Animalia Agonistes

Given that I was 17 when Nirvana released Nevermind, the album obviously completely blew me away. For some time the subversive nature of the lyrics eluded me, lost as I was in the joy of our culture granting new-found permission to wear flannel shirts untucked. But then, one notices their audience mockery, such as in “In Bloom”–“He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along, but he knows not what it means.”

I confess to feeling a bit guilty for thinking of this song in reference to the monumental achievement of J.M.C Toynbee and her book Animals in Roman Life and Art (yes, she was the sister of that Toynbee). I have no wish to mock as did Kurt Cobain, but I confess frustration with the traditional British historian. The British, like all cultures, should own and even celebrate their quirks. And perhaps nothing quite says “British” like the charming codger who has spent his entire life curating a particular old building, and can tell you everything that has ever happened to every plank of wood. This same trait gets passed on to many of their historians, our esteemed author included. In her day she stood as a substantial authority on Roman art in general, and perhaps the authority for the Romans and animals–no mean achievement.

But she takes all of that knowledge and . . . writes a reference book. She fails to make her facts into a poem, to make her knowledge sing. Knowing everything, she “knows not what it means.”

I will make a meager attempt to do so.

But first, some of the fascinating facts about Romans and their relationship to animals.

Some years ago I saw a documentary on gladiators, and the video mentioned the “ecological disaster” inflicted upon wildlife. Surely, I thought this must be overdramatized. Apparently not! The numbers are numbing:

  • Some 9000 animals were killed at the inaugeration of the Colosseum, many of them “ordinary” animals which were not ferocious, such as foxes. Women killed some of these animals.
  • Trajan killed 11,000 to celebrate his Dacian Triumph
  • In one show, Nero’s bodyguard brought down 400 lions and 300 bears
  • Having beasts fight each other formed part of the spectacle as well.
  • From the late Republic on, having thousands of animals killed (most of them threatening) for a particular “celebration” was rather ordinary–the examples are too numerous to list to here, though Toynbee lays them out nicely.
  • All in all, some estimate that as many as 1,000,000 animals died in the arena (not to mention 400,000 humans), and it does indeed appear that certain species disappeared from certain regions of the globe due to this.

Some other more “tame”(zing!) factoids:

  • Elephants may have become a symbol of divinization for the Romans by the time of Emperor Tiberius. In addition, the Romans appear to have been able to train elephants to do unusual tricks, including walk a tightrope.
  • Aelian noted that he had seen a monkey trained to drive a chariot.
  • Lions were frequently featured on tombs by the age of Augustus, and dogs also were symbols of death.
  • On rare occasions, they kept bears as private pets.
  • In contrast to Judeo-Christian civilizations (and most others), the Romans regarded snakes as beneficial creatures.
  • The Romans had little regard for the tortoise, but the term they used for their interlocking shields was “testudo,” obviously borrowed from turtles. Turtle shells were also prized as baths for infants.

And so on. The book has hundreds of observations akin to these. So far, so good–she brings forward a variety of interesting facts. She helpfully reminds us that in a civilization that Rome’s relationship to its animals would have been much closer than ours. They relied on animals for farming, transport, and the like far more than we, and perhaps more than other contemporary civilizations (given their size, road structure, mobility of their army, etc.). But the data points never take us anywhere. Some might find this a humble attitude. I do not. Certainly there are plenty of times when one should keep their mouth shut, but I think Chesterton’s quote applies here:

What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition and settled upon the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table

If you are the world’s foremost authority on animals in Roman art, surely you can risk some of your accumulated capital and venture some highly educated guesses. Alas that she does not.

Two points in particular raised eyebrows with me that might shed a more general light on Roman civilization.

One is from page 68, where she writes,

[Here] two mosaic panels show a well-maned lion devouring a dark grey fawn. . . . The lions are arena beasts . . . [Another example] shows a lion holding in its maw the head of an antlered stag, which drips abundantly with blood. Lively amphitheater scenes are indeed, not uncommon on the floors of well-mannered houses.

Later, on page 83, she writes about leopards and describes another mosaic:

Above the three are dying leopards, each transfixed murderously by a barbed spear, writhing in agony, one rolled over on its back. Below, two venatores, one labeled MELITTO, are each driving a spear into the leopard’s chest, from which gush streams of blood. A dying leopard, also speared, lies in the background. . . . the realism with which they are portrayed is excruciating; and this picture raises in a most acute form the problem of how householders could wish to perpetuate such scenes of carnage on the floors of their home.

Though the problem be “acute,” she says not one word about it!

