Lost in the Cosmos

(For those interested, check out the Grumpy Old Man podcast on this same topic here.)

*********************

We all know the Chinese saying, “May you live in interesting times,” and we now fully understand why they regarded it as a curse. But we should look for the silver linings whenever we can. Our normal customs give us the advantage, as Edmund Burke argued, of not having to think about the myriad of everything all the time, freeing us for hopefully finer pursuits. Perhaps the one advantage of strange times is that it allows us to either more deeply understand and affirm basic assumptions (such as our need for meaningful human interaction), or to question them and see how strange they might be. If we are unmoored, maybe we might reach something better than we knew before.

Maybe.

Few would doubt that the two greatest Catholic southern writers of the 20th century were Flannery O’ Connor and Walker Percy. O’Connor took her normal, everyday characters, and confronted them with something strange to jolt them out of complacency. Walker Percy, to my mind, went one better. He took normal people in normal situations showed how how strange the ‘normal’ really was. This was his great accomplishment in Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.* It seems that Percy (who had medical training) wanted to administer a kind of shock-therapy for his readers He induced trauma to help us recover equilibrium.

Percy administers this shock of sorts through very simple questions, such as:

  • When yearbooks are handed out, why does everyone look to see how many pictures they are in? Don’t we know what we already look like?Why do we all also not want anyone to know that we are doing this if everyone is indeed doing it?
  • Why do we value antiques? Why do we seem to exhaust the meaning of things? Did past eras value antiques? Would a 17th century gentlemen want something from the 12th century more than his own time?
  • Why do we have so many different versions of selves in the modern world?

Percy also includes this conversation he had with someone recalling the Kennedy assassination:

I remember that I was watching the soap opera As the World Turns. There was a scene between Chris and Grandpa, and I remember that particularly because I saw something scroll on the bottom of the screen that shots had been fired at President Kennedy. I remember thinking how insignificant the soap opera seemed in relation to what was happening in Dallas.

But before you saw that message, the soap opera seemed much more important than Kennedy’s visit to Dallas?

Yes.

And, afterwards, did you resume watching the soap opera?

Yes.

Lost in the Cosmos contains a section on semiotics in the middle of the book that I found too difficult, and some short fiction on some of this themes at the end of the book, but for me the heart of the work lies in the first 50-70 pages. Percy may intend to lean us towards particular answers, but mostly he remains content to ask the questions of meaning the self in the modern world (I include more excerpts in the postscript).

Many now recognize that we are disconnected now, but think that it is only the particular circumstances we face in the moment that creates this, i.e., masks, social media, polarization, and so on. I grant that this has a part to play, but I would like to go deeper and suggest that we are alienated from ourselves because the modern world alienates us from reality in general.

First some of the particular and surface elements of our discontent . . .

We like to assume that every technology occupies neutral space. It is neither good or bad, for us or against us. But surely, the way we interact with a technology will change us, and not all change is neutral. Working a hoe or hammer might give you stronger shoulders or forearms. Social media attempts a daring exploit. We know that communication works best when we use our whole being, which involves our bodies. Face to face we catch expressions and subtleties we would miss over the phone. Over the phone, we at least get voice inflections, and presumably speak with someone we know.

Facebook, Twitter, etc. attempts to gather all of our communicative apparatus and squeeze it through the eye a needle. Obviously, this fails–the narrowing of our being in our communication modes always narrows our ability to communicate effectively. Alienation and confusion result–“Why is everyone so angry on Twitter?” is because it is impossible to be a whole self on Twitter. We are unmoored when using this kind of communication and perhaps subconsciously rant against not so much the politics we disagree with but the fact of alienation itself.

Many have commented on this already, and perhaps we are learning this as a society, but alas–we are learning slowly.

We have paid less attention to the deeper nature of the right and the left, which also contributes significantly to the problem.

The “right” and “left” as categories of thought and being go far back into the earliest civilizations. There is a profound Christian tradition linked to this reality, which others have spoken of much better than I ever could. Perhaps its modern political derivations have their roots not in the Christian tradition, but in Greek tragedy, and how one reacts to Fate. The “Left” in such works argues for striving against established order. One need not accept everything just as it is. We can work to better our lot in life and the lives of others–the structure of things can alter. The ‘Right’ talks of acceptance and working within established norms, for to challenge them is to challenge divine order and invite even greater chaos–a kind of “nemesis.”

Both the “Left” and the “Right” have their place. I doubt even the staunchest conservative would object to the invention of glasses, for example, which does better one’s “natural” condition. But those on the left too have to understand at least some limits imposed by Nature, i.e., night cannot become day, winter will never be summer.**

The Greeks sought a mediator between these two poles and perhaps never found it. We too need such mediation. Percy hinted at how we are alienated from ourselves. It goes deeper–we are alienated from creation as well. I won’t make a direct case for the Christian perspective on Creation and the our expulsion from Paradise here. For our purposes we not that most every culture has creation myths that resemble the Christian story in some way. Since the Fall, perhaps a natural tension exists between night and day, earth and sea, and men and women. But we have forgotten that mankind was placed on earth in part to reconcile and mediate these polarities back to God. Men and women are reconciled through marriage.^ Indeed–life itself can bring a kind of trauma. Our broken state can be repaired, but not through ideology, but instead, the recreation of the world and ourselves through liturgy.

What was lost, can be found.

Dave

*There is a section in the book about a theory of language/semiotics that Percy admits will not satisfy the scholar and could be too ‘high’ for the layman. I reside in the latter category, and will not comment there.

Perhaps one day . . .

**There is a curious flip on certain issues that only highlight the strangeness of our times. The Left seems, on the one hand, to grant maximum autonomy for individuals to rebel against the ‘fixity’ of human biology. Pregnant? Get an abortion. You’re a man but you think you should be a woman? Take hormones and get surgery. But with non-human nature many are staunch conservatives. Climate change is bad for the modern left at least in part because of the change it brings to nature, which should be protected from alteration. Their attitudes hearken back to pre-modern ideas that sought harmony, not growth.

The Right on the one hand promotes traditional family values. On the other, they advocate for an economic system geared towards maximum individual autonomy and disruption of tradition. Marx, for example, supported capitalism and democracy because he saw them as weapons against traditional values and practices, which would have to go in order for the proletariat revolution to come about.

We don’t want people who are entirely either right or left. At least, our society cannot handle too many on either extreme. Of course we need some kind of harmonization of the two within our own persons as well as in society. What puzzles me is how those on both sides hold oil & water types of beliefs that have no internal coherence that I can discern.

^A hint as to why, if you think of marriage as an image of cosmic reconciliation, marriage requires priestly mediation.

And now . . .

Lost in the Cosmos Excerpts

(What follows is 95% copied from Percy’s book, which I have tweaked in parts for more accessible student use).

Which of the following selves, if any, do you identify with?

The Cosmological Self

The self is unconscious of itself only insofar as it can identify itself with a cosmological myth or classificatory system.  For example, ask an LSU fan at a football game who they are, and they may reply, “I am a tiger.”

The Hindu/Buddhist Self

My self is impaled on the wheel of non-being, obscured by the veil of unreality.  But it can realize itself by plumbing the depths of self until it achieves nirvana, or absorption and destruction into nirvana, or the Atman.

The Authentic Self

A more modern and secular version of this might run, “My self is buried somewhere within me, caked over with customs, habits, etc. that are not truly my own.  I become a true self by my choices which may involve rejecting all traditions, norms, and if necessary, even Nature itself to become who I am truly supposed to be.

The Role Taking Self

We become a ‘self’ by taking on certain roles, as a mother, a lawyer, a mechanic, a macho-man, an ‘independent woman,’ and so on.  When ‘in action’ within these roles, we feel ‘actualized’ and ‘alive.’

The High School Graduation Speech Self

You are created with certain rights and the freedom to pursue happiness and fulfill your potential.  You achieve your potential through participation in society via family, work, political engagement, and so on.  This happiness can be pursued and eventually caught.

The Diverted Self, or the Woody Allen Self

Our “selves” are in fact unbearable.  That is–we cannot make anything of the “self,” either because the idea of the self is  too light and insubstantial, or too heavy, for us to comprehend. The path to happiness is, frankly, diversion, or escape from the self.  Thankfully, we live in a time when endless diversion is easily accessible.

