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.
This week we very nearly wrapped up Assyrian civilization.
Last week I mentioned our look at Assyria’s religion and the concept of ‘Imperial Overstretch’ as factors in Assyria’s decline. This week we considered Assyria in light of Christ’s words to Peter and the Apostles, ‘Those who live by the sword die by the sword.’
In a fallen world, force can have a legitimate place in government. But both from a historical, moral, and political perspective, force can never be the foundation for order. Force can gain acceptance, or have legitimacy, if people see it as an extension of justice. But when a power uses force detached from justice, people sense that they use violence merely to serve their own selfish ends. This inspires them to seek justice/revenge, and this is why violence apart from justice is a wasting asset.
All of the problems Assyria faced they brought upon themselves. They treated subject populations brutally out of a combination of a) religious belief, and b) policy that sought the quickest route towards “getting everyone in line” with their conquests. But as their power grew, the attention they could give to subject territories lessened, which reduced their chances of stopping rebellions.
Eventually too, their obsession with violence and conquest would be bound to turn back on themselves. After Ashurbanipal II completed the conquest of the fertile crescent, (which left nothing for the next guy) Assyria descended into civil war (having no one left to fight but themselves). Simultaneously, they faced rebellions from a few major provinces, which mean that they faced a dire crisis from within as well as without. They had nothing left on which to stand, and collapsed completely within a few short years. Regarding their incessant militarism and addiction to violence, Toynbee comments,
The loss and misery which Assyria inflicted on her neighbors is beyond calculation, and yet the legendary remark of the schoolmaster to the boy he is whipping–‘It hurts you less than it hurts me,’–would be a pertinent critique of Assyrian military activities. . . . The full and bombastic Assyrian record of victories abroad is significantly supplemented by rarer and briefer notices of troubles at home that give us an inkling of the price at which Assyrian victories were purchased.
An increasing military strain revenged itself with increasing frequency of palace revolutions and peasant revolts. As early as the close of the second bout of aggression in the ninth century B.C. we find Shalmaneser III dying in 827 B.C. with his son on the war-path against him, and Ninevah, Asshur, and Arbela in rebellion. . .
Toynbee goes on then to cite rebellions in 763, 760, and 746, and ca. 730 B.C., and then he continues,
After this the two streams of domestic stasis and foreign warfare merge into one; after Ashurbanipal’s death this swells into a mighty river whose rushing waters bear Assyria away to her now inevitable doom. During the last years of Assyrian history the domestic and foreign aspect of Assyria’s disintegration are hardly distinguishable.
Can a civilization be rooted entirely in a frontier mentality and lifestyle? Assyria was located on the ‘frontier’ of Mesopotamian civilization. Like many frontier people, they could be inventive and self-reliant. But their beliefs, their foreign policy led them to conquest ‘a outrance’ as the French say. Assyria’s attacks against Babylon come with an animosity that a farmer in West Virginia might feel for Manhattan investment bankers. But frontiers need a home base, and with this attack, Assyria was cutting off its face to spite its nose. The arm which held the sword stabbed the heart. Without Babylon, Assyria suffered much in the same way that the West Virginia farmer would suffer. Without the banks, where would be the corporations to buy the food they grew? If they always looked outward, could they build a solid cultural foundation on which to rest? While some aspects of Assyria’s cultural heritage can be disputed, no one would doubt that in comparison to Egypt, Babylon, and Persia, Assyria’s cultural output was quite low. Their architecture, art, and literature all were inferior to their neighbors.
In the end, Assyria contributed heartily to its own demise. I quote now from Ashurbanipal II, the last great king of Assyria, who wrote as he saw things crumbling around him:
‘The rules for making offerings to the dead. . . which had not been practiced, I reintroduced. I did well unto god and man, to dead and living. Why have sickness and misery descended upon me? I cannot away with strife and dissension. Misery of flesh and mind oppress me. Death is seizing hold of me. With lamentation and mourning I wail day and night. O God wilt thou deal thus with me? Even as one who has not feared God and Goddess I am reckoned.’
Historian Arnold Toynbee comments,
‘This confession is . . . moving in its sincerity and in its bewilderment, but above all illuminating in its blindness. When this mood overtook him, did the last of the Assyrian war-lords never find himself reciting that terrible catalogue of cities sacked and people’s wiped out by Assyrian arms — a list which concluded with his own sack of Susa and annihilation of Elam?’
One sees a complete lack of self-awareness on Assyria’s part. It’s as if they erased their conscience through centuries of systematic cruelty. They reveled in their conquests and never questioned their actions, celebrating them in their meager artistic achievements.