In a few other instances, usually involving lions or elephants, Toynbee tells of written texts that speak of people starting to sympathize with animals in the arena, even coming to root for them against their human counterparts, with thousands in the crowd weeping as they were killed. One might expect that such instances would serve as a spark for moral revolution, but this never came close to happening. Objections to the practice in any written record can be listed easily on one hand over a period that spans many centuries.

Can we put these curiosities together?

On one hand we have the “modern” answer to the problem which would run like so:

  • The Romans were a calloused, bored, and violent people. Such people would go to the games, cheer the games, and celebrate the games. The fact that they decorate their floors with scenes from the games is not much different than us putting up posters of our sports heroes in action.
  • Yes, they did lament the cruelty of the games at times. But again, when a player gets badly injured we too get quiet. If the injury is particularly bad players and fans might cry. But though the injury may cause us pause, this will not stop us from watching the next game or even the next play.

This explanation might be true, but I doubt it is. It seems too neat, too comfortable to the modern mind, to fit an ancient civilization.

We can start an alternate inquiry by asking what purpose the games served in Rome. Based on Carlin Barton’s wonderful insights, we can say that the games did not serve strictly as entertainment, but rather as an extension of their religious belief. Moderns like to separate religion from other aspects of life, the ancients would not have understood this distinction.

Most know that the Romans saw themselves as “tough” and “hard,” so we naturally assume that their drunken revels were a departure from that, a sign of decadence. But the Romans saw these seemingly disparate aspects as part of the same cloth. We are hard on ourselves in the army–we are hard on ourselves at parties too. We will eat until we cannot eat, then vomit, and eat some more–and still strive to enjoy it all. We push ourselves to endure both pain and pleasure in its maximum degree. Moderation?–not a thing in Rome.

My guess, then, with the animals and the arena, is that they could weep for them not so much because they felt sorry for them, but because they saw them as partners in the struggle of life. They weep for them falling as they would lament the deaths of their soldiers. Toynbee points out the close and varied relationship Rome had with animals, so this might fit with her work. So too, they have mosaics of dying animals in their homes not to revel in their destruction, but to honor them as fellow participants in the “Roman way,” just as we have posters of our sports heroes to honor their achievements.

So too, seeing lions and elephants as symbols of death and divinization might explain why they participated in the arena. Just as a Roman could be “divinized” by transcending normal human attributes such as fear of death, so too the animals could achieve this same level, in a sense. The title of this post recalls Milton’s poem, “Samson Agonistes.” Milton portrays Samson as a great champion,, but one imprisoned also by his “inner struggle” (a rough translation of “agonistes”)–and perhaps glorified by this same struggle? The Romans may have thought they were being generous in sharing their glory by sharing their struggle with the animals.

I may be wrong, but I do feel that ancient civilizations are generally “weirder” than we usually expect, and taking this approach will eventually lead to the right answer. Given how many unusual observations Toynbee made, it grieves me that she failed to use her enormous gifts to attempt a synthesis.

10th Grade: Richelieu and the New World Order

Greetings to all,

This week we looked at the 30 Years War and previewed the coming change towards the ‘Scientific Revolution.’

The 30 Years War was a devastating conflict in terms of loss of life.  But it was also devastating in a psychological, moral sense.  For decades Catholics and Protestants killed each other, burned towns, committed atrocities, all in the name of the Christian faith.  The map below shows the casualties in various parts of Germany alone.

Part of the reason the war became so destructive is that various nations, like Sweden, Spain, and France found reasons to get involved at various times during the war and extended it artificially. But part of the reason that religious conflicts  persist in general is that:

  • It is difficult to compromise or negotiate with religious belief
  • Victory in a religious war is hard to define

One can only come to terms in a religious war when either

  • Both sides are completely exhausted, or
  • You change what the war is about, making it something that you can compromise on, such as possession of territory.

This is in fact what happened, and this second reason is a clue to the coming transformation in the worldview of Europe.  Since the start of the Reformation, Catholics and Protestants had both lead with religion in the political and philosophical realm.  Now, their focus shifted towards the more tangible and measurable. We will explore this in more depth in coming weeks.

Essentially, we see a shift from theory, which would include intellectual ideas as well as the unproven realm of ‘faith,’ to experience, observation, and the natural world.  It is the Dutch school of the 17th century that  exemplified this change.  One can see it in the work of Van Hals:

Here are practical, reasonable men.  They are a long way from the emotionally and spiritually moved men from, say, Carravaggio’s work just a few decades earlier.  This passion for representing reality apart from meaning reached it’s peak with this work of Paulus Potter:

.Probably the artist who married the best of the observational school with meaning had to be Rembrandt.   He depicted people “realistically,” but he managed to depict them as morally imaginative as well.  We think of him as a painter, but he was best known in his day for his etchings.  Here is one example:

If the Dutch exemplified the change in art, the French did so in the political realm.  Cardinal Richelieu is known for many things, but this quote exemplifies his philosophy:

‘People are immortal, and thus subject to the law of God.  States are mortal [that is, ‘unnatural,’ artificial, man-made creations], and are thus subject to the law of what works.’

