Gods of the Sideways World

Many across the political spectrum seem to feel that things in the U.S. have gone crazy, or upside-down.  Those on the left marshall Triump’s presidency, Charlottesville, and the Kavannaugh hearings, to prove their point, while those on the right do so with transgenderism, campus snowflakes, and . . . their own perspective on the Kavanaugh hearings.*

It appears that we can look at the same thing and not see the same thing.

Different theories exist to explain our predicament.  Some trace the beginnings of it all to Bush’s controversial foreign wars, others to the rise of the internet, or the Clinton presidency, or to the end of the Cold War.  Peter Thiel postulated that our cycles of cultural leaders skipped Generation X and went from the boomers–who artifically held on too long to power–straight to the millennials.**  Thus, lacking “Generation X” to mediate the generation gap, we jerk awkwardly to and fro like a record skipping across a turntable.

We can give all these theories their due.  But I wonder if we may be witnessing something more fundamental.  Without knowing it, akin to frogs in the pot, we are experiencing the final stages of the life in a vertical world, which existed in every ancient civilization up until the 17th century, and seem ready to fully embrace the victory of the sideways world, which has been gaining ground steadily since that time.

One can say anything in blogs . . . but, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”

Mattheiu Pageau’s (brother of the more famous Jonathan PageauThe Language of Creation has all the appearance of quackery.  The book has no reviews or endorsements on the back cover.  The book has no footnotes, or even a bibliography, despite the obvious fact that he draws heavily on early Christian and Jewish sources.  This sends shivers down my spine and I can think of no defense for it.  While some parts of the book desperately needed footnotes to have a shot at convincing me, the opening several chapters made complete sense, and the book in a general way hits its target by helping one to reimagine the world.  Once embarked with The Language of Creation, it is probably best to turn to St. Ephrem the Syrian and St. Maximos the Confessor for surer guides.

The key to Pageau’s thoughts, and indeed to much of the ancient and medieval world, lies in how we conceive of our experience of space.

Everyone who has read Ender’s Game realizes that space has no up or down, at least in a scientific or absolute sense.  But we must order our sense of space to exist in it, and that involves choices on our part, choices that upon closer examination are not arbitrary.  And since we must choose, we should be struck by the fact that everyone (in the west at least) up until the present day concieved of the cosmos as heirarchical, as up and down.^

And it may be no coincidence that our current depiction of the solar system conceives it as existing horizontally, and not heirarchically.

This choice of how we depict the cosmos was certainly intentional in older civilizations, and we can fairly assume that it remains intentional today.

There is a difference.  The order and shape we give to the space around creates a framework for meaning.

The up/down nature of reality helps us understand creation and our experience of the world in many different ways:

Creation

  • We first note in Genesis 1 that God resides “above the waters,” above that is, undifferentiated, unformed chaos.  The immensity of God cannot be contained, thus He must mediate our experience of Himself for us to know Him at all.
  • Creation happens through speech, and not coincidentally.  Speech gives form to thoughts and ideas, it gives them a public reality.
  • Creation happens via continual separation and differentiation.  God ‘draws out’ reality from above.
  • The purpose of creation is for God to unite Heaven and Earth.

Plant Life

  • Plants grow from seeds.  The seed falls from above, containing the “idea” of the plant, the entirety of the plant’s particulars.
  • Seeds bury themselves in the earth, which produces the manifestation, the “incarnation” of the idea in more variety.

Man

  • The upright nature of man is also no coincidence.  It separates us from other creatures (while at the same time, giving us no evolutionary advantage per se.  Many robotics designers have pointed out how inefficient the design of the human body is).  But it also corresponds to heirarchy–the intellect is above and governs the body below. Our thoughts move as the thoughts of angels, thus the “heavenly” nature of our intellect. Our “earthy” parts are lower and more chaotic.  Our appetites need structure.  Our “heart,” which lies between our heads and our bellies, serves as the mediator and point of unity between the two, between “heaven” and “earth.”  The structure of our bodies, then, gives us a clue as to the meaning of space.
  • Man himself serves as the mediator of creation, a priesthood meant to image God to all of creation.  As a hybrid creature of Earth and Heaven, we stand between both worlds.

Language

  • Language itself serves as a kind of union of heaven and earth.  We have “”heavenly” thoughts in our intellect.  We take bits of “earth” in the form of random marks, and arrange them into a pattern to make letters.  We then further organize them into words, and so on.
  • Language, then, takes earthly random particulars and gives them structure and distinction from above–according to ideas, principles, etc.  We make ideas manifest through language.

Christ Himself

One could go on and on seeing the extent of this pattern, but all of these patterns cohere most fully in Christ Himself.  He “came down from Heaven,” (John 6:38, the Nicene Creed) as the Word of God, but then took on human nature through the Virgin Mary.  After His death He went even “lower” down and, “descended into hell” (as in the Apostles Creed).  His ressurection and ascencion^^ complete the redemptive process of descending and ascending, a link back to Jacob’s ladder.

Such was the view of the world, more or less, from at least the time of Nero down to the 16th century.

The Copernican Revolution certainly transformed how we view the cosmos, but the hierarchical nature of reality could have been maintained.  I cannot trace the exact time we started to depict the solar system horizontally, but perhaps we have an inkling now that this change involved more than mere astronomy.  Perhaps a trend towards this leveling can be seen, starting from this depiction in the 18th century

which still seems to preserve a sense of heirarchy, and then 100 years later we see

which seems to advance the leveling process a bit further.  Of course the present day, (as seen above) completes the progression towards a flat world.

The leveling of the cosmos presaged a levelling of society, and the ushering in of chaos and confusion.  Geographically speaking, both oceans and deserts represented chaos for the ancient and medieval world–i.e., both areas have no visibile differentiation in their form, and we cannot live there.  With chaos comes death.  For to understand anything and understand its meaning, we need differentiation and distinction.  Again, this is one of the main teachings of Genesis 1. The same holds true of society in general.  The early phases of dismantling existing heirarchies and norms come with great excitement.  Maybe the old forms had run their course, maybe change was overdue.  But the dismantling of all distinctions between up and down, creation and creature, men and women, etc. will usher in a blindness that will hinder our ability to understand the world God made and to understand God Himself.  Without this foundation, we will hardly be able to understand each other.

Since we cannot live in chaos, we will soon find that heirarchy will have to return.  Given our seeming embrace chaos (i.e. a world with no heirarchy and no distinctions), it may end up returning with a vengeance.  We already can see what distorted forms it might take. Those on the far left would make the most marginalized “victim” king^^^, and those on the far right would repeat Charlottesville en masse.  New gods would rule over us.

I believe most people want to avoid both of these extremes, but have no idea what to do about it.  Perhaps we can start with the very simple move of thinking about the world as up and down instead of side-to-side.

Dave

*I continue to hope that the world of twitter and political commentating is merely a distorted reflection of the real world we all inhabit.  Indeed, I have come across very few in my neighborhood or at church who got terribly bent out of shape one way or the other about Kavannaugh’s nomination.

**Peter Thiel believes that the dearth of viable presidential candidates in their 40’s-50’s in the last election proves this point.

^Like most medieval maps, this does not represent an accurate spatial depiction of the cosmos, but the cosmos as it appears “spiritually” to them in their hearts and minds.  Ptolemy’s Almagest was the standard work of astronomy of the Middle Ages and speaks of the Earth as a mathematical point in the universe.  But, they represented the Earth as larger than other planets because this is where the drama of the redemption of the cosmos plays itself out.

^^Most churches hardly focus on Christ’s Ascencion and stop at Easter.  But the structure and scope of redemption shows us how crucial the Ascencion is, for Heaven and Earth cannot be fully reconciled until Christ presents Himself spotless before the Father.  Only after this does the Spirit of God descend that God may dwell within us.

^^^I have no settled thoughts on the trigger warning and micro-aggression phenomena, aside from an obvious distaste for it.  But I do wonder at its logic.  If victimhood gives one power and the right to speak, would it not serve their interests to increase their victim status by having themselves “assaulted?”  Perhaps then, the enthroned victims wish to keep their power by preventing anyone else from gaining status?  That would make them like everyone else.  Those in power tend to guard it jealously.

Meandering Thoughts on Equality

For the past several years now we have seen a fair amount of thought on the idea of economic inequality. Some see it as a serious problem, others perhaps as a temporary byproduct of the switch from a production economy to one rooted in service.  I suppose a very few might celebrate the possibilities free market economies in the fact of inequality.

I had a chance to think about this a bit recently, and attempt to bring some historical perspective.

It is hard to imagine this issue being resolved more successfully than the Athenians under Solon, ca. 590-570 B.C.  There were the aristocrats and the commoners, with law and wealth heavily sided in favor of the aristocratic class (the ‘Code of Draco’).  Debt spiraled out of control, society was coming apart.

Enter Solon.  He was given full powers to resolve this crisis. He did not need to curry votes or constituents. He was not an aristocrat, but he was rich.  He could appeal to both sides and be trusted by both sides.  He believed that Athens needed its rich citizens, as we might expect.  More crucially, he knew how to motivate reform by appealing to the aristocratic ‘need’ for glory, or arete.  One can’t just dismiss this, as it was part of the Greek mindset for centuries.

He made paying high taxes a sign of arete. You could pay your high taxes not in terms of a fixed percentage, but in terms of

  • Pay for this religious festival, and we’ll say loud and long that you paid for it
  • Build a trireme and pay the crew, but you get to command the ship
  • Build this bridge and we’ll name it after you
  • Etc.  You get the idea.

By some accounts aristocrats paid a percentage 12x higher than the poor, but they got ‘arete’ for those taxes, and they had a direct hand in how they were spent.  

He did other things, like expanding the merchant fleet and encouraging trade, which put a lot of people to work.  This sounds easy but must have been politically difficult, given the role of farming in almost every ancient civilization.

He canceled all debts, but he refused to redistribute property.  

In the end

  • Athens had a stronger middle class
  • Athens had relative social stability
  • Many believe that this helped lead to the cultural/political explosion in their ‘golden age’ a century later.  They  create modern science, literature, democracy, etc.)