Next week I will update you on our investigation of Babylon.
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 Cityis 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.
*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.
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.
*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.
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.
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.
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 . . .
I consider myself a mild agnostic on certain things about the ancient past.
I have no firm commitments about the age of the Earth. I also have no commitment to the development of life on a macroevolutionary scale, thus I have no need for a very old earth. As much as I understand the science, it looks like the earth (or at least the universe) has a very, very long history. But I am intrigued by some young-earth arguments on the periphery out of curiosity. Among other things, a lot of ‘old-earth’ arguments don’t take into account a cataclysmic worldwide flood. If such an event happened, geological dating would need recalibrating.
When it comes to the book of Genesis, my commitments get deeper. I am open to both literal and ‘mythopoetic’ interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis. We can also combine them and probably both methods have their place. But certain messages seem absolutely clear, among them:
That humanity fell from a state of grace, innocence, peace, etc. into a type of chaos
That our sin fundamentally altered the nature of human existence
That the change in humanity was physical as well as spiritual. One may not believe that the lifespans given in Genesis are literal. But the pattern is clear. Adam and the earliest humans lived much longer than those at the end of the book. By the end of Genesis we see that something about humanity has changed drastically.
The formation of civilizations happens very quickly. It is almost the default mechanism of humanity. Cain builds cities right away. After the flood we have the Tower of Babel, and so on.
This reading of Genesis informs my reading of ancient history.
There is a version of early pre-history, common in most textbooks, that runs like so:
The earliest humans were basically ignorant and violent hunter-gatherers that lived in small groups.
At some point the climate changes or the herds thin out. Food resources dwindle, forcing them to cooperate with larger groups to survive.
Because now you have to stick close to water, you get rooted to a particular spot. You can’t just follow the herds.
So, you invent agriculture. When you have really good harvests, you have a surplus.
This surplus gives the group leisure. With this leisure they build more tools. Eventually they build governments and laws.
As society expands governments have a harder time holding everything together. So, they either invent religious practices or codify them in some way for the masses, which finishes the development of civilization.
This view is called “gradualism” or “evolutionary gradualism” or something like that.
I entirely disagree with this view. The book of Genesis certainly at bare minimum strongly hints at something much more akin to devolution, and myths from other cultures hint at the same thing.
Enter Graham Hancock.
I don’t know exactly what to make of him. The fact that he is an amateur bothers me not at all. Those very familiar with this blog know of my love for Arnold Toynbee, and one of his main causes involved championing the amateur historian. He makes no claims to fully understand some of the science he cites but relies on others with special degrees. You can’t fault him for this.
He also has a restless curiosity about the ancient world that I love. He willingly dives into unusual theories with a seemingly open mind. His understanding of Christianity is deeply flawed. But . . . his argument against the evolutionary development of religion could have come from any Christian. Many evolutionary theorists acknowledge the social utility and advantage of religious belief. But, he argues, there would be no obvious evolutionary advantage to saying, “We must take time and effort away from survival, making weapons, improving our shelter, etc. to build a large structure for a god that, fundamentally, we are making up. In the evolutionary model it makes no sense that anyone would think of this and that others would somehow agree. Or, you would have to believe that the intelligent people that planned and built these temples were tremendously deluded, and furthermore, that this delusion occurred in every culture. To crown it, if all we have is matter in motion, how would anyone think of something beyond matter in the first place?
Magicians of the Gods has some flaws. It bounces around too much for my taste, and in some sections of the book the arguments change. One review stated that,
Speaking as someone who found [Hancock’s earlier book] Fingerprints of the Gods to be entertaining and engaging, even when it was wrong, I can say that Magicians of the Gods is not a good book by either the standards of entertainment or science. It is Hancock at his worst: angry, petulant, and slipshod. Hancock assumes readers have already read and remembered all of his previous books going back decades, and his new book fails to stand on its own either as an argument or as a piece of literature. It is an update and an appendix masquerading as a revelation. This much is evident from the amount of material Hancock asks readers to return to Fingerprints to consult, and the number of references—bad, secondary ones—he copies wholesale from the earlier book, or cites directly to himself in that book.
Alas, I agree with some of these criticisms. But I think some of them miss the overall point Hancock attempts to make.
When evaluating Hancock v. the Scientific Establishment, we should consider the following:
Arguments in the book involve interpretations of archaeology and geology, two branches of science that are relatively young, both of which have to make conclusions based on a variety of circumstantial evidence. Science usually comes down hard on circumstantial evidence, and “proof” is hard to come by in these disciplines. But some that attack Hancock do so when he suggests or speculates, and then blame him for not having “proof.”