Richelieu believed that nations did not interact with each other in the way that individuals did.  After all, people cannot kill each other, but nations can have armies that kill each other without necessarily sinning.  People can’t lie, but nations can send spies to other places where they ‘lawfully’ engage in deception.  It might be similar to people bluffing in poker.  They are trying to deceive, but are they sinning?  Most would say not, because when we play poker we enter into a world that has its own set of rules set apart from normal life.  Frenchmen will be judged by God.  But the geographical entity we call ‘France’ will pass away, it will not be judged.  Thus, ‘France’ could play by different rules than Frenchmen.

This famous painting of him shows his famously lean, intelligent frame:

With this perspective, Richelieu astounded and infuriated his contemporaries.  As France’s chief minister, he sought to serve the entity ‘France.’  This meant that:

  • France would intervene on behalf of Protestants in the 30 Years War, despite the fact that they were a Catholic nation.  Except that Richelieu didn’t see ‘Catholic France,’ but ‘France, where most people are Catholic.’  Richelieu fought not to protect Catholics, but the entity France, which he did not want surrounded by Catholic Spain.  Spain fought in the 30 Years War in part to recover the Netherlands, territory they had lost in the early 1600’s.  This new perspective shocked many, but it would be the way of the future
  • He believed that strengthening France would have to mean strengthening the king.  This in turn meant weakening the nobles.  We will see this European turn  away from the feudal era, and toward more centralized authority.  It would be another Frenchmen, Louis XIV, that would push these ideas even further later in the 17th century.

Dave Mathwin

12th Grade: The Origins of the Peloponnesian War

Greetings,

This week we started our unit on the Peloponnesian War.  This conflict took place between 431- 404 BC, and was chronicled by one of the founders of History itself, Thucydides.  Thucydides’s genius lay far beyond his dispassionate recording of events.  He concerned himself not only with battles, but also the deeper political, economic, and psychological contexts.  He was a commentator on democracy and human nature itself.  We will attempt to follow his lead, ranging back and forth between ancient and modern times.

We will also shortly begin our own Peloponnesian War game, in which the class is divided up into 5 different teams, each of whom participated in the actual Peloponnesian War.  The game is designed to give each side certain strengths and weaknesses, and different means of winning.  Generally speaking, the teams that have won in the past have focused not merely on eliminating enemy soldiers, but instead on forging a synergy between their economics, politics, and diplomacy, with their military action arising from that context.  This usually means that things start slow, but tend to pick up as weeks go by.

Most of us are used to thinking of democracy as a permanent fixture in our lives, but the Athenians lost, regained, lost, and finally regained democracy during and after the conflict.  Why did this happen?  Does war put more pressure on democracies than other forms of government?  On another note, are democracies naturally inclined toward expansion, or are those democracies that have expanded a product of historical coincidence?

Our study of this conflict should always have the idea of democracy behind it, for the war as a whole, and Athens’ role in it particularly, can teach us a lot about democracies.  Fundamentally, we should consider what makes a country “democratic.”  I offered the students the following choices:

  • In country ‘X’ the people are ruled by a king, but the laws of the realm allow for free speech, equal treatment under the law, freedoms of assembly, religion, etc.  In short, all the trappings we usually associate with democracy, except the people did not elect their leaders.
  • In country ‘Y’ the people have a representative democracy where they elect all their leaders.  But the elected government (which won 60% of the vote) uses their power to restrict the rights those that opposed them.

Which country is more democratic?  Does democracy have more to do with the process than the result?

As we look at the origins of the conflict, we will consider criteria for a ‘just’ war.  What kind of strategy should Athens have pursued, and does it teach us how democracies tend to, or should act, in war?

First, some of the background to the war.

Prior to ca. 500 B.C., Athens was not one of the major city-states of Greece.  They were not nobodies, but they could not be called a New York, LA, or Chicago.  Perhaps a Philadelphia. Their moment came during the Persian Wars, where their staunch resistance and military success propelled them into a potential leadership role.  How did they handle it?

They helped from what was known as The Delian League, a mutual defense alliance with other city-states that rimmed the Aegean against Persia.  Member states could contribute money or ships. As one might expect, nearly all chose the ‘money’ option. It was easier, for starters. But it also made sense.  Since Persia might return any time it made sense to fund the best navy and get more of the best ships out into the Aegean, and Athens had that navy.