The Free Self in Bondange

The rational pursuit of happiness that Jefferson espoused has become a flaky emptiness in our time.  Every advance of objective understanding  of the Cosmos, and the technologies we invent to gain that understanding, distances the self from the Cosmos precisely as far as we advance in understanding the physical world.  The self, then, roams like a ghost through the Cosmos which it happens to understand very well.  Thus, the self is free in a sense through its understanding of its predicament, but is powerless to do much about that predicament.  

The Abandoned Self

The self only achieves ‘actualization’ by abandoning itself utterly to some goal or task.  Think of the fevered artist, possessed by a sculpture they must finish, or the scientist who must complete the experiment at all costs.  

Would a Christian conception of the self be like any of these?  Which of the above is perhaps the furthest away from a Christian view of the self?

*****************

Amnesia

In many soap-operas of the late 20th century, amnesia was a favorite plot tool.  A character would experience a trauma, and suddenly not know who they were.  The world for them became at once hostile and confused, but also, re-enchanted.  With the slate clean, anything was possible–you have a new lease on life and the self.

But this plot device is not confined to old soap-operas.  The James Bond series of movies fits this in some ways.  With each movie, reality is reset–new bad guys, new women, new locations to visit, etc.  In these scenarios, previous excitement, trauma, encounters–none of them really move or shape the character.  

Question: Is “amnesia” a favorite plot-device because 

  • The character in the story is sick of himself and needs a change, a reboot
  • The writers are sick of their characters
  • The writers are sick of themselves and they need a change
  • The viewers long for the same amnesiac-like experience and they want to experience this vicariously through the characters.
  • All of the above?

Things and Their Meaning

Pick up a home decor magazine, or watch one of the home decoration shows that are always playing in dentist’s offices, and you will note that we have a penchant for making simple things out of unusual objects.  What I mean is–a coffee table can usually not be a normal coffee table.  It is has to be 

  • A tree trunk made of cypress wood
  • A vintage Coca-Cola crate
  • An old lobster trap
  • A large, flat rock

In other words, a coffee table can be anything but a board of wood with four legs.  

Why has this happened?

  • Because we are tired of ordinary tables, and we need novelty
  • Because to feel like a self, we must distinguish ourselves from other selves in some way  
  • Because an unusual table is a great conversation piece, a way to break the ice with company
  • Because it is good to recycle older things into newer uses and to repurpose their meaning
  • Because the older thing comes from a time of greater coherence and ‘weight,’ possession of such objects seems to give ourselves more substance and ‘weight.’
  • Because the modern self is voracious and consumes meaning.  We continually need to expand, like the feeding vacuole of an amoeba seeking to nourish itself with new objects, but like a vacuole, only in fact empties them.  

Consider to what extent an antique is prized.  Is it because

  • It is  beautiful and wonderfully made

 or

  • Because it is saturated with another time and place, and therefore resistant to absorption by the self?  After all, things resistant to absorption by the self have a higher degree of power to form the self. 

or . . . because the older thing comes from a time of greater coherence and ‘solidity’ unlike our modern plastic age.  Thus, possession of such objects seems to give ourselves more substance and ‘weight.’

Has mankind always been like this?  Would someone of the 14th century prefer something of his own time, or something from 4th century Rome?

**************

The Self Amidst other Selves

Imagine that you are at a dinner party in a beautiful, urbane setting.  You have wonderful food and drink to consume.  You are at the party alone and are standing near another person whom the host “thinks you should meet.”  You oblige your host and go to talk to the eligible young man/young woman, but quite frankly, after about 3 minutes you think the person is boring and you are not that interested.  You are in a room by yourselves, with nothing to interrupt conversation should it occur, but things are going nowhere and getting awkward quickly. You know that the host will make sure you are alone for at least another five minutes (they are really hoping you hit it off) so extracting yourself from the conversation will not be possible without a lot of awkwardness.  

Or

Imagine that you are at that same dinner party, and have just been introduced to the same person.  You have said ‘hello,’ you’ve known them for literally about 5 seconds.  Suddenly, an earthquake strikes and much of the house collapses.  Thankfully you both suffer only minor scrapes, and it seems that everyone else is more or less ok also.  But–you are pinned underneath some rubble about 3 feet away from each other and will have to wait about 30 minutes for help.

Which situation would you prefer?  Under which scenario is a good conversation more likely to occur?  

***************

Imagine that you are a movie star, say Robert Downey, Jr., or Emma Stone, and you have to stop in a small town to buy some food.  Which is the greater fear?

  • That the townspeople will recognize you, that they will detain you for 20 minutes or more, make you take selfies with them, you will have to sign autographs, they will expect you to say something funny or memorable, because they will tell everyone about meeting you, etc.  You will have to be “on” for them.

Or

  • That no one will recognize you at all, and, in fact, you hear someone criticizing one of the movies you were recently in, a movie you thought was actually quite good.

***************

Imagine . . .

You wake up with some dread.  You have to make a big speech today, and you aren’t really prepared. You also have a physics test coming up, and you suppose you will fail that as well. You are nervous, and haven’t slept well recently. Things seem to be slipping in general–there was the argument with your friend last week and you haven’t really ‘made-up’ after that.

As you walk out of the house, a crazy person pulls up in his car and shoots you.  He speeds off, but hits a fire hydrant and is apprehended by the police.  The ambulance comes and helps you.  You are in pain, but your mind is clear.  People gather around and give you encouraging words.  You make a few witty remarks to the EMT’s helping you, and people laugh. Your mom comes out terribly anxious, but you quote President Reagan back to her when he was shot–”Sorry, mom, I forgot to duck.”  You notice the amazement of onlookers at your wit and presence in the moment. They whisk you away to the hospital.  You will survive, the bullet missed everything vital, though of course you will have a long recovery.

As far as school goes, of course the speech and the test are waved, as is a lot of other schoolwork.  Your estranged friend, feeling bad, apologizes to you and your relationship is restored.  People from school come to visit you, and stories are told of how you responded to the terrible incident with bravery and charm.  

Is this

  • Unreservedly bad news.  You have been shot and that is a terrible thing. There will be some minor damage you will carry in your body into old age. Not to mention–the person who shot you will of course suffer, via arrest, institutionalization, etc.  This is also bad for him–physically and spiritually.  You both would be much better off if he did not shoot you.

Or

  • Relatively bad news.  All of the above is true, but the incident seems to have reset your life entirely in your favor.  People view you differently now.  

***********************

Anxiety and Depression

Many have remarked that people, and especially younger people, seem more anxious and disaffected than at any other time in recent memory. Why might this be?

Pick one or more

  1. Because modern life is more difficult and anxiety producing than during other times in the past.
  2. The young have always been anxious and whiny.  There is no crisis.  We just have many more ways to measure things now. People did not used to want to know how everyone was feeling, and we had far fewer ways to express our thoughts.  In fact, by talking about it so much, we create the problem.  Back in the old days, the young would be anxious, but just then be told to get over it and get back to work.
  3. Because for men, there has never been a time when your role in the world seemed so unstable.  People talk of ‘toxic masculinity.’  In the media we consume, some men may be good guys but women will almost never be the bad guys.The educational system, so crucial to our success, is firmly oriented towards female achievement, which statistics bear out. Men want to provide but the job market is constantly in flux–there are no guarantees. 
  4. Because things have never been harder for women.  For those that want to stay home with kids, society will not support you, and there will be no community of moms to share life with.  For those that work, there will be the impossible juggling of family in addition to dealing with the “man’s world” at work.
  5. Because our educational institutions have failed to prepare young people for the world, and so no wonder they struggle with coping with the future.
  6. Because the decline of religious belief and church attendance has left youth today completely adrift, and therefore, naturally anxious.
  7. Because the self has in fact experienced a radical loss of sovereignty, as technology has increased.  We have the real sense that we have no place, that we are not really needed. We are like the astronauts in the movie 2001, punching at the air, unable to connect.
  8. Because modern life is insane, and enough to make anyone anxious and depressed.  In fact, anyone who is not depressed and anxious at the nature of modern life are themselves deranged, or living in the land of the Lotus Eaters.

************************

Boredom

The word ‘boredom’ did enter our vocabulary until the 18th century.  No one knows its etymology.  One guess is that it comes from the French word, ‘to stuff.’

Why was there no such word before the 18th century?  Pick all that apply.

  1. Was it because people were not bored before that time?
  2. Was it because people were bored but did not have a word for it?
  3. Was it because people were too busy trying to stay alive to be bored (but of course, rich dilettantes have always existed).
  4. Is it that we have been encouraged to be so self-aware, to ‘pursue happiness,’ that we inevitably become alienated from ourselves and therefore ‘stuff’ ourselves into oblivion?
  5. Is it because, starting in the 18th century, we have had an increasingly scientific view that disenchants the world,  and thereby renders it meaningless?