Hancock is right to say that the Scientific Establishment is too conservative. But, this is probably a good thing that Science is this way. This is how Science operates.
Hancock cites a variety of specialists and laments that the “Establishment” pays them little heed. I think that some of these “fringe” scientists may truly be on to something that the conservatism of the academy wants to ignore. But . . . some of them may be ignored by the academy because they are doing bad science. How does the layman decide when degreed specialists radically disagree? We may need a paradigm outside of science to judge. In any case, Hancock too often assumes that scientists with alternative ideas get rejected only for reasons that have nothing to do with science.
Some reviews give Hancock a hard time for referencing earlier books of his. This can be annoying, but . . . on a few occasions Hancock references his earlier books to disagree with or modify his earlier conclusions. In the 20 years since he wrote Fingerprints of the Gods he has “pulled back” from some earlier assertions in light of some new evidence. This seems at least something like a scientific cast of mind, but his critics seem not to have noticed this. Should he be criticized for changing his views?
His book cover and title might help him sell copies, but it looks too gimmicky, and is guaranteed to draw the suspicion of “Science.”
I wish he made his central point clearer throughout and summed it up forcefully at the end of the book. But we can glean the main thrust of his argument.
Many in turn believe that this comet struck to polar ice-caps, causing a flood of literally biblical proportions. Those who believe in the Biblical flood need not ascribe this as the cause, but perhaps it could have been. Of course many other ancient cultures have stories involving a cataclysmic flood.
Well, all this may be interesting, but this had little to do with the history of civilization (so the argument goes) because civilization did not emerge until sometime around 4000 B.C., well after the possible/likely? meteor impact flood.
This brings us to Hancock’s second assertion, that civilization is much older than we think.
The discovery of Gobeki-Tepe some 25 years ago began to revolutionize our understanding of the ancient world.
No one disputes that the site dates to thousands of years before the so-called beginnings of human civilization. The stone work is precise and impressive. Recent radar penetrations indicate that even bigger, likely more impressive stone work lies beneath the site.
Here we come to a fork in the road.
We can rethink our assumption of early hunter-gatherers. We can assume that they were far more advanced than we originally thought. We can assume that they could organize in large groups and they possessed a high level of development and skill, including that of agriculture. But then, would they be hunter-gatherers if they acted this way?
Or, we can assume that mingled with hunter-gatherers might have been the holdovers of a previous advanced civilization, perhaps one mostly wiped out by a global cataclysm. These are the “magicians of the gods” Hancock postulates–those that emerged from the mass extinctions caused by global flooding, who perhaps took refuge with hunter-gatherers. Perhaps they had a trade of sorts in mind: 1) You teach us survival skills, and 2) We teach you how to build, plant, and organize.
Option 2 might seem crazy. It would probably mean reversing our gradual, evolutionary view of the development of civilization at least in the last 10,000 years. But we have seen something like this already–an undisputed example of it after the fall of Rome. All agree that in almost every respect, Roman civilization of 100 A.D. stood far above early medieval civilization of 800 A.D.
But Gobekli Tepe is not the only example of something like this. Archaeologists observe other sites where earlier architecture seems far more advanced than later architecture. Take, for example, the Sascayhuaman site in Peru, not far from where the Incas developed. This wall, for example,
almost certainly predate the Incas by thousands of years. The Incas later certainly could build things, but not in the same way, as the picture below attests (and it looks like they tried to copy the older design in some respects).
At Gobekli-Tepe, the recently deceased project head Klaus Schmidt commented regarding the parts of the site still underground that, “The truly monumental structures are in the older layers; in the younger layers [i.e., those visible to us at the moment] they get smaller and there is a significant decline in quality.”
Some similar possibilities of much older and possibly more advanced civilizations exist in Indonesia and other sites around the world. For example some believe that the Sphinx was built thousands of years before the pyramids. There is some water erosion evidence that could support this theory. There is also this intriguing ancient alignment with the Sphinx and the Leo constellation:
If true, this could mean that the Egyptians built the Pyramids where they did because they knew the site was already sacred from a previous era, or even possibly, a previous civilization.
With this before us, at bare minimum, we can strongly argue that the standard gradual and uniform process of the development of civilization should be in serious doubt. If we accept this, then two other possibilities follow:
Some civilizations went through periods of great advancement* and then fell into a period of steep decline, after which they never quite recovered their former glory. A massive flood certainly could have triggered this decline.
