Breathe In, Breathe Out

I have very fond feelings for Will Durant. His multi-volume series The Story of Civilization was an absolute lifeline for me in my early years of teaching, and reading those volumes propelled me to some wonderful primary sources. His insights were not as profound as those of his contemporary AJ Toynbee, but he wrote with a more whimsical touch.

In Durant’s The Lessons of History (co-authored by his wife Ariel) he includes as essay on the question of whether or not progress is real. In grand Thomistic fashion Durant begins by proposing a negative answer. Philosophy will never eclipse Plato, literature will not move beyond Shakespeare. Science heals but also has created new forms of death and accelerated our means to destroy each other.

But Durant then pivots, and affirms that we have progressed–not in happiness (we will always find ways to be unhappy)–but in command over the environment. Famine and other natural disasters no longer decimate millions each year, and Durant asks,

“Are we ready to scuttle the science that has so diminished superstition, obscurantism, and religious intolerance, or the technology that has spread food, home ownership, comfort, education, and leisure beyond any precedent?”

He continues and admires the expansion of education, stating that

“If education is the transmission of civilization, we are unquestionably progressing … our finest contemporary achievement is our unprecedented expenditure of wealth and toil in the provision of higher education for all … we have raised the level and average level of knowledge beyond any age in history.”

It is a fine argument, and as always, wonderfully written.

In 1845 Thomas Macaulay wrote eloquently in favor of the Progress narrative:

It is now the fashion to place the golden age of England in times when noblemen were destitute of comforts the want of which would be intolerable to a modern footman, when farmers and shopkeepers breakfasted on loaves the very sight of which would raise a riot in a modern workhouse, when to have a clean shirt once a week was a privilege reserved for the higher class of gentry, when men died faster in the purest country air than they now die in the most pestilential lanes of our towns, and when men died faster in the lanes of our towns than they now die on the coast of Guiana.

We too shall, in our turn, be outstripped, and in our turn be envied. It may well be, in the twentieth century, that the peasant of Dorsetshire may think himself miserably paid with twenty shillings a week; that the carpenter at Greenwich may receive ten shillings a day; that labouring men may be as little used to dine without meat as they now are to eat rye bread; that sanitary police and medical discoveries may have added several more years to the average length of human life; that numerous comforts and luxuries which are now unknown, or confined to a few, may be within the reach of every diligent and thrifty working man

But even Macaulay, amidst his rhapsody, at least gives a quick nod to the counter argument:

And yet it may then be the mode to assert that the increase of wealth and the progress of science have benefited the few at the expense of the many, and to talk of the reign of Queen Victoria as the time when England was truly merry England, when all classes were bound together by brotherly sympathy, when the rich did not grind the faces of the poor, and when the poor did not envy the splendour of the rich.

Most ancient historians claim that things have gotten worse, that we progress from golden ages, to silver, to bronze and iron, a descent from heaven to earth. A middle position exists that I want to explore, one that questions the main arguments of the progress and decline narratives–though obviously certain kinds of progress and decline happen–and instead focus on the idea that “there is nothing new under the sun,” and be guided by St. Gregory of Nyssa’s treatise, On the Making of Man.*

Consider what follows speculative . . .

Humanity may progress in certain ways, and decline in others, but will always be limited by the circumstances of his creation. We are meant both to reflect God to world and to mediate the world to God. As such we have elements both of movement and stability in our nature. St. Gregory writes,

It may be, by a providential dispensation, so that the property of nature which constitutes its immutability and immobility might not, when viewed in any created object, cause the creature to be accounted as God; for that which may happen to move or change would cease to admit the conception of the Godhead.

Hence the earth is stable without being immutable, while the heavens, on the contrary, as it has no mutability, so has not stability either, that the Divine power, by weaving change in the stable nature and motion with that which is not subject to change, might by the interchange of attributes, at once join them both closely to each other, and make them alien from the conception of Deity.

That is, God makes us in such a way so that we can neither have the presumption to be God, but also see that we are more than the beasts. We have this duality within us, meant to exist in harmony.

St. Gregory makes many such connections between the rhythms and operations of nature and our own flourishing as human beings made by God. He comments that many creatures are larger, stronger, and faster than us, yet we have dominion over them–a seeming puzzle. He answers this disarmingly by stating that if we were to be the largest, fastest, and strongest of the creatures we would surely look rather funny–misshapen and unbalanced, “wild looking.” But as he stresses our dominion over creation, he does so again by establishing our connection with it.

. . . moreover, he would have neglected his rule over the other creatures if he had no need of the co-operation of his subjects.

St. Gregory establishes (so it seems to me) an irrevocable connection between God, man, and nature, writing elsewhere that,

The creation of man is related as coming last, as of one who took up into himself every single form of life, both that of plants and that which is seen in brutes.

So, although we are all always in a state of flux, we also have stable elements, just as creation itself is both stable and fluid. We never step into the same river twice, and yet it is still the same river. And while some may see hints of evolutionary ideas in St. Gregory’s above comment, I think that he would say that creation reflects man more so than man reflects creation.

Given this, we can ask in regards to the question of progress–can creation “progress?” Certainly dirty water can become clean, but we might call this a “return” more than an “advance.”

We should think similarly in terms of human progress.

What I mean is that what we often call progress may be simply a reflection of how we breathe. We inhale, that is:

  • We draw things into ourselves
  • We concentrate our being, we focus, or in other words,
  • We centralize our being

And we exhale, meaning

  • We disperse things from our being
  • We separate the good and bad, the proper and improper
  • We get looser physically and mentally, we de-centralize**

We shouldn’t call inhalation or exhalation progress, but we often do. So, for example, many heralded the changes we made in the area of national intelligence in the wake of 9/11. We centralized our intelligence gathering–we inhaled. Surely this was correct? But in the wake of our intelligence failure after Pearl Harbor we determined that we needed to exhale and de-centralize intelligence agencies so we could have multiple views to consider. Both seemed like exactly the right thing to do given their respective contexts, and maybe both were correct actions to take, but neither can be termed “progress,” though it may feel like it at the time. What we might instead be doing is returning to a proper balance, or recalibrating temporarily.

Of course we usually want avoid dramatic inhalation and exhalation, which we only do as humans exerting ourselves or trying to de-escalate an emotional situation. We cannot continue for long in such a state.

We can take the state of education, so lauded by Durant, among others. Democratic education “inhales” a great deal by taking in everyone it can. But this has led to a kind of hyper-concentration in education, which can only lead to more centralization and standardization. So, naturally we see the rise of importance in standardized tests, which have the effect of getting teachers to “teach to the test.” In what sense has education truly improved in the last 100 years? What we can say for sure is that it has done some things at the expense of others.

As democracies we possibly overvalue the “fluid” elements of our created selves, and trust in the free flow of people, goods, and information. The New York Times recently announced, for example, that it would “open up” its process of how it endorses presidential candidates and make it more transparent. Surely transparency is progress in any democracy? But as Alex Tabbarok pointed out, this will likely make all of the candidates far less candid than they might have otherwise been when talking with the Times. Certain stances they might have explained as a kind of horse-trading off the record they would never reveal in a more public forum. When the scale tips too far in the “fluid” direction, the natural reaction is to revert to solidity. “Progress,” so called, seems impossible in either direction–by design. The very design of creation makes utopias impossible.