Why is it that man is the only species that gets bored?  Under the circumstances in which a person gets bored, a dog happily takes a nap.

Liberty and Coercion

Almost every political philosopher I am aware of from Aristotle down through Montesquieu believed that a democracy/republic had to be small in size.  Self-government required, among other things:

  • A population where people know each other enough to trust each other to some degree.
  • A population where people can have enough land to support themselves, but a geography that does not allow any one particular faction to have too much land, thus gaining too much of an advantage over their fellows.
  • A relatively culturally homogeneous population that shares core values

The American experiment is unique in many ways, one of which being that Jefferson and Madison attempted to turn this reasoning on its head.  They argued that

  • Democracies/Republics floundered because of too much population concentration, not too little.
  • These population concentrations gave way to passions and factionalism that could easily destroy liberty by trampling on the minority (cf. Madison’s brilliant Federalist #10).
  • Hence, what Democracies/Republics need is not a small geography, but a large one.  People need to spread out so that 1) All will be sure to have land, and 2) No one particular faction could concentrate its power enough to override the rights of minorities (hence, Jefferson’s impetus for his semi-Constitutional Louisiana Purchase).

Maybe necessity helped them invent these ideas, maybe it sprung direct out of their heads.  Either way, with this reasoning Madison and Jefferson show their genius, confidence, and perhaps, their arrogance.  I have wondered if one might not view the whole of American history through the lens of this question: Were Jefferson and Madison right or wrong?*

I expected Gary Gerstle’s Liberty and Coercion to take on the grand question of the thorny question of the interaction between liberty and power, and how sometimes “liberty” for oneself means power over others.  Instead, he narrowed his focus and proceeded in a methodical way to show how over time the “police power” of the federal government grew.  Gerstle disappointed me by never exploring the relationship of our founding ideals to this question.  But at times his narrower focus allows him to make some incisive observations.

For example . .  .

Many presidents and perhaps many Americans had a desire to act in some measure of good faith with Native Americans, but things never went right.  Some might explain this via a grand clash of civilizations.  Gerstle looks instead at the inherent dilemmas posed by our philosophic commitments.  Our commitment to self-government limited the scope of federal government.  No one, whether a Federalist, Anti-Federalist, Democratic/Republican or the like, believed that a large professional army went well with liberty.  But with no money and no political will to even create agencies to establish firm borders and grant land titles, let alone enforce such borders militarily, various presidents found themselves giving in to the settlers “squatters rights.”  We wanted to prevent the national government from having too much power to coerce, but without this power, settlers had the liberty and the power to coerce others.

Time and time again, our sheer size made the relationship between governmental power and self-government difficult.

A similar line of reasoning happened with non-WASP immigrants, be they Catholics from Ireland/southern Europe or Asians settling in the west.  They did not have the same rights as others, but how could they?  For communal self-government relied on shared religious and cultural beliefs and habits.  If these immigrants did have these same values, they could possibly participate in the democracy.  Gerstle shared Teddy Roosevelt’s fury and frustration with the treatment of Japanese migrants in the U.S. just as he was negotiating sensitive deals with Japan.  But he had no ability to force local governments to do as he wished.

Here Gerstle misses an opportunity to connect our dilemmas with our founding ideology.  American colonization began with the idea of transplanting certain distinct communities intact.  But by the later 18th century Enlightenment ideas led to the bold “All men are created equal” mindset of the Declaration.  Simultaneously, America had no real justification to exclude anyone from its shores, but neither could they practice local, autonomous, self-government if they did.

The history of political philosophy has its revenge–or at least makes itself known.

Of course slavery is the preeminent manifestation of this dilemma.  On the one hand, I think most of the founders knew that slavery ran against their moral principles as a nation.  But their political principle of limiting the power of national government meant granting a lot of autonomy to the states.  The clash of these two propositions embedded the possibility of civil war into the fabric of our origins.

Gerstle cites one illuminating aspect of this problem that I had not heard of before.  After Nat Turner’s rebellion many abolitionist presses mailed anti-slavery publications “free of charge” to the South.  This infuriated President Jackson, who believed that such publications only sought to stir up more trouble.  He asked for Congress to ban their mailing.

But southerner John C. Calhoun recognized that such a ban would not serve southern interests.  They would gain in the short term but give away one of their core principles–the right of states to decide such questions.  He advocated against the ban.  But many states arrived at a solution by instructing local postal workers to simply not deliver this mail.  This at best awkward compromise could only last so long, however much it tried to resolve federal and state issues.**

States were seen early on as the means by which well-ordered communities could be established.  Thus, they had broad ranging police power.  The constitution reflects this by enumerating the powers of the federal government and giving everything else to the states.  Today the power of states is much weaker relative to even just a few generations ago.

This changed in stages.

The Industrial Revolution may have done more damage to the vision of the founders than any president or political party.  It broke down local rural life and lumped most people together in the cities as one amorphous mass.  Such conditions created a national state. Without any direct power to act, the government outsourced, deputizing local civic groups to undertake tasks related to civil order.

Whatever the successes such organizations had, they were destined for embarrassing failures.  They discriminated against blacks and immigrants.  They imprisoned without fair trials, and so on, all in the name of the Justice Department.  They needed stopped, but the only way to do so involved finding a way to increase the power of the national government.

Over time the national government used various legal strategies mostly related to the 14th amendment and the commerce clause to achieve their aims.  Perhaps the Industrial Revolution destroyed the possibility of self-government that our constitution depends on.  Rather than create a new constitution, we sought to stretch certain enumerated powers far beyond their original purpose.  Much hay has been made of the commerce clause, for example, which many conservatives lament.  However, our military and national defense (an issue dear to many conservatives) has also assumed a shape utterly unrecognizable to anyone who lived before W.W. II.  The size and cost of our military has in turn stretched the power of the presidency far beyond the vision of the constitution.  Gerstle cites many examples of how our military ballooned in size and then rapidly decreased when conflicts ceased.  Of course we can cite the strategic dilemmas faced by the U.S. after W.W. II as a justification for maintaining a large military.  In a very real sense, W.W. II did not end until 1989.

Strategic considerations aside, we should speculate if any other forces influenced this shift.

Eighteenth-century theorists drew upon the “citizen-soldiers” of times past.  Greece and Rome both provided examples of this.  On the one hand, we cannot have a militarized state, which would jeopardize our liberty.  On the other hand, we need national defense.  A nation of property owners motivated by legitimate self-interest would certainly rally to defend their land, their communities, if need be.  The first 175 years (give or take) of our history demonstrated this.  Right up through the end of W.W. I we demonstrated the ability to dramatically expand and contract the size of our military.

Perhaps our strategic situation changed so dramatically in 1945 that it necessitated the rise of a “military-industrial complex.” Or perhaps it was we ourselves that changed.  Gerstle does not speculate.

Embedded in this question is the relationship between liberty and order.  We have always recognized the need for someone to have the final say, and the need for people to “pursue happiness” in the way they see fit.  This has always meant tolerating things one may disagree with.  Should we ban pornography or not?  Do we grant the freedom of some to own slaves?  Do we grant the freedom of some to oppose same-sex marriages?  Who gets to decide?

Gerstle’s book rather prosaically shows how this power to decide has transferred over time from the states to the federal government.  This happened mainly under Democratic leadership.  But conservatives also played a role at crucial times with their traditional issues of national defense/military.  By “prosaically” I don’t mean that it was easy or unconvincing.  He has extensive research and uses a methodical style that makes him quite convincing.  But he leaves us with some unexplored questions and neglects to swing for the fences.

He makes clear the fact that ideas of liberty and coercion have always existed.  All we have done over time is basically transferred the power of coercion from the state to the national government.  As to whether representative government can exist in the post-industrial era, as to whether or not Jefferson was right or wrong, these grand questions go largely untouched.  I for one can’t help but admire the brilliance and confident boldness of Jefferson’s vision–though I think I disagree.  I wish Gerstle had done a bit more to inspire me one way or another, and done a bit more to help answer the perplexing question of the nature of America’s idea of liberty.

Dave

*Another possible historical lens would be the “wheel of fortune”–the idea that every civilization (and every ruler?) will experience a kind of boom/bust cycle.  The medievals would argue, I think, that this cycle was meant to teach us about redemption.  This lens would argue that some choices could delay the progress of the cycle perhaps even for a long time, but that “nothing lasts forever” and that some kind of decline remains inevitable.