Another possibility is that we may be dealing with different civilizations altogether. Hancock ascribes to this view. For him, sites like Gobeckli Tepe served as a time capsule of sorts, a clue, or a deposit of knowledge for others to use in case of another disaster. This may raise an eyebrow or two, but one of the mysterious aspects of Gobeckli-Tepe that all agree on is that they deliberately buried the site and left it. Who does this? Why? Perhaps they wanted this site preserved so that it could be used in case of another emergency to restart civilization. If this is true, there is much we do not understand at all about this site.
Those that want a tightly knit argument heavily supported by the scientific community will be disappointed by Magicians of the Gods. But for those that want a springboard for rethinking the standard timeline of the ancient world, the book does very nicely.
*Michael Shurmer of Skeptic magazine argued against Hancock, saying that, “If they were so advanced, where is the writing? Where are the tools?” But why must writing be a pre-requisite for advancement? Or if you believe writing is a hallmark of advancement, what if this previous civilization was more advanced in many other ways? And if they built buildings, isn’t it obvious that they used tools, even if we can’t find them? If they built them without tools, wouldn’t they be really smart?
Maybe no tools exist at the site because they didn’t live near the site, for whatever reason. But where they lived has nothing to do with how advanced they seem to have been. Like Hancock, I’m not sure what else we need other than Gobekli Tepe to prove the point.
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).
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.
This week we looked at Assyrian civilization. Their meteoric rise was surpassed only by their complete and total destruction at the hands of several enemies. What made them who they were?
We first looked at their geography. . .
1. Assyria began in the north of the Fertile Crescent, in one of its less fertile areas, nestled in mountains towards the fringe of that region. We discussed how people who live in mountainous regions tend to display similar characteristics. Necessity might force them to rely on hunting. They grow to be tough and adaptive, and generally warlike, with built in mistrust of foreigners due to their relative isolation (think Afghanistan). Assyrians had similar characteristics.
2. Their geography may have lent impetus to their expansionist desires. These tough, warlike people were generally surrounded by more wealthy civilizations that might have been a bit ‘softer’ than the Assyrians. Nomadic civilizations (those that have to/choose to follow ‘the herd’) can never be as wealthy as more agrarian civilizations, for they can never stay in one place long enough to produce anything. Perhaps they could not resist all they saw around them. Perhaps after a while, jealousy and envy took hold.
Then we looked at their army . . .
1. Mountainous regions generally are not as populous as other places, but the Assyrians managed to create a brilliant militia force. Without the mass of other armies (nomadic hunting oriented civilizations inevitably have smaller populations) they had to rely on speed and movement. But their citizens, used to hunting, would have been used to moving, tracking, and outwitting their prey.
2. The Assyrian army was a lightning fast ‘light infantry’ force, overwhelming their opponents by swift and brutal assaults. Of course the makeup of the army impacted their foreign policy, which
Usually did not emphasize diplomacy. They could not integrate their conquered foes into their army (think about how the effectiveness of a Navy Seal platoon would be diminished by adding army regulars into their ranks).
So – how do you hold onto your territory? The Assyrian army was not generally interested in occupation. They wanted movement. If ‘you are what you worship,’ we would expect the Assyrians to use terror as a weapon, and so they did. My guess is that the students will remember the various forms of torture and death the Assyrians inflicted if you are curious enough to ask them.
With the conquered cowed into submission the Assyrians could move on. We looked at Paul Kennedy’s concept of ‘Imperial Overstretch,’ when size becomes a disadvantage as opposed to an advantage. Clearly the Assyrians suffered from this, for as we discussed, fear is a wasting asset. It tends to be a very effective short term, but disastrous long term policy.
Some of you may remember the boxer Mike Tyson, and I think he is a good representation of the Assyrian army. Tyson was almost always the smaller man in the ring, outweighed and outreached by his opponent. But his lightning speed confused his opponent, and he hit with such devastating force that he surely “ruled by fear” over his foes.
The students had fun with excerpts from these clips in class.
Then we looked at their religion. . .
The Assyrians were polytheistic, but tended to emphasize the worship of their war god Ashur. Ashur demanded blood, as the Assyrians obliged, presenting large amounts of the severed heads of their enemies at worship services. Interestingly, apparently the most common way of representing Ashur was on his winged disc, which hearkens back to the dominance of movement in Assyrian civilization.
For this coming week we will continue to see connections between Assyria’s religion, army, and foreign policy. For them, as for all of us, “you are what you worship.”
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:
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:
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:
The nature of Rome’s army, and the nature of its relationship to the world outside Rome, had changed dramatically.
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.
*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?”
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.
*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.
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, suchas 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.