Bull Logic, Bear Result

I recently heard an interesting interview with author Paul Kingsnorth. Some years ago Kingsnorth was a prominent advocate for the environment.. He ceased his activism, though has kept most of his beliefs about the environmental and sociological issues western civilization faces. Kingsnorth also recently converted to Orthodox Christianity, which–while not the same as moving to Texas and becoming a Baptist–still puts him at odds with aspects of many environmental movements (for a few at least, Christianity is the cause of our environmental degradation with its teaching about man’s dominion over creation).

Again–Kingsnorth agrees that many problems exist. But he has come to believe that

  • Some of the solutions many advocate are in fact part of the problem. Technological advances will not save us–be those advances in carbon reduction, green energy, etc. To look to “Science” and “Progress” for help is to look to what got us in this mess in the first place. For example, electric cars are no doubt better for the environment than gasoline engines, but one still has to do a lot mining to get the materials for the batteries of those cars.
  • Activism spends too much time telling people what to do (which naturally provokes resistance) and not enough showing them how to do it.

More importantly, he added that

  • People may want to change, but our choices actually have very little “choice” in them. The whole concept of the “market” has helped create many of our environmental problems. But–all of our “stories” we tell ourselves involve the market. We market ourselves, and our causes, on social media and elsewhere. We seek to maximize ourselves just as we seek to get the best deal on a mattress.
  • So, in the end–change seems impossible within current framework.*

Kingsnorth has now dedicated himself to trying to create a different framework for himself and others through rediscovering old stories and crafting new ones, something he has done with his novels, The Wake, Beast, and Alexandria. Of course, I hope I have represented his views fairly–I encourage you to listen to him yourself.

Hearing Kingsnorth made me curious to try and explore the question of the market, and this led me to Harvey Cox’s The Market as God. I tend toward conservatism (whatever that means), so I thought it important to check out a more liberal voice on the question. A few aspects of Cox’s analysis raised my ire. He critiques aspects of the Christian tradition, which I’m fine with as far as it goes. Certain aspects of Christian tradition should come in for critique.** But heaven forbid that Cox put other religions under the same lens. For many on the left, what is “other” always stands superior to what is one’s own. But Cox showed nuance and thoughtfulness in other areas that helped me read on (such as his correct refusal to name Adam Smith as the patron of self-interest and unbridled capitalism). He picks some low-hanging fruit, but also explores deeper questions about where we find ourselves.

Most analyses of capitalism focus too much on surface questions, i.e., how much utility does the market have for society? Cox moves through this territory quickly. First, people will inevitably create markets. And, markets obviously accomplish many functions that benefit society. Cox acknowledges the persuasive power of arguments within the Christian tradition on behalf of the Market. Michael Novak, a conservative Catholic, argues that

  • God made man in His image, which gives mankind the capacity to create things of value
  • Societies should be constructed so that this God-given aspect of man can flourish
  • Thus, whatever impedes this creative faculty in man, be it burdensome regulation, crony capitalism, and so forth, should be removed.

Novak understands the problems of unbridled capitalism combined with a competitive spirit. He also traces the effects of markets on those in poverty. Increasing opportunities for all means increasing them for the poor. Novak need not say that capitalism works perfectly to rightly argue that, while it likely will increase economic inequality, it will also raise the standard of living for all. Capitalism will not raise everyone out of poverty, but it will raise some, which is always better than none. Critics of capitalism have to acknowledge the benefits it brings.

But what I like about Cox’s book is that he is not concerned to argue about the relative pro’s and con’s of capitalism. This debate has gone on ad nauseam in many other places. He wonders not what good the Market brings (it obviously brings many benefits) but what kind of a person a Market society creates.

To start, if the Market served as a deity it would need holy days, or “feasts.” And so we have Black Friday, Prime Day, the Christmas buying season, and so on. A religion needs precepts, articles of faith. Cox mentions the idea of “trickle-down” theories, and given his background, could have leaned on this hard. But I give him credit that he went deeper to foundational ideas, not just politically divisive ones on the surface. Cox sees that every religion needs a topography, a uniform landscape where people can enter at any place. A Baptist should be able to walk into more or less any Baptist church and feel comfortable to an extent at least. The Market seeks efficiency and maximizes opportunity. For Cox, Market “faith” means much more than trickle-down theories. The Market teaches us fundamentally that we must choose, but within a set of defined parameters. Cox writes,

The Market calls not just for a monochrome outer topography. It needs an internal predictability as well. It needs people open to conversion. The Market mentality within us must match the Market that surrounds us or else the vital connection will misfire. . . . because profit derives from the mass production of countless blouses, cars, and wristwatches, a certain uniformity of taste must be generated. The problem is that human beings are not the same . . . So the Market God needs to transform people what what they once were into people prepared to receive and act on its message. . . . They have to be reconfigured to want the same thing, with manageable variations in packaging, color, and flavor.

Perhaps this explains why the Market tends to take over territory that in its inception at least, had nothing to do with Market incentives. One immediately thinks of the Super Bowl, which many now watch for the commercials. The game itself is practically secondary for many viewers. Cox briefly traces the path of Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, and of course, even Christmas itself, and how the Market inexorably wormed its way into how we “observe” such days. President’s Day, Memorial Day, and so on, have at least been partially transformed simply into long weekends with inevitable sales and opportunities to buy. This presence of the Market, akin to “omnipresence,” shows the deep power of Market ideology.

