American History: The Civil War: Causes and Conclusion

For the coming test I want the students to think about the following question: ‘How did the causes of the war impact  how the war was fought, and how did these factors help lead to the ultimate victory of Union forces?’

The first thing they need to do is to discern what they believe to be the root cause of the war.  The three main options are:

1. Some say that slavery is the root cause of the war.  While slavery was not a direct issue in 1861, it influenced all the political controversies of the time, and all the previous political controversies, going back to the Declaration of Independence itself (where a section condemning slavery was removed from the original text).

2. Some say that the root cause of the war was growth of federal power that came to erode a proper constitutional balance between state and national government.  This theory sees the Confederacy not as radicals but as preservers of a truly American vision.

3. Both of the previous theories have good guys and bad guys (in the first, the South is the bad guy, in the second, the North), but there is another approach to the war that does not see good guys v. bad guys, what I will call ‘The Cultural Opposition Theory’ of the conflict’s origin (if nothing else, the name makes me sound smarter than I really am :).

This theory sees both sides drawing upon the founders vision.  We tend to think of the founders in 1787 having one coherent vision for the country, but this was not so.  The North latches on more to Alexander Hamilton’s idea of the U.S. having a strong national government with a manufacturing base.   The South adopts Jefferson’s vision of limited national power with an agricultural base.  Thus, both sides were right in a sense in claiming to be the inheritors of what it meant to be “American.”  These different ideas produce different societies that have different values, practices, and cultures.  These opposing cultures each have their merits, their strong and weak points.  But — they would inevitably come to blows at some point.  In this view the war doesn’t have a good guy or bad guy.  The conflict started because one of these visions had to win out in the end, though neither vision was “right” or “wrong” per se.

To the best of my knowledge these are the theories with the most prominence among historians.  There are a few others, such as those that historically see conflict inevitably associated with territorial expansion (in this case, the Civil War had its roots in the huge expansion after the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican-American War) or those that use economics as the key to explaining human behavior.  If students are not satisfied with any of the suggestions I offered, they are welcome to come up with their own.

After making a case for the war, students then need to link the cause with how the war was fought, and then link again the fighting to the eventual Union victory.  This means that they have to synthesize what they know from 1800-1865 and create a unified narrative.  This is a challenge, but I hope that students will enjoy that challenge and rise to the occasion.

As always, students are welcome to show me any rough draft or outline of their thoughts before the test.

Dave Mathwin

The Care of Souls

The Bill of Rights occupies a cherished place within American life and jurisprudence, so it comes as a surprise to many (as it did to me back in high school) that the founders added the Bill of Rights only reluctantly to get the Constitution ratified by enough states. It seems that the framers found such cherished guarantees as essentially unnecessary, and so adding them could only create confusion.

But they did add them, likely thinking that, “We think such things are not needed. Obviously, the federal government has no power to regulate speech, assembly, etc. But if you would like it made crystal-clear to alleviate anxiety, fine–here you go.”

The idea of “freedom of religion” in America comes in part from our history and our ideology. In a legal sense, it arises from the 1st Amendment, which reads,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

What once seemed solid now melts into the ether, as many today question proper limits for freedom of speech and religion. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed through Congress in near unanimous fashion back in 1993 (97-3 in the Senate) but might not pass through Congress today. No one has yet made a direct attack against freedom of religion, but recent controversies about sexuality have led to many now sniping at the edges.

As a conservative of some kind, part of me feels the obligation to defend religious liberty and our past traditions. But Steven K. Smith’s book, Foreordained Failure: The Quest for a Principle of Religious Freedom made me rethink everything. His 2018 book Pagans and Christians in the City is bar-none the best book on the legal problem of religion and sexual ethics. This work details how legally and logically, the idea of everyone having complete “freedom of religion” was never attainable and should not be attempted. What I find most impressive is that Smith saw our modern problem coming back in 1993 when he wrote Foreordained Failure, a time when it seemed when America had re-enshrined religious liberty for all time with RFRA. Reading Smith is akin to cold water on your face in the morning–startling, but in the end, you draw a breath and see more clearly.

Onto Smith’s argument . . .

First, we should not see the Establishment Clause as an attempt to formulate a grand principle that could be used to adjudicate the future of the United States. Great differences existed among the states that ratified the Constitution, for example:

  • Relatively liberal Pennsylvania had blasphemy laws on the books well into the 19th century.
  • In New York, though they had no explicit laws, we find prosecutions for blasphemy into the 19th century as well.
  • Many states had Sabbath observance laws, the range of which differed widely. Virginia’s law (proposed by Madison the same day he proposed a religious freedom bill) prohibited disruption of services and unnecessary labor on Sundays. Many New England states went much further.

Many objected to these laws–John Adams thought blasphemy proscriptions inappropriate, for example. Still, while some questioned the laws’ morality or efficacy, none challenged the state’s legal right to have such laws.

The Establishment Clause could never have proclaimed a tight-knit principle about religion for the country because no national consensus existed. Rather, it proclaimed what everyone more or less agreed with–that the federal government could not make laws respecting religion, however much the states could do so.

Even the intellectual founders of the Liberal Order cannot accurately guide us. Smith looks at John Locke, whose A Letter Concerning Toleration outlines much of the modern ideology concerning religious freedom. Locke writes,

The care of souls cannot belong to a civil magistrate, because his power consists in outward force: but true and saving religion consists in inward persuasion of mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God. And such is the nature of the understanding, that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by force.

In this sense, Locke’s influence shines clearly–the government cannot regulate religion because it has no power to do so–whatever power it hopes to exercise will have no real effect anyway. Church and commonwealth are “perfectly distinct, infinitely different from one another.”

To some this could seem like the absolute principle we need for modern times, but Locke also seemingly contradicts himself. For one, he admits that morality comes under the purview of the state, and that morality and religion share beds. Thus, Locke will not tolerate atheists, because their denial of the existence of God undermines public faith and morality, and he denies toleration to Moslems, whose potential loyalty to foreign sultans make them suspect.

The second dilemma . . . Locke’s theory of toleration depends on a view of religion not shared by many religious people (Smith impresses me again again in this book by catching what many often miss). Locke assumes that:

  • Saving faith is a purely voluntary act
  • The church’s only business is that of ‘saving souls.’
  • He has no concept of the importance of ritual or outward observance or “show.”
  • For Locke, truth is where we arrive through independent and careful consideration of evidence, not through our communities, our rituals, etc. These inner beliefs can resist any outside coercion.

Even many secular Americans today would question at least one of these premises–probably #2. Most would criticize a church that sought to have no impact on the community. In America’s history we have numerous examples of churches seeking political and social goals that many would approve of, such as the Social Gospel movement in the early 20th century, and the support given to the Civil Rights movement by many churches in the 1960’s. Smith writes,

The object of this discussion is not to determine whether either Locke’s premises or conclusion are sound or not. The point is that Locke’s account of toleration is dependent upon background beliefs about religion, government, society, and human psychology [that many will not agree with].

Whatever practices and precedents we set, we will have to favor a particular set of assumptions. We will have to discriminate, in a sense, as every law discriminates by declaring some things ok and some things not. The problem is that we

  • Believe that we are not discriminating, and that we can arrive a place of “neutrality” where all can agree, and we
  • Believe that we can find a universal principle to guide us in all circumstances

Smith thinks otherwise. At least in the 18th-19th centuries we left religion to the particular variances of the states, and so avoided our modern problem.

“Religious freedom,” then, will inevitably contain high levels of relativity.

Smith gives an example of a community with four hypothetically different perspectives:

  • Religious Voluntarists (traditional Baptists, non-denominationalists, etc.)
  • Religious Behaviorists (Catholics, Orthodox, some Lutherans and Presbyterians, perhaps Jews and Moslems as well)
  • Secular Optimists–those in favor of the idea of public good and collective action (progressives?)
  • Secular Pessimists–those opposed to collective action and the concept of public goods (libertarians).

Imagine a man named John wants to marry 3 wives, believing sincerely that this will aid in the salvation of his soul, and that of his family.

The religious voluntarist would grudgingly support his claim. Nothing should stand between a man and his conscience. The religious behaviorist would deny it–we cannot allow people to willfully harm their souls in such an overtly blatant fashion. The secular optimist might also deny it, based on a belief that polygamy hurts women, but the secular pessimist would likely allow it out of fear of too much state power.

Whatever the decision about John’s desire, some kind of religious belief must be preferred, and others discriminated against. We cannot avoid it, as it is the very essence of law itself to “discriminate.”

As an example, Smith takes the case of Epperson v. Arkansas, which overturned a law which forbade the teaching of evolution in public schools. The court understood that the law had at its root religious objections to evolution, but “the state may not adopt programs which aid or oppose any religion. This prohibition is absolute.” Smith finds the Court’s (basically unanimous) line of reasoning faulty.

First, it creates a syllogistic reasoning that could favor either side. If we cannot aid or oppose any religion, then the law in place aids some religious believers and opposes others. But the same happens if you strike down the law. Either way we must “aid” or “oppose” certain beliefs.

Second, those that favored banning evolution from schools did so not because six day creation was a religious idea, but because they thought six day creation true and evolution false. Many other religious ideas lend support to evolutionary theory. The plaintiffs had no interest in generically “religious” teaching, but in “true” teaching.

Smith pushes against this false idea of neutrality with a quick examination of Grove v. Mead School District, in which the plaintiff objected to the book The Learning Tree in her daughter’s public school curriculum along religious grounds. Judge Canby sided with Mead. He admitted that The Learning Tree challenges certain religious dogmas. But he took pains to point out that a variety of Christian thinkers, among them Paul Tillich, Hans Kung, and Karl Barth, all argue that “honest, and even agonizing doubt, is not incompatible with Christian theism.”

Whatever one thinks of the above quote, those who object to The Learning Tree on religious grounds would likely not respect Tillich and Kung as authorities on the question. Again, the issue is truth, not religion. Grove felt that the inclusion of the book was wrong, not anti-religious. Grove might not have minded a book her daughter had to read that criticized Buddhism or Greek paganism. Judge Canby favored one religion over another–and would have done so no matter how he ruled.

Smith also dismantles the idea of a “common denominator,” a frequent and comfortable refuge for the centrist American. The argument runs, “Some favor religion ‘X,’ some religion ‘Y,’ some favor no religion at all. But we can base jurisprudence on what all sides have “in common.” Smith writes,

In more familiar contexts we would immediately spot the common denominator strategy as fraudulent. Suppose Dad and his daughter have a disagreement about dinner. Daughter proposes: “Let’s just have desert.” Dad suggests it would be better to have a full meal . . . then desert. Daughter reponds: “Dad, we have some disagreements. But there is something we both agree on; we both want desert. Clearly . . . the “neutral” solution is to accept what we agree on. So serve up the desert.”

Dad is not likely to be taken in by this ploy.

Again, as in other examples cited here, for both daughter and Dad, the issue is not desert itself, but the meaning of desert. For the daughter, desert is dinner. For Dad, desert has no meaning without dinner. Smith quotes Michael McConnell, who writes,

If the public school day and all its teaching is strictly secular, the child is likely to learn the lesson that religion is irrelevant to the significant things of this world, or at least that the spiritual realm is radically distinct and separate from the temporal. However intended, that is a lesson about religion. [That curriculum] is not “neutral.”

Smith asks his readers to dismantle false ideas about freedom and neutrality. Much like Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, he has a magnificent diagnosis of the problem. Like Deneen as well, he has no particular path forward. Liberalism–love it or not–we can’t really leave it. We have to make the best of it.

In 1993 those that disagreed with Smith could look around and see the ground holding in a general sense. Now, our religious divisions seem much more obvious. “Secularism,” as Smith points out, will not fix the problem, but probably just deepen the religious divide because it too picks a side. It appears, however, that we have gone through different dominant religions, and need to accept that at certain times, different religions take center stage and receive preference.

We might see it this way:

  • 1776-1846 — a frontier, democratized, individualistic Protestantism
  • 1846-1918 — a more universalized/nationalized Protestantism
  • 1918-68 — A civic faith in work, nation, and gain
  • 1968-2008 — Democracy as faith in self-discovery and self-expression
  • 2008-? — Something else that has yet to be decided. Who can say, but also –who can deny we are in the midst of another religious upheaval and redefinition?