Perhaps the most striking form of progress surely is the application of science to food production and the eradication of disease. We live healthier and longer than in the past. Infant mortality has decreased dramatically. Unquestionably, the argument goes, this is progress that all can champion without qualification.

This certainly strongly challenges my argument–and most every argument has its limits. Still, perhaps these significant improvements do have a hidden cost of separation from the very creation that nurtures us and with whom our identity is inextricably linked. Here, I will admit, however, that it is hard to argue against progress of this kind.

Maybe . . . certain kinds of progress are possible.

But I think the larger point still remains, one that we do well to consider as we head towards another election cycle. Some may feel that Trump has lurched us too far in one direction, so that the solution is go hard in the opposite direction. This will exhaust us quickly. Rather, as St. Gregory taught us, we need to be a nation that takes calm and measured breaths.

Dave

*I should state at the outset that I do not find St. Gregory an easy read, and I make no certain claim to interpreting him correctly, though hopefully I have at least applied his words in the right spirit.

**This process of gathering in and pushing out is reflected in almost every icon of Christ, as He blesses with His right hand (drawing in) and separates with his left (in the form of a scroll, the Book of Life, which makes distinctions between people, etc.), further testimony to this pattern at the very Head of Humanity itself.

In the Byzantine icon below, the blessing/”drawing in” motif is more explicit, as His right hand almost seems to draw one towards Him:

A more modern icon, “Christ of the Isles” (Celtic style), that abides by the traditional pattern . . .

12th Grade: Wag the Dog

Greetings,

Last week we looked at Athens’ disaster in Sicily and the subsequent and extensive fallout.

Why did Athens lose in Sicily?

Part of Thucydides’ brilliance lies in that he does not merely look at battles and personalities, but finds ways to link events to a grand narrative.  Athens had many strengths, and one could argue that their passion for excellence helped produce democracy.  But I think that something began to go wrong just prior to the Peloponnesian War with the completion of the Parthenon, one of the great architectural achievements in history.  Ostensibly the building stands as a temple to Athena, the patron goddess of the city.  But a closer look at the carvings on the Parthenon reveal not scenes of gods and goddesses but of events in their own history.  Athens had in fact, made a temple to themselves, and showed that the true god they worshipped was their own community.

What kind of impact would this idolatry have, and what does it have to do with democracy?  Part of answering this question has to do with what we say the essence of democracy is.  If we say that the mere act of voting, of having a voice, is the meaning of democracy, than a naval-gazing, self-worshipping state will not be far behind.  For in this situation the process counts, and not the result.  If democracy (or any other form of government) serves a higher ideal than it has a built in check upon itself.  With no higher ideal than whatever decision we arrive at must by definition be good, because we thought of it.  This kind of attitude, present in ancient Athens, leads to disaster eventually.  If we travel with our heads down we’ll eventually walk off a cliff.  G.K. Chesterton has a great quote about self-worship in his book Orthodoxy,

That Jones shall worship the god within turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.  Let Jones worship the sun, the moon, anything rather than the “Inner Light.”  Let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, but not the god within.  Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but outwards. . . . The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner-Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.

The problems with Athens’ expedition to Sicily can be traced to their democracy.  Alcibiades wanted the expedition, Nicias opposed it.  Both had wealth, political and military experience, each had their own political power base at home.  They also could not stand each other.  Their personal and political rivalry spilled over into the formation of Athens’ war policy in Sicily.  For example, Nicias’ purely personal political moves against Alcibiades ended up having a dramatic effect on the composition of the numbers and kind of military forces Athens used against Sicily, and perhaps even the goal of the mission.  One wonders if they realized this.  With their heads down, I think not.  In my opinion, they thought that

  • We voted, just as always
  • We picked experienced people
  • We followed the procedures and processes to arrive at a decision

Therefore, everything is fine!

Democracy has to involve more than mere voting, more than mere process.  The Athenians apparently did not see that in voting for the expedition they had approved a massive invasion of another democratic country not directly involved in the war they had been fighting.  The man who ultimately led them (Nicias) argued against any expedition at all.  Self-worship exacted its price in the thousands of dead outside Syracuse.  In his An Historian’s Approach to Religion AJ Toynbee wrote,

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.

Athens’ failure in Sicily brought about the collapse of their democratic regime.  Their god had failed to provide for their basic needs, and needed replaced.

The oligarchs that replaced the democracy fared no better, ruling wantonly based on the pent-up sense that now is was “their turn.”  We sometimes see this when one party, shut out of Congress for a time, suddenly gains control.  This “my-turn” attitude usually leads to over-reaching and miscalculation.  The Newt Gingrich led government shut down in the mid-90’s comes to mind.

Democracy came back, but the instability engendered by these power struggles weighed like a mill-stone around the Athenians necks.  They had no anchor beyond their immediate needs.  We saw Athens 1) Win the Battle of Arginusae, then 2) Put the victorious generals to death for impiety, and finally 3) Put the lawyer who prosecuted the generals to death (we never should have listened to him!) all within the span of  several days.  Process trumped justice.  The tail wagged the dog.

8th Grade: Victory and Defeat

Greetings,

This week we looked at the Trojan War and its aftermath in Greece.

In some ways the Trojan War belongs to province of literature rather than history, because no real “history” books describe the events as we know them.  But that does beg the question, what is evidence?  Is Homer’s Illiad a kind of historical evidence for the Trojan War?   That of course depends.  As part of our study of the Trojan War we looked at different kinds of historical evidence, and the strengths of each.

The points in favor of “Historical Accounts” seem obvious to most:

  • We know the author, and we assume that either he was a eyewitness himself, or had access to eyewitnesses, or access to the records of eyewitnesses.
  • The fixed nature of the text means the story cannot change over time.

But we should be careful not to discount Oral Tradition

  • Do we unnecessarily give undue weight to books merely because they are written down?  Why is reading a book more trustworthy than hearing a story?
  • Books have a fixed text, but many times we remain at the author’s mercy.  He may  twist and distort the truth in his writing, and we give it extra weight because it is writing.
  • Books are the product of one man, but oral tradition comes from whole communities.  Thus, some argue, oral tradition has more external checks upon its veracity than texts.

Archeological evidence is both the strongest and weakest of the three

  • Archeology gives us direct access to the past, often times unfiltered.
  • But, in contrast to texts or traditions, archeology usually gives us only a fragment of the story, and must be fitted into a larger context that archeology often cannot provide.

The best extended treatment I have seen of the evidence for the Trojan War is Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War.  Unfortunately, this video series is nearly 35 years old and parts of it stand outdated.  Time has tended to confirm and extend evidence for the conflict.  If interested you can view a more “popular” (and shorter) account here

The aftermath of the conflict did not turn out as the Greeks no doubt hoped.  We know the Greeks plundered Troy for gold, jewels, and slaves, and we might expect that this sudden influx of cash, and the long-awaited return of its leaders might lead Greece into a golden age.

In fact the opposite happened, and Greece descended into a dark age that lasted somewhere between two and four centuries.  It certainly appears at least that the immediate aftermath of the Trojan War brought general dissolution to the Greek mainland.

Why did this happen?