In light of this, liberals and progressives might face temptation to chortle on the moral high ground. But hold the phone . . . progressives gladly support the idea of corporations and organizations supporting their causes. In fact, I would argue that liberals/progressives do a much better job branding and yes, “marketing” their ideas to the culture. How else did they win the culture wars? Those on the left believe firmly that their choices define them. Their bodies are buyers in the domain of sexuality much more than conservatives. They would cry “foul” just as much as a free-market capitalist if government or culture at large restricted their freedom of choice, their freedom to “create” themselves in the market of ideas, and causes.

This is Kingsnorth’s insight. Nearly all of our discourse on the right and the left takes place within the framework of choice, opportunity and allowing us to maximize our ability to choose.

Cox holds back from saying that the Market rules all, but admits it comes close. He floats the possibility that faith in the Market god may have peaked around 2015-16. He cites data showing that Black Friday shopping has declined in recent years. This he attributes not to people shopping less, but to stores following the lead of market rationale of providing more opportunities to shoppers, thus the new trend of stores opening on Thanksgiving evening. The logic here works, of course–the Market loves more opportunities and openings–but that same logic also works against itself. Cox cites interviews with Black Friday pre-dawn shoppers. Many told reporters that they were not there for the deals so much as the spectacle, or the ritual, of Black Friday. If they got a cheap tv, great, but they came for the Black Friday experience. Without that experience, why come?

Cox wrote his book before peak Amazon and advent of Prime Day, which, following the logic of the Market, has expanded into multiple days. Nothing testifies to the Market in all its glory like Amazon. One can buy almost anything from almost anywhere, all without “wasting time” driving too and from different stories (full disclosure–I bought The Market as God used on Amazon for the amazing low price of $3.49, I think). But the problem is the same as the ones retailers face with Black Friday. The Market seeks to expand choice and possibility. Amazon, the current apotheosis of Market ideology, has followed this creed better than anyone else. But spread the butter too thin and you won’t notice it at all. Amazon has no embodied communal rituals, and religions cannot survive without them.

In the medieval period most markets existed within the vicinity of the great cathedrals. Some see in this a co-opting of religion, or an unholy partnership between religion and the market. Some foolish folk even go so far as to see profit as the driving force behind the building of cathedrals themselves. Cox pleasantly surprised me by seeing it differently. The point of the medievals locating markets near churches only partially had anything to do with the fact that churches existed in the center of towns. Rather, markets only really work when they know their place in a proper hierarchy, which is under the shadow of the Cross.

DM

*Kingsnorth has no issue with markets per se, but their omnipotence. I would not say that Kingsnorth is a pessimist outright, yet it seems that the main thrust of his recent writing focuses on preparing us for death, and hopefully, new life afterwards. No civilization lasts forever, and most succumb to their own internal logic reaching the end of the line. For example . . . most emissions and environmental problems come from China, and perhaps India. How can we stop this? Europe, Russia, and the U.S. went through the same process of industrialization and urban centralization in the late 19th-early 20th century. Doesn’t “fairness” indicate that they should get their turn as well? If not–would we fight a war to stop them? Aside from the monumental human cost, war would involve much more destruction to the environment than the current situation. We are stuck. If we stop, we will lose to China and others, and if we continue, we will all lose together. At least, this is one possible outcome.

**Cox has read Max Weber much more closely than I, and, unwittingly or no, he indirectly confirms some of Weber’s key ideas. It is eerily remarkable how many ‘founding fathers’ of the Market came from some kind of Calvinistic background. A connection must exist that I have yet to fully grasp.

Telegraph, the Change

When you teach the same classes year after year as I have, one starts to realize that what seems like great material one year seems to fall flat in another. Many reasons exist for this, some of them obvious, such as whether or not you taught the lesson on a Tuesday or a Friday, or at the beginning or the end of the day. Sometimes more mysterious factors present themselves, such as whether or not you have a critical mass of students interested in the topic.

Thankfully, some things work even if you teach it last period on the day before Christmas vacation, such as Assyrian tortures with 8th grade boys, and the Kennedy-Nixon debates. I am always impressed how students, with very little context or introduction, immediately pick up that “somethin’ ain’t right” with Nixon–setting aside the infamous sweat on his lower lip.

What Nixon gets wrong has nothing to do with what he says. Students note, too, that the debate, while it suffers somewhat from the medium of television, has some actual substance to it from both candidates. The problem lies deeper, in the “atmosphere” around Nixon.

At times I think that Marshal McCluhan, for all his brilliance, sees everything as a nail, armed as he is with his significant insight into how the “medium is the message.” But his comments about this seminal debate in 1960 led me to following him down a rabbit hole of sorts, and wondering if our current cultural angst has its roots in transformation of our media landscape.

In a famous interview McCluhan describes the differences between what he calls “hot” and “cool” mediums, saying,

Basically, a hot medium excludes and a cool medium includes. Hot media are high in completion, and low in audience participation. Cool media are high in participation. A Hot medium extends a single sense with high definition . . . A photography for example, is “hot” whereas a rough sketch cartoon is “cool.” Radio is a hot medium because it sharply and intensely provides a great amount of high definition auditory information that leaves little or nothing to be filled in by the audience. A lecture is hot, a seminar is cool.

He continues by suggesting that television is not even a strictly visual medium. Its low definition (here we must remember that McCluhan is speaking around 1968. He might think differently about today’s “high definition” tv’s) means that we the audience have to be “drawn in.” Those who come across “hot” rather than “cool” will put off their audience. He continues

Kennedy was the first tv president . . . . TV is an inherently cool medium, and Kennedy had a compatible coolness and indifference to power, bred of personal wealth, which allowed him to adapt fully to tv. [Without this] any candidate will electrocute himself on television–as Richard Nixon did in his disastrous debates with Kennedy. Nixon was essentially hot, he presents a high-definition, sharply defined image . . . that contributed to his reputation as a phony. . . . He didn’t project the cool aura of disinterest and objectivity that Kennedy emanated so effortlessly and engagingly.