This is a rather lame attempt to trace our religious history, but I might prefer open recognition of our particular religious faith over continual confusion. As always, religious dissenters will have protections and freedom of conscience and worship. This is a great thing about America. The “losers” need not lose everything. But they will lose something, and we should be prepared.

Dave

*Writing as someone who is Orthodox, reading Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers, it now makes perfect sense to me why early America had a great suspicion of Catholics as detrimental to democracy. They–and the Orthodox–both believe that we know truth not primarily though independent and abstract investigation, but through community, tradition, participation, and ritual–in addition to some notion of “faith,” of course. As Mark Noll wrote, American democratic practice seeks to reduce truth to simple abstract propositions. Our beliefs about liberty eschew tradition and hierarchy, both crucial to Catholic & Orthodox practice.

Catholics, Orthodox, and others like them can “shoehorn” their beliefs and practice into democratic society, but they may not find it naturally compatible with their worldview.

Symbolic Matters

I am republishing this in light of a more recent post on another book by Steven D. Smith.

In Ezra Klein’s podcast with Rod Dreher, the subject of media and culture was front and center. They conversed at length with each person making important points, and I commend them both. Klein brought up what is a fairly standard critique of conservative Christians, that is (in sum), “Why so much focus on gay and transgender issues when there are many poor and suffering people in the world? Surely the Bible says at least as much about the poor as it does about sexuality?”

Dreher had a fine response, and no doubt the format might have limited his remarks. But I think Klein, and possibly Dreher to a lesser extent, fail to take into account the strong symbolic role sexuality has played in most every culture, and the role of the body as one of the primary means of communication.

Dreher linked to a post of Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex who speculates that the Pride/LGBT etc. movement may become the new civil religion in America. Alexander–who I believe writes as a supporter of his proposed theory, comments,

Am I saying that gay pride has replaced the American civil religion?

Maybe not just because it had a cool parade. But put it in the context of everything else going on, and it seems plausible. “Social justice is a religion” is hardly a novel take. A thousand tradcon articles make the same case. But a lot of them use an impoverished definition of religion, something like “false belief that stupid people hold on faith, turning them into hateful fanatics” – which is a weird mistake for tradcons to make.

There’s another aspect of religion. The one that inspired the Guatemala Easter parade. The group-building aspect. The one that answers the questions inherent in any group more tightly bound than atomic individuals acting in their self-interest:

What is our group? We’re the people who believe in pride and equality and diversity and love always winning.

Why is our group better than other groups? Because those other groups are bigots who are motivated by hate.

What gives our social system legitimacy? Because all those beautiful people in fancy cars, Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor London Breed and all the rest, are fighting for equality and trying to dismantle racism.

Again, based on Smith’s book discussed below, if it happens it should not surprise us, given the strong symbolic role that body has in our existence.

And now, the original post . . . .

In the letters of the Roman magistrate Pliny to the emperor Trajan, Pliny asks him about the official policy towards Christians. Christians have been brought before him, and he has condemned them to execution, but such matters are not trivial, and he wanted to make sure he followed the letter and spirit of the law.

Trajan wrote back and declared that, yes, if Christians appear before him, who will not recant, then such people should be executed. Trajan agreed with Pliny that Christians generally had nothing else against them other than that they professed the Christian faith, so, no need to seek them out. But Pliny should continue to follow the law. Christians continued to face death for being Christians.

But Trajan never addressed Pliny’s second question, which was (in sum), “Why, if Christians are generally good citizens who do not disturb the peace, do we need to punish them in the first place?” Many rank Trajan as one of Rome’s best emperors, but Rome loved practicality and viewed the Greeks as sissified for all of their reflective philosophizing. My guess–Trajan probably regarded the question with slight derision and, being a nice guy, politely ignored it. The law is law, end of story.

Steven D. Smith begins his insightful work Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac with this historical nugget, for he wants to attempt to answer Pliny’s unanswered question of “why?” Christian luminaries such as Tertullian, Athenagoras, and St. Augustine all pointed out the utter folly and injustice of Rome’s actions. In persecuting Christians, they argued, Rome removed its best citizens. Without discounting the truth of Rome’s cruelty, Smith considers if the Romans may actually been right in their instinct (without articulating it coherently) that Christianity truly posed a threat to their way of life. Gibbon, Pelikan, and many others point out that the Church did triumph over Rome, and that the Church, while able to reside peacefully within Rome, truly meant to end Rome’s way of life.

Recently we have witnessed a variety of almost entirely symbolic prosecutions and attacks of bakers, florists, and pizza joints who do not join in with the prevailing sexual orthodoxy. In a series of articles, Libertarian UVA Law professor Douglas Laycock bemoans the attitudes of those on the left. Plenty of options exist for gay couples for all marriage-related services. Why ferret out those who do nothing to stop you but simply disagree with your choices? Such people do nothing to impinge the freedom of homosexuals. In the same vein, why do conservatives attempt to stop people from engaging in sexual practices they object to, but have no impact on the lives of those who object? Both sides strive for the same symbolic but essentially “meaningless” victory, and it ruins our political discourse.

Laycock sounds quite reasonable, but Smith points out that these “victories” for which different sides strive have a great deal of symbolic value attached to them. Though symbols may not fit into a strictly rational worldview, Smith concludes that, “we live by symbols” and can derive meaning only from symbols.* Furthermore, religious belief always demands communal expression, and symbols shape and embody that expression. From this point, Smith’s book explores what the modern culture wars are all about through the lens of Christianity’s first conflict with imperial Rome.

Many today will likely admire the Romans for their tolerance, and wonder why Christians could not accommodate themselves to Rome. Rome, after all, found a way to accommodate a great many different religions into their empire. But no society can tolerate everything. And we, too, have “zero-tolerance” policies for what we truly deem important, such as drugs or sexual harassment, and so on. With the example of offering incense to the emperor, which many Christians refused to do, we can invent the following conversation:

Roman: You Christians are impossible. We let you hold your bizarre religious gatherings–albeit outside the city–but we let you hold them. We let you believe whatever you want to believe. We give you the benefits of the greatest empire the world has ever known, and you enjoy those benefits. We do so much for you, and we ask but very little, that you acknowledge the blessings of the authority under which you live. If you live among us we must know that you will follow our laws, and this is how you pledge yourself to that. You are disobedient. You are uncharitable–you take from us and give nothing back. And so . . . we cannot trust you, and how could we do so, after giving so much and receiving back so little?

Christian: We should be grateful for all that Rome does for us, and indeed, we pray for those in authority during every liturgy. In our sojourn here on Earth we can partake of much the world has to offer, and justice demands that we give honor where it is rightly due. But your policy asks us to accommodate our monotheism to your polytheism. You suppose that sacrifices to the emperor are a small accommodation, but you ask us to abandon monotheism and accept polytheism. You ask us to change our religious beliefs, which is surely the most significant accommodation you could possibly ask.

Striking parallels exist between imperial Rome and our own day, and the conflicts engendered between Christians and pagans. One such area involved creation and the natural world. For the Romans, the gods infused the world around them with their presence, and every city had its sacred sites. Christians rejected this direct immanence by emphasizing the transcendent nature of God that had little to no overlap with pagan belief.

But the complexity of Christianity greatly mitigated these differences regarding creation. While God is transcendent, He is also imminent. Many scriptural passages talk of creation praising God, and God calls humanity to steward creation. Christians too had/have their sacred sites involving saints, relics, pilgrimages, and the like. So too today, while many viewed as “anti-science” come from certain segments of the evangelical community, Christians and “pagans” find much common ground with moderate environmentalists, though will eventually part ways over certain particulars.

A much more significant divide came with sexuality, where the Roman approach to sexual ethics looks strikingly modern (what follows applied almost entirely to men in the ancient world, not women):

  • Sexual behavior was entirely natural, and few restrictions should be placed upon it.
  • Sex was “healthy,” and self-denial in regard to sex was considered mildly dangerous and “anti-human.”
  • Sex brings us closer to the divine, for all the stories of the gods (goddesses, not as much) have them cavorting with various women.
  • Use of the male sexual organ had a halo of sacredness surrounding it, but how one used it had very few restrictions. One could “sleep with” slaves, prostitutes, or even other men or boys, provided that one was never the “female” in such a relationship.

I am not the person and this is not the format to give a full treatment of the traditional Christian view of sexuality. But in brief:

  • The Fathers of the church quickly realized the Scriptural hints about the sacred nature of sexual behavior, and its connections to our life in God. But . . . sex serves at most as a pointer to a more fuller, transcendent reality that will be present only when the Kingdom of God is fully present. It is not an end in itself.
  • Many Christians believed in the sanctity of sexuality in some way, but the sanctity of sex is the reason for the various restrictions Christians placed on sexual behavior. To protect its meaning and purpose, sex needs strong fences, such as limiting it within marriage between a man and woman
  • Living fully as human beings meant taming and restricting our “appetites,” for the ability to do separates us from the beasts. So, while the Romans thought that the more or less indiscriminate indulgence in sex made us more human, Christians believed it made us sub-human–just as over indulgence in eating would do the same, i.e., a dogs will eat anything put before them, as much as they are given.

How deep these differences really go, Smith asserts, comes down not to logic and private self-interest, but the more nebulous (but simultaneously more real) world of symbol. Symbols cannot be fully explained, but have to be experienced–one knows it when we live it. I lament the effect the culture wars have had on eroding our social fabric and institutions. But though Smith never quite explicitly states it (that I found), he strongly hints that such wars will inevitably be fought. For our culture to have cohesion it must have meaning, and this meaning can only come from a common communal understanding. Symbols work only in this way.

Clearly, for us today as the Romans then, sexual behavior occupies a crucial space within our culture. We may not believe sex to have the sacredness that it did for the Romans, at least in an overtly conscious sense. We likely relate sex in America to our deep beliefs about personal expression and the self. What unifies modern and ancients on both sides, Smith suggests, is the divide between the transcendent and the imminent.

For example, Smith states, no one really questions the motto, “In God we Trust” on our money, but “one nation, under God,” in the Pledge of Allegiance has received significant constitutional scrutiny. Smith finds the difference in the word “under,” which assumes a transcendent deity in ways that “In God we Trust” does not (this “God” need not be above us but exclusively “among us” for us to define and control).

If Smith is right about this in particular, so much the better, for it gives us clarity in a confusing debate. But his other assertion holds more weight. Our disagreements about sex** may very well be an unconscious proxy for our ideas about meaning and community. Perhaps Smith doesn’t excuse the culture wars, but suggests they will continue. It also suggests that our diseased political culture has not caused this divide. Rather, we might flip our normal way of discussing the culture wars on its head. Perhaps our divergent ideas about sexuality (dating back at least to Roe v. Wade and the Sexual Revolution) have fractured our idea of meaning and community, and this fracture manifests itself in various ways.^

Our founders put priority on minimizing centralized power. They knew that humans can get contentious, but sought to make lemonade out of lemons. Our propensity to conflict would create different interest groups, but in the end they would all cancel each other out, preserving liberty. Thus, the Constitution was not meant to create a tight-knit political community, but essentially sought to prevent its formation.Obviously, this experiment has worked on a number of levels. But now that most churches and other community defining organizations have declined in numbers and importance, we have lost our ability to determine meaning in any kind of public sphere. Tocqueville warned us that this might happen if our more private and local communal connections eroded. And so, here we are, seeking meaning from the only viable institutions most of us have any familiarity with–the federal government. This may be what distinguishes our current cultural problems from those we previously experienced, and why we invest so much emotional and moral weight into our politics.^^

Following Smith’s largely unspoken line of thought brings us to a sober realization. Our seemingly silly fights might actually have great importance. If we can focus on the real issue at hand, perhaps we could make progress in solving them.

Dave

*This comment may seem confusing or silly if you think of symbols as images only. If we take the older meaning of symbol and apply the term to ways of understanding beyond the literal and physical, it makes more sense. Parents of teens will surely have encountered this before. Your child asks for “reasons” and “explanations” for your various edicts, but you can’t always provide to the degree they wish. No amount of explanation suffices, for you want them how to live “into” a world, one that can’t be entirely shown them from the outside.