Again, this idea had a historically long run, from the ancients down through Machiavelli at least.  Our founders, many of them heirs to the Enlightenment, would not have accepted this idea.

**The same held true for the Fugitive Slave Act.  Most pro-slavery advocates rejoiced at the new provisions of the law, but others saw that to achieve this they abandoned a key principle of keeping the federal government away from the slavery issue.

Without question slavery is a terrible moral evil.  We must realize that the issue had other dimensions to understand the colonial and ante-bellum period.  We may deplore the actions of another country or culture.  When should we use force to change them?  By what authority?

11th/12th Grade: Negative and Positive Liberty

Greetings to all,

As I mentioned at Orientation, the class this years is entitled, “American History” even though we will not spend the entirety of our time studying America particularly.  Still, 19th and 20th century America will receive special focus.  In light of this, I introduced a few key questions that will form the backdrop of our study this year:

  • What does it mean to be an American?
  • Is America unique?  If so, in what way?  Our founders indeed believed that America did represent something unique in its time, but our way of life has influenced others over time.  If we are no longer unique, how has that impacted our sense of identity?
  • Many have commented that America gets birthed from an idea, rather than “within history.”  What advantages and disadvantages does this bring, and how has this impacted us?

Hopefully students will enjoy grappling with these difficult questions.

We began the year looking quickly at the early American presidents during the years 1788-1800.  The founders did much to lay down on paper a workable outline of government in the Constitution.  But the Constitution could not answer every question or foresee every circumstance that would arise.  How would the principles laid down in the Constitution work themselves out in real life?  Nowhere does the Consitution explicitly guarantee the right to privacy, for example, but does that mean we don’t have that right?  Does the Constitution forbid what it does not explicitly allow, or does it allow what it does not explicitly forbid?  The founders themselves did not agree on this question, and the Constitution does not say one way or the other.

We looked at the transformation of American democracy under Andrew Jackson, and this ultimately led to discussions on the following topics:

1. Do we elect our representatives because of their wisdom, experience, etc. (the attitude of George Washington), or to simply be ‘the voice of the people (more of Andrew Jackson’s idea)?  Do we want our representatives to follow their own ideas and convictions, or to follow the opinion polls?

2. In some ways, Jackson was our first “American” president.  Washington, Jefferson, Monroe — all of them had an essentially European style upbringing and education.  Jackson grew up on the frontier without the formal training.  Previously, government was for the “best” men to rule on the people’s behalf.  Jackson believed that if he could be president, certainly anyone could be Secretary of State.  He began the so-called “Spoils System” by rewarding his political friends with government posts.  However distasteful this might be, it had its roots in a passionate belief in equality, that no one should be thought of as “elite.”  His inaugural celebration had a much more loose and informal feel than that of his predecessors.

3. Just at the end of class Friday I introduced  political philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s formulation of ‘Negative’ and ‘Positive’ liberty.  Does liberty mean freedom from outside constraint, or are we not truly free unless directed toward a greater good, as the Puritans might have argued?  Do restaurants rob smokers of their liberty by banning them, or does that ban in fact enhance the freedom of non-smokers not to inhale second-hand smoke?  Non-smokers are certainly in the majority, but every democracy must protect minority rights to be considered a democracy at all.  How much, and what kind, of protection should minorities receive?  This becomes all the more problematic when extending rights to the minority means the minority inconveniences the majority.

The interesting and problematic part of this debate is that both sides believe they are enhancing liberty.  The restaurant that allows smoking everywhere believes that they are simply letting people do what they choose to do, even if the choice is a bad one.  What business is it of theirs what people do with their lives?  Who are they to make choices for others?  On the other side, some would say that such ‘liberty’ is in fact liberty only for the minority to do as they please.  The ‘liberty’ of some is ‘oppression’ for others forced to breathe in the smoke.  With everyone smoking in restaurants, the freedom of non-smokers to eat where they please has significant limits.

Many of our political debates, I feel, may have something to do with these different definitions of liberty.

Of course this discussion of liberty cannot divorced in our context from a discussion of slavery, and may help us understand why many came to defend slavery in the name of liberty.  To help us understand slavery in America we will look briefly at the history of slavery at some point next week.  Why did it disappear in the Middle Ages?  Why did it start to return in the Renaissance?  Was indentured servitude slavery?  Why did slavery linger in the South?  Why did we not ‘solve’ the slavery question with the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution?  Below I include the brief reading selections I gave the students on the issue of “Negative” and “Positive” liberty if you would like to read yourself.

Next week we will look at the expansion of America to the west and south in the 1840’s, and what impact this had on the political climate of the period.  I look forward to a wonderful year.

Dave Mathwin

 

Negative and Positive Conceptions of Liberty

Negative Liberty

Philosophers such as Locke or Adam Smith or, in some moods, Mill, believed that social harmony and progress were compatible with reserving a large area for private life over which neither the State nor any other authority must be allowed to trespass. Hobbes, and those who agreed with him, especially conservative or reactionary thinkers, argued that if men were to be prevented from destroying one another and making social life a jungle or a wilderness, greater safeguards must be instituted to keep them in their places; he wished correspondingly to increase the area of centralised control and decrease that of the individual. But both sides agreed that some portion of human existence must remain independent of the sphere of social control. To invade that preserve, however small, would be despotism. The most eloquent of all defenders of freedom and privacy, Benjamin Constant, who had not forgotten the Jacobin dictatorship, declared that at the very least the liberty of religion, opinion, expression, property must be guaranteed against arbitrary invasion. Jefferson, Burke, Paine, Mill compiled different catalogues of individual liberties, but the argument for keeping authority at bay is always substantially the same. We must preserve a minimum area of personal freedom if we are not to ‘degrade or deny our nature’. We cannot remain absolutely free, and must give up some of our liberty to preserve the rest. But total self-surrender is self-defeating.

What then must the minimum be? That which a man cannot give up without offending against the essence of his human nature. What is this essence? What are the standards which it entails? This has been, and perhaps always will be, a matter of infinite debate. But whatever the principle in terms of which the area of non-interference is to be drawn, whether it is that of natural law or natural rights, or of utility, or the pronouncements of a categorical imperative, or the sanctity of the social contract, or any other concept with which men have sought to clarify and justify their ‘convictions, liberty in this sense means liberty from, absence of interference beyond the shifting, but always recognisable, frontier. ‘The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way’, said the most celebrated of its champions.  If this is so, is compulsion ever justified? Mill had no doubt that it was. Since justice demands that all individuals be entitled to a minimum of freedom, all other individuals were of necessity to be restrained, if need be by force, from depriving anyone of it. Indeed, the whole function of law was the prevention I of just such collisions: the State was reduced to what Lassalle contemptuously described as the functions of a night-watchman or traffic policeman. What made the protection of individual liberty so sacred to Mill? In his famous essay he declares that, unless the individual is left to live as he wishes in ‘the part [of his conduct] which merely concerns himself’, civilisation cannot advance; the truth will not, for lack of a free market in ideas, come to light; there will be no scope for spontaneity, originality, genius, for mental energy, for moral courage. Society will be crushed by the weight of ‘collective mediocrity’.

Whatever is rich and diversified will be crushed by the weight of custom, by men’s constant tendency to conformity, which breeds only ‘withered’ capacities, ‘pinched and hidebound’, ‘cramped and dwarfed’ human beings. ‘Pagan self-assertion’ is as worthy as ‘Christian self-denial’. ‘All errors which [a man] is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good.’  The defence of liberty consists in the ‘negative’ goal of warding off interference. To threaten a man with persecution unless he submits to a life in which he exercises no choices of his goals; to block before him every door but one, no matter how noble the prospect upon which it opens, or how benevolent the motives of those who arrange this, is to sin against the truth that he is a man, a being with a life of his own to live. This is liberty as it has been conceived by liberals in the modern world from the days of Erasmus (some would say of Occam) to our own. Every plea for civil liberties and individual rights, every protest against exploitation and humiliation, against the encroachment of public authority, or the mass hypnosis of custom or organised propaganda, springs from this individualistic, and much disputed, conception of man.