Alas, many things about Solon are not replicable for us.  For one thing, change did not come from a democratic process.  He was a ‘tyrant’ (a technical description and not a bad word).  C.S. Lewis commented a few times that to get good results for democracies often you have to achieve them in non-democratic ways.  We are locked into our one democratic tradition, and have not nearly the flexibility the Athenians had.

I love his taxes idea, but we just too big and bureaucratic to copy it.  Could we do something like it–give the rich the privilege of naming how they contribute if they willingly contribute more, and giving them public recognition for this (i.e. naming a bridge after them, getting their name on a fighter jet’s wings, I don’t know)?

The idea of a ‘bridge-builder’ politician we can do, and have done successfully before.  But we lack the civic-mindedness of the Athenians.  For better or worse we are more individualistic.  The ancient world would find our attitude towards the state unfathomable.  

Unfathomable, yes, but their conception of rule, society, etc. was far more personal, far more uniform, and far more religious than ours.  Ancient Persia could be an exception.  The Roman Republic could also serve as an exception.  They did integration and pluralism quite well until they ventured beyond Italy and the Alps and into the Mediterranean.  It proved too much for them to swallow. Most Italians had similar cultures.  But in North Africa, Spain, etc., . . . they were different, and no one wanted to try integrating them into the Republic, and no one thought of not ruling over them in some way.  This is another factor, I’m sure, in the collapse of the Republic.  It may be that societies with higher ethnic diversity have a harder time with equality.  If so, this makes America’s relative equality all the more impressive.*

The trade-offs are huge.  You can get more civic buy-in, in theory, in America, but you would probably have to sacrifice some sense of personal rights, and you would definitely have to ditch pluralism and relatively open immigration.  The first is highly unlikely, the second probably impossible.  Even if we could do those things, it is debatable that we should.

Anyway, we can’t dismiss the rugged individualism out of our national DNA, nor should we want to. Solon could not dismiss arete.  But . . . he found a way to work with it.  

Can we create low-skilled jobs from the digital revolution and keep them in America?  If we did so, would it make things worse for workers in Asia?  Would we want the flag-waving and possible economic confrontations that would come from a more nationalistic America?  Would the world be safer?  I don’t know the answers to these questions.

We are such a big nation (like almost every other one) that our problems become abstract and impersonal.  In Athens more or less everyone knew everyone in some way.  Dealing with inequality has much more meaning when we have a personal connection to the problem.

Rome faced a similar problem ca. 150 B.C. that Athens faced in 600 B.C.  They never found a way out, and the Republic collapsed.  All agree this period has many complexities, and historians hotly debate why the collapse happened, but I think most agree that

  • Both sides used violence to settle issues
  • Both sides tended to view politics as a zero-sum game, very much an ‘us vs. them.’  They destroyed each other with a century of intermittent civil war.

The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the revolutions in China, SE Asia, Cuba, and even arguably the American Revolution created far worse tyrannies than those they replaced (this is a stretch in the U.S.– the British weren’t tyrants, and neither were the victors, but the victors did exile many loyalists, slavery expanded, Indians fared far worse than under the British, etc.).  The Roman civil wars over the political questions of the day gave them the emperors.  

We need a political genius of sorts, who can find a synthesis between liberty and equality, between civic responsibility and rugged individualism. He/she would need to be trusted by the common man in Iowa and in Silicon Valley.  He/she would have to, perhaps, give huge tax breaks to corporations who did not outsource jobs–a pro-nationalist low taxes weird hybrid.  If we find him (and I don’t see him/her around), he would not have nearly the power Solon had, at least by the letter of the law.  

None of these mostly unoriginal thoughts get to the unspoken root issue.  Why is inequality a problem in the first place?  By “problem” I don’t mean whether or not inequality exists, but whether or not people perceive it as an issue worthy of much attention.

We might think that inequality is problem in every society but, not so.  For example, monastics renounce property and have all things in common.  We say that communism has never worked, but it works in monastic societies, though of course on a small scale and with everyone present strongly and voluntarily committed to that idea.

Other societies experience inequality, but seem not to think much of it. Neither Homer, Plato, Augustine, Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Austen ever made it a burning issue.  But we do see the issue move right to the front of political thinking just after Austen in the mid-19th century.**  We see it in Marx as well as Dickens, and thereafter inequality could be a rallying cry for political revolution.

Surely the Industrial Revolution has something to do with this, for it created a society where, having mastered the elements of nature, one could quickly have great material success.  The first two generations of factory workers at least likely lived at lower standard of living than previously.  Vast gaps between classes opened up.

Vast gaps existed in ancient Egypt as well between the pharaoh and the peasants, for example, but these gaps made sense to their society historically and theologically.  In a society where “all men are created equal” inequality hits with much greater force.

Marx thought that in the first 50 years or so of Industrialism some of these “non-sensical” gaps would certainly destroy the capitalistic state.  Marx had many things wrong.  But on this, I can’t blame him for his guess.  Why did the capitalist state survive?  Marx, the great materialist, had ironically underestimated our materialism as a society.  Its reasonable to assume that the social gaps created by the industrial revolution, coupled with our ideology of equality, would end the industrial-capitalist society.

The “cause” of the problem of inequality perhaps lies in solving this riddle.  It seems that the poor want what the rich have. Both rich and poor want the same thing, and the values of western society tell them they should have the same thing.  I don’t mean to say that inequality is not a problem or no such problem of economic injustice exists, or that the poor should rest content with the rich as mortal gods on earth.  I am not advocating a revival of ancient Egypt.  I merely point out that our society as a whole has surrendered to the materialist impulse which makes easing the problem that much harder.

Of course this parallels the rise of the issue in the mid-19th century just as social Darwinism, textual biblical criticism, and other de-mythologizers of life gained pride of place.  All that we left ourselves had to do with the here and now, i.e. applied science to increase our standard of living, and our various abstractions to make these things real.

All this to say, dealing with crippling inequality in society will involve a spiritual solution.  The monastics show us that it is possible.

Dave

*If this is true, we are faced with choosing between the competing goods of liberty and equality.  Would we prefer economic peace between our citizens or freedom of movement for all?

**Others I’m sure would disagree, but I don’t see the French Revolution being driven primarily by inequality.

11th/12th Grade: The Left-Handed 1920’s

Greetings,
This week we wrapped up the Versailles treaty and introduced the “Roaring 20’s” in America, a time when the mood of the country shifted significantly away from the values of the Progressive Era, and what it meant to be an individual in America took on new meaning.  We discussed a few different things:
1. The Automobile
We take cars so much for granted these days we might forget about how they changed so much of ordinary  life when originally mass produced.  How did cars change things?
  • They made us more personally independent and mobile in general, although in time this became especially true for youth.  Cars became the equivalent of what making a name for yourself in the western frontier might have meant for generation in the 19th century.  Americans love cars, and not just for convenience sake, but because cars still feed our sense of identity and independence.
  • The car freed people from geographical limitations.  But this “freedom wasn’t free.”  The increase of our geographical mobility lessened ties to our local communities and families.  In an age less overtly Christian than previous ages, people would find their concept of community increasingly in the nation itself.
2. Prohibition
Prohibition failed in nearly every respect and must rank as one of our worst legal experiments.  It’s genesis had to do with a weird conflagration of unusual interests.  For example, the KKK backed prohibition as part of their overall anti-immigrant anti-Jewish agenda, but many women’s groups did as well.  The political power of women’s movements grew in the years prior to Prohibition, which culminated in the 20th Amendment giving them the right to vote.   In any case, Prohibition’s failure led to some good questions for us to discuss.
Why did it fail so badly?
Prohibition served as the last gasp of the Progressive Era, a time of energetic communal action to make things “better.”  But one can wind things so tight for only so long.  The war had exhausted much of that energy, and Warren G. Harding propelled himself to a landslide victory in 1920 based on his made up phrase, “A return to normalcy.”  And yet we picked just this time to forbid people from doing something they had always done, a juxtoposition made all the more awkward by the increased independence given by the car and the nation’s newfound status as a global economic power.
Here are a few indications of that failure, the first being crime rate:
Prohibition Era Crime Rate
 People were certainly not drinking less during Prohibition. . .
What comparisons can be made with the Drug Wars of Today?
Many have compared our current failures in the “War on Drugs” to our failure during Prohibition.  Is such a comparison justified?
Prohibition and Crime Rates
Despite some important similarities, alcohol has been used and abused in every age.  It has formed the fabric of many religious rites and celebrations across time and space.  Narcotics simply do not have the roots in human experience that alcohol does.
Another difference is that, while the vast majority use alcohol appropriately, narcotics destroy the lives of most all who use them.
This does not mean, however, that practical realities may not force our hand in some respect.  Some in the class advocated strongly for much less tougher laws on even the strongest narcotics.
3. The Culture that Was the 1920’s
“Ragtime” reflected and helped fuel the image and feel of the 1920’s.  Here is Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag”
We can see how the tempo and bounciness of the song reflects the spirit of the times.  But the innovation of “Stride Piano” in the later 20’s only fueled this sense of ‘movement.’  Here is James Johnson’s famous “Carolina Shout.”  Note the active and “bouncy” left hand in the bass clef, and how he plays around with standard meter.  The herky-jerky unpredictability of the song can be seen in sections like .49-1:12.  In the topsy-turvy world of prohibition, cars, women voting, and so on, here was music to fit its time.
To see a modern stride pianist where you can visually get a sense of the movement in the left hand, see the video below (fast forward to the 2:00 mark if you get impatient:)
Most of the time the right hand leads the way in piano music, but here the left steals the show, which again makes things seem upside down.   Music and society connect once more.
Hope you enjoy the music,
Dave Mathwin

A Pattern Language

Many years ago I witnessed a debate between the Christian William Lane Craig, an atheist, and a Buddhist. Naturally I “rooted” for Craig, but also hoped for an interesting discussion. The atheist cut a poor figure. Craig possesses an enormous intellect and made quick and brutal work of the scientific materialist. In so doing, however, he neglected the Buddhist, who had a much more interesting argument, Though I disagreed with the Buddhist, I wished Craig had stopped shooting fish in the barrel and paid more attention to him. The Buddhist basically argued that values certainly exist in the world, contra the strict materialist. But he thought Christians too interested in the explanation for the values in the world–why not simply live in light of them? Craig never dealt with this enigmatic assertion.