**This includes abortion as well. Some hard cases exist on the fringe of the issue, but at its root is the issue of human autonomy and sexual freedom. I believe it likely that most of the debate about “when life begins” for the pro-choice side is a smokescreen for the right to create a “safe space” for us to adopt a more pagan attitude towards sexual behavior.

^The rapid changes in accepted sexual morality recently may be extra evidence for Smith’s claim. He points out that Seinfeld may have been a turning point. Most every character led sexual lives that would not have fit into any previous sitcom. But to balance this, the show did not promote the main characters as morally serious in any way. From there, we had Friends, and then The Office which were still comedies but the moral seriousness of the characters increased as their sexual ethics remained much the same as in Seinfeld.

^^Perhaps the one place where people can find some semblance of community and belonging is college campuses, and perhaps this is why many students and professors have sought to make their campus into a kind of temple and dramatically infuse it with doctrinaire ideologies, sacred spaces, and taboo speech. Like Ross Douthat, I deplore a great deal about the campus protests, but I understand the impulse. While I admire efforts from a quite ideologically diverse group of people like Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, Camille Paglia, and Candace Owens to further free-speech and open debate, we need to realize that such things in themselves will not save us.


G.L. Cheesman: “The Auxilia of the Roman Imperial Army”

The author knows he is writing about something arcane and of little general interest. He does little to spruce up the writing — he at times seems to wallow in the details, perhaps getting a secret laugh out of boring his readers. My eyes glazed over more than once.

The book is thorough, but still brief enough for someone with just enough interest to glean some tidbits. I am far, far from having any comprehensive knowledge about Rome, but I wanted to read this to test a theory. Gibbon puts the fall of Rome essentially beginning after Marcus Aurelius. Others, like Toynbee put it far earlier. I tend to see it happening sometime after the 2nd and before the 3rd Punic War, and I wanted to see what Cheesman analysis of the Roman army had to contribute to this debate.

Early on Cheesman makes some interesting observations, namely that the imperial army was more versatile and specialized than any army of the Republic. This probably has do with the fact that they encountered different cultures and fighting styles as they expanded. They added cavalry (one may recall the serious weakness of the Roman cavalry when they faced Hannibal), usually getting them from far flung conquered provinces.  But no one would think that the Imperial armies were superior to say, those under Scipio Africanus ca. 210 BC. In other words, increasing complexity and specialization may not have been a sign of strength, but subtle weakness.  The increased specialization shows they had too many burdens in too many places around the globe to maintain a coherent fighting force with a fixed identity.

Also, Cheesman points out that many of the recruited ‘auxilia’ (auxiliary troops attached to the legions, recruited from conquered provinces) often rebelled against their new masters when stationed near their home territory. This could be fixed by shipping them elsewhere, but this created awkward burdens and costs involving transport.  Surely it also lessened the effectiveness of these auxiliaries, as they had to fight far from familiar territory.

The fact that Rome faced so many rebellions within its ranks tells me that Rome lost its mojo long before Marcus Aurelius, contra Gibbon. These rebellions came despite the fact that some emperors fast-tracked the path to rights and citizenship for many auxiliary regiments. They were being more ‘progressive’ in a sense, but it made no difference — things were not working as they used to for Rome. One need only recall the general solidity of their alliance system during the much greater stress of the 2nd Punic War to see this happening.

With more knowledge of Imperial Rome, more patience, and more military background I might have gleaned more from this work.  Still, one always likes their theories backed by neutral observers! So, my gratitude to G.L. Cheesman for his somewhat tedious, partially sleep inducing, yet still occasionally quite insightful book.

Dave

11th Grade: Faces of Leadership

For our discussions this week, we looked at three different generals. . .

First we looked at Lee.  Though not a supporter of slavery or secession, he believed himself bound to defend his friends and his home of Virginia.  One might say that he did not fight for a ’cause,’ but for his friends.  Clearly he was a man of integrity and faith, an inspirational leader.  He also was able to size up opponents psychologically to a remarkable degree.  One sees in his eyes intelligence, melancholy, and a deep fire.

For the first 100 years or so after the war, scholarship on Lee remained entirely favorable to him.  For most, the South was doomed to defeat from the beginning.  Only Lee’s brilliant generalship staved off disaster, and in fact, even got them close to pulling off a “miracle” victory.

But recently many historians have taken a much different view of the South’s chances, and see the Civil War as one that they had every chance of winning.  This shift has led to a reevaluation of Lee himself.  If one believes that the South could have won by using a “bend, don’t break” approach, then we need to ask why Lee employed the strategy he did, and what its impact was.

Military historians have taken Lee to task for his offensives into MD and PA, both of which cost the South dearly.  Lee let himself be drawn into other broad ranging offensives actions, that even when successful (like Chancellorsville) came at great cost.   Some see more than just a tactical mistakes.  Some see Lee as a good general, but not a great one, a man bound by the honor dictates of the South’s culture.  Some see this sense of honor manifesting itself not only in his “need” to attack, but also in the vague deference he showed his subordinates.  Those who may be familiar with the Battle of Gettysburg know that for the first two days of the conflict, Lee did not have his top cavalry commander, Jeb Stuart, who spent time away from the army gathering supplies. But Lee bears some responsibility for this himself, as we can see if we look at the orders he gave Stuart as the army prepared to march into Pennslyvania.
Lee’s Orders to Stuart before Gettysburg
‘If you find that Hooker is moving northward, and that two brigades can guard the Blue Ridge and take care of your rear, you can move with the other three into MD and take position on Gen. Ewell’s right, place yourself in communication with him, guard his flank, keep him informed of enemy movements, and collect all supplies you can for the use of the army.’
General Longstreet took an opportunity to perhaps add some clarity to Lee’s intent of having his cavalry stick close by:
‘Lee speaks of your leaving Hopewell Gap and passing by the rear of the enemy.  If you can get through by that route, I think you will be less likely to indicate your plans than if you pass to our rear.  You had better not leave us therefore, unless you can take the proposed route in rear of the enemy.’
But the next day another set of orders arrived from Lee, which muddied the waters yet again. . .
‘You will be able to judge if you can pass around their army without hindrance, doing them all the damage you can.  In either case, after crossing the river [Lee presented two options to him of where to cross] you must move on and feel the right of Ewell’s corp’s collecting information and provisions.
Lee’s lack of clarity to Stuart about exactly what his job was may have been the reason for his absence at Gettysburg. But that’s not all.  Many lament that General Ewell did not seize the heights during the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg.  But Lee’s Orders to Ewell regarding the heights show the same ambiguity that he communicated to Stuart:
You are to take the heights, if practicable, but avoid any general engagement until the arrival of the others divisions of the army.
You may notice a certain deference in these orders.  Lee was a gentle man at heart.  But the ambiguity could be misinterpreted.  Was Stuart to get provisions,  or stay close to his flank? Longstreet,notice, speaks with more directness on what his priorities should be.  Should Ewell take the heights, or avoid a general engagement?  We enjoyed debating the merits of Lee’s offensives, with some students agreeing with recent critics of Lee, and others arguing that the South needed to try some kind of offensive to win, and they might as well have used Lee.

U.S. Grant had none of the dash or style of most important commanders, not even an impressive mustache like the Union’s Joshua Chamberlain.  He seemed every inch the average man from Ohio.  Rumors said he drank too much. Strategically, he displayed little creativity.  Yet he had a tenacity and single-mindedness that most other Union generals lacked.  As Lincoln said of him, ‘I can’t spare this man.  He fights.’

Grant stands in stark contrast to the elegance and pedigree of Lee, and in that way mirrors Lincoln.  Nothing about his bearing or manner spoke of anything to do with flash.  His tactics reflected his straightforward, methodical nature.  But to my mind there must have been something maddening about fighting Grant.  Never brilliant, he had tremendous consistency.  He kept moving, and demanded that you (his opponent) never slack.  He had an large reservoir of patience, and tended to see not what he lost in battles, but in what he gained.  His men believed in him.  Lee, for all his gifts, could not beat him.

While Grant is best known for wearing Lee down at the end of the war, many consider his most impressive campaign to be his taking of Vicksburg in July 1863.  As the map indicates, he had to travel far and wide, but in the end, simply would not let go of his objective.  The capture of Vicksburg ensured Union control of the Mississippi and allowed them to choke the life out of the Confederacy.

3. At one point during the war William T. Sherman was out of the army, depressed, and even contemplated suicide.  Volatile and somewhat unpredictable, he got another command and began to earn the trust of Grant. After taking Atlanta in September of 1864, he had the idea of taking his army and marching it to Savannah, away from supplies and communication, targeting wealthy southern properties for destruction.  Many thought the idea foolhardy, but Sherman thought otherwise:

  • His army was composed mostly of men from the midwest, which was at that time the ‘west.’  These were independent minded and self-sufficient troops.
  • He believed that just these independent minded men might be especially motivated to ransack the property of wealthy southerners.
  • He also believed that this would help drastically shorten the war.  For Sherman, it was not so much the supplies that the South would not have, but the psychological impact of the property destruction.  The South, he believed, went to war to defend their property.  If he proved they could not defend what was most dear to them, the Confederate cause would lose legitimacy and promote desertions in Confederate armies.  Slaves, too, would leave their masters and again, this would hasten the collapse of the Southern cause.

Many controversies surround Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea.’  Those in favor of him would probably argue the following:

  • Sherman’s actions did shorten the war and saved lives in the process.  His campaign was much less costly than any of Lee and Grant’s battles.  It is much better that property be burned than men killed.
  • Sherman’s army liberated directly or otherwise, thousands of slaves
  • Sherman was simply more far-sighted and innovative than other generals.  Don’t blame him for doing things no one else thought of.  If you are against his targeting farms, than you have to be against our destruction of civilian areas in World War II, which culminated in our atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Those against him might say:
  • Sherman started the idea of ‘total war,’ which would lead to so many horrors of 20th century warfare.
  • Sherman’s targeting of civilian property was simply wrong and violated the ‘rules of war.’
  • Many starved in the south in the aftermath of his attacks
  • If the ultimate goal of the North was reconciliation with the South, Sherman worked against this.  His humiliation of the South lingered in their minds for generations and produced a bitterness that in some areas has still not gone away.

If Lee’s picture shows his aristocratic roots, and if Grant’s belies a plain pugnacity, Sherman’s face shows us all of his brilliance, all of his craziness, and the fact that he just doesn’t care.  I wouldn’t want to face him.

What Happens when Germans Go Nuts?

They make a rational, thoroughly scientific, argument for the existence of Atlantis, located in the Atlantic (right where Plato said it was) destroyed cataclysmically somewhere around 9000 B.C. (apologies to one of my favorite ad campaigns).

I have written before about the likelihood of advanced civilizations that existed long before their so-called beginning around 4000 B.C.  But it is so much easier to propound vague ideas then to make a concrete case for a specific civilization, let alone one for which we (seemingly) have no evidence for except Plato’s account in one of his dialogues.  And then you realize that one of the more credible arguments for the existence of Atlantis was written by Otto Muck . . . who invented the U-boat schnorkel for the Germans in W.W. II.  Yes, he came over to the U.S. like many other former German scientists after the war, but still, it does not help the case that he worked for the Nazis.

But first, Muck reminds us that Plato discussed Atlantis in two dialogues, not one, the Timaeus and Critias.  Plato has Socrates relate many myths throughout his work, but he speaks of Atlantis in strictly factual terms.  Like many others, I suppose, I had never actually read the full account of Atlantis in the dialogues and Muck makes a good point.  Plato, at least, seems to believe in the historicity of Atlantis, or certainly, Critias does, and he gives a lengthy description filling at least 15 pages of its size, location, topography, plants, and the like.  Critias talked about how the Greeks first learned of Atlantis from the Egyptians, still considered quite wise by the Greeks even in Plato’s day, via the great legislator Solon–Athens’ George Washington.  Plato invests a lot of heavy-hitters in his account of Atlantis.

It makes perfect sense to me to believe in a cataclysmic flood, as it is spoken of in every major religion of the ancient world.  I expect to find, along with Graham Hancock and others, the existence of civilizations that long predate the fertile crescent of 4000 B.C.  I delight in Jon Anthony West’s interpretation of Egypt’s history, for example, and find it persuasive.  But I cracked the cover of Muck’s book skeptically.  I don’t approach questions like this even primarily scientifically, let alone entirely so.  Still, with Atlantis, even I needed something to hold onto besides stories.  With other sites, you have megalithic architecture, for example.  For Atlantis, I need more than Plato’s account.