McCluhan’s analysis explains why those who listened to the debate on the radio gave the edge to Nixon. It has nothing per se to do with the content of their messages, but the medium itself.* Nixon’s earnest and direct manner worked much better on radio. McCluhan makes clear in the interview that the process of our interaction with this new media would transform western society–a society built upon the printing press.

I think McCluhan overstates his case a bit, but his analysis of media and culture have a great deal of explanatory power. I will try to present him as best as I can, starting with a long excerpt from the interview (slightly edited for clarity by myself–the ‘M’ is McCluhan):


M: Oral cultures act and react simultaneously, whereas the capacity to act without reacting, without involvement, is the special gift of literate man.  Another basic characteristic of [pre-modern] man is that he lived in a world of acoustic space, which gave him a radically different concept of space-time relationships.

Q: Was phonetic literacy alone responsible for this shift in values from tribal ‘involvement’ to civilized detachment?

M: Yes.  Any culture is an order of sensory preferences, and in the tribal world, the senses of touch, taste, smell, and hearing were more developed.  Into this world, the phonetic alphabet fell like a bombshell . . . literacy put the eye above all else.  Linear, visual values replaced an integral communal interplay.  The writing of the Egyptians, Chinese, and Mayan were an extension of multiple senses–they gave pictorial expression to reality and used many signs to cover a wide range of data.  The achievement of phonics demands the separation of both sight and sound from their semantic and dramatic meanings in order to render speech visually.  

As knowledge is extended in alphabetic form, it is localized and fragmented into specialities, creating divisions of function, classes, nations.   The rich interplay of the senses is sacrificed.

Q: But aren’t their corresponding gains in insight to compensate for the loss of tribal values?

M: Literacy . . . creates people who are less complex and diverse.  . . . But he is also given a tremendous advantage over non-literate man, who is hamstrung by cultural pluralism–values that make the African as easy a prey for the European colonialist as the barbarian was for the Greeks and Romans.  Only alphabetic cultures ever succeeded in mastering connected linear sequences as a means of social organization. 

Q: Isn’t the thrust of your argument then, that the introduction of the phonetic alphabet was not progress, but a psychic and social disaster?

M: It was both.  . . . the old Greek myth has Cadmus, who brought the alphabet to man, sowing dragons teeth that sprang up from the earth as armed men. The age of print, which held sway from 1500-1900, had its obituary tapped out by the telegraph, the first of the new electric media, and further obsequies were registered by the perception of curved space and non-Euclidean mathematics in the early years of the century, which revived [pre-modern] man’s discontinuous space-time concepts–and which even Spengler dimly perceived as the death-knell of Western literate values.  The development of tv, film, and the computer have driven further nails into the coffin.  It is tv that is primarily responsible for ending the visual supremacy that characterized all mechanical technology.  

Q: But isn’t TV primarily a visual medium?

M: No, quite the opposite.  . . . The TV image is a mosaic mesh not only of horizontal lines but of millions of tiny dots, of which the viewer is only able to pick out 50 or 60 from which he shapes the image; thus he is constantly bringing himself into involvement with the screen and acting out a creative dialog with the iconoscope, which tattoos its message directly onto our skins.  Each viewer is thus an unconscious pointilist painter, like Seurat.  

Q: How is tv reshaping our political institutions? 

 
M: For one thing, it is creating an entirely new type of national leader, a man who is much more a tribal chieftain than a politician. 

In his The Medium is the Message McCluhan quotes a poem of Yeats,

Locke sank into a swoon;

The garden died;

God took the spinning jenny

Out of his side

McCluhan sees the man’s interaction with media thusly:

  • Pre-literate man was essentially oral. He lived in an sensory integrated world, and an “immediate” world. He lived in a world he could cohere into a totality of experience. His sense of space-time, how he got his information, etc. came within an embodied context.
  • True–a few unusual people might have been merchants who traveled a lot, whose sense of time and space might have been somewhat different, but these people were rare, on the fringe of society.
  • The printing press both mechanized information and intensified how we received it, “assuring the eye a position of total dominance in man’s sensorium. . . . The schism between thought and action was institutionalized, and fragmented man, first sundered by the alphabet, was at last diced into bite-sized tidbits.”

Commenting on the poem above, McCluhan writes, “Yeats presents Locke, the philosopher of linear and mechanical association, as hypnotized by his own image, but the “garden” of unified consciousness had ended.”

“Literate Man,” as McCluhan names western man from 1500-1900, valued highly the detachment cultivated by textual interaction. Indeed–we have to detach ourselves to a degree to read at all. We see the values of literate man producing “detached” scientific exploration and experimentation, promoting distance, toleration, and a political transformation away from the directly personal monarchies to impersonal democratic republics. Perhaps we can say that such values peaked in the late 18th century. We begin to see with 19th century Romanticism a yearning for a more holistic way of life. McCluhan’s focus stays on media, with