Everyone should read Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, or at least glance through it as I did. 🙂 On its surface the book is about architecture, and he provides much directly for the professional builder. What makes the book remarkable, however, is how easily Alexander connects architecture to everyday life, and orients it not around outsized auteur individual creation, but making spaces for people to live communally and “normally.” To do so, one must tap into the “patterns” in everyday living. Though I know very, very little about Asian religious philosophy, I sensed something of the Buddhist or Taoist in Alexander. He felt no need to justify these patterns or explain their meaning. As far as I could tell he called mainly upon the intuition of our experience in presenting his ideas. Many have written about the increasing privatization of our culture, and no doubt this reflects itself in the buildings we create. Alexander injects a comforting warmth into our sterile sense of the meaning of a building, something quite needed given the state of modern architecture.

I agree that values present themselves in the world as real entities. I disagree that the origin of these values is a red herring–I think that it matters very much. But I agree again that the experience of such values matters much more than debating or discussing them. To understand the reality of symbols we have to enact them, to incarnate them, in our daily lives. The argument over when we started living in our modern linear, factual. and personalized way has a different contenders–some say the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, or the Industrial Revolution. Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food for Medieval Women work hints that this process began in the late Middle Ages-early Renaissance, though answering this question was not the intent of her work.

Bynum won me over immediately in her introduction. She makes it clear that we have to understand medievals on their own terms. She quotes John Tauler of the 14th century, who writes,

St. Bernard compared this Sacrament [the eucharist] with the human processes of eating when he used the similes of chewing, swallowing, assimilation, and digestion. To some this will seem crude, but let such refined persons be aware of pride, which comes from the devil; a humble spirit will not take offense at simple things.

The words form an introduction to the subject of her book, and indeed–unlike Henry Charles Lea–Bynum knows that to understand medieval ideas of food (or almost anything) means understanding the eucharist first and foremost. The words also bracket ones whole approach to any part of the past–humility usually triumphs over judgment.*

The humble everyday nature of food is a great place to start understanding the nature of things.

The remarkable Alexander Schemmen began his classic For the Life of the World with these words:

“Man is what he eats.”  With this statement the German materialistic philosopher Feurbach thought he had put to an end all “idealistic” speculations about human nature.  In fact, he was expressing, without knowing it, the most religious idea of man.  For long before the same definition of man was given in Genesis.  The biblical story of creation man is presented, first of all, as a hungry being, and the whole world as his food.  . . . Man must eat in order to live; he must take into the world his body and transform into himself.  He is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one banquet table for man.  It is the image of life at its creation and at its fulfillment at the end of time . . . “that you eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom” (Lk. 22:30).

We remember too, that just as, “the whole world is one banquet table” so too, the first sin involved breaking the fast. How and when we eat matters as to how we understand the world.**

Individually, food involves taking the life of something else and making it part of ones own life. Even a stalk of wheat or an apple must be plucked from its source of life and ‘die’ so that we may live. So eating mirrors Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. I talked in a recent post about adopting a theopomorphic view of our experience with the concept of bodies, and we should understanding eating as part of our joining our life to Christ’s life. He offered himself as food for us (John 6:56).

In addition, eating joins us to creation’s pattern. The earth receives water and bears fruit. The earth receives death and decay–think compost or manure–and turns it into life. The church in the early west established “ember” days of fasting to mirror changes in seasons, and the longest fasts of the church year (Advent and Lent) occur during times of year when the ground lies essentially inactive.

Establishing this pattern, Bynum then leads into understanding medieval women and their relationship to food. Creation has always been associated with the feminine, i.e., “Mother Earth.” We know too the trope of the mother who “sacrifices herself,” who will eat less, eat last, or . . . not eat at all. She “dies” so that she can provide.

Bynum frames the context of medieval female religious experience through this lens. Bynum looks at the fasting and eucharistic devotion of certain medieval women, including a long discourse on the whether or not such women suffered from anorexia that is tedious in a scholarly way, but fair and sympathetic nonetheless.

But this intense personal piety as it related to food has a problematic endgame. Connecting fasting and feasting to the patterns in creation meant that communities could experience it together in the same way, with the same meaning. The physicality of things makes itself obvious to all, from the saint, to the scholar, to the ploughman. By separating the practice from “normal” rhythms, the experience became intensely personal, and less communal. This is not to say absolutely that no variance can exist in a community, and the late medievals never normalized the experience of these unusual women. But a decisive shift happened. Fasting meant no longer primarily a communal experience linked with the pattern of the life of Christ and creation, but a vehicle for personal, and possibly idiosyncratic, devotion.

From here dominos start to fall. Without the connection to creation, the common language of food might disappear. In time, one could fast from Netflix or shopping instead of certain foods. Maybe such things have their place for individuals, but the reduction of fasting to individual experience and individual authority robs us of meaning and identity (something Mary Douglas pointed out in her excellent work).

This same radical personalization and consequent loss of meaning have done similar work in the realm of sexuality. In ye olden days marriages happened not primarily because people were “in love,” but rather as a vehicle whereby people could participate in what it means to be human and the drama of salvation. If we think of our humanity and the humanity of Christ as one–before the foundation of the world–we see this clearly especially as it relates to women who get married:

  • The woman is led to the altar by her father
  • She “dies” at the altar–Miss Jane Smith is no more
  • She is “reborn”–meet Mrs. Jane Johnson
  • After marriage comes the “fruit” of the marriage, say hello to little baby Jack Johnson

The meaning of sexuality comes from this mirroring of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension. And here we see why we need “Heaven,” and “Earth,” man, and woman, for our sexuality to make any sense at all. We have divorced this aspect of our being from all such patterns, and made it purely personal inside the chaotic variability of our minds. It appears the end of this rope has come, when some experts tell us that not only is the created order not a model for sexuality, but our very bodies should be discarded to achieve our purely personal goals.

Many today focus on our political confusion, and we should lament this. But these political issues have far deeper roots which we cannot see. Not only do we not see a pattern, we don’t expect to see a pattern. We won’t be able to solve these problems until we start looking.

Dave

*Another aspect of her writing that I appreciated . . . She delineated in the introduction chapters geared more towards layman like myself, and those written more with the professional scholar in mind. I personally have no taste for the hemming and hawing of scholar-speak, but I understand it has its place. It was kind of her to let me know what to avoid and where to focus my attention.

**This may seem a crazy assertion, but if we think of our lived experience we begin to understand. Let’s take drinking alcohol as an example. We instinctively recognize that someone who drinks scotch at 10 am has a problem, but if they did so at 10 pm, no problem. But why? What is the difference between drinking in the morning or at night?

Life is full of “inhaling” and “exhaling.” At night we begin to “exhale,” we reach the “fringe” of our being for the day. As we move through the “fringe” of the day we begin to approach the “chaos” of the unconscious. It intuitively makes sense, then, for us to match drinking something that relaxes us, that moves us toward the “fringe” of our being, at night rather than during the day. If we move towards the “fringe” in the morning when we should be “inhaling”–focusing and getting active–we create personal and societal dissonance. Our distinctions are not arbitrary.

Likewise, we understand that drinking socially is better than drinking alone. A person who drinks too much socially we might perceive as having a minor problem. A person who drinks too much alone we perceive as being in grave danger. But why? The pattern tells us, and again, we understand not so much logically but in our lived experience. Social groups exist for people to blend and mix together. Alcohol can bring us to the fringe of our being, we can “extend” the self in some respects through alcohol. Hence, “Can I buy you a drink?” can be a means of introduction in ways that, “Can I buy you some carrots?” would not. Someone who drank too much alone would extend themselves and connect with no one–it would be an intentionally fruitless action, in which we rightly recognize despair and nihilism.

Communism and Gnosticism

I have written before that I think the best historians are always part-time philosophers and theologians.  For events to have meaning, they can’t just “be,” they need a context.  If we have no interpretive framework, we have no meaning.

Eric Voegelin may not be a historian by some definitions, but he certainly qualifies as a 650308philosopher/theologian.  His short pamphlet Science, Politics, and Gnosticism gives the reader a lot to digest, and provides a framework for understanding modern political movements.

First he gives his working definition of “Gnosticism.”  At root, gnostics believe that “God,” the “Demiurge,” or whatever goodness that exists had nothing to do with the creation of the physical world.  The world in fact separates us from true goodness, and to “get back” to our original, pure, and spiritual state we must somehow escape creation and its ill effects.  Of course, only a select few will have the will, but most importantly, the knowledge, (or the “gnosis”) to do this.  “Salvation” comes only for the “inner man.”

Every political philosopher must decide what to do with creation.  Should we seek to accommodate ourselves to it, have dominion over it, or seek to transcend or abolish it altogether?  While these choices may not always come directly from our conscious selves, we make these choices in one way or another.  Voegelin shows that even so-called “materialistic” ideologies like Marxism and Nazism have strong gnostic roots.

On the surface at least, Marxism appears to be all about this world.  It has a “materialistic” cause for the changes in history (economics and class struggle). It argues for an abolition of traditional religion.  It seems to preach an earthly utopia of sorts.  Nazism also focused on racial purity.  Hitler wanted a 1000 year Reich on earth.  He wanted to transform the world politically and aesthetically.  But Voegelin helps us look behind the mask.

To take an “anti-science” stance is to take a stand fundamentally against the created order.  Part of our humanity is the desire to grow in wisdom and understanding, to seek, to knock.  (Lk. 2:52, Mt. 7:7).  Science itself demands a continual re-evaluation of even its basic principles.  But Marxism, along with all totalitarian societies, demands an end to questioning.  Voegelin quotes Marx,

When you inquire about the nature of creation and man, you abstract nature and man.  Give up your abstraction and you will give up your questions along with it.  For socialist man, [such a question] becomes a practical impossibility.