But what if Persia did not look like it was coming back?  Can you leave the Delian League? Athens said no. They had some good arguments:

  • Persia was still a major power and could decide to come back at any time.
  • If a city-state left they could potentially make an alliance with Persia, which would threaten all of their neighbors.
  • Even if a city-state did not make an alliance with Persia, they would still get security.  Athens could not let Persia establish a beach-head anywhere in Greece.  Therefore they would get free security, which was unfair.

We can still imagine that the other city-states failed to be impressed with these arguments.  Athens, the one-time champion of the ‘little guy’ had become the block bully in the minds of many.  How should we view Athens? Who was right? Here is a map of the Greek world at the time the war began:

I think we have to appreciate Athens’ dilemma, but if we look elsewhere for clues, it appears Athens had fallen into what Toynbee called “The Idolization of the Parochial Community.’  That is, once Athens stood for something, something outside itself. Now, despite the progressive nature of Athenian democracy, drama, philosophy, and so on, Athens seemed to justify its actions based on how it related to themselves and themselves alone.  This can be seen in their siding against certain democracies when it looked like doing so might advantage them in some way. One can see the comparisons with pre-World War I Europe, with democracy at home, and imperialism and a form of subjugation abroad.  By 431 B.C. the Greeks had made their society into a fireworks stand where anything might upset the apple cart. Athens’s power, their rivalry with Sparta and Corinth, created a potential disaster. If you are interested, I include below an excerpt from Toynbee’s ‘An Historian’s Approach to Religion’ on the idea of parochial communities.  When war breaks out next week we will consider a few different issues.