  • The invention of the telegraph for McCluhan was the beginning of the end of “Literate Man,” a point he admits to borrowing from the enigmatic Oswald Spengler. The telegraph both began the process of altering our perception of time and space, and made information more direct and immediate, a feature of pre-literate experience.
  • The radio followed suit quickly, then tv, etc. We saw cultural conflict and disintegration in the 1960’s because television accelerated the process of a cultural transference away from literate man. Our educational system offered all of the values of literate man, a complete mismatch with the desire for holistic integration our interaction with modern media produces.**
  • Had McCluhan lived to see the internet (some say he clearly predicted it), he would likely say that such instantly available means of breaking down time and space might very well put the nails in the coffin of Literate Man and cause a deep cultural division. Indeed, McCluhan’s analysis can shed light on the division between Gen X–the last generation not raised with the internet–and Millennials, etc. Many under 30 today care little for the Literate Man values that helped found our country, i.e., rational debate, give and take, etc. They want a more integrated communal experience.^

Our current political struggle, then, pits not Republicans against Democrats–who knows what it means to be a Republican or Democrat anyway now?–but against literate/printing press man values of privacy, debate, and individualism vs. the tribal/internet man values of community and integrated life. We see this conflict running through different aspects of our society, such as in journalism. The old journalistic ethic taught that the reporter should cultivate distance and a degree of objectivity. The new school of reporting seeks engagement, communal change, etc.

McCluhan admitted that early in his career he saw the decline of “Literate Man” as a moral catastrophe, but by the late 1960’s he committed himself to trying to observe (ironically, perhaps, a quintessential Literate Man pose) and not attach value judgments to his preferences. But with an additional 50 years of perspective on the influence of new media, I think we should venture some conclusions about its impact.

I agree that no absolute moral difference exists between Printing Press Man and Integrated/Tribal Man. McCluhan’s focus on the telegraph makes one realize that the technological/cultural changes many of us think are 15-20 years in the making are really 150 years old. McCluhan points out rightly that the advent of the printing press, industrialization, etc. into traditional societies was at least in part “a psychic and social disaster.” But he put less attention on the switch back the other way–it too will be experienced as a “disaster” by Literate Man for society to go back to Integrated Man.

I agree too that something mysterious exists with our relationship to media, which includes not just radio and the internet, but all of the ways in which we seek to extend our being, including our clothes. A meshing of man and media leads to a switch in perception and how we act. For example, our reaction to COVID had just as much to do with the media we use as it did with the disease itself. I am not saying that COVID is just the flu, but it is not the Black Plague either. Without online shopping, Zoom, etc. we would never have taken the measures we did with COVID. Some will say, “Thank goodness we had Zoom so we did not have to go into work, and more lives were saved.” Others, like myself, see something not so much sinister as deeply skewed. The media we use focuses our attention, and our view of the world is “made” from where we direct our attention. COVID and the internet worked symbiotically to form our decisions.

McCluhan rightly points out the many advantages of pre-modern societies. He saw us recapturing some of those values as our media landscape transformed. I wouldn’t mind a return of some pre-modern values. But contrary to McCluhan (if I understand him rightly), we don’t see these values returning. Or rather, we see them returning, but in a distorted way. No question, visiting a waterfall would be an “integrative” experience–sight, smell, touch, etc.–in ways that seeing the waterfall online would not. The continual availability of a fragmented online experience has not given us a holistic society but one where, according to some accounts, one in four young adults take some form of anti-depressant. McCluhan might say that this is exactly what we should expect when we ask kids to spend 7 hours a day in a detached, “Literate” environment when the media they use calls them to an entirely different way of life. I would perhaps argue that what we see now is a combination of

  • Literate Man reaching the end of its days
  • No good Integrated Man alternative available.

One can argue that there was an “Anti-Nature” strand in the history of Literate Man, with its extreme focus on linear thought and the eye. But so far, the new Integrated Man all in all shows no signs of actually wanting to create a holistic society. For example,

  • Many of the same environmentalists who want us to be closer to nature also tell us not to have children. But few other things are more “natural” than men and women getting married and having children. How can one speak of integration of our experience while excluding humanity from that experience?
  • Many advocates of an extreme individual fluidty/”rights” with their bodies (abortion, sexual differences, etc.) also are quite rigid about certain other areas around race, speech, etc.

Most all of us use the internet not as a tool of integration but escape. Television, in some ways at least, brought people together, i.e., we all watched “I Love Lucy,” “The Cosby Show,” and the Super Bowl.

Richard Rohlin noted that one can define conservatism simply as love of one’s parents. By that he meant our biological parents, but also our spiritual fathers, our culture, our past. We need not believe that our parents are perfect, or even particularly “good.” We love ourselves and hopefully know that we have deep flaws that need work, but we cannot build or change anything by starting with a void, a negative. America’s problem, as it relates to McCluhan, can be boiled down to

  • Conservatives should embrace tradition, but American “Conservatives” hearken back to a tradition of individually oriented, linear, and “cool” world. This is perhaps one reason why appeals to the past in American politics never quite seem to work, and only seem to further individualism.
  • Modern progressives seem to seek a more communal and holistic vision of society, which has the earmarks of “Tradition.” However, progressives tend to reject the past outright as evil. They seek the impossibility of a traditional society constructed out of revolutionary ideology.

If neither vision can succeed, then our solution has to lie beyond adaptation or understanding of our new media. McCluhan shows us where we are better than most, but he can’t say where we need to go.

Dave

*McCluhan commented about Lyndon Johnson in a spot-on analysis . . . “[Johnson] botched [tv] in the same way that Nixon did in 1960. He was too intense, too obsessed with making his audience love and revere him as father and teacher. Johnson became a stereotype–even a parody–of himself, and earned the same reputation as a phony that plagued Nixon for so long. The people wouldn’t have cared about Kennedy lying to them on tv, but they couldn’t stomach Johnson even when he told them the truth.”