Thus, in denying the right to questions, the supposedly scientific basis of Marxism breaks down.

Many focus on Marx’s view of class warfare and an oppressive industrial capitalism–more “material” factors.  He and other devotees expected the Revolution to start in England or Germany, where such political and economic systems had developed farthest.  But the fact that it started in Russia, the most religious country in Europe at the time, strongly testifies to the religious roots of communist ideology.  “History” for Marx was nothing but a mistake.  Humanity’s experience in and with creation offered nothing but a universal negative of oppression.  Again we see this desire to break free from the created order, to transcend it, rather than transform it.

Gnosticism had appeal mainly to the intellectual elite of late antiquity, possibly because it told the elite what they wanted to hear.  “This knowledge is not available to all, or easy to see or understand.  How clever of you to have found it!”  Gnostic religions create a distance between the elite and the rest of humanity, with the “knowledgeable” able to dictate to the rest of us.  However much Marx may have hoped for a people’s dictatorship, the movement never got past the party-elite enjoying privileges they specifically denied the people themselves.  If Voegelin is right, communists movements never could have advanced beyond this because of their essential gnostic roots.

For Nazism (Communism and Nazism formed the immediate context of Voegelin’s writing in the early 1950’s) some of the same truths emerge.  They claimed a “scientific” basis for much of their theories involving race.  But in the end their totalitarian society naturally denied individual freedoms, but also desired escape from creation through death.  Whether through Hitler’s obsession with Wagner, the killing-squads of the SS, or blitzkrieg, itself, I think more than enough evidence exists to see the Nazi hatred for creation.  For them as well, redemption can only come via escape from creation.

All this offers more evidence for the historian to see economics, politics, etc. as downstream from religious ideology.

8th Grade: Enslaving Others, Enslaving the Self

Greetings,

This week we looked at Spartan civilization and began our look at the beginnings of democracy in Athens.  We will have a test next week on Early Greece.

We began our look at Sparta by examining its geography.  They had access to a limited water supply via a river, but otherwise a variety of mountains nestled them inland, and they had little contact with the sea.  We have seen this kind of geography before — in Assyria.  Geography never commands, but it does suggest, and like Assyria, Sparta developed with an almost exclusive focus on warfare.  One historian commented

When the Spartans found their ploughlands too narrow for their population, they did not turn their eyes to the sea, like the Corinthians or Megarians.   The sea is not visible either from Sparta city or at any point on the Spartan plain.  The natural feature which dominates the Spartan landscape is the towering mountain range of Taygetus.

Archeological records indicate a significant shift in Spartan civilization sometime around the year 730 B.C.  According to tradition a group of Dorian Greeks invaded Sparta successfully, and became the “new” Spartans, enslaving the locals called Messenians.  But they quickly faced a problem.  The Messenians vastly outnumbered them and had already attempted one revolt.  It seemed likely that other revolts would follow, and eventually they would overwhelm their conquerors.

The Spartans could have retreated, or they could have simply slaughtered the inhabitants and moved on somewhere else.  But their solution to the problem seems uniquely Greek to me.  They transformed their society by militarizing it, making every male a soldier, allowing themselves to continually have a challenge to master.  All this provided extra opportunity for showing “arete,” or, “excellence.”  No longer could one choose to be a shoemaker, farmer, and so on.  By 620 B.C., after the second war between Sparta and its enslaved population, every male now carried a spear, and the slaves grew the food.  Herodotus records one  Greek commenting to the Persians in 480 B.C. that

Free though the Spartans are, they are not free altogether.  They too serve a master in the shape of Law.  They show this by doing whatever their master orders, and his orders are always the same: ‘In action it is forbidden to retire in the face of the enemy forces of whatever strength.  Troops are to keep their formation and either conquer or die.

They sacrificed everything to make this happen.  Making every male a soldier, and using the slaves to farm did consolidate their conquest.  But 1) All traces of cultural creativity disappeared, 2) No personal freedom of job, lifestyle, or travel, was allowed, 3) Boys were separated from their families at a young age, 4) Slave economies lack effeciency, so resources were precious.  Any infant deemed physically unfit was usually killed, and so on.  Spartan society  ‘stopped’ in sense.  But they developed the most feared heavy infantry force in ancient Greece, and that was enough to give them power and influence.

This ideal impacted their marriages.  They arranged to have the strongest men marry the strongest women to create the best chances of strong sons.  If marriages did not produce strong children, they were encouraged to look elsewhere.  Women bought into this ideal as well.  They spent their time training their bodies to have children.

Their society had all the strength of a high powered rifle bullet.  Powerful, yes, but narrow in its application.  The Spartans sacrificed what most would consider to be the things that made life worth living, such as personal freedoms, family life, cultural experiences, etc.  Truly, you are what you worship.

Was it worth it?  Some might argue that their slaves lived better lives than the Spartans.  It appears they had more variety in their diet, and possibly more personal freedom as to who they married.  Of course, they had harsh lives under the constant watch of Spartan overlords, but did the Spartans live much better?  The Spartan world and lifestyle had all the narrowness of slavery.  The old adage, “This will hurt me more than it hurts you,” might stand true for the Spartan regime.

Aristotle wrote the best epitaph of the Spartan system, saying,

Peoples ought not to train themselves in the art of war with an eye to subjugating neighbors who do not deserve subjugation. . . . The paramount aim of any social system should be to frame military institutions, like all social institutions, with an eye to peace-time, when the soldier is off duty; and this proposition is borne out by the facts of experience.  For militaristic states are apt to survive only so long as they remain at war, while they go to ruin as soon as they complete their conquests.  Peace causes their metal to lose its temper; and the fault lies with the social system which does not teach its soldiers what to make of their lives when off duty.

Arnold Toynbee concurred and wrote,

The superhuman–or inhuman–fixity of Sparta’s posture, like the [doom] of Lot’s wife, was manifestly a curse and not a blessing.

Blessings,

Dave

9th Grade: Planetary Influences

Greetings,

Last week when we looked at medieval society we saw that the basic “flow” of their civilization ran towards security and stability over opportunity and change.  This week we looked at the historical context of this choice, and what other areas of belief may have influenced those choices.

Many of us may believe that we have freedom to make of our lives what we will, that we paint upon a blank canvas.  In reality, where we live, when we live, and what happens around us influence us a great deal, sometimes subconsciously.  So too, we must evaluate the choices made by the medievals in light of the context from which they emerged.

In the centuries after the fall of Rome, change and uncertainty formed the dominant theme, as the map below indicates.

Barbarian Invasions

No one can live like this for long.  Wen respite came after the conversion of many of these tribes, it made sense that one would want to create a society where one knew their place for themselves and their children.  We see this love of “knowing one’s place” in their cosmology.  A few different ideas dominated their view of the cosmos.

Heirarchy

In space up and and down is all relative, but we need to find an orientation to make sense of our surroundings.  When we look at the sky moderns today would say we look “across” the universe (like the famous Beatles song) at other stars, planets, etc.  All of the pictures I remember of the Solar System had the planets in a horizontal line, like this one:

For the medievals one looked “up” at the stars from a fixed position on Earth.  Everything you saw stood higher than you, and naturally height conveyed superiority.  The Earth occupied a pride of place, in the sense that other planets revolved around it, but what many overlook is that it also occupied the bottom rung of the ladder, a combination of dignity and humility.

Spheres of Influence

Each planet, or section of the universe, had its own sphere of influence, it’s own “part to play.”  If you play second chair oboe, you keep your eyes off the music of first chair trumpet.  Here is a rough outline of how they saw things:

This concept of “spheres of influence” may have seeped into medieval feudalism, where each noble had their own territory, or “sphere” where they had a large amount of power and discretion.  Thus feudal Europe knew little of the problem of political centralization (though they had other problems).  I should note that the above picture shows Earth much larger than they believed it to be in reality.  Everyone followed Ptolemy’s Almagest which stated that,

The Earth, in relation to the distance of the fixed stars, has no appreciable size and must be treated as a mathematical point.

As my colleague Mr. Rogers pointed out, they represented the Earth thematically in relation to the rest of the cosmos, for here is where the drama of salvation takes place.

Harmony

It is precisely this division and separation that created the overall harmony.  Space for medievals brimmed with energy and life, in contrast to the modern view of a great cold void.  Sound comes from motion, and it seems that they literally believed in the “music of the spheres,” a grand cosmic symphony created by planetary motion.

Everyone knew their place in the cosmos, and knew that place to have significance.

One can exaggerate the importance of these ideas on everyday life.  The path of Saturn would not change the fact that you have pick up your kids at soccer practice.  But deep down, surely our view of a vast, linear, and empty universe impacts us.  Some of us might echo the French philosopher/mathematician Pascal, who wrote that, “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.”

As a brief aside, we note that for the medievals, education involved not just the “trivium” — the grammar, logic, and rhetoric of a subject — but also the “quadrivium,” consisting of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.  To see music grouped with these three will strike us as odd.  But for the medievals the only way to understand math was to understand music, and so too, astronomy could not be properly understood without knowing music.  Music then, served not just to entertain but to teach us about the reality of the universe itself.

Whether they consciously linked their cosmology and their daily life or not, we can see a direct connection between their view of society, though can’t tell if the chicken preceded the egg.  Like all societies they had their own system, their own strengths and weaknesses.  Whatever its faults, in feudal Europe you knew your duties and what was expected of you, as this text from ca. AD 1200 shows. . .

I, Thiebault, count palatine of Troyes, make known to those present and to come that I have given in fee to Jocelyn of Avalon and his heirs the manor Gillencourt, which is of the castle La Ferte sur Aube; and whatever this same Jocelyn shall be able to acquire in the same manor I have granted to him and his heirs in augmentation of that fief I have granted, moreover, to him that no free manor of mine will I retain men who are of this gift.  The same Jocelyn, moreover, on account of this, has become my liege man, saving however, his allegiance to Gerard d’ Arcy, and to the lord duke of Burgundy, and to Peterm count of Auxerre.  Done at Chouadude, by my own witness, in the year of the Incarnation of our Lord 1200 in the month of January.