I give Muck credit.  He understands skepticism as a scientist and confronts head-on, piece by piece, in methodical fashion.  Some of what Muck wrote I found very intriguing, and other stuff, not so much.

To begin, Muck asks where the Atlantic ocean got its name.  Well, obviously from the Atlantis story, but this means very, very little.  Slightly more intriguing is Muck’s examination of the very similar phonetics between the god Atlas (apparently spelled out ‘Atlants’), who stood at the middle of the world upholding it, and the name “Atlantis” and its topography, which Plato tells us had a large mountain.  Well . . . ok, but . . . ?

He moves on.

If we look closely at Plato’s description of the topography he tells of a huge variety of plants and food that one could find there.  It seems almost fantastical. We assume the variety couldn’t really exist, given the size and location Plato mentions.  But if we consider the gulf stream moving across the Atlantic, then match it with the mountains described by Plato as well as the location, it matches.  You would have warm air from the south-east, with a large mountain in the center impacting the Arctic air, and the variety described by Plato is possible.  What makes this more intriguing is that Plato probably did not have the biological and topographical knowledge to make this up.

More interesting is the Gulf Stream itself.  If you compare latitudes for northwestern Europe and its overseas counterpart, you know that Europe is a lot warmer than the upper reaches of North America.  The Gulf Stream makes this possible.  But we also know that thousands of years ago Europe was much colder.  Then, around the time of Atlantis’ supposed destruction, it started to warm up.  What if the Gulf Stream did not always flow across to Europe, but instead was diverted by a continent in the middle of the ocean?  That could account for the temperature difference at first, and the shift after.

Perhaps the most bizarre, yet intriguing, argument Muck makes involves the habits of eels.

Apparently, a breed of eels exists that spawns in the Sargasso Sea (located just to the east of Atlantis on the map above).  For the longest time scientists could never understand why these eels undertook a long and dangerous migration across the Atlantic.  The females find European rivers, the males sit and wait in the ocean while the female eels fix their hair.  Ok, ok . . . observers discovered that the females can only come to sexual maturity in fresh water, hence their need for rivers.  But why travel east across the Atlantic.  It makes much more sense, from an evolutionary perspective and every other perspective, to go west from the Sargasoo.  The existence of Atlantis, however, would explain this.  For who knows how long the eels would go east for only a short distance from the Sargasso to the rivers of Atlantis.  The destruction of Atlantis did not alter their genetic memory.  They still swim east, and no doubt suppose that when they hit the coast of Europe they are back in Atlantis, more or less.

Plato considered Atlantis a bridge of sorts between land on either side of the ocean, and Muck explores some of the connections between the Americas and the world of Plato’s day.  He considers possible racial connections, considering that the typical look of the Basque people would fit well for a possible Atlantean type, since that “look” could fit in the western parts of Europe, north Africa, and Meso-America–the old sphere of Atlantean influence.  Muck makes you think hard throughout his work, but I think this the most ridiculous of Muck’s arguments.  Maybe I am just squeamish when an ex-Nazi helper-guy talks about race, but it seems that if the Atlantis story is true, 10,000 years of post-Atlantis destruction intermarriage would dilute the racial stock.

Perhaps more interesting are the ancient pyramids built by the Egyptians and Meso-Americans.  Muck seems to argue that both cultures acted as preservers of some kind of Atlantean legacy even thousands later in the post-apocalyptic reboot of civilization.  Perhaps the pyramid shape was meant to recall Atlas and Atlantis’ great mountain. This is more convincing than the racial argument, but I still think it fairly weak.  Both cultures built their structures thousands of years apart, and it seems they had different purposes in mind.  Muck’s earlier arguments about climate, topography, and the gulf stream stand on much more solid footing.  His analysis about the mapping of the ocean floor of the Atlantic indicates the possibility of an Atlantean like form still lying on the ocean floor.

As for the cataclysmic end, Muck has an answer for that as well.  Plato’s description has Atlantis lying right around the mid-Atlantic ridge, a potentially volcanic region.  The diagram below right shows the ridge shows the newest ocean floor crust in red:

Muck believes that a very large asteroid struck earth right around 9000 B.C., which matches remarkably with the chronology offered by Plato’s account.  Here is one of a variety of articles on the subject, with impact dates ranging between 10,000 to 13,000 years ago.  Some argue that this asteroid or comet struck the polar ice caps.  Muck argues that it struck somewhere around the mid-Atlantic ridge.  If Atlantis existed, and if a very large asteroid struck near the mid-atlantic ridge, you could easily have had a gigantically massive subterranean volcanic eruption that literally could have had Atlantis sink into the sea in a single night.

Muck doesn’t need the asteroid to hit the mid-Atlantic ridge necessarily.  If it did strike the polar ice-caps, it would have caused the destruction of Atlantis in a global deluge not overnight, but within a week or so at the most.

I have left out a great deal of technical information Muck includes, and must content myself with a general summary.

Muck knows he cannot absolutely prove his case one way or another.

I am a big fan of Jonathan Haidt’s work with Heterodox Academy, which encourages more ideological diversity on campus.  Haidt readily acknowledges his liberal beliefs–he has never voted Republican–but even he agrees that the situation has gotten dangerously imbalanced in many departments across many campuses.  He has discovered some interesting links, not surprisingly, between religious belief, psychological temperament, and political affiliations.  You can take various fun tests at his link here.

Just as political leanings often come from moral and religious beliefs, I think what one thinks of Muck’s book will depend on a variety of factors that go a bit deeper than the evidence itself.

If you look to disagree with Muck, most likely . . .

  • You are a committed ‘gradualist’ in all things geological
  • You are strictly scientific in deciding about the past and would hardly value Plato’s account as evidence of any kind.
  • You probably hesitate in part because you don’t want to be associated with various new age crazy people who believe in the existence of Atlantis for all the wrong reasons.
  • You need “hard” evidence like clay tablets, pots with markings, the stuff that archaeologists would find, before you would acquiesece to Muck

If you look to agree with Muck, most likely . . .

  • You are a contrarian by temperment
  • You weigh lots of different kinds of evidence much more equally than those committed to a particular field
  • You think it would be “cool” if Atlantis once existed (an attitude most abhorred by the strict scientific type, who would see this feeling as meaning absolutely nothing.  I think they are right, but only about 90% right in their approbation of this attitude).
  • You admit the possibility of great catastrophe’s altering the fabric of human history as well as geology.

I fall in the latter category, but hope that I have been fair to the former.  Again,some parts of Muck’s book I found nearly persuasive, and others not so much.

To illustrate some of the above differences, we can examine Jon Anthony West’s work in Egyptology.  He got famous/infamous for suggesting that erosion patterns on the Sphinx suggested that it was much older than was commonly believed, and was likely built by a civilization that predated Egypt perhaps by a thousands of years.  Dr. Robert Schoch, who earned his Ph.D in geology at Yale, analyzed the Sphinx and agreed with him.  You can see the video–narrated by Charlton Heston!:)–here.

When Schoch presented his findings at a conference, Egyptologists present could say little about the actual data he presented.  But one retorted, “Well, you say that the Sphinx was built thousands of years before, but if another civilization built it, where is the evidence?  Where are their tools?  Where is their writing?”  Schoch could only stare back rather dumbfounded. Hadn’t he just presented evidence in the form of the Sphinx?  Perhaps they did not accept the fact of the Sphinx itself as evidence because it did not fit into their preconceived notions of what constitutes evidence, which has to be in the form of writing, pottery, etc.  Of course, if a highly developed civilization did exist somewhere around 10,000 B.C., it would have suffered catastrophic collapse as a result of the asteroids that struck Earth around that time.  If they did have a written language and if they made pottery, it would have been washed away almost immediately.

We see how these different areas of belief work together.

So I say, let the Germans go nuts.  Let them make far-fetched claims.  It beats some other avenues they have taken in the past . . .

9th/10th Grade: The Window of Roman Architecture

Greetings to all,

I am a believer in the revealing power of architecture in a civilization.  There are many ways to get insight into the past, but I think that architecture is one of the best, for it puts a civilization’s creative power on display, and it involves much more than the work of one individual.  One of themes I wanted to stress with this was a shift in emphasis in how Rome built its buildings, and what this revealed about them as a civilization.  Arches, for example, were a great innovation used in aqueducts to bring water into cities.

The design of cities pushed people toward the center, which was in keeping with Rome’s Republic (literally a ‘public thing’).

But as time went by, arches are used to build monuments to emperors, and whatever talent they possessed went to make things like the Emperor Hadrian’s villa:

Here below is the general outline of the whole of Hadrian’s villa:

And again, another so-called “good emperor” of Rome (Marcus Aurelius) put his focus on the building of private monuments, like this personal “arch” monument below (contrasted with the public use of the arch for water above)

And another personal monument column to add to that. . .

If Rome was committed to understanding the changes in their culture, perhaps they may have been used for good, but Rome would not do this, and preferred to live in the past.  Their innovations (never a strong point) dried up, and whatever was new in Rome was simply borrowed from the Greeks (as the statue in Hadrian’s villa indicates).  Rome had grown stale and petrified, but would they see this?  As we noted, this would not be likely, for another thing the architecture reveals is whereas in the past their energies were directed to the public sphere, now most of what they did centered around the emperor.

A bored and uncreative people will  tend to think bigger is better all the time.  The Romans were no exception. Like an addict, it takes more and more over time to get the same response.  As the activity’s reward decreases, more effort only gives diminishing returns.  As we began our discussion of the games, we saw  how an old Etruscan funeral rite grew into an unregulated black market trade, to ‘opening act’ for the chariot races, eventually growing to a hideous and repulsive spectacle on a grand scale before tens of thousands.  How did this happen, and what does it say about Rome?

We need to see not only the moral dimension of this problem, but the political one as well.  The Games served to enhance the prestige of the emperor and keep people amused and distracted, in a sense, from the reality around them.  One may recall the Wizard of Oz’s line not to look behind the curtain.  The whole system of Empire had degenerated essentially into a military dictatorship by Vespasian’s time.  No emperor could ill afford a populace too rowdy or too thoughtful.  The Games helped buy them off.
Casinos, for example, want you to lose money, but not all of your money.  After all, they want you to leave happy so you will come back.  When you start to lose too much, often times an employee will appear suddenly, encourage you to stop, and offer you a coupon for a free steak dinner at their award winning restaurant. Their goal of course, is that you think, “Hey, that casino is really great for giving me this free dinner,” instead of, “I just lost X amount of money at that casino.”  I think the Games worked much in the same way.
Certain emperors, of course, may have felt more of a need to establish their legitimacy than others.  Claudius, for example, was a big proponent of the games, and he was the ‘runt’ of the Julio-Claudian line, and Caligula’s uncle.  Vespasian built the Colosseum specifically for the games, and he came to power after a year of civil war.
There are other means of cementing your power, notably, buying your friends.  This dynamic was not, I think, the main reason for the debasement of Roman currency, but it surely did not help.  I passed this chart out to the students showing the general decline of currency value, with some being more responsible than others.  Those emperors that rose to power after a change in dynasty often did so after civil war (marked with an *), and would have extra need to buy the loyalty of key people, and especially, key army legions (though to be fair, Nerva does not fit this pattern).

11th/12th Grade: The Politics of Emancipation

Greetings,

This week we put a special focus on the Emancipation Proclamation, in its context and meaning for its time and beyond.

Critics of Lincoln then and now point out that when the war began slavery, or ending slavery, was not seen as a motivating factor in the conflict.  In an immediate and particular context in 1860-61, this was undoubtedly true.  Before Lincoln even took office several Southern states seceded, but many (VA, NC, AR, TN, KN, MD) had not.  Lincoln believed he needed to stop the bleeding as quickly as possible.  To make the war about slavery might have driven every slave state out of the Union and made reunification impossible.

But very soon after the war started events began to take over and push policy in a different direction.  Slaves ran away and took shelter with Union forces.  England might recognize the Confederacy if the war had nothing to do with slavery.  If it did, Lincoln knew that England could never go against a country trying to end slavery when they themselves had already abolished the slave trade.  By 1862, Lincoln thought the time had come to make slavery an official issue of the war.