He also noted how Nixon rehabilitated his image by changing his tv demeanor, starting with his appearance on the Jack Parr show in 1963. “In the recent [1968] election,” he comments, “it was Nixon who was cool and Humphrey who was hot.” Correctly, he noticed in 1968 that this was a mask for Nixon. His presidency would prove this the case. If there is anything one can say about Nixon–he was not someone who “invited people in.”

**We see the maddening apotheosis of literate man in the form of the ultra-scholar who only seeks to point out facts, and never wants to commit to a conclusion, never wants to integrate his knowledge into anything cohesive or final. As for McCluhan’s point about “immediacy” and “participation,” think of the impact of television on the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. Everyone could see the images, the marches, and participate to a degree in the “cultural moment.”

^Note the stereotype of the detached, unengaged Gen X’er, with slacker anti-heroes, i.e., The Breakfast Club and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, etc. — very different movies, but with the same overall theme. Today’s heroes tend to be about “family”–think Amazon’s series The Expanse and the Fast and Furious franchise.

The Bottom of the Mountain

“Whatever we may think of Alexander–whether Great or only lucky, a civilizer or a sociopath–most people do not regard him as a religious leader. And yet religion permeated all aspects of his career.”

This opening line of the book blurb for F.S. Naiden’s Soldier, Priest, and God: A Life of Alexander the Great, sucked me right in. I too had viewed Alexander nearly solely through a narrow political and moral lens, and had never really considered his religious views and acts as central to his successes and failures. The book was too long for me. I would have preferred if he assumed reader knowledge of the standard elements of the Alexander narrative. But what Naiden draws out from his expertise in ancient religious rituals helps us see Alexander afresh in certain ways.

Historians tend to think about Alexander along three standard deviations:

  • Great visionary and magnificent strategist, one of the truly “Great Men” that, naturally, and tragically, few could truly follow
  • Fantastic military leader with flawed political skills. After Gaugemela in 331 B.C., his political skills become more necessary than his military skills, and so his fortune waned and his decisions got worse
  • A thug and barbarian who lived for the chase and the kill. He never really changed, or “declined,”–he always was a killer and remained so until his death.

Soldier, Priest, and God tries to bypass all of these paradigms, though touches on each in turn. Naiden’s Alexander is a man who mastered much of the trappings and theater of Greek religion, which included

  • The hunt
  • Prowess in battle
  • A religious bond with his “Companions,”–most of whom were in the elite cavalry units.
  • Responding properly to suppliants

As he entered into the western part of the Persian empire, i.e., Asia Minor, he encountered many similar kinds of religious rituals and expectations. The common bonds and expectations between he and his men could hold in Asia Minor. But the religious terrain changed as Alexander left Babylon (his experience in Egypt had already put some strain between he and his men, but it could be viewed as a “one-off” on the margins), and he had to adopt entirely new religious forms and rituals to extend his conquest.

Here, Naiden tacitly argues, we have the central reason for Alexander’s failures after the death of Darius. Some examples of Naiden’s new insights . . .

Alexander’s men did not want to follow him into India-they wanted to go home. Some view this in “great man” terms–his men could not share Alexander’s vision. Some view this in political/managerial terms–his army signed on to punish Persia for invading Greece. Having accomplished this, their desire to return was entirely natural and “contractual.” Naiden splits the horns of this dilemma, focusing on the religious aspects of their travels east.

Following Alexander into the Hindu Kush meant far fewer spoils for the men. Some see the army as purely selfish here–hadn’t Alexander already made them rich? But sharing in the spoils formed a crucial part of the bonds of the “Companions.” The Companions were not just friends, as Philip had created a religious cult of sorts of the companions. It wasn’t just that going further east would mean more glory for Alexander and no stuff for his men. It meant a breaking of fellowship and religious ritual. This, perhaps more so than the army being homesick, or tired, led to Alexander having to turn back to Babylon.

Alexander killed Philotas for allegedly taking part in a conspiracy against him. Others see this as either Alexander’s crass political calculus, or a sign of megalomania, or paranoia. Naiden sees this action in religious terms.

  • Philotas was a Companion. To execute him on the flimsy grounds Alexander possessed could amount to oath-breaking by Alexander, a dangerous religious precedent. “Companionship” bound the two together religiously, not just fraternally.
  • Philotas did not admit his guilt but presented himself as a suppliant to Alexander and asked for mercy. True–not every suppliant had their request granted, but Philotas fit the bill of one who should normally have his request met.

Killing Philotas, and subsequently Philotas’ father Parmenio (likely one of the original Companions under Philip), should be seen through a religious lens and not primarily psychologically (Alexander is going crazy) or politically (politics is a dirty business, no getting around it, etc.).

We also get additional perspective on the death of Cleitus the Black. We know that he was killed largely because of the heavy drinking engaged by all during a party. We know too that Cleitus had in some ways just received a promotion. Alexander wanted him to leave the army, stay behind and serve as a governor/satrap of some territory. Why then was Cleitus so upset? Naiden points out that Alexander had not so much promoted Cleitus, but made him a subject of himself, as well as exiling him from the other Companions. The Companions shared in the spoils equally, and addressed each other as equals. As satrap, Cleitus would have to address Alexander as king and treat him as other satraps treated the King of Persia. Hence, the taunt of Cleitus (who had saved Alexander’s life at the battle of Granicus), “this is the hand that saved you on that day!” came not just from wounded pride, but as an accusation against Alexander’s religious conversion of sorts. Alexander had abandoned the “Equality” tenet of faith central to the Companions.