In the end we can do little better than speculate, but in class we advanced a few theories:

  • In winning the war, Greece won the lottery.  But by a decent margin, lottery winners report that their winnings made them less happy, not more.  The added wealth brings added stress, and conflict over that wealth with much higher stakes.  Perhaps the same thing happened to Greece on a grand scale.
  • Civilizations, like individuals,  tend to thrive when responding to a challenge.  Greece especially emphasized this through their doctrine and practice of arete.  But the massive cash infusion might have made them rest on their laurels, making them less vigilant about things in general.
  • The Trojan War took most of Greece’s leaders away for 10+ years, according to tradition.  When parents go out for the night they have a talk with their kids — “be good to your babysitter, or when I get home I’ll ask how you behaved and then you will be punished.”  Thus, babysitters have a delegated, proxy authority in the eyes children.  But what if mom and dad never came home?  Would the sitter still have authority?

I asked students to envision what would happen if, on their block, every parent went out for the night, and everyone had a sitter.  But, only 2/3 of the parents returned to their homes, leaving the sitters there permanently.  Without mom and dad to enforce the sitters’ word, their authority would collapse almost immediately.  What would happen to the block?  If even just five parents did not return, what would happen to the “society” of the block, and its social interaction?  When we realize that many “parents” of various Greek provinces did not return from Troy, we can imagine the results for the whole of Greek society.

Dark Ages usually occur when fear and instability lead to isolation, and then isolation leads to a breakdown in the way society functions.  Perhaps this is what happened with Greece.  Dealing with failure requires careful thought and wise action, but so to does dealing with success.

Next week we will leapfrog a few centuries and focus on how Sparta and Athens emerge from the Dark Ages.

Blessings,

Dave

10th Grade: The Iroquois Get Nothing for Their Trouble

Greetings to all,

During this week we left Europe and went back to America ca. 1700.  We will begin the buildup to the American Revolution over the next few weeks.  As a backdrop, I wanted the following questions to be in our minds:

  • Why did the American Revolution happen?  Was it inevitable?  Was it mainly motivated by economics, politics, culture, or religion?  From the beginning, the colonists were in an unusual relationship to England.  England did not usually force them out — most left on their own accord.  And yet most left for a reason rooted in dissatisfaction with England.  Colonial charters affirm loyalty to the king, but don’t say anything about Parliament.  More on that difference later. . .
Of course, a combination of distance and internal English politics meant that both sides mutually ignored one another for generations.  All that began to change around 1750.
  • Was the American Revolution Christian in origin and execution?  Or did it have to do more with prevailing Enlightenment ideas of the time?  Can the desire for ‘liberty’ in the colonies be reconciled with the presence of slavery?  What did the colonists mean by ‘liberty?’
  • How did the Revolution look from the British perspective?  Most of us have always heard the story from ‘our’ side, so I think it’s crucial that we try and understand the issues from the English point of view.
We began by looking at the events that precipitated the Seven Years War, also known as the French-Indian War, from 1756-63.
The war involved the major European powers overseas, but on the continent the war had some of its origin in the fate of the Iroquois Nation.  Here is a map:
 
When the colonies were first being settled, had the Indians united against them the European settlers would have had no chance.  Native American tribal unity appears to have been rare, however, except in the case of the Iroquois Nation.  This unified stance allowed them to maintain themselves with the British to the NE in the South in the New England settlements, and French to the West of them.
They maintained their survival by trying to play the British and French off one another and never letting one get too powerful — a tricky game to be sure.  One could easily argue that the British posed the greater threat.  Their settlers formed unified social and political communities, whereas the French just did trading posts.  But, if you thought that the British might one day just take it, perhaps you should find a way to pre-empt and get something for it?  Of course this risked alienating the French, who were more likely to be their natural allies.
In the 1740’s the Iroquois sold land to the British.  Did this solve their problems?  No — for the French got scared, and bulked up their presence, so the British returned the favor and bulked up theirs  Eventually war broke out between the two powers and the Iroquois would not be able to survive.  One can’t help but feel bad for the Indians in this.  The “Iroquois Nation” managed to do what so few other tribes managed to do — unify in the face of the European threat.  But this bought them only a slight amount of time.  Sandwiched between two greater powers with a history of animosity, almost every move they made would bring suspicion from one side or the other.  Their fate was the unfortunate fate of so many small nations caught between bigger ones.  One only needs to think of Poland and their history with Prussia/Germany and Russia, for example, to see that their fate was the fate of many other such nations in similar circumstances.
The conflict had other roots too, perhaps in the basic perception of the continent both the English and French had.  Here is America according to the French:
And here according to the British (look how far the faint pink line extends west!)
Blessings,
Dave Mathwin

Authenticity, Man

Having flamed out on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, I was happy to find a more bite-sized chunk of his thought in The Ethics of Authenticity. I admit to approaching the book, like others of a traditional bent, leaning against the very idea of authenticity. “Get over yourself, already.” The search for meaning within the self can never go anywhere and remains something of an illusion. What, after all is there to really “experience?”

The whole concept of “authenticity,” born out of the 1960’s (or so I thought), has given rise to a whole host of modern problems. All of the issues with sex and gender have their roots here, as does a great deal of spiritual innovation with the church, along with the Trump presidency. Many inclined to read this book of Taylor’s might hope for a thorough denunciation from the venerable professor.

Of course, boring conservatives such as myself may not have always been such. We may remember the days of our youth when it seemed we had to break free from our surroundings to see what we were made of. Taylor taps into this, and so, while he criticizes much of what the “Authenticity” stands for, and finds it ultimately self-defeating, he reminds us that a kernel of something like the truth remains within this–in my view– unpleasant husk. Taylor writes,

The picture I am offering is rather than of an ideal that has been degraded . . . So what we need is neither root-and-branch condemnation nor uncritical praise; and not a carefully balanced tradeoff. What we need is a work of retrieval . . .

Taylor demonstrates that of what we term “authenticity” has its roots in Christianity. In the ancient world nearly every person received their identity by what lay wholly outside their control, be it birth, race, family, etc. The triumph of Christianity meant believing that an entirely other world lay outside of our normal lives, the Kingdom of God, in which there existed “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free . . . (Gal. 3:28).” The book of Revelation tells us that God “will also give that person a white stone, with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it (Rev. 2:17). St. Augustine’s magnum opus told us that the City of God lies nestled, in some ways, within the City of Man, to be discovered by anyone willing to walk through the wardrobe.

18th century Romantic thinkers, primarily Jean-Jacques Rousseau, picked up this dormant thread, albeit thin sprinting with it in ways that St. Augustine would abhor. I find the 18th century an absolute disaster for the Church, but still, Taylor calls me to at least a degree of balance. There was something quite ridiculous and artificial about the French aristocracy, for example, ca. 1770, accurately portrayed (I think) in this clip from John Adams

Perhaps St. Augustine did see “the road to God as passing through a reflexive awareness of ourselves” (p. 27). Many have pointed out how psychologically oriented was Martin Luther’s view of salvation. John Calvin began his Institutes by asking his readers to heed the Socratic dictum to “know thyself,” for knowledge of God and ourselves have an inextricable link. But Taylor sees Rousseau as the main originator of the modern view of authenticity. For Rousseau, “Our moral salvation comes from recovering authentic moral contact with ourselves,” and, “Self determining freedom demands that I break free from external impositions and decide for myself alone” (p. 27).

