love each other, but perhaps the principle on which it is based.

So far I buy Girard entirely.  His link of mimetic desire with the crucifixion, and his analysis of the nature and extent of Satan’s influence I find profound.  He started to lose me a bit when talking about how so many myths follow this pattern of mass confusion, scapegoat, death, and then, deification of the victim — or barring deification of the person killed, then of the process itself.  I.e., because it restored order, it must be from God/the gods.  I could think of a few myths, but I’m not sure how many follow this pattern (though I have a weak knowledge of mythology and could easily simply be ignorant).

When speaking of the founding of certain civilizations, however, he seems once again right on target.  In Egypt and Babylon the violence occurs between the gods.  Girard suggests that some stories may have actually occurred, and then the victims like Osiris and Tiamat became gods.  But in Rome at least, the violence takes place between the twins Romulus and Remus, an instructive case study for Girard’s thesis.  The twins set out to found a kingdom but cannot agree on which spot the gods blessed.  But the brothers cannot co-exist peacefully.  Their rivalry heightens until Romulus kills Remus and assumes kingship of Rome.  Livy, at least, passes no judgment on any party.  This is the way it “had to be.” No state could have two heads at the helm–one had to be sacrificed for order to commence. The Aeneid also has a similar perspective on the founding of Aeneas’ line. Violence just “happened.”  Such was the founding of Rome, and in later stories Romulus is deified as a personification of the Roman people.  Not that everything about Rome would be evil, but the foundational principle of “sacred violence” to establish civic order has no business with the gospel.

This story is instructive for Girard, but not entirely.  The deification of the aggressor fits squarely within Girard’s framework. But what of those that deify or exalt the victim?  Many myths fall into this category, Persephone, Psyche, Hercules, and so on.  These myths seem to prepare the way for Christ, who fulfills the stories in the flesh made real before our eyes.  Girard sees mythology in general rooted entirely in “City of Man,” but I cannot share this view.

At the end of it all, however, we have a great and thought-provoking book.  We should have more like them even if it means more French influence in our lives.  Below is a brief interview excerpt with him.

Dave

POPE BENDICT IS RIGHT: CHRISTIANITY IS SUPERIOR

Rene Girard, a prominent Roman Catholic conservative and author of the seminal book “Violence and the Sacred,” is an emeritus professor of anthropology at Stanford University. His more recent books include “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World” and “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.” This interview was conducted by Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels earlier this year. It is particularly relevant in shining some light on the controversial comments by Pope Benedict on violence and Islam in Germany last week.

By Rene Girard

Global Viewpoint: When Pope Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) said a few years ago that Christianity was a superior religion, he caused controversy. In 1990, in the encyclical “Redemptoris Missio,” Pope John Paul II said the same thing.

It should not be surprising that believers would affirm their faith as the true one. Perhaps it is a mark of the very relativist dominance Pope Benedict condemns that this is somehow controversial?

Girard: Why would you be a Christian if you didn’t believe in Christ? Paradoxically, we have become so ethnocentric in our relativism that we feel it is only OK for others — not us — to think their religion is superior! We are the only ones with no centrism.

GV: Is Christianity superior to other religions?

Girard: Yes. All of my work has been an effort to show that Christianity is superior and not just another mythology. In mythology, a furious mob mobilizes against scapegoats held responsible for some huge crisis. The sacrifice of the guilty victim through collective violence ends the crisis and founds a new order ordained by the divine. Violence and scapegoating are always present in the mythological definition of the divine itself.

It is true that the structure of the Gospels is similar to that of mythology, in which a crisis is resolved through a single victim who unites everybody against him, thus reconciling the community. As the Greeks thought, the shock of death of the victim brings about a catharsis that reconciles. It extinguishes the appetite for violence. For the Greeks, the tragic death of the hero enabled ordinary people to go back to their peaceful lives.

However, in this case, the victim is innocent and the victimizers are guilty. Collective violence against the scapegoat as a sacred, founding act is revealed as a lie. Christ redeems the victimizers through enduring his suffering, imploring God to “forgive them for they know not what they do.” He refuses to plead to God to avenge his victimhood with reciprocal violence. Rather, he turns the other cheek.

The victory of the Cross is a victory of love against the scapegoating cycle of violence. It punctures the idea that hatred is a sacred duty.