Positive Liberty

One way of making this clear is in terms of the independent momentum which the, initially perhaps quite harmless, metaphor of self-mastery acquired. ‘I am my own master’; ‘I am slave to no man’; but may I not (as Platonists or Hegelians tend to say) be a slave to nature? Or to my own ‘unbridled’ passions? Are these not so many species of the identical genus ‘slave’ – some political or legal, others moral or spiritual? Have not men had the experience of liberating themselves from spiritual slavery, or slavery to nature, and do they not in the course of it become aware, on the one hand, of a self which dominates, and, on the other, of something in them which is brought to heel? This dominant self is then variously identified with reason, with my ‘higher nature’, with the self which calculates and aims at what will satisfy it in the long run, with my ‘real’, or ‘ideal’, or with my self at its best.

Dominion and rationality necessarily presuppose freedom. Moreover,  freedom is a necessary condition of morality and love, love cannot be coerced. Man’s freedom and will is at the very heart of man made in God’s image. But as we will see man’s freedom is complex. Freedom has two stages, the first stage of freedom is an imperfect freedom which if used properly leads to perfect freedom. The first stage of freedom is the condition man is in at his creation, it is freedom to choose, I will have the pear and not the banana, I will not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, I will obey God, I will ignore God.  This kind of simple choice is not perfect and true freedom but only the means by which we achieve true freedom. Perfect freedom in the fullest sense is not about choice. This is the lie of the Devil, we believe that freedom means being free to do what one wants, free to choose for oneself. But true freedom is achieved when man simply becomes, when he comes to the place in his being that  he is free from the possibility of choosing the bad.  St. Augustine distinguishes between “the first freedom of the will, the ability not to sin” and “the final freedom… the inability to sin.”  St. Augustine writes in The City of God

Nay rather, it will be more truly free, when set free from the delight of sinning to enjoy the steadfast delight of not sinning.  . . . This new freedom will be the more powerful just because it will not have the power to sin; and this, not by its unaided natural ability, but by the gift of God has received from him the inability to sin . . .   It surely cannot be said that God Himself has not freedom, because he is unable to sin?

Rome’s Final Frontier

Greetings to all,

This week we continued our look at the formation of the Empire under Augustus Caesar.  His leadership gave Rome peace and stability, but this came at a price.  Augustus solved some of the decayed Republic, but his solution created other problems.

Decades of civil war faced Rome with the need for change.  Rome’s society, however, was built on tradition. Augustus carried himself as a leader in the old tradition, but in reality eroded all of the old checks and balances of the Republic.  He was much more careful than his uncle Julius, who made no secret of his power.  In reality, however, Augustus had just as much, if not more power than Julius ever did.  He certainly understood the power inherent in manipulating his image. . .

The problem may not have been the power itself, but the fact that it was done more or less secretly, and so did not encourage Rome to face reality.  We talked of how Rome was in a sense, ‘pretending’ — living in a fantasy land that told them that Rome was still Rome, after all.  This pretending, however, can be dangerous for a civilization, because the tension between your imagination and reality can grow over time.

In their “Res Getae” assignment the students got an idea of the subtlety with which Augustus worked.  He saw what happened to his uncle Julius, and modified his actions accordingly.  He never (or hardly ever) took power, he waited to receive it from others.  He rejected the title of Dictator which would have brought odium upon himself, but he took bits and pieces of other offices that added up to total control in the end, a kind of “majority ownership” of Rome.

Next week we will see that one problem Augustus faced was the German frontier along the Rhine and Danube river.  He was right to recognize its weaknesses.  This map shows the wedge into Roman territory created by the meeting of the Rhine and Danube river.

Do rivers make for good frontiers?  We might think so, for rivers are not easy for armies to cross.  But when compared with mountains or deserts we see that rivers can be quite porous. Neither side, after all, has a barrier to using the river on their side of territory.  Furthermore, most people use rivers for fishing, travel, and commerce.  Thus, rivers often act to bring people together rather than separate them.  The MD/D.C./No. VA area is a good example of this.  Augustus needed a new frontier, a more secure border.

Prudence might dictate falling back to something more secure.  But Augustus built his power in part on the fantasy that Rome had not changed.  Rome never falls back!  He tried to push forward further into Germany to the more advantageous Elbe/Danube frontier, seen here below. . .

and picked the arrogant Varus to command.  Varus fell for Arminius’s trap and led his army to disaster at the Battle of Tuetonburg Forest.  We will discuss how Augustus was right about his frontier being vulnerable, but was he right in his solution?

We shall see that their are limits to what the military can accomplish when the situation requires a  political solution While Rome would win battles against Germans in the future, they could never end their power of resistance.

Next week we will do an activity where I want the students to rethink the Roman frontier.  In the ideal world Rome could have pulled back a great deal.  But of course that would completely ignore political realities.  If he withdrew in one place, would he have to advance in another?  If so, where?  I hope the students enjoyed this change of pace and the chance to view the problem in a different way.

Here is a map of the Empire from a topographical perspective:

Where could Rome get an ‘easy’ victory to allow them to withdraw on the German border?  Where should troops be concentrated?

When we wrap up Augustus we will discuss various aspects of his reign.  He ended a century of civil war and brought peace throughout the Roman empire.  Under his leadership the economy and culture of Rome revived.  The system he established did give Rome stability long after he departed, and as far as masterful politicians go, I would rank Augustus as one of the all-time greats.  On the other hand, while Augustus was very effective, he had to curtail civil liberties to achieve his goals.  He never sought to make Rome face reality, to take them from their current perception of reality at point ‘A’ and bring them to the necessary point ‘B.’  In this way, Augustus lacked true leadership greatness.

After Augustus we will see how the system he established fared under different emperors.  Tiberius and Caligula will get our attention next week.

Many thanks,

Dave

8th Grade: Egypt’s Desert Formation

Greetings to all,

I hope you have had a good week, and I hope too that you will enjoy the weekend before us.

This week we began our unit on Egypt, and first considered the influence of geography on the formation of their civilization.  I wanted to ask the following of the students:

1. What is the central feature of Egyptian geography, and why might this promote civilization?

2. What about Egyptian geography might influence it towards strong centralized government?

3. How might Egyptian geography have influenced their religion?

I do not believe geography exercises an absolute authority over humankind.  We are always left with choice & responsibility for those choices.  Having said that, we should not neglect the impact our surroundings may have upon us.  I do also stress to the students that the heart of any civilization is not its surroundings, resources, etc., but what it worships.  What a civilization worships is, in its turn, often reflected in its architecture.  With that in mind, I anticipate us taking a hard look at the pyramids next week.

When we think about Geography and its connections to Egypt, we noted the following:
1. The extremes of Egyptian geography: Only somewhere between 5-10% of their land was arable, but that land was some of the best farmland in the ancient world due to the yearly Nile floods.  Lush farm land backed right up against barren desert (as seen in the picture below).  This geographical tension probably produced psychological tension.  We see in Egypt, for example, the duality between the worship of almost any life whatsoever, and the reign of death just beyond.  The pictures of the Nile river valley below illustrate this stark contrast.
Nile River Valley
This tension had to be resolved in either a positive or negative way.  As time went by, death gained the upper hand.  Here is an early Egyptian poem that reflects this.  Some of these sentiments may ring true from a Christian perspective, and some lines resemble aspects of Biblical Wisdom literature. I think, however, that the overall imbalance towards death as an escape from the “claustrophobia” of life rather than a source of redemption is evident.
Egypt and Death: An Early Poem
To whom can I speak today?
One’s fellows are evil;
The friends of today do not love.
To whom can I speak today?
The gentle man has perished,
But the violent man has access to all.
To whom can I speak today?
No one remembers the past;
No one at this time does good in return for good.
Death stands before me today
Like the recovery of a sick man,
Like going outside after being confined.
Death stands before me today
Like the fragrance of myrrh,
Like sitting under the shade on a breezy day.
Death stands before me today
As a man longs to see his house,
After he has spent many years in captivity.
The Nile River valley had to serve as the center of Egyptian civilization, and in turn, we note that the Egyptians had an unusual inward focus.  They did not interact with many other peoples in the ancient near east.  Some geographies push people out of their settings, but we might imagine the Nile river as a giant vacuum, sucking everyone towards it.
  • The extremes may have led to Egypt’s focus on ‘Ma’at,’ or keeping things in balance. When one lives in between stark images of life and death constantly, it should not surprise us to see an inordinate focus on the concept of “balance.”  Keeping the order of things (ma’at) was the central job of the pharaoh, and of course this is a semi-divine task.  No problem per se for the Egyptians, as in their mind  the pharaoh’s were divine, or perhaps semi-divine, themselves.  When we look at the Exodus in a little bit we should keep in mind that among other things, God exposes Pharaoh’s complete inability to maintain “ma’at.”  God uses the plagues as a means to free His people, but also a message to the Egyptians to come join the Israelites.  Pharaoh’s inability to maintain harmony and balance gets decisively exposed.
  • The relative sameness and flatness of Egypt contributed to the political centralization of Egypt.  Egyptian society could not exist without fair and equitable distribution of the Nile floodwaters, and this would have required executive oversight.  But it may also have psychologically contributed to the eventual rigidity of thought that eventually overtook Egypt from about 1800 B.C. onward.