  • To what extent is a country’s reputation part of its power and security?  Can threat’s to your reputation be considered a threat to your security?  Should war’s be fought if no physical danger is immediately present?  How much importance did reputation have in the Greek world?  Does that make the actions of Athenians and Spartans more or less defensible?
  • Traditionally, just war theory within the framework of Christian thought has focused on 1) The cause, 2) The goal, and 3) Proportionality of response.  One may fight defensively, but not start wars.  One can fight to defend the innocent, but not merely to extend one’s power.   If a rival invades with 1000 troops, you cannot counter with 100,000 and destroy him utterly.  Did Sparta or Athens begin the war?  Can either side lay claim to fighting a just war?
  • Corinth was a city-state covered in faded glory, anxious to reclaim it, and one that burned with indignation at Athens for wearing the mantle of ‘top dog.’  Does Corinth share any similarities with China and Russia today?  How should Athens have dealt with the overly touchy Corinth?How do the ideas of just war fit into the context of the Peloponnesian War?  How do they fit into the modern period? What constitutes an ‘attack’ upon us?  Would a cyber-attack be an act of war that would allow us to kill others? What does the possibility of weapons of mass destruction do to the concept of pre-emption in war?  Are the old guidelines relevant today, or do they need rethought?
Dave Mathwin
Toynbee, “The Idolization of the Parochial Community”
Unhappily, Polytheism begins to produce new and pernicious social effects when its domain is extended from the realm of Nature-worship to a province of the realm of Man-worship in which the object of worship is parochial collective human power. Local worships of deified parochial communities inevitably drive their respective devotees into war with one another. Whereas Demeter our common Mother Earth is the same goddess in Attica and in Laconia, the Athene Polias of Athens and the Athana Chalcioecus of Sparta, who are the respective deifications of these two parochial communities, are bound to be rival goddesses in spite of their bearing the same name. The worship of Nature tends to unite the members of different communities because it is not self-centred; it is the worship of a power in whose presence all human beings have the identical experience of being made aware of their own human weakness. On the other hand the worship of parochial communities tends to set their respective members at variance because this religion is an expression of self-centredness; because self-centredness is the source of all strife; and because the collective ego is a more dangerous object of worship than the individual ego is.
The collective ego is more dangerous because it is more powerful, more demonic, and less patently unworthy of devotion. The collective ego combines the puny individual power of each of its devotees into the collective power of Leviathan. This collective power is at the mercy of subconscious passions because it escapes the control of the Intellect and Will that put some restraint on the individual ego. And bad behaviour that would be condemned unhesitatingly by the conscience in an individual culprit is apt to be condoned when it is perpetrated by Leviathan, under the illusion that the first person is absolved from self-centredness by being transposed from the singular number into the plural. This is, however, just the opposite of the truth; for, when an individual projects his self-centredness on to a community, he is able, with less sense of sin, to carry his egotism to greater lengths of enormity. ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’;5 and the callousness of committees testifies still more eloquently than the fury of mobs that, in collective action, the ego is capable of descending to depths to which it does not fall when it is acting on its individual responsibility.
The warfare to which parochial-community-worship leads is apt to rankle, sooner or later, into war to the death; and this self-inflicted doom is insidious, because the ultimately fatal effects of this religion are slow to reveal themselves and do not become unmistakably clear till the mischief has become mortally grave.
In its first phase the warfare between deified parochial states is usually waged in a temperate spirit and is confined within moderate limits. In this first phase the worshippers of each parochial god recognize in some degree that each neighbour parochial god is the legitimate sovereign in his own territory. Each local god will be deemed to have both the right and the power to punish alien human trespassers on his domain who commit a grievous wrong against him by committing it against his people; and this consideration counsels caution and restraint in waging war on foreign soil. It tends to prevent war from becoming total. The bashful invader will refrain, not only from desecrating the enemy’s temples, but from poisoning his wells and from cutting down his fruit trees. The Romans, when they had made up their minds to go to all lengths in warring down an enemy community, used to take the preliminary precautions of inviting the enemy gods to evacuate the doomed city and of tempting them to change sides by offering them, in exchange, honourable places in the Roman pantheon. When a local community has been exterminated or deported in defiance of the local divinity and without regard to his sovereign prerogatives, the outraged parochial god may bring the usurpers of his domain and scorners of his majesty to heel by making the place too hot to hold them except on his terms. The colonists planted by the Assyrian Government on territory that had been cleared of its previous human occupants by the deportation of the Children of Israel soon found, to their cost, that Israel’s undeported god Yahweh had lost none of his local potency; and they had no peace till they took to worshipping this very present local god instead of the gods that they had brought with them from their homelands.
Thus the conduct of war between parochial states is kept within bounds, at the start, by a common belief in the equality of sovereign parochial gods, each within his own domain. But this belief is apt to break down, and, with it, the restraint that is imposed by it. They break down because the self-worship of a parochial community is essentially incompatible with the moderation commended in such maxims as ‘Live and let live’ and ‘Do as you would be done by’. Every form of Man-worship is a religious expression of self-centredness, and is consequently infected with the intellectual mistake and the moral sin of treating a part of the Universe as if it were the whole—of trying to wrest the Universe round into centring on something in it that is not and ought not to be anything more than a subordinate part of it. Since self-centredness is innate in every living creature, it wins allegiance for any religion that ministers to it. It also inhibits any living creature that fails to break away from it from loving its neighbour as itself, and a total failure to achieve this arduous moral feat has a disastrous effect on social relations.
A further reason why it is difficult to keep the warfare between parochial states at a low psychological temperature is because parochial-community-worship wins devotion not onlyby ministering disastrously to self-centredness. It wins it also by giving a beneficent stimulus to Man’s nobler activities in the first chapter of the story. In the histories of most civilizations in their first chapters, parochial states have done more to enrich their members’ lives by fostering the arts than they have done to impoverish them by taking a toll of blood and treasure. For example, the rise of the Athenian city-state made life richer for its citizens by creating the Attic drama out of a primitive fertility-ritual before life was made intolerable for them by a series of ever more devastating wars between Athens and her rivals. The earlier Athens that had been ‘the education of Hellas’ won and held the allegiance of Athenian men and women, over whom she had cast her spell, for the benefit of the later Athens that was ‘a tyrant power’; and, though these two arrogant phrases were coined to describe Athens’ effect on the lives of the citizens of other Hellenic city-states, they describe her effect on the lives of her own citizens no less aptly. This is the tragic theme of Thucydides’ history of the Great Atheno-Peloponnesian War, and there have been many other performances of the same tragedy that have not found their Thucydides.
The strength of the devotion that parochial-community-worship thus evokes holds its devotees in bondage to it even when it is carrying them to self-destruction; and so the warfare between contending parochial states tends to grow more intense and more devastating in a crescendo movement. Respect for one’s neighbours’ gods and consideration for these alien gods’ human proteges are wasting assets. All parochial-community-worship ends in a worship of Moloch, and this ‘horrid king’ exacts more cruel sacrifices than the Golden Calf. War to the death between parochial states has been the immediate external cause of the breakdowns and disintegrations of almost all, if not all, the civilizations that have committed suicide up to date. The decline and fall of the First Mayan Civilization is perhaps the only doubtful case.
The devotion to the worship of Moloch is apt to persist until it is too late to save the life of the civilization that is being destroyed by it. It does break down at last, but not until a stage of social disintegration has been reached at which the blood-tax exacted by the waging of ever more intensive, ferocious, and devastating warfare has come palpably to outweigh any cultural and spiritual benefits that the contending parochial states may once have conferred on their citizens. . . 