Yes, it could be complicated (but less so that the software contracts we “agree” to).  Basically the king ruled at the behest of the nobility, but the nobles owed the king military service.  Peasants farmed the land of the lord, but the lord owed them protection and patronage, and so on.  The whole of society was a dance of mutual obligation.  But just as the Earth could not switch places with Jupiter, so too your station is your station, whatever betide (for the most part).

Next week we will look at those outside the basic feudal structure, the craftsmen and merchants.  Until then,

Dave

God’s Legs

Translation will always be a tricky business, but two rules of thumb remain: 1) Make it readable for modern audiences, without 2) Losing the flavor of the original. Nigel Bryant’s The History of William Marshal hits this mark admirably. He translates the original poem into prose, but preserves the period’s idiomatic way of speaking. I confess a great fondness for medieval diction which perhaps runs in literature from Beowulf through Shakespeare. Part of this comes simply from seeing new phrases that inject life into staid platitudes. So, one can smile at the fact that they use the word “nanny-goat” in place of “chicken” for a coward. But more to the point–the medievals combined high-flown sentiment with an earthy directness that we lack today.

A few examples . . .

  • “Sir Thomas Coulances added his two ounces of salt. Making sauces was all he was good for. In sum, five got involved in this mustard” [i.e., they ‘stirred up trouble’].
  • “The Marshall grabbed a stick and gave him such a whack across the brow that the rogue had made his last blink with that eye–it went flying from his head. Well, they do say, ‘an appropriate feast day for such a saint'” [said ironically–the ‘rogue’ in question had stolen a horse. Normally the feast day of a saint would occur on the day of his martyrdom/death, though in this case the Marshall actually prevented the thief’s death by hanging and let him go–missing an eye].

And my favorite:

  • Sir Richard foolishly inserted himself–he should never have goaded the ass [i.e., he should have “let sleeping dogs lie”–“ass” here refers to a donkey and not the grumpy personage].

My admiration for Bryant increased as I read the introduction. The History of William Marshall author remains unknown but may have been his son. Some treat the book as pure literature and leave aside any historical value, thinking it an “obvious panegyric” to Marshall and not to be trusted. Bryant affirms the historical value of the work, pointing out that most of the books’s audience knew the famous man in England and France. Perhaps it contains exaggerations in places but its basic foundation remains, like stories you might tell about a relative at Thanksgiving dinner. Change the tale too much and you get called out.

Primary sources, if one willingly dives in, can give great insight into how those at the time viewed the world. In other medieval or Elizabethan texts one readily comes across such phrases as “God’s eyes!” or “God’s blood!” as vows or mark’s of irritation and (righteous?) anger, i.e., “By God’s blood I’ll do no such thing,” or, “God’s eyes, I’ll have him out!” upon hearing that some dastardly earl has seized a castle of the king. Never before have I seen the phrase “God’s legs!” as it used in The History of William Marshall, though the author uses it in a similar manner as the above phrases. Seeing this new idiom helped me think about this whole phenomena anew. What could they have meant by such expressions? We do have phrases for “stirring up trouble,” for example, but not anything like “God’s teeth!”

An easy explanation might sound like

  • This shows the “top-heavy” nature of medieval society. Sure, you have some brilliant theologians and marvelous architecture, but the bulk of the masses were ignorant of such things and descended into blasphemous superstition at the drop of a hat.

This view, however, violates one of my cardinal rules: we should never assume the ignorance of others in the past. People might be wrong about things, but that doesn’t mean they lack good reasons for being wrong. A better explanation might sound like,

  • These phrases show the “low” of the “high” and “low” dichotomy in the medieval period, ably expounded by brilliant commentators such as the author of the blog “astickinthemud.com.” Phrases such as “God’s legs!” simply give evidence that this tension could not always be maintained coherently–i.e., sometimes the “low” went a bit too low.

Still, I don’t buy it. Numerous examples exist of the “high” and “low” existing in the same person throughout the medieval period, such as Boccaccio, Chaucer, Dante, Marguerite of Navarre, etc. So, we should entertain the idea that such phrases do not betray the medieval synthesis but rather give witness to it.*

Does God have a body?

In one very important sense obviously of course He does. In the incarnation Christ assumed the fullness of human nature. He did not simply “appear” as a man, He was a fully human man with a real human body. Christ remains both God and glorified Man. And being Man, this means that He has arms, legs, etc. just as we do, or if you prefer–just as we will in the resurrection.

In another sense God has no body. All orthodox theologians tell us that He is “simple” and not composed of parts. Having arms, legs, etc. seems to imply parts to God. But we must be careful with the meaning of “parts.” Divine simplicity at its root might mean something along the lines of, “God is not divided from Himself,” or perhaps that no separation exists between God and His attributes. The “justice” or “mercy” of God is simply God Himself. But I am no theologian and will leave off the exact meaning of “divine simplicity.”

Even before the Incarnation it seems that God has a “body.” He walks in the Garden, He has “eyes” (Ps. 119:18, etc.), and a “right hand” (Is. 41:10, etc.). “Ahh,” we say, “but that is anthropomorphic language.” Well, maybe not.**

We assume that the Bible speaks of God as having arms, eyes, etc. as a concession to our understanding and language. God obviously has no physical body of flesh and bone. In this sense certainly God is bodiless as are the angels. Orthodox testimony unanimously speaks to the immaterial nature of God, and the “simplicity” of God. God has no parts:

Far removed is the Father of all from those things which operate among men, the affections and passions. He is simple, not composed of parts, without structure, altogether like and equal to himself alone. He is all mind, all spirit, all thought, all intelligence, all reason.

St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2.13.3

God, however, being without parts, is Father of the Son without division and without being acted upon. For neither is there an effluence from that which is incorporeal, nor is there anything flowering into him from without, as in the case of men. Being simple in nature, he is the Father of one only Son.

St. Athanasius, Letter on the Council of Nicea, 11

These are just two examples. Nothing in what follows is meant to contradict this in any way. But we should understand that God the Father begets a Son (eternally), and that our begetting is a shadow of His begetting, and not vice-versa. We are made in His image, not vice-versa. God’s eyes do not see like our eyes, our eyes see, however dimly, like His. But of course, God does not have squishy white things just below His forehead, rods, cones, and so on.

Perhaps, then, we can understand that the concept of “body” should not be understood in an anthropocentric way. We have, unfortunately, significantly bought into anthropocentric thought when it comes to the ancient and medieval world. The Greeks thought Zeus threw thunderbolts because they did not know about electricity, or Poseidon caused earthquakes because they had no knowledge of tectonic plates. We really should give the Greeks–and others in the past–more credit than that. So with bodies–maybe we should not think of bodies as an assemblage of physically moving parts, but as a “nexus of potentiality,” to quote Father Stephen de Young. God’s being contains all true potential. He sees but needs no organ called “eyes” to do so. He moves but has no need of physical legs to make that happen. We lack the “simplicity” of God and so we need bones, tissue, etc. to enact such impulses as the desire to move or perceive.

It seems to me that the medievals nearly always tended to think in a top-down manner. One sees this in their bestiary’s, where it is not so much the physical lion that is seen, but a kingly symbol. Their desire to know particulars of the lion were not as strong as their desire to “scale up” the lion and integrate with God’s existence. Perhaps they thought similarly about the body itself. In the 3rd century AD Origen wrote,

The apostle Paul teaches us that the invisible things of God may be known through the visible, and that which is not seen may be known by what is seen. The Earth contains patterns of the heavenly, so that we may rise from lower to higher things.

As a certain likeness of these, the Creator has given us a likeness of creatures on earth, by which the differences might be gathered and perceived. And perhaps just as God made man in His own image and likeness, so also did He make remaining creatures after certain other heavenly images as a likeness. And perhaps every single thing on earth has something of an image or likeness to heavenly things, to such a degree that even the grain of mustard, which is the smallest of seeds, may have something of an image and likeness in heaven.

Perhaps this can explain medieval explications such as “God’s legs!” I say perhaps–it may be that I read too much into this and have strayed too near the wind. But I will stretch things a bit and declare that rather than see such statements as departures from the piety of the age, we should see them as part of their intertwined view of the world that saw all categories of being flowing down from Heaven to Earth.

Dave

*I leave off the question of whether or not acclamations of this sort violate Christ’s words in Matthew 5 about oaths, etc. My answer is “no” or at least “not necessarily” but I give no defense for that here.

**In what follows I am enormously indebted to the 1/15/21 episode of the “Lord of Spirits” podcast from Ancient Faith Radio.

Just War as Christian Discipleship

Methodical.  Inexorable.  Annoying, sometimes provoking, and yet, ultimately convincing and convicting.  All these words sum up my 1441206817reaction Daniel Bell’s important book on the Christian just war tradition.

First the bad:

Bell could have used a better editor, and bears the hallmarks of a first book from the author.  He slides all too often into a repetitive and heavy didactic style, and uses paragraphs chock full of rhetorical questions that pile onto one another.  Not as bad as Mr. Chadband from Bleak House, but I might parody this habit of Bell’s thusly:

“And what are we to make of the Gadsden flag motto (used by Marines) “Don’t Tread on Me?”  Does it express a sentiment in line with the sacrificial love of Christ?  Does it encourage a transformative view of suffering?  Would such an attitude lead to just warriors?  What kind of motto’s should our soldiers use?  Is the church ready to inform the military about such things?”

So this was wearisome.

Bell also never applies his ideas to any particular conflict, which seems too easy for me.  Bell espouses some controversial ideas, but I wish he stuck his neck out a bit more and applied his thinking to some actual wars.  Granted, the reader can do this for himself, but Bell should have guided the reader a bit more in the interpretation of his ideas.

Despite these weaknesses, the book reminds us that the Church, nations, and militaries have almost completely lost touch with Christian concepts of “Just War” theory and practice.   Bell’s book does not condemn war outright.  Rather, he seeks to completely reframe the way we examine the issue, which may explain why both pacifist theologians and military chaplains have endorsed his work.