Historians have their fashions just as any other discipline, and opinion has swayed back and forth on Lincoln’s actions and motivations surrounding his famous Proclamation.

Most of us grew up with the idea of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator” who freed the slaves with the Emancipation.  In this view, Lincoln gets the lions share of credit for ending a great stain upon our democracy, culture, and so on.

More recently, however, scholarship has shifted.  Many critics, both from the “Long live the South” community and African-American scholars have pointed out that:

  • Technically, the Emancipation freed no slaves, since the only slaves that Lincoln freed were slaves in areas in rebellion — areas he did not control.  Slavery in the border states loyal to the Union remained untouched.
  • Some African-American scholars have argued that slaves had begun to liberate themselves by leaving plantations, finding Union armies, etc. long before the Emancipation Proclamation.  Thus, Lincoln only added window dressing to an already existing reality.  He jumped on the band-wagon and got credit he did not deserve.
  • Some constitutional scholars argue that Lincoln had no authority to end slavery by executive fiat.  The Constitution did not forbid slavery, therefore at the very least Congress would have to make a law regarding slavery, or more likely, a Constitutional amendment would be needed.

With these two extreme points on the pendulum, others have come down somewhere in the middle.  The Emancipation Proclamation, they argue, had no technical legal authority, and in this sense made no difference.  But the Emancipation did accomplish other things, i.e.

  • It freed no slaves but did transform the war into a war of liberation, giving extra moral impetus to Union armies.
  • It sent a clear message to England (who had at times seriously considered recognizing the Confederacy) that the war would now be about slavery, and England (having banned slavery and the slave trade themselves) could not now easily side against a country trying to end slavery in their own territory.
  • It did not start slaves freeing themselves, but it gave active encouragement to other slaves who may not have considered it otherwise.  Not only that, the Emancipation guaranteed slaves legal protection from Union armies.
  • While slaves in the border states could keep their slavery, Lincoln’s message surely implied slavery’s eventual demise across the nation.

But this “middle ground” position still leaves open the question of Lincoln and the Constitution.

Lincoln believed that he had a right and a duty to defend Constitutional democracy.  History told him that wars and democracies do not always mix well.  Athenian democracy destroyed itself in the Peloponnesian War.  Many believe that Rome’s many wars brought down its Republic.  Machiavelli praised Rome for at least making the possibility of a temporary dictatorship a provision of its constitution, as it seemed better to do something drastic by law than otherwise.  But even this did not save them from the Emperors.  French Revolutionary democracy quickly turned into Napoleonic dictatorship.  Lincoln himself knew that some of his generals, like George McClellan, contemplated the possibility of military dictatorship.  Today we think of Lincoln as a strong war leader but many at the time saw him as weak, bumbling, inexperienced.  We can’t sit back comfortably this side of history and tell Lincoln, “There, there, it will be alright.”

Lincoln’s perception of the danger of dictatorship led him to embrace occasionally aggressive measures, and a “generous” reading of the Constitution.  The Constitution does allow for the suspension of habeus corpus, for example.  Article I, Section 9 reads,

The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.

This seems straightforward, but this clause is part of the section on the legislative branch of government, not the executive.  Of course, the Constitution does not explicitly forbid presidents from suspending the right themselves, but it could be said to imply it.  In fairness, Confederate president Jefferson Davis also suspended habeas corpus, but the fact that he receives less criticism than Lincoln is probably fair.  We did not, after all, build a hagiographic memorial to Jefferson Davis.

Subsequent presidents have also suspended the writ, perhaps FDR most famously during W.W. II.  Lincoln felt that this expansive use of power helped him seize firm control of the government, which in turn he felt would prevent the far worse evil of military dictatorship.  Lincoln’s critics argue that in order to achieve this, he assumed semi-dictatorial powers.  How one evaluates Lincoln depends on. . .
  • How grave you feel the threat was to the Constitution
  • How flexible your view of the Constitution is
  • To what extent you feel that strange times call for unusual measures, or if it is during those times that absolute discipline must be maintained even if it a worse evil results.  As many have said, “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.”  But of course, we established a Constitution specifically to protect liberty and put restraints on the powers of government.
  • The extent to which you feel that “America” means a certain process of separation of powers, or a more nebulous idea of freedom.

Other issues exist besides the problem of Habeus Corpus, such as his establishment of martial law in Missouri.  In some ways, Lincoln felt that the Constitution established by the founders had not been sufficient to deal with the crisis.  It proved insufficient to deal with slavery.  Thus, he felt he had the right and the duty to act outside the system.  On this view, Lincoln did well to preserve so much of the original founders vision for America while facing an unprecedented crisis that no other president has faced.

Lincoln also believed that the American people would quickly revert back to normal after the war.  A sick man will take necessary medicine, but once cured he stops.   The overall result proves Lincoln correct in his assessment, but events in Missouri (where governors and state officials refused to give up martial law in spite of Lincoln’s orders to do so), for example, showed that granting extreme powers and giving them up are two different things.  Sometimes, people get addicted to prescription drugs.

Blessings,
Dave

9th/10th Grade: You Can’t Go Home Again

Greetings,

This week we continued with Rome’s decline and saw the rise of Constantine, and with it a significant change in the history of the west.

The 3rd century AD was a bad one for Rome.  General after general assumed power, with no real progress or change to show for it.  In 284 Emperor Diocletian took control, and one might surmise, here for the first time in a while was a sane man.  He realized that:

1. Rome was too big to control himself.  He divided up the empire into administrative regions and delegated much of his power, which was quite unusual for a Roman emperor.

2. Rome’s problems went far beyond the military.  They had a ‘spiritual’ or ‘moral’ problem at heart.  Diocletian sought to revive Roman values, tradition, and religion.

Diocletian was a man of insight in this regard, but his solution begs the following questions:

1. Can you ‘go home again’?  Can you use force to create things like patriotism, or belief in general, for that matter?

2. Was Christianity a threat to Rome?  In one sense the answer is of course, ‘no.’  In general Christians were good citizens who could have breathed new spiritual life into Rome.  But in another sense, Diocletian shows his insight by recognizing that Christians were indeed a threat to Rome’s values of strength, pride, and power.  Christianity baffled Rome by preaching weakness and humility.  His persecution of Christians was Rome’s last and most intense.  It’s failure only helped contribute to the ‘triumph’ of the Church.

I mentioned in class that I feel bad for Diocletian.  Far from being mad with power, he actually sought to divest himself of power to make Rome more secure.  He saw the various political and economic problems Rome faced and realized that their real problems lie deeper — in culture and morality.  He had some keen insights, but came to disastrous conclusions from those insights.

We see some of this transition in the busts made of Diocletian.  Here, early in his life, he reflects the typical Greek image so prevalent among his predecessors:

But later in life, he abandoned that for a much more Roman look, consistent with his goal of revitalizing Rome:

Still, Diocletian’s persecution of Christians only continued Rome’s blindness.  They failed to see their own selves as the problem.  Typically, they projected their problems onto others.  As many historians have noted, Rome’s own decadence, decline, and violence helped create a spiritual vacuum that Christianity filled.

Not surprisingly, Diocletian’s passion for re-ordering Rome through direct control spilled over into his desire to control Rome’s economy and manage prices throughout the empire.  Price-controls in any circumstance almost always have negative effects.  Price-controls across an expanse as vast and diverse as the Roman empire would without question bring disaster.

With the rise of Constantine, some new questions emerge:

1. Would Constantine’s support of the Church be good for society?  Would it be good for the Church?  If we arrive at different answers for those questions, should we favor the Church or society?

2. Constantine claimed to be a Christian, but as emperor he had many official duties related to the old Roman religion.   Can a leader have ‘two bodies,’ one public and the other private?  If he represents more than just himself, might he have duties that put him in conflict with his private convictions?  What should leaders do in these situations?  Does Constantine’s dual roles put his ‘conversion’ into doubt?

On another note. . .

Next week I want to show the students another kind of archeological evidence.  Roman fort design changed over the centuries, and these changes tell a story.

In the second century AD, their forts looked like this:

2nd Century Roman Fort

The relatively little effort put towards defense shows the openness and confidence of not just the army itself, but the army’s sense of security in occupied territory.  Rome may very well have expected a good relationship in its provinces.

But we see things change in the next century:

3rd Century Roman Fort

Now they placed much more emphasis on defense, and the trend continues in the 4th century, where Rome not only focused on defense, but made sure to build forts on the high ground:

4th Century Fort Design

 

The nature of Rome’s army, and the nature of its relationship to the world outside Rome, had changed dramatically.

Dave Mathwin

Every Sacrifice Needs a Witness

I enjoy athletics, but since the lockdown last March I have watched zero hours of live sports. One might think that televised sports would act as a lifeline for people like me during these strained times, but my interest has markedly declined. But it’s not just me, apparently. Ratings have plummeted for live sports across the board. Here are some statistics:

  • US Open (golf) final round: down 56%
  • US Open (tennis) was down 45% and the French open is down 57%
  • Kentucky Derby: down 43%
  • Indy 500: down 32%
  • Through four weeks, NFL viewership is down approximately 10%
  • NHL Playoffs were down 39% (Pre Stanley Cup playoffs was down 28% while the Stanley Cup was down 61%).
  • NBA finals are down 45% (so far). Conference finals were down 35%, while the first round was 27% down. To match the viewership, activity on the NBA reddit fan community is also down 50% from the NBA finals last year.

So it’s not just the “woke” politics in some of our major sports that are driving people away. The above statistics are from blogger Daniel Frank. He suggests a variety of reasons for this decline, including the rise in mental health issues and political uncertainties that eliminate our “bandwidth” for consuming sports. He has other reasons, all of them thoughtful and possibly true, but I think he misses the heart of the matter.

My thoughts below should be, as Tyler Cowen states, filed under “speculative.”

Sports occupies a very large place in our civilizations bandwidth. The growth of the importance of sports, and the money associated with sports, accelerated on a national scale as a few different things happened over the last 50 years:

  • Growth of technology allowed people across the country to discover sports hero’s from other locales.
  • Beginning around the 1960’s a dramatic moral shift happened that eroded certain key foundations Tocqueville and others cite as necessary to support democracy, such as shared trust and a robust family structure.
  • Perhaps we can also cite the growth of suburbia as a factor eroding another key facet of healthy democratic life cited by Tocqueville–local neighborhoods and local institutions and customs.

So as things start to erode on a local and particular level, they homogenized on a national level. Sports benefitted from this, but its growth was necessary, in a sense, to account for the above trends. We lacked local means of conflict mediation on front porches, coffee shops, etc. Sports stepped into that void. Fundamentally, we can understand sports as a highly ritualized, liturgical, and controlled means of combat. For those two hours we can “hate” the team wearing the other jersey, but we know that we don’t really “hate” them. The liturgy of competition creates a parallel world where we can control conflict. We have all played games against friends–for a time they function as the “enemy,” then real life resumes. “Bad sportsmanship” means in part the inability to come back to the real world from the parallel world. Whether at cards, basketball, or the like–our competition serves as a way to mediate/navigate our relationships.

Without shared trust, without real communities, we need sports now more than we did 50-100 years ago.

But then–why did the ratings plummet for sports at a time when a need for controlled conflict mediation seems quite high?

If sports serve as a parallel liturgy of rivalry, we can see that this “conflict” gets resolved via sacrifice. Athletes, then, function in certain ways as priests of this liturgy. We expect them to “sacrifice” for the team, their time, their bodies, etc. Thus, they serve as “victims” in some ways of the liturgy. But in addition, at least our star athletes also control the liturgical space. They ask us to cheer, we cheer. When they complain to the ref, we join in with them–the ref’s call was obviously wrong–and so forth.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? If you have a materialist-leaning view of the universe, the answer is an obvious ‘yes.’ You can ‘prove’ your point by recording the event with no one around, and then listening to the recording. You hear the tree falling and presto, you have your answer. But if you have something of an ‘idealist’ view of the world, as did Bishop Berkeley,* you answer in the negative. Is there “sound” on that recording? Can you carry around “sound” that you do not hear? It seems to me that for reality to be Real it requires perception.