Time vs. Space

In an essay he wrote a few years ago called “The Four America’s” conservative columnist David Brooks pointed to the need for a new unifying narrative for America. What he called the “Exodus” paradigm held from our founding as a nation until recently. We told ourselves that America was essentially replaying the story of the Israelites, who fled religious oppression in Egypt, and came to the promised land to be a light unto the nations. Americans too fled oppression in the old world and came to a new one, establishing a special and unique nation that could broadcast freedom to the rest of the world. We existed to inspire others to follow in our footsteps.

Obviously this national myth no longer holds the imagination of our culture. In some ways we can lament the loss of this sense of mission and purpose, but I also think that the story never quite fit to begin with. Granted, every myth compresses and synthesizes, but our treatment of Native Americans and slavery stand as massive exceptions that the myth simply cannot hold within it. Our relative ignorance of these “anomalies” in our story* for centuries then naturally led people to focus almost exclusively upon the “exception” to the story, and so the pendulum swung entirely in the other direction. I am no friend of the modern progressive left, but reluctantly, I understand why they exist. We will have to endure them at least a little longer, it seems, perhaps as penance for our sins.

In addition, the Exodus story works wonderfully for a pioneer people, but less well for a major superpower. And, finally, even a cursory look suggests the possibility that the Enlightenment had just as much, if not more, influence on our founding than Christianity.

Brooks then suggests four other off-shoots from this myth, though admits that neither of them work even as well as the Exodus narrative.

  • The Libertarian myth sees us as “a land of free individuals responsible for our own fate.” It celebrates choice and the free market. It borrows from the freedom element of the Exodus story, but economic choice isn’t as powerful as religious choice. And–simply focusing on personal choice and responsibility cannot sufficiently unify us.
  • The “Globalized America” narrative celebrates a sliver of the “America as beacon for the world” from the Exodus story, as well as the dismantling of old hierarchies celebrated by our founders. But this story fails to provide an America distinctive enough to give us an identity.
  • “Multicultural America” borrows from the “Exodus” story with its narrative of oppression and the idea of a melting pot nation. But in always focusing on the exceptions and purely personal identity, no common core can be built to rally around.
  • The “America First” story gives us a common core and reinforces American distinctives, unlike the above three options. It has a brashness that can be bracing, especially compared to the other options. But it leaves out the inclusive aspect of the American story. It can tend to produce a “patriotism for the sake of patriotism” whirlpool. It gives America no transcendent reason to exist beyond its mere existence.

I agree with Brooks that neither of these four approaches are even as good as our discarded “Exodus” story. I agree that we need another narrative, but am not sure how we’re going to get one in our polarized culture. But as to what polarizes us a country–we don’t agree on this either. This is not only America’s problem–most everywhere else at least in the developed world seems to have the “first world problem” of no unifying narrative.** But we do not look deep enough for the cause of this rift, and blame different sides for the wrong reasons.

Though democracies have done much to alter traditions, they cannot change the basic ways in which the world works and the ways we perceive the world, at least on a subconscious level. Ancient creation stories agree in many ways, perhaps most fundamentally in that they conceived of creation as a harmony of contrasting forces. “Salvation” in a Christian sense is about the marriage of Heaven and Earth, and of course, the Incarnation is Christ the God-Man uniting Heaven and Earth in one Person. I do not intend this post to be an explicit argument for the truth of the Christian story, but I do believe it contains the most coherent and best “version” of all the ancient cosmologies. Biblical cosmology overlaps with many other ancient cosmologies, and this only serves as a point in its favor. Acknowledging these huge questions, from here on I will proceed by discussing ancient cosmologies in general.

The modern age measures time in what I would consider to be rather an insane way:

The second (abbreviation, s or sec) is the Standard International ( SI ) unit of time. One second is the time that elapses during 9,192,631,770 (9.192631770 x 10 9 ) cycles of the radiation produced by the transition between two levels of the cesium 133 atom . . .

This has advantages, as it allows to universalize and quantify precisely, but it happens completely outside of our experience, and thus, time can have little real meaning for us. The way we parse out units of time remains essentially arbitrary. For the ancient world, time had a manifest reality because it brought observable change. Day turns to night, and then night turns to day. Seasons change, and death and new life come with these changes. Thus the ancients conceived time as something moving, fluid, in flux–like water, but also solid and experientially verifiable.

Space gives us stability. Time allows us to become, but we need to “be” something to “become” anything (apologies to Brad Goodman). Time needs space to act upon. The relationship between time and space can only work well when we have a strong concept of the unity of heaven and earth. Possibly, we could have an acceptable range of this relationship. Some parents are more strict and some more permissive, but as long as one avoids the red line on either side, families can be stable and healthy.