We can imagine this tension if we put in modern religious terms (though the parallels do fall short):

  • Imagine Alexander and his men are Baptists of a particular stripe. They grew up in Sunday school, reciting the “Baptist Faith and Message.” They join Alexander to punish Moslems who had tried to hurt other Baptists.
  • As they conquer, they link up with other Baptists. There are Southern Baptists, Regular Baptists, Primitive Baptists, and so on. They go to worship with these people, and while it might be a bit different, it is still familiar. All is good.
  • Flush with success, the go further. Now they meet more varieties of Protestants–some non-denominational churches, some Assemblies of God, etc. Ok, it’s getting a little weird, but we are still more or less on familiar ground.
  • Now we go to Egypt and–what!–Alexander seems to be joining in on a Catholic service. Ok, this is bad, but at least very few in the army saw this, and we don’t have to spread the news.
  • Now as we get into Bactria and India Alexander seems to be converting to something unrecognizable. He seems to be breaking with the Baptist Faith and Message and repudiating his past. Or is he? He might be converting to Catholicism or Islam, or what else, I have no idea. We can no longer worship with him. In hindsight, his killing of Philotas was a decisive move in this “conversion.”

Naiden points out that Alexander never officially becomes king of Persia, and attributes this largely to the religious ideology behind the Persian monarchy that Alexander could not quite share or, perhaps understand. As he went into Bactria and beyond, not only had he grown religiously distant from his men, but he could no longer understand or adapt to the religions he encountered. He found himself constantly torn between acting as a king to those he conquered, and as a Companion to his army. In the end he could not reconcile the two competing claims, and perhaps no one could.

Alexander stands as perhaps the most universal figure from the ancient world. Obviously the Greeks wrote about him, as did the Romans, but stories cropped up about him in India, Egypt, Israel, Byzantium, and within Islam as well. Naiden mentions this but fails to explore its meaning. Naiden has a remarkable ability to find facts and present a different perspective. But he never explores how and why most every ancient and pre-modern culture found in Alexander something universal. Though it will strike many as strange he most common image of Alexander has him not riding into battle on his famous horse, but ascending into the heavens, holding out meat so that large birds will carry him up into the sky.

This image comes from a medieval Russian cathedral:

The story comes from the famous Alexander Romance, and runs like so:

Then I [Alexander] began to ask myself if this place was really the end of the world, where the sky touched the earth.   I wanted to discover the truth, and so I gave orders to capture the two birds that we saw nearby.  They were very large, white birds, very strong but tame.  They did not fly away when they saw us.  Some soldiers climbed on their backs, hung on, and flew off with them.  The birds fed on carrion, so that they were attracted to our camp by our many dead horses.  

 I ordered that the birds be captured, and given no food for three days.  I had for myself a yoke constructed from wood and tied this to their throats.  Then I had an ox-skin made into a large bag, fixed it to the yoke, and climbed in.  I held two spears, each about 10 feet long, with horse meat on their tips.  At once the birds soared up to seize the meat, and I rose up with them into the air, until I thought I must be close to the sky.  I shivered all over due to the extreme cold.  

Soon a creature in the form of a man approached me and said, “O Alexander, you have not yet secured the whole earth, and are you now exploring the heavens?  Return to earth quickly, or you will become food for these birds.   Look down on earth, Alexander!”  I looked down, somewhat afraid, and I saw a great snake, curled up, and in the middle of the snake a tiny circle like a threshing-floor.  

Then my companion said to me, “Point your spear at the threshing-floor, for that is the world.  The snake is the sea that surrounds the world.”

Admonished by Providence above, I returned to earth, landing about seven days journey from my army.  I was now frozen and half-dead.  Where I landed I found one of my satraps under my command; borrowing 300 horses, I returned to my camp.  Now I have decided to make no more attempts at the impossible.  Farewell.  

Here we have the key to understanding the meaning of Alexander, not merely information about why he did or why he did it.

The person of a king becomes the focal point of “bodies.” For example, a single, jobless, man living alone in his parent’s basement has only himself as a “body.” His identity includes only himself–his identity includes nothing outside of himself. Thus, he grows stale. This unnatural condition perhaps explains why such men are usually overweight–if they cannot add “body” to themselves naturally they do so unnaturally.* Now imagine said man gets a job. He adds the identity of others to his own. If he gets married, now he has bound his identity to another person. This is why marriage has always been viewed as a religious rite and act–only God/the gods can effect this change in a person. Then the couple has children, and the man has added more “body” to himself. Then one day he has grandchildren and ascends to the level of “paterfamilias.” His “body” includes multiple families.**

A king of Macedon has more “body” than the average Macedonian. As we have seen, Macedonian kingship didn’t function like kingship elsewhere, either politically or religiously. Still, kingship has roots in every culture. But everyone knew that this kind of adding of body involved something of a risky and religious transformation–something akin to marriage. If one goes too far you risk losing everything. We can think of Alexander as holding folded laundry in his hand. He bends down to pick up a book, and can do that, then a plate, and it works, then a cup, etc.–but eventually one reaches a limit as to what you can add to oneself, and everything falls to the floor.