Well . . . ok. I don’t like the concept of authenticity but perhaps the difference lies in the “time of day.” What I mean is, bacon and eggs smells wonderful on the skillet when you’re hungry before breakfast, but that same smell hits one very differently with a full belly after lunch. The early Romantic movement, just as with the early Enlightenment, had good points to make. Rousseau championed, among other things, mothers actually breast-feeding their own children–something dramatically out of fashion for his time. Connecting with “nature” and the “self” I suppose could lead to more morally responsible living. You cannot blame your birth or other circumstances for who you are. But let it linger too long and you get the ridiculous movie Titanic, riddled through with romantic and “authentic” ideology–the smell of bacon and eggs at 10 am after you have already eaten. Still, Taylor asks the reader to see the premise of the morning before jumping straight to the twilight.

As for today, Taylor points out a variety of ways in which the “authenticity” narrative has gone astray.

Rousseau and his followers helped fuel democratic movements at home and abroad, but having created democracies in part through the dignifying the self, these same democracies would make a mockery of the original golden thread. Liberated from tradition, democratic man seemed to attain authenticity not via stern moral struggle against tradition, but as a birthright. If we are all authentic, then are all special, and thus, we all need recognized and regarded by others.

Taylor’s insights show us why those, for example, like Kaitlyn Jenner can be granted moral weight. The Authenticity narrative tells us that such people have attained a status of “real” humans because of their “courage” to make war even on biology itself–the final frontier–in order to achieve their version of true personhood. And, while I believe that those who alter their sex (if such a thing is truly possible) make terrible and tragic decisions, Taylor hints at why those that make these decisions often find them so empowering. Seeking a “genuine” connection with the self is the modern version of a transcendent experience. We grant large amounts of authority to those that have them, like the mystics of old.

Taylor also points out the endgame in store for “authenticity” lay implicit in its origins. If the self is to be the guide, and self-actualization has the ultimate authority, then we have a contradiction. The self can never be absolute, certainly not over others. Telling someone about your “experience” is nearly as bad as telling someone about the dream you had last night. In the end, we require an outside reference.

Alas, logical contradictions will likely not derail the Authenticity movement. But it is possible that time may take of this in ways that logic cannot.

I mentioned above the analogy of the smell of bacon before and after breakfast, and the analogy holds true in other aspects of life. In his War and Civilization compilation Toynbee admits the allure of the “morning” of a military outlook when reading the Iliad. Homer’s battle scenes have a dramatically bracing effect. Then, fast-forward to 19th century, where Prussian militarists like Helmuth von Moltke give one an entirely different impression of essentially the same thing that Homer described:

Perpetual Peace is a dream–and not even a beautiful dream–and War is an integral part of God’s ordering of the Universe. In War, Man’s noblest virtues come into play: courage and renunciation, fidelity to duty and a readiness to sacrifice that does not stop short of offering up Life itself. Without War the World would be swamped in materialism

Toynbee comments that, “there is a note of passion, of anxiety, and of rancor,” here that takes far away from the Greek poets. Moltke continues, perhaps even aware that he sails too close to the wind;

It is when an institution no longer appears necessary that fantastic reasons are sought or invented for satisfying the instinctive prejudice in its favor, which its long persistence has created.

If the modern Liberal order was created in part on the back of Authenticity, then surely we might say that those who still champion the idea copy Moltke and indeed invent “fantastic reasons” for the path they take. Perhaps Authenticity has run its course and can go into hibernation. We will wake it up when the scales have tipped too far in the other direction.

Dave

Valleys of Neptune

Several years ago I attended a conference in which Dr. Peter Kreeft was one of the featured speakers.  I have read a few of Dr. Kreeft’s works and liked them all, and especially enjoyed his essay on surfing, one of his great loves.

During one of the lunch breaks I had the immense good fortune to find myself sitting next to Dr. Kreeft at one the random round tables in the dining area.  I asked him for some surfing tips and he proved gracious and helpful.  Based on his love for the sea I also wanted to run a pet theory of mine by him.

The theory runs something like this. . .

Mankind’s greatest feats of creativity have always come near water.

  • Egypt had the Nile and the Mediterranean
  • Babylon had the Tigris and Euphrates
  • Greece had the Mediterranean
  • Northern Europe gave birth to the Gothic Age, by the English Channel and the North Sea
  • London then led the way with the Channel, North Sea, etc.
  • The Dutch had a brief but brilliant golden age, again right on the water
  • In America the great cultural centers have always been Boston, New York, L.A., etc.

Even when sometimes you think of an exception, the theory still holds. Chicago is in the middle of the U.S., but has the Great Lakes.  Twain invented American Literature in the Mid-West. . . but his formative years were spent on the Mississippi.

And so on, and so on.

Assyria was in the Ancient Near East, but not creative in many ways that contributed to humanity. They did not live near any great body of water. The Greek city-state of Sparta was one of the few far away from the Mediterranean, and their culture stagnated.  Rome obviously had lots of power, but came to the Mediterranean late in their game and thus borrowed a great deal from everyone. Their creative cultural contributions pale in comparison to Greece, but also Egypt and probably Babylon as well.

Some might suggest that the key is majestic expanse, not just water.  But I disagree.  The Great Plains have majestic expanse in spades and have not led the way in creative impulse.  The Himalayas have the tallest mountains on Earth but have not produced great thinkers, architects, etc.  Sparta was surrounded by mountains on all sides and may have been one of the more culturally stagnant of all civilizations.  Of course mountains and plains have a beauty all their own and can inspire, but they do not appear to have the universal impact of water.  I still think there must be something to water itself.

A purely rational or mechanical view of this would probably put the emphasis on the fact that living near water would inevitably result in overseas trade, which would blend cultures and ideas to a degree that would naturally lead to creativity.

But I think that this puts the cart before the horse.  For a civilization to think of something beyond survival and necessity, it has to think outside of itself, and for that it needs inspired.  It is this sense of inspiration that opens them up to travel, other cultures, and other things.  In other words, substantial bodies of water subconsciously unlocks our creativity and then civilizations take advantage of the opportunities before them.

“What do you think?” I asked Dr. Kreeft.

“I agree.”

There followed a pregnant pause but all I could think was, “He agreed!  Yee-ha!”

He continued (I paraphrase his words), “There is something about water that ties us to creation itself.  It is where we came from.”  And with that, he politely excused himself.

Part of me wanted him to say more, but upon reflection he had in fact said it all.  I doubt very much that by the “where we came from” comment he meant anything in a purely Darwinian sense.  Genesis 1 talks of creation being drawn up through water.  Our new creation involves the waters of baptism.  1 John 5 talks mysteriously of the three-fold agreement of the Spirit, water and blood.  I know of a physics teacher who begins the year by looking at ancient views of creation and the cosmos, and mentions Thales’ idea that all matter comes from water.  The students tend to scoff until they re-read Genesis 1.  There is the Tradition of the Church which portrays Mary hearing the Annunciation, with the attendant re-creation of all things through the Incarnation, sitting by a well.  The creation of the “new Adam” would obviously take us back to Genesis 1, just as St. John does in the opening of his gospel.

In the Odyssey (13.102-112) Homer refers to a cave sacred to nymphs which contains “ever flowing springs of water.”  Also in the cave are “jars made of stone,” along with “looms, likewise of stone, in which the nymphs weave sea-purple garments.”  The Neo-Platonic philosopher Porphyry writes,

The “garments of sea-purple” are obviously the flesh, which is woven together from blood; the sea-purple dye is derived from blood, and the wool that it colors is also the vital fluids of animals.  All flesh is thus fashioned from blood through blood . . .