For example, ancient Egypt leaned heavily on the side of space. They lived within a narrow strip of land, with the “chaos” of desert and death right next to them. Even their greatest architectural achievements mainly had the psychological effect of weights pressing on the ground. The Nile flooding formed in integral part of Egyptian life, but they put all their energy into controlling the Nile flood. Theirs was a “masculine” civilization all in all, and some historians criticize them for being too rigid and not sufficiently adaptable to change.

Babylon favored the fluidity of time (too much so, I would say, but we’ll let it pass for now–they had a long and storied history, after all). The Euphrates bisected their city, and they sought not to control the river–they had no great need to do so anyway–but to utilize it for their benefit. One of their main deities, Ishtar, was goddess of love, war, marriage, and prostitution, and sometimes was pictured with a beard. Aristocratic males were known to cross-dress and temple prostitution was the norm. Babylon was the quintessential cosmopolitan city–home of every philosophy and religious idea in existence in their known world. Theirs was a “feminine” civilization, in the sense that they had little devotion to the concept of a stable, unified form.

We can debate the merits of both civilizations, but should acknowledge that although they had different answers as to the balance between time and space, both at least were conscious of the realities of both. Our problem is twofold: 1) We lack even basic awareness of these concepts on a metaphysical level, and 2) We have abandoned the “marriage” of Heaven and Earth (a mirror also for “Time, and “Space” respectively) in Christ, and so have lost any hope of holding them in tension. With both freed from each other, Time makes war on Space, and vice-versa.^

Some argue that Time reigns supreme. In favor of the victory of Time, we see the rapid expansion of “time saving” technologies. Cars and planes compress space, but nothing compresses space quite like the internet. We erode boundaries of privacy, and we live in a “hot-take” world of moving information. Very few media outlets can afford patient reflection. Time’s triumph–thinking in terms of the “fluid” aspect of time–seems most evident in our culture’s support for people changing genders.

But, not so fast . . . “Space” does not take this lying down. If Democrats propose open borders, Trump will build a wall. In countries such as Poland and Hungary we see a resurgence of a strong nationalistic mindset. As we do more to celebrate exceptions and fluidity in the west, at the same time we have more absolute boundaries enforced by the culture as to what we can and cannot say. College students demand rigid “safe spaces” on the one hand while simultaneously affirming the legitimacy of every possible identity–a perfect incarnation of the intense stalemate between time and space. And–every spot on earth is mapped out, which means that space has complete definition. No country would possibly consider negotiating space with another country to resolve a dispute. Lest our modern avoidance of this seem perfectly natural, it stands in sharp contrast to politics before perhaps 1789, where king’s would routinely trade provinces here and there as diplomatic chips.

So today we have both “Time” and “Space” making a strong play for dominance, and just like the whole family suffers when dad and mom fight, so too we suffer in the midst of this contest. But children have little hope of solving their parent’s problems. We have more control of ours. We need the King to return to end the vicious squabbling of princes. When the dust settles, then we may see clearly enough to tell ourselves the story we all need to hear.

Dave

*I suppose there are those that would not call slavery and our treatment of Native Americans as anomalies to the story. Israel did have slaves–and some might draw a parallel to our treatment of Native Americans with what Israel did at Jericho. I disagree with this interpretation, but I want to acknowledge its existence.

**I know some do not want a unifying narrative because they fear the unity that this provides, and the concentration of power it gives. We saw the destructive potential of this in the early 20th century. But you can shove this basic human need under the carpet for only so long, and the longer we wait, the more chances for a destructive “pendulum swing” identity to emerge.

^Those familiar with Jonathan Pageau’s Symbolic World podcast will note my debt in what follows to episode 62, along with Matthew Pageau’s The Language of Creation.

Comparing civilizations on the Time/Space axis can be fun and illuminating. Clearly America, along with Babylon, heavily leans in the direction of “Time.” We have pioneered many so-called “time saving” technologies. The great Tyler Cowen proclaimed that our decline in physical mobility is a worrisome problem. We love our cars, and some argue that we lost our mojo as a civilization the moment the frontier closed. Bob Dylan mythologized the rolling stone, and who can possibly forget Journey telling us that the wheel in the sky keeps on turning, and that he doesn’t know where he’ll be tomorrow?

We have countless writers and other aspects of our culture that celebrate movement, the open road, etc. I can think only of Wendell Berry as perhaps our only cultural contributor of note who writes in celebration of Space.

8th Grade: Babylon’s “Ball of Confusion”

Greetings,

This week we began our look at Babylonian civilization.