Speaking from a “Just War” tradition within the Church has its limitations.  Rarely did any accomplished theologian comment on the issue at length.  The Church’s most powerful voices on the topic, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas, dealt with just war theory only in an in ad-hoc fashion.  Bell points out, however, that while the Church had few official individual voices on the topic, an agreed upon understanding more or less existed from the early days right up until the modern era around the 17th century.  Thus, Christians have access not just to Scripture, but also to an authoritative history of understanding of just war, what I will refer to as “The Tradition” in the rest of this post.

Bell’s main argument centers around his assertion that waging “Just War” has much more do with sanctification than a checklist of criteria that then give us justification to act as we please.  To fight justly means fighting as a Christian, with love for one’s neighbor and one’s enemy.  Fighting justly means not seeking to maximize personal well-being, or national safety, but working for the good of others.  Bell rejects pacifism.  There are times when acting faithfully might mean using force to achieve just ends.  But Bell argues well that if we cannot apply the central truths of the gospel message in how and when we fight, we have no business fighting at all.

This has many implications for us.

Self Defense

Modern understandings of just war often primarily focus on personal self-defense, or defending property, or maintaining a “way of life.”  But this approach puts ourselves, or our nation, before others.  Thus, “self-defense” can thinly disguise selfishness. As Augustine stated, “Christians should rather be killed than kill, rather suffer harm than harm others.”  Charity must prevail even under dire circumstances.

But as happens so often in this book, when you think Bell resolves the issue it deepens.  Christians can fight to defend others, particularly those who cannot defend themselves.  Christians can put others first by risking their own well-being to serve others.

If we wonder how we tell the difference between defense of self and others, Bell sympathizes.  The Tradition gives us no formula, no checklist, and this flows directly from the gospel itself.  For example, no checklist can tell you when you love your wife.  A husband cannot say, “I bought her flowers and watched the movie she wanted to see.  Therefore, I love her, and she should know I love her as long as I continue to do those things.”

What really guides the practice of Just War is not a list but just warriors themselves, who apply the gospel ethic to their situation.  This lack of black and white guidance may frustrate us at times, but Bell fears that the checklist mentality will give us carte blanche to do as we please once “the enemy” meets certain conditions.  I remember an anecdote about an ex-boxer bothered by a drunk. The drunk hit the boxer a few times, and the boxer responded, “The Lord told me to turn one cheek, and then the other.  He said nothing about a third time,” and proceeded to whale away on the unfortunate man.

The Purpose of War

From General Sherman we get the modern view that, “War is all hell.”  Those that follow Sherman believe that war remains essentially irredeemable, and making war as short as possible forms much of our strategy as to how we fight.

The Tradition offers another perspective.  In one sense we must treat fighting a war like any other activity.  We fight wars that we might grow in holiness, that we would grow closer to God.  For Christians war should develop the fruits of the Spirit.  If it can’t we have no business in it.

This may mean exercising patience.  It may mean that we fight in such a way where we give up physical advantages because of the moral problems that may result from our use of these advantages.  If we maximize the pain and suffering of our enemy in such a way that minimizes our own, we cannot claim to be just warriors following the call of Christ.

When We Fight

Following Christ means exercising charity towards one’s enemy, and charity requires us to give every reasonable chance to settle differences without violence through diplomatic pursuits.  We can use violence only when we know we have given other measures a fair try.  This raises questions about the impact of a large, professional, full-time standing army.  German theologian Karl Barth (no pacifist) argued that standing armies make it much easier for states to go to war than it should be.  Having an army always ready strongly tempts nations to use it much quicker than they ought.

We might reasonably ask whether or not one can exercise love and charity and kill another human being.  The Tradition says yes.  Justice can never rise to the dignity of the word if it stands separate from love.  “The Lord disciplines those He loves.”  Using force against another could be an act of charity.  You may be preventing them doing evil. Your “discipline” might move them to repentance.  Of course, once a person dies they cannot repent.  So the Tradition states that while we may at times use force, we must try not to kill our adversaries if we can avoid it.  Again Bell urges us to abandon the checklist in favor of Christ-like character.  Sometimes a just warrior may kill, but this killing must serve the gospel for the world and, crucially ourselves.  We cannot sacrifice our own souls or our own humanity in war.  One thinks, for example, of Joan of Arc, weeping over the English dead and praying over their wounded after a battle.

This might reduce the effectiveness of the military.  But it would be grossly uncharitable for us to urge that the military de-humanize itself and stand outside the Tradition so that we may be safer.  And–a dehumanized military would not serve us well in the long run anyway, and perhaps might even pose a threat to us.

Bell’s calls us all to own the call of “Just War.”  The military draws its direction from society, so the public must practice just policies if we want our military to do the same.  Again, the “just war” lifestyle is nothing less a Christian lifestyle, and we are all called to this.

In light of the witness of the Tradition, we have much to consider from not only our history (Sherman’s march through the South, carpet bombing in W.W. II, etc.) but also our current practice.  We already have extensive moral failures in how we use drones.  We waterboard but use the “checklist” mentality and avoid calling it torture.   The Guardian reports that we get doctors to harm prisoners by a perverse use of semantics.  The full articles is here, but the pertinent quote from it might be,

“Medical professionals were in effect told that their ethical mantra “first do no harm” did not apply, because they were not treating people who were ill.”

This does not mean that soldiers sin more than the rest of us.  Rather, soldiers sin in the same spiteful and selfish ways as all of us.  And this is part of the point Bell tries to make.  Fighting involves the application of our Christian faith just as much as teaching Sunday school.  Whatever, our problems as nation, whatever issues we have in the military,  all of us own them.

Bell touches on other topics, but at its core, the Tradition calls us back to our primary allegiance to Christ, not victory, the “mission,” expediency, country or tribe.  If our main concern is the salvation of our soul and the spread of His Kingdom, we will view war very differently than we do currently.  We may need to reevaluate why, when, and how we fight.  We may need to adopt the practice of  stepping outside our national context and ask if our side even represents justice in the first place.  This is what makes Bell’s book so necessary for us, and so difficult to accept.  As the Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain wrote,

We have no illusions about the misery of human nature.  But we have no illusions, either, about the pseudo-realists who cultivate and exalt evil in order to fight against evil, and who consider the gospel a decorative myth that we could not take seriously without throwing the machinery of the world out of order.

If you like it, why don’t you marry it?

Many of us I’m sure remember this elementary school taunt. Often you would be unknowingly baited in some way, i.e., “What do you think of Cheetos?” and then declare that you thoughts Cheetos were pretty great. The “Then why don’t you marry it?!” response is of course colossally dumb, but I admit that it often had its intended unsettling effect on me. Be careful of declaring that you liked something! I believe C.S. Lewis pointed out in The Four Loves that loving anything at all, even a plant or a sunset, opens oneself up to pain and loss.

Historians of a traditional mindset such as myself often express admiration for the past. We may even pine for a return of the past in some way, and this naturally opens us up to the old school taunt: if you like knights and cathedrals and gilds so much, why don’t you marry medieval society? It is easy to “date” any civilization and pick out just the things you like. But all of what you like, about medieval civilization, for example, also came with a near total lack of indoor plumbing, and no mouth wash either. You have to accept everything, and if you are not willing to do so, one’s admiration is stupid fancy at best, dangerous idealism at worst.

This charge has some of the same flaws as the old schoolyard taunt. The past surely can offer some salutary guidance even if reliving it remains obviously impossible. Aren’t we allowed to like things? But I acknowledge that one must not selectively pick, choose, and romanticize. One must “marry” the civilizations we study.

Books on the Middle Ages almost always fall into one of three camps:

  • Look at how dumb, superstitious, and oppressive they were. Aren’t you glad you didn’t live then?*
  • Look at how smart, chivalrous, beautiful they were. Don’t you wish you lived then?
  • Look at this culture. I examine it thoroughly, and discover that they did things, upon which I pronounce no judgments whatsoever.

Of the three, most fall into the first two, but I like the last the least. The first two types of authors at least strike me as human beings with something to say. Henry Charles Lea’s The Ordeal, written in an era when the progressive ascent of democratic modernism seemed the only future, falls into the first camp. He examines the medieval practice of trial by various ordeals to illuminate the progress we have made since then. He comes not to praise, but bury.

We can admire much about this book. It is not an uninformed screed, nor is it a hit-piece on the Middle Ages itself, for he mentions that trial by ordeal happened in many other ancient cultures. He has a lot of primary source texts and reports things with some air of detachment. If his overall point is clear, as I said earlier, at least he has a point. Like Chesterton, Lewis, and other of my literary heroes, I like the Middle Ages but need to contend with the fact that they did have trials by ordeal, and do I really want to substitute a jury for a hot piece of iron?

In what follows, then, I hope to fall into neither of the three aforementioned camps.

I appreciated that Lea took time to show that other cultures also used trial by ordeal, such as Hindu and Islamic civilizations, as well as many ancient cultures. Lea also used a lot of primary sources–indeed most of his book involves simply recounting the sources and commenting on them briefly. I also admired the fact that he included a section on the eucharist as an ordeal, for every other treatment I have seen ignores this aspect of medieval life, focusing on the more sensational ordeals by fire, water, and so on. Lea buries his treatment of this towards the back, but I feel this is where one should start if we want to have some understanding of the practices of ordeal in general.

If the central aspect of medieval life was the church, then the pearl within the oyster was the eucharist, where the faithful feed upon God Himself. Certainly I make no attempt here to develop any theology of the eucharist. But we may gain more insight if we pan out further to the last judgment. Many today have the idea that God’s final judgment involves Him declaring some fit and others unfit, and then banishing the unfit. Rather, the picture the early church gives us is that God’s love (and the presence of God is the love of God) both saves and condemns. God’s showers His love upon all, but His love is so strong that it resembles a refining fire. For some made strong, made holy, the love of God warms and comforts. For others who reject the love of God, God’s love leads to their further destruction, for the hate the love of God, and it burns them. As St. Isaac the Syrian stated,

. . .those who find themselves in Gehenna will be chastised with the scourge of love. It is not right to say that sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God . . . But love acts in two different ways, as suffering in the reproved, and as joy in the blessed.