To this day Jimi Hendrix stands firmly entrenched as the greatest electric guitarist of all time.  He did things with the guitar that still no one else can equal.  I don’t think it coincidental that some of his most intriguing songs (“Rainy Day, Dream Away,” “Castles Made of Sand,” “May This be Love,” “1983 . . .A Merman I Should Be”) involve water.  Perhaps in some way he understood the power and meaning of water as Peter Kreeft did that day at lunch, a serendipitous moment for me if there ever was one.

A Method to the Madness

In the heady days of youth, many a man in my position (i.e., newly engaged, etc.) allowed themselves to watch a whole host of Jane Austen movies with their literarily inclined fiance.  Depending on our taste and level of courage, some of us liked the movies, while others pretended to like them to one degree or another.  But as watched them I recall having a thought (one that I most definitely did not voice at the time) I think most people have when exposed to Austen’s world: “What exactly did these women do all day?”

Enter Norbert Elias to answer this, and other perplexing questions about European aristocratic life in the age of Louis XIV and beyond.  His book The Court Society sets out to give the European aristocracy a context in which they lived.  They had reasons for their actions, reasons that made at least some sense in their world.  And like any other system, the seeds of its destruction embedded themselves right within the virtues the aristocracy practiced.

By early on in the book one realizes that, yes, the aristocracy did have “jobs.”  Of course menial/”blue collar” labor remained beneath them, but each member of an aristocratic household had charge of the family name, and advancing that family name.  Americans have little concept of this, but once we understand this idea, most everything else about the aristocracy falls into place.

While Elias did not deal with Austen’s period, I couldn’t help but reference her work when thinking of what Elias described.  In the Austen movies the women spend a great deal of time visiting one another, and Elias points out how this practice allowed for a display of rank and honor.  Thus, these meetings between aristocracy rarely had a “purely social” character to them.  Some may recall the surprise visit of Elizabeth to Darcy’s estate in Pride and Prejudice.  Darcy quickly puts on his “Sunday best” to receive visitors.  Of course it is polite in any society not to receive visitors in the equivalent of pajamas, but it is important to Darcy as well to reflect the dignity of his house to others.  Of course this may be why his house (like other aristocratic houses) remained open to the public, which seems quite strange to modern Americans.  How can one just show up uninvited?  But the aristocracy generally welcomed such visits, as an actor welcomes a chance to perform.  Proper dress and decorum went beyond mere politeness — it served as a means of displaying and advancing status.  Being a good host/guest was “work” for the aristocracy.  Advancing the family name meant advancing the family fortunes.  One might even imagine the members of the family often “on campaign” to advance or defend the family honor, as this note from the Duchess of Orleans to the Duchess of Hanover makes clear:

I must really tell you how just the King is. The Duchesse de Bourgogne’s ladies, who are called Ladies of the Palace, tried to arrogate the rank and take the place of my ladies everywhere. Such a thing was never done either in the time of the Queen or of the Dauphiness. They got the King’s Guards to keep their places and push back the chairs belonging to my ladies. I complained first of all to the Duc de Noailles, who replied that it was the King’s order. Then I went immediately to the King and said to him, “May I ask your Majesty if it is by your orders that my ladies have now no place or rank as they used to have? If it is your desire, I have nothing more to say, because I only wish to obey you, but your Majesty knows that formerly when the Queen and the Dauphiness were alive the Ladies of the Palace had no rank, and my Maids of Honour, Gentlemen of Honour, and Ladies of the Robe had their places like those of the Queen and the Dauphiness. I do not know why the Ladies of the Palace should pretend to anything else.” The King became quite red, and replied, “I have given no such order, who said that I had?” “The Maréchal de Noailles,” I replied. The King asked him why he had said such a thing, and he denied it entirely. “I am willing to believe, since you say so,” l replied, “that my lackey misunderstood you, but as the King has given no such orders, see that your Guards don’t keep places for those ladies and hinder my servants from carrying chairs for my service,” as we say here. Although these ladies are high in favour, the King, nevertheless, sent the majordomo to find out how things should be done. I told him, and it will not happen again. These women are becoming far too insolent now that they are in favour, and they imagined that I would not have the courage to report the matter to the King. But I shall not lose my rank nor prerogatives on account of the favour they enjoy. The King is too just for that.

The greatness of the “House” depended on the greatness of the family, which explains why Darcy would have hesitated to be in their company.  A man of Darcy’s status would naturally hesitate to confer “honor” to Elizabeth’s family by visiting, or especially dancing, which would have conferred an extra measure of approval for their “low status” behavior.  And with Elizabeth’s family’s status teetering on the brink, one can then see how potentially damaging Lydia’s behavior would be later in the book.

Elias points out that the aristocracy needed to visit others not only to forge connections and give and receive honor, but also to understand their place in the social hierarchy.  Take fashion, for example.  One should always dress appropriate to one’s station, never above it or below.  But the appropriate dress might shift over time depending on how others dressed and what approval they received from those above them.  A lord “goes for broke” and wears a cravat a bit frillier than he might normally while visiting a duke.  The duke gives his tacit approval by wearing an even more outlandish cravat, and now everyone must level jump on their cravat’s.  Suddenly, the “normal” cravat another lord wears is out of fashion — he now dresses as a bore.  If he had been invited to more places and been busier with his “job” he would have known this.  His family’s status declines.  Hence the near obsession with the aristocracy with visiting and being visited.  It was the only way to have “information,” to use a phrase Austen’s Emma frequently uttered.

Family status often had little to do with money.  No aristocrat worth his salt would stoop to such vulgar behavior as to actually care about money.  I believe Saint-Simon relates a story of one baron who gave his son some money to spend on the town.  When the son returned with money leftover he received harsh criticism from his father, who then threw the remaining money out of the window.  In returning with money the son showed not prudence, but foolishness.  Anyone who looked like they counted their money might look like they cared about money, and that stigma would hurt their reputation severely.

Americans often get accused, and rightly so, of focusing way too much on money, which proves our essential boorishness as a nation.  We have to see this malady in some ways as a by-product of equality.  Americans for the most part have no built in social framework for support, no “society” (to use another term from Emma) where we can claim membership.  Money, therefore, more so than family or connections, becomes our primary, if not our only tool, to keep us afloat.  The charge against us is just, but the charge is easier to avoid in aristocratic societies.

Many aristocrats got their names inscribed in stone by risking vast sums on throws of dice and turns of cards.  One might go broke with such games, but even an incredible loss had glory in it and at least proved one’s cavalier approach to money.  Far better a spendthrift than a miser, but this half-virtue ruined many families.  For of course, they did need money just as anyone else did.  Tradition mitigated against them developing a trade, speculating, or becoming a merchant.  They hoped for an appointment to high ranking government or military posts which traditionally went to high ranking aristocrats.  The only way to prove oneself worthy of this honor was not only to have impeccable taste and sense within the pecking order, but also to demonstrate that they never needed to ask the price of anything.  They played a dangerous game, one that Louis XIV must have been only too delighted to see them play.  As long as the fortunes of the aristocracy ebbed and flowed unpredictably, the greater his power.