This idea closely relates to the dictum in both Catholic and Orthodox churches (and perhaps others) that no priest can celebrate the sacrifice of the mass alone–though of course certain unusual exceptions allow for it. Many reasons exist for this restriction, but briefly:

  • The sacrifice of the mass is always for the people–the body of Christ, and not merely the priest.
  • The priest, representing Christ, cannot be the sole ‘beneficiary’ of the mass, just as Christ did not “benefit” from His own death (of course He does “benefit” in the end, but I trust all take my meaning).
  • The “power” of the sacrifice has to “land” to take form and reality. Without this “landing” the sacrifice has no power and no life to give.
  • The Head (Christ) must nourish the body. Just as we take in physical nourishment through our mouths, so too–what is the point of the sacrifice of food (for all food was once alive and now has died that we might have life) if we have no body? The food–which has already undergone death, will not be transformed into life for us, but rather, stay “dead” as it falls out of our throats onto the floor. Or to put it another way, maybe Berkeley was right about trees falling in forests all by their lonesome.

All well and good, but this fancy talk, some might say, forgets that the televised sporting events do have witnesses, both in person and at home. Most watched at home anyway in the first place before the virus hit. Very little has changed about how the vast majority of us consume sports now except the immediate social factors Frank listed above.

Well, I concede partially. But just as virtual church is not church, and a virtual concert is no real concert–a virtual sporting event is not a real sporting event. Anyone who has watched on tv senses this. The viewers themselves sense it, which is why teams pipe in crowd noise. It is a trick meant to fool those watching at home more than the players, I think. The “sacrifice” of sports needs a place to land within the “church”/arena. If it disappears into the ether, its power disperses with it.**

The ratings decline in sports confuse us only if we fail to see connections between liturgical worship and sports.

Dave

*I do not claim to understand more than the bare outline of Berkeley’s premises, and could not defend his general philosophy even if I wanted to.

**We can also consider the sudden collapse of Rome’s gladiatorial games in the mid-4th century. No question–one main factor had to be the rise of the Christian ethic. But the growth of the games themselves also had something to do with it. When one man fought one man in front of 50,000, whatever took place would be witnessed and participated in by all. But as the games grew in importance they grew in scope, and the cruelty of the games grew more random and bizarre. As the games (unknowingly) neared the precipice, dozens of men fought other dozens of others more or less randomly.

At that point, if you were a gladiator you could not be sure that anything that happened would be directly seen by anyone. One could kill or die with honor and dignity and who knows who witnessed it? If nothing is affirmed, nothing glorified, then why fight at all? With no glory possible, only chaotic death remains. Why would a Roman citizen want to witness a “nothing?”

To the Victor go Some of the Spoils

Many often declare that since, “To the victor go the spoils,” so too, that, “Victors write the history books.”  This pithy phrase assumes that historical narratives boil down to power, a concession to postmodern theory that I am loathe to make.  Aside from the debate over the theory, however, history itself will not confirm the statement.  Several examples exist to prove this point:

  • The Athenians exiled Thucydides but we read of the war that helped bring about his exile almost exclusively through him.
  • Athenian Democracy “won” by executing Socrates, but subsequent generations of readers learned Athenian democracy primarily through Plato’s eyes.
  • The triumph of the “imperial” system over the Republic in Rome became a fact of life after Augustus, but we think of that triumph foremost through the writings of Tacitus, a significant critic of most of the emperors.
  • The North won the American Civil War, but the Confederacy had a variety of champions shortly after the war and a variety of sympathizers today,

and so on.

As Tocqueville noted, mere physical force can control the body but often has the opposite impact on the soul.  The examples above demonstrate also that, contra the mundane postmodernist, shaping how we see the world has much more to do with our imagination that rote political force.

Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Excellent Empire disappointed me overall.  He is likely one of the few who could have possibly made a history of Christian doctrine an exciting read, and he did just that in his four volume work The Christian Tradition.  In The Excellent Empire he flashes his ability to deftly dance from text to text, but seems to get trapped into the detached tone of his main subject, Edward Gibbon, whose The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire forms the backdrop of this book.

I give Gibbon much credit for his labors, his erudition, and for having a defined point of view.  Alas, he writes like a know-it-all, and I cannot buy into how he frames his narrative.  Pelikan seems to accept Gibbon’s perspective (or–is just playing a scholarly game, or am I too dense to notice something else?), and discusses how GIbbon’s perspective relates to Christian thoughts at the time from Sts. Jerome and Augustine, as well as a touch of Salvian and Orosius.

Gibbon’s work is an interesting examination of who gets the last laugh.

Roman contemporary critics of Christians viewed them as a drain on the Roman state, and in many ways enemies of the Roman state.  Jerome saw the collapse of Rome in the most starkly apocalyptic terms, and in the most anguished.  He compared Rome’s end to various passages from Revelation.  He saw Rome as ripe for judgement.  Yet, he grieved over their fall, seeing their end as the end of all things as he knew them.  Augustine took a more cerebral approach, which gained him some more penetrating insights.  He conceived of a Rome built upon shaky foundations from the start.  In one brilliant passage from Book 3 of The City of God he writes,

First, then, why was Troy or Ilium, the cradle of the Roman people (for I must not overlook nor disguise what I touched upon in the first book(2)), conquered, taken and destroyed by the Greeks, though it esteemed and worshipped the same gods as they? Priam, some answer, paid the penalty of the perjury of his father Laomedon.(3) Then it is true that Laomedon hired Apollo and Neptune as his workmen. For the story goes that he promised them wages, and then broke his bargain. I wonder that famous diviner Apollo toiled at so huge a work, and never suspected Laomedon was going to cheat him of his pay. And Neptune too, his uncle, brother of Jupiter, king of the sea, it really was not seemly that he should be ignorant of what was to happen. For he is introduced by Homer(4) (who lived and wrote before the building of Rome) as predicting something great of the posterity of AEneas, who in fact founded Rome. And as Homer says, Neptune also rescued AEneas in a cloud from the wrath of Achilles, though (according to Virgil (1))

“All his will was to destroy
His own creation, perjured Troy.”

Gods, then, so great as Apollo and Neptune, in ignorance of the cheat that was to defraud them of their wages, built the walls of Troy for nothing but thanks and thankless people.(2) There may be some doubt whether it is not a worse crime to believe such persons to be gods, than to cheat such gods. Even Homer himself did not give full credence to the story for while he represents Neptune, indeed, as hostile to the Trojans, he introduces Apollo as their champion, though the story implies that both were offended by that fraud. If, therefore, they believe their fables, let them blush to worship such gods; if they discredit the fables, let no more be said of the “Trojan perjury;” or let them explain how the gods hated Trojan, but loved Roman perjury. For how did the conspiracy of Catiline, even in so large and corrupt a city, find so abundant a supply of men whose hands and tongues found them a living by perjury and civic broils? What else but perjury corrupted the judgments pronounced by so many of the senators? What else corrupted the people’s votes and decisions of all causes tried before them? For it seems that the ancient practice of taking oaths has been preserved even in the midst of the greatest corruption, not for the sake of restraining wickedness by religious fear, but to complete the tale of crimes by adding that of perjury.

Such analysis gave medieval Europe a whole new foundation of political and religious ideology on which to proceed.

Rome attacked Christians for not giving themselves fully to the well-being of the state.  For the Romans, this might have taken the form of not giving due sacrifices to the emperor, or not joining the army.  Gibbon pointed out as well that the best men in the Church gave themselves to the Church, and not Rome.  Imagine a Rome where Athanasius, Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose, etc.–with all of their energy and intelligence–served as provincial governors instead of bishops.

Jerome and Augustine responded variously with how Rome had doomed itself to destruction via its sins, or how Christians were in fact the best citizens of Rome.  Their analysis won the day.  Monastics, for example, appear on the surface at least, to not contribute anything to the well-being of civilization.  But monastics would be honored in the west for the next 1000 years.  Their presence made no sense to either the Romans or to Gibbon.  The “social triumph of the church,” as Pelikan calls it, gave the Church the power of interpreting Rome’s history.  But I gathered that Pelikan thought Augustine and Jerome thieves, to a certain extent.*  Perhaps for Pelikan, Gibbon restored Rome’s vision of itself back to the stream of history.

Augustine and Jerome appeared to be the victors in the 5th century A.D. and beyond, as the Church had a strong hand on shaping the next millennium.  But historical spoils can be slippery things.  In an irony that perhaps not even Gibbon might have foreseen, today’s Christians, having abandoned much of the otherworldliness of the Church of the 5th century, may find more congeniality with Gibbon’s interpretation as opposed to Augustine’s.  What modern mega-church leader, for example, would tell anyone to become a monk?  We have our eyes set on this world and have no concept of how to patttern ourselves after the heavenly realms.  Some may applaud this.  But without the worldview of Augustine and Jerome we may find ourselves wishing, along with Gibbon, that St. Augustine had served as proconsul of Alexandria.

DM

*I could be totally wrong here.  Part of the difficulty I had with this book was I felt that I was reading a different Pelikan than the one I encountered in The Christian Tradition.  I had assumed that The Excellent Empire was written before this series, because its tone seemed more distant to me, less committed to the idea of truth than The Christian Tradition.  I knew that Pelikan had converted to Orthodox Christianity in 1998.  But I had somehow thought (how I thought this I’m not sure) that The Christian Tradition was written during/after his conversion, when in reality the early volumes stretch back to 1973, and the last volume predates his official reception into the Church by eight years.

This could mean that

  • I have misread Pelikan entirely in The Excellent Empire
  • Pelikan is deft at hiding his particular point of view from the reader and is simply examining certain points of view in a more detached way.
  • He does admire Gibbon (which is understandable) and agrees with Gibbon that Christians really did bring down Rome from the inside out.  This stance is not Augustine’s or Jerome’s, but it is certainly not an anti-Christian idea in itself.  Nebuchadnezzar’s first dream may hint at this (Daniel 2).  Perhaps I am too ingrained in my distaste for Gibbon’s pompous Enlightenment attitude to see that, despite this weakness, he may have been right after all about the Church’s relationship to Rome.

 

 

 

Animalia Agonistes

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

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

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

I will make a meager attempt to do so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One is from page 68, where she writes,

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

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

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

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

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

Can we put these curiosities together?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11th Grade: “Fire all of Your Guns at Once”

Greetings to all,

This week we began the actual battles of the Civil War.  In previous years we tended to look at battles as isolated incidents unto themselves.  Last year, I wanted to begin to broaden their understanding of conflict at a deeper level.  We started to do this somewhat when we looked at Napoleon towards the end of last year, and we continue to deepen our understanding as they go farther in the rhetoric stage of learning.

I wanted the students to consider the following:

Who had the most important advantages in the conflict?  The traditional view usually argues that the North, with its larger population, established economy, and industrial might had the edge.  The picture below, for example, shows the differences in respective railway capacity:

Recently, however,  scholarship has tended to see the South as having the strategic edge.  After all, they merely had to ‘not-lose.’  The Union not only had to win, but win to such an extent that the South would not consider secession again.  The South also had a huge amount of territory, along with the psychological edge of defending their ‘homeland.’  A quick glance shows us that the Civil War had some of the same dynamics as the Revolutionary War, with the Americans playing the role of the Confederacy (to some extent) and using their advantages to victory in that conflict.  The North certainly had its hands full.

These respective advantages did not come about via magic, but by the accumulation of various conscious and unconscious choices made by each society.  The South, for example lacked industrial capacity in part because they wanted to avoid the inevitable cultural and political changes that come with industry.

Related to the idea of cultures, I wanted the students understand a few of the dynamics present in the conflict.

For the South:
We discussed that the South’s main advantage was that it could play on the defensive, play up their psychological ‘home field advantage,’ and merely, ‘not lose’ the war.  They would also have to be careful with resources.  They would not want to cede ground in this area to the North, as the North could easily overmatch their industrial production.

So far, so good.  But one of the tensions in this conflict would be how this strategy would fit with the notions of honor usually prevalent in more aristocratic, honor oriented societies.  De Tocqueville reported a conversation that surprised him in his travels in the South in the late 1830’s.  Even for a Frenchmen, the sense of honor he encountered surprised him.  While on a train, he asked the following of a gentlemen next to him. . .

Q. Is it true, then that people in Alabama are as accustomed violence as is said?

A. Yes, there is no one here who doesn’t carry weapons under his clothes.  At the slightest quarrel he’ll have a knife or pistol in his hand.  These things happen constantly, the state of society is half-barbarous.