An icon of the Last Judgment shows forth this same idea:

Salvation in a Christian context means that one is not so much declared righteous but made righteous through the grace of God–made able to receive the love of God as blessing and not as curse (I acknowledge that both terms have their place, however, in discussing the meaning of salvation).

So too communion, when even thought about for a moment, takes on monumental proportions. As Fr. Schmemman stated in his classic For the Life of the World, Fuerbach’s “you are what you eat,” quip, meant as a materialistic taunt, actually expresses a profound religious truth. To eat anything means to take the life of the fruit, meat, etc. into oneself. So too, in the eucharist God offers us the chance to take His life into our own. But this free gift does not come cheap. Scripture warns us about taking communion unworthily. We must realize that the presence of God can heal and transform or destroy us. As one prayer from perhaps the 8th century states,

Though I am hindered by so many and such great evils, I now add to them by approaching holy mysteries so heavenly and divine that even the angels desire to understand them. . . . Because of my unworthiness, I fear that, rather than receive divine enlightenment and a share of grace, I will be condemned . . . What am I to do? By partaking of the awesome mysteries, I subject myself to these and greater punishments. By abstaining from them, I shall fall into greater evils . . .

Lea’s work has many merits, but his leaving this background out of the discussion can lead one to a more superstitious understanding of the practice then is warranted. As an example we can take the ordeal of boiling water. Before the ordeal the water would be prayed over by a priest:

O creature of water, I adjure thee by the living God, by the holy God, who in the beginning separated thee from the dry land; I adjure thee by the living God who led thee from the fountain of Paradise, and in four rivers commanded thee to encompass the world; I adjure thee by Him who in Cana of Galilee by His will changed thee to wine, who trod on thee with His holy feet . . . water which washes away the dust and sins of the world, I adjure thee . . . to make manifest and bring to light all truth . . .

This prayer, quite similar to the prayers said for baptism, ask that God make the water a revealer of truth in the same way that water is used to fashion the world. That is–water must serve truth, which is a manifestation of God Himself, who is Truth.** The 3rd century bishop St. Gregory the Wonderworker stated, “The Lord, Who has come upon the Jordan River, through its streams transmitted sanctification to all streams (of water),” with Christ imparting to all water, “a sign of heavenly streams” of grace.”

For the early medievals, the same held true for the ordeal of fire/the hot iron. Prayers recalled how fire revealed much in Scripture–Fire found Sodom guilty but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego innocent, and the burning bush of Horeb reveals God Himself. Again, I don’t think we should see the verdict’s rendered by the fire ordeal as merely forensic. The fire, the water (and other types of ordeals) manifest God to men. Some by their holiness and innocence are able to stand, some by their sin cannot. Lea writes with a seemingly exclusive legal bent, and so misses the theological import.

Lea stated that, “The History of Jurisprudence is the History of Civilization.” The sentiment has nobility but is misplaced. One must go deeper at least to culture, and preferably to religion, to see its influence on jurisprudence. This too means that he overemphasizes looking at the technical matters of the law and misses some important caveats to the use of ordeals, two of which are worth noting.

First–Lea gives the impression that the medievals used ordeals willy-nilly at the drop of a hat. Rather, I believe they used ordeals usually as a last resort when they exhausted other means of determining the truth of the matter. Perhaps it is easier for modern, depersonalized society to let matters such as hung-juries or mistrials stand. For those in a pre-modern, more personal and local context, having a unresolved verdict on a matter of great importance might put an unbearable strain on the community.

Second–Lea misses something of the “objectivity” of the ordeal. With no such measure justice might tend toward the “justice” of the strong and powerful. It was not always the case that ordeals vindicated the weak against the strong, but it seems to me that it happened much more often than Lea cared to admit or notice.^

Lea’s anti-religious cards come into full display with certain choice vocabulary words like “superstition,” and “fetish.” Indeed, when the Catholic church issued a general condemnation of ordeals in 1215, Lea does not see the triumph of a more reasonable religion, but a political power play. So Lea blames the church for fostering and encouraging ordeals (including a quip about how they preferred the ordeal of fire, no doubt for its impressive aesthetic qualities), then fails to credit them for dramatically curtailing the practice.

By now the reader may assume that in seeking to explain ordeals more fully and expressing guarded appreciation, I now should “marry” them. I object to such a burden placed on the historian. A practice may have been less onerous than some suppose, but that wouldn’t mean that the practice has no issues. No Church today (with the exception of the snake-handler cult), indeed no churchman I am aware of for basically the last 500 years has recommended the practice. I don’t feel the need to do so either.

Historians usually come in absolutist or relativist garb. The absolutist would say that, “If ordeals are wrong now, it was wrong then. The stories of people emerging unscathed from ordeals are either lies, exaggerations, or works of the devil, for no good can come from such an unjust practice.” A relativist might tell us that we should not judge the past–and indeed cannot judge anyone ever for anything. The historian should work for “understanding” and should avoid “judgment.”

One should use from both perspectives to a degree, but embracing either one in its totality leads to incoherence. Will Durant posed a generous means of interpreting people and cultures from the past. If a man shares the vices of the past, that was unfortunate, but does he have virtues that cut against the grain of his society? How does a culture compare relatively to other cultures of its time? I find the medievals did not so badly on the relative scale, but on the absolute scale, I would not want to bring them back.

I have the feeling that Lea would dismiss all of the accounts of God working through the ordeals as fabrications and propaganda. I will not so glibly dismiss numerous testimonies, and so that leaves me the position of believing that God used an imperfect and “arbitrary” means to achieve His ends. But this is hardly a problem–He has done this since the beginning of time.

The Catholic Church’s Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, which attempted to ban trial by ordeal, gave as one reason the fact that ordeals “tested God.” That is, God pledges Himself to act in certain ways in the sacraments of the Church, but we cannot take this pledge and extrapolate it to any sticky situation we face. We have not the power to call God down and demand He reveal Himself when we are stuck. As C.S. Lewis famously noted regarding Aslan–“He is not a tame Lion.” It may be, then, that the story of trial by ordeal involves not so much the folly of men, but the humility of God, who accommodated Himself to our weakness patiently for a time.

Dave

*It is interesting that no one really writes about the ancient Babylonians, Chinese, Mayans, etc. in the way that we write about the Middle Ages.

**To his credit Lea cites several instances from saints lives of people putting their arms in boiling cauldrons, either to test obedience or another point of dispute, and emerging unscathed.

^As an example, see Eric Jager’s book The Last Duel, which chronicled the plight of a woman who accused another prominent nobleman of raping her. The issue could not be definitively resolved at trial, and her husband agreed to fight the accused to the death to determine the verdict. He won, and the accused was pronounced guilty.

We should pause for a moment and flip the script, putting jury trials under a touch of scrutiny. One can read online a plethora of articles about the fairness of juries, the random nature of verdicts, and so forth. Again, I would not suggest replacing jury trials with medieval ordeals, but for someone like Lea, who believed that ordeals were entirely arbitrary, modern evidence about juries does not give us as much separation from the past as we might wish. And yet, we too have to invest the jury trial with a kind of sacredness if we are to have any kind of society at all.

Most of the Time, the World is Flat

Our struggle with economic equality has many roots.  For starters, we have the dual affirmation of the values of liberty and equality, something Tocqueville noted as perhaps the key tension in modern democracies.  Modern democracies also elevate the status of the individual choice much more highly than traditional societies.   This honoring of the individual adds fuel to the free market, which ultimately seeks to commodify our choices.  We will likely see laws supporting “traditional” morality, such as those against gambling and certain kinds of drug use, get removed from the books.   I read with dismay this article, which indicates that Washington state now allows one to commodify the womb.

The multiplication of choices in the market dovetails with additional freedoms for the individual, and of course we generally want and desire such freedoms.  But we cannot have such freedoms and have economic equality at the same time.

The roots of this trend towards an absolute market of things, and even using oneself as an economic object, has origins that predate modern democracies.  To have an unending market of things we need to first have control over things, and to establish control the thing must be emptied of its own significance that we might fill it.  In his A Secular Age, Charles Taylor observes that it is the homogenization of time and space that makes the modern era (ca. 18th century-today) possible, for it allows us to give our own meanings to our experiences.  We can add that our perception of things as mere objects contributes to this trend.

Marcel Mauss’ book The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies poses many questions, such as, “Do books with absurdly boring titles, written by French sociologists, have an inverse or complimentary relationship with the inevitable nerdiness and pomposity of those that read such books?”  Sure, having this book in front of you at your local Starbucks will likely make you look like a prig, but for those willing to assume the risk, Mauss has some interesting nuggets to reveal about the economies of the ancient world.

The societies Mauss surveys have an economy, but not ones we might expect.  Some minor differences exist between the societies he examines across time and space, but in the main we can say that:

  • One can never truly own a thing, because the thing (be it a gold coin, a chair, a paddle) has an identity all its own.  It is its “own” (ha!) thing before it ever was “your” thing.
  • One should not keep anything for too long.  To do so would risk courting vengeance of a sort from thing itself (some societies had a more magical view of this, some abstracted it a bit more), which “longs” to go to someone else.  Our stuff wants to roam wild and free.
  • One could potentially amass even a great surplus of things, but in end, everyone needed to give things to others and keep the cycle of exchange moving.* This was not mere self-emptying or even generosity per se, because all acknowledged that receiving a gift came with reciprocal responsibilities and burdens.**  Failure to reciprocate courted disaster.

Of course these societies had a hierarchy, determined by birth or honorific achievements, or something else, but material wealth got passed around with much more fluidity in the ancient world than today.  We may admire this, but quite frankly, we could never replicate it.  For starters, we no longer see the world of things as full of meaning.  As Taylor observed, in a world of homogeneity only we ourselves can transmit this meaning to things.  Again, the concept of magic enters in with some of the early societies, but Mauss delineates between magic and some form of “embodied meaning.”  I did not find him terribly clear on this point, but it is a hard concept to describe (and for me to understand).  Something has to do with the idea that in the societies Mauss describes one more directly experiences the world.  This too is hard to describe, but I would venture that

  • Today we assume that a thing has no meaning in itself.  So its meaning must be mediated or transmitted by layers of society and the self.
  • Whereas “back then,” our experience of the world and the meaning of the world were one and the same.