The Gospels do everything that the (Old Testament) Bible had done before, rehabilitating a victimized prophet, a wrongly accused victim. But they also universalize this rehabilitation. They show that, since the foundation of the world, the victims of all Passion-like murders have been victims of the same mob contagion as Jesus. The Gospels make this revelation complete because they give to the biblical denunciation of idolatry a concrete demonstration of how false gods and their violent cultural systems are generated.

This is the truth missing from mythology, the truth that subverts the violent system of this world. This revelation of collective violence as a lie is the earmark of Christianity. This is what is unique about Christianity. And this uniqueness is true.

*Ok, I overstated the case.  The British have many great historians, Henry of Huntington, Toynbee, and recently Niall Ferguson (British Isles), and countless others who all attempt to have the humility stick out their neck, say something intelligible, and make people think.

**In an intriguing aside, Girard points out that Christianity helped establish concern for victims for the first time in history, a great victory for Justice and the human heart.  But Satan has learned to pervert this as well.  Now our “victimization” culture has left off concern for justice, and instead has become a quest for power over others.  I.e., “because ‘x’ happened to me, now you must do ‘y.'”  We see this happen in the ancient world also, perhaps most notably with Julius Caesar’s murder and its relationship to the founding of the Roman Empire with Octavian/Augustus.  Girard writes,

The Antichrist boasts of bringing to human beings the peace and tolerance Christianity promised but failed to deliver.  Actually, what the radicalization of contemporary victomology produces is a return to all sorts of pagan practices: abortion, euthanasia, sexual undifferentiation, Roman circus games without the victims, etc.

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.

Dave

**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.

Dave

*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.

10th Grade: Looking back from the Reformation

Greetings to all,

This will be the first of what should be weekly updates about what we are doing in class.  My goal is to have these updates to you no later than Sunday afternoon, so if you do not receive one by Monday, do let me know.  My purpose is to let you have a glimpse of the classroom so you can keep abreast of what we are learning and discussing.  I hope you will join in the conversation with us as we move through the year.

We spent part of the first week reviewing and setting the context for the Reformation.  For the new students, this meant entering a story somewhere in the middle, which can always be difficult.  For some of the returning students, summer has understandably flushed some of their brains.  Any student who feels shaky on the medieval and Renaissance period may want to look here and here, or perhaps other places in the “9th Grade” category in the archives here at astickinthemud.

As I mentioned at orientation, this class primarily involves understanding what it means to transition from the pre-modern to the modern world.  We tend to use “modern” as a synonym for “good,” and indeed, students may feel that the changes from 1500-1850 represent a substantial improvement for mankind.  However, others may just as legitimately feel that we lost a great deal of our Christian heritage as a result of this transition.  Understanding both sides of this debate is one of the key goals of this class, regardless of where students stand on this transition.

The transition can be best understood I think in the following ways:

  • The pre-modern world believed that time and space had a meaning of its own apart from our own actions, whereas the modern world, in the words of scholar Charles Taylor, believes in the homogeneity of time and space.

For example, some churches today have spaces that they use for basketball on one day, picnics on another day, and worship on Sundays.  The meaning of the space depends on the meaning the people give it.  The space has no “meaning” in itself.

The pre-modern world believed in sacred time (Lent, Paschaltide, Advent, etc.) and sacred space.  No one would every think of playing basketball inside Chartes Cathedral.  The space has a meaning apart from us, inherent in the nature of the space itself.

  • The modern world puts a lot more emphasis on the individual than the pre-modern world, which had a more communal and historically oriented approach to meaning.

For example, many in the modern world feel comfortable with the idea than anyone can interpret the scriptures, which empowers the laity to read for themselves.  On the flip side, however, the modern world has a harder time deciding which interpretation is correct.  The pre-modern world had little concept of the individual and derived meaning and understanding from the past more so than the present.

No Church historian, whether Protestant or Catholic, believes that things in the Church in 1500 A.D. were fine.  Many wanted reform in the Church and believed it was desperately needed.   Among scholars and contemporaries, disagreements come in the following areas:

1. When did the problems in the Church begin?  Some say that it began with the popes of the 15th century.  Some say it began with the Great Schism of 1378.  Some argue that it can be traced to the Avignon Papacy, or to the papal decree ‘Unam Sanctum.’  Some go as far back as the Investiture Controversy of 1077.  Some reformers would want to go back further still, and argued that the problems began with Constantine in the 4th century A.D. How people answered this question influenced what they believe was the root problem the church faced.

2. What  indeed was the root problem the Church faced?  Was it a question of the ethics of the Church hierarchy? Was the issue mainly theological?  Or was it the Church’s long involvement with politics?  Or perhaps, all three?  Each choice represented a new fork in the road, one that would involve different choices and divergent paths.  For example, if you believed the Church’s problems to be recent, you likely would focus on the Church’s moral lapses.  The further back one found the so-called “root” of the problem, the more theological and institutional the criticisms, the more radical the operation required to correct the abuses.

Another issue was not only how far reform should go, but, cut free from Church hierarchy, what criteria should they use to make theological decisions?  What authority should tradition be granted?  Is it just “What the Bible means to me?”  If it is more than that, what is it?  Reformers at the time did not always agree on this question, and the results of their disagreement would do much to shape events throughout Europe.

Despite its fairly innocuous beginning when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg, the Reformation would snowball into a revolution.  Martin Luther had all of the necessary qualities that revolutionaries need.  He possessed great courage and great belief in his convictions.  He had charisma and keen intelligence.  The same qualities that make for good revolutionaries, however, do not make for good diplomats.  This type needs patience, flexibility, and the ability to see many points of view.  Historically speaking, very, very few have been good at both.*  This too will have a significant impact on Protestantism in particular, and the history of Europe in general.  Below I include some quotes from Martin Luther (and others) that illustrate Luther’s keen insights, sense of humor, temper, and stubbornness.

Next week we will see how the Reformation spreads throughout northern Europe, and the different guises reform takes.  If we believe that religion forms the heart of any civilization, the religious upheaval in Europe in 16th century will have significant ripple effects into all areas of life.  We shall examine some of these things next week.

Many thanks,

Dave Mathwin

*The only two I can think of are Nelson Mandela and George Washington.  Can anyone else think of others?

Reformation Quotes:

I think his [95 Theses] will please all, except a few regarding Purgatory who make their money thereby.  I perceive that the monarchy of the Roman high priest is the plague of Christendom, yet I hardly know if it is expedient to touch this open sore. — Erasmus in 1518

Most blessed Father, I offer myself prostrate at the feet of your Holiness, with all that I am and have. . . .I will acknowledge your voice as the voice of Christ, residing and speaking in you.  — Martin Luther to Pope Leo, 1518

Dearest brother in Christ, your epistle, showing the keeness of your mind and breathing a Christian spirit, was most pleasant to me.  Christ gave you his spirit, for His glory and the world’s good. [My advice] is that quiet argument may do more than wholesale condemnation.  Keep cool.  Do not get angry. — Erasmus 1519, in a letter to Luther

Luther’s books are everywhere and in every language.  No one would believe the influence he now has on men. — Erasmus, 1521

Unless I am convicted by the testimony of Sacred Scripture or by evident reason . . . I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe.  God help me. — Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, 1521

If we strike thieves with the gallows, robbers with the sword, heretics with fire, why do we not much more attack these masters of perdition, these cardinals, these popes, and this sink of Roman Sodom . . . and wash our hands in their blood? —  Martin Luther, 1520

It would be better if every bishop were murdered, every foundation of every cloister rooted out, then one soul destroyed, let alone that all souls should be lost due to their trumpery and idolatry. – Martin Luther, 1521

Begone, unclean swine!  Touch not the altars with your desecrated hands!  The cup is full.  See ye not that the breath of liberty is stirring?  – John Hutten, German priest speaking to the Roman bishops

The common man is learning to think, and contempt of princes is gathering among the multitude.  Men will not suffer your tyranny much longer. — Luther to the German princes

You lords, let down your stubborness and oppression, and give the poor air to breathe.  The peasants, for their part, should let themselves be instructed, and [withdraw some of their demands]. – Luther to German Nobility

Forward!  Forward while the fire is hot!  Let your swords be ever warm with blood. . . . The godless have no right to live except as they are permitted to do so by the elect.  – Thomas Munster, to his peasant army, 1524

In my former book, I did not venture to judge the peasants, since they had offered to be set right and instructed, [but they did not listen].  Any man against whom sedition can be proved is outside the law of God, so that the first who can slay him does right and well.  Therefore let everyone who can smite, slay, and stab.  There is nothing more devilish than a rebel. – Luther, ‘Against the Robbing and Murderous Horde Of Peasants.’ – 1525

He who will not hear God’s Word when it is spoken with kindness must hear the headsman when he comes with his axe. . . . Of mercy I will give no heed but to God’s will in His word.  If He will have wrath and not mercy, what are you to do with mercy?  Did not Saul sin by showing mercy upon Malek? — Luther, ‘An Open Letter concerning the Hard Book Against the Peasants.

Why should we pity men more than God does? – Philip Melancthon on the destruction of the Anabaptists

Anyone who is aware of [Anabaptist] teaching and preaching must give names to the magistrate, in order that the offender may be taken and punished.  Those aware of such breeches of this order and do not give information, shall be punished by loss of life or property. – Edict of Saxony, 1528

Quotes from Luther on Various Topics:

All the articles of our Christian faith are in the presence of reason sheerly impossible, absurd and false.  Reason is the greatest enemy faith has.  She is the Devil’s greatest whore.

The Bible teaches us to feel, hope, grasp, and comprehend faith, hope, and charity far otherwise than mere human reason can.

The human will is a beast of burden.  If God mounts it, it goes where He wills, and if Satan, it goes where he wills.  Nor can it choose the rider.

Christianity is nothing but a continual exercise in feeling that though you sin, you have no sin.  It is enough to know that the Lamb bears the sins of the world, whether we commit a thousand fornications a day or as many murders.

Man is as unfree as a block of wood, a lump of clay, a pillar of salt.

I do not admit that my doctrine can be judged by anyone.  He who does not receive my doctrine cannot be saved.

Seek out the society of your boon companions, drink, play talk bawdy, amuse yourself.  One must sometimes commit a great sin out of hate for the Devil, so as not to give you the chance to feel scrupulous over mere nothings.

Sin powerfully.  God can only forgive a hearty sinner.

I eat like a Bohemian and drink like a German.  Thanks be to God.

I seek and accept joy where I can find it.  We now know, thank God, that we can be happy with a good conscience.

Our loving God wills that we eat, drink, and be merry.

Dances are instituted that courtesy may contracted between young men and girls.  I myself would attend them sometimes, but the youth would whirl less giddily if I did.

I would not give up my humble musical gift for anything, however great.  Next to theology, there is no art that can be compared to music, for it alone, after theology, gives us rest and joy of heart.

Christians need not altogether shun plays because there is sometimes coarseness and adulteries therein; for such reasons they would have to give up the Bible too.

If God can forgive me for having crucified Him . . . He can also bear with me for occasionally taking a good drink to honor Him.

My enemies examine all that I do.  If I break wind in Wittenberg they smell it in Rome.

Punish if you must, but let the sugar plum go with the rod.

Take women from their housewifery and they are good for nothing.  But there she can do more with the children with one finger than a man with two fists.

My Lord Katie (his pet name for his wife Katharine).

I wish you peace and grace in Christ, and send you my infirm love.  Dear Katie, I was weak on the road to Eisleben, but that was my own fault. . . . now, thank God I am so well that I am sore tempted by fair women and care not how gallant I am.  God bless you.

I never work better than when I am inspired by anger.

Luther the Anti-Semite?

 I would not have the Gospel defended by violence or murder.  Since belief and unbelief is a matter of everyone’s conscience . . . the secular power should be content to attend to its own affairs and constrain no one by force.

Since our fools, the popes, bishops, sophists and monks, those donkeys have dealt poorly with the Jews.  Indeed, had I been a Jew and seen such idiots, I would rather be a hog than a Christian.  I would advise everybody to deal kindly with the Jews.

And let whosoever can throw brimstone and pitch upon [the Jews]; if one could hurl hellfire so much the better. . . .And this must be done, so that our Lord will see that we are indeed Christians.  Let them be driven like mad dogs out of the land.

Opinions of Luther

Luther is the ‘Morning Star’ of Wittenberg. – Mutantius, contemporary of Luther

Luther has all the fury of a maniac. – Mutantius, spoken about a year after the previous comment

If we judge greatness by influence – which is the least subjective test we can use – we may rank Luther with Copernicus, Voltaire, and Darwin as the most powerful personalities in the modern world. – Will Durant