Q. But when a man kills another like that, isn’t he punished?

A. He’s always brought to trial, and the jury always acquits.  I don’t remember a single man who was at all well-known to have to pay for his life for such a crime.  Besides, I’m no better.  Look at all these wounds [showed the traces of 4-5 deep scars].

Q. But surely you lodged a complaint?

A. My God, no!  I tried to give back as good as I got!

For the North:
No one doubts that there immense advantages of men and material, coupled with the need not just to win but really pulverize the South, should have committed them to a long term ‘anaconda’ like strategy.

But Lincoln, initially at least, eschewed this path, largely because of how he saw secession.  He believed that secession resulted from the manipulation of a wealthy elite — that the average southerner wanted back in the Union, but had been temporarily deluded.  He felt, therefore, that he needed a quick and dramatic victory to prevent the concrete of secession from settling, so to speak.  This victory would also serve as a kind of smelling salt to wake up the south, and bring them back into the fold.

Union General Irwin McDowell told Lincoln that the army stood nowhere near ready for offensive operations, but Lincoln’s political beliefs pushed McDowell to go for a quick victory.  “If you are green, so are they,” he reportedly told McDowell.  But of course, offensive maneuvers are always much more difficult than defensive ones, and the disaster of the Battle of Bull Run ensued, when the Union forces crumbled into nothingness.

Lincoln misjudged the South badly here.  Secession, as we saw last week, was supported by most Southerners, and one victory would not have swung the tide in any case.  Victory, if it came, would have to mean a longer, more rigorous, and grinding conflict.

Bull Run shows that the outcome of battles almost always has deeper roots than the fighting itself, and I hope the students saw this in class.

The President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, also wanted compromise at the beginning of the war.  For example, he offered mid-western farmers the use of the Mississippi and pledged them access to New Orleans.  He, like Lincoln, figured that the Union did not really want to go through the trouble of war, and one quick victory would show them the folly of their ways.

But Davis, like Lincoln, misjudged his opponent.  For many in the North the issue went beyond economics or jilted pique.  Many felt at the time that democracy itself would be considered an international and historical failure if secession worked.  If Constitutional democracy meant one leaves the moment things don’t go your way, democracy had no future.  Secession would only serve as the first step in a broader conflict that would only serve, in time, to make America just like Europe, where wars broke out at regular intervals.  The misperceptions of both sides meant in part that the early phase of the war had little overall strategic effect.

When we remember that both the Puritan revolutionaries in England, and the more Enlightenment oriented philosophes in France, both entirely failed to bring about constitutional democracy, this attitude makes more sense.  In 1861 only England, of all European nations could claim some kind of viable democracy.

From the beginning then, Lincoln had a “cause,” or a grand ideal to fight for, but it was abstract.  In time, he would seek to transform the war even more, turning the nation’s eyes toward the slavery question.  This will give the North something more tangible to fight over.  Next week we will examine this as well as Lincoln’s attitude towards the Constitution.

Many blessings,

Dave Mathwin

“The Civil War as a Theological Crisis”

The Enlightenment historian Edward Gibbon pointed out with some ridicule that in the Arian controversy, Christianity got into a kerfuffle over the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet — the iota.  At the Council of Nicea Arians wanted the word “homoiousios,” meaning “similar substance” inserted into the creed concerning the nature of Christ.  They were comfortable thinking of Jesus in divine terms, but not as an equal to the Father in His essence.  Led by Athanasius, the orthodox contingent objected, insisting on the word “homoousious,” meaning “same substance.”

For Gibbon and other Enlightenment oriented thinkers, this all seemed too much.  Such minutiae, such trifling, would upset things so unnecessarily.  Given that Gibbon liked nothing better than a well-oiled worldly machine, he saw the controversy as so many wrenches in the works.  Of course Gibbon missed the point entirely.  The difference between viewing Christ as fully God as opposed to merely “God-like” changes one’s conception of the entire universe, creation, and history itself.  When it comes to our theological understanding, what we worship will have dramatic consequences.

I’ve always believed that understanding religious belief formed the key to understanding any event in history, be it great or small.  Often this is more easily seen in the ancient world, where religion showed on the sleeves much more so than today. But men are men, and as a man thinks, so he is (Prov. 23:7).   Mark Noll  points out the religious roots and the religious mistakes of both North and South in his excellent The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.  Noll’s analysis gets to the heart of the real differences between North and South, and shows how these religious differences formed the roots of the political disagreements that led to war.  Both sides professed belief in the authority of the Bible, and both sides reached different conclusions.  That’s obvious to anyone, but Noll’s approach shows these different interpretations came from the same source American/Enlightenment source, and that makes this brief work a real treasure.

By 1850 America experienced a deep political crisis, but astute observers of the day saw that the roots went deeper. A Protestant ethos merged nicely with Democratic principles in America quite easily.  The individual should be able to read, reason, and think for himself.  Both Protestantism and Democratic government rest on the idea that truth always has a “plain” and obvious character.  It could be argued that an agreed upon “atmosphere” of sorts existed between Protestant denominations despite their differences (Noll takes this for granted and does not argue the point).  But in 1844 both Methodist and Baptist churches (the largest in the U.S. at that time) experienced deep schisms.  A broken Church will lead to a broken nation, and leaders from the North and South predicted this. Henry Clay opined that, “this sundering of religious ties . . . I consider the greatest source of danger to our country. In 1850 John Calhoun of South Carolina warned that if the great Protestant denominations finally broke, “nothing would be left to hold the States together except force.”*  Noll writes,

If we keep in mind that it was never only a matter of interpreting individual biblical texts, but always a question of putting actively to use the authoritative Book on which the national culture of the United States had been built, then we are in a position to understand why in 1860 battles over the Bible were so important, why divergent views of providence cut so deeply, and . . . why the Civil War illuminated much about the general character of religion in America.

First, the South.

Southern arguments in defense of slavery had the advantage of simplicity and (the apparent) strict fidelity to the Biblical text.  They pointed out that . . .

  • God allowed Israel to have slavery
  • Abraham and other luminaries owned slaves
  • Jesus never condemned the institution of slavery
  • Nowhere in the epistles is slavery ever condemned.  In fact, slaves are repeatedly told to obey their masters.  Paul, after finding Onesimus, an escaped slave, has him return to Philemon.

Thus, to argue (as abolitionists often did) that anyone who practiced slavery could have nothing to do with Biblical Christianity flies in the face of the entire and obvious biblical teaching on slavery.  The case was open and shut.

Northern arguments also strove for stark clarity and simplicity.

The most common arguments usually had the following characteristics:

  • Slavery had inextricable links to tyranny and moral abuses that the ethic of the Gospel strenuously opposed
  • Slavery contradicted principles of justice, love, and mercy found throughout the Bible
  • Slavery went against the general spirit of the “brotherhood of mankind” propounded by certain texts, like Galatians 3:28.

In other words, anti-slavery arguments inevitably used first principles but tended to avoid textual rigor and so failed to deal head-on with what pro-slavery advocates said.  Furthermore, many anti-slavery arguments wedded themselves to “natural reason,” “self-evident truths,” and “republican practices” and at times relied on these ideas more than Scripture itself.  Thus, as Noll comments, “The primary reason the biblical defense of slavery remained so strong was that biblical attacks on slavery were so weak.”  Again, Noll doesn’t dispute that slavery was wrong.  His point is one rarely made, that Northern arguments against slavery had some of the same flaws as pro-slavery arguments.  Thus, the two ships were likely to pass in the night.

Much better arguments against American slavery existed from some Protestants, and interestingly, some Catholics as well. Such arguments pointed out that . . .

  • Using Israel as an example for American slavery made the mistake of conflating Israel with America, a mistake Americans had been making for generations.
  • If the South could used ancient Israel for support, they should be informed by their practices.  For one, slaves had rights in Israel, and they did not in the South.  For another, Mosaic law prescribed years of Jubilee every 7th year and again at the 50th year in which all slaves were freed and all debts canceled.  The South never practiced this.  And again, slavery in Israel was not racial, perpetual, or hereditary. The South condemned themselves by asking to be judged by the law.
  • Certain biblical principles of justice, mercy, and love certainly applied to arguments against slavery.  But these more careful Protestant and Catholic voices applied them differently than most abolitionists.  For starters, they kept such principles clear of democratic ideology — on which Scripture remains silent at least directly (and pro-slavery arguments pointed this out).  The goal for the Christian, according to these arguments, was not so much to live in light of specific texts, but in light of the flow of history itself.  If God’s Kingdom is not just coming but is already here in Christ, we have to live in light of the “now” reality of God’s Kingdom. In God’s Kingdom we will not/do not enslave one another.  Evidence exists for this not just in Scripture, but in the early history of the Church.  Christians worked to liberate slaves and medieval civilization stood as the first major civilization in history to essentially eliminate slavery.  It got reintroduced only in the Renaissance, when pagan, Roman concepts of property and ownership tragically got transported back into Europe’s bloodstream.
  • The Roman example of slavery also condemned southerners, at least to an extent.   For one, Roman slavery lacked the racial character of Southern slavery.  In one of the best chapters in the book, Noll pulls from numerous sources that show that the real problem for the South was not slavery but race.

So whatever one might say about slavery in a general vacuum, no good arguments existed for slavery as practiced by the ante-bellum South.

Unfortunately such arguments never made it into the mainstream of American cultural life.  As to why, we might assume something along the lines of a “short attention span,” but this fits modern times more readily.  In fact, audiences flocked to hear discourses and debates of all kinds in the mid 19th century. Lincoln and Douglas in 1858 spoke for many hours at a time to packed audiences.  One debate on slavery lasted for multiple hours over multiple days to an audience of several hundred.  Rather, the reason lies in the common roots shared by mainstream arguments about slavery on both sides.

The mainstream arguments for and against slavery before the Civil War had the following characteristics:

  • They involve no more than a 1-2 step reasoning process
  • They insist on the “plain” character of truth.  Neither side could be described as anti-intellectual, but arguers for both sides seemed to show an exasperation with the need to develop arguments at all.  The truth was so obvious!
  • Anti-slavery arguments relied on “simple” principle, pro-slavery arguments on isolated small texts.  Both arguments only functioned along one track, one line of thought.

Whichever side won the argument (i.e., the war), the future for having the Church influence culture looked bleak.  The Enlightenment had done its dirty work.

Subconsciously perhaps, we reject oversimplifications because reality and our experience have more complexity and mystery than the Enlightenment can fathom.  Rejecting this truth condemned us to search aimlessly for generations hence to fill the void with politics, “The American Dream,” sex, and the like.**  Obviously western theologians could and did make nuanced and complex arguments, but western culture as a whole failed to notice or heed them.

As a buttress to his observations about slavery arguments, Noll includes a section on the idea of God’s providence as debated before and after the war.  True to form, both sides found obvious answers to the results of the conflict.  For the Southerners, even their defeat showed the rightness of their cause, for “God disciplines those He loves” — i.e. — “We are experiencing discipline, showing God’s love for us, showing the rightness of our cause.  For it is often true that the godly rarely prosper in this world.”  For the North, their arguments had a simpler character, though no doubt the South would have made them had they won the war.  “We won.  God was and is on our side.   Therefore we were/are right.”  Lincoln understood better, and pushed back on this simple approach.  We may always know that God has events in His hand, he agreed, but the particular application of His providence often remains a mystery to us.  Not even someone of Lincoln’s stature could get others to embrace this more nuanced view.

Noll’s work has great value for his illumination of the state of religion in 19th century America.  What makes it even more intriguing is how he reveals what may be the central problem of American political and educational life.  Our problem really resides not in short attention spans, not in one political party or the other, not the sexual revolution, or other such movement. Rather, Americans need to grapple with how our democratic ideology meshes with the nature of truth itself.

Dave

*Noll includes some interesting statistics showing the decline of religion and growth of government.  This should not surprise us, as Calhoun (not someone I’d like to agree with very often) foretold.