We might catch a glimpse of this difference by looking a a different issue.

About four years ago Jonathan Pageau wrote a series of articles about ancient cosmology, and gave his first post the intriguing title, “Most of the Time the World is Flat.”  Pageau obviously does not mean to imply that the Earth is not really round, and of course the earth does not change its shape. Rather, he postulates a significant disconnect between what we believe the world/cosmos to actually be like and our everyday experience of it.  Science has not given us, and perhaps cannot give us, a workable, experiential model of the world.  So we live divided, having to import a meaning to our experience that has no solid reality behind it.  He writes,

I would like to propose something that might seem provocative at first, but will hopefully help people see the world with different eyes. There is a growing image on the recent horizon of human experience, it is an image of a family or a group of friends all next to each other at a table or in some other intimate setting, yet all interacting with tablets, ipods and smartphones as if the people around them didn’t exist. I would like to propose that this image, this reality is the final result of Galileo’s cosmological model. Some of you might think I am exaggerating, so I will need to explain.

The Copernican/Galilean worldview, that is the heliocentric worldview and its further development into our modern cosmology of galaxies and nebulas and black holes has two important aspects. It is an artificial vision and it is an alienating vision. It is artificial in the strictest sense of “art” or “techne”. It is a technical vision because we cannot experience this vision without technology, without telescopes and other apparatuses. Because technology is a supplementary thing, a garment of skin, something which we add to our natures in order to physically bolster them toward the material world, it therefore also leads further into the material world itself. (emphasis mine).

. . . modern cosmology is not only artificial, but it is alienating, it moves Man away from himself. Once Man accepted that what he saw through his telescopes and microscopes is more real than his natural experience, he made inevitable the artificial world, he made inevitable as its end the plastic, synthetic, genetically modified, photoshopped, pornographic, social-networked reality we live in. When at the very core of vision, the shape of your cosmos leads you to believe that technology provides a perception which is more true, more real than your experience, more real than walking out of your house and looking at the sky, then the telescope and the microscope will soon be side by side with the camera, the screen and the accelerated time and space of the car window. The metal and glass frame will swallow us and human beings will lose themselves for their incapacity to fully inhabit the world.

Pageau knows that his desired task of reorienting our perspective will likely fail, with a gulf too broad for us to comprehend.  Still, I encourage you to read the whole article here and try for yourself.

It is the strict materialization of our things that creates the gulf between us and our things, which then means we cannot access the economies of the past.

If we wish to regain access to this world, we need a different conception of reality itself.  We should take care and not romanticize this version of society.  Mauss points out that violence existed in these societies–though probably not because of stark material inequality.  The societies he describes sometimes had huge surpluses, which they then sometimes consumed in spectacular fashion.  On the other hand, rarely did these societies have much of the technological innovation that we would appreciate.  But, if we wish to access this way of life, we need to stop treating the inanimate things we create and consume as mere means to an end.  Indeed, we often treat others as a means to an end as part of our contribution to a fallen world.  Unfortunately, as the new surrogacy law in Washington state reveals, we are now so completely alienated even from our selves that we will cannibalize our own bodies as a means to an end for ourselves–a bifurcation that puts us far from the world Mauss describes.

“Man is what he eats.”  Alexander Schemmann began his classic For the Life of the World quoting this epigram of Fuerbach.  One might assume that an Orthodox priest would disagree with this radically materialist statement, but Schemmann turns the quote on its head and argues that with this quote Fuerbach, “expressed the most religious idea of man.”  Mere matter does not exist, at least in the way we usually think.  Perhaps the place to begin is with the eucharist, for it is here that symbol and reality fuse together most profoundly, and it is here that the world’s transformation begins anew.

Dave

*This reminds a bit of the modern economic idea that money must circulate through society like blood must circulate through the body.  Was this Ricardo’s idea originally?

**Norbert Elias talks about aristocrats even as late as the 17th century in Spain who were expected to beggar themselves once every 10-15 years or so by hosting grand feasts for entire villages.  After which, the cycle would begin again.  This hosting/feasting was a crucial basis of their authority.

11th/12th Grade: War Narratives and the Failure of Peace

Greetings,

We all know that peace treaties have a shaky track record.  When wars end we hope that the suffering might mean something, that it might translate into a political order that helps ensure that history does not repeat itself.  And yet, often these treaties fail.  We might think of the numerous wars between France and England, for example.  Various forms of “Punic Peaces” work, whether they take the form of utter destruction or sending Napoleon to St. Helena.  Most agree, however, that when we think of “peace” we often have something loftier in mind.

Some treaties do work.  The Civil War will not restart anytime soon.  Japan and the U.S. have been friends since 1945, and the same is true of our relationship to West Germany/Germany.  But many don’t work, and fewer treaties failed more spectacularly than the Treaty of Versailles after World War I.

Historians offer many theories to explain why treaties fail in general.  The typical mistakes usually fall into a few categories or patterns:

1. Failure to View the War as an Organic Whole

Though it may seem artificial, I think that major events should be viewed through a narrative lens.  World War I had its own prologue, beginning, middle, and end.  Wars tend to take on a life of their own once they get started.  As the “story” changes shape one can easily forget how it all started.  But this is a mistake.  A peace treaty should serve as the end of a story that had a certain beginning and middle.  If the end has nothing to do with the beginning, people will hate the ending and demand a rewrite, or at least a sequel.

I think this is one key reason why many treaties end up being no more than pauses in the action.  Combatants want an intermission, but don’t want the end to come just yet.  For them, there remains more to the story.

I think the victors in W.W. I would be strongly tempted to forget this principle.  Any analysis of the causes  of the war would have to blame a variety of factors and nations.  Certainly one could blame Germany mainly for the causes of the war, but other nations had their part to play as well.  Yet the combatants fought the war so grimly, and the death toll rose so unimaginably, that the victors would almost certainly think only of the fighting (the middle) and forget the beginning of the story.  The ending, then, would not fit within the story as a whole.

2. Failure to Look Ahead

Perhaps one can take my “story” analogy too far, because if we try and keep a war purely contained as its own entity, we miss the inevitable ripple effects that have spilled out into society because of the conflict.  Thus, a peace treaty has to deal with the war behind and look ahead to the world it made.  This need to “look ahead,” however, does not come easily.  We rarely see the nose on our own face, and lacking omnipotence, are left somewhat in the dark.

Treaties usually handle the “physical” aspects of ending wars such as reassigning territory, reparations, etc. but rarely consider the psychological aspects.  The horrors of the conflict imprint themselves on our minds, and the victors often want to “close the book” on that period as soon as possible.  We want to move on, relax, be happy.  The victors feel this way, at least.  But often the losers don’t want to move on.  They often want to dwell on the pain and humiliation they feel.  They want to be heard, and will not want to “move on.” Exhaustion on the side of the victors, more than apathy or ignorance, can be society’s greatest foe at this stage.

I think a good example of this is The Congress of Vienna, which decided that shape of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars of 1797-1815.  Millions died as the French Revolution convulsed the world and every monarch knew their days might be numbered.  My interpretation is that the assembled powers, smarting under years of war, tried to put Pandora, i.e. the French Revolution,  back in the box.  They suppressed popular movements, conceptions of “rights” — anything that smacked of the Revolution, and threw the baby out with the bath water.  Some might argue that the Congress of Vienna worked to keep the peace throughout the 19th century, but to my mind the Revolutions of 1848, The Crimean War, the wars of Italian and German Unification, the conflict between Turkey and Russia, and the eventual explosion that was World War I say otherwise.  Pressure cookers explode sooner or later.

3. Avoid Too Many Mixed Messages

Try as we might, mixed messages can’t be avoided.  As parents we give lip service to the ideal that we treat our children equally, but then reality sets in.  The age, gender, and personality of our children all play a role in how we parent.  We modify our expectations and begin to tailor certain things to certain children.  Children pounce on these discrepancies immediately and bemoan their fate, but if parents keep their different expectations reasonable  and at least mostly clear, we can keep the ship afloat.

Every peace treaty should have justice in view, but practical reality will always intervene.  Even the justly victorious must account for the fallenness of the world and the messiness of reality.  The vanquished will seize upon these crossed signals of justice and cry foul, but if the signal mixing is not too serious, they deal with it.

Problems come when the victors take a sanctimonious stance.  The infamous “War Guilt” clauses of the Versailles Treaty did just this.  Germany had to assume full blame for everything, despite the fact that no country had their hands clean during the conflict.  The infamous Article 231 reads,

The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.

Versailles also tried to reorder Europe along the idea of “national self determination,” and the elimination of empires.  Such was President Wilson’s grand vision for peace.  So, the war’s aftermath saw the creation of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, etc.  Except for Germany — Germans don’t get to be “self-determined.”   Some Germans went to Czechoslovakia, others to Poland, others faced occupation by the French.  We can compare the following two maps, the first showing the political divisions, the next, the ethno-linguistic ones, and the differences reveal themselves.

Europe, 1919

Overseas England and France kept their empires, however, but not Germany.  Neither did the U.S. give up its interests in the Philippines.  The gaps between “What we say,” and “What we do” grew very large at Versailles for the allies, and Germany noticed.

4. Don’t Kick them when They’re Down

This applies to Germany, but also Russia.  The Communist Revolution threw Russia into a tumult and made them persona non grata at Versailles.  They too lost big chunks of territory to Poland.  Both Germany and the Soviets had little to no choice on accepting the terms given their immediate internal domestic realities .   But both would seek to, in their mind, “set things to rights” as soon as they had a chance.  In Europe’s case, it took about 20 years for this to happen.

Next week we look at the Communist Revolution in Russia, and touch on the ‘Roaring 20’s back in America.

Blessings,

Dave Mathwin

8th Grade: Victory and Defeat

Greetings,

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

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

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

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

But we should be careful not to discount Oral Tradition

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

Archeological evidence is both the strongest and weakest of the three

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

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

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

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

Why did this happen?

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

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

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

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

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

Blessings,

Dave