So a method did exist.  And we see that, yes, they did work of a kind and had many constraints on their existence.  They were not free in the sense we might imagine.  I had students watch the following video about how aristocrats dressed in the 18th century:

As one might expect, they thought their habits pointless, wasteful, and weird (so much makeup for the man!)*, and so on.  But we must seek to understand.

  • Fundamentally, they sought to dress in ways in which commoners could not possibly dress.  They needed to reflect their proper status, for their own benefit, of course.  But it went beyond that–it was for the good of society too (at least in their minds).  To reflect their station was to give witness to the great chain of being.
  • Most of us dress in rather plain ways.  I think they might say of us that, “You have nothing in your society to lift you above the mundane and ordinary.  You have no higher goal than your base entertainment.  Should there be no glory, nothing to strive for?”

I think this last point has some merit.  But I’m not wearing makeup.

Perhaps one might think the life of the king free from constraint, but not so.  Louis XIV put before himself a tremendous task, to become the state.  While apparently he did not utter the phrase, “L ‘etat c’est moi,” he did say

 “The interests of the state come first. When one gives these priority, one labours for one’s own good. These advantage to the state redounds to one’s glory.”

So, while Louis did get to set the rules of fashion (being the top aristocrat all matters of taste and decorum flowed down from him), he had to organize methodically his use of power.  In order to effectively display the glory of France/himself and set the rules, he had to be “on call” all the time.  This lends more sympathy perhaps to the comical and bizarre rituals of various select noblemen watching Louis dress, undress, and eat.  I had always focused on the prison the nobles had allowed themselves to enter, but to keep the nobles beholden to himself, Louis had to keep himself beholden to them.  He too faced severe constraints on his behavior.

This element of control had to be extended at Versailles to nature itself.

garden-versailles_6475_600x450

With Louis XIV one has a possible glimpse of the final apogee of the Medieval idea of the Great Chain of Being, where happiness consisted in knowing who you were by knowing your place in the universe, and how that related to redemption of all things.  But in what could be called its culmination, the egg goes bad instead of hatching.  No wonder so many aristocrats supported the French Revolution, and even supported abolishing feudal titles.  One must always take caution when using one’s own culture and experience to judge the past, but perhaps the aristocracy simply got tired of playing a game no one had any real chance of winning.  One can make a good argument for the real usefulness of the aristocracy during the medieval period, but that time had long past, and one wonders if the French nobility somehow, deep down, knew that to be true.

Dave

*Yes, I too am disturbed by the use of makeup.  But we must be careful . . . it would not have been too long ago that a woman wearing pants would have been considered a form of cross-dressing.  Men wearing earrings takes on different meanings at different times, and so on.

10th Grade: Image and Reality in Louis XIV France

Greetings to all,

We continued with Louis by looking at France’s tax structure, and to understand it, a few things need to be kept in mind:

Louis was in a sense, attempting to cook the nobles like frogs in a pot of water slowly heated up.  He wanted to make them politically impotent, as we saw last week, and this involved using Versailles to cast a ‘spell’ of sorts. The key to a magic spell working, however, is that you don’t know that a spell is indeed being performed upon you.

The problem centered around Louis wanting to change things without anyone noticing that things had changed.  In the heyday of the feudal era, the nobility had tax exempt status, for a variety of reasons:

  • One was probably coldly political, i.e., the king needs the support of the nobles, and gets it through tax exemptions.
  • But the king also needed an army from time to time, and the nobles were largely in charge both of fighting his wars and paying and equipping the troops under their command.  This required a lot of financial flexibility on short notice — hence, the tax exemptions.
  • Their service in the wars went unpaid, so their “tax” could be “paid” in the form of their free military service.

We talked last week about Louis’ neutering of the nobility, but he also used this opportunity to create an army that was more professional, and more accountable directly to him.  He did not bypass the nobility entirely, but did do so partially.

Thus, Louis did not need the nobility in the same way his predecessors did, and logic dictates that therefore, he should tax at least a portion of the nobility.  But to do so risked exposing the fiction he created with Versailles.  He could not “awaken” the nobles to the reality of their own decline, therefore, he could not take the risk of taxing them.

Towards the end of  C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair the Queen of Underland attempts to put a spell on the her visitors to make them forget Narnia.  Lewis writes

[Jill] was very angry because she could feel the enchantment getting hold of her every moment.  But of course the very fact that she could still feel it, showed that it had not yet fully worked.

Louis attempted to have his cake and eat it too, and this can never work for long.  He began to create a more modern governmental infrastructure, while at the same time only reinforcing some of the older ways of doing things.  The French Revolution will have many causes, but this disconnect between practice and reality will be one of them.  In the short term, it may have contributed to the financial crisis France faced at the time of Louis’ death.

Louis’s legacy will be a debatable one.  He made France matter in world affairs, and made France the cultural leader for western civilization.  After Louis, all ‘gentlemen’ had to know French as a matter of course.  WIth men like Descartes, Pascal, and Moliere they dominated the intellectual landscape.  We discussed how cultural leadership can be a kind of power that can translate on the world stage.

Part of France’s power came from Louis cutting the red tape between executive decisions and the nobility.  The efficiency and centralization of his government gave him a certain advantage over other European countries. Red tape isn’t always a bad thing.  There are certain things we don’t want the government to be efficient at.  We might suggest that we do not want the government to be efficient at spending money.  We wouldn’t want them to be able efficiently enslave all brunettes.  Having said that, red tape often hinders normal and reasonable social functions.  We may recall the congressional debates and inaction surrounding the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011, and recently now.  In 2011 we made the decision the credit agencies wanted us to make, but Standard and Poor’s was so appalled by the bickering, infighting, and stalling that they lowered our rating anyway.  Here is a quote,

“More broadly, the downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policy making and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned when we assigned a negative outlook to the rating on April 18, 2011,” the statement continues.

Of course there are those that disagree with Standard and Poor’s, but some may have felt that it would have been better for someone to just ‘make a decision.’  Louis’ system of government allowed for many “decisions” to get made quickly, but he also lost two major wars and brought France close to financial ruin.  In politics as in other areas of life, sometimes one must “pick their poison.”
Blessings,
Dave

12th Grade: Only in a Democracy

This week we continued the Peloponnesian War by looking at the Peace of Nicias, and why it failed.

Like most things, not all peace treaties are created equal.  Throughout history some treaties have worked and many others have not.  Can we detect any patterns or similarities to their success or failure?

“Punic Peaces” (which refers to Rome’s complete obliteration of Carthage during the 3rd Punic War) always work because the enemy ceases to exist.  A lesser version of a Punic Peace might be what England did to Napoleon after Waterloo.  France technically could have continued to resist, as the bulk of their army remained intact, but the English put Napoleon in exile on St. Helena, which might as well have been the moon.  His continued resistance was impossible.

But in thinking of peace treaties, most of us would not want conflict to get to that point.  We prefer to avoid to save lives and avoid cataclysmic destruction if we can.  But it is these kinds of treaties, where both sides retain much of their original strength, that are so hard to devise and so hard to have succeed.

Why might this be?  The best treaties reflect reality as it really is, and not merely the whims or circumstances of the moment.  The best treaties factor in the reasons for the war starting, as well as how both sides fought.  They would also account for the current political dynamics in each country, as well as their psychological and emotional state.  Treaties are problematic because reality will not be caught so easily.