I have written before about the biblical image of the mountain in Genesis. Adam and Eve seek to add something to themselves that they should not. As a result they must descend down the paradisal mountain, where more multiplicity exists, and less unity. This leads to a fracturing of their being, and ultimately violence. This is King Solomon’s story as well. He receives great wisdom–the ability to take in knowledge from multiple sources and achieve penetrating insights (many scholars have noted that the biblical books traditionally ascribed to him contain tropes and fragments from cultures outside of Israel). But he goes too far–he strives for too much multiplicity, too much “adding of body,” as is evidenced by his hundreds of marriages to “foreign women.” This brings about the dissolution of his kingdom, the same result Alexander experienced after his own death. But before Alexander lost his kingdom, many would say he lost himself, with executions, massacres, and other erratic behavior. Like Solomon, he lost his own personal center in his attempt to add body to himself ad infinitum.

The story of the Ascension of Alexander hits on these same themes. He tries to ascend to a unity of the multiplicity through the multiplicity itself (note the use of body in the form of the meat to accomplish this). But it can never work this way. When you attempt to ascend via a Tower of Babel, you get sent back down.

The universality of this problem manifests itself today in these two kinds of people:

  • Conservatives who say that “all is lost” because some form of legislation slightly deviates from the interpretation given to Article III.3 of Constitution by John Adams in 1790. Here we have an excess of purity–which inevitably grows sterile. After all, most of the time you can pick up that extra sock.
  • Liberals who want to stretch anything and everything to fit anything and everything. No exception ever endangers the rule–everything can always be included. Here you have the flood–undifferentiated chaos with nothing holding anything together. Eventually you reach points of absurd contradiction, and then, conflict.^

Alexander’s life fits this tension between purity/unity and multiplicity:

  • He could take in Greece
  • He could take in Asia Minor
  • Perhaps he could just barely take in Egypt
  • But beyond that–though he could “eat” other kingdoms further east, they certainly didn’t agree with him.

Indeed, why invoke a blessing from God on food before we eat? We ask, in fact, for a kind of miracle–that things dead might be made life-giving. We too ask for help on the potentially treacherous path of making that which is “not us” a beneficial part of our being. We cannot have real unity without multiplicity, and vice-versa. But no blessing will save us from every deliberate choice to drink from the firehose and ingest foreign gods.

Dave

*Ok–so lots of married/”successful in life” might be overweight. But if you think of the “type” of the guy living in his parents’ basement, his “Platonic form,” you likely envision someone overweight.

**There are obvious connections between food/eating, sexuality, and ultimately, the eucharistic feast, that I cannot explore here due to my own shortcomings. Fortunately, the topic has been wonderfully mined by others. These connections may also explain why so many ancient kings were polygamous with marriage, and had concubines. It is an illegitimate expression of their legitimate function of being the focal point of “body” in the kingdom.

^As many have pointed out, such conflict seems inevitable between those who advocate for trans athletes, and those who advocate for women athletes. Their claims eventually reach a point of mutual exclusivity.

The Year 0

I have never been much for math but the concept of the ‘0’ has always intrigued me, perhaps because of its philosophical nature. How can one count or measure something that by definition has nothing to count or measure? The ancient Greeks, obsessed as they were with perfection, never came to terms with it. The Romans–ever practical by nature–used numbers for recording, bartering, etc. only, so they seemed to have no need for it, or never thought of it. Or perhaps, they feared and consciously avoided the 0, dimly perceiving its immense metaphysical weight.

In ancient cultures, from India, Egypt, China, and Meso-America, the ‘0’ had a differing but overall overlapping meaning. A ‘zero’ is the “space between” what we can measure. A zero dwells where reason cannot. As a practical example, the Roman Ptolemy apparently used a ‘0’ to measure the time of solar eclipses, when it was day, but not day, as one might interpret it. In China, a 0 functioned in writing as a “full stop.” One hits the reset button with the 0. More poetically, we might say that in calendars, a 0 functions as a beginning outside of time. The 0 creates time, or certainly at least, the meaning of time. Something has stopped, something else will begin, a new demarcation.

Over the last several years, we have seen the rise of BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era) to mark our passage through time. This shift has happened without anyone in particular decreeing it so, an interesting fact in itself. I came across a description of this change here from a reputable encyclopedic website, where they make two basic claims:

  • That the change from BC/AD to BCE/CE has “nothing to do with removing Christ from the calendar and everything to do with historical accuracy, and
  • That calendars should be concerned only with scientific accuracy.

Regarding the second point, Robert Cargill writes,

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. According to multiple ancient sources, Herod died in 4 BCE. If the Gospel of Matthew is historically accurate, this would mean that Jesus of Nazareth was born on or before 4 BCE—meaning Jesus was born 4 BC (4 years Before Christ)! If we add to these 4 years the fact that Herod the Great did not die immediately after the birth of Jesus, but, according to Matthew, ordered the death of all children two years of age and younger in an attempt to kill Jesus, we can add an additional two years to the birth of Jesus, making his birth approximately 6 BCE. If we also add the missing year zero, it is most likely that, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was born around 7 BCE!A

Thus, the BC/AD system is fundamentally flawed in that it misrepresents the birth of Jesus by approximately 7 years. This means that Jesus’ ministry did not begin around the year 30, but instead around the year 23. Likewise, Pentecost and the origin of the Christian Church should not be dated to “33 AD,” but to about 26 CE.

