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.