After 10 years of fighting both Athens and Sparta signed onto the “Peace of Nicias,” designed to last 50 years.  Alas, it never really took firm root in either society and lasted about six.  Even a cursory glance will tell us why the treaty failed.

  • If we follow the mantra of considering the beginning before deciding on an end, we should ask ourselves why the war started in the first place, and what each side fought for.  Indeed, the war lacked a defining physical cause.  One side did not invade the other.  Instead, the war seemed to be over honor and perception.
  • But the treaty shoved a couple of significant “dishonors” into the face of both sides.  Athens had abandoned Platea earlier in the war, a stain on their honor.  But now they could not get it back — the stain would be permanent.
  • Sparta had “liberated” Amphibolus from Athenian clutches, redeeming their embarrassing “no-show” in Mytilene.  Now, the treaty required them to give Amphibolus back to Athens.
  • Corinth, one of Sparta’s major allies, did not sign onto the treaty.  Naturally they would do much to try and undermine it.

At the core, the Peace of Nicias failed because it reflected temporary moods.  Neither side had expended even half of its strength in the fight so far.  Both sides smarted under the recent death of prominent generals (Cleon for Athens, Brasidas for Sparta).  Athenian failure at Delium helped the political rise to the “dove” Nicias, but democratic politics sways to and fro.  Facing dishonor, with more bullets left in the gun, both Athens and Sparta would likely begin fighting again.

We also began our look at the famous/infamous Alcibiades of Athens.Alcibiades

Only a democracy could produce someone like him.  He was. . .

  • Young
  • Rich
  • Handsome
  • Charismatic
  • Heedless of tradition
  • A man of “action”

In addition, no one could accuse him of being a dandy .  He fought in a few infantry engagements with some distinction.

I say that Alcibiades could exist only in a democracy because most other societies, especially aristocratic ones, value

  • The Elderly
  • Tradition
  • Stability

Political conservatives in the U.S. often talk about “returning to our Constitutional roots,” but have not had much success recently in presidential or senatorial elections.  o arguments like, “That’s the way the founders did it,” have any success?  I would tend to think not, and the reason might not be the willful ignorance or decadence of the electorate, but the pervading forward looking spirit of democratic cultures.

Blessings,

Dave

8th Grade: Water and Mountains in Greece

Greetings,

This week we began Greek civilization.

We began where we began where we began our look at Egyptian civilization, with geography.

Greek geography has three dominant features I wanted the students to notice: water, mountains, and climate (below is rough topography of the region)

MapTopoGreece

I believe water had a few key impacts on the Greeks:

1. Psychological — it is nearly universal human reaction to be drawn out by large bodies of water.   At least I tend to think it is.  Most of us have probably vacationed at the beach before.  Have most of you, like me, stood looking at the horizon of the sea and thought, “One day I shall go forth and seek out boldly new lands and new places”?

Alright, maybe not for everybody.

But why does waterfront property sell at such a high price?  Water may not call us all to adventure, but it does seem to impact our psyche in some way.

2. Water also serves as a means to communicate and interact with others.  So those that live near water tend to explore and trade, and this in turn creates vibrant economies and cultures.  England, the Netherlands, and Venice might be examples of this.

In the end, we can see why great cultural explosions often come from places near water if we combine the possible psychological and obvious practical effects (Greece, Renaissance Italy, the Dutch, England)  Of course like most things, this has its limits.  Witness, for example, classical music from Bach though Strauss, Russian music and literature, etc. in essentially land-locked places.  Still — it seems to me that there may be a connection between water and a civilization’s creativity.  I expand on these possibilities here for those interested.

Mountains and Soil

1. Greece had farmers, but in general the soil was rockier and poorer than in the Fertile Crescent.  This in turn, of course, might only serve to push them outwards all the more.

2. The mountains divided them geographically, which in turn divided them politically.  These mostly independent communities may have helped originate, or at least broaden, the concept of self-government.  All of the civilizations we have studied so far have chosen the ‘big’ route to success, partly through choice and partly through circumstance.  In contrast, the Greek philosopher Aristotle believed the ideal political community should have more than 5000 citizens.

Climate

If most people could pick their ideal climate it would probably be between 50-80 degrees, light breeze, low humidity.  This would be a general description of a Mediterranean climate, and one impact this had on the Greeks was that they lived life outdoors.  So — as they interacted with other areas throughout Greece and the Mediterranean, they also interacted a lot with each other, and this too might have helped contribute to the creativity of ancient Greek civilization.

After looking at geography we went to another key foundation of ancient Greece and looked at their concept of ‘Arete,’ which I think can be best translated as ‘excellence.’  ‘Excellence’ is an amoral concept.  The Greeks admired people who were ‘excellent’ people.  Odysseus was excellent at cleverness and like a cat, always landing on his feet.  Achilles is admired because no one can best him in battle.  But neither would be considered moral people in any Christian sense.  Arete tells you to continually pursue excellence, to never rest on one’s laurels.  One of the problems with arete, however, is that it does not tell you when to stop, something that we will see working itself out in Greek civilization.

We have discussed before that what a civilization worships is what it follows after at all costs, and this may not be found ultimately in the gods themselves.  One question I posed to the students was, which came first, the Greek gods, or Greek arete?  Greek gods have power and beauty, but not morality.  In Greek sculpture their is not much difference between how gods and men are depicted.  This one is of Poseidon:

Posiedon

And another famous one of the discus thrower (stance obviously different, but the ‘body’ is the same:

I should say that the students were right to point out some minor differences, as the gods usually tend to look more imposing or regal, but in general the gods were just somewhat better versions of mankind.

We can contrast this with the Egyptian gods.

Egyptian Gods

The difference is more than mere artistic technique.  When they wanted, the Egyptians could be quite expressive, as this tomb painting with birds shows.

Often times the Greeks depicted the gods in motion, perhaps reflecting the fluid nature of their civilization.  The Egyptians, in contrast, often showed their deities in a static posed, often with arms crossed, reflecting the more stable, tradition oriented nature of the Egyptians.

Next week we will look at the Trojan War and the possible historical roots of the conflict.

Thanks again,

Dave

Zombie Markets in Everything

This post’s title, of course, has its origins with Tyler Cowen . . .

It seems as if we are living in a tale of two cities. It is the best and worst of times. One the one hand, the economy is great, and unemployment is way down. Public intelllectuals like Steven Pinker proclaim that, however bad things may be in certain segments of life, all the most important indicators show remarkable growth and progress, such as a sharp decline in infant mortality. Momentary trends may not always look favorable, but the arc of the last 300 years shows a continual rise in progress thanks to science and the application of reason. The complaining and angst so prevalent in the media, then, resembles that of a spoiled child. If we could all just calm down and count our blessings . . .

But others like Jordan Peterson, John Vervacke, and Jonathan Pageau state that western civilization exists by a thin thread in the midst of a deep meaning crisis–a crisis that perhaps hits men harder than women. Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide have risen dramatically over the last 20 years. I think Vervacke would tell Pinker that he sees only a fragmented surface. I suppose Pinker and others like him would say such people are fundamentally deluded.