Babylon had many things going for it.  They were the quintessential cosmopolitan city of the ancient world.  Their geography funneled trade, cash, and resources towards them.  Much of ancient learning concentrated itself there.  This would be a city in general more tolerant, vibrant, and diverse than most other cities in the ancient world.  I hope that they remember our examination of the geographical influence of all of this.  ‘Cosmopolitan’ cities throughout history have to be accessible, which usually puts them in relatively flat areas near water.  One thinks of New York, London, and Los Angeles as examples.  Of course, the such cities not only need favorable geography, but they need to be accessible and open-minded culturally as well.  Geography can bring you to water, but can’t make you drink.

But enormous cracks in the foundation lay below the surface.  Babylonian creation accounts paint a bleak picture: Ultimately things “come to be”  because of chaos and confusion amongst the gods.  Unlike in Genesis 1, creation had no intentionality or design behind it.  Nor can we say that the “good” gods triumphed over evil.  Rather, one side simply emerged as the stronger.  This impacted their thought in several ways:

  • Humanity is an afterthought that exists to be manipulated by the gods
  • Stability and order are generally absent (a stark contrast to Genesis 1).This chaos spilled over into other areas:
  • Sin, at root, was not your fault, as you could be ‘jumped’ by malicious spirits (jinn) who would lead you down the wrong path
  • Ishtar was their major goddess – goddess of love and marriage but also war and prostitution.  She was again, a goddess, but was often depicted with a beard.  The ambiguity was reflected in the statue of her to the side, which shows her as a warrior showing quite a bit of leg for an ancient goddess.
  • Not surprisingly, this gender confusion spilled over into society, as Herodotus tells us of the fad among society’s elite for cross-dressing
  • Not surprisingly, Babylon was known for its immorality, notorious for its rampant temple prostitution, among other things.

 

A society where so much is left to chance is bound to try and find a way to explain it all, and this may have led to the Babylonian passion for dream interpretation.*  A whole list of possible dreams and their meanings was drawn up, but this did not necessarily help.  One tells us that if you dream that you have meat you will have a son.  Later, it says that if you have meat in a dream you will not have a son.  How could one know the truth?

Or perhaps, with the mysteries of the universe completely unknowable, one might stop looking and settle for the ‘eat, drink, for tomorrow we die,’ philosophy.  It is any surprise that Babylon is conquered in Daniel 5 as they are partying?  Perhaps we might also surmise that Babylon’s endless possibilities led in the end to boredom.  We looked at this famous Babylonian text,

Babylon’s View of Life: “The Dialog of Pessimism,” (M stands for Master, S for slave)

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “I will love a woman!”

S “So love, my lord, love!

The man who loves a woman forgets want and misery!”

M “No, slave, I will not love  a woman!”

S “Love not, my lord, love not!

Woman is a snare, a trap, a pitfall;

Woman is a sharpened iron sword

Which will cut a young man’s neck!”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “Straightaway order me water for my hands,

I will make a libation to my god!”

S “Do my lord, do!  As for the man who makes a libation

To his god, his heart is at ease;

He makes loan upon loan!”

M “No slave, I will not make a libation!”

S “Make it not, my lord, make it not!

Teach the god to run after thee like a dog.”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “I will give money to my country.”

S “So do, my lord, so do!

The man who gives money to his land,

His alms have been put in the palms of the god

Marduk himself.”

M “No, slave, I will not give alms to my land!”

S “Do it not, my lord, do it not!

Look upon the ruined mounds of

Ancient cities and look around;

Behold the skulls of those of earlier and later times.

Who is the evildoer, who is the benefactor?”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “Now then, what is good?

To break my neck and thy neck,

To fall into the river — that is good!”

S “Yes my lord.  Who is tall enough to reach up to heaven;

Who is broad enough that he might encompass the earth?

M “No slave, I will kill only you — you go first!”

S “But, you my lord, would not last three days after me!

I hope the students saw the links between Babylonian religion and the problems in their society as a whole. Indeed, the idea that ‘you are what you worship’ is true for individuals as much as societies.
This week the students will look at sections from the “Code of Hammurabi,” what historians believe to be history’s oldest written law code.  On the one hand, forming this code ranks as a significant achievement, but I think we often overrate it.  Why did Egypt, for example, not have a written law code (that we know of, anyway)?  Egypt’s sense of purpose for their lives as individuals and as a civilization had such a strong religious foundation, that they simply appeared not to need a formal written law code.  Incidentally, the Egyptian creation account compares favorably in many key respects to the biblical account.  Babylon’s need for a law code so early in its life may have reflected the fractured nature of their society.