  • In 1860 about 4.7 million people voted in the presidential election, but in that same year between 3-4 times that many regularly attended church  on Sundays.  In 2004, about 115 million went to the polls, which equaled the number of regular church attendees in 1860 (Noll should take into account, however, the fact that women and many minorities did not vote in 1860).
  • In 1860 the number of Methodist clergy alone equaled the number of postal workers.  Today the ratio of postal workers to Methodist clergy approximates 9-1.
  • Before mobilization in 1860 the number of active duty military was about 1/2 the number of clergy in the country.  In the early 21st century, before mobilization for the war in Iraq, the ratio of military to clergy was about 3-1.
  • In 1860 the total income of the churches and religious organizations nearly equaled the federal budget.  Today the ratio of federal income to annual religion-related giving is about 25-1.
  • In 1860 about 400 institutions of higher-learning existed, with nearly all of them run by religious groups.
  • In 1860 there were 35 churches for each bank.  Today there are four churches for each bank.

**In an interesting digression, Noll points out that warfare and dramatic social change have often produced great works of lasting theological depth.  One thinks immediately of Augustine’s The City of God, but numerous other examples exist (St. Bernard during the Crusades, and St. Francis experienced a dramatic shift after fighting in a small war.  In the modern era, Bonhoeffer comes most clearly to mind).  By that model, the Civil War should have, but failed, to produce any significant theological insight, and this reveals a thin theology throughout North and South at that time.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the great storytellers of the 20th century, MacDonald, Lewis, Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy — all came from liturgical and historical traditions.  Lewis and Tolkien both fought in W.W. I, and O’Connor and Percy both suffered from lifelong illnesses.

Despair and Exaltation in Ancient Rome

The phenomena of Roman gladiators has gotten lots of attention over the years, and that’s no surprise.  One way of quickly getting a sense of an ancient people is to seek what details stand out and makes them look odd, impressive, or otherwise shocking to modern eyes.  The gladiatorial games, like human sacrifices for the Aztecs, Egyptian tombs, or medieval cathedrals all fit the bill.

We usually see the gladiatorial contests as evidence of Rome’s decline.  Rome got wealthy, Rome got bored and decadent, and so it needed the bread and circuses to maintain order in a tumultuous political climate. “How sad,” some say, “and how dramatic a change from Rome’s hard and flinty past!  But, when a big empire goes south, it will go south on a grand and terrible scale.”

So the story goes.  But, what if, like Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, we had it contrariwise?  What if the Rome of the gladiatorial games is simply the Rome that always was, and money and power just gave them more opportunities to expand their sense of themselves?  Such are the implications of Carlin Barton’s eye-opening The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster.  Barton wants to show us that our modern categories of thought and experience will not work for Rome.  We cannot say, “Well, we like football so we’re just like the Romans.”  This shallow method will not cut it for Barton.  She asks us to go deeper and to notice the Romans on their own terms, and gives us plenty of food for thought to reconsider the meaning of Rome, and what it means that Rome was a “religious” society.

Barton examines the gladiatorial games, one of the more sensational aspects of Rome’s past.  The title focuses on the concept of “sorrow,” but Barton tries to examine the games through a lens of the tension between asceticism, discipline, glory, indulgence, and exaltation.  We might think of the Romans as orderly people who lived in the middle of the road.  If true, Barton suggests that they could do so only by holding opposites in constant tension.

For an example we have the Roman triumph.  Anyone familiar with Roman lore and tradition knows that Rome itself, not a particular individual, occupies the heroic position.  They wove their fear of too much individualism into their laws and customs.  The valued communal fraternity so much that one of their laws states that,

If any person has sung or composed against another person a song such as was causing slander or insult…. he shall be clubbed to death,+

and they valued order and gravitas to the extent that they banned excessive mourning at funerals.

But at the same time they gave massive official “Triumphs” to certain generals on occasion, where the whole city came out to shower the victor with praise.  But as the victor processed, his soldiers could–and perhaps should?–sing bawdy or insulting songs about their general in direct violation of law, while a slave rode with him as well to remind him of his mortality.*

Barton tries to explore this at least seeming tension through the lens of the so-called “circuses” of Rome, which Barton writes were a, “Powerful opera of emotions in which the gladiator was the star.”

Most people, most of the time, imagine themselves doing good more often than not, and suppose that others will naturally share the assumptions they make about themselves.  The same holds true for countries and perhaps especially for imperial powers, who tell themselves that they come with blessings for all, and get a shock when they find themselves not always as appreciated as they feel they deserve.**  So too with gladiators and the games, the Romans saw themselves as benefactors.  Barton pushes back on the modern notion that they served as mere entertainment for a swelling populace that needed distracted.

The Romans saw themselves as giving gladiators a chance to redeem their low-estate, even to become something more than a mere man–an act of generosity.  The crowd attends to cooperate and encourage this transformation, not so much to gratify idle curiosity but rather to partake in a kind of religious apotheosis.  To begin, the military oath had a great deal of similarity to the gladiatorial oath. Seneca wrote,

You have enlisted under oath.  If any man say that this is a soft or easy form of soldiering they will only wish to mock you.  But be not deceived: the words of this most honorable of compacts are the very same as those of the most foulest [i.e., the gladiator’s oath]: to be burned, to be bound, to be slain by the sword.  You must die erect and invincible. What difference will it make if you gain a few more days or years? We are born into a world in which no quarter is given.

Thus, Barton comments, the gladiator became a kind of soldier/philosopher, one who lives between life and death, understands both, and can mock at both.  This in turn gave him license to become a new man.   If the emperor claimed his life, one might see it as akin to a god claiming his own.  His death, then, was not necessarily a cause for sorrow.

This gives us a new image of the crowd’s role at the games.  The crowd does not so much cheer for life, or death, but for a communal religious right.  Seneca again comments,

I judge you wretched because you have never been wretched yourself.  You have passed through life without an adversary. No one will know what you are capable of, not even you yourself will know.  And so there are men of their own accord [i.e. gladiators] come forward to challenge reluctant misfortune, and sought an opportunity to blazon forth their worth when it was about to pass into obscurity.  Great men glory in adversity, as do brave men in battle. 

The injuries inflicted by the powerful must be borne, not just patiently, but with a glad countenance.  At the table of a king every meal is a delight. So must they drink, so must they respond, so must the laugh at the funerals of their loved ones.

To glory in suffering is to become glorious.  So even in death, the gladiator wins.  He shows his exalted status by despising life.  As one commented on D. Junius Brutus: “He behaved so basely that he deserved to live.”  The crowd could occasionally assume risk as well, flocking to rickety theaters that could collapse or catch fire at any time.  They cheer on the gladiator toward his glorious suffering just as they–albeit in a more limited fashion–participate in that same suffering, that same embrace and defiance of death.

With this in place we can view the decadence of the Romans in new light.  Gladiators lived beyond normal life, so they could indulge themselves freely, embracing the extremes of life and death.  St. Augustine commented that the life of the gladiator involved licenstious cruelty, an excess of indulgence in everything.  And yet at the same time, they functioned as Rome’s ascetics, able to abandon their very lives to the people of Rome.  Their lives do not belong to them and in so doing their lives can belong to all. They simultaneously embraced both extremes, the demi-gods of Rome who lived beyond the lot of mortals.

This is why the crowd could cheer even the losers in combat, for in their death they display their superiority to death, unblinking, and unafraid.  It was only when the combatants shrank from death that crowd turned on them, and then with stern vengeance.  Showing fear of death made them normal once again, and once they became “normal” they turned the games into something shameful and cruel, rather than something “exalted.”  A gladiator’s fear of death ended the crowd’s participation in the ritual and suddenly transformed the event to a mere butchery.  Who wants to see that?

This is why Rome embraced fleshly decadence as a kind of asceticism.  In Rome one must learn to endure all things and keep going.  A Roman can embrace everything and maintain his dignity.  He can die, and he can eat, vomit it all up, and eat some more.  He can endure death and every form of excess life throws at him and “triumph.”  It is hard to say whether the banquets and excess of late-Republican Rome derived from gladiator culture or vice-versa, but I suspect the former.  J.E. Lendon at the University of Virginia seems to suggest in his Soldiers and Ghosts that the Romans had an extraordinary ability to do almost anything to avoid shame.  That ability could include

  • A strong aversion to any kind of trickery in warfare.  The only honorable way to fight was to march straight into the enemy and smash them in the mouth.
  • A strong aversion to a fear of death and ready acceptance of suicide as superior to even small personal or political failures among the political elite, and
  • As Barton points out, a refusal to accept any limits not just on pains^ but even on the pleasures that one could endure, such as eating six meat pies, spewing it out, and still look forward to eating the seventh.  The man who lost the ability to desire had lost something of himself.

One might see the how these practices could stray into some rather bizarre sexual realms.  Clearly gladiators enjoyed status as sexual objects, and Barton is hardly the first to discuss this.  But she did, if it be possible, help me understand Caligula, at least indirectly.  Of course no one can possibly excuse Caligula via “understanding!”  But in Caligula we see the same kind of excess of cruelty, physical and sexual indulgence, along with religious ecstasy as we see in gladiators.  Caligula claimed a kind of deity for himself.  Perhaps this was insanity, but perhaps he was simply following the gladiator ethic of testing himself, pushing himself, to extremes of vice and religious glorification, courting disaster but not shirking from the challenge.

Maybe.

I found Barton’s book in turns fascinating and perplexing.  I don’t know what it means for understanding the breadth of Rome’s existence from start to finish.  In the preface to his history, Livy wrote that, “Of late wealth has brought us avarice, and abundant pleasures, yearning–amidst both excess and the desire to perish and destroy all things.”  It is a familiar trope of ancient historians, but that has no particular bearing on the accuracy of his interpretation.  Still, I tend to see what happened with gladiators not as a weird appendage of the late-Republic/Empire, but as an integral part of Rome that lay under the surface initially, and grew in prominence over time.

For example, the Romans established the office of aedile very early in their history in the 5th century B.C.  Most aspects of how they functioned look very Roman in our usual sense of the word, as they maintained buildings, streets, laws, etc.  But, they also had charge of public entertainments or other public events, such as large funerals.  Aedlies were expected to fund these out of their own pocket, and many could easily go bankrupt during their time in office.

But the Romans saw the role of aedile as a crucial stepping stone to higher office, where the opportunities for glory and riches increased.  Caesar risked everything and beggared himself to win the election of pontiff, then used the office for fabulous gain.  This pattern was established long before him, however, this yo-yo between poverty and wealth, despair and exaltation.

It seems fitting to give the last word here to an important critic of all of this mess, St. Cyprian of Carthage, who wrote,

Man is killed for the pleasure of man, and to be able to kill is a skill, an employment, an art.  He undergoes discipline in order to kill, and when he does kill, it is a glory. What is this, I ask you, of what nature is it, where those offer themselves to wild beasts, whom no one has condemned, in the prime of life, of comely appearance, in costly garments?  While alive they adorn themselves for voluntary death and miserable as they are, they even glory in their sufferings

Dave

+It seems particularly Roman to me that their wouldn’t say, “shall be executed,” but rather the more stark, “shall be clubbed to death.”

*Some might say that these exceptions have much in common with medieval carnivals or days of “misrule.”  I disagree, and I assume Barton would as well.  The medieval carnival temporarily suspended normal reality to a) reset/refresh the existing order, and b) demonstrate the reality of a world beyond our own.  The Romans seemed to live in perpetual earthly tension within one plane of existence.

**I do not mean for this to serve as an all-encompassing statement on the question of how empires do or do not benefit those under their control.  The question is complicated and perhaps no one good general answer exists.  All I mean to assert here is that imperial powers assume that they are helping and not hurting.

^If we look at the 2nd Punic War, one can imagine almost any civilization surrendering in 216 B.C. after Cannae.  Poylbius points out the political structure of Rome as one of the keys to their ultimate victory and ability to persevere.  Certainly that helped.  I think the real key, however, was Rome’s culture/religion that told them to suffer–to embrace suffering.  This should tell us that:

  • Indeed, what we saw with gladiators was present earlier in Rome’s history (in a more noble form).
  • Culture and religion trump politics.  One can see a parallel in W.W. II where Germany inflicted unimaginable losses against the Soviets in the first few months their attacks.  Any rational man would assume a surrender would be forthcoming.  Yet, somehow, the Soviets kept going and eventually destroyed the Nazi’s.  The Soviets and the Romans had very different political systems, but both drew from religions that taught them how to suffer–albeit in different ways for different reasons (in the case of the Soviets it was Orthodox Christianity, which made a significant unofficial comeback during the war).