Chronologically we have mirror images from both camps. Pinker and his crowd write that starting around AD 1700, the Enlightenment took hold and over the next few centuries the world became a dramatically better place. But for those on the other side, the Enlightenment disastrously contributed to all the problems we have now in relation to meaning and knowing our place in the world (though others would go further back still, into the Renaissance).

Most would say one or the other is true, and you have to choose. Below I propose a theory that will attempt a “both-and” explanation–a highly speculative one–that will attempt to explain how the economy can grow and life can improve in various measurable ways and we can still struggle with meaning. In fact, the two may have a symbiotic relationship.

The perception of a current meaning crisis has led to the dramatic recent rise of the psychologist as guru, i.e., Jordan Peterson. John Vervacke has less fame, and popularizes less than Peterson (I do not use the term ‘popularizes’ derogatorily). His analysis goes deeper, and his co-authored book Zombies in Western Culture: A Twenty-First Century Crisis gives a slightly sideways but effective analysis of modern culture. Vervacke et. al do not blame the right or the left, campus ideology, or Trumpism, for the decay. “Decay” is indeed the right word, for zombies are decomposed beings of some undefinable kind. Our modern disease has infected most all of us to some degree.

Each era has its monsters that help define its zeitgeist. As the Enlightenment settled across western Europe, and scientific materialism began to entrench itself as the dominant ideology, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, which explores the limits of man’s powers over nature. The monster in the book of course, is not the “Monster” but Dr. Frankenstein, it’s creator. A few decades later we have Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In the Victorian era, the aristocracy still exists, but exists in a weird place in society given the nascent rise of democratic ideals. Everyone perhaps feels in their bones that the aristocracy no longer serve a real purpose, isolated as they are within a culture that no longer needs them. One notes that, in contrast with pre-modern Europe, in the modern age the monster is a twisted human, though perhaps still a kind of tragically grand monster. That is, at least there exists some kind of high aspiration for a Dr. Frankenstein or Count Dracula.

Vervacke argues that the zombie is the monster for the 21st century, and the graph below shows the dramatic increase of the word in the popular culture just recently, just as the Cold War ended.

Zombies have the following characteristics:

  • They move in packs, but have no connection to one another
  • They have no particular intent–they exercise no conscious will towards evil.
  • They live only to consume, and their hunger to consume cannot be satiated or even lessened.
  • Constantly on the move, they have no home base or concept of home.

In other words, they form the perfect monster for the democratic age.

The zombie personifies our crisis of meaning. The internet, globalization, etc. means we can indeed consume as we like virtually for free, but though we like to sing along, we “know not what it means.”* The market also thrives on fluidity and movement. It is best for everybody to give everybody else money, for example, rather than everybody put it under their mattress, even if that consumption has no real overall purpose or goal in mind.

So too the market of information thrives on abundance and transfer. But like zombies, we both crave and lack Mind, and so have no way to integrate our experience into a meaningful whole. Vervacke writes regarding this,

This is because the information we obtain from the world has never been more unreliable. Abundance is one dimension of the problem; one need look no further than news media to appreciate the sheer volume of (often irreconcilable) narratives.

And again,

Humans are animals who most fundamentally understand what reality is . . . by locating ourselves within larger narratives and meta narratives that we hear and tell . . . When such narratives collapse, we are lost in the dislocation, fragmentation, and disorientation of homelessness.

So far so good, but what of the other side of the coin, i.e., a strong economy, less violence worldwide, and so on? Vervacke gives us the link. If truly we are the “walking dead,” then lacking mind and the means to integrate our experience, we would naturally seek expansive consumption as a means of coping. This consumption is a byproduct of all of the intense focus on the material aspects of creation fostered in western culture during the time period Pinker cites. It indeed brought great blessings of a certain kind, but it could possibly be nearing the end of its string.

Of course all humanity throughout all time has sought some sort of solution for a lack of understanding of the self. But our typical response is indeed to consume. We are depressed, we might go shopping. We are anxious, we “stress-eat.” We are out of sorts, we might consume information by browsing Facebook or news feeds. Such actions can distract us for a time, but also creates an unsustainable cycle. It is this drive to consume that makes solving certain environmental problems so difficult for all of us, whether Green or not so Green. The “peace” of the modern world championed by Steven Pinker has in some ways brought this out of us.

In contrast [to times of war], in times of relative peace, internal issues become more focal and so the opportunity for a relative loss of social integration is greater, hence the increase in the suicide rate.

This antipathy to peace can lead to increased participation in what the authors call the “pseudo-religion” of politics. Politics gives us much that religion provides.

As politics is, by necessity of governance naturally integrative of other systems, it was a proximal replacement for [meaning]. . . . systematic complexity made [politics] a convincing imitator of that normatively as the influence of religion diminished. The 20th century, therefore, bore witness to the rise of the most potent political pseudo-religion we have known in the modern world.

We risk ending the “peace” we have then, by feeding upon our own body politic, unable to stop our consumption of so called “outrage porn.” specialized in by Twitter and news media of all kinds. We can see this process of disintegration at work since the time of the vampire as monster. First, modernism deconstructed the church, and told us that it could no longer function as a means of communal coherence. “Religion should be private.” We then expected the state could serve that purpose, and so we developed various rituals around the symbols of the idea of nationhood. By the mid-20th century, we saw the folly of that project, but no fear–we can rally around our freedom to consume. So we built malls, accurately described by James K. Smith as spaces constructed for liturgical communal consumption.** But this no longer holds either. Now, like zombies, we roam the internet to consume, with no defined space to bind us.

In the old tales, the hero slays the dragon, but Vervacke points out that our zombie stories offer little hope. The plague always seems to grow, and those that survive will be continuously on the run. Rebuilding something new in these scenarios becomes extremely difficult. Patrick Deneen, for example, has a persuasive critique of the whole modern enterprise in Why Liberalism Failed. He blames progressives and conservatives nearly equally but offers no alternative political reality to which we can aspire. Slightly more hopeful is Rod Dreher, whose The Benedict Option, while giving no grand solution, at least points us towards embodied liturgical relationships with others as a good beginning.

With a quick search I found one place in our culture where a cure for zombies is possible: Minecraft. I find it charming that such a thing exists within this relatively benign (I dislike video games) world building enterprise, and that even many teens still play this game. It is interesting to see how they use traditional archetypes for this cure. Among other things needed to cure local villagers from being a zombie is dragon’s breath. In other words, the monster may be the only hope for the monster. Jonathan Pageau has often talked about how once a culture reaches the outer limits of the fringe, it takes just a small tap for everything to come right round again. The clown, or the fool, or perhaps even the monster is needed to make things right. It may be that if we are indeed in such a dark place, dawn is not far behind.

Dave

*Those my age, or fans of the music of early 90’s music, will recognize the Nirvana reference. In retrospect grunge music might be seen as a harbinger of the meaning crisis. How is it that right after winning the Cold War, when we should have celebrated and entered something of a golden age, we plunged ourselves into music that fundamentally celebrated alienation?

**We need not absolutely throw the baby out with the bathwater. National symbols and national identity can do us good. Market exchanges often benefit both parties. The problem is putting a weight on such things that they cannot bear. The only way they can bear the load of culture for long is to give them a kind of steroid. Of course one recalls the specter of the early 20th century regarding the problems of nationality. I also remember post-9/11 how we were all encouraged to keep spending so the terrorists would not win. It can work for a while, but the body gives out eventually.