With this emphasis on Ma’at we get confronted with a very different way of thinking, and a very different set of priorities.  A president who wanted to look successful in his memoirs would probably highlight the great changes he brought to America.  In Egypt, Pharaoh’s “memoirs” focused on how they kept things exactly the same, in just the proper proportion (for those interested one can read this post on Ma’at and Pharaoh Userkaf).

Towards the end of the week we began our look at Thutmose III and the Battle of Meggido.  We will continue that next week as well examine the Book of the Dead and the monotheistic Pharaoh Ikhneton.

Blessings,

Dave

The Emperor Might Need New Clothes

Some years ago my students and I came across a remarkable passage in Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention.  The delegates debated some issue about term limits or representation, when one of the lesser known men commented that, in effect, “this constitution will last us about 75 years, after which we will have to make a new one.”*

This comment passed apparently without much notice or fuss at the Convention in Philadelphia.  Perhaps it was a generally assumed idea, or perhaps they simply had enough trouble in the moment to worry about arguing whether or not their document would last past their grandchildren.

This shocked everyone in class because we think of America like any other country, a more or less solid oak in the earth.  Of course, we have also been brought up with political rhetoric from both parties that venerates the constitution (though perhaps different parts of it).   Because Americans share little besides some form of faith in the Constitution, if that shakes, we all fall down.

Because American history has many unique aspects, I find getting an interpretive handle on our past very difficult.  I have taught American History for about 15 years and have only some educated and less than educated guesses.  Clearly, however, politically and culturally we are currently shifting in some direction or another at the moment.  How should we make sense of it?

One of the more remarkable periods of positive dynamic change occurred in Greece between the years ca. 800-500 B.C.  We know about the Bronze Age, but sometime after the Trojan War Greece descended into a dark age about which we know very little.  Perhaps Homer was the beginning of the rebirth.  Early on in his The Economic and Social Growth of Early Greece: 800-500 B.C. Chester Starr makes an interesting point.  Definite ideas or concepts like “equality” or “rights” did not guide the Greeks ca. 800 B.C.  Rather, the concept of eunomia, or “traditional right” formed the basis of Greek social and political interaction.  Sometimes they invoked eunomia against abuse of power by tyrants or aristocrats, at other times aristocrats invoked it rightly against the “mob.”  This flexibility surely gave them good ground on which to innovate.

This stands in contrast to our history.  We founded America on ideas, whether because we thought that the best way to go, or because we had no other choice.  We often agreed on the results we wanted, but rarely on the “why” of that result.  Even early colonial America had a great deal of cultural diversity, at least by 17th century measurements.  We have never really had a shared culture to build upon, except perhaps for a vague sense of Protestantism.

Starr goes to demonstrate that the creation of the much admired political unit of the city-state had at least part of its origins in the desire of the aristocracy to concentrate its power.  Later, asPericles of Athens we know, democracy arose in many Greek city-states, a tribute to the aforementioned flexibility.  But many Greek democracies still had their aristocratic imprint.  The outstanding reformer Pericles made Athens more democratic while definitely living and fashioning himself as an aristocrat, and not as a “man of the people.” His bust makes this clear.

All good things come to end, and the Greek system had played itself out by the time of Alexander, who had little trouble putting it to rest.  Still, all in all, a good run by any measure, one too that makes sense in some clearly defined stages.

In light of Greek history and our own, I offer some some highly speculative thoughts . . .

Theory 1

Since early colonization America has gone through several iterations:

  • Colonial America – 1600-1756
  • Revolutionary America – 1756-1828
  • Jacksonian America – 1828-1860
  • Progressive America – 1860-1929
  • New Deal America – 1929-1965
  • Global Power America – 1965-2001
  • ???

Obviously some of these dates can be disputed and overlap.  Basically, Theory 1 asserts that because America has been rooted in ideas and not culture/tradition, we subject ourselves to significant shifts every 2-3 generations (the first phase doesn’t really count, as we had no concept of an American “nation” until the mid 1700’s).  We can reinterpret our common language on the fly and create “new Americas” every so often–though of course each era has some connections to past eras.  This ability has its strengths and weaknesses.

This theory, if true, may comfort us now because the the shifting ground beneath our feet will settle again as it has for previous generations.  We’ve done this before, we can do it again.

Theory 2 . . .

proposes more unity for the majority of American history.  Yes, some cultural and political shifts happened over time.  But we consistently maintained faith in the democratic process, and in our reason for being.  Even in the Civil War, the Confederacy broke away not out of a rejection of the American ideal, but out of a belief that they represented the true America.  We had “confidence,” that crucial element of any civilization, even in the midst of our most profound domestic crisis.

But something significant happened in 1965.**  In this year we passed the Voting Rights Act, which could be viewed as the apotheosis of what America was supposed to be.  In this year also we dramatically increased our involvement in Vietnam, again, in some ways I think, out of a belief that this was what we were “supposed” to do.  We increased our troop presence initially at least with the general backing of Congress and the population at large.

However, almost immediately after we passed the Voting Rights Act the riots in America’s cities began.  Rioting continued sporadically in many major cities for the next few years.  Perhaps this was pure coincidence, but I think not, though I would not claim to really understand the reasons for the violence.  But I think that part of the reason might be an intuition that we had “done all we could do,” but that it wasn’t enough.  The supreme confidence we had in our democratic way of life taught us that things would always improve, but now we knew better.  Shortly after our troop surge in Vietnam waves of self-doubt began surging through the country.

The two phenomena are likely connected, though I’m not sure how.

Along with this, the counter-culture “hippie” movement went mainstream into popular culture and eventually most of academia.  Western icons like the Beatles went to India to learn see the world in a non-western way.  We lost confidence in our own culture, and we have not regained it.    We had never agreed fully on the why we did what we did, but we had agreed on what we did.  After this era we could no longer claim this for ourselves, and this makes the modern shift much different than others in our history.  The lack of political flexibility may have hastened the at least seeming collapse of the principles that guided us.  Some of the “vomiting up” of our past in some areas of our culture seems willfully self-induced.^

Recently The Guardian ran a great article about Tory MP Rory Stewart.  Stewart got a great education and attempted on two occasions to serve in difficult postings in Iraq and Afghanistan.  His comments say much about the state of the western world:

Ten years ago he would have listed 10 things Afghanistan needed to build a new state: rule of law, financial administration, civil administration and so on. “And, then you would say, well, how do you do that? Well, I’d say, by a mapping of internal and external stakeholders, definition of critical tasks – all this jargon talk. And I’ve only now just begun to realise these words are nonsense words. I mean, they have no content at all. We should be ashamed to even use them.”

They are nothing more, Stewart now acknowledges, than tautologies. “They pretend to be a plan, but they’re actually just a description of an absence. Saying ‘What we need is security, and what we need to do is eliminate corruption’ is just another way of saying: ‘It’s really dangerous and corrupt.’ None of that actually tells you how it’s done.”

And later,

In some sense I’m a romantic. I like the idea of organic history and tradition. But I think Britain is such a different place now, and changing so quickly, that I’m coming slowly, painfully, to accept that we need to start again.

I emphasize that these comments come not from a reactionary revisionist Liberal, but a member of England’s conservative party.

If we agree that we need to “start again,” in some way, will we agree on where to start from, and where we wish to go?

Dave

For anyone interested in further thoughts on America’s political culture, check out The Grumpy Old Man podcast with Audrey and Emily here.

*My apologies, I have looked back and forth for this comment and cannot find it again to save my life.

**A possible counter-date might be the end of W.W. II.  As Arnold Toynbee regretfully admitted, democracies are not well-equipped to handle something like nuclear weapons, though, so far no horrifying apocalypse.

^Trump gets rightly accused for excessive negativity, but why does no one focus on the obvious negativity from the Left?  Here is Clive Crook, via Marginal Revolution . . . 

Trump’s critics complain about his relentless invoking of crisis — despite agreeing with him that the system is collapsing. Conservatives keep telling us that the American project is in mortal danger, that liberty itself is at stake. Liberals keep telling us that global capitalism is wrecking everything that’s decent in society, that the U.S. is institutionally racist, and America’s traditional values are so much hypocrisy. I think back to the rapturous reception accorded by the left in 2014 to Thomas Piketty’s “Capital,” which argued, you may recall, that capitalism is an engine of injustice, headed for self-destruction; progressives everywhere nodded wisely in agreement. Here’s what puzzles many of them today: Why does Trump have to be so negative?

8th Grade: An Introduction to Civilizations

Greetings,

I hope the school is going well for you and your family.  I already can tell that I will enjoy this class. They are enthusiastic participators and willing and able to track with me and think about the issues before us.

As I told the students, before we move into the actual study of certain civilizations, I thought it appropriate to think of what we mean by the term ‘civilization,’ and what this might have to do with a Christian worldview.  I gave the students an example of a desert island divided into two halves.  Both halves have a government (a despotic king), religion (worship of a bloodthirsty god), laws and a way of life, (everyone pick up a stick and try and bash in the head of someone on the other side of the island).  They have a large enough group of people and a defined location, if one happens to believe that these are important criteria.

We discussed whether or not  this be could be termed ‘civilization.’  Even if it was a place where you would not want to live, was it ‘civilization?’  While I acknowledge that defining the concept is a bit slippery, in the end I think we can give a clear answer in the negative.

The definition I am using for civilization in this class is from historian Will Durant, who stated that civilization is, “Social order that promotes cultural creation.”  Life on our hypothetical island could not allow for ‘cultural creation.’ No buildings could be built, no books written, not even advances in weaponry could be made if everyone’s daily life consisted entirely of sleeping, eating, and fighting.

I believe the definition we are using is a good one because human society should help us live out what it means to be made in God’s image.  The first thing we see about God is that He creates.  A society that did not allow for human creation would deny a fundamental tenet of what it means to be human. Being made in God’s image means many things, but surely it must include something of what J.R.R. Tolkien called ‘sub-creation’ on our part.   If we look back on the island example, is the life lived there really human life?  Even beavers build dams, and otters make water slides for themselves.  Living just to eat, sleep, and fight would put us below many animals.

This week we also looked at the basic elements of all civilizations.  What purpose do civilizations serve, and how do they function?  Ultimately, civilizations exist to provide a means of human interaction, a structure that allows us to live out God’s image and call on our lives.  While none of the civilizations we will study will be ‘Christian’ civilizations (if such a thing is even possible), the closer one gets to this goal, the better off people are.  While we may not need civilizations per se, we do need each other.  God Himself is a kind of Community (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) and as we are created in His image, so too we need to live in community with one another to make us fully human.

We examined what I call the Five Elements of Civilization:

Geography

Suppose that you and your friends wish to do something together.  You would need to agree on a location to meet.  For there to be profitable human interaction, we need a defined physical space to do so.  Obviously, the geography must provide a minimum of food, water, etc. for civilization to exist.  But as we discussed, ideal geographies do not tend to foster civilizations.  When things are too easy, we never need to learn, invent, or progress.  Historically speaking, we need a challenge to thrive.  On the flip side, some geographies present such an extraordinary challenge that man’s nearly heroic adaptation to them binds them into such narrow confines as to stunt the growth of civilizations (one might think of desert nomads or Eskimo peoples in the Arctic).

Over the course of the year we will see the subtle influence of geography on the way people live.

Economics

No one can be completely self-sufficient. “No man is an island.”  We neither know all or can do all things well.  We need others to help us, but also need to have a means of exchanging goods and services fairly so these beneficial trades can take place.

A strict barter economy makes perfect sense.  I have apples, you have wood.  If we trade we both get something we easily know to have a direct value.  With one I can build a house, with the other I can avoid hunger.  Barter economies have the great advantage of simplicity, but the great burden of a complete lack of flexibility.  Imagine doing your weekly shopping, having to load up the wagon with bushels of grain, a few pigs, etc.  Then, you can only get what you need in return only if someone needs what you have.

A money economy helps solve some of these problems, and money began with precious metals.  But who made the first exchange of a shiny metal for a bushel of wheat?  You cannot eat, wear, or live in shiny metal.  The same is true of paper money.  In itself, it’s only a piece of paper.  You could write on it, or perhaps burn it for a few seconds of heat.  The money has value not for anything in itself, but because of our agreed upon belief about what it represents. Hence, the link between the health of our economy and the trust we place in our government and those around us.

A good economy will foster helpful and just exchanges of goods and services, which in turn fosters honoring social interaction.

Politics

Or — what I call the outward structure of civilization.  We need an agreed upon way of making decisions, and we need to know what is expected of us.  For example, we must decide if we are to drive on the right hand side or the left, or no one would drive at all.  We must also have an agreed upon way of deciding what side of the road we drive on, or nothing can ever get accomplished.

Laws serve a good purpose if they help grow helpful interaction between people.  They oppress if they stifle such social interaction.

Religion

Or – what I call the inward structure of civilization.  Since no one can write a law code that covers every situation, if we are to interact with others successfully we need a strong set of unwritten rules that everyone follows.  If someone cuts in line at the grocery store, we do not have the option of calling the police, for example.  This unwritten code comes ultimately from our religious beliefs.  We don’t cut in line in the final analysis because we believe in Justice.

I encouraged the class to think about religion more broadly than just what happens on ‘Sunday,’ in a given civilization.  As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” or to put it another way, “You are what you worship.”

Religion is in a broad sense what we give ourselves to truly, not merely our lip service.  A society might outwardly worship God, gods, or possibly even ideals and values like freedom, and so on.  Everyone worships something, and we cannot help but be conformed to the object of our worship.  This ultimate devotion becomes the main spring of our values.

Many modern historians often make materialistic arguments for the origin of civilization.  They will say things such as, “When river valley ‘x’ began to dry up the people came together to maximize their food input and begin to specialize.  From this early social organization governments arose, and then these governments codified religious belief to enforce their power.”

And so on, and so on.

I entirely disagree with these kinds of explanations, at least as the primary explanatory concept.  Such theories completely misunderstand human nature.  Why do relationships happen?  We do not enter into a relationship with people based on the need to survive.  We are made for relationship (“It is not good for man to be alone”).  We are drawn together by our common loves, by our common worship.  We were made for worship, and this is why religion forms the heart of any civilization.

Culture

In the narrow sense, culture is what we do with our free time.  A person’s hobbies are often a better insight into who they are than their jobs.   In a broader sense, culture is about how we interact with God’s creation, and how we outwardly express our inner values and strengths.  Broadly then, culture speaks to our values, and a bit more narrowly, culture is that which makes life enjoyable (reading books, playing games, etc.), and sets us apart from the rest of creation.

Of course every culture can and should have room for purely “fun” activities, but ideally our recreation truly engages in “re-creation,” whereby we image the God who creates.

My goal through all this was to try and show how each element is not an island, but impacts other areas.  These elements are interconnected and depend on one another.  Scripture’s image of the Body of Christ fits very well for civilizations.

My subsequent emails will likely not be as information oriented, but these categories will inform the rest of our year together.

Next week we will begin looking at actual civilizations, and begin applying this theoretical interpretative model to reality.  We will begin to look for the patterns and truths that history reveals to us.  Below I include the famous set of paintings by Thomas Cole called The Course of Empire.  I do not necessarily agree with everything regarding Cole’s interpretation of history, but it is a wonderful visual image of a thought provoking theory, from a civilization’s beginning to its end.  We’ll reference these images from time to time in class this year.

Thank you again for all your support.

Blessings,

Dave Mathwin

8th Grade: “Bueller. . . Bueller. . .”

Greetings to all,

Are we sure that History matters?

This was the question I posed to the students the first day of school.

A few students pointed out that we should study History to learn from the mistakes and copy the successes of the past.  This is the answer most frequently given to the question, “Why History?”

But why should we accept it?  What on earth could anyone who has been dead for thousands of years, living in a completely different part of the world, have to teach us today?   “Perhaps,” I suggested to the students, “I am wasting your time, serving as part of a vast conspiracy of the old to occupy and distract the young.”  Is this what school really means?  Is the study of history merely an exercise in the “vain repetitions of the heathen?”

It’s fun to play devil’s advocate, but in the end we provided two key reasons why History does matter.

“Begin at the beginning,” said the King in Alice in Wonderland.  The study of history rests on a few key Christian assumptions:

  • We assume that what happens to people depends in part on choices they make, and these choices must in some sense be “free” choices.  If we have no ability to choose then whatever success of failure we experience has nothing to do with anything we can call “ourselves” at all, but merely instinct, environment, and so on.
  • We must believe that genuine communication across time and space can occur.  Believing this, in turn, rests on the belief that much more unites us as humans than divides us.  Otherwise, either communication would be impossible (because we would not understand one another), or meaningless (if our differences would be so extreme the experience of others would have no relevance for us).

Such things may seem so commonplace that they do not need to be defended, but in fact, those who buy into certain postmodern assumptions about identity and language would likely not agree with the above propositions.

In Genesis we read that God made mankind in His own image.  I am not capable of exhausting the richness of what this means for humanity, but we established a couple key concepts in class:

  • In Genesis 1 we see God bringing order out of the void.  He could have created everything in an instant, but He chose six days/periods of time (whichever you prefer), each with a clear progression and pattern.  In Genesis 1 we see God separating night from day, dry land from sea, and so on.  He then separates mankind from the rest of His creation.  So too, we can find order and patterns in our surroundings.  History need not be “one thing after another” with no distinctions or meaning.
  • God acts with will and intentionality, and so too we act from more than mere instinct.  If we had no ability to choose and act with purpose, History would have no meaning because we could not learn from it or apply what we learned without it.

God gives all people who have ever the lived the gift of His image, and this is the good side of the coin regarding humanity.  But in Genesis 3 sin enters the picture, with terrible consequences.

  • Adam and Eve attempt to alienate themselves from the very Source of Life itself and hide from God.  While mankind retains the stamp of God’s image, I think it no coincidence that Genesis 5:3 mentions that Seth was born in Adam’s image.
  • Adam and Eve turn away from each other, refusing responsibility for their sin
  • Humanity experiences alienation from creation as a whole.

History rightly examines many facets of various civilizations, and the collapse of various people groups  have political, economic, cultural, and geographic explanations.  But sin lies at the root of all misery, and since we are all sinners, all of us share responsibility for whatever is wrong in the world.  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Both the image of God and the fall of man mean that there is far more that unites, rather than divides, every person who has ever lived.   Even an Egyptian god-king from thousands of years ago and our next door neighbor still share these same characteristics.  Our differences remain skin deep.  Rod Dreher (an Orthodox Christian) recently interviewed Louis Betty, a scholar of the work of the modern French author Michael Houllebecq.  Neither Betty or Houllebecq profess any allegiance to Christianity, but Betty’s observation about the belief of the image of God in man are revealing.  He commented,

More concretely, you don’t get white supremacy if you believe that every human being has a soul fashioned in God’s image. Neither do you get far-left racial and ethnic identitarianism. Both are symptoms of a metaphysical deficit. It’s very easy to start dividing people up into tribal categories; after all, humans vary massively in just about every imaginable quality. It’s really something of a miracle that we ever came up with a notion of common humanity at all! We have the Judeo-Christian heritage to thank for this in the West. This is something secular people ought to consider before making glib criticisms of traditional religion.

The full article is here for any who are interested.

We see the confluence of the image of God and the Fall in every life and in every civilization.  We all seek order and coherence.  We all seek to create distinctions (just as in Genesis 1) in our lives, giving precedence to some things over others, and so on.  In this way we image the God who made us.  Yet we also see that we often choose to embrace death to create our personal/civilizational kingdoms.  We will hate others to make the kind of order we wish for our own lives.  Nations may literally kill and destroy others to achieve the peace they desire.

1 Corinthians 15:56 states that, “the sting of death is sin.”  This order might surprise us–we might expect it to be reversed.  Adam sinned and brought death to himself and his descendants.  In many ways, it is our fear of death, of the diminution of the self, that leads us into sin, as 1 Corinthians states.  We cut each other off in traffic, grab the last cookie, and declare war to obtain resources in order to preserve and extend our earthly lives.  We obtain life only through surrender to death, i.e., “He who wishes to save his life must lose it” (Luke 9:24).

Other areas of Scripture show the importance of History.  Much of the Old Testament simply records events without editorial comment.  We can read of various kings of Israel, for example, and the Biblical authors do not always insert, “And God thought ‘x’ about the king.”  No doubt God means for us to figure it out on our own from the context, and from what we already know from reason, observation, experience, and other parts of Scripture.  If History is important to God in Scripture, we can conclude that History itself serves as a kind of revelation, a revelation that will teach us much about ourselves, and God Himself indirectly.

Apart from a Christian context, History, however interesting, would have no real meaning for us beyond mere entertainment.  We will keep returning to these foundational truths, for History makes no sense without them. I told the students that this class may have started in an unexpected way for them, but we cannot understand History without understanding mankind, and we cannot understand mankind without understanding who God is. Next week, we will attempt to understand what makes a “civilization,” and how civilizations function.

Blessings,

Dave Mathwin

9th/10th Grade: Let’s Pretend

Greetings to all,

It’s always exciting to begin a new year, and I have enjoyed the students and our interactions.  I trust that we will have a great year together.

We begin the year resuming the story of Rome in 44 B.C., after the death of Julius Caesar.  I am aware that for new students, it is not easy to pick up the story in the middle.  We have reviewed the context of Caesar’s assassination, but I would urge all students (and parents if you wish) to read this and this — both will hopefully help provide some additional insight into the background from Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire.  I would also suggest a review the Five Elements of Civilization that  formed the backbone of the 8th Grade Ancient History class.  If anyone wishes to review that (especially new students), look here.

To get new students up to speed, we went quickly through the first two of Rome’s three stages.  The first stage was the monarchy phase (753-508 B.C.), the second the Republic (508-44 B.C.).  Whatever their differences, both phases showed forth Rome’s main characteristics:

  • An emphasis on tradition.  Rome looked back to the past for guidance, not forward to the future.  They valued stability over change.
  • Rome began as an agrarian oriented society, which usually goes hand-in-hand with tradition oriented societies.  Though Rome began to develop a wealthy merchant class around 100 B.C., the ruling elite always thought of themselves as farmers.
  • In the Republic phase, they shared and divided power amongst different people and institutions, though usually monopolized by the nobility.  They feared that a concentration of power, especially in executive offices, would bring about a tyrannical government.

We spent this week reviewing the decline of the Roman Republic, setting the stage for our look at the Roman Empire and Augustus next week.   I wanted to with a few main themes:

1. Don’t Pretend

We reviewed the basics of the structure of the Republic, and how this helped form Rome’s identity, along with their self-image.  In Rome’s eyes, they were, and had always been, a nation of self reliant farmers.  But Rome changed over time, and because of Rome’s strong (at least stated) belief in tradition, Rome never felt the need to change. When they did change, they usually pretended that they were, in fact, not changing at all.

Next week we will discuss how potentially dangerous this attitude can be.  For example, a couple years ago during the summer I got  a minor shoulder injury at the beach.  Thinking myself to be 24 instead of the 38 I was at the time, after a few days I used the muscles much too soon and tweaked it all over again.  I need to realize that things take longer to heal at 38 than they did at 24, however sad a realization this might be!  This is all the more true for me at 41.   If I were to continue to pretend to be 24 the damage and bodily dysfunction would grow worse.  Imagine if a whole civilization did this, and what consequences would be in store for people that did so.

As the Republic collapsed, the distance between Rome’s self-image and reality grew wider and wider.  Will Augustus help solve the problem, or will he exacerbate it?

2. The Power and Vulnerability of Tradition

Most of us have probably experienced the positive power of tradition.  It provides structure, and sometimes comfort to our lives. Many families have holiday traditions that add depth and meaning to the occasion.  Tradition seems to have a magical power of sorts — we do something because that’s what we do, and it works.  In this way, tradition can be stronger than law.  It has a power all its own.

But the spell of tradition can be easily broken.  There is nothing, for example, to stop you from violating tradition.  Once you stop, the genie cannot be put back in the bottle.  Tradition’s power can be broken in a moment, whereas law takes much longer to whittle away.  Rome prided itself on being guided by the past, of “not departing from the ways of their fathers.”  Yet a century of civil war eroded most, if not all of those “old ways.”

Did they perceive this truth?  Can a tradition oriented society make necessary adaptations?  It’s safe to say that nearly every civilization would likely collapse after so much inner conflict and turmoil.  Rome will survive under Augustus, but they will pay a steep price to do so, as we shall see.

Next week we will look at some of the dilemmas facing Augustus as he ruled Rome, and see how the dynamic of ‘pretending’ likely pushed him into the disastrous Battle of Tuetonborg Forest.  We will also ask the question, “Should you ever trade liberty for security?”

Blessings,

Dave