An even greater problem still exists with the BC/AD system: the year of Jesus’ birth differs depending on which Gospel one reads. While the Gospel of Matthew states in chapter 2:1 that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, the Gospel of Luke states in chapter 2:1-2 that Jesus was born during the first census of the rule of Quirinius, governor of Syria. According to ancient sources, the date of this census is about 6 CE. Thus, the Bible is internally inconsistent regarding the year of Jesus’ birth. (2)

The article explains that the phrase “Common Era” (instead of A.D.) should not be viewed as a bow to political correctness, for scholars in the 17th-19th century used the term when communicating with non-Christians. The article notes that,

Non-Christian scholars, especially, embraced the new designations because they could now communicate more easily with the Christian community. Jewish and Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist, scholars could retain their calendar but refer to events using the Gregorian Calendar as BCE and CE without compromising their own beliefs about the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. Since the BCE/CE designations corresponded to the Christian BC/AD, Christians could correspond back just as clearly. Throughout the 18th and 19th century, “common era” was used frequently with a respectful nod to Christianity in phrases such as “the common era of Christ” or “the common era of the Incarnation” until, by the late 20th century, it again reverted to simply “common era”.

All in all, the article’s author Josh Mark tells everyone to calm down. The Gregorian calendar is not really accurate, and the new designations make communication easier across cultures.

But I disagree. This change, now adopted across western-speak, portends a great deal. To make this case we first need to understand something of the nature of time itself.

As to the question, “What is time?” many things could be said. In his book The Ethics of Time John Pateleimon Manoussakis makes the observation that time should be primarily thought of as “movement.” We might assume this an obvious given, but some ancient philosophers thought movement essentially impossible. Zeno’s paradox suggests the impossibility of movement. Parmenides concurs, writing that Being

is simple, immovable, and without end. Nor was it ever, nor will it ever be; for now it is, all at once, one and continuous . . .

Heraclitus seems to promote movement, but his concept of flux remains so completely continuous, that we can truly said to go nowhere at all because we lack a solid reference point from which to measure. Without this, we cannot truly know if we have moved at all.

Anaxagoras broke this mold by claiming that Parmenides reached his conclusion by the movement of thinking, the movement of the “nous,” I.e., the “soul” or “heart” of a man (the word has various translations). This movement of our inmost being need not take us away from, but rather towards our perfection. To the question, “How does something become what is best for it?” Anaxagoras answered, “By being moved.” Plato tells us that Socrates joined in with Anaxagoras’ approach, and Manoussakis summarizes Socrates’ thoughts thusly:

If then one wishes to know the cause of each thing, why it comes to be or perishes or exists, one had to find what was the best way for it, the best way for it to be, or to be acted upon, or to act.

St. Maximus the Confessor, likely quite familiar with Greek philosophy, saw as one of its problematic manifestations this fundamental disbelief in movement through the idea of “eternal return.” Anaxagoras and Socrates broke free from its clutches to an extent, but lacked a definitive goal. For St. Maximus,

rest is not simply the cessation of motion, but its intensification, so with the human will whose willful self-surrender to God’s will finds its fulfillment, a fulfillment that will never know any satiety.

The Ethics of Time, p. 90

We can heartily agree with Anaxagoras, Plato/Socrates, and St. Maximus, but only if we know where we begin and where we should go. We can only discern “movement” with a fixed point of reference. With this in mind we can tackle the two main claims above.

Sure, the move to ‘BCE’ has some precedent, but it also obviously means to alter the Christian reference point. I have no love for the French revolutionaries, but at least they perfectly understood the meaning of time. When they wanted to change society, they changed the calendar, declaring the French Revolution itself as their ‘0’. To say that some in the 17th century used the term “Common Era” fails to answer the question. The question should be–what is meant by the change? Anyone who knows anything about the history of the west knows that a movement away from a strictly Christian conception of the world began in the 17th century. Scientists like Kepler wished to set aside a Christian way of speaking so that they could engage in where their treasure truly lay–scientific research and discovery.

Secondly, no calendar can have scientific accuracy as its main concern. Every philosopher and mathematician of repute acknowledges that the ‘0’ of any system has to lay outside the system itself. Every pre-modern dating system puts their ‘0’ outside of time, or at least on the margins of time and eternity. But one cannot use the tools of the system to measure outside of the system. Every calendar, then, is at root a religious enterprise, and not strictly scientific.

So too the switch to BCE/CE involves religion more than science.

We have yet to receive an explanation as to what this new reference point means by “common” (as in “Common Era”). I can think of two possibilities:

  • It is the first salvo of a move to reorient time in another direction. Obviously, “Common” is without meaning but we will replace “Common” with what we really mean when we have got rid of Christian conceptions of time. Or,
  • The meaning of time is that it really has no meaning. There is no real past for us to be concerned about–i.e., many made arguments in favor of gay marriage by simply stating, “Hey, it’s 2015.” In other words, “We live now and this is what we want to do, so . . . your objection is . . . ?”

This second view basically assumes that what matters is getting along and not thinking about such things like a ‘0’ or the meaning of time. Best to live our lives, watch what we want on Netflix, and buy what we want on Amazon.

All well and good . . . people have fought and killed each other over the concept of ‘0’ and the meaning of time, and people with the 2nd view are not likely to do this.

But we can’t live this way for long. We have to have a point of reference.

On a podcast that serves as the impetus for this post, the host and his guest made the observation that in many non-western countries, very few people know their birthdays. This perplexes many Americans–they can’t quite conceive of such a world. They obviously have the technical capacity to know this information, but it has no importance for them. When asked, “When were you born?” they get the quizzical response, “When my mother gave birth to me.” Their concept of themselves and their place in the world has no need of such precise information.

The fact that we have a hard time imagining our world without this information (think of how often we use our birthday as a means of identifying ourselves to companies, etc.) means that we may have found our own personal ‘0’ for our lives. Perhaps this explains why no one has put up much fuss over how we perceive the past. Our shared sense of things need not matter if we surmise the world began with us.*

Dave

*Evidence that birthday party celebrations may be what